Archive for December, 2022

2022: My year of reading

December 30, 2022

A house move early this year has had a major impact on my reading: books boxed up, being unable to find books that I wanted to read, far less time to read due to having so many other pressing things to deal with: are those excuses or reasons? I’m not sure. But the books are now, much later, out of boxes and on shelves, although in different places, so tracking down and finding a book still isn’t easy, until my ageing brain has internalised my new system…

There has been a certain amount or re-reading; there has been the usual ‘compulsory’ reading for our book group, some of which were real eye-openers. In 2022 I bought or was given (and kept) all of 19 books, which represents a slight decrease on 2021; I read 50 books, which marks a serious decrease on last year’s total, for the reason above-mentioned.

I have a number of resolutions for 2023: to continue buying fewer books – and this is partly because a good number of the new books I come across I only want to read once, and I know I shan’t return to them – to return to my interrupted project to re-read all of Shakespeare’s plays in chronological sequence, to revisit a lot of the poetry I cherish, to revisit some old favourites including Josef Skvorecky, Garrison Keillor and Amin Maalouf, and to continue weeding my library and disposing of books I no longer want. And, driven by the final TV series which is currently being screened, I want to re-read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: I’ve watched the TV adaptations and loved them, and I’ve listened several times to the excellent full audiobook recording of the trilogy while I’ve been on my travels, but it’s a good few years since I actually consumed the printed volumes…

I’ve read far fewer travel books this year, and I’m wondering if I’ve finally exhausted that bug. There does seem to be a limit to the number of new travelogues through Siberia, or the various deserts of the world, that a person needs.

This year’s awards:

Best novel: Sequioa Nagamatsu How High We Go In The Dark. A novelist I’d never head of and took a punt on; a challenging fantasy which I really enjoyed and hope to go back to shortly. It’s good to read new authors.

Best non-fiction: Alberto Angela Une Journée Dans La Rome Antique. I’ve liked everything I’ve read by him.I’ve been fascinated by ancient Rome since my school days, and this historian brings it to life with a wealth of detail, without ever being patronising or talking down to his readers.

Best travel: Edward Abbey Desert Solitaire. I love deserts, and travel in deserts, and this journal of time in one of the US natioanl parks by an early ecologist (as you’d have to call him nowadays) is a gem: he shows you the desert and makes you love it as much as he does.

Best re-read: Jan Potocki Manuscript Found in Saragossa: an astonishing novel, a tour de force from the early 19th century; it was good finally to find time to re-read this one. And I have the film, waiting to be watched, too.

Best book group discovery: Ben MacIntyre Agent Sonya. I thought, “Do I really want to bother reading this? Why would I read this?” and I did, and it was another object lesson in not dismissing books too easily. A fascinating and thought-provoking account of pro-Soviet espionage in the twenties, thirties and forties, and out book group discussion was enhanced by a guest appearance from one of the heroine’s relatives.

I’m hoping to resume normal service in 2023, ie lots more reading and re-reading, further pruning of my library, and continuing to buy rather fewer books than previously.

Quarks, Elephants and Pierogi

December 27, 2022

     To my shame, as half-Polish, I cannot speak the language; I can just about get by, if I need to. This is a result of having one English and one Polish parent, and being born and raised in England. The Polish language is an extremely complex language grammatically; the pronunciation is the easy bit, trust me. And I’ve attempted a number of times, in different places, to learn Polish properly, but never came across a decent teacher in all my attempts. Excuses, excuses.

There is a marvellous website, Culture.pl, which publishes a wide range of articles explaining and showcasing Poland, its places, people and culture, and this book is an offshoot of their articles on the language. It reminded me of both how much I knew and how much I didn’t; it’s full of fascinating information and details, links and connections with other places and other languages.

But what pleased me most about the book is that it’s a beautiful object per se, in a day when production values of books have generally plummeted with the aim of keeping price low and maximising profit. It’s a solid hardback, printed on good quality paper, with excellent design and illustrations – hardly a surprise, given the country’s reputation in the graphic arts. It’s nicely bound, and the red stitching contrasting with the white paper was a nice detail too. It was a real pleasure to read, and I shall be revisiting it often….

His Dark Materials on TV

December 27, 2022

I first encountered Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy many years ago when I was ill and spent several days in bed. I devoured the novels, and remember sending someone out to buy a missing volume. This Christmas I have been languishing in bed, and for the first time in my life I have binged on television, once I had figured out how to get the BBC iPlayer app to behave, and watched all of the final TV series production of His Dark Materials. It was compulsive viewing, and utterly awesome. I could not understand some of the semi-lukewarm reviews I’d come across by some critics in the previous few days.

I’ve long maintained that the novels are masterpieces, and I have been astonished at how well and how faithfully they have been translated to television; the last series is no exception, and although it has been a long wait, it has been worth it.

The stories are eminently readable, and not aimed at a particular age group or audience, in my opinion. They certainly don’t talk down to, or preach at, a young adult audience; Pullman regards his readers as intelligent human beings, who don’t have to like his books or his message.

The TV series are a gift to SFX departments, who have risen to the occasion superbly, envisioning daemons, creating unreal creatures, imaginary technology and unearthly landscapes – unearthly in terms of our world, that is.

I think, however – and I suspect this may well be one of the reasons for some of the rather silly reviews I mentioned earlier – that the TV production is a complement to the novels rather than a replacement for them, and if someone hasn’t read the books, then they will find the story and the ideas rather harder to follow from the TV series alone. Obviously, I haven’t found this a problem. I had certain expectations, from my acquaintance with the novels, and largely these were met, within the limitations of any attempt to transfer 1500 pages of novel to 24 hours of television. Here I’m reminded of the achievement of the BBC in the early 1970s, when they turned War and Peace into a 26-part TV series.

Plot wasn’t re-written, though clearly slimmed down and perhaps perspectives and emphases changed; casting was very well done and highly convincing, particularly in the cases of Will, Lyra and Mrs Coulter. Settings were stunning, throughout. And the interaction between human and daemon was fascinating to watch, although the concept of interaction between the two did suffer a times, I think, and the idea of the externalisation of one’s soul was only foregrounded in the final series. But I felt actors and directors had a fine sense of the interaction between characters, and seeing them onscreen allowed me to observe and reflect more closely on those relationships, which enriched the story for me, as well as providing food for thought.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the novels, and of Pullman’s ideas, to translate from page to screen was that of dust, and its link to the idea of what makes us fully human, as well as the contrast between innocence and experience. This merits a post of its own, which I hope to get around to writing some time soon.

I realise I’m probably sounding like more of a fan than a critic here. So be it. I was disappointed in the film The Golden Compass, which preceded the TV adaptations, and my copy of that film has mysteriously disappeared, not that I miss it. I had great hopes when I first heard of the TV project, and I haven’t been disappointed. Pullman’s novels have been one of the fantasy milestones of the century, and for my money leave Tolkein and J K Rowling in the shade…

Jaroslav Hašek: The Good Soldier Švejk

December 18, 2022

     When I’m under the weather – it’s the long-lasting cold from hell at the moment – I usually choose an old favourite to re-enjoy as I rest in bed, something not too demanding which I know I’ll enjoy. My annotations inform me that this is at least the sixth, if not the seventh time I’ve read Švejk’s astonishing adventures in the Great War.

I’m familiar with a good deal of fiction from several countries set during this conflict, and this Czech masterpiece is the only humorous treatment of the subject I know. It’s completely crazy, laugh-out-loud hilarious in places, easily readable and unputdownable. The hero is a garrulous, incredibly knowledgeable utter idiot who survives by his wits and drives his officers crazy; the scrapes an utter simpleton can get himself into have to be read to be believed, and in a way the fact that the novel originates from what was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the Great War seems to explain why that empire was destined to disintegrate.

How can one possibly write a funny novel about the war? This is years before the Absurdists came along, but throughout the book, the insanity of war, warfare and the military’s inflated sense of itself is repeatedly and constantly made evident. This time, I was also struck by the fact that it’s probably not actually a novel at all, there being no real plot and its actually ending unfinished as Hašek died before he could complete it (and after 800 pages!). It’s more of a picaresque adventure in the manner of Gargantua and Pantagruel, or Don Quixote: we follow the hero’s adventures wherever he goes.

In and among the many cretinous idiocies of army life and organisation there are, nevertheless, frequent glimpses of the real horrors of that war, especially its effects on civilians. Hašek was an anarchist and he develops and interlards his political, social and religious views throughout the text. In particular, there is merciless mockery of the hypocrisy of organised religion which sanctifies war and killing. It’s anti-war, anti-military and anti-monarchist; I love it.

As a picaresque tale it does feel rambling and shapeless at times, but in some ways this serves to emphasise the long-suffering of the ordinary soldiers, and the chaos and confusion the army and its officers bring in their wake. The final sections become more and more surreal as the troops march aimlessly around the remains of battlefields, corpses, casualties and desperate surviving civilians. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it remains a masterpiece. I hope I shall have the time to read it one more time, one day…

Christopher Marlowe: Doctor Faustus

December 18, 2022

     I’ve always liked this play, ever since I studied it for A Level more than half a century ago; I’ve taught it a few times, although it got harder as time went by, with the increasing need to deliver a crash course in theology alongside the text; the same was the case with Milton’s Paradise Lost. It will be a great shame if such texts disappear from study in schools.

Coming to this play having already met Shakespeare, it can feel a bit primitive, with its story-telling through choruses and soliloquies; it’s not helped by Marlowe using hacks to pad out the comic scenes, either. While it can feel much less subtle than Shakespearean tragedy, it can certainly match him in the power of its poetry.

Faustus’ flawed character is at the heart of Marlowe’s drama. His expressed desires are, ultimately, worldly. It is hard to understand how someone, so apparently gifted/talented/knowledgeable already, manages to delude himself so utterly in imagining that he will get the better of his pact with Lucifer. Even his thoughts about magic seem to corrupt his original intentions.

The play focuses on a single character, Faustus; sometimes there are glimpses of characterisation in Mephistopheles. In some ways this feels like a limitation on the power and effectiveness of the drama, and yet when Faustus slips into despair and we feel him teetering on the brink of repentance, there is real dramatic power in the closing scenes.

For me, the main focus is on the limitations of human beings as creatures. Marlowe explored this in a different way in Tamburlaine the Great. There’s certainly our fear of death, the great unknown, and for me it’s a bit of a contradiction that Faustus only negotiates 24 years of power in his pact with the devil. I now know 24 years is not a very long time… The limitations are things we can do nothing about: mortality, obviously, although scientists are now working on this, and the things we do not know and cannot find out; again, we have made progress since Marlowe’s day, and yet there is still so much we do not know or understand.

Is there a moral here, partly about humans’ rebellion against our condition being pointless in the end? Humans’ natural curiosity is obviously at play here: an innate part of us, and part of our tragedy, too. The final chorus is certainly relevant to us today, with its suggestion that there are things as mere humans we ought not to do, even if we can.

John Carey: A Little History of Poetry

December 10, 2022

     Well, as I reached the end of this book, I was thinking how useful it would have been at the start of my Eng.Lit. Degree. It is exactly what is says on the cover, starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh and reaching as close to today as reasonably possible. I’ve liked John Carey’s writing about literature for quite a number of years, and his modest biography of John Donne (John Donne: Life, Mind and Art) has subdued my desire to read the latest one everyone is raving about…

Apparently the Jews in exile in Babylon may well have encountered the Gilgamesh story, which, surprise surprise (!) features both a flood and a snake, both of which later turn up in the book of Genesis.

Carey portrays the broad sweep of the development of poetry through the ages, and its changing purpose and function, too. It’s highly accessible as an introduction and a survey, both for the informed and uninformed reader. It’s eminently readable, and Carey’s knowledge and above all love of poetry shine through; he shows us the good stuff and explains why he thinks it’s good, and equally, at times, tells us what isn’t.

The book consists of many short, often thematic and comparative chapters. Whilst this works most of the time and suits his purpose, you can also see how hard it is to do justice to Shakespeare’s sonnets, for instance, in such a chapter. His love of John Donne’s poetry shines through in such a chapter, though, but I felt that Milton lost out. He’s tuned into the beauty and variety of the ways poets use our language – there are a couple of chapters on poetry not written in English, as there needs to be, but these don’t work nearly as well. I thought I knew poetry pretty well after a lifetime of study and teaching, but not; there’s just so much of it, and one inevitably both selects and sticks to what one likes best.

Carey achieves what he sets out to do, and admirably; I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Ben MacIntyre: Agent Sonya

December 4, 2022

     Most of us of a certain age have a vague picture of the espionage that was an integral part of the Cold War years and much earlier; this is the first time I’ve read a detailed account of any of it, and the stories of some of the people who were involved in it, although quite a few of the names had been familiar to me. It was fascinating to read an in-depth account, and to reflect on the implications of what went on. It’s a workmanlike piece of writing; the facts and the biography are what matters, not the style. There are some minor carelessnesses in historical and geographical detail, but not many.

The innate sexism of MI5/MI6, the idea that a ‘housewife’ could not possibly be up to no good, allowed the heroine to get aways with a lot; there’s a certain amount of almost comic silliness in the behaviour of British intelligence (!) at the time as we read about their investigations and interrogations.

Ursula/Sonya is clearly a character of her times, and looking back from our perspective now, it’s rather hard to see why someone would undergo the great rigours of training in espionage and sabotage and take on board all the risks, dangers and penalties of the role. We are taken through her decision to become involved, her recruitment, her work in China during the Civil War, in Europe in the run-up to the Second World War, in Switzerland during that war, her flight to England and her involvement in the passing of many secrets, including research on the atomic bomb to her paymasters in the USSR.

I found thinking about the issues involved in this espionage history quite interesting. I felt that the author seemed to gloss over Sonya’s naivete, even wilful blindness at various times, for instance her response to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, and also her reaction to the disappearance of so many of her connections during the Stalinist purges. At one level, being so embroiled already, one might argue she didn’t have much option other than to stick with the side that was paying her. Equally, I could understand her decision to move to the DDR in the late forties when she was about to be rumbled. There was clearly a sense of idealism at play: there should be a level playing field, and why were researches and developments not being shared with an all? Idealism too, now vanished, that there was an alternative, however flawed, to capitalism, in construction in a large and important country.

More than this, however, I found myself actually admiring and respecting the efforts, the risks and the decisions taken by those whose actions evened the odds, if you like, during the Second World War and the Cold War; it was clear quite early on that the West was positioning itself for maximum advantage once the ‘Allies’ had defeated the Nazis, and actually, contemplating the outcome of another war when the Soviets did not have the ‘equality’ of nuclear weapons, was pretty horrifying. What sort of a world might we have been living in now? And I’m appalled at myself for almost accepting the balance of terror here. But for many years I realise that I actually did feel ‘safer’ during the Cold War than I have done since…

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