The Library of Babel [Jorge Luis Borges]

Sunkan Kwon

“The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable”

In The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges depicts an infinite library. You’re here reading a book blog, you’re probably a bit of a book nerd; surely this is an appealing premise. The universe comprises countless adjacent, identical hexagonal rooms, each containing four walls of bookshelves. Each book is 410 pages long. The inhabitants of the universe, who have studied the books for generations, understand that there are infinite books – containing every possible combination a finite set of twenty five characters, however the books are not arranged in any meaningful order. Selecting a book at random, you would probably find that it contained nothing but gibberish, but all intelligible combinations must also exist somewhere in the library. The residents’ logic is that there must be a book somewhere in the library to answer any given question. “How will I die?”, “Who has a crush on me?”, “Is it possible to keep an octopus in a private home?” etc. A core belief is that there exists a book to index and explain the library itself, and some devote their lives to seeking out this “key” tome. Some believe that a man must have read the book, the “Man of the Book”. Many are driven to madness.

Without a plot, without a protagonist, and in just a handful of pages, Borges achieves something phenomenal. You come away totally dazzled by ideas and questions about infinity, the multiverse, microcosm and macrocosm – the literary equivalent of smoking a superbong. You can read The Library of Babel in your lunch hour with time to spare (good job, because it’s going to take some time to put your mind back together once Borges has blown it apart). The best bit? It’s online for you to read free of charge. Do it. Now. Seriously.

“When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite.”

Until next time.


Artwork Credit: Sunkwan Kwon ‘A man standing on the apartment balcony, looking out side, and a woman watching the man without a word’

Your Fave Is Problematic

Have you ever visited this Tumblr?

It is a dismal corner of the internet. Don’t bother going if you haven’t already, it will only depress the hell out of you. Lots of the complaints aganist the celebrities listed are petty and try-hard, e.g. Rob McElhenny’s “blackface”, taken from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – a satirical show lampooning the very worst aspects of human behaviour. Fuck me, if we’re going to interpret Always Sunny as a serious drama providing a snapshot of regular normal western culture then I don’t want to live on this planet any more.

But what about when your favourites are genuinely problematic?

paideuma means, roughly, the ‘mood’ of an epoch. Tolerance of race, gender, sexuality – just tolerance in general – has generally skyrocketed compared even with our parents’ generation, and is lightyears ahead of attitudes prior to that (despite foul little carbuncles like GamerGate which try their best to convince you otherwise). But the English literary canon alone goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. Chances are, your favourite literary greats are going to be morally problematic in some way and to some extent.

Can we, and should we, separate the artist from the art? Can we justify liking someone’s work if we have an insurmountable issue with their real-life convictions and behaviour? It’s a toughie, for sure. I wish, I WISH, that every book, film, and artwork I’ve ever loved had been created by somebody I loved just as much. It’s wonderful when it happens, but rare.

Lots has been said about Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card. Wrote a series beloved by millions; is thoroughly, openly, actively homophobic. People really struggle with the thought that their book-buying money is lining the pockets of someone with abominable views – who may well use that money to propagate those views. As a relatively modern writer, O.S.C. is thankfully a standout case by comparison with his peers. But pick out works from earlier in the 20th Century or late 19th Century, literally the first author you can think of, and the paideuma of bigotry, parochialism, and chauvanism stacks the odds in favour of them harbouring some kind of unpleasant views. Cue the familiar argument: “it was a different time!” “things were different back then”. Sure, OK, things were different. I still feel weird about it. Ezra Pound, Roald Dahl, T.S. Eliot – all have openly expressed anti-Semitic views. David Foster Wallace, John Updike, Jack Kerouac – god damn misogynists. William Golding even confessed to sexual assault of a 15 year old girl in his autobiography, writing that they went for a walk to the common and he ‘felt sure she wanted heavy sex, as this was visibly written on her pert, ripe and desirable mouth’.

More or less every time I’ve discovered that a favourite of mine is problematic, I’ve done so after reading something they wrote. Does my subsequent discovery mean that the work has suddenly somehow diminished in brilliance? No. It’s not that I like the work any less, I just feel conflicted about my admiration for it. Art and artist are, and will always be, inseparable. When we read a book, look at a piece of art, or hear a piece of music, our reaction to it is unavoidably coloured by all relevant knowledge we have.

Some of the guys I mentioned above have produced work that I couldn’t bear the thought of not having read. Roald Dahl, man! Come on. Knowing what I know now would certainly make me hyper-aware of pertinent/indicative turns of phrase if I were to re-read their books. But I’d still enjoy George’s Marvellous Medicine. I’d still appreciate On The Road as a seminal beat novel. The reason I won’t go back to John Updike’s books is because I hated them, not because I hate him. It gives you mental clarity, in a way. If a work still impresses you or gives you enjoyment despite the negative associations you bring to it, then it is clearly something special.

Rather than drawing a definite black moral line in Sharpie, it’s about judging the potential for a work to give you something versus the likelihood of it draining you. It’s about finding a good balance in what you read. It is ridiculous to demand of ourselves that we treat books as isolated, virgin entities to be approached without knowledge and bias. But it is equally ridiculous to deny ourselves the education and enjoyment that can be found in work by “problematic” authors and artists.

Some suggestions:

– Follow your heart. If you give a book a chance, and you’re still not comfortable with it by the time you’re half way through, put it down and step away. There is no shame in leaving books unfinished.

– Read counterpoint literature. e.g. if you’ve read something by someone sexist, or with sexist overtones, make the conscious decision to choose something with strong, central female characters and a badass author next time.

– Don’t go digging. I’m not preaching total ignorance, but it is wise to resist the urge to trawl through reams of literary criticism until you find one solitary interpretation which suggests that so-and-so said something racist that one time, and then allow that criticism to disproportionately inform your overall judgement. That kind of behaviour is poisonous.


Let me know your thoughts on this HOT TOPIC by leaving a comment below or chasing me up on Twitter: @chessshaw

Artwork credit: Ben Quilty: Straight White Male: Self Portrait (2014)


Until next time



Fantasy Casting: Anna Karenina

I know, there’s no desperate need for my input on this; Anna Karenina has been adapted for the stage and screen many times, including the recent and famous incarnation starring Keira Knightley. I’ll be straight up with you, I haven’t seen that movie. But having just finished the book and fallen hard for the complex, enigmatic beauty of its titular character, I just can’t imagine K.K. doing her justice. Plus fantasy casting is my book nerd version of fantasy football, with an unlimited budget and Weinstein levels of Hollywood influence. It’s a lark. I do it with almost every novel I read, and I encourage you to do so too – if you don’t already. Here are my picks for the central characters in Anna Karenina:

Anna Karenina: Audrey Tautou


Alexey Vronsky: Henry Cavill

Ralph Fiennes

Alexey Alexandrovitch: Ralph Fiennes


Constantin Levin: Alexander Skarsgard

 Fun fact: Alexander’s brother had a small part in the recent movie.


Kitty Schterbatsky: Emilia Clarke

Jon Hamm

Oblonsky: Jon Hamm


Dolly Schterbatsky: Ali Larter

I am particularly attached to the idea of Audrey Tautou as Anna and Jon Hamm as Oblonsky. Let’s face it, I’m just attached to the idea of Jon Hamm. What a guy.

Let me know your picks in the comments!


Books I Read in 2014, Ranked


I wish this list was longer. 2014 was a great year, packed with challenges and experiences. Abundant in chill-time, however, it was not, and my reading suffered. I’ve seen plenty of these lists, written by the professional book bloggers and critics I follow on Twitter and so on, that are enviably long – long enough that I could probably have added them to my own list to beef it up. But here you go. An honest little list of the books I read in 2014, vaguely ranked from best to worst.

Currently reading (and loving):

Anna Karenina: Leo Tolstoy


Finished in 2014:

The Adulterous Woman: Albert Camus [fiction, short stories]

Hold Your Own: Kate Tempest [poetry]

2BR02B: Kurt Vonnegut [fiction, short story]

Wolf in White Van: John Darnielle [fiction, novel]

Sputnik Sweetheart: Haruki Murakami [fiction, novel]

Neverwhere: Neil Gaiman [fiction, novel]

Lady Oracle: Margaret Atwood [fiction, novel]

No One Belongs Here More Than You: Miranda July [fiction, short stories]

Pictures of Fidelman: Bernard Malamud [fiction, short stories]

Politics and The English Language: George Orwell [non-fiction, essay]


I’ll be honest, the ranking is a crappy veil of purposefulness over what is at heart a vanity exercise; delightfully, all but the last couple were really great reads. Leave a comment letting me know your best or worst read of 2014, and the books you’re most excited for in 2015.

Until next time x

Artwork credit: Sebastian Bieniek

Lady Oracle [Margaret Atwood]


In Margaret Atwod’s Lady Oracle, we follow Joan Foster as she grows up and tries to figure out life and relationships. Standard stuff. Joan is overweight as a child, and has a Grade A byotch of a mother, but – never fear – she has a feminist caricature for an aunt, made of body-confidence, self-satisfaction, and sass. Upon the death of said aunt, inspired by the promise of a substantial inheritance if she gets down to a healthy weight, Joan packs up and makes for England to start over. She loses the weight, gets her cash, and hooks up with a series of pretty questionable blokes. This includes a performance artist who goes by the name of ‘Royal Porcupine’. Nuff said.

Joan begins to write in secret – indulgently trashy period romances, or “costume gothics”. Atwood occasionally drops in a few pages of something Joan has written or is working on in order to advance certain themes. I’m not much of a fan of this kind of mise en abyme, but that’s hardly an objective fault in the book’s structure – I just find it a little disruptive. Incidentally, it’s a device Atwood uses in later work; The Blind Assassin goes a step further with a novel-in-a-novel-in-a-novel (oy). When Joan publishes something a little different, a long poem entitled Lady Oracle, it becomes an instant cult classic. Overwhelmed with the sudden exposure and accompanying pressure, Joan fakes her own death, running away to Italy for a fresh start. Again. Girlfriend is running out of leaves to turn over…

If you pulled Margaret Atwood in Top Trumps: Author Edition, her power play would be ‘characters alienated by their surroundings who have to consciously forge their own path: a journey that’s not always easy’. She does a masterful job of describing the childhood and adolescence of an overweight girl with heartbreakingly nuanced attention to detail. As far as I’m concerned, crop the book down to that period and you have yourself a flawless short story. Granted, the point of the book is to see how these formative younger years retain a stranglehold on the thoughts and actions of Joan’s later life, but I did feel that the quality of the writing and flow weakened as the story moved into Joan’s adulthood. The ending is pretty indistinct – we’re with Joan in Italy at the start of her new life, but lots of problems are left unresolved.

Nontheless, Joan remains an interesting, witty protagonist, and Lady Oracle is, overall, a relatable and empathetic read, exploring the causes and consequences of self-discovery. Not too shabby by anybody’s measure.

I’ve finished this and want something similar:

If you want to bounce on to another Atwood, try The Edible Woman. She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb is the go-to recommendation for insights into the state of mind of an overweight young woman. For more adult-oriented feminist themes about choice, love, and the desire to start again, nab Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife next time you’re book shopping.

What do you think?

If you have ever dated anyone with a self-given nickname more preposterous than ‘The Royal Porcupine’, please tell me. It’ll make my day. I’m on Twitter @chessshaw, or you can leave a comment below.

Artwork Credit: “Untitled” [Cindy Sherman] (1981)

She’s back!

Odysseus returns


Hello everybody,

I know. Classic blogger, takes a 6 month break and then comes back all sheepish with a spiel about having been “crazy busy”. The time scarcity problem is keenly felt as a book blogger, because it doesn’t just come down to not having time to write – it has been taking me months to finish individual books. I didn’t feel it was fair for me to critique things that I finished and shelved years in the past, and with a lack of fresh material I simply had to leave brewandbook be for a while.

Having said that… while I was away, I became an occasional writer for Dead Ink Books. In my defence – for this does kind of make me feel like I’ve cheated on my sexless marriage – I’ve only reviewed poetry for them, and poems tend to be a heck of a lot shorter than novels.

A couple of things I have reviewed for them:

Epigraphs: Chrissy Williams

An Eschatological Bestiary: Oz Hardwick

Epigraphs, in particular, was right up my street. I’m actually heading to an event this evening at which Chrissy will be one of six invited poets, so watch this space for more on that.

Edinburgh in August is a creative wonderland. There are seven arts festivals taking place within the same small city – the most famous of course being the Fringe – and every conceivable performance space is occupied. One of the seven is the Edinburgh Book Festival, which is really the catalyst for my return to blogging. I mean, it’s just plain rude to be a book blogger living in Edinburgh and not cover the Book Festival.

If you can’t be in Edinburgh, why not peruse the list of literary events on in the coming weeks? I am more than happy to go and be your eyes and ears. Leave me a comment or hit me up on Twitter.

Thanks for your patience, book fans. You’re like Odysseus’ faithful dog Argos waiting for twenty years for his buddy’s return while everybody else just assumed he’d died.

Until next time (and I swear we’re talking weeks, not, like, ’til Christmas) x

Artwork credit: Still from Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Odyssey” (1997) showing Odysseus making his glorious, sweaty return. When I said you guys were the Argos to my Odysseus, I hope this is how you pictured me.

Loitering With Intent [Muriel Spark]


Many of you will know Muriel Spark from her novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ – especially if you’ve ever studied Literature in Scotland. Her work is regarded as sacrosanct north of the border; everyone loves the local girl done good from Bruntsfield, Edinburgh, which happens to be where I was living this time last year. (Two literary superstars. Lucky Bruntsfield!).

Loitering With Intent filled a couple of my afternoons on the Isle of Arran over the new year. A small cottage literally packed to the rafters with nine people, on an island with a total population of just over 5,000, miles from even the nearest hamlet, was a pretty good setting in which to be reading a book about an insular social group. Fleur, our protagonist, takes a job at the ‘Autobiographical Association’, under the direction of its enigmatic founder Sir Quentin Oliver. All of her time outside work is taken up by her writing, chiefly her novel ‘Warrender Chase’. Warrender Chase is named after its main character, but just FYI Warrender Park Road and Warrender Park Crescent are streets very close to where Spark grew up, and I don’t believe for a second that ‘chase’ happening to be another street type was a coincidence.

The Autobiographical Association is populated by various society types who want to pen their scandalous life stories, but then file them away – only to be published when the folk implicated in said scandals are dead and gone. Fleur is thrilled; it provides boundless inspiration for her novel. But the lines between fiction and reality start to get blurry (maybe this is what Robin Thicke was really talking about?), Fleur’s bitchy diary of a novel gets discovered, Sir Quentin turns out to be even more deranged than everyone thought, and things basically get in a mess.

Loitering With Intent brings me on to a topic I surprisingly haven’t yet covered on Brewandbook: unreliable narrators. The plot of this book was alright, the characters were fine, but the way Spark handled the buildup of distrust and dislike for our narrator and protagonist Fleur was outstanding. She contradicts herself at every page turn. She behaves judgmentally and nastily to those around her but describes these events gleefully, either blind to or in denial of the fact that she has behaved contemptibly. It’s clear enough through the fog of her version of events that she is delusional – that we’re not getting the big picture. But, then again, it’s clear enough that the others in the Association are truly pretty unsavoury characters. So it’s pretty hard to piece together the reality of the situation – creating those blurred lines we all hate so much, but must admire as a display of an author’s skill. It complimented perfectly the book’s themes of art imitating life, and vice-versa.

I thought Loitering With Intent was better than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but that’s no glowing praise of the former as I didn’t like the latter much. I will concede, however, that Spark is a great manipulator of her narrators.

I’ve finished this and want something similar:

Try ‘The Edible Woman’ by Margaret Atwood.

What do you think?

All my Scottish lit students holla at me in the comments.

Artwork Credit: Lady Godiva by Alfred Joseph Woolmer

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers [Xiaolu Guo]


Green Tea

Hello book fans. Sorry it has been so very long since I touched base. I’ve been settling into a new job, and have basically just been really tired. It’s not much of an excuse, but it’s the truth. The thought of devoting brain power to processing print was just too much.

But I have my little brother (I say little, he’s 16, and taller than me these days…) to thank for my rejuvenated spirit. Thanks, Ben, for my birthday Kindle. It was too generous, and I’m sure you secretly really wanted to spend that money on PS3 games. You see, in April this year I was rushing to get ready for a party, took a step back from the mirror to check my makeup, lost my footing and stomped pretty heavily on my handbag. A sickening crunch reminded me that my Kindle was inside. A Kindle onto which I had just that day downloaded a new book: ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ by Xiaolu Guo. The party in question was for my boyfriend’s birthday, so I had keep my chin up and act as though I hadn’t just destroyed one of my most beloved possessions.

So, earlier in December, I gleefully fired up Kindle 2.0, the aforementioned book with a name too long to keep writing out popped up, and it was just what I needed. It’s a short book, and is divided up into epistolary snapshots of life of the main character, Z, over a year or so. Initially I really had no patience for the ‘broken English’ style – Z is a 23 year old Chinese woman living in London and is trying in earnest to learn the language. A little like ‘Flowers for Algernon’, it always rubs me up the wrong way for a while when the narration is done using atypical spelling/syntax for whatever effect – in my mind it gets  a big red ‘DUMB’ stamp and I ready myself to move on to something new. I’m not sure that Guo was on point with the bilingual learning curve, with some inconsistencies in what had been ‘mastered’ at various points. And then there’s the fact that each diary entry starts with a relevant word and its dictionary definition. This, to me, is on a par with ‘Keep Calm and ________’ as a tiresome ‘creative’ choice. But, just as in ‘Algernon’, I came to be extremely fond of Z, and ended up unable to put the book down – even in my most weary winter post-work fugs.

One of my favourite things about the book was the character of the unnamed 40-something Londoner artist who Z falls in love with. He’s pretty much a classic hipster, and through Z’s eyes there is a beautiful ‘peeling of the onion’ – she is drawn to this cool, enigmatic older man, only to discover that under this ‘skin’ lie his neuroses, narcissism, and hollow artistic vision. As she spends more and more time with him, the discrepancy between how he wishes to appear and how he really is becomes greater and greater. He is supposedly an artist, but all of his work seems little more than a very self-aware attempt to craft a bohemian persona. As soon as he slips out of this self-awareness the bullshit goes with it, and he is revealed to be a pretty horrible guy – worse, a pretty dull guy. Guo beautifully make Z this naive character who finds beauty everywhere as she learns a new language, travels around strange places, and adapts to a foreign culture. The interplay between these characters made, for me, one of the most well-written relationships I’ve come across in years.

I’ve finished this and want something similar:

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. A corker of a book, currently forming a very brightly coloured brick in my Christmas tree of books.

What do you think?

I’m yet to come across someone in the ‘real world’ who has even heard of this book, let alone read it, so I would love to hear some other opinions. Let me know in the comments!

Until next time x


1) I mentioned that I have a book tree. It’s a true fact, and it looks flipping fantastic:


2) Special things are happening for brewandbook in 2014. Hint: a brand spanking new YouTube channel and a GoPro camera I got for my birthday may or may not be involved.

3) Given the way things have been, I think it’s safest if I make no promises about getting another post up before Christmas. Instead, I wish you the most jolly of holidays. Let me know which books are on your Christmas list!

Lots of love, and happy holidays.


The Music of the Primes: [Marcus du Sautoy]

Music of the Primes

MATHS. A topic the mere mention of which brings on a stress headache in many.

I, too, had some feelings about maths before I started ‘Music of the Primes’. Let me tell you about those feelings through connected anecdotes.

A close friend of mine was recently part of a business meeting in which she was the only lady present. When a colleague told a story about his daughter struggling slightly in maths, and how he was planning to help her, my friend’s boss loudly told him that there was no point as girls are no good at maths.

This is obviously enraging.

I struggled with maths too, as I hinted at the top of this post. But the kicker is that I was never bad at it (nor, I should add, did my gender have anything whatsoever to do with it). I was filtered into the top maths class at school along with some seriously bright girls. The pace was extraordinarily fast, and I was out of my depth. I managed to grasp all the necessary concepts and I still achieved an A in the end, but for two years I was trapped in a vicious circle of playing catch-up – leaving myself with ever-shakier foundations upon which to build the next layer of knowledge. I felt stupid next to my classmates and had rock-bottom confidence as a result. (I did ask to be moved down a set but was told not to be “silly”). My mathematically brilliant best friend was my lifeline throughout, and we can now look back and laugh at the way she would, without fail, receive a call from me the night before every test, in floods of tears and hyperventilating.

This educational kerfuffle obviously engendered in me an aversion to maths.

Third and final anecdote. A few weeks ago, my flatmates and I all got really drunk and ended up sleeping in each others’ rooms. It was great fun. I ended up in the room of my flatmate Adam, who is a fire engineer (yeah, it’s awesome). It goes without saying that I had a nosy through his books, and I caught a glimpse of ‘Music of the Primes’ but reflexively skipped on to the next thing. Maths – that’s not for me. But then I had this weird flash of anger with myself. Why should I discount a book about maths? Am I too stupid to understand a pop science book for God’s sake? Of course not! I picked it up, stormed out of the room and set to. Granted, it wasn’t the best choice of hangover reading material, but I was drowning out my headache with determination and empowerment.

And here we are. It took me quite a while considering that I normally tear through books like The Flash in a library, but I finished ‘Music of the Primes’ and I really, genuinely enjoyed it. My instinct is to have a moan about how the author seemed a bit obsessed with providing a mini ‘This Is Your Life’ for every mathematical figure who has ever so much as thought about a prime number. But I can’t really complain, because this was actually a really nice method of turning the study of prime numbers over the years into a narrative, making the whole thing accessible and familiar. And yes, the maths itself was rather dumbed-down, and more difficult concepts were kept bundled up inside the cotton wool of metaphor. If this makes it too basic a book for you, then pat yourself on the back and go pick up something more challenging. But I’ve retained a surprisingly large amount of information, and I genuinely feel a desire to go away and keep reading about primes.

I know that I’m far from alone in the trepidatious feelings I have about maths, in fact I’m well aware that lots and lots of you will have had a much worse time of it than I did at school. I’m not throwing myself a pity party, honestly. The point of this post was to remind you all that books exist as tools to empower you in myriad different ways. There will be books pitched at a level you can understand and appreciate. And once you find something which gives you that bit of knowledge and confidence, you can build from there.


Artwork Credit: Via Crucis VIII by Xylor Jane, a Canadian artist whose pieces are guided by the structure of numerical sequences – primes in particular.

POETRY FRIDAY: Shibboleth [Michael Donaghy]

ImageWhen I stumbled across this poem, it took me back to a moment about four years ago when I was sitting in a lecture on Morphology. Our lecturer was (still is!) a fantastically interesting man named Heinz Giegerich – no link this time, but feel free to look him up yourself. He’s a German linguist with a lovely twang to his accent when he speaks English. One day he happened to use the word ‘shibboleth’, and was met with a sea of blank faces – kinda shameful considering that as a Linguistics undergrad you’re supposed to be fairly well clued-up about words (and especially words about words) . Before he told us what it meant he said it slowly a couple more times, paused, then said it some more, taking care to really enunciate each sound in the sibilant shibboleth – a display of incredulity mixed with the simple satisfaction that some words give when formed in the mouth. I wouldn’t be surprised if reading this has prompted you to mutter ‘shibboleth’ a few times to yourself, too.

In case you’re as bewildered as we were, a shibboleth is the linguistic poker tell – a word or pronunciation that betrays the speaker in some way to his interlocutor(s). And here is a lovely poem about such things:



One didn’t know the name of Tarzan’s monkey
Another couldn’t strip the cellophane
From a GI’s packet of cigarettes.
By such minutiae were the infiltrators detected
By the second week of battle
We’d become obsessed with trivia.
At a sentry point, at midnight, in the rain,
An ignorance of baseball could be lethal.


The morning of the first snowfall, I was shaving,
Staring into a mirror nailed to a tree,
Intoning the Christian names of the Andrews Sisters.
‘Maxine, Laverne, Patty.’


Happy Poetry Friday everyone, have an awesome weekend.

Until next time! x

More Micheal Donaghy:

Artwork credit: ‘War in Heaven (The Green Fall of the Rebel Angels) by Kazuya Akimoto