Sunday, 1 March 2015


I recently finished one of the most disappointing books I've ever read, and I can't quite put it out of my mind. The book is In the Light of What We Know, by Zia Haider Rahman, and I'm about to give spoilers for it, so consider this an alert.

The first spoiler is that it is very well-written and compelling. It is readable, and provocative of thought. Obviously, it wouldn't have disappointed me so much if it had been bad. The narrator is a London banker at the time of the 2008 crash, the expensively-educated son of academics from Pakistan. One day an old friend from his Oxford student days turns up at his house and starts telling him a long story centred around a trip to Afghanistan when it was newly under US occupation in 2002. This friend, Zafar, was born in Bangladesh and is from a much poorer background than the narrator.* He's the cleverer of the two, though not as clever as he thinks he is. A lot of the novel is about class and race, and particularly Zafar's feelings of exclusion by the posh people at Oxford, who stand for him as the English in general. Reading this made me remember my own experience at Cambridge -- for large parts of my first term there I felt surreally out of place, with the "I don't belong here" parts of Radiohead's Creep stuck in my head, and I'm as middle class as it's possible to be without falling over. I think most people feel out of place in Cambridge, and I've had a tendency to feel a sort of exasperated scorn for fully-grown adults who think the way to deal with that is to try really really hard to fit in, by emposhening their voice and dressing like a mannequin in a Savile Row window. For a brief period of time this novel made me think I should be more tolerant of those people, on the grounds that I'm failing to check my privilege as a member of the middle-classes. So it probably briefly did some good there. That's because this novel very convincingly portrays Zafar's feelings of exclusion and frustration, particularly at the hands of his on-and-off girlfriend, whose name is Emily and then something improbably hyphenated, and who is very posh, and plays the violin impeccably but without feeling like someone out of an E.M. Forster novel. At one point she tells Zafar how to pronounce Beauchamp, which makes him feel discomfited although clearly the correct way to deal with that is to pronounce it Byoo-champ loudly and often thereafter. Emily becomes more and more central to the plot -- it's because of her that he's in Afghanistan in 2002, and it's quite clear that what happens in Afghanistan is going to be the main point of the book -- and part of my relish for the book was looking forward to finding out what was going on with her, in the filling in of her story by this clearly very accomplished and intelligent writer.

And this is where the disappointment comes in. Because by the end of the book it becomes clear that Emily, who had some intriguing possibilities, is not in fact a person at all. Emily is a McGuffin. She has no existence to her as a person and is just a way of moving the plot along. The whole book falls apart when you realise this, and start to think about the other women in it. The narrator is married, in a way that reminds me of how when I was about three or four and my imaginary friend Elizabeth and I played at being grown-ups we always had anonymous husbands somewhere off-stage. Zafar fell in love with Emily because of her daftly posh surname before he even met her, and her brother went to Eton with the narrator. (Emily, of course, could not have gone there.) For both of these men, women just do not count. They would be able to express their social yearnings and webs of connection much less indirectly if they were homosexual, but they aren't the sort of men who have enough imagination to be unexpected. Both men are so clueless that Zafar actually tells the narrator about the cause of menstruation as if this were a little-known and interesting fact, and he has only found out because the bio-mechanics of fertility impinge on his personal life. Their real communications are with other men.

The problem is that this too reminds me of my time at Cambridge, and a different sort of exclusion, less common and more upsetting (to me) than class exclusion. When people don't see me because of my gender somehow that riles me in a way I can't rise above. It makes me feel suffocated, and furious and ineffectual at the same time. I felt the same way when I came to the end of this book -- I felt dismissed as self-evidently not counting. Zafar in the book has got so used to seeing himself as the victim, the highly-intelligent victim of others' stupid prejudice, that his own ugly prejudices don't occur to him. The question is whether they occurred to the author. His potted biography is sufficiently similar to Zafar's to make it hard not to guess that Zafar is a loosely based on himself.

I don't know why this affected me so personally. I finished the book a week or two ago now, and it's still bothering me. I suppose it's because I was enjoying the book so much, and it let me down so badly. (And I'm not complaining about what happens at the end, but at how it's portrayed.) The lesson from the whole thing really is that if you are feeling excluded, and prejudged, then stop and look around you for the people you might be accidentally excluding by being so preoccupied in your own exclusion.

* There seems to be a thing now for the sort of bildungsroman about two friends where the narrator is less clever but more fortunate. (Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels are just as good as people say they are, though also slightly terrifying in how completely they skewer that thing where when you're a teenager you love your best friend so fiercely you also hate her.)

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Giorgio Moroder is 74

I've been feeling a bit on the old side recently, but according to Giorgio Moroder's analogy in this very excellent song I'm hardly even born yet:

74 is the new 24

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Reading in 2014

I read too many books in 2014. I think next year I will try replacing every fourth book with a hearty walk or something. Here is a breakdown:
  • Total number of books read: 217
  • Gender of authors of each book: 107 male, 108 female, 2 not sure
  • Number of non-fiction: 22 (10.1%)
  • Number of re-reads: 66 (30.4%)
  • Number read on Kindle: 89 (41%)

As usual, many of the best books I've read this year have been rereads, but I have read some good new stuff too. I think the most memorable books I've read are the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. They're set in the near future after something odd has happened somewhere on the American coast. It starts with a research expedition, the eleventh or twelfth, entering the affected area. Everyone on it is known just by their job title; one of them, the biologist, lost her husband to the previous expedition. When I read the books I thought they were good but not startling, but they stayed in my mind for ages.

My favourite new author of the year is probably Angela Thirkell. She's like a less snide E.F. Benson, or a softer version of P.G. Wodehouse, or a more middle-class (and less brilliant) Jane Austen. She wrote many gentle social comedies set in the 1930s or so. The Brandons is probably a good starting point. It's about an attractive and lovable widow, adored by everyone, with two grown-up children. Her deceased husband's dying aunt summons them all so she can decide who is to be her heir, and mild but interesting social problems ensue.

I loved Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and so did my mother. Karen Joy Fowler is a very good author and everything I've read by her has been great, including the odd sci-fi-ish Sarah Canary. Also loved by my mother, but more straightforwardly a fun book, is Bird Brain by Guy Kennaway, the story of a man who loves pheasant shooting and comes back as a pheasant after he dies. It has talking dogs in it without being sentimental. Also excellent are the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley, a series of murder mysteries solved by a bratty upper-class neglected little girl. I also like Marie Brennan's Lady Trent memoir books. They are set in a Victorian-like world with dragons and are about a woman's struggle to be accepted as a serious naturalist in a very constricted world. Unusually they also deal with the problems of class.

Unsurprisingly Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is great. I quite liked Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries but I thought her The Rehearsal was really brilliant, conveying the strangeness of female adolescence.

In non-fiction, John Drury's biography of George Herbert was very good. But probably the most surprising book I enjoyed this year was Simplicissimus by Hans Jakob Christoffel Von Grimmelshausen. This is a seventeenth-century picaresque novel set during the Thirty Years' War and was actually very readable and good. I found it on the Classics shelves of the excellent Waterstone's by the cathedral in Exeter. Apparently Thomas Mann said about it:
It is the rarest kind of monument to life and literature, for it has survived almost three centuries and will survive many more. It is a story of the most basic kind of grandeur - gaudy, wild, raw, amusing, rollicking and ragged, boiling with life, on intimate terms with death and evil - but in the end, contrite and fully tired of a world wasting itself in blood, pillage and lust, but immortal in the miserable splendour of its sins
though presumably he said it in German.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Good things

I love Dragonette:

Going home on the bus in the dark reminds me of when I started work as a developer two years ago, and the strange feeling of being old and young at the same time.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

This bugs me

1. I keep hearing people say that Grace Hopper invented the term bug, and feeling unable for social reasons to point out that this is not true. There is a record of an actual bug (a moth) being removed from the computer she worked on (it had jammed something up) but the term 'bug' was used in engineering as early as Thomas Edison. Just wikipedia it! It has sources.

2. On the other hand, I love you xkcd. This one has a particularly good mouse-over tooltip.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Closing some tabs

1. I did a girls' career event the other day, in which I tried to explain why coding is sometimes beautiful, and probably just made them all think it's a career for loonies. (I don't mind that too much, there might be a young-me-type there who hears and understands.) Here are some links about the beauty of coding:

2. Of course the tech world has its own problems. Love that someone called "bingo" in this talk.

3. Life involves weird challenges sometimes. Watch this mini version of the hero's journey:

4. Watching these people move in medieval armour is seriously freaky. It reminded me of an Italo Calvino novella in which a famous knight is a suit of armour with nothing inside.

5. Chart about US inequality. British poor pay more taxes. Even the Daily Telegraph thnks the middle classes should revolt (now the "officer class" are affected).

6. This modern setting of a medieval Icelandic hymn makes things feel better:

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Some good things

All this week I've been remembering that we have gay marriage now, and feeling happy. There are all sorts of good things it seems like we can't have for stupid political reasons, and then every now and then something cuts through all that, and suddenly the US has a black president, and two people who love each other can get married in the UK regardless of whether they are both women, or both men, or one of each (what a past chief rabbi used to refer to as a "mixed marriage"). Hurray!

More trivially, there are also some good things on the internet. If you've not seen PBS's Idea Channel, here is quite a good one:

Baby on a horse!

Cat enters house: