Writings: Book Notes
First follow nature and your judgement frame
By her just standard, which is still the same.
- Go to notes for Autumn 2004 – Summer 2009 (Princeton)
- Go to notes for Autumn 2009 – Spring 2013 (Montréal & Toronto)
- Go to notes for Summer 2013 – Spring 2015 (Vancouver)
- Go to notes for Autumn 2015 – Spring 2018 (Rome)
- Currently reading current book notes (Summer 2018 –)
The following are notes about books I have recently read. I restrict myself chiefly to what I read for pleasure and general cultivation; strictly scholarly reading, as well as more spiritual reading, as far as one can distinguish these scopes from the former, generally do not make their way into these pages.
- Ready Player One
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
- J.R.R. Tolkien
- Augustine of Hippo
- A Clergyman's Daughter
- J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Foxglove Saga
- Sunset Song
- As You Like It
- Never Let Me Go
- Tom Jones
- What's Bred in the Bone
- Broken Universe
- Foundation Trilogy
- The Grass is Singing
- Clive Staples Lewis
- The Golden Apples of the Sun
- Little House in the Big Woods
- A Few Green Leaves
- Gentian Hill
- Brideshead Revisited
- The Hedge & the Horse
- Twelfth Night
- Till We Have Faces
- Letters from Hilaire Belloc
- The Path to Rome
- A Canticle for Leibowitz
- Twenty Chickens for a Saddle
- Foundation's Edge
- Foundation and Earth
- Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy
- The Diamond Age
- The Beautiful and the Damned
- The Three-Body Problem
- Goodbye to All That
- That Hideous Strength
- Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man
- Romeo and Juliet
- Sense and Sensibility
- Ten Cities that made an Empire
- The Sun Also Rises
- Memoirs of an Infantry Officer
- As You Like It
- Sherston's Progress
- The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold
- The Dark Forest; Death's End
- Barry Lyndon
- Ball Lightning
- Pride & Prejudice
- The Flight
- Damien the Leper
Ready Player One [Top]
Ernest Cline. First reading. 29 September 2018.
It's been a long time since I've had so much fun reading a novel. Ready Player One was pure entertainment. While I am far from being knowledgeable about pop trivia, I lived through enough of the era nostalgically portrayed that a large percentage of the references clicked. But beyond the cultural touchstones, the novel is simply well-plotted, creative and clever.
As a social commentary, it is not original; yes, our lives are becoming more and more immersed in the digital world, and yes, the latter will continue to be economically more and more important, but all that is rather trite. However, it is not really Cline's purpose, I would guess, to present deep reflexion on this world, but simply to use it as the stage for an adventure. Cline's only real misstep, perhaps, is a certain naïveté about the nature of power: as though only greedy corporations are capable of evil, whereas a benevolent overseer (viz., Ogden Morrow) need not be held back by basic ethical principles surrounding privacy since he only intends to use his power for good.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien [Top]
Ed. Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien. First reading. 29 September 2018.
Writing a good letter takes a while, and Tolkien not only wrote lots of good letters, but wrote lots of long letters. He must have spent a significant fraction of many days composing and writing them out (many of the inclusions in this volume are from drafts, not fair copies). This is rather interesting since in many of them, he complains and frets about his extreme busyness. But given that this did not seem to stop him from writing long letters, one wonders if he was more worried about not having time than it actually being the case, or whether he was indeed busy and writing letters was simply high on the list of his life's priorities. At any rate, one thing I am not in doubt of is that he worked very hard as the breadwinner for his family, correcting endless examinations in order to raise sufficient funds to keep them in hearth and home—and, I gather, to educate his children.
I'm glad he did choose to spend his time writing letters, for it is a unique glimpse into his life. In fact, if I were to have a complaint about this volume, it would be in the choice of selection. There were lots of letters about his fiction: correspondence with his publisher, with informal editors and critics like Christopher Tolkien and occasionally with the Inklings, and with fans who wanted more background information about his mythology. While I did find such material fascinating on the whole, it sometimes became too detailed for my interest, and I was just as interested in his everyday life, which one only gets glimpses of here and there. This was largely by design, however, as his family preferred for his more private life to remain private, given that this volume was published less than a decade after his death. One would hope that, when sufficient time has passed, another volume might be released.
All this notwithstanding, I appreciated the many insights the letters to give one into Tolkien, the man. For one, his Catholic faith is very clear and one sees that it is by no means incidental to his identity. I was also interested to learn more of his relationship with C.S. Lewis: the latter, it seems, though certainly aware that he was in a deep friendship, did not attach as much importance to it as the former, nor did he feel the same claim of exclusivity: the entrance of Charles William into Lewis's life damaged the friendship, at least from Tolkien's point of view. On a lighter note, I was interested to learn that Tolkien had a ‘cordial dislike’ of Shakespeare, which I find rather bemusing, but does, I suppose, show the idiosyncrasy of his character.
I read a borrowed copy of this book, which I have since returned to its owner (my brother), and hence do not have the ready opportunity of including any quotations here.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth [Top]
Daniel Grotta. First reading. 29 September 2018.
I finished Tolkien's letters on holiday, and it so happened that this biography was on one of the shelves in the house where I was staying. It seemed like a suitable follow-up. But, in truth, it was barely worth following through to the end. Apparently, not being an authorised biography, the writer got no cooperation from the Tolkien family or from many of J.R.R.'s friends, and hence had to rely on secondary and tertiary sources. The result is a fair amount of speculation, lots of background filler, and a sprinkling of factual error. The latter I easily detected having just read Tolkien's letters, though I am not aware (in my admittedly scant knowledge) of any gross error. To be fair to the writer, he did not have access to all the material that might have helped him—The Silmarillion, for instance, had not been been yet published. Nonetheless, not a very compelling read.
Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors [Top]
Piers Paul Read. First reading. 29 September 2018.
Like the previous book, this one was picked up at the house where I was holidaying. Very well done and a good example of the genre. I do confess that I never quite got straight all the many persons involved, but that did not make the story any less gripping.
Augustine of Hippo: A Biography [Top]
Peter Brown. First-and-a-half reading. 29 September 2018.
A few years ago I started reading this life of St. Augustine, which is, I have gathered, still the authoritative biography of him in the English language, but got distracted in the middle of it. I had always intended to finish it, though, and since it had been a while, I simply started again at the beginning and read it through.
Brown succeeds at writing on two quite diverse levels. On the one hand, he provides a wonderful narrative of Augustine's life, providing vivid and detailed insight into the cultures, geographies, politics and religious movements in which he was immersed. On the other hand, as one might expect in the biography of a great thinker, a large portion of the book is about ideas, and here too Brown holds his own. I am by no means an Augustine scholar, but nothing smelt off about Brown's presentation and discussion of the various philosophical and religious ideas that Augustine tackled. They are presented lucidly, intelligently and, as far as I could see, with great scholarship. No axes appeared to be being ground, and a nice balance is kept between faithfully presenting Augustine's doctrines and providing the historical and cultural context that he was operating in.
William Gibson. First reading. 29 September 2018.
This is an Important Book in the science fiction canon, but I don't think I enjoyed it as much as others have. It is extremely inventive, but also extremely dense and immersive in its inventiveness: if you are not following closely, you get lost quickly, which I confessed happened to me not a few times.
A Clergyman's Daughter [Top]
George Orwell. First reading. 4 November 2018.
George Orwell was never happy with this novel and would not allow it to be reprinted before he died; I on the other hand, did not think it sub par by any stretch. Curiously, the theatre-style Chapter 3 (apparently influenced by Ulysses), which I considered to be by far the worst part of the book, was the only part that Orwell himself looked upon favourably.
So what did I like about it? First of all, like Down and Out in Paris and London he gives a fascinating account of lower-class life of the period. It is sympathetic without being sentimental. Both the hop-picking and schoolroom episodes are excellent; the latter Dickensian in the best sense of the word.
Second, it contains a thoughtful meditation on the nature of faith, and I wonder how autobiographical it was. Orwell was, apparently, an atheist and a humanist who, nonetheless, frequented his Anglican church and was a frequent communicant there. This is basically how the heroine of A Clergyman's Daughter ends up: having lost her faith, she still at the same time returns to her very active life at her father's parish.
Where had she gone, that well-meaning, ridiculous girl who had prayed ecstatically in summer-scented fields and pricked her arm as a punishment for sacrilegious thoughts? And where is any of ourselves of even a year ago? And yet after all—and here lay the trouble—she was the same girl. Beliefs change, thoughts change, but there is some inner part of the soul that does not change. Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before (Chap. 5.ii).
Orwell hence sees that, even if one professes atheism, such a facile identification does not plumb the depth of authentic living. What he grasps, I think, is that faith is not something reducible to contingencies of one's life. It is not simple belief or convention. Dorothea's case shows this: when her life changes drastically, the convention of religion ceases to have any meaning, and the religious practice that was comme il faut—however well-meaning and sincere—is shown to be largely a product of her provincial existence. But beneath all that is something deeper and more permanent, and this is why the easy-go-lucky attitude of someone like a Mr. Warbuton is ultimately intolerable.
Now, obviously Orwell and I part ways soon enough, for he is (or rather, seems: one never knows) unwilling to convert to faith. One hopes, for instance, that he never committed himself irrevocably to faith's alternative:
There was, she saw clearly, no possible subsitute for faith; no pagan acceptance of life as sufficient to itself, no pantheistic cheer-up stuff, non pseudo-religion of ‘progress’ with visions of glittering Utopias and ant-heaps of steel and concrete. It is all or nothing. Either life on earth is a preparation for something greater and more lasting, or it is meaningless, dark and dreadful (Chap. 5.ii).
And, perhaps it is near the beginning of the book where we can find what he was ultimately looking for (the whole first chapter, by the way, is marvellously constructed):
Then it happened that she glanced sidelong, through the open south door. A momentary spear of sunlight had pierced the clouds. It struck downwards through the leaves of the limes, and a spray of leaves in the doorway gleamed with a transient, matchless green, greener than jade or emerald or Atlantic waters. It was as though some jewel of unimaginable splendour had flashed for an instant, filling the doorway with green light, and then faded. A flood of joy ran through Dorothy's heart. The flash of living colour had brought back to her, by a process deeper than reason, her peace of mind, her love of God, her power of worship. Somehow, because of the greenness of the leaves, it was again possible to pray. O all ye green things upon the earth, praise ye the Lord! She began to pray, ardently, joyfully, thankfully. The wafer melted upon her tongue. She took the chalice from her father, and tasted without repulsion, even with an added joy in this small act of self-abasement, the wet imprint of Miss Mayfill's lips on its silver rim (Chap. 1.i).
And yet, his conclusion is so much less poetic: ‘That faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful and acceptable’ (Chap. 5.ii). Sadly, this is where things end …
J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography [Top]
Humphrey Carpenter. First reading. 4 November 2018.
After the biography I read this summer left me unsatisfied, I decided to go for this more standard (and authorised) life of Tolkien, and found it much more satisfactory. One gets a better picture of his family life, particularly his childhood and his marriage. It also confirmed that much of his worrying about being to busy was indeed more worrying than reality; he would, apparently, often spend long tracts of time playing Patience when he had work to do. But then, who knows that today with so many more opportunities provided us by the digital world that we don't procrastinate more than he?
Einstein: His Life and Universe [Top]
Walter Isaacson. First reading. 30 December 2018.
I very much enjoyed this masterly life of Einstein; though I knew the rough outline of his CV, this really introduced me to the man and all the complexities of his life. Isaacson does a good job of explaining the science in a way that is (I presume) accessible to the average person and still generally accurate. It is a longish book—around 700 pages including bibliography and index—but it reads well and fast; my only criticism is that occasionally Isaacson repeats himself: for instance, at several points he has similar digressions about Einstein's non-conformist streak. Recommended.
The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke [Top]
Shakspere. Nth reading, N ≫ 1. 30 December 2018.
Last time I read this, I said it ought to be read annually; that was two years ago. This time I read it almost accidentally after simply picking it up one evening.
The Foxglove Saga [Top]
Auberon Waugh. First reading. 30 December 2018.
Humorously written, and at times quite amusing, but horrid characters and the saga becomes rather depressing by the end.
Sunset Song [Top]
Lewis Grassic Gibbon. First reading. 21 January 2019.
I usually find intensely lyrical prose affected, and often insufferable, but not in the case of this novel. Here we have an author who is highly original in his style in a way that does not distract but adds to the story. And as an added bonus I learnt a few Scots terms (for which, helpfully, there was a very complete glossary); my edition (Penguin Classics) also had good notes.
As I have remarked elsewhere, I have never understood why some novelists eschew the use of inverted commas to indicate dialogue. This is the first case where it hasn't utterly annoyed me—Gibbon uses italics for the characters' speech, which I found I good enough visual indication. Give me quotation marks any day, but failing that, give me italics over a newline and a dash.
These stylistic and typographic comments aside, it is the plot, the mood, the scenery, if you will, that held my attention. Chris is a very finely wrought character, and the notion of the ‘two Chrises’ that she has to choose between is nicely done.
The childbirth scene is remarkable. Of course, I will never really know how accurately Gibbon has described the experience, but he certainly was effective in conveying its intensity.
An aesthetic observation:
There were lovely things in the world, lovely that didn't endure, and the lovelier for that. (‘Ploughing’)
As You Like It [Top]
Shakspere. Nth reading, N ≫ 1. 13 April 2019.
I have always considered this one of his finer comedies, despite its apparent frivolity at times.
Never Let Me Go [Top]
Kazuo Ishiguro. First reading. 13 April 2019.
The setting of this novel is inventive: it is science fiction, but taking place in the eighties or so, in England, in a world in which human clones are reared in order for their organs to be harvested once they reach adulthood. Against this backdrop the lives of three such clones in a subtly-rendered love triangle play out. Though the story-telling is a little clunky and occasionally contrived, it is on balance well-done.
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling [Top]
Henry Fielding. First reading. 13 April 2019.
This is a pretty fat novel and I hoped that after warming up for a couple of hundred pages, it would capture me. This ended up not being the case—in fact, the middle six hundred pages I found quite tedious; the last pages were more interesting, but with too many dei ex machina. In the end, I ended up reading it over several months, always feeling I had gotten far enough into it to warrant finishing it and vainly hoping it would pick up …
So, I find myself at odds with most critics in the two-hundred fifty years since Tom Jones has been written who consider this one of the Great English Novels. (It is, in fact, generally considered one of the first novels in our language, though this must surely be taken with a grain of salt as it was published almost twenty years after Defoe's death.) Perhaps it was simply that I just never hit my stride. So I very much felt that Fielding was speaking directly to me when, in one of his introductory chapters (each of the eighteen of the novel's books begins with a brief address to the reader), he referred to
persons who read books with no other view than to say they have read them, a more general motive to reading than is commonly imagined; and from which not only law books, and good books, but the pages of Homer and Virgil, of Swift and Cervantes, have been often turned over. (XVI.1)
One thing that could potentially surprise a present-day reader is at how risqué much of the material is in this book. Tom Jones cheerfully moves from affair to affair, which the most of the characters indulgently excuse as youthful indiscretions. His future father-in-law swears a blue streak—one does not need much imagination to figure out what the dashed-out words are. This novel was most definitely written well before the end of the Georgian era and the arrival of the Victorian.
What's Bred in the Bone [Top]
Robertson Davies. First reading. 18 May 2019.
The only other Robertson Davies I have read is The Deptford Trilogy, many years ago now; as I read What's Bred in the Bone, I recalled how enjoyable those books were, for this one was a fun and intriguing read. Still, by the end I thought that it rang a little tinny: it is an engrossing story, but I found it lacked a satisfying resolution or raison d'être. I certainly still would have read it, and am pretty sure I'll remember it, but I reckon that it will be the whimsical and the strange rather than anything more profound that will remain in my memory.
Broken Universe [Top]
Paul Melko. First reading. 26 May 2019.
A fun and breezy science fiction novel about a group of friends who have gained the ability to travel between universes with slightly different histories. I only realised gradually that it is a sequel, but that did not really take away from my enjoyment of it. Perhaps I'll seek out the first book.
My only criticism is a technical one: how is it that the time in all the universes is perfectly synchronised?
Foundation; Foundation and Empire; Second Foundation [Top]
Isaac Asimov. Second reading. 21 July 2019.
I enjoyed this trilogy—as well as all the other later additions to the seiries—as a teenager and have long meant to pick it up again. I think I may have enjoyed it even more this second time around. It had been long enough that although I had vague memories of some of the plot points, I had forgotten enough to find pleasure in some of the stories' twists and turns.
Despite its (literally) galactic scope, the trilogy is written with a remarkable simplicity. The first novel, for instance, is structured almost like five short stories in a row, each with its own characters and plot arc, separated by many years. The second two have more closely organised plots, but still convey the grand sweep of history through concrete stories.
These novels were written before the invention of the microcomputer. Nonetheless, the vision of the future does not seem as dated as one might expect. In fact, it even makes it a little better, perhaps, given that the scientific and technological knowledge of humanity waxes and wanes through the course of the hundreds of years over which the books are set.
I may turn to the other four novels at some point in the near future.
Leo Tolstoy. First reading. 21 July 2019.
A wonderful little autobiography.
The Grass is Singing [Top]
Doris Lessing. First reading. 21 July 2019.
This was Lessing's ‘breakthrough’ novel; readable and interesting, but ultimately extremely bleak.
Like The Summer Before the Dark the psychological insights are remarkable; one gets sucked into the character's minds, so to speak, which is one thing that makes the whole thing so dark. Tragedy, you might say, without the benefit of much catharsis. So I think I'll give Lessing a rest!
C. S. Lewis: A Dramatic Life [Top]
William Griffin. First reading. 16 August 2019.
In addition to his memoir and some collections of his letters, I have read a couple of biographies on C.S. Lewis (Sayers's, and, I believe, Hooper's); this particular life, however, is written in a rather unconventional way but one which I quickly grew to enjoy. It is arranged chronologically, with a chapter for each year, starting in 1925 when he was elected to the faculty at Magdalen College (Oxford), and finishing with his death in 1963. Each chapter consists of short anecdotes or incidents from his life, often disconnected. The life is ‘dramatic’ due to the style in which these episodes are narrated: they are peppered with dialogue, much of which is taken from letters or other such sources. While the dialogue is ‘dramatised’ in the sense that many episodes have been somewhat invented, the dialogue itself is lifted from actual sources. And so one might approach as near as possible to the feel of his daily life as is possible for something constructed from written sources. It is thus, as far as I am concerned, a successful approach to biography, so long as one is not expecting the balance and broader objectivity that the more conventional biography would provide. But for the latter there are other books.
One of the most elusive and yet important aspects of Lewis's life was his relationship with Jane Moore. He had made a promise to her son Paddy, a friend of his in the First World War, that he would care for her if he should die, which ended up happening. Being motherless since a child, Lewis seems to have found with her a domestic existence that he had long desired. At the same time, the nature of their relationship has been a subject of speculation; some, such as George Sayers, believe that they may have been lovers for a period. At any rate, though it does not touch upon that particular conjecture, this book does still shed light on the domestic part of his life, so removed from the academic existence for which he best known; in particular, it reveals how faithfully kept his promise and provided for her until the end, patiently enduring her difficult moods as her mind slowly slipped in old age.
The book also chronicles how he slowly came to know, appreciate, and then love the American writer Joy Davidman, whom he eventually married. One has the impression that she was one of the few people that was a match for his quick mind and confident manners. Also treated of with frankness, but also with sensitivity, is his brother Warren's trouble with alcohol. But these troubles never dominate the foreground of his character: he remains perhaps his brother's closest friend.
I borrowed this book from the library of a retreat house where I was staying for a few days and had to leave it behind when finished; otherwise I might have extracted some of the more memorable quotes and anecdotes to record here.
The Golden Apples of the Sun [Top]
Ray Bradbury. First reading. 16 August 2019.
The twenty-odd short stories of this collection, mostly written in the 1950's, are very diverse in theme and genre. They are all quite short, some only three or four pages long. I am not sure I quite like the form of such short stories—they do not consistently grab my imagination. Nonetheless, these all seem to be top form.
‘The Murderer’, about a man rebelling against the constant cacophony of the machinery of modern life, I thought quite good. ‘Hail and Farewell’, about a boy who never grows up but wanders from family to family, was also compelling. And then some, such as as the psychological piece ‘The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl’, are excellent little set-pieces, as it were.
Little House in the Big Woods [Top]
Laura Ingalls Wilder. Second [?] reading. 16 August 2019.
I recently came across a copy of this book, so memorable from childhood, and very much enjoyed revisiting it. (I am not sure whether I ever read it or its companions on my own after they were read aloud to me as a small child.) What I enjoyed perhaps most of all were the unhurried descriptions of the various activities of homesteading: making cheese and syrup and smoking meat and bringing in the harvest and so forth. Simple domestic activities take on a particular charm and comfort when presented through a child's eye. And one gets the impression that her parents were truly remarkable people. If I come across the sequels I may indulge further.
A Few Green Leaves [Top]
Barbara Pym. First reading. 16 August 2019.
This little novel was picked off a shelf when on holiday. It is set in a village in Oxfordshire in the 1970's, and is centred on a thirty-something anthropologist who moves into the neighbourhood ostensibly to study its inhabitants, some of whom form the rest of the core of characters. There is not much plot; it is more a portrait of village life. As such I found it a pleasant read but not much more. Suitable as a holiday book.
Gentian Hill [Top]
Elizabeth Goudge. First reading. 6 September 2019.
My final holiday book—again, picked somewhat randomly off a shelf—which I subsequently finished in Toronto with a library copy.
I found this novel characterised in this review as a story that is ‘spiritually realistic’: i.e., it is not pure realism or naturalism but one in which goodness is heightened. One might also say that it is a sort of mix of fairy story and realism. As one of the characters remarks, ‘In the deep heart of this country [England] the fairy world is still quite extraordinarily near the surface’ (II.vii.3).
Still, despite the interesting genre and style, I did not find it a particularly compelling book. The overarching plot, despite being propped up by various incidents, I found a bit thin; the characters, despite their backgrounds and adventures, I found lacking in depth. Perhaps at a different age or in a different mood I would have enjoyed the novel more; as it stands, it was good enough to keep me to the end, but not much more.
Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder [Top]
Evelyn Waugh. Fifth reading (first reading of first edition). 9 October 2019.
Most copies of this novel today are of a revised edition of 1959 in which Waugh slightly edited the work, mainly by cutting passages he considered too purple and switching from a two- to three-part division of the text. This time around I got ahold of the original 1944 edition, having been curious to see how it felt compared to the later edition which I had read before.
I must say that I did not notice much difference in reading the first edition: there seemed to be passages that were longer than I remembered and a few little details may have hit me here or there, but I experienced basically the same novel. Surely if I had had them side-by-side the differences would have jumped out, perhaps with some import, but I am not very interested in engaging in textual criticism for this sort of book.
So, in the end, it was simply another visit to this great novel, two years after my last. And I look forward to doing so again in a few years.
Neal Stephenson. First Reading. 17 October 2019.
This novel was recommended to me about ten years ago. I never forgot the recommendation, and in fact purchased this book a couple of years ago, began reading it and but stopped not far in for some reason I don't fully recall. Then, this summer, I saw that a friend was reading it and he too recommended it, so I finally set forth upon on it in earnest, and I was glad I did. It is a fat novel, but once you enter into it, it reads rapidly and its inventiveness absorbs you.
Stephenson includes a lot of philosophical speculation in the novel, but with the merit that the story rarely devolves to mere talking heads: he does a good job at weaving his ideas into the plot in creative ways that keeps the narrative flowing. That being said, while his familiarity with philosophy is obvious, I don't think what is presented is terribly deep: I think I take issue with his interpretation of Platonism, for instance (even if it is not named as such). He does, though, present the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics in an intriguing way.
Now, this novel's endless inventiveness is also its weakness: there is a lot crammed in here, and while I generally think that unity of place and time is not terribly important (though I suppose that rule is intended for drama, strictly speaking) here I think it might have helped. Still, this is more of a quibble than a complaint.
The Hedge & the Horse [Top]
Hillaire Belloc. First reading. 17 October 2019.
I was looking for The Path to Rome in the Belloc section of the library but was unsuccessful, so I picked out this novel almost at random. It is a light novel, meant, I think, as nothing more than entertainment. At first I was a bit disappointed in this, but then found it somewhat charming so I read it through and was diverted.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will [Top]
Shake-speare. Nth reading, N ≫ 1. 16 November 2019.
I have fallen quite behind in these book notes, and though I mark the date above as November, this was simply when I created the title and am only now, near the end of February, returning to fill out this and the subsequent notes.
This being said, I recall little of my visit to Twelfth Night except that I found it enjoyable; there was, I vaguely recall, an angle that struck me anew, but what that was escapes me. Which is a reminder to be more prompt in keeping up these notes!
Till We Have Faces [Top]
C.S. Lewis. 5th reading. 16 November 2019.
I was surprised to note that it has been well over a decade since I last read this novel. I obviously know the story well by now, and for a good novel like this, there is always a distinct pleasure in revisiting it. Still, my mood was not quite in the right place, and while I enjoyed reading it, I did not find it as compelling as in the past.
This is a very particular book: certainly a novel, but a novel unlike any other that I have read in how it captures a myth with a certain realism and yet retains the mythological character. Add to this the creation of a whole kingdom set in the ancient world (where Greece is a great but far distant land) with a skill that makes it seem very real and immediate. Both of these things combined make it a remarkable work, overshadowing its weaknesses—for instance, C.S. Lewis's prose style can sometimes be a little stilted in a way that I can't quite capture. (Perhaps if I had the book on hand I could find examples, but I don't.)
Letters from Hilaire Belloc [Top]
Robert Speaight (ed). 1st reading. 20 December 2019.
Belloc has a remarkable letter-writing style and often says insightful things very economically. And, of course, there is plenty of enjoyable whimsy.
One gets from these letters a good picture of his extensive travel, though in the period covered in the collection, his voyages are largely confined to Europe, North Africa and (if I recall correctly) one visit to North America. Much of his travel was to deliver lectures, which seems to have been one of the chief ways he supported himself and his family; one gets the impression that he was often impecunious without actually being broke. Allusions in his letters indicate that he did travel extensively in the United States as a younger man; whether he travelled to Asia, further south in Africa, or down towards Australia, I am not sure. But he seems to have been a traveller who could adapt to a range of accommodations and modes of transport without too much complaint; a great many of his letters are written from abroad. Finally, he was very fond of sailing and one hears not a few times about his jaunts along the English coast.
Especially in his earlier letters, he often writes in verse. This is, he claims at one point, because he found it quicker to compose than prose! Granted, it is frequently doggerel, but even this has its charm, especially as it was (I presume) pretty consciously done this way.
One of Belloc's great disappointments in life was not winning a fellowship at Oxford (at All Souls', specifically). In these letters, though, we get a glimpse of a man who I would guess could have been a competent professional academic if circumstances had been different. I was also interested to learn that he was briefly a member of parliament (1906–10), sitting as a Liberal.
I am never content with the adjunction [sic?] to treat temporal affection as unimportant. It seems to me false with the falsity of a half statement. It is, in itself, unimportant, compared with the eternal business of the soul, but it is, itself, part of the eternal business of the soul. The major human affections are immixed with eternity. That is their very quality. If it were not so they would not be major things: and when the physical side comes in, as with parents and child, or lovers, or husbands and wives, the sacramental quality appears at once: a thing that never appears where the temporal and eternal are mixed. (To Mrs. Reginald Balfour, King's Land, Candlemas 1932; 225–6)
Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751: How he was Kidnapped and Cast away; his Sufferings in a Desert Isle; his Journey in the Wild Highlands; his acquaintance with Alan Breck Stewart and other notorious Highland Jacobites; with all that he Suffered at the hands of his Uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, falsely so-called: Written by Himself and now set forth by Robert Louis Stevenson [Top]
Robert Louis Stevenson. 2nd reading. 20 December 2019.
I read this classic adventure story in my youth but remembered virtually nothing about it—including that it is almost entirely set in Scotland. My historical knowledge of the Jacobite movement is limited, while the novel, on the other hand, presumes some knowledge of the issue. This was only a slight impediment to my enjoyment of the book. It is a solid adventure story, but not, I think, of the very highest calibre.
The Path to Rome [Top]
Hilaire Belloc. 1st reading. 21 January 2020.
If you should ask how this book came to be written, it was in this way. One day as I was wandering over the world I came upon the valley where I was born … what should I note (after so many years) but the old tumble-down and gaping church, that I love more than mother-church herself, all scraped, white, rebuilt, noble, and new, as though it had been finished yesterday. … [S]aying my prayers there, I noticed behind the high altar a statue of Our Lady, so extraordinary and so different from all I had ever seen before, so much the spirit of my valley, that I was quite taken out of myself and vowed a vow there to go to Rome on Pilgrimage and see all Europe which the Christian Faith has saved; and I said, ‘I will start from the place where I served in arms for my sins; I will walk all the way and take advantage of no wheeled thing; I will sleep rough and cover thirty miles a day, and I will hear Mass every morning; and I will be present at high Mass in St Peter's on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul. Then I went out of the church still having that Statue in my mind, and I walked again farther into the world, away from my native valley, and so ended some months after in a place whence I could fulfil my vow; and I started as you shall hear. All my other vows I broke one by one.’
So runs Belloc's apology at the beginning of his great travelogue. After a shaky start (I found the introductory chapter rather poor), it takes one on a fascinating trip, from France to Rome, through a bygone world. Not only is it from an era before the automobile was common—it was published in 1902—but Belloc also travelled off the beaten track. Indeed, his aim was to almost literally travel in a straight line, which meant going up and over mountains and across rivers in unconventional places. At times this proved impossible: for instance, one pass in the Alps was uncrossable due to a storm and he was forced to take the conventional detour. And, as he alludes to above, he ‘cheated’ on a couple of occasions by taking a cart or a train; the latter because he had literally run out of money and needed to get to the next city (Milan, I think) where he would be able to draw on his bank account.
A particular delight of the book is the inclusion of sketches that he himself made in situ of the various landmarks and scenes he encountered, as well as idiosyncratic, hand-drawn maps of parts of his route.
Two themes that run throughout can be noted. First, his love of wine. Much of his pleasure along the road was finding and enjoying local vintages. Often he would purchase a full wine skin to take with him. Second, his love of Europe, which, in his mind, is inextricably connected to Catholic Christendom, an opinion he is famous for. Also of interest, especially in connexion with the second point, is that he self-describes as a liberal at one point.
Amusing are his frequent insertions of dialogue between himself (‘Auctor’) and an imaginary, and usually indignant or frustrated, reader (‘Lector’), after he has fallen into a digression on some topic or another.
[He stops in a Swiss village:] As I was watching that stream against those old stones, my cigar being now half smoked, a bell began tolling, and it seemed as if the whole village were pouring into the church. At this I was very much surprised, not having been used at any time of my life to the unanimous devotion of an entire population, but having always thought of the Faith as something fighting odds, and having seen unanimity only in places where some sham religion or other glozed over our tragedies and excused our sins. … My whole mind was taken up and transfigured by this collective act, and I saw for a moment the Catholic Church quite plain, and I remembered Europe, and the centuries. Then there left me altogether that attitude of difficulty and combat which, for us others, is always associated with the Faith. The cities dwindled in my imagination, and I took less heed of the modern noise. I went out with them into the clear evening and the cool. I found my cigar and lit it again, and musing much more deeply than before, not without tears, I considered the nature of Belief. (P. 88 in Gutenberg edition.)
A Canticle for Leibowitz [Top]
Walter M. Miller. 2nd reading. 15 February 2020.
As with two books previously, this is a story I read in my youth to which I return, having being inspired to do so after a recent discussion about it with someone. I remembered much of the basic contours of the story but there was much that I had not remembered. It is certainly a product of its time (it was published in 1959), most obviously bearing the anxiety about nuclear disaster, but it holds up very well.
Tolstoy. 1st reading. 24 February 2020.
Here I continue what I started a few months ago. Apparently my calling it ‘autobiography’ was not quite accurate; I can't remember where I discovered this, but I learnt somewhere that although these works drew on his own life they are sufficiently different to be considered fiction in a certain sense.
Tolstoy. 1st reading. 24 February 2020.
The last instalment of this trilogy, which I broke into three simply because the first was separated in my reading from the second and this third part. Though I will not comment much on them, I did quite enjoy them and hope to round out my acquaintance with Tolstoy's novellas a bit more; I think the only others I have read are The Cossacks (which I really liked) and The Death of Ivan Ilyich (which I remember liking).
[A nocturnal meditation:] And still I was alone, and still it seemed to me that this mysteriously magnificent nature, the bright sphere of the moon which draws one to her, and hangs in a lofty but uncertain spot in the pale blue heavens, and yet seems to stand everywhere as though filling with itself all immeasurable space, and I, an insignificant worm, already stained with all poor, petty earthly passions, but endowed also with a boundlessly compelling power of imagination and of love,—it seemed to me at such moments as though nature and the moon and I were all one and the same. (Ch. XXXII)
Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life [Top]
J. M. Coetzee. 1st reading. 12 March 2020.
No, this is not a quick second reading of Tolstoy's book but rather, by coincidence (as much as a sequence of book choices can be coincidental) the boyhood memoirs of someone separated from him by roughly a century and two continents.
The Times review on the back cover of the edition I read says in part, ‘This life is described with such skill, such exactitude and such relentlessness that I found myself gasping for air …’ I can relate to this book's ‘relentlessness’; I might even reach for the word ‘suffocating’. Yes, it is well-written and engaging, but I found it bleak and tiring and not a happy picture of childhood. After I finished it, I was planning on continuing on with its sequel, Youth (perhaps also a nod to Tolstoy?) but a few pages in decided that enough was enough and I needed to move onto something less depressing.
It is striking how little contact Coetzee and his family had with black South Africans, at least as comes through in this memoir. This in of itself is a stark reminder of the perniciousness of apartheid, which means, quite literally, ‘apartness’.
Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood [Top]
Robyn Scott (Penguin, 2008). 1st reading. 6 April 2020.
This childhood and adolescent memoir, set mainly in the south east of Botswana, was recommended to me about a decade ago, and, having such a particular title, I never forgot about it. Only recently, though, did I take it up.
It was, for me, a nostalgic and, at times, even elegiac experience. Ms. Scott captures much of what it is to live as a guest, as it were, in another country, but a country that ends up shaping who you are even as you remain an outsider in many ways. This even though, as a memoir, it sometimes falters. The author's inner life remains perhaps too hidden from view; the shift in tone from Botswana to school in Zimbabwe is a little abrupt. Still, there are many terrific stories and anecdotes in this book, and one really does feel like one is let in to become part of the family: a close-knit, chaotic, eccentric and absolutely entertaining family. I am certainly glad that she took the time to record it all. Though it is set in the eighties and nineties, it is a world that, I believe, is already gone—as is always the case as time passes.
A minor editorial complaint: there are glossaries of Afrikaans and Setswana terms at the back, but they are strangely selective. Many of the words that appear frequently in the book are not included, while others that appear only once are glossed, which left me scratching my head. Some of them one can figure out by context, but one never knew, when flipping to the back, whether one would find a word defined or not …
Foundation's Edge [Top]
Isaac Asimov. 2nd reading. 6 April 2020.
This is a sequel to the Foundation trilogy, written some three decades later. I didn't remember anything of the story from my first reading of it, many years ago now, and I enjoyed it this time around, though I thought it flagged at the end.
Foundation and Earth [Top]
Isaac Asimov. 2nd reading. 31 May 2020.
A dud and a disappointing end to the series. I remember being displeased the first time around, and held out hope that the maturity of more years would help me to appreciate something, but alas. There are a few things that make this book a failure compared to its predecessors. First, it is no longer really about the Foundation, and though the notion of Gaia etc. could potentially be interesting, I would have just as soon had a novel that stuck to the original plot trajectory of the series. Second, one of the strengths of the earlier books, particularly those of the original trilogy, was the multiple plot lines with multiple characters. Here there is just one, linear plot that is not particularly gripping, and so the mould is broken, and not for the better. Related is the third weakness: the characters are uninteresting. When there were multiple plot lines, having thin characters is not as big a deal; here, not only are they all you’ve got for the whole novel, but they are subpar even by the standards of the series. The three protagonists are recycled from the previous book and apart from a fourth character added part way through, nothing new is really added. Finally, the surprise ending just seems contrived.
At any rate, I stuck with it to the end. At least some of the planets they stopped on were interesting.
Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy: ‘Family Happiness’, [‘The Cossacks’], [‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’], ‘The Devil’, ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’, ‘Master and Man’, ‘Father Sergius’, ‘Hadji Murád’, ‘Alyosha the Pot’ [Top]
Leo Tolstoy (trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude, J. D. Duff and Sam A. Carmack, 2nd., Perennial Classics, 1967). 1st reading. 31 May 2020.
I skipped to the two stories that I had previously read, included in brackets above: The Cossacks and The Death of Ivan Ilych. The rest of these are either long short stories or short novels; I would class in the former ‘The Devil’, ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ and ‘Master and Man’, and in the latter ‘Family Happiness’, ‘Father Sergius’ and ‘Hadji Murád’. The exception is ‘Alyosha the Pot’ which is most definitely a short story (at fewer than ten pages).
Each of these stories is a little masterpiece in which Tolstoy’s amazing perception of human experience and character is on brilliant display—although ‘brilliant’ is perhaps the wrong word, as the stories are not dazzling but rather ring true to life.
I shall not comment on each of them, but by way of summary, the first three (‘Family Happiness’, ‘The Devil’, ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’) could be grouped together as novels about domesticity and marriage, one with a more or less happy ending, the other two tragic, while the rest are each quite different from each other, ranging from a compact story occurring over a couple of days (‘Master and Man’) to a lifetime (’Father Sergius’). As I now think back on all of them, I would be hard pressed to say which was my favourite because they are all different, even the ‘domestic’ ones, though ‘The Devil’ and ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ do have similaries.
‘Hadji Murád’ has the very effective device whereby the story will jump to a scene only incidentally connected to the main plot, provide a brief vignette, and then jump back. Even though one would expect this to be disruptive, it really adds to the richness of the story. The example I found most poignant was the scene of Peter Andéev’s family, after his death, back home in his village. It ostensibly has nothing to do with the story of Hadji Murád per se but somehow it just fits.
The Diamond Age; or, Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer [Top]
Neal Stephenson. 1st reading. 7 July 2020.
I must confess that twice I almost abandoned this novel—there were a couple of scenes that I found disturbing and which perhaps merit a ‘content advisory’—but in the end they were isolated passages and I was glad I stuck to it. These rough patches notwithstanding I was really taken with this story.
As in the same author’s Anathem one is immersed in a whole new world, and rather than didactically explaining to you how things work and what things are, he allows you to learn for yourself as you proceed through the novel. I shall not attempt to summarise the world or the plot here (I am sure there are plenty of good guides out there online), but simply say that I found it fascinating, thought-provoking and entertaining. What is remarkable is that he has created all this for just one novel, as far as I am aware, when other writers may have made it the basis for a whole series of stories. There is something neat about that.
One of the main groups of people featured are the ‘Neo-Victorians’; at one point one of them makes an astute observation:
You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of the vices … It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of climate, you are not allowed to criticise others—after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism? … Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done … Virtually all the political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy. —From the Chapter entitled ‘Hackworth lunches in distinguished company; a disquisition on hypocrisy; Hackworth’s situation develops new complications’
The Beautiful and the Damned [Top]
F. Scott Fitzgerald. 1st reading. 28 September 2020.
I read The Great Gatsby a number of years ago now; I remember judging it good but not first-tier. I think that since then, having thought about it some more and discussed it with others, and also having seen a competent screen adaptation, it has grown in my estimation. At any rate, here I turn to another of his novels: chosen simply because it was available on a shelf.
I found it to be one of those strange stories that is in of itself fairly uneventful but is written in such a way that you willing continue reading it. After the first part, when the glitter of youth can no longer cover over the boredom and vapidity of the characters' lives, the atmosphere becomes almost oppressive, but one reads on to see if they will finally snap out of it. Frustratingly they never quite do.
There are some memorable scenes painted: the unexpected arrival of Anthony's grandfather at one of his parties and the night passed at the train station come to mind.
Michael Frayn (Methuen, 1998). 1st reading. 28 September 2020.
I have a vague memory of this play making a splash when it came out in the late nineties. (Apparently there was also a television version filmed in 2002 that I wouldn't mind getting my hands on.) It speculates about a visit that the German physicist Werner Heisenberg made to the Niels Bohr in his home city of Copenhagen in 1941. We know historically that such a visit occurred, but what they actually discussed, particularly regarding Germany's nuclear bomb effort, is debated by historians and apparently the two men's accounts afterwards differed.
This play, consisting of three characters—Heisenberg, Bohr and the latter's wife, Margrethe—explores the meeting and the ambiguities of history, choice and memory. Naturally, it ties all of this into speculation about the meaning of quantum mechanics, of which both men were pioneers. It does not follow a linear timeline but jumps back and forth quite abruptly; I suppose in an actual staged version this would be a clearer than when you are reading it, and I confess I did not study it with fine attention to follow all these shifts between time periods with complete coherence.
The edition I read has a pretty long postscript—more like an essay, in reality—by the playwright detailing the documentary evidence and historical theories about the meeting that I appreciated.
The Three-Body Problem [Top]
Liu Cixin (trans. Ken Liu, Tor Books). 1st reading. 28 September 2020.
My first Chinese novel, and I enjoyed it. The characters are well done; the scientific speculation is a stretch, but the author pulls it off for the most part.
Goodbye to All That [Top]
Robert Graves. 1st reading. 28 November 2020.
An engrossing memoir. Even though I liked Graves's historical novels about the Emperor Claudius I enjoyed this work more. It is a fascinating account of the early twentieth century. It starts with a brief survey of his childhood, but the majority of the book is about the Great War. He enlisted near the very beginning of the conflict, fresh out of public school, and we learn of his military career until the last few chapters that detail his time at university, the start of his writing career and the first years of his first marriage.
Two things that I had never realised before struck me from Graves's description of the war. First, much of the time the men on the front were billeted in towns and rotated in and out of the trenches. I do not know what the ratio of time spent in and out was, but I had always previously thought, without much reflexion, that they spent all their time living in the trenches. In reality, the soldiers also had a life behind the trenches among the local French inhabitants. Second, on Graves's account, it seems that the odds of serving on the front through the war without death or injury was essentially nil. The way to come through alive was either through illness or through being wounded and sent home. Graves survived through the latter—but was so seriously wounded that his family initially received notice of his death. Later, he again almost died from the Spanish flu.
Of interest is his friendship with famous men of letters: Siegfried Sassoon and T.E. Lawrence in particular, but also, to my surprise, Thomas Hardy, whom he and his wife once stopped in to visit for a while during a walking holiday. I have always thought of Hardy as a nineteenth century writer, which I suppose is true in the sense that all his novels—but not all his poetry—were published before 1900. But he didn't die until 1928, I have just learnt.
That Hideous Strength [Top]
C.S. Lewis. Nth reading, N > 3. 28 February 2021.
It cannot be fourteen years since I last read this novel, but that at least is my last record for it. At any rate, this time around I simply had a hankering for it, and, as before, really enjoyed it.
One thing that struck me in this reading is the element of occult. In some ways I think that Lewis was exorcising a personal demon; we know from other writings that magic and the dark arts held out to him a serious temptation: not one of mere curiosity but indeed a very perilous one on his telling. And so here he has provided a fairy tale (which is the genre that he explicitly used to describe this novel) showing how the desire to gain power through evil spiritual forces can crop up in the modern world: even under the guise of science.
Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife [Top]
Ariel Sabar (Doubleday, 2020). 1st reading. 28 February 2021.
This is a journalistic account of the so-called ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ papyrus and the diverse cast of characters related to its ‘discovery’ and interpretation. I only vaguely remembered the news about it when its existence was announced in 2012: a fragment that has Jesus utter the words ‘my wife’ in a context that is not clear. To give away the ending, it has been shown to be a forgery.
The author, who covered the story as a journalist from the beginning and was the only representative of the press when it was first announced at a conference in Rome, relates a story that is by turns fascinating, insightful, disturbing and perplexing. He pulls no punches in his criticism of what he considers serious scholarly ineptitude; he chronicles the history of the person who passed the fragment along to the Harvard Divinity scholar, Prof. King, the academic who was the chief promoter of the fragment; it is implied that this supplier indeed may have made the forgery—but never admits to having done so in black and white. Meanwhile it is implied that King had her own ideological motivations for promoting the fragment. Sabar, who had published an exposé in the Atlantic on the fragment, is meticulous in documenting his sources. On some of the background—such as the history of Christian clerical celibacy—his reporting was oversimplified, but he doesn't seem to have any particular axe to grind. He certainly has no qualms about casting King's scholarly methods and agenda in an unfavourable light.
All-in-all an engrossing read, and just when you think it has gotten as weird as possible, another twist is revealed. It left me both fascinated and feeling vaguely uneasy.
Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man [Top]
Siegfried Sassoon. 1st reading. 28 February 2021.
I decided to pick up this memoir thinly disguised as a novel—which is the first in a trilogy—after enjoying Robert Grave’s memoir of the First World War and learning that he was a friend of Sassoon’s. Perhaps because of this, I was pretty disappointed with it for at least first half. It literally does consist of memoirs of fox-hunting; a young man who leaves university without a degree, takes up fox-hunting and cricket, living upon a modest annuity that is just sufficient for these pursuits. It seemed very decadent and desultory; and, not having much interest in hunting myself and no real knowledge of horses, didn't find it particularly gripping.
However, eventually I began enjoying it a little more, especially when it occurred to me that there are other memoirs out there that feature characters just as desultory: Hemingway sprung to mind especially. Sassoon's work is by no means as accomplished as, say, The Green Hills of Africa, but if I am willing to enjoy that book, then why not Sassoon's idle pursuits? And then one realises that the writer is showing you something more than just idleness; there is something about simple pleasures that is poignant, not just because of the sentimentality of looking back upon them later in life, but because their innocence was never really completely innocent; they were a deferral of the responsibilities that life does demand—and the responsibilities that you cannot circumnavigate to arrive at what is really worthwhile (that which was only glimpsed in the idle pleasures) because they are all bound up in it.
The volume ends with him going to war; I expect the next instalment in the trilogy will take a seriouser turn: he ended up becoming a rather famous opponent to the war (i.e., WWI).
Previously I only heard of Sassoon as a poet whose name was associated with Wilfred Owen; Owen I have read, but not Sassoon; perhaps something to be rectified.
The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet [Top]
Shakspeare. 3rd [?] reading. 21 March 2021.
I had never considered this in his top tier and I still don't. Still, it does have some lovely verse. I confess I had forgotten how many bodies (i.e., > 2) pile up right at the end.
Sense and Sensibility [Top]
Jane Austen. 3rd [?] reading. 2 May 2021.
I think I have read every other of Austen's novels (with the possible exception of Northanger Abbey, and Lady Susan, if that counts) at least once since I last read this work. With this perspective I suppose I join the common opinion that it is inferior to some of her later works, but what does that really matter? It is still a good novel. Perhaps its main flaw is that it kind of drags towards the end. Mrs. Jennings is one of Austen's great supporting characters; I found John Dashwood also well-drawn: at first you think him well-intentioned but of weak character, but you gradually see that he is perhaps more deliberately scheming.
Ten Cities that Made an Empire [Top]
Tristram Hunt (Allen Lane, 2014). 1st reading. 2 May 2021.
The empire is the British Empire, and the cities are: Boston, Bridgetown, Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Bombay, Melbourne, New Dehli and Liverpool. The arrangement is chronological; Boston, for instance, is only treated of until the end of the eighteenth century when it is no longer part of a British colony; the others appear roughly in the order in which they become central to British interests.
The approach is perhaps as neutral as it could be given that the author is an Englishman. The focus is clearly these cities insofar as they related to the Empire, but there is generally no (or very little) sentimentality for bygone days; if anything, Hunt continually demonstrates how commercial interests created the most appalling situations—foremost among them the slave trade, at least before the nineteenth century, but replaced after that with other abuses. At the same time, he typically remains aloof from any evaluation of the imperial project as a whole, simply treating it as an historic fact, which obviously made an important impression on world history and facilitated cultural and economic exchange on a global scale.
One thing that Hunt gets across quite effectively is how supple the Empire actually was. There was never a single doctrine over its hundreds of years dictating what its purpose was, nor were the institutions that constituted it always the same; Britain's interests in India may at first have been executed by the East India Company, but that was eventually replaced by a more direct rule in the nineteenth century, for instance. Or again, the imperial myth of a British ‘race’ beneficently spreading civilisation to less enlightened peoples was a later development, in the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, at least in a conscious and programmatic way, on Hunt's telling.
A lot of this book consists of actual descriptions of the cities and their architecture and layout. This I found less interesting (though not boring). Learning about the history was what kept my interest. In each city, Hunt made sure to contrast the lifestyle of the wealthy and powerful (generally the colonial rulers) with the down and out (generally, but not always, the original inhabitants). The contrast between opulence and squalor is frequently striking; on the other hand, he perhaps treats of it in a too matter-of-fact manner at times.
The author was, at the time of publication, a Labour member of parliament. Apart from a few quotations from Marx (who had analysed the economics of, e.g., the British presence in the Caribbean), there was nothing that would make me guess his political stripes; I only discovered it upon finishing the book and could as well as seen him as a Tory. But perhaps I do not have a finely tuned political sense.
The Sun Also Rises [Top]
Ernest Hemingway. 2nd reading. 17 July 2021.
I read most of Hemingway's novels in my teenage years, and remember not being very impressed with The Sun Also Rises. My main recollections are of the bits in Pamplona where they desultorily watch bullfights, but I think the desultoriness was my own reconstruction; decadent, and of course drunken, would be better descriptions.
Reading it again now I come away with a far greater appreciation. For instance, I had forgotten the whole middle section when they fish in the countryside, which is quite good. One feels as if one were there. And then Hemingway explores the pain and complexities of navigating relationships in a world of sin, if I may put it like that—which I think I can, for there are a couple of visits to churches, including when Jake stops to pray in the cathedral of Pamplona and regrets that he is ‘such a rotten Catholic’ since it is ‘a grand religion’.
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer [Top]
Siegfried Sassoon. 1st reading. 17 July 2021.
I found this more engaging and interesting than the first book in the trilogy. Like Graves's account he takes you into the thick of the war, but Sassoon's telling seemed to me to be a bit less close, perhaps because he saw more campaigns. He also writes extremely well.
Neal Stephenson. 1st reading. 17 July 2021.
My third Neal Stephenson novel, which I would describe as the most conventional. That is, both Anathem and The Diamond Age throw you into a new world with practically no bearings or context, leaving you to figure it out as the novel progresses. Seveneves, on the other hand starts in our world in the near future and has plenty of exposition so that you are oriented as the story progresses—with the destruction of life, apart from a few hardy survivors, when the moon is mysteriously destroyed and its debris rains upon the earth.
This does not mean that it is not inventive; on that score one certainly finds the Stephenson I had encountered in those other two novels. And it is often engrossingly inventive, though occasionally he favours describing a speculative technology in almost obsessive detail. I might also quibble with the plotting when it comes to the second part, set far in the future, when many new ideas are introduced but not fully explored. Even if it is already a fat novel, it could profitably have been expanded. Finally, a related quibble is that some plot points leave you hanging when one reasonably might have expected a resolution or an explanation, though I shan't mention them as they would be ‘spoilers’.
All this being said, a really problematic aspect of the novel is its matter-of-fact (when it comes down to it) treatment of artificial reproductive technologies; the ethical issues with this are given little more than lip-service, even when blatant and deliberate eugenics is involved (!). It is seen as a pragmatic survival tactic, but its grave moral ramifications are not played out at all, as if how the human species is propagated will not have consequences for what it means to be human—at least, not in the way Stephenson imagines, where human beings are barely moral creatures at all. But if we are not moral creatures, the stability and flourishing that the novel promises are smoke and mirrors. Stephenson has not written a utopia by any stretch of the imagination, but it has the flaws that many utopian stories have. So caveat lector …
I'll leave the moralising at that; admittedly I have not attempted an in-depth analysis here, either. (But see, e.g., this blog review, which somewhat influenced my own analysis above—particularly in seeing it as anti-human—though I would go after the eugenics a lot harder.) All this being said, there are other speculative aspects of the novel that are really neat, even if often quite far-fetched. In spite of my griping, it was a engaging read.
As You Like It [Top]
Shakespeare. Nth reading, N ≫ 1. 17 July 2021.
Enjoyable as always.
Sherston's Progress [Top]
Siegfried Sassoon. 1st reading. 6 November 2021.
This memoir essentially picks up where the the previous book left off. I am writing this note a couple of months after having finished it, so it is not fresh in my mind, but it was a worthy final instalment to the trilogy. It would have been nice if it had continued after the war for a little while.
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold [Top]
Evelyn Waugh. 1st–½ reading. 6 November 2021.
I started reading this book roughly a decade ago, but due to circumstances—I was visiting another house and had to leave it behind when I left—only got about a quarter or a third of the way through. I remember thinking it quite gripping and amusing, so was happy to return to it. (Obviously, though, it couldn't have gripped me too intensely if it took me ten years to do so …)
However, my assessment after finishing it is that it is easily the worst Waugh I have read. The premise and opening are well done: although not stated in so many words, it is clearly intended to be received as highly autobiographical. An ageing and cantankerous writer is afflicted by a strange malady and decides to sail to Ceylon (as it was then called) in hopes of setting himself right. So far so good, and Waugh makes himself the object of fun, with his brilliant prose on display. But then, once he is on the ship, the book devolves into the details of the writer's hallucinations which are, to be frank, rather boring. After their initial novelty, they become repetitive. And this lasts for most of the rest of the book. It is not a terrible book, but so far in my estimation it is at the bottom of the Waugh heap. (I should actually finish the rest of the heap—I think there remain two or three of his novels that I haven't read—to see if it remains there!)
How does one pronounce, and then, how does one write fractional ordinals? I think it is something like ‘first-and-a-half’, which I have rendered ‘1st–½’. Or is it ‘first-and-a-halfth’? Or ‘one-and-a-halfth’?
The Dark Forest; Death's End [Top]
Liu Cixin (trans. Joel Martinsen (DF) and Ken Liu (DE), Tor Books). 1st reading. 28 September 2021.
My reaction to the first novel in this series (collectively called in English Remembrance of Earth's Past: The Three-Body Trilogy) was positive but muted. I enjoyed it, but not so much that I felt compelled to continue immediately to the second novel. However, a year later I did and, after reading the second, The Dark Forest, I did feel compelled to continue on to Death's End. Either I did not appreciate the first book as much as I should have, or the series just gets better as it goes. Regardless, this is first rate science fiction: as good as, if not greater than, Asimov or Clarke.
What makes these books so good? A few things. The characters are well done. The scientific speculation, while often far-fetched (as I noted previously) is intriguing and, to be precise, delightful. Finally, the books are just chock-full of inventive and thought-provoking ideas, without them getting in the way of the overall narrative or the character development. It is that sort of book that, after 1,500 pages, one would be happy to simply keep reading. I'm looking forward to reading some of his other work.
The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. [Top]
William Makepeace Thackeray. 1.5th reading. 28 December 2021.
To start with, Barry is not the protagonist's given name, as I had simply assumed, and presumably is often assumed by others as well, but rather his family name. His first name is Redmond; Lyndon is a noble name into which he marries—though whether the bond be valid might well be put to question!—well into the story.
Like The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, this is a novel that I started and never finished due to leaving the house to which it belonged. That seems to happen a fair amount to me. This time, though, I was much more glad that I continued, for it is certainly an entertaining novel, even if at times you feel you should not be enjoying given how wicked, even vile, the protagonist can be! Like Vanity Fair, it is ‘a novel without a hero’.
To be frank, I have always wondered why Thackeray was so admired by his contemporaries; Charlotte Brontë, for instance, dedicated Jane Eyre to him out of enthusiasm for his work. Vanity Fair is indeed a great novel, but the two other stories of his I had actually read—Henry Esmond and The Virginians—I found surprisingly second rate.
However, Barry Lyndon does confirm Thackeray's literary power. It is a story that gallops along effortlessly: always fascinating, even when repulsive, and frequently making you catch yourself for rooting for Redmond when in reality you would never condone his behaviour. (I was reminded of Moll Flanders in this regard.) Thackeray's withering social satire is on full display here, most effectively conveyed by the (anti-)hero's hypocritical narration—is he self-deluded or wilfully deceitful?—but of course also in how he is in and out of favour with society itself not on moral but conventional grounds.
Ball Lightning [Top]
Liu Cixin (trans. Joel Martinsen, Tor Books, 2018). 1st reading. 1 January 2022.
A good read, but not nearly as good as Remembrance of Earth's Past. This novel, which Liu wrote earlier, is much ‘harder’ science fiction, in the sense that it is chiefly about science and technology. The characters are decent, but they and the plot are more in service to the ideas than vice versa.
The author's Afterword (perhaps prepared for the English translation, as it was written after the aforementioned trilogy?) admits as much, and is actually quite revealing, as Liu points out that prior to translation of more modern Western science fiction in the eighties,
Chinese science fiction … was dominated by the invention story, a form that was preoccupied with the description of a futuristic technological device and speculation on its immediate positive effects, but which barely touched the inventions deeper social implications, much less the tremendous ways such technology would transform society (p. 382).
He then explains that Ball Lightning is very much in this tradition, where as Rememberance of Earth's Past was his conscious effort to speculate on people and society (which he does very well).
Pride and Prejudice [Top]
Jane Austen. Nth reading (N ≫ 1). 24 April 2022.
It had been a little while, and, with the busyness of my work, I wanted something I could revisit and enjoy without the same effort required of a new book.
This time around one thing that struck me was the weakness of character in Jane; of all Elizabeth's sisters she is, of course, the most intelligent and good, but even she acts as a foil to the protagonists. It is nicely done.
The Flight: Charles Lindbergh's Daring and Immortal 1927 Transatlantic Crossing [Top]
Dan Hampton (HarperCollins, 2017). 1st reading. 24 April 2022.
My reason for reading this book: I spied this on a shelf and thought it looked interesting. And while it is not the greatest book ever I was mainly right. I previously had no particular interest in the event or the person it describes, but it succeeded in making up for that lacuna.
The title is quite descriptive of the book's contents: it is literally an account of the flight. Perhaps half of it describes in detail how the flight went from hour to hour, largely reconstructed, I gathered, from Lindbergh's own post facto accounts—unfortunately, the actual flight log was lost in, if I remember correctly, the confusion upon landing and the plane was besieged by excited crowds. The author is himself an aviator, which allowed him to give an authentic touch to the descriptions of what it would have been like to navigate the course and control the aeroplane. It made the journey, about which I knew nothing except that it occurred, quite vivid.
Interspersed with the narrative of the flight are flashbacks to the history leading up to the flight and as well as Lindbergh's background and biography. The latter, however, only goes up to the flight, and Hampton does not continue the biographical elements after this apart from a brief section at the end of the book.
Damien the Leper [Top]
John Farrow (Image Books, 1954). 1st reading. 22 May 2022.
Before reading this book, apart from the barest biographical facts I knew little about St. Damien, the Belgian priest who contracted leprosy after working for several years in a leper colony in Hawaii, which had been in a horrendous state before he began advocating for better conditions, apart from a couple of facts. It was written in the 1930's, long before he was beatified (1995) or canonised (2009).
Interestingly, the author was an two-time Academy Award winning Hollywood screenwriter and director; that being said, the prose is typical of a certain pious prose of the early twentieth century that I find unattractive. The writing is clichéd and overwrought; the invented dialogues are stilted. Nonetheless, it is plotted well and seems to have been researched and, above all, the story is amazingly compelling.