Saturday, 2 October 2010

Douglas Adams; Life, the Universe and Everything

At the end of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe Arthur and Ford, separated from Zaphod and Trillian, found themselves crashing on to prehistoric earth, and finding themselves stuck there, with a bunch of hairdressers and telephone sanitisers. Luckily, they don't stay there for long in Life, the Universe and Everything, and by means of a stray, floating sofa find themselves at Lord's Cricket Ground, a few days before Earth's scheduled destruction. But they don't stay there for long, either, for Slartibartfast has also found his way there, for a very important reason. He's trying to stop the imminent destruction of not just Earth, but of everything.

Maybe because this is the first book that I was unfamiliar with, or maybe because it just seemed to be not quite as funny, witty or brilliant, I just didn't find this book as good as the preceding two. Trillian's character... well. precisely. What character? She seemed to be just a plot device with a name, useful for wrapping the whole thing up nicely, but not a lot else. There were still moments of brilliance - bistronomics, for one, Arthur forgetting to land for another, but on a whole, it seemed as if things were starting to fray a little at the edges. It just wasn't quite as brilliant.

Douglas Adams; The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

After the adventures of the first book, Zaphod, Arthur, Ford and Trillian find that they're rather hungry, and therefore, decide to go to Milliways - the restaurant at the end of the universe. Of course, with the writer being who he is, and the characters being who they are, this isn't as simple as it sounds. Zaphod finds himself separated from the rest of his group and part of a mission to uncover the true ruler of the universe. A mission which he himself chose to conceal from himself.

I was still on familiar territory here, for the most part (thought there were some variances from the radio shows I remember). The paragraphs explaining all the different tenses that function in Milliways was pure genius to me, and the whole book worth reading just for that. Adams is just as witty and brilliant in this book as in the first. I was, as with the first book, rather surprised at how much action he could fit into such a short book, there really is a distinct lack of dull moments and even if the plot seems a little erratic, I found I was happy to coast along with it both for the humour of the various character's reactions to their constantly changing plights, and because Adam's narrative style means that you really don't mind what's going on, as long as it's him who's telling it.

Douglas Adams; Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Dear blog, I hate you so much. Twice now, I've tried to write this review, and twice, twice you've just deleted it. Do you think I enjoy writing the same thing over, and over again? Do you think I enjoy trying to remember what I wrote last time, and, despairing of that, trying to come up with something all over again? Do you? Well you're wrong. I hate it, and I'm rather starting to hate you, too.

Arthur Dent's house is about to be destroyed. he's not happy about this. His planet is also about to be destroyed and if he knew about it, he probably wouldn't be happy about that, either. He may cheer up slightly if you told him he and his friend Ford Prefect would survive the demise of his planet - but only slightly, because what he'd really need after all that was a drink of tea. And the only planet which produced tea has just been destroyed. He's going to be even grumpier when you try to explain to him, without his having had any tea, that his entire planet was in fact a giant computer which was destroyed moments before completing the program it was designed for, and that Ford Prefect isn't even human.

It seems rather blasphemous to me that I've only just, this summer gone, read The Hitch-Hiker "trilogy", but my excuse (and I'm sticking to it) is that I grew up listening to tape recordings, and later, CDs of the radio show. I still remembered parts of them vividly, so I never really felt the need to read the books. And because of that, despite having never read them, it did feel like re-reading a much loved book from childhood.

Adam's is funny, witty and incredibly clever. The book is fast-paced and it's almost impossible (unless you've read/heard it before) to guess where it's going. The plot is incredibly whimsical, and it sometimes feels that it's just a device used to allow Adam's to get in various funny observations and witty remarks. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that if you don't like Adam's sense of humour, you'd probably find the whole book incredibly stupid and incomprehensible.

Whoops!

What with visiting Domibaars, going on brief holidays and moving back to the my internetless house in Bristol, I've managed to fall way behind on keeping up with blags. I've got 13 reviews to try and write before I read much more - but also a lot more to read! My goal was to read 100 by the end of the year, and I've currently finished 53 - not good. Does it count for anything that one of the books was War and Peace?

Anyway, review-vomit coming up.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Charlotte Bronte; Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre is the story of young, poor, unloved orphan, who, by the time she is twenty, is neither poor, unloved, nor completely without family. There are some ups and downs and at times it really doesn't look like it' going to work out, but thanks to a curious string of coincidences it all turns out alright. There are a few minor unhappy incidents designed to make you think that it didn't quite turn out perfectly, but they rather just highlight that it did. Having said that, the characters are likable enough, so it's forgivable.

I'm pretty proud of myself for finishing this book, because it's one of the very few books I tried to read before and never finished. When I first read it I hated Jane, I thought she was whiny, self-pitying, attention-seeking and just... generally eugh. This time, I found her tolerable to start with, and even likable as she grew up. But I can perfectly understand why my younger self really didn't like her. She's the kind of person my younger self would have wanted to punch if they'd met in person.

Unfortunately, however, I am apparently some sort of soulless demon for not crying at the end. So sayeth some idiot wannabe journalist writing for my Universities student newspaper. And, as briefly mentioned, one of the reasons I didn't cry is because it's all just so perfect. Then minor bad events are just highlight how pukingly perfect everything is rather than conceal it. It's tolerable, but I can't love it. Also, Bronte's occasional decisions to change tense just completely threw me out of the story every time she did it. I could cope with it the first few times, when she seemed to be doing it to get across the intensity of Jane's feelings when she met Rochester, but there were a few other times she did it that rather baffled me, and even the early times weren't done skillfully enough to avoid me breaking off and thinking 'hey, wait, what? ...Eh, fine...' I also found some of the descriptive language rather amusing. It made me think of Tiffany Aching and her dictionary swallowing.

It's not a bad book, but I found it a bit contrived, cliche, and not fantastically written, probably one of the worst classics I've read (bearing in mind that even the worst classics are a good deal better than most other books).

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Alcott; Little Women

Little Women is the story of four sister, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy who are miserably poor. Except they're not miserable, because they love each other and they love their mommy and daddy and they love God, and therefore everything is actually OK. The story goes through one year in the lives of the March family, in which each girl undergoes some small trial so that she can overcome some perceived flaw. Except for Beth, who is actually perfect, so she just gets ill instead.

It's well written, but personally I found it a little... obvious in it's structure. At the start of the book each girl names a flaw of hers that she's going to work on overcoming for that year, and then, in turn, each of them has an encounter/episode of some sort which shows up this flaw and allows them to conquer it. And well... this just isn't really my kind of book. I read it because I felt it's a book I should have read by now, and because it's one of my Grandma's favourites. And I can see why. She could have jumped right out of the pages of one of these books. She could be the fifth March sister. But... me? Gimmie byronic heroes over these little martyrs any day. It's not that I dislike books that try and impress a sense of morality upon the reader, or that give you characters who are good, kind and incredibly moral. I just get annoyed when actually, everything turns out alright for them in the end, apparently because they're good and moral. Bad things with lasting effects should have happened. Someone should have died.

Unsurprisingly, I'm not going to be tracking down any of Alcott's other books about the March family to read.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Kundera; Immortality

I think trying a synopsis of Immortality is probably some sort of crime. So I won't write one. It's possibly a book to approach best without knowing much about, except that Kundera is funny at times, an astute observer of human nature, and very, very clever.

Though I must add, I disagreed with him about a few things.

This is the book for you if you like books that make you think, and think properly about people and humanity. If you like books that have as much philosophy and dialogue as plot. If you like books that are clever, unconventional, and very clever about how they're unconventional.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Pratchett; Wintersmith

Tiffany Aching, now thirteen, still training to become a witch and coming along nicely, dared to dance with the Wintersmith, and now the Wintersmith is entranced by her. But he seems to have mistaken her for someone else. Someone of a... more summery disposition. And his infatuation with her and the havoc that her dance caused to the natural order are starting to have interesting and dire consequences - for both herself and everyone else. A multitude of Tiffany shaped icebergs have been reported by sailors. Of course, they don't know they're specifically Tiffany shaped, for which Tiffany is rather grateful, but she'd still rather people weren't crashing into icebergs shaped like her.

Now Tiffany is hiding from the Wintersmith as she tries to think up of a way to solve this newest problem before the winter starts to get longer and harsher than it should. Once again the Nac Mac Feegle are on hand to help, whether wanted or not, along with the witches and Horace the cheese, who seems to act rather like a member of the Feegle clan.

This is the last installment for the moment of the Tiffany Aching books (I timed it rather well, I think, the next is due out in September). And has a mixture of the best old characters (The Nac Mac Feegle, Granny Weatherwax) some old familiars from the adult series who haven't appeared much before (Nanny Ogg and Greebo) as well as a few new characters, big and small (Horace, You and Miss Treason). A mixture which keeps things nicely interesting and prevents boredom or bewilderment. This book has a slightly more romantic element to it, but it's well managed. It's not soppy or overdone and is written with Pratchett's usual wit and humour, which makes it more than palatable even for those of us who aren't usually interested in reading about typical teenagers and their crushes.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Pratchett; A Hat Full of Sky

Tiffany Aching is definitely a witch. But she could definitely do with some training. And that's just what she's about to get. For the first time in her life, Tiffany is leaving the chalk to begin an apprenticeship under Miss Level, a curious but friendly witch with more arms and legs than is normal. But Tiffany has inadvertently attracted the attention of... something. Something which has no body of its own - a parasite which invades other bodies, only leaving when it's driven the host to madness and death - and it's decided it quite likes the look of Tiffany's body, thank you very much. But this is an ancient evil chasing Tiffany - it cannot be killed, so how can she defeat it? Even the help of the faithful Nac Mac Feegle, cheery guardians of their old Kelda, whether she wants them to be or not, might not be enough to help Tiffany this time...

This is the second book about the young Witch Tiffany Aching and once again, it's classic Pratchett. It's just as witty, funny and inventive as ever, though I wish Pratchett would explain a little more why Tiffany is tied to the chalk in a way that no other witch seems to be tied to her native soil - but this isn't too big an issue. It's an important point that she is tied to the chalk, but it's not as if the book doesn't make sense without knowing why she is. It's also interesting to have Tiffany's perspective on things as she meets Discworld's most famous witch, Granny Weatherwax. Tiffany herself is, I find, a very relatable character - she behaves in a very realistic and understandable way (I remember reading several children's books and finding myself at times - both when I was younger and when I reread them when I was older - thinking 'What? WHAT? This is NOT a reasonable reaction. This does... Not. Make. Sense.) so I appreciate how realistic I find her actions and reactions to be when reading about Tiffany.

Tiffany seems to be getting a few years older in each book which makes me wonder if, one day, when her childhood is done, will we see her pop up in a Discworld novel instead?


Phew! I really need to catch up on reviews - I'm still about five books behind myself. Erk.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Pratchett; The Wee Free Men

You can't grow a good witch on chalk, everyone knows that. Too bad nobody told Tiffany Aching that. Or the Feegle clan that live up on the chalk, who have already identified her as their hag. But why are the Nac Mac Feegle looking for the hag? And where did that headless horseman and the thing from the ri- and wait a minute, where's Tiffany's brother? According to the Kelda - leader of the Nac Mac Feegle - he's been taken by the fairy queen, who's not quite as good at looking after children as she likes to think she is.

She might not know any magic yet, and she might be very young, and she might not be that fond of him, but that was Tiffany's brother, and no one steals her things, especially not some silly fairy. So with the help of the Feegle Clan, a talking toad, and Granny Aching's copy of Diseases of the Sheep, Tiffany sets off to get her brother back.

This was one of the most enjoyable light reads I've read in a long time - top form wit and cunning from Pratchett, and laugh out loud funny in several places. Tiffany is a great character who was a pleasure to read about and the Feegle clan are hilariously lovable rogues, the plot is engaging and moves along quickly. As a kids book it can be read in a single day, or afternoon if you're an older or faster reader. I couldn't wait to start the next book when I was done and grabbed it off the shelf straight away.

Wladyslaw Szpilman; The Pianist

The Pianist is the memoir of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist for Polish radio before and after the Second World War. He tells of the segregation of the jews from the rest of the population and how they were gradually all removed and taken to the camps - he himself survives through a remarkable series of chances and help from brave friends and strangers willing to risk their lives to save him.

When I read this, I had to constantly remind myself that this was real - this wasn't fiction, this was the record of someone's life, what they'd seen and what they'd lived through. I thought about it quite a lot - why I had to keep reminded myself that it was real, and then, at the end I learned that he'd written it himself very shortly after the war had ended. And I realised that the reason I was having to remind himself that this was real was probably because he was having problems with it feeling real, too.

For me, the most moving part of it was the accompaniment of the account by several extracts from the diary of the German soldier who was one of the many people who helped save Wladyslaw Szpilman's life.

Most people should, I think, at some point in their lives when they're old enough to understand - or rather, when they're old enough to understand that they can never truly understand - should read an autobiography of someone's life during the Second World War. This would be a good one to choose.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Philip Reeve; Infernal Devices

In Anchorage In Vineland, the only city on the Dead Continent, Wren - daughter of Hester and Tom is bored. Life there is too quiet, and she craves adventure like those her parents had before they fled over the ocean from the war the Green Storm were waging against the Traction Cities sixteen years ago. And then, out of the blue, the opportunity to escape rises with the appearance of some Lost Boys - people Wren has only ever heard about in stories from the adults who lived through the move across the ocean. But Wren's escape plan is turned upside down as she becomes the captive of first one person, then another until finally she ends up right in the middle of the war her parents were fleeing.

This is the third book in the Mortal Engines Quartet, and by far the weakest so far. I suspect it will be the weakest of the lot, since the penultimate book in any trilogy is usually just a long prologue to the final volume and rarely worth much on its own. Also, the final one won an award or two, so I have hopes that it might turn out to be almost as good as the first one.

I had huge problems buying into Hester's attitude to her daughter - Reeves turns Hester from a girl with understandable insecurities who made a mistake through a mother completely alienated from her child to... just a plain psychopath. I don't buy it. There's no reason for it. I also didn't buy into Wren's attitude to her mom - she's ashamed of her because she has a scar on her face? That's... just not believable. This is her mom. That's how she's always looked. Typically, if you grow up with something like that, it doesn't phase you because it's always been normal to you. If I saw that other people were embarrassed by my mother because she was different, I wouldn't suddenly think that I should be embarrassed by her too, I'd be angry at them for being so stupid and narrow-minded. And this incredibly twisted, unbelievable mother-daughter relationship completely ruined it for me.

If you can get past that, then there are a few good points - the story is fast-moving and engaging and the thread with Dr. Zero far more realistic in terms of dealing with human emotion, so it's far easier to feel an emotional tie with the character.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Pratchett; Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents

So, knowing that I really rather used to like Pratchett at one point, I wasn't going to be put off by one bad book, and gave another one a go. I picked this one because, well, it's shorter and easier to finish if I'd found out I didn't like it. But that was not a problem at all.

As money-making scams go, the setup Maurice, the talking, thinking cat has arranged isn't too bad at all. The rats go in, stealing food, peeing on the food they don't steal, dancing around and generally scaring the townsfolk. Being smart, they know to avoid the poison and they're getting remarkably good at disarming traps. Then, after a few days, the boy comes in with his pipe, rids the town of its "plague" of rats, and hey! Easy money. And since they've made quite a lot of money this way, and the rats are starting to have worrying thoughts of an ethical nature about what they're doing, they agree that the next town will be the last one.

But when they get to Bad Blintz, they realise that something else is already causing trouble in this town. There are rat traps everywhere, but no rats anywhere, and haven't been for quite a while, by the looks of things. And yet the villagers claim that most of their food is still being stolen by rats. On the surface, Maurice and his piper boy, Keith, are tracking down part of the problem in some greedy rat catchers. But the educated rats are nervous, because there's something very wrong going on in the sewers of Bad Blintz, something far worse than just two greedy men.

This book restored my faith in Pratchett. It was far better than Thief of Time. The female character was annoying and, I thought, a bit of an obvious plot device for promoting the point that just because it's a story, and a fantasy setting, it doesn't mean it can't be realistic about how people act. But once you got past that, it was good - funny, fast-paced, entertaining, an genuinely quite dark and scary in some places.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Pratchett; The Thief of Time

The Thief of Time is part of Pratchett's (in)famous Discworld series.

Many years ago someone attempted to build a clock so accurate it didn't just measure time, it trapped it. The clock was built of glass and crystal except for one small spring of metal. When the clock was activated the metal spring had proved a fatal weakness and the clock broke, shattering time along with it. The Order of Wen the Eternally surprised, monks who have taken it upon themselves to guard time pieced it back together in a patchwork way, taking time from one place and dumping it in another, reusing certain bits and dumping any excess time in the sea. And they removed all memory of the glass clock ever having been built.

But you can't remove something like that. Not completely. It trickles back in through fairy-tales and dreams and now The Order of Wen the Eternally Surprised are running out of time, because someone is building a second glass clock. And this one won't have a metal spring. Lobsang, the tricky orphan recruited from the Guild of Thieves in Ankh-Morpork who has more skills than he should for one so young, and the renowned hero Lu-Tze, a cheery sweeper who no one notices will need all their skill to stop the clock before it can be started. But help may come from unexpected places, for Susan Sto-Helit (Miss Susan to you), granddaughter of death is also on the trail.

I was unpleasantly surprised by how uninteresting I found this book. Maybe I've just been spoilt by excellent literature and TV that deals with time in brilliant ways, but I just felt that this was nowhere near as clever as it could, or should be. I had far higher expectations from Pratchett. I also got quite bored at times waiting for the book to catch up with the plot twists I'd already figured out. It did however, go a decent way to redeeming itself in the last third of the novel, and there were still a few ideas in there that were both interesting and amusing - the procrastinators, for one.

I did, however, find Susan's character completely unlikable. Which again, rather surprised me. I don't remember her being that incredibly predictable or dull, but I found myself impatient for her to get off the page whenever it came to her narrative thread. For me, it was the scenes with either Death or Ronnie (or Death and Ronnie) that saved it.

It's a decent read for any Discworld fanatic, I suppose, but far from the best that Pratchett can do.


Friday, 13 August 2010

Samuel Butler; Erewhon

Erewhon was one of the book that came up a few times in The End of Mr. Y, for being a thought experiment. It also happens to be one of the books I'm looking after for a friend whilst she's out of the country for 18 months, so it made sense for my next read.

At its core, this book is a big thought experiment and social criticism, wrapped loosely in a narrative about the discover of new lands, hidden behind a mountain range, and new people by a single man who then spends several months first learning their language, and studying their culture. The elements of the culture he describes - the unlawfulness of being physically ill, the Schools of Unreason, The Musical Banks, the book on the machines, etc. provide the dress-up for the social criticism and thought experiment.

Though I found the first few chapters - the travelling to, and discovery of, Erewhon - slightly dull, once that was over, however, and it was into the actual discussion of Erewhonian culture, I fell in love. It's very clever and thought provoking (as, I suppose, a thought experiment should be) and underlying much of it there is an incredibly ironic sense of humour - just the sort I love. And because it doesn't just ask 'what if?' but also, 'how is this, which seems absurd, really different to what we do?' it can provide quite a strong criticism of certain elements of our own culture - still largely relevant to today. I would class it as one of those books that anyone who considers themselves an intellectual should have read.

Scarlett Thomas; The End of Mr. Y

Ariel Manto, A PhD student researching thought experiments in literature, and despite the fact that her now missing supervisor told her to ignore him, she has an ongoing interest in an obscure English author by the name of Thomas Lumas. Thomas Lumas who wrote a book called The End of Mr. Y which no one has read in a long time because no one can find a copy of it anymore. Thomas Lumas, who wrote a book and then promptly died. Along with anyone else who read it. And suddenly, Ariel finds herself with a copy of this book. The book that people die after reading. But she's not the only one interested in Lumas' last work...

This is the book I should have read instead of wasting my time on The Book With No Name. There are so many good things about this book. This is the easy read for an intelligent reader. Instead of idiotic discussions on movies, the discussions are on Derrida and quantum mechanics. Definitely my kind of thing. It's not hard to follow, but you do have to let it have your full attention. I suppose some people might get bored of the frequent theoretical discussions, and if you're the kind of person who tunes out when someone else starts talking about literary analysis or theoretical science then no, this really isn't going to be the book for you. The only thing that really didn't interest me were the droll passages where she dwells on her history of self harm and past sexual exploits. I just... didn't see the point. There were also one or two ends that really shouldn't have been loose, but were hardly plot-destroying.

However, one of the little things I really enjoyed was the fact that Scarlett Thomas made the evolutionary biologist the 'clever, and yet... and the same time, so incredibly stupid', narrow-minded one. Just because you study a science subject, it doesn't make you better, smarter, or more open-minded. And it gets boring to constantly read about narrow-minded theists.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Christopher Tyerman; The Crusades: A Very Short Introduction

It's nonfiction. It's an introduction to the Crusades. With me so far?

As I'm sure I've said before, and will inevitably say again in relation to this series of books: they're good, but they're not quite introductions for the complete new-comer to the topic. I always feel that you get a little bit more out of them if you've already done some very preliminary reading on the topic yourself.

I've had this sitting on my shelf for a while and picked it up a few weeks ago after a discussion with a relative about the crusades and the influence of Islamic societies in general. He had what seemed to me a pretty warped opinion and would try and deny that anything good had come out Muslim societies, even when presented with pretty concrete examples. I was pretty sure that a lot he said about the crusades had that same warped twist to it, but I found I didn't really know enough about it myself to be able to really argue against him there. So I decided to cure my ignorance.

I wouldn't say I'm not fully equipped to enter into a debate with people about all aspects of the crusades, but I can certainly utter with confidence the immortal line, "It's not that simple." And maybe even go a little way into explaining why.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Anthony Hope; The Prisoner of Zenda

The penultimate book in the pile from the "children's" classics box set. Another title that I'd not heard of before I saw it in this set.

The Prisoner of Zenda is about Rudolph Rassendyll, one of the idle rich, who decides to entertain himself by visiting Ruritania. Upon reaching Ruritania, he discovers that he is the exact image of the soon-to-be-crowned king of Ruritania. But the King has a brother, Black Michael, who is determined to claim the throne for himself and plotted darkly against his brother and now holds him prisoner in the castle of Zenda. To keep Black Michael off the throne whilst they plan a way to save the king, Rudolph agrees to play the part of the man he looks so much like.

A few pages in I knew I was going to like this book, it had a sense of humour that I immediately warmed to. As an adventure novel with some romance thrown in it is a perfectly fine book. But what really made it stand out to me was the inner turmoil and moral dilemma of Rudolph after he has fallen in love with the Princess Flavia, and she with him. Does he keep the throne, knowing Black Michael will never be able to call him out, or does he make the attempt to free the king, knowing that if he does he will have to leave the woman he loves and she marry a man whom she doesn't love. By the end it is far more than just an adventure story and is rather touching. Definitely my favourite so far from that box set.


Stephen Crane; The Red Badge of Courage

Another one from the "Children's Classics" box set. I can't say I've heard of Steven Crane before, I think he may be more popular in America than here in England. Or maybe there are just gaping holes in my knowledge of good literature.

The Red Badge of Courage is the story of a young man who joins the army to fight in the American Civil War and portrays the thoughts, fears, hopes and doubts of a soldier fighting for the first time. The back cover comments briefly that it is a remarkable portrayal of war considering the author had never experienced war himself. Which irks me. The whole point of writing fiction is that you're able to write about things that haven't happened, or haven't happened to you. Whether the author has been to the country they're writing about, seen the revolution they're writing about, is neither here nor there and simply shouldn't be taken into consideration, in my opinion. It is either a good portrayal of war, or a bad portrayal of war. There should be no qualification that it's good 'for someone whose never experienced war' and, frankly, this book doesn't need that qualification. It is an excellent portrayal of war. That's all there is to it.

It is perhaps a little slow in places, and I did find myself wondering whether I wanted it to be slightly more damning of war than I felt it to be, but in the end I found I could cope with the fact that it doesn't shove a moral view down you throat, but rather presents you with a reality and lets you decide for yourself.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Robert Louis Stevenson; Treasure Island

Another from the box set of "Children's Classics". It was slightly odd to read this book. I've never seen any of the many film adaptations, but when I was little I did have a computer game of 'Muppet Treasure Island' so I vaguely knew, or remembers parts of the plot as I read. You know when you read/see a reference to something without knowing it's a reference, and then when you read the original, you suddenly remember and go, 'ooooh.'? There was a lot of that.

In case there is somehow, someone who doesn't know the plot of Treasure Island, and can't figure it out from the title, the book is about a young boy, Jim Hawkins, who, at the start of the book, helps his parents run the Admiral Benbow Inn. Times at the inn take a turn for the worse when an old sailor, Billy Bones takes residence and soon brings down a host of trouble upon the inn in the form of old crew mates seeking the map he guards. Before his shipmates can claim the map, Billy Bones dies and Jim and his mother, opening Billy's chest, find the map and flee. Of course, no one can resist the temptation to seek out the island marked on the map when they realise that there's treasure buried there and that only they have the directions to find it. But the pirates that sought Billy Bones, the pirates of Captain Flint's old crew, the pirates who buried the treasure, are never far away.

Our concept of a pirate is so fixed now that it is easy to forget just how much it owes to Treasure Island - parrots on shoulders, wooden legs and x marking the spot all stem from here. Once again this is a relatively short book which you can easily read in a day. It's well written, fast-paced and the character of the morally ambiguous Long John Silver (though 'morally ambiguous' just simply doesn't so him justice) really brings the book to life, adding danger and uncertainty whenever he appears on the scene - he's a wonderful character to read about.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Kipling; The Jungle Book

So, after having found Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth in a box set of "children's" books I was about to get rid of, I decided to see what else in there was in there that I hadn't read. Despite it being my box set, that was most of it. Obviously I was given this box set when I was a lot younger and, being young, I had not developed taste as to what was good and bad literature and was more interested in reading challenging books than good books. So this box set stayed largely unread as my young and arrogant self wasn't interested in such easy reads. But looking through the titles I decided that there were a few I should read, and The Jungle Book was one of them.

Now, Kipling is another author for which I've had some of his books sitting on my shelf for years and years without ever having got round to reading them. And The Jungle Book was one of my least favourite Disney films. I positively disliked it. But it is incredibly unfair to judge a book by it's Disney adaptation, so I decided that The Jungle Book would be the place to start.

One of the things I didn't realise until I started reading is that The Jungle Book is a compilation of short stories, only three of which are about Mowgli. The rest are about various animals - a seal, a mongoose, and elephant, etc. They're written in a style that suggests these could be the myths of a group of people, passed down through an oral tradition - fixed epithets and repetition make it easy to imagine these stories being recited to a community by the storyteller. Unsurprisingly, I rather enjoyed the book. I few years ago, as an exercise in myth analysis in a course at Uni we had to use the tools of myth-analysis to offer interpretations of various other texts. The Jungle Book, had I only read it then, would have been great for that. Again, it's a short and easy read to while away a long journey or afternoon alone.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Verne; Journey to the Centre of the Earth

A few days ago I saw the start of Journey to the Centre of the Earth on TV (the old one, not the new one) and after watching a few minutes I decided to go read it instead. I was sure I'd seen it somewhere in the house. I couldn't find it anywhere and decided maybe I was getting confused and had seen it in a bookshop recently and debated purchasing it. So I read some other crap instead. Then, in a box set of books I'd been about to send to the charity shop, I found it. Gleeee.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth is the story of Professor Lidenbrock, his nephew Axel and their quiet guide Hans as they follow in the footsteps of Arne Saknussemm down to the centre of the earth. So obviously, this is going to require a little suspension of belief about the nature of the Earth's inner layers.

Verne's writing is great for fast paced action and quickly progessing plots and great characterisaton. I feel I know Axel and Lidenbrock in a way I don't get to know character is some modern literature because they're so dull. They don't have any defining traits. They're not passionate, bloody-minded, overbearing, cowardly, kind... they're just robotic. They behave in completely boring ways, you can sniff out any defining characteristics that govern how they act in situations... enough about the failures of other books. In Verne, that's never a problem. His characters, have character. And that makes them a pleasure to read about.

Journey to the Center of the Earth is a short book, easily read in a day or an afternoon. Perfect for a long drive or flight, or an afternoon alone.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Book With No Name; Anonymous

Where to start? First, let's acknowledge that when someone says something is diabolically awful, and should never have been written, our curiosity is naturally piqued and we want to see for ourselves just how bad it is. Now I can't persuade anyone not to do that, but if you do, please, for the love of God, buy it second hand. Because whoever wrote this piece of crap doesn't deserve a single penny more from it than they've already made.

The premise: a magic stone kept safe by some monks on an Island has been stolen. It's magic, therefore everyone wants it. Two monks are sent to retrieve it. Also, some mass murder who was last seen five years ago (when the stone was last stolen - apparently these monks never learn) seems to have returned. A detective is sent in by the government to find out what's going on. He's a paranormal detective, so no one likes him, except his newly assigned partner, of which the same can be said. They figure out that the killer's victims have one thing in common. They all read a book with no name, by an anonymous author. Violence and swearing ensue.

The book is written by an English author, which is obvious not only from the spelling and the note at the front explaining the spelling for the benefit of American readers, but because, despite being set in a fictional city in America, every single person talks like they're English. They use entirely British swearing. That is how underwhelmingly little sense this book makes. There are expert detectives who behave like complete and utter rookies and, since, as the author keeps saying, "It didn't take a detective to figure out that..." I start to wonder why he bothered to make them detectives at all. All around there are contradictions between what the author says a person or situation is like, and then how he actually portrays or describes it. This specialist detective whose worked so many cases and is trusted with top secret government information is a complete and utter idiot. I can only assume that this is because the author himself isn't smart enough to write a smart character.

And I got tired of things happening. Literally. People get into cars and drive off, literally. They cheer, literally. Crowds gather, literally.

This book supposedly has three editors. Three editors who, I can only assume, don't speak a word of English. Basic commas and apostrophes are missing all over the place. This is comma usage even 11 year olds get their heads around.

Halfway through reading, I remembered what the book reminded me of in terms of style and attempts at humour. It reminded me of how I wrote when I was in Year Eight - i.e. when I was thirteen years old. That is the literary skill of this author. A thirteen year old. Admittedly the plot is more complicated than mine were at thirteen, but stylistically, it's the same. And at least I knew how to use a comma.

Another problem with this book are the tedious and continual references to films. Evidently, the author fancies himself a film buff. Therefore, every single character in this book is also a film buff. And on the topic of films, the author clearly has no idea that there is a distinct difference between writing a book, and writing a screen play. What he has attempted to write here is a screenplay. And that's how it reads. I sat there feeling that I could cope with this three page long conversation about crappy films if it were on screen, but in a book, I just want to rip certain chapters out. No plot would have been lost. Just a discussion of whether director x is better than director y. If I want to read about films, I'll go pick up a Kermode book, thanks.

I'm also making a wild stab in the dark that the author is male, based on the fact that the description of key male characters is... rubbish. The main detective character? He's black. That's all I know. I don't know whether that's because the author labours under some delusion that all black people look the same and therefore, telling me he's black should plant in my mind a complete image of a 5'8 man with short fuzzy black hair, medium build and toned body or whether he's just completely uninterested in what his male characters look like. His female characters, on the other hand, are described in the following kinds of way: 'her hair was scraped back, she looked a bit plain, but Detective Moron thought she'd scrub up nicely. Maybe even supermodel material in the right hands. maybe she was dressing down to avoid unwanted attention in her incredibly dangerous line of work as a library receptionist, or maybe her boss demanded that she look plain...'

What?

This is book is no where near as funny or clever as it thinks it is. There was one genuinely funny joke in there, and I'm not sure if it was intentional or not. There are more loose ends than you would care to count left at the end of the book - actions without motives, characters without explanations. It's rubbish. Worst book I've read this year, possibly the worst book I've ever read.

On a final note, the 'Book With No Name' could have been a cool point, could have left you going 'ohh, I've read the book, now am I going to die?' Even if he hadn't ruined that by making the book so ludicrous (not a flaw in itself, of course) he ruins that by telling you the content of the nameless book, which then makes it clear it's not the book you're reading, so the title just becomes an almost amusing self-reference.

Thank God I only wasted one day of my life on it.

Tom Holland; The Vampyre

The Vampyre starts with a young woman seeking the lost journal of the (in)famous poet Lord Byron. She has the documents to prove its existence. She has a location and she has the key. What she didn't expect was to find Lord Byron still alive. Or rather, still walking and talking. Following in the footsteps of Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire Byron then relates in a single night the story of his transformation.

Despite the obvious debt to Anne Rice in terms of framing the narrative, Tom Holland's book is easily the better of the two. Anne Rice's characters are dull, unlikable and have no redeeming features. They're not even interesting enough to hate. They're just dull and absurd. Holland's characters at least have a little more depth, and he adds an interesting twist to the dilemma of vampirehood by stipulating that to retain their eternal youth, a vampire must drink the blood of his or her own kin. Nice touch.

The book starts well. It keeps tension running high for the first quarter or so of the book, but then, once Byron's transformation is complete the drama and the tension start to flag. After a while I got tired of reading descriptions of necks being cut, blood being lapped and people being sexed. I found the description of the amorous relationships between the characters dull, shallow and unconvincing, but there are enough things going on in the book that that's not an irreparable damning criticism. My only other problem was the fact that Byron is essentially an uber-vamp, better than all the rest. The only reason given for this seems to be that he's just a great and talented man. Talent in life equates to power in undeath, apparently.

Flaws aside, the book is well researched and stylistically fine. It's not Homer, but it's a perfectly fine easy-read style. And for any literature buff, there's the added enjoyment of reading about Byron and other figures he meets - Percy and Mary Shelley, and Polidori (which explains the referential title of this book and spelling of it), and Tom Holland has very cleverly weaved the idea of Byron being a vampire into known facts and events in Byron's life. When you sit back and realise how cleverly and skillfully this has been done, it becomes very easy to forgive him the minor flaws of Anne Rice's outer framework and slightly flat relationships. Which makes this by far the best modern vampire novel I've read.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Voltaire; Letters on England

Right now I'm kicking myself for not having read any Voltaire sooner. I've had several of his books sitting on my shelf for quite some time, and just never got round to reading them, though I knew I should. I guess this one didn't have a particularly appealing title. But, as is so often the case with classics you don't think will be particularly interesting, once you start reading they turn out to be great. I finally picked this one up because I was stuck in Bristol for a week with no entertainment bar books, so I grabbed a few short volumes off the shelves and started reading through as many as I could.

Letters on England is a fairly self-explanatory title, it is a collection of letters written by Voltaire when he was in England, discussing various aspects of English culture - certain religious movements, scientists, politicians, patrons of the art, etc. often in quite flattering tones. I also found parts of it quite informative. Quakerism isn't a topic I've ever really been interested in enough to research, but Voltaire provided an informative and amusing account of the life of William Penn. There are also letters discussion Newton, smallpox vaccinations and English academies. All of which are far more interesting than they sound.

Volatire's style is light, intelligent, witty, and easy to follow. proving once again, if it still needed to be proven, that one does not necessarily need a huge vocab and overly-complex style to let everyone know how smart you are.

Juvenal; The Sixteen Satires

Putting aside his rather pronounced misogyny (his satire attacking women is by far the most vicious), which is not as easy (nor should it be) as many men seem to expect, the satires can be entertaining and, if taken with several pinches of salt, informative. The Satires cover a wide range of subjects and provide a rich and cynical perspective of Roman life in Juvenal's time. Now, I have a complicated relation with satire. In theory, I like it. But I've read very little that i'e liked. I find myself constantly frustrated with how crude and brazen the satire I read is. I want something subtle and clever and these satires seem blissfully unaware of the concept of subtlety, so I was slightly disappointed in that respect, because I always hope that the next satire I read will be the one that makes me say 'This. This how you do it.' It wasn't.

Personally, as an aspiring Classicist I found several parts particularly interesting and useful for future research... but if someone asked me to assemble a list of say, the top fifteen classical authors that anyone should read, Juvenal wouldn't be on the list.

Tactius; the Agricola and the Germanicus

This was a quick and easy read and, and it's going to be a quick and easy review. If you're anyway interested in Ancient History, or the history or Britain then sooner or later you'll read this book (or at least the first book - the Agricola, if you're more interested in Germany then the Germanicus is the way to go). And you'll be pleased to know when you do that it will be informative and with a nice, easy style. If you just fancy increasing your general knowledge, or your claim to call yourself 'cultured' then this is a fairly painless book to add to your repertoire. Also, if you're British, or have a fondness for Britain then you'll probably find several passages in the Agricola describing the weather rather amusing.

For myself, Tacitus' style makes such simple, pleasurable reading that halfway through I had a growing urge to put my copy down and go find the Latin instead.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Radcliffe; The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne

The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne is Radcliffe's first novel and, as the name might suggest, it's about two families in charge of their respective castles. And in one castles there's a bad and evil man who killed the good and righteous lord who lived in the other castle. The good and righteous wife of the good and righteous lord, being secretly superwoman, lovingly raises her fatherless children to be good at absolutely everything. Even sword play, apparently. When he gets older, the good and righteous son of the good and righteous lord meets a good and righteous peasant who is faithful to the good and righteous family, and they decide it's time to get revenge on the bad and evil man in the other castle. Drama ensues.

As I said, this is Anne Radcliffe's first novel, and because of that I'm prepared to forgive a lot. I'll forgive the undeviatingly formulaic structure and plot, and even the 'every-gothic-cliche-I-know-must-be-included' aspect. I'll forgive the women fainting and becoming ill every time anything mildly exciting happens in their life, but what really bugs me about this book and indeed, the romantic/gothic genre in general, is this constant reiteration of the idea that only the nobility -only the upper class - can be good, virtuous, and kind. And it bugs me so much because it's usually a major plot point. The hero(ine) of the novel - a lord, lady, prince, baroness, etc. - will inevitably fall in love with a virtuous, beautiful, talented... peasant. And then lament for the whole novel that they cannot marry them because they're a peasant and it would be awful and blah blah blah. Only to discover at the end that actually this paragon of virtue is a lost member of an aristocratic family and awwwww, happy ending, they can get married now. All is right with the world. Just once I'd like them to find out that no, that great and kind man is really a peasant and yes, the working class can be just as virtuous as the nobility. It vexes me. I am greatly vexed.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

George Orwell; Why I Write

Ah, Mr. Orwell, it would not be unpleasant to readily consent to a detailed consideration of the various ways in which it is not an unjustifiable assumption to say I love thee.

This book is one of the Penguin series of 'Great Ideas' and contains, as seems usual for these books, more than just the essay printed on the cover. Along with 'Why I write' it also has 'The Lion and the Unicorn', 'A Hanging' and 'Politics and the English Language'. The first and third are essays that almost everyone would benefit from reading, the final essay is one which anyone trying to write in English should read and the second is one which anyone claiming to be English should read, for at least the first few sections.

'The Lion and the Unicorn' is the longest of these essays and starts with a (still largely, and perhaps depressingly) description of the typical English person - our teeth might be better but we are still quite xenophobic, and yes, for the intelligentsia who aren't so xenophobic and consider themselves 'European' rather than British, the thought of standing to attention during 'God Save the Queen' really does gall.

The final essay is one on laziness and ineptitude in writing English and apart from being witty and amusing, makes some quite useful points for anyone who spends any time writing, be it a blog, school/university essay, or an attempt at a novel. If I was selfless enough to be an English teacher then I would certainly make all my pupils read this.

This was just the book I needed right now. I've been struggling for weeks to manage to get stuck into anything, and was moaning to my boyfriend just the other day how I needed something short, intelligent and not bombastic. This was it.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Female Authors

I just read this article on the BBC news website, and found it rather interesting (of course I would, I'm a woman, and therefore obviously hard-wired to find anything about equality for my sex interesting - it can't be just because it's about equality, and the fact that, as a moral and principled person, I support such a concept. Oh no no).

I also found the comments interesting, particularly those made by "Graphis" and comment 6. I disagree with Graphis' stance, but the objection he makes is certainly one worth dealing with - it's not so 'paper-thin' as to be dismissible without answer, after all, it's a fairly common objection to any act of positive discrimination. People complain about there being grants reserved that are only available for black people, but ignore the fact that these grants exist because every single day of their lives, white people still benefit from the colour of their skin.

The article makes it pretty obvious at the start that the discrimination Graphis' denies still does happen in literature because the male voice is perceived as neutral and the female voice as female (note that this is an opinion the male authors agreed with too, so it's not just women trying to find an excuse for not being as good). And it's true. In the literary world, male writers benefit every day simply by dint of gender. It applies not just to the author's gender, but also to their protagonist's gender. Would Harry Potter have been so successful as Harriet Potter? Probably not. Boys don't want to read about girls, but girls don't mind reading about boys. So when the judges were reading through all the books to draw-up their shortlist it is, unfortunately, still very probable that their reading of a book was shaped rather drastically by whether the author was female or not - because people as a whole generally read a book written by a female in a different way - in a feminine way which makes it unappealing for some (men and women alike). One wonders how many women would be on the shortlist if they'd published their books under pseudonymous male names.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Aristophanes; Lysistrata and Other Plays

The other plays being Clouds and the Archanians. These were the last three Aristophanes plays I had yet to read, a fact for dry amusement when I consider that the only Aristophanes play I've ever had a notable interest in is Clouds. I needed to read Lysistrata because that's the play one of the Classics students at my uni wants to put on next year (not if I can do anything about it), so I was reading it with an eye for detail about what props we'd need, how many actors we could get away with, etc, and of course, how funny we could make it. Which is the main problem with all Aristophanes really, half the humour is lost on a modern audience, because they have no idea who Cleon was and don't find the plethora of jokes attacking his cowardice funny. So the sex, food and faeces jokes are still funny, if that's your sort of thing, but a lot of it falls flat unless you can find a way to tweak it, so another thing I was looking for was whether the jokes would be easily adaptable to a contemporary issue that we could get a few laughs out of, but Lysistrata is about going on sex-strike until the men agree to end the war, and the Iraq war fiasco is probably slightly too old to get a huge amount of laughs out.

Anyway, enough of my musings on that issue. I like Clouds best, even if it is taking the pee out of Socrates, but they're all okay. I wouldn't recommend reading a lot of Aristophanes unless you're a classicist though, or prepared to sit there, constantly flicking to the back of the book to have the joke explained to you by an endnote.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Hurlburt & Schwitzgebel; Describing Inner Experience?

Describing Inner Experience? is a non-fiction book exploring the problems of introspection (what we think are currently thinking about, and how we are thinking). Most think introspection is easy, but in truth the ease is a deception and knowing the manner in which you actually think (inner voice, images, etc.) is surprisingly, and perhaps depressingly, hard. The arguments abound for the unreliability of introspection, but now is not the time or place to go into them.

Hurlburt is a cautious optimist about whether we can discover anything reliable about introspection. He developed a beep method (DES - descriptive experience sampling) - in which participants wear a device that beeps randomly throughout the day indicating that at various moments they should stop and record both the content and form of their thoughts - to aid in discovering how and what people think, and believes his method the most successful at present. Schwitzgebel is a serious pessimist about what we can know about introspection, and about Hurlburt's DES method. But the two combined forces to write this book, combining both of their perspectives on introspection and jointly examining a case of Hurlburt's DES method. The book has introductory chapters on both of their stances, transcripts of their interviews with the subject of the DES participant, and concluding remarks from both authors. Dotted throughout are also small boxes of discussions about key issues between Hurburt and Schwitzgebel.

Firstly, the form of the book is excellent, and makes for easy reading - if one is not interested in reading the deeper discussions on a particular issue, one can simply skip that boxed discussion. The introductory and concluding remarks by both authors are useful, illuminating, and frame the interview transcripts nicely. The interviews themselves are rather fascinating discussions of how the participants thinks, with both authors probing Melanie (the subject) for details about her experience.

As someone who finds the questions of introspection fascinating, I think I would have found it harder to pick up a better book. The style is easy to read and understand, even in the discussions of more complex issues, and gives a well balanced overview to two key stances in introspection. I would recommend either this book, or some of Hurlburt's other reports of the DES method to anyone who is remotely interested in how other people think (and how could you not be interested in that?).

Silvie, where did you go?

Not that anyone reading this would care (honesty rather than self-pity), but I've had a busy few months with dissertation writing, writing a paper for a conference, co-organising a conference, being co-producer and artistic director for a performance of Euripides' Bacchae and revising/doing normal uni work. I've read a lot in that time, but unfortunately - painfully, almost - no single book cover to cover. I just haven't had time. I've had to read the chapter, article or pages that I needed to, and then leave it. What about my free time (surely I still have some?) That's been spent mostly for the last few weeks making and painting masks for the production, finding costumes, and doing all the other duties I usually do in my 'work time'. There's really not been a lot of 'free' time. Thought I will admit that I developed a mild addiction to Harvest Moon, so I've spent the little free time that I did have playing that.

So I'm now rather behind on most, if not all, of my reading goals for this year. Luckily, my revision actually did allow me to read one book cover to cover, and since everything else is over now bar my beautifully spaced out exams (I couldn't ask for a better exam time-table), I'll hopefully have time to start reading again, and reviewing. Starting with the wonderful book I finished just a few days ago.

I probably should have kept updating this blog during that time, to let people know I wasn't dead, but as I said, I doubt anyone actually reads this so I saw no point in notifying my non-existent audience (apologies to your non-existent feelings, there), especially since I didn't really have anything bookish to say - and this blog is supposed to be about the books more than me.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Buchan; The Thirty-Nine Steps

I've been waiting a long time to read this book - I picked up a copy of Greenmantle almost a year ago in a shop, and have been looking out for The Thirty-Nine Steps ever since. Well, I finally found it in a second-hand bookshop in Camden this January, and finally got round to reading it this weekend.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is the story of Richard Hannay, who through a visit from one man goes from being a bored man exploring London to a fugitive in the possession of dangerous knowledge, holding the fate of England in his hands and trying to survive long enough to pass the information on to the people who need it.

Buchan wastes no time getting on with his book, it's exciting and fast paced from the first page, with Hannay constantly on the run, getting in and out of danger, fooling others as to his identity and being fooled by others in turn. It's a short book, an easy read (I read it in about two hours), and just really, really fun. Hannay is witty and likable, the dialogue is natural, the suspense is well maintained throughout. All in all, a very pleasant read.

Greek Lyric Poetry

I bought this book the other day thinking I needed it for my dissertation (the library's copy was withdrawn and though I'd reserved it, I didn't think it would be returned in time) so that I could look up a quote by Mimnermus. A few days before the book arrived, the library copy was returned and I discovered it didn't contain the quote I needed anyway. Slightly annoying, but hardly a huge issue for me - I'm sure at some point in my attempts to become an academic the book will be useful. But since I was travelling that weekend, I figured I'd read it now anyway to keep me occupied on the coach.

This book contains, unsurprisingly, the poems and fragments of the Greek elegiac, iambic and lyric poets from the seventh to the fifth century. Including, amongst others, Simonides, Sappho and Stesichorus, and excluding Pindar and Bacchylides. The poems are about love, life, politics, love, travel, love, war and young boys. And unless Classics is your thing, it's not a book I'd really recommend to you.

The poems are sometimes funny, beautiful, and provide an interesting window into the everyday lives and concerns of the Ancient Greeks, reminding you that they were living, breathing, party-going, marriage-attending, hard-working normal people, just like you and your next door neighbour today. However, the fragmentary nature of the poems is annoying, to say the least. Some of the fragments are quite big, several pages long at times, but most are 1-5 lines tops and therefore - unless you're really interested in what those 1-5 lines can tell you about Greek life, culture and religion - they can be a bit frustrating or even dull to read. There are definitely some beautiful lines of poetry worth reading in there though, if you're not too annoyed by the fragmentary nature.

So the verdict is: good for me, as a Classicist, probably not so good for others. I would recommend instead getting a book that contained say, Just the fragments of Sappho, or the works of Pindar or Bacchylides instead.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Klaus Theweleit; Object-Choice (All You Need is Love...)

Again, a book I picked up and read due to possible dissertation relevance, and indeed, there were a few interesting pages on male-creators and the choices they make in women that might well be useful. It also put me on the track of another book which seems to deal specifically with male creation, so all in all, time well spent.

Object-Choice is an analysis of the people we choose to "fall in love" with, or choose as partners, based on psycho-class (birth order), career, creativity, etc. and includes an analysis of the relationships of several famous couples: Alfred and Alma Hitchcock, Hannah Arendt and Heidegger, and Freud and Martha Bernays.

The blurb describes this book as "a collage book, mixing autobiography, theory and pop culture, and always haunted by history" and despite being a very interesting and informative book, stylistically, that's it's problem - it's a collage. It sometimes reads like a jumble of sentences not quite related stuck in random order on the page. The constant use of unexplained or barely explained quotes from modern songs annoyed me, and (perhaps because they're unexplained) I didn't really see their purpose - most didn't illuminate the text any further (the only exception being The Beatles quotes). It's a good read, but the style definitely takes some getting used to. It's more lucid in some places than in others - the introduction and conclusion in particular are jumpy and obscure, but the rest is mostly fine. And really, the style's not that bad, but it certainly distracted me from the content at times.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Freud; The Interpretation of Dreams

The Interpretation of Dreams is probably Freud's most well-known work, in which he propounds the infamous theory of the Oedipus Complex and the theory that all dreams are wish-fulfillment. Beginning with an assessment of previous theories of dreams, Freud then moves on to elaborate his own method of dream analysis and the idea that all dreams are wish-fulfillment after which he discusses the issues that would arise from such a claim, and the explanations that can be given by way of dream-distortion, displacement and condensation.

I found The Interpretation of Dreams fairly easy reading - I can't say I agree with everything Freud wrote (who does?), but his argument is easy to understand and the language lucid and precise. The frequent exposition of dreams throughout the work helps keep things clear and is fascinating in itself. The last 50 or so pages are slightly more technical than those preceding, but they're still not taxing to understand.

The influence of this book is almost impossible to overstate - outside of psychology it has affected how we look at art, music, myth, literature, ourselves, and others. Even folk-psychology has been affected by The Interpretation of Dreams. I would recommend reading this to anyone interested in studying any of the above listed topics.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Kierkegaard; Fear and Trembling

So, as previously mentioned, I'm studying Kierkegaard in my Existentialism unit. Most of the time, we're just reading extracts from various works - we simply don't have the time to read the whole of Either/Or. Technically, we're only supposed to be reading extracts from Fear and Trembling too, but it's a comparatively short book, and I already owned a copy, so since I knew I could read the whole thing by my Friday seminar, I decided to do just that.

Fear and Trembling is a philosophical book in which Kierkegaard (writing under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio) sets out to express exactly how difficult it is to have faith. Kierkegaard thinks most people vastly overestimate how easy it is to have faith, and believes that actually, it requires a vast effort to achieve, because it requires understanding of the paradoxical beliefs faith demands from you - you must be prepared to surrender everything, and indeed, believe you have to surrender everything and still, through the strength of the absurd, believe that God will give it back to you. To illustrate his point he take Abraham - the 'father of faith' - as an example throughout the whole book.

Personally, I found Fear and Trembling slightly easier going than some of the other Kierkegaard I've read, and I also found it all highly engaging and stimulating. The first few pages - the Preface, Attunement, and Speech in Praise of Abraham are amazing - the kind of thing I'd recommend anyone interested in philosophy, religion, or theology read, even if they then didn't read the rest. I can honestly say I never really appreciated the enormity of Abraham's dilemma and all its implications until I read this. If you do go on to read the rest of it, you might find that you have to read certain parts a few times to properly understand what he's saying (the style is not always straight-forward and clear in its explanation), but it's well worth the effort. Even if by the end, you're pretty sure that you've not understood all of it, understanding any of it is certainly an enriching experience.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Patrick Gardiner; Kierkegaard: A Very Short Introduction

When I was in the first year of my degree, I had a very scornful approach to the Short Introduction series - 'I've studied Socrates before, I don't need an introduction to him!' and I tended to ignore them. I can't remember why I ended up first buying or reading one, but when I did I realised that actually, they're really good, and really useful. They're written by expert academics in the relevant fields, and they're not some condescending drivel that assumes that you must be an idiot to need an introduction to a specific topic. Even if you already know a bit about a certain topic, they can really help solidify you're understanding of it, or just jog your memory - if you've read a book by a certain philosopher or author, and are humble enough to admit that actually, you didn't quite understand it all, then a VSI book could very well just give you that extra explanation you need to get more out of the text. On the flip side, that does mean they do assume a certain level of familiarity with the subject in general - so if you've never studied philosophy at all, an introduction to Kierkegaard might not be the best place to start.

So, since my Existentialism course focuses on Kierkegaard and Sartre, I figured it might be relevant reading. It was useful, concise, clear (or as clear as you can be when describing such complicated philosophy in so few pages) and good for a general grounding. I would suggest that it would be more useful to someone who has at least read (or tried to read) some Kierkegaard than to someone who's never picked up one of his books. I know I certainly got more out of the chapters which concerned books I'd read at least parts of than those chapters concerning books I'd not touched yet. Obviously, I'm not suggesting someone read all of Kierkegaard before they read the Introduction to him, that would of course, be slightly silly, but dipping in to Either/Or and Fear and Trembling before you begin might be helpful (or at least reading the wikipedia articles on them/the introductions at the start of those books, etc.)