Books I haven’t read

I tried this last year, and it proved rather a useful guide to books I might like to read during the year. So, this is the list of unread books on my shelves (excluding, rather arbitrarily, Doctor Who and Shakespeare): which of these have you read?

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Book review of 2008

Book review of the year


Best in category: Anne Frank’s Diary, a re-read for me (though this edition has all her original text in); a searingly unforgettable account of life in an intolerable situation.

Also excellent: Primo Levi’s Periodic Table, and Alain de Botton’s guide to Proust.

Very very good: The Know-It-All, A History of the Arab Peoples, Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, Trillion Year Spree, The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, Aung San Suu Kyi, Thant Myint-U, Julian Cope on megaliths, Daniel Keyes on Algernon, Patricia Fara on magnetism, Ellis and Connolly on Tudor Ireland, Bose on conflicts, Doctor Who locations, Tat Wood on Who seasons 22-26 (and The Movie).

Very good: Longitude, Lawrence of Arabia, Bertrand Russell on Christianity, Julius Caesar on Gaul, Tony Judt on Europe, Jeremy Paxman on the English, David Starkey on Elizabeth, Zlata’s Diary, Alastair Cooke, Amos Oz on Israel, Jonathan Bate on Shakespeare, Tulloch and Alvarado on Who, Time Out on Rome, Fage on Africa, Glavin on extinction, Nancy Soderberg on US foreign policy, A History of the Black Death in Ireland, The Battle of the Boyne, The Cecils, English Place Names, Jean Sibelius, Dublin Castle and the 1916 Rising, Becoming Somaliland, James Pettifer on Kosovo, Cyprus 1974 from Ankara’s viewpoint, ex-President Clerides reminisces, making a new Cyprus constitutionBrussels versus the Beltway, Arthur McMurrough Kavanagh’s hunting expedition in the AdriaticSarah Steele’s biography of Arthur McMurrough Kavanagh.

Good, with reservations: Alison Weir on Elizabeth I, Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches, Andrew Roberts on Waterloo, Christopher Hitchens on Cyprus, The Penguin Dictionary of Jokes, Teach Yourself to Learn a Language, Endgame in Ireland, Oxford Take-Off in Russian, After-Dinner Stories, The Fantastic in Irish Literature, Berlitz Turkish, Rosemary Freeman on Edmund Spenser, Ten Historical Fantasies, analyses of the Lisbon Treaty, local history of our village, McCormick’s biography of Arthur McMurrough Kavanagh.

OK: Ancient Wine, essays on Liberal Democracy and Globalisation, Kenneth Kavanagh’s biography of Arthur McMurrough Kavanagh

Less good: Daniel Grotta’s biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, David Cohen’s biography of Arthur McMurrough Kavanagh.

Couldn’t finish: God’s Politics by Jim Wallis, Daughters of Britannia by Katie Hickman, A History of India by John Keay.

Fiction (not sf):

Best in category: Vanity Fair, Thackeray’s story of life among the declining gentry of the early nioneteenth century.

Also excellent: Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, The History of Sir Richard Calmady by Lucas Malet, Proust vol 6, Roald Dahl, The Office vol 2.

Very very good: An Instance of the Fingerpost, Mystic River, True History of the Kelly Gang, No Great Mischief, When Nietzsche Wept, Proust vol 5, The Office vol 1, A House for Mr Biswas.

Very good: Don Quixote, The Prince of Tides, Death in Holy Orders, The Moving Toyshop, Saturnalia, Odd Man Out.

Good, with reservations: Gösta Berling’s Saga, Emma.

OK: Peter Abelard by Helen Waddell.

Couldn’t finish: The Duke and I by Julia Quinn

Comics (other than Doctor Who)

Best in category: The Fixer, Joe Sacco’s questionable tales from Sarajevo before, during and after the war.

Also very good: Alias vol 4.

Good: Fables vol 1, The Burma Chronicles, Berlin vol 2, Macedonia.

Less Good: Tales of Human Waste.

Shakespeare Plays

Best in category: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a marvelous, inventive play.

Also excellent: The Comedy of ErrorsRomeo and JulietMuch Ado About Nothing, As You Like It.

Very very good: Richard III  

Very good: Julius Caesar

Good, with reservations: The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV part I, Titus Andronicus, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, King John, Henry VI Part I, II and III.

OK: Richard II, Henry IV Part II.

Less good: Henry V.

Awful: The Taming of the Shrew, Love’s Labour’s Lost.

SF and fantasy (other than Doctor Who)

Best in category: Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, which I hadn’t read before.

Also excellent: Heaney’s Beowulf (which is certainly fantasy), The Owl Service, Nation, Silverberg’s Hall of Fame anthology.

Very very good: I Am Legend, The Last Hero, Summerland, Vellum, Halting State, Farthing, The Cornelius Quartet, Teranesia, Brasyl, Sterling’s Mirrorshades anthology, Collected Short Stories by E.M. Forster (which ten are fantasy, one sf, and one not), Improbable Frequency (stage play).

Very good: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, The Atrocity Archives, Islands in the Net, Matter, Expiration Date, The Rediscovery of Man, The Child Garden, Rogue Moon, The Phoenix Exultant (Wright), The Execution Channel, The Carhullan Army, the most recent Captain Underpants, Children of the Atom by Wilmar Shiras, C. E. Murphy’s Negotiator trilogy, The Seeds of Time (Wyndham collection), Healy’s New Tales of Space and Time anthology, 5th Interzone Anthology, Year’s Best SF 13 (Hartwell/Cramer 2008 anthology), National Lampoon’s Doon.

Good, with reservations: The Possibility of an Island, Jhereg, The Faded Sun Trilogy, Gene Wolfe’s Peace, Gossamer Axe, Naked to the Stars by Gordon R. Dickson, Template by Matthew Hughes, the first seven Captain Underpants books, Walking Dead by C.E. Murphy (I read the pre-editing draft; no doubt final version will be great).

OK: The Historian, Abarat, The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Last Colony, The Ill-Made Mute, Great War: Breakthroughs (Turtledove), Sunrise Alley (Asaro), Humility Garden (Felicity Savage), Rising of the Moon (Flynn Connolly).

Less good: Little, Big (Crowley), Again, Dangerous Visions (Ellison-edited sequel anthology), Wandering Stars (Jack Dann’s Jewish sf anthology).

Poor: Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer, Astra and Flondrix by Seamus Cullen, Masters of the Fist by Edward P. Hughes.

Awful: Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice.

Couldn’t finish: Shadowkings (Michael Cobley), The Golden Transcendence (Wright), The Sword of Shannara.

Doctor Who spinoff fiction (print)

Best in category: All-Consuming Fire by Andy Lane, in which the Seventh Doctor, Ace and Benny encounter Sherlock Holmes and the Great Old Ones. Glorious.

Also very very good: Eye of Heaven, Time and Relative.

Very good: The Feast of the Drowned, Winner Takes All, Love and War, Escape Velocity, Venusian Lullaby, City of the Dead, Year of the Intelligent Tigers, Psi-Ence Fiction, Campaign, The Dark PathDecalog 2 anthologyThe Doctor Who Storybook 2007 (anthology), Doctor Who Complete Ninth Doctor Comics, The Thirteenth Stone (Sarah Jane audiobook), Revenge of the Slitheen (Sarah Jane novelisation).

Good, with reservations: The Infinity Doctors, The Witch Hunters, Drift, Corpse Marker, Terry Nation’s Dalek Special, Doctor Who Storybook 2008 (anthology), Invasion of the Bane (Sarah Jane novelisation), Eye of the Gorgon (Sarah Jane novelisation), Warriors of Kudlak (Sarah Jane novelisation), The Glittering Storm (Sarah Jane audiobook), Another Life (Torchwood audiobook).

OK: The Stone Rose, Alien Bodies, The Gallifrey Chronicles, Interference (both books), Theatre of War, Cold Fusion, Last Man Running, The RoundheadsDoctor Who Monster Book Vol 2, Doctor Who Annual 1966.

Less good: Match Of The Day, The Adventures of K9 and Other Mechanical Creatures, Doctor Who: The Pescatons.

Doctor Who audios

Best in category: The Kingmaker, by Nev Fountain, a hilarious inversion of the story of Shakespeare’s play Richard III. (I won’t do a comprehensive review here, and they are not strictly speaking books anyway, but at some future moment I’ll do the whole Big Finish run.)

Doctor Who novelisations

Best in category: The first one published, Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks, by David Whitaker. (General roundup here.)

I won’t nominate a single Book of the Year, as it is too much like comparing apples to geodes; but I will admit that it is Anne Frank who comes back to mind when I least expect her to.

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2008 books poll

This is the list of books I’ve read this year – please tick if you have read (including started but not finished) any of them They are blocked out by category, and (except for the very last section) ranked in order of appearances in the LibraryThing catalogue. Books in italics have a female author or editor credited. I’ve split two collections (by Roald Dahl and Dav Pilkey) where their components appeared to be better known; interestingly, this wasn’t the case for Cherryh or Moorcock. A more analytical post is on its way, explaining which ones I actually liked.

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December Books 15) The Roundheads 16) The Dark Path

Two Second Doctor novels to finish off the year.

15) The Roundheads, by Mark Gatiss

Gatiss takes the Second Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie back to late 1648 for a pure historical story: they get involved with Oliver Cromwell and a plot to liberate Charles I from captivity. I’ll have to say up front that this didn’t completely work for me. Simon Guerrier handled this period (setting his story a year later, and the other side of the Irish Sea) far better in The Settling

16) The Dark Path, by David A. McIntee /

I’ve heard a couple of McIntee’s audio plays, and of course he pops up here in comments from time to time, but this is the first of his books I have read – (or I suppose possibly someone else of the same name) is one of the dedicatees. Well, it’s good to end the reviewing year on a positive note: I enjoyed it.

McIntee has managed to flesh out the future galactic federation with Draconians, Terileptils and a hexapod from Alpha Centauri; he brings the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria there straight from an adventure with the Menoptera on Vortis; and of course most gloriously he brings in a bearded gentleman called Koschei who has his own Tardis and (this is hardly a spoiler) by the end of the story has decided to call himself “the Master” in future.

Added to all of this, the plot actually makes sense! We have an isolated human colony under investigation by both Federation and alien fleets, and OK, we end up with a story that has certain similarities to Colony In Space except that it is better. Of course Koschei (the future Master) wants to seize control of the secret at the heart of the colony, and the Doctor must prevent him; but matters are complicated by the fact that Koschei has an assistant who is not aware of what he is up to, and who is herself not entirely what she seems. Giving him a travelling companion is a great idea, and it’s amazing that it took the TV series until 2007 to do so (and then Lucy Saxon is not quite the same thing). All very good fun.

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News that caught my eye

On Israel/Hamas: Ian.

Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League won bigtime! Even if I didn’t have family connections, I would still hope that this is a chance for a new start.

Meanwhile on the other side of the ocean (not Atlantic or Pacific), President Yusuf has resigned. The French Presidency of the EU salutes his efforts for peace in his country, efforts which were invisible to other observers. Unless you count the army disintegrating.

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December Books 14) Sometime Never

14) Sometime Never, by Justin Richards

Well, if I’m going to read more of the 8th Doctor novels at all, I’m going to have to start doing it in sequential order. Dipping into the series – in this case because I was interested to see a different treatment of the Princes in the Tower than we got in The Kingmaker – tends to confront me with characters (in this case Miranda and Sabbath) who clearly have deep significance for the author and for followers of the series but who are unknown to me. There are some vivid bits of description, and a twist at the end which I would have appreciated more if the whole book had not felt rather like fan-fiction in a canon I don’t know much about.

(I note by the way that I’ve read about the same number of Eighth Doctor Adventures as [Seventh Doctor] Missing Adventures, but in general find the latter more approachable as a series. Is this a widely shared view?]

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December Books 13) As You Like It

13) As You Like It, by William Shakespeare

This was one play which I knew almost nothing about. I very much liked it, and I regret that I have never seen it on the stage. It concerns Rosalind, daughter of the deposed Duke and niece of the usurper, who flees to the forest of Arden, and Orlando, who falls in love with her, plus a couple of memorable supporting characters – the clown Touchstone and the sardonic Jaques. Rosalind herself, along with Portia and Beatrice, is one of the great Shakespearean female roles; she does her best to seize control of the situation, even if it means disguising herself as a man (and she gets to deliver the epilogue). Events off stage ensure that there is a happy ending, but that isn’t really the point; once Shakespeare has got them all to the forest, we just watch the characters interact, and it is fun. As occasionally happens, I had a thouught about how I would stage this, which is that I would imply the Rosalind / Celia relationship to be somewhat Sapphic, and see how that affects the rest of the play.

It would be more fun on stage, and despite the generally good Arkangel production, I think this is one play where you really need the visuals. Niamh Cusack is great as Rosalind (who twice appears to refer to herself as Irish, so that is a neat touch, though if you think about it too much you start wondering why the rest of the ducal family aren’t also Irish).

Jonathan Bate’s book, which I was reading at the same time, has a couple of interesting points to make about As You Like It. He points out that the plot is basically plundered wholesale from Thomas Lodge’s novel Rosalynd of 1590, but that the bits people tend to remember – Jacques (with his Seven Ages of Man), Touchstone, and Rosalind’s impersonation of herself – are all Shakespearean additions. He also speculates that William, the thick country lad, is Shakespeare’s own self-deprecatory portrait. I can’t help but play the autobiography game myself: there are two sets of feuding brothers in this play (and likewise there were feuding brothers in Much Ado About Nothing

Anyway, this was better than I had anticipated.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love’s Labour’s Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night’s Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All’s Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter’s Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)

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December Books 12) The Genius of Shakespeare

12) The Genius of Shakespeare, by Jonathan Bate

was kind enough to get me both this and Bate’s more recent book on Shakespeare for Christmas. Since I’m just over halfway through my absorption of the Complete Works at present, I decided to read the earlier book (first published 1997, updated 2008) at this stage and save the more recent until I’ve finished the plays (probably March given my Christmas break).

Well, it’s a jolly good look at various aspects of Shakespeare, trying to identify what, if anything. The first half includes a chapter on the documents we have relating to Shakespeare, another on the Sonnets (where, against his will, Bate identifies his own candidate for the Dark Lady), a brilliant one on the authorship question, an analysis of Marlowe’s inflience on Shakespeare, and a look at the way Shakespeare uses his other sources.

His line on the authorship question is entertainingly solid. Myself I have tended to find the sheer irrationality of the supporters of alternative candidates (the Earl of Oxford, Bacon, etc) a fairly strong strike against them. Bate points out that the Oxfordians, for instance, tend to regard every line of the plays as a work of sheer unassailable genius; while we who believe that the man from Stratford wrote them are also able to accept that he occasionally had an off day.

The second half of the book broadens out to consider Shakespeare’s impact on subsequent literarature. I wondered a bit about this – it seemed to me a bit of a stretch to credit Shakespeare posthumously for the Romantic movement in England, France, Germany and Scotland; perhaps if I knew more about literature of that period generally I could assess to what extent Shakespeare’s works really were central. I found a couple of the other stories told here more compelling – the claiming of Caliban as a heroic anti-colonial figure by Aimé Césaire, and William Empson’s linkage of quantum mechanics with shades of meaning in the plays (I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of Empson before, and doubt I will read him in the future, but I’m glad he existed and made the argument). Bate also pours scorn on the likes of Kenneth Baker, the Bowdlers, and anyone else who idolises Shakespeare without really thinking.

Bate’s explanation of why Shakespeare has been so successful is a) that he is simply very good at creating characters and situations which the audience / reader can relate to, b) that as an actor himself he was better at the technical aspects of writing for the stage than most of his more academic contemporaries, and c) that he was fortunate enough to be writing at a time and place where his works were preserved and propagated after his death. He finishes by wondering if, had the Spanish won in 1588, Lope de Vega might now be the set text for literature around the world rather than Shakespeare. A postscript takes the story forward over the last ten years, when Hollywood discovered Shakespeare (Shakespeare in Love, and Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which like the rest of you he rates higher than I did).

Anyway, a good and thought-provoking book. He tends to bring in one play in each chapter to support his points, which has whetted my appetite for those I haven’t reached yet.

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2008 books: (almost) the end

What I’ve read/listened to this year, with a few omissions (either where Librarything hasn’t got the cover, or where I haven’t finished the books yet). Big review post coming on Thursday, but I wanted to get this done now because I think it looks pretty. More or less alphabetical by author.


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Diplomatic efforts

I have a new distraction on Facebook.

I’ve just finished a game of Diplomacy, playing as Germany, on Facebook; I have agreed a draw with Russia, after France dropped out – I could almost certainly have pushed my advantage and gained an extra three centres to get to the magic 18, but it would have been a rather hollow victory, and I felt I could live with the shared glory of a draw.

I used to be a big fan of postal Diplomacy; in the various archives you will find misguided advice from me on playing Turkey, and other such ephemera. I was also the second president of the Cambridge University Diplomacy Society, which I’m glad to say is still going strong. (The guy who founded the society went straight into the British diplomatic service after graduation, and is now an ambassador in central Asia.)

I dabbled occasionally with the email versions on the various Judge computers, but never quite got the hang of it – I see my ranking is about 14,000th out of 21,000, though one of my successors as DipSoc President is currently the highest rated player.

However, I like the Facebook interface a lot more. I’m not wild about the maps – took me a while to work out how to read them – and I’m not wild about the way you have to check to see how close you are to the deadline. But the basics of running the moves and communicating with other players seem to work OK.

I do wonder if there is a greater propensity for people to miss deadlines in Facebook games. In the other one I’m in at the moment, I’m clinging on with a single centre as Russia after myself missing the Spring 1901 deadline. In the one that has just finished, England and France both missed two deadlines and went into civil disorder. But I guess it just shows that the most important criterion for winning the game is to simply stay in it. (I remember a game back in my postal days where I fought back from two centres to ten thanks to a similar fortuitous dropout [Edited to add: Sad to say I just discovered that the conscientious Tom Tweedy, who GMed that game and invetned the rules for postal Sopwith, died on Christmas Day].)

Anyway, this is not going to be the obsession that Scrabulous was, back in the day; but if I have one or two games going at a time, it’s a pleasant enough diversion.

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Of bananas and bluestockings

My last poll combined two quite separate thoughts – I see responses are now well into three figures!

The banana question has puzzled me for a while. I heard on a radio programme many years ago that monkeys in the wild open their bananas from the “other” end, wondered why, tried it myself, found it was easier and have done so ever since. It has puzzled me that so few people do it that way. I can cite Slate in my support, but then again who takes advice from on-line economics columns about how to eat their food?

The bluestocking question was raised in my mind by Loades’ biography of Cecil, in which he uses it a couple of times of well-educated Elizabethan women. I found the term somewhat quaint and a little confusing, and wondered whether this was a case where an old-fashioned term is considered offensive by those to whom it would be applied today (as is often the way with old-fashioned terms). The answer in this case seems to be a general but not unanimous “yes”.

Thanks for the input, everyone!

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Three more films

Here are a few more films that I have seen this year which I had forgotten about.

8) Operation Condor / 飛鷹計劃

Stars Jackie Chan with as his female sidekick the Spanish actress Eva Cobo – she was actually the reason I watched it because she is one of my twins. Anne knew nothing of Jackie Chan, so was enlightened and amused by the stunts, all of course performed by Chan himself. The plot, such as it is, is basically a ripoff of Raiders of the Lost Ark with Jackie being Harrison Ford. Eva, my twin, doesn’t do a lot more than make Jackie look good and scream occasionally. But it is good fun.

9) Einstein and Eddington

This stars Andy Serkis (Gollum) and David Tennant (yes) in the title roles. From my former career as a historian of science I knew some of the background – indeed, I have spent days of my life at the Observatory in Cambridge going through the papers of Eddington’s predecessor in the Lowndean chair – but actually the personal and political side of the two men’s lives is brought out much more successfully in the play than the scientific history – indeed the climactic scene (where Tennant, as Eddington, declares Einstein right) falls rather flat. But the use of various settings to convey Cambridge, Zurich and Berlin was rather good (especially if you are not too familiar with the real locations). I also loved Jim Broadbent as Sir Oliver Lodge, whose correspondence I also went through at various times; his physical resemblance to the original was quite uncanny.

10) Romeo + Juliet

The Baz Luhrmann version with Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Danes, set in contemporary L.A. The two leads are good – indeed Danes is absolutely fantastic – but pretty much nobody else is (apart from Pete Postlethwaite as Friar Lawrence), and the excellent music, direction and location settings (Venice Beach rechristened Verona Beach) have to compensate for the lousy performances. Arkangel did this better. Interesting to learn from Jonathan Bate’s book that a lot of the alterations made to the script by Garrick in the mid-eighteenth century (cut the banter, downplay Rosaline, show Juliet’s funeral, Romeo dies after she awakes not before) are repeated by Luhrman here; I wonder if Luhrman knew about Garrick’s revisions?

A couple more to come.

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December Books 11) Nation

11) Nation, by Terry Pratchett

A lot of people have been raving about this, and why it is the best Pratchett book for ages. It is set in a mildly alternate universe, in what might or might not be the South Pacific (the mutiny on the Bounty and Moby Dick are referenced); in Pratchett’s characteristic liberal humanist way, religion and good behaviour are explored, in a coming-of-age tale for his two teenage protagonists. Lots of gently witty one-liners, but the one that will linger with me longest is the observation that “the perfect world is a journey, not a place“. Awfully good.

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Blogging barmaid booted by Belgians

I can’t imagine how I missed this story at the time: several weeks ago, Nathalie Lubbe Bakker, a Dutchwoman working in a Belgian bar in New York, wrote a blog entry about the atrocious behaviour of the Belgian defence minister who dropped in one evening after a particularly pointless taxpayer-funded transatlantic flight. Nathalie then mysteriously got sacked a few days later, after a mysterious phone call from the Belgian defence ministry to the bar owner, once the story had hit the Belgian press.

On the one hand, if you are working in any industry and write blog entries about your dealings with your customers, identifying them by name, it is a clear violation of professional confidence, and you can expect to lose your job. (Had she just been a fellow customer, that would be a completely different matter, of course.)

On the other hand, if you are the Belgian defence minister and you turn up stinking drunk in a New York bar and start singing bawdy Flemish folk songs, you can expect that the story will get back home. There is some justice in the fact that De Crem lost his job, along with the entire government, last week; with any luck, he will be among the ministers who don’t return once the new government is formed, whenever that is.

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December Books 10) The Fixer

10) The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo, by Joe Sacco

This is, in a sense, a sequel to Sacco’s brilliant Safe Area Goražde, but following just one person, Neven, a Sarajevo Serb, a former fighter on the Bosnian side in the war who Sacco got to know as his “fixer” when he first visited Sarajevo just after the war ended in 1995. (I first went there myself in early 1997, and the city of Sacco’s book is definitely the one I knew.)

Anyone who has worked in that sort of environment knows the essential nature of the fixer. Sacco captures it well: but it’s not just about Neven’s murky past and dubious present, it’s also about the dodgy wartime goings on between the “legitimate” government and its bully-boys (and one of the personalities featured in the book was in the news again recently, having apparently committed suicide earlier this month) and the inevitable resulting questions about who is right and who is wrong; and it’s also about the effect that Sacco’s observation has, not only on the people and situations he is observing, but on Sacco himself.

If there is a weakness in the book, it is perhaps that the casual reader might take Neven’s experiences as in some way typical of the Bosnian (or any) war. Neven is a somewhat unusual character. But then again, we are all of us unusual characters, and perhaps Sacco is right to just take a single personality and follow him through the conflict, in his own words and as others reported him. Anyway, well worth reading.

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December Books 9) Berlin: City of Smoke

9) Berlin: City of Smoke, by Jason Lutes

I really enjoyed the first volume of this series, and I really enjoyed this one as well. Covering the period from June 1929 to September 1930, it doesn’t have the same narrative climax (May Day 1929) as the previous book, but it does have a strong set of internal plot arcs. Marthe and Kurt delve deeper into the heart of what makes the city tick, but at the cost of their own relationship; Kid Hogan, an African American jazz clarinettist, finds love and corruption in the city’s music halls; and the marginalised, the exploited, the Jews, the Communists, the unemployed, all have their stories at least illuminated if not necessarily told. I’m only sorry that, first, we will presumably have to wait another four years for the next and final volume, and second, that it will presumably only take us to the Nazi seizure of power. But this is strongly recommended.

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The Next Doctor – spoilers

Before I get into spoiler territory, I just want to say that this is definitely the best of the four Christmas specials (five, counting the one in 1965).

Things I loved: The steampunk atmosphere. The montage of all ten doctors (New Who has taken a while to get to grips with the heritage of the series). That moment near the beginning when Tennant is actually wondering if Morrissey is a better Doctor than him. The line at the end where Ten admits that his companions break his heart. Dervla Kirwan (though I regret she played the part with an English accent, if at least with an Irish name). A Cyberman plot that comes close to making sense and doesn’t contort itself unduly for the sake of continuity.

Things I thought were a bit silly but didn’t spoil it for me: The Cyberking (reminded me too much of a Megazord, except less convincing). As eloquently puts it, the “Cyber-shades” were crap (though at least IMHO less crap than the Cybermats). The line about Rosita being Jackson/Frederic’s future nursemaid probably sounded much less offensive in RTD’s head than it came over on screen.

But all in all, really good stuff.

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Successful day so far

Tree, before the massacre of the wrapping paper:

My special new hot-water-bottle holder (aren’t I a lucky boy!):

U with musical Miffy/Nijntje:

F and Anne went to visit B:

F successfully entertained her with one of her presents:

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In the beginning was the Word

᾿Εν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος, καὶ ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεόν, καὶ Θεὸς ἦν ὁ Λόγος.
Οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν Θεόν.
πάντα δι᾿ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἓν ὃ γέγονεν.
ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων.
καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.

I posted Luke 2:1-14 last year and the year before, and felt like a change this year: the opening words of the Gospel of John provide a theoretical rather than historical underpinning for the Incarnation. This is not the description of the Nativity that starts Matthew and Luke; this is an attempt to unify logic and emotion, to bring the λόγος of the philosophers into the same conceptual universe of the θεός of the believers. It is almost impossible to express the inexpressible; the evangelist has a go at it here, and I doubt if his formulation will ever be improved on.

It has particular personal resonances for me because it gave me my first real introduction to the idea that other languages could open up complex concepts which you will never get if you stick just to the one translation (or even just the one language). For this, as for many insights into how we can and do use words, I am deeply grateful to the incredible Charles-James N. Bailey, who bravely attempted to teach me New Testament Greek back in 1979, and started with this passage. I have, on a few occasions since, experienced the thrill of intellectual discovery, of insights opening up that I hadn’t considered possible. But my first such experience was to encounter the poetry of John 1:5 in the original:

καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.
kai to phōs en tē skotia phainei, kai hē skotia auto ou katelaben.
And the light in the darkness shines, and the darkness it not has-taken-in.

That last “taken-in” is my own humble attempt to gloss the Greek κατέλαβεν (from καταλαμβάνω), a verb which means varyingly “to seize”, “to grasp”, “to comprehend”, “to catch”, “to overtake”, and even “to detect”. The contrast is clearly meant to be with φαίνει in the first half of the verse: but the word chosen by the evangelist to describe the struggle between light and darkness, as seen from the perspective of the dark, defies any simple translation. That was when I fell deeply in love with languages, and the subtleties of meaning that cannot be translated between one and the other.

For a published translation, you can use only one word, of course. I find “comprehended”, “apprehended”, “overcome”, “overpowered” in various English translations, but none of them really gets the original Greek. I think that the French “saisie” and Dutch “begrepen” are nearer the mark (not so sure about German “erfaßt”). With some difficulty I have tracked down an Anglo-Saxon version: “And þæt leoht lȳht on þȳstrum ; and þȳstro þæt ne genamon.” Somehow that is rather satisfying, as “genamon” is the past participle of both “niman”, “to take forcibly, hold, seize, catch, take away, grasp, pluck up, carry off, take away” and “geniman”, “to grasp, comprehend”.

Anyway, all of that aside, I wish everyone a happy and relaxed day, especially if, like me, you are celebrating it.

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Whoblogging 10

Three Christmases ago, the saviour of humanity appeared in a new incarnation. (Slight exaggeration, of course; we’d seen him briefly at the end of The Parting of the Ways and the Children in Need special.) As with Davison and Tom Baker, I found it a bit difficult to forgive him for Not Being Christopher Eccleston at first; but he captured me with School Reunion, the episode that brought back Sarah Jane Smith (and also gave us Anthony Stewart Head as a bat-creature headmaster).

Since then he’s been fine. He’s not one of my top three Doctors – those I think remain Four, Nine and One in that order – but he is approachable, he is even vulnerable, he does manic!Doctor very well (as referenced by Neil Gaimanlong standing, and had appeared as a Nazi guard, a UNIT commander, and a mad Scotsman in various Big Finish audios. But I have to admire the way in which he has now taken the role of the Doctor and made it his own as a public personality; I can’t remember any of his predecessors being quite so visible, though perhaps Tom Baker and Pertwee, in the different media landscape of the Seventies, came close. By the time he leaves at the end of next year, he will have lasted longer (in the sense of first-to-last appearance as a regular) than anyone except those two as well. I think he will find it difficult to move on.

Having said that, like Troughton, he is a versatile actor, and like Davison he is leaving the role pretty early in his own career. So I don’t imagine he lies awake at night worrying about what the future holds.

And we’ll see at least one possible alternative Doctor tomorrow. Can’t wait, myself!

Index of my last few days’ Whoblogging: One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Seven | Eight | Nine | Ten

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The overnights meme

List the towns or cities where you spent at least a night away from home during 2008. Mark with a star if you had multiple non-consecutive stays.

New York

I also had a day trip to the Netherlands, and passed through/changed planes/changed trains in Luxembourg, Turkey, and Germany, so my number of countries visited in the year is a solid 16 (those four plus Albania, Austria, Belgium, Cyprus [both sides of the Green Line], France, Ireland, Italy, Montenegro, Slovenia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America). Less than last year! Though I think next year will be a busier one.

PS – if anyone wants to join dopplr, drop me a line.

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Special Christmas greetings!

So, who can tell me what language this is? (It’s a Christmas message from their foreign ministry.)

Хаҭыр зқәу аҩызцәа!

            Аҧсны Аҳәынҭарра Адәныҟатәи Аусқәа Рминистрра ахьӡала
напхгара зышәҭоу шәколлективи шәареи гәык-ҧсыкала ишәыдысныҳәалоит
ҳазҭало Ашықәс Ҿыц!
        Агәабзиара, агәамч, ақәҿиара, анасыҧ лаша ацзааит ари ашықәс Аҧсуа
дгьыли уи иқәынхо ажәларқәа зегьы рзы.

Not all of those letters are on your standard Cyrillic keyboard…

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The War Machines, again

I watched the video-tape version of this story almost exactly two years ago, and then bought the DVD when it came out a couple of months back. My review of the VHS version was pretty positive; I am even more enthusiastic about the DVD, and I think it is now one of those Who stories which you could show someone who had never seen the series before to try and get them to understand what it’s all about.

Sure, it’s unusual in that it was the first ever story set entirely on contemporary Earth (with the regular cast the right size, that is); it’s decidedly odd in the casual discarding of Dodo as a companion (when one remembers the angst associated with more recent departures!); it has a significant weakness in that the actual War Machines themselves are a bit crap (though far from the worst robotic monsters ever seen on Who, and salvaged a bit by good directing).

But despite these weaknesses, it remains a generally well-written, well-acted, well-made and likeable story, and the restorers have done a fine job of injecting more life into it. . On the DVD, the informational sub-titles are informative. The Blue Peter extracts (make your own Post Office Tower!) are fun. The film of Tony Benn revisiting it forty years on is almost moving (as is the famous restaurant). The commentary/gossip between Michael Ferguson (director) and Anneke Wills (Polly) is not terribly deep, but they deliver just about enough to justify their fees.

One point they make about Hartnell is that he would sometimes vary his lines. This may explain the slight oddness of his his final exchange with Dodo

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Deep Throat: Stratfor considers

I’ve occasionally posted bits from Stratfor, a group of Texas-based foreign policy analysts, whose general bias is to look at world affairs in terms of geography as the crucial factor, which is interesting but they often tend to miss out on details of the politics. For instance, like many external (and some internal) observers they simply don’t get the EU, and have been predicting the imminent demise of the Euro for the last ten years.

I find Stratfor at their best on their own home territory, explaining US views, attitudes and policies fairly convincingly (they have published several level-headed pieces on the unlikelihood of an attack on Iran,for instance). This week they have strayed from their usual beat to examine the real role of the late Mark Felt, aka “Deep Throat” in Watergate. It’s actually a rather poorly written piece by Stratfor’s usual standards, but they make the central point clear:

This was not a lone whistle-blower being protected by a courageous news organization; rather, it was a news organization being used by the FBI against the president, and a news organization that knew perfectly well that it was being used against the president.

It’s an important addition to the narrative which was new to me. Of course (as Stratfor emphasize), Nixon was a villain, and deserved his fate, but it’s useful to have these extra details in the picture. It’s also instructive to realise that if the US administration does go off the rails, the constitutional mechanisms don’t work, and the only thing that can bring it down is a very senior disaffected domestic intelligence official and a cooperative newspaper.

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Whoblogging 9

When we discussed the possible return of Doctor Who at a panel at the first P-Con back in 2004, I was sceptical that anything much would come of it. And a few weeks later I recorded here my surprise at the choice of Christopher Eccleston, who I hadn’t heard of. I feared that the new show would be as embarrassing as Remembrance of the Daleks, The Two Doctors or Vengeance on Varos, which were the most recent Old Who I’d seen.

So it was with trepidation (and two guests) that we sat down on that Saturday in 2005 to see what this new, leather-jacketed, northern-accented Doctor would be like.

And, well, he was fantastic.

I’ve written earlier of my appreciation of the most alien Doctors, W Hartnell and T Baker. While the Fourth Doctor will always remain my favourite, Ecclestone brought that quality of alienness to the part better than anyone since 1981. He also brought a sense of loss and tragedy: the death of his people, the scars of the Time War. The past was gone, irretrievable; but not forgotten. The new Doctor was trying to build himself a new life; borrowing what he could from the rest of us.

My favourite Eccleston moments are not the grand set-piece confrontations, though he did those well enough. Although I concur with the Hugo voters in picking The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances as my favourite story, it does not contain either of my two favourite Ninth Doctor quotes.

My second favourite line is from Dalek, the first story which links to the Doctor’s past (the Autons of Rose appear to be under different management from previous appearances, and invading a London which has forgotten their two previous attempts). Sorting through the equipment which Van Statten has accumulated but is too unenlightened to use, the Doctor tosses weapon-like objects casually aside: “Broken… Broken… Hair-dryer…” We have a moment of alien wizard disguised as Northern man with a leather jacket. It’s great.

But my favourite line is quite different: it suggests that the Doctor is not only alien, but occasionally jealous of us humans who aren’t burdened by his cosmic responsibilities. It comes in Father’s Day, when Stuart and Sarah are explaining to the Doctor how they met, and asking if he can save them, even though they are not important:

Who said you’re not important? I’ve traveled to all sorts of places, done things you couldn’t even imagine, but you two. Street corner, two in the morning, getting a taxi home. I’ve never had a life like that. Yes, I’ll try and save you.

It sums up what the Doctor is there for, but also gives a rare glimpse of why he is doing it all. It’s also a huge difference from the previous incarnations. I can’t imagine any of them regretting that they didn’t have the opportunity to miss a taxi at two in the morning, though there is probably a good party game in doing imitations of how they would have dealt with the situation. (Actually I’ve just been watching Hartnell in The War Machines, where taxis do feature prominently; but more of that anon.)

I haven’t done the calculations, but I suspect that there is less Ninth Doctor spinoff material than for any of the others. There’s a slim volume of comics, a half dozen books (all original fiction – no novelisations for New Who), and that’s it. Eccleston and Tom Baker are the only living Doctors who are not still performing in the role. I imagine that Eccleston will want to let the dust settle (and Tennant’s successor get safely in place) before he thinks of getting back into it. (Though I am intrigued by the rumours about this week’s Christmas special.)

But for the foreseeable future, all we have are those thirteen episodes from 2005, when the saviour of humanity returned to us on Easter Saturday. As Graham Sleight remarks, with his dying breath the Ninth Doctor describes himself (and Rose) as fantastic. And he is right.
Whoblogging index: One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Seven | Eight | Nine | Ten

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