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

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