Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Alex's Adventures in Numberland: Dispatches From The Wonderful World of Mathmatics by Alex Bellos

Despite having no aptitude for science (I failed Biology and Chemistry O'Level and took two attempts to pass Maths), I am strangely attracted to books and tv programmes about the subject in its many guises. I have read this book very slowly and renewed it at the library three times. Some parts I have had to read several times to make any sense of, other parts I skipped altogether because I knew I would never understand them. Despite this, I understood enough to find this book fascinating.

Bellos looks at the social aspects of numbers, how we learn them, what we use them for, the impact they have on our lives. He writes about the great mathematicians and their discoveries and also about the fun side of maths - the Rubic's cube and origami. One of things I found most interesting was the descriptions of people who have the ability to calculate very complex numbers in their heads:

One of the earliest-known examples was a Derbyshire farmhand, Jedediah Buxton, who amazed locals with his abilities in multiplication despite being barely able to read....... In 1754, curiosity about Buxton's talent lead to him being invited to London, where he was examined by members of the Royal Society. He seems to have had some of the symptoms of high-functioning autism, for when he was taken to see Shakespeare's Richard III he was left nonplussed by the experience, though he notified his hosts that the actors had taken 5,202 steps and spoken 14,445 words.

It was possible to make a career on the stage out of these skills and people would flock to see them in Victorian times. 

Memorising Pi is another popular feat among people who enjoy memorising lists of numbers. For those who find this too easy, there is a competition which involves reciting Pi while juggling. And speaking of juggling, there is a man named Colin Wright who has developed a mathematical notation for juggling. In the words of Bellos it 'might not sound like much, but has electrified the international juggling community'.

One of the main joys of this book for me was the host of colourful and eccentric characters that pop up. It seems that those people who can really see into maths and see the beauty in it, see the rest of life in rather a skewed way. They plough their own furrow, they dance to a different drummer.

I found this book fascinating, and I'm sure it would be even more fascinating to a reader who knows anything about maths.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Gone With The Wind - Chapters 31 to 47

Just when Scarlett thinks things are starting to turn a corner and get better - they suddenly get worse. The tax bill is fixed so high that she can't possibly pay it and is in danger of losing Tara. She goes to Atlanta determined to get the money from Rhett. But Rhett is in jail and can't help. So she turns to Frank Kennedy, her sister Suellen's beau. She tells him that Suellen is engaged to someone else, and persuades Frank to marry her instead.

In Atlanta Scarlett is in serious danger of losing the little moral sense she had. Money becomes an obsession, money to send back to Tara to keep it secure. She buys a lumber mill, with Rhett's money and against Frank's wishes. She is a talented business woman but is not above lying and cheating to get the best prices. She scandalises the town by driving herself around, selling lumber and meeting contractors. She hires a convict gang and turns a blind eye to the cruel treatment meted out to them by the manager.

Ashley is still her weak spot. When she buys a second lumber mill she hires him to manage it. He is useless at business, but she forgives him mistakes that she would've fired anyone else for. Ashley is no good for her but she can't see it. He is unhappy and felt pressured into taking the job, when in fact he wanted to go North. He is weak, but at least he knows he's weak.

Reconstruction is taking its toll. Society is turned upside down and there is a growing groundswell of anger against the Yankees and the freed slaves and the carpet baggers. The Ku Klux Klan is on the rise and Frank, Ashley and several of their friends are members. After Scarlett is attacked on her way to the mill, the Klan goes looking for vengeance. Frank is killed. Rhett (not a member of the Klan) manages to save Ashley.

Scarlett is in danger of becoming an outcast. Only Melly and Rhett seem to be on her side. The final nail in her social coffin is when she agrees to marry Rhett. She says she doesn't love him, though she is fond of him. I think that he genuinely loves her, though he won't admit it until she does.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Derby Day by DJ Taylor

This story is set in Victorian times and takes place in the months leading up to the famous horse race - the Derby. There is a wide cast of characters. Mr Happerton buys Tiberius, a horse which many people favour to win the Derby. But did he buy him fairly? Mr Davenant, the previous owner is hard pressed financially and Mr Happerton tightens the screw.

Mr Happerton marries Miss Gresham, against her father's wishes. But why does she marry him? A very self-contained woman, Miss Gresham may have her own motives. Mysteriously, after the marriage has taken place, Miss Gresham's father becomes ill. His doctor cannot identify the cause of his illness, but he becomes increasingly fragile, both mentally and physically. Then there is Mr Pardew, a thief living in Paris. Mr Happerton calls him back to London to do a job for him.

All the time this is going on we have gossip and excitment about the upcoming race. Interspersed between the chapters are newspaper reports listing the runners and riders and the latest gossip from the paddock.

The central mystery is why Mr Happerton has bought Tiberius. Does he want him to win, or is he going to make his fortune by betting against him. But alongside this are other puzzling things. I was fascinated by Miss Gresham's motivations. She seems to support Mr Happerton in his endeavours but at the same time has her own plans for him. Nobody in the story trusts anybody else and one of the added interests is to see if everyone can get to the day of the Derby without betraying each other.

It took me a while to get into this, but I thinks that it's because I couldn't get a run at it at first. Because of the summer holidays I didn't have much time for reading so could only read it in fits and starts and had trouble following the story. However once I had time to sit down and concentrate the story really drew me in.

Monday, 19 September 2011

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

The Secret Adversary features two of the lesser known heroes of Christie - Tommy and Tuppence
Beresford. Unmarried at the beginning of this book, they are old friends who bump into each other in London. I thought I'd stumbled into a PG Wodehouse novel:

'Tommy, old thing!'
'Tuppence, old bean!'
The two young people greeted each other affectionately and momentarily blocked the Dover Street Tube exit in doing so. The adjective 'old' was misleading. Their united ages would certainly not have totalled forty-five.
'Not seen you for simply centuries,' continued the young man. 'Where are you off too? Come and chew a bun with me. We're getting a bit unpopular here - blocking the gangway as it were. Let's get out of it.'

When they meet they're both at a bit of a loose end after finishing their war work (it's just after the First World War). So, they decide to be adventurers. Personally, I would've looked for secretarial work, or a job in a bank, but that's just me. Anyway, no sooner is this decision made, than they happen upon an adventure. They become embroiled in searching for a woman named Jane Finn who went missing during the war. It is believed that she was carrying a draft peace treaty. This treaty has  become important because it would reflect badly on the government and the government believes that revolutionary forces want to use it to foment rebellion. Tommy and Tuppence meet Mr Carter, who is with British Intelligence. He explains:

Yes, five years ago that draft treaty was a weapon in our hands; today it is a weapon against us. It was a gigantic blunder. If its terms were made public, it would mean disaster......It might possibly bring about another war - not with Germany this time! That is an extreme possibility, and I do not believe in its likelihood myself, but that document undoubtedly implicates a number of our statesmen whom we cannot afford to have discredited in any way at the present moment. As a party cry for Labour it would be irresistable, and a Labour Government at this juncture would in my opinion be a grave disability to British trade.......

He then goes on to explain to Tommy and Tuppence about 'Bolshevist influence' in the Labour movement. I found this very interesting and it made me want to find out more about this post-World War 1 period. Was there really a genuine fear of revolution, or was it paranoia from the Establishment? There are some patronising descriptions of the working class as naive dupes of foreign mercenaries. Certainly Tommy and Tuppence accept quickly enough that the status quo should be protected, and that it is perfectly right to suppress facts which might reflect badly on the government.

I thought this book was a fun read that relies on some amazing coincidences. Early on Tuppence says, 'I've often noticed that once coincidences start happening they go on happening in the most extraordinary way. I dare say it's some natural law that we haven't found out.' I picked the wrong villain again. 2-0 to Agatha.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

I wasn't quite sure what to expect with this book. However from the first page I fell in love with it.

Jaffy Brown is a young boy growing up in poverty in nineteenth century London. Now, as soon as I know that I immediately think 'mother on the gin, violent father, sadistic employer, life of crime.' But that is not Jaffy's life at all. It's true that he and his mother do have to do a midnight flit from an unsuitable man, but they flit successfully and never hear from him again. Jaffy and his mother are close and he is a happy and confident boy. That's not to say that Birch presents an idealised version of their lives. The poverty and deprivation is very real. This is a description of children searching the sewers for dropped change:

Crawling up and down the new sewers like maggots ourselves, thin grey boys, thin grey girls, grey as the mud we walked in, splashing along the dark, round-mouthed tunnels that stank like hell. The sides were caked in crusty, black shit. Peeling out pennies and trying to fill our pockets, we wore our handkerchiefs over our noses and mouths, our eyes stang and ran. Sometimes we retched. It was something we did, like a sneeze or a belch.........But our pockets were never full. I remember the gnawing in my belly, the hunger retch.

An amazing thing happens to Jaffy. He is walking along the street one day when he comes face to face with a tiger. The tiger picks him up in its mouth, walks a way with him and then puts him down unhurt. The tiger belongs to Mr Jamrach, an animal importer. He is very apologetic and concerned, and thanks to him Jaffy's life takes a new turn.

Jaffy goes to work for Jamrach. He works with the animals, a job he loves and has a gift for. Eventually, after a number of years Jaffy joins an expedition to discover a dragon (presumably a Komodo dragon), which one of Jamrach's clients wants. The story takes a different turn here, and I don't want to give too much away. Jaffy has a gift for friendship and family. His family expands, first his mother, then Jamrach's company and then the ship's crew. He gets along with people which makes him a good observer. He is tested severely in his adventures, and is inevitably changed, but can he keep true to himself.

I love Birch's writing. These are Jaffy's thoughts after leaving an island where he had heard mysterious drumming:

The gongs of Sumba played in my head as I lay thinking in the night, they'd been playing in my head ever since we'd left that place, their low droning somnolence sending out into the darkness long sound ribbons that scarcely vibrated but changed constantly in some shimmering way, simple as silk. The music was like a snake swallowing its tail, a lullaby that repeats and repeats, softening and sharpening your senses at the same time, like a drug.

This is my favourite book of the year so far and I think it will repay re-reading.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Black Swan Rising by Lee Carroll

Transworld Book Group
I'm part of the Transworld Book Group
This is the second book I have received through the Transworld Book Challenge.

Black Swan Rising is the kind of story I like to lose myself in once in a while. It is set in New York, and while the inhabitants of the city are going about their ordinary daily lives, there is a whole other supernatural world going on alongside theirs. The central character is Garet James. She is a jeweller and gallery owner. On the way back from a meeting with her lawyer she pops into an antiques shop for a browse. The owner recognises her and asks her to take a look at a silver box which has come into his possession. The box is welded shut and he wonders if Garet can use her jewellery making skills to open it. She agrees to try and takes it home with her.

This is a fateful decision. The box has supernatural properties and there is someone who will stop at nothing to retrieve it. Garet discovers that she has a few supernatural properties herself. A whole world opens up, a world of vampires, fairies and magic. Garet is taken under the wing of Oberon, the king of the fairies. His day job is as a nurse in a local hospital. Oberon introduces Garet to various other magical creatures, some of whom have skills to teach her. She also meets Will Hughes, a multi-millionaire hedge-fund manager, who is quite at home in the supernatural world.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I love the premise. I love that some of the characters surprised me.  I love the setting of New York. I think it's well written. It is the first in a series (the first chapter of the second book is included in this volume), and I think that this is my problem. It really just felt like a set up for future books. We meet all the necessary characters one after the other without getting to know all of them. Garet learns all her lessons with few problems, presumably because she'll need those skills in upcoming novels. The silver box almost becomes a side issue.

Having said that, I'm intrigued enough to read the second book (The Watchtower). Hopefully, now that all the explanations are out of the way it will be an excellent read.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

This is a book I thought I'd read. But when I started reading it to Billy I realised that I hadn't. The characters are so familiar, and I suppose I must've caught bits of the film adaptations. I thought that most of the action took place on the voyage to the island, but it is the island itself which is the centre of the adventure.

The story starts at the Admiral Benbow Inn, where Jim Hawkins lives with his mother. A fierce old seafaring man comes to stay there. This is Billy Bones, and he is carrying a treasure map which his former colleagues are anxious to get their hands on. However it comes into the possession of Jim and so begins the adventure.

The local squire, Mr Trelawney finances an expedition to recover the treasure. Enthusiastic, but a little naive, he goes to Bristol to recruit a crew. Unknowingly he recruits several of Billy Bones' old friends, including the infamous Long John Silver. One of things that surprised me was that Silver was not an out and out baddie - in fact he was a bit of a charmer. And he could switch sides very easily if it suited him.

Once on the island it is no easy matter to find the treasure. We meet Ben Gunn, marooned on the island years before and driven half mad with loneliness. Jim has an epic fight with Israel Hands for control of the ship, the Hispanola and there is a shoot out for control of the stockade on the island.

It is a brilliant adventure story. I read that there is going to be a new film made with Eddie Izzard as Long John Silver. It was a bit difficult to read out loud. I wasn't sure how to pronounce some of the ships jargon. And I have the worst pirate voice in the world.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Gone With The Wind - Chapters 17 to 30

I loved this section of the book. It's here that we really see what Scarlett is made of. The war is turning against the South and the Yankees are heading towards Atlanta. At first people can't believe it, but the army just keeps on coming closer and closer.

Then the shelling starts and the residents of Atlanta begin to flee. Melanie's baby is due any day and she can't be moved. Terrified and resentful, Scarlett stays with her. It is a horrific situation, the girls have heard such terrible rumours about the treatment meted out to Southern woman by the Yankee soldiers. Melly goes into agonising labour, with no doctor or medicines available. Nothing in Scarlett's life has prepared her for this. Somehow the baby is delivered and Melly survives, though she is very weak and ill.

Rhett manages to get them out of Atlanta, but leaves them halfway home because he is going off to join the army. This is puzzling. Why join the army now, when the war is just about lost and he had just been sneering at them as they retreated? It was the sight of a soldier carrying a young man who was too tired to walk which seemed to affect Rhett. He is very clear sighted about himself, and perhaps he felt shamed by that soldier.

The women and children make it to Tara. It is here that we see Scarlett's strength. Her mother is dead, her father is feeble, the slaves who worked the fields are all gone. There is no money and no food. She gets little support from anyone except Dilcey. Scarlett is exhausted and griefstricken but somehow she discovers that stubborn core of steel that will not allow her to give up, and she drags all the others with her. She does things she never could've imagined - she kills a man. Life is changed utterly and so is she. She is determined not to be one of the people who constantly hark back to the good old days before the war. She is determined to move forward.