Foreign from centre to circumference

Can-cans, Cats and Cities of Ash
by Mark Twain

This is in the Penguin Great Journeys series, so it’s an abridged version of a longer travelogue, in this case The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s 1869 account of a cruise across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean.

I love Twain’s writing style – it’s simple language but excitable. He’s super enthusiastic to learn about the places he visits and to see in person places he has elevated to legendary status. His reactions seem to be genuine and honest. Which unfortunately includes some negative thoughts that are kinda racist.

“Elsewhere we have found foreign-looking things and foreign-looking people, but always with things and people intermixed that we were familiar with before, and so the novelty of the situation lost a deal of its force. We wanted something thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign – foreign from top to bottom – foreign from centre to circumference – foreign inside and outside and all around – nothing any where about it to dilute its foreignness – nothing to remind us of any other people or any other land under the sun. And lo! in Tangier we have found it.”

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In the endless silence of the night you watch your evil garden grow

My Beautiful Shadow
by Radhika Jha

This was an odd read – a well-written book about a character I found it extremely hard to empathise with. Which is not something I generally shy away from in my reading, but it turns out there’s only so much detailed description of shopping and fashion that I can cope with!

Kayo might live in Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities, but her world is small. She marries her high school boyfriend straight from school, and is immediately plunged into the life of the housewife, only leaving home to shop or get her hair done. When she has her first child a year later, her life gets even more lonely. On her rare outings she feels keenly that she is the harassed unkempt young mother, sharing the streets with glamorous office ladies whom she can never befriend.

Two things step in to change this for her. Kayo’s mother, offended at not having been invited to her daughter’s wedding or told about the birth of her first grandchild, turns up on the doorstep one day and hands Kayo a large cheque in lieu of the wedding kimono a mother would usually buy her daughter. It is understood between the two women that this will be their last meeting. Kayo decides not to tell her husband and uses the money to open her own bank account. She finally has the means to create a little freedom for herself.

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Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World
by Rachel Ignotofsky

We tend to think that until the latter half of the 20th century, science was done by men. The history books and allocation of awards such as Nobel prizes strongly support that view. But in recent years a slew of books have begun to challenge that version of history. This is the first I’ve read but I’m keen to follow it up with Hidden Figures, The Glass Universe and others.

Ignotofsky both wrote and illustrated this beautiful book, profiling women scientists in a design-heavy layout that simply and effectively tells their stories.

From Hypatia (approx 350–415 AD) to Maryam Mirzakhani (1979–present), this book devotes a double-page spread each to women who have made significant advances in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In each, the left-hand page is an illustration of the woman herself, with a few key facts floating around, while the right-hand page contains a bio of the woman and a few small, light-hearted illustrations. In every case there is a quote either by or about the woman, and these often reference being a woman in a man’s world.

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March 2017 reading round-up

(Bill Nye’s History of England, 1900)

I feel like I’ve barely looked at a book this month, though actually the list below isn’t especially short. I have watched a lot of films, including Logan, which isn’t my favourite X-Men film (that would be Days of Future Past), but is my favourite standalone Wolverine film.

My favourite film of the month was probably Freeheld, the 2015 film based on the true story of a dying policewoman fighting to have her pension assigned to her domestic partner. It made me cry a lot, but also includes a very funny turn from Steve Carrell as a gay rights activist who takes on the case.

On 10 March, for British Science Week, I ran a 10k virtual race. I was so proud of myself! Now I have to make sure I keep the effort up ahead of the Bristol 10k at the start of May, which I’m running for charity (more on that soon).

Now I need to wrench myself away from all the films we have on DVD, Netflix and Amazon Prime and get some reading done!

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Free speech is unthinkable

Burmese Days
by George Orwell

I’m always nervous of contemporary books about colonialism but I figured I’d be in safe hands with Orwell. Like A Passage to India, the major theme is the racism inherent to colonialism, but Orwell does a better job than Forster of clearly separating his characters’ racism from his own opinions on the subject.

The first character we meet is U Po Kyin, a middle-ranking Burmese official who has plotted and bribed his way to where he is and continues to plot his way further up. The next step in his plan is to destroy the reputation of Dr Veraswami, the local doctor. The biggest hurdle he faces is that the doctor is friends with Mr Flory – a white British man, in a country where the ruling British are unassailable.

For the most part the rest of the novel follows Flory as he tries to keep a grip on his awkward position in society. They’re in a small town in northern Burma and the Europeans-only Clubhouse has just eight members, most of whom are, like Flory, timber merchants who spend most of their time in the jungle. Aside from Flory they keep themselves apart from the native population and refer to them with racial epithets that are shocking to modern ears, and I suspect even at the time would have been frowned on “back home”. Flory makes clear by his friendship with the doctor that he doesn’t agree with the prevailing opinion, but he rarely opens his mouth to object when racist things are said.

“[Flory said,] ‘I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of the country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.’
‘But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?’
‘Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them. I suppose it’s a natural enough lie. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives.’ ”

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Sunday Salon: Weekending in Devon

The Sunday SalonDespite losing an hour, we packed in a lot of fun this weekend. Yesterday we took the steam train and ferry from Paignton to Dartmouth with some friends. The weather was perfect, with blue skies and some real warmth from the sun for one of the first times this year. We ate local crab sandwiches, took a cruise around the estuary and (after some searching) found a place for cream tea with delicious scones and terrible wait staff.

We weren’t in Devon for a literary break, but it so happens that one of the stops on the steam train line is Greenway Halt, which exists solely for visitors to Greenway, the estate of one Agatha Christie. I haven’t read her books since I was a teenager but back then I was a big fan. I couldn’t resist picking up one of her titles in the railway shop. Maybe I’ll rekindle my fandom and next time we’re in Devon I can drag Tim round another author’s home!

Braveheart

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The hands of loss keep touching the memory

All the Rivers
by Dorit Rabinyan
translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

I remember spotting this book in the Serpent’s Tail catalogue last year and immediately liking the sound of it. It had potential to be brilliant or awful, to deal with complex matters sensitively or insensitively. Thankfully, to my mind, Rabinyan got it just right.

Liat is a translation student spending the academic year in New York City. She is practical and idealistic. Hilmi is a painter struggling for his artistic break. He is passionate and pessimistic. When they meet one day in a coffee shop there is instant attraction, but it also immediately clear that theirs won’t be a straightforward courtship. Besides the fact that Liat has only six months left on her visa, there’s the question of where she will be moving back to. Because she is from Israel and he is from Palestine.

The narrative isn’t quite linear, dealing with different aspects of the relationship in turn. First there’s getting to know each other. Then there’s Hilmi’s burgeoning art career. Then how they act around their friends. And so on. The day of Liat’s departure keeps getting close, only for the story to jump back a few months to fill in fresh detail. It feels very much like the way someone remembering events might structure their thoughts.

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In our house money was a god. But it was an angry, careful god

Rebuilding Coventry
by Sue Townsend

Sue Townsend was reliably both funny and socially relevant, and she doesn’t disappoint here. The title doesn’t refer to the Midlands town’s destruction in World War Two – it is, rather, about a woman called Coventry.

Coventry Dakin introduces herself with two facts: she’s beautiful and she killed a man. Specifically, her neighbour Gerald Fox. And now she’s on the run in London, without her handbag.

Killing Gerald was a spur of the moment decision, hence Coventry’s less-than-perfect running-away outfit. We learn the story behind the murder and the fallout for Coventry’s husband and children, interspersed between Coventry’s survival on the streets of the capital.

This being a comedy, there is an element of the ridiculous to much of the action. The murder weapon is an Action Man doll. She had been in the middle of cleaning her chimney, so she’s wearing old clothes and covered in soot. Her husband Derek is really only interested in his tortoises.

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There is a silent ripeness to the air

Harvest
by Jim Crace

This is an unusual book, primarily because of its historical setting and premise. While there are plenty of historical novels, there are few that remain so determinedly non-specific about the time and place in which they are set and even fewer where the action revolves around the forced enclosure of common land.

England (which is presumably the setting, though even that isn’t stated outright) had a series of Enclosure Acts from the 12th century to the 19th, but they became especially common in the 17th and 18th centuries. Effectively, this allowed landowners to seize common land – land that their tenants, which often meant whole villages, farmed for their own use – and enclose it, controlling what was farmed there. This might mean charging rent to local people or it might mean switching to a type of farming that employed far fewer people, such as sheep farming.

It doesn’t sound like the most auspicious basis for a book, but actually that part of it really worked for me. It felt very relevant to be reading about social injustice, the rich getting richer while the poor lose what little they have. There is some action too – arson, violence, death – which the landowner turns to his advantage, though the villagers don’t realise it.

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