Books I read in June 2021

It’s been a while since I last posted about the books I’ve been reading. I never stopped keeping records in my journal of what I was reading, but my laptop got slow and the keys started sticking, and I got less and less keen to devote an hour or two to typing when the first of the month roled around. Happily, I’ve got myself a new laptop that makes it a pleasure to rattle my fingers over the keys; less happily, I’ve got nothing but time at the moment, for reasons mentioned below.

I got myself into the middle of any number of books this month, and idly flitted between them without progressing very far with any. However, very late in the month, I came down with that coronavirus that everyone has been making such a fuss about, and I was able to get in some good reading time during quarantine, in between the coughing and sneezing, making eleven books this month in all.

Mathilda, by Mary Shelley

This is a cursed novella, and reading it between the staid, reassuring covers of a Penguin Pocket Classics edition does little to alleviate its uncanniness. Shelley wrote it whilst in Italy, as a means of working through her depression following the deaths of her two young children. It follows the blighted life of Mathilda, whose widowed father first confesses his incestuous passion for her, then commits suicdie by drowning. Shattered, Mathilda retires to a hermit-like life in the countryside while she hesitates over whether to kill herself in turn. Counselled by Woodville, a character transparently based on Percy Shelley, she half-heartedly embraces life, but as the book ends a late night outdoors in the chill damps of nature seems likely to accomplish what Mathilda would not do by her own hand.

Quite aside from the grief Shelley was working through at the time, the death of Mathilda’s father seems strangely to predict Percy Shelley’s own death-by-drowning. When Mary sent it to her own father, William Godwin, he refused to return it to her, fearing that the incest episode, read autobiographically, might ruin his reputation. Knowing the PR disaster that was his own, too revealing biography of his late wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, he may have had a point. Not published until 1959, it’s one of the eeriest and most unsettling survivials of the Romantic era.

The Broken Heart, by John Ford

A love tragedy something like Romeo and Juliet for the unhappy and middle-aged, the most blazing romantic passion in this play is from the woman who agrees to marry her suitor provided her father and brother agree to the match. The inciting incident happens before the play begins, when Ithocles forces his sister Penthea to marry the monstrously jealous Bassanes rather than her true love, Orgilus. What follows is highly poetical and beautifully constructed, but reminds one now and again how much more life and vigour there is in Shakespeare, or even in Ford’s own taboo-busting incest tragedy, Tis Pity She’s A Whore.

Pattern Beyond Chance, by Stephen Payne

Why did this collection resonate with me when so much modern verse leaves me equivocal? The style, for a start–crisp, grammatical, rhythmically composed and aware. It works on my nostalgia for the university in a collection that bridges the academic and the everyday, and I like that the perspective of the poems is slightly out of the common way, grounded on Payne’s professorship of human-centred systems rather than an Eng Lit role. And he simply comes across as very sympathetic–the poems are full of touching human moments, with a wry melancholy that keeps them from being oversweet. I’ve heard him read a few times before, and he’s always come across as confident but not electric. On the page, though, his verses sing.

The Far Side of the World, by Patrick O’Brian, read by Ric Jerrom

All the plot points of this book were muddled in my head with the faithful but dreary film, and it was a delight and surprise to find the book far more various and interesting, with a murder suicide like something out of the Newgate Calendar, an encounter with a boatful of Polynesian warrior women who threaten to castrate our hetoes, and a tense island reckoning that surpasses the usual naval engagement. It’s perhaps a little unwieldy that Aubrey and Maturin contrive to be marooned twice over a period of as many weeks, but this remains a very satisfying entry.

The Gododdin: Lament for the Fallen, by Gillian Clarke

Wrote this up for Wales Arts Review, with some musings on what the long reign of the short lyric has meant for the translation of longer poems.

The Relapse, by John Vanbrugh

Felt like cheering myself up on the first day of self-isolation with a frothy Restoration comedy. This fitted the bill admirably, with plenty of beaus, libertines, cheeky servants and country misses. Of its two plots, only one comes to a truly satisfactory close, but there’s such high energy to the plotting and wit and vigour in the dialogue that this doesn’t matter much overall.

Timewyrm: Revelation, by Paul Cornell

I’ve spent a little time trying to nail down the perfect reading material for free periods at my job. Long poems by Robert Browning, unsurprisingly, were not the answer. Blogs are good, but too much archive diving cloys. Digital comics are entertaining but expensive. Free pdfs of out-of-print Doctor Who novels absolutely hit the spot. This one was famous in its day, a surreal adventure through the dreamscape of the seventh Doctor’s mind, written only a couple of years after the series was cancelled in 1989. It’s both a grand epic on a mythic scale, and something that feels almost parochial compared to the Time War mythos that underlies Doctors nine to thirteen.

Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, trans. Lewis Campbell

A Victorian translation from 1890, this is not exactly up to date, but I’ve always had affection for it as an excellent rendering into Shelleyan verse, with some really inventive stanzas and verse forms used for the choral sections. Otherwise, what stands out to me on a reread is just how much Clytaemnestra is mocked, patronised and spoken down to by the chorus, and the fact that despite this, she never gets the chance to claim the audience’s sympathy by speaking her mind. It’s an opportunity Euripides was quick to percieve and made stupendous use of with Medea and Hecuba.

Windfalls, by Susie Wild

A collection of two halves, each of which would make a fine pamphlet on its own: ex-boyfriend poems and 2020 poems. Wrote a review for Wales Arts Review, which should be out in a few days.

The Warrior Queens: Boadicea’s Chariot, by Antonia Fraser

This is an interesting book–in part a reception history of Boadicea, in part an investigation of the psychology of nations under female war leaders, but centrally and structurally a series of short biographies of the Queens themselves, running from Cleopatra up to the somewhat unlikely figure of Margaret Thatcher. Familiar figures like the Empress Mathilda and Queen Elizabeth I mix with lesser-know royals like the Rani of Jhansi and Queen Tamara of Georgia. The argument for a certain constancy in the figure of the warrior queen across millenia of eastern and western history is surprisingly concise and convincing, and I rather regret that there’s no additional, updated final chapter, analysing the shades of Boadicea that linger in the public images of Theresa May and Hilary Clinton.

Pearl, trans. Simon Armitage

I’m not a great fan of his very acclaimed Gawain and the Green Knight translation, because I think it’s too focused on the big dramatic set pieces and doesn’t pay enough attention to the less conspicuous verses. This, however, I remembered being impressed by, and I still think it’s one of the the best things he’s done, catching the sombre mood of a Middle English poem about losing a daughter in a way that can often be unbearably moving. He also makes the wise choice to keep the alliteration and repitition of the orignal, but abandon the unduly constricting rhyme scheme. It’s hard to imagine this being done much better, and my remaindered hardback edition is a beautiful piece of printing to boot.


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