Books I read in August 2020

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

The Sea-Wolf, by Jack London

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

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

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

Sharpe’s Gold, by Bernard Cornwell

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

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

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

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, by Patricia A. McKillip

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

Singularity Sky, by Charles Stross

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

Iron Sunrise, by Charles Stross

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

Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy L Sayers

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

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

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

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

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

The Iron Wolf, by Ted Hughes

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

Books I read in June 2020

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

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

Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

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

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, modernised by JRR Tolkien

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

Polo, by Jilly Cooper, read by Sherry Baines

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

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

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

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

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

Spiderlight, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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