27 November, 2006
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. 
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. 
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.  
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.  
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. 
Less interesting was Jonathan Wolff's Why read Marx today? which is short and easy and nothing I don't already know. 
16 November, 2006
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.  
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'.   
29 October, 2006
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. 
23 October, 2006
19 October, 2006
18 October, 2006
Incidentally, here's a fascinating collection of interviews with authors who have used Arthurian themes in their work.
13 October, 2006
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
- 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.
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
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
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. 
21 August, 2006
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. 
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. 
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. 
14 August, 2006
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. 
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... 
01 August, 2006
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
28 July, 2006
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. 
22 July, 2006
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)
Wet Magic (1913)
The Deliverers of Their Country (1985)
The Book of Dragons (1986)
The Book of Beasts (1988)
The Town in the Library (1988)
The Children's Shakespeare (2000)
18 July, 2006
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. 
08 July, 2006
05 July, 2006
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.  
03 July, 2006
28 June, 2006
- 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
30 May, 2006
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?
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
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
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. 
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.
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
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.   
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. 
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. 
28 February, 2006
Jeremy Hardy's obituary of her in the Guardian.
Simon Hoggart and others pay tribute.
25 February, 2006
15 February, 2006
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
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. 
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
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
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. 
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. 
24 January, 2006
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. 
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. 
* 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
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
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. 
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. 
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
10 January, 2006
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.
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.