Books I read this November

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Nineteen books this month; none of them War and Peace, and the numbers swelled a little by including separate plays in the same volume. A busy December meant I’ve only just had time to write them up.

Good Morning, Midnight, by Jean Rhys

I like a plot too much to be a good Modernist–it’s one of the reasons why the only two Virginia Woolf books I’ve taken to are Flush and Orlando. Anyway, this is the story of a skint, socially anxious flaneureuse with a tragic past, wandering through Paris at night. It reads kind of like a female Down and Out in Paris and London, without Orwell’s journalistic tendencies. I thought the crushing misery of the opening chapters would wear me out over the book’s course, but I found myself more involved than I expected. Credit to my girlfriend for inciting me to step outside my comfort zone with this one.

Mary I: The Daughter of Time, by John Edwards

Edwards starts with a tub-thumping introduction on the need to re-evaluate ‘Bloody Mary’ and let her step outside the long shadow of her half-sister. There’s some good rehabilitatory work here on the breadth and scope of her education, her stubborn will and the talents of her bishops and advisors. There’s also her marriage to Prince Philip of Spain, one of England’s vanishingly few King Consorts and rarely if ever referred to as King Philip I of England. He’s a horrible character, and Mary’s never more sympathetic than in her devotion to him, even as, realising she’s unlikely to give him a child, he starts eyeing up Elizabeth. The price of this revisionism is that Edwards’s account of the burning of 300 Protestants gets subsumed entirely into his account of Mary’s success at re-Catholicising the English Church. The way he compares English heresy laws with the Spanish Inquisition is more than a little chilling, and a moral judgement here would have given us a book with more heart.

Rubicon, by Tom Holland

A history of the collapse of the Roman Republic from the dictatorship of Sulla through to the final triumph of Octavian. Holland writes with enormous pace and wit, and his prose reminds me pleasantly of the early twentieth century in its occasional references to a shared literary culture that lesser authors assume to have perished. Catching the unassuming allusions to Yeats, Shakespeare and Shelley was delightful. Nor was I bored when things moved from the relatively unexplored period of the Marius / Sulla rivalry to the more familiar campaigns of Caesar–Holland sheds fresh light wherever he goes, and his Cleopatra is a constant stealer of scenes.

Boys, Girls and Learning Pocketbook, by Ian Smith

A useful, accessible little guide to research on gender in education, complete with little cartoons. Some of it meshes really well with the targets I’m being set and the kind of behaviour I’m seeing in schools, but I think the most useful bits have less to do with gender and more to do with the ethos of the classroom.

Erato, by Deryn Rees-Jones

Serious, thought-provoking poetry, reviewed for Wales Arts Review.

Claudine at School, by Colette, trans. Antonia White.

First term at Malory Towers this is not. The two mademoiselles in charge of the school are conducting a torrid lesbian affair, the school inspector will grope anything in a skirt, and the class are more or less left to their own devices. None of this much bothers Claudine, except insofar as it provides an opportunity for mischief. It’s very French, but even in France, you’d never get away with it these days, and I enjoyed it despite my urge to raise my eyes heavenwards and shriek ‘Won’t somebody think of the safeguarding issues?’

Wyrms, by Orson Scott Card

This novel begins brilliantly, with some thoroughly gripping palace intrigue which reminded me of Dune, but afterwards resolved itself into a fairly straightforward quest structure. The worldbuilding gave it interest–Scott Card can really write aliens, and his fascination with hybridity comes through just as clearly here as in Speaker for the Dead. The conclusion feels a bit of a let down, with the big bad–the Unwyrm–much more effective as a distant presence than an immediate foe. The book’s going to remain in my memory a long time, though, for its vivid aliens, Greek Orthodox backdrop, and sheer psychosexual weirdness. It’s like a deeply messed-up version of C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet.

Flush, by Virginia Woolf

As I said earlier, I’ve resigned myself some time ago to being a shallow reader of Woolf, but I will always love her for Flush, the warm, genial and surprisingly moving biography of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s pet spaniel. It’s a shame Woolf killed herself before she could do more in this vein.

Flashman at the Charge, by George MacDonald Frazer

Reading a Flashman novel is like watching The Wolf of Wall Street–frightfully politically incorrect, hugely enjoyable, and surprisingly clear-eyed in its examination of British Imperial / American Financial excess. This one’s a globe-trotter, with the Crimean War and the charge of the Light Brigade covered in the first 100 pages: other episodes include a peasant revolt in Tsarist Russia and a guerrilla campaign in Central Asia. I expected my interest to droop after we left the Crimea, but the last section of the novel is perhaps the funniest and most moving.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street, by Rudolph Bessier

After finishing Flush for the second time, I felt a renewed impulse to track down and read this famous old melodrama online. It takes great temporal leaps, but observes the unity of place with fearsome loyalty, never moving outside of EBB’s room. For the 1930s, it’s surprisingly Freudian, and the Gothic figure of Mr Barrett, with his stifled incestuous urges, is a tremendous villain, even if the whole thing is still a bit too stagey to rival Tennessee Williams.

Alcestis, by Euripides, trans. Richard Lattimore

Someone on Facebook was saying that translations from the 40s are now nearly unreadable and only the modern translations of Euripides hold any water. I can’t say I agree–I’ve always had a thing for older translations over modern ones. There’s an 1893 Aeschylus that I love to pieces, right beside this amazing-smelling set of plays by Euripides in three volumes, printed in America in the 1960s. Like everything Lattimore ever did, this translation holds up; he does the Greek hexameter in six-stress lines so fluid and subtle it took me most of the play to notice. It’s the story of Adrastus, who has Apollo’s permission to escape Death if anyone is willing to die in his place. His wife Alcestis steps up to the task, and the play explores what kind of man he is to let her make that sacrifice. Fortunately, his best mate Heracles is at hand to wrestle Hades and drag Alcestis back from death, but this is the first play I can think of where the question of what happens after the curtain drops is as urgent as in Merchant of Venice or Measure for Measure. Has Adrastus learnt his lesson? What the hell does Alcestis say to him when she’s been purified and can speak again? Will the marriage recover? How do their children cope? Any number of things for a canny director to figure out.

W.H. Auden: Poems selected by John Fuller

I have a vast collected edition, but it’s often nice to borrow a slim selected to figure out what may have got lost in the churn. This edition has a clever organising principle: 2 pages for every year of Auden’s writing life, 1927-73. This, and clever selection from the longer poems, mitigates the idiocy of leaving out his single best poem, ‘Lullaby’.

The Great Hunger, by Patrick Kavanagh

A 50 page Penguin Modern Classics booklet, which is good because I did not find Kavanagh sympathetic and would have abandoned a larger selection before finishing. My interest flares up occasionally when his satiric side kicks in, as with ‘Pegasus’ but the bits that prefigure Heaney, especially the long title poem, are a dreadful slog. More than happy to stick closer to home with my R.S. Thomas and my Idris Davies.

The Medea, by Euripides, trans. Rex Warner

There’s an odd bit in the general introduction to this volume where Richmond Lattimore tells us that Euripides’ Medea is ‘several kinds of women unsuccessfully assembled’. This seems to me to be exactly the kind of basic error that puzzled many mid-twentieth century critics of Milton’s Satan in the both characters are deliberately, and brilliantly, deceptive. What you see is not what you get. Both engage our sympathies even where they should repulse us; there’s something thrilling in Medea’s triumph even though it comes at the cost of her children’s lives.

Warner’s 1944 translation has some of the metrical tics of his era, where he’s replaced blank verse with a trochaic / dactylic thing that just sounds weird. Auden might have been able to make it work, but it Warner’s hands it drains the speeches of some of their force, and only the end-stopped stichomythia are really effective.

The Heracleidae, by Euripides, trans. Ralph Gladstone

This edition being the work of several hands, their different styles make and interesting comparison. The verse of this translation is more to my tooth–fluid and daringly colloquial blank verse that takes a risk on rhyming the choral odes and by-and-large succeeds.  The play itself tells of the children of Heracles being hunted and harassed by King Eurystheus until they take up sanctuary in Athens, whose King decides to shelter them and fight for their cause. There are moments of high drama: I love it when the chorus tell the King of Athens  ‘For heaven’s sake don’t hit a diplomat’ to which the King retorts ‘Then let the diplomat behave himself’. Too often, however, the characters haven’t got the depth Euripides is known for. Alcmene, persecuted mother of the late Heracles, has possibilites, as does Macaria, the daughter of Heracles who agrees to be sacrificed to ensure the victory, but at the play’s end they haven’t made the impression they should.

Edward III: A Heroic Failure, by Jonathan Sumpton

Due to the limitations of the 100-page format, this is a book about the beginning of the Hundred Years War and everything else gets short shrift. We’re not told when Edward married Philippa of Hainhault, or even where Hainhault is. The first time we see the Black Prince, he’s already sixteen and being knighted on one of his father’s French campaigns. For what it is, though, the build-up to war in the first two chapters is gripping, as is the analysis of how Edward’s diplomatic and financial failings lost him all that his military genius won. At one point he had both the Kings of France and Scotland as his prisoners, but by the time he died his territories were just as unsettled and beset by the French and Scots as when he first came to the throne.

Stephen: The Reign of Anarchy, by Carl Watkins

The biography of Henry I was one of the best things I read in this series, bringing a forgotten golden age to vivid life. King Stephen’s biography is about how all this unravelled, with the realm divided between Stephen, an anointed King with a weak claim to the throne, and Mathilda, daughter and heir to King Henry but labouring under the disadvantage of being female in a heavily patriarchal age. The prose doesn’t dazzle, but it tells the story of this bloody stalemate clearly and effectively, making good use of the chronicle sources. It’s a bit hamstrung by the long recap for the benefit of those who haven’t read the previous book: Stephen doesn’t appear until page 10, which is very late in a book that only stretches to 90 pages, excluding notes.

Richard I: The Crusader King, by Thomas Asbridge

An enthusiastic biography of one of England’s folk hero Kings that asks all the revisionist questions–Did he abandon England for the Crusades? Was he a war criminal?–and comes up with a mainly positive evaluation, arguing that his chief failing was a lack of interest in continuing his dynasty. It ends on an effective cliffhanger, foreshadowing the disastrous reign of King John.

Alien, by Alan Dean Foster, read by Peter Guin

ADF is reputed to be the king of the film novelisation, and it’s interesting to see how the two forms hold up. The film is more elegant and less expository, though the book makes great use of the scene where the facehugger attacks Kane, making it properly horrific where the film goes for a jump scare. No amount of narration can rival the inspired creature design by H.R. Giger and wisely EDF doesn’t even try.

Books I read this June

IMG_1352As an English Literature PhD, you can expect that I read a fair bit. Eighteen books this month, in fact. Here’s the full list from my journal:

An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile by Donall MacAmhlaigh, trans. Valentin Iremonger

Colourful and insightful diary of a working-class immigrant from Kilkenny to Northampton. Interesting insight into how important talk and storytelling were in the absence of TV and radio, and how much the navvies lived a life of the mind even after a day of backbreaking labour.

The Bramble King by Catherine Fisher

Poetry collection that’s more like the material for an autobiography and several fantasy novels, laid by and preserved. Full review here.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

I fell in love with this for the footnotes, but despite the abundance of local colour and fascinating glimpses into a closed society, there wasn’t enough plot to urge me to seek out the sequel, and the central couple were considerably less interesting than the supporting cast. Would be tempted to seek out the film, however.

Aladdin, or The Wonderful Lamp, trans. Sir Richard Burton

Enjoyed reading this Arabian Nights original and noting its many variances from the Disney movie, but rather missed Burton’s lengthy and eccentric footnotes, not included in this edition.

Nets to Catch the Wind by Elinor Wylie

A recommendation from Jo Walton’s Tor blog, which I read on Project Gutenberg. Lush Yeatsian verse. Discovered the last line of ‘The Falcon’ has been haunting me since first I read it in some anthology or the other. Ordered the collected works.

In Search of Sir Thomas Browne by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Not a biographical study, but a meditation on what unites and divides two science writers across 350 years. Both are genial company, and Aldersey-Williams has some intriguing thoughts on how Browne’s worldview differs from his own.

The Birthplace by Henry James

Enjoyable novella where the Jamesian style is distinctive but not laid on thick enough to suffocate, coupled with an insufferable smug introduction by Mark Rylance.

Doctor Who: Interference Book One by Lawrence Miles

I got into Doctor Who in the years prior to RTD’s big 2005 relaunch, when BBC books were still printing an Eighth Doctor novel every month or so. They were meant to be read sequentially, but as an impoverished teen I was limited to what I could get out of the library and the occasional remaindered stock that turned up in the works. The effect was rather like being introduced to the Steven Moffat era through Let’s Kill Hitler, only worse.

There’s a hardcore completionist still lurking in me fifteen years later, so spotting this book in a secondhand bookshop for half what it goes for on eBay, I took a pop at this famous novel from the enfant terrible of the range. It’s brimming with ideas and well-written, with a pleasantly period tinge of the nineties, but it suffers from the BBC author’s habit of putting the Doctor through as much torture as possible. I’d be tempted to go on to Part Two–but have you seen what that goes for on eBay?

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirilees

An English fantasy novel, drawing from Goblin Market and The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and influencing Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Deals with the lives of folk who live on the borders of fairyland, and the attractions and dangers of luscious contraband fairy fruit.

Doctor Who: The Taking of Planet Five by Simon Bucher-Jones and Mark Clapham

Interference tempted me to return to old Doctor Who novels, and this crossover with H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness was less solemn than the last book but very successful at presenting a huge-scale science-fiction adventure–entire universes hang in the balance–without drowning in technobabble. A very satisfying munch, and a surprisingly good entry-point to the arc.

Poirot’s Early Cases by Agatha Christie

Eighteen stories makes this collection overstuffed–I would have liked fewer stories of greater length–but Poirot and Hastings are charming, and some of the stories are little masterpieces, particularly ‘The King of Clubs’, ‘The Third Floor Flat’ and ‘How Does Your Garden Grow’. They need to be read over a course of evenings, however, because all at once is too much.

Solon and Alexander in Plutarch’s Lives

Two very different men–one a lawgiver so ambivalent about power he left Athens for ten years in order to give his laws time to bed in, and the other the conqueror of one of the greatest empires known to man. Solon’s is the more endearing story but Alexander’s is the most marvellous. I may steal some details of the Siege of Tyre for a short story.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

The sequel to The Just City, a book that enthralled me but ended unsatisfactorily, The Philosopher Kings ends with a literal deus ex machina so complete that seeking out the third volume, Necessity, hardly feels necessary. I still find the plain, unsensuous philosophical style a great draw, even as its attention to torture and sexual violence repels. I still enjoy the long stretches of conversation and debate, and still skip ahead to read the sections narrated by Maia, unquestionably the best character–the two others, Apollo and Arete, start to sound the same after a while. Where the previous book made me eager to read more Plato, however, this book with its long sea voyages made me keener to reread Homer. With the Platonic cities removed, at the book’s conclusion, from the pre-historic Aegean to a far-future planet, my enthusiasm for the series drops off.

To Catch A King: Charles II’s Great Escape by Charles Spencer

Read over a period of several months. A compelling history borrowed for a mooted historical novel I will likely never write. I already knew more than most about Charles II’s famous sojourn in the Royal Oak, but the book is particularly good on the background of the Battle of Worcester and the details of the escape, narrated in a moment by moment fashion. The final forty pages of wrapping up are rather dull.

Phaedrus by Plato

A brisk short dialogue, by no means as intimidating as The Republic, covering love, virture, reincarnation, the use of rhetoric, and the translation from an oral to a textual culture. Socrates is wonderfully sarky throughout (a modern translation helps bring this out) and it has a pleasing outdoor conviviality to it, rather than some of the more public, competitive dialogues.

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

My first Lord Peter Wimsey, a whodunnit set at a 1930s ad agency, like a British version of Mad Men. Surprised it isn’t the highlight of ITV’s autumn schedule–like Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, it speaks strongly to our own times and is more than ripe for adaptation.

Doctor Who: Festival of Death by Jonathan Morris

A past Doctor adventure with the Fourth Doctor and Romana II, the novel faithfully recreates the feeling of a 1970s serial right down to the retro-futurism and the bungling bureaucrat. An interesting exercise in story-telling in reverse, but lacking a little in atmosphere. Made a good beach read.

Theseus and Lycurgus in Plutarch’s Lives

On the borders of history and legend, Theseus is not Plutarch’s most vividly drawn subject, though his theories on the real-life inspiration of the minotaur myth can be fascinating. With Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver, details of his life are thin on the ground, but the details of how he reformed the Spartan state are fascinating, and rich material for young-adult authors looking for a new dystopian society.

And that’s it for June; more next month!