Archive for the 'recommended books' Category


Thursday, October 25th, 2007

What to read? It’s only a difficult decision because there is so much to read.

Sometimes you walk into a room and you just find yourself walking towards a particular shelf with your arm outstretched, fingers in the book-gripping position. Sometimes you pace back and forth, completely unable to choose, (while carefully, utterly ignoring the ceiling-high “official” to-read stack). Sometimes you happily go about your reading business, following a microscopic-breadcrumb trail, perhaps visible only to you.

Then there are the times when a reference comes up over and over from the such disparate sources that it begins to feel like a conspiracy. This is how I came again to Shakespeare, bane of my high school existence. All I wanted was to smack Hamlet upside the head and tell Juliet that no guy was worth offing yourself for.

But then again, there were a few wonderful moments. I remember the second time I did Romeo and Juliet, (I’d changed schools). We each had to learn a soliloquy and one girl got up in front of the class and actually broke down in the middle of hers. That’s when I got it. Suddenly Shakespeare wasn’t just something schools invented to torture young people, these were real characters, struggling through their lives just like us.

But mostly bored or indifferent teachers managed to squeeze the life out of things. The saddest part was, that every time I’d read one of his plays I’d never been able to relax and enjoy it. Not once. They were dissected, analyzed, “decoded”, paraphrased and summarized to death. Then we’d have to rake through the carnage one last time in two, hour-long essay questions on themes and symbols in the final exam. Before that girl started crying, I probably would have put Shakespeare in with the sciences.

So there were a lot of little calls to return in the past few months and then I saw a lovely every-last-doodle-included edition “commissioned by The Royal Shakespeare Company”. Who am I to say no? So, here I am again, after a long time away.

I’ve started with The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus which I’ve never read before. So far it’s quite good. And no one has asked me why a character said the word “the” in line 84 and what the symbolism means vis-a-vis his previous use of the word “is”. The footnotes are frequently entertaining (does anyone really need that explained?!?), disturbing (oh dear, maybe they do…) and enlightening.

Two interesting examples of the latter:

prodigies: ill-omens/unnatural events

I looked this one up in my giant Oxford and sure enough the earliest definitions had seriously negative connotations: “Of a person: (in bad sense) A monster” I’m hard-pressed to imagine how you could call someone a monster in a good sense…? And: “An amazing or marvellous thing; esp. something out of the ordinary course of nature; something abnormal or monstrous.” Isn’t it fabulous that we walk around now blithely chatting about “child prodigies”. I love how words have such complicated histories.

Solon’s happiness: the ancient Greek philosopher and lawgiver Solon observed that man is only securely happy when dead

Fun at parties, that one! I wonder if he ever actually gives his definition of happiness anywhere? I suppose if all you require to be happy is the absence of utility bills and consciousness, then that might work for you.

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The Last Reader on Earth

Monday, July 16th, 2007

Okay, it’s not true — but it feels that way sometimes.

I love Paris and can’t imagine living anywhere else, but I crave English-language bookshops. I dream about them: stuffed to the rafters, esoteric, carefully chosen, Daniel Steele/John Grisham forbidden on pain of death…they’ll even have that biography of Keats (the corrected edition) and oh, where’s my list?!?

I’m salivating. Sorry.

So, to ease the pain, I’ve been trawling the web in search of well-written, well-thought-out blogs by people who read. My blog is a scattered mess, added to only when I have a spare second. These people’s blogs are what mine aspires to.

So Many Books (I’ve been reading this one for ages. Magnificent!)

Chekhov’s Mistress


***Find of the month (thank you Chekhov’s Mistress!): Zbigniew Herbert


On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

Monday, March 19th, 2007

seneca penguin shortness of lifeSpam Madness… No, this is not the title of a book, this is what happens every time I come to my book blog to post. I login and instead of writing about literature, I spend precious, irreplaceable moments of my life wading through hundreds of spam comments.

Why don’t I just erase them all? you ask. Because I’m haunted by the idea that someone who actually likes books might stop by and say hello… and I’ll miss it.

Unfortunately, the most interesting comment I’ve gotten so far was an offer for a laser comb that cures baldness. I should write them and see if they have laser sunglasses that perform corrective surgery for nearsightedness. I imagine you would have to put them on very, very carefully. And NEVER flip them up to rest on top of your head unless you want an impromptu lobotomy.

But I digress.

Ever since I read Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life” (Penguin, Great Ideas Series) I’ve been much more aware of how I’m spending my life. I’m getting better at using it wisely, making conscious decisions, not blowing it rashly and so forth, but it’s kind of like herding fluffs — there’s always a breeze blowing…

Sloth, guilt, tiredness, perfectionism all tempt us to fritter our time away like dandelion fluffs in a hurricane. I keep having to remind myself that I only have a finite amount of it. (Time, that is, not the dandelion fluffs.) Why is this so hard to remember? Of course, it’s probably tied to the fact that not having infinite time means that I am going to die one day. This, frankly, is unacceptable. There are far too many fine books to read.

Here are a few quotations to whet your appetite:

On choosing people to hang out with: “But in the current dearth of good men, you must be less particular in your choice. Still, you must especially avoid those who are gloomy and always lamenting, and grasp at every pretext for complaint. Though a man’s loyalty and kindness may not be in doubt, a companion who is agitated and groaning about everything is an enemy to peace of mind.”

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”

“We all sorely complain of the shortness of time, and yet have much more than we know what to do with. Our lives are either spent in doing nothing at all, or in doing nothing to the purpose, or in doing nothing that we ought to do. We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.”

~ Seneca, Roman philosopher (4 BC-65 AD)


An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

Oliver Sacks An Anthropologist on MarsWherein Oliver Sacks hangs out with different people who have various neurological disorders. One essay per person, seven in all — fascinating stuff.

I’ve always had a weakness for anything brain-related. (Probably because I’m so fond of my own.) And I’ve always enjoyed Oliver Sacks. How can you not be fond of a man who raises ferns?

One of the essays that really stuck with me was the one about the painter who lost the ability to see color. And it wasn’t even that simple–not a world of black and white, but of unprocessed wavelengths which he described as nightmarish and alien.

Two other artists Sacks devotes essays to are Franco Magnani and Stephen Wiltshire (an “artistic autistic savant”) — both of whom have an astounding visual memory.

Another essay is devoted to Temple Grandin, who is a biologist and engineer famous for her work with animals; specifically, she designs more humane slaughterhouses. As a realistic vegetarian, I think this is honorable work. She has had an incredible influence on the industry and its treatment of animals.

All of these people have lives very different from the “ordinary”, whatever that might really be. Oliver Sacks pulls us in as close as he himself can get and shows us glimpses of these unusual experiences of the world. And in doing so, makes us rethink our own.

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