Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Book of Forgotten Crafts-ed. Felix, Ellis, Quinn

Book of Forgotten Crafts-ed. Felix, Ellis, Quinn

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 256
gender: M+F
nationality: UK
year: 2011
non fiction

This title reveals the fascinating history of British craftsmanship in a series of interviews with leading crafters at work in Britain today. Many crafts survive in the hands of just a few individuals whose rare skills date back as far as 1,000 years. They are part of our history, part of a past of craftsmanship, skill and attention to detail that most of us probably thought had vanished forever. It features such people as the trug maker, cricket bat maker, thatcher, hurdle maker and a rope maker. It also includes the mentors from the Mastercrafts series. "The Book of Forgotten Crafts" records and celebrates the best of these ancient crafts, before they disappear and, more importantly, to record the lives of the crafters themselves.

I was once described as someone with a foot squarely in tradition while being relentlessly modern. It struck me as a particularly apt description of the contrasts in my personality and hobbies. It is also probably why I'd enjoy a book like this so much. It offers you just enough information to understand what they're doing-something to intrigue you with some lovely photographs of the craftsperson at work.

Set up as a series of clear and fairly concise interviews with the last full time craftsmen (and craftswomen) who practice 'old fashioned' crafts, this is not a how to guide. This is a good thing, quite frankly, you'd not want to learn blacksmith from a book that also taught you bobbin lace making. Some of the crafts, I'd argue, are not at all forgotten as I've tried my hand at them (I'd also argue that there is an omission of handmade book binding if paper making was allowed in!) but some are crafts I've genuinely never heard of! Bee skeps indeed! Others I'd never really thought about as much and enjoyed the interview. I found myself really considering the different ways to create the ubiquitous stone wall found all over the island. I'd never realized there were two ways to do so until I read through that section. If you love fairly useless information like how many parts make up a wooden wheel, this is definitely the book for you.

In conclusion, I think I know now from who I want to buy my pair of clogs from!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Giving Up the Ghost-Hilary Mantel

Giving Up the Ghost-Hilary Mantel

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 252
gender: F
nationality: UK (England)
year: 2003
non-fiction, Memoir

 In postwar rural England, Hilary Mantel grew up convinced that the most improbable of accomplishments, including "chivalry, horsemanship, and swordplay," were within her grasp. Once married, however, she acquired a persistent pain that led to destructive drugs and patronizing psychiatry, ending in an ineffective but irrevocable surgery. There would be no children; in herself she found instead one novel, and then another.

Well, I really didn't expect that. I have to admit, this is my first Mantel read and so I knew nothing about her. I had no idea she has chronic health problems or grew up in Derbyshire or found hints for her novels in her own life. Often times in memoirs of people you don't know, you get a feeling of a presentation. This is what you'd expect of the generic writer, basketball player, or comedian. I felt none of that here. This is Mantel, telling you about the strange things in her life that have contributed to being her. It's not the events themselves (she refuses to tell you some of them) but the way she explores her reactions to them and how they've impacted her life. The title gives you a sense of what her tone is like. She regards things with a grim humor that verges on melancholic. This is her coming to grips with the ghost of what she could have become and such it is a not a smooth journey full of facts. There are jumps in time, blurry recollections, and self referential tangents and above all it is centred squared on Hilary Mantel-not her family, friends, lovers, or writing. I really enjoyed the writing itself-great musings and turns of phrase really showcase her skill even as she bares her insecurities to her own razor sharp analysis.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Space Between Us-Thrity Umrigar

The Space Between Us-Thrity Umrigar

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 321
gender: F
nationality: India
year: 2005
novel

Bhima, a 65-year-old slum dweller, has worked for Sera Dubash, a younger upper-middle-class Parsi woman, for years: cooking, cleaning and tending Sera after the beatings she endures from her abusive husband, Feroz. Sera, in turn, nurses Bhima back to health from typhoid fever and sends her granddaughter Maya to college. Sera recognizes their affinity: "They were alike in many ways, Bhima and she. Despite the different trajectories of their lives—circumstances... dictated by the accidents of their births—they had both known the pain of watching the bloom fade from their marriages." But Sera's affection for her servant wars with ingrained prejudice against lower castes. The younger generation—Maya; Sera's daughter, Dinaz, and son-in-law, Viraf—are also caged by the same strictures despite efforts to throw them off. In a final plot twist, class allegiance combined with gender inequality challenges personal connection, and Bhima may pay a bitter price for her loyalty to her employers.

I was always a bit worried this would descend into “women's lit” and be full of 'heartwarming affirmations of modern women.' This is my fault-and I must point out that I have nothing against the genre (and have enjoyed some) but it was not what I was in the mood for. Instead, I got what I was in the mood for: a realistic exploration of class.

These women are linked in various ways: long term acquaintance, shared histories of abuse, and shared worries about the next generation. That these women hold true affection for one another is clear from the beginning but there is something separating them, class. It is the elephant in the room that stops them from sharing furniture, it is the contrast of their homes, and it is the contrast of their resources. Class divides and isolates the women in this novel from each other and fails to offer ways to combat the patriarchal society in which they live. The book is, at times, harsh but effective and strong until the somewhat strange and out of tune last chapter. Don't let that stop you, Umrigar has a great writing style-somewhat lyrical, incorporates the Indian rhyme rhythm but not in a way that overwhelms the direct prose.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Feast of the Goat-Mario Vargas Llosa

Feast of the Goat-Mario Vargas Llosa

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 475
gender: M
nationality: Peru
year: 2001
novel, in translation

Haunted all her life by feelings of terror and emptiness, forty-nine-year-old Urania Cabral returns to her native Dominican Republic - and finds herself reliving the events of l961, when the capital was still called Trujillo City and one old man terrorized a nation of three million. Rafael Trujillo, the depraved ailing dictator whom Dominicans call the Goat, controls his inner circle with a combination of violence and blackmail. In Trujillo's gaudy palace, treachery and cowardice have become a way of life. But Trujillo's grasp is slipping. There is a conspiracy against him, and a Machiavellian revolution already underway that will have bloody consequences of its own. In this 'masterpiece of Latin American and world literature, and one of the finest political novels ever written' (Bookforum), Mario Vargas Llosa recounts the end of a regime and the birth of a terrible democracy, giving voice to the historical Trujillo and the victims, both innocent and complicit, drawn into his deadly orbit

This is an excellent book that sucks you in and leaves you with this tension deep in your bones. Llosa does an unusual thing-he makes a horrible dictator, Trujillo, a human without tempering his evil. Interspersed with the inside of the goat, Llosa explores his assassinators and his (fictional) minister's estranged daughter, Urania. Llosa really conveys the tension and irrationality that goverened the Dominican Republic in a way that undercuts any nostalgia one could possibly have (you end up wondering how could anyone be nostalgic for it).

In a society that uses sex as a weapon, Urania's story is invaluable to understand the gender injustices. Llosa also tackles class with the assassinators' varied motivations. In the occasionally dragging first half, there is a grim gallows humor (perfectly hispanic) about the whole enterprise that descends into pure horror as the novel turns almost cinematic and deeply gruesome as the regime's full costs come to light.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Britty Britty Bang Bang-Hugh Dennis

Britty Britty Bang Bang-Hugh Dennis

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages:287
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2013
non fiction

Hugh Dennis has secretly been worrying about what being "British" meant for nearly a decade, ever since his friend Ardal O'Hanlon had told him in passing that he was the most British person he had ever met. Hugh was unclear whether he was being praised, teased, vaguely insulted, or possibly all three—because it has always been very difficult to know how to feel about being British. And then the London Olympics came along. They gave the world a gleaming new vision of Britain; a smiling Britain of achievement, a Britain responsible for leading the world into the modern era through the Agrarian and Industrial revolutions, a nation proud to embrace multiculturalism, individuality, and eccentricity. 

I expected wit, irreverence, and erudition from Hugh Dennis and I got it. Occasionally Dennis's jokes may blendin too well with the facts he presents so there's a little risk of misinformation but his rather clever additions slipped in here and there meant I chuckled almost without expecting it.The sections are loosely organized and full of arcane facts-the sort that you'd recall at the pub when some of the inevitable debates about sports occur. Dennis questions the foundations of many things British and gives you plausible answers. This is a great non fiction book as you spend your time learning enjoyably and without any sense of work. It never drags.

Let's be frank, it felt like a great episode of QI which makes Fry's endorsement on the cover rather fitting.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil-John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil-John Berendt

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 639
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 1994
Non fiction, true crime

Shots rang out in Savannah's grandest mansion in the misty,early morning hours of May 2, 1981.  Was it murder or self-defense?  For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares.  John Berendt's sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction.  Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case. It is a spellbinding story peopled by a gallery of remarkable characters: the well-bred society ladies of the Married Woman's Card Club; the turbulent young redneck gigolo; the hapless recluse who owns a bottle of poison so powerful it could kill every man, woman, and child in Savannah; the aging and profane Southern belle who is the "soul of pampered self-absorption"; the uproariously funny black drag queen; the acerbic and arrogant antiques dealer; the sweet-talking, piano-playing con artist; young blacks dancing the minuet at the black debutante ball; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight.  These and other Savannahians act as a Greek chorus, with Berendt revealing the alliances, hostilities, and intrigues that thrive in a town where everyone knows everyone else. 

Highly entertaining, it begins as a series of portraits of very interesting people and it is at that point that Berendt's writing shines. As you know, it's true crime (and I purposely kept myself in the dark) so you know one of these people will go on trial for murder and another will die. For the first half, I was content to simply get to know Savannah but at some points I got tired of Berendt putting himself in the story. There began to be a bit 'too pat'-he doesn't really succeed in making you understand why you're supposed to like the characters because in a way he's too concerned with making you like him. Anyhow, so the murder takes place and then the supernatural comes in and I just wasn't so sure how the reader was supposed to take it. There was a point, it seemed, to adding it in but Berendt didn't really help you to it. To be honest, I can't really recall much of the details of the trials because compared to the first half, the final half seems rushed and overshadowed.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

This Will Make You Smarter- ed. John Brockman

This Will Make You Smarter- ed. John Brockman

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 397
gender: mixed
nationality: mixed
year: 2012
Non fiction

Edge.org presents brilliant, accessible, cutting-edge ideas to improve our decision-making skills and improve our cognitive toolkits, with contributions by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Richard Dawkins, Brian Eno, Steven Pinker, and more. Featuring a foreword by New York Times columnist David Brooks and edited by John Brockman, This Will Make You Smarter presents some of the best wisdom from today’s leading thinkers—to make better thinkers out of the leaders of tomorrow.

Well,it doesn't really say anything new and unexpected if you've ever had and absorbed a sciency theory background and many of the short snapshots of thought repeat each other but if you are an unquestioning sort or someone who feels uneasy with sciency concepts, this might be the book for you. I realized that I was probably not the targeted audience from the preface-these scientists were asked, "what scientific concept needs to be incorporated into people's lives?" but I read on to surprise myself by quite enjoying it all. So it goes from the mediocrity principle and grander concepts of chronology to the idea of life as experimentation: nothing new to my life. You get a bit of philosophy with the pessimistic meta induction phrase and why it's not pessimistic and delve into the wonderful world of biases-self serving, nominal, and a great side trip into the uses and perceptions of uncertainty and how we suck at probability. There's a lovely debunk of causality from Nigel Goldenfeld. And if that seems like a lot of ground, I've barely taken you through 60 pages.

I enjoyed this collection nonetheless. Most of the essays are clear and well reasoned for the layman. I was surprised at how many of the names I recognized. This is a good, rich primer of many of the dominant discourses in today's world across the many disciplines of science which includes archaeology, curation, and architecture as well as quantum mechanics, mathematics, and astronomy. Thanks to the short bursts and skillful editing the ideas flow from one to the other making this a surprisingly quick read.