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28 October 2007

I have been listening to a free audiobook version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and finding it curiously compelling – not for its plot or characters but because of the intriguing social attitudes revealed in the book (also available free to read online or download via Google). It starts as a conventional Austen-like romantic novel of manners. Then the heroine’s father, an Anglican clergyman, has a crisis of conscience (bizarrely, never explained in detail) and decides to leave the church and move from the (beautiful) South of England to the (smoky, ill-bred) industrial North (hence the title). To my surprise the daughter’s concern is not primarily over the loss of income or the change of location but over his leaving the faith – it’s hard to imagine now people teetering on the edge of modernity taking their Anglicanism so seriously.

When the action moves to the North, the mannered novel swerves Dickens-wards with a (rather generic) depiction of the suffering of mill workers but is much more directly politically-engaged than I remember Dickens being. It lays out three broad positions on the industrial revolution.

  • Nicholas Higgins, whose daughter died from work-related illness and whose union struck to get enough food for its workers to eat, exemplifies ‘labor’ – worthy of compassion but misguided in his attempts to change the immutable system and prone to drink and violence.
  • John Thornton, a mill-owner, represents capital. While he is seen as lacking compassion, there is evidently a strong if unwilling admiration by Gaskell of his (and capital’s) ruthless drive and enthusiasm and he is given some speeches which remind one of those uttered by Ayn Rand heroes to the effect that he only wants to leave his workers alone (to starve) and be left alone himself.
  • Gaskell’s heroine, Margaret Hale, and her family take a hand-wringing Christian liberal position which I think we are meant to share – it’s too bad that the market crushes the workers in the North but it’s unavoidable and they should take up Christianity to help them bear their troubles without disturbing the social order.

I haven’t reached the end yet but I have a nasty feeling that with the marriage of Ms Hale and Mr Thornton we will be offered a sentimental ending wherein Thornton, influenced by his new wife chooses to help out the deserving poor among his grateful workers without altering his or his fellow mill owners’ Darwinian struggle to keep their profits up. Then again the novel has already contained a few surprises for me…

5 October 2007

Borrowed from my friend nitouche:

These are the top 106 books most often marked as “unread” by LibraryThing‘s users. (Did you know that Google Books now has a ‘display and rate your own library’ feature? And it’s free? Here’s my list of books I have written or contributed to). Anyway, on with the list!

Bold what you have read, italicize those you started but couldn’t finish, strikethrough asterisk for books you have no desire to read, a ? in front for books you never heard of and strike through what you couldn’t stand. Add an asterisk to those you’ve read more than once. Underline those on your to-read list.

? Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi : a novel
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Ulysses *
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre

A Tale of Two Cities *
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife *
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin *
The Kite Runner *
Mrs. Dalloway *
Great Expectations
? American Gods
Atlas Shrugged
? Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Middlesex *
? Wicked: the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
? The Historian: a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum

The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange

? Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible: a novel
1984 *
Angels & Demons *
The Inferno
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray *
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist *
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Misérables
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes : A Memoir *
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States: 1492-present
? Neverwhere
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
? The Mists of Avalon
? Oryx and Crake: a novel
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
? Cloud Atlas
? The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye

On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics: a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
White Teeth *
Treasure Island
David Copperfield

25 June 2007

As Fuhnie observes, the band Sprites have come up with what sounds to me like the ideal blogger anthem ‘I Started A Blog Which Nobody Read’, which starts:

“I started a blog, which nobody read
When I went to work I blogged there instead
I started a blog, which nobody viewed
It might be in cache, the topics include:

George Bush is an evil moron
What’s the story with revolving doors?
I’m in love with a girl who doesn’t know I exist
Nobody hates preppies anymore…”

It’s well worth a listen – you can hear the song while watching this (rather poor) fan-made video:

I am surprised there aren’t more songs about blogs or about social network software – or am I just not aware of them? Comment with any entertaining ones you have found…

11 April 2007

Over at Media @ LSE I just posted about my experiences with Librivox – a free project to read public domain texts aloud turning them into audiobooks. I hate to criticize a bunch of people just trying to help spread the availability of classic works but… well… check out my posting…

3 April 2007

Epicenter started as a look at those who found themselves contaminated by the radioactivity from early nuclear tests but as this trailer demonstrates his curiosity and journalistic zeal soon encouraged him to broaden his investigation and, from the looks of things, turn up all kinds of interesting stuff about the history of nuclear weapons development. Danny has sent me a DVD so once I get it I’ll tell you more…

18 October 2006

Long time readers of my weblog will know that I am a huge fan of the radio programme This American Life which puts out weekly programmes that mix documentary, fiction and humour. It used to be that they did streaming audio and for MP3 download you had to pay via Audible but this week they announced they are offering a podcast. Sign up now and have a listen – if you only subscribe to one podcast it should be this one…

18 June 2006
Filed under:Arts Reviews at3:56 pm

I was wandering the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo getting pretty bored when what should I run across but The Paradise Institute by Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller which was a tour de force of (predominantly) aural ingenuity (why don’t more music artists use binaural recording?). Imagine my surprise when it turned out they were both Canadians from Ontario (though now in Berlin I think?) If you get the chance to catch anything by them it would definitely be worthwhile.

7 April 2006
Filed under:Arts Reviews at12:23 am

Signs poster
I just finished watching Signs which came out on TV a few weeks ago. In my view it is one of the worst films I have seen in years – I was moved to rant about its sheer awfulness on the IMDB but I realised after having written it that there are 2,108 other people who have also written reviews. Boy has the Internet Movie Database grown! I remember it when it started more than 10 years ago as a pet project of a couple of film-mad Brits…

To save you following this link to the site here they are:

Having mostly enjoyed earlier works by M. Night Shyamalan because of their twist endings which put the whole work into a different perspective, I stuck with this right through to the end hoping that the increasingly ludicrous plot would turn out to be explained as some kind of hallucination or something. Imagine my disappointment when the incredibly stupid, unconvincing alien invasion turns out to be just what it seemed to be! Oh, and Mel Gibson’s acting is wooden, and the faith vs reason ‘subplot’ underlying the film has about as deep as a shallow puddle. The film neither scared me nor made me think. I want 106 minutes of my life back.

I’ll never watch another of his films again…

23 March 2006
Filed under:Arts Reviews,Humour & Entertainment at8:57 pm

My wife had the radio on in the background and I half-heard some swing-sounding music. It wasn’t a swing standard, but something about the tune was strangely familiar. I listened to the words – “Today is gonna be the day / That they’re gonna throw it back to you”… Wait a minute – isn’t that by… Oasis? Yes, it turns out that one of the most popular pop tunes of the mid-90s here in the UK was being covered by Paul Anka (!) Well, I can’t say the result was bad but I found it very difficult to listen to – my memory of the original was clashing in my head with the remake.

20 December 2005

Seems everywhere I look there is news about how revenge corrodes the soul and how the ‘good guys’ often act badly.

Historical papers revealed by the Guardian in the last week told how during and immediately after WWII, Britain ran interrogation centres that sounded as bad as anything the Gestapo came up with. One in Germany that starved and tortured prisoners first targeted Nazi party members or former members of the SS then by late 1946…

suspected Soviet agents. Some were NKVD officers – Russians, Czechs and Hungarians – but many were simply German leftists. Others were Germans living in the Russian zone who had crossed the line, offered to spy on the Russians, and were tortured to establish whether they were genuine defectors.

By a depressing irony, “Of the 20 interrogators ordered to break the inmates of Bad Nenndorf… [six] were mostly German Jewish refugees who had enlisted on the outbreak of war.”

The revelations of the previous week were even more disturbing. During and after WWII, a torture centre was run in London – the “London Cage”. The fact that those tortured appear to have been largely SS men and those accused of war crimes does little to excuse the brutal conditions there.

And now by an odd coincidence Spielberg is about to release a film – Munich – about Israel’s decision to hunt down and assasinate the killers of 11 of its atheletes at the 1972 Munich games (reviewed here).

All of this makes one think about the way that things seem to be going both here in the UK and in the US where torture may now be illegal but evidence obtained under torture may be OK and where peaceful protesters against military recruitment are attacked by police.

Also see my earlier post-Abu Ghraib musings on a similar theme…

But hopefully with that out of my system I can return to our regularly-scheduled Xmas cheer!

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