Monthly Archives: March 2012

England, England, by Julian Barnes

I may have read this book before, years ago. The premise of it – billionaire turns the Isle of Wight into an England Experience/theme park type place – seemed really familiar, and I kept getting a sense of déjà vu while I was reading it (without actually recalling anything about it). This is not meant to be a slam against Julian Barnes at all, just that if I did read it, it was years ago and probably a random discovery from a library bookshelf. If I did read it before, I enjoyed it. I certainly enjoyed it this time.

There are several major themes in this book, but one of the most important ones (and most explicit ones) is the idea that, eventually, replica becomes reality. This is a stated belief and inspiration when they are planning the park, and it is proven in many different ways throughout the narrative. The actor playing Samuel Johnson, for example, starts dissociating and believing that he actually is Samuel Johnson; the locals playing “peasants” start wanting to sleep rough.  The tipping point of the second part is a showdown between the Merrie Men and the SAS team that stormed the Iran Embassy.

And the third part is the fallout of this new reality, taken to extremes: Old England has now become Anglia, an isolated and isolationist agrarian society based around the Saxon heptarchy. Everything that has internationally defined England has gone to the Island, tourism has collapsed, and the only thing left for England is to become locally focused again.

The idea that replica eventually becomes reality is an interesting one. It starts from the idea that, if it’s more convenient, people are fine with seeing the replica of something rather than seeking out the real thing – an example of this is Michelangelo’s David, in Florence. Then the replica becomes indistinguishable from reality (again, with David, who’s going to say that they haven’t seen it, just because they’ve seen the replica in the square rather than the original in the museum?). And ultimately, the replica becomes as desirable as the reality – especially if reality is difficult or inconvenient to access.

I don’t know if that’s always true, though. I think from a logistical perspective, people are willing to accept replicas in place of reality (buy a postcard or poster of a painting rather than the real thing) but I think that we value things that are more difficult to attain, whether that difficulty comes in the physical object or the experience. I buy prints of paintings I like because I can’t feasibly get the originals – I value an original painting more highly. From a logistical perspective, it’s great that all of the quintessentially English experiences are on one island, easily accessible if you’ve got enough money. From a value perspective, I prefer the journey – the ability to treat each site as its own experience rather than an item on a checklist. From an emotional perspective, I also appreciate the time in between the experiences to absorb and reflect on wherever I’ve just been – if I went to the Island and was faced with Stonehenge next to Robin Hood next to Nell Gwynn’s orange (juice) stall next to Buckingham Palace, I think my brain would explode from overload. (And, for the record, I saw David in the museum, as well as in the square. I also think that one of the reasons that the replica is so easily accepted in place of the original is because it is in the original location, while the original is in an artificial location – so I don’t think the David analogy is quite right for their replica replacing reality argument, but that’s the one that they use, so there you go.)

I also have some serious questions about the society on the Island. For something that is supposed to be a self-contained entity, there are a lot of ways that it defies its containment. The Island simply could not exist independently of the rest of the world, and that’s something that I think that Pitco completely ignores. It works in the context of the book (which is, of course, all that it’s meant to do), but it should never be forgotten that the Island is, in fact, a theme park, not a functioning country the way that it pretends to be. There is no allotment for sick, elderly, or young – presumably they must be shipped over to Dieppe.  If there were an apocalyptic event and tourists could no longer come to the Island, the whole system would collapse. They’d want Anglia’s help then, wouldn’t they? WOULDN’T THEY!

……….whoops, got a little bit carried away there……….

Speaking of Anglia, one of the more intriguing things for me was the list and discussion of “what is England” – England specifically, rather than UK generally, as one of the points of the Island project is to counterbalance devolution. One of my classes on my study-abroad year dealt a lot with the idea of English identity, versus British identity – Scottish independence or at least autonomy was a big deal at the time, and we visited the Scottish Parliament which had either just opened or was just about to, and we also talked a bit about Wales and touched on Northern Ireland (which is a whole other topic in and of itself, beyond even UK devolution). Come to think of it, that might be where I read or at least encountered this book before. Any Notts want to help jog my memory?

Anyway, it’s always struck me as an interesting, and essential idea. What defines a nation? (In the same vein, what defines an individual?) Is identity reliant on how we see ourselves, or how others see us, or some mix of the two? What about when how others see us is radically different from how we see ourselves? How can we adjust the way we present ourselves to others, without altering how we see ourselves? And, eventually, to get back to the main theme, does how we present ourselves, and how others see us, irrevocably alter how we see ourselves and become the reality of our identity, even if we were acting the whole time? Does our replica identity end up becoming our real identity?

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Mr. Briggs’ Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder, by Kate Colquhoun

One of the things that I’ve been enjoying about the various historical non-fiction books that I’ve been reading in the last year or so is how smoothly they integrate their research into their story. There have been occasional points where things get bogged down in the details, but overall, I feel like I’ve experienced the story and the time period instead of just learning about it.

Mr. Briggs’ Hat is no exception to this. Certainly the first half of the book, detailing the discovery of the murder and the investigation, is incredibly gripping. (I also benefited slightly from having relatively recently both read and watched The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: there are a couple of familiar names amongst the detectives. [Wow, could I use any more adverbs there?]) I was incredibly impressed at the efforts put in to capture Muller; the detectives not only combed the streets of London for evidence, but took two witnesses to New York to help identify and extradite him.

The second half of the book, while no less interesting, does get more into the political layers, implications, and ramifications of the trial. Once they’ve decided that Muller is the culprit (based on quite a lot of circumstantial evidence, which isn’t quite as tenuous as it sounds to modern ears), things in 1864 get intricate. There’s the necessity of extradition from New York, complicated by the already fraught tensions between the American and British government and populace because of the (US) Civil War. There’s the fact that Muller is German, and Prussia was making moves toward German unification that included aggression toward Denmark (a UK-sympathetic country, due to the Princess of Wales being Danish). And then there’s the ongoing debate about suitable punishment for murder: capital punishment or lifetime with hard labour? Public or private execution?

And that doesn’t even get into the difficulties with the case itself. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the murder (who had been threatening Briggs about a loan, who were the other two men supposedly in the carriage with him), and the witnesses on both sides aren’t exactly stellar characters. But despite all the confusing details with the case, it’s never questioned that Muller is the culprit.

And, despite the hook of the murder case itself, the book isn’t really “about” that. It’s about the political and social forces that collided within the scope of the investigation and trial – without getting at all bogged down into socio-political commentary. It paints a picture of the relatively new field of professional detection, and the constantly changing world of public opinion when it comes to crime and punishment. Colquhoun weaves all the threads together so deftly that sometimes it is like being back in 1864. Hovering over it a bit, not always actually walking the streets, but that’s the benefit of history – you know how things turned out, so you don’t have to deal with the uncertainty that the “locals” would have felt. (….now I think I need to read more Ian Mortimer……)

It’s also increased my “want-to-research” list quite substantially…..not a bad thing.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)

What I’ve been reading

Not much. I got sucked into playing Civilization V, where a quick games takes about three hours.

But here’s some of it, with commentary.

I don’t have any feelings one way or another about overall migration patterns. No, what really annoyed me about this article was the inclusion and therefore implications of the map at the end. It’s a map showing the general percentages of population living in the state in which they were born.

My problem with this is that it’s in an article about declining migration. So the implication – especially with no other data – is that the people living in the state in which they were born have ALWAYS lived in the state in which they were born. It would be much more appropriate for the article to have the map showing relative migration to, from, and/or within the state.

It’s not that the information isn’t interesting – it is somewhat interesting to me to see what states have higher percentages of people either staying or moving back, or what states have the highest percentages of non-natives. But it’s completely misleading the way it’s presented here. For example, just out of my own circle, both my sister and my best friend are currently living in the states where they were born. Neither of them spent the majority of time of the rest of their lives, especially their childhoods, in those states. If you asked my sister where she was from, I’m 99.99999% sure that the answer would not be the state where she was born/the state where she currently lives. But both of them are included in the percentages of “native” residents on this map. Going back to family history, my great-grandfather was technically born in Mississippi, but their plantation was across the river in Louisiana. Even though he lived there essentially from birth, this map wouldn’t consider him a native of Louisiana. By contrast, my parents have lived in the same town for twenty years – but it happens to be a town that’s not in a state where either of them were born.  They’re not “natives” by the standards of this map.

I’m vaguely interested in migration patterns – that is, I find interesting things in migration patterns. But this map doesn’t work for those. What I would rather know, what would be more relevant to the article as a whole, would be questions like “what states have the highest percentage of residents who have lived there for at least ten years? Twenty years?” “what states have the highest percentage of returning natives – people who were born there, moved away for any non-educational period of time, and then moved back?” “what states have the highest percentage of in-state migration, or the highest percentage of incoming residents from other states?” The map as it is presented here is completely irrelevant to an article about overall migration.

Okay, fair enough that some of Schonwerth’s fairy tales are already in various archives outside of Regensburg. But I still can’t get enough of this story, especially as someone who keeps rewriting and restructuring her fairy tale based novel. Especially if there is a cache of prince-based stories rather than princess-based stories….these need to be translated into English or I need to brush up on my 19th century German, because I think I’ve found the new (hopefully last) piece of my puzzle for my book.

The best thing about March Madness is the non-basketball brackets that pop up. The worst thing about March Madness is the non-basketball brackets that pop up – because now my reading list is exponentially larger. This, and are the two story-based comics that I have found (SO FAR) from a webcomics bracket, so I’ve spent the last couple of days reading allllll the archived strips. All New Issues is fun in a QC kind of way; A Girl and Her Fed is different with lots of sex jokes but also some very real statements about security versus privacy from both an institutional/governmental perspective and a personal perspective. I have to admit, though, that I’m a little bit confused about the machinations of the actual plot – but that doesn’t matter because I’m enjoying the banter and the ghost of Benjamin Franklin.


That’s all I’m giving you for now – but there’s still a bunch of tabs up on my browser. There may be more later.

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The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham

This book often makes it onto “best of” lists – sci-fi/post-apocalyptic, etc. I think it’s even in at least one edition of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, if not all of them.

If you don’t know (I didn’t, really), it’s the story of the very  beginnings of a post-apocalyptic society. There are two distinct parts to the apocalypse. The actual event is a green comet/meteor shower, and anyone who sees it goes blind by the next morning. The second, continual threat, is the triffids – aggressively carnivorous plants with apparent intelligence and communication skills.

Where this story excels is its depiction of the various forms of survivalist community that become established. Pretty much every iteration is explored in both “moral” and practical ways. There’s the fend-for-yourself time, the small groups of sighted and unsighted trying to forage with or without leadership, the free-love/rebuild the world society, the cling-as-hard-as-we-can-to-our-old-lives groups, the new feudalist groups, and ultimately the not-hippie commune. I put moral in quotation marks up there because it rapidly becomes clear that this book understands relative morality rather than absolute morality, and certainly doesn’t recognize any previous moral authority (church, government). It’s a very Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest world, both physically (who can survive) and mentally/morally (who can let go of their old roles/strictures/ideas, and who should be helped to survive).

Where this story really doesn’t excel is in its treatment of women. If it weren’t for Josella, the love interest, and Susan, a child who doesn’t even appear until about two-thirds of the way through, there would be no positively portrayed females. There’s even a rant about how women are lazy and too accustomed to leisure to be at all useful – except, one presumes, as breeders. One woman is completely stupid (and in shock) and simply repeats that “the Americans will come” to save them all. Even Josella, as capable as she is, is ultimately nothing more than mother and (monogamous) wife.

But the rest of the book explores such interesting scenarios that I’m able to mostly overlook the fact that the only woman-as-leader is obviously a narrow-minded failure, doomed to death as soon as the men leave. Or at least, I can put it down to time period and inadvertent, not deliberate, misogyny. I’ll also overlook the classism – the fate of the “aristocracy” is never mentioned (not even the Royal Family, in London), and theh working classes are translated into one man who switches accents based on his companions, and a brief mention of some Welsh miners who have isolated themselves. Everyone else is firmly upper-middle-class.

Oh, look, I couldn’t completely ignore it….

Despite those flaws, it’s got some fascinating stuff, and I’ll certainly be giving Wyndham another try.

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Filed under Classics, Fantasy

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

Sara Gruen is my hero.

I say that with the caveat that I know essentially nothing about her. But what I do know makes her one of my role models. Because she did something that I have not yet managed to do: she finished NaNoWriMo, and then kept with it. She edited and rewrote, and probably rewrote some more, and then she started submitting.

And the result is an eminently readable book that deserves the praise it’s gotten. It may not have bookmarkable prose or anything, but it works, and it’s a lot better writing than a lot of other things that get published.

I’m fascinated by structure right now – mostly because I don’t really understand it yet, and don’t have a good sense of it in my own writing. The structure of Water for Elephants is pretty cool – it’s a mixture of flashback and present-day, but the transitions are very smooth. Jacob is an old man, in a nursing home, and when the circus comes to town, he starts drifting back to his days working at a circus. Every so often, he gets pulled back to the present, in part by a nurse named Rosemary (rosemary for remembrance, and another important character is named Rosie – I doubt this is a coincidence).

The story of his time at a circus is a complete story, encompassing all the rules of circus life, friendship, and love – all tricky and complicated.

For me, one sign of a good book is one that leaves you wanting to know more. This book had at least two points for that: it was incredibly interesting to get a sense of the peripatetic circus life during the Depression – not knowing whether you’d get paid that week, pulling up stakes quickly because another circus has gone broke and you want to pick through their performers and stock, the perils of Prohibition and moonshine – both physical and social.  The other is that of circus disasters – Water for Elephants features a menagerie stampede, and mentions a Ringling Brothers fire and a circus train crash. These are both things that my brain wants to explore further, so thank you, Sara Gruen, for making me interested in them.

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