Friday 21 February 2014

Emily Dickinson makes us human

I have been listening to 'The Humans' by Matt Haig (who also writes a thoughtful blog) and although bits of it drifted past me (or got drowned out by frying onions) it has really grown on me over the course of the last week. It tells the story of a mathematician called Andrew Martin, or rather a nameless alien who has been sent to earth to replace Andrew Martin, because said alien race learned that he had solved the Reimann Hypothesis (a real thing I discovered, the hypothesis that is, not anyone solving it) and that this would have led to undesirable technological advances in an undesirable species. 

The story starts off with 'Andrew' coming down here all superior, thinking he will just do his job of ridding the world of any evidence of the solution and then going back to his own world, but along the way he starts to learn all sorts of stuff about what it means to be a human being, he starts to form attachments, to make some sense of it all, and he changes his mind. While to begin with there were some fairly standard 'alien' responses, 'aren't the humans ugly', 'the food is disgusting', 'they are only really about as intelligent as dogs' and learning some early life lessons from a copy of Cosmopolitan, but then we watch our hero gradually come to see humans in a whole different light. The human Andrew had made a bit of a mess of his personal life, been a remote and neglectful husband and father, but the alien Andrew has a different set of motivations and begins to build a new relationship with his wife and son. In trying to pretend to be a human he is forced to take on some human traits. He arrived thinking that humans were a nasty violent race who needed to be kept in their place but then he discovers music, a bond with Newton the family dog, Emily Dickinson's poetry ("Emily Dickinson was making me human"), and most importantly an understanding of love. There are some wonderful laugh-out-loud scenes; I liked the one where he discovers peanut butter sandwiches and proceeds to share them with the dog and then the conversation they have when the pot is empty. And his analysis of human's interest in 'the news', we are only really interested in what is close to us, in our country, in our town, the closer the better, so that in effect Facebook is actually the ultimate news programme that is purely about what is happening to us.  As the story progresses he is left with a terrible quandary since his instructions are to come down and kill anyone with any potential knowledge of Andrew's discovery, but these are people he has now come to care about. 

While the message is a little warm and fuzzy it is cleverly written and he is tackling some timeless questions about humanity and morality. I was won over when he described sharing a cup of tea with his wife: "I was enjoying the tea, it tasted like comfort." That's pretty much what makes me feel human.

Monday 17 February 2014

The Year of the Monkey

Anything that happens in our house is a good reason for cake, but celebrations are the best reasons. The daughter formerly known as Creature has now been promoted to 'Monkey'. Alongside her application to drama school this year she applied to The Fourth Monkey Theatre Company
to join their training program, which is called 'The Year of the Monkey'. On Saturday the 1st of February she went to London for an audition. On Wednesday 5th I was at Claire's when the email arrived that offered her a recall. She returned to London on Sunday 9th for a group audition and then we waited impatiently for a week for the promised decision. Yesterday afternoon the 16th we counted the hexipuffs and realised we had 298, so we sat and knitted one each to reach 300. After she finished Creature went to check her email yet again and there was a message that said she had "made an exceptional impression on the entire auditioning panel" and offered her a place. Along with all the normal theatre stuff she will also do circus skills, stage combat and film making, and then at the end of a hectic year of productions in London they will perform at the Edinburgh Festival.
So she now gets to call herself a Monkey (participants unofficial title). 
We have done a lot of jumping up and down with excitement and then been very sensible making plans for saving the money for the fees and hunting for trusts to apply to for grants. I had spent the morning listing items on ebay because they had a free listing weekend; I can see it's going to be a regular activity over the next few months.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

What I think

I would like to be one of those bloggers who says what they think. Mostly I say, look at this book, it's really good. The internet is full of people shouting their thoughts at the planet, so much noise. I have my little corner and sit here writing about books. But I have strong feelings and opinions about just about everything, I just don't put them here. Maybe I should. Today I will pass 100,000 blogviews and it feels quite a milestone. The blog is now averaging over 100 visitors a day. I know it's tiny in the grand scale of the interweb but it's big to me. So welcome and thank you to all of today's visitors.

I recently changed my opinion about the World Bank. When I did my degree thirty years ago they and the IMF were the bugbears of lefty thinking students. And quite rightly. They were mired in the Thatcherist/Reganist economics of the eighties, obsessed with forcing right wing economic policies on developing countries in exchange for meagre loans which really only benefitted the western economies and did nothing for the poor. But I have been doing a Coursera course on 'How to Change the World' and I learned some things (from the now president who used to campaign to have it shut down) about how it is finally working to do some good. I think it's important that education should do that. I learned something new that gave me a different perspective.

Over the autumn I was doing another course entitled 'A Brief History of Humankind' (with the wonderful Dr Harari). It was so completely fascinating that when it is offered again I think you should go and do it (I mean you could just listen to the lectures, it's only a couple of hours a week and they would be well spent. Well, it is quite a commitment, it is 17 weeks long, but he is so utterly engaging, not in a brash, charismatic way, but subtle and low key, in what he talks about not the way that he talks. His book, 'From Animals into Gods', has been translated but is currently out of print.) He recommended to us 'Guns, Germs and Steel' By Jared Diamond which I have been reading very slowly with my breakfast ever since. Both the course and the book are trying to answer the question of why the world is the way it is. How did homo sapiens leave Africa and spread over the planet? Why and how did we move from being hunter-gatherers to being settled farmers? How did complex societies evolve? Why did eurasian societies 'develop' faster and come to conquer and dominate the other continents? It is history but not of the 'who did what and when?' type but of much bigger questions of the nature of human societies and our relationship with our environment.

This book covers much of the same ground as the course so I just thought I would write a bit about things that interested me, some of this taken from the lecture notes I wrote, some from reading. I came to the conclusion that human cultural development is determined by stories. Physically and mentally we are pretty much the same creatures that inhabited the planet 70,000 years ago, so how come our 'society' has changed so much when other animals live now in exactly the same way that they have always done. The thing that marks out human beings from other intelligent animals is not just our language but the way that we use our language. We have what Dr Harari called 'fictive language', that we use to describe things that do not exist, to imagine things outside our own physical world and direct experience. These 'stories' that early humans created about the world were what bonded them together, and it has been stories that continue to guide the way we live our lives. Somehow humans managed to cross a threshold and set up cites of thousands and empires of millions of people. We find that all large scale cooperative groups are rooted in commonly held fictions about the world ;  stories that exist in the collective imaginations of the people. Churches are ultimate example of this, the knowledge that the other person believes the same things that you do means you will work with them. The 'nation state' is another example. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal 'myths' about the laws and what is allowed within the society, in justice and rights. But none of these things exist outside the stories that human beings invent and tell each other. There is no law or justice or gods or countries or money outside the common imagination of the human beings involved and the stories that we tell each other. Money was the really big example of human beings ability to cooperate in large groups. For all the things we disagree on as a species the one thing the entire planet agrees on is money, what it is, what we use it for, wherever you go you can buy and sell things for money. We modern humans like to look back and think that primitive societies were founded on shared crazy beliefs in ghosts or sun gods or whatever that bonded their societies together ... but we fail to see that our own modern societies work in exactly the same way.  Modern lawyers are just like ancient shamans only they tell even more outrageous stories. Modern society is based on things that are founded only in the common human imagination. We can change our stories quite dramatically and thus change our societies. Genetic evolution is very slow, it takes thousands or even millions of years to make a change in the behaviour of animals. This story telling allows humans to bypass this evolution and cultural evolution can make very swift changes in our behaviour and societies. This is how we outstripped all other species in our ability to change. He argues that perhaps homo sapiens outcompeting the Neanderthals was the first incidence of genocide, though interestingly most populations on the planet have some Neanderthal DNA.

I was inspired to write about this today by this image that came in my news feed yesterday (and that is a brilliant website) that shows a 900 year old viking rune that apparently says 'kiss me'. I have been reading the chapters on writing and it is an example of human ingenuity it is the best. It is one of the few aspects of human evolution that has been shown to have arisen in only very few places independently (most notably Sumerian cuneiform) and that most writing systems are adaptations and developments of these:

"We know that the development of Sumerian writing took at least hundreds, probably thousands, of years. As we shall see, the prerequisites for those developments consisted of several features of human society that determined whether a society would find writing useful, and whether the society would support the necessary specialist scribes. Many other human societies besides those of the Sumerians and the early Mexicans - such as those in ancient India, Crete, and Ethiopia - evolved these prerequisites. However, the Sumerian and early Mexicans happened to have been the first to evolve them in the Old World and the New World respectively. Once the Sumerians and early Mexicans had invented writing, the details or principles of their writing spread rapidly to other societies, before they could go through the necessary centuries or millennia of independent experimentation with writing themselves. Thus, that potential for other, independent experiments was preempted or aborted." (p.224)

Diamond describes two ways in which writing spread; 'blueprint copying', where the system of writing was copied and adapted directly, and 'idea diffusion', where the concept of 'writing' was known as a basic that then encouraged people to come up with new systems of their own. Similar debates have been had about the spread of other human inventions, including wheels, gunpowder and pyramids.
He then goes on to argue:

"A related limitation is that few people ever learned to write these early scripts. Knowledge of writing was confined to professional scribes in the employ of the king or temple. For instance, there is no hint that Linear B was used or understood by any Mycenaean Greek beyond small cadres of palace bureaucrats. Since individual Linear B scribes can be distinguished by their handwriting on preserved documents, we can say that all preserved Linear B documents from the palaces of Knossos and Pylos are the work of a mere 75 and 40 scribes, respectively.
The uses of these telegraphic, clumsy, ambiguous early scripts were as restricted as the numbers of their users. Anyone hoping to discover how Sumerians of 3000BC thought and felt is in for a disappointment. Instead, the first Sumerian texts are emotionless accounts of palace and temple bureaucrats. About 90% of the tablets in the earliest known Sumerian archives, from the city of Uruk, are clerical records of goods paid in, workers given rations, and agricultural products distributed. Only later, as Sumerians progressed beyond logograms to phonetic writing, did they begin to write prose narratives, such as propaganda and myths." (p.234)
"The kings and priests of ancient Sumer wanted writing to be used by professionals scribes to record the number of sheep owed in taxes, not by the masses to write poetry and hatch plots. As the anthropologist claude Lévi-Strauss put it, ancient writing's main function was to 'facilitate the enslavement of other human beings.' Personal uses of writing by nonprofessionals come only much later, as writing systems grew simpler and more expressive." (p.135)

It is like the perfect example of the maxim 'knowledge is power'. The storing and transmission of accurate information gave elites control. But the way that the Vikings used runes, as in the image, shows that you can't keep control of such a powerful idea as writing and that in the end people will use it for things that matter to them. I read out to Dunk the wonderful story that is given in the book of Sequoyah, a Cherokee, who, armed with the mere knowledge that writing was something useful to white people, went about creating a writing system for his own language using a combination of letter symbols from other languages. It is an amazing and inspiring story though the wiki page does not say if his writing system is still in use.

This was just to give you a taste of the fascinating stuff I have been learning. It has all been very thought provoking and I haven't even touched on the complex relationships between geography, climate and the domestication of plants and animals or role played by the 'germs' - the 'conquering' of the New World had nothing to do with superiority over 'savages', little to do with European weaponry, and everything to do with the diseases they bought with them that wiped out vast swathes of the indigenous populations. The only trouble with such books (and the course as well) is that they raise as many questions as they answer and the reading list the Dr Harari gives with the syllabus would take you a decade of serious study to get through. Knowing one thing just prompts you to want to know the next thing, so Dunk and I have just been reading about Gondwana and Sahul Shelf which, during the last ice age, allowed homo sapiens to cross to Australia. Am off back to Coursera now to do my lectures for 'The Moralities of Everyday Life'. 

Sunday 9 February 2014

The Language of Dying

Neil Gaiman loved this so it must be good. Having commented in the previous review that people I had heard of (and admire) liked the book I wonder if other people pay attention to the little soundbites that adorn book covers these days. It can go both ways; if the Daily Mail reviewer thought it was great it would probably go back on the shelf but if the author of a book I particularly loved liked it I confess it might be quite an influencing factor for me. 'The Language of Dying' by Sarah Pinborough had been on my library request list for a while, long enough to have forgotten where I read about it (note to self, try and keep track of who it is that recommends stuff you like). 

I see from her website that Sarah Pinborough writes mostly fantasy and horror. This novella is a subtle blend of real life with this strange other worldly image, presented as childhood imaginings but then reappearing at the climax of the story. It had for me a feeling of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (even though she sees only one animal), a feeling that something momentous and irrevocable is happening. The woman in the story is watching over her dying father, and has collected her siblings so that they may come and say their farewells. As they come and spend this brief time together they seem to take on their old childhood roles and relationships. Abandoned by their mother when young and raised by an alcoholic father there are inevitably going to be a few issues. After an abortive and abusive marriage our unnamed protagonist has come home, and almost resents the intrusion of her siblings into what has become a close and mutually dependent relationship with her father. In the little exchanges and quiet moments Sarah paints a wonderful picture of a family, both its past and present, with all its glaring faults and warm intimacy. 

"The silence breaks my thoughts and I realise that Penny has stopped talking and is looking at me, waiting for an answer. I have no idea what she has said and I know that she knows I've gone in a world of my own, so I just smile and she smiles back. She runs one hand over my head gently, as if the four years between us are still a huge divide and she is still my big sister rather than a woman I once knew. But still, I am happy that she's here. It's a big warm rush coming out of me, like waters breaking and I look at her and think how I have envied her and hated her and avoided her over the years and yet here we are. Sisters again. " (p.18)

This intense scene is from her childhood:

"Now, sitting on numbing ankles, the curtain feels like a shroud around my dying childhood and even in the chill my face gets hotter and hotter, burning me from the inside out. I wish I could cry; I wish Penny would come back from being a teenager and I wish Mum would come back home and put everything back to not-quite-right. Something is building, bubbling in my stomach, flaring into white heat and I don't know if it will explode out of me or whether it will meet with the dark spots at the edge of my vision and make me pass out. I want it to out in words that I don't have. I want it to make sense. To be not-just-mine. And then, as I am about to combust, it appears in the night. Out of nowhere." (p.27-8)

And another from the close present; throughout the story there is no shying away from the fact of his dying, even though she is fighting the idea, and she lurches from these emotions to the practicalities of caring for him:

"I want to run upstairs and shake you awake and force you to tell me. But there isn't enough time for you to tell me everything I want to know and, as well as the drumming of hooves and the ticking clock, I can hear a part of me breaking inside as I take another small step towards accepting your loss. I feel guilty and ashamed. I don't want to let you go.
The nurses come and I watch as they ignore the smell that clings to you and plump your pillows and change your morphine driver. There are two of them. They're the night shift. The graveyard shift. The word makes me shiver as I look at the husk of you. Your hands are twitching and trembling even though you are lost somewhere in sleep or unconsciousness or wherever your mind has taken you.
'Has he got a wash booked in for tomorrow?' The taller nurse is checking the folder.
'No,' I say. 'He didn't want one. I'll ask him in the morning and call through if he's changed his mind.'
She sniffs. 'He should have a wash.'
I don't like her. 'If he wants a wash I'll make sure he gets one. If he doesn't want a wash then I'll make sure he doesn't get one.' " (p.88)

Another, that manages to be beautifully wistful without falling over the edge into mawkish:

"You try to speak but the words don't make sense. They're dry and rasping and confused. I try not to cry. For a second I wish you'd just come back or leave completely. This in-between is no good for anyone. A mistake in nature's plan for us. Better to be hit by a bus or drop out of the sky than this interminable changing. This memory thief. I stroke the wisps of hair across the top of your head. When did they get to be so white? I don't remember. You were always dark when we were children. Dark hair, dark eyes and dark, swarthy skin. I sigh." (p.102)

There is a stark contrast drawn between the woman and her siblings who cannot, or do not want to, deal with the approaching death, who will not be there for the close. A very brief book, another that would definitely benefit from reading in one sitting, to allow yourself to get absorbed by the feeling of waiting without anticipation. Take an afternoon, it would not be wasted.

how should a person be?

'How should a person be?' by Sheila Heti
I got this from the library after a glowing review online somewhere, I even waited in a queue for it. I started reading and my first thought was, 'what is this crap and how did it get published'. Then I thought maybe she was just telling some random anecdote to illustrate a point and would go on to something more significant. It was very stream-of-consciousness style and had something of 'On The Road' about it, but I don't mean that in a good way; it meandered randomly through events, telling yet more anecdotes and musing on some half baked philosophy about what is important in life. 

It is the story (vaguely) of her friendship with Margaux, and I suppose at least she does come finally to realise how important this person is to her, how important friendship is, but it is so utterly self-indulgent and inward looking that I hardly cared. She is both the victim and the perpetrator in some not very healthy relationships. She is so aimless that this takes over the story and you never know where it is going, if anywhere. It is also the story of her attempts to write a play, and the conversations in the book are laid out as if it is a script. I quite liked that and you could almost visualise it being performed, but it didn't make the characters any more interesting. It was a bit like reading a rather trite and tedious blog. Occasionally she had an interesting way of describing something, mostly when she stopped trying to be pretentious. This is nicely understated:

"We could see no trees and we could see no mountains from where we lived. When we looked out the window we saw cars, we saw people, we saw traffic lights and buildings just like ours. Sometimes the past came to greet us, and there were two policemen sitting atop their horses, walking down the side street I was living on, and I woke up to the sound of the horses in the road. I raised myself in bed and looked out the window. When a car came by, the policemen pulled on the horses' reins and the horses stopped, and the policemen and the horses waited patiently for the car to go by, one horse shaking its tail in the road." (p.141)

But much of it was more like this, on finding the tape recorder, and it just feels like she is trying too hard to:

"It has long been known to me that certain objects want you as much as you want them. These are the ones that become important, the objects you hold dear. The others fade from your life entirely. You wanted them, but they did not want you in return.
As the beginnings of a shower mottled the street, I whispered low into the tape recorder's belly. I recorded my voice and played it back. I spoke to it tenderly and heard my tenderness returned." (p.56-7)

I started off actively disliking this book, so maybe it's an achievement that I read the whole thing, but I was only lifted to the level of not-really-caring-much. Lots of 'names' on the back seemed to admire it ("beguiling" "idiosyncratic") so maybe I missed something, or maybe it's the middle aged fuddy-duddy in me that finds young people's existential angst so tedious ... get over yourself. Whatever. 
(If you like stories of female friendship Ann Patchett's 'Truth and Beauty' is much much better.)

Thursday 6 February 2014

Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood

Isn't it just nice hanging out with family. I have been to visit my sister Claire for a few days. We went to the beach and then for a walk in the woods at the National Trust's Nymans estate, then we were a bit tired and the promised rain arrived so we stayed indoors and got creative. We had paused in the Laura Ashley shop in Haywards Heath (opposite the 99p shop, Haywards Heath is a town of stark contrasts) and Claire admired a bedside table in the sale for £120, complaining that the thing she had was old and tatty. She is now a poor student and should not be encouraged to spend £120 on bedside tables, so instead I encouraged her to do something more creative.

We went in the 99p shop and bought glue, sandpaper and a small tin of varnish, cost £2.97. Here is the table, it is actually a unit for a stacking stereo, nothing special but quite a good height for next to the bed:
So we followed this lovely straightforward set of instructions. First rubbed it down with sandpaper to remove the shiny surface. Then painted the outside (paint free, leftover from redecorating the living room).
I had suggested we maybe use pictures from an art book and a quick browse around the charity shops gave us exactly what we needed, 'Essential Pre-Raphaelites', cost £4:
After agonising very briefly over whether it is wrong to cut up books much tearing and chopping then followed. And then came the glueing:
Here is what the top looked like when it was done:
And then here is the whole thing complete. We added a couple of striking large pictures in the centre of the shelves.
Then added a coat of varnish. It is going to take the rest of the week to finish as the instructions suggest several coats and it was taking quite a while to dry. I came home last night but it's good that Claire had something to distract her from the important studying she has to do before her second year starts next week.

Saturday 1 February 2014

Monkeys and all that

I won my copy of Scarlett Thomas's 'Monkeys with Typewriters'  from Jim Murdoch at The Truth About Lies over a year ago. It had pride of place on the bedside table but I had not managed read it. I started reading it before NaNoWriMo but then discovered I write episodic plots which was depressing ("Aristotle warns against the 'episodic' plot, in which several things happen, one after the other, but do so without each thing being caused by the one before." p.59). It is a writing advice book, based on her own experience as both a writer and a creative writing teacher. Firstly this isn't is a step-by-step 'how to write a novel' book, and I think that you should definitely be suspicious of anything that comes in that format. It is a book about novel writing, the first part taking us through the long history of stories from Aristotle and Plato, theories about fiction and the types of plot structures, drawing on examples from both classic and modern literature and popular culture when describing the things that make good stories and good writing. She does assume somewhat that her reader is quite well read, but it doesn't detract from it if you haven't read the books she specifically refers to and she seems as fond of Harry Potter as she is of George Eliot. She does spend quite a lot of time giving detailed examples of plot types, for example the 'rags to riches' plot or the 'stranger comes to town' plot, describing books and how they fit, but I found it all very interesting and helpful to visualise stories in that way. The second part has chapters on having ideas, plotting, characters  and how to put a sentence together (because if you can't write a decent sentence you certainly can't write a novel). It is a very readable book, she has a lovely informal, chatty style and is not shy about sharing the hard lessons she has learned along the way of how easy it is to write badly. This is not going to be a review as such because it's far too big a subject, but I thought maybe I would just a share a few nuggets of wisdom. 

Who tells the story?
"What you write will be as much a result of these decisions as it is a result of those you make about plot, character and theme. Would Great Expectations be the same narrative if it were narrated by Joe or Estella? Would Middlemarch remain the same if it were told in the first-person present tense from Dorothea's perspective? How would The Bell Jar change if equal weight were given to Esther's mother's version of the story? One of the most interesting questions to ask about fiction is therefore, Who tells the story? Before we even consider any of the other questions, we should ask, Who is telling this to me? And, maybe, Why? And, perhaps also, What's in it for them?" (p.228)

"When I first stared teaching sentence-level writing I felt uncomfortable because so much of it seemed to involve pointing out what was wrong with bad sentences, rather than celebrating the really amazing ones. But the point is that it is possible to define bad writing in a way that it is just not possible to define good writing. We can admire 'The lawn was white with doctors' all day long, but I'll never be able to tell you how to write it. I can suggest that you might cut all unnecessary words from your sentence about doctors standing on the lawn, but you might just end up with something like, 'There were doctors on the lawn.' That would be fine. It's a good sentence. It's a true sentence. but it's not a brilliant sentence. Of course, before we can aim for brilliance we must aim for simple truth (and if we get it right, our exact simple truth may well be brilliant). But again, this is hard to define unless we say what it isn't. It is only by studying false sentences that we can see what sorts of sentences are likely to be true." (p.308-9)

And adding to Stephen King's advice (and anyone else worth their salt it seems) on the subject of adverbs:
"Adverbs and adjectives can make sentences appear more serious or meaningful from a distance, but when we look close up we see that they can actually be very distracting, or even meaningless. They also lead to long-winded, 'wordy' writing, which is quite different from what we've been calling expansive writing. Wordiness implies that there are extra words that don't mean anything, or that tell the reader what to think. Most of the words could be deleted or rearranged and the sentence would be better as a result." (p.330)

Then down to the nitty gritty:
"Narrative questions will intrigue your reader and keep him or her reading. Will Cinderella go to the ball? Will Hamlet kill Claudius? Will Odysseus get home? Will Dorothy get home? Will E.T. get home? Will Eiji in number9dream ever find his father? A question like this will usually be the main reason we start engaging with a piece of fiction. We want to find out not simply 'what happens' (after all, things happen randomly all the time), but whether a particular question is answered and whether a particular character gets what they want or not." (p.373)

And finally, the novel at the top of a mountain question:
"How far would you go to rescue it? If you did somehow manage to leave the only copy of it on a bus, how devastated would you be? The answers to these questions tell you how important the novel is to you, and therefore how important it is likely to be to other people." 

If you are interested in writing fiction this is the kind of book you could read over and over, scribbling in the margins and folding down the corners of pages; it's not a book to treat with respect but one to use until it falls apart. I feel inspired to go forth and pick apart my favourite book to see how it works.