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A Little History of Archaeology – Brian Fagan

What is archaeology? The word may bring to mind images of golden pharaohs and lost civilizations, or Neanderthal skulls and Ice Age cave art. Archaeology is all of these, but also far more: the only science to encompass the entire span of human history—more than three million years!

This Little History tells the riveting stories of some of the great archaeologists and their amazing discoveries around the globe: ancient Egyptian tombs, Mayan ruins, the first colonial settlements at Jamestown, mysterious Stonehenge, the incredibly preserved Pompeii, and many, many more. In forty brief, exciting chapters, the book recounts archaeology’s development from its eighteenth-century origins to its twenty-first-century technological advances, including remote sensing capabilities and satellite imagery techniques that have revolutionized the field. Shining light on the most intriguing events in the history of the field, this absolutely up-to-date book illuminates archaeology’s controversies, discoveries, heroes and scoundrels, global sites, and newest methods for curious readers of every age.

Part of the Little Histories series, A Little of History of Archaeology is a good overview of the discipline.  As befitting of the subject, Fagan slowly uncovers the beginnings of the pursuit from King Charles of Naples, at Herculaneum, up until the present day.  The enthusiastic introduction sets the book up nicely, throwing in some choice, lesser known facts to hook the reader and begin a globe-trotting journey through time.

We start the journey proper in Egypt, and travel all the way through to the present day, seeing the gradual honing of the archaeological craft, from haphazard digs chasing treasures – real or imagined – to the more careful, professional approach which has led us to a deep and ever-changing understanding of the past.

Throughout we meet some fascinating characters; adventurers, vicars, museum curators, army officers, and the like who all contribute in some way to the learning of an art and the teasing of knowledge, quite literally out of the ground, through their failures successes and frustrations.  The writing style is very light and everything is set out in a simple manner giving the reader an engrossing narrative that can be dipped in and out of at anytime without undue confusion. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on 24/05/2018 in Architecture, History, Science

 

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Frankenstein in Baghdad – Ahmed Saadawi

From the rubble-strewn streets of US-occupied Baghdad, the scavenger Hadi collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and give them a proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realises he has created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive – first from the guilty, and then from anyone who crosses its path.

To the backdrop of post Iraq war Baghdad, with all its daily acts of terrorism and political sects vying for power; life goes on as usual for the inhabitants. To this perilous way of life, is added a modern take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

With a strong start I was looking forward to following the lives of the various inhabitants of Baghdad.  Sadly, after the initial forty or so pages, the story soon started to wane and, although it kept me entertained – especially with the role superstition plays in people’s lives – it never really hit the heights which the early pages promised.

On a basic level it’s an easy read but below the surface – should you wish to delve into it – there is the strong sense of chaos of infrastructure and the political (and by extent religious) failures (and upheavels) both inept and corrupt which show through. The tone of the book is one of a sense of needing to believe things will get better without much evidence to support it happening anytime soon.

There is a diverse range of characters from all walks of life, a good mix of likeable and odious but all are well written with a decent amount of depth for such a big cast, in relation to the size of the book. The structure of the story overlaps events, keeping the story compact and allowing the reader to see a range of reactions to the same circumstances.  Although this firmly sets characters and details into the mind, the overall time frame of the book is harder to pin down and makes the story feel a bit nebulous as the relation of events to each other wasn’t too clearly defined. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 22/05/2018 in Fiction

 

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Moondial – Helen Cresswell

Minty has heard stories of strange happenings in the big house across the road from her Aunt’s cottage.  And when she walks through the gates, the lodge-keeper knows it is Minty who holds the key to the mysteries.  She only has to discover the secret power of the moondial, and she will be ready to carry out the dangerous mission that awaits her…

As a child I must have watched the television show half a dozen times so having been given the book by my parents a couple of Christmases ago, I have made sure to hold onto it.  Having read through the story twice so far and thoroughly loving it both times, it surely deserves more attention, especially for the younger generations.

The Nostalgia factor aside, the book itself holds up remarkably well.  It’s a beautifully told story, full of haunting set pieces (one of which was quite sinister and sent a bit of a shiver up my spine, which is a rare thing to happen), and it positively oozes charm and a sense of adventure and discovery.

Things gets going quickly and thickly layers on a sense of the secrets waiting to be discovered.  The prologue starts off this trend by setting up the reader with that feeling of solitariness and an encouragement to visualise the described surroundings.  Once involved with the imagining, the vulnerability and aloneness of the night are very effective in the scene setting. It’s a simple step to immerse one’s self in the atmosphere of the book after that.

This is a great read for all ages, a wonderful story of place and time, of ages, and the feel of history set in physical stone, and how that is an echo both forwards and backwards in time to our age.  The contemplation and interpretation of ornamental garden decorations has never been so interesting and has surely inspired the imagination of many a writer.  The part it plays within the story is both puzzling and charming.  Without giving any spoilers out ,the story itself manages to take in several strands both of present and past, and weave them in such a way as to give them equal time although the pressing story of the present isn’t as interesting. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 19/05/2018 in Children's Literature

 

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The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.

Picking this up at the airport was always going to be a risk. as bestsellers always seem to be these days when it to comes to quality.  As expected it was an easy book to get into and a quick read, I enjoyed it to begin with, reading 132 pages in one sitting. Further on there were a few problems that niggled me and ultimately the book became distinctly average.

The first part of the book is superior to the rest by a country mile (or indeed a mile of any sort).  The depiction of Afghanistan and the life as seen through Amir’s eyes was interesting and his relationship with Hassan was one worth investing in .  Seeing the distinctions of class and race, as well as the influence of religion and the day-to-day life rituals of Afghans was something new and refreshing to read about.

I didn’t like Amir at all, he does nothing to endear himself to the reader but I appreciated that, it gives the writing more impact when I did feel sympathy for him.  His relationships with friends and family are decently done, enough to keep me caring about the characters throughout but never overly so.

There is some good prose – again mainly in the first part – and for a time I was totally engaged with the novel and the characters, sadly that ended with the first part of the book and it became more imprecise in its focus before descending into generic bestseller fare.  That is not to say that there wasn’t anything good to speak of in the latter ha;f, I found the nod to a lack of integration or acceptance of older immigrants, into new countries and cultures to be a good topic to approach.  Similarly the intolerance of Islam and the hypocritical way some have of applying religion, which stretches to all religions is a timely topic to write about. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 09/05/2018 in Fiction

 

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Logrolling

Do you ever read the cover of a book and see all those great quotes; then after reading, wonder what those people saw in the book that you didn’t?

Now I am not saying either of the above comments are engaging in logrolling (the art of individuals agreeing to promote each others work) but they certainly read a different book to that which I did.

My source for the below examples of blatant (and of course, it must be said alleged) logrolling is the proper journalism and satire magazine Private Eye (issue number 1460, the last issue I got my sticky mitts on before leaving home shores).  It does go a long way to explaining how so many glowing reviews for average – or bad – novels come about.

  • David Krynaston selected Joining the Dots by Juliet Gardiner in The Guardian. The two share an agent in Georgia Garrett of Rogers, Coleridge & White.
  • Debut novelist Sally Rooney ‘loved’ The Idiot by fellow first-timer Elif Batuman, with whom she bonded when they were paired in a Foyles reading.  A fortnight after the plug, Batuman was one of the judges who chose Rooney as Sunday Times/PDF young writer of the year.
  • Hollie McNish picked a book edited by Sabrina Mahfouz – not only are they pals on the spoken word circuit, but McNish and Mahfouz also write a play together.
  • Craig Raine, both a Faber poet and a former Faber poetry editor, chose Simon Armitage’s The Unaccompanied from Faber, and ‘another terrific Faber poet’ Matthew Francis as his sole TLS picks.
  • Little known Bojangles Books seems to have only published two titles, both by the investigative journalist Bob Woffinden.  Both were picked out (and nothing else) in a Spectator contribution by Richard Ingrams.  Ingrams’ book about another righter of judicial wrongs Ludovic Kennedy, (Ludovic and the Power of the Book) was by coincidence praised as ‘an important book’ in the Catholic Herald by…Bob Woffinden.

When you have to research the links between book  and critic to get a clear picture of their affiliations, it doesn’t seem worth the effort, which is where we bloggers come in.  Giving honest feedback with no agenda makes such reviewers much more compelling to read.  I only read reviews on WordPress from my fellow bloggers these days, whose opinion I hold in high regard, and appreciate the fairness with which the subject matter is treated.  Not only are the reviews thorough and engaging but when a book does catch my eye it remains in my mind due to the hard work and no compensation that being a reviewer brings.  Keep up the good work of sharing the love of books and informing potential readers of what’s about. With Amazon’s new review restrictions squeezing the field for honest reviews even more, it would seem we could have a potentially bigger role to play with authors (and maybe publishers) in the future.

 
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Posted by on 07/05/2018 in Blogging, Journalism, My Writings

 

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Mountains of the Mind – Robert Macfarlane

Why do so many feel compelled to risk their lives climbing mountains? During the climbing season, one person a day dies in the Alps, and more people die climbing in this season in Scotland than they do on the roads. Mountains of the Mind is a fascinating investigation into our emotional and imaginative responses to mountains and how these have changed over the last few centuries. It is rich with literary and historical references and punctuated by beautifully written descriptions of the author’s own climbing experiences. There are chapters on glaciers, geology, the pursuit of fear, the desire to explore the unknown and the desire to get to the summit, and the book ends with a gripping account of Mallory’s attempt on Everest. Mountains of the Mind is a brilliant synthesis of climbing memoir and cultural history.

This book is much more than a simple history of mountaineering, it’s a venture into the psychological history of Westerners (mainly the British) and how mountains ( European for the most part, with a dash of Himalayas) have imprinted themselves on our consciousness, changed our attitudes, and inspired great feats.

…and it is a physical as well as a cerebral horror, for to acknowledge that the hard rock of a mountain is vulnerable to the attrition of time is of necessity to reflect on the appalling transience of the human body.

The book starts off with the author describing how, in childhood, he discovered climbing through reading books. This beginning is written in such a wonderfully literary way and engages straight away and which carries on throughout this engrossing chronicle.  MacFarlane’s enthusiasm is infectious from the off, each page is crammed full of interesting facts and anecdotes. It’s a true love letter to the mountains but also a warning over the obsessions that come with it.

Like so many writers including Mark Twain, Percy Bysshe Shelly, Bryon, Dr Johnson, Keats, Ruskin, Coleridge, and Tennyson; whose lyrical observations have inspired millions, the reader’s imagination is inflamed by the talk of crevasses with snow that fell several centuries ago, perfectly preserved bodies, ice caverns, strange creatures and so on.  It’s easy to visualise the look, age, and height of these natural edifi, and feel the author’s deep love and sober respect for the mountains, through his words. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 24/04/2018 in History, Travel

 

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Interview with Author Nicholas Conley Part 2

Part one of the interview can be found here as well as links to Nic’s blog.  A big thank you is also due for the time he took to answer my questions.

Can you explain a bit about your approach to novel-writing?

It’s a bit mysterious, even to me. I’d say that it begins with an idea… a scene, a character, a philosophical concept I want to explore, a weird scientific theory, et cetera. From this idea, I take notes. As time goes on, I continue compiling notes, character ideas, concepts, and so on. In this “genesis” stage of the process, I’m basically putting together every idea that hits me, sometimes for years at a time: since I have so many different potential novels in my head, it’s not always clear where an idea will properly fit, so I make sure to document everything that occurs to me. At this point, every potential novel is like a riddle: how will it work? Can it work? As a result, some of the novels I’ve written have gone back to story ideas I had years and years ago. With Intraterrestrial, for example, I started having ideas for it when I was just a teenager.

Eventually, as these ideas come together, I get hit with what I think of as a “lightning bolt.” I’ll be driving, in the shower, in bed, or wherever, and this spark of light just suddenly breaks open my skull and says “THIS is the solution.” Suddenly, the novel will fully crystallize, and I’ll know that I have to write it. Going back to Intraterrestrial, the moment that the novel concept felt “ready” was when I took my past ideas and merged them with my healthcare experiences: the notion of the traumatic brain injury being at the heart of the novel brought Adam’s story to life.

So, once I hit this point, I then begin writing my first draft. This is the part where other people think I’m crazy, because I write my first drafts fast, really fast, making sure to put solid work in every single day. I generally finish these drafts in one or two months, at most.

…but then, even though I write the first draft extremely quickly, I take a long time on edits. After the draft is done, I’ll let it sit for a couple of months, and then I’ll come back to it, and spend a year or two slowly editing that draft into the book I really want it to be. Some novels take only a year of edits, others have taken far longer, at which point they understandably sort of transform into entirely different books. I always know when I’ve reached the “final” draft stage, at least for submitting it for publication: something clicks, something feels right.

You are a big traveller, heading out to Africa, Europe and Asia, how important is travel to you and how does it help influence your writing?

Travel is immensely important to me. I strongly believe that travel is a strong antidote for such contemporary maladies as prejudice, laziness, insecurity, and so on, because travel forces you to break out of your boundaries. It’s easy for someone who has been sitting in a homogenous setting for 10+ years to make judgements about people or settings that are “different.” But when you go out to another country, when you sit and share dinner with those supposedly “different” people, you can’t help but be struck by how much we’re all in this together, and we need to support one another in every way possible.

What’s important though, while traveling, is to not be comfortable. If you ask me, one shouldn’t try to stay in a place that reminds you of home: stay in the place that’s totally different, that’s outside your comfort zone, a place where you can learn. In everyday life, you get so swallowed up by your daily routine that you can start to define yourself by it: I.E., I’m Joe Smith, I wake up at this time, eat these things, see these people, wear this sort of clothing, et cetera. When you travel, when you go somewhere with a different language, culture, and way of life, it forces your consciousness to expand, makes you into a better person.

And of course, yes, this has a huge influence on my writing! Traveling helps me to look at the world from many different perspectives, which is important when it comes to writing fiction.

Of your books, which are you most proud of?

I’m going to be totally honest, and say Pale Highway. Don’t get me wrong, I love Intraterrestrial, but there’s something about Pale Highway that… well, it astonishes me that I was able to write that book. There’s so much packed in there. Pale Highway is the work I really define myself by, at this point in time. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 15/04/2018 in Interviews

 

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