Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Marc Bloch: Feudal Society (1940)

Translation: L.A. Manyon, 1962
Edition: Routledge Kegan Paul, 2014
Review number: 1507

The foreword to this Routledge Classics edition, by Geoffrey Kozol, starts by asking, "Why read a work of history written over seventy years ago?" Clearly, after such a long time, a scholarly work of this kind no longer represents current knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, any more than earlier historical classics like Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Carlyle's history of The French Revolution do.

Each of the books mentioned, including this one, has good reasons why you might want to read them. Three in particular are common to all of them: they have all been influential in one way or another; they are all quite general overviews of topics often treated on a smaller scale by specialists; and they are all of high literary quality.

In Feudal Society Bloch attempts a study of several centuries of Western European social history, analysing the genesis, flowering and eventual modification into something else of the culture known as "feudal" - that is, based around vassal/overlord relationships, tied to land grants (fees, the origin of the word feudal). Given the fragmentary state of the documentary record, especially in the early years going beyond the major chronicles to understand the society is hard work, but in this book Bloch uses a huge array of small scale records (mainly legal documents) to produce as full a picture as possible.

To research this way is now far more common, but the scale of the project in this case means that it is still an impressive synthesis - indeed, it would be fair to say that Bloch is phenomenally successful. Naive historical accounts, in any era, tend to paint a picture of society as though it remains the same over long periods of time, so that Roman customs and fashion appear to be constant from the late Republic to the end of the Empire, for instance, or (more relevantly) as though feudalism as an organising principle sprang into being in the tenth century and then was replaced during the fifteenth, and was the same in France, Germany, Italy and even England after the cataclysm of 1066. It is clear that these pictures are nonsensical, and Bloch of course gives a far more nuanced and subtle description of a culture which was never uniform, and which developed significantly over time. Bloch identifies the economic downturn of the late Carolingian era and the disruptions to social order and centralised power at the time of the Magyar and Viking raids as causes of the adoption of personal vassalage and serf labour in the manorial system, as a development of Germanic and Roman customs. The argument is convincing, but I would like to read a modern equivalent of this book to see how today's scholarship has modified this viewpoint. That is, of course, if there is a modern historian with such detailed and widespread knowledge and understanding.

At the end of Feudal Society, Bloch suggests that one area which could the focus of further study is how European feudalism is related to other historical cultures which have been described using the word. He discusses in particular the Japan of the samurai, and describes a number of significant differences from medieval western Europe. Although I don't think it's all that clear from the text, I'm sure that Bloch was perfectly well aware that the use of the "feudal" label for Japan is based on superficial likenesses: the real interest is to look at how and why the similarities and differences on opposite sides of the globe.

Overall, Feudal Society is an inspiring classic from "the father of scientific history", and, like Carlyle and Gibbon, deserves to be read and remembered. My rating: 10/10.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Michael Spivak: Calculus (1967)

Edition: Addison-Wesley (World Student Series)
Review number: 1506

Calculus was the very first textbook I read for my university degree. As well as being a fine description of the basics of analysis (mostly real, with a toe in the deep water of complex functions), it is an excelent book to ease the transition from mathematics as taught at school level to the rigours of university mathematics.

Unlike many writers of textbooks in mathematics, Spivak makes a big effort to give more than a dry exposition: theorem - proof - next theorem etc. Considerable attention is paid to motivating the discussion, showing why each result is important (though mainly in the pure mathematics context, applications of calculus being mainly found in the problems at the end of each chapter). Of especial use to the budding mathematician are the points where Spivak discusses potential proof strategies for the theorems, often explaining the pitfalls that student taking a naive approach could fall into. There are even occasional jokes, both in the text and the index.

For students with an interest in how analysis can be used in apparently unrelated parts of mateematics, a number of advanced sections give proofs of such topics as the transcendence of the number e, and a construction of the real numbers from set theoretic principles.

Calculus was not just the first university textbook I read, but one of the best.

My rating: 10/10.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Alexander Broadie: Introduction to Medieval Logic (1993)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1993
Review number: 1505

The title is perhaps somewhat misleading. I would expect that a book introducing medieval logic should be fairly easy to follow for someone like myself, with a doctorate in modern mathematical logic and an interest in medieval philosophy. But the first few chapters assume a fair amount of prior understanding of the form of logic used in the middle ages, i.e. one based on natural language rather than symbolic representation of carefully pre-defined and abstract ideas of such ideas as truth, implication, proof and so on (this, the basis of modern mathematical logic, being the legacy of Frege and others such as Russell, Tarsky, and Gödel).

In fact, what is eventually revealed is a way to relate the arguments of medieval logicians, which can seem weird and monumentally pedantic, to a process which moves from the potential ambiguities of natural language towards more abstract understanding of the processes of logic. No matter how interesting that might be to me, though, the path travelled through mainly fourteenth century logical arguments is one I found hard to follow. For me, the best part of the book is the concluding chapter, in which Broadie discusses the transition from scholastic logical thought to humanistic ideas of proof, more based on rhetoric and Ciceronian legal arguments, and the relation of scholasticism to the ideas of modern mathematics.

I would have welcomed a lot more historical context, and also some way to connect the thematically organised discussion to that context

My rating: 5/10.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Patrick Dennis: Auntie Mame (1955)

Edition: Pan, 1958
Review number: 1504

I'm a big fan of Patrick Dennis, although the difficulty of finding his books nowadays means I haven't read all that many of them - three out of sixteen (all published under various pseudonyms, his real name being Edward Everett Tanner III). Even the normally reliable Fantastic Fiction only lists the two Auntie Mame books.

This is the third of his books, the first under this name, and was hugely successful in the fifties, made into a play and then an Oscar nominated film with Rosalind Russell as the title character. The trailer for the film describes it as "the one you've been waiting for", and expects the watcher to guess the name of the title character. So this was a huge phenomenon at the time, and yet it seems to be almost forgotten today. (It later became a stage musical and another film.)

It is a parody of an autobiography, scenes from a bizarre Bohemian childhood. The narrator, named as Patrick Dennis, is sent as a nine year old to be brought up by his aunt after the death of his father. This catapults the boy into a completely different world - one which many today would still consider unsuitable for the raising of a child. In her company, he expands his vocabulary, meets a lot of strange people, and gets involved in many scrapes, as he becomes an integral part of his vivacious aunt's life. The last scene in the book depicts Patrick, now married and respectable, being persuaded by Mame to let his seven year old son join her on a trip to India: although the book's chronology would indicate that she was by this point in her seventies, she had not changed a bit. This also sets up Dennis' second novel, Around the World with Auntie Mame.

Auntie Mame and its sequel are lit up by the  larger than life character of Mame. I can easily imagine that she would be tiresome in the long term in real life. Indeed, the portrayal by Rosalind Russell in the film is wearingly strident to me, even in the short dose of the trailer. The literary version of the character has a lot more charm, and her dominance of the book makes liking Mame crucial to enjoyment of the humour.

It's easy to see why it was so popular. It's still immensely funny, and bears comparison with the best comic fiction ever written. Why, then, is it so much less well known today? Dennis himself stopped writing and became a butler before his death in 1976, but already by then his books were out of print. It is possible that revelations about the author's lifestyle (he was bisexual and was involved in the Greenwich Village gay community) made publishers less keen to promote his work. Indeed, a number of publishers rejected Auntie Mame, presumably because of its endorsement of an unconventional lifestyle, tame though much of it seems today. Maybe it was the opposite: in the liberated 1970s, did people no longer feel shocked enough by Dennis' writing to want to read it? I don't know what happened, but whatever it was, Patrick Dennis was too good a writer to deserve it.

My rating: 10/10.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

EXO Books: The Last Day of Captain Lincoln (2015)

Edition: Kindle, 2015
Review number: 1503

The title of this novel is a good summary of its content, if not its purpose. Captain Lincoln is a retired captain of a generation ship, on which a carefully designed and controlled society keeps the population exactly stable: each five years, a new generation is born, each older generation moves on to a new phase of their life, and those who are 80 die to make room for the new children. What the book is not about is the social and emotional ramifications of this idea, making me wonder how the society actually works -  there are no rebels, no dissidents, no calls for changes to allow a greater population. Very little is explained or used to power a plot (readers don't even get to know the precise reason for the space flight, though its aim is to colonise another world).

The sociological ramifications of the idea are not in any sense important to EXO Books (a pseudonym which I unfortunately find irritating, for no particular reason). The Last Day of Captain Lincoln is not really a novel at all; the scenario is a framing device for a series of short essays about society and death. These main part of this consists of transcripts of lectures given to younger inhabitants of the ship - a distinct oddity in a novel set in the future, to use a communication method which has been criticised as ineffective for years in universities.

Because of this structure, the reader's response to The Last Day of Captain Lincoln will be determined by what they think of the ideas presented in the essay-like sections.I was actually surprised by the lack of profundity - the general message is that life is good, the afterlife is unknown, and the transition is difficult for the people facing it and those who care about them. Other than that, it seems to me that giving lectures (while convenient for the book) is an odd thing to do when you know it's your last day of life. Is this the best idea for helping with the transition that this carefully designed future society could come up with?

It is possible that I'm not doing the book justice. If science fiction novels have a serious intent, their message is not usually about the future but about the present. The Last Day of Captain Lincoln may be intended as a commentary on the attitude to death in today's Western culture, and this possibility is made more likely by the use of the names of assassinated US presidents Kennedy and Lincoln for current and former captains of the ship.

The most interesting parts of The Last Day of Captain Lincoln, for me, were the quotations heading each section; EXO Books has collected some profound thoughts about death from a wide range of authors. One of these in particular, the somewhat unexpected Isaac Asimov, provides a summary of the book in his aphorism about life and death, and I found myself looking forward to these thoughts far more than the content they frame.

It is perhaps superfluous to add that I didn't like the illustrations - this is mainly a question of the style not appealing to me than anything else.

This is a missed opportunity - the basic idea could have been used to say something more profound, more involving and more affecting. As one of the major aspects of death in any human culture is its effect on those continuing to live, not making the reader care about the characters is a major flaw. (Writing this at the end of 2016, with its litany of celebrity deaths and the reactions of fans constantly seen on social media, this side of death has been rammed home to me more forcefully than it might have been to EXO Books writing The Last Day of Captain Lincoln last year.) My rating: 4/10.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Jo Walton: Among Others (2011)

Edition: Tor (2011)
Review number: 1502

Diary of a lonely teenager? Misfit at boarding school? Both form and setting of Among Others may seem to have been done until there is nothing new which could be extracted from the limp and tired ideas. Has Jo Walton managed it?

Morwenna (Mor) has run away from her mother's home in Wales, and sought her estranged father, who she has not seen since she was a baby. Her father's sisters promptly see her sent to Arlinghurst, a boarding school, one specialising in sports - not the most sympathetic environment for a teenage bookworm with a damaged foot. Mor has another thing which makes her different: all her life she has been able to see fairy spirits invisible to most, and believes her mother is a witch whose powers Mor has inherited (though she does not want to use these selfishly, as she feels that her mother does). It is interesting that the school is almost completely devoid of magic - she has to work at it through acts like burning letters from her mother - unlike the spirit filled world of the Welsh valleys she knew before.

Much of the novel is about the science fiction she reads, exhaustively, perceptively, precociously, and perhaps unbelievably. Most of what she says will perhaps mean little to those who haven't read everything from Poul Anderson to Roger Zelazny, or those who, like myself, don't share her likes and dislikes. I can really see this book being virtually unreadable if you don't at least know something about Samuel Delany and gender politics, John Brunner and dystopias, characterisation in Ursula Le Guin, world-building in J.R.R. Tolkien (just to mention a few of the recurring topics and authors). But at the same time this extended love letter to science fiction is surely one aspect of this novel which made it successful in both the Hugo and Nebula awards, joining the handful of genre classics which have won both.

At the same time, it is possible to read the novel as a magic realist work, where the magic seen by Mor is her own way of dealing with her life - an imaginative piece of private world-building. It is perhaps important if this is Walton's intention (whether it is or not only really becomes clear at the end). In some ways, the imaginary world view of the novel is more interesting, and gives a completely different significance to the diary, as an act of therapy.

How much you like Among Others will depend very much on how irritating you find Mor as central character, how much you understand and sympathise with her likes and dislikes in science fiction. I found her more annoying as I progressed through the book, and the dogmatic science fiction pronouncements seemed less interesting and more self indulgent on Walton's part. This is perhaps because Mor does not seem to change a great deal, which is surely a realistic portrayal of a teenager starting a new school, especially not one with a traumatic past. The dramatic events which led to her arrival at Arlinghurst are followed by...nothing much really. Making friends and enemies. Lots of reading science fiction. A bit of learning - her introduction to the works of T.S. Eliot is one of the more memorable moments of the novel.

While I can see why Among Others won awards, it feels to me that it did not really deserve to do so. The subject matter resonated with science fiction fandom, which explains why it won. But I would rate it lower because Mor was so annoying, and also because to me the ending was trite and unconvincing. My rating: 5/10.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Patricia A. McKillip: The Throme of the Erril of Sherill (1973)

Edition: Tempo, 1984
Review number:1501

Unusual, poetic fantasy - the first Patricia A. McKillip which I have read, after many recommendations of her as a fantasy author.

This edition also includes The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath, and is still extremely short as books go: it could fairly easily be read in a single sitting. Of that short length, the title story makes up about two thirds. It is the story of a quest undertaken to win the hand of a King's daughter - the very hackneyed theme of fairy stories. The story is intended for a young adult audience, and could quite easily be read to or by children, though I think it is likely that they would miss a lot of what is really going on. To an adult well read in fantasy, it reads like a cross between Jack Vance and William Morris, with a playfulness with language which may be influenced by  Jabberwocky or possibly comes more from Vance.

The language is perhaps the most obvious of The Throme of the Erril of Sherill's unusual qualities. Apart from the title of the story itself, there are made up words (a monstrous "borobel" could be straight from Lewis Carroll), and words which look almost right - perhaps versions from an alternate world where modern English developed slightly differently ("cnite" for knight, "Damsen" for the name of the princess - a damsel, and so on). This could be irritating, but I found it atmospheric.

But strange things also happen in the story itself. The cnite starts with the standard equipment of a knight - horse, sword, shield, armour - and as the quest goes on, he is forced to exchange these for magical items, the horse for a fire-breathing dog, and so on. The people he meets are rarely what you would expect on a quest - he does not slay monsters, rescue innocent maidens. At one point, there is an adventure which made me wonder if the whole story was not meant to be an allegory of aging and death.

The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath is apparently much more straightforward. A strange young man visits a strange island, where winter lasts twice as long as on the mainland, twenty miles away. He claims that this is due to a dragon, which he wishes to remove. This is an action with unforeseen consequences. Though told in a normal narrative form, it still seems that there is more to the story than is visible on the surface; the reader wants to invest it with a hidden meaning. For instance, is it about the unwisdom of making unwanted "improvements" to communities - doing away with tradition in the name of progress?

Altogether, two fascinating pieces of fantasy, well worth reading at any age. My rating: 9/10.