Archive for December, 2014

2014: My year of reading

December 31, 2014

Time to take stock of what I’ve been up to this year. I’m struck that this year has definitely been a year of re-reading, coming back to old favourites – especially Ursula LeGuin – and that I have read relatively few newly-published books. I’ve finished a total of 88 books this year, somewhat down on the last couple of years, and, trying to keep to my intention of acquiring fewer books in total, I’m quite pleased that I’ve managed to add only 37 to my creaking shelves in 2014, the lowest number since 1988! I’ve also been reasonably successful in pruning my shelves of books I no longer want or need.

Weirdest book I read in 2014: The Flame Alphabet, by Ben Marcus

Most disappointing read in 2014: The Ice Trilogy, by Vladimir Sorokin

Best non-fiction book this year: Economics – The User’s Guide, by Ha-Joon Chang

Best new book: Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz

You can find my thoughts about each of these books by searching this year’s posts.

Resolutions for 2015: I will try to reduce the ‘books waiting to be read’ pile; I will re-read Jane Austen’s novels; I will read more science fiction…

I’m very pleased my blog seems slowly to be acquiring more readers: thank you to everyone who visits. But what more can I do to encourage you to share your thoughts and opinions? I’m also thinking about redesigning how it looks, if I can find a model I like better than the current one.

Happy reading to all my readers in 2015!

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Jacek Hugo-Bader: White Fever

December 30, 2014

51+iMiGPN8L._AA160_White Fever is the nickname Russians give to the DTs that alcholics suffer from; there’s a ridiculous amount of that in this book…

The blurb on the cover compares Hugo-Bader to Ryszard Kapuscinski, an inevitable comparison, I suppose, but they are different: Bader is much more impressionistic, it seems to me, and rather less contextual. He writes well, it’s translated well and easy to read, though the subject-matter is grim and challenging.

It’s a deceptive book: I thought I was getting a travelogue through Siberia, but it’s not an A-Z account of a journey. Instead there are thematic chapters, impressions of people and places encountered on his journey.

I’ve read a lot about Siberia, and it remains vast and incomprehensible. The Soviet Union becomes an ever weirder place as time passes since its disappearance, leaving so many horrors behind it. Bader visits the area where Soviet nuclear testing took place and his accounts of the cavalier attitudes at the time, and the horrendous effects, are truly shocking. The effects on indigenous peoples of alcohol are appalling; having grown up on non-carb diets, they are unable to process alcohol and it wreaks havoc. Average consumption of alcohol in Russia is seventeen litres of pure alcohol equivalent per person per year.

Crime, corruption and violence are rife in lawless areas of the Far East: it resembles the US Wild West of the nineteenth century, and is certainly far worse than in the days of the Soviet Union. There are all sorts of shamans and weird religious cults as people strive to make some sense of their wrecked lives; here I was reminded of some of the religious fundamentalism of the US.

So then I found myself thinking about huge continental nations like the US and Russia that are almost empires in themselves, and wondering whether the inhabitants do actually see life and live it differently, if that makes sense. Certainly both places appear very different from the melting-pot of relatively small nations that make up Europe and that I’m familiar with, though we are just as capable of internecine horrors, as our twentieth-century history testifies… I have always been fascinated with the Soviet Union, which to me did begin as an attempt to create a different and better kind of society, though it was very quickly perverted; certainly the glee of the West at its collapse and our rush to help destroy all traces of it, is partly responsible for what is going on in Russia now.

It’s a fascinating and horrifying read; I’m astonished at the risks he took. The practicalities of attempting to drive in Siberia would put any sane person off. He observes closely and intelligently, refraining from judgement: allowing people to speak for themselves, they also judge themselves.

E J Wagner: The Science of Sherlock Holmes

December 29, 2014

51EapR2dqkL._AA160_Regular readers, and ex-students of mine, will know I’m a Sherlock Holmes addict. So I was really happy to receive this book among my Christmas swag. The author is clearly a Holmes fiend too, as well as an expert on CSI and forensics: a good combination…

So the book is a nicely structured exploration of different aspects of the detective’s craft, focused through the lens of the Sherlock Holmes stories as a starting point. There are chapters on corpses, poisoning, disguises, forgery, fingerprinting… We see how crime scene investigation developed over time from its early days; we realise how much Conan Doyle knew, and also who he knew, and how close to the cutting edge of investigation at the time Holmes was. Details from real criminal investigations are interwoven with some of those from the Holmes stories.

The book is clearly aimed at the general reader, and it’s very readable, though certainly not trivial, and there is a copious bibliography for anyone who wants to take their knowledge deeper. There are suitable amounts of gory details and shock-horror from criminal deeds of the past to satisfy the average Sherlock Holmes fan. I really enjoyed the book, and thought it was a very good way to frame an introduction to the history of the science of crime investigation.

HG Wells: A Modern Utopia

December 28, 2014

31jXQnYp8HL._AA160_I’d meant to read this utopian vision for a long while; finally got round to it, and admit it was interesting but that’s about it. In many ways, it’s a curiosity from almost a century ago, but Wells was a socialist and it was interesting to see how he elaborated his vision.

Since he wrote several SF novels, it wasn’t too surprising to see him use the parallel universe trope as the vehicle for his perfect world, another Earth somewhere on the other side of the universe, that had developed oh so much more logically and sensibly compared with our own, and Wells as narrator, and his scientist companion found themselves transported there inexplicably, possibly through some wish-fulfilment fantasy…

Any utopia reflects the time and place of its origin, and these reflections usually provide the most interesting glimpses, to my mind. Wells does realise that the problem with most utopias to his date was that they were static rather than dynamic, and for him, this will not do: stasis means regression, and so his ideal world must always be striving to advance and develop. There is, of course, a contradiction in terms here, but we will let that pass. Wells is right that a static world would be unremittingly tedious, and Huxley was to try and address this issue in Brave New World, though not in ways to the liking of his readers.

Wells also recognises that not everyone will be willingly dragged into the perfect future: there will be the idle, the reluctant and the downright awkward, and he thinks about how these may be dealt with; Huxley steals his ideas. He writes at some length about how dull many utopias are because they remain on the general level, hectoring and didactic, and proceeds to do pretty much the same himself; the bringing to life of the utopia by presenting real individuals enjoying it just does not happen.

I was probably most astonished to find that religion persists in Wells’ utopia; not because I am anti-religion, but because I had imagined he would wish it away as a relic of a superstitious past. Not so – a belief in a deity and spiritual forces helping to raise the quality of life is very much part of the future, although not along the specifically Christian lines we might recognise. Race, racism and the betterment of the species, through selective breeding and eugenics, are all addressed, as they needed to be in the innocent days of the early twentieth century, and Wells reflects quite casually on ideas such as the extermination of inferior and undesirable races…

Somewhere in an earlier post you will find my thoughts on Ursula LeGuin‘s utopia, The Dispossessed, which speaks most strongly and powerfully to me of all the utopias I have read, though I suppose I must also admit that it will come to be seen as a product of its time in due course. Utopian literature is a necessary recognition of the real imperfections of our actually-existing world, a desire for it to be better, usually derived from the imagination of someone who will never be in a position to bring it about. Deep in the psyche of our species is the ability to dream of a better world, accompanied by the inability practically to do anything about it…

Poetry: John Donne

December 20, 2014

If asked, he’s my all-time favourite poet, for his wit, mainly, and the astonishing range of his poetry, from the passionate love lyrics of his early days to the deeply religious poems by the Dean of St Paul’s, whose sermons people came from all over Europe to hear. Sadly, I had fewer opportunities to teach his poetry than I’d have liked, because, to quote an examination board official, “he’s too difficult for today’s students”. Whilst that comment had me seething, there is some truth in it as I recall being observed by a headteacher early in my career who was somewhat astonished at my ability to deliver a crash-course in basic theology to sixth-formers… o tempora, o mores…

Donne wrote in those far-off days when any educated man could turn out a decent poem for an occasion or to a lover, in English certainly and perhaps in Latin or Greek, too. I’ve come to feel, over the years, that Donne surpasses Shakespeare as a poet (of verse, not of drama, obviously) in the breadth of his achievement and the astonishing versatility of his language. Yes, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, but Donne wrote a wide range of different lyrics. Shakespeare is in some ways more polished, Donne rougher but livelier too, and more sparkling.

There is the spectacular (sexual) energy via the direct address in such poems as The Sunne Rising and The Flea – who could imagine a lover lecturing his mistress on an insect, as a way of persuading her into bed? There is the real tenderness of A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, which shades delicately into a hint of sexuality at the end. And contrast the verse structures of these three poems! And then jealousy: the woman spooked in The Apparition

When it came to religion, there is the genuine doubt which sprang from an age of religious turmoil, the yearning for God, and the love for Him. The Holy Sonnets may perhaps be more sober than the love lyrics, but there is still the atonishing boldness of the direct address in Death Be Not Proud and the sexual violence of Batter My Heart. And then, the tenderness, the quietness of the Hymn To God The Father, with the subtle wit in playing with his wife’s name.

Donne wrote in the days when so many writers – perhaps Shakespeare most of all – were doing amazing things as they experimented with the versatility of the developing English language; Donne works in many examples of wit, learning, puns, metaphors and conceits to astonish his readers. His life speaks through his verse: from the would-be courtier, the lover whose real love and unconventional marriage cost him advancement to the Anglican priest searching for God and faith in such troubled times: for me the poet par excellence from the most energetic age of English literature.

Moriarty revisited

December 20, 2014

9781409109471*Spoiler alert* if you’ve not already read Moriarty, then I advise you to visit this, more carefully written, post: if you continue with this one, you may find out things you don’t yet want to know…

My former students will know my thoughts about re-reading books: I read Moriarty on the day it was published, and have now re-read it, a couple of months later. Here is my more considered reaction. You will know, from the ending of the novel, who actually tells the tale: there is clearly much obfuscation right from the very start, and this time I was trying to see when it was possible to see through it, and what our mysterious narrator was up to, up to what point he was in control of his machinations, as it were, and when he was out in the open and not in control.

The Reichenbach Falls episodes in The Final Problem and The Empty House are, quite rightly, called into question as stretching our credulity – Watson always was an unreliable narrator – but then, the ‘replacement’ version here is, ultimately, even less believable, I felt. Holmes’ survival was originally not intended, and had to be manufactured by Conan Doyle several years later to satisfy the demands of his readers and publisher; for his rival to deliberately calculate and engineer his survival? not really believable. It all depends on how clever one feels Moriarty really is, and, of course, then one falls into Conan Doyle’s original trap of thinking and imagining that all these people are real…

There are many more clues available and visible, now that you know what you are looking for, second time around. The basic premise of the novel is a turf war between London master criminal Moriarty (who is a Brit, and more genteel, even with a sense of ‘honour’) and an incomer from the US, Clarence Devereux, who is violent and ruthless. So we are caught up in trying to work out who is using Scotland Yard and who is using Sherlock Holmes to advance their power and influence. There are brutal killings, there is torture, there are bombings – all calculated to shock the Victorian era, except that the characters in this novel do not have that authentic Victorian aura which Conan Doyle could create because he was part of it and writing at that time. The vignettes of Victorian suburban home life are quite convincing, though, unlike the re-cycling of some of the characters from original Sherlock Holmes stories.

There is, inevitably, a melodramatic moment of revelation near the end, and all is revealed, much in the way that the denouements of the original Sherlock Holmes stories were engineered. Overall, I felt that Moriarty was still a decent yarn, with links to the master through characterisation, detection and action, and Horowitz has left himself the possibility of several further novels after this one, I would have thought.

Other Routes: 1500 Years of African & Asian Travel Writing

December 19, 2014

4167G5VQ1VL._AA160_I’ve just re-read this important and challenging anthology. Challenging, because it counters so many of the Eurocentric claims to have ‘discovered’ places, and been the first travellers to ‘explore’ somewhere, as if everyone else in the world just stayed put, cultivating their gardens…

It’s a well-edited anthology with an excellent, detailed, serious academic introduction which develops a clear context for the anthology: travellers from Africa and Asia, from China and Japan, from the Arab world, were all visiting new lands many centuries ago, and writing detailed and thoughtful accounts of the new things they found there, sometimes in a prejudiced and dismissive way, often in a very open-minded and wondering way.

It suffers from the obvious problems with all anthologies, that you never get enough of something you find really interesting, just small gobbets, tantalising but insufficient. And with this sort of writing, often newly ‘re-discovered’, tracking down further helpings can be either really difficult or completely impossible. Some ancient translations can be found via Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive, but a lot has never been translated into English (or any European language, for that matter). Certainly, there is plenty for me to try and hunt down and enjoy (probably in my next existence). The editors do, successfully, demonstrate the range and breadth of the travelling done in the centuries they cover.

So, many people travelled and explored and wrote intelligently and analytically whilst we in the West were in the midst of our ‘Dark Ages’ (whatever they really were); it’s a sobering and necessary reminder that, although we may now be in the ascendant (?) other peoples were once, and often our West was not part of their thoughts or their travels, either because they didn’t know about us, or because we were boring barbarians devoid of interest to intelligent people…

Times were different then, clearly, and often the writers do not touch upon the kinds of detail about foreign lands that I would find interesting, particularly in terms of their interactions with the indigenous peoples of the lands they visited. There are some brilliant glimpses – the Arab traveller who provides the only existing account of a Viking burial, probably somewhere in present-day Russia, thus also raising questions about the origins of the local populations; an angry Arab traveller ranting about how dreadful Cairo is, would give any negative reviewer in today’s Lonely Planet guides a run for their money; a fascinating perspective from an Indian traveller who visits London and Scotland. Of course, the usual suspects like Ibn Battutah and Leo Africanus also turn up.

Highly recommended if you want something completely different.

Poetry: Carol Ann Duffy

December 17, 2014

So, she’s the sole female poet on my current list. I only really discovered her because I had to teach her poetry to GCSE students, and that led to various study days where she did readings of some of her poetry. I learned that she and I had studied English Lit at the University of Liverpool at the same time; however, since she paired it with Philosophy (I think) and I paired it with French, our paths never crossed in tutorials or seminars.

She is a feminist, and this often provides a provocative and unusual side to her poems. I’m thinking of Salome, where the ladette in the palace does for John the Baptist without really knowing why, because she was off her head. She has written an entire collection entitled The World’s Wife, in which she gives a voice to the unknown and unheard women who must have been alongside well-known male historical figures. Her themes are many and varied, from the perspective on an infant teacher in Mrs Tilscher’s Class, her relationship with her mother, lovers and how they affect you in the strange and challenging Valentine, for example, and misfits – Education For Leisure always went down well at school… sex and sexuality is often close to the surface, and my students’ response to the openly erotic Ann Hathaway, a clever sonnet variation in which Mrs Shakespeare remembers her husband as poet and lover, through some really beautiful images, was always interesting. In terms of poetry itself, I remember how surprised they were that this – allegedly, historically – dull form could be so expressive and powerful.

Duffy explores all the possibilities of the poetic form, writing structured and free poetry, rhyming or not as and when it works – again, a great textbook for teaching from. Her use of language also connected with my students; thinking through what she does – she plays with sounds, layers of meaning inherent in words, using sound and pause to shock: the opening of Havisham is priceless… ‘Beloved sweetheart bastard.’ Somehow I find her alive to the vast potential of the English language as it is now, able to draw out many of its possibilities; she is an authentic voice for poetry in our time, and there are few about whom I would say that.

She has been the most memorable and most inspiring Poet Laureate too, because she hasn’t turned out ‘official’ poetry by rote; she has written in response to the usual events one might expect the laureate to write about, but always with a fresh and refreshing perspective on the event. There is a good edginess to her work, a challenge to the party line, as it were. Long may this continue.

Poetry: Siegfried Sassoon

December 16, 2014

I’ve always been moved by the story that Sassoon encouraged and supported Owen in writing poetry while the two were both at Craiglockhart, during the First World War. And yet, they are very different poets, and, as I’ve been thinking more about Sassoon, I’ve realised that it’s for the ideas that I appreciate him most. Certainly he doesn’t experiment and play with the possibilities of the language in the way that Owen does.

For a start, Sassoon is often humorous, Owen very rarely. Sassoon’s humour varies, through the sardonic to the openly sarcastic to the very bitter as he excoriates those who remained at home and who have no idea what the men at the front are going through. This humour comes through in many shorter poems such as The General, Base Details and Does It Matter? The jaunty rhythms contrast with the horrors implicit in the words, as you realise what he’s saying, and also feel uncomfortable in that you are one of those safely at home, not able to comprehend… ¬†the euphemisms and the lies in which we all are complicit are laid bare in poems like The Hero. It takes a while to realise just how angry the poet is with the idea that men are dying at a distance, and people at home are not fully engaged with what is going on – an idea that still persists to day as we fight in wars in far-off countries, killing people who are different from us. And we pay appropriate reverence to those who die, and then move on, allowing politicians to continue their wars, with our tacit consent.

Owen’s anger also shows in his poems, but it comes across rather differently: to me it’s covert, implicit. It lurks beneath the surface of chilling poems such as Disabled and Mental Cases.

Sassoon also offers graphic descriptions of the horrors of trench combat, as, for instance, in the paired poems Attack and Counterattack, and it’s interesting that he also derives much of his effectiveness from the same tactic of Owen’s that I referred to in my previous post, of focusing in on a single individual. For me, Sassoon’s most moving example of this is in the lengthy and slow-moving A Working Party, in which there is no combat, there is the death of a single man and the reactions of his mates, and the whole is intensified by the time-shift and double structure of the poem.

I’ve concentrated on probably the two best-known (to English readers) First World War poets, though there are many others I find powerful, effective and moving: these are the two whose collected works I have read and pondered, and who I feel, between them, probably say as much as can be said, and comprehended by a reader a century later.

Poetry: Wilfred Owen

December 14, 2014

Perhaps one is pre-disposed to warm to Wilfred Owen‘s poetry by his own tragic story: killed in action a mere week before the Armistice (but then, when you get to thinking about this, it is even crueller to realise that someone had to be the last person killed) and his parents receiving the telegram a week later, whilst everyone around finally celebrated the end…

Owen’s poetry has survived, and will, for a number of reasons. He writes about war in ways which others – equally effectively – do not: his best poems, it has always seemed to me, are especially powerful because they personalise the dreadfulness of war by zeroing in on a single individual and his fate: the blinded¬†soldier in The Sentry, the dying man in Dulce et Decorum Est, or, most powerfully for me, the survivor in Disabled. When he focuses in close-up on the horrors, he comes from an unusual angle – the survivors in Mental Cases are unforgettable, and again, these are survivors. And in some way, these poems are filmic: a series of shots, from different angles, they link in for me with the grainy old monochrome newsreel shots of a century ago.

Owen is also capable of great cleverness in developing an idea, almost in the metaphysical sense of ‘wit’. The Parable of the Old Man and the Young is my favourite example of this: the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac and the sacrifice develops gradually, becoming subtly more and more warped and surreal as the location and the language mutates, from the deserts of Mesopotamia to the trenches of Flanders, and then blasphemous as the clever men of Europe defy God’s final command to show mercy.

But what is specifically poetic about Owen? Briefly and powerfully he draws us as far as we (safely at home) can be drawn into the horrors and shows us, through visual imagery and through his use of language, as much as we can ever know. The strangeness, the eeriness he creates through his subtle and persistent use of half-rhyme in poems such as Exposure and Strange Meeting are meant to haunt us, creating places we can see and feel and yet never understand, feelings we can imagine, perhaps, but never really know. Perhaps that is his greatest achievement: he takes us as close as we can be taken to the world he lived and died in, and in a way that no other poet of his time manages to do so forcefully.

And: if you are familiar with Owen’s poetry, next time you read Sebastian FaulksBirdsong, look out for how many very carefully and subtly woven-in back-references there are to Owen’s poems (and Sassoon’s too)…

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