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

Monday, 30 July 2012

"The Tiger's Wife" by Tea Obreht

Set in Yugoslavia after its disintegration, a young girl doctor explores her memories of her grandfather, also a doctor, and the circumstances of his death. The petty feuds and jealousies of the isolated village in which he grew up serve as a microcosm for the internecine wars that have torn families apart in the Balkan civil war. And with the hatred and fear comes superstition.

A tiger escapes from the zoo and finds its way to the village in which the grandfather is a young boy. Here he is looked after and fed by the butcher's deaf-mute wife; the butcher who is gay and a wannabe musician and who was tricked into marrying her, batters his wife. Then the butcher disappears and his wife is pregnant. The village believes that she has wed the devil, in the shape of the tiger, and seeks her death.

This story is mingled with the tale of the deathless man whom the grandfather doctor meets at key moments. The deathless man may or may not be a vampire; he claims to be death's nephew; it is certain that he carries a coffee cup in which he can see whether a man will imminently die or live.

An unusual mixture of reality and magic, lyrically and compellingly told. July 2012; 336 pages

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

"When we were orphans" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Celebrated private detective, Christopher Banks, returns to Shanghai to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his parents.

The book is written in a sort of diary style. There are a number of extracts purportedly penned on specific dates. The narrator can look back on what happened before in each extract but, of course, the narrator has no knowledge of what will happen next.

As a society detective the narrator comes to believe in his ability to solve mysteries that have puzzled others for many years. He also comes into contact with Sarah Hemmings, an intriguing character who is seeking to marry a man she can help to achieve things and who is ruthless about pursuing those objectives, dumping boyfriends and making a fuss at soirees with no sign of embarrassment. Sarah is a figure who recurs through the narrative; she is also an orphan.

The book becomes quite bizarre when the narrator returns to Shanghai in 1937, leaving behind an orphans girl he has casually adopted. He assumes that everyone he meets knows of his and his case. The embassy seems so convinced of his ability to find and rescue his parents from their kidnappers that they are planning the welcome back ceremony. He becomes utterly arrogant and obsessed, convinced that his solving this case will mend the degenerate Shanghai community even as the Japanese fire shells over their heads into the Chinese army. He is taken to his old home where a family of Chinese live and they tell him that he is entitled to his old house back even though it always belonged to the Company. This is becoming bizarre.

The book takes leave of reality when his obsession takes him into the war zone and he convinces a Chinese lieutenant to lend him troops to rescue his parents. This now becomes a nightmare. He travels through the poorest Chinese slums, destroyed by bombs, dodging the fighting armies, listening to men dying, avoiding rotting piles of human intestines. He rescues a wounded Japanese soldier from vengeful Chinese peasants; the soldier just happens to be his childhood friend. Despite the squalor and the incredible danger he obsessively pursues his mission.

In the end he has betrayed everyone for what seems to be nothing. He meets a celebrated Communist traitor and the story is resolved.

I found it extraordinarily difficult to believe that the war zone sequence was anything more than an allegorical nightmare and yet I couldn't reconcile that with the rest of the story. I never really accepted the main character; his actions seemed arbitrary and strange. Perhaps that was the point.

A puzzle written in Ishiguro's finest prose. July 2012; 313 pages.

Monday, 23 July 2012

"Peter Schlemihl" by Adelbert von Chamisso

The eponymous hero sells his shadow to a 'man in grey' (because "the devil isn't as black as he's painted") in return for a purse of never-ending gold. But he is shunned by everyone (except his faithful servant) as soon as they espy his lack of shadow. The devil then offers to sell the shadow back to Peter in return for his soul.

An adult fable written by a man who fled revolutionary France for Berlin, joined the Prussian army, fought against France, later returned to France but for the rest of his was always a German in France or a Frenchman in Germany.

One nice touch: it is purportedly written by Peter to "my dear Chamisso", the author.

Naive. July 2012; 124 pages

Saturday, 21 July 2012

"A More Perfect Heaven" by Dava Sobel

The author of Longitude, which told of John Harrison's struggle to perfect the chronometer and claim the Board of Navigation prize, now turns her attention to 'How Copernicus Revolutionised the Cosmos'"

Sobel is a brilliantly readable writer of Science history. She makes her subject come alive. Copernicus was a  Catholic Pole in Minor Orders (never an ordained priest, only a canon or trustee of his cathedral) who did a lot of good work administering the cathedral lands (in effect a self-governing state of the Holy Roman Empire) at about the time the Lutheranism was infecting large parts of Germany. Against this backdrop he pursued his interest in Astronomy. He became well known in astronomical circles and contributed to a papal committee investigating calendar reform. He clearly realised early that he could better calculate astronomical tables if he put the sun at the centre of the universe rather than the earth; it probably took him longer to decide that this reflected physical reality. There were two objections. In the Bible Joshua commands the sun to stand still; why would he have said this unless the sun was moving? Copernicus seems to have decided quite early that this should be interpreted differently. The second problem was that the earth does not seem to move. It may have taken Copernicus a little longer to accept that the appearance belied the reality.

Nevertheless he delayed publishing his book because he was fearful of the inevitable backlash, both ridicule and angry charges of heresy. Finally a Lutheran mathematician, Rheticus, travelled to Copernicus to convince him to publish; this seems to have been the catalyst that bred De Revolutionibus.

Having written plain history, Sobel turns to play-writing to dramatise the moment when Copernicus met Rheticus. There were other pressures at the time. The Bishop was trying to persuade Copernicus to give up his housekeeper because of the scandal of a once-married woman living with a canon. Rheticus seems to have been gay (later he was accused and convicted in absentia of sodomy). It is an interesting device to insert fiction into history but Sobel seems to carry this off perfectly.

A wonderful little book. July 2012; 236 pages

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

"The best from fantasy and science fiction sixth series" edited by Anthony Boucher

When I was young I used to go to Sunbury library and select books. There was magic there. I read the entire series of Swallows and Amazons, a dozen books in all. I read wonderful adventure stories: one I remember vividly involved tracking down the lost treasure of King John that had been presumed lost on the Wash; another involved travel to a future where the wheel was banned. And I read Science fiction anthologies.

Remembering a story about a place called Kroywen I decided to track it down. I found it in 'Fantasy and Science fiction' so I ordered one of the series.

I suppose I was bound to be disappointed. My tastes have changed. So have literary styles. And science is so different today from 1957. And I remember only the few golden nuggets from the many anthologies I read.

Some of the stories in this collection are extremely brief. Some are just silly. Some are scarcely connected with science fiction. Many of them betray America's fifty's preoccupation with nuclear war and doomsday.

A Viking tells of the American soldier who time travelled to Iceland. Martians explain how to cope with insects. Human colonists arrive at a distant planet to be enslaved by the natives. A census taker tries to count the devil. People travel to heaven by train. A man seeks solitude after a nervous breakdown catalysed by the News; having been brought back to reality he becomes a serial killer. An actress travels through time warps and relentlessly worries about her wickedness.

Perhaps the best story (if rather misogynistic) is by C.S. Lewis who reads or rather enters the mind of a woman who comes to see him.

Of its time. July 2012; 250 pages.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

"In the shadow of the sword" b y Tom Holland

This is my fourth Tom Holland book. Rubicon was brilliant, Persian Fire and Millennium were excellent. This is the weakest so far yet it is still a good read.

It charts the birth of Islam. The chronology is a little confusing: we open with the defeat in battle and death of the king of a Jewish kingdom in what is now the Yemen. Holland then takes us back to the recent histories of the Persian Empire and Constantinople. When we are back up to date we rush through Mohammed and on into the Ummayyads finishing with their annihilation by the Abbassids.

His thesis seems to be that this was the time when people of this region began to write down their religious beliefs; possible to protect them since they lived largely in the border area between the continually feuding Persian and 'Roman' empires. So he shows how the Zoroastrian priests of Persia start to write things down and then the project is enthusiastically taken up by the Jews of the area who develop the Torah. Justinian writes his laws, carefully based on scholarship to demonstrate their ancient provenance. The Bible is collected as a way of imposing orthodoxy on the feuding Christian sects of Constantine's empire although the hadiths amplifying the Koran (largely developed in a town thirty miles from the centre of Jewish learning) seem to be rather an attempt by the religious community to have an authority separate from the say-so if the Caliph.

What I found far more interesting (and frustrating) was the way he challenged the conventional view of Islamic history. Thus is a footnote on page 304 he claims that the concept of their being only a single version of the Koran dates back to 1924; before then it was largely accepted that there were seven 'readings'. The first mention of Mecca outside the Koran was in 741 (Mohammed died before 634). 'Mecca' is described as a significant trading town which presumably required significant agricultural resources: impossible for this remote part of the desert. The Koran itself is unmentioned in the early Islamic writings; it only mentions Mohammed four times.

And so he develops his thesis although he does little more than hint at it (whether this is because there is so little evidence in any direction or he is afraid of a Moslem backlash is not clear). The context for Mohammed's life and the development of his thought is on the borders of Palestine, perhaps in the Negev desert, where Arab tribes lived who were paid by the Romans to guard the borders of Palestine from the Persians. The holy city was originally in this region and was moved to Mecca well after Mohammed's death (there is evidence that the direction of prayer and the alignment of mosques moved). There were a number of ka'bas; the Arabs rather liked worshipping at cube-shaped shrines. Mohammed's teachings were originally thought to be a refinement of the Torah; thus the punishment for adultery changed from the Koranic prescription of 100 lashes to the Jewish stoning. A number of Islamic ideas came from Zoroastrians: for example Moslems were originally required to pray three times a day, Zoroastrians five.

And these revelations are shocking and exciting. However, Holland never really explains the chronologies carefully. Exactly when was the Koran first mentioned by another witness? And when was Mohammed first described? I wanted more dates and details even if certainty is impossible.

A fascinating appetiser. July 2012; 432 pages