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, 29 August 2016

"Surfing Uncertainty" by Andy Clark

This isn't a book for the general reader! Andy Clark is a professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Edinburgh University and a lot of this book deals with the latest ideas from Artificial Intelligence. So he is quite capable of writing "Computationally frugal solutions stressing embodiment, action, and the exploitation of bodily and environmental opportunities emerge quite naturally from a predictive processing (PP) framework involving cascading inference, internal generative models, and ongoing estimations of our own uncertainty." (p 112) and that is by no means the most difficult sentence you will encounter. On the other hand, there are moments when phrases such as "The profound cognitive entanglement of brain, body, and world" (p 83) make this book sound almost erotic.

But what really hit me was the brilliance of the ideas. And, geek that I am, ideas of this elegance which are capable of bearing as much fruit as these ideas can are ideas that I find mind-blowingly sexy.

For centuries, philosophers have alternated between the empiricist idea that all we know is what we learn from our senses, which pictures the brain as a fundamentally passive lump of jelly being bombarded by sensory data, and the solipsistic ideas that all we know is our thoughts and if there is a world out there is is one created by our fertile imaginations. It's, like, all in the mind, man.

The trouble is that there is powerful evidence for the latter point of view. For example, context dependent optical illusions where we interpret an ambiguous mark as, for example, a B or a 13 depending on whether the context has led us to expect a letter of a number. It seems clear that our expectations are shaping our perceptions. Seeing may be believing but, in cases like this, believing is seeing.One third of those told to listen to a degraded recording of White Christmas and to signal when the song started 'recognised' the onset of the song even though the tape contained nothing but white noise.

So Clark suggests that we do indeed think by sending a stream of predictions out into the world. These shape what we perceive and, indeed, direct our attention to seek evidence to confirm those predictions. But the sense data that then comes back in is (to some extent) different from our expectations so we generate an error message. We use this error message to refine our expectations.Clark suggests that generating predictions and then modifying them through error detection is a "computationally frugal" process which is used by at least one form of data compression. If we want to know what happens next when viewing a running man, rather than recompute every pixel we can simply move the entire image two pixels to the right, pick up the anomalies, and compute these few anomalous pixels. 

We know we do this. Our brains 'fill in' the blind spot in our visual field by making the assumption that the images around it are continued within it. Although our eyes move in lots of little jerks as we scan a scene, because our brain knows that our eyes are moving, and how they are moving, we make the appropriate adjustments and see the scene as stationary.We can use these expectations (which he calls hyperpriors when used globally) to fool ourselves. When we hear speech and see lips move we assume that the two are linked; this is how we are fooled by ventriloquists. "It is surprisingly easy ... to induce ... the illusion that a rubber hand, placed on the table in front of you, is your own. The illusion is created by ensuring the the subject can see someone tapping the realistic rubber hand, while (just out of sight) their own hand is being tapped in exact synchrony." (p 197)

Of course, the fact that we use expectations to shape and to select perceptions can lead to vicious circles. If Jill expects Jack to be angry she will selectively notice behaviours that reinforce her hypothesis, increasing her expectations. (p 73)But, excitingly, this model of the brain as being an active system, always interacting with the world, explains:
  • why we notice things that aren't there: "if we hear a regular series of beats and then a beat is omitted, we are perceptually aware (quite vividly aware) of its absence. Moreover, there is a familiar sensation of 'almost experiencing' the onset of the omitted item." (p 89)
  • imagination
  • dreaming: "During sleep, precise prediction errors are not generated [because there is no sense data], so the balance shifts towards the reduction of model complexity. Sleep may thus allow the brain to engage in synaptic pruning so as to improve (make more powerful and generalizable) the knowledge enshrined in the generative model." (p 101)
  • memory: "We are built to act in ways that are sensitive to the contingencies of the past, and that actively bring forth the futures that we need and desire." (p 111)
  • why you can't tickle yourself: "the feeling of ticklishness requires a certain element of surprise" (p 113) and therefore the generation of expectation prior to the performance of the action prevent such "self-predicted sensations" (p 114)
  • The role of 'mirror neurons' in empathising with other people: By deploying predictions "we may sometimes grasp the intentions of other agents" (p 139) by treating them as "context-nuanced versions of ourselves" (p 139). "Human infants, around the age of 4, possess not only a sense of themselves as individual agents with specific needs, wants, and beliefs but also a sense of others as distinct agents with their own needs, wants and beliefs. How might this be achieved? The discovery of 'mirror neurons' has seemed, to many, to deliver a substantial part of the answer." (p 151)
  • Placebo-based pain reduction
  • Schizophrenia: "Delusions and hallucinations ... might flow from ... falsely generated and highly weighted (high-precision) waves of prediction error ... it is the weighting (precision) assigned to these error signals that makes them so functionally potent, positioning them to drive the system into plasticity and learning, forming and recruiting increasingly bizarre hypotheses .. such as telepathy and alien control." (p 206) "Once such higher level stories take hold, now, low-level sensory stimulation may be interpreted falsely. When these new priors dominate, we may thus experience hallucinations that appear to confirm or consolidate them." (p 207) Schizophrenia may this stem from false error signals. This may in turn explain why they are less able to smoothly track with their eyes a moving object which is "one of the most widely replicated behavioral defects in schizophrenia" (pp 208 - 209 and why they are better able than neurotypical subjects to self-tickle (p 212).
  • Autism: "Autistic subjects are less susceptible to illusions in which prior knowledge is used to interpret ambiguous sensory information" (p 224). If prior knowledge is attenuated ie weaker hyperpriors ie less influence of context, subjects are likely to "treat more incoming stuff as signal and less as noise" (p 225)  which in turn will mean that "huge amounts of incoming information are treated as salient and worthy of attention, thus increasing effortful processing" (p 225) which is likely to "contribute to the emergence of a variety of self-protective strategies involving repetition, insulation, and narrowing of focus" (p 225). "The social domain is highly complex ... in which context ... is everything and in which the meaning of small verbal and non-verbal signs must be interpreted against a rich backdrop of prior knowledge" (p 225) which might explain why autistic subjects often have poor social skills.


And, as Clark himself points out, it is a delightful description of human consciousness. "The image of the brain as a probabilistic prediction machine ... requires us to abandon the last vestiges of the 'input-output' model according to which environmental stimuli repeatedly impinge upon a richly organized but essentially passive system. In its place we find a system that is constantly active, moving restlessly from one state of expectation to another, matching sensory states with predictions that harvest new sensory states in a rolling cycle." (p 139)

Yes, it is sometimes hard wading through the prose, but when you hit nuggets such as these you know there is gold in these here hills!

August 2016, 300 pages

Sunday, 28 August 2016

"Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Atwood

Another superb tale about another dystopian future by the author of The Handmaid's Tale and Hag-Seed.

The Snowman is, so far as he is aware, the last homo sapiens sapiens left in a world where the sun fries his skin, there is a daily thunderstorm, and the environment is populated by genetic mutations like vicious woolvogs, cute rakunks, sinister pigoons and snats (half snake, half rat). He lives in a tree by the sea shore near the Children of Crake, a new (genetically modified) human. The Snowman is their prophet, telling them all about Crake, their creator (literally in this case, Crake being the scientist who designed their genetic blueprint) and Oryx their teacher. Having run out of ammunition for his spray gun, he has to travel back to the research compound where he used to work, and live, to find supplies.

On the journey he travels back in his memory to his childhood, when he was Jimmy, his schooldays when he first met Crake and they both first saw Oryx, a child actor on an internet porn site, and his days when he worked as an advertiser for the research company for which Crake also worked. Commercial interests forced the world down the slippery slope of genetic modification and the law of unintended consequences was, as it always is, supreme.

And the ending is cliff-hanger perfect. What happens next?

It is, of course, the wonderful prose and the superb images it conjures, which put Margaret Atwood's science fiction megaparsecs ahead of the competition. This is literary fiction, justly shortlisted for the Booker in 2003 (it was quite a year, Vernon God Little won, Brick Lane and Notes on a Scandal were both on the shortlist).

Right from page one, Atwood's descriptions are precise and perfect:

  • "The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette ... rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon" (p 1)
  • "the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks" (p 1)
  • "the sky a bleached blue, except for the hole burnt in it by the sun" (p 13) 
  • "a picture of a pretty girl ... glaring out through smudgy charcoal eyes with a mean stare and her hair standing up stiff like quills" (p 19)
  • "She took very small bites, and managed to chew up the lettuce without crunching." (p 28)
  • "She talked like a shower-gel babe in an ad" (p 28)
  • "it began to mildew, and to smell tantalizingly of tomato soup" (p 43)
  • "This hearty way of talking was getting worse, as if his father was auditioning for the role of Dad, but without much hope." (p 58)
  • "Their singing is ... like ferns unscrolling - something old, carboniferous, nut at the same time newborn, fragrant, verdant. It reduces him." (p 122)
  • "She had a triangular face - big eyes, a small jaw - a Hymenoptera face, a mantid face, the face of a Siamese cat." (p 133)
  • "contemplating the pizza as if it were a jigsaw puzzle." (p 136)
  • "he'd roll around in their sympathy, soak in it, massage himself with it. It was a whole spa experience in itself." (p 224)
  • "Thumbsucking posterboy." (p 293)
  • "The virus ... looked like the usual melting gumdrop with spines." (pp 397 - 398)

Then there are her one-liners and thought-provoking ideas:
  • "Nobody nowhere knows what time it is" (p 1); I loved the assonance of no, no, no, like a diminuendo into misery
  • "'Two can play at that game,' said the man. 'Any number can play,' said Jimmy's father." (p 21)
  • "Old enough ... Such a dumb concept. Old enough for what? To drink, to fuck, to know better? What fathead was in charge of making those decisions?" (p 26)
  • "she just didn't want to put her neuron power into long sentences" (p 28)
  • "His time, what a bankrupt idea, as if he's been given a box of time belonging to him alone, stuffed to the brim with hours and minutes that he can spend like money. Trouble is, the box has holes in it" (p 44)
  • "If he wants to be an asshole, it's a free country. Millions before him have made the same life choice." (p 83)
  • "The body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its romance." (p 98)
  • "But if tomorrow is another day, what's today? The same day as it always is." (p 175)
  • She "pushed herself over the edge - actually, over the windowsill of her ten-storey-up apartment." (p 290)
  • He was "the joker among the twos and threes they'd been dealt in their real lives." (p 294)
  • "So this was the rest of his life. It felt like a party to which he's been invited, but at an address he couldn't actually locate. Someone must be having fun at it, this life of his; only, right at the moment, it wasn't him." (p 296)
  • "He liked to have a hand on Oryx: on her shoulder, her arm, her small waist, her perfect butt. Mine, mine, that hand was saying." (p 368)
  • "Good thing about sticks, they grow on trees." (p 390)
  • "Simon, you said a mouthful." (p 397)
  • "When the water's moving faster than the boat, you can't control a thing." (p 398)

There are moments when the dialogue is a master class in, err, dialogue. In this extract, Jimmy shows Oryx a picture of her in a porn movie when she was a little girl. (p 105)
"I don't think this is me," was what she'd said at first.
"It has to be!" said Jimmy. "Look! It's your eyes."
"A lot of girls have eyes," she said. "A lot of girls did these things. Very many." Then, seeing his disappointment, she said, "It might be me. Maybe it is. Would that make you happy, Jimmy?"
"No," said Jimmy. Was that a lie?
"Why did you keep it?"
"What were you thinking?" ...
"You think I was thinking?" she said. "Oh Jimmy! You always think everyone is thinking. Maybe I wasn't thinking anything."
This perfectly captures the sweet wistful voice of Oryx as well as the complexity of their sexual relationship; Jimmy's obsession with her past and her determination to live in the present.

Wonderful writing providing quality to a first class yarn: August 2016, 433 pages

Thursday, 25 August 2016

"Conflict, Arousal and Curiosity" by D. E. Berlyne

One of the classics of the last behavioral school, Berlyne focuses on the things that animals do when they are not directly trying to survive. As he puts it: "The higher mammals, at least, when temporarily freed from tasks connected with survival, will usually spend no more time on rest and inactivity than the minimum required for recuperation." (pp 4 - 5)

One of the joys about this book is that, while still addressing issues that are unresolved and are, indeed, of importance to psychology, you get the feeling that this is delightfully old fashioned (even his use of initials rather than a first name speaks to this, as well as the fact that he refers to humans of unspecified gender as 'he', he cites references from the nineteenth century as if they are still relevant, work on rats running through mazes form the mainstay of his evidence, and the Russians are major contributors to the field. He also ascribes drives to almost everything and gives wonderful names to things that have commoner names: play, for example, or recreation he calls "ludic behavior"!

This book felt very quaint at times.

But it is important. After all, as he points out, the leisure industry is vast and "ludic behavior ... may well affect prospects of survival ... animals will often not live long in captivity ... how long human beings survive after retirement is frequently thought to be influenced by whether they can keep themselves occupied." (p 6)

He suggests that play is a type of exploration and that "locomotor exploration appears to be universal among higher vertebrates." (p 104). What we want to do is to reduce uncertainty. We dislike uncertainty. People will watch election results all night even though they could go to sleep and "know the final outcome for certain almost at their next moment of consciousness" (p 206) He quotes Farber (1944): "prisoners who had hopes of a parole suffered much more than those who knew that they would never be released." (p 207) It made me think of the reactions of passengers whose flights have been delayed, seeking information as a priority, and the way bereaved relatives  are often desperate to know how and why their loved ones died. 

Animals are even prepared to take risks to satisfy their curiosity and learn information. He paints a beguiling image of young monkeys faced with a strange object in their cage who "will survey the object from a certain distance, apparently alert and delicately poised, perhaps even oscillating, between advance and withdrawal." (p 122). He tells us that "a fleeing animal will slow down or stop from time to time and look back at its pursuer" (p 114). He points out that we find fear fun and he cites fairground rides and horror films (p 198); this was written before bungee jumping took off (if you'll pardon the oxymoronic metaphor).

He is brilliant on art. "The art of all major civilizations shows fluctuations between the classical ideals of serenity, tranquillity, and discipline and the romantic taste for excitement, color, and drama. But the extreme cultivation of one extreme has been rare and usually followed by a violent swing in the opposite direction." (p 240) "The baroque work intentionally amazes with its continual deviations from the obvious, the straightforward, and the plain and by the very scale of its pretensions. As the eye runs along a line, the observer is left with a high uncertainty about what he will find around the corner, and his expectations come in for some jolts." (p 240) "Perplexity is resolved as the observer comes under the sway of the general texture and ceases to attach undue importance to its whimsical details." (p 241) "The fauve painters ... while foregoing the arousal value of ambiguity and complexity, they substituted the arousal value of gaudy coloring." (p 241)

Music, too, is analysed in terms of uncertainty and expectation. "The repetition of exactly the same sounds over and over again ... is, in fact, regularly used to build up excitement. This may be because of some primitive, physiological response to rhythmic reiteration, explaining its incantational use for the induction of mass irrational behavior or ecstatic states. But ... there is a mounting expectation that the repetition cannot go on for much longer, but it is not clear exactly when it will come to an end and what will replace it." (p 249) This made me think of Ravel's Bolero. But expectations also involve melody. "In modulating from one key to another: a chord which can belong to either key, and thus has an ambiguous status, is used to effect the transition" (p 250); modulation causes expectations not to be met creating "transient surprise and confusion" (p 250)

In literature "the curiosity of the reader or spectator is set astir and then satisfied." (p 253)

"The value of a joke ... depends on its formal structure, with the author alternately keeping in line with our learned anticipations and sharply diverging from them." (p 253) He points out that "the word 'funny' is also used to mean strange or perplexing." (p 259)

Despite its age, and 56 is ancient in social sciences, this book has many fascinating ideas and is deservedly a classic in its field.

August 2016; 303 pages

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

"Aunts aren't gentlemen" by P.G.Wodehouse

Bertie Wooster has spots on his chest and his doctor advises him to go down to the country for peace and quiet and fresh air and exercise. But at the cottage organised by his Aunt Dahlia he becomes embroiled in trying to fix a horse race by stealing a cat whilst simultaneously trying not to get married to an ex-fiancee who wants to improve him. In the end it takes his man Jeeves to sort out the mess.

Written as last as 1974 yet presumably set in that innocent inter-war period when it still mattered if you had been to Eton, this is classic Wodehouse. The joy is that it is written in the voice of Wooster, chivalrous but hapless man about town, who dilettantes about with foreign expressions and snatches of poetry but has never heard of Tolstoy. Time and again Wodehouse raises a chuckle by transforming the English language.

Cliches are renewed, often by the simple expedient of Wooster applying abbreviations, as when he explains how Porter "earned the daily b"; "so far ... so g".

He also renews cliches by simply replacing words so that 'I shuddered from head to toe' becomes "I shuddered from hair-do to shoe-sole".

He uses English history to illustrate concepts. When trying to make the point that red hair is associated with high blood pressure he says: "The first Queen Elizabeth had red hair, and look what she did to Mary Queen of Scots."

On the other hand he is sometimes hilariously ignorant. When asked if he has read 'Lord Chesterfield's Letters to his Son' he reflects "well, of course I hadn't. Bertam Wooster does not read other people's letters. If I were employed in the Post Office, I wouldn't even read the postcards."

He exaggerates images. A dour doctor has a face which resembles "a frog which has been looking on the dark side since it was a slip of a tadpole"; if Aunt Dahlia "ever turned into a werewolf, it would be one of those jolly breezy werewolves whom it is a pleasure to know." "He couldn't have been more emotional if he had been a big shot in the Foreign Office and I a heavily veiled woman diffusing a strange exotic scent whom he had caught getting away with the Naval Treaty"; "Talk of drawing his fangs. His dentist will have to fit him with a completely new set"; "Cook in his present frame of mind wouldn't recognise reason if you served it up to him in an individual plate with watercress round it".

He pretends not to know things. The blood pressure sphygmomanometer becomes "that rubber thing around my biceps"; "I wasn't a modern Casa something. Not Casabianca. That was the chap who stood on the burning deck. Casanova. I knew I'd get it.".

He interrupts the narrative to ask questions directly of the reader: "And with no further ado - or is it to-do? - I never can remember".

He can mix metaphors with aplomb: "What asses horses are"; "I am a good mixer who is always glad to shake hands with new faces".

He becomes literal with metaphor. ""She has been known to ask me if I have a home of my own and, if I have. why the hell I don't stay in it".

He is also literal with the English language: "there happened at the moment to be no passers-by but if any passers had been by ..."

These are just a few examples. The book is stuffed as full of these things as a goose whose liver is destined for foie gras. When you add in the elements of a classic farce and some utterly preposterous characters, Wodehouse is pure, escapist, comic gold.

August 2016; 184 pages

"The Eureka Effect" by David Perkins

This book, written for the general reader but tilted towards those who want to learn how to solve problems through greater creativity, describes what Perkins calls 'Breakthrough Thinking'.

Although Perkins describes the breakthroughs made by some great thinkers, such as Archimedes solving the problem of how to measure the volume of an irregular object such as a crown, Edison inventing the light bulb and Darwin discovering Evolution through Natural Selection, Perkins mainly concentrates on the sort of lateral thinking puzzles like solving the riddle of how the man died who was found dead in the desert with no marks around him and an unopened pack on his back. There are a lot of these sort of puzzles which are fun but seem to make the ideas Perkins is peddling seem slightly shallow and unimportant.

Perkins uses the metaphor of gold prospecting in the Klondike as an analogy to trying to find the solution to a puzzle. There is, he says, a vast wilderness of possibilities and sometimes the only way to find the treasure is to be "systematic about surveying all the possibilities". But often you are on a "clueless plateau" where there are  "no apparent clues to point in the direction of a solution" (p 47). The solution is to detect hidden clues by doing a search for "incongruities or other suspicious features" (p 54). (I suspect this might work better for the artificial puzzles that he sets up than in real life.) Part of the reason why searches may seem fruitless is that many people are trapped in a "narrow canyon of exploration" (p 47); their thoughts run in channels when they need to think outside the box. The solution is to reframe the problem, perhaps using perverse interpretations (I always want to obey signs saying wet paint). Finally people are lured towards an "oasis of false promise" (p 48) when you are nearly there but not quite so you hammer away at improvements without seeing that the solution lies, again, outside the box.

It is a delightful analogy but I am not sure that there was anything new here.

In a sense, the real meat can be found when he quotes the work of Davidson and Sternberg who suggested that there were three parts to insight:
  • select what is relevant 
  • compare new ideas with existing concepts
  • combine ideas in original ways

It is an interesting and engaging book but I think there is a lot more that could be said on this subject.

August 2016; 269 pages

Monday, 22 August 2016

"Shirley" by Charlotte Bronte

Written in 1848 but set in 1811 ish. The Napoleonic Wars are being fought in Portugal and Spain and the 'Orders in Council' mean that Robert Gerard Moore, a Belgian manufacturer of cotton goods who has a mill in Yorkshire, can't sell his goods. As he teeters on the edge of bankruptcy he installs machines so he can use child labour, throwing men out of work. The unemployed manage to break one of his deliveries of machines and he has one of the ringleaders sentenced to transportation. Tensions rise.

Meanwhile his cousin, Miss Caroline Helstone, who lives with her parson Uncle at the rectory following the death of her profligate father (who had been raising her on his own after her mother his wife left him) has fallen in love with Robert. He reciprocates her feelings but realises that he needs to marry a rich woman if he is going to avoid bankruptcy.

We are nearly a third of the way into the book before we meet the eponymous heroine, Shirley Keeldar. She has returned to Yorkshire having just come of age and come into possession of her inheritance, which includes the mill which Robert leases. Soon she is lending him money to keep him solvent and the penniless Caroline perceives a blossoming romance. Meanwhile Robert and Caroline's Uncle, the vicar, fall out over politics and they are forbidden from meeting. Will Caroline lose the love of her life to Shirley? Will she become an old maid? Will she find her mother? Will the rioters assassinate Robert? Will he go bankrupt?

In many ways this is a surprisingly modern book with its dual themes of industrial change causing hardship and woman's struggle against the constraints imposed upon them by men.

Shirley is a wonderfully strong woman character. Right from her first appearance she assumes the character of a man, having a man's name (this was the first appearance of the name Shirley as a first name and Bronte explains that it was a family name bestowed upon her by her parents because they hoped for a boy) demanding to be seen as magistrate, churchwarden, captain of yeomanry and squire; stating how much she loves trade and considering a partnership with Robert Moore the mill owner. She is a stark contrast to demure Caroline, suggesting that the difference in their characters (Shirley is active, Caroline passive) is down to their money rather than their genders. They are perfectly reflected by the men: the headstrong mill owner Robert who rides around the country defying and prosecuting rioters (he is always in motion, like his mill: there is a lovely scene of him in his counting house with a quill pen; he "stripped away the feathered top in a brief spasm of finger-fury") and his brother Louis, a tutor, undergoing "the very arduous and very modest career of a teacher" (p 48),  penniless, subservient to and constrained by the family of Shirley's cousin.

Other characters also come symmetrically. Caroline's uncle is a dominant vicar who leads his parishioners on a parade which charges the protesting non-conformists in a nice mirror of the next chapter when rioting workers attack Robert's mill; Mr Helstone is thus contrasted beautifully with the ineffectual Revd Hall. However, Hall is a sweet saint while privately at home Helstone is a heartless man who ignored his wife once he had won her till she withered away and is cold to his niece.

The structure of the book is a little strange. It starts in media res with  Revd Helstone, "keen as a kite" (p 9), summoning his curate, the belligerent Irishman Malone, to the mill where an attack is feared. Malone drinks Moore's spirits while the rioters ambush the delivery of his machines and destroy them; Moore and Helstone have to ride to the rescue of the shanghaied delivery men to find they have already been rescued by the Jacobinical local landowner Mr Yorke who offers hospitality only to order Moore and Helstone out of his house following a political disagreement. Exciting stuff. But then the pace slows as Caroline is introduced and we become aware of the lover sprouting between Moore and herself. He walks her home but knows he cannot propose because he needs to marry an heiress. He will control himself: "the frenzy [of love] is quite temporary. I know it very well. I have had it before. It will be gone tomorrow." (p 73)

Then  finally Shirley arrives, to befriend Caroline but at the same time to threaten her relationship with Moore. This is a time of sadness when all other potential suitors are seen as idiots through Caroline's eyes (we will later experience Shirley's disdain of men she does not respect or does not love). Mr Helstone tells Caroline the matrimony is a trap; that people suffer and (perhaps naively) she asks whether he was unhappy with her aunt (he was, at least she was unhappy with him) and, in a classic avoid the question political defence he tells he "it is vulgar and puerile to confound generals with particulars. In every case there is the rule and there are the exceptions. Your questions are stupid and babyish. Ring the bell, if you have done breakfast." (p 77) (That last sentence being a master class in adding authenticity to the 'author's message!). She visits an old maid who is ugly and therefore has been forced to do good all her life and pities her. Somewhat later Caroline is told that love "is very bitter. It is said to be strong - strong as death! Most of the cheats of existence are strong. As to their sweetness, nothing is so transitory; its date is a moment, the twinkling of an eye. The sting remains for ever. It may perish with the dawn of eternity, but it tortures through time into its deepest night."(p 284)

This meanders on. Just over half way through the book comes the big riot culminating in an armed attack on the mill. And then at around the two thirds mark the mystery of Caroline's mother is solved whilst Caroline lies seriously ill. This is a low point: the resolution is pure melodrama: "you are mine - my daughter - my own child." With that out of the way the fourth party in the love quadrangle can be introduced. Louis Moore, the tutor brother of Robert, appears just before Caroline gets sick, but he only moves to centre stage afterwards. Although he is subservient and mild, Bronte uses Shirley's dog to show that Louis has some depth; aside from Shirley, the dog only follows Louis.

Now we are nearly at the three-quarters mark and at last Shirley starts getting marriage offers. She refuse the first but will she refuse them all? Is she holding out for Moore? And finally we are into the last part of the book which resolves around the problem that penniless men cannot honourably propose to wealthier women whilst at the same time women cannot propose to men. Moore himself, having disappeared on business to London for a huge chunk of the book, on hold while other issues are being resolved, returns after 83% of the book has gone, full of plans to be a better person, only to be shot and sent wounded to bed for the next forty pages. Finally, at the 90% mark, matrimonial matters can finally be resolved.

Bronte is surprisingly left wing. She criticises Moore, likened to Coriolanus, because "he did not sufficiently care when the new inventions threw the old workpeople out of employ. He never asked himself where those to whom he no longer paid weekly wages found daily bread" (p 22) (although she appreciates the financial pressures he is under; if he doesn't modernise he will lose his competitive edge and go out of business and all the workpeople will be unemployed) and towards the end of the book we discover that he is resolved to mend his ways and become a better employer. Helstone fulminates against the employers and demands "vigorous government interference, strict magisterial vigilance; when necessary, prompt military coercion" but Mr Yorke in the next paragraph wonders "whether this interference, vigilance, and coercion would feed those who were hungry, give work to those who wanted work" (pp 40 - 41). She sympathises with the children who work at Moore's mill, running through snow-storms to work, fined for being late, allowed half an hour for breakfast at eight o'clock. Caroline says "I cannot help thinking it unjust to include all poor workingpeople under the general and insulting name of 'the mob', and continually to think of them and treat them haughtily. ... it would be better for you to be loved by your workpeople than to be hated by them" (p 70 ... p 71) She also criticises the mercantile class: "All men, taken singly, are more or less selfish, and taken in bodies, they are intensely so ... the mercantile classes illustrate it strikingly. These classes certainly think too exclusively of making money." (p 127) "Whoever is not in trade is accused of eating the bread of idleness, of passing a useless existence." (p 128) Furthermore: "certain sets of human beings are very apt to maintain that other sets should give up their lives to them and their service." (p 133) "For those who are not hungry, it is easy to palaver about the degradation of charity." (p 200)

She also pushes the feminist angle, most notably in the almost tomboyish character of Shirley (who is, however, longing for a man strong enough to rule her). Of one suitor she says, memorably, "We were born in the same year; consequently he is still a boy, while I am a woman - ten years his senior to all intents and purposes" (p 460) And even the girls are feminists: When little Jessy is told "it becomes all children, especially girls, to be silent in the presence of their elders" she enquires "Why have we tongues then? ... And why especially girls?" (p 118)

There are moments when you feel that Bronte would have been better with a good editor. The Yorke's have five children and each of their characters is dissected. But, for the point of view of the plot, only Martin is necessary. The others add a little colour perhaps, some clever lines, but the purpose of Mark seems to be to enable Bronte to give the dictionary definition of 'sentimental'! This was a low point in the book.

I have mentioned my pet hate before in this blog and I will mention it again. Bronte uses a lot of untranslated French. My edition had fantastic end notes but you lose the flow when you keep flicking back and forth.

There are some brilliant quotes:

  • Shirley does have perhaps my favourite chapter heading of all time (18): "Which the genteel reader is recommended to skip, low persons being here introduced."
  • The rectory is described as "a windowed grave" (p 299); a nun is described as "mist-pale" (p 386)
  • Bronte offers contraceptive advice: "I would advise all young ladies ... to study the characters of such children as they chance to meet with before they have marry and have any of their own." (p 310)
  • When Caroline gets ill it may be because "some sweet, poisoned breeze, redolent of honey-dew and miasma, had passed into her lungs and veins" (p 312)

This was a long book. The plotting is difficult and the pace extraordinarily uneven; two of the four main characters are introduced surprisingly late in the proceedings, one is removed from the scene for a long time. It veers between a love story and a comment on social conditions. The sub-plot of Caroline's mother is superfluous and allows the book to descend into melodrama. But Shirley is a wonderful heroine and generally the characterisations are strong; in this respect I thought the book superior to Jane Eyre in which, apart from Jane, many of the supporting cast are little better than types. This would be a brilliant book if it were pruned.

August 2016; 482 pages

Friday, 19 August 2016

"The Winter's Tale" by William Shakespeare

Spoiler alert: This review is written as if you have seen the play. I watched it a few years ago at Milton Keynes and then again on 6th August 2016 at RADA (the Youth Company production) in which Caleb Obadiah was brilliant as Camillo and Ernesto Reyes-Fox as Florizel but Pheobe Hutchinson as Paulina gave a fabulous performance that defined the role for me.

Jeanette Winterson has written a great novel based on The Winter's Tale called The Gap of Time.

This really isn't Shakespeare at his best. It isn't just that he mucks up the business about what Florizel is wearing. The moments of dramatic spectacle when Antigonus is chased by a bear and when Hermione's 'statue' comes to life seem rather forced. There are key points which grip: the wonderful fractured poetry of Leontes as he becomes obsessed with jealousy, when the happy atmosphere of the court is torn apart; the pivotal moment during Hermione's trial when the oracle is read, Leontes blasphemes, his son dies, he realises his jealousies are ill-founded and Hermione (apparently) dies; the moment Florizel is about to marry Perdita and his father throws of his disguise to ban the nuptials. But why, why, why, oh why did Shakespeare put the crucial recognition scene off-stage?

As usual Shakespeare mingles comedy and drama. There's little humour at the start, in the grip of Leontes and his jealousy, but the moment that Antigonus is chased off the Shepherd and the Clown start playing for laughs, and then Autolycus the trickster arrives. These three get the audience laughing again just after Perdita's recognition is reported, before Hermione comes back to life.

The best poetry comes from Leontes but the best character is the wonderful Paulina.

Act One: After a short scene in prose in which Camillo and another character give the back story we are straight onto the meat. Polixenes, King of Bohemia has been staying with Leontes, King of Sicily. They were childhood friends. But Leontes decides that his queen, Hermione, is too friendly with Polixenes and suddenly suspects that the two of them are having an affair; he suspects the paternity of the baby Hermione is carrying. Camillo, his most trusted servant, cannot persuade him he is wrong and therefore agrees to poison Polixenes but, getting cold feet, he warns Polixenes and the two of the flee back to Bohemia.

Leontes tries to persuade his friend and brother king Polixenes to extend his visit to Sicily but Polixenes repeatedly refuses. So Leontes asks his wife and queen, the very pregnant Hermione to help. But when she manages to persuade Polixenes to stay he suddenly becomes miffed; he has been watching them and thinks their friendship is more than it seems. He becomes irrationally convinced that they are having an affair:
... Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
... my heart dances,
But not for joy, not joy. ...!
He is jealous of their "paddling palms and pinching fingers"

He calls Mamillius, his little son, to him and remarks how much the boy looks like him (although he is not 100% convinced, saying "We are/ Almost as like as eggs. Women say so,/ That will say anything"), reassuring himself of the boy's paternity. Then, in a wonderful speech where the words are disjointed and tumbling and the ideas are disjointed and tumbling and full of word play and metaphors, a speech that betrays his fevered uncertainty, he concludes that he has been cuckolded by Polixenes and Hermione and the child she is about to bear is not his. "It is a bawdy planet" he decides
And many a man there is, even at this present,

Now, while I speak of this, holds his wife by th' arm,
That little thinks she has been sluic'd in 's absence,
And his pond fish'd by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour

Now he speaks privately with Camillo, his servant, and tells him his fears: "My wife is slippery ... My wife's a hobby-horse" but Camillo doesn't believe it and Leontes, angrily asks:
... Is whispering nothing?

Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? ...
... Horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift?
Hours minutes? Noon midnight? ...
... is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that's in 't is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.

Who? asks Camillo and Leontes says: "Why, he that wears her like a medal, hanging,/ About his neck"

Then Leontes persuades Camillo to poison Polixenes and Camillo agrees, on condition that afterwards Leontes forgives Hermione. But after Leontes has gone, Camillo realises that those who assassinate royalty never prosper and, meeting Polixenes, tells him about the suspicions of Leontes and what Camillo has promised to do and persuades Polixenes to flee back to Bohemia, taking Camillo with him.

For me, this scene had the best poetry of the play, full of caesurae and enjambments, reflecting the turbulent and broken unreason of Leontes.

Act Two: After such a dramatic start we have to breathe. Act 2 starts with a scene of cosy domesticity in which Maximilius, the little prince, is teasing his mother's servants and telling a story to his mum. But Leontes enters, in a rage having heard the news of Camillo's flight, which serves to confirm his suspicions and, having had the boy removed to a safe place, accuses his wife of adultery. She is astonished. Is this some sort of joke? Had anyone else accused her he would have been evil but her sweet lord must only be mistaken. But Leontes is adamant. His only concession is that he agrees to consult the oracle at Delphi. So Hermione is taken to prison where her baby daughter is born. Leontes commands his servant Antigonus to take the child and abandon it in a foreign land.

Act Three: Starts with Hermione's trial. At the end of it she appeals to the oracle. This is the pivotal moment of the play and suddenly everything happens in just a few lines. The oracle pronounces Hermione innocent but Leontes says it lies. Immediately he has spoken this blasphemy (the very next line) a servant enters with news that his son, Maximilius, is dead. Leontes immediately repents but Hermione falls to the floor. She is taken away and Pualine swiftly returns to announce that she is dead. Leontes has lost his friend and fellow king, his son, his wife, and his new baby daughter. Dramatic brilliance.

We move to the shore of Bohemia. Some people think this betrays Shakespeare's ignorance (Bohemia has no coast) or carelessness, others believe that he deliberately swapped Sicily and Bohemia to emphasise the unreality of the play.

Antigonus lands, bearing the baby whom he names Perdita. Having put her on the ground he is chased away (and eaten, off stage) by a bear. Perdita is found by an unnamed Shepherd. Some young lads have scattered his sheep and he is angry: "I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest: for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting. Hark you now: would any but these boiled brains of nineteen and two-and-twenty hunt this weather?" Then he discovers Perdita: "a barne! A very pretty barne. A boy or a child, I wonder? ... Sure, some scape ... this has been some stair-work, some trunk-work, some behind-door-work. They were warmer that got this than the poor thing is here." His son, an unnamed Clown, comes along and tells him that Antigonus has been eaten by the bear and that the ship he came in has sunk. Then they discover the gold in the box.

Act Four: Starts with Time doing a Chorus in which he tells us that 16 years have passed. But the main action is the sheep-shearing feast at which Florizel, the King's son, declares his love for Perdita (and she for him) but King Polixenes (attending the party in disguise to find out what his son has been doing, truanting from court to dally with the daughter of a mysteriously rich shepherd) threatens the Shepherd and Clown with death, Perdita with cosmetic surgery to make her ugly and Florizel with disinheritance. At which point Camillo persuades Florizel and Perdita to run off to Sicilia so he can get the King to chase after them so that he, Camillo, can get to go home. Then Autolycus, a con man and pick pocket, persuades the Clown and the Shepherd to follow the King bearing their proofs that Perdita is not part of their family (so they escape punishment). All is set for the final showdown.

Unfortunately, this bit doesn't really work because Florizel appears in peasant's disguise at the start of the scene and then he chages clothes with Autolycus to ... disguise himself as a peasant, and Autolycus is now dressed as a courtier to impress the Clown and the Shepherd. Shakespeare got this wrong.

Act Five: Florizel and Perdita go to Leontes with Polixenes in hot pursuit and the Shepherd and the Clown pursuing them. Bizarrely, the revelation scene happens off stage and is reported by 'gentlemen' to Autolycus: the proofs the Shepherd had have enabled Perdita to be acknowledged as Leontes' princess and heir so Polixenes is OK about Florizel marrying her.

And in the last scene the whole court decamps to a house in town which Paulina has been visiting two or three times a day for sixteen years (without exciting any suspicion until now). Here there is a marvellous statue of Hermione, exactly as she was but with added wrinkles, which they all admire. Then the statue moves. It is Hermione, preserved. Everyone is very happy.

August 2016

Saturday, 13 August 2016

"The Perks of Being a Wallflower" by Stephen Chbosky

This is a teen novel whose young hero, Charlie, is a strange lad who cries a lot and has had psychiatric problems in the past. It is an epistolary novel in the sense that it is all done in letters that Charlie writes to an unnamed friend.

Charlie should be in senior year but has been kept down a year. He has no real friends. Even his sister (who he sees having sex with her boyfriend) thinks he is a pervert (and his brother leaves home at the start of the novel to go to college where he plays football). Charlie gradually makes friends, particularly Patrick who kisses Brad but Brad doesn't want anyone to know he is gay so Patrick has to keep the relationship secret, and Patrick's sister Sam, on whom Charlie has an enormous crush, and Bob who sells Charlie weed, and Mary Elizabeth who is Charlie's first date. And Charlie does all the normal things that teenage boys do, partying, smoking weed, drinking beer, fooling around, reading book after book after book recommended by his English teacher, dating, dancing, listening to music, learning to drive, accompanying Patrick to a park so that Patrick can have anonymous gay sex with strangers, accompanying his sister to the abortion clinic, acting in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. But all the time this strange narrator has a different take on life. He is so sensitive and so caring that in the end Sam says: "It's great that you can listen and be a shoulder to someone, but what about when someone doesn't need a shoulder. What if they need the arms or something like that?" In short, Charlie is a wallflower.

It starts with the ominous news that Michael, one of Charlie's friends, is dead. "Dave with the awkward glasses told us that Michael killed himself." The counsellors "were afraid that some of us would try to kill ourselves or something because they looked very tense and one of them kept touching his beard." One of the delights about the book is that it is full of little observations like Dave-with-the-awkward-glasses and kept-touching-his-beard. I loved them! One boy, for example "has very nice brown hair, and he wears it long with a ponytail. I think he will regret this when he looks back on his life." Brilliant.

Unlike so many US novels which seem to have perfect families, Charlie's seems real. They have Thanksgiving at his grandfather's who is very fat and makes his wife cry and lock herself in the bathroom so that Charlie's cousins have "to go to the bathroom outside in the bushes" which makes him feel sad for his girl cousins who can't. Charlie can sense that his father doesn't like granddad and it appears that granddad his his daughters, Charlie's mother and Aunt Helen. Aunt Helen is a continual presence for Charlie despite or because of the fact that she was killed in a car accident on Christmas Eve (Charlie's birthday) when she was buying Charlie two presents.

Charlie's sister is on the edges of the action, having her own problems with boys (and getting pregnant). "My sister was the one who told me where babies come from. My sister was the one who laughed when I immediately asked her where babies go to."

Soon Charlie himself is fooling around with Mary Elizabeth although he doesn't really like her (he is really just being polite, trying to be a good friend although he doesn't really understand that he needs to be honest to do that): "All I could do was lie there and think about ... how much my arm was beginning to hurt. Thank God we heard the automatic garage door opening when we did."

There is a lovely moment when Charlie goes to the mall and, wallflower like, observes the people there. "Old men sitting alone. Young girls with blue eye shadow and awkward jaws. Little kids who looked tired. Fathers in nice coats who looked even more tired. Kids working behind the counters of the food places who looked like they hadn't had the will to live for hours. The machines kept opening and closing. The people kept giving their money and getting their change." A little kid gets lost in the mall. "Anyway, this older kid, who was really tough-looking with a leather jacket and long hair and everything, went up to the little boy and asked him what his name was." For a moment you worry about stranger danger but, in a nice if predictable twist, the tough kid is a good Samaritan who takes the little kid to the information desk where he is reunited with a grateful and tearful mum "She thanked the older kid who had helped, and all the older kid said was. 'Next time just watch him a little fucking better'." Now that's a great twist!

In the end, the theme of the book can be summarised by a conversation between Sam and Charlie:
"'Charlie, you're so stupid sometimes. Do you know that?'
'Yeah. I really do. Know that. Honest.'"

In some ways this is a bit like Adrian Mole growing up in America. It is a delightful book with some brilliant moments but a feeling of imminent doom (following Michael's suicide) throughout the book. Charlie is, after all, seriously weird. Is he going to come through the ordeals of growing up unscathed? At the almost exact half way point he reads to the assembled throng a poem about a straight A student slashing his wrists, listens to the sounds of Sam, the girl he adores, and her boyfriend Craig having sex and thinks, "for the first time in my life I understood the end of that poem. And I never wanted to. You have to believe me." And that is the end of part 2 and you think (not for the first or the last time, 'Oh shit').

August 2016, 231 pages

Other great teen novels reviewed in this blog are:
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Paper Towns by John Green

Thursday, 11 August 2016

"The News from Waterloo" by Brian Cathcart

After Wellington had defeated Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo, Wellington had to write an official dispatch before sending it, via horse, coach, sailing boat, rowing boat and finally coach again, to London. In London the government and the Stock market worried. Since his escape from Elba Napoleon seemed unstoppable. The Government had raised a loan of an unprecedented £36 million (in the form of a loan called an Omnium, which is presumably where Trollope got his name for the Duke of the Palliser novels) to pay for a new army just days before and many bankers had their fortunes at risk if Wellington lost. But there was no instant communication, even the optical telegraph which the Admiralty had installed during the recent hostilities had been decommissioned after Napoleon's first defeat. It was 16 hours after the result of the battle that the dispatch was handed to Henry Percy at 1 PM on Monday 19th June; he reached London at 11 PM on Wednesday 21st June; it took 58 hours for the news to travel.

This was a time when newspapers didn't have reporters in the field (only Parliamentary correspondents) so the only unofficial sources of news were:

  • Mr Sutton who had heard the news of Quatre Bras, the Napoleon Wellington skirmish 48 hours before Waterloo that ended in a draw (and Wellington falling back) which Sutton misinterpreted as an allied victory, telling London on Tuesday morning.
  • The Green Knight of Kerry who spoke with Wellington after Quatre Bras and therefore knew the true situation
  • The mysterious Mr C who was at the exiled court of the French King in Ghent when he heard the news of Waterloo and rushed to London, arriving Wednesday morning.
  • And possibly an unknown informant of Nathan Rothschild who enabled the banker to buy government stock and make a profit

Cathcart, who also wrote even more brilliant The Fly in the Cathedral, tells these stories in an authoritative but fantastically clear and readable way. He debunks many myths. People just didn't use carrier pigeons in those days. Rothschild wasn't on the battlefield. Rothschild didn't start by selling shares causing a massive panic before buying loads up (the stock market records show no such panic). David Ricardo, however, made sufficient money to retire from promoting stocks and, working with his friend Thomas Malthus who also made money, found Economics as a science. The myths debunked, there is a still a remarkably dramatic story.

And one mystery is left: who was Mr C?

Great history. August 2016; 297 pages

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstadter

    I first read started reading this book shortly after its publication in the early 1980s. I gave up. I started it again in the 2000s. I gave up. In 2016 I started and finished it.
    Was it worth it?
    In 20 chapters Hofstadter attempts to teach the elements of Typographical Theory and therefore to (a) explain Godel's Incompleteness Theorem (b) lay down some rules for developing Artificial Intelligence. Along the way he tries to explore the concept of Strange Loops, recursive propositions that are self referential and paradoxical, such as "This statement is false". In order to help the general reader get anywhere near these difficult ideas he uses the art of Escher, which is full of self-reference and paradox, and the structure of a musical fugue such as those developed by Bach. He also intersperses every heavyweight chapter with a diversion, such as a dialogue between Achilles and a Tortoise (also involving a Crab, an Anteater and the Author) or the Jabberwocky in three languages.
    Well I really enjoyed the diversions, which gave me some basic understanding of Hofstadter's arguments, and I enjoyed a lot of the more heavyweight stuff, although I skipped quite a lot too and there were bits that I frankly didn't understand.
    A lot of the music stuff was really interesting and I learned about fugues, hemiolas, canons, organ points, strettos and fermatas. 
    He made a lot of interesting points such as that "Intelligence loves patterns and baulks at randomness. For most people, the randomness in Cage's music requires much explanation ... whereas with much of Bach, words are superfluous.In that sense Bach's music is more self-contained than Cage's music." (p 175)
    A brilliant attempt to make a really hard subject accessible which nearly worked for me and no doubt has enlightened many cleverer than myself.
    August 2016; 680 pages

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

"Muse" by Jessie Burton

Odelle from Trinidad has lived in London for five years working in a shoe shop with her best friend Cynth, hating feet and London and the casual English racism and longing to be a writer. Then, in 1967, she gets a dream job in an art gallery and she meets Lawrie who has a painting with a dubious provenance to sell. She falls in love with him, although that path has the usual bumps along the way. But is he honest? Is the painting what it seems?

Interspersed with this narrative is the story of Olive, living in the south of Spain with her neurotic mother and her art dealing father. Olive longs to paint but her father insists women cannot be great painters. They are staying on the Duquesa's farm, being looked after by Teresa whose half-brother Isaac is a wannabe painter himself. But the Spanish civil war is looming ...

I loved Odelle's story, told in perfect dialogue and with a really fresh insight into the time. The mystery of the painting and the strange behaviour of her boss, Quick, was a lovely puzzle. So I found the Spanish bits distracting.

But at the start, she hooked me straight away with her first paragraph:
"Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve. Many moments that change a life's course - a conversation with a stranger on a ship, for example - are pure luck. And yet, no one writes you a letter, or chooses you as their confessor, without good reason. This is what she taught me: you have to be ready in order to be lucky. You have to put your pieces into play."

And, still on the first page, we are introduced to the wonderful Cynth, no more than a bit part but with unmistakable dialogue: "'Girl, you got to pick your face up,' Cynth would whisper. 'Or you working in the funeral parlour next door?" And later, when Odelle puts on airs: "Cynth would say, 'Oh, because I some sheep and you so clever?'"Nevertheless, Odelle decides that she is "not going to to put shoes on sweaty Cinderellas for the rest of my life." Sweaty Cinderellas! What a wonderful phrase!

And when she meets the boy she fancies, her emotions are summed up in the beautiful line: "My kneecaps porridge, jaw tingling, no hope to swallow." Wow!

Odelle was a virgin before she met Lawrie (in Trinidad, as a schoolgirl, she and her circle viewed those girls with boyfriends as strange exotic beasts and disdain: "Sex was beneath us, because it was beyond us.")

The Spain story starts brilliantly, with the image of a woman in bed after a heavy night before, her clothes tumbled everywhere including "stockings like sloughed snakes".

There is just one moment I wasn't so sure of. When Olive is talking to Teresa she uses the word apogee; "Teresa heard the unusual word, and thought Olive had said apology." Using the rule of 'show don't tell' I thought this would have been better done in dialogue.

Aside from that insubstantial quibble, this was a beautifully written book with a strong plot and great characterisation. I wasn't one hundred per cent convinced by the eventual actions of the characters (Odelle loves snooping but is really bad at it, she always gets caught, but the other characters seem to want to leave clues lying around) and it seemed to me that more could have been made of the strange and elusive behaviour shown at times but that might have made it more of a thriller and less of a good read.

A good book with some brilliant lines. August 2016, 441 pages

Written by the author of The Miniaturist, a story with a rather disturbing and ultimately unresolved theme, set in seventeenth century Holland.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

"Playing with Fire" by Tess Gerritsen

This thriller starts brilliantly. The protagonist, Julia, a second violinist, finds an unpublished waltz in a Rome junk shop run by "a little gnome of a man with eyebrows like snowy caterpillars." The shop is unnaturally cold and as she reads the music "the hairs suddenly rise on my arms". As she leaves the shop she notices "twin gargoyles perched above the pediment" and a "brass Medusa-head knocker". Spooky!

Back home in America she starts to play the music as her three year old daughter, Lily, plays with the cat. When the music has stopped she discovers that the cat has been stabbed with the garden fork that the daughter is holding. All this happens in the first eight pages and, if you aren't utterly hooked by now, you will be when Julia plays the music again and finds herself stabbed with broken glass. There is mental illness in her family (her mother killed her baby brother) and psychiatrists start testing Lily to see whether there is any reason for her to be doing this. Julia is starting to believe that it is the music that is causing the problems (it uses "devil's chords [which were ] ... considered evil and banned from church music" in the middle ages), perhaps supernaturally, and she starts an obsessive quest for the composer. Julia's husband Rob (he absolutely has to be an accountant so there can be instant and easy conflict between a numbers type and an arty type) is worried by this obsession, convinced of his daughter's sanity (shades here of We Need to Talk About Kevin) and, suspecting that Julia herself might be imagining the attacks, wants to send her to a mental hospital.

This is gripping stuff.

And then we suddenly break from this thrilling tale to go to Venice in 1936 where Jewish violinist Lorenzo is practising for a duet with Laura Balboni, falling in love as the fascist storm clouds gather. Lorenzo is, of course, the author of the music. This is a sweet interlude, with menacing overtones, but the change of pace is so sudden. I was racing along scherzo furioso and suddenly we switch to adagio dolcissimo.

It never really regains the intensity of those first few chapters. We switch back to Julia and thriller mode as she travels to Venice to find the answers and out of the blue she is being shot at by hoodlums and there appears to be a conspiracy against her. Classic thriller territory. Which, given the excitement and the potential of the start, was actually a little bit disappointing.

August 2016; 314 pages

Friday, 5 August 2016

"Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This influential book analyses what makes people happy. To do this he first divides pleasure (by which Csikszentmihalyi means the satisfaction of biological urges such as hunger, lust, fatigue etc) from enjoyment. Pleasure restores one to equilibrium but enjoyment, for Csikszentmihalyi, develops one. And the 'optimal experience' which gives enjoyment is 'flow'. Flow gives:
  • " a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment" (p 3)
  • "the best moments in our lives ... when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile." (p 3)

Most of us have solved "the basic problems of survival" and have moved up Maslow's hierarchy to try to make meaning of our lives and stifle our "ontological anxiety, or existential dread." (p 12) Flow gives us a purpose.

This is what flow is like:
  • "You are totally involved" (p 53)
  • "You aren't thinking of yourself as separate from the immediate activity." (p 53)
  • "I sort of lose touch with the rest of the world, I'm totally absorbed in what I'm doing." (p 53)
  • "one forgets oneself, one forgets everything" (p 63)
In flow "concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted." (p 71)

A flow activity needs to involve challenge and skill and these need to be matched. If we start off with low skills and a low challenge (in flow) and we work hard we soon arrive at a situation when we have higher skills. We will become bored unless we now raise the challenge. If we raise the challenge too much we will become anxious and will have to work hard to develop our skills to return ourselves to flow. So, by trying to maintain  the  flow state, we develop our skills and challenge ourselves more and more; in short we improve.

Csikszentmihalyi believes that we can all do this. He gives examples of workers in routine, boring jobs who, by turning what they have to do into a challenge and constantly seeking to improve, turn boredom into fun. He quotes paraplegics who see their accident as the thing that gave meaning to their lives ("accepting limitations is liberating" (p 179)) and helped them turn from bored ordinary people to become leaders. He examples blind people and vagrants. Some of these stories are inspirational.

But you have to be active. For example, "Everything the body can do is potentially enjoyable." (p 95) and this means sports and sex. "The body is like a probe full of sensitive devices that tries to obtain what information it can from the awesome reaches of space. It is through the body that we are related to one another and to the rest of the world. ... what we tend to forget is how enjoyable it can be." (pp 115 - 116) But "instead of doing it personally, most people are content to hear about it or watch a few experts perform it." [that seems to equate watching the Olympics on TV with watching porn!] (p 102) "Vicarious participation is able to mask ... the underlying emptiness of wasted time. But ... passive entertainment leads nowhere. Collectively we are wasting each year the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness." (pp 162 - 163)

You can also just look and listen but again you have to be active: "occasionally people stop to 'feast their eyes' ... but they do not cultivate systematically the potential of their vision." (p 107) "Like a photographer looks at a sky and says, 'This is a Kodachrome sky. Way to go, God. You're almost as good as Kodak.'" (p 108).

Some brilliant quotes:
  • "it is very difficult for parents to compensate for the poverty of opportunities in the culture at large." (p 183)
  • "What can a strong, vital, intelligent fifteen-year-old do in your typical suburb?" (p 183)
  • "How can we expect people who are ill, impoverished, or stricken by adversity to control their consciousness?" (p 192)
  • "'When I became paraplegic, it was like being born again ... I had to become part of the environment, and use it without trying to control it.'" (p 194)
  • "'The lion, when he runs after a pack of gazelles, can only catch them one at a time." (p 197)
This is an easy to read and life-affirming book. 

August 2016; 240 pages

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

"The Strangest Man" by Graham Farmelo

This is the biography of Paul Dirac, the mathematical physicist whose work, with Heisenberg laid the theoretical foundations of quantum theory, who synthesised quantum physics and special relativity to develop quantum electrodynamics, and who predicted the positron and anti-matter. He shared the Nobel Prize with Schrodinger and was, at the time, the youngest recipient of the Physics prize.

He was famously taciturn; so much so that fellow students invented a unit called the dirac to represent the smallest imaginable amount of conversation, one word per hour.

He was also famously scruffily dressed. I used to cite him as an example whenever people came up with the dictum "Dress smart, think smart."

I was inspired to read this book having read the brilliant The Fly in the Cathedral by Brian Cathcart which explores the background to Cockcroft and Walton splitting the atom. The Strangest Man is a stunning biography. Not only does Farmelo manages to make quantum physics accessible, at least in its generalities; not only does he describes the intoxicating excitement of the early days of discovery with Heisenberg and Einstein and Schrodinger, when Gottingen University was one pole and Bohr's Copenhagen the other; but he also charts the dreadful consequences of the Second World War, when Schrodinger had to hide in Dublin having initially endorsed Nazism, when Dirac's best friend Kapitza was kept in Moscow by Stalin, always fearing that Beria might arrest him and have him killed, when Heisenberg was working for the Nazis and Bohr was in occupied Denmark, and Dirac's sister, an Englishwoman married to a Jew, was in occupied Amsterdam. Then there are the days of McCarthyism when Dirac's left wing politics had him banned from America while his friend Oppenheimer, who had led the atom bomb project, had his security clearance revoked.

And in particular, this biography centred on the human that was Dirac, the survivor of a horrible childhood in which his life and that of his mother who became a slave in her own home and Dirac's brother who killed himself, and Dirac's sister who gave up on life to stay quietly at home until Dirac managed to free her to go to University were all the victims of a terrible father, a bully, an adulterer, a tax cheat, and a man who tried in vain to understand the difficult stuff that his brilliant son was doing.

Then comes Dirac's marriage to a lively tempestuous woman, the polar opposite of the taciturn man he himself was. He acquired two step-children (his step-daughter disappeared in America, her car found abandoned) and fathered two children of his own. His marriage had its rocky patches. They were too different. And he must have struggled not to be like his own father. But the marriage survived.

This was a stunning portrait of a brilliant mind. Read it!

August 2016; 438 pages

In detail:

Dirac had a dreadful childhood. His father was a disciplinarian teacher who bullied his family. Paul was made to eat dinner with his father and to speak only French (his father was Swiss); he was often sick. Paul's elder brother Felix committed suicide (which devastated the father so he was loving if a bully); his sister stayed at home after being schooled and did nothing; the mother became an unpaid servant for the father, kept on a pittance (although he was clearly a lot richer than he admitted) and was told by him after thirty years of marriage that he had never loved her; she then discovered he had been having at least one long term affair. In short, the father was a nasty piece of work.

Paul was forced to study engineering at Bristol University; he was two years younger than the other students; having graduated Bristol arranged for him to take a maths degree and skip the first year. But he almost never got to Cambridge because his father was unwilling to find the necessary money for Paul to afford to live. It was only once he got to Cambridge as a graduate student that he started to fill in some of the huge holes in his knowledge, partly by taking extra geometry classes on Sunday afternoon in the Arts School when, apart from him and the other students having tea and being taught, and a few cleaners, the building was "as lifeless as a museum at midnight". (p 72)

He cultivated a straight-talking, straight-writing, plain English prose style following George Orwell's dictum that "Good prose is like a windowpane." (p 75)

Even Dirac was subject to failing to see when he was on the trail of something. When he first met de Broglie's idea that a particle such as an electron could act like a wave he "carried out some initial calculations but put the work aside after concluding that he had done nothing worth publishing. Having sniffed the scent of an important problem, he had then lost it; but he would soon return." (p 81)

His first breakthrough was recognising that the rather complex maths in Heisenberg's first formulations of quantum theory, being non-commutative, reminded him of Poisson's brackets: "Fifty two years later, he remembered, 'The idea first came in a flash, I suppose, and provided of course some excitement'" (p 86) Brackets were important to Dirac. Having invented a new mathematical notation for quantum physics which involved two halves of a bracket (which he called the bra and the ket) he later told a discussion at high table in St John;s on neologisms that "I invented the bra". Being taciturn he then relapsed into silence for the rest of the meal. (p 326)

When Oppenheimer was having a nervous breakdown at the Cavendish he tried to poison his teacher, Blackett, by leaving him an apple laced with chemicals. (p 97) Shades of Snow White and Alan Turing! When he defended his PhD thesis to examiners Franck and Born Franck later said: "I'm glad that is over. He was on the point of questioning me." (p 133)

Even Albert Einstein struggled "to understand his [Dirac's] peculiar combination of logic and intuition" telling a friend "This balancing on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful." (p 114)

He hypothesised the positron (which he called an anti-electron; a later suggestion from California was 'oreston' because Electra's brother was Orestes) because he "followed the logic of Sherlock Holmes: 'When you have eliminated all which is impossible then whatever remains, however improbably, must be the truth.'" (p 187) (Doyle 1926, The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier). We are still in a world where the imbalance of matter over anti-matter of just one part in a billion after the Big Bang cannot really be explained but "without that imbalance, the matter and anti-matter formed at the beginning of time would have annihilated each other immediately, so that the entire universe would only ever have amounted to a brief bath of high-energy light. Matter would, in that case, never have had an opportunity to discover anti-matter." (p 434)

Farmelo quotes Stephen Spender talking about young Germans after the great inflation: "their aims were to live from day to day; and to enjoy to the utmost everything that was free: sun, water, friendship, their bodies." (p 121)

The big band (OK, that's a typo, but it sounds so much better than the big bang) theory of the universe was first proposed by a Belgian cleric, the Abbe Lemaitre "who believed that the Bible teaches not science but the way to salvation" (p 261)

Despite a long bachelorhood lasting beyond thirty, Dirac flirted with Gamow's wife Rho and later got involved with Wigner's sister, Hungarian born Manci, who became his wife (although he described her as "Wigner's sister" even after the wedding. They had a long courtship conducted often by letter. When she complained he didn't answer her questions he numbered her letters and wrote a table of (often brutally) honest responses leading her to complain that some of the questions he had now answered were rhetorical! (p 262) As he grew closer to marriage his parents' relationship fell apart. His father told his mother he had not loved her for thirty years (predating Dirac's birth) and his mother discovered that his father had been engaging in long-term affairs (after he died she also discovered that he had been systematically cheating the taxman so he wasn't just miserly with her). But Dirac's marriage to Manci, though often tempestuous (at least on her part, he greeted her moods with indifference which must have infuriated her even more) did last. "She once snapped at him when he was eating his dinner, 'What would you do if I left you?' only for him to reply - after a half-minute pause - 'I'd say "Goodbye dear"'" (p 366)There is a photo of him on the beach at Brighton on his honeymoon in his suit "pencils still protruding from the pocket of his jacket" (p 284)

He was intrigued by the coincidental ratios of force strengths to one another and to the dimensions of the Universe and hypothesised that this might be because the strength of gravity is inversely proportional to the age of the Universe (which would explain why it is expanding but rather upsets the standard estimates of such things as the age of the Earth). (p 290)

He became Fred Hoyle's supervisor "partly because he was amused at the prospect of a relationship between a supervisor who did not want a student and a student who did not want a supervisor" (p 295)

He disliked the idea of electrons as point sources because that would involve infinities in such things as electric field strengths. But I would have thought that quantum mechanics does not allow points; they are forbidden by Heisenberg; a particle that was a point would have an infinite momentum,

He believed mathematical beauty was more important than experimental evidence.

As he got older he was more often challenged by "the drawn sword of youth". (p 321) As Oscar Wilde said in 1887 "In America, the young are always ready to give those who are older than themselves the full benefit of their inexperience." (p 332)

During the Second World War he worked on the separation of the fissile U-235 isotope from its chemically identical and much more abundant non-fissile U-238; he invented a series of methods including centrifuges. (p 321)

After Einstein's death, Dirac became "the most famous loner in theoretical physics, an elderly rebel with a cause that no one else could quite understand." (p 355) He then developed a primitive version of string theory.

Page references refer to the 2010 Faber and Faber paperback edition