About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 23 May 2010

"Solar" by Ian McEwan

For me, McEwan is a man who writes tight dramas with a single motif: a moment when something happens and the implications of that moment ripple across the lives of the participants. Thus, Saturday, his Ulysses, which celebrates London as Joyce did Dublin, is set within the framework of a single day. Atonement traces the consequences of a single misunderstanding on an evening. Chesil Beach deals exhaustively with the effects of a premature ejaculation.

But Solar rambles. It is a sort of picaresque, a Don Quijote, except that its hero, Michael Beard, is a man who can't restrain his appetite for either sex or food and whose life is in essence messy.

Which is strange because he is a physicist whose moment of Nobelian glory came with a few sparse equations; who celebrates the economy and beauty of the succinct form of the Dirac equation. In terms of thought here is a man who has trained his mind to be amongst the sharpest in the world. But he is a fat glutton and a lecher.

He reminds me of the hero of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Perhaps he was created to encompass every single one of the seven deadly sins. As a result he is a mesmerising though comic creation. He is also fat: in a cosmological joke his belly is described as The Expanding Universe. But more properly he represents fallen mankind whose weaknesses are propelling us, headlong and blind, into the disaster of global warming.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the trip that Beard makes to Spitzbergen. On a ship frozen into the ice he confronts those obsessed with global warming. But in the Boot Room they cannot even organise their own clothes; when they lose a glove they steal someone else's. How can such flawed humans prevent ecological catastrophe?

Not to mention the fact that Beard, who becomes a prophet of the greenhouse disaster, travels everywhere by plane and reaches Spitzbergen on a petrol guzzling skimobile. His very fatness is a metaphor for the Earth: greed leading to destruction.

Other funny scenes include the irony of the climate scientist who dies after slipping on a polar bear rug; the true traveller's tale which Beard recounts only to be told he has stolen the anecdote from an urban myth; and the denunciation of Beard by feminists and relativists who claim that genes are "in the strongest sense, socially constructed" and who condemn science as 'hegemonic' (how a dominant power seeks to preserve its dominance) and 'reductionist' (something that tries to explain a system in terms of its simpler parts, which is of course the essence of science).

McEwan pokes fun at a lot of arty types and social scientists. Beard as an undergraduate at Oxford notes that arts graduates are lazier than scientists (this anti-laziness doesn't seem to last him into later life) and that, for example, English literature is not difficult (compared to Physics): he spends a week learning about Milton to impress a girlfriend and carries off the deception so well she later marries him (as the first of his five wives).
I read it quickly, though not avidly. A fun book but I think I prefer McEwan in his control freak mode.

The Guardian reviews it here.

The Telegraph reviews it here.

May 2010; 283 pages

Thursday, 20 May 2010

"The Path to the Spiders' Nests" by Italo Calvino

This is the story of Pin, an urchin whose sister is a whore, during the Second World War when Italy was occupied by the Germans and communist partisans fought in the hills.

It is a strange book, with curiously mannered and slightly stilted prose (which could be due to the translation) about this odd little boy who wants so much to be part of the adult world and who can't be a part of the world of children. His adventures are magical, like the adventures in a fairy tale: he meets Red Wolf, a hero of the resistance, in prison; he falls in with a partisan brigade containing the oddest misfits in Italy; his compulsively bad behaviour leads him to the sort of self-destruction worthy of a greek hero. And yet curiously nothing really happens.

Strange but fun

May 2010; 185 pages

"50 Physics Ideas you really need to know" by Joanne Baker

Since I am a Physics teacher I am perhaps not the expected audience for this book.

There were some sections which I felt were rather poorly explained such as the Ideal Gas Law. And the section on Hooke's Law seemed to muddle other ideas in with it. And the book opens with Mach's principle which I have always understood to be essentially about the strange equivalence of gravitational and inertial mass whereas Baker is linking it to frames of reference.

So I was disappointed at the start.

But when it got into quantum theory and strong theory and cosmology I was much more interested and I believe I started learning things I hadn't know before. Now I was frustrated that there wasn't more detail in the explanations.

You can't win!

May 2010; 203 pages

Sunday, 16 May 2010

"The Road to Oxiana" by Robert Byron

This is a delightful travel book in which Byron travels in 1933-34 through Persia and Afghanistan towards (but never actually reaching) the Oxus river. He is intensely (and sometimes boringly) interested in Mohammedan architecture and its influences. His intended companions are The Charcoal Burners (who are driving an experimental charcoal powered car to India) but they let him down; eventually he meets up with Christopher who accompanies him for many miles. Nowhere is his relationship with Christopher stated; Byron was gay but Christopher Sykes later got married and had children.

The writing is lyrical and enormously beautiful in places. His descriptions of place are superb. His characterisations of some of the strnage and eccentric characters he meets (such as the man who speaks pianissimo, then mezzo forte, then fortissimo, then piano etc) is sometimes hilarious.

Interesting bits.

He suggests that Shiraz in Persia from whence derives red wine may be the originaotr of Sherry rather than Xeres in Spain.

He meets Jews expelled from Russia. He is aware of the problem with Jews and Germany and of the increasing fascism of Germany. Persia itself is under the despotic rule of the Shah whom he calls Marjoribanks.

He meets fire altars and the tomb of Zoroaster near Persepolis.

He hears (pp184-5) a story of a donkey who wears a 'loin' skin which sounds extraordinarily like the model for the donkey in the lion skin from The Last Battle by C S Lewis.

He plays a game using "a high net over which any number of people divided into two sides, can fist a soft football" (p 252) in the Russian Embassy in Afghanistan. Although Volleyball was invented in 1895 and an Olympic sport in 1924 (Paris), Byron seems not to recognise it.

He sees the two giant Buddhas in Shibar that were later destroyed by the Taliban but he is by no means impressed with them as works of art.

Links to Byron's photographs here.

A lyrical travelogue.

May 2010; 276 pages

"Hamlet, Revenge" by Michael Innes

Written and set in the 1930s this book is a mixture of whodunnit and spy thriller. The country house is no less than a ducal palace; the guests have assembled to stage an amateur production of Hamlet. The Lord Chancellor (playing Polonius) is the victim.

The mixture of highest society and academia (there are an awful lot of literary references betokening an England in which all aristocrats were superbly read in the classics; even the duchess frequents the Reading Room of the British Museum) makes for rather dated dialogue. The denouement was not exactly open to being guessed. As per usual the sidekick (a don who pseudonymously writes mystery novels as a sideline just like Michael Innes himself!) lays out the solution to the assembled company and gets it wrong; the sleuth (a Scotland Yard inspector called John Appleby) gets it right at the very end.

The most delightful moment came when one of the guests/ suspects tries to persuade the Duke to call in a detective: a rather odd but superbly successful foreign gentlemen who must be Hercule Poirot.

Dated potboiler

May 2010