Wednesday, 28 April 2010

More books

Continuing to catch up on blogging about books I've been reading:

Nation, Terry Pratchett
I do like Terry Pratchett. This is the first non-Discworld book of his which I have read -- to be honest I have no idea if he's written other non-Discworld books. It's set in an alternative eighteenth-century world, and is about a boy in the South Seas who is out in a canoe when a huge wave comes and wipes out his entire island, and an English girl who is the only survivor of a shipwreck. More survivors join them, and the boy wrestles with how to fulfil the directives of his ancestor-worshipping religion. This is clearly Pratchett working through his own dilemma, which is very interesting to see. On the one hand Pratchett loves Story, and the transforming power of story, which is why A.S. Byatt loves Pratchett, although he has a rather lighter touch than she does -- on the other hand he loves rationality and scepticism, and breaking down received ideas. You can see him being on Dawkins' side about the God stuff, but horrified at some of Dawkins' wackier anti-"lies" suggestions that it's wrong to tell children stories with unicorns in, for example. So the boy in Nation spends a lot of time torn between the powerfulness of the ancestors' story and the ancestral way of doing things as a symbol of continued life after the tsunami, and his sense that the whole thing is futile nonsense which didn't prevent the tsunami in the first place. It all turns out to be OK when it transpires that the ancestors were actually terribly rational themselves. Anyway, I may be over-analysing -- it's an enjoyable book.

Sacred Hearts, Sarah Dunant
I would be willing to bet large sums of money that she got the idea for this book from reading Mary Laven's excellent non-fiction Virgins of Venice (which I lent to my hairdresser and which he then returned signed by the author because he cuts her hair too, which was pretty cool of him), although this novel is set in Ferrara. Essentially in the late medieval/early modern period it became more and more expensive for the Italian nobility and gentry to marry, and in any large family only one or two of the sons and daughters might find spouses, the sons because it was expensive to set up a full married establishment, and the daughters because the father couldn't afford more than one or two full-grade dowries. Younger sons had various ways of earning their living, but respectable fathers really either had to marry off their daughters or to put them into a convent, which would take them for a much lesser dowry than a husband would demand, and there was not much consultation of the wishes of the women themselves. The convents became sort of like a girls' boarding school but all-age, and the nuns could be visited by their families, put on concerts, keep pet dogs and other luxuries, and generally have a reasonably good time. If they didn't mind being spinsters -- the big advantage being no threat of death in childbirth and no beatings -- then it wasn't too bad a life, and if it's true that both options involved obedience, either to a husband or an abbess, at least you had a chance of working your way up to be abbess, whereas no one was ever going to promote you to be husband. But after the Reformation in northern Europe the Council of Trent etc led to reforms fighting back against criticism of various aspects of Roman Catholic life, and the nuns were sitting ducks for stringent crack-downs on anything against the spirit of the most austere monasticism, because it is just one of those things about nunneries that throughout the ages bishops have been worried that they are not sufficiently under the bishop's control. This novel is about a girl who is put unwillingly into a convent in Ferrara after the man her father has chosen as a son-in-law chooses her younger sister. It is largely from the point of view of an older nun who does not particularly want to be in the convent but had no other socially acceptable option after her father died. The book is quite good and not too heavy-handed about exploring the convent's life and the young novice's attempts at rebellion. I think I might lend it to my grandma.

Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver
I do like this book, which I have read at least twice before. It's largely a novel about ecology, and I read an interview with her where she said she tried to make the ecosystem one of the characters, something at which I think she succeeds more than you'd expect. It has three separate strands, set around the same area, and although the three main heroines don't know each other there's a strong sense towards the end that they will meet before long, which is a nice ending because you know they will like each other. A happy book, but not in a soppy way.

Instruction Manual for Swallowing, Adam Marek
A collection of quite good short stories, some pretty striking. Some don't really seem to go anywhere much, which might be deliberate, but makes them harder to read. There's a pretty memorable one with a giant talking centipede.

A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel
I remember the fantastic reviews this book got when it came out, a long time ago, but the subject matter always put me off before. It's about three of the main movers in the French Revolution. Mantel writes very well, and it's probably a good thing that I'm sufficiently ignorant about the revolution not to be able to remember in which order people died. It's one of those books which fills you with a sense of relief almost as soon as you start it, because you know it's going to be reliably good, and because it's nice and fat enough to last you a long time. I used to feel that way often as a child, when I was able to read any sort of trash, but now it's quite a rare experience. The relationships of the characters are very convincingly traced, both in their initial friendship and their fallings out. I love the bit where Robespierre remarks wryly that his presence turns everyone into a hypocrite. This may have been horrendously conceited of me, but I did used to feel like that sometimes as a sixth-former. I still haven't read Wolf Hall, out of a sense that I don't want to waste something I'm going to enjoy.

Heaving knives at the apple of your eye

I accidentally watched some breakfast TV on how hard it is not to be an overprotective parent. Should 12-year-olds be allowed alone on public transport? My brother used to go to school every day on a train without adult supervision from the age of 8, and I did the same from the age of 11. (It was the same train but obviously we didn't travel together.) Anyway, then I saw this on boing boing, and I think it's cool:

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Recent books

Now that I no longer keep most of the books I read I like to have them on my blog so that I can look back on what I've read; but I keep forgetting to write them up. Here are five recent ones:

Mr Roberts, Alexei Sayle
This is a pretty short novel, more of a novella, which is a good thing because Alexei Sayle is a great short story writer. It's about an ex-pat Brit community in a Spanish valley. A teenage boy with a difficult young mother finds something odd crashed on a hill.

The Fire Gospel, Michel Faber
Another short one; not hugely substantial but quite entertaining. Reminded me a bit of Michael Frayn's Headlong in that someone finds something which they take advantage of in a naive way without seeing the terribly obvious pitfalls ahead. Frayn's character is actively unpleasant, though, while Faber's protagonist is just terminally hapless. I may have spent too long being a medievalist because I found the extracts from the discovered gospel far more interesting than the main character's travails in the book industry, and also the way that no one cares about its provenance annoyed me a bit.

The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite, Beatrice Colin
A bit better than I was expecting -- the cover makes it look a bit too Richard and Judy -- I don't have anything against Richard and Judy choices per se but you can take it too far. It's sort of about film culture in Germany in the decades before the second world war, with a heroine who experiences things of the time without the plot being too predictable. Quite enjoyable but I'll surely never reread it.

Eight Faces at Three, Craig Rice
Slightly mad crime fiction written and set in 1930s Chicago. Craig Rice is the pseudonym of Georgiana Craig, who apparently had an over-the-top life, and wasn't especially happy. It's about a girl who wakes up to find her aunt stabbed, and every single clock in the house stopped at 3am, and is then the police's top suspect. The three detective characters spend a lot of time drinking and then having hangovers. I will read more of her stuff if I come across it, but probably won't try to search it out.

Traitor's Purse, Margery Allingham
Has there ever been a freakier or more sinister mystery writer than Margery Allingham? If you read one of her books you're not in the least guaranteed that the next one will be similar, unlike with Agatha Christie or Ellis Peters and such. I've read this one before, but had forgotten the plot. It starts with a man waking up under arrest in hospital with no memory of anything at all, but a conviction that something truly terrible is about to happen associated with the number 15, and that he is the only person who can stop it. He manages to escape from hospital with the help of a woman he thinks is his wife. Good stuff.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

What the internet sells

I wish jeans would return to the high-waisted look of my childhood. In the meantime here are some useful stickers which many people could employ:
Des stickers pour cacher la raie de vos fesses

This is Spinal Tape -- perhaps it could be put to the same use. (That site also sells synthetic owl puke, which is a bit of a cop-out compared with combing forests looking for real owl pellets like my brother and I did when we were small -- we had our own little natural history museum -- but on the other hand Mum wouldn't let us touch them if they were growing mould, and they usually were, so this way might be less disappointing. I wonder what happened to our museum? It had some good skulls in it.)

I'd quite like a Salvador Dali moustaches watch, because it gives me joy, but would the joy wear off? Consumerism isn't as straightforward as you'd think.

When small nephew is a bit older I think I might get him some Mad Scientist Alphabet Blocks. They look beautifully made. For myself, I would like a spy coin. Or better still lots of spy coins! I would release them into the wild and no one would notice they had a spy coin until it was rejected by the UL photocopying card charger, and then they'd look carefully and unscrew it, and inside I would put a small note saying "Hello!" Or something better, like a piece of microfilm, or a mini SD card, probably containing an advert for cheap Ciali$.

Edit: I also want a wooden hard drive.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Juniper learns to walk

Here are a few brief bits of Juniper the alpaca cria's first hour.

1. She's only about twenty-five minutes old and her ears are still wet, but she's beginning to think she ought to try standing up. The noises are Devon spring insects and birds, small nephew, and me.

2. She's walking! sort of. She may be staggering in a drunken manner, but stop and consider that about forty minutes earlier she was all folded up and actually inside the alpaca behind her.

3. She's got the hang of legs! And she came up onto the lawn to say hello to us. Gracie is the mother, and Gypsy and Gwarakusi are the other two adults, both of whom should be having their own cria within a month. Gypsy is the one who says "meep" at me.

Not long after this Gracie dropped the afterbirth right in front of us as we were trying to eat icecream.

More Juniper

OK so I'm not great at this liveblogging thing. Here are some pictures of Juniper with her mother Gracie in her first half an hour or so:

Her legs are ridiculously long and not easy to manage:

All baby alpacas get the hang of their back legs before the front legs, and at first they are prone to collapsing in somersaults.

Hurray! She's managed to stand up, albeit in an odd pose. Still it only took her thirty-five to forty minutes.


Live-blogging experiment interrupted by grumpiness of nephew. Baby Juniper (f) born circa 13.25. Currently being licked and encouraged by her mother, and just starting to try to stand up. On the one hand it's fun to watch them at this stage -- they're usually on their feet within an hour -- on the other hand if I hang around I may have to watch the afterbirth coming out, which very very far from a pretty sight. The crows are already gathering.

Exciting live blog action!

Gracie the alpaca has gone into labour in the paddock outside my window! She's waving her tail and looking a bit bewildered. I will post news of what someone, I forget who, aptly described as "a disgusting miracle", as it occurs. If you're unlucky I might even procure pictures.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Various odds and ends

The ongoing "evolutionary psychology" advice page at the Guardian is supposed to be funny, I imagine, but just gets increasingly offensive. This one suggests that this man's girlfriend dropped him once she realised he wasn't dominant in office politics, and as a nice sideline points out that men in "Eastern and African societies" behave like chimpanzees. Is there any evolutionary psychology at all which isn't just utter bullshit?

Geoffrey Hill, often seen at Corpus high table for lunch as the guest of a retired bishop, at least back when I used to be there, resulting in some awkward conversations where I realised I was totally incapable of saying anything intelligent about his poetry despite the fact that I hugely admire it, is top runner for the Oxford poetry professorship.

Dramatic pictures of the Iceland volcano thing. And at the opposite scale insects with dew drops on them -- very beautiful. Also pictures from inside waves.

Rats can do the Prisoner's Dilemma, apparently. I love my little rats. However I do dislike very much game theory. Here is an interesting one about a game show where you can win up to a million dollars by picking a sum you want, as long as at least one other person has asked for more than you, and no one has asked for less. I played this at Christmas with my family as an experiment, and my mother asked for one dollar, scuppering anyone's chances of getting any (purely theoretical) cash, on the grounds that she loves us all dearly and thinks that lots of money would be bad for our characters.

William Gibson says sensible things about writer's block. David Mitchell says sensible things about pole-dancing students at the Cambridge Union. And here is some Italo disco (yay!):

Friday, 16 April 2010

A debate about politics

I can't think of anything more depressing than watching the party leaders' live debates. Now I am watching breakfast TV on BBC1 and some analysts are discussing it in a way which rams home why the whole thing was a very bad idea. For example, they were quite struck by the gradations of colour of the three candidates' suits and shirts. I offer up their comments as an aid to voters who are trying to weigh up the difference between the options on offer:
Nick Clegg must take his hand out of his pocket.
Gordon Brown has an overly mobile jaw.
David Cameron has strong hand gestures but should have looked at the camera more.
So there you are. The other piece of analysis I have heard was late last night in the sitting room of the guest house where I'm staying. A bloke who is staying here watched the whole thing. I don't know where he's from but he has a very strong Eastern European accent. His comment was:
I watch debate. This David Cameron, he is a jerk.