Category Archives: book reviews

The End of Average – Todd Rose

Or how to succeed in a world that values sameness.

I was hoping for a lot more from this book but it left me curiously disappointed. In a way, it focused on the author’s own concerns about education but doesn’t really provided you with much support for succeeding in a world that values sameness because it focuses primarily on the world of education. How do I, for example, get a kitchen which is designed for my height rather than the height of the average American woman in the 1940s.

He opens with an anecdote relating to the design of cockpits in the American Airforce and then abandons the practical.

Ties to the past

I was looking for something light to read yesterday evening and I discovered that somehow I had missed an anthology of Maeve Binchy’s journalistic writing, called Maeve’s Times. So I picked it up because growing up, my first contact with Maeve Binchy was the book Light A Penny Candle. I was quite young when I read it, and I have to say it didn’t impact on me quite the way other books of hers did. If I had to pick two which resonated, I would pick Circle of Friends and The Glass Lake.

I am not the greatest fan of the Irish Times. I never have been. It seems to me very much to be a paper which rests heavily on emotional laurels. I never quite got the attraction of An Irishman’s Diary, and I didn’t see why the media world in Ireland saw fit to sanctify the outpourings of Kevin Myers. It was like a whole society that I just didn’t fit into. Much of Maeve Binchy’s writing fits into a narrative of classic Irish Times writers. Many people love it. I have mixed feelings about it. I do believe that a review of her novels would be significant in terms of an assessment of social mores in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s. The problem is this collection of opinion pieces and journalism which Binchy wrote over a 40 year career has left me less than sated. I did not find it to be a particularly enjoyable book.

Part of it, I imagine, is a generational thing. Maeve Binchy started writing for the Irish Times well before I was born. Part of it is that I had and continue to have very different experiences. Many of the facets of Irish life that she describes are not my Irish life at all.

More than anything, she writes with an eye that focuses on the melancholy and the negative. There are few pieces in the book which do not end on some note of veiled criticism of some person or other. I found many of the pieces deeply saddening in some respects because the common thread is to be doing something wrong.

Maeve Binchy wrote a lengthy piece in 1994 about a man wishing not to go out because of the constant having to defend not drinking he’d have to do. She wrote at length about how he was wrong, how Ireland had changed and how sure no one would do that to him. The undercurrent the whole way through the piece was how wrong he was, how he didn’t know what he was talking about in this day and age.

The problem is, I have a lot of sympathy for that man. I’ll never know him, and he’s probably 40 years older than me. Given that my experience in Ireland is pretty much that people who do not drink alcohol have a long journey to go before people actually accept that, and this has been my experience the way straight through from 1990 to 2015, I find it difficult to believe that in 1994, there was a happy period when in fact, people accepted that other people didn’t drink. And when Maeve refuses to accept his views on the matter, it becomes clear that whatever the observations are based on, it may not actually be based on listening to other people. She absolutely discounts his experience. I tend to find that quite disquieting.

There are other features of the book which left darts of dissatisfaction. Maeve may have bought a passenger ticket at a ferry port to get access to people waiting for news of loved ones following the Herald of Free Enterprise accident but there is something mildly disquieting about trying to get at people who may not necessarily, want to be got at by journalists.

When you look at the book in a dispassionate manner, there is a strong focus on the gone-wrongness, from the earliest writing to the latest. Mostly, Maeve gives you the impression of people for whom things go wrong, or people whose actions she can cast and judge in a negative life. If I were to take away any message from her book, it is this: that in Ireland, there is a lot of unhappiness and and loneliness in Ireland. I don’t get a good takeaway message from a lot of her columns, be it about Nora and her trips to the airport, or the mother whose trips to Brown Thomas are disrupted by changes to that store. The woman was elderly. There is no person in that story who is given a kindly eye by Maeve, no understanding, no empathy. Just barbed comments about each of the women. More than one piece talked about different women who had become easy women. I realise that I may be looking at things through a very different prism compared to the lens available to Maeve at the time of writing…but one cannot fail to notice the strong stench of judgementalism coming out of the pores of stories about people whose emotional lives failed to be perfect

I found it all rather sad, to be honest. And when I stripped away the sadness, I realise that in many ways, Maeve Binchy did not describe the Dublin I knew. It may be a Dublin other people knew, or used to know. And she certainly didn’t describe the people I knew. Her Dublin may have been small; everyone knew everyone else. It never seems to have occurred to her that this says more about her than it does about Dublin.

 

 

 

Journeys in language

Amongst the many things I don’t currently own, or at least, did not own up to a very recent point in time, was an English dictionary. This was a bit of a lack in my life; I own a two volume Finnish dictionary set, two German dictionaries (although one of them I don’t really need as it’s been superceded by the other one) and a recent-ish edition of the large Collins Robert in French. Somewhere at my parents place is a 20 year old anniversary edition Wahrig and a Petit Robert also around 20 years old. I haven’t been able to find them of late so no idea where they are hiding; they may have gotten lost in one of my own personal house moves.

Mostly, when I find myself wanting to look up a word, I turn to one of the online dictionaries. The experience tends to leave me somewhat dissatisfied. The online interfaces for dictionaries (in my limited experience) tend to be less than welcoming, and they do not tend to set off the random exploration a print dictionary does. It had occurred to me that a good English dictionary, preferably more or less matching my large bilingual French and German ones for the purposes of shelf esthetics would be a good purchase. I had Christmas vouchers.

And Easons in Swords had something of interest.

Buying dictionaries is a hassle these days. Mostly, if you find dictionaries, you find what I call school dictionaries. They are about 5 inches by 7 and they lack the gravitas of a big dictionary. Dictionaries are serious reference works. They should be heavy and big and not blending into the rest of the books on your bookshelf. I have not wanted a very concise dictionary – but something a little more austere. What I now own is a copy of Collins Dictionary of the English Language, The Language Lover’s Dictionary. It is a beautiful looking wordbook. It includes more than 200 essays on language and beside me, the book has fallen open on A Brief History of Literature, part 1.

Next to it is a page containing definitions of words starting with the letter B. New to me today is the word bascule. This, apparently, is a drawbridge that operates by a counterbalanced weight.

On page 361, there is a brief essay on the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. It falls next to a page of mostly hyphenated words starting with the word “half”. I know all of them.

Falling open on page 593, we encounter a page of Words from Shakespeare, part 14. How can you not love such a book? Page 825 has an extraordinary asset. It is part 8 of the list of three letter words acceptable in a game of Scrabble. This tells you something very useful: it is that there are a lot of three letter words you do not know. But the Scrabble game on your mobile phone certainly does, and it uses them to beat you.

Page 409 has an essay on West Country Dialect. For those of us who do not live in the United Kingdom, this is the area around Somerset, and moving south and southwest through Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Wiltshire. Page 425 covers Yiddish English. This is a mere taste of the range of language related essays to be found in this dictionary and they are all listed at the front of the dictionary for anyone who may care to dip in and out of the pearls to be found in its depths.

In addition, there is a brief overview of the background of each letter in the English alphabet and various uses of them aside from as building blocks for spelling words. This book, in many respects, is more than just a dictionary…it is a journey through the English language taken from many starting points.

The edition I have is the 2010 edition. I am mightily pleased with it.

 

The shadow of the wind

Following the abject disappointment of Possession: A Romance, and wanting a book in which to lose myself, I decided to pick up The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, mainly because he has a bunch of other novels and if I didn’t find him wanting on this occasion, I was set up for reading material until after Christmas.

I’ve actually read The Shadow of the Wind before, and somewhere about the temporary bases of my life, there is a copy of it, probably still sporting a Richard and Judy Book Club sticker. What I remember most about the book is the feeling of exhaustion on completion; a book that I wanted never to stop. What I could not remember was the plot; and maybe this is understandable; I am reasonably sure it is nine or ten years since I read it. Why that gap exists I don’t know; whenever I have seen the book on someone’s bookshelf, I have only felt some sort of distant love for a journey I took, once. What I was looking for in the past few days was that journey, again. It did not disappoint.

A look at the Goodreads and Amazon reviews for this book reveal that it is more highly thought of than Possession, with 4.3 from Amazon on 811 reviews, and a 4.21 from well over 210,000 ratings from Goodreads, which are orders of magnitude more than rated Possession by the time I got to it last week. People have clearly loved this book on a scale which was not really the case for the AS Byatt. Sometimes, it’s hard to understand why.

For me, the over-riding question is this: how does a 17 year old Spanish boy in a post Civil War Spain seem so much more real than a pair of current day academics, particularly given the increasing profile of academic poverty and lack of tenure all across the world? Logically, you’d have to assume that books with some connection to your current reality might have a greater hook in believability; livability…

I really don’t know how to work that question out. All I know is that when I read this book, it is so utterly compelling that the rest of the world fades into grey. I have no idea what has happened outside the pages of this book for the last 24 hours.

Credit for this isn’t Zafón’s alone; I have yet to read the book in Spanish and the English edition has been expertly translated by Lucia Graves. I owe a lot to her. My life would be the poorer without this book.

In one respect, I am pretty sure that originally, I was drawn to this book by the pretext of the book; the idea of there being a vast library of books from which I could choose one; one for myself. What I would not have given for such a library as a child. Many twisting aisles of bookshelves, with many books of intriguing title. When I think of the Cemetery of of Lost Books, it is a world that I have created for myself. One of the core concerns I had with the film adaptations of the Harry Potter books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy was a desperate fear that the Others’ worlds, the Others who who had the ability and wherewithal to bring Their Hogwarts to life, would ruin the world I had created for myself; I would have the exact same fear with this.

A book which transports you, and builds itself inside your mind, every brick, every pane of glass, and every pile of books is something special. Something which takes you away, and sketches a broad world inside your mind…for all the books that exist in the world, there are few enough which do this. I read this book almost as pages of soft pencil sketches drawn in front of me, a book that comes to me in stunningly drawn artworks, and not words. I probably could not read this book and try to find it in today’s Barcelona because today’s Barcelona is not in the broad pencil sketches which haunt my mind even now.  The Barcelona of The Shadow of the Wind is my Barcelona, every stone laid by my imagination.

Everyone has their own book which touches their lives in such a way that to pick it up is to travel without wings or wheels. For me, at this time and this place, and at a previous time and other place, it has been this book.

 

Possession: A Romance

Possession: A Romance was released in 1990 and I finally got around to reading it last week. If you have not read it, it is worth noting that this piece will feature spoilers of detail – in general, the core plot of a romance generally can be distilled down to “two people eventually fall in love” and most of the rest is window dressing.

The book has won a bunch of awards, is highly popular, features in lists of books to read and currently (ie Dec 2014) has an rating of 3.86 from Goodreads.com and 4 on Amazon.co.uk. In short, quite a lot of people like this book. For the record, Goodreads has it rated by well over 40,000 members; Amazon has it reviewed by a few over 90 people. It might, at some point, be interesting, from a datascience point of view, to compare Goodreads and Amazon ratings.

Many years ago in a French literature class, a lecturer recounted an encounter she had had with a major Irish playwright subsequent to some honorary award he had received but in which, she thought, the speech outlining why he was to get this award had listed a couple of his major works in the wrong order. She asked him whether in fact, the sequence of production had not been the other way around for two particular plays of his. His response was “Whatever you say.” From this, she took away the salutary idea that maybe literary critics and academics spent a lot of time looking for meaning and significances that just didn’t exist. I have wondered about this for years; that a cohort of people spend a lot of time looking for things which just aren’t there.

I am pretty sure the average academic whose life work is focused on doing this might find that idea to swallow. This brings us to Possession: A Romance by AS Byatt. I did not like it. I was not impressed by it.

For the tl;dr version of why, I felt it was a contrived plot featuring unenticing characters with a vaguely ridiculous closeout.

Books are a method of mind travel; the most engagement you will get from a book is by wishing yourself to be a character on the pages, or to be with a character on the pages. I have a suspicion that this explains the extraordinary success of some books and failures of others. Who would not have wanted to go to Hogwarts? I wanted to be on the Dawn Treader. I wanted to be on the Brendan. I wanted to travel back in time on many occasions. I wonder if much of the joy about Possession comes from people who want to find a mystery letter in a long bound tome in the British Library and can overlook the fact that basically, at the outset of the novel, the character who does is a loser. That the book may be an icon of day dreaming for the literati, a fantasy which could happen to them as they peruse the minutiae of some not frequently read author to whom they have devoted their lives and on whom they feed.

It is entirely possible that my view of this is coloured by not agreeing with the assumption that a couple of literary experts, choose any of the characters in this book as they are all profoundly guilty of this have the right to invade the privacy of someone long dead. Of reading the love letters he wrote and received. Of editing them. For this reason, although I read it as a teenager, I have never felt comfortable with the publication of Anne Frank’s diary either. When people write with some expectation of privacy, even if they are dead, it strikes me as profoundly lacking in respect to break past that expectation and poke around in their mind.

Given that much of Possession focuses on the desperate and rather unedifying search for a set of love letters, and closes with the justification that someone long dead meant people to find a particular final letter, purely on the grounds that they buried it with the recipient rather than burning it, I found it hard to identify with any of the characters. They all struck me as rather self-absorbed and lacking in respect for the characters they exploited for financial gain.

Also, in my view, when someone buries something with a coffin, it might well be with the expectation that “I personally cannot destroy this myself as I have some personal anxieties about so doing, so I will bury it with him when he dies and so he shall have it, albeit without having read it, and I shall not feel guilty of destroying a letter which was not meant for me. Plus, helpfully, as it is buried with a coffin, it will almost certainly never come to light again because frankly, no one would dig up a grave…”

But no. Definitely, she must have meant for Maud, a woman who was born years later, whose existence she could not necessarily have conjectured to find the letter. This is odd since frankly, whatever else you could say about Maud, she doesn’t come across as the sort of person who would stand over a grave with a shovel to get at some mystery box.

I would like to say I hated them all, but frankly, that overdoes it. Mainly, I identified them as the kind of people I would avoid at a dinner party. In any case, only four characters appeared to be built as characters, namely the two primary characters (the ones who ultimately we are rooting for to wind up together, and the two who are long dead, whose private lives is being raked over by a bunch of people for financial and professional gain who would be too snobby to do the same for The Sun for living celebrities).

Too many of the characters were introduced purely to drive plot along; the person who located the diary of another writer in France which revealed that the woman poet at the core of this mess was clearly pregnant at that time. A cardboard cut out who existed purely as a device to tell Maud and Roland that Christabel had had a baby. It did not appear to occur to any of the modern experts that if someone goes missing for the guts of a year in the 19th century and she is female and they have suspected, now at least, that she had an affair with a married man, that she may have been pregnant.

Roland’s boss exists solely to provide us with a good reason as to why Roland is a loser without a job of any reasonable earning potential (Roland has seen his standard reference for him and it is not particularly exciting) and then morphs into a device by which the letter which Roland found and removed from the library at the outset of this mess is returned without repercussions, and a device by which we are given to believe that after a number of years of inadequacy, in the end, Roland is sufficiently hot stuff that universities in three countries are desperate for his services.

Another Ash scholar, who is depicted as generally creepy and personifies all that is horrific in this personal need to take ownership of the lives of dead people for professional and financial gain is purely a device by which we might believe that all of a sudden, a lot of people have figured out that Ash may have had an affair. An ex-lover of Maud is a device to drive the plot into a race between the creepier of the Ash scholars and Roland and Maud.

All of these characters come across as having the substance of a sheet of white paper. Seriously, I could not imagine anything more depressing that sitting down to dinner with any of them.

Ah but the book is beautifully written is a common refrain. What of it? The plot is mundane: Roland and Maud are thrown together, he’s a loser and she’s written off as a feminist with the implication on the part of other characters that her work and the work of women like her is of less value in literary appreciation. 500 pages later, they wind up in bed together. This is predictable from the outset; the problem is ultimately you wind up just not caring. Roland’s girlfriend exists purely as a plot device to add greyness to the losershipness of Roland’s life, and to provide links to other plot devices in terms of legal advice. When most of the characters in a novel come across as mere machines, it really doesn’t matter how beautiful the language is if there is nothing of real substance beneath it. Pride and Prejudice may be the most hackneyed and widely read romance of all time, and the reason for that is each of the characters is very deftly assembled in such a way as they come across, for the most part as human beings.

The closure, a scene of one of Ash’s descendants (another character with 1 dimension) and the creepy academic who is pretty much a badguy caricature at Ash’s grave digging for this box which Ash’s wife had buried with him in the 1987 UK storm, came across as fundamentally unbelievable and at odds with the depiction of the two main characters, and the other cardboard cut outs which were bit part players in the plot of Roland finds a letter.  Ultimately, the main plus point is that it was over.

I wanted to enjoy this. I really did want to believe that it would be a rich a reading as it is painted to be. But the characters themselves did not come across as massively attractive to know, the plot was contrived. The flashbacks to the poor misfortunates whose lives were now the stuff of academic fluff were unengaging if reasonably accurately drawn. The beauty of the language was depressingly isolated.  At no point did I really want to stay in this story, travel in this story, be in this story. In that respect, the book was deeply disappointing. I am not a fellow traveller of the academics in this book, and the world created is not one I care to visit.

 

Book review: Eruptions that Shook the World – Clive Oppenheimer

I found this book fascinating.

Oppenheimer draws together strands from geology, history, archaeology and the current world to assess the impact of volcanic eruptions, the direct consequences, the indirect consequences. He provides an indepth technical understanding of volcanoes and their behaviour, the terminology used by experts in the field. He looks at a number of cataclysmic eruptions in history and highlights how they changed humanity’s world and humanity’s view of the world.