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Dimensional Doodlings

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Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott

Science fiction is a bit of a knotty topic for me, as I like some of but I’m a bit picky! In my twenties I did go through a phase of reading some ‘hard’ science fiction (alien battles and strange worlds) but if I’m honest I’m more attracted by the Star Trek / Doctor Who / fantasy and classic sci-fi type of work than the space army sort. I’ll happy read H.G. Wells and Douglas Adams but I’m not so comfortable with Asimov and Peter Hamilton!

flatland

“Flatland”, therefore, is the kind of speculative fiction that falls into my remit: described as a “mathematical fantasy about life in a two-dimensional world”, it was first published in 1884. Abbott, according to Wikipedia, was an English schoolmaster and theologian and although he wrote many works, this is the one that’s still read today. I picked my copy up while passing through St. Pancras station recently (no, not on my way to Hogwarts!) and it’s a very pretty little black Penguin Classic.

“Flatland” is a place of only two dimensions, and the story is narrated by an anonymous Square. He describes his world thus: “Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it… and you will have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen.”

So far, so good. However, this world of flatness has a rigid social hierarchy, at the bottom of which are women (straight lines) and at the top of which are the Polygons (the more angles you have, the higher your status). Everything is controlled by this hierarchy, and no progress is possibly through society for certain of the shapes; for others, the right sort of marriage or dangerous surgery when young to produce more angles or more equal lines, can help them rise in status. Abbott helpfully provides little diagrammatic illustrations in places to help us understand his concepts.

The Square tells us of life in Flatland; how the shapes learn to move around without damaging each other; the danger of women who, being straight lines, can seriously injure or kill anyone with whom the come into contact; and how any attempts to conceive of a world outside this one are punishable by destruction. However, the Square has strange experiences to come; first he dreams of a Lineland where creatures of different lengths exist along a line and communicate by song; then, as the millennium turns, he is visited by a Sphere from a three-dimensional world who opens his eyes to the reality of things like cubes that are not flat. It seems that every millennium this kind of visit happens, and attempting to pass the information on about three dimensions will have severe consequences for the Square…

Of course, we are very much in the land of satire here! Abbott was using his analogies here to comment on the rigidity of Victoria society and the restrictions placed upon people at that time. Social definitions were all (you only need to read Dickens or the Brontes to see that) and “Flatland” throws this into sharp relief. Particularly apt is the attitude towards women – let’s not forget that the Brontes published their books initially under male pseudonyms, and many of their subjects were women restricted by the mores of the era).

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However, the book also has a scientific angle which is fascinating. It’s a little hard (for me, at least) to get your head around the concept of existing in one or two dimensions, as we’re so used to the three we have. Equally, the Square pushed the Sphere to reveal further secrets and consider if there is a fourth dimension – an idea that had been around for some time before Abbott was writing. The Sphere is a little resistant, but the point I think the books is ultimately making is that our perceptions and our understanding of the world are limited by our circumstances. This chimes in with the message in a James Burke programme I was watching on the BBC recently – everything is relative, there are no scientific absolutes and what we think at the moment may radically change as we discover more about ourselves and the universe around us. The Square struggles to hang onto the concept of three dimensions once he is back in Flatland – but once having been shown something new, he can never go back to his old way of thinking.

This was a fascinating little read, and I can see why it has survived as a classic. I’m no scientist, but I do like to watch popular science progs on TV, and “Flatland” still seemed relevant to our modern ways of thinking. Even if you haven’t got a scientific bent I still recommend Abbott’s book – it’ll certainly get you thinking about the space around you if nothing else! :)

Let There Be Books!!!!

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So there I was, talking about avoiding amassing more titles and scratching the book itch – and of course, it’s all gone pear-shaped and out of the window! I have to say that I won’t entirely take the blame and here is a little run-down of what’s been arriving recently…

First up, a number of new items which have crept onto the shelves by various means (sandwiched between my two editions of Priestley’s “English Journey”):

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Two of these were unexpected review books from the lovely MacLehose/Quercus Press (“News from Berlin” and “Island Where I Flee”). Both sound intriguing and so I’m looking forward to them, particularly as I don’t read that many new books.

Two of the Canongate titles were a moment of weakness when I saw their wonderful offer on Twitter – 60% off plus a free book. Let’s face it, that’s just too good to resist…. So I chose the Willa Muir and received the very interesting-looking Kate Riophe book – I like bookish surprises!

odile snow

And there were a couple of small volumes I *may* have just ordered a while ago – the last C.P. Snow I need to complete the set of “Strangers and Brothers” (I may even read these next year…); plus a slightly uncharacteristic Raymond Queneau book, “Odile”, which is apparently based on his time with the surrealists.

Then there was London… At the weekend, I had a lovely day out in the Big Smoke, meeting up with my old friend J. for some pre-Christmas shopping and mooching about. We met at Foyles (always a good place to rendezvous, I find!) and I was persuaded to pick up the Modiano and the Machado de Assis. I’d wanted to read Modiano since hearing about him when he won the Nobel, and his works were initially difficult to track down – so I feel no guilt about buying this! Machado de Assis is my current read and this story is highly recommended! The Lermontov came from the Bloomsbury Oxfam and is translated by the Nabokovs, father and son, so I couldn’t resist.

Allan Ramsay Self Portrait : NPG

Allan Ramsay Self Portrait : NPG

After a little visit to the NPG for the Grayson Perry exhibition (and to see my current favourite portrait, Allan Ramsay’s self-portrait, which wasn’t out when I last visited), we took a scenic bus ride in the sun to Chelsea, to have a look at the Anthropologie shop and a little exhibition there. The shop is *gorgeous* and *not cheap* but we enjoyed window shopping! And just off the King’s Road there was another Oxfam wherein lurked “Twilight of the Eastern Gods” – which has been on my wish list for a while, so it would have been rude not to take it home!

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Whew! To add to the book count, J. had very kindly brought me birthday gifts, and a Beverley Nichols! In fact, it ended up being two Beverleys, as one was a lovely hardback of “A Case of Human Bondage”, and the birthday Beverley turned out to be a beautiful old hardback of “A Thatched Roof – which J. made me open in the Foyles cafe as she wanted to see my reaction when I saw that it was signed! (Reaction = very, very happy!). The other gift, which I opened yesterday, was a lovely Persephone I don’t have (but am very keen to read) – “The Children Who Lived in a Barn” by Eleanor Graham, complete with bookmark! The contents are a lovely facsimile of the original Puffin edition. So thanks go to J. for the lovely gifts (and we had a fun day out, too!)

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The final incoming heap were as a result of my birthday – my friends and family know me well and so there are always bookish gifts!

First up, Eldest Child chose two titles from my wish list:

tea aerodrome

The don’t have much in common except that they piqued my interest!

spectres

“Red Spectres” came from mother-in-law via the wish list – yet another title I’ve been after for a while!

bulg

The Bulgakov title likewise – from my brother, who is happy to simply buy me whatever I ask for! :)

tea architecture

Tea and Architecture – not obvious bedfellows, but both interests of mine, so OH (who knows me well) did good here by choosing these two lovelies!

vintage

I have a weakness for vintage crafty stuff too, so this book was an ideal choice by a work colleague:

chox

And last, but definitely not least, OH got his priorities right with a non-bookish gift!

So I have been very blessed and spoiled with books lately – and with Christmas coming too, I think I really will have to have a bit of a January cull…… :s

Scratching the book itch

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I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the worst things you can do as a bibliophile is read book blogs – especially if you’re a reader who’s as fickle and impressionable as I am! Unfortunately, book blogs are one of my favourite things, and I *love* a good recommendation or discovering a book/author I haven’t come across before. It’s not good for the TBR or the bank balance (or indeed the space in the house!) and it’s something I’ve been trying to address lately.

The trouble is, I think, the ready availability of (often cheaply priced) books. The minute I read a review that enthuses me, it’s tempting to just order a copy to have ready for when I want to read it. This way, I’ve ended up with shelves of wonderful (unread) books and I’m constantly being distracted from them by the next shiny recommendation. So I’ve hit upon a couple of ways to try to counteract the mad urge to buy.

First, there is the library. If a book is there, I’ll reserve it – chances are it will be available just as quickly as one I’d order online, and more often than not I’ll decide I don’t need to read it at the moment, add it to the wish list and then take it back.

basketIf it’s not in the library I go to phase 2. I add it to the shopping basket of a selected online retailer and then leave it there – usually all day, while I’m working or doing something else. Most often, when I go back to it, I’ve decided I can wait so I add it to the aforementioned wish list and don’t buy it.

Both approaches are working fairly well (!) and help to deal with that book itch I get when I read about an intriguing volume.

However, I don’t know if this book urge is exclusive to me, as when I was packing my shopping bag to take a library book back the other day, OH asked me if I’d read it. I replied that I hadn’t, but I’d got it out to see if I’d like – I thought I would but I didn’t have an urgent need to read it right now. He queried if I got “urgent needs” to read a book as if it was unusual. Well I do – and I hope I’m not alone in that!

But in the meantime, I’ll use the above methods to scratch the book itch and hopefully keep the TBR down! :)

Word Games from a Master of the Genre

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Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

I’ve been circling Raymond Queneau’s books for a while – in fact, I own several, and given my love of Calvino and Perec and literary wordplay it’s not surprising I should want to read him. And at last I have, though not any of the volumes I already had… In my defence, I was placing a Christmas order somewhere unmentionable which I had to get over £10 – so it figures I should treat myself to something and it turned out to be “Exercises in Style”.

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Apart from “Zazie in the Metro”, this is probably the book that Queneau is best known for. Born in 1903, he’s possibly something of a missing link between the Surrealists and OuLiPo, as he briefly flirted with the former organisation before going his own way – never really agreeing with their politics or their views on art. In simple terms, they favoured an *anything goes* approach, whereas Queneau believed that structure and restrictions brought liberation as you were free to create within that structure.

“Exercises in Style” is quite fascinating. It takes a simple premise – a short paragraph relating a man on a packed bus accusing another passenger of jostling him, throwing himself down in an empty seat and then later on having a conversation with a friend about moving a button on his coat. Queneau then proceeds to retell the story in 98 different styles – the same actions, but each story is completely different because of the stylistic devices, ranging from Retrograde (understandable) through Reported Speech (very clever!) to Aphaeresis (unintelligible!).

As the exercises continue, there are subtle developments; the jostling becomes stepping on toes; extra characters(like a Dr. Queuneau  in Reported Speech) and an unnamed observer, put in appearances. This is storytelling as an organic form and each different retelling makes you look at the incident in a different light.

Raymond_Queneau

If you described this book to someone, it might well sound dull, but it certainly isn’t. It’s a revelation as a reader to see how much we’re manipulated by the style and the word games adopted by an author. A simple incident has a totally different complexion depending on the way the author writes it. The book is a game, playing with words, but with a serious intent: telling us not to trust words, to be aware of this and look behind the words in each case to try to find the truth.

The book is issued by one of my favourite publishes, Alma, and so of course there is plenty of extra material. The foreword is by Umberto Eco, and there is an excellent little essay by another OuLiPo member, Italo Calvino, which throws light on Queneau’s career and work. Special praise needs to be given to translator Barbara Wright, too. When translating a book like this, so dependent on wordplay, the work becomes very much case of interpretation as well as translation. In some cases Wright created an English language version of the particular exercise, which was approved by Queneau – a wonderful case of writer and translator working together, and she deserves kudos for what she did with this!

“Exercises in Style” made me smile, laugh and think, which is a pretty good result really! And I shall definitely be exploring more of Queneau’s work. :)

Love vs. Art : Willa Cather Reading Week

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“Coming, Aphrodite!” by Willa Cather

This week has seen something of an experiment, in that I have read my first book (well – short story!) in an electronic form on an electronic device! I’ve found the device itself relatively easy to deal with (I’m reasonably tech-savvy) but I do have slight reservations about reading this way. I don’t think that I engaged with the text in the same way, and I certainly missed the physical attributes of a book very much. I read the story in iBooks, and I found the format preferable to my limited experience of the Kindle app, simply because the former had page numbers and I’d rather have that than a percentage! However, on to the content!

youthandthebrightmedusa

As I mentioned earlier, HeavenAli has been hosting a Willa Cather Reading Week, and to join in I’ve read the short story “Coming, Aphrodite!” from a collection entitled “Youth and the Bright Medusa”. Cather’s works often fall into two distinct categories: those dealing with life in the country on the prairies, and those dealing with artistic city dwellers. This story seems to cover both strands, telling the story of the brief encounter of Don Hedger, a solitary painter living artistically in a loft with his dog, Caesar III, and Eden Bower, a singer, originally hailing from the country and who’s reinvented herself with a view to fame and fortune in the city.

Hedger is a man set in his ways; an orphan, independent from a young age and owing nothing to anybody, he could make a better living if he wished to go down the commercial art route, but he doesn’t. Instead, he paints as he wants and makes enough to get by, with simple needs and a dog for a friend.

On the surface, then, he has nothing in common with Eden. She arrives to take up residence in the studio next door, along with a piano and all sorts of other female paraphernalia. The two clash initially, with Eden objecting to Don washing Caesar in the bath (the dog never likes her), but when Hedger inadvertently spies on her doing exercises through a knot-hole in the partition, he becomes attracted. After a tentative start, and an escapade with a hot air balloon, a relationship begins to develop between the two. However, it’s not clear how long this can last – Eden has escaped from a stifling life in the country to make an artistic splash in the world, but Hedger seems to have no ambition at all. It’s kind of a doomed relationship from the start…

People like Eden Bower are inexplicable. Her father sold farming machinery in Huntington, Illinois, and she had grown up with no acquaintances or experiences outside of that prairie town. Yet from her earliest childhood she had not one conviction or opinion in common with the people about her,–the only people she knew. Before she was out of short dresses she had made up her mind that she was going to be an actress, that she would live far away in great cities, that she would be much admired by men and would have everything she wanted.

“Coming, Aphrodite!” is my first experience of reading Cather and it’s been a very positive one! Her prose is lovely – evocative and yet spare. For a short story, it has much to say about the different types of artistic temperament and the needs they have to be recognised. Eden craves fame and recognition, and will take advantage of a rich benefactor to achieve this if she must. Hedger, in contrast, will not compromise at all, only doing commercial work when money needs are desperate – his art is its own end and if and when it coincides with commercial taste that’s fine – if doesn’t, then no matter, he will still paint what he wants.

He, too, was sure of his future and knew that he was a chosen man. He could not know, of course, that he was merely the first to fall under a fascination which was to be disastrous to a few men and pleasantly stimulating to many thousands. Each of these two young people sensed the future, but not completely. Don Hedger knew that nothing much would ever happen to him. Eden Bower understood that to her a great deal would happen. But she did not guess that her neighbour would have more tempestuous adventures sitting in his dark studio than she would find in all the capitals of Europe, or in all the latitude of conduct she was prepared to permit herself.

The New York of the turn of the century really comes alive in Cather’s hands – the Washington Square area where the two live; Coney Island, where the balloon incident occurs; and the spring weather, which disturbs their senses. Hedger’s love for Eden becomes almost obsessive as their affair progresses, and Cather paints Bower as an ambitious and independent woman, initially unsure of her feelings for a man so unlike herself.

This book was a beautiful study of two very differing artistic temperaments involved in a fleeting, but memorable love affair. On the evidence of “Coming, Aphrodite!” I really want to read more of Willa Cather’s work!

 

A Swabian Youth

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Reunion by Fred Uhlman

As I’ve often mentioned on the Ramblings, I’m rather blessed by the number of local charity shops and the wonderful finds I sometimes make in them – books I’ve been after for a while, old out of print treasures and unexpected surprises. I’ve been trying to control the buying a little recently, but I stumbled recently across a book I’d never heard of that comes into the unexpected category.

reunion

It’s so slim that I almost missed it in the modern fiction section (where I don’t normally go) but the Harvill Panther logo on the spine caught my eye and I thought I’d give it a try, as the blurb on the back intrigued me. And I’m obviously in novella mode, as this book is only 83 pages long!!

“Reunion” tells the story of a friendship between two young – middle class Jew Hans and aristocratic Gentile Konradin. The boys are classmates and although not obvious companions, they hit it off and an intense friendship develops as they have much in common in their interests. However, the relationship is one that is obviously doomed from the start – as the story is set in 1932, and the boys are living in a Germany that is gradually coming under the influence of Hitler and the Nazis…

The next few months were the happiest of my life. Spring came and the whole country was one mass of blossoms, cherry and apple, pear and peach, while the poplars took on their silver and the willows their lemon yellow. The soft, serene bluish hills of Swabia were covered with vineyards and orchards and crowned with castles…

The story is told very lyrically – the boys spend most of their time together outside, with Konradin eventually making visits to Hans’ home. However, Hans only visits Konradin’s rather grander house occasionally, and, as he comes to realise, only when the latter’s rather anti-Semitic mother is absent… As the book progresses, the security of their world begins to show cracks – the sports teacher wears a swastika, anti-Semitic comments become more common, Konradin blanks Hans when they encounter one another at the Opera, and violence against Jews begins. What’s chilling is the refusal of some of the Jewish characters to recognise what is happening – at one point, Hans’ father states:

I know my Germany. This is a temporary illness, something like measles, which will pass as soon as the economic situation improves. Do you really believe the compatriots of Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Beethoven will fall for this rubbish?

Alas, fall they did.

I’m not going to say much about the resolution of this small volume, but it’s one of those novels with a killer last line (no peeking!) and a very emotional ending. It captures quite brilliantly the fragility and intensity of the friendship between the adolescent boys (whether there are meant to be hints of anything more than friendship I don’t know – and in the end, it doesn’t matter). The events that take place and the effect they have on Hans are dramatic but told in a quite straightforward way, which is all the more devastating.

uhlman

It’s hard not to read “Reunion” autobiographically: Uhlman was born in Stuttgart, Germany, moved to Paris when Hitler came to power as Chancellor and then moved to Spain, and eventually London. He spent the rest of his life there, until his death in 1985, and was a notable painter. The book was his only novel and it’s a lyrical and very moving piece of storytelling. I’m still often surprised about how much can be told in so few words (although I shouldn’t be, having read so many amazing novellas recently). Uhlman’s wonderful book is a testament to a friendship and a chilling reminder of the effect totalitarianism can have on people. I’m very glad I stumbled on this one!

…and I was doing so well!

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I certainly was! I have been trying (and succeeding) not to buy any books lately. Not only is the festive season (and my birthday!) approaching, a time when I’m very likely to receive books, but also the shelves are still bulging despite my clearing out earlier in the year. So apart from sending off for the final book I need to complete my set of C.P. Snow’s “Strangers and Brothers” series, I had been very good up until the weekend…

Unfortunately the Oxfam Shop was the instrument of my downfall. They’ve revamped the shelves I like, which were Modern Classics and Classics, into just one section and added some new titles. So I ended up coming home on Saturday with these:

chapter journey

… for which there really is no excuse, particularly as I already have a perfectly acceptable copy of “English Journey”. HOWEVER – this is a lovely 50th anniversary (book club) edition with lots of period illustrations and it was only £2.99.

journey illus

I mean, it *is* lovely, isn’t it? And here is Priestley on the back cover:

journey back

The other book was a whim, nothing else:

chapter hats

I know not a thing about it, but was intrigued enough to risk £1.99. And if anyone has any thoughts on the book, I’d be interested to hear them, because I’ve never heard of Machado de Assis!

Incidentally, I was surprised at the prices of both these books, as the Oxfams often charge more than the other charity shops, but both of these were very reasonable. There is a new guy behind the counter so maybe he’s decided lower prices will stimulate sales – which could be a very dangerous trend…. :)

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