Archive for July, 2011

I read It’s a Don’s Life by Mary Beard, based on her ‘A Don’s Life’ blog for the TLS, back in April.  April!  I know I’m behind on writing my reviews but really, that’s rather extreme.  And it is a book I have wanted to review, having had so much fun reading it, perhaps because it was all new to me.  Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge; I have never studied classics and know nothing about academia but am fascinated by both subjects, so, yes, pretty much the perfect book choice for me!

Perhaps because I am a blogger, I loved that the book was not so much a book based on the blog as the blog in book form.  In other instances, I have found this approach annoying and unreadable but I thought it worked surprisingly well here.  Beard’s purpose with her TLS blog is to educate rather than chronicle any kind of detailed personal narrative so the book is really just a compilation of interesting tidbits of information: thoughts on recent discoveries related to her field, discussions of academic rivalries and debates, and ponderings on blog-related controversies.  The inclusion of comments from her readers adds an interesting dimension.  There are countless volumes out there of collected newspaper columns by so-and-so but how often do such books include the letters to the editor provoked by those columns?  Seeing the generally intelligent and rather well-written responses was always interesting and more often than not highly entertaining.  The anonymity of the internet allows for some fabulously impolite remarks: one response described Beard as “a semi drunk chain smoking old female lecher more suited to running a fifties bar in Soho than gracing High Table.”  What a gloriously seedy description! 

I know nothing about classics.  Truly, nothing.  I soaked up every word completely uncritically, utterly fascinated by this topic that has been completely absent from my education.  My lack of any instruction in Latin always makes me feel hopelessly uneducated and uncultured, particularly as I’m the only person in the family whose education has this gap (my school eliminated it from the curriculum the summer before I was due to begin taking it).  I completely do not understand Latin jokes and that makes me sad.  Academia, however, I am much more used to reading about and Beard’s thoughts, on the Cambridge admissions process in particular, were very interesting.   

Overall, a very fun and informative glimpse into a world I’m completely unfamiliar with.


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Saturday in the Park

I went for a lovely walk along the beach Saturday morning, basking in the sudden but very welcome appearance of the sun.  After a grey and miserable summer so far, we’re more than eager to get outside when the weather is warm and bright!

One of the best things about the path along the beach is that on one side you have this:

While on the other side you have a park (most of which, admittedly, doesn’t look quite this pastoral):

Also, there are bunnies that live in the brambles.  Ridiculously tame bunnies, it should be noted, that come in a rainbow of colours that are not frightened off by anything and so are very laid back when it comes to being photographed:

It was such a lovely way to start the weekend!  The weather is supposed to be just as nice today, though for variety’s sake I’ll think I’ll probably head into the woods for a stroll rather than down to the beach.  Ideally with my camera in hand – this good weather must be documented!

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Library Lust

credit: Keith Scott Morton

If you’re going to have an absurdly large bedroom, you may as well make use of the space by installing bookshelves!  I am also very much taken with the printed fabric used on the headboard, bedskirt, and drapes, the walkout balcony and the tufted bench at the foot of the bed.  It’s such a bright, airy room that I could see wanting to read here day or night.

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Friday Potpourri

It’s all about book lists this week!

Summer’s Biggest, Juiciest Nonfiction Adventures Nothing Daunted was already on my TBR list but I’m also really intrigued by Turn Right at Machu Piccu.

Back to School Reads: 13 Big Books to Read While the Leaves Fall – Autumn is coming whether we like it or not.  NPR has pulled together a list of the Fall’s new releases to get us (a bit) excited about the end of summer.

Kamin Mohammadi’s Top 10 Iranian Books From 10th-century epics to 21st-century graphic novels, the author picks the books that best illuminate a country too little known in the west

The 100 Greatest Non-fiction Books – I don’t particularly agree with this list, but it is an excellent example of a well-made book list and that at least is admirable.  And it certainly offers variety! 

Amanda Craig’s Top 10 Romantic Comedies and Jilly Cooper’s Top 10 Romantic Novels – because all the non-fiction lists needed to be balanced out with something romantic and fun.  Very happy to see that Austen and Trollope show up on both lists.

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I don’t read a lot of plays.  I never have really, aside from a few pretentious phases and the required readings for school, but I do generally enjoy the experience when I pick one up.  A good play is powerful, entertaining and, when read, short – always a winning combination.  But the trouble is picking the good ones, isn’t it?  As usual.  Well, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) by Ann-Marie Macdonald, written in 1988 before she turned her hand to novel-writing, is definitely a good ‘un. 

Queen’s University Assistant Professor Constance Ledbelly (such a Shakespearian name!) is, when not ghost-writing academic papers for her boss, working to decode a manuscript that she believes was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’.  And in their original forms, in the manuscript, she is convinced that both plays began as comedies, that there was a Fool there to guide the characters to happy rather than tragic ends:

What if a Fool were to enter the worlds of both ‘Othello’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’?  Would he be akin to the Wise Fool in ‘King Lear’?: a Fool who can comfort and comment, but who cannot alter the fate f the tragic hero?  Or would our Fool defuse the tragedies by assuming centre stage as comic hero?  Indeed, in ‘Othello’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ the Fool is conspicuous by his very absence, for these two tragedies turn on flimsy mistakes – a lost hanky, a delayed wedding announcement – mistakes too easily concocted and corrected by a Wise Fool.

When Constance falls into the worlds of the plays – pushed over the edge after learning that the man she loves a) is marrying another, b) is taking the job she had wanted at Oxford, and c) has arranged for her to take a position at a university in Saskatchewan(“Regina.  I hate the prairies.  They’re flat.  It’s an absolute nightmare landscape of absolutes and I’m a relativist.  I’ll go mad.”) – she has a chance to see just what would have happened had fate dealt the lovers kinder hands.

You know you’re a true geek when Shakespeare jokes get you going.  Soon after arriving in ‘Othello’,Constance notices a strange new pattern to her speech:

I speak in blank verse like the characters:
Unrhymed iambic pentameter.
It seems to come quite nat’rally to me.
I feel so eloquent and…[making up the missing beats] eloquent.
My god.  Perhaps I’m on an acid trip.
What if some heartless student spiked my beer?!

And when Constance descends on ‘Romeo and Juliet’, my goodness, what Shakespearian comic device isn’t used?  Awful bawdy jokes, mistaken identities, women dressed as men, men dressed as women hoping to seduce women dressed as men…it’s all quite wonderful.

While comic relief is in ample supply, so is intelligent commentary on both plays and, particularly, the females at the centres of the tragedies.  Here, Desdemona is no pale, weak beauty but a blood-thirsty combatant, wooed by Othello’s gory descriptions of his previous victories, wedded to the warrior she wished to be.  Though Iago is thwarted in his initial manipulation of Othello by Constance, Desdemona proves to be as susceptible and jealous as her husband.

And Juliet, after the secret of her marriage is revealed just as Tybalt and Mercutio are about to fight, is as far from flying into an Othello-like jealous rage as possible.  After a day of marriage, the magic is gone and both she and Romeo are on the lookout for a new pretty face, in love with the concept of romantic, passionate, forbidden love (and, in Juliet’s case, death) and completely immune to the charms of married life.  Unfortunately for Constance, now disguised as a boy, the pretty face both Romeo and Juliet fall for is her own.  

Macdonald has written a very fun, very imaginative story of how an academic, transported into ‘Othello’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’, manages to turn the tragedies into comedies while learning far more about Shakespeare’s heroines than he ever revealed.  Quite delightful and highly recommended.

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I finished reading The File by Timothy Garton Ash yesterday and just had to talk about it immediately.  It is a fascinating, bravely personal examination of the secretive, fearful culture of the GDR and the way it shaped the lives of those touched by the Stasi, be they employee, informer or, in Garton Ash’s case, subject.  After retrieving his own Stasi file once they were made available in the early 1990s, Garton Ash sets out to gauge its accuracy (comparing it against his own diaries and memories of the period) and to track down and interview those who informed on and monitored him, a particularly intriguing task for a historian who, after all, arrived in Berlin in 1978 as a student studying the city under Hitler, when German citizens had to choose whether to resist or yield to the totalitarian state of the Third Reich.  But once he arrived, he realised that the present was perhaps more interesting than the past:

I was fascinated because here, in East Germany, people were actually living those endlessly difficult choices between collaboration with and resistance to a dictatorship.  Here I could pursue the Stauffenberg/Speer question in, as it were, real time. (p. 44)

Happily, there were no sinister consequences for Garton Ash as the result of information passed on by informants.  He did not suffer at anyone’s hands and was more intrigued by why they became informants and how they’ve lived with the consequences of that decision than why they informed on him personally. 

I have never read extensively on the GDR so some of the numbers were staggering for me.  The sheer scale of the Stasi’s operations and the cooperation they received from the general population is overwhelming:

The sources the Stasi themselves considered most important were the ‘unofficial collaborators’, the IMs.  The numbers are extraordinary.  According to internal records, in 1988 – the last ‘normal’ year of the GDR – the Ministry for State Security had more than 170,000 ‘unofficial collaborators’.  Of these, some 110,000 were regular informers, while the others were involved in ‘conspiratorial’ services, such as lending their flats for secret meetings, or were simply listed as reliable contacts.  The Ministry itself had over 90,000 full-time employees, of whom less than 5,000 were in the HVA foreign intelligence wing.  Setting the total figure against the adult population in the same year, this means that about one out of every fifty adult East Germans had a direct connection with the secret police.  Allow just one dependent per person, and you’re up to one in twenty-five.  (p. 74)

The interviews with the informants, while predictably awkward, were surprising in how openly the informants talked to Garton Ash about their actions.  They all had their reasons, their rationalizations to protect themselves from their own recriminations, their own consciences, perhaps even more than Garton Ash’s.  Some began as idealists, some were hoping for improved standing and future benefits in return for their assistance, and some were being blackmailed or coerced.  To a man, their decision to inform was not a personal grudge against Garton Ash; there was no malice intended.  It was something they did for themselves, for their own reasons.    

His interviews with the more reticent former-Stasi officers are even more interesting.  Unlike the informers, these men know they ruined lives, had people killed or imprisoned for political differences that now mean nothing.  But that was their world, their job.  Some harboured doubts then and regrets now while some remained convinced that all they had done, they had done for the best.  But who is brave or foolish enough to be a dissident in a totalitarian state, when an ideological quibble could see your entire family’s future ruined?  Or worse?  Are you an evil person for protecting yourself while knowing that your organization is doing wrong, even if you aren’t personally doing anything to its victims?  Are you worse if you believe that it is not wrong but absolutely necessary, as you’ve always been told?

There is no definitive answer to those questions and never will be and Garton Ash comes away with no conclusion, just profiles of people who touched his life without him ever having known it, without, thankfully, having damaged it:

What you find here, in the files, is how deeply our conduct is influenced by our circumstances…What you find is less malice than human weakness, a vast anthology of human weakness.  And when you talk to those involved, what you find is less deliberate dishonesty then our almost infinite capacity for self-deception.

If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person.

But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human.  Yet the sum of all their actions was a great evil.  It’s true what people often say: we, who never faced these choices, can never know how we would have acted in their position, or would act in another dictatorship.  So who are we to condemn?  But equally, who are we to forgive?  (p. 223-224)

I think what made this so special for me, aside from just being informative, were all the personal details Garton Ash includes.  It is a memoir of his time there as a young ‘bourgeois-liberal’ (as his file described him), struggling to define his identity and career path even as much darker struggles are taking place all around him.  And it is the story of an older man looking back on the youth he once was and trying to remember and identify with him:

What the Stasi’s Lieutenant Küntzel called my ‘legends’ were in truth less cover stories than different strands of an unformed life.  Like the confused, ambitious twenty-three-year-old graduate students who now come to my rooms in Oxford to ask me for life advice, I wanted to do everything at once: to write a doctoral thesis about Berlin in the Third Reich, and a book about East Germany, and an essay about the Bauhaus, and brilliant reports for the Spectator, and probably to be George Orwell, Foreign Secretary and war hero too.  Cover stories that I told myself.

The diary reminds me of all the fumblings, the clumsiness, the pretentiousness and snobbery – and the insouciance with which I barged into other people’s lives.  Embarrassment apart, there is the sheer difficulty of reconstructing how you really thought and felt.  How much easier to do it to other people!  At times, this past self is such a stranger to m that where I have written ‘I’ in these last pages I almost feel it should be ‘he’. (p. 37)

There are delightful, lighter moments too.  How, for example, to resist the arrogant, comedic stylings of twenty-something males?

As we sat up at 1 am, drinking in the flat next to Mark’s office, the telephone rang.  Heavy breathing, then the line went dead.  Half-an-hour later, the phone rang again and a voice said: ‘I see you have a guest.’  We guessed they were bored, or simply wanted us to go to bed.  Knowing the place to be bugged, we took pleasure in loudly deploring the latest article by ‘Edward Marston’, my pseudonym in the Spectator.  ‘Did you see Eddie Marston’s latest piece, Tim?’  ‘Yes, terrible wasn’t it?  He must have been drunk again.’  I ask Frau Schulz to enquire if there is a file on this enemy of the people but, alas, the central card index has no entry under Marston, Edward.  (p. 67-68)

The File is a gripping personal history centered on great ethical questions with no clear answers.  Garton Ash’s writing is superb: thoughtful and skilled, passionate and compelling, he does a wonderful job illuminating all the players in his little story in a balanced, sympathetic way, without the reader ever forgetting that this is his story.  All this happened not that long ago, not so far away, and not to a political firebrand or revolutionary but to a twenty-something history student.  And to many others.

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg and myself that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!


Naming Nature: The Clash between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon
I don’t read a lot of science books normally, mostly because it never occurs to me to wander into that section of the library.  But when I do venture down that aisle, I always find the most interesting things, like this book about taxonomy.

And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris by Alan Riding
Highly recommended by the library assistant at my local branch.  Aside from one course at university, I really haven’t read that much about occupiedParis. 

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg
Reviews of this were everywhere when it came out last year and, really, was I ever going to be able to resist trying something with that subtitle?  The opening line is promising too: “Pimps make the best librarians.”


The Smell of Summer Grass by Adam Nicolson
A chronicle of the years spent by the author and his wife (Sarah Raven) restoring Perch Hill farm in Sussex and making a life there with their family. 

The Complete Essex County by Jeff Lemire
Where does a young boy turn when his whole world suddenly disappears? What turns two brothers from an unstoppable team into a pair of bitterly estranged loners? How does the simple-hearted care of one middle-aged nurse reveal the scars of an entire community, and can anything heal the wounds caused by a century of deception? Award-winning cartoonist Jeff Lemire pays tribute to his roots with Essex County, an award-winning trilogy of graphic novels set in an imaginary version of his hometown, the eccentric farming community of Essex County, Ontario, Canada.

A House in Fez by Suzanna Clarke
Recommended in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust to Go, when can I ever resist a book about renovating a home in an exotic locale?

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