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.

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Books I read this June

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

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

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

The Bramble King by Catherine Fisher

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

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

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

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

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

Nets to Catch the Wind by Elinor Wylie

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

In Search of Sir Thomas Browne by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

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

The Birthplace by Henry James

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

Doctor Who: Interference Book One by Lawrence Miles

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

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

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirilees

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

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

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

Poirot’s Early Cases by Agatha Christie

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

Solon and Alexander in Plutarch’s Lives

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

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

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

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

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

Phaedrus by Plato

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

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

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

Doctor Who: Festival of Death by Jonathan Morris

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

Theseus and Lycurgus in Plutarch’s Lives

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

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