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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Just Finished Reading: The Secret Life of Books – Why They Mean More Than Words by Tom Mole (FP: 2019) [225pp]  

Most books about books (a rather favourite sub-genre of mine) concentrate on authors lives, cultural impacts of great works, or critical appreciation (or otherwise) of writing styles. This book looked at something different – the books themselves rather than what is contained between their covers. To be honest it was a bit of a shock at first. It took me a while to get my head around an exploration of books that didn’t look, at least to an extent, at the words they contained. But as the book progressed, I started to see what the author was getting at and it started me thinking about, and looking at, books in subtly different ways.  

Funnily, I have often thought of books as more than simply words on a page and have voiced this idea more than once – mostly to the consternation of my friends. One of the things I’ve never bought myself, and honestly have hardly ever considered, is a Kindle or other electronic reading device. This is despite the fact that I’m drowning in physical books and I have real concerns about the structural integrity of floors – much like an early example in this book where the authors University tutor had to be persuaded to reduce his book holdings after the University had a structural engineer look over his office. A good part of that reluctance is the philosophical opinion that a book downloaded onto a Kindle isn’t ‘really’ a book. Sure, it’s the same words in the same order as the physical copy but does that make it a book? I’d say ‘no’. Books are more than that. Interestingly the author, and some of his references, back me up.  

Especially before the invention of printing – though for quite a while afterwards too – books were both very expensive and very personal. Books were produced to order and, in many ways, personalised to their owners. Bibles especially were created to last generations and be used, not only as methods of religious instruction but as ways to bind families together over time – recording births, deaths and other important family events. Much as I dislike the idea of people writing in books, this was a way of both personalising an often mass-produced book and as a way of recording thoughts, ideas and commentary on the original text. The book became a living document rather than the remnants of a dead tree.  

Books have often been seen as status symbols. At first this was due to their cost and rarity. It also showed that at least someone in the house was educated enough to read – Latin, Greek, Arabic or, later, the local vernacular. Even today, carrying a book (especially outside an academic environment) can be seen as a, sometimes hopeful, sign of intelligence, of someone with an enquiring mind or someone ‘up’ on what’s popular with the Facebook generation. Openly carrying a certain book can signal that you’re a rebel, a free thinker, pious, a conservative, a liberal. It signals to others that you are part of a group – either theirs or a member of their (potential) opposition. Books are cultural shorthand and so much more.   

Some of the things in this slim volume were so obvious that I’d hardly thought of them or given them much consideration. Other things made me look at books and book readers in different ways – both subtle and profound. Both themes opened my eyes a little more to seeing books more than simply words on a page. An interesting ‘sideways’ look at books. Recommended for all book lovers.  

Oh, and my favourite quote from this book: “Books on the shelves are sandbags stacked against the floodwaters of forgetting.” Very poetic!

Monday, March 28, 2022

Wouldn't we all.........?

Just Finished Reading: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby (FP: 1958) [279pp] 

It was more than a whim, although not much more. Having decided that after 10 years the clothing industry was not for him the recently published author decided that he needed adventure, travel and the basis of a new travel book. He cabled his friend Hugh Carless at the British Embassy in Rio “Can You Travel Nuristan June?” to which he received a cool three-word reply “Of Course, Hugh”. It was the beginning of a plan, although maybe ‘plan’ was a slight exaggeration. 

Although Hugh had some experience of the area, and helpfully spoke Persian, the author had almost none. Worse still, part of the trip would involve climbing in some of the least hospitable parts of Afghanistan. With scant weeks to purchase equipment and little knowledge or experience to go on (to say nothing of the contrary advice received from all quarters) Eric did his best as he waited for Hugh to arrive in England. The timing was delicate. Not only did the pair need to take into account the expected weather at their final destination but Hugh was on a short break between diplomatic postings and had already agreed a start date at his new post. With time growing short they travelled to Wales to learn the basic rudiments of mountain climbing. Only days later they were packing for the drive across Europe accompanied by Eric’s wife who would fly back to Italy to pick up the children after they reached Tehran. 

Once they arrived in Afghanistan the fun (somewhat of an exaggeration there!) really started. Initially stymied by local officials they finally met up with their porters and guide who would take them deep ‘in country’ to Nuristan – an area that few Europeans had ever been to (at least in the 1950’s). Carrying a limited amount of (at least from my position) frighteningly primitive equipment they trekked for days across a scenic wilderness to attempt a climb of a mountain that Hugh had failed to reach on his previous visit years before. Already suffering from dysentery, they both tried their best and, in their naivety, took far too many risks in the process – to be honest my heart was in my mouth more than once as they tried to traverse a mountain without any real idea just how dangerous it was and how unprepared they were!  

I’ve been looking at some travel books for a few years now (probably brought on by a hint of the cabin-fever of the first lockdowns!) and have finally managed to read one of them. This has been hailed as a classic of its type and has been voted into the Top 20 of the 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time. I’m not sure if I’d go quite that far but it was fun watching two young travelers clearly out of their depth (and luckily for them not knowing it) have an adventure of a lifetime. For a (largely) stay-at-home like me this was a fun read both for its travel elements and its peek into British/Western attitudes of the day as well as a look at 50’s Afghanistan before Russian and later Western forces chewed the country up. Definitely recommended for all armchair travelers.  

Thursday, March 24, 2022

I'm not sure what's worse, thinking about the refills or the size of the pocket for that thing!

Just Finished Reading: Dodgers by Bill Beverly (FP: 2016) [318pp] 

It wasn’t his fault, he knew that. Even his uncle didn’t blame him, at least not publicly. But East was still responsible. It was his crew after all on watch that day – the day of the police raid. It was him, and his team, who was supposed to give the occupants of the shooting gallery advanced warning and he’d failed. So, it wasn’t really an option to turn down the job being ‘offered’ by his uncle to get back in his good graces. He still had a bad feeling about it though, especially when he heard the conditions. He was told to arrive without his cell phone, his credit cards or anything that could identify him. That didn’t sound good. When the rest of the team arrived, his bad feelings became certainties. The so-called adult, the leader at least in name, was an idiot who couldn’t keep it in his pants. The smart kid was at least smart, although maybe too smart for this job. But the worst of it was the ‘hitter’ – East's younger brother who had zero common sense and a borderline death wish. Driving across the country from LA to Wisconsin was going to challenge East in ways he could barely articulate. But as the miles passed East began to question everything he thought he believed about his life and himself. One way or another this road trip was going to change everything – if he lived to tell the tale. 

I picked this up around 5 years ago because of the bleakness of the cover. As usual the feeling of this being ‘different’ than the usual crime thriller intrigued me enough to buy it. A few months ago I added it to a pile of Award Winners and here we are. To be honest I loved this from almost the very first page. The writing is almost beautiful even when describing otherwise mundane events. But as always it is the characterisation – especially of East himself – that sold me here. Growing up in poverty in a section of LA known as ‘The Boxes’, East has a bad future already planned out for him. His mother has ‘checked out’ of both of their lives and his younger brother is essentially feral. Only his uncle is really looking out for him in the sense that he’s guiding him through the early stages of a life in the gangs. But the road trip – with the object of killing a potential witness – opens up the possibility of another life, indeed of a life that contains possibilities. At first East has no idea of what is happening to him. The others in the van can’t see it being too involved already in gang life. But slowly, as they move closer to their objective, East has an Apiphany. A world of possibilities opens up before him in an America he can barely comprehend. The only question for East is what will he do about it. 

This was one of those books where I had absolutely no idea where it was going (short of Wisconsin!) but I was totally intrigued to find out. With a simple plot (and some very simple people!) the author managed to weave a story that was part coming of age, part road trip and part road to Damascus conversion story. It was, without a doubt, quite brilliant. Full of interesting (and very flawed) characters, wonderfully realised scenery and cultural vignettes it was a real delight and clearly deserved its multiple awards and nominations. Certainly one of the best books so far this year. Highly recommended.        


Winner of the LA TIMES Book Prize of 2017 for Best Mystery/Thriller 

Winner of the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger 2016 for Best Crime Novel of the Year 

Winner of the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger 2016 for Best Debut Crime Novel 

Winner of the Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award 

Finalist for the PEN/Heminghway Award 2017 for Debut Fiction 

Longlisted for Andrew Carnegie Medal 2017 for Excellence in Fiction 

Nominated for the Edgar Award 2017 for Best First Novel 

Monday, March 21, 2022

I *do* hope there's a ladder!

Just Finished Reading: Britain – A Genetic Journey by Alistair Moffat (FP: 2013) [261pp] 

After ‘treating myself’ to a DNA ancestry test last year I was intrigued (actually more than a little confused) by the amount of “Scottish” DNA in my cells. According to my results I’m 36% Scottish which was, and still is, rather surprising as at least on my mother's side I have zero Scottish ancestors going back to the 16th century and none on my father’s side going back around 200 years. Needless to say, this has prompted some head scratching and book buying including this fascinating volume (the first of a significant number). 

Although it certainly didn’t directly answer any of my questions concerning my mysterious ancestry, it’s given me some ideas, some baselines to work from and, rather inevitably, more ideas for book purchases including the authors companion work on Scottish DNA. Expecting an exclusive focus on the waves of immigration into the British Isles over the millennia I was surprised at how far back into deep time the author looked – indeed as far back as the human diaspora out of Africa as we populated the rest of the planet beyond where we evolved. One of the things that intrigued me most was when the author discussed Britain’s initial occupation just after the last Ice Age when glaciers retreated North and humans followed in their chilly wake. Of course, the interesting thing about that era is that the occupiers didn’t somehow sail across the English Channel, the North Sea or across the unpredictable Bay of Biscay because those features we know so well from satellite imagery had yet to exist. No, the first colonisers of Britain *walked* here across the ‘land bridge’ that connected Britain to mainland Europe. Now, I had always imagined that this ‘bridge’ was a reasonably narrow corridor across what is now the Channel from France which collapsed at some point to separate us from the Continent. I could not have been more wrong. The so-called ‘bridge’ was HUGE, not only across the area of the Channel but across much of what we now call the North Sea. Not only was the bridge extensive but it also lasted a LONG time after the ice retreated. Scans of the North Sea bed, undertaken by companies looking for oil and gas, not only discovered underwater river beds but signs of long-tern occupation and even stone circles now submerged. It is not unusual, apparently, for fishing boats in parts of the North Sea to dredge up PEAT off the sea floor! Things like that really blow me away and remind me that even present day geological and geographic features have not always been like this. But I digress! 

Like much of the planet, Britain is a nation of mixed genetic heritage. Originally lightly populated by wanderers from the attached continent it experienced waves of colonisation (and conquest) from Anglo-Saxons, Romans (who located legions here from all over their Empire – some of which still show up in DNA clusters around original Roman camps), Vikings and Normans. On top of this there has been a steady influx of individuals and family groups from across the Empire and the world to these shores. All of them have had an effect on the genetic makeup of Britain’s DNA. My father relocated here, aged 10, from Southern Ireland in the late 1930’s. Further back, some of my mother’s Irish ancestors arrived in the Midlands around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Such has always been the case and probably always will be. 

Whilst not exactly helping me very much with any of my ongoing ancestry questions or mysteries this was definitely an interesting and often fascinating read. I have at least 3-4 more books on this subject lined up which should give me a decent foundation for going forward in my quest to understand my genetic, historic and cultural heritage a bit more clearly. Recommended for anyone interested in Britain's genetic history and especially the history of their own land. Much more to come on this and associated subjects.  

Saturday, March 19, 2022

"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child."


Isn't it just..........

Friday, March 18, 2022

Erm... I'm pretty confident that wouldn't work.... [grin]

"Walking is among the most life-affirming of human activities. It is the way we organize space and orient ourselves to the world at large. It is the living proof that repetition - placing one foot in front of the other - can in fact allow a person to make meaningful progress. It's no coincidence that parents celebrate their child's first steps - the first, and perhaps the greatest, signs of independence."

John Kaag, Hiking with Nietzsche - Becoming Who You Are (2018)

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Just Finished Reading: Daughters of Britannia – The Lives & Times of Diplomatic Wives by Katie Hickman (FP: 1999) [300pp] 

Permanent embassies in foreign lands are, it seems, a relatively modern thing. Before the 17th century a diplomat or ambassador would only be sent abroad to negotiate a treaty or press demands on the part of his monarch. More modern times, with growing trade and other ongoing involvements between nation-states however demanded a more permanent posting. Therefore, embassies sprang up in the capitals of Europe and, later, across the globe. To fill this increasing number of posts the fledgling Foreign Service sent (at least occasionally) its best and brightest to ‘fly the flag’, deter Britain’s enemies and encourage her allies. Naturally these men, and it was exclusively men until very recently, brought their wives and families with them whenever possible. In the most hospitable postings children had few problems and many possibilities to learn new languages and immerse themselves in new cultures. Where the posting was considered dangerous or arduous (especially in regards to the climate) children were often left behind in England as much for their education as their health. Wives were expected to cope both with their husbands posting and their separation from the children. Many became unpaid administrators, embassy managers, social hosts and learnt to be on permanent display. Others saw the opportunity for adventure in far flung places and became explorers and travel writers in their own name. My favourite was the new wife of explorer and diplomat Richard Burton - Isabel Arundel – who, on being notified that her husband was being sent to Brazil, hired experts to teach her to fence and shoot to ‘defend Richard when he gets into trouble’! I’m definitely going to have to read more about *that* couple!  

With the author being a daughter of a diplomat, she certainly had the experience to tease out the lived experiences of diplomatic wives (and families) over the last 500 years. All too often though she was presented with very little to work with as early diplomats left very little written documentation to piece together their lives in any detail. Only from the 18th and definitely from the 19th centuries does the volume of information concerning the activities of wives provide that level of the detail in letters home, published and unpublished diaries and even Foreign Office reporting. Overall, this was an interesting look at an all too often overlooked aspect of the diplomatic ‘trade’ over the centuries. Although I didn’t find it as ‘fascinating’ as some of the reviewers I did find it to be an interesting insight into global diplomacy which has piqued my interest enough to investigate further. Worth a read if you can get hold of a copy.  

Monday, March 14, 2022

Step on it... lol!

Just Finished Reading: The Liberation by Ian Tregillis (FP: 2016) [433pp] 

It was over in an instant. As she watched from the battlements the exhausted defenders saw what they must have imagined to be a miracle. Berenice knew better. The crystal device she had worked so hard to procure and use had instead been used for a higher purpose. The mechanical Daniel, previously known as Jax, had achieved his goal – he had freed his metal brethren from the slavery imposed upon them by the Brass Throne but at a terrible cost. At the moment the lightening flash covered the battlefield everything seemed to have been caught in place as in a photograph. Then, a heartbeat later, the reality of the situation bit – and bit hard. Some of the machines recovered from their momentary pause and continued their attack on the last bastion of New France. At great cost in blood and effort they were subdued or destroyed. Others turned on their Dutch oppressors either killing them immediately or causing them to flee and then left the battlefield themselves. A much smaller group turned to help any humans they could, protecting them as much as possible from other mechanicals. They were now in uncharted territory. In moments the French forces had transitioned from being on the very edge of extinction to having hope, not only of survival but of a return to Old France and ultimate victory. If only, Berenice mused, it was that easy. The mechanicals were now free to do as they wished, no longer forced to obey their human masters. One in particular, known to many simply as Queen Mab, had her own plans and her own path of revenge against those who had created and enslaved her kind for centuries. First, she would take that revenge on the Dutch empire across the sea. Then it would be time for the rest of humanity to tremble at the tick-tock sound of approaching machines knowing that the end was very near – if they were the lucky ones. 

This was a very good end to an excellent trilogy. I was so pleased when the character I had grown to love in the previous novel, Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Perigord, former vicomtesse de Laval, returned front and centre in this one - although I didn't remember her being such a potty-mouth in previous novels! She was joined by her nemesis and opposite number from the previous novel, Anastasia Bell who I liked almost as much – despite being the ‘baddie’ here. Both were very capable, very intelligent, very able and rather flawed individuals who had a lot of learning (and pain) to go through in a little over 400 pages. I did find myself almost as immersed in their strange world – where the Dutch had created almost unstoppable robots in the 18th century and thereby (largely) taken over the world – as in the previous book which was a delight. As with the previous novels I couldn’t fault the world building in any respect (the only ‘fault’ I found with the narrative being Anastasia’s ability to get out of several dangerous situations by essentially using ‘magic’ despite it being used sparingly and, in the end, ineffectively). I think what impressed me most – over and above being a highly entertaining alt-history combat SF thriller – were things either unstated or understated. After the battle of ‘Marseilles in the West’ on the St Lawrence river, Berenice was introduced to the concept of unintended consequences – in SPADES – as well as the realisation that she had deliberately tortured a sentient creature without realising it or caring overmuch. Anastasia Bell had her own revelations – when along with other ‘clockmakers’ with open enough minds – she realised that their mechanical servants were not malfunctioned but had been sentient from the moment of their creation and whose Free Will had been in chains ever since. No wonder they were angry when freed! Layered throughout the novel were two dangers - the explicit danger of what happens when technology turns against us as well as the implicit danger of what happens when technology doesn’t and we increasingly delegate function after function to machines. Without giving too much away, the fact that the moment the mechanicals stopped serving their Dutch masters they lost the ability to feed themselves, communicate with each other beyond the range of their voices or to protect themselves at all says a great deal about our possible future. 

This was one of the best trilogies I can remember reading in years if not longer. I read the first book ‘The Mechanical’ in 2015 not long after it came out, the second book, ‘The Rising’, about this time last year and now, finally, the last book completing another series (yeah!). Definitely more coming from this author. Long may he continue producing books/series of this quality. Highly recommended.  

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Where in the World? 

I’ve been watching a bit (actually a LOT) of BookTube recently and one of the things that keeps popping up is the idea, or challenge, of reading something from every country. Whilst I’m certainly not looking to complete or even try for that particular goal, I did start thinking about just how wide (or narrow!) my fiction reading was. I already had a pretty good idea that most of my fiction reading would be based in the UK and US but I knew that, from time to time, I did travel out of my usual safe places. Below is the list of countries my fiction reading has been located in over the last 10 years. There are caveats, however. I didn’t include any SF or Fantasy novels and I haven’t included any book that didn’t have a clear place of occupation. If a novel moved between countries too often, I ended up dismissing it as being too complicated. In all I managed just 26 countries out of 194 (193 members plus The Vatican) recognised by the UN. That’s pretty pitiful [lol]. Looking through various book piles here over the last few days I can’t see this number increasing by leaps and bounds going forward. I am going to try though – at least to the extent when I pick something new and interesting to read, I’ll try to take its location into account and add a few extra countries along the way. I’ll see where we get to in a year's time. But, if I’ve only managed 26 countries in 10 years I’ll be more than happy with adding just 2-3 new ones per year! Note: the countries listed here do not reflect the nationality of the author involved but simply reflects the geographical location where the novel was (at least primarily) set.   

Afghanistan – 2
Australia - 1
Canada - 1
China – 1
Crete - 1
Cuba - 1
England – 46
Estonia - 1
France – 10
Germany - 5
Greece - 1
Holland - 1
India – 2
Ireland – 1
Italy - 3
Jamaica - 1
Japan – 1
Norway – 1
Malaya - 1
Portugal – 2
Russia – 2
Spain – 2
Sweden - 3
Scotland – 2
Turkey - 2
USA - 37

We can but hope....

Thursday, March 10, 2022

I do hope they're not as sharp as they look!

Just Finished Reading: Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein (FP: 2020) [281pp] 

Casual outside observers might be surprised that the US political scene hasn’t always been as polarised as it is today. In the 1950’s and even into the mid/late 1960’s there was much agreement between both parties which allowed for a legislative agenda based on common ground and common understanding. Both Democrats and Republicans were members of truly ‘broad churches’ which overlapped on many central issues. Democrats could vote for fiscal responsibility and low taxes whilst Republicans could create and support the Environmental Protection Agency. Not anymore. So why and when did it all go wrong? Like other author’s I’ve read recently this author points to the Civil Rights acts in the early 60’s as the break point. With their enactment the Southern Democrats turned their backs on their northern previous compatriots and started moving right – abandoning the Democratic Party for the Republicans. Needing support from elsewhere the Democrats broadened an already broad church and became much more diverse into the bargain. Meanwhile the Republican Party continued to move to the right as well as getting older and whiter in its make-up. Fast forward 60 years or so and here we are... 

Naturally there’s a whole host of socio-economic, cultural and historical forces going on here. There’s the long-term drift from the country to the city, [side note: an interesting statistic popped up here. Apparently (as far as I can remember) counties with a population of less than 500 per square mile tend Republican where those over 500 tend Democrat. This certainly explains why ‘red states’ can vote ‘blue’ despite – geographically – being almost entirely red.] from heartland to the coasts, and most importantly (something else I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere) the demographic shift from a predominantly white population to a majority non-white which should ‘tip over’ around 2045. This stark fact has alarmed some people greatly. Added to this is the fact that as the average white voter is approaching retirement, the average non-white (yet to vote) is still in high-school. Both parties have approached this issue differently – the Democrats have tried to expand their reach across all demographics whilst the Republicans have attempted to deepen their appeal to their aging predominantly white base to ensure that they’re energised to vote. 

The author is clear that he’s not offering solutions here. He’s looking at the problem – and a problem it definitely is when the parties cannot agree on which direction is ‘up’ never mind anything as substantive as policy differences which is causing the legislative system to grind to a complete halt more and more often – and how we got here. What he does see is that this deepening polarisation isn’t going to go away any time soon. This is not something that just happened 4-5 years ago with the election of Trump to the Whitehouse. This is a process that has been doing on for decades at the very least. Trump is not a cause of the polarisation he is, first and foremost, a result, an outcome, of that polarisation and, unfortunately, he won’t be the final result either. The socio-economic, cultural and historical forces to say nothing of the demographic are very much still in play. It will take decades if not generations for these forces to play themselves out. In the meantime, the US, and by extension the rest of the world, are in for some turbulent times (along with everything else already loose in the world). Hold on to your hats! Definitely of interest to anyone wanting to understand the foundations of the present American political drama. More to come..