About Me

My photo
I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 24 September 2017

"44 Scotland Street" by Alexander McCall Smith

This book was written to be serialised daily in a newspaper and therefore containing very short chapters each of which has to be a mini story in itself. It spawned a series including The World According to Bertie.

Pat, on her second gap year (something dark seems to have happened during the first) shares a flat with beautiful but narcissistic Bruce; Pat can scarcely help herself but will she be seduced? She has a part-time job with art gallery owner Matthew: is the Peploe a Peploe, will it be stolen and what happens when it is accidentally offered as a raffle prize in a spectacularly rigged raffle at the world's smallest Conservative dinner dance by Bruce who has forgotten to wear underpants under his kilt and whose efforts to purloin a spare pair are almost more embarrassing than being exposed. Bertie's demanding mother Irene sends him to a psychotherapist for being naughty and portrait painter Angus explores a secret tunnel with Pat and anthropologist Domenica.

Wow.

Brilliantly written and often incredibly funny. I hardly ever laugh out loud when reading. It's embarrassing. But I did on this book. Several times.

Some of my favourite moments

  • “‘Genetically programmed to have lots of boyfriends, I think.’ ‘A slut?  that's what Bruce called her to me.’ ... ‘Male double standards,’  said Dominica sharply.” (p 10)
  • something of the late afternoon perhaps, even if not quite something of the night.” (p 53)
  • They used the metaphors of electricity. I am a bit below my normal wattage. I feel like shorting out.” (p 72)
  • Irene ...  was deeply committed to egalitarianism in all its forms, but this did not prevent the paying of adequate attention to gifted children. Society needed special people if egalitarian goals were to be met. Unexceptional people ... were often distressingly non-egalitarian in their views.” (p 89)
  • We all have Proustian moments, but we don't really know about it until we read Proust.” (p 215)
  • I think our cars been lost,  said Bertie. Daddy parked it somewhere when he was drunk and forgot where he put it.” (p 223)
  • Sexual attraction....  the dark, anarchic force. More powerful than anything else. Working away, but not for me.” (p 240)
  • it is the onion memory that makes me cry.” (p 249)
  • a fiddler worked his bow through a tune.” (p 254)
  • Falling out of love is every bit as painful as falling out of a tree -  and the pain lasts far longer.” (pp 297 - 298)
  • Is an ability to play the saxophone a social accomplishment or is it an anti-social accomplishment?” (pp 304 - 305)


September 2017; 326 pages

Friday, 22 September 2017

"Meatspace" by Nikesh Shukla

Kitab, a newly published author, has just broken up with Rachel and is allowing maintaining an online presence on facebook and twitter etc to block him from writing the next book. His brother Aziz wants a tattoo of a bow tie and uses google image search to find a man in New York with the same tattoo and who looks like Aziz; Aziz decides to travel to NY to meet his doppelganger; here he has adventures as a crime-fighting superhero (all written up in his blog). Meanwhile Kitab is being stalked by another Kitab who is seeking to steal his identity and to lose his virginity at a sex party.

Normally I hate books about authors having trouble writing: it seems rather too self-obsessed. This one won me over by the fresh way in which it used language and the relentlessly modern picture of a culture in which social media and one's virtual self seems more important than the meatspace world.

Lines I loved:
  • Amazon recommends I buy the book I wrote.” (p 1)
  • They awkwardly remove each other’s clothes and fall into the patterns, Porn Grammar.” (p 9)
  • You’re just on that bloody phone making a lazy self-obsessed quotes about nothing.” (p 14)
  • We both snap poppadoms.” (p 22)
  • Dinner with my dad. He pays for the food. I pay for my lack of achievement. We both pay for the over indulgence in the morning.” (p 28) 
  • I'm glad he has someone he can talk to freely and easily. I wish it wasn't me.” (p 30)
  • I've got unfinished business in her pants.” (p 33)
  • the gentrified ghetto vintage shops, hipster bars and pound shops” (p 34)
  • that's another story for another time told by another person.” (p 38)
  • Talking about sex in front of people, it feels too intimate. There's too much focus on the meat and the flesh.” (p 70)
  • We bow tie tatt-bumped, innit” (p 98)
  • If x’s were actual kisses, I’d have glandular fever.” (p 115)
  • Life gives us nuggets everyday. Whether we choose to make them chicken or gold is up to us.” (p 115)
  • A sofa and a chair and a mattress that all looked like they'd been at the business end of a stream of piss.” (p 142)
  • All this takes up 10% of my battery, which is a currency in modern life.” (p 162)
  • I was walking with skin issues here.” (p 219)
  • The Internet is both transient and eternal and there's nothing you can hide from it once it goes online.” (p 226)
  • When you need a pilgrimage to have a long hard look at yourself, why take the bus?” (p 240)
A good read from a promising new author. September 2017; 291 pages

"Swing Time" by Zadie Smith

By the author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man, and the utterly wonderful NW.

What makes Zadie Smith an exceptional writer is the reality of the characters. When Tracey's mum responds to the accusation that her daughter has stolen money the actions and the dialogue was pitch perfect. Each of these people, with all of their strengths and weaknesses, are three dimensional real flawed human beings. Yes, they are inconsistent. Yes, they do things that don't seem to make sense (Tracey becomes enamoured of a cult that believes the world is ruled by giant lizards). But it is their wrinkles, their highlights and their shadows, that make them stand out in three glorious dimensions from the page.

The narrator grows up with her postman father and her OU-studying mother, later to become a politician; she goes to dance classes with her alter-ego Tracey, the rebellious child from the single parent family who just happens to be a natural dancer. The best the narrator can do is to become personal assistant to mega-singing star Aimee; she is the key liaison in the school for girls Aimee is creating in Africa. Meanwhile Tracey's dancing career has stalled after minor west end triumph and she falls into motherhood. 

It didn't feel like a novel. There was little overt plot development. Things happened and lives were shaped but the usual novellic link between character trait and consequence seemed largely absent. Instead it was almost a memoir of two girls growing up and their experiences as young women; other female character trajectories that were important were those of the mother and of the superstar Aimee. Perhaps the point that the author was trying to make most of all was that we are shaped by our socio-economic backgrounds. Although Aimee and the narrator's mother may be examples of self-made women who can transcend their circumstances through their very remarkable personalities and energies, both these do-gooders are powerless to improve the lives of others. Even an international celebrity is, in the end, only able to make marginal changes in the world, for example by adopting an African baby. The school in Africa can succeed for a while but it is clear that it's long-term prospects are bleak. Like dancer Tracey, who appears on a West End stage but in the end is another embittered single mother.

It's also about how the rich can't understand the poor. The narrator never really understands Tracey, despite them being best friends; she is even more at sea in Africa where the culture is completely alien to her. And, of course, misunderstanding leads to poor decisions and poor decisions can lead to tragedy.

Some great lines:
People are not poor because they made bad choices ... they make bad choices because they’re poor” (p 49)
Rainbows passed through the wine glasses on to the wet silverware.” (p 156)
it's just so challenging to make that translation” (p 176)
Watching all that fire with so little kindling, it was of course easy to despair.” (p 225)
No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless.” (p 253)
Children can be a kind of a wealth.” (p 253)
New York was my first introduction to the possibilities of light, crashing through gaps in curtains, transforming people and sidewalks and buildings into golden icons, or black shadows, depending on where they stood in relation to the sun.” (p254)
Her pat phrases were like lids dancing on top of bubbling cooking pots, and all I had to do was sit patiently and wait for her to boil over.” (p 378)

Thursday, 21 September 2017

"Conclave" by Robert Harris

As Dean of the |College of Cardinals, Jacopo Lomeli has to organise the election of the next pope. Packed with authentic detail, Conclave charts the intrigues as the secrets and sins of the front-runners knock them one-by-one out of the race to leave them with perhaps the least likely candidate.

Although the twists and turns are perhaps slightly predictable (despite the author's obvious skill in misdirection) and although the suspension of disbelief is challenged by the incredible unlikelihood of the ending, this book is so grounded in reality that it could almost be a documentary rather than fiction.

Another great Vatican-based thriller is The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell.

Some great lines:
  • "As with sleep, the more one desired meaningful prayer, the more elusive it became.” (p 6)
  • Once, God explained all mysteries. Now He has been usurped by conspiracy theorists. They are the heretics of the age.” (p 16)
  • The vices of courtiers all down the ages - the sins of vanity and intrigue and of malice and gossip.” (p 54)
  • The United Kingdom - that godless isle of apostasy.” (p 232)
  • Faith is a living thing precisely because it walks hand in hand with doubt.” (p 124)
A good read. September 23017; 380 pages

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

"Let's explore diabetes with owls" by David Sedaris

Another collection of Sedaris' wry comments on life (also see my review of When you are engulfed in flames). If this is a memoir, Sedaris has lived a sometimes surreal life. He talks about his bringing up: the father who never encouraged him (“Our artwork did not hang on the refrigerator or anywhere near it, because our parents recognised it for what it was: crap.” p 14), always praising other more athletic boys, his best friend (“With Shaun, though, I could almost be myself. This didn't mean that we were alike, only that he wasn't paying that much attention.” (p 60; “What brought us together was a love of nature, or, more specifically, of catching things and unintentionally killing them.” p 59). He writes about the contrast between doctors in the US, who pander to the neurotic hypochondriac in each of us, and those in Europe who point out that a fatty lump is not a tumour (“Either you can live in the past as a lonely, bitter paraplegic, or you can live in the present as one.” p 119). He talks about being so lonely that he moons over heterosexuals: “Johnny didn't strike me as gay, but it was hard to tell with alcoholics. Like prisoners and shepherds, many of them didn't care who they have sex with, the idea being that what happens in the dark stays in the dark.” (p 125) He talks about buying a stuffed owl as a Valentine's Day present for his boyfriend.

Life, he tells us, is like a four-ring stove. The rings are your family, your friends, your health, and your work. If you want to succeed you have to switch off one of the rings. To really succeed you have to switch off two. (pp 89 - 90)

Funny, in both senses of the word: September 2017; 275 pages



Sunday, 10 September 2017

"Millennium People" by J G Ballard

Ballard's always fecund imagination has conceived of a middle class in revolt, refusing to pay school fees or spiralling estate management charges, torching their own houses rather than let them be repossessed, manning barricades and throwing petrol bombs over parking disputes, fire bombing museums and video stores.

David, whose first wife has been killed by a terrorist bomb at Heathrow, infiltrates the shifting alliances of the middle class revolutionaries in some sort of attempt at closure on his failed marriage. But as he meets charismatic Kay and sinister Doctor Gould, has he fallen in love with violence?

A strange book. I found it difficult to accept the basic thesis that the comfortable bourgeoisie would, feeling trapped, throw it all away. The characters all did strange things; I never really identified with anyone. They seemed too much like puppets on a stage set by the author. If you want a book about middle class revolutionaries you might try Saturn's Daughters by Jim Pinnells set in the anarchist world of nineteenth century Russia, where real, well-to-do woman indulge in real crimes of violence.

The Guardian review of this book says it is "one of the most amusing novels I've read in a long time" so perhaps I misunderstood it: it was meant to be funny.

It was extremely imaginative and deeply embedded in reality. Real places were described with perfect accuracy; people were grounded in physicality. Acts of violence were full of sickening details. It made it even harder to understand how the protagonist could be seduced into complicity with the perpetration of these acts.

A book that made me think.

There were some stunning lines:
  • Not for her sake. For yours. ... You don't love her. I know that. But you still hate her. That's why you have to go.” (p 21)
  • Heathrow approached, a beached sky-city, half space station and half shanty town.” (p 25) 
  • Being law-abiding has nothing to do with being a good citizen. It means not bothering the police.” (p 52)
  • I told them to take their cameras into the bedroom and make a porn film. Fucking is what they do in their spare time so why not look at it through a camera lens? They wouldn't learn much about sex but they’d learn a lot about film.” (p 53)
  • Tourism is the great soporific. It's a huge confidence trick, and gives people the dangerous idea that there's something interesting in their lives. It's musical chairs in reverse. Every time the muzak stops people stand up and dance around the world, and more chairs are added to the circle, more marinas and Marriott Hotels, so everyone thinks they're winning.” (p 54)
  • Knowledge-based professions are just another extractive industry. When the seams run out we’re left high and dry with a lot of out-of-date software.” (pp 79 - 80) 
  • Have you noticed how vocabularies fluctuate in order to cope with our need to justify ourselves?” (p 103)
  • They see that private schools are brainwashing their children into a kind of social docility, turning them into a professional class who run the show for consumer capitalism.” (p 104) 
  • Gould withdrew into himself, retreating behind the bones of his face.” (p 128)
  • Starter homes ... rabbit hutches for aspiring marriage.” (p 133)
  • Looking for God is a dirty business. You find God in a child’s shit, in the stink of stale corridors,in a nurse's tired feet.” (p 137)
  • First wives are a right of passage into adult life . I many ways it's important that first marriages go wrong. That's how we learn the truth about ourselves.” (p 138) 
  • Sex with Kay is like a resuscitation that's gone slightly wrong. You're deeply grateful, but parts of you are never going to be the same.” (p 168)
  • The guinea pigs had lured the experimenter into the maze.” (p 220)
September 2017; 294 pages

Saturday, 9 September 2017

"Styles of learning" by Noel Entwistle

This book was mostly interesting because of how different researchers classified human personalities in different ways. For example, Wertheimer studied how students approached a maths problem The first type ducked the question by saying that they didn’t like maths or they hadn’t yet studied this topic. The second type searched their memories frantically using a strategy of saying everything they knew in the hope that something somewhere would be correct. The third type sought analogies or tried to classify the problem. The fourth type used what Wertheimer called “real thinking” (p 54)

Roy Heath in the 1960s and 70s divided students into three types the non committed, the hustlers, and the plungers. I loved these descriptions!
  • The first type “views a commitment as a possible entanglement which might reduce his freedom to get out of the way when travel threatens. When storm clouds do break he’ll hold on and hope for the best. In other words he takes a passive role in a conflict situation ... [a non-committer had a myth that] “he could do a lot of things ... if he really went all-out” (Entwistle p 67)
  • The hustler “Is a great competitor. In his relations with others he is often aggressive and insensitive to their feelings. This is unfortunate for he possesses a strong desire to be received favourably and affectionately.” He “is impatient with the status quo. He must keep moving beyond his present level.Wasting time is for him a cardinal sin, a lost opportunity ... life is a battle. People must look out for themselves, must solve their own problems ... he is a study in antithesis ... a personality that is at war with itself. He is a strong-willed man couple with equally strong inhibitions and control over his deeper impulses.” (Entwistle 1996, 68)
  • The plunger “Today he might feel on top of the world ... tomorrow might find him bitter, sad, alone ... whether high or low, he seems at the utter mercy of his feelings. He responds as strongly to guilt as he does to his urges ... he works and loves in spurts”. (Entwistle 1996, p 68)
  • The ideal is the Reasonable Adventurer who can “attack the problems of everyday life with zest and originality. And he seems to do so with an air of playfulness” At times he is a believer and at other times a sceptic but he alternates these. (Entwistle 1996, 70) Rather too good to be true!
Entwistle is most famous for his distinction between 'deep' and 'surface' learning (I am always rather sceptical of any categorisation where it is obvious from the label where you 'ought' to be). He tells us that “It is impossible for a student adopting a surface approach ever to reach a deep level of understanding.” (p 79); this is partly because “Students adopting a deep approach also tended to spend longer in studying.” (p 80)

He is also slightly scornful of recently fashionable idea such as divergent thinking and holistic thinking. He points out that “The two major pathologies commonly found in learning are the failure to examine at the logical structure or the evidence in sufficient detail, and the failure to make use of appropriate analogies. ... The holist strategy involves looking at the whole area being learned, taking a broad perspective, seeking interconnection with other topics and making use of personal and idiosyncratic analogies. The examination of the logical structure and of the supportive evidence comes later when understanding is demanded, but left to himself the holist is likely to put off what he may see as the more boring parts of learning.” (p 93) Furthermore, “Imaginative thinking is important in problem solving in various ways. First it allows the problem to be reformulated, avoiding an exclusive focus on the most obvious interpretation. Then the review of possible solutions depends on a leisurely approach and a wide focus of attention which includes both likely and unlikely combinations of ideas. But the final stages of problem solving demand a return to tight, narrowly focused logical thinking.” (p 156)

There are also random facts which are just plain interesting:
The Latin word persona originally described the painted mask which an actor held in front of his face to portray the person he was playing. The word subsequently was used to indicate the ‘front’ an individual presented to other people - how he wanted to be seen. It was also used to describe ‘the player behind the mask’” (p 179)
In Greek, character meant engraving and implied a patent of traits in bothered in a distinctive life-style ... ‘characteristic’ remains a neutral term synonymous with ‘trait’.” (p 179)
A very well written book which reviews an important topic. September 2017; 272 pages