EAnotes

Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Adventures in Bookland: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Thursday, December 13th, 2018

To anyone with an imagination, this is a deeply frightening book. For its purpose is to portray the process of damnation, the dazzling path that leads to hell. Yes, the book has other purposes, not least of which is to showcase Wilde’s wit (which does become a little tedious after the 52nd bon mot), and it may have a darker edge in what seems to be a veiled self-portrayal of Wilde himself, in the person of the sophisticated and louche Lord Henry Wotton, as the seducer and tempter, the man who leads Dorian Gray into the bright darkness of his philosophy and, it’s hinted at, darker pleasures. But not just Wotton, Wilde is also Dorian Gray and, as an artist struggling to perfect his craft, he is also Basil Hallward, the man who paints the portrait of Dorian Gray. Thus it’s a triple-sided self-portrait of a man sliding towards the abyss, an abyss that would claim Wilde a few laters when he was dispatched to the purgatory of Reading Gaol. For Wilde, this brought a certain redemption, but for Dorian Gray, there is none.

As I said, under the word glitter that Wilde’s skill scatters over the book, this is a deeply frightening story.

Adventures in Bookland: A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson

Thursday, December 13th, 2018

Bracing. Vigorous. Scathing. All words that come to mind having finished Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity. Although Johnson is a Catholic, there is certainly no special pleading in his sweeping overview of the world’s most transformative religion: this is Christianity, warts and all, and more warts than beauty spots. Johnson, being a believer, takes the claims of the religion’s founder seriously, and his teachings, and as a result his sweeping, beautifully written history generally finds that Christians have often signally failed to live up to their founder. Perhaps this is not so surprising – “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) is not exactly a low bar to set – but Johnson does set out, in painful detail, just how often we have fallen short. Still, this is a far better approach than covering these matters up – if Christianity is about anything, it is about the truth, and pursuing it,whithersoever it leads, whether that be to a Cross on Calvary or coming face to face with the evils and omissions of our co-religionists.

The book only runs up to 1975, however. Although Paul Johnson is now quite old, I would love to read his assessment of the last half century, where so much has changed. Overall, highly recommended.

Adventures in Elfland: Moth and Cobweb 1-3 by John C. Wright

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

Although published as three separate novels, Swan Knight’s Son, Feast of the Elfs and Swan Knight’s Son are one story divided into three books, so I will review them all together.

Do you look around and think, is that all there is? What happened to all the wonder of the world, its romance, its mystery? Well, the answer lies in these books. The Elfs stole them. They pinched the world’s wonders and all the best bits of the geography and hid them behind a mist of unknowing. Now this is an idea I have a great deal of sympathy with. Somebody certainly pinched it, and the Elfs are as good a bet as anyone else (although I suspect we mislaid it ourselves). These Elfs, while magical, supernatural creatures, are fay, Fallen creatures, the glamourous face of those damned forever to the Earth – which is probably why the Elfs are so keen on keeping all the best bits for themselves. (I could never get used to Wright using ‘Elfs’ as the plural form rather than ‘Elves’ but it’s probably done deliberately to distinguish Wright’s Elfs from Tolkien’s Elves.)

Into this world is pitched young Gilberic Parzival Moth, a human (well, mostly) teenager, with all the inflexibility of a typical teenager, and a mother who turns out to be, well, something not so human (given her irritating habit of answering every question with a riddle, she’s probably related to the Sphinx somewhere down the line). Gilberic becomes a squire, then a knight, mashing modern-day pop culture references with deep forays into mythology and folklore. If you like the idea of a more knowledgeable version of Percy Jackson, with fewer jokes but a more wide-ranging mythology, then these books might be for you.

There is some evidence of the books having been written in a hurry and edited loosely – too many typos and, at one point, Gilberic’s mermaid love interest warns him to keep her secret from his canine companion (who can speak, naturally) only for the warning to be forgotten 50 pages later – but the sheer wealth of invention I find hugely enjoyable. The story itself has the same dream-logic of medieval romances such as Orlando Furioso, where the heor passes into the great forest of story where anything can happen and usually does,  with not much regard for likelihood or logic, but then, we’re dealing with Elfs here: everyday reality is optional for them.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable 21st-century take on the medieval romance.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers

Monday, November 5th, 2018


Not often a reader of murder mysteries, I put this on my Kindle because it was free (out of copyright) and came up first in a list when I was in a hurry to catch a train and suffering from abibliophobia, not having a print book to hand and worried I might not have time to buy one. Dorothy Sayers wrote one of the most profound books on the connection between creativity and the Trinity in The Mind of the Maker, so I was curious to read her more work-a-day work. Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic detective, was Sayer’s most lucrative creation and the one she remains best known for. This is his third appearance and, in it, Sayers seems minded to show some of his limitations, from a plan to smoke out the killer that goes tragically wrong, to being in the wrong place at the wrong time so that one of his assistants is all but murdered.

As a detective story, the killer is clear early on. What’s at play is the how and the why. It’s a mark of how good a writer Sayers is that this is enough to keep the reader interested to the end of the book: as is its portrayal of 1920s England, a place that now seems almost impossibly far away although when I was young, in the 1970s, it seemed still in the recent past. I suppose that is the difference that half a century makes, particularly a half century that has seen such change. Recommended for readers of detective fiction or anyone interested in a dispassionate portrayal of the mores and social hierarchies of a now long past England.

 

Adventures in Bookland: The Journey Through Wales by Gerald of Wales

Sunday, November 4th, 2018

 


It’s not often you can peer back eight hundred years and see the world as a man living then saw it in all its wonder, difficulties and humour. But that is what you get reading Gerald’s account of his trip through Wales, accompanying the Archbishop of Canterbury as he preached Crusade to the locals. Gerald himself was three quarters Norman and one quarter Welsh, through his extraordinary grandmother, Nest, who went through husbands and lovers faster than a Norman went through Saxon landholders. Gerald’s account of his travels is full of travellers’ tales, of varying degrees of likelihood but of unvaryingly great interest, and the minutiae of 12th century travel, from the dangers of quicksand to the wit of monks bemoaning unfit lodgings. It’s a wonderful insight into a world and a man long past, but made present, through the extraordinary magic of the written word, to every generation anew. As fresh and invigorating as the morning breeze on the Pembrokeshire coast.

Adventures in Bookland: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Sunday, November 4th, 2018

The best writer of English prose of the 20th century is getting into his stride here, in his second novel – which makes it better written than 99.9% of other books. Waugh pretty well invented the ‘bright young things’, the post-War gadabouts who went about pointedly not talking about the war, rather in the way I remember, growing up myself in the ’60s and ’70s, no one then wanted to talk about the Second World War. In fact, any attempt at reminiscence was met with groans and requests to talk about something else. Very different from nowadays, when we are fascinated by the Second World War above everything else in history. (Question: what annoys modern historians most? Answer: the fact, apparent by interest as measured by every metric available, that nothing else happened in history apart from World War II and the Roman Empire.)

Waugh’s novels is as bright, brittle and facile (in its secondary meaning of apparent effortlenssness) as the people he satirizes. With Vile Bodies, the satire remains relatively good humoured; there is nothing so merciless as his depiction of the moral vacuum of the English upper classes as portrayed in A Handful of Dust. Not absolutely top-drawer Waugh, but still better than virtually anyone else.

Adventures in Bookland: The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons c.597-c.700 by Marilyn Dunn

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

Since Henry Mayr-Harting’s The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, which was first published in 1972 with revised editions in 1977 and 1991, there’s been little published academically, at least in book form, about the single most momentous, and unexpected, change that took place among the newly arrived Anglo-Saxons. After all, why should the pagan Anglo-Saxons decide to adopt the religion of the people they had defeated and driven from the land? For the Britons, the original inhabitants of Britain, were largely Christian, and saw themselves as Christian Romans holding off the barbarian, pagan invaders.

Marilyn Dunn’s book looks at these events through the lens of the academic fashion of the day, cognitive anthropology, which does provide some fresh insights. There is, however, as always with academic books on religious change a tendency to view conversions as evidence for other things: power shifts, diplomacy, cultural appropriation. All of these play a part, but it would be good to see an account that made more use of the considerable number of studies that have been made on the psychology of conversion. Even better one that combined the psychology of conversion with the theology of it too. You won’t find that in this book, but it does provide an excellent overview of the current academic thinking within its purview and Dunn is a clear and concise writer. Recommended for those people (not, I suspect, many) with a specific interest in the area.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Scott-King’s Modern Europe by Evelyn Waugh

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018


Light, bright, witty Waugh – which of course means it’s still better than 99.9% of other books published. Actually, calling it a book is stretching the point – it’s a novella, written shortly after the end of World War II as Europe was settling into the long stasis of Cold War and Iron Curtain, with Waugh parellelling his pre-war jibes at post-colonial African states with a post-war whittling of a European dictator state, fictitious but bearing close resemblances to Franco’s Spain. An English academic is invited to a conference on his obscure speciality, an equally obscure poet, and finds himself part of the general ineptness of a police state. It’s incompetently evil – Waugh was evidently a believer in the maxim that most evil men are banal bureaucrats rather than Machiavellian geniuses, and here he enjoys himself hugely at their expense. A joy to read, as always with Waugh.

 

Adventures in Bookland: 1066: What Fates Impose by G.K. Holloway

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018


The title asks a question: what fates impose? Having read the book, the answer has to be that they impose a ruthless, Machiavellian Norman king on England. G.K. Holloway’s excellent retelling of the many events that all came to a fateful conclusion on a muddy field outside Hastings is a brilliant exercise in imaginative history: he takes what we know and, through the writer’s craft, brings the people who lived the events to life – and death, sadly. For this is the one drawback to the book, although it is also a testament to Holloway’s ability as a writer: he makes of Harold such an engaging and sympathetic character that, as events drew on and I passed the mid point in the book, I found myself reading slower and slower, just one chapter rather than two or three (the chapters are generally short, so that often meant just reading two or three pages each night). The problem, of course, is that we all know what will happen in the end. This is the great strength of historical fiction but also the burden it places upon the reader: you can’t say, oh, it’s just a story. Holloway makes the characters, in particular that of Harold, come to life in such a way that the bloody battle of 14 October 1066 almost becomes a personal tragedy where people we know and care about are cut down. This is testament to good writing but makes for fraught reading by the end of the book, as Harold’s wife and mother search for his body on the battlefield. Highly recommended (if you can bear it).

 

Adventures in Bookland: Tank Men by Robert Kershaw

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

From the perspective of the PBI (‘the poor bloody infantry’) the tank men in their apparently invulnerable behemoths must seem like they have it made. All right, not as good as the fly boys, who spend a couple of hours swanning around in the air and then get to go home for a decent meal and good night’s sleep, but at least the tankers don’t have to worry about being mown down by machine gun fire or losing a foot to an anti-personnel mine.

But what Robert Kershaw does in this wonderful introduction to tank warfare is exactly what it says on the cover: the human story of tanks at war. He intersperses this with the engineering and military developments of tank warfare, telling how the new weapon was developed in response to the stalemate of the World War I trenches and was then unleashed in blitzkrieg in the Second World War, but the heart of the story is the human experience of the tank men in all its discomfort, noise and sheer exhaustion. All right, the poor bloody infantry might have to march all day, but come nightfall they could sleep. Driving a tank, particularly the Soviet tanks of World War II that, in typical Russian fashion, gave no thought to human comfort and little to survivability, was almost as exhausting as marching all day, but come nightfall, the crew had to dismount and, like the cavalrymen of previous wars, see to the comfort and maintenance of their precious, not to say temperamental, mount before getting any rest and food themselves. For the driver and loader, this might mean no sleep until 2am, followed by another pre-dawn reveille.

Then there was the fear of what British tankers called ‘a brew-up’: being trapped in a tank on fire. At least submariners just drowned. The crew of a brewed-up thank sometimes had to be extracted afterwards with a spoon.

Tanks are more survivable and certainly more comfortable now. Kershaw largely ends the story at the end of World War II, with a small nod towards the Gulf War in which he served as a correspondent, but the story he tells is compelling and fascinating. Highly recommended.