Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

After really struggling with that Ugandan novel recently, I picked up Annie John to read next because it is admirably short: 148 pages. Just about enough to feel like a short novel rather than a long story, but I was still able to read it one sitting.

lizard

It is the story of Annie John, a girl growing up in Antigua, told in the first person. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the length, it is one of those books where not very much happens. There are a few incidents—an illness, some friendships—but nothing very remarkable. The focus is on Annie’s relationship with her mother, which starts out very close but becomes increasingly conflicted in adolescence, and ends in a somewhat open-ended way with her leaving home. Which obviously ends that chapter of her life but doesn’t provide any particularly tidy resolution.

Hedgie provides a fuller account of the book over at his place, so I’ll leave it at that and just say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and quote a bit:

During my holidays from school, I was allowed to stay in bed long after my father had gone to work. He left our house every weekday at the stroke of seven by the Anglican church bell. I would lie in bed awake, and I could hear all the sounds my parents made as they prepared for the day ahead. As my mother made my father his breakfast, my father would shave, using his shaving brush that had an ivory handle and a razor that matched; then he would step outside to the little shed he had built for us as a bathroom, to quickly bathe in water that he had instructed my mother to leave outside overnight in the dew. That way, the water would be very cold, and he believed that cold water strengthened his back. If I had been a boy, I would have gotten the same treatment, but since I was a girl, and on top of that went to a school only with other girls, my mother would always add some hot water to my bathwater to take off the chill. On Sunday afternoons, while I was in Sunday school, my father took a hot bath; the tub was half filled with plain water, and then my mother would add a large cauldronful of water in which she had just boiled some bark and leaves from a bay-leaf tree. The bark and leaves were there for no reason other than that he liked the smell. He would spend hours lying in this bath, studying his pool coupons or drawing examples of pieces of furniture he planned to make. When i came home from Sunday  school, we would sit down to our Sunday dinner.

Annie John is my book from Antigua and Barbuda for the Read The World challenge, and my third book for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

» The picture was taken on Antigua but has no other particular connection to the book. Nice though, I thought. I found it on Flickr; it is © Jeremy Quinn and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Let them eat farls

More gloomy news from Northern Ireland. I can’t tell you how depressing it was a few weeks ago to be woken by Radio 4 reporting on the terrorist attack that killed two soldiers in Northern Ireland.

Because really, if you’d asked me to pick one unambiguously good news story from my time on earth, I’d have said the ending of violence in Northern Ireland. I grew up with bombs going off regularly in London; it wasn’t an unusual experience to go up to Oxford Street to do your Christmas shopping, and find a whole chunk of it roped off because of a bomb scare. And there seemed to be no end in sight: the conflict had been going on in its modern form for decades and in one way or another for centuries. It was a poisonous mixture of politics, identity and religion, weighed down by centuries of historical baggage, and there seemed to be no common ground to serve as a starting point for compromise.

For all the frustrations and messiness of the ‘peace process’, it still seemed miraculous that we had reached a point where the British Army was no longer on active duty in Northern Ireland, no-one was blowing anyone up, and the conflicts were being resolved via something like normal politics.

And so, on top of all the other bad news, to wake up to the news of that particular wound being re-opened… bleargh. I wouldn’t want to overstate the importance of what has happened so far; by historical standards the murders of two soldiers and a policeman are fairly minor incidents. And it’s a sign of how far we’ve come that Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin condemned the attacks standing next to the head of Northern Ireland’s police force and someone from the DUP. But it’s a depressing reminder that the underlying causes of the conflict are still there, and that we’re a long way from being able to say that it’s all over.

It may not be a coincidence that the peace process coincided with Ireland’s period as the Celtic Tiger, the great economic success story of Europe, and that the re-emergence of violence comes with the bursting of the Irish housing bubble and the collapse of their economy. That happened in the Republic of Ireland, not Northern Ireland, but their politics are intertwined. And Northern Ireland has been particularly badly hit by the recession, apparently, because of its ‘large exposure to the construction sector’.

One more reason to hope, against all the evidence, that the G20 can somehow get the world economy started again.

How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov

I wouldn’t normally rush to read a chess-themed self-help book, which is more or less what How Life Imitates Chess is. But, you know, it’s Garry Kasparov! The Beast of Baku!

Kasparov seems to have impressed himself on my imagination surprisingly powerfully, considering I’m not much of a chess player. Although I’ve never taken chess seriously, there was a time when I played quite a lot. At school there were a limited number of places to go at lunchtime when the weather was bad; I used to go to the chess room. Even at the peak of my chess-playing powers, I was pretty rubbish, but there wasn’t a great depth of talent at the school, so when they were short of people I would be drafted in to play board eight for the chess team. As far as I can recall, the chess team didn’t win single match in my time at the school, so it wasn’t much of an achievement.

kasparov

At that time Kasparov was the towering figure in chess, and however casual my own chess was, it was hard not to be aware of him. He was the last of the great Soviet chess champions, with all the Cold War mystique that came with that, and he looked the part with the incredible intensity of his gaze and his heavy eyebrows. On top of that there were the matches against a sequence of IBM supercomputers which seemed like such a symbolic moment in the dawning computer age.

And there was the world championship match against the English player Nigel Short, at least some which was broadcast live on Channel 4, hosted by Carol Vorderman of all people. Sadly none of it seems to have made it to YouTube, because I’d be fascinated to see what it looked like. I remember they had a phone vote for the public to suggest the next move, at which point a couple of Grandmasters would explain why the public was an idiot.

So when I was looking for books from the former Soviet republics for the Read The World challenge, it occurred to me that Kasparov might have written an autobiography which I could read as my book for Azerbaijan. Instead I found How Life Imitates Chess, which uses examples from Kasparov’s chess career as well as business and history to illustrate points about, for example, the value of preparation, and analysing your own weaknesses.

As long as he’s talking about chess, I found it really interesting. The psychology of chess, the different approaches different players take, the preparation that goes into a big match at the top level; when he’s talking about chess, he’s engaging and insightful. The self-help aspect I found less convincing.

Partially I suspect that’s because, despite the long history of chess metaphors, chess isn’t actually a very good model for many other human activities. It’s a completely zero-sum game; for one player to win, the other has to lose. Each chess game starts in exactly the same way, with both players having exactly equal resources and position save only the advantage of playing white. There is no unknown information and no element of chance. It is exceptionally well-suited to rigorous analysis, with information about past performances available with an accuracy that makes baseball statistics look vague and wishy-washy.

These qualities are what make it such a fascinating game, but they are also ways in which it is quite unlike, say, running a business. And businessmen are pretty clearly the intended market; it’s aimed at MBA types who want a change from Sun Tzu. That’s made explicit by the subtitle of the US edition (How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom) but not, interestingly enough, the UK edition (How Life Imitates Chess: Insights into life as a game of strategy).

I also think his heart isn’t really in it. His examples from business and history are very obvious ones and he doesn’t make much attempt to develop them in any detail; his conclusions are plausible enough but often a bit superficial. I don’t think this book was born out of a deep desire to teach people ‘lessons about mastering the strategic and emotional skills to navigate life’s toughest challenges and maximise success no matter how tough the competition’, as the blurb puts it. It was written to make money from Kasparov’s reputation. I gather from the book that he has been working the circuit giving talks to businessmen and the book was presumably born out of that. It feels like it is fundamentally a sideline for him compared to his real passions of writing about chess and campaigning in Russian politics.

But, still, I thought it was well worth reading for the chess bits, which he manages to make interesting and informative while requiring no real chess knowledge in the reader. I would have preferred a straight autobiography, but I still enjoyed the book. I was irritated to realise after I bought it that it was ‘written with Mig Greengard’, because it makes it unclear how much of what you’re getting is Kasparov and how much is the ghostwriter, but I will still be counting it as my book from Azerbaijan for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo is from Life magazine, as hosted by Google.

Links

  • 'The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform.' A brutal article by Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the IMF.
    (del.icio.us tags: finance America economics )

Testing, testing.

Well, I think I’ve come up with a slightly better way of getting my blog posts on Facebook. Basically I want to feed full posts to people’s feed-readers but excerpts to Facebook (because I don’t want people commenting on Facebook instead of here).

So I’ve set up the Feed Wrangler plugin to add an excerpt-only feed which I can just feed to Facebook. It’s a bit of a stupid hack but then Facebook is stupid that way. Now I’ll just have to see if it works.

EDIT: testing again. sigh.

Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa

I’ve just finished Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa. Which is a bit of a relief, because I found it quite hard work. The good stuff first: it’s a story that traces a couple of generations through the history of modern Uganda, with the arrival of Idi Amin and the collapse of his regime, the sequence of messy guerilla wars, the rise of AIDS and so on. The central character is initially brought up in a village before moving to Kampala, is from a Catholic background and is educated in a rather brutal seminary; his grandmother is a midwife; he ends up leaving Uganda to move to Holland. So there’s lots of good material. And lots of striking incidents and some strong (though not generally very likeable) characters.

Despite which, after reading a hundred pages, I checked to see how long the book was and had a sinking feeling when I saw there were still 400 pages to go.

The problem is the prose style. Quite apart from a tendency to cliché, it seems like Isegawa reacts to similes the way a small child reacts to candy. Everything is like something. These similes are sometimes quite good in themselves — he describes a priest at the seminary as having ‘an ego as large as a cirrhotic liver’ — but I found the overall effect distracting. And it’s part of a generally over-written, shouty kind of tone the book has which I just didn’t get on with; sometimes I’d get into it and be quite absorbed for twenty or thirty pages, and then some turn of phrase would snap me out of it again.

I did wonder whether it was a problem with the translation; but as far as I can tell from the title page, the book was written in English. I guess English must be the author’s second language, which is pretty impressive, but doesn’t alter the fact that I didn’t enjoy his prose.

Here’s an example of the kind of paragraph that would annoy me:

It struck him like a bolt of lightning splitting a tree down middle: Nakibuka! Had the woman not done her best to interest him in her life? Didn’t he, in his heart of hearts, desire her? Had he ever forgotten her sunny disposition, her sense of humor, the confident way she luxuriated in her femininity? The shaky roots of traditional decorum halted him with the warning that it was improper to desire his wife’s relative, but the mushroom of his pent-up desire had found a weak spot in the layers of hypocritical decency and pushed into the turbulent air of truth, risk, personal satisfaction, revenge. His throttled desire and his curbed sex drive could find a second wind, a resurrection or even eternal life in the bosom of the woman who, with her touch, had accessed his past, saved it and redeemed his virility on his wedding night. Sweat cascaded down his back, his heart palpitated and fire built up in his loins.

200 pages of this stuff would have been harmless enough, and I might have said that, despite a few flaws, it was still well worth reading; 500 pages was too much.

But I stuck it out to the end. Partially from stubbornness but mainly because I bought Abyssinian Chronicles as my book from Uganda for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, ‘Headless‘, is © Dave Blumenkrantz and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Sad cat news

The vet came round to put down one of the cats yesterday.

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Posy big green eyes and the softest fur of any cat I’ve ever met, and huge scary claws that she only ever stuck into human flesh accidentally.

She had a tiny voice, not so much a meow as a mi.

She didn’t show any interest in meat or fish, but she did like blue cheese and prawns.

She didn’t like being picked up, and had limited tolerance for being stroked, but if she was curled up on the bed and you rested your head on her like a pillow, she would purr and purr. And then, once you lifted your head again, she’d methodically wash off any trace of contact.

She led a largely sedentary lifestyle, but when the mood took her she had a truly extraordinary turn of speed.

She brought in less prey than the other cats, but she did hold the house record for rarest catch: a big fat Convolvulus Hawkmoth, which is a rare vagrant in Britain.

She was a lovely cat.

Hello everyone

Apologies for the lack of blogging recently. Hopefully you all use RSS readers so you haven’t been wasting time checking to see if I’ve posted anything new.

A part of the reason is that I think Twitter has been cannibalising my blog posting a bit. For example, the peregrine I saw over the park a few days ago would certainly have merited a blog post if I hadn’t already scratched that itch by tweeting about it. The fact that I could replace a blog post with 140 characters might imply that my blog posts are about 20 times longer than they should be, but never mind.

stock_dove

Anyway, you’re all just going to have to live without my thoughts on Manchester United, chiffchaffs, stock doves, Irish republican terrorism, Slumdog Millionaire, hay fever, the iPhone, Welsh rarebit and whatever else I’ve been not posting about lately. It’s not much of a loss.

How to reform the FA Cup

My solution to the periodic handwringing about how to make the FA Cup more popular again, and as a bonus, to reform the UEFA Cup as well.

It’s simple: make the UEFA Cup an extension of the FA Cup. The genius of the FA Cup is that the format maximises the chance of shock results. No group stage, no seeding, no ties played over two legs with the away goals rule: just straight knockout competition, winner takes all. It has a similar conceptual purity to the league; in the league, every team plays every other team home and away and you tally up the points. In the FA Cup, you just put all the names into a hat to decide who plays who, and the winner gets to stay in the competition. And whereas the league is set up to decide which is the best team in the country in the fairest, most objective way possible, the FA Cup is just the opposite: it maximises the impact of luck. And that’s a good thing. It provides a counterpoint to the league.

Now there are practical reasons why we can’t have a proper European league running in parallel to the domestic leagues, but the Champion’s League does its best to provide something similar: with a seeded group stage and ties played over two games, it maximises the chances that the big names get through to the later stages. Cynically, you might say that’s because the big names pull the big TV audiences; but it does also mean that whoever wins the competition has a good claim to being the best team in Europe.

What Europe needs to complement this ‘league’ is a proper cup competition: the four semifinalists from every national cup competition in Europe being entered into an unseeded cup which is straightforward knockout football from beginning to end. And if Barcelona gets drawn against Manchester United in the first round, well, that’s the luck of the draw. And if Juventus get knocked out in the first round after a flukey goal and a lung-busting defensive performance by a team in the Polish second division: that’s part of the fun.

Of course for this to work, you would need all the top teams to take part. They’d have to play both in the Champion’s League and the new-format UEFA Cup. And that gives you scheduling problems. But if you could find a way to do it — you could exempt teams in the UEFA Cup from having to play in the League Cup, for a start — it would be such a fab competition. Are you listening, Michel Platini?

Some names for IRA splinter groups

Funereal IRA
Eel IRA
Ambiguity IRA
Frivolity IRA
Campanology IRA
Imbecility IRA
Diagonal IRA
Confessional IRA
Digressional IRA
Irish Rational Divination Army
Irish Fashionable Celebration Army
Wiry Publican Calibration Army
Fiery Snatching Lubrication Sarnie

Another iPhone application I would pay good money for

Time Out on my phone.

I could only find one iPhone app with UK cinema listings and it didn’t have my local cinema listed, so that’s one thing I’d pay for on its own. But if I could get something with the whole lot — cinema listings, exhibitions, restaurant reviews, TV schedules, comedy, poetry readings — all optimised for use on my phone and location-aware, well, that would be brilliant. Actually, it’s a good rule of thumb: any way I can replace something I might otherwise carry around with me, that’s a winner. That’s why buying the A-Z was a no-brainer, why I want field guides on my phone, and why I want Time Out. Anything under £10 would be a bargain, and I’d probably pay more. I might even be willing to pay an annual subscription.

‘Sickert in Venice’ at DPG

Last time I saw much of Walter Sickert was at the Tate’s exhibition of the Camden Town Group which I briefly commented on here. I didn’t enjoy that show much: lots of dingy grey-brown cityscapes and interiors which, whatever their other qualities, were not exactly full of joy. Still, Venice, city of Canaletto, all Mediterranean light and sparkling water: surely that will be a bit more jolly?

Umm… no. It’s hard to believe, but Sickert’s paintings of Venice are even darker and dingier than his paintings of Camden. He did a bunch of very Whistler-influenced evening and night paintings; but where Whistler managed to make his paintings of the Thames shimmering and luminous, Sickert just makes Venice look dark. His paintings are like walking around a city at night with sunglasses on.

He also did some interiors featuring sickly-looking prostitutes that are rather like the pictures of sickly-looking prostitutes he did in Camden. Only in slightly different clothes.

Interestingly, in the shop they had some postcards and prints of the works in the exhibition that made them look glowing and vibrant, like La Giuseppina against a Map of Venice above, which I’ve taken from the Tate website for a previous exhibition but which is currently in Dulwich. Looks great, doesn’t it? Well, I don’t care what they look like in carefully tweaked reproduction; in the flesh they look gloomy and frankly a bit rubbish.

Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy

Metropole, by Ferenc Karinthy, was published in Hungarian in 1970.* This translation, by George Szirtes, was published last year. The blurb on the back from G.O. Châteaureynaud says

With time, Metropole will find its due place in the twentieth-century library, on the same shelf as The Trial and 1984.

which gives you an idea of the general literary area we’re in. It’s the story of Budai, a linguist who gets on the wrong plane and finds himself in a strange city. He gradually realises he is trapped there, not because some person or organisation is holding him against his will, but because despite speaking most major European languages, he cannot make himself understood or decipher any of the language around him.

Which is a nightmarish situation and the book did in fact give me nightmares. Well, not really; I couldn’t sleep properly because of my hay-fever†, and I was drifting in and out of sleep having peculiar Metropole-related dreams about being unable to read a piece of text. Can’t remember what it was.

The scenario — a man trapped in a mysterious world he doesn’t understand — makes Kafka the obvious comparison, but I’d be reluctant to reach too quickly for the word ‘Kafkaesque’ because that to me implies a certain very specific tone and atmosphere. It’s a long time since I read Kafka, but I remember it being much more relentlessly surreal. Metropole is played comparatively straight: it’s set in a very peculiar world but it has an internal consistency to it, and the story is told in a straightforward way.

In that sense I can see the comparison with Orwell, and the sprawling, grey, joyless city is certainly somewhat like the London of 1984, but otherwise I don’t think it quite works. The world of 1984 has to be a real place. A fictional real place, but still real; it’s a vision of the future. It’s not at all clear that the world of Metropole is real in the same way. It’s more like Budai has accidentally wandered into the wrong novel; nothing makes sense to him because him even being there means that something is fundamentally broken.

The other analogy that occurred to me is that it’s like a story from one of those Oliver Sacks books: someone is in a car accident or has a stroke, and they wake up completely unable to process language. The rest of their brain seems to be working fine, but somehow the ability to understand language has gone missing and all they hear is gibberish.

I have to admit that the book didn’t completely grab me, but I suspect that’s more to do with me being in the wrong mood than a problem with the book itself. I can see that it’s inventive and atmospheric and darkly funny, and if I didn’t get completely absorbed by it, well, perhaps I read too much of it while feeling like my head had been stuck in a bucket full of hairy caterpillars.

* OK, one procedural point here: when reading a book in translation, I don’t think it should be difficult to find out when the book was first published in its original language. It should be somewhere on the title page. I shouldn’t need to look up the author on Wikipedia. I suppose it could be strategy: perhaps the people at Telegram Books think I’m less likely to read it if I realise that it is *gasp* 40 years old. Probably not. But it’s annoying either way. The potential confusion is increased by the fact that the only copyright dates listed on the title page prior to the English translation are 1999 and 2005 in France. I would guess there’s some kind of added complication arising from the fact that it was originally published in communist Hungary? I dunno.

† I mean seriously, my eyes were really sore and I couldn’t breathe properly. Thankfully the worst of my hay-fever seems to fairly short-lived; there’s about a week or two when it’s rough enough that it can be quite distressing, then it calms down a bit. I don’t know whether it’s because there’s less of the relevant kind of pollen or because my immune system stops panicking as much.

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