I'm half way through Rushdie's Midnight's Children, and had promised myself Borges' Complete Fictions next, but this was next on my TBR, and I see a gI'm half way through Rushdie's Midnight's Children, and had promised myself Borges' Complete Fictions next, but this was next on my TBR, and I see a group which many of my friends belong to is about to start reading it, so I may be a slightly late joiner to that (and Borges after that). The group is here: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/......more
I read this for a mixture of rather weak reasons: 1. I was out for the day and unexpectedly finished the book I had with me, so went to a second-handI read this for a mixture of rather weak reasons: 1. I was out for the day and unexpectedly finished the book I had with me, so went to a second-hand charity bookshop. 2. I didn't want to start a novel, as I had a meaty one waiting at home; short stories seemed ideal. 3. I relished the shock of my mother when I told her what I was reading.
It was a reasonably varied and diverting collection, but I won't be rushing to read another Mantel. A couple have dashes of magical realism, and there's a nod to the vogue for vampires. A couple would be more exciting and rewarding with titles that weren't spoilers.
Although I don't share my mother's visceral horror at the title of the collection, the overwhelming feeling was one of unpleasantness. In particular, there were many snide asides about class and race. In some cases, they were perhaps appropriate for the time, place and characters who uttered them, but that doesn't apply to "How Shall I Know You?". Overall, for stories published in 2014, I was left with a nasty taste in my mouth.
SHATTERED AND UNSEEING; UNINVITED GUESTS
Every one of the ten stories features something that is not seen or should not be seen (I've included a quote for each), and most had glass shattered in a dramatic way.
The first and last stories have a woman alone in a flat, who has an unexpected and potentially sinister visitor. (And a character in another story is Mr Simister!).
I could get profound about this, but I didn't really care enough to go beyond noticing these recurring ideas.
Sorry to Disturb
Set in Saudi Arabia in 1983 and apparently somewhat autobiographical. An expat wife has "been made helpless by the society around me", so is effectively confined to her housing block, making it hard to close the door on the persistent, but not entirely welcome Pakistani man, of uncertain motives. She's on medication that causes occasional hallucinations: the title refers to the doorbell, but also her state of mind. "Even after all this time it's hard to grasp exactly what happened."
As a woman "one was always observed... without precisely being seen." Invisibility was a sign of respect.
The eight year old narrator, and forbidden friend, Mary (aged 10 and from a less respectable family) go exploring in a lazy hot summer. In particular, there is a rich family's house with a secret. The final page has a flurry of gratuitous punctuation analogies to match the title.
Hiding in a bush, she "looked straight at us, but did not see."
The Long QT
This opens, "He was forty-five when his marriage ended, decisively", and he's at a party, snogging a neighbour. But the marriage doesn't end the way you might expect.
"her eyes had already glazed."
A controlling husband, very anti-children, takes an annual winter holiday with his wife. This has a twist, but it's flagged rather too obviously for my taste.
A taxi driver, turning to reverse the car, "stared past her unseeing."
Narrated by a disaffected meeter and greeter at a Harley Street clinic, it was like a sub-Alan Bennett monologue.
Patients "look right through me", but "when the patients come in I seem to see straight though them to the bone."
Offences Against the Person
A teenager is working at her father's law firm - alongside his mistress. Dull.
"His eyes passed over me, but he didn't seem to see me."
How Shall I Know You?
This seems heavily autobiographical. An author reluctantly accepts an invitation to speak at a small literary society in the 1990s. She doesn't have a good word to say about anywhere or anyone, observing her audience: "many had beards including the women". She prefers to go without an evening meal than risk an additional encounter with literary society members.
She repeatedly comments on the yellow skin of a girl who works at the guest house, and mentions three female authors for no obvious reasons (Rowling, Byatt and Brookner).
On a lighter note, when asked about her literary influences, "I replied with my usual list of obscure , indeed non-existent Russians" and another time. "invented a Portuguese writer".
"I didn't look her in the face", embarrassed about giving a generous tip.
The Heart Fails Without Warning
Sisters aged 11 and 14, the elder of whom has anorexia. "The whole household... enmeshed in multiple deception": a father who busies himself with work and "was no more than a shadow in their lives", a mother who thinks a full-length mirror will help, a sister jealous of the attention, and a school who wants her to stay away because it "has a competitive ethos" and fears "mass fatalities if the [other] girls decide to compete".
"When she looks in a mirror God knows what she sees."
"I saw my dead father on a train" is a good opening. After that, it's dull, despite potentially intriguing questions: "is experience always in the past?"
"I had happened to see a thing I should never have seen" and "his look was turning inwards."
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
This tries to be provocative, profound and funny, with thoughts of alternative history and alternative reality. "History could always have been otherwise." It didn't really deliver for me.
"He had not looked at me before, not to see me." "When she comes out [of the eye hospital] will she be able to see?" ""Neither in nor out of the house, visible, but not seen."
* "I closed the door discretely, and melted into the oppressive hush."
* "I spent two hours with my neighbour... widening the cultural gap."
* "I admired these diaspora Asians, their polyglot enterprise, the way they withstood rebuffs, and I wanted to see if she was more Western or Eastern or what."
* "Eating out was more a gesture than a pleasure... without wine and its rituals there was nothing to slow it."
* "Furniture is frolicking in the dark."
* "The hottest summer... that... bleached adults of their purpose... each day a sun like a child's painted sun burned in a sky made white with heat. Laundry hung like flags of surrender from washing lines."
* "Her face, in early middle age, had become indefinite, like wax; waiting for a pinch and a twist to make its shape."
* "She did not like parties that involved open doors... Strangers might come in, wasps... It was too easy to stand on the threshold... neither here nor there."
* "A tiny chime hung in the air as the glasses shivered in her fingers... the glass exploded... She sunk into the shards as smoothly as if they were satin, as if they were snow, and the limestone gleamed around her, an ice field, each tile with its swollen pillowed edge, each with a shadow pattern faint as breath."
* "We dress for the weather we want, as if to bully it, even though we've seen the forecast."
* "He drove very fast, treating each serve of the road as a personal insult."
* "She could feel Phil's opinions backing up behind his teeth."
* "A bed of geraniums so scarlet, as if the earth had bled through the pavements; I saw Guardsmen wilting in symmetry."
* "Having been a brittle person, she became flexible" by taking up yoga when her husband left.
* An area "where the dustbins had wheels but the cars were stacked on bricks."
* "A face of feral sweetness."
* A polytechnic is "for those who were bright enough to say 'affinity', but still wore cheap nylon coats."...more
"What's the use of stories that aren't even true?"
I'm not quite sure why I picked this up (it's a children's book, and my "child" was 21 last week -"What's the use of stories that aren't even true?"
I'm not quite sure why I picked this up (it's a children's book, and my "child" was 21 last week - perhaps I'm hankering for times past), but I'm glad I did. It has the powerful mythical feel of traditional fairy tales, with plenty of nods to classics, and a political undercurrent that tells of the time he wrote it.
It would be perfect to read to a child of around 7 to 10, over a couple of weeks (twelve equal chapters), but as a solo adult, I enjoyed the wistfulness of a childish read, coupled with something much more profound.
Before you start
I vaguely knew this was dedicated to his son, but didn't notice the actual dedication or consider the timeline. However, I wasn't far into the book before I felt compelled to check. It was published the year after the fatwa that sent Rushdie into hiding (though he'd long since split from his wife). His son, Zafar, was 10 or 11. In that context, the dedication is heartbreaking:
Zembla, Zenda, Xanadu: All our dream-worlds may come true. Fairy lands are fearsome too. As I wander far from view Read, and bring me home to you.
I also wish I'd noticed the pages at the back that explain the names of many of the characters, most of which are derived from Hindustani [sic].
The key message is the power and importance of stories, even if, or particularly because, they are not true. (You see the link to the fatwa?)
Haroun is the son of a great storyteller who loses the power of storytelling. The story is a quest to turn on the storywater tap. It is set in an "other" world, with a child as the hero. If this were an adult novel, it would be classed as magic realism. It has an old-fashioned and Indian feel, but also features robotic birds and passing mention of aliens, UFOs and moons.
I won't summarise the plot, but it has all the elements you want and expect from a book like this: fantastical creatures; enigmatic lyrical characters juxtaposed with logical prosaic ones; dashes of humour; a maze of corridors; mistaken identity; occasional puns and Malapropisms (pussy-collar-jee = psychology); love; betrayal; impossible dilemma; princess rescue; disorientation; lucid dreaming?; a battle; time dilation; derring-do; funny names; telepathy; wishes; a baddie who explains his plan to the captured hero; magic; a gadget (complete with arbitrary timeout).
Free speech - Je suis Haroun
This is about the fun of stories and the importance of believing even what you can't see, but it's not just about that. There is a clear message about the right to speak. The arch-enemy of all stories is also the arch-enemy of language itself - to the extent his followers have their lips stitched up. What could be a more powerful symbol of censorship that the "Sign of the Zipped Lips"?
"Is not the Power of Speech the greatest Power of all? Then surely it must be exercised to the full?" Not forgetting this is a children's book, the example is a general who accepts insults and insubordination. The risk to those in power is that "inside every single story... there lies a world... that I cannot Rule."
But the importance of free speech doesn't mean one should always speak, unthinkingly. Haroun realises that "Silence has its own grace and beauty (just as speech can be graceless and ugly)... Actions could be as noble as words." As in so many things, we need discernment.
One of the problems Haroun encounters is the deliberate poisoning of the storywaters by dark forces. You can put an ecological spin on that, but it's not the main message.
Even a non-baddie has had some stories changed to make him the hero. Who owns our heritage? Can we rewrite it?
"The magic of the story can restore spirits."
These ones I spotted (there may well be others). It's only now I collate them that I realise quite how many I found; I may be guilty of over-analysing:
• Douglas Adams People always trust Rashid the storyteller "because he always admitted that everything he told them was completely untrue". Unlike the politicians who want him to speak at their rallies. This logical inversion is slightly like Wonko the Sane from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.
There is also P2C2E - a Process Too Complicated To Explain, which summoned H2G2 to mind.
• Graham Green On discovering his mother had left, Haroun's reaction was the rather tangential destruction of his clock. I was reminded of a short story called "A Shocking Accident" in which a boy, on learning his father was killed by a falling pig, asks what happened to the pig.
• The Beatles There are eggheads and a character called Walrus, but I didn't spot the carpenter.
• Tolkien The Floating Gardeners look rather like amphibious ents.
• Kafka The Plentimaw Fishes are described as Hunger Artists (they swallow stories and then "create new stories in their digestive systems"). See A Hunger Artist.
The Shadow Warrior's first, spluttered utterances are "Googogol" and "Kafkafka".
• Gogol I've not read Gogol, but he gets a mention alongside Kafka (above).
• Shakespeare A boy page is actually a girl in disguise.
• Lewis Carroll The pages dressed like pages (rather than playing cards) and associated trumpets brought Wonderland to mind, as did the logical illogicality of organisations.
One character asks Haroun "Why make a fuss about this particular impossible thing?" The Red Queen famously "believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast".
• Jonathan Swift The antagonism between the Guppees and Chupwalas has echoes of that between the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos.
• Mary Tourtel et al The Plentimaw Fishes talk in rhyming couplets, like the captions underneath each picture in Rupert Bear stories.
• Philip Pullman In the dark world, shadows can be separated from their owners - rather like Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon.
• Monty Python or JM Barrie A knight fighting his own shadow made me think of the dark knight in The Holy Grail, but given that he's not fighting his shadow, I suppose Peter Pan is the more obvious connection.
• One Thousand and One Nights There's a houseboat called Arabian Nights Plus One.
• Aladdin The Water Genie has a magic wrench, which Haroun takes, so the genie follows him round, helping him out, trying to get it back.
• Joseph Conrad The evil one "sits at the heart of darkness". (I might be trying too hard with that one; it's a common enough phrase.)
• The Duchess of York (aka Sarah Ferguson)! Pollution of the storywaters includes "an outbreak of talking helicopter anecdotes" and Budgie the Little Helicopter was published the year before this.
• The sad city, that had forgotten its name "stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue."
• The Ocean of the Streams of Story: "because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories; so that unlike a library of books... [it] was not dead but alive."
• The Floating Gardeners do "maintenance... Untwisting twisted story streams. Also unlooping same. Weeding." They're also like hairdressers, because the longer stories are, the more likely they are to be tangled.
David Crystal is eminently readable (as well as eminent) and it is quite short, so although it's written mainly for serious linguists, it's accessible to the general reader with an interest in language. This review is a summary of key points.
"Language is the most massive and inclusive art, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations." Edward Sapir.
"Languages are the pedigree of nations." Dr Johnson.
What's the problem?
Languages have always died, but Crystal fears the process is accelerating, and explains the difficulties in assessing the truth of that fear.
How do you define a language? If two languages are mutually intelligible, they are generally treated as variants of the same language, except for the exceptions (generally political, e.g. Serbo-Croat is now Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian, though there is little change to the actual language(s)).
The recognition of minorities could mitigate the tide of language death: English may be swamping the world as a second/additional language, but it may splinter into regional variants that are more distinct than currently. "No one owns English now", which I think is broadly good. On the other hand, I have no problem understanding American or Indian English, but how would I feel if that ceased to be the case?!
At what point does a language become endangered? One used by a small but stable community may have a surer future than one spoken by tens of thousands, but where it's swamped by a language perceived as having more power and prestige.
Why does it matter?
1. Diversity is good, and languages are a delicate, connected ecosystem. 2. Language is part of identity. 3. Languages are a repository of history (etymology, but also differences of vocabulary and style). 4. Any loss of knowledge is a loss. Preservation isn't about communication (there are other languages), but identity and uniqueness. 5. Languages are inherently interesting (e.g kinship vocabulary, reflecting different social structures).
Why do languages die?
1. The people are in physical danger (war, plague, tsunami). 2. Cultural change or assimilation: 2a. Pressure to use the dominant language (political, social, economic). 2b. Emerging bilingualism. 2c. Younger generations favouring the new language, so becoming monolingual in that.
What can be done about it?
The final chapter is aimed more at professional linguists, but even before that, Crystal considers how and if outsiders should support languages at risk, especially if the speakers don't care about saving it.
Community involvement is vital, and language isolates should be prioritised.
The main tools are raising the prestige and visibility of minority languages. He saw the internet as a cheap, easy and non-geographically bound way for minority languages to have a presence. However, I suspect that since he wrote, any such advantage has been diluted by the spread of English.
He notes that literacy is no guarantee of survival, but that it does make it easier to pass a language across generations (and continents) and even to resurrect dead ones. However, where a language does not have a writing system, great sensitivity is required: which dialect should be encoded in writing (will others die as a result), and are there political implications of picking Roman over Arabic script, for example?
For languages that are likely to die, it's important to store data in a variety of mediums: not just writing, but audio too, and covering as wide a range of contexts and registers as possible. The rhythm of oral traditions cannot be fully conveyed on a printed page.
Crystal has many ideas of what to do and not do, and why, but for all that I say I care about language, as an outsider (rather than a field linguist) who is fluent in only one language and can get by as a tourist in three others, I'm left feeling alert to the issues, appreciative of what I have, but ultimately helpless.
Shame on me and many of my compatriots. Bilingualism is the norm for most people across the world.
For all the idealism of Esperanto or attempts to spread English even further, he cites The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: the Babel fish "by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."
More seriously, two languages need not be in conflict within a community: typically, one is about identity (inward-looking), and the other is for communicating with other groups (external).
Eskimo snow myth
Even in 2000, this was old hat. One of the reasons is down to lexemes (semantic units): flowerpot, flower-pot and flower pot are a single unit, as are take, takes, taken, taking, took. It's similar with snow words. And of course, there are quite a few snow-related words in English: snow, slush, sleet, mogul, flurry, whiteout. More here: http://people.ucalgary.ca/~kmuldrew/c...
Showing its age?
This is fifteen years old (published in 2000) and frequently cites research and publications from the late '90s. Most of the issues are general and enduring, so it's only a few examples where it's relevant. In particular:
* The year before this was published, it became compulsory to teach Welsh in all state funded schools in Wales. Hence, Crystal hadn't seen the effects, which is a shame, as it's a language he has a particular interest in.
* Crystal refers to the ubiquity of English in the US, without any mention of Spanish, which is increasingly widely spoken, though predictions of trends vary: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/.... It might even fall, as those from Spanish-speaking backgrounds stop speaking Spanish at home!
* He saw the power of the internet, but didn't foresee how it would increase the spread of English.
* He also saw HIV/AIDS as a bigger long-term threat than seems to be the case.
At the time of writing, 96% of the world had a first language that was one of only 20 languages (out of around 6000 languages).
The most spoken first languages were: Mandarin, Spanish, English, Bengali, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, and Japanese. I know Brazil is big, but I was surprised Portuguese was so high (and indeed English), and although Mandarin and Russian are compulsory across vast nations, I thought they were second/additional languages for many. And no Arabic.
"The mother tongue of more than three billion people is one of twenty, which are, in order of their current predominance: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Javanese, German, Wu Chinese, Korean, French, Telugu, Marathi, Turkish, Tamil, Vietnamese, and Urdu. English is the lingua franca of the digital age, and those who use it as a second language may outnumber its native speakers by hundreds of millions."
I wonder if they're lumping together different varieties of Arabic that Crystal's stats counted separately.
Descriptivism and prescriptivism
Crystal is a descriptivist: he sees language change as inevitable, healthy and interesting.
A detailed but informal look at the pervasive power of gender stereotypes, backed by science. Sounds good, doesn't it? Not for me, though. My readingA detailed but informal look at the pervasive power of gender stereotypes, backed by science. Sounds good, doesn't it? Not for me, though. My reading of this included International Women's Day; that wasn't intentional, but it felt like undeserved penance for such a day.
The 2* rating indicates how interesting and enjoyable this book was for me. Were I rating in purely objective terms, it would be a solid 3* (maybe even 4*).
IN A NUTSHELL
Fine debunks the deterministic views of gender that are often based on brain structure and organisation. She seems to believe there are NO innate differences between the sexes, which is a bit of a stretch to me. However, she clearly shows the impossibility of investigating possible brain differences without overestimating the multiple, and often subtle, effects of culture. You can't raise or measure children in a societal vacuum. She ridicules poorly designed experiments that assume too much from too little, but presents less in her own defence.
It was better at giving concrete examples of how research can be misinterpreted (examples below) than it was at revealing anything much about gender.
PROBLEMS I HAD WITH THIS BOOK
* It doesn't know what it is: it's too self-consciously jokey for a serious text, but with 100 (of ~350) pages being notes, bibliography and index, it's more thorough than one expects in pop-sci. The jovial tone makes it a quick casual read, but the exhaustive references would be more suited to following up with one's own investigation.
* It is painfully repetitive. Fine makes good and important points, but she makes the sames ones again and again and again. I've summarised them below.
* Fine is angry about bad and misinterpreted research. Such things need pointing out, but sometimes she picks very easy targets (papers by 18th century doctors, for instance), or lays into one or two individuals at excessive length - principally Simon Baron-Cohen and Louann Brizendine.
* Conversely, she is utterly sure of her own rightness, even when using anecdotal cases, rather than proper studies to back up her points. She criticises others for lazy stereotyping and in the next sentence suggests that men are not so keen on attending male-dominated conferences because there's less opportunity for sex. I am left unsure how much I trust her or those she criticises. The important points she makes got lost in the haze of my mounting irritation.
* It is narrowly about male/female gender roles, rather than the broad spectrum of gender identity, which is what I am more interested in. However, that's a fault of my expectations, rather than the book itself.
* I don't feel I learned much. I read plenty of examples of experiments and studies and how to judge their validity, but people like Ben Goldacre have long covered that ground very well. The gender angle was the context of the debunking, but largely confirmed what I already believed.
Most of these are probably familiar to the sort of people who read a book like this:
* Stereotypes: they're pervasive and powerful. Even more so than you think. They start before birth and imbue our life, as self-fulfilling prophesies, however much we try to go against them. Even pre-schoolers extrapolate beyond what they've been told, seeing pointy shapes as inherently more masculine than more rounded ones (like the bouba/kiki effect often used in synaesthesia studies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouba/ki...). Gender matters to them, because it's the main social grouping they have, other than adult/child (no geeks, sporty types, arty divisions yet).
* Context is all. This applies to most things in life (a crucial consideration in angry online grammar debates!). Where gender is concerned, if we prime people to think of gender (e.g. a maths exam that has a M/F tick box), people are more likely to conform strongly to gendered expectations.
* Neuroplasticity: very little behaviour is "hard-wired" in our brains. Even if something is typical, that doesn't mean it's necessary or inevitable.
* Look carefully at psychology research:
** Is it testing what it claims to test? Comparisons based on different levels of foetal testosterone use a variety of proxies, of dubious accuracy (the amount found in amniotic fluid, mother's blood, baby's digit length).
** Is there unconscious bias or knowledge in the testers? If testers know the sex of a baby (as they usually will), that may skew how they interact.
** Are the results borne out by the numbers? Just under 50% of women have what Baron-Cohen classes as a female brain.
** Are the assumptions fallacious? When testing toy choice, are the toys really gendered the way the testers assume? Why is a pan "feminine" to a monkey?
** Reporting bias: it's more interesting to report a difference. Studies that fail to find one may not be published.
** Various sorts of brain imaging are sexy. They use expensive equipment to produce scientific pictures. But they don't necessarily show what we think they do.
** Beware of using biology as a fall-back explanation. If a little girl loves pink despite her parents' best efforts to the contrary, surely huge marketing hype and peer pressure are at least as much of a factor as hormones? As for the mother who couldn't understand why her daughter swaddled, cuddled and put to bed her toy hammer - perhaps the reason was that it was always her mother, and never her father, that put her to bed.
* Gender-neutral parenting is almost impossible to achieve. Yet until a century ago, it was normal for all under-5s to be dressed similarly (white dresses), and when colours became common, it was strong red or pink for boys and pretty blue for girls. When we read picture books, we tend to use male pronouns for all the unspecified characters, human or animal. Female leads are remarkably rare in junior fiction (none in 42 Dr Seuss!), but although there are occasional tomboys, you never get a "sissy" boy.
* There's a glass ceiling for ambitious women, and a glass escalator for men in traditionally female-dominated jobs.
* Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar: "When are a few dirty cups a symbol of the exertion of male privilege, and when are they merely unwashed dishes?"
* "Having it all never meant doing it all." Gloria Steinem.
* Men aren't from Mars and women aren't from Venus. We're probably all from the moon.
Some have enjoyed the humour of this. It certainly raised a couple of smiles for me, but most of the witty asides struck me as rather sarcastic, or just cheap uses of the sort of stereotypes she purports to hate. For instance, when pointing out that the widespread use of strip clubs in corporate hospitality excludes women from important networking, she weakens her outrage imo, by suggesting that female colleagues fake a headache and stay home.
I want to end on a positive note, so here are the two best ones:
* In a passage explaining that after about 7, children tend to become slightly more flexible in their thinking about gender, she adds that those who don't, end up with successful careers writing books based on rigid gender stereotypes - with a footnote! The footnote says, "This is a joke, rather than a scientific fact." Yep, that really was the second-best one, imo.
* Following on from caveats about over-reliance on neuroimaging, Fine cites an empathy study... performed on salmon... that were dead. It produced pretty pictures of brain activity, though!
Poetic twists on the paradoxes of time. The quotidian becomes extraordinary and unsettling.
Time travel needn't involve machines or blue boxes (sorry, APoetic twists on the paradoxes of time. The quotidian becomes extraordinary and unsettling.
Time travel needn't involve machines or blue boxes (sorry, Apatt!): Lightman makes it leap off the page and into your mind, leaving you questioning the very root of reality.
There are about 30 very short chapters (typically, three pages of well-spaced text). Each uses an artist's palette to conjure ordinary scenes of human interaction in a small Swiss Germanic town.
Everyman, everyday, anytown - except that the unique way time operates in each place creates a uniquely alien culture.
It's full of dilemmas and paradoxes, and the book itself is a paradox: it's so little and light, but it contains SO much of weight. (There, Apatt, I've squeezed in a TARDIS.)
"Each time is true, but the truths are not the same."
WHO IS THIS FOR?
It's for anyone who likes to play with ideas and appreciates beautiful writing. I know real physicists who have enjoyed this, but you certainly don't need any esoteric knowledge to be transported by it.
I appreciated the lyricism as I read it, but mainly noted down the ideas.
* There are many series of single-sentence, seemingly unrelated, vignettes, especially on page 58-60: "Footprints in snow on a winter island. A boat on the water at night, its lights dim in the distance... A locked cabinet of pills. A leaf on the ground in autumn, red and gold and brown, delicate... A mother on her bed, weeping, the smell of basil in the air... Sunlight, in long angles through the window in late afternoon... A worn book lying on a table beside a dim lamp."
* Sunrise: "Ten minutes past six by the invisible clock on the wall. Minute by minute, new objects gain form."
* "Hypothetically, time might be smooth or rough, prickly or silky, hard or soft. But in this world, the texture of time happens to be sticky."
* "In a world where time is a sense... a sequence of episodes may be quick or may be slow, dim or intense, salty or sweet, causal or without cause, orderly or random." Here, "the time-deaf are unable to speak what they know. For speech needs a sequence of words, spoken in time."
* "Where time stands still... Raindrops hang motionless in the air. Pendulums... float mid-swing. Dogs raise the muzzles in silent howls... The aromas of dates, mangoes, coriander, cumin are suspended in space."
* Time can be measured by things other than clocks: "by the changes in heavenly bodies... by heartbeats... the duration of loneliness."
HOW TO BE HAPPY
This is a book of hypotheses, not solutions. It isn't theological or prescriptive, but its exposition of adaptation and happiness spoke to me.
In most of the worlds, some people have coping strategies that bring happiness, or at least contentment, whereas others are mired in misery. In many cases, that means going to great, even ridiculous, lengths to gain just a little bit more time. In those respects, these worlds are like our own.
In some of the worlds, predestination or inevitability breeds recklessness, "free to do as he pleases, free in a world without freedom."
In another, it's suggested that "a world where time is absolute is a world of consolation" because time is predictable. I'm not sure about that one; people are still unpredictable. Lightman is also very upbeat about a world where people have no memories: every night is the first night, and people live in the present - but they could just as easily be reckless, not being able to learn from experience.
Should we live for the moment, the past, or the future (echoes of A Christmas Carol?)? Would you "rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly, mounted in a case"?
There is no single answer, but I believe we are responsible creating the framework for our own happiness. We may need help (especially if saddled with depression or grim circumstances), but ultimately, peace can only come from within. How one achieves that is trickier - rather like the solution for travelling safely through a black hole that starts, "First, build a time machine..." (or maybe the way to build a time machine is to first find the black hole?).
WEIRD WAYS TIME COULD WORK - Spoilerish?
Some examples of worlds described in the book. For each, the implications of understanding and ignorance of the nature of time is different, and almost all could be the basis for a whole novel:
* "Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly."
* "Time is like a flow of water, occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze.... People caught in the branching tributaries find themselves suddenly carried to the past."
* A stop/start world where time is "seemingly continuous from a distance but disjointed close up."
* "Time has three dimensions, like space... an object may participate in three perpendicular futures."
* "Time is like the light between two mirrors... a world of countless copies."
* "There is mechanical time and there is body time." One is "rigid and metallic", the other "squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay... Where the two times meet, desperation. Where the two times go their separate ways, contentment."
* "Time flows more slowly the farther from the centre of the earth." Or the converse: "The centre of time" from which "time travels outward in concentric circles", getting faster as one is further away. Where time is a local phenomenon, passing at a different rate, each town has to become a self-sufficient island, and no traveller can ever return home, being "cut off in time, as well as space".
* "Time is visible in all places. A vast scaffold of time, stretching across the universe." And "Time is a visible dimension... one may choose his motion along the axis of time." Which way would you go?
* "Consider a world in which cause and effect are erratic... each act is an island in time." Scientists are helpless, but artists love it.
* "A world without a future... Time is a line that terminates at the present, both in reality and in the mind."
* What about a world where everyone knows it will end in a month? Lightman sees it "a world of equality", but I think that's optimistic. Or where people are like mayflies and live for only a day each.
* What about a world where people live forever? Does infinite time and infinite possibility send you to a frenzy of business, experiencing everything you can imagine, or does it take the pressure off, so you sit around, doing nothing just yet?
* "The passage of time brings increasing order." In spring, people create mess and chaos.
* "Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images." I can't really get my head round that one, but it's the most beautiful one.
* "Time is not a quantity but a quality... Time exists, but it cannot be measured... Events are triggered by other events, not by time."
* "Time flows not evenly, but fitfully and... as a consequence, people receive fitful glimpses of the future." (Shades of Flashforward.) Here, "Those who have seen the future do not need to take risks, and those who have not yet seen the future wait for their vision without taking risks."
* "Time passes more slowly for people in motion." The converse would have possibilities too.
Perhaps we should try to ignore time. One world has only just discovered objective measurement of it. The clock "was magical... unbearable... outside natural law" but it could not be ignored, so they worshipped it. "They have been trapped by their own inventiveness and audacity. And they must pay with their lives."
The alternative time chapters are interspersed with occasional ones describing Einstein as a young patent clerk, working on this theories of time. I found these an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction.
HOW TO READ IT
You could easily sit and read this book in one short session, but although you would imbibe the beauty and the tangling of time, I wanted to digest and ponder a few worlds at a... time. I might choose differently on a reread, though.
TO MY FRIENDS - yes, you!
This is another wonderful book that I discovered purely because of the enticing reviews of several friends on GR. Thank you.
To my other friends, I redirect the favour by recommending this book to you....more
A rich and delicious snack that defies categorisation.
It has elements of Kafka, Roald Dahl, Hillaire Belloc and Tim Burton, with a dash of Orwell (butA rich and delicious snack that defies categorisation.
It has elements of Kafka, Roald Dahl, Hillaire Belloc and Tim Burton, with a dash of Orwell (but one digit out). It looks like a beautifully designed and illustrated children's book, though it's rather dark for small children, and YA feels wrong as well.
I think it's a book for adults who like slightly sinister tales and want to recapture a taste of the frisson of fear they relished when young.
The story is a fairly simple fable: a boy goes to the public library because he was idly wondering about the Ottoman tax collection system, and his mother always said, "If you don't know something, go to the library to look it up". He knows the place well, but on this occasion, he's sent to a reading room, via an enormous underground labyrinth, escorted by a sinister old man. It's not just the corridors that take a worrying turn, and he tries to quell his fears by rationalising the improbability of a public body being able to afford so much secret space. Is it magical, a hallucination, real in a parallel world? Will he live or die?
The story is set pre-Google, and it should probably be read as if Kindles and audio books don't exist either.
This is a book you need to hold, touch, and smell. My edition (illustrated at the top of this review) has an old-fashioned library card wallet glued to the outside front cover.
The illustrations are beautiful, very varied, only loosely related to the text, and mostly copied from books in the ancient London Library (http://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/). I recently attended a friend's birthday dinner there; it was a strange juxtaposition of enjoyments.
Knowledge is good - but maybe dangerous, too?
I just hope this book doesn't put anyone off seeking knowledge, either in general, or by visiting their local library. It has that effect on the narrator, but that is partly because the punishment prescribed for him failing to acquire specific knowledge in a limited time was so grim - yet also somewhat clichéd.
Kafka and other parallels
Minor spoilers - but no more than in the book's own blurb.
The boy meets a/the sheep man, a character in other Murakami books.
However, Kafka was the strongest parallel for me: surreal, incomprehensible situation, unfair punishment without recourse to defence, and sustenance (food, flirting and, in Kafka, more) from a woman who may or may not be real....more
A new David Mitchell due out barely a year after The Bone Clocks, and set in the same universe. However, when TBC was published, he said the third ofA new David Mitchell due out barely a year after The Bone Clocks, and set in the same universe. However, when TBC was published, he said the third of the Marinus trilogy was outlined, but wouldn't be published for a few years, so this may not be any closer to TBC than any of his others. Or not. Who knows?
It turns out that his 2,000 word Twitter story evolved, “scenes grew, bred and sprouted new scenes until ‘The Right Sort’ passed the 6,000 word mark and announced itself as part one of a five-part novel”. It's due out in time for Halloween: https://www.hodder.co.uk/PressRelease...
"The novel’s five sections span 36 years in the life of a haunted house, and the disappearances of five individuals, from October 1979 through October 2015. “Slade House” is set in the same fictional universe as “The Bone Clocks,” which was an ambitious 624-page effort to amplify the low-wattage supernatural elements that radiated through Mr. Mitchell’s earlier work.": http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/artsb...
I'm joining the bandwagon of Fionnuala's idea for looking back at my reading over the last year. The result is to crystalise my joy at what I've read,I'm joining the bandwagon of Fionnuala's idea for looking back at my reading over the last year. The result is to crystalise my joy at what I've read, and appreciation of my friends here on GR.
Overall, I've read some wonderful things this year, and the very best was last: Stoner, but I immediately started rereading, so it's still flagged as "currently reading", and awaiting a review.
I read in my usual, undirected way: it was mostly fiction, and mostly novels, but there was no overriding theme, and I have no specific plans as to what to read in 2015.
I rated more than half of my readings as 4*, which is high for me, and only one was 1*: When She Woke (good concept, lousily executed).
Of my nine 5* reads, all but one were either rereads or recommendations from GR friends. I like that balance of old friends and new. Discussions with GR friends have also made me see new aspects and gain greater understanding of many books. This is what I love about my GR friends.
Fiction Highlights of 2014
"Stoner". A 5* rating is far less than it deserves. It is the most painfully exquisite book I have read; I'm still processing it, as I reread it. It is utterly wonderful. A huge "thank you" to Steve, whose review was the main reason I read it. My only worry now is whether I dare read anything else by Williams, as it surely can't be as good.
Steve also prompted me to take The God of Small Things off my shelf and actually read it. That was another 5* read, and I had some wonderful conversations with people about the book, and about a culture and setting of which I know very little.
"The Bone Clocks"... This is David Mitchell's new book, and turned out to be a sort of sequel to 4* The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which I reread afterwards. I had very mixed feelings. It wasn't what I expected or, really, wanted, but it was compelling, and the more I wrote about it and discussed it with GR friends, the richer I realised it was, despite it not being quite to my taste. Nevertheless, my ambivalence, coupled with an inability to be brief, meant I wrote two reviews with different ratings: The Bone Clocks 3* detailed and The Bone Clocks 4* spoiler-free.
Although I generally prefer the sustenance of a novel, I was struck by the powerful punch of three, very different, 4* short stories: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is a haunting parable by Ursula Le Guin about the price we pay for happiness. The Egg by Andy Weir is only a couple of pages, but is about the purpose of life - and the answer is not 42. Christina Rosetti's Goblin Market is a hypnotic and sensuous poem about temptation, with fairytale qualities.
I cemented my love for China Mieville (a relationship that got off to a VERY rocky start a few years ago) with the epic 5* Perdido Street Station.
I read my first Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance, and saw the links with David Mitchell, giving it 4*.
Angela Carter was a name I knew, but now I love. I read a riot of a novel, Wise Children 4* and some luscious adult fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber 5* as well as her short telling of Bluebeard 4* to tie in with Jane Eyre 5*. And now I realise my reading was not quite as "undirected" as I first said, because those led me to Vonnegut's utterly different Bluebeard 4* about US abstract expressionism, and because I'd read Jean Rhys' prequel to Jane Eyre, at the end of 2013, I read her semi-autobiographical Voyage in the Dark 3*.
I love the cold beauty and contrasting humour of Kafka, but had neglected him. I returned to Metamorphosis and other Stories and remain in awe of the man's range and insight.
I reminded myself why I should read at least one Iris Murdoch a year with 4* An Unofficial Rose. I love the machinations of her cast.
I also reacquainted myself with two authors of whom I'd only read one (excellent) book previously: Rebecca West's beautifully written 4* coming of age novel set at the cusp of WW1, This Real Night. Marghanita Laski's chilling psychological 4* drama The Victorian Chaise Longue.
2015 will feature the first birthday that I've had mixed feelings about, so reading Julian Barnes' collection The Lemon Table was perhaps a poor choice, as the stories all concern aspects of ageing - not in an especially negative way, and they're beautifully written, but I'm not sure I want to be reminded of such things.
My small dose of non-fiction was more diverse:
I was thrilled and amused and touched by the memoirs of a friend, Blown Like a Leaf 4*, and I shamelessly commend it to you.
There's plenty on my TBR pile, and positions on it will change, partly at the prompting of people reading this. The only thing I know for sure is that when I finish rereading and reviewing Stoner, I will go to something old - specifically, Trollope's Orley Farm. Other than that, I'll see what takes my fancy and when, but it's likely to include a second Murakami.
I do wonder if I should strive to write more succinct reviews in 2015 - if only to leave more time for reading. But then again, I'm reminded of the old chestnut, attributed to many writers, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time"! I suspect I have to accept that brevity is not my strong point.
I've just noticed that this is my 500th review on GR. It seems a suitable one for such a milestone. ...more
It's too short to risk any spoilers, but it starts with a dead man's encounter with God, and follows their conversation, as the dead man asks what happens next, what the meaning of life is, etc. The answer is simple and complex, trivial and profound, religious and blasphemous (YMMV).
It opens with a description of a city, country and continent Kafka never saw: "New York looked at Karl with the hundred thousand windows of its skyscrapers." The ship, too, has windows (of course), but there are more references to them than one might expect in such a few pages.
Karl is only 16 and has been sent, alone, to escape the shame of being seduced by an older maid who bore his son (sexually assertive women are common in his works - and there is a very flirty kitchen maid on the ship as well). He travelled steerage, where there is "a glimmer of murky light, long since stale from its use in the decks above", and is due to meet a slightly wealthier uncle in New York.
He disembarks, then remembers he has left something behind, so leaves his trunk on shore (in the care of an acquaintance) and becomes disoriented in the labyrinth of the ship. He is befriended by the stoker who overs vague help, but really wants someone to listen to his grievances. During the voyage, Karl had protected his trunk obsessively, but now he seems not to care, and instead, takes the stoker's case to the captain.
There is enough of a resolution that it works as a short story, yet it doesn't quite work overall. ...more
This collection of very short pieces is sometimes called Meditation, and under that name, is sometimes included in Metamorphosis.
These pieces are geneThis collection of very short pieces is sometimes called Meditation, and under that name, is sometimes included in Metamorphosis.
These pieces are generally lighter than many of his works, though the recurring themes of loneliness, unease, judgement and watching are all present.
This review is really a collection of jottings for reference; don't expect great insights!
Children on a Country Road
A charming picture of carefree children, playing and exploring. Not at all Kafkaesque.
Unmasking a Confidence Trickster
Oppression, manners, unease. But "the groundless devotion on the servants' faces rejoyced my heart".
The Sudden Walk
Almost a whole page in a single sentence: breaking out of routine by one decisive act.
A short and painful description of a slough of depression: resolving to do something about it, then thinking it would be futile. The ending is startlingly bathetic, humourous, even.
The Excursion into the Mountains
An apparently gloomy plan for a lonely trip, with unexpected levity ("It goes without saying that they all wear evening dress").
The Fate of the Bachelor
Not what Kafka wanted (he was engaged three times to two different women), but certainly what he feared. He died a bachelor and probably childless (there is some debate about the latter, but little evidence), but young enough that had he lived, he may yet have married.
Left behind; everyone else who matters has gone to America (prescient re his novel, Amerika?). Beauty too: "The banisters of the staircase float down past the panes of frosted glass like a waterfall."
Stray Glance from the Window
A little prose poem that might be sinister...
The Way Home
Another window, but this character is a fortunate man, who is even aware of the fact.
The Men Running Past
Fear of following and of intervening (the latter echoing In The Penal Colony and Jackals and Arabs).
Existential angst, being "entirely uncertain as to my place in this world". But a pretty girl can transform thoughts.
No window this time, but a slightly voyeuristic appreciation of women's clothes, coupled with pragmatic concerns about the practicality of pleats.
The narrator imagines all the reasons a girl might ignore a request for a date, by comparing himself with an unrealistic ideal. Self-fulfilling prophesy?
For the Consideration of Amateur Jockeys
Counter-intuitive musings: surely no one would want to be a winner because winning divides friends and makes you look ridiculous to women "because he's swelling with pride" etc! "And finally from the now overcast sky it even begins to rain." Maybe something got lost in translation.
The Window on the Street
The importance of a window to stave off loneliness and to rejuvenate: "the horses down below will drag him into the train of their wagons and their tumult so in the end towards the harmony of man".
Longing to be a Red Indian
Dreams of America, again. But very brief.
In total; make of it what you will:
"For we are like the trunks of trees in the snow. Apparently they rest smoothly on the surface and with a gentle push we should be able to shift them. No, that one cannot, for they are firmly attached to the ground. But see, that too is only apparent."
Misery in one's room, haunted by a child (ghost, imagined or, in some sense, real?) but, once again, "found relief in a glance to the window". The child expected but also not expected; reality shifts: "How can my not believing help me?... The real fear is the fear of what caused the apparition."
It's a short, allegorical tale on one of Kafka's key themes: judgement. (He studied law at university, and went on to work in insurance, investigating personal injury claims.)
"The law... should be accessible to everyone and at all times."
A man comes seeking justice (the reason is not stated), and the door to justice is open, but the doorkeeper won't let him pass. There is never an outright "no", nor any reason given, just prevarication and the implication (and it is only an implication) that one day it might be possible. The man waits, and waits. The doorkeeper takes bribes, just "so you won't feel there isn't anything you haven't tried." You can probably guess the outcome more-or-less.
Some of Kafka's stories have humour; this is not really one of them. Cold and haunting beauty, with an eerie familiarity (even the first time I read it) are the tone here.