London – Edward Rutherfurd

london_edward_rutherfurdI’m finally done! And the reason it took so long is really none of Rutherfurd’s fault (well, except in writing such a thick book, though I’ve read worse), but simply because life, really.

Anyway, I liked it. I felt I learned quite a bit, which is nice, though I must admit my head is not made for remembering dates, so I got confused several times and had to search backwards to a page with a date on it. Several people on Goodreads have complained that since it spans such a lot of time and events there is no time to get to know the characters, but I found that to be a minor problem – and I do tend to dislike being rushed on to a new set of characters just when I’ve gotten interested in the present set. This is why I’m not a major fan of short-stories. But Rutherfurd’s trick is to stick to a few families, and to give them somewhat hereditary traits – not just physical, but also of temperament – so that one the whole you can tell from the name of a character whether he/she will be a «hero», a «villain» or someone bumbling but generally well-meaning for example. Well, towards the end the families intermarry and intermingle and it all gets somewhat complicated, but by then I was hooked anyway, and there was still a sense of «I will root for you since your grandfather was so nice» or perhaps «I will root for you since your father was so shitty».

I had one small, but niggling quarrel with the book, though. I may have mentioned that I’ve learnt pretty much all the history I know from novels, which makes this a perfect fit. And more than anything, I love the little daily-life details. The «how a Roman forged coins», for example. Interesting stuff, I tell you. But I need to trust the author, I need to believe he (or she) knows what he (or she) is talking about. And therefore passages such as this one throws me:

But Dame Barnikel was happiest of all when she was brewing ale, and sometimes she would let young Ducket watch her. Having bought the malt – «it’s dried barley,» she explained – from the quays, she would mill it up in the little brewhouse loft. The crushed malt would fall into a great vat which she topped up with water from a huge copper kettle. After germinating, this brew was cooled in throughs, before being poured into another vat.

(Page 524) Except barley (or any grain) won’t germinate after it’s been milled. In fact, «malt» isn’t dried barley, it’s barley that has germinated and is then dried, and there is a crucial difference. «Dried barley» is just a grain whereas the germination means the «malt» is bursting with sugars which is what the yeast later feeds on in the process that actually makes alchohol. What happens after you mill is quite rightly that you add hot water to the «coarse flour» (called «grist»), but that water is meant to extract the sugars (and partly set off enzymes that convert even more of the starches into sugars to be extracted, if you want to get really technical) in a process called mashing.

And I know it’s a very, very small detail and not at all important to the story, but it grates, and it makes me wonder where else he’s tripped up and which details I now think I’ve learnt turn out to be less than accurate.

But let’s return to happier thoughts, because I really did like the book, and end with a quote which is really a much better representation of Rutherfurd’s skill:

And so with confidence he could give his children these two important lessons: «Be loyal to the king.» And perhaps profounder still: «It seems that God has chosen us. Be humble.»

By which, of course, he really meant: be proud.

(Page 787)

The Possessed – Elif Batuman

batumanI became aware of Elif Batuman’s book The Possessed – Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them through Swedish bookblogs, as it was apparently translated to Swedish last year. It sounded like my sort of book, so I thought I might as well order it.

Elif Batuman seems, judging from this book, to be my kind of person. Her conclusion –  «If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.» – naturally appeals to an incurable bibliophile. For myself, though, I think I might choose differently as far as study goes, I realised during my ‘academic career’ that I’m a reader, first and foremost, not an interpreter, in the academic sense. I care about the story and the language and the structure and the «truth» of literature, but I do not want to spend my life writing essays about it. Even keeping up this blog frequently seems like too much effort, in terms of writing something more than «I read this and it was good/bad/indifferent».

Still, reading about Batuman’s adventures was pleasant. And since I’ve only read a very little Russian literature, I learnt quite a bit along the way, too.

Smakebit på søndag: A Truth Universally Acknowledged

austen33I’m making my (very pleasant) way through A Truth Universally Acknowledged – 33 Reasons why we can’t stop reading Jane Austen at the moment. I picked it up in London in March – at the British Library bookshop. Edited by Susannah Carson, it contains 33 essays on the topic of reading Jane Austen, as well as a foreword by Harold Bloom and an introduction by Susannah Carson – also on reading Jane Austen, naturally. So far it is excellent, the only problem being the urge it creates to read Jane Austen rather than read about reading Jane Austen, but it’s a problem I can live with. I do suspect my next read will be one of the novels, though…

Today’s taster is from the first essay, by Susanna Clarke, putting into words something that has bothered me too about the way people talk about Darcy:

Darcy has somehow been redefined in recent years as a dark, brooding, romantic hero. I’ve seen him mentioned with Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester as if they were all points on the same spectrum. But that’s not how Elizabeth or Jane Austen sees him. When Elizabeth thinks Darcy is arrogant, she isn’t attracted to him. She turns him down. It’s only when she sees him as a kind friend, a caring brother, and a good master that she begins to fall in love with him. If he makes other people happy, then he is capable of making her happy too. I doubt that Elizabeth is secretly or subconsciously attracted to a «dark» Darcy. Twenty-first-century women (and men) can afford to romanticize dark heroes because their fates and futures are in their own hands — Elizabeth didn’t have that option.

(p. 5)

More tasters can be found at Flukten fra virkeligheten.

Reading Lolita in Tehran

I’d been half-heartedly searching for Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran ever since I saw it at Malmö train station in May (didn’t buy it there because it was ridiculously priced and we already had too much luggage). Found it in Ottakars in Elgin (after we – on our tenth visit or so to the town – found that Elgin had an Ottakars completely by chance, but that’s another story), and of course had to begin it pretty promptly.

The main point of departure for the book is a reading group Nafisi started after she had to stop teaching at the university in Tehran following various changes introduced as a result of the revolution. She and her girls read novels that are forbidden, or at least frowned upon, by the regime and their discussions of and reaction to the novels and authors, provides an interesting contrast to the snippets of memoirs of the actual political situation and how it affects their lives. As regards the politics, Nafisi’s account is both critical and sympatetic at the same time, which makes it more interesting than the majority of the commentaries I’ve read before.

It’s pretty much as interesting as expected, with a few unlookedfor side-effects. Half-way through I had to find my post-it index tabs and start marking the places I’ll want to refer to later. I’ve been wanting to start seriously looking at my studies – most specifically this doctoral thesis I was planning to write at some point – again anyway, being in an academic atmosphere is catching obviously, but this book certainly provided fuel for that particular flame.

A book to be recommended if you are at all interested in the study of literature, and probably also if you’re just interested in an intellectual (dare I say: intelligent) view of the Iranian regime from «the inside».