Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Adventures in Bookland: Mont Saint Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams

Monday, July 10th, 2017

The cover photo gives, as much as is possible, some idea of what is inside this most extraordinary of books. Look at it carefully. Rising from surrounding water a ziggurat of stone rendered into yearning patterns of ascent points to the overarching sky. It is a medieval rocket to heaven, a union of all the different worlds, a place that, seeing it, grabs the breath and awes the eye. The French refer to part of it as ‘La Merveille’ but it is all a marvel, almost impossible to comprehend. That the men of the eleventh century were able to make such a place seems scarcely credible, and yet they did, raising a work greater than any of the wonders of antiquity. Although the medievals revered the classical past, in truth they outdid it in what they built, in stone and thought and culture.

This book, faced with such marvels, answers with its own, for it is, without doubt, one of the three or four most extraordinary books I have ever read. The author, Henry Adams, was the great grandson of John Adams, the second president of the United States; his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth president; his father, Charles Francis Adams, was US ambassador to Britain during the American Civil War. So, not much to live up to there then!

What must it be like to grow up in such a milieu? Henry Adams went on to become a historian and journalist, but in terms of obvious accomplishment, he did not match his forbears. Yet he wrote two books, The Education of Henry Adams and this volume, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, that rank as classics, although each are strange members of that class of literature. The Education is an autobiography, of sorts, while Mont Saint Michel is ostensibly a travel guide. But when I was working as a travel writer for publishers such as Time Out, I’d have had my copy spiked if I’d submitted anything like Mont Saint Michel (oh, if only I could write so well!). Perhaps the best comparison, in terms of style, is John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, although that would not be obvious from the playful preface, where Adams dedicates this book to ‘nieces in wish’, willing to read the musings of an uncle on the strange and distant land of France and the stranger and more distant lands of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Adams, with a mix of erudition and wit (he assumes his reader is fluent in French, Latin and reasonably conversant in Greek), leads his niece in wish upwards through Mont St Michel, ascending it in thought and learning, placing it within the compass of the society and times that created it and, in doing so, he does something that I would have thought impossible: despite being something of an Anglo-Saxonist, he makes me appreciate the Normans. Then, by way of the birth of Gothic, Adams takes the visitor to the pinnacle of Gothic architecture, Chartres Cathedral, and sings the hymn of its inspiration and, in truth, its maker, the Virgin herself. No where else have I read such an intense and lived encounter with the medieval mind, such an appreciation of its peculiar and particular genius.

Yet, it was an appreciation born in a nihilism that, occasionally, shatters the stained glass and leaves the reader face to face with the dark cold at the heart of Adams’ world.

It was very childlike, very foolish, very beautiful, and very true,- -as art, at least:—so true that everything else shades off into vulgarity… For seven hundred years Chartres has seen pilgrims, coming and going more or less like us, and will perhaps see them for another seven hundred years; but we shall see it no more, and can safely leave the Virgin in her majesty, with her three great prophets on either hand, as calm and confident in their own strength and in God’s providence as they were when Saint Louis was born, but looking down from a deserted heaven, into an empty church, on a dead faith.

Few saints have seen as clearly into the mystery of Chartres and Mont St Michel as Adams, yet he sees it all as shadow play, and a play of shadows, the footlings of earnest and talented children before they shuffle into the dark.

It is a bleak vision.

But it only breaks through briefly and, for most of the book, Adams is content to walk in the vivid colours of the medieval, letting its bright, primary colours light his prose.

There are other points where the book comes to a juddering, jarring halt, however, and this is wherever Adams mentions Jews. He was, to put it simply, an anti-semite, and on paper at least a vicious one. Reading him, as complete a product of civilised 19th-century culture as one could wish to find, it becomes a little clearer how the 20th century could produce the Holocaust.

For some, these sudden eruptions of nihilism and hatred into this most civilised and civilising of texts might serve to render it beyond reading, and I would have no objections to that. But they are part of what makes this book extraordinary, for they serve to help to define how precious and rare a man of truly civilised culture is, and how even the best of these may be distorted by the culture they embody. This book is a 19th-century understanding of the High Middle Ages and it enlightens the modern reader about both in a way no other book I’ve ever read does. Do read it.

Adventures in Bookland: Night’s Bright Darkness by Sally Read

Monday, June 26th, 2017

To be a poet, a true poet, is to be infected with the same sort of madness that produces prophets. It’s a calling, a vocation to stare into the depths of meaning and the dark abyss of words, to stand exposed beneath a pitiless sun and to teeter upon a knife ridge between unfathomable falls. This is the story of how a poet became a prophet. And it’s quite the most brilliant and compelling conversion story I’ve read since… well, to be honest, since Augustine. Whether Sally Read’s story will resound down the ages in the same way is unlikely, but it speaks with a particular clarity to another product of the peculiar culture that has produced us both: a culture of lights and wonders and flashing distractions; where we can speak across worlds, live the thrills and tragedies of other lives, and rush, rush, rush, always rush, to the freshest, hottest promise of purpose.

Sally Read was a poet before she became a prophet. It was the uncompromising nature of her immersion into the nature of meaning, the play and dance of sounds and shapes, semantics and syntax, that is the stuff of poetry and the foundation of words and worlds that opened her up – an atheist born, bred and convinced – to the raw nature of reality and, most profoundly, its wonder. And Wonder spoke. It showed her, it revealed itself, it sang to her. And, in its speaking, it showed itself to be a Person.

Really, I can say little else other than to urge you to read this book. If you have any interest in language, precisely deployed to tell a story and evoke that which is beyond language, then read this book. If you have any interest in how today’s aggressively secular culture can be reopened to grace, then read this book. If you have any interest in reading an extraordinary story by an extraordinary and slightly scary woman, then read this book.


Adventures in Bookland: Praetorian by Guy de la Bédoyère

Wednesday, June 21st, 2017

De la Bédoyère’s book on the Praetorians will likely become the definitive account of the rise and fall of the emperor’s bodyguards but whether it is the best book on the subject depends on what the reader is looking for when opening its pages. If you are looking for a sober and scholarly history of the Praetorians, with a thorough examination of the sources (or lack of them) and extensive discussions of such issues as whether the guards’ cohorts were quingenary (composed of 500 men) or milliary (made up of 1,000 troops), and the evolution of the term cohors praetoria from the purely descriptive to the imperially prescriptive then you will be in historical heaven. However, if you would prefer a gossipy trip through the underbelly of Roman imperial politics and the temptations attendant upon being the bodyguard to the most powerful man in the world, then Praetorian might disappoint. A serious historian, de la Bédoyère prefers to pass over, or passingly refer to, some of the more salacious details of Roman history on the not unreasonable grounds that these were likely inventions to please an audience no less keen on scandal then than are audiences of reality TV today. In Roman terms, de la Bédoyère is more Josephus than Suetonius. While no one would disagree that history should inform, it’s an open question as to how much it should entertain. For instance, when presented with an opportunity such as Hadrian’s praetorian prefect going by the name of Quintus Marcius Turbo, should the responsible historian abstain from the temptation to turn name into pun as being beneath his historical credibility, or should he revel in it, claiming that it will help the reader to remember while really indulging in wordplay for the sheer fun of it. It will come as no surprise that de la Bédoyère reacts to the name with all the disdain of Lady Bracknell presented with a handbag.

This is not to say the book is dull but rather that it turns, deliberately, from the sensational to the plausible. It is at its liveliest where our sources are most extensive, but it becomes interestingly scholarly where the sources are at their thinnest as this allows de la Bédoyère to deploy his considerable knowledge of epigraphs – the inscriptions cut into tombs – and temple dedications to deepen and broaden our understanding of how the Praetorians were deployed in the later stages of the Empire. From being bodyguards, they had become imperial firefighters, putting out rebellions and repelling invasions, or even acting as sentries on a grain route in far-off Numidia. It was a long way from the intrigues of Sejanus. Indeed, it was the intrigues of the prefects in the disastrous third century that eventually led to the dissolution of the Praetorians, when they picked the wrong side in the war between Constantine and Maxentius. Having gained the purple, Constantine was not about to let the Praetorians play the role of emperor maker again, and the Castra Praetoria, their camp in Rome, was demolished. The Praetorians were no longer players. But, among the many books on the Guard, this one certainly is.


Adventures in Bookland: Crusoe by Katherine Frank

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

It’s not often that you read such an interesting book that so completely fails in its stated intent. What Katherine Frank is trying to do is write the interlinked biographies of two men, Daniel Defoe and Robert Knox, to show how the real-life adventures of Robert Knox were the key inspiration behind Defoe’s creation of Robinson Crusoe. In that, she fails. But the failure is probably more interesting than her succeeding would have been. Yes, she does show quite clearly that Defoe had read Knox’s book of his 20-year captivity on Ceylon (Sri Lanka as it is now), and indeed that he’d simply lifted, whole and entire, some of Knox’s work into his own (in particular the seldom read sequel to Robinson Crusoe). But Defoe stole from other writers with as much panache and as little guilt as he defrauded tradesmen and bankers. Given the prevalence of nautical yarns of adventure and shipwreck at the time, and Defoe’s evident reading of other works in the genre, there’s nothing to say that Knox was the key influence on Crusoe. In fact, quite the opposite, as what defines Crusoe apart from all the real-world shipwrecked sailors is that he never ‘went native’. Rather, he recreated his lonely isle as a little England, remaking it in his own image. That is something that very much comes from Defoe’s own life, and how he remade his disasters and failures as triumphs. In some ways, Defoe was the first of the positive thinkers.

So if Frank fails in what she intended, where does she succeed? For one, in her vivid portrayal of Robert Knox. At the age of 19, accompanying his father on a voyage to the Indies aboard an East Indiaman, storm damage forced them to land in Trincomalee in Ceylon. At the time, the western coastal areas of Ceylon were controlled by the Dutch, but the Kings of Kandy maintained their independence in the mountainous interior of the island. Coming ashore, Knox, his father and a party of twenty sailors were initially welcomed by representatives of the king, but then taken captive.

It was a strange sort of captivity. The men were split into ones and twos and assigned to villages, for the villagers to look after. They were free to move about within bounds, and given food and accommodation, but they were not free to leave. There was, in the end, no meeting with the king, but just this ongoing captivity. It has the quality of a tropical, multicoloured Kafka (if such a thing can exist). Knox’s father died after a couple of years captivity, but on his deathbed his son promised him that he would endure and escape, to carry word back to England to the rest of the family of what had happened to Knox senior.

After 20 years (20 years!), Knox and another member of the crew did escape, making their way overland to a Dutch fort in the north east of the island and then taking ship back home. During the long voyage home, Knox wrote a detailed account of his time in Ceylon, and the geography and customs of the people of the island. Returning, a stranger, to England, Knox found it so very different from his departure. The Commonwealth was finished; there was a king again, and he needed employment. So, a year later, Knox set off sailing again, this time captain of an East Indiaman. But before he left he gave his manuscript, which had been worked through by his cousin and also the great scientist Robert Hooke who had befriended Knox on his return, and in his absence the book was published and became a best seller.

Frank tells this story wonderfully well, and brings Knox vividly to life. She visited Sri Lanka and tracked down the locations where Knox lived. Indeed, for my part as the son of a Sri Lankan, I would have happily had her write Knox’s biography alone, and to have learned more of what he learned and recorded of the country then. This is where the book is at its best, but because of the shared narrative, we don’t spend as much time in the tropics with Knox as we might.

On the other hand, the time spent with money grubbing Defoe in the streets of London is just as vivid and exciting. It’s a shame Frank didn’t write two books, one on each man, with maybe a nod towards Knox’s influence on Defoe, and a big embrace towards the strange way a writer will take influences and ideas and remake them under the demands of the blank page.

But, nevertheless, Crusoe was a real pleasure to read.


Adventures in Bookland: Waterloo The Hundred Days by David Chandler

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

It was more than a hundred days. That’s one thing I learned from this book. For some reason, I’d always assumed that the hundred days meant the period from Napoleon escaping exile on Elba to his defeat at Waterloo, but the official Hundred Days actually runs from 20 March 1814, when Napoleon entered Paris to resume his rule of France, to 8 July 1814, when Louis XVIII was officially restored and the the official Hundred Days comes to an end. The dates I’d thought made up the Hundred Days – 26 February to 18 June – actually make 112 days. Still remarkable.

In fact, reading Chandler’s book, I think these must rate as the most extraordinary three months in modern history. From exile to emperor to exile again. Only Napoleon. So while his monstrous ego embroiled Europe in nearly two decades of war, Bonaparte stands apart from the 20th century’s blood-soaked conquerors. He was the last gasp of martial glory as well as the precursor to total warfare. The Napoleonic Wars were the last time when a captured officer might give his word not to seek to escape and this word be accepted, allowing the officer freedom  within the confines of his honour. But the Napoleonic Wars were also the start of unrelieved guerilla warfare and economic war. They bring an end and a beginning, and nothing encapsulates that better than the wild rollercoaster of the Hundred Days. The two wars of the 20th century brought to terrible fruition much of what had been set in motion in the Napoleonic Wars.

David Chandler’s book is an excellent account of these momentous events, moving briskly through Napoleon’s return, his diplomatic manouevring to escape the tightening Allied noose, and then the build up to the battles – for there were more than one – of Waterloo. And as the Duke rightly said, “It was a damn near run thing.”

Adventures in Bookland: Kingmakers by Timothy Venning

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

The great strength of this book is the forensic detail with which it examines the Marcher lords, the Anglo-Norman barons installed by William the Conqueror to guard his border with Wales. Unfortunately, this is also the book’s great weakness. For those uninitiated into the murderous feuds and labyrinthine family politics of the region, the endless succession of betrayals, murders and double crossings dealt out through generations of bloodshed causes the eyes to glaze over and the head to nod. The author’s extreme reluctance to use paragraphs – their average length is four pages – also does not help to bring into focus this parade of feuding barons and fratricidal Welsh princes.

To deal with the author’s virtues first, I must note and commend his command of the source material. Only someone completely at home with the history of the Marcher lords could negotiate the extraordinarily complicated family feuds and rivalries that drove much of the politics of the region. Timothy Venning clearly has no difficulty in remembering that, for instance, Gerald of Windsor’s wife, Nest, was the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdr and mistress to Henry II, and together they produced Maurice FitzGerald, who would go on to found the Fitzgerald dynasty in Ireland, another son who produced the Carew family via his lordship of Caer Yw Castle, and a daughter who was the mother of the historian Gerald of Wales. Indeed, such is Venning’s command of the intricacies of family relationships that this reviewer thinks it a shame he did not live then: he would have understood perfectly the extraordinarily complicated knots of relationships that drove the history of the Marches and, later, Ireland. For the reader who takes similar delight in learning the dynastic details of the time, this book will be perfect. I know of nothing to match its attention to familial detail.

But this is also the book’s great fault. The mark of a great historian is the mastery of detail combined with the gift of knowing what detail to include and what to exclude. There is no doubting Venning’s mastery of the detail, but very little of that detail is excluded from the story, meaning that the general reader is likely to be quickly overwhelmed by the succession of names. Venning’s thesis is that the Marcher lords played a major part in the power politics of medieval England and he certainly makes that case, but he could have done so just as well by focusing more closely on the more significant interventions in the monarchy by these lords, rather than seeking to cram in to his book pretty well every battle and plot between the Conquest and the accession of Richard III, when the book ends, sputtering out in the heavy rain that drowned the revolt of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.

That the book should end thus, with a final addition of detail rather than a rounded summing up of what has gone before, rather tells its own story: it’s a book of pieces stuck into history, but with too little narrative drive to push the general reader through to its conclusion.

Adventures in Bookland: Conclave by Robert Harris

Monday, May 29th, 2017

Once, when visiting Rome, my friend and I determined to get up early, really early, to get to St Peter’s as soon as it opened in the morning – at 6am if memory serves. Walking across the square on a crisp Roman morning, our shadows stretching before us and the rising sun at our backs, we arrived just as the doors were opened, and we entered into great silence. But then, through that silence, walking as softly as a dream through the vast and, at that hour, empty interior of the basilica, came a column of cardinals, vested in red and white. They went in silent procession across the nave and disappeared through a distant door and we watched as these princes of the church passed us by.

It was a memorable moment. This book doesn’t really match that, unfortunately. It’s a well-told story, that fulfilled the first and most important requirement of any story: I always wanted to know what would happen on the next page. But as a thriller, it didn’t really thrill. As the title suggests, the story is about the meeting to elect a pope following the death of the previous holder of the keys of St Peter, and almost all the action takes place during the conclave. However, the scandals that bring down a succession of papabile before they can gather enough votes to be elected pope are so obvious as to be totally predictable, while it’s absolutely clear just who will finally end up as pope. Harris must have been aware of this, as he throws in a final twist after the obvious – to the reader if not the cardinals – candidate is elected. However, the twist is really rather risible.

This is not to say the book is bad; it’s not. It just could fairly easily have been better. The characters are interesting and Harris makes some attempt at rounded characterisations even for a papabile whose doctrinal positions he evidently disagrees with. But it’s all just too predictable.

Adventures in Bookland: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Sunday, May 21st, 2017

Half a King, all a book, one quarter of a review.

Good narrative, generally well-drawn characters, interesting new world (is it some future, post-apocalyptic version of our own? – if anyone has read the rest of the books in the series, can they tell me), some coincidences that, when you put the book down and think about it, push credulity.


Adventures in Bookland: Confessions of a Ghostwriter by Andrew Crofts

Sunday, May 21st, 2017

There are times when you just want something light and fluffy and gossipy to read and what could be better, I thought, than the confessions of a ghostwriter. Surely we’d get to hear the dirt dished on people who hide behind someone else’s words and some insight into the world of high-money vanity publishing? Well, we get a bit of the latter but unfortunately Andrew Crofts is far too discrete to name any of the names you actually want named. When he does drop a name, it’s only to tell us about a time when he nearly got to write somebody’s memoir. So, it fails on the gossip front. But it also, and most surprisingly, fails on exactly the front that Crofts warns against with respect to people wanting their stories told. As he says (on page 94) ‘anecdotes alone will not hold a reader’s attention for 200 or more pages’. Turns out, he’s quite right. I gave up at page 158.


Adventures in Bookland: Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Back when I was at school, I had a John Steinbeck phase, courtesy of an unusually well-stocked school library and a school where anyone wanting to escape the feral chaos of breaktimes had one of two choices: retreat to the library or joining the cadets. Naturally, I chose the former option, and there encountered for the first time John Steinbeck and W Somerset Maugham, two authors who are forever associated with St Aloysius’ College in my memory. As far as Steinbeck was concerned, I remember reading East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row (although pretty well nothing remains in memory of the last of these). But well-stocked though our school library was (a relic of the time when the school had been a grammar, before it went comprehensive and comprehensively lost its way), it didn’t have Cup of Gold. A pity, because a book subtitled A Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History would likely have appealed to a fourteen-year-old boy looking for some escape from the school’s thoroughgoing violence (think Tom Brown’s Schooldays but without the Dr Arnold and rather less of the classical education, although the school did still run to Latin classes).

So having missed out on Cup of Gold at school, I came across it recently at the library – just as it was about to be thrown out. With the running down of public libraries, my old school library was much better stocked that even large libraries are today. One reason for that is the way books are removed – even classic books – if they are not taken out often enough according to some arbitrary algorithm sitting on a computer system. By that algorithm, Cup of Gold was to be deleted – I arrived just in time to give it a new home.

Having saved the book, I finally got round to reading it, my interest piqued by learning in the introduction that this was Steinbeck’s first novel. And, yes, it has all the hallmarks of a young man vigorously exploring just what he can do with this marvellous, overflowing cup of words that he has set in front of him. In Steinbeck’s case, the answer is a lot (although in later books he would choose, rightly, not to do some of the things he does in this one). Things such as spending the first half of the book in a cod mystical Wales (did Steinbeck ever visit Wales? My suspicion, from reading this and visiting Wales, is no), then rushing through the major part of the hero’s life in the second half, with the ending rather tacked on. So, yes, structurally it’s a bit of a miss, but one that carries the reader along with its sheer exuberance. Luckily, Steinbeck learned other skills to marry to the exuberance, and wrote better novels, but read this for an insight into a young writer flexing his artistic muscles for the first time.