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

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

"The Checklist Manifesto" by Atul Gawande

Gawande is a surgeon whose failures led him to devise an aeroplane-pilot-style checklist approach to operations. He claims that this reduces failure and complications hugely and significantly.

He suggests that "Know-how and sophistication have increased remarkably across almost all our realms of endeavor, and as a result so has our struggle to deliver on them." (p11) This is because the systems delivering have become too complex for individuals to master. This causes deep customer dissatisfaction. "Failures of ignorance we can forgive. .... But if the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly, it is difficult not to be infuriated." (p 11) This is the point at which failure becomes negligence.

His examples are mostly from surgery. Most operations involve a team of people, often including newcomers, attempting to apply standard procedures to a very individual patient. In the barely controlled chaos of an operation obvious steps are sometimes missed. Furthermore, the team is often handicapped by a lack of communication or by hierarchy and subservience preventing people from over-ruling the god-like surgeon. Gawande believes that checklists have two functions: firstly they prevent obvious steps being missed (he says that since using checklists he has not spend a single week without discovering that a step was about to be missed in his own operating theatre) and secondly they increase team spirit and help to flatten the hierarchy.

He claims that the classic hospital checklist is the four 'vital signs' (temperature, pulse rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate) chart which was introduced by nurses not doctors in  the 1960s.

Builders have used checklists since buildings became too complicated for a single 'Master Builder' to construct. Builders use two sorts of checklists: one for which jobs have been done and one for ensuring that everyone who needs to be informed has been informed.

His checklist rules.

  • Every item on a checklist must be non-ambiguous.
  • Some checklists are proactive and should be read out before performance, others are retroactive and should be a check after performance.
  • One's procedure needs to incorporate one or more 'pause points'. Each pause point contains a single checklist.
  • Checklists should be physical; ideally the whole team should agree that each item can be checked.
  • Each checklist should take no more than sixty seconds.

When Gawande was designing a surgical checklist he took a lot of time to reduce the list to the barest bones (sorry about the pun!). He deliberately left out complicated items (because they might be ambiguous) and he only included items that had leverage. Operating theatre fires kill many fewer patients than post-operative infections so the checklist focuses on antibiotics rather than asbestos. This keeps the list short enough that surgeons will use it even in high pressure situations.

He emphasises that checklists help communication and team working.

He also points out that there has been significant resistance to introducing checklists into surgery despite the remarkable success rates of the WHO research that he worked on. Human beings (and perhaps especially prima donna surgeons) don't like discipline.

I would add that his checklists typically operate in situations where the system is complex but each part can be broken down into simple steps. Can they be equally successfully in the arcane mystery that is persuading pupils to learn?

Like many American books his message is very small; I think I have encapsulated it above. He spins it into a (short) book by telling stories and adding lots of detail in the stories and lots of statistics. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

December 2011; 193 pages

Monday, 19 December 2011

"The Greatest Traitor" by Ian Mortimer

This life of Roger Mortimer, deposer of Edward II, is a cracking good read.

Mortimer as a young man enjoyed the company of young Prince Edward and his mates, including Piers Gaveston, at the court of Edward I. But when Ed I died and the Prince became King things began to turn sour. Ed II was besotted with Gaveston, flirting with him whilst marrying his Queen, Isabella, beautiful blonde daughter of handsome King Philip 'the Fair' of France. Gaveston became greedy and arrogant, mocking the royal Earls and stealing castles, manors and estates. Finally the noblemen got so pissed off they kidnapped and murdered him. In all this Roger supported the King.

Then it all started again but with a bloke called Hugh Despenser who was Roger's sworn enemy because Roger's grandad had killed Hugh's grandad at the battle of Evesham when Hugh's grandad had been fighting with Simon De Montfort. These families were like warring Mafia clans! But King Ed II favoured Hugh and Hugh got greedy and stole loads of land and then the Parliament insisted Hugh was exiled which he was for a while (becoming a pirate) but then he came back and got even more too big for his boots and Roger opposed him which led to Roger being done for treason and thrown into the Tower. Roger's whole family suffered, his sister-in-law being locked up in Chicksands Priory.

Roger then became one of the very few people ever to escape from the Tower. He fled to France where he got together with Isabella (on a visit to her brother who was now King) and they had an affair. They came back together and there was a rebellion and they arrested King Ed II and forced him to abdicate in favour of his son who became King Ed III. But the real power behind the throne was Roger and his mistress Queen Isabella. There was some truculence among the Lords which led to the Earl of Lancaster surrendering at Bedford and the Earl of Kent being executed for treason despite being the new King's uncle for the crime of trying to rescue his brother Ed II from Corfe Castle (even though Ed II had supposedly died at Berkely Castle).

Finally a group of men went through a secret passage into Nottingham Castle with the assistance of Ed III and arrested Roger who was hanged naked at Tyburn.

English History: better than fiction.

December 2011; 264 pages

Friday, 16 December 2011

"The Prague Golem": Vitalis 2004

I bought the book of Jewish fairy stories in Prague; it is an English translation. It is a little like the Brothers Grimm meet Orthodox Judaism. There are stories of men who discover Gold and Rabbis who cheat death. In particular the stories focus on one Rabbi, Rabbi Loew, who creates the Golem, a man fashioned from  clay and brought to life. The purpose of the Golem is to protect the Jewish community but he never seems to be used for this and shortly afterwards the Rabbi, by saying the original prayers backwards, returns the Golem to clay.

The trouble with these sort of religious stories is that morality is repeatedly confused. In Rabbi Loew the Benefactor of the Jews in Prague the good Rabbi persuades Emperor Rudolph  that "the whole community should never in future be held responsible for the guilt of the individual." This is clearly right and proper and a bedrock of decent law. In the story after next, Beleles Street, the very same Rabbi discovers that the cause of the plague which has been killing the children of the community is that two couples are wife-swapping. It is apparently OK for God, or Death, to make the whole community suffer for the sins of a few but it is not OK if the Emperor does it.

Double standards. Superstitious nonsense.

December 2011; 63 pages

Thursday, 15 December 2011

"Teacher Man" by Frank McCourt

This is the third volume in Frank McCourt autobiography and follows the award winning Angela's Ashes and 'Tis. It tells the tale of McCourt becoming a teacher in New York and later a writer.

He misquotes Pope: "Know thyself, presume not God to scan/ The proper study of mankind is man" (Pope's version is Know then thyself ...).

He is very eloquent about teaching in his usual rhythmic 'I am Irish' style. There are moments which are funny and moments which are interesting but I didn't catch my breath until McCourt the teacher is interrogating a rich kid in his creative writing class about his dinner. He asks who cooked it. The maid. And served it. He asks about the table - mahogany - and the chandelier and the music. Not Mozart. Telemann. "He's one of my father's favourites," says the student. And where is your father? Then comes the brutal pay-off line: "He's in Sloan-Kettering Hospital with lung cancer and my mother is with him all he time because he's expected to die."

Instantly the world of privilege of the spoilt little rich kid dissolves into a world of despair and a little kid.

Every teacher has had a moment like that. Mine was when I asked, rhetorically, what Sabir's mother would say if she found out what he had done to be told, through tears, that his mother wouldn't say a word because her windpipe had been crushed in a car accident and it was still uncertain whether she would survive. I put my arm around Sabir and hugged him till the tears subsided.

Although at the start of the book I thought it was McCourt churning out the old Irish brogue formula that powered his previous two books (but Angela's Ashes rather more than 'Tis), when he started describing his Creative Writing classes at Stuyvesant High and the unusual (bizarre!) strategies he adopted (eg getting the students to sing recipes) his love of teaching and his characterisation of the kids he taught caught me and held me in a magical enchantment. By the end I loved the book.

December 2011; 258 pages

Sunday, 11 December 2011

"After the Quake" by Haruki Murakami

This is a collection of short stories by the lyrical Japanese writer.

After the Kobe earthquake Komura's wife leaves him. He flies to Hokkaido carrying a small wooden box that a colleague has given him. He is empty inside.

After the Kobe earthquake Junko watches Mr Miyake build a bonfire on a midnight beach. They decide that when the bonfire goes out they will die together.

After the Kobe earthquake Yoshiya follows the man with the missing ear to a deserted baseball stadium. He believes the man to be is father although his mother insists he is the child of God. The man with the missing ear disappears and Yoshiya dances at night in the empty stadium.

After the Kobe earthquake Satsuki,a menopausal thyroidologist, goes on holiday in Thailand. Her driver, who claims to be half dead, takes her to a fortune teller. Satsuki hates her ex-husband, hoping he was swallowed up by Kobe's liquefied earth, and mourns the children she never had.

After the Kobe earthquake a giant Frog comes to call on bank debt-collector Mr Katagiri to enlist his help in a subterranean battle to the death with Worm who is planning to destroy Tokyo with an earthquake. Katagiri may or may not get shot and wakes up in hospital.

After the Kobe earthquake Junpei tells stories about bears and honey to Sala who is scared of The Earthquake Man. Later he makes love to Sala's mum, his best friend since college, who went off with his other best friend at college.

Six stories told in Murakami's bald prose. The dialogue is stark and people often say things which have no bearing on what was said before. The characters are outlined with the efficiency of a cartoonist; there is no attempt at the multi-layering of an oil painting. They are all empty, nihilistic, hollow. The situations are all ordinary with a hint of extra-ordinary. It works at the level of fairy tales and this must be because Murakami's words, while flat, have a lyrical magic. These are haiku stories.

But while haikus often reveal beauty, these stories chronicle the dark, materialistic, violent soulessness of Japanese society.

Strange and powerful.

Dec 2011; 132 pages

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

"50 Literature Ideas you really need to know" by John Sutherland

I think I expected this book to be more about creative writing than it was. It started well with Mimesis (which just means imitation ie writing that tries to mirror reality) but very quickly it got into the world of literary criticism. What is a classic? Does a text belong to the writer or the reader and where does the meaning reside? Deconstruction means that every text is inherently indeterminate of meaning. Where does plagiarim begin and hommage end; where does this leave fanfic and the e-book? These topics might be fascinating to an academic but most of them came nowhere near my conception of the 50 Literature ideas I wanted let alone needed to know.

Disappointing.

December 2011; 203 pages

Monday, 5 December 2011

"The Invention of Air" by Steven Johnson

This is the biography of Joseph Priestley, Unitarian minister and Chemist. In his early days he was the author of a best-selling history of Electricity (a friend of Franklin). Later he invented soda water' He discovered that plants produce the air that flames and animals need to stay alive (but he never really discovered Oxygen, leaving that to the more careful Science of his friend Lavoisier). He was sponsored by the Lunar Society. He then wrote a controversial book debunking Christianity (he was one of the inventors of Unitarianism, denying the Trinity and the divinity of Christ). This and his radical political views at the time meant that the Birmingham mob burned his chapel and his house down and he had to go into hiding. He then emigrated to the newly independent USA. He was a great mate of 2nd President John Adams until his belief in the Book of Revelation got in the way. Later, unable to resist meddling in politics, he fell foul of the newly enacted Alien and Sedition Laws but President Adams kept him out of jail. He was quite a mate of third president Jefferson.

In other words he was a political hothead who could not restrain himself and an amateur scientist whose haphazard methods (and unwavering belief in phlogiston) made him unable to make real progress in his science.

Along the way this book muses on the Philosophy of Science. It does not really believe in the Great Man theory of history. Rather, it believes that what it calls a 'hot hand' is just a lucky streak: "a fantasy of misinterpreted probability" (p43). This fits in with the ideas suggested by eg Nate Silver in The signal and the noise and Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, fast and slow.

He also muses on the coincidence that Priestley's discovery of the interdependence of plant life and animal life came as a result of the leisure time he had due to the industrial revolution based on coal from the carboniferous era when plants evolved lignin and decomposers took some millions of years to learn how to rot lignin so it got buried and metamorphosed into coal. We tend to think of money encouraging innovation because it functions as an incentive  ... but accumulated wealth ... allowed people like Joseph Priestley to pursue scientific breakthroughs without the promise of financial reward." (p129)

A delightful book although it tends to show what a shallow scientist Priestley was and ekes this out by an American-centric account of his relationship with Americans Franklin, Adams and Jefferson.

December 2011; 240 pages

Sunday, 4 December 2011

"Fifty Management ideas you really need to know" by Edward Russell-Walling

This is full of lots of interesting ideas although the concept of management seems to be restricted to commercial, preferably industrial, companies. From time to time I got a really good idea from it, rarely a paradigm-breaking idea, occasionally an idea I could directly use. But it was fun.

December 2011; 203 pages

Friday, 2 December 2011

"The Moon and Sixpence" by Somerset Maugham

This delightful book is the fictionalised story of Paul Gaugin. The narrator, a writer, meets Mrs Strickland and ,through her, Strickland, a stockbroker, who shortly abandons his wife, his family and his career to travel to Paris to become a painter. The wife persuades the narrator to go to Paris to persuade her husband to return but Strickland is rude and obsessive. If one is a genius one submits to the tyranny of one's art and normal human relations go out of the window. Later the narrator returns to Paris. Another 'chocolate box' artist, Stroeve is the only person who recognises the genius in Strickland but Strickland treats Stroeve like dirt, mocking him and his work. After Stroeve and his wife nurse back to life a seriously ill Strickland, Strickland seduces her and she leaves her husband. Later Strickland abandons her and she commits suicide, leaving 'ridiculous' Stroeve doubly betrayed. In the last part of the novel the narrator happens to be in Tahiti. Strickland went there, painted, a died a terrible death which the narrator pieces together with witness statements from the people who knew him.

What makes this a great book is the elegance of the prose (suggesting that the narrator is a prissy non-entity) coupled with the brutality of the ideas (standing for the rawness of art; Strickland is a man possessed by the terrible demon of art and at the same time a sensuous and brutal man loved by women). Perhaps this duality reflects Gaugin's art: simplistic and naive but full of power. The characterisations are all remarkable:

  • Mrs Strickland is a women who seeks the company of artists and writers while never suspecting that her dull stockbroking husband has artistic genius; after being abandoned she opens a typing agency but after Strickland's death and subsequent fame she begins to bask again in the attention given to her as his wife.
  • Dirk Stroeve the fat untalented but commercially successful artist who was ridiculous in his devotion to his wife and ridiculous again in his grief; but he was the first man who recognised the genius in Strickland.
  • Mrs Stroeve who was afraid of Strickland and then left her husband for him and then killed herself when Strickland left her.
  • The Tahitians: the jovial obese hotel owner with a wonderfully relaxed attitude to sex even though she was now to fat to have any; the Captain who knew Strickland in Marseilles although he was probably making his story up to please the narrator who paid for it in whisky and cigars; the doctor who attended Strickland in his last days.


Wonderful characters.

And the book is remarkable for the amount of sex in it. It was published in 1919 and it is so frank. Tahitian 17 year old Ata has "never been promiscuous like some of these girls - a captain or a first mate, yes, but she's never been touched by a native." p182 Frank and funny. And the narrator himself suggests that when sex it over "you feel so extraordinarily pure. You feel like a disembodied spirit, immaterial, and you seem to be able to touch beauty as though it were a palpable thing, and you feel an intimate communion with the breeze, and with the trees breaking into leaf, and with the iridescence of the river. You feel like God." p78

There were so many gems and bon mots in this book:

  • "Only the poet or the saint can water an asphalt pavement in the confident anticipation that lilies will reward his labour." p46
  • Conscience is "the policeman in all our hearts, set there to watch that we do not break its laws." p51
  • "I have always been a little disconcerted by the passion women have for behaving beautifully at the death-bed of those they love. Sometimes it seems as if they grudge the longevity which postpones their chance of an effective scene." p56
  • "Le Maitre de la Boite a Chocolats" [Stroeve] p62
  • "Because women can do nothing except love, they've given it a ridiculous importance. They want to persuade us that it's the whole of life. It's an insignificant part. I know lust. That's normal and healthy. Love is a disease." p140
  • "Here lies the unreality of fiction. For in men, as a rule, love is but an episode which takes its place among the other affairs of the day, and the emphasis laid on it in novels gives it an importance which is untrue to life. There are few men to whom it is the most important thing in the world, and they are not very interesting ones." p152
  • "The sadness which you may see in the jester's eyes when a merry company is laughing at his sallies and his jokes are gayer because in the communion of laughter he finds himself more intolerably alone." p157
  • "Neither wit nor whisky could detain him then." p161

The ending is equally brilliant. The narrator meets Mrs Strickland and her now grown up children (a soldier and a soldier's wife; perfectly conformist members of society with no genius) and the son quotes 'The mills of God grind slowly , but they grind exceeding small.' The narrator feels "sure that they thought the quotation was from Holy Writ" and when he contrasts this boy with Strickland's Tahitian bastard "a quotation from the Bible came to my lips, but I held my tongue, for I know that clergymen think it a little blasphemous when the laity poach upon their preserves. My Uncle Henry, for twenty-seven years Vicar of Whitstable, was on these occasions in the habit of saying that the devil could always quote scripture to his purpose. He remembered the days when you could get thirteen Royal Natives for a shilling."

This ending combines obscurity and scholarship (the Mills of God quotation is actually Longfellow but Maugham doesn't tell us that) and then teases again by offering a Biblical quotation but we are never told which. It then falls from fiction into fact: Maugham's Uncle was really the Vicar of Whitstable. It ends with another little character vignette which Maugham has peppered throughout the novel. This character, like a few of the others, has absolutely no part to play in the story. Uncle Henry is utterly incidental and yet he finished the book. Royal Natives are Whitstable oysters.

Apparently it is called The Moon and Sixpence because you can stare at the Moon whilst ignoring the sixpence at your feet.

A beautiful brilliant book.

December 2011; 215 pages

Also read Maugham's much weightier but brilliant On Human Bondage

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

"The fears of Henry IV" by Ian Mortimer

Ian Mortimer writes mediaeval history so readably. This biography of "England's Self-Made King" starts with 14 year old Henry in the Tower during the Peasant's Revolt and a retainer persuading the invading mob not to murder him. Henry had a glorious youth: son of John of Gaunt, England's richest and most powerful lord, grandson of Edward III (named as heir after Richard II and John of Gaunt), cousin and boyhood playmate of King Richard II, a talented musician, a big reader, a student who (in exile) attended lectures at the University of Paris, a star jouster from the age of 14, a crusader (with the Teutonic Knights in Lithuania) and a pilgrim (the only mediaeval English King to enter Jerusalem), and a key member of the opposition in Parliament to Richard II's increasingly arbitrary and tyrannical rule. All this potential seemed dashed by Richard's hatred (possibly caused by jealousy since the dashing Henry was everything that Richard was not). Richard continually promoted others over him (including naming them as heir) and slighted or spurned him. Finally Richard exiled Henry. In exile Henry must have felt that all his promise was for nothing. But he returned from exile to lead a rebellion against Richard, to depose Richard and to be recognised by Parliament as King in Richard's place. Then things began to go wrong.

All the early promise evaporated. His vow to be merciful was falsified almost immediately when he (probably) gave the order to ensure that Richard was killed in imprisonment (possibly starving him to death). Two harvest failures and an inability to be good with money meant that his manifesto commitment not to impose peacetime taxes plunged him into debt. Scotland, Wales and France all fought against him. There were many rebellions at home (including eight assassination attempts) culminating in the Battle of Shrewsbury when Henry decisively defeated and killed Harry Hotspur. Even peace left him at the mercy of a hostile and penny-pinching parliament. Finally some dreadful skin disease left him crippled and dying, dead before he reached fifty.

Mostly uncommemorated (Mortimer claims that his only statue is in Shrewsbury's Battlefield church) Henry started the tradition of giving to the poor on Maundy Thursday (his birthday) an amount proportional to his age. He owned an early (perhaps the first) portable clock (p93). In exile he stayed at Sangatte, outside Paris and in 'Newenham' Priory (I presume this is Newnham Priory which around this time was involved with Mowbray who was the Earl of Norfolk involved in a dispute about a rebellion with Henry which led to his and Henry's exile; Newnham Priory received a grant from Henry IV on 15th February 1409) in Bedfordshire on 7th July 1403 (p265). 

Fabulous history of a fascinating king. 

November 2011; 387 pages

Thursday, 24 November 2011

"The Devil's Cup" by Stewart Lee Allen

An interesting history of coffee is turned into a mesmerising thriller by the adventures of Stewart, following coffee from Ethiopian genesis to the USA. On the way this beatnik turned author travels on a gun-running boat from Djibouti to Yemen while these two countries are at war, negotiates a people-smuggling deal, is conned whilst trying to participate in an international forged art smuggling business, meets low-lifes of all sorts, travels from Italy to Rio, has his passport confiscated and his car searched, interrogates entranced mediums, and drinks every variety of coffee possible from Ethiopian brewed with the leaves to Yemeni, to Turkish, to Viennese, to Parisian, to Italian, to Brazilian, to American.

Unbelievable. Why have I never heard of this book before?

November 2011; 230 pages

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

"Possession" by A S Byatt

A penniless literary researcher discovers a love letter from the Victorian poet whose biography he is working on to another Victorian poetess. He and a lady lecturer trace the details of an unknown and illicit Victorian love affair. What happened and why?

Despite acres of Victorian allusive poetry, pregnant with myth, and a whole chapter of letters from poet to poetess, mostly discussing nothing, this book draws you in. But oh how shallow the modern world appears and how unromantic our couplings and uncouplings are compared with the enforced chastities and unconsummated desires of the past.

A mystery but also a satire on the obsessions of the modern biography industry.

Delightful.

November 2011; 511 pages

Sunday, 13 November 2011

"The Enchantress of Florence" by Salman Rushdie

This book reminded me of a silk and velvet version of my own 'Don Petro de la Hoz'.

It was certainly lavish. A yellow haired wanderer and magician of Florentine descent related to Amerigo Vespucci and named after Niccolo Machiavelli but calling himself the 'Mughal of Love' arrives at the imperial Moghul court of Akbar the Great. He tells a story of Qara Koz, the woman he claims to be his mother, a princess of the line of Tamburlane and Genghis Kahn, who was multiply abducted through the fortunes of war until she found love with a Florentine Janissary. This makes him Akbar's uncle.

His stories weave magic around the Mughal court and enchant the great emperor (who has himself conjured up a fantasy queen). And the tale weaves back and forth from past to present, from India and Persia and  Ottoman Asia to Transylvania and Italy and the Nuovo Mondo, from history to fantasy, rich, gorgeous and romantic.


  • Philosophical: "If there had never been a God, the Emperor thought, it might have been easier to work out what goodness was." (Chapter 19). 
  • Political: "Was foreignness itself a thing to be embraced as a revitalizing force bestowing bounty and success upon its adherents, or did it adulterate something essential in the individual and the society as a whole?" (Chapter 19)
  • Witty: "Only the humble did not stumble" (Chapter 19)


Spell-binding.

November 2011; 443 pages

Monday, 7 November 2011

"The Pocket Encyclopaedia of Impressionists"

The Impressionists were an brilliantly talented bunch of artists who happened to meet in Paris  and studied together and worked together and exhibited together and in some cases lived together.

This books explains their incredible history and then gives an authoritative analysis of some of the leading lights including the incomparable Monet, anarchist Pisarro, unwillingly controversial Manet, balletophile Degas, working class Renoir and gentle landscapist Sisley. It explains about their key beliefs, such as painting landscapes in the open air and their use of brilliant colours and concentrating on patches of light but it also explains which artists followed which styles.

My only complaint about the formidably impressive book is that the illustrations rarely co-ordinate with the text so that you are reading about one painting while seeing another or you are flicking through the book to understand what they are talking about. Perhaps a slideshow version of the book might be the answer.

Friday, 4 November 2011

"After Me, the Deluge" by David Forrest

This tells the story of a young priest in a tiny French village who receives a telephone call from God commanding him to build and Ark for the forthcoming flood that is going to destroy the world. The eccentric villagers including a massive, ex-para, whore-mongering, poorly endowed barman, an officious policeman and a pompous mayor help construct the Ark. But word gets out via a cod-Jewish newspaperman called Morry. The government send the police in but the Vatican send a Cardinal.

It reminded me very much of The Mouse that Roared which I read when I was about 12 and so I assumed initially that this book was written about the same time (late fifties/ early sixties) but the rather more explicit sexuality of this book firmly placed it in the seventies.

Light comedy; a fun easy read (but with a disappointing ending).

November 2011; 189 pages

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

"Appleby House" by Sylvia Smith

A chronicle of a year in rented accommodation.

Sylvia rents a bedsit with kitchen in a four bedroom house, sharing with lonely Laura, Susanna and her sister Beverley, Sharon and her boyfriend Peter, and later Tracey. The girls bicker about the domestic arrangements and the noises they make to keep the others awake. They surf the highs of sharing a bottle of wine and getting a little tiddly and the lows of being ill at Christmas and redundancy. The characters are grey and thin, the dialogue is stilted and colourless, the book is banal and humdrum.

"The East End minimalist is back," says the Observer. "If her style were to be translated into an object, it would  be an antimacassar or a crotcheted white-lace doily." Which is fair enough. If that is your idea of literature.

Boring.

November 2011; 160 pages


Thursday, 27 October 2011

"Veronika Decides to Die" by Paolo Coelho

Veronika attempts suicide and wakes up in a mental hospital to be told that her heart has been irreparably damaged and that she has only a week to live. She spends the week interacting with the other inmates and the staff.

The inmates are all good and the staff are all bad.

Every character is cardboard. I know Coelho has this parable-like way of narrating but this can get rather tedious and he reduces the complexity of human characters into two dimensions. At the same time he spouts a lot of crap about crystals and astral projection and saints.

The best thing about this book is that it is brief.

October 2011; 191 pages

Sunday, 23 October 2011

"1492: the year our world began" by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

This book considers individual events across the world in 1492 and shows how each led to the development of the modern, western-dominated world.

It is sometimes not very well written. He meanders disjointedly. He repeats himself. Sometimes it seems as if the book has been composed in short sections that have not been integrated properly.

I also have problems accepting his thesis (which he himself disavows) that so much depended on a single year. I also wonder how he can be so authoritative  (eg "The conventional explanations [for how the Spaniards so easily defeated the Aztecs]  - that the Spaniards were inherently superior, that they were mistaken for gods  and preceded by omens, that their technology was decisive, that disease undermined defence, and that their enemies were subverted by corroded morale - are all false."; pp287-8 and his rubbishing of the theory that the Chinese fleets under Zheng-He circumnavigated the globe as espoused by Gavin Menzies in '1421' p226) when he is dealing with the whole world. When you paint a big canvas you expect broad strokes but you shouldn't deny the art of the miniaturist.

Nevertheless I enjoyed this book because he gave me alternative perspectives for some things I thought I knew:

  • "The idea that the demand for spices was the result of the need to disguise tainted meat and fish is one of the great myths of the history of food. Fresh foods in mediaeval Europe were fresher than they are today, because they were produced locally." p17; 
  • "Mediaeval Castilians eschewed olive oil and used lard as their main source of dietary fat" p88; 
  • "Few of the people foul-mouthed as 'motherfuckers' in gangland parlance actually practice incest" p89; 
  • The Turks were unable to conquer the western Mediterranean world because the prevailing winds were against them and the straits of Messina south of Sicily effectively bottled them up p112; 
  • Columbus sold his plan of a voyage across the Atlantic with a different spin for whichever audience he had, sometimes talking of new islands like the Canaries, sometimes of an unknown continent and sometimes of a route to Cathay p183; 
  • Maritime exploration is encouraged by winds that blow into your face because then you know you are likely to be able to get home p241 but Monsoon systems with regular seasonal winds are best and led to early and well-established trading routes across the Indian Ocean p242; 
  • "Whatever modernity is, the high valuation of the individual is part of it" p272


But possibly the very best bits of this book were the things I didn't even know I didn't know:

  • How Islam came to dominate Western Africa
  • The economic effects of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492
  • The explanation of how Muscovy became Russia
  • The origin of pre-Berber cultures in the Canary Islands and the hundred years it took the Spaniards to conquer them despite the fact that they had no weapons other than sticks and stones


So a great little introduction which has opened my eyes and made me want to read at least half a dozen more specialised histories!

October 2011; 321 pages
The richness of the pre-Mediaeval Indian Ocean

Sunday, 9 October 2011

"The Stars' Tennis Balls" by Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry brings the Count of Monte Cristo to the twentieth century.

Ned Maddstone, the son of a Tory MP, is Head of School at Harrow, a star cricket player, destined for Oxford. He meets and falls madly in love with Portia. On a school sailing trip he accepts a sealed envelope from a dying man. Before he can deliver it a schoolboy prank causes him to be arrested; following his arrest he is spirited away to an isolated existence on an island.

This is the story of Edmond Dantes (an anagram of Ned Maddstone) and the three conspirators who tore him away from his wedding feast (his one and only shag with Portia) and had him consigned to the Chateau D'If. The remainder of the story plays out exactly, from the mad Abbe (called Babe, another anagram) to the escape in Babe's coffin, to the appearance of the fabulously rich Simon Cotter (yes, you guessed it, an anagram of Monte Cristo) who engineers his revenge.

Like the original in every sense except literary merit. This is a shallow conceit. It has the usual public school boy Fry hero and the usual snobbery about class; in the teachings of Babe one can even hear Fry pontificating on QI. A pleasant enough read. It has the merit of being far shorter than the original which is, I suppose, essential for today's market, but this in itself gives it the demerit that it does not have the time to delve deeply into the evil that revenge undoubtedly represents.

A good game but a disappointment as a novel.

October 2011; 371 pages

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

"The Lost City of Z" by David Grann

A true story which reads like an adventure from the pen of Rider Haggard or Conan Doyle.Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, one time spy and legendary British explorer of the Amazon jungle, travels with his son and his son's best friend into the rain forest in search of a mythical city which sounds like El Dorado but which he refers to as Z. The little party disappears. What has happened to them? Over the years many go to seek them; many fail to return. This brilliant book is a biography of the eccentric colonel, a history of white colonial exploration of the Amazon, an investigation into what might have happened to him, a search for Z, and a wonderful analysis of obsession.

If nothing else it has made me NEVER EVER want to venture into an insect ridden swamp. The list of predators was awesome. Not just hostile Indians with poison tipped arrows who seek to enslave you, or torture you, or kill you, or cannibalise you. Not just Piranhas but fish that lodge themselves into your ureter causing such pain that penilectomy is required. Not just mosquitoes and death from malaria but a bug that 'kisses' you on the lips inserting a protoplasm that, in the next twenty years, will cause your heart or your brain to swell fatally. Not just maggots who eat you from the inside out but vampire bats.

October 2011; 275 pages

Thursday, 29 September 2011

"Emergence: from chaos to order" by John H Holland

This is a worthy book. It is an academic book. It contains the intricate details of mathematics and algorithms. And at the same tine it attempts to be a general and genial introduction to the network science written by one of the earliest workers in the field.

A good book but not an exciting book. Some interesting concepts but it didn't hook me as much as the other similar treatises I have read over the last few years:



But probably Emergence is the one to quote when I wirte my textbook.

September 2011; 248 pages

Sunday, 25 September 2011

"The Devil and Sherlock Holmes" by David Grann

Twelve real-life stories of murder, mystery and madness. Sort of. Actually a remarkably eclectic collection which makes one wonder how one man, albeit writing for The New Yorker, can have found the time and sources to acquire such a miscellany. Even the title stores are as different as chalk and cheese: a 'was he killed or did he commit suicide?' puzzle about the wannabe biographer of Conan Doyle to an assortment of interviews with and biographical fragments of an exiled Haitian politician. In between we learn about an arson that wasn't and a criminal gang that terrorises US penitentiaries. My favourite story is the murderer who used the details of his unsolved crime as material for a bizarrely surrealist novel; this led to his eventual conviction.

A fascinating and unusual collection of articles.

September 2011; 334 pages

Friday, 9 September 2011

"Britannia: 100 Documents that shaped a nation" by Graham Stewart

This is perhaps a somewhat eclectic collection of documents from the Treaty between Alfred the Great and Guthrun the Dane to the sergeant Pepper Album cover via the Laws of Cricket and the Great Reform Act. I often wanted more detail and more authentic quotes from the documents (every document is reported upon but not always quoted and hardly ever quoted in full). I was a little disappointed by the selection which is heavily weighted towards the modern era. Nevertheless, it was so interesting and compelling that I changed my annual long distance walk from the second half of the Thames walk to the River Lea so that I could walk along the boundary between Wessex and the Dane Law as agreed by Alfred and Guthrun above in about 885.

Some wonderful moments of history are represented by this magnificent book. I don't always agree with the selection but I have learned a great deal from it.

 September 2011; 422 pages.

Friday, 2 September 2011

"Death in Holy Orders" by P.D.James

A theological college for just 20 students on an isolated and wind-swept headland on the East Anglian Coast where Adam Dalgliesh, poetry writing Commander of Police at New Scotland Yard and son of a Norfolk vicar, stayed when he was a teenager. An industrialist called Sir Alred, a detective who studied theology, a padeophile priest, another priest who is aristocratic descendant of Prince Bishops, a barmy old maid, an unnaturally beautiful bastard and a vitriolic Archdeacon. An exquisite work of art and a papyrus purporting to be the command from Pontius Pilate to release Christ's body. High Anglicanism and low crime. The classic ingredients of a PDJames murder mystery.

Pure hokum. I don't know that you could ever begin to believe in some of the bizarre characters but the plot is almost worthy of Agatha Christie, the descriptive writing is lyrically brilliant and there are some moments of wonderful comedy. An entertaining read.

September 2011; 548 pages

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

"The Accidental" by Ali Smith

The Smart family are on holiday in Norfolk. The story is told in episodes by each of the family in turn. Mother Eve is a blocked writer. Step-father Michael is an English lecturer who fucks his students. 17 year old Magnus never washes or eats because he photoshopped the head of a girl from school onto a porn body; the girl killed herself; now Magnus wants to kill himself. 12 year old Astrid is being bullied at school and is obsessed with her new DVD and her estranged father.

Amber walks into the house. Michael assumes Eve invited her; Eve assumes Michael did. Over the summer Amber  turns their lives upside down. Who is she? Why is she there? And is she real or magical?

This is literary fiction and sometimes too obviously so (Michael the lecturer spends pages worrying about cliches and making silly puns; he writes a sonnet sequence). But there are also moments of wonderful humour. Magnus the geek, who has had his virginity taken by Amber and who spends all summer fucking her has to explain what he is thinking about at family dinner. He says he is thinking about a lighthouse (phallic!): "to measure the total inside area in cubic metres would be really difficult because of the changing size of it as you went further, uh, further up inside. Magnus has gone a really really red colour" so his mum thinks he has been sun burnt and asks "weren't you using any protection?"

I was disappointed by the ending. The holiday is magical. After the holiday, reality seems somewhat banal.

August 2011; 306 pages

“The other hand” by Chris Cleave


A Nigerian girl is released from a British detention centre. She phones a journalist, then walks to Kingston-upon-Thames to meet him. She turns up two hours before his funeral; in the intervening ten days he has committed suicide. She helps his widow look after the four year old son, who thinks he is Batman.

But these two women have already met on a beach in Nigeria. And what is the secret of the missing finger?

The prose is lyrical, the plot twists and turns. This is a magical book.

August 2011; 374 pages

“Six degrees” by Duncan J Watts


This is a description of the science of networks by a physicist turned sociologist. In many ways it reiterates and explains the concepts found in other books such as ‘Wikinomics’ and ‘Critical Mass’. It is brilliantly readable but a little too popular to allow me to understand the mathematical ideas properly. But it is sufficiently in depth to make it clear that Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Tipping Point’ was the froth on the waves on the ocean compared to this book. It is full of amazing insights and brilliant ideas; at the same time it is a beautifully biographical and frequently amusing chronicle of the process through which mathematical discovery is achieved. I was utterly entranced.

And networks are important. An obvious example of network failure Watts doesn’t use is death. He starts by talking through the much cited example of when a power line in Oregon touched a tree and half the Western US was blacked out. By the end of the book we have learned about the Small Worlds phenomenon, epidemics and computer viruses, tulip bubbles and information cascades, how revolutions start and how hindsight makes history useless, and how information flows within hierarchies and what this means for the future of the firm.

Loads and loads to think about. Wonderful.

August 2011; 306 pages

Duncan Watts worked with Steven Strogatz who wrote sync
Other great books in this area include:

  • At Home in the Universe by Stuart Kauffman about fitness landscapes
  • How Nature Works by Per Bak about sandpiles and self organized criticality; an excellent explanation of complexity science
  • Deep Simplicity by John Gribbin which is a brilliant introduction to this whole field
  • Smart swarm by Peter Miller
  • The Information by James Gleick although his Chaos (not reviewed on this blog) is perhaps better

Other books not reviewed on this blog on this topic include:

  • The Wisdom of Crowds 
  • Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell about fads
  • Ubiquity which is brilliant about fractals and power laws
  • Critical mass by Philip Ball which is a brilliant explanation about phase changes

“The Tesseract” by Alex Garland


In a seedy hotel room in the least salubrious part of Manila, Sean waits for a meeting with Don Pepe, a gangster who will probably kill him. In the pretty suburbs, Rosa puts her children to bed and talks to her mother. Street urchin Cente talks to psychology researcher Alfredo before meeting Totoy. These lives collide.

This is not just an exciting thriller. Garland, author of ‘The Beach’ draws vivid and realistic characters and treats them with understanding and compassion.

August 2011; 336 pages

"Wikinomics" by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams


“If you’re going to be naked, you better be buff.” (p293)

A fascinating book although a little out of date despite being “fully revised and updated for paperback”. The pace of internet change is such that 2008 is long ago. Thus it recognises that facebook is growing and on the horizon but doesn’t realise quite how massive it will be by 2011. It applauds del.icio.us although that service has been effectively closed down by Yahoo. Twitter isn’t mentioned.

My biggest reservation is that although I could understand the many reasons for going open and sharing and collaborating etc that companies demonstrated and although I understood that all these things helped massively cut costs and improve rapidity and market responsiveness they failed in their ultimate promise in that I failed to understand how these things could be used to make money (rather than just saving on the costs front). Google is basically an ad company. Amazon sells books. eBay is a traditional auction house taking a cu of the selling price. But how else do you make money? Ask Twitter.

August 2011; 315 pages

"Our Fathers" by Andrew O'Hagan


Hugh ‘Mr Housing’ Bawn lies dying on the 18th floor of one of the tower blocks in Ayrshire which, as Municipal Planner, he helped to build. His grandson Jamie who demolishes tower blocks in England, is with him for his final months. Jamie’s alcoholic, wife-beating father Robert, has disappeared.

This book, written in crisp and original elegiac prose, explores the relationship between Jamie, Robert and Hugh and their women. It explores modern Scotland and the lives blighted by poverty, unemployment, alcohol and the built environment. It seeks to redeem the heroes of the sixties who built this urban landscape in the name of progress and with the vision of escaping from worse poverty and the worse housing of the Glasgow tenement slums. If there is a poetry of the assembly line this book describes it. If there is nobility lurking within the wife-beating drunk, this book finds it. The images of girls in hair nets at superstore checkouts beside roads from an auld village centre to nowhere are haunting. Drunks quote poetry (alright, it is Burns so it is mostly doggerel) in the working men’s club. History is just beneath the surface whether it is the bell tower of the church mentioned in Tam O’Shanter or the monastery where Robert Bruce murdered Red Comyn (now a supermarket) or the housing estate all of whose Drives are named for a forgotten Scottish Socialist.

And there is comedy. Jamie meets his mum’s mates and they try to chat him up. He watches Gaelic breakfast TV with his Gran (the only people in the world who watch it, he believes) and questions the credibility of the item on swimwear fashion in Uist.

A remarkable book, full of the romance and dignity of everyday poverty.

July 2011; 282 pages

"The Angel's Game" by Carlos Luis Zafon


This book is tangentially a prequel to ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ in that it uses some of the same characters and it has the same obsession with the dark side of Barcelona as a backdrop to sinister and labyrinthine plots. This book adds a substantial supernatural element.

It is pure melodrama, despite damning Grand Guignol very early: GG “does to drama what syphilis does to your privates. Getting it might be pleasurable, but from then on it’s downhill all the way.” But it does GG very well indeed. There is a mysterious house with locked rooms and secret chambers and a secret. There is the charming old gentleman who is quite literally the devil in disguise and who manipulates the narrator into a murky and devious world. There is the Inspector of Police who always just prevents his two thugs from torturing the narrator. There are the women: Cristina whom the narrator adores from afar (very Pip and Estella) and Isabella the narrator’s competent and wise-cracking Dr Watson (a wonderful character: the dialogue between narrator and Isabella is brilliant, robust and full of humour). There are mysterious buildings that are one moment brothels, surgeries or mansions and the next are burnt out ruins; libraries; a newspaper office that once housed a sulphuric acid factory; graveyards including the Cemetery of Forgotten Books: nothing and no-one are what they seem except perhaps the saintly old bookseller with his shy son.  The atmosphere is dark and derelict.

On the first page I wondered whether there was a connection to Stendahl’s ‘The Red and the Black’ when the Barcelona skyline was described (in an image that occurred later in the book) as “a perpetual twilight of scarlet and black”. But there wasn’t. There were references to other book’s such as ‘Great Expectations’ but somehow all these were just there to set the scene. There is repeated reference to Angels, to Mausoleums, to Spiders and their Webs, to Death, but these seem to just be ways of painting the picture. In the end the reader is led into a labyrinth of clues and motives and false trails and then abandoned. There is no consistent ‘solution’ to the mysteries. The ‘boss’ is the devil but much of the evil is perpetrated by the last man whose soul the devil stole.

In the final analysis this is a wonderfully atmospheric book with a convoluted plot but in the end it failed to deliver the satisfaction it promised.

July 2011; 504 pages

"The Red and the Black" by 'Stendahl'


This overlong and over-violet romantic novel overanalyses the thoughts and feelings of protagonist Julian Sorel and he agonises and soliloquises over how to find his fortune. Starting as the pretty book-loving son of a carpenter (religious theme?) in a small town he becomes the tutor to the Mayor’s children and seduces his wife. Then he makes his way to Paris, becomes secretary to a Marquis and seduces his daughter.

What makes this book special is the character of Julien. He is driven by the ambition to be someone special although he has no clear picture of whether that special someone will be a cardinal, a general, a rich merchant or a lover. Agonisingly, although to succeed he has to worm his way into rich households he has a massive chip on his shoulder and hates both the society he is desperate to join and himself. He is a social climbing peasant who wants to start a revolution. There is a lot of suppressed hatred (which is perhaps why seduction is his route to the top). He has to do a lot of dissembling and equivocation. Stendahl makes this, which he calls hypocrisy, a central theme of the novel, although it does seem unjust to describe Julien as a hypocrite; he is simply trying to win a game when the cards are marked against him.

Magic moments include the scene in chapter five when he is about to enter the gates of the Mayor’s house for the first time. As in a fairy tale when the hero is about to embark upon a path that will lead to his eventual damnation (as if these are the gates of hell) he is warned. He discovers a torn newspaper cutting which reports the fate of a man whose name is Louis Jenrel, an anagram of Julien Sorel. He does not realises the importance of the warning and so he is damned.

In chapter 23: “The traveller who has just climbed a steep mountain sits down on the summit, and finds a perfect pleasure in resting. Would he be happy if he were forced to rest always?

In chapter 34: “One can lean only on what resists” says the Marquis to himself when debating whether to employ the sullen and obstinate Julien.

In chapter 39 “The end justifies the means ….I would hang three men to save the lives of four.

In chapter 72: “Man has two different beings inside him … What devil thought of that malicious touch?

Improvements I would make to the translation:

  • More comprehensive end notes which I would put as foot notes so you don’t have to keep on flicking backwards and forwards
  • Some sense to be made of the money which includes (forever unexplained as to their values relative one to the other) sols, francs, crowns, livres, and louis d’or.

Could be abridged and definitely of its time but the originality of the character of the  hero redeems the book.

July 2011; 511 pages

Saturday, 23 July 2011

"The Dice Man" by Luke Rhinehart

New York Psychoanalyst Luke Rhinehart is seeking to escape the numbing tedium of his ordinary life.  So he begins to subject himself to the laws of probability. Because of the throw of a dice he rapes his partner's wife (more to her satisfaction than his). His life becomes increasingly irrational as everything he does including the roles he plays are dictated by dice. At first justifying his actions in terms of cod psychology (a search for the self) he later becomes high priest of the religion of the Die.

I suppose it is meant to be satire, lampooning psychoanalysis, religion, conservative America and the hippy movement at the same time. It is utterly of its period with plenty of drugs and graphic sex all washed down with a naive and heavy-handed philosophy: Timothy Leary meets the Valley of the Dolls without the pace, the humour and the characterisation of the latter.

Even the premise doesn't work. It is all very well choosing what you do by throwing dice but you have chosen the options. It really isn't a rediscovery of free will.

A brilliant concept ruined by elephantine prose and intrusive cod philosophy.

July 2011; 541 pages

Sunday, 10 July 2011

"The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho

This short novel is the story of an Andalusian shepherd boy who seeks treasure in the Pyramids of Egypt. On his way there he encounters an Alchemist and learns the secrets of the Soul of the World. The book is essentially an extended parable, told in a simple poetic style, to encourage you to 'follow your heart'.

A pretty story but it is more concerned with the message than the characters.

July 2011; 177 pages

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

"God's Philosophers" by James Hannam

The Scotsman says this book "makes enjoyable reading out of some seriously dusty history". Yes! The reading is wonderfully enjoyable but No! the history is not in the least bit dusty.

Hannam's thesis is that the philosophers of the misnamed "dark" ages laid the foundations for modern science. Contrary to received opinion the church did not repress their ideas. On the contrary, by an early decision that natural philosophers should not stray into theology the church protected natural philosophers. The monasteries and universities (sponsored mainly by the church) were fertile grounds for new ideas to breed. Although the official philosophy was Aristotle's, and this was such an integrated system that it was difficult to create an alternative because all parts had to be replaced, the natural philosophers were free to chip away at Aristotelian beliefs. This was difficult because, at least in mechanics, Aristotle's ideas are intuitive and seem to conform to observation. Until a society has the resources and technology to make systematic detailed observations it cannot really progress beyond everyday beliefs. Thus the Earth seems not to move and if it did move one should be able to observe parallax effects with the stars. But the stars are so far away that you can't observe parallax without a telescope and therefore the Earth does not move.

Despite these handicaps the mediaeval philosophers made substantial progress chipping away at the corners of Aristotelianism and developing new logical and mathematical tools.  Progress was further slowed until the printing press was invented. Shortly after that the fashion for humanism (clearly the boo-hiss villain in Hannam's eyes) meant that Aristotle was valued far beyond the mediaeval ideas purely because it was older. But the new scientists Galileo and Kepler owed a tremendous (often unacknowledged) debt to mediaeval philosophers many of whose ideas they quoted verbatim and unattributed.

Wonderful things I learned from this book:

  • Aristotle considered that all things eg sheep have two categories of properties:
      • substance: those properties without which they cannot be sheep (eg being an animal)
      • accident: those properties which are not essential (such as whiteness)
    • Archbishop Lanfranc (yes, that one, Anselm's teacher too!) used these properties to explain how the bread and wine could become Christ's body and blood in the mass despite appearing to still be bread and wine. He said the accidental properties were retained but the substantial ones altered; hence transubstantiation!
  • Philosophers who believed that the concept sheep can exist independently are realists. Those who believe that  categorical concepts have no separate reality but that there are only lots and lots of individual sheep are called nominalists. William of Ockham used his razor to suggest that adding concepts was wrong, hence he was a nominalist. Science is impossible if you can't believe in concepts such as the Law of Gravity; scientists are relaists. Ockham's razor has been much misused to cut in a completely different way from that intended.
  • Throughout the middle ages everyone knew that parts of the Bible were not to be taken literally. Despite the Bible suggesting that the Moon produces its own illumination Pope Innocent III (died 1216) knew it shone by reflected light.
  • There was loads of scepticism about both alchemy and astrology for the simple reason that they did not appear to work. Nevertheless, both acids and alcohol were isolated by Christian mediaeval scientists in the thirteenth century and misattributed to earlier Arabic scientists.
  • Thomas Bradwardine (c1290-1349), one of the 'Mertonian Calculators' used proto logarithms in his study of motion 250 years before they were 'invented' by Napier.
  • Jean Buridan developed the idea of impetus. With the Mertonian analyses he more or less solved the problems of motion before 1360, at least 200 years before Galileo.
  • Albert of Saxony (c1316-1390) drew the first picture of a curved trajectory, even though it is straight in its first part.
  • Eratosthenes calculated the Earth's circumference to be between 24,000 and 30,000 miles (it is actually 24,900). This was known through Pliny the Elder's work. Ptolemy miscalculated it to be between 17,000 and 22,000 miles. Ptolemy, translated in 1406, became popular so Columbus used it to 'lose' 10,000 miles from his sea trip from Spain to the Indies.
  • Paper was affordable compared to parchment. The first recorded paper mill in Italy was 1276 and France in 1348.
  • Printing had the edge in the West because, unlike China and Japan, we have an alphabet which means it is far quicker to typeset a page.
  • The mediaeval people invented spectacles, the mechanical clock, the blast furnace and the windmill all by themselves.


Two very minor criticisms. First there is a feel that the book is one long list of very short potted biographies of some very interesting people. Second, I was disappointed that more was not made of the inventions.

This was a wonderful book.

July 2011; 342 pages

Sunday, 26 June 2011

"The Three Emperors" by Miranda Carter

George V looked so like
 Tsar Nicholas II of Russia
that they were
sometimes confused.
This book considers the three cousins who became Nicholas II tsar of Russia, George V, King and Emperor, and Kaiser Wilhelm II. All three had similar childhoods, isolated from normal people (although George, as second son, served in the Navy for ten years and so at least met sailors) and brought up to believe that they were special. They were clearly lonely. Able to understand only royalty, their family formed a sort of pan-Europe business with the belief that family loyalties would trump national interests and ensure peace.

But their world was changing. Each empire needed to grow and there were inevitable tensions as their colonists and merchants clashed in various parts of the world. More particularly, the industrial revolution had created a working class that increasingly demanded a share in power. With their educations, isolated by privilege, they were unable to understand and were all fundamentally reactionary.

At least George was powerless. The British constitution ensured that he understood that he had to work with parliament and obey 'his' prime minister. Nicholas and Wilhelm were autocrats. They believed in personal rule (Nicholas was the only man in Russia who could authorise divorces and name changes) and attempted to enforce their will on 'their' people.

Not only was it fundamentally absurd that a single person could possibly rule complex modernising countries such as Germany and Russia but their isolation from the governed both because of the layers of courtiers through whom all information was filtered and distorted and because of the conceptual gaps between emperor and plebeian meant that autocracy was doomed.

In the end they didn't want the first world war. The Russian defeat by the Japanese in 1905 had sparked revolution and the Russian ministers were well aware that another war risked revolution (although Nicholas seems not to have had any idea that he could possibly be deposed). Wilhelm, for all his aggressive posturing, was frightened of war and tried at the last minute to back out of it as he had done several times before. But the Austrian's aggressive response to the Serbians abject apologies after the assassination at Sarajevo tipped the balance. War was inevitable. The colonial clashes and the militarisation of German society (which had been encouraged by Wilhelm) had led to several crises in the previous few years in which last-minute diplomacy had just averted war. At some point the tipping point would be reached.

The war destroyed the idea of empire. Although George V clung on the Tsar had abdicated and been assassinated before the armistice. Kaiser Bill abdicated on armistice day as did the Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Also in 1917 the 'tsar' of Bulgaria and the king of Greece both abdicated. The last Ottoman Sultan was deposed in 1922.

A beautifully written book about a fascinating period in history.

June 2011; 500 pages

Friday, 17 June 2011

"Tulku" by Peter Dickinson

13 year old Theodore flees from his father's mission as Boxer rebels burn it. Rescued by a colourful ex-music hall actress turned botanist, Mrs Jones, he travels with her and Chinese Lung to Tibet. There an old Lama decides they bear the secret to the reincarnated Tulku.

A fast-paced adventure story with three-dimensional characters, real human relationships and brilliant descriptions of beautiful landscapes with a little bit of mystery.

June 2011; 301 pages

Saturday, 11 June 2011

"1599" by James Shapiro

In this fascinating book Shapiro (who also wrote Contested Will) chronicles a year of Shakespeare's life during which he wrote Henry V, As You Like It, Julius Caesar and Hamlet. He shows how circumstances changed the way Shakespeare wrote. For example, Will Kemp, the clown who had played Falstaff, left the company (to Morris Dance to Norwich). So Henry V has no Falstaff, despite having promised Falstaff to the audience at the end of Henry IV part II. The clown parts in the subsequent plays are more subtle, matching the skills of the new comedian.

 Another important event was the popularity of Montaigne's Essays. Suddenly it became fashionable to consider oneself the subject of writing. Shapiro believes that this encouraged Shakespeare to develop the soliloquies that characterise Hamlet.

This was an excellent book which translates Shakespeare from a myth into a real flesh and blood writer.

Also read Shapiro's brilliant 1606 about King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.
Other, equally recommended, Shakespeare biographies reviewed in this blog include Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World and Shakespeare and Co (which is mostly about Shakespeare's contemporaries) by Stanley Wells. Also read Charles Nicholls: The Lodger which mentions Montaigne in the context of Measure for Measure.

June 2011; 373 pages

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

"The History of Mr Polly" by H G Wells

The anatomy of a mid-life crisis.

Alfred Polly was an only child who was sent to school by 'his parents' (although his mother died three years before), then apprenticed in a department store when significantly lacking in mathematical ability but extraordinarily well read with a massive imagination; a superb salesman with an ability to charm others with his nonsensical mispronunciations of words. He goes through a number of jobs before a legacy from his father enables him to set up shop in a place called either Foxbourne or (later) Fishbourne. He marries at the same time and then spends 15 years regretting a loveless marriage and slowly going bankrupt (in common with almost all the other shop-keepers). So he sets his shop on fire for the insurance and becomes a hero in the ensuing blaze; then he abandons his wife and ends up working at a country inn.

It is an amusing little story enlivened by acerbic wit:
"Outside the regions devastated by the school curriculum he was still intensely curious." (p15)
"On the whole he preferred business to school: the hours were longer but the tension was not nearly so great." (p17)

Any word play: "if, indeed, one may speak of a recent meal as a circumstance - seeing that Mr Polly was circum" (p9)

June 2011; 234 pages

'Smart Swarm' by Peter Miller

This book analyses animal behaviour and tries to learn lessons for they way humans do things (especially in the business world). He considers ants, bees, termites, birds, fish and locusts. Some of his lessons seem contradictory but I suppose one wouldn't expect behaviours that have evolved would necessarily be the same in species that fill different ecological niches. Thus the haphazard way in which ants pass communicate and therefore manage the nest is very different from the way honeybees do.

Foraging ants wander randomly to find food and then scuttle straight back to the nest, laying down a pheromone trail as they do so. Other ants follow the pheromones, laying their own. Soon the best trails are those most strongly marked with pheromones so the ant paths become marked. I have experienced this; if you disrupt an ant trail using an obstacle such as your foot which they have to go around and you leave that long enough then remove it the ants will continue to loop around the now non-existent obstacle, blindly following the pheromones. That might suggest parallels with business!


Instead of relying on a priori algorithms to lay down procedures top-down, just trying something and scoring how well it succeeds can quickly transform routing problems through complex networks (such as the travelling salesman problem) whether geographical or virtual.

Honey bee scouts search for great places for the swarm to hive and then return home and communicate with the others using dance. Lots of scouts do this, many checking out the places suggested by their rivals and then (maybe) and the hive then decides. They have a sort of distributed democratic decision making procedure. First the scouts possess diversity of knowledge, second the hive only swarms once there are sufficient scouts agreeing on the best place to go (a sort of Tipping Point concept).

Miller explains the Wisdom of Crowds idea in terms of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire 'Ask the Audience' strategy. Imagine you have to choose which person was NOT a member of the Monkees (A, B, C or D) and you asked 100 random people. Suppose only 7% know the right answer but 10% can narrow down the answer to a 50:50 guess and another 15% can eliminate one wrong answer leaving the remaining 68% to make a pure guess. So the right answer gets 7+5(half of 10%)+5(one third of 15%)+17(one quarter of 68%)=34%. The other options will share the remaining 66% giving 22% each. So there will be a clear majority for the right answer even though 93% of the sample guessed (to some extent)!

But the key to true wisdom is to ensure a useful diversity of knowledge and that this is expressed. There are lots of irrationalities to which humans are prey when making decisions such as anchoring (eg when a salesman suggests an initial figure for the cost of a product so that all other prices are compared to this 'anchor'). Other decision traps include preferring the status quo and the 'sunk-cost' trap. Miller diverts to talk about the Beer Game ( from Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline) and then explains how town meetings in Vermont are run according to Robert's Rules of Order (whose best rule is that everyone who wants to should have the chance to speak before anyone may speak twice).

Miller next compares the way termites repair a damaged hill with the chaos that ensues when a highly connected system such as a power network fails and a small initial failure cascades through the system (which made me think of what happens when a person dies). Termite hills apparently are designed to regulate the environment inside the nest (which is actually below ground) by using resonating air columns to catch and tame turbulent winds. Miller suggests we should develop buildings where the walls are porous and thus able to regulate the internal environments of the buildings without using energy eg for air-conditioning.

Termites work using stigmergy,  a form of positive feedback in which the action that one agent performs makes it more likely that the same or other agents will perform the same action, such as when you get an intrinsic reward from the performance of a task. Stigmergy involves indirect collaboration which, Miller implies, could solve failures of highly connected networks, although he never really suggests how. It seems to be connected to wikipedia.

Miller then compares two forms of networks: small world and scale free (which is one in which a proportion of nodes are many times more connected than other nodes in a 1/r way). Random failures affect small world networks most but scale free networks are very vulnerable to hub failures (if one airport in the world closes then air travel is unlikely to be affected because most airports handle a few planes to weird places but if that airport is Heathrow then there is big trouble). In scale free democracies a small group of well connected individuals are able to impose their will on everyone else. Later Miller shows that informed individuals can also effect big changes on inter-connected systems as the Wisdom of Crowds meets Tipping Point meets Critical Mass.

Generally "it doesn't make much sense to discuss the properties of network structures ... without also discussing what it is that you want them to do." (p149)

He also explains about the power of mimicry in social animals when discussing the flocking of birds or fish. He discovers that starlings use a sort of small worlds network in which they pay attention to 7 other starlings (presumably because they cannot cope with the amount of information processing that paying attention to more than 7 implies). This creates swirling behaviour and also the sort of phase transition discussed by Philip Ball in Critical Mass. In schools of fish communication seems to travel in a wave that moves up to 15 times faster than any single fish. Because this form of communication means that not every animal needs to be on high alert against predators, all animals can spend more time feeding and therefore each animal is more likely to survive. The phase transitions seen between one sort of shoal formation and another are classic threshold situations: Critical Mass meets Tipping Point.

Society "consists of institutional arrangements to overcome those divergences between perceived individual interest and some larger collective bargain." (pp265-266)

I learnt the expression 'ground-truth' which means to apply a theory or simulation to the real situation to see whether it works in practice.

Other great books in this area include:

  • Six degrees about small world networks by Duncan Watts
  • sync by Steven Strogatz
  • At Home in the Universe by Stuart Kauffman about fitness landscapes
  • How Nature Works by Per Bak about sandpiles and self organized criticality; an excellent explanation of complexity science
  • Deep Simplicity by John Gribbin which is a brilliant introduction to this whole field
  • The Information by James Gleick although his Chaos (not reviewed on this blog) is perhaps better

Other books not reviewed on this blog on this topic include:

  • The Wisdom of Crowds 
  • Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell about fads
  • Ubiquity which is brilliant about fractals and power laws
  • Critical mass by Philip Ball which is a brilliant explanation about phase changes

Fascinating although a lot of what is said are points better made elsewhere.

May 2011; 269 pages

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

"Room" by Emma Donoghue

Wonderful!

Jack is 5. He lives with his Ma live in Room. Jack sleeps in Wardrobe at night when Old Nick comes.

At first I thought this was going to be a hard book to read. Jack's fifth birthday is described in detail from the point of a five-year-old boy who does not know anything outside Room. I thought it was going to be hard to read a book written by a five-year-old.

I won't say why Jack and his Ma live in Room. Or what happens. You need to find out for yourself. I will only say that in the middle of the book I was so excited because I genuinely had no idea what would happen next that I was speed-reading, tearing the pages with my eyes. And after that every page had compassion and bitterness and tenderness and anger and even humour.

And the ending was just right.

What a wonderful book.

May 2011; 401 pages

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

"Contested Will" by James Shapiro

This common sense but even-handed investigation of the ‘Who wrote Shakespeare’ controversy concludes that Shakespeare did. The argument that he did not rests on the concept that a Glover’s son would not have had the experience to write such wonderful plays; it argues that the author of the plays must have lived in Italy, must have had three daughters, must have experienced betrayal, must have been captured by pirates; because these experiences are recounted in the plays. Shapiro suggests that this is an anachronistic understanding of Elizabethan literature: the fact the fiction today is heavily based on autobiography does no mean that it was so then.

The argument against the Earl of Oxford being the author is principally that he died in 1604 but that some of the plays were being premiered up to 1610. Oh, but he wrote them and they were first performed after his death. But there are references to historic occurrences after 1604. Oh, but they were inserted by other authors.

Shapiro shows how Shakespeare’s dramas changed after 1604 (a) because he resumed collaborating after years of single authorship and (b) because the Globe had burned down and his company was using an indoor venue which required candles which needed to be refreshed periodically so his plays began to include music and dancing so that the refreshment could proceed. Would a noble author such as Oxford or Bacon really have co-authored with low commoners as Shakespeare’s collaborators?

Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The only argument that Shapiro neglects is the unusually high proportion of Warwickshire words in the plays.

A brilliant book. I must find out more about Shakespeare.

May 2011; 316 pages

PLEASE read Shapiro's even more brilliant books about Shakespeare: 1599 (Julius Caesar and Hamlet) and 1606 (King Lear and Macbeth) which tell of the creation of Shakespeare's plays in those years and root his work firmly in the context of his life. Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World is unputdownable whilst Stenley Wells locates Shakespeare in the context of his contemporaries in Shakespeare and Co.

Random points I noted.

The creator of the Oxfordian myth was a man named Looney who came from Blyth where my Dad came from.

Shapiro uses the term ‘sock-puppetry’. Wikipedia tells me that this means " the use of multiple accounts to deceive other editors, disrupt discussions, distort consensus, avoid sanctions, or otherwise violate community standards"

In Elizabethan times “People didn’t think in terms of modern binaries of ‘homosexualty’ and ‘heterosexuality’” (p307)


Friday, 6 May 2011

"Long Time Coming" by Robert Goddard

A classic Goddard: a man is released from an Irish gaol after spending 36 years inside. He and his nephew embark on a quest to prove that the Picassos presently being exhibited at the Royal Academy are were stolen. Nephew (ex oil executive with no obvious talent for a murky world of cross and double cross not to mention espionage and high living low lifes) falls in love with pretty girl and uncovers secrets that the British government have been at pains to hide.

And I read it quickly in a few 'can't put it down' days.

But.

I couldn't quite see how the Picassos and the uncle's imprisonment were related. People from the past kept cropping up in a tightly incestuous circle. And the British agent gave half the plot away without really needing to so he could enlist help that he really didn't seem to need.

So this is the second disappointing Goddard in a row (also 'Found Wanting' from March last year). It wasn't as compelling as the others. The motivations weren't as necessary. And the plot wasn't tight enough and the twists and turns seemed contrived. Perhaps the master is growing tired.

May 2011; 541 pages

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

"Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy" by Judith A. Green

 I was rather frightened of this biography: it looked a little too much like serious history which usually means it is rather boring to read. But it was well written (not quite a page turner!) and I read it quite quickly.

The most fascinating episodes in Henry's life were:

  • His accession: his elder brother King William II 'Rufus' died hunting in the New Forest in an 'accident' when Henry was in the same hunting party;
  • His coronation Charter which promised to uphold the laws of Edward the Confessor; later when Henry married Matilda who was descended from Saxon royalty this was seen as a beginning of the healing of the breach between the Saxons and the conquering Normans; the coronation Charter was the model for the Magna Carta and is thus the beginning of British liberty;
  • His fight with his elder brother Robert who was Duke of Normandy which ended when Robert was captured in battle: Robert spent the rest of his life in captivity;
  • The death of his son and heir William in the wreck of the 'White Ship' after which "he never smiled again"
  • His death "of a surfeit of lampreys"

Sometimes I felt that Green rather skimmed over these issues (there is probably very little evidence for single incidents) but of course I found out many more fascinating things about this king.


  • His wife (Edith) was the daughter of King Malcolm and descended from the Saxon kings. She had been brought up in a nunnery and there was some discussion as to whether she was therefore fit to marry. When she married Henry she changed her name to Matilda. 
  • The sons of King Harold Godwinson fled to Ireland from where they ravaged the Avon region.
  • Henry's second wife Adeliza was possibly the dedicatee of a book describing the voyages of St Brendan.
  • Henry liked his manor at Dunstable, a town built where the Icknield Way crosses Watling Street. He also enjoyed Windsor (although frustratingly Green never makes it clear whether this was the old Saxon and Norman palace at Old Windsor or the new Windsor Castle; according to wikipedia Henry I was the first Norman king to use Windsor Castle as a residence at Whitsuntide 1110). 
  • Other places associated with Henry I include Kingsthorpe in Northampton, Woodstock and Winchester. It was during Henry I's reign that old St Paul's was built.
  • Henry's favourite nephew was Stephen of Blois who succeeded Eustace of Boulogne as Count by wedding his daughter, Matilda; this marriage could have given Stephen claims on the throne of Jerusalem too. Stephen succeeded Henry (despite Henry wishing the succession to England on his daughter Matilda). Every woman seems to have been called Matilda at this time.
  • Henry's daughter Matilda (!) married first the Holy Roman Emperor (thus becoming Empress) and, after ebing widowed, Geoffrey of Anjou once his dad Fulk had 'taken the cross' at Le Mans. For a wedding present Henry gave Geoffrey a sword said to have been forged by Wayland the legendary Smith. There is dispute as to whether the three golden lions on the Royal Standard come from Geoffrey or Henry.
  • The scholar Adelard of Bath wrote a treatise on the use of the abacus which soon became adopted for the tresury because it used a blank space for zero. Roman numerals do not have a zero.
  • Those whom the king wishes to destroy he first praises said a Bishop to chronicler Henry of Huntingdon.

A fascinating read.

May 2011; 321 pages

Sunday, 24 April 2011

"Between the Assassinations" by Aravind Adiga

Aravind explores the life of ordinary people in this tourist guide to the (fictitious) South Indian town of Kittur. Each character struggles to survive against poverty, corruption, and the caste system. A wealthy schoolboy explodes a bomb in his chemistry class to humiliate his teacher. A Deputy Headteacher struggles to keep his favourite pupil pure. An Oliver Twist from the villages  gets mixed up with Fagin. An old virgin housekeeper works for her master.

All of these characters have thwarted dreams; they are all defeated by the system. Their puny struggles against it are doomed. In the end, the poor are always exploited by the rich. But every character is written from the inside, with flesh and blood and hopes and needs.

A stunning chronicle of a dreadful society.

April 2011; 355 pages