Friday, 26 June 2009

Back in a fortnight ...

... if not before.

I'm taking a break (at home) (which is the seaside anyway)

With a Strange Device by Eric Frank Russell

This is a science fiction/espionage novel from 1964. It's well-enough written, although rather dated and dry, but unfortunately I picked up on the twist early on. *sighs*

Day 260; Book 250

Elton Ware

Elton Ware is a type of pottery produced from about 1880 to 1920, which I read about in Elton Ware: the Pottery of Sir Edmund Elton by Malcolm Haslam. Sir Edmund was a technically-minded baronet who decided to make his own pottery and after much trial and error started to produced work which was sinous and organic and sometimes even sinister ... here is a link to a Wikipedia page about him, but unfortunately with only one image. The best source of images seems to be this book.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Shakespeare - not so clever now?

While reading Hamlet, I was struck by how many of the phrases he uses we use today. In fact there's whole websites devoted to this subject. Here's one, where they say, "Many quotes from the works of William Shakespeare have entered into common usage".

But what if they didn't? What if Shakespeare's plays were actually full of cliches he'd ripped off from common usage of the day, ha ha! How would we know?

So the moral could be, fill your writing with cliches from 2009 and in only a few centuries you too could be the source of quotes! Except sadly it wouldn't work, because everything, even the most mundane, is recorded in writing these days, unlike in Shakespeare's. Foiled!

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Quick catch-up

I've read:

Giotto by Camillo Semenzato. This is the sort of book we cataloguers would describe as "chiefly ill." which is good for a book-a-dayer ... Giotto's frescoes seem to span the Middle Ages and the start of the Renaissance, with his solid, three-dimensional figures accompanied by an endearing lack of perspective. I noticed that my undergraduate self had altered the name of the person responsible for layout of the book from Wim to Wimp. How I must have larfed at the time!

Little Houses of Fife was a beautifully designed booklet from 1974, about the progress of the National Trust for Scotland's Little Houses Improvement Scheme. There were lots of before and after photos of the houses which had been saved (some not so little - they must mean little as opposed to mansions or castles).

Getting Around the Clyde: a Pictorial Guide by Jack House must have been published just after the war. Even with black and white pictures though it makes the scenery down the Clyde look enticing - so that's another location for me to visit.

The King at the Front: Official Photographs in Colours is a Daily Mail publication from the First World War years. The photographs look more like paintings, but I suppose that it because they have been tinted. While taking an sanitised view as you would expect, they still include photographs of the trenches and of an unknown soldier's grave.

I read Hamlet again to refresh my memory of Rozencrantz and Guildenstern (after reading Tom Stoppard's play). It was pretty easy to read - but possibly that's because the whole play is so familiar.

Day 258; Book 248

Monday, 22 June 2009

Among the Missing by Richard Laymon

This was a horrid book.

I'm not sure when it was first written (my copy was published in 1999), but it seems pretty unreconstructed. It's pervy yet dull. None of the characters are likeable and they have silly names like "Bass" and "Harney". Why? It's only merit was it didn't take long to read.

Adam Smith: a Primer by Eamonn Butler

Living only about 20 miles from the birthplace of Adam Smith, I decided it was time I learned more about him. I wasn't brave enough to tackle the 600-odd pages of The Wealth of Nations but I did find this clearly-written little volume. Here is a very topical quote from the philosopher and father of modern economics:

"It is the highest impertinence and presumption ... in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense ... They are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society. Let them look after their own expense, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will".
The Wealth of Nations, Book II, ch. III, p.346, para 36.

So it looks like floating duck houses and moat cleaning are nothing new!

Here is a link to more information on Adam Smith.

Friday, 19 June 2009

A Passionate Man by Joanna Trollope

I hated this!

The writing was good and your view of the characters was cleverly changed - but the protagonist was awful. I hated him. In this Trollope and the last one I read she seems to be saying that so long as something "makes you feel alive" then any behaviour is okay, grr. Repress those feelings I say, and don't hurt other people.

She also featured an old woman whom I think was meant to be feisty and adorable, but she was just really horrible.

I got fed up with all the talk about prep schools as well. To the barricades, comrades!

Day 253; Book 241

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase

This true account apparently inspired Hermann Melville to write Moby Dick. I've tried twice, but never got past the second or third chapter of Moby Dick, but this was much more readable. The attack by the whale on the ship, which Melville apparently makes the climax of his novel, is to me actually the least interesting part of the story. How the crew survived is what I wanted to read about. The first mate, Owen Chase, wrote this account only a couple of years after the disaster happened and it's in archaic yet clear language. It takes you into another world completely.

Day 252; Book 240

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Alone and palely loitering ...

I finished The Wisdom of Crowds. Ironic, non?

It got a bit technical towards the end, with lots of information about spread betting, politics and finance. However there were interesting insights to be found, for example on the empowerment beloved of management. This has to be genuine for it to work: you can gather all the opinions of workers that you like, but if it is management which uses those to make the ultimate decisions, you don't get the benefit of the "wisdom of crowds" (decisions made by diverse crowds have been shown to be the best decisions). Also your workers feel distinctly used and unempowered!

Day 251; Book 239

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Scotland's Medieval Burghs: an Archaeological Heritage in Danger

I decided to read this after visiting various Scottish medieval burghs at the weekend (as well as living in one).

It was more of a booklet than a book. It was written in 1972, so hopefully its pleas for excavation and recording of medieval sites (before they were destroyed by new building projects) have been heard. I've certainly heard of a few excavations recently although no doubt there is always more that could be done.

Good old Wikipedia has a list of Scottish burghs here. Pittenweem is a royal burgh, unlike some of its neighbours, ha ha!

Day 250; Book 238

An Apology ...

to people who have left me a comment recently. I'd like to leave a reply BUT BLOGGER WON'T LET ME! I don't know why ...

Monday, 15 June 2009

Wigtown, Scotland's Book Town

Mr F and I visited Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway at the weekend. It's "Scotland's Book Town" with 19 bookshops (which I think was started 10 years ago as a regeneration project). The town is an ancient one with a harbour (now a lonely spot) going back to the thirteenth century. Here's an image from their website:


We're planning to go back for the festival in September, featuring Christopher Brookmyre among many other authors.

We also visited Kirkcudbright, the town where Jessie M King the illustrator lived.


Her house is now a B&B. There are many artists in the town nowadays as well and they have an open-studios week in July.

So not much reading done over the weekend but a literary location visited, as well as an artistic one.

A Village Affair by Joanna Trollope

An Aga-saga where the moral of the tale might be that not even an Aga can bring you happiness ... this book has the author's usual perfectly-observed children and clever characterisation where your opinion of the characters can change as the book goes on. Beautifully-written and one you won't want to put down.

Day 249; book 237

Friday, 12 June 2009

No books read but scrapbook finished

It took me until midnight last night, frantically cutting and sticking. Why did I leave it till the last minute? Human nature I suppose. I was pleased with it in the end, although I've just thought of something I have to amend before I hand it over tonight ...

Thursday, 11 June 2009

I'm a bad book-a-dayer ...

at the moment, because I've got a scrapbook to finish for my local roller hockey club before tomorrow night. I love deadlines; they are very motivating! I got three pages done last night and had a lot of fun illustrating the coaches' page with Cartman from South Park in his "Respect my authorit-ay" phase. Then I listed the committee members under the heading "You can't get the staff these days". I thought it was funny - hope they don't think it's too cheeky! My third page was a bit of a disappointment so I might have to change it if I have time. Three or so pages to go tonight and then it's done.

So what with decorating the bathroom (still ongoing and not a stroke of paint applied yet), my books have slipped recently. Must get back on track, especially as I feature in our staff magazine today ...

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowieki

I've just started this but it seems like a fascinating book (with lots of case studies which I like). Here's a quote from the website about the book:

"In this endlessly fascinating book, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea that has profound implications: large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future".

I don't quite understand how this would be, but perhaps somebody mathematically-minded will be along to explain it (if it can be explained by maths). I'm prepared to be convinced by examples though.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Woof! Or more like snarl, in this tale of nature red in tooth and claw. Written at the end of the 19th century, this had surprisingly-modern mystical elements. Sixties-like, but definitely without the peace and love (except Buck's adoration for the man who rescues him). The Alaskan gold-rush and the Alaskan wilderness are evocatively described. I thought I had read this before but didn't recognise it, so I think it must have been London's White Fang that I read before.

Day 243; Book 236

Monday, 8 June 2009

The Weekend of Short Novels

I finished Assassination Day in the end. Ho hum.

I went back to Sherston's Progress, and the book does move away from the hospital setting and back to the war. Sassoon's style is surprisingly modern. Psychologically he is honest and complex. Despite hating the war he ends up going back. It's refreshing to read of his ambivalent attitude, as too often nowadays the First World War is seen only through the eyes of war poets like Wilfred Owen as just a misguided and simplistic sacrifice of millions, whereas to many of the participants it must have been more complex than that.

Hothouse by the East River had a surprising and satisfying ending.

Gigi by Colette was tres charmant (or should that be charmante?) Here is a link to the musical version which I'd now like to see.

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann was atmospheric but slow. Mr F has warned me off the film as the ultimate in tedium, but then he did have to watch it night after night when he was working at the New Picture House. Here is a link to an image of Bjorn Andresen who played Tadjio the beautiful object of desire in the film.

Finally I read the script of Amadeus by Peter Shaffer. Again there's a film which I haven't seen. It has a clever tagline which pretty well sums up the plot: Amadeus. The man. The music. The magic. The madness. The murder. The mystery. The motion picture!

Day 242; Book 235

Friday, 5 June 2009

False starts

I started a thriller two days ago. It's Assassination Day by Oliver Jacks. It was published in 1976 and is a bit dated so I've hardly made any progress. So I picked up Sherston's Progress by Siegfried Sassoon. This is the third volume of a fictionalised memoir by the poet about his life before and during the First World War. This volume is about his time in Craiglockhart Hospital. Pat Barker's Regenaration partly covers the same subject (featuring the poet and soldier Wilfred Owen) so unfortunately the whole thing seemed too similar to that work and I got fed up reading it. After that confession I must try again, particularly as Sassoon's book came first (Regeneration wasn't written until the 1990s)!

So I have no completed books to report at all. Now I'm in the middle of The Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark, and after an unpromising start this has really drawn me in. What is reality here and what is fantasy? Who is insane and who isn't? Is the character from the past really who he seems?

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

This is the famous play by Tom Stoppard, which I had always wanted to read. (Read, not watch! I am definitely a reader at heart). Fortunately I didn't know that this is described as an absurdist, exitentialist, tragicomedy or I would never have wanted to read it. Not burdened by these descriptions I was able to read the work and enjoy its comedy, its horror and tragedy, and the gradual unfolding of its plot. You do have to know Hamlet to understand what's happening, but a recent reading isn't necessary. I don't know what inspired Stoppard to write this, but I would agree that the title as spoken in Hamlet has a certain resonance well beyond the apparent baldness of the statement.

Day 238; Book 229

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Mad, bad and dangerous to know

Yesterday's book was a very slim volume, Byron: [the] Victoria & Albert Museum Exhibition Guide. This accompanied an exhibition held in 1974 illustrating the poet's life. The wording of the guide is allusive rather than direct and sometimes unintentionally comic. "His career, " it states, "was unusually rich in other directions, social, amatory and political ..." His "amatory career" was not so much rich as heroic! Later the guide coyly refers to "his half-sister, Augusta, who was to figure so importantly in his later life" - yes, as his incestuous lover, if rumours are to be believed.

Would Byron have been as famous as a poet if he had not also been the ultimate of bad boys, a rock star figure from the 19th century? Here's some more information.

Day 237; Book 228

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Why did I think I wouldn't like this book? I took against it for no good reason at all but eventually decided to read it. It is a masterpiece. The characterisation and complex structure work beautifully. It's funny but also sad. Very little is stated explicitly but the character of the butler and the story of his life is gradually revealed. A wonderful book.

I like to read books uninformed as to their content as much as possible, but here's a link if you would prefer to know more about the book. Scroll down for reviews (watch out for spoilers).

Day 236; Book 227

Monday, 1 June 2009

On Chesil Beach by Ian MacEwan

This is a beautifully-written book, but rarely can a wedding night have gone so wrong since Tess Durbeyfield married Angel Clare. Writers of misery memoirs would do well to study how MacEwan handles the possibility of abuse in the background. It's delicate and ambiguous, but it's there and it informs the rest of the novel. There have been conflicting opinions about the book but I think it is worth reading for the quality of the writing and the evocative prose.

Day 235; Book 226

The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

This is quality chick lit, featuring a boss apparently modelled on the real-life Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, whose all-round scariness and unapproachability can be guessed at from her nickname "Nuclear Wintour". It's funny at times and touching at others and has been made into a famous film. It's predictable in parts but still enjoyable.

Death of a Gossip by M C Beaton

This is the first of the Hamish Macbeth books. I didn't enjoy this as much as the author's Agatha Raisin books, probably because although I hadn't seen many of them, I still had characters from the tv series in my head. It was strange to be visualising Robert Carlyle while reading a description of a red-haired Highlander. I don't think I'll go on with this series, which is a shame because there are lots of books in it to collect. The best bit was a joke which came right at the end.