Occupied San Francisco, atom bombs and lost words

It’s been a while since my last post – busy with work. So this will be a catch-up on recent things.

First crocus

This was the first crocus to appear in a pot in our garden, taken on 28 Jan

 Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle. PMC, 2001; first published 1962. I bought this during the presidency of the last incumbent, now just a nightmare memory (or will he return?). It looked for a while like he was going to make this counterfactual story come true. The plot involves a post-WWII America in which the Nazi – Japanese axis powers won the war. The Japanese occupy the ‘Pacific States’ zone, the Germans hold the eastern zone, with a buffer zone in the mid-west.

I’ve read very little sci-fi/fantasy, but I suppose this falls more into the category of speculative fiction – like Len Deighton’s SS GB, or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America – both of which I found entertaining but not entirely satisfactory. As with most good sci-fi the genre lends itself to some fierce critical insights into the ‘real’ world of our time.

The title refers to a weirdly postmodern novel-within-the novel which tells an alternative counterfactual history of the war: this time the allies defeated the Nazis, but what followed isn’t in line with what ‘really’ happened. I rather liked this head-spinning reflexiveness. The author, rather like the Wizard of Oz, turns out to be much less than his grandiose ‘high castle’ solitude and anonymity would suggest.

I’d seen a couple of episodes of the TV series on Amazon, but gave up on it. It’s similar to but different from the novel, and much less interesting.

Daffodils and blossom

These daffodils and early blossom have appeared in a local park, taken two days ago

 Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows. Bloomsbury, 2009. Kamila Shamsie’s 2017 novel Home Fire was one of my favourite books of last year (brief post about it here). This one came even more highly recommended, but I found it slightly less impressive. It still packs a powerful emotional punch.

It begins in Nagasaki, 1945. A young Japanese woman survives the bomb, and the rest of the novel traces her subsequent life. She travels to India, then to Istanbul and post-partition Pakistan. Much of the central plot involves her teenage son’s reckless flirtation with some of the forces of violence in this turbulent part of the world. Oddly enough, given this dramatic subject matter, I found the central part of the novel flagged rather, though it picked up in the last part, and developed a tension almost as unbearable as that in Home Fires.

Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words cover Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words. I just returned this to the library, so don’t have publication details to hand. It’s similar in some ways to Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary (brief mention of this one at the same link as above). Both novels involve words that didn’t make it into a major dictionary.

In this one the central character is Esme. As a little girl she likes to hide and play under the table at which the eminent scholar-lexicographers edit the ‘slips’ – small pieces of paper on which the words and entries about them are written and then filed in the pigeon-holes ready for collation and publication in the Oxford English Dictionary. There are colourful depictions of the famous editor, James Murray, his family, and many of those involved in the making of the dictionary, and of the long struggle to get to the end of the project that took nearly fifty years to finish. In a way it never did. It was first mooted in 1857, work began a few years later, and the last fascicle was published in 1928. Supplements and updates have been appearing since. I use the online edition all the time, and have referred to it often in this blog.

The ‘lost words’ collected by Esme begin (significantly, given its meaning) with the slip for ‘bondmaid’, which she finds under the table, dropped by one of the editors. She hides it away in a secret trunk, and over the following years builds up a large collection of her own. This becomes a sort of feminist alternative to the venerable (and patriarchal) OED. Esme’s words are culled from her visits to the covered market in Oxford: the taboo words, slang and vernacular of the women who were denied a place at high table, even if they did eventually get admitted to the universities.

This feminist angle is the strongest part of the novel. It culminates in the grand dinner held in 1928 to celebrate its completion. Several women, including Esme and two of Murray’s daughters, had been key members of the editorial team; many of the public who contributed words and citations – including Esme’s beloved aunt Ditte – were also women. None of them were allowed to attend this august, all-male event. A few were allowed in the gallery to look down at the men eating and drinking.

Not surprisingly the novel includes forays into the suffragist movement, and shows Esme’s awakening to the cause of rights for women – and the working classes who were also excluded from the privileges of the male elite. There’s a rather tedious romantic sub-plot, and some tragedy.

The research intruded too much into the narrative for my taste. The issues, despite their worthiness, dominated the characterisation. I’d have been better off reading a non-fiction account. I’d recommend Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998), about one of the more unusual contributors to the OED, and The Meaning of Everything (2003) by the same author.

Laurel berries

According to my plant identifier app these are Japanese laurel berries. Wonderful colours and texture.

As I write this we’re being battered here in Cornwall by storm Eunice. I had to take down my new bird feeder pole, fearing it would be torn up and become a flying spear. The birds are gathering, confused, in our magnolia tree and keep looking reproachfully and hungrily up at our windows.

I’ll place throughout this post a few pictures taken recently showing the first stirrings of spring in the area.

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Occupied San Francisco, atom bombs and lost words

  1. Simon: welcome back! I hope work has settled down, as I’ve missed your blog.
    It’s been a very long time since I’ve read Phillip K Dick; he’s one of those writers that I have mixed feelings about. It’s fascinating to see how his fiction is now seemingly all over the place (Bladerunner; Man in the High Castle; Total Recall). I suppose its paranoia resonates with a paranoid age. Your review reminds me that I’ve been thinking for some time about re-reading High Castle (I may work take it along on my upcoming road trip). You made a wise decision with the Amazon series, which bore so very little resemblance to the book and degenerated rapidly (the initial episodes were actually the best).
    I tried Burnt Shadows years ago and couldn’t get into it, so I was quite surprised that, like you, I loved Home Fire. Perhaps time to try Shadows again?
    I’ve been sitting on the fence about trying Pip Williams’ Dictionary of Lost Words. Given your reaction, I’m still sitting there.
    Lovely photos as always (I like the laurel berries particularly). I hope you and your bird feeder survive the storm undamaged.
    Oh, almost forgot — I’m shocked to learn you’re not a Trump fan! (really just kidding, of course. I won’t go into it, but sadly I fear we may be in for a re-run . . )

    • Thanks – the work project is nearly finished now, but another is looming. Iid recommend giving the Pip W novel a go; the anti-(male/upper class)establishment element is satisfying. As for DT…

    • I’m the same about Kamila Shamsie. I wasn’t super impressed by Burnt Sugar, but I thought Home Fire was really good and so was A God in Every Stone. I think she’s a writer who’s ‘grown into’ her craft..

  2. Hi Simon, hope you haven’t taken too much of a battering where you are – it’s fierce enough here in the east and so I imagine much worse in the west country.

    Some interesting reading there. I read the Roth decades ago, and remember little about it apart from that I liked it. I never felt drawn to the TV series from the clips I’ve seen – but then I always think the book is better! 😀

  3. Hope you’ve been OK in the storms and I hear you on the busy with work – my work has suddenly blossomed and I have had so much less time for reading, reading blogs and writing reviews. I do wish there was a happy medium!

    My husband really liked the TV series of Man in the High Tower – I think he’s read the book in the dim and distant.

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