Books acquired in March

Dubliners by James Joyce (1992)
Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology by Rowan Williams (2007)
Wild Sweet Love by Beverly Jenkins (2007) 
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (2002)
The Story of Anne Frank by Brenda Lewis (2001)
The Blind Assassinby Margaret Atwood (2001)
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1978)
International Law and the Question of Western Sahara by Karin Arts (2007)
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (2008)
The Dead Man’s Brother by Roger Zelazny (2009)
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2007)
The Charm of Belgium by Brian Lunn (1939)
The Big Time by Fritz Leiber (1976)
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein (1974)
The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (1993)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (1969)
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (2007)
The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1972)
Half a Life by V.S. Naipaul (2002)
Maskerade by Terry Pratchett (1998)
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volumes 1-6 by Edward Gibbon (1901)
The Bible: The Biography by Karen Armstrong (2008)
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence (1992)
From One to Zero: 2 by Georges Ifrah (1985)
To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer (1998)
Posted in Uncategorised

March Books

Non-fiction: 5 (YTD 21)

Shakespeare: 3 (YTD 10)

Fiction (non-sf): 5 (YTD 11)

SF (non-Who, but including Homer): 8 (YTD 20)

Who: 2 (YTD 10)

Comics: 1 (YTD 3)

4/24 (YTD 14/75) by women (Picard, Rowling, Atwood, Satrapi)
2/24 (YTD 3/75) by PoC (Dualeh, Satrapi)
Total page count ~7,600 (YTD ~22,500)
Owned for more than one year: 6 (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets [reread], The New Penguin Russian Course, Jennie, Resurrection, The Power of Speech, A Million Open Doors)
Also re-read: The War of the Worlds, Stranger in a Strange Land, Macbeth (for a total of 4, YTD 12).

Posted in Uncategorised

March Books 24) The Dead Man’s Brother, by Roger Zelazny

I’m a die-hard Zelazny fan, and when I heard that this book – written in the early 1970s, at about the same time as Today We Choose Faces and My Name Is Legion – had finally been published, I was delighted but also a little worried. Even we die-hard Zelazny fans would have to admit that his later novels from the 1990s were not really of the same quality, though his short fiction was still consistent with his earlier output. Also, of course, it’s not that long since I read Variable Star, and concluded that Heinlein had probably had the right idea when he locked away its manuscript for the rest of his life.

The Dead Man’s Brother is a much better book than Variable Star. It is a more or less non-sfnal thriller (I say “more or less” because it is hinted that the narrator, being of course a Zelazny hero, has special abilities) set in contemporary (ie early 70s) Rome and Brazil. The Zelazny hard-bitten writing style is gloriously there. His narrator is more misogynistic than most Zelazny characters, but matures a bit in the course of the story. The cover is rather gloriously tacky, featuring our hero cradling the heroine while clutching a ridiculously phallic machete. In short, I enjoyed it, and would even recommend it as a gateway book for non-Zelazny fans.

Posted in Uncategorised

The Coudenberg

Long, long ago, I remember reading a mocking article in The Bulletin (the English-language weekly for expats in Belgium, which I haven’t myself picked up for years) about the Belvue Museum in Brussels: who, it asked, really wants to pay €15 to look at the genuine spectacles of the late King Baudouin? I sniggered and marked it down as one of those things I would never willingly visit.

Then about a year ago, I was invited to a reception by the King Baudouin Foundation held in the museum foyer. (As well as running the museum, the KBF funds a number of projects in the Balkans which I have been loosely involved with.) I teased our hosts about the €15 to see the king’s possessions, and they pointed out to me the (relatively) new admission rates: €5 for adults, €4 for pensioners, €3 for students and free for under-18s. Duly humbled, I apologised to the representatives of King Baudouin, and made a mental note that I should go and look at the museum properly some time.

Last week I noticed that it has an exhibition on about gender roles throughout the history of Belgium, set up by the Women’s History Archive Centre (of whom I know nothing more than that they set up the exhibition). It had a nice poster which looked as if there would be fun and consciousness-raising things to look at: I showed it to young F on the website and he agreed to give it a try. It’s conveniently located on the same block as the Royal Palace (where the King, of course, does not live, this being Belgium) just where the Rue Royale / Koningstraat doglegs into the Place Royale / Koningsplein.

Well, it wasn’t quite as gripping as I expected. The main bit of the museum has some nice artifacts – and I admit that after reading a bit more of the history, I found the sight of the late King Baudouin’s spectacles oddly moving – but it is a bit cluttered, and the narratives about Leopold II and III are rather airbrushed. The exhibition on gender history was a bit above the nine-year-old audience I had brought, and had fewer interesting exhibits than I had expected. (Though I did have to explain to my son what a typewriter was.)

However, the unexpected hit of the day was the Coudenberg ruins, also attached to the BELvue museum (as it prefers to be spelt). This is basically the excavated foundations of the old Coudenberg palace, burnt down in 1731 and buried by urban redevelopment thereafter: a lovely set of underground chambers, including most amazingly of all the subterranean Rue Isabelle, now a road to nowhere, an empty pathway covered by a concrete roof that was open to the sky three centuries ago.

I remembered having visited the Coudenberg cellars twice before many years ago, once with Anne to see a small exhibition, and once for yet another reception (this time for the European Liberals); the acoustics for speeches, especially with a large crowd, are terrible but that may have been just as well. On a quiet Sunday morning, just a few weeks after it was reopened and with our audio guidebooks in hand, it was enchanting.

They are still getting their act together – the Wikipedia entry has more information than the official site. But I strongly recommend it for those of you with an hour or so to spare in the middle of Brussels.

Posted in Uncategorised

March Books 23) A Million Open Doors, by John Barnes

This was a long-ago recommendation from , and a great read: perhaps reflecting a bit the fall of the Wall and globalisation more generally, it’s about an encounter between cultures, the dour market-driven frozen colony of Caledony being forced to open up to the rest of the galaxy and in partiicular to the romantic troubadours of New Occitan. Lots of interesting politics and general growing-up for our Occitanian narrator as he realises more about the problems of his own society as a result of his Caledonian experience. I’ll hunt out the rest of this series now.

Posted in Uncategorised

The Turks and Caicos Islands

Here’s an international story that caught my eye this week, concerning a place I know very little about: Britain is about to revoke the democratically elected institutions of the Turks and Caicos Islands and give the London-appointed Governor power to rule directly in consultation with an appointed Council.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are among a dozen or so remaining non-sovereign British territories around the world, not all of which (eg the Cyprus military bases) have any democratic pretensions. Their population of around 30,000 is about the same as Monaco and Liechtenstein, and like them they have got significant benefits from being a tax haven – economic statistics are tricky to pin down but the latest UN figures give it a per capita GDP of a whopping $29,706, which is just ahead of Hong Kong, Greece and Cyprus and just behind Spain, Brunei and New Zealand, and way ahead of it neighbours apart from Bermuda, the BVI and the Caymans.

The reasons why the British are taking this pretty massive step are not as yet being made fully public. A retired judge, Sir Robin Auld, has published an interim report, after being asked to investigate “whether there is information that corruption or other serious dishonesty in relation to past and present elected members of the House of Assembly (previously known as the Legislative Council) may have taken place in recent years”. This is a pretty broad remit: as Sir Robin puts it, his tasks “could not sensibly have been expressed with lower thresholds”.

The interim report proposes suspending the entire constitution and removing trial by jury, for at least a year, starting probably early next week. Almost no evidence is given in the report as to why these steps should be taken. Browsing through press reports, though, one finds references to the outgoing prime minister’s millionaire lifestyle and lavish expenditure, and to the climate of fear that prevented locals from speaking out. It should also be noted that this is the second time round: the TCI constitution was previously suspended for two years in 1986, for what appear to have been similar reasons. I note with some amusement that there has been a proposal to do a Newfoundland on the TCI and unite them with Canada, though we haven’t seen much of it recently.

One debating point I often encounter (as someone who has been professionally involved with issues like the independence of Montenegro, Kosovo, the Western Sahara and Somaliland) is the question of whether small new states can be “viable”. It has always seemed to me a bogus point; international law rightly gives priority on these matters to the wishes of the people concerned, without imposing our external judgements as to whether they are right. The only example I can think of in the last century where an independent state actually gave up its sovereignty because the economics were not working out is Newfoundland in 1934. The best example of a failed state today is surely Somalia, whose population is about ten million, and whose problems include the fact that it was bolted together from two separate colonial units, precisely because the “viability” argument was used against the separate independence of the former British Somaliland (which has since de facto reclaimed it and seems entirely viable in its own right).

The basic problem is that the TCI are a poor state which has become rich quicker than its institutions can properly manage. There are plenty of independent countries with similar problems, where the option of the colonial masters reimposing their authority does not apply (and a fair number of non-independent countries where for one reason or another it’s not an option). The international community’s response in such situations is not often very robust: it consists of supporting the development of adequate local institutions and (at the smarter end) conditioning aid and political status on the local government’s ability to comply. Unfortunately, for a lot of places, corruption pays better than honesty.

I’m adding the TCI to my monitoring list for now.

Posted in Uncategorised

March Books 21) Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

The Hugo shortlist is off to a good start for me: Doctorow’s teen hero is unfairly arrested by the Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist attack on San Francisco. He then devotes his energies to fighting the system, and also negotiating other hurdles like school and girls. Marcus is rather fortunate in being in the right place at the right time with the right skills, and I felt that the end of the story in real life would certainly have been more ambiguous; also, since the purpose of the book is partly didactic, we get a number of mini-essays on various matters (including the Beat poets) inserted into the text. But it’s a good, thrilling read and certainly grist to the mill for any of us worried about the surveillance society.

(Pedantic point: I was puzzled by a reference to the “British High Commission” which clearly should have been to the “British consulate”, but my copy is an uncorrected proof so this may have been picked up before publication. Doctorow is Canadian so may not have been aware that most countries don’t have High Commissions, just embassies.)

Posted in Uncategorised

March Books 20) Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

I came to this with somewhat low expectations, but actually found it a pretty gripping, if sombre, tale of near-future apocaplyse. The viewpoint character, Johnny / Snowman, reminisces about how his friend Crake destroyed humanity in order to replace us with his own genetically engineered version (Oryx being their love). It’s a fairly basic sfnal plot, and Atwood does it competently and coherently; not as good a book as he own The Handmaid’s Tale (nor as brilliant a treatment of the theme as this), but I found it engaging, if somewhat grim.

Posted in Uncategorised

March Books 19) The New Penguin Russian Course, by Nicholas J. Brown

I admit it: I’m not going to finish this one. Self-study is difficult when learning languages, and for me it has to fit decently into my commuting or other spare time. I have not found it possible to sit down and do the written exercises from this book, and there is no audio component which means I lose the pull effect of the MP3 player summoning you to play the next section.

I think it is not a bad course. It alerted me to a number of tricky exceptions to the general rules which my previous textbook had rather glossed over (eg the irregular prepositional в Крыму, “in the Crimea”). But I would have neede regular human lessons as well to get me through to the end, so I’m leaving it here, and switching to a quite different Indo-European language. I will come back to Russian again, and am glad I’ve made a start, but that’s it for now.

Posted in Uncategorised

March Books 18) Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare

This is a grim tale: a neatly observed set of dysfunctional relationships, primarily that between the title characters, full of both passion and insecurity, but also [Octavian] Cæsar’s with them both – Cleopatra is in a sense his stepmother, thanks to the dead Julius, and he also tries to bind Antony to him as brother-in-law. I guess the trick in this production is to make the human failings of these people appear interesting enough to hold the attention. Antony and Cleopatra are both seething bags of neuroses, and don’t immediately engage one’s sympathy on the page.

The Arkangel production, however, manages it, particularly with Estelle Kohler’s Cleopatra, with Ciaran Hinds’ Anthony nearly as good. The non-human soundscape of the production is very impressive, with scenes in Egypt or in Rome introduced by appropriately different music, and sounds of chirping crickets in the background at night.

The human soundscape is a bit odd, though. Enobarbus, who has all the best lines in the play, is played by David Burke, who is from Liverpool, with a strong and mostly convincing Ulster accent; while Ciaran Hinds, who actually is from Belfast, plays Anthony as a gritty English soldier. Other minor characters have a hodge-podge of different regional vowels. It’s frankly confusing, and an opportunity uncharacteristically missed by Arkangel, who previously delivered an all-Scottish Macbeth and a Comedy of Errors with Irish Ephesians and English Syracusans – given the fact that there’s a similar binary divide between Egyptians and Romans here, it’s just frankly peculiar that Clive Brill and co didn’t try and make something more structured out of the accent choices available. I imagine this bothers me more than it would most listeners.

One other problem with the play – and this is Shakespeare rather than Arkangel – is that there are too many minor characters. In fact I think the original script may have mixed up Proculeius and Dolatella at the end, unless Anthony is misinformed about Cæsar’s team, or just being mean to Cleopatra for tricking him into suicide. If I were producing it I’d want to trim and combine a few of the dramatis personæ.

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)

Posted in Uncategorised

Consumer whinge

Mr Didier Bellens,
Chief Executive Officer and President
Boulevard du Roi Albert II, 27
B-1030 Brussels

26 March 2009

Dear Mr Bellens,

I am writing because I am very disappointed with Belgacom’s communication with its customers.

I have two very simple complaints.

1) In January I discovered that my phone line (02 230 0650) was not working. I checked by phone with the customer service line, who kindly offered to forward all calls to my GSM while the technical problems were sorted out. But when I went to my nearest Belgacom shop, it turned out the technical problem was that you had cut off my phone line, because my bills had not been paid. I had not paid the bill because you were sending it to the wrong address. I paid, and corrected the address in your records.

When my next bill arrived, I discovered that you want to charge me €120 for reconnecting the phone lines. I am not going to pay €120 for your mistake. If you had sent the phone bills to the correct address in the first place, I would have paid and there would have been no need to reconnect.

2) I discovered on 25 March that my internet speed had become very slow. It turns out that this is because I had exceeded my bandwidth allocation (there were a couple of unusually large downloads during the month). I was very surprised that I had not received any notification of the potential problem before you cut off my internet speed. It turned out that an email had been sent to inform me of this, but to a address which I did not know existed and which I had never used.

I found this out from your customer service line, who were unable to help me further. I went again to the Belgacom shop, who offered to double my bandwidth allocation for €9.99 per month, though this would take effect only at midnight. I accepted this deal, though it meant I lost the rest of the working day today.

Later this afternoon, I was able to check on-line and discovered that you offer a different solution, the i-Office Volume Pack, costing €5 and which takes only 30 minutes to activate. I do not know why your staff in your shop on Avenue de Tongres could not tell me about this.

I am not going to pay the €9.99 for a slower solution which I do not need.

And I do not know who is going to pay for my lost time and energy in sorting out the mistakes that you have made in delivering your service to me.


They are bloody lucky that the only other telcom provider in Brussels, Tele2, actually has even worse customer service, if such a thing were possible.

The one amusing thing is that in my wrangling with their so-called customer service phoneline this afternoon I was asked to take part in a survey of customer satisfaction. You can guess what option I chose (between 1 for completely unsatisfied and 5 for completely satisfied).

Posted in Uncategorised

March Books 17) The Iliad, by Homer

I preferred The Iliad somehow to The Odyssey. There is a wider range of characters, a broader range of settings, a continuing tension between the battlefields of Troy and the realm of the gods. Indeed, I found the continuing interference by rival divine authorities in human affairs strongly reminiscent of the Balkan / Levantine instinct for explaining contemporary human politics by conspiracy theory, resorting to unseen, unaccountable forces to explain what is going on.

I’m sorry to say that my inner geek prevailed at one point: I found myself getting quite unreasonably interested in the description of Hephaistos’ mechanical devices in Chapter XVIII. Surely these are the earliest examples of robots and androids in fiction? The first description is of his mechanised tripods on wheels:

…τρίποδας γὰρ ἐείκοσι πάντας ἔτευχεν
ἑστάμεναι περὶ τοῖχον ἐϋσταθέος μεγάροιο,
χρύσεα δέ σφ’ ὑπὸ κύκλα ἑκάστῳ πυθμένι θῆκεν,
ὄφρά οἱ αὐτόματοι θεῖον δυσαίατ’ ἀγῶνα
ἠδ’ αὖτις πρὸς δῶμα νεοίατο θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι.

Alexander Pope’s translation:

Full twenty tripods for his hall he framed,
That placed on living wheels of massy gold,
(Wondrous to tell,) instinct with spirit roll’d
From place to place, around the bless’d abodes
Self-moved, obedient to the beck of gods:

Samuel Butler’s translation:

…he was making twenty tripods that were to stand by the wall of his house, and he set wheels of gold under them all that they might go of their own selves to the assemblies of the gods, and come back again–marvels indeed to see.

William Cowper’s translation:

…tripods bright he form’d
Twenty at once, his palace-wall to grace
Ranged in harmonious order. Under each
Two golden wheels he set, on which (a sight
Marvellous!) into council they should roll465
Self-moved, and to his house, self-moved, return.

But it gets better – he has robot women to do his bidding!

ὑπὸ δ’ ἀμφίπολοι ῥώοντο ἄνακτι
χρύσειαι ζωῇσι νεήνισιν εἰοικυῖαι.
τῇς ἐν μὲν νόος ἐστὶ μετὰ φρεσίν, ἐν δὲ καὶ αὐδὴ
καὶ σθένος, ἀθανάτων δὲ θεῶν ἄπο ἔργα ἴσασιν.

Alexander Pope’s translation:

The monarch’s steps two female forms uphold,
That moved and breathed in animated gold;
To whom was voice, and sense, and science given
Of works divine (such wonders are in heaven!)

Samuel Butler’s translation:

There were golden handmaids also who worked for him, and were like real young women, with sense and reason, voice also and strength, and all the learning of the immortals.

William Cowper’s translation:

Beside the king of fire two golden forms
Majestic mov’d, that serv’d him in the place
Of handmaids; young they seem’d and seem’d alive,
Nor want they intellect, or speech, or force,
Or prompt dexterity by the gods inspir’d.

Non-robot women get rather a raw deal in the Iliad. The quarrel between Achilles and the rest of the Greeks starts with a dispute over who gets to keep the captive women Briseis and Chryseis. In the funeral games for Patroclus, Ajax and Odysseus wrestle for a prize of a woman who is not named but is skilled in all domestic matters. Actually she is the consolation prize for the loser: the winner gets a nice big cauldron. (I am not making this up.) The match is declared a draw and Ajax and Odysseus are told by Achilles to split the prizes, but we are not told how they manage this (and perhaps we are better off not knowing).

Having said which, the goddesses Thetis, Athena, Hera and indeed the Trojan women, Hecuba and Andromache (and to an extent Helen) are all interesting characters in their own rights; as are most of the men, several of whom (this is hardly a spoiler) get horribly killed off during the conflict.

I was fascinated by the continuous tension between praise and horror of combat. It’s clear to me that Homer’s articulation of the warrior’s code of honour lies rhetorically behind an awful lot of subsequent eras’ jingoism and exhortation of young men to die stupidly. The battle scenes are pretty gory and get a bit repetitive, but there are moments of real power. Yet at the same time he is clear about the other side: moves towards peace-making are clearly a Good Thing, though torpedoed by human incompetence and divine malice; the last chapter has grieving Priam confronting Achilles over the body of his son Hector.

Anyway, I’m very glad I finally read this.

Posted in Uncategorised

Ada Lovelace Day

To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, when we salute women in technology and science, I thought I should flag up a few female Irish scientists who appeared in my long-ago doctoral research.

Mary Ball (1812-1892) discovered the underwater stridulation of the Notonectidæ

Mary, Countess of Rosse (1813-1885) was a pioneer in photography and also an accomplished amateur blacksmith

Mary Ward (1827-1869) was a popular science writer (how to use your microscope and telescope) who was unfortunately also the first person to be killed in a motor vehicle accident (probably), and the great-grandmother of Lalla Ward who played Romana II in Doctor Who.

Agnes Clerke (1842-1907), originally from Skibbereen, wrote a number of works on astronomy and cosmology including her Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century for which today’s historians of science are still grateful

Lady Margaret Huggins (1848-1915), the daughter of a Dublin solicitor, became a pioneer of astronomical spectroscopy in partnership with her husband, Sir William Huggins (1824-1910) at their home in Tulse Hill

Matilda Knowles (1864-1933), researcher of lichens

Jane Scharff, née Stephens (1879-?) researcher of sponges, forced to leave scientific research when she married her boss

Mabel C Wright (née MacDowell), early 20th century geologist and naturalist, who helped pioneer the use of sphagnum moss as an antiseptic dressing

Phyllis Ryan (mid-20th century), professional chemist who interestingly kept her own name despite being married to a rather conservative politician

Máire Brück (1925-2008), astronomer who helped me with research into some of these.

During research in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington I was thrilled to find and read correspondence from Marie Stopes, though rather boringly about botany rather than contraception or eugenics.

Posted in Uncategorised

The Prime Minister’s haiku

I didn’t realise this, but apparently our Prime Minister writes haiku and posts them on his blog:

Rough translation of the most recent:

Als de lente start

verrijzen de crocussen.

Op weg naar Pasen.

At spring’s beginning

Crocus flowers return to life.

Easter is coming.

I can’t reproduce the full sense of “verrijzen” (which normally means “resurrect”) in translation, but you get the idea.

Posted in Uncategorised

Eighth Doctor / Lucie: Series 2

This second season is generally solid stuff, with none of these stories being duds, and the Doctor and Lucie getting on with developing a working partnership now that they are no longer being pursued by the Head-Hunter and entangled with the Time Lords. I particularly enjoyed The Zygon Who Fell To Earth.

We have a decent start in Dead London, by 2000AD stalwart Pat Mills, which has our heroes land in a city whose different historical periods are rubbing up against each other. Lots of rather good audioscaping of the various eras. I was not quite satisfied that we sorted out reality from mental constructs adequately in the end, but the ride was fun.

Max Warp was also moderately good fun, with Graeme Garden guesting as a Jeremy Clarkson character whose equivalent of “Top Gear” is at the centre of tensions in a delicately balanced peace process. Which makes more sense than at first sounds. I have never knowingly watched Top Gear but I still enjoyed it.

Brave New Town was my second favourite of these: we start off in what appears to be an English village which is mysteriously repeating the events of 1 September 1991. The answer to the mystery turns out to involve Uzbekistan and Autons, with guest appearances from Adrian Dunbar and Derek Griffiths; another solid piece from Jonathan Clements.

Well, one of my wishes has been fulfilled: Barbara Flynn is in The Skull of Sobek as a peculiar nun, which means that all four of the doctors of A Very Peculiar Practice have now done at least a little Who. It’s a good piece about hidden skulls, crocodiles (which terrify Lucie) and bizarre rituals, with a slightly silly ending which is more or less in keeping with the spirit of the story.

The next in sequence is Grand Theft Cosmos, but I listened to it in January.

My favourite of these second season plays: we have the return of Lucie’s aunt Pat, but also Stephen Pacey (Tarrant from Blake’s Seven) as her husband Trevor, the eponymous Zygon Who Fell To Earth, and Tim Brooke-Taylor of the Goodies as the Zygon second-in-command. It’s a really fun tale of nostalgia both for and in the 1980s; I loved every minute of it.

I was least satisfied by the season finale, the two-parter Sisters of the Flame / The Vengeance of Morbius. The basics are good, taking up the story of Morbius and the Sisters of Karn, and following on from the Gallifrey depicted in the previous Eight/Lucie season, with a strong showing by Nickolas Grace as the guest baddie. But there wasn’t really enough story for a two-parter; and I thought it was a bit feeble not to allow Lucie some closure on her relationship with the Doctor. The ending is a pretty massive cliffhanger, apparently resolved earlier this month. I shall report back.

Posted in Uncategorised

The Karpass Peninsula

I’m just back from a few days of work in Cyprus, but decided to take yesterday exploring the Karpass peninsula, the long thin panhandle of the northeast of the island. (Top marks, by the way, to Sun Rent A Car who fixed me up with an efficient Fiat Panda for €23 for a generously measured 24 hours.) My work keeps me in Nicosia, with occasional evening excursions to Kyrenia, and I wanted to see a bit more of the island.

I started off by exploring the ruins of Salamis, a ancient city on the east of the island north of Famagusta (St Paul visited). The ruins are pretty overgrown but the theatre survives:

and there is the occasional exposed trackway:

and a very few scraps of mosaic:

To my delight I caught sight of some local wildlife – can you see it?

It’s a stellion – handsome creature, isn’t it!

The apostle Barnabas came from Salamis and the former monastery where he is reputedly buried is nearby:

The interior is now a museum:

The coast immediately north of Salamis is getting very touristy: lots of new build development, lots of posters advertising property (all in English); I bought some petrol at Boğaz where the dual carriageway ends (and I’ll come back to that later) and proceeded up the peninsula. I decided that I would simply press on to the very tip of the island, to see what I could see. I was hoping that I would catch sight of some of the Karpass peninsula’s most famous wild animals, and my hopes were rewarded:

The donkeys are apparently their own subspecies. Not terribly wild, but not terribly inclined to talk to humans either (which is understandable). This is the closest I got to one, but of course the sun was in the wrong place:

The peninsula as a whole is incredibly lush and fertile compared to the rest of the island. I suppose it must have a favourabvle microclimate – it can’t just be donkey droppings!

Near the tip of the island is the monastery of Apostolos Andreas, which is busy with worshippers – mainly Greek Cypriots who I suspect had come up the same way as me, though there are some remaining Greek Cypriot villages in the peninsula.

I drove right to the tip of the island, the mound in the middle of this picture:

The road took me past this magnificent beach, apparently also a breeding ground for turtles (though this was the wrong time of year). I changed into my trunks and got my feet wet, but the water was not yet quite warm enough to entice me for a dip (notice how empty it is):

Having picked up a rather late lunch at the Blue Sea Hotel, I decided I had time for one more sight: Kantara (or Candara) Castle, which guards the entrance to the peninsula. It’s a long way up, and the buildings are pretty ruined:

But the views from the top are fantastic – here looking northeast along the peninsula which I had spent the day exploring:

and here looking southeast down to Famagusta and the bay:

At this point it was time to head back to Nicosia, to return the car and meet up with a friend (who had spotted that I was in Cyprus from my Facebook updates). But I realised to my horror that the little Fiat’s fuel tank was almost empty – the needle right down at the end of the red zone. And I was at the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. I checked with the warden at the castle, who confirmed that the nearest petrol station was the one I had filled up in earlier at Boğaz, 18 km (11.5 miles) away. I had no choice; I set the car going downhill as gently as I could, and tripped the meter on so that I could monitor how much fuel it was using. I was really impressed – by the time I trickled into Boğaz, my average usage coming down from the castle was 2.8 litres per 100 km, which equates (as I learn thanks to Facebook) to almost 100 miles per gallon. I was also very relieved, and put in far more than enough fuel to get me back to Nicosia. I was about half an hour late returning the car, but that was as much due because of my difficulties in grappling with the weirdness of the street layout. And Sun, as I said before, were flexible.

So, strongly recommended, but it’s quite a long day out – I left Nicosia at 8 am and didn’t get back until 6.30. But in the summer one could take longer over it by exploiting the late evenings (and, if so inclined, starting early in the morning).

Posted in Uncategorised

Macedonian presidential election

If you do an image google on Agron Buxhaku, one of the candidates in today’s Macedonian presidential election, you’ll see the first link is this picture from my livejournal scrapbook. He’s a good friend of mine, but is currently lying about fifth out of seven candidates in the polls. Another friend, Nano Ružin, is apparently going to come sixth out of seven. I also know (but do not especially like) Ljubomir Frčkoski who is second or third in the latest polls. The election will certainly be won by Gjorgje Ivanov who is backed by the main party in the government – probably not today but in a runoff two weeks from now against Frčkoski (who is the candidate of the main opposition party).

What’s interesting is that a lot of the polls suggest Frčkoski is under serious pressure for the second place in the runoff from an ethnic Albanian candidate, Imer Selmani, the leader of a new party called Demokracia e Re (which means “New Democracy” in Albanian). Doug Muir has blogged about this elsewhere; I’ll just add that my experience has been that Macedonian opinion polls tend to overstate the support of all Albanian parties, so I suspect he won’t make it, and even if he does Ivanov will will the run-off against either of them. But in any case it’s a significant kick in the teeth for my mate Agron’s party, which since he co-founded it in 2002 has won the majority of Macedonia’s Albanian votes (as long as the elections were done fairly).

There is one woman candidate, Mirushe Hoxha, a university professor who has never stood in an election before but is being backed by the oldest of the three ethnic Albanian parties. She is currently running seventh out of seven.

I’m sorry that Nano and Agron are likely to lose, but as long as the former Interior Minister Ljube Boškoski doesn’t make it to the second round, I’ll be happy. It is just over seven years since the mysterious Raštanski Lozja affair, for which nobody was ever successfully prosecuted (and Boškoski was not prosecuted at all). It would also be a good thing if the elections are conducted with less violence than last year’s parliamentary vote.

It also doesn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things. The outgoing President, Branko Crvenkovski, who moved up to the top spot after his predecessor was killed in a plane crash, has discovered to his dismay that the job left him pretty impotent; he is almost indecently eager to return to the leadership of his own party and, he hopes, the job of Prime Minister after the next parliamentary elections. President Ivanov will have an enjoyable five year term making speeches and attending conferences, but it’s unlikely that the average observer of international politics will register his name much.

Posted in Uncategorised

March Books 16) The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells

I had forgotten just how good this is. Its 200 pages far outshine all later (and mostly longer) invasion-of-Earth stories (or even just disaster stories like The Stand). It feels so very fresh, one of the basic plots of science fiction being written for the first time. Yes, of course it’s strongly reliant on tales of human wars, both those set in the contemporary late nineteenth century and those set in the (then) near future; but this chilling sentence – of mildly dodgy grammar but impeccable pace – in the first paragraph makes it clear that this is not about the Germans:

Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

In the earlier chapters, there’s a fixation with circumstantial detail – especially of the geography of Surrey – which gives the whole narrative an immediacy which is curiously intensified as the conflict goes on and fewer and fewer characters get names – “the artilleryman”, “the curate”, and rather oddly to today’s reader, “my wife”. (And “my brother”, though his lady friends, the Elphinstones, do get names.)

So much here is reminiscent of later stories and indeed of history – the rescue of the English refugees by small boats from the rest of Europe is an odd inversion of Dunkirk; the tripods pop up in John Christopher; the gas warfare waged by the aliens against London was soon to happen in real life.

Anyway, a really excellent, short read.

Posted in Uncategorised

March Books 15) Elizabeth’s London, by Liza Picard

A book that ties in with two of my projects, Sir Nicholas White who was educated in London in the 1540s and died in the Tower in 1592, and of course Shakespeare. Picard has written several other books about London in different eras, but none the less makes her material here sound entirely fresh. There is a mass of detail on most aspects of London life, and I understand much better the role of institutions like the foreigners’ churches and the city companies; plus I have more on my reading list for the moment when I crank my research on White up a gear. Unfortunately she doesn’t say much on the two subjects I most wanted to read about: the court (though this does come up in discussion of clothes) and the Irish in London – I think I spotted precisely one mention, of an Irish woman who died and whose children were therefore supported by the parish. On the other hand she has plenty of entertaining asides, the majority of which are buried in the endnotes (yet another book which irritatingly does not have footnotes), including numerous reminiscences of Tanganyika in the 1950s, some of which are even relevant to Elizabethan London.

Posted in Uncategorised

Two Companion Chronicles

Driving up and down the peninsula yesterday I had the chance to enjoy a couple of the recent Companion Chronicles which I had somehow missed.

The Darkening Eye is a prequel to last year’s Seventh Doctor audio, The Death Collectors, which introduced us listeners to the Dar Traders, an alien race who are the eponymous collectors. Here we get the full early Fifth Doctor crew encountering them along with an undead assassin; none of it really made sense, to be honest, people keep getting stabbed and the ending of the framing narrative (Nyssa reminiscing to a patient on Terminus) didn’t make a lot of sense.

But it’s really lifted by Sarah Sutton as Nyssa, doing a pretty good take of Davison’s Doctor, Janet Fielding’s Tegan and even Matthew Waterhouse’s Adric, as well as almost all the other characters. There are a satifying number of references back to Season 17 18 (thanks, ) – dwarf star alloy, Traken, dimensional problems, etc. The plot is no worse than several of the TV stories she appeared in (though I still don’t get the Dar Traders).

William Russell’s return in character as Ian Chesterton gives him the record for Who performer of longest standing (though Carole Ann Ford is due to regain that title later in the year). Transit of Venus is a two-hander with Ian Stoddard playing Joseph Banks, and William Russell playing everyone else, after the Tardis appears on board the Endeavour in 1774 and promptly disappears again along with Susan and Barbara. It is set immediately after and (despite the historical setting) ties in very closely with The Sensorites, which for my money is the worst story of the very first TV season so it’s a bit mysterious that both Big Finish and (via the Ood) New Who have chosen to revisit it.

Most of Transit of Venus is really good – a decent picture of life on board the ship, with a certain sense of loyalty to the early historical series, and a great portrayal by Russell of an increasingly frantic Ian, as well as most of the other characters. Unfortunately the build-up of the first 90% of the play is seriously blunted by a really stupid ending.

So, two plays with somewhat imperfect scripts which are both very much lifted by the guest star.

Posted in Uncategorised

March Books 14) The Cyprus Conflict: Looking Ahead, edited by Ahmet Sözen

This is a collection of papers from a 2007 conference in Famagusta; I am one of the contributors (though on Kosovo and Macedonia rather than Cyprus). The standout papers are by Nathalie Tocci, reviewing the EU’s role in failing to reach a solution up to 2004 and since; Georg Ziegler of the European Commission, which I’m sure he would rush to assert contains nothing new but does pull together the crucial EU documents and policies; and Maria Hadjipavlou, analysing how the opening of the Green Line in 2002 has affected perceptions – not always positively. Some of the material is now out of date because of the renewed talks process. Two of the contributors, Alexander Lordos and Erol Kaymak, have in fact just finished a new opinion poll which will be published in the next couple of weeks.

Posted in Uncategorised

March Books 13) Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein

Of Heinlein’s four or five Hugo-winning novels (Double Star, Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and retro-Hugo-winning Farmer in the Sky) this probably is the best. (Reserving judgement on TMiaHM as I haven’t re-read it yet.) Which I not to say that it’s a perfect piece of work. The things that make a lot of Heinlein’s later work deeply annoying are all here – the cringingly awful dialogue, the gender stereotyping, the know-it-all Author’s Voice character – but somehow not as bad as they later became; the targets of his humour in politics, religion and society are fairly well chosen and to a certain extent still relevant; and Valentine Michael Smith is actually rather fascinating as a concept – we’re in the territory of Candide and Rasselas, but with Martians offstage. Heinlein must have been a bit surprised that his libertarian parable spiced up with sex and aliens became popular with the counter-culture of the later sixties, but readers do not always take away what writers think they are bringing to a work.

It’s striking that I don’t think I have even heard of, let alone read, any of the other 1962 nominees (Dark Universe by Daniel F. Galouye, Sense of Obligation/Planet of the Damned by Harry Harrison, The Fisherman/Time Is the Simplest Thing by Clifford D. Simak and Second Ending by James White).

Posted in Uncategorised

March Books 12) The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I guess I was just not in the mood for this. I found the archaic language tedious, the moral dilemmas artificial and not very interesting, and the portrayal of Puritan society unrealistic; I also was repelled by the author’s lengthy autobiographical digression about working in the custom-house at the start. Well, one more nineteenth-century classic that I will never have to pick up again…

Posted in Uncategorised

The Chaos Pool

Hot off the BF website, it’s the latest of their audio plays, The Chaos Pool in which the Fifth Doctor, human tracer companion Amy, and her sister and rival Zara close in on the last segment of the Key to Time. Actually the real star of this is Lalla Ward, who makes a triumphant return; it’s not at first clear how or even if this will tie into the Gallifrey series of audios starring her, Louise Jameson and (in part) Mary Tamm, but it’s all tied up satisfactorily at the end, including an explanation for Romana’s regeneration in Destiny of the Daleks. Purists may object to the fate (or even the portrayal) of the Black and White Guardians, but (as I said in my review of The Destroyer of Delights) I saw it as a rather innovative move by Big Finish to reinvent two essentially rather boring stock characters. While I enjoyed the performances of Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington in the other Key 2 Time audios, this was the first to be recorded and they were still finding their way. The plot is suitably convoluted and enjoyable, though I didn’t really grasp the point of the Teuthonians, and you couldn’t really recommend it to anyone who hadn’t already heard the first three Key 2 Time stories.

Posted in Uncategorised

Irish book list

In honour of the national festival, I’ve produced this list of books about Ireland which I have reviewed on-line. This is not a reading list for Irish studies – I ran through most of that when working on my PhD. But I hope some of you will find some points of interest here.


Medieval history
**** A History of the Black Death in Ireland, by Maria Kelly
***½ Malachy, by Brian Scott – biography of the 12th-century saint

Sixteenth century
****½ Tudor Ireland: Crown, Community and the Conflict of Cultures, 1470-1603 by Steven G. Ellis – best of three on the period
**** Contested Island: Ireland 1460-1630, by S.J. Connolly
***½ Sixteenth Century Ireland, by Colm Lennon

Seventeenth century (and on)
**** The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates, by Des Ekin – how the population of a Cork village were sold to Algiers in 1631
**** Battle of the Boyne 1690, by Padraig Lenihan
**** Science, Culture and Modern State Formation, by Patrick Carroll – science and the state in the 17th and 18th centuries
****½ Belfast, c. 1600 to c. 1900: The Making of the Modern City, by Raymond Gillespie and Stephen A. Royle – found this fascinating

Nineteenth century (and on)
***½ Scholars and Rebels, by Terry Eagleton – intellectual life in nineteenth century Ireland
***** Home Rule: An Irish History 1800-2000, by Alvin Jackson – draws some interesting parallels
**** The Independent Irish Party, 1850-9 by John H Whyte – my father’s first book
**½-**** Four biographies of Arthur McMurrough Kavanagh
**** Parnell – The Uncrowned King of Ireland: His Love Story and Political Life, by Katherine O’Shea – biography of leading Irish political figure by the woman who loved him
**** A Bachelor’s London: Memories of the Day before Yesterday, 1889-1914, by Frederic Whyte – autobiography of a distant cousin of mine; some Irish content
***** Lost Railways of Co. Down and Co. Armagh, by Stephen Johnson – does what it says on the tin

****½ Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, by Charles Townshend – comprehensive account
**** Dublin Castle and the 1916 Rising: The Story of Sir Matthew Nathan, by Leon Ó Broin – looks at one senior official’s experience
**** Slide Rule: An Autobiography, by Neville Shute – the novelist’s father was in charge of the GPO
**½ From Behind a Closed Door: Secret Court Martial Records of the Easter Rising, by Brian Barton – relies too heavily on its source material

The Troubles
***** Lost Lives: The stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles, by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea – heart-rending and complete
***** Making Sense of the Troubles, by David McKittrick and David McVea – excellent overview of What It All Meant
***** The Elusive Quest: Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, by Norman Porter – on the importance of reconciliation, and how to get there
****½ Troubled Images: Posters and Images of the Northern Ireland Conflict from the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, ed. Yvonne Murphy, Allan Leonard, Gordon Gillespie and Kris Brown – fascinating collection of visual images
***½ Endgame in Ireland, by David McKittrick and Eamonn Mallie – chronology from 1984 to 2001.
*** Northern Ireland: A Political Directory, 1968-1999 by Sydney Elliott and W.D. Flackes with John Coulter – previous edition of essential directory

Other 20th century
***½ What If? Alternative Views of Twentieth-Century Ireland, by Diarmaid Ferriter – less interesting than it sounds

***½ The Star Factory, by Ciaran Carson – literary memoir of growing up in Belfast
***½ More Real Than Reality: The Fantastic in Irish Literature and the Arts, edited by Donald E. Morse and Csilla Bertha – scholarly essays


****½ Improbable Frequency, by Arthur Riordan and Bell Helicopter – Myles na gCopaleen and Schrödinger
****½ The New Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction, edited by Dermot Bolger and Ciaran Carty – short stories by new writers
**** A Game of Sharopened Knives, by Neil Belton – De Valera and Schrödinger
**** Odd Man Out, by F.L. Green – base for the classic film
***½ Green Shadows, White Whale: A Novel of Making Moby Dick with John Huston in Ireland, by Ray Bradbury – uneven but interesting

Science Fiction
***½ The Secret Visitors, by James White – aliens in Portballintrae
***½ The Green Gene, by Peter Dickinson – you can tell they’re Celts by their skin colour
*** The Rising of the Moon, by Flynn Connolly – women fighting repression in a future theocratic Ireland
*** Darkness Audible, by Graham Andrews – short shories with linking narrative
** Masters of the Fist, by Edward P Hughes – the only fertile man in the post-Holocaust world gets to impregnate all the women of the village

***** The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien – my favourite of his writings
***** Thud!, by Terry Pratchett – not explicitly about Northern Ireland but it’s not difficult to work it out
****½ The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson – classic fantasy, though the Irish setting is rather incidental
**** At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien – generally regarded as his masterpiece
**** The Prize in the Game, by Jo Walton – interesting Cuchulain treatment
**** Master of Earth and Water, by Diana L. Paxson and Adrienne Martine-Barnes – Finn MacCool treatment
**** The Hounds of the Morrigan, by Pat O’Shea – good fantasy novel, for younger readers
**** The Compleat Enchanter, by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt – last section is another Cuchulain yarn
**** Preacher: Proud Americans, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon – vampire’s eye view of the Easter Rising
***½ Emerald Magic: Great Tales Of Irish Fantasy, ed. Andrew M. Greeley – fifteen fantasy stories, most published here first
***½ Gossamer Axe, by Gael Baudino – time-travelling rock musician rescues her girlfriend
***½ Red Branch, by Morgan Llewellyn – yet another Cuchulain treatment
*** Too Long a Sacrifice, by Mildred Downey Broxon – more time-travelling, from ancient times to the Troubles
*** Most Ancient Song, by Kenneth C. Flint – unexceptional fantasy novel
*** Carolan’s Concerto: a toast to the three sacred pastimes of old Ireland: Music, Storytelling and Whiskey, by Caiseal Mór – Celtic Mist
**½ The Meeting of the Waters: Book One of the Watchers Trilogy, by Caiseal Mór – more Celtic Mist

Posted in Uncategorised

Edward Gibbon on climate change

Along with my various other reading projects I’m slowly working through Gibbon, who may not be a laugh a minute but has a surprising number of jokes. I was struck by his conclusions regarding climate change, which are more or less along the right lines if not quite for the right reasons:

Some ingenious writers have suspected that Europe was much colder formerly than it is at present; and the most ancient descriptions of the climate of Germany tend exceedingly to confirm their theory. The general complaints of intense frost, and eternal winter, are perhaps little to be regarded, since we have no method of reducing to the accurate standard of the thermometer the feelings or the expressions of an orator, born in the happier regions of Greece or Asia. But I shall select two remarkable circumstances of a less equivocal nature. 1/. The great rivers which covered the Roman provinces, the Rhine and the Danube, were frequently frozen over, and capable of supporting the most enormous weights. The barbarians, who often chose that severe season for their inroads, transported, without apprehension or danger, their numerous armies, their cavalry, and their heavy wagons, over a vast and solid bridge of ice. Modern ages have not presented an instance of a like phenomenon. 2/. The reindeer, that useful animal, from whom the savage of the North derives the best comforts of his dreary life, is of a constitution that supports, and even requires, the most intense cold. He is found on the rock of Spitzberg, within ten degrees of the Pole; he seems to delight in the snows of Lapland and Siberia; but at present he cannot subsist, much less multiply, in any country to the south of the Baltic. In the time of Caesar, the reindeer, as well as the elk and the wild bull, was a native of the Hercynian forest, which then overshadowed a great part of Germany and Poland. The modern improvements sufficiently explain the causes of the diminution of the cold. These immense woods have been gradually cleared, which intercepted from the earth the rays of the sun. The morasses have been drained, and, in proportion as the soil has been cultivated, the air has become more temperate. Canada, at this day, is an exact picture of ancient Germany. Although situated in the same parallel with the finest provinces of France and England, that country experiences the most rigorous cold. The reindeer are very numerous, the ground is covered with deep and lasting snow, and the great river of St. Laurence is regularly frozen, in a season when the waters of the Seine and the Thames are usually free from ice.

My first reaction is, I wish I could write like that; and my second is to note the usual bigotry against the “savage of the North” with “his [not her] dreary life”. But apart from that, it is a passage with interesting resonances.

Of course, Gibbon is probably unaware of the Gulf Stream warming northwestern Europe (Benjamin Franklin described it a few years later, in 1786). It’s also fairly clear to the modern reader that human destruction of their habitat alone is enough to drive the reindeer and elk beyond the Baltic, rather than the trees providing some sort of continental cooling effect as Gibbon seems to believe. Like Gibbon, I do wonder a bit if the cold was exaggerated by Roman writers – he footnotes Ovid describing frozen lumps of wine being served at dinner, but I would observe that the Danube was a cold place for Ovid in more ways than one, and he was also a master of figures of speech.

Data are few and dubious, but the “Little Ice Age” generally described as having lasted from about 1500 to 1850 seems to have let up – and warmed up – specifically at the time that Gibbon was writing. It’s not at all clear if this took Europe back up to the temperature levels of the first or second century, though. Yet his fundamental conclusion, that the major cause of climate change was anthropogenic and related to environmental exploitation, is well ahead of his time, even if the details are mostly wrong.

Posted in Uncategorised

March Books 11) The New Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction

This is a collection of short stories, all but two of which are set in contemporary Ireland, by new Irish writers none of whom I had previously heard of (apart from one, Eileen Brannigan, who I went to school with in Belfast). The whole collection is rather a good perspective of life in Ireland today, and reminds me a bit of the way Frank O’Connor depicted the very different Ireland of the 1920s and 1930s in his stories – indeed, one or two here seemed to have direct resonances with his work, and all are in his shadow.

I wouldn’t want to push that too far, though. The difference with O’Connor and his time is that this collection has much less writing about work and religion, and much more openness about dysfunctional relationships – between men and women (now that we can admit that sex happens outside marriage, and that marriages do not always last for life), and between men (mostly) and alcohol. Sixty years ago, Michael McLaverty was able to write a funny story about the schoolteacher making poteen under the nose of the authorities; it’s difficult to imagine anyone writing a funny story centering around alcohol now.

There is another recurrent dysfunctional relationship, that between the Irish and the countryside, which kills (bodily or spiritually or both) the viewpoint characters of several of these pieces (including in Eileen Brannigan’s story). Where the writers of the mid-twentieth century were a bit suspicious of modernity and romanticised the rural virtues of the past, the writers of the early twenty-first seem to have gone the other way; the country is a dangerous, unforgiving, lonely place, and we humans mess with it at our peril.

The two least successful stories are the two set outside the present day – a vignette on the execution of Erskine Childers which can’t quite decide if it is drama or documentary, and an sfnal piece written as a far-future scholarly analysis of a nude picture of Pamela Anderson rescued from the ruins of Los Angeles, which is not as good as the description makes it sound (and that is not saying much). The others are all excellent.

I do have one fairly serious gripe with the presentation. It is not made clear what relationship these stories actually have with the Henessy Literary Awards. Apparently they were all first published in the Sunday Tribune, and thus were also somehow eligible for the Hennessy process, but I think the editors, Dermot Bolger and Ciaran Carty, could have spared a couple of sentences to clarify what the set-up is.

Posted in Uncategorised

March Books 10) Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy

I’ve had this one on the shelves for ages, and eventually it bubbled to the top of not one but two of my reading lists simultaneously. I have previously read both War And Peace and Anna Karenina, and I think the first thing to say is that Resurrection is an easier read – shorter, for a start, and with fewer characters who also appear to have fewer variations in their names. The thirty-something Prince Nekhlyudov, who is Tolstoy here as Levin is in Anna Karenina, is serving as juror in a murder trial when he recognises one of the defendants as the girl he seduced ten years before. She is wrongly convicted, and Nekhlyudov’s consciousness and conscience are suddenly activated with respect to the horrible injustices of the penal system and of Russian society as a whole. He follows her to Siberia in an attempt to compensate her.

The social commentary is biting and convincing, and the account of life with convicted criminals and revolutionaries pretty vivid, and likewise his commentary on elite attitudes and behaviour. It’s unfortunate that Nekhlyudov, the viewpoint character, is rather a bore. His decision to marry Katusha seems based much more on what will make him feel better about himself, rather than any attempt to discern what her needs may be. (She never seems very keen on the idea, even before she meets Simonsen.) One feels that, rather than try and write a character with a story, Tolstoy has put himself into the book as a commentator on society. I’m sure it caused quite a stir among his fans in the 1890s, but the ideas that prisons might be unpleasant places or the judicial system imperfect are hardly news to today’s reader. (Are they?) Nekhlyudov’s sudden discovery of these facts seems rather artificial.

Whatever its flaws, though, it’s prettuy digestible and might be a good jumping-off point for readers who haven’t otherwise tried Tolstoy.

Posted in Uncategorised