2013 Book Report 7: Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen.

I was spurred on to re-read this book again because this year is the 200th anniversary of it being published.  Not too long ago it wouldn’t have required prompting as I have probably read this book once a year since I was sixteen. But a handful of years ago I stopped my annual read. I think I might have stopped for a time because of reading ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’. In hindsight, the two sort of complement each other, probably more than the author of P&P&Z intended.

I was also prompted to some extent because the book that I read before Pride and Prejudice (First Amongst Sequels – Jasper Fforde) featured P&P as the classic text that Thursday Next had to save.

And of course, if there was no other reason to revisit P&P, there is always the fact that it is a wonderful read.

The short review: I Love This Book!

This book feels to me to be verging on the perfect. The threads of the story each unfold with an almost perfect pace. Nothing ever feels either spun out or rushed. And many of the lines feel crafted to perfection as they say everything that needs to be said without wasting a word.

The central story is familiar. Elizabeth and Darcy falling in love despite the many challenges that they face. But the story never feels clichéd or old.

The BBC adaptation from the beginning of the 90s is the best adaptation, but no version comes close to the book.

2013 Book Report 6 – First Among Sequels – Jasper Fforde.

I read the hardback edition of this book which I bought at a book signing it Cambridge. It is available through Amazon here, and it is now available on Kindle, and presumably on other ebook readers.

This is the fifth book in the ‘Thursday Next’ series. The story revolves around Thursday Next and her ability to jump into the narrative of books. Using other books as the backdrop to the adventures taking place is a great trick. It allows people to weave their own literary knowledge with the story at hand.

As another dimension in this story TN is teamed up in her literary detective work with the written versions of herself. Unfortunately the written versions include one pseudo Lara Croft alike and one hippy dippy type, both of which are similar to the real TN, but also dissimilar enough to make the three versions all dislike each other intensely.

I love the Thursday Next series, for their surreal writing, soaring imagination and literary insider jokes. I know at least one person who finds them irritating in their whimsy, and I can see what they mean, but each to their own. If you liked the previous Thursday Next books then this is going to be an enjoyable romp. I think it holds its own amongst its compatriots. It won’t win over anyone who didn’t like the others either, but then I don’t think you would expect it to.

I still plan to read the rest of the series (there are another two), but I think this level of surreal fun is best sampled in small aliquots.

Of Books and Bibliographies.

As I work in a University, a lot of the documents that people write have to have bibliographies listing citations and the like.

As most users also write their documents using Microsoft Office they need a solution that works with it. The most common solution is to purchase and use Endnote.

And this is why I get disgruntled with Windows and Macs. If you go out and buy a computer, whether it is a Windows PC or an Apple Mac, you would hope that your expenditure would get you a working system, that all you would have to do would be to take it home and plug it in, and you could start doing useful things with it. But the reality is that that often isn’t the case.

So you want to write a letter thanking Auntie Maude for the Christmas money that means that there was enough in your bank account to buy your computer. On Windows you could use WordPad and on a Mac you could use TextEdit. But both are very limited, in their scope in order to encourage you to shell out more money for a decent word processor.

And in the majority of cases this ends up being Microsoft Word.

The situation is even worse when it comes to spreadsheets and presentation tools. Neither Windows or Mac ships with even a cut down tool for these core computer uses.

In effect, you are put in a position where you are essentially expected to buy a computer which will cost at least £400, and then you will be cajoled or bounced into purchasing software to make use of hardware, using the thing that most users will consider to be a central part of a computers use.

This is another of those reasons that I love Linux. I do an install of a modern Linux distribution, and I can expect it to include a word processor , spreadsheet and presentation tool. In many cases there will be more than one (LibreOffice and AbiWord are both capable word processors which will often be found on a fresh install). In the case of graphics editing programs the case is even more stark.

And if you don’t get the program that you need you can usually install it in moments with a simple command, for free.

So, while I appreciate that the learning curve is steeper, I have to ask why would anyone use Windows?

2013 Book Report 5 – Church of Fear – John Sweeney.

This is a review of the Kindle edition of this book, available for purchase here.

John Sweeney is a British journalist who became globally famous because of one incident about which he is clearly embarrassed.  As a journalist working at the time on a Panorama documentary, JS was offered access to the ‘church’ of Scientology if he would accept their terms. These were, it was felt, too onerous to be accepted, and JS set about making his documentary anyway.

For the record the terms were that he would not use any unnamed sources for quotes or interviews and that the documentary would not use the term cult about the ‘church’.

The following quickly becomes evident:

  • The production team were followed by private detectives who fed the teams whereabouts back to Scientology operatives in real time.
  • Whenever the team chose to interview anyone the ‘church’ would arrive with a dossier of dirt on the people being interviewed intent on besmirching the character of the interviewee (and noticeably not making any attempt to counter any of  the accusations being made against the church).

A number of accusations are central to the original Panorama story, its follow-up and the ‘wrapping up’ that JS does at the end of the book. They hang upon what the definition of a cult is and whether the ‘church’ meets those definitions, and whether the ‘church’ practices brainwashing as part of its cult-like behaviour.

The story of John Sweeney’s interaction with the ‘church’ is largely the story of his interaction with Tommy Davis. Tommy is a high level Scientologist who was acting as the mouthpiece of the organisation. It was he who turned up to interviews that the ‘church’ could only have  known about because they have been trailing the Panorama team to smear each opponent of the church, accusing each of being variously extortionists, liars, sexual deviants or paedophiles. The way that the same terms are echoed again and again about the various critics of the ‘church’ would be laughable if it were not so obvious that the accusations are clearly meant to be the most odious insults, goading the accused in the hope of getting a negative reaction.

It is this approach of shouting down critical voices that leads to the event that made JS famous on YouTube. And, to his credit JS doesn’t avoid the subject of his meltdown. He does take the time to frame the event in context, and reading the context I have to say I not only don’t blame him for going ‘off on one’, but I have a feeling that in the same situation I am not sure I wouldn’t have resorted to physical measures! And, I suspect that I would have done so an awful lot earlier than JS did.

The actual events revolve around a visit to a ‘museum’ which scientologists use to push their view of psychiatry. In the opinion of scientology psychiatry is the equivalent of evolution within the sphere of evangelical christianity. That is, it is comparable with, associated with and both derived from and the root of every negative in society. In a manner that shows a complete ignorance of Godwin’s Law  the scientology museum repeatedly bombards the visitor (in this case JS) with accusations that psychiatry and the Nazis are intimately connected. JS is then challenged about the contents of an earlier interview, and the fact that he keeps on using the term cult about the church.

The YouTube video is, justifiably famous. In the eyes of the scientologists JS’s meltdown (which they had two film crews of their own to film) was a victory. They clearly hoped for a propaganda hit, presumably trumpeting the meltdown while the BBC tried to bury it. But the BBC isn’t that kind of organisation, and its viewers are able to see both the meltdown and its context and I hope that for the majority of people it was an expose of the church and their methods.

You can view the video (its mirrored lots of times) by searching for ‘John Sweeney meltdown’ on YouTube. But it is worth investing the time and watching the whole programme also available on YouTube with a little more digging.

At the end of the book there is an interesting twist. Most of the damning testament against the church has come from ex-members. And there is a hint at the end of the book that Tommy Davis himself had dropped out of the church. This was tantalising, and I hope that more information will come to light in the future. Obviously the tales that Mr. Davis would have to tell would be among the most damaging of all. Whether he will ever manage to tell them is an interesting question. One of the most worrying accusations against the church is that it was happy to take the content of their own equivalent of the confessional and use it against ex-members if they left. These often contained the deepest, darkest secrets of the members, and in a trustworthy organisation would be sacrosanct. The church is self-evidently not trustworthy.

Overall, this was an excellent book. The tension of reporting, being tailed and facing up to this organisation that is clearly happy to dig up any dirt on its critics is expressed brilliantly, and the writing is always tight and to the point.