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October books

Non-fiction: 3 (YTD 45)
Here’s My Card, by Bob Popyk
Seychelles: The Saga of a Small Nation Navigating the Cross-Currents of a Big World, by Sir James R. Mancham
Behind the Sofa: Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who, ed. Steve Berry

Fiction (non-sf): 2 (YTD 26)
Sodom and Gomorrah, by Marcel Proust
Gentleman’s Agreement, by Laura Z. Hobson

sf (non-Who): 6 (YTD 103)
Ringworld, by Larry Niven
The Sound of his Horn, by Sarban
Larque on the Wing, by Nancy Springer
The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells
Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson
Earth Girl, by Janet Edwards

Doctor Who, etc: 2 (YTD 31)
Doctor Who: The Women Who Lived - Tales for Future Time Lords, by Christel Dee and Simon Guerrier
The Vampire Curse, by Mags Halliday, Kelly Hale and Philip Purser-Hallard

Comics: 2 (YTD 24)
Doctor Who: The Widow’s Curse, ed. Tom Spilsbury
Retour sur Aldébaran, tome 1, by Leo

~5,000 pages (YTD ~62,300)
6/15 (YTD 96/236) by non-male writers (Hobson, Springer, Wells, Edwards, Dee, Halliday/Hale)
1/15 (YTD 24/236) by PoC (Mancham)
2/15 (YTD 20/236) reread (Ringworld, Sodom and Gomorrah)

Reading now
Hybrid, by Shaun Hutson
Baptism in Blood, by Jane Haddam
Doctor Who: Twelve Angels Weeping: Twelve Stories of the Villains from Doctor Who, by Dave Rudden

Coming soon (perhaps):
Hardwired, by Walter Jon Williams
Burr, by Gore Vidal
52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, by Ruth Padel
The Stone Book Quartet, by Alan Garner
And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
Fools, by Pat Cadigan
Delta of Venus, by Anaïs Nin
The Name of This Book Is Secret, by Pseudonymous Bosch
Perilous Dreams, by Andre Norton
A Cold Day in Hell, by Alan Grant
Factfulness, by Hans Rosling
Fanny Hill, by John Cleland
“The Queen of Air and Darkness”, by Poul Anderson
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, by Dennis O’Driscoll
Grimm Tales: For Young and Old, by Philip Pullman
Lambik, by Marc Legendre
The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2010 Edition, ed. Rich Horton
In Another Light, by Andrew Greig
Nebula Awards Showcase 2011, ed. Kevin J. Anderson
Secret Histories, ed. Mark Clapham

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Second paragraph of third chapter of Larque on the Wing:
Emergency bells were ringing in Larque’s bones. She had to find Sky.
I confess I had never heard of Nancy Springer before reading this novel, which shared the 1995 James Tiptree Jr Award with "The Matter of Seggri". It turns out that she is much better known for her YA novels about Sherlock Holmes' smarter younger sister. I found Larque on the Wing a complete delight. The viewpoint character, Larque Harootunian, undergoes a mid-life crisis similar to that in Doris Lessing's The Summer Before the Dark, with the important difference that she is able to create doppelgangers of people she interacts with more or less by accident, and that her conservative mother is able to blink away undesirable characteristics of the people she interacts with. Larque reinvents herself as a young gay chap, to the dismay of her husband, and everyone needs to do some readjusting. The tone is comic but the foundations are hard. One of those cases where the awards system identified a good novel that might not otherwise have got much recognition from the genre. You can get it here.

Second paragraph of third section of "The Matter of Seggri":
Anyhow I understand better now what I was seeing at the Games in Reha. There are sixteen adult women for every adult man. One conception in six or so is male, but a lot of nonviable male fetuses and defective male births bring it down to one in sixteen by puberty. My ancestors must have really had fun playing with these people’s chromosomes. I feel guilty, even if it was a million years ago. I have to learn to do without shame but had better not forget the one good use of guilt. Anyhow. A fairly small town like Reha shares its Castle with other towns. That confusing spectacle I was taken to on my tenth day down was Awaga Castle trying to keep its place in the Maingame against a castle from up north, and losing. Which means Awaga’s team can’t play in the big game this year in Fadrga, the city south of here, from which the winners go on to compete in the big big game at Zask, where people come from all over the continent - hundreds of contestants and thousands of spectators. I saw some holos of last year’s Maingame at Zask. There were 1280 players, the comment said, and forty balls in play. It looked to me like a total mess, my idea of a battle between two unarmed armies, but I gather that great skill and strategy is involved. All the members of the winning team get a special title for the year, and another one for life, and bring glory back to their various Castles and the towns that support them.
This is a late great Ursula Le Guin story, set on a planet where men are a small minority, pampered and constrained to athletics rather than anything intellectual. Le Guin takes us through Seggri's history in a series of (mostly) external accounts, as integration with galactic society brings about the crumbling of traditional gender roles. It's a parable, of course, but it's very powerful as well. You can get it most readily as part of the Birthday of the World collection.

"The Matter of Seggri" was on the ballot for Best Novelette for both Hugo and Nebula, beaten in both cases by "The Martian Child", by David Gerrold. Ursula Le Guin's novella "Forgiveness Day" was also a finalist for all three awards. "Cocoon" by Greg Egan was on the Tiptree shortlist and the Hugo ballot, as was Le Guin's "Solitude". Temporary Agency by Rachel Pollack was on the Tiptree and Nebula shortlists. North Wind, by Gwyneth Jones, was up for the Tiptree, BSFA and Clarke Awards, but did not win any of them. This is the only SF award that Nancy Springer has won to date; the Tiptree folks rewarded her by making her a judge the following year.

This was the year that the Nebula for Best Novel went to Moving Mars, and the Hugo to Mirror Dance. In this sequence I am also tracking the Clarke and BSFA awards, which that year went to Fools by Pat Cadigan and Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks respectively; I shall take them in that order.

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Monday reading

The Vampire’s Curse, by Mags Halliday, Kelly Hale and Philip Purser-Hallard
Hybrid, by Shaun Hutson
Baptism in Blood, by Jane Haddam

Last books finished
Behind the Sofa: Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who, ed. Steve Berry
Gentleman’s Agreement, by Laura Z. Hobson
Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson
Earth Girl, by Janet Edwards
Retour sur Aldébaran, tome 1, by Leo

Next books
Hardwired, by Walter Jon Williams
Burr, by Gore Vidal
The Prisoner and the Fugitive, by Marcel Proust

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Walking in the woods #ArenbergFestival

Leuven is commemorating the contribution to the city of the Arenberg family, local bigwigs for centuries who are still around despite all their property being confiscated in 1918 because they were too German. A big chunk of that property is the forest which starts less than five minutes' walk from our house, the Meerdaalwoud/Heverleebos, and this weekend saw various events to celebrate the Arenberg heritage.

I went yesterday on a historic walk explaining how the Arenbergs had managed the forest over the centuries, led by a chap in partial costume:

I confess that I didn't absorb the details of the history very much; it was a fine day and I got a great picture of some Fomes fomentarius (aka tinder fungus or hoof fungus) on one of the trees.

After the walk we were treated to a little dramatic re-enactment of the Duke's justice against a young man caught breaking the laws of the forest.

This was followed by a musical performance, of which more later.

Today Anne, F and I went on another walk, this time explaining how the woods are conserved now. Rather than a docent-led tour, there were various booths placed strategically along a decent long walk, where we could gather info from the experts. We were a bit taken aback at our first stop when we were asked to estimate the height, age and thickness of a particular tree. It was a big tree.

At least we weren't asked to cut it down with a herring. The crowd-sourcing of estimates produced some amusingly varied results:

In fact it is 65 years old, 32 metres high and 45 cm thick. The kids watched in amazement as one of the researchers took a dendrochronological sample. (Took me back to my days at the Institute of Irish Studies in Belfast.)

The next stop featured the legendary @Boswachter_Marc, a huge advocate for the forest on social media, explaining to us in detail how the trees and wildlife interact and the role of humans in facilitating that. I found some extra wildlife that he doesn't have to manage.

It was quite a long walk. There was horse-drawn transport but we missed it.

A good day none the less. I'll leave you with the band which performed after yesterday's walk.

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Time for another Oscar-winning film, and it's another one I hadn't heard of before starting this project. Gentleman's Agreement won Best Motion Picture for 1947, and got another two Oscars in other categories (which is low by Best Picture standards), Best Director for Elia Kazan and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm as Anne Dettrey. The other Best Motion Picture contenders were The Bishop's Wife, Crossfire, Great Expectations and Miracle on 34th Street, none of which I have seen. Here's the poster:

Gentleman's Agreement ranks 8th on both IMDB measures of the top films of 1947 (here and here). Ahead of it in both IMDB systems are Miracle on 34th Street, Out of the Past, The Lady from Shanghai, Black Narcissus and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I have not seen any of them. The only other film from 1947 that I have seen is Odd Man Out, which I enjoyed more than Gentleman's Agreement, but I can also see why it was less appealing to Oscar voters.

This trailer interestingly leads with the Oscar win and then with the success of the novel. I wasn't able to track down a trailer from before the Oscar ceremony (but admit that I did not try very hard).

It's the third consecutive Oscar winner to tackle a gritty social issue, after The Lost Weekend and alcoholism, and The Best Years of Our Lives and demobilisation. This time it is anti-Semitism, with Gregory Peck playing journalist Phil Schuyler Green, who has been given the assignment of writing about it; after much agonising, he decides to pretend to be Jewish for six months and to recount his experiences.

I am sorry to say that this film did not particularly grab me. Anti-Semitism is a very serious issue, in 2018 as much as 1947. The film-makers deserve credit for taking it on. But it's not a brilliant film. As usual, I'm going to go through it starting with the things that bothered me most.

Whitewashing: The setting of the film varies between New York and posh parts of Connecticut and Vermont. I may be misremembering, but I don't recall seeing a single black face in the entire film, not even in the street shots and crowd scenes of New York which establish the setting; there is certainly no black actor with a speaking part. Much is made of the magazine where Phil works being reluctant to hire Jews; there's a much more noticeable lack of diversity amongst its staff (though Phil says he doesn't want to hear the word "nigger", it's not clear that there is anyone around who he could mean). The most visible possibly non-white extra is a chap with a moustache in the very first scene.

Being Earnest: Our hero spends what seems like ages agonising over the creative process - what will his angle be? - before he finally comes up with the idea of passing for Jewish. The creative process is difficult, as I know from my writer friends, but it's not very interesting to watch, and the praise he gets from colleagues and family for trying hard and being clever isn't good cinema. (Here is Anne Revere as his mother, though she was only 13 years older than Gregory Peck.)

The issue itself: I am not an expert in ani-Semitism, and for obvious reasons don't have a lot of personal experience of it. But watching the film I kept feeling that, so soon after the Holocaust and in the year when the state of Israel was created, there might be a bit more to say about the subject than commentary about daily micro-aggressions and being barred from posh hotels? I was very glad to find a piece in Tablet (the American Jewish magazine, not the British Catholic one) by Saul Austerlitz going into this in great detail, with the un-pithy but cogent title “When Hollywood Was Scared To Depict Anti-Semitism, It Made ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’”. One key quote from the article:
This is a hard-hitting movie about anti-Semitism, unafraid of specificity in its choice of targets, that nonetheless depicts anti-Jewish sentiment as being primarily confined to the types of people and places a well-heeled Manhattan journalist might encounter.
It's a film much more about afflicting the comforted than comforting the afflicted. No harm in that, of course; but it's a choice with consequences, notably a rather wooden performance from Peck, whose character is on the right side of the argument all the time. His best moment is when he confronts the hotel where he had planned to honeymoon about their refusal to admit Jews, where his continual seething is appropriate and in character.

There are three really Jewish characters, Phil's friend Dave Goldman, played by John Garfield (of whom more later), his secretary Elaine Wales, played by June Havoc, who turns out to be a Jew passing as a Christian, and Professor Fred Lieberman, played by Sam Jaffe and obviously modelled on Einstein, who gets one of the best lines explaining Jewishness to Phil:
Lieberman: Millions of people nowadays are religious only in the vaguest sense. I've often wondered why the Jews among them still go on calling themselves Jews. Do you know, Mr. Green?
Phil: No, but I'd like to.
Lieberman: Because the world still makes it an advantage not to be one. Thus it becomes a matter of pride to go on calling ourselves Jews.

The romance: In parallel with the rather forced drama of Phil's journalism, he has a romantic plot with his publisher's niece, divorcee Kathy Lacy, played by Dorothy Maguire, and a potential alternate option in his colleague Anne Dettrey, played by Celeste Holm, who won an Oscar for it. I found it very difficult to believe in the chemistry between Phil and Kathy. McGuire is very good in the role, and indeed Kathy probably has the best arc of any of the characters, since the anti-Semitism story is her idea in the first place and then she is forced to confront it in her own family and in herself. Holm's character gets a lot of good lines (perhaps her best is, "some of your other best friends are Methodist, but you never bother to say it") and although like Phil she is always on the right side of the argument, she is more interesting than he is.

The kid: Phil's character is widowed, and his mother runs his household. His son Tommy is played by none other than eleven-year-old Dean Stockwell, the future Al Calavicci on Quantum Leap and John Cavil, aka Number One, from Battlestar Galactica. He had already been acting for three years.

Feminism: Oddly enough, for a film ostensibly about anti-Semitism which incidentally drops the ball on race, I think it scores rather better on gender issues. The major women characters are all rounded, have agency and get most of the good lines. (The exception perhaps being the secretary Elaine Wales.) In an early scene where Phil first talks about Kathy to his mother, she delivers a zinger:
Phil Green: Funny thing, that girl, Mr. Minify's niece suggested the series on antisemitism. Funny.
Mrs. Green: You don't say? Why, women will be thinking next, Phil.

The real Jew: For me the standout performances in the film were Dorothy McGuire, noted above, as Kathy, and John Garfield as Dave Goldman, Phil's childhood friend who turns up in New York after being demobbed and has difficulty finding a job and accommodation. Kathy's friendship with him is essentially her path to redemption. Dave is not at all sure that an expose on anti-Semitism is going to be much help for him personally, but he goes along with it anyway, requiring a lot in a supporting role from Garfield, which he delivers. Garfield was one of those worst hit by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and died in 1952, aged 39, of a heart attack.

You can get it here.

Next up is Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, with not one but two future Doctor Whos in minor roles.

I am now twenty years into this project, as it were. I'm ranking Gentleman's Agreement ahead of Gone With the Wind and behind Going My Way. (Gone With The Wind is better cinematically, but politiclly disastrous. Going My Way also features a protagonist who is right all the time, but is more fun.) My ranking all of the Best Picture winners so far is as follows, from bottom to top:

20) The Great Ziegfeld (Oscar for 1936)
19) Cimarron (1930/31)
18) Cavalcade (1932/33)
17) Wings (1927/28)
16) Broadway Melody (1928/29)
15) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
14) Gone With the Wind (1939)
13) Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
12) Going My Way (1944)
11) How Green Was My Valley (1941)
10) Mrs Miniver (1942)
9) Grand Hotel (1931/32)
8) The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
7) It Happened One Night (1934)
6) You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
5) The Lost Weekend (1945)
4) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
3) All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)
2) Rebecca (1940)
1) Casablanca (1943)

In terms of source material, we've had ten out of twenty based on novels (though perhaps Mrs Miniver should be considered a short story collection); three based on stage plays (two successful, one not produced); one based on a short story, one based on an epic poem, one based on a non-fiction biography, and four which were original material. In terms of geography, six of the twenty are set more or less entirely in New York, four largely elsewhere in the USA, four in the UK (three England, one Wales), four elsewhere in Europe (two largely in first world war France, one each in pre-war France and interbellum Germany), one in the Pacific and one in wartime Africa. In terms of history, fourteen are set in the twentieth century (two during the first world war, the others more or less contemporary), four straddle the ninteenth and twentieth centuries, one is set entirely in the nineteenth century and one in the eighteenth century. If the magic formula is therefore a screen adaptation of a novel set in contemporary new York, the two films that tick all those boxes are The Lost Weekend and Gentleman's Agreement.

Gentleman's Agreement is based on a novel of the same name by Laura Z. Hobson, published the same year (book in February, film in November - a very quick turnaround). The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
“Sure are, gettin’ a cab this far downtown,” the driver said amiably. “It’s the doormen all along Park, flaggin’ us down for them rich Jews.” With that, he snapped the butt of his cigarette through the window of the cab and began whistling a tune.
As with Cimarron, a rather good book has been delivered to the screen without the same bang. In the novel, Hobson is able to take us into the heads of Phil and Kathy, and Phil is a lot more nuanced on the page than on the screen. It's a case where telling rather than showing is the way to go; the novel makes it clear that Phil and Kathy's relationship is physical, and likewise that Dave and Anne have an affair. It feels more fair to Kathy and makes Phil more interesting than the screenplay does. Some of my criticisms still stand - there is no obvious black character in the book (the editor, Minify, employs a maid called Berta who is described as "husky", but that's not the same as "dusky"). The Holocaust is referenced in passing, but the emphasis is still on anti-Semitism as experienced by the East Coast upper classes. But the story came alive for me on the page as it had not done on the screen. It was originally serialised in Cosmopolitan. You can get it here.

Laura Z. Hobson, like her character Elaine Wales, was a Jew who used a non-Jewish surname (that of her Protestant ex-husband), so she knew what she was writing about, and it shows. Her son Michael Z. Hobson became a senior executive for Marvel comics in the 1980s and 1990s, and then became head of Parachute Publishing which made R.L. Stine a household name. There's always a genre connection if you look for it (cf. Dean Stockwell above).

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Ireland has had a president since 1938, and today is the 14th presidential election in that time. Almost certainly, the winner will be the incumbent, Michael D. Higgins, aged 77, poet, former sociology lecturer, former Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, former Mayor of Galway, genial left-wing icon.

Young F and I were lucky enough to visit Áras an Uachtaráin, the President's official residence in Phoenix Park, last summer. It's a remarkable place, and the current resident is a remarkable person.

SF fans should note that President Higgins sent a special welcome note to next year's Worldcon, which will be held in Ireland, here read out at Worldcon 76 by Dublin 2019 Chair James Bacon.

The president has a seven-year term; keen mathematicians will note that while 80 years have passed since 1938, thirteen seven-year terms would normally take 91 years. The discrepancy is because there were two very short presidencies in the 1970s, one cut short by death and the next by resignation. (Mary Robinson also resigned a few weeks early in 1997, but the resulting election was more or less on schedule.)

Of the 14 elections, six have been uncontested. In three cases (Sean T. O'Kelly in 1952, Patrick Hillery in 1983 and Mary McAleese in 2004), an established incumbent sought re-election and nobody could be bothered to oppose them. In the other three cases (Douglas Hyde in 1938, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh in 1974 and Patrick Hillery in 1976) the major political parties agreed on a candidate in unusual circumstances (the first president of the lot, and resolving the two curtailed presidencies of the 1970s).

If there is an election, there are three ways you can become a candidate. If you happen to be the incumbent president, you can nominate yourself for a second seven-year term. (You are only allowed two terms.) This is what happened in the three cases of 1952, 1983 and 2004. (Éamon de Valera could have nominated himself in 1966, but chose to take a different path.) The current President, Michael D. Higgins, has also nominated himself for re-election. 2018 is the first time that a self-nominated president's re-election has been contested.

If you can persuade 20 members of either house of the Irish Parliament (the Oireachtas) to nominate you, you can also qualify as a candidate. The Dáil (lower house) currently has 158 members, though under the current constitution its size has varied from 138 to 166; it must have at least one member per 30,000 of the population, and at most one member per 20,000. The Seanad (upper house) has 60 members, fixed in the constitution. So to go the parliamentary route you need around 9-10% of parliamentarians to back you, which in practice means at least one medium-to-large political party, or several small ones. All of the candidates in the 1938, 1945, 1959, 1966, 1973, 1974, 1976 and 1990 elections were nominated by this route (including the uncontested elections of 1938, 1974 and 1976).

The third path to nomination is to get at least four county councils to propose you. Until 1997, this had always been thought to be a poor relation of the Oireachtas route. County councillors are also members of political parties, and councils don't have a lot of power. However, in 1997 there was some dissatisfaction in the main political parties about the way their candidates had been chosen, and two outsiders (a former Eurovision winner and a retired senior policeman) successfully appealed to local government to broaden the field. This established a degree of independence for the councils which hadn't been there before. The councils nominated two out of five candidates in 1997, four out of seven in 2011 and four out of six this year, a record proportion. Normally candidates nominated by the councils are non-party, though last time round one of them was regarded as being close to Fianna Fáil.

Today's election is very unusual. As noted above, it is the first time that a self-nominted incumbent has faced opposition. It has the highest ever proportion of candidates nominated by county councils. The only candidate nominated by Oireachtas members is a representative of Sinn Féin, the two larger parties having decided to support the incumbent. And it also looks like it will deliver the highest ever winning margin for a successful candidate.

Seven of the previous elections have been contested. Three (Éamon de Valera's two wins in 1959 and 1966, and Erskine Childers' short-lived victory in 1973) featured only two candidates, Fianna Fáil vs Fine Gael in all three cases, Fianna Fáil winning each time. The largest winning margin to date was Éamon de Valera's 56.3% in 1959. The other two straight fights were much closer - Dev won by less than 1% in 1966, and Childers by only 4% in 1973.)

The other four have been multi-candidate affairs, with nobody winning more than 50% of the first preference votes on the first round. Like all other Irish elections, the presidential election uses the single transferable vote, with voters numbering the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate has more than half of the votes, the candidate (or candidates) with fewest votes is eliminated and their votes transferred to their next preference, until someone has a majority of all remaining valid votes. That delivered victory for Sean T. O'Kelly in 1945 (he was only a hair's breadth below 50% on the first count), Mary Robinson in 1990 (the only case of a candidate who did not get the most first preference votes winning on transfers), Mary McAleese in 1997 and Michael D. Higgins in 2011. Robinson and Higgins are the only two official Labour candidates to have won the presidency so far. O'Kelly and McAleese were explicitly Fianna Fáil candidates. Fine Gael have never won a presidential election.

The polls look very good for President Higgins. His percentage is consistently in the high 60's. This is even better than Finland's president Sauli Niinistö, who got 62.7% against seven opponents in January this year. Although elected as the Labour Party candidate last time, he is running this time as an independent, effectively with backing from Fine Gael as well as Labour. The strongest criticism made of him during the campaign has been that he had originally said he would serve only one term. However, I think people are entitled to change their minds.

The other five candidates are remarkably weak, in my subjective view. The only Oireachtas-nominated candidate is Liadh Ní Riada, a Sinn Féin MEP for the southern part of Ireland. She has not previously been one of their most visible figures. Three of the other four, and I am not making this up, are businessmen who were nominated by county councils after becoming well known through their appearances on the Irish version of the reality TV show Dragon's Den. (Shark Tank in the United States.) The last is a mental health activist; she and Ní Riada are the two women among the six candidates. As the polls currently sit, Sean Gallagher, one of the Dragon's Den candidates who was in fact the runner-up in the 2011 election, is in second place, but a very long way behind at roughly 11%. Candidates can get up to €200,000 of their election expenses reimbursed if they have more than 12.5% of the vote when they are eliminated. None apart from President Higgins seems likely to pass this threshold.

At the same time, there is a rather odd referendum today on removing a single word from the Irish constitution. The word is "blasphemous", and it is in the final sentence of paragraph i of subsection 1º of Article 40.6:
The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.
The reasoning behind it is rather technical, but the basic argument is that Ireland does not have an established religion to blaspheme against, and that the law has anyway never been used. Polls suggest that it will be carried by a large margin.

Results should be out by tomorrow afternoon, Irish time.

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Sodom and Gomorrah, by Marcel Proust

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Cependant, rien que par mes rêves quand j’étais endormi, j’aurais pu apprendre que mon chagrin de la mort de ma grand’mère diminuait, car elle y apparaissait moins opprimée par l’idée que je me faisais de son néant. Je la voyais toujours malade, mais en voie de se rétablir, je la trouvais mieux. Et si elle faisait allusion à ce qu’elle avait souffert, je lui fermais la bouche avec mes baisers et je l’assurais qu’elle était maintenant guérie pour toujours. J’aurais voulu faire constater aux sceptiques que la mort est vraiment une maladie dont on revient. Seulement je ne trouvais plus chez ma grand’mère la riche spontanéité d’autrefois. Ses paroles n’étaient qu’une réponse affaiblie, docile, presque un simple écho de mes paroles ; elle n’était plus que le reflet de ma propre pensée. Meanwhile, if only from my dreams when I was asleep, I might have learned that my grief at my grandmother's death was diminishing, for she appeared there less oppressed by the idea I had been forming of her non-existence. I saw her as an invalid still, but on the way to recovering; I thought she looked better. And if she alluded to what she had suffered, I stopped her mouth with my kisses and assured her that now she was cured for ever. I would have liked to make the sceptics acknowledge that death is in truth an illness from which we recover. Only I did not find in my grandmother the rich spontaneity of old. Her words were only an enfeebled, docile response, a mere echo almost, of my own words; she was no longer anything more than the reflection of my own thoughts.
When I first read this a decade ago, I wrote:
I'm more than half way through the seven-volume epic now, and sufficiently engaged to be sure that I will indeed finish it in due course. Sodom and Gomorrah puts homosexuality front and centre; at the very beginning, we discover that the monstrous Baron de Charlus is in fact perpetually on the lookout for attractive men; and throughout the second half of the book the narrator is tormented by the idea that his girlfriend Albertine is having affairs with her girlfriends. Proust is himself a gay but very closeted writer, putting words in the mouth of a heterosexual narrator who observes but is horrified by homosexuality, and for today's reader there is more of the fascination of watching the author's mental train wreck than the idea that we are learning anything.

There is other stuff going on as well. At first I was afraid that we would have yet more bitchy and superficial social events, but we have the interesting compare and contrast between two key relationships - the narrator and Albertine, and Baron de Charlus and the young plebeian musician Morel - which drives the narrative. There are a couple of interesting confrontations with modern technology - the elevator, the motor car, the aeroplane. There are reflections on art and how people respond to it (a discussion continued from earlier works). And the significance of placenames is a major sub-theme of the last third of the book. All quite fascinating, and yet again I feel will reward re-reading in due course.
A couple of things struck me more strongly on second reading. Most obviously, I should have spotted that Sodom and Gomorrah respectively are male homosexuality and lesbianism; the plot moves from one to the other, and in fact it's crystal clear that Albertine's fun with her girlfriends is real and not just in the narrator's paranoia. What Proust captures very well, however, is precisely the paranoia of someone newly in lust who cannot cope with the idea that the person they are obsessed with may perhaps have other interests - and of course the hypocrisy of his narrator also getting it on with several of Albertine's friends himself, even if that happens mainly offstage. So the final twist (the set-up for the next volume) is entirely believable, when spoilerCollapse )

I'm a bit more familiar with the Dreyfus case than I was last time round, and so am more appreciative of the way attitudes to it weave through the social set-up and the complex intersection of Dreyfusards with respectability and homosexuality - not completely orthogonal, but not strongly aligned either. I also appreciated the minor character Brichot's obsession with the origin of place names, pointing to hidden histories among humans as well as villages.

On the other hand, I felt there were a few too many soirées of rather unpleasant people being unpleasant to each other here, and the class mockery of servants is getting a bit tedious. So although I still think it's a great read, it has its limitations. You can get it here.

Onwards! To The Prisoner and the Fugitive!

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Second paragraph (and first paragraph of embedded quote) of third chapter:
This is what the cover page of Seychelles Political Castaways stated when it was published in 1976, the year of our independence:
Seychelles: ninety-two islands and atolls lying 1000 miles east of the Kenya coast in the Indian Ocean, and often described as the world's most beautiful archipelago. Each of the coral banks or islands has a beauty of its own that is captured rarely by camera and almost never by pen. Straight palms, white sands, vari-coloured seas and clear lagoons with their patchwork of coral form a backcloth to a nation that was, until 28 June 1976, listed in the guide books and the ledgers of Whitehall as a British Crown Colony.
Four years ago I attended a conference in Florence, Italy, and fell into conversation with an elderly gentleman with a spring in his step and a glint in his eye. He whipped out a copy of his latest book, signed it with a flourish and handed it to me. I am sorry to say that it sat on the shelves for some time before I read it, and in the meantime Sir James Mancham has shuffled off this mortal coil. But I really appreciated the gesture.

The book is mainly about the geopolitics and economics of the Seychelles, but that is a subject deeply entangled with its author's life. He became President of the Seychelles when the islands became independent in 1976, and just a year later was overthrown by his own prime minister (while he himself was in London attending the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations). He was still pretty sore about that, but on the other hand had relished the opportunities opened up by his return from exile in 1992 to promote the interests of his homeland, particularly since the invitation to return came from his usurper.

The Seychelles is a really small place, with a population of less than 100,000, but that clearly leaves plenty of room for local politics and palace politics; Mancham hints at the effects of high net worth individuals coming in to buy individual islands, a phenomenon he himself was sanguine about. He's much less sanguine about what he still sees as his betrayal by the British and Americans in 1977, facilitated by the French and culminating in the islands becoming a Soviet satellite. (It would be interesting to read an account of those events from another source.) I was amused to realise that I know most of the EU officials he mentions in the relevant chapter.

I doubt that this is the best book ever written about the Seychelles, or even the best book written by Sir James Mancham, but I learned more than I had expected from it. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book by a non-white writer (Sir James was proud of his Chinese grandfather). Next on that list is And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hossaini.

The Sound of his Horn, by Sarban

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Apart from the slight pain in my hands I have rarely felt so well and tranquil and at ease in my body as I did that morning when I first began to speculate about where I was. It was not by any means my first day of consciousness. I knew that I had been in that bright and airy room, with its scent of flowers mingling with the fainter odour of drugs and disinfectant and floor-polish, for quite a number of days. The white painted door and window-frame, the pretty curtain and the white wood furniture were all familiar to me, and I knew the faces of my two nurses quite well; they had been looking after me for a long time. It was just that that day I completed a gradual transition from passive perception to active observation.
The only thing I knew of this novel before reading it was that it has a “Hitler Wins” scenario. I hadn't realised that the framing narrative is set shortly after WW2 in our timeline, but the protagonist recounts a story of breaking out of a PoW camp in Germany and getting somehow zapped forward to a different mid-21st century where the Allies were defeated. It's a very short book, and the key point is that the future Nazis have bred genetically modified young men to hunt women through the woods for sport. This is, needless to say, a really icky set-up, and I think the best point of the novel is that it doesn't especially dwell voyeuristically on the ickiness, but on the practicalities of getting the hero and his young female ally out of immediate danger. (Defeating the system isn't an option.) Even so, there are a number of loose ends, and I can't agree with those who rate it among the greats. However, I'm glad to have read it. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2013. Next on that list is Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, by Dennis O'Driscoll.

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Second paragraph of third chapter:
After that terrifying encounter, Adelaide had starlight in her soul. She knew she would follow the Dalek into space - not seeking revenge for the loss of her parents, simply to get out among the stars. Adelaide sacrificed everything to lead the first off-world colony to Mars, leaving her daughter and granddaughter behind on Earth. Heremotional detachment made her a severe and formidable leader.
This is a lovely book produced in time for the new Doctor, celebrating 100 (plus a few more) of the strong women characters of both Old and New Who (Pauline Collins is in it twice, for characters she played 39 years apart). It is gorgeously illustrated by 21 different artists (none of them men, as far as I could tell by the names), with the standout being Valentina Mozzo, also the most frequently used. It would be a great gateway drug to get fans of the Thirteenth Doctor to take an interest in the previous 55 years of the series. Just nice to have on the shelves too. You can get it here.

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Monday reading

Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson

Last books finished
Doctor Who: The Widow’s Curse, ed. Tom Spilsbury
The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

Next books
Earth Girl, by Janet Edwards
Retour sur Aldébaran, tome 1, by Leo
The Vampire’s Curse, by Mags Halliday

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As previously mentioned, I enjoyed both the short-lived Doctor Who spinoff TV series Class and its associated novels; Big Finish have now done two series of audios based on the show, using all the lead actors, though not all at the same time. I've listened to the first and will report on the second in due course. Each consists of three stories.

Gifted by Roy Gill picks up the April/Ram relationship (as played by Sophie Hopkins and Fadi Elsayed) and tests it against a rather excellent villain played by Deirdre Mullins with a sidekick played by Rhys Isaac-Jones. There's decently done nasty fairy tales and adolescent angst. It's a good start.

Life Experience, by Jenny T. Colgan, has Ram (Fady Elsayed) again with Tanya (Vivian Oparah) and the biggest guest cast of the three plays, led by Lu Corfield as mad alien scientist Marta Vanderburgh. Ram and Tanya have been sent to a local laboratory as work experience; the mayor (a fantastic performance by Jasmine Stewart) turns up as well; it turns out that the lab is carrying our some very non-standard experiments and all hell breaks loose, almost literally. Great fun.

Tell Me You Love Me, by Scott Handcock, is one of those stories that works much better in audio than it could on screen. Charlie (Greg Austin) and Matteusz (Jordan Renzo) are enjoying a romantic moment after school when they are assailed by an alien that propagates on sound alone; they call in Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly) who as usual gets all the good lines and deals ruthlessly with the problem.

The slight disappointment for fans of the TV show is that none of the three bring the full cast together as a team. At the same time of course this allows the better performers to shine a bit more. Certainly the three plays are fully in the spirit of the show, but also I think would be fairly accessible to listeners who had not seen the original. One other disappointment is that in the behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast, the sound balancing is rather poor and some of the actors are pretty inaudible. Nonetheless, you can get them here.

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Ringworld, by Larry Niven

Second paragraph of third chapter:
“Come off it,” said Louis Wu. “You can’t breed for luck the way you breed for shaggy eyebrows!”
The archetypal "Big Dumb Object", the Ringworld of the title is a million miles wide and 600 million miles across with a star in the middle and atmosphere trapped inside by rotation. Throw in some aliens and a girl who is always lucky and you have the story. The setup is very good - Niven's universe is nicely depicted, with the two sentient alien species sharing space with humanity, and then the Ringworld itself is a truly fantastic concept. The story runs out of steam a bit in the second half, as having reached the Ringworld, our heroes don't have all that much to do except try and get off it again, and the emotional investment that readers may have made in the girl isn't really paid off. Myself, I first came to Ringworld after reading its sequel, The Ringworld Engineers, and also after having read Rendezvous with Rama, so it never made the same impression on me that it did on most people. The book was delightfully spoofed by Terry Pratchett in Strata (an early non-Discworld book) and of course to an extent in the Discworld itself, which shows the extent to which it has entered popular consciousness.

Ringworld won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novel published in 1970, awarded in 1971. This was the year that the two major awards agreed on everything, with "Slow Sculpture" and "Ill Met In Lankhmar" winning the short fiction categories. Ringworld also won the first Locus Award for Best Novel, and the Ditmar and Seium Awards. Also on both the Hugo and Nebula final ballots were Tower of Glass, by Robert Silverberg, and The Year of the Quiet Sun, by Wilson Tucker. I have not read either of them. The other two novels on the Hugo ballot were Star Light, by Hal Clement, and Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson; and the other three novels on the Nebula ballot were And Chaos Died, by Joanna Russ; Fourth Mansions, by R. A. Lafferty; and The Steel Crocodile, by D.G. Compton. I have not read any of them either. I don't think I have read any of them either. Ringworld has twice as many owners on LibraryThing, and six times as many owners on Goodreads, as all the others combined. As far as subsequent purchasing history goes, the voters got it right this time. Just in case you haven't read it already, you can get it here.

Next in this series is "The Queen of Air and Darkness", a novelette by Poul Anderson from the following year (ie published 1971 and awarded in 1972).

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Missing Adventures, ed. Rebecca Levene

Second paragraph of third story ("The Tunnels to Heaven", by Andy Bodle):
All was still but for the occasional passing functionary. The Reminder Screens were projecting the same old slogans. The Facilitator at the desk was reciting her Tenets as if today were a day like any other.
A set of short stories about Bernice Summerfield's life before she joined the Doctor. Most of them are OK; the first ("Biology Lesson on Mal Oreille", by Xanna Eve Chown, a Malory Towers spoof)) and last ("Thirty Love", by Eddie Robson, in which she tries to explain tennis) are rather good; the second last ("Blood On The Tracks", by Andy Lane) is an outstanding tale of searching for an artifact which turns out to be more than we have been told, at least for Benny. For Benny continuity buffs really, but enjoyable. You can get it here.

Next up is Bernice Summerfield and the Vampire Curse, by Mags L Halliday.

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Here’s My Card, by Bob Popyk

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Stress the value of having your phone number handy. Elaborate on the benefit of a business relationship with you and your company.
I am a keen networker, as most of you know, and I occasionally do training sessions for colleagues on the topic. I had been scheduled to do it again the other week, and picked up this book fairly cheap in the hope that it would refresh my thinking. Well, it didn't really. First off, it's aimed at people whose business model is very different from mine (and from the younger colleagues who come to my training sessions) - the entrepreneur, selling a particular hard product or service, whose customers generally live within a reasonable travel distance. Since I started in my the line of business where I needed a client base, I've barely had any clients based in Brussels. (A lot have Brussels representation, of course, but the relationship is normally owned by headquarters.) Most of the business I pick up are useful contacts in the policy or business world, without much prospect of becoming clients in the short to medium term, and that is the spirit in which I hand mine out also.

Second, the book is barely conscious of the internet, with the injunction to have your email address clearly and correctly on your card almost the only reference. I had to check the publication date in disbelief. (2000.) I think even Popyk's target audience now would have Facebook pages set up for their business outreach, and frankly will find that much more useful as a driver of business than business cards.

Also one of the pieces of advice given is to go a bit gimmicky with your business cards, scenting them or making them odd shapes or using odd fonts. Personally I find this a bit annoying. You have to explain unexpected scentedness to your partner and colleagues, and it's tricky to scan oddly designed business cards into the system.

So basically this book was not for me. If you want, you can get it here.

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Putting Up Roots, by Charles Sheffield

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Even so, Josh didn't have high hopes when they finally reached the dining room. He was used to carryout meals, or eating on the run in fast-food places, because his mother was always rushing off somewhere or too busy rehearsing or studying parts to do any cooking. Uncle Ryan said that Aunt Stacy was a great cook, but it was obvious that he was totally bowled over by his new wife. He probably thought that everything she did was great, no matter how bad it was. In any case, it didn't seem possible that the reality could live up to the aromas.
This is a YA book taken from the template of Heinlein's Tunnel In the Sky; a group of young people are stuck on a planet together and have to make the best of it. I had acquired it because the viewpoint character is charged also with looking after his autistic cousin, who turns out to have magical rapport with the local aliens (yep, Disability Superpower); together they unravel the deadly plot of the evil capitalists (apology for spoilers). It's harmless enough, not great literature. You can get it here.

This was both my most popular unread book acquired in 2010, and the shortest unread book acquired that year. Next on both lists is 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem: A Poem for Every Week of the Year, by Ruth Padel.

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