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Sunt lacrimae rerum [Jul. 31st, 2015|09:47 pm]

There is a comic strip - it first appeared in The Beezer in 1962, but it still exists - called The Numskulls in which a person's activities are explained in terms of a team of miniature people living inside their head: the eyes, ears, brain etc. each have their own department. There's a classic example here, but an image search will turn up plenty more.

We went to see Inside Out at the cinema yesterday. It starts from a similar premise: Riley's actions are determined by the little people inside her head. But where the Numskulls divide their host's inner workings along functional, almost mechanistic, lines, Riley's inner life is controlled by her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. I boggled a bit at this point: Disgust? Really, Disgust is one of the five big emotions? But she's a great character, Riley's inner teenager just waiting for the chance to manifest herself, and I didn't feel the need to take the analysis too seriously.

As a comedy, Inside Out works well enough: it has some great moments, some snappy one liners, and its heart is in the right place. But I did feel that I was being asked to take it more seriously, to admire its psychological insights, to learn its lesson; the didacticism is not subtle, and the happy ending consists in both hugging and learning. I enjoyed it, I'm glad to have seen it, I laughed: but I don't see where all these superlatives are coming from.

That seems to be my conclusion, so what follows must be postscript, two random thoughts about narratives in which human emotions / qualities are personified:
  1. My, the Roman de la Rose is all over the internet, isn't it? It even has a Twitter feed. And so many pretty manuscripts: I like this one, from the Bibliothèque Nationale.

  2. There were scenes in Inside Out in which Sadness bore a strong resemblance to Despair, of Neil Gaiman's Endless. But in that family, the equivalent of Joy, the perky but practical one, the elder sister - I don't need to spell it out, do I?
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Five things... [Jul. 30th, 2015|11:49 am]
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  • I wasn't consciously nervous about getting back on the horse after that total failure of my baking-fu. But somehow the next loaf didn't happen - that is, as the days passed and it kept being not convenient, and the starter aged, I eventually admitted defeat, used a spoonful of starter to seed the next batch and threw the rest away. The loaf after that, however, is a perfectly acceptable raisin and outmeal loaf: a little fragile, perhaps, but that's what you get if a loaf with a high oatmeal content rises nicely. I might try baking for (slightly) longer in a (slightly) lower oven, or I might not. Anyway, as weegoddess would say, I have toast - and that's the main thing.

  • Talking of weegoddess, she sent me this penguin mirror: it's a strange sort of mirror, and of course penguins aren't puffins, but we can't all be puffins. The fan is good, too.

  • I'm not looking for holiday ideas, thank you; and I'm particularly not looking for ideas for walking holidays, not until we've returned to walking more than we have been lately (one regret about our recent tour of the Hebrides is that I'd have liked less driving, more walking); I'd like to see more of Spain, though I was thinking of the north, not the south: despite all of which this looks fun.

  • The Co-op Membership Services e-mail me to say: "Every day is a picnic - You don't have to plan for a picnic when there's a Co-op nearby, so visit your Stornoway store for picnic inspiration, whatever the weather." And we did, it's true, visit the Stornoway store to buy provisions for a picnic, to be eaten in our B&B on a rainy evening. But "nearby"? Not really...

  • Other people's holiday shopping is more glamorous. J. invited us to dinner on Sunday, on the pretext that she wanted to empty and defrost the freezer. Dessert, however, was a tasting of Valrhona chocolate which she had bought, after much sampling, at the manufacturer's shop in Tain l'Hermitage: four bars of dark chocolate from different parts of the world, to be tasted in a specified order. I didn't take notes, and the website isn't helping, so all I can say is that they were all good, but that we disagreed with the recommended order, and thought #4 was an anticlimax after #3. All four were 62/64% cocoa solids, which supports my theory about the prevalent fetish for 85% (in brief, that it's a mistake. Or rather, that it's fine for cooking with, when you might as well start as high-cocoa as you can, since you're going to dilute it with other things; but if it's for eating, higher fat gives a better mouth-feel).
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Simon Morden: Arcanum [Jul. 27th, 2015|03:09 pm]

Disclaimer: Simon Morden is sufficiently a friend that, as I wrote at the time, I not only bought my copy of Arcanum at the launch, I was one of the party who went to the pub for lunch afterwards. I'm also a fan of his writing.

At the launch, Simon summarised Arcanum as the story of a tiny principality whose control of magic guarantees peace and prosperity, which doesn't need anything else because it has magic - but what happens if that changes? Here's what he says about it on his website.

I enjoyed reading Arcanum: it made me think, and it made me want to know what would happen next. Naturally, I want to talk about it. But much of what I would like to say is, in my terms, spoilerish: the plot is delightfully twisty, all the major characters come up against life-changing events from very early in the book, and I'd hate to give away anything that ought to come as a surprise to the reader. So I'm going to sneak up on the subject sidewise, and talk about genre definitions, and see where that takes me.

Because Arcanum is one of those interesting, disconcerting books which seem to me to sit within the twin genres of fantasy and science fiction, belonging to one genre but with the flavour of the other (another example is Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy). You could read Arcanum alongside Simon Morden's earlier book, The Lost Art, for an interesting set of reflections and reversals. The Lost Art is science fiction, yet it has much of the flavour of fantasy: a man with strange powers on a low-tech world, a mysterious quest for a hidden secret, an arcanum... Whereas Arcanum describes a society which is reduced to a low-tech state because it has lost the art of magic, which had previously supplied those things which might otherwise rely on technology. Clarke's Law reversed: any sufficiently controlled magic is indistinguishable from technology.

It is definitely fantasy, because magic exists, or has existed: but what kind of fantasy starts out by removing magic from the world, by confronting the characters with the need to find a substitute for magic, and quickly? A very special kind, and that's probably why the publisher has gone to some trouble to make Arcanum look like a completely mainstream fantasy: the black cover, with the title in letters of flame above a knight in armour riding out from a burning town. It isn't misrepresentation. These elements are all part of the story, and a central part, too, quite apart from the obligatory Big Culminating Battle, which I admit I could have done with less of. But however much I might have preferred it, I know that no publisher is going to put on the cover the true heart of this book, which is the library.

There is also a Fantasy MapTM. I love a Fantasy Map, and this one is particularly helpful because this particular fantasy world has much in common with our own. It's barely a fantasy map at all, but a reminder of the names attributed to real world states and locations (where the word 'reminder' draws a tactful veil over the fact that I don't know as much as I probably ought about this region at this time: the better informed will probably identify the city of Juvavum, the centre of the action, straight away, but I had to look it up). If it weren't for that pesky magic, we'd be dealing with a counterfactual late middle ages; no wonder there's a lot that feels SFnal about this fantasy.

The big difference between this world and our own is that neither Christianity not Islam ever happened. There is Judaism, and it occupies the same sort of space as it did in our world at this time and place. So the host community celebrates Ostara, and worships the goddess, and respects the sacred grove at the centre of the city; and the Jewish community celebrates Purim, observes its own prohibitions and tries not to draw attention to itself. There may be a flaw in the logic of this worldbuilding: would Judaism have developed in the same way if its two great offshoots had not been born and flourished? But it serves the plot, in ways I don't intend to unravel here. It may not be absolutely authentic - as I said, not my region, not my period - but it permits some unusual twists of story and character, and I was just delighted to see it done at all.

Arcanum is not a world-spanning, multi-generational epic: it tells the story of one small country, through less than a year, from spring to the return of winter. Yet it's a big book, and it could have been bigger. Developments sometimes happen surprisingly quickly, and some aspects of the conclusion seem either insufficiently prepared or just unresolved (some characters are left in limbo, and they are good enough characters that I wanted to know more). Better to leave the reader wanting more than wanting less, I suppose.
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Birthdays and unbirthdays [Jul. 25th, 2015|04:50 pm]
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samarcand's birthday is not until next week, but it falls on a working day so the party is tonight. Hooray! Party!

Today is (was) Grandma's birthday. Grandma was my mother's mother, and for much of her life she did not know when her real birthday was. Her mother died when she was a small child, and she was brought up by her stepfather and stepmother. When she started school, her stepmother claimed to know her age, but not her birthday, and the headmaster said, well, never mind, she can share mine.

It was not until her children were grown and married that she told them this story, and my father pointed out that there would be a record of her birth (in those days, at Somerset House). So he and my uncle went and looked it up, and not only found the true birthday, they discovered that Grandma was a year younger than she had thought.

That's how my mother told the story, anyway. She always put in that the wicked stepmother had deliberately made Grandma a year older, so that she could leave school a year earlier - but my mother was a great myth-maker.

Anyway, July 25th: Grandma's birthday and the beginning of the school holidays, a day worth celebrating.
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The golden deceiver [Jul. 21st, 2015|09:49 pm]

I thought I was getting the hang of bread baking: the last few loaves have been well-behaved, rising as well as can be expected given my methods and choice of ingredients. So I was ready to experiment a little. It begins to feel like summer, and I wanted to make a lighter loaf - and it's a while since I've used saffron, which seemed appropriate, too.

I found a recipe in Elizabeth David's Bread Book - I found two, but opted for the (I think) first, the less cake-like of the two, for a variety of reasons, one of which was that it was to be baked in a loaf tin. I didn't follow it, exactly, but I took it as my starting point, and obeyed its instruction to steep the saffron in less milk than I would have anticipated, and then add more butter. This produced a dough which was almost, but not quite, too soft to handle, as long as my hands were well floured. After the usual pattern of rising and knocking back, the loaf that went into the oven was disconcertinly well-risen, standing proud above the tin.

After half an hour in the oven I could smell something - not burning, but definitely toasting. Too soon, surely! But I looked, and the top crust was well browned. Should I turn down the oven, oe move it down to a lower shelf? I gave the tin a shake, and the loaf moved freely, turned out without difficulty: this is usually a sign that it's done. I tapped the bottom, and it sounded hollow, which is usually conclusive.

But the following morning, when I tried to cut a slice for my breakfast, I discovered that the reason the loaf sounded hollow is that it was hollow. The outside is cooked (and makes perfectly acceptable, if rather fragile, toast), but there is a seam of undercooked dough and, running right through the middle of my golden beauty, a hole.

The next loaf will be one of my familiar, reliable bricks.
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Ten days of shopping differently [Jul. 20th, 2015|10:41 pm]
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Things have come to a pretty pass when I look back over the past week and think that the most interesting thing I have done has been shopping. Does it make matters better to point out that I regard shopping - ordinary, routine, grocery shopping - as a problem still to be solved? Despite one or two excellent shops (the cheese stall at the market, the greengrocer in the North Road) Durham is not the greatest place for grocery shopping. If we take the car into town once a week for the heavy shopping, then we don't need to hit the out of town supermarket not more than once a month, and still get everything I need - though not all of the fancier things I'd like. And if we run out of fresh veg or some basic ingredient, I can walk down into Durham: I could do this more often than I do, but I'm too lazy - and anyway, I'd end up wasting so much time checking the books in the charity shops - so I try to keep it down to once a week.

This week has been different.Collapse )

Next time: something more interesting (probably).
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The carnivorous sheep of Skye [Jul. 18th, 2015|10:05 pm]
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As we all know, Flickr has its funny little ways. There doesn't seem to be anything to be done about this: you ignore it you find a workaround, or you go elsewhere. I'm not enthusiastic about its new trick of adding tags to my pictures, but mostly I pretend not to notice.

I have just uploaded the last batch of photos from Skye (so there may be another holiday post quite soon) and this was one of them:


I tagged it with the location 'hebrides, skye' and then on second thoughts went back to add 'sheep', because I might want to find all my pictures of sheep, sometime. Flickr had got in ahead of me, and added the tag 'sheep'. Also 'outdoor' 'animal' and 'carnivore'.

Do they know something I don't?
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Two graphic biographies [Jul. 18th, 2015|01:06 pm]
The Graphic Novels Reading Group has been reading around the theme of biographical comics. The price of the average volume being what it is, there is no chance of the library supplying us with enough copies of anything for us all to read the same text. So we improvise, we choose themes or authors rather than single works, we lend each other books... The discussion is probably less focussed than if we were all talking about the same book - we are, at the best of times, not very disciplined about staying on topic - but we get by. In fact, at the last meeting I was at, we had a very good discussion of Raymond Briggs' Ethel and Ernest, and another about Harvey Pekar (American Splendor the comics, American Splendor the film adaptation, American Splendor: Our Movie Year the comic about making the film...)

I had cheated, and was reading Darryl Cunningham's Supercrash, which I had bought at Wonderlands. This is a triptych, an essay in three parts, of which the middle one examines how the banks caused the current financial crisis, and the third asks why we let them get away with it. But there is a biographical element, because Cunningham attributes much of what went wrong to the influence of Ayn Rand (Alan Greenspan was a disciple), and the first part of his book is not just an explanation of who Ayn Rand was, but an outline biography. Does it work as a biography? Not entirely. Firstly because it is just an outline, too brief to give any sense of Rand as a person; secondly because it isn't aiming to explain and understand its subject - it is less biography than case for the prosecution. Does it work as a book? It's interesting, but I wasn't convinced that the three sections were organically linked. Any one of them alone would have been too slight to make a whole book, I suppose, but putting them together made them longer without making them deeper: it left me feeling that I had read a very extended newspaper feature. With illustrations. I really liked the art, which was both stylised and stylish, getting a lot of impact from a very restricted colour palette. Several times I stopped just to admire the impact as a whole of a page which I had just read panel by panel. But: "with illustrations". Use of the graphic medium broke up the text, made it attractive, rather than actually being part of the 'narrative'.

I came away from the session with the loan (not from the library, but from a fellow-member) of Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick, which is pretty much a mirror image of Supercrash. It, too, combines biography with an attempt to explain some obscure concepts, but it does so entirely from the point of view of its subject: it is a faithful graphic adaptation of Richard Feynman's own 'memoirs'. The voice is first person, the art - well, realistic is perhaps not the word for this bright, attractive ligne claire, but representational, the people in it recognisable individuals. Somewhere I have copies of Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think?, but I don't know where, so I won't make rash assertions about the words being Feynman's own, but the voice certainly sounds like his. I suppose all this invites the question, do we need a graphic adaptation if it's all there in Feynman's own books? I don't think the authors would be insulted by the suggestion that one of the best things about their book is that it's likely to direct readers to the original (they provide a bibliography). But this is, at the least, a good introduction.

Of course, Ottaviani and Myrick have the advantage: I'd rather spend time with Richard Feynman than with Ayn Rand and a lot of bankers. I don't think I'm being unfair to Darryl Cunningham for this reason.
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Les petits métiers d'autrefois [Jul. 17th, 2015|08:36 pm]

I was looking in Langenscheidt because I wanted to know the German word for 'telescope' (I had my reasons), and on my way there I passed the word 'toadeating'.

This is not a word I had met before. The German equivalent is 'Speichelleckerei' which didn't help me much either, but luckily, just adjacent was 'toady', and the translation is pretty similar. So, toadeating, something to do with toadying?

Chambers to the rescue: a toadeater (Chambers gives it a hyphen, but Chambers, as we know, is not to be relied on in the matter of hyphens) is an archaic term for a toady, "a fawning sycophant, orig. a mountebank's assistant whose duty was to swallow, or pretend to swallow, toads."

There's a fantasy trilogy right there, just waiting to be written.
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Life is short, and books are many [Jul. 15th, 2015|09:01 pm]
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I keep a book diary - an actual, paper, diary: I record what I have been reading in a spiral-bound notebook. When I reach the end of a volume, I index it, for future reference, and I also post that index here. Previous years, and more explanations, here.

For the benefit of those playing along at home: not all diary entries, by a long way, make book posts in this LJ; but pretty well all book posts in this LJ will eventually make diary entries. There is a time-lag, which varies in length but it currently much longer than it should be. There"s no reason why anyone should want to play along at home - it isn"t particularly interesting -but experience tells me that you do.Collapse )
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