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A mere six books this month–partly due to the time taken to change accommodation, partly due to getting hooked on long-outdated Assassin’s Creed games, but mostly because that biography of Colette was really long, and I kept getting most of the way through one book before starting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

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 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!