Monday, April 30, 2007

Review: Youth by Joseph Conrad

Get it here.
I have developed quite a taste for Conrad recently. Many of his works are complex and highly symbolic, but this, by contrast, is a simple story of a young man setting out on his first sea voyage to the East, as remembered and narrated by his older self. Or is it quite so simple?
At the beginning he hints that the story is intended to describe a moral. In my opinion, it is this: The virtue of young men is that they see all problems as on opportunity to be a hero, born from the joy of testing ones strength. The tragedy of older men is that when they are old enough to see real problems to solve, and have the experience to solve them, they lack the strength and resolution to attempt anything heroic. That by the time you realise the virtue of youth, you have lost it.
Speaking as an older(ish) man looking back on a youth of tilting at windmills, I feel this is a wise observation. Now, if I just had the strength and resolution to do something about it...

I recorded this one, so at least I can prove beyond doubt that I have read it.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Review: Love Among the Chickens by P G Wodehouse

Get it here.
I have a great weakness for P G Wodehouse. I can list all his faults, but they are all out-weighed by his virtues:
• He is funny.
• His plots are complex, but magically resolve on the last page, without apparent effort.
• His phrase making is unique.
• You always know what to expect.
• You find yourself wishing that you spoke like the characters in the books.
• You find yourself wishing that you dressed like the characters in the books.
• You find yourself wishing that you LIVED like the characters in the books. Even their most serious problems seem so trivial...
Need I outline the plot? Passive, helpless man, led astray by comic buffoon, falls in love with girl with grumpy father. Offends father. Devises ridiculous plot to win favour of same. All seems fine, until... I am sure you can imagine the rest.
There is a great essay concerning P G, by George Orwell, which can be found here. It deals with the rather sticky period of his life when he was tricked by the Nazis into handing them a propaganda coup. Proof that Jeeves never existed in real life: he would have come up with a brilliant ruse to solve the whole problem. Involving stealing Hitler's collection of silver salt shakers, no doubt, whilst avoiding the amorous attentions of Eva Braun.

Read with great verve and vigour by Mark Nelson, this solo recording captures all the charm and fun of the story. I was told by a compatriot that only an english voice would do for Wodehouse. He seemed rather surprised to be told that P G, for much of his life, was an American.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Review: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

Get it here.
Laughing out loud in pubic places while listening to an iPod can be embarrassing. I therefore recommend that this book be read (or listened to) in private.
For such an old book, the humour is remarkably fresh; the 'cheese' episode in particular reminded me of Monty Python. And I use the term episode with consideration. There is no plot to speak of, other than the idea of three men having a holiday on a boat, with incidents and episodes thrown together, seemingly at random, with some very strange short passages which were evidently intended to be taken seriously. I was left quite mystified by the description of the signing of the Magna Carta, and wondered why Jerome included the discovery of a dead woman in the river, complete with tragic back story. Perhaps he had aspirations to be Dickens, who could have pulled it off.
These weaknesses are more than made up for by the humour - not a book to analyse, perhaps, but just to laugh at, and pass on. However, I was left dwelling on the books place in the pantheon of English light literature: it presents a mythical past to us now, describing a world that we long for, and which never really existed; when it was possible to hop in a boat with some chums and forget about the humdrum details of life, when all was high jinks and tomfoolery.

In the spirit of the above, I felt the next book should be 'Love Among the Chickens' by P G Wodehouse, whose imagined past is just as seductive, and even more lacking in reality.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Review: The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

Get it here
My general rule with understanding hard subjects, like philosophy (hard for me!), is to read the original source matter. I used to read books about, say, Plato, and got nowhere. Then I read Plato himself, and it all seemed rather straightforward. There is a reason that the original works have survived, and that commentaries are replaced every few years.
The reason I mention this, is that I tried this approach with the Tao, and it did not work. A proper understanding of the Tao was denied me by reading the Tao Teh King. So I hoped the Book of Tea would help me to with it. This failed too. I have ignored my other general rule of understanding hard things: take a long time.
Still, the Book of Tea has much more to offer. On one level it is a history of tea drinking in the East. But, more thoroughly, it is a silent attack on westerners who had too little respect for the traditions of Japan, and the East in general. The author is very anxious to present Japanese culture as the equal or superior to its western counterparts. The book lays bare the centuries of tradition that underpin the seemingly mundane activity of drinking tea, and draws parallels between this and the appreciation of art generally, with reference to Zen and Tao philosophy.
Between the lines I got a strong feeling that the author felt himself to be under siege from a foreign culture, and was fighting a losing battle to persuade his own people to preserve their own culture. So the book probably still has lessons to teach the west, and not all about tea.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Review: Tao Teh King by Lao-Tze

This is an ancient work of philosophy, and written in classical chinese. One should not approach such works expecting a ripping yarn, or even for clear advice. 'Always eat your greens' would be unlikely to last 25 centuries, which, on reflection, seems rather a pity. Mankind needs a bit of ambiguity in it core texts, and the Tao delivers, and with a brevity which, (speaking as someone who has hacked through Deuteronomy), could teach other ancient writers a thing or two.
It is, however, very hard to understand. This is a book to ponder and re-read, with the aid of background material, and time to meditate.
I can therefore offer no opinion on why the author, without further explanation, compares ruling a small state to cooking small fish. A quick hunt through wikipedia suggests that translation of this work is an especially difficult problem, and I wonder how much of the ambiguity is down to this.
My few thoughts, such as they are:
1. This seems to be a book aimed at the ruling elite, exhorting temperance, humility and restraint from rulers.
2. It is strongly in favour of allowing nature to take its course, advising against micro-management in rulers.
3. It seems to be pacifist.
4. Many other concepts seems familiar from the Sermon on the Mount, and Plato's Theory of Forms.
5. The book I was reminded of most often was The Prince, by Macchiavelli. Lao-Tze does not seem to have a great respect for democracy.
At the end I was surprised that my reading of a famous religious work should make it seem so worldly. Perhaps that reflects on me. I may have totally missed the point. To try and combat this, my next book will be The Book of Tea, by Okakura Kakuzo, which apparently, among other things, describes Taoism in a more accessible way.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Review: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Get it here
This is an epic book, and one that is much more a part of the American tradition than the European one. I get the feeling that while young Americans are reading (or feeling bad about not having read) Moby-Dick, Europeans are reading (or pretending to have read) The Outsider by Albert Camus. (A much shorter book - we Europeans have it easy!)
Like a good undergraduate, I was on the lookout early on for what the Whale 'symbolised' in the story. And early on, Mr Melville had a good chuckle at me by including a whole chapter on the vast number of things the 'whiteness of the whale' represented, and later poking fun at the whole concept of an allegory.
In fact, the whole work is so full of symbols and meanings, that as a whole it acts like a mirror, showing back to you whatever you want to find. The story could work as a meditation on faith, democracy, fate, subjective truth; whatever you like. It is also a straight story of whale hunting, and a fine history of that trade.
Humour is shot through the work like a seam of silver, and I noted a particular irony reserved for purveyors of absolutes. The prose style is golden - every trick in the book, deployed like a master craftsman, pages and pages of it, seemingly produced without effort or strain. And it all sounds so fresh - not a single cliche in evidence. Some images are so shockingly original, they feel like a splash of salt water: "... where the gaunt pines stand like serried lines of kings in Gothic genealogies; those same woods harboring wild Afric beasts of prey, and silken creatures whose exported furs give robes to Tartar Emperors..."
Towards the end, I was convinced that whether or not the whale was found was irrelevant. Which was when Mr Melville confounded me again by completing some of the most exciting passages imaginable, where all the knowledge gained in the rest of the book combines to allow a full understanding of the enormity of what is happening.
Sometimes it seemed, in my mind, to be a less of a book than a writers workshop, where Melville lays out all of his tools and materials, and proceeds to make a story before your very eyes.
This is a book that will present new meanings and perspectives with each re-reading. Something I will try to do in ten years time, when I expect I will find my review to have missed all the most important points. And in the next ten years, the same thing will happen.

Stewart Wills reads this with all his expected skill - in fact it was his reading of 'Lord Jim' that lead me to this recording in the first place. His characterisations seem effortless, with Stubb being perhaps the pick of the bunch, although as I write that, I feel that Ahab should have the crown. The highest praise I can offer is that some of the later, drama-filled passages actually sent shivers down my spine.

By my count that makes 13 books (and what books!) in 14 weeks, so I have a little catching up to make one a week. But not bad progress on the whole.

Next: Tao Teh King

Tuesday, April 3, 2007


I have seen a lot about twitter recently, and it seems a lot of fun. To save myself time, and to save myself from having to register, I have decided to compose all my twitter entries for the foreseeable future here:

6:30am woken by son
8:15am leave for work (listen to book!)
8:45am work
6:00pm leave for home (listen to book again!)
6:30pm get home - bathtime for kids, stories for kids, attacked by kids
8:15pm both kids asleep
8:45pm eat
9:00pm wash up
10:00pm try not to fall asleep
10:30pm fall asleep

For weekends, replace 'work' with 'attacked by kids'. What a glamorous life I lead.