Review: The Address Book – Tim Radford

Like many school children of my era, when writing my name and address in a book I would extend the address to include cosmic information such as,

. . .  Great Britain
Outer Space
The Universe

In his book,  The Address Book, Tim Radford has taken that concept and written a set of extended essays on the concept of place, resulting in a fascinating meditation on our place in the world around us.  Starting with a chapter headed The Number and The Street, he meanders through The Town, The Country, The Nation and so on right through to The Solar System, The Galaxy and The Universe.

This could seem an artificial concept which would soon run out of steam, but Tim Radford begins well and takes his readers with him as they explore their own place in the Universe and make his meditation their own.  I can’t say I agree with his views throughout but at least he provoked a dialogue in me which made me think about my own sense of place and reflect on my own feelings for town, county, nation and panet.

Most of us feel a sense of affection to the place we live, and Tim takes an obvious delight in the town he lived in for 23 years, the Sussex town of Hastings.  I was reminded of Louise Dean’s book, The Old Romantic which is set in this rather run-down coastal town.  In an interview on BBC Radio 4, Louise Dean said,

Hastings has been on its uppers for many, many years – there are rumours, very much exagerrated, about Hastings having a revival . . . but its still humble and humbling, and fascinating and unkempt and wayward, and in some ways its very much a character itself.

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Review: Granta 114 – Aliens

I have been reading Granta magazine for years now and usually find that this quarterly magazine is full of interesting articles and stories.  Each issue is themed with a particular topic, recent editions having subtitles such as “Going Back”,  “The Best of Spanish Novelists” and “Pakistan” – with 15 to 20 items in each one, whether reportage, fiction, poetry of photography.  It is a beautifully produced journal, nice and thick, with very powerful design elements – they look handsome volume on a shelf – but it is also available in a Kindle edition for those who are prepared to forgo the physicality of the journal for the convenience of an ebook.

If you subscribe to Granta you also get access to the electronic edition, including the complete archive of all Granta articles going right back to 1979.  I have learned that I can save any article I am interested in by using the website instapaper which puts a nifty little “read later” button on my toolbar and then provides a mobi format Kindle download for whenever I want it.

In Granta 114, the theme is “Aliens” – not as in beings from outer-space, but rather the experiences of alienation that come through being a stranger in a new country.  The articles are as always immensely varied, the writing however being consistently fine.  Here is a small selection:

Come Japanese – Julie Otsuka

In the early 1900s, a group of “picture brides” sail from Japan to America to meet their betrothed American men.  Life is not going to be good – they will end up as migrant workers and domestic staff, only to be interned as enemy aliens when the Second World War begins.

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Review: The Education of a British-Protected Child – Chinua Achebe

When I was a member of my first book group about ten years ago, the first book we read together was Chinua Achebe’s fine African novel Things Fall Apart.  Since writing this novel in 1958, Achebe has had a distinguished academic career and was one of the first African writers to awaken the Western conscience to the culturally negative effects of colonialism, exposing the naive attitudes to Africa held by most white Westerners.

In The Education of a British Protected Child we find a collection of essays and transcribed talks given by Achebe covering a wide range of topics from memories of his early life to mature reflections on his work and its impact on readers around the world.

The book is not a difficult read in terms of complexity, the message of the various chapters being quite straightforward.  It could however be uncomfortable reading for anyone not familiar with development issues. Achebe challenges most Western attitudes to Africa, and one of the most enlightening messages is that Africa has had cultured and successful kingdoms in previous centuries, the fruits of which were destroyed by colonialism.  For example, the King of Congo in the late 15th century took the Western name Dom Afonso I and Achebe reports that Congo was represented in the Vatican by a bishop who addressed the Pope in Latin.

Joseph Conrad’s name occurs again and again in the book, and Achebe blames Conrad for creating powerful negative images of Africa in his book Heart of Darkness and other writings.  This book, and a long line of predecessors, “has invented an Africa where nothing good happens or ever happened, an Africa that has not been discovered yet and is waiting for the first European visitor to explore it and explain it and straighten it up”.  Achebe goes on to list highly educated Africans from previous centuries, not least Ignatius Sancho, an eighteenth century man of letters painted by Thomas Gainsborough in 1786 and also Frances Williams, a graduate of Cambridge, a poet, and a founder of a school in Jamaica. Continue reading

Review: Making an Elephant – Graham Swift

Making an Elephant is one of those books which I thoroughly enjoyed from the moment it arrived through the post – a nicely designed and substantial book with plenty of interesting content (including quite a few well-chosen photographs).  And from a favourite author, providing considerable insight into the writer’s life, with illustrations and stories aplenty.

Swift writes on a vast range of topic, and rarely fails to please.  I first came to his work through Waterland, one of those books which managed to draw me into a wholly believable yet utterly strange landscape (in this case The Fens) which I had never encountered before.  Since then I lingered in the Fens while on a business trip to King’s Lynn, a journey which I found myself interpreting through my memories of Waterland.

Then Last Orders came along and quite rightly won the Booker Prize (and was later filmed so effectively with Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay and others).  Since then I’ve read most of Swift’s books and enjoyed them all so it was difficult to resist this varied collection of pieces from such a wide range of sources.

In Making An Elephant, we find episodes from Swift’s life, illustrated by short articles, portraits of other writers, interviews, poems and essays.   It is an ideal book to dip into, but I found myself reading the whole thing over a couple of days, conscious that it is also a book I will enjoy having on my shelves to refer to when thinking about the writing process or just wanting to recall some of the evocative scenes described in it.

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Review: Field Work – Ronald Blythe

It is when reading books like Field Work that you find yourself giving thanks for the large number of independent publishers such as Black Dog Books (and booksellers who stock such titles such as my local Much Ado Books of Alfriston.

I usually enjoy books of essays and this collection, Field Work, from Ronald Blythe was a treat for me.  Quite apart from the content (which is excellent) the presentation is of very high quality with a fine painting by John Nash on the cover and a collection of Nash’s black and white illustrations scattered about the book itself.  I am someone who usually likes the latest technology, but a book like this only makes me shudder at the thought of devices like the new Sony Reader which was launched this week.  I would not want to lose the sheer tactile pleasure of having this volume in my hands.

The topic of most of these essays could be described as “literary rural England”, and anyone who enjoys reading about literary connections will be in their element here.

As a keen walker myself, I enjoyed reading the essay, John Clare and Footpath Walking.  Blythe provides many quotations from John Clare about walking but also sets them in the context of the rural life in the 17th century when a walk in the countryside was by no means a solitary affair.  Blythe writes that he recently went for a six mile walk and never met a single person – an experience I can relate to from a recent walk across the South Downs on a Monday morning.  In Clare’s day however, “there was always somebody up a tree, or under a bush, or just riffling about with a scythe, or hiding away with a sweetheart or a book, or usually just routinely travelling to the workplace”.  Blythe calls Clare, “the genius of the footpath” and it was fascinating to read of the routes he followed, either idly wandering about, or systematically aiming for a destination.

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Review: At Large and Small – Anne Fadiman

I first came across Anne Fadiman some years ago via her book of reflections on reading Ex Libris. I enjoyed that little book more than its size would suggest, and when I read a review of At Large and Small I was intrigued enough to buy a copy.  I found that it contains a collection of essays on a wide range of subjects, from the ice-cream to butterfly collecting, from the esssays of Charles Lamb to the dominance of correspondence by email.  This is definitely a book for someone who like reading intelligent musings on a miscellany of topics, and although the essays are essentially light and amusing, most readers will learn something interesting along the way.

As I read it, I began to wonder how this differed from a newspaper column, or even an Internet blog.  After all, there are countless coloumnists who write reflectively in the Sunday supplements or the weekly magazines, and even more bloggers who put their thoughts down almost daily on anything that comes across their path.  In the end, I felt that Anne Fadiman’s essays are perhaps written over a longer period and took longer in the gestation, giving them a depth and consistency across the topics which other media writers may not achieve.

Ann Fadiman is of course highly qualified to write such a book, being Writer-In-Residence at Yale University.  The books closes with a comprehensive list of academic references and other notes, and suggests that this is rather more than chance ramblings, but a well-researched set of thoughts born out of a long period of reflection.

The books is beautifully produced, and perhaps this is part of its appeal.  Its not a book to hurry through, but rather one to make last over several weeks, and return to again and again.  Any book-lover would appreciate it on their shelves, and it would make an unusual gift for anyone who likes reading and is prepared to try something a little different.