Monday, 30 April 2012

The books of April

I read too many books this month. I read a lot while I was in Devon over Easter, and then carried on doing it when I got back, during breaks in revision which were rather longer than they should have been. Here are the ones I enjoyed most:

1. The Gil Cunningham books by Pat McIntosh. This series, starting with The Harper's Quine, is about a clerk in late fifteenth-century Glasgow who solves crimes. It's amiable and interesting, and I do like the use of proper Scots. (There's a glossary but it's more appealing without.) They were all on kindle for 99p each when I read them.

2. I've read quite a lot of twentieth-century social history, and I would strongly recommend Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth and Nella Last's War: the Second-World-War Diaries of 'Housewife, 49'. The first is the memoir which lies behind the BBC tea-time drama, and though I haven't seen that I do think they must have toned it down a bit to get it pre-watershed. It's shocking how recently this happened -- the kids in the book would be contemporaries of my mum and dad. I read it on a day when I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and it made me feel like I had been mentally slapped. Nella Last's diary is a great thing. She was one of the people recruited into the Mass Observation Project in the late 30s, an attempt to do the "anthropology of ourselves". She clearly had a flair for diary-writing, and her account of the great stresses of the war -- and also of marriage -- are compelling and very readable.

3. Two good American history books: The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, and Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne. The Killer Angels is a novelisation of the battle of Gettysburg. It won the Pullitzer, and is kind of a big deal in America. It's very well done; the sort of novel that teaches more about history than a history lesson. I read it because I heard it inspired Joss Whedon to write Firefly, but actually it doesn't have anything much about the post-war era in it, except for a brief summary of what happened to each of the main characters. Empire of the Summer Moon, about the last Comanches and particularly their great leader Quanah Parker, is a startling book if, like me, you don't know much about American history. The Comanches were violent and lived by war, and were really the frightening killers of playground Cowboys and Indians games. The Texans weren't much better of course. The author is good at conveying both sides of this culture clash, and the tragedy of Cynthia Ann Parker, captured in a violent raid by Comanches at the age of 9, and then captured back again in another violent raid by Texans decades later, and never allowed to rejoin her two young sons despite her increasingly desperate attempts to escape back to the Comanches.

4. Iain Pears, Stone's Fall. Iain Pears is one of my favourite novelists, and perhaps the one I'd most like to be like. He usually writes about art, but in this book he brings out the elegance and beauty of industry and finance. It's also one of those satisfying books in which you learn more and more about the past -- there are three narratives each of which is from further back in time. Go Iain Pears!

5. Vanessa Gebbie, The Coward's Tale.  I think this was another Kindle book I took a chance on for 99p and it turned out to be very good.  It's about a small Welsh mining town still traumatised by a terrible pit accident a generation before.  A boy moves there to stay with his Gran while his parents have problems, and gets to know the town beggar who tells stories to the people in the cinema queue in return for toffees.

I also read three books by Jonathan Carroll who may or may not be great -- I haven't decided yet. He's an odd one.

P.S. I've scheduled this post to appear while I'm in the middle of one of my exams. I'd forgotten quite how truly horrible exams and revision are, and young people have my sympathy.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A note regarding last post

In my last post I linked to Charlie Stross's thoughts on ebook DRM and the US anti-trust suit about Apple. He's just put up a follow-up in reaction to the fact that Tor (part of Macmillan) are going to abandon ebook DRM -- it seems they actually asked his opinion on this. I think it makes interesting reading. I like that he talks about midlist sales, and considers those people who buy 20-150 books a year as well as those who buy 1-5. Did you know you only have to buy 20 books a year to count as an avid booklover?

Monday, 16 April 2012


1. I enjoyed this piece about rereading. I am a rereader myself -- saying that you don't reread because there are so many unread books out there seems to me a bit like saying you don't want to go out with your friends during valuable time when you could meet new people. But who would have thought that Philip Hensher regularly rereads Little House in the Big Woods, and Ian Rankin rereads Jilly Cooper's Rivals? (As is appropriate he does so without guilt.) I reread lots, but the problem is that the things you really love need longer and longer between each rereading. It will be quite a while before I can reread Robertson Davies' Cornish Trilogy again, or Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy, or Pynchon's Mason and Dixon.

2. I find fan fiction a very interesting concept, so I read this piece on it even though I don't usually read the Millions' long-form stuff. I had not heard before that there were women corresponding with Richardson while he was releasing Clarissa in installments. I read Clarissa a while ago because I read somewhere that all novels were descended from Clarissa and Tristram Shandy in varying proportions.* I found it readable but absolutely horrible. It reminded me of Hitchcock's sadistic recipe for drama (which I think he actually got from someone else) "torture the heroine". Nasty things happen in a lot of books but in this one for some reason I could feel the mind of the author all the time. Richardson created Clarissa, not perfect but very lovely and loveable, a good person, and then he slowly and precisely handed her over into Lovelace's power, and he made Lovelace torment her and rape her. Lovelace's announcement of the rape when he writes to his friend "Clarissa lives" is somehow the more evil for its understatement. So I find it fascinating to know that while Richardson was slowly building up to this -- it's a really massive book -- women were writing to him suggesting that perhaps Lovelace might not rape Clarissa after all, and perhaps Clarissa could live a long and happy life. I don't think I'll ever reread Clarissa, and I would cross the street to avoid meeting Samuel Richardson. (Not that there's any need, he's dead of course, but you know what I mean.)

3. I love my kindle and I read a lot on it right now. I went into Waterstone's the other day to use up some reward points I'd built up, and it made me feel all sad because now that their 3 for 2 offers are dead I have no real reason to go there. At the moment all the books I buy are either a) cheap and electronic b) cheap and secondhand c) too obscure to have any chance of being in stock in Waterstones. However it is pretty scary how much control Amazon now have over my book-buying, even though Awesome is quite often cheaper and Abebooks can be better at sourcing oddities. Even more worrying is the power they are building up over publishers. Every publisher who insists on DRM for their books is selling themselves into the hands of Amazon, because Amazon are rich and can afford to lose some money on physical devices in return for a long-term monopoly over both book-buyers and book-sellers. Every reader who buys a book published by, say, Penguin with Kindle DRM is that much less likely to switch to another ereader in future, and with every sale like that Penguin gives Amazon power over its business. Charlie Stross thinks that for this reason the anti-trust suit against Apple in the US over its publishing agreements means the end of ebook DRM. I hope that's the case. The whole situation is quite interesting, but a bit worrying. I suppose in the meantime one can buy more things from independents like Weightless Books, like Carol Emshwiller's The Mount.

* I tracked this down! Salman Rushdie, writing about G. V. Desani's brilliant Shandean All About H. Hatterr, attributed this statement to Milan Kundera. It's quoted in this article about Desani (which makes him sound much harder work than he is -- I've never really coped with Joyce and I can take or leave Flann O'Brien but I loved All About H. Hatterr).

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Some things

1. I like big books and I cannot lie. I really want this bag but it's too expensive.

2. Otters who look like Benedict Cumberbatch. 

3. A laser unprinter to help you reuse paper (but possibly increase subsequent paper jams).

4. At the end of last term several people on my course were announcing that they had stayed up all night in the library, as if they thought it were in some way a good thing.  This author says that when you work long-term for more than 40 hours a week your productivity goes down not up, which seems like common sense to me.

5. Also some of them just invited me to go to see an exhibition, which I had to point out to them closed last week. Oh, young people! It's actually quite heartening the way they make me feel all together and sensible.

6. I'm in Devon at the moment. I went with my parents to the local farmers' shop, Mole Valley Farmers. They spent enough there to get a voucher for a free faecal worm count. (For livestock, I should say, not humans.) Take that, Nectar points.

7. Soon after I got back here, over dinner my parents asked me what I thought of the Schmallenberg virus. I forgot that they talk about different things in the country. At least the conversation has moved on from badger death. By the way, the word round here is that the Schmallenberg virus is not new, if you keep up with these things.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

But not yet

I read a review of Peter Sarris's new book on the late Antique/early Islamic era. I had some dealings with him when he supervised some of my students a while back, and just by bad luck he had my two most troublesome ones. He was ultra-professional, and I have a lot of respect for him, the sort of respect that's tinged with dauntedness. I don't think he suffers fools gladly, and unfortunately for all four of us the two students I sent him, although both very far from unintelligent, were fools.* The review was by Christopher Kelly, who was a fellow of Corpus while I was a research fellow there, but was for most of that time away on a Major Leverhulme Research Fellowship -- or it may not have been Leverhulme, but I do remember that it was Major. I only met him a couple of times, and he never talked to me. His writing usually seems sensible. The thing that caught my eye particularly was about St Augustine.
It is certainly a relief that readers of this book do not have to share St Augustine's concerns, cried out in desperation to his friend Alypius: 'the uneducated rise up and take heaven by storm, and we, with all our learning, here we are, still wallowing in flesh and blood'. This is an embarrassing outburst from one of the finest minds of antiquity who should have known better. To be fair, Augustine was, as Sarris points out, a saint 'on the brink of a breakdown'.
Now, I may not be understanding this properly because I find it hard to make sense of it. It took me a long time to like Augustine, who was a complex individual. If you asked me to say what it is I now like about him, and why I would genuinely have liked to have known the (later) Augustine, it's for exactly the reason that Kelly is singling out as embarrassing. Augustine was a very clever young man, who excelled in his studies of rhetoric and had a high-flying academic career. It took him a long time, even with his "finest" mind, to realise that learning and intelligence are not enough by themselves to make you a good person -- aren't the criteria for valuableness in a human. And ever since I was quite young this has been one of the things I've loved about Christianity too. As a teenager I used to love that Church was a place that involved lots of studying, lots of close reading and discussing of the Bible, lots of explaining of things in cultural context and in wider terms, but no sense at all that to be intelligent was of itself the best thing to be. Intelligence and understanding were tools to be used towards another goal. I loved I Corinthians 1: "For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength".** (From the context Paul seems to be talking about God's love leading to his plan for our redemption, foolishness in terms of Jewish theology and weakness in terms of Greek theology.) And this is what I find in Augustine's vast Commentary on the Psalms, written over the course of thirty years. (I've been reading it over Lent for three years now and I'm still only on Psalm 78.) These mingled sermons and lectures are much more endearing than many of his writings in their concern to spread understanding to his congregation. This is the Augustine I'd like to have known, more than the Augustine of the Confessions or The City of God, or On Free Will or any of his more academic pieces, the seasoned bishop who cared about his flock. [Edit: some of the quotations I lifted from Chadwick's Life of Augustine are relevant here.)

So that's my point of view, and it's certainly informed by my faith. But surely it's not just Christians who would think this? Leaving Peter Sarris, fellow of Trinity, out of this on the grounds that the review can't be assumed to express his point of view, Christopher Kelly is a fellow of Corpus Christi. I have a true and unforced respect for the learning of all the fellows there. But you can't spend a lot of time in governing body meetings without realising the limits of academic intelligence. It will really only get you so far. It's not the same thing as wisdom, and it's not the thing that justifies people, not the thing that makes you valuable, useful, important, or whatever it is you think people should be. Does Augustine's realising this really count as "an embarrassing outburst" from someone who "should have known better"? Is Augustine's complex spiritual progress really, in modern eyes, "the brink of a breakdown"? Like most people I often feel profoundly alienated from modern life, but it's heartening when, as in this instance, it's in a good way.

*When I reread this I felt bad about calling those students fools, but they did act very foolishly. They were both of them just 20, though, and I'm sure they have grown wiser over time.

**It goes on like this: "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things -- and the things that are not -- to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God -- that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord"." [I Cor. 1: 25-31]

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Amazingly revolting google project video

I am officially just too old now, and should probably be put out of my misery before I hold the rest of you up. Someone just posted this video on my M.Sc. course's facebook group. Maybe it's theoretically cool but it's also so nauseating I literally want to go ack ack and cough up a hairball:

From now on Buying Tickets for Monsieur Gayno is a euphemism, even if it wasn't before.

Books of March, and format

Nothing I read in March really enthused me. The Help by Kathryn Stockett is quite good, and doesn't deserve the complications of the hype that has grown up around it. Debra Hamel's Mutilation of the Herms is a specialist book for a non-specialist reader -- it's nice to be treated as intelligent. And Maria McCann's The Wilding is worth reading too. I can't think of anyone else who writes historical fiction in which the different attitudes of the past are so well conveyed.

I've been reading a lot on kindle because it's easy to take on the tube or bus, and I've got quite a few unread things on it because of the Kindle Daily Deal and the occasional sales they have. At the moment the truth about ebooks is that I want everything in both formats. I yearn for some shelves I can put books on and just know they're there. It would be really luxurious to have all my favourite books physically present somewhere accessible. I also want them on my kindle so that if I suddenly want to look something up I can do that too.

If you do have a Kindle I would strongly recommend using Calibre to set things up so you're less likely to lose what you've bought through some spasm on Amazon's part. Enough of us trusting them, let's force them to trust us for a change.

Sunday, 1 April 2012


I miss my Cambridge hairdresser. He knew roughly how I like my hair to be cut, and he talked to me interestingly while he did it, and he is a nice person. He cut it with a razor, which made the most amazing "crrrrup" noise, and he would change the CD from jazz to Kraftwerk for me even though I didn't ask. My current policy in haircuts is to buy Groupon vouchers when they come up and use them when I need them. So yesterday I went to a really posh place on High Holborn. They had big screens everywhere with models walking up and down catwalks. I've watched too much reality TV so girls on catwalks make me feel quite sad. When I indicated with a gesture what length I wanted my hair, the hairdresser (or more probably, stylist) said "Really?" as if I had genuinely shocked her. With an obvious (and unsuccessful) attempt to keep her voice neutral she said "Hair that length makes people's faces look rounder -- is that something you would want?" So I told her just to do what she felt like. I remember caring so much about haircuts when I was about fifteen, and every haircut was a terrible emotional rollercoaster because I knew that my unreasonable mother probably wouldn't let me stay in my room for a month or two until my hair grew out. These days I seem to be substantially less invested in my hair style than the person cutting it. And in those stylized surroundings I didn't feel up to explaining that one of the main things I want from a hair cut is for my hair to be shorter so that I don't have to give any money to a hairdresser for a while. Anyway, she did cut it quite nicely at the back, but by drying it straight she amazingly managed to make it look longer than when I'd gone in. Sometimes I worry that I'm not meeting life's most simple challenges.

A groupon haircut voucher has come up for Exeter but it's at a place called "Wag's". So I think I might give that one a miss.

On the plus side I have pre-ordered a Raspberry Pi. And I have found a place which sells dog-poo composting wormeries for my new dog-owning Exeter life when I finally manage to arrange it. So it's not all bad. And here is Lady Gaga's brilliant song about Hair: