Archive for the ‘books’ Category

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.

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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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DHL Express UK waste my time, with different excuses

March 18, 2016
I saw this a few times

I saw this a few times

13 MARCH

I order a book from Ozon.ru at 277 roubles plus 925 roubles for delivery via DHL.  So delivery costs more than three times the thing itself. But it’s 100 roubles to the pound, so whatever…

15 MARCH

DHL send a text saying they will deliver on the 16th, and giving a link to follow on the Internet.

16 MARCH

I stay in and wait for the delivery.

No delivery.  No notification.  The link gives the results above.

Evening:  I ring.  They say the thing is being held for payment of VAT and duty.  I say that there is no VAT or anything else to pay on a book costing less than £ 3-00.  They say I can ring tomorrow.  I say that I will not be at home tomorrow.

17 MARCH

Morning (1):  I ring.  After consulting the depot, they say that the duty thing has been sorted.  I say that I am not at home.  They say I can arrange delivery on the Internet.  That gives the same results as before.

Morning (2):  I ring to arrange delivery. They say that it is being held because of VAT and duty.  I explain the difference in value between roubles and pounds sterling. They take my phone number and say they will ring back.  I point out that I am not at home today.

Afternoon(1):  I have a text to say that the thing is out for delivery.

Afternoon(2): I ring to enquire.  They say the thing is out for delivery.

Afternoon(3):  The website says that I have signed for the thing at home when I thought I was in the office and I took the first initial from my surname and used my first name as surname as well.  Gosh, I must have been confused…

Evening:  The package has arrived–it was easy enough to put it through the letterbox–with the value clearly marked as 277 RUB.

Grigory Ryzhakov at Muzio Clementi House, 28 November

December 6, 2015
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A picture I swiped from Facebook

So last week my cold and I went to hear Grigory Ryzhakov talk about his new book under the auspices of the Anglo-Russian culture club.  While I wasn’t at my most alert or coherent I will try to record some of the interesting points that emerged.

Since Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize was still on people’s minds, Grigory suggested that the most likely candidates for the next Russian winner were Ludmila Ulitskaya, Viktor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin. The writers most  likely to make an international breakthrough in the near future were Zakhar Prilepin, Maksim Kantor and Mikhail Shishkin, together with somebody else whose name I didn’t write down.  There was some feeling that it was in the field of sci-fi/fantasy (Lukyanenko, Glukhovsky….Pelevin!) that contemporary Russian literature was most internationally competitive, though Grigory may not have said so in as many words.

There was some question as to whether contemporary Russian literature was just too Russia-specific to appeal to outsiders, but Grigory felt that Maksim Kantor was an international writer, while Evgeny Vodolazkin’s newly-translated Laurus was both outward-looking and positive.  Grigory’s own candidate for the book most deserving of translation was Pozor i chistota by Tatyana Moskvina.  Contrariwise, he had taken against Dmitri Bykov after reading his production in bulk, and there was indeed some spontaneous commentary from the audience regarding the low level of Bykov’s public lectures in London.

We had some discussion about various sources of information on contemporary Russian literature.  Grigory felt that his specific contribution lay in classifying the specimens, in the manner of a true biologist.  Among other things, I found out about a film called Russia’s Open Book:  Writing In The Age Of Putin on YouTube.

Afterwards there was discussion and wine.  Somebody put forward the idea that the average income in the UK is about £25,000, the average amount you make out of writing a book is £ 8,000, so you chug along on £ 33,000 writing a book a year instead of going down the pub until your number comes up and you turn into J K Rowling…optimism is a fine thing, especially for the young…

 

Aesthetic theory and the book group

July 9, 2015

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Book group members are not infrequently confronted by the question, How does our practice measure up against the thought of Kant, Heidegger, Gadamer, Adorno, Bourdieu and Gell?

As we have seen, Kant wanted to see whether such a thing as aesthetic judgment, where we demand that others share what appears to be our purely subjective reaction, could in principle be justified.

His problem therefore can be seen as the solution to why book groups exist–why one would want to debate reactions to artistic literature and indeed convince others.  However, Kant’s contention that aesthetic pleasure is disinterested does not really seem to apply to novels in the same way as other forms of art, since they are normally thought to confer some benefit in terms of understanding what people are like and how they relate to each other or at least how to write decent English.

Kant’s insistence that there are no rules that will make something beautiful may at first sight seem to be contradicted by the practice of publishers, who seem to believe there are very definite rules for producing a book that will sell.

But selling many copies is hardly the same as being ‘beautiful’ or as one might say in this case ‘aesthetically valuable’.  That rather fits in with the thought of Adorno, who thought of the cultural product of the era of late capitalism as being something to be consumed, whereas in better times the aesthetic experience was produced by the participant.  So the book club members who seek distinctions, indeed distinctions that are not differences, in the products of the publishing industry, may be compared to his famous hobbyist listener who has an encyclopaedic recall of available recorded performances but with little understanding of the music that can be heard.

Heidegger of course  thought that art worked by selectively focusing an historical community’s tacit sense of what is and what matters and reflecting it back to that community, which thereby comes implicitly to understand itself in the light of this artwork. Artworks thus functioned as ontological paradigms, serving their communities both as “models of” and “models for” reality, which meant that artworks could variously “manifest,” “articulate,” or even “reconfigure” the historical ontologies undergirding their cultural worlds.  Or a rose is a rose is a rose, talking about its rose-ness is infantile self-indulgence and making an institution of talking about it is even worse.

On the other hand, Gadamer‘s hermeneutic approach, whereby the art-ness of the work of art resides in the dialectical transformation of our interpretations as they enter into contact and indeed conflict with the artwork does sound rather positive for the book club.  Indeed, if one thinks (as Adorno probably would) that the readers were initially only consuming or confirming prefabricated commonplaces, then it is only in the book club setting that the real aesthetic experience might arise.  On the other hand, Gadamer would not have approved of the antiquarian tenor of much book group discourse–Is it a true story?  Was the author ever married? and so on.

This seems rather reminiscent of Bourdieu, who saw this kind of naive view of the artwork as a window whose function was to admit sweetness and light as characteristic of the dominated sections of society, since nothing more rigorously distinguishes the different classes than the disposition objectively demanded by the legitimate consumption of legitimate works, the aptitude for taking a specifically aesthetic point of view on objects already constituted aesthetically.  He would certainly have been interested in the petit-bourgeois aspirationalism of the book group, showing as it does an anxiety with regard to the assimilation of high culture together with a desire to assimilate it to the comfortable and the homely.

Gell’s treatment of the artwork as a social actor amongst other social actors at first sight seems like a comfortable fit for the book group, but here as in many other cases we find that his art nexus resists facile application.

Gell's Art Nexus

Gell’s Art Nexus

First of all, we note that the ‘recipient’ here seems to be conceptualised as an individual, which is a strange kind of thing for an anthropologist to do.  If we ignore this consideration, the book group experience seems to be one of struggle between Index and Recipient as to which will be master, where victory for the Recipient is equivalent to the Index being supplanted by the Prototype.

Try Books! read in 2014

February 20, 2015
MEDIAN BEST WORST
Stoner 9 8 0
The Road 8.5 3 0
We Need New Names 8 0 0
This Boy 8 2 1
Under The Skin 8 1 1
Gone Girl 7 1 1
Old Filth 7 1 0
A Winter in the Hills 7 0 2
The Children Act 7 0 0
Telling Liddy 6.5 0 0
Almost English 6 0 3
Seizure 5 0 5

The table shows the books read by Try Books! in 2014 and their median scores, along with the number of times someone gave it their highest or lowest rating for the year (remember ties!)

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John Williams and Stoner are the clear winners here, while Erica Wagner and Seizure were rather less successful.  But it was A Winter in the Hills  that caused the real excitement, of course.

Seizure Other
Stoner Howard, Jo Aruni, Christine, Dick, Heather, Judy, Linda
Other Jocelyn, Stephanie, Suzannah Vicky

The table above classifies people according to whether Stoner and Seizure were indeed their best and worst books respectively. As ever, this was complicated by not everyone having read (scored) every book, but Howard and Jo seem to be representing the mainstream with Vicky as the rebel.