2014 In Books

In the first part of my 2014 in review series which may or may not continue after this post, I’m going to briefly analyse the books I’ve read this year.  Unfortunately I only managed to read 31 books, down from 41 in 2013 and failing to reach my target of 43 by quite a wide margin.  My main reason for this is that I more or less stopped reading outside of my university courses between January and May due to coursework and life related things going on, so hopefully this downward movement is only a blip!  Anyhow, here’s the list:

  1. The Book Thief (2005) – Markus Zusak
  2. Britain and Ireland: From Home Rule to Independence (1999) – Jeremy Smith
  3. Utopia (1516) – Thomas More
  4. Doctor Faustus (1604) – Christopher Marlowe
  5. Oroonoko (1688) – Aphra Behn
  6. Scotland’s Future (2013) – The Scottish Government
  7. Blair Unbound (2007) – Anthony Seldon
  8. The Fault in our Stars (2012) – John Green
  9. Long Walk to Freedom (1995) – Nelson Mandela
  10. The Trowie Mound Murders (2014) – Marsali Taylor
  11. Of Mice and Men (1937) – John Steinbeck
  12. Rachel in Love (1987) – Pat Murphy
  13. Ulysses (1922) – James Joyce
  14. Europe: In or Out? (2014) – David Charter
  15. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – J.K. Rowling
  16. Nausea (1938) – Jean-Paul Sartre
  17. The Silkworm (2014) – J.K. Rowling
  18. The Great Gatsby [re-read] (1922)– F. Scott Fitzgerald
  19. A Game of Thrones (1996) – George R.R. Martin
  20. A Clash of Kings (1998) – George R. R. Martin
  21. A Storm of Swords (2000) – George R. R. Martin
  22. A Sentimental Journey (1768) – Laurence Sterne
  23. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – Jonathan Swift
  24. Common Sense (1776) – Thomas Paine
  25. Salmond: Against the Odds (2010) – David Torrance
  26. The Constitution of the United States of America (1787) – James Madison
  27. Frankenstein [re-read] (1818) – Mary Shelley
  28. Northanger Abbey (1817) – Jane Austen
  29. Rip Van Winkle / The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) – Washington Irving
  30. Hard Times (1854) – Charles Dickens
  31. A Feast for Crows (2005) – George R. R. Martin

And to put them in order of preference:

  1. A Storm of Swords (2000) – George R. R. Martin
  2. A Game of Thrones (1996) – George R.R. Martin
  3. A Clash of Kings (1998) – George R. R. Martin
  4. Long Walk to Freedom (1995) – Nelson Mandela
  5. The Silkworm (2014) – J.K. Rowling
  6. Frankenstein [re-read] (1818) – Mary Shelley
  7. Common Sense (1776) – Thomas Paine
  8. Doctor Faustus (1604) – Christopher Marlowe
  9. The Great Gatsby [re-read] (1922) – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  10. The Fault in our Stars (2012) – John Green
  11. The Book Thief (2005) – Markus Zusak
  12. A Feast for Crows (2005) – George R. R. Martin
  13. The Trowie Mound Murders (2014) – Marsali Taylor
  14. Northanger Abbey (1817) – Jane Austen
  15. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – Jonathan Swift
  16. Of Mice and Men (1937) – John Steinbeck
  17. Rachel in Love (1987) – Pat Murphy
  18. Hard Times (1854) – Charles Dickens
  19. Rip Van Winkle / The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) – Washington Irving
  20. Europe: In or Out? (2014) – David Charter
  21. Utopia (1516) – Thomas More
  22. Salmond: Against the Odds (2010) – David Torrance
  23. Nausea (1938) – Jean-Paul Sartre
  24. Britain and Ireland: From Home Rule to Independence (1999) – Jeremy Smith
  25. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – J.K. Rowling
  26. Blair Unbound (2007) – Anthony Seldon
  27. Oroonoko (1688) – Aphra Behn
  28. A Sentimental Journey (1768) – Laurence Sterne
  29. Ulysses (1922) – James Joyce

Unrated:
Scotland’s Future (2013) – The Scottish Government
The Constitution of the United States of America (1787) – James Madison

—–

And here I’ve [broadly] charted on a map where each book is set or about.  Obviously fictions which aren’t set in our world, like A Song of Ice and Fire, aren’t included, and for non-fiction books I’ve had to take some liberties:

Settings 2014

Almost every book here written before 1900 is due to my English Literature course, hence why they’re so clustered together.  It’s a good mix, I think, although as the map shows there is a very strong northern European, British-American bias in the books I’ve read.  Every author, with the exception of Nelson Mandela, is either European or American – I’ll definitely try to widen the writers I read next year.  I think I’ve managed a healthy balance between fiction and non-fiction; I’ve neither lived wholly in bleak reality nor untempered fantasy.  In terms of preference, I’m not surprised to see George R. R. Martin consistently quite high given I tend to rate quality of storytelling in fiction above quality of prose (I imagine I’ll have a lot to say about that in a future post!).  Otherwise there’s no clear pattern.  I need to make a caveat for Ulysses however; while it was the most excruciatingly painful novel I’ve forced myself to read, while I considered the whole thing a project to ridicule critics, upon finishing I just couldn’t get it out of my head and having looked back at it I do find a lot of worth in there.  So this does betray one potential problem with my ratings, in that I rate purely in enjoyment while reading rather than any other means, which brings me back to the discussion of value best saved for another day.

Looking forward to the great reads 2015 brings!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the books’ gender ratio.  Only 23% of the books I read were written by women, which is pretty shocking to consider.  Some of this might be down to the amount of ‘classics’ I’ve read this year, although considering these gave me Aphra Benn, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen, who I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise, it’s possibly this actually buffed the number up.  Unless I’ve subconsciously given greater preference to male authors (could be similar to this phenomenon) it’s clear women still face a harder task getting represented in the most high-profile and bestselling books.

Nelson Mandela and LGBT Rights

Having just finished reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (unsurprisingly, one of the most inspirational books I’ve ever read – if you’ve not read it yet, stop reading this blog and go do so right now!), I’ve been pondering a lot on the man who has indisputably become one of history’s most revered individuals.  I never fail to be impressed by his capacity for tolerance and forgiveness, by his ability to see the humanity in every human no matter how cruel their actions or by his pragmatic approach to every problem, putting aside his personal feelings.  He was by no means perfect, and prone to as many failings as the next person, yet in a sea of corrupt and tyrannical political leaders, when compared to the likes of Robert Mugabe or Muammar Gaddafi in Africa – or frankly, any leader taking power after a period of intense turmoil – he’s a saint.

One area many revered political leaders tend to have less than admirable records, however, is that of LGBT rights.  Margaret Thatcher, a hero to Britain’s current government – which recently legalised same-sex marriage – introduced strict rules against the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality not unlike what Putin’s doing in Russia today.  This isn’t confined to right-wing ‘moral values’; even George Orwell regarded homosexuality as unnatural.  The argument is often given that these attitudes are a product of their upbringing and common to all in their generation.  While this is true, it cannot wholly serve as an excuse.  Despite being seven years older than Thatcher, and only fifteen younger than Orwell, it was under Nelson Mandela’s presidency that South Africa adopted one of the most liberal approaches towards LGBT rights not just in Africa but in the entire world, even extending to guarantees for transgender people (often left out of the LGBT banner).  Mandela belonged to the very same generation as Thatcher and a similar one to Orwell.  Granted, his cultural background greatly differed, though homophobia was prevalent in both Britain and South Africa in the early 20th century.

This is just another example of Mandela’s astonishing ability to overcome opinions and reactions which he would have been socially-conditioned into.  To be clear, he was never a vocal advocate for LGBT rights – South African journalist Mark Gevisser portrays him as not ‘always comfortable’ with the idea.  Which, given the society he grew up in, is perfectly understandable.  But the point is that he overcame these ingrained prejudices and accepted that the universality of human rights includes the LGBT community.  Sure, he never pushed for these rights as president (though in fairness his list of impending priorities was pretty large), but nor did he offer any opposition when it became ANC policy.  This is in stark contrast to so many other leaders who have allowed their gut reaction to colour their opinions, and just another example of why Mandela deserves so much respect.  It’s easy for the liberals of today to accept LGBT rights as natural and correct, but we must bear in mind how much of a cultural leap it would have taken for previous generations. That South Africa retains, by far, the best record of any African country regarding LGBT rights, is due in no small part to Mandela’s decision to embrace the winds of change in public opinion.

Goodbye, Nelson Mandela

President Bill Clinton with Nelson Mandela, Ju...

I’ve just read the news that Nelson Mandela has died, at the fine age of 95, and felt a very bizarre flood of emotions.  We’ve seen this sad day coming through numerous reports of the former South African president’s ill health, yet I never considered just how much it would hit me – and, I’m sure, the entire world – when his time was finally up.  Almost like a form of personal grief but for a man I’ve never met.  I’m sure part of this is due to the not wholly undeserved hero-worship which has built up around Mandela in recent years, though I’m certain I would consider him a personal hero regardless of his image in the media.

From my studies of South Africa in Advanced Higher History last year I became enthralled by his consistent courage opposing Apartheid; but, I would argue, this is not what made Mandela special.  History is littered with freedom-fighters who fought for and won their causes.  Why Mandela stands above these people and became such a shining figure in human history is that, after decades of persecution and oppression by the hideous Apartheid regime, he forgave.  Under his presidency there was no retribution or revenge of the like which has torn many other African nations apart following the horrors of colonialism; the groundbreaking policy of truth and reconciliation he oversaw, though not undeserving of criticism, in my opinion saved South Africa from the brink of what must have seemed an inevitable, bloody civil war.  I’m loath to deify anyone but there’s no word for Mandela’s capacity to forgive other than superhuman.

I hope this example can continue to inspire South Africans – and, indeed, the world – long after he’s gone.  I’m aware there were fears that Mandela served as a symbolic father figure holding the nation together but I’m confident that his legacy can go on if we have the courage to not give in to the temptation to seek revenge and intolerance.  Quotes from the great man will be flying around all over the place right now but one which particularly speaks to me is:

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Farewell, Madiba.  All across the world you will be mourned and, most importantly, you will be remembered.

Exam Results!

I received my exam results today – my last ever encounter with the Scottish Qualifications Authority.  It will be like losing a difficult and demanding friend, but one who has stuck with me throughout many difficulties.  Anyway, I had the crazy idea of filming myself discovering the results on camera, which you can watch here.

I’ll now just pass you onto a couple of links I promised to upload a while back:

English dissertation: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218339/
History dissertation: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218347/
The British Revolutionhttp://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218366/
The Lightning Strike: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218368/

A Quarter to Freedom

Just finished my first exam!  Advanced Higher History, 3 hours – not fun.  Here are the essay questions on the South Africa section we’ve studied, if you’re curious (in bold are the ones I chose):

1.  How important were the demands of the diamond and gold mining industries in determining South African government policy, 1910-1939?
2.  To what extent was disunity amongst resistance groups the main factor in undermining the effectiveness of opposition to segregation before 1939?
3.  How far can it be argued that the unique sense of Afrikaner identity was the main reason for the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism before 1948?
4.  How valid is the view that the policy of Separate Development after 1959 was apartheid by another name?
5.  How significant was the United Nations in influencing the foreign policy of the South African government, 1960-1984?
(all worth 25 marks)

The first could have been better but I rambled a fair few points and remember a lot of historiography.  The second was close to the subject of my dissertation (which I’ll upload after I get my results on 6th August!) so that was a rather pleasant experience!  And I got to criticise Thatcher and Reagan, which is always fun.  Just realised I spelled Reagan’s name wrong in the exam…

The source questions weren’t so good.  Basically, we have a 16 mark question to compare the views of two sources, and add recall; a 12 mark ‘how useful’ question to analyse the provenence of a source, and add recall; and a 12 mark ‘how fully’ question, to interpret the points of a source… And add recall.  Unfortunately, after 90 minutes, noisy people on BOTH sides of the room, noisy rain falling onto the fragile roof and a bell INSIDE the exam room (great idea), my nerves were a little weakened and I fell apart a little bit on these questions.  Hopefully not majorly, but… Oh, and we had to fill in a page’s worth of details whenever we needed new sheets of paper.  Does the SQA want us to pass?

Anyhow.  Moaning aside, hopefully I passed.  I have three exams left, the next being English on Monday.  Not too worried, as it’s only worth 30% of the overall grade (along with a dissertation and two creative writing pieces), so I’d be satisfied just to ramble together something passable.

Basically, this post is an update to say my blog posting probably will be low for the meantime, but I think I’ll continue with my reviews; I’m seeing Star Trek: Into Darkness tomorrow and I *have* to review Saturday’s The Name of the Doctor.

I’ve also been feeling inspiration begin to return, now I’m nearing the end.  Perhaps I’ll have an array of stories and poems to show off by the end of the Summer.

The Bridge (Review)

Contains spoilers.

It was this tragic announcement which inspired me to read an Iain Banks book.  I knew very little about him beforehand, but recognised his position as one of Scotland’s, if not the UK’s, best general and science-fiction novelists.  I scoured the local library for a good book to start with – his only one I was aware of at the time, The Wasp Factory, scared me – and came across The Bridge.

My first impression was admiration towards his incredibly talented writing style.  The novel begins with a strange, contorted section from the perspective of the protagonist (I’ll call him John Orr for convenience after his Bridge persona, though we are also introduced to The Barbarian and it’s suggested, though never made clear, that his real-world name is Alexander Lennox) within his crushed car.  It glides through broken up sentences, curses, confusion and philosophy with great skill.  The rest of the novel continues this way.  Sections on The Bridge, John’s coma world, are written in a surreal and vaguely disembodied manner, as are the dreams; The Barbarian’s sections are written in broad Scots dialect and follow his exploits in a fantasy world of Greek mythology, but are nevertheless highly readable; his real-world history is heavily nostalgic, switching to third-person past tense for a biographical account of his life, interspersed with historical events to adds layers of realism.  In literary terms, this novel is a masterpiece.

The world of the Bridge is an incredible creation.  John, am amnesiac, finds himself on the world of the Bridge where an entire civilisation live suspended above the railway track in corridors and streets and buildings.  He spends his time undergoing dream therapy with Dr Joyce, before being moved – ingeniously coinciding with his real-world shift in hospitals – socialising, and searching for the labelled library.  It doesn’t make a lick of sense, and nor is it supposed to.  I have a hard time sifting through what’s intentional symbolism and the random fragments included to show the state of his brain.  The hospital-TV screen and beeping on the telephone are obvious; the warplanes leaving braille messages in the sky and his obscure dreams are less so.  Some of the dreams focus on an attempt to overcome warped laws of Physics – my favourite was his trying to pass through a narrow path when a stranger traveling in the opposite direction mirrored his every move – which symbolise how trapped John is within his own head.  Building up the mythology of the Bridge makes me really eager to discover what lies beyond, and Banks doesn’t disappoint; the prisons, the warzones, the sadistic generals… Beautiful writing, though again, difficult to determine their meaning.  I thought it might have been his mind fracturing as it splintered apart, but this is near the point where he finally awakens, so I’m not sure.  This is not a flaw.

John’s, or rather Alex’s biography is fascinating to read.  It was actually quite unnerving for me at moments: here we have a teenager with an interest in history and English who moves away from home to study at the University of Edinburgh, having fallen in love with the city; he later develops an intense dislike of right-wing politics and joins Amnesty International.  Uh – I hope this is where our similarities end!  I particularly enjoyed following his unusual relationship with Andrea.  She spent a large portion of her life in Paris and each had romantic partners within that time, yet they continued to be a ‘couple’ of sorts.  The definition of an ‘open relationship’, I guess.  Couldn’t comment on whether it’s healthy but it’s certainly refreshing from most of the gooey loved-up couples you find in fiction and reality.  These sections are not written in a particular narrative style; they flow up and down as any life would.  I really, really liked the bits of historical flavour Banks added.  He would begin a section by mentioning, for example, the election of Margaret Thatcher, or the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and go on to describe things like John’s donation to the African National Congress as an ‘apology’ for his company’s operations within Apartheid South Africa.  Reading John and Andrea staying up to watch Thatcher elected once, twice – and their resultant anger – felt so real.  These are deviations, but they add so much.

The characters are another strength of this fantastic novel.  The trinity of the protagonist’s psyche: despondent, political Alex; laid-back, casual John; and primal Barbarian, together feel like a whole, realistic person.  Andrea is a likeable yet flawed love interest, whose relationship with John I became totally invested in.  The characters in the Bridge world were also fascinatingly developed: from enigmatic Abberlaine Arrol (who vanishes from the novel 2/3s in, perhaps symbolising Andrea’s irregular presence in his life) to Dr Joyce (again vanishing), and even the characters who only appear once; each feels properly crafted and real, even when they’re not.

One curious response I had to The Bridge was a resurgence in my normally dormant sense of Scottish nationalism.  Iain Banks is one of Scotland’s greatest advocates for Scottish independence, and it shows.  Typically, my idea of Scots literature is either idolised figures like Robert Burns and Walter Scott – who I always presumed were raised on such a pedestal because we had no one else – or highly interesting but also repetitive ‘rural, Highland, Jacobite’ culture.  For the first time, I have fallen in love with ‘Scottish literature’ as a genre.  It stills feels a little wrong to separate it from ‘British literature’ – I would very much like to continue claiming Shakespeare and Orwell were writers from ‘my’ country, despite their English identities – but less wrong now than it once did.  Not that reading this has swayed my opinions on independence or anything – which I am hesitantly opposed to, though technically still ‘undecided’ – but I feel more proud of being Scottish having made this discovery.  Also, it was very exciting to discover that the Bridge is supposed to be the Forth Bridge near Edinburgh, a bridge I have travelled across many times in my life.  Perhaps this pride is born out of actually having settings and situations I can relate to on a personal level?

All in all, I was hugely impressed by Iain Banks’ The Bridge.  I think I must dive into more of his work as soon as I can – I’m very tempted by his ‘Culture’ series of science fiction books.  His imagination thrills me, and I can’t wait to find out what else it includes.  My only criticism is that the book was slightly difficult to understand at times, but perhaps that is a limitation on my part rather than his.  The tragic news of his cancer will hit the literary world very hard indeed, and he will be loved and missed by many.  But that’s a negative way to finish off; he has a final novel, The Quarry, still to be released and adored by his countless fans.

Final rating: 9/10

Margaret Thatcher Dies at 87 (reaction)

I’ve just recently been alerted to the news that Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK from 1979 – 1990, has died.

Now, from what I have heard and read about her time in power, I believe her to have left a truly terrible legacy for Britain, in terms of what she did to the country’s industry and the damage its very social fabric, as well as her dubious international record (the sinking of the Belgrano and her support of Apartheid spring to mind).  Others – many others – will disagree, and likewise, I’m sure, a lot of people will agree.  Thatcher, even now, proves to be a controversial figure.

However, I don’t see myself either mourning or celebrating her death.  Despite my opinions on her political record, I think it would be utterly wrong to celebrate the death of another human being.  While now might be the time to have a political debate on the legacy she has left, I personally feel inclined to look back how exceptional a Prime Minister she was – for better or for worse.  Firstly, she was the UK’s first – and, to date, only – female Prime Minister.  Her 11 years in power have been the longest uninterrupted premiership since Robert Jenkinson left office in 1827.  Even considering Prime Ministers who were in power more than once, she is still has the 7th longest time in office of every Prime Minister in British history, as well as the longest tenure in the 20th century.

The Iron Lady may be gone, but she has earned herself a very secure place in the history of our country.