Homage to Barcelona by Colm Toíbín

51awdagmeml._sx328_bo1204203200_I’ve been to Barcelona once, when I was a teenager. It was interesting enough, but I certainly wouldn’t say I know it particularly well or (to be honest) really loved it. I found parts of it a little sleazy and I’ve been discouraged in going back by the rather aggressive over-tourism debate.  Irish novelist Colm Toíbín lived in Barcelona in the late seventies, and moved back to write this book in the late eighties (then updated it a decade later). Parts of it encourage me to take another look at the city, but others fall flat.

I wasn’t fond of Toíbín’s personal memories (that sounds awful – I’m glad he had a good time!). Living in the city soon after Franco’s death and experiencing the revival of the Catalan language must have been quite an experience, but I didn’t feel I learned much by hearing about his clubbing hotspots and the places he picks as crime hot-spots are quite possible outdated. Some travel writing tends to a sort of generic blend of multiple eras through different visits and revisions of the book. Not so good for a guide book, but very atmospheric. This was very specific to location, time and the experience of the writer, leaving me with the question: why should I care about that specific time and location, and whether a Catalan writer (or longer term resident) would be a more illuminating guide.

For me, the bits that work are generic history – chapters on Gaudis, Dali, Picasso, Pau Casals and so many others that have lived, worked and been inspired by the city and the culture. The rise of Catalan nationalism and the resurgence of the language and culture doesn’t always make for a sympathetic read and Toíbín does feel balanced – showing the repression the city suffered (under Franco, and before) but remaining critical. There’s plenty of references for further reading and plenty of avenues to explore (quite literally for visitors to the city). Toíbín’s writing is good: clear, crisp and nice to read. It’s a decent, but perhaps dated, account of a city that obviously captured the author for a period.

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman

51c8precakl._sx323_bo1204203200_I’m not a mathematician – I liked the subject at school, but ended up heading down the path of Physics (and in an experimentalist direction).  I have though heard a few things about Paul Erdős – the prodigious number of papers, the lack of a non-mathematical social life, Erdős numbers.  After reading this book, I know more about him but it’s generally in the same vein: his odd language of slang terms (god = “the supreme fascist”, children = “epsilons”), various anecdotes from friends and colleagues.  Actually he does come across as very social (in his awkward way), and with a hefty supply of witticisms to liven things up – quite different from Paul Dirac, to pick another eccentric from the list of biographies I’ve read recently.

The book does feel rather stretched out, setting the scene for his work with lengthy diversions on other mathematicians (GH Hardy, Ronald Graham, Srinivasa Ramanujan).  These are interesting enough, but it’s not exactly a heavyweight character study.  This is probably for the best.  Along with the fact that the mathematics is kept to a minimum (enough to explain the general scope of the various topics, but not enough to feel like work), it feels like a book that I would have enjoyed back at school. It might even have encouraged me to set off in a more mathematical direction – luckily I’m a bit past that now.