Sunday, 12 December 2010

Concise Review of the Books I've read in 2010

1. Restraint of Beasts - Magnus Mills
Unique, dark, funny - I looked at the first page and then could not stop until it was finished.

2. The Ancestor's Tale - Richard Dawkins
Enlightening, comprehensive. Life on Earth is amazing and I now know my place in it. Tells the history of the development of species in rewind.

3. 3 to See the King - Magnus Mills
Stark, beautifully rendered fable. A really profoundly excellent book.

4. The Single Helix - Steve Jones
Lots of articles. Informative, but got a little dull, it pains me to say. Good to dip into, not to read as a whole book perhaps.

5. Gods behaving Badly - Marie Philips
Lightweight, entertaining story about Greek gods in modern London. Improves as you go through it.

6. 6 Easy Pieces - Richard P Feynman
Read this if you're at all interested in knowing how the universe really works. A great scientist, and a great science writer.

7. Emma - Jane Austen
Gorgeous comedy - my favourite Austen so far. Seriously rewarding.

8. Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing
Epic, deep, raw, honest. This book will affect how you think, but it deserves your absolute attention. Took me ages.

9. Blink - Malcolm Gladwell
Completely underwhelming when compared to "The Tipping Point". This book pissed me right off with its lazy conclusions.

10. The good man jesus and the Scoundrel Christ - Philip Pullman
Marvellous retelling of the gospels, with Jesus Christ as a pair of twins. Sumptuously clever

11. Duluth - Gore Vidal
A feast of a colourful, futuristic story with cool post-modern breaks from the narrative. Really inventive and funny. A gem.

12. PopCo - Scarlet Thomas
This book is as vacuous as it is disappointing. Girl vs. the Evil Corporation fare, with nothing new to say whatsoever.

13. House of Suns -Alistair Reynolds
Great modern Sci-fi. A perfect blend of Asimov and Banks. Makes you feel a sense of how vast the galaxy really is, and a good yarn too. All technologies theoretically possible - no faster-than- light travel.

14. Blueprint for a safer planet - Nicholas Stern
Hard work to read, but worthwhile. Comprehensive in its argument for urgent action against climate change, from an economic perspective.

15. The picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde
Simply a brilliant novel, with classic discussions about youth and beauty.

16. The enchantress of Florence - Salman Rushdie
A relatively sraightforward (for Rushdie) semi-historical tale interweaving Medici-era Florence and the Empire of Akbar the Great. Rich and vivid as ever, with a little bewilderment along the way.

17. The Prince - Niccolo Machiavelli
A natural book to read after "the Enchantress of Florence" (in which Machiavelli appears as a character). An informative book, should you ever find yourself in charge of a city-state.

18. History of the world in 10 1/2 chapters - Julian Barnes
Surprisingly profound collection of 10 stories with a vague thread running through. Amazing description of heaven at the end, with a memorable discussion about the value of eternal life.

19. Moab is my washpot - Stephen Fry
Funny, gritty, annoying, shocking, funny. I like him less after reading this, but respect him even more.

20. Shame -Salman Rushdie
A confusing mess of a book, as well as a brilliant semi-mythical retelling of the political history of Pakistan. Brilliant. Irritating.

21. The Eternal Champion - Michael Moorcock.
Really crap pulp sci-fi. The surprisingly murderous end is the only redeeming element in the thing.

22. The Big Sleep
23. Farewell My lovely
24. The Long Goodbye – Raymond chandler

I’ve never bothered with detective-type books in the past, so when Beatrice lent me this collection of three books in one volume I wasn’t expecting to get on with it. As it turned out, all three books were excellent – I couldn’t pick a favourite.  I loved the laser-beam focus of the narrative, told through the dead-pan eyes of private detective Philip Marlowe. There’s not a wasted line throughout and I was surprised at how brutal some of it turned out to be.

25. The Descent into Hell – Dante
This is an abridged version of Dante’s Inferno. I love a good description of Hell, so this seemed like a good bet. This translation didn’t just recite the original text but converted it into a rhyming metre. Purists might not like that, but for me it meant I could just let the story flow over me without having to work too hard, and I like that.

26. The Trial – Franz Kafka
I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to reading this. I’ve read a few of Kafka’s writings but this is the one that gets referred to the most (the term Kafkaesque, I think, refers to The Trial in the same way that “Orwellian” refers to 1984).
It’s not always an enjoyable read, especially where he goes into numbing detail about the various processes of the state, but that’s sort of the point. You need to see the detail in order to fully appreciate the frustrations of Joseph K as the story unfolds. You must read this book.

27. The Vesuvius Club – Mark Gatiss
In search of a little light relief, I though I’d give Mark Gatiss (League of Gentlemen) a go. I use the word enjoyable a lot, I know, but this book was VERY enjoyable. It stars a guy called Lucifer Box, who is a spy. This book is exciting, funny and very dirty. If you want to enjoy a filthy adventure story written beautifully, then read this.

28. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
As with a lot of the books I’ve read this year, I chose this one because it gets referred to a lot and I wanted to actually know about it.  I loved it. Profoundly sad and beautiful, this is one I will read several more times during my life. It seems to start off a bit drab, but if you persevere with it you’ll be rewarded. This book is by no means dull. It’s deep and tense.

29. The Female Eunuch – Germaine Greer
Without further ado, here is my favourite book of the year. I read it in order to educate myself about feminism a little, but I ended up having my worldview torn up. I was expecting to find it irritating and one-sided, based on what I’d heard about it, and also based upon what one hears so-called feminists saying.

For me, the book is a humanist one. She calls for the salvation of men AND women; men need to be liberated from their conditioning and so do women, for their mutual benefit.
Her view of the Stereotype and the mechanics of how prejudice is perpetuated and how gender roles are reinforced can all be applied to any form of prejudice you’d care to mention, including racism and homophobia.

She says the odd thing that grates, but these things are far outweighed by the sheer volume of insights and revelations. You’ll feel the wool being pulled from your eyes. If you are a woman or a man who feels that you are being forced to conform to what society wants you to be, read this book and you will arm yourself with all the weapons you need in order to happily tell your oppressors and the rest of the world to fuck right off.

It’s written in a way that assumes you are intelligent and it’s laugh-out-loud funny in many places. I’ve never read a book with the word “cunt” written so many times. I also never realized that Greer is a serious Shakespeare scholar and she references his plays and sonnets throughout this book.

30. The vanishing Face of Gaia – James Lovelock
Lovelock invented Gaia theory and he reminds you of this throughout this tedious book. I read this in another bid to know my enemy. Vain environmentalists like to cite Gaia theory so I wanted a bit more info on it.

Lovelock has given up on trying to save the environment, and now believes that we should prepare for a future where the UK is essentially a lifeboat for humanity. The idea in itself is not wholly flawed, but his constant “I told you so” tone is pathetic.

He does know a lot about certain technical aspects of climate mechanics, and indeed he has made lots of discoveries and predictions about how climate works. However, he believes they are all attributable to Gaia theory when, in fact, each of them can be attributed to normal science.
At one point he says “it would be wrong of me to say that scientists are ignorant of the complexities of climate” when he’s just spent the previous couple of chapters saying precisely that. He’s a headline-stealing self-publicist.

After finishing The Female Eunuch, I was gripped by a desire to know more about Shakespeare. All through my life I have understood only a fraction of the numerous references to his plays, sonnets, characters and storylines. I don’t want to go through the rest of my life in ignorance of this body of work, so I set about reading them – expecting it to be a trudge. I started with Romeo and Juliet, as I suspected it would be the easiest to follow – everybody knows the story. Thankfully, I found R+J to be absolutely captivating and I became hungry for more

I’ve been reading the New Penguin editions of the plays, as they have a commentary that fills in the gaps in your knowledge (old words and turns of phrase, as well as historical context etc) and extensive and useful introductions. The order I have read them in has largely been dictated by the order in which I find them in charity shops.

31. Romeo And Juliet
32. Hamlet
33. A midsummer nights dream
34. Much Ado About Nothing
35. Coriolanus
36. King Lear
37. Richard II
38. The Tempest
39. Julius Caesar
40. Antony and Cleopatra
41. The Winter's Tale
42. Othello
43. As You Like It
44. Comedy of Errors
45. Titus Andronicus
46. Timon of Athens
47. Macbeth
48. Henry IV Part 1
49. Twelfth Night
50. Measure for Measure

Some are obviously better than others, but without fail all of the plays have gems scattered liberally throughout them. Some of the stories are frankly daft, but where the story is contrived you’ll find that this was necessary in order for a character to have a certain thought, or feel a certain emotion and for Shakespeare to then describe these things in the way that only he seems capable of.

My favourite is probably still Romeo and Juliet in terms of pure beauty, but I love all of the plays so far in one way or another. Other highlights for me were Othello, Coriolanus, Hamlet, Julius Ceasar, Antony and Cleopatra, titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens and Measure for Measure. I won’t bother with specific descriptions of my thoughts on each of them as they were all rewarding.

17 more plays to go, but I’ve hit my 50 book target and am pretty pleased with myself.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Fifty-fifty Chance

I am a man who works in Burgess Hill, though I live in Hove. Because of this, and because I do not own a car, I will on most days travel to work by train. I buy season tickets for the obvious reasons.

Sometimes, I go without a season ticket for other reasons you can guess at yourself if you want to. These reasons do not matter. On those occasions I buy a return ticket. I buy them from the machine whenever possible because that is my preference. Again for reasons that you’d might as well speculate over.

Once I pluck the two tickets from the harsh plastic lips of the machine I tend to put them straight into a pocket. It could be any of my pockets and it makes no difference which one I choose. I will then walk towards the automatic barriers, en route to the relevant platform. When I am nearing the barriers, I reach into my pocket to retrieve the correct ticket to get me through. I am the sort of person who likes to have the right ticket ready just before I need it, so that I can place the ticket into the machine’s reading slit, snatch it from the proffering slit and walk through the opened barriers with no break in my step.

For the journey out of the station, you need the ticket marked OUT, and on the return to the station, you need the ticket marked RTN. Now, we are at the point that I wish to discuss. As I walk towards the barriers, I could take out both tickets, find the one I need, and then use it. For some reason, I prefer to blindly grab one of the tickets from within my pocket and leave my fate to chance. Will chance deliver the right ticket into my fingers, allowing my smooth passage through the barriers? Or will chance guide my hopeful digits to the wrong ticket – causing me to reach the barrier and pause there, blocking the way and quickly blushing, while I search my pocket for the other one? It’s pretty much a 50/50 chance.

In the past, I had the impression that I was not a lucky person. That the universe had been configured in such a way that the fair share of fifty-fifties that I was due had simply not been allocated to me. You get lucky people and you get unlucky people. It’s nothing to be proud or ashamed of, just like being male or female is nothing to be proud or ashamed of. You are simply born as one or the other. I was born unlucky, so I thought. As I would reach into my pocket, in front of the looming barrier, I would fully expect to fish out the wrong ticket. For confirmation I would look into my hand and see the wrong ticket, and I would sigh and say “I knew it”. Another piece of evidence is thrown onto the mounting pile of proof that I am simply unlucky.

Of course, sometimes I would reach into the pocket and pull out the very ticket I needed. This I would meet with raised eyebrows and the pursed lips of mild incredulity and then continue on my way. On the next occasion I would, as ever, fully expect the wrong ticket to emerge, and so it would and I would remark internally “normal service resumed” or other words like that.

As I read more books about science and the like, I started to think about actually analysing the results of this daily ticket-fate scenario. Of course, I didn’t actually write anything down, I just decided to start from scratch and see what happened. Over the days, I would greet whichever ticket that came out of my pocket with neither surprise nor submission. Sure enough, over a couple of weeks, it worked out to be pretty much fifty-fifty. A lumpy fifty-fifty, sure, where two consecutive days would often give the same result, but a trend approaching fifty-fifty was quite apparent. The simplest case of regression toward the mean.

The easy shattering of this silly illusion was wonderful. I had meaningful evidence that my luck levels were not manifested in this universe after all! I knew more certainly now that there was no mechanism linking the luck I had been granted at birth to how situations would play themselves out in the real world. There was no arbiter of personal luck looking out to make sure that our allocation is not exceeded and then moulding time and space to ensure the correct result within this allocation.

I could now look back on all those times where I had expected the worst but was actually faced with the right ticket, when I had ignored the significance of this result. What had been nothing but an essentially superstitious notion of luck had influenced the very structure of my thoughts. I would see results that contradicted my idea and dismiss them as freaks. I would see results that confirmed my notions and add them straight to my internal data pool to take their place at the foundations of my thoughts, shoring up this lazy idea of luck and all the other flabby prejudices that grew there.

Now I stride carefree across the station concourse and play my fifty-fifty gamble, knowing with some certainty that overall sometimes I will benefit and sometimes I will not. I still catch myself saying “knowing my luck” in conversation, but now a little alarm sounds to remind me that this is a pointless statement. In the same way that I have trained myself not to automatically say “Bless you” when somebody sneezes, I will train myself not to say “knowing my luck” and not to so lazily attach a value to what I perceive as my share of luck. Nothing good comes of choosing to continually add evidence to your prejudices, especially when the relevance of the data itself is judged so very subjectively.