corollary: Books

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Did Darwin Get It Right?

Listening to:

Sibelius, symphony no. 1 in E minor, op. 39

Just read:

John Maynard Smith, Did Darwin Get It Right? Essays on Games, Sex and Evolution.

This rather bitty book is a collection of short pieces that Maynard Smith wrote for magazines such as Nature, Amercian Scientist and The London Review of Books. Many are reviews of various books. Unfortunately a number of these don’t make it obvious just what book is being reviewed, which makes for a rather disconnected reading experience.

Some of the pieces are also rather old. The book was originally published in 1988, and though most of the essays are from the 80s, there are some from the 70s, and one from the 60s. It’s hard, for example, to get excited about the controversies to do with punctuated equilibria and sociobiology.

My last criticism is that essays of this sort naturally need to be self-contained, and this means that those essays on similar topics often have to repeat pretty similar introductions to the area. This can be a bit wearying.

Having said all that, Maynard Smith writes in an appealing style, and most of the material is actually pretty interesting. It’s also good to be getting this stuff from someone who actually contributed to the subject and is not just a journalist. I just can’t see myself returning to this volume as a particularly great example of popular science writing.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Emma

Listening to:

invisible pants by Drop Trio, in their album Cezanne.

Just read:

Jane Austen, Emma.

I think this is probably Austen’s most cheerful novel. This cheerfulness makes the whole novel very likeable; if you haven’t read it, you should just go grab a copy and read it right now. The general cheer stems in large part from the main character, Emma Woodhouse, who is young, optimistic and more than ready to interfere in other people’s lives. This interference is what drives the plot forward, to humorous effect, but it also allows for a little character development. The varying levels of success that Emma manages in her various hare-brained schemes eventually do have an effect on her, and she gets to learn who the really valuable people in her life are. And so everything can get nicely wrapped up at the end with a happy romantic conclusion.

The generally cheerful tone is helped along by the fact that there are no real villains. Mrs. Elton, something of a young Mrs. Bennet, is insufferable, but there to be mocked. Otherwise, the nastiest moment, the big crisis if you will, stems not because someone is desperately ill, or because a younger sister has been seduced by a scoundrel, but because Emma says something thoughtless.

While there may not be any nasty characters, there’s plenty of careful observation of what difficult circumstances can do to genteel life. Emma Woodhouse is rich, but many of the people she mixes with are not. If you are looking for “shadow” in your literature, this is where it comes from in Emma. The darkness or shadow is mostly off-stage, but the unfolding of the various sub-plots is very decidedly tied up with economic circumstances. In Emma, Austen paints one of her broadest pictures of early 19th century life, even if she simultaneously manages to confine all the action to one little village.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Perfect Rigour

Listening to:

Brahms, symphony no. 2 in D, op. 73. The Royal Concertgebouw conducted by Mariss Jansons.

Just read:

Perfect Rigour: a genius and the mathematical breakthrough of the century, by Masha Gessen.

This is a very interesting biography of the Russian mathematician, Grigory Perelman. Perelman’s claim to fame is that he proved the Poincaré Conjecture. This entitled him to a $1 million prize from the Clay Institute for solving one of its ”Millenium Problems” (see their page about it). However, Perelman did not accept the prize money, and did not attend the award ceremony. Indeed he has apparently completely withdrawn himself from the world of mathematics and refuses to talk to most people.

This biography is thus “unauthorised”. On the other hand, Gessen had good access to many of the influential people in Perelman’s life, and has written a compelling account of his story to date. Along the way, she paints a vivid picture of how a mathematically gifted child might grow up in the Soviet Union. One of the depressing facets of Perelman’s story is the extra obstacles he had to deal with because he is Jewish. Soviet anti-semitism clearly outlived Stalin. It makes one wonder just what Enlightenment ideals the Soviets managed to live up to at all.

Gessen concludes with a pretty plausible theory: Perelman has Asperger’s Syndrome, and so sees and interacts with the rest of the world in a pretty unusual way. This runs the risk of seeming a little reductionist (Oh yes, everything P. has ever done is fully explained by this diagnosis). But my feeling is that the picture of the world contained in the biography up to this point is sufficiently rich and nuanced that the Asperger theory adds to what has gone before rather than collapsing it all into irrelevance.

The picture of modern academic mathematics contained in the last third of the biography is also an interesting read. It seemed slightly foreign (quite a different area from mine, and a rather more exalted level of course), but also quite familiar at a broader level.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Jane Austen: a Life

Listening to:

Elgar, Falstaff. Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. (This CD.)

Just read:

Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: a Life.

Having already enjoyed Tomalin’s biography of Pepys, I looked forward to reading her on Austen. I wasn’t disappointed either. Of course, it’s easy to enjoy reading about a sympathetic celebrity, particularly if there’s that undercurrent of sadness brought on by the knowledge that Austen probably would have liked her life to be quite different. She couldn’t marry her first young love for lack of money, and subsequently turned into a spinster dependent on her parents, and then her brothers.

In many important ways, it does seem as if she was never really in control of her own life. Being a woman in this period can’t have helped, but financial circumstances also shunted her around. After her father’s death in 1805, she, her mother and sister were dependent on her brothers to provide for them. They certainly didn’t have a house of their own to live in, and they had precious little income, at least compared to what they had been receiving through Austen’s father’s church position. Being a dependent cannot be a pleasant situation, however much familial love there might be.

Having said that, she did get some time to write her novels, some of her family were sympathetic and enthusiastic, and the novels were well-received. She did also keep up with all that family, even if visiting the big house in Kent may have made her feel like a poor relation. And then she died young (at 42), no doubt of something that wouldn’t trouble us in the modern world (though it may have been cancer too).

Austen’s world is much closer to ours than Pepys’, and her domesticated life is also probably more similar to most modern lives than Pepys’ involvement in high politics. Tomalin’s picture of Austen’s world is very well done; it feels real and convincing. Even better, I think, is her depiction of the people in Austen’s life: her parents, all those brothers, her sister Cassandra and the relatives of her parents’ generation as well. Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Caves of Steel

[Cover of my edition of Caves of Steel]

Listening to:

Wa-Da-Da by Bix Beiderbecke.

Just read:

Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov

As illustrated, I read this in an old (printed in the 1970s) Panther edition, complete with cool robots in the cover art. It’s just a bit of a shame that the cool robot has no conceivable connection with the story.

The novel is where we first meet one of Asimov’s favourite characters, R. Daneel Olivaw, an intelligent robot who can pass as human. Despite being a superior being in almost every way, Olivaw ends up needing the human insight of his initially suspicious colleague Elijah Bailey.

Both have to work together to solve a murder case, so the novel is a detective story in a science-fiction setting. On the whole, I think it’s a good story, with the implications of the setup falling out quite elegantly as the investigation progresses. Asimov is pretty famous for his robots (Three Laws of Robotics and all), and this is one of the best stories set in the robot universe. Indeed, it’s probably the best full-length novel in that setting.

Classic science fiction, first published as a book in 1954.

Networking

I really need to get my SSH setup sorted. I was at an event today where (I thought) I needed to get my browser pointing to a machine behind a work fire-wall. I needed to be able to use SSH magic to make the hidden server visible on work’s gateway machine, at least to me.

SSH tunnels are so capable of various magic tricks that actually figuring out how to achieve any one particular effect seems to rather more difficult than I’d like.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Lady Oracle

Listening to:

Handel’s Il Pastor fido: Hunting scene - March: Airs pour les chasseurs I & II

Just read:

Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle.

This is an entertaining, though rather slight, novel about a woman who leads an eventful life, culminating in the faking of her own death. This is not a spoiler, because she narrates the novel and tells you exactly this in the novel’s very first paragraph.

The bulk of the novel is “flashback”: letting the reader in on the course of events that led to this sorry state of affairs. The story of the woman’s life starts with early childhood in Toronto, and the girl’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother. This stuff is all very vivid, as coming-of-age stories often are I suppose.

The woman’s teenage years and early adulthood are also compelling, what with it being all about escaping the parental nest, having her first love affairs and discovering her life skills.

The novel slowly shifts gears from this point, with the narrator’s relationship with her husband coming to the fore. Though there are still occasional moments of humour, it’s not as entertaining as it had been earlier. The woman gets all angsty, and the eventual crisis that prompts the death-faking seems pretty unbelievable.

I read the bulk of this while on a plane from Canberra to Sydney, and then on a bus doing the opposite journey. I enjoyed it, but I reckoned it ended weakly, and I’m not sure I’d give it much more than 6½ or 7 out of 10.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation

Listening to:

transitions by Chris Jarrett, from the album Fire.

Just read:

Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, by Olivia Judson.

This is an entertaining book, full of little essays about the sex lives of various species. The basic conceit is that every essay begins with an “agony aunt” style question. For example:

Dear Dr. Tatiana,

I’m a true armyworm moth, and I’ve gone deaf in one ear. I’ve read this is from having too much sex. Trouble is, I’m (sob) still a virgin. So what’s happening to me?—Piqued in Darien

This particular question leads into a very nice discussion of why most species maintain a 50-50 male-female sex ratio, but why in certain (often parasitical) circumstances the ratio may dramatically favour females, at least initially. Even cooler, certain parasites can control the sexes of their offspring to suit the specific circumstances they’re in (whether or not they’re competing with other individuals, basically).

Given introductions such as the above, there’s naturally a fair bit of humour in the presentation of this material, but it’s also done very carefully. Olivia Judson is a scientist (multiple Nature papers according to the page about her on Wikipedia; cor!) as well as a science writer, and she clearly wants to makes sure that what she writes is properly supported by the evidence.

Definitely a recommended read. The bitty structure means there’s no grand thesis, but it still conveys a lot of absolutely fascinating material.

Friday, 13 January 2012

The Origins of Virtue

Listening to:

Bach, double violin concerto in D minor, BWV 1043. Played by Lara St. John, Scott St. John and the New York Bach Ensemble.

Just read:

Matt Ridley, The origins of virtue.

An entertaining and interesting read, speculating on how it is that humans are actually a very co-operative species. Lots of people will readily tell you that humans are unique in their nastiness (waging war, harbouring grudges and seeking revenge, and doing it all quite consciously). However, humans also form huge societies that mostly work, and do so without the requirement that all members be genetically very close (for example, the members of ant colonies are all essentially clones).

The book includes interesting discussions of things like human eating habits, focusing on the fact that humans (and chimpanzees) share food, and not just with family units. In particular, humans (and chimpanzees, but not monkeys) share meat, which is always the most prized component of a meal (reflecting, no doubt, the difficulty of getting it at all, and the fact that it is highly nutritious by weight).

The discussion goes on to cite the Wason test, which demonstrates that people are very good at solving logical problems if they are expressed in such a way that the solution involves the detection of possible social cheats. It seems natural to conclude that humans have evolved good methods for detecting freeloaders and cheaters because their genes have adjusted to their social circumstances.

The book is wide-ranging, and tells engaging stories about research into humans, chimpanzees and other primate species. I particularly liked the discussion of the fact that aboriginal tribes in Australia traded with each other over huge distances. Axes made with stone from particular quarries spread large distances because they could be exchanged for other desirable objects in a network that has been well investigated.

Just as with his other book Genome (reviewed previously), Ridley does occasionally lapse into obvious British right-wingery, or at least, Economist-style liberalism. This is stuff I’m usually pretty sympathetic about, and I think he’s usually pretty careful in his arguments, but sometimes the barrow-pushing does get a bit much. (The page about him at Wikipedia is quite interesting on this topic.)

There’s much, much more that’s good about this book than there is that’s bad; I definitely recommend it.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Space Opera

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 2 “Resurrection”, with the CBSO conducted by Simon Rattle.

Just read:

Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap, all by Alistair Reynolds.

Considered individually, I’d probably give RS and AG high marks out of ten, with RA slightly fewer. Unfortunately, as a trilogy, the set is laid low by AG. I really, really disliked the way it concluded the series.

The trilogy gets off to a great start in RS, with some great ideas and situations developed. I particularly liked the “lighthugger” ship controlled by a triumvirate of anti-social nutters, which also houses an infected captain who has to be kept frozen to stop the nano-plague he’s subject to from spreading further.

There are a bunch of other threads to the story too. The development is a tease: there are no big reveals until very late in the first novel, but I found the pace just on this side of bearable. That certainly makes for a page-turning experience, though I could imagine people also finding it too exasperating.

The whole series seems to take the speed-of-light limit quite seriously. Interstellar travel really does take years, with people freezing themselves to cope with the transit times (of course relativity effects mean they don’t find the transit time to be as great as other observers). Nor is there any faster-than-light communication, making for a set of systems that really are years apart. (No human society has ever tried to hold itself together over such time-distances; I wonder how it would really pan out.) In itself, this commitment to Einstein really does give the trilogy an interesting flavour.

The second volume of the trilogy introduces a new angle on the developing story, and a new set of mostly unsympathetic characters. I didn’t think so much of it.

Finally, Absolution Gap. This has one of the all-time best basic premises for an SF novel. On the other hand, it really doesn’t tie into the rest of the trilogy all that well. It could have easily been a completely separate novel. What’s worse is that this volume ends up dispensing with the trilogy’s overall threat in a completely cavalier and off-hand way. And then it leaves everything hanging with another threat supposedly about to do in the civilised galaxy. This is an absolutely terrible way to finish, and left a decidedly sour taste in my mouth.

Friday, 19 September 2008

The Mirror of the Sea

Listening to:

Mozart, piano trio in E, K.452

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, The mirror of the sea.

The volume I read was a Folio Society combination of The Mirror of the Sea and another book called A Personal Record. The former is a mix of relatively matter-of-fact pieces about aspects of maritime life and some personal reminiscences. A Personal Record is more explicitly autobiographical. And of course, matter-of-fact for Conrad means prose like:

The cradle of overseas traffic and of the art of naval combats, the Mediterranean, apart from all the associations of adventure and glory, the common heritage of all mankind, makes a tender appeal to a seaman. It has sheltered the infancy of his craft. He looks upon it as a man may look at a vast nursery in an old, old mansion where innumerable generations of his own people have learned to walk. I say his own people because, in a sense, all sailors belong to one family: all are descended from that adventurous and shaggy ancestor who, bestriding a shapeless log and paddling with a crooked branch, accomplished the first coasting trip in a sheltered bay ringed with the admiring howls of his tribe. It is a matter of regret that all those brothers in craft and feeling, whose generations have learnt to walk a ship’s deck in that nursery, have been also more than once fiercely engaged in cutting each other’s throats there. But life, apparently, has such exigencies.

The second book covers more than just maritime matters, including material on Conrad’s childhood in Poland, and how he came to be a sailor at all: first out of Marseilles, and then as part of the British Merchant Marine. And why did he want to become British? According to his own account, it was because he met an exemplary Brit on top of an Alp while walking there. But then, all of Conrad’s autobiography needs to be read with a modicum of scepticism. He turned bits of his personal history into novels, and equally appears to have thought that there wasn’t anything wrong with fictionalising his personal history for others’ consumption.

Both volumes are more collections of little essays rather than components of some larger argument. This makes for easy reading, and some of the little vignettes are quite interesting.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

The Arrow of Gold

Listening to:

Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, The Arrow of Gold.

According to Zdzisław Najder, a biographer, Arrow of Gold is “Conrad’s weakest novel”. It starts well enough, with exciting things happening to a young hero in Marseilles, and even seems to hold onto its nerve when a mysterious woman appears. There’s smuggling and intrigue and all looks well, even if it’s never entirely clear where Conrad wants our attention to lie.

At last came the day when everything slipped from my grasp. The little vessel, broken and gone like the only toy of a lonely child, the sea itself, which had swallowed it, throwing me on shore after a shipwreck that instead of a fair fight left in me the memory of a suicide. It took away all that was in me of independent life, but just failed to take me out of the world.... The lurid swiftness of it all was like a stunning thunderclap—and, one evening, I found myself weary, heartsore, my brain still dazed and with awe in my heart, entering Marseilles by way of the railway station, after many adventures, one more disagreeable than another, involving privations, great exertions, a lot of difficulties with all sorts of people who looked upon me evidently more as a discreditable vagabond deserving the attentions of gendarmes than a respectable (if crazy) young gentleman attended by a guardian angel of his own.

The title of the book refers to a piece of jewelry worn by the mysterious woman, so perhaps it is fair enough that the emphasis of the novel shifts to focus on the relationship between Doña Rita and the book’s cast of male characters. Certainly, she remains a mysterious object more than she is ever a human being. In some sense she is most like a MacGuffin that pushes the plot onwards, and quite unreal.

This seems to me to be consistent with the off-hand way in the novel concludes (in a strange final section called “Second Note”). Here the novel is perhaps revealed to be all about the hero’s development and coming of age, and not really the arrow of gold at all.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Regeneration

Listening to:

Alkan, Motifs for piano, Op. 63, No. 5 (Les Initiés)

Just read:

Pat Barker, Regeneration.

This is a very good novel set during World War I in a Scottish hospital for shell-shocked soldiers. Central to the story are two real people, Siegfried Sassoon, there as a patient, and W. H. R. Rivers, a leading doctor at the hospital. This encounter really did happen, so Barker is presenting a fictionalised account of what might have happened. She does a very good job of it.

Sassoon is in the hospital because he has publicly condemned the conduct of the war and refused to return to it, and because the authorities (and Sassoon’s friends) wish to put him in a hospital as a head-case rather than in prison as a conscientious objector. Once there, he encounters the enlightened Rivers, as well as a number of other seriously disturbed soldiers. While there he also meets Wilfrid Owens. Owens is the author of Anthem for Doomed Youth, which begins

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

Sassoon, already an established poet at this point, helps Owens get his opening lines into just this shape, in what is an effective, if inevitably speculative scene.

Owens and Sassoon both eventually go back to war (it’s not easy to understand Sassoon’s motives, though their complexity is conveyed well), but the book is as much about Rivers’s career, and there’s quite a bit of theorising on just what the right thing to do is in a situation where patients are disturbed in novel ways, and where if made well, they are likely to be put right back into the situation that made them ill in the first place.

Regeneration is the first book of a trilogy; one that I look forward to completing.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Granta 88

Listening to:

Alkan, J'étais dormie, mais mon coeur veillait, 13th of his 25 preludes for piano, Op. 31.

Just read:

Granta 88: Mothers. (Contents)

This issue of Granta contains more non-fiction than fiction, much of it being biographical accounts of authors’ mothers. This makes for interesting reading, if only because other people are often quite interesting, particularly, if one is reading a professional writer’s account.

For example, Martha Gessen describes her relationship with her mother, the way that her mother died of breast cancer, and how she herself has learnt that she has a single genetic mutation that means she is much more likely to get breast or ovarian cancer herself. Now she has a young daughter herself, and there is a chance that she may have passed on the same mutation.

In another piece, Alexandra Fuller describes being pregnant and giving birth in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Her story has a happy ending, and you can’t really ask for more. It’s a good collection.

Thursday, 7 December 2006

Freedom evolves

Listening to:

Mrs. Robinson, Simon & Garfunkel.

Just read:

Daniel Dennett, Freedom evolves.

This is not an easy read, but it’s a valuable one. The topic is “free will”, one of the core philosophical concepts if ever there was one. I think the best part of the book comes quite soon, where the implications of living in a deterministic world are explored. In particular, Dennett convincingly argues that

Our everyday thinking about possibility, necessity, and causation seems to conflict with determinism, but this is an illusion. Determinism doesn’t imply that whatever we do, we could not have done otherwise, that every event has a cause, or that our natures are fixed.

The “could have” argument is fascinating in itself. Some say that the very fact that we can meaningfully claim “I could have done X differently” proves that the world can not be deterministic. Alternatively, the claim is that if the world were deterministic, then it would be meaningless to say “I could have done it differently”. But in the real world, how do we determine whether such a claim is reasonable, leaving aside the determinism issue entirely? To make the example concrete, say that X is making the right (non-losing, say) move in a game of chess.

So the claim I make is “At move 23, I could have figured out that I had to castle (and thereby save the game).” How do we assess this claim? We look at my chess-playing history, and we get me to play a whole bunch of games to provide more data. We might ask if I had at least considered the move in question, and how I came to reject it. Then, if it all the evidence seems to support the view that I had it in me to make the right move, we agree that yes, I could have made the move.

Importantly, this assessment makes sense and conveys information regardless of whether or not the world is deterministic. It’s a statement about my capabilities as a chess player, a statement that it is or is not plausible that in the particular situation that arose I might have made the right move. It is thus an examination of possible worlds and my possible behaviours in them. In this way, and with a rich set of examples and thought experiments, Dennett is convincing that determinism is actually irrelevant.

Later Dennett is also good on the question of free will and morality, the question as to how the sense of how we can also be free to make moral decisions, how this may have come about, and why it is a specially human characteristic. It’s all very good, and re-reading chunks of it for the purpose of writing this review has only made me want to return to it again.

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

The algebraist

Listening to:

Cecilia, by Simon & Garfunkel.

Just read:

Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist.

This is an entertaining science-fiction novel. It is not a Culture novel, unlike most of Banks’s other sci-fi. Nor can it even be set in the same universe as the Culture because faster-than-light travel is not possible in this one. This difference is very significant: just about all inter-stellar travel is mediated by worm-hole pairs, and these connected pairs have to be carefully established. First the pair is created in one location, and then one of the two is slowly transported (at close to the speed of light, but this is slow at interstellar scales) to the desired destination.

This is an interesting set-up, and Banks explores some of the ramifications in convincing detail. Better, the almost inevitable Ancient Knowledge held by Mysterious Old Ones is actually a real piece of information, the import of which the reader can really appreciate. The Old Ones are also quite engaging—though mysterious, they are superficially a bit on the ridiculous side too.

There’s a villain too, a evil and merciless imperialist very much in the Banksian mold. He comes to a bad end, so all is well on that front. These are all good aspects of the main plot-line. It’s unfortunate that the central good guys are so feeble, and that the drama around them at the personal level is so uninspiring. I also suspect that the big secret is flawed by the fact that a graph whose nodes all have degree one can never form an interesting network. Still, it’s a good read.

Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Math hysteria

Listening to:

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet suite.

Just read:

Ian Stewart, Math Hysteria: Fun and Games with Mathematics.

This is an entertaining collection of columns that Stewart wrote for Scientific American magazine. They are “recreational mathematics”, which means they simultaneously aim to convey some mathematical idea and to keep the reader interested. I’m happy to report that Stewart succeeds in all of these columns. My particular favourites were the two on analysing Monopoly using probabilistic methods, two on agent-reasoning (“because he knows that I know that X, I should do Y”), and on how to play the children’s game “dots-and-boxes” well. (The latter is highly non-trivial!)

Friday, 1 December 2006

The Deptford trilogy

Listening to:

Mikhail Pletnev playing Beethoven “variations and bagatelles”. (Deutsche Grammophon 457 493-2.)

Just read:

Robertson Davies, The Deptford Trilogy.

When I bought this rather fat book (it’s an omnibus of three novels, Fifth Element, The Manticore, and World of Wonders), I hoped that it would be as good as Davies’s Cornish Trilogy. Unfortunately, it’s nothing like as successful, in my opinion. Of the three constituent novels, the first is definitely the best. The last is little more than a series of conversations that are supposed to be taking place as the main characters make a film about one of their number. This character, the film’s subject, has a reasonably interesting story to tell, but is an arrogant tosser, who seems to be in the novel mainly to serve as contrast with the terribly provincial Canadians. The other significant character is the earnest Canadian intellectual, aware of his desperate disconnect with all that is deeply meaningful, and willing to sit at the knee of the liberated soul.

That the guru is actually a stage magician just seems like willful perversity on the part of the author. The first novel is not so bad because it tells the story of how these people grow up, escaping their small village upbringing and because it introduces the one great drama that defines the trilogy. For all that this might be proof of their basic unworthiness, Davies definitely entertains with his descriptions of his characters’ origins. Their childhoods are well done, and the stories of the characters’ early adult careers are interesting too. In particular, this stage of things includes a third character. He’s interesting, though even worse off on the possession-of-soul front, eventually growing up to become a dirty capitalist and all-round fixer.

There are occasional flashes of humour, but most of it is earnestly serious:

... Eisengrim directed him to look towards the ceiling, from which his handkerchief fluttered down into his hands. He borrowed a lady’s handbag, and from it produced a package that swelled and grew until he revealed a girl under the covering; he caused this girl to rise in the air, float out over the orchestra pit, return to the table, and, when covered, to dwindle once again to a package, which, when returned to the lady’s purse, proved to be a box of bon-bons. All old tricks. All beautifully done. And all offered without any of the facetiousness that usually makes magic shows so restless and tawdry.

This is well-written, elegant even, but this tone dominates the 700 pages, and grows wearying. And basically, not enough really happens.

Thursday, 30 November 2006

Stalin: the court of the red tsar

Listening to:

Richard Strauss, Four last songs, no. 4: Im Abendrot (“At sunset”), sung by Anne Schwanewilms, with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder.

Just read:

Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar.

This is an interesting biography of Stalin, focussing on the period from 1932 (when Stalin’s wife, Nadya shot herself) to 1953 (when he died). His earlier career (i.e., 54 years) is summed up in about 100 pages, and then the remaining 570 pages go over 21 years in great detail.

In 1932, Stalin is the Soviet Union’s top politician and leader, but he is not yet the all-powerful Great Dictator. This transformation happens in the early ’30s, and is a fascinating process. It’s also a horrifyingly bloody one. Stalin was paranoid and quite willing to see anyone killed if he thought they were a threat. Given the stranglehold he had on power, it’s hard to imagine how he could think anyone might be any sort of threat. But he’d got that far by being ruthless, so when he had the werewithal to be even more ruthless, he was.

And he is operating in an environment that really is quite court-like, making the book’s sub-title quite appropriate. He is top dog, but he works with a Politburo full of ambitious revolutionaries and politicians. None of them can afford to offend him, but he does rely on them in the formulation and implementation of policy. Most of them end badly, but at least one, Molotov, demonstrated that it was possible to start and finish your career with Stalin. The courtiers’ stories are very interesting, not least the consternation that envelops them when Stalin goes into a coma and eventually dies.

Finally, this is a very interesting period of global history. Stalin concludes evil deals with Hitler (partitioning Poland, for example), but has to go with war with him just a few years later. During the war he holds summit meetings with Churchill and Roosevelt. Then he drops his “Iron Curtain” over Europe and avidly pursues atomic weapons for the USSR. This book’s basic angle on this, centred on Stalin’s life as an individual, is fresh and engaging, but I imagine readers might best come to it with a basic grasp of those global events.

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Coot Club

Listening to:

Béla Fleck, Sinister Minister.

Just read:

Arthur Ransome, Coot Club.

This novel is one of only two of Ransome’s novels that don’t feature the Walker family (John, Susan, Titty and Roger). Instead, Dick and Dot, who we met in Winter Holiday, are central, along with a new character, Tom Dudgeon. The only other character to earn any real definition is a Mrs. Barrable, a grown-up no less. The rest of the “gang” is three working class boys (boat-builders’ sons), and two twin girls (a lawyer’s daughters). The class signals are quite obvious, but these five don’t otherwise get to become real people.

The setting is different too: instead of being set in the Lake District, the book is set in the Norfolk Broads. It still features lots of messing about in boats. There is one important plot-arc to Coot Club: Tom casts a cruiser full of Hullabaloos loose because it’s moored on top of a coot’s nest, and the rest of the book centres on escaping them, and going on a big sailing expedition.

The drama of being chased by unpleasant and uncomprehending grown-ups moves the book along very effectively, all the way to an exciting finale. Dick and Dot are fun company, and all the characters get important and interesting things to do, even William, Mrs. Barrable’s pug dog.

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

The Eyre affair

Listening to:

Mozart, piano concerto no. 20 in D minor, K.466. Kathryn Stott (piano), and the Manchester Camerata conducted by Douglas Boyd.

Just read:

Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair.

This is a very entertaining comic novel, set in 1985, but on an Earth with an alternative history. The main character is a detective called Thursday Next. Just this name suggests that the novel is not going to be taking itself entirely seriously. Plenty of details in the alternative history support this: Wales is a rigid socialist republic in the vein of North Korea, and England and Russia have been fighting the Crimean War for over a century.

Perhaps more importantly, the metaphysics of the setup allows people (or at least, Thursday’s father) to travel in time, and to move in and out of fiction. Thus, this book is the Eyre Affair because it features a villain who messes about with the novel Jane Eyre, as well as conducting all of his other nefarious plots. One of the many amusing touches is that when Thursday enters the novel to catch the bad guy, she ends up altering the ending so that it ends the way the way it does in “our world”. Up until that point, everyone in Thursday Next’s world agreed that Jane Eyre ended rather insipidly.

It’s all very clever, and amusing with it. What’s not to like?

Monday, 27 November 2006

The secret sharer

Listening to:

Yes it is, by the Beatles. Somewhat drone-y, I have to say.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer and other stories.

This Folio Society edition of Conrad short stories collects seven stories that originally appeared in two volumes, ’Twixt Land and Sea, and Tales of Hearsay. I definitely liked the first two stories, A Harbour Story and The Secret Sharer. The first is dark and tropically decadent. It’s mainly set on an island where the narrator has come to harbour. He gets entangled in a local merchant’s affairs, and with the merchant’s daughter.

In the second story, the narrator is another ship’s captain, who happens to pick up a man lost at sea and shelters him in his cabin. The castaway is from a nearby ship, and jumped because he had accidentally killed another member of the crew. The narrator keeps his presence a secret, making him the secret sharer of the captain’s cabin. There are two episodes of drama, as the fugitive is hidden from his original ship, and then helped to freedom. It’s all quite effective.

The third story is Freya of the Seven Isles, a romantic tragedy, featuring a loathsome Dutch lieutenant and a doomed love. It’s rather tedious really.

Fourth, The Warrior’s Soul is better again, being set during the Napoleonic Wars and about the discharging of an honourable debt between two soldiers on opposing sides (France and Russia). It’s formally neat, and a little bit vicious. Condensed it might have more impact, but Conrad’s typical psychologizing works quite well too.

Of the remaining stories, The Black Mate is cute and about as comic as Conrad ever gets. It reads a bit like a camp-fire story with an amusing twist. The Tale is another impressive and nasty story about a naval captain interrogating a merchant captain who may actually be a spy. Finally, Prince Roman is a so-so story about family loyalty and honour, set in nineteenth century Poland.

Thursday, 26 October 2006

A score-raising classic

Listening to:

Barber, Summer music (music for wind quintet), played by the Galliard Ensemble.

Modern education

I just received an e-mail from amazon.com, advertising Frankenstein: A Kaplan SAT Score-Raising Classic, Second Edition. I guess this would be an annotated version of the book, designed to help people with their SAT scores.

Thursday, 22 June 2006

The rescue

Listening to:

Billy Eckstine, No one but you. Awfully schlocky.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, The rescue.

Lingard repeated it all to Mrs Travers. Her courage, her intelligence, the quickness of her apprehension, the colour of her eyes, and the intrepidity of her glance evoked in him an admiring enthusiasm. She stood by his side! Every moment that fatal illusion clung closer to his side—like a garment of light—like an armour of fire.

This is another of Conrad’s novels set in an obscure corner of the islands of south-east Asia, featuring a European getting messed up in native affairs, and coming to a bad end. This time, the hero is a man called Lingard, who has achieved a strong position in this obscure corner (called “The King of the Sea”, even), and is attempting to restore a Malay prince to power.

But things are suddenly complicated when a yacht carrying some urbane but unworldy Europeans is stranded smack in the middle of the coast where Lingard is hatching his plot. All sorts of complications ensue. Not least among them is Lingard and the wife of the yacht’s owner falling for each other. Conradian romance is almost always rhetorically overblown to my ears, and this is not much of an exception. Nonetheless, the plot steams along, and I was keen to see how it was all going to finish.

Tuesday, 20 June 2006

Persuasion

Listening to:

Suzanne Vega, My favourite plum.

Just read:

Jane Austen, Persuasion.

This is Austen’s last novel, and was published posthumously. It’s not as long a novel as Pride and prejudice, and comparatively little happens in terms of plot. On the other hand, the story is quite heartfelt. In essence it is: Anne Elliot is approaching middle age, and is resigned to never marrying, having earlier been persuaded to reject the suit of her young love, Captain Wentworth. But then, after some years (seven or eight, I think) Wentworth re-appears. Anne is very composed about it all, and even accepts that he might be about to court another member of her social circle.

A further romantic complication appears in the form of a cousin who stands to inherit from Anne’s father. Eventually however, the right thing happens, almost against the odds it feels. So, on the one hand, Austen seems to be saying “Never give up”. But simultaneously, what with so much resignation and uncertainty (about what will happen, and about how Anne feels and what she thinks she should do) in the novel, the happy ending is a little subdued. It’s very beautiful.

Sunday, 19 March 2006

Granta 87

Listening to:

Cole Porter’s Always true to you in my fashion, sung by Ella Fitzgerald.

Just read:

Granta 87: Jubilee (contents)

This edition of the Granta celebrates its 25th anniversary by being slightly fatter than normal, with a rich collection of new pieces by some of the writers who helped makes[sic] its reputation. Grammar on its back cover notwithstanding, there is some good stuff in it too.

The first piece is a miniature biography of a strange guy called Benjamin Pell, who has made a career of rooting through celebrities’ rubbish, finding interesting stuff and selling it to newspapers. Pell has had to fight a number of court cases as a result, and has a nerdish obsession with his cause, and the court system in general. He (or Tim Adams’s portrayal of him) rather reminded me of the unhinged Miss Flite from Bleak House.

I also liked Early one morning by Helen Simpson, which is a short story about a mother driving her nine-year old son to school, also picking up some of his friends on the way. Not knowing anything about it for sure, it still comes across as a very genuine-sounding reflection of modern parenthood. Nothing really happens, but it is an affecting window onto a world, that though fictional, feels quite real.

The photo essay charts the progress of the Granta river from spring to sea, passing through Cambridge on the way, through territory that’s pretty familiar to me. The final piece is also one of my favourites: by Graham Swift, it reflects on Swift’s father’s life, from birth in the 1920s, to being a pilot in WW2 and beyond.

Sunday, 5 March 2006

Autumn Term

Listening to:

Honeysuckle Rose played by Fats Waller.

Just read:

Antonia Forest, Autumn Term.

This is children’s fiction from 1948, and a very enjoyable read. It’s also clearly a book for girls, being all about two twin sisters who start at a girls’ secondary school, following four other, older sisters. This means that the canonical school activities are netball and guiding. No doubt this would have been enough to totally put me off the book (and its many sequels featuring the Marlow family) as a teenager, but hey, there have got to be some advantages in being a grown-up.

The central character is Nicola Marlow (her twin sister is Lawrie), who arrives at school with all sorts of grand ambitions, mainly relating to the way in which she will surpass the sisters who have gone before her. Her grand ideas take a variety of knocks over the course of the story, and she has to revise her opinions about some of the other school-girls too. The novel builds to a grand climax involving the production of a dramatised version of Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. It’s all very satisfying, and I’m looking forward to reading some of the sequels (some of which also have a more central rôle for the brothers, apparently).

Wednesday, 8 February 2006

A pound of paper

Listening to:

Simply the best, by Tina Turner.

Just read:

John Baxter, A pound of paper: confessions of a book addict.

This book is an enjoyable memoir about the life of an Australian who grew up in the fifties, got the sci-fi reading bug, emigrated to the UK, and became a book collector. It makes for a fascinating mix. On the one hand, Baxter has lots to say about the sometimes seedy, and usually rather nerdy habits of book collectors. This is interesting enough in itself, but Baxter also has another string to his bow: an Australian autobiographical slant that reads a little like Clive James’s Unreliable memoirs.

The book collecting leads Baxter into personal contact with authors as well as other collectors. He meets Kingsley Amis at one point, for example. This is interesting enough, but I think the discussion of how one might get oneself a collecting “angle” is more interesting. You don’t want to collect a big author like Graham Greene, as Baxter did, but you could, for example, collect first editions of Booker Prize winners.

Recommended.

Sunday, 11 December 2005

Shostakovich and Stalin

Listening to:

Valley of the Dolls, sung by Dionne Warwick.

Just read:

Solomon Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin: the extraordinary relationship between the great composer and the brutal dictator.

This interesting book is essentially a biography of Shostakovich, refracted through the prism of his relationship with Stalin. Shostakovich lived for over 20 years after Stalin died, which means that there’s less for Volkov to say about this stage of Shostakovich’s life. Nonetheless, he can comment on the way in which Shostakovich’s composing continued to be affected by his experience of the Stalinist period.

Volkov is famous for the book Testimony, which was published just a few years after Shostakovich’s death. This purported to be Shostakovich’s posthumous message to the world (Volkov claimed that Shostakovich saw and approved his manuscript), explaining how he was always a dissident, and how he encoded his hatred and contempt for the Soviet regime, and particularly Stalin, in his music. This made for a great story, and struck many people as much the best way to explain aspects of the music. On the other hand, there were all sorts of discrepancies in Volkov’s explanations of how the book came to be written, and how much of it Shostakovich may or may not have seen. This prompted an ongoing controversy, one that I don’t know to be entirely resolved one way or the other.

Given all this, one has to read this book of Volkov’s knowing that he is pushing a barrow that seems plausible, but which is not necessarily as well supported by the facts as he might like you to think. Anyway, it’s still an interesting, and pretty well-written account. Volkov draws a parallel between Stalin and Shostakovich on the one hand, and Nicholas I and Pushkin on the other. In both cases, the dictator wields the power of life and death, but indulges the artist. I don’t think Shostakovich would have ever been allowed to “speak truth to power” in prose, but music was a safer medium. (And Stalin did intervene personally in other cases to save some poets and artists. Capriciously saving a few lives, while callously causing the deaths of millions is no moral redemption of course.)

Volkov covers the important stuff well: the furore over the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich’s response to being accused of muddle instead of music (the fifth symphony), his appropriation as a wartime propaganda tool, and finally his second condemnation in 1948 (along with Prokofiev and others), as part of the cultural purge called the Zhdanovschina. It’s a fascinating story, and well-told. Volkov may be taking liberties with personal motivations, but his is still a plausible line, and his book is definitely worth reading.

Thursday, 24 November 2005

Penguin History of New Zealand

Listening to:

ABBA, When all is said and done.

Just read:

Michael King, The Penguin History of New Zealand.

This single volume history of New Zealand is very well-written and a great introduction to the subject. I did a little of the subject at secondary school, but the “modules” I did then focussed on quite specific areas (economic development and social welfare I think, done in comparison to Japan and the USA). More recently, I read James Belich’s Making peoples, and thought it very good. It stops in the late nineteenth century though, and for more recent history you need the second part, Paradise reforged, which I don’t have. So, I was very interested to see how King might treat the same, earlier, material (in less space), and then go on to describe the 20th century.

King is certainly very good on New Zealand’s prehistory, with what sems a convincing command of the various strands of archaeological and anthropological research. I find it all quite fascinating: to think, the Maori discovered this empty country just 800–1000 years ago, even as scads of well-recorded European history was underway. (King also blows the totally unsupported and typically anti-Maori myths about the Mori-ori out of the water.)

New Zealand’s early history of contact between the Maori and the Pakeha is well done too. It’s very easy to root for the Maori throughout this story: they were initially in a very strong position (so much so that there was never any idea of sending convicts to NZ; it would have been too dangerous). But, at a step further back, there could never have been fair competition between the world's biggest economic power, and tribes bound to subsistence farming for their support. The Maori get shafted.

New Zealand's history becomes more and more Europeanised. Soldiers (Maori and Pakeha) from New Zealand fight in the 20th century's European wars. With the development of refrigerated shipping, New Zealand ties itself into the imperial economy. King's coverage of this century can hardly do anything other than become quite political: New Zealanders have to try to figure out the right way to deal with varying economic circumstances, and how to resolve Maori-Pakeha tensions. All this is the domain of the politician.

King also explains the changing social picture: after WW2, for example, large numbers of Maori leave the countryside and move to the cities, upsetting what had been a de facto separation of two cultures. About the only thing I missed was much discussion of New Zealand’s relations with its neighbours, particularly Australia (now that I live here, I find this more interesting), and the Pacific island countries. But still a very interesting read.

Wednesday, 19 October 2005

Walking on glass

Listening to:

Prokofiev, symphony no. 6. Seiji Ozawa conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

Just read:

Iain Banks, Walking on glass.

This novel is by Banks in his non-science fiction guise, and there is thus a chunk of it set in modern London. However, in a sci-fi like way, another significant chunk of it is set in a mysterious castle, on a planet that otherwise seems to be completely deserted. The castle seems to be set up entirely as a very elaborate prison for two people who are forced to play seemingly meaningless board-games with each other in order to win the right to find an answer to a question. If they get the right answer they will win their freedom. This castle story is all quite intriguing, and the setting is rather reminiscent of Gormenghast (which fact the story explicitly acknowledges at one point). So I definitely liked this bit.

The modern setting has two almost entirely separate narrative threads: one features a nutter who thinks he’s secretly an intergalatic warrior, and another features a lovelorn young student. This latter thread of the plot shares the honours with the castle for emotional heft, but is wrapped up in a rather brutal way. This is not horrific, but simply made me think Feh. The nutter and castle threads eventually come to parallel one another in a rather intriguing way, so there is a bit more connection there, even though I eventually decided it didn’t really make sense. (The love-story thread isn’t really connected to the rest of the novel at all.)

Not a glorious success then, but some cute ideas. Ultimately, only one of the threads (the castle) has a story-arc I found dramatically convincing, so the other two have to be regarded as padding, with one of them an opportunity for Banks to draw an incoherent parallel.

Wednesday, 12 October 2005

The Tower Menagerie

Listening to:

Louis Armstrong, Sweet little Papa.

Just read:

Daniel Hahn, The Tower Menagerie.

This is a cute history of the royal menagerie that was housed in the Tower of London. The menagerie probably began in 1235, when Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, gave Henry III three lions because he, Frederick was marrying Henry’s sister, Isabella. It’s an interesting comment on the zoological knowledge of the time that these animals were actually called “leopards”.

So, yes, this is a very specialised story, but it’s also an interesting one. Hahn has found a number of references to the menagerie in various histories, and is able to tell all sorts of curious stories around and about the menagerie’s evolution through the centuries. For example, the menagerie seems to have been a real tourist attraction for much of its history, allowing people without access to nature programmes on TV to see real live lions. (The lions of the Tower were apparently the biggest draw, in keeping with their role as royal symbols, but there were other animals kept there as royalty received various gifts from overseas.)

People’s attitudes to the keeping of wild animals evolved over this period, and the more humane environment of the modern zoo was eventually seen as more appropriate. The Tower Menagerie, always cramped in its castle setting, was ultimately merged into the Regents Park zoo in the nineteenth century.

This is an enjoyable read about an obscure, but easily appreciated corner of English history.

Sunday, 25 September 2005

Eight little piggies

Listening to:

Beethoven, symphony no. 6 “Pastoral”. The Royal Philharmonia conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Just read:

Stephen Jay Gould, Eight little piggies: reflections in natural history.

This book is a collection of 31 essays, originally published in the Natural History magazine in what was Gould’s regular column, This view of life. Each essay is self-contained, and each is an interesting reflection on some topic in natural history, very broadly construed. For example, one of the essays starts off by talking about a contemporary observer of Mozart the child prodigy when visiting London. This gracefully leads on to a discussion of the way in which evolution works in a “modular” way, on systems or body components that can evolve independently of each other. (Gould cites the example of infant gulls and the way they “learn” to induce their parents to feed them.) Without such separability, evolution by natural selection would have a very hard time of introducing any kind of adaptation into organisms.

Another essay is an extended meditation induced by a visit to a quaint village in Iowa, one of the Amana colonies. These were founded in the early 19th century by a German religious minority, and now survive, at least in part, by selling tourists a vision of bucolic charm. Gould is a little cynical about this, but still admits to feeling charmed by the pleasant village environment. That is, until he finds the village graveyard, full of the gravestones of infant children. This he calls the Great Reminder, quoting Gilbert & Sullivan, of

the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own

Gould is equally lyrical on the needless extinction of snails in Tahiti; the unnecessary mocking of Archbishop Ussher (the man who dated God's creation in Genesis 1 to 23 October, 4004 B.C.); and how it is that land vertebrates all share a body-plan involving five digits at the end of each limb. It’s all good stuff: thoughtful and entertaining.

Friday, 23 September 2005

Granta 86

Listening to:

Blossom Dearie, On Broadway, a live performance from Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London.

Just read:

Granta 86: Film (contents)

This is a ho-hum issue of the literary magazine. The theme is all there, and perhaps that’s the problem. Writing about film is a great excuse for pretentiousness it seems, and many of the pieces in this issue seem to prove the claim.

But let’s accentuate the positive, and talk about what I did like. Ian Jack, the editor, has a reasonably interesting nostalgia piece about the Lancashire cinemas he frequented as a kid in the ’30s and ’40s. Maarten ’t Haart is also interesting on providing lots of live rats to be part of Werner Herzog’s film, Nosferatu. This sort of thing does interest me; I can watch the credits of films and wonder at the enormous legions of people who seem to be required to make them. They must all have useful things to do, and pieces like ’t Haart’s go some way towards illuminating back-stage.

Thomas Keneally has a neat piece on how he came to meet a bag-maker in Hollywood who provided him with the story about Oskar Schindler. It was this encounter that led to his book, and ultimately the film Schindler’s List.

Finally, Andrew O’Hagan is good on the experience of being a film critic for two years (he rants about the perfidiousness of Miramax); and Adam Mars-Jones has an entertaining little rant of his own about bad soundtrack music.

Friday, 16 September 2005

Hidden histories

Listening to:

The sound of World of Warcraft in the background: crashes, bangs, and the wails of virtual creatures as they are brutally taken to bits by a troll rogue. (Nerf rogues!)

Just read:

Granta 85: Hidden Histories (contents)

Intriguing title notwithstanding, this issue of Granta doesn’t really seem to have any particular theme. There’s still some good writing to be enjoyed though. Among the collection, there was lots of good non-fiction. I particularly liked Diana Athill’s memoir of an unexpected pregnancy in the 1940s or ’50s; Giles Foden on the historical events that inspired The African Queen (a German warship on Lake Tanganyika, and the British response); Geoffrey Beattie on growing up poor in Northern Ireland; Brian Cathcart tracking down the fate of a guy (like him, also from Northern Ireland) with the same name; Daniel Smith on surgical “cures” for obsessive-compulsive disorders; and Jennie Erdal: very amusing on being a ghost-writer for an incredibly vain wannabe novelist with no real talent.

Of the fiction, I liked J. Robert Lennon’s Eight pieces for the left hand, eight cute miniature stories all set in a small country town in the US, and Jonathan Tel’s Put not thy trust in chariots. The latter, set in modern Israel, is simultaneously intense and inconsequential. It does a great job of conveying the humdrum realities of lives led under a combination of normal everyday pressures and the thought that innocuous Arab colleagues might really be terrorists.

Tuesday, 9 August 2005

Signalling from Mars

Listening to:

Shostakovich, Six romances on words by Japanese poets, Op. 21. Sung by Vladimir Kasatschuk, with the Koln Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jurowski.

Just read:

Signalling from Mars: the letters of Arthur Ransome, selected and introduced by Hugh Brogan.

Being such a Ransome fan, I was very happy to take this opportunity to get to know him a bit better. I read a biography a while ago (it might have been Brogan’s), but not much of it stuck. (Now that I have this ’log, I can record my thoughts for all posterity, and need never be in that horrible position ever again!) Reading writers’ letters is a classic literary activity. All the best authors get their correspondence collected: as I said about Jane Austen last month, it’s a great opportunity to eavesdrop on a person as they talk to friends, family and others. These days people don’t put so much into their letters, but they do write web-logs instead, so perhaps there’s some law of conservation of written evidence at work here.

Anyway. Ransome had a fascinating career. Well before his career as a children’s author, he was a well-regarded foreign correspondent for first the Daily News and then the Manchester Guardian (now just The Guardian). He got to provide coverage of the Russian Revolution, and was able to interview significant players. He met his second wife in Russia; she was Trotsky’s secretary.

Meeting a second wife while still married unfortunately meant that his relationship with his first wife, already bad, became completely awful. This also affected his relationship with his daughter, who later claimed that her mother had ceaselessly tried to turn her against him. This worked all too well, and the most depressing and sad letters in the collection are some of those between Ransome and his daughter Tabitha.

Ransome never wanted to make a career of journalism: he’d known from a young age that he wanted to be a proper writer. In 1930 he finally chucked in the Guardian (and the requirement to go to places like China and Egypt), and began his career as a full-time writer. When Swallows and Amazons and its immediate sequels came out, and were so successful, he was set for life.

There’s lots else that is interesting in Ransome’s correspondence: he exchanged a couple of letters with Tolkien; he’s constantly plotting sea voyages in the various yachts he owned and renovated; or he’s writing to his publisher in fits of anxiety about whether or not his latest is up to it, or (during the war) whether or not they had paper to print it on. All in all, a very worthwhile read.

Thursday, 4 August 2005

Vanity Fair

Listening to:

Bach, partita no. 4 in D major, BWV 828.

Just read:

W. M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair.

This is a nineteenth century classic, and sufficiently good that I’ve now come back to it for a second time. It centres on two young women characters: Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Becky is an opportunistic woman of dubious parentage, with a real desire to get ahead. Amelia is more bourgeois in background, and much less worldly-wise than her friend. The contrasts between the two characters mean that there’s lots of interesting variety in how we see scenes and other characters. I’d say Thackeray was much fonder of Becky: her cynicism matches that of the narrator quite often, while Amelia comes across as a tedious sap rather too often.

To steal a line from Blackadder, this is a real roller-coaster of a novel, with lots of neat twists and turns, and piles of interesting minor characters. In comparison with novels by Dickens, Vanity Fair doesn’t seem as carefully plotted, and some of it seems a bit episodic rather than clearly moving the plot along. On the other hand, Thackeray definitely wins over Dickens because none of his characters are perfect. Amelia’s sappiness is something that Thackeray is perfectly aware of and comments on. The nearest thing to a saint is Captain Dobbin, but even he comes across as a bit dim at times.

In form, Vanity Fair is ultimately a romance: loving hearts are united, and all that, though Thackeray gets lots of twists out of this, and lots of opportunity for that amusing cynicism. In addition, Becky has to better herself too, and her attitude to romance is more that a man is a route to power and money rather than love and happiness. In this way, Thackeray manages to combine two sorts of stories at once. His novel is perhaps too long, with a slightly unsatisfying ending, but there’s lots to admire and enjoy on the way. (The drama leading up to and around the Battle of Waterloo is particularly effective.)

Monday, 4 July 2005

Jane Austen’s letters

Listening to:

Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter’s Easy to love.

Just read:

Jane Austen, Complete letters.

I’m going through a bit of an “Austen-kick” at the moment. I expect to have knocked off all the novels in the not too distant future (all but Northanger Abbey will be re-reads, but you will be relieved to know that the List’s rules allow this), have recently watched DVDs of the BBC’s recent Pride and Prejudice adaptation, and also have Claire Tomalin’s biography to come. The letters are just another symptom of the wider interest.

What with my reviewing backlog, it’s now a little while since I finished the letters, and I can comment on the overall impression that they left with me more accurately than I can describe the details. I do recall that reading the letters totally submerged me in amazing levels of detail, some of which was near incomprehensible, even with the notes (yes, more endnotes) to refer to. I suppose if someone attempted to plough their way through all the e-mails I have written in the 15 years I have had access to e-mail, they might find it pretty bewildering if they didn’t know me. Austen’s letters cover a similar period (perhaps more like 20 years), and even if letters weren’t quite as easy to send (they cost money on a per-letter basis for one thing), it’s clear that letters were to Austen as e-mail is to me, at least to a first approximation.

To make things worse for the person not intimately familiar with my activities, if they were to have to read my e-mail in the way that I read Austen’s letters, they would only be given roughly 10% of them. It’s estimated that Austen probably wrote about 2000 letters in her life-time; less than 170 survive. Much of this is due to the efforts of Austen’s biggest correspondent, her sister Cassandra, who destroyed most of their letters. What a biographer would do to go back in time and get their hands on that stash!

Nonetheless, with a little effort, and with the help of the notes and appendices, I did find it possible to keep track of most of the family’s names and inter-relationships. The broad impression is of a very foreign world. Women of Austen’s standing tend not to go anywhere beyond their village or town of residence unless accompanied by a man. A significant portion of women’s lives is dominated by the hunt for material to make new clothes.

In addition to her circumstances, Austen’s character (or 10% of it!) does also come through. She seems to have been witty, understanding, kindly and intelligent. It’s interesting, for example, to read her letters to her niece about whether or not the niece should marry a possible suitor.

The letters are not an easy read, because their paucity makes for disjointed narratives, and because there is so much trivial detail to them. On the other hand, there’s no other way of getting as close to conversing with a famous, long-dead author.

Monday, 27 June 2005

Hexwood

Listening to:

Bach, French suite no. 5 in G, BWV 816. Played by Gustav Leonhardt.

Just read:

Diana Wynne Jones, Hexwood.

Another kids’ book this one, but with quite a different setting and feel. This story has just a single character as its focus, and is definitely in the fantasy/sci-fi genre. And I use the slash advisedly. Jones’s book is quite a successful meld of science-fiction elements and fantasy. Even at the end of the story, when much of the “magic” is revealed to have science-y explanations (Arthur C. Clarke’s law and all that), there are still elements that are decidedly magical in character.

The young protagonist opens the book as an ordinary human kid, one who gets caught up in events of interstellar significance that are playing out next door in a bit of abandoned land, in the wood of the title. Even as she slowly investigates the weird goings on, we are shown another narrative thread in which some (but not all) of them are explained. This thread is resolutely sci-fi, and actually feels very Iain M. Banks-ian, with its intrigue and dark politics.

There are all sorts of twists and turns, and it’s all very entertaining. I think I even forgive the author for the relatively late appearance of the Arthurian mythos. A good read.

Saturday, 25 June 2005

Pigeon Post

Listening to:

Schubert, sonata for arpeggione in A minor, D.821.

Just read:

Arthur Ransome, Pigeon Post.

Along with Winter holiday, this is definitely one of my all-time favourite Ransome books. It doesn’t feature any sailing, but it does feature all the Swallows, Amazons and the two D’s. The story is set in the Lake District, but instead of being on the lake of the previous stories, it’s centred on the hills that overlook it.

The adventure this time is based on the search for gold, and features all the technical accoutrements of mining, along with a grown-up rival (memorably called Squashy Hat), and environmental challenges in the form of drought conditions.

The book’s title comes from the neat way the children communicate with their “friendly natives”: they use three homing pigeons to carry messages. The coolness of this device is somehow typical of the whole story; there’s just so much neat stuff that happens.

The story also features a “neat” logical fallacy. Dick reads that

x. x = gold ⇒ D(x)

where D is an important property of gold that comes up in the story.

But Dick converts what he reads into the false

x. D(x)x = gold

and thinks that he has a good test with which to identify gold. This is not really that central to the story, and the error is brushed off quickly when it’s recognised (more important things are afoot). Nonetheless it somehow seems typical that the adventure should require straight thinking.

An absolute children’s classic.

Saturday, 11 June 2005

The assassin’s cloak

Listening to:

Bach, Komm, heiliger Geist, BWV 651, one of the “Eighteen” chorales.

Just read:

The assassin’s cloak: an anthology of the world’s greatest diarists, edited by Irene and Alan Taylor.

This book is an impressive collection of diary entries by a large variety of authors. It’s arranged in a clever way: sorted by date within the year, so that every day of the year has two or three entries by that many different authors. For example, on 11 June, there are entries by Violet Jacob (1897), Siegfried Sassoon (1922), Naomi Mitchison (1940) and Harold Nicolson (1942).

I’d heard of many of the diarists. They range from Pepys and Evelyn in the 17th century to Anne Frank and Andy Warhol in the 20th. But there are also a number in the book that I’d never heard of. Whether famous or not, the editors did a good job of picking the diarists. I was little disappointed to see that, apart from Katherine Mansfield, there weren’t any from Australia or New Zealand. Indeed, the only entries that were written in the Southern Hemisphere were by Darwin, and by members of Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic. On the other hand, I was pleased to see entries from non-English speaking diarists: among these were the brothers Goncourt, Goebbels and the Tolstoys.

Some authors are only represented by one or two entries (Darwin has four), but others keep cropping up through the course of the book’s year, and it’s pleasant to be dipping into the various diarists’ stories. Most of the entries are of the 20th century, and the two World Wars are loom large amongst these, but with the great variety in authors, I felt that there was always something new to look forward to as I progressed through the year.

A very enjoyable read.

Sunday, 29 May 2005

A fine balance

Listening to:

Summertime, performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Definitely one of the best performances of this standard I’ve ever heard. Fitzgerald and Armstrong bring out a beautiful melancholy in the song.

Just read:

Rohinton Mistry, A fine balance.

This is a finely written, compelling novel about four disparate characters in 1970s Bombay. Mistry unfolds quite a saga, drawing the characters together, and gradually making friends of them. This makes for a satisfying read, and there are plenty of obstacles to be overcome as they get there.

Some of the obstacles are within the characters, but a significant number are caused by the deprivation, poverty and exploitation that are unavoidable parts of life in ’70s Bombay. Not having any experience of the time or place, I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but the depiction in this novel makes it seem very real, and quite fascinating. (Yes, a horrid fascination in some ways, but a fascination nonetheless.)

I read this novel with my heart often in my mouth, worried that the author was not going to let his characters have a happy ending. This is a sign of good writing, and it is a good novel. However, I finished it feeling annoyed that Mistry did eventually dispose of his characters in what seemed a rather callous and capricious manner.

Sunday, 22 May 2005

From rice to riches

Listening to:

Schubert, piano sonata in C minor, D.958, played by Alfred Brendel.

Just read:

Jane Hutcheon, From rice to riches: a personal journey through a changing China.

This is an interesting book about modern China, from one journalist’s perspective. Hutcheon doesn’t try to generalise (probably a good thing), and sticks to the particulars of her experiences in China (definitely a good thing). She was there for a number of years as a journalist working for the ABC, and this means she has plenty of material. She also introduces her own background, including an interesting Hong Kong childhood.

While this book won’t necessarily give a total novice a very rounded picture of modern China, it definitely succeeds at conveying a substantial impression. Impressions of rural poverty and political dissidence combine with impressions of the riches and excitement of places like Shanghai. A good read.

Sunday, 8 May 2005

Samuel Pepys

Listening to:

Handel, Concerto Grosso, op. 6, no. 12 in B minor.

Just read:

Samuel Pepys: the unequalled self, by Claire Tomalin.

This is an engaging biography of the famous 17th century diarist. Pepys provides the modern world with eye-witness accounts of the plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666, but also provides a revealing window onto his innermost foibles and thoughts. This is quite a contrast with other diarists of the day, such as Pepys’s friend John Evelyn. This additional information about Pepys’s inner life means that his modern biographer can paint a much more rounded picture.

Even in the absence of his diary, Pepys would be an interesting historical personage to observe from afar. He was a great example of a self-made man: he pulled himself into a prominent position, exploiting connections with the high and mighty, but advancing because they valued his administrative skills. For all that nepotism got him a number of his positions initially, his success in the jobs he won makes Pepys an interesting example of an early civil servant. Pepys’s career soon came to centre around the Royal Navy, and the administration of its dockyards and provisioning arrangements. This makes for interesting reading in itself: Pepys was in the heart of things when England fought three successive naval wars against the Dutch. For example, it’s interesting to read about the Dutch attack on the Medway in 1667. This coup for the Dutch saw them sail up the Thames, burn a number of ships, and capture the Royal Charles. Pepys was part of the civil service responsible for the Navy, and he had to take care that blame for the disaster did not attach to him.

Earlier in his life, Pepys had to negotiate the tricky waters of the Restoration, when Cromwell’s Protectorate was on the way out, and Charles II needed to be winkled into the nation’s top job. This called for some rather delicate judgement: it was important to time one’s jump into the King’s camp carefully. Too early and the existing government would have you up for treachery; too late and the new government would see you as part of the old regime and to be purged. Pepys was lucky in his benefactors here, and Tomalin describes this part of his career very well.

Tomalin’s biography is also very good on Pepys’s personal life: his relations with his parents, cousins, wife and servants. Pepys comes alive, and I felt I knew and liked him. That’s not to say that he was a saint, but the impression is that he was basically a fairly good-hearted man. When the story of his life comes to an end, and Tomalin describes his deathbed, I felt quite sad about the whole business. That’s surely the sign of a successful biography.

Thursday, 14 April 2005

The meaning of everything

Listening to:

Stan Getz & Dizzy Gillespie, Dark eyes.

Just read:

Simon Winchester, The meaning of everything.

This is an interesting narrative history of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. It starts with some introductory material on the world’s earlier dictionaries (Johnson’s was probably the first real dictionary in a modern sense, but it had predecessors going back to even the seventeenth century), before moving onto the long story of the OED.

It was a long story (70–80 years) because no-one seemed to appreciate quite what a massive task it was they were signing themselves up for. Moreover, the initial choices of staff weren’t ideal as far as getting people capable of keeping things organised. It was only when the project started to attract and appoint suitably geeky obsessives that things really got going. Obsessive is good for staying the course, and geeky is good for keeping things in reasonably organised piles. Both are bad for the tendency to perfectionism, and Winchester is amusing on the various ways in which these tendencies manifested themselves.

In addition to the main, central staff (who only moved to Oxford relatively late in the piece), the OED was built on the labour of many distributed contributors, from all walks of life. Winchester provides little biographies of many of these people. Indeed he came to write The meaning of everything because of his earlier book The surgeon of Crawthorne, which is all about one of the contributors (a particularly exotic one).

A diverting read, and it even has a little cameo by Tolkien, who apparently got to do lots of tricky ‘W’ words, including “walrus”.

Blogging responsibilities go by the wayside

The more alert among my readers (making the bold assumption that I have any), will have noticed that I have not been as regular with these entries as when I first began this whole web-log business. I offer no excuses (sheer laziness is basically as good as it gets), but do think I may increase entry-frequency a little over the next few months.

Perhaps holding your breath wouldn’t be advisable.

Wednesday, 9 March 2005

Endnotes (as opposed to footnotes)

Listening to:

Handel, The Messiah (in a version re-orchestrated by Mozart).

Endnotes, they’re evil I tell you

In popular non-fiction, publishers seem to prefer end-notes to footnotes. When they want that little bit of scholarly sheen, they put footnote-worthy material into endnotes. This makes reading the books in question a big pain in the rear. I end up maintaining two bookmarks: one for where I’m up to in the main text, and another for the corresponding position in the end-notes.

I suppose the publishers feel that footnotes either look ugly on the page, or that they make a book look too off-putting when browsed. Either way, I wish they wouldn’t do it.

Monday, 7 February 2005

American long stories

Listening to:

Part, Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten.

Just read:

The Granta book of the American long story, edited by Richard Ford.

This volume is an impressive collection of 11 “long stories”. In an entertaining introduction, the editor, Richard Ford, explains why he chose this term rather than novella, which is what one might otherwise call this sort of story. The introduction then closes:

And so enough. More than enough, I’m sure. You have the book in hand now. It’s finally got quiet. You can read.

And there’s lots of good stuff to read. All but one of the stories is excellent, and the one that isn’t excellent is simply weird. This odd story, The making of Ashenden by Stanley Elkin, features a self-centred dandy looking for his true love (a love who must meet all sorts of exacting criteria), but who ends up having wild sex with a bear. Yes, it must be a spoof of something; in fact, it’s probably a spoof of a few things, but it makes for a strange reading experience.

On the simply excellent front, I particularly enjoyed June recital by Eudora Welty, The long march by William Styron (which felt a little like a MASH-precursor or influence; it has the right sort of dates), A long day in November by Ernest J. Gaines, The old forest by Peter Taylor, Rosa by Cynthia Ozick, The age of grief by Jane Smiley, and Caroline’s wedding by Edwidge Danticat.

One interesting aspect of many of these stories is that they feature realistic children. In the stories by Welty and Gaines, the children are central, appealing and believable. In The age of grief, Smiley tells a story about a middle-aged couple who happen to have three children, and the children do come across as real, albeit minor, characters. Getting a story to read about well-adjusted adults, in a modern setting that seems fairly normal, is interesting in itself.

The other stories are good too; the whole collection is definitely one I recommend.

To review next:

Simon Winchester, The meaning of everything.

Wednesday, 29 December 2004

Granta 84

Listening to:

Nothing; everyone else in the house seems to be asleep even though it’s the middle of the afternoon. This is what being on holiday does to you.

Just read:

Granta 84: over there: how America sees the world (contents)

This issue of the literary magzine is a follow-up to Granta 77, which was subtitled What we think of America, and contained lots of comment about America’s place in the world after 11 September, 2001. The new issue turns the first issue’s question on its head, and asks a variety of Americans about how they see the rest of the world.

This issue is better than the first because the political tinge to the writing is reduced. Instead, the writers give a variety of different accounts about leaving the embrace of America and exposing themselves to the world beyond America’s borders. For some this came as a blessed release. Others found that it made them appreciate what they had in America all the more. I also liked these short pieces because of the varying time periods discussed. Some authors chose to describe formative contact with the rest of the world that happened 30 or more years ago.

In the rest of the issue, I particularly liked James Buchan’s piece This is Centerville about a small town in the US, Julian Barnes’s story Knowing French, and Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s story Farangs, featuring a cute pet pig. Weakest in the issue was Man walks into a bar, an excerpt from a novel by James Kelman.

Sunday, 21 November 2004

The wine-dark sea

Listening to:

Buddy Greco, The lady is a tramp. Idiosyncratic, but very entertaining.

Just read:

Patrick O’Brian, The wine-dark sea.

I really enjoyed this installment of the ongoing Aubrey-Maturin saga. It begins with the dynamic duo in the Pacific, heading east towards South America where Maturin has a mission to foment rebellion against the Spanish. On the way there’s quite a bit of naval excitement, though not much in the way of conventional combat. Instead, there’s an exploding sea-volcano.

Things are good too when the main characters split up, with Aubrey still at sea, and Maturin is plying his trade on shore in Peru. He gets to replenish his supply of coca leaves, see lots of exotic wildlife, and hob-nob with various politicians. It’s well written, and though you miss the interaction between Aubrey and Maturin, their respective situations are both interesting enough, and sufficiently well-described, that you willingly go along with it all.

Saturday, 16 October 2004

The voyage of the Beagle

Listening to:

Schubert, symphony no. 8 in B minor, “Unfinished”, D.759. Played by the Dresden Staatskapelle, conducted by Otmar Suitner.

Just read:

Charles Darwin, The voyage of the Beagle.

This is a famous scientific classic. It describes Darwin’s journey on HMS Beagle in the mid 1830s. The journey was a circumnavigation of the world, but most of the time was spent to-ing and fro-ing around South America. Darwin famously made it to the Galapagos Islands, but also visited the Cape Verde islands, the Falklands, New Zealand, and Australia. To use the Kiwi jargon, it was the OE to end all OEs.

Darwin’s job on the journey was to be a geologist who knew something about biology. His book is something akin to his official report, so there’s lots of geology and biology in there. For example, one not insubstantial chapter is an extended discussion of how coral atolls came to be formed. (His theory is that the coral originally ringed an island, and that as the island subsided, the coral naturally grew upwards within the increased height of water above it. If the subsidence went on for too long, the coral would die because the lower parts of the organism couldn’t survive at that depth of water. I don’t know if this theory is now considered correct, but it seems pretty convincing.)

Darwin’s biology is also interesting. He was apparently one of the first zoologists to make a point of describing animal behaviour in addition to animal bodies and structures. At this point in his life, he hadn’t realised that all of the variety and similarities he observed could be explained by evolution and natural selection, but there are occasional hints that he is on this path. I find it quite fascinating to see what is to come foreshadowed in his comments. It’s also worth pointing out that he revised the book a few times in the years between returning from the journey and publishing The origin of species, so some of the musing is not necessarily true to what he felt while actually abroad.

A book full of just this material would probably make fairly dry reading. It must be said that Darwin is so enthusiastic about his material that I could even cope with the geology, about which I know very little. But in addition to the science, Darwin also describes the people he meets, from South American generals, to gauchos that acted as his guides in modern-day Argentina, to the miserable people from Tierra del Fuego, to New Zealanders (pakeha and Maori) and Australians (aborigines, convicts and other colonists). It sounds as if he was happy to talk to any and everyone, and he is almost always sympathetic. On a couple of occasions, he vividly describes his encounters with slavery and its hideousness.

If you’re going to follow someone ’round the world, it helps if they’re not only intellectually stimulating, but friendly and engaging as well. Even if you occasionally find Darwin’s 19th century English a little hard-going, this is just what The voyage of the Beagle provides: a fascinating journey with a great guide and companion.

To review next:

Patrick O’Brian, The wine-dark sea.

Saturday, 2 October 2004

Plane reading

Listening to:

Bach, partita no. 4 in D major, BWV 828, played by Wolf Harden.

Just read:

Two books that I read on planes while travelling recently:

Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

This is the book that made McCall Smith’s name. It’s an enjoyable novel about a middle-aged woman, Precious Ramotswe, and her adventures once she sets up the detective agency of the title. The setting of the novel in Botswana lends it a great deal of interest and charm. There’s simple novelty value here, but McCall Smith also writes appealingly about a country and culture that I knew next to nothing about.

The two books by McCall Smith that I read earlier (Heavenly date and other flirtations and Portuguese irregular verbs) were both effectively collections of short stories. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is similar because it’s naturally structured around the series of cases that Precious investigates and solves. Nonetheless, it does a little better than the other books because Precious has a richer character (in fact we get quite a bit of interesting background on her childhood and father before the agency cases begin), and because there is a little novel-length plotting too. The latter has two dimensions, Precious’s romance with Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, and a longer running case that is rather more sinister than the others.

This is a charming and enjoyable novel. I read it in a single sitting. I’m sure I will read at least one of its many sequels.

Thomas Pynchon, The crying of Lot 49.

I read this short novel on the return journey from Utah. It is a little bundle of ’60s weirdness from someone I believe to be one of America’s prominent novelists. This is the first book of Pynchon’s that I’ve read, but I’ve often seen other novels of his in the “serious” sections of various bookshops. (These novels include Gravity’s rainbow and Mason & Dixon.)

Superficially, The crying of Lot 49 is the story of a woman, Oedipa Maas, who is summoned to be the executor of an ex-lover’s will. As she bums around with the lawyer also attached to the case, she discovers what seems to be an ancient conspiracy to do with postal systems. She investigates and finds all sorts of interesting evidence pointing in this direction, including the possibly doctored text of an Elizabethan play.

It’s impossible to take any of this too seriously. For example, the big company in the town where the lover (Pierce Inverarity) died is called Yoyodyne, and has a “company song” featuring the verses:

High above the L.A. freeways,
And the traffic’s whine,
Stands the well-known Galactronics
Branch of Yoyodyne.
...
Convair boosts the satellite
Into orbits round;
Boeing builds the Minuteman,
We stay on the ground.
Yoyodyne, Yoyodyne,
Contracts flee thee yet.
DOD has shafted thee,
Out of spite, I’ll bet.

The Elizabethan play also has a plot that is clearly an OTT piss-take of the genre. Even as people around Oedipa go bonkers and/or disappear, she never really figures it out. Then it all finishes on a cliff-hanger with the central question quite unresolved.

Weird, and short enough (130pp) to be entertaining.

Still reading:

Charles Darwin, The voyage of the Beagle.

Sunday, 29 August 2004

The waning of the Middle Ages

Listening to:

Handel, Concerto grosso in G major, op. 3, no. 3. Played by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, led by Neville Marriner.

Downloading:

Windows XP Service Pack 2. The little green progress bar is only halfway across the “Preparing to download” space. Goodness knows how long the actual download will take.

Just read:

J. Huizinga, The waning of the Middle Ages.

This is a famous cultural history, first published in the 1920s. It conveys a vivid impression of life in the late Middle Ages, focussing on France and the Netherlands, and describing that period’s art, literature, religion and general beliefs. The first chapter is The violent tenor of life and begins:

To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The constrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking. All the experience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life.

Huizinga describes an incredibly foreign world, one that comes across as dominated by hysteria and delusions. An important part of Huizinga’s thesis is that the Middle Ages didn’t just imperceptibly meld into the Renaissance. Rather, the Middle Ages had its own distinct way of doing things, and of thinking about things. Huizinga describes these patterns of thought and behaviour in rich detail.

For example, a simple characterisation of late medieval art and literature is that it is dominated by sterile allegory. Medieval thought became increasingly detached from the real world, and instead consumed itself in the invention of increasingly baroque symbolism. Nothing was worthy of examination in itself, but had to instead be related to other symbols. Intellectual activity built ever more complicated towers of inter-relationships without ever really considering the true nature of the world: everything was subsumed into symbolism.

Huizinga is interesting on the survival of painting as opposed to literature from this period. It turns out that there’s lots of awful medieval writing still extant, and very few paintings. Moreover, many of the paintings are actually quite appealing. Was there some sort of disconnect between the two fields? Probably not. The histories indicate that the painters we know about were just as willing to do (presumably artistically uninteresting) costume design and scene painting for regal festivities and events. We just don't have so many examples of their bad stuff. It’s easy to see how texts might survive with little effort on the part of their owners. Paintings, on the other hand, are much more likely to be subject to pruning by owners, both at the time of creation, and subsequently. Thus, the paintings that we have from the medieval period may be totally unrepresentative, and provide rather more insight into the attitudes of later periods.

Huizinga also discusses chivalry, love and religion over a number of chapters. For example, he characterises chivalry as a myth the medieval world told itself to make sense of a political and historical situation that it couldn’t otherwise understand. All of these topics are fascinating, and Huizinga’s book does a great job of describing an alien world.

Now reading:

Charles Darwin, The voyage of the Beagle.

Wednesday, 14 July 2004

A set of six

Listening to:

Pink Floyd, Don’t leave me now, a song from The Wall.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, A set of six.

(I actually read this in an edition that was re-titled as The duel and other tales.) This is a collection of 6 short stories. The first is Gaspar Ruiz: a tale of romance. This story about a South American soldier is set during the period of the wars of liberation, when Spain lost control of its colonies. The setting has some similarities with that of Nostromo, and both stories also centre on characters that are “heroes” and thus subject to a certain degree of Conradian cynicism. Unfortunately, the climax of GR is hard to take very seriously, though the development of the story up to this point is definitely interesting.

Then there’s The informer, which shares its setting with The secret agent, and is about a band of anarchists in turn of the century London. The narrator does a half-way reasonable job of introducing the characters and setting, but the story then fizzles: the climax is quite underwhelming.

Better is The brute, which begins by stylishly leading the reader “up the garden path”. Then, after the twist when everything one has been reading needs to be re-evaluated, I found a certain black humour in what becomes a more conventional sea story. I also enjoyed The anarchist, which tells the story of a French convict. As often happens in Conrad, the convict’s story is framed by another character’s story: the narrator visiting a boring South American island that is redeemed only by a beautiful species of butterfly.

The fifth story is by far the longest. This is The duel, about a pair of French officers who fight a series of duels during the Napoleonic wars. This is an atmospheric yarn, with a happy ending. Definitely enjoyable. Finally, there is the muted story Il conde, about a European aristocrat’s brush with crime in Naples. After finishing, I read my edition’s introduction (by Giles Foden), where I was impressed with the theory that Il conde is actually a disguised story of gay cruising gone wrong. I certainly had to think the story through once more.

Thursday, 24 June 2004

Europe in the High Middle Ages

Listening to:

Bach, The well-tempered clavier, Book 1. This recording is played by Angela Hewitt on the piano, and is published by Hyperion (serial number CDA67301/2). I bought this recording just a fortnight ago, and I definitely like it. My other recording has Bob van Asperen on the harpsichord. What with the Naxos recordings of Scarlatti’s sonatas, which are all on the piano too, and a version of the Goldberg variations on piano, my music collection is losing its ideologically pure cast.

Particularly with Bach, one can’t afford to be too precious about this: Bach clearly intended lots of his keyboard music to be played on whatever instrument was available, and towards the end of his life, was even approached to try out new-fangled forte-piano instruments that were being developed at the time. In any case, the criterion for judgement has to be whether or not one finds the music beautiful. With Hewitt there’s no doubt: I’ve had the CDs on many times in the past two weeks.

Just read:

John H. Mundy, Europe in the High Middle Ages, 1150–1309.

This big fat book covers the given period in detail, but without often managing to convey much of a unifying theme. If there’s a big, simple story to tell to summarise this period, Mundy doesn’t come out and give it to the reader explicitly. Instead, the reader has to construct it themselves. Given that I read the book over too long a period, I didn’t often feel that I had enough detail in my head to allow such a synthesis.

Here’s my best attempt: this period is characterised by the growth in power of the states, particularly France, the miniature states of northern Italy, and also England. Simultaneously, the German empire is collapsing. In the religious sphere, the papacy asserts its dominance over local ecclesiastical hierarchies, but otherwise loses influence over the states.

This story is very much behind the scenes in Mundy’s book. Instead, his pages are dominated by descriptions of various aspects of medieval life in this period. For example, he talks about various social classes, many aspects of the Church (monasteries, itinerant orders, cathedrals), and the economy. I was particularly fascinated to hear that in this period, various states started issuing tradable debt. In other words, you could buy (and trade in) the equivalent of national bonds. Mundy is very good on how this activity interacted with the Church’s prohibition of usury. In an earlier section, he also discusses how Jews fared in performing this activity themselves.

Hinted at, but never explicitly dealt with because they come after his time period, are the Black Death and the Hundred Years War. Mundy gives the impression that these are going to completely devastate a continent that is otherwise developing in a variety of fascinating ways. Sometimes it seems the best efforts of humanity count as naught in the face of random environmental hostility. (No doubt they brought the war on themselves, but the Black Death doesn't seem fair to inflict on anyone.)

All this good stuff is tied together in a way that is rather bitty (again, not helped by my reading it over such a long stretch of time). Mundy also has a writing style that is quite dry, and that occasionally results in sentences that have to be read twice in order to figure out what they mean.

Now reading:

Joseph Conrad, The duel and other tales.

Tuesday, 15 June 2004

Clarissa Oakes

Listening to:

Beethoven, Cello sonata no. 3 in A major, op. 69. Played by Sviatoslav Richter and Mstislav Rostropovich.

Just read:

Patrick O’Brian, Clarissa Oakes.

This, the umpteenth volume in the 20-book series, is quite a good read, though perhaps a little slow-moving. It has Aubrey and Maturin back in Polynesia for the first time since The far side of the world, and features lots of ship-life: the ways in which a cloistered, and rigidly hierarchical society reacts to changing circumstances. In this book, the changing circumstances are mainly brought about by the unexpected presence of a woman, Clarissa Oakes, on board. The series’ familiar characters react to her in a variety of ways, and she’s an interesting character in her own right.

All in all, this volume’s focus is definitely the study of character. O’Brian does this well, but the plot is pretty low-key. A dastardly French scheme is eventually dealt with in the later sections of the book, but there’s not a great deal of “action” otherwise. Moreover, this scheme’s defeat has something of a “tacked-on” feel, though it’s not as bad as in The Ionian mission. There are no dramatic sea-battles at all, and the one violent conflict in the whole novel happens very much off-screen.

Monday, 17 May 2004

Artemis Fowl: the Eternity Code

Listening to:

Charpentier, Messe de minuit.

Just read:

Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl: the Eternity Code.

This is the third novel in Colfer's series about Artemis Fowl. I thought the first was neat, but was a little cooler about the second. I thought this one as good as the first, and found it very entertaining. The usual cast of good guys features, and they have some interesting bad guy problems to sort out. Though the fairies and criminal master-mind Artemis Fowl are co-operating again (something I held against book 2, The Arctic incident), they are up against a more interesting opponent than they were before. The eventful plot is laced with typical humour, and I raced through it, enjoying it all.

Friday, 7 May 2004

Heavenly date and other flirtations

Listening to:

Ella Fitzgerald, Ev’ry time we say good-bye.

Just read:

Alexander McCall Smith, Heavenly date and other flirtations.

This is an enjoyable collection of short stories on a variety of romantic themes. Most of them are quirky in appealing ways. There’s just one, set in southern Africa and about a new marriage, that packs much emotional punch. The punch is definite and effective, the story is memorable, but even here there’s an unexpected twist. The other stories tend to produce smiles, as the reader responds appreciatively to the dry and effective wit with which McCall Smith presents his often rather odd situations. For example, there's the Australian woman who goes on a blind date in Queensland, and is thoroughly sick of her man by the time they reach a crocodile farm. Then there's the date between the two people of “larger stature” and its amusing finale.

The title story comes last, and is different again: it has an impressive hushed tone to it, one that also conveys a sense of being slightly high on a hallucinatory drug. It’s an impressive finish to an entertaining read.

Friday, 16 April 2004

The nutmeg of consolation

Listening to:

Beethoven, Lenora overture #3. The Philharmonia conducted by Vladimir Ashkenzay. (Decca 400 060-2)

Just read:

Patrick O’Brian, The nutmeg of consolation.

This is the fourteenth book of the series. Like many of its predecessors, it’s not very novel-like in its construction. Instead of a story-arc with a beginning, development, climax and denouement, we’re dropped into the company of a couple of 19th century heroes and get to spend an extended period of time with them as they go about their business. In a multi-volume series such as O’Brian’s this is fair enough, and it works well because the characters are appealing, and because they get to do cool stuff.

At the end of the previous book, Aubrey, Maturin and the crew were castaways on a desert island in south-east Asia. This next instalment sees them eventually escape this island, chase down a French enemy and then journey to New South Wales. Maturin takes a back seat in much of this action, but is always on hand to comment and describe things from his own perspective. Correspondingly, Aubrey acts, but we hear his voice less.

This volume ends with less of a cliff-hanger than the previous one, but I’m sure any number of exciting adventures are still to come.

Thursday, 25 March 2004

The once and future king

Listening to:

Bach, Goldberg variations, played by Chen Pi-Hsien, on Naxos 8.550078.

Just read:

T. H. White, The once and future king.

This book is a combination of four novels that originally came out as separate volumes. The first is clearly a children’s book, and is the story of King Arthur’s childhood, right up until the moment when he pulls the sword from the stone. Disney made a cartoon film version that is apparently reasonably faithful to the book; I think I may have seen it. The book features a Merlyn who sends Arthur off on various magical adventures, turning him into various species of animal along the way.

The tone is rather odd. It’s a bit like Wodehouse in the Middle Ages, and though it generally works quite well (is amusing), it can be disconcerting to read something that takes itself with so little seriousness. Harry Potter has funny-ridiculous bits in it, but doesn’t feature Pellinore’s Questing Beast moping itself to death because Pellinore has stopped pursuing it.

In the remaining three books, the story gets considerably more serious and adult, though things are still leavened by occasional flashes of (rather silly) wit. For example, Lancelot is described as the best knight in the world, the Bradman of the knighting world, top of the battling averages. (And if you don’t get that joke, all four novels may well leave you rather cold.)

But the tone in these three is much darker. This is a national myth with a tragic ending, and all the ingredients are there: the love triangle between Guinevere, Lancelot and Arthur; Mordred the result of an incestuous coupling between Arthur and Morgause, and the gradual descent of an idealistic institution into rivalry and war. Even individual scenes can stand alone as seriously creepy: a cat being killed for a spell, hunting and killing a unicorn, and an unhinged and dangerous Mordred confronting Guinevere. It’s somewhat off-putting to have such dramatic material leavened with silliness, and you will definitely be disappointed if all you expect is four volumes of jolly romp. On the other hand, the central characters are all drawn sympathetically (particularly Lancelot), and their development over 20 or more years is pictured rather well. If you can cope with the variability in tone, you will find much to admire and enjoy here.

Tuesday, 9 March 2004

The making of the Middle Ages

Listening to:

Schubert, symphony no. 5 in D flat major, D485. The Staatskapelle Dresden, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, recorded in 1967. (Philips 446 539-2, another cheap 2CD set.)

Just read:

R. W. Southern, The making of the Middle Ages.

This book is an interesting and well-written successor to the two earlier books on the Middle Ages (The birth of the Middle Ages, and The crucible of Europe), covering the 11th and 12th centuries, finishing with the fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Though Southern provides a good narrative description of that crusade, most of his book avoids high-level political and military stories. Instead, he talks about Church politics (the Popes began to get a firmer grip of the European church in this period), politics at the local level (the counts of Anjou are an interesting case study), social history (the development of the institution of serfdom is particularly fascinating) and intellectual history.

The latter provides lots of interesting material. It was in this period that European intellectuals came out of their shells and felt that they were once more part of a wider community. Students from all over Europe journeyed to France (Paris and Reims are mentioned in particular) just to study logic. New monastic orders, such as the Cistercians, played a part in this, as they tended to allow their monks more time away from the full day's rites of the Benedictines. But, knowledge was still seriously limited. I was particularly struck by Southern’s story about two top French scholars of the day arguing over what was meant by “internal angles” in Boethius’ claim that “the internal angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles”. They still had an incredible amount to learn, and their access to original sources (Aristotle in Greek, rather than limited Aristotle via Boethius) was still poor.

It makes me quite appreciative of the enormous distance education and knowledge have come in the last 900 years.

Tuesday, 24 February 2004

An outcast of the islands

Listening to:

Andrew March, Marine—à travers les arbres. Winner of the Masterprize 1998 competition.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, An outcast of the islands.

This is Conrad’s second novel, and a prequel to his first, Almayer’s folly. It tells the story of the downfall of Willems, a Dutch clerk in the South-East Asian town of Macassar. Willems fancies himself quite rotten, but is actually without any real virtues. Given the chance to redeem himself, he always takes some other option. It’s pretty obvious from the outset that this is going to be the case, so the novel is really about watching how his gradual descent messes up the lives of the people around him. Standard Conradian good cheer, then.

The setting for most of the novel is the same as the setting for Almayer’s folly, an obscure Malaysian village, on an isolated river. Willems ends up there after his downfall begins in the colonial world of Macassar. He is supposed to be sitting things out before his benefactor and patron, Lingard, sorts things out for him. Unfortunately, Lingard’s return is delayed, and Willems goes a bit haywire. He is getting on badly with Lingard’s agent in the village, Almayer, and is exploited by a disaffected faction within the Malay political structure. All sorts of disruptive change ensues.

I liked the political intrigue side of things, and the lush writing about the jungle and its oppressiveness is also very effective. The love interest is reasonably sympathetic, but the woman’s character is not entirely believable. The love affair at the heart of Almayer’s folly, is more believable, more engaging, and more important to the overall plot. Here it’s just another opportunity for Willems to mess up someone else’s life.

Not top drawer Conrad, but flashes of great writing, and a reasonably engaging story.

Sunday, 15 February 2004

The crucible of Europe

Listening to:

Bach, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147. A cantata written for performance on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 20 December 1716. (Naxos 8.554042)

Just read:

Geoffrey Barraclough, The crucible of Europe.

This short and readable book is another in my current history bout. It takes up where Moss’s The birth of the Middle Ages left off, with the reign of Charlemagne. It concentrates on the ninth and tenth centuries, and follows the fortunes of those areas that were a part of Charlemagne’s empire: France, Germany and northern Italy. Barraclough also includes one brief chapter on England.

First, Barraclough explains how the great Carolingian Empire collapsed into a multitude of statelets over a relatively short period. It’s easy to imagine that the death of a great leader should prompt the undoing of his achievements, but Charlemagne’s empire was stretched even before his death. It was an ongoing military enterprise that depended on continuing expansion for its health. When it stopped expanding as its own ability to govern what it had taken declined, it started to collapse in on itself. Then there were also significant external pressures leading to downfall. Attacking from the North, the Vikings represented a serious, ongoing danger, one that the Franks had no real answer to. In the East, Slavs and Magyars threatened the borders, and places like Saxony, nominally within the Empire were restive. In the South, Saracen pirates threatened the Mediterranean coasts.

In relatively settled, but rural France, political unity was quickly lost, and political power devolved to the county, a level at which self-defence could be organised. On these units French feudalism was to gradually emerge. In Germany, the pressures of life on the frontiers of Christendom meant that a strong central state had a real raison d'être. Much larger political units, duchies, were the rule, and later, under Otto I, Germany was the most significant power in Western Europe. It controlled chunks of Italy, and manipulated the Church up to the level of the Pope. In Italy, life was relatively settled, as in France, and the cities and towns remained significant centres. Feudalism in the French style, centred on the county, did not arise. Instead, cities and bishops came to dominate the political scene.

Barraclough’s chapter on England is a strange little interlude. He quickly tells the story of how Alfred grew the kingdom of Wessex into the dominant force on the island, eventually managing to expel the Danish invaders. Barraclough describes the administrative arrangements in England, and contrasts them with what was happening in the other areas of interest.

I read this book in a single sitting, and appreciated its interesting mix of narrative history with comparative analyses of political and administrative systems.

Friday, 13 February 2004

England under the Stuarts

Listening to:

Schubert, piano sonata in A, D959, played by Alfred Brendel. This is one of many cheap double CDs from Philips (438 703-2), and is definitely a bargain.

Just read:

G. M. Trevelyan, England under the Stuarts.

This is a substantial history of just over a hundred of England’s most significant years: the 17th century, and the start of the 18th century. In this period, the primacy of both the Church of England and Parliament was assured. England did not follow France and Spain into despotic monarchy, and laid the foundations for its powerful position in the 18th and 19th centuries.

England’s first Stuart king, James I, came to power in England after the death of Elizabeth I, in 1603. He commissioned the King James translation of the Bible, and was king when the Gunpowder Plot attempted to blow up Parliament. His son, Charles I was executed by Parliament in 1649. Charles I’s son, another Charles, was reinstated after Oliver Cromwell died and his Protectorate collapsed. Charles II’s brother, James II was deposed after a short reign, when Parliament arranged and supported an invasion by William of Orange (the Glorious Revolution of 1688).

This was an eventful century. Much of the conflict was caused by religious differences, and this is a link to the events of the previous century and the reigns of the Tudors. But even though factions tended to align themselves along religious lines (Catholics, Presbyterians, Puritans, middle-of-the-road “Anglicans”), much of the conflict stemmed from the relationship between Parliament and the monarch.

Trevelyan provides a good narrative history of the period, including what is almost a denouement describing the successes of Marlborough duing the reigns of William and Mary, and Anne. He focusses on political history, and is clearly quite sympathetic to the Whig, or Liberal cause. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing much to argue for in the reigns of any of the Stuart monarchs. He’s sympathetic towards Cromwell, despite the dead-end that the Protectorate represented, claiming that Cromwell was basically thrust into an impossible position. Trevelyan is also very positive about the Quakers, who came into being in this period. Trevelyan mentions them and their leader, George Fox, positively on a number of occasions.

Ultimately, this book is good simply because it covers what is an important and interesting period in sufficient detail, and in an interesting manner. Trevelyan’s obvious partiality is not so much a problem; rather it works as an unsubtle way of keeping the reader’s attention (particularly if the reader agrees with what Trevelyan writes!)

Sunday, 1 February 2004

The birth of the Middle Ages

Listening to:

Nothing more than the hum of my computer’s fan.

Just read:

H. St. L. B. Moss, The birth of the Middle Ages.

This is a thorough, though rather dry history of Europe from 395 to roughly 800. In 395, the emperor Theodosius the Great died. From then on, the western (Italy, Gaul, Spain and England) and eastern (Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt) parts of the Roman Empire led separate existences, never to be reunited under one government. In 800, Charlemagne was crowned “emperor” in Rome by the Pope, emphasising the split between the West, and the East, where there was still a powerful Byzantine Empire.

This is not to say that the Byzantine Empire didn’t influence what was happening in the West. Under Justinian, in the sixth century, the Byzantines controlled most of the Italian peninsula. Even if the Byzantines soon turned their attention to more pressing matters on their eastern frontiers (first the Parthians, and then the great Islamic empire), Western Europe still paid intellectual homage to the idea of the Roman Empire, even if that Empire was now head-quartered in Constantinople.

Moss’s book is good because it describes not only the evolution of power structures in the West (barbarian kingdoms and the Papacy), but also in the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world as well. The first of these three topics is easily the most confusing because there is no obvious narrative thread to grab hold of. Instead, it is a tale of constant ups and downs as various kingdoms and peoples wax and wane. Different flavours of Goths, Lombards, Franks and Vandals all have a part to play, and there is no overarching principle or theme with which to simplify the story. It’s all terribly chaotic and contingent. Sometimes the Pope looks to the Eastern Church for authority and alliance; sometimes to local representatives of the Empire (based in Ravenna), and sometimes to the Franks (hence his coronation of Charlemagne). Because the political story in the West is so difficult to grasp, the sections of Moss’s book on social, economic and cultural developments are rather easier to read. There he generalises, and presents a story that is easy to appreciate. Trade collapses so that only luxuries make long journeys, and people are forced to become self-sufficient. Kingdoms are not administered by salaried officials, but by members of a king’s retinue. A king’s personal wealth becomes the same thing as the state’s Treasury.

Moss’s descriptions of the rise of Islam, and of the Byzantine Empire are interesting and readable. Again this is because there is an obvious narrative for him to bring to our attention, and the story comes across well. Moss is quite willing to wax lyrical about, and comment on the evolution of, art from the various regions whose history he relates. This also helps to leaven what is otherwise a long and complicated story.

Wednesday, 28 January 2004

Pride, prejudice and life in England

Listening to:

Bach, Well-tempered clavier, Book 2.

Just read:

Jane Austen, Pride and prejudice.

It’s tempting to simply write that this novel is a well-deserved classic, and that everyone should read it as a matter of course. But why is this the case? Pride and prejudice’s virtues include being funny, poignant, romantic and beautifully observed. Are these not reasons enough? It is true that many of the plot details rely on a Regency sense of morality and good behaviour, and these may make some of the characters’ motives seem a little alien. But Austen’s great strength is that ability to make those telling observations. These convince the reader that the characters in this distant world (200 years away) are people with much the same preoccupations as those we have in the modern world. When Elizabeth Bennett winces at her family, how can the reader not wince with her?

Sunday, 18 January 2004

The open society and its enemies

Listening to:

Dinah Washington, Love for sale.

Just read:

Karl Popper, The Open Society and its enemies.

This is a classic work of 20th-century philosophy. It was written during the Second World War (mainly in New Zealand, as it happens), and is a spirited defence of the ideals of the Open Society: democratic society constructed in such a way that the ruled have a way of changing their rulers, and with its aim the minimisation of misery (Popper prefers this formulation to “the maximisation of happiness”). At the time, it really did seem as if fascism and communism represented the way of the future, and as if liberal democracy was destined for the dustbin of history.

Popper is probably most famous for his philosophical treatment of the question of determining what is and is not science, and his investigation into the nature of scientific knowledge. His work in these areas is referred to in the course of The Open Society, but the majority of the book is a political and moral criticism of the important thinkers behind those who would attack the Open Society.

Most important, and given almost an entire volume to himself, is Plato. Popper begins Volume I, The spell of Plato, with the following quote from Plato’s Laws:

The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace—to his leader shall he direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals... only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.

Plato was, according to Popper, distressed by the unsettled times in which he lived (the late 5th century BC and into the 4th century BC), and modelled his ideal state on those contemporary societies that had arrested change the most, Sparta and Crete. Plato believed that true happiness and stability could only be achieved in a society that prevented change and disruption. To do this, the ideal state should be led by philosopher-kings. People who know nothing else about Plato tend to know about the philosopher-kings, and perhaps believe that this is an idealist but harmless idea (how dangerous are philosophers, after all?) But if you delve a little deeper, you also find that Plato tells his philosopher-kings that they should

  • control their subjects’ marriages, and thereby ensure the quality of the state’s children;
  • lie to the populace and pretend that marriage arrangements have been decided by lottery;
  • be prepared to use violence and murder to preserve the state; and
  • to generally ensure that justice is everywhere interpreted as being served when the state’s interests are served.

This is argued at length, and supported with extensive quotations from Plato’s writings. All in all, it’s extremely convincing.

In Volume II, Hegel and Marx, Popper gives Aristotle a chapter, before moving onto more modern targets. Hegel is dismissed in a chapter that makes it quite clear that the man was a reactionary fraud, whose sole interest seemed to be justifying the anti-democratic policies of the Prussian state. Then Popper has 13 chapters discussing Marx and his theories. Popper is basically quite admiring of Marx the man, lauding Marx’s sympathy for the plight of the working man of the period. Nonetheless, he goes on to demolish Marx’s arguments, and his theories of the inevitable pattern of historical development. Even if the events of the last 150 years hadn’t made it clear that Marx’s predictions were bogus over this period, Popper provides good reasons to doubt their general applicability.

(Marx is an enemy of the Open Society not just because his theories led to establishment of totalitarian states like the USSR and communist China. Perhaps more significantly, it is also because his theories of historical inevitability lead one to believe that piece-meal reform of institutions for the benefit of the public (and it is this which is the ongoing democratic project), is pointless; perhaps even harmful if it were to prolong the “birth-pangs of communism”. Finally, one shouldn’t assume that Popper’s choice of Marx as a target makes him some sort of rightist conservative. He doesn’t much bother to criticise fascism, except inasmuch as it derives from Hegel. But I’m confident this is because of fascism’s general intellectual paucity, rather than because Popper has any closet sympathy for it. After all, Popper was in New Zealand during the War because he had fled Austria in the 1930s.)

I’ve summarised over 800 pages in a very cursory way, and there’s much more to this book than I’ve presented here. It’s very well written and I strongly recommend it. It’s a powerful defence of the ideals of the liberal democracy, and a brilliant rejoinder to wannabe collectivists and totalitarianists everywhere.

Saturday, 3 January 2004

Patrick O’Brian on page and screen

Listening to:

Sidney Bechet, Runnin’ wild. New Orleans, “Dixieland”-style jazz from 1949 and 1950. The true connoisseurs of the day apparently deprecated it as retro and archaic. Yes, this style of jazz had its heyday in the 1920s, but people less hung up on how things should be, simply appreciate it as stylish, exciting music-making. From the 21st century, it’s all equally old, and all the stars are equally dead.

Just read:

Patrick O’Brian, The thirteen-gun salute.

This is an enjoyable addition to O’Brian’s series of novels. There’s not a lot of naval combat, but there’s lot of naval life, and drama. Some of the drama is life-threatening, but more is concerned with personal relationships and how these can play out when people are crammed together on a confined man-of-war. Stephen Maturin gets to play a useful rôle in diplomatic negotiations, but is also allowed a naturalist’s holiday, and enjoys the company of orangutans in and around a Buddhist temple. The perfidious French and their agents come to a sticky end, but our heroes also end the novel as ship-wrecked sailors on a remote island. Roll on the next book (The nutmeg of consolation).

A recent movie:

Master and commander: the far side of the world. Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey is actually pretty good. Occasionally, I felt he was starting to sound a bit too much like James T. Kirk, but then, Kirk was modelled on James Cook, so what better model could Crowe have? I was less happy with Maturin. The actor was fine, but the adaptation to film completely ignored the diplomatic and espionage facets of his activities and character. In the film, he is a surgeon and a naturalist only. I felt this as a loss, though I can well believe that the film-makers felt that trying to fit it all into the one film would be too difficult.

The naval battles were very impressive. The explosive crash and terror of cannons was very well conveyed, and I got a strong impression of the way in which a whole crew had to work together to pursue its goals. There were also a number of vivid images of the ship at rest (or at least, not at battle) that conveyed the nature of ship-board life. For example, the film opens with a shot of many hammocks strung up below decks, with sleeping sailors crammed together. Later, there is also an impressive aerial shot of the crew assembling on deck, emerging like a host of ants from below, and rapidly forming into an ordered mass. Ship-life is also well-conveyed by sub-plots involving various minor characters.

Plot-wise, the film has only a superficial resemblance to the novel The far side of the world. In both film and book, Aubrey pursues an enemy ship around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, and stops off at the Galapagos islands. In the book, it’s 1812, and the enemy ship is American. In the film, it’s 1805 and the ship is French. In the book, the enemy ship is destroyed by nature, and the climax takes place on a deserted island where the two enemy crews have had to take refuge. In the film, there is a big naval battle to finish things off. I wasn’t too bothered by any of this, though it’s very easy to be cynical about the motives for the change in nationality of the bad guys.

More significant to my mind was the admission that Aubrey is exceeding his orders in pursuing the ship ’round Cape Horn. This doesn’t ring true to Aubrey’s character in the books. There he’s adventurous, but he is also very concerned about his status in the naval list, and keen to make sure that his career progresses well. In awarding marks for fidelity to source material, I will happily let plot go by the board (particularly if, as with O’Brian, plot isn’t hugely important in the feel of the books), but I do want to see tone and character retained. In this way, M&C: tFSotW seemed not quite right, though close.

The films of The Lord of the Rings make an interesting contrast. They include some glaring “tonal errors”, but they have at least succeeded with Frodo, Sam and Gollum. Their characters are not necessarily perfectly realised, but the dynamic between them, and its development is definitely well done. The Aubrey-Maturin relationship is much more static through the O’Brian novels. There’s very little development to portray, which means that I want the relationship from the books done as well as possible in the film. In terms of plot, the LotR is different again: getting the plot right is important there because the story is an epic, and the plot dominates.

But I’ll give you the low-down on the LotR films when I’ve seen The Return of the King.

Monday, 17 November 2003

Three Junes and Portuguese irregular verbs

Listening to:

Mozart, Divertimento in G, K63.

Just read:

Julia Glass, Three Junes.

This novel is a good read. It is divided into three sections, each being one of the Junes of the title. The first June is that of 1989 and describes a holiday to Greece taken by a recently widowed man. Flashbacks to his family story are interspersed with descriptions of his holiday and the people he is on tour with.

The second June is in the mid nineties, and is told from the perspective of the widower’s first son. This section is the heart of the book, and again consists of intertwined stories. One story is in “the present” and sees the son return to Scotland, where he grew up, from New York to deal with an important family matter. The other chunks of narrative are all about the earlier stages of the son’s life in New York, and his various relationships.

The third June is that of 1999, and is told from the perspective of a younger woman, who has a distant connection (via a couple of routes) to the family that is central to the whole novel. This third June is something of an epilogue to the novel, and relatively brief (though still a chapter or two in length). Here again, the story is constructed by alternating flashbacks with events in the present.

Plot-wise, Three Junes is really very conventional. It is what I’d call a “family saga”, with the story gaining its power from persuading the reader that they care about what’s happening to the central characters, who have the sorts of trials and tribulations that you might expect. I think it does a pretty good job of this. The central character of the novel, the eldest son who is the focus of the second June, is well-realised. He seems plausible, and makes comments about life and the people around him that ring true. His family and the people around him are also well-drawn, on the whole.

I didn’t think much of the third June. This was because so much had been invested in the main family up to this point. Having to back off and see them from a distance as the novel closes, and to have their story mingled with that of another character, with her own independent back-story too, was just a distraction.

Alexander McCall Smith, Portuguese irregular verbs.

This slim book is a gently humorous series of vignettes about a ridiculous German professor of linguistics, Professor von Igelfeld. The charm comes from the fact that the ridiculousness of the setup is allowed to seem quite reasonable, and from the fact that everything is narrated from the professor’s point of view. He doesn’t appreciate just how much of an incompetent and bore he is, and the reader is carried a little into his own odd view of the world.

Nor are all the stories simply instances of von Igelfeld behaving stupidly or ridiculously. One story has him visit Goa and it’s strangely fascinating watching his reaction to the unfamiliar surroundings. The closing story in the book is about a trip to Venice, and is a strange miniature spoof of Death in Venice (this is also McCall Smith’s title for this chapter), featuring a beautiful young Polish boy, and a strange affliction in the city.

This book is slightly weird. It's certainly not guffaw inducing, but it's amusing, full of character, and worth reading.

To read next:

Karl Popper, The open society and its enemies.

Friday, 14 November 2003

Granta 83

Listening to:

Christmas Carols ancient and modern, sung by the BBC Singers. I wouldn’t buy a CD of carols myself you understand, but this was a freebie with an issue of the BBC Music Magazine. And Christmas isn’t that far off either; the decorations are up in the shops around town.

Just read:

Granta 83: this overheating world (contents)

I was rather worried that this issue would be full of alarmist non-science at the level of Greenpeace’s generally incoherent propaganda. Pleasantly, with the exception of one piece of rather apocalyptic fiction, which put me in mind of John Wyndham, I enjoyed most of the material.

I particularly liked Matthew Hart’s The Greenland Pump, which described Hart’s experience of joining a scientific research vessel that was taking samples from various parts of the North Atlantic. The ship was trying to gather data to determine how the flow of oceanic currents that make up the Gulf Stream may be changing. If the Gulf Stream were to weaken, Northern Europe might become dramatically colder.

Continuing with the outdoors-y theme, I liked Philip Marsden’s description of his trip to Mongolia, Wayne McLennan’s description of rowing from Seattle to Anchorage (the length of Canada’s west coast in other words), and James Hamilton-Paterson’s philosophical piece Do fish feel pain?

Finally, there were three interesting essays about the situation in Iraq. These were all good, and interesting, and told from different perspectives. Christopher de Bellaigue discusses the looting incidents that happened in Baghdad’s museums, James Meek describes being an embedded journalist with invading American troops, and Nuha Al-Radi is very interesting on the experience of trying to live a normal life for a month in Baghdad.

Now reading:

Julia Glass, Three Junes.

If you happen to be feeling a bit nostalgic about your home-town, what better cure than to check out this selection of Wellington web-cams?

Wednesday, 12 November 2003

Winter holiday

Listening to:

’S Marvelous: the Gershwin songbook. Classic songs.

Just read:

Arthur Ransome, Winter holiday.

This is a classic children’s book in the Swallows and Amazons series. It was the fourth published, and is definitely towards the top of my list of favourites. When re-reading it recently, I found myself grinning at it for long periods of time. Part of its appeal lies in the fact that Ransome introduces two new characters, Dick and Dot Callum, who view the Swallows and Amazons from the outside. This gives us a novel perspective on familiar characters. The setting has the same thing done to it, for it is the Lake District again, but in its winter clothes. Finally, Peggy also gets to develop more fully as a character when circumstances pull her out of Nancy’s shadow somewhat. All of these new twists show Ransome at his best, taking the reader into new territory with verve and humour.

The whole book is also beautifully plotted, with a dramatic finale in three strands, and lots of adventures leading up to this point. Dick and Dot are good as new characters, adding real variety to the six existing characters. Who could ask for anything more in a book?

To review next:

Granta 83: this overheating world.

Wednesday, 5 November 2003

Uncle Tungsten and Australian madnesses

Listening to:

Schubert, symphony no. 8 in B minor, D. 759 “Unfinished”. This featured in Spielberg’s recent Minority report to good effect.

Just read:

Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten.

This is a very enjoyable book. It is a mix of about three parts science history to two parts autobiography, and Sacks does both very well. The story of his childhood is an interesting one, being set in war-time London and England, in a well-to-do household (servants), in a Jewish extended family.

It’s a mix of autobiography and science because science was a very importannt part of Sacks’s childhood. He became quite obsessed with chemistry and did all sorts of neat experiments. (Sacks mentions in passing that many of these would now be impossible for a child to do. The chemicals involved are so dangerous that no-one would sell them to children over the counter.) Sacks was encouraged in his hobby by his family, and particularly by two uncles. One of these is the Uncle Tungsten of the title, a man who part-owned a light-bulb factory, and who had lots of tungsten (used in filaments) on hand to show his nephew.

Sacks frames his scientific stories with plenty of background about the science he was investigating. So, the reader is treated to descriptions of the famous chemists of the past (Lavoisier, Priestley, Mendeleev, among others) and the work they did. This material is written engagingly and held my interest, though much of the material will inevitably be familiar to anyone sufficiently well-educated in popular science.

There is also room for quite a bit of material that is completely unrelated to chemistry, and describes episodes in Sacks’s life as he grows up. He has quite a traumatic time when sent away to the country to be safe from German bombing attacks on London, for example. There’s all sorts of family life described, and I found this all quite fascinating. People’s lives are usually pretty interesting to read about, and Sacks writes about them very well, and often very amusingly.

Definitely recommended.

To review next:

Arthur Ransome, Winter holiday.

I heard on the news this morning that the Australian government had to act quickly yesterday to stop 13 Turks who landed on Melville Island in the Northern Territory from applying for refugee status. The Governor-General was called away from the Melbourne Cup stadium so that he could do his bit on the Executive Council and approve a new regulation to excise Melville Island from those bits of Australia where immigrants can apply for refugee status. I don’t know why they don’t just require wannabe refugees to present themselves to the debating chamber of the House of Representatives in Canberra.

And what about this Melbourne Cup madness? The whole country seemed obsessed by it yesterday. Lead stories in the radio news bulletins were about this, and work-places had special afternoon sessions to watch it on TV. How anyone can get in the least bit excited about horse racing is beyond me.

Friday, 31 October 2003

The double life of Dr. Lopez

Listening to:

The best of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

Just read:

Dominic Green, The double life of Dr. Lopez.

This book is an interesting historical investigation into the life and career of a man who found himself on the periphery of Elizabethan power at the end of the 16th century, and embroiled in a variety of plots and conspiracies. This man was Dr. Rodrigo Lopez. For a while, he was even court physician to Elizabeth I, and doctor for a number of other prominent aristocrats. Lopez was also a Portuguese marrano Jew. Jews in Iberia that hadn’t genuinely converted to Christianity had to hide their religion very carefully to escape the attentions of the Inquisition. Many chose to leave entirely (something well described in Armstrong’s The battle for God). In Lopez’s case, he probably went to England via Antwerp.

For a while, Lopez pursued a career as a doctor attached to one of London’s hospitals. It’s not quite clear how he might have done it, but he eventually started to work as an intelligence gatherer and collator for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s “spymaster”. Lopez was useful because he had good reason to be anti-Spain, and had many useful, commercial contacts in the Low Countries (then going through the Eighty Years’ War against Spain, which eventually saw the foundation of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, aka the “United Provinces”). Lopez’s contacts were often fellow Jews, who had naturally chosen to live in what was probably then the most tolerant part of Western Europe.

Lopez also attached himself to the court of Don Antonio, the exiled heir to the throne of Portugal, and someone who had grown up in the same town as Lopez. Don Antonio was in exile because Portugal had been taken over by Spain in 1581. The English tried to put Don Antonio to good use, mounting an attempt to restore him to his throne, and Lopez was involved in this too.

But it all ended in tears: Lopez was hung, drawn and quartered in 1594 (which fact we’re told in the book’s prologue). Lopez had become too much of a liability for the various Elizabethan factions, and he was accused of plotting to poison the Queen. The final parts of the book are an account of how the Powers-That-Were could callously dispose of a pawn that had outlived its usefulness.

Green’s account of all these interesting events is generally good. He’s occasionally a little florid, and sometimes the details and the characters become a little overwhelming in their density, but I’d still recommend this account. The link with Shakespeare is perhaps a little stretched (Lopez’s very public execution may well have inspired Shakespeare to write his own “Jewish” play, The Merchant of Venice), but it provides a slightly different angle on things, and one that Green exploits well.

To review next:

Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten.

Wednesday, 29 October 2003

Granta 82

Listening to:

Mahler, the adagio of symphony no. 10.

Just read:

Granta 82: life’s like that (contents)

This is a good issue. An excerpt from Simon Gray’s diary, mainly about a holiday in the Caribbean leads off, and is an interesting read. Gray is a playwright (not that I’d ever heard of him), and writes well about smoking, being old, and a variety of other topics, including amusing speculations about other people. Bill Gaston’s story The kite trick starts innocently, but ends with an impressive, and creepy punch. Nell Freudenberger’s The tutor (more fiction) is also appealing.

The non-fiction is all good. In addition to Gray’s diary extract, Lynn Barber is very good on the con-man who seduced her as a teenager, and then wormed his way into her parents’ affections as well. She writes about it in a matter-of-fact way that makes it seem almost normal to be going out with a minor crook, and to have this relationship encouraged by one’s parents.

Kathryn Chetkovich’s piece, Envy, is very curious. It’s all about her envy of her partner’s success, who is also a writer. There’s nothing to suggest that this is anything other than non-fiction. Chetkovich doesn’t identify her partner, but a little web-surfing reveals that the man in question is Johnathan Franzen, who is indeed a very successful author. Though Chetkovich raises all sorts of interesting questions about the expectations that are heaped on women (she describes having to look after aged parents), airing all of this “dirty washing” in public still reads strangely. Maybe it was just a publicity stunt.

Finally, Tim Judah, a free-lance political journalist, has a very interesting personal narrative, which is also an investigation into the Jewish population of Baghdad. His own Jewish ancestors left Baghdad in the late nineteenth century, and this drew him into searching for the small numbers of Jews that are still there.

To review next:

Dominic Green, The double life of Dr. Lopez.

Yes, I realise that I haven’t been producing much other than book reviews recently. This is a combination of the fact that I am working my way through a reviewing back-log, and am all too busy with work.

By the way, it was ecstatic.

Finally, Real Life, the full review.

Tuesday, 21 October 2003

Darwin’s dangerous idea

Listening to:

Scarlatti, keyboard sonatas.

Just read:

Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s dangerous idea.

I first read this book a few years ago, coming to it because I’d enjoyed Dennett’s & Hofstadter’s The Mind’s I. Darwin’s dangerous idea has less to say about consciousness and artificial intelligence, but covers a lot of other very interesting ground. Its fundamental theme is the importance of Darwin’s idea, and how it gives rise to a great many interesting ramifications. Indeed, Dennett claims that Darwin’s was the best idea anyone has ever had, more important than the ideas of Newton or Einstein. For example, one reason this idea is so important is because it explains how complexity can arise from simple beginnings without needing to appeal to external miracles, aliens or mystical forces. Dennett lumps all of these “explanations” together under the moniker sky-hooks, to contrast with the mundane cranes that natural selection uses.

Dennett begins with a general discussion of natural selection and evolution as an explanation for complexity. He also describes earlier attempts at other explanations, including an interesting argument by Hume. He also explains some of the many pitfalls that can trap the unwary when thinking about evolution. For example, Lamarckianism is right out, but if you have creatures with even a rudimentary ability to adjust their behaviour (“learn”) then you get something that looks very much like it, thanks to something called the Baldwin Effect. Another example he discusses at length is species and speciation.

Species are not a hard and fast concept: just about any formal characterisation one attempts (necessary or sufficient conditions) will have exceptions. Moreover, speciation (two species emerging from just one ancestor species) is something that can only be detected in retrospect. We look back and say, Ah, that’s the point when those two populations have irrevocably split: there’s no subsequent interaction between them. It’s only with knowledge about what’s to happen in the future that we can identify speciation events.

Dennett is similarly good about Mitochondrial Eve: every woman has one mother, and sometimes a mother has multiple daughters. Therefore, moving back in time, from generation to generation, there are fewer and fewer ancestral mothers (i.e., mothers with descendents now living). Therefore, there must come a point in time when there is just one such mother. She is our Eve, and there is nothing special about her whatsoever. (Our Y-chromosome Adam is likely to have been more recent, and thus a descendent of Eve’s, because men have more sons than women have daughters.)

Dennett includes a couple of chapters about how Darwin’s idea can be invoked to provide non-sky-hook explanations for the origins of life, and even the universe itself. Then he moves onto showing how a variety of scientific ideas and thinkers have come unstuck when dealing with evolution. He singles out Stephen Jay Gould, Noam Chomsky, Jerry Fodor, John Searle and Roger Penrose. He seems pretty convincing on how these thinkers seek to deny Darwin’s unescapable conclusion: complexity (life-forms, consciousness, culture) can all be explained by a simple-minded algorithmic process. On the way he provides some neat thought experiments. One I particularly enjoyed was about building a robot to protect one’s cryogenically frozen body for four hundred years so that it might be revived in time for the arrival of the aliens. What strategies should you adopt in the design of such a robot?

This is a very good book. Occasionally the going is a bit tough, but the ideas within it are both fascinating and very important. So, get out there and read it today!

To review next:

Granta 82: life’s like that.

Thursday, 16 October 2003

Granta 81

Listening to:

S. L. Weiss, sonatas for lute.

Just read:

Granta 81: best of young British novelists 2003 (contents)

This is a fat issue of the literary magazine, and full of mainly good stuff. Some of the pieces are samples from the authors’ novels, while others are self-contained short stories. I particularly liked Monica Ali’s Dinner with Dr. Azad, Hari Kunzru’s Lila.exe (though it didn’t really read like fiction at all), A. L. Kennedy’s Room 536, Rachel Cusk’s After Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac (which you can read online), David Mitchell’s The January man (also online), and Philip Hensher’s In time of war. I liked most of the rest, but didn’t think much of Toby Litt’s The Hare, nor Zadie Smith’s Martha, Martha.

To review next:

Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s dangerous idea.

Some “interactive” links:

  • The Gender Genie, which predicts the sex of the author of a piece of prose (preferably 500 words or more) by doing very simple-minded frequency analyses. Paste your text into it today and see!
  • A while ago, I wrote about doing Cambridge admissions interviews. Now it seems Cambridge is thinking of using a simple test to filter applicants before they get to do an interview. There’s a sample at the Guardian, and you can try seven questions yourself.

Wednesday, 15 October 2003

Artemis Fowl: the Arctic incident

Listening to:

Beethoven, symphony no. 5 in C minor, op. 67

Just read:

Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl: the Arctic incident.

This is a sequel to the amusing and successful Artemis Fowl, which introduced the arch-villain Artemis Fowl (a young Irish boy), the land of the fairies, with its strange fusion of magic and technology, and Captain Holly Short from the fairies’ LEP Reconnaissance squad. This follow-up story works with the same sorts of elements, but is not quite as appealing.

I think this is because the first book’s conflict and drama was between Fowl and the fairies. And though this was a conflict, both sides were presented sympathetically, and we got to appreciate things from two interesting perspectives. In the sequel, Fowl and the fairies team up to deal with two unrelated sets of enemies, and the perspective is narrowed because we only see one side of the conflict. There’s still quite a bit to admire, but the flavour I so admired in the first book is slightly dulled here.

To review next:

Granta 81: best of young British novelists 2003

Wednesday, 8 October 2003

Inversions

Listening to:

Brahms, symphony #2 in D.

Just read:

Iain M. Banks, Inversions.

This novel is only just science fiction. It’s also only just a Culture novel, and I have liked Banks best to date when he’s written about the Culture, which is a marvellous invention. Certainly the term The Culture doesn’t occur anywhere in Inversions. On the other hand, if you have read a Culture story before, you’ll surely recognise its somewhat subtle presence here. And that’s probably the right way to characterise the whole story: subtle. Or, given that there’s still a fair bit of Banks’s trademark gore to be had here, perhaps understated would be a better term.

There are similarities with Use of weapons too in that the story is told in two strands. Here the two strands concern two different characters who never meet, and which take part in separate parts of the same world. There is a connection between the two characters, but again, it’s understated. Their two stories are similar in that both protagonists are valued side-kicks to absolute leaders, and both have an interesting relationship with another character. I liked both stories, and the way they developed.

Neither story has a particularly powerful climax, but I felt that both ended in reasonably satisfying ways. In one strand, there is a series of mysterious murders, and it wasn’t clear to me, even at the end of the book, who or what had done them. This was the only really unsatisfying note in the whole story. Perhaps, as with my incomprehension over Use of weapons, I’m just too stupid to be reading Banks. (I didn’t find anything on the web to suggest that UoW’s Twist was hugely meaningful either, BTW.)

To review next:

Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl: the Arctic Incident.

Monday, 29 September 2003

The fifth elephant

Listening to:

Duke Ellington, Back to back: Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges play the blues.

Just read:

Terry Pratchett, The fifth elephant.

Another “book-on-the-plane”, this is an enjoyable Discworld novel featuring the City Watch characters, Vimes, Carrot, Angua, Detritus and Cheery. Rather than Ankh-Morpork though, most of the action happens in the distant country of Uberwald, a land of vampires, werewolves, and dwarves. There's a bit of political intrigue and a bit of detective work, but quite a bit of the story has to do with adventures in the wild, and straight-forward (i.e., violent) conflict. A good read.

To review next:

Iain M. Banks, Inversions. I realised after writing my last entry that I do have another “travel author”, and that’s Patrick O’Brian. I think I have seven more of his novels to read, but then that’s it because he’s dead.

Having spent quite a bit of time doing cryptic crosswords recently, I thought I’d share my all-time favourite clue:

Delighted by interference from Brussels (8)

I haven’t looked up Use of Weapons yet, but will, I promise.

Thursday, 25 September 2003

Use of weapons

Listening to:

Palestrina, Missa Aeterna Christi Munera.

Just read:

Iain M. Banks, Use of weapons.

This was another holiday book, one that I read on my flights between Sweden and Britain. It’s quite entertaining, and structured in an interesting way. The novel features two interleaved chains of chapters. In one strand, the narrative moves forward with a developing story, featuring a representative of the Culture's Special Circumstances section attempting to get an experienced hireling to do just one more job. In the other strand, the chapters are flashbacks to earlier points in the hireling’s career. Each successive flashback chapter is placed further back in time, so that the novel has two stories, one playing forwards, and the other playing backwards.

The forwards story is not as successful as it might be. The hero’s last great mission features some neat set-pieces, but what looks like the end of a successful mission is suddenly followed by a strange, and completely unheralded denouement. The hero suddenly has to lead a war on an unsophisticated planet. In the backwards direction, there are lots of little vignettes from a Culture mercenary’s life, and quite a bit of angsty soul-searching too. Our hero has a tortured past, which explains his willingness to hive off on all sorts of different directions at the Culture's bidding. The vignettes are tasty tidbits, and perhaps demonstrate a certain character development too, though this is pretty muted.

Then there’s the Twist. This comes right at the end of the novel, and doesn't make any sense whatsoever. It really sits there and begs you to read the whole book all over again. It wants you to try to make sense of the novel in the light of the Twist, but my reaction was to glare at it, and decide that it was completely insupportable.

Curiously, not long after reading UoW, I was sitting on a coach behind two sci-fi geeks, and one of them waxed lyrical about this novel to the other. He explained the neat chapter structure, said there was a twist, and that everyone who encountered it promptly turned back and read the whole book all over again. Not this sceptic, bucko, I thought cantankerously to myself. Nonetheless sufficient self-doubt remains that I will now go and sup from the wisdom of the Internet and see what it's all supposed to mean anyway. If I’m suitably impressed, I’ll report back.

To review next:

Terry Pratchett, The fifth elephant. You may be starting to recognise a certain pattern in my travel reading. The problem is that I think I travel more frequently than either of my two tried-and-trusted authors produce new stuff.

I recently found my way to a nice ’blog, via this article by Greg Costikyan, about an interesting role-playing game called My Life with Master. The other ’blog is Polytropos, and features

Finally, John Howard's blog.

Tuesday, 23 September 2003

Thief of time & evidence of real work, honest

Listening to:

Oscar Peterson plays the Harold Arlen song book.

Just read:

Terry Pratchett, Thief of time.

I read this on the plane from Sydney to Singapore and greatly enjoyed it. It features Susan, Death’s grand-daughter, and a group of monks whose responsibility it is to make sure that the Discworld’s use of Time is kept under control. The bad guys in this novel are the Auditors, who have featured in previous installments. New to this novel though, there is a very nice twist when they materialise into the Discworld, and leave the other dimensions they usually inhabit.

One of the monks of Time takes on a new apprentice, and this gives Practchett lots to play with in the Karate Kid, Zen monk dispensing wisdom line. And then, there is the fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, who left before the others became famous. And then there is the geeky clock-maker, at whose hands all of creation may be threatened, as long as he keeps taking his pills. All in all, this is a very good comic novel, with lots of amusing threads that come together very well in the dramatic finale.

To review next:

Iain M. Banks, Use of weapons.

[Me expounding] [The ICFP/Merlin venue]

Just in case you thought I was away on a four week jolly, I’d like to provide some evidence that I did do some work. If you click through to the bigger image behind the thumbnail, you should even be able to read the slide I’m showing. Incidentally, the Apple I’m using to present the slides isn’t mine. I left my laptop in London, and had just sent my slides to the conference organisers in advance.

And on the other side of the page, I hope you can see a picture of the interior of the conference’s very grand venue, Uppsala University's Universitetshuset.

Friday, 19 September 2003

Little Dorrit

Listening to:

Beethoven, Fidelio.

Just read:

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit.

I began reading this novel under the impression that it was one of three late, great, dark novels by Dickens. The other two members of the set were supposed to be Bleak House, and Our mutual friend. Having greatly enjoyed both of those novels, I had pretty high hopes for this one too. Sadly, I don’t think it’s as good, though it’s still pretty entertaining. The big problem is that the plot doesn’t develop organically. Instead it is jerked to and fro by too many deus ex machina moments.

A related problem is that none of the characters seem to change. The hero, Clennam, is of an under-specified age, but is probably about 40, and for a long time thinks only paternal thoughts about little Dorrit, when he should be being romantic. It doesn’t help that he spends far too much time telling himself that he is too old, and generally moping about. His one change, to decide that he should be marrying LD after all, is not described at all. Little Dorrit is a typical Dickensian heroine, saintly and meek to a fault. She and her family remain unchanging through-out.

The comic characters are good: I liked both Pancks, Mrs. Flintwich and especially Flora Finching. But the usual Dickens satire of society (in this case, directed at government bureaucracy in the form of the Circumlocution Office) seems flat in comparison with Jarndyce & Jarndyce in Bleak House, and Podsnap in Our mutual friend.

There’s some good drama in the novel, particularly when the dastardly villain is around, but it’s not as good as Martin Chuzzlewit, and I see that I gave that 7½ out of 10. Therefore I give Little Dorrit a 7.

I’m just back from four weeks in Europe, during which time I steadfastly refused to update this ’log, though I had the means to do so on numerous occasions. For example, I was particularly taken with the fact that I was able to read my e-mail on an Australian machine in the ANU while sitting in a cloister that used to be attached to S. Pietro in Vincoli, not far from the Colosseum in Rome. It’s going to get easier to take such technological miracles for granted. Anyway, I have two Pratchetts and two Iain M. Banks to report on over the next few days.

Tuesday, 29 July 2003

The Business

Listening to:

Beethoven, symphony no. 6 “Pastoral”.

Just read:

Iain Banks, The Business.

Because the author’s name is given without the middle M initial, you can tell that this book is not science fiction. Instead, it’s sans genre and set in the modern world. Nonetheless, it has rather a fantastic background: the business of the title is a private company that has been around since the time of the Roman Empire. In its almost two thousand years of existence it has amassed considerable wealth and power. (This gives Banks an opportunity to imagine the debauches of the rich and powerful in a way that sounds pretty familiar from various scenes in his Culture novels.)

The main character in the novel is a relatively high-ranking executive (a Level Three) in the Business, Kathryn Telman. She is sympathetic and gets to wander the world, meeting other more-or-less sympathetic characters, and doing so in well-described locations. It’s all quite stylish, and I liked the ending, but the plot is really rather underwhelming. There are really just two strands to it, one that is really about Telman’s personal development, and the other that provides the dramatic tension. But this second strand spends most of the novel submerged, before re-emerging to create a rather desultory finale. Then the major strand finishes in its oddly low-key way, and the novel is done.

An enjoyable, but slight, read, which doesn’t make as much use of its neat set-up idea as it might.

To read next:

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit.

Monday, 21 July 2003

Dr. Thorne and Bringing down the house

Listening to:

Dvořák, piano concerto in G minor, op. 33.

Just read:

Anthony Trollope, Dr. Thorne.

This is the third of the six Barsetshire novels. I’d read the first two already (The warden, and Barchester Towers), and imagined that this might be some sort of sequel. It isn’t at all, sharing just the setting (a fictional English county), and occasionally referring to characters from the previous novels as scene-setting (for example, the bishop and his wife).

The story is pretty understated, and is superficially similar to that in Gaskell’s Wives and daughters: a middle-aged doctor is ward to a beautiful young woman who eventually marries a young heir to the local squire. There are lots of other differences though. In Trollope’s case, the squire’s family is financially embarrassed, and the woman has to first come into an unexpected fortune in order to be acceptable.

The plot is very predictable. Just a few chapters into the novel, it is very obvious where the money is going to come from, and there are no real twists and turns in the plot. Instead, you have to enjoy the straightforward journey. There are things to enjoy, particularly in the earlier parts of the story. Trollope is gently scathing about a number of his characters’ pretensions, and some of them get their come-uppance in more-or-less gentle ways.

I enjoyed it, but Wives and daughters is better.

Ben Mezrich, Bringing down the house: the inside story of six MIT students who took Vegas for millions.

This is a very readable account of the way a group of MIT students managed to make millions of dollars by card-counting blackjack in various American casinos. Because the deck isn’t constantly reshuffled between deals in blackjack, the odds of getting good or bad cards changes as the packs used are depleted. If you track what’s gone, you can know when it is to your advantage to bet high, or bet low. This isn’t cheating, but the casinos take a very dim view of it and tend to bar people they discover doing it. (Why they don’t just automatically shuffle the packs between deals I don’t know.)

Mezrich presents what is essentially a rise-and-fall story in a gushing journalistic fashion that is initially somewhat grating. I think I got used to it as the story became more engrossing. It really is an extended piece of journalism, as it is the narrative history of a small group of characters. Unfortunately, there’s an admission that names have been changed, and that real people and events have been merged in the text inside the title page, so it’s not good journalism.

It’s a good story though.

To read next:

Iain Banks, The Business.

Wednesday, 16 July 2003

Fantasy novels: first and latest

Listening to:

Rameau, Pièces de Clavecin (1706).

Just read:

J. R. R. Tolkien, The lord of the rings.

This was another of my officially mandated re-reads, and I came back to it after quite a long absence (at least eight years). This meant that there were quite a few details that I hadn’t remembered. Nor was having seen parts I & II on film much help because the films only served to reinforce stuff I was going to remember anyway. For example, the Fellowship is attacked by wolves after failing in their attempt on Caradhas, and again by Orcs when journeying down the Anduin. Neither of these were incidents I had the least recollection of. Re-reading also meant that I had a new chance to appreciate things I hadn’t liked or understood on previous occasions. For example, Aragorn’s march through the Paths of the Dead, and his (understated) use of Isengard's palantir were details that struck me with greater force this time than previously.

Anyway, it’s a great story, and very appealing most of the time. The wistful feeling that pervades most of the book is conveyed quite effectively, and the “fading of the light” represented by the elves’ imminent departure forms a very strong backdrop to the main plot. The plot itself holds plenty to enthrall, from the tension-packed flight from the Shire, to the exciting events in Moria (the promise that what has just been read about in the dwarves’ diary may be about to happen to the Fellowship is creepily thrilling), to the breaking of the Fellowship, and to the rousing of the Ents and Huorns.

Best of all is the relationship between Frodo, Sam and Gollum in the second half of The two towers. These three are easily the strongest characters in the whole novel and the thought that Gollum might be redeemed is a potent one. Having to get past the evil Shelob is a grand challenge, and the passage from pleasant Ithilien to Minas Morgul and the pass of Cirith Ungol is a great prelude to this.

Now’s also the time to say how much I enjoyed the little windows Tolkien gives us onto the world of the Orcs and Mordor’s internal organisation. I couldn’t help but think that this material was inspired by Tolkien’s own military experiences during WWI. The Orcs with their divisional rivalries and wild speculations about the higher-ups sound modern in a way that nothing else in the novel does. Anyway, this modernity is an effective contrast with the mythic tone of what happens to the good guys.

After a couple of battles in The return of the king, the Ring is destroyed and Tolkien reveals that he is quite happy to mess with our expectations with regards to heroes. Even doughty hobbits, well-learned in elf-lore, can be seduced by great evil. Then the story winds gradually down, and I can move on to discussing the less good bits.

Most distasteful is Tolkien’s obsession with blood and birth. Humans are everywhere categorised in terms of the closeness of their connection with some reputable aristocrat. Aragorn is a good guy because he is the heir of Isildur, and moreover he is the heir in an unbroken father-to-son line (double-plus-good). Men of high birth live longer and look better. Sauron’s underlings are swarthy scum of evil cast. The back-story of Númenor makes it clear that dilution of royal and worthy blood was part of what led to its downfall. For all that this take on the world might reflect the sagas that were Tolkien’s interest/inspiration, it’s still hard to view it with much sympathy.

The closing section of the book dealing with the liberation of the Shire from Saruman’s evil plots is also a failing. Tolkien carefully foreshadows this part of the novel throughout, and I wouldn’t claim that it comes as a surprise, but it’s still unsuccessful. For one thing, it comes as a terrible anti-climax. The good guys have thrown down the Dark Lord, vanquished great armies and destroyed the One Ring. But rather than close relatively quickly, Tolkien seems forced to remind us that evil lurks everywhere, and that you can never relax. All the more excuse to get special dispensation to run away to Elvish Heaven and not come back. I also dislike this section because it reads like Tolkien indulging in wish-fulfillment: that awful modernity (just like the Orcs, the “new” Shire sounds like the 20th century) needs to be rescued and returned to an idyllic and pastoral Never-Never Land by heroes that can blow horns and claim to be knights of the True King.

Finally, with few exceptions, I have to say that most of Tolkien’s poetry is pretty uninspiring, tending to relentless ABAB or AABB rhyme schemes and iambic de-dum-de-dum-de-dum stress patterns. All this notwithstanding, The lord of the rings is clearly the greatest fantasy novel I’ve read, with powerful themes conveyed by an exciting plot and a consistent tone that immerses the reader in a vivid world.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

This is the fifth and longest book in the Harry Potter saga. It’s perhaps slightly too long (Hagrid and his giant could surely have been trimmed), but it’s a page-turner nonetheless, and quite gripping. In the previous installment, it was revealed that the evil Lord Voldemort had taken form once more, and had summoned his underlings, the Death Eaters, to him. Unfortunately for him, Harry was the only person who saw this, and HP5 reveals that the Ministry of Magic doesn’t believe the news at all. Instead it is of the opinion that Harry is just engaged in melodramatic attention seeking.

While Headmaster Dumbledore, and some others, do believe Harry they don’t seem that anxious to let Harry in on their counsels and explain what’s really going on. Harry sets off to Hogwarts feeling rather disgruntled. It turns out that the Ministry really has it in for Dumbledore, so the school is burdened with Professor Umbridge, a particularly nasty Ministry appointment. Umbridge is to take on the Defence against the Dark Arts post, but her influence is soon felt school wide.

So, Harry has to deal with a great deal of home-side malevolence as well as the certain knowledge that Voldemort is up to no good. Just what Voldemort is up to isn’t clear until the very end. In fact, the final revelations are rather underwhelming in this volume of the series, but the overall plot does advance, and there’s fun to be had on the way, particularly from Fred and George Weasley. A good read.

One final criticism though: why is it that House Slytherin is home only to known psychopaths? The only half-positive Slytherin character is Snape; none of the children are anything but awful. Hogwarts could surely save itself much grief by just getting rid of that quarter of the school. Or putting all of its members under constant surveillance; after all, one gets the impression that most of their parents are Death Eaters. If Snape can be interestingly nuanced (part of his history is revealed in what I would claim is this book’s really interesting revelation), then why can’t other members too? And if Slytherin was established for pure-bloods only, which house did Voldemort belong to, and why did the Sorting Hat say that it was thinking of putting Harry there?

Now reading:

Anthony Trollope, Dr. Thorne.

Tuesday, 8 July 2003

The letter of marque

Listening to:

Dvořák, Cello concerto.

Just read:

Patrick O’Brian, The letter of marque.

The 12th book in the series, and not a bad one at that. It’s not as good as its predecessor, but the characters’ story remains interesting. My beef with this installment of the saga is that the plot is rather lacking in dramatic tension, particularly given the interesting situation that holds as it begins. Jack Aubrey has been removed from the Navy, and is forced to adventure as a privateer, with a letter of marque. This only makes a difference in a number of subtle ways, and the naval action could really be out of any of the early books.

As the story progresses, everything continues to get better and better for the characters, meaning that there is no mid-story ‘hour of darkness’ to be worked through and surpassed. This again makes things a little uninvolving. There is one neat sub-splot involving Maturin and his servant Padeen though.

Now reading:

J. R. R. Tolkien, The lord of the rings. I'm now up to the early chapters of The two towers. Incidentally, Tolkien neatly deflects one of my earlier criticisms of inconsistency with The Hobbit. In his prologue on the nature of hobbits, Tolkien says that hobbits would say that a person hadn’t heard of the king to indicate the person was lawless or wild. This even though the hobbits well knew that there wasn’t a king. It’s a slightly hack-ish retrospective fix-up, but it’s there.

Tuesday, 1 July 2003

The third chimpanzee

Listening to:

Simon and Garfunkel, The sound of silence.

Just read:

Jared Diamond, The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee: the evolution and future of the human animal.

This interesting book is all about humanity’s prehistory, its origins as a primate species, some of humanity’s unique behaviours, and what these behaviours might mean for our future. The title stems from genetic analysis revealing that humans have a more recent common ancestor with chimpanzees than chimpanzees or humans do with gorillas. Given that humans share such a high proportion of their DNA with chimpanzees (98.4%), they might reasonably be seen as a third chimpanzee species, in addition to the two other species (“normal” and pygmy chimpanzees).

The first sections of the book are about human biology, and how various aspects of our biology resemble and differ from that of the other primates. Diamond is amusing on sexual behaviour, and sexual characteristics, speculating on why it is that humans are principally monogamous while still living in groups (unlike the other chimpanzees and unlike gorillas), why they have sex in private, why their genitals are different from the other species, and how mate selection happens.

These early sections of the book also explain why evolution might have produced effects that might not seem to make evolutionary sense when first looked at, including aging and menopause. Diamond also discusses some unique (and mainly positive) human traits (language, farming, art) that arguably have animal precursors, or at least explanations based on animal behaviours. This material is fascinating.

Diamond then moves on to three ‘unique’ behaviours in humans that are clearly bad: destruction of the environment, destruction of each other (genocide), and drug (ab)use. He discusses each of these three in turn. I found the section on drug use easily the least convincing. Diamond claims that it might be some sort of mating display akin to look, I’m so tough I can handle this awful drug, and still stand up straight; come and have sex with me this very instant! (by analogy with peacock tails, which are a ridiculous handicap, but which still serve to attract mates). I wouldn’t deny that this might explain some aspects of alcohol use in the modern world, but it is not very convincing.

Diamond doesn’t back up his claim that this is uniquely human. (What of catnip and cats? Have there not been experiments trying to feed chimpanzees alcohol, or other drugs?) Diamond also doesn’t give any time to the obvious argument that drugs get used simply because brain chemistry happens to produce pleasant effects when certain substances are ingested. I do remember reading about an experiment that demonstrated that some species of animal would repeatedly press the button that stimulated their brains’ pleasure reaction (they’d been wired up somehow) rather than the food button. The animals starved to death. This seems to me to be pretty analogous to drug use, suggesting that addictive behaviours are not really unique to humans at all, and that it has nothing to do with sexual selection displays.

Talking about destruction of the environment, Diamond discusses the New Zealand Maori (extinction of the moa and a variety of other bird species, including an awesome-sounding eagle species), the North American Indians, the Easter Islanders, a central American civilisation that turned its environment into a desert, the Middle East in general, and all of the modern world, with its rapacious, and probably unsustainable, appetite for resources, regardless of the long-term cost. There’s a certain overlap here with the material in Flannery’s The eternal frontier, and also with material I believe Diamond is about to turn into another book (about human-induced environmental catastrophes), but it’s all good.

On genocide, Diamond covers things in a rather bitty way. He discusses how it is that the farmer humans did so much better than the hunter-gather humans, which stuff he later expanded on in Guns, germs and steel (which I highly recommend). He talks about the humanity’s usual xenophobia, and also mentions that chimpanzee troupes fight wars too (they’re just much less efficient at it, not having weapons). He also has a cute chapter about the likelihood of being contacted by aliens: one, intelligence is not necessarily as inevitable as you might think (cue cool example about, yes, woodpeckers); two, if humanity’s anything to go by, maybe intelligent species all end up wiping themselves out in short order; so, three, don’t hold your breath waiting for the aliens to arrive. He talks about various genocides in recent history (depressing reading, and the book isn’t even recent enough to include Rwanda’s most recent genocide, nor what happened in Yugoslavia).

Diamond concludes that at least some of us realise that much of what we’re doing is horribly unsustainable, so that maybe this is grounds for some optimism. A very good read.

Now reading:

Patrick O’Brian, The letter of marque.

Monday, 23 June 2003

Fingersmith & Miss Smilla’s feeling for snow

Listening to:

Debussy, Six épigraphes antiques.

Just read:

Sarah Waters, Fingersmith.

This is a very good romantic thriller. It’s set in 19th century England, and feels quite Dickensian in its setting, and in its mix of high and low. It doesn't have any real humour to it, as something by Dickens would, but equally there aren't any of those Dickensian characters who, though memorable, are really so extreme as to be unbelievable. More importantly, Waters is not confined by 19th century standards of taste and discretion. This gives her a broader palette to work with. This means sex scenes, and it means internal monologues and thoughts that seem more realistic to a modern reader. Waters writes this all very well, in a direct and appealing style.

I will say that there’s a happy ending (and I was very relieved and happy to get there!), but won’t say anything else about the plot because it features some great twists and turns. It’s very well put together and held my attention for its entire duration. Almost all of the characters are sympathetic, even those who turn out to be worse than we think, and this really does keep things engaging.

So, I know I’ve been vague, but that’s because you should get out there and read it for yourself, and I don't want to spoil it.

Peter Høeg, Miss Smilla’s feeling for snow.

Another thriller with a female lead, but the plot in this novel really only features one protagonist, Miss Smilla. The story is about Smilla's investigation of the death of a child who lived in the same building as her. Høeg writes well, and manages to include lots of fascinating background information about life in modern Greenland without the digressions sounding forced. He is occasionally oblique, which is fine (keeps you paying attention), but sometimes flat-out refuses to provide information to the reader even though characters have made a discovery themselves. This makes it a thriller rather than a mystery novel (you’re along for the ride and can’t expect to figure it all out for yourself), but it’s definitely gripping. Høeg is occasionally borderline pretentious but you usually forgive him this and just keep going.

The novel’s big weakness is that the ending is so weak. The chief baddy's motives remain totally obscure, and the big secret is really quite bogus. It’s all beautifully set up though, with the elaborateness of it reminding me of a well designed Call of Cthulhu scenario. The tension also ratchets up beautifully towards the end with a wonderfully narrated sea journey into the Arctic. It’s occasionally a bit graphically violent, but I’d still rate it a pretty good example of the thriller genre.

Now reading:

Jared Diamond, The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee.

Tuesday, 17 June 2003

The reverse of the medal and The hobbit

Listening to:

Handel, organ concerto op. 7 no. 3 in B flat major.

Just read:

Patrick O’Brian, The reverse of the medal.

The 11th book in O’Brian’s series, and a good one. There is not one casualty through naval combat in the whole book, and most of the action happens on land in England, so it’s something of a departure from the rest of the series. Nonetheless, the characters are familiar, and are evolving very slowly, so reading another instalment in the saga does feel a bit like catching up with old friends. O’Brian’s plotting is strong, so you don’t mind where he takes his cast. His characters are sympathetic; you want to continue reading about them come what may.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The hobbit.

This is my first officially mandated re-read book (though earlier books have been re-reads too). I’m pleased to report that it’s very good, right up to the end anyway. Tolkien throws varied chunks of action at long-suffering Bilbo, and each feels fresh. The comic trolls, followed by the goblins of the Misty Mountains and riddles with Gollum. Then perching in trees trying to escape from wargs and goblins. Rescued by eagles, they have to win over suspicious, shape-changing Beorn, before they can enter oppressive Mirkwood. Then there are spiders to fight before the wood-elves take the dwarves prisoner. Bilbo comes up with an inventive escape plan, and the final chapter at the Lonely Mountain can begin.

Bilbo steals a cup from the sleeping dragon’s hoard, and later engages Smaug in witty repartee. This is all great stuff. Suddenly though, we are thrown by a new device: the author cuts to a scene that doesn’t feature any of our heroes, and one which is chronologically earlier than where we’d left them. Smaug in action over Laketown is pretty cool, and Bilbo’s contribution to his death is explained, through Bard and his last arrow, but it’s still not quite what one might expect. And it gets worse. Tolkien then decides to explore the geo-politics of north-eastern Middle-Earth and treats us to some inter-species bickering, before finally springing the Battle of the Five Armies. Just as Pullman switched climaxes in The amber spyglass, Tolkien is suddenly veering off on a new path here.

It seems as if Tolkien suddenly decided that he needed to tell us all about the evil effects of greed, and to do it with a tone that is quite incompatible with the earlier parts of the story. This inter-species arguing is done well enough at the council in Rivendell in The fellowship of the ring, but that book has already moved a great distance from The hobbit and is much darker in tone. As for the Battle of the Five Armies and the miraculous appearance of the Eagles (and then Beorn, though only described after the event): feh. This feels like a device to allow Thorin a suitably heroic death and little more. Feh once more.

But enough carping; it’s a great, enthralling read for 90+% of its length. It’s also interesting to read it as a prelude to The lord of the rings. Gandalf purportedly thinks he will die taking on a bunch of wargs and goblins in The hobbit, but kills the Balrog in FotR. When trekking to Rivendell, there’s a comment made about people of the area not having heard of, or paying due respect to the king. But the official LotR history makes it clear that at this stage there hasn’t been a king for hundreds of years, not in the North, or even in Gondor. The elves of Rivendell are also rather silly in The hobbit, a tone that sits poorly with the elegaic feel of LotR where they’re all about to head west and leave the mortal world.

Kudos to Tolkien for letting us keep the early, children’s book (including the joke about the invention of golf!) that later had to be shoe-horned into a much more serious universe.

Now reading:

Sarah Waters, Fingersmith.

Apologies while I experiment with weird colour schemes and other devices for setting off my entries’ preliminary sections. I recently looked at my pages in Internet Explorer 5 & 6 and did not much like what I saw.

Monday, 26 May 2003

Economics

Listening to:

Beethoven, symphony no. 7 in A, Op. 92. I first heard (or first consciously heard) this symphony while I was an exchange student in Japan in 1988. I was absolutely blown away by the amazing second movement, and was not surprised to later learn that the audience at the symphony’s premiere demanded that this movement be encore-d.

Just read:

Paul Samuelson, Economics.

This is an interesting and effective introduction to the subject of economics. I had no solid knowledge of the area prior to reading this text, so I can't judge it in comparison to other expositions. Nonetheless, in terms of simply teaching me stuff I didn't know before, Samuelson does a very good job. I'd say that the weakest chapter is the one where Samuelson himself admits that there are still definite controversies, on the nature of capital. He explains the problem of re-switching well, but doesn't really nail down just what capital really is. Do factory inventories count as capital or not? Sometimes he suggests that they do, and at other times what he says suggests that they don't.

Elsewhere, I really liked the sections on micro-economics, macro-economics, and international trade. In all cases, I felt I learnt things, and I now feel that much more informed about an important aspect of the modern world.

I'm also now quite curious about how this text may have been updated since this edition was published. Has economics figured out a cure for stagflation, and what is now the consensus on pure floating exchange rates (which were relatively new to the world in 1981 after the collapse of the Bretton Woods managed rates scheme)?

To read next:

Tim Flannery, The eternal frontier: an ecological history of North America and its peoples.

Thursday, 8 May 2003

Moved!

Listening to:

Corelli, concerti grossi, op. 6 no. 1.

Now reading:

Paul Samuelson, Economics. We found this while clearing out a shed at our flat on Corrie Road, Cambridge. It’s a pretty old edition (11th), from 1981, which means that it talks about (or at least refers to) communism a bit more than I imagine a modern text would. This is the first time I have put a text-book on the List. I’m not entirely convinced it's a good idea.

I am pleased to report that the log has followed me to the Southern Hemisphere, and is now residing (in a closet) in my beautiful home-town, Wellington, New Zealand. Many thanks to Jamie for helping me set it up.

Monday, 28 April 2003

Finished the List!

Listening to:

Mozart, mass in C major, K. 167 “In Honorem SS:mae Trinitatis”.

Just read:

Philip Lieberman, Eve spoke: human language and human evolution.

This is an interesting popular science work about the evolution of humanity's linguistic skills. I enjoyed reading it, and think it's probably pretty accurate. On the other hand, I was a little disconcerted by Lieberman's readiness to be very critical of opposing theories. He conscientiously identifies the proponents of these theories too, which makes his tone sound even more personal. He particularly targets three groups: those that claim that homo sapiens arose separately in different regions around the world, those that claim that Neanderthals were able to speak as well as homo sapiens, and Noam Chomsky and his followers (among whom he identifies Steven Pinker and Jerry Fodor).

The second argument is argued best. Neanderthal skulls make it clear that Neanderthal vocal tracts can't have been anything like human ones, and that they wouldn't have been able to produce the same important vowel sounds as humans (core vowel sounds that occur in every human language). Humans are unique in the arrangement of their larynxes, giving homo sapiens unique levels of control over vocalisations. This same unique factor makes humans the only species liable to choke on their food, suggesting there was significant selection pressure for the evolution of language skills regardless.

Lieberman is also clear that it's reasonable to suppose that other ancestral species would have had some level of language skills, just as they probably had tool-making skills. He cites the modern experiments with chimpanzees and other apes in support of this. Chimpanzees can be imparted with the language skills of human two year olds, which is a lot more than most people wanting to believe in human uniqueness might like to hear, but which is still very limited. (How many meaningful conversations have you ever had with a two year old?) Chimpanzees aren't an ancestral species of course, but our common ancestor probably did have common capabilities.

It's a reflection of this book's occasionally bitty nature, that it also fits in discussion of brain structure and the effects of brain damage on language ability, including that wrought by Parkinson's disease. This is also very interesting, though not as new to me as the material on Neanderthals.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of maladies.

This is an impressive collection of nine beautifully written short stories (it apparently won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000). Lahiri grew up in America, but is the child of immigrant Indian parents, and her stories all have an Indian “aspect” to them. Some stories are set in India, others feature Indian emigrants to the US. I think the first story in the collection is relatively weak because it finishes with what I thought was a stereotypical “short story twist”. The twist wasn't unbelievable, and it made for a very effective denouement, but I still felt tricked.

Most of the stories have fairly downbeat endings, but their elegant narratives present moving vignettes of life. I particularly liked the two stories featuring child narrators, the story about the (non-Indian) woman having an affair with a married Indian man, the last story about a young, newly married man emigrating to Boston, the story about the stair-sweeper, and the story about the Hindi couple who keep discovering naff Christian “stuff” (posters, statuettes, knick-knacks) in their new home, left there by previous owners. That's six out of nine, and none of the other three (despite what I wrote about #1 above) is bad. So, definitely a strong recommendation.

To read next:

Well, good question, because I'm pleased to announce that I have now finished the List! Is that amazing or what? I can now freely buy books again. But, never one to miss an opportunity to devise silly regulations for the conduct of my life, I have devised two new rules:

  1. Never allow a back-log of greater than five books.
  2. For every every five books that I read, I have to add a book that I have already read to the list of things to be read.

The reason for the second rule is that it's foolish to buy books if you only ever read them once, which is pretty likely if you're buying books too quickly.

Phew!

Tuesday, 22 April 2003

Our mutual friend

Listening to:

Bach, Christmas Oratorio.

Just read:

Charles Dickens, Our mutual friend. This is Dickens’s last complete novel, and it's a great big 800 page wodge of a book. It’s also great fun to read and very engrossing. I would definitely rank it up there with my other favourite, Bleak House. In a story of this scale, Dickens has plenty of time to weave together a great many threads, and the plotting is very good. There are two principal story arcs, but these combine with a number of other story-lines to great effect. Lots happens, and it happens to lots of different characters. Even the two heroines are interesting and not just virtuous saps.

I’d admit that you can see models for both heroines in the two wives of David Copperfield (flighty beautiful idiot & quiet saint), but they both get to do interesting things on their own behalf, and at least one of them develops in a significant way. Both are the subject of much sentimentality in the later stages of the novel, and I learnt that I can handle saintly sentimentality a lot better than I can deal with cutesy endearingness.

Just as happened in Bleak House (where the main characters are pretty unmemorable), the various minor characters really make this novel. The Boffins, Silas Wegg, Mr. Venus, and Jenny Wren are all larger-than-life, often funny and definitely memorable. They may be unrealistic grotesques, but that doesn't make them any less compelling. When Jenny Wren repeatedly calls “Come and be dead”, a superficially prosaic scene becomes quite spooky. Dickens also has great fun with a story strand featuring Society and its affectations, including a Pecksniff like character (from Martin Chuzzlewit) tellingly called Podsnap. This strand seems to mainly give Dickens a chance to be satirical, but does also provide one ultimately important character, and a number of plot twists and turns.

The plot is good and has one particular twist that caught me completely by surprise. It did feel as if it was slightly cheating on Dickens’s part (a little like the way in which David Copperfield’s first wife conveniently died), but it did allow that nice cheerful, wrapping-up-all-the-loose-ends ending, and it even made me smile because it's written up so well. There are villains and heroes, and their conflict holds your attention. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that that villains are interesting in their own rights. Sure, Fascination Fledgeby (what a name!) is a bit one-dimensional, but he fills his minor role brilliantly. So, I can only say that I definitely recommend this classic novel.

To read next:

Philip Lieberman, Eve spoke: human language and human evolution.

Tuesday, 8 April 2003

A cook’s tour

Listening to:

Bach, suite no. 3 in C major for cello, but played on the guitar by John Williams. This works quite well.

Just read:

Anthony Bourdain, A cook’s tour.

This is a fun book, describing the author’s journey around the world in search of the “perfect meal”. He deliberately sets out with the intention of going to various “cool” places, and so he goes to a mafia bar in Russia, into the Moroccan desert to eat whole sheep, and to Cambodia. He includes some more obvious culinary destinations too, such as France, Spain, Japan and Vietnam. (In fact, he so likes Vietnam that it gets three chapters to itself.)

As he did in Kitchen confidential, Bourdain writes well, in a style that is usually only half-serious, but which can change to allow effective emotion as well. His book is interesting about exotic places and practices, and a very enjoyable read.

Now reading:

Charles Dickens, Our mutual friend.

I recently bought HTML & XHTML: the definitive guide by Chuck Musciano and Bill Kennedy (published by O’Reilly). Inspired, I have converted this web-page to use Cascading Style Sheets. This means that my little validation button on the right will now tell you that this page is HTML4.01 Strict. And we all like strictness, don’t we? (I would put in the little button telling you that my CSS was valid too, but things would start to look gaudy, I think.)

The little text input box is supposed to mail me your input, but it doesn’t seem to work for me. This may just be my local setup, so I encourage experimentation!

Monday, 31 March 2003

The Victorians & Options

Listening to:

Bruckner, symphony no. 4 in E flat major “Romantic”.

Just read:

A. N. Wilson, The Victorians.

This is an irritating, and generally incoherent book, partly redeemed by its coverage of what was an interesting period, full of interesting people, and by Wilson’s fine eye for interesting, illustrative and often witty quotes. It’s incoherent because Wilson provides no real structure to his book. His chapters are arranged in a chronological order, but there is nothing else to link one chapter to another. Worse still, the individual chapters are also incoherent in themselves. When beginning a chapter, one gets little sense of where one will be at the end of the same chapter. Wilson seems to think that his chapters should be like essays. Even a collection of self-contained articles would be better than this because the reader would get some impression of an argument or thesis being advanced by the text.

If these many essays (there are 43 chapters) were consistently informative and engaging, I’d probably forgive Wilson his incoherence. The essay is possible of great things in well-qualified hands. And I think Wilson generally does well with his chosen form: his leaps and links from one subject area to another are not too awful in most cases. No, this book’s most significant flaw is that Wilson consistently says things designed to irritate me.

My fundamental problem with this book is that Wilson is profoundly anti-modern. He is a conservative who believes that life in the country before 1820 was probably better for everyone. He waxes lyrical about rural paradises and spends a lot of time decrying life in cities. He doesn’t ever really address the fact that cities grew in this period because of large scale migration from the rural paradises; the inhabitants clearly thought life in the cities was better. He rants long and often about how awful city life was, but gives little time to the fact that the self-same Victorians were busily improving city conditions the whole time.

Wilson is typically English in his attitude to agriculture: he seems to think that war-enforced self sufficiency followed by typically European levels of protectionism (and overproduction) have been a good thing. But Wilson can’t really decide what he thinks, because even as he reckons that protectionism and general government interference in the economy would be good in this case, he is scathing about government initiatives and reforms in areas such as primary schools. Initiatives of this sort are scathingly dismissed as Benthamite. He is admiring of Lord Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury (in fact, the aristocracy tends to receive a great deal of admiration), who helped bring in legislation to reform working practices in factories and mines, but he dismisses other reforms as Government interference in people’s liberty. It boils down to whether or not something can be seen as a cocking a snook to the evil capitalists and laissez-faire types. If they’re put out by a reform, it’s good. Otherwise it’s Benthamite.

Another irritating feature of Wilson’s book is his tendency to fawn over his heroes. These include Disraeli, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Cardinal Manning and Prince Albert. To read Wilson is to be exposed to the view that if Prince Albert had only lived a little longer, the First World War might have been averted. People who opposed his heroes tend to get short shrift, which means that Gladstone is regarded pretty negatively throughout. For example, Wilson wants to blame Parnell’s downfall on the English Liberals (led by Gladstone), but has to admit that it was the Irish Home Rule party that really brought him low. Further, after Parnell’s affair with Katherine O’Shea was publicised, it was the supposedly non-puritanical Irish who repeatedly failed to elect his faction in various bye-elections.

Finally, I was extremely irritated by Wilson on Darwin. On the strength of one book by Michael Behe, he claims that natural selection has no answer to the objection that intermediate forms (for structures like eyes and wings) are not plausible. This is nonsense, and it’s obvious he didn’t do any research into the issue. It seems clear that he looked for something out there to confirm his prejudices and cited it as support. (Behe’s book, Darwin’s black box is effectively demolished in this review.) Another science nitpick: Wilson also claims that

By then [the 20th century], Wittgenstein really had refuted Russell’s ideas about the foundations of mathematics...

This is nonsense, and one can only imagine that Wilson says it because he wants it to be true.

So, what, if anything, redeems this book? Being a series of essays, it’s pretty undemanding, and also generally entertaining. Wilson covers the literature, art, politics and journalism of the period pretty well, so that chapters of his that stick to these fields are interesting and readable. He also gives major events (Crimean War, Indian Mutiny, Boer War, Parnell’s career) well-written narratives. As I said initially, he also has a impressive selection of quotes littered through his text.

Michael Thomsett, Getting started with options.

I bought this book at the recent Lifeline Bookfair. It’s all about options, explaining the terminology and concepts, as well as why and how one might go about trading them. It’s written for an American audience, but I imagine the concepts are applicable in other markets too. I found Thomsett’s book very interesting, and generally well written. Apart from terminology, I learnt two important things:

  1. You don’t need to exercise an option in order to make a profit with one. You can just sell them on after their value has appreciated. Equally, you can sell on an option in an attempt to cut losses. This is obvious in retrospect, but wasn’t something I appreciated.

  2. It is possible for individuals to sell options as well to buy them (I’d previously imagined that only institutions would sell options), and that there are circumstances in which this is sensible. In particular, Thomsett explains covered call writing very well.

There's a lot else too, but these felt like they opened my eyes the widest. I don’t have spare speculation dollars to hand for investment in option markets, but if I did, I would view the prospect of doing so with some pleasure.

To read next:

Anthony Bourdain, A cook’s tour.

Thursday, 20 March 2003

Granta 80, moving faff & trading celebrities

Listening to:

Dvorak, Eight humoresques, op. 101.

Just read:

Granta 80: groups (contents).

This issue of the literary magazine wasn’t particularly memorable. I think the best pieces were Luke Harding’s description of what happened at Mazar-i Sharif (when a large number of Taliban prisoners took over the fort they were bgin held in, and were then almost all killed in retaliation), Lindsey Hilsum on two farm experiences in Zimbabwe, Paul Theroux’s predictable but engaging story about boys taking revenge on a pedophile priest, and Marcos Villatoro on going to a Catholic seminary in Iowa in the early ’80s.

Now reading:

A. N. Wilson, The Victorians.

I have been a very busy person over the last week or so. The confident chap who predicted that the house-moving activity was just about over last week, is now the the war-weary veteran of a week later. A couch, bed-frame and some chairs will arrive on Saturday, and we have also handed in our inventory report to the real estate agents. So yes, things are moving forward.

I’m also pleased to report that I have now been allocated a Medicare number. This process took a lot longer than signing up with the NHS in the UK, I tell you. I needed to demonstrate that I really well and truly am now permanently resident in Australia. Documents supporting this wild assertion included proof that I’d left a job in the UK, shipping documentation from Pickfords, a letter of appointment for my new job here, lease agreement documents for where we’re living, and my passport. They’d have also liked to have seen the one-way plane ticket from the UK. Boy! Anyway, it’s finally done.

Last but not least, a link or two. This story led me to the BBC’s CelebDAQ, a stock exchange for trading stocks in celebrities based on their media exposure. The Guardian story above explains it well, and quite amusingly.

Tuesday, 25 February 2003

The Mitford girls

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 3.

Just read:

Mary S. Lovell, The Mitford girls: the biography of an extraordinary family.

This is a fascinating biography, and one that I definitely recommend. It tells the story of the Mitford family, starting at around 1900 and continuing pretty much to the present day. The main focus is on the six daughters, Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Decca (Jessica) and Debo. There was also a son Tom, but his path through life was rather more conventional, and ended prematurely when he was killed in WW2. The family were minor aristocrats, and quite well connected. Winston Churchill married a cousin of the father’s, and intervened on a few occasions to the family’s advantage.

It seems as if all of the family were blessed with great senses of humour and wit. This means that the early sections of the biography are very amusing to read. Nancy might have been a bit of a horrible tease, but it’s hard not to smile at the story of her making one of her younger sisters cry at the plight of a lonely match. At this point in the story, it feels like the biography is the story of lovable aristocratic eccentrics. But as the girls grow up, their adult careers become even more interesting, and still spiced by occasional flashes of wit.

Most amazing is Unity’s story: she became a personal confidante and friend of Hitler, and spent a great deal of time alone in his company. She didn’t see him in a political context, but had amazing access to him. When war broke out in 1939, she was in Munich, attempted to commit suicide, had her hospital bills paid by Hitler, and was put on a special train to Switzerland, from where she returned to the UK. Through her, other members of the family also had various privileges bestowed on them, such as privileged access to the 1936 Olympics.

If Unity was an obsessive nut-case (she basically stalked Hitler until he noticed her), Diana seems slightly more normal. She had an early conventional marriage, but then fell in love with Sir Oswald Mosley, had an affair with him until his wife died, divorced her husband, and married Mosley (at a private ceremony in Berlin with Hitler in attendance (!)). Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists, and seems impossible to admire. Nonetheless, he and Diana had a long and happy marriage. On his behalf, Diana also spent quite a bit of time with Hitler, trying to persuade him to accept a radio broadcasting scheme that would raise revenue for Mosley’s political schemes. Not long after war broke out, both were imprisoned. Diana is still alive (or was, as recently as 22 November last year). If the biography has any failing, it is that it fails to explain how Diana could be so blind to her husband’s flaws. I can only imagine that she shares them herself.

The fifth sister, Decca was ideologically opposite. She ran away when less than 20 years old to support the Communist cause in Civil War Spain, and emigrated to the US just before WW2 began. There she became a US citizen, joined the US Communist Party (until the mid 50s), and was for a while denied a passport. She became a famous writer and journalist, following in Nancy’s footsteps who’d had great success with light novels such as Pursuit of love and Love in a cold climate.

The other sisters all have interesting stories too, particularly Nancy, as do their parents, David and Sydney. Lovell writes about them all very well and sympathetically. It’s definitely sad to read of them gradually succumbing to the inevitable cancers and other frailties of old age.

To read next:

Granta 80: groups

Tuesday, 18 February 2003

The Radetzky March

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 10. (This is the symphony where the DSCH theme, D-Eflat-C-B, plays an important part of the final movement.)

Just read:

Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March.

This novel is set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with most of the events it describes happening shortly before the outbreak of World War I. It is essentially the story of the descendants (son and gradnson) of a war hero who saved the Emperor’s life at the battle of Solferino (where an Austrian army was defeated by combined French and Italian forces). Both main characters are quite flat. In the novel’s accompanying introduction, the translator of my edition describes the resulting effect as defining the characters by their clothes and uniforms. This puts it well, and is appropriate. The novel is all about the decline of institutions once thought pre-eminent, and the effects this has on the two characters. (The father is uncomprehending, almost unto the end, while the son is generally oblivious while clearly living a meaningless life.)

So, it is all just a big metaphor for the decline and fall of an empire, with main characters that aren’t particularly sympathetic. Why read it? The answer lies in the vivid picture it paints. This vividness extends both to the “scenery”, and also the characters’ interactions. There is a snap and a sparkle to both the dialogue and the descriptions of what the characters are thinking. Brief cameos by the Emperor himself are particularly entertaining. This is somehow a book that is simultaneously dry, cynical, sentimental and often quite beautiful.

To read next:

Mary S. Lovell, The Mitford girls: the biography of an extraordinary family.

Wednesday, 12 February 2003

Look to windward

Listening to:

Brahms, Ein Deutsches Requiem. (I seem to have been listening to this quite a bit while writing my web-log. It’s because I have a much reduced selection of CDs to bring into work to listen to while most of our worldly possessions are being assessed by Australian Customs in Sydney.)

Just read:

Iain M. Banks, Look to windward.

This novel, another of Banks’s Culture stories, is an entertaining sci-fi read. The meat of the plot is revealed through a rather clever device: one of the central characters has had his brain programmed to release more information to him as his mission progresses. Initially he can’t remember the details of his briefing at all. There is one other cool novelty: a species of massive, near immortal floating creatures living on some sort of artificial gas planet.

In addition, there’s quite a bit about Culture society and life on one of its Orbitals. I particularly liked a discussion between one of the main characters, who is a composer, and a Mind (an awesome AI, responsible in this case for general control and upkeep of the whole Orbital and its billions of inhabitants). The composer establishes that if the Mind “put its mind to it” (couldn’t resist!), it could produce music that the composer himself would think a product of his own pen. When the composer claims that this takes the point of it away, the Mind points out that people still climb mountains even though they could just as easily fly to the summit in a helicopter. Similarly, there is a cute digression into the story of a group of people who put up a big system of gondolas (wires, pylons, that sort of thing) across a big wilderness area, despite lots of objections by others. I think Banks does this stuff pretty well. The utopian future he paints seems plausible.

The general thrust of the story involves a thriller-ish secret mission, and an attempt by a non-Culture species to get one over on the Culture. All ends well in the end, though not without some rather graphic gore happening first. One epilogue-like chapter is nothing but gore, and seems pretty unnecessary.

Still reading:

Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March.

I really do seem to have fallen out of the conscientious web-log habit. I will attempt to mend my ways.

Tuesday, 4 February 2003

Family matters & λs

Listening to:

Handel, organ concerti, op. 7.

Just read:

Rohinton Mistry, Family matters.

I liked this novel. It’s set in modern Bombay (also known as Mumbai, a fact that has some significance in the course of the novel), and follows the fortunes of an extended family of seven individuals: an old man, his three children, the husband of one of the daughters, and their two children. The novel covers a period of a few months (apart from an extended epilogue that takes place a number of years later), and is thus quite small and self-contained in its scope. This gives the novel time and space to give us quite detailed pictures of each of these characters (as well as a few others from outside the family).

The novel describes a period in the life of this family that is rather stressful (because of the old man’s ill health), and while characters occasionally behave regrettably, they’re all quite human and understandable in their motives. There are no monsters, and even when things look difficult, there’s room for humour and humanity. I’d definitely recommend this novel as a well-crafted character study. The setting adds further interest to the novel. In addition to being in Bombay, the central family are Parsis, Indian practitioners of Zoroastrianism. This has greatest significance in the epilogue, but gives aspects of the novel an important slant. For example, Parsis apparently have an extremely good reputation for honesty in India.

Now reading:

Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March.

It seems that my browser on this computer (Phoenix) is Unicode compatible, so that all I need to do to get lambda characters is write λ Thus: λ, and again, λ. This is as efficient as LaTeX, given that in LaTeX, you will need to follow the \lambda with a space in most circumstances (as in writing λx.x). Way hey!

Scary news stories from the US:

DALLAS — A biology professor who refuses to write letters of recommendation for his students if they don’t believe in evolution is being accused of religious discrimination, and federal officials are investigating, the school said.

Friday, 31 January 2003

Gladstone, the dawn chorus ...

Listening to:

Brahms, piano concerto #2.

Just read:

Roy Jenkins, Gladstone.

This is a big fat biography of one the 19th century’s pre-eminent statesmen. Gladstone was Prime Minister four times, and came to dominate the British political scene for roughly 30 years, from the 1860s to the 1890s. He left Parliament just four years before he died, in his late eighties, and began his Parliamentary career in his early thirties. If Tony Blair were to do as well, he’d still be with us in 2020. The fact that this seems so inconceivable is perhaps a comment about modern age-ism more than anything else.

Jenkins is (was) a politician of the late 20th century, so it’s not surprising that his biography should concentrate on Gladstone as a politician. We don’t, for example, hear much about his relationship with his wife, nor what he liked to eat for breakfast (though there is a very interesting discussion about 19th century meal habits in general, dealing with, for example, how “lunch” gained its modern status as a meal of the day). On the other hand, Jenkins does describe many aspects of Gladstone’s more public life. In addition to his political career, Gladstone had a very busy life in other areas. He read approximately 20000 books, and wrote journal articles and books on a variety of often non-political subjects. Jenkins describes a number of occasions when one might have expected Gladstone to be giving all this time to political work (the night before presenting the Budget, for example), but when Gladstone took time off this to write poetry reviews and the like.

I had high hopes for this biography, and on the whole they were not disappointed. I found much of it quite fascinating. Jenkins is not stylistically perfect, and there were times when I couldn’t help but wonder if he was attempting to imitate Gladstone’s supposedly tortuous prose style. He also refuses to provide translations for his Latin quotations. Again this mirrors an aspect of Gladstone’s life: Jenkins has it that Gladstone was only comfortable with those politicians that shared a similar classical education, and with whom he could exchange Latin and Greek quotations. But these are relatively minor points. The biography brings a very interesting political period to life, and does it well. Parts I found particularly interesting were the discussion of Gladstone’s (increasingly bad) relations with Queen Victoria, his diary habits, and introductions to other significant people of the period (Disraeli, Palmerston, Peel, Parnell). For all his failings, Gladstone also comes across as quite a sympathetic subject, and this always helps.

It was 39°C yesterday, the hot wind gusted at up to 70km/h, and smoke from distant bush-fires filled the sky. Today it will reach a maximum of 26°, the breeze is cool and refreshing, and the sky is blue. Changeable Canberra!

One aspect of Canberra life that is novel to me is the large numbers of large birds around. In particular, there are lots of magpies, cockatoos and galahs (pink and grey parrots) about. They make an enormous noise as the Sun comes up. I wondered why the dawn chorus happens at all, and the Web came to my aid with this article, which is about why the different bird species in the chorus start at different times, but also says that it happens to make territorial claims and to attract mates.

A couple of links:

  • A web-collage, a constantly updating page of images randomly grabbed from the web. It occasionally features images that are probably not suitable for children, but it's usually just a strange and varied window on the world. (You can click on the images to find out where they came from.)
  • Stylish cartoons/art-pieces on the back of business cards.

Wednesday, 29 January 2003

Swallowdale & Georgiana Molloy

Listening to:

Schubert, Arpeggione sonata, in A minor, D821.

Just read:

Arthur Ransome, Swallowdale.

This is the second Swallows & Amazons book, and a very enjoyable read it is too. Though set around the same lake as the first book, it features a lot less sailing than the first, and Wild Cat Island (the island that was so central to S&A) features even less. In fact, Wild Cat Island doesn’t play much of a part in any of the subsequent books either. Ransome did an extremely good job at varying his stories; I would never accuse him of repetitive plotting. (Unlike, dare I say it, Rowling in the Harry Potter books.) Anyway, the story really is very good, with a number of overland adventures, a final race between the two boats, a neat camp-site, the Swallowdale of the title, and the distant presence of the awe-inspiring and awful Great Aunt. Definitely at least as good as its predecessor.

Alexandra Hasluck, Georgiana Molloy: portrait with background.

This is another of those 19th century biographies. Its subject was one of England’s first migrants to Western Australia, arriving there in 1830. She was newly married to retired Army Captain John Molloy, who had fought in the Peninsular campaigns under the Duke of Wellington. After finding Perth and Fremantle too hot, the couple, and some other families that they’d met on the ship out, decided to move to Augusta on WA’s south coast, where John Molloy became the state’s senior representative. Though she initially disliked the conditions, Georgiana came to appreciate the beauties of the Australian bush, and became a keen gardener. She struck up a correspondence with a UK botanist, James Mangles, and was encouraged to collect examples of WA’s unique plants and flowers and send them to the UK, where they were received avidly.

Even as Hasluck describes this strand of Molloy’s life, and does it very well, she also tells how Molloy and her husband had a number of children, and moved north, to what was to become Busselton, after they decided that conditions were too difficult in Augusta. I found this biography very appealing. It had it all for me, a setting with which I was slightly familiar (I have been to both Augusta and Busselton, I have seen Molloy Island), a bit of scientific history that could only remind me of the appealing Stephen Maturin character in the O’Brian books (who is in turn modelled in many ways on Joseph Banks), and an interesting general history of early settlement.

It’s funny reading Australian and American media in juxtaposition. In the US material, liberal seems to mainly be a term of abuse, levelled at the left-wing by the right-wing. In Australia, the Liberal party is the main right-wing party, and that of the current Prime Minister, John Howard.

I was recently reading a piece in the New York Review of Books about President Bush’s latest tax proposals. It pointed out that a plan that had most benefit for the top 1% of the country wouldn’t necessarily be such a hard sell. In Europe (or Australasia) people would get very indignant about such things. In aspirational America, people are more indulgent about being nice to the rich because that’s where they want to be themselves, and because they might just get there eventually. Indeed, the same article claimed that surveys had established that fully 17% of the population thought they were already in the top 1% of the population.

Monday, 27 January 2003

Momo & The far side of the world

Listening to:

Bach, A musical offering

Just read:

Michael Ende, Momo.

This is a cute children’s story; a modern day fairy tale. As such, it is written in a slightly portentous way, and features simple characters. Central is Momo, a young girl of uncertain origin, who has to take on the lead rôle in resisting the invasion of strange grey men in suits who are stealing everyone’s time. Needless to say, this can be read as an allegory about modern life. This allegory exalts simple childish pleasures, rages against artificial, unworthy toys in childish lives, and generally condemns all of capitalism’s trappings in adult lives.

Read this way, the story is tedious and predictable sermonising. If you can ignore this, it’s actually quite an enjoyable story, with some neat fantastic elements.

Patrick O’Brian, Far side of the world.

This is the tenth book in O’Brian's series, and definitely of the same level of quality as its predecessors. I'm impressed that O'Brian managed to keep coming up with stories using the same characters and in roughly the same setting, but where story-lines and circumstances varied in interesting ways. In this installment, Aubrey and Maturin are soon off to the Pacific, chasing an American frigate that is poised to wreak havoc with British whalers operating in this area.

The inevitable conflict between the good guys and the bad guys comes at the very end of the story and is not resolved in a naval engagement at all. Earlier, there's a perhaps slightly incredible, but compelling sub-plot featuring Aubrey and Maturin falling out of the back of their ship and floating for miles in the depths of the Pacific. Earlier still, there are water problems, a difficult re-supply, and on-board adultery to cope with. The novel is full of incident and adventure, peopled with characters that are likeable, and seem genuine. What more could you ask for?

To read next:

Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March.

Australia Day

Today is a public holiday, because it was Australia Day on Sunday. This

celebrates the anniversary of Captain Arthur Phillip unfurling the British flag at Sydney Cove and proclaiming British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard of Australia on 26 January 1788. (Source)

Any Aborigines in the vicinity were not consulted.

Monday, 20 January 2003

Clara Schumann, blue bears & bush fires

Listening to:

Brahms, Ein Deutsches Requiem.

Just read:

Walter Moers, The 13½ lives of Captain Bluebear.

This is a fun book. It’s the story of a blue bear, who lives and adventures in a fantastic continent full of strange people and monsters. Accompanied by the author’s own illustrations, the inhabitants and their homes are conveyed very vividly. The book is really just a series of relatively disconnected (13½ of them) episodes featuring Bluebear in a different locale in each. A book such as this is an exercise in whimsy, and it stands or falls on the strength of the strange and wacky inventions that the author has dreamed up. I’d say that Moers definitely succeeds. Memorable moments include the journey through a giant’s head, a career as tall-tale-teller, being a student at Professor Nightingale’s exclusive university, a spell inside a perpetual tornado, and the final climactic show-down with the megalomaniac master of the massive SS Moloch. The illustrations are great.

Janice Galloway, Clara.

This book is a strange hybrid between novel and biography. I think it definitely has to count as fiction because of the way that Galloway puts herself into her subject’s head and purports to speak for her. Nonetheless, I was quickly convinced that the story was an accurate one, and that the details and history were all there. (Perhaps I came to it knowing just enough to be easily misled.) Anyway, the book’s subject is Clara Schumann, née Weick, and it covers her life from childhood up to the death of her husband, Robert Schumann. This is long enough for Clara to become an international star (as a concert pianist), to fall in love with Robert, to stress over career (she was capable of earning much more than he ever was), and to have to support him as he sickens with mental illness.

I greatly enjoyed the whole book. Clara Schumann’s was definitely an interesting life, particularly up to Galloway’s cut-off point, and Galloway tells it very well. Her central characters are all believable and engaging, particularly Clara herself, Robert Schumann, and Clara’s father. Johannes Brahms (author of a certain requiem) makes a brief appearance towards the end of the story, as do other musical stars of the period, the Mendelssohns, Chopin, Paganini, Liszt and Joachim.

Now reading:

Roy Jenkins, Gladstone, another 19th century biography.

I’m now living in Canberra. Canberra has just had a disastrous weekend, with 368 homes destroyed by fire, and four people killed. Our university flat is on the other side of town from the fires, so we weren’t in any danger ourselves. Instead we got to walk around the centre of town on Saturday. It was incredibly hot, with a hot wind blowing smoke across the sky from the west. This caused the Sun to cast an eerie orange-yellow light across everything. While waiting for a bus, we saw two fire-fighting helicopters fly across the sky. A state of emergency has been declared, and you can read official status information on the web.

Friday, 27 December 2002

Berlin and The Truth

Listening to:

Oscar Peterson, The sound of the trio.

Just read:

Antony Beevor, Berlin.

This is a sequel to Beevor's very successful Stalingrad. It describes the Russian campaign to take Berlin in the first half of 1945. This was a brutal invasion, one that the Russians explicitly thought of as revenge for the German invasion of the USSR in 1941. The final outcome was never in any doubt. At one point Beevor says that Stalin had a larger force just attacking Berlin than Hitler had for his invasion of all Russia (Operation Barbarossa). Given this, it seems incredible that the Nazi regime held on for so long. Beevor describes the discussions, and comings and goings in the Reich Chancellory, and it's clear from these that Hitler was living in a fantasy world, denying the reality of his situation. He insisted that he would never surrender, and didn't let his subordinates do so either. (Until, if you like, his final suicide.) What I find surprising is that his subordinates pretty well toed the line. Perhaps the secret to this sort of “loyalty” is to have lots of different power bases underneath you. The Wehrmacht couldn't mutiny safe in the knowledge that they were the only ones with access to the guns, because the independent SS was an army in itself. (The USSR did similar things too: the main Army was accompanied by special NKVD divisions.)

Beevor tells the military story, the movement of armies, well, but is also very good on the diplomatic story happening at the level above the generals. He's pretty critical of the US leadership for not being sufficiently suspicious of Stalin. It can't have helped that Roosevelt was seriously ill and died during this period. Stalin might have made noises sufficient to convince Roosevelt that Poland was going to be a free and independent democracy after the war, but Churchill was rather more suspicious. Finally, Beevor is also good on the impact of the war on the German people, on both sides of the front-line. As part of this, he spends quite a time discussing the very many rapes committed by the Russian troops, claiming that this aspect of the war hasn't been much discussed until now. This is not the only aspect of the civilian experience that he discusses but he does seem to pay it disproportionate attention, for all that it might be a historical scoop.

Berlin doesn't have Stalingrad's depressing story of thousands of soldiers trapped thousands of miles from home in a savage Russian winter. Nonetheless, it's full of its share of the horrors of war. It's a good book, interesting and well worth reading. Just don't expect to be smiling at the end of it.

Terry Pratchett, The truth.

I read this on the plane from England to Australia, and greatly enjoyed it. I suppose I might find more to dislike in it if I read it again in more pleasant surroundings, but my memories of it are all good. This novel is set in Ankh-Morpork, and features familiar Watch characters (Commander Vimes, Captain Carrot, Angua the werewolf, the Patrician, and “Slit me own throat Dobbler”, among others). The main heroes are new characters, however, which I liked. The plot doesn't involve any threats to the very fabric of the universe either, which I particularly liked. (Pratchett makes a joke of this feature of many of his earlier plots in the novel itself. The Patrician calls on the newly established newspaper, and makes a series of witty comments along the lines of supposing that the printing press was made from iron taken from eldritch sources, or that the newspaper's premises are on a inter-dimensional gateway.) There are all sorts of good jokes to be had in a newspaper business spoof, and the bad guys are also a very memorable duo. Perfect plane fodder, and a good, amusing read in any other situation too, I'd warrant.

On the TV behind me, England are losing the fourth Ashes Test match against Australia.

Wednesday, 25 December 2002

Swallows & Amazons, Genome and Harry Potter

Listening to:

The (Thelonius) Monk Quartet, Misterioso. Jazz from New York's Five Spot Café, 1958.

Just read:

Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons.

This is a children's classic, and a very enjoyable read for a reminiscing adult too. It tells the story of a summer holiday from the perspective of four of the six children taking part, the Walkers. John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker are on holiday in England's Lake District, and get parental permission to sail to one of the lake's islands, and camp there. The boat they sail in is called the Swallow. Later on, they meet and quickly befriend Nancy and Peggy, who sail in the Amazon.

Most of the story is about exploring and sailing adventures, but there are also run-ins of various sorts with natives (also known as grown-ups). The natives range from charcoal burners on the mainland, to parents, to the hostile seeming “retired pirate” who lurks on his own house-boat. It's all told very well, and each of the four Walker children is an individual in their own right, with their own view of the world.

Matt Ridley, Genome.

This is a clear and informative popular science book about genetics. It's divided into 23 chapters, one for each human chromosome, and Ridley takes a gene or more from each chromosome as a starting point for the discussion in each chapter. He covers a lot of ground, and explains things pretty well. There is probably about the right amount of technical detail. There isn't always much to link one essay to the next, so the reader gets a survey, or a sampling, of the field, rather than a structured course of instruction. This makes the reading all the easier. Ridley discusses blood groups, RNA and DNA, the X and Y chromosomes, genetically transmitted diseases, prions (unique it seems because they don't rely on DNA or RNA to reproduce), the possibility that there may be genes determining sexuality, and even free will (in the context of a typical nature vs nurture discussion).

The only criticism I'd have of the book is that Ridley occasionally makes it all too obvious that he writes for the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper. For example, he wonders at the decentralised marvel that is the development of the human embryo (or is it the immune system?), and then suggests that perhaps humans should try this in their societies too. He has a good go at left-wing political ideas on a number of occasions, and is happy to repeat someone's claim that the eugenics scare of the 1930s (when prominent scientists all over the world endorsed eugenicist claims that human populations were doomed to fall into wrack and ruin because of swamping from inferior stock), is just like the global warming scare of the present. (I'd disagree: even if you dismiss the proposed causes, and the proposed cures, there is loads of real data making it clear that the world is getting warmer. The eugenicists never had data, or facts in the same way. Theirs was the science of bald assertion.)

These are just occasional glitches in what is otherwise a very good read.

A recent movie:

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

I enjoyed this, and have now even seen it twice. It was good the second time too. Kenneth Branagh is very amusing as the fraudulent Gilderoy Lockhart, and there's lots to laugh at throughout. The climactic battle with the basilisk and the evil spirit of Voldemort is also very good. (The denouement in the school hall is somewhat gag-inducing, but nothing's perfect.) My biggest problem is with the nature of the universe that Rowling describes in her books, and which is accurately reflected in both movies to date. In particular, the school house system is completely unbelievable. It's unreal to have a house of good guys (Gryffindor) and one of baddies (Slytherin). It also ensures that we pay no attention to the two other houses at all. I don't see why the four houses couldn't have shared out a variety of behavioural characteristics, but with goodies and baddies evenly distributed across them all. The Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs feature almost not at all in the films, and even in the books, where this is more room for extra material, there is precious little about the other half of the school.

Getting this web-log out with any frequency this month is proving harder than I thought. This, coupled with the fact that I'm getting through more books than I might otherwise, means that I'm just going to produce book review entries for the immediate future I think.

Monday, 9 December 2002

Lotsa books

Listening to:

Brahms, symphony no. 3 in F, op 90.

Just read:

Granta 79: celebrity.

This issue of the literary magazine was an enjoyable one. The photo essay was a series of photos that “ordinary” people had sent in, showing them in the company of someone famous. One was even of someone with a famous horse (not, I hasten to add, that I had ever heard of this horse). I also remember an interesting essay about the position of the monarchy in the UK. The author puts forward the interesting theory that people like going to see the Queen because it gives them a chance to be part of a big crowd and to see that they and the rest of the crowd behave well. The British like to be decorous; like to think that they're capable of civilised behaviour in the mass, so that they can go to line the streets of London and wait quietly for hours before the Queen even arrives. As a republican, I can only mutter that it seems an expensive habit. On the other hand, it is good for people to learn to congregate without starting riots.

Brenda Maddox, Rosalind Franklin: the dark lady of DNA.

This was another biography of a scientific subject. I liked it a lot. Rosalind Franklin played an important rôle in the discovery of the structure of DNA. She took particularly good crystallographic photos, and was, it appears, thinking thoughts of roughly the right sort when Crick and Watson had their own Eureka moment. They were helped to this important idea after obtaining one photo of Franklin's in a slightly underhand way, and this doesn't reflect so well on them. Just as in all science, they were standing on the shoulders of giants, and anyone else who offered what looked like a good perspective could expect to be clambered on. Nonetheless, they did have the idea first, and deserve the credit. Certainly, Franklin doesn't seem to have harboured them any ill-will, and got on particularly well with Crick.

But this biography tells the story of the whole life, and the research into DNA was a relatively small part of Franklin's career. Maddox also describes her childhood and early schooling in plenty of interesting detail. One chapter, about post-graduate work in Cambridge, features an obnoxious chemist called Norrish. (I think he may have gone on to win a Nobel Prize.) This was something of a strange experience; it's an uncommon enough surname that my eye tends to pick it out automatically on a page.

The tragic bit is that Franklin died of cancer in the late 50s, before Crick, Watson and Wilkins got their Nobel Prize for the work on DNA; before the publication of Watson's popular science book, which portrayed Franklin very unsympathetically and very unfairly in the opinion of most; and before she had a chance to do all the research she wanted. She was less than forty, and was definitely cut down in her prime.

The comparison with A beautiful mind is an interesting one. Franklin's subject is more accessible than Nash's, and she didn't have a lot else going on in her life apart from it. This means that there is even more science in this biography, but much less in the way of intimate personal stories. When Franklin took time off, she hosted dinner parties and went walking over European mountains with friends. Nash went bonkers, fathered illegitimate children and got arrested in Californian toilets for obscene behaviour. I didn't mind this difference in focus at all. The science was interesting, and there was lots of personal detail in terms of the inevitable politicking attendant on working with others in any sort of field. It's not so clear that this biography will ever turn into an Oscar-winning film, but I'd recommend it just as highly.

Robertson Davies, The Cornish trilogy.

I don't know if this trilogy's component novels are available separately. I read a fat paperback omnibus of all three, and enjoyed it a great deal. The three novels are definitely separate books, so it's not as if Davies set out to write one big novel, and just happened to split it up into three volumes (as happened with The Lord of the Rings, say). There are definite linkages between all three, but the basic stories in each are self-contained. The first novel is definitely the weakest. It's made unappealing through the presence of a couple of characters who are supposed to be unappealing, but who get far too much air time, right up until the moment when they undergo mutual annihilation. This latter is done extremely stylishly, and is really very funny, in a beautifully shocking way. The other problem with this first novel, is that Davies presents a scientist as a fairly important secondary character, and completely fails to convince me that any scientist could be remotely like this. All three novels are quite philosophical, by which I mean that there are frequent digressions into things like morality and the nature of Art. This can be difficult to do well, but Davies usually does a good job of it, and kept my interest, even if the story wasn't advancing at a great rate of knots.

The second novel surprised me by dropping back to the start of the 20th century to tell the life-story of Francis Cornish, who was dead at the start of the first novel. Where it was hard to see any particular theme in the first, this second is definitely about painting, a subject that Davies writes about very well. (This contrasts with the treatment he metes out to Science in the first novel.) Francis Cornish is a fascinating character, and the other characters, his family, lovers and acquaintances, are also compellingly drawn. I found a lot to savour in this novel, managing to bear the cutesy interjections from a pair of disembodied spirits.

The third novel shifts back to the modern Canada of the first novel, and we rejoin the cast of characters that we met there (less the awful duo that did the mutual annihilation). There are more characters to meet as well, and if painting was the focus before, now we get to look at music, and opera in particular. The new characters are again very good, and the plot is a good vehicle for their continuing interaction, even though nothing particularly dramatic happens.

Davies wrote a number of other novels, and I'm definitely looking forward to reading them too.

To read next:

Walter Moers, The 13½ lives of Captain Blue Bear.

I am now living in Australia. For the moment I'm in Perth, and in January I will be in Canberra. The hiatus in my web-log entries is a result of all the faff of moving a household.

Monday, 11 November 2002

Slaughterhouse 5

Listening to:

Corelli, Concerti grossi, Op. 6.

Just read:

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5.

This is a short, rather strange novel, which tells the story of Billy Pilgrim and his experience of the bombing of Dresden in World War 2. The novel also describes Pilgrim's life after the war, but in rather a detached, unreal way. This post-war life includes being abducted by aliens and time travel, adding to the sense of unreality. The novel is often blackly humorous, in a way that reminded me of Catch-22. Inasmuch as both novels can be seen as anti-war stories, told by American Everymen, they are similar. On the other hand, Catch-22 is much longer, which means that the many characters there have an opportunity to establish themselves as (larger-than-life) individuals, and for their histories to develop. The plot in Catch-22 also confines itself to war years, but the story in Slaughterhouse 5 covers more chronological ground. This lessens the impact of Slaughterhouse 5 in comparison.

Slaughterhouse 5 tells an effective story in its narration of internment as a PoW in Germany, and being in Dresden when the bombing happened (this happened to Vonnegut himself). I enjoyed these passages, but don't feel that I understood the import of Pilgrim's post-war life. My working hypothesis is that the detachment, the fatalistic philosophy learned from the aliens, the time travel and the aliens themselves are all meant to be symptoms of how the war has messed with Pilgrim's mind, and detached him from the real world around him. For all its strangenesses, Slaughterhouse 5 is a thought-provoking read, and enjoyable.

Now reading:

Granta 79: celebrity.

Tuesday, 5 November 2002

The tax inspecter & Granta 78

Listening to:

Shostakovich, piano sonata no. 2, op. 61.

Just read:

Peter Carey, The tax inspector.

This novel is a compelling, but uncomfortable read. I finished it in a single sitting, and definitely felt relieved to have done so. The story generates a lot of tension, and doesn't let the reader relax until the very end. The story is about the tax inspector of the title, a sympathetic woman of Greek descent, and the family who are involved with the business that she is sent to investigate. The family is dysfunctional (that child abuse is its dark secret is where the novel seems most unoriginal; this meme is one that really has been done to death), and full of vividly drawn characters.

The novel is mainly set in the town of Franklin, once a country town, but now practically within the Sydney sprawl. (It seems as if Franklin is fictional.) Sydney features a little as well, but there's not much that really ties the novel to Australia. Instead, its geographical stereotypes are those of small town failure and decline. While most of the characters are disturbed and/or disturbing, most are also pretty sympathetic. The plot is full of viciousness of one form or another, though there's very little explicit gore. All in all, it's a tight, brutal, well-written drama with a bitter view of the world. And there's even a positive ending (the good guys come through mainly unscathed).

Granta 78: bad company (contents)

This issue of the literary magazine is an appealing mix of fiction and non-fiction. The fiction I enjoyed most read almost as if it was non-fiction, in an easy confessional and journalistic style. I particularly liked Jon McGregor's story about a man with a secret, vividly set in East Anglia (now quite a familiar landscape to me). Edmund White's story about a older gay man having a holiday in Florida kept my attention, and Gary Shteyngart's story is larger-than-life and a good read. I also liked Jonathan Tel's elegantly written Zaghrouda, set in Palestine, but only glancingly about the Israeli occupation. Milan Kundera's story featured a character who bordered on the "too angst-filled" to be sympathetic. The story by Todd McEwen (whose Arithmetic I mainly liked) was too disjointed to appeal to me, and Marek Marek by Olga Tokarczuk also seemed pointless.

I liked all of the non-fiction. The first piece, by Adrian Leftwich, who, when push came to shove, betrayed his friends in apartheid-era South Africa to escape a jail sentence himself was particularly interesting. Rory Stewart, walking through Pakistan and talking to people there about dervishes was good, and Arthur Miller's reminiscing about the Chelsea Hotel was amusing in a dry, off-hand way.

To read next:

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5.

Monday, 28 October 2002

The father-thing and The amber spyglass

Listening to:

Ella Fitzgerald, singing You took advantage of me, from the Rodgers and Hart Song Book:

I'm just like an apple on a bough,
and you're gonna shake me down somehow

Heh. If you do a Google search on “like an apple on a bough”, every link is to the lyrics above, but the little ads on the side of the results page are for people selling a particular brand of computer.

Just read:

Philip K. Dick, The father-thing.

This is a collection of short stories, all written in the mid-50s, making them from pretty early in his career. They're not bad, but the themes can be a bit repetitive. Dick was clearly obsessed with post-apocalyptic futures, mutants, psychic powers, and the evils of monolithic states. He's a big believer in the stereotypically American virtues of self-reliance, technological savvy, and general frontier-ship.

One of the stories is pretty racist (The Turning Wheel), and only slightly redeemed by taking the mickey out of L. Ron Hubbard. Most of the remainder are quite sexist too (women are mothers or sex objects). For all that, there are some good stories in the mix too, with some nice ideas amongst them. I liked Pay for the printer (benevolent aliens induce dependency culture among humans in apocalyptic future), The golden man (mutant human with no real brain, but precognition ability), Tony and the Beetles (human child learns about being the defeated oppressor), The last of the masters (perfect, ordered, society survives in a pocket after apocalypse), Foster, you're dead (cold war hysteria commercialised), and another, whose title I can't remember, about mutant hunting, featuring a man who grows a vehicle on a plant.

Philip Pullman, The amber spyglass.

This is the final volume in Pullman’s His dark materials trilogy. I read it very quickly, over the course of much of Sunday, and that fact is testimony in itself to its success. It’s an enthralling adventure story. There’s a whole pile of neat ideas in this volume and its predecessors, and I recommend the whole trilogy.

However. There are weaknesses in this grand finale. I thought that keeping the young Adam and Eve apart in the last pages was a bit cruel and arbitrary. I don't think it's up there with the ending to Captain Corelli's mandolin, because I'm sceptical about just how attached and earth-shatteringly in love 12 year olds can be, but it still seemed an unnecessary and forced ‘tragic note’.

A more significant problem rests in the structure of the plot. It suddenly shifts in focus: the real problem with the universe is not the Authority, per se, but rather the leakage of all the universe's Dust into holes cut by the Subtle Knife. The climax of the grand struggle against the Authority, the very heaving of the angel Metatron (terrible name!) into the bottomless pit isn't explicitly described. Instead, we hear about it after the event. We cut from an unresolved struggle on the pit-side to the Eden story.

This Adam and Eve bit in the putative Garden of Eden is well described, but we never get any explanation of why Will and Lyra are filling these roles. Yes, we're let into the secret and made aware of prophecies. So, we get to know it's going to happen, but we don't know why. Is it because the prophecies knew that the Authority was about to be deposed, and history was going to get a chance to start again? Even so, why Lyra and Will? It's not like there aren't millions of other humans in the universe.

But, just in case you think I hated it, let me list the good bits: the subtle knife is cool; the treatment of death is very good; the ice bears are way cool; the angels are neat (though I was a bit perplexed at how they managed to be both ethereal and vulnerable to stinging beetles). The miniature people are perhaps an idea too far, but they are vivid, and most enthralling of all: Mrs. Coulter and her evil monkey.

To read next:

Peter Carey, The tax collector.

Tuesday, 22 October 2002

Wives and daughters

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 10.

Just read:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and daughters.

This is a big fat nineteenth century novel. It’s not even finished (Gaskell died before she could finish it), and my edition was still over 600 pages long. (It was obviously pretty close to finished at this point, so I wasn't too put out by having it suddenly stop on me.) W&D is principally the story of Molly Gibson’s coming of age, starting with a couple of chapters with her at 12, and then jumping forward to her as a 17 and 18 year old. It’s a romance set in a small village, but that is not to say that the rest of the world is ignored, or that the setting feels constricted. One character even goes off on an expedition as a naturalist (emulating Darwin, who Gaskell knew), and there’s quite a bit about becoming Senior Wrangler, and a Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge.

The characters make or break a novel like this, and Gaskell does well here. The central characters are all drawn believably, and they’re all interesting individuals. Molly Gibson is fairly mild in behaviour most of the time, but possesses definite opinions, which the reader is party to. Her immediate family and the Hamley family all feel like real people too. Importantly, they're almost all portrayed sympathetically, which means that you care about what happens to them.

It would be a gross lie to claim that the plot zips along, but it keeps to a steady pace, and kept me engrossed. Some aspects of it reflect a different era, and can make appreciation a little difficult. For example, various characters are forever getting sick, and convalescence is a major activity. The importance of a young girl’s reputation is also slightly hard to believe, as is the idea of letter passing and secret tête-à-têtes being worthy of scandal. Just as in Pride and Prejudice the heroine is the last to realise the identity of her true love, but this plotting convention, and the other aspects mentioned above, are no obstacle to a very enjoyable read.

Now reading:

Philip K. Dick, The father-thing, a collection of short stories.

Tuesday, 1 October 2002

Books and Bordeaux

Listening to:

Schubert, octet in F, D803. I believe this piece was written as a vehicle for a clarinettist friend of Schubert's. Certainly the clarinet has a prominent role.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, The rover.

This is Conrad's last novel, and one I enjoyed a lot. It probably helped that the central character, Peyrol, was competent and basically good-natured, as opposed to the pathetic Almayer in my previous Conrad. The novel is set in Napoleonic France, and is about the last stage in the career of the rover Peyrol, an experienced sea-man who has spent most of his time in waters far from Europe. He returns to France to retire, and hooks up with a dysfunctional household in the country-side near Toulon.

Toulon is being blockaded by the English fleet, and after a little while, a naval lieutenant turns up with a plot that will require the rover's help. So, Peyrol gets drawn back into one last naval adventure. Yes, the plot is a bit stereotypical, but it's well done. It seems pretty clear that an old Conrad identified a bit with his Peyrol character, and he is drawn sympathetically. (Conrad began his seaman's career out of Marseilles.)

Philip Pullman, The subtle knife.

This is the second book in Pullman's His dark materials trilogy. It's very exciting, and reveals more tantalising details about the nature of the cosmic struggle that the main characters are becoming involved in. Again, I'll hold back on further comment until I've read the whole trilogy. Still, I think I can see why one reactionary claimed that Pullman was “the most dangerous author in the UK”.

Granta 77: what we think of America (contents).

This issue of the literary magazine is dominated by a series of 24 brief essays written to the title What we think of America, by a variety of authors from all around the world (one Australian, even, but no New Zealanders). There are five other normal length pieces in the issue, and the usual photo essay.

The 24 essays on America were inevitably a mixed bag. I liked Ian Buruma's and Michael Ignatieff's for example, and thought Harold Pinter's ridiculously over the top. In general, I thought the essays very much of their time. Now, six months later than publication, the general impression is of staleness. The story of the war on terrorism and America's place in the world has moved on, and I want to hear specifics about what's happening now. I'm not sure that a literary magazine is the right place for current affairs editorials, even if they are written by literary types.

The other pieces in this issue were all good. Francis Spufford's description of learning to read while bedridden with the mumps is very effective, even if I doubt its detail (this being my standard suspicion of child-hood memoirs). I enjoyed Blake Morrison's exhumation of his parents war-time love letters, even if it did feel a bit voyeuristic, and Ziauddin Sardar's description of getting out of Saudi Arabia is quite enthralling; easily enough to convince me that it's somewhere I don't want to go.

Now reading:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and daughters.

Last week I was away at the tenth European SIGOPS workshop, in St. Emilion. This is a very pretty village in the Bordeaux region, and famous for its wines. A good time was had by all. On returning to the UK, I was soon struck down by a nasty cold. Thus I make my excuses for the paucity of entries recently.

Yesterday was my last day as the Heller Research Fellow at St. Catharine's College. Yesterday we also paid the full amount for our tickets to Australia. The world is a-changing.

Monday, 16 September 2002

Almayer's folly

Listening to:

Tracy Chapman, her album of the same name.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, Almayer's folly and a collection of short stories that accompanied it in my edition, Tales of Unrest.

Almayer's folly is a short novel (Conrad's first), about a self-deluding Dutch trader, down on his luck in the Indonesian islands, and living in a dilapidated trading settlement on a river near a native village. Almayer has a beautiful daughter, Nina. Nina was educated in Singapore, until her half-caste origins caused her to be hounded out of polite society.

The story takes off when a handsome visiting Malay prince, Dain, appears on the scene, and Nina and he fall in love. It sounds like a fairy tale, and there are some neat twists in the plot that sees them attempt to run away together. This definitely held my attention, but the ultimate focus of the story is on Almayer, and how he just doesn't get it. His life truly is a folly. So yes, this is typical Conradian misery, but it's atmospheric and well plotted too. I liked it.

There are five stories in Tales of unrest. I probably liked the first the most. This is Karain: a memoir, and is the story of another Malay prince. This one is observed somewhat distantly, but affectionately, by some Europeans who are smuggling guns to him. They also provide a unique, slightly amusing, but very well described service for Karain at the end of the story. Next, The idiots is a story of rural misery, and much less interesting than Amy Foster, and even that I didn't like very much.

Third is An outpost of progress. This feels a bit like Conrad warming himself up for Heart of darkness, but is a good story in its own right. It's set in Africa, on a wild river, and features totally helpless Europeans losing it in the face of the implacable local environment. Fourth is The return, about marital infidelity in a respectable London home. It gets off to a great start, but there's far too much tortured conversation. The man does eventually realise how much of an idiot he's been (and the depiction of his idiocy is well, and amusingly done), but I'd given up caring by this point. Finally, The lagoon, which shares an embedded story all too similar to that in Karain, without the virtues of an interesting framing story. It's not bad, but not exactly rivetting.

Now reading:

Joseph Conrad, The rover. His last novel, set in Napoleonic France.

Monday, 2 September 2002

An unexpected light

Listening to:

Verdi, Otello. A recent purchase and part of my ongoing attempt to find opera as good as Mozart's. It's not so bad, and I'm sure I'll come to like it.

Just read:

Jason Elliot, An unexpected light: travels in Afghanistan.

This is a very good travel book about the author's travels in Afghanistan. Most of the book covers what was Elliot's third trip to Afghanistan, at a time in the late 90s when the Taleban were slowly taking over the country. Elliot journeys to Taleban controlled Herat, but otherwise avoids their bits of the country. He was based in Kabul at a time when the city was again not far from the front line, and he talks of frequent rocket and artillery attacks.

Elliot's first trip to Afghanistan was during the war against the Soviets, and he has a chapter devoted to the experience of hiding in the countryside with a band of mujahideen. Most of the time seems to have been spent trying to avoid being killed by the Russians, but with occasional forays when his group went onto the offensive. During those expeditions that Elliot went on, he says he was handed a gun that he had no intention of using.

Evidence of the Russian presence was plentiful during the later trip, and Elliot is eloquent in describing the shells of Russian vehicles that still litter the country-side he's passing through. He's not a political polemicist, but he's forthright in pointing out the easy stereotyping that went into Western perceptions of the Afghani resistance. They weren't fanatical religious warriors, they were people resisting an enemy invasion. Attempting to put a religious slant on it makes as much sense as describing the French Resistance during WW2 as Christian. While not a Moslem himself, Elliot is a clearly sympathetic and understanding observer. One of the funniest and most cringe-inducing parts of the book is his description of staying with at a fairly hard-core Christian mission, where the American staff ask him if they can pray for him.

It's hard to avoid some discussion of politics when talking about Afghanistan, but Elliot spends most of the book describing the stunning geography of the country he's travelling through, the hair-raising journeys on clapped out trucks and buses that he used to get places, the history of the places he visits (Silk Road sites with ruins from the time of Alexander the Great's campaigns through the area), and most memorably the people he meets there. Elliot's book provides a vivid picture of a country, and can't help but make the reader hope that things improve in Afghanistan, allowing the people who live there to lead normal lives after two decades of war.

Now reading:

Sylvia Nasar, A beautiful mind. I see from Amazon's page for this that Faber and Faber are now publishing this with a still from the film on the cover. Blech. Are you following? John Nash ... is ... not ... Russell Crowe.

Monday, 19 August 2002

The battle for God & Northern lights

Listening to:

Mozart, Così fan tutte.

Just read:

Karen Armstrong, The battle for God.

This book describes the evolution of religious fundamentalism in the world's three great monotheistic faiths, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Armstrong starts her story in the 15th century with the unification of Spain in 1492, and the triumph there of Christianity. Armstrong's basic design thereafter is to cycle through the faiths, examining each in turn within chapters that cover successive chronological periods.

Within her coverage of Christianity, Armstrong quickly moves her focus to Protestantism in the US. For Islam, Armstrong splits her coverage in two, dealing with Egypt and Iran. For Judaism, she is not wedded to anywhere in particular until the latter sections of the book, where she turns to Israel. This structure seems reasonable, and I can't think of a better, but it means that readers need to keep all of the four parallel tracks' principal actors in their heads at once. I felt overwhelmed with detail on more than one occasion.

Nonetheless, there's plenty to value in this book. I was particularly impressed with the coverage of early Judaism (exiles in Amsterdam, Messianism in Eastern Europe and the near East), and the Iranian revolution. The latter includes a brief discussion of the difference between the Christian and Islamic conceptions of Satan. According to Armstrong, the Islamic Satan is not the very embodiment of ultimate evil as in Christianity. Instead, he is an evil figure, bound to the material world and incapable of wisdom or good, but still capable of being forgiven by God at the end of time. Thus, calling the US the Great Satan is not quite the insult that Christians might imagine. Armstrong had less that was novel to me to say about modern Jewish and Christian fundamentalism, but was still informative on many levels. For example, I don't think I'd appreciated how secular Zionism was initially, nor that there is still a strong anti-Zionist strand of Jewish fundamentalism.

Philip Pullman, Northern lights.

I found this a very enjoyable fantasy. It's a definite page-turner, with an exciting, fast-moving plot, coupled with many interesting mysteries about the nature of the world that the characters live in. It's the first part of a trilogy, and the two successive parts are on the List, so I'll get to continue with the exciting story soonish. (That "soonish" is a result of the List's rapidly shrinking size, heh.)

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Northern Lights, but will save more considered reflection until I've finished the whole trilogy. To be going on with, here's a profile of Pullman from the Observer.

To read next:

Jason Elliot, An unexpected light: travels in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, 13 August 2002

Ill met by moonlight

Listening to:

Stravinsky, music from the ballet, The Firebird.

Just read:

W. Stanley Moss, Ill met by moonlight.

This is Moss's diary of his WW2 mission to occupied Crete to kidnap Major General Heinrich Kreipe, one of the top military men on the island. Stanley Moss was accompanied by another British SOE operative, and a handful of Cretan accomplices. It's a short and exciting book to read, with a narrative that whizzes along, despite the fact that the heroes spent most of their time hiding in caves and gullies. The whole mission would never have succeeded without the support of the Cretan people, both those that played a direct role in the kidnapping mission, and those that supported them in hiding and avoiding German search parties. Stanley Moss makes this clear, and writes with a definite affection for Crete and its people.

Now reading:

Karen Armstrong, The battle for God.

Tuesday, 30 July 2002

Kitchen confidential

Listening to:

Bach, Italian Concerto in F, BWV971. Played by Rosalyn Tureck on the piano.

Just read:

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen confidential.

This amusing book is a mixture of memoir and general reflection about being a professional chef. It describes the strange world that exists behind every restaurant, and relates Bourdain's personal development, from teenage trouble-maker to slightly more responsible executive chef at Les Halles restaurant in New York.

I found the book interesting because it describes a long-established trade, with its own traditions and jargon. I've always liked reading about the sociology of what might be classed ‘guilds’, where there is both functional specialisation and differing levels of authority. (Thus, sports teams are less interesting because they have specialisation of roles but don't have any real authority hierarchy (captain is about it). Where you get extra levels of authority, as in the contest between bowler and captain at cricket, things become slightly more interesting.) To add to the general appeal, chefs do something easy to understand and describe, but do it with virtuosity out of the public eye.

Though the description of what goes on in kitchens is occasionally on the disgusting side, there are no stories about people spitting in customers' soup. Instead, the impression is of people attempting to make the best of a bad job. If you make the mistake of ordering steak well-done, or fish on a Monday, then you may find things not to your liking because, one, well-done steak can have anything done to it (zapped in a microwave to make it done in time, say) without really affecting the end-product, and two, the restaurant is very unlikely to have fresh fish on Mondays.

KC is enjoyable and amusing. The circumstances described are novel, the characters are definitely larger than life, and it's all happening just metres from where you're sitting down to eat at a candle-lit dinner.

Now reading:

Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility.

Monday, 22 July 2002

In the beginning & Granta 75

Listening to:

ENZSO. A recent production of a dozen songs by the '70s/early 80s New Zealand band Split Enz, with singing mainly by the Finn brothers (who led Split Enz, and then went on to the band Crowded House), and backed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Just read:

Alister McGrath, In the beginning: the story of the King James Bible.

This is a readable account of how the King James translation of the Bible came to be made. It starts with Gutenberg and his development of the modern printing process, and describes how one of his first publications was a Bible (in Latin). Then comes a chapter giving the rudiments of Martin Luther's story and how this heightened demands for Bibles in national languages.

The focus then switches almost exclusively to English language translations. There were a number of these through the 16th century, and each is described. In this period, something that now seems pretty trivial was a very significant business, being part of the transformation of religious practice in England. For example, it seems that James’s commissioning of the new translation was seen by him as an opportunity to replace the Geneva Bible. This translation was probably pretty unremarkable in its text, but came accompanied by all sorts of annotations that seemed to James to be anti-King, and drew far too many parallels between modern circumstances and the justified deposing of ancient tyrants.

McGrath explains how the translation process went ahead, and also how some of the language came to be there. For example, the use of the word “its” as a neuter possessive was only just coming into use (it occurs once in the whole thing: That which groweth of its own accord of thy harvest thou shalt not reap (Lev. 25:5)), and instead they used “his” (correct usage then), as in Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour (Matt. 5:13), or avoided the issue entirely, and contorted things, as in Two cubits and a half be the length thereof. There are a number of other interesting linguistic comments made.

The book’s flaws are that it is surprisingly repetitive on occasion (even once on the same page), and rather simplistic in some of its explanation of the historical background. In particular, the description of the Renaissance sounds as if the author thinks his readers are ten year olds.

Granta 75: brief encounters (contents)

This issue of the magazine was an enjoyable read. There are some interesting literary reminiscences by Richard Murphy and Michael Mewshaw, but this issue’s strength is its fiction (particularly Paul Theroux's story, and a neat story about a gay man in a wheel-chair in Tamil Nadu, by Adam Mars-Jones), and its final non-fiction piece. This is a neuro-physiologist’s account of performing a diagnostic test on a young woman with epilepsy. It’s creepy (being able to turn off half of a person’s brain, and even, sticking a catheter in someone’s thigh to reach their heart), but fascinating as well.

To read next:

Kitchen confidential, by Anthony Bourdain.

Tuesday, 16 July 2002

The great arc & Mr. Phillips

Listening to:

Schütz, Sinfonia Sacrae, op. 6.

Just read:

John Keay, The great arc.

This is a good example of the historical science genre exemplified by Dava Sobel's Longitude. I don't have any objection to the fact that there has been such an obvious example of publishers jumping onto a bandwagon because the material published is often reasonably interesting. Certainly, Keay's account is a worthwhile addition.

The great arc tells the story of the 19th century project to map India using accurate trigonometric methods. In particular, it is about that part of the project which aimed to cover a big arc, from the tip of the sub-continent north to the Himalayas. This particular approach to the problem meant that useful geodesic data about the shape of the Earth's curvature could also be gathered.

This is interesting enough in itself, but it turns out that the second person in charge of this project was George Everest, the man after whom Earth's highest mountain is named. Everest never saw Mt. Everest himself, and if Keay is to believed, was never particularly interested in mountains either. He and his predecessor, Lambton were both interesting characters in their own rights, and their stories add an enjoyable element of human interest to the story.

I'm becoming more and more interested in the nature of 19th century culture, society and technology, and this book is a good window on that world.

John Lanchester, Mr. Phillips.

This light novel is a reasonably entertaining read, but suffers because its main character is rather uninteresting. The novel narrates a day in the life of a middle-aged accountant who gets up on Monday and leaves for a day in town, dressed as if to go to work. Sadly, he was sacked on Friday and has nowhere to go. Instead, he wanders around London having a variety of interesting encounters. It's like an easy-language version of Ulysses, but Victor Phillips is not as interesting as Leopold Bloom. Instead of Irish politics, anti-Semitism and various discussions with all and sundry, we get lots of internal monologue on sex, as well as a few manufactured observations about life that are cute and mildly arresting, but reveal nothing about Phillips. Perhaps he is supposed to be an anonymous Everyman, but it ends up feeling like a novel populated by stereotypes. It is reliably amusing at fairly frequent intervals, so it is a pleasant read.

To read next:

Alister McGrath, In the beginning.

Monday, 8 July 2002

Granta 74 & Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s conjecture

Listening to:

Bach, toccata and fugue in D minor, BWV 565. This work is traditionally played on the organ, and is very famous in that setting. Nonetheless, there's apparently lots of evidence to suggest that it was originally written for violin, and I'm listening to a reconstructed version for violin now.

Just read:

Granta 74: confessions of a middle-aged Ecstasy eater (contents)

This issue of the magazine is a good one. I read and enjoyed almost all of it. There are definitely no stinkers here. The title piece is one of the weakest parts of the issue. It's written in an awful style, and just made me think the anonymous author was pretentious. Nonetheless, he is interesting on the effects of Ecstasy, and waxes lyrical about how it saved his and his son’s lives. Andrew Brown's real-life account of a fishing obsession in Sweden is much more readable. His descriptions of fishing, dealing with Swedish winters, and the contrasts with England are all interesting and well-written. David Feuer's description of a stint as a psychiatrist tending to a Hasidic community in New York is also very good.

Haruki Murakami’s short story, Thailand was the best of the fiction: it presented an only-slightly skewed perspective on something that was superficially entirely prosaic. Somehow, everything was embued with a distantly surreal tone.

Christophe de Baillague’s description of the political situation in Iran, at least in as much as it pertains to the situation of one journalist (now in prison), was very interesting. It will be fascinating to see how Iran evolves over the next few years. It really does appear to be a country that might go in any number of different directions. (Like South Africa, say.)

Apostolis Doxiadis, Uncle Petros and Golbach’s Conjecture.

This novel is the story of mysterious Uncle Petros, told from a nephew’s point of view. The rest of the family dismisses Petros as a failure, but refuses to explain why. Given the title, it’s perhaps no surprise to learn that Petros is a mathematician, one who spent his career (now over) trying to prove Goldbach’s Conjecture. The nephew attempts to find out what happened in the uncle's life, and what results is the engaging chronicle of a mathematician's career. At one point, it sounds as if the author is just name-dropping (Turing, Gödel, Hardy, Littlewood and Ramanujam), but these people are all relevant, and though the standard mathematical folk-lore is recycled, the novel presents the world of research and the search for proofs very appealingly.

To read next:

John Keay, The great arc.

Tuesday, 2 July 2002

Enigma: the battle for the code

Listening to:

Mozart, string quintet in B flat major, KV174. Mozart wrote six string quintets and they are all very beautiful.

Just read:

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Enigma: the battle for the code.

This book went over pretty familiar territory for me in many ways. Alan Turing, U-boats, plug-boards, yadda yadda. But it told the story well, and also included interesting material that I hadn't seen before. For example, it devotes a lot of attention to efforts by the Allies to get hold of Enigma material by capturing U-boats and various other German naval vessels. The book's introduction gives the impression that this was going to be the principal focus of the book when it was first conceived, but there is a lot of other material too.

For example, the account is concerned to track the French spies and the Polish mathematicians that made the first steps in breaking Enigma. Their story starts in the 1930s and continues through to the war years too. Incredibly, the Polish cryptographers, who could have told the Germans all about the way in which their supposedly secure system was broken, spent much of the war in a French château. The Nazis did manage to capture one of the Poles, and also the German traitor who sold Enigma information to the French, but there are none so blind that will not see, and the secret stayed safe.

There are interesting sections devoted to the German responses. It does seem as if Dönitz, chief U-boat commander had his concerns about cipher security, but when he took these to the Naval Communications people, they kept telling him there couldn't be a problem. It's also very interesting to read that the Germans were reading some of the Allied codes. I’d really like to read more about this German cryptanalysis effort.

The book puts most of the cryptography into 6 appendices. I skimmed these, feeling that it wasn’t really important to understand all of the details. I feel there are no particularly deep principles there; rather there are complicated fiddles that are tied to the details of the Enigma implementation.

My final moral of the story: don’t put weather stations onto the same cryptographic network as your warships. Have them use a different code, that the warships are all able to read, but which they don't use themselves.

To read next:

Granta 74: confessions of a middle-aged Ecstasy eater.

Monday, 24 June 2002

A handmaid’s tale & The vintner’s luck

Listening to:

Hildegard of Bingen, O ignis spiritus, from the CD, A feather on the breath of God. Easily the oldest music in my collection, being from the 12th century.

Just read:

Margaret Atwood, A handmaid’s tale.

This is an impressive piece of dystopian fiction in the tradition of 1984. It’s more grounded than Orwell’s novel because it's more explicit about its setting. In passing, it fills us in on how the modern USA (or a reasonably familiar facsimile thereof) turned into a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. I didn’t think that Atwood's alternative history was particularly believable, but at least there were details to mull over.

The story is that of a young woman who has become a handmaid, a state-sanctioned concubine given to a high-ranking government official because the official’s wife is infertile. (The state refuses to acknowledge the possibility that men might be infertile.) Environmental pollution means that very few healthy children are born (shades of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids), so women are allowed no official role other than mother. They are not even allowed to read or write.

The story zips along, shows us various aspects of the imagined future, and ends with a very cute epilogue. It also includes an amusing refashioning of Freud in an off-hand one-liner: women are re-educated not to want to read or write by being told “Pen is envy”.

Elizabeth Knox, The vintner’s luck.

This novel is a curious and interesting story about a French wine-maker of the first half of the 19th century. When 18 he meets an angel in the family vineyard in the middle of the night. After conversing, the angel says that he will continue returning every year on the same day.

The novel mixes its two tones, the sublime and the mundane well. The former features dreamy conversations with angels on matters like the nature of Heaven and Hell, and arresting images such as growing a rose garden in Hell, Hell getting a copy of everything ever copied, and the angel smelling of snow. The mundane is a conventional family saga, but with reasonably interesting characters. I think the cosmogony isn't thought out carefully enough, and would have preferred more of it in place of the saga. The relationship between the vintner and the angel is interesting enough in its own right without needing to give us much more conventional stories of adulteries and various misunderstandings.

To read next:

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Enigma: the battle for the code.

Thursday, 20 June 2002

A suitable boy

Listening to:

Eduard Tubin, symphony no. 3 (Heroic). This is part of a CD from the BBC Music Magazine featuring music by Estonian composers. I’d never heard of Tubin before, but I definitely like this symphony of his. There's also a piece by Arvo Pärt on the CD. He would be the Estonia’s most famous composer, I’d guess.

I’m listening to this on a new CD player that I bought this morning at Argos. The computer on my desk here has a CD drive and a phone-out socket, but it’s become so flakey that it fails to recognise a high proportion of my discs when I put them in the drive. So, I’ve given up the ability to control my music with the mouse, but I can listen to more of it.

Just read:

Vikram Seth, A suitable boy.

This is the 1400+ page monster that I’ve been reading since the end of May. And the verdict is: it’s great. I found it absolutely enthralling. The characters are almost all sympathetic, and Seth takes the time to paint a beautifully detailed picture of post-Independence India (1951 and 1952, specifically). The novel’s duration is defined by the search for a husband for Lata Mehra. It starts with Lata’s sister’s marriage. With this marriage achieved, the sisters’ mother makes Lata her next project. The novel ends when Lata has finally found and chosen her suitable boy.

But Lata is just one of many characters, and there are many chapters where she does not feature at all. Instead, we get many others’ stories as well. These people are connected with Lata one way or the other, but they all have lives of their own, and their stories are quite involved. The other character who gets most attention is probably Maan Kapoor, who is Lata’s brother-in-law through her sister’s marriage and a bit of a ‘wild child’.

I could write for ages trying to describe all that the novel covers, but I don’t think I’d do it justice. Rather, I should defend it against the possible accusation of being a family-saga pot-boiler. I think it escapes from this charge because it’s not simplistic, and it doesn’t seem to trade in stereotypes. Big sections on the politics of land reform and religion aren’t just there as window-dressing either. I suppose it’s possible that someone with more experience of Indian literature in English would identify much of it as cliché. My experience is more limited, and it all comes across as a wonderful window on an exotic world.

To read next:

Margaret Atwood, A handmaid’s tale.

Wednesday, 29 May 2002

The twits and on the BBC...

Listening to:

Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde.

Just read:

Roald Dahl, The Twits.

Somehow I have been accumulating children’s books by Roald Dahl. This is the shortest of the ones I’ve read recently (less than a hundred pages I think), but pretty good nonetheless. It’s a very simple story about an awful couple called Mr. and Mrs. Twit. They are eventually brought to a sticky end by some talking animals. They and their awfulness are really the focus of the story, making it much more engaging than the goody-two-shoes Matilda.

The text for Anne Atkins’s Thought for the Day piece that I so disliked is now available online.

And on the radio this morning, another encouragement to go and look at the BBC’s web-site. The Today Programme has just held an online survey about Britain's most liked and disliked professions. The full results are here. Doctors, nurses and fire-men; good. Journalists and politicians; bad. Scientists and university staff don’t do so badly either, so that's nice.

A cute essay by Jeff Vogel on why side-quests in computer RPGs are a good idea.

Tuesday, 21 May 2002

Shock of the new and From N to Z

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 7 in C major, op. 60 ‘Leningrad’.

Just read:

Robert Hughes, Shock of the new.

Like Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, which preceded it, this is a book based on a TV series. Where Civilisation was all about all sorts of art (principally painting, but also with nods to music and architecture) up to 1900, Shock of the new is almost exclusively about modern (after the late 1800s) painting, with a little on architecture and sculpture.

It gains a lot from this narrower focus. Hughes has an interesting story to tell, and though he admits that he is giving the reader a selective overview, you finish it feeling you understand modern art a lot better than when you started. He provides more than just a whirlwind tour of paintings and dates; instead, he tries to explain how painters were influenced by their predecessors. For example, he's good on how exiled French surrealists influenced the American scene in New York in the 30s and 40s.

Hughes also has a great chapter on architecture, dissecting the ideals of Bauhaus and le Corbusier, and discussing what actually got built. I'm quite a believer in the idea that the nature of one's built surroundings influences how one behaves, and that it's worth spending time and effort on, if not actually designing, then guiding the development of urban spaces. Hughes doesn't have any real answers himself, but discusses (and illustrates) the issues well.

The final chapter of Shock of the new is an attempt to sum up the state of modern art now. (This revised edition was written in about 1990 I think, so “now” is ten years out-of-date.) He's interesting. I think part of the problem has to be the “cult of the original”, which mocks the buying of prints and encourages people to buy originals instead. How are artists ever going to reach any sort of wide audience if the (expensive) original is the only thing accepted as genuine?

Carl V. Smith, From N to Z.

This book is a humorous book that the author kept updating after its first version just after WW2, until the early 60s. I read the 1956 edition. It's a “light-hearted” look at New Zealand, and is even occasionally funny. I found it more interesting as a window onto a country that has changed a great deal since then. For example, the only broadcast medium in that period was radio. I was also slightly surprised to learn that the Milford Track existed then; somehow I imagined it to be a recent innovation.

Inevitably, the book reflects its period, and is pretty patronising about wives, and women in general. When the Maori are noticed at all, the book is similarly condescending. Some things remain true to modern New Zealand and retain their humour: the obsession with the All Blacks, and the fact that Aucklanders are all stuck up and live in a noxious city.

To read next:

Vikram Seth, A suitable boy. I've heard this described as the longest novel originally written in English. The paperback edition I have is over 1400 pages long. I think it will keep me busy for quite a while.

Tuesday, 7 May 2002

Lotsa Dahl

Listening to:

Mozart, Don Giovanni. Probably my favourite Mozart opera. No, wait; probably my favourite opera, full-stop.

Just read:

Roald Dahl, Matilda.

This is another children’s book that I surreptitiously added to my reading schedule in flagrant defiance of the List rules. It didn’t take long to read. Sadly though, it wasn't as good as The BFG, which I also read recently. The BFG is full of humour, but I found this relatively humourless. The villain was both too normal (a primary school teacher) and unrealistic (picking up children by their hair and throwing them à la Olympic hammer). The good guys were also too good and smarmy. This book apparently won some sort of prize, but my cynical mind suggests that this was because it glorifies reading, or because the author was getting on a bit and about to die, or for both reasons.

Roald Dahl, Complete tales of the unexpected.

I believe this is a reprint of something that was originally published as Collected short stories, or something similar. Anyway, it’s basically an omnibus edition of Kiss, kiss, Over to you, Switch bitch, and Someone like you, with another eight miscellaneous stores also thrown in for good measure.

Inevitably, some of the many stories are better than others, but a fair summary would be that they’re all pretty good, and some are excellent. Most of them are stories about relatively normal situations, but with quirky premises or unexpected endings. The stories from Over to you are something of an exception to this, being short stories involving RAF pilots during WW2. Most of these are tragic, and elegaic in tone, reminding me a little of Catch-22. The other stories are a nice mix of humour and nasty twists. Good stuff.

Now reading:

Robert Hughes, Shock of the new.

Wednesday, 1 May 2002

Treason’s harbour & The player of games

Listening to:

Beethoven, Fidelio.

Just read:

Patrick O'Brian, Treason’s harbour.

This is the ninth book of the series, and it’s a definite improvement on the eighth. I liked it. There’s not a lot of naval action to it, but there are a couple of interesting engagements. The last one is sufficiently complicated that there’s even an accompanying map, giving you the lie of the land. The bulk of the “action” turns around intrigues and espionage, which suits me fine. The book doesn’t really finish properly; it’s clearly just a chapter in the ongoing story.

Iain M. Banks, The player of games.

This is the best Culture novel of the three I’ve now read. Just about every aspect of the book is interesting and intriguing. The premise of an empire that determines who occupies positions in its hierarchies (including the position of emperor itself) on the basis of how well someone plays a particular game is a bit too cute, but it’s all worked out very well. There's a savage criticism of repressive political systems in here too: it’s slightly over the top, but done well, even if it is preaching to the choir somewhat.

Still reading:

Roald Dahl's Complete tales of the unexpected.

I was away in Paris over the weekend, which is why I interposed two light paperbacks into my reading schedule.

Tuesday, 23 April 2002

Granta 73 & The BFG

Listening to:

Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra, Some of these days. Another from 19 July, 1929.

Just read:

Granta 73: necessary journeys (contents).

This was a good issue, possibly because there was only one piece of fiction, and that was very good. This was an extract from Ian McEwen’s latest novel, Atonement, which describes part of the retreat to Dunkirk, from the perspective of an English soldier. From the various reviews I’ve read of Atonement, this section is not very typical of the whole novel, but it's an impressive “sub-story”.

Ian Jack’s essay about the engineering and maintenance of railway rails is very interesting. It’s a pertinent piece because the poor state of a particular rail led to a famous derailment at Hatfield, and the death of four passengers. It turned out that the Railtrack company hadn’t been spending enough on rail maintenance, and that the whole nature of the rail establishment meant that this was practically inevitable. The essay describes how the privatization of the rail system in the early 90s was botched and makes quite a compelling case.

Decca Aitkenhead on Westerners holidaying in Thailand was also very good. Her description of back-packers behaving badly at a resort is clear-eyed, and something of a revelation. I also enjoyed the two essays about China, and the piece about Diego Garcia.

Roald Dahl, The BFG.

This is a children’s book that I had read before as a child, and which I've just re-read. It’s a very amusing and enjoyable story. It’s simply written, and would probably take an adult about half an hour to read in one sitting. The idea of a giant that blows dreams into children’s bedrooms is very appealing, and the character, the BFG (Big Friendly Giant) who does it is very funny. Most of this humour comes from his wacky use of English. The illustrations by Quentin Blake add a lot to the story, as is so often the case.

Now reading:

Roald Dahl, Complete Tales of the Unexpected. Not children's literature.

Tuesday, 16 April 2002

Carpe Jugulum

Listening to:

Bach, concerto for flute, violin, harpsichord, strings and basso continuo, BWV 1044 Triple Concerto.

Just read:

Terry Pratchett, Carpe jugulum.

This is an enjoyable addition to the DiscWorld series of comic novels. Though it features Granny Weatherwax, about whom I have complained in the past, she isn’t the all-conquering hero that she was in earlier novels, and her eventual victory over the bad guys (vampires) is cleverly done. The vampires are really the stars of this novel, and they’re very amusing. The main villains are what you might call “nouveaux vampires” (they prefer the spelling vampyre, for example), and this gives Pratchett the opportunity to poke fun at all of the clichés associated with vampire stories.

Now reading:

Granta 73: unnecessary journeys.

Let's just pretend that I wrote this yesterday, OK?

Tuesday, 9 April 2002

Chance

Listening to:

Shostakovich, Seven Romances on Verses by Alexander Blok for Soprano and Piano Trio, Op. 127.

Above me the sky lowers
A dark dream weighs down on my breast.
My fated end is near
And war and fire are at hand

Cheerful stuff.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, Chance.

This novel has a postively happy ending by Conrad’s standards, and the whole is pretty engaging too. It’s no wonder that this was his first commercial success. My edition came with an Author's Note in which Conrad sounds almost pathetically grateful for the popularity. All he had to do was write a novel about a mysterious young woman, who is much put upon and maligned but who eventually finds happiness. Surely this, rather than novels about foreigners coming to bad ends (Nostromo, The secret agent, and Under Western eyes), is the route to popular success.

That’s the basic gist of the story, but you get it in typically oblique fashion. Most of the story is told by the character Marlow, who has filled this role in a number of Conrad’s other stories (e.g., Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim). He’s a bit of an opinionated git, particularly on the subject of women. It's just as well that the “top-level I” of the novel (who is quite anonymous) occasionally interjects with comments along the lines of You don’t expect me to believe that, do you? These reassure the reader that Marlow isn’t necessarily the privileged voice of the author.

The narration moves around in time quite a bit, and also features various levels of “nested narrators” within the account of events. For example, the first chapter is actually told by a character Powell “at the top level” (not within Marlow’s story). Powell later appears, continuing the narration of his story, but inside Marlow’s own telling of the later parts of the story. Conrad seems to have been quite careful to set things up so that the various narrators only tell us about things they could reasonably know themselves, and it all hangs together quite well.

It'd be fair to say that there's a lot more talk than action in the novel, but it’s still quite compelling. The various characters are all well described, the initial set-up of the story is clever and interesting, and the final chapters at sea are tense and exciting. I liked it, and wore a satisfied smile when it ended. (A bit less Marlow and I’d really rate it.)

To read next:

Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum.

Wednesday, 3 April 2002

The shadow line

Listening to:

Neilsen, symphony no. 5.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, The Shadow Line.

The book I read is actually the combination of two works previously published separately. In addition to The Shadow Line, a short novel, it includes the short story collection Within the Tides.

The Shadow Line gets off to a slow start, with the narrator, a young man, waiting for passage back to Britain from Singapore. He is there after having given up his position as first mate on a ship for no reason other than general boredom and lassitude. After getting himself into an immature huff over minor irritations with the people at the hostel where he is staying, he is suddenly and unexpectedly given the chance to command a sailing ship that has lost its captain in Bangkok. This is his first command, and as if in a dream, he takes the opportunity, and is taken to Bangkok on a steam-ship. The rest of the novel describes how he gets the boat from Bangkok to Singapore, and in overcoming various crises, grows up as well. (He thereby crosses “the shadow line” that separates immaturity from a more seasoned youthfulness.)

The novel is autobiographical, echoing an episode of Conrad's life, and although not much really happens, it’s conveyed very intensely, getting the reader quite caught up in the young captain’s emotions and fears. It’s quite similar in tone and scale to Conrad's other sea voyage stories, such as The Nigger of the Narcissus, Youth and Typhoon; I enjoyed it.

There are four stories in Within the tides. The first and longest is The planter of Malata. This is an unlikely melodrama featuring the planter of the title suddenly falling in love with a woman who has come out to the unidentified colony where the novel is set to find her long lost love (not the planter). It features a heart-felt conversation on the top of an island, just as in Victory, and I didn't really like it that much. I appreciated the plot twists that got us to the island and the awful conversation though.

Next was The Partner which was a good, though somewhat uninvolving, story about an attempted insurance scam and a shipwreck. Then, The Inn of the Two Witches, which was an odd attempt at gothic horror, with a slightly silly twist. Finally was the story I liked best, A handful of dollars, about an honourable captain who is caught up in an attempted robbery in an obscure Indonesian backwater. This story has a good mix of character, plot and incident, and a final, and perhaps slightly out-of-place, poignancy.

Now reading:

More Conrad, Chance.

I missed two web-log entries through Easter slacking. Four day weekends should happen more often.

Tuesday, 26 March 2002

The last grain race

Listening to:

Shostakovich, string quartet no. 12 in D flat major, Op. 133.

Just read:

Eric Newby, The last grain race.

This book is the author’s memoir of sailing from Britain to Australia and back again in 1938-9. He was on a big four-masted barque called the Moshulu as an Ordinary Seaman, having decided that his office job in London was stultifying and a dead-end. By this time, the number of commercially active sailing ships was very small, but a few still sailed to Australia and back to pick up South Australian grain for European consumption. Apparently some aspect of the docking procedure or conditions meant that self-powered boats didn’t want to do this route.

The ship that Newby joined was mainly crewed by Swedish speaking Finns, which meant that in addition to learning how to climb ratlines and shrouds and to haul sails in the appropriate manner, he also had to learn the Swedish terminology for all these activities so that he could understand what he was being told to do.

I definitely enjoyed this book. Newby writes well, with the scenes and personalities (the other seamen) he describes coming across vividly. He also sees and conveys the humour in many situations. There are a couple of short sections early on, which he flags, that are heavily “technical”, being about rigging and sails and masts, but not understanding or skipping these two shouldn’t be a problem. I read them, but I don’t think I grasped them in their entirety, and the rest of the book was still very enjoyable.

The edition I read included some very nice B/W photos that Newby took while on the voyage. These were taken from his book Learning the ropes, which consists entirely of these photos.

To read next:

More nautical matters, but fiction this time: Conrad’s The shadow line.

Monday, 18 March 2002

Undue influence and Granta 72

Listening to:

Schumann, piano trio in D minor, Op. 63.

Just read:

Anita Brookner, Undue influence.

I didn’t end up liking this novel a great deal. It was strictly OK. Its style is quite restrained, and rather in the vein of Kazuo Ishiguro’s An artist of the floating world, featuring a continuous internal monologue. Ishiguro pulls this off beautifully, but Brookner’s novel fails in a number of ways. I think the most important is that the main character, Claire Pitt, is completely unbelievable. She’s a 29 year old in the 1990s and has no life. She has one friend, and never refers to having gone to school or university. She doesn’t seem to have any interests, perhaps other than visiting art galleries.

Then the plot is really pretty uninteresting. There are no great moral revelations for Claire; instead she ineffectually pursues a recently widowed man that she doesn’t really like. There are good bits. In particular, the story of what happens to the bookshop where Claire works is well done. We actually care a little bit about the two elderly sisters, their seemingly innocent view of the world, their father, and his influence on them.

Granta 72: overreachers (contents)

This issue of the magazine was a mixed bag. I liked the non-fiction, and two of the fiction pieces. One of the latter was The Hotel Capital by Olga Tokarczuk. This is a very good short story about a chambermaid cleaning a floor of rooms in a hotel and speculating on the inhabitants, who she rarely even sees. This story is vivid, and though it is also interior monologue in its way, this is appropriate enough. It differs from Brookner’s because it is driven by the character’s perceptions of the outside world, not just being sterile reflections about characters that we grow weary of.

The other fiction I liked was The Trout Opera by Matt Condon. This is set in what would appear to be pre-WW1 Australia and the section I read was narrated by a six year old boy. It’s part of a larger novel, and the presence of an eccentric German teacher who makes a positive impression on the boy, makes me fear that the rest of the novel will feature the mistreatment that Germans had to endure during WW1. Maybe I’m wrong, but in any case, the bit of it in the Granta is very appealing.

There are two particularly good non-fiction essays. One is by A. L. Kennedy about her grandfather, his passion for boxing and her memories of him. She has lots of perceptive things to say about the sport. The other non-fiction essay is by a barrister who successfully appealed a death sentence for a convicted murderer in Trinidad. He visits the island, and makes the acquaintance of a fascinating anti-capital-punishment campaigner called Ishmael Samad.

To read next:

Eric Newby, The last grain race. (32 books remaining on the List.)

Tuesday, 12 March 2002

Australia and Timbuktu

Listening to:

Bach, prelude in F sharp major, from Book 2 of the Well-tempered clavier.

Just read:

Philip Knightley, Australia: biography of a nation.

This book is a readable history of Australia. It’s written by a journalist rather than a historian, which means that the style and tone of the writing is different from what you’d expect of a historian. For example, the first chapter reads like the sort of newspaper article you might see in the travel section of a newspaper in the UK; it waxes lyrical about how great life in modern Australia is. No doubt Knightley would call this scene-setting, but I think it’s fluff.

Nonetheless, I rather liked this book. Its coverage of events of the first half of the 20th century is engagingly written, and full of interesting detail. Even the author’s personal reminiscing is reasonably interesting. He covers the two world wars quite well, carefully explaining how the Gallipoli myth arose in WW1, and providing a good discussion of the way Australia broke free of Britain to look for help from the US in WW2.

The later sections of the book are the main cause of my not being keener on the book. Knightley gets all gushy about the Gough Whitlam government, making it sound as if heaven on earth had arrived in the early 70s. He then goes on to suggests that the CIA was involved in Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s dissolution of Whitlam’s government. There’s no point to such unfalsifiable conspiracy theories, and it just makes Knightley look silly. He’s clearly a real New Labour kinda guy, and he later approvingly claims that Tony Blair is really an Australian at heart. This is meant as a compliment, of course. How crawling can you get?

Paul Auster, Timbuktu.

This is very good book, telling the story of a dog called Mr. Bones, from the dog’s perspective, imagining that the dog has a human-like mind and the ability to understand human speech. It’s funny and sad, and very vivid. All of the people that Mr. Bones has something to do with are drawn very well, making the story very real. As I read this, I was reminded of Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, which is also a fable about love and loyalty. The differences between the two books are a matter of style. Eucalyptus paints its picture in muted tones, with a distant dream-like feel, while Timbuktu is bright and almost hyper-real. I enjoyed it a great deal.

(I read the first chapter of Timbuktu in Granta 63.)

To read next:

Anita Brookner, Undue influence.

Monday, 4 March 2002

Granta 71

Listening to:

Mozart, Vesperae solennes de confessore, K339.

Just read:

Granta 71: shrinks (contents)

This issue of the magazine had some good bits in it, but didn’t make much of an impact on me. The first story, by Elliott Perlman, went on for ever and never seemed to work its way to having any point. The all-knowing narrator figure quickly became a royal pain in the arse. I didn’t think much of the rest of the fiction in this issue, but at least it was all over reasonably quickly. Maybe I'll grant Paul Auster’s little story an honorable mention: it was appealingly weird and brief.

The non-fiction was better. Ian Parker's Obedience was all about the famous experiments in the early 1960s where normal Americans readily inflicted painful electric shocks on another when told to do so. The researcher who performed the experiments was Stanley Milgram. The article describes the background to his experiments, and also discusses some of the controversy that almost immediately ensued, and which arguably wrecked Milgram's career. Very interesting.

There were also a couple of non-fiction personal accounts of stressful human situations. One was by Justine Picardie about not coping with her sister's death to cancer, and the other was Tim Parks about his schizophrenic brother-in-law. (The latter may have been fiction, but it certainly read like a true-life account.) Both were quite compelling in a “twitch the front curtains” kind of way.

Now reading:

Philip Knightley, Australia: biography of a nation. Incidentally, I now have 36 unfinished books on the List.

Tuesday, 26 February 2002

Mapping the world

Listening to:

Beethoven, Grosse Fuge, op. 133 in B flat. This is easily the most difficult music of Beethoven’s that I’ve ever heard. It was originally intended to be the final movement of his string quartet op. 130 in B flat, but when it was first performed people complained that it was too long in comparison to the rest of the quartet. In my recording, it’s almost 19 minutes long, while the first movement is 14 minutes, and all the others are less than 10 minutes long (two are less than five).

The difficulty probably stems from the fact that it is a fugue, with multiple lines happening all at once. I guess I don’t listen to it often enough to have become entirely familiar with it. It’s pretty fierce stuff, on the whole.

Just read:

Peter Whitfield, Mapping the world: a history of exploration.

This is a revised edition of a book written for the British Library with earlier title New found lands: maps in the history of exploration. It’s one of the Folio Society’s special presentation volume freebies, which means that it’s big (30cm) with lots of nice plates, mainly of maps, but also of various other prints. These are very nice, but the text is also very good.

The book summarises the history of European exploration, starting the main text with the Portugese expansion along the west coast of Africa, and then getting onto the Americas, the Pacific, Australia and the polar regions. Before the main text there is a brief introduction explaining why earlier and other foreign exploration was qualitatively different from the sort of thing done by the Europeans. For example, the Polynesians did a pretty good job of spreading themselves across the Pacific (an ocean whose vastness Whitfield is expressive about). Nevertheless, they never maintained any centralised repository of knowledge about the discoveries that were being made. (Nor, being pre-literate, would this have been an easy thing to do.) In contrast, people with the maps back in Lisbon really did see their net knowledge of the world increase.

Though the book is not too long, it is pretty comprehensive, with good discussions of every continent and the explorers who went there. I enjoyed it. There are a couple of subjects it doesn’t touch on (though I’d have been interested to read about them): the mapping of home territories and how this improved (being a book about exploration, this is a pretty reasonable omission), and also a little more about technology. For example, Mercator is mentioned, but his projection is not.

Now reading:

Granta 71: shrinks.

Wednesday, 20 February 2002

White teeth

Listening to:

Schubert, string quintet in C, D956.

Just read:

Zadie Smith, White teeth.

This is a clever, intelligent, and very amusing novel. It tells the story of two families living in North London, and is superficially a “family epic”. However, instead of deeply meaningful development, we’re instead given an opportunity to laugh at cleverly plotted scenes, and also at characters who are all basically stereotypes or too extreme to be entirely believable. Done poorly this could have just been offensive and off-putting, but the stereotypes were all sympathetically drawn, and the extreme characters make for greater impact on the reader’s imagination. I didn’t derive much emotional attachment to any of them, but this wasn’t the point of the novel.

It’s a topical novel, managing to address issues of genetic engineering, immigration and Islamic fundamentalism. Most of these issues are touched reasonably lightly, which I felt appropriate. It was only when the touch was occasionally heavier that I felt White teeth was being slightly less than very successful.

To read next:

Yes, I have finally got my reviewing back-log over. My next book is Peter Whitfield's Mapping the world: a history of exploration.

Monday, 18 February 2002

The code book

Listening to:

Shostakovich, a suite of music arranged from the operetta Moscow-Cheryomushki, op. 105. This is part of an enjoyable CD called Shostakovich: the dance album, featuring Riccardo Chailly and The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Just read:

Simon Singh, The code book.

This is an enjoyable read about codes and ciphers. Singh takes reasonable care to explain most of the technical material, while simultaneously lacing the book with interesting anecdotes about the people and events involved in the creation and cracking of the world’s famous ciphers.

I felt that the explanations of how to crack the Vigenere cipher, the Linear-B story, the description of Enigma, the discussion of Diffie-Hellman key exchange, and the final section of the book, on quantum cryptography were all very good. I was not completely new to any of this material (except the Linear-B story, which was fascinating), but I think someone who was new to the material would still find the book very good: the technical writing is solid and the historical background is interesting and well described.

It makes me curious to see what Singh’s book about Fermat’s Last Theorem is like. There I know that the maths quickly doesn’t admit easy explanation to lay readers, so I suspect I would wax rather less rhapsodic about his technical exposition.

Oh yes, it's another book with a home-page, though I guess this is really the home-page of the accompanying puzzle, The Cipher Challenge.

Thursday, 14 February 2002

The wealth and poverty of nations

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 4 in G minor. George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, with Judith Raskin to sing in the fourth movement.

Just read:

David Landes, The wealth and poverty of nations.

This is another birthday present from 2000. I had high hopes of this book as I began; it had good quotes on the covers from places such as The Economist and the Guardian. Unfortunately, after a few chapters, I’d already developed a strong dislike of the author’s style. One mannerism that I particularly disliked was the following rhetorical trick:

In ignoring the possibilities and challenges represented by the West’s advantages in X, the nation Y chose safety over opportunity. Big mistake.

Sometimes it was Bad idea instead of Big mistake, but they all quickly came to grate. Landes all too often worked himself into a disparaging tone about whole countries or cultures, making what he had to say difficult to take. This disparagement was usually directed at the obvious targets, cultures that failed to exploit their potential when in a strong position; in particular Iberia, China, India and the Middle East. He also later got into a bit of a lather about the US’s failings with respect to Japan, so I don't think he's simply a WASP racist. Moreover, I think I probably agreed with 90% of what he had to say (sexism, bad; diverse centres of political power, good; conflation of church and state, bad; encouragement of science, technology and trade, good).

The book is basically an economic history of the world since 1000AD, with lots of discussion of why it was that certain countries did well, and others didn’t. It’s a big book, so there’s quite a lot of interesting detail too. For example, there was a nice contrast drawn between Egyptian and Japanese modernisation attempts in the 19th century.

Disappointingly, there was no room for any discussion of Australasia. I think it would have been interesting to hear Landes’s views about New Zealand’s reliance on primary sectors of the economy (agriculture, fisheries and forestry). Elsewhere he’s pretty scathing about the classical doctrine of comparative advantage, which holds that countries should focus on what they’re good at. In a static world where the possibility of more growth through industrialisation doesn’t exist, comparative advantage makes perfect sense. But France and Germany became a lot richer in the 19th centuries by explicitly trying to catch up with Britain, and not focussing on their comparative advantages in agriculture. Again though, I think Landes makes a mess of his argument by resorting to sarcastic invective rather than trying to explain his point more carefully.

Tuesday, 12 February 2002

Stalingrad

Listening to:

Beethoven, Variations and Bagatelles, played by Mikhail Pletnev. Just finished Andante favori (WoO 57) and onto Polonaise, op. 89.

Just read:

Antony Beevor, Stalingrad.

This was a birthday present in 2000, so I’m a mere 16 months behind with the List. This book is a detailed military history of the Battle of Stalingrad, which happened in 1942-3, and which saw the German military subjected to its first big defeat. It starts with a brief account of the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa, describing how the summer of 1941 saw the Germans make incredible progress across Russia. Their advance was halted in the winter of 1941, and they didn’t manage to take Moscow. The Russian counterattack that winter was quite successful and relieved much of the pressure. But with the passage of winter in 1942, the Germans were in a position to advance once more.

The book’s focus then shifts to the south-east. We don’t really hear anything about the siege of Leningrad for example. Hitler was obsessed with getting to the oil fields in the Caucasus, and Stalingrad and the Volga River were in the way. Stalingrad is further east than Moscow, so it was quite a lunge for the Germans to be making. It’s a bit difficult to engage in counter-factual speculation, but it would have probably been quite a coup if the campaign had succeeded. It didn’t succeed though, and the Germans never managed to get across the Volga at Stalingrad. Their army got bogged down, principally in fierce fighting in the city itself. Then in the winter of 1942, the Russian Operation Uranus completely cut them off, encircling them simultaneously from the north-east and south-east. Hundreds of thousads of soldiers were cut off, in the middle of a Russian winter, and eventually surrendered, despite Hitler encouraging them to fight to the death.

Though Stalingrad goes into a little more detail than I just have, I believe the above summary captures the gist of the military situation. The book concentrates on describing conditions in the opposing armies, and the dilemmas facing the various commanders, including their relationships with their respective Supreme Commanders. It does this very well, thoroughly convincing me that I wouldn’t ever want to be within a thousand miles of the whole situation. It also suggested to me that Hitler and Stalin were equally murderous and evil, but that Stalin had a pragmatic streak that Hitler lacked. To hear Beevor tell it, Hitler completely deluded himself as to the real situation, refused to listen to contradictory evidence, and spent his time either lying to his subordinates in Russia or imagining implausible plans for their rescue.

Stalingrad inevitably recounts lots of death and destruction, but it’s never a stomach-turning gore-fest. Instead it’s depressing, illuminating and compelling all at once.

Friday, 8 February 2002

Equal rites

Listening to:

Haydn, string quartet op. 50, No. 5 in F major. This recording is by the Kodály Quartet on Naxos. I believe they have recorded all of Haydn’s quartets. I don’t know quite how many CDs this comes to, but I only have three so far, so I’m confident that there are still lots more out there.

Just read:

Terry Pratchett, Equal rites.

I bought this to read on the plane trips I made to and from Portland last month. I believe it’s the third Discworld novel published, and there are a variety of clues to this in the style and plotting of the novel. For example, it’s Granny Weatherwax’s first appearance, and I think you can see how she’s still not the fully-formed character of the later books. In particular, she is less competent, feeling unsure about urban life. In my opinion, that makes her rather more likable.

The plot is all about a young girl wanting to become a wizard, despite the fact that the Unseen University only accepts men. This is the source of the most of the humour, and the journey from the small village in Lancre to the bustling metropolis of Ankh-Morpork is also a good source of jokes. There are the inevitable monsters threatening the stability of the universe from the Dungeon Dimensions and there’s even a chance for wizards and witches to display their complementary skills. In later books, the wizards become rather more bumbling and pathetic, while Weatherwax turns into an all-defeating super-witch.

Of course, the characterisation of female and male attitudes to, and versions of, magic are right out of Sexist Stereotyping 101, which make things a little dull. There doesn’t seem to be any room for the analytic woman, nor the “in-touch-with-Nature” man. It’s also too easy for Pratchett to praise the “intuitive, female approach” and mock the male worldview. There's nothing wrong with doing these things per se, but it does become predictable.

Finally, as for style, I don’t think that later novels would have included a line mentioning Steven Spielberg; here Pratchett is reaching outside of his Universe in a way that I think becomes rarer later.

An amusing response to the "axis of evil" speech.

Wednesday, 6 February 2002

Excession, Waitangi Day

Listening to:

Arnold, symphony no. 7, op. 113.

Just read:

Iain M. Banks, Excession.

This is another of the Culture novels. I think I preferred it to Consider Phlebas, but it's pretty similar in style and tone. CP probably had more engaging ideas (the bunker/train system on the dead planet, the extended discussion of life on a Ring, the whole Changer species), but I didn't like the plot and the violence. The Culture's Minds also didn't seem to play as much of a role. In Excession, the Minds and the space-ships they tend to inhabit play a much greater part. A few more consequences of what it might be like to live in such a galaxy seem to have been thought through. The fact that the Minds are independent entities with their own agendas, rather than part of some monolithic, over-arching government is well thought out.

There are occasional neat ideas. The ship that creates massive historical tableaux in its innards with people in suspended animation, for example. The Affront culture is perhaps a little too similar in feel to the Idirans of CP, but still seems reasonably fresh and vivid.

On the other hand, I'd have to agree with almost all of this review's criticisms too. It demonstrates that the book isn't perfect.

Today is Waitangi Day, New Zealand's national day, but it is also the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's accession to the throne (which happened when her father, George VI, died). I suspect it is the latter rather than the former which explains all the flags flying atop various colleges in town.

I recently found another comic on the web. It's called PhD, standing for Piled Higher and Deeper. A couple of nice samples:

Monday, 4 February 2002

The flâneur

Listening to:

Schumann, Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. Played by Martha Argerich.

Just read:

Edmund White, The flâneur.

I got this as a Christmas present, but because I was away from home at the time, I allowed myself to read it, in bare-faced defiance of the rules of the List.

Anyway, it’s a very elegant little book. It's the first in a series featuring writers on cities with which they are familiar. White's city is Paris, and he fills his book with interesting observations and stories about the city. Superficially, this is thus a travel book. There is no attempt at completeness in White's coverage however: he has written about what he's interested in. I think his views and opinions interesting, so that's fine by me.

A flâneur is a person who wanders city streets with no particular objective in mind. White describes doing this in Paris very well, and makes me think that I really should take advantage of its proximity to do some of this strolling myself. Some of The flâneur is about specific bits of the city, but other parts discuss French culture and history more generally. For example, White discusses how it is that the French literature scene doesn't really admit the specific sub-category “gay literature”. The authors and critics have decided to repudiate the labelling.

Thursday, 31 January 2002

Entry #248

Listening to:
Shostakovich, 24 preludes, op 34. Played by Tatiana Nikolayeva, for whom Shostakovich wrote his later 24 preludes and fugues.
Just read:
Granta 70: Australia, the new New World (contents page). This issue of Granta has a good sub-title. I'm sure I get onto this with most people I know at one stage or another (and bore them to death, no doubt). Australia and New Zealand are a lot "newer" than the Americas: their colonisation by Europeans happened much more recently (post 1840 in the case of New Zealand). Of course, all of these New World countries had existing inhabitants, but on acknowledging this, I can also say that New Zealand was the last major piece of land to be inhabited by anyone. The Maori only arrived in New Zealand 800-1000 years ago. Maori oral history includes the story of their arrival, and names the great navigator who discovered the country, Kupe. Contrast this with oral history in Australia and the Americas; in both places the first inhabitants arrived on the order of 20000 years ago. Unsurprisingly their oral histories don't tell the story of their arrival, they assume that they've been there forever.

Anyway, this special, bigger-than-normal issue of the magazine is full of good writing. I don't think much of the editor's excuse for not including any Aboriginal writing, but what's there is mainly excellent. There's an extract from Peter Kelly's True history of the Kelly gang, which recently won the Booker prize, and quite a bit of other fiction. There are also interesting non-fiction pieces, individuals reflecting on some aspect of their interaction with Australia. I found the account of a Darwin-based journalist tracking down an Aboriginal artist who lives in a very isolated camp in the tropical jungle particularly good.

Finally, it's clearly worth mentioning Peter Conrad's piece, just so I can deny its relevance to my personal situation. He left Tasmania in the 1960s, confident that he would never return, to go to university in England. He's now an Oxford academic. He's interesting about Tasmania and how restricted and stultifying he thought it. He's probably absolutely right, but it still comes across as rather patronising.

I've been playing quite a bit of the game Stronghold recently. It definitely appeals to the sand-castle builder in me. The various scenarios that I've had to progress through have also been very artfully designed to make me want to keep playing as more and more neat capabilities are gradually opened up. I've recently been able to build crossbowmen as well as archers, and I'm now in the middle of a scenario where I get to build my own catapults to try and take out another castle on the same map. (Hitherto, the focus of the scenarios has been defensive.) Some other reviews:

Friday, 25 January 2002

Entry #247

Listening to:
Bach, Well-tempered clavier, book I.
Just read:
Kazuo Ishiguro, An artist of the floating world. This is a great novel, written in a wonderful style. It bears definite resemblences to Ishiguro's The remains of the day (which was made into a film). Both novels tell the story of a man reminiscing on a period of his life about which he is becoming unsure. In both novels, the earlier period is the 1930s, and in both, the men have to reassess the way they behaved then in the light of the changed post-war world.

Ishiguro writes beautifully. The course of the novel is an extended narration of events by the artist of the title, Masuji Ono. His voice is distinctive, being very measured and precise. The beauty of the book is that through this slow, careful narration of events, one that is superficially dry and emotionless, you can pick up the self-justifications that Ono is telling himself. You can perceive his growing realisation that his behaviour was probably suspect, and that his past is also liable to prejudice his family's future. Highly recommended.

A neat selection of short essays by the linguist Geoff Nunberg, covering a range of topics, from American newspapers and the word "Jew", to how interjections are the grammatical part of speech where 90s slang has focussed most of its attention.

Tuesday, 22 January 2002

Granta 69

Listening to:

Bach, flute sonata in B minor, BWV 1030.

Just read:

Granta 69: the assassin (contents page).

The assassin of the title is Demeitrios Tsafendas, who killed the South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966. The piece is by Henk van Woerden, and is a miniature biography of Tsafendas. Tsafendas was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and manic-depressive as well, and it’s pretty clear that his crime wasn’t motivated by any particularly deep political consciousness. He died in a South African mental hospital. His life involved an eye-opening amount of travelling: he was born in Mozambique, spent early childhood in Egypt, was a seaman on American transport ships during WW2, and also spent time in Portugal, Germany, Greece and the Middle East. He also lived in South Africa, of course. The main motivation for all this roaming seemed to be a desire to find a country that would accept him and which he could also be at home in.

There are other good things in this issue too. I particularly liked the short story by Hanif Kureishi, and the article by Diana Athill about being editor to V. S. Naipaul. The photo essay has Romanian AIDS orphans as its subject.

I was away last week at the POPL computer science conference. I definitely liked what I saw of Portland. The famous Powells book-store was very impressive.

Wednesday, 9 January 2002

Under western eyes

Listening to:

Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, Under western eyes.

This impressive novel is set in Russia and Switzerland, and tells the story of a young Russian student, Razumov, who is caught up in revolutionary politics in the early years of the 20th century (i.e., before the actual Russian Revolution). He ends up having to leave Russia after a high-ranking government official is assassinated, and goes to Geneva. There he mixes with an emigré community of revolutionaries, who have quite the wrong impression of his true nature.

There’s not a lot of “action” in this novel; much of what happens is simply dialogue and characters meeting other characters. Nonetheless, I found it decidedly compelling. The characters are well-drawn, and the situations they find themselves in are full of tension and interest.

I read quite a few books over the holiday break, and I’m now quite busy with work, so my next few entries will be short, and mainly concerned with my book review back-log.

Happy New Year.

Monday, 3 December 2001

Granta 68 & The English

Listening to:

Schubert, piano sonata in A, D959. Beautiful, wistful music.

Just read:

Granta 68: Love stories.

This collection of fiction and non-fiction pieces wasn't spectacular, but just about everything in there was good stuff. (Here's the contents page.) I particularly liked the story by Ruth Gershon about an affair between an English, Jewish woman and a Palestinian man, conducted in Israel (apposite perhaps given the horrible events of the weekend). I also enjoyed the non-fiction account by Keith Fleming about going to live with his gay uncle Edmund White in New York when he was a teenager. The last piece in the collection was another non-fiction account, this time of learning to be a doctor in 70s South Africa. This was very depressing. What amazed me is the inertia seemingly exhibited by most of the whites there; I'd like to think that if I found myself in a similarly screwed up country, and had the means to escape, then I would. Of course, those with the means to escape are often those who see least reason to leave, but I don't know how I could stay and feel complicit in what was going on. And of course, I don't know how many other countries were accepting South African emigrants. Finally, this issue's photo essay was a cool pairing of informal portrait photos from 20 years ago with similarly posed portraits of the same people in the present.

Jeremy Paxman, The English.

I got this book as a Christmas present in 1999, so I feel pleased that I'm back inside the two year gap between acquisition and reading. (I think I was there before starting Ulysses, but that slowed me down no end.) The English is a good read, but isn't very deep. I think it suffers because it doesn't offer any particularly coherent overall thesis. Paxman writes pretty well at the paragraph-to-paragraph level, and includes some neat anecdotes and statistics, but it's all a bit patchy. My guess is that he didn't want to be accused of reverting to stereotypes and generalisations (quite right too), so he is careful to pick out lots of things that point in quite different directions. My problem is that he never really seems to synthesise all this material.

There's lots of neat stuff in the book. I forgot to bring it in with me today, so I can't provide any excerpts, but maybe I'll remember on Wednesday.

Paxman is quite a famous BBC journalist/presenter, and has a bio-page on the BBC web-site.

To read next:

John Fothergill, An innkeeper's diary.

New Zealand have set Australia a target of 371 runs to win the test in Perth on the last day, and Australia have eight wickets left to do it with. Exciting stuff!

Tuesday, 27 November 2001

Civilisation & The Railway Children

Listening to:

Mozart, The Magic Flute.

Just read:

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation.

The book of a TV series? Is this the sort of thing a high-brow publication such as mine should deign to consider? Well, it does date from over 30 years ago. In those days, TV series, particularly if made by the BBC, were serious, fine, morally upstanding affairs with real intellectual weight and grit. Not like the trash we get today, of course. Kenneth Clark was also the father of a famous Tory MP who fancied Margaret Thatcher, so I’m sure that makes all the difference.

Regardless, I liked this book. It’s a slightly odd survey of European art since the Dark Ages. In the first few chapters, Clark insists that he’s not interested in Art, because it’s quite possible to create Art without being civilised. Instead, he wants to track the progress of civilisation. This is a somewhat unusual slant, and I don’t think he really thinks the ideas through properly. However, they make for some interesting interludes.

Clark is also quite happy to make broad statements of a contentious nature without really backing them up. At one point he says something like the great tragedy of Germany is that it never developed its own clear prose style. This sort of thing is perfect for after-dinner debate, and it certainly makes you sit up and take notice. I found it stimulating, but I can imagine others finding it very irritating. I was willing to ‘cut him some slack’ for being a reactionary Tory because he wrote well, and also because he says lots of sensible things too.

The book concentrates on the visual arts and architecture. When it briefly digresses to sing the praises of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven it illustrates what I found with jazz in On the road; it’s nearly impossible to write about music and really convey the experience that listening to it would elicit. (The TV show would have at least been able to play samples of the music.)

Clark finishes his detailed coverage at the end of the 19th century, and writes just a little about the 20th century and how it might score in terms of civilisation.

E. Nesbit, The railway children.

I read E. Nesbit’s books a lot as a child, and enjoyed them all. They’re appealing stories, written without condescension and a nice ear for children’s dialogue and thought processes. The Edwardian setting didn’t put me off at all; rather, I enjoyed the exotic-ness of the horses, carts, gas-lights and servants. I think I liked the books that featured magic and/or time travel the most (books such as Five children and It and The story of the amulet), so I don’t have any real memory of reading The railway children. Coming to it again as a Much Older Person, I found it to be an impressive mix of charm and emotional oomph. It has a happy ending, and everything turns out well within the book’s various sub-plots, but you would have to be a cynic with a heart of stone not to be moved by the emotional climaxes of the story.

Interestingly, Harry Potter also gets most of its emotional oomph from the “lost parent(s)” theme. I guess it’s a safe staple for children’s literature.

To read next:

Granta 68: Love stories.

Tuesday, 13 November 2001

Ulysses

Listening to:

Haydn, string quartet Op. 50, No. 6 in D major.

Just read:

James Joyce, Ulysses.

I read the final four sections of this over the weekend. The four sections were Circe (Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Dublin's red-light district, principally them in one particular brothel), Eumaeus (Bloom and Stephen on their way home afterwards, stopping off in a night shelter), Ithaca (Bloom and Stephen back at Bloom's home), and Penelope (Molly Bloom's reflections after Bloom comes to bed).

First up, it’s worth saying that this is not an easy book to read. I spent quite a proportion of my time flipping backwards and forwards between the main text and the endnotes that explained obscure allusions, translated the Latin phrases, or pointed out that the four lines just read should actually appear at the top of the facing page. (The latter sort of problem arose because the edition I read aimed to be an honest reproduction of the first 1922 edition, which was itself plagued by all sorts of typographical problems. It had to be printed in France because no publisher in the US or the UK would touch it. Pity the poor French type-setters who had to deal with the world's most complicated English novel, full of neologisms, deliberately ungrammatical sentences, and allusions to obscure Irish politicians and personalities that they would never had heard of.)

Even if you had a perfect, error-free edition in front of you (the very interesting introduction to the edition I read explained how this is still probably an unrealisable dream), Ulysses would be difficult. The initial chapters (up until Aeolus) are relatively conventional in style (particularly if you've read Portrait of the artist as a young man), but from that point on things get more difficult. Each chapter after that point tends to be written in a different style. For example, Aeolus is written in short paragraphs with various “headlines” interspersed through the text, Penelope is written as one very long continuous internal monologue in just four sentences, and Circe is written as if it were a dramatic script (but with parts also given to inanimate objects like buttons).

In addition to difficulties you might have because of the style, some of the subject matter can be difficult to follow because Joyce really does try to “put everything in”, or at least convince you that this is what he’s done. The text is full of names, and comments about the people behind them. Some of these are fictional people, so you can only expect to know as much as Joyce is willing to let you, but many more are the people who really would have been thought about by the Irish of Dublin in 1904. I had a vague idea of who Parnell was, but most of the other references went right over my head (prompting yet more turning to the endnotes).

It all makes for an over-poweringly rich, though somewhat bewildering, experience. I think I can see why some Joyce fans try to recreate the characters’ peregrinations around Dublin on 14 June every year. I will have to read it again.

To read next:

A history of London in maps, by Felix Barker and someone else.

Friday, 9 November 2001

The Ionian mission

Listening to:

Bartok, string quartet no. 6 (Sz 114).

Holiday reading:

Patrick O'Brian, The Ionian mission.

This is the eighth book of the series. I wasn’t as impressed with this one as I was with the first seven. It starts well, with Aubrey and Maturin “messing about in boats” in the western Mediterranean, blockading the French fleet based in Toulon, and getting to grips with a new crew and ship. The Ionian aspect of the story comes along quite late in the tale, and seems tacked on to the rest of the narrative in fairly desultory fashion. So, my verdict is: weakest of the eight, but I’ll still read the next one. (It’s on the List for a start.)

Another strategy they might adopt in the UK to “encourage” civic participation is to force people to vote. This is what happens in Australia (you can be fined if you don’t vote). I’m reminded of this because Australia is having a General Election tomorrow.

Tuesday, 30 October 2001

Ulysses continues and Phlebas considered

Listening to:

Bach, violin sonata in A, BWV 1015.

Still reading:

James Joyce, Ulysses. I read another three sections this weekend: The Wandering Rocks (lots of little vignettes of life in and around Dublin), The Sirens (Bloom in a bar, listening to music and admiring the barmaids) and The Cyclops (Polyphemus) (Bloom in a different bar, awkwardly chatting with some vaguely racist and one-eyed (geddit?) acquaintances).

I have six more sections to go, and it’s clear that writing a final summary of the whole novel for a “Just read:” review will be pretty difficult.

Holiday reading:

Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas.

I read this while away in France in September, and thought it pretty good. It was the first science fiction that I’d read in ages, and I enjoyed it. It’s quite space-opera-ish in terms of its basic construction, but there are also lots of neat ideas in it. The Culture is a particularly powerful one (an extended article about bits of it by Banks), and I was also impressed by the Changer species. I didn’t see so much of the deep meaning in it that Philip Banks discerns, but I haven’t read it twenty times either.

The only real thing I’d hold against the novel is the frequency of the fight scenes. These aren’t particularly gory so I don't object to the blood and guts on offer. Rather I think that the fights come up sufficiently often that you begin to think that physical combat between small numbers of individuals is the only way that things ever get resolved in this futuristic universe. (I much prefer the ship-vs-ship level of the “fights” in the O’Brian books.)

It also seems a bit of a cop-out that the vast majority of the alien species are conveniently humanoid. Perhaps some future novel in the series (there are quite a few) will explain how this comes to be. It’s not because humans from Earth colonised the universe, and subsequent variation emerged by evolution; an epilogue makes it clear that the events described occurred at about 1200 AD “our time”.

Thursday, 4 October 2001

Software runaways and more

Listening to:

Puccini, La Bohème.

Holiday reading:

Robert L. Glass, Software runaways.

I read this in Australia because it was in a friend’s book-case, not because I took it with me. It’s a repackaged collection of articles, including a big chunk of someone else’s masters thesis, about software projects that went disastrously wrong, usually costing the earth, and/or taking much longer than expected to finish, or not finishing at all.

As a collection, it doesn’t hold together particularly well. The introduction is OK in terms of introducing Glass’s theories about project failure, but the rest of the book makes pretty dull reading. Many of the failures were due to political squabbles (rather than bad technical decisions), but there’s nothing much in the way of human interest in the presentation of these stories. Further, the technical problems are not described in anything like enough detail to allow anyone to take away any sort of technical lessons.

My link du jour is (part of) the sad story of how more and more free “content” on the web is disappearing. The New York Times hasn’t given free access to its standard archive for a while, but as a result of the Tasini case explained above, it has now removed lots of pre-1995 book reviews from its site that were apparently available before. The New York Review of Books is doing something similar, and Salon has moved most of its politics coverage to subscriber-only access.

However, Salon does have this neat article/review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s latest Earthsea books available for all. (OK, I admit it, I call it “neat” because I find myself in almost complete agreement with the reviewer about everything she says.) I just hope it continues to remain accessible indefinitely.

Tuesday, 2 October 2001

The surgeon’s mate and a holiday report

Listening to:

Ella Fitzgerald singing I love Paris, by Cole Porter. My CD traversal is up to P, and this CD is filed under P for Porter, because it’s Ella Fitzgerald singing the Cole Porter songbook. A CD featuring Ella Fitzgerald singing songs by a variety of composers would be filed under F, of course.

Holiday reading:

Patrick O'Brian, The surgeon's mate.

This is the seventh in the O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin series, and is very good. It starts with the heroes in Nova Scotia, having just escaped from the clutches of the nefarious Americans. Eventually they get back to Britain, are assigned to a mission in the Baltic, and things get better from there on in. (I’m being vague to avoid giving the interesting plot away.) I like this novel particularly because it has a great mix of naval action and espionage activities, ranging across a wide variety of settings.

I was away in the south of France last week. I stayed in a gîte near the city of Montpellier. I didn’t actually get to see a lot of the city, but what I did see looked very nice. We were a way out of town, near the village of St. Martin-de-Londres. The landscape in this neck of the woods is really pretty spectacular, featuring the impressive Pic St. Loup and big blue skies. This area is also an up and coming wine region (search for Pic St. Loup on Google and you get a lot more about the wines than the mountain), and I’d be lying if I said we didn’t sample any of the local produce.

I decided not to try to take Ulysses away with me as holiday reading. Instead I took a couple of other books, more suitable for easy consumption. I'll provide reviews of these in the near future.

Finally, a site with a neat premise, free disposable e-mail addresses. Why would you want such a thing? So you can hand out addresses to potentially dodgy web-sites, get a few messages from the site, and then have the rest of the messages get automatically dropped. Check its FAQ.

Monday, 17 September 2001

Frankenstein

Listening to:

Elgar, Falstaff—symphonic study.

Just read:

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein. (Complete text (~450KB))

This is one of those books that you expect you know all about just because it’s been the basis for so many films, stories and whatever else. Of course, you know that Frankenstein is the name of the mad scientist that created the monster, not the monster itself. You also probably know that the monster's attitude to life is initially not a hostile one, and you know he suffers from being misunderstood by the world around him.

Well, I knew all that anyway, but it was good to sit down and actually read it. Now that I have, I’m trying to articulate my reaction to it. It’s not a very long book, and the plot is not at all complicated. A fair bit of it was also quite predictable, particularly given the prior knowledge I had of it. The characters are also quite flat, and unbelievable, with the honourable exception of the monster himself. But then, these things don't really matter if you're willing to read the book for its message. I’d say that there are two major themes in Frankenstein. The first is anti-science, the idea that there are some things which should be left well alone, no matter the intellectual curiosity which leads to investigating them. The second, more significant, and to me, more acceptable theme is comment about the hostility and willed ignorance with which the world greets people who are superficially different from the norm.

I enjoyed reading Frankenstein. It has its share of tedious prose and could be a deal shorter than it is, but the basic plot is a good one, the story is told well, the monster is sympathetic, and there are interesting questions raised about the relationship between creators (parents) and offspring.

To read next:

James Joyce, Ulysses. This will take me a good long while to read, I’m sure.

Tuesday, 4 September 2001

Bach and Oscar Wilde

Listening to:

Bach, concerto for harpsichord and strings in G minor, BWV 1058. The CD on which this piece appears is part of a five CD set of Bach concerti. It’s very well documented. In particular, there’s a nice chart at the back of booklet explaining how Bach reused music from a variety of sources to write his harpsichord concerti. It appears that there is no extant harpsichord concerto of his that didn’t start out as something else. What’s more, even if the “something else” no longer exists, it’s apparently possible to figure out what it was. So, while this concerto (BWV 1058) corresponds to an existing violin concerto (BWV 1041, in A minor), the concerto in A major, BWV 1055, is based on a concerto in A major for oboe d'amore that is now lost.

The musical detective work that goes into this process of reconstruction and discovery is described a little in the booklet. There’s enough there to make me think that, one, it must be pretty neat, and two, it’s yet another of those jobs I am never going to manage to fit into my life’s schedule. That’s another to add to the list that already includes astronaut, conductor, and TV sports director (that last one might require further explanation later). Incidentally, the code for the CDs I’m listening to is Archiv 463 725-2, all the recordings feature The English Concert with Trevor Pinnock and date back to the early 80s.

Just read:

Oscar Wilde, The picture of Dorian Gray.

I read this over the weekend, and rather enjoyed it. It’s written in just the style I expected from Oscar Wilde, though this is the first thing I’ve ever read of his, and I’ve never seen any of his plays. (I did see the film of The perfect husband a while back and quite enjoyed it.)

The tone is definitely melodramatic, and over-the-top. There’s lots of description of rich surrounds, flowers, ornaments and general upper class trappings. There’s also quite a few witty asides, and epigrams, mainly due to the character Lord Henry. He is rather enigmatic in a “the devil is a gentleman” kind of way, and should probably be held responsible for Dorian Gray’s downfall.

In basic form, this novel is essentially a tragedy: Dorian Gray is seduced by eternal youth and comes to a sticky end. I don’t know that Wilde was entirely convinced by the requirements of the form though; I couldn’t help but feel that he didn’t really want to have to tell the tale of a downfall. It’s well done, and apart from a longish section in the middle that details a variety of pursuits that Gray takes up in order to give himself something to do with his life, reads very quickly.

I can’t help but wonder what a S/F author might do with the basic story. Has anyone ever written the story of someone who is given eternal youth, and then thinks hard about putting this unique opportunity to work? How would you conceal the fact of your immortality from the rest of the world? In an age of increasing centralisation and bureaucratisation, it might be quite hard to escape the notice of the state. I know I’ve read stories about people who have somehow managed the trick of establishing themselves, and who turn up in the 20th century having been born in the 15th, but this is less interesting. (From the film Interview with a vampire, I guess Anne Rice’s books might go on about this, but I don’t think all that vampire baggage is necessarily very helpful.) Such a story wouldn’t have the moral and dramatic oomph of Wilde’s novel, but done well, would surely be mentally stimulating. (For those that like that sort of thing, of course.)

To read next:

Another book with art in the title, James Joyce’s Portrait of the artist as a young man.

Wednesday, 29 August 2001

Arithmetic

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.

Thursday, 23 August 2001

Why read the classics? and a Granta

Listening to:

Bach, Art of the fugue.

Just read:

Italo Calvino, Why read the classics?

This was a birthday present two years ago, and the fact that I’ve only just finished it now is testimony to the length of my back-log list. I’ve been very good since though, and seriously curtailed my book buying. Next year I expect to be reading books that are less than a year old, and getting very close to finished.

Anyway, Why read the classics? is a collection of essays about classic literature. Each essay deals with a particular author, and usually a particular work by that author. The essays are ordered by the dates of the author, so the first four are classical authors (Homer, Xenophon, Ovid and Pliny), and the last few are 20th century (Conrad and Hemingway, for example). The essays weren’t written in this order, but it seems a sensible arrangement. Italo Calvino is (was) Italian, so there are a number of Italian authors discussed, but there are also authors in there who wrote in French, English, Spanish and Russian.

Some of the essays were written for popular newspapers and/or magazines, others were written to be prefaces to the work discussed, and others were written for academic consumption. This means that the level of the essays varies quite a bit. Some are really quite difficult to follow. Others are very good. Even when about things I haven’t read and authors I’ve never even heard of, the good essays make me think, “Hmm, I really think I should try and get around to reading that...” (Then I remember my list.)

Granta 67: Women and children first.

This was an excellent Granta, with lots of neat stuff in it. The title essay is about the Titanic, and was prompted by the film of the same name. The author investigates the story of the band playing a hymn as the ship went down. Other non-fiction included an account of being trapped with some UN soldiers in a Rwandan refugee camp, and an essay about the Antarctic and Scott’s expedition there.

There was also fiction. There was an amusing excerpt from Zadie Smith’s White teeth (which appears on my list, making this an aperitif for a main meal that I know I will be able to enjoy), and an elegant extract from a recent novel by Edmund White.

To read next:

Todd McEwen, Arithmetic.

Moved!

I’m now installed in my office in the new Computer Lab building. Moving explains the delay in web-log entries.

Tuesday, 14 August 2001

The secret agent and open-source computer games

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 10.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, The secret agent.

I enjoyed this a great deal. It’s a dark novel, but one populated by brilliantly drawn characters. Viewed from afar, the plot is extremely simple; only three or four things of real significance happen. However, this is not how you see the novel as a reader. Instead, you are taken into the minds of the various characters, and shown a picture of the world that is incredibly vivid. I think Conrad excels himself both in the description of the characters’ mental states, and also in his descriptions of the physical world they’re in. Even Dickens in Bleak House doesn’t describe as miserable, nor as muddy a London as Conrad does here.

The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Verloc (arguably the central characters, despite the detective story interlude) is very well done, much better than Heyst and Lena in Victory. Finally, the novel’s ending, both its climax and denouement, is very effective.

Friday, 10 August 2001

Book reviews on Amazon (esp. SICP)

Listening to:

Shostakovich, piano sonata no. 2, op. 61.

One place I didn’t mention as a source of book reviews on Wednesday was Amazon. Here you can get reviews of very many books, by a whole slew of people (those readers interested enough to write reviews). Initially, it can be a bit off-putting to have some many different opinions to contend with all at once. A very dichotomised example is the case of Structure and interpretation of computer programs, by Abelson et al. Most reviewers give this book either one or five stars. One reviewer seems to hit the nail on the head when they say

The phrase ‘two cultures’ is usually used to describe the gap of understanding between the arts and sciences but reading the previous reviews it seems we have two cultures in the programming community.

It’s certainly something of an indictment of computer science education that someone could write this

Well, considering that I’m a computer science major, i figure that I know a great deal about programming and the such. However, I found this book to be simply incomprehensible. I’ve never wasted more time than I did trying to read this book. Worse than its failed attempts at instruction are its failed attempts at humor to “liven up” its instruction. After taking my class, i burnt this book.

It’s harder to know how to judge fiction reviews. Things like Pride and Prejudice are given five stars by almost everyone, and I’m quite ready to believe that this really is a classic (I knew that already, but hey). On the other hand, reviews are not often very nuanced; probably because of the self-selection involved in the reviewers. Most reviews I’ve sampled tend to be enthusiastic (maybe I just read good books), with occasional unhelpful one-liners like “This book was really boring; I hated it”.

Finally, you’d better be aware that the author of the book might be submitting some of the reviews! (Though this is not such a danger with P&P.)

Wednesday, 8 August 2001

Entry #204

Listening to:
Pietro Castrucci, concerto grossi in D, Op. 3/12. Castrucci is a Baroque Italian composer (dates 1679-1752).
I suppose it's pretty obvious by now that I spend a fair bit of time in this log on my book reviews. It's quite a fun activity, and I like having my reactions to what I've read available in text. Even if no-one else ever reads them, I know I will refer to them in the future. Book reviewing is also popular elsewhere on the web. Here are some book review links that I think are worthwhile.
  • First, a cautionary tale about the Yahoo directory of book review sites.
  • Traditional media: the New York Review of Books; has a good search engine. Often interesting political articles, as well as reviews of art exhibitions.
  • Danny Yee's reviews: over 500 reviews of a whole slew of books. Tends to have a slightly scientific bias, but there's nothing wrong with that. Occasionally reviews very technical books (in history and science) that it's hard to imagine ever wanting to read.
  • By way of contrast the GoodReports has precious little science, but nice reviews generally.

Monday, 6 August 2001

Nielsen, Conrad and Tornquist

Listening to:

Nielsen, clarinet concerto. This is the most modern work for clarinet that I have in my collection, yet it was only composed in 1928. Nielsen wrote it after making the acquaintance of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. He wrote a quintet for them in 1922, and then planned to write each member a concerto. Unfortunately, he only managed two before died in 1931. The other concerto was a Flute Concerto in 1926, which I haven’t heard.

Now reading:

Joseph Conrad, The secret agent. Rather to my surprise, this novel has turned into rather a detective story at the moment. All may yet change as I’m only about half-way through. (I only managed one reading session over the weekend.)

Amusing quotes are us

An amusing interview with the lead producer of the adventure game The Longest Journey, featuring this line:

Every Friday night, after the dwarf tossing competition, the banjo playing championships, and the kilt-knitting class. We do tend to wear protective codpieces, however, so it’s not Olympic-class goat hoarding, unfortunately.

Tuesday, 24 July 2001

On the Road

Listening to:

Prokofiev, symphony no. 7 in C sharp minor, op. 131. This very accessible work (and Prokofiev’s last) won the Lenin Prize in 1957, four years after Prokofiev’s death. It was the first time that the prize had been given to a piece of music.

Just read:

Jack Kerouac, On the road.

I can’t claim to think that this is a great novel, for all its fame. In particular, there is precious little in terms of plot. Instead, there is lots of disconnected and fairly unmotivated road journeying on the part of the characters. The characters are also difficult to appreciate. One’s basic impression is of people that are mad, bad and dangerous to know. They are forever doing crazy things, with little regard for those around them, and with little to suggest why they are doing these things either.

This novel’s strength is in its poetic description of travel: criss-crossing the US, even venturing into Mexico, whether in clapped out cars, or by hitching, or by sharing cars to save petrol. Poetic doesn’t necessarily mean positive; dealing with suspicious cops, picking up hitch-hikers to get an extra dollar for more petrol, and petty thieving for food all feature alongside the lyrical descriptions of mountains and deserts. On the road also includes intense and appealing descriptions of jazz performances (particularly in San Francisco), but these are less affecting because they don’t (can’t) convey what the music is like, just the nature of its impact on its listeners. I can see high desert plateaus in my mind’s eye after reading the novel, despite never having been to the South West of the US, nor to Mexico. I have no idea what the jazz was that the characters heard, despite having listened to a fair bit of jazz myself, and despite being able to make educated guesses as to what it might have been.

After finishing the novel this morning, I read the accompanying introduction (you should always read these after the book; there’s really no reason for them to precede the main text). This made it clear that the novel is very autobiographical. The characters are based on real people that Kerouac knew, and much of the incident in the novel happened to him as he toured the country with Neal Cassady (named Dean Moriarty in the book). I think this goes some way towards explaining the characters’ lack of definition: Kerouac didn’t describe them as much as he might have done because they existed as real people in his head already.

This introduction also makes it clear that drugs (including the alcohol that eventually killed him) were quite an important part of Kerouac’s life; I can’t help but think that they contributed to the shifting, and disconnected tone of the book. This may have been a deliberate decision on his part; you don’t have to be addled to write a book about being addled. The US in the 1950s almost certainly needed anti-establishment art of this form then, but it feels a bit dated now.

Kerouac and others in his crowd made up the so-called Beat Generation; there’s a short but interesting description of his life and attitudes here from the Atlantic magazine.

To read next:

Joseph Conrad, Victory. First of a couple of Conrads next up on the list.

Coxing

I’m coxing in the Cambridge Town Bumps this evening. This is a weird Cambridge rowing tradition run over four nights. The basic idea is that all the boats in a division (about 18 of them) go off at once, with distances of 150m between them. The idea is to bump a boat ahead of you before the end of the course. Likewise a boat behind you will be attempting to do that same to you. If you manage this, then you swap places with them for the next night. It’s like a great big ladder competition with multiple contests happening simultaneously. Further, if boat 3 bumps boat 2, then boat 4 is still free to bump boat 1 (known as an over-bump).

It’s all very exciting. As cox you get to look in the direction of travel too, and that definitely helps. As I put it to someone recently, coxing in the Bumps is like a live action video game.

Wednesday, 11 July 2001

The Fortune of War

Listening to:

Beethoven, string quartet, op. 59, no. 3 (Razumovsky).

Holiday reading:

Way back in January, I started to write a series of Holiday reading book reviews to bring myself up-to-date with the books I read while away in New Zealand and Australia. I let it all lapse a bit, but let me now tell you all about The fortune of war, by Patrick O’Brian. This is the sixth in the series, and another good one. It features our heroes getting interned by the Americans because Britain is at war with the US in the War of 1812. (This is not a war many people seem to know much about, except possibly for the Canadians who know it was when the US tried to do the dirty on them and failed. There is a war-game recently out for it; I haven’t played it.)

It’s an interesting history lesson to learn that the US didn’t press-gang crews for its ships, while this was something Britain did as a matter of course. There’s quite a bit of "spy-thriller" type intrigue in this novel because the two main characters are on land for so much of the time, but there are also naval battles framing the central "internment" section. They are all based on actual battles apparently, and read very well. You can’t help but guess which way the battles are going to go, given the dramatic requirements of the story, and this is a mark against. An enjoyable read all told.

I’m writing this web-log entry at home because things were so busy at work that I just ran out of time in which to fit in the ’log. I really dislike the way in which I can’t remap the caps lock key under Windows so that it is a control key, and also how I have lost my Emcas meta key. (This latter is more a function of the SSH software I’m using to connect to the Computer Lab.) Such geeky travails.

Tuesday, 3 July 2001

Catch-22 and Chocolat

Listening to:

Mozart, string quintet in D, K593.

Just read:

Joseph Heller, Catch-22.

This is a very famous book, and I can see why. It’s a black comedy about the experience of being in the military, set in the US air force during WWII. It was funny enough to make me laugh out loud on occasion, but also savage enough to make one feel quite chilled and depressed by the very idea of war. This was not really induced by the depiction of combat with enemies, as happens in Captain Corelli’s mandolin, with its explicit descriptions of the Italian war against Greece, and also the later Nazi attack on the Italians in Cephallonia. The characters in Catch-22 are all in the Air Force, so their military struggles are with remote, mechanical enemies, principally anti-aircraft batteries.

Instead, the horror of the situation is conveyed by the way in which the military personnel are desperate to be home, know that they can’t escape, and gradually crack up under the strain. The ridiculous mindset and behaviour of the high level officers (at colonel level and above) is perhaps a little over-done, but one can’t help but feel that it has a deal of truth in it. Heller was a bombardier in the USAAF during WWII, and one imagines that he knows what he’s on about. It’s a book well-stocked with memorable characters. The main hero is Yossarian, who is the most desperate to escape, and who is generally quite sympathetic. Then there are Major Major, Milo Minderbinder, Colonel Cathcart, and the cunning Orr.

Catch-22’s narrative is not presented in a straightforward, linear fashion. Instead, there are flash-backs and flash-forwards. Some important events within the story are described more than once, usually just being hinted at on a number of occasions, gradually being filled in with more detail. There are some amazing set-pieces, where the prose becomes poetic and heightened in impact. In particular, towards the end of the book, when Yossarian is stumbling through a Rome that is both ruined and depraved, the scene is painted so as to make one feel in a trance-like nightmare.

Joanne Harris, Chocolat.

This is a pleasant read. It’s “low intensity” fiction really, though I have to admit that my reaction to it was almost certainly affected by the fact that I saw the film first (a month or so ago now; see below). On finishing the book, it’s difficult to think back on it and claim that it’s about anything particularly deep. The story is that of an itinerant woman, Vianne, who arrives with her young daughter in a small, conservative French village, and has a generally positive effect on the inhabitants. Vianne is a chocolatier and she opens a chocolate shop in the central square of the village, right opposite the church. Her arrival upsets the forces of conservatism that have hitherto dominated the village, principally the priest. The story describes the way in which the hero manages to settle down, denying her roaming heritage, personified in her dead mother, and gets the village to “loosen up”.

An enjoyable read, with a solidity to the characters, particularly Vianne, that makes it all the more appealing.

To read next:

Jack Kerouac, On the road.

A recent movie:

Chocolat. The film is not bad, but it’s not as good as the book. It loses out by denying the characters the solidity they had in the book, and by exaggerating the general sappiness of the story. The acting is all good; Alfred Molina as the seigneur of the village is particularly good. For reasons known only to the film-makers, the priest is no longer the bad-guy; instead he is a young guy, newly appointed, and pretty much under Molina’s control.

Monday, 25 June 2001

Music, books and movies

Listening to:

Arthur Sullivan, Macbeth overture. As well as being the composer partner to Gilbert, Sullivan wrote music for a variety of other occasions. He didn’t want to just be a composer of music for musicals. This overture is the first piece on a CD from the BBC music magazine . Next up is a reconstructed cello concerto, and the CD finishes with a Te Deum. It’s very listenable music, probably perfect for writing web-log entries to, but perhaps not so memorable.

Now reading:

Joseph Heller, Catch-22. This is another novel mainly set on a Mediterranean island during World War II. Its tone is completely different from Captain Corelli’s mandolin though. More when I’m finished.

A recent movie:

State & Main. This is a very amusing story about a film production that comes to a small town in New England. There are all sorts of satiric digs at the nature of the film business, and a gently done romance. The hero (the screen-writer) is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also had a relatively minor part in The talented Mr. Ripley, playing a completely different sort of role.

Tuesday, 19 June 2001

Captain Corelli’s mandolin and Our man in Havana

Listening to:

Shostakovich, concerto no. 1 for violin and orchestra in A minor, Op. 99.

Just read:

Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli’s mandolin.

I finished this on Saturday. It's probably not a modern classic, but it's not bad either. It's not an entirely pleasant read: the characters are caught up in WW2, and the author is explicit about how nasty this could be. Unfortunately, some of the nastiness is called in to serve as part of a general campaign slurring the behaviour of the communist partisans, or andartes, during the war. This has attracted a lot of controversy, and caused quite a storm of protest in Greece itself. (Here's an article about this from the Guardian.)

The book itself is basically a historical romance, embodying a theme I'd call "optimistic fatalism". In other words, terrible things are bound to happen, people do change for the worse and die, but there's always a chance that something positive will be around the next corner. The main characters are well-drawn, sympathetic and memorable, and the plot surges along in response to historical events (Italy's invasion of Greece, Germany's invasion of Greece, their joint occupation of the island of Cephallonia and so on).

The ending is contrived. The whole denouement is a very rushed narrative covering a period of almost 50 years, and seems set up just to rub our noses in the author's view that shit always has to happen before people can be redeemed.

Graham Greene, Our man in Havana.

This is an enjoyable, light read. It doesn't take itself too seriously until the very end, where there's a dramatic finale to contend with. (It does involve playing draughts (checkers) with whiskey and brandy miniatures though.) Another genre, and fairly unbelievable, romance is also added to the brew. Up to that point, the story is just the amusing tale of a vacuum cleaner salesman who is recruited to act as a spy for the generally incompetent British Secret Service, and who fills his new role by making up his reports. This has all sorts of worrying repercussions for the salesman, particularly when the bad guys also start to think he's really a spy.

This novel was a clear inspiration for John le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama, which has recently been made into a film (Mike D’Angelo’s review). There was also a film of Our man in Havana made in 1960. (The IMDB page.)

To read next:

Joseph Heller, Catch-22.

Tuesday, 5 June 2001

Ex Libris and The third man

Listening to:

Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli.

Just read:

Anne Fadiman, Ex libris.

This is a slim volume of essays about book ownership, book reading and book buying. It’s nicely written and quite amusing. For example, there is the story of how the author merged her library with her husband’s. They had been married some number of years, and having made all of the other commitments to joint life had just this last hurdle.

Fadiman is more of a fan of marginalia than I am, and is also quite scathing about people who strive too hard to keep their books virginally clean and undamaged. She admits that her like-minded friends have a number of books that aren’t much longer for this world, so she’s not too one-eyed. In general, this is a very pleasant read.

Graham Greene, The third man.

This is the fifth volume of the six volume set. It’s actually a collection of three short stories: The third man, The fallen idol and Loser takes all. The first two were also made into films. (In fact, Greene wrote The third man knowing that it was for a film project, so it’s functionally a very dressed up screen-play. As he describes in the little preface to this, some details were changed in the making of the film, but apparently nothing very substantial.) I’ve not seen the film of The third man, but I know it features Orson Welles and is supposed to be a real classic. The story is certainly good enough to be the basis for a great film.

The fallen idol is the shortest of the three stories, and is a psychological drama about a little boy caught up in a domestic drama involving the butler of his house and the butler’s wife. It’s a very well-crafted short story with a definite bite to it.

Loser takes all is much more conventional than the other two stories. It’s cute enough, but features someone devising a system to beat the casino at Monaco, which irritated me, and has rather an anodyne happy ending. The twists and turns of the plot are well done.

To read next:

Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Another book that’s been made into a film. Apparently this adaptation is a real dud though (the FT’s review; from the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian). It’s on at the moment in Cambridge, but I have no plans to go and see it.

Monday, 21 May 2001

Truth and Lies

Listening to:

Brahms, Ein Deutsches Requiem:

For all flesh is as grass
and all the glory of man
as the flower of grass.
The grass withereth,
and the flower thereof falleth away.
Be patient therefore, brethren,
Unto the coming of the Lord.

Just read:

Granta 66: Truth and lies.

The main piece in this issue was a story about a man called Bruno Dossekker from Switzerland who wrote a book called Fragments, in which he claimed that his name was really Binjamin Wilkomirski, that he was a Jew, born in Riga in 1939 and that he had survived Auschwitz. He claimed that when he was adopted in Switzerland, he was given another (Swiss) child’s identity.

Initially, his account was well received, seen as a genuine view into the fragmentary memory of a very young child who went through horrible experiences. However, various doubts were expressed about the veracity of the account. This piece is one such expression of doubt, and makes a compelling case: ultimately one can only conclude that Fragments is fiction. The fascinating thing about the whole case is that Bruno Dossekker continues to at least half-believe his own story. (That he doesn’t entirely believe it is indicated by his refusal to take a DNA test that might unambiguously link him to a Swiss uncle.) After a little surfing on the web, I found this very interesting piece about both Dossekker’s case and another wannabe victim.

The rest of the issue is also good, including an appealing extract from Claire Messud’s novel The last life.

To read next:

Graham Greene, Ministry of Fear.

Tuesday, 15 May 2001

The confidential agent and Tübingen

Listening to:

Shostakovich, string quartet #4 in D major, op. 83.

Just read:

Graham Greene, The confidential agent.

This novel tells the story of a man only ever named as D. He journeys to Britain in order to negotiate a secret agreement with a coal company to have the company supply his government with desperately needed coal. D’s country is undergoing a civil war, and the coal is necessary for the war effort. It’s not clear who will win the war, nor if anyone is really who they claim to be.

This novel differs from the two previous Greene novels I read because it is entirely told from just one perspective. The other novels use multiple characters to allow for scene-shifting and different views of the same situation. Like the other novels though, this one is very well plotted, and very much a page-turner. The character of D is well developed, and this means that the monopoly he has on our attention is not a problem. However, the main heroine (and love interest) is not very believable. I wouldn’t be surprised if Greene felt he had to have a love interest just to conform to the expectations of the genre. Nonetheless, the heroine plays an important part in the development of the plot on multiple occasions.

The confidential agent was written in 1939, and though D’s country is never identified, it’s clearly based on Spain, which went through a nasty civil war in the 30s. Greene conveys an atmosphere of depressing bleakness very well. It really does suggest that the 1930s were totally miserable.

To read next:

Granta 66: Truth and lies.

I didn’t write on Thursday last week because I was away on a very nice (though brief) trip to Tübingen. It really is a beautiful town, and the weather was great. There's a short photo tour on the University's web-site. I didn't see very much of the town because I was only there for two nights, and all of the one full day I had was taken up with a project review meeting. The meeting was held in the computer science department, which is on the edge of town. Our room looked out over beautiful countryside: hills, trees and idyllic quietness.

The contrast with the window I'm looking out of at the moment is complete. My working view is of the tan coloured bricks of the Lion Yard car-park, a real eye-sore, next to the back-side of the Crowne Plaza hotel, a modern monstrosity of zero character. As for quiet, we have to keep our windows closed all the time because the road below us is where the cars queue for the parking building. It's possible that our new building will be better, but nowhere in Cambridgeshire looks quite like what I saw in Tübingen.

The reason I didn't write yesterday is that I was too busy catching up with things that happened while I was away.

Tuesday, 8 May 2001

Three short books

Listening to:

Schütz, Motet 8 from Quid commisisti.

Just read:

NYRB selections.

This book is a slim selection articles from the first two issues of the magazine The New York Review of Books. It was issued in 1988 to commemorate the NYRB's 25th anniversary. It has some interesting bits in it, including a review of Burroughs's Naked Lunch that compares the author to Swift. There's also quite an interesting review by W. H. Auden of a poet I've never heard of, and about whom Auden concludes that no-one is ever likely to want to put in the effort to understand him.

Graham Greene, A gun for sale.

Another exciting and engrossing thriller. This one is rather darker than Stamboul train, possibly because it was written four years later, in 1936. It features an assassin called Raven, another appealing poor actress journeying to a distant location by train, and all sorts of neat twists and turns.

Anne Pimlott Baker, Beethoven.

I'm achieving a great reading speed by reading very short books. This biography of the great composer was only just over 100 pages long, and in a generously spaced layout. It was good, in a bare-bones kind of way. It contains the basic facts of Beethoven's life, talks about when he was composing what, discusses his deafness and his personal relationships with others.

On the other hand, there is no real discussion of the music, neither its characteristics nor its impact on the people around Beethoven. Beethoven also comes across as an eccentric misanthrope in a rather unqualified way. Perhaps this is accurate, but there just isn't space in the book to provide more nuance.

It's made me very keen to hear the piece Wellington's Victory. This was a patriotic pot-boiler written to commemorate a victory of the Duke of Wellington in Spain against the French, and is apparently never performed today. Statements like that definitely make me want to hear something.

To read next:

Graham Greene, The confidential agent. The Graham Greene kick is caused by the fact that I bought a boxed set of six of his lighter novels, and I'm now working my way through them, alternating with the other things on the list.

Monday, 30 April 2001

Stamboul Train and the perils of sponsorship

Listening to:

Mozart, Così fan tutte. This is an EMI “great recordings of the century” recording, with Karl Böhm conducting, and the cast including Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christia Ludwig, Alfredo Kraus and Giuseppe Taddei. (I've only heard of Schwarzkopf before.) The recording was made in 1963. It features some divine singing, but I’m disappointed that the choruses are very recessed; it sounds as if the chorus (along with their own separate accompanying orchestra) are singing in a different room.

Just read:

Graham Greene, Stamboul train.

I think this is the first fiction of Greene’s that I’ve ever read, and I am very impressed. I know that he classed it as an “entertainment”, and that it is not as serious as novels like Brighton Rock, The power and the glory and The quiet American; but that doesn’t stop it from being a very exciting “thriller”. It’s dramatic, full of interesting characters and also very sad. I hadn’t expected a romance to play such a pivotal rôle in the story, but it works very well.

To read next:

An anthology of pieces from The New York Review of Books. I think I got this as some sort of freebie when I renewed my subscription or something like that.

Hunger Site tackiness

The Hunger Site, which I still visit every day, has a couple of major sponsors in addition to the other companies that buy advertising space. Currently, one is Amazon, and the other is a dieting company called eDiets. I can’t help but think that having a diet company as a sponsor for a web-page that has the headline banner 24,000 die daily. Please click every day is just a bit off.

Monday, 16 April 2001

Entry #164

Listening to:
Oscar Peterson: the song is you.
Just read:
David Berlinski, A tour of the calculus.
An exposition of the fundamental ideas in calculus, written in a style presumably intended to be accessible, and not dry in the way that many maths texts are. Professional mathematicians prize a compact terseness that forces the reader to pay a great deal of attention. Berlinski has written something that is exactly the opposite; he writes great wads of kerfuffle in a very "posey" way. I found it terribly off-putting. Berlinski clearly has a few chips on his shoulders about the humanities as well, because he includes at least a couple of mean-spirited digs at humanities academics that seem completely out of place.

If it wasn't for the fact that the coverage of the material is actually pretty reasonable, I would have found this book very difficult to finish. As it is, his coverage of the material is good, and I particularly liked his discussion of continuity.

Berlinski concludes briefly to the effect that all of the world's "hot science' is happening in biology (contentious, for a start), and because biologists don't need maths (definitely contentious, for a second), calculus's heyday is over. Of course, he is muddling calculus and maths grossly, but I don't believe it whichever he meant.

Granta 65: London.
This issue of Granta is quite a fat one, and just about all of its pieces have some connection with London. Further, they're almost all pretty good. I particularly liked the extracts from John Lanchester's Mr. Phillips, Ian Buruma's Voltaire's coconuts, and a piece by a Ugandan about his experience claiming political asylum at Gatwick airport.
Now reading:
Colonel Frederick Bailey, Mission to Tashkent. Another memoir by someone in the secret agent business. This one is set in the period 1918 to about 1920 though.
I haven't come in today (Easter Monday holiday) solely to update this web-log I assure you. I have work to do too! (I bought Age of Empires II, by the way. It's pretty good, with high addiction potential, but calling the genre "real-time strategy" is a bit of a misnomer in my opinion. Europa Universalis is about strategy, AoE2 is about something else entirely.)

Monday, 2 April 2001

The Earth Dwellers

Listening to:

Beethoven, piano concerto no. 1 in C, Op. 15.

Just read:

Erich Hoyt, The Earth dwellers: adventures in the land of ants.

Very interesting. I’ve always been fascinated by ants, and this book is full of all sorts of information, presented in an engaging way. Most attention is focussed on a species of leaf-cutter ants, and I learnt a lot about them. For example, the leaves that these ants cut are not themselves eaten by the ants. Instead, the leaves are used to cultivate a fungus, kept in underground gardens, that is used as a universal food. Further, when virgin queens leave the colony to mate, they take a little sample of the fungus with them so that the new colony they establish will be able to grow the fungus too. (They store their sample in their mouths under their tongues.)

In addition the book spends quite a bit of time on the swarm-raiding army ants, and explains how they breed by having colonies split in two. In this species, only the males fly around looking for mates. There is a very brief discussion of how it is that ants are haplo-diploid, and how this goes some way to explaining the way an ant colony acts as one individual. (The other great social insect species, termites, are not haplo-diploid though, so it’s clearly not a necessary condition for elaborate social structure. Perhaps termites are more like humans and their social structures are less monolithic. I’m clearly going to have to try to read up about termites too!)

The author places his narratives about the ants he describes quite specifically in a Costa Rican rain-forest. He also describes the ant-scientists that work there, particularly the famous Edward O. Wilson. Hoyt is clearly quite impressed by Wilson, and even gives over a whole chapter to talking about the sociobiology controversy of the 1970s. This is sympathetic in terms of Wilson’s personal behaviour, but makes no attempt to explain the issues, and so feels like a bit of a waste of time.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book as an introduction to a fascinating field of natural history.

Now reading:

Leo Marks, Between silk and cyanide. A great big book that I read a great chunk of yesterday. Very exciting.

Monday, 19 March 2001

Liszt, Vampires and English Passengers

Listening to:

Liszt, Bagatelle sans tonalité. This is a short little piece. In fact, it’s just finished as I write. It’s part of a CD of performances by Paul Lewis (a pianist) from the BBC Music Magazine. I wouldn’t often buy such a “collection” CD, but I really enjoy this one. It features Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Schubert.

A recent movie:

Shadow of the Vampire. I didn't really think that much of this. It was quite atmospheric, but it took itself a bit too seriously. None of the characters were particularly interesting or believable. John Malkovich was pretty good as the obsessive director, but that’s all he was, a one-dimensional obsessive director. I can’t help but think that this film was sold as a premise and never really fleshed out. (“It'll be great: a director makes a vampire film where the vampire character really is a vampire. Oh, and did I say? The director will be really obsessive, so much so that he does evil deals with the vampire just to get his film made.”)

Still reading:

Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit. I’m about two thirds of the way through this. It’s a great epic, and I’m really enjoying it.

Holiday reading:

Matthew Kneale, English passengers. This was a very good Christmas present. It also recently won the Whitbread Book of the Year prize. It tells many stories simultaneously, with a cast of different narrators used to narrate various chapters. This device works well to demonstrate the characters’ differing perspectives on the same situations.

There are two principal stories in the novel. One is of an expedition to Tasmania, led by a daft vicar who is convinced that Tasmania is the site of the Garden of Eden, and the other is the story of Peevay, a young Tasmanian Aboriginal who grows up just as the British settlers there are wiping out all of his people. Needless to say, both stories eventually overlap.

In a ‘cast of thousands’, it is perhaps a little difficult to find only three sympathetic characters, heroes if you like, but the preponderance of brutality, racism and narrow-mindedness is probably an accurate reflection of the times. Moreover, the novel is really very exciting, and kept me enthralled throughout.

Monday, 5 March 2001

The symbolic species

Listening to:

Chopin, 24 preludes.

Just read:

Terrence Deacon, The symbolic species.

This is a very thorough, and thus rather slow-going, science book about our ability to think symbolically. A consequence of this is that we use language, while no other species does. Symbolic species looks at why and how this might be from a number of different angles.

The book is divided into three parts. The first includes a discussion of what symbolic thought is, and how it can be distinguished from iconic and indexical knowledge which seem to be as much as other species ever seem to use. In this first part, the way in which children learn languages so quickly is also discussed. Noam Chomsky’s theory is that children are imbued with some sort of Universal Grammar that they can easily specialise to the actual grammar that they are exposed to as they grow up. In this way, children make just the right guesses when it comes to language acquisition. Deacon suggests that it’s more reasonable to suppose that languages, which evolve much faster than people do, have evolved to make themselves easier to learn. This was wow moment #1, and the neat thing about this book was that there were quite a few more still to come.

The first part also includes commentary on recent experiments with chimpanzees demonstrating that it is possible to get them to learn symbolic knowledge.

Part 2 was the hardest part of the book to read, because so much of it was about brain anatomy. The pages are overflowing with pre-frontal cortexes (cortices?), cerebellums (cerebella?) and ventricles. Nonetheless it too had its share of wow moments, including a neat discussion of the way in which brain development in primates can be distinguished from development in other mammals, and then how human brain development is different again. This naturally led into a discussion of the Darwinian way in which neurons compete for connections to potential targets when they grow. Because the human pre-frontal cortex is so much bigger (proportionally, and absolutely) than in other apes, it has correspondingly more fingers in all of the brain's various pies. For example, it has control over speech organs (tongue and larynx) in a way not duplicated in other animals.

Part 2 also mentions evidence that basically demolishes the idea that a Universal Grammar might be genetically encoded in our brains. Brain imaging and brain dysfunctions (such as Broca’s aphasia) reveal that language processing of semantically similar tasks (inflecting to past tense, etc) happens in different places in the brain depending on which language is being worked on. In other words, our internal processing depends on the surface syntax of the language, not some deep, universal grammar.

In part 3, there is a great bit of speculative writing about what might have prompted our ancestors to evolve in the direction they did, acquiring symbolic thinking, language and bigger brains. I can’t do the argument justice here, but I will sum it up as “We have language so that we can marry”. Definitely a wow moment. Deacon puts his case against Universal Grammar idea once again, and then finishes by making sensible comments about the “problem” of consciousness.

An excellent, thought-provoking book, though very dense and a slow read.

To read next:

Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit.

Monday, 19 February 2001

Hanna’s Daughters

Listening to:

Oscar Peterson’s finest hour.

Just read:

Marianne Fredriksson, Hanna’s daughters.

This novel is a family epic over three generations, set in Sweden. Hanna, of the title, grows up at the end of the 19th century in a rural and poor part of Sweden near the border with Norway. She is the mother of Johanna, who is in turn the mother of Anna. (I wonder if there is a Swedish word for “female descendent” that they had to translate as “daughter”. Hanna has just one daughter, but then, people say things like “sons of Adam” to mean all men, so I’m clearly just being picky.)

The first section of the book, describing Hanna’s early life, is probably the best. Hanna’s world is the most foreign, and this accounts for much of the interest. However it’s definitely also the case that Hanna is the best characterised of all the characters in the book. Hanna is a strong woman, and she is portrayed sympathetically, despite being unfashionably illiberal and conservative in her attitudes. The author doesn’t win our sympathies by making her out to be anachronistically modern. Instead, Hanna is just well-drawn and this is a sign of good writing.

In this stage of the book, it’s also very interesting to get a glimpse at the historical events that led to the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden. The way this is portrayed in the book, it sounds as if the two countries were very close to going to war over the issue.

Johanna’s story is less interesting. I did find the image of Sweden “cowering behind its neutrality” during World War II an arresting one, but couldn’t help but feel that the Jewish immigrants were thrown in just for the sake of it. For a while, the description of growing up and living life in a 1920s urban environment (Göteborg) is quite engrossing, but it peters out. Anna’s story is less interesting still. Her voice is perhaps too accurately modern; full of psycho-babble about self-realisation etc.

The novel also suffers from having only two types of male. We are subjected to either the womanising charmer, or to the basically decent guy, slightly marred by a tendency to “rage” or spots of domestic violence. All in all, despite a promising start, the novel turns into a reasonably well-written soap opera. It comes complete with manipulative moments where you generally succeed in having a “bit of a cathart”, though you end up slightly resenting the author for throwing them in.

Now reading:

Terrence Deacon, The symbolic species.

Thursday, 15 February 2001

Desolation Island

Listening to:

Puccini, La Bohème.

Holiday reading:

Patrick O’Brian, Desolation Island.

Yes, yet another O’Brian novel (the 5th, if you’re starting to lose track). I really enjoyed this one, at least partially because it was again quite different in feel from the previous novels. In this novel the main military threat is a Dutch ship that is a lot bigger than Aubrey’s, the French don’t appear at all, and the Americans make an appearance. The descriptions of the Southern Ocean are very scary, and the thought of the poor Whitbread Round the World yachts having to contend with those sorts of conditions is made that much more vivid.

Context switching agway from HOL

I finally managed to release the latest version of the HOL theorem-proving system yesterday. Now I have to do a big context switch, get NT install scripts out my head, and work on other stuff.

Thursday, 8 February 2001

Up the duff

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 11 in G minor, op. 103 “The year 1905”. A definite programme symphony this, it being a musical depiction of the events of 1905, when an attempted revolution in Russia was crushed by the Tsarist government. It’s exciting stuff, though it can also sound a bit like soundtrack music.

Holiday reading:

Kaz Cooke, Up the duff.

This is an amusing and informative book about pregnancy. The couple we stayed with in Brisbane "are" pregnant (apparently this is acceptable usage; you say the couple are pregnant, even though we all know that it's only the woman who's going to go through the really painful bits), and this was on their shelves. Being what you might call a “will read anything once” reader, I picked this down in a dull moment and really found it quite engrossing.

I’d never heard of her, but the author is apparently quite a famous comic writer in Australia (she even has a website). I found Up the duff a fascinating read. On the other hand, I can quite imagine women finding it rather off-putting. I don’t think that I’m particularly squeamish, that I could cope with all the mess of child-birth itself, but the descriptions of all the changes that the pregnant woman undergoes while the baby develops are really quite an eye-opener.

I’m writing a day late today because I spent half of my day yesterday waiting for the monitor to be delivered. It was, eventually, and so all is happiness on the home PC front.

Monday, 5 February 2001

Granta 64 and a dead monitor

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 4 in G major. Another traversal CD; soon I’ll be onto Mozart, the most well-represented composer in my collection.

Just read:

Granta 64: Russia, the wild east.

This was a good collection of pieces about Russia. (In fact, there was one non-Russia piece, but everything else was “on theme”.) There were a couple of fiction pieces, both of which I enjoyed, and the rest were all non-fiction. Given how far behind I am with my list, it should be no surprise when I say that there’s nothing about Putin in this collection; the modern things are about the era of Yeltsin and his last years.

The non-fiction is all interesting, though often rather depressing. For whatever reason, Russia was often a violent, scary place during the 20th century, and this is reflected here. There are two photo essays included, and both are very atmospheric.

A dead monitor

Our computer’s monitor expired on Saturday morning. I turned it on, it made a horrible graunching, scraping, croaking noise, and then smoke started to come out of the back. It was fairly foul smelling smoke too, I have to say. With luck it will be replaced tomorrow, thanks to the 2 year warranty.

No time for more.

Tuesday, 30 January 2001

The consolation of philosophy

Listening to:

Bartok, string quartet no. 1, op. 7. Apparently the code number for this piece is Sz40. Mozart and Scarlatti have K numbers (Koechel and Kirkpatrick respectively), Bach has BWV numbers (it's a German phrase meaning something like Bach Complete Works, or Bach Works catalogue or something like that), and it seems that Bartok has Sz numbers. I've no idea what or who that commemorates.

The last lost comic:

Dilbert. Not brilliantly drawn, but more accomplished than User Friendly. Similar to UF too in its office setting. However, Dilbert is more corporate: the characters are clearly working in a big organisation, not with a small ISP. Dilbert’s characters are more vivid than UF's, but it too has talking animal syndrome.

Dilbert was the last comic in the series of things I looked at each morning. Now I’ve given that up, and now I’ve described them all.

Just read:

Boethius, The consolation of philosophy.

This is a famous piece of ancient philosophy, and a pretty engaging read, given the genre. It’s written as a dialogue between Boethius (writing in the first person), who is in prison (as happened historically to him), and a visiting angel called Philosophy. The angel consoles Boethius by explaining the true nature of happiness, good, evil and all that sort of thing.

The work is divided into 5 Books, each about 25-30 pages long. The first is a general introduction, where Boethius explains his plight (falsely accused and in prison). In the second book, Philosophy explains how Boethius should forget his good fortune, as Fortune is a fickle mistress, whose very nature is change. This is very effective. For example:

What is it, mortal man, that has cast you down into grief and mourning? You have seen something unwonted, it would seem, something strange to you. But if you think that Fortune has changed towards you, you are wrong. These are ever her ways: this is her very nature. She has with you preserved her own constancy by her very change. She was ever changeable at the time when she smiled upon you, when she was mocking you with the allurements of false good fortune. You have discovered both the different faces of the blind goddess.

In Book 3, things get a little more abstract. Philosophy “proves” to Boethius that the highest good must in fact be God, and that the individual aspects of happiness that one can seek in normal life (fame, power, riches, etc) must all be conjoined in their ultimate expression in God. Thus, anyone desiring happiness must ultimately search for it through God. (This God is not necessarily Christian incidentally, though Boethius was Christian; the God being discussed here is quite an abstract entity.)

In Book 4, Philosophy discusses the nature of good and evil, and how it can come to pass that the evil can appear to prosper, while the good can suffer. Philosophy answers these problems by arguing that the wicked are in fact always unhappy because they never succeed in achieving true happiness. Further, when bad fortune assails the good, this is actually good because it’s 1) all part of God's higher plan, so that's OK, and 2) all fortune which seems difficult, either exercises virtue, or corrects or punishes vice.

Finally, in Book 5, Philosophy deals with the issue of free will when we suppose that God/Fate/Providence has perfect omniscience, thus seeming to lead to a contradiction. The contradiction arises because whatever events God has foreknowledge of must necessarily come to pass. This is true because for it to be otherwise would imply less than perfect foreknowledge. But if everything God has foreknowledge of is necessarily going to happen, then there's no scope for humans to have free will. Philosophy’s answer to this is a fairly slick one, arguing that God in fact knows everything from a vantage point outside of time, so that everything in the past, present and future appears to God as one moment, where it’s quite plausible for something to have free will and yet have God know all about it. The error in the contradiction argument is to bind God into the flow of time and suppose that God is somehow stuck at the start of time, looking forward and making necessarily true predictions.

An electronic text of an English translation is available from the University of Virgina, and is the source of my two quotes above.

Now reading:

Granta 64. Russia: the wild east. More on this when I finish it.

Wednesday, 24 January 2001

Music, literature, comics, and hagiography

Listening to:

Beethoven, string quartet in E flat major, op. 127. This is one of Beethoven’s “late quartets”, and thus tarred with the brush of perhaps being rather difficult. Really though, it’s not so bad. The really difficult piece is the Grosse Fugue, a very long self-contained work that was the original last movement to one of the other late quartets. I still haven’t got my head around it.

A lost comic:

Calvin and Hobbes. The first of the commercial comics I was in the habit of reading. The author, Bill Watterson, stopped drawing this comic in 1995, and the United Comics site is gradually putting all of them online, revealing them one at a time, 11 years after the fact.

C&H is very well drawn, and features some very funny strips. My only criticism is that it occasionally gets a little preachy, particularly on environmental themes. It’s also sometimes gives Calvin a perception of his blissful childhood state that is both unrealistic (“youth is wasted on the young”) and a little irritating. All that notwithstanding, still a classic.

Holiday reading:

Patrick O'Brian, The Mauritius Command.

This is the fourth book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, and it’s very enjoyable. Instead of the relatively straightforward solo naval actions of the first three books, Jack Aubrey is given responsibility (as a commodore) for a group action in and around Mauritius. To make things even more interesting, he has to coordinate with the army. All this brings a new dimension to the storyline, and I really liked it.

Ever heard of Stephen Wolfram? He’s given a hagiographic write-up in this piece from Forbes magazine. I read this and got increasingly annoyed with it. It’s painfully short of detail, so that you aren’t told just what Rule 30 really is, and there’s no real attempt to actually discuss the issues. It all boils down to “Geez, that Wolfram guy is really smart”.

Friday, 12 January 2001

Post captain

Listening to:

Sibelius, symphony #4 in A minor, Op. 63.

Holiday reading:

Patrick O’Brian, Post captain.

This is the second in the series, and is probably the biggest book of the seven I’ve read so far. The way in which the size of the books toned down after the first two suggests to me that it was only at this point that O’Brian realised he was onto a long-lived series. (There are 20 books in the Aubrey-Maturin series all told.) For example, the blurb on the back of the paperback edition I bought talked about a set of events that sounded as if they could fill a reasonable sized book. Aubrey and Maturin are in France during the Peace of Amiens, but when war is declared once again, Napoleon tries to have all British citizens arrested, and the two heroes have to escape. You might think that this would be a substantial part of the book, but in fact, this is a relatively unimportant prelude to the main action.

It is in this novel that the reader is properly introduced to Stephen Maturin's activities as a secret agent for the British Admiralty. The blurb for the edition of Master and commander that I read, clearly written well after the series was well underway, describes Maturin as a secret agent, but nothing is made of this in the first novel.

Post captain is engrossing because it describes all sorts of aspects of life at the turn of the 19th century, not just naval battles. Its depiction of society doesn’t have Jane Austen’s light finesse and wit, but it does an appealing job of conveying the feel of life 200 years ago. I certainly don’t think that you could dismiss these books as simple war stories. A better characterisation might be historical novels about naval characters.

There is a bit of naval action in this novel, and it’s exciting to read (particularly the missions in the experimental ship Polychrest), but events on land, romance and pecuniary affairs, are probably most important.

A lost comic:

The famous User Friendly. This comic even got its own O’Reilly book, which is surely a pretty good indication of the strip’s reputation. It’s all about a team working at a small ISP/Internet company. It does a pretty good line in skewering the idiocies of the world on the web. Points against would be: terrible art (the character’s faces are consistent and recognisable, but limbs and other parts of the depicted world look amateurish), yet another pointless cute animal sidekick, and the occasionally dreary soap storyline.

Wednesday, 10 January 2001

Entry #130

Listening to:
Holst, The planets. The next traversal CD. This is Holst's most famous piece of work, being a musical depiction of the seven non-Earth planets known in his day. Of course, planets don't really have characters, so Holst made them up, with some reference to Graeco-Roman mythology. For example, the first planet "described" is Mars, the Bringer of War. This music is often used as a backdrop to militaristic scenes in movies and TV programmes. It's a very successful evocation of menacing military fervour. When I was younger, I could consistently send shivers down my spine just by listening to Mars with my full attention, and imagining some great army marching to death and destruction. The last planet is Neptune, the Mystic, which doesn't seem to have anything to do with Neptune/Poseidon, the god of the sea, but does summon up images of distant quiet and solitude very well.
Just read:
Well, where do I start? I'm just back from a 6 week holiday and I read quite a bit while away. I think I'll have to take a few days to describe the books read. First up then, is the Aubrey-Maturin series of naval novels by Patrick O'Brian.
  • Master and Commander. This introduces the series, and is quite compelling. I think you'd have to be reasonably keen on the idea of following the adventures of a naval captain to stick with it, as this novel is the most sea-bound of the seven I read. There's lots of naval terminology to come to either ignore or come to grips with, and I suspect that having a knowledge of what tacking and going about is would help. If you read and enjoyed the Swallows and Amazons books (by Arthur Ransome) as a kid, there's got to be a reasonable chance that you will like this.

    About my only criticism of this book is the cop-out way in which the situation with Lieutenant Dillon is resolved.

I have decided that I wasted too much time in the morning reading online comics in 2000, so I'm giving them up entirely. To mark their passing, I'll briefly describe (again over a number of entries) what I'm forgoing.

I've mentioned Sluggy Freelance before in these pages. In February last year, I described it as "pretty funny .... [but] a bit juvenile at times". This would still be my verdict now. I think that its success is based on the author's willingness to be wacky. Examples of this include the ongoing feud between the pet rabbit and Santa Claus, the commando-like secret information organisation built up by disaffected ex-elves from Santa's factory, and the hapless demons from the Dimension of Pain who never quite manage to abduct the main character, Torg.

Monday, 20 November 2000

Entry #128

Listening to:

Alkan. Preludes, impromptus, études and other piano works. Alkan is a French composer (1813–1888) who wrote for the piano, and was a bit of a recluse. He died when a bookshelf fell on him. (Owning books is a dangerous business: first you get behind in reading them, and then they gang up on you for not paying them enough attention, and then, pfft!) Alkan’s music is very elegant in a Chopin-esque kind of way.

Still reading:

London: portrait of a city. The author credit for this book is compiled by Roger Hudson. The bulk of the text is extracts from various first person accounts and pieces of fiction and poetry about London. It’s a bitty read, but quite an enjoyable one. I’ve just got out of the 17th century, the era of diarist Samuel Pepys. One of his entries says:

I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition — 13 October 1660

Harrison was executed for his involvement in the killing of Charles I during the English Civil War, which execution Pepys had also seen.

Calvin, Hobbes and Encryption

The Calvin and Hobbes page has recently changed its look, including the URL you use to get the latest strip. Web-sites change their look a lot more frequently than newspapers, and to about as much overall effect, I’d say. Just give me the content as fast as possible. Of course, it would almost certainly be illegal to try and figure out the URL for the image file of the strip alone, and link to that inside a page of one’s own devising, but it’s sorely tempting at times.

A brief article describing the recent competition to select AES, the son-of-DES, a new standard encryption algorithm in the US. (And of course, if the new algorithm becomes widely deployed in the US, there’s a strong chance it will in the rest of the world too.) One of the final five contenders was partly developed by Ross Anderson, a member of staff at the Computer Lab. It didn’t win though; instead a system developed by two Belgian academics did. The system is called Rijndael, so let’s just hope it continues to be known as that rather than just AES, which is pretty character-less really.

Monday, 30 October 2000

Johannes Brahms

Listening to:

Oscar Peterson's finest hour.

Just read:

Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms.

I really enjoyed this biography. I feel I know more about the nature of the man behind the music, and more too about the nature of the times in which he lived. Brahms was certainly a very interesting character. He had many admirable qualities, and many character flaws as well. He was loyal to his family and friends, generous and could be a good-humoured companion. On the other hand, he kept himself to himself, not revealing much of what he really thought, took his foul moods out on others with a startling lack of tact, and was generally rather callous about others’ feelings.

The biography is full of discussion about the music, with accompanying excerpts from it written out. I understand a little music theory (I know what a major third is, and I know how to find out exactly what a diminished seventh is), and can read music. Unfortunately, I can’t read music and gain a sense of what the notes sound like. I should really get myself into a choir or something to remedy this. As it stands, I’d really have to get out my clarinet to play through the phrases. In any case, the sometimes quite extended discussions certainly made me want to get up and listen to my recordings of the various works.

I felt the biography was generally well-written. The penultimate chapter, containing the description of Brahms's last days was really quite affecting. However, there also seemed to be a patch where Swafford got all too fond of the word “eponymous”. It’s a good word, sure, but to refer to Christ as “the eponymous founder of the Christian religion” is ridiculous.

To read next:

George C. Williams, Plan and purpose in Nature. More non-fiction, but science this time. Of the popular science I read, I tend to enjoy the biological stuff most, so I have high hopes for this.

Monday, 16 October 2000

Invention by design, The last continent

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 2 Resurrection.

Just read:

Henry Petroski, Invention by design.

I finished this on Saturday morning. It’s an enjoyable read. I think I found the chapters on the bigger engineering projects more interesting than the earlier ones (the discussions of paper-clips, pencils and zips). After this mundane (though still interesting enough, in its way) start, Petroski talks about the Boeing 777, sewage systems, bridges and buildings.

These accounts of big projects are interesting because they give the reader a glimpse into a world that is normally hidden from view. The only real time that Petroski touches on software engineering (so-called) is to discuss the famous disaster of the Denver airport baggage handling system.

It’s nice to read a book by someone with a home-page.

Terry Pratchett, The last continent.

I also read this over the weekend. It was an enjoyable, light read, and the fact that it was set in Australia was a good source of jokes. This is in contrast to Pratchett's book with the pseudo-Chinese setting, Interesting times, which I just felt was offensive, with poor jokes.

The plot in The last continent is thin. It’s not entirely spelt out what is really going on with the lack of rain etc, and Pratchett’s plots all too often have people “warping the structure of time and space” as it is. His novels featuring the Ankh-Morpork Watch tend to have better plots, but even some of these have the “whole worlds are at risk” plot-lines that grow a bit wearying after a while.

Now reading:

Jan Swafford, Brahms. I started this on Sunday morning, and read a biggish chunk of it in one session. I generally like biographies, and this one isn’t going to be an exception. It’s illuminating about a man whose music I admire. More as I read more. There’s an interesting review of this book and a response to the review in the NYRB.

Monday, 9 October 2000

Rides round Britain and About a boy

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 9.

Just read:

John Byng, Rides round Britain.

I read the last of the rides on Saturday morning. Byng went to North Wales, and had ample opportunity to complain about just about every part of his experience. He also said that he would never do another tour if he had to do it on his own. By “on his own” he meant “with only a servant”. He wanted someone with him that he felt he could talk to. I guess no suitable companion took him up on this offer, because this was the last tour in the book.

Despite his frequent grumbles, I quite enjoyed reading the book, because he describes countryside from such an interesting perspective (that of the 18th century gentleman), and is occasionally pretty humorous.

Nick Hornby, About a boy.

I got this as a birthday present in 1998, and only now have I got round to it on the list. I read it on Saturday morning, and found it a very enjoyable, light and humorous read.

One of the two principal characters, Marcus (the boy of the title) is well-drawn and sympathetic, but not entirely believable. I know that I wasn’t anything like that as a 12 year old, and I can’t think of anyone I knew who was. The other principal is also very interesting; but in a “wow, what a neat idea” way. I suppose there must be people out there living off royalty payments from a parental one-hit wonder, but I haven’t met any of them, so I feel less qualified to tell you that this character is unrealistic.

Anyway, I recommend it, even if Hornby does feel compelled to portray Cambridge as some sort of unworldly hicksville.

Now reading:

Henry Petroski, Invention by design: how engineers get from thought to thing. I read the first two chapters of this on Sunday. The first was about the paper-clip, and examined some of the patents issued for designs in this area. Some were quite modern, and the point was that people really do think that designing a better paper-clip is both possible and desirable. The second was about analysing the forces that cause pencil leads to break. Interesting stuff.

Wednesday, 4 October 2000

Book review index

Listening to:

Bach, English suite no. 4.

Wanna do an undergraduate project in the Cambridge Computer Lab? My half-baked suggestions are now on the web.

I’ve decided to create an index to the various miniature book reviews that I’ve written in the course of writing this log. The index is just a collection of links back into the log. Needless to say, it’s still (under construction/in development/your own asinine phrase here), but available now!

Monday, 2 October 2000

Byng’s Rides

Listening to:

Handel, Concerti Grossi, op. 6. So my traversal continues, and I’m up to “H”.

Still reading:

John Byng, Rides round Britain. I have just one more “Tour” to read, this one being to North Wales. I read three over the weekend. Byng is very negative about Manchester: he has a bad inn, and is harsh about general rowdiness, drunken-ness and dirt. Being a bit of a conservative, he thinks that Trade is having a deleterious effect on the country. He reckons at one point that if he put 20 sons of the soil up against 20 sons of the loom (Trade = work in the cotton mills, you see), then the honest yeomen would wipe the floor with the industrial proles. He also thinks it significant that so much grain is being imported into Liverpool from North America.

The trip to Manchester is part of a long Tour to the North of England. During this, he visits Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, and is very impressed. As well he might be, it’s an amazing place to visit 200 years later too. However, Byng is also a bit of a conservative in reaction to many of the houses and gardens that he visits. He rants about the then-modern trend to cut down plantations of trees in favour of big lawns and lakes. For example, he is quite negative about Wimpole Hall, which is really quite beautiful in my eyes. What he saw as modern innovation is now over 200 years old, and there’s no accounting for taste, of course.

Monday, 11 September 2000

Byng, Britain and the ways of cats

Listening to:

Puccini, La Bohème.

Still reading:

Byng, Rides round Britain. I’m continuing to enjoy this. Perhaps the fact that I’m a diary writer myself predisposes me to like things that are presented in a journal or diary like manner. I read two complete Tours over the weekend; one round Wales, and the other in Sussex. Byng is quite harsh about the standard of the inns in the former. He also complains about towns being ill-paved, the sort of concern that just doesn't enter into our lives these days, when the whole country is covered in a big, maintained road network. Of course, equally, it is now no longer possible to have the sorts of “adventures” that Byng managed within one’s own country.

For example, he has a bit of a moan about the fact that locals don’t know how to direct him so that he has to rely on other travellers’ accounts and potentially dodgy maps. Locals are also typically ignorant about the nature of the interesting antiquities in their region. One he mentions as having told him that something was an ancient auld thing.

From the LRB of 22 June 2000:

The ways of cats are caught well in her [Rebecca West’s] grieving letter over Ginger Pounce, a fine marmalade creature:

He ... was always very careful not to make a fuss of me, but in a cagey way let me know that he knew I was doing pretty well for him and there were no hard feelings. He had a very reserved, reluctant way of licking my hand in a way that suggested he was saying to himself: I hope to God the woman won't start to think I want to marry her.

Wednesday, 9 August 2000

Book links

Listening to:

Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis.

Book links, and the evil of George Lucas

A couple of book-related links today. First, some comp-sci humour (read the review by John E. Fracisco). The book is one I remember being part of my childhood, but in no very specific way. Perhaps I read it, perhaps it just lay around in the school library so that I could recognise the cover 20 years later.

Secondly, a neat story about compiling a book of 200 great novels written after 1950, by one of the two compilers. The first book mentioned, Plumb, a great New Zealand novel, is one I read and enjoyed since coming to Cambridge.

Finally, a diatribe on the evil that is George Lucas.

Monday, 7 August 2000

Cuba and 19th century England

Listening to:

Eliades Ochoa, Sublime illusion. This is the guy that I liked so much on the Buena Vista Social Club CD and film. I got this album just a little while ago, and though it’s instrumentally less varied than BVSC, it’s very good.

Still reading:

Mitford’s Our village. This one is going to take ages to finish. This is not because I don’t like it, but because it’s difficult to read in big chunks. In turn, this is because there’s no over-arching plot to move you forward. The various stories/vignettes are pretty much unrelated.

This book has emphasised how ignorant I am of botany. What do periwinkles look like? What’s woodbine? Am I even sure what beech trees look like? The book was clearly written in a period where this stuff was common knowledge. It evokes a lost era very effectively; making you think that maybe living in a English village in the early 19th century would be quite nice.

Monday, 24 July 2000

Entry #77

Listening to:
Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli.
Just read:
Granta 48: Africa. I thought this a good collection. The first thing in it was fiction (by William Boyd) with only a tenuous link to Africa, and though it was very amusing, it was much more about Hollywood than Africa. I was a bit nervous about what I was getting myself in for when I read that, but the rest of the issue was much more what I was expecting.

That means there was mainly non-fiction reportage about a variety of African countries, including Rwanda, Liberia, South Africa, Ethiopia and Angola. The long piece on Liberia was very interesting. The narrator was the wife of a senior diplomat at the US embassay. As things deteriorate, she is eventually (reluctantly) evacuated, and chooses to go to Sierra Leone. She contrasts the chaos at Monrovia (people, not all of them as well connected as she, desperate to leave) with the calm at Freetown.

This is pretty ironic of course; Liberia is pretty stable nowadays with Charles Taylor (one of the rebels described in the Granta piece) in control and supporting rebels in Sierra Leone. In any case, this piece's description of the disintegration of a country and its capital is both depressing and compelling.

Overheard on the street this morning:
"Doesn't she have one, then?"
"No, but she sometimes ties one to part of her fence."

Wednesday, 19 July 2000

Harry Potter and Erdös

Listening to:

Bach, The art of fugue.

Just read:

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the goblet of fire.

This was not on the list of prescribed books, but I had the weekend away in Glasgow (hence I’m in entry deficit once more), and wanted something to read on the train. The train took about 6 hours, and almost all of this I spent reading. It’s a very good read. The characters aren’t wonderfully drawn but the plot is really very good; a positive page-turner even.

However, I hope the next book doesn’t follow its predecessors in structuring the plot around the revelation of the mystery baddie at the end. There must be other ways of putting a story together; surely you don’t have to keep all the interesting details hidden until the end.

Paul Hoffman, The man who loved only numbers: the story of Paul Erdös and the search for mathematical truth.

I read this while in Glasgow (the copy I read belongs to the friend we were staying with). I thought it very interesting. Erdös was clearly a very strange man, but this biography makes sure that this strangeness is never too offputting. It’s well-padded with descriptions of various other mathematicians and scientists, such as Hardy and Einstein, but definitely an engaging read.

Monday, 10 July 2000

Sibelius, and two old Grantas

Listening to:

Sibelius, symphony #2 in D major, op. 43. This is Sibelius’ most famous symphony. It’s dramatic and beautiful without being overblown. There’s quite a contrast between Sibelius and Mahler, despite the fact that they were contemporaries. Part of this may have been geographic: Sibelius was all the way away in Finland, whereas Mahler was in Vienna, the heart of the Austro-Germanic tradition. In any case, this symphony of Sibelius’ is lyrical, and shimmering. Mahler’s second symphony, the Resurrection, which I also love, is completely different. It’s strong, forceful and heart-pounding. It has a message, and it makes very sure that you can’t possibly ignore it.

Just read:

Granta 10: travel writing.

This was a very good read. There was all sorts in it, and I enjoyed it all. For example, there was someone retracing the steps of Robert Louis Stephenson on a trip in France, visiting a Trappist monastery and getting footsore on lonely roads. Bruce Chatwin, now dead of AIDS, wrote of getting caught up in a “coup” in Benin, and Martha Gellhorn (who I read about in a previous Granta) wrote about having a miserable time in Haiti. Richard O’Hanlon provided an excerpt from his (then forthcoming) book, Into the heart of Borneo.

Granta 16: science.

This was much more disappointing than the travel writing. Really, it was a good demonstration of C. P. Snow’s two cultures, because much of the supposed writing about science was nothing of the sort. It further seemed rather significant that they couldn’t fill the issue with their so-called science writing and resorted to other stuff later on. Further, there were three pieces in a row after the science section on nuclear war. Perhaps that was all the editor felt science was good for.

Still, Stephen Jay Gould was good in his piece Adam's Navel, I liked the two pieces by Oliver Sachs from his book The man who mistook his wife for a hat (which I’d already read, but hey), and Primo Levi’s account of chemical detective work in Chromium was very good.

To read next:

Granta 48: Africa.

Tomorrow, a hard-hitting analysis of how awful Cambridge weather really is...

Thursday, 6 July 2000

Plums of P. G. Wodehouse

Listening to:

Brahms, string quartet in C minor, op. 51, no. 1

Just read:

Plums of P. G. Wodehouse.

This was a very enjoyable collection of bits and pieces by P. G. Wodehouse. He was a brilliant writer, and this was a good sampling of some short stories. The three I liked the best were probably Uncle Fred as parrot doctor, Jeeves and Wooster betting on vicars’ sermons, and one in which a hard-boiled detective story writer finds himself succumbing to the insidious charms of a cottage out of “romantic slush land”.

To read next:

Granta 10: travel writing. This is a back issue that I ordered a while back. There are four issues a year, and the current issue is number 70, so this one is fifteen years old.

An excuse

I am in entry deficit once more because I got married on Saturday.

Monday, 26 June 2000

A Passage to India

Listening to:

Mozart, piano concerto #9 in E flat major, KV 271.

Just read:

A passage to India by E. M. Forster.

I greatly enjoyed this novel. In some ways, it was more of the same. Certainly Forster seems to relish the chance to describe the interaction of two worlds, where one world is the conventional English setting familiar to him, and the other is something exotic. Sometimes the focus is on the impact of the exotic on the English, as in the two Italian novels (Where angels fear to tread and A room with a view), and sometimes the other way around gets most attention, as in Maurice and APTI.

In APTI, the principal character is probably Aziz. He opens and finishes the novel, and we get to see his internal thoughts and emotions most of all. It's difficult to know how likely a person he is, but at least Forster had actually been to India, so he’s probably not a complete fabrication of what Forster thought Moslem Indians should be like. It's really only during the novel’s central crisis that Aziz is apart from the narrative. Instead we get to see the English administration springing into sickening action.

Finally, I find the novel’s denouement very effective. This is in complete contrast to The longest journey.

To read next:

Plums of P. G. Wodehouse. This is another volume courtesy of the Folio Society.

Incidentally, the English football team are out of the Euro 2000 competition. They lost to Rumania, and didn’t need to be kicked out for the bad behaviour of their fans.

Monday, 19 June 2000

Forster and English football

Listening to:

Chopin, a CD called Rondos and variations played by Idil Biret. The current track is called Variations brillantes. It seems an accurate title.

Just read:

E. M. Forster's Maurice.

Well, how wrong I was. Clive Durham didn’t work out at all. Sorry for the spoiler, but I have to say that it wasn’t really a conventional romantic novel at all. It did have a happy ending though. I liked it a lot. I think I may even put it above Howard’s End in my Forster ranking.

Now reading:

A passage to India by, yes, you guessed it, E. M. Forster. I’ve read Part I of this, and have liked it a great deal so far. More on it as the story develops. I wonder though what someone like Kipling made of this when it came out. Apparently (according to the blurb on the back of the book), this was Forster’s most successful novel and has sold in its millions.

The English football team won their group match against Germany 1-0 on Saturday night. The fans went a-rioting in Charleroi (Belgium) and around 500 of them were arrested. As I believe the Duke of Wellington said of his army, I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but they scare the hell out of me. This country is bizarre; it will serve them all right if the team does get kicked out of the competition, as I heard the authorities have suggested.

Monday, 5 June 2000

Bruckner, Madeleine’s world and Maurice

Listening to:

Bruckner, symphony #6 in A major. The recording I’m listening to is a Naxos one, with Georg Tintner conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. This is the only recording of the work that I’ve heard, so I’m not in much of a position to judge its merit. I’ve come to like the work through it though, so it can’t be all bad.

Just read:

Madeleine’s world by Brian Hall.

This was a very enjoyable morning’s read on Saturday. It is perhaps slightly susceptible to the charge of being a bit cute and sentimental, but I think this inevitable aspect of talking about small children is kept very well in hand.

Now reading:

Maurice by E. M. Forster. Are you sick of hearing about Forster yet? Somewhat to my surprise, I’m not sick of reading him yet. Maurice is quite different from the previous novels. Forster required it to be published posthumously because of its subject matter: the story of a young man coming to realise that he is homosexual. I am only up to the point where Durham has declared his love for Maurice, and where Maurice, not yet figuring out the nature of his own feelings, rejects him. Then Maurice has a little break-down and sees the light.

I’m enjoying it so far. Maurice is, despite himself, turning into a reasonable person in front of our eyes, and it's simultaneously an engaging romance. So far anyway. Naturally, if it is to be like other romances, there will be all sorts of trials and tribulations to suffer through first. Assuming that it's going to continue to be an accurate picture of the time, the homosexuality will cause its own problems.

Monday, 22 May 2000

Mahler, Forster and Fiji

Listening to:

Mahler Das Lied von der Erde. This famous piece is not typically counted as one of Mahler’s nine symphonies, but it is really symphonic in scale and character. It was written after the death of Mahler’s four year old daughter, taking as texts some supposedly Chinese poems in German translation. The overall theme of the poems is of the beauties of the earth and its eternal cycle of death and rebirth. I found that it took me a while to “get” this music, but I now think it’s one of my favourite works by Mahler.

Still reading:

Howard’s End by E. M. Forster. The novel is developing apace. It’s hard to believe that the impending marriage between Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox will be a glorious success, but at least Margaret’s personal emotions and feelings seem to make a deal of sense. She is much more successfully drawn than Lucy Honeychurch.

A coup in Fiji

There has been an attempted coup in Fiji. I lived for over two years in Nadi as a young child, and started school there. I can’t really remember much from that time, and certainly wasn’t aware of the tension between the native Fijians and the Fijians of Indian descent. There has already been one coup in Fiji, led by Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987, and the thought of another one plunging the country into chaos again is very disheartening.

However, this “coup” doesn’t seem to have the support of the army, and the President there seems to be holding firm, despite the fact that much of the rest of the country’s top politicians are being held hostage in the Parliament in Suva. For example, there are press releases from the real government at the official web-site.

Friday, 19 May 2000

A Room With a View

Listening to:

Brahms, Intermezzo in C sharp minor, from Three Intermezzi, op. 117.

Just read:

A room with a view by E. M. Forster.

I read this while on holiday in the south of France, and it seemed appropriate to be reading about Italy and its effect on the English while in another warm Mediterranean country.

I thought ARWAV was OK, but not great. Part of the problem was that the characters weren’t really that sympathetic. Sure, you’re meant to like Lucy Honeychurch, but she remains a bit of a cipher in my opinion. Somehow the reader is only told about her mental and emotional turmoil, and not able to really feel it. This makes reading the novel a rather detached experience. I suppose the cause of this is that it’s difficult to identify with Lucy’s predicament because it’s so foreign to our everyday experience.

Now reading:

Howard’s End by that man Forster again. My opinion of this is higher. The principal characters don’t seem as diffident (alternatively: in such obvious need of a kick up the backside), and the general Forsterian humour, which I definitely appreciate, is still there.

La Belle France

So, as alluded to above, I’ve been in France for a holiday recently. This has caused the log to go into entry deficit. I will attempt to do four entries next week and the week after to make up for this appalling situation.

The trip away saw me see some great sights: Les Baux de Provence, Arles and Aigues-Mortes.

Monday, 8 May 2000

Darwin among the machines

Listening to:

Bebop by Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie.

Just read:

Darwin among the machines by George Dyson.

This wasn’t that good after all. The historical narrative seemed accurate, and was interesting. However, the conclusions Dyson was drawing about the nature of AI, evolution and all that sort of thing, were waffly (i.e., lacked precision, making it impossible to tell what, if anything he meant), and occasionally just bizarre.

Java a meta-language? Object oriented programming languages somehow analogous to the random processes of natural selection? Yeah, right.

To read next:

Back to Forster; Room with a view.

Tuesday, 2 May 2000

The longest journey

Listening to:

Bach, Christmas Oratorio BWV 248. More of that beautiful religious music.

Just read:

The longest journey by E. M. Forster.

I didn’t end up liking this as much as Where angels fear to tread. It held my attention throughout its length, not least because there was some great plot development. However, the final section (some 80 pages), a denouement of sorts after the plot’s greatest climax, was a disappointment. It was too long, there was too much authorial comment, and to make it worse, the comment was tedious Romantic rhapsodising about the importance of being close to the earth, and not bowing down to society’s awful conventions. These are fine sentiments for a character to express by word or deed, because you can then take them or leave them with the character. If the author starts getting all ideological himself, I begin to object. In WAFT (great acronym :-), the novel expresses some similar ideas but more successfully.

To read next:

Darwin among the machines by George Dyson. It gets quite a good review on the New Scientist web-site.

Monday, 17 April 2000

Starting The longest journey

Listening to:

Mozart Coronation mass in C major, K. 317.

Still reading:

The longest journey by E. M. Forster. I read the first few chapters of this on Sunday morning. I like Forster’s style; his writing seems quite lucid and unaffected. I’ve only managed a few chapters so far, but the characters don't seem as well-drawn as in Where angels fear to tread. They’re not as vivid. I could grow to like the main character Rickie E., but his is still a character that clearly has a lot of developing to do. Just as you’re not meant to approve of everything Pip does in Great Expectations, so too Rickie has some growing up to do.

I was playing the tourist guide in Cambridge yesterday for a friend over from NZ. Miraculously the weather improved after a dreadful Saturday. You can see what Cambridge looks like right now, if you like.

Monday, 10 April 2000

A slew of books

Listening to:

Brahms, symphony #3 in F, op 90. My traversal has passed through Beethoven and onto Brahms. This CD is the first Brahms CD I ever owned. I remember buying it and thinking, “I wonder if I’m going to like this.” Dear reader, I do.

This is the symphony that features briefly in an episode of Fawlty Towers. Basil is listening to the opening movement on a tape recorder, and Sybil, walking past, tells him to turn off the “racket”. Stridently, Basil replies, “Racket? Racket? This is Brahms’s third racket!”

Just read:

Pick of Punch

I finished this on Thursday night. It had its moments.

Granta 62: What young men do.

I read this in bed on Saturday morning. The previous Sea issue was better, but this was still pretty good. The title piece was all about rioting and carnage in Indonesian Borneo. There was an amusing story in there about a high-heels fetishist, and also a very interesting extended obituary for Martha Gellhorn, a respected journalist. (Well, the writer of the obit. certainly respected her.) She was Ernest Hemingway's second wife as well, and had interesting, and fairly derogatory things to say about him.

Where angels fear to tread by E. M. Forster.

I read this in bed on Sunday morning and thought it very good. I saw the film when it came out in NZ. This was one of at least three Forster adaptations featuring Helena Bonham-Carter that all seemed to come out at roughly the same time.

The book is really quite amusing for most of its length with savage, but funny, portraits of repressed Edwardian sensibilities. Nonetheless, there are dark tones throughout and the ending is definitely dark, if not absolutely tragic. I think I slightly missed some of the impact of the ending because I was reading so quickly, but that's just some indication of the way in which it was a compelling read.

To read next:

The longest journey, again by E. M. Forster. A while back I bought all six Forster novels and now the day of reckoning is upon me.

Wednesday, 5 April 2000

The Folio Society

Listening to:

Mendelssohn, symphony #3 in A minor (Scottish).

I should have said last time that Pick of Punch (which I’m still reading) is from the Folio Society, a high-falutin’ book-club. They produce very nice hardback editions of books, complete with illustrations that are usually very good. I’m very keen on their series of Joseph Conrad's works (novels and collections of shorter pieces). They’ve published two a year for the last few years, and I now have seven, of which I’ve read Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness (which came with another couple of stories as well) and Nostromo. I thought the latter was particularly good.

However, I also have to admit that charges of pretentiousness might come a bit close to the mark with this outfit. They’ve been going for a while now, and some times I think that I’m shelling out more money than is warranted (four books a year at about £20 each).

Here’s a very amusing piece on Salon about the corporate cartoon characters of America, such as Ronald McDonald, and their over-anxious minders.

Monday, 3 April 2000

Hogfather

Listening to:

Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde.

Just read:

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.

I read this in bed on Saturday morning, and thought it was great. Highly recommended. Of course, Pratchett's Death is a great character, and the wizards of the Unseen University are also very clever.

Now reading:

A pick of Punch, a collection of bits and pieces from Punch magazine. It’s not bad, but there are fewer laughs per page than in the Pratchett.

The person who compiled the collection is Miles Kington, who I think now writes a column for the Independent newspaper (their web-site requires JavaScript; ugh!). His taste, as revealed by both his columns and his selections, is all too fond of mannered whimsy in my opinion.

New Zealand have just lost the third cricket test to Australia. Cricketing news courtesy of the great CricInfo web-site.

Friday, 31 March 2000

A crisis of conscience

Listening to:

Revolver by the Beatles.

Spam from Yale

I got an interesting “spam” from the Yale University Press yesterday. The writer asked me to advertise a recently published book on Brahms on my composers web-page, and offered a review copy.

I don’t know whether I should accept the offer or not. Being sent review copies of books by publishers is fairly standard practice, so I don’t have any qualms about being “bribed” into writing something positive. However, the big problem is really that I would have to read the thing. I have an enormous enough back-log of other books to read that I would feel guilty about promoting this freebie to the head of the queue. (I could hardly reply to the offer saying “Yes, I’d love the review copy, but I probably won’t get around to reading it for 18 months”, and yes, it is that much of a backlog; that’s why I have a list to keep track of it.)

In other news, it was revealed on the radio this morning that women in Britain are on average two inches shorter than women in the rest of Europe. This is apparently explained by the fact that there is a generally lower standard of living here, and poorer diets.

Monday, 27 March 2000

Entry #26

Listening to:
Mozart, string quartet in B flat major, K458
Just read:
(Incidentally, I embrace and welcome the ambiguity of the two meanings of "read"; consider "reed" and "red".) Elton, England under the Tudors. I've learnt all about Elizabeth I, the ridiculous end of Essex, Drake's circumnavigation of the world (only the second ever), and a whole panoply of other bits and pieces.

Perhaps one of the most interesting bits was the discussion of the English wars with Spain. Elton points out that English successes against a declining empire (Spain was in the middle of losing its Dutch territories) didn't necessarily mean that Spain was an easy target. In fact, after initial successes by the likes of Drake in the New World, the English really only had the success of repelling the Spanish Armada. Their own attempts to do something similar failed miserably. Elton thinks that the English were too ready to believe that Spain was a spent force, when it was in fact still the strongest European power.

To read:
Terry Pratchett's Hogfather. Just in case you thought I only read serious stuff. Pratchett is a good writer. I've come to dislike Granny Weatherwax a little; she seems too perfect and too powerful. She may be shown up in Carpe Jugulum, which I've started, but which is now on the official back-burner. I disliked the way in which she had to come out on top at the end of Witches Abroad. I think Pratchett could have just as easily allowed the witch native to the New Orleans setting to triumph.
Heard on the radio this morning that the film American Beauty (which I wrote about on the 16th last month) has won five Oscars.

Talking of Oscar-winning films, I've been amused recently by two humorous references to The English Patient. (Just got to love the way Miramax's web-site index of film names treats initial pronouns "an", "the" and the like as significant.) Anyway, one reference is a scathing reference to George W. Bush's way with words in Doonesbury. The other is the alleged use of the term by BMW executives to refer to the parlous state of their (English) ex-subsidiary Rover. If the state of their web-site is anything to go by, it's no surprise that BMW wanted to get rid of them.

Monday, 20 March 2000

Elton’s Tudors

Listening to:

Beethoven, piano sonata No. 28 in A, opus 101. I was listening to something else before, honest! Alfred Brendel is a star.

Still reading:

Elton on those dang Tudors. Didn’t get as much read this weekend, but I managed to get through the description of 16th century inflation, and onto preliminaries about the reign of Elizabeth I.

(Incidentally, her perhaps not so direct descendent, Elizabeth II is currently touring Australia. Not so long ago, the Australians voted to retain her as head of state. The Republican movement made a pig's ear of the campaign, not seeming to pay enough attention to the distrust felt for politicians, and then backing a scheme which would have politicians elect a President, rather than letting the general public do it directly, as happens in Eire (Republic of Ireland) for example.)

Anyway, I’m looking forward to hearing ever more about Elizabeth. I think the general theme of the period is the gradual construction of a state independent of the person of the Monarch. For all that Henry VIII was a powerful individual simply as monarch, his reforms, in conjunction with other factors, ended up strengthening the power of Parliament. All this then came to a head in the Civil War of the next century. It’s fascinating stuff.

Had our oven fixed this morning. It meant a late start to the day, but HeatComplete (hate their web-site) did their bit, and I think it was probably worth it.

Monday, 28 February 2000

Quick Dickens

Listening to:

Sibelius, symphony #7 in C, Op. 105. A 20th century symphony in C major.

Just read:

I finished Great Expectations yesterday. It’s certainly a great novel, and brilliantly plotted. I got through it in three sessions, and found it very enjoyable. Dickens’s women aren’t all totally believable. In particular, the “saintly angel” figure seems to be a staple of his fiction.

Now reading:

My next book is Elton’s England under the Tudors; a famous history, though now regarded as slightly old-fashioned. I’ll let you know how I get on with this. I doubt I’ll finish it in three sittings.

Supervising

The link: Supervising arrangements

I should be doing other stuff right now. In fact, today’s link is all about it. I’m doing my bit to turn Cambridge students into world-conquering Oxbridge graduates. The supervision system at Cambridge (they’re called tutorials at Oxford, but the system is otherwise similar there) is widely held to be one of the university’s great strengths.

It has its moments, but right now, I wish term was over.

Monday, 21 February 2000

Starting Great expectations

Listening to:

Duke Ellington, A lull at dawn and others.

Just read:

Finished that issue of Granta. It included a nice story by Haruki Murakami called The seventh man. V. poetic.

Now reading:

Great Expectations, as per this link to a zip file of the complete text (courtesy of the Project Gutenberg).

Dickens is definitely a great writer. I first read GE at school, something that happened so long ago that all I can really remember of the experience is that I enjoyed it. Re-reading the novel now, I am up to the stage of things where Pip is about to leave for London, thanks to a mysterious benefactor.

It’s engrossing stuff.

Monday, 14 February 2000

Reading Granta

Link: Granta

Hitherto this web-log has presented a picture of me that is sadly lacking. I have yet to own up to my great love of reading. The link is to the magazine of new writing Granta. I’m currently reading issue 61, whose theme is the sea.

There’s a great piece in there by a British writer who goes to sea with a Spanish fishing boat. Non-Europeans may not be aware that fishing rights in European waters are a long-standing source of bad feeling. The Spanish are often cast as the villains of the piece because Spain consumes the most fish in Europe, and has the biggest fishing fleet.

What comes out of the piece in the Granta is that the fishermen are as aware of the environmental issues as anyone. They're not the rapacious destroyers of the environment you might expect them to be given the typical coverage in the British press. Further, if the boat the author of this piece went out with is typical, most fishermen would much prefer not to be involved in the industry if they could support themselves some other way.

If you were keen to do further research, I imagine that the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's Fisheries Department site might be the place to start.

P.S.: The river that passes through Cambridge is really called the Granta. I think the magazine has or had some link with Cambridge, but don't think that I'm recommending it on this basis!