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Tag Archives: History

The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver

Mexico, 1935.  Harrison Shepherd is working in the household of famed muralist Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo.  Sometimes cook, sometimes secretary, Shepherd is always an observer, recording his experiences in diaries and notebooks.  When exiled Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky arrives, Shepherd inadvertently casts in his lot with art and revolution and his aim for an invisible life is thwarted forever.

This has been on my to read pile ever since I read Cuban writer, Leonardo Padura’s excellent novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs. The title, The Lacuna alludes to much in the text, the gaps in the reader’s knowledge of Shepherd’s life, his feelings of not fitting in, and of the other characters stories and in part their motivations.

Like a game of football, this is a book of two halves. The latter part I found to be a lot more engaging, partly because it allows the narrator more room to speak, and also as it helps fill in another gap in history that I hadn’t really much knowledge about.  Perhaps that is excusable as most of European literature and history is focusing on the rebuilding of the continent after WWII and our own part in the Cold War.

The past is all we know of the future

To begin with I wasn’t overly blown away by the writing, more annoying was that certain themes were alluded to and then outright brought to my attention through the narrator. It would have been much more subtle, if left hanging in the background, for the reader to discover, even if on a second or third read through.

I didn’t get much of a sense of Diego Rivera as a character either, he is fairly peripheral, his wife Frida is more interesting and remains pleasingly enigmatic, although she is seen as faultless, precisely because of her faults. Trotsky is mainly seen as a hero/saint type of figure, lacking some of the complexity that could have made him more interesting, as in Padura’s book.  Shepherd himself is detached in this first part, as he struggles to discover his place, and true self. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on 26/07/2018 in Fiction

 

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The Lunar Men – Jenny Uglow

Led by the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, the Lunar Society of Birmingham were a group of eighteenth-century amateur experimenters who met monthly on the Monday night nearest to the full moon.  Echoing to the thud of pistons and the wheeze of snorting engines,Jenny Uglow’s vivid and swarming group portrait brings to life the inventors, artisans and tycoons who shaped and fired the modern world.

If ever there was a book to celebrate the exhilaration of investigation, that infectious enthusiasm for knowledge, then this is surely a strong contender. In an age where amateurs could be at the forefront of breakthroughs in the sciences, the Lunar Society were keen to share knowledge which brought on new trains of thought and enquiry, as they dared to dream the fantastical.

These pioneers were to explore many different facets of our world;  through botany, geology, physics, medicine, art, literature and so on, as well as profit (for themselves and country), politics, and market forces.  The group also felt the full force of the beginnings of the burgeoning, awkward relationship between science and religion.

The scope of the book is impressive, each of these men could have had a book devoted to themselves so combining them into one overlapping narrative is a monumental feat.  To keep things fresh, we move between the main players frequently, it helps with both pace and the narrative structure, and allows the huge amount of innovations to be explored in their (more or less) chronological order.

It feels genuinely exciting to follow these lives and the societal changes that stem from their drive.  The book doesn’t just focus on the professional but humanises them with plenty of details about their personal lives, which are as eccentric as their work lives.  It reveals heart and a resonance that is lacking in some other – drier – books on this era. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 19/07/2018 in History, Science

 

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Fire in the Blood – Irène Némirovsky

Set in the rural French town in Burgundy that would also form the backdrop to the bestselling Suite Française, Fire in the Blood is the story of Silvio, his cousin’s wife Hélène, her second husband Françoise, and of the truths, deaths, marriages, children, houses and mills that bind them with love and hatred, deception and betrayal.

This novel is an absolute rural treat from one of my favourite 20th century authors, tragically lost to us at Auschwitz.  The story is a wonderful showing of her talent for unflinchingly portraying the passions and flaws of her characters. Her brutally honest observances of the human nature (in all of her books) make for some wonderfully memorable protagonists, and although this book was unfinished at the time of her death, it still retains its power to captivate the reader.

The story opens with an intimate family setting, a real country way of life, very family orientated and in this instance in touch with nature, its beauty and the integral part it plays in their community. The opening’s vibrant scene setting is both rich in detail and in building characterisation and is a great foundation for the forthcoming drama.  None of which I will comment on as at 152 pages, I run the risk of spoiling too much of the plot.

The layering of intricacies in this small close-knit town and the beautifully drawn characters is slowly teased out over the course of the story, allowing us to change allegiance to people as we understand them in greater depth. It’s a claustrophobic, rule laden arena, made all the more obvious by Silvio, who has travelled the globe, lived a varied life, and cares little for the social nuances he has returned to.

In nature, there is a moment of perfection when every hope is realised, when the luscious fruits finally fall, a crowning moment towards the end of summer.  But it quickly passes and the autumn rains begin.  It’s the same for people.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 11/07/2018 in Fiction

 

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The Top 100 Stories that Shaped the World

There is something strange about watching the news, specifically when they greet viewers just joining from overseas when it is last thing at night in your mind, now I get to watch the same shows on BBC News that I used to drop off to, with my morning coffee.  Had I been up late watching, I would have certainly forgotten to check out The Hundred Stories That Shaped the World by the next morning.

I’m not sure if this flew under the radar back home or not but for those of you not familiar, here is the catch up.  In April the BBC polled authors, academics, journalists, critics, translators in 35 countries to nominate five works of fiction that they felt had changed or shaped history.  The top ten with the most votes were as follows:

1. The Odyssey (Homer, 8th Century BC)
2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852)
3. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
4. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1949)
5. Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe, 1958)
6. One Thousand and One Nights (various authors, 8th-18th Centuries)
7. Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes, 1605-1615)
8. Hamlet (William Shakespeare, 1603)
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez, 1967)
10. The Iliad (Homer, 8th Century BC)

The other 80 books of the list, and the author’s reasons for picking the top ten can all be found here and is well worth a look. As I never usually bother to ask pointed questions, as I know you lot are intelligent enough to pick up on my unspoken cues and will always give me good comments, I may as well, for novelty’s sake, indulge in doing just that for once.

What fictional books do you believe have changed or shaped history, and/or the works that have changed or shaped your personal views upon life?  Did the Harry Potter series really deserve to be on the list?  Feel free to add and answer our own questions as well, such is my generosity.

 

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Bali, Days 1-2: We Care About Your Money

LuAnn said in one of her posts the locals you meet during your travels leave the greatest impression, as with everything on Bali, this was decidedly a mixed bag.  I have spent a long time thinking about our experiences and my views on this ‘island paradise’, and the desperate and ugly, overly aggressive commercialism – which is a challenge to persevere with – and sadly the culture is, for the most part, is seemingly in tatters.  With tour guides hell-bent on making a profit, skin colour being a real issue, a brush with a scam and another bracing hike, it was certainly an eventful eight days to remember.

The first impressions of Bali are pleasing, right hand drive (the nostalgia!), trees and cut grass everywhere and roads where the traffic flows well. I should point out we went when out of season so there were less crowds and for this I am grateful. There is a feeling of vitality and it all made for a pleasant first trip.  It was good to see different architecture and plenty of big statues of Hindu Gods. Our first homestay in Ubud was built around the family temple (there are over 20,000 on Bali) which made us feel like we were getting some personal culture straight away, as well as being invited into an intimate family space.

Learning the traffic system is always a joyous necessity in any country, scooters are indiscriminate at times but we made it to the Monkey Forest, which is a pleasant place to walk once you get away from the crowds who take photos constantly without thought for people trying to get past.  The excited talk about filters was beyond me but the monkeys were benign and the area was being constantly cleaned, it was nice to see pride being taken by the locals and parts of it looked like something out of Tomb Raider (a seed up version of Tomb Raider 3 on the PS1 to be precise) which was an added bonus.  Later, a good meal and a glimpse of the Local Parts butcher, both of which pleased me and we retired to bed happy with our first day.

The next day, a tour of the local area started off in the best way possible, with a cup of Luwak coffee, AKA a cat-poo-chino.  The Asian Palm Civet loves eating coffee cherries, they are only partially digested and when they exit the critter, they are collected, washed and roasted. After swilling it around my mouth, the taste is both bitter and sweet, although fairly weak.  It is a good novelty purchase and coupled with 14 other free tasters of teas and coffees, it’s worth taking a tour around one these coffee plantations for a sample.  What was a bit awkward was having our coffee tour guide accompany us to the gift shop afterwards and proceed to follow us round telling us the prices of everything, it was an unashamed hard sell, and that was a theme for the rest of our time in Bali. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 11/06/2018 in Bali, Travel

 

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Stocking Up

Recently, I went into Booksale, a second-hand bookshop that always makes browsing a challenge.  Not only do you have to uncomfortably squeeze past people in the narrow aisles, which stops you from taking in the books on show but worse than that is the way they are laid out.  Piles of books on the floor mean moving the stacks should your chosen book be at the bottom, which is bad enough when people want to get by but there is nowhere to put the books so it becomes a big game of Jenga.

Another setting out issue is that books are placed spine up and then other books stacked front facing on top – again with no real room for moving – so it becomes an actively horrible and awkward place within which to spend time.  I did manage to pick up a couple of books though, amidst much shuffling and mumbled apologies for being in the way, and generally just existing in the place.

On a positive note though, it was good to pick up some cheap books and a nice mix as well.  Winter in Madrid, recommended to me yonks ago by Alastair when I was enjoying exploring the both the Civil War and WWII eras of Spain.  The Lunar Men, which I have just started is about the famous Lunar Society, a group of exceptional individuals who helped kickstart the Industrial Revolution.  Twenty Five pages in and so far it is oozing facts and passion, and promises to be an absorbing read.  I shall keep you updated.

 
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Posted by on 07/06/2018 in Lists/Ephemera, Travel

 

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Music to Write By #3 – Assume the Position/(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go

Writing in the last week has had a different sort of soundtrack, there hasn’t been much in the way of music coming through my speakers, as I have been following all manner of different paths from; film analysis, to the situation with the Italian government, and the bad news of the EU trying to pass Article 13, scientific testing of free will, and the wacky world of Flat Earthers.  Forcing myself back onto the music front, the gold started flowing pretty much instantly with this gem:

I first came across this funky tune thanks to its brief appearance on The Wire.  Then it was featured more prominently on the closing credits of The Deuce, another David Simon (together with George Pelecanos) created show which documents the legalisation and rise of the porn industry in New York, as well as the accompanying drugs, real estate booms, police corruption and the connected violence.  The first season admittedly feels like a – quality – prequel but I expect big things from season two.  Watching this as it came out was great, the whole of last year was exceptional for quality television and nothing beat grabbing a few beers and having a TV night with Tom, catching up on whatever had previously come out over the weekend, in the US.

The tune took me back to a totally different time and place – only eight months ago – but so much has changed.  Thinking back to that period now, it was such a good time and discussing the show as the end credits theme rolled, it was always interesting to get an alternate take on what we just saw.  Discussion was made more insightful by a few beers, of course, but I don’t think I have been challenged in such a sustained way by myself, my peers, or film and TV before or since. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 05/06/2018 in Music, TV

 

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