My #reading: June 2016

“This is to be a sort of diary or book of notes. When I have finished filling these pages, I shall burn them. But if they should happen to survive, lets hope they fall into the hands of some curiosity-driven chatterbox of a writer; what’s it to me? The world concerns me not at all, nor do human beings, nor these scribblings. I write for my own amusement, snatching a moment here and there from my painting, like a thief or some sort of scoundrel”

While in the USA, exploring bookshops, I made a longish list of all kinds of fiction and non fiction curios to track down when I returned home. Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser is a beautifully bound book filled with treats – visual and poetic – including gorgeous colour art reproductions adhered to the pages. It is something special.

The meandering essays give the reader pause to reflect on Van Gogh, Manet, Rembrandt, Bruegel and a host of lesser known artists. Walser’s sensibilities and concerns remind me very much of his contemporary, Hermann Hesse. His observations on the character of both the artist and of the dilettante as well as the differences between painters and poets are the most enjoyable stretches in the book. It is a work to savour and re-read with many observations that others apparently find eccentric, unframed or idiosyncratic. They seemed like precious stones on a pebbly beach to me and I urge you to seek him out.

He doesn’t see his path clearly, but also doesn’t consider this absolutely necessary; he strikes out in some direction or other, and one thing leads to the next. All paths lead to lives of some sort, and that’s all he requires, for every life promises a great deal and is replete with possibilities enchantingly fulfilled.

I have not come across this Swiss writer before but found it the most enjoyable of reads and will read more in coming months. After you read this book, ask yourself, what artist has not wished for a patron like the countess?

“Everyone should Walk.”

Another curio is the diary written by the German film director, Werner Herzog, after he received a call from Paris informing him that his close friend Lotte Eisner was deathly ill. Herzog wanted to believe that walking to the French capital would keep Eisner from death*. With just a jacket, a compass, and a duffel bag he set out on a three-week pilgrimage from Munich in the winter of 1974. Of Walking In Ice  was not written for publication (and occasionally this is very obvious) but has moments of great beauty in the bleakness of winter. As you would expect from a director of this stature, he creates images that resound in his diary of this walk in winter towards death. There are, “many many ravens flying south” with him to point out.

Herzog’s observations about people and places are vivid and insightful. They are haiku-like and often sublime. His comments about the contested region of Alsace-Lorraine are interesting, especially the observation that “the wit of the people here stems from settling in one place for a thousand years”. This idea, of deep roots, when we live in such an era of movement, is one that truly interests and is worth more thought. 

Fans of Herzog’s films should check this book out.

*I recommend you check this date to learn of his success or otherwise.

“There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.”

“Who could know if Felix would ever have friends? Friendship, companionship: it so often defied logic, so often eluded the deserving, so often settled itself on the odd, the bad, the peculiar, the damaged.”

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is an extraordinarily engaging, albeit bleak, rumination on friendship, self-loathing, abuse and suffering. The story opens conventionally enough and we start to get to know four friends commencing careers in New York City. Malcolm, Willem, JB, and “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past” Jude, who becomes the centre of the novel. His story is painful and often I wanted the author to just stop telling me about Jude as it is a brutalising and painful tale but never anything other than compelling. He needs his friends more than most of us ever would. The following passage is particularly powerful:

“And then he hears, so close to his ear that it is as if the voice is originating inside his own head, Willem’s whispered incantation. “You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs. “You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organisation; you volunteer for a food kitchen. “You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore. You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way. “You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it. “You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again. “You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.”

I recommend that you read how the author wrote her novel in a “fever dream” after you have finished. I read many of her passages multiple times but still finished this doorstop in just over a week. Many readers will relate to Yanagihara’s insights into the life of her four characters from their mid 20s to early 50s. She has written a very special novel and one I only recommend to the very, very strong. It is compelling but one needs a support group on completion, so harrowing is the experience. Many times, the novelist’s insights into friendship seem real in a way readers will wish was more usual in their own lives:

“Everything about him and his context was constantly changing: his hair, his body, where he would sleep that night. He often felt he was made of something liquid, something that was being continually poured from bright-coloured bottle to bright-coloured bottle, with a little being lost or left behind with each transfer. But his friendship with Jude made him feel that there was something real and immutable about who he was, that despite his life of guises, there was something elemental about him, something that Jude saw even when he could not, as if Jude’s very witness of him made him real.”

“As he gets older, he is given, increasingly, to thinking of his life as a series of retrospectives, assessing each season as it passes as if it’s a vintage of wine, dividing years he’s just lived into historical eras: The Ambitious Years. The Insecure Years. The Glory Years. The Delusional Years. The Hopeful Years.”

A Little Life is a must read novel that is just too painful to recommend without a caveat about being wary of what is contained within.

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“Not surprisingly, having analysed the full genomes of humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas and built gene trees across thousands of separate linkage groups, we’ve found that the human species appears to be most closely related to chimpanzees across roughly two-thirds of our genome.22, 23 But for a remaining third of our genome, the data reveal that we are not the chimpanzee’s closest cousins. For these genes, humans are either genetically more closely related to gorillas than to chimpanzees or chimpanzees are genetically more closely related to gorillas than to humans.”

Ancestors in our Genome: The New Science of Human Evolution by Eugene E. Harris is a good introduction to the topic but I found myself a little disappointed with the lack of detail in the chapters dealing with human origins. This may not be a completely fair judgement. I have been reading and thinking widely about population genetics and human origins and needed this book two years ago, when it would have been a revelation.

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The book is strongest in the early chapters dealing with our genetic relationship with gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees. The speculation about population crashes is also very interesting and often it is amazing to think we were so close to extinction, like all those early model humans have become. The diagrams are useful in explaining where this divergence took place, for example, estimating when the human-chimpanzee split took place. Harris is particularly good at explaining how the science has unfolded and the different contemporary viewpoints about our evolution via his own experience of the field over many years. I do wonder how many people realise how recent some of our most visible, yet superficial, human difference are. 

However, for most of the genes that were under selection in Europeans, lightening of the skin appears to have occurred surprisingly recently, between 19,000 and 11,000 years ago, well after the split between Europeans and Asians.

One could not read this book and think caging a chimp or bonobo in a zoo is an acceptable treatment of these close cousins.

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It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive, well-structured overview of a fourteen-hundred year period of history than Turning Points in Middle Eastern History by Professor Eamonn Gearon. It is a serious commitment of time for the listener but considering the importance of the Western World knowing more about this region’s history, completely worthwhile. Intellectually, the content is fascinating and although I struggled with names (and ignorance of salient points in Middle Eastern history) made considerable progress with understanding the richness of what is available for further exploration. The sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 is evoked so successfully it felt like a much more recent event and I would like to find out more about the period of the 12-13th century in this region of the world. The idea of the university is particularly well-explored by Gearon.

The following video advertisement gives you a brief overview but please, do not be put off by the style or Prof. Gearon’s suit, his lectures are hugely entertaining and cleverly, respectfully objective. I found the opening introductory moments to the audiobook, about the lecturer’s family background, professional and personal context, very illuminating.

Highly recommended.

“Looking back at the worst times, it always seems that they were times in which there were people who believed with absolute faith and absolute dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter that they insisted that the rest of the world agree with them. And then they would do things that were directly inconsistent with their own beliefs in order to maintain that what they said was true.”

The Meaning of it all: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist by Richard Feynman makes me want to read everything written by the amusing Richard Feynman (1918-88). His wisdom transcends theoretical physics in this book (and one would imagine, in his back catalogue). How can one not like such an irreverent approach to destroying his own ‘authority’ during the three-part public lecture at the University of Washington in 1963 on diverse topics including the dishonesty of politicians as well as the conflict between science and religion this book is based on:

“I dedicate this lecture to showing what ridiculous conclusions and rare statements such a man as myself can make. I wish, therefore, to destroy any image of authority that has previously been generated.”

These lectures should feel dated but do not as Feynman explores timeless themes. The title refers to the scientist, in this case Feynman, thoughtfully participating in his democracy and the issues of his times. The tenor of the three lectures is suggested by the titles: “The Uncertainty of Science”, “The Uncertainty of Values” and “This Unscientific Age”. Listening rather than reading was an advantage as one gets a better sense of Feynman’s verbal, amusing lecturing style. I will track some of these down to read in the not to distant future.

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The Universe in a Nutshell (2002) by Stephen Hawking is a sequel of sorts to his very well-known bestseller A Brief History of Time published in 1988 (which I never finished back then or since). Chapter 6, concerning genetics and technology, surprised me as I expected the book just to be focused on Hawking’s usual fare: quantum physics, black holes, the possibility of time-travel. 

I enjoyed listning to the audiobook – my preferred way of consuming popular science – and wonder how much more we have learnt since the decade or so since publication that would make new edition worthwhile? For example, I wonder about the concept of a multiverse (the term was coined as early as 1895 but in a different context) and would like to hear some more thinking on this from Hawking (and others).

The BFG is another joyful novel by Roald Dahl to enjoy with the kids. We wanted to read it again before the film is released. I cannot imagine Mark Rylance being anything other than a magnificent giant. The introduction by Lucy Dahl, Roald’s daughter, reminiscing about her Dad’s ability to tell them convincing stories makes the film tie-in addition of the novel worth buying. My daughters researched why the novel was dedicated to ‘Olivia’ and discovered the sad story of Dahl’s loss.

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A most enjoyable part of the story is when Sophie reads dream labels written by The BFG who has not had the benefits of schooling. The boys dreams are just that, boy dreams and they do not make much sense to Sophie at all. We really laughed aloud at these. We also noticed, and I suspect it was my fault for reading with a slight German accent, that the BFG sounds, although his babbles nonsense, a little like the Grand High Witch in The Witches.

It has taken almost seven months to read The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien aloud to my two daughters; we felt a sense of achievement and sadness when we finished. The last time I read the novel was just prior to the first of Peter Jackson’s films. I did this consciously fearing that after the films the story would never feel the same again. Reading the book aloud made me appreciate Tolkien’s love of landscape, trees, plants, gardens, mountains and natural features of all kind. The extensive use of geographic terms was very notable. There are many, many memorable moments in the novel but our favourites, in no particular order: meeting Strider in the Prancing Pony; Sam singing ‘The Lay of Gilgalad’; Frodo being wounded on Weathertop by the Black Riders; meeting Gollum; Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli’s long journey chasing the orcs who had kidnapped Merry and Pippin; meeting Treebeard; when Gandalf fights the Balrog; and any time Galadriel was present, especially with her mirror. We really liked Faramir but the episode and dialogue with Eowyn was lame said the children and I agreed. The scouring of the shire seemed more evil than anything else that happened in the novel. This has been the most enjoyable of bedtime treats.

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What have you been reading?

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