Thursday, April 28, 2011

Exploring the World of the Shining Prince.

I am now the proud owner of three Penguin classics; As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams written by Lady Sarashina, The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, and The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris. The first two are memoirs which, like the Tale of Genji, are written in eleventh century Japan. They have both been translated into English by Ivan Morris, a scholar of the Japanese language who died in 1976. Ivan Morris is also the author of the third book, which is an account of the court of eleventh century Japan.

I've already dipped into The World of the Shining Prince and found that there is, apparently, a recurring pattern in Japanese history. In the eighth, sixteenth and nineteenth century Japan imported ideas from China, 'the West' (i.e. Portugal, mainly) and northern Europe respectively. Each period was followed by a time of relative isolation, during which Japan consolidated and adapted the ideas and made them their own. The eleventh century was the era in which their consolidation of Chinese writing peaked. The men were taught to write in Chinese, but the women were free to use the phonetic version called kanabungaku. This was liberating, and allowed them to write the masterpieces described above. The men of the time stuck to traditional Chinese forms; frequently quoting from outdated, two hundred year old poetry.

The books themselves are second hand, and the pages are in various shades of yellow, but they are all perfectly serviceable, if a little fragile, and I am much looking forward to reading them.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Royal Wedding

How irritating it must be, to have no interest in the Royal Wedding (as I haven't),

and yet to find that the house in which you live is to be part of a street party

from 9am until midnight, or thereabouts...

How glad I am to find that on that day I shall be on a train heading north to people as uninterested in the artificial pomp as I am.

That is all I intend to say on the matter.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What I'm Doing: :34

What I'm reading: Frankie and Stankie by Barbara Trapido.
Trapido is a recent discovery for me, but after reading Brother of the More Famous Jack, and enjoying it very much, I am keen to read the rest of Trapido's output.

What I'm listening to: Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami.

I have already described (several times) how much I admire Murakami, and this one certainly doesn't disappoint. In fact I think it may be my favourite so far.

What I watched last: Together With You directed by Chen Kaig.

This is a tale about a young, gifted violin player and his father, an impoverished chef, who go to Beijing to follow their dreams. It was a light and enjoyable film, and I found the insight into China in 2002 illuminating. Seven years later there were far more cars, and far fewer bikes.

What I'm reading on Kindle: Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift.

I'm not sure I can remember ever reading this in its original version, so I thought it about time that I did.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sunday Salon: Self-Indulgence

First: Happy Easter Sunday!

I told Hodmandod Senior that this year I wished to forgo my usual chocolate-rich diet for Easter, and instead indulge in a single Cadbury creme egg. Hodmandod Senior obviously only heard the part of the message because although he did indeed buy me a creme egg,

it unfortunately came with a clutch of others, and also the Tyranosaurus-rex-sized one pictured at the top of this post. No doubt I shall be eating these all by myself later while I finish few pages I have left of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, because, alas, I have no self-control when it comes to chocolate or reading.

There seems to be a similar lack of self-control in the court of eleventh century Japan. It was, undoubtedly, a magnificent but claustrophobic place, and the people there, especially the main character, Genji, had no self-control whatsoever. In each chapter he becomes romantically involved with a different woman. The oldest is fifty-eight and the youngest is a child of eight - although he does have enough restraint to realise he needs to wait awhile to 'have his way' with the eight year old. These days I think he might be labelled a sex addict, and in some ways he is a victim, because his behaviour is certainly manipulated by women who know of his vice.

The court of eleventh century Japan was completely isolated from the majority of the population which provided them with the day-to-day essentials like food, fuel and clothing. It reminded me of end -of-the siecle places like eighteenth century France, early twentieth century Russia and fifth century BC Greece. It is luxurious and self-indulgent, and yet also in a state of decay. There is a hierarchy, and position and associated etiquette is of huge importance. The people were judged almost entirely on appearance, with prowess in the Arts, notably ability to choose and quote snatches of poetry in conversation, also taken into account. Men and women of the court were expected to play musical instruments, write in an elegant manner (in terms of both content and physical style), and also, if male, dance. I found a snatch of solo Heian style dancing here, on YouTube.

There is a scene in the novel where Genji dances so beautifully that the whole court weeps.

The people become inward looking, precious and produce great works, but there is also a sense that it will not last. The princess of high rank has old-fashioned faded clothes for example, and several characters live in houses that are starting to fall apart. As I read I kept waiting for the revolution. The people are witty, and their motives are astutely analysed. At first I found my progress a little slow, but now I am almost finished I find I would not only like to read the rest of the six volumes which make up this book, but also a couple of other accounts (The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon and As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams by Lady Sarashina) so I have ordered those too. I have also discovered there is a well-known book dealing with the cultural context of the novels and biographies, The World of the the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris, so that went in the shopping basket as well. No doubt I am being side-tracked again, and being a little Heianian self-indulgent too. But a little investigation revealed to me that this era and court also fascinated Virginia Woolf, so at least I am in good company.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu part 1.

I am slowly working through this book, which is the version translated by Arthur Waley. At the moment I am half way through.

To my surprise, although this book was written more than a thousand years ago in Japan, there are some aspects which might be called post-modern For instance, although written subjectively in the third person, and concentrating almost exclusively on the point of view of the central character, Genji, the narrator, 'Lady Murasaka' sometimes comments to the reader in the same way that John Fowles is famous for doing. It would make a tedious story, she says, so I'm not going to dwell on it. In other places she asks the reader (or herself), where was I? Then, reminding herself, carries on with her tale.

Some reviewers, I have noticed, have found the main character distasteful, but I find him interesting. I think it is important to look at him within his time and position at the Japanese court, and not allow modern sensibilities and ideas of sexual and social equality get in the way. Yes, he is a serial philanderer, and extremely fickle, but at least he feels each doomed love affair deeply, and he is certainly persistent, and doesn't give up until the woman in question is beside him.

I think the aspect of the work I am enjoying the most is that I am learning so much about Japanese society of around 1000 AD. Journeys are dictated by the position of the stars, conversations are invariably quotations from well-known poetry or complex metaphors. It was, I guess, an exclusive cultural code, and anyone not privy to their refined world would not understand. It enables notes to be carried by servants with impunity.

Reading the book has encouraged me to look at the costumes of the time, and I find (from this very interesting article by Sarah M Harvey) that it was common for many layers to be worn, sometimes over 40, and these layers were all in the form of various long flowing robes, some of them tied to the body with a sash, the antecedent of the kimono and obi. On their feet they wore uncomfortable-looking sandals, some of these raised on platforms. As with many examples of ancient dress, I keep wondering how they managed to attend to everyday tasks; how could they scrub the floors, put out the rubbish, wring out the washing with those long voluminous sleeves, and all those layers so insecurely held together and liable to come apart.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Story of the Dragon-King's Daughter: my summary of a Chinese Folk Tale

Today I have been reading about the Dragon-King's Daughter. It is a complicated little tale, and, strangely, has quite a Welsh feel about it.

A failed student, Liu Yi, was returning home when he encountered a poor shepherdess with a flock of aloof-looking sheep. She told him how she was really the Dragon-King's daughter, and had been mistreated by her husband, and left to look after his sheep in the rain and the wind. She asked him to convey a message for her to her father who lived under Dong-Ting lake, but first he had to swear he would not betray her. After he had sworn on his life, she told him that he had to go to a sacred orange tree south of the lake, change his belt for the one she gave him and knock on the tree three time.

After a month he managed to go to the tree and did as she said. This summoned a warrior came who parted the lake and led him to a splendid palace (decorated in the usual precious stones, silks and other fabulous flourishes). The king (who was dressed in purple but otherwise human looking) was in consultation with a human priest. The king was in charge of flooding, whereas the priest in charge of fire, and so they trying to reach a compromise. When they had finished, Liu Yi spoke to the Dragon-King and passed on his daughter's message. The king was grateful. Presently, the king's brother, a red dragon, who had been imprisoned by overlords at the Jade Palace for anger management issues, arrived with lots of women including the king's daughter. It turned out the king's brother had already rescued the daughter after killing thousands of people in battle. The errant husband of the Dragon-King's daughter had made a tasty snack. The king reproached him for this, but since his brother had obviously been forgiven for this crime and previous ones by the Jade Palace he decided to let it pass. Much feasting and rejoicing occurred.

The king's brother then threatened Liu Yi and told him that since the king's daughter was now widowed , she's make a good wife, so he had better marry her. Liu Yi said he didn't care how big the king's brother was, he was not going to be bullied in to doing anything. However, when it came to saying good bye to the Dragon-King's daughter, Liu Yi realised he had made a mistake, but it was too late then.

He went back to dry land and the world of men, made a fortune with the gifts he had been given from the Dragon-King and his brother, married and subsequently widowed twice in succession. He was then approached by a matchmaker who proposed that he married a widow who was still young and desirable. He agreed. After they had had their first child, the widow revealed herself to be the Dragon-King's daughter in front of everyone. She then confessed that her normal life-span, as a dragon, was likely to be ten thousand years, but she would share these years between them. For many years they lived very happily as humans, but then they were bothered by Emperor Kai Yuan (AD 713- 741) who was after the secret of longevity. So to elude him they lived thereafter under Dong-Ting Lake - which really exists, so it must be true.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A date in St Asaph

Hodmandod Senior laughs, but I swear that when my SatNav says 'Wales' the word is infused with affection. No one believes me, but I know it's true. She sounds besotted and a little drunk, which is worrying considering I am depending on her to guide me there. Tonight SatNav and I made it to the Farmers Arms near St Asaph. This is an eighteen century Inn. I can tell this because there are signs...

It is in an area of 'outstanding natural beauty'. I know because there is another sign. It is a warning. It comes just before an incredible sweeping drop on the A55 from the Halkyn Mountains. Ahead there is a grand green valley, and behind them the mountains of Snowdonia, all of them so incredibly gorgeous that I know SatNav's jaw is dropping with the loveliness of it all. 'Wales,' she says weakly. 'Take the third exit...' But she's lost the plot.

Unfortunately, I cannot show you this wondrous valley (there is no convenient place to stop), but I can show you this...

You will have to take my word for the bleating of baby lambs, and the smell of spring flowering trees, but they were all there when I went in. The audience were great: the Spanish Circle of North Wales, and I had lots of interesting questions. Thanks for inviting me, Priscilla.

Monday, April 18, 2011

An Interview with Brian Clegg

This weekend I had the pleasure of reading Brian Clegg's latest book Inflight Science (review here), and today he has kindly agreed to an interview, which it gives me great pleasure to post below.

Brian is a Fellow of Royal Society of Arts and has degrees from Cambridge (Natural Sciences) and Lancaster (Operational Research) Universities. After 17 years with British Airways, Brian established himself as a business creativity consultant, freelance journalist and writer. He has contributed to a wide range of magazines, from PC Week to Good Housekeeping, and has written a total of 36 books. He originally wrote on business and creativity, but now concentrates on popular science. His titles include A Brief History of Infinity, The God Effect, Before the Big Bang and Ecologic, with Inflight Science the most recent addition.

Questions about Inflight Science.
Clare Dudman: How did your experience as an employee of British Airways help in writing this book (if it did)?
Brian Clegg: I think there are two ways it helped. One is seeing airports and airplanes from the other side. So, for instance, I learned about the strange arrangement of gates at Heathrow’s Terminal 4 while having a wander round there just before it opened. And the other benefit is that I did have a lot of experience of flying when I worked at BA – so experienced some of the highs and lows of being on a plane.

CD: What do you think is the most important aspect of writing a popular science book?
BC: Making it accessible. Particularly with a book like Inflight Science, which isn’t specifically aimed at science enthusiasts, but at anyone from teenagers up who might take a flight. I’m not saying you have to keep to simple topics – in fact my favourite things to write about are the likes of relativity and quantum theory, which have a reputation of being ‘difficult’ but which I’d see as being central to understanding modern science.

CD: Please would you go through the process of writing a book like Inflight Science. What comes first? BC: It varies from book to book. I usually have a short summary of what’s going to be in each chapter from the proposal stage. I then tend to research key aspects and slot them into the framework, before writing the main ‘flow’ of the book around them. But Inflight Science was rather different because it very much follows a plane journey from beginning to end, and I thought that would work better by writing it strictly in sequence. So it was very much driven by imagining myself on a flight, thinking of what I could see and spinning off from that the various things to describe and investigate. I have to say I had more fun with it than almost any other book I’ve written – it was lovely to write.

CD: I very much enjoyed reading the book even though I used to be a science teacher, and I should think a lot of other people would too - even an airline pilot - which reader did you have in mind when writing the book?
BC: Pretty well anyone who is on a plane or might at some point go on a plane, so all the way from the first time flyer to the pilot. I think we’ve become much too familiar with flying – and yet when you think about it, it’s quite remarkable. In just over 100 years since the Wright brothers we’ve developed an everyday ability that took birds millions upon millions of years to evolve. I wanted to bring back some of the sense of wonder that I think should accompany the act of flying – and should also accompany science. I hope the combination of using a lot of fun factoids with such a wide range of scientific possibilities will appeal to a very wide audience.

CD: Are you a frequent flier?
BC: Not any more. When I worked at BA a flew a huge amount, sometimes for quite trivial reasons. I once, for example, flew to both Shetland and Jersey in the same day (to post Valentines cards). However these days I try to travel by more green means where possible, and I have also become a much more nervous flyer for some reason, so having a book like Inflight Science would be an excellent distraction. I was really aiming at the twin problems of flying – fear and boredom – with the book.

CD: Can you remember the first time you flew? What was it like?
BC: I was six and we flew to Norway, which involved taking a prop plane (BEA) from Manchester to London, then an SAS jet to Norway. At the time it was just so exotic. Flying was more special back then (we’re talking the 1960s) anyway, but also, to a six-year-old it was tantamount to magic. And the Norwegian inflight catering, which involved strange pickled things, was a revelation.

CD: What is your most favourite memory of a flight?
BC: I’m not sure if favourite is the right word, but I have a memory of a flight that is seared into my brain. It was when I was at BA, and taking an internal flight in the US on the way home from a conference. At the time the internal US market had just opened up and it was very competitive – you had to be on time. But our plane was late, so the pilot decided to get us into Chicago airport a little quicker than usual. Rather than taking the usual gentle route to line up with the runway, he left the turn to the last minute, then turned so sharply that looking out of the window you were staring straight down the chimneys of houses. With screams coming from the aircraft cabin, he held this angle for an eternity as we descended. Then, suddenly, he snapped the plane level. It was no more than 2 seconds later than we hit the runway. I was travelling with two airline veterans, and both were white as a sheet when we got off. We reckoned the pilot was a Vietnam veteran. But scary though it was, it worked. His literal corner cutting meant we touched down on time.

General Questions.
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
BC: My main association with snails initially felt rather unfortunate. Inevitably as a child I felt drawn to the character of Brian, the snail in the Magic Roundabout – and yet superficially he is a self-centred busybody, which isn’t very nice. However I came to realize that beneath the bluster was a heart of gold, so Brian wasn’t so bad after all.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
BC: I have trouble with ‘bests’ and ‘favourites.’ I recently did something for a magazine where I had to pick my 10 best books, which was terribly difficult. So I have trouble picking out a moment. But there’s another issue here. Just yesterday, by coincidence, I was thinking about pride, and wondering when it became a good thing. These days you can’t move for people (at least on TV) saying ‘I won’t accept charity, I’ve got my pride’ or ‘I’m so proud of little Johnny.’ Yet traditionally pride has been a sin. It goes before a fall. It isn’t supposed to be a desirable state of affairs. So in a bid to recapture the importance of humility, I’m not going to think of a moment involving pride.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
BC: Three, I’d say. Two are very common ones – getting married and having children. These might seem trivial, but taking the children example, no one can really prepare you for how much it turns your life upside down – and still is doing 16 years later. It doesn’t so much change your life as rip it into shreds and remake it in a new shape (probably from papier maché). The third life-changing event was having my first book published. It wasn’t much of a book, but it was mine – and with it came the realization that this what I wanted to do all the time. No other job compares.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
BC: Very difficult, this one. I do find all the terrible things on the news sad, but if I’m honest, I have to be selfish about this and for me it has to be the times when my parents died.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
BC: So much to choose from. I think it would be to become more natural with other people. I do my best, but I’m not very good at it – if the tests are anything to go by, I am on the fringes of the autistic spectrum, and that makes it quite difficult to do and say the right things. I wish I found it easier, as some people obviously do, to be a people person.

CD: What is happiness?
BC: Something the prime minister wants us to have more of. For me it’s usually about achievement. Making something happen. Creating something. Getting a positive response from other people. I suspect this is because I’m a show-off – so I love performing or having someone be enthusiastic about something I’ve written. But that ‘making something happen’ is often just making someone else happy, so happiness is definitely best a shared activity.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
BC: Tickle the dog’s tummy. As the one who wakes up best in my family I’m generally the one heading to make the morning hot drinks while everyone else is still in bed, but Goldie has other ideas and insists on having her tummy tickled before I’m allowed into the kitchen. This has become something of a ritual – I ignore it at my peril.

Into the Unknown.

Today I start reading about the Silk Road. I have acquired a small pile of books:

I am starting with the one at the bottom: The Silk Road by Frances Wood. I have read other books by this author so I know I'm going to have a good time. Just reading a few pages and I am struck by the strangeness of these places, and trying to imagine how it must be to live in a place like Kashkar with long winters and short hot summers and virtually no rain. It is an oasis, and already I'm thinking of it as a cauldron full of different races of people. Frances Wood vividly evokes the market place with the help of carefully chosen extracts from the accounts of nineteenth and twentieth century explorers.

It is great to be an armchair traveller, but reading books like this makes me want so much to go there. I nearly did, when I travelled to China a couple of years ago, but unfortunately the area was experiencing unrest and the Foreign Office was advising people to keep clear. No doubt these explorers would have regarded this sort of advice as an interesting challenge, and ignored it. I, however, am more of a coward.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday Salon: Inflight Science by Brian Clegg

I've had a good week of reading. Yesterday I finished this popular science book, and in the days before finished a couple of Japanese novels. At the moment I am revisiting ancient Greece and reading Herodotus's Histories - which I am finding hilarious.

But back to the book I finished yesterday. I shall start with a quote: 'the dog is the oldest piece of highly developed technology still in active use.'

This, I think, is a good example of the entertaining style Brian Clegg adopts in his latest book Inflight Science - which was book of the week in the Times recently, and has had a great review by Alain de Botton in the Mail on Sunday.

I love to fly, and having read this book I think I'll find the experience even more rewarding. This book explains a lot of little questions and suspicions that have been bothering me, albeit subconsciously, for some time. Why, for instance, are some of the departure gates so difficult to find? And are those puny-looking flaps I see opening and shutting on the wing really an important part of the flying mechanism of the plane, and if so, what exactly do they do?

Manchester Airport

After spending some time in the departure lounge, and considering such things as radar and other tracking systems (where I incidentally discovered the origin of the idea that carrots help you see in the dark), the book moves on to take-off and explains the logistics of the runway, and the reason for all those mysterious pings and lights I always hear when I ascend into the air. It deals with air currents and lift, and makes what for me could be a dull topic amazingly interesting. Brian Clegg does this by relating it to things I see in my everyday life: the circulation of water as it drains down the plug hole, for instance, and whether this spiral is the same on either sides of the equator, and why. He also presents boxed 'experiments' - small practical experiments (some of which are definitely better done on terra firma) which add to the fun of finding out.

Once up in the air he explains why the cabin pressure drops to the same level as Mexico City; a fact which has many repercussions which I didn't realise, but now makes perfect sense. Looking through the window I learn, amusingly, how the brain is like a river basin, how the formation of an ox-bow lake is like an ice skater spinning on ice, the debunking of crop circles and why the ancient Greeks had no word for the blueness of the sky.

The Himalayas from my cabin window

Turning to the atmosphere the book explains exactly why dark clouds produce rain, the origin of the expression 'on cloud 9', why Newton saw seven colours in the rainbow, and is most reassuring about turbulence, which always scares me to death.

There is a particularly good section on jet lag, why it happens (pointing out the relatively recent adoption of time zones) and unexpectedly recommends both homeopathy and aromatherapy as 'cures' - but not for the reasons you might expect. Brian Clegg also explains why airplane food has less taste, how the toilet on an airplane works (again allaying dire suction fears), and why the lights are dimmed just before landing.

Dawn from my cabin window

The book also devotes a little time to explaining things I thought I already knew about (as an ex-science teacher) but I enjoyed hearing about again. I often find that another explanation us enhances my understanding, especially when the explanation is so clear as it is here: why planes fly in a great circle, for instance, or how an LCD works, and why it is colder at the top of a mountain, white ice is blue, and the formation of the Himalayas caused a series of ace ages. I particularly enjoyed the demonstration of how brains trick us into thinking the moon is big and how using counting the number of streetlights can be used to estimate population.

Hong Kong airport

Altogether, an excellent example of popular science writing - informative and very enjoyable at the same time. I highly recommend. I'm hoping to interview Brian Clegg in the near future.

TwitrLit's 4th Birthday Competition.

For four years, Debra Hamel has been tweeting the first lines of books on TwitrLit, and to celebrate is going to give away her excellent book on an Ancient Greek courtesan Trying Neaira which I can thoroughly recommend. It is an highly entertaining way to learn a lot about the world of classical Greece.

Debra says:

' is turning four on April 29th! To celebrate, I'm holding a drawing for a free copy of my book Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece ( You won't see the book on TwitrLit: ironically, its first line is too long to tweet:

"Neaira grew up in a brothel in Corinth, a polis in Greece's Peloponnese famous enough for its prostitutes that the ancient Greeks made a verb out of it: korinthiazein meant 'to fornicate.'"

But maybe you'll be able to win a copy through Twitter.

To enter, simply tweet this to your followers:

TwitrLit turns 4 on 4/29! RT for chance to win Details: @TwitrLit #tw4tn

The fine print:

  • Your Twitter account must be public for you to be entered in the drawing.
  • Contest entries must be tweeted by 9:00 A.M. EDT, Saturday, April 30th.
  • One winner will be selected at random from among eligible entries.
  • The winner will be notified via Twitter on April 30th.
  • One entry per Twitter ID. Multiple retweets won't improve your chances.
  • Contest open only to residents of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.'

You can see more about the competition here: TWLitNews,

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Reading Herodotus

Today I am reading this epic tome:

a gorgeous edition of Herodotus's Histories, given to me by a friend. Before I started, though, I decided to look up what is meant by 'Ring Composition' and found this very interesting paper by Gary D Martin devoted to Ring Composition in Herodotus's work.

It seems to be somewhere between poetry and prose, where an idea is introduced, which leads to another and another, eventually reaching the main point which may be reiterated in two or more lines, before working backwards again. Since the Histories were based on oral accounts it is derived from a method of both committing such points to memory and lending emphasis.

This edition of the Histories is generously illustrated with maps and pictures which really helps with my understanding, because I am ignorant not only of most aspects of classical history, but the general geography of the area too.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time by Yasutaka Tsutsui

'Show, don't tell,' that's what they say about successful writing, but in his very short novella 'The Girl Who Leapt Through Time', Tsutsui breaks this rule on his first page. One of Kazuko's friends, Goro, is short and stocky, works hard and 'could be very impulsive', while the other, Kazuo, is tall and lanky and 'a bit of a dreamer'. In a more literary novel, the reader would be shown this by how the characters behave, but Tsutsui doesn't have time for this. He has a story to tell, and it is this and the interesting ideas of what might be in store for mankind that make this book a success.

Kazuko and her friends are clearing up the science laboratory at school when she is temporarily left alone. An intruder enters and leaves some broken test tubes and a strange fragrance behind. Kazuko sniffs and swoons. The next day, after living through an earthquake and witnessing a fire in a nearby house, she and Goro encounter a runaway truck, but just before contact Kazuko finds herself drifting away to her bedroom the day before. From this one 'Groundhog Day' experience she and her friends surmise that she has special time-travel and teleporting powers.

This book has been a best-seller in Japan, and it is an entertaining and interesting tale told very simply and politely; these Japanese teenagers don't swear or like to rock the boat. They also chuckle (I have noticed that characters tend to chuckle a lot in many of the Japanese books I have read, and I keep wondering if this is cultural and something the Japanese tend to do, or that it is simply the best translation of a term that is used a lot in literature). It's a good, entertaining and diverting read which I can imagine would appeal in particular to older children or young teenagers of a similar age to Kazuko and her friends.

Another, shorter, story completes the book: 'The Stuff that Nightmares are Made of'. This was a charming exploration of phobias and what causes them. Masako, of a similar age to Kazuko, is scared of something in her friend's bedroom, and her brother is so afraid of visiting the bathroom in the night that he wets the bed. Masako turns mini-detective to find the causes and face the fears, and the results are coyly amusing.

Thank you to Alma Books for providing me with a copy.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

My Visit to Ruthin Library

Last night I went to Ruthin Library to give a talk about my book, but I was disorganised, and only took a picture of the outside.

I wish I'd remembered to take a picture of the reading group and the librarian, Llinos, because it is not often that an author of a book has the privilege of being with such attentive readers. They understood the point I was trying to make exactly, so I was very pleased. Thank you, Llinos, for the kind introduction. This was my second visit to Ruthin, and I have thoroughly enjoyed both of them.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Castle by J Robert Lennon.

A recalcitrant, middle-aged man takes a house in a small town in the US. It seems normal, believable, and you get interested. Clearly the man has 'a past' - but what is it? Then you get fed little pieces of information that suck you in a little more. The man's father and mother died young and on the same day: an accident, maybe? You listen a little more...

Then, a little while later, and it is so seamless you hadn't noticed the change, you realize you are in another world. There is the man and his nemesis, the Professor. And this Professor, he's one of the most disturbing characters you've ever encountered. He's a psychologist interested in what makes people crack; what makes them survive; and what makes them stand and fight. And long ago, when the man was a child, he was the psychologist's main guinea pig. The Professor is intent on making the child strong and for this the child has not just to observe, but become used to performing barbaric acts of torture: a squirrel is systematically mutilated before being skinned, while the boy himself is anaesthetized before being left alone, naked and lost, in a forest for a day and most of a night. The child is also punished with the frequency, cruelty and apparent illogicality of a guard in a totalitarian regime.

It is gripping, and last night, because I was unable to stand just listening to small snatches any more, listened to the end. The man meets his nemesis in a dramatic scene, but this isn't the end. The focus suddenly shifts to wartime Iraq, and the point of all that barbarity becomes obvious. The book is transformed into an important morality tale for our age. It is unexpected and stunning.

The audiobook is aptly and very well read by Mark Nelson, and downloadable from Iambick books at a very reasonable rate - who I thank for their kind gift of a sample. I recommend it highly.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Thank you Bookgeeks...

...and Julian Stockwin for your kind words about my book 'A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees'. They are hugely appreciated.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Salon: more from the Far East.

Sunday Saloners: I have a confession, but I am sure, out of all the people in the world, you'll understand.

This is bad, I know, but this week the postman has, on several occasions, delighted me with the sound of a plump book-filled jiffy bag landing on my door mat. This is despite the already colossal book city in my study, my pathetically slow rate of reading and, most of all, the condemnation of my son, Hodmandod Minor (he of the ironing pile, mentioned last week).

My most recent acquisitions are a further two volumes to add to my already unstable TBR China pile:

Monkey by Wu Ch'êng-ên (a masterpiece written in the 1500s, some time before Shakespeare), and Factory Girls by Leslie T Chang (about migrant workers in modern China, which Simon Winchester says is 'Head and Shoulders above almost all other new books about China'). This is in addition to the many books I have already read about China, including the excellent book on Pandas by Henry Nicholls which I read this week (review here with lots of panda photos).

Furthermore, and I have already mentioned these in previous posts, I have acquired three more books for the Japanese collection:

Palm of the Hand Stories by the wonderful Yasunari Kawabata (tiny short stories written throughout his life), The Girl Who Leapt Through Time by Yasutaka Tsutsui (which is a best seller in Japan, and courtesy of Alma Books) and finally Kamikazi Diaries by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierny ( a study on the mind-set of the young students who flew in the Kamikazi planes in the second world war). This last one arrived not through the post but through wires and then, at the end, through space. As I write this, it strikes me, once again, how incredible this is - an entire book landing in a few seconds in my hand, almost as soon as it came into my head to wish for it.

It is this last book that I am reading now, and can't wait to get on with it. The pilots were in their early twenties and highly educated. They spoke French, German and English and were well-acquainted with European philosophy. They were the best that Japan had to offer, and yet they were drafted into the armed forces, then forced by peer-pressure to join the defence pilots.

As the author reveals it there was no way they could not 'volunteer' to become kamikaze pilots. They knew their life would be short and they tried to rationalize this in their letters and diaries. They loved Japan, but some of them didn't love what their nation was becoming. They knew they were expected to die for their emperor, and yet they wanted to live. One of the author's main points is that they should not be thought comparable to today's suicide bombers, but to the British soldiers that were forced out of the trenches into a rain of machine gun fire in the first world war. Both were fighting for their state and their emperor, and both had no real choice. Refuse and you would be shot and your family would suffer the ignominy of your cowardice. Run or fly to almost certain death and at least your family would remember you proudly. Both sought solace in writing and reading poetry.

Saturday, April 09, 2011


It is April.

We went to Shropshire, where, in a field

is a reminder of the ephemeral nature of not just man, but empires. Outside a tiny village called Wroxeter are the remains of what used to be the fourth largest city in Britain. In Roman times over 5,000 people lived here. The only feature left is the outline of baths (caldarium, tepidarium, frigidarium - hot bath to cold bath)

and this one large wall which formed the entrance from gymnasium to frigidarium.

They bathed (even outside for 60 years until, presumably, they acknowledged that the British weather was far too cold), used the latrines (this is the drainage channel)

steamed, anointed them selves with oils and scraped themselves clean, then went shopping in an adjacent market hall.

They lived in houses like this:

reconstructed on a platform not to disturb the still-to-be-excavated remains with internal gardens and gentle Shropshire views.

All the remains now is this outline and the Roman road.

Later, after the Romans left, everyone forgot what they'd learnt. The city decayed. A Welsh poem recorded the wife of a Prince watching the white city burn from the hills, and in Medieval times moved to a more sheltered spot.

taking a little Roman wall with them.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Just a little more Japanese...

I couldn't quite leave Japan, after all. Today, in Kamikaze diaries, which I downloaded onto my Kindle last night, I read that literature has a long tradition in Japan. In a country where much is unexpressed, the diary gives the individual a chance to use his voice. Maybe that is why I find Japanese literature so appealing.

The Kamikaze Diaries, by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney is an exploration of how the Kamikaze pilots rationalized what they did. At the moment I am just reading the introduction, but later, I believe, there will be more excerpts from the diaries of young student-pilots, who were plucked from their studies at university, trained under cruelly harsh conditions, and then sent out on a small plane with a large bomb without enough fuel to come back.

The Kamikaze wind, I remember reading in an earlier book, was a wind that appeared to be divinely sent, which repelled the last Mongolian invasion onto Japanese soil. The Kamikaze pilots were an equally desperate attempt by the war -time Japanese government to prevent another invasion, this time from the West.

Also arrived today was a copy of Yasunari Kawabata's Palm of the Hand Stories I'd ordered a week or so ago. I couldn't resist dipping in at once, and feel I am going to really enjoy these. Kawabata wrote very short stories - just three or four pages long - all his life. Perhaps these are the original samples of 'flash fiction'.

And finally, from Alma Books, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time from the award winning writer Yasutaka Tsutsui. It sounds wonderful.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Way of the Panda by Henry Nicholls

According to my parents, the panda was the subject of one of my formative experiences. There was a panda on the television but when I tried to touch it, I found, of course, that I couldn't. I was distraught; an important early lesson on the deceptions of life. Soon after that, a toy panda was bought for me and she became the love of my early life.

But this book is about real pandas, the ones with skin, bones, teeth and fur, the sort I came face to face with in Chongqing a year or so ago (pictures are from this trip), and fascinating it is too.

It starts with Armand David, a French Roman Catholic priest and intrepid adventurer who was the first westerner to encounter a panda and sent its carcass back to France. The setting is, of course, China, and one of the very interesting features of this book is the way it puts each story in historical context, which are described to just the right degree; in this case the opium wars and the Boxer rebellion. The writing generally is entertaining, without being too flippant.

The second chapter deals with how this strange black and white bear-like animal was classified. I thought I knew the answer to this, but it turns out I didn't. The third chapter describes the zeal of hunting the panda, and although written for the twenty-first century reader, it beautifully conveys the nineteenth century mindset - when the world had rather more dangerous wild animals. In chapter 4 the reader is introduced to the indomitable Mrs Harkness - a feminine tale of derring-do set during the second world war.

That was part one, how the panda was extracted from China into the rest of the world. The second part is how the panda first fared as a captive in the rest of the world.

Chapter 5 describes the arrival of the panda in Europe, and the influence of Desmond Morris and the TV programme 'Zoo Time' on the psyche of the nation. I can vouch for this: my brother David was a particularly avid watcher of the programme, and I think that it was through watching this that he became interested in science, then medicine and eventually became a doctor. The panda in question, Chi-Chi, was kept in quite sumptuous conditions in London Zoo, while back in China, eccentric ideas during Mao's 'Great Leap Forward' (including Lysenko's 'Close Planting' and Maltsev's 'Deep Ploughing') ensured that as well as the further degradation of the panda's habitat, 20- 40 million people died of starvation.

The sixth chapter introduces the origin of the World Wildlife Fund and Peter Scott's panda design as emblem, while the seventh and eight deal with various fascinating details of panda biology; including the initial efforts to get Chi-Chi to mate with An-An, the panda from Russia, and then her eventual preservation in the Natural History Museum in London.

The final part, 'Protection', deals with how pandas were uniquely used as a symbol of friendship and conservation and a political bartering chip. One of the first examples was when the American people, were presented with Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling after Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit China. However, these two panda stars fared no better than Chi-Chi's in terms of reproductive success. Pandas were then hired out as part of commercial ventures, an unsavory practice which led to collaborations of a more scientific nature which determined, amongst other things, the importance of smell, sound and sight of pandas. particularly during mating.

Chapter 11 described how conditions have improved for the panda in captivity, which was very interesting; the replacement of porridge and meat with a more natural diet of bamboo presented in three sittings, for instance, and the provision of a stimulating environment.

Thanks to these measures, and the careful observation of the rituals of wild pandas, the success rate of matings in captivity has risen to 90%. Smell was found to be very important, and there was an excellent section dealing with how pandas use smell and leads them to performing handstands in the wild. They not only deposit secretions on the objects around them but also on themselves, and swabs revealed that the body of a panda is a 'kaleidoscope of scent patches and zones', with ears smelling strongly of urine, and black eye patches having another smell of their own.

This leads naturally on to one of the subjects of the final chapter viz panda poo, with 'molecular scatology' yielding a huge amount of information about pandas in the wild cheaply, easily and quickly. After a quick resume about the problems in assessing the real number of pandas in the wild, the chapter ends with cautious optimism. The number of pandas in captivity is now self-sustaining, and logging, which was one of the biggest threats to the panda habitat, has been banned. The giant panda is still an endangered species, but on the mountains above Ya'an City up the Baoxing River there is the Giant Panda Sanctuaries heritage site which has some of the highest standards of environmental protection on the planet.

The book ends with an appreciation of the virtual panda but also a plea for us all to recognise the difference between a real wild panda and a virtual one, and points out that without the wild one the virtual one, like my treasured childhood companion, would be a symbol of loss.