Thursday, 16 February 2017

It’s all gone a bit strawberry fields..

On Tuesday I went to Barnes for a philosophy lecture from which what I took away, mostly, was the impression that cogito ergo sum is assuming too much, and that we don’t know how we get mind from brain. So there’s the world of thought or ideas, and the material world; and some philosophers believe one exists and not the other, others think the first lot have it the wrong way round, some believe they both exist but don’t relate (which is the one I really don’t get. Unless the idea is that God was just bored and doodling matter in the margins. Most of the theories seem to have a God, possibly because they were first propounded such a long time ago. As an atheist with a lower case a I’m not against gods, even ones who are making it up as they go, but I’m not convinced that they’re a good first principle to work from)  and some think there are both worlds but aren’t clear how they relate.

On the whole, generally, I tend not to think too hard about this sort of thing. Partly because I think it’s more or less insoluble, except in the sense of making up your own mind or (as I did at one point) drawing some tempting but equally fuzzy parallel between the relationship of brain and mind and the relationship of hardware and software; and partly because last time I thought too hard about it I had a dream that I believed I was Joan of Arc.

(I’m sure I told someone this on Tuesday night. It’s the sort of conversation you end up having when philosophy lectures are held in pubs. Still, they can only think I’m barmy. Or drunk. Or both. As, gentle reader, can you.)

Also, and not completely tangentially, my second MA assignment is in. This time I’ve swung right from one extreme to the other. Since I read almost no secondary material and didn’t put full enough quotes in number one, I’ve read a lot and quoted extensively in number two. Maybe too much.

I think I’ve mentioned before (if not here then on the Guardian book pages) that studying in English lit sometimes makes me feel like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole into an early David Lodge novel; so it was serendipitous or possibly Freudian or most likely both that I stumbled across this when looking for more tube line books and straight after my second assignment went in:

This one isn’t a novel. It’s a selection of essays. I think I’ve also said before that I have a casual relationship with books of essays. I enjoy them, but there are very, very few I want to own, so this is a library book.

What I like about Lodge is his sense of humour and his imagination. Someone undoubtedly should write a book entitled ‘Graham Greene, Frequent Flyer’, and ‘The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Kingsley Amis’ is a great title.

My favourite essay in this book though is the one about Terry Eagleton and Theory. Specifically, the way in which Theory has fallen out of favour in English Lit, but the observation (or agreement with T.E.) that academia can’t return to an innocent pre-theoretical state either.

It’s like a spotters guide to the particular rabbit hole I have recently fallen down, written by the person who first made me aware of that world.

The fact it makes me laugh as well can only be a bonus.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Culling Again

Almost invisible on the far left between the field microscope I have no real reason for owning except I like the box it comes in, and the big fat Martin Amis book, is The Case of the Caretaker's Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner, which I'm pretty sure I would have loved in my teens when I was reading Saint novels and Christie's 'Bright Young Things' spy books. It's all a bit too sassy and dramatic for me now. 

Next to that Martin Amis' The War Against Cliche, a collection of essays and reviews. Some of it's great - such as his comments on what used to be called Lit and Soc, and it's demise (or at least, it's painful earnestness and eventual becoming very poorly indeed), his review of Philip Roth, sympathy for Lydia Bennet, and dry appreciation of Martin Seymour-Smith. 
It feels like he's just skimming over the books he's writing about though, a stone across the surface of a pond. Fine for a magazine review intended to give the reader a flavour of such and such a thing to decide if they want it, but not a book I need to hang on to.

Jean Rhys Letters. I gave up on this half way through. She is so thin skinned and I felt like I was nosing into something absolutely none of my business, a fellow human being like a wasp trying to get out of a window and only crashing into it again and again.

Willam Golding The Hot Gates - much of what I wrote about Martin Amis above probably applies here. Individually entertaining essays, but I don't need to read them again.

David Mitchell - Thinking About it Only Makes it Worse - ditto the above.

Matt Haig Reasons to Stay Alive - I'm pretty sure I was given this by an aunt, along with a book by Danny Baker I haven't read yet and Swallow This by Joanna Blythman, with the idea I would read them if I wanted and take them to the bookswap. Blythman was excellent and I'm hanging onto that, and the Danny Baker is on my bathroom bookshelves.
Reasons I took against on the very first page. I'm sure there are people out there this book will help, and I'm glad if it helped Mr Haig to write it, but I don't want to read it. Sorry.

Nicholas Bentley How Can You Bear to be Human - I simply don't find him funny, and since there isn't much to this book except humour and draftmanship there doesn't seem any point in keeping it.

James Thurber Alarms and Diversions - slightly more amusing but not really. I think part of the problem is that the odd cartoon makes me smile, but pages of them make me shrug.

Colin Watson's Coffin, Scarcely Used is a perfectly workmanlike murder mystery that I know the solution to now.

The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill is not perfectly workmanlike, it's too long, There are three perfectly good first chapters from different points of view, and for some reason she's included them all. I bailed out at 150 pages. Odd because I've read short stories by Susan Hill and she's good at building tension so surely realised she was letting it deflate over and over here?

The Memorial, Christopher Isherwood. I wrote a review of this here. I won't reread it.

And those last three books on the right are actually library books waiting to be returned. Ways of Seeing by John Berger followed as a logical step on from Breakfast at Sothebys by Philip Hook. Seeing was written in 1971 but is still relevant today. In fact the essay on publicity images is more relevant than ever, and the one on nudes highlights an attitude to women and which women had towards themselves that it's in no-ones interest we slip back into.

Speaking of which Gladys Mitchell's The Devil's Elbow is a nice little murder story badly spoilt by the constant negative 'she asked for it' refrain around the woman who has been killed. She appears to have been a nymphomaniac, or a good time girl. I'm not sure why that's a murdering offence.

On the far right is Heads and Straights by Lucy Wadham, which is one of the best of the 'tube line' books I've read so far. It's the Circle Line, but not really about the Circle Line. I won't say what it is about, because these books are so slim that they're easily spoilt.

Incidentally my least favourite was Waterloo-City, City-Waterloo by Leanne Shapton, which is basically the thoughts of people going to work, and then coming back again, and which was an insult to the human imagination. I don't believe the human being has been born that is as dull as this book makes us all out to be.

Incidentally - or not - one of the characters is reading Mrs Dalloway, in which Virginia Woolf does a much better and richer job of getting inside people’s heads and memories and internal dialogue. Maybe that’s meant to be the point, that people on the Drain going back and forth are duller, or that work anaesthetises us into dullness. I dunno. 

Don't care much. It's that sort of book. 

No idea what this is about but leaving it here.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Yesterday Morning

The Sky Garden at the top of the building generally called the walkie talkie (20 Fenchurch Street) is open free to the public from about 10am (tickets have to be booked online in advance) without obligation to buy anything. 

However you can also go in a lot earlier for breakfast, and it's neither significantly dearer than any fancy coffee shop, or sold out three weeks in advance like the free tickets. I booked a table for Friday morning at 7.45, and had the place practically to myself to watch the sun rise over towards Kent. 

..and a little later, in the other direction..

and almost the same view from the 8th Jan, under a far more typical sky for this time of year. I rather like this one. It's old fashioned somehow. Almost black and white.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The Memorial - Christopher Isherwood

This is Isherwood’s second book and has ended up vaguely annoying me because it feels like the start of a series or a family saga. Although it holds the interest, and things happen, it feels like there must be more. More to be told, and certainly more to be resolved.

It shifts between four different years in the 1920s, and this device works well apart from the chapter about university, where the narrative focusses more strongly on a character called Maurice I think we’re supposed to admire and I can’t at all. 

He’s physically brave, but that doesn’t offset how tiresome he is, in that destructive of property, unable to say no to a bet, accidentally hurts other people, borrows without any thought of paying back, thoroughly brattish way that some teenage boys have been known to use to try and impress girls. Except he’s older, and can do more damage, and make himself even more stupid with drink, and does it not occasionally because he's hormonal and socially inept but persistently for reasons I don't remotely understand.

Strangely other boys do seem impressed (I’m reserving judgement on whether girls would have been) and his cousin Eric, after warning an older friend (Edward) off giving Maurice expensive gifts, realises he’s done it out of jealousy and suffers agonies of conscience. But it’s rather Eric’s thing to suffer agonies of conscience and he’d find another reason if he hadn’t that one. I'm not worried about Eric.

Then there’s Lily, Eric’s mother, a kind of frozen, fragile, icing-sugar woman who may or may not be the reason Eric is riddled with guilt, and Mary, Eric’s aunt, who is altogether more earthy (and mother to the tiresome Maurice).   And Richard - who’s dead, but who was the connecting link between all the different parts of the family group (including Edward), his loss leaving them having to shuffle and relate to one another differently.  

It takes a little time and heartache but they do  manage it, and having seen the family steered safely to the end of the book I would have liked to have know what happened next.

But of course what really happened next was that Isherwood found his feet as an author, stayed in Berlin, and gave us Mr Norris Changes Trains. Which I now want to pull off my shelf and reread also. 

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Happy New Year

Personally I have made no New Year's Resolutions except Dry January, but I do have a list of books I read in 2016. As with last year they're either from my 'books I enjoyed this year' column or reviews elsewhere, so I may have missed a couple.

(I suppose I could make a New Year's resolution to note down every book I read but that won't happen and why make resolutions I'm sure I'll break?)

Books in 2016

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics - Carlo Rovelli
The Mystery of the Blue Train - Agatha Christie
Dumb Witness - Agatha Christie
They Do it With Mirrors - Agatha Christie
Peril at End House -Yet Another Agatha Christie
This is not the End of the Book - Umberto Eco & Jean Claude Carriere
Gratitude - Oliver Sacks
Third Girl - Agatha Christie
The Murder on the Links - Christie again
London War Notes - Mollie Panter-Downes
Appointment with Death - Christie again. It's a project now.
Cards on the Table - Agatha Christie
The Road to Little Dribbling - Bill Bryson
Lord Edgware Dies - Agatha Christie
Persuasion - Jane Austen
A House to Let - Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell and Adelaide Anne Proctor
No Logo - Naomi Klein
Crooked House - Agatha Christie
The Body in the Library - Agatha Christie
Absent in the Spring - Mary Westmacott (Christie's pseudonym)
Evil Under the Sun - Agatha Christie
Plain Murder - C S Forester
The Mystery of Edwin Drood - Charles Dickens
Coffin, Scarcely Used - Colin Watson
Agatha Christie's Autobiography - Christie
Future Perfect - Steven Johnson
The War on Cliche - Martin Amis
Asking for the Moon - Reginald Hill
The Man in the Brown Suit - Agatha Christie
Letters from the Sea and From Foreign Lands - Thomas Cook
Free Lunch - David Smith
Five Little Pigs - Agatha Christie
Thinking About it Only Makes it Worse - David Mitchell
The Anatomy of Murder - Sayers, Iles, and other members of the Detection Club
Ouch!: What you don't know about money and why it matters (more than you think) - Paul Knott
The Monogram Murders - Sophie Hannah
The Undercover Economist - Tim Harford
An Avenue of Stone - Pamela Hansford Johnson
Coroner's Pidgin - Margery Allingham
Swallow This - Joanna Blythman
A Three Pipe Problem - Julian Symons
Mrs McGinty's Dead - Agatha Christie
Rumpole at Christmas - John Mortimer
Whose Body - Dorothy L Sayers
Clouds of Witness - Dorothy L Sayers
Unnatural Death - Dorothy L Sayers
On Reading, Writing and Living With Books - Woolf, Forster, Dickens et al
Mathematics with Love - Mary Stopes-Roe
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys
Nehru's Letters to His Sister - introduction by Krishna Nehru Hutheesing
The Sittaford Mystery - Agatha Christie
A Murder is Announced - Agatha Christie
Ordeal by Innocence - Agatha Christie
How Pleasure Works - Paul Bloom
Earthbound, the Bakerloo Line - Paul Morley
Towards Zero - Agatha Christie
Postern of Fate - Agatha Christie
Symposium - Muriel Spark
The Golden Age of Murder - Martin Edwards
Oxford - Jan Morris
Latest Readings - Clive James
The Hollow - Agatha Christie
Antigone - Sophocles
Antigone - Jean Anouilh
What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tube, The District Line - John Lanchester
The Intelligent Man's Guide to the Post War World - G D H Cole
Buttoned Up, The East London Line - by Jop van Bennekom and Gert Jonkers
The Science of Discworld – Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen
Reaper Man – Terry Pratchett
The Lost Continent – Terry Pratchett
The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins
Lords and Ladies – Terry Pratchett
The Blue Riband, The Piccadilly Line - Peter York
Heads and Straights, the Circle Line - Lucy Wadham
N or M – Agatha Christie
And Then There Were None - Agatha Christie
Death on the Cherwell - Mavis Doriel Hay
Witches Abroad - Terry Pratchett
House - Bound - Winifred Peck
At Bertram's Hotel - Agatha Christie
The Memorial - Christopher Isherwood
The Poisoned Chocolates Case - Anthony Berkeley
Sad Cypress - Agatha Christie
Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
A Philosophy of Walking - Frederic Gros
Kingsley Amis – Ending Up          
After the funeral – Agatha Christie         
A Northern Line Minute – William Leith              
Waterloo-City, City-Waterloo – Leanne Shapton              
The Burden, Mary Westmacott
The Rose and the Yew Tree, Mary Westmacott 
Murder on the Orient Express  
The Attenbury Emeralds – Jill Paton Walsh          
Moriarty – Anthony Horowitz    
Hickory Dickory Dock – Agatha Christie  
By The Pricking Of My Thumbs – Agatha Christie              
Elephants Can Remember – Agatha Christie       
Silenic Drift – Iain Sinclair             
The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat –Erle Stanley Gardner  
Come Tell Me How You Live – Agatha Christie Mallowan               
Endless Night – Agatha Christie
Introducing Personal Finance - Michael Tallard  
A Clubbable Woman – Reginald Hill         
The Humbling – Philip Roth         
The Black Book – Lawrence Durrell          
Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks – John Curran          
Poirot Investigates – Agatha Christie      
Death in the Clouds – Agatha Christie    
New Graves at Great Norne - Henry Wade         
The 32 Stops - Danny Dorling (Central Line)         

A few things jump out from the list. The first is that there's a lot of Agatha Christie, and that this might also account for the fact that of the above 110 books 61 were written by women, and only 45 by men (the remaining 4 were co-authored). 

73 were fiction and 37 non fiction - again I've read more non fiction that I realised, and again it's about half the amount of fiction I read. 

The best book I read this year was The Intelligent Man's Guide to the Post War World by G D H Cole, but my favourite was The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, which I fully intended to review and then didn't.

My least favourite was..

..but I've deleted this section without posting. Let's start 2017 on a positive note.

Happy New Year