Books I read this August

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This wasn’t my most ravenous month for reading, distracted as I was by a two week residential course and preparations to move to Birmingham. Lord knows how far my rate will fall off do when I’m holding down a job! Most of these were rather slim things, apart from one mighty tome I’d been nibbling away at for months.

William Morgan, by Richard Tudor Edwards

A biography of the first Welsh translator of the Bible, read because a friend of mine is looking after his birthplace for the National Trust. It’s beautifully printed, and the first chapter is a charmingly dated sketch of Tudor Wales compared to the Wales of the 1960s, before the A470 linked the country up. As a biography, however, it’s a bust: tedious in its speculations, boringly repetitive in its use of the few known facts of Morgan’s life, and without any useful insight into his character.

The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter, by Ambrose Bierce

An enjoyable little Gothic novella by a writer I always get confused with Algernon Blackwood. From what I’ve read, however, Bierce seems to be a better and less anti-Semitic author.

Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt, by Nicola Shulman

A good biography that leverages the little that’s known of Wyatt’s early career to give us a potted history of Tudor intrigue at the court of Henry VIII, sustained by brilliant and accessible close readings of Wyatt’s poetry. Particularly good on Wyatt’s later life, when we’re past the reigns of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (rather familiar ground for me) and Wyatt starts to come into his own as a diplomat. Made me keen to reread the poetry, armed with new knowledge.

Othello, by William Shakespeare

Read while dogsitting for my girlfriend’s mother, a Shakespeare PhD, and the Irish wolfhound tried to eat it. Not one I’ve seen onstage, so I imagined Daniel Kaluuya as Othello and Gemma Arterton as Desdemona.

The Hound of Ulster, by Rosemary Sutcliff

A beautifully written retelling of the story of Cuchulain for children. I had only very vague ideas of the Irish myths before hand, so this was an education, and will be handy next time I try to read William Butler Yeats’s early poetry. Rather similar to the Iranian stories of Rostam in the Shanameh, the book focuses on a superhuman hero who kills his own son without learning his identity. Reading Sutcliff, however, is much easier than battling through Ferdowsi in translation.

Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters, by Georges Simenon

A thriller rather than a detective novel, which is not quite what I want when I pick up a Maigret, but the Paris of the 1950s comes through vividly, and the French impressions of the American gangsters give the book an interesting viewpoint.

Life of Numa, by Plutarch

A biography of Rome’s almost mythological second King, the one who is credited with first bringing peace to the city state and instituting their religious practices. Like the biography of Lycurgus the Spartan it’s paired with, it’s less interesting for any insight into character than it is for customs, especially in the case of the Vestal Virgins, and the special priest-caste who had the responsibility of declaring war. It’s also amusing, as a recovering academic, to see Plutarch spend pages defending his thesis of Pythagoras’s influence on Numa, only to conclude that to spend much longer on this vexed issue would savour of youthful contentiousness.

Charmenides, by Plato

A brief inconclusive dialogue on wisdom or temperance (language barriers make the distinction confusing). Socrates is introduced to the beautiful youth, Charmenides, but instead of accepting his host’s invitation to look at him naked, he debates philosophy with him (only in Plato). Read online, in a Victorian translation that held up surprisingly well.

The High Deeds of Finn MacCool, by Rosemary Sutcliff

While reading The Hound of Ulster I never lost sight of the fact I was reading a high, gloomy myth cycle about the days when the great heroes bestrode Ireland like giants. With Finn MacCool, I relaxed, and started enjoying it the same way I enjoy a children’s fantasy like The Wizard of Earthsea. It helps that Finn is so much more human than Cuchulain, with his love for his hunting dogs and his first wife doing a lot to make him identifiable. Even when jealousy turns him against his friend Dearmid at the end, he’s still more engaging than the gloomy beserker of Ulster, and the stories that cluster around him are a stranger and more varied bunch, including the same origin story, regarding the salmon of knowledge, that the Welsh give to Taliesin.

Ion, by Plato

Socrates in dialogue with Ion, a vain and rather silly rhapsode (reciter of Homer) who he ties in rhetorical knots. Worth reading for its conception of the work of art as a magnetic chain: the Muse inspires the poet who inspires the performer who inspires the audience. The poet in me rather than the philosopher, however, wishes that Ion had put up more of a fight.

The Moon-Eyed People, by Peter Stevenson

A rather mixed bag of Welsh and American folk tales, with delightful illustrations. Reviewed for Wales Arts Review.

Mason and Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon

A 700+ page tome I read a few chapters at a time as the mood took me, like Les Miserables and some of Dickens. As an eighteenth centuryist, I caught a few of the obscure references in this rambling novel, but no doubt many others passed me by completely. The loose structure allows for charming digressions and excursions: a Samuel Johnson cameo, a mechanical duck that achieves consciousness, and most agreeably, a retelling of the story of the Lambton Worm, which I remember from my childhood. Of the Pynchon I’ve read, it’s more satisfying than Bleeding Edge, but less approachable than Inherent Vice.

Doctor Who: The Roundheads, by Mark Gatiss

Some find period scene setting, and Gatiss, who went on to write for the modern show, has a good grasp of how to write dialogue, run scenes in parallel, and end on a cliffhanger. In the end, though, this felt like a runaround without much substance behind it.

Nine Perfect Strangers, by Liane Moriarty

A 12 hour read, pacy and deeply enjoyable, with a little post-modern frisson in its later pages. One of the rare ones where the writer seems to be having as much fun as the reader.

Lives of Publicola and Timoleon, by Plutarch

Publicola drops you right into the middle of the aftermath of the rape of Lucrece, a period I vaguely know from Shakespeare, Macaulay and obscure Restoration tragedy. It would be hard to understand without that assumed background knowledge. Timoleon is from a period entirely unknown to me, but I caught up fast, and found the eviction of the tyrants and the restoration of democracy to Greek Sicily rather stirring.

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