Sunday, 28 February 2010

Bookish Bits & Bobs: A Question of Space...

Being a makeup junkie does present a few problems of space in the bedroom and bathroom. While most girls would maybe have one travel box of makeup that holds everything they could ever need while still being of a goodly size, I manage to not only fill a box of this type to overflowing, but also fill another, larger box solely with eyeshadows, a bag the size of an average handbag, and two-thirds of a bathroom cabinet, as well as a box on wheels under the bed and scattering various items around the flat. And this still doesn't stop me from coveting more. I probably have enough makeup, perfume, soaps, skincare and various other toiletries to open my own branch of Boots.

It's perhaps evident from this, then, that storage solutions are not my forté. If you have just one obsession, it's probably permissible. However, I have two. My second love, equal to or greater than the first in its magnitude, is books (as perhaps evidenced by this blog's very existence). Practically ever since my foetal state (as my mother will attest), books have decorated my dwelling at every turn, with me frequently having more than one on the go at once. One of my favourite things to do in my childhood home was to wedge myself into the corner where the radiator meets the sofa in the downstairs living room and read contentedly for hours in winter, while the radiator warmed my back. My mother has several anecdotes about my life as an obsessive reader, including my ability to carry a stacked book box at the age of two and follow her around with it, and her own acquired ability to read a book to me and continue a conversation with an adult simultaneously.

This inevitably resulted in the continued acquisition of books. The inability to get rid of them was not just my fault, by the way, due to my mother's intention to apparently preserve the house as some sort of macabre museum of our childhoods (meaning that several of my baby books are still in the loft awaiting the birth of my as yet fictitious babies). Some teenage kicks, such as the Babysitters' Club series, did get shown the door. But there are so many books that I have bought over the years that I just cannot bring myself to chuck. They are books that I have loved so much that I want to reread them over and over, or books that I am still yet to read.

This, in my parents' suitably vast detached house, was never a problem; there was certainly no lack of bookshelves. However, I then moved out, firstly into a tiny studio flat shared with my boyfriend that he had not rented with a flatmate in mind (the story of the move is an adventure in itself - I turned up with a tiny suitcase that, given various other essentials that I needed for work such as clothes, only had room for one or two books at most), and secondly into a larger flat that was actually meant for more than one person (then subsequently into a third flat when the second one turned out to be unfit to live in. Joy). None of these properties were (or are) as ample as the previous space in which I was lucky enough to be able to house my books. Initially this was not problematic, as many of my books were still with my parents, and my boyfriend-turned-fiancé and I joined our local library.

In April 2009, when we'd been in our current flat for just under a month, my parents decided to embark on some sort of epic road trip with the majority of my stuff that still remained in the UK six months after I had moved overseas. Prior to this, my mother and I spent an hour or two on the phone with her reading out titles of every book I owned that was on the bookshelves there, and me instructing her to either bring them, keep them but don't bring them this time, or to sell them. Only a few (worringly or reassuringly) fell into this latter category. This meant that when they showed up with a carfull of stuff, several boxes of books had to be hauled up forty-seven stairs and then rehomed. This entailed buying another bookshelf, me taking over three-quarters of it and then stacking books into it three rows deep. I'm convinced that it is these rows of literary heaviness (both of the high and lowbrow varieties; we're talking physical weight here) that are the cause of the worrying creaking noise that we sometimes hear coming from the ceiling of our office/spare room immediately below.

This is the result of only half of my book collection being brought over (two-thirds if I'm in a state of denial). The growing numbers of books here are exacerbated by a couple of factors. One: I anticipate it becoming more difficult over the years to shed books that I have already read due to a severe lack of charity shops in the country where I now live. And two: every month the American Library (not the library that we are members of, I might add) holds an open-to-all booksale of its old and duplicate stock. We attend most months; I'm not sure that my fiancé has ever bought anything there, so any additions to the bookly menagerie are quite staunchly my fault.

I have always dreamt, and continue to dream, of someday having my own mini-library in the property where I live, but until it happens, I'm faced with the space-induced paradox encountered by many booklovers: the best way to show that you love books is not to buy them but, rather, to join your local library.

update February 2010

# of books read in February: 4
Cumulative total: 9

1. The Blessing (Nancy Mitford)
2. The Plato Papers (Peter Ackroyd)
3. The Hours (Michael Cunningham)
4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows)
5. Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford)
6. En passant (Raymond Queneau)
7. The Story of God (Robert Winston)
8. Ye Gods! Travels in Greece (Jill Dudley)
9. The Man in the High Castle (Philip K Dick)

Average number of books per month: 4.5
% by male authors: 66%
% by female authors: 44%

Not doing too badly so far, though at an average rate of 4.5 books a month, I'll still only be on the same total as last year if I continue this way (optimal target would be 8 books a month).

Nevertheless, I do currently have three books on the go (two in English and one in French), so should still be able to make things pick up a bit if I put my back into it.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Man In The High Castle (Philip K Dick)

--The blurb--
"It is 1962 and the Second World War has been over for seventeen years: people have now had a chance to adjust to the new order. But it's not been easy. The Mediterranean has been drained to make farmland, the population of Africa has virtually been wiped out and America has been divided between the Nazis and the Japanese. In the neutral buffer zone that divides the two superpowers lives the man in the high castle, the author of an underground bestseller, a work of fiction that offers an alternative theory of world history in which the Axis powers didn't win the war. The novel is a rallying cry for all those who dream of overthrowing the occupiers. But could it be more than that? Subtle, complex and beautifully characterized, The Man in the High Castle remains the finest alternative world novel ever written, and a work of profundity and significance."

--The review--
Supposedly a revolutionary novel for the world of science fiction (in terms of taking it away from spaceships and so forth) when it was first published, The Man In The High Castle is considered by many of the late novelist's fans to be among his finest work, even if he is most famous today for the intriguingly titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. However, while The Man In The High Castle may well have its legions of loyal Philip K Dick fans behind it, the novel cannot claim the accolade of being the most accessible dystopian novel to grace the bookshelves. While this opinion is possibly attributable to my own stupidity, I found that upon reading the introductory notes after finishing reading the novel, some points had gone completely over my head.

While the novel picked up pace in the second half, it was slow to gather momentum and the characters and situations seemed two-dimensional, despite their basis on previous world history. Equally, the author alternated frequently between settings and relationships, which didn't always make the novel the easiest to follow. On the up side, it was well-written even if it didn't always prove itself to be lucid, one found oneself caring more about what would happen and actually meeting the legendary man in the high castle towards the end, and the ending was more than satisfactory. It is clearly a multi-layered and complex work, which causes it to merit further readings. It is also a clever novel that is ambitious in its scope, though the various criminal activities and gory details that are also elaborated upon within its pages perhaps detract from its dystopian background.

Even though Dick's works deserve further investigation, this novel probably isn't the best one to start with if you're unfamiliar with his output. It's easy to see how his following has been more underground, and how this isn't his most popular or famed novel, losing that accolade to the one about the androids and the sheep. Empathy with the characters was difficult to achieve, but despite this being a common feature of dystopian novels, it may also partly be a reason why readers may ditch this and turn to (say) an Orwell, Huxley or Atwood novel. However, don't give up on it (or on Philip K Dick's work) completely: I suspect that it's the multiple layers that provide long-term rewards rather than instant gratification.

Other works by Philip K Dick
See here

Friday, 19 February 2010

Ye Gods!: Travels in Greece (Jill Dudley)

--The blurb--
"Ye Gods! is a light and humorous read and is about Jill Dudley's travels around Greece, touching on the myths and legends of the old gods and how the early Greek Orthodox Church emerged from its pagan past. It is also her own and sometimes comical search for enlightenment. Jill is accompanied by her husband Harry whose reluctance to travel and probe the unknown is the perfect foil for her enthusiastic explorations. The book could as easily be called 'The travels and trials of Harry'. It is ideal for anyone interested in Greece who would like to learn about its myths and legends whilst being entertained. It is a very good read and has a Glossary at the end of the gods and heroes mentioned in the book. The ten chapters take the reader from Athens, up Mount Olympus, to Mt. Athos (the Holy Mountain), to the islands and ends in Greek Cyprus."

--The review--
This history-cum-travelogue immediately appeals to the popular market with its Horrible-Histories style cover and titles (a trend which, I notice, is continued in her other books) and is broken up into relatively digestible chapters (which are broken down further into even smaller chunks) that are organised by location. Dudley effectively combines history and travel writing with anecdotes, which go a long way to lightening the book and lending it its overall appeal. Her aim in her travels to Greece seem to be a mixture of personal spiritual quest and of historical understanding, though this is never quite clearly defined.

On the whole, Dudley does write well, bringing the various religious sites to life in her writing with ease (although this does make her false modesty in terms of her writing abilities seem rather annoying and unfounded). However, while her abilities in speaking modern Greek serve to make the book even more interesting and unusual, it is perhaps a shame that this is not translated to her abilities in other languages (accent going the wrong way on 'voilà', for instance, and 'incapsulated' making an appearance instead of 'encapsulated') - because, let's face it: editors, unless they are extremely bad ones, do not tend to put mistakes INto the writing of others.

However, there are quite a few pitfalls. Dudley's age does show; she was almost 70 when this one was released, and some of her patronising attitudes and views seem alien to people of my generation, such as her complete inability to understand why a career in a hotel might possibly be fulfilling for some people, and her habit of asking local people about antiquated traditions as if they still took place today (the equivalent of my going up to French people and asking if they still dunk their croissants in a bowl of hot chocolate every morning at breakfast while wearing a beret and a striped shirt - which I have never seen anybody do) and then being surprised to get blank looks. In addition, we have her completely baffling assessment that all Greek men are utterly charming (how funny - my fiancé and I have always found them to be utterly odious. And nope, we don't think it has anything to do with how well you can speak Modern Greek).

Another slightly puzzling aspect of this series of adventures is the accompaniment of Dudley's husband Harry, who seems quite categorically to not want to be there. So why keep dragging him along? (This, though, may also relate to age: to a man of this generation, the thought of being left alone in England to cook and clean for himself for a few weeks may be enough to make him drop dead on the spot.) This multitude of factors means that, as a result, the beautiful locations and rituals that Dudley describes are increasingly sullied by her own infuriating personality and the dampening presence of her unwilling husband.

And yet, despite all of this, I still feel compelled to follow Dudley's extra adventures in her other works - particularly in Holy Smoke!, which I hope will be a follow-up to her expressed desire to explore other religions, such as Islam. In short, these readable volumes are certainly to be recommended - if, that is, you don't feel like throwing Dudley overboard from the proverbial cruise ship (for that is where you would be quite likely to meet someone like her) by the time you close the book.

Other works by Jill Dudley
Ye Gods! II: More Travels in Greece (2006)
Holy Smoke! Travels Through Turkey and Egypt (2007)

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Story of God (Robert Winston)

--The blurb--
"From a leading voice in the debate on genetic engineering comes a look at the contemporary relationship of science and religion. It begins with the primitive worship of our early ancestors, and concludes with a vivid portrait of faith in the modern world."

--The review--
Sir Robert Winston is, one could say, the biggest scientific household name in Britain today, alongside his potential arch nemesis, Richard Dawkins. This existing status of popularity should have made it easy to reach out to the people of Britain via mainstream writing, and to a degree, this ambitious interdisciplinary project is a successful one, binding together sociology, history, religion, science and psychology in one concise volume. Winston also does not set out to deliberately rebuff his famous colleague's ideas on religion, although he does address these once, and in a respectful manner.

The chapters are set out in roughly chronological order (though Lord Winston does jump around a bit in places where it's appropriate) and are further broken down into readably-sized chunks, with subtitles to further focus ideas. This is good in itself, but its effectiveness is lamentably reduced by a simple issue of formatting: by not including the chapter names and the name of the individual section that you're reading at the time at the top of each page, it can be all too easy to lose the thread of thought. This is a shame given how easily fixable it is.

The scope of The Story of God is of epic proportions and the amount of research and thought that has clearly gone into it should not be underestimated. However, there are a few weaknesses, mostly relating to various nuances of Christianity, though whether this springs from Winston's own Jewish faith, or from gaps in his research, or from missing leaps of logic, or something else, is unclear. Firstly, at some stage Winston describes Christianity as a religion where personal goodness is key. While this is correct to an extent, it is not a wholly appropriate moniker for a belief system where faith rather than works is touted as the entry card into Paradise (i.e. that it doesn't matter how good you are; only belief that Jesus is Lord etc will get you in! see Ephesians 2:8,9). However, this is a complex issue, and Winston perhaps could have explored the nuances of this further, by referring to the Bible passages that are often used in this debate (Romans 3:28, 5:1, Galatians 3:24, James 2:24, as well as the Ephesians passage mentioned before).

The second issue regarding Christianity as pointed out by Lord Winston is equally complex. He refers to the church and the state being separate when talking of the United States, when this is clearly untrue. While the author does briefly address the fact of the Pledge of Allegiance being recited in American schools, the point is missed on two levels: one is that the Pledge does mention God, which would not be permitted in a truly secular schooling system, and the other is that Lord Winston compares this to the recitation of the Lord's prayer in Christian schools in the UK, which I'm not even sure to be the case any longer. In any case, even if in British Christian schools the Lord's prayer is still recited, this certainly does not apply in all British state schools, as it does for the Pledge of Allegiance, which is recited mandatorially in all American public schools. The US is certainly far from being secular and is arguably a religious state in all but name (what are the odds of a citizen subscribing to any other faith apart from Christianity, or a citizen proclaiming themselves to be atheist, ascending to the American presidency?).*

However, to be fair to Lord Winston, these are fairly detailed and complex Christian battlegrounds and are perhaps more suited to another book, especially given that The Story of God is already fairly Judeo-Christian centric, dealing mainly with Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Other religions are mentioned (from the Aztecs and Ancient Greeks, to Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, through to cults and splinter religions such as Wicca and Reverend Moon's Unification Church), but only on a cursory level. While initially this seems unjust, it is in fact a relevant proportion given the relative numbers of people devoted to the vast number of religious beliefs existing in today's world. Terrorism is also dealt with maturely and commonly held misconceptions are settled.

Other issues that are not addressed are interpretation, story vs truth (at times Winston does not back up some of what the Bible talks about with any historicity), and the power of rhetoric (which at times is surely crucial to a religion's momentum and success). Nevertheless, despite these possible shortcomings, what is produced is impressive in its scope, with Winston remaining intelligent and accessible in his writing without being patronising. Anyone who has only ever seen this famous polymath express his ideas on television should be urged towards his books; if they are all like this one, they are rewarding and educational reads that leave readers wanting to know even more.

(*This document is a fairly interesting one for those wanting to know more about religion in American public schools.)

Other works by Robert Winston
Human Instinct (2003)
The Human Mind (2004)
What Makes Me Me (2005)^
Human (2005)^
Body (2005)^
A Child Against All Odds (2006)
It's Elementary (2007)^
Evolution Revolution (2009)^
Bad Ideas: A History of Our Inventions (2010)

^for children

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

En Passant (Raymond Queneau)

--The blurb--
"Irène and Etienne no longer love each other; neither do Sabine and Joachim. These couples are going with the last metro, and passers-by pass, while beggars remain. A loving and enigmatic chorusing song which nothing can stop from lasting infinitely, just like Queneau's famous Exercises in Style."
from; translation mine

--The review--
The idea of "the last train" seems to be a common theme in French media, with the most famous example perhaps occurring in François Truffaut's film set in the Second World War, Le Dernier Métro, where the title refers to one prong of persecution of the Jews (who had to make sure they did not miss the last train home in order to escape punishment for still being out after the Nazi curfew). Raymond Queneau's En Passant is, like this film, still a love story, but the concept of "the last train" and the way it features in this play is arguably far less sinister.

It is the buzzer at the station that brings the play's characters back to reality, reminding them that their interactions with their fellow travellers are but fleeting moments, whose transience is destined to give way to their usual day-to-day statuses. The play is short and impactful, and kept minimalist due to the composite set and the small circle of characters. Written and published in 1944, it precedes Pinter by over ten years, and yet the resemblance between the two playwrights' work is striking (though this is, in fact, Queneau's only play), with much value being found in simplicity and in the power of silence. This simplicity also provokes surprise as to why this piece of work by Queneau has never been translated into English, despite the fact that it is as progressive as his most famous piece of work, Exercices de style (Exercises in style).

After playing out the short, dramatic and effective story with Irène and Etienne, and the male passer-by, Queneau then experimentally turns the formula on its head, repeating the same story with a little variation in dialogue, but this time featuring Sabine and Joachim, and a female passer-by, in the starring roles. Perhaps the benefit of this inversion and repetition is more apparent when the play is seen on the stage, but on the page it lacked impact due to its exact duplication of the plot.

Nevertheless, this play is a hidden gem within Queneau's diverse catalogue of work. The relationships within it are well-built, and concisely and tersely played out, without any loss of feeling despite the perhaps anodyne setting. And, if you like trains, you could always try his second-most-well-known work, Zazie In The Metro.

Other works by Raymond Queneau (translated works only)
The Bark-Tree (1933)
The Last Days (1936)
Children of Clay (1938)
Pierrot (1942)
The Skin of Dreams (1944)
We Always Treat Women Too Well (1947)
A Hard Winter (1948)
The Sunday of Life (1952)
Zazie in the Metro (1959)
The Blue Flowers (1965)
The Flight of Icarus (1968)