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A little light reading

Science

As a result of listening to Professor Jim Al-Khaliliís Desert Island Discs recently, Iíve now got some new books on my library reservations list:

  • Quantum: a guide for the perplexed
    The only one of Al-Khaliliís books on the Nottinghamshire libraries catalogue - an attempt to make quantum physics mean something to the layman. Now read and enjoyed - though Iím still very perplexed!
  • The road to reality - a complete guide to the laws of the universe
    This was Professor Jimís choice of a book to take to his desert island. Itís by Roger Penrose, a colleague of Stephen Hawking, and Prof Jim described it as a thousand-page attempt to make its material accessible to the layman which gets progressively more difficult as Penrose delves more deeply. That implies a gentle gradient from clarity to confusion, but I fell off a cliff after the first main chapter.
  • The large, the small and the human mind
    This is also by Roger Penrose, but with Abner Shimony, Nancy Cartwright & Stephen Hawking, edited by M. Longair. No idea what itís like, but it popped up in my library search for books by Penrose. Worth a 25p online booking fee, I decided. Compared with the 1100-page The road to reality, itís quite modest at 200 pages. Interesting, because Penrose presents edited transcripts of three controversial lectures and then Shimony, Cartwright and Hawking get a chapter each to dispute various points. Finally (apart from some appendices), Penrose has a chapter to defend his positions. Longair, also a physics professor, edits the result into a coherent whole. I got further, at least in percentage terms, than I did with the bigger book - and I still didnít feel I was wasting my time. By the end of the first lecture, though, I was struggling. The second, on the quantum world, reduced me to skimming, and in the end I had a quick look at the third, supposedly a quest for a physical (as in íphysicsí) explanation of the human mind, and then at the three other contributions, and gave up. Sorry, Roger!

Other scientific stuff...

  • A while ago I read The Making of the Fittest and Endless Forms Most Beautiful, both by Sean B Carroll. The first gave me a fuller understanding of how DNA controls the production of proteins in organisms, and the second of how those proteins are organised to build whole organisms. It seems that the mystery of how evolution actually works has finally been unravelled. If the creator wasnít redundant before, he certainly is now!
  • More recently I watched a superb BBC4 documentary by Armand Marie Leroi called What Darwin didnít know, which puts the new science of evolutionary developmental biology (Evo-Devo), about which I had read in the two books by Carroll, in its historical context. Iíve now (26 April 2010) got his book MUTANTS On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body, from the library. More on this soon.

Politics

  • The end of the party
    I positively devoured the lengthy extracts of Andrew Rawnsleyís second book about New Labour in The Observer. Oddly, the furore the first extract kicked up about Gordon Brownís íbullyingí didnít seem to do any damage - in fact, Labourís rating in a Sunday Times poll on the 28 February 2010 was the best for a very long time: just 2% behind the Tories and - thanks to our appallingly disproportionate representation system - good enough to put Gordon back in Downing Street. I havenít written about politics on this site for a long time - itís all been too depressing. Maybe this will trigger something. But I will just say that, disappointing as GBís performance as PM has been, I really hope he does get back - maybe with a slim enough majority to trigger a leadership election. I find the prospect of a Cameron/Osborne-led government seriously worrying. 16 April 2010 I also collected this book yesterday, on the very day of the first debate between Brown, Clegg and Camercon (sorry, that was a genuine typing error, but I like it enough to leave it there!). 30 April 2010 I havenít got round to starting this yet, and - with the election just a week away and someone waiting for the book - Iím not sure Iím going to bother. The third leadersí debate was pretty depressing, with Gordonís horrible mistimed smiles and both snap polls suggesting people thought Camercon (deliberate this time!) was a clear winner, the whole thing is just getting depressing. Iíll vote Labour because our MP is the excellent John Mann, but Iím hoping for a result with no overall majority (unless thereís a Lib-Dem miracle) which will force short-term co-operation and another election, hopefully under a reformed system, soon. Can it be that the two-party lock-out is really coming to an end?

Obviously a book with a wider appeal, but by getting my request in before publication day I went to Number Six - and theyíve ordered eight copies.

Fiction

Iím an unashamed crime fiction addict, though I do occasionally read more serious stuff - Iím a particular fan of Sebastian Faulks and Iain McEwan.

Iíve just (19 March 2010) finished a systematic read through Ian Rankinís excellent Inspector Rebus series, managing to pick the books up in order of publication from my local library. Exit Music (2007) was a real tease, because the author had discussed how to unburden himself of the Inspector in the introduction to one of the paperback reissues, including the possibility of killing him off. Heaven knows, the manís lifestyle offered plenty of options, as did the many people with good reason to bear him grudges. Given that the book has been out for three years, I donít think I need to keep a secret, and Iím a bit doubtful about Rankin leaving both Rebus and his long-term adversary íBig Gerí Cafferty alive: just maybe heís left himself the option of bringing this complex relationship to a conclusion... (I enjoyed the first TV Rebus series with John Hannah, but in the later one the excellent Ken Stott really has made the character his own, and it is his face and mannerisms I see when reading the stories.)

16 April 2010 While shopping for garden stuff, I found Rankinís short-story collection A good hanging on a three-for-a-fiver offer in the remaindered-books shop that lurks in our local garden centre. It turned out to be all Rebus, so I bought it.

James Lee Burke and Patricia Cornwell (before she dabbled unfunnily with comedy and then started writing the later Scarpetta books in the third person and the present tense) have been long-term favourites whose books I have kept to re-read in my so-far very busy retirement. Dennis Lehane is good, and Richard North Pattersonís political/legal thrillers are quite brilliant. Michael Connellyís Harry Bosch series is great.

12 August 2010 Iím currently reading Christopher Brookmyre and Colin Bateman (or just íBatemaní as his more recent stuff is pretentiously by-lined). The latter writes good, amusing, Belfast-based or -linked thrillers, including Murphyís Law, which spawned the excellent TV series with James Nesbitt. The former is on a different level, though; a Glasgow man whose books are funny, political and very very clever. Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks was an excellent read, the rubber ducks in question being people who go on believing ridiculous things no matter how compelling the evidence against them - the book in question is about fraudulent spiritualist mediums and the poor gullible souls who take them seriously. I have been ordering a steady stream of his books from the library, and wonít be satisfied until Iíve read his entire output. Please Google him - or go to http://www.brookmyre.co.uk/.

16 November 2010 I finished Brookmyreís latest novel, Pandaemonium, this week, having managed to get all but one through the Notts library service - though not, sadly, in order of publication. Theyíve been a mixed bag - all highly entertaining and most pretty gripping. For some reason, in some of the later books, Brookmyre has adopted the present tense. Iíve never seen the point of this, the past tense having served novelists perfectly well for a few hundred years. The tense-change marked the decline of Patricia Cornwell. I think the idea is to make the story more cinematic, but it doesnít seem to add anything in any of the books written in this mode that Iíve read. More seriously, it creates difficulties with events in the past - the ones usually dealt with by íX had done so-and-soí. Brookmyre, I felt, came unstuck rather badly in this respect, still using íhadí for events previous to the narrativeís present. There are other instances of sloppiness in his writing, which suggest that he rushes his novels to their conclusions. In the case of Pandaemonium, I think he suffered from what has marred a number of recent TV dramas - the problem of painting himself into a corner: the end seemed rushed, leaving many questions unanswered. However, I will await his future books eagerly. To complete the set, Iíve just ordered the missing one, Not the End of the World, from an Ebay trader for £2.72 including postage...

E-books

For a number of reasons, I have asked Father Christmas for an Amazon Kindle E-book reader this year. Iíve been playing with the freebie, Kindle for PC, and the idea of having a small, light, dedicated computer to carry around, onto which I can download up to 3,500 books - of out-of-copyright classics for free and a fast-growing supply of in-copyright books at far lower prices than their paper counterparts - is highly attractive (goodbye to the dozen or so books I usually cram into the car-boot when going on holiday). The Kindle is pretty cheap - about £100 for the basic version that uses only Wi-Fi to download books and 50% more for the one that can also connect over mobile-phone networks. The screen is said to offer a close-to-paper experience - a non-illuminated white background on which sharp black text appears - which puts it way ahead of the iPad as far as Iím concerned. As my vision is becoming more and more problematic, the ability to increase the font size is very attractive. The PC version also has the options of a sepia colour-scheme and reversal to white text on a black background, but there?s no mention of these features in the specification of the real Kindle. If Santa comes across, Iíll have more to say about this in January...

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.