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review 2018-06-10 13:06
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World - Peter Frankopan

This book. It's been such a disappointment: Not only is the title an exercise in how to cram several misrepresentations in less than ten words, but the writing style left me rather unimpressed, too. 

 

There is little that is new about the history contained in the book. It certainly is not a history of the world (Europe, perhaps, but the focus on the power struggles between Christianity and Islam, and later on the West v. the East, and the US against Iraq/Iran/Afghanistan does not make this a book about the history of world). It is even less a book about the Silk Roads.

 

If you picked this up in the hope of learning about the trade routes and the people who live or travel along them, you've picked the wrong book. 

 

Sure there were a few interesting snippets of history in this, but the authors choice of not going into a lot of detail and preferring to follow up events with other events without providing a lot of deliberations about the possible connections or effects, does not make for inspiring reading. Unless, that is, we are talking about the inspiration to look for other books.

 

Maybe the premise of the book was a little too ambitious? Maybe some editor should have pointed out some of the gaps ... or at least that the title does not reflect the content of the book?

 

Whatever the cause of its failings, I was hoping for a thoughtful insight into the history of the Silk Roads, but all I got from the books was what read like the work of a self-congratulatory academic who couldn't make up his mind what to write about and looked at history mostly through Union-Jack-striped goggles.

 

Previous Reading Updates:

 

Reading progress update: I've read 201 out of 636 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 159 out of 636 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 136 out of 636 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 90 out of 636 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 62 out of 636 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 26 out of 636 pages.

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review 2018-04-26 19:27
"The Trick To Time" by Kit De Waal -Highly Recommended
The Trick To Time - Kit de Waal

I chose"The Trick To Time" by Kit De Waal as one of the six books I wanted to read from the sixteen books on the 2018 Women's Fiction Prize Longlist and I'm delighted that I did as it is one of the best books I've read so far this year. I recommend the audiobook version of "The Trick To Time" as Fiona Shaw's narration is perfect. Hearing the voices of the two Irish Aunts nicknames Pestilence and Famine, I was transported back to listening to my grandmother and her sister who spoke in exactly the same way.

 

I went into the book without reading the publisher's summary and I'm glad I did as it reads like the summary of a different book entirely, suggesting either magical realism or a historical romance.

 

For me, the strength of "The Trick To Time" is that exists purely to tell the story of how the main character, Mona, came to be Mona. The story is told in two parallel timelines: Mona as she reaches her sixtieth birthday, living alone in a seaside town in England, making dolls and providing some mysterious service to some of the women who visit her shop and Mona as a little girl, growing up in Ireland and then moving, in her late teens, to Birmingham to make a new life for herself.

 

The thing that most engaged me about the book was understanding how the little girl playing on the beach, and the young woman going nervously to her first dance in Birmingham, became the calm, strong but sad woman who makes wooden dolls. The parallel timeline structure of the book kept this at the centre of my attention and kept surprising me, not through the use of tricks or crazy plot twists but by how real and honest the changes in Mona seemed. I'm the same age as Mona and when I look back, I also wonder how the boy I was became the man I am. I was there and I yet I understand Mona's journey better than my own.

 

I was delighted to see that the sixty-year-old Mona isn't presented either as an old-woman far along the crone road or a woman still pretending to be twenty. Mona knows herself, she knows what's happened to her, she recognises the compromises and limitations in how she lives now and she has still a strong desire to find a way to live her life.

 

There is a real sense of time passing and perceptions changing while the people themselves remain who they have always truly been as if time simply wears away the bits of themselves that they'd only dressed up in in their youth.

 

This is a deeply empathic book about the nature of grief, the enduring impact of loss and the effect of time on emotions, memory and our own sense of identity.

 

I won't put spoilers in this review so I won't talk about the central trauma of Mona's life, except to say that it made me angry and it made me cry and it filled me with deep admiration for the service that Mona provided to others in later life.

 

Mona is a working-class Irish woman, living as an immigrant in Birmingham at the time of the IRA bombing that unleashed so much pain and hate.  Her ambition is simple: to make a family with the man she loves. By today's standards, they have nothing but they have enough to live independently and dream of a life filled with children who are loved and cared for with: "A roof on the house, food on the table and a coat on the hook".. I recognise those kinds of circumstances and that simple ambition but I rarely see it in books that are nominated for literary prizes. I also recognise the situation of being an immigrant and just trying to make your way. I like the matter-of-fact way this was dealt with: no polemics, no dog-whistle posturing, just an honest personal narrative.

 

The writing is beautiful without being flowery. From the beginning, I understood that there was more going on than I yet knew about and that understanding filled me with pleasant anticipation of a real story worth waiting for. It was a story that caught me by surprise time and again, up to the final chapter, but each surprise made more sense of Mona's life and actions rather than feeling like a magic trick.

 

Although this is Mona's story, the other people in it are more than cyphers. They are people with histories and emotions and opinions of their own and they rarely take the path that convention or cliché would channel them to.

 

For example, Mona's father is a complex and compassionate man. When his still-young wife is dying and Mona, his daughter, is playing on the beach to avoid her mother's illness, he finds her and persuades her to spend time with her mother. He says:
 
"One day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want to get them back. There's a trick to time. You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer." 

The gentle, sad truth of this sets the tone for the whole novel.

 

I'll be reading Kit de Waal's back-catalogue and anything else she publishes. I think she's an extraordinary talent.

 

4480If you'd like to know more about her and how she wrote "The Trick To Time", take a look at this Interview with Kit de Waal in "The Guardian" covering:

"The novelist on her Irish heritage, the passing of time and why she’s glad she didn’t start young"

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review 2018-03-18 13:49
Arthur Conan Doyle - Beyond Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Sherlock Holmes - Andrew Norman

Arthur Conan Doyle - Beyond Sherlock Holmes, Andrew Norman's biography of Arthur Conan Doyle is one of those books that got off to a rocky start with me and I should have DNF'd after the Preface. 

 

However, I wanted to know how preposterous the book could actually get, or, ever so hopeful, if the premise set forth in the Preface was just an unlucky and sensationalist choice of "bait" that would be abandoned in the course of Norman's investigation of ACD's life. 

 

As I don't want to string anyone along, the book did not improve after page 11, which is where the Preface ended. In fact, if anything it got worse. So, if you plan to read on this short collection of thoughts about Norman's biography of ACD, you're in for a bit of a rant.

 

To recap, the Preface of the book seems to say that Norman's focus in this biography will be to explore what motivated a reasonable, logical fellow to believe in such ridiculous concepts as spiritualism and fairies, and the last paragraph of the Preface suggested that Norman's conclusion was that Doyle must have suffered from a mental illness:

Not only that, but this illness was itself a hereditable disease, in other words, one which Charles may have handed down to his son via the genes. Suddenly I realised that I now had an opportunity to solve what I consider to be the ultimate mystery, that of the bizarre and extraordinary nature of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself."

This was the in Preface! I don't know about other readers, but unless I am reading an academic text where the expectation is that the conclusion is summarised in the prefacing abstract, I am not looking to have the author's assumptions stated as facts on page 11 (!) of what I would hope to be a gripping biography of an extraordinary personality. 

 

Strike 1!

 

Next we get two (yes, TWO!) short chapters on Doyle's childhood, which are mostly pre-occupied with his the difficulties that his family had to cope with - mostly his father's alcoholism. There is, in fact, little about young Arthur in these chapters.

 

Following this we get no less than ten (TEN!) chapters about Sherlock Holmes. Not just about the writing and publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories but actual interpretation of Sherlock as a character - all substantiated with apparently randomly selected quotes from the different stories. 

 

Seriously? A book that carries the subtitle of "Beyond Sherlock Holmes" should not focus on the one topic that the subtitle seems to exclude. What is more, there are only 25 chapters in this book in total. Norman has spent 10 of them on Holmes. That is preposterous. 

 

Strike 2!

 

Luckily, we get back to ACD after this with a brief run down of his involvement in actual criminal cases, where he managed to prove vital in overturning two miscarriages of justice, and his work and life during and after the First World War. 

Unfortunately, there is nothing new or detailed in this, and the focus and ACD is superficial. Norman uses these chapters to write about ACD's father's illness and time in various mental institutions, surmising at what kind of psychiatric condition he suffered from. This, however, can only be guesswork on Norman's part. Charles Conan Doyle was hospitalised privately. There are few actual medical records. What is more,even if there had been medical records, the areas of psychiatry and medical treatment of addiction or mental illness in the 1890s was still in its infancy. The recording and diagnosis of cases of people who had been hospitalised or committed can hardly be described as reliable. And yet, Norman, with the help of The Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry (by Michael Gelder, Paul Harrison, and Philip Cohen) dares to presume to make a diagnosis of what illness may have plagued Charles Conan Doyle, and has the audacity to infer that Arthur Conan Doyle may have inherited the same potential for mental illness because in one of his works he wrote that he knew, rather than believed, that fairies existed!

 

What utter, utter rubbish!

 

And, btw, I kid you not, but the The Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry is referenced throughout the relevant chapters as the ONLY source to back-up Norman's ideas.

 

WTF?

 

Never mind that spiritualism was an actual thing in the early 1900s and that ACD was not alone in believing in fairies and magic and the paranormal. Instead of investigating ACD's interest, Norman's work in this book is not just superficial but outright lazy. He simply regurgitates the same outrage and disbelief over how a man of sound mind can belive in something fantastic. With this book, Norman simply jumps on the gravy train of sensationalism and continues an outcry over the notion that an author of fiction may have believed in something other than hard facts.

 

I can't even...

 

Fuck this book. (Note: This is Strike 3!)

 

Seriously, I have no idea what Norman's other books are like, but he seems to have written several other biographies featuring Charles Darwin, Agatha Christie, Robert Mugabe (seriously???), and others. 

 

None of which will ever end up on my reading list.

 

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review 2018-01-28 23:56
Storm in a Teacup
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

There is sometimes a bit of snobbery about the science found in kitchens and gardens and city streets. It's seen as something to occupy children with, a trivial distraction which is important for the young, but no real use to adults. An adult might buy a book about how the universe works, and that's seen as being a proper adult topic. But that attitude misses something very important: the same physics applies everywhere. A toaster can teach you about some of the most fundamental laws of physics, and the benefit of a toaster is that you've probably got one, and you can see it working for yourself. Physics is awesome precisely because the same patterns are universal: they exist both in the kitchen and in the furthest reaches of the universe.

 

I'm re-using the above quote (already used in a progress update) because it truly describes the book's take on science and getting people interested in the subject(s) of science.

 

I really enjoyed this book. I have a both a personal and professional interest in science, but am neither a scientist nor engineer, which makes me somewhat of an oddball in my family.

While much of this is due to other interests and perhaps a smidgeon of defying parental expectations, I cannot help but think that having a maths/physics teacher and a chemistry teacher who were truly awful at explaining things. To give an example, I once asked my mum, a chemical engineer, for help with my chemistry homework. Thirty minutes later we were discussing it over the phone with her friends from work, also experts in the field, with the outcome that they all concluded that the proposed homework assignment was nonsense as the chemical reaction proposed would not and simply could not occur... I can't say that this impressed my chemistry teacher. Thankfully, I left the country to go to school in the US after that particular year, and didn't have to take any chemistry after that.

Don't get me wrong, I love reading about chemistry - and other sciences, since they are all related, but particularly chemistry - but I strongly believe that the way that science is taught plays a huge role in fostering interest, enthusiasm and even confidence in people, particularly young people, who want to learn about it.

 

This is where books like Storm in a Teacup come into play. I have seen a few books - and we certainly seem to have picked a few books for the Flat Book Society reads - that in some way failed to communicate with the reader. Communication and the ability to explain concepts and relationships, however, is crucial to producing a good science book.

Helen Czerski did a marvellous job at this. At least in my opinion. I have seldom found myself bored or talked down to. What is more, I could not wait to pick the book up again every night to read the next chapter. I also did not mind at all when I had to re-read a previous chapter to remind myself of a concept that had been explained earlier - which is my failing, or rather my reading too fast. There was a lot to absorb in the book despite Czerski's great efforts to use everyday objects like toasters, tea cups, a piece of buttered toast, a candle, ducks' feet, etc. to explain complex concepts of physics.

 

And for that reading experience alone - the inspiration to want to read more - I applaud Storm in a Teacup.

 

Previous Reading updates:

 

Update # 1

Update # 2

Update # 3

Update # 4

Update # 5

Update # 6

Update # 7

 

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review 2018-01-23 22:18
Crow
Crow - Boria Sax

Their slouching posture, their love of carrion, have helped to make crows symbols of death, yet few if any other birds are so lively and playful. They indulge in such apparently useless games as carrying a twig aloft, dropping the toy, then swooping down and catching it. For no apparent reason, they may hang upside down by one foot or execute back flips in flight. 

Crows in Alaska reportedly break pieces of congealed snow off sloping rooftops and use these as sleds to slide down.

Lawrence Kilham, who later wrote an important work on the social behaviour of corvids, once took a shot at a raven in Iceland. A single feather dropped to the ground and the raven flew off. As Kilham stopped to reload his gun, the raven returned and flew over his head. The purplish remains of cranberries the raven had been eating fell on his hat, and Kilham concluded that ravens, in addition to being smart, had a sense of humour.

Serves him right. 

 

Crow was a fascinating book that did not so much tell of the natural history or anatomy of crows as of the history of the corvid family in human mythology and culture.

Sax looks at how crows were regarded in different ages and different regions of the world and this makes for light, yet entertaining reading. 

 

For example, I had no idea that the legend of Noah was based on the Babylonian story of Ut-napishtim, who, together with his wife, survived a flood that destroyed the rest of humanity by building a boat. Unlike in the story of Noah, where the raven is depicted as more of a failure in his task, the sign of the raven not coming back meant that the raven had found land and that the water was receding.

 

My favourite of the legends about corvids was this one about Odin, who had two ravens named "Hugin" ("thought") and "Munin" ("memory"), which perched on his shoulders.

Odin visited Geirrod, king of the Goths, disguised in a blue cloak, to test the monarch's reputation for flouting the laws of hospitality. Geirrod arrested Odin and suspended the god from a tree between two fires. As he was tortured, Odin told of heaven and earth and said:

 

Hugin and Munin fly every day

Over the wide World;

I fear for Hugin that he will not come back,

Yet I tremble more for Munin.

 

This was the fear that the world would degenerate into chaos, as reflection and recollection, the gifts of civilisation, are lost.

Thought and memory. I cannot help but agree with the moral of the story - that a world without thought and memory is doomed to regression and chaos.

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