## Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2016 by xi'an

I do not remember precisely for which reason I bought this book but it is most likely because the book popped up in a list of suggested books on a Amazon page. And I certainly feel grateful for the suggestion as this is one of the best books I read in the past years. And not just the best fantasy or the best Gothic book, clearly.

Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was published in 2004 and it soon got high-ranked in most best-seller lists, winning the same year both the Hugo and the Locus prizes. But, once again, while it caters to my tastes in fantasy literature, I find the book spans much more, recreating an alternative 19th Century literature where fairies and magic plays a role in the Napoleonic Wars, including Waterloo. The tone and style are reminders of Dickens, the Brontës, and Austen, but also Gothic 19th Century masters, like Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Even the grammar is modified into archaic or pseudo-archaic versions. But more importantly and enticingly the beautiful style reproduces some of the light irony of Dickens about the author and the characters themselves. Utterly enjoyable!

The story itself is about a new era of English magic launched by the two characters on the cover, after centuries of musty study of magic without the power or the will of practising any form of magic. (The book enjoys close to 200 footnotes documenting the history of magic in the past centuries, in a pastiche of scholarly works of older days.) While those two characters can manage incredible feats, they seem to have a rather empirical knowledge of the nature of magic and of what they can do about the ancient magicians of the fairy kingdoms that border Northern England. There is no indication in the book that magical abilities are found in other nations, which is most advantageous when fighting the French! A central axis of the plot is the opposition between Norrell and Strange, the former hoping to take complete control of English magic (and buying any book related to the topic to secure them in a private library), the later freely dispensing his art and taking students in. They also clash about the position to take about the fairy or Raven King, John Uskglass, from excluding him from the modern era to acknowledging his essential role in the existence of English magic. They separate and start fighting one another through books and newspaper articles, Strange leaving for Venezia after loosing his wife. Eventually, they have to reunite to fight the Raven King together and save Strange’s wife, even though the final outcome is somewhat and pleasantly unexpected. (Mind this is a crude summary for a novel of more than 1,000 pages!)

While it seems the author is preparing a sequel, the book stands quite well by itself and I feel another book is somewhat unnecessary: Dickens did not write a sequel to David Copperfield or another perspective on (the Gothic) Great Expectations. But in any case Susanna Clarke wrote there a masterpiece a feat that I hope she can repeat in the future with an altogether book. (And while I liked very much the Quincunx for similar reasons, I deem Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to be far far superior in its recreation of Victorian Gothic!)

## the luminaries [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2015 by xi'an

I bought this book by Eleanor Catton on my trip to Pittsburgh and Toronto in 2013 (thanks to Amazon associates’ gains!), mostly by chance (and also because it was the most recent Man Booker Prize). After a few sleepless nights last week (when I should not have been suffering from New York jet lag!, given my sleeping pattern when abroad), I went through this rather intellectual and somewhat contrived mystery. To keep with tradition (!), the cover was puzzling me until I realised those were phases of the moon, in line with [spoiler!] the zodiacal underlying pattern of the novel, pattern I did not even try to follow for it sounded so artificial. And presumably restricted the flow of the story by imposing further constraints on the characters’ interactions.

The novel has redeeming features, even though I am rather bemused at it getting a Man Booker Prize. (When compared with, say, The Remains of the Day…) For one thing, while a gold rush story of the 1860’s, it takes place on the South Island of New Zealand instead of Klondike, around the Hokitika gold-field, on the West Coast, with mentions of places that brings memory of our summer (well, winter!) visit to Christchurch in 2006… The mix of cultures between English settlers, Maoris, and Chinese migrants, is well-documented and information, if rather heavy at times, bordering on the info-dump, and a central character like the Maori Te Rau Tauwhare sounds caricaturesque. The fact that the story takes place in Victorian times call Dickens to mind, but I find very little connection in either style or structure, nor with Victorian contemporaries like Wilkie Collins, and Victorian pastiches like Charles Palliser‘s Quincunx…. Nothing of the sanctimonious and moral elevation and subtle irony one could expect from a Victorian novel!

While a murder mystery, the plot is fairly upside down (or down under?!): the (spoiler!) assumed victim is missing for most of the novel, the (spoiler!) extracted gold is not apparently stolen but rather lacks owner(s), and the most moral character of the story ends up being the local prostitute. The central notion of the twelve men in a council each bringing a new light on the disappearance of Emery Staines is a neat if not that innovative literary trick but twelve is a large number which means following many threads, some being dead-ends, to gather an appearance of a view on the whole story. As in Rashomon, one finishes the story with a deep misgiving as to who did what, after so many incomplete and biased accountings. Unlike Rashomon, it alas takes forever to reach this point!

## the quincunx [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics with tags , , , , , on July 1, 2013 by xi'an

“How then may we become free? Only by harmonising ourselves with the randomness of life through the untrammelled operation of the market.”

This is a 1989 book that I read about that time and had not re-read till last month…. The Quincunx is a parody of several of Charles Dickens’ novels, written by another Charles, Charles Palliser, far into the 20th Century. The name is obviously what attracted me first to this book, since it reminded me of Francis Galton’s amazing mechanical simulation device. Of course, there is nothing in the book that relates to Galton and its quincunx!

“Your employer has been speculating in bills with the company’s capital and, as you’ll conclude in the present panic, he has lost heavily. There’s no choice now but to declare the company bankrupt. And when that happens, the creditors will put you in Marshalsea.”

As I am a big fan of Dickens, I went through The Quincunx as an exercise in Dickensania, trying to spot characters and settings from the many books written by Dickens. I found connections with Great Expectations (for the John-Henrietta couple and the fantastic features in the thieves’ den, but also encounters with poverty and crime), Bleak House (for the judicial intricacies), Little Dorrit (for the jail system and the expectation of inheritance), Our Mutual Friend (for the roles of the Thames, of money, forced weddings),  Martin Chuzzlewit (again for complex inheritance stories), Oliver Twist (for the gangs of thieves, usury, the private “schools” and London underworld), David Copperfield (for the somehow idiotic mother and the fall into poverty), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (for the murder, of course!) And I certainly missed others. (Some literary critics wrote that Palliser managed to write all Dickens at once.)

“I added to the mixture a badly bent George II guinea which was the finest of all the charms.”

However, despite the perfect imitation in style, with its array of grotesque characters and unbelievable accidents, using Dickens’ irony and tongue-in-cheek circumlocutions, with maybe an excess of deliberate misspellings, Palliser delivers a much bleaker picture of Dickens’ era than Dickens himself. This was the worst of times, if any, where some multifaceted unbridled capitalism makes use of the working class through cheap salaries, savage usury, and overpriced (!) slums, forcing women into prostitution, men into cemetery desecration and sewage exploration. There is no redemption at any point in Palliser’s world and the reader is left with the impression that the central character John Huffam (it would be hard to call him the hero of The Quincunx) is about to fall into the same spiral of debt and legal swindles as his complete family tree.  A masterpiece. (Even though I do not buy the postmodern thread.)

## Galton & simulation

Posted in Books, R, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2010 by xi'an

Stephen Stigler has written a paper in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A on Francis Galton’s analysis of (his cousin) Charles Darwin’ Origin of Species, leading to nothing less than Bayesian analysis and accept-reject algorithms!

“On September 10th, 1885, Francis Galton ushered in a new era of Statistical Enlightenment with an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Aberdeen. In the process of solving a puzzle that had lain dormant in Darwin’s Origin of Species, Galton introduced multivariate analysis and paved the way towards modern Bayesian statistics. The background to this work is recounted, including the recognition of a failed attempt by Galton in 1877 as providing the first use of a rejection sampling algorithm for the simulation of a posterior distribution, and the first appearance of a proper Bayesian analysis for the normal distribution.”

The point of interest is that Galton proposes through his (multi-stage) quincunx apparatus a way to simulate from the posterior of a normal mean (here is an R link to the original quincunx). This quincunx has a vertical screen at the second level that acts as a way to physically incorporate the likelihood (it also translates the fact that the likelihood is in another “orthogonal” space, compared  with the prior!):

“Take another look at Galton’s discarded 1877 model for natural selection (Fig. 6). It is nothing less that a workable simulation algorithm for taking a normal prior (the top level) and a normal likelihood (the natural selection vertical screen) and finding a normal posterior (the lower level, including the rescaling as a probability density with the thin front compartment of uniform thickness).”

Besides a simulation machinery (steampunk Monte Carlo?!), it also offers the enormous appeal of proposing the derivation of the normal-normal posterior for the very first time:

“Galton was not thinking in explicit Bayesian terms, of course, but mathematically he has posterior $\mathcal{N}(0,C_2)\propto\mathcal{N}(0,A_2)\times f(x=0|y)$. This may be the earliest appearance of this calculation; the now standard derivation of a posterior distribution in a normal setting with a proper normal prior. Galton gave the general version of this result as part of his 1885 development, but the 1877 version can be seen as an algorithm employing rejection sampling that could be used for the generation of values from a posterior distribution. If we replace $f(x)$ above by the density $\mathcal{N}(a,B_2)$, his algorithm would generate the posterior distribution of Y given X=a, namely $\mathcal{N}(aC_2/B_2, C_2)$. The assumption of normality is of course needed for the particular formulae here, but as an algorithm the normality is not essential; posterior values for any prior and any location parameter likelihood could in principle be generated by extending this algorithm.” Continue reading