Category Archives: Books and reading

For the Joy of Reading: For Two Thousand Years

Mihail Sebastian published this book in German in 1934, and it has only now been translated into English.   It is a salutary read.   You have to remind yourself that he could not have known what was going to happen.   He may have had a premonition, he may have feared it, as many of the characters in this book live in fear, but he could not have known that the Holocaust would happen.   This is a book about Jewish life in Romania in the 1920s.   It certainly gives the lie to the idea that there was no co-operation with the Holocaust by the inhabitants of countries invaded by the Nazis.   The antisemitism is visceral,   It is violent and brutal.   People are assaulted on the streets because they are Jewish.   People are denied education because they are Jewish.   People are injured and killed because they are Jewish.   There is no question about it.   Jewish people were not safe in Romania in the 1920s.

The question posed by this book is simple: what to do?   Some people fight back.   There are riots, especially at the University.   But that is not the solution.   Some people, within the community, argue for the Zionist position.   Some of them argue that the Jews must return to Eretz Israel because it is only in a homeland for the Jews that they can be safe.   Some people set out on heroic journeys to get there.   Interestingly, very little is made of the argument that this is the land granted by God to “Abraham and his seed for ever”.   The argument is much more practical – this is a place in which Jews can be safe.

The flaw in the argument is exposed by the Marxist Jewish characters in the book.   Although the Jewish settlers call themselves Palestinians that is the on thing that they are not.   There is already a settled Palestinian population and they have to be dispossessed.   The other terms used in the book by the Zionist characters, the Marxist characters argue, are far more accurate – “settlers” and “colonists”.

These arguments are put forcibly in the book, without any conclusion.    There is nothing to say who is right or wrong.    Of course, these arguments are very relevant today.   70 years after the founding of the State of Israel, we have not found a solution to them, a compromise with which people can live peacefully.   This is essential to the survival of the State of Israel and to meeting the aspirations of the Palestinian people.   People involved in the Peace Process should read this book.   This lack of a conclusion is part of what makes this book a fascinating record of its time.

The other thing that is fascinating is that the antisemites are not necessarily shown as villains.   In the course of the book, one of them becomes a friend of the narrator and cannot see that there is anything wrong, or anything to ashamed about, in boasting that he led some of the rioters who made particularly vicious attacks upon individual Jews.   The narrator, of course, is shocked but does not end the friendship.   Although they are thugs, the anti-semites are not dismissed out of hand.   Some of them are depicted as intelligent people – even leading academics.

There is also an interesting description of the development of the Romanian oil industry in which the narrator and his antisemitic friend play a not insignificant role.   The destruction of the ancient plum orchards symbolises the ending of a way of life.   This is not to be irrelevant for the central question of the book, which is this: How are the Jews going to survive.

We, of course, know the answer.   Those who went to Israel survived, but stored up trouble for the future and brought about a conflict which has not yet been resolved.   Those who remained, for the most part, did not survive.   The author did survive only to be killed in a motoring accident at the end of the war.   Mihail Sebastian has left us a searing account of European antisemitism, giving us a lesson that we must not forget.


For the Joy of Reading: A Whole Life

Never believe that any life is so ordinary that it is just boring.   This is the proof that this is not the case.   Nothing much happens in the life of Andreas Egger apart from an avalanche, a war, building cable cars and meeting tourists, but that is not to say that it is boring, inconsequential.   It is, in many ways, an uneventful life but that does not make it ordinary.   Robert Seethaler demonstrates this quite conclusively in this novella.   It is, I suppose, a brief life.   Seethaler does not make the mistake of calling it that.

So what is it that makes this book a joy to read?   It is certainly not that it is thrilling.   It is not the life of someone who made an impact in the world.   It is the story of someone who did not achieve a great deal, of someone who passed through the world leaving hardly a mark upon it.   In other words, it is the story of the vast majority of us.   We make a difference in small ways, in ways that are not remarkable, in ways that do not have much of an impact on history.   It is a simple story, simply told.

When I say simply told, that does not do justice to the writing.   This i an extraordinarily beautiful story, and the translator, Charlotte Collins, has done a remarkable job.   Every phrase, every sentence counts.   They tell the story of a life beset by hardship, patience and endurance, a life of love, compassion and simplicity.   It is a wonderful book.   It is a book that people should read – as simple and compelling as that.   You should read it.

For the Joy of Reading: Norse Gods

What is it about the Norse Gods that make people want to read about them?   Neil Gaiman says that Marvel Comics are to blame.   This is certainly how he came to the stories, through Thor as the superhero.   I think it is slightly more complicated than this.  These are very human gods.   For a start, we know that they are not going to live forever.  they are going to die on the day of the great battle at Ragnarok, the end of the world as we know it.   They feast, the drink vast amounts of alcohol, they kill their enemies, they sleep around.   In other words, they are like our ruling classes, our history makers because we do not notice those who do not draw attention to themselves, who do not have adventures but who do the essential things like growing food and disposing of our excrement.   This, however, is not heroic and these gods certainly are.   They are also quite stupid.

Loki may be cunning, but he is not wise.   Thor may be strong but he is not intelligent.   Freya may be beautiful, but she is selfish.   And so it goes on from the least important to the most powerful gods, like Odin and Frig.   The point however is that this is a tragedy, because it ends in the downfall of the gods, and it is of cataclysmic proportions.   These are heroic figures in the terms of Greek tragedy.   It also helps that the stories are spellbinding and that Gaiman knows how to tell them.   [This, of course, is not a surprise].

But it is more than that.   These are stories that are deep from the consciousness of the far north of Europe.   It is possible to imagine them being told round the campfires as the ice retreated some 12,000 years ago.   These were people who lived with the knowledge that the ice could destroy them.   These were the people who lived through the long dark of the winter nights, trying to keep warm and fed.   These were the people who knew the importance and the threat of fire.   Their fears and their courage in the face of this environment are there in these stories.   It burns through them, and it has resonances in our lives.

But most of all it is Ragnarok, the battle between the Gods and their enemies, that we fear because we fear the destruction of our world.   This fear has penetrated to our culture that no longer believes in the Norse Gods, because it is there in the Book of Revelation – the battle between the Archangel Michael and the dragon, war in heaven, Armageddon, the end of the world.   The Norse myths speak to us of our fears, and that is why we still listen to these tales.   It is why they speak to us.

Neil Gaiman has done us the enormous favour of making them accessible to the next generation.

For the Joy of Reading: #Afterhours

Inua Ellams set himself a challenge.   He wanted to write a poem for the first 18 years of his life as a response to a poem that was published in the relevant year.   This book is what emerged from the project.   Ellams tells the reader how he selected the poems to which he would respond, in what the publisher describes as an anthology, a diary, a memoir and a collection of poems.    The results are certainly interesting.

Ellams is a Nigerian, who left his country with his parents and moved to London.   He then went to Dublin, and then back to London.   His family was also remarkable..   His father was Moslem and his mother, Christian, and he had a twin sister.   Anyone who knows about Nigeria will be aware that a marriage between a Moslem and a Christian would not be received well by either community.   Anyone who has read Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road” will know that the birth if twins could signify that one of them was a spirit child.

Ellams wants his poetic responses to the chosen British poems to be firmly rooted in his Nigerian culture, which is vibrant and noisy and outgoing.   These are not words that you would necessarily connect with British culture, and so the response poems contrast quite strongly to the originals that have been chosen.   That is part of the joy of the book.   For instance, Jo Shapcott’s poem about sheep shearing is contrasted with the preparation of a ram being sacrificed for the Eid celebration.   These are both poems about strength, about manliness, but because of the nature of the event being described, they have a very different feel to them.   Another example is Robert Crawford’s “Transformer” which is about a railway travelling between Pictish stones.   The response is about a plane taking the author as a child from the land of Achebe away from Africa.   Each response poem is different from the original, but it is an appropriate response.   The hardest to read is the response to Pascale Petit’s “My Father’s Lungs” which is about the suicide of Ellams’ friend, Stephen.   It is still an appropriate response.

This is, in many ways, a strange book, but that very strangeness is one of its great attractions.   If you care about poetry, this is a book that you should read.

For the Joy of Reading: Inglorious Empire

The first thing to say is that this is not a history of the British Raj.   It is a book that arose from a debate at the Oxford Union.   It is a deconstruction of the arguments out forward that the British Empire was, in some way, good for the countries that were conquered.   That means that it is controversial, but it does not make it wrong.   It is obviously nonsense to argue that people are prepared for independence by robbing them of their independence, and when the arguments for the benefits of British rule are that stupid, it really is not necessary to refute them.

So let us look at the arguments, and see if we can test them.   This is what Tharoor sets out to do, and it is very instructive that the arguments advanced for the benefits of British colonialism do not generally hold up.

When Queen Elizabeth I signed the royal charter for the English East India Company (Scotland being a separate country at the time) it was not that she envisaged the creation of an Empire.   This would have been ridiculous.   Her contemporary, ruling most of the Indian sub-continent, was the Mughal Emperor, Akbar.   He ruled one of the most populous and prosperous states in the world at that time.   The Mughal Empire was one of the great intellectual centres, and the Mughal army was formidable.   Elizabethan England, along with their Dutch allies, were involved in a long and debilitating war with the Spain of Philip III.   He, as King of Portugal, controlled the East Indies spice trade.   The Dutch East India Company had been making inroads into this monopoly, and Elizabeth wanted to secure her share of the profit at no cost to herself.   So she issued a royal charter and sent an ambassador to Akbar the Great.

Throughout the seventeenth century there was very little change.   The British, under Charles II, secured Bombay as the dowry for his Portuguese wife, and opened some trading posts in the South Indian states, independent of the Mughal Empire.   But very little changed until the enfeeblement of that Empire was demonstrated by the invasion of the Persian army under Nadir Shah, the storming of Delhi and the seizure of Mughal treasures, including the Koh-i-noor diamond and the Peacock Throne.   Meanwhile, the French had arrived in Pondicherry and came into conflict with the British in South India, based at Madras (now Chennai).   The decisive moment came when the British East India Company and the French were allowed to recruit armies in the Indian sub-continent.

This is one of the areas where I would argue with Tharoor.    If the British had not colonised India it is likely that the French would have done so, and that would have altered the course of European history.   The riches of India would have poured into Versailles, not London.   It is probable that the French monarchy would not have been forced, because of bankruptcy, to reconvene the States-General and the French Revolution would not have happened.   The prospect of an India not subject to colonisation does not seem likely to me.   That however is a minor quibble because history deals with what happened, not the various possibilities that did not happen.

There are a number of factors that changed British attitudes to India.   Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 gave the East India Company the control of Bengal.   With that came a rapacity that drained India of resources, in which Clive himself led the way.   The sudden access to wealth of the employees of the East India Company made them good marriage material, and so young women arrived by the boatload, in what became known as the “fishing fleet”, in search of suitable husbands.   This changed attitudes considerably.   Young men had, prior to this, formed liaisons and even married Indian women.   This stopped.

But how the Raj was created is not Tharoor’s subject.    His subject is how it behaved.   The argument of the apologists is that it gave India good government, democracy, peace and security, transportation, an international language and cricket.   Tharoor demolishes this.   It is no accident that the term that the British used for themselves in India, the “Sahib Log” was translated as “master race”.   Indians were denied access to the higher echelons of government and when they were employed, they were paid at a vastly inferior rate to the British counterparts.   As for democracy, this depends on how you define it but for most of the period that the British ruled India, the electorate in Britain was limited to men of a certain income.   The British also ensured that Indian industry was impoverished by exporting raw materials (jute, cotton etc.) from India to places like Manchester and Dundee, converting them into sacking, clothes and other goods, and then selling them back to India at vastly inflated prices.   This was why the railways were built, not to facilitate the transport of ordinary people.   Where the transport of people was concerned it was in moving people, mainly women, from the heat of Calcutta (now Kolkata) to the cool of Simla in the summer months.   This is the society described by Rudyard Kipling in his “Plain Tales from the Hills”.   The British also exacerbated through their policy of “divide and rule” the religious differences between Sikhs, Hindus and Moslems.   This was to have disastrous consequences during the Partition of 1947, because it made partition a certainty and left millions stranded on the wrong sides of the border in both the Punjab and Bengal.

As for giving India an international common language, this was because the colonial masters could not be bothered to learn the already existing languages of government in India.   They also wanted to impress upon Indians joining the governing classes the “superiority” of British culture.   [Tharoor does not say this, but when the English settled in what became England in the fifth and sixth centuries (Common Era), they called the natives Welsh, which means foreigners, in the land where they had lived for thousands of years.]   Their attitude to Indic languages was one of arrogance, dismissing the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Vedas as insignificant and primitive.

This argument is developed over the 249 pages of the book, and is backed up with extensive footnotes.   The basic attitude of the Raj can be summed up quite easily: We are white, and they are not.

This is not a book that will go down well with Brexiteers, with those nostalgic for the glories of Empire, with Daily Mail readers and others of that ilk.   If, however, you do not fit those categories, it is a book that will give you many a moment to pause and think.


For the Joy of Reading: The Architecture Concept Book

This is not the kind of book that I would normally read.   Being honest, I was persuaded to read it by the parents of the author, who I have known for 20 years since I moved to Glasgow.   This, in turn, means that I have known the author since he was quite young.   I do not think that any of this has affected my view, apart from being persuaded to read the book, but I am not the best judge of that.

This is an important book because it explains the construction of our built environment.   We all have views about architecture because we live in the built environment, and we know what we expect that to be like, and what we are comfortable with.   Much of this is defined by what we are used to and, as James Tait points out, there are much-loved buildings, like St. Paul’s Cathedral, that were new and shockingly innovative.   The dome of St. Paul’s was distinctly not Protestant, and that was important in the London of Titus Oates and the “Popish Plot”.   There are also new buildings, such as the Sydney Opera House, that have become iconic for their cities and, as James Tait says, no-one cares that it was completed ten years after the deadline and was something like 14 times over budget.   I would go further: outside the architectural community, I don’t believe anyone was actually aware of that.

So what is the purpose of architecture, and how does it work.   To illustrate this, James Tait gives us four overarching principles: the architect must assess, analyse, assemble and augment.   He takes these principles and divides them into eight component parts.   Thus Assess has to deal with the following: Wonder, Environment, Disorder, Memory, Function, Form, Irony and Politics.   As a librarian, I love this: it is the application of Dewey’s idea of the divisibility of knowledge.   Of course, an architect would have that concept of the need for order, of the need for construction, because that is what they do.   In this section about assessment, James Tait acknowledges that there are constraints upon any architect.   These are things like the space available, the land on which the  building is taking place, the money available, the purpose of the building, and the requirements of the client.   Louis XIV at Versailles wanted a palace that would impress and overawe, not least his own fractious nobility.   The castles of mediaeval Europe were built to dominate the surrounding country.   Religious buildings of all faiths tend to be hugely tall to make the worshippers realise their own insignificance.

In each section, James Tait takes us through the challenges confronting the architect, the tasks that have to be included in the design and the possible solutions that the architect can apply.   These challenges include the client developing ideas as the design progresses, which can alter the whole building, the money running out, and the need to include the practicalities that every building requires.   There are whole sections on the purpose of staircases, the need to dispose of human waste, the need to be able to see, keep warm and keep dry, the need to have space for business and relaxation, including eating.   These practicalities are essential to us, and therefore essential to the concept of any building.   So there are whole questions about how you accommodate these needs: do you have underfloor heating as the Romans did, which is expensive, or do you have radiators, which are much cheaper but intrusive.   James, being a modern architect does not talk fireplaces or wood-burning stoves, even though these are the preferred solutions for many people (and in this, I include the Aga stove).   The point is that architects, like all of us, have to work within the bounds of what we can afford.

The real strength of this book is that it has been thought through.   The author takes the trouble to explain the concepts so that someone like me, who is basically ignorant of the way that architecture works as opposed to how it looks, can understand the problems and solutions that are available, and the thinking behind those solutions.   The key factor here is the “crit” which is the critique of the process.   Architects look at what has been done, at what they are doing, assess the successes and failures, look at ways to augment the successes and to remedy the failures.   That is why architecture is an evolving science and also an evolving art form.   It takes on the availability of new materials, assesses the stresses and strains to which they can be subjected, and works out ways in which they can evolve into a thing of beauty, if not necessarily a joy forever.   It is significant that the Pyramids are still there but we have just blown up the Red Road Flats in Glasgow.   We seem to have stopped building for the future.   James Tait argues that this is not necessary, that we can adapt new materials to ensure that they are long-lasting.   He argues for the role of the architect as the creator of beauty.

That is one thing to say about this book.   It is a thing of beauty.   Thames & Hudson have taken great care in the production of this book.   The illustrations are clear, numerous and augment the argument in each section of the book by providing the visible symbols of what is being discussed.   The typeface is chosen, quite correctly for a book about architecture, to be clear and legible.

The greatest asset of this book, however, is that it shows a non-specialist like me, what the role of the architect is, how architecture evolves within the constraints laid upon it and how architecture can and should enhance the built environment in which we all live.

As I said, this is an important book.

For the Joy of Reading: The Darkness

Ragnar Jonasson is a find.   This is someone who knows how to write a detective thriller.   He knows how to build a character.   He knows how to paint the background details of his detective and of the plot.   He knows how to make you want to find out what is going on.   This possibly comes from the fact that he spent his early years, from 17 onwards, translating Agatha Christie into English.   I think, however, that it is more to do with innate talent and the ability to know how to construct a story.   You will have to judge for yourself.

Describing the plot is quite difficult, because I do not want to give away the twists and turns, and I certainly do not wish to give away the ending as that will spoil the story and probably the two subsequent novels, still to be published, in this trilogy.   Sufficient to say that you will be taken aback.

Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir is approaching retirement.   She has had a miserable life.   Both her husband and her daughter have died in separate but tragic incidents.   She was a child of a single parent in the 1950s  when these things were distinctly not approved of.   Her father was an American airman who left Iceland without even knowing that Hulda’s mother was pregnant.   Her mother did not even know his surname.   All of this emerges in the course of the book.

The only thing that Hulda enjoys is her job, and the story starts with her facing forcible early retirement to make room for a rising star,   She is given a choice of cold cases that she can solve as a consolation prize.   She chooses the case of Elena, a Russian asylum applicant, who was found dead on a beach near Reykjavik just after her asylum application had been granted.

Hulda smells a rat, and when she discovers that the case was only cursorily and incompetently investigated, she is off like a bloodhound scenting a trail.   That is all I am going to tell you.   Anything else could give away the plot

I suggest that you read this book yourselves.   This is another name to add to the stable of excellent Nordic noir writers.   Ragnar Jonasson is a name to watch.