About Me

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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

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

"The Haunted House" by Charles Dickens and others

A man and his sister rent a house that is allegedly haunted. The servants have hysterics and are dismissed; they are replaced by friends of the principals. On Twelfth Night the company assembles to tell stories about the ghost that haunts each room although none of the stories are really about ghosts.

Each story is by a different author. Hesba Stretton tells a Mills and Boon type story about the unrequited love of a shallow woman: romantic and moralising simultaneously. George Augustus Sala tells a funny tale of a young man who destroys his chances of married happiness by shaking; this quite funny narrative is resolved with the wonderful line 'all this was but a dream'. Adelaide Anne Proctor writes in couplets about a nun who is tempted to escape from the cloister and leads a dissolute life before returning to discover that no-one has noticed her absence because the Virgin Mary has taken her place in the convent. Wilkie Collins narrates a yarn about a sea dog who is tied hand and foot in a boat filled with gunpowder that is about to be blown sky high. Charles Dickens recounts how a young schoolboy fantasises about having a seraglio: it all turns sour when his impoverished family have to send him to a poor school: apart from bearing witness to the extravagant sexuality underpinning Victorian prose this also seems to be a metaphor for the terrible time when the young Dickens was removed from school and sent to work in a blacking factory because his father was in debt. Finally Elizabeth Gaskell writes in dialect about an honest Yorkshire farming family and their fast son who goes to London and turns bad (very Great Expectations).

An intriguing collection of tales. It was instantly clear that the best authors are Dickens, Gaskell and Collins but the others keep the fantasy going.

January 2012; 121 pages

Sunday, 29 January 2012

"Who is Ozymandias? and other puzzles in poetry" by John Fuller

The first line of this book is not in the least bit encouraging: "This book is intended to comfort readers who find poetry difficult by showing that everyone, including professional critics, can find it difficult."


Fuller sees a poem as a puzzle, akin to a cryptic crossword, and the literary critic as a professional sleuth. So he repeatedly asks of a variety of poems: what does it mean? He finds the puzzles in the title, in the characters, in the grammar, in the vocabulary etc. And he finds the answers in metaphors, in Freud, in other literary works that have influenced the poet, in the circumstances of the poet's home life, in classic works in other languages and so on. 


Frequently he concludes that despite his own much displayed erudition it is unlikely that we will ever find the answer. This doesn't upset me because I have long ago decided that I do not care what the puzzle is if we have to spend so long discovering the solution. 

Even where I am tempted to read further I am put off by Fuller's self-assuredness. 

The Snark, we are told is Krans backwards which is the German word Kranz which means virginity. Thus the Snark represents the archetypal young girl that Lewis Carroll adored (and whom he sometimes photographed naked) and therefore the Boojum is the bosom (because the words sound similar) and the Jubjub is the bosom (because a Jub is a vessel that contains liquid, a jujube is something to be sucked and a juju is a fetish) and the Bandersnatch is menstruation from a combination of bandage and snatch! 

Really?

I was even put off when he explained that Badroulbadour is the daughter of the sultan in Aladdin because he simply has to show that he knows that Aladdin is actually Ala al-Din and that the story starts of the "731st" night of the thousand and one.

Who cares?

A book for the specialist literary critic who can cope with conceit.

January 2012; 239 pages too many

Saturday, 28 January 2012

"Deep simplicity" by John Gribbin

Gribbin explains complexity and chaos theory and shows how it applies to everything including the creation of life.



It was my first introduction to complexity theory and it is written by a master of readability.

It contains so many important topics. I had never realised that Alan Turing, after inventing the computer and winning the war, as told by Andrew Hodges in Enigma, had then kicked off the science of morphogenesis, explaining how you can get different species by switching on the same genes at different stages of gestation.

This book was my wonderful introduction to so many others dealing with the sciences of chaos and complexity:

  • Six degrees about small world networks by Duncan Watts 
  • sync by Steven Strogatz
  • At Home in the Universe by Stuart Kauffman about fitness landscapes
  • How Nature Works by Per Bak about sandpiles and self organized criticality; an excellent explanation of complexity science
  • Smart swarm by Peter Miller
  • The Information by James Gleick although his Chaos (not reviewed on this blog) is perhaps better

Other books not reviewed on this blog on this topic include:

  • The Wisdom of Crowds 
  • Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell about fads
  • Ubiquity which is brilliant about fractals and power laws
  • Critical mass by Philip Ball which is a brilliant explanation about phase changes

This is a life changing book.

January 2012; 235 pages

Thursday, 19 January 2012

"Death comes to Pemberley" by P D James

Baroness James combines her love of the murder mystery story with her love of Jane Austen to pen this sequel to Pride and Prejudice.

On the night before Lady Anne's Ball, Mr and Mrs Darcy (nee Elizabeth Bennett) are entertaining the Bingleys, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr Alveston when a spectral coach hurtles through the windy night to disgorge Lydia, Lizzie's sister, screaming that her husband, Wickham, has been murdered in the night. But who has been killed, who is the mysterious ghost woman, and why are Darcy's initials carved into the trees?

There are some nice touches such as the discussion about the need for an appeal court :"That would be the ultimate idiocy, and if carried on ad infinitum could presumably result in a foreign court trying English cases. And that would be the end of more than our legal system." Other elements of the oeuvre are mentioned such as the Elliots from Persuasion and the Knightleys from Mansfield Park. James enjoys pastiching the Pride and Prejudice characters such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr Collins, and Mr Bennett but the characterisations are too modern and the dialogue never quite right; she succeeds only in confirming that Jane Austen is inimitable. And the pace of the plot seems flawed. We have a lot of family trivia to get through before the first body is found, there are too few clues, there is a sudden break with the words 'some months later' written all over it, and the denouement is disappointing.

A cute and clever book but not a great read either as an Austen sequel or as a detective story.

January 2012; 310 pages

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

"The Sorrows of Young Werther" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Werther writes letters to his friend Wilhelm describing the idyllic rural retreat in which he plans to do a little drawing. He meets Lotte. She is betrothed to another, Albert, but in Albert's absence Werther falls in love with Lotte. The loves is neither consummated nor indeed returned but Werther is a classic romantic hero, ruled by his wild unbridled passions. When Albert returns and marries Lotte, Werther despairs. He becomes gloomy and suicidal. The letters stop; the 'editor' then narrates the final days with extracts from further letters and the suicide note and large quotes from 'Ossian' the forged epic poem that Goethe adored.

This is all wild, romantic, passionate prose full of dashes - oh! - and exclamations. And coupled with extreme rectitude and punctilious etiquette. It is a sort of cross between Jane Austen and Emily Bronte: Wuthering and Sensibility. Not really my cup of tea. But remarkable as a landmark in romantic fiction with the classic Byronic hero driven to self destruction by untamed (except they are tamed) lusts. It is also surprisingly short.

In the letter dated 18th July Werther notes that a world without love is the same as a projector without a lamp which suggests that even in 1771 the magic lantern existed. Perhaps when Goethe spoke of these 'transient phantoms' he was thinking a little of Plato's Cave parable (which might suggest that magic lanterns properly date to 500 BC!) Indeed wikipedia suggests that the magic lantern was used by Cristian Huyghens before 1660 and that Germans (such as Kircher who describes a similar device in Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae) and Walgensten and Count Cagliostro were using lanterns to summon spirits; perhaps Goethe linked this to the legend of Faust that he was later to dramatise.

In the same letter Werther talks of 'Bologna rock': "if you lay it in the sun it will draw in the rays and shine for a while at night". Bologna rock is barium sulphide; it was exhibited in 1611 by Galileo according to my source.Sometimes it is amazing how old seemingly modern notions are.

My favourite quote from this book is from the letter of 20th October 1771 in which Werther writes "It is certain that since we are so made to compare everyone with ourselves and ourselves with everyone, happiness or misery lies in those circumstances with which we associate ourselves, and then nothing is more dangerous than solitude." I think I understand what he means but I do not think I agree with his conclusion.

It is a classic which you have to read with a little pinch of salt.

January 2012; 131 pages.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

"Blood Count" by Robert Goddard

A classic Goddard thriller, Blood Count's hero is liver transplant surgeon Edward Hammond whose guilty secret is that he treated a Serbian war criminal. When this past catches up with him (as the past always does in Goddard's books) he is blackmailed to criss-cross Europe in the company of a rather appealing dodgy accountant and the warlord's ex-mistress. Showing a surprising facility in evading assassination and killing bad guys, Dr Hammond (should he really keep insisting on the 'doctor' if he is a surgeon; they like to be called plain mister) is repeatedly led up garden paths. No-one is whom they seem and he is duped time and time again. He has to trust someone but he doggedly insists on trusting the wrong people and never once thinks of insurance. Once in possession of the evidence he fails to copy it and gives it away. Once in possession of millions of pounds he transfers every last penny to the account number he has been given. Even at the end he flies half way around the world on the strength of a text message.

Classic Goddard but not his best; the characters are weak and the formula is beginning to show.

January 2012; 459 pages

Saturday, 7 January 2012

"50 Economics Ideas you really need to know" by Edmund Conway

This book is a mixture of ideas. Some are utterly counter-intuitve and therefore thet convey real insight such as 'Comparative Advantage' (a country can gain by specialising in a service and trading  even if the service it specialises in is not its best) and 'Supply Side Economics' (cutting tax can raise revenue). Others are more obvious. But I guess that is the nature of the subject.

An excellent introduction and overview to the ideas of Economic packaged in a way that can be browsed or used for reference.

January 2012; 203 pages

"Vanished Kingdoms" by Norman Davies

The 'history of half-forgotten Europe' seems to be cobbled together from various scholarly articles that Professor Davies has assembled over the years; in the Introduction he immodestly lists other examples he would have included had he more space. This gives the book a slightly rag-bag feel with chapters of significantly different lengths. It also means that there are moments when the professor is unable to restrain academia. The word 'Amalfings' which apparently refers to the Visigoths post-Alaric is not explained (and does not appear in my dictionary); does it refer to people from Amalfi on the Italian coast? He often quotes in Latin (although he almost always provides a translation). He insists on calling the British Isles the 'Isles' explaining in a footnote that "The 'Isles' became British by monarchical criteria in 1603 and constitutionally in 1801. They ceased to be British in 1949.' His conceit is often to call the vanished kingdom by a name that almost no-one else ever uses: Sabaudia for Savoy, Rosenau for Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Byzantion for Byzantium or Constantinople etc. And to say "Studying the Burgundian succession of the 1360s, one can easily develop 'Palis-Rondon' - as the Japanese call a squint" serves no purpose other than to tell the reader that the author can show off in Japanese as well. Furthermore, he rattles through history at such a speed that the procession of names, places and titles leave one dizzy.

There is a slitghtly contrived structure. Each chapter has a first part which is a sort of tourist guide to the place where the vanished kingdom originated followed by part two, a lengthy history of the kingdom and part three, which explores the kingdom's heritage.

Nevertheless this is a fascinating book.

  • He starts with the Pyrennean kingdom of the Visigoths with a brief nod to the Da Vinci Code.
  • Then he plunges into the Dumbarton-based realm of Alt Clud (Clydesdale) with another nod to King Arthur.
  • He then traces Burgundy (linked to the Nibelungenlied) from the Danish island of Bornholm across Europe to a kingdom, duchy and county in southern France (including the Dauphine region whose ruler really did adopt a Dolphin as his badge and which later was sold to the French heir to the throne, the Dauphin) whose various acquisitions are later dispersed to France, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland and Germany leaving only the remnant of Luxembourg.
  • The fourth kingdom of Aragon is linked to El Cid and St George. He carefully steers away from the obvious conclusion that the demise of Aragon, centred on Barcelona and therefore sustained by Mediterranean trade and an empire including the Balearics and Sicily, was due to the economic repositioning of Spain towards its trans-Atlantic possessions.
  • He is cruel about modern day Byelorussia, a post-communist Communist republic, that once united with Lithuania in the kingdom/ grand duchy of Litva.
  • His description of Byzantion is less history and more polemic against historians. He doesn't think much of Istanbul's Nobel-Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk but he is much angrier about Gibbon whose Decline and Fall disposes of Constantinople in a single chapter. Yes, but Davies has spent 80 pages on Litva's 500 years and a breathtaking 16 pages on Byzantion's 1,153 years. A case of the pot and kettle, I believe.
  • Borussia is really Prussia (why can't he use the normal names; he seems deliberately obscure). He likes to tantalise with obscurity: on page 364 Davies tells us that Saxon King August the Strong's "amorous adventures have gained him a place in the Guinness Book of Records" but he doesn't say why, not even in a footnote!!! (Wikipedia claims he had up to 382 illegitimate children.)
  • Sabaudia (Savoy) was ruled by a single dynasty from 1033 until the last Italian king was deposed in 1946 (although after seceding Savoy itself to France in 1860). One impressive Count of Savoy not only got himself made Duke but after his wife and eldest son died was elected (anti)pope; his second son succeeded him and acquired the Shroud for Turin (bequeathed to the Roman Catholic church only by the last king of the dynasty).
  • Galicia which was brought into existence by the Austro-Hungarian empire from bits of Poland and the Ukraine and then dismembered following WWI
  • Etruria which was both brought into existence and dissolved by Napoleonic decree; Davies is rather more interested in the dynastic histories of the Bourbons and the Bonapartes than in this Tuscan state.
  • When he chats about Rosenau, known to most as Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, he spends almost all the time talking about the most famous resident, Prince Albert, and the machinations of the SCG dynasts whose Leopold not only married the Prince Regent's daughter and would have become king of England had she survived childbirth but was also offered but declined the throne of Greece, became King of the Belgians, and arranged the marriage of his niece Victoria to his nephew Albert thus spreading his tentacles across the crowned heads of almost all of Europe. I was also fascinated to learn that Saxe-Coburg soup was made from Albert's favourite Brussels sprouts. Here is the recipe!
  • The fate of Montenegro (he calls it Tsernagora) was interesting: it was the only Allied (and therefore victorious) state to vanish after the First World War. Having been occupied by Austro-Hungary the King and Government were in exile; when the Austrians collapsed the Serbs moved in and manipulated matters so that the Allies at Versailles found it easier to assume that the Montenegrin population had voted to join Serbia. Montenegro has now re-assumed independence from Serbia.
  • Carpatho-Ukraine ('Rusyn' - Davies) lasted nearly a whole day. They were tagged on to Slovakia as part of Czecho-Slovakia after the 1919 Versailles Treaty but had managed to gain regional autonomy within this state. On 15th March 1939, when Hitler invaded Prague and the Slovaks declared themselves to be a German protectorate, the C-Us had little alternative but to proclaim their independence. Hungary instantly invaded. An English visitor remarked that in 24 hours he had been in three separate states in one place.
  • Eire is an emergent state rather than a vanished one; Davies uses its birth as a springboard to speculate upon the disintegration of the United Kingdom.
  • His final example is the CCCP (of course the Cyrillic spelling is preferred to the Latin USSR or even SSSR) which he views from the Estonian perspective.


This is a massive rambling book, full of delightful anecdotes but equally full of rambling dynastic discourses and historiographical rants. It is bizarrely uneven in its treatment: some episodes being scrutinised in detail whilst centuries can pass unnoticed. Even in its state selection it seems eclectic. Eastern Europe has a number of chapters; Scandinavia has none. There are so many other places that could be included: Wales, Venice, Brittany. Since he includes states that are now revived (eg Montenegro) there is even more scope. And there is clearly a book to be written about states that have not vanished such as Andorra, Liechtenstein, and Trans-Dniester.

Overall I think that it needed firm editing.

January 2012; 739 pages

Monday, 2 January 2012

"Mock the Week's Funniest Book of All Time"

Disappointing.

Mock the Week is a brilliantly funny television programme. It contains Andy Parsons who looks smug and  comments on current events in an angry voice ending up with the catchphrase: "Well. That's a load of crap isn't it?" and Frankie Boyle who makes a lot of jokes about sex, especially masturbation. There are also four funny comedians on the show.

This book contains a lot of jokes about sex, especially masturbation; it seems to have been mostly written by Frankie Boyle. To be honest, they get rather boring. There are a few funny nuggets but they are hidden amongst the rest.

For example:

  • Unlikely names for skyscrapers have six of 14 with sexual connotations;
  • Bad titles for love songs (p144) manages 11 out of 14 sexual titles 

It just got boring. It seemed that they had run out of jokes so they just filled in with childish smut.

Disappointing.