Saturday, 31 December 2011

Reading in 2011

One of my three New Year's resolutions for 2011 was to keep track of what I read. I've done this using LibraryThing, which is quite a good system. So here is my personal set of book awards for 2011.

Favourite all-round book of the year:
A tie between these two, which are both humane, amusing, and intelligent:
  • Moo by Jane Smiley
  • Rameau's Niece by Cathleen Schine
Moo is a great campus novel which I read back in January. Rameau's Niece is another academic-y one. I read it in August, and since I never reviewed it on this blog I'm posting here my review from LibraryThing:
Wonderful, my favourite of hers so far. Margaret has a lovely husband, a terrible memory, and a surprise bestseller under her belt, an edition of a post-Revolutionary anatomical treatise by a Frenchwoman. Now she's editing an eighteenth-century philosophical dialogue which is really the story of the seduction of the eponymous niece of Rameau -- written by a philosopher at a time when "philosopher" had a secondary meaning of dirty, dirty man (e.g. Sade, Casanova). Unfortunately she gets rather caught up in her work, and rediscovers erotic yearnings. This novel is great fun, affectionately satirical, and pokes gentle fun at the idea of the search for knowledge as a form of sexual desire.

Snidest and most subtly brilliant author:
  • Muriel Spark, especially for The Abbess of Crewe
  • Barbara Pym, especially for A Glass Full of Blessings
Enjoyable company, but likeable?  And a runner-up prize for Elinor Lipman, The Ladies' Man.

Best light-hearted reads:
  • Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce books
  • Paul Magrs's Brenda books
Two excellent series, worth saving up.

Favourite author discoveries
  • Jo Walton
  • Javier Marías
  • Ismail Kadare
with runners-up awards for Cathleen Schine, Allegra Goodman, Kate Christensen, and Ian McDonald.

"I'm an Intellectual me" award for high-brow books I actually really enjoyed
  • Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow trilogy

Reliably cheering author award:
  • Marian Keyes
  • Jilly Cooper
and a lifetime service award to Georgette Heyer

Brilliant memoir award:
  • Rhoda Janzen, Mennonite In A Little Black Dress
  • runner up Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Woman

You're A Bit of An Arse award for being entertaining but mostly a bit of an arse:
  • Russell Brand, Booky-Wook Two

Very interesting history/biography award:
  • Bride of Science by Benjamin Woolley (about Ada, daughter of Byron)
  • Mad Madge by Katie Whitaker (about Margaret Cavendish, another early female scientist)
  • Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey
  • Augustine of Hippo by Henry Chadwick (worthy but more likeable than you'd expect)
  • As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil by Rodney Bolt (Mary Benson)

Ouch award for unpalatable truths:
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
There's a lot of racial tension in the US but when you read this book it's hard to understand why there isn't out and out war. Of course this book was credited by Abraham Lincoln no less with starting the War Between the States.
Honourable mention to John Lanchester, Whoops!.

Best drawings:
  • Hark a Vagrant! by Kate Beaton
  • The First In Line by Mattias Adolfson

And here is an analysis borrowed from how Stuck In A Book does it, though shortened.
  • Total number of books read: 209
  • Gender of authors (of each book): 107 male, 92 female, 5 not sure (they're all K. J. Parker), and 5 anthologies
  • Fiction vs non-fiction: 181 to 28
  • Number of re-reads: 23
That's less non-fiction than I would have guessed, and fewer rereads.  Also I would have expected the male/female ratio to be more equal (though K. J. Parker is probably a woman, which would make the numbers closer).

Saturday, 24 December 2011


1. I forgot to post about things I read in November. I mostly enjoyed books by Elinor Lipman, who is gently funny, or sometimes not so gently in a Spark/Pym style. (E.g. The Ladies Man.) Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman was very enjoyable. Strictly speaking we ought to be further along in feminism than this by now, we shouldn't need someone to point out that equal treatment for men and women is a good thing and beneficial to both, but it seems that we do. I wanted to post about it properly but I doubt I'll ever get round to it. But it did make me think that given that a lot of women are prone to crazily analytical thoughts, and given that women are at least fifty percent of the population, does that really count as crazy after all? If a lot of people do it it could be argued that it's quite normal. Anyway, I recommend this book mostly because it's funny.

2. I meant to post about the Victorians. On my way into college I walk past either the Natural History Museum or the Royal Albert Hall and Albert Memorial, or sometimes past the V&A. In my childhood I was frequently told by both grandmothers that the Victorians would not have stood for my behaviour and would have taken away my food, beaten me, and probably clamped me to metal things to stop me slouching, and I got the impression that the Victorians were a very dull lot who hated children. But you can't go past those buildings without realising that actually the Victorians were completely crazy. I really meant to blog about the amazingness of the Natural History Museum building, and to read up on Victorian things, but I never got round to more than reading Strachey's Eminent Victorians, which I loved.

3. I never got round to writing a post about K. J. Parker. I still want to do this one day. In the meantime I'll just say that her (or possibly his) Engineer Trilogy is a really excellent work and one of my favourite discoveries of 2010. I reread it recently and I still think it's great.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Brilliant music

Popjustice's list of the top 45 singles of 2011 is out. (Have I mentioned that popjustice is great?) There were two great songs on it which I had missed. Here's Donkeyboy (who did Ambitions before Joe McElderry), City Boy, with quite a watchable video:

And Selena Gomez, who deserves sympathy for being hated, did this excellent pop song, Love You Like a Love Song.

Thursday, 22 December 2011


I met my brother's baby girl, my little niece. I suppose in the normal run of things one just doesn't encounter little babies very often. I was struck, just like I was by my nephew when he was tiny, how wierd new babies are. I can't remember what philosopher it was who said that we can never know what it's like to be a bat, but I could make a much better go at imagining a world defined by clicks and twilight flying than imagining what it's like to a be a little weeks old baby. They look so alien, and they can't touch things or see much. They go dark and stiff when they're angry, and cry like small animals coughing, and they have freakily tiny necks. My nephew is clearly finding the adjustment a bit frustrating, though he's generally being good. My niece needs most of the attention of at least one of her parents at all times, and sometimes both, and she's too young yet to do anything which would engage my nephew's interest. He strokes her head very gently, but it annoys him if this doesn't stop her crying. I expect he'll find it easier once she starts smiling and sitting up, and generally being more human.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Bip-bop: a retraction

So it turns out that when I emended my mother's term "bip-bop" to hip-hop I was wrong and she really meant beat box. I think I might have guessed this if I had thought more carefully about the small likelihood of her substituting the labial plosive b for the glottal pseudo-fricative h, the fact that even Devon-dwelling grandmothers have probably heard the term hip-hop at some point, and the text-critical rule of lectio difficilior. But I know for sure because she made me first search for and then watch the rapping vicar on YouTube. So I am embedding it here. I'm not sure I'd recommend it but it has made my mother very happy. Go vicars! If you want to, be unusual.

Good stuff

Because my last post went all ecclesiastical I didn't quite feel up to posting at the end some other videos, especially this song, which I enjoy as music, but which is depressing if you listen too much to the lyrics, which seems to be just how things are these days (unless you're listening to a rapping vicar, in which case the other probably applies).  I quite like Andre 3000 as a talking cat.

Ages ago I ordered Kate Beaton's Hark A Vagrant book, which was waiting when I came back, and is great. The first cartoon in it is this brilliant Bronte one. Go Anne!

I like this song too, and the video is quite good if not brilliant.

Monday, 19 December 2011


I'm back in Devon.  My mum collected me from Honiton and drove me back through the Blackdown Hills.  She tells me that they had a rapping vicar at church yesterday morning.  She said she was surprised at first but that when she listened she thought the lyrics were quite clever.  "He didn't call it rapping, though," she told me, "but bip-bop."  I asked if it was possible she meant hip-hop, and she said yes, if that's like rapping.  I love Devon.  I felt I ought to warn her that teenagers are unlikely to have been impressed by it, and I'm glad that I wasn't there, but still I do think vicars should be allowed to rap if they feel like it.

It is impossible to be unmoved by the Blackdown Hills AONB, but I have to say that enjoying living in London has slightly shaken my faith in my living-in-Devon life plan.  London has so much going on that's good for the mind. And another thing is that even leaving rapping vicars aside, the church situation in London is so much easier to deal with.  I think for the first time ever in my life I'm going to a church where my rather liberal views are in tune with those of many there.  The vicar is the chairman of the Inclusive Church movement, which is mostly famous for its stance on LBGT issues, but which also campaigns about women's ministry, mental health, poverty, and other things that can make people feel excluded from the church.  When I went to St Andrew the Great's in Cambridge, many years back, I couldn't avoid the feeling that that church was there for undamaged, successful people, and it made me feel out of place.  Jesus' ministry was largely to people who had failed or been hurt in some way.  (Though St Andrew the Great's is an excellent church and good at prodding the comfortable.) 

Anyway (if it embeds properly, I'm not used to vimeo) here's the vicar of St John's Waterloo preaching about power and powerlessness as part of a sermon series he organised for advent.

Revd Giles Goddard from David Simoes-Brown on Vimeo.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Week Eleven

So here we are in the middle of week eleven, the last of term.  It's been very hard work, and I feel simultaneously relieved at the thought of a break, and very anxious at the idea that we have almost finished with one of just two teaching terms for the whole course.  I've been doing OK in coursework, but the courseworks are a tiny tiny piece of the total mark.  I got one back yesterday that counts for one third of ten percent of three-quarters of a module, out of nine modules in total.  (And there's an individual project too, the marks for which remain separate.)

A lot of the time I don't notice being older than the others but sometimes it really hits home, and then I feel like Louis CK in this coffee shop (it starts about a minute in):

Sunday, 4 December 2011


When I was a student the first time round it was a relatively short time since most Cambridge colleges had started to admit women, a short enough time that no one in my year at Trinity was going to have a mother who also went to Trinity.  The gender balance of colleges and courses was something people were aware of in the way that they were also aware of the need for a balance of social and economic backgrounds.  In Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic we were proud of ourselves for being pretty much 50/50.  (And by the time I left ASNC many years later I think the senior members were about 50/50 too.)  So when I was first a student there was a feeling that gender imbalance was a problem that was slowly being overcome.

I don't know if it's just a natural part of moving from youth to middle age, which is famous for making you look back with rose-tinted spectacles, but it seems like in so many ways gender things have failed to get better, or even got worse.  I first noticed it at about the time I became a research fellow.  The fellowship was very male-dominated -- it was numerically more typical to be an out gay man than a woman -- and although no one was ever anti me as a woman, they certainly commented on it from time to time.  One fellow told me that as a woman I had got second place in the lottery of life, which I laughed at uproariously because I thought he was making a joke, until I realised that whether joking or not he did actually think this was true.  Anyway, it wasn't a problem, it was just odd because it seemed like a retrograde step.

Now I'm a student again things are even worse.  I'm one of seven women out of 56 students on my course, and although we're a pretty vocal bunch -- our year's student rep is a woman -- we're vocal in that way that women are when they're surrounded by men.  Imperial should be a bit ashamed of this imbalance, which is visible throughout the department.  They should be even more ashamed of the examples used in our Object-Oriented Programming lectures.  In object-oriented programming you model the scenario you want to program by thinking about different types of objects as classes.  So if you were modelling a traffic junction you might have a TrafficLight class and a Vehicle class.  You can have subclasses which share some behaviours and data with a superclass, e.g. Vehicle might be a superclass with subclasses Car, Bicycle, and Bus.  Then you can make things behave differently according to which subclass they're part of.  In our object-oriented design lectures we have all this demonstrated with repeated examples using a Human superclass which has a Female subclass.  Humans enjoy walking and Females enjoy cooking.  When a Human goes on holiday it spends its time walking, but when a Female goes on holiday she cooks.  When a Human talks to a Human they talk about sport, but when a Human talks to a Female they talk about discos.

Clearly this is appalling.  When I was younger I might have been actually genuinely hurt by it.  By now I just find myself thinking that the men involved in it are all arseholes -- I think they realise it's not OK but they think it's funny not-OK not change-it-now not-OK.  And because I too can be sexist I find it very hard for my contempt for these individuals not to leak out a little bit onto men in general, or at least the young men on my course who think it's funny too.  I wish they'd just sort it out.  The feminism I believe in is about ending not perpetuating the war of the sexes.  I'm not just damaged by sexism because it might stop me doing things, but also damaged by it when it makes me a worse person by provoking a reactionary sexism in me.

So welcome to a difficult world, little niece.  I promise never ever to buy you anything pink.

Friday, 2 December 2011


My niece was born this morning.  I am now twice the aunt I was!  It's very exciting.  I don't know how my little nephew will deal with being a big brother.  He's usually quite a nice kid -- he has an endearing habit when playing of stopping and handing the toy over to you, saying "your turn now" -- but I think any child would be challenged by the sudden arrival of a smaller more demanding sibling.  I can remember when my little brother was born even though I was a bit younger then than my nephew is now.  I remember realising I wasn't going to get all the attention from now on, but I felt quite fatalistic about it.  My Granny bought him a teddy bear and she didn't buy me anything, but then again it was a horrible knitted teddy bear and I didn't want it.  Even at that age I felt that living up to people's attention could be hard work sometimes.

On the theme of its being pleasant not to be the only one, here's Chris Lowe singing One of the Crowd: