Some favourite books I’ve read recently

April 27, 2012 at 6:42 am | Posted in Books | Leave a comment
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Non-fiction

By Hook or By Crook

David Crystal.  Harper-Collins, 2007

Anything by David Crystal is wonderful – he writes erudite and funny books about the English language. This one has entertaining snippets such as the following. A best words competition in The Sunday Times in 1980 came up with: melody and velvet (tied in first place). Then gossamer and crystal (tied), then autumn, peace, tranquil, twilight, murmur, caress, mellifluous, whisper.

I always liked the name Snitterfield. David Crystal tells us that Shakespeare’s grandfather had a farm here, in the mid 16th century.

Crystal describes alternative versions of Shakespeare performed by the other RSC – the Reduced Shakespeare Company. The actors perform 37 plays in 97 minutes. It was advertised as a show for everyone.

If you like Shakespeare, you’ll like this show. If you hate Shakespeare, you’ll love this show.

It was London’s longest-running comedy – ten years at the Criterion.

The Italian Job is a witty action film involving a heist and some minis. The 1969 version was directed by Peter Collinson and starred Michael Caine and Noel Coward. There’s been a more recent version, not as well received, but I didn’t see it. I wish I’d seen the following version: at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2003 a theatre company performed Bill Shakespeare’s Italian Job – red, white and blue minis with number plates BARD 1, 2 and 3. The whole thing was in pseudo-Elizabethan English, for example, ‘Thou wert only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’

Crystal has a collective nouns list (page 188,9):

Wisps of snipe

A gaggle of geese

A muster of peacocks

 A paddling of ducks

A murder of crows

Tidings of magpies

An unkindness of ravens

An absence of waiters

A rash of dermatologists

A shoulder of agony aunts

A clutch of car mechanics

A vat of chancellors

An annoyance of mobile phones

A bumble of beekeepers

A complex of psychiatrists

A fidget of choirboys

A sulk of teenagers

I also liked this piece of graffiti David Crystal quotes:  Roget’s Thesaurus Rules – Ok, all right, very well, you bet, certainly.

Family Romance

John Lanchester. Faber & Faber, 2007

Family Romance is a memoir by John Lanchester about his parents.  After his mother’s death he was going through her papers when he came upon discrepancies, investigated further and discovered an amazing secret that she had kept hidden from him and his father all their lives.    The book he has written about this deception and about identity, love and family ties is beautiful and fascinating, with illuminating insights on virtually every page. 

To take just one, he writes about the idea that ‘Every fear is a desire. Every desire is a fear.’ (p. 288) It is intriguing and recalls the insight from a psychologist that when we are failing at something, we are always succeeding at something else. – So if you can figure out what you are getting from an apparently undesirable, destructive behaviour or habit or compulsion, that will be the start of the awareness that can set you free of the destructive behaviour.

Speaking of psychologists, the author, who suffers from various phobias etc., relies on psychological help – the talking cure: he takes no pills (except when he has to fly).  He states:

That is because I don’t want to be mentally blurred, or assisted, or comforted, or calmed, or eased, or tranquillised. I want all my faculties, even if some of those faculties sometimes turn against me and make me feel anxious. That anxiety is part of who I am, and in order to write books I feel I need all of me, even the parts I don’t want. If I thought that the pills were just curing a physical condition, the way my inhaler takes away the symptoms of asthma when I wheeze, I would take them. But I don’t see my phobia as a purely physical condition. It lives on my mind, and it’s part of my mind, for better or worse. And I need my mind to be the way it is in order to write.

To put it another way, I think that my phobia has some meaning. It’s trying to tell me something, even though I don’t usually know what. Writing and therapy are linked, because they are both about a search for meaning. To take the fear away with antidepressants would for me be to say that the fear is just a meaningless chemical accident. (p. 368)

 

The Meaning of Tango

Christine Denniston. Portico Books, 2007

This book relates the fascinating history of the Argentine tango. This is my favourite quotation from it:

Tango took place not on the level of the floor, but on the level of the hearts. The movement of the feet was a symptom of the movement of the hearts. … With a competent leader the follower would not need to pay any attention to the movement of her or his own feet.

The leader’s feet served only one function in the dance – they were there to stop the leader’s heart from falling on the floor. Anything more than that was pure decoration. (p. 38)

I also like the assumption that the leader was the more important person in a couple being proved wrong: ‘…the more important person was the follower. Women were precious and rare creatures, heavily outnumbered by the men in any milonga [dance]’ (p. 27.)

Sweet Poison: Why sugar makes us fat

David Gillespie. Penguin, 2008

David is ‘a recovering corporate lawyer’ and father of six children, including one set of twins, who has written a succinct, witty readable book about how we are addicted to sugar and how it causes obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, tooth decay and many other diseases. He lost 40 kilos by giving up sugar.

The Sweet Poison Quit Plan: How to kick the sugar habit and lose weight

David Gillespie. Penguin, 2010

The Sweet Poison Quit Plan is a recipe book with safe substitutes for sugar in cakes, biscuits, drinks, ice cream etcetera and charts of the highest and lowest sugar amounts in common brands of crackers, chocolate bars, health food snacks and other things, for example, the ten highest-sugar breakfast cereals. Because sugar is addictive, manufacturers put it in almost everything, including savoury foods.  With this book you can wean yourself off sugar and still have sweet things when you want. Dextrose is the secret.

Big Fat Lies

David Gillespie. Viking, 2012

Gillespie’s Big Fat Lies analyses the famous diet programs like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. Most of them have secrets and it’s interesting to see what really lies behind them – and why they don’t work! (It’s not the fault of the dieter.) The author claims that there is no proof that animal fats like butter are bad for us. The polyunsaturated oils that every health authority and diet program for the past four decades have been telling us to eat have not improved our health. Manufacturers are constantly reducing the amount of saturated fat in our packaged foods. And we’ve been told to use vegetable oils and skim milk and low-fat everything.

We’ve been doing exactly what we’ve been told to do and the statistics just keep getting worse. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of obese Australians doubled. Between 1983 and 2000 the rate of new prostate cancers increased by 15 per cent a year. Breast cancer increased by 3 per cent. Melanoma increased by 60 per cent in men and 22 per cent in women.

David Gillespie draws the conclusion that the dietary advice we have been given is wrong and then outlines the facts about polyunsaturated fat (the so-called vegetable oils, which are really mostly seed oils) and analyses the evidence and opinions for and against. He also presents the facts and figures about sugar since the seed oils and sugar work together in a toxic way. Also, manufacturers can state that their product is low-fat but many add sugar to make the food palatable (since, let’s face it, fat is what makes food taste good).

Gillespie also presents much evidence that all we get from taking vitamin pills is expensive urine. This book is as well written as Sweet Poison and I’ve given it to our statistics person at work to see what he thinks of Gillespie’s analyses of the research. I’ll keep you posted.

The Art of Looking Sideways

Alan Fletcher. Phaidon, 2001

It is 533 large, square-format pages of quotations, jokes, science, memories, colour, design, history and ideas. It’s a book of creative play and it’s fun, inspiring, provocative and clever. It’s about vision, the imagination, perception, reality and wonder.

‘When taken for a drive in the country, Matisse always insisted on travelling at five kilometres an hour – walking pace – so that he could get a sense of the trees.’ (p.305) That resonated with me because I cycled everywhere (in Canberra) for a long time and that allows one to notice the astonishing beauty and variety of the trees. And with walking, one notices every leaf on every tree.

The author quotes Italo Calveno and that made me think about what one sees around Canberra, which is fortunately not the vision below:

We live in an unending rainfall of images. The most powerful media transform the world into images and multiply it by means of the phantasmagoric play of mirrors. These are images stripped of the inner inevitability that ought to make every image as form and meaning, as a claim on the attention and as a source of possible meanings. Much of this cloud of visual images fades at once, like the dreams that leave no trace in the memory, but what does not fade is a feeling of alienation and discomfort’ (p. 185)

When I read that I thought, thank God for the ACT ban on billboards. Then I flipped over and found a sight of the world as it was for millennia, before marketers and advertisers got to dictate much of what we see:

If the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butterfly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect, one forgets it in the strange flower it is crawling over; if turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight. Charles Darwin’s impressions of a Brazilian rainforest. (ibid, p. 85)

Energy and Equity

Ivan Illich. Calder & Boyars, 1974

In the light of peak oil and pollution the multiple problems caused by our dependence on oil, it’s interesting to go back to this 1974 book. Illich makes such sense – and the world went in precisely the opposite direction than what he was proposing. ‘For the sole purpose of transporting people, 250 million Americans allocate more fuel than is used by 1,300 million Chinese and Indians for all purposes.’ (p. 23.) Of course now, Chinese and Indians are racing to be like the Americans (and English and Australians etc).

People move well on foot, writes Illich. Modern Americans walk as many miles as ancestors did, they just do it in tunnels, corridors, car parks and shops. On foot is three to four miles per hour. Contemporary transport conditions lead to reduced equality and restricted mobility to a system of industrially defined routes and created time scarcity of unprecedented severity. Extremes of privilege are created at cost of universal enslavement.

‘The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hrs a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the mthly instalments. He works to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hrs on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials … The model American puts in 1,600 hrs to get 7,500 miles: less than five mph. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only three to eight per cent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent.’ (p. 30, 31.)

People work a substantial part of every day to earn the money without which they could not even get to work.’ (p. 50, 51.) Buses use one-third of the fuel that cars burn to carry one man over a certain distance. Commuter trains are up to ten times more efficient than cars. Both could become more efficient and less polluting.

Someone on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. Bike uses little space. Illich reckons it takes two lanes for moving 40,000 people over a bridge in one hr on a train; four to move them on buses; twelve in cars; and only one lane to move them on bikes. He points out that the US could not defeat Vietnam – ‘A grizzly contest between bicycles and motors has just come to an end. In Vietnam, a hyperindustrialized army tried to conquer, but could not overcome, a people organized around bicycle speed.’ (p. 75.)

Australian financial advisor Noel Whittaker recently estimated that people pay $100-$150 per week on their cars! (Including paying off the loan? It must be.) The ACT Govt gets a lot of money for every car that is registered plus money for parking spots, parking fines, speeding fines etc. So they have every incentive to downgrade public transport. I’m picking on the ACT one because its public transport is deplorable unless you’re going from Tuggeranong or Woden or Belconnen to Civic – from centre to centre, south to north or vice versa. The routes that service where most people actually live take scenic tours around vast areas, so that the number 2 from Dickson shops, for example, takes an hour to get to Deakin West while a car takes 15 minutes (out of peak hour; in peak hour it’s still less than half the time of the bus). I cycled everywhere here for 25 years but that West Deakin location when I got another job there defeated me. It’s too long and it’s too dangerous to cycle and while it’s good to be able to read virtually a novel a day in the meandering two hours of commuting by bus per day, who can afford that sort of time? Not me: I have to drive now.

Making the Cut

Mohamed Khadra. William Heinemann, 2007.

This is a collection of essays by Dr Mohamed Khadra on aspects of his practice and surgery. His direct, understated style quietly builds up without your realising it at first to some powerful writing on Australia’s medical system and various grimly fascinating conditions and illnesses. The writing is illuminated with a profound humanity.

It’s an interesting combination, medicine and writing. Chekhov was a doctor. William Carlos Williams was, and there are many others. The Varuna Writers’ Centre now has a Writing Doctors strand. See their website for details (it’s in Favourite websites).

See Khadra’s novel, The Patient in the Fiction section. (I realise these categories of Fiction and Non-fiction are getting so blurred it almost makes no sense to have them any more but I decided to separate them anyway. A lot of people still do categorise writing in this way; you’d be in trouble in academia in my field if you did but I’m not in academia.)

Out of Our Minds

Ken Robinson. Capstone, 2011

Ken Robinson is a creativity expert. He writes in clear language and is persuasive and often funny. I liked this simple statement: ‘The process of the arts is to give shape, coherence and meaning to the life of feeling.’ (p. 192.) He claims that the arts evoke the quality of experience. ‘Artists are concerned with understanding the world in terms of their own perceptions of it: with expressing feelings, with imagining alternatives and with making objects that express those ideas.’ 191.

The next two quotations speak for themselves about Robinson’s writing.

‘The rationalist tradition has driven a wedge between intellect and emotion in human psychology; and between the arts and sciences in society at large. It has distorted the idea of creativity in education and unbalanced the development of millions of people. The result is that other important abilities are overlooked or marginalized. This neglect affects everyone. Children with strong academic abilities often fail to discover their other abilities. Those of lower academic ability may have other powerful abilities that lie dormant. They can all pass through the whole of their education never knowing what their real abilities are.’ (p. 10.)

‘The academic life tends to deny the rest of the body. In many schools, students are educated from the waist up and attention eventually comes to focus on their heads, and particularly the left side. This is where many professional academics live: in their heads, and slightly to one side. They are disembodies in a certain way. They tend to look upon their bodies as a form of transport for their heads: it’s a way of getting their heads to meetings. If you want real evidence of out of body experiences, sign up for a residential conference for senior academics and go along to the dance on the final night. There you will see it. Grown men and women, writhing uncontrollably, off the beat, waiting for it to end so that they can go home and write a paper about it.’ p. 117.

 

 

Fiction

The Patient

Mohamed Khadra.  Heinemann, 2010

Dr Mohamed Khadra’s novel The Patient is gripping. The author had found himself on the other side of the medical system, seriously ill and in need of care instead of giving that care to others, and he got a nasty shock. He was inspired to write a novel using some of his experience trying to make sense of health care from a perspective he never thought that he would be taking.

The Patient takes a fictional tour through Australia’s complicated medical system when the protagonist suddenly discovers that he has cancer and happens to be up to his ears in debt with a huge, posh house and expensive cars and “stuff” and he has let his private health insurance lapse.

The novel explores family life and values, health, wealth and love. I could not put it down.

 

The Very Thought of You

Rosie Alison.  Alma Books, 2010

This is the first novel of film producer, Alison, which was long-listed for the Orange Prize. I’m not aware of any other novel that has examined the effect of war on children in so subtle and profound a way. A small girl is evacuated to a stately house in Yorkshire to escape the London Blitz and encounters adult behaviour that a child shouldn’t see. It fits into the coming-of-age genre (a favourite of mine) but it’s much more than that. Plastered all over the covers of some editions is its prize-winning status as a romance novel but a romance it ain’t, I’m happy to report.

 

The American Wife

Curtis Sittenfeld, 2008

A riveting novel based on the life of Laura Bush, wife of the ex-President George W. The only things I knew about Laura Bush was that she was a librarian and sported a seemingly pasted-on smile in all the photos of her. The American Wife makes perfect sense of that smile. Once I began I could not stop reading it. The novel is beautifully written, and graced with illuminating insights about morality and the compromises we make in relationships.

But, if it’s not too late, don’t read any reviews before you read the novel – some reviews and even interviews with Sittenfeld give away the crucial plot point early in the novel, which actually did happen to Laura Bush, and it would be an awful shame to spoil that ghastly surprise, which gives profound meaning to the future decisions of the character.

 

The Cookbook Collector

Allegra Goodman,  The Dial Press, 2010.

Two sisters, Emily and Jess, lost their mother when they were both small children. Emily is the older one, responsible and methodical, the CEO of Veritech, a new dot com company that will soon go public and make millions of dollars. Jess, the younger, rides a bicycle, tries to save trees and works in a second hand bookshop called Yorrick’s Used and Rare Books. Jess is studying philosophy and Latin. The contrast between the sisters is very touching and amusing, with varying measures of love and exasperation colouring their conversations.

A mysterious woman visits the bookshop from time to time, selling extremely old and rare cook books. George, the bookshop owner, is intrigued and wants to see the huge collection he knows that she must have. The novel weaves together the worlds of Silicon Valley and the second-hand bookshop with lively wit and panache. It’s an effortless read in the manner of – some critics have said – ‘a modern-day Jane Austen’ about family secrets, materialism versus idealism, food and cooking, music and love. I can’t wait to read the rest of Allegra Goodman’s novels. Perhaps I’ll have to start catching the bus again (see Ivan Illich’s Energy and Equity above).

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