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Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Should I read “Black, White & Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self” by Rebecca Walker? Rebecca Walker is the daughter of writer Alice Walker and a white, Jewish civil rights lawyer.

From the title it sounds like an interesting book.

I heard about the book from the Luscious Librarian:

I’ve been reading Rebecca Walker lately. I picked up Black White and Jewish, her bestselling memoir and fell in extreme like with her prose. She’s introspective and neurotic, enlightening and open about all of her experiences in life and I just drink it up. For someone who has led a relatively mundane life without travel or expensive education I live vicariously through the memoirs of passionate and interesting women.

On the other hand, mynameismyname says:

I read Walker’s memoir around the time it was first released. It’s meandering and often dull. It’s more about her personal exploits and her strained relationship with her famous mother than her personal struggles with race. I wouldn’t recommend it.

The Washington Post says it is “Compelling”, the San Francisco Chronicle calls it “Stunningly honest”. But then you know how they are.

If you have read it – or even tried to read it or thought of reading it – and have an opinion, I would love to hear it!

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I am halfway through “The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification” (2007) by Caille Millner. I fell in love when I read the title and have not looked back since.

It is a story about growing up black in America, but in this one the hero grows up knowing almost no black people. That is because her parents try to live in places with the best schools. It gets her into Harvard – where she meets other blacks just like her – but it leaves her without knowing who she is.

So it is her story about finding out who she is. Along the way she takes us to the Chicano part of San Jose in the 1980s, Silicon Valley in the 1990s, Harvard and even South Africa. In South Africa she discovers that it is only in and through America that she will ever understand herself.

Like Tolkien and Rushdie, she makes you feel like you are there. It is almost as if her memories become your memories.

She is clear-eyed, for the most part. She does not pretty things up or avoid certain subjects. She does not look at American life with rose-coloured glasses like most people do.

Some say it is just stories from her life, that it does not add up to anything. I can see that. It is certainly true for the first half of the book, but part of what makes me push on is that I hope she comes to answers of some sort, not just observations.

Her parents taught her to do well in school to make the world a better place. That is how they were brought up. But the people she grows up among do not seem to have any higher purpose than their own comfort and looking good to others. People are not deep, not even when they seem to be. Not even at Harvard. It breaks her heart.

She assumes people are noble and is constantly brought up short by how small-minded they are. Even people she trusts and looks up to, like her teachers. Sometimes it is because of racism, sometimes not.

She does not know who she is, but then she finds that few do.

She thinks that to be black she has to somehow be a part of Black America, a place she only knows of through books and television. Being black becomes a matter of wearing certain clothes and listening to certain kinds of music. The Wigger Fallacy. Only later does she learn that it is nothing like that.

Postscript: I am now done reading it and, yes, there were no answers at the end, just more observations. She presents her life and you draw what conclusions you want from it. I wished she had talked less about the men in her life, particularly the hacker and the Englishman, and more about trying to make sense of who she is. But then that is how life is: no easy answers.

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Seven books I would love to read

Here are seven books I would love to read. I am not sure which, if any, have been written. The titles are my own: if the book has been written, it is unlikely to have the name I give it. If you know their true names, please tell me.

1. Updated King James Bible

The Authorized or King James Version (KJV) of the Bible is by far the best translation of the Bible into English, but its English is 400 years out of date, which makes it hard to read. Dozens of translations have appeared in the past 50 years, but none are nearly as faithful. Sadly, not even the New King James Version (NKJV). The King James English should be changed as little as possible – only where it is wrong or unclear. The Third Millenium Bible might be good enough.

2. How to Stay Married to a Black Woman

Some may not like the title, but it is a book I need! Advice from those who have done it and have had long happy marriages!

3. The Secret Guide to La-La Land

A sort of Rough Guide to White America and white racism. It is like Langston Hughes’s “The Ways of White Folks” but instead of making its points with short stories, it does it as an up-to-date guide book. Matter-of-fact stuff on redlining, the police, employment, white co-workers, all of it.

4. The Copiously Illustrated History of Black Beauty

The history of black American ideas of female beauty. Can be enjoyed just by looking at the pictures, but if you read it, it is deep stuff since beauty is political.

5. The Book of Centuries

A set of history books, one each for the West, the Middle East, India, China, Peru, Mexico, Africa and the South Pacific. Each one presents history century by century: one chapter, one century. Each chapter starts out with a map, followed by an overview and then short pieces on the famous people, inventions, new words and so on for that century. The idea is that you can get a quick understanding of what was going on anywhere in the world during any century. There are huge holes in my knowledge of history, something these books would fill in. I would also like the same sort of book for Egypt, Greece, Rome, England, West Africa and the Jews.

6. History of the Black English-speaking Peoples

Churchill wrote the white one – this is the black one.

7. The Book of King Tut’s Treasures

I saw his treasures when they were in Philadephia last summer. It was amazing to see so much stuff from 3000 years ago in near-perfect condition. It was like a time machine. Unfortunately you did not understand much of what you were looking at. There were no tour guides and what was written next to each object was written by and for professors in Egyptology. All I could do was look on in wonder. I hated it. This book would be written for ordinary people. It would have a picture of each object and then tell you what it is all about, almost like a storybook. Maybe the Rough Guide is good enough.

– Abagond, 2008.

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Lorene Cary: Black Ice

Written: 1992
Read: 2008

“Black Ice” (1992) by Lorene Cary is a story about growing up black in America. It tells of her two years at St Paul’s, a prep school in New Hampshire that had been just for rich white boys up until the 1960s. She went there in the early 1970s, being one of the first blacks to go. (Michel Martin of NPR went there too at about the same time.)

At first she thought her experience was too strange to matter to anyone: a black nerd going to a white prep school. After all, how many blacks go to white prep schools? Yet every black person in America has to somehow live in a country run by white people. And, in fact, some of those white people came from places like St Paul’s.

She felt out of place there. But it began to change her so that she felt out of place at home too, back in her black middle-class neighbourhood just outside of West Philly. She was caught between two worlds.

It couldn’t be just that I was to become like them or hang onto what I’d been. It couldn’t be that lonely and pointless.

She felt alone even among the other blacks there. She did not see how her “special aloneness united me with my peers more utterly than the wary, competitive fraternity I tried to create in my own heart”.

She felt like a poor scholarship girl, hat in hand. In time she understood that she was “a sojourner bearing gifts, which were mine to give or withhold.” That St Paul’s was hers too. And so too was America.

Whites told her they do not mind if she was green or purple – “it’s the person that counts”. Why did that feel like such a put-down? All she could say was, “I’m not purple.” They told her it was not fair that they should be blamed for their forefathers owning slaves. Fair? They are talking about fair?

She had no idea what to say to stuff like that. She grew angry. She grew tired of “trying to wrench some honesty out of this most disingenuous of God’s people.” In F. Scott Fitzgerald she found the words for her fearful suspicions of her white schoolmates.

Few whites understood: most were incapable of being honest enough about race. They put up a hard wall.

Public figures would come to the school from time to time. One day she met Vernon Jordan. He understood. He had fought in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He said the old Jim Crow racism was pretty much dead, but a new subtle racism was taking its place, a racism that no one knew how to fight. So the only advice he could give her was to stay in school and be ready. That is just what her mother had told her. It is just what the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had told her (she wrote and asked).

But be ready for what?

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“Breach of Peace” (2008 ) by Eric Etheridge is one of the most beautiful books I have ever seen. It just came out in May.

It has the black-and-white pictures the police in Jackson, Mississippi took of each of the 300 or so Freedom Riders they arrested in 1961 and sent to Parchman prison. The Freedom Riders came there to break the back of Jim Crow.

Just to see their faces, the look in their eyes, to see blacks and whites stand together, knowing that they did not know if they would ever make it back home alive!

And although they are heroes of mine and although they looked so brave and brand-new in the world, they also look so ordinary and everyday. Unlike Hollywood heroes, sometimes their eyes are too far apart or their nose is too big. But somehow that makes them even more beautiful. And like it could have been me.

The Freedom Riders were blacks and whites, mostly university students about 19 or 20 years old, who came from all over America to Mississippi and other places in the American South in the spring and summer of 1961. They came to ride the buses and trains. The stations along the way had separate waiting rooms and restrooms for blacks and whites. It was against the law by that time, but the South kept to its old Jim Crow ways all the same. So the black and white Freedom Riders would go to the wrong rooms in protest.

They were arrested for “breach of peace”, week after week. Soon all of America was watching. President Kennedy was against them and wanted them to stop. But they would not listen, they kept on going. It wound up shaming Mississippi and the rest of the South in front of the whole country. And because these states were breaking the law and everyone now knew it, the president was forced to act.

It was the beginning of the end for Jim Crow. It was that very summer that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii.

It has more than just the police photos. It tells you about what the Freedom Riders did and how it fits in to the civil rights movement – and how it did not fit in with Jim Crow.

Etheridge was able to find 84 of the Freedom Riders. They are old men and women now. He took their pictures, asked them about their memories of those days, why they did it and found out what has become of them.

It seems like many of them became teachers and ministers. But maybe that is just because teachers and ministers are so much easier to find.

The price of the book is pretty high: $45 (or almost three crowns, but only $30 on Amazon). I was not sure if I could afford it, if it would cause a fight later with my wife, but in one of those you-only-live-once moments I bought it anyway. I am glad I did.

See also:


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NKJV

The NKJV or New King James Version (1982) is an English translation of the Bible. It is supposed to be an update of the Authorized or King James Version (KJV). It was made by American Baptists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Jerry Falwell, among others, helped to oversee it. By 2006 it was outsold in America only by the NIV, the New International Version.

The KJV was by far the most faithful and beautiful translation of the Bible into English. But the English in it was old-fashioned even in 1611 when it came out. And now, nearly 400 years later, it is hard to read and understand.

There have been plenty of English translations in the past 50 years, like the NIV, but none have matched both the faithfulness and beauty of the KJV. And so it lives on. But few are completely happy with it.

The NKJV was supposed to be the answer to this by updating the English just enough so that it would be clear and understandable again.

Sorry, no such luck.

There are two good things about the NKJV and three things bad:

First, the good:

  1. If you want a Bible that is pretty easy to read and that you can use in a church that reads from the King James Bible, then it is a good Bible to have. The wording is close enough that you can follow along when someone reads from from the King James Bible.
  2. Unlike most other Bibles, it shows all the different readings that certain verses have because of differences between the old Bibles that people translate from.

Now for the bad:

  1. It is markedly less faithful than the King James Bible. Words are left out and words are watered down to make for easier reading. Instead of “seed” it has “descendants”, instead of “heretic” it has “divisive man”, and so on. While it is not nearly as bad as some translations, it is still less faithful than the King James. That makes it bad for Bible study where the meanings of words matter. For the same reason it also makes it bad for learning Bible verses by heart.
  2. It is not based on the best manuscripts. The KJV was based on the best manuscripts of its day, but over the past 400 years better ones have been found. Also, scholars have gone over them with a fine-tooth comb and caught copying mistakes. The NKJV benefits from very little of this.
  3. It is not even completely based on the manuscripts that the old KJV uses. The KJV is so good and has been the main Bible in the English-speaking world for so long that some believe that God made sure it was a completely faithful translation. Those who believe this see the NKJV as dangerous.

So the NKJV is good for general reading, but not for those who read the Bible closely.

The Third Millenium Bible is supposed to be a better update of the KJV.

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Written: 1929
Read: 2008

“Passing” (1929) is a novel about passing for white. It was written by Nella Larsen in the days of the Harlem Renaissance. It tells the story of Clare Kendry, a light-skinned black woman who passes for white and marries a white man who hates blacks. It is the tale of a tragic mulatto, of someone who tries to escape her race and comes to a bad end.

Because Nella Larsen herself, the author, could pass for white and because she lived in the Harlem Renaissance, the book gives you an insider’s view of both. That alone makes it worth reading.

Black high society in Harlem in the 1920s seems surprisingly English: a thing of drawing rooms, tea parties and beautiful dresses. The book has that general cast to it, even the spelling! (Ntozake Shange calls her writing “exquisite”. I did not find it so, though it did have its moments.)

It is also a book about blackness and what it is, about the nature of race in America – which is probably why I have been writing so much about those things lately.

What makes you black? Is it in your blood – that one drop, as they say. Or is it a matter of your background and upbringing? Maybe it is a little of both – or something completely different.

Clare Kendry looks white, but she is dark like a Gypsy or a Jew. You would never think she was black unless you saw her with other black people – even if she does have “Negro eyes”.

Clare thinks that if she can live as a white woman she will be happier. She will have more money and life will be easier. People will not look down on her. She can go wherever she wants, eat at the nicest places and so on.

Her friend Irene Redfield could also pass for white, but she chose to marry a black doctor and live as a black woman in Harlem. There is something inside her that does not let her turn her back on her race.

She thinks Clare is playing a dangerous game: if she is ever found out she will lose everything: her husband, her daughter, her wealth, maybe even her life. Clare knows it is dangerous but she likes to live on the edge.

Whiteness does not buy happiness, as Clare finds out. Instead it makes her unhappy. She always feels out of place, she does not feel like she belongs, she does not feel free. She wants to be with black people, if only to hear them laugh again. And with blacks she can be free in a way she never can with whites.

So even though Clare acts white and talks white and even looks white and lives white, something deep inside her is still black. And that in the end is what counts.

– Abagond, 2008.

See also:

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Stuff I Might Like

As we found out in an earlier post, most American writers I like lived in Uptown Manhattan in New York at some point early in their lives. Just like me. But if I like those writers, then I might like others who have also lived there. And maybe singers, musicians and film directors too.

The following lists are hardly complete but they are a start:

Writers:

  • Harlem: Countee Cullen, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, James Baldwin, Claude Brown, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, Malcolm X, Nella Larsen, Gloria Naylor, Audre Lorde.
  • Barnard: Judith Miller, Anna Quindlen, Jami Bernard, Mona Charen, Zora Neale Hurston, Patricia Highsmith, June Jordan, Erica Jong, Ntozake Shange, Mary Gordon, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, Fatima Bhutto, Galaxy Craze.
  • Columbia: Mitch Albom, Isaac Asimov, Kiran Desai, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Heller, Paul Auster, Federico Garcia Lorca, Langston Hughes, Ursula K. Le Guin, Walker Percy, James Blish, Anthony Hecht, J.D. Salinger, Mark Van Doren, Eric Van Lustbader, Eudora Welty, Herman Wouk, Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, Joseph Lelyveld, R.W. Apple, Mortimer Adler, Jacques Barzun, Joseph Campbell, Howard Zinn, Jack Kerouac, Edward Said, Adam Mansbach, Maxine Leeds Craig.
  • City College: Marv Goldberg, Bernard Malamud, Paul Levinson, Mario Puzo, Robert Rosen, Walter Mosley, Madeleine Cosman, Oscar Hijuelos, Irving Kristol, Lewis Mumford.

Film directors:

  • Harlem:
  • Barnard:
  • Columbia: Kathryn Bigelow (“Strange Days”), Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”), Brian De Palma (“Scarface”), Joseph L Mankiewicz (“Julius Caesar”, “Cleopatra”, “The Barefoot Contessa”), Jim Jarmusch (“Permanent Vacation”).
  • City College: Stanley Kubrick (“2001”, “Eyes Wide Shut”), Joshua Brand (“I’ll Fly Away”).

Singers and musicians:

  • Harlem: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, W.C. Handy, Ben E King, Dinah Washington, Sonny Rollins, Tupac Shakur, Cam’ron, Doug E Fresh, Juelz Santana, Mase, Kelis, Kurtis Blow, Alicia Keys.
  • Barnard: Laurie Anderson, Suzanne Vega, Veruca Salt.
  • Columbia: Pat Boone, Vanessa Carlton, Simon & Garfunkel, Utada Hikaru, Charles Wuorinen, Lauryn Hill.
  • City College: The Velvet Underground.

Many of these I already like, such as Billie Holiday, Alicia Keys, Malcolm X, Isaac Asimov, Langston Hughes, Howard Zinn, Ursula K. Le Guin, Lauryn Hill and Stanley Kubrick.

When I saw Joshua Brand’s name appear I knew I was on to something: he created the television show “I’ll Fly Away”. Even though it is about the American South in the early 1960s, it is a perfect example of the Uptown sense of the world. But not till I made this list did I know Brand is from City College!

Pat Boone seems like the complete opposite of Uptown Manhattan. But maybe that is like how Madonna is the opposite of Catholic.

These also seem Uptown to me, though as far as I know none are:

  • People: Shakespeare, Michelle Obama, John Singleton, Marvin Gaye, Common, Chuck D, Sinclair Lewis, Senator Howard Metzenbaum, George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Gabriel Kolko, Thucydides, Aristophanes, Noam Chomksy, Jay Bookman, Frank Norris, Ed Zwick, Jamaica Kincaid, Ishmael Reed, Marvin Gaye.
  • Films: Training Day, Boyz n the Hood, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  • Television shows: My So-Called Life.

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imageDB“Betsey Brown” (1985) is a coming-of-age story by Ntozake Shange, who is best known for writing “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” (1975). This book is based loosely on Shange’s own experiences as a 13-year-old black girl growing up in the middle of America in St Louis in 1959. That is just when the city started to send black children to white schools. Shange was one of them.

Betsey is like how I was at that age: reading books, her head in the clouds, full of wonder, feeling different from everyone else, being told how she should or should not be and, of course, wondering about the opposite sex. She feels inside more like me than the people I know. I felt that way when I was 13 and, to tell you the truth, I still feel that way. All of it.

So I had to read it.

The whites at school call her a nigger and keep away from her like there is something wrong with her, her mother asks why she has to like the most niggerish people, why she has to let everyone know what a niggah she is – when she is just being herself.

If she listened to all these people she would begin to believe there is something wrong with her. They want to shame her out of who she is deep down – which is far more beautiful than anything in their narrow, little minds. But when you are young it is hard to see that. The world is run by such people.

Betsey stays true to herself. She does not let the names get to her.

Shange makes this point by the English she wrote the book in.

She writes not in that particular kind of English you see in books that we all learned in school, what Shange has called White English, but in the English that blacks in St Louis in those days spoke and thought in. And there is not just one sort of Black English, but maybe four or five.

Her mother was careful to speak in White English but thought in an English that was blacker – but still much whiter than Betsey’s own English.

You are used to seeing Black English presented as bad and unlettered, close to broken. Shange presents it as something beautiful, almost like music, something more wonderful than White English, which by comparison seems stiff and ugly, like an old block of wood.

There is this particularly terrible form of White English that is the enemy of all thought and beauty, but if you do not write in it some important white people will think you lack intelligence and education. I have to hold my nose and write in it sometimes to be taken seriously. In fact, I am avoiding just such an unpleasant task right now.

Sorry, I just had to say that, but it is something this book made me see more clearly.

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Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was an American writer of the Harlem Renaissance. She is best known for two books, “Quicksand” (1928 ) and “Passing” (1929). Her characters are women like herself who are part white, part black and not quite sure who they are.

For years she was out of print. In the 1970s she started to be read again. Those who teach courses in black and women studies at American universities like her books because her characters question who they are as women and as blacks.

In America there is the One Drop Rule: if you look part African, then you are considered to be black. If you look pure European, then you are seen as white. Most people fall squarely on one side or the other. But some, like Nella Larsen herself, lie on the colour line. Some pass for white.

“Passing” is about two friends who are on that line. One marries a black man and lives as a black woman in Harlem. The other passes for white: she marries a white man, who has no idea she is part black, and lives as a white woman. She thinks it is the answer to all her troubles, but in the end she finds she would rather be poor and black than rich and white!

Helga Crane, the hero in “Quicksand”, is also on the colour line. Much of the book is based on Larsen’s own life. Crane goes from place to place, but she does not feel like she belongs anywhere. Not with whites, not with blacks. She goes from man to man but never finds love.

Larsen’s books were so good that in 1930 she got a Guggenheim Fellowship, the first black woman ever to get one. But soon after her life started to fall apart. First people said her short story “Sanctuary” was copied from someone else’s story. Not true. Then in 1933 she went through a very public divorce.

She left Harlem. She said she was going to South America. Some thought she never left the country but changed her name and passed for white. No one knew what became of her till 1964 when she turned up dead in the Lower East Side, a poor part of New York. She had been working as a nurse in Brooklyn all those years.

Her father was a black man from St Croix in the West Indies, her mother a white woman from Denmark. Her father left and her mother married a white man (some say it was her own father passing as white). Larsen grew up in a white part of Chicago, the only black person in a white family. It was not till she got to Fisk, a black university, that she found herself among blacks.

She went from place to place till she came to New York in 1912. In time she became part of the Harlem Renaissance.

See also:

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I love this passage from “Betsey Brown” (1985) by Ntozake Shange. It is 1959 and Betsey Brown is the 13-year-old daughter of a black doctor in St Louis. She has been dancing to the blues, better than her sisters, Margot and Sharon. Their mother Jane told Betsey to turn off the music (that nasty coloured music). Her sister Margot tells her:

“Girl, you a niggah to your very soul.” Margot stopped, out of breath and envious. “I can’t imagine what a child like you is even doing in this house.”

Sharon grabbed Margot’s hand and said something Betsey couldn’t hear, but surely had to do with stealing from Vida’s cookie jar and messing with Betsey’s mind. They ran off to the pantry together mimicking Jane. “Turn that mess off, Betsey. Betsey that niggah noise is disturbing my rest.”

Betsey stopped dead in her tracks. She’d had enough of all of this. Every time she played music she was a niggah. If she mentioned Nasser, she was a communist. If she wanted to boycott her school, she was a rabble-rouser. If she wanted to eat at Howard Johnson’s, she was giving whites more than was their due. No matter what she said or did, it wasn’t right. In addition to the fact that she hadn’t been kissed since Eugene Boyd came calling that first evening. It was plain as could be to anyone with good sense, with the head God put on her shoulders, that the only reasonable thing to do was run away. That was clear as day.

Betsey Brown feels inside just the way I do. Not just here but also when she is in her tree looking up at the stars, when she is coming back home on the bus to her neighbourhood and at the beginning when the sun is coming up over the city. Shange seems more like me inside than the people I know.

Betsey likes the blues, but that is too black. She likes Howard Johnson’s, but that is too white. “Acting white”. “Too ghetto”. People try to shame us out of following what is deep inside us. They want us to act and think a certain way.

But if we listen to them we wind up narrowing ourselves to meet their tastes, becoming a flat, cardboard character in our own short lives. We lose our true selves.

Betsey did not listen to them.

Unlike most people in the story, Betsey has no shame about being black. She sees it as being all good – certainly as good as being white, if not better. It is the way God made her.

Shange shows she feels this way too by writing so much of the book in the English that black people spoke in St Louis back then. And it comes off not as an English that is bad, broken or unlettered but beautiful and natural.

See also:

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Farewell_to_ArmsWritten: 1929
Read: 2007

“A Farewell to Arms” (1929) was the book that made Hemingway famous. It is about an American who serves in the First World War on the Italian front. He drives an ambulance, moving the wounded of the war to hospitals. But he becomes one of the wounded himself. He has a love affair with an English nurse.

It is about war but there are no heroes. It is about love but there are no roses. It is about death but there is no God.

It does not have a strong storyline and parts of it are flat, but it has an ending you will never forget. It is well worth reading if only for that – and Hemingway’s writing style.

Hemingway wrote the book in Paris in the 1920s after having much the same experience of the war. He wrote it like the hard-bitten American newspaperman that he was: Short sentences with short words, one after the other. Just the facts, no time wasted on feelings. No one had written a book that way before, not a great one at least. The book is a good example of the power of description and simple language.

Wars in the past had been a chance for glory, but the First World War was not and everyone knew it. Millions of men died like animals and yet the front barely moved. Tolkien was there and wrote about another world. Hemingway was there and looked it square in the eye and wrote about what he saw. It is one of the best books about war that I have read, on a level with Thucydides.

The love affair is written with the same cold eye. The two like being with each other, but they are not in love. There are no fireworks, no flowers, no forevers. He is not in love with Catherine – he just needs her body. But he is faithful and sticks by her, so he is not just using her like he has with the women in his past. Catherine says things are “grand”, but she says it too many times.

And as with love and war, so with life itself. There is no God, there is no sense to it all. You go down the street to drink your wine and read the paper and all the while people are dying for no reason. We are here for a short time and then we are gone. And that is it.

It is small wonder Hemingway became a drunk who later killed himself. He was Catholic, but he did not have a Catholic sense of the world.

That senselessness of life makes the book a cold one. It is the one part I cannot take to heart: I do believe in God, so life does make sense no matter how bad it gets. I am like Daniela Mercury, the Brazilian singer: she may be nearly as rich as the queen of England, but in life she sings and prays and looks up above her.

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Written: 2003
Read: 2007

“Pattern Recognition” by William Gibson is science fiction set in the present day. As Gibson saw much of the future that we are living in now back in the 1980s, it is interesting (and probably a good idea) to see how he reads the present.

When the book came out in 2003 Neil Gaiman said it was Gibson’s best book since “Neuromancer”. The Economist said it was one of the best books on the world power of advertising in the Internet age, even though it is not a business book.

It is part science fiction, part spy thriller. It features the Internet, 9/11, the new Russia ruled by money and crime lords, the London advertising world and a Tokyo that is still the future of mankind.

At the heart of the story is the footage: a film that is put out on the Internet frame by frame, but not necessarily in any particular order.

The main characters, each for reasons of his own, want to find out who is producing the footage. It is a mystery. On the Internet you can be anywhere and nowhere. But the closer they get to the truth, the stranger and more violent the story becomes. There is a reason the footage is a well-guarded secret.

Even though the story takes place in the present day, it is still science fiction.

First, it is science fiction in content: it looks at how science and invention affect society through the what-if power of fiction. In this case, Gibson shows how the new power of the Internet bypasses the old power of countries and armies.

Second, it is science fiction in style:

The characters think the way they do in science fiction: making sense of the world through reason, science and false analogies.

It also makes heavy use of description. While necessary for most science fiction, it is overkill for a story set in the present.

The language too is that of science fiction: his words are those of an engineer, not a poet. For example this:

Nothing at all in the German fridge, so new that its interior smells of cold and long-chain monomers.

and this:

… setting herself for auto-nod.

Yet Gibson does have something of the poet in him, far more than Clarke or Asimov or Niven ever did. This makes some of his description good. He does choose his words with care.

Most of the places in the book Gibson has seen first-hand. He is not imagining: he is reporting. That is why his descriptions seem so true-to-life.

They seem so true-to-life, in fact, that readers thought they could go out and buy the same bomber jacket that the hero wears: a Rickson’s MA-1. Gibson had made that up. But Rickson’s got so many requests that they starting making them! It is not the first time that Gibson’s fiction has become fact.

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Reading David Foster Wallace

I just read David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” from his book, “Consider the Lobster”, which for some reason I bought the other day. I have seen his books before, but by the time I get to W my money is gone and I am not about to give up a book I have set my heart on for an unknown, even if they say he is good.

Well, now that I have read something of his, I know first-hand that he his good – almost great, in fact.

Not quite great because of his use of footnotes. He uses so many of them he calls them “FNs”. While they are almost always worth reading, it makes him hard to read: all this jumping about. People say we live in the age of hypertext, but even on the Web this stuff would not work. That is not how hypertext works, when it works well. (The best use of hypertext I have seen on the Web, by the way, is everything2.com).

But that aside, he is wonderful.

He is like Jesus: You like him because he is fearless, because he gives it to you straight. Because he cares more about the truth – and therefore more about you – than about making people like him or fear him or respect him.

He got in trouble with his university once for being “insensitive”: for privately telling the blacks he teaches that they have to write in White English if they want to get good marks – and to make their mark on the broader (mostly-white) society. He was trying to help them by being plain and truthful, but because he is white himself, it did not always come off that way. But as an example of his courage and truthfulness, it is priceless.

Wallace knows and cares about the English language and uses it far better than most. He uses words like “stuff” and yet in the same sentence he also uses long words too – some of them even seem to be made up. Yet you do not have to know the long words to make sense of him. He uses long words the same way Rushdie uses Hindi words or Dr Seuss uses made-up words: for the joy of it. Not, like most, to make you think he knows more than you.

His opinions are also interesting and surprising, because he thinks them through. He is like a Chomsky who can write. But he is not as solidly on the left like Chomsky is.

“Authority and American Usage” is great to read because it makes you laugh and makes you think. Like Orwell, he makes the case for good, solid, written English against Academic English, but then Wallace goes on to make the case against Politically Correct English and Black English as well.

And, by his own example, he makes the case for writing the truth, like Orwell, but writing more in the way people talk, like Hemingway.

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Rough Guides

A Rough Guide (1982- ) is a book that fits in your hand and tells you the most important facts about a subject in a style that is as readable as the newspaper and yet is laid out in a way where it is easy to look up a particular fact. They are put out by Rough Guides Ltd. For a while they even had a travel show on BBC 2.

Rough Guides are good for getting to know a subject you know little of. Like a city you have never been to.

Rough Guides started out writing travel guides – still their main business – but did so well they branched out to other subjects, like music, sports, film, Shakespeare, Lord of the Rings and even how to save the world.

The books are full of pictures and good writing. They get writers who have a passion for their subject and know it inside out.

Because Rough Guides are written for ordinary people who know little about the given subject, the books:

  • Avoid words and ideas that only experts would know and care about.
  • Avoid the dry-as-dust, brain-in-a-dish sort of writing you see in books and websites that are more interested in seeming learned and serious than in helping you to learn – like the Wikipedia or the Blue Guides.

Instead of long chapters that have to be read in order from start to finish, the material is cut up into much smaller pieces that can be read in any order. Part of the joy of reading a Rough Guide is jumping here and there and learning new things. Yet you can also sit down and read long stretches of it too.

The first Rough Guide was about Greece. Mike Ellingham went to Greece and found that there were no travel guides that really suited him.

At the time there were two travel books for young people:

  1. Let’s Go Guides told you how to save every penny, but gave you little understanding of the country. Other countries were just places where you could eat, sleep, change your money and see an old building.
  2. The Blue Guides, on the other hand, were written by people who knew everything about those old buildings but not where the beach was or where to get a good drink.

You wound up taking both, but liking neither.

Ellingham met Martin Dunford on the island of Thassos. They knew they could do better. When they got back to London they wrote the first Rough Guide with the help of some others. It was a book for young people who did not have loads of money and yet wanted to understand the country they were visiting and have a good time.

Ellingham was not the only one who saw the need and filled it. So did the people at Lonely Planet, whose guides also started appearing about the same time.

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