Books I read this July

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Some good reading in the sunshine this month, as I worked my way through fourteen books, some of which were read in a hammock.

Byron: The Years of Fame, by Peter Quennell

The only people I’ve read more than one biography of are Samuel Johnson, John Milton and Lord Byron–and for all that Byron’s life was cut short at half the age of the two latter poets, his life is immeasurably greater in incident. Witness this charming Penguin paperback from the 1950s, which devotes 270 pages to the five years he spent in London between continental trips.

The book suffers a little from the limitations of its era–Lord B’s bisexuality is barely explored and the author sometimes gives him the benefit of the doubt where he really doesn’t deserve it. It’s impossible to write a boring book about Byron, however and the poet’s meteoric trajectory from prickly outsider to literary celebrity, from Don Juan to Bluebeard, from socialite to exile, is grippingly traced. Byron himself never writes a dull word. I particularly like his put down of a society beauty: ‘Her figure, though genteel, was too thin to be good, and wanted that roundness which elegance would vainly supply.

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges

Many of these I’ve read before–starting with ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’, which I ploughed through in my early teens because Douglas Adams told me to. Their cleverness can be exhausting in the aggregate; if Samuel Johnson accused Milton of looking at nature through the spectacles of books, Borges looks at books through the spectacles of books through the spectacles of yet more books!

One of the delights of this reread is that I’ve caught up with the master, and can cast a knowing eye over his references and even catch him out where he fudges the plot of Attar’s poem The Conference of the Birds.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Feeling a sudden appetite for a long, dense Dad book, I devoured this 750 page doorstop. I found myself surprising exercised by the arrogance and constant procrastination of General McClellan, and relishing it whenever Lincoln would digress into storytelling. Following Lincoln’s rivals for the presidential nomination into his cabinet means we follow four protagonists over decades–the events of Spielberg’s film Lincoln take up about 4 pages! Huge in scale and ambition, you feel a genuine pang when Lincoln is shot and Seward stabbed.

The Unexplored Ocean, by Catherine Fisher

Found this in the library, to follow on from The Bramble King last month. Recognised a handful of poems from anthologies. Enjoyed the title sequence, but preferred Bramble King overall, where the themes and sequences seemed tighter and better formed.

Sonnets, by Cecco Angiolieri, trans C.H. Scott and Anthony Mortimer

I’m a fan of Mortimer’s translations, and this collection of 130 sonnets by the black sheep of the age of Dante preserves form and metre faultlessly, together with a rowdy sense of humour. It’s not as infectious or compelling as Mortimer’s translation of Villon’s Testament, but that’s a difference in the original authors, not a lapse in the translator’s craft.

61 hours, by Lee Child

A swift punchy Jack Reacher novel to follow Team of Rivals. I like the small town Reacher novels best, and this one has him in a South Dakota winter, which is a whole new element to fight. The bad guy is satisfyingly evil, and it ends on an effective cliffhanger. Of course, I know Reacher survives, because I’ve already read the fourth book on from this one.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita is the one everyone raves about, but I liked this a great deal more. Imaginatively constructed as a poem and commentary that tell wildly different stories. Hugely entertaining and amusing. Thought, however, that the proposed alternative solution–that the commentator is mad–was a sop thrown to the kind of dreary critics who can’t suspend disbelief for anything.

Reflections on Writing, by Diana Wynn Jones

An essay collection by a children’s author I never got into at the right age, but am thinking of seeking out. The same old anecdotes recur, as is inevitable in a collection of pieces, but there’s usually a new phrase or detail in them, and the advice on writing is cogent, helpful and nowhere near as repetitive as Terry Pratchett’s in A Slip of the Keyboard. My favourite parts were her memories of being taught by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, her superbly funny memory of what must have been a difficult childhood, and the transcript of a radio talk by her son, which helps put the whole book into perspective and makes sure the sympathy’s not wholly on her side.

Half a War, by Joe Abercrombie

I’ve waited so long for this book to hit the library! The third and probably my least favourite of the trilogy, but largely because the set-pieces in the last two books were so thrilling, and this one, for all of its battles and stratagems, has nothing to rival them. The characters are still just as intriguing, however. Yarvi, the unlikely hero of Half a King, warped by the years into a Machiavellian manipulator as cruel as the power he seeks to supplant; rough-edged Thorn Batthu, the female warrior of Half the World; and the new pair, Raith, a beserker, and Skara, thrust into the role of Queen. Pacy read, making good use of multiple perspectives.

Afternoons Go Nowhere, by Sheenagh Pugh

Wry and wide-ranging poetry collection, reviewed for Wales Arts Review.

Once Upon A Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, by Marina Warner

A deeply read history of fairy tale collections: Grimm, Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson, the Arabian Nights, and separate chapters dedicated to psychological and feminist response. Interesting, but somewhat dry and rather a chore–and it gets tiring being bombarded with references to books one hasn’t read and films one hasn’t seen, even if familiar figures like Angela Carter do occasionally pop up. Closest thing to an academic book I’ve read since my Viva!

American Supernatural Tales, ed. S.T. Joshi

I skipped the House of Usher and Cthulu as overfamiliar. The immediately post-war era was a particular favourite of mine–enjoyed Clark Ashton-Smith’s Martian grave ghouls, Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame) doing a Faustian pact story, and Fritz Leiber (who I mainly know from fantasy) writing a vampire supermodel who, I think, inspired a Neil Gaiman story. My interest wanes a little in the post-modern reference and stylistic pyrotechnics towards the end of the book, but Ligotti and McKielan produce a good shudder. Joshi is good on the changing dynamics of the publishing industry, but rather snobbish towards Stephen King, whose genre claims he artificially weakens by selecting ‘Night Surf’, a forgettable dry-run for The Stand, rather than the genuine pulpy thrills of something like ‘The Mangler’.

On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea, by Maggie Harris

This book was sent to me by a woman who liked my review of The Bramble King. The deliberately eccentric title heralds a collection interested in the unlikely juxtapostions of Harris’s Guyanese-British heritage. The mood throughout is lyrical and overflowing with colours and tastes, leaning towards long lines that droop off the pages of even this squarish book. I like the way the Guyanese poems use a dialect not present anywhere else in the word, and the relationship with the inanimate in ecstatic apostrophes and personifications. The third person poems where the person described is clearly the poet herself strike me as rather arch; better is the Yeatsian title of ‘Daphne laments her coming of age’ with its rueful beginning ‘We are no longer friends, my body and I.’

Selected Prose, by Sir Thomas Browne

I found myself avid for more Browne after the brief excerpts from In Search of Sir Thomas Browne last month, and thankfully this Carcanet anthology, bought purely out of love for Carcanet anthologies, was already on the shelf. Broken into thematic chunks, it’s more suitable for browsing than reading through, except for the central chunk, which produces Browne’s most famous prose piece, Urn Burial, in full. Gorgeously ornate in his musings on mortality, his scientific writings on biology are also entertaining for their insight into the 17th century world, and the sheer charm of his descriptions. I revived the contemporary habit of leaving a manicule in the margin of sections I found particularly arresting.

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