Meet Me In The Library

(Book Reviews and Bookish Adventures…)


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A Week in Reading: Enchanted Chocolate Pots and Doodling

I’m recovering from a bit of a reading slump and have mostly been lost in Shakespeare’s plays and studying. I guess you could say it was a tactical retreat from the depressing election result and the polished but chilling dystopia, Station Eleven, which I found remarkably well-written but loathed by the end. Anyhow. Since I don’t plan to write about the Shakespeare plays here and am only slowly progressing bit-by-bit through the study texts, here’s what else I have recently managed to read:

Sorcery and Cecilia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot was a collaborative project between two fantasy authors who wrote letters to each other about a group of characters they created – without planning the plot out beforehand. They did a little editing of the letters afterwards, to tidy up loose threads and remove sub-plots that hadn’t been expanded, but essentially the book is the letters in the order they were written as the two authors revealed their plot ideas to each other. It’s a fun experiment and I rather like the set up – two young female characters, one in the country and the other in London for her first season, both getting tangled in a plot that involves a Mysterious Marquis, wizards (both secret and famous) and (of course) Austenesque suitors, lots of period slang and a magical chocolate pot. I first read it in the mid-2000s because an Irish bookcrossing friend declared it her favourite book from childhood and, when I said I’d never heard of it, she sent me a copy. It’s perfectly fine for an adult reader but I think it’s aimed at mid-teen readers who will know of some of the historical locations and recognise some of the social rules of the period (who can’t be left alone with who in a room, for example).

It’s been years since I last read Sorcery and Cecilia so my original plan was to pull it off the shelf, quickly whirl through it on a lazy afternoon, see if I still wanted to keep my copy or pass it on and at the same time claim it for 1988 in my 20th century of books. The only problem is that with it being fantasy in a historical setting, written by American authors who love the setting but don’t *know* it, and not entirely aimed at adult readers… I am not willing to count it for my century. The book’s 1988ishness is lost through the style, the setting, the intended audience and so on. It doesn’t warrant a full review here on the blog either really as it’s fairly frothy, but it did cheer me up one dark afternoon. :)

Zentangle

Another book I won’t be reviewing in full but is worth a mention was on the subject of zentangles. A ‘zentangle’ is essentially a proprietary method for doodling. There’s a prescribed size of square to doodle in and a number of named ways of filling in blank spaces within the format. The idea is that you learn these patterns and then fill in your zentangle square or other zentangle-inspired shape with any combination of them to relax and improve your creativity.  I like the idea well enough and drawing patterns over a week of lunch hours was interesting but I confess, it’s not for me. The silly, silly names for each doodle style were incredibly irritating and I prefer the idea of learning to draw specific things rather than just improving my doodling patterns. (The one above is the pattern ‘Crescent Moon’, one of the less silly named patterns. This video of a bird being filled in gives an idea of what you can do with the patterns once you learn them though.)

I do plan to write a full review of a book of essays on the formidable Mrs Delany which I finished this week. Mrs Delany began creating very intricate paper portraits of flowers in her seventies (like these winter cherries which look painted but are in fact constructed from cut out pieces of paper), but the essays looked at her life and work from every angle and as I have been reading the essays at the rate of one a night instead of racing through them I need to pull my various thoughts together. I’ve read about her before but this book was far more informative and surprising than anything I’ve previously encountered. I think Mary Delany is one of those historical women who has been ‘defused’ by Victorian authors until you think she must always have been a sweet, little old lady, harmless and doddering about with her pictures of flowers because she was in need of something to do on cold, wet afternoons. It turns out she is much more interesting a personality than that and that her ‘paper mosaicks’ are far more a part of the eighteenth century’s scientific culture too.

I know that given a time machine we’re all supposed to want to go back and kill Hitler/talk to Shakespeare/solve mysteries but personally I’d like to go back and bop a few Victorian commentators and historians on the nose for lying about various historical women and the importance of their work. Perhaps not as dramatic a goal but, I think, a noble one.


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Review: All that is Solid by Danny Dorling

All that is Solid

Full Title: All That Is Solid: How the Great Housing Disaster Defines Our Times, and What We Can Do About It

Category: Non-Fiction, Property/Economics – Hardback: 400 pages – Publisher: Penguin – Source: Public Library
First Published: 2014

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I’m not entirely sure, but I am, I think, one of Dorling’s intended audience for his book, All that is Solid. Published in early 2014, it’s an account of some of the issues causing, affecting and predicted by the UK’s current housing crisis.

I am self-employed and I am a life long renter in the politically-less-valued north of England. The prospect of me ever buying a house or getting a mortgage seems as fantastical to me as the possibility of buying a seat on a shuttle to the moon.

I live in a neighbourhood where large, four-storey Victorian houses have been bought and speculated on by property developers who turned them into 8, 9 and even 10 bedroom properties for those studying at either of the city’s universities. The impact on the neighbourhood was considerable, good and bad, but the impact now is wholly bad – these ‘Houses in Multiple Occupation’ (HMOs) increasingly stand empty because those students have shifted their attention to cheaper areas of the city or have been deterred altogether by £9000 a year university fees. And what need has anybody else of a 10 bedroom rabbit warren?

Housing policies and rights are therefore a hugely important political issue to me as I think about my future housing options and see how my city’s housing stock is being affected by national issues of treating property as a financial asset rather than someone’s shelter.

Broken into sections titled Crisis, Planning, Foundations, Building, Buying, Slump, Speculation and Solutions, Dorling’s book looks at the issues around the US sub-prime lending disaster, the overheated property market of London, who now buys houses (and where and how) and the chaos caused when large numbers of people can not keep up with mortgage payments and banks must either repossess the house or let them live there for free as a caretaker to prevent others from squatting in it.

At the heart of the book is Dorling’s belief that the problem is not about how many homes there are in the UK. He rejects the constant calls to build more homes. According to every census and statistic he can find we have plenty of homes and more than enough bedrooms in fact. It’s just that they are so unfairly distributed that at least 22 million of them lie empty every night at the very same time increasing numbers of people are willing to pay to live in sheds to stave off the threat of being homeless.

Dorling is a well-respected Professor of Geography at Oxford who frequently comments on political and social issues surrounding housing, the north-south divide in England and so on. This is however a double-edged sword. He links together data and trends, always backs arguments up with statistics and gives numbers to what can sometimes become a very emotional debate. Instead of just declaring the ‘Bedroom Tax’ morally bankrupt he calmly shows that to be true through proven facts about those affected. However, Dorling is also limited by being an academic outsider who swims in a specialised sea of statistics. This is a book about the very human cost of corrupt, unequal housing laws and policies and there is not a single case study, no attempt to put any kind of human faces to the multiple and varied tragedies he’s describing.

I am not criticising him for not interviewing the homeless personally or tracking down and talking to those living illegally in sheds. Or rather I am not criticising him for that alone. But he avoids quoting from interviews others have done with those affected and even avoids communication with the organisations that are the front line services for the crisis he describes. He quotes statistics from the housing charity Shelter but doesn’t include much information about their work. He never talks to debt charities or those working in the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. There are photos of housing in Sheffield used throughout the book to illustrate the issues but it is telling that the only one focusing on a human subject is a disembodied hand inputting the number of a care worker into a phone.

And this is why I am not entirely sure who his intended audience is and whether I am criticising the book for something outside of its remit.

If he wanted to fuel the debate on housing issues and offer a ready source of statistics for those who will actually reach that wider audience, he succeeds. If he wanted to articulate the issues for some of the millions of potential readers affected by them and not just other academics and political figures, he fails to engage with them. I closed the book feeling like I had almost drowned in all those statistics, my lasting impression is of too much maths and not enough compassion.

And then there is the fact that a book like this, sold for the statistics alone and with little ‘artistic’ merit, has a limited shelf life. I find that I cannot recommend it to you as a fellow reader unless you were already likely to read it anyway.

Instead I am going to suggest you go and get a mug of coffee or tea and read novelist James Meek’s article, Where Will We Live?, which was published in the London Review of Books at around the same time Dorling’s book came out.

Meek’s piece is narrative-based, far more humane and very memorable. He brings an author’s eye for personal detail to bear on wider social issues and his piece focuses on conversations with those actually affected by them. At its heart is compassion not a graph.

So yes, it is incredibly rude of me to re-direct your attention from Dorling’s book to Meek’s article. And I truly do think we need both the Dorlings and the Meeks of this world, the statisticians and the authors, those who conjure graphs and statistics for the politicians and those who can make a story real and human for us. But I am fairly certain, as I think most readers are at heart, that it is narratives and images, not the statistics behind them, that change the world… So I hope you will forgive me the unorthodoxy and go ahead and read the article instead.

List of books read in 2015 / Index of Non-Fiction


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Quote: The Filter Bubble and Democracy…

So, we’ve just had a General Election here in the UK. I keep my party political views to my Twitter stream but general politics and personal principles will always be part of the mix here so I want to share two quotes about how the internet affects our view of the world, how the filtering mechanisms behind your Google search results and Facebook news feed give you a distorted view of what the rest of the world thinks. The result of our election was a surprise to many and part of that is to do with voters giving false answers to pollsters in the run up to it. But part of the shock was the contrast between living in personal filter bubbles surrounded by like-minded friends and followers and then being confronted with the differing opinions of the world outside your bubble. That experience will increasingly apply to you whatever your own personal political affiliation.

Here’s an explanation of what the ‘filter bubble’ means for your Google searches:

‘Starting that morning [04DEC2009], Google would use fifty-seven signals – everything from where you were logging in from to what browser you were using to what you had searched for before – to make guesses about who you were and what kinds of sites you’d like. Even if you were logged out it would customize it’s results, showing you the pages you were most likely to click on.

[…]

It’s not hard to see the difference in action. In the spring of 2010, while the remains of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig were spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I asked two friends to search for the term “BP.” They’re pretty similar – educated white left-leaning women who live in the Northeast. But the results they saw were quite different. One of my friends saw investment information about BP. The other saw news. For one, the first page of results contained links about the oil spill; for the other, there was nothing about it except for a promotional ad for BP.

Even the number of results returned by Google differed – about 180 million results for one friend and 139 million for the other.’

(page 2)

And here’s what it means for your social media streams and democracy:

‘For a time, it seemed that the Internet was going to entirely redemocratize society. Bloggers and citizen journalists would single-handedly rebuild the public media. Politicians would be able to run only with a broad base of support from small, everyday donors. Local governments would become more transparent and accountable to their citizens. And yet the era of civic connection I dreamed about hasn’t come. Democracy requires a reliance of shared facts; instead we’re being offered parallel but separate universes.

My sense of unease crystallized when I noticed that my conservative friends had disappeared from my Facebook page. Politically, I lean to the left, but I like to hear what conservatives are thinking, and I’ve gone out of my way to befriend a few and add them as Facebook connections. I wanted to see what links they’d post, read their comments, and learn a bit from them.

But their links never turned up in my Top News feed. Facebook was apparently doing the math and noticing that I was still clicking my progressive friends’ links more than my conservative friends’ – and links to the latest Lady Gaga videos more than either. So no more conservative links for me.’

(Page 5)

Both quotes taken from the interesting The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser (published in 2011 by Penguin) which I read in April.


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Readerly Quirks: Introduction

Welcome to a new intermittent series of posts on the topic of Readerly Quirks.

What do I mean by ‘readerly quirk’? Well, anything about someone’s approach to reading – book choices, reading practices, bookish preferences – that is quirky and affects their overall life as a reader.

Everyone has them, from only reading certain books in a particular chair to avoiding anything with talking animals on the negative side of things or, on the positive side of things, buying anything related to Jane Austen or being a sucker for a tale set on a small, remote island. Some readers will buy or accept any edition of a book they want, others insist on new, matching copies only for their shelves. Some of us even have definite quirks about exactly when and how we buy books.

And I think these quirks are what set us apart as readers and fuel some of the best bookish conversations, but up until now I haven’t really talked about my own quirks except for small mentions here and then in a review or two. Someone stumbling on my blog might be able to guess I love non-fiction about libraries and books-about-books because they are a definite trend in the titles I’ve reviewed here or they might know I like specific authors because I’ve said so in posts in the past even if they’re under-represented in actual reviews. But I doubt they’d guess that I have a shelf of books about lighthouses, have certain books I love to read aloud with partners for the sheer pleasure of sharing the magic of their stories, their language, with them for the first time or have very specific reasons why I don’t read crime fiction much any more. Because those niche, personal things tend to stay off my blog. I mostly assume that you won’t be interested in the super-niche stuff and I worry that writing a personal piece about ‘Why I Don’t Read (Almost Any) Crime Fiction’ will offend those of you who do enjoy a good police procedural or serial killer caper.

But what I want to do with my Readerly Quirks series of posts is share a few of the things that shape my reading, some are positive, some are negative and some are probably rather foolish. But they make me the specific reader I am and I think it would be interesting to write about them here. I suspect actually sitting down to write about these tastes and quirks will make me re-think a few ideas I have about books and perhaps I will even find fellow readers who share specific quirks of mine – after all, how will I know unless I ask you? :)

Anyhow, I’m going to share my first ‘quirk’ later in the week. I hope you’ll find these musings about how quirks come about, which factors affect our own preferences and how tastes change over time interesting even if you don’t share my particular quirks. I also rather like the idea having the series here on my blog as a sort of ongoing, adaptable manifesto of exactly what kind of reader I am, for better or worse…

(Edited to add: If you’d like to borrow the idea/join in the discussion on your own blog then please just add a link in your post back to my round up page!)


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Review – One Hundred Details by Kenneth Clark

Detail - William Hogarth - Cat from The Graham Children - 1742

Category: Non-Fiction, Art History – Hardback: 160 pages – Publisher: Harrison & Sons – Source: Public Library
First Published: 1938

Okay, so this is not so much a review as a sharing of treasure. :)

I read four books by the art historian Kenneth Clark in December/January, and while I will write a proper review of Civilisation: A Personal View at some point (before they go ahead and make the planned remake of it *shudder*), this is the one I want to tell you about first.

In 1938, taking advantage of technical improvements in photography, Clark, who was in charge of the National Gallery in London at the time, devised this wonderful, wonderful book. What it does is simple: it offers big, clear images (A3 sized pages, near A4 sized images in the edition I had) of fascinating details in paintings within the gallery’s collection. Some of these paintings are internationally famous and some are overlooked by those crossing off the famous ones from their ‘artistic hitlist’ as they swoosh through. All benefit from a closer second look.

By focusing in on small, interesting details rather than analysing the whole of the images Clark offers any curious child or adult a way into the art without any stuffiness and little snobbery. (Well, he is a bit snobbish in the accompanying notes but you could easily just look through at the images and only dip into the notes.) All the notes are at the front of the book so that you can just look through the details without being bogged down in information. Each pair of details are presented one on the left page and one on the right to offer contrasts in style or show how techniques developed through time.

For example, that lovely image of a cat at the top of this post is from William Hogarth’s 1742 work, The Graham Children, a painting that focuses on rich, well-behaved children and then, in the background, there is this cat which has all the energy and personality that the children appear to be missing. As Clark says, you get the sense that Hogarth enjoyed painting the cat far more even though it’s such a small part of the complete painting. Clark says she is ‘the embodiment of cockney vitality, alert and adventurous – a sort of Nell Gwynn among cats.’

Hogarth’s energetic cat is paired with:

Detail - Piero di Cosimo - Dog from The Death of Procris - c1495

This stately, grieving dog is from Piero di Cosimo’s A Satyr mourning over a Nymph from c.1492 (here’s the complete painting) and has ‘the gravity of an antique philosopher’. It’s such an entertaining comparison that nudges you to look more closely. Other pairings compare van Eyck’s approach to portraits with Raphael’s, show a medieval hunting scene that inspires sympathy for the wounded stag opposite a painting of Saint Sebastian being killed with arrows where the artist’s sympathy appears to be with the archers rather than the murdered saint, and point out how much imaginative energy was pouring into the backgrounds of medieval paintings because the rigid list of approved subjects – the Virgin Mary, biblical scenes, the deaths of saints – limited artistic freedom. I wonder how many people with gallery fatigue spot the lion and bear fighting in the top right corner of this painting for example (you can zoom in using the tool on the right of the painting)? I also liked a cutely funny pairing where it appears the little girl looking through a doorway in the image on the right page is seeing the view in the image on the left.

I would question whether it’s worth telling you about this book given that I read the 1938 edition and the images are in black and white, except for the fact that I was debating whether to mention it and found that a modern edition, replicating the images and notes, has been published by Yale University Press. And its in colour too!

So, if you fancy an unusual approach to art and exploring a gallery’s collection in a quirky way without leaving your armchair…

Further Reading: A PDF on the National Gallery’s site showing some other pairings

List of books read in 2015 / Index of Non-Fiction


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Quote: The Only Story There Is…

I hope this little anecdote is true too:

‘There is a story (which is so lovely that I hope it’s true, although I haven’t been able to verify it) that someone once asked the South African writer J. M. Coetzee to name his favourite novel. Coetzee replied that it was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – because, he explained, the story of a man alone on an island is the only story there is.’

(Kathryn Schulz (2010) Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, London, Portobello Books, p. 258)

I don’t agree with Coetzee but it’s such a curious little snapshot of his worldview at the time if it’s true…

If you’re curious: a link to my review of the book.


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Quote: The Extremely Obscure Palinode

A fascinating little footnote from a recent read:

‘Western culture has another mechanism for admitting mistakes, but its extreme obscurity only underscores the point that such devices are woefully rare. In poetry, there is an entire form, the palinode, dedicated to retracting the sentiments of an earlier poem. (In Greek, palin means “again,” and ōdē means “song,” make a palinode linguistically identical to a recantation: to “recant” means to sing again. We invoke this same idea when we say that someone who has shifted positions on an issue is “singing a different tune.”) The most famous palinode – which isn’t saying much – was written by the seventh-century poet Stesichorus and serves to retract his earlier claim that Helen of Troy was solely responsible for the carnage of the Trojan War.’

(Kathryn Schulz (2010) Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, London, Portobello Books, pp. 7-8)

I do love a good footnote. :)

If you’re curious: a link to my review of the book.

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