Archive | March 2012

Shadows of the Workhouse

The book for Book Club in March is Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth, who also wrote Call The Midwife, now a BBC series. I know something about workhouses and the conditions that inmates experienced, the values that inspired them and some of the reasons why they didn’t work. I was interested in reading this but I didn’t pay too much attention beyond the title and I think this is another example where my expectations didn’t align with what the book is.

The first three chapters tell the stories of three people who grew up in workhouses, their experiences there and how it affected the rest of their lives. Then there is the story of the kleptomaniac nun . And lastly the long story of a lonely old man whom the author was friends with and who ended his days in a home in a building that used to be a workhouse.

While Jennifer Worth does give some background into the establishment of workhouses, which was very interesting, this is not a book that will tell you anything about the structure of a society that brought these places into being. Neither does it examine the legacy that the workhouse has left us, except in the most personal sense. Worth touches on the values and attitudes that create beliefs that the poor must be punished, that being destitute must be so awful that it inspires people to better themselves, that ending up in a workhouse is a failure of character. This is fascinating for me and I can see echoes of those beliefs in contemporary attitudes towards people on benefits, but this is not explored. It’s not an intellectual book.

What it is, is memoir. I’m not a fan of memoir or biography; I find that focussing on an individual’s story loses sight of the bigger picture and to me that’s more interesting. But besides being memoir, this is a version of misery-lit. The pain is not the author’s own but it is presented in the same gratuitous way. I have a wide contrarian streak and I resent being told what to feel in such a heavy-handed way. The stories that Worth tells are tragic. She tells them in a way that I find sentimental. We are supposed to be shocked and appalled and to see the perpetrators as evil. For me, sentiment is the enemy of compassion; it romanticizes tragedy and removes the call to action. Instead, the reader is invited to feel self-satisfied and righteous.

One other thing that I found unsettling was the lack of any mention of where these stories had come from. Worth lived with the people she writes about and it is her memory of what happened and who they were. But in some instances she recounts events that happen to the person at an age where memory would not have been formed, so I suspect the stories came from somewhere else. Where? Without an understanding of the context in which these stories were relayed to the author, and given the fact that she is writing fifty years on from the period the book covers, I find it hard to know what is fact and what is interpretation. Maybe it doesn’t matter, as this is memoir and is one person’s perception, but for me it lacks seriousness. Perhaps that’s my intellectual snobbery showing. On the plus side, I am rather motivated to learn more about the legacy of the workhouse. Unless your bookshelves are filled with misery-porn I’d give this a miss.

The Cold Commands

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. It turns out that The Steel Remains was the first in a trilogy after all. Richard Morgan’s The Cold Commands is the second in the series.

Ringil is busy exacting revenge on the slave traders who took his cousin. He slaughters a whole caravan and heads into the nearest city to hide out from those looking to hold him accountable. While there he has a number of experiences which seem to add up to the divine taking an interest in his activities and finds himself on a boat headed for Yelteth. Which happens to be where Archeth is, back at the court of the increasingly paranoid and violent Jhiral II, and planning an expedition to find a lost Kiriath city. Egar is also in Yelteth, ostensibly guarding Archeth but is bored with this and starts looking for trouble. He finds it and uncovers a dwenda incursion in the heart of the city. When Archeth realises Ringil is in town she signs him up for her expedition and they rescue Eg from the trouble he’s got himself into.

This was enormously good fun. It is not quite what the first book was and I think that is in part because this is a middle book. It is less grim, less violent and less sexual, although less is very much relative here – there’s still plenty of all those things. There is more about the incursions of alien races into this world and consequently less characterization. I don’t feel that I know any of the three protagonists any better than I did at the end of the first book. In many respects The Cold Commands is not as good as The Steel Remains, but it sets up the third book in an exciting way. I still enjoyed it immensely and am looking forward to the concluding part of the trilogy.

The Fort

The Fort is a rare standalone novel from Bernard Cornwell.

It tells the story of an early engagement in the American War of Independence. On paper the battle should easily have been won by the Americans but it turned out to be a victory for the British.

It is very closely based on fact and Cornwell manages to bring alive the cast of characters and show how personality can make a huge difference to the outcome of a fight like this.

It’s not his best work. Of course, it’s not bad by any standard, but I’ve come to expect more from Cornwell. I think it would have benefitted from another editorial pass. There were a lot of dialogue tags which I haven’t noticed in his writing before and I feel that had it had one more rewrite these would have come out. Because of that it feels rushed.

Otherwise, this is an episode of history I knew nothing about and I enjoyed the telling of it. Cornwell is very balanced in his presentation of what happened and it is hard to pick a side. There are sympathetic characters amongst the British and the Americans. I liked it, but it’s probably one for the fans.

The God Species

The God Species by Mark Lynam is about how humans are affecting the planetary environment and about how some of the things the environmental movement are proposing as solutions aren’t helping. Lynam explains why and suggests alternatives. Basically, technology has got us into this mess and only technology can get us out of it.

As a long time environmental activist and journalist, Lynam challenges some of the central tenets of the environmental movement. He explains the concept of planetary boundaries and shows how we can identify a point of no return for several issues including biodiversity, nitrogen, land use and ocean acidification. Given these boundaries there are some solutions that will work and some that are contributing to the problem. Lynam says that the environmental movement needs to embrace some technologies it has been vociferously against in order to achieve its goal of saving the planet.

I’m persuaded that humans are affecting the environment in ways that are damaging and that we have to do something about it. I recycle, buy organic food and try to be energy efficient. And I feel guilty that I don’t do more. But for sometime I’ve been uncomfortable with the smug, judgemental attitude that seems to go along with environmentalism, and a lot of that seems to centered around food. You’re a bad person if you don’t grow your own vegetables, eat only organic, natural food, and cook from scratch. Except that I don’t want to. It’s time-consuming and boring and I’m quite time-poor right now. Lynam argues that organic farming takes up more land and can’t support as many people. While it may be better for biodiversity than non-organic farming, Lynam argues that it is not as good for biodiversity as giving the land over to wilderness, so a better solution is genetically modified crops that need less land and more wildlife parks. I’ve never really understood why GM crops are bad, except for the practices of big agribusiness, so I like this idea. GM crops can also be developed to fix their own nitrogen and be pest resistant, meaning less use of toxic fertilisers and pesticides.

The other big issue is energy generation. Lynam argues that it is futile to take a sack-cloth and ashes approach to how we will live and says that the challenge is to find another way to meet our energy needs. The only credible answer is nuclear power supported by renewables. This is another point I’ve never understood – that nuclear is so much more scary than carbon fuels. The French have been using nuclear for ages with little apparent problem.

I enjoyed this very much. It was stimulating and caused me to change my mind about some things, and to think harder about other things. It left me feeling very positive about the future of the planet and for humanity. Defintely worth a read.

The Crisis of Global Capitalism

George Soros wrote The Crisis of Global Capitalism in 1998, in the last credit crunch. I thought it would be interesting to see if what he said was still true.

The central point of the book is that money markets aren’t based on natural laws that are always true no matter what, but are actually realities created by the beliefs held by the people participating in them. So, basically, the global financial system is a massive delusion that we all create together. I’m completely on board with that. Unfortunately, the book is written in incomprehensible gibberish. I couldn’t finish it.

The Shelters of Stone

The Shelters of Stone is the fifth in the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel. I read the first book, The Clan of the Cave Bear, when I was eleven and I loved it. I read it many times and it remains one of my favourite books. I’d also read the other three, with declining attachment, and the last of those hadn’t been very engaging at all.

In this instalment, Ayla comes to Jondalar’s home and learns whether she will be accepted or not.

I got about halfway through and it was a hard decision to stop reading. When I was actually reading it I found it enjoyable and it was quite an easy read. I found Ayla a little too perfect, the characters were simplistic, and the dialogue a little stilted and formal. These weren’t insurmountable issues though. This is essentially a lecture on prehistory in the form of a novel and parts of it are fascinating.

I think what really killed it for me was the lack of conflict. There’s never any real doubt that everyone will love Ayla and welcome her in, no doubt that she will teach her new family how to tame animals, no doubt that she and Jondalar will come up with lots of new inventions. But given the choice of spending an hour on the train reading this or doing something else I found I was quite keen to do anything else.

The Way We Live Now

Free kindle books! Yay. There are books now out of copyright that are available free for the kindle and I have availed myself of a few. One of them is The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope which I wanted to read as it was mentioned in an article on The Business Case for Reading Novels.

Mr Melmotte arrives in London amidst rumours of vast wealth, shady deals and a lack of breeding. It is set in London in 1870 and there are several lordlets in search of an heiress. Melmotte’s wealth is reckoned to be so great it overrides any considerations that he might be a commoner.

One of the lordlets is Felix Carbury whose mother has decided that she will make a living (she has to because her son gambles away her money) writing books. She surmises that it is more important to persuade influential critics to say her books are good than it is to actually write good books. Felix’s sister, Hetta, has an offer of marriage from her cousin, Roger Carbury, who is a model of virtue. But she is in love with Paul Montague, a hapless young man who is manipulated into investing his entire wealth in a transamerican railway and finds it hard to disentangle himself from a previous engagement.

Melmotte is brought in on the railway scam and the share price rises. Melmotte’s wealth is reckoned to be incalculable and his ego is flattered to the point that he is persuaded to stand for parliament. Then everything starts to unravel.

This was originally published as a serial and occasionally there is a bit of recapping. Obviously this is a very old book so there’s not much to say about style – it is of its time. However, I found it highly readable and was completely absorbed. None of the characters really come out well and yet it is hard to say who is really bad.

It was funny in places and is very relevant to the current economic climate. I was a little disppointed by the ending and would have preferred a less fairytale resolution, but that’s a minor point. Overall it was an excellent read and I recommend it.