75 years of Penguin

Penguin book design is fab

I love penguins, I love books and I love Penguin Books. I love that little paragraph most Penguins have somewhere in or on them about Allen Lane deciding to start a publishing company when he couldn’t buy a decent book at a railway station. I love the design of their covers and the fantastic range of quality content between them. In short, Penguin Books rule.

A lot of my childhood books were Puffins, which is this year celebrating its 70th anniversary, so happy birthday to them too. And Penguin Classics have always been my preferred editions, even when they cost more than the equivalent from other publishers, because the Penguin ones look better, have better introductions and, in the case of translations, have better translators. I remember when I read The Count of Monte Cristo a few years ago, after a couple of chapters I read a comment online about the Penguin edition being the only one to use a new translation that reinstated the sex and violence that the Victorian translator had censored out, so I immediately went out and bought the Penguin version and switched to that. (And I still didn’t find it particularly sexual or violent. How times change, eh?)

I have really liked the Penguin birthday promotion running at the Oxfam Bookshop on Park Street in Bristol (no idea if their other stores are doing this) for the past few months because it’s meant they have dug out and displayed hundreds of old Penguins, particularly those with the classic orange and green covers. I am a sucker for those editions, even in poor condition, and I loved the Penguin design exhibition when I saw it at the Holborne Museum in Bath. If I didn’t find books such tactile objects I would totally put a bunch of Penguins in a glass frame on my wall. That would look awesome.

So, in short, happy 75th birthday Penguin Books. You’re great.

Mr Penguin Sir

Penguin!

Super extra bonus review

Scott Pilgrim books 1–6
by Bryan Lee O’Malley

So these books are a lot of fun. Considering it’s mostly boy geeks who are obsessed with them I was surprised to discover that they’re all about relationships. With a bunch of kick-ass fighting and geeky extras thrown in, that is.

Volume 1 opens with Scott Pilgrim aged 23, unemployed, living with (by which I mean scrounging off) his gay best friend Wallace in a one-bed apartment (that’s literally one bed, which they share, not that it’s awkward or anything) and playing bass in a band called Sex Bob-omb that may or may not suck. Scott plays videogames all day and is still mooning over some girl he broke up with a year ago but somehow he’s like catnip to the ladies and we gradually meet a whole string of his exes.

Then, like some great karmic revenge, he meets smart, pretty, funny, mysterious Ramona Flowers. Or strictly, she starts appearing in his head and he’s already obsessed before he meets her in real life and asks her out. She says yes, with one condition: he has to fight – and defeat – her seven evil exes.

Scott seems sweet and unassuming, and also pretty gormless and very forgetful, but it turns out that fighting is the one thing he got good at in high school. Plus he’s been training hard on the videogames, so how could he not kick ass? In fact it turns out he’s better at doing that than growing up.

These books are funny, addictive and well drawn. There’s a whole array of secondary characters, most of whom are thoroughly fleshed out, believable people. Obviously some of them are just bad guys Scott has to fight.

There are some brilliant comic touches that may actually be entirely in Scott’s mind, warped as it is from playing videogames more than real life. When he defeats a bad guy – or evil ex – their body disappears and a pile of coins appears, like in an old platform game. And when he learns something valuable he gets experience points. Genius.

There’s a lot of meta referencing, which I liked, with characters saying things like “I’ll tell you in book 3”. And there’s a subspace highway that runs through Scott’s head, which is convenient.

The dialogue is at once realistic and very, very funny and, like all the best comics, background detail is used to great effect, usually comedic. The books are chock-full of quotable comedy and, despite a few big reveals, completely re-readable.

It goes without saying (almost) that I think the film of this by Edgar Wright will be brilliant and I can’t wait to see it. From the trailers it looks like the tone has been captured exactly. And it would be hard to dislike anything starring Michael Cera.

First published 2004–2010 by Oni Press in the US.
Published 2010 by Fourth Estate in the UK.

Book 1 ISBN 978-0-0073-4047-7

Two worlds, one book

I’ll Never be Young Again
by Daphne du Maurier

This is an odd book, in some places brilliant and beautiful, in others disjointed and, frankly, a little far-fetched. Ever since I read Rebecca I have been making my way through the rest of du Maurier’s works and this is a typical example – a great writer not at her best but still captivating.

The book is divided into two distinct halves and they are so different they could almost be separate novellas. What they have in common is their narrator, an incredibly believably voiced Englishman called Richard. He is young, very young, and full of restless spirit. The book opens with him contemplating throwing himself off a bridge into the Thames. He is stopped by Jake, an older man who has just been released from prison and believes that life is for living. Together they travel around Europe. Richard veers wildly from enthusiasm to boredom, passionate about something one minute, the next whining that anything else would be better. Jake is greatly amused by Richard’s mood swings and youthful passion and teases him about them, so that gradually Richard becomes aware of himself, though it fails to change him.

This first half is essentially a picaresque adventure, with the men running away to sea, trekking through mountains on horseback and by foot, choosing where to go next one day at a time. It’s spirited and a little wild, with Jake’s constant assuredness the perfect foil to Richard’s naivety. In many ways it seemed unrealistic that a directionless, penniless youth would get to have this great adventure but maybe that reaction has more to do with how times have changed since this was written.

In the second half Richard settles himself in Paris to write a novel and meets a girl who he falls headlong in love with. His thoughts about her are so very familiar, such as his fear of commitment and desperation to spend every second with her, while not seeing how those might be contradictory. There’s an air of gentle mocking in these passages, it’s so clear to the reader that Richard is being ridiculous a lot of the time, but by this point you know him so well and he notices his own stupidity often enough that certainly my reaction was to smile at the follies of youth rather than be annoyed with him.

The relationship is followed very closely, with the ins and outs of Richard’s everyday life detailed, from what he eats for breakfast to how he copes with the cold or the heat at his desk. Paris and its changing seasons are described with great affection, even when Richard is in one of his more negative moods. What really stood out in this half was the realness of the narrative voice. Maybe that’s because it was a woman’s perspective of a young man during his first romance, subtly using his voice to express all the frustrations a woman feels. Maybe a man would be less impressed.

The end is very well done, delicately balanced between comedy and tragedy, and ties together the two parts in theory, but in practice I still felt they were worlds apart. Perhaps they were intended that way.

First published in 1932 by William Heinemann Ltd.

Twanging those heartstrings

Me & Emma
by Elizabeth Flock

This book grew on me slowly. At first I found it a little annoying, like it was trying too hard to tug on the reader’s emotions, but then I got caught up in the story and by the end I was thoroughly enjoying it and impressed, even.

It’s narrated by eight-year-old Caroline, or Carrie, who details her life in North Carolina in her diary, or at least that’s how it’s initially presented (it doesn’t really make sense because there’s flashbacks, but I’ll let that go). Carrie daydreams a lot and loves her little sister Emma to distraction but the telling moment is when she declares that she doesn’t mind school because it gets her away from home.

Home is not a nice place for Carrie. Her stepfather is a violent drunk who coerces Emma into his bedroom frequently. Carrie’s mother either ignores or excuses the abuse and is not above beating the girls herself. It’s a shockingly horrible life and I suppose it’s a tribute to the author to say that it’s not a chore to read – somehow it’s not all negative, there’s lots of positives, at least the way Carrie sees it.

The characterisation is excellent, certainly in the case of Carrie. The prose is pretty realistically the voice of an eight year old. At first I found it a bit wearing, because eight year olds don’t have the greatest vocabulary and they do repeat annoying slang phrases and Flock has captured that very well. Thankfully she hasn’t misspelled it all realistically but she has used North Carolina vernacular.

This isn’t the greatest writing or the deepest of books and the storyline is likely to affect you more than the prose but it isn’t a bad read. Certainly better than I expected from the first few pages.

Published 2005 by Mira Books.
ISBN 978-0-7783-0084-7

Comfort clothes

There’s a green cardigan that I have a tendency to wear when I’m feeling a bit rubbish. It doesn’t have buttons or a belt so for it to warm me effectively I basically have to hug myself. It’s surprisingly comforting. On such days I also tend to wear flat shoes. The only reason I can think of for that is that heels are effort. Rubbish days are definitely not about making an effort.

I wonder whether anyone has noticed these proclivities of mine. People who are around you every day can be surprisingly perceptive. Well, some days they can. Of course, I’m feeling rubbish so often that perhaps I should reword all the above to say “more rubbish than usual”.

Or should I? The thing about chronic illness, or a thing at least, is that you kinda get used to feeling ill and while sometimes the fact of feeling ill, especially if it’s lasted several days, is enough to make me hate the world and want to crawl into a hole, generally feeling ill is just that – physical pain and/or discomfort – and is not necessarily related to my mood. This can get confusing for me and for the people around me. But it’s a survival mechanism as much as anything else. If I was miserable all the time that I felt ill I’d be pretty depressed. And depression is common among the chronically ill but thankfully I have not suffered that extra blow.

I do find it helps to have a handful of ways of dealing with feeling ill, stuff that makes me feel cheerful while requiring little or no energy input. There’s certain TV shows of course. It’s a cliché but Friends never fails to make me laugh. (I know, I know, I should lean toward something less mainstream and more British if I want to continue considering myself indie.) This year I’ve discovered gardening, which is great except for when slugs and snails and caterpillars eat all my beautiful plants. And there’s curling up under a blanket and daydreaming. This requires less brain power than reading and somehow feels more productive than watching TV.

And when I’m feeling a bit rubbish but still capable of dragging myself out of the house, there’s always that big, slouchy green cardigan.

The value of books

Books v. Cigarettes
by George Orwell

This is part of the Great Ideas range, yet another excellent and also stylish set of paperbacks from Penguin that are either excerpts from longer works or collections of shorter essays, as this one is. They’re small and affordable (unless like me you find you want to buy the whole set – there’s 80 of them so far!) and well designed. And from what I can tell from my sample size of two, the contents have been carefully and skillfully chosen.

It would be hard to go wrong with George Orwell, mind, which may be why Penguin already has three books of his writings in this range. Everything I have read by Orwell – fiction, autobiography, letters, newspaper columns – has been exceptionally well crafted, intelligent but also interesting and accessible. He was very open about things like money, social background, politics and patriotism, which are things we can all relate to and yet seem so rarely to be discussed.

I picked this book up in the wonderful Toppings bookshop in Bath, one of that now rare breed of independent bookshops that are bigger than a shoebox and have a genuinely good selection of books, which was appropriate because two of the selected essays deal with buying and selling books, and I found Orwell’s thoughts on the subject and expectations for its future fascinating. In the opening essay, he compares his spending on books with his spending on tobacco, to see whether there is merit in the claims he often hears that books are too expensive for “normal” people. With some lengthy reasoning and a little maths he concludes that this is rubbish and the true reason that people don’t buy books is that they consider reading to be a dull pastime, not the cost. I wonder what he would have made of the breaking of the Net Book Agreement.

Which brings us to his second essay, on bookselling. Orwell worked in a bookshop for a time and makes some lively, often caustic, observations of regular customers that he remembers. But what I found most interesting were his closing remarks. First, that “any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop…combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman” – a surprisingly shortsighted comment from the man who wrote 1984. And second, his description of how working in a bookshop made him fall temporarily out of love with books, almost made them repulsive to him. That was a real surprise to me and I’d like to hear from any booklovers who have worked in a bookshop to see if they felt the same.

The other essays deal with book reviewing (which he is most vicious about, sadly), patriotism (he was just too young to fight in the First World War and felt it very keenly), free speech, his experience of a particularly awful French hospital and his time at boarding school (an endlessly fascinating topic to me, and one that is of great interest here because he was a scholarship boy, so he was an outside observer to the high end of the class system that dominates such schools). It’s a truly excellent selection of writing and I doubt it will be long before I buy more books from this series.

Published 2008 by Penguin. Essays originally published between 1936 and 1952.
Number 57 in the Great Ideas series.
ISBN 978-0-1410-3661-8

The other side of the fence

The Romantics
by Pankaj Mishra

This debut from Indian novelist Mishra is at once beautiful and eye-opening. It provides an insight into different cultures in India, both native and visitor, and how they work (or don’t work) together.

The story follows Samar from university to postgraduate restlessness to his first job and in many ways is the tale of his ‘coming of age’ or ‘finding peace with himself’, but resolution is not the name of the game here and uncertainty is ever-present.

Samar is a Brahmin and, like most of his caste, by the 1980s his family has little of the old money left and can just afford to keep him until he’s 21. Until then he reads ferociously and, despite his studious quietness, mixes with quite a range of people. His neighbour Miss West is a middle-aged Englishwoman and through her Samar meets a whole host of westerners who come to India for spiritual reasons that he can never quite grasp (presumably these are the ‘Romantics’ of the title).

Mishra does a good job of encapsulating his hero’s mixture of revulsion and jealousy of these people, particularly of their money, freedom and opportunities – things he will never have. Mishra gently pokes fun at these visitors and their various reasons for coming to India – from having read a certain popular book to studying alternative medicine – but also points out the similarity between their displacement, their struggle to find a life path, and Samar’s.

I’m still not sure how much of my enjoyment of this book was based in it opening up to me a world I’ve never experienced, from a viewpoint I can never experience. It’s definitely a book that made me feel guilty for wanting to travel to far-flung places to widen my horizons when, of course, a week in Pondicherry could never tell me what life is truly like there.

Samar also has Indian friends, such as fellow student Rajesh through whom he sees a glimpse of India’s rural poor, a life lesson he badly needs after comparing himself to the westerners. His friendship with Rajesh and other Indians is markedly different from the one he enjoys with Miss West and her friends, which I found very interesting. The westerners are very quick to share the minutiae of their lives and each other’s. It takes a long time for Samar to discover that their true thoughts and feelings are kept just as hidden as his own, and cut them just as badly.

The book also includes a number of passages that lovingly describe India, particularly the Himalayas, and these could be quite moving. The author clearly loves his country. But it was the east–west relationships that really made this book the fascinating read that it was. From a glance at his website, it appears that he has written a lot of essays on this theme and other issues affecting modern India, so I shall be checking those out.

Published 1999 by Picador.

The importance of doing science

I am an English graduate. I didn’t study any science subjects after the age of 16 and I was happy with that decision, but I have always had great respect and admiration for scientists. I mean, in my experience they’re all smart people who talk sense and do work that aims to make the world a better place. How can anyone not be impressed by that?

As I’ve got older, I think I’ve started thinking more like a scientist than an arts graduate (though I do hate the emphasis on how divided those two are). I believe in evidence, research, double-blind studies, querying sources, abandoning superstitions and traditions that don’t have any logic behind them. It just seems like common sense to me. But I also believe in “pure science”, blue-sky research with no concrete application, because that’s how humankind develops.

It stuns me that people fail to grasp the point of fundamental science, that anyone can bemoan spending millions on a new particle accelerator or laser facility (especially considering how much has been spent subsidising banks or the car industry in recent years). I say this because today I read this hideous piece by Simon Jenkins, in which he attacks the entire scientific community but has particular venom for the LHC and the new UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, and this rebuttal by physicist Jon Butterworth, in which he says that satirising Jenkins made more sense to him than just countering each point of idiocy one by one. And I sympathise, I do. Scientists must tire of respectable newspapers and journalists repeatedly pulling out this story whenever a new major science research centre is announced or opened, despite the overwhelming evidence that it is in fact a good thing. It must seem so obvious to them that Jenkins has no idea what he is talking about, but sadly, it is not obvious to everyone.

I was cornered at a family party recently and asked to justify big spending on theoretical science projects. So I began with the obvious: the internet. An accidental development from the sharing of scientific research that has changed the whole world phenomenally. Family friend was unimpressed. So next I told him about the laser. You know the story, right? It started as an entirely theoretical idea in one of Einstein’s later works. It had no practical application, it was just an experiment to create a beam of light in a laboratory. Blue-sky research. A laser beam was first achieved in 1960 (50 years ago this year), after decades of work. By that point some applications had been identified but it was a further 13 years before any were possible. Ever since, lasers have been continuously improved and developed and uses for them continue to be found everywhere in our daily lives, from barcode scanning and DVD players to medical treatments, precision cutting and welding, and satellite communication.

Family friend rolled his eyes and said that it doesn’t all end that way. Look how long they’ve been trying to make nuclear fusion happen. So I switched tack and talked about another aspect of pure science: it captures imaginations; it teaches us more about the world and indeed universe that we live in; it gets the kids interested, which is vital to get people into careers that are more obviously practical, like engineers and doctors. Tell a child that a giant machine in Switzerland is being used to figure out how the universe formed and they will be far more excited by that than the average adult. Which was proven when family friend changed the subject at this point, clearly bored and unconvinced.

I was and still am exasperated but I am trying to understand. Science is extremely badly covered in mainstream media. You don’t need to read Ben Goldacre to know that, though it’s a good start. Most people trust what they read in newspapers, particularly broadsheets, and sadly that means the perpetuation of ill-conceived opinion and half-truths, overshadowing the brilliance that is happening every day in science. But why? I found a clue when reading George Orwell last weekend. He went to highly respected public schools (St Cyprians, Wellington and Eton) and said that science was taught appallingly badly. Aptitude in science was likely to lead to disdain from teachers and pupils alike. The system required a thorough drilling in classics, good grounding in English literature and history, but little or no science. This is how the “great minds” of twentieth century Britain were raised, the people to whom current journalists turn for inspiration and wisdom. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of ignorance: intelligent, articulate men and women who can write knowledgeably about philosophy and classical music but haven’t a clue where the isotopes used in radiotherapy come from, or how particle accelerators are used to develop the ever stronger, harder materials that allow higher temperature (and therefore more efficient) power stations to be built. Or any of the other million ways in which pure science is improving our lives.

Tim has this pet theory about the food chain of science. Mathematicians come up with numbers and formulae that have no concrete meaning. Physicists take that maths and use it to model the real world, allowing them to understand the universe a little better. Engineers take that physics and use it to create a real-world device that ends up in your home or workplace. We need that abstract beginning.

EDIT
There’s some great resources on this subject here: interactions.org on benefits to society

Teach a man to fish

The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest Hemingway

I don’t need to tell anyone what a great book this is, I’m sure. It’s actually the first Hemingway I’ve read and was a great introduction. The prose is plain yet full of endless layers of meaning.

On one level this was a tough book for me to read. You see, I have this thing about fish: a profound dislike, repulsion even. So the story of a fisherman necessarily included details that frankly reviled me.

It was also slow to grab me (relatively; I mean, the whole book’s barely 100 pages long). Even though I knew from reputation that it’s a very simple story, I couldn’t help feeling, ‘Is this really it? Is there no more to it?’ But once the old man goes out to sea that feeling passed and I was captivated.

Hemingway’s ability to voice the old man’s every thought and emotion is astounding. This is a poor man, living a tough life that is nearing its end and his thoughts do meander to religion, death, the meaning of life and the beauty of nature, but always in just the right tone, staying clear of anything touchy feely or intellectual. The old man is very matter of fact and quickly snaps himself out of flights of fancy or memory trips. Only one incident from his past is described in any detail and this is because the old man draws on the memory to give him strength.

I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t get this book, or wouldn’t agree with the millions who rate it as one of the greatest novels ever written. I needn’t have worried and will definitely read more from my Hemingway boxset in the future.

First published in 1952. Specifically cited when Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

See also: review by Marie of Little Interpretations.