2014 round-up

Oh Christmas Tree

As I cough and splutter my way through New Year’s Eve, I would like to come up with some pithy, wise things to say about the year that’s ending, but mostly I’m counting down the time until I can take more Sudafed, so apologies if this a bit rambly.

This year I read 71 books. I set myself three challenges, of which I completed two. Honestly, I am fine with that. I read some great books this year. My favourites have been:

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones
Transmetropolitan, Vol. 5: Lonely City by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson
An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell by Deborah Levy

Looking at that list, I’m pleased with how varied it is. There’s lit fic, popular science, translated fiction, a graphic novel and poetry. Completely unplanned, I swear!

Just practising

On the non-reading front, I’ve also had some fun new experiences this year. I went to Amsterdam (and instantly fell in love with it), saw Cirque du Soleil live (which was a total surprise planned by Tim – best surprise ever!), successfully grew chillis (in fairness a friend did the difficult first part and gave me the seedling, but I’m still happy I didn’t just kill it) and I knitted stuff (Tim’s mum taught me to knit at the end of 2013 but I didn’t knit any actual things until this year and I’m super proud of myself still every time). Oh, and we finally finished watching Battlestar Galactica, which may not sound like much of an achievement but we bought the box set five and a half years ago, so I’m totally counting it. It’s a great show, I don’t know why we took so long!

Right now, I think it’s time for another cup of tea and one of my new Christmas books (which I’ll post pictures of another time). Happy New Year everyone!

Reality is always worth more than wishes

backroom boysBackroom Boys: the Secret Return of the British Boffin
by Francis Spufford

This was my final read for my 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge. It’s been recommended to me by multiple people, including Tim, so I thought I would save this for last. It’s about British engineering projects, large and small, of the 20th century.

This is a sort of love letter to British engineering, but a deprecating one with notes of doubt. Spufford looks at projects from the Black Arrow space rocket to the computer game Elite to the Human Genome Project. Sometimes, like that last example, the Brits formed part of an international effort, but it is very much the Brits that Spufford is writing about.

Spufford is playing up the idea of the unsung hero, the small project dwarfed by international (especially US) comparison, which isn’t actually always as true as he implies (but obviously in the case of, say, the space programme, it really is). A book about technology, especially one including ongoing projects, does risk feeling dated quickly, and in the 11 years since this was first published, things have changed. In fact, the paperback edition includes an author’s note at the end with updates that had already happened in the first year since publication.

“It was beginning to dawn on the engineers that they were watching a virtually perfect performance…Wishes were turning into facts faster than seemed wholly lucky…The party was long and loud, because the attempt to orbit Prospero had been the last thing between the rocketmen and the end of the programme, and this, the celebration, was the last of the last. When the sun came up the next morning over the desert, the hangover would encompass the whole of British rocketry.”

This is an interesting, entertaining book that brings to life largely forgotten (or possibly never known to begin with) stories. Spufford doesn’t just explain the science and technology well, he bubbles with enthusiasm, pouring praise on the men and women (but as he admits himself, mostly men) who made these projects happen. I was actually a little saddened when later chapters concentrated more on the policy and politics of making projects happen, not because that’s not a valid part of the story, but because it meant there was less of that almost childlike enthusiasm and adulation.

There’s a definite lean towards Cambridge-based projects. Spufford lives in Cambridge and, while I would not say any of his choices of subjects to cover are undeserving, it does seem a little more than coincidental that half of them are or were in Cambridge, and makes me wonder what alternative options he might have covered with a net cast more widely. Also, I was not always convinced by his sweeping statements, though I’m pretty sure he’s right on the details.

For instance, Spufford writes about Elite as if it’s the one and only example of a decent British computer game, as if this effort by two Cambridge students was the country’s one stab at a games industry and, while successful, was a one-off. This is so very far from true. In the major success league, by 2003 there had been four Grand Theft Auto games (DMA Design/Rockstar North), five Tomb Raider games (Core Design), Goldeneye 007 (Rare), Lemmings (DMA Design), Burnout (Criterion Games), Worms (Team17) and dozens more that I don’t know. So while Elite was clearly a major step forward, hugely influential on gaming as a whole and an interesting human story to boot, it is by no means a lone wolf in British engineering history. That said, it’s a particularly well written chapter, plus it was a lot of fun reading it while sat next to Tim playing the recent sequel Elite: Dangerous, and hearing from him what a big deal the original Elite was.

“That’s how making goes. It would be dispiriting for the maker if it weren’t that reality is always worth more than wishes. A real, constructed thing (however dented) beats a wish (however shiny) hands down; so working through the inevitable compromises, losing some of what you first thought of, is still a process of gain, is still therefore deeply pleasurable to the maker.”

Overall, Spufford is very readable and I’m glad that we already have one of his other books on our shelves.

First published 2003 by Faber and Faber.

Source: Borrowed from Tim

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge

Merry Christmas

Christmas reading plans

Merry Christmas folks!

As I have two whole glorious weeks off work, I have ambitiously set aside the above pile of books to work my way through, though I will no doubt get distracted by shiny new Christmas present books at some point. We do have lots of people to visit and sensible house stuff to do, so I’m not sure how much reading time I’ll actually get, but here’s hoping!

Happy holidays and happy reading everyone.

You’re just a totalitarian angel

AmorousDiscourseSuburbsHellAn Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell
by Deborah Levy

This is a long poem (ish – it’s no Faerie Queen) in the form of a dialogue between a couple, “He” and “she”, alternating having their say in this argument/conversation. It’s different from anything else I’ve read, wonderfully surreal and packed with references to everything from Shakespeare to pop songs. I read it in one sitting and immediately wanted to read it again.

The poem works so well because it could be read in many ways. Is this an ordinary human couple living in suburbia? Or are they angels fallen to hell? Is one of them fallen and the other trying to save them? Is one human and one God? The many religious references (to the Bible, to Dante, to the language of faith) are woven in such a way that they could just possibly be the twee fondnesses of a couple in love, or they could be wholly serious.

Best of all, it’s funny. Genuinely, laugh-out-loud but also cleverly, funny. It’s profound and profane, full of meaning and simple, pure entertainment.

“i try to introduce you
to the way i see things
and all you want is a wife
a wife and a second-class stamp and a bath
a bath and a donut and a product to kill moths

“You’re just a totalitarian angel
Full of self-rapture
I thought you were a divine messenger
In fact you’re a glutton
With wings”

First published 1990 by Jonathan Cape.
This edition, with revisions, published 2014 by And Other Stories.

Source: I subscribe to the publisher.

Sunday Salon: Christmassy book thoughts

The Sunday SalonIt’s the last weekend before the Christmas holiday starts in the Nose in a book household, so I was expecting to be madly Christmas shopping or present wrapping, but I seem to have already bought everything I can until certain family members respond to my questions, so instead the weekend has been spent hanging out with friends, reading and binge-watching a TV box set that I’m not going to name because we’re about five episodes from the end and I really don’t want it spoiled for me!

One thing I did spot while doing my Christmas shopping was this rather lovely charitable giving project from Blackwells bookshops: the Giving Tree, donating books to less fortunate children. If I can get to a Blackwells in person I’d love to help pick out a book myself but if I can’t I’ll entrust the choice to their booksellers who, let’s face it, know what they’re doing.

It’s a timely reminder that not everyone is in the fortunate position I’m in where I have more books than I can read in a year already piled up invitingly. And I keep buying more for myself! Though I try not to do too much of that around Christmas, this week I did receive my first book from my Peirene Press subscription, which I bought as a present to myself last month. Because I just couldn’t keep resisting these beauties.

peirene

And last week I also received this rather fun advance reading copy of a book being published early next year, along with a kit for knitting a square of a blanket that I can only assume will be gigantic if every reviewer does that part as well. As an enthusiastic amateur knitter how could I not join in this project? They judged me well when they sent that invite! Keep an eye out early next year for my knitting and my review.

a to z of me and you proof

Reading goals this year and next

My aims for this year’s reading were threefold: more science fiction, popular science and re-reads. The results have been…varied.

In 2013 I read six SF books, eight if you include graphic novels. This year so far I’ve read seven SF books, so not a huge leap forward, but if I include graphic novels it’s 17. So it’s a win but it does feel a little bit like I cheated to get there.

2014-pop-sci-reading-challengePopular science I worked harder on. I even made it an official reading challenge. I did revise my aim down from one per month to 10 over the year and I’m currently reading number 10, so that’s another win! Well, as long as I finish this book it is. It’s looking pretty good. This challenge definitely stretched me beyond my comfort zone and helped me to feel much more knowledgeable about non-fiction in general. Which is fab. I even wrote about popular science for For Books’ Sake.

Re-reads though? Oh dear. I re-read two books this year. Which is two more than last year! But it’s still only two, which really doesn’t constitute a big fat tick. And with my beautiful library housing thousands of books that I kept because I want to re-read them, I really have no excuse. Well, there’s the TBR – that’s my excuse.

So for next year do I want something completely different or more of the same? Well I’d like to pick back up on translated reads definitely. For 2015 I’ve subscribed to Peirene Press as well as And Other Stories, which should help. Or just make my TBR bigger. One of those.

classicsclub6But the biggie in new challenges is that I am joining the Classics Club. I have given myself the goal of reading 50 classics in five years. The list of classics I intend to read is over here. I’ve tried to make sure there are books I’m looking forward to reading and books I’m a bit scared of on there, so it should be an interesting one! There were already a lot of classics on my TBR, so the challenge should also help with reducing that.

I should probably set a third aim. Three is a good number. Should I try re-reads again? Maybe I should return to my cookery book challenge, which is looking a little sad as it is. Or I could try something completely new…but what? Any ideas?

Something from that moment needed to be kept

all the days and nightsAll the Days and Nights
by Niven Govinden

This is a short, lyrical, even painterly novel about a dying artist. It’s in some ways the epitome of literary fiction, with a very simple storyline playing second fiddle to the style and language, but it didn’t feel at all pretentious or complex.

Anna Brown is a famous artist nearing death in her home in a small farming community not too far from New York City. She has her faithful housekeeper/cook/companion Vishni and her agent of sorts Ben for company in her final days, but her husband John – her muse and subject of most of her paintings – has gone missing, he just walked away. Anna addresses him, trying to imagine his journey and his state of mind, while also reminiscing on their life together. In the present she is painting her final work, turning her little household to turmoil as she forsakes oxygen tank and rest for her art.

I loved the language of this book, and the way it talked about art from so many perspectives – creating it, appreciating it, collecting it, displaying it. Anna doesn’t talk about death or dying but it’s clearly there in the forefront of her mind. She is obsessed with her art to the point of pushing people far beyond the bounds of most friendships, and her feelings for John are complicated by his being her muse as well as her husband. The story is sweet, moving, contemplative but never boring.

“You were bronzed and smooth, flaxen and happy; it was as if the last days of young manhood were making themselves known. I was blinded by the beauty of it, from the way you smiled to the trail of mosquito bites on your lower arm and the redness of your lips from all the beer…I wanted to shout at you…hold your pose because something from that moment needed to be kept. You were perfect. But I held my voice, because to explain it would be to kill your naturalness.”

Published October 2014 by The Friday Project.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

The torment was strange, it was all in her mind

brooklynBrooklyn
by Colm Tóibín

This is a lovely book, though I do have reservations. Eilis lives with her older sister Rose and their mother in 1950s Enniscorthy, an Irish town in which job opportunities are scarce. Their brothers have already moved to England to work. Rose has a steady job but Eilis, despite having a bookkeeping qualification, doesn’t, so when a priest offers to arrange a job and accommodation for her in Brooklyn it seems like there’s no choice but to agree.

Eilis is enigmatic – she lets life happen to her, lets others make decisions for her, but she doesn’t lack ambition or opinions of her own. At times she seems ineffectual or indecisive, at others strong and brave. I suppose she is young enough (20 or so?) that she’s still learning who she is and what she believes, even what she really feels. She’s had to grow up very suddenly, thrust from a protective home in a small town to a boarding house in one the world’s largest cities, and the decisions she is faced with are very different now. The social stigmas and etiquette are different, and yet in some ways the same – there’s snobbery and elitism everywhere, but Brooklyn has the addition of racial tensions.

Tóibín manages to explore a lot in not that many pages here – separation from family and ties to our childhood home, love and romance, migration and loneliness, the changing social position of women and job opportunities available to them – but it doesn’t in any way feel like an “issues” book. It’s a snapshot of a time and place that felt very real to me, but most of all I was swept up in Eilis’s story. One word of warning, though: do not read the blurb on the back cover – it reveals something from the last 20 pages of the book. Poor form, Penguin!

“It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again. She did not know what she was going to do.”

First published 2009 by Viking.

Source: Secondhand, not sure which bookshop.

Too far from the all-night click and shudder of the hot core

William Gibson_1984_NeuromancerNeuromancer
by William Gibson

I read this book because I had arranged to take Tim to an evening with William Gibson arranged by Toppings in Bath and, having read nothing by Gibson myself, thought I might as well start with his first and most famous novel, which is 30 years old this year. It was…educational?

Gibson’s language is wonderful, both lyrical and humorous and I often felt I could visualise scenes really clearly. However, the same can’t be said for clarity of plot. Through a lot of this book I felt that I didn’t know what was happening. After I had finished it and turned to the Internet for a little guidance, it turned out I had misunderstood some early scenes and that had thrown me, but actually I had followed the majority of the action. I just somehow didn’t feel that I had.

“Straylight reminded Case of deserted early morning shopping centers he’d known as a teenager, low-density places where the small hours brought a fitful stillness, a kind of numb expectancy, a tension that left you watching insects swarm around caged bulbs above the entrance of darkened shops. Fringe places, just past the borders of the Sprawl, too far from the all-night click and shudder of the hot core. There was that same sense of being surrounded by the sleeping inhabitants of a waking world he had no interest in visiting or knowing, of dull business temporarily suspended, of futility and repetition soon to wake again.”

The story follows Case, formerly a successful hacker in the Matrix, a kind of virtual reality, a “cyberspace” where computer data is visualised in various ways, from a pleasant beach scene to a complex maze. But at some point (before the novel begins? this bit I’m still not clear on) Case was caught stealing from an employer and a terrible punishment was wrought – a modification to his nervous system that left him unable to access the Matrix. So instead he wanders the back streets of Chiba City in Japan searching for a black market cure.

He is saved by a woman called Molly, a samurai who recruits him for a shadowy employer called Armitage, who offers to cure Case in return for a very big, dangerous job in cyberspace. He and Molly work together for Armitage but also begin to try to unravel exactly who Armitage is and what this job really is.

It’s clear from the start that this book was a major influence on the language of computing, computer games and SF films. But what’s interesting – and also no doubt part of why I got so confused about what was happening at times – is that there was a lot of terminology that’s now familiar to us all but in this book it’s not quite describing what I initially thought it was. For instance, “virtual reality” and “hacking” are words that I have clear preconceptions of but Gibson’s interpretation is wider and requires a bit of a brain shift.

Incidentally, at the Gibson talk we went to last week, he said that the only thing he felt he could predict about the future is that the division between reality and virtual reality will blur to the point that children born today won’t understand why us old folk insist on a distinction between the two. It’s clear that Gibson already thought that way when he was writing Neuromancer and it explains a lot about one of my confusions, which was that I wasn’t always sure whether a scene was happening in reality or virtual reality. But apparently the characters don’t think that way, so of course it wasn’t always distinct!

Plot confusion aside, I did enjoy this book. There are plenty of interesting, flawed characters, though none that you really get inside the head of psychologically speaking. Molly is pretty kickass, with inscrutable motivations, which I found refreshing. In fact, the whole novel felt very modern, certainly not 30 years old. I’m not sure if that’s the language or great foresight on Gibson’s part or if he’s actually managed to create something here that’s somehow timeless.

It’s also a very interesting look at addiction. Case gets physical pleasure from plugging himself into the Matrix and at the start of the novel is strung out on drugs in his attempt to achieve an equivalent high. When Armitage has Case cured of his nervous system damage, he also has Case’s pancreas altered so that no drug will have any effect on him. Initially Case is upset by this and showing signs of withdrawal, but once he gets back to cyberspace he no longer misses the drugs.

“The high wore away, the chromed skeleton corroding hourly, flesh growing solid, the drug-flesh replaced with the meat of his life. He couldn’t think. He liked that very much, to be conscious and unable to think. He seemed to become each thing he saw: a park bench, a cloud of white moths around an antique streetlight, a robot gardener striped diagonally with black and yellow.”

And despite my confusion at the time, I think the start of the novel in Chiba City is a very visceral, believable depiction of poor neighbourhoods rife with prostitution, drug-taking and other crime. It’s a dark, depressing place where everyone (especially Chase) is paranoid, but not everyone is miserable. In fact, the novel as a whole has great sense of place in all its various locations, perhaps rooted in Gibson’s early travel around the globe before he settled in Vancouver.

I just wish I’d known at any point what was actually happening.

First published 1984 by Victor Gollancz.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.