Reviving his thirst for reading…

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

andy-millerWhat do you do when you seriously lose your reading mojo? I tend to retreat into trashy fiction, but I have always managed to recover it after a short hiatus. This wasn’t the case for Andy Miller. He has a great job in publishing, a happy marriage and a young son, but wasn’t getting anything from reading any more.

His solution – to embark upon a grand plan – to read all those books (mostly but not exclusively classics) that he had lied about reading before. He had this epiphany when he picked up Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – a book he’d never been able to get into before. (It took me three goes, so I know how he felt on that one.)

Miller draws up The List of Betterment, 50 titles from Middlemarch to War and Peace with some surprises in between; the aim is to read them in a single year.

The road to reading betterment is not without its blocks and detours. A couple of books on the list continued to defeat him (e.g. Of Human Bondage), others are a revelation. The chapter wherein he compares Moby Dick and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is hysterically funny, and truly insightful (I can say that having read both!):

Moby Dick is a long, gruelling, convoluted graft. And yet,, as soon as I completed it, once I could hold it at arm’s length and admire its intricacy and design, I knew Moby Dick was obviously, uncannily, a masterwork. It wormed into my subconscious; I dreamed about it for nights afterwards.

I can honestly say that I had exactly the same experience with Moby Dick (see here.)

Rather than formally critique these books, for the most part Miller’s book is a memoir of the reading experience – how he related to these books and they to him and his life. If you pick it up expecting a serious look at the canon from someone who knows about these books but had not previously read them, you’ll be disappointed. Instead it’s primarily a story about how to make reading fun, and through it, get more out of life.

I must admit to having bonded a bit with the author (as he portrays himself in this book). The Moby Dick chapter was great, but what sealed it for me was that he grew up in Croydon – my own neck of the woods.

How I loved the municipal libraries of South Croydon. They were not child-friendly places; in fact, they were not friendly at all to anyone… The larger building in the town had its own children’s library, accessible at one end of the hall via an imposing door, but what lay behind that door was not a children’s library as we might understand it today, full of scatter cushions and toys and strategies of appeasement; it revealed simply a smaller, replica wood-panelled room full of books. … The balance of power lay with the books, not the public. This would never be permitted today.

I convinced myself that he was talking about Coulsdon Library there – which is where I went as a kid every Saturday morning in the second half of the 1960s. Then we moved to Purley (closer to central Croydon), and Purley library was where I went every day during the months before finishing university and starting my first job. I also had a Saturday job at Norbury library through the sixth form – so I know Croydon and its libraries rather well.

In a footnote, he also praises the branch of WH Smiths in the Whitgift Centre in Croydon where he would go to spend prized book tokens – his birthday present of choice. (This is one point where I have to disagree – Websters, the indie book shop further up was far better than Smiths – it is now Waterstones!). I don’t mind footnotes at all, and Miller’s ones frequently contain funny asides – if you’re a footnote-o-phobe, you’ll miss some good little bits.

Miller is not afraid to court controversy in this book. This is where I unbonded with him for a bit. In the chapter on Books 41 and 42, he talks about blogging. He tried blogging about his project himself – but failed. He said he wasn’t reading the books for the sake of reading them, he was reading them for the sake of thinking of something to write about them on the blog. Fair enough, but he goes on to say how “The internet is the greatest library in the universe; unfortunately someone has removed all the ‘no talking’ signs.” after having made some very disapproving generic comments about bloggers. Guaranteed to piss people off, that!

The above section aside, I found this book very enjoyable and always entertaining – even the chapter written as a love letter to Michel Houellebecq’s novel Atomised, (a book I have tried, but disliked so much I did not finish it). I counted up how many titles I’d read on The List of Betterment. 18 + The Da Vinci Code – I was impressed with myself – being a scientist, not an English grad. I have added to my own wishlist – notably Bukowski, and I want to re-read Anna Karenina, preferably in Rosamund Bartlett’s new translation for the OUP. I’ve also made mental notes to dispose of my copies of Of Human Bondage and Dice Man – I’ll never read them now.

Fans of books about books of the personal reading journey type, rather than serious lit-crit will find Miller’s memoir great fun; easy reading in good company. (8/10)

For a pair of other contrasting views on this book – see Susan’s review here and Victoria’s one here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller. Pub 4th Estate, May 2014. Hardback, 336 pages.


“Marvellous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World”

Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

stuff matters cover What would we do without man-made materials?  We can’t live without them these days.

Mark Miodownik, whom some of you may recognise from his regular TV appearances on Dara O’Briain’s Science Club on BBC2, wants to tells us all about the things our man-made world is shaped from. Mark, like me (!), is a materials scientist. Unlike me, he’s a practising one, being a Professor of the subject at UCL in London.  In his book, published last year, now available in paperback with this gorgeous cover, he wants to persuade us that ‘Stuff Matters’.

Further down this post, you’ll find a competition to win a copy of the book plus a signed poster of the cover.

In the introduction, he explains to us where his fascination with materials came from and it’s a grim start. As a teenager, he was badly slashed with a super-sharp razor-blade by a mugger on the London underground, and couldn’t believe that a small blade could cut through five layers of clothing and so deeply through the skin of his back as he escaped.

mark miodownikIn the following chapters, he takes us through the development of some of the fundamental materials in our lives like steel, paper and concrete; materials that help us as we age, entertain us at leisure; also some of the most interesting new ones like aerogel and nanotechnology.

He’s great at explaining complex subjects making things like how the faults in the crystal structure of metal alloys are what helps to make it strong seem straight forward, (although at uni-level I remember struggling with atomic planes and dislocations at first) and that’s no mean feat. This is a wonderful tour around the world of materials science, it’s entertaining, full of facts, and easy to read. Mark makes for good company on the page and I heartily recommend it. (9/10)

Now for the giveaway:

Thanks to those lovely people at Penguin, I have a copy of Mark’s book and a signed poster of the book cover to giveaway.  I’m afraid it’s open to UK residents only.  Just leave a comment below – and if you like, tell me your favourite material that things can be made of, but that’s not compulsory. We’ll draw a winner at Wednesday tea-time.  Good luck!

I shall leave you with a clip of the front cover being assembled.

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World by Mark Miodownik, pub Penguin 2013, paperback 272 pages.

If you found Stuff Matters fascinating, you might be interested in the book below. The second edition, published in 1976, is still in print and still used today. It was the one book I was told I had to read before going up to university, and it was fascinating.

The New Science of Strong Materials: Or Why You Don’t Fall Through the Floor (Penguin Science) by J.E.Gordon, pub Penguin, paperback.

50th Anniversary of the Assassination of JFK

The Assassination of JFK: Minute by Minute by Jonathan Mayo

jfkI was just three and a half when JFK was assassinated, so I remained blissfully unaware of the tragedy that had happened on 22nd November 1963.  They say it’s one of those events that everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news.

I’ve checked my late Mum’s diaries and she didn’t comment, (in fact hardly any events in world politics made it into them). I asked my father (who was 84 on Monday- Happy Birthday Dad!) what he was doing. – he remembers it as a badminton night, and is sure they’d have heard the news over tea before going out to play that evening.

So, fifty years later we are remembering Kennedy’s untimely death. Jonathan Mayo, who has already done a ‘Minute by Minute’ treatment for the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, has done the same for JFK. It is going to be broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on the 22nd at 6pm.

The book takes the timeline from just before Kennedy’s arrival in Texas in the evening of the 21st of November and follows through chronologically until the evening after JFK’s funeral on the 25th.  Mayo tells the story of everyone who was involved in the story, however small their role. It is, Mayo says:

The story of what took place in Dallas is not just about President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald; it’s also about the scores of people who were drawn into the developing drama. Some are famous, some obscure, but it affected them all, putting them in unexpected situations, and sometimes making them behave in unexpected ways. This book is full of stories that I hope will restore the impact of the assassination.

There is no room for conspiracy theories in this book which tells it as it happened.  This immediacy gives it the feel of a thriller.

I had no idea that there was no love lost between Kennedy and Johnson, and the Texas Governor Connolly, and that it had been considered dangerous for Kennedy to go to Dallas.

I was amazed to find that DJ John Peel had been in Dallas at the time, and was just feet from Oswald when Jack Ruby shot him, whereas Alastair Cooke had declined to go on the trip being fed up of Democratic politics, and had remained in New York.

Lyndon B Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One with Jackie still in her blood-stained outfit beside her. Photograph by official White House photographer, Army Capt. Cecil W. Stoughton

Lyndon B Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One with Jackie still in her blood-stained outfit beside him. Photograph by official White House photographer, Army Capt. Cecil W. Stoughton

I was saddened to hear that JFK’s back-brace for chronic back pain, held him in a position where the second bullet was able to hit his head.  We share Jackie’s pain as she steadfastly stays in her pink Chanel suit, even when they reach Andrews Air Force Base saying ‘No, let them see what they’ve done.‘ when it was suggested that she change her dress. I really felt for her, Robert, and her children.

As for Lee Harvey Oswald – well, he was obviously a wrongun’! Enough said.

There was so much I didn’t know about the events in this book. The only thing missing in this book were some more photographs.  Adding the famous ones like that above, the Jack Ruby one, Oswald posing with his gun, etc. would have given it just that little extra to make it an exceptional read.  The minute by minute format gave it real pace, and unlike those difficult novels (and a certain recent Autobiography), the fact that the events unwind in the present tense generated a real sense of suspense and anticipation.  No matter what you think of JFK, this book gives a fascinating insight into some truly sad days. (9/10)

See also DoveGreyReader for another excellent review of this book.

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Source: Publisher (thank you). To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Assassination of JFK: Minute by Minute by Jonathan Mayo, pub Nov 13 by Short Books. Hardback 288 pages.

Is the day of the encyclopedia on the shelf over?

Dear Readers, I’m in a quandary.

Twenty years ago, with the aid of a legacy from my late great-aunt, I invested in a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Leather bound with gilt page edges, and 32 volumes – it cost me over £1200 back then.


Britannica itself has now stopped publishing the print edition, concentrating on on-line products. Its final 32 vol set was published in 2010 in a luxury binding, it cost £9,999 and they only produced 10 sets.

My edition (the 15th) takes up nearly two full shelves of my Billy bookcases, plus there are the six yearbooks upstairs which I bought, at around £35 a volume, but have never looked at!


Presentation1It looks impressive, but I no longer use it.  A few months ago, I tried to encourage my daughter to use it for a project.  “You can use the dining table with several volumes open at the same time,” I said, “so you can easily refer between them,” already knowing that it was a lost cause.

The same goes for my 6 volume boxed set of the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music from 1995 (below). I’ve not used that in far longer than the EB.

guinness encyclop

When given the choice between Google/Wikipedia and the print version of Britannica, the free on-line option, regardless of accuracy, will nowadays always be the first port of call.  It’ll usually be the only port of call too most of the time.

Getting your facts right is important though – remember Jay McInerney’s novel Brights lights big city in which the protagonist works as a fact-checker for a NewYork publication?

You can’t beat an acknowledged primary source.

I do cross-check where appropriate for book reivews – vs an author’s own website for instance, plus a major book-selling site, and Fantastic Fiction for instance, but the tendency is to rely on Wikipedia.  Its level of detail and cross-referencing is growing exponentially; it is gradually acquiring depth, which is a quality that you previously had to rely on subject-specific books for, (and still do for all serious matters). When writing posts for this blog etc. I feel justified  in using these  on-line reference sources.  I’ve given up trying to encourage my daughter to use the print encyclopedias, but I continue to say, “I have a book about that,” whenever I can.

Which leaves me with this final quandary. There are three shelves of big unused books there in total. Heaven knows, I could do with the space. I realise I’ll only get a fraction of what I paid for them if I cash in – I’m sorely tempted though. Gone are the pre-wiki days when I used take part in a postal quiz tournament and spent hours with the books researching the answers. I can only remember using them once this year, trying to help Juliet with her history essay on Thomas Beckett. Note – I am not contemplating giving up the rest of my reference collection – just the multi-volume encyclopedias.

Although they were bought with a legacy, I still have a copy of the order and certificate of ownership, so would keep that in memory of my aunt. I no longer feel particularly attached to the books themselves.

What would you do in my position?
Would you keep or sell?
Your thoughts are welcomed…

P.S. I’m open to offers!

The joy of Ladybirds…

Playing with my books this morning, I spotted my pile of Ladybird books from my childhood. I had stacks of them, all the nature and music titles, most of the historical ones, and an assortment of others. The format never changed – a page of text on the left, and illustrations on the right, mostly full page illustrations too in glorious and bright colours.

One of my favourites was from series 601, No 7 – The Story of Clothes and Costume, first published in 1964, with text by Richard Bowood, and illustrations by Robert Ayton. I like the way the title distinguishes between clothes and costume, practicality and decoration.  The book goes from cavemen in furs, through togas, wimples, chain mail, ruffs, farthingales, lace, wigs, Beau Brummell, crinolines and bustles, flapper dresses to the dress of ‘today’.

Naturally, I’d like to share selections with you. Firstly, my favourite illustration as a child – from the Medieval Court of around 1360.


The man in the front of the picture wears very wide sleeves, which are ‘dagged’ or cut. He has rather long hair and such very long toes to his shoes that they have to be fastened to his legs with thin chains.
There were strict laws about dress … Even the length of the pointed shoes was regulated by law, allowing different lengths for nobility, gentlemen and commoners.

Those shoes would crop up in my own drawings many a time, and I dressed many of my medieval princesses ladies in flowing gowns and wimples!

Upon revisiting this book, I have a new favourite though – the last spread – Clothes of Today (click to enlarge). The family pictured are such archetypes of new middle-class suburbanites out for a picnic. I’ve included the hilarious text this time too…


Such wonderful stuff!

If you’d like to find out more about Ladybird Books, do visit The Wee Web which has information on all the old publications and collecting them. (I note that they have a first edition of this book for sale at £34. Sadly, mine is not a first, and – I’ve coloured in the endpapers and it had Thorn family library paraphernalia in!) Ladybird themselves are still going strong, as part of Penguin children’s books.

On Conducting …

The Great Conductors by Harold C Schonberg

001I came across this book of my late mother’s this afternoon and thought I’d share it with you. This copy is rather dilapidated, having been liberated (withdrawn and sold) from Cannon Street Library many years ago. She used to go there during her lunchtimes, and brought countless books home that they were clearing out.

Its author, Schonberg was music critic for the New York Times, and he won a Pullitzer Prize in 1971 for his criticism. This book was published in 1967. It follows the development the role of the conductor from mere time-keeper to interpreter, from before Bach and Handel up to Leonard Bernstein and his contemporaries.

Wagner conducting (1863)

The first half essentially follows the composer as conductor of their own music mostly, and the musical world is full of rivalries – the straight-forward Berlioz described Wagner’s conducting thus: ‘Such a style is like dancing on a slack wire, sempre tempo rubato,’ and Wagner said of Berlioz who was conducting a Mozart symphony: ‘I… was amazed to find a conductor who was so energetic in the performance of his own compositions sink into the commonest rut of the vulgar time beater.’

In the chapter on Richard Strauss, a renowned cynic, we find out his tempi got faster and faster as he got older and more bored. Apparently at Bayreuth, he conducted the first act of Parsifal in 1h 35mins – Toscanini took 2h 2mins. Strauss wrote a flippant article that tickled me giving guidance for young conductors – I reproduce it for your amusement below:

‘Ten Golden Rules for the album of a Young Conductor’

  1. Remember you are making music not to amuse yourself, but to delight your audience.
  2. You should not perspire when conducting: only the audience should get warm.
  3. Conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were by Mendelssohn: Fairy music.
  4. Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue.
  5. But never let the horns and woodwinds out of your sight. If you can hear them at all they are still too strong.
  6. If you think that the brass is not blowing hard enough, tone it down another shade or two.
  7. It is not enought that you yourself should heard every word the soloist sings. You should know it by heart anyway. The audience must be able to follow without effort. If they do not understand the words they will go to sleep.
  8. Always accompany a singer in such a way that he can sing without effort.
  9. When you think you have reached the limits of prestissimo, double the pace.*
  10. If you follow these rules carefully you will, with your fine gifts and your great accomplishments, always be the darling of your listeners.

* Today (1948) I should like to amend this as follows: Go twice as slowly (addressed to conductors of Mozart).

As Schonberg says, although tongue in cheek, there is an underlying truth behind most of the above.  Having played violin in many youth orchestras and into my twenties, I always found that the brass section attracted the most exuberantly confident (and good-looking) players!

The chapter on Furtwängler in the 1920s and 1930s was elucidating too. Schonberg writes …


Furtwängler’s beat was a phenomenon unduplicated before or since: a horror, a nightmare, to musicians. On the podium he lost himself. He would gesticulate, shout, sing, make faces, spit, stamp. Or he would close his eyes and make vague motions. … In the Berlin Philharmonic there was a standard joke: Q: How do you know when to come in on the opening bars of the Beethoven Ninth?  A: We walk twice around our chairs, count ten and then start playing. … Musicians had to watch his face rather than his baton. Furtwängler was fully conscious of the difficulties his beat gave musicians. It did not bother him. “Standardised technique creates in turn standardised art,” he would say.

We carry on through Beecham, Stokowski, Szell, Karajan and many others to Bernstein. Schonberg finishes his book by proposing some future candidates for conducting greatness, including Seiji Ozawa, Lorin Maazel (whom my mother adored – he conducted the Philharmonia Chorus in which she sang many times), and Zubin Mehta.

Sir Colin Davis

Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)

The last to be mentioned is the recently departed Colin Davis, of whom Schonberg says, his ‘conducting is marked by taste, strength and an eclectic approach characteristic of English magicians.’

I couldn’t agree more – Davis for me always achieved such a lovely string sound in particular, (well, I was a fiddle player), and always came across as such a nice man.

I really enjoyed this book, getting really into the personalities of all these great conductors.

P.S. For another interesting quotation on conducting an orchestra see my review of Frank Zappa’s memoir here.

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I inherited my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Great Conductors by Harold C Schonberg – used copies available.

Him pretty good funny sometimes

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

The American humorist David Sedaris is famed for his self-deprecating wit and his good-natured take on life.  He has written nine books compiling his essays and stories now, plus loads of journalism, plays and more.  I first encountered him on radio – he’s recorded many of his essays for BBC Radio 4, (sadly none are available on listen again at the moment).

We chose Sedaris’ breakthrough volume Me Talk Pretty One Day for our book group this month.  We like to throw an occasional non-fiction book into the mix, and having read James Thurber’s autobiographical stories My life and hard times last summer, and some Garrison Keillor previously also, it was good to compare and contrast their styles.

MTPOD is split into two parts.  The first half ‘One’ comprises tales from Sedaris’ childhood growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina. The second half, ‘Deux’, chronicles episodes from the time he spent living in France with his partner Hugh.

I loved the first story Go Carolina which told of Sedaris’ battle with the school speech therapist who tried to get rid of his lisp – his ‘lazy tongue‘. In an aside he tells about his lazy family …

My sisters Amy and Gretchen were, at the time, undergoing therapy for lazy eyes, while my older sister, Lisa, had been born with a lazy leg that had refused to grow at the same rate as its twin. She’d worn a corrective brace for the first two years of her life, and wherever she roamed she left a trail of scratch marks in the soft pine floor. I liked the idea that part of one’s body might be thought of as lazy – not thoughtless or hostile, just unwilling to extend itself for the betterment of the team.  My father often accused my mother of having a lazy mind, while she in turn accused him of having a lazy finger, unable to dial the phone when he knew damn well he was going to be late.

In Genetic Engineering I had to giggle along with his observations about his father when they were on holiday.

As youngsters, we participated in all the usual seaside activities – which were fun, until my father got involved and systematically chipped away at our pleasure. Miniature golf was ruined with a lengthy dissertation on impact, trajectory, and wind velocity, and our sand castles were critiqued with stifling lectures on the dynamics of the vaulted ceiling. We enjoyed swimming, until the mystery of tides was explained in such a way that the ocean seemed nothing more than an enormous saltwater toilet, flushing itself on a sad and predictable basis.

Most of our group found his essays on childhood and his family were more fun than his time in France, although his exasperation over his attempts to learn the language were fun…

Of all the stumbling blocks inherent in learning this language, the greatest for me is the principle that each noun has a corresponding sex that affects both its articles and its adjectives. Because it is a female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine. Forced by the grammar to take a stand one way of the other, hermaphrodite is male and indecisiveness female.
I spent months searching for some secret code before I realized that common sense has nothing to do with it.

Having a French/German language teacher in our group, the latter chapters about his attempts to learn French sparked off some good conversation about learning languages in general, but not so much about the book. Incidentally, the book’s title was about him mistranslating a phrase into French.

I enjoyed a lot of Sedaris’ writing in this volume, but did find that, as in his radio programmes which just feature a couple of articles, they were more fun in small doses.  Similarly, those of our group who hadn’t heard him on the radio, weren’t so taken, preferring the gently rambling tales of Garrison Keillor, another author who broadcasts his work; we managed to forget about Thurber comparisons.

I would happily read some more small doses of Sedaris, but will definitely listen out for him on the radio. (6.5/10 as a book).

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, Abacus paperback, 272 pages.

A book I wish I’d written …

Now don’t get me wrong, as someone who gave up English lessons at O-level, and has only written reports and policy documents, newsletters and blog posts (of course) since, I really don’t think I have a novel in me. More correctly, at the moment I don’t have a novel in me – much as I’d love to do some creative writing. However, being a quiz-fiend, and fan of good reference books, I have long thought I could write either a fun non-fiction book or a quiz book. In fact in the past I have started compiling some…

Turn your mind back to 2002 when a small, fun reference book became a bestseller… That was Schott’s Original Miscellany by Ben Schott. It inspired many  imitators like Shite’s Unoriginal Miscellany, and also sequels and spin-offs by Schott himself.

A few years earlier, I was busy compiling quiz questions on a quiz database and thought, wouldn’t it be great to compile a book of miscellaneous interesting facts – I was thinking of Russell Ash’s books, the Top Ten of Everything series – useful, but mine would be quirkier.  So I have a file full of listy articles about James Bond villains, what the job titles in film credits mean, bands and album names taken from Shakespeare, the colours of Quality Street wrappers, how different languages say ‘Bless you’ when you sneeze, and many more.  Yes, I could have written that book – I like to think so anyway, but Schott beat me to it – and did it so well.  His miscellanies have a great style, and are good fun.

Jump several years, and I was toying with another idea – presenting book titles in graphical form – I was thinking along the lines of …

… obviously I would have got an illustrator to do the graphics nicely.  However, again I never really got the idea off the ground, discovering that it is pretty well covered with books like Pop Charts by Paul Copperwaite, which I actually blogged about here a couple of years ago. I don’t think anyone’s done one about books specifically though – so maybe there is a place for my ideas somewhere (!).

Today I was in the bookshop and I spotted this book, hot off the press and into shops for Chr***mas shopping, and thought “I wish I’d had this idea” – which combines Schott and the Pop Charts concepts into one lovely book. Infographica by Martin and Simon Toseland has some wonderfully quirky lists and lots of stylish graphic design – featuring Political dictators and their beards, the Scobell chilli heat scale, fastest tennis serves amongst its delights, and ones such as the spread below:

Irresistible! It’s now on my shelves – I couldn’t wait for Christmas, however, I would recommend it to you as a nice present idea that is fun, and good to look at, even if it ends up as a toilet book!

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To explore any of the titles mentioned on Amazon UK, please click below:
Schott’s Original Miscellany by Ben Schott (2002)
Shite’s Unoriginal Miscellany by Antal Parody (2003)
Top 10 of Everything 2012: Discover More Than Just the No. 1! by Russell Ash
Pop Charts by Paul Copperwaite
Infographica: Visualizing a World of Information by Martin & Simon Toseland. Pub 8th Nov 2012 by Quercus, full colour paperback, 208 pages.

Through the keyhole …

Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About Youby Sam Gosling

I defy any browsing bibliomane not to pick this book up on seeing the arrangements of books and comfy armchair through the keyhole on its cover!

I’m sure that you, like me, sniff out the bookcases as soon as you go in someone’s house. If they do have lots of books, I believe you can get a feel for their owner(s), and even the most  dedicated library user will have some evidence of their bookish loves.

Snoop is, of course, about much more than bookshelves.  Gosling is an English-born Professor of Psychology in Texas, and his speciality is a kind of benign psychological profiling by looking at peoples’ possessions.  In particular, he researches into correlations between the big five personality traits: Conscientiousness, Openness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, and the stuff we own and how we treat and display it.

Initially, he recruited and trained a team of ‘snoopers’ and set them to work on volunteer students’ rooms. He ended up later on national television comparing the rooms of TV news anchormen. In between, there is loads of psychological discussion of the subject and case studies (all American).

Gosling is an entertaining teacher – his writing is straight-forward and free from jargon.  It’s also witty, and being a Brit, he is self-deprecating – we gradually get a picture of him too from his descriptions of his own stuff, (no TV – Shock!).

I was entertained, but was I transformed into a super-snooper?  For a man who  has spent his professional career trying to read peoples’ posessions, Gosling has largely proved how inexact it all really is!

  • You can only really deduce information about conscientiousness (how tidy you are) and openness (generally evidenced by a wide range of books, music, etc). You can tell tidy from tidied.
  • Stereotypes are useful initially, but be prepared to dump them – there are too many exceptions to the rule.
  • Popular musical tastes are largely irrelevant.
  • How can you tell whether the ‘you’ through the things you display is the real one?
  • You can be wrong-tracked as a snooper by stuff not belonging to the snoopee, just left behind or being looked after.
  • As a snooper, you need to be familiar with the cultural mores and brand awareness of the snoopee to get the most information out of it.  There’s no point in looking at someone’s music and film collections or make-up bag if you haven’t heard of the artists or brands.

I quite like pop science books, so I enjoyed dipping into this one. I haven’t learned much, and it certainly won’t stop me from snooping at other people’s bookcases, which I find usually give a clear indication of intellectual pursuits!  (6.5/10)

Do you enjoy snooping around other peoples’ bookcases?  Bet you do!

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About Youby Sam Gosling, pub 2009 by Profile Books, 288 pages.

Book Group Report – Land of the grey

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder.

After the racy delights of Jilly Cooper’s Riders last month, we went for something completely different for our February read.

Stasiland by Anna Funder is a work of investigative journalism, chronicling the lives of some people who lived in the GDR before the Berlin Wall came down.

Funder is an Australian journalist who learned German liking ‘the sticklebrick nature of it.’  She went on to study and live in West Berlin in the 1980s where she ‘wondered long and hard what went on behind that Wall.’  She returned in the 1990s to investigate the ‘horror-romance‘ of the GDR, and what remained of it.

Taking a flat in East Berlin, she talked to both watchers and the watched, and visited the buildings of the GDR apparatus some of which have been turned into museums.  The stories of Miriam, who became an enemy of the state at just sixteen, and Frau Paul, whose sick baby had to be taken to the West and ended up separated from her for years, and Anna’s landlady Julia’s terrifying ordeal were as touching as Funder’s interviews of ex-Stasi officers were distasteful. By alternating between the two it really brings home the differences between the haves and have-nots of the East German state.

For the have-nots, everything in life is difficult.  Everything is shrouded in bureaucracy, and if you are out of favour with the State, it is doubly so. Funder tells of the occasion when Julia tried to find a job …

Julia went to the Employment Office, took a number and stood in an interminable line. She was among people who might have had similar experiences, both explicable and not, to her own. She turned to the man behind her and asked, ‘So how long have you been unemployed?’
Before he could answer an official, a square-built woman in uniform, stepped out from behind a column.
‘Miss, you are not unemployed,’ she barked.
‘Of course I’m unemployed,’ Julia said. ‘Why else would I be here?’
‘This is the Employment Office, not the Unemployment Office. You are not unemployed; you are seeking work.’
Julia wasn’t daunted. ‘I’ am seeking work,’ she said, ‘because I am unemployed.’
The woman started to shout so loudly the people in the queue hunched their shoulders. ‘I said, you are not unemployed! You are seeking work!’ and then, almost hysterically, ‘There is no unemployment in the German Democratic Republic!’

Funder has plenty of time to muse on the greyness of everything in the former GDR.  Her flat is a prime example.

In the kitchen I make coffee directly in the thermos. What surprises me about living here is that no matter how much is taken out, this linoleum palace continues to contain all the necessities for life, at the same time as it refuses to admit a single thing, either accidentally or arranged, of beauty or joy. In this, I think, it is much like East Germany itself.

The thing that came through for me, again and again, was the flatness and lack of colour in the East.  One of our group had been to North Korea, and said it too felt like that, and everything was old and broken.

There were few moments of light relief in this book, maybe with the exception of Klaus the idolised East German rock star, unknown outside his own country. Despite us all being moved by the plight of the women she interviewed, it was the machinations of the Stasi that really gripped.  When interviewing Herr Bock, a recruiter of informers for the Stasi, she interrupts to explain his comments to us, which I and most of our group found helpful.

We all felt that Funder didn’t come over as typically Australian – she did feel like someone who had got to know the German mind really well over the years. Her reportage style of writing showed us East Germany through neutral eyes, which didn’t judge, just telling it how she observed it.

A fascinating and touching book in equal measure, Stasiland did fall slightly flat for me.  As someone who doesn’t read a lot of non-fiction, and even less reportage, I found the author’s impartiality rather than her own personality coming through into the pages made it rather dry – but that’s just me.  (7/10)

Next month – The Canterbury Tales!

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. Pub by Granta books 2003, paperback 304 pages.
I bought my copy (using my exception for Book Group reads during the TBR Double Dare).