About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

"On human bondage" by Somerset Maugham

This autobiographical novel starts with the death of Philip's mother, when Philip is nine and already fatherless, so that he has to go to his uncle the vicar of Blackstable to live with this shallow, selfish man and his doting, childless wife. Thence Philip, who has a club foot, goes to Tercanbury School, then to study in Heidelberg, to try his hand at accountancy in London, thence to study art in Paris and finally back to London to study medicine. Through all of this he is sustained by his very small inheritance and cheap living is the norm with poverty never far away but being in receipt of a private income he never actually has to work (until it all goes wrong).

This is a long book: 700 pages cover Philip's life from age 9 to age 30. It is wonderfully realistic, especially when Maugham gives up the rather transparent attempts to disguise Canterbury and Whitstable (Maugham's uncle was vicar of Whitstable). It goes into the prices of things in detail and trains and cabs and hop-picking and diseases and streets. But it's real joy lies in the characters.

Maugham spares nobody. Philip, his hero, is a rather weak and quixotic man. He repeatedly throws up opportunities because he is upset with someone or because he wishes to pursue unrealistic dreams. Above all, he is governed by love. Love makes him do bad or foolish things. Even at school, when he has a crush on another boy, rejection means that he cannot work and he turns against the school and so he must forgo the scholarship that would take him to Oxford; instead he drifts off to Heidelberg. When he returns he has a one-night stand with an older lady, despite the fact that he doesn't much fancy her; indeed he spends much time worrying about how ridiculous he will appear (shyness and the fear of humiliation, especially connected to his club foot, are repeated themes). As a result he treats the lady appallingly badly. Later, in London, in a tempestuous relationship with Mildred, it is his turn to suffer. Nevertheless, he doesn't learn and he goes on to treat another woman very badly. He is rather an unpleasant hero (there is one bit where, to ease his money troubles, he becomes obsessed with the death of his uncle and how much inheritance he will gain) and it is to Maugham's credit that I was rooting for Philip so strongly at the end, even though near-ruin didn't seem to make him any nicer.

The other characters are also flawed. For example (and this is nowhere near an exhaustive list!):

  • Mildred is a liar who will do her best to take advantage of any man (and is taken advantage of in her turn); she has the snobbishness of a waitress and her favourite cry is that Philip is "a gentleman in every sense of the word". 
  • Philip's uncle the vicar has arranged his life around himself and everyone else must fit in with this. He exploits his devoted wife (why she loves him is a mystery which Maugham does not try to analyse but explains simply as that mysterious bondage of love to which almost every character is in thrall). When Philip is on his beam ends the vicar refuses to lend him any money (his attitude is summed up by 'I told you so') and when Philip is summoned to his deathbed and has to leave paid employment to attend the vicar never enquires how Philip managed to survive in the intervening period. Despite preaching heaven he is terribly afraid of death.
  • Hayward is one of a number of artistic temperaments who preach beauty but can never get around to doing the spade work that will lead them to create. When confronted by a scholar who questions some of his prejudices by Socratic dialectic he responds: "Of course the man's a pedant. He has no real feeling for beauty. Accuracy is the virtue of clerks."
  • In contrast there is Miss Price who tries and tries and tries to paint but has no talent and cannot recognise the fact that she ought to just give up. She is a wonderfully rude woman.

This book teems with wonderful characters who are drawn with all their faults and weaknesses, their snobbishnesses, their touchinesses, their generosities and their rudenesses.  It is a masterpiece.

It has also got some brilliant lines:
  • "The summer came upon the country like a conqueror"
  • "I thought it was only in revealed religion that a mistranslation improved the sense."
  • "Accuracy is the virtue of clerks."
  • "Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains. The only thing is to peg away."

I also enjoyed Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence which also contains remarkable characterisations.

This is a must-read, for all its size. March 2015; 700 pages

Sunday, 29 March 2015

"Fuzzy thinking" by Bart Kosko

This book starts from the premise that things are rarely black and white; often they are shades of grey. Fifty? Therefore the logic that we use should reflect this. We have a logic based on bi-valence: true or false, yes or no, one or zero. Instead, Kosko proposes a multivalent logic in which truth could hold any value between zero and one. He insists that this is not a probabilistic view: he points out that a car parked 70% in one space and 30% in another does not have a 70% chance of being all in one space.

These are important ideas and this is an important book. What lets it down somewhat is the anger that Kosko feels for mathematicians and scientists and indeed anyone who disagrees with him and the insults he hurls at them. He treats maths and science as if they are not only wrong but, worse, run by incompetent charlatans who are well aware of the frauds they are perpetrating on the public. He is also rather too full of himself; he is an immodest messiah. He proposes a number of applications of fuzzy logic that he himself has developed; since this is an introduction to the subject they are not detailed and I would have appreciated a little more explanation here but then I am not a general reader (indeed, I was considering these issues in 1986 when working at Brunel University in Artificial Intelligence but at that time I did not know enough to be able to move forward past the problems). Unfortunately, many of his applications seem to involve digital computers which seem to give the last laugh to the world of bi-valence.

Despite these weaknesses, this book has many really critical ideas which I cannot do justice to in a review meant for a general reader. I shall be studying Fuzzy Thinking more carefully in a second reading. It was certainly an entertaining read and very well written and I am looking forward to understanding more of this field.

March 2015; 285 pages

Sunday, 22 March 2015

"Elizabeth is missing" by Emma Healey

Maud is old and losing her memory. She lives alone with a carer to look after her in the mornings and a long-suffering (this is not how Maud sees it!) daughter Helen in the afternoons. Maud becomes convinced that her friend Elizabeth is missing. So Maud decides to investigate. But her investigation gets confused with her memories of when her sister Sukey went missing just after WWII, when Maud was still a child. So we have one investigation in which unreliable memories of long ago are mingled with the misunderstandings of a child and another in which the increasingly unreliable memories of the present colour the understandings of this old person.

It was beautifully written. It was highly evocative of the difficult times just after the second world war. Food and clothes rationing prevent a weary people having the good time they crave. People are damaged by death and prisoner of war camps and hasty marriages are regretted.

The slow progress of the disease wasting Maud's memory is also hauntingly chronicled. There are terrible moments when she wets herself and when she gets angry with her daughter and when she cannot remember her daughter's name. These mingle with moments of comedy: the care worker who is always telling her about old people being mugged and attacked and the wonderful moment when she tells her daughter about the dreadful woman who works for her and is so untidy (it is actually her own granddaughter but she has forgotten Katy). And there are the heart-warming moments such as when Katy finds her in the street and takes her out of the rain (Maud has an umbrella but can neither remember what it is called no what to do with it) into a coffee bar but Maud can't manage the big cup so Katy gets an espresso cup and pours the coffee into that a bit at a time making Maud feel not clumsy but that her hands are too delicate for the big cup.

Both stories are woven together carefully. A lot of the extraneous characters are stripped away. We learn almost nothing about Maud's husband Patrick who is dead and we never find out at all about Katy's father, presumably the husband that Maud's daughter Helen had at one time. But those who are important to the story are lovingly created.

This is a terrible book if, like me, you have an elderly relative who is becoming increasingly forgetful and therefore increasingly vulnerable. But it is winderfully written.

March 2015; 275 pages

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

"Octavia; Daughter of God" by Jane Shaw

Shortly after the First World War, Mabel Barltrop, the widow of a vicar, who had already spent two periods in lunatic asylums because of her mental illness, discovered the writings of eighteenth century prophetess Joanna Southcott. She set up the Panacea Society in Albany Road in Bedford, UK. Quickly, the Society decided that Mabel was Octavia, daughter of God, and that Bedford was the site of the Garden of Eden. Octavia spoke with God every evening and passed on God's messages at the Society's evening worship. Another member who went into trances began to speak as the Divine Mother and it was discovered that Mabel's dead husband had been Jesus, come back to Earth. The practices of the community involved confessing one's sins (this gave the Divine Mother a significant psychological hold over members), and 'overcoming' the self; the reward was literal immortality. Octavia began to breath on small squares of linen. When these were infused in water, the water could heal every disease (hence Panacea) and water sprinkled around a building would protect it, even from bomb damage. The community grew to house seventy resident members, more who were 'sealed' (who would form the nucleus of the 144,000 who would survive the end of times) and the linen squares were requested by over 130,000 people world wide (especially in countries where healthcare was expensive). It survived the death of many members (so much for immortality) including Octavia herself, but has probably died out now. Nevertheless, the buildings still remain, including Octavia's own house where her bedroom is preserved for the return of her body (from Uranus), the Ark which has a cradle ready for the return of Jesus himself, and Castleside (which was once a Bedford School boarding house) which was fitted out so that the 24 Bishops of the Church of England could gather for the opening of Joanna Southcott's sealed Box of prophecies.

Incredible nonsense! It is difficult to understand how so many people could be so needy and gullible as to believe such rubbish and to submit themselves to total obedience to a pair of women who were either mad or charlatans.

This book focuses on the activities of the Society in its heyday, from origination to the death of Octavia. Even in this short time (1919 - 1934) a lot happened. Some of it is rather tedious: lengthy theological disputes motivated essentially by Octavia's right wing politics and Edwardian snobbishness. Some of it is racy: the introduction of Edgar Peissart in 1922 led to the development of a gay sex ring amongst some of the male resident members (in a community devoted to chastity); when this was discovered and one member of the community was forced to kneel and confess he noticed a knife and "thought he was about to be sacrificed"! The community also tried to persuade non-resident members (usually post-menopausal women) to give up 'sex-relations'.

There are some very sad stories. Dilys, Octavia's daughter, tried to break away but ended up, after some periods of mental illness, living, unmarried, in the community for the rest of her life, often lonely because most of the residents were older women. Poor people were only allowed to become residents if they worked for the community, usually as exploited domestic servants. Olivia's two surviving boys kept as far away from Bedford as possible, mostly living abroad, embarrassed by their mother and her claim that they were the sons of Jesus. And there is a sense of sadness about the whole thing: most of the residents were lonely or vulnerable in some way.

The book was compelling to me because I live in Bedford, a few streets away from The Ark, and Castleside, and the other Panacea properties. The idea that Bedford might be the New Jerusalem is both bizarre and (given the millennia of strife over the old Jerusalem) scary. The idea that people might imbue everyday ordinary Bedford with such daft beliefs is staggeringly weird.

In the end, I don't think I really understood why anybody believed in Octavia (let alone the Divine Mother!) They were promised immortality of the body but people still died. If they were old and lonely the community was a sort of rest home. But they were expected to give up very natural human things like sex and to deny themselves and to be totally obedient to two women whom they lived with everyday. Charisma can only take you so far. I just cannot imagine accepting some of these outlandish beliefs: Mabel is a prophetess, her dead husband was Jesus, Bedford is the Garden of Eden, Jesus will return to Earth here.

A usually interesting read. March 2015; 334 pages

Thursday, 12 March 2015

"The Symposium" by Plato

This is a tale within a tale within a tale. Appolodorus tells his unnamed friend about a drinking party attended by Socrates; Applodorus wasn't at it but he has been told the tale by someone else.

It is a group of Athenian friends (including Aristophanes). After the banquet they send the flute girl away and entertain one another, at the insistence of Phaedrus, by talking about love. This being Athens they are mainly chatting about the love of an older man for a beautiful boy.

This being a drinking party, inevitably one of them gets hiccoughs and several offer remedies (sniffing snuff and sneezing was a new one to me!

Socrates weighs in last, pretending to be intimidated by the wonderful rhetoric that he has heard. He is an old fraud. He always pretends to be so humble and then demolishes the arguments of his friends. But he the sort of Cartesian philosopher who smashes down every assertion made by someone else until you are convinced that everything they have said is wrong. He then proposes his own solution and it is just as opinionated and just as ridiculous as the arguments he has destroyed but by this time everyone is reeling from his attack so no one is able to say: hang on a bit there Socrates. They call it Socratic dialogue but just like the dialogues of Galileo, the author tilts the scales.

Then Alcibiades gatecrashes the party, already drunk. He too talks of love. He says how much he loves Socrates, despite Socrates being so ugly. Alcibiades was famous as a beautiful youth and he recounts a situation in which he tried to tempt Socrates into having sex with him by manipulating things so that they slept together. But Socrates had more self control and this has rather piqued the formerly irresistible Alcibiades.

So the book ends as a hymn of praise to Socrates. Plato was besotted with this bloke, wasn't he!

Then another guest gatecrashes and everyone gets drunk.

Hiccoughs, drunkenness and gay love; not really what I expected from Plato.

March 2015; 114 pages

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

"The Ancient Paths" by Graham Robb

This is one of those books that uncovers ancient mysteries .

Before the Romans came the Celts. They were a migratory people who lived in tribes. Their heartland was Gaul although there were lots of them in Britain and Spain and Northern Italy and Eastern Europe but they definitely weren't the Germanic tribes. The Romans portray the Celts as being barbaric (and the human sacrifice bit of their religions is a little uncomfortable) but they had roads and chariots and metalwork and jewellery and clearly a reasonably coherent society.

So far so good.

They built long roads that were aligned with lines of longitude and latitude and along the directions of the summer and winter solstices. These roads were immensely long but incredibly precise. They built sacred centres, many of which later became centres of population all along these roads but particularly where two roads crossed. These crossings had such sacred significance that when they came to do battle with the Romans they insisted on battling them on sacred sites despite sacrificing many advantages. Presumably they thought that the immense advantage of having god on your side would do the trick. They were wrong. They lost heavily and were conquered; tens of thousands were massacred and sold into slavery.

Lots of maps accompany this fascinating thesis and the straight lines join many historic sites. One line, for example, goes from the site of the last Celtic resistance in Gaul through Milan to Delphi. Another, parallel to this one, goes through three towns named Mediolanum (also the original name of Milan), Bratislava, Budapest and Ankara.

But there are a lot of these lines and you might expect that some would travel through a few cities. After all, you can draw an infinity of lines that travel from south west to north east along the solstice line, or north-south for longitude or east-west for latitude.

A key east-west meridian is that which passes through a French town once called, you guessed it, Mediolanum. This is at a latitude that has a longest day length of 15 hours and 54 minutes. This is exactly one hour longer than the longest day at the latitude of Delphi. Delphi was believed to be the centre of the Greek world therefore this Gallic town is the centre of the Celtic world. Robb is asking me to believe not only that the druids could measure in minutes, which he explicitly suggests they couldn't, but also that 15h54m is somehow significant.

This is a reasonably well written book and Robb does his best to put real science and real archaeology into it and to keep mystics, hippies and ley line hunters out of it. But in the end it doesn't wuite convince.

March 2015; 298 pages

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

"The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn

I first read this book, which was published in 1962, when I was studying the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge in 1987-8. It was a revolutionary thesis. This is the third edition (1996) which adds a postscript to respond to some of the issues that its original publication raised.

Science, Kuhn suggests, does not make steady progress closer and closer to the truth. Rather, it is oscillates between a 'normal' phase during which scientists solve problems and a 'revolutionary' phase when scientific certainties are thrown out of the window and a radically different understanding is born.

He calls the framework within which normal science is done a 'paradigm' and the revolution a 'paradigm shift'. There are many similarities between the way science develops during a paradigm shift and the way students learn if we assume the 'threshold concepts' theory of learning.

For example, In the 1880s physicists were complacently expecting that soon their classical models would be able to explain all that needed to be explained. They were refining them and making them a little more accurate. There were a few clouds on the horizon. Maxwell's equations suggested that light was an electromagnetic wave but no one could detect the 'aether', the postulated medium through which the e-m waves must ripple. The 'ultra-violet catastrophe' was the theoretical model of the atom which predicted that when you heated something up it should glow purple before it glowed red and at some stage it would radiate infinite amounts of energy in the ultra-violet part of the spectrum. And the photo-electric effect was an experiment which suggested that the energy of the electrons emitted from a surface when light was shone on it was not linked to the brightness of the incoming light. But these were blips and no-one seriously doubted that classical physics would soon be able to solve these problems.

In fact the failure to detect the aether was explained once Einstein had discovered his theory of Special Relativity with its bizarre claims that the speed of light was the fastest possible speed, the simultaneity was relative, that time slowed down as you got faster and that mass and energy were inter-convertible. The ultra-violet catastrophe gave rise to the weird world of Quantum Physics and the photoelectric effect was the key evidence for wave-particle duality which shortly led to de Broglie's claims that particles could behave like waves.

In some ways this makes Science a little like the pile of sand as explained in the book Ubiquity. As grain after grain is added to the pile it becomes more and more unstable. Sometimes there are slight slips; at other times there are near-catastrophic landslides.  Or science is like the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution as described in John Gribbin's brilliant Deep Simplicity. Most of the time evolution just contributes a little variation which make organisms marginally better adapted to their evolutionary niches. But when there is a major ecological catastrophe, evolution goes wild to fill the new ecological niches that have been created.

Kuhn writes with elegance and power. This is a very convincing thesis that had a major impact on the history and the philosophy of Science.

March 2015; 210 pages

Thursday, 5 March 2015

"Franklin Delano Roosevelt" by Roy Jenkins

Roy Jenkins was a significant Labour politician who served as Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Harold Wilson before founding the Social Democratic Party in an attempt to prevent Labour's leftward drift. This was the last book he wrote and the last few pages were finished by Richard Neustadt.

FDR was the only US President to serve four terms (although the last one lasted only a few months before he died and was succeeded by Harry Truman); he saved the US from depression with his New Deal, a superb example of Keynesian economics before Keynes had published his theories; he saved Britain during World War II with equipment and by protecting shipping while the US was still neutral, by joining the war after Pearl Harbour but insisting that the European war took precedence over the Pacific war, by supporting Stalin's Soviet Russia, and by funding a bankrupt UK in the closing year of the war. He was disabled, having contracted Polio, and spent a lot of time in a wheelchair. In short he was a towering figure in American politics whose achievements are so much more than Churchill's.

Nevertheless, this book bucks the trends of modern biographies in its brevity. It is a model of narrative and clarity, except for the occasional use of obscure words: why say eleemosynary when you could say charitable?

No doubt a lot has been missed out. But this is a most readable book which would serve as a brilliant introduction to its subject for the general reader. March 2015; 170 pages

Monday, 2 March 2015

"Redirect" by Timothy D Wilson

This is a book about the social sciences. It starts off by giving a number of examples where treatments for social and educational ills have been implemented, sometimes at the cost of billions of dollars, without being subjected to careful scientific testing. It shows which of these treatments are ineffective or, worse, counter-productive; the author compares these to the blistering and blood-letting treatments of quack doctors which were either unpleasant and useless or dangerous.

Some of the treatments are:

  • Critical Incidence Stress Debriefing which results in a higher incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Self Help books which suggest that positive thinking will get you want you want (implying that "if you are poor, or if, God forbid, you contract a serious illness - well, it's your own damn fault")
  • Bribing kids to read which might work for kids that don't read but actually turns kids who do read off reading
  • Just say no to drugs or underage sex; a better way of preventing these is to encourage kids to volunteer
  • Getting convicts to scare kids off crime which increases the chance that they will commit crime
  • Diversity training

The author's panacea (OK so I was getting a little cynical by this time) for all these is to encourage people to rewrite their inner monologues so that they saw themselves as empowered.

He also emphasises the need for randomised control tests for all such programmes before the politicians spend vast amounts of money on them.

A very readable book which demolishes a lot of shibboleths. Not sure if his message on rescripting lives was quite as clear.

March 2015; 240 pages

Sunday, 1 March 2015

"The Botticelli Secret" by Marina Fiorato

Luciana Vetra, "part time model and full time whore" poses for Flora in Botticelli's Primavera. Little does she know when she purloins an unfinished sketch of the masterpiece that she is unleashing a trail of murder and treachery. For the painting holds a secret that her and novice monk Brother Guido must unravel if they are to stay one step ahead of the killers.

This is a brilliant romp through renaissance Italy visiting Florence, Pisa, Naples, Rome, Venice, Bolzano, Milan and Genoa.  The heroine is a fabulously feisty strumpet with a wonderful line in earthy epithets; the monk gives the unlikely-to-be-requited love interest and the book learning; the whores mother is a brilliantly complex character in whom the political and the maternal instincts are often at war.

There are points when it was disturbingly similar to the book that I am writing with its themes of secrets hidden within a painting, a child whose noble birth has been concealed, priests and churches and betrayal. But Fiorato has provided me with a lesson in how to write with verve and vigour and never to get bogged down in over-complicating character, scenery or plot.

And it is so much better written than the da Vinci code! March 2015; 548 pages