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0691 | Touch | David Linden

0691 | Touch | David Linden post image

Context: Started reading this on our first reading date day when we visited another of the senses for coffee… and smelly dogs.

This has the subtitle The Science of the Sense that Makes Us Human, but nowhere in it will you find an explanation as to why touch apparently makes us any more human than, say, salmon.

Nevertheless, Touch has all you ever wanted to know about how we (humans) feel. This ranges from the physics of how it works to situations when there’s nothing more involved than our mental assumptions. This is an engaging read for the most part, and there’s lots here that I’ll remember.

I’ll not forget the story of M. the woman who lost feeling in her forehead but developed an itch there so bad that she literally scratched through her skull into her brain. I’ll not forget the cutaneous rabbit. I’ll not forget how horrific Onchocersiasis is, (although I might forget how to say it) and I’ll not forget that no other species has five-year-old offspring that cannot survive independently. Even salmon.

However, I’ve already forgotten what TNF alpha signalling is, exactly what temperatures TRPV1 and TRPM8 are associated with and what the anterior cingulate cortex does.

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0690 | Waiting for the Barbarians | J. M. Coetzee post image

Context: Read this on the day that we had electricians install wiring to our new extension.

A clear indictment of all nations built on colonial ambition but more broadly the propensity within all of us to characterise and brutalise The Other, Coetzee’s novel pulls no punches.

An anonymous magistrate rules over a small outpost on the edge of the frontier. His political placidity is disturbed by envoys from the capital who bring with them rumours of a Barbarian uprising, rumours he feels are being fomented as an excuse for a roundup. He’s not wrong.

The novel falls into two halves. The first tells of the magistrate’s management of the settlement in the face of outside interference. In particular it details his relationship with one particular indigenous woman.

This relationship is a the wider parable in microcosm. The two find their are mutually incomprehensible. One is all powerful, the other crippled and blinded. Attempts at intimacy are one-sided. The solution to all of this is, again, unilateral and it is at this point the book pivots.

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0689 | Falling Upward | Richard Rohr

0689 | Falling Upward | Richard Rohr post image

Caption: Planted a box hedge in our garden while reading this.

Not a man I’ll read any more of, but this one was recommended to me by some friends and none other than my wife so I wasn’t about to refuse them. I’ll get the review of the book done first before I turn to a review of Rohr himself and why I’ll not read anymore of his stuff.

The basic premise in Falling is that life is like a box of chocolates game of two halves. The first half, which we all experience, is spent building the structures that allow us to determine who we are – and by ‘we’ he means most of us. We learn, we take on some kind of profession, we start a family, we establish ourselves in the world.

At this point, most of us, according to Rohr, settle for this as being the aim of our existence. But it is not. There is a door to another world, the world of the red pill, the world of reality.

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0688 | Invisible Cities | Italo Calvino

0688 | Invisible Cities | Italo Calvino post image

Context: Was reading this while the frogs were busy in the pond. Our first spawn of the season.

Such a little book for so much metaphor. Calvino writes prose that, on the surface of it, is deceptively simple. It’s a lot easier to read than much of Borges stuff too, but it packs just as much metaphysics into each sentence.

Each of the 55 descriptions begins by naming the city (always female) and highlighting what makes it unique. These range from the mundane to the outright fantastical and are distributed through the book in a carefully structured way which this Wikipedia chart helpfully illustrates.

The book is essentially a collection of descriptions of cities that Marco Polo has encountered on his travels and which he relates to Kublai Khan. The cities can be taken individually or considered as variations of one.

I’m not entirely sure what the mathematical arrangement of cities is meant to mean to the reader. The descriptions are interesting in themselves and you can read into them as little or as much as you want.

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0687 | Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy | Max Hastings post image

Context: Finished this on the day that I finished building paths of brick between the veg beds I’ve built in the back garden.

It’s hard to know where to start with the Vietnam War such was the lengthy prelude that the people of that nation were subjected to by the French and Japanese. Hastings does a good job of picking up exactly where he should at the end of WW2 where the hopes and promises of independence for Vietnam were dashed. It would be the first of many betrayals by us in the west.

By the time the US are in too deep, you are gripped by the unutterable misery that pride and political idocy can wreak on the world. We’re still suffering the aftershocks of what was a mistake of titanic proportions.

This is a large and well-researched book. If anything, I’m surprised that Hastings managed to get everything into 650 pages. This is the only criticism I’d make. The book could have done with many more detailed descriptions of episodes like the unbelievably awful fire on the USS Forrestal in 1967. The war, like any war, is a collection of individual experiences and Hastings doesn’t really do these justice. I’d have been more than happy for this to be the first of at least two volumes.

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0686 | Inside Mr Enderby | Anthony Burgess post image

Context: While reading this, the world succumbed to Covid-19.

Enderby is a poet who parps a lot. He’s basically the early British prototype for Ignatius J. Reilly. He has no love except that of poetry which he composes on the toilet. When he finds himself first courted by those in charge of a literary prize and then by the editor of a women’s magazine, his world starts to come apart at the seams. It all ends in an asylum.

Along the way, Burgess uses his creation to satirise poetry, literature, Italians, Catholicism, love and the meaning of life. It’s an often amusing read, but although Burgess penned no fewer than three further novels based on Enderby, I don’t really have the inclination to pursue a character whose most memorable feature is farting.

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0685 | On Photography | Susan Sontag

0685 | On Photography | Susan Sontag post image

Context: We began a house extension that lasted months while I was reading this.

There’s at least one photo project on every page of this classic work on photography and there’s good reason for that. Sontag writes eloquently and persuasively about the medium and its influence on our societies. Despite being written in the late 1970s, it’s also extremely accurate about the current state of the art with the rise in mobile phone camera use.

Some of her ideas she repudiated apparently in her later essay On Regarding the Pain of Others. But almost all her musings have become entrenched in how photography is now seen and critiqued. In short, judging from how others have written about On Photography, it seems it had more of an influence than even she could have realised.

The influence of this work is reflected below in the rating I awarded for Legacy. Very few books attain 100% in this category, but Sontag’s work deserves this.

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0684 | The Heat of the Day | Elizabeth Bowen post image

Context: Read this while acting in the local pantomime.

On the inside cover of this, it says, “The texture of her prose has a gossamer exquisiteness…” Well, here’s an example of what passed for gossamer in the age of rationing when this was first published:

She went ahead of him through another door to put the cat down; while he had, owing to the unfamiliarity of this other, no less minute, hall, a renewal of difficulty over the old business of putting down his hat

Not exactly silky smooth is it?

Bowen’s book has probably only survived for posterity because it is one of the very few novels that is set in the London of WW2. As such, it evokes a time when the nation of Britain was struggling with its own identity.

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0683 | G. | John Berger

0683 | G. | John Berger post image

Context: Got new curtains made for our living room while reading this.

While, on the surface, Berger’s prose seems simple enough, any discerning reader will find it hard not to feel as if there are hidden depths that require more explanation. Much of it, I felt, would remain beyond me no matter how much I read, such is the craft that he brings to his writing.

That’s not to say that this was a fantastic read. In places it zipped along, but there were times it dragged. Not that that is the mark of a good book anyway. But the narrative shifts surprisingly and in doing so you know that Berger has larger aims than simply to spin a story.

The story of the young man known as G. allows Berger to comment on our views of love, commitment, purpose in life, relationships and, in some quite bizarre ways, sex. He doesn’t handle each with equal deft, but when he gets it right, it’s a good read.

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0682 | Towards a Philosophy of Photography | Vilem Flusser post image

Context: This was the first book I took out of Teesside University Library as I began a photography Master’s.

If you have to study photography as I currently do, you need to think about it. Flusser aims to provide enough to get us started, and like all philosophies, it’s intended to just be a starting point. For that, it does okay although, having been published in 1983, it felt dated in parts.

Part of the reason it hasn’t aged as well as it could have is that Flusser draws on the technology of his day to frame his ideas. So, we have talk of apparatuses and other mechanical devices.

This doesn’t stop the reader following his arguments however. We can still easily understand the idea of the camera as a ‘black box’ which the user cannot have complete control over. In fact, with the advances in technology, this idea is even more salient that it was forty years ago and will only become more so.

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0681 | Crash | J G Ballard

0681 | Crash | J G Ballard post image

Context: Read this in the break at a landlords’ professional development meeting in Harrogate one evening.

Even as I placed my penis in his rectum Vaughan had known he would try to kill me, in a final display of his casual love for me.

Crash, page 172

That pretty much sums up Ballard’s attempt to, I don’t know, shock the world into realising how horrible we all are, maybe.

To be honest, having read it, I have no idea why anyone would want to write a novel like this, would want to put into other people’s minds images of animal sex and the results of the lack of attention to car safety in the 1970s.

Except to shock people into thinking humanity is a mess.

If so, the approach to take to the book is simple: if you know humanity is a mess and that not a single one of us contains an ounce of goodness unless by God’s saving grace through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, you don’t need to read it.

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0680 | Family Matters | Rohinton Mistry

0680 | Family Matters | Rohinton Mistry post image

Context: Returned to Bahrain so the wife could do two more weeks work at her old school.

Not a patch on A Fine Balance, this starts out alright with a family fighting to survive on the fine margins of lower-middle class Indian life. However, once things settle down for them, the tension that kept you going dissipates and the novel peters out rather blandly.

Because A Fine Balance is such a powerful novel, I wouldn’t even bother with this unless you have a keen interest in Zoroastrianism. In addition, the novel has parts written exclusively in an unidentified Indian language with no explanation as to their meaning which seems a bit strange.

The novel initially centres around Nariman Vakeel, a septuginarian with Parkinsons who is cared for by a family typically riven by infighting and social posturing. While the focus remains on him, the novel is a poignant one and, had Mistry, maintained this I think it would have been very powerful.

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0679 | Song of Solomon | Toni Morrison

0679 | Song of Solomon | Toni Morrison post image

Context: Went camping in Northumberland with the in-laws while reading this.

Very readable for a Morrison so that’s a bonus for a start, even though it does bear her trademark style. If you’ve not read her before, this is a great place to start, and in the current climate, it should be on any white person’s required reading list.

In a northern US black community, the novel centres on Macon Dead, a man who goes in search of his past and, in doing so, confronts questions about his identity.

For the first time, Morrison brought me face to face with the issue of identity for the African American community for whom the idea of family history is not a simple matter at all. The complexities are reinforced no doubt by the insistence of every white person in the US to define themselves not as a US citizen primarily but some bizarre concoction of (usually) European nations.

“Hi, I’m Emily. I’m quarter Dutch, half Irish, six eighths Belgian and have a smattering of Italian on my father’s side.”

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0678 | The Drowned World | J. G. Ballard post image

Context: Friends treated us to a lovely weekend at a gorgeous spa hotel while I was reading this.

As one of Ballard’s early works, this is pretty readable, esp. if you’ve ever tried the atrocious witterings of the likes of Crash. It’s sci-fi, and the basic premise is that the temperature of the world has risen so much the equatorial regions of the world have become unihabitable swamps flooded by the entirely melted polar regions to which the population has now retreated.

The primordial landscape becomes the setting for our narrative of competing factions pitted not only against the physical environment but, of more consequence it seems, the mental strain of living in such climatic extremes.

This latter pressure very much gives the novel a Heart-of-Darkness feel. Madness isn’t far away from anyone as their dreams are haunted by visions of being enveloped by heat or water or both and their daylight (and there’s a lot of that) seems an undending nightmare from which there is no relief.

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0677 | The Driver’s Seat | Muriel Spark post image

Context: Finished this on the day I finished working for Saudi Aramco and retired. Haven’t looked back since!

Strange little book this one at just over 100 pages. In this very short space of time Spark creates Lise, a very memorable character who I was never quite sure of. I spent the whole time wondering why she’s strange, what her motivations are, and whether she should be pitied or, in fact, envied.

While the central character is strong, those around Lise are only barely sketched in. The writing has a very ephemeral feel about it. Sometimes I wondered if other characters were only figments of Lise’s imagination.

The title may perhaps refer to the fact that she lives life on her own terms and isn’t bothered about how others view her. She dictates exactly what happens to her right up to her tragic finale.

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0676 | The Moor’s Last Sigh | Salman Rushdie post image

Context: Last meal at Tandoori House while reading this.

Started out alright but Rushdie can’t seem to just sit still and be a good boy. No sooner have you got settled then he’s up and off on some mad caper with some outlandish characterisation, blurred reality and has you out on a boat in a stormy sea of symbolism laden.

And while you vomit over the side and try to catch a glimpse of the stability of land somewhere on the horizon, he relates a tale of Moraes, a child strangely deformed born into a wealthy family involved in the southern Indian spice trade.

As you push off from the shore into a calm sea, his tale of family rivalries in trade and love keep you highly entertained for a good third of the novel. As soon as the focus shifts to the narrator himself as the family moves to Mumbai, the billows start to roll and you quickly lose your bearings.

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0675 | Freedom | Jonathan Franzen

0675 | Freedom | Jonathan Franzen post image

Context: Wandered round Al Khobar for a final farewell to old haunts before leaving Saudi forever.

As with Franzen’s other novels, everyone’s got hangups and skeletons in the closet and he spends the novel dragging these out into the light while the characters kick and scream.

This differs from The Corrections, at least, in that it does all go a bit saccharine at the end. Tying up all the loose ends does seem to me to clash quite a bit with the gritty reality of characters dealing with lives that are less than perfect.

The novel jumps around an awful lot. If you’re not paying attention, you will get lost fast which, in a long book, isn’t helpful. So, hold on tight and keep your hands inside the car.

There’s a fairly tight narrative surrounding a woman called Patty who grows up suffering from the human condition which is compounded by a sexual assault. This results in polar opposite responses from her parents and she never really recovers from the effects of all this.

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0674 | The House of Doctor Dee | Peter Ackroyd post image

Context: Transferred Mrs Arukiyomi’s car to a new owner at the Transport Ministry.

As with all things Ackroyd, this novel suffers from not only an obsession with London now, but, as if that wasn’t ethnocentric enough, London then.

Even though it’s been 8 years since he published Hawksmoor, he’s still playing the same old riff. Any reader coming to Ackroyd for the first time is going to find it enchanting to consider the same geographical space inhabited by characters centuries apart. But for those who’ve already gone through it, it starts to get a bit tired.

This is particularly because Dee, like Hawksmoor before it, doesn’t really communicate why Ackroyd has to draw parallels in the space-time continuum. I think most of us have enough imagination to realise that there were people who lived many years ago where we are sitting right now who may have had things in common with us. And?

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