Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Busy Bee

Here is Buzzy Bee, possibly the best toy in the world. I like it so much because I am doing my best to impersonate it at the moment. The upside of having no internet at home (Belgacom and I have had words again, but it isn't doing me much good) and finally having sofas and chairs in the living room is that I have started reading again, and have polished off three interesting books over the past few days.

1 In Defence of Atheism, by Michel Onfray.

I'd never previously heard of Onfray until his book was reviewed in the English papers - it's the first of his many books to be translated into English, I now discover, and I think I might try the French version. The translation made the book come over as very French (umm, Spymaster's Lady Joanna Bourne might want to take a look) but was of course in impeccable English. Onfray and his translator made some wonderful coinages - my favourite was 'seraphic poultry' for angels - and overall this was engaging but not fully persuasive. It's an attack on the three big monotheisms and sometime glorious rhetoric gets in the way of a genuine engagement with the issue. But it is sending me off to all sorts of other writers like Lucretius. If a book makes me read another book, it gets good reviews from me.

2 Shopping in the Renaissance, by Evelyn Welch.

Criminal to have a book as interesting and well-illustrated as this with some holy cow type copy fouls. I don't know what the Yale editors were thinking - but ultimately, it doesn't really harm Welch's fascinating study of shopping between 1300 and 1650, complete with some lovely paintings and objects. Incredibly useful and absorbing... if you like that kind of thing. Which I do, it was the kind of book that makes research a pleasure and once again, sent me off to consult other works, which is always a good thing (see above).

3 Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon

Of course I don't spend all my days reading seriously knotty explorations of the Judaeo-Christian ethic and thorough, detailed accounts of how to visit a Venetian apothecary. It was with delight that I picked up Gentlemen of the Road, Chabon's 10th century adventure novel set in the Caucasus. Now this is how to write history and adventure! The language is ornate in a deliberate homage to Dumas and Anthony Hope and Scott type swashbucklers, the characters are quirky and interesting, and the backdrop feels real, even though I am sure that Chabon must have some anachronisms in there. One of his characters, Zelikman, is from a family of Regensburg physicians and has some very sophisticated medical ways about him, and I do wonder about some of his remedies and potions... But my WSD is unchallenged. What do I know about Khazars and 10th century medics? I'm prepared to buy anything that Chabon offers because his world is solid and sure, not a scrap of wallpaper, not even behind a radiator. Anyway, without giving away the plot, it's a terrific read, very easy and fun and witty.

But as I was cruising the net this morning, I came across an interesting take on writing - someone who judges writers for their skies, and he had found 14 references to skies in Chabon's oeuvre that he loved and bunged them up there.

He had a point, this reviewer. As he says, ever since Homer's wine-dark seas and skies, the far horizons are an apt enough way of testing the mettle of a writer. It makes me a little nervous, so I'm going to go back and check. To be honest, though, how important is the sky? Metaphorically of course it has resonance, but in day to day life, how much do we actually notice it? Not so much, I'm willing to bet. There are mornings when every sense is heightened and you do notice, and this morning, I walked from the staffroom up the stairs to my room with a lightening of heart because for the first time in some days of this drab Belgian winter, the sun was shining and the sky was streaked with an optimistic squished soft fruit colour and the great lumpen grayness was dispelled, all before 8:30am. I felt like a mole emerging when I opened the door to my room. Normally it's a question of sighing and opening all the blinds as much as possible so that any faint ray of light penetrates the stygian gloom, but this morning, the children came wincing and squinting into class and there are shadows in the playground.

Now it is back to the grim and earnest. There's a joyous essay on equity and efficiency in schools to finish off for next week (1400 words and counting, if you know the musical You're A good Man Charlie Brown, I feel like all the childen doing their book report on Peter Rabbit), some serious thinking to be done about the Dakar Education for All policy commitments (free, compulsory universal primary education by 2015, now, where did I put that medicine to cure snorts of cynical derision), another few hundred words of The Apprentice and parent's night tonight. Whoopee.

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