Reviews: April 2021

I had my most reading productive month of the year so far with April. Finishing five books, and nearly finishing a sixth. I’m glad I didn’t finish that sixth, Doctor Zhivago, until May 1st, because it would have been difficult to decide between that and my other book of the month which was…


East of Eden by John Steinbeck

What can I say about East of Eden? It had me gripped more fully than any book has for a long time, which isn’t to say that what I’ve been reading hasn’t been great, only that East of Eden is something else. Steinbeck uses this story to address the fundamental question of good and evil: is it merely a matter of fate, are the evil just born that way? It’s a question that, though ancient, must have had a newfound freshness – it was not, after all, too long since the world had been given a new personification of evil, one that remains unrivalled in the public consciousness to this day. 

Every character is manipulated by the author to make some point toward that central question and in that way are mere pawns. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, it is the characters that are the main attraction; they are all clearly defined and easy to care about. Steinbeck’s treatment of certain characters is surprising considering when he was writing. Lee, a Chinese servant introduced speaking pidgin English is revealed to be a highly capable philosopher, among other things, and his sub-plot sees him dealing with belonging to two worlds (Chinese and American) and thus, to a degree, neither. 

The majority of Steinbeck’s women are portrayed as suits the times: as mothers, wives, daughters etc. Despite adhering to this tradition, the work seems to critique the state of affairs, acknowledging that it is a state of affairs that ignores the individuality, even the internal world, of those women. Further departing from the tradition is the fact that East of Eden’s embodiment of evil is a woman. Cathy Ames has all the traits that we, today, would instantly call psychopathy, and it is the narrator’s opinion that Cathy was just born wrong. We don’t have to agree with him, however: we can ask whether Cathy’s limited options in the “normal” way of life, as lived by all the other women, led her down the path the narrator calls “evil”. 

Whether Steinbeck is describing nature, giving opinions on the times and progress, or making his characters engage in lengthy philosophical discussions a la Dostoevsky, it is always beautifully written. By the end of the novel it feels as if every question in life has been addressed, in some way; and whether one agrees with the book’s conclusion on the fundamental questions, it’s easy to lose oneself in the argument. I know there must be people who do not like this book, because there are people who don’t like every book; I simply can’t imagine how or why

(Goodreads rating: 5 Stars)


The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

Rubenhold’s closing remarks are to the effect that the women killed by Jack the Ripper need to be viewed as individuals. But as much as The Five is a biography of five individuals, it is a social history of many. Despite unique beginnings, the five all ended up meeting the same fates, even before their deaths. The ways they got there were different in the particulars but similar: drink, divorce, grief, shame, all usually played a role. 

A conclusion, obvious from the facts presented by Rubenhold, is that the Ripper was not killing prostitutes but vulnerable women. Vulnerable because invisible, “fallen women”. They were, therefore, “just five women”, they could have been any five others, and there were many others available. Rubenhold brilliantly articulates the world that the five inhabit it as they lived it, while always contrasting it with the way it was presented by the media and, therefore, how it was seen by the upper classes. 

The press are a particular presence in the book. The number of journalists increased massively during the murders, tabloids took advantage and sacrificed accuracy for sensation. Since the five were prostitutes in the media, they were prostitutes in the public imagination, and the image stuck. 

It’s a completely engaging read. 

(Goodreads rating: 4 Stars)


Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky

Manufacturing Consent is an interesting read. Chomsky and Herman propose a framework for understanding the U.S. mass media (which at the time included television, newspapers, and radio), a ‘propaganda model’. 

The first chapters set out this model, which sees the “raw material” of news (i.e. what actually happened) pass through a series of five “filters” before publication. The effect being that the media – as a result of free market forces, rather than conspiracy as we might immediately think of hearing propaganda – does not publish news that would be detrimental to “special interests”. The chief “special interest” is the state itself, the image of America as the bastion of freedom, the spreader of democracy.

It’s a convincing model, and those who are interested only in the model can really get away with reading the first two chapters alone. The remainder of the book is evidence in support of the model, Chomsky & Herman draw on reporting from a number of cold war events – most prominently the Indochina Wars: Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia. The evidence paints an unrelentingly bleak image of the media, to say nothing of the U.S. government; and there is a lot of it, it can become a bit repetitive and overwhelming. 

It feels a little quaint that the authors should go to such lengths to convince us of something that the modern reader is perfectly primed to accept. Yes, the media serves interests, on all sides. We all know that, don’t we? Even still the conclusions here are damning: the U.S. media completely failed to question the narrative of the American government, despite evidence being readily attainable (through, y’know, journalism) and despite conflicting accounts being reported abroad, by America’s allies! They were subservient to “official narrative” to a degree that exceeded even what the proposed ‘propaganda model’ would predict. 

I do recommend reading this one; but I definitely think that, especially if you have little to no interest in the cold war, that only the first couple of chapters are essential reading. A page-turner this is not, but the ideas are definitely worth knowing. 

(Goodreads rating: 4 Stars)


The Call of the Wild by Jack London

I’m not squeamish; I didn’t want to cry or vomit; but as an ardent advocate for the “John Wick Defence”*, Call of the Wild was an unpleasant read. At the very start Buck, the St Bernard mix, is dognapped, brutally beaten into submission and carted off to the snowy Yukon territory. There he is forced to work as part of a team of sled dogs, and like the rest of the dogs, reconnects with his primordial roots (i.e. before dogs were domesticated).

I don’t really know what to make of it. It’s beautifully written and London does make some interesting observations….

“Death, as a cessation of movement, as a passing out and away from the lives of the living, he [Buck] knew…”

“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.”

The lyricism of London’s writing aside, however, I can’t think of much else to recommend Call of the Wild. Whether Buck is taken at face value – as a dog – or as analogy – a human – I disagree with London’s premise that either of those things would be happier in their primitive settings. The latter, first, I think is quite simply absurd – society, as I see it, as I understand it, does not necessarily diminish what its means to be a person, an individual; humans are the social animal, to be a human in the absence of others, is not to be human at all.

Dogs, though, I can appreciate the argument more. I’ve often thought about it myself: would my dogs be happier “out there”? The answer is no. Their ancestors, Buck’s ancestors, may well have been. But modern dogs? Canis familiaris? No. Yuval Noah Harari points out the dog was first domesticated at least 12,000 years ago, and it has since been subject to such selective breeding that it really doesn’t make sense to suggest that the modern dog belongs in the wild. They simply don’t; no more than a tiger belongs in a cage.

To London’s credit he does make much of the link between man and dog, both ancient (in trippy visions) and modern (in the wonderful character John Thornton); but he portrays that cross-species love as a hindrance to the dog. And, well I just fundamentally disagree.

I’d recommend reading Jack London, perhaps The People of the Abyss, his account of London’s slums. And I’ll happily praise his writing here, but I just don’t think Call of the Wild was worth the time – and that’s saying something because it’s a really short book.
——

* The “John Wick Defence”

1. If a person (A) commits an offence against a person (B), it shall be a complete defence if person A demonstrates that they were acting in defence of or revenge of A’s dog from attacks by B.

2. There shall be a complete defence if A commits an offence against a person (C), if C were attempting to prevent A from taking measures against B.
— (a) This latter defence is only available if C has been given the opportunity to get the hell outta A’s way.

(Goodreads: 3 Stars)


A Prayer Before Dawn by Billy Moore

Well, I don’t know what I am meant to do with this book. It’s an easy read with a healthy amount of things happening. But it’s not for me, truly I don’t think it’s for anyone but Billy. In this book he comes to terms with himself, his past, his mistakes — but there’s little of philosophical value, say, to anyone who was not trapped in similar circumstances as Billy.

He belonged to that “real men don’t cry” group, he invalidated his emotions and in doing so broke himself. The book is him putting himself back together. But the lessons are obvious, only really suited, as I say, to others in the “real men don’t cry” mould. Perhaps, also to those who just enjoy a very routine drug addiction and prison story – I mean, seriously, you have seen this story countless times in countless films (probably books too, but I don’t read this type of thing).

I suppose I have nothing against A Prayer Before Dawn, it’s written okay, it moves at a brisk pace; it just didn’t give me what I want from a book. Isn’t it strange how mediocre can often seem worse than awful?

(Goodreads: 3 Stars)


And that was April, started off incredibly with East of End, got a bit grim for a while with dog abuse and the horrors of Vietnam; but ended on a high with most of Doctor Zhivago. Which is enthralling, and unless I’m much mistaken will be my book of the month in May – I can’t see anything topping it.

Thanks for reading!

Weekly Assortment 26 April – 2 May 2021

Read: Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (23 April – 1 May); (The) Politics, Aristotle (1 May – )

The Poems of Yuri Zhivago

Evidently, the majority of my reading week was dedicated to Doctor Zhivago. What a novel; what a journey. Those of you who have read it will know that the book ends with a number of poems credited to the main character, Yuri Zhivago. These poems, the translators Pevear and Volokhonsky say, are “not merely an addendum” but “are inseparable from the whole [novel] and its true outcome – what remains, what endures.” 

Naturally, I read them already, otherwise I would not claim to have finished the book; but reading poetry is not my forte, even less when it is poetry in translation. So over the coming month I will be tackling one of the twenty-five poems a day – what I will get from this I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out and will, obviously, share my thoughts here. 


Highlight of the Week 

Choosing a single highlight from Doctor Zhivago is rather like choosing which of my eyes I’d prefer to keep. However, the following is one of the many, many best lines in the book: 

Man is born to live, not to prepare for life. And life itself, the phenomenon of life, the gift of life, is so thrillingly serious. 


Gender Roles

The past few books I have read all touched on the roles it was acceptable for a woman to have in days past. Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, of course, was explicitly about this. A throwaway line in Zhivago struck me for its correspondence to Rubenhold’s work. Alas, I cannot find the line for quoting, but the matter was this: Lara, recounting her struggles in life, says something to the effect of, “But I never turned to drink, is there anything worse than a woman drunkard?” 

This view is arguably still prevalent today, somehow, we are led to believe, the alcoholic woman is worse than the alcoholic man. The same view was definitely in play in Victorian London. As Rubenhold points out, succumbing to the temptation of the bottle was one way in which a woman could earn herself the reputation of “fallen woman”. Those to whom that epithet applied were not judged kindly; in the Victorian consciousness all “fallen women” were equal, they did not think it worthwhile to differentiate between the addicted, the homeless, or the prostitute. 

It is this failure to differentiate between the “fallen woman” and the “broken”, or damaged, woman, that Rubenhold convincingly argues, led to all of Jack the Ripper’s ‘canonical five’ victims being identified as prostitutes, despite there being little evidence of this for the majority. It’s a notion that has embedded itself in the popular imagination, based, if Rubenhold is correct, entirely on assumptions about what a woman’s role in life should be. 

It should come as no surprise that Aristotle’s view on women is, let’s say, un-modern. He believed that by their very nature women had different roles to play, and he’s not referring to pregnancy. What he undoubtedly meant, I believe is echoed in a beautiful line from Doctor Zhivago about gender roles.

You understand, we’re in different positions. Wings were given you [a man] so as to fly beyond the clouds, and to me, a woman, so as to press myself to the ground and shield my fledgling from danger.

None of this, I know, is surprising; nor new to anyone. The final thing I’d like to point out on the “woman question” takes me back to the first weeks of April, when I was heavily invested in Steinbeck’s sensational East of Eden. Women, mostly, play a minimal role in that story – they are simply the wives of husbands, the daughters of fathers, and the mothers of sons. All the women are portrayed this way except for one: Cathy Ames. 

Cathy is, I suppose, the villain of the piece. Portrayed as a straight-up psychopath, before psychopathy was a thing, the narrator opines that she was born evil. Cathy, however, unlike the other women of the story, has power, and in her own right. I can’t help but wonder whether the evil Cathy carries out – and she definitely does evil – should be seen as a response to the prevailing gender norms. This isn’t Steinbeck’s conclusion but I think it’s an important consideration and, rather importantly, Steinbeck’s narrator – also called John Steinbeck, incidentally – is not omniscient, he has opinions, and they can be wrong. 


Love and Imperfection

I have one final connection to make between Doctor Zhivago and East of Eden, and this time it is a matter of love. In both, a character states that they love a person because of their imperfections, their humanity. 

Zhivago has: “I don’t think I’d love you so deeply if you had nothing to complain of and nothing to regret. I don’t like the righteous ones, who never fell, never stumbled. Their virtue is dead and of little value. The beauty of life has not been revealed to them.

While, Eden, puts it more simply in this exchange between Cal Trask and Abra Bacon: 

I think I love you, Cal.” – “I’m not good.” – “Because you’re not good.” 

They are not entirely parallel. The alternative in the case of Zhivago, the “righteous ones”, we could surely call liars, for the most part. In the first of Yuri’s poems, ‘Hamlet’, it is written: “I am alone, all drowns in pharisaism.” Pharisaism refers to the doctrines of the Pharisees; however, it has another meaning. “Rigid observance of external forms of religion without genuine piety” (wiktionary) It is therefore an apt word to describe the Russia of Doctor Zhivago, in which rigid outward adherence to the rules was required, and those without genuine piety had to express that as well. 

In East of Eden, though, Cal and his imperfections are a contrast to his brother, Aron [sic]. Aron is not a liar, certainly not, rather he is naive. He imagines a perfect world and cannot handle when reality does not match it. He imagines a perfect version of Abra, his girlfriend, which she can’t possibly live up to. Abra herself is not perfect, she is human; she sees in Cal someone else who is not perfect, another human. 


New Reading Project

That’s all for the Assortment, it’s probably one of the worst I’ve done but no matter. Now I’d like to share some other reading news. I won’t be parting from Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky just yet, and not just because I’ll be reading their translations of the Zhivago poems again. Rather I have decided to take part in a read-along of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, an absolute belter of a book, as translated by Pevear & Volokhonsky. 

This read-along will be hosted by Arti at Ripple Effects. I am really excited to read this novel again and the pacing is really quite perfect. The Brothers Karamazov consists of four parts and the target date for completing part one is 22 May. Full details at the link above. I have worked out my own reading plan for Part One – I will post it in the comments should anyone wish to take part. 

Conclusion

Okay, that really is the end of this Weekly Assortment. Next week, I will endeavour to make things a little more interesting. Aristotle’s Politics marks the beginning of a new cycle of ten books for me; Zhivago, therefore, concluded the previous ten. I will be posting a retrospective look at those ten books pretty soon; I will also be posting reviews of the books I finished in April. This week (3 – 9 April) I expect to finish Politics and begin Dan Simmons’ The Terror

Thanks for reading!

What I blogged (26 April – 2 May): 

  • Weekly Assortment 19 – 25 April – was dedicated mainly to the Victorian news industry, as the victims of Jack the Ripper saw sales of tabloid and sensationalist media skyrocket. 
  • My Next Ten Books – as mentioned above I am at the start of a “new cycle”. Check this post for the books included in that cycle and my initial thoughts on each. 
  • A to Z of Books – this was a tag (or meme, I don’t know which). A book related question for each letter of the alphabet, I had a lot of fun answering them. It also, to my surprise, became my most liked post – so it must be good… 

Books: (Links to Goodreads, not necessarily the same edition as those mentioned here.)

A to Z of Books

Question: did you read that as “ay to zee” or “ay to zed”? Or some other strange way… “ah to zuh” perhaps?

Anyway, I gather this is some sort of A – Z book doo-da. I just saw this on Classical Songbird and decided to do it myself. I loved the way Teresa explained the provenance of this meme, so here’s what she said:

“One of the blogs I follow recently posted their answers to some questions about reading, and I decided they looked like fun and I wanted to do them, too. I’m following a long chain of blogging with these questions. I saw the post on Gin and Lemonade, who got the idea from Rust Belt Girl, who saw it on a blog that got the idea from another blog who got the idea from another blog who got the idea from The Boundless Books Blog.” 


Author You’ve Read the Most From: I’m not entirely sure but I think Stephen King would be a safe bet. He’s probably the most prolific author that I’ve ever been obsessed with. 

Best Sequel Ever: The Godfather Part II is the best sequel ever. No doubt. That’s a movie obviously, but I don’t read many series. So I’m going to completely wreck the parameters of this question and say Mario Puzo’s The Godfather – on which both the first and second ‘Godfather’ films were based – is the best sequel ever. A sequel to itself.

Currently Reading: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. As translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky. Ba Da Ba Ba Bah, I’m lovin’ it. 

Drink of Choice While Reading: Coffee, or Magners. 

E-Reader of Physical Book: Olivia? 

Thanks, Olivia. 

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated in High School: Timothee Chalam– I mean Elio from Call Me By Your Name

Glad You Gave This Book a Chance: Actually I just answered this question on a comment on Waking Up On the Wrong Side of 50 (which is always worth a read). Here’s my answer and the circumstances that led to my reading it:

My disinterest in the genre of a book probably stems from an experience in primary school. All of the girls in my class were raving about a book, over the course a few weeks every girl read it. It was Jacqueline Wilson’s Lola Rose. The boys of the class were, of course, interested; but they couldn’t bring themselves to read it because it was a “girl’s book”, complete with cartoonish lipstick on the front cover. Naturally I thought that was ridiculous, I read it, I loved it, if I ever encounter a copy in a charity shop now I will buy it and read it again.

Hidden Gem Book: I went looking for a hidden gem. Couldn’t find it. I really have no idea, because I don’t know how many people read what I read… But one that I’ve literally never heard anyone talk about is Gregoire Chamayou’s Drone Theory. It’s a short, highly readable “polemic against the increasing use of robot warfare” (i.e. drones); really interesting. Pair it with the film Eye in the Sky.  

Important Moment in Your Reading Life: I don’t know that there is any one moment that stands out. Harry Potter got me into reading. David Copperfield got me into Reading. Lolita took the part of me that thought I was a good writer and disemboweled him in front of my eyes. But, hey, at least Nabokov wasn’t writing in his third language or anything… bastard. 

Just Finished: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold. Want to know what I thought? Follow me and find out when I post about it!

Just kidding, I wouldn’t do that to you. I found it to be a very thought-provoking read and highly recommend it. It wasn’t “perfect”, but pretty close. Almost as important as the fact it was a good read, is that it was a worthwhile read – if Rubenhold is correct, and she makes a great case, then the idea that Jack was a prostitute-killer must be reassessed. 

Kind of Books You Won’t Read: Poorly written ones. I don’t really have a “type” of book; or if I do it’s not my intention, I just read what appeals to me, and a whole lot appeals to me. The last book I bought (see below) is not a book anyone who knows me would ever have thought I would read. 

Longest Book You’ve Read: The Great Gatsby for sure. It was interminable. 

Major Book Hangover: I don’t get regular hangovers much less book ones. 

Number of Bookcases You Own: Two. One fiction (and poetry), the other non-fiction. 

One Book You Have Read Multiple TImes: Here’s the deal, man: everybody of my generation read HP multiple times. So I’m not going to mention it (wink, wink). Instead I’m saying John Stuart Mills’ classic essay “On Liberty”, which of all the political philosophy writing out there most closely aligns with my own views. Besides that, it’s also excellently written. 

Preferred Place to Read: Anywhere with a roof and without other people. 

Quote that Inspires You/Gives You All the Feels from a Book You’ve Read: There’s just too many. So here’s one from what I’m reading now (i.e. Doctor Zhivago): 

“And thus it turned out that the only true life is one that resembles the life around us and drowns in it without leaving a trace, that isolated happiness is not happiness, that a duck and alcohol, when they seem to be the only ones in town, are even not alcohol and a duck at all.” 

Reading Regret:

Except maybe not having read Nikos Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation sooner than I did. Though, if I hadn’t waited so long, I may not have enjoyed it so much… So I retract that statement. No regrets. 

Series You Started and Need to Finish: This is easy. Charles Moore’s three-volume biography of Margaret Thatcher. I read the first when it was released and have yet to buy or read the other two. 

Three of Your All-Time Favorite Books: Three is exactly the number of books that occupy the place of “my favoUrite book”. But I’ve said what they are elsewhere on the blog. So a different three? Hmm… Well my usual three are fiction, so here are some non-fiction (in no particular order):

  • Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.
  • Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 
  • Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. 

Unapologetic Fangirl For: There isn’t anything. Though, I don’t see any reason why a fangirl/boy should be apologetic if they do really like something. Non-bookish? Charlie Chaplin and Abraham Lincoln. Maybe.

Worst Book Habit: Whenever I finish a book I burn it. It’s a bad habit. And the costs of replacing the Kindle are really adding up. 

X Marks the Spot: Start at the Top Left of Your Shelf and Pick the 27th Book: Worth pointing out that of my two bookshelves the non-fiction one is leftmost, so I’ll do it on that? Why 27th, I wonder? My result is Robert Graves’ World War I memoir, Goodbye to All That

Your Latest Book Purchase: As I alluded to above, those who know me, know that I cannot stand football (or soccer, if you must; though I do prefer soccer for that knock-off rugby that passes for football overseas). Full disclosure I just don’t like sports, any of them. Football players, that’s another matter entirely, those I definitely like. Digressions, digressions, but I’m sure you guessed it by now, the last book I bought, a few days ago, is about football.

It is David Goldblatt’s The Age of Football: The Global Game in the 21st Century. Why? Just took my fancy – same reason I read any other book I read. 

ZZZ-Snatcher Book (last book that kept you up way late): I read late, generally. I suppose, then, I’d be looking for one that kept me up all night. That would be East of Eden by John Steinbeck which I read earlier this month. 


Well, that was fun. Hope you enjoyed reading, and thanks for doing so! Feel free to share your thoughts below. 

Edit: Turns out this was my 50th post! Woop!

My Next Ten Reads, May – June 2021

I started my last ten books on February 20 this year and am reading the last of those, Doctor Zhivago, now. Which means I’ll shortly be starting my next ten. For this post I have read each of the next ten books’ blurbs and “about the author” sections and compiled my thoughts. I think there’s a lot to be excited about: my first (and, sadly, only) horror of the year, three books from my homeland, two works of philosophy… 


Politics, Aristotle

In the Politics, Aristotle applies his knowledge of the “constitutional affairs” of the Greek cities, and by considering the way societies function, establishes how “successful constitutions can best be initiated and upheld.” 

Among the most influential texts in Western political thought. I’ve personally referenced the work during my studies, though never read it in full. More recently, I’ve seen evidence of the influence of Aristotle’s ideas in Ancient Rome (obviously) in Cicero’s Republic and Laws. Aristotelian principles were since incorporated into Christian theology by, I believe, Aquinas. 

I don’t have too strong a feeling in either direction about reading this, I expect I’ll enjoy it. 


The Terror, Dan Simmons

The Terror is a horror fiction account of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the ‘North-West passage’, the ‘most advanced scientific enterprise ever mounted’ at that time. For two years the ships, HMS Erebus & Terror have been trapped in the Arctic ice. Their crews now face starvation, scurvy and madness; and to make things worse are stalked by a creature, a ‘nameless thing’. 

I’m quite looking forward to this, it’s been a while since I read some horror and this is something of an epic one (921 pages!). I don’t know much of anything about the real expedition – except, the obvious: that it was lost… While I know of the TV adaptation, I have never watched it – though might once I’ve read the book. 

Erebus was the Greek god of darkness. How fitting that darkness and terror should go together. Perfect for a horror story.  Though, somewhat tempting fate for the expedition planners?


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass

I know little of the man but will be glad to. Paul Gilroy referred to the autobiographical tradition of ex-slaves in his introduction to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book I read late last year and which must surely be considered a descendant of this work in some way. 

As I said I know little of the man. These sparse details: born into slavery in Maryland, 1818; escaped to the north at 20 years old, and within seven years published this ‘narrative’ of his life, until then. I’m really looking forward to this one. 


The Brilliant & Forever, Kevin MacNeil

I picked this up from a charity shop because it was by a Scottish author and the cover is appealing. I have only just learned what it’s roughly about. 

The title refers to the ‘Brilliant & Forever Festival’ that happens ‘on an island like no other’. Competing in the festival this year, for ‘glory’ or ‘infamy’ are 13 contestants. Among them are three best friends, two are human and one is an alpaca. O.O 

It’s a satire, praised as hilarious, of ‘what we value in culture’ and our lives, and it explores integrity, friendship, and belonging. Apparently. Sounds intriguing. 


The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, Ken Burns & Geoffrey Ward

I don’t know if, as the back cover claims, this is the ‘definitive’ work on the Vietnam War. The intimate history covers the whole war, and is based on hundreds of interviews with people from all sides of the conflict.

I am slightly concerned about this one. It’s a massive read, which isn’t a problem in itself. But I gave up reading Bridget Kendall’s Cold War and the two books sound similar, whether they are I can’t yet say. Kendall’s book presented a very disjointed reading experience – hopefully, since the Vietnam War is more obviously a single unit than the whole of the Cold War is (indeed, Vietnam was part of the latter), this book will not be disjointed. I’m keeping an open mind, it might turn out to be incredible…


Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh

Blurbs of Trainspotting seem scarce. My copy has no blurb at all, nothing to indicate what this book is about short of the title; meanwhile, Amazon and Goodreads, have only the “choose life” riff as description. 

Fortunately, I know exactly what it’s about because (a) I’ve read it once and (b) I’ve seen the film countless times. Supposing, though, that a reader had to decide whether to read this book on the basis of the “choose life” riff alone, what would it tell them? Here it is, as appears on Amazon: 

Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing gameshows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yer mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life. 

I think there’s enough there to tell the potential reader two (and perhaps more) primary things about the book: its tone and its language. It would be hard to read that paragraph and not conclude that this was a piece of “subversive literature” (one of my favourite kinds), focusing on a counter-culture (which, indeed it does). The potential reader also gets their first glimpse of the Edinburgh vernacular in which the whole book is written. 

Okay, I’m not going to go on and on about a book I’ve already read, that’s too easy. Though I am really, really looking forward to reading Trainspotting again, the only reason I am reading is in preparation for the sequel (which I have seen; haven’t read). 


T2 Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh

T2 (a.k.a Porno) differs from Trainspotting in giving information about the book: mostly by clearly linking it to the past. “Years on from Trainspotting”, it says, and name-drops the returning main characters (who, because this is a film tie-in edition, also feature on the front cover). 

Now, I’ve seen the second Trainspotting film countless times, too. My now-husband and I went on one our earliest dates to see it; loved it, and since it has been one of our favourites to watch together. I do not have any idea how closely the film stuck to the book though. But I’m obviously excited to get round to reading this. 


So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson

This book will probably have the most “current” subject matter of the books I’ll be reading this year. It’s a topic that has only increased in relevance since the book was released in 2015: public shaming and cancel culture. 

When the book first released Jon Ronson read an abridged version for BBC radio and I listened to that at the time. I can’t remember all of it in-depth, bits and pieces. I have previously read Ronson’s The Psychopath Test and that was a great read, very entertaining. I’ll be glad to revisit this one. 

The back cover hints at questions the reader should ask. What does cancel culture represent? Shame as a mechanism of social control? The democratization of justice? A war on human flaws? Are any of these things desirable? I have my own thoughts but they can wait until after I’ve read the book. 


A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

From the first time I learned of Gentleman in Moscow’s existence I was interested. When I saw its spine amid the charity shop’s book display I took it without a moment’s thought. My recent reading has only made me more eager. 

In Moscow, 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is imprisoned indefinitely in the Hotel Metropol, arrested as an ‘unrepentant aristocrat’. The Russian Revolution is still under way but will end next year and see the establishment of the USSR. From his place of confinement the Count will watch decades of Russian history take place – how many decades I don’t know, the cover doesn’t tell. 

I am currently reading Doctor Zhivago which, of course, is based primarily during the Revolution; so I think Gentleman will be a nice companion piece of sorts, albeit with a gap of weeks or months between reading both.

The blurb ends with the question: “Can a life without luxury be the greatest of all?” I’ll have to read the book to find out. 


The Moral Law, Immanuel Kant

These ten books start and finish with two behemoth works of philosophy, Aristotle’s Politics and this, Kant’s Moral Law. “Few books have had has great an impact on intellectual history” than Kant’s “attempts to identify the fundamental principle, ‘morality’, that governs human action.” 

I’m already broadly familiar with Kant’s philosophy, though I have never read him in non-extract form. Though a very slim volume, I’m expecting depth, density. Despite having very little to add right now, this is one of the ten I’m most looking forward to. 


SUPERLATIVES

The book I am most looking forward to, right now, is T2 Trainspotting. It’s simple really: I love the first Trainspotting, book and film. I love the film Trainspotting 2. It stands to reason that I’d want to read the book, which is often better than the film. It is “just gravy” that reading T2 entails reading “T1” again as well. 

The book I am least looking forward to, at the moment, is The Vietnam War: An Intimate History. The reasons are those explained above, I am wary that it will feel similar to Bridget Kendall’s The Cold War. If the information is too repetitive, or too disjointed, I will find it hard to motivate myself through it. 


DATES

I will be aiming to read these books on roughly the following dates. 

1 Politics, Aristotle (1 – 5 May)6 Trainspotting, Welsh (3 – 7 June)
2 The Terror, Simmons (6 – 18 May)7 T2, Welsh (8 – 14 June)
3 Narrative of Life, Douglass (19 – 20 May)8 Publicly Shamed, Ronson (15 – 18 June)
4 Brilliant & Forever, MacNeil (21 – 23 May)9 Gentleman in Moscow, Towles(19 – 25 Jun) 
5 Vietnam, Burns & Ward (24 May – 2 June)10 Moral Law, Kant (26 – 27 June) 

Have you read any of these? Enjoyed them? Didn’t? (No spoilers though!) What are you reading now, what will you be reading next? 

Thanks for reading!

Weekly Assortment 19 – 25 April 2021

What I Read: The Five, Hallie Rubenhold (18 – 23 April); Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (23 April – ) 

‘There floats a phantom on the slum’s foul air,

Shaping, to eyes which have the gift of seeing, 

Into the spectre of that loathly lair. 

Face it — for vain is fleeing!

Red-handed, ruthless, furtive, unerect, 

‘Tis murderous crime, the nemesis of neglect

‘The Nemesis of Neglect’, poem and illustration, accompanied an article on London’s slums published in Punch, a satirical magazine, on 29 September 1888. Already Jack the Ripper had claimed two of his five ‘canonical’ victims; the next night two more were added, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes. 

The nemesis of neglect “reflected a consensus” among contemporary social reformers and commentators “that Jack the Ripper… had been spawned by the horrendous conditions that had been allowed to develop, virtually unchecked, in the East End of London.” (‘Jack the Ripper Tour’ website). 

In 1885, the Pall Mall Gazette published a series of articles by W. T. Stead: ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’, an expose on the child prostitution taking place in London’s slums everyday. He writes: “It is a veritable slave trade that is going on around us; but as it takes place in the heart of London – it is a scandal – an outrage on public morality – even to allude to it”. (Stead, ‘We bid you be of hope’). 

A prelude to the series, published July 4 1885, gives “a frank warning” to the reader: those who are squeamish or prudish had better not read the series. “The story of an actual pilgrimage into a real hell is not pleasant reading, and is not meant to be.” Naturally, therefore, Stead’s record of “abominable, unutterable” and “unimpeachable” facts was a complete sensation. A pilgrimage through hell may not be pleasant, but it will sell – this was as true then as it is today. 

The Illustrated Police News was one of Britain’s first tabloids and one of the earliest to take advantage of the “public’s morbid appetite for crime and sensation.” The illustrations, artistic interpretations of murders, disasters, suicides and executions from across the globe, are quite garish, especially for a newspaper. But there is something I like about them, too. Check some pages out for yourself, and learn more about the paper, at the British Newspaper Archive blog

Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly. The five. They were the perfect victims. Because they were unworthy victims. Rubenhold puts it bluntly: “Ultimately, no one really cared about who [these women] were or how they ended up in Whitechapel.” The fact of their deaths was all that was needed: the population of journalists in Whitechapel swelled during the murders, and the murders took the Illustrated Police News to its peak popularity. 

Press coverage of a ‘worthy’ victim will differ from that of an ‘unworthy’ victim qualitatively and quantitatively. The worthy victim is humanised, there is indignation and demands for justice; the unworthy victim, on the other hand, will not be. The death of an unworthy victim is tragic but no great loss; in fact, isn’t the victim somewhat to blame?

That was the grim reality of the times. While some could see the “phantom” hovering over the slums, destitution leading to crime, the dominant Victorian ideal would have little sympathy for Jack’s victims. It was their choice to inhabit the lower echelons of society, you see. Their choice to go wandering the streets at night, alone. The worst of it is that the victims might have agreed. 

Rubenhold repeatedly reminds the reader that the ‘five’ women would have internalised the values of their time. They would have believed they were “fallen women” and had reason to be ashamed. 


The Logic of War?

A similar notion cropped up in Doctor Zhivago and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

In Steinbeck: “A thing so triumphantly illogical, so beautifully senseless as an army can’t allow a question to weaken it.” 

Pasternak: “Yuri Andreevich told him how hard it was to get used to the bloody logic of mutual destruction, to the sight of the wounded, especially to the horrors of some modern wounds, to the mutilated survivors that present-day technology turned into hunks of disfigured flesh.” 

The logic or illogic of the military and war. I like Steinbeck’s explanation: 

“… in all of history men have been taught that killing men is an evil thing… maybe the worst sin we know. And then we take a soldier and put murder in his hands and we say to him… Go out and kill as many of a certain kind or classification of your brothers as you can. And we will reward you for it because it is a violation of your early training.


A Moral Quandary

I’ll conclude with this. On the evening of 8 September 1888, Tim Donovan turned Annie Chapman away from his lodging house. She was a regular, but could not pay for her room that night. After leaving she was murdered. Rubenhold writes: 

“Annie had specifically ‘asked him [Donovan] to trust her’ for that night’s doss money. This ‘he declined to do’. Had this incident become common knowledge [at the time], it’s likely that Donovan would have faced an even worse backlash from the public for his role in Annie’s demise.” 

I’ll leave the question open: was it morally wrong of Donovan to send Annie to the streets? Why? Why not? 


Thanks for reading what I think might be the shortest – which is okay, of course – Weekly Assortment yet!

What I blogged: Weekly Assortment 12 – 18 April 2021. I posted the previous WA very late in the week but it’s a good one, with discussion of Victorian workhouses, universal philosophers and John Wick. 

Sources &c. 

Weekly Assortment: 12 – 18 April 2021

What I Read: East of Eden, John Steinbeck (2 April – 12 April); Manufacturing Consent, Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky (13 April – 17 April); The Call of the Wild, Jack London (17 April); and The Five by Hallie Rubenhold (18 April – ) 

I am quite late with this post, it’s almost time to write next week’s (or, is it this week’s?)! 


Workhouses in Victorian England (The Five

Though the women killed by Jack the Ripper – whose “untold lives” are told in Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five – may not, as Rubenhold argues, have all been prostitutes, they did all experience lives of poverty – in those days outright destitution – in London. 

A feature of that life for many were workhouses, or “spikes” – in which the homeless could acquire board in exchange for work. One of them is described brilliantly by Orwell in his short story The Spike (later edited and used in Down and Out in Paris and London, also worth a read). Rubenhold, though, in The Five refers to another account by Jack London – which, of course, interested me for having just read his Call of the Wild. 

Forming a chapter of his expose of lower-class conditions, People of the Abyss, his account of “the spike” begins: 

“First of all, I must beg forgiveness of my body for the vileness through which I have dragged it, and forgiveness of my stomach for the vileness which I have thrust into it. I have been to the spike, and slept in the spike, and eaten in the spike; also, I have run away from the spike.” 

Says it all really and, since London is describing the Whitechapel workhouse (Orwell wasn’t), serves excellently as a supplement to Rubenhold’s own descriptions of the “canonical five”’s living conditions. 

Of course there is probably no author better known for shedding light on the Victorian poor than Charles Dickens. Many will be familiar with Ebenezer Scrooge’s frosty exchange with some charity collectors: 

“I help to support the establishments I have mentioned [Scrooge mentioned “spikes”… and prisons!]: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.” 

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.” 

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” 

Man, what a line. It’s true what they say: villains get the best lines. The point, though, is that many would rather die than use the services available – which, again, says it all. And though the work is fiction, the statement is true, as Dickens knew all too well (see here, for a start.)


The Travels and Travails of Buck (The Call of the Wild)

It’s something of a cinematic mark of true depravity: hurting or killing a dog. Michael Myers. The Terminator. Cersei and Joffrey (Direwolf, I know). Alfie Allen as the effortlessly despicable Iosef in John Wick. In literature, too, there is Patrick Bateman in American Psycho – though compared to many of his human victims, the dog gets off lightly. 

It can be something of a cheap trick: something guaranteed to provoke an emotional response. But it’s also an excellent absolver, what cannot be justified in retaliation for the murder of one’s dog? I call this the John Wick Defence and am eager to see it incorporated into International Law. John Wick did nothing wrong!

All of which is to say that Call of the Wild was something of a bleak read, with its descriptions of routine man on dog and dog on dog violence. I’m still processing my thoughts on the book despite its short length and I’ll say no more about it for now. But I have a musing on animal suffering and our response to it, or my response if no one else’s. 

One particular scene in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, a firm favourite of mine, comes to mind – in truth, it comes to mind a lot. The narrator, Paul, and his Company have been under fire…

“It gets quieter, but the screaming doesn’t stop.”… “It can’t be men, they couldn’t scream that horribly.”… “I have never heard a horse scream and I can hardly believe it. There is a whole world of pain in that sound, creation itself under torture, a wild and horrifying agony. We go pale.”… “Detering walks about cursing. ‘What have they done to deserve that, that’s what I want to know?… I tell you this: it is the most despicable thing of all to drag animals into a war.’” 

Does the sound contain a world of pain because the animal’s mental world is overwhelmed with pain? People can, to greater and lesser degrees, almost liberate themselves of pain through rationalising it or employing coping mechanisms; but can the other animals, whether horse or dog, take stock of their injuries, decide if it will pass, lie about their prospects; somehow I don’t think so, animals (probably) can’t escape to a happy place. Am I alone in thinking pain would be worse in the absence of reason? 

Would you sign a ‘John Wick Defence’ petition?


The Decline of the Universal Philosopher (East of Eden

“A man can do all things if he will” – Leon Battista Alberti

According to Britannica, it was Alberti’s notion that developed into the ideal of the ‘Renaissance’ or ‘Universal’ Man, what we would probably now call a polymath. There is probably no more obvious example than, arguably, the Renaissance Man, Leonardo Da Vinci. The ideal of the Renaissance Man “embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance humanism… and led to the notion that men should try to embrace all knowledge and develop their own capacities as fully as possible.” 

‘Embrace all knowledge’, I think, is an excellent credo. Must a jack of all trades master none? One does get the impression that Da Vinci mastered a fair few trades, by both contemporaneous and modern standards. Alan Turing worked fairly exclusively within the STEM disciplines, but his output across those disciplines was astonishing. 

Most famous is his pioneering work in computing (at a time when ‘computer’ still meant, basically, ‘a person who is counting’) and artificial intelligence. But Turing also made a substantial breakthrough in pure – i.e. theoretical – mathematics, in solving the Entscheidungsproblem (‘decision problem’). He turned his attention to the organic world; to the study of leaf arrangement, or ‘phyllotaxis’. 

Turing died before publishing an answer. Sixty years after his death Turing’s theory was ‘proven’ by the contribution of data from hundreds of volunteers from seven countries to the ‘Turing’s Sunflowers’ Project

Recently my reading has frequently brought up the dark side of science, in particular the weaponry of the cold war, the atom bomb, an explicit product of science. In life, however, we are all seeing a manifestation of its brighter side, vaccines. The study of leaf arrangement is, perhaps, one of the less useful scientific endeavours – but the spirit of inquiry, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is to be admired. Da Vinci als

Are we losing, have we lost, the ability to be a ‘generalist’? The question could be asked structurally, are our educations’ or careers’ preventative of it in some way or other? But the concern raised in East of Eden, in another (I mentioned one last week, too) conversation between Adam Trask and Lee, is more a question of scale. 

Adam: “Old Sam Hamilton saw this coming. He said there couldn’t be any more universal philosophers. The weight of knowledge is too great for one mind to absorb. He saw a time when one man would know only one little fragment, but he would know it well. 

Lee points out that Sam Hamilton hated the idea. It’s a refutation of Alberti’s apothegm, man cannot do all that he wills, there is now too much to know. It is technically true, obviously. Ignoring the question of whether the brain has a capacity, akin to a harddrive; to learn everything would require more time than any life allows, or, I’d suggest, could ever allow. 

A more generous interpretation of Hamilton’s assertion might call this specialisation requirement progress. Might each discipline, or field of study, have already made such advances – discovered so much in the field already – that breakthroughs now require more specialised minds to break: those who know a little fragment well

Lee: “Maybe the knowledge is too great and maybe men are growing too small… Maybe, kneeling down to atoms, they’re becoming atom-sized in their souls. Maybe a specialist is  only a coward, afraid to look out of his little cage. And think what any specialist misses – the whole world over his fence.” 

Specialists can’t see the wood for the trees, perhaps? Thoughts, thoughts, these are just thoughts.

I read Herman & Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent during this week, indeed for most of it, but this post must end and I can refer back to it at a later date. Though I did not explicitly mention it, I, of course, had Andrew Hodges’ incredible biography of Alan Turing: The Enigma in mind as I wrote.

Thanks for reading!

What I blogged: 

  • I only posted the Weekly Assortment to April 11, in which I drew attention to the work of Gustav Dore, who illustrated versions of, among other things, The Divine Comedy, The Bible and Paradise Lost. 

Sources &c. :

Weekly Assortment 5-11 April 2021

Read: East of Eden, John Steinbeck (2 – probably 12 Apr)

I could have finished Steinbeck’s East of Eden yesterday, in time for writing this post. It was late but no later than I can often be found reading. But I stopped myself, I wanted it to last just a little bit longer. 


Gustav Doré

There is an entirely throwaway line in East of Eden

‘He had no idea where he got his idea of academic life – perhaps from the Doré illustrations of Dante’s Inferno with its massed and radiant angels.’ 

I bring it up only because I forgot to mention in any previous posts on Dante’s Divine Comedy, which I read last month, Gustav Doré. The Comedy has inspired a lot of art, including by Sandro Botticelli and William Blake, but I was most impressed by Doré’s. A successful illustrator – the most successful in France at the time actually; a version of Dante’s Inferno was released featuring  Doré’s engravings in 1861. They are quite incredible. 

Among other things,  Doré also illustrated Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven and The Bible. Here, Cain and Abel make their offerings to God. 


Meaning for at all ages

There are so many great characters in East of Eden, all of them really. One of the best is Lee, the Chinese-American cook, housekeeper and confidant of the Trask family is always there to give them sage advice, while also living his own story, grappling with ideas of identity and nationality, belonging. 

Lee drops a particular piece of wisdom during an exchange with Adam Trask. Lee has observed certain things between Adam’s sons that lead him to believe a bet had been resolved in front of him and Adam. Adam said Lee put too much stock in children’s affairs, “It probably didn’t mean anything.” 

Lee does not defend his speculation – the bet, he was right too – but rather he says: “Yes, it meant something.”

“Mr. Trask,” he goes on, “do you think the thoughts of people suddenly become important at a given age? Do you have sharper feelings or clearer thoughts now than when you were ten? Do you see as well, hear as well, taste as vitally?”

Lee is basically reminding Adam of nothing more than that his children are people. They do things for a reason as an adult does – the reasons, perhaps, are more creative, more obscure; but they’re still reasons. 


Wilful Ignorance and ‘Civilisation’

It might be a stretch to connect Adam Trask’s position on the internal world of children with attitudes towards the African tribes recounted in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The tribes were described as savages, they were ‘not “developed” like Europeans were’. Marlow, the narrator, remembers: 

“We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there… you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were– No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it– this suspicion of their not being inhuman…. What thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity– like yours– the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.” 

I’m not suggesting an equation in any way, Adam Trask is not dehumanising his children to the same extent as Conrad’s society did to the Africans. But they have a connection, I think, in that both “attitudes” require an act of wilful ignorance, or forgetting. I think…


Living with Death?

Another of the great characters is Samuel Hamilton, a man of ideas. Despite being well-versed in the philosophies of death, Samuel’s world is shattered by a bereavement. 

“Samuel may have thought and played and philosophized about death, but he did not really believe in it. His world did not have death as a member. He, and all around him, was immortal.” 

So John Steinbeck, the narrator, suggests. Which I think is an interesting idea to consider: how fully do we “believe” in death? What do you think? 


What I blogged: 

  • I wrote a topical post on the potential of removing Scotland’s unique (as far I know) third verdict in a criminal trial – ‘not proven’. My defence of the verdict was not based on its ‘Scottishness’. 
  • Last Week’s Weekly Assortment featured a reflection of the story of Cain and Abel, a discussion of ‘light’ in certain books, and more.
  • I shared some quotes from Dante’s The Divine Comedy
  • …and I answered a number of fun book-related questions in the ‘3 Bookish Things’ tag. 

Thanks for reading! How was your reading week? 

Sources: 

A Diversion: Tag – 3 Bookish Things

It’s Sunday; and some Sundays I want to do something different, something insubstantial and diversionary. Fortunately I was tagged in this by Gee Liz at geelizreads (thanks!) and it seems just the type of thing I’m after. 

3 Read Once and Loved Authors

I don’t know how sure I can be in loving an author from one book. But, there are a lot of authors I’ve (so far) only read one book by – loads, in fact. 

  1. Christopher Isherwood – One of my three favourite books is Isherwood’s A Single Man and it’s the only one of his I’ve read to now. I love it with such intensity that I can’t really conceive how I would not love his other books. A Single Man is a beautiful short novel, Isherwood has a lyrical style that I love, and the characters are so real – if his others are anything like it then, yes, I love Christopher Isherwood. 

Oh, shoot: is an author still “once read” if I’ve read a single work of theirs multiple times? Well, I’m keeping it anyway.

  1. Alfred Bester – Bester is a science fiction writer I was introduced to through his The Stars My Destination (a.k.a. Tiger! Tiger!), a futuristic story of revenge inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo. I mention the inspiration because that is the reason I read My Destination, and I’m so glad I did. I don’t know if I’ll read anything else by Bester, I don’t even know what else he’s written – all I know is for The Stars My Destination alone, I love Alfred Bester.
  2. John Steinbeck – Am I jumping the gun a bit with Steinbeck? Maybe; I haven’t even finished East of Eden yet, my first by him (why I don’t know). But I’ve already decided two things: first, I really want to read East of Eden again. Second, I want to read anything else by Steinbeck I can get my hands on! So, yeah, I love John Steinbeck

3 Titles I’ve Watched but Not Read

Well there are more than three. A huge chunk of Alfred Hitchcock’s catalogue could be here: Psycho, Rear Window, Strangers on a Train– there are so many. To narrow it down, I’ll choose three books I own, have not yet read and have seen an adaptation of. 

  1. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien – I’ll start with the biggie. I’ve started The Fellowship of the Ring something like four times over the years and always get bogged down in the damn songs. I’ll get through LotR eventually but I am in no great rush. 
  2. BrooklynColm Toibin – I have yet to try any of Toibin’s works despite being interested in several of them. The 2015 film adaptation of his Brooklyn starring Saoirse Ronan was simply beautiful, and I’ve watched it several times.
  3. Carol (or, The Price of Salt) – Patricia Highsmith – this is the big one for me. Todd Hayne’s film version of Highsmith’s lesbian love story released the same year as Brooklyn – and it is sublime. As soon as I learned it was based on a book, I knew I had to read it. It’s been five years and I haven’t got around to it yet, but there’s something nice about having ‘Carol’ waiting there for me.

3 Series I Have Binged

Jeez, I don’t really do series. Not by design, they’re just not, typically, what appeals to me. Even if I do a series, it’s not usually a binge. I bought the Hannibal Lecter collection in early 2019, and have since read the first two of four, and have no plans to finish anytime soon. I’ll have to dig deep to think of three, if indeed there even is three. 

  1. Harry PotterJ.K. Rowling – But I can start with the easy one, and one that probably features on most people’s list. Harry Potter is very much the series that ‘got me into’ reading. It is also the only series I’ve “binged” on multiple occasions. However, even that has fallen out of favour. I read books one through four again in January 2020, and have yet to return to the final three – though hope to do it at the end of this year.
  2. Deltora Quest Emily Rodda – This is going way back to school days. There were multiple series in the Deltora Quest line, but I only read the original main series. I can’t remember much of it now but I was hugely interested at the time. 
  3. Vampire Plagues “Sebastian Rook” – Digging deep into the recesses again I remembered this series of historical vampire fiction that I read in high school. Again, hazy on the details but I know I loved them at the time. There were six books and I read them several times. 

3 Characters I Love

  1. Jesus from The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis – There are many interpretations of this character to choose from, but my favourite is his portrayal in Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation. Kazantzakis’ Christ really struggles with his position, more apparent than in any other work is the character’s humanity. The book, and later film adaptation, was regarded as blasphemous by the church – but that’s idiocy, if anything was going to sway me toward religion it would have been The Last Temptation
  2. George from A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood – since this, one of my favourite books, is entirely focused on a day in the life of George, it would be strange if George wasn’t also a favourite character of mine. An English professor in 1960s California, George is grieving the death of his partner, Jim; and it is deep, uplifting stuff as George basically searches for a reason to live – will he find it? I’m not telling. 
  3. Annie Wilkes from Misery by Stephen King – a character I love to hate, why not? Misery was my introduction to Stephen King and what a starter. Annie, an obsessed fangirl from before fangirling was a thing, is one of the great horror creations. There’s no supernatural twists, no possession, Annie Wilkes is just one seriously fucked up human being – and aren’t those “the best” villains? 

3 Current Favourite Covers

Covers just aren’t something I care about. Like many readers I can’t stand adaptation-tie in covers, nonetheless I have a few. I’ve never given much thought to what I like in cover, simplicity probably. Here are three that I like. They’re not my favourites, because I just don’t have favourite covers. 


3 Weirdest Things I’ve Used For Bookmarks

Ah. Welp. I don’t use a bookmark or substitute. Never have. I do use an elastic band to hold the portions of a book I’ve already read, but the band is rarely located at the most read to point. You can see my band, in the above picture of East of Eden!


3 Favourite Authors

Probably the hardest question and the one I’ve left until last. One choice stands above all the others, maybe the most readable author of all time – and certainly one of the best regarded.

  1. George Orwell – no one really compares, Orwell is a master of the craft. Whether reading his political fiction – Animal Farm, 1984 -, his insightful non-fiction – Homage to Catalonia (his best, in my opinion), Down and Out in Paris and London -, or his essays on a range of subjects – from Shooting an Elephant, to Wells, Hitler and the World State, to Some Thoughts on the Common Toad – Orwell is never less than riveting. 

I guess then I just have to choose two more authors I love – I’m not going to say favourites, three is too limiting: Orwell is number one; after him it’s all to play for – at least as long as Shakespeare isn’t in consideration, which I’m saying he’s not because he didn’t write a book. 

  1. Richard Dawkins – I’m going to say Dawkins so that there’s some non-fiction represented here. There are, as most will know, two facets to Dawkins’ writing career: science and atheism – and memoir, I guess. Whichever he is writing on, though, his style is always wonderful; and, most importantly, his passion for the subjects is always apparent. Whatever you think of Dawkins, it’s hard to deny that he really believes what he writes. (Incidentally, I usually agree with him, but that’s not the point). 
  2. Douglas Adams – I’ve only read the Hitchhiker’s series and the first Dirk Gently novel by Adams, but that was enough to know that I adore him. No other writer has had me laughing so much as Adams has. The humour alone would be enough, but behind Adams’ humour are ideas that never leave you once heard. 

3 Unpopular Bookish Opinions

  1. The Great Gatsby is awful. ‘Nuff said. 
  2. Hardbacks are the devil’s work. 
  3. I don’t know about the popularity of my other opinions. Ooh, I know one – there are a lot more movies better than the book than is often given credit. 

3 Book Goals for the Year

  1. Number one, I suppose, is to complete my list. I’ll need to pick up the pace though as I’m only at book 16, going on 17. 
  2. I have no other ideas. I’m not a very goal-oriented person… 
  3. … still nuffin’ 

As a diversion this was exactly what I needed. It may have taken more thought than was necessary, but the time has been passed effectively. If you want to answer these questions, consider yourself tagged! I’d love to read your own answers. 

Thanks for reading!

Quotes: The Divine Comedy

We were advancing with ten demons Oh! savage company! but, as they say, In church with saints, and in the pub with rogues. (Inferno, XV, 13-15)

Dante’s Divine Comedy was one of my favourite recent reads. The language of the Comedy is renowned in its native tongue the way Shakespeare is in ours, so, as always with translated text, it is a bit of a disappointment to have to resort to the English… but only a little: English is still the language of Shakespeare, after all. The quotes I am sharing come from the Oxford World’s Classics edition as translated by C. H. Sisson. 


For, where the argument of reason is Joined with an evil will and potency, There is no possible defence for man. (Inferno, XXXI, 55-57)

This Aristotelian idea is central to Dante’s theological conception of good and evil. The sins punished in Hell can be divided into two categories, sins of appetite and sins of malice. The former are those sins which involve indulging in base animal desires, like lust, without reference to reason. Sins of malice, though, require the use of reason, they require choosing wrong (“evil will”). 


… This mountain [Purgatory] is such That the first part of the ascent is always hard And the higher a man goes, the less hard it is. Therefore, when it becomes so agreeable That the ascent becomes as easy to you As movement to a boat that is going with the current, Then you will be near the end of this path; There you may hope to rest from your exertion. (Purgatorio, IV, 88-95)

I love this image as it applies to a journey of self-improvement generally, the first steps are the hardest, because the first steps are those that require us to most acknowledge flaws in ourselves. 


That is a divine spirit who shows us The way up without waiting to be asked, And conceals itself within its own light. It does with others as a man would do with himself; For he who waits to be asked, when he sees a need, Is already spitefully on the way to denial. (Purgatorio, XVII, 59-60)

An angel shows Dante and Virgil the way without having to be asked, on that gesture Virgil proclaims the above. I don’t completely agree: we can delay helping until asked for a number of reasons without diminishing our willingness to help when asked, surely? 


The things you make and do all have their deaths As you have yours: though this is not evident In things which last long, for your lives are short. (Paradiso, XVI, 79-81)

Legacy has been a common theme, whether explicit or implicit, in my reading of late. The Divine Comedy might well be considered Dante’s legacy, a complete summation of his religious beliefs and a warning to the people of Italy, and Europe broadly, completed shortly before his death. Dante’s dismissal of the true value of material wealth, replaces it with a greater legacy to pursue: eternal life.


…you should wonder no more At the way you came up, than a river does At the way it goes down a mountain to the bottom. It would be a marvel if, without any impediment, you had settled below, just as it would if a live flame stayed on the ground. (Paradiso, I, 136-141) 

The meaning here is that the soul belongs in paradise, heaven, and it would have been a miracle, indeed, had it been comfortable on earth. Souls desperately desire to gain paradise, to gain completeness – nowhere else was this more evident than in the first circle of hell, where the worthy pagans sigh for all eternity, longing for true knowledge, completion, gained only in paradise, but knowing they can never have it.  


For because human wishes are always changing, Following the stars, never was any product Of human reason made to last for ever. That man should speak is a natural phenomenon; But whether this way or that, nature allows You to work out, as seems best to you. (Paradiso, XXVI, 127-132)

I spoke with a person recently, whose job, in paraphrastic, was to show that the modern world’s ideas and products had all been discovered or in use in ancient times. This person had a deep mistrust of modern science, the atom bomb was a key target, rightly so, but this was absurd. Despite the crazy belief that modern science is all and only evil, for destruction, when I asked her what great ideas had been lost to history, her response was… Greek Fire! It was all too absurd, she was reticent to acknowledge Newton changed the intellectual world in any way. 

This quote, though, is properly about the natural change of languages, spoken by the Adam.


That’s all the quotes and commentary I want to share from the Divine Comedy, for now. Thanks for reading!

Weekly Assortment: 29 March – 4 April 2021

What I read: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (29 March); A Prayer Before Dawn by Billy Moore (30 March – 1 April); East of Eden (2 April – ongoing)

Cain and Abel

It was on the second page of East of Eden that I realised I would love it. 


“You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.” 

That’s the line that done did it (I absolutely adore that construction, “done did”). 

I knew Steinbeck took inspiration from the story of Cain and Abel, so I naturally consulted the King James to refresh the memory and to embiggen my understanding of East of Eden. Here’s my thinking: Yallahwehova is a dick. 

“And in the process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground  an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought [an offering]. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and his offering: But unto Cain and his offering he had not respect.” 

Yeah. Why? The inscrutability of his will, of course. And mine eyes did rolleth most strenuously. But seriously, why? What was wrong with Cain’s offering, or what was right with Abel’s? – apparently to Yallahwehova it is most assuredly not the thought that counts. 

And he tells Cain, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?” He tells Cain that, but his actions contradict the words don’t they? Did Cain not do well in tilling the ground, or did he not do well in making an offering? Who knows. Steinbeck was apparently rather annoyed by this fact; I am too, Yallahwehova is a petulant brat – thank the heavens he mellowed after he had, and was, his child!


Names and Darkness

There is some overlap and contrast of themes in East of Eden and Heart of Darkness that I expect I will return to at some point. An overlap, though, comes in discussion of colonisation and naming. Steinbeck writes, to give everything in sight a name, “is the first duty of every explorer – a duty and a privilege. You must name a thing before you can note it on your hand drawn map.” The purpose of a map, of course, is to enlighten. 

But Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, suggests quite the opposite – an endarkening..? (It is a word apparently! Chiefly literary; appropriate.) Referring to the ‘undiscovered places’, he writes – in character as Marlowe, I should point out – “When I was a little chap I had a passion for maps… At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth… the biggest, the most blank, so to speak – that I had a hankering after.” (Africa, he means).

But by the time Marlowe could explore, “it was not a blank space anymore. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery… It had become a place of darkness.” As the title suggests, Conrad’s novella explores this darkness and the notion of it, but that is a post in itself. 


…And Light

Another minor overlap has to do with tricks of the light. Conrad (Marlowe) speaks of a portrait of a girl: “She struck me as beautiful – I mean she had a beautiful expression. I know that the sunlight can be made to lie too, yet one felt that no manipulation of light and pose could have conveyed the delicate shade of truthfulness upon those features.”

Steinbeck’s character Adam Trask, meanwhile, is surprised to find his step-mother smiling when he inadvertently intrudes on her privacy. “Of course it occurred to him that he might be wrong, that some misbegotten shadow had fallen across his face and warped his seeing. And so he cast back to the sharp picture in his head and knew that the eyes were smiling too. Twisted light could do one or the other but not both.” 

To refer back further, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, had a less equivocal statement of light’s revealing power than either Conrad or Steinbeck offered: “There is a wonderful insight in Heaven’s broad and simple sunshine. While we give it credit only for depicting the merest surface, it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon even could he detect it.”

I can’t resist pointing out how strongly the Sun and truth are connected in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the opening it lights the path to God, though the path is blocked by the beasts of sin; later the ascent up Mount Purgatory can only be achieved in daylight. The symbolism is obvious. Man has long connected the Sun with divinity – for equally obvious reasons – chiefly, they are scared of the dark.

I had not intended to devote this many paragraphs to the sun, but connections keep occurring to me. I’ll conclude with Richard Dawkins’ thoughts on sun worship from The Magic of Reality: “Whatever the details, all the water wheels and cogs and drive shafts of life are ultimately powered by the sun. Perhaps those ancient peoples would have worshipped the sun even more devotedly if they had realised just how much all life depended on it.” 

In some ways that greater devotion is a scary thought. The Aztecs had already, in order to “keep the sun moving across the sky”, to “feed Huitzilopchtli with human hearts and blood.” What would greater devotion than that look like? (Source for that was History, so the veracity might be questionable, but it fits my point.)


Taxi! 

Alright, I could talk about Heart of Darkness and East of Eden all day, but I haven’t mentioned the other book I read: A Prayer Before Dawn. In which a Liverpudlian recounts his years spent in a Thai prison. But there isn’t a great deal I want to share from it, nothing, at least, that won’t be incorporated into later posts dedicated to the book. 

So, just one fun fact that amused me: “The Thais called Tramadol taxis because they were coloured green and yellow, just like the local cabs.” 

I’m sure some, if not all, of you will be familiar with Tramadol in some capacity. It is an opioid medication, in the UK a schedule 3 controlled substance, permitted by prescription only. I have several family members who take it for pain; I even had a lecturer who said he takes it once (I assume for pain, rather than recreation, but I did not ask, nor am I one to judge). 

This got me wondering about other world street names for drugs. But my research was fruitless, I found only street names as are used in my parts and similar. An amusing diversion, nonetheless. Anyone know of any witty or interestingly-derived street names? I’d love to hear them. 

Thanks for reading! 


What I posted (29 Mar – 4 Apr): 

On Targets

I did it! For the first time since setting a weekly target, I accomplished it. And have now realised weekly targets are not really for me. So no more. What do I foresee reading though? There’s a good chance East of Eden will take up most of the week – after that I will start on Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. I don’t expect to finish it before next week’s assortment. 

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