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Books Read in 2014 and 2015

The excitement of moving house has distracted me so much that I finished only one book in 2014, though I read snippets from many books while arranging them in the new house, I also read lots of snippets on the Internet, none of them substantial enough to deserve a listing here. So page covers my reading for two years.

Richard Blake The Curse of Babylon

This is the last in a series of six novels describing the adventures of the Anglo-Saxon Aelric in the remains of the Roman Empire in the early seventh century.

Like it's predecessors it is exciting, abounding in sex and violence. I enjoyed it very much

Sylvia Nasar Gand Pursuit

Gives an account of developments in Economics since the mid nineteenth century

Sketches of economic theories are mixed with fascinating biographical detail about prominent economists

I was surprised by some gaps in her treatment

Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Jevons were mentioned mainly to say whether or not other people had read their work, with barely a couple of sentences each to say what that work was, and a reader might be forgiven for forming impression that the only economists of note before Alfred Marshall were Malthus and Marx, though the treatment of Marx was also indiosyncatic. There was no mention of Marx's labour theory of value.

However there were some delightful anecdotes about twentieth century economists, especially about the interittently insane Joan Robinson, who visited China during the mass starvation of Mao Tse Tung's Great Leap Forward, without noticing that anything was wrong. She was one of the apologists for Communism who helped to cover up its atrocities.

There was also interesting material about Schumpeter and Irving Fisher. Both mismanaged their own finances catastrophically, and Fisher was a keen abolitionist, also an enthusiast for vitamins, health foods, and execise equipment.

Other information new to me was that Hayek and Wittgenstein were cousins, and that Hayek was the only prominent economist to predict the slump of 1929-31.

Overall I found the book very interesting, but I'd have preferred more depth.

John Rankin Knots and Crosses

This book is one of several I read as a member f an online reading group meeting in the Cix Conferencing System

I quite enjoyed Knots and Crosses, finding it compulsive reading. I finished it in not much more than a day. However it didn't make a strong impression on me. Having read it several weeks ago I had to skim through it to refresh my memory before writing this


Knots and Crosses is the first book in a series relating the fictional adventures of Inspector John Rebus. I rather think I've seen some Rebus stories on the television, but have no recollection of what happened in any of them.

Mainstream novels (I don't like that term, but can't think of a better one) are usually centred on people. Events and problems are subsidiary to personality, giving the people a chance to show their mettle, or lack of it.

Detective stories, like Knots and Crosses, centre on a puzzle, and the people are mainly there as part of the scenery, apart from the detective, who assembles the clues and fits them together.

Knots and Crosses has action as well as puzzles. Rebus isn't like Miss Marple who sedately fits the clues together as one might solve a jigsaw puzzle in the drawing room. Rebus is also a man of action, wading through blood and guts in underground tunnels from which he is incredibly lucky to escape.

Occasionally, when I paused to reflect, thought I'd have liked a little more detail about some of the characters, especially about brother Michael - why did he become a drug dealer when he was doing so well as a hypnotist, and why did Michael's wife hate Rebus so much ? Indeed, as that was about all we were told about Michael's wife, why was she mentioned?

However I didn't pause to reflect very often, because I wanted to know what happened next and WHO DID IT. I assume that's the effect writers of detective stories want to have on their readers, so Ian Rankin succeeded in my case.

I don't recall any humour, and there were no beautifully written passages I'd copy into my commonplace book if I still had one, but there was lots of excitement, and reading it passed the time, so I think I got my money's worth.

Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort farm


Another book from the online reading group

In some respects this is the opposite of our previous book, Knots and Crosses. In that book the story was all. In cold Comfort Farm there's hardly a story at all, just a tenuous thread of a storyline linking some delightful descriptions of bizarre incidents involving extraordinary characters.

Set in the interwar years, Cold Comfort farm describes the adventures of Flora Poste, a young lady who inherits the meagre income of a hundred pounds per year, and decides to establish contact with some relatives who live in Cold Comfort Farm near the village of Howling.

The account of life on the farm is an amusing parody of fictional accounts of rural bliss. The Starkadder family was dominated by the aged matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom , who once saw something nasty in the woodshed, and rarely left her bedroom, except for the annual festival to celebrate the blooming of the sukebind.

There are many passages in Cold Comfort farm that I shall want to return to, but I didn't find the book compulsive reading. After a dozen pages or so I found I'd read enough for the time being and needed to put it down for a while. If I tried to read more I started to feel sleepy, and once when I forced myself to read more than usual it made me so sleepy that I had to go to bed for an hour or so to recuperate.

I thought the end of the book a failure. Flora was supposed to convert most of the denizens of the farm to a sort of normality. That didn't work because there were no people there to be converted, only caricatures.

Ada Doom could not say what she saw in the woodshed, nor what wrong was done to Flora's father, because there was nothing to be seen in the woodshed, and no wrong was done. There was no one there to do it.

The book was fun in parts so I'm glad I read it, but it might have benefited from the attentions of a ruthless editor.

Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart


Yet another book from the online reading group, this is the first novel of an, apparently famous, Nigerian Writer.

The book describes the collapse of rural Nigerian society in the face of colonial government allied with Christian missionaries. The story centres on the career of the farmer-warrior Okonkwe

The first part of the book sets the scene by describing traditional village life. The introduction by a Biyi Bandele referred to "the most famous opening paragraph in the history of African literature" , so I hoped for something comparable with the first sentence of Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers or the carefully crafted introductions to the essays in Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians but what I found seemed quite unremarkable. Indeed the early part of the book is written in the sort of flat prose one might expect from an accountancy student struggling to explain discounted cash flow, though the prose did get livelier once the blood started to flow.

I was puzzled by the chronology in the introduction:

''The Berlin Conference took place in 1884-5. Okonkwe was born a few years later in the mid nineteenth century'

That is a strange sense of 'middle'. I guess that the action was supposed to take place in the 1920's

I know very little of the history of British colonisation of West Africa, but had the general impression that colonialism in Africa had disrupted tradional society, and imposed artifical boundaries that often grouped together people of different cultures, while separating members of the same tribe. It was also my impression that Christian missionaries had been particularly disruptive.

This book makes me wonder if that may be an oversimplicifcation. If African traditions were as Achebe describes them, even Christianity may have been an improvement. When twins were born, they were carried off into the forest to die. When the village oracle decided that an entirely innocent 18 year old lad should die, the lad was led away into the forest on the pretext of visiting relatives in another village, and then hacked to death and Okonkwe, who was the lad's adopted father, assisted in the murder.

Okonkwe was despicted as proud of his bravery and manliness, yet his physical courage was not matched by moral courage.

Eventually Okonkwe mudered a civil servant and then committed suicide. He'd have done better to sit the throat of that odious village oracle.

Incidentally, I wonder how gay men and women would have fared in such a society.

Of course this was fiction; we'll need to consult the history books to find how closely it corresponded to reality, so I suspend judgement on West African society.

A glossary would have been useful to explain such terms as 'ulti', 'obi', and 'iyi-uwa', the words of the song on page 44, and in particular is 'foo foo'. The only foo foo I've heard of was the the late drag artist Foo Foo Lamar who used to have a night club in Manchester,

he may be heard leading friends in song here:

G. H. Hardy A Introduction to the Theory of Numbers

I read most of this several years ago, but skipped quite a lot.

This time I aimed at reading everything, and now know more than I used to about Farey series and continued fractions. I've worked out a strategy for reading Mathematics. Almost everthing is read three times; the first time to get a general idea what it's about, the second time to sort out the details and the third time as revision to prepare myself for the next bit. Each day I tackle another two or three pages. Although progress is very slow, it seems to be fairly sound. As I got further into the book I started to skip the details of some of the of trickier proofs but I have at least read the theorems

I'm not sure whether I'm entitled to claim I've read the entire book, but I have got to a stage where I can dip into it anywhere to refresh my memory, without needing to read everything that has gone before.

I particularly like this passage:

"It is a matter of common observation that round numbers are very rare, the fact may be verified by anyone who will make a habit of factorizing numbers which, like numbers of taxi-cabs or railway carriages, are presented to his attention in a random manner" (page 358)
That has inspired me to start factorizing numbers. I've programmed an old calculator to help me as factorizing by mental arithmetic gets hard once I have to test for factors greater than 23. I've been factorizing people''s birthdays, representing each birthday as a seven or eight digit number. For instance, the Prime Minister was born on 9 October 1966, which I represent as 9101966, which has factors 2 and 4550983. Without a calculator it would have been hard work to verify that 4550983 is prime.

Incidentally Hardy offers a definition of "round number" it's a number that "is the product of a considerable number of comparatively small numbers". His examples were 1200 and 2187 = 37, the roundness of which "is obscured by the decimal notation" (p 358)

I expect I shall continue to dip into this book from time to time, but I include it in this account as I coverd almost all of it in the last two years.

Annie Proulx (pronounced 'proo') Close Range

This is a collection of short stories by an American writer who became widely known when a film was made of one of these stories, Brokeback Mountain

The writing is powerful. Proulx can sometimes tell us a great deal in a couple of sentences. For instance

"Leeland can sing "That Doggie in the Window all through. His father strikes him with a fly swatter and tells him to shut up"

We know just what their family life is like.

Proulx did not favour happy endings, so this book should certainly not be reommended to anyone wanting to lift the depression of a wet weekend. I prefer the shorter stories because one can appreciate the impact of the final catastrophe without spending a long time in suspense as one wonders what horror is in store.

There is some dark humour, and one story, The Blood Bay, made me laugh aloud.

A man who extended hospitality to three cowboys caught in a blizzard was disconcerted when he awoke in the morning, to find one of his guests missing, except for a pair of feet. He wrongly jumped to a bizarre conclusion!

I also rather liked the shortest story in the book, 55 Miles to the Gas Pump. It consisted of just three paragrahs. In the first a rancher appeared to commit suicide, though exactly what happened was not clear. In the seond paragraph, his wife discovered the female corpses he'd concealed in his loft, aparently so he could continue to enjoy their company and the third paragraph summed it up : "When you live a long way out you make your own fun".

Particularly horrid was The Half Skinned Steer In which a man wrongly believed a steer was dead and began to skin it, when it was only stunned. He was interrupted, and the animal revived and wandered off. The image haunted him many years later when he was lost in a blizzard, in which, one sssumes, he died.

I suspect that many people think of Proulx as the author of Brokeback Mountain. Judging that story in isolation, one might interpret it as a protest against the obstacles to the expression of gay love, in the days when all homosexual acts were illegal. I doubt that interpretation. While the story does show a gay affair coming to a very unhappy ending, those gay men fared no worse than the heterosexual folk whose doom was related in the other tales. Had Jack and Ennis lived in more enlightened times and been able to marry, Proulx's dark genius would still have devised some dismal fate for them. They didn't suffer because they were gay, but because they were human, and for Proulx the human life is a miserable life.

I bought the book quite a few years ago just after the film of Brokeback Mountain was released. I thought I'd read the story before deciding whether to see the film, so I never did see the film.

So this has been my second attempt to read this book,and I still haven't finished it. I doubt if I ever shall.

Links to accounts of my reading in previous years

may be found in the Box Room

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