Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On Books

Someone emailed and asked what I’d been reading and it occurred to me that I haven’t blogged about that in ages. So, here goes.

I just finished “Oscar and Lucinda” by Peter Carrey. It took me quite awhile to read, which I suppose is not unsurprising due to the fact that it is quite long, but longer than I had expected. It was engrossing and the ended somehow came as a surprise, though once I read it, I immediately felt I should have guessed. Anyway, it was a fascinating history of England and Australia and a rather romantic love story in the end. I own several books by Carrey but this is the first I’ve gotten around to reading, so there are more to look forward to.

I also finally read Timeline by Michael Crichton. The movie was rather crap, with some extremely bad acting by Billy Connolly, however who can pass up a story about archaeology and time travel? Apparently not a former archaeology student. I found the book in a Starbucks in Edinburgh, near the university, sitting neglected on a chair and somehow have traveled around the world with it. The storyline was interesting but I found the writing pretty annoying. Such is life with airplane paperbacks, I suppose.

I have recently read both “Freakonomics” by Steven Dl Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner and “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. They were similar, in that they use science and social science to explain life. I found them both entertaining and the ideas are quite interesting, though they are science-lite. “Blink” discusses how our minds think and how we use our snap judgments to our detriment and to our advantage.

I reread “Prince Caspian” by C.S. Lewis, of the Narnia series, that I haven’t read since I was a child. I reread “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” while I was working at Poly and it is amazing how fascinating I still find well-written children’s literature. “Prince Caspian” didn’t contain as much in the away of Christian imagery, but it is quite a good adventure. I also read "The Magician's Nephew" which wasn't as good as I remember it. It was an interesting story about the creation of Narnia, but as adventures go, it wasn't much of one. Sadly, these were the only two Narnia books I picked up (for free no less!) in Thailand, so no more Narnia until I visit Canada again.

“The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories” is a collection of poems and illustrations by Tim Burton. They were very amusing and macabre. My favourite:

The Girl Who Turned into a Bed

It happened that day
She picked some strange pussy willow.
Her head swelled up white
And soft as a pillow.

Her skin, which had turned
All flaky and rotten,
Was now replaced
With 100% cotton.
Through her organs and torso
She sprouted like wings,
A beautiful set
Of mattress and springs.

It was so terribly strange
That I started to weep.
But at least after that
I had a nice place to sleep.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this one before. “The Friar and the Cipher” by Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone took me ages to read because it was borrowed from friends and I didn’t want to get it covered in sand at the beach on holiday. Then when I got home, I somehow put off finishing it, in spite of the fact that it is one of the most entertaining and fun historical books I’ve read in some time. I learned a lot about Roger Bacon (not to be confused with Francis Bacon, though he figures in the story too) and many other historical characters. Perhaps the most amusing anecdote was about the death of Francis Bacon, who caught a chill while attempting to preserve the body of a bird using snow as part of a scientific experiment. Death by scientific inquiry. A good way to go.

“The Dress Lodger” by Sheri Holman was wonderful. It is set during a cholera epidemic in 1831 about a prostitute (the dress lodger, because she rents out the dress from her landlord) and a doctor who was involved in the Burke and Hare scandals for acquiring bodies to dissect. I have this tendancy to buy books if they have Reader’s Guides for book groups at the end, thinking that I would enjoy the sort of book that publishers think a book group should read. And in this case, that random method of book selection paid off.

Not so with “Leave it to Me” by Bharati Mukherjee. It sounded very promising on the back, about an adopted girl who sets out to find her parents, a hippie mom and a Eurasian dad. There were some interesting descriptions about her trip from the Eastern US to California, driving across time zones a day at a time, and passing small towns just like her hometown that she wonders why people chose to live in. However, I didn’t like the book, didn’t like the relationships the character kept forming, and found the author interview at the back more interesting than the novel. One interesting comment she made was about using myths in cross-cultural ways, that the “megascale diaspora” of today make myths even more applicable because their themes appeal and speak to all, regardless of ethnicity. I found this intriguing; sadly I hadn’t really noticed the influence of myth while reading the novel. One of the questions at the end in the guide is about identity: What are the dangers of inventing one’s identity? Again, interesting question but not an interesting novel.

Another book that I picked up with an expectation that wasn’t realized was “How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World” by Francis Wheen. I thought it was going to be about language, instead it was about the rise in non-rational thinking in the past twenty years or so. While it wasn’t what I expected, I found it interesting. He discusses the emotional populism of recent politicians, like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton and mentions one of my favourite quotes: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds. It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” Charles Mackay. He talks of Thatcher’s claim that her principles represented nothing more than common sense, the application of normal rules of domestic economy and good housekeeping on a grand scale, by pointing out that she must have lived in a very chaotic household, kept awake by the noise of Torschlusspanik, which I learned is the word that describes the frenzy as people fight to rush through a door before it is slammed in their face. Sums up Thatcherite politics rather well, doesn’t it? I learned about the concept of category mistake, a term invented by philosopher Gilbert Ryle to describe the yoking together of two incompatible concepts, as in ‘love is a rectangle’ or ‘Thursdays are purple’ and how he feels that applies to Islamic governments. I also discovered that Noam Chomsky is the most frequently quoted living intellectual, according to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index.

Ages ago, I was at the Edinburgh Book Festival and picked up a very slim volume published by the Institute of Ideas Conversations in Print series called “Maybe I Do: Marriage and Commitment in Singleton Society.” I bought it back when marriage was something I saw approaching me and read it when marriage is something I am now engaged in trying to get out of my life. It was an interesting book, which interesting ideas about the state of marriage, its value and future. Some of it made me wish I had read it before jumping in myself, though I am sure that it wouldn’t have had the resonance back then that it does now.

I'm now reading a 50 page summary of the ideas of Karl Popper, which is quite interesting and a nice break from all the recent long novels I've been engrossed in.


Naomi said...

Ah Amanda, I love 'Oscar & Lucinda'! Now you must read 'Jack Maggs' also by Peter Carey, it is based on the story of Dickens' 'Great Expectations' but is fabulous and not pants!

Jen said...

I love Bharti Mukherjee, but she doesn't appeal to everyone. You aren't intended to like the main character in Leave it to Me. The myth influence is supposed to be that of Kali, but I've read criticisms that it is not well implemented here. I think some of her other books are stronger. She tends to explore the cultural liminalities and intersections in the US, esp. with regard, but not limited, to Indian women. I particularly enjoyed her Desireable Daughters and The Tree Bride. Of course, I'm also partial to Thomas Hardy if you're looking for a good read. Although his old standbys, Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d'Urbervilles you've prob. read, I recently got my hands on The Trumpet Major and A Laodicean, neither of which are characterised by the melancholy and sense of fatalism that his other novels tend to. Also, have you read Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop? I fell in LOVE with that 2 summers ago. It's beautiful.

Jen said...

'his other novels tend to be.' that 3rd to last sentence should end. Brain and fingers are apparently not well connected.

Jen said...

Also, have you read Possession by A.S. Byatt? It's not an easy read but if you can plow through the letters and poems by the Victorian poets (Ash and LaMotte, both fictional), those aspects add real depth to what is otherwise a rather amusing study of the eccentricities of academics. I think it should be required reading before beginning a PhD.

Plus the writing is beautiful and elegant (although for the most part, straightforward): "One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud’s bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase."

And now that I've dominated your comments in an attempt to further clog up your book list, I think I should get off my ass and go to the gym!

Candace said...

I don't read these days as I'm addicted to the E! channel.

Lots of updates at once - your fingers must be sore!!!

When are you coming to HK, Bitch? Come stay with me while you wait for your visa!!!

Amanda said...

I hated Tess of the d'Urbervilles! And I loved Possession. As for Mukherjee, I didn't like the writing and I thought the male-female relationships were pretty fucked up.

giacomo said...

hi, I was just wondering on the net, and I found this blog with this quotation of the name of Karl Popper,whose philosophy I am quite interested in.

Nice to meet you, I hope you finished the summary.

I have seen you stay in Korea, do you know also Chinese?