About Me

My photo
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

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

"Espresso Tales" by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the sequel to 44 Scotland Street.

Bruce embarks on a career as a wine dealer, knowing little about wine. Pat gets invited to a nudist party (“A nudist? In Edinburgh? Does he realise what parallel we're on?” p 188) Matthew's dad has a girlfriend and Matthew thinks she is after his dad's eleven million pounds. And poor Bertie, forced to wear pink dungarees, is sent to primary school when all he really wants to do is get on the train the Glasgow and play cards against a Glasgow gangster.

Another whimsical and affectionate set of stories from Edinburgh.

Some great lines:

  • September was not far off, and after that, as was well known to all but the most confused, was October - and darkness.” (p 1)
  • Scottish weather ... made one thing abundantly clear: you paid for what you enjoyed, and you usually paid quite promptly. ... That vista of mountains and sea lochs was all very well, but what was that coming up behind you? A cloud of midges.” (p 1)
  • How very few are the human bonds that lie between us and the state of being completely alone.” (p 7)
  • I think it's marvelous the boys have all those different things to choose from at the chemist’s these days. Hair things and shaving things, that is.” (p 29)
  • People often fundamentally misread American society and assume that decisions articulated by men are male decisions - a serious mistake.” (p 31)
  • The problem with missing socks was that the rational interpretation seemed quite inadequate” (p 84)
  • He liked Scotland exactly as it was: unfussy, cold, and half-visible.” (p 116)
  • The problem ... is that the cost-cutters are in control ... They are the ones who are insisting that everything be cheap and built to the nearest specifications.” (p 185)
  • I've never understood the objection to hypocrisy ... There must be some circumstances in which it permissible to be hypocritical.” (p 284)
  • Like every author, he knew that he had to guard jealously the spare hours in which he could write.” (p 289)
September 2017; 342 pages

Sunday, 24 September 2017

"44 Scotland Street" by Alexander McCall Smith

This book was written to be serialised daily in a newspaper and therefore containing very short chapters each of which has to be a mini story in itself. It spawned a series including Espresso Tales and The World According to Bertie.

Pat, on her second gap year (something dark seems to have happened during the first) shares a flat with beautiful but narcissistic Bruce; Pat can scarcely help herself but will she be seduced? She has a part-time job with art gallery owner Matthew: is the Peploe a Peploe, will it be stolen and what happens when it is accidentally offered as a raffle prize in a spectacularly rigged raffle at the world's smallest Conservative dinner dance by Bruce who has forgotten to wear underpants under his kilt and whose efforts to purloin a spare pair are almost more embarrassing than being exposed. Bertie's demanding mother Irene sends him to a psychotherapist for being naughty and portrait painter Angus explores a secret tunnel with Pat and anthropologist Domenica.


Brilliantly written and often incredibly funny. I hardly ever laugh out loud when reading. It's embarrassing. But I did on this book. Several times.

Some of my favourite moments

  • “‘Genetically programmed to have lots of boyfriends, I think.’ ‘A slut?  that's what Bruce called her to me.’ ... ‘Male double standards,’  said Dominica sharply.” (p 10)
  • something of the late afternoon perhaps, even if not quite something of the night.” (p 53)
  • They used the metaphors of electricity. I am a bit below my normal wattage. I feel like shorting out.” (p 72)
  • Irene ...  was deeply committed to egalitarianism in all its forms, but this did not prevent the paying of adequate attention to gifted children. Society needed special people if egalitarian goals were to be met. Unexceptional people ... were often distressingly non-egalitarian in their views.” (p 89)
  • We all have Proustian moments, but we don't really know about it until we read Proust.” (p 215)
  • I think our cars been lost,  said Bertie. Daddy parked it somewhere when he was drunk and forgot where he put it.” (p 223)
  • Sexual attraction....  the dark, anarchic force. More powerful than anything else. Working away, but not for me.” (p 240)
  • it is the onion memory that makes me cry.” (p 249)
  • a fiddler worked his bow through a tune.” (p 254)
  • Falling out of love is every bit as painful as falling out of a tree -  and the pain lasts far longer.” (pp 297 - 298)
  • Is an ability to play the saxophone a social accomplishment or is it an anti-social accomplishment?” (pp 304 - 305)

September 2017; 326 pages

Saturday, 23 September 2017

"Meatspace" by Nikesh Shukla

Kitab, a newly published author, has just broken up with Rachel and is allowing maintaining an online presence on facebook and twitter etc to block him from writing the next book. His brother Aziz wants a tattoo of a bow tie and uses google image search to find a man in New York with the same tattoo and who looks like Aziz; Aziz decides to travel to NY to meet his doppelganger; here he has adventures as a crime-fighting superhero (all written up in his blog). Meanwhile Kitab is being stalked by another Kitab who is seeking to steal his identity and to lose his virginity at a sex party.

Normally I hate books about authors having trouble writing: it seems rather too self-obsessed. This one won me over by the fresh way in which it used language and the relentlessly modern picture of a culture in which social media and one's virtual self seems more important than the meatspace world.

Lines I loved:
  • Amazon recommends I buy the book I wrote.” (p 1)
  • They awkwardly remove each other’s clothes and fall into the patterns, Porn Grammar.” (p 9)
  • You’re just on that bloody phone making a lazy self-obsessed quotes about nothing.” (p 14)
  • We both snap poppadoms.” (p 22)
  • Dinner with my dad. He pays for the food. I pay for my lack of achievement. We both pay for the over indulgence in the morning.” (p 28) 
  • I'm glad he has someone he can talk to freely and easily. I wish it wasn't me.” (p 30)
  • I've got unfinished business in her pants.” (p 33)
  • the gentrified ghetto vintage shops, hipster bars and pound shops” (p 34)
  • that's another story for another time told by another person.” (p 38)
  • Talking about sex in front of people, it feels too intimate. There's too much focus on the meat and the flesh.” (p 70)
  • We bow tie tatt-bumped, innit” (p 98)
  • If x’s were actual kisses, I’d have glandular fever.” (p 115)
  • Life gives us nuggets everyday. Whether we choose to make them chicken or gold is up to us.” (p 115)
  • A sofa and a chair and a mattress that all looked like they'd been at the business end of a stream of piss.” (p 142)
  • All this takes up 10% of my battery, which is a currency in modern life.” (p 162)
  • I was walking with skin issues here.” (p 219)
  • The Internet is both transient and eternal and there's nothing you can hide from it once it goes online.” (p 226)
  • When you need a pilgrimage to have a long hard look at yourself, why take the bus?” (p 240)
A good read from a promising new author. September 2017; 291 pages

Friday, 22 September 2017

"Swing Time" by Zadie Smith

By the author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man, and the utterly wonderful NW.

What makes Zadie Smith an exceptional writer is the reality of the characters. When Tracey's mum responds to the accusation that her daughter has stolen money the actions and the dialogue was pitch perfect. Each of these people, with all of their strengths and weaknesses, are three dimensional real flawed human beings. Yes, they are inconsistent. Yes, they do things that don't seem to make sense (Tracey becomes enamoured of a cult that believes the world is ruled by giant lizards). But it is their wrinkles, their highlights and their shadows, that make them stand out in three glorious dimensions from the page.

The narrator grows up with her postman father and her OU-studying mother, later to become a politician; she goes to dance classes with her alter-ego Tracey, the rebellious child from the single parent family who just happens to be a natural dancer. The best the narrator can do is to become personal assistant to mega-singing star Aimee; she is the key liaison in the school for girls Aimee is creating in Africa. Meanwhile Tracey's dancing career has stalled after minor west end triumph and she falls into motherhood. 

It didn't feel like a novel. There was little overt plot development. Things happened and lives were shaped but the usual novellic link between character trait and consequence seemed largely absent. Instead it was almost a memoir of two girls growing up and their experiences as young women; other female character trajectories that were important were those of the mother and of the superstar Aimee. Perhaps the point that the author was trying to make most of all was that we are shaped by our socio-economic backgrounds. Although Aimee and the narrator's mother may be examples of self-made women who can transcend their circumstances through their very remarkable personalities and energies, both these do-gooders are powerless to improve the lives of others. Even an international celebrity is, in the end, only able to make marginal changes in the world, for example by adopting an African baby. The school in Africa can succeed for a while but it is clear that it's long-term prospects are bleak. Like dancer Tracey, who appears on a West End stage but in the end is another embittered single mother.

It's also about how the rich can't understand the poor. The narrator never really understands Tracey, despite them being best friends; she is even more at sea in Africa where the culture is completely alien to her. And, of course, misunderstanding leads to poor decisions and poor decisions can lead to tragedy.

Some great lines:
People are not poor because they made bad choices ... they make bad choices because they’re poor” (p 49)
Rainbows passed through the wine glasses on to the wet silverware.” (p 156)
it's just so challenging to make that translation” (p 176)
Watching all that fire with so little kindling, it was of course easy to despair.” (p 225)
No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless.” (p 253)
Children can be a kind of a wealth.” (p 253)
New York was my first introduction to the possibilities of light, crashing through gaps in curtains, transforming people and sidewalks and buildings into golden icons, or black shadows, depending on where they stood in relation to the sun.” (p254)
Her pat phrases were like lids dancing on top of bubbling cooking pots, and all I had to do was sit patiently and wait for her to boil over.” (p 378)

Thursday, 21 September 2017

"Conclave" by Robert Harris

As Dean of the |College of Cardinals, Jacopo Lomeli has to organise the election of the next pope. Packed with authentic detail, Conclave charts the intrigues as the secrets and sins of the front-runners knock them one-by-one out of the race to leave them with perhaps the least likely candidate.

Although the twists and turns are perhaps slightly predictable (despite the author's obvious skill in misdirection) and although the suspension of disbelief is challenged by the incredible unlikelihood of the ending, this book is so grounded in reality that it could almost be a documentary rather than fiction.

Another great Vatican-based thriller is The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell.

Some great lines:
  • "As with sleep, the more one desired meaningful prayer, the more elusive it became.” (p 6)
  • Once, God explained all mysteries. Now He has been usurped by conspiracy theorists. They are the heretics of the age.” (p 16)
  • The vices of courtiers all down the ages - the sins of vanity and intrigue and of malice and gossip.” (p 54)
  • The United Kingdom - that godless isle of apostasy.” (p 232)
  • Faith is a living thing precisely because it walks hand in hand with doubt.” (p 124)
A good read. September 23017; 380 pages

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

"Let's explore diabetes with owls" by David Sedaris

Another collection of Sedaris' wry comments on life (also see my review of When you are engulfed in flames). If this is a memoir, Sedaris has lived a sometimes surreal life. He talks about his bringing up: the father who never encouraged him (“Our artwork did not hang on the refrigerator or anywhere near it, because our parents recognised it for what it was: crap.” p 14), always praising other more athletic boys, his best friend (“With Shaun, though, I could almost be myself. This didn't mean that we were alike, only that he wasn't paying that much attention.” (p 60; “What brought us together was a love of nature, or, more specifically, of catching things and unintentionally killing them.” p 59). He writes about the contrast between doctors in the US, who pander to the neurotic hypochondriac in each of us, and those in Europe who point out that a fatty lump is not a tumour (“Either you can live in the past as a lonely, bitter paraplegic, or you can live in the present as one.” p 119). He talks about being so lonely that he moons over heterosexuals: “Johnny didn't strike me as gay, but it was hard to tell with alcoholics. Like prisoners and shepherds, many of them didn't care who they have sex with, the idea being that what happens in the dark stays in the dark.” (p 125) He talks about buying a stuffed owl as a Valentine's Day present for his boyfriend.

Life, he tells us, is like a four-ring stove. The rings are your family, your friends, your health, and your work. If you want to succeed you have to switch off one of the rings. To really succeed you have to switch off two. (pp 89 - 90)

Funny, in both senses of the word: September 2017; 275 pages

Monday, 11 September 2017

"Millennium People" by J G Ballard

Ballard's always fecund imagination has conceived of a middle class in revolt, refusing to pay school fees or spiralling estate management charges, torching their own houses rather than let them be repossessed, manning barricades and throwing petrol bombs over parking disputes, fire bombing museums and video stores.

David, whose first wife has been killed by a terrorist bomb at Heathrow, infiltrates the shifting alliances of the middle class revolutionaries in some sort of attempt at closure on his failed marriage. But as he meets charismatic Kay and sinister Doctor Gould, has he fallen in love with violence?

A strange book. I found it difficult to accept the basic thesis that the comfortable bourgeoisie would, feeling trapped, throw it all away. The characters all did strange things; I never really identified with anyone. They seemed too much like puppets on a stage set by the author. If you want a book about middle class revolutionaries you might try Saturn's Daughters by Jim Pinnells set in the anarchist world of nineteenth century Russia, where real, well-to-do woman indulge in real crimes of violence.

The Guardian review of this book says it is "one of the most amusing novels I've read in a long time" so perhaps I misunderstood it: it was meant to be funny.

It was extremely imaginative and deeply embedded in reality. Real places were described with perfect accuracy; people were grounded in physicality. Acts of violence were full of sickening details. It made it even harder to understand how the protagonist could be seduced into complicity with the perpetration of these acts.

A book that made me think.

There were some stunning lines:
  • Not for her sake. For yours. ... You don't love her. I know that. But you still hate her. That's why you have to go.” (p 21)
  • Heathrow approached, a beached sky-city, half space station and half shanty town.” (p 25) 
  • Being law-abiding has nothing to do with being a good citizen. It means not bothering the police.” (p 52)
  • I told them to take their cameras into the bedroom and make a porn film. Fucking is what they do in their spare time so why not look at it through a camera lens? They wouldn't learn much about sex but they’d learn a lot about film.” (p 53)
  • Tourism is the great soporific. It's a huge confidence trick, and gives people the dangerous idea that there's something interesting in their lives. It's musical chairs in reverse. Every time the muzak stops people stand up and dance around the world, and more chairs are added to the circle, more marinas and Marriott Hotels, so everyone thinks they're winning.” (p 54)
  • Knowledge-based professions are just another extractive industry. When the seams run out we’re left high and dry with a lot of out-of-date software.” (pp 79 - 80) 
  • Have you noticed how vocabularies fluctuate in order to cope with our need to justify ourselves?” (p 103)
  • They see that private schools are brainwashing their children into a kind of social docility, turning them into a professional class who run the show for consumer capitalism.” (p 104) 
  • Gould withdrew into himself, retreating behind the bones of his face.” (p 128)
  • Starter homes ... rabbit hutches for aspiring marriage.” (p 133)
  • Looking for God is a dirty business. You find God in a child’s shit, in the stink of stale corridors,in a nurse's tired feet.” (p 137)
  • First wives are a right of passage into adult life . I many ways it's important that first marriages go wrong. That's how we learn the truth about ourselves.” (p 138) 
  • Sex with Kay is like a resuscitation that's gone slightly wrong. You're deeply grateful, but parts of you are never going to be the same.” (p 168)
  • The guinea pigs had lured the experimenter into the maze.” (p 220)
September 2017; 294 pages

I have now also read Ballard's The Unlimited Dream Company. It too is set in an middle class enclave which starts off deserted except for the narrator. There is a lot more sex in it. And it is unbridled fantasy in the sense that there is no attempt to impose realism on it. Things metamorphose and the dead come to life and solid objects merge into one another and space gets twisted so that finite distances become infinite. Weird. 

Saturday, 9 September 2017

"Styles of learning" by Noel Entwistle

This book was mostly interesting because of how different researchers classified human personalities in different ways. For example, Wertheimer studied how students approached a maths problem The first type ducked the question by saying that they didn’t like maths or they hadn’t yet studied this topic. The second type searched their memories frantically using a strategy of saying everything they knew in the hope that something somewhere would be correct. The third type sought analogies or tried to classify the problem. The fourth type used what Wertheimer called “real thinking” (p 54)

Roy Heath in the 1960s and 70s divided students into three types the non committed, the hustlers, and the plungers. I loved these descriptions!
  • The first type “views a commitment as a possible entanglement which might reduce his freedom to get out of the way when travel threatens. When storm clouds do break he’ll hold on and hope for the best. In other words he takes a passive role in a conflict situation ... [a non-committer had a myth that] “he could do a lot of things ... if he really went all-out” (Entwistle p 67)
  • The hustler “Is a great competitor. In his relations with others he is often aggressive and insensitive to their feelings. This is unfortunate for he possesses a strong desire to be received favourably and affectionately.” He “is impatient with the status quo. He must keep moving beyond his present level.Wasting time is for him a cardinal sin, a lost opportunity ... life is a battle. People must look out for themselves, must solve their own problems ... he is a study in antithesis ... a personality that is at war with itself. He is a strong-willed man couple with equally strong inhibitions and control over his deeper impulses.” (Entwistle 1996, 68)
  • The plunger “Today he might feel on top of the world ... tomorrow might find him bitter, sad, alone ... whether high or low, he seems at the utter mercy of his feelings. He responds as strongly to guilt as he does to his urges ... he works and loves in spurts”. (Entwistle 1996, p 68)
  • The ideal is the Reasonable Adventurer who can “attack the problems of everyday life with zest and originality. And he seems to do so with an air of playfulness” At times he is a believer and at other times a sceptic but he alternates these. (Entwistle 1996, 70) Rather too good to be true!
Entwistle is most famous for his distinction between 'deep' and 'surface' learning (I am always rather sceptical of any categorisation where it is obvious from the label where you 'ought' to be). He tells us that “It is impossible for a student adopting a surface approach ever to reach a deep level of understanding.” (p 79); this is partly because “Students adopting a deep approach also tended to spend longer in studying.” (p 80)

He is also slightly scornful of recently fashionable idea such as divergent thinking and holistic thinking. He points out that “The two major pathologies commonly found in learning are the failure to examine at the logical structure or the evidence in sufficient detail, and the failure to make use of appropriate analogies. ... The holist strategy involves looking at the whole area being learned, taking a broad perspective, seeking interconnection with other topics and making use of personal and idiosyncratic analogies. The examination of the logical structure and of the supportive evidence comes later when understanding is demanded, but left to himself the holist is likely to put off what he may see as the more boring parts of learning.” (p 93) Furthermore, “Imaginative thinking is important in problem solving in various ways. First it allows the problem to be reformulated, avoiding an exclusive focus on the most obvious interpretation. Then the review of possible solutions depends on a leisurely approach and a wide focus of attention which includes both likely and unlikely combinations of ideas. But the final stages of problem solving demand a return to tight, narrowly focused logical thinking.” (p 156)

There are also random facts which are just plain interesting:
The Latin word persona originally described the painted mask which an actor held in front of his face to portray the person he was playing. The word subsequently was used to indicate the ‘front’ an individual presented to other people - how he wanted to be seen. It was also used to describe ‘the player behind the mask’” (p 179)
In Greek, character meant engraving and implied a patent of traits in bothered in a distinctive life-style ... ‘characteristic’ remains a neutral term synonymous with ‘trait’.” (p 179)
A very well written book which reviews an important topic. September 2017; 272 pages

Friday, 8 September 2017

"The Catcher in the Rye" by J D Salinger

This is the classic novel of teenage discontent although to my mind the scenes set in the prep school are not as brilliant as James Kirkwood's Good Times, Bad Times and the 'brother killed himself' theme is explored in far more depth in Judith Guest's Ordinary People. But this is comparing it with two magnificent books. I only wonder why this book is the cult, the yardstick, while they both became also-rans.

The hero, Holden Caulfield, is extraordinarily privileged for a teenager; he has freedoms most teenagers could only dream of. Not only does he go to a succession of top private schools, but also his brother is a Hollywood scriptwriter, he lives in Manhattan, he can smoke both at home and at school, he has rich parents who clearly love him and look after him, he can leave his boarding school at will to travel into New York to party and to meet girls, and he has the confidence to wander into nightclubs and bars, to book into hotels, and even to ask waiters to invite singers to his table. Is he really a typical American youth facing an emotional crisis?

Plot Spoiler alert; this section has spoilers (although “I’d tell you the rest of the story, but I might puke if I did. It isn’t that I’d spoil it for you or anything. There isn’t anything to spoil, for Chrissake.” ,p 125)

The plot seems to divide into four sections; like Acts; each Act is almost exactly one quarter of the book. The first act recounts Holden at prep school. The second act follows him to New York where he takes a hotel room and goes to a night club. He tries to pick up some girls but in the end he has a hooker come to his room. This act finishes with him being beaten up by the hooker's pimp for an extra five dollars. If this is Holden's descent into hell, he descends a long way. But in Act Three he leaves his hotel and starts to roam around New York. He persuades a girl friend to watch the movies with him; he insults her and she leaves. He persuades an old friend to have a drink with him; again Holden's behaviour sends the lad away. Holden is now drunk and lonely. He decides to go to see his sister. In Act Four he sees his sister than he goes to the house of an old teacher to sleep the night but he becomes afraid that the teacher wants to sleep with him and so he ends up sleeping in a station waiting room. He is homeless and getting ill.

Breaks the rules. He uses a lot of repetition. No kidding. A lot. And italics. Uses the phrase “It really does” a lot. Especially (?) when he is lying.

He uses the word “old “ to describe people.

He uses a lot of exaggeration, such as the phrase “it killed me” to mean it tickled me pink.

David Lodge in "The Art of Fiction" (chapter 4; Teenage skaz") says: “It's the style that makes the book interesting. The story it tells is episodic, inconclusive, and largely made up of trivial events ... The language is, by normal literary criteria, very impoverished.”

What's it all about?
  • Holden, the kid who hates phonys, is the biggest phony of them all. He's a spoiled rich kid who thinks he can use his money to buy people, like a prostitute, or old the girls from Seattle, or his friend old Luce; he gives them money and presents and he buys them drinks but he can't buy their love. The only love he gets is from Phoebe his sister; he buys her a record but he breaks it before she gets it. 
  • Holden, the kid who hates phonys, who is "the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life".
  • Holden, the virgin who is desperate to get laid, who can't take advantage of the young prostitute, who gets into a fight defending the honour of a girl he has never slept with.
  • Holden the naive innocent, who gets beaten up by a pimp and nearly seduced by his teacher.
  • Holden, the spolied brat with the unrealistic dreams of escaping to the countryside to chop wood and pump gas.
  • Holden, the adolescent who misses his dead brother, who can't study at school, who enters the hell of New York and descends into his own private hell of depression and loneliness, ending up sleeping in the station.
  • Contradictions abound. Even his dream of being a 'catcher' in the rye is based on his mishearing a song about meeting someone in the rye.

Great lines:
Then this girl gets killed, because she's always speeding. That story just about killed me.” (p 16)
Holden is very concerned with not being a ‘phony’; he hates phonys. “Grand. There's a word I really hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.” (p 8)
They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey. It has a very good academic rating, Pencey. It really does.” (p 3)
almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.” (p 46)
Mothers are all slightly insane.” (p 49)
He was one of those guys that think they’re being a pansy if they don’t break around forty of your fingers when they shake hands with you.” (p 79)
Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while he was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head.” (p 89)
My big trouble is, I always sort of think whoever I’m necking is a pretty intelligent person. It hasn’t a goddam thing to do with it, but I keep thinking it anyway.” (p 95)
Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.” (p 102)
I hate actors. They never act like people. They just think they do.” (p 105)
A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.” (p 117)
All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they'll do practically anything you want them to.” (p 142)
Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” (p 192)

Great book (though there are better); September 2017; 192 pages

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

"Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman

This story is narrated by Eleanor Oliphant, an office worker in her early 30s. She lives alone, so alone that she drinks vodka to block out the weekend. Why? At first we don't know but she drops little clues about her scar and the sinister Mummy who calls her every Wednesday. Eleanor hasn’t a clue how to fit in with normal social life; she makes faux pas because she takes things literally. This is a source of the book’s humour. It really is very funny; in many ways it reminded me of Adrian Mole. But the humour is two-way. We enjoy Eleanor’s acerbic comments about the strange things people do; she is like a Martian observing and wondering. But we are also laughing at Eleanor for her gaucheness.

But the hints keep coming about Eleanor’s troubled past and we are soon wondering whether she is not, actually, a little mad. Will she find love with the gorgeous pop singer or will she settle for scruffy Raymond from IT? Or will Mummy’s hate drive her to destruction? This book is a masterclass in foreshadowing.

Do I have a criticism? One tiny point of pedantry. Eleanor is a classics scholar and a pedant. So why does she use the phrase “the hoi polloi”? Hoi polloi is Greek for ‘the people’ so Eleanor is saying “the the people.” Inelegant. Oh, by the way, the Telegraph is NOT the best crossword; that honour belongs to the Guardian.

A stunning debut novel. So much humour, so much perception, so much horror.

On the other hand ...

The other members of my reading group hated this book. They found the characters and situation extraordinarily unconvincing. Detail after detail was condemned. The social worker wouldn't have done that, Eleanor would have refused to go to the hospital with Raymond, Raymond wouldn't have been so persistent, Eleanor would have known about Magners, Eleanor would have been unable to set up the modem to connect herself to the internet. These were but a few of their objections. Others I have left out for fear of presenting spoilers.

I think I enjoyed the character of Eleanor and the humour so much I was prepared to drift over details. But I worry about this style of critique. Yes, it may be true that very few people like Eleanor would have responded in a certain way but a novel isn't a documentary in which what happens is determined by sociological likelihood. A novel purports to say what this character did in this situation and the judgement call in the reader's mind has to be: can I believe in this particular character? I was happy to suspend disbelief about Eleanor and then to see into her profound loneliness. My reading group colleagues weren't.

And then again ...

I loaned this book to another friend: she read it in under 48 hours and loved it. She wasn't worried about documentary accuracy and she didn't think that Eleanor was autistic or Asperger's but just lonely and damaged; in fact she saw the whole story as events picking away at the cocoon Eleanor had built around herself so that she was forced to find a more sociable way to negotiate the world.

My favourite bits:
  • That palpable sense of Friday joy, everyone colluding with the lie that somehow the weekend would be amazing” (p 9)
  • If I'm ever unsure as to the correct course of action, I’ll think, ‘What would a ferret do?’” (p 13)
  • His eyes were light brown. They were light brown in the way that a rose is red, or that the sky is blue. They defined what it meant to be light brown.” (p 24)
  • I feel sorry for beautiful people. Beauty, from the moment you possess it, is already slipping away, ephemeral.” (p 28) 
  • The goal ultimately was successful camouflage as a human woman.” (p 30)
  • My face a scarred palimpsest of fire.” (p 30)
  • Terrible people danced in a terrible way to terrible music” (p 41)
  • It’s always nice to hear my first name spoken aloud by a human voice.” (p 51)
  • What was a muse anyway? I was familiar with the classical allusion, of course, but in modern-day practical terms, a muse seemed simply to be an attractive woman whom the artist wanted to sleep with.” (p 84) 
  • I have often noticed that people who routinely wear sports wear are the least likely salt to participate in athletic activity.” (p 99)
  • She looked at him with so much love that I had to turn away. At least I know what love looks like, I told myself. That's something. No one has ever looked at me like that, but I'd be able to recognise it if they ever did.” (p 106)
  • Imagine having to micturate in a row along side other men, strangers, acquaintances, friends, even? It must be dreadful. Just think how odd it would be if we had to display our genitals to one another” (p 202)
  • Go and sit in your empty little flat and watch television on your own, just like you do Every. Single. Night ... I sat down and watched television alone like I do Every. Single. Night .” (p 217)
  • It takes a long time to learn to live with loss, assuming you ever manage it. After all these years, I'm still something of a work in progress.” (p 236)
  • I was ready to rise from the ashes and be reborn.” (p 255)
  • Was I alive? I hoped so, but only because if this was the location of the afterlife, I'd be lodging an appeal immediately.” (p 273)
  • The lift had transported me back in time to that least belle of epoques - the 1980s.” (p 286) 
  • Such a strange unusual feeling - light, calm, as though I'd swallowed sunshine.” (p 314) 
Brilliant. Sept 2017, 383 pages

Monday, 4 September 2017

"The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind" by Julian Jaynes

Jayners wrote this book in 1976 when he was professor of psychology at Princeton University and so, on the face of it, not a nutter. His thesis is, on the face of it, nutty. He believes that consciousness evolved in human minds somewhere between the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey when all around the world people began to mourn that they had lost their gods, the voices they had heard commanding them to do things in their heads. These voices were the voices of gods. In other words, “before the second Millennium BC, everyone was schizophrenic.” (p 405)

The bicameral mind itself evolved: Archaeological evidence suggest early human tribe size like gorillas of about 30. "And it is the problem of this limitation of group size which the gods may have come into evolutionary history to solve." (p 129) Social control was effected by individuals hallucinating the voices of gods and kings. "The bicameral mind is a form of social control and it is that form of social control which allowed mankind to move from small hunter-gatherer groups to large agricultural communities. The bicameral mind with its controlling gods was evolved as a final stage of the evolution of language." (p 126)

What was that like? He presumes that the Iliad describes humans well: "the gods were organizations of the central nervous system ... The god is a part of the man, and quite consistent with this conception is the fact the gods never step outside of natural laws. ... The Greek god never steps forth in thunder, never begets awe or fear in the hero, and is as far from the outrageously pompous god of Job as it is possible to be." (p 74)

But then a further evolution took place. Language had ushered in bicamerality, now writing ushered it out again.  The world (middle east) became anarchic and a socially useful control that ran small city states was no longer an evolutionary asset; consciousness had to evolve. The change factors were:
  • writing weakens auditory brain
  • control using hallucinations is inherently fragile
  • The massive social upheaval throughout the ancient world consequent on the eruption of Thera making it more difficult for social control to be via hallucinated gods
  • Social mixing causing people to observe differences in others and thus to hypothesise internality
  • epic poetry introducing narrative
  • deceit becoming socially useful
  • natural selection
The major gods became invisible. "We have the beginning of hybrid human-animal beings as the intermediaries and messengers between the banished gods and their forlorn followers. Such messengers were always part bird and part human ..." (p 230). The epic of Gilgamesh has later interpolations: a "barmaid" (late interpolation, c650 BC) in Gilgamesh story speaks to her heart. (p 252) Gilgamesh has sadness in his heart (p 253). "God Utnapishtim, the Distant ... is looking into the distance and speaking words to his heart, asking it questions and coming to his own conclusions." (p 253) "The literature on the loss of gods is an unquestionable change in the history of Mesopotamia, unlike anything that preceded it. It is indeed the birth of modern religious attitudes and we can discover ourselves in the very psalm-like yearnings for religious certainty" (p 253) 

He notes the change in the character of God within the Old Testament: “He walks in his garden at the cool of the day, talking to his recent creation.Adam. He is present and visible at the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, shuts the door of Noah's Ark with his own hand, speaks with Abraham at Sechem, Bethel, and Hebron, and scuffles all night with Jacob like a hoodlum.” (p 301) “There is no question of virtue or of justice. So He-Who-Is prefers Abel to Cain, slays Er, the first-born of Judah, having taken a dislike to him, first tells Abraham to beget a son, and then later orders him to kill the son even as criminal psychotics might be directed today.” (p 304)

He notes that words that are key in the Iliad change as we move to the Odyssey:
  • thumos: activity, movement, agitation (perhaps caused by adrenaline) (p 262)
  • phrenes: lungs, breathing (p 263)
  • kradie: later kardia, cardiac, heart (p 265); "originally, I suggest, it simply meant quivering, coming from the verb kroteo, to beat." (p 266)
  • etor: belly, guts (p 267)
  • ker: trembling, perhaps from kradie, perhaps from cheir, hand (p 268)
  • noos: "from noeo = to see, is perception itself" (p 269) "The coming of consciousness can in a certain vague sense be construed as a shift from an auditory mind to a visual mind". (p 269)
  • mermerizo: divided into two parts, in two minds (p 259)
  • psyche: from "psychein = to breathe", life
From Iliad to Odyssey these terms increase except for thumos which decreases. (p 274) "The Odyssey shows an increased spatialization of time ... there is also an increased ratio of abstract terms to concrete" (p 276)

And oracles which were once everyday now become specialized. He sees six stages in the development of oracles: (pp 329 - 330)
  • Place
  • Prophet
  • Trained prophet
  • Possessed prophet
  • Interpreted possessed prophet
  • Erratic
Nowadays he sees the vestiges of bicamerality in those with Tourette's syndrome, in schizophrenics and in religious group ceremonies like Voodoo and the glossolalia experienced in certain charismatic churches.
  • Hallucinations are dependent on the teachings and expectations of childhood” (p 410)
  • The memoirs of Schreiber a German suffering from schizophrenia mention that “as he slowly recuperated, the tempo of speech of his gods slowed down and then degenerated into an indistinct hissing.” (p 416)
  • The patient in trying to keep some control over his behaviour repeats over and over to himself ‘I am’ or ‘I am the one present in everything’ ... another patient may use only single words like ‘strength’ or ‘life’ to try to anchor himself against the dissolution of his consciousness.” (p 420)
I didn't find it convincing. Clearly there were profound social and cultural changes at these times and the nature of godness changed (and has changed again more recently) but these are surely much easier to explain as cultural changes. We all (?) hear voices in our heads and some interpret this as voices from outside their heads. Perhaps that interpretation was more common among pre-literate people. Perhaps, also, hallucinations were more common in ancient times: the ancient Greeks were always watering their strong wines, perhaps before modern methods of food production it was quite common to ingest psychoactive substances with your bread and your beer. It just seems a step too far to postulate that bicamerality evolved into human brain architecture and then evolved out again in favour of consciousness.

One of the troubles with this thesis is his use of language. For example: "The function of meter in poetry is to drive the electrical activity of the brain, and most certainly to relax the normal emotional inhibitions of both chanter and listener." (p 73) The use of "most certainly" suggest to my bullshit detection faculty that he is using rhetoric to bolster a weak argument. If the argument is strong enough, don't add superfluous qualifiers.

He also makes claims that are just plain wrong. "The Iliad is not imaginative creative literature and hence not a matter for literary discussion. It is history." (p 76) But of course it is imaginative creative literature. It is historical fiction. It is like saying the Shakespeare's Richard III is not drama but biography. Furthermore, the analysis of words used in the Iliad which Jaynes undertakes later is a type of literary criticism. 

But a fascinating read and there were lots of side snippets some of which I have recorded below.

By products:
  • If you continually mistype 'the' as 'hte' you should practise typing 'hte': "the mistake drops away - a phenomenon called negative practice" (p 34)
  • "Poems are rafts clutched at by men drowning in inadequate minds." (p 256)
  • Time is “spread out in a spatial succession ... The before and after of time on metaphored into a spatial succession.” (p 280)
  • When I am melting I have no hands, I go into a doorway in order not to be trampled on. Everything is flying away from me. In the doorway I can gather together the pieces of my body.” (p 425 )
  • The word psyche originally meant life and only later came to mean soul. (p 291) “So now, as psyche becomes soul, so soma remains as its opposite, becoming body. ... So dualism, that central difficulty in this problem of consciousness, begins it's huge haunted career through history.” (p 291)
  • The word for vagrants in Akkad, the language of Babylon, is khabiru, and so these desert refugees are referred to on cuneiform tablets. And khabiru, softened in the desert air, becomes Hebrew.” (p 294)
  • "You cannot, absolutely cannot think of time except by spatializing it. Consciousness is always a spatialization in which the diachronic is turned into the synchronic, in which what has happened in time is excerpted and seen in side-by-sideness." (p 60)
  • "the most fascinating property of language is its capacity to make metaphors". (p 48) He gives huge numbers of examples that use the human body such as the head of the household, the face of a clock, the brow of a hill, the teeth of a comb, the lip of a crater, the arm of a chair, the leg of a table ... (p 49) 
  • All the tablets from Hammurabi "are apparently incised in wet clay by the same hand" (p 198): H himself?

Cuneiform poetry: (p 225)

One who has no god, as he walks along the street,
Headache envelops him like a garment
My god has forsaken me and disappeared,
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance.
The good angel who walked beside me has departed.

September 2017; 446 pages

Sunday, 3 September 2017

"The Origins and Growth of Modern Education" by Elizabeth Lawrence

This is an extraordinarily comprehensive account of the development of educational thought in western Europe, particularly Britain.

The author displays her bias clearly, applauding those who, hundreds of years ago, had views which might be interpreted as being support of Lawrence's educational ideals: for example: "Pestalozzi expresses clearly what is now accepted, if not acted upon, as an educational truth: that education can force nothing into children, but only draw out what is already there. ... This was not theory. It was put into practice and it succeeded, as anyone who has tried it knows that it does succeed." (p 199) Notwithstanding Socrates and his scripted tricks with Meno's slaveboy, I am not convinced that education can never be anything more than drawing out what is already inside and the uncompromising and unevidenced way in which she advances her doctrine seems unacademic at best. This is a rather whiggish view of the history of education in which progress is always progress. It rather assumes that "modern education" is now as good as it is going to get.

And certainly some of the practices of the old days (eg trying to beat knowledge into children) seem wrong although perhaps the biggest improvement is that nowadays, instead of having philosophers pontificate about what they believe about education we actually have people observing children and their learning.

It was interesting that some of the metaphors for learning are used time and again:
If you pour a liquid into a narrow necked bottle it will overflow (Quintillian, Comenius
(Erasmus says you shouldn't feed a child more meat than he can take which is similar)
Teaching is like igniting flames (Plutarch, Alciun,
Teaching is like gardening, tending plants (Plutarch, Origen, St Anselm, Vives, Sir Thomas Elyot, Francis Bacon, John Dury, Pestalozzi, Froebel
Learning is like digesting food
Curiosity is key: (St Augustine of Hippo, Montaigne, Locke, Fenelon, Rollin, Isaac Watts, Rousseau
Timing is important (Vives, Isaac Watts, Froebel, Piaget
You need to know the kids (Sir Thomas Elyot
Kids need to have things to do (Comenius, Locke, Rousseau, Robert Owen, Dewey

Selected quotes:
"Going to school has become accepted as a kind of sentence imposed on all, which must be served before one can be let free into the world." (p 9)
"In primitive societies ... children learn all they need to know in the life of the tribe, by imitating and taking part in its work and rituals. ... It was only with the invention of writing that a new kind of education arose ... which gave rise to schools, since the work of teaching was now too skilled to be carried out at home." (p 12)
"The future of the State, and indeed its survival, depend on the quality of its education." (p 19)
"In the story of the slave in the Meno he [Plato] showed that, before one can learn anything, it is necessary to know oneself and to realize the extent of one's ignorance." (p 27)
Clement wrote: (The Pedagogue 4:5): "To become as a little child - does not mean that adults should be unlearned or childish, but that, loosed from the world, they should touch the earth on tiptoe. That is the secret of the life-long springtime of youth." (p 49)
Peter Abelard (Sic et Non, Prologue) said "through doubt we are led to inquiry, and by inquiry we discern the truth." (p 55)
Comenius thought  that "Too much sitting still ... is not a good sign" (p 100)
"If they will put a Man's coat on a Child, the Child may yet be cumbered with his long and loose Habiliments, and yet be starved with Cold." Isaac Watts; (p 143)
"Children generally acquire speedily and certainly whatever they are not pressed to learn" Rousseau (p 164)
"Children are always in motion: quiet and meditation are their aversion" Rousseau (p 164)
"Education ... should enable the child to live in and make his own contribution to society." Rousseau (p 166)
"Education must be active experience"  David Williams (p 175)
"it is one thing to have learnt, and another to be able to teach" Arthur Hill (p 223)
"those brought up under the severest discipline should so frequently turn out the wildest of the wild." Spencer (p 282) 
"The child who teaches another ... teaches himself" Seguin (p 297)
"The first function of education is to lead the child to independence" so don't do things for kids Montessori (p 328)
"Most political newspapers are bristling with hate ... too many are socialistic because they hate the rich instead of loving the poor." AS Neill (p 347)

"We should never do for children what they are able to do for themselves." Edgeworth (p 206)
RLEdgeworth and novelist daughter Maria (who wrote Castle Rackrent, reviewed here) wrote Practical Education (1798) based on transcripts of children's conversation. They advocated learning by doing: "Children ... work hard at play" (p 205) though they advocated the use of the right toys.

M De Fellenberg's School of Industry at Hofwyl in Switzerland taught kids, including an ex beggar boy, after they had laboured all day in the fields; they wanted to learn and refused to go to bed
Massively comprehensive and written well enough to read without falling asleep. September 2017; 370 pages