Showing posts with label Book reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Book reviews. Show all posts

Monday, 16 May 2022

What makes states: walls and writing

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States An acquaintance suggested James C. Scott's Against the Grain might be of interest. We'd been discussing the benefits of small, local forms of self-government versus the large state. I'd recommended Paint Your Town Red, and she countered with Against the Grain.

The author is an American political scientist and his book investigates the formation of the earliest states. It covers the period 6,500 BCE to 1,600 BCE in the region of ""Mesopotamia, and in particular the “southern alluvium” south of contemporary Basra... heartland of the first “pristine” states in the world." I do like a history book, and although this is not my usual period, I thought the theory was intriguing; that the establishment of these early states was largely a coercive enterprise. Scott admits there's very little supporting evidence for this because "a great deal of archaeology and history throughout the world is state-sponsored and often amounts to a narcissistic exercise in self-portraiture", whereas if "you built with wood, bamboo, or reeds, you were much less likely to appear in the archaeological record".

I had no preconceptions about the subject, other than supporting the idea that small, local government is often preferable to large state polity. Here's what I took away.

  1. Like other species such as beavers, ants, and bees, hunter-gatherers at some point began to modify their environment, so that "by 5,000 BCE there were hundreds of villages in the Fertile Crescent cultivating fully domesticated grains as their main staple".
  2. The move towards domestication may have been brought about by a sort of 'ice-age', the "cold snap of the Younger Dryas (10,500–9,600 BCE)", which reduced "the abundance of wild plants". This theory is "hotly contested in terms of both evidence and logic".
  3. Why it happened is less important than why it became entrenched, especially as domestication led to an increase in diseases. In addition, one might question how the early state came to dominate these centres of population. Were walls built for protection or confinement? Did writing develop as a means to record crop production and taxation?
  4. As the state grew, it became necessary to 'enslave' people to maintain production for food and tax purposes. Scott quotes Ester Boserup: "when population becomes so dense that land can be controlled it becomes unnecessary to keep the lower classes in bondage; it is sufficient to deprive the working class of the right to be independent". Plus ça change. 
  5. Early states often broke down due to disease, destruction of the surrounding eco-systems, wars and over-exploitation.
  6. Barbarians have had a bad rap. A great many were not primitives. Rather they were "nomadic pastoralists" who required "sedentary communities as depots of manpower and revenue as well as trading outlets".
For those whose curiosity isn't sated by the book, Scott includes a large number of notes and a bibliography of suggested further reading. There's an index too. It was an easy read, if somewhat repetitive, but that's not a bad thing. The problem is in rating it. It's well written, an intriguing thesis, and I do like history, but this period is too long ago for me and too full of conjecture.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

A fine book let down by poor digitisation

Brown Girl, Brownstones Brown Girl, Brownstones is Paule Marshall's debut novel, published in 1959. It's the coming-of-age story of Selina Boyce, who when the story starts in 1939 is "a ten-year-old girl with scuffed legs and a body as straggly as the clothes she wore". She lives in Brooklyn with her family, older sister Ina, and parents Silla and Deighton, who are West Indian immigrants. They inhabit a 'brownstone' house, which the mother hopes one day to buy. Deighton meanwhile studies accountancy, hoping that when "I finish I can qualify for a job making good money".

Sunday, 8 May 2022

She was only Anne

Persuasion I was heading for Bath and read that Jane Austen's posthumously published Persuasion is set there. Ideal reading for my visit, I thought.

The first few chapters set the scene. Anne Elliot, unmarried middle-daughter of Sir Walter of Kellynch Hall, still pines for her first love, Frederick Wentworth.

Thursday, 5 May 2022

"Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many."

The Lying Life of Adults Who would want to be a teenager again? Not me. Nor, I imagine, the fictional narrator of Elena Ferrante's The Lying Life of Adults.

The book begins with Giovanna Trada remembering an incident when she was 12 years old: "my father said to my mother that I was very ugly". He goes further, explaining, "Adolescence has nothing to do with it: she's getting the face of Vittoria" his sister, whom Giovanna has never met. Piqued by a further description that in her aunt "ugliness and spite were combined to perfection", the young girl contrives to meet this woman to whom she bears a resemblance. As a consequence Giovanna discovers the working-class roots of her academic father, and learns that what adults say is not necessarily true.

Friday, 22 April 2022

The legacy of apartheid

The Good Doctor Damon Galgut won the 2021 Booker Prize for The Promise, but at book club we decided first to read his 2003 shortlisted The Good Doctor.

The story is told by Frank, a middle-aged, listless doctor who "had swallowed a lot of frustration over the years" and works in a hospital where there are few, if any, patients. It's set in a Homeland region of South Africa, described by Galgut in the Author's Note as "impoverished and underdeveloped [...] set aside by the apartheid government for the 'self-determination' of its various black 'nations'".

Sunday, 17 April 2022

Nice use of the subjunctive mood

Farewell, My Lovely (Philip Marlowe, #2) On a warm day at the end of March, LA private detective Philip Marlowe is idly looking at a neon sign for "a dime and dice emporium called Florian's". Another man, who "looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food" looks at the sign too, then enters the building. It wasn't any of Marlowe's business, but he pushed open the doors and looked in too.

So starts Raymond Chandler's second Marlowe novel, Farewell, My Lovely.

Tuesday, 29 March 2022

Ghosts of loss, death, injury and trauma

The Greatcoat Helen Dunmore has been described as "first and last, a poet", but I discovered her through her ghost story, The Greatcoat. Set a few years after World War II, it is unnerving and nightmarish.

Friday, 4 March 2022

This was not the face in the doorway

The Fortune Men Nadifa Mohamed's The Fortune Men was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and praised as an excellent example of historical fiction that explores present day issues, in this case, racism and injustice. But it's more than fiction. The characters are real people whose voices have never been heard, and the story is taken from a real life incident that happened 70 years ago.

Monday, 28 February 2022

A teenage boy with raging hormones

The Rachel Papers Charles Highway is a "chinless elitist and bratty whey-faced lordling". He's the protagonist of Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers. His saving grace is that he's young, nineteen going on twenty, and if you can remember how awful you were at his age, you'll be able to laugh at the "devious, calculating, self-obsessed" little twit.

Thursday, 24 February 2022

Antigone, Iphis, Electra and more

Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths It was eighteen months after reading a review of Antigone Rising before I bought it. I'd forgotten what had drawn my attention to the book and assumed it was just a general interest in the Greek myths or perhaps a recent book club choice, Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie's modern retelling of Antigone. So it was something of a surprise, a pleasant one, to find it was actually about how those myths are being appropriated by feminists and non-binary people in the 21st century.

Friday, 11 February 2022

Living through a period when politicians don’t merely lie

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia When Boris Yeltsin became President of the new Russia, I was working for a bunch of London-based management consultants who were looking for opportunities to provide advice to the new Russian entrepreneurs. Our strategy was to employ two young Russians. The man introduced himself. He took my hand, bowed slightly, and I swear I heard his heels click. As for the young woman, she was terrified of flying, something of a disadvantage for a jet-setting consultant. Throughout a flight she would grip the arm rests but as soon as the Captain announced our descent she reluctantly let go and fished in her handbag for lipstick and mirror. No matter how terrible the situation, she told me, no Russian woman would ever allow herself to be seen without make up.

Other than a handful of students, that's been the limit of my personal knowledge of Russians.

Monday, 7 February 2022

A cock that could drill a hole through stone?

Beautiful Antonio: Il bell'Antonio Beautiful Antonio ticked a lot of my boxes. It's set between WW1 and WW2, with themes including fascism, hypocrisy, and gender inequality. Unfortunately I wasn't able to give the book my full attention, and read large chunks without digesting them. So it's a good job Tim Parks, the British novelist and translator of Italian works, had written a helpful introduction.

The story is set in Italy, the Sicilian town of Catania to be precise, and concerns a sensitive young man named Antonio, reckoned by family, friends, and random women to be the epitome of an "Italian stallion". All is not as it seems tho'.

Monday, 17 January 2022

My lack of imagination?

Harmless Like You This is a review of the first 13% of Harmless Like You. Perhaps it's a good story. It was in a list of books I'd found on the theme of family relationships. It was shortlisted for a few awards too. The two main characters are Yuki and her son Jay, whom she abandoned when he was 2 years old. I found it mostly unreadable.

Saturday, 8 January 2022

Do I like this?

Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery Art Objects is a book for readers who relish language, its rhythm and its sounds. In other words, the art of the written word. In it Jeanette Winterson explores the idea of literature as art in a series of essays, using examples of the literature which she admires: the modernists, especially Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein.

I did wonder if I'd get much out of the book, since the only reading I have in common with Winterson is Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Winterson's own books, and Shakespeare. But I didn't let it put me off, and neither should you. This is a book that oozes love of literature.

Thursday, 6 January 2022

The worst of times

Autumn In simple terms, Autumn is about the relationship that develops between a 9-year-old girl called Elisabeth, and her elderly next door neighbour, Daniel Gluck. There's a lot more to it than that tho'.

It's a book firmly set in its time, that of the UK post-Brexit. Lack of funds for community services have led to libraries being closed, the way the Brexit referendum was framed has led to thoughtless tribalism, and the idea of protecting the land from invasion by foreigners is rife.

Friday, 31 December 2021

The world itself is the bad dream

The Bell Jar I was taking a chance with The Bell Jar. A fictionalised autobiography about a young woman attempting suicide is unlikely to raise the spirits when you're living through the Covid pandemic. But there were headlines in the media about how lockdowns and isolation were affecting people's mental health so it seemed like something I should read. Besides, it's generally considered a classic.

Monday, 20 December 2021

A child's Christmas in...

A Child's Christmas in Wales Adults always claim that Christmas is for the children. Who are they trying to kid? Whatever your age, 25 December provides an excuse to stuff yourself with sweeties and play silly games.

If you want something to get you in the mood for a merry Christmas, you could do no better than to pick up a copy of Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales. It's so short you can read it in less than an hour.

Saturday, 11 December 2021

Everyone thought I was rather a strange child

Convenience Store Woman Convenience Store Woman is about Miss Furukura. "Everyone thought I was a rather strange child", she says, and it was only when she started working at a convenience store and was trained to deal with customers that she was able "to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech." Now in her mid-30s, unmarried with no boyfriend, she's worked part-time in the same store for the past 18 years or so. Following her sister's advice on how to appear "normal", she's happy.

The edition that I read included an essay by author Sayaka Murata entitled A Love Letter to the Convenience Store, and the tale is indeed a sort of romance between Furukura and the store. In the opening pages the character describes in fascinating detail how the sounds of the convenience store enable her to anticipate customer needs. She makes odd comments that set you wondering what, if anything, has happened to make her the way she is.

Although Furukura is content, there's a sadness to her situation. She realises that her sister is "happier rather thinking [Furukura] is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine". When Shiraha, a young man who rejects the expectations of society, joins the team, Furukura's ordered life is thrown into disarray. However, what is chaos for Furukura is conformity for her co-workers, and their interaction with her changes. Unfortunately "it felt like [they'd] downgraded me from store worker to female of the human species".

In addition to this idea of societal norms, the book raises questions about sexlessness and celibacy, which brings into question the translation of its title. In Japanese it is Convenience Store Person, but in English it has become Convenience Store Woman. I wonder why this decision was made, because it doesn't really tally with those themes.

Furukura reminded me of Aroon St Charles in Good Behaviour, or Eleanor Oliphant in Gail Honeyman's book. They are women who function within society and accept its mores but either can't or won't conform. Some might describe them as nerds or geeks, characters who take people at their word and don't understand sarcasm or "banter".

Furukura has found her place in society, or rather a small space where she fits without having to compromise. As she says, "I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world", and this makes her happy, whatever other people think of her.

Monday, 6 December 2021

Permissive, modern, challenging, gappy, frustrating, moving, attenuated, beautiful, ambiguous, resourceful, provoking, necessary. Yours.

This Is Shakespeare Here's a book for people who want to know more about Shakespeare but need a bit of guidance before sitting down to watch or read a whole play. Emma Smith has chosen 20 of Shakespeare's works, briefly explains the plots and investigates the themes. More importantly she teases out what it is about them that continues to make them relevant to theatre-workers and theatre-goers today.

Although written by a Shakespeare scholar, the writing style is accessible and engaging. Each chapter discusses one of the Bard's plays, but there's no need to read them in order. You can pick the book up and delve right into a comedy or tragedy that you know, then investigate those you may not be familiar with later. I started with favourite movie adaptations: Sir Ian McKellen as Richard III, Ben Whishaw as Richard II, Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet, and The Taming of the Shrew aka Ten Things I Hate About You or Kiss Me Kate.

One of the most memorable chapters dealt with A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I'd never seen and knew little about. I'd thought it was just a fairy story, but it turns out that it "really isn’t a play for children". I've subsequently enjoyed the 1999 film version with Kevin Kline as Bottom. Other adaptations are available.

Like many, my introduction to Shakespeare was at school, but when I studied Twelfth Night aged 15 its cross-dressing characters merely seemed to be a plot device to set up some humorous misunderstandings. Now, in a world of LGBTQ+ rights the play takes on a new relevance. This is the value of Emma Smith's book. It shows how over the past 500 years, for each generation Shakespeare "can resonate in particular circumstances, and how we can bring to the plays our own emotional, political, ideological and creative energies."

More stuff

Friday, 12 November 2021

I read it in the Daily Mail so it must be true

We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent This week saw yet another report of university students banning a speaker for remarks made during a debate. It was a perfect opportunity for John Cleese (Monty Python and Fawlty Towers star) to gain some publicity for his upcoming documentary on "cancel culture". The media is full of such voices, incensed by "woke rules". We Need New Stories shines a light on such outrage and exposes the hidden agendas.