July 18th, 2010


July Books 9) Black Hole, by Charles Burns

Attracted to this graphic novel by the glowing blurb from Time (which I have found trustworthy in the past); it's a combination of a) the coming-of-age story which I have enjoyed in the form of Fun Home, Blankets and Persepolis I and II, and b) the liminal fantasies of Neil Gaiman. The teenagers of mid-70s Seattle find strange things happening to their bodies: one grows an extra mouth on his chest, another takes to shedding her skin, a condition transmitted by sexual contact. Small groups of them form and dissolve in the woods, in deserted houses, trying to get out of town. In some ways it's a similar take on the terrors of adolescence to Buffy; Burns' stark monochrome rendering gives a bleak and gripping perspective. Not exactly a cheerful book but a memorable one. Slightly surprised I haven't seen more recommendations of it.
Lib Dem, libdem

July Books 10) A Fortunate Life: The Autobiography of Paddy Ashdown

Paddy Ashdown is one of the people I most admire in politics; I voted for him as Lib Dem leader, was a candidate and election agent for the party in Cambridge in 1990 and 1991, and then was the head of the local branch of the Lib Dems in Northern Ireland for several years (a position in no way incompatible with my Alliance Party activities). A few years later I found myself running the major source of informed but critical commentary on his tenure as High Representative in Bosnia. So I felt that I knew him a little, through politics both domestic and international.

I feel I know him better now. The book takes us through the start of his life in India, growing up in the northern part of County Down (his grandfather, from Rathfriland a bit farther south, supposedly owned the first motor car ever seen in Ireland), his decision to join the Royal Marines and the the SBS, his slipping into diplomacy and espionage, and then the momentous decision to give it all up and concentrate on a political career.

He adopted Yeovil (and the Liberals of Yeovil adopted him) in 1976, and decided then that it would take three elections to win the seat from the Conservatives. In fact it took only two, and he won in 1983 despite limited local resources and spells of unemployment. I think this part of the book is particularly instructive for anyone wanting to take up a career in representative politics; it's tough for all political parties but particularly for smaller ones.

We then jump almost immediately from 1983 to 1988, when he was elected leader with my vote and many others, and was faced with a party in crisis, bumping along the bottom of the polls and often behind David Owen's continuing SDP. What interested me here was that Ashdown was always on the lookout for the best political terrain to occupy: equidistance was appropriate between Major and Kinnock, but when Blair moved Labour to the right, Ashdown surged to the centre-left. He allowed himself to get seduced by Blair's vision of a historic realignment of the British left, but once Blair had failed a couple of critical tests (most notably, binning the Jenkins recommendations for electoral reform) Ashdown decided that the project was over, as was his leadership.

The most moving parts of the book are about Bosnia; the prologue takes us to the camps of Manjača and Trnopolje, located in that long valley between Banja Luka and Prijedor which I came to know well at a later year. Always gifted for languages, Ashdown quoted pithy local proverbs - a particular favourite was "Lako je tuđim kurcem gloginje mlatiti", which translates "it is easy to beat down thorns using other men's pricks". But he also did more in three years to create a sense of confidence and dynamism in Bosnia than the international community had managed in the previous decade. (All this progress, though Ashdown does not say it, was wilfully squandered by the indolence of his somnolent successor.)

The book ends with two bizarre episodes: first, Gordon Brown's attempt to get him to join the cabinet in 2007 as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and second, his near miss at becoming UN special envoy for Afghanistan - an interesting case study of what happens when all the conditions have been put in place but one key actor (President Karzai) changes his mind at the last moment. I've seen some speculation that he may return to the EU as a special Balkan envoy but I fear this may just be wishful thinking from activists rather than anything based on reality.

One constant theme from about Chapter 4 onwards is the presence of his wife Jane. Despite one well-publicised wobble, this is clearly a deep and strong political and emotional partnership, as is obvious to anyone who has met the Ashdowns in action. But what comes out from the book is that Ashdown does draw his strength from his family; as he gets formally invested as a member of the House of Lords, his granddaughter shouts down from the gallery, Je veux faire PIPI! and his sympathy is entirely with the little girl.

It's a well-written and entertaining book, and I think even those with much less interest than I have in Northern Ireland childhoods, British liberal politics, or Bosnia will enjoy it.

July Books 11) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vols I & II, by Edward Gibbon

I've finally, after more than ten months, made it to the end of the first of the three blockbuster Penguin volumes of the complete Decline and Fall, so I'm logging it here as a book finished in July (if started in September 2009).

Just for reference, the chapters here are: Preface; geographical introduction; the Empire in the age of the Antonines; the constitution of the Empire; the cruelty, follies and murder of Commodus [with added Pertinax]; Septimius Severus; Caracalla, Macrinus, Elagabalus and Alexander Severus; and taxation; the Year of Six Emperors, and Philip the Arab; Persia; Germany; Goths; Aurelian; the rise of Diocletian; more Diocletian; the rise of Constantine; early Christianity; early Chritianity and the Empire; Constantinople and Constantine's system of government; Constantine and his successors; Constantius, Gallus and Julian; the conversion of Constantine and the establishment of Christianity; heresy and paganism; the rise of Julian the Apostate; Julian and his Apostasy; Julian's Persian campaign, and his death; Julian's successors, magic, and the inhabitants of Scotland; the Goths infiltrate.

I find that already I have difficulty in remembering why Aurelian or Septimius Severus were so important, but at least I know where to look if I need to. The most impassioned run of chapters is the three or four dealing with Julian; the quote that still gives me giggles is the one about the lascivious dances of Elagabalus's temple maidens in Chapter VI. Onwards, and upwards!

Statistically improbable phrases - the answers

Answers to yesterday's questions:

1) salted meal, sacred salt, great laurel, father river - Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin
2) punishable assault, marrow wound, notice that the suit, full outlawry, fifth court, old beardless, nine neighbours, lesser outlawry, lawful notice, lawful request, property forfeit, quarter court, named witnesses, forfeited property, same bloodline, brain wound, greatest lawyers, internal wound - Njal's Saga, identified by londonkds
3) grave handbook, word shaker, swampy eyes, standover man, dream carrier, duden dictionary, drop sheets - The Book Thief
4) most different climates, temperate productions, arctic productions, transitional gradations, modified descendants, naturalised plants, consecutive formations, sessile cirripedes, aboriginal species, unknown progenitor, transitional grades, domesticated productions, larger genera, doubtful forms, modified offspring, transitional varieties, profitable variations, diversified habits, neuter insects, systematic affinity, fossiliferous formations, mere individual differences, mongrel offspring, occasional means - The Origin of Species, identified by redfiona99
5) camouflage foil, cryo pod, fairy technology, bum flap, secondary door, helmet mike, jade ring, metal man, oxygen canisters, plasma screen - Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code, identified by bopeepsheep
6) dying earth, caribou herd, ultimate intelligence, anti entropic fields, arrestor rods, hawking mat, tesla trees, motile isles, farcaster portals, cryogenic fugue, crew clones, mini gun, standard months, flame forests, containment field, universal card, standard centuries, local years - Hyperion, identified by steve_mollmann (and almost by hano).
7) signs with falsehood, punishment doth await, shameful chastisement, grievous chastisement, thou mayest warn, herein truly, observe prayer, thou thy trust, best knoweth, hath knowledge, hath guided, thy lord, whoso believeth, believing servants, clear tokens, hath subjected, obey the apostle, hath sealed, hath cursed - The Koran
8) sensory motions, gusty air, atomic shapes, atomic compounds, sunlit world, component atoms - De Natura Rerum
9) old lady with mittens, dressing gong, gingerbread men - Charmed Life, identified by bopeepsheep
10) expected brain size, altruist genes, sigmoidal growth, giant deer, juvenile features, antler size, periodical cicadas, organic diversity, gall midges, descent with modification - not Jones or Dawkins but Steven Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin
11) white saloon car, gone bad inside, mystery blonde - Dead Souls, identified by bopeepsheep
12) divisional inquisitor, old broom, huge men - Witch Week, spotted by bopeepsheep
13) ale house, lavash bread, cobblestone alleyway - Pomegranate Soup
14) green wind, third rail - Palimpsest, by Catherynne Valente

And I declare bopeepsheep the winner, by a substantial margin. Thanks to all who had a go.

July Books 12) The Bloody Sunday Report, Volume V

At 654 numbered pages, this is the longest volume of the ten so far (and also, incidentally, marks more than a halfway point in the whole report, as Volume X is largely taken up with legal appendices). Collapse )

Volume I | Volume II | Volume III | Volume IV | Volume V | Volume VI | Volume VII | Volume VIII | Volume IX | Volume X and conclusions