April 22, 2014

Debt: The First 5,000 Years – David Graeber

Debt was recommended to me by a good friend, but as there was a queue for it at the library its taken months to get to me in the reservation system. The author, Graeber is one of the intellectuals behind the Occupy movement and an academic anthropologist.

His premise is that money did not evolve out of a barter system but out of a debt system as a means of measuring debt. In addition he looks at the harm that debt across power imbalances can cause and how throughout history governments have controlled this. Its clear from the introductory chapter that he is firmly against prosecuting an unfair or unjust debt.

Throughout the book however he makes it clear that debt is also part of how societies have been bound together throughout history, how small debts hold small communities together and that even some bigger debts between unequals have formed a useful purpose. But he also looks at how debt was involved in facilitating slavery, in putting prices on the priceless and trapping people into actions that they may only be doing because they are desperate. One this I also found of note was how often the need for women drove these practises.

He also looks at solutions stretching into history, not only our conventional bankruptcy but also debt jubilees and restrictions on the length of time a debt can be followed up for.

Whilst I’m not sure that the most extreme examples he discusses are necessarily true, its an interesting viewpoint on our monetary, debt and power systems and certainly raises the question of where power truly lies.

April 14, 2014

Boneland – Alan Garner

BonelandI loved The Weirdstone of Brisingamen as a child, partly because when I first read it I lived very near Alderley Edge, and am very familiar with many of the places that they travel through on their myth-filled journey. I was lent this by a friend at a time when writing up anything I read was far too much effort, but fortunately reread it on the journey to return it a few years later (I’m a terrible book-borrower).

The first adjective that springs to mind about this book is weird. Its written as one continuous body of text, no chapters and reflects the confusion of Colin, the main character as he tries to untangle his mental state and history.

*** Spoilers ***

I felt that the book never really crystalised to explain itself well, even when an impression was given that Colin himself understood and had reached some level of peace with the truth. The Weirdstone was strange enough but as a child’s book it had to explain itself clearly. Possibly because Boneland is aimed at adults  it feels no need to clearly explain itself and even when familiar with Garner’s world it is still vague.

An interesting and satisfying read though, and well worth reading if familiar with Garner’s other works.

April 6, 2014

Love Lessons – Jacqueline Wilson

As a child and young teen Jacqueline Wilson was one of my favourite authors. I read her books as they appeared in the local town library or bookshop and one of my cherished possessions is the handwritten letter she wrote back to me when I was about 10. So when during discussion about the widespread opinion of her, commentators I know and respect were critical I was surprised and made a mental note of the title of the books which caused opposition.

Love Lessons is of course that book and the basic premise is Prue, a socially isolated 14 year old girl, starts at the local rough school where she doesn’t get on with anyone and “falls in love” with her art teacher, “Rax”. The problematic aspect is the degree to which this is reciprocated and the way the fallout from this is presented. Rax constantly acknowledges that what is going on is irresponsible  of him but at no stage does he actually stop anything from happening in an effective manner. Any reasonable adult reading of this quite clearly gives the viewpoint that he is grooming her, and at the end when them running away together is in the balance its shown how well he did this.

In addition the school as ruling institution presumes that it is Prue who has led her teacher astray so must be sent away from the school. There is no acknowledgement that as her teacher and an adult he had the responsibility to prevent this from happening and instead encouraged it. As young adult fiction I would expect a bit more sympathy for Prue and at least some reflection that she’s happy with the outcome, rather than a “by chance” lifting of stress and a feeling that she’s been punished.

Interestingly Wilson handled this much better with Girls In Love where there was another crush on an art teacher but he sensitively and kindly reinstated boundaries. Its a shame that she then went on to write this.

April 1, 2014

Night and Day – Virginia Woolf

Night and Day is one of Woolf’s early novels, examining the lives, burdens and choices a set of people in their twenties make under the constraints of their family circumstances and temprements.

There are five major characters, and the text moves between their thoughts as well as external discriptions through changes of scene. This can be disorienting at first, but is very well-written and enables the reader to understand views on both sides of the argument.

The main themes of the book are the hunt for a place in life and passion, as the characters realise who they are and what they want from life. I found it very telling that a pivotal character, Mary, remained single and was forging a successful life as a campainger first for women’s sufferage and then later for an unspecified cause. Her freedom and the flexibility the more conservative figures manage to carve for themselves is a good example of a happy ending not having to be marriage.

I did find Ralph Denham’s behaviour problematic though, it was clearly borderline stalking behaviour, not to mention a bad example of “if he treats you badly its because he likes you” in tandom with the developing of a relationship based on mutual respect and common goals.

Katharine‘s love of mathematics in the face of a literary family also made me smile. Everyone has to rebel, even if they start with a small matter. And of course rebelling to mathematics is inherently a good idea.

She had come out into the winter’s night, which was mild enough, not so much to look with scientific eyes upon the starts, as to shake herself free from certain purely terrestrial discontents. Much as a literary person in like circumstances would begin, absent-mindedly, pulling out volume after volume, so she stepped into the garden in order to have the starts at hand even though she did not look at them.

March 16, 2014

The Impact of Science on Society – Bertrand Russell

The Impact of Science on Society
The Impact of Science on Society is the publication of a series of lectures Russell gave in the late 1940s He was at this stage a well-respected philosopher mathematician and social critic, trying to explain the new world that had been created following the use of the atomic bomb along with social change that had occurred in his lifetime.

Of course from this perspective a single world government controlled under scientific principles looked to be the only solution which would avoid world annihilation, and he explored the ways that this could be as positive a move as possible. I found the interest in this book as evidence that the “establishment” were/are trying to create a new world order to be slightly amusing. Especially as surely by now we would have the one government if that was the aim, not the continued drawing of the lines between the USA and Russia over sixty years later.

He gives a few draft “rights of man”, which is a stark reminder that the now well-known human rights were being drafted in this era, and how very necessary they were in the wake of world war two. This is tied with a reflection of how very much society and government had changed in his life, and a reflection that people in communities working for a common purpose as they had during the war were often happier than they were in peacetime.

He also explores the limits of science, that the need to exploit finite raw materials will always place constraints on growth, and that in the absence of world wars we will need to find a new way to place brakes on population growth.

There is an inherent optimism in this book that humanity will choose reason over death, and I think he would be happy to discover that the Cold War did end, and for the time being at least reason has been chosen over death, even though he was wrong as to what shape that reason would take.

March 12, 2014

Arctic Dreams – Barry Lopez

Artic Dreams I ordered Arctic Dreams after being intrigued by Claire’s review. The wonderful library system brought me a copy from the Bath Central Library to my little village library for a very reasonable £1 so I could pick it up after the toddler singing group. Then just as I was losing momentum (its quite a hefty book) it was on the BBC Radio 4 A Good Read, which also gave it a strong recomendation.

I loved it. Wonderfully rich descriptions of everything from the behaviour and movement of animals, through how the landscape itself changes as ice melts and reforms and the human aspect of the Arctic, Eskimos (Inuit and other groups) and Western man. Its not a quick read as I lingered over the descriptions, given such a rich description to allow visualising a foreign landscape.

There are no pictures in this book, just sketch maps to enable understanding of how locations link together. For the landscapes and the appearance of the animals, Lopez’s descriptions are sufficient. The are rich and describe movement in a way a picture could not convey.

Rather than being a coherent book it is more a collection of nine, roughly 50 page, essays with a prologue and epilogue to tie them together. Each essay is on a single theme, and whilst I flagged slightly reading “Migration”, the following chapter “Ice and Light” which described the visual landscape and how the ice moves was fascinating.

[on icebergs] I stare for hours at these creatures I have never seen before. They drift past in the spanking beautiful weather. How utterly still, unorthodox and wondrous they seem.

I didn’t expect to enjoy the human chapters as much as I did, but the tales of how Arctic explorers knowingly risked their lives for a combination of motives and how this has led to modern-day knowledge of the Arctic was interesting. Still more interesting however was Lopez’s attention to the native people of the Arctic, past and present. He acknowledges the advantages arcehology has in a climate where decay takes decades and centenaries rather than months and year, and discusses with respect his dealings and travels with the modern-day Inuit without romanticising their way of life.

The book acknowledges myths and legends about the Arctic without dismissing them, and suggesting explanations where these are possible

And if you have ever seen a polar bear swimming 30 feet below the surface in clear water, watched it stroke and glide, turn and roll down there like a sea otter, you would not wonder that bears could fly.

As I read this book I couldn’t help but think of the Philip Pullman His Dark Materials Trilogy, and wondered whether Pullman had taken from this work at all. In addition I noticed a reference I had previously been unaware of, a William Parry was a famous Arctic explorer who held the record for farthest North travelled for 48 years.

March 5, 2014

Unfinished: An Essay on Typography – Eric Gill

An Essay on TypographyI wanted to like this. Gill’s passion was infectious and made the subject matter not only one of design but also one of class and the difference between an artist and a craftsman. But somewhere in the middle when it went on and on about the details of the formation of different letters I lost the drive to keep reading. This also coincided with exciting books I’d ordered arriving by post and through the library system so I’ve decided its time to return it.

February 23, 2014

Theatrical Interval – Fallen Angels

I saw Fallen Angels at the Theatre Royal in Bath. Its a Noël Coward play written in 1925 with a backdrop of the swinging twenties in London, and reasonably wealthy characters. The set is purely in the sunroom of the flat of the Sterrolls which for this production was between Art Deco and Victorian in style.

Noël Coward was known for his witty scripts and the basic premise of this play as a farce in itself provides good light comedy. Combined with this is the act which most shocked audiences at the time, in which the respectable middle-aged ladies, unable to cope with their own emotions get completely drunk on-stage and have a row. This maintains its humour although no longer as shocking to see on stage, with the audience laughing at the on-stage antics.

The maid (Saunders) is definitely the stronger of the supporting characters, with the best lines and corralling the drunk main characters along, but despite the men being absent for most of this play I think it still manages to fail The Bechdel Rule (unless the interspacing lines about the alcohol they’re drinking to forget him count). Its a sign of the times the play was written in of course, and the men barely talk about anything other than the women too.

February 22, 2014

Seraphina – Rachel Hartman

Seraphina coverSeraphina is a novel about family and racism in a divided community. This is set up in the prologue when we really do start “at the beginning” with the birth of Seraphina and an appropriate amount of shock.

The book then doesn’t mention what was so shocking but instead begins by setting the scene in a pseudo-medieval city with an implausibly talented and senior fifteen year old heroine. We firstly view the racism through the prism of it being something “others” suffer, although there is always compassion for them, and then the prism twists slightly and it all becomes much more personal.

There is of course a love interest, although I was satisfied that this was concluded realistically as I spent a good portion of the book worried that something utterly infeasible would happen. Friendship and family ties is a much stronger theme though, even as decisions made due to desire are acknowledged.

I like the magic involved and how much of it is just taken for granted as “technology” except by the fearful mob leaders. Of course such things wouldn’t remain wondrous for long and would quickly be assumed to just be how life is. These days we all carry a portal to a vast database of knowledge in our pockets.

February 19, 2014

Trickster’s Duology – Tamora Pierce

Tricksters ChoiceAnother Mark Reads project which ends today! Whilst I’m very familiar with these books, the chapter-by chapter discussion has made me consider them in an entirely different fashion.

This is a well-crafted pair of books, not a quartet as Harry Potter had shown publishers that YA fiction did not have to be under 200 pages a book. Writing the “Daughter of the Lioness” books and not making them very like any of the prior series was impressive.Tricksters Queen

It is another coming of age story, and we start with a bit of teenage rebellion as Aly who has been trained all her life as a spy in the fantasy setting of Tortall isn’t being permitted to make that her career by the newly cautious and protective George Cooper. Instead she runs away, is captured and ends up in the divided county of the Copper Isles, enslaved and trying to work out how to survive and prove herself to take advantage of the circumstances.

I had never before considered the problematic issues that Nawat has with consent, pushing Aly’s boundaries and ignoring what she says. Or how Aly never stops to consider that her attitude to life comes in part from being brought up by Tortall’s elite who changed their country for the better in a generation. Of course Alanna had had to fight such restraints a generation earlier though.

That said, I still enjoy these books for what they are: a spy drama and a reclaiming of a native land by an oppressed people. With magic and gods and immortals obviously.

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