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A mere six books this month–partly due to the time taken to change accommodation, partly due to getting hooked on long-outdated Assassin’s Creed games, but mostly because that biography of Colette was really long, and I kept getting most of the way through one book before starting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

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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.

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 October

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This month, by taking advantage of the half term and making good use of audiobooks, I managed to read a whopping 24 books.

Sanshirō, by Natsume Soseki

A peculiarly delicate coming-of-age novel set in Japan in 1907. The main character remains diffident, shy and inexpressive throughout, and very little happens in terms of plot, but the writing immerses you in another country and time period, making you live through another’s eyes.

Henry II: A Prince Among Princes, by Richard Barber

Unusually for an entry in the Penguin Monarchs series, the book begins with a chapter on ‘The Man’, stringing together eyewitness accounts from Walter Map, Gerald of Wales, etc. This works to give him a definite figure and personality, energising his earlier career. Only later, during his rupture with Thomas Becket, is this mental image usurped by Peter O’Toole. A tantalising and energetic brief introduction.

The Harder They Fall, by Bali Rai

Year 10 were getting a talk by the author in the library during their enrichment day, and I noticed one of his books on display. Thus, I spent half of his hour-long talk listening with half an ear while I breezed through this short children’s novel of a bully getting his comeuppance, brought up to date with scenes in food banks, lots of Batman references, and the key importance of mobile phones to the finale. Brisk, simple and relatable.

The Selected Poems, by Jonathan Swift, edited by A. Norman Jeffries

Swift, thou shouldst be living at this hour! At a time when there’s so much ire and so little wit in our public discourse, it was delightful to read some really pungent, scabrous satire. I always forget how rude Swift is; though he adopts the Scriblerian posture of scourging vice, not personalities, there’s plenty here that would now infringe our uptight libel laws. Some of the Dean’s verses that could even be mistaken in a poor light for the work of that atheist libertine, the Earl of Rochester. His poems benefit from being read quickly in bulk, I think. Nothing gets same-y, you appreciate the range of tone, and have more impetus to tackle the longer poems.

Richard II: A Brittle Glory, by Laura Ashe

Another outlier in this series, Ashe’s book feels less like a Richard II biography and more like a sociological study of medieval life, broken down into fields like Parliament, Religion and the City. It’s beautifully written, making extensive use of Chaucer and the Gawain poet to catch the texture of the period, and unlike last month’s biography of Henry V it thoughtfully interacts with and supplements Shakespeare’s portrayal of the King. I’m just still not sure that this thematic, non-chronological treatment is best suited to the biographical task.

The Railway Detective, by Edward Marsden

First in a series of paperback detective novels that seem popular, so I decided to give them a shot. However, I found the Victorian dialogue was stilted and the setpieces didn’t have the oomph I was hoping for. Struggled to finish it and will be sticking to my Boris Akunin in future.

Edward I: A New King Arthur?, by Andy King

This book balances its interests rather better than Ashe’s take on Richard II, with King admitting from the off that it’s hard to write a modern biography of a medieval King because their personality and their agency is thoroughly occluded by the bureaucracy that surrounds them. Chapters are thematic and only loosely chronological, but because King keeps Edward I in the centre of the frame at all times, he avoids the diffuseness of Ashe’s treatment. Edward’s reputation as a great lawmaker, working effectively with the medieval Parliament, is explored and illuminated as clearly as his mastery of warfare, and I finished it feeling like I’d gained a balanced insight into a King some hail as a glorious conqueror and other (particularly north of the border) vilify as a tyrant.

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

I read this in the Oxford Schools Edition, which doesn’t get the plaudits due to it: it’s one of the most satisfactory Shakespeare reading experiences I’ve ever had, with clear concise marginal notes, charming little illustrations and helpful scholarly commentary in the front and back, including excerpts from Shakespeare’s sources. Stuff the Arden edition, with its two lines of Shakespeare to a page of academic disputation: this is the edition you want. Vastly enjoyed the play, to the point where I began muttering Macbeth’s final soliloquy to myself in the English Learning Base, and I am looking forward to teaching it.

Cratylus, by Plato

The whole of western philosophy is footnotes to Plato, they say, and this short dialogue on naming and etymology kicks off the linguistic branch that Saussure and Derrida will continue. I always found that side of things rather tedious, and the dialogue does rather suffer in translation, where Socrates’ lengthy (and I think satiric) etymologies of common Greek words don’t pass the language barrier. One thing that did strike me was when Socrates defined the title of the person who gives names to things as a legislator–I wondered if and how this fits in with Percy Shelley’s famous definition of poets as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’

Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance, by Daisy Hay

This is a charming book, telling the stories of Disraeli and his wife Mary Ann through their own letters, and the lifelong romance of their marriage has many sweet and tender moments. It’s definitely a one-archive book, however detailed that archive may be, and doesn’t quite stand alone as an account of the time and manners–for one thing, Gladstone’s barely in it! For a record of a marriage, though, there are few things to beat it.

How Much Land Does A Man Need? by Leo Tolstoy

One of the little black Penguins–80p for 80 pages, or two short stories by the famous Russian novelist. It’s almost the opposite experience to reading Anna Karenina; short and dramatic where Anna was long and symphonic, peasant stories full of devils and angels while Anna is a realist novel set among the upper classes. But for all that, the limpidity of  Tolstoy’s style carries over, and there’s a supreme art in making fiction this artless.

The Wanderings of Oisin and other poems, by William Butler Years

Yeats’s first ever volume of verse, a good proportion of which was later suppressed while other parts were comprehensively redrafted. The latter is particularly evident in the title poem, a three part epic where the first two parts were infinitely improved in later revisions, making the diction terser and more concrete where before it had been prone to a medieval fuzziness I think Yeats inherited from William Morris. The allegorical structure remains the same, however, which makes it an interesting study in form and content, and the time and effort needed for artistry to draw level with conception.

The Apology of Socrates, by Plato

It has been a long while since last I read this, and Socrates’ splendid lack of repentance and refusal to truckle to his judges struck me anew. Only Macheath–a much coarser character–rivals him for defiance in the face of the gallows. One of the easier, shorter and less ambitious dialogues of Plato, which is why dabblers like me tend to start off with the Apology and never quite get around to the Republic.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

Read for the A-levels, where the students will be comparing it to The Bloody Chamber as part of the module on the Gothic. They’re unlikely bedfellows, I think, and especially with Dorian Gray there’s so much going on within it besides the Gothic that that theoretical lens only gives a partial view. In terms of the decadent movement, I think they’ve got much more in common.

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter, read by Emilia Fox and Richard Armitage

The modern classic, a compendium of traditional fairy tales retold with savage and sexually provocative gusto, spawning a thousand imitators. Reread, like Dorian Gray, for the A-level course, alternating between the book and the audiobook as time allowed. Emilia Fox is a fine narrator, but she has all the lengthiest stories to herself, and I was left feeling I hadn’t had quite enough of Richard Armitage, who performs Puss in Boots with an infinitely seductive purr.

Confusion, by Stefan Zweig

This is a very gay novel–and precocious, seeing that it was written in German in 1927. It tells the story of an ingenue student and an elderly professor whose kind interest in him alternates with periods of brusque rejection. The twist isn’t terribly surprising to a modern reader, but it’s handled in a sympathetic fashion that doesn’t alienate twentieth-century sensibilities. The professor’s wife, who sleeps with the student, is rather underserved. Despite all this going on, the sexiest thing in the book is when the professor starts talking about Shakespeare.

Amors de Voyage, by Arthur Hugh Clough

There was a period in the nineteenth century where it suddenly became fashionable to write in English hexameters. Despite a few fine lines (‘Lover whose vehement kisses on lips irresponsive are squandered’) most of the poems turned out dreadfully turgid, with Robert Southey’s Vision of Judgement among the more notorious examples. It’s something of a piece with Clough’s standing as the poet laureate of agnosticism, doubt and uncertainty to award Amors de Voyage the equivocal title of ‘probably the best poem in English hexameters.’ The plot, in which the conceptual hero fails either to get caught up in the struggle for the Italian republic or to get the girl, is also a masterclass of ambivalence. It’s an odd fusion of epistolary novel, travelogue and Matthew Arnold’s ‘Marguerite’ poems extended into five cantos.

The Devil’s Pool, by George Sand

A pastoral novel of rural France, probably a great deal more charming in the original French, but more than sufficiently appealing in this elegant English translation.

Henry VI: A Good, Simple and Innocent Man, by James Ross

The tragedy of Henry VI was that he was suited to be almost anything other than a King. It’s possible to imagine him living a blameless and holy life in some sympathetic monastery whose brothers would have allowed him to express his fervent piety and nursed him through his occasional bouts of mental illness. Ross’s treatment is sympathetic, but does not shy away from Henry’s massive failings of leadership. He should be praised for making the complexities of the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses understandable in a brief 100 pages. It’s a far easier and less confusing task than slogging through Shakespeare’s trilogy of history plays, which were perhaps never done better than when the BBC cut out great tranches of filler and distilled them down into two parts.

Edward IV: The Summer King, by A.J. Pollard

One of only three Kings between Richard II and Henry VIII not to get the full Shakespeare treatment, this elegant biography makes no bones about the fact he was really something of a rotter. His reign may pass the low bar of being more stable than that of his predecessor, the mentally ill Henry VI, but this charming sexual predator connived at the regicide of Henry and the judicial fratricide of his own brother, the Duke of Clarence Talented as he may have been in war, in peace his achievements were few, and it’s hard to think of a more repulsive character ever to occupy the English throne. Even Richard III shines brighter in the glamour of the revisionists and the dark brilliance of Shakespeare’s characterisation.

Under the Jaguar Sun, by Italo Calvino

A slim collection of three Calvino stories, united under the theme of the senses. ‘Under the Jaguar Sun’, representing taste, is the story of a cannibalism-curious couple touring the culinary and cultural highlights of Aztec Mexico, and feels a lot like a holiday piece. ‘A King Listens’, representing hearing, is a second person story that suffers by comparison to Calvino’s own If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, and grows tiresome for lack of characterisation. ‘A Name, A Nose’, representing scent, has all the edged sensuousness of an Angela Carter piece combined with Calvino’s own structural genius, and stands as my favourite of the collection. I wonder if the title is parodying the debut novel of his countryman, Umberto Eco?

The Day of the Doctor by Stephen Moffat, read by Nicholas Briggs

Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary story was so wholly satisfying that it’s hard to imagine a better. Moffat’s novelisation, however, makes it a richer and deeper experience, challenging the easy assumptions of TV viewers and turning lines, characters and whole scenes on their head. If it’s sometimes a little clever-clever, the wit, care and imagination is staggering. Even in a scene where John Hurt, David Tennant and Matt Smith are in a room together, Moffat finds a way to add something. Nicholas Briggs is an experienced audio performer who also does the Dalek voices on the TV show, and his impersonation of John Hurt is spot-on. His Dalek Emperor voice from Series One makes a welcome cameo, one of several Easter Eggs in this stylish audiobook.

This Transmission, by Mike McNamara

The poet contacted me on social media asking if I could get him a review, and since the book was 36 pages long and free online, I volunteered to read it for the blog. He’s a songwriter as well, and the ones I liked best are the ones closest to songs, like the boastful, Nick Cave swagger of ‘From Prussia With Love’. Elsewhere, as in the Dylan-Thomas-saturated ‘Crab Apple Jack’, there’s such mystic intoxication of words that the poem itself passes out and slips under the table. A short lyric, ‘The Winter Palace’, stands out for simplicity and economy in a collection flooded by the stream of consciousness.

The October Man, by Ben Aaronovitch, read by Sam Peter Jackson

Breaking my own rule on never listening to a book before I read it, this Rivers of London novella does a barnstorming job of introducing an entirely new cast in a shared universe while also proving to be a surprisingly good entry point for the series. Both writing and narration give a vivid impression of the German setting, characters and rhythms of speech.

Books I read this September

img_1451.jpgThis was my first month teaching in the secondary school system, and if I still managed to read eleven books, it’s only down to the fact that many of them are slim Penguin biographies of under a hundred pages. I’m looking forward to breaking into something substantial over October half term.

Accelerando, by Charles Stross

Nothing dates faster than the future, and this early work by one of my favourite writers already seems a touch dated. The opening chapters are cyberpunk to the point of self-parody, but each of the chapters time-jumps a decade or more, and halfway through the book most of the inner solar system is already being broken down for computational substrate, while an interstellar mission has discovered an alien wormhole network out in the Oort cloud. It’s a bit like watching The Expanse on fast forward. Exhausting at times–Stross does love to ping the ideas about–but never dull.

The Homeric Hymns, trans. Jules Cashford

Worth reading as the earliest source for Greek myths–the abduction of Prosperine, for example, which my girlfriend maintains is the cover for an awesome Goth romance, but as told here is more of a mother-daughter story. The longer ones–to Apollo, Demeter, Aphrodite and especially Hermes–are most interesting, since most of the others are short and unremarkable, and Cashford doesn’t do these many favours by centre-spacing them, in a bid to make them look poetic by the standard of Instagram. Hermes is far and away the highlight, since the hymn to him as a wildly precocious young trickster God is a total tonal leap apart from the rest of material. It’s funny, sarky, and full of life, and I may try my hand at writing my own slang version.

The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester

Another dated future, this one of the 1950s. The solar system’s colonised and a sizable proportion of the human race have developed telepathy, but computers are still specialised devices the size of rooms. This one’s a crime proceedural, rather than a mystery. Ben Reich, head of the Monarch corporation, plots the perfect murder, and then Lincoln Powell, the telepathic Chief of Police, has to catch him out. The Freudian twist is that Reich’s motives aren’t what he assumes. Would make an interesting companion to a Philip K. Dick novel.

George I: The Lucky King, by Tim Blanning

Blanning admits immediately that the first Hanoverian King isn’t the most interesting in the dynasty, but the advantage of these sub-100 page Penguin Monarchs is that you can learn a good deal about the lesser lights without having to swallow a doorstopper. The biography of Henry VIII I read in this series felt overstuffed–poor Catherine Howard was married and killed off in the course of a paragraph–but here we get an easy tour of the reign’s highlights: Handel’s water music, the South Sea Bubble, Walpole scheming, ructions with the Prince of Wales, and endless European wars handled with admirable clarity and lightness of touch. Blanning has a good eye for anecdotes, and never lets the Electorate of Hanover slip out of focus while he’s narrating the affairs of England. Overall, rather a lucky commission.

James II: The Last Catholic King, by David Wormsley

The cover of this one presents James II as a looming, bewigged panto villain, so it’s a surprise how handsome he is in his portraits, particularly in his younger days as Duke of York and Lord Admiral, with a strong chin, good posture, and none of his father’s wispy facial hair. Wormsley likes to focus on this period, the colourful Restoration days when Pepys, Evelyn and Dryden were writing, and we’re halfway through the book before James comes to the throne. The question Wormsley focusses on is how it all went so wrong so fast, and while this threatens to enmesh him in tangles of historiography, he pulls through and gives a vivid portrait of a tactless, stubborn and imperious monarch who kept blundering and blundering until he finally had to flee the country. Plus, I have a soft spot for any historian still willing to quote Macaulay with enjoyment.

Edward II: The Terrors of Kingship, by Christopher Given-Wilson

Another failed King, this one famously a) gay and b) executed by red-hot poker up the jacksie, though both these received facts are questioned in this book. His struggles with the barons are rather hard going at times, since there are a lot of Mortimers, Pembrokes and Gloucesters to keep track off. Given-Wilson does manage to give a character to Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, and keeps us clued in to Robert the Bruce’s nation building and the dizzy throne-swapping in France. The life is briskly run through in four equal chapters, plus a welcome epilogue on legacy, which touches on a failed sainthood bid, Marlowe’s history play, and his adoption as a gay icon.

William I: England’s Conqueror by Marc Morris

William the Conqueror (or the Bastard, as he was known in his own times) is one of those Kings who exist as dates and battles rather than personalities. Aside from sketchy representations on his coinage and the Bayeux Tapestry, there isn’t even a portrait of him, so while Morris fills in the build-up and aftermath of the famous battle in Hastings well enough, the material can sometimes be a little dry. Two new facts leapt out at me: firstly, William was England’s first abolitionist, abolishing chattel slavery among the Anglo-Saxons, something that sits very oddly alongside his reputation as a brutal overlord. Secondly, it looks like the Domesday Book wasn’t a tax record after all, but a land register: a way to establish property ownership, alongside the principle that all land was held from the King.

Complete Poems, by Basil Bunting

I’d read through Briggflats a couple of times, and always put it aside as a poem needing more study and annotation that I could spare. So the sheer readability of this collection came as a surprise to me. Bunting’s other long poems, or sonatas as he calls them, are relatively accessible, filled with a pugnacious vitality, and very much of their eras. The 30s stuff, filled with meditations of castration and sterility, is influenced by Eliot’s The Waste Land without being slavishly imitative, and Bunting, never without as sense of humour, can be entertainingly brusque with Eliot’s elegaic postures. The short poems, or Odes, are a marvellous assortment. I was delighted by the pair of emigrant ballads smuggled in alongside the verse libre, and sniggered at the appendix of limericks.

Henry V: Playboy Prince to Warrior King, by Anne Curry

A neatly structured pocket biography, but I got to the end feeling like Shakespeare had covered all the major points. It was good to hear about some of the behind the scenes events–troubles with Lollard heresy, Henry IV’s probable syphilis and relations between King and parliament–but nothing here challenged the narrative shape and characterisation set by the history plays.

Pericles and Fabius Maximus, by Plutarch

Not the most obvious pairing in the Parallel Lives, Pericles being the politician’s politician, and F.M. the general’s general. I find the latter more sympathetic, in the stoic tradition of generalship that extends to Grant and Patton, fighting off Hannibal and public opinion simultaneously. With Pericles in the golden age of Athens, you can see why the rest of Greece hated them, and how much effort it took Pericles to keep the wheels on while he lived. Still, it was worth it to leave us the Parthenon.

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

My first time reading through this Dickens novel, as part of the project of reading all the school set texts I should probably have read by this stage. George Bernard Shaw does right to call it his most compactly perfect novel; Our Mutual Friend is still my favourite, but that’s an enormous, baggy, novel full of tour-de-force chapters, while this is one complete, compelling tale with nothing superfluous in it.