Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Brooklyn again again

April 24, 2018

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Two incidents which disturb the generally realistic flow of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn may indicate another level of meaning to this work.  In the first, Eilis while assisting at a Christmas dinner for the insulted and injured of Irish New York encounters a man who at first she takes for her dead father before deciding there is really no resemblance.  That man who is not her father the entrances the company by singing a traditional Irish song.

Now traditional Irish beliefs hold that the dead enjoy a state of blessedness  in a land way to the west, so that way we can say both that America is a rich and blessed country and also a place where the dead (like Mr Lacey) are to be found.  This then leads to the question of the type of sacrifice that Eilis’s sister Rose has made.  At the level of Eilis’s consciousness, Rose has sacrificed the chance of having a family of her to look after their mother so that Eilis can go to America.  But at the folktale or mythological level  she sacrifices her own life to cause Eilis’s return from the Land of the Dead.  Indeed her offence in keeping silent about her life-threatening medical condition may be the expiation of Eilis’s silence regarding her marriage to Tony.

That’s the other strange thing of course.  The way they marry suddenly at Tony’s insistence recalls the typical fairy-story motif where the hero meets a fateful female in some enchanted or unreal sitting and receives a token or a wound which means he is still bound to here when he returns to his home.

Another aspect to think about…

 

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Some inconsistencies in ‘Eleanor Oliphant’

April 21, 2018

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SPOILER ALERT:  In what follows we consider some inconsistencies in the plot of Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, which of course gives the plot away…

Work

At the beginning of the book, we are informed that EO works in a graphic design agency whose owner Bob took her on while she was bearing signs of a beating on the presumed grounds that she would be cheap.  So this seems to be a pretty hole-and-corner affair.  But later on when EO has been on sick leave Bob has to follow HR procedures in filling in forms and a phased return to work, which sounds like a rather large organisation.  Also after her promotion to office manager EO describes herself as a section head, one of the Praetorian Guard reporting to Bob.

EO’s colleagues also seem to have undergone the same kind of process of melioration.  At the beginning they make fun of her because she is different, while at the end they react like the typical kind of concerned colleagues.

The workplace also has a staffroom, which seems strange for a design agency…we will pass over Sammy Thom saying I don’t know anything about graphic design when nobody has in fact mentioned it…

An extra-literary explanation would be that the author Gail Honeyman was just reverting to the kind of public sector background she was familiar with.  We will come on to literary explanations later…

Eleanor and health issues

EO tells us that she drinks two [litre] bottles of vodka every weekend.  I doubt that a woman of normal weights (she tells us) could do that for nine years and go on living, never mind go to the office on Monday morning.  But I could be wrong!

She also tells us that she cannot sing because of the effects of smoke inhalation, but later on she and Raymond sing at Sammy Thom’s funeral.  People turn round and look at them of course…

With regard to mental health, we are clearly in the realm of fantasy, especially regarding auditory hallucinations that can be dismissed at will…

Eleanor and housekeeping

On page 83 as part of her normal routine Eleanor cleans the bathroom, washes the kitchen floor and takes out the recycling, all of which sounds quite efficient.  Then on page 313 as part of her recovery she fills four black bags with rubbish.

Where does Raymond’s mother live?

On the one hand, it’s a neat terrace.  On the other hand, when Raymond and Eleanor visit they go round to the back door, which is difficult even in an end terrace…

What does Eleanor know?

Although she seems to watch a lot of TV, Top Gear is a mystery to her.  Similarly, while she seems to know at least some classics of English literature, Arnold Bennett is as well.

That leads on to her education, where the questions are more wide-ranging.  Ignoring the point that nobody is likely to allow a child with suspicious bruising to be home-schooled, the question arises of how she got to do a degree in Classics.  If an Latin A-Level was required, that implies a rather posh type of school, while if she studied Latin and Greek ab initio that still leaves the question of where the specific interest came from.

So what does all this mean?

The book starts of seeming to be about loneliness as a widespread social ill and ends up by blaming it all on the evil fantasist Sharon Smyth (pictured) 29 who has quite literally scarred EO for life.  So is she supposed to represent loneliness or the causes and consequences of loneliness, which might be unrealistic expectations, inappropriate behaviour, a feeling that one has to be superior to one’s surroundings or that Life is Elsewhere?

An alternative explanation would be that these inconsistencies show that Eleanor is really just having a fantasy about escaping from her misery but it doesn’t quite hold together.  I doubt they are systematic enough for that, though it might explain why Raymond’s mother is specifically described as having no character–Eleanor’s imagination can’t extend far enough to create one for her…

 

Chadwick street

January 10, 2018

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Au premiers jours de printemps, Repnine se rend effectivement à Chadwick street au service de l’emploi qui fournit du travail aux Polonais démobilisés.(…)

Toutefois, sans même tourner la tête, les passants passaient devant ces gens assis sur le chemin de l’agence d’emplois. La station Westminster n’est qu’à quelques centaines de pas de la rue Chadwick. Lorsque Repnine reprend sa route, il arrive à l’agence quelques minutes plus tard.

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Make Elephants Fly

December 13, 2017

*****

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I thought this book was very good!

It stems from the author’s experience in  the world of Silicon Valley start-ups, where venture capitalists will invest in promising enterprises and also take a seat on the board, with the idea of making lots of money at a successful IPO.  So they can involve themselves in at most 10 ventures and one of them has to win big.  Mere survival is hardly sufficient.

The book makes many interesting points, one important one being that technology is not enough, you have to meet a real customer need.  And meet it not too early and not too late–timing is the key here, so it helps to have a diverse team to catch the latest trends.  The success of Silicon Valley can be attributed to having a mixture of technical, artistic and business types in the same place.

It is best to use an off-the-shelf product and adapt it to what you want to do.  As a corollary, a very good place to start is the targeted prototype, where the customer sees a front end but the actual work can be done by hand if necessary.  Similarly, If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late. The important thing is to figure out the one thing that customers want, and this is linked with the question What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

If you don’t want to innovate, try to get it right first time.  The important thing is to get to failure as quickly as possible, so that you can change direction and try something else.  Facebook has the principles 1. Move fast and break things  2. What would you do if you weren’t afraid?  3. Put people at the centre of things.

Details:  Make Elephants Fly: The Process of Radical Innovation by Steven Hoffman ISBN-13: 9780349418834.

A History of Wales (John Davies)

October 24, 2017

*****

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Reduced *and* patriotically rained-upon

I thought that this book was excellent, and enjoyed spending 765 pages in the company of somebody in such complete command of his material.  As well as relieving my complete ignorance of Welsh history, reading the book gave me some interest in and understanding of English medieval history, seeing it through the prism of how it affected Wales.  I was especially interested in the idea of the English national consciousness as being founded on recovering lands from the Danes, and hence inherently imperialist.

It was interesting to see how the idea of Wales as a nation came in and out of focus at different periods, and it would have been interesting to get Davies’s idea of what Wales as a nation actually was.  He quite rightly says that there is no genetic difference between the Welsh and the English and treats Herderian ideas of nationhood with some reserve at one point, but also seems quite attached to them.

Remembering A Winter in the Hills I might get worried about the lack of agency ascribed to Welsh people here–they rarely get to initiate action as opposed to having things happen to them or reacting to events.  But it could be a fault of history and geography, not John Davies.

The question that really interested me was how it came about that Welsh survived as a widely-spoken language when Irish did not, given that Wales was far more interpenetrated with Anglophone Britain.  The answer given here is that the development of the coal and steel industries meant that people could see hope for a future where Welsh might be relevant while in Ireland they could just see starvation.

Any of our readers interested in Russian literature will wish to know that it was probably on a rail bearing the letters GL (Guest Lewis, the trade mark of Dowlais) that poor Anna Karenina met her end.

Nine years in the life of a book club

October 16, 2017

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We present some thoughts on ten years in the life of a book club, as we also presented to students of English in Perm.  The poster above sensibly avoids using the term ‘book club’, which might at one stage have been a way of buying books cheaply by post.

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The rules above may seem more elaborate than many book groups, but they are actually quite sensible. Having someone responsible for the book tends to result in better choices than when it just emerges out of vague discussion–I’ve known a number of book groups to be killed of by a couple of poor choices that way, while giving marks out of ten leads to slightly more focussed discussion than merely saying ‘that was nice’.

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The generally female, middle-class and younger-middle-age composition of the group will come as little surprise, though the ‘little’ here may be more of a London thing.

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What was chosen tended to be novels by male English-language authors set in the UK or the US more or less in the present.

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The top 3 choices (in terms of average mark) were as given above…

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…while some other things were less successful.  What you need is books that will engage readers’ interest just because they are people.

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And the overall points were as given above. J. G. Ballard once said that when he was ypong what got published depended on male taste, since they were the ones with the money, whereas now it was women in book groups who generated sales. English-language countries do seem to be resistant to translated literature but they constitute a very large market which means one can be a professional writer and do nothing else in a way which is very difficult elsewhere.

Of course, one also has to respond to the demands of the market, which can lead to caution, conservatism and conformism whereas if one has some other source of income one is freer to write what one likes. Russian naming conventions as in Anna Ivanovna, Anya, Anyushka and so on all being the same person in different registers caused problems, as did the background especially in Bulgakov, which was of course not the Soviet Moscow of Bulgakov’s time but rather something that might hopefully be allowed for publication…

What to read in English?

October 4, 2017
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Concision against contemporaneity

We are sometimes asked what books (novels) it is worth reading in English by those studying or teaching the language.

We once shared our thoughts on this subject with students in Perm, and on the basis of ten years’ book club experience.  The criteria employed were:

Interest:  you ought to want to read the book for its own sake

Accuracy:  please use the English language precisely and don’t just spread words over the page

Britishness:  rather than American-ness, translations or indeed science fiction.  It should show language in use to describe something recognisably British

Contemporaneity:  and not language and mores of the 19th century

Concision:  it gives you a feeling of achievement to say ‘I have read X [a short book]’ rather than ‘I have read some of Y [a long book’.

We give below the books recommended on that occasion, together with some further comments.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis; Лев, колдунья и платяной шкаф)

Both a children’s fantasy story and a work of Christian apologetics, this book gets a great deal into a very few words.  It is also one of those books that everyone has read as children and so forms part of the general stock of common knowledge and allusions.  The last time I read it, I was struck by how much it was infused by the spirit of English medieval literature–which was Lewis’s academic speciality–commingling the Christian and the pagan-fantastical.

Stump (Niall Griffiths)

Describes the lives of ex-drug-addicts and small-time criminals with wonderful precision and focus.  A rather different world from the one you often meet in novels.  At his best, Griffiths makes you feel what it would be like to live with no skin and no defences.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Mark Haddon) Что случилось с собакой ночью/Марк Хэддон)

The world as seen through the eyes of a boy with…autistic spectrum disorder…or a predilection for mathematics.  Very precise language and also defamiliarisation–he sees and experiences things but doesn’t know what they mean or why they happen, in the same way that a foreigner doesn’t.  You also get some value out of your familiarity with the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Restless (William Boyd)

Describes a relatively unknown aspect of WWII–the struggle to bring the USA in or keep it out.  Again, the language is very clear and the descriptions of what one would do or need to do in various extreme situations very precise.  You can amuse yourself wondering where the heroine’s surname comes from.

Skin Lane (Neil Bartlett)

It is 1967 and Mr F goes every day from his flat in South London to work as a furrier in the city.  Then he begins to dream of a naked young man.  At the end, he has become Mr Freeman and this book is pure literary magic.

Troubles (J. G. Farrell)

I’m not so sure about this one now.  It’s rather long, and there were an awful lot of novels in the 1970s that offered various metaphors for the collapse of British Rule (in Ireland in this case).

Brooklyn (Colm Toibin)

A young woman goes from Ireland to America and back in the early 1950s.  Very economical evocations of ordinary life, together with tactful application of symbolic realism, and he gets the words right!  Then again, the background of drearily prospectless lower middle class life in the back of beyond, alleviated by the prospect of emigration, was all too familiar to me.

The Night Watch (Sarah Waters; Ночной дозор, Сара Уотерс)

Combines hyper-realistic descriptions of women’s lives during and after wartime with reverse chronology and a truly terrifying backstreet abortion, and also ensures you get god value from your knowledge of Shakespeare.  In many ways, an instantiation of what the contemporary English novel is.

 

The book with no name

October 3, 2017

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Well that was an enigmatic book arrived recently (no dustwrapper).

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Maybe the idea was to boost sales by making Wurthwein’s ‘Text of the Hebrew Bible’ look like a discreet edition of ’50 Shades of Grey’.

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One of a multivolume set of course, though 50 parts might be too much.

 

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Or maybe it represents the ‘palimpsest’concept in a metaphorical kind of way…nihilistic even….

A story from Villa Amalia by Pascal Quignard

December 8, 2016
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The photo

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Written on the back of the photo

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Inscription in front of book

The copy of ‘Villa Amalia’ I got second-hand from Amazon had this photo in it and this inscription in the front.

So what does the inscription say?  It looks like: J’adore cette photo première d’un bonheur retrouvé. 26 janvier 2013 But surely the première should be in front of the photo–unless it’s in apposition, in which case there’s a comma missing?

The birthday boy seems to be well over 30 if you count the candles on the cake, so bonheur may have been missing for some time…

If it’s really première then [she] has formed the p differently there and in photo. If you look at janvier [her] v extends below the line, which increases the number of possibilities for the suspect word. [She] and [her] are my supposition from j’adore and an inscription in the front of the book. Restoring the omissions there gives us La souffrance [,l’amour, la musique, la faim] avai[en]t fait d’elle une femme intense–which looks like a case of adapting the sentence to refer to oneself.

There are no shes in the photo, which would be strange for a family gathering, so this she might have taken the picture.  Let”s call her Ann Hidden, since she’s behind the camera.  The man on the left of the picture seems to have the same shaped face as the candle-blower-out, which lends credence to the family gathering idea.

My conclusion for the time being is that it’s not a birthday party–there aren’t enough people–but a family celebration of the lad overcoming some mishap and the candles (say) represent the number of [periods] he was in hospital/prison/rehab/married to that woman, though he looks a bit young for some of those. If it was hospital/rehab, that would explain why he is warmly dressed while the bloke behind him is in shirtsleeves.

It’s much easier to leave out punctuation–note that there’s no full stop at the end of the sentence–than put an adjective in the wrong place, so première is a noun in apposition to photo, with some meaning like Première épreuve tirée pour la correction. ‘Galley-proof of happiness’ is quite good really.

Then  the inscription La souffrance…avait fait d’elle une femme intense would fit in well with [Ann Hidden’s] [son] returning from [rehab] [or from death’s door].

There is another and perhaps better idea. When I first looked I thought it had to be pleine or remplie, just by context but could find no way of making that fit what appear to be the letters. The second “l” in elle above doesn’t extend above the line, so you might be OK with pl- plénière [plenary] could fit the bill. I think that in French ‘plenary photo’ would be OK.   Plenary photo from a recovered happiness.  That would indeed imply that [she] took the photo–it would be plenary from her point of view but not the others’.  Which leaves the putative ‘l’ that doesn’t extend above the line–which may not be a problem at all–and the absence of one accent to deal with…A missing accent is better than a missing comma…

Tsvetochniy krest/The cross of flowers

September 7, 2016

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This book by Elena Kolyadina hardly received great support when this blog did a survey of contemporary Russian novels for translation, and it was also being remaindered during my recent trip to Ukraine.

It appears to start in December 1674, when our heroine Feodosia is 15 and ready to be married off and to end in October 1673, when she is 17 and her son born half-way through the book is able to run around and beg for money.

There are many things it might be, but none of them for very long. The shadow of Thomas Mann’s Holy Sinner grows now lighter, now darker, and at times Kolyadina seems to engaged in a yacht race with Vodolzakins’s Laurus.  A yacht race because the leader ixs supposed to imitate the follower’s manoeuvrings.

At times it seems to be one of those books where a modern miss is plonked down with her insatiable curiosity in ancient times and at others it’s one of those books with detailed retro-porn description of life in Old Russia.  Indeed, we get a detailed description of the old-time salt industry, just like in Perm.  The contrast between carefree pagan sexuality and the strictures of the church might have been going somewhere and then wasn’t. Similarly the un-modern way Feodosia related to her family members just disappeared, leaving behind the usual YA heroine.  And then in a reference to Jan Potocki or perhaps Tolkien we have an entire community living under the ground brought into being.

A plot summary with SPOILER ALERT makes it sound as though the traditional saint’s life is being referenced.  It is 1673 in Tot’ma.  Feodosia is the intelligent beautiful etc etc daughter of wealthy salt-manufacturer Izvara due to be married off to another salt-manufacturer Yuda.  The priest Father Loggin feels himself tormented by her youth beauty intelligence needlework etc.

A company of travelling players comes to town under the leadership of one Istoma, who is not much like a salt manufacturer. The climax of their show is a puppetry version of the Crucifixion, except that Feodosia rescues Jesus from the cross, and Father Loggin takes exception.

Istoma and Feodosia enjoy a night of secret love in Feodosia’s bedroom, then Istoma’s troupe gets into a fight with the followers of her brother Putila as he returns from dealings in Moscow.  Revealed to be a confederate of Stenka Razin, Istoma is burned alive.  Feodosia marries the salt-manufacturer and devotes herself to her son by Istoma.

Influenced by Father Loggin, she practises more and more severe self-denial, including clitoridectomy and saying that like Abraham she would give up her son for God.  The son disappears and Feodosia takes up the lifestyle of a yurodivaya, eventually quitting town for the other side of the river.  There she discovers a community of underground pagans who can speak Russian when necessary and tries to convert them to Orthodoxy, planting a cross of flowers for this purpose.  She also entertains Death in a scene that owes much to Monty Python.

Father Loggin crosses the river to inspect this miraculous and has her burned as a witch so as to further his ambitions for preferment.

But Death does not have Feodosia on her list.

Well, well…