Books I read in September 2020

I was musing today about how a lot of people say that since the pandemic struck they’ve found it much harder to concentrate on reading. Since I read 13 books this month, I certainly can’t say the same. I think it’s long-form television I’m finding less satisfying, especially since, the way I watch it, I’m only a tab away from looking at something else. Cutting myself off from the world for some dedicated reading or listening time is still something I find easy to do. It’s just coming back that’s hard.

Fire and Blood, by George RR Martin

This book is to A Song of Earth and Fire what The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s infamous codex of the founding myths of Middle Earth, is to Lord of the Rings. While Tolkien’s focus was myth, however, Martin’s is history, and the book takes us through the Targaryen dynasty of Dragon Kings from the first conquest of Westeros to the reign of the seventh King, Aegon III; a 130-year span. Written in the character of an Archmaester of Westeros, this should be one for geeks only, so why I decided to spend my time reading a 700-page history of an imaginary country is as much of a mystery as why I devoured it so furiously, in 100-page-at-a-time sessions. As with his novels, GRRM has an uncanny ability to make the pages fly past, and I found myself thoroughly invested in the fate of the dynasty, as well as spellbound by the slow motion car crash effect of the passages where the realm descends into civil war.

Gimson’s Presidents, by Andrew Gimson

An enormously diverting compendium of brief biographical essays on the 44 presidents of the United States (first fun fact: Trump is only 45 because Grover Cleveland gets counts twice. Cleveland was also the only president ever to serve as public executioner). You need to go elsewhere for details of policy and diplomacy, but it’s a rich source of anecdote and character detail. As it approaches the present day, it gets less satisfactory: I thought the account of Regan was too rose-tinted, and the entry on Obama manages the more unusual feat of being dull. Otherwise, well worth wasting an hour on.

Henry VI Part III, by William Shakespeare

Every so often I feel in need of a bit of blank-verse bombast and go browse the early histories and tragedies. There’s no way to understand what’s going on at the start of this play without having seen Part II, which shows impressive faith in the Elizabethan audience. That aside, it’s a runaround, as a series of pasteboard characters fight, capture and betray one another, with occasional spikes in formal quality and character depth hinting that Shakespeare polished up certain scenes and left others to a less talented collaborator. Henry VI fades into the background of his trilogy in a way that no other monarch in Shakespeare does, but his scenes here have a genuine pathos that’s the most moving thing in the play.

The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett

An ideal comfort read. A lot of Discworld fan debate centres on whether you should start here, and if not, where. For my money, it’s impossible to read the first page without being aware that you’re in the presence of the most gifted comic stylist since Douglas Adams. The passage of 35 years has somewhat dimmed the book’s field of reference, obscuring the then-current fantasy tropes that Pratchett’s poking fun at, but the sheer silliness and scope of invention makes the book breathe and live.

Gimson’s Prime Ministers, by Andrew Gimson

Again, enormously diverting, filled with anecdotes and quotations from our 55 Prime Ministers. The eighteenth-century fellows are well enough, but the book really picks up with Lord Melbourne, the first PM to be psychologically interesting. Thereafter we bound along, with Gimson’s gift for terse summary and illuminating anecdote making vivid sketches even of minor figures like Andrew Bonar Law and Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Even on familiar ground, there are one or two revelations: who knew that Gordon Brown once dated a Romanian princess? Or that Boris Johnson’s blond mop is a relic of his Turkish ancestry?

Asylum, by Peter Darvill-Evans

A soothing sort of Doctor-Who-meets-Cadfael medieval who-dunnit. The mystery doesn’t work, because the reader tends to know more than Tom Baker’s Doctor, and the deductions lose their force. Since it was published in 2001, it’s also funny reading it now, after the show’s come back, and seeing how it totally fails to predict the format of the celebrity historical. Roger Bacon is the only famous historical figure we meet, and yet seems unaware he should be played by a celebrity guest actor, or that the whole story should hinge on his genius–amusingly, the Doctor writes him off as a minor figure in the history of science. And that’s how the book feels–entertaining but minor. Part of me would have preferred the invasion of Friar Bacon’s brazen heads!

The Sandman Vol. 1, by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Dirk Mags

A graphic novel adapted for audio is so unusual a project as to be virtually unique, but excellent voice acting, narration and sound design manage the transition from visual to audio with aplomb. Adapting the first three trade editions, it keeps the divide between the original comic book issues, interspersing the long arcs of Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House with the single issue stories of Dream Country, leading to an agreeable variety and the segmented feel of a radio series or podcast. Occasional stories lose something given Gaiman was writing to the particular strengths of artists in a visual medium, but the whole thing holds up astonishingly well.

The Claw of the Conciliator, by Gene Wolfe, read by Jonathan Davis

The second volume in the Book of the New Sun is even stranger than the first–baggier and less well-structured, I would say, but with haunting images and sequences of terrific power. Severian’s battle with the man-apes underground, early in the book, is an object lesson in combining pulp thrills with literary style. I know I’ve trod this road before, and have some notion of the waymarks ahead, but many mysteries and obscurities remain.

Boris Godunov and other dramatic works, by Alexander Pushkin

As with Pushkin’s other verse and prose, these dramas are miracles of concision. Even Boris Godunov, the only full-length play, feels like a Shakespearan history trilogy in a condensed from. The Little Tragedies, as the name implies, are even more bite-size. Pushkin is probably at his most serious in this mode, but his gift for finding the heart of the drama remains.

Watchmen, by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons

I don’t usually put my comic-book reading on here, but this practically invented the graphic novel and stands complete in itself as one of the defining example of what superhero fiction can do. Formally inventive and psychologically compelling, it’s also a very relevant look at the onrush to armageddon and the terrible cost of averting it. Probably my most pandemic relevant read in a while.

The Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexander Dumas

The surprise for me with this book is that the famous part, where King Louis of France is kidnapped and replaced by his secret twin brother Philippe, occupies only four or five chapters in the middle. Good interesting chapters, but there’s a long suspenseful build-up followed by a sense of total anticlimax. The whole plan fails because Aramis revealed it to the Prime Minister of France, who then proceeds to do exactly what a suicidally loyal and honourable character would do. Whenever I sat down to a few chapters, I still enjoyed it–the death of Porthos is beautifully written–but the narrative interest and impetus dies around p.300.

Earthworld, by Jacqueline Rayner

Another old Doctor Who novel from 2001, and a fun little runaround. Rayner’s great on character and dialogue — seeing the standard Doctor Who setpieces from the point of view of Anji, an investment banker, really helps — but she struggles to build a world and make a scene feel lived in. Even as an Olde Earth theme park, Earthworld feels like a sketchy location.

Spain, by Jan Morris

This is an engaging introduction to Spain, working on two levels. On the first, it’s a knowledgeable and readable tour of history, geography, architecture and personalities, accessible to the general reader and diplomatic enough never to rouse me to the growling resentment I feel for most acclaimed travel writers. The second level is that the book itself, written in 1964 and revised in 1979, is a kind of historical document of Spain as she emerges from Franco’s dictatorship and re-engages with Europe. Notwithstanding Morris’s gloomy predictions that the nation is fated by temperament and climate to lapse back into autocracy, there’s an affectionate elegy for the old Spain passing as the new European Spain comes into being that makes me want to go see how much things have changed. If only I could.

The Borders of Cardiff: Where can we go in a local lockdown?

Where does Cardiff end? Where does it begin?

Until yesterday, only the geographers cared. Now that the Senedd is putting us into local lockdown, however, the county boundary line has suddenly become of vital importance. For three hundred thousand people, it marks the outer limit, the pale beyond which we are trespassing into the equally COVID-stricken counties of Caerphilly, Newport and Rhondda Cynon Taf, as well as our healthier neighbours in the Vale of Glamorgan.

It’s roughly accurate to say that Cardiff is bounded on the south side by the Bristol channel, to the west by the river Ely and the A4232, and to the east by the edge of the suburb of St Mellons, just off junction 30 of the M4. To the north things are less defined, with the boundary generally running a kilometer or two north of the M4 corridor.

For walkers and Victorian-Gothic castle enthusiasts, this is good news: it means that both Garth Hill and Castle Coch are within the Cardiff county boundaries, as is the Museum of Welsh Life in St Fagans. The greatest losers are the residents of Taff’s Well, where one bank of the Taff is in Cardiff and the other is Rhondda Cynon Taf, meaning that like East and West Berlin, the town is now divided by a hard border.

Garth Hill is part of Cardiff, but Taff’s Well is divided into two by the county boundary, which runs along the river Ely.

Cardiff residents are also losing access to their favourite seaside retreats, Penarth and Barry Island. Here the border, running along the River Ely, cuts Cardiff off from the marina along the southern bank and runs directly through the locks of the Cardiff Bay Barrage, meaning that the popular running/walking/cycling loop of the bay is theoretically out of commission.

With the lockdown commencing at 6pm on Sunday, how porous these borders will prove to be remains open to question. Unlike the national lockdown in March, residents are allowed unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise, meaning that keen walkers or cyclists might like to revive the ancient custom of beating the bounds, or tracing out the county line on foot.

Books I read in August 2020

An unexpected holiday this month meant that I was able to read eleven books, ranging from classics of world literature like Ruslan and Ludmilla, to brilliant genre fiction like The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and Singularity Sky, to amusing trash like The Sea Wolf and The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous.

The Sea-Wolf, by Jack London

This was the first Jack London book I ever tried to read, which is hilarious in hindsight. This is the absolute worst Jack London novel to give to a twelve year-old. It starts with Humphrey Van Leyden, a weedy literary critic, being knocked overboard whilst sailing through San Francisco bay and picked up by a sealing ship. Its captain, the Nietzschean Superman Wolf Larsen, insists on kidnapping him and breaking him to the life of the sea. They debate Darwinism and early 20th century philosophy, which would have gone right over my head as a kid, and there are moments of the most sublime camp, as when Hump is marvelling at Larsen’s astonishing muscles so much that a roll of white bandage falls out of his hand. And that’s before the ship picks up a tender shipwrecked poetess, subject of Hump’s most ecstatic reviews in his previous life, whose attentions Larsen and van Weyden contend for. It’s a deeply peculiar blend of Joseph Conrad and Edgar Allan Poe, never less than entertaining, but very far from convincing.

The Book of the Duchess, by Geoffrey Chaucer, trans. E.B. Richmond

A facing page translation of Chaucer’s earliest long poem–the translation being clever, modern and adept at conveying the tone of a passage, which is one of the hardest things to grasp in the medieval English. Some of the beauty is lost, but it makes for an effective crib and a metrically capable update. For a first work, it’s striking how much of Chaucer is already here in his gifts for natural description, metrical dialogue and realistic human emotion. All it lacks is the bawdy comedy of his later works.

Sharpe’s Gold, by Bernard Cornwell

Tempermentally, I’m more suited to Flashman or Aubrey and Maturin than Sharpe, but this is more than up to snuff, delivering trhills, battles, sultry beauties, sneering villains, officer-class twits and ill-gotten loot. This one has a great ending, with Sharpe given an agonising, morally ambiguous choice of the kind I’m not sure if I could make myself or can think of the character in the same way afterwards.

Ruslan and Ludmila, by Alexander Pushkin, trans. D.J. Thomas

This is utterly delightful–not a surprise, given it was written by Pushkin whom, as I may have mentioned earlier in the blog, I adore. The real surprise for me is how much fresher and more memorable it is in this rhymed translation than the unrhymed one from Carcanet I read a year ago. D. J. Thomas is not so fine a metrical craftsman as Anthony Wood or Stanley Mitchell but the looser style suits this 6 canto romp through Russian folktale, blending genuine drama with hilarious self parody. Having spent much of lockdown trying to retell a Chinese fairytale in tetrameter couplets, I’m in a unique postion to judge how difficult this is. More than that, it’s a deeply joyful escapist read. For one of the founding poets of a nation, Pushkin is so joyous, so deeply unstuffy and unbound by convention that any comparison with Wordsworth or even Byron makes them look priggish.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, by Patricia A. McKillip

One of those 200 page fantasy novels that feel more substantial than a shelf full of 600pp+ behemoths. I particularly like how this one started with a Dunsanian catalogue of marvels, enumerating a fantaliscal bestiary including a loosely Celtic riddle-speaking boar, a witch’s cat, and a dragon stolen wholesale from Beowulf. Almost directly afterwards, it merges into a meditation on free will, love and power that recalls Ursula K. Le Guin. I particularly appreciated the structure, with the moment of greatest danger for the heroine occuring in Chapter 6, the midpoint, and the rest of the book exploring its emotional ramifications rather than building to an epic battle.

Singularity Sky, by Charles Stross

It’s interesting to read someone’s first novel after you’ve already devoured most of their back catalogue. With hindsight, I can see the default Stross romantic pairing getting its start here: Martin and Rachel are two workaholic ultracompetents, with Rachel having seniority. There’s also Stross’s fascination with technology and its impact on society, seen here when a post-scarcity culture called the Festival visits a colony world that’s regressed to Russian feudalism. Structurally, Stross isn’t there yet, meaning that the ending is a damp squib, but there’s a deluge of undisciplined ideas that’s wholly invigorating, and enough moments of brilliance to make it well worth seeking out.

Iron Sunrise, by Charles Stross

This is, not particularly helpfully, known as his ‘space Nazi’ novel. Sadly, this is so far in the future everyone concerned has forgotten about this particular flavour of fascism, so no-one gets to go “Good grief, it’s the Nazis! In space!” The book’s clever about letting you grasp the horrors of the ideology without naming them directly, but there’s something a little off in the ration of setup to payback that later Stross will correct. It’s noticeably a project from Stross’s bad management period, where the bureaucratic horrors of middle management cover for something much darker and more controlling. While Singularity Sky felt like it still had a unique take on concepts familiar from Stross’s later novels, I feel that the ideas in Iron Sunrise have been superseded by later works like The Laundry Files or Glasshouse, meaning that it’s enjoyable but inessential.

Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy L Sayers

An enjoyable Lord Peter Wimsey whodunnit, with the USP of a trial for murder in the House of Lords, which is as elaborate and theatrical as one might wish for. The story also takes us to the Soviet Club, by way of contrast, and has a good deal of range and excitement. A treat, when the floor plans in the early pages made me fear we’d be trapped in the country house for most of the book.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

After the low-level paranoia induced by Iron Sunrise, this was an ideal antidote: a 30s romp, set across the course of 24 hours and devoured in a day. It’s impossible not to empathise with Miss Pettigrew, austerely raise and trembling on the brink of destitution, as she finds friendship and affection among the smart set. All that remains is to recommend it to everyone I meet.

The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, by Jilly Cooper, read by Shelley Baines

This is the first Jilly where I went ‘ick’ instead of ‘aah’ at the romantic interest. The conceit isn’t bad: Lysander Hawkley is a life coach-cum-gigolo, hired by cuckolded wives to make their husbands jealous and so return to the fold. It would sustain a Restoration comedy admirably, but over the course of a 26 hour audiobook it flags a bit, and the plot lacks the focus that showjumping, regional television and polo brought to the three previous novels, meaning that the book gets centred on Rutshire’s upper middle class couples without, say, the trips to Palm Beach and Argentina that gave Polo some of its interest. There’s also the fact that Lysander’s relationship with Kitty–who is portrayed as the romantic substitute for his dead mother–just makes me squirm.

The Iron Wolf, by Ted Hughes

A book of animal poems for children, beautifully reprinted in hardback for its 25th anniversary. Some are arresting images, others diverting jokes, and others fail to land, at least for me. But their bitesize nature and the sheer variety of the beasts keep the pages turning, as do the Chris Riddell illustrations, which are recognisably earlier and scrappier than his work on the Edge Chronicles and his polished political cartoons, but all the more interesting for this. There are some poets whose collections for children I find more sympathetic than their adult work, and I’m thinking of putting Ted Hughes with Robert Frost on this list.

Books I read in June 2020

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A mere six books this month–partly due to the time taken to change accommodation, partly due to getting hooked on long-outdated Assassin’s Creed games, but mostly because that biography of Colette was really long, and I kept getting most of the way through one book before starting another.

Among the latest good news is that Cardiff Library now allows you to order books for pickup, or ask the librarians to selected a random bagful according to your preferences. I went for the latter and have a lovely jumble of thrillers and fantasies to browse through.

Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

I should really have read this during the month I spent researching my PhD at Chawton House, but I got stuck into Emma instead, and the moment past. Austen is probably the most reticent biographical subject since Shakespeare, given how few of her letters survive and how opaque her novels are to autobiographical readings. Tomalin approaches through the family, which means we hear almost as much about James and Henry Austen as we do about Jane, but getting enmeshed in the social networks does throw light on the work and the author. I felt for her during the silent years in Bath, and rejoiced when she found security and publication in Chawton.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, modernised by JRR Tolkien

Tolkien’s version of this medieval treasure isn’t so much a modernisation as a halfway house between the original and the modern day. You might call it Wardour Street English, if you were being unkind, but it preserves the timbre and the rhythm of the original faithfully without being as difficult. I glanced into Simon Armitage’s translation for comparison, and I’d say it goes more in fits and starts: while some of his lines excel Tolkien’s rendition, others fall well below. This is probably the version I’d go to when I want to read the poem all of a piece.

Polo, by Jilly Cooper, read by Sherry Baines

This has been a shared listen for my girlfriend and me, starting on long car journeys and turning into a regular evening event. It’s the 3rd in the Rutshire Chronicles, shaking things up with a few daring choices like having a lead male who starts the book by killing his kid while drunk driving, a lead female who is perpetually screaming abuse, and an Argentinian secondary hero who wants revenge on Britain for the Falklands War. Not least daring is the decision to centre it around Polo, a game no-one has ever seen or understood. It’s not a complacent novel by any means, and the woman the LRB dubbed ‘the Dickens of sex’ kept us guessing who’d end up with whom right up until the final hours of this 33 hour listen.

The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe, read by Jonathan Davis

Set in a future Earth so far ahead of us that the sun is dying and society has rigidified into a medieval guilt system. It’s a book I read 2 or 3 times in my teens, when it was among the strange, wild, sonorous books I was never wholly sure I understood. Rereading, I find the things I remembered aren’t always in the places they assumed, and other things seem totally new. This makes an interesting contrast with the book’s narrator, the torturer Severian, who remembers everything. I have a vague notion of the shape of the next book and only faint glimmerings of the two that follow, so I have a lot of rediscovery to do before the pelagic argosy sights land.

Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, by Judith Thurman

I am not quite the ideal reader of this biography–for that I would need more interest in Proust and developmental psychology. I am, however, interested in Colette, and interest sparked by stumbling over a copy of My Apprenticeships, followed by the arrival of a biopic starring Keira Knightley. This book, despite its pulpy title, satisfies my interest adroitly. The quotations are amusing, revelatory, and selected from a deep background of research. Aside from presuming a familiarity with the whole of In Search of Lost Time, Thurman proves an adept guide to the Paris of the fin de siecle and the first half of the 20th century. I was especially amused to find out what happens after the film credits roll. I look forward to the sequels in which Colette dumps her lesbian aristocrat, marries again, sneaks out to the Western Front to sleep with her second husband, seduces her stepson, and manages to navigate the perils of Occupied Paris with her third, Jewish, husband. A life well lived!

Spiderlight, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A Dungeons And Dragons style fantasy adventure, saved from being utterly formulaic by the twist that one of the party members is a giant spider magicked into human form. This, together with a few fresh looks at old tropes and a decent final twist, forms the book’s main appeal. Lightweight, but with fun ideas under the paint-by-numbers narrative.

Books I read this May

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Oh, the month of May! The not-so-merry lockdown month of May! Between getting hooked on videogames that let you wander through Renaissance cities and watching TV programmes I probably shouldn’t be watching in a pandemic (Chernobyl, The Report), I got through ten books. It’s not much for a month where all I did was bide my time, but one of them was The Canterbury Tales, so I’m pleased with that.

And Then There Was No-One, by Gilbert Adair

The last and least of the Evadne Mount trilogy where the author goes full po-mo and narrates the tale in his own person. It’s got all the tics of such novels–silly names, literary gossip, a fixation with Nabokov–all elbowing out the murder, which the author shows very little interest in. The final 20 pages are engagingly madcap and surreal, but didn’t merit the trudge of the previous 250.

The Bacchae, by Euripides, trans. William Arrowsmith

The last and perhaps the best play by Euripides–a departure in so many ways, from the wild spectacle of the mid-play earthquake to the gory dismemberment of the King at the end. I don’t think the chorus is ever so well used as it is here. For a late work, the innovation seen here is astonishing.

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Re-read. A comfort book, still astonishingly vivid in its scenes and characters. Who wouldn’t give their right arm to have written the apple barrel scene, or a glorious monster like Hands or Silver? It marks for me the point where I left the safety of Enid Blyton behind and entered a more vivid, savage, dangerous world.

Book V of The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser.

My history with this monolith of English verse is chequered. I’ve read Book I (twice), Book II, bounced of Books III and VI, and enjoyed the Mutabilitie Cantos. I think Book I is easiest because the allegory follows the character arc of the Redcrosse Knight–he falls into error, then into despair, returns to a state of grace, and fights a dragon. It’s a basic 3-act structure. The other knights don’t have this–Guyon, knight of Temperance, doesn’t slob out in the middle cantos of Book II. The closest Artegall, knight of Justice, gets is a deeply weird section where he yields to a female knight through chivalry and is made to put on women’s clothing and do some weaving. There’s recognisable allegorical episodes–a version of the Judgement of Solomon, as well as the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots and War with Spain, but it feels rather disconnected. One thing it did inspire me to do was return to some scholarly articles in search of further illumination–which I read, for the first time in a while, with real enjoyment.

The Wedding of Sir Gaweyn and Dame Ragnell, in Middle English Verse Romances

The worst poem I’ve read in quite some time. It’s one of the sources for the Wife of Bath’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales, which is why I looked it up, but it’s so clunky and metrically incompetent as to be almost painful. Chaucer’s own spoof romance, Sir Thopas, looks like a masterpiece compared to this. For specialists only.

False Value, by Ben Aaronovitch, read by Daniel Kobna-Smith

Only of the few series where I will listen to an audiobook without reading the hard copy. This one gave me my PC Peter Grant fix and expanded the world building, as foreign agents attempt to get their hands on a magical Babbage engine. It’s hampered in the early chapters by flashbacks which are not nearly so interesting as the present-day narrative, but exploring a Silicon roundabout tech firm gives Aaronovitch a cast of geeky eccentric and opportunities for endless Hitchhikers references–both of which I appreciated.

Jeeves and the King of Clubs, by Ben Schott

I’m rather fond of the pseudo-Wodeshousiana, because they usually end up as fascinating cross-breeds rather than straight imitations. Sebastian Faulks’s Jeeves and the Wedding Bells stole a bunch of tricks from Upstairs Downstairs, while this one takes its cue from the spy novel. Wit sparkles from every page, and the endnotes are an extra treat. Characterisation and description are on point, but Schott hasn’t been able to resist the temptation to over-egg, bean and crumpet the dramatis personae. Too many familiar characters are introduced, meaning the plot ends in a confusion of loose ends quite unlike Wodehouse’s elegant double bow.

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, modernised by Nevill Coghill

I’ve always had a bit of cognitive dissonance when it comes to Chaucer. Everyone always talks of jolly old Dan Chaucer, heart of Merrie England, and the bits I’d read before included blood libels and honour killings. Reading it end to end, I got more of a sense of it as an anthology, each tale having a new narrator who’s unreliable in a whole new way. Began reading after watching Two Noble Kinsmen at the Globe. I looked into the play but struggled, so I switched to The Knight’s Tale, where upon the easy lope of Coghill’s modernised couplets swept me on through the whole thing.

Selected Poetry, by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Anthony Wood

I adore Pushkin, and this Penguin selected will sit beautifully beside Eugene Onegin and the Collected Prose. Wood is a skilful poet and a metrically ingenious translator. Some of the lyric verse feels a little straightened, but with the narrative verse and folk tales the translation is fluid and easy. Pushkin is a welcome reminder that great poetry needn’t be wholly serious. For my money, he’s greater than Byron.

The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

It is perhaps fortunate that Henry James was to write so many short stories and novellas, as they provide accessible opportunities for the impatient and distracted modern-day reader to sample and appreciate his perspicacious, equivocal, delicately nuanced style; a style that sprawls across sentences of enormous length and paragraphs that stretch for three pages at a time. Whole novels in this vein can become rather wearisome, but after a long preface in his almost unintelligible late style, it is a relief to spring upon the relative sharpness and directness of the earlier James, and the book turns out to be gifted with many of the novelistic virtues: vivid characters, deftly sketched locations, conflict and co-operation. Above all, it has the charm of seeing James step outside of the aristocratic drawing room and attempt a sketch of low life in the mode of Zola or Gissing, for the book’s noble title conceals its preoccupation with revolutionary struggle among the London working class. I wearied of it several times in the reading, but on finishing I find these frustrations have melted away into a sublime satisfaction.

Books I read this April

What a strange month this has been, and not just because of the global pandemic. My first poetry collection came out at the very beginning of the month, but because of the jammed lines of supply, people are only just getting their copies now. I’ve only just had my first review.

In the meantime I’ve read sixteen novels and poems, seeking escape and reassurance in these times largely through detective fiction and medieval romances. A lot of people are reporting that they are finding it difficult to settle to a book. At the moment, I’m having more trouble in getting my nose out of one.

Mr Midshipman Easy, by Captain Frederick Marryat

An early naval novel, published 1836–a forerunner of Forester and O’Brian by someone who had actually fought in the navy they describe. As such, it’s an interesting link between the Georgian picaresque novel and the historical fiction for which it will serve as pattern. I imagine it must have seemed rather old-fashioned even in its day–the asides where the narrator breaks off the tale to recommend proposed reforms to the Admiralty are part of the dated charm. If it’s fallen out of the canon since that days of its fame, that’s probably because it’s pretty High Tory even for 1836, with a large part of the novel spent ridiculing the notions of equality and the rights of man in the mode of Hannah More.

Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh

Bittersweet yet utterly hilarious, that curious blended tone that only Waugh can get quite right. Apparently the author would later scorn it as a novel he tossed off over a period of a few months, but the relatively loose plotting allows for a great variety of characters and episodes to be tossed in as the author likes, making for a vivid satirical panorama of 20s life among the Bright Young Things. It would be even more enjoyable if Penguin Modern Classics hadn’t saddled this edition with an editorial martinet. Unneeded additions include a 7 page note on the text and wearisome footnotes arguing the merits of ‘definitely’ versus ‘definitively’.

Lay le Freine in Middle English Verse Romances, ed. Donald B. Sands

This is just the thing for sunny April reading–an English version of a Breton lai, full of folk tale motifs and told in breezy tetrameter couplets. The lyric has now been so totally accepted as the raison d’etre of poetry that it’s a scandalous delight to read poetry with no other end than storytelling. It would be a hard task too to recapture the storyteller’s voice in this metre without sounding archaic or glib–though Tolkien has managed it in some beautiful passages of his Lay of Luthien. Our tale is of a spiteful wife who, on learning that a friend’s wife has given birth to twins, spreads the rumour that this is because she slept with two different men. Promptly she becomes pregnant with twins herself. In a fit of shame, she decides to send one off to a nunnery in secret, with various tokens of recognition that will come in handy in later years. A delightful folk tale read.

Pearl, in The Works of the Gawain Poet, ed. Ad Putter and Myra Stokes

At the other end of the scale of complexity in Middle English literature from Lay le Freine is Pearl, a tour-de-force of dazzling formal complexity incorporating rhyme, alliteration and repitition in 101 twelve-line stanzas. Yet the result is not icily perfect but wistfully human in its account of a father’s mourning for his lost daughter. When he meets her again in a dream-vision, the rather chilly Christian theology she expounds is given infinite pathos through this. Not my preferred edition, nice as it is to have all the works of the Gawain Poet in one volume: this has footnotes, endnotes and a glossary, and tricky cruxes can involve consulting all three. Makes me miss my textually cluttered but much more servicable Everyman edition.

Sir Orfeo, in Middle English Verse Romances

Another medieval verse tale for a sunny April. This retells Orpheus and Eurydice as a Celtic Fairy Story where Queen Herodice is abducted by the fairies rather than killed, and Sir Orfeo rescues her properly instead of looking back at the last moment. It’s plainly and beautifully told, apparent artlessness hiding great artistry, and a shining example of what would now doubtless be called cultural appropriation. How dare these medieval minstrels give Orpheus and Eurydice a happy ending!

Whose Body, by Dorothy L Sayers

Given that her sleuth is a titled aristocrat, I always forget how modernist Sayers is as a stylist. This, her first novel, is already confident and experimental, with a few passages where she lapses into the second person for effect. Being allergic to the second person in novels, this would normally bring me out in hives, but it’s sparse enough not to irritate me too much. There’s a good locked room mystery set up, but not enough red herrings, so that when the murderer finally makes his entrance it’s immediately obvious he’s the only character with sufficient presence to pull it off. Credit to Sayers, she realises this and has her sleuth intuitively grasp the solution next chapter, so the rest of the book becomes a howdunnit rather than a whodunnit. Would be a good escapist read if the coroner didn’t grouse about an unventilated room being a death trap, with the influenza abroad again.

King Horn, in Middle English Verse Romances

Given this is one of the very earliest English romances, from 1225 or thereabouts, it’s a surprisingly easy read, mostly due to the simple language, short lines and regular couplets. It won’t win any prizes for artistry and it’s unmistakably the rough prototype of a tradition in development, but the story it tells is abundant in folk-motifs. King Horn has his land stolen from him by the Saracens, and has to win friends and make alliances to regain it. Mostly I feel sorry for Rymenhild, a princess who Horn promises to marry, then fobs off with flimsy excuses for nearly a decade. First he must be made a knight, then he needs to win his spurs in battle, then he’s wrongfully accused and goes into self-imposed exile for seven (wildly unnecessary) years, then he sneaks back disguised as a beggar and convinces her he’s dead just to watch her reaction, then he decides he can’t be married to her until he’s won his original kingdom back from the Saracens. So he buggers off, leaving her in the charge of one of his cousins, who promptly pulls a Mordred and tries to marry Rymenhild for himself. Only after he’s conquered his old realm and put down the rebellion at home does King Horn finally get round to marrying Rymenhild, who has nothing to do in the meantime but lament, with intervals of swooning.

We Could Be Anywhere By Now, by Katherine Stansfield

A collection of occasional verses, dealing with themes of language and the Celtic inheritance. Reviewed for Wales Arts Review.

Wise Children, by Angela Carter

Her final novel, and I think her most confident–there’s a splendid sense here of letting it all go. Dialogue no longer intimidates her; showing off her theoretical reading isn’t a concern; a plot that involves so much tangled consanguinity that you’d need a chart to explain it is handled with confidence and ease. I like reading books where it seems the author is having almost as much fun as the reader, and with this one you can almost hear Carter cackling to herself as the keys click and rattle.

Gamelyn, in Middle English Verse Romances

This is a little story with a bright future–in the Renaissance, it gets adapted into Thomas Lodge’s nigh unreadable prose romance Rosalynde, then into Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Both are highly sophisticated elaborations on an earthy English tale where Gamelyn gets all his land stolen by his wicked older brother and goes around thumping people until he gets it back. A lot of people–monks, abbots, wrestlers, crooked judges–are thumped in this poem. At one point, Gamelyn goes off to live in the forest as an outlaw, which leads some scholars to think of him as a Robin Hood figure. Robin, though, was always craftier: Gamelyn’s idea of cunning doesn’t go much further than nipping out the back door while the baddies are waiting at the front. A rough vigorous metre gives texture to a rough vigorous folk tale.

Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean 1521-1580, by Roger Crowley

Lepanto for me was a name in a bad poem by G.K. Chesterton, so this book was an education in the savage clash of scimitar and sword as the Ottoman Empire battles Christendom for control of the mediterranean sea. There’s material here for half-a-dozen epic poems, blood, sunlight, steel, and the kind of slaughter Europe won’t see again until World War One. It comes to life so vividly and immediately in Crowley’s telling that it’s strange to recall that other parts of Europe had other priorities. Henry VIII was abolishing monasteries and going through wives like a dose of salts, Protestantism was sweeping the north, and all the while the Mediterranean is going through one of the final chapters of the Crusades.

The Phoenician Women, by Euripides, trans. Elizabeth Wyckoff

This is what happens when you try and compress a trilogy’s worth of Theban Cycle material into one play. There are characters and situations from Seven Against Thebes, Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, but there’s no main character or main action–figures vaguely familiar from other plays just come on and go off again. Even accounting for the fact that other writers have botched it about since Euripides wrote it, it’s still a defiantly non-Aristotelian muddle. A lucid blank verse translation that picks up and gets speedier after the first 500 lines.

A Mysterious Affair of Style, by Gilbert Adair

Just the pick-me-up I needed on the downslope of a quarantine mood swing. A delightfully silly postmodern murder mystery, with whodunnit author Evadne Mount as the sleuth. The pleasures of the on-set mystery here are almost secondary to the pleasure of the in-jokes–my favourite being that Mount’s deadly rival, Agatha Christie, is having one of her books, Ten Little Whatsits, filmed on an adjacent soundstage. It struck me in reading that the Agatha Christie book everyone should read at the moment is The Mirror Crack’d, but you can’t say why without spoiling the mystery.

Cleanness, in The Works of the Gawain Poet

A highly polished alliterative poem, celebrating the virtue of cleanliness through the cautionary Bible tales of Noah’s Ark, Sodom and Gomorrah and Belshazzar’s Feast. These are consciously set-piece, high wrought demonstrations of poetic skill, while in romances like Sir Orfeo the level of artistry is much more continuous. They’re thrilling but rather exhausting, and the piecemeal annotations don’t help a lot. There’s an interesting idea in here of a clean-freak deity, who will punish pride with cool deliberation but only really gets worked up by uncleanliness and profaneness–theologically dubious but an interesting mindset nonetheless.

Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose, by Alexander Pushkin, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

I adore Pushkin, and this one volume collection of the complete prose is going to sit well beside my editions of Eugene Onegin and the Selected Poems, also out this month in Penguin. It should properly be called ‘Novel, Tales, Journey’ as there’s only one novella and one travelogue in here, but the stories and fragments are so terse and so entertaining, even when they break off only partway finished, that you can always flick through looking for something to amuse. I read it piecemeal rather than cover to cover, but enjoyed it immensely.

The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, by Gilbert Adair

Having started with the second book of the trilogy, I thought I’d go back and read the first, many times referred to but never actually spoiled. It was a slight let down–while the second was delightfully silly all the way through, there’s a certain quality of stodge to the first two hundred pages of Agatha Christie pastiche in this one. It’s only with the totally bananas final chapter twist that the book truly brought a smile to my face.

infinite.monkey.typewriter: the poetry of geolocation

Screenshot 2020-05-03 at 12.31.51I’ve always been fascinated by what3words, an app that has assigned every three metre square in the world a unique three word address that will never change. That means I can name the exact three word addresses that coincide with my childhood bedroom, my favourite swimming hole, and the kitchen table where I’m writing at this very moment (easily.ambushed.glow).

It’s a useful resource, and I’ve employed it a lot, even given the occasional social risk; one  of my friends was meeting up with me for a drink but didn’t know how to find the pub, and was rather offended to be called a melon.brains.fool.

I’ve been thinking for a while about how to use it for a poetry prompt, and it suddenly came to me this morning. Why not write an entire poem in three word addresses?

The locations below correspond to a small village in Turkey, the wilds of Canada’s northwest frontier, an industrial town on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia and the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. You can click on every line to discover the unique location it corresponds to. Go explore!

 

What Three Words?

post.codes.often
awry.tedious.latitudes
forgettable.longitudes.worse
grid.references.require
proper.kind.maps
lost.perplexed.bewildered
cold.alone.desperate
existential.crisis.threaten
away.with.fear
infinite.monkey.typewriter
will.locate.everyone
giving.dairy.nothing
local.habitation.plus
name.such.tricks
hath.strong.computers

 

 

The Poor Rogues Hang–Out Now!

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 11.32.44With hindsight, coronavirus year was a hell of a time to launch a first poetry collection. For some time I was worried if I was going to be able to get hold of a copy, never mind the general public. After some time chasing orders down, however, I’m happy to say that my piratical poetry pamphlet, The Poor Rogues Hang is now available through both Waterstones and Amazon. I even have my first review, from the prolific poet and prose writer Sheenagh Pugh.

The Poor Rogues Hang tells the stories of famous historical pirates like Captain Teach (Blackbeard), Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Captain Vane, Grainne Ni Mhaile and a dozen odd others. Written in a mix of ballads, sonnets, sapphics, and verses blank and free, it explores the unknown stories of those who sailed under the black flag. Described as ‘a potent little gem of weird poetry’ by S.T. Joshi and ‘truly entertaining’ by John Eliot, it’s a snip at £4.99. Finally getting to hold this rollicking piratical brainchild in my hands was a wonderful moment, and I can’t wait until the lockdown ends and I can take it out to my favourite open mic nights.

Books I read this March

IMG_1641You don’t need me to tell you that this has been a month of drastic change and disruption, but despite it all I still found the time to finish eleven books, from classical tragedies to modern fantasy.

James I: The Phoenix King, by Thomas Cogwell

Cogwell hits on the neat concept of introducing each chapter with a fresh portrait of James, starting with a truly wonderful childhood portrait where the King has a tiny waist and cartoonishly flared puffling pants tapering to delicate feet. Only the hawk perched on his wrist and the directness of his gaze show the cool depths of his power. It’s a sympathetic portrait of a King whose manhood was tested in the poisonous cut-throat world of Scottish politics, and who treated his English reign as if it was Christmas every day; a King who, for all his weaknesses and lack of interest in government as compared to hunting, brought stability to Britain after the tumultuous changes of the Tudor dynasty. Highlights are the plots and murders–not just Guy Fawkes but Sir Thomas Overbury, and enough Scottish backstabbing to rival Macbeth. Plus King James’s steamy homosexual affair with his court favourites, where we have the letters and can overhear their terms of endearment.

The Legend of the Sleepers, by Danilo Kis, trans. Michael Henry Heim, revised by Mark Thomson

A pair of biblical short stories by a Balkan writer who wasn’t quite my thing. I liked the premise of both, but I found the prolixity of the Sleepers rather tiresome, and Simon Magus bathetic in its conclusion. I can see the influence of Borges, but I don’t feel the fascination of Borges’ puzzle-box conceptual plotting.

Come Close, by Sappho, trans. Aaron Poochigan

Dropped in for a poem, then thought I might as well read the whole thing, given it’s 40 odd pages of very short poems. I thought a rhyming translation of Sappho would be utterly odious, but these ingeniously enjambed full and half rhymes avoid the trap of making Sappho sound like a pop-song; it’s more like stumbling on a modernised Renaissance lyric, which is fine craftsmanship indeed. Free verse captures the tragic fragmentation of Sappho’s work more accurately, but this one has a haunting music of its own.

Poems by Alexander Pope, selected by John Fuller

It’s often good to read a selected even when I have a collected, as the new arrangement casts new light. I skipped The Rape of the Lock, with which I’m a bit too familiar, but I enjoyed the rest of it, revealing a lighter, racier Pope than the sententious moralist of The Essay of Man and the Epistles, and one more willing to venture away from the exquisitely balanced heroic couplet, of which Pope remains the unsurpassed master.

The Vagabond King, by Jodie Bond

My first time reading a novel where I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements! Jodie brought this to our emerging writers weekend in Ty Newydd, and it was published about a year later. It’s interesting to read a fantasy novel with actual Homeric machinery, an original feature well exploited in the clash of Deyar and Zenith, elemental Gods playing games with the fates of men. A grimdark novel that moves along with admirable speed and urgency–the first 100 pages would serve more turgid writers as vol.1 of a trilogy.

Wigs on the Green, by Nancy Mitford

Her third novel, and the one where she cocks a snook at her fascist-sympathiser sisters, Unity and Diana, through a gentle Wodehouse-style comedy. There is a baffling lack of actual wigs on greens, and my 20s slang powers aren’t strong enough to translate. A wonderfully direct, vivid beginning introduces us to Jasper Aspect, a first-class rotter and the book’s most engaging character. It’s almost up there with Wodehouse, but you sense that Plum liked his thieves, blackmailers and even his models of efficiency, while Mitford has strong ideas who are the loveable rogues and who are the provincial snonbs. That and the rather comic-opera approach it takes to the rise of fascism are a bit of a drag on an otherwise amusing novel.

The Fortune of War, by Patrick O’Brian, read by Ric Jerrom

Aubrey and Maturin in America, during the War of 1812. The first half of the book is all about getting the players into place, but I don’t mind a voyage to nowhere in the least. The second part is a land-based espionage thriller. The appeal of O’Brian generally palls as the books spend less time at sea, but this one I like, due to the contrast between the cloak-and-dagger stuff in Boston and the never-mind-maneouvres-go-straight-at-’em thrills of the sea battles, taken faithfully from history. Suffers a bit from being the sequel to Desolation Island, one of my absolute faves, but this is still very very good.

The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens

The most feel-good Dickens novel, a collection of incidents linked by an engagingly silly set of characters–some of whom, like Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller, Dickens never outdid in his whole writing career. There are brief flashes of the satirical sledgehammer he was later to become, particularly when Mr Pickwick winds up in debtors prison on a matter of principle. But in general it’s easy, comic reading that rewards the time to relax and enjoy it. Not that dissimilar to Gavin and Stacey, or so I was musing, in its appreciation for pubs and their comforts, the joys of Christmas, vivid eccentric characters, and the pleasures and perils of the road.

Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, by Craig Brown

It’s hard to imagine anything more dreary than a formal courtier-biography of Princess Margaret: fortunately, what we have here is a lively collage biography in 99 chapters, ranging from singular anecdotes to droll counterfactuals, exercises in style, character studies, Notes on Ma’am Camp and the London bohemia, and review essays on the memoirists who have chronicled their encounters with the Princess. It’s infinitely pacier than The Crown; a compulsive read that wears its gossipy erudition lightly.

Persian Fire, by Tom Holland

A fine popular history of the Persian War, the sort of thing that gives one a mental framework to make reading Herodotus a hell of a lot easier. Fits in rather nicely with the dribs and drabs of Plutarch I’ve been reading of late–though, perhaps because of this, I found the early background chapters on the Persian Empire, Athens and Sparta were rather slow. The battles, however, are enthralling. There are names here to conjure with: Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Platea, never more vividly brought to life. It still strikes me, however, that Rubicon is his best and most enjoyable book.

Electra, by Euripides, trans. Emily Townsend Vermeule

All the big three Greek tragedians took a pop at this episode: the murder of Clytaemnestra by her son Orestes, with his sister Electra urging him on. This play takes a fresh approach by opening with Electra forcibly married to a poor farmer in the country–quite the most sympathetic character in the piece, seeing he acts towards her with scrupulous honour and kindness, despite the fact that her constant mourning for her father must have been a trial. From there, the predictable beats resume: the recognition scene, the murder behind closed doors, the exhibition of the bodies. It suffers a bit from being read so soon after Orestes, with its ‘burn it all down’ approach to the same tired material, and the brooding presence of the cursed House of Atreus is missed in the new setting. A free verse translation, with long lines that ape Greek hexameters, not altogether as successfully as Richmond Lattimore does it.

Books I read in February

0045

Being on lockdown for the foreseeable, along with a quarter of the planet, I thought I would update this interrupted blog series with an account of the books I read in February, before March rolls around. Counting long poems and several 60 page Penguin Modern classics, it makes 14 books. It’ll be interesting to see that number go up as social distancing continues.

Votan, by John James

The story of a Greek called Photinus whose adventures in the wild North lay down a fabric of legend that will grow into Norse Myth, and who ends up fathering half the royal lines in Scandinavia. A strange book, with a grim cruel narrator it’s hard to root for, and a Dark Age background that never quite comes into focus. I caught some of the nods to Norse myths—the death of Balder being probably the most obvious—but I’m sure many more have slipped me by.

Cuba Libre, by Elmore Leonard

An interestingly Cuban take on the Western, set in the Spanish-American war. For all that, it overstayed its welcome—there are a lot of characters, mostly not as memorable as Leonard’s usual, and the ones I liked didn’t stick around long enough.

Notes on ‘Camp’, by Susan Sonntag

Two essays in pocket form. The titular notes are a delight, with a wide frame of cultural reference and an impish, mischievous spirit. The other one’s a slog—a spent round from an old culture war I couldn’t give two hoots about. A mixed bag that leaves me ambivalent about seeking out more.

Dark Days, by James Baldwin

Three marvellous essays, by turns melancholy, proud and furious, but filled with the best kind of wisdom, that kind that only comes out of a life of hard thought and long struggle. And what a style! Would definitely read more.

The Finger, by William Burroughs

I’m easily grossed out, so this slim selection seemed like a good way to get a flavour of this notorious author without having to get through something like Junky or The Naked Lunch. It’s only partly successful, as I don’t get to sample the famous cut-up technique, but these stories are just as gruesome as expected. Pick of the bunch is The Junkie’s Christmas, a twisted good Samaritan tale, followed by The Finger, a semi-autobiographical account of Burrough’s own self-mutilation. The later, Tangier-set ones are more sketches than stories, and their open pederasty is rather revolting.

Piccadilly Jim, by PG Wodehouse

A gloriously unlikely but enjoyable romp, filled with imposters and double imposters, kidnap plots, poetasters, and baseball/cricket arcana. Well up to the usual Wodehouse standard.

Rex: An Autobiography, by Rex Harrison

By Hay Castle are a pair of cloistered outdoor shelves, where you can pick up any book you like provided you drop a quid in the honesty box. It’s a good spot for lucky finds—I saw this charming, photo-stuffed hardback and snapped it up, turning immediately to the chapters on Cleopatra and My Fair Lady, which were good enough to make me read through from the beginning. It’s a good life, defiantly unghosted, with a fair bit of womanising, a good deal of tragedy, interesting war work and a whole lot of memorable anecdotes: a snapshot of the time that’s a welcome break from the heavier reading.

Doctor Who: Scratchman, by Tom Baker and James Goss

This book is better than it has any right to be, seeing that it’s based on a madcap, drunken idea for a Doctor Who film that Tom Baker and Ian Marter came up with on a weekend in the 1970s. It turns out to be a decent sort of Wicker Man folk horror for the first half, with a nightmarishly surreal second part in which the Doctor confronts (and eventually beats) the devil. If there are a few too many hairs-breadth escapes and not as much logical rigour as I’d like, it’s more than made up for by the fact that the story works on two levels. Beneath the knockabout plot, it’s a book about Tom Baker’s love for a role he played for 9 years, the terror of not being the Doctor any more, and the marvellous fact that the role is open to anyone. Even you and me.

The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macaulay

Sad endings are always the worst when you don’t see them coming. Anna Karenina and King Lear are bearable since the approaching calamity is known already; in other books, the foreshadowing softens the blow. This book, for much of its length, is an eccentric, hilarious romp of the kind that immediately makes one want to light out for the Black Sea coast and start taking camel riding lessons. Part of the charm was a structure so unpredictable it was impossible to tell where the plot would head next—only in the tragic aftermath do the comic episodes pull together into a melancholy, but rather lovely, thematic coherence.

Athelston, in Middle English Verse Romances

These are fun for stretching my language skills without being particularly difficult in plot or rhetoric. This one almost has the plot of a fairy tale, with the innocent vindicated and the wicked coming to a very sticky end, and despite the occasional stock line the verse lilts along nicely.

Sir Launfal, in Middle English Verse Romances

A tale of Arthur’s knights, based apparently on the Breton Lais, which I recall having to read in a terribly dull prose translation in university. This again has more the feel of a fairy story: a poor knight is taken as lover by a fairy lady who lavishes him with gifts, temporarily abandons him after he inadvertently breaks his word but comes back at last to carry him away into fairyland. Poor Guenevre does not come off at all well here, getting Sir Launfal into hot water with the court after he turns down her advances.

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Ever since going through a rough period at one of my school placements, I’ve cried really easily, and I welled up at multiple points while reading this children’s classic. I can still remember as a kid how much I wanted to be Dickon, and it’s nice to reflect I can name more trees, flowers, birds and constellations than I could as a kid. My year 7 class are such inner-city kids that they don’t even know what a robin looks like, so it’s interesting to think about how to bring some nature to them—starting with a bunch of daffs on Wednesday.

The Veiled Woman, by Anaïs Nin

Damn saucy stuff! Like most erotica, best taken one at a time. This 50 page modern classic is about the right length for one go.

Orestes, by Euripides, trans. William Arrowsmith

This is a tragedy one would rather like to be in the original Greek audience for just to watch everyone’s jaws drop. Talk about subverting audience expectations! We open with Pylades, Orestes and Electra from the trilogy by Aeschylus, and we think we know how it’s going to go—Orestes, tormented by furies following his revenge murder of Clytemnestra, wins the angry townspeople over to his side. Instead, they try to murder Helen, kidnap Helen’s daughter Hermione, and set their own house on fire. Apollo comes on at the end to do damage control, but it feels too pat and way too late.