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Tag: books

Gatsby and the greatest of all dreams

Sunday, 20 August, 2017 0 Comments

Our annual mid-August tradition of re-reading The Great Gatsby starts today. The custom began some 30 years ago during a magical mid-August holiday on what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York”. In nine short chapters, he captured an era and Long Island’s appeal for the hedonistic and the nostalgic. This paragraph is immortal:

“The old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

In the novel’s barely 50,000 words, Fitzgerald gave Americans an enduring meditation on their country’s most central ideas, visions and obsessions: the quest for a new life, the hunger for wealth and those “last and greatest of all human dreams.”


The Lord of Flies

Monday, 19 June, 2017 0 Comments

On this day in 1993, the novelist, playwright and poet William Golding died. Best known for his novel Lord of the Flies, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983 and also won the Booker Prize in 1980 with Rites of Passage.

The main theme of Lord of the Flies is the contradictory human desire for order — living by rules, peacefully and harmoniously — and the innate drive for power. A group of well-educated children descend into savagery when left to themselves on a paradisiacal island. Far from the constraints of modern civilization, they regress to a barbaric state.

“The pile of guts was a black blob of flies that buzzed like a saw. After a while these flies found Simon. Gorged, they alighted by his runnels of sweat and drank. They tickled under his nostrils and played leapfrog on his thighs. They were black and iridescent green and without number; and in front of Simon, the Lord of the Flies hung on his stick and grinned. At last Simon gave up and looked back; saw the white teeth and dim eyes, the blood — and his gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition.” — William Golding, Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies


Diarist of the day: Barbara Pym

Tuesday, 13 June, 2017 0 Comments

“[Oxford] I had a note from Rupert and Miles asking me to go to the flicks. I dashed to Carfax at 7.30 and we went to Goodnight Vienna at the Queener. It was lovely, and somehow appropriate. We sat at the back in the corner and I had two arms around me for the first time in my history. The flick was over at 10, so we stopped at the coffee stall by Cowley Place on our way back. We drank to each other in chocolate Horlicks.” 13 June 1942

Barbara Pym was an English novelist. In the 1950s she published a series of social comedies, the best known of which are Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings. Her novel Quartet in Autumn was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1977. Pym moved to Finstock in Oxfordshire with her younger sister Hilary and on 11 January 1980, she died of breast cancer, aged 66. Hilary helped set up the Barbara Pym Society in 1993.


The past of William Trevor

Tuesday, 22 November, 2016 0 Comments

For William Trevor, who died yesterday, there was just one tense: the past. The present, he believed, was too instantaneous to describe, while the future was unknowable. It was the past, and only the past that could be assessed and reviewed and put in perspective.

“A person’s life isn’t orderly …it runs about all over the place, in and out through time. The present’s hardly there; the future doesn’t exist. Only love matters in the bits and pieces of a person’s life.” — William Trevor

William Trevor


Reflections

Friday, 9 September, 2016 0 Comments

We end our anniversary week here with a reflection on L’Élégance du hérisson (translated into English as The Elegance of the Hedgehog) by Muriel Barbery. The book is narrated by the residents of a small upper-class Paris apartment block, mainly its secret-intellectual concierge, Renée, and Paloma, the radical teenage daughter of a neighbouring family. Nearing the end, Renée says:

“Yes, my first thoughts go to my cat, not that he is the most important one of all but, before the real torment and the real farewells begin, I need to be reassured regarding the fate of my four-legged companion… and I take the measure of how the ridiculous, superfluous cats who wander through our lives with all the placidity and indifference of an imbecile are in fact the guardians of life’s good and joyful moments.”

Reflections

Now, I can confront the others.

Manuela, my sister, may fate keep me from being for you what you were for me: a safeguard against unhappiness, a rampart against banality. Carry on with your life, and think of me with joy.

There you are, Lucien, on a yellowed photograph, as if on a medallion, the way I see you in my memory. You are smiling, whistling… I did  love you well, after all, and for that reason, perhaps, I deserve to rest. We’ll sleep in peace in the little cemetery, in our village… In the evening, at sunset, you can hear the Angelus.”

Sometimes, you have to look back or look in the mirror to understand what lies ahead.


Speech I: Oliver Kamm vs. Tom Wolfe

Tuesday, 16 August, 2016 0 Comments

The Kingdom of Speech is published by Jonathan Cape but might as well have been issued by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose tracts at least have the merit of being funnier.” So writes Oliver Kamm in a devastating put-down of the latest book by Tom Wolfe. Along with being the author of Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, Kamm is a leader writer and columnist for The Times and it was in that newspaper on Saturday that he took Wolfe to the reviewing woodshed.

The Kingdom of Speech Tom Wolfe argues that speech, not evolution, sets humans apart from animals and is responsible for all of our great achievements. He targets Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky in The Kingdom of Speech when arguing that there is no evolutionary explanation for language, particularly abstract language. Kamm differs, however: “Wolfe’s theory that words are a memory aid — a mnemonic system — likewise falls apart on a moment’s reflection. Words like cat and dog and run and jump might help us to remember things in the world, but what about words like not and very and whether and however?”

Readers who purchase The Kingdom of Speech in the hope of acquiring an invigorating clarification of the big ideas at the heart of the debate about morphology, syntax, phonetics and semantics will be misled, claims Kamm, who shows no mercy in his critique:

“It’s a celebration of ignorance: a vain, sneering and calumnious piece of fluff in which Wolfe misunderstands his subject and misrepresents leading thinkers, notably Darwin and the linguist Noam Chomsky. It’s not even stylishly written. What I learnt from it is that a crotchety celebrity of vaulting hubris and small mind doesn’t feel constrained by canons of evidence and accuracy.”

Tomorrow, here, Wolfe attacks Chomsky.


Girls gone, gone, gone, gone, gone

Monday, 8 August, 2016 0 Comments

The huge commercial success of both Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has not passed unnoticed by the modern version of Grub Street, the London thoroughfare once famed for “its concentration of impoverished ‘hack writers’, aspiring poets, and low-end publishers and booksellers.” Young women have been pressed into service by this cruel trade in the hope that another lady-vanishes winner can be typed while the genre is hot. Five hopefuls for the crock of gold:

Good as Gone by Amy Gentry. “When 13-year-old Julie Whitaker is kidnapped from her bedroom in the middle of the night, her family shatters. As the years go by and the search for Julie turns up nothing, even her mother Anna begins to lose hope. Then one night, the doorbell rings.”

All The Missing Girls by Megan Miranda. “It’s been ten years since Nicolette Farrell left her rural hometown after her best friend, Corinne, disappeared from Cooley Ridge without a trace.”

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner. “As soon as Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw sees the photograph of missing Edith Hind — a beautiful Cambridge post-grad from a well-connected family — she knows the case will be big.”

Under The Harrow by Flynn Berry. “A woman is missing in the East Riding. She vanished from Hedon, near where we grew up. When Rachel will learn of the disappearance, she will think it’s him.”

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott. “This would be the piece that mattered most later, months later when Ryan was gone. She would think of their arrival and wonder why she hadn’t seen it all coming. But who could have seen anything at all that night but their bright-spangled beauty?”

According to the Paris Review, George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) “is good for a whole host of reasons, but it’s a particularly potent corrective to the current cottage industry centering on ‘the writing life’ — in which literary production is seen as glamorous, in which photos of writers’ desks appear on Pinterest and readers obsess over the perfect pen with which to write their buried masterpiece.” Ouch!

“Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. Whatever he has to sell, he’ll get payment for it from all sorts of various quarters; none of your unpractical selling for a lump sum to a middleman who will make six distinct profits.” — George Gissing, New Grub Street


Gates and Gatz

Tuesday, 31 May, 2016 1 Comment

Don’t want to let the month of May end without mentioning the Top 10 Books chosen by Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, billionaire, philanthropist and avid reader. Aaron Hicklin, proprietor of the bookshop and website One Grand Books, has been asking people to name the 10 books they’d take with them if they were stuck on a desert island and Gates responded with a mix that ranges from sci-fi to business to biology. Included is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The novel that I reread the most. Melinda and I love one line so much that we had it painted on a wall in our house: ‘His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.'”

Think about that sentence for a moment:

“His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”

How many good people and how many awful people have shared the same dream of success only to see it slip from their reach? Some accepted defeat with grace; others were driven mad by failure. Jimmy Gatz failed vulnerably, unflinchingly, memorably.


Seven questions with Parag Khanna

Friday, 13 May, 2016 1 Comment

After five days of posting about CONNECTOGRAPHY: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, it’s time to talk to the author, Parag Khanna, about his book. Here goes!

1. Eamonn Fitzgerald: What inspired you to write Connectography?

Parag Khanna: My love of geography and travel, and my obsession with geopolitics going back to the fall of the Berlin Wall and my introductory class in Geopolitics taken 20 years ago at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. All of the many ideas that had not yet found expression in The Second World and How to Run the World needed to be contained and also wrapped in a meta-theory that also encompassed these previous books. I also wanted to update these with new insights as these countries evolve, and include more recent travels.

2. Eamonn Fitzgerald: For writers, geography remains a very popular science for interpreting our world. Four years ago, Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate described how countries’ histories have been shaped by their relationships with water and with land. Last year, Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography explained how a nation’s geography affects its internal fortunes and international strategies. Is that kind of terrain-based approach outdated? Are you saying in Connectography that geography is no longer destiny?

Parag Khanna: Not at all. Robert Kaplan is a dear friend and mentor and inspiration for me. Connectivity doesn’t invalidate geography but builds on it. Connectivity is how we make the most of our geography. Some places turn their geography into an advantage — for example Singapore and Dubai — while others don’t. China is surrounded by 14 countries but now it is using connectivity across terrain to extend its geopolitical influence in non-military ways. Connectivity is now a deep part of our relationship with geography, and that is what this book explores.

3. Eamonn Fitzgerald: One of the hottest new words coined during the last decade was “crowdsourcing,” which means getting people to contribute to a project via a website where they can make contributions. Why should “connectography” be part of our vocabulary a decade from now?

Parag Khanna: Connectography should be part of our vocabulary because geography alone assumes that geography is an unchangeable force. However, we now use topographical engineering to modify our geography, and that tells us a great deal about the fate of human civilization than geography alone.

Parag Khanna

4. Eamonn Fitzgerald: Responding to a journalist who asked what is most likely to blow a government off course, the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan reputedly said, “Events, dear boy, events.” Did you encounter any unexpected events when writing Connectography that forced you to rethink a chapter or change a section?

Parag Khanna: Great question. In fact, I only found events that reinforce my conclusions. During the time of writing, Russia invaded Ukraine, but the gas pipelines are the really important long-term contest, and it is building a bridge to Crimea. In other words: Infrastructure is a key tool and battlefield. China began dredging sand to build up South China Sea islands — yet more topographical engineering. Every day I see more examples of the thesis coming to life.

5. Eamonn Fitzgerald: What’s the most surprising response (positive or negative) you’ve had so far about the book?

Parag Khanna: I’m so pleased with people’s appreciation of the maps. It has been a global outpouring of excitement and admiration for the maps made by two truly amazing teams of digital cartographers whom I worked with at Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m so gratified that their intense work has received such widespread recognition.

6. Eamonn Fitzgerald: Can you sum up the three key points you’d like the reader to take away from reading Connectography?

Parag Khanna: Rather then enumerate takeaways, I simply want readers to gain an appreciation for the categories of connectivity (transportation, energy and communications) that we have ourselves built and have such a profound impact on our lives. This premise plays out in so many ways in the book (economics, climate change, geopolitics, urbanization) that I hope readers will learn about many issues they are not personally familiar with.

7. Eamonn Fitzgerald: Connectography has been published and you’re busy right now promoting it, but what’s next for Parag Khanna?

Parag Khanna: That’s a great question. This was a trilogy, and I don’t know the word for a series of 4, so I will not write another one. I intend for this to have a long shelf life, so we shall see!

Our thanks to Parag Khanna for taking the time to answer these questions. CONNECTOGRAPHY: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization is a useful guide to globalization and its impact on trade, communication and culture. “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!” says Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future, but where we’re going, we do need maps and Parag Khanna is pointing us in the right direction.


Eco and Lee RIP

Saturday, 20 February, 2016 0 Comments

“In the beginning was the Word…”

With the deaths of Umberto Eco and Harper Lee we have lost two writers whose imaginative use of words helped people see life in a new light. Lee’s Alabama and Eco’s Milan were world’s apart, but both writers created works that found global audiences. Lee took small-town prejudice and transformed it into a drama about the struggle for justice. Her stroke of genius was telling the story from the half-innocent viewpoint of children. Eco most famously used the familiar format of the thriller to examine the meaning of religious belief and fanaticism in a time of terror. At the end, now, what remains of Harper Lee and Umberto Eco is the word, but it will persist.

“There, I said to myself, are the reasons for the silence and darkness that surround the library: it is the preserve of learning but can maintain this learning unsullied only if it prevents its reaching anyone at all, even the monks themselves. Learning is not like a coin, which remains whole even through the most infamous transactions; it is, rather, like a very handsome dress, which is worn out through use and ostentation. Is not a book like that, in fact?”

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

“Miss Gates is a nice lady, ain’t she?”
“Why sure,” said Jem. “I liked her when I was in her room.”
“She hates Hitler a lot . . .”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, she went on today about how bad it was him treating the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? I mean have mean thoughts about anybody, even, is it?”
“Gracious no, Scout. What’s eatin’ you?”
“Well, coming out of the courthouse that night Miss Gates was — she was going’ down the steps in front of us, you musta not seen her — she was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themelves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird


The Kingdom of Speech and the Human Beast

Tuesday, 16 February, 2016 0 Comments

Note the date and place your orders. Tom Wolfe’s new book, The Kingdom of Speech, will be published on 30 August. His central argument, and it is a controversial one, is that speech — not evolution — is responsible for humanity’s great achievements. It’s expected that the book will expand on on Wolfe’s 2006 Jefferson Lecture to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Speaking of the “Human Beast” then, he said:

“Evolution came to an end when the human beast developed speech! As soon as he became not Homo sapiens, ‘man reasoning,’ but Homo loquax, ‘man talking’! Speech gave the human beast far more than an ingenious tool. Speech was a veritable nuclear weapon! It gave the human beast the powers of reason, complex memory, and long-term planning, eventually in the form of print and engineering plans. Speech gave him the power to enlarge his food supply at will through an artifice called farming. Speech ended not only the evolution of man, by making it no longer necessary, but also the evolution of animals! Our animal friends — we’re very sentimental about predators these days, aren’t we — the lions, the tigers, the wolves, the rhinoceroses, the great apes, kangaroos, leopards, cheetahs, grizzly bears, polar bears, cougars — they’re ‘endangered,’ meaning hanging on for dear life. Today the so-called animal kingdom exists only at the human beast’s sufferance.”

The book is bound to be one of the hottest reads of the year because it’s expected that Wolfe will challenge Darwinism and, perhaps, argue the case for intelligent design. This time last year, he told the New Yorker that the way in which academics have ostracized proponents of intelligent design for “not believing in evolution the right way” invoked images of the Spanish Inquisition. Financially secure, his reputation established, this elegant homo loquax can afford to speak his mind without fear of of censorship.

The Kingdom of Speech