Tag Archives: books

Everyone loves an apocalypse

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In a book about apocalypses and endings in fiction, it seemed appropriate to begin with the most recently written segment, which is the epilogue, before returning to chapter/lecture 1, mischievously entitled “The End”.

It was perhaps an error to cook a ginger cake between chapters 2 and 3.  The tin is almost empty.

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String follow and gaffle

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No problem about turning to notes and references in this one, because there aren’t any.  It feels as if the book’s origin lies in a collection of slowly accumulated notes, in which the courtesy of accurate referencing was unconsidered until it was far too late to reconstruct the author’s sources.  On the plus side, this gives it a personal and slightly fugitive air.  And at least he can spell mediaeval.

The absence of a glossary presents a challenge to the reader, especially as the collaged quality of the text includes the use of specialist terms many pages before the author indicates their meaning (or occasionally never defines them at all).  This is quite a good deduction game for word-fanciers.   Even more tricky is visualising the complicated manoeuvres of, say, whipping and looping bow strings, although diagrams are added to verbal descriptions.

The moments of personal reminiscence were engaging:

I well recall the months of strain and struggle to master the [replica Mary Rose] bow and eventually, at the very limit of my strength, managed to draw some 95lbs at around 28 inches … I was definitely overbowed and doubtless set my shooting form back several years … drawing and loosing this bow gave the feeling of being caught in an earthquake …  (p 73)

It’s also interesting to learn of the work done by modern archers to repeat the reported performances of mediaeval archers, using replica bows; the modern archers are at a disadvantage as they have not been physically developed since childhood to use a heavy bow.  Some archers have reproduced remarkable feats of shooting distance and accuracy.  Roth notes drily that some of these shots may be lucky – lucky shots do occur, although mostly for excellent archers.  (p 158)

I am, of course, entirely ignorant of practical archery, but it did remind me of another wood-and-missile-related discipline:  the mysteries of knocking in and splices and sweet spots; Chinamen and the back of the hand; giving air and seaming; offs, ons, legs and squares; and the rest of cricket’s paraphernalia.  Ah, these rituals!

Footnotes -> mere notes

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The removal of footnotes from the pages of academic texts has not, I feel, been a good thing for the reader.  I never found it difficult to skim past footnotes if I didn’t want to read them, but easy to pick them up if I did want to.  But it is so awkward to keep flipping to the back of a book that I nearly missed this note, whose lack of explanation I particularly enjoyed.

Chapter 6, note 24:  Volosinov also appears to go by the name of Bakhtin, and there seems to be some confusion in the literature about this…

From An introduction to theories of popular culture – Dominic Strinati  (2nd ed.)

Regressing to phonics

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Lots of technical vocabulary in this one.  Some of the authors translate or define the Greek terms they use; some just transliterate; and some don’t bother at all.  Which leaves me, with my primitive half-familiarity with the Greek alphabet, painfully sounding out words, and hoping they will come out as something vaguely familiar and guessable.

A few are fairly easy given a context – I could cope with θεολογια; and γνωσις was doable.  But προσαρμοσας?  Urg.

As for the English language parts:  some of these sentences and paragraphs will remain mysterious to me for ever.  But that’s another story.

You epigone, you

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Starting a new subject with a reader is more difficult than picking up an introductory text written with novices in mind.  It does, however, have the advantage of offering a full technical vocabulary, and introducing significant writers in the discipline through their own words.

Sadly, the ‘own words’ of cultural theorists (up to Part 3) seem to be quite remarkably dreary – an uglification of English which is hard to forgive, and there are 450 pages still to go.  Some of the content is moderately interesting, but Oh! if only we could have it better said!  One honourable but momentary exception:  Laclau and Mouffe describing their critics as ‘fading epigones’.  I had to look ‘epigone’ up in Chambers, and joyed in it, a word at once compendious and splendidly disdainful.  Then it was back to uglification for fifteen pages.

This is going to be a long, long, long, long, long, long read.

Thoughts and shades

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I carefully consulted the forecast to travel on the coolest day this week, and then the Met Office sneakily turned it into a hot one instead.

I came home with eight; a limit imposed not by the librarian, but by my powers of traction.

Things to do when you can’t sleep: lxviii

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lxviii   :   Read about a hopeless case

Richard Savage was obviously a disaster of a man.

His claims to be a neglected (indeed persecuted) illegitimate child of the Countess of Macclesfield and Earl Rivers seem to have been accepted whole by Samuel Johnson, though posterity sees a possible case of fraud and blackmail.  Even allowing the dubious circumstances of his birth, it is painful to read of Savage’s appalling behaviour to his friends and acquaintances, and his extraordinary fecklessness.

Johnson treads a complicated path through his personal knowledge of Savage’s worst behaviour; a delicate hint or two of his own attempts to support Savage; his affection for Savage as his own charming friend; his awareness of other friends’ attempts to help; and his tenderness towards Savage’s failure to cope with life, which amounted almost to a disability.  I walked with Johnson through concern, disgust, pity, contempt, regret, and, like Savage’s friends, at last you can only throw your hands in the air, and declare him beyond helping.

But I couldn’t quite join Johnson in his tenderness towards this utterly selfish and infuriating man; which is why I love Samuel Johnson, especially in the middle of the night.

Compressed lives

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There was something curiously sad about reading The complete robot, though I am puzzled to pin it down.  Perhaps it is seeing Asimov’s lifetime of robot stories compressed into one slightly dog-eared volume.  The stories are arranged thematically (‘Some immobile robots’, ‘Powell and Donovan’ etc.) so there is no sense of an arc or chronology in the writing, yet time weighs on the volume.  Perhaps it is sad to be reminded how thin some of the stories are, how long ago the Golden Age happened, how much more challenging and entertaining the tales were when I was fourteen. Maybe this is the last time I will read them.Margaret Oliphant’s Autobiography is mis-named, consisting only of four fragments, written at wide intervals and with purposes which changed as her life altered.  The fragments have the immediacy (almost) of a diary, unhomogenised for publication, and often raw with grief or self-knowledge.  The letters, of course, were written to be seen by at least one pair of eyes, yet again are created in the immediacy of a particular moment and purpose.  Her family life included much loss, disappointment and sadness, and her editor (who was also an adopted daughter) describes the relief with which Margaret Oliphant turned from life when informed that her final illness would be mortal.

And yet the vigour of her literary production was enormous.  I’ve read scarcely any of her journalism and none of her non-fiction works, and only a small proportion of the fiction.  Those novels I have read are not the easy romantic crowd-pleasers one would expect from a Victorian hack writer, though they are often flawed.  On the contrary:  Oliphant was capable of a moral complexity at least as challenging as anything to be found in her contemporaries, and sometimes tougher than almost anything I’ve ever read. (She could also be exceedingly witty.)  Most of her readers seem to agree that Miss Marjoribanks is the masterpiece, and certainly for me it’s pure joy from cover to cover.

A woman of so much drive and talent, but so religious, so conventional and with so few pretensions, was always going to be a puzzle to the Victorians, and I suspect she remains a stumbling block now, in spite of a developing cloud of critics and apologists.  Sometimes I think I’ll try one of the modern biographies; but then again, perhaps I’ll just let her continue to speak for herself.

All on a summer’s day

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Well it was about 80° by 9 o’clock again, so I went to water the plants before it became intolerable.  While on this placid duty, the

biggest

blackest

hugest

enormous

VASTACEOUS

bumblebee flew straight down the neck of my shirt.

Having in this compendious manner tried to achieve heat stroke and heart attack in the same encounter, I treated myself for shock and proceeded with the day.

At 10 o’clock we headed to a convenient beach.  There was a ruffling breeze and on the fairly steep-to shingle the waves made aggressive dashes at our knees.  Wet skirts were not a problem in the circumstances …

At noon the curtains were pulled against the sun and with local old-fashioned milk (full of old-fashioned top-of-the-milk) we made raspberry ice cream – yum, zingy.

And having run out of tosh for the moment, another book at 1 pm:

 

Wendy Moore has written an interesting double biography of Thomas Day and Sabrina Sidney/Bicknell.  The key narrative element is that Day, a dogmatic, wealthy and eccentric 18th century bachelor, tried to create a wife to his own specifications by acquiring and educating his own personal orphan, naming her Sabrina Sidney.  The morality of this is more complex than at first appears – less obnoxious because it did not in fact seem to cloak sexual abuse or pædophilia, and did in fact benefit his protégé in terms of prosperity and education; and more obnoxious, because the bald description of ‘apprenticeship’ barely indicates the mental manipulation, ownership, occasional physical cruelty and minute control he expected to exert over Sidney.  What could possibly go wrong?  Quite a lot, but again, no simple moral to be drawn.

It seems that the story was too good to waste, its afterlife leaking into several novels, and perhaps eventually into Shaw’s Pygmalion.  Having read this account of Day’s experiment (and also Pygmalion), I can well believe it.

And now at another 9 o’clock, it’s time to water the frazzled pot plants again.  Dare I brave the invertebrates?