Charles Darwin forges ahead

I'm continuing to enjoy Charles Darwin's blog. Here's a current example:

"Huxley did much to establish science as an independent profession here and had an unforgiving tongue: when my persistent critic Bishop Soapy Sam Wilberforce was thrown from his horse and killed by a head injury Huxley commented: ‘For once, reality and his brain came into contact and the result was fatal.’ He made the comment to the physicist John Tyndall who had nothing to say about the gravity of the accident."

Mr Darwin is also now venturing out on Nature Network, commenting on others' blog posts and providing clarification on important matters such as the apparent inconsistency between his early religious belief and his ideas on evolution:

"I was, as I wrote in my autobiography, quite orthodox on matters of theology until I spent five years being seasick on HMS Beagle. It was not merely the earthquake at Chiloe, the Galapagos hummingbirds, it was five years hurling over the side of the ship and groaning ‘oh God!’ with no result."

I highly recommend signing up to Mr Darwin's blog, educational and very, very funny.

Quercus to increase its publishing programme

Via the Bookseller, "Quercus Publishing has set out to reach annual sales of £20m in three years, as it aims to grow from a small publisher to a medium-sized one. Results put out today showed that the company saw sales rise a massive 140% in 2007, with trade sales up by 194%, thanks to its two prize winning authors, Stef Penney and Peter Temple." The company's chief executive, Mark Smith, said: "This has been a transformational year for Quercus, with both our Contract and Trade Divsions contributing handsomely to revenue growth of 140% over the prior year. The board believes that Quercus is now well placed for further growth and over the next three years the group will continue to evolve, build the publishing programmes…" etc. That last part, about the publishing programmes, is very good news for us readers, as Quercus produces some jolly good books by authors including Michael Walters, Colin Cotterill, Adrian Hyland, Martin Walker and many others (see Euro Crime or Petrona for reviews).
I can, incidentally, exclusively reveal that Mr Smith is a very forward-thinking person, being kind enough recently to listen to a rhapsody by me on the subject of blogging, as a result of which he and his esteemed colleague Iain Miller are now in receipt of Petrona's List (for those not reading in RSS, see left-hand sidebar "great crime fiction blogs").

Our friends in the North (well, New York)

Via Jenny Davidson of Light Reading, I discover that there has been a literary debate at Columbia University: as reported by my fellow "If"-admirer, Ed Champion, Sven "Birkerts had come into town for a debate with Jenny Davidson, moderated by Andrew Delbanco, styled Blogging: Good or Bad for Literary Culture?“I can’t tell if we’re positioned at odds,” whispered Birkerts to Davidson before the proceedings started, a foreshadowing of the stalemate to come."
Well, as Jenny puts it in her post drawing attention to the debate: "I must confess that I feel I am having excessive home-court advantage, in that anybody who writes a blog post on this topic is presumably mildly to moderately strongly pro-blogging!"
Ed's post is well worth a read. Here's an excerpt of the perfectly articulated opinion of Prof Davidson:
"By far, the most reasonable participant was Davidson, who advocated blogging, but pointed out that blogging could not directly replace newspaper criticism. She pointed to both the constraints of word count within newspapers, and simultaneously observed that there were certain advantages of concision within the short-format blog post."
However, I couldn't agree more with Ed's conclusion: "It has become evident that the biggest problem with this “debate” is the surfeit of stubborn souls unwilling to consider the alternative form, whether it’s the blogger who refuses to consider the virtues of editing or thinking through his post a bit or the print advocate so terrified of anarchic fun that he cannot find it within himself to trust his instinct from time to time. I’d like to think that this can be bridged."
One way to bridge it, I suppose, is to have a foot in both camps, as an increasingly greater number of people are doing.

Charles Darwin joins the blogosphere

Charles Darwin has started a blog. It is welcome, even essential, reading. From his first post ,"More than a marble Darwin could stand", written in the Natural History Museum cafe (photo at blog):

"I overheard that some American has had the nerve to make a film called Expelled traducing natural selection and championing something called ‘intelligent design’. I thought we had settled Mr Paley’s watchmaker nonsense in 1859.
I am used to bad reviews: I was much savaged in the press when I published The Origin of Species, but Expelled holds me responsible for a particularly vile chapter of genocide which occurred in the 1930s and 40s. I do not recall advocating genocide, indeed distinctly remember writing with anguish about the massacres of the Indians in South America during my voyage on HMS Beagle. Could it be that my critics have formed opinions about my work without actually reading it? Surely not." Read on, please do.
In his second post, Charles is reading today's Sunday papers. "I had assumed that with this modern society being so dependent on the work of scientists, that the newspapers would ring with their achievements. I was delighted to see The Observer (which was in print when I was alive for the first time) and fell on it with a glad cry…….Science is mentioned….in a story about a mother and baby infected with something called a ‘superbug’, although I cannot see what is super about a bacterium that has evolved immunity to most of the treatments we have against it. Given that penicillin was not used clinically until 1942, this I think shows that evolution does not need millennia to show its effects, especially when a population is subject to selective pressures. If I may use a phrase I overheard used by a seaman on HMS Beagle, creationists, ‘may take that and shove it up, mate! Sideways.’ "

This blog is a great discovery – plenty more in the same vein may be read there. I trust that Mr Darwin will have the energy to continue writing posts. I am glad to see that he has decided to blog on Nature Network, which means that you can visit his profile, make him a friend or contact, and follow his writings with ease.

Sunday Salon: heat and cold

Sunday SalonI am struck by how many second books in a series are set in the opposite season to the first — among those I've read, at any rate. I've recently finished Ann Cleeves's second Shetland Islands/Jimmy Perez novel, White Nights, for example, which is set in midsummer. In these northern climes, daylight never really ends; in an understated way the novel is permeated by the effect on the characters, who are overtired and internally disturbed by the lack of night's blackout. The first novel in the series, Raven Black, was set in the opposite season, where the metaphorical and literal darkness formed the contextual atmosphere for events.

This contrast of darkness with light (as John Harvey called one of his recent novels) is by no means unusual. The first two of Ake Edwardson's Chief Inspector Winter series do the same thing. Sun and Shadow took place in seedy, snow-ridden Stockholm (though there is a sunny Spanish interlude); its follow-up, Never End, was set in the intense heat of the Swedish holiday season. The next in the series, Frozen Tracks, I haven't read, but from the title it is going to be a return to the winter I imagine.

Asa Larsson's brilliant debut The Savage Altar (known to me as Sun Storm) is another winter chill story, as Rebecka Martinsson visits her childhood home in the dead of winter and uncovers a lot of nasty secrets buried in the snowdrifts. The second book, The Blood Spilt, takes place eighteen months later, starting out at Rebecka's law firm's midsummer party and describing events of that season.

Mari Jungstedt has also taken this route. Her highly recommended debut novel, Unseen, is set on the (Swedish, again) holiday island of Gotland in the summer; one of the angles is the pressure on the police to solve the crime quickly to protect the island's main revenue, its tourist trade. The follow-up, the equally good Unspoken, is set at the fag-end of the holiday season, and the colder climate is an apt setting for the bleakest of the novel's plot threads.

I am sure there must be other cases of alternating seasonal background, or perhaps it is just chance that I've come across so many of them in the past year or so of reading. Maybe it is a device that appeals to those writing about the North? 

Following from Kerrie's lead, I'll pick out some other reading-related posts from Petrona since the last Sunday Salon, for readers who don't follow the blog through the week, in case they are of interest:

(You can follow the links above or just scroll down.)

Thoughts on reading and education

A superb rant from Susan Hill about a survey claiming to show that when women have babies they stop reading sensible books like War and Peace and turn to chick lit and material such as Colleen McCloughlin's autobiography. Each to her own: I used my own brief periods of maternity leave to catch up on Middlemarch and re-read some weighty Dickens novels, as although one could not read for too long at a time, one had plenty of short timeframes at many intervals during the day and night during this strange phase of life.
Susan goes on to fulminate against the Daily Mail who recruited "some jobsworth to talk to us about the survey, explain it to us, and make us feel OK about it or .. or otherwise justify her pay packet.  This woman is called Director of the 2008 Year of Reading.l I bet her pay packet is pretty thick. Anyway, she says, ( or rather, let`s get this straight, she is QUOTED by the Daily Mail as saying, ) ' It`s really important to read what you love and what fits in with your lifestyle.' Excuse me ? Who the bloody hell IS this woman and how dare she patronise me in this way, tell me what it is good to read, talk to me about my 'lifestyle' ??" And so on.
Susan also has a go at an article in the Wall St Journal in 2000 by one Harold Bloom, "a man, as you may well never have heard of him and I wish I had not, who claims to know what the Best Books, or the Literary Canon, are, and why and to tell us how Important they are. I want to tie him up and force feed him with John Carey`s little masterpiece, 'What Use are the Arts?' until he says he is sorry. Of J.K.Rowling he said, after being extremely rude about the Harry Potter books, 'Is there any redeeming educational use to Rowling?' When said H Bloom has got as many people reading, longing to read, staying up until midnight to get their hands on a book and then sitting down on the pavement to start it, when he has done the zillionth fraction of what Jo Rowling has done for books and reading and so, indirectly, for education, then he has the right to pontificate."
Absolutely. As Miss Jean Brodie pointed out, 'education' comes from the Latin 'to lead out'. Stimulating the imagination, 'leading out',  is what education is all about: honours are due to J K Rowling in that regard. Education isn't about force-feeding people with what some establishment politburo (or Mr Harold Bloom) thinks they should know. With her extensive Latin knowledge, Miss Brodie pointed out, again correctly, that this is an 'intrusion', not an education.

Petrona (and Theakston’s) in the Guardian

Alerted by the ever-vigilant Crime Fiction Reader of It's a Crime!, I bring you the breaking news that Petrona features in today's (Saturday) Guardian newspaper (review page 23). My post about my lunch with Dr Grump (Too groovy for scholarship) features as the first item in a group of blog posts discussing overcrowding in the British Library. Fame! Readers of the newspaper edition are referred to the Guardian books blog online, but nothing is there. At 1920 in the UK, the top post is dated Friday, so perhaps entries go up a day late. There is no sign of  the piece on the newspaper part of the website either. But "tomorrow is another day".  

While on the topic of book blogs, Karen at Euro Crime has highlighted the Theakston's Old Peculier "crime novel of the year" long list, with links to reviews of the books concerned at Euro Crime. Karen points out that of the 20 books, only four are by women. Shocking! Most of the books that I have read on the list are good, but certainly recent works by Ruth Rendell, Kitty Sewell, Diane Setterfield, Anne Cleeves, Jessica Mann, Tana French, Mo Hayder, Nicci French, Laura Stratton and Catherine Sampson are the peers of those on the list I've read, and I gather so are Catherine O'Flynn, Aliya Whiteley, Deanna Raybourn and I am sure others. The Guardian (again) is sniffy about the prize in any event, because the readers don't really get to choose the winner, even though it is a "readers' " competition. In the comments to the Guardian piece, Maxim Jarubowski points out that small, independent publishers are unfairly omitted in favour of "all the usual suspects with marketing budgets behind them". He doesn't give examples, however. I've read great fiction this past year in books published by independents such as Bitter Lemon Press, Arcadia and others, but they've all been translations, which I think are not eligible.

Worms on toast

We have all read articles by authors who are not happy about reviews of their books, but I have great sympathy with Brian Clegg, author of The Global Warming Survival Kit and many other titles besides, on this particular occasion. One of Brian's gripes is that, as authors so often say in his position, the reviewer does not seem to have read the book. Brian has various pieces of evidence for this, but the most incontrovertible is that the review "says at one point Clegg offers tips on how to prepare a worm sandwich. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the text about worm sandwiches. There is a section with a heading Worm sandwiches – and that seems to be as far as he has read."


By the way, as well as being the author of many books, Brian runs the Popular Science website, which I can highly recommend, as well as his entertaining and frequently informative blog Popsci.You can learn useful things, for example that you can buy 2Gb of mobile phone memory via Amazon for 99p, or you can choose to pay £20 for the same thing at a "High Street retailer".

Making readers happy

Reactions of three groups of typical readers to a web redesign (in this case,

"The first group is the ultra-techies who have an almost romantic relationship with technology. For them, the new site felt like getting dumped by a lover. Their high-end technology (generally Linux) and security settings made much of the site inconvenient. Moreover, the use of Flash offended them on some deep emotional level.

The second group objected to the new level of color and complexity, and the associated slowness. They like their Dilbert comics simple, fast, and in two colors. Anything more is like putting pants on a cat.

The third group uses technology as nothing more than a tool, and subscribes to the philosophy that more free stuff is better than less free stuff. That group has embraced the new features on the site and spiked the traffic stats."

I think Scott Adams missed the group that are never satisfied with anything. They weren't satisfied with the old design and don't like the new either, for all kinds of reasons which they provide in exhaustive and exhausting detail (and, probably, with great pleasure). Maybe he doesn't get those kinds of visitors.

A touch of common sense

The British Library story rumbles on. This is what my favourite Times columnist, Richard Morrison, had to say about it, with his ever-fresh, "common cultural man" perspective:

The extraordinary newfound popularity of the British Library among undergraduates racing to finish their dissertations – or simply using the place as an upmarket pick-up joint – has supposedly made life difficult for other users. But there's a simple answer to the Reading Room's overcrowding crisis. The BL is open for just 58 hours a week. Indeed, only on Tuesdays does it stay open after 6. But I seem to recall that there are 168 hours in a week. Yes, I am making an outrageous suggestion – but I'm also serious. The BL should turn itself into a 24/7 operation.
Why not? The prospect of studying in total peace through the night would appeal to many scholars. Quite a few are night owls anyway. And the BL can hardly complain that it doesn't have the staff or money to stay open all hours. It employs more than 2,000 people. And it owes us. We taxpayers forked out £500 million to build it, and now pay well over £100 million a year to keep it going.
If my local Tesco can manage to stay open all night without a penny of subsidy, the BL should be offering at least as good a service to the long-suffering public.

Makes sense to me.