27 November, 2006

Quick catch-up

I haven't been keeping up to date with what I've read recently, so here is a quick catch-up:

Alan Furst's Blood of victory - it says a lot about Furst that while I vaguely remember enjoying this, I can't remember what it was about, just the noir-ish atmosphere and a couple of characters. His WW2 thrillers are enjoyable enough, but very samey and unmemorable after a while. [72]

Rabbi Lionel Blue's autobiography A backdoor to heaven. I loved this, as I adore Rabbi Lionel Blue (he does Thought for the day on the Today programme). Such a funny, human man. I wrote him a fan letter to say how much his TFTD cheers me up. [73]

Two texts by Kant, for my course: What is enlightenment? and Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View. I've written about these for my course and will try and dig it out and post it on here at some point. [74] [75]

Further German philosophy: extracts from Herder's Ideas for the Philosophy of History of Humanity and from Hegel's Lectures on the philosophy of history. And oh boy, the Hegel is hard. [76] [77]

More fun is V. P. Brady's Love in the theatre of Marivaux which I'm reading for my French enlightenment course and really enjoying. I'm beginning to appreciate Marivaux more: the lightness, the elegance, the wit. It's like good, non-tragic ballet. [78]

Less interesting was Jonathan Wolff's Why read Marx today? which is short and easy and nothing I don't already know. [79]

16 November, 2006

Two kinds of American children

Unearthed some childen's books in the library that I hadn't read since I was very little, and since the gloominess of autumn and going back to college was stressing me, I had a little escapist binge.

First By the banks of plum creek, By the shores of Silver Lake and The long winter: three books from Laura Ingalls Wilder's accounts of growing up in pioneer America. Her family pack up their belongings in a wagon one day and drive West into unpopulated land where her father stakes a homesteading claim to some land and they settle. As a child, I was more impressed by the strictness of the parents - no playing on Sundays, no contradicting, children should be seen and not heard. The amazingness of actually just taking your entire life and driving off into unknown lands almost passed me by. Now I'm stunned at how brave they were. The politics are also interesting, especially the politics of community in The long winter. [66][67] [68]

Secondly, another series that has a rather less individualistic attitude towards community and society: Mildred D Taylor's books about growing up black in Depression-era Mississippi, Roll of thunder, hear my cry and Let the circle be unbroken, and the prequel to these The land. These are truly brilliant, terribly sad books about the awful difficulty of bringing up a child in an apartheid system both to have self-respect and to be safe from being attacked by white people around her for being 'uppity'. [69] [70] [71]

29 October, 2006

Good sex, bad sex

Two books about sex - one excellent and one mediocre. The good one was Linda Grant's Sexing the millenium, her history and feminist analysis of the sexual revolution. I love Linda Grant - her novel When I lived in modern times was wonderful and I always like her articles for the Guardian. She's a very moral, political person, but incredibly human as well - I've particularly enjoyed some of the things she's written about fashion: serious, but with a particular joy in clothes and dress. Sexing the millenium was wonderful - witty and profound, an acknowledgment that although contraception has freed a lot of women to have more sex (outside marriage, without commitment) the basic sexual roles and models for sexuality have not really been fundamentally changed. [64]

The other book was Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist pigs: women and raunch culture, an examination of the way that women have bought into the 'porno-isation' of popular culture. I actually read this a month ago for my women's group. It's a polemical work, looking at phenomena like the way that pole-dancing and stripping classes are being marketed as leisure activities for middle-class women, Nuts and Zoo magazine, and so on. It was interesting, but I thought was probably more relevant to American feminists than British ones. It also suffered from a lack of analysis and a rather dubious anecdotal basis - she didn't really offer any serious data to back up her claims except interviews with various women, so it seemed rather more like a list of sexual behaviour that was making her uneasy than an attempt to explain why society might be becoming more 'porno-ised'. I also felt her chapter on lesbian culture seemed like a rather desperate attempt to tie her concerns about a pervasive macho culture on to what is actually quite an open and accepting part of society, and I had serious doubts about her attempts to prove anything by interviewing teenage girls - I really don't think it's reasonable to draw any conclusions about adult female sexuality by talking to fifteen-year-olds. Still, her intent was admirable, and it generated a good discussion at my group, so it can't have been all bad. [65]

23 October, 2006

Four French plays

Boring course-work reading: Lesage's Turcaret and three plays by Marivaux: Harlequin poli par l'amour, La double inconstance, and Le jeu de l'amour et du hasard. Well, I say boring, but I don't mean that - the course is great and the plays are witty and fast-paced and fun, but I just can't get very excited about early 18th century sparkling wit. The unreality of it pisses me off: perhaps airlessness is a better word. Much like the rest of the rococo, I can admire the beautifully pacey dialogue and the intricacy of the plots, intrigue on intrigue, deception on deception, but it doesn't grab me, it doesn't move me (I know it's not supposed to be moving, but it doesn't particularly delight me either). Roll on next year and Hugo and Zola... [60] [61] [62] [63]

19 October, 2006

History blog

Interesting project asking volunteers to write a blog detailing what they did on Tuesday - a bit like the Mass Observation project. You can still post to it here.

18 October, 2006

A small chain of books

Reading Margery Fisher's Intent upon reading, her study of mid-20th century children's literature, reminded me how good Rosemary Sutcliff is, so I read The lantern bearers, her story about Ambrosius (Arthur's uncle) and the end of Roman Britain. Reading that made me want more good historical fiction so I got Bernard Cornwell's novels about Alfred the Great out of the library, The pale horseman and Lords of the north. Fantastic meaty stuff. [57] [58] [59]

Incidentally, here's a fascinating
collection of interviews with authors who have used Arthurian themes in their work.

13 October, 2006

Book awards

Orham Pamuk has been awarded the Nobel prize for literature.

Kiran Desai's novel The Inheritance of Loss has won the Booker Prize.

Because I like lists, here's the list of Nobel laureates whose work I have read:

2006 - Orhan Pamuk
2005 -
Harold Pinter
2002 -
Imre Kertész
1999 -
Günter Grass
1998 -
José Saramago
1995 -
Seamus Heaney
1993 -
Toni Morrison
1992 -
Derek Walcott
1983 -
William Golding
1982 -
Gabriel García Márquez
1978 -
Isaac Bashevis Singer
1972 -
Heinrich Böll
1971 -
Pablo Neruda
1970 -
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
1969 -
Samuel Beckett
1966 -
Nelly Sachs
1964 -
Jean-Paul Sartre
1962 -
John Steinbeck
1958 -
Boris Pasternak
1957 -
Albert Camus
1954 -
Ernest Hemingway
1950 -
Bertrand Russell
1948 -
T.S. Eliot
1946 -
Hermann Hesse
1936 -
Eugene O'Neill
1934 -
Luigi Pirandello
1929 -
Thomas Mann
1925 - George Bernard Shaw
1923 -
William Butler Yeats
1907 -
Rudyard Kipling

01 October, 2006

...and books to read

- Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture
- Grossman's Life and Fate
- Peter Weiss's The aesthetics of resistance (might try this in German since the English translation appears to be very small print on very large pages. Also, I should probably attempt either this or Life and Fate, and not both.)
- Peter Linebaugh's The London hanged, on recommendation from my friend S. A history of those hanged at Tyburn and the phenomenon of public executions.
- Martin Walker's The Cold War (still not getting very far with this, despite it seeming quite readable.)
- Joe Sacco's Notes from a defeatist (graphical reportage)
- Christa Wolf's Musterkindheit and Medea
- Christopher Booker's massive The seven basic plots: why we tell stories, about the history and reasons for human storytelling.

Books read...

Speedy round-up of books I've finished recently. I haven't been updating enough recently.

Dorothy L Sayers's Gaudy Night which was light and very enjoyable, but had some surprisingly deep musings on independence and marriage. It's set in Harriet Vane's Oxford college, where some unpleasant attacks are taking place, and while attempting to solve the problem of who is committing them and why, Harriet is also making a decision on whether she should marry Peter Wimsey or not. The atmosphere is delightful, charming between-wars cosy Englishness combined with a lovely portrait of first wave feminist academia, and though I'm not fond of the whodunnit form (I looked at the end when I was about half way through to see who had done it) I thoroughly enjoyed it as a light read. (50)

Edward Said's
Peace and its discontents, which was a collection of essays on the Oslo peace agreement. Interesting to read a criticism of Arafat and the Palestinian side from a Palestinian point of view: he is very critical of the incompetence and corruption of the PLO. Have forgotten a lot about this, though (it was weeks ago!) (51)

George Szirtes's collection of poetry
Reel, which I enjoyed but again can't remember much about, and a perfect bus book, Ruth Padel's 52 ways to look at a poem which was Padel's choice of poems by 52 different contemporary poets and a short essay analysing each one. Made me realise how poetry-literate I am, which is good, but also taught me a few things about sounds and rhythm which I was unconsciously aware of and am pleased to have brought to the surface. (52) (53)

Barbara Ehrenreich's
Nickel and dimed, which was incredibly depressing but pacey and incredibly readable. Ehrenreich took a series of minimum wage jobs in the USA to see whether life was actually sustainable on 6 dollars an hour, and found that, essentially, it wasn't: she had to take two jobs just to pay the rent. Shocking, but not surprising, but she writes very well about her experiences - her descriptions of the way management treated her and the conditions she had to live in to keep her rent bill down burn with a clear fury. (54)

John le Carré's
Mission song, which was excellent although still not as good as the early Cold War ones (nothing is). It hinges around a planned coup in Congo, rather like the planned coup in Equatorial Guinea a couple of years back. The narrative voice is a joy: a half Irish, half Congolese translator in west African languages named Bruno Salvador, or Salvo. The setting is unusually restricted for a le Carré novel: most of the action takes place in the house where the coup is planned, then in London, but the book is huge with anger at corrupt politicians, Western and African, warlords, the interference of British governments and the hypocrisy of western attitudes towards Africa. I find it strange that as he gets older, le Carré gets angrier, but I suppose his anger also reflects the growing injustices in the world where a power imbalance has become more and more evident since the end of the Cold War. (55)

And still on an African theme, Conrad's
Heart of darkness which I enjoyed for the clever strength of the story-telling, and found interesting for the ideas about colonialism. I came away not sure whether the book meant what I thought it meant, it would certainly bear rereading. (56)

26 September, 2006

A little light holiday reading

Read two fantastic books on holiday - Irène Nemirovsky's Suite Française which was a stunning although clearly unfinished novel about the German occupation. In two parts - the first part a series of vignettes describing the hysterical exodus from Paris as the Germans advanced towards it, and the second in the more conventional form of a novel describing the relationship between a German soldier and a sad, unloved Frenchwoman trapped in a loveless marriage. The prose was beautifully clear and simple - amazing, given that French was not the author's first language (she was a white Russian refugee to Paris during the twenties). (48)

The other was rather more hard going, Elias Khoury's La porte du soleil, a massive novel about the Palestinian exodus of 1948. The structure is fantastically circular: the narrator is trying to talk his hero and father figure out of a coma. The father figure is a fighter in the Palestinian resistance; the narrator a doctor in a makeshift refugee camp hospital, and he interweaves the stories of their two lives with those of the camp midwife and matriarch who has also just died. It's a story with no beginning and no end, spiralling round and round, showing the shared experience of the Palestinians even in the diaspora. Beautifully written, it's recently been published in English as The gate of the sun. One of the best books I've read this year. (49)

22 August, 2006

Two French novels

Both quite short. Philippe Claudel's Grey souls is a murder story set in Eastern France towards the end of the First World War - grey, atmospheric, sad and full of deaths. Very French. [46]

And Eliette Abécassis's short novel La répudiée, about a Jewish Orthodox woman in Jerusalem whose husband 'repudiates' her, under Jewish law, when she hasn't produced an heir for him. One of those novels you read to find out about a way of life rather than for the literary experience. [47]

21 August, 2006

The run of good books continues

I've barely read any fiction so far this year, but now I can use the library again I'm barrelling through decent novels.

Finished James Meek's The people's act of love on Friday, which was strange and beautiful. Set in a tiny village in Siberia in 1919, it's a sort of Wild East setting: a stranger comes to town; the townspeople are a small, closed off religious community; there's a garrison of Czech troops fighting for the Whites in the Civil War, and a beautiful, mysterious widow. Beautifully written and wonderfully evocative of the empty vastness of the Siberian landscape. [43]

Andrea Levy's Small Island was excellent too - funny and very well observed with lots of brilliant detail. It's about the experiences of the first black immigrants to Britain, following Gilbert, who fought in the RAF in the Second World War, and returns in 1948 thinking this experience will be an advantage to him, and his wife Hortense, who is deeply surprised to discover that the education and fastidiousness that marks her out as a more refined person in Jamaica is not noticed behind her black skin when she moves to Britain. I liked a lot of the little bits about culture clash, like when the RAF sergeant decides that Jamaican teeth-sucking is an insubordinate act. A rather pat ending spoiled the book, unfortunately. [44]

Now half way through something a bit heavier, the Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz's Fatelessness which is already very good: it's about Auschwitz, but from the point of view of a fifteen year oild boy (the age Kertesz himself was when he was sent to Auschwitz). The narrative voice is particularly good, showing the utter confusion Holocaust victims were plunged into when they were sent to the camps, but covered with a brittle facade of logic and confidence which I think is utterly characteristic of children of that age. [45]

14 August, 2006

Beyond brilliant

And so my Book Of The Year (So Far) is Hilary Mantel's Beyond black. It's the story of a medium, Alison, who does psychic shows around the London orbital towns, and the spirits who haunt her, and her relationship with her cold, cynical manager/PA Collette, a woman who is also strangely alone in the world. It was a wonderful book, funny and black and depressing and witty. I loved the way it was about a woman who lives her life mostly in a spirit world, and yet the reality of the depressing conference centres and Harvesters she 'performs' in is so concrete: Hilary Mantel has a wonderful eye for the detail of everyday life.

Alison's spirits are also brilliantly drawn: her spirit guide is no noble Cherokee or ancient Egyptian, but a sordid, nasty old man from the criminal underworld, forever looking for his mates Pikey Pete and Aitkenside. Perhaps it sounds a really strange book, but it gripped me so much that having picked up the cohabitee's copy for an idle look I couldn't put it down till I'd finished reading it. Really, all go out and read it. It was totally brilliant. [42]

Quick fire

Four quick, trashy, indulgences: To the nines, Ten big ones, Eleven on top and Twelve sharp, the last four instalments of Janet Evanovich's crimes series about slacker bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. The dialogue is snappy and the novels are still entertaining, although losing their edge a bit now that she has written so many of them. Still, the set-ups are funny and silly and not predictable, and it makes a nice change to read something that requires no effort. [37] [38] [39] [40]

I've also very much enjoyed Alan Furst's The world at night and shall be reading more of him. It was a wonderful escapist read, all atmospheric Paris by night and haunted, beautiful women, brutal but charming Nazis and a world-weary, sophisticated hero who finally has to choose to fight for what he truly believes in... [41]

01 August, 2006

A scientist called Steve

Just finished Leonardo's mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, another of Stephen Jay Gould's excellent collections of essays on biological, palaeontological and evolutionary topics. He's a wonderful writer, witty and lucid and the approach to each topic is illuminating not just for what he says on particular issues but for what he tells you about scientific philosophy and method. [36]

I was pleased to notice recently when reading the Bad Science archive that there is now a list of scientists called Steve in his honour. As a counter to the lists produced by creationists naming hundreds of people with Phds who don't believe in evolution, the National Center for Science Education asked scientists to sign up to a statement affirming the scientific basis for evolution - but only if they were called Steve (or Stephanie). Incidentally, Bad Science is a wonderful way to while a way a few minutes if you're bored at work and have an internet connection...

31 July, 2006


So I finally paid my library fines.


28 July, 2006

Work in progress

It's too hot to read. And I've started cycling to work a couple of days a week which eats into my reading time, and now we have Film Four on freeview that will only distract me more.

But I'm currently battling my way through Edward Said's Peace and its discontents, a collection of articles about the Oslo agreement made between the PLO and Israel in the early 1990s. The articles are very critical of Arafat and his entourage and are interesting now, fifteen years later, after 9/11, the second intifada and now the current invasion of Lebanon by the Israelis.

I'm also having difficulties with Martin Walker's The Cold War, which is somehow failing to grip. I can read about a chapter at a time but then I feel too weary to press on with the next chapter, which is a shame, as it's well researched and written and I really need to know a little more about the Cold War.

Note to self: keep an eye out for Alan Furst, a spy novel writer recommended to me by my friend S.

So pretty much the only thing I've read recently is Michelle Magorian's A little love song, which is not only a reread but also a children's book. Oh well. It's stil very good. [35]

22 July, 2006

The politics of children's books

I've been rereading You're a brick, Angela! which is a lovely second wave feminist critique of fiction written for girls from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. It's a very funny and political critique of books which are often very superficial and patronising but which surprisingly often have remained classics and children's favourites. A lot of the books it criticises, I haven't read, but some I'm very familiar with - the Chalet School books, Anne of Green Gables, Little Woman, Frances Hodgson Burnett's novels.

Having reread it, I think I might start collecting the children's novels of Edith Nesbit, because I'd like to write something about the occasional politics of her children's stories and how she reconciles adventure stories about rather bourgeois children in late Victorian/early Edwardian London with her radical, reforming socialist politics as a prominent member of the Fabian Society. So as a note to myself: a list of her novels.


1. Five Children and It (1902)
2. The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904)
3. The Story of the Amulet (1906)
House of Arden
1. The House of Arden (1908)
2. Harding's Luck (1909)


The Pilot (1893)
The Story of the Treasure-Seekers (1899)
The Would-be-goods (1901)
New Treasure Seekers (1904)
The Railway Children (1906)
The Enchanted Castle (1907)
The Three Mothers (1908)
These Little Ones (1909)
The House With No Address (1909)
The Magic City (1910)
Dormant (1911)
Wet Magic (1913)
The Deliverers of Their Country (1985)
The Book of Dragons (1986)
Cockatoucan (1988)
The Book of Beasts (1988)
The Town in the Library (1988)
The Children's Shakespeare (2000)

18 July, 2006

6 (quite) easy pieces

Just finished Richard Feynman's 6 easy pieces, which was an excellent introduction to some of the basic concepts of physics. Feynman has a lovely clarity of style and some of the analogies he draws to explain the concepts are very pleasing: I particularly liked the example he gave for the conservation of energy of a mother counting her baby son's building blocks: whether he drops them in the bath, hides them in the toy box, or whatever, you can make a formula to count the precise number and it will always equal the same total. [33]

Also just finished The secret life of Saeed the pessoptimist by Emile Habiby. Witty, satirical and surreal, and heavily inspired by Candide, it's a short novel about the Palestinian experience between 1948 and 1970. Saeed is an Arab, a Zionist collaborator and a spy, but the creation of the state of Israel fractures his life - he becomes a pessoptimist, uncertain whether to bemoan his lot as a dispossessed Palestinian (his father and brother are dead, his vilage is occupied by Jewish settlers and the Arab population dispersed) or to be thankful he is still alive and unharmed. The book unfolds in a series of bizarre episodes and encounters, capturing the chaotic nature of life in occupied territories and as a refugee. I recommend. [34]

08 July, 2006

Rock 'n' roll

I really want to see the new Tom Stoppard play, but it seems to be sold out forever and the only tickets available cost £30. Bah.

05 July, 2006

Vikings and holidays

Very annoyed with the idiot who wrote in to the Guardian complaining about the 'Summer reading' recommendations, and taking issue with the idea that people might want to read more serious books than the latest Jilly Cooper on their holidays. Sorry, but I can read Jilly Cooper on the bus while being elbowed by some gangsta teen - aren't holidays a good time to get some decent reading done, of things that one normally doesn't have the time to concentrate on?

Conversely, I read trash when I'm stressed and busy although I'm trying to break the habit - two good trashy historical books I have read recently are The last kingdom and The pale horseman by Bernard Cornwell, which are set in the time of Alfred the Great and are about the struggle of the English/Anglo-Saxons against the Danes. These are the first two of a trilogy about Uhtred, a Saxon who due to a twist of fate is brought up by Danes. Cornwell also wrote a brilliant trilogy about a Dark Ages King Arthur, and it's interesting to see what he makes of England four hundred odd years later. His trick of giving historical characters a twist - in the Arthur books Lancelot is an out and out villain; in these Alfred doesn't seem quite so great - is very endearing, and his good research shows. I didn't enjoy the Viking books as much as the Arthur ones - I thought he did a brilliant job of depicting a world in which people still believed unreservedly in gods and magic, and his Dark Ages were splendidly muddy and bloody - but they were a jolly good read nonetheless. [31] [32]

03 July, 2006

Gothic romance

The only thing which I actively enjoyed about last weekend, (apart from the weather. And seeing my grandma. And the food. And having a nice chat with my ma. Oh, all right, it wasn't that bad a weekend) was reading Charlotte Bronte's Villette, which was as marvellous as my authority on the Victorian novel (otherwise known as my sister) promised me it would be. The narrative voice was so sharp and witty and acerbic, with none of poor Jane Eyre's martyred wishy-washyness, I loved the rather overblown gothic bits, and the whole thing kept me gripped right to the end. I also very much liked the deliberately highly ambiguous ending - in fact, Charlotte Bronte basically offers her reader a choice of whether they'd like a happy or a sad ending (although one suspects she liked the sad one.) [30 - haven't been counting recently]

28 June, 2006

Recent acquisitions

I haven't listed these for a while - and I'd like to take the opportunity to thank those who gave me books for my birthday two months ago, when I received
  • Samuel Beckett's Complete dramatic works
  • Hilary Rose's Alas poor Darwin: arguments against evolutionary psychology
  • Stephen Jay Gould's The hedgehog, the fox and the magister's pox: mending and minding the misconceived gap between science and the humanities
  • and Edward Said's Orientalism, a classic which I've been wanting for ages.
From Tlon, my new favourite local bookshop, I've acquired a lovely Routledge copy of Grimm's fairy tales, and a nice battered Penguin copy of Jane Grigson's superb Vegetable book, which should help me deal with anything my organic vegetable provider sees fit to throw at me (when I get round to setting that up, of course.)

Last week, as an impulse purchase on the way to reading poetry in a pub with some friends, I acquired Billy Collins's Taking off Emily Dickinson's clothes. Billy Collins is a fantastic contemporary US poet and any of my readers not familiar with his work should get hold of some - quiet, simple, romantic and very beautiful poetry.

And last but not least, the splendid Bloomsbury Oxfam bookshop yesterday sold me Stephen Jay Gould's Leonardo's mountain of clams and the Diet of Worms, his eighth collection of essays from the magazine Natural History, Primo Levi's collection of essays Other people's trades, and Doris Lessing's post-apocalyptic novel Memoirs of a survivor.

Three short extracts

I was always on good terms with my father and went along with his socialism. I am told that this is an abnormal relationship psychologically, making one uncombative and lacking in self-confidence. I cannot say that it had any such effect in my case. On the contrary it made me more confident to have a secure family background. It is a curious thing to be a hereditary dissenter. On the one hand, you reject established views - religious in earlier times, political and social in our own. On the other, you have no inner conflict in doing so. Indeed you would have a conflict only if you accepted them. On a committee I usually put forward subversive ideas and at the same time insist that the existing rules must be rigorously observed until they are changed.

AJP Taylor, from Accident prone, or what happened next, in From Napoleon to the second International: essays on nineteenth-century Europe.

When writers close themselves off to the documents of scholarship, and rely only on seeing or asking, they become conduits and sieves rather than thinkers. When, on the other hand, you study the great works of predecessors engaged in the same struggle, you enter a dialogue with human history and the rich variety of our intellectual traditions. You insert yourself, and your own organizing powers, into this history - and you become and active agent, not merely a "reporter." Then, and only then, can you become an original contributor, even a discoverer, and not only a mouthpiece.

Stephen Jay Gould, from the preface to Leonardo's mountain of clams and the Diet of Worms.

How is it possible that something that can teach you so much about the world, about nature and the universe, and, for more religious people, about God - that something that is so clearly able to teach you so many things can serve as a means of escape from precisely those things? And this is a fascinating thought, for me, about the effect of music. Whenever we talk about music, we talk about how we are affected by it, not about it itself. In this respect, it is like God. We can't talk about God, or whatever you want to call it, but we can only talk about our reaction to a thing - some people know God exists and others refuse to admit God exists - but we cannot speak about it. We can only seak about our reaction to it. In the same way, I don't think you can speak about music. You can only speak about a subjective reaction to it.

Daniel Barenboim in Parallels and paradoxes:explorations in music and society.

An Israeli conductor and a Palestinian intellectual

Daniel Barenboim's Reith lectures were absolutely fantastic: witty, intellectual, thoughtful and profound, and reminded me to buy the book he co-wrote with Edward Said, Parallels and paradoxes: explorations in music and society. I say co-wrote, but it's actually a collection of their conversations - some in front of an audience and some in private. They discuss Beethoven and Wagner; the Israel-Palestine conflict; musical education; the way an orchestra works together; the transcendence of music; what music can teach us about the world. I don't know enough about a lot ofthe music they discuss (particularly Beethoven and Wagner) but the book makes me want to know more.

I particularly liked some of what Edward Said says about the growing specialisation of society and the way that the connections between music, art and literature, history and politics are being lost in the modern day world. Later I'll try to find a passage to reproduce here. Wonderful to read about people wanting to increase access to the arts not by making the arts more 'accessible', whatever that means, but by improving the public's education in the arts in order to ba able to present these to a wider audience.

27 June, 2006

Thrilling discoveries

Atkins' book on the British spy novel has introduced me to a great new (to me) thriller writer, Eric Ambler, the precursor of John le Carré but the first British thriller writer to write about the mundanity and unheroicness of the spying world. So far I've read two of his novels: The night-comers, a rather dramatic but taut description of a military coup in a fictitious South-east Asian country, and The Levanter, an excellent thriller about the way a Middle-eastern businessman is blackmailed into helping a Palestinian terror group mount an attack on Israel. The prose is workmanlike, the plots are plausible and intelligent, and the characterisation is perhaps a bit macho but realistic and moving. Ian Fleming paid tribute to him in one of the Bond novels, incidentally - in From Russia with love, Bond whiles away a long train journey reading Ambler's The mask of Dimitrios. The nice thing about Ambler is that although many of his novels are currently out of print they had long print runs in cheap paperback imprints up to the 1970s, so they are perfect to collect from second hand bookshops and charity shops.

Having discovered him and bought The Levanter from Waterstones (reprinted as a commemorative run celebrating his publishers' thirtieth anniversary), I came across The night-comers in a second hand bookshop in Elephant and Castle shopping centre in a gaudy retro paperback edition, for 40p.

The Elephant bookshop, called Tlon, is one of my latest discoveries and I'm delighted by it. I'd always passed it by assuming (for some reason) that it was a Bible bookshop. I'm absolutely delighted to discover that on the contrary it's a proper community second hand bookshop - no collectors' editions costing pounds, but instead lots of decent quality paperback copies of recent literary fiction and classics, an excellent history and politics section, and everything reasonably priced - a far cry from the Gower Street Waterstones second hand section in which the most unremarkable of Penguin paperbacks is carefully priced to undercut the price of any new edition by only a couple of pence.

I've also discovered the Bloomsbury Oxfam bookshop, just round the corner from Tas Bloomsbury on Bloomsbury Street, which is another bookshop aimed more at the paperback reader than the collector of exquisite folios. They also seem to do a good line in art and cookery books, although I have my eye on a nice hardback edition of JB Priestley's Angel pavement, one of my favourite novels and my favourite London novel, priced at three quid. A friend has also recently emailed me his recommendations for second hand bookshops in South East London, so my book purchases may spiral wildly out of control in the next couple of weeks.

20 June, 2006

Fame at last

My letter to the Guardian got printed!

30 May, 2006

End of the world as we know it

Can any readers suggest books about post-apocalypse life on earth? The apocalypse can be plague, nuclear holocaust, the oil running out, whatever - I'm interested in compiling a list.

So far I have a few children's books:

  • Plague 99 - Jean Ure
  • Children of the dust - Louise Lawrence

Adult books include:

  • On the beach - Nevil Shute
  • Memoirs of a survivor - Doris Lessing
  • Greybeard - Brian Aldiss
  • The drowned world - JG Ballard
  • Oryx and Crake - Margaret Atwood
  • Alas, Babylon - Pat Frank

I'm sure there must be loads more. Any suggestions?

Building a new world

I've just been enjoying enormously Linda Grant's novel about Palestine at the end of the British Mandate period, When I lived in modern times. It's the story of a girl, Evelyn Sert, who travels from post-war Britain to Palestine in the hope of helping to forge the new Jewish state, who is confronted by a world in motion where her every decision is a statement about herself and her view of the embryonic Jewish state. It's also about double identity: Jewish/English and inner life/outer life.

The book is set in Tel Aviv and Linda Grant has said she wanted the writing to be like the city: simple and strong. It is both those things, and a thrilling evocation of what it must have been like to be in Palestine at that time: one of the books you read as much to find out what it was like to live in a particular period as for any higher literary experience. The narrative voice very subtly underlines some of the hypocrisies and compromises of the Jews as well as of the British imperial administrators, and it also looks at what it means to be modern and shows Evelyn's growing up from a girl to an adult very beautifully. All this and a truly gripping read! I recommend it highly.

24 May, 2006

Catching up

Blimey, I haven't posted on here in nearly two months. I've been preparing for my exams, but just as an aide-mémoire, here are the books I've been reading recently:

Hobsbawm's Age of Empire and Age of Extremes
Dumas's La Reine Margot
A book on The British spy novel by John Atkins
Many are the crimes by Ellen Schrecker, about the McCarthy period in America
From Napoleon to the Second International, a collection of AJP Taylor's essays on the nineteenth century
Mein Jahrhundert, Gunther Grass's collection of one hundred short stories, one for each year of the twentieth century
The communist manifesto, actually a re-read, but I haven't read it in around ten years
Freud's A short introduction to psychoanalysis, which did exactly what it said on the label

30 March, 2006

Get ready for the judgement day, part II

As part of my minor fascination with life after the nuclear holocaust, Nevil Shute's On the beach from the local library. The premise is that after a nuclear war in 1962, the entire northern hemisphere is covered with a cloud of radiation that has eradicated life, and which is spreading gradually southwards. The novel is set in Melbourne, Australia, as its inhabitants gradually wait for the inevitable end, predicted to come in about six months' time. Central to the novel are the captain of the last US submarine, which escaped destruction through being on manoeuvres in the Arctic, and a young Australian girl who is reacting to the disaster by drinking herself to death.

It's well written if a little stiff - the dialogue, as in most Shute novels, reads like the script of a 1940s British war film, but it is well plotted and the prose is workmanlike - but it's the set-up which is most interesting and thought-provoking; even in a post-Cold War world Shute's suggested scenario for a nuclear war is chilling. Shute is comparable to other rather stoical, macho writers of the Cold War period, like John Le Carré, but he has none of Le Carré's subtlety and is far less morally nuanced. An intelligent and gripping novel nonetheless. [18]

Get ready for the judgement day

Judy Garland was a fascinating character - the ineffably innocent girl star of The Wizard of Oz who died a junkie, the golden girl of American showbiz who became a monster to work with, MGM's biggest moneymaker who ended up almost unable to afford to feed her own children. Like the other two great failures of the twentieth century, Elvis and Marilyn, a kind of mythology has grown up around her - most famously, she was the model for Neely, the child star who became a showbiz legend in Jacqueline Susann's sixties cult classic, Valley of the Dolls. Gerald Scarfe's biography of her, Get happy, tries to examine the person she really was beneath the legend. [17]

Unfortunately, it's not a great biography. It's well researched but ultimately unsatisfying - and this within a genre, biography, which is by definition unsatisfying (who can really tell about someone's life from the outside?) It's muddled, messing up the chronology in small but inexplicable ways, jumping between different people's views of the characters without ever trying to resolve the contradictions inherent in these, giving a generous interpretation of someone's actions on one page and tearing them apart on the next.

Judy is totally fascinating though. The life of the MGM star reminds me very much of what you read about Elvis: to a certain extent they are pampered, indulged, kept sweet, but at the same time their lives are completely controlled, their telephone calls and telegraphs monitored, even the decision of whether and who they can marry is evaluated on a purely commercial basis. It would make a great film - if anyone could ever make it.

If you find bookcrossing a bit too random...

... why not try Read it swap it? Register your books, and if you like someone else's, you can offer to swap for one of theirs. You only pay for the postage.

Incidentally, it would definitely be morally wrong to put your own swapping parcels in your employer's post tray. Even if said employer was a library and therefore parcels of books in the post would raise no eyebrows.

Bookcrossing is an infinite, random book exchange -- you register your books then release them into the wild -- leave them on a bench, give them to a charity shop, leave them on a bus -- and eventually the person who finds it should post on the bookcrossing website to tell you where they picked it up.

03 March, 2006

Bring back the routemaster bus!

So I finally finished a few books.

The first three novels in Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage sequence: Pointed roofs, Backwater and Honeycomb. Beautiful atmosphere and characterisation; so beautiful that it wasn't until I was halfway through the third one that I realised how little had actually happened. If Proust is like this then I want to read Proust. [12] [13] [14]

A book about Melanie Klein, by Julia Segal. Klein was a psychoanalyst who developed Freud's theories but who also believed you could psychoanalyse children through play. Her theories about the way children develop and her ideas about the focus of children's obsessions - not so much on the penis, more on the mother's nipple) are fascinating, and somehow much more real-sounding to me than Freud's. [15]

Also, The Ipcress file, by Len Deighton. I saw the film recently, which was splendid - lots of detail about sooty, sixties, Routemaster London. The book was good too although I never get particularly riveted by Len Deighton novels - they're tremendously tough and macho and not very atmospheric. I do like all the detail, though - he gives a very precise idea of the exact lifestyles and class status of his characters. [16]

28 February, 2006

RIP Linda Smith

Linda Smith, writer and comedian, has died of ovarian cancer aged forty-eight. She was a wonderfully warm and funny person, and one of my favourite comedians. I'm very sad to hear about her death.

Jeremy Hardy's
obituary of her in the Guardian.

Simon Hoggart and others
pay tribute.

25 February, 2006


A non-book related post: anyone who hasn't yet discovered www.last.fm really should have a look. It's a site which will make you a personalised radio station based on things you already like and things you listen to on your computer. You have to sign up, download the player and the audioscrobbler, and then start listening. You can either choose a tag radio to listen to - so if you chose easy listening you would get random selections from all the music other users have tagged as easy listening - or you can go to the radio page, enter a list of music you like and it will play you recommendations based on that. Alternatively, the audioscrobbler will tell last.fm all the music you listen to on your computer and it will choose your preferences accordingly. And it's free - although you can subscribe for not much money to get extra features.

15 February, 2006

A rediscovered modernist

I have discovered a wonderful author called Dorothy Richardson, by accident in a charity shop. I picked up three old Virago Women's Classics, and read a few pages and was gripped. The books are called Pilgrimage 1, 2 and 3, and are the collected short novels all with the same set of characters. There's a fourth one which wasn't in the charity shop.

The books so far is charming and beautiful. Like another favourite author of mine, Olivia Manning, she has an ability to preserve a moment so that you are there with her: not just in her surroundings, but in her mood. She also reproduces the fleeting, changing moods of early adulthood very well: the central character is a girl of seventeen who is about to start working in a German finishing school and the way she veers from feeling terribly happy to crippled with nervousness is very familiar from when I was that age.

Also there's something very nice about discovering an author for yourself. It's such a change to read something just because it looks good, not because you feel you ought or someone has recommended it. More on this when I finish it...

11 February, 2006

Tumbrels, psychoanalysis and New Left polemic

Two fantastic books in the last week: Dickens's A tale of two cities. [10] Why have I never read this before? The language is beautiful, the story is gripping, the whole thing is much tauter than Dickens usually is (while still not actually being taut, of course). Here's a beautiful quotation, with such a wonderfully ambiguous, subtle reaction to the French revolution:

Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrels carry the day’s wine to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in one realization, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

The other book was Herbert Marcuses's An essay on liberation. Rollicking, New Left stuff, fabulously polemical and joyous and angry at the same time. Highly recommended. [11]

Books for this weekend - some decent reading towards my Linguistics essay, and the rest of Freud's Short introduction to psychoanalysis. Freud's also good fun. You'll be trotting along, enjoying the slightly dry, infinitely sensible writing style, and out of the blue suddenly he brings up your mother's penis. Not her actual penis, of course; just the penis that you as her son imagined her to have had - which in itself leads to your terrible fear of a similar mutilation. Good fun, and another writer I must read more of.

07 February, 2006

Note to self

Books I want at the moment

Robespierre: portrait of a revolutionary democrat and The crowd in the French revolution by George Rudé

The age of empire and The age of extremes by Eric Hobsbawm

Keywords by Raymond Williams

The struggle for mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 by AJP Taylor

The French revolution by George Lefebvre

31 January, 2006

Life before contraception

Read Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata last week, a sad, mad polemical novella on sex and the impossibility of a pure love between men and women. It felt more like Dostoevsky than Tolstoy: harsh, impassioned writing. It was very dislikeable, actually, startlingly so. It seemed to be written by someone completely different from the generous, human Tolstoy who wrote War and peace. [6]

Doris Lessing wrote an interesting essay about The Kreutzer Sonata in her collection of essays Time bites where she discussed the practicalities of married sex in the 19th century and suggested that in an age before reliable contraception, men suffered as well as women - a reflection of Germaine Greer's point about women's liberation being a liberation for men as well. Time bites was generally good but occasionally Doris Lessing is so wrong I want to scream. Her outright rejection of communism is fair enough, but occasionally it feels as though she attributes all the evils of the modern world to communism, which seems hardly fair. [7]

Finally two hippie books on writing by Natalie Goldberg: Writing down the bones and Wild Mind. The basic premise of both of them was: keep writing and practice frequently, and don't edit while you write. Fair enough, but padded out with a fair amount of rather irritating hippie and Zen nonsense. I must start writing again though. This blog is hopefully a good start. [8][9]

24 January, 2006

You were made for me, Gene Kelly...

So, a Gene Kelly-heavy weekend - on Friday I watched Les demoiselles de Rochefort which was charming but me oh my Gene Kelly is old. He shouldn't ever be old. He should be always young, in a sailor suit or a white t-shirt and jeans. Also Catherine Deneuve's wig is a bit much, frankly, but she is so pretty anyway.

I read Singin' in the rain, a short study of the film (so short I read most of it in the bath) by Peter Wollen. Interesting but not much there - the most interesting part was a shot-by-shot analysis of the famous Singin' in the rain routine, which pionted out some of the film techniques for making the whole thing flow. I'd never thought about the way a cinema dance routine has to be so carefully co-ordinated between camera, choreographer, music arranger, performer and so on. The rest of the book was mostly things I knew, but I liked the emphasis on how many of the people involved in the making of the film suffered under the blacklist. [4]

I also finished the awful biography of Gene Kelly, Gene Kelly: a life of dance and dreams by Alvin Yudhof (see previous posts). It was truly dreadful, probably the worst biography I have ever read. In addition to the stupid conceit I already mentioned, I picked out a few factual inaccuracies, including the point where Mr Yudhof states that 'Betsy Blair had been a member of the Communist party up until the Nazi-Soviet pact'. Now, he's already suggested that BB was introduced to left-wing politics by Gene Kelly. I find it hard to believe that she was a teenage member of the CP in her small-town youth in New Jersey - especially as she says that she was never in the CP*. Furthermore, the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed in 1939, when Betsy was sixteen.

Oh, the whole book was just stupid and annoying. Mr Yudhof has no idea of the real motivations of real people, which meant that Gene Kelly and everyone around him came across as paper figures being moved on a stage to create whatever impression Mr Yudhof was after. I might, one day, try Clive Hirschhorn's Biography of GK, which was written in his lifetime and included material from interviews with GK. But this was a great disappointment. [5]

* Betsy Blair, in her autobiography, says that she wanted to join the Communist Party and approached them after she and Gene had moved to Hollywood. According to her, they refused, saying that as the wife of a prominent man who was known for his left-liberal sympathies, she would do more good outside the party. This seems more plausible to me than Mr Yudhof's teenage communist idea.

21 January, 2006

Why Mrs Kelly, you're wonderful

The third book I read over the last weekend was Betsy Blair's autobiography, The memory of all that. Betsy Blair was an actress and Gene Kelly's first wife - she met him when she was seventeen and he was twenty-eight, and stayed with him for eighteen years. She was also very left wing and blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy period. This was a lovely, wise, forgiving biography; she writes about Gene with great affection, but also great honesty, and she's also honest about herself and her behaviour during those years. After she divorced Gene she moved to Europe where she still lives, and she continued acting in European films until she met her second husband, the director Karel Reisz. She's an enormously interesting and appealing woman, and I'd love to see some of her films. Marty is the only Hollywood movie she made before being blacklisted, and then a few European ones. [3]

This inspired me to borrow a biography of Gene Kelly from the library: Gene Kelly: a life of dance and dreams by Alvin Yudhof. Unfortunately, Mr Yudhof has adopted an extraordinarily irritating conceit of cutting between decent enough standard biography, although in a pretty apalling prose, and (in italic print) the imagined thoughts of the elderly Gene Kelly as he attends a Hollywood celebration of his life and work in the 1990s. To be frank I could not carry on reading if I didn't skip these bits. But worse is to come. Flipping through, I've realised that the story essentially ends with Singin' in the rain in 1952, despite the fact that that film (marvellous though it is) is only about the half-way point on Gene's career. Birth to SITR spans pages 1 to 219.The next section is titled 'Fast forward: 1951-1996' and begins 'Over the next forty-five years of Gene Kelly's life, he received many honors.' Then it cuts to the very end of his life and his apparently unhappy third marriage (the divorce from Betsy and his second wife are pretty much skimmed over), and then he dies on page 255. Pretty cheap way to write a biography, especially as it seems to me that some of the most interesting bits of people's lives are what they do when they stop doing the things everyone knows them for.

Still I'll probably read it, unless I turn to my other library books: a short study of SITR by Peter Wollen (so that I can pontificate knowledgeably about the messages it contains about sex and identity), a book called The American film musical by Rick Altman which looks like a vast compendium, everything from the first sound films to Annie in 1982. Hooray! Also on the Hollywood theme (Senate House has an enormous American Studies section hence loads of Hollywood books) an excellent collection of interviews with victims of the Hollywood blacklist of the McCarthy period by Patrick McGilligan, called Tender Comrades, and in a more serious vein Tolstoy's Kreutzer sonata, inspired by reading Doris Lessing's article on Tolstoy and sex, (and also because Grossman's Life and fate was on loan).

19 January, 2006

From 1848 to 1945

Finally, I have some books to report.

The age of capital was splendid, a marvellous drawing together of the prevailing historical themess of the 1848-1875 period, the first mad flush of the capitalist world. Hobsbawm writes exceptionally well, lucidly and with some pleasantly acerbic asides (the passage on the arts is particularly amusing), and his connections between the worlds of science, arts, philosophy and economics are brilliant - the connections between activities in the various fields and the economic climate as well as the philosophies of capitalist, democratic liberalism are made clear, so that one feels an enormous light has been turned on, illuminating the wholeness of historical, literary, economic and philosophical events where previously one saw them as isolated bits of history knowledge. [1]

It made me want to read more Marx. I might have a bash at The eighteenth brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which my da says is his favourite of Marx's writings. (I wish I'd read enough Marx to have a favourite of his writings.)

Antony Beevor's Berlin: the downfall was rather less splendid. It's a rollicking, novelistic history of the war in Europe from around 1944 to definitive German defeat, and it reads tremendously easily (one can see why it made it on to so many 'books of the year' lists: books that read easily but sound worthy always do). Novelistic, perhaps even filmic, in that it's very chronological so it cuts between the goings on in Moscow and the court politics surrounding Stalin, to the frenzied terror and hubris of Hitler's bunker, from Vasily Grossman's diaries as he advances with the frontoviki to the diaries of terrified Berliners, from the Yalta conference to the refugees returning to Germany from the eastern parts of the Reich. However he has a rather distasteful obsession with rape - I am not in any way denying that an awful lot of rape did happen on the Eastern front, but Beevor's focus is more on the most horrific of personal accounts rather than in trying to establish, for example, exactly how prevalent rape was. There was also some rather cheap speculation on Hitler's sexuality - he 'suppressed his homoerotic side' for the relationship with Eva Braun, for example - an assertion which is not backed up by anything at all. Later in a description of Hitler's last public appearance where he met some Hitler youth members, he describes Hitler as displaying 'the intensity of a repressed paedophile'. Now, I'm not springing hotly to Hitler's defence here, but it seems to me there's plenty to accuse him of without unfounded insinuations of paedophilia. It leaves one wondering how much historical evidence he bases the rest of the book on, which seems rather unfortunate. [2]

Vasily Grossman's diaries of his experiences on the Eastern front were recently published, edited by Antony Beevor (A writer at war: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945). I'll probably buy them when they're out in paperback. Before then I want to try reading his enormous novel centered around the battle of Stalingrad, Life and fate, conveniently available at a library near me.

11 January, 2006

Time bites

A new acquisition yesterday - a collection of Doris Lessing's occasional essays, Time bites. Essays are good for baths and bus journeys I find - times when one can't be bothered to start something new but wants to avoid rereading trash or just staring into space.

10 January, 2006

This post was brought to you by my Xmas book tokens

The year is off to a good start with Eric Hobsbawm's The age of capital 1848-1875.

I bought this with my Christmas book token along with the first two volumes of Victor Klemperer's diaries, I shall bear witness 1933-41, and To the bitter end 1941-45. I'm not very good at reading diaries. I get bored and dip in and out looking for interesting bits.

Literary resolutions

To read a hundred books this year

To have some specific interests: the long 19th century; the realist european novelists; Racine; Shelley; linguistics; Thomas Mann; middle eastern history.

To read more Marx.

To buy some decent, keepable books, and only get trash and contemporary novels from the library.

To not run up library fines.

To avoid rereading childrens' books and trash, and read new worthwhile things instead.