Archive for May, 2011

Single Noun Book Reviews

I’ve been rather slack lately at writing about the books I’ve been reading; I don’t expect anyone else to care, but I’ve found that I quite like having a record of what I’ve read. So, to catch up for May’s reading, I’m writing one word book reviews; to increase the cryptic and obtuse nature of the endeavour for no apparent reason, I’m limiting myself to nouns. A rating out of five provides a bit of context in which to interpret the review.

The World of Null-A, A. E. Van Vogt
Review: Wiring.
Rating: 3.49 out of 5:

Modern Baptists, James Wilcox
Review: Beer.
Rating: 4.25 out of 5:

Survivors, Terry Nation
Review: Snow.
Rating: 4.12 out of 5:

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka
Review: Apples.
Rating: 4.01 out of 5:

The War-and-Peace-O-Meter

Some years ago I asked for War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy for Christmas; a new translation had just been published, and that seemed as good a reason as any to tackle this metaphorically and literally immense book. I do a lot of my reading on the bus, which has tended to put me off starting it, but I decided that I should stop procrastinating and get on with it. I’ve read the first few chapters, and I’m enjoying it – I was a bit worried that my historical ignorance might make the setting a bit confusing, but Tolstoy does a fine job of filling in the background, and there are a few judicious notes by the translator, Anthony Briggs (it’s the 2005 Penguin edition, by the way).

I thought it might be nice to visually track my progress, so, naturally, I built a War-and-Peace-O-Meter. I swiped the image from elsewhere, modified it a bit, then wrote some very simple CSS rules to do the “filling up”. For the War-and-Peace-O-Meter I only need a static level (and will be posting weekly updates), but to demonstrate how you can fill up the meter dynamically, you can change the percentage:


Geek Details

The image of the -o-meter is a gif with transparency in the middle. Behind that is a div with a white background, and behind that is a div with a red background. The height of the middle div is dynamically adjusted, revealing more or less of the red behind. This is a bit more complicated than absolutely necessary, but it’s easy to implement, and it’s flexible in that you don’t have to use a solid block of colour as the bottom layer, it could be an image that is gradually revealed. Like in pubs which have packets of nuts mounted on a bit of card, and which reveal a saucy lady as the packets are removed. No saucy ladies here though, this is a family-friendly website.


.ometer_coloured { background:crimson; width:90px; height:370px; } .ometer_mask { background:white; position:absolute; z-index:1; height:361px; width:90px; } #ometer { background:url(‘/img/ometer.gif’) no-repeat; position:absolute; z-index:10; width:90px; height:370px; }

<div class=’ometer_coloured’> <div id=’mask’ class=’ometer_mask’> <div id=’ometer’></div> </div> </div>

function updateMeter(ometer_mask_id, ometer_pc_id) { var pc = document.getElementById(ometer_pc_id).value; var numericExpression = /^[0-9\.]+$/; if (pc.match(numericExpression)){ var total_rows = 353; rows = Math.round(total_rows * (pc/100)); if (rows > total_rows) { rows = total_rows; } rows = 361 – rows; var mask = document.getElementById(ometer_mask_id) = rows+’px’; } else { alert(‘Numbers only, please.’); } }

Feline Book Review: Binky to the Resuce

Having recently reviewed the first instalment of Binky the Space Cat’s adventures, I instructed my hoomins to furnish me with the sequel, Binky to the Rescue, by Ashley Spires.

Cat schools aren’t big on teaching hoomin language (frankly, the cat community is staggered that learning Cat language isn’t compulsory in hoomin schools), but I’ve picked up enough to follow the dramatic story here, as the fictionalised Binky has exciting adventures in outer space (what hoomins call a ‘garden’). The drawings are lovely and expressive, and sufficiently detailed to bear repeated scrutiny. Altogether, thoroughly entertaining.

Cats I Have Known – Ghengis

Ghengis was the son of our neighbour’s cat, Nursie, one of a litter of four. He had one sister, Kylie, a pretty tabby who proved to be a ruthless predator, and two ginger brothers, who moved together to a new home. Ghengis was the boldest of the kittens, the first to climb out of the cardboard box and relentlessly curious. It had already been decided that one of the kittens would come and live with us, and, as is probably clear by now, that kitten turned out to be Ghengis. Or, to give him his full name, Ghengis Deuteronomy Khat; I was inspired by a too-literal reading of T.S. Eliot’s The Naming Of Cats, and a children’s book whose name I can’t recall, in which all of the many cats in the story have biblical names.

Ghengis brought out Fluff‘s maternal side – confronted with a boisterous kitten she quickly administered a few paw-swipes to establish who was in charge, and she would sometimes lick him in the manner of a matronly nanny with a bit of spit on a hanky. For his part, Ghengis bore this attention with submissive grace, even when Fluff would more-or-less sit on him while squeezing into a cat bed designed for one kitty.

Ghengis was a talkative cat, and when he was little he did a lot of “chirruping”, either as a greeting or when he was playing happily, or was surprised. He grew out of it somewhat, but sometimes you could still hear an undercurrent of chirrup in his meows, particularly if he was in a demonstrative mood (which was actually quite a lot of the time). You could have “conversations” with Ghengis – if I said something in response to a meow, while looking directly at him, he would often meow back, and we could keep going till one of us got bored. I’m always curious about how we are perceived by other animals, especially the ones that share our homes; do they think we’re just big funny-looking members of their own species, who have difficulty talking? Or are we recognisably “other”? In this case I suspect I ascribe much more meaning to the conversations than did Ghengis – but it was certainly a form of communication, albeit a not very productive form. I do wonder what he thought was going on, though.

Present Tense Book Review – Akira: Part 3

(Part Two of this Present Tense Book Review.)

Volumes 5 of Akira has already been thrown into the arena of one of my book battles, where I rather obliquely discussed its merits with rather tortuous metaphors. I finished Volume 6 some time ago, and then completely forgot that I needed to write up my thoughts. So: it’s excellent. And that’ll probably do – I think it’s a shame that wonderful books like this don’t get a wider audience, but I doubt if I could write anything to persuade you to read it, if you’re not already inclined to…

A Cat’s Tale – Part Six

The story so far: Binky is living happily with two big hoomins and two sticky-fingered little hoomins. But there are two more additions to the household on the way…

So, there I was one day, dozing on the back of my armchair, keeping an eye on the world through the window, when I see my big hoomins coming home to feed and stroke me – but with a big rotten dog in tow. I know, to my benefit, that hoomins are suckers for a pair of wide eyes and a nuzzling nose, but really… The dog and I did not get on at all; she seemed to believe that she was in charge of the hoomins, and I was rather too little to convince her of the errors of her ways.

I carved out my own territory within the house, and still got some welcome attention from my hoomins; but I also got some unwelcome attention from the dog. And then one of the big hoomins started swelling like she did just before the little hoomins appeared… Really, this was a little too much for my delicate soul, and ultimately led to another change of house. I had to endure some time in that unpleasant box (described elsewhere), but at least the dog had disappeared. I had two new hoomins to look after, and I’ve now trained them to look after me with tasty food, milk, and regular combings. Lovely.

I like my new hoomins, but a sensitive cat such as myself naturally misses the attentions of my former hoomins, even the ones with jam all over their paws. Still at least there are no squawking little hoomins in my current home.

Feline Book Review: Binky the Space Cat

My hoomins often seem to be almost as interested in ‘books’ as me, which I have never really understood until now. In fact, I have only just worked out what a book is, now that one of my hoomins has bought Binky the Space Cat for me. A lady hoomin called Ashley Spires has evidently used me as inspiration for a lovely story about a black-and-white cat and his hoomins, although I appear a bit tubbier (and, it must be said, less handsome) in print than in real life.

Binky the Space Cat

The Real Binky

The fictionalised Binky is clearly drawn by a talented hoomin, with a fine appreciation of feline foibles, and a clear understanding of how much hoomins rely on us cats. I don’t know what my hoomins would do with all the cat food and milk that they have, without me around to eat it for them. If all books are as amusing as this, then I can almost forgive my hoomins for reading them instead of stroking me. Almost.

Book Battle 4: The Hare with Amber Eyes vs The World of Yesterday

When I’m off on my travels, I like to read books that are set in my destination. And ordinarily I read fiction, as real pastos (pron: past-ohs) aren’t really my cup of tea. However, in an effort to combat my long-standing antipathy towards History (in the sense of the school subject, rather than the past itself), I recently read two exceptional memoirs that were partially set in Vienna. The Hare with Amber Eyes and The World of Yesterday, by Edmund de Waal and Stefan Zweig, respectively, have been extensively lauded elsewhere (de Waal: The Spectator, The Guardian; Zweig: The Guardian, Quarterly Conversation, but also see London Review of Books), and with good reason. My understanding of Europe in the first half of the 20th century has improved immeasurably, and the narratives of the people in the book were genuinely gripping. (I did sneak in a bit of fiction too, again partially set in war-torn Austria, in the shape of Shadow Without A Name, by Ignacio Padilla. It’s somewhat challenging, due to the multiple narrators and lots of identity-swapping, but it’s superbly written and plotted, which made it a rewarding and enjoyable read.)

So, given two excellent memoirs, how does a historically-ill-informed monkey assess which is best? Why, a book battle of course! The books themselves, rather than the books’ characters, duke it out, and the rounds are decided using the ‘Condition’ list of adjectives from my random word generator.

Round 1: Modern
The Hare with Amber Eyes saunters up to the table, and smooths its cornflower-blue jacket before sitting down. The World of Yesterday, heavy-set yet elegant, strides purposefully to meet its opponent, and sits on the opposite side of table. Beautifully sculpted chess pieces have been set out on a walnut board with inlaid nacre squares. Both books start their game confidently, but a reckless move by The World of Yesterday leads to the loss of a knight, as the innovative approach of The Hare with Amber Eyes comes into play. Verdict: The Hare with Amber Eyes.

Round 2: Tender
The World of Yesterday is clearly rattled, and its lack of personal details about Zweig enables The Hare with Amber Eyes, with its lovingly rendered family portraits, to threaten its opponent’s king. The danger is averted, but the damage has been done. Verdict: The Hare with Amber Eyes.

Round 3: Concerned
Furrowing its metaphorical brow, The World of Yesterday moves on the offensive, cutting through a swathe of its adversary’s pawns with a concern for humanity and pan-European culture. The Hare with Amber Eyes counters with evocative descriptions of 20th century turmoil, but the round has already been won. Verdict: The World of Yesterday.

Round 4: Powerful
The autobiographical nature of The World of Yesterday gives it a striking immediacy, and the stoicism and, ultimately, optimism of Zweig lends it a power that sends rooks and bishops into imposing positions. But the historical perspective that is necessarily lacking in the The World of Yesterday is the strength of The Hare with Amber Eyes, and it responds with aggressive sacrifices that set up a finely balanced endgame. Verdict: Draw.

Round 5: Wandering
Both books are fundamentally peripatetic, dealing as they do with Jews in the twentieth century, but while the author of The Hare with Amber Eyes travels as widely as Zweig, the latter’s first-person sketches of the Europe of last century carry this round. The World of Yesterday advances its pieces with nimble fingers, and The Hare with Amber Eyes is backed into a corner, but isn’t quite beaten yet… Verdict: The World of Yesterday.

The winner: Draw. An entertaining stalemate; neither book has enough pieces left to force a checkmate, so they nobly acknowledge the draw, don smoking jackets, and retire for port and cigars in the drawing room.