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

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