Thursday, 27 June 2013

King of Shadows

Back in the 70's, as a young adult, I read quite a lot of childrens fantasy/magic novels - Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Ursula Le Guin, etc.  So I was quite intrigued when I read about "King of Shadows" on a friend's blog, since it was written by Susan Cooper. Even more so, as it is about 1599.

This is a childrens' book, about a boy who unexpectedly finds himself in 1599, back in the world of Shakespeare and the Chamberlain's Men and the newly build Globe Theatre.  I'll not go into how he gets there, what happens, and how he returns to 1999 - or the ending - which even now has me thinking about what actually was supposed to have happened - you can read the book for that.

I was engaged, the characterisations were good, the ambience and scene setting were well done. I could picture London in 1599. I enjoyed reading it, I certainly would have enjoyed it as a child - even though there really are few female characters to identify with. There is a twist at the end, which by it's nature is left unexplained, but which invites thought and reflection. I suppose my mind wants it explained, but I know that if it were I would be unsatisfied by it. It is best left for you to ponder.

It gives a grounding in history (the political intrigues of that year) and Elizabethan life, and a stirring insight into Shakespeare's plays - in particular, "A Midsummer Night's Dream". Recommended, particularly for children.


Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Beggar King - Oliver Potzsch

Written retrospectively. 

Having read "the Hangman's Daughter". I thought I'd cough up for this one too. I carried straight on from one to the other.

Reading reviews on Amazon, many people loved this. I didn't.  

My credulity was stretched to its absolute limits - it was in severe danger of twanging back and causing a nasty injury.  I got fed up with seeing plot developments set up 20 pages in advance - sometimes a great deal more.

I was angry, both with the author for some of the nonsensical tosh that I was expected to swallow, but also with myself, for continuing to read the drivel. I continued reading, knowing what was coming next, and knowing how cross I would be when it did. Why? Well certainly not because of the lyrical prose. No, nothing more than lost investment of time. I'd got that far, I'd put that much into it, I was bloody well going to finish it - however angry I got.

I'm not going to reveal any of the execrable plot developments - I'm too ashamed of having continued to read. But just take the title - "the Beggar King" - no-one's ever had that idea before, have they?

2/10 - a worthless waste of effort when I could have been reading 'Pride and Prejudice' for the 50th time.

The Hangman's Daughter - Oliver Potzsch

This is another review written retrospectively. The book was a January kindle offer. I was intrigued by the idea that the author is a descendant of the hangman in the title, although the story is fiction. So, I decided to give it a go.

In 17th C Germany each town had a hangman/ torturer, whose job it was to get the truth from anyone accused of any crime. They also had a number of other roles, including keeping the streets free of ordure. This lead to the whole family being seen of as some kind of 'untouchables', social outcasts.

This was an interesting revelation, as was the historical detail of life in mid 17th C Germany. 

This is a historical crime story, so various nefarious people hatch dastardly plots. Good people are stitched up and on the verge of torture. Of course, the kindly hangman, who is really just a sweetie - hard but with an honest heart, exposes the blackguards, with the help of his beautiful (but reviled) daughter, and her boyfriend, a wastrel doctor who dropped out of university. The honest people of the town go free - missing the odd fingernail.

OK, it was OK. The language was a bit clunky in places, but this might be because it is in translation. I was held by the story. It's historical crime, so I wasn't expecting great literature, or even particularly well drawn characters.

6/10. Not something I'd re-read. Now I will review the other book that I bought from this series - the Beggar King.

Born Liars: why we can't live without deceit

I started this book having read quite a lot of books about how we think and why - I'd just finished reading "the Heretics", which followed on from similar books. At first I felt that "Born Liars" was just too much like the previous books, and that I should have changed tack. However, I did get drawn in, I did find new information, and I did find it enlightening.

Why do we lie? It looks like it is a necessary part of being human. It may well be why our brains developed so much. The process of keeping track of a large number of social relationships and how they all relate to each other may well have been a key trigger in our brain development. How did early humans keep track of others in the group, who was allied to whom, who owed what favour? Our early ancestors needed to be aware of what others were thinking, without being too obvious about their own thoughts.

How do children learn to lie, and how do they learn that it is wrong? Interestingly, not by punishing them for lying, which seems to just teach them how to lie better. Most children learn not to lie as a matter of course, although for a small percentage, where lying serves a different purpose (eg: a fantasy world that they hope will impress others), if they haven't ceased habitually lying by about 7, then they are probably never going to stop. I know that I have certainly come across older students who will that what you just saw didn't happen. These people know the morals of lying, they just don't care.

There are interesting issues of philosophy - is it ever OK to lie? What about lying to the 'murderer at the door'? What about 'white lies'? Can you actually avoid lying? 

There are cultural differences in attitudes to lying - with clear differences in the 'seriousness' of a lie, depending upon what it is about, between different cultures.

Linking into my earlier reading about Shakespeare I also liked the idea that the best playwrights are adept at showing the real thoughts of their characters, contrasted with their actual behaviour. The techniques used by Shakespeare and others were developed at a time when the ability to dissemble could be a life saver in the fraught political and religious milieu of the Tudor court.

I found casuistry, the Jesuit concept of 'mental reservation', at least in the examples given, morally repugnant.  This is lying verbally, while adding a mental addendum to the contrary. For example: "He's not here" (" you"). Personally I think that there are times when lies of various types are necessary, but the examples given, where this was used to deceive legitimate enquiry into the behaviour of the church, disturbed me.

Overall, despite my early reservations, an absorbing book. But something very different next time, I think.


Monday, 24 June 2013

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: the Private Diary of a Victorian Lady

A further retrospective review.

This is not something that I would have picked out, although I do read a lot of history, but it was offered as a Kindle 'deal'.  I read the first few pages, and quite liked it, so bought it, then forgot about it for several months.

I did find it interesting, a view into what marriage in Victorian times was like. Isabella was the still young widow of a much older man who had suddenly 'gone mad', and subsequently died. She had a young son, so accepted the suit of Mr Robinson, who she didn't appear to like very much, because - quite frankly - she didn't have much alternative.

She did have an income, but for a widowed woman with a young son there was very little opportunity to meet people, or travel, so she married again. Her husband, Henry, was a boor, who forced her to hand over all her money, and, as father to her two younger sons, had a major hold over her - if she left, she lost her children. They were wealthy, but Isabella needed more from a marriage than financial security.

She was a romantic who loved to discuss poetry, and was interested in phrenology and other topics discussed in the fashionable salons of Edinburgh. She also kept a diary of her passions for handsome and charming younger men. Mostly, it seemed to be the kind of thing that 14 year old girls used to write before Facebook came along, full of half disclosed passions and imaginings. However, there were passages that suggested a more real relationship with one man had developed, albeit briefly.

Eventually her husband found the diary, and attempted to divorce her on the grounds of adultery - the only evidence being the diary. Not withstanding his own adultery and illegitimate children, almost as soon as the law was changed to allow divorce without an act of parliament he took action, obtained a separation and attempted to gain a divorce.

Of course, there were other people involved, and the book turns around the actions of a group of people who tried to get the adultery disproved - because of the damage it would do to the co-respondent in the case.

What did I like about the book? Gaining an understanding of what life was like for a wealthy woman, and how little power women had. The beliefs of the time: phrenology, the idea that women were in thrall to their uteri, and unable to think clearly about anything - even madness caused by 'uterine disease'. I also got a better idea of how men could do whatever they wanted, with little regard for women or women's wishes. 

Because I read this on my Kindle I suddenly found the book coming to an end only about a third of the way through. This was because of the way it is organised: Book, then footnotes/explanations, then extensive references. This wasn't a problem, but I found it a bit weird that I could see the book was close to finished, and my Kindle kept telling me I had a lot still to read.

I liked it 8/10.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013


Another book that I am writing a retrospective review of, so not very detailed.

I enjoyed 'Contested Will' so much I decided to follow it up with 1599.

It looks at what Shakespeare was probably (best guess) doing throughout the year. What plays he was writing, what influences there were on him, and there were many.  Politics (and conscription for the Invasion of Ireland), the possible second 'Armada' in the summer, building 'the Globe', the sermon he most likely saw preached at Richmond at Easter (Elizabeth made sure that the sermons said what she wanted people to be thinking), the books published, etc. Even the tensions between Shakepeare the playwright, who wanted to project certain ideas in his plays, and Will Kempe, the comic entertainment, or 'clown' of the Chamberlain's Men, who had his own agenda.

It looks at the development of the plays and how Shakespeare moved from a good playwright, to someone who was able to show real depth and character. It looks also at the techniques that Shakespeare developed to give a window into the thoughts and feelings of the characters. 

I loved this, it gave a wonderful window into late medieval life in the last years of Elizabeth, giving an idea of the tensions and plots that surrounded her likely succession. Really recommend it for anyone interested in History or Literature. 9.5/10.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Contested Will - James Shapiro

I read this a couple of months ago, on the advice of a friend, following a discussion about Shakespeare. I'd read Ben Crystal's book about Shakespeare, which had a different slant, more about the interpretation of the plays, and how Shakespeare as an author directed his actors through his writing.

I found this very accessible, and a fairly devastating rebuff to those who think that the works of Shakespeare were written by anyone other than William Shakespeare the actor.

I'm not giving a full review, as this is not a recent read, but I'd certainly give it 8 or 9 out of 10. Having read it I went straight out and read 1599.

The Heretics - Will Storr

I became aware while reading 'the Heretics', of occasional irritation. Niggling discomfort with some of the ways that he portrayed people, or Storr's presentation of of an idea. I felt uncomfortable about the way that he was presenting groups of people that I identify with, or a nagging fear that people I respect would be shown to have feet of clay.

And that is important. Because it's how we handle ideas, particularly those that do not fit in with our world-view, that is central to this book.

Storr says that contrary to our deeply held beliefs about ourselves we do not make a balanced assessment of all of the evidence. When we find our thoughts in conflict (cognitive dissonance) we look for evidence that supports what we already believe. Once we find something that fits, that makes some sense, we stop investigating, we stop thinking, and we give ourselves a mental pat on the back that we have 'proved' our beliefs.

I've come across these ideas before, but Storr presents them well. He travels around the world interviewing various 'Heretics', whose ideas do not fit the mainstream, and considers why they can continue to believe things that quite simply do not fit in with reality. In doing so he exposes his own poorly thought out beliefs, which I found made me increasingly suspicious of my own.

We do not tend to change our beliefs very much, or very fast. When people have a major change of heart it is noteworthy. Pastors that become atheists, atheist philosophers who espouse the concept of god, politicians that switch sides of the house. These people are both lauded by the side that they have switched to, vilified by those they have 'deserted', and regarded suspiciously by many.

We have to have assumptions about the world, without them we would find making the simplest decision impossible, but once those assumptions have been made, we support them by any flimsy evidence that can be shoehorned into fitting with what we already believe to be 'the Truth'.

As an illustration do you know anyone who is as right about how things are as you are? I don't, I know I am right, although I have over the years drifted steadily in my beliefs, with no really big changes (one jump, but not a big one, when I came across new ideas and evidence that pushed me further in the way I was already going). I don't now believe what I did 20 years ago on a number of fronts. But I still think that I am more right about things than anyone else in the world.

Does that strike you as likely? We are all collections of prejudices and half thought through ideas.

Storr investigates how people come to believe what they do, and how they support their beliefs. The people that I felt uncomfortable about his portrayal of come out of it broadly OK in the end, or was that just me, desperately cobbling together a working concept that doesn't tear huge holes in my beliefs?

Overall: good, made me think - a lot: 8.5 out of 10  

Intolerably Stupid

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” Jane Austen

I love reading Austen, I can pick up any of the books, any time, and be happy. I know the stories, I know what happens, I don't care, the joy is in the observations, the way that she has you observing the foibles and weaknesses of others, alongside her without feeling unkind. I can believe in the portraits. Emma is flawed, but we understand her, we can feel for her. We feel her mortification when she makes mistakes, and is recognised for them. I still like Emma, I am rooting for her, even when she is crass and unfeeling, because I know that she will learn from it, that she will become a better person. I sympathise with her, and perhaps she helps me to become a better, kinder person too.

We can work out the plot of any Austen novel. Genteel young woman, possibly fallen on hard times, and with irritating or unthinking relatives meets/knows respectable and honourable man (possibly, but not necessarily, young) but who is not available. He is engaged to another, out of her class, etc. etc. She meets up with another young man, who seems quite appealing with assured manners, but who eventually turns out to be rotten to the core, without the understanding of how a gentleman should behave to a young woman, and even putting the young woman in harm's way. In the meantime there may well be a proposal from a boorish clergyman. Finally the first man is released from whatever was stopping him from declaring his undying love - marriage ensues. There will be little vignettes with the relatives, maybe poor behaviour by the young woman - but only because she was unthinking, young women learn how to behave in Regency society.

It doesn't matter that I know what is going to happen, that is not what is important, it's the social observation, and the lessons. How Austen teaches us to behave in polite society. How we reflect on our own weaknesses. But also, let's be honest, her sharp observation. 

I do read a lot, but little fiction, because so little fiction measures up to my "Austen Standard". I feel patronised, or I feel that my suspension of disbelief is being stretched far beyond what is reasonable.

I do read non-fiction. This blog will look at what I read, and what I have gained from it. It is for my personal edification, to help me to remember, reflect on and remind myself what the key points of a book were. I will attempt a proper write up of a book soon after it is completed, but I may also drop in the occasional short post about books I have read in the past - "I read this book, I liked/didn't like it, this is why".

This blog is my opinion, if you happen upon it, you are welcome to read, you are welcome to disagree. I would be happy for you to point out anywhere I have misunderstood an issue. But, please, "be excellent" and "don't be a dick". Beyond that, at the moment at least, I will not post any further requirements of commenters. If you don't play nicely, then I will disable comments.