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Books I finished reading in February

Stained Glass Colour
It’s not Chartres cathedral, which inspired Victoria Finlay, but the glass work in Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia is pretty impressive.

Colour: Travels Through The Paint Box by Victoria Finlay

This is a history book, a science book, an artist’s aid and a travel log. It’s a magical book.

It was a gift from Tall Aunty, who was the first person I remember being jealous of for being able to draw better than me, and whom I made it my goal to draw like. Tall Aunty drew me little cartoon babies sitting I believe at our kitchen table when I was aged something so small that my colouring between the lines was worthy of remark.

If ever a book was written for me, then Colour is that book. It is a travelogue, a gathering of stories about one woman’s mission to discover the origins of traditional paints. There are nine chapters: black, white and the seven colours of the rainbow chosen by Isaac Newton. The Chinese rainbow has only five colours. That this book mentions Newton, as well as Roman emperors, Egyptian make-up and Mexican skirts should tell you a lot about the variation of stories it includes.

Victoria Finlay is an impressive character. There may be some hero worship going on here. Her hunt for Lapis Lazuli (in an Afghanistan mine to which none of the miners recalled any woman ever visiting, 2001) and Iranian saffron demonstrate a mind-set which is remarkably enlightened.

She has a book on Jewels. I don’t yet have a fascination with jewels, but I think I might develop one just to read more of her work.

Thank you Tall Aunty.

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías

The Mathematical Genius leant me this book some time ago. Previously he’s leant me things like Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Bertrand Russell’s Power. These books I love, but they take some brain work to get through. They are what you might call intimidating. Russell’s language defies my dictionary and I have absolutely no idea what Kafka on the Shore was about, although I felt I enjoyed it.

Anyway, you can imagine how I felt whenever I looked up at the bookshelf and saw another of the Mathematical Genius’ books staring back at me. A bit like you feel in that moment before you go for a run. You know, once you’re out there, you’re going to enjoy it. Yet there seems so many reasons not to start.

True to type, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me was not written for ease of reading. This didn’t mean it was difficult to read – it wasn’t – but that the author didn’t keep to short sentences and simple structures. The style of writing, whilst initially off-putting with its page long sentences, was, by the end of the first third, proving delightful. At times, the sentence structures were so riveting that I became distracted by them. I found myself envious of Marías’ confidence, and his playful attitude. He wrote like someone who loves language and its form. I was bewitched.

And then too, there was his mastery of theme. I never clicked as to the power of theme until reading this book. I tried to articulate back to the Mathematical Genius exactly how much I was enjoying how these reoccurring images and ideas were so beautifully woven into the protagonist’s thoughts. He gave me an understanding grin.

I shan’t spoil the story, except to say that to be in a house with someone else’s small child and the dead body of the married woman you were about to begin an affair with, is quite bad luck.

I’d have no hesitation about reading more by Javier Marías.

A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace Lord Byron’s Daughter Started the Computer Age by James Essenger

Borrowed from the Father who taught me I could code before most people I knew could use a computer.

Ada Lovelace, in the mid-1800s, realised that machines would, one day, be able to write music.

This makes her remarkable. She possessed considerable mathematical talent (it was thought that she could think like a man). As she was a lady born of a good family (where good should be read titled), she had time on her hands. And in developing her mathematical talent she had the wonderful support of her mother who believed that for Ada’s sake, rationality and logic were desperate necessities and that serious study of mathematics and a restricted social schedule were the best ways of forcing these necessities upon her.

Ada’s mother feared that her Byron blood would bring Ada to ruin. Her father Lord Byron was a romantic poet, with a tendency to spend money he didn’t have and indulge in sexual practices that horrified his wife.

James Essinger certainly chose a fascinating life to cover. I’m certainly curious to read more about Ada, Babbage and the Analytical Machine, but not by James Essinger. Whilst the subject matter was great. The writing style was lacking.

But maybe I’m just getting pompous?

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Download for free from Project Gutenberg.

“A woman of seven and twenty,” said Marianne, after pausing a moment, “can never hope to feel or inspire affection again.”

No comment on the quote.

I tend to underestimate how much I am going to enjoy a Jane Austen book. I think this is partly because she is so well known, but also because of the number of film and TV adaptions I’ve seen which are enjoyable, but miss the depths of the books.

In my memory, characters such as Mrs Bennet and Mr Darcy, from Pride and Prejudice, feel sometimes almost as caricatures. Maybe it’s me who’s changed? It could be so because I’ve been reading the book as part of a course on Literature and Mental Health. Therefore, I haven’t just been reading, I’ve been contemplating the mental wellbeing of the characters as they fall and bruise throughout the story. I’ve been interested in more than just what happens next.

If you’re interested in my further thoughts on Sense and Sensibility I wrote a blog post on heartbreak in response to the Literature and Mental Health course.

A Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Download for free from Project Gutenberg.

The blurb on the back of my copy of A Heart of Darkness, describes the book as ‘a chilling tale of horror’. The narrator is a seaman called Marlow who goes to the Congo to work on a steamer in the period when colonisation was taking place with an inhumane madness fuelled by the desire for power and ivory. The story is semi-biographical, as it was written on Conrad’s return from the Congo.

Unlike Sense and Sensibility which was an intriguing read from the perspective of mental health, I’m not sure I’d dare go anywhere near A Heart of Darkness with such a curiosity. The power addicted, obsessed Kurtz who is the fascination of the story, is the sort of insane mentally ill that feels impossible to relate to. The idea that I could have any empathy with such a character disgusts me. And yet I’m reminded that I am only moral as much as my upbringing has taught me good morals, and if born into different circumstances, I might have been something else entirely.

This little glimmer though, of the odd Russian chap who Marlow meets on his journey amused me.

“If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it was this be-patched youth. I almost envied him the possession of this modest and clear flame.”

I love that line, the ‘pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure’.

Do you have any books you’d recommend I read next?