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.