50 Questions about Reading the Classics: Part 1

classicsclub3The Classics Club has posted a survey asking members 50 questions about their experience of reading classic works of literature. Here are my ramblings on the first 25 questions. 

  1. Share a link to your club listhttp://bookertalk.com/classics-club-list/
  2. When did you join The Classics Club? How many titles have you read for the club? I joined in August 2012 which means I have until August 2017 to read 50 titles. So far I’ve read 18 and given up on two.
  3. What are you currently reading? I have a confession – my current book isn’t from my classics club list. It’s All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu, a novelist from Uganda
  4. What did you just finish reading and what did you think of it? Confession number 2 – my most recent reading was Fear by Gabriel Chevalier, a novel set  in World War 1. . It’s been called a ‘rediscovered classic’ because it was first published in 1930 and then disappeared so I could have claimed it as a classics club read except that I hadn’t put it on my list. It’s uncomfortable reading at times because most of the narrative takes place at the Front and as we all know, soldiers in the trenches endured unimaginable conditions.
  5. What are you reading next? Why? Oh dear, that is one of those questions I find hard to answer because I don’t plan ahead. I choose usually according to my mood at the time. Whenever I plan, I end up changing my mind so I’ve stopped doing it. I know at some point between now and January 5, I will be reading Daisy Miller and Washington Square by Henry James since that was the book which turned up in the latest club spin. But as i’ve already written, I’m not relishing the prospect.
  6. Best book you’ve read so far with the club, and why? This would be L’Assommoir by Emile Zola, part of his Rougon-Macquet series. This is the third book from the series I’ve read and it was just as gripping as Germinal and La Bete Humaine. It’s a graphic story of a woman’s attempt to find happiness amid the grinding poverty of a working class district in Paris. Powerful writing.
  7. Book you most anticipate (or, anticipated) on your club list?  I wanted to choose some classics that reflected one of my other interests, world literature. I added Things Fall Apart  by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe to my list because it is one of the first novels by an African author to receive global critical acclaim.
  8. Book on your club list you’ve been avoiding, if any? Why? I’m not avoiding anything as much as maybe deferring the moment when I read the three books by Virginia Woolf.
  9. First classic you ever read? This is lost in the mists of time – I do remember reading Black Beauty but whether that’s the first I’ve no idea.
  10. Toughest classic you ever read? War and Peace I found hard going – not only because it was so long but I just couldn’t keep all those Russian names straight in my head. It didn’t help that Russians have three names and Tolstoy kept using them interchangeably so I was always struggling to work out who was being featured.
  11. Classic that inspired you? or scared you? made you cry? made you angry? Zola’s Germinal made me both angry and tearful. This is a novel about the desperate conditions of a mining community in Northern France and since my ancestors were coal miners, the book had a personal resonance. I kept thinking of my grandfather and great grandfather working in similar conditions.
  12. Longest classic left on your club list? No idea – Wives and Daughters looks long (and the print size is small) but whether it’s longer than Old Curiosity Shop I don’t know. Dickens can be rather wordy.
  13. Oldest classic you’ve read? Oldest classic left on your club list? Oldest one I’ve read is a play, Medea by Euripdes which dates from 431BC.  A surprisingly good experience. Oldest one left is Canterbury Tales from 1381 – I’ve started it but its the kind of book I can read only in short spurts
  14. Favorite biography about a classic author you’ve read — The Unequaled Self, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys was riveting. See my review here 
  15. Which classic do you think EVERYONE should read? The one THEY want to read – who am I to impose my ideas on someone else.
  16. Favorite edition of a classic you own, if any? My very battered copy of Middlemarch from university. It’s an orange cover Penguin full of tiny scribbles in the margins. I remember clearly sitting for hours reading this, desperately trying to get through it in time for a tutorial
  17. Favorite movie adaption of a classic? There are many TV serialisations I can watch repeatedly (Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth or Martin Chuzzlewit with the brilliant Tom Wilkinson as Mr Pecksniff ) but not many films. Two adaptations of E M Forster novels come to mind as ones I rate highly – Howard’s End with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins and A Passage to India  with, I think, Peggy Ashcroft
  18. Classic which hasn’t been adapted yet (that you know of) which you very much wish would be adapted to film.  L’Assommoir would make a good film, it has some wonderful set pieces
  19. Least favorite classic? One that I didn’t’ finish – Bleak House. It has a superb opening
  20. Name five authors you haven’t read yet whom you cannot wait to read. None – a lot on my list have been around for decades, or centuries in some cases. I think these authors can wait a few more years before I get around to them
  21. Which title by one of the five you’ve listed above most excites you and why?  If i was that excited I would have read them already wouldn’t I?
  22. Have you read a classic you disliked on first read that you tried again and respected, appreciated, or even ended up loving? ( I was ready to throw Portrait of a Lady in the waste bin but had to finish it because it was part of a literature course. Second time around (yes I had to do a second read in order to write the essay) I warmed to it more.
  23. Which classic character can’t you get out of your head? Scobie in Heart of the Matter by Grahame Greene, a man who tries to keep his moral centre but ultimately proves powerless
  24. Which classic character most reminds you of yourself? I wouldn’t wish that on any character
  25. Which classic character do you most wish you could be like? None of the people in the books I’ve read seem to have very happy lives so I have no desire to emulate them.

Books for the festive season

sundaysalonNewspapers in the UK pay scant attention to books normally but there are two occasions in the year when the question of book purchasing moves way up the agenda for their publishers.

Half way through the year we start seeing features recommending the books we should take on our summer holiday. For some reason newspaper arts editors seem to think we are interested in knowing what books actors and politicians will be reading. I’m always suspicious when I see the titles chosen by the latter —they sound so dull and worthy that they’ve probably been scrutinised by political advisers desperate to make their chap (or chapess) seem intelligent.

And then we get to the second point in the year, the one we are in right now. In the run up to Christmas you can be sure to find articles giving you suggestions of what to buy as gifts for grannie, little James and Agatha and impossible-to-buy-for brother.

This week saw the Daily Telegraph publish their ‘Books for Christmas’ annual feature which promised to bring a selection of ‘the year’s best books’ to the notice of readers. There are the usual autobiographies of minor actors and pop stars and the kind of compendium books that only ever make an appearance this time of the year. I’m going to cross every finger and toe I possess that no-one in my family follows through on some of their recommendations ; I absolutely do not want a biography of Beyoncé, nor can I imagine myself whooping with delight upon unwrapping 100 Things You Didn’t Know About Maths or 101 Two Letter Words which apparently sets the dictionary words of two letters in a rhyming quatrain.

The fiction selection promises far richer offerings. The columnist Tim Martin bypasses many 2014 published books by big name authors or that we’ve seen popping up in fiction prize lists. So Ian McEwan is out as is David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest, as Martin looked instead for titles that “took little for granted, questioned established structure and kept the reader perpetually off balance.'”. The resulting list is a blend of lesser known names with some that will suit people who like a challenge.

Here is his selection

  • Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill: charts the breakdown of a marriage using fragmentary narrative style
  • Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer: described as “a doomy, hilarious, thoughtful Cambridge comedy”
  • Shark by Will Self: a prequel to last year’s novel Umbrella
  • The Wake by Paul Kingsworth: this was long listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. It’s written in a pseudo-Saxon form of English so might be best read after a few glasses of ginger wine
  • Your Fathers, Where are They? And the Prophets Do They Live For Ever? by Dave Eggers: a novel about a lunatic who kidnaps his way up the American chain of command.
  • Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère: a tale of a Russian prankster, author and politician
  • How to be Both by Ali Smith: shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize (and should have been the winner IMHO)
  • Tristano by the Italian writer Nanni Balestrini: this has to be the oddest title on this list. Each copy is unique since the sentences forming the text are shuffled, giving unique variations running into 16 digits. Nevertheless Martin says it is oddly compelling.
  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustevedt: a multi voice novel about a female sculptor who publishes her work under several male aliases
  • Look Whose Back by Timur Vermes: I think he is a German author. This novel is a comedy in which Hitler is reincarnated in modern-day Germany where he becomes a You Tube sensation
  • Outline by Rachel Cusk: a short debut novel about a writer teaching in Greece
  • End of the Days by Jenny Erpenbeck: a story based on the concept of one-life-multiple-outcomes
  • Orfeo by Richard Powers: mixes current themes like bio-terrorism with a passion for classical music
  • In the Light of What we Know by Zia Haider Rahman: Martin describes this as the year’s most interesting first novel, a ‘gobbling up of ideas around the financial crisis, war, terrorism, philosophy’

Do any of these pique your interest? From this list I think I’d be most inclined to go for the ones by Zia Haider Rahman and Jenny Offill. Which reminds me that I haven’t put my request list into my family yet. I’d better get going…..


How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering,

There’s a crack in everything,

That’s how the light gets in.

The lyrics of this Leonard Cohen song ‘Anthem’  provided the inspiration for the title of the ninth Chief Inspector Gamache novel by Canadian bestselling author Louise Penny. The cracks have steadily deepened over the course of the novels featuring the head of the Sûreté du Québec. How the Light Gets In sees the Chief Inspector in a particularly vulnerable position in his battle against the corruption he believes has penetrated to the heart of the police force.

Most of his best agents have been despatched to other duties, replaced by a team that is hostile and insolent towards him. Of more personal concern to Gamache is the fracture in the previously close relationship he enjoyed with his police partner Jean-Guy Beauvoir. They had worked together for 15 years, Gamache as the mentor and then the prospective father in law, until  a dramatic shoot out in the last novel, destroyed Beauvoir’s trust in his leader. Now he has gone over to Gamache’s arch rival, Chief Superintendent Francouer, a man with few scruples who callously manipulates Beauvoir into drug addition in order to further his plan to take full control of the Sûreté.

HowTheLightGamache is not the kind of man who will sit back and wait for this to happen. But after a potentially violent confrontation in police headquarters even his confidence wavers.

Armand Gamache had always held unfashionable beliefs. He believed that light would banish the shadows… He believed that evil had its limits. But looking at the young men and women staring at him now, who’d seen something terrible about to happen and had done nothing, Chief Inspector Gamache wondered if he could have been wrong all this time. Maybe the darkness sometimes won. Maybe evil had no limits.

Fortunately he still has a few friends in high places when he needs them. But none of them could ever have imagined the monstrous nature of Francouer’s real ambition and the revelation of a conspiracy that goes to the heart of the country.

While How the Light Gets In develops into a battle between good an evil on an epic scale, Penny makes her readers wait for the denouement by introducing side stories that seemingly have no connection to the main plot. This main story involves the murder of an elderly woman who turns out to be the last surviving member of a set of quintriplets born during the Great Depression, whose lives were lived in a bubble of fame. Another narrative thread involves the suspected suicide of a middle aged government worker. Both events turn out to be connected though we don’t discover how until the final chapters of the book.

As in many of the earlier novels in the series,  the plot requires Gamache to return to the small village community of Three Pines and to renew his friendship with its inhabitants. Gabi and Oliver who run the bistro; Myrna the bookshop owner; Clara the artist and the acerbic highly talented poet Ruth Zardo all get roped in to help Gamache solve the murder. Their friendship with Gamache puts them in the path of danger however as the forces seeking to destroy Gamache follow him to this remote village. Can the villagers protect Gamache? Will Beauvoir be able to rescue his chief? Will Gamache ever see the light of goodness return?  I’m not about to spoil the suspense by revealing the answers – you’ll just have to read the book for yourself.

Read it for its carful plotting. Read it for its delightful portrayal of a community and its quirky inhabitants. But more especially read it for Penny’s subtle portrayal of her central character. We’re used to fictional police chiefs who have their faults and their demons. Gamache doesn’t come from the same damaged mould as Morse or Wallander but that doesn’t render him any the less interesting. He is a man who exudes kindness and respect; a man moreover of absolute integrity who believes that there is goodness in the world and its his job to make sure it never gets extinguished.

Armand Gamache had always held unfashionable beliefs. He believed the light would banish the shadows. That kindness was more powerful than cruelty, and that goodness existed, even in the most desperate places. He believed that evil had its limits.



A new edition of How the Light Gets In was published in paperback in the UK in November 2014. Thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing me with an advance copy via NetGalley.

Many of the earlier books in the series can be read out of sequence but before reading How the Light Gets In you’ll want to read its predecessor The Beautiful Mystery which explains the breakdown between Gamache and Beauvoir.

The View from Here – Books from Finland

imageWelcome to the world of books. In the last feature in this series we were enjoying the sunshine of the Caribbean. Now we’re heading to a country more associated with snow than sand. We travel to Finland to hear from Soila Lehtonen, Editor in Chief of Books from Finland, an online journal of writing from and about Finland. 

What is your journal about?
Books from Finland is a modest but persistent attempt to make Finnish literature more known abroad…. an English-language literary journal, founded in 1967, now published by FILI/Finnish Literature Society. It was a printed journal until the end of 2008, then went online. Our (free) online version is very accessible – and in many ways easier to make, too. Me and my colleague in London, Hildi Hawkins, do the actual work. It is financed (modestly) by the Finnish Ministry of Education, but an independent editorial board and the editors choose what to publish.

In short: ‘The journal is aimed at professionals in the field of books and literature, publishers, editors, translators, researchers, students, universities, Finns living abroad and audiences generally interested in Finland and Finnish literature.’

The idea is to serve anyone interested about Finnish literature, by publishing articles, reviews of books, sample translations of both fiction (both contemporary and classic) and non-fiction. We’re not trying to constantly emphasise the ‘Finnishness’ of it all, even though we feature Finnish literary life and books published in Finland. We try to introduce good literature, well-written and original – and books with little chances of becoming huge international bestsellers: contemporary and classic poetry and non-fiction, for example.

The quality of translation is of course vital: our translators are professionals and native speakers of English (and their number has always been limited…). As Finland is a bilingual country, they translate from Finnish or Swedish, some of them from both.

Q. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in Finland? For example, books from other parts of the world, or indigenous authors?

viewfromhereContemporary Finnish fiction has become popular during the past two decades: lots of new authors, new readers. This applies to prose as well as to poetry. (Social media certainly has further helped to make reading, and talking abot reading, more popular, and the media like authors, too.) In the 1980s and early 1990s, for example, translated foreign fiction was flourishing, whereas nowadays much less gets published.

Q. What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of literature by Finnish authors?

So many decades have passed since I was at school that I don’t remember that much…! But definitely Aleksis Kivi (d. 1872) was a compulsory author.

As Finland is a young culture and Finnish slowly developed into a literary language, Kivi was the first Finnish-language fiction author of lasting artistic quality – he had to create a literary style of his own, in which he excelled: his poetry contains the most beautiful verses ever written in Finnish. Kivi died insane in poverty, as there were pompous didactics and academics who disapproved of his perceptive realism in his best novel, Seitsemän veljestä (Seven Brothers). I think at school we were mainly amused by his ‘funny’ language.

Q. Who are some of the major writers from Finland that you think deserve more attention? Why don’t we hear more of these writers given the huge popularity of Scandinavian literature in recent years?

As I’m not an author or a publisher, ‘huge popularity’ is not something I personally greatly value per se…. particularly if it relates to crime literature, for which Sweden in particular is now internationally known. Crime literature sells well, in Finland, too. I don’t think ‘sellability’ is among the most important qualities of literature, or any other art form either, for that matter. Filmmaker David Cronenberg has said about the difference between entertainment and art: ‘Entertainment wants to give you what you want. Art wants to give you what you don’t know you want.’ Personally, I want to read fiction which delights me with its language, perception, philosophy, originality, humour, intelligence, and I dont’t seem to find interesting combinations of these in contemporary crime literature.

I was writing this just before the Frankfurt Book Fair, the commercial literary mega event: 180 books by Finnish authors have been published in German this year, and as the Fair is an international event, and Finland is Guest of Honour there, the following years will undoubtedly draw more attention to Finnish literature.

There are some amazing examples of internationally successful Finnish fiction authors: Sofi Oksanen, Arto Paasilinna, Tove Jansson (of the Moomin fame, died in 2001), Rosa Liksom…. their works have been translated at least into 20 languages (Jansson’s, 44), including English. Works by Kristina Carlson, Tuomas Kyrö, Kari Hotakainen and Johanna Sinisalo have all been published in English recently.

Q.  Tell us about some of the themes and traditions of literature in your country?

Realism, realism. There was a carpenter in the 1970s who began to write fiction, i.e. novels based on his own life as a carpenter in the countryside. He published c. 30 thick autobiographical, naturalistic novels about his life as a carpenter in the countryside, and they sold very well.

This has changed of course a lot during the past few decades: new authors, new writing, new readers.

Q. Is there a noticeable difference between literature from Finland and that from your near neighbours Sweden, Denmark?

Our neighbours are Russia, Sweden and Estonia: three different cultures and languages (even though Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language and resembles Finnish — but not enough to be understood unless you’ve studied it). As Finland is a bilingual country, a large number of those who speak Finnish as their mother tongue are able to read literature also in Swedish (compulsory language in schools and universities). Finnish authors with Swedish as their mother tongue are of course read in Sweden (even though it must be noted that Swedes in general know a lot less about Finnish literature than one might expect…) Contemporary Swedish, Russian and Estonian fiction books get translated to some extent, but unfortunately I myself have spent the last decades reading Finnish books so intensely that I’m not able to characterise them..

Q. Should the big book publishers and book chains do more to make literature in translation available?

I think the situation in Europe has changed remarkably during the past 20 years, at least from the viewpoint of a small culture and language: recently Finnish publishers have begun to be more active in marketing their authors abroad, and there now are literary agents in Finland (previously there were hardly any). There are more competent literary translators as well: FILI has been organising training seminars for translators for years. All this reflects the fact that interest in translation from smaller languages in large countries has grown: it’s not so long ago when the percentage of translated fiction published in England was not more than two, it now has grown to four I think. Small steps, but definitely there, so yes, publishers too have done more.

 Want to Discover More Countries?

The View from Here series features guest articles on the literature of many countries including India, Sri Lanka, Canada. For the complete list, visit the View from Here page 

Interested in Being Featured?

If you’d like to do a guest post to represent your country, please leave a comment with info on how to contact you.

A hit and a maybe

FearIt seemed appropriate to begin reading a novel about the horror of World War One on the day when Europe paid tribute to those who lost their lives in the conflict. Ive read several books by British authors so wanted something that was written from the perspective of one of the other participants in the theatre of war. My choice was Fear by the French author Gabriel Chevalier. 

Better known as the author of Clochemerle, a satire about a villlage French morals, Chevallier was called up at the start of the War and, though wounded, managed to last until the end. Fear, published in 1930, tells the story of his alter ego Jean Dartemont. 

Dartemont spends the war in fear. He cowers in trenches and tries  to escape duties . He is scathing of the officers in charge and of the people in France who viewed the war as golly adventure at first. It’s this voice and the graphic descriptions of life at the front that caused controversy when the book was published.

Having had the benefit of almost 100 years to reevaluate the war, some of Chevalier’s attacks may no longer have the same effect but I’m not far enough into the novel to judge yet.  It could turn out to be less interesting than I’d hoped or an undiscovered classic. 

Burnt shadowsOne book that didn’t turn out the way I expected was Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie, an author from Pakistan. This was a novel I found in a library sale and bought thinking it as about the effect of the nuclear bomb attack on Nagasaki. The book actually opens on the day the bomb falls. What surprised me was how Shamsie took this event and made it the starting point for a novel which ranges across several theatres of war – India, Afghanistan and then USA and its war on terrorism. Shamsie captured the issues well and showed their impact on the two families but never allowed this to become simply a family saga. Well worth reading.

Classics Spin lands on Henry James

The latest spin challenge by the Classics Club landed on number 13 which means I have ended up with Washington Square & Daisy Miller by Henry James.

HenryJamesThis is not exactly welcome news since my last – actually my only – experience with him wasn’t a huge success. I read Portrait of a Lady for a literature course I took about three years ago. It was so S..L..O..W. We had about two pages in which the central character seemed to do nothing other than stand in a doorway and look onto a group of people in a garden. I think there may have been some action in the form of the opening of an umbrella but then, maybe that was just wishful thinking.

To be fair, I read it a second time and warmed to it rather more though I wouldn’t race to do another read. Another person taking the same course raved about James and kept insisting that I should give him another chance. She recommended The Ambassadors as the best example of his later works but I didn’t think I was up to a full blown novel right away so I opted for the novellas Washington Square and Daisy Miller.  

Washington Square, based on a true story, was published originally in 1880 as a serial in Cornhill Magazine and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. It’s described as a structurally simple tragicomedy about the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, unemotional father.

Daisy Miller dates from 1878 and it portrays the courtship of a beautiful American girl called Daisy Miller by Winterbourne, a sophisticated compatriot of hers. His pursuit of her is hampered by her own flirtatiousness, which is frowned upon by the other expatriates when they meet in Switzerland and Italy.

I’ll either become a fan of James by reading these or will have my feeling confirmed that he’s just not my kind of thing.

Spinning the Classics Club Spin

classicsclub3The Classics Club Spin is beginning again. i’ve failed miserably with the last two efforts but since we have until early January to read the selected book, I think I’m in with a good chance of success.

The rules are the same as always:

  • Pick twenty unread books from your list.
  • Number them from one to twenty.
  • On Monday a number will be drawn.
  • That’s your book, to read by 5th January.

I’m going to mix things up a little by adding my own rules:

  • My 20 books have to be from my TBR pile (i.e., I already have them in my possession). That way I get to clear some space in my bookshelf … or floorspace.
  • And just to make life a little more fun (challenging), I have chosen titles that I’ve owned for more than three years.

So here is my list. Many of them are re-reads – books I read when I was much much younger and feel I didn’t fully appreciate or understand at the time. These are marked **

  1. Candide – Voltaire 1759
  2. Vicar of Wakefield – Oliver Goldsmith 1766
  3. Evelina – Frances Burney 1778
  4. Mansfield Park  – Jane Austen 1814**
  5. Old Gariot – Honore Balzac 1835
  6. Wives and Daughters – Elizabeth Gaskell 1864
  7. Can You Forgive Her – Anthony Trollope (re-read) 1864
  8. The Way we Live Now – Anthony Trollope 1875
  9. Dr Thorne – Anthony Trollope 1858
  10. Adam Bede – George Eliot 1859**
  11. Daniel Deronda – George Eliot 1876 **
  12. A Parisian Affair and other stories – Maupassant 1880s
  13. Washington Square/Daisy Miller – Henry James 1880
  14. The Diary of a Nobody – George Grossmith 1888
  15. The Riddle of the Sands – Erskine Childers 1903
  16. The Voyage Out – Virginia Woolf 1915
  17. Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton 1920
  18. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf 1925 **
  19. The Pursuit Of Love – Nancy Mitford 1945
  20. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1985

Which one do you think I would enjoy the most?

A favourite classic poem

classicsclub3The Classics Cub question last month asked us to name a favourite classic poem. I got my list down to three poems fairly quickly but then procrastination set in so I actually missed the deadline. I don’t think anyone is going to chastise me too much however.

My shortlisted three were all poems penned by one of the big six Romantic poets.

The Chimney Sweep by William Blake. As with much of Blake’s work in Songs of Innocence and Experience, there is a serious message underneath the apparent simplicity of the form. It starts as if the young chimney sweep is giving evidence in a court of law and ends with a message which seems to be directed at us the jurors, alerting us to the way we can be complicit in the kinds of social injustice about which the boy talks.

Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley. No-one could label this poem,with its intricate terza rima rhyme scheme of being ‘simple’. It’s a meditation on the natural world but Shelley does more than just dwell on its beauty, he invokes as a power to help rekindle his creative abilities. Reading this you also get a sense of how these Romantics saw themselves as the means to effect change in their society. Shelley doesn’t want his ideas to die with him, but to inspire and influence others.

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of a prophecy!

It’s a powerful poem but my ultimate choice of a favourite is Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth.

Having been to the ruins of the Abbey many times and also walked up to the spot on the cliff face where Wordsworth sat when looking down onto to the abbey,  as I read the poem I can picture the scene he saw more than 200 years ago.   I like to think of him there in quiet solitude contemplating the view in front of him and reflecting on how much influence his love of nature has had on him throughout his life.

While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

It’s a love that changed over time, from the heady pleasures of his youth to a deeper appreciation of nature’s power to nurture him through dark moments in his life.  His more mature self feels a sense of the sublimity of nature, of “something far more deeply interfused whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.”

This isn’t a poem whose meaning is instantly apparent; you have to read it several times but it does reward re-reading and re-reading.


Snapshot: November 2014

Day 1 of November 2014 and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.


The ObservationsI started reading The Observations by Jane Harris today, a copy of which has lingered on my TBR for more than a year. It’s a very readable historical mystery novel set in a remote manor house in Scotland. Such a contrast to the book I just finished reading, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie which opens on the day a bomb falls onto Nagasaki.  Hiroko Tanaka, a young factory worker survives the attack but will forever bear the scars on her back resembling birds in flight. We follow her subsequent history in India on the brink of partition to Pakistan and ultimately New York in the aftermath of the September 11 attack. It’s a well crafted novel about allegiance and estrangement, betrayal and atonement. I’d not heard of the author but liked the idea of the plot when I saw the book at a library sale.


Also purchased in the sale was an audio version of Rebecca’s Tale,  a 2001 novel by Sally Beauman which is a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I have mixed feelings about the trend now to write prequels and sequels to successful novels by authors long since dead. Often it seems to me they are trying to cash in on a past success instead of coming up with their own ideas. But this novel was approved by the Daphne du Maurier estate so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a bit slow so far.


Since I am writing this while returning to the UK from China, my viewing options are limited to the options provided on the in-flight entertainment system. These have become so much better in recent years – remember the days when you had to crane your neck to see the tiny screen suspended from the ceiling and everyone had to watch the same film? Now most of the main carriers provide seat back systems with many options. Sadly, by the time I eliminated all the science fiction choices and the films which involve people chasing each other in cars or with machine guns, the options were rather limited. I ended up watching The Fault in Our Stars based on the novel of the same name by John Green ( a book I have not read).

I was prepared for this to be a weepy, given its subject matter of two teenagers who are fighting cancer. I’m not sure whether it is the effect of being at altitude but I find I get much more emotional when I’m watching a film during a flight. Luckily the lights were dimmed so no-one saw the resultant blotchy face.

It had some stellar performances from the actors playing the teenagers, particularly Shailene Diann Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster. I also enjoyed the cameo performance by Willem Dafoe as the jaundiced author Peter van Houten. The weakest performance of all was by Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother. She played this role exactly as she played the botanist in Jurassic Park, which is to say, badly.

When safety rules don’t add up

imageSafety rules for airline passengers were once a simple matter of confirming that no one had interfered with your luggage and you were not carrying any explosives. Today any flight involves an endless array of questions, an undignified scramble to remove jackets, scarves and belts and a public display of your cosmetics and toiletries. Laptops must be removed from your bag so they can be electronically screened. But what about iPads? Yes in some airports, no in others. Shoes on or off? Depends on how busy the queue is it seems. Those are just some of the hurdles you encounter before you even set foot in the craft itself.

Once on board there follow yet more instructions. Not content with repeated warnings  to switch off mobile devices and electronic gadgets, the steward on my small domestic flight in the USA insisted I could not have my e reader on my lap during take off. It had to be in the seat pocket according to aviation law he said. There is no such law. When was the last time you heard that a flight malfunctioned because a passenger used a mobile phone during take off or landing? I can’t think of a single case even though airline insiders estimate they on a large flight there will be around 20 people who forget to switch off their mobile phone.  If these devices really are dangerous why are they even allowed on board?

Every day, millions of us are subjected to safety rules like these that don’t make sense. We are told they are for our protection but often the risk they are meant to safeguard against is minuscule. Do I really need to be told after a buying a take away coffee that I am carrying a hot drink? Apparently I am too stupid to work this out for myself so the carton carries the warning Caution Hot Liquid. All because a woman in America sued a take away restaurant she believed responsible when she burned her legs while holding the cup between her legs as she drove her car.

Examples like these form the basis of an engrossing examination of global safety and security instructions And regulations by Tracy Brown and newspaper science editor Michael Hanlon. In the Interests of Safety: The Absurd Rules that Blight our Lives and How We Can Change Them, looks at some of the insane rules developed in a risk averse and increasingly litigious world. The authors provide plenty of examples of the kind beloved by tabloids as illustrations of what they like to call “health and safety gone mad.” Bans on parents filming their own children in school plays and sports days, nail clippers removed from airline pilots because they are deemed dangerous (these are people who will shortly be in charge of a machine loaded with gallons of highly flammable fuel),  plastic bottles of soft drinks banned from aircraft while glass bottles of alcohol are permitted. Children not allowed to play conkers in school yards in case they hurt themselves but required to play contact sports like rugby or to throw javelins and shot putts.

We go along with these rules often because we imagine that so where’d there is evidence that they make life safer. The authors show however that often the evidence is contradictory, inconclusive or simply never existed. Some are made up on the spot by an overly officious official and then become urban myths, or are introduced by local authorities to avoid compensation-seekers draining their funds. In general, whenever officials cite terrorism laws to stop you taking photographs in public, a hospital refuses to tell you how your relative is after an operation, or a call-centre worker cites “data protection” as a reason not to tell you something innocuous, the authors recommend you challenge them to cite the rule and explain exactly how it applies. “The core philosophy of the book,” the authors say, “is ask for evidence.”

As amusing as this book is, there is a more serious message amongst the many examples so absurd I winced as well as laughed. The authors research revealed that some rules actually increase risk, creating situations more dangerous than the activity they were put in place to prevent. One Danish architect cited by the book believes that the spatial awareness skills of children are restricted because the equidistant rungs on playing equipment discourage them  thinking where to put their feet.

A book of this nature could easily become a rant about the increasing control being exercised over our lives by government bodies. The authors do temper their criticism however by acknowledging that there are many essential policies and regulations, often introduced as a result of pressure from trade unions, which make our workplaces and streets safer. Their argument isn’t against health and safety regulation as such but what they urge is a more considered approach.

In The Interests of Safety is published by Sphere. My copy was provided by the publishers.