Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Books read in November

The district around Lower Hutt's main rail and bus interchange is, amusingly, called Waterloo. On one side of the tracks is a full complement of local shops (and this, no word of a lie, is Trafalgar Square). On the other, just a couple of minutes' walk up the road from the railway station and well supplied by a brace of corner shops, is the semi-detached bungalow we now call home. It has all the space we need, pleasant neighbours, gardens front and back and a (small) greenhouse. It's far enough back from the road that we can barely hear any sound from the railway track. Fifteen minutes' walk up the road is the local shopping precinct, and five minutes beyond that is the central library. Colourful Deco architecture in all directions. Twenty minutes away down the track is central Wellington, and the trains run frequently and late into the night. There's even a quality second-hand bookshop just the other side of the station. All we need are jobs.

Latest update on our worldly goods is that they have literally only just been shipped, seven weeks after a removal company that shall for the moment remain nameless took them off our hands, so we're not getting the rest of our books back until January. Now we're glad we brought a few with us.

Cobralingus, Jeff Noon
A very poetic book, in which Noon takes a selection of texts and transforms them through various stages, the conceit being that these transformations are the work of a piece of language remixing software called Cobralingus. It may give some insight into Noon's working practices, or it may not, but some of the results are fantastically imaginative and strangely beautiful.

The Wallet of Kai Lung, Ernest Bramah
Chinoiserie is a kind of faux Chinese-ness, in artistic or literary terms, that was popular in early twentieth century Britain. Apparently there was a lot of it about. One example that has lasted over the intervening years is Ernest Bramah's canon of Kai Lung stories, which take the form of folk tales either about or told by the itinerant storyteller Kai Lung. Convoluted and evasive dialogue is the order of the day, so that characters give each other the most delicate back-handed compliments, or struggle to outdo each other in self-abasement. Dominating this particular volume is the novella The Transmutation of Ling, in which a captain of bowmen drinks a potion that causes any dead part of him (cut nails, trimmed hair, etc) to turn to gold – ingenious twists and turns and a satire on the futures stock market ensue.

We then moved into the bungalow and became members of Lower Hutt War Memorial Library. There followed a predictable frenzy of borrowing.

Quite a lot of Lower Hutt Library's graphic novel section
Titles borrowed include Mr Punch by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, the story of a boy's childhood seen through the distorting mirror of the Punch and Judy show; Edgar Allan Poe Graphic Classics, a compendium of Poe stories and poems either illustrated or fully cartooned by various artists; and Iron West and Creature Tech by Doug TenNapel, creator of Earthworm Jim and a thorough lunatic.

The Gentle Art of Advertising, W Heath Robinson
Ex-library book, now mine for the pittance of two dollars. A collection of cartoons illustrating industrial practices in the early twentieth century. They're all absolutely, completely true, so there.

Wodehouse at the Wicket, edited by Murray Hedgcock
Library book. Fifty pages of introduction, detailing PG Wodehouse's own cricketing exploits as well as examples of the sport in his writings, followed by a hundred and fifty of selected extracts, short stories and poems. A notable curiosity is a journalistic piece on fast bowling that Wodehouse ghost-wrote for NA Knox.

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, Pierre Bayard
Library book. This struck a definite chord. With impeccable reasoning, Bayard shows that, because of the way we skim books, forget the details of books we once read and assimilate other people's opinions into our own perception of books, it's disingenuous for us to claim that we know a book at all, at least in the overwhelming majority of cases. He then goes on to explain why this isn't necessarily a bad thing, why it might even be of benefit to us and to the book, and how we should confidently approach discussions of books we haven't read. The tone is playful – whenever Bayard names a book, he uses a system of annotation to show whether he's heard about it, read it but forgotten it, only skimmed it or never heard it of at all, and what his opinion of the book is in each case, and you start to wonder how sincere he is when he annotates his own titles (forgotten about it, low opinion) and titles that exist only fictionally in other books (never heard of, excellent opinion). Before I forget about it or hear any other opinions of it that might influence me, I'd better record that it's an excellent book.

The Stupidest Angel, Christopher Moore (“A heart-warming tale of Christmas terror”)
Library book. A child witnesses the apparent murder of Santa Claus; a passing angel overhears his wish that Santa be brought back to life; zombie terror results. Well, it does after the first couple of hundred pages. Mostly, this book is just a comical portrait of small-town America. Has a few excellent one-liners, but overall it's not very memorable.

(At least some of) Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas R Hofstadter
Library book. In the author's eyes, and I assume in the eyes of his many fans as well, this is a profound meditation on the nature of consciousness, taking as its main theme the self-referentiality in the work of the three named illustrious persons. In my eyes, it's a maths textbook (or at least a cognitive science textbook) masquerading as something more, with illustrative examples from the worlds of literature, music and art at regular intervals. The author's anniversary edition preface lays out his ultimate goal and the route he plans to take to get to it in abundant detail – then the book proper starts, and with it the logic formulae and the programming language.
Had I simply read the preface and left it there, I might have walked away with a positively glowing opinion of this book (and though it be an unworthy thought, how many of the book's fans have done just that? - see two items above). In the event, lured on by the promise of the preface, I waded through the first 250 or so pages before deciding that enough was enough, and started skimming to see if the ratio of promised insights to maths improved at all. As far as I can see, it didn't. It's obviously a significant achievement qua book, but I don't think it's quite what it claims to be, and I doubt I'd pick it up again or recommend it to anyone who didn't have a degree in a maths-related subject.

Can You Speak Venusian?, Patrick Moore
Picked up cheap in second-hand bookshop. Now, this is more my speed. Patrick Moore, astronomer-broadcaster and writer of a modest assortment of science fiction and popular science books, examines some of the more eccentric theories that were in circulation at the turn of the 1970s. Many of them were formulated or adapted by people he knows personally, or had sat alongside on TV discussion programmes, so open mockery is out of the question. In fact, although there's a fair amount of thinly concealed mockery, Moore's handling of the subject matter is very even-handed. As he reminds us, Sir Isaac Newton was an astrologer and alchemist by vocation, but we don't think of him in those terms because modern science has given astrology and alchemy the pip – we remember him as a mathematician and the originator of the theory of gravity, because his work in those areas has been borne out by centuries of study and experiment. (And I like to believe that we'd think of Dr John Dee as the originator of the theory of gravity, if he hadn't blotted his copybook with all that stuff about taking dictation from the angels.) Posterity decides who's a genius and who's a nutter, and it's not necessarily easy to tell the difference at the time. If NASA had discovered that the interior of the Sun is balmy and habitable, we'd think of William Herschel as a visionary 200 years ahead of his time and not just as the discoverer of Uranus.
Basically, keeping an open mind is the essence of the true scientific thinker – Moore profiles some of those who've simply kept their minds more open than most. Oh, all right, it's about wackos. It's about wackos and their loony theories. Most of the subject matter is astronomical in nature, although there's a certain amount of overlap with mythology – yes, Atlantis pops up once or twice. A warm and witty wander through some of science's less well-lit back alleys.

Le ton beau de Marot, Douglas R Hofstadter
Library book. The other big (in both senses) book by Hofstadter, this one examines the many aspects of translation. Although there's some overlap with GEB, and a couple of chapters drift into the realm of cognitive science, it's a lot more readable. I actually wish I could “unread” GEB and have read this one first. Obviously I'm biased by the subject matter – it's quite possible non-linguists would consider the book best left to linguists in a mirroring of my opinions. But anyway.
Hofstadter's authorial voice still irks me in places, and although I heartily agree with him that Vladimir Nabokov, while an admirable writer, was a complete dick in other areas – my opinion of Nabokov has taken a pronounced nosedive – I wish he hadn't banged on about it for quite so long. It also bothers me somewhat when he admits to not having read a book in the original language (La disparition, Evgeni Onegin) and then holds forth at length on how his preferred translation has captured the spirit of the original, or gives a flavour of the original. He's at liberty to say that it's more readable than other translations, but this is going a bit far.
But where this book scores highly with me is in its rich value as a reference book – he's chosen some absolutely fantastic examples to illustrate his various points, several of which I'd never heard of before, and I wouldn't be averse to picking this up again if the library should ever decommission it. Most of the illustrative content is poetry, one major theme of the book being that it's difficult for a number of reasons to translate poetry well, but it's always worth making the effort, something I'd agree with. Most notably, the backbone of the book is a 28-line novelty item by 16th century French poet Clement Marot, or rather it's a selection of 88 varied translations of it. All of this material is a joy to read, and large sections of the discussion around it are also thought-provoking and satisfying. So while I'm still not a Hofstadter fan, I am at least glad to have read this one.

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