A walk in the dark

"There’s a song…."
" ‘Losing my religion’. "
She screwed up her eyes, then said yes. "You know what that means: losing my religion?"
"I know what it means literally. Is there another meaning?"
"It’s an idiomatic expression. It means something like: I can’t take it any more".


That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
And I haven’t said enough.

Gianrico Carofiglio’s second novel, A Walk in the Dark, is even better than his excellent debut, Involuntary Witness. Although translated with more assurance than Witness (this time by Howard Curtis), the author has matured, adding depth to the characters who appeared in the previous novel and introducing new ones who are instantly real. The confident dovetailing of back-story and character development as the plot unfolds is unfaltering.

Against the background of a legal case — this time Guido Guerrieri is prosecuting a well-connected man for abusing his girlfriend — the book is a perfect jewel. The themes are addiction — to alcohol, cigarettes, fear or to a behaviour pattern — and coping with the premature loss of a relationship — by illness, death or cruelty. The context is corruption. I have some personal knowledge of the baroque and sinister lunacies of the Italian legal system, obviously not by any means as extensive as Carofiglio’s (he used to be a judge), but enough to know that his accounts of the machinations are realistic.

The result is a powerful, insightful and compelling account of a tragedy — or two or three. If you only read one book for the rest of this year, make it this one.

This review is archived, with Amazon links, at my Vox blog "Maxine’s book reviews".

Redefining public libraries

A "guest contributor" in today’s Times, Helen Rumbelow, writes that public lending libraries have had their day. She states of libraries:

"With each passing year they decline: in the past decade, book-borrowing has dropped by 40 per cent while the cost of the service — now at £1.3 billion — has risen by the same proportion. But the response to this failure is always a new bout of hand-wringing, a new set of celebrities pleading for the public to return. This is because to be anti-library is thought to be anti-book, literacy and all nice, decent British virtues that come with being shushed by a lady in a cardigan. Well, I am daring to report that books are booming in Britain, with sales up by 3 per cent a year since 2001. If you want the truth, it is that books have killed libraries."

She goes on to opine that because books are so cheap to buy online, and information so easy to research and find on the internet, that there is no need of libraries.

"To judge from the scene I witnessed at the Idea Store — and the statistics back this up — books are decreasingly the draw. This flagship centre (they don’t call it a library for fear of putting people off) has escalators delivering people from the street straight into the brightly coloured halls. I stopped by the toy-filled play area, went up in the groovy lift to peruse the massage and dance classes, and had a cup of tea with a fantastic view of London through jewel-hued glass. The place looks great and it is thriving, except for those poor neglected shelves.

"At the Idea Store I had a radical idea. Let us admit that people can buy their own books if they want to. The one exception to this is children — libraries are vital for encouraging reading and literary tastes. Children’s libraries should be lavished with funding but could be located in the kind of places where they go anyway, such as play centres or after-school clubs — all the better for helping with homework. For everyone else, we should completely redefine what we want.

"If the Government decides to compete with £1-an-hour internet cafés, fine. If it wants to provide shelter on a rainy day, somewhere for those at a loose end to sit and read the newspapers, good. The book stock could then be centralised and if you wanted one you could order over the counter or online, to be picked up or delivered to your home in 24 hours, just like at the best independent bookshops.

"Don’t think of it as the end of libraries, just the start of millions of personal ones. The library is dead, long live the library."

I wonder what Tim Coates will make of this point of view? Certainly he would agree with the idea of internet-powered economies of scale, such as central ordering. But the dream of a public reading place, stacked with books, pleasant to sit in (to do your homework or read quietly if there is no peace where you live — or no internet connection) is a hard dream to forgo. But is it a hopelessly unrealistic, outmoded concept, as Helen Rumbelow suggests?

Eggcorns of the Week

Belatedly catching up with last week’s The Week, my attention was caught by a little filler on "eggcorns", via the Guardian. Following up on this snippet I discover that the word eggcorn was coined by the Language Log, a blog well known to me and some of you, to mean an incorrect yet particularly suggestive creation.

"Someone had written “egg corn” instead of “acorn”. It turned out that there was no established label for this type of non-standard reshaping. Erroneous as it may be, the substitution involved more than just ignorance: an acorn is more or less shaped like an egg; and it is a seed, just like grains of corn. So if you don’t know how acorn is spelled, egg corn actually makes sense."

Some subsequent debate on eggcorn terminology by the language log plaza team can be seen here. And here is a spinoff eggcorn database.

Some examples:  "when the chickens come home to roast"

"the hack-kneed platitude of national security".

"giving up the goat"

"Have you ever honed in on an important point or goal? Given free reign to your creativity or, alternatively, towed the line?"

If you want to look at many more examples, make your own suggestion or join an online discussion, go to Language Log’s forum, here (registration required). Or maybe you think it’s just mindless dribble.

The Internet sucks (not)

Richard at Science Library Pad writes about a crazy article (not available online, natch) in a magazine called Maclean’s:

"Maclean’s senior editor and national business columnist Steve Maich wrote a cover story.  Let’s see if you can figure out his opinion. Cover: After all the hype, it’s a trillion-dollar disappointment and a haven for cranks, liars and perverts.  The Internet Sucks." Read on at Richard’s post, link below.

Well, even though some of us may be addicted, the Internet is a boon to creativity and a boost to optimism, as I have found — how effectively it allows people of like mind to share ideas, and how useful it is for enabling projects (Minx and Skint’s , to name but one).  And as I mentioned in Richard’s comments, I am more than happy for my daughters to use the internet freely too — I can see how much it has enriched their lives compared with what was available to me in my own childhood, and how educational it is when used judiciously.

As Richard says: "I am really at a loss to understand this bizarre hatchet-job, particularly its "cover story" status."

Link: Science Library Pad: Maclean’s: the Internet sucks.

Join in the library debate

There’s a heated debate about public libraries over at Books, Inq, starting out with a post by Frank Wilson that links to Tim Coates’ mission statement for UK libraries (you can trace the links via the Books, Inq. post).

Go and have a look, and please comment — Frank has called for non-US readers to comment as most of the ding-dong is from within the US. Minx has done so — good comment, Minx. Susan Balee is the voice of wisdom and reason, as ever.

Under the influence

Well, we’ve had "David Crystal on Language and the Internet" and the spinoff from that,  "I’m Debra and I’m a blogger" plus debate in her comments. You thought that was bad? Now the gloves are off.

"US internet addicts ‘as ill as alcoholics’ ", according to an article in The International Journal of Neuropsychiatric Medicine, and picked up by newscientist.com. (The OWL has commented at the link.)

"Previous research suggests that the majority of “internet addicts” are single, college-educated, white males in their 30s, who spend approximately 30 hours a week on non-essential computer use."

So, how much "non-essential" computer use a week do you admit to? For me, it depends on how you can stretch the definition of "non-essential". Food shopping? Working from home? Buying Christmas presents?  But coming clean and adding up all my computer time not at work (where it is pretty much continuous), I’d say a couple of hours in the evenings, so 10 hours,  which means to be an "addict as ill as an alcoholic" I’d have to do 20 hours at weekends, which I don’t — nowhere near. Phew!

Added later: here’s an example of chronic computer dependence: My Day as a Neanderthal by Scott Adams (posted on a neighbour’s computer).

Fancy a nice cuppa?

Susan has a new blog! Head on over to Vox to check out The Lazy Woman’s Tea Party. You can read one of the books I’ve reviewed (see Maxine’s book reviews) or browse one of James’ favourites (James Long’s blog) while you put your feet up, sample the brew and pet Susan’s various dogs and weird-looking but cute little animals of indeterminate species.

Feel free to join our Vox neighbourhood at www.vox.com. I am pretty sure you can just sign up for one of their blogs, but if not and if you want an invitation, drop me a line in the comments and I’ll send you one. Meanwhile I am off for a second cup, and to wonder how Susan made those steaming cups with cute little hearts on top.

Bryan Appleyard apologises

I am really getting quite fond of Bryan Appleyard. Here is what’s on top of his blog today:

"I am aware that there have been problems with my site for the past few days. Cyber-wonks are working on this as we speak and all should be well soon. This is to apologise to anybody who has been unable to air urgent thoughts about Cornish pasties, cannibal footballers, Jeffrey Archer, Madonna’s African tot, babyboomers, corporate babble, torture or The Moustache Brothers. All manner of thing shall be well when the server in question has been taken out and shot. Its last cigarette is now lit."

Strange school set-texts

I was alerted to this Guardian article by a "round-up" post at the Elegant Variation.

Link: EducationGuardian.co.uk | Schools special reports | This term, we will be studying Zadie Smith.

From the Guardian piece : " Contemporary writers never used to feature on A-level syllabuses. For years, the nearest most candidates got to a living author were the poems that an elderly TS Eliot or WH Auden had published decades earlier. Even by the end of the 1970s, the most up-to-date fiction studied might be one of the novels published by William Golding in the 1950s. Nowadays things are different. This summer candidates were being examined on Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes and Louis de Bernières. Next summer it will be AS Byatt’s Possession and Michael Frayn’s Spies."

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Blogs as a lost and found resource

Don’t you just love blogging?

"David Berlind is blogging about a black video iPod he found on a plane in hopes that the owner can be found by using the "viral nature of the blogosphere." "

Link: Bloggers Blog: Blogs as a Lost and Found Resource.