A Suitable Quote

This quote sums up so much of what it is to be a reader, and to explore and attempt to make sense of the puzzles that books give us.  To learn and better ourselves through the chronicles of accomplishments of those before us.

“She paused by the science shelves, not because she understood much science, but, rather because she did not. Whenever she opened a scientific book and saw whole paragraphs of incomprehensible words and symbols, she felt a sense of wonder at the great territories of learning that lay beyond her – the sum of so many noble and purposive attempts to make objective sense of the world.”

East of Eden – John Steinbeck

California’s fertile Salinas Valley is home to two families whose destinies are fruitfully, and fatally, intertwined. Over the generations, between the beginning of the twentieth century and the end of the First World War, the Trasks and the Hamiltons will helplessly replay the fall of Adam and Eve and the murderous rivalry of Cain and Abel.

Like Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, there are certain books that you just know will become treasured reads even before the first page has been fully read. These special books also keep me awake at night, itching to write a review as soon as is decent and the coffee is brewed.

East of Eden is a sprawling masterpiece of a story, giving the reader far more to get their teeth into than the blurb could possibly convey, even if it were aiming to do so. Over generations the story tackles themes of revenge, love, good and evil, and a whole plethora of facets in the human condition.

Firstly, the reader is drawn in by the perfectly described landscape, and then once lovingly established, the believable and flawed set of characters is introduced.  I found myself interested in all their stories, from the side characters who rarely featured but whose fates were revealed, to the main protagonists who grew throughout the pages.  Continue reading “East of Eden – John Steinbeck”

Modern Art an the Death of Culture – H. R. Rookmaaker

This illuminating, disturbing, highly original book shows how modern art reflects a wholeculture – a dying culture. Dr Rookmaaker outlines the various steps, the decisive choices that have been made, which have led to the modern movement. But the steps have not been made in isolation from socety generally. They depend on a worldview, particualrly on the values and presuppositions of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, which have made our culture what it is today.

With his analysis of both well-known and lesser-known works of art, his broad understanding of contemporary cultures and sub-cultures, pop and op, happenings and hippies, jazz and beat, protest and revolution, Dr Rookmaaker builds up a message for our times which may be devestating, but is also profoundly helpful and positive. He sees above all the tremendous potential and relevence of Christian attitudes, to man, to society, to freedom, to the whole of reality, as the basis for a way ahead in the future.

It is always a pleasure to get a particular insight into art, and especially paintings that have passed my ignorant self by. Reflecting on this book, parts of it are dated yet it is an intriguing read, especially if you have your internet browser of choice handy for referencing the artwork mentioned but not shown.

Like the proverbial game of football, this is a book of two halves.  I really enjoyed the exploration of art through the ages, the way it was framed, and the stories the paintings tell, as well as those of the artists.  On the downside, there were plenty of bones of contention I had with some of Rookmaaker’s assertions when it came to religion and science.The book was first published in the 70’s, and it has dated to varying degrees.  Mainly though I spent an inordinate amount of time looking for the bit about Émile Zola, which was promised in a chapter and never appeared, which was a disappointment.

My main gripe with the author’s arguments were the plentiful attacks on science, Rookmaaker bizarrely complains that science has reduced reality to the things we can see and leaving out explanations that lack a naturalistic or rationalistic reason.  No offer of how one would test for those explanations is forthcoming, unsurprisingly. Continue reading “Modern Art an the Death of Culture – H. R. Rookmaaker”

On the Shortness of Life – Seneca

The writings of the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca offer powerful insights into stoicism, morality and the importance of reason, and continue to provide profound guidance to many through their eloquence, lucidity and wisdom.

Picking this book was entirely thanks to a video by PewDiePie, who, in between his usual meme and gaming content enjoys indulging in books, and particularly those of a philosophical nature. This time he explored Stoicism.  Being at a loose end for a book, and not having a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to hand, this slim tome was the next best thing.

Of the three essays on offer, those being On the Shortness of LifeConsolation to Helvia, and On Tranquillity of Mind, the first was my favourite, mainly because of all the famous Roman military and political figures that have become familiar over many books about that empire. The message of bettering oneself is always one that resonates strongly as well and writing that encourages reading is already preaching to the converted.

Each essay is written to a particular person, the first to Paulinus talks of spending time fruitfully in the timeless pursuit of wisdom through philosophy, the second consoles his mother on his exile to Corsica, and the final essay is written in letter form to Serenus, in which he offers advice on how to achieve a peaceful mind with moderation and self-control. Continue reading “On the Shortness of Life – Seneca”

The Magic of Reality – Richard Dawkins

Magic takes many forms. The ancient Egyptians explained the night by suggesting that the goddess Nut swallowed the sun. The Vikings believed a rainbow was the gods’ bridge to earth. These are magical, extraordinary tales. But there is another kind of magic, and it lies in the exhilaration of discovering the real answers to these questions. It is the magic of reality – science.

Packed with inspiring explanations of space, time and evolution, laced with humour and clever thought experiments, The Magic of Reality explores a stunningly wide range of natural phenomena. What is stuff made of? How old is the universe? What causes tsunamis? Who was the first man, or woman? This is a page-turning, inspirational detective story that not only mines all the sciences for its clues but primes the reader to think like a scientist too.

Richard Dawkins elucidates the wonders of the natural world to all ages with his inimitable clarity and exuberance in a text that will enlighten and inform for generations to come.

The copy that currently occupies shelf space next to St Augustine’s Confessions – as I confess I get a kick out of putting unlikely titles next to each other –  is the hardback edition, and it is a lavish, weighty, and fully illustrated, which is preferable to the paperback edition.

Dave McKean (one of the artists involved with Neil Gaiman’s magnificent The Sandman series, amongst other projects) is behind the varied and in many cases gorgeous illustrations.  There is plenty here to thrill the eye as well as to inform, and it will appeal to children as much as it will adults.  The intention is to attract all to the wonderful world of science, which it does.

Dawkins has departed from his usual style of writing in favour of something simpler, and I didn’t find the book particularly challenging, it was however very insightful and anybody with a love of exploring science and revelling in the knowledge we have accumulated over the millenia will enjoy the book. Continue reading “The Magic of Reality – Richard Dawkins”

Baum’s Books

Sorting through the boxes from last year’s house move, I came across all the books that had been sent to me over the past years (more than I care to remember – the years not the books).  All had of course been caring and lovingly stored and finding them has brought back some great memories.

With a misty-eyed gaze into the past I recalled many memories associated with long ago blog posts, bloggers, and life events.  Of all those books, the ones my eyes looked for straight away were those of Mr Stephen Baum, AKA Bumba, who is still blogging today, and one of the few original readers of this blog, left after the almost ten years of my writing.

Bumba was the first author who ever approached me with the offer of a free book (Up in the Bronx) in exchange for an honest review.  Having skim read my original review – not wanting to read deeply in case I cringed so hard I couldn’t type this – I will leave it up to any interested reader to pass verdict on its vintage, or lack thereof.  All three reviews can be found in the relevant author page. Continue reading “Baum’s Books”

Token Book Haul

Being gifted some book tokens for my birthday, I naturally went to the nearest bookshop to grab some good books.  Sadly said shop was WH Smiths and despite a smattering of other genres, it largely focuses on bestseller ficton, which on the whole are usually a disappointing bunch.

The next day I found myself up at the High Peak Bookshop (and Café) which had a much better range of stock in, and I plumped for a number of genres I haven’t explored in a while, and endured lots of annoying people passing through my browsing eyeline.

Sci-fi is something rare for me to venture into although when I have dabbled, there have been some corkers namely Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequels.  A story from titan H.G. Wells will surely live up to such names. The Elegant Universe was another choice to continue a ‘science’ theme.  There is something fascinating about the universe, it’s a majestic mystery and well worth the time to explore. Continue reading “Token Book Haul”

The Library Book

Whether brand new or steeped in history, real or imagined, libraries feature in everyone’s lives.  In memoirs, essays and stories that are funny, moving, visionary or insightful, twenty-three famous writers celebrate these places where minds open and the world expands.

Public libraries are lifelines, to practical information as well as to the imagination, but funding is under threat all over the country.  This book is published in support of libraries, with all royalties going to The Reading Agency’s library programmes.

Fetishes, a (natural) death, streakers, and the occasional ram raid by an old lady on a mobility scooter, libraries can sometimes be dramatic places to work, although in the main, peaceful citadels of book worship.  The Library Book, is a celebration of our best free institution, long may it continue.

As books of this nature usually are, this tome ends up being a mixed bag, my favourite essays were the personal reminiscences of libraries from writers such as, Susan Hill, Stephen Fry, Hardeep Singh Kohli, and Val McDermid, to name a few. Even so, many of these memories take on a similar vein and as such are probably best enjoyed over a lengthier time than the two days in which I flew through this book.

The insights featured are mainly focused on British libraries, which makes it as much of a nostalgia trip, as it is a quirky insight into our national character. There are plenty of interesting facts on offer too, for example, during World War Two, a disused tube station in Bethnal Green was turned into a library during the blitz so people could distract themselves with a good book.  Perhaps surprisingly the readers were most interested in Plato’s Republic, Burton’s the Anatomy of Melancholy, as well as Schopenhauer, Bunyan, and Bertrand Russell. Continue reading “The Library Book”

Opening the Door

With five weeks of training completed at the Open University – the main reason for my sparse posting of late – I can finally turn my attention to showcasing all the awesome free stuff that you can get your hands on courtesy of the O.U..  This week it’s something mentioned previously on this blog and frequently engages me through on my breaks and before work starts.

Where I work, one part of the Edifice that is the Open University.

OpenLearn  is a resource I had spent a bit of time with before I started this job and now I recommend it to everyone.  The site offers courses, downloads, videos, and up coming programmes with the BBC.  Each course is an extract from our degree modules, and with almost 1000 samples here you can indulge in many various learning exercises.

There are courses for everyone over such varied fields as Languages, Nature & Environment , Money & Business, and my personal favourite History & the Arts, which has plenty of literary goodness but never fails to entertain with a speculative punt either.

The first course I took was Aberdulais Falls: A Case Study in Welsh Heritage. I had never previously considered the logistics of how the National Trust runs its sites and the impact on the local community, and I finished thoroughly entertained and educated on the subject.  Since then anything goes in terms of course choice now. Continue reading “Opening the Door”