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

Thursday, 29 March 2018

"Myths of the Greeks and Romans" by Michael Grant

Yet another wonderful book lent to me by my mate Fred whose other contributions include:
  • A Time of Gifts: a wonderful travel book about a man walking through Europe between the wars; beautifully written
  • The Mighty Dead: a superb analysis of the Iliad but an author who writes like a dream
  • Dynasty: the story of the first Roman emperors by the wonderful historian Tom Holland
  • The Song of Achilles  a wonderful novel by Madeline Miller
  • Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner; a memoir of a man who grew up in Germany during hyper-inflation and the rise of the Nazis
This loan was possibly in response to my lending him Mythos by the brilliant Stephen Fry; also heartily recommended.

To read Grant's book is a little like exploring in a slightly chaotic museum. Each chapter is based around a tale told by some wonderful writer; he starts with Homer and the Wrath of Achilles, and moves through the Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex by Sophocles to Virgil, Ovid and Apuleius. And having recounted the substance of the story he then tells you about its context, historical and archaeological findings, biographies of the writers and some description about the styles of work that they were using, and then their influences all the way through the Andre Gide. So even if you are, as I am, more or less familiar with the story itself, there is a wealth of other information. It's like web-surfing. One thing leads to another in a wonderful voyage of slightly haphazard discovery.

Some of the things I learned:

Thespis was the first dramatist whose name is known. “It may well have been he who converted ‘the answer to the chorus’ ... into a regular actor impersonating a character ... responding to the chorus not in a choral metre but in the characteristic iambic verse-pattern of tragic narration, imitating the cadences of speech.” (p 176)

The chorus complements, illustrates, universalizes, or dramatically justifies the course of events; it comments or moralizes or mythologizes upon what happens, and opens up the spiritual dimension of the theme or displays the reaction of public opinion.” TS Eliot suggestive that it makes things more intense by showing them to the audience twice. (p 177)

Aeschylus introduced “a second actor, which created the possibility of a dramatic situation or conflict.” (p 179)

Oedipus ... entered, as WB Yeats paraphrased the lines, through the door that had sent him wailing forth.” (p 229)

Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex ... is more disturbing in its savagery ... suggesting at times the incantations of Christian liturgy and implications of Christian theology ... man is dominated but may find his own redemption, and light comes to Oedipus when he loses his eyes.” (p 232)

Xenophanes claimed that people created Gods in their own image:
Horses’ gods are like horses, like kine the gods of kine. 

‘Snub-nosed are the Immortals, and black’ the Ethiops say; 
But ‘No’ the Thracians answer, red-haired, with eyes of grey.” 
If there is one god how can he be fashioned in the likeness of man? (p 264)

In a fragment of his Sisyphus Critias suggests that humans invented gods replaced conscience. (p 265)

In a fragment of the lost Bellerophon Euripides suggests that the problem of evil means gods don’t exist (p 267)

Strabo believed Jason was looking for gold, and explained that the Cochians collected the dust from the river in fleecy skins. According to the Byzantine Suidas, the fleece was a parchment book explaining how to obtain gold by alchemy” (p 298)

The earliest known mention of a wife of Orpheus is in Plato's Symposium.” (p 310)

Orphism is close ... to the ascetic mystery religion and way of life established in southern Italy during the later sixth century [BC] by Pythagoras.” (p 313)

In the fifth century ... the Greeks invented ‘Romus’ (Rhomos) as a typical aponymous city-founder. In Italy, the form Romulus became current - ‘the Roman’ ... When the Greeks heard of Romulus, they differentiated him from Romus” which led to Romulus and Remus. (p 355)

The Etruscans became identifiable shortly before 700 BC as a separate civilization, occupied in trade, industry and agriculture, but particularly in piracy and war. They made great use of horses, introducing at the chariot to Italy. Etruscan strength came from the working of metals: the copper of Tuscany and the iron of Elba were perhaps what had tempted them to settle, and the whole of rorthern Etruria became a region of mines.” (p 365)

Deluge myths occur in thirty-four out of a specimen group of fifty among the world’s mythologies.” (p 400)

The Deucalion version [of the flood] ... may perhaps enshrine memories of a post-Paleolithic epoch in Greece itself, when central Thessaly became a lake.” (p 401)

Isn't it a joy?

March 2018; 430 pages

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

"Hold tight" by Harlan Coben

At the start of this book I was hooked by the ordinariness of the people involved and the dilemmas. We have a hot shot doctor married to a hot shot lawyer worried about their teenage son who is secretive and seems depressed following the suicide of his mate. So they put spyware onto his computer and start worrying about the strange emails he is receiving. These are dilemmas thoroughly rooted in reality. Other everyday situations involve their daughter's best friend who is being bullied at school following a foolish remark from a teacher, the son of the next door neighbour who is critically ill, and the parents of the lad who has killed himself who are splitting apart in their grief. There is a huge amount of potential drama here.

There is also a horrid man touring around in a white van beating women to death. He is a psychopath who gains pleasure from hurting people although his primary motive is that he is trying to extract information. At this stage it became difficult to suspend disbelief.

But a good whodunnit is a good puzzle. Don't worry about the stereotyped characters: the psychopath, the weak but enthusiastic teacher, the aggressive female lawyer who bullies everyone, the successful doctor who used to be an all-star hockey player, the brilliant policewoman and her colleague, the careless, should-have-been-retired-years-ago detective, the panoply of emo goths that represent America's youth.

But a good whodunnit is a good puzzle. There's always a twist right at the end. It's a shame that this twist involves someone who was given an alibi on page 270; an alibi that was never subsequently queried. Which I think is unfair to the reader.

Nevertheless, this book is written with Coben's usual energy. An even better book by Coben reviewed in this blog is Gone for Good.


Three great lines:

  • "For some reason, hurting strangers seemed worse. We all hurt those we love, don't we? But it was bad karma to hurt the innocent." (p 3)
  • "when you're busy you don't think of what should have been." (p 132)
  • "Maybe it is society, not war, that forces man to act in a way that's not in his true nature." (p 329)


March 2018; 432 pages



Sunday, 25 March 2018

"Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life" by Peter Godfrey-Smith

This is a beautifully written book about the intelligence of octopi and cuttlefish which are cephalopods. “If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is ... because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” (p 9) Along the way it becomes an enquiry into what it means to have a consciousness. “For some animals, there's something it feels like to be such an animal. there is a self, of some kind, that experiences what goes on.” (p 10)

It starts tracing the evolution of the nervous system. After all, even bacteria can react to stimuli and therefore may be said to have some version of sentience:

  • The bacterium will swim in a straight line as long as the chemicals it senses seem better now than those it sensed a moment ago. If not, it’s preferable to change course.” (p 17)

The crucial factor is that the bacteria can in some sense detect the actions they themselves take. This feedback loop between sensory input and action and sensory input is the beginning of self awareness. And because one bacterium can detect things that other bacteria do it is the beginning of communication and socialisation. So when cells begin to get together in multicellular organisms we have the rudimentary mechanisms for a nervous system.

  • The receptors on the surfaces of bacterial cells are sensitive to many things, and these include chemicals that bacteria themselves tend to excrete” (p 18)
  • If a chemical is both produced and sensed by a particular kind of bacteria, it can be used by those bacteria to assess how many individuals of the same kind are around.” (p 18)
  • Chemicals that are made because they'll be perceived and responded to by others ... brings us to the threshold of signalling and communication.” (p 19)

At this stage I was getting excited. After all, Andy Clark in Surfing Uncertainty, working in the world of artificial intelligence, suggests that a computationally frugal solution for intelligence involves an organism making an expectation and comparing the sensory data with the expectation so that a simple error reduction algorithm can improve the expectation. This involves a feedback loop and here we see something similar being evolved from the simplest forms of cellular life.

G-S gives an example in technology developed to aid the blind. There is a system that uses a camera to change vision into tactile sensations on the skin of a blind person. The person soon learns to experience “objects located in space” BUT “only when the wearer is able to control the camera.” (p 80)

Of course, multicellular life had to evolve before cell specialisation could start developing proper nervous systems. But this wasn't as difficult as it might at first look. It has evolved independently more than once. “The transition to a multicellular form of life occurred many times, leading once to animals, once to plants, on other occasions to fungi, various seaweeds, and less conspicuous organisms.” (p 20)

And once predation begins (probably in the Cambrian) each organism must be aware of the others which adds further urgency to the evolution of sensory-action feedback loops. “From this point on, the mind evolved in response to other minds.” (p 36)

The only thing that makes animals different is that they have greater capacity to take actions and so need to be even faster at sensing their own actions. “All living things affect their environment by making and transforming chemicals, and also by growing and sometimes by moving, but it is muscle that gives rise to rapid, coherent action on large spatial scales. It makes possible the manipulation of objects, the deliberate and rapid transformation of what is around us.” (p 82) This “interaction between perception and action” is critical. (p 83)

And the next stage for feedback loops is our own thoughts. G-S suggests that the internalization of language, “Vygotsky’s transition ... was also an important evolutionary event.” (p 152) He spends some time on inner speech:

  • When we look inside, most people find a flow of inner speech, a monologue that accompanies much of our conscious life.” (p 138)
  • Ordinary speech functions both as input and output ... We both speak and hear, and we can hear what we say. Even talking to yourself out loud can be a useful way of approaching a problem.” (p 144)
  • In speech, the creation of an efference copy enables you to compare your spoken words to an inner image of them; this can be used to work out whether the sound ‘came out right’.” (p 145)
  • This then means that we can “put together sentences that we don't intend to say, sentences and fragments of language that have a purely internal role. ... We can put things in order, bring possibilities together, can list and instruct and exhort.” (p 147) This is particularly useful for Kahneman’s [ref Thinking, Fast and Slow] “System 2” thinking, the “slow, deliberate style of thinking we engage in when we encounter novel situations ... [which] tries to follow proper rules of reasoning, and tries to look at things from more than one side.” (p 147)
  • This resonates with the “workspace theory of consciousness” (p 149)
  • Inner speech is especially prominent when “we bring attention to bear on our own thought processes, reflect on them, and experience them as our own.” (p 152)
  • When you write something for yourself to read ... it is a communication between your present self and a future self.” (p 155)

There is also an interesting argument about ageing. Why do species age at different rates: trees last hundreds of years, humans perhaps a hundred, cephalopods mostly two? The idea is that “When molecular accidents put mutations into the population ... the late-acting mutations will be cleaned out less efficiently than early-acting ones.” (p 166) “So mutations with good effects early in life and the bad effects later in life will accumulate; natural selection will favour them.” (p 167) Therefore some populations have evolved such that the bad mutations tend to affect them later in life ... and it seems like spontaneous ageing. The life-span is thus partly a matter of evolutionary chance and partly governed by the balance of reproduction and predation. When the octopus lost its hard shell it became much more susceptible to predation which meant that it had to live its life a lot quicker because, sooner or later, a sharp-toothed fish would eat it. Presumably humans are mostly prey to diseases which, sooner or later, will get them, so they are able to evolve genes which allow then to fight the diseases for a while even at the cost of dying later.

Other thoughts from this brilliant book:

  • Cuttlefish sometimes deeply ignore visitors to their watery world. “Being ignored so deeply makes you wonder if you are entirely real in their watery world, as if you are one of those ghosts who does not realise they are against.” (p 118)
  • When animals did crawl onto the dry land, they took the sea with them. All the basic activities of life occur in water-filled cells bounded by membranes, tiny containers whose insides are remnants of the sea.” (p 200)
A readable and intensely thought-provoking book. March 2018; 204 pages

Saturday, 24 March 2018

"Liquid Modernity" by Zygmunt Bauman

This book, written in the year 2000, explores our modern ideas from a sociological / philosophical viewpoint. It has some interesting alternative perspectives and it is written with passion, sometimes anger; it is extraordinarily readable.

His thesis is that the advent of 'liquid' modernity (the internet, the flexibility of new capital, the changing relationships within society) have created substantial and important changes in the way we live our lives.

Freedom
Thus, he discusses freedom. After all, we live in the 'free world'. But this tends to concentrate on political freedom: freedom of speech, of religion, and so forth. Most of us in the western world enjoy this and it is a very precious freedom. But many people are not economically free. Poor people rarely have control of their own destiny. They may not be technically slaves but they often have little opportunity to determine their lives.

Bauman points out, first, that being free doesn't necessarily mean being happy. This works the other way as well. “what feels like freedom is not in fact freedom at all; that people may be satisfied with their lot even though that lot were far from being ‘objectively’ satisfactory; that, living in slavery, they feel free and so experience no urge to liberate themselves" (p 17) But this is not allowed by the libertarians who suppose "that people may be incompetent judges of their own plight and must be forced or cajoled, but in any case guided” to seek freedom (p 17).

In fact most so called libertarians are very distrustful of the mob. In the past, political freedom and human rights were balanced by the suffocating moral code of society. Even today, one's freedom to speak one's mind may be severely curtailed by the social opprobrium one suffers should one's opinions be deemed politically incorrect. So freedom is a balancing act. Hobbesian libertarians “draw their credibility from the assumption that a human being released from coercive social constraints ... is a beast rather than a free individual ... social coercion is in this philosophy the emancipatory force and the sole hope of freedom that a human may reasonably entertain. ... There is no other way to pursue the liberation but to ‘submit to society’ and to follow its norms.” (p 20)

Identity and Individualism

In the old days, people were born into their identities but now you have to become your identity. (p 32) In early modernity the challenge facing people was to conform to “the emerging class-bound social types and models of conduct.” (p 28) “class and gender were ‘facts of nature’ and the task left to the self-assertion of most individuals was to ‘fit in’ in the allocated niche through behaving as the other occupants did.” (p 33)

Nowadays “we are presently moving away from the era of pre-allocated ‘reference groups’ ... the destination of individual self-constructing labours is endemically and incurably undetermined, is not given in advance, and tends to undergo numerous and profound changes before ... the end of the individual’s life.” (p 7) This means that “the burden of pattern-weaving and the responsibility for failure falling primarily on the individual’s shoulders.” (p 8)

Nowadays Big Brother, the punisher of individuality, no longer exists. Nor does Elder Brother, who guides the individual into their proper channel. (p 61) “Everything ... is now down to the individual. It is up to the individual to find out what she or he is capable of doing, to stretch that capacity to the utmost, and to pick the ends to which that capacity could be applied best.” (p 62)

And we need guidance. Bauman points out that TV chat shows are “daily compulsive viewing for millions of guidance-hungry men and women.” (p 68) However the only support offered is the self-help support group. “One may perhaps also learn from other people's experience how to survive the next round of ‘downsizing’, how to handle children who think they are adolescents and adolescents who refuse to become adults, how to get the fat and other unwelcome ‘foreign bodies’ ‘out of one’s system’, how to get rid of addiction that is no longer pleasurable or partners who are no longer satisfying. But what one learns in the first place from the company of others is ... advice about how to survive in one's own irredeemable loneliness” (p 35)

Shifting the blame
At the threshold of the modern era we have been emancipated from belief in the act of creation, revelation and eternal condemnation. With such beliefs out of the way, we humans found ourselves ‘on our own’ - which means that from then on we knew of no limits to improvement and self-improvement other than the shortcomings of our own inherited or acquired gifts, resourcefulness, nerve, will and determination.” (p 28)

That men and women have no one to blame for their frustrations and troubles does not need now to mean ... that they can protect themselves ... if they fall ill, it is assumed that this is happened because they were not resolute and industrious enough in following their health regime; if they stay unemployed, it is because they failed to learn the skills of gaining an interview, because they did not try hard enough to find a job what because they are, purely and simply, work-shy.” (p 34)


The relationship between the governed and the governors:
Modern life is like a caravan site: “Drivers bring to the site their own homes ... each driver has his or her own itinerary and time schedule. What the drivers wants from the site managers is not much more (but no less either) then to be left alone and not interfered with. In exchange, they promise not to challenge the managers’ authority and to pay the rent when due. Since they pay, they also demand. They tend to be quite adamant when arguing for their rights to the promised services but otherwise want to go their own ways and would be angry if not allowed to do so. On occasion, they may clamour for better service ... but it won't occur to them to ... take over the responsibility for running the place.” (p 24)

Certainly the bosses no longer want to look after people. “The contemporary global elite can run without burdening itself with the chores of administration, management, welfare concerns, or, for that matter, with the mission of ‘bringing light’, ‘reforming the ways’, morally uplifting, ‘civilizing’ and cultural crusades. Active engagement in the life of subordinate populations is no longer needed (on the contrary, it avoided as unnecessarily costly and ineffective)” (p 13)

Instead the prime technique is to relocate the blame for misery. “Being an individual de jure means having no one to blame for one's own misery, seeking the causes of one's own defeats nowhere except in one's own indolence and sloth, and looking for no remedies other than try harder and harder still.” (p 38) As in the Bible, the Israelites are being ordered to make bricks without straw “and the producers of bricks are told that solely their own laziness prevents them from doing the job properly.” (p 49)

But the destruction of collective action and the iconisation of individualism has left the poor, those "limited to their own, individually owned, blatantly inadequate resources.” (p 33)  without a weapon:

Too many opportunities

Bauman suggests that modern capitalism has, in order to keep selling, moved beyond need. In the olden days goods were produced to satisfy need. But "there is a bottom line to what one needs in order to stay alive and be capable of doing whatever the producer’s role may require, but also an upper limit to what one may dream of, desire and pursue while counting on the social approval for one’s ambitions ... whatever rises above that limit is a luxury, and desiring luxury is a sin. The main concern is therefore that of conformity.” (p 76)

We've gone beyond the 'luxury is a sin' point. And now we are moving beyond desire. This is because “it takes time, effort and considerable financial outlay to arouse desire ... Consumers guided by desire must be ‘produced’, ever anew, and at high cost".

In order to keep selling the capitalists must create a mind-set in which we are desperate for endless self-improvement. “The ‘my body a besieged fortress’ attitude does not lead to asceticism, abstinence or renunciation; if anything, it means consuming more - but consuming special ‘healthy’ foods, commercially supplied.” (p 80)

But this pursuit of wishes brings anxieties: “One thing the fitness-seekers know for sure is that they are not fit enough, yet, and that they must keep trying. The pursuit of fitness is the state of perpetual self-scrutiny, self-reproach and self-deprecation, and so also of continuous anxiety.” (p 78)

We used to admire those who could wait for things. But now we are too busy running to catch up with eternally receding goals. “No longer is the delay of gratification a sign of moral virtue. It is a hardship pure and simple, a problematic burden signalling imperfections in social arrangements, personal inadequacy, or both. ...In the casino culture the waiting is taken out of wanting, but the satisfaction of the wanting must also be brief, must last only until the next run of the ball, to be as short-lived as the waiting, lest it should smother, rather than replenish and reinvigorate, the desire.” (p 159) “To stay alive and fresh, desire must be time and again, and quite often, gratified - yet gratification spells the end of the desire.” (p 160) “One can think of no reason to stick to an inferior or aged product rather than look for a ‘new and improved’ one in the shops.” (p 164)

But there is too much to want.
"The world full of possibilities is like a buffet table set with mouth-watering dishes, too numerous for the keenest of eaters to hope to taste them all.” (p 62)
I just need to look at my bookshelves, stuffed with books I have bought but not yet got around to reading, and the Amazon 'later' list which has over one hundred titles on it, and the poster of a hundred books I 'must' read on which I have nearly half still to be read, to know that there is too much wanting in my world.

Of course this endless choice is only available to the monied. “The more choices the rich seem to have, the less bearable to all is a life without choosing.” (p 88)

Cities and strangers

The modern dream is to live in a community. But other people are dangerous. Defining a city as "a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet" (p 94) Bauman suggests that such encounters require us to develop "civility" (p 95) a code of behaviour appropriate for an encounter unlikely to have either a past or a future. He suggests that the spaces we develop where encounters with strangers regularly take place (airport lounges, hotel rooms, motorway service stations etc) "do not require a mastery of the sophisticated and hard-to-study art of civility, since they reduce behaviour in public to a few simple and easy-to-grasp precepts.” (p 102)

But we are becoming so frightened of strangers that we are redeveloping gated communities (going back, perhaps, to the walled towns of the middle-ages) in which civility and community is ensured by the tight surveillance of security guards and CCTV (p 92)

Then we dump everything that is bad outside the walls. The “communal world is complete in so far as all the rest is ... hostile - a wilderness full of ambushes and conspiracies and bristling with enemies wielding chaos as their main weapons. The inner harmony of the communal world shines and glitters against the background of the obscure and tangled jungle which starts on the other side of the turnpike. It is there, to that wilderness, that people huddling in the warmth of shared identity dump (or hope to banish) the fears which prompted them to seek communal shelter.” (p 172)

Work

Once upon a time, we worked for our tribe. Work was “the collective effort of which every single member of humankind had to partake." This meant that work became elevated into a moral imperative. "All the rest was but a consequence: casting work as the ‘natural condition’ of human beings, and being out of work as an abnormality; blaming departure from that natural condition for extant poverty and misery, deprivation and depravity; ranking men and women according to the assumed value of the contribution their work made to the species-wide endeavour; and assigning to work the prime place among human activities, leading to moral self-improvement and to the rise of the overall ethical standards of society.” (p 137)

This was a time when labourers were needed. Bauman suggests that the welfare state owes its origin to the need for the bosses to make sure that there was a supply of (healthy) labour ready to be call upon. “The unemployed were fully and truly the ‘reserve army of labour’, and so had to be kept through thick and thin in a state of readiness, in case they were called back into active service. ... More sceptical observers saw the welfare state as a collectively financed and managed sanitation device - a cleaning-and-healing operation to be run as long as the capitalist enterprise kept generating social waste it had neither intention nor resources to recycle.” (p 145)

But now there isn't enough work to go round. “Work can no longer offer the secure axis around which to wrap and fix self-definitions, identities and life-projects. Neither can it be easily conceived of as the ethical foundation of society, or as the ethical axis of individual life. Instead work has acquired ... a mainly aesthetic significance. It is expected to be gratifying by and in itself, rather than be measured by the genuine or putative effects it brings to one’s brothers and sisters in humanity ... let alone the bliss of future generations ... It is instead measured and evaluated by its capacity to be entertaining and amusing” (p 139)

Furthermore, the global economy means that mobile capital can roam the world while the less-mobile workers are stuck in one place. This in turn means that localised governments have to pander to capital. “To an unprecedented degree politics has become a tug-of-war between the speed with which capital can move and the ‘slowing down’ capacities of local powers ... A government ... has little choice but to implore and cajole, rather than force, capital to fly in ... In practice, all this means low taxes, fewer or no rules and above all a ‘flexible labour market’. More generally, it means a docile population.” (p 150) The only weapon governments have is their markets. “Capital is dependent, for its competitiveness, effectiveness and profitability, on consumers ... a labour force is but a secondary consideration.” (p 151)

Bauman suggests there are now four sorts of work: “People who invent the ideas and the ways to make them desirable and marketable ... those engaged in the reproduction of labour (educators or various functionaries of welfare state) ... ‘skin trades’ requiring face-to-face encounter with the recipients of service ... routine labourers ... the most expendable, disposable and exchangeable parts of the economic system.” (p 153)

Other ideas

  • Reality “is created by ...the stubborn indifference of the world to my intention, the world's reluctance to submit to my will, that rebounds in the perception of the world as ‘real’ - constraining, limiting and disobedient.” (p 17)
  • When authorities are many, they tend to cancel each other out. ... It is by courtesy of the chooser that a would-be authority becomes an authority. Authorities no longer command; they ingratiate themselves with the chooser; they tempt and seduce.” (p 64)
  • Heavy modernity was the era of territorial conquest. Wealth and power was firmly rooted or deposited deep inside the land - bulky, ponderous and immovable like the beds of iron ore and deposits of coal. ... Anything lying between the outposts of competing imperial realms was seen as masterless, a no man’s land, and so an empty space - and empty space was a challenge to action and a reproach to idlers.” (p 114)
  • The labyrinth becomes the master image of the human condition” (p 138)
  • If staying together was a matter of reciprocal agreement and mutual dependency, disengagement is unilateral.” (p 149)
  • Leadership has been replaced by the spectacle, and surveillance by seduction.” (p 155)
This is an amazing book. I might not agree with many of the things that has been said, and time may prove wrong, but there is no gainsaying that this is a brilliantly argued position and it certainly made me think.

March 2018; 200 pages




Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Love, Simon" by Becky Albertalli

Originally published as Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda,

This is a YA novel set in an American High School and thus comparable to The Fault in Our Stars and, especially, Paper Towns both by John Green.

There is a great hook right at the start. Martin has read Simon's emails to Blue and discovered that Simon, 17, is secretly gay. Martin proceeds to blackmail Simon into setting Martin up on a date with Simon's friend Abby. But Simon has another problem too. He is falling in love, by email, with Blue who, he has deduced, also goes to the school. But he doesn't know who Blue is.

At which point there are a number of scenarios. Blue could be some old pervert tricking Simon into these emails and intending to lure him into a compromising situation and even rape. Blue could be Martin himself, twisting Simon round his little finger, or some other member of the class out to tease and humiliate Simon. Blue could (Simon hopes) be Cal who is stunningly hot.

Simon's other problem, of course, is giving Martin enough for Martin not to expose him. And of course he has to negotiate the pitfalls and perils of teenage sexuality complicated by the need to 'come out' (which means talking about his sex-life with his parents, gross) not to mention all the other problems that a kid at school growing up routinely has.

It's a great little story which twists and turns and keeps you hooked to the very end.



Great lines:
  • People are like houses with big rooms and tiny windows.” (p 18) 
  • The whole point of everything is to find a shore worth swimming to.” (p 18) 
  • My mum was the one who got obsessed with the idea that I had a girlfriend even though I had never had one before. I don't know why that came as such a freaking surprise to her, since I'm pretty sure most people start out never having had one.” (p 55) 
  • It's a little fucked up that teachers think they get to dictate what you think about. It's not enough if you just sit there quietly and let them teach. It's like they think they have a right to control your mind.” (p 108) 
  • Straight people really should have to come out, and the more awkward it is the better.” (p 147) 
  • My dad invented the concept of Simon logic ... it means wishful thinking supported by flimsy evidence.” (p 151) 
  • My heart is a pinball” (p 204) 
  • A couple of the girls put some junk in my hair to make it messy, which is basically like putting high heels on a giraffe.” (p 214)
March 2018; 303 pages

Sunday, 18 March 2018

"The End of Everything" by Megan Abbott

Lizzie and Evie are best friends growing up and experiencing the hormones of puberty that have started to make them see boys as more than nuisances. They share everything. So Lizzie thinks. Till Evie disappears.

Lizzie turns into the key witness. She identifies the car she saw and she knows who drives it, the father of a school friend; he too has disappeared. She finds the cigarettes he smoked as he was stalking Evie. She even breaks into the Shaw house to search for evidence the police haven't found.

Lizzie's amateur sleuthing stretched credibility. Were the police really so stupid firstly to believe Lizzie's often improbable lies which could so easily have been checked and secondly not to be a little more observant of the perpetrator's wife? And could we really believe that a thirteen year old girl, often clad in little more than a tee shirt and knickers, could spend so many nights roaming around a neighbourhood in lockdown after an abduction? Lizzie's mother seems repeatedly negligent and Evie's mother is almost a complete non-entity as is  Mrs Shaw; mature women in this story are faintly drawn to the point of invisibility.

At the same time she is always around Evie's house, comforting her father in a relationship which, from Lizzie's point of view although she does not necessarily recognise it, is swiftly developing into love. And there is the complicating factor of Evie's elder sister Dusty, the one that all the teenage boyts adore, the one who ought to be abducted if anyone is.

Told from Lizzie's point of view this is an interesting exploration of the love between young girls and older men. Lizzie's feelings were intense and sometimes slightly repetitive but always kept away from melodrama. The feelings of the other characters, which the narrator had to surmise from their words and actions, sometimes reaching different conclusions from the immature protagonist, were drawn with deftness and subtlety. At the end the precise natures of the relationships between Dusty and Evie and their father, and the feelings of Evie's dad for Lizzie, are always open to alternative interpretations.


  • "We were that close. Sometimes we blinked in time." (p 27)
  • "It felt like she knew her own zig-zagging heart, and I was just killing time." (p 27)
  • "An old velvet poster that said 'Mott the Hoople', which I always thought was a Dr Seuss book." (p 70)
  • "The awkward slouch of boys who grew so fast they themselves seemed bewildered by it, faintly dazed in their own skin." (p 73)
  • "You can't ever know anyone's private darkness." (p 148)
A haunting exploration of the feelings of a newly pubescent girl. March 2018; 246 pages

Thursday, 15 March 2018

"The Snow Kimono" by Mark Henshaw

A retired Parisian police inspector, Jovert, meets the retired Japanese professor who lives in the room underneath, Tadashi Omura. This man tells him about the daughter who was never his but whom he raised, the daughter who went off to meet her father when her father was released from jail. The father, once a brilliant novelist Katsuo, was Omura's childhood friend. And Omura tells of their lives and of the women Katsuo loved. It all got rather complicated.

And at the same time Jovert has been contacted by a woman claiming to be his daughter, born to him in Algeria after he had left the country, where he did secret work during the time of French colonial rule. And there are a number of women who impinge on Jovert's life.

All these stories are woven together like a Japanese jigsaw. "They are the so-called himitsu-e puzzles, puzzles so cunningly made that they either have an infinite number of solutions or solutions which are mutually contradictory." (p 44) This tapestry made with simple threads of haiku-like simplicity.

Of English jigsaw puzzles:

  • "No matter where you start ... you always end up in the same place. And you always know beforehand." (p 46)
  • "There's another way of looking at it ... it doesn't matter where you start, if you keep going, you will always find completion. What is important is that you start." (p 46)

Other memorable lines:

  • "If you want power over people, you have to go inside them, find out what they are afraid of. Be them." (pp 84 - 85)
  • "You-are-just-a-footnote, he said. A footnote. To-my-life. You-are-a-nothing, a zero, a meaningless cipher. He spat the words out. You're what happens when history blinks. Don't you see? You don't exist. Except as a function of me." (p 145)
  • "How many times have they sat on the terrace at night looking down at the jewelled city, or in the darkness of the lit garden, listening to the frogs, the slow tock, tock, tock of the water clock, the strings of a shamisen?" (p 192) I love the contradiction in the darkness of the lit garden.


A strange but compelling story. March 2018; 400 pages

Sunday, 11 March 2018

"Generation X" by Douglas Coupland

Belated teenage angst is to the fore in these three characters: Dag, Andy and Claire, who live in bungalows around a swimming pool in Palm Springs, California, paying the bills by tending bar. They could have been yuppies but they have turned their backs on all that for the sake of authenticity. And their parents don't understand them.


Three twenty somethings have dropped out of “The endless stream of pointless jobs done grudgingly to little applause" (p 14) to tend bar and live in a Californian bungalow with a swimming pool. The problem is that their previous lives were meaningless but there isn't a lot more meaning in this one. They hate their consumerist society but they love the good things that money brings: "I sat there and babbled and ate the food, which, I must say, was truly delicious: a celery root remoulade and John Dory fish in Pernod sauce.

Perhaps it was intended to be a Decameron: posh people fleeing from the plague of consumerist nihilism tell stories to one another in the desert. But who wants to listen to the whinges of the spoiled?

I felt:
  • (a) they were a bit old for teenage angst
  • (b) they were fake and false and spoiled! (I sound so old!!!!) 
It is as if life isn't worth living but she is still going to floss.

It was all just a little bit too comfortable. They are not struggling to make ends meet; Andy flies home for Christmas. They work and they party. Perhaps this is a pattern in American tales of troubled youngsters. Holden Caulfield, a genuine teenager in The Catcher in the Rye, might be lonely and depressed and haunted by the sense that everything is false but he goes to private school, stays in a hotel in New York, rides around in cabs, goes to restaurants. Suicidal Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People has a rich lawyer father who gives him a car for his birthday. Perhaps only rich Americans have the time to spare for angst.

There were many moments of beautiful writing (“This is the same sun that makes me think of regal tangerines and dimwitted butterflies and lazy carp. And the ecstatic drops of pomegranate blood seeping from skin fissures of fruits rotting on the tree branch next door - drops that hang like rubies.”, p 10) and many more moments that really made you think:
  • Most of us only have two or three genuinely interesting moments in our lives, the rest is filler, and that at the end of our lives, most of us will be lucky if any of those moments connect together to form a story that anyone would find remotely interesting.” (p 29)
  • Marketing is essentially about feeding the poop back to diners fast enough to make them think they’re still getting real food. It’s not creation, really, but theft, and no one ever feels good about stealing.” (p 33)
  • After you’re dead and buried and floating around whatever place we go to, what’s going to be your best memory of Earth? ... What’s your takeaway?”(p 104)
  • I had a quick Scotch to grab a buzz.” (p 115)
  • My friends are all either married, boring, and depressed; single, bored , and depressed; or moved out of town to avoid boredom and depression.” (p 166)
  • When someone tells you they’ve just bought a house, they might as well tell you they no longer have a personality.” (p 166)
  • The only times I’ll ever get” (p 175)
  • We’re all lapdogs; I just happen to know who’s petting me.” (p 185)
  • But hey - if more people like you choose not to play the game, it’s easier for people like me to win.” (p 185)
It made me long for the days when Americans really dropped out, like the works of the immortal Jack Kerouac (On the Road etc)

But the best thing about it was at the bottom of every page there was either a bumper-sticker style slogan or a definition of a Generation X word such as “Hyperkarma: A deeply rooted belief that punishment will somehow always be far greater than the crime.

Many thanks to Danny and Mary who bought me this book as a gift.

March 2018; 208 pages

Thursday, 8 March 2018

"The Secret Scripture" by Sebastian Barry

I have recently read Barry's Days Without End and so enjoyed it that I wanted to read another by the same author. This came highly recommended and was the Costa Book of the Year in 2008. It has the same structure: a rather rambling account of the vicissitudes of a life; just as you think you're going nowhere all the threads begin to come together and there is an exciting climax. And it has moments of exquisitely beautiful prose in which he encapsulates ideas and images with startling originality:

  • "We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer.
  • "She was like a painting with its varnish darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work."
  • "I will be like a sparrow without a garden.” 
  • Grief "is a voyage to the centre of the earth, a huge heavy machine boring down into the crust of the earth. And a little man growing wild at the controls. Terrified, terrified, and no turning back."

Lines such as these make me breathless with wonder.

Roseanne, once the most beautiful girl in Sligo, is one hundred years old and still with all her marbles and living in a decaying asylum in Roscommon. Dr Grene is the psychiatrist in charge and it is his responsibility to decide what is to happen to her: the asylum is closing down and the inmates are either moving to a brand new facility or being freed into the community with varying degrees of support. Dr Grene is further concerned that Roseanne's original incarceration might have been for reasons that nowadays no longer qualify as lunacy. There is a strong suspicion that she was locked up for her loose morals.

The narrative alternates between the autobiography that Roseanne is writing and hiding beneath her floorboards and Dr Grene's diary. The main thrust of the story, interrupted by Dr Grene's witterings, is Roseanne's life from being the daughter of the Sligo grave digger through to her marriage and beyond until she is admitted to the Sligo Mad House. The men in Roseanne's life include Presbyterians and Catholics, priests and policemen, and every shade of political opinion in an Ireland experiencing the civil war just after the Free State won independence from Britain, the backlash after the civil war as the de Valera government asserted control, the hard economic conditions and the fascist movements of the thirties and the neutrality of the Second World War. In many ways the turbulence of Roseanne's life mirrors the political turbulence of the young nation.

The prose can be awe-inspiring and insightful. This is from the first page:
That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. They were not sure, no more than me, of that dark spot, those same mountains.
There was a black river that flowed through the town, and if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and many swans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods.
The river also took the rubbish down to the sea, and bits of things that were once owned by people and pulled from the banks, and bodies too, if rarely, ohl and poor babies, that were embarrassments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend to secrecy.
(p 3)
What a start!

More moments of brilliance:
  • I was not indifferent to the boys ... I seem to remember thinking a sort of music rose from them, a sort of human noise that I did not understand. How I heard music arising from such rough forms I do not know at this distance. But such is the magicianship of girls, that they can transform mere clay into large and classic ideas.” (p 36) 
  • Such a small, clean man when crossed was like a scything blade, the grass, the brambles and the stalks of human nature went down before him.” (p 38)
  • As time goes on, as I am slowly like everyone else worn out, finding a tatter here and a tear there in the cloth of myself, I need this place more and more.” (p 46)
  • The trust of those in dark need is forgiving work” (p 46)
  • In a few years I will reach retirement age, and what then? I will be like a sparrow without a garden.” (p 46) 
  • For the life of me I did not know the soul of the person that stared back at me in my mother's mossy little mirror.” (p 57)
  • the devil's own tragedy is he is the author of nothing and architect of empty spaces.” (p 63)
  • She was like a painting with its varnish darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work.” (p 68)
  • A beard on a man is only a way of hiding something, his face of course. but also the inner matters, like a hedge around a secret garden, or a cover over a birdcage.” (p 102)
  • It is always worth itemising happiness, There is so much of the other thing in a life, you had better put down the markers for happiness while you can.” (p 148)
  • There are pits of grief obviously that only the grieving know. It is a voyage to the centre of the earth, a huge heavy machine boring down into the crust of the earth. And a little man growing wild at the controls. Terrified, terrified, and no turning back.” (p 172) 
  • We bury or burn the dead because we want to separate their corporeality from our love and remembrance. We do not want them after death to be still in their bedrooms, we want to hold an image of them living, in the full life in our minds.” (p 175)
  • We are never old to ourselves. This is because at close of day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body.” (p 185)
  • The world is not full of betrayers, it is full of people with decent motives and a full desire to do right by those who know them and love them. ... We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer.” (p 186)
  • “I once lived among humankind, and found them in the generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of three or four that were like angels.” (p 277)
  • Is not most history written in a sort of wayward sincerity?” (p 289)
Wow.
March 2018; 303 pages





Saturday, 3 March 2018

"Periplous" by Lesley Saunders

This is a single poem in twelve linked sections. It is poetic recreation of the lost account of the Greek explorer Pytheas from Marseilles who supposedly circumnavigated the British Isles in c325 BCE.

A periplous is a sort of navigational log which lists the landmarks and safe anchorages so that subsequent sailors can find their way.

Each section has five stanzas; each stanza contains six lines of indeterminate syllable count and no discernible rhyming scheme. There is a final single line at the end of the poem which (I think) links with the theme of the next section.

The punctuation is as prose. There are no capitals at the start of the line unless it coincides with the start of a sentence. There is plenty of enjambment, including running the sentence on to the next stanza.

The poet seems to rely on juxtaposing images. One moment we are talking about "a woman washing/ another woman's hair in a pail" and the next "the psychogeography of rapefields/ and scythe-wheeled clearings".  In the section about Slavery we have a list of "POWs from Scythia Phrygia Lydia/ Syria Illyria", slavery in the classical world, and then we jump to "Ghana Guinea Benin" African slavery. In "Imagining Albion" we leap from the Greek philosophers Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes to a British twentieth century seaside resort.

She also mixes in sources from here, there and everywhere. Her three wrecked ships are the vessel that perhaps inspired Shakespeare's Tempest to the ship in Moby-Dick to one of Vasco da Gama's ships. So fact and fiction, muddled. She takes snippets of Latin poetry and Greek poetry and Portuguese songs and a Carol King song and Sloop John B and lines from an Anglo-Saxon poem ... If the source is originally written in a foreign language she preserves that. At least she usually gives the translation in the Notes. It reads like an attempt to rewrite The Waste Land

Regular readers of this blog know how this infuriates me. I think writing, whether prose or poetry, should be an attempt to communicate with the reader, not a display of the writer's erudition. There were a lot of things I had to look up when I was reading this poem.

Lines I liked:
... the candle-end

of a soul. I wept then
for the spent match of my life.

A reference to slaves as "floggable goods

Out there alone, I swam alone,

no friends, lovers,
it felt as if I were part of the ocean.” 


... little despot-god

of rainbows and tsunamis
Let’s make a songbook of the drowned

The last line is
O did you ever see a wild goose sailin’ o’er the sea” 
Which is, I suppose, the poet teasing us that we have been on a wild goose chase.

Hard work.

March 2018; 29 pages

Friday, 2 March 2018

"The Seagull" by Ann Cleves

A disgraced, imprisoned ex-detective superintendent tells detective inspector Vera about a buried body. Vera and her team start to uncover the shady past of The Seagull, once Whitley Bay's premier nightclub, and the dodgy pasts of those associated with her, including Vera's own father and the mysterious man they called 'The Prof'.

Prostitutes, prisoners and property developers. A page-turner of a police procedural crime novel set in the North East of England and featuring Vera Stanhope.

Great line:

  • "The sunrise made an orange path over the water towards them." (p 112)

March 2018; 397 pages

An even better Vera Stanhope mystery is Telling Tales