Archive for April, 2008

ESSAYS – CLIVE JAMES AND UMBERTO ECO

We thought we were going to be very intellectual for this group, because we had decided to read huge fat, and recent, collections of essays by two renowned readers/writers/critics/intellectuals.

but the truth was different
– firstly, given their size, most of us didnt get through them, and
– secondly many, though not all, were disappointed with what we did read.

the clive james had a few fans in the group but several detractors also. the book has 100+ essays, theoretically each about a historical figure, including people from history, politics movies, culture etc, many fairly obscure though notable in some way.

the fans liked the variety, surprise, humour and style of it. The detractors found his dirty old man side, his constant name dropping and lack of discussion of the actual life or thought or work of his subjects annoying.

Both supporters and detractors agreed on a few things
– it was largely a book about writing as he talked at length about the writing of each subject
– clive is incredibly well read and many of his subjects, particularly the lesser known ones were surprisingly interesting
– it was entertaining rather than academic

my tip would be if you are reading it to find out about the subjects of each essay you would do better looking them up on wikipedia, but if you do that and then want a reflection, or opinion, on the person then the book may help.

the eco was a surprise. bookgroupers went into this one a little intimidated expecting a book of essays by a famous global intellect to be well researched and argued in logical detail. but as with the clive james it turned out to be entertainment. the essays were actually mainly written for newspapers and s their function is to interest, amuse or provoke sufficiently to sell the papers.

i found it very good, largely because i agreed with nearly all of it, but it was not especially enlightening. It was like a discussion at book group, or at a dinner party, smart and well informed but not anymore based on evidence or research than any reasonably typical discussion of an issue you might have with your friends – assuming your friends are petty smart, fairly left wing, and pretty well educated

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April 30, 2008 at 12:22 pm Leave a comment

SCIENCE FICTION – SOLARIS AND A HANDMAIDS TALE

This episode of bookgroup had a science fiction theme and raised a number of interesting ideas.

Strangely the two books we chose for the theme, although both set in the future, were not at all representative of the genre.

so unfortunately the group cant say it delved into the genre only that we discussed some interesting books set in the future.

nevertheless bookgroupers were generally very enthusiastic about the writing in both books, although two criticisms surfaced
– the margaret atwood provoked a reprise of previous disagreements about style. some of us found it dry and oddly unemotional whilst still being visually vivid. This turned out to be the same difference in preference between bookgroup members we had unerthed during the rohinton mistry bookgroup
-solaris often descended into lengthy paragraphs that sounded technical and scientific and hard to follow, but were in fact nonsense. its a fiction book and the technical details are not true, nevertheless the book dwelt on them for long periods which made some bookgroupers feel like they should have understood them. in fact as a reader you can just skip them. i felt this was a weakness in the book – it was tedious, pointless and unnecessary.

these weaknesses were outweighed by the positives. readers valued the outlandishness of the imagination in both books. they both portrayed worlds very different from our own but made the worlds, and the behaviour of the characters in them, believable.

a handmaids tale is a feminist imagining of a future polito-religious state run by ex tele-evangelists and their cronies. a world which did not seem so unlikely during the late 80s and 90s as the american fundamentalist right rose and rose culminating in george w.

if i had read it in 1999 or 2000 i think i would have been terrified and seen it as potentially prophetic. reading it in 2008 i felt more like it was a horror that has thankfully been avoided and therefore quaint or amusing rather than terrifying. but i am an optimist and i have never lived under the taliban or in saudi arabia. perhaps women in those places may feel its more of a documentary than science fiction.

solaris is really a philosophical meditation on what it means to be. it paints a picture of two types of beings that question our ideas of what it is to exist, as a human.

firstly the planet solaris is described as a vast conscious ocean capable of generating any structure it chooses, capable of reading human minds, but apparently because it is a unity not a population of individuals not capable of with humans, doing anything that humans recognise as useful in anyway.

At one point the book alludes to the idea of a trapped, lonely god, or a finite god – capable of anything, except changing its own position in the universe, and condemned to live with itself forever alone. the suggestion being that while the planet solaris is like this, so are humans to some extent – each living in our own private hell/heaven.

secondly, the planet created perfect facsimilies of loved ones from the crews minds. suddenly crew members wake up to find their closest dead loved one (lover/child/brother) with them. whilst these ‘visitors’ are apparently fully alive and fully human, they have only those memories of themselves that the crew member has, because they have been created from the crew members mind. the crew debated the moral status/rights of these beings.

i thought this was a great idea and really interesting, and couldn’t help wondering what i would choose to do if i woke up to find visitor like that in my room. there alive, i have a second chance – can i get it right this time?

April 30, 2008 at 11:33 am Leave a comment


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