By Tom Holland
The late Roman Republic had no shortage of great people and large talents, a usually constant competition to amass the most money and prestige, elbowing out the competition, and in some cases, getting them exiled (or killed). This period of ancient history has held a fascination for a lot of writers and historians over the years and it is easy to see why. The personalities and exploits are often so outrageous that it is quite amazing that they happened over the course of barely fifty years. In a good writer's hands, these stories are still exciting, and sometimes appalling. There is also a lot to recognise from our own times.
Luckily, Tom Holland is a very good writer and historian and has written a superb history book, one of the best I've read. I can thoroughly recommend this, even to those who might be averse to "history". This is the opposite of dry.
The Buried Giant
By Kazuo Ishiguro
I have wanted to read something by Ishiguro for a while and saw The Buried Giant for sale cheaply in a charity shop. This was about two weeks before the world learned that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Unfortunately, I found this book to be terribly dull and written in a very flat and boring way. Some sort of "fable", I started to wonder if it was aimed at children, or young adults. I kept on expecting something more to happen and be explained, perhaps a deeper significance to the novel. For this reason I pushed on and forced myself to finish it, but the ending was also a big disappointment. No doubt the Booker Prize winning Remains of the Day is better and I still plan on reading that. But avoid this one.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
By John Le Carre
Another book I suddenly had an urge to read, and an author I want to read more of.
This is a real slow-burn of a book. Piece by piece, we build up a history of a cohort in the secretive world of the intelligence service. From their pre-war student lives to their war experience and then the post-war Cold War. Something is not quite right; an indication of a mole inside the organisation and the task of George Smiley is to dig the mole out. And this is what he turns himself to do: in a slow and methodical way he gathers evidence and starts to build a picture of the enemy and their accomplice inside the gates.
Le Carre has a great ear for the dialogue and patterns of speech and the characters are beautifully written. All the various code names and colour of life in the Circus alongside the 1970's colour of life in London as well. It's a rare book I start to try and postpone finishing, but I started to put the climax off as I approached the end. One of my favourite books.
Famously, Alec Guinness played George Smiley in the BBC's adaptation of the book, and it has also been re-made as a feature film recently/ I have not seen any of these but might try to. At least the Alec Guinness version, who I can picture as Smiley much more readily than Gary Oldman.
Look to Windward
By Iain M. Banks
I read this a few weeks ago now but not managed to post about it. This was another very good Culture novel; one of the best I've read. Banks seems to get better as he wrote the series.
This book covers pain and loss of war, and the morality of revenge. All told from a very Banks viewpoint, with characters not always all they seem and technology of the "magic" variety (so high it seems like magic, per Arthur C Clarke's famous quote). A wonderful addition to the Culture universe with a beautiful and bittersweet resolution.
Goodbye to All That
By Robert Graves
An autobiography written at the age of 34 is slightly unusual, although it does not seem to stop the modern celebrity or TV star. Graves had weightier reasons however: surviving the slaughter in the trenches of the First World War.
I read his translations and rewriting of the Greek Myths a long time ago, and have also attempted to get through his White Goddess, but have never read or attempted his most famous works, the I, Claudius novels. Graves always considered himself a poet foremost, and describes his meeting and friendship with Sassoon here. He became very dispirited and somewhat bitter about the war, and who could blame him? This appalling event still casts a long shadow, and can even make me angry today. His background, class, education and whole milieu is from another age, long gone now and worth lamenting, at least in part. An interesting and original thinker and writer.
By Iain M. Banks
I've been enjoying a few Banks books this year, including a re-read of Excession, also reading The Hydrogen Sonata and Surface Detail. All three books were excellent. Inversions is hardly a Culture novel at all: a very Medieval level world with equivalent superstitions, warfare, justice system (rudimentary, including torture) and extremely basic science and medicine. Almost a standard issue murder, plot, intrigue and war waging novel from the European Middle Ages; except that there is something a bit different about the Doctor, and possibly the Bodyguard as well. Hints that they are not quite what they seem, and things that remain only hints right to the end.
I liked the book but was glad it was not much longer. Interest was held by wanting to know who the Doctor really is, and are your suspicions confirmed? I suspect this one would be a disappointment to many of Banks' Culture fans but one I'll give him a pass on.
By Nikolai Gogol
You can download the ebook here.
Nikolai Gogol wrote this before 1842, and before the emancipation of the serfs by Tzar Alexander II. The souls referred to are those of the serfs, chattel of the landowners; bought, sold, mortgaged.
Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov travels around Russia trying to make money with a clever, but slightly odious, scheme he thought up. Visiting landowners, he cajoles them to part with their "dead souls", that is serfs who have died but still exist on the rolls from the last census: thus still attracting taxes. Hopefully enticing people to part with them for nothing or a minimal fee, he hopes to use these names to enable himself to buy an estate in the future, using them as some form of "collateral" for a mortgage. Yes, slightly off, perhaps not quite legal. The law can be "flexible" in Russia though, and this would, in effect, enable a cheap loan and a foot up the greasy pole.
The novel is great fun and often funny. Chichikov's a form of lovable rogue, a thinks of himself as a "gentleman" but not averse to some underhand dealings. His interactions with the various 19th Century Russians he comes across is often lively, as is the sometimes comedy interlude of life from his servants' perspective. Gogol even lets the horses and dogs have an opinion occasionally and is obviously laughing at some of the absurdity of his creation.
This version was translated by D. J. Hogarth in 1916 (according to Wikipedia) and is now in the public domain. It was a good read and the Standard EBooks version is well produced (a good project). The slight disappointment is that the novel is missing the ending, and also a little fragmentary later on. Generally, we get most of it but a shame to lose out on some of the story. We are actually lucky to have what we have: Gogol never finished it, and in fact tried to destroy it!
In hard times, beauty can seem frivolous - but take it away, and
all you're left with ...... is hard times.
I first came across Paul Madonna's book Everything is its Own Reward when I picked it up to browse in Gosh Comics, maybe six months ago. A really beautifully produced hardback book of whole page pen and ink drawings of San Francisco and surroundings. I picked it up again at the weekend, remembered looking at it before and once again loved it: so decided to buy it.
Madonna wrote and drew the series All Over Coffee in the San Francisco Chronicle for twelve years. He has a real talent for observing and drawing the urban landscape.
If you click the pictures below you go to his web site store. Click the pictures there to see a larger version.
By Philip Roth
Life is just a short period of time in which you are alive
So replies Meredith "Merry" Levov to the teachers assignment that week, "What is Life?". Merry is the daughter of the Swede (so nick-named by a teacher at school) and his beautiful wife Dawn, Miss New Jersey 1949 (she hates being defined by this). In the evening, the parents laugh about their daughter's precocious intelligence but her odd unsentimentality grows in the years to come, an intellectual intensity that explodes later. America changes in the sixties and so does their daughter; and their world comes tumbling down.
Of the few fair-complexioned Jewish students in our preponderantly Jewish public high school, none possessed anything remotely like the steep-jawed insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond born into our tribe as Seymour Irving Levov.
The Swede has it all and grows up in a post-war America brimming with optimism for the future; an all round athlete, good looking, ex-Marine (a drill instructor no less) but luckily misses the fighting as Japan surrenders. Laid back and comfortable in his own skin, everyone loves him. He even marries a Catholic: From Elizabeth. A shiksa. Dawn Dwyer. He'd done it. The American dream.
This novel is very funny in parts and also very moving. Much is an amazing internal struggle by Seymour Levov to understand the turn his life has taken. Roth writes an elegy almost, to an America that (sometimes literally) blew up, a Newark City that burned in riots and went down hill from there; a middle class that fled but couldn't escape the changes.
Roth beautifully evokes an old mid-20th Century "Americana", a place of growing wealth and huge aspiration. Everything is going so well, until the year 1968 and everything starts to fall apart because of Merry's cataclysmic actions. This is the power of the book; the beauty and wondrous potential so well described, colliding with the terrible fragility and reality of the world as it is. A great book and justly a Pulitzer Prize winner.
By Iain M. Banks
This is Iain Banks' last Culture novel before his premature death in 2013. I've read quite a few of them now and I think this one was one of the best. I think it is my current favourite after Excession and Surface Detail.
The Hydrogen Sonata is the common name for T.C. Villabier's 26th String Specific Sonata for an Instrument Yet to Be Invented, MW 1211. The instrument invented to play it is described as :
the notoriously difficult, temporamental and tonally challenged Antagonistic Undecagonstring - or elevenstring as it was commonly known.
Yes, Banks often injects a bit of fun into his work. Having four arms, as the novel's protagonist has (by choice), seems to help play the piece. She's never managed to but is working on it.
As usual, it is full of amazing futuristic detail, alongside the moral and philosophical digressions he often mixes in. What made this book great for me was the fact that it had a good plot and fast pace, alongside a lot of often explosive and inventive action sequences. The Culture and the AI Minds might be a generally pacific and peaceful civilisation but when required they know how to deal out a bit of death, destruction and general mayhem. I think Banks seems to relish this as well.
A witty, fun and fast paced thriller, set in an amazing post-scarcity world full of wonders. And a great last addition to his work.
The Secret History
By Donna Tartt
Quite a cult book and one I've been tempted to read for years. Now I've read it, I know why it's so highly regarded. I really enjoyed it and it turned into one of those rare books you recognise as special as you read it, and one you don't want to finish.
Right from the start, you know the name of the victim and the perpetrators; the rest of the book is a slow but fascinating exposition of why this happened. As Tartt has said, this is a whydunnit not a "whodunnit". We know all the details of the crime and what led up to it half way through the book and are left with the consequences.
The novel follows a group of six students at a Vermont College through the eyes of Richard Papen, a newcomer and outsider. From California, he invents a more privileged back-story to cover his humble origins and to try and fit in with the others. They're East coast and richer. One or two are extremely well off, although there's a bit of an aura of dissolution around. Henry is the dark core of the group: tall, strong and a language savant, in love with the ancient world but cold and a bit odd. This group are "elite" in that they decide to drop almost everything except Classics, studying with one teacher only, the charismatic scholar Julian Morrow. They live and breathe in Greek and are submerged in a world very different to the modern. In fact, for much of the book, the world I felt submerged in was more F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and the "gilded" 20's rather than the 1980's. The occasional reminders that the world we're in is actually the modern one was a jolt sometimes.
Great characters are the centre of the book and the story is driven forwards to an unexpected conclusion; you see things are starting to fall apart somewhat but never know where the pieces might end up.
I have also bought Tartt's The Goldfinch and look forward to reading it.
By Emily St. John Mandel
Existence is very fragile, as is civilisation, and few think about the perils of living without running water or electricity. They are exactly the sort of thing you need to do if you're writing a book like this though. If a virulent flu virus was ever to sweep the world again, as one did in 1918, civilisation might come to crashing halt.
Emily St. John Mandel's novel tells the story of some people caught up in such a calamity, as things fall apart after a new flu epidemic kills most of the planet's inhabitants. There is enough realism here to make you face the likely effects, a horror or what it means as everything stops working and people die, but she doesn't dwell on the horror and this is not a horror story. Switching between a select few characters whose lives intersect in some way pre and post-fall, the story never becomes morbid or hopeless. Kirsten, one of the main characters, acts in a travelling theatre and orchestra, staging Shakespeare to scattered survivors living in various settlements in the American and Canadian heartland. There is no one main character but enough characterisation is done to create believable people.
When I got to the end of the book, there was some sort of "study guide": questions a teacher might ask students to think or write about. Although the book does not seem to have a "young adult" label anywhere I could see, it had that feel about it. I think I started to consider this about half way through; perhaps the lack of swearing. This was nothing I missed.
A good novel and one I enjoyed.
Noise of Time
By Julian Barnes
When you chop wood, the chips fly: that's what the builders of socialism liked to say. Yet what if you found, when you laid down your axe, you had reduced the whole timberyard to nothing but chips?
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, the first Julian Barnes I've read. It tells the story of Dmitri Shostakovich, the famous Russian composer, in his own words, as he lives and tries to survive the calamitous 20th Century. Born before the Bolshevik Revolution, he lived his entire working life in Soviet Russia, much of it under Stalin, with all that meant.
The book is very funny in parts, but also sad and poignant. There are some beautiful descriptions of the strange life one has to lead in such a world and the contradictions he faced. And of course, the compromises made. A wonderful book about a man who knew his limitations and struggled to create his art under the most trying circumstances.
By Michel Houellebecq
Quite a timely novel, and it caused a bit of stir on release a year or so ago. In the near future (I think 2020 or so in the book), the French Presidential election run-off comes down to Marine Le Pen of the Front National and an Islamic Party. In this alternate election, both the Right and the Left in France have imploded and the Muslim Brotherhood party just pip the Socialists to the run-off. France looks to be headed to civil war and to stave off calamity, the Socialists and Islamists strike a deal, win the election and form a government. Crazy?
It's very funny in parts, and Houellebecq writes a very good, jaded French Professor, an expert in a particular 19th Century French writer. The ennui of an academic. He's apolitical and uninterested in much of what's going on, other than it distracts from chasing girls. In the end, big changes actually happen and the French establishment seem to accept it.
Maybe a bit far-fetched but Houellebecq has fun with it and the book's a quick and easy read. It's interesting reading a French perspective but also quite unsettling in the matter of fact way a societal change like this might get rationalised. On the big day, the media seems to have a bit of a blackout, and mobile communications go down. There's a hint of smoke in the distance, gun shots and one or two bodies seen; but then maybe we can get used to the new order?
For the Professor, a large pay rise is one welcome thing on the cards, but what really sets him thinking about the future is the dangling of the likelihood of an arranged wife, maybe more than one. All satire of course, and it is funny in parts, which makes up for the fact that it's only a slight "novel" and many characters are only hooks for him to hang some political and economic background..
So, finally Le Pen is crushed again and President Macron takes the crown. But as Peter Hitchens writes, what happens next time around?
His column is worth a read and very thought-provoking. Houellebecq's novel worries you in a similar way.
By William Golding
From Milton's Paradise Lost:
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.
Golding's novel is a tale of good and evil, morality and immorality. The nameless young boy who survives the Blitz though horribly burned down one side of his face and body is given the name "Matty", and we follow his odd progress through life. There's something strange with him: he sees "ghosts" and has memorised the bible. He does not know "what he is". The second strange character is Sophy, one half of a set of twins. Her sister Toni grows up, runs away and seems to be some sort of terrorist. There also seems to be something wrong with Sophy. Not only does she see a "Sophy-thing" inside her head, she can play act an innocence and take advantage of a keen intelligence, and a female body. Matty and Sophy are unsettling protagonists and it makes for uncomfortable reading being in their heads sometimes.
I had quite a bit of trouble with Darkness Visible, sometimes losing the sense of the narrative and re-reading a section to try and pick it up. I often couldn't, especially the strange inner landscapes of Matty's or Sophy's head. The last Golding book I read was Lord of the Flies, a long time ago for a school exam and I felt I needed crib book with notes again. This might explain some of my difficulty here; or maybe I'm a bit denser than I used to be. However, the book had a power that kept me reading to the end even though I knew that I probably would not understand it.
Nobel Prize winning authors are definitely trickier to read sometimes.
A Long Way to Shiloh
By Lionel Davidson
This novel should have been great: an author I know can write absolutely stunning adventure books full of great characters and action, and a backdrop of ancient history, Jewish scriptures, archaeology and treasure hunting. Unfortunately, the book is quite lacklustre. It really must have been an off day for Davidson. The main character, an English academic and archaeologist, is also quite an unlikeable man: a drunkard and a sexist. Not an awful lot happened really, and you were in his company all the time.
by Bram Stoker
Dracula is a book impossible to come to without preconceptions today; it has been read, adapted and discussed so much that it has seeped into the modern imagination almost completely. I disliked almost all the film adaptations over the years, particularly the Hammer versions, and for many years these killed the character and any desire to read the book. However, a few weeks ago I found myself wanting to pick up the book for some reason and I am very glad I did : I thoroughly enjoyed it and it really is a classic.
The initial arc of the story: the eerie journey through the dark forest, wolves and strange coachman, the forbidding castle, creaking and rusting doors, superstitious peasants, all seem so familiar today. One might even groan a little inside recalling a satire like Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein film. So much cliché; but the story soon forges on and becomes exciting. This was quite new and fresh when written all the way back at the end of the 19th Century.
This is at heart a great adventure book, with action and drama, and above all, fright. Surprisingly, given how much the story's been rehashed, it still has a huge power to shock and surprise with real horror. Some of this is due to the characters themselves; characters I actually cared for, particularly the stricken Mina Harker herself. A very good book with some great and powerful moments; and still not for any faint-hearts.
A History of Christianity
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
This is the reason there was a significant hiatus on any reading updates recently. An immense subject and a very big book is to blame!
At over a thousand pages, I picked up MacCulloch's book with some trepidation but having read his history of the Reformation a few years ago, and heard him talk many times on radio, I know how good he is, as a writer and speaker. MacCulloch's history of Christianity covers "three thousand" years because he considers the genesis of the story as starting long before the time of Herod "the Great": with the Jews, and then the Ancient Greek and Roman world. A useful starting point I think because Greek philosophy and Roman mores come to play very important roles in Christian thought and belief. Some might say, too much.
The thought and philosophy of Christians has sometimes been that of extremes, both good and bad. To many people throughout the world, it was literally a matter of eternal life or eternal damnation however, and this mattered a great deal: so much so, that people were willing to kill and be killed. In addition, theology can also hinge on some very subtle distinctions that are hard to grasp now. Be prepared for some theology then, but if you are prepared, this is fascinating and well written. MacCulloch has a dry wit and can sometimes brings a smile (or even laugh) throughout, keeping the narrative alive and interesting.
So far, always an excellent writer and historian.
By Jung Chang
In Wild Swans, Jung Chang tells the story of her family over the course of the 20th Century in China. This was a century of massive change and calamity in the Middle Kingdom: from "warlordism", to civil war, the cruelty and corruption of the Kuomintang and then the victory of the Communists under Mao. At first a lot of idealism as the Communists took over: stability returned, some prosperity. But over a short time things changed greatly for the worse again.
The book is a moving and fascinating account of China and the Chinese people and culture, and Ms Chang's love of the country and its history shines through, whatever the appalling hardships and cruelty she describes. Her youthful adoration of Chairman Mao slowly turns to anger and shock at the realisation of his central and personal role in the destruction of the country: its people, material and spirit.
Perhaps the saddest part of the book is about her father, a communist "true believer" in the ideals the party said it stood for. Incorruptible, and so straight and fair that he antagonised and caused many in his family (especially Chang's mother, his wife) to despair and anger Not willing to bend the knee as the party became deranged and things descended to chaos and brutality, he paid a heavy price.
In the end, once Mao was gone, things could open up a bit and Chang escaped to London and academia. Even though things are materially much better in China now, the country has not come to terms with the Mao legacy still and there are many people who still worship his memory. They are still denied a true account of their history.
By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky
Score : 4/5
This is a short novel by the Strugatsky brothers, written in the 1970's in the Soviet Union. The book was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker.
The premise is that aliens have visited Earth but no one saw them, and all that's left of their visit are a number of "zones" spread across the world, areas now contaminated with very strange and sometimes dangerous artifacts. The main character is Redrick "Red" Schuhart, a stalker, someone who goes into a zone to find and extract things to sell. It's like prospecting. It's a dangerous job because the objects might be very strange and possibly lethal: instantly or at some later time. The zone itself is full of almost supernatural elements and has effects on visitors, their minds and bodies, and also their children. Red's daughter is born with fur and referred to as the "monkey". This is all a bit strange, but compelling.
The story is almost a "hard-boiled" tale of misfits, criminals and police in a gold mine boom town but the unsettling strangeness and horror of the magical landscape at the centre makes the novel unique. Of course, Red makes a last expedition into the zone, in search of the wish-granting "golden sphere". At this point you also have a glimpse of the "meat-grinder".
A short book and a quick read, but something that will stay with you.