Category Archives: Non-fiction

Books Read from TBR pile in Q1 2017

At the end of last year I decided to seriously tackle the physical pile of books that I had at home. Some books, such as The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa or The Spire by Wiliam Golding I had been meaning to read for years. These days I also have many similar books on my kindle and then there are many that I have wanted to read for years but don’t actually own. Well, this all sounds familiar to anyone that enjoys reading so I wont bang on about it but I felt it was time to actually do something about it. At the end of my first post of 2017 I included a photo of (most of) the physical books that I currently have at home (I started to discover more after I had taken the photo) and so I thought I’d just have a quick update on my progress. Although I started on this in December last year because I joined the GoodReads Group – Mount TBR 2017 challenge I will only include those books read in 2017. For the record I read Collette’s The Pure and the Impure and Theodor Storm’s Paul the Puppeteer in December which are missing from this list. Anyway here’s a list and photo of those read in the first quarter of 2017:

1. The Immoralist by André Gide
2. Betrayal by Marquis de Sade
3. The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.
4. 88 More Stories by Guy de Maupassant
5. Something to Declare by Julian Barnes
6. Three Plays by August Strindberg
7. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
8. Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler
9. Vienna 1900: Games With Love And Death by Arthur Schnitzler
10. Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill
11. Don’t Know Much about History: Everything You Need to Know about American History But Never Learned by Kenneth C. Davis

Physical books read from TBR pile in first quarter of 2017

The pile on the left hand side are those I’m currently reading; the Nigel Slater book is one I’m just going to read as the year progresses as it’s in a diary format. Since taking the photo I have also started reading Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus which I’m enjoying and is from the TBR pile. I have committed to read twenty-four books in the GoodReads group but at this rate I could probably read near forty by the end of the year. But this is one of the issues I have with setting a number on the books I’m going to read, and is why I usually avoid doing so, and that is that the temptation is to concentrate on shorter and/or easier books just to get the numbers up. You can see from the photograph that I have largely concentrated on shorter volumes so far so I’ve probably been a bit guilty of that myself.

My reading in March has been disrupted by an illness followed by an A&E visit which wasn’t much fun and which I’m still partially recovering from. But the book I was reading when I fell ill was Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, a book that I first read about on someone’s blog a year or so ago, and one that I felt I just had to read during this challenge as it is supposedly about Susan Hill’s attempt to read only books that she already owns. Although it was an interesting enough read I thought she veered off most of the time to just talk about the books she owned and the famous authors that she’d bumped into throughout her life. The blurb on the back says that she was to ’embark on a year-long voyage through her books, in order to get to know her own collection again.’ I took that to mean that she was doing what I was doing and reading books from her collection but what she is doing is rummaging through her collection to see what she has and what memories it evokes. This is why I initially found the list at the end of the book a bit confusing as it is not a list of the books that she read throughout the year but are those she would take with her on a desert island—strangely enough most of them are British authors with the occasional American thrown in for good measure; the only translated books were The Bible, The Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Now, I’m not critical of the choice, just surprised as my list (if it existed) would have a lot of French, German, Russian etc. authors.

It’s probably not worth me trying to predict the ones that I will read in the rest of the year as I usually have to go with what I feel like at that moment but I would like to finally read The Spire and I would like to continue my reading of the Clochemerle books by Gabriel Chevallier. I also have more H.E. Bates books to read and I keep picking up, but not starting, Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual.

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‘The Tongue Set Free’ by Elias Canetti

canetti_tongue-fcx-700pxThe Tongue Set Free was originally published as Die gerettete Zumge: Geschichte einer Jugend in 1977 and translated into English in 1979 by Joachim Neugroschel. It is the first of three autobiographical works by Canetti, the second being Die Fackel im Ohr published in 1980 (tr. in 1982 as The Torch in My Ear) and the third was Das Augenspiel published in 1985 (tr. in 1990 as The Play of the Eyes). I read all three books back in the early 1990s and can’t remember much about them except for young Elias talking to imaginary characters in the wallpaper (see below) in the first volume. I remember preferring The Tongue Set Free over the other volumes and in fact I sold my copies of the other volumes, keeping only this volume for a later read.

Canetti was born in Ruschuk, Bulgaria (now known as Ruse) in 1905 into a Jewish merchant family descended from Sephardim expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century. The Tongue Set Free begins in 1905 with Canetti’s earliest memory.

My earliest memory is dipped in red. I come out of a door on the arm of a maid, the floor in front of me is red, and to the left a staircase goes down, equally red. Across from us, at the same height, a door opens, and a smiling man steps forth, walking towards me in a friendly way. He steps right up close to me, halts, and says: “Show me your tongue.” I stick out my tongue, he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a jackknife, opens it, and brings the blade all the way to my tongue, he comes closer and closer, the blade will touch me any second. In the last moment, he pulls back the knife, saying: “Not today, tomorrow.” He snaps the knife shut again and puts it back in his pocket.

It turns out that the man is the maid’s lover and was trying to prevent the young Elias from blabbing their secret to others. The first part of this book, which covers these years in Ruschuk, is my favourite as Canetti describes his family and the local inhabitants. Little Elias loves the stories that the servants tell him, especially fairy stories involving wolves, werewolves and vampires. This early period consists of his wonderment at visits from gypsies, watching a man chopping wood, the births of younger siblings and the family struggles and feuds that went on, especially between his two grandfathers who hated each other. Canetti’s parents loved each other dearly and had married in opposition to their parents’ wishes. Canetti was a polyglot but he explains that that was nothing unusual in this city as nearly everyone knew several languages.

People often talked about languages; seven or eight different tongues were spoken in our city alone, everyone understood something of each language. Only the little girls, who came from villages, spoke just Bulgarian and were therefore considered stupid. Each person counted up the languages he knew; it was important to master several, knowing them could save one’s own life or the lives of other people.

Canetti tells of an incident whereby he attempts to murder an older girl, whom he had previously been besotted with, when she refuses to show him her schoolbooks which contain her writing from school—he’s five years old and he tries to kill her with an axe.

But both his parents find life in Ruschuk stifling; his mother wants to live somewhere more exciting and his father needs to escape the influence of his own father. Both have artistic interests, especially in the theatre, and they find their family’s indifference to anything other than business insufferable. And so they head to Manchester, England where Canetti’s father takes on a job in a relation’s firm. Life in England opens up a whole world of books for Elias as his father brings home book after book in English for little Elias to read. But it is rather solitary for young Elias and he is left alone for too long in the nursery.

At home in the nursery, I usually played alone. Actually, I seldom played, I spoke to the wallpaper. The many dark circles in the pattern of the wallpaper seemed like people to me. I made up stories in which they appeared, either I told them the stories or they played with me, I never got tired of the wallpaper people and I could talk to them for hours.

But he is caught talking to the wallpaper people and he has to be weaned away from these ‘unhealthy tendencies’. As the book progresses Canetti’s tendency to become obsessed over certain things arises again and again, but it is also an example of his natural ability to make up characters and to tell stories. After this incident he settles for telling stories to his younger siblings.

Tragedy strikes as his father suddenly dies. Elias had loved his father but had been rather indifferent to his mother. From now on as they move from Manchester to Vienna and then to Zurich a bond forms between Elias and his mother but it’s a relationship that is different from the loving relationship with his father. He becomes protective of his mother and jealous as well, especially when she attracts suitors such as a Viennese professor who repeatedly takes Elias’s mother out to the theatre. Elias is only happy when they finally escape from this danger by moving to Zurich. But in Zurich the Canettis have to get used to what they see as a more puritanical lifestyle, though Elias secretly prefers it to Vienna. Elias also has his first encounter with anti-Semitism at school. During this period the family begins to break apart as Elias’s mother moves to Arosa, whilst his brothers live in Lausanne; Elias stays in Zurich and continues his education. Much of the last section of the book is about his studies and his teachers, at times this part gets a little dull but Canetti doesn’t dwell on any specific too long before moving on.

The book ends in 1921 with Elias having to reluctantly leave Zurich, which he has grown to love when he’s summoned by his mother to join her in Germany. In the last chapter Canetti’s mother really lays into her son for being content and complacent living in Zurich and warns him that he’s rotting away there. She ridicules just about everything he has grown to love, these are very often things, such as an interest in the theatre and books, that she had earlier urged him to pursue. The war has changed her.

The only perfectly happy years, the paradise in Zurich, were over.

Canetti would return to live in Zurich for the last twenty years of his life.

german-literature-month-vi

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‘A People’s Tragedy’ by Orlando Figes

Figes A People's TragedyThe Russian Revolution is one of those pivotal events in world history. Did anyone see it coming? Did anyone, at the time, realise the implications for Russia and the rest of the World? I doubt it very much. I studied the Russian Revolution at school but have read surprisingly little about it since then, but I had always wondered how it was that the Bolsheviks in particular managed to gain power over such a vast country; after reading Figes’s book I think I have my answers: luck, brute force and lack of a coherent opposition. It took a long time to get to this answer though as the book is physically large and runs to over 800 pages (+100 or so pages of notes) and due to its size I could only read it during weekends as it is too bulky to read on my workday commute; as such it took me nearly three months to read—but it was a fascinating three months and I would recommend this book as a brilliant one volume history of the Russian Revolution.

The full title of the book is A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 and in the introduction Figes justifies starting his narrative in 1891 as this was when ‘the revolutionary crisis really started, and more specifically in 1891, when the public’s reaction to the famine crisis set it for the first time on a collision course with the tsarist autocracy.’ And he ends it in 1924 with the death of Lenin when the revolution was basically over. At first I thought that Figes was spending too much time on the early period but I soon began to appreciate the time spent on this preliminary material. Part One, of this four part book, covers Russia under the Tsarist regime; and if we think that life during the revolution was hard and brutal then we only have to refer back to these early chapters to realise just how brutal life could be for the majority of people under the Tsars. Russia was basically a medieval society for the peasantry where the lifestyles of the urban aristocrats would have seemed totally alien to them. Figes summed up this split in Russian society thus:

Only a few miles from any city centre one would find oneself already in the backwoods, where there were bandits living in the forests, where roads turned into muddy bogs in spring, and where the external signs of life in the remote hamlets had remained essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. Yet, despite living so close to the peasants, the educated classes of the cities knew next to nothing about their world. It was as exotic and alien to them as the natives of Africa were to their distant colonial rulers.

Figes devotes time to describing the nature of Tsarist Russia, especially to Tsar Nicholas II’s reign. Figes portrays Nicholas as a man who was unsuitable to run Russia, especially during such turbulent times. He could be described as an ineffective ruler but he still believed in his autocratic right to rule; he was wary of competent ministers and any form of democracy and worked against these whenever he felt he could.

In a sense, Russia gained in him the worst of both worlds: a Tsar determined to rule from the throne yet quite incapable of exercising power. This was ‘autocracy without an autocrat’.

Of course, we find out about the Tsar’s household, Rasputin etc. But an interesting chapter, ‘Red Ink’, was on Russian literature during this period, how Marxism came to Russia and Lenin’s involvement in the Social Democratic Party and subsequent split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. From the outset Lenin proposed ‘a centralized and conspiratorial party of professional revolutionaries’. Although it’s more complicated than this, the essential difference between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks is that the Mensheviks were more pro-democracy and were happier to compromise with the liberals and bourgeoisie whereas the Bolsheviks were more intransigent and bullish. Once the revolution had started these differences became more marked. In fact, reading this book made me aware of just how much Lenin orchestrated events. I had assumed beforehand that he was more of an opportunist but instead he had a plan, or rather a method, to gain power and hold onto it by whatever means necessary.

‘It all began with bread’—and so the February revolution errupted. As with other revolutons and wars details of events are very complicated with rapidly changing allegiances and power struggles. An added complication was that the revolution occurred whilst Russia was at war with Germany and her allies in the First World War. A Provisional Government was established which lasted until October when we had the Bolshevik take over. Figes explains why and how the Bolsheviks were succesful:

Everybody cursed the Bolsheviks but nobody was prepared to do anything about them.

But the crux of the Bolshevik success was a two-fold process of state-building and destruction. On the one hand, at the highest levels of the state, they sought to centralize all power in the hands of the party and, by the use of terror, to wipe out all political opposition.

As if the revolution and the Bolshevik takeover wasn’t enough there was then a civil war that lasted several years. This was an incredibly brutal war between Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, national groups, Whites, Social Democrats, peasant groups etc. The Bolsheviks used whoever they could to gain power and turned against them as soon as they felt they were safe enough. Terrible atrocities were carried out by all sides and Figes lists a whole load of tortures and abuses; the Bolshevik secret police organiation, called the Cheka, was particularly brutal and sadistic in its activities and had such a level of independence that even Trotsky didn’t feel safe from them, however, Figes points out that many of the Cheka’s techniques were borrowed from the Tsar’s police force. Of course whilst reading about the chaos and suffering involved in the Russian Civil War it was difficult not to draw comparisons to what is going on currently in Syria where it is equally difficult to see how any diplomatic solution can be succesful.

One criticism of the book is that I didn’t really find out much about the main Communist leaders, Lenin, Trotsky & Stalin; early on in the book Lenin was portrayed as a cowardly clerk who seems to be absent whenever the important events are occurring but then turns in to a tyrant once the revolution is imminent; Trotsky has power but seems to be unpopular with everyone and Stalin appears only near the end of Lenin’s life to take over. It’s probably unfair to expect Figes to cover a lot of biographical information but I felt that it would have been useful to know what they were doing during the important events. Another criticism is that I had little understanding of how the decisions were made during this early period of rule. At times it appears that Lenin issues orders to everyone whilst other times decisions were made at Politburo meetings.

I think it’s fair to say that Figes doesn’t particularly admire many of the people who were involved in the events in this book as they are often portrayed as violent and/or incompetent but the one exception is undoubtedly Maxim Gorky, the writer and early Bolshevik supporter. Excerpts from Gorky’s letters and books are used throughout the book; his comments on events, his criticisms of the Tsar, Lenin and revolutionary abuses are very humane and often prescient. He not only wrote articles and books but he often tried to help people through his connections with Lenin or by giving people food and shelter during these difficult times. In the end the civil war was too much for him and he had to flee Russia. His words in a letter to Romain Rolland in 1921 sum up his feelings:

I feel very tired: during the past seven years in Russia I have seen and lived through so many sad dramas—the more sad for not being caused by the logic of passion and free will but by the blind and cold calculation of fanatics and cowards…I still believe fervently in the future happiness of mankind but I am sickened and disturbed by the growing sum of suffering which people have to pay as the price of their fine hopes.

If you can cope with the constant descriptions (and photographs) of brutality then this book is a brilliant one-volume book of not only the Russian Revolution but the whole period leading up to it.

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Bits and Pieces from July & August

Apart from the Clochemerle book & TV Series I haven’t posted much lately, but I have been reading, believe me. I had a couple of weeks off from work and decided to read the Pushkin Press Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig. I’d been meaning to read some stories by Zweig for ages, Zweig-Collected-Storieshaving only previously read A Chess Story and his book on Casanova, and I’m pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed them. I was surprised with the range of the story settings as I was expecting them to be mostly set in contemporary Austria; instead a couple are set during the Middle Ages, one is in suburban England, others in South America etc. But I shouldn’t have been too surprised as I was well aware that Zweig had travelled around the world, especially when he fled Nazi Germany. After reading each story I had intended to post a review but instead I felt compelled to read the next story until I’d finished and I realised that I hadn’t posted on any, and now as time slips away it’s increasingly unlikely I will; although I may have a re-read of one or two stories.

At times Zweig was a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, Amok for example, started well but by the end of it I was a little bored; it felt too forced and a bit like a 1940s B-movie script. Did He Do It? was a bit too much like a whodunnit for me, but it was perfectly readable; the others were great. Some, like Mendel the Bibliophile were basically just character studies and others, such as In the Snow and Incident on Lake Geneva are short, compelling, tales of extreme incidents. Although the stories span four decades and the subject matter varies widely, Zweig’s style remained consistent across the stories; it’s clean, modern, no-nonsense and Zweig wastes no time before getting on with telling the story. There are so many brilliant stories in this collection that I shall now look forward to reading the Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig and others.

I have continued my reading of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time; I have just finished the eighth volume, The Soldier’s Art which is the second volume set during WWII. It’s difficult to blog on this series as the books follow the same set of main characters as we progress through the Powell_Dance-03twentieth century. Any comments on the characters would potentially spoil the book for anyone intending to read it and would require a lot of background explanation to comprehend. Apart from a slight dip here and there, I have found Powell’s stories of the characters compelling. There’s very little plot, as such, instead we get a lot of dinner parties, chats in the street or work, where we find out more about the characters. We discover the events in the characters’ lives as they are revealed to Nick Jenkins and as such we only get to find out bits and pieces of what’s happened since we last met them. I can’t wait for the next volume, The Military Philosophers.

One of my intentions this year was to read more non-fiction and with summer upon us I decided to read another book on the Black Death, called The Great Mortality by John Kelly—why should summer reading be light? Last year I read The Black Death by Philip Ziegler and wondered whether this book would add much to my knowledge of this event. Kelly took a Kelly Great Mortalitymore European-wide view than Ziegler, who concentrated mostly on Britain, and Kelly went into more detail at the beginning on the ways that the plague bacillus, Y. pestis, is spread and the differences between bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic plague. What seems apparent from reading these books is that it is still unknown why the Black Death of the 1340s was as virulent as it was and how it spread so quickly. Mortality rates during the Black Death were between 30 and 60 per cent, whereas during the Third Pandemic of the 1890s there was only a mortality rate of 3 per cent. Some researchers believe that the Black Death was not due to Y.pestis but a different disease; Kelly tries to refute that claim in the last chapter.

The Russian Revolution is another topic I have been meaning to read up on for quite a while, having read nothing on the topic since my schooldays. I was looking for something a bit substantial, but readable, and came across Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. It’s a huge book and as the title suggests Figes goesFiges A People's Tragedy back to 1891 to begin the story. I am only part way through the second part (of four) so far but I’m finding it a fascinating read. Tsarist Russia was an astonishingly brutal place for the vast majority of the population. The peasants were at times brutalised by the gentry as well as by each other and other times their lives were romanticised by city dwellers. As Nicholas II’s reign progressed an increasing number of people moved to the cities as rural life became more unbearable; but there was still this sense of ‘Two Russias’ as explained by Figes:

Only a few miles from any city centre one would find oneself already in the backwoods, where there were bandits living in the forests, where roads turned into muddy bogs in spring, and where the external signs of life in the remote hamlets had remained essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. Yet, despite living so close to the peasants, the educated classes of the cities knew next to nothing about their world. It was as exotic and alien to them as the natives of Africa were to their distant colonial rulers.

I’m currently reading about the period following the 1905 revolution and we really get the feeling that positions are hardening on both sides and that another revolution is inevitable. It does make one wonder how different the world may have been if Nicholas had made sensible reforms at the beginning of his reign. I’ll read on…

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‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ by Michael Grant

Grant_Roman-Empire-fcX-700pxMichael Grant’s The Fall of the Roman Empire was a quick non-fiction ‘hit’ that I needed after reading too much fiction. It is a 200-page summary of the reasons behind the fall of the Roman Empire. This can be a bewildering subject as there are no easy answers to the question ‘why did the Roman Empire fall?’ Listed below is an even more condensed version of the reasons why. For anyone that wants an even simpler explanation Michael Grant sums it up in the introduction by saying ‘It was brought down by two kinds of destruction: invasions from outside, and weaknesses that arose within.’ The list below is an elaboration of these ‘destructions’ and will hopefully be of interest to some.

Thirteen Reasons for the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West:

  1. The Generals against the State – There was no effective method of succession. Each emperor was in effect dependent on the army which resulted in endless coups détat and civil wars.
  2. The People against the Army – Rich and poor didn’t want to serve in the army. The state had to depend increasingly on German troops.
  3. The Poor against the State – The taxes to pay for the army fell disproportionaly on the poor driving them into destitution, banditry, slavery or death.
  4. The Rich against the State – The rich Senators evaded taxes and did not get involved in political life. They were snobbish and opposed to change.
  5. The Middle Class against the State – The middle class of merchants and small landowners were squeezed out of late Imperial life. The population consisted mainly of rich and poor.
  6. The People against the Bureaucrats – The late Roman bureaucracy was oppressive and allowed very little social mobility. The civil service was inefficient, bloated, corrupt and resistant to change.
  7. The People against the Emperor – The later Roman Emperors had little contact with the outside world. Their only contact with their subjects was via sycophantic or scheming courtiers.
  8. Ally against Ally – The split between the West and East became more pronounced during this period. Both halves of the Empire failed to co-operate which made it easier for the Germans to take over the West.
  9. Race against Race – Rome was unable to assimilate the German tribes that took refuge within its borders.
  10. Drop-outs against Society – With the rise of Christianity in the Empire many people were attracted to asceticism and became nuns, monks and hermits. As such they became divorced from their community and contributed little towards the Roman state.
  11. The State against Free Belief – Once Catholic Christianity became the dominant religion its proponents began to attack paganism, Jewish faith, Manichaeanism and other Christian faiths thereby causing disunity throughout the Empire.
  12. Complacency against Self-Help – The pagans relied too much on the glories of the past, they neglected practical subjects in their education and concentrated on grammar, rhetoric etc.
  13. The Other World against This World – Many Christians seemed reluctant to support the state even after the Empire became officially Christian. Some even saw the barbarian attacks as divine punishment. Some pagans viewed the world to be in perpetual decline since the Golden Age of the past. Both views led to pessimism.

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Unfinished Business

I have considered giving up, at some point, nearly every book that I have read recently. I don’t think it’s a general weariness with reading, I just think that I’m not getting the mix of fiction/non-fiction, fantastical-fiction/realistic-fiction correct at the moment and that I’m reading books when I’m not in the mood for them. Abandoning a book is actually quite rare thing for me as I can usually determine whether I’m going to like it or not, and I can decide what type of book it is and what approach needs to be taken with it; even if I get it wrong I can usually change my approach and reading tactics in order to finish it. But this year I’ve given up on quite a few books.

Let’s look at a few. I started reading Waterloo by Tim Clancy earlier this year, because it was the bicentennial of the battle and because I do have an interest in the whole period from the French Waterloorevolution through to Napoleon’s rise to power and beyond. But a military history of the battle? What was I thinking? I’ve tried and abandoned other military history books before this one such as Caesar’s books, books on Stalingrad etc. I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the troop movements of such and such a company, what the conditions were like on the battlefield, what division flanked what side of the frontline. So what was I thinking when I decided it would be a good idea to read it? Why start reading a book on military history when I have no interest in military history whatsoever? Beats me.

Another bad decision was to read Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Again, I have had bad experiences with Pynchon in the past as I have previously given up on V and Gravity’s Rainbow; I did actually finish Vineland years ago but all I can remember about it is that I didn’t think much of it. On Wikipedia Mason & Dixon is described as a ‘sprawling postmodern saga’ which should have been enough to steer me away from it. What I dislike about his writing is the sheer Pynchon_Mason-Dixonpointlessness of it all, together with all the little insider jokes and narrative tricks that do nothing but alienate the reader – any plot is buried deep down, the characters are just wooden and one-dimensional and the narrative style is about as interesting as reading an operator’s manual. As such, my reading slowed down more and more until it was an effort to advance forward a single page. I can’t stand books where the author hides behind all these little techniques that are supposed to convince us that they’re really clever. It is the same with Joyce, but not with Beckett. With Beckett the tricks he uses, in Watt for example, are amusing and yes, genuinely clever. In the end does it just come down to personal choice? I think Beckett became better when he escaped from Joyce’s influence and his style became sparser and he stopped trying to be so clever.

I also officially ended my reading of Finnegans Wake this year. It was when I decided to finish with Mason & Dixon that I also decided to clear out all this postmodern Finnegans Wake‘junk’ that was taking up space and time in my life. Admittedly, I never really thought I’d finish Finnegans Wake as I hadn’t really decided to start reading it; I had just got into the habit of reading a page or so every once in a while. I really find it difficult to accept that people genuinely like this book. I have to assume that they claim to like it because they don’t understand it and are fearful of being called a literary heathen or idiot if they admit that they don’t like it. When I was a teenager I got caught up in the William Burroughs adulation; I thought I liked his work because he was a cool person and other cool people said that it was brilliant. It isn’t. Most of it is crap, and the same can be said for Joyce, IMO.

I have also ‘paused’ my reading of Zola’s Rome, which is the second book in his Three Zola_Rome_fcX-700pxCities trilogy. Again, I was taking longer and longer to read a page of this book and I couldn’t believe just how dull it was – see my review of the first half here. I intend to continue my reading of it, partly as a mark of respect for all his other truly great books and because I still plan to read the final, and hopefully better, book of the series, Paris. I know that I should just abandon it but I will persevere and no doubt regret it.

There are other books that I have abandoned; that weren’t abandoned because they were bad but because they were so good. The book that springs immediately to mind is Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Parfit Reasons and PersonssPersons, it’s a modern look into the rationality of ethics and identity. I only ever read the first part on ‘Reasons’ but was totally blown away with it. Unlike other philosphy books that I’d tried, I was impressed with the author’s clarity of thought and (more importantly for me) his clarity of presentation. It was a book that clearly contained insightful views on ethics and philosophy and so I wanted to be able to dedicate myself fully to reading the second part, ‘Persons’; of course I never had the time and now it just sits on my ‘Abandoned and interrupted’ shelf on GoodReads, waiting for the day when I shall return to it. I intend to, I really do.

For years I thought I was a member of that exclusive club of people that have read the entire set of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I had the rather impressive Everyman’s Library set of six hardback books but a few years ago I decided, for reasons of space, to sell them. I had since bought a Gibbon-Decline-and-Fall-01_reducedkindle version and reasoned that I’d probably never re-read them. It was only when I was selling them that I found my bookmark in the middle of volume six and remembered that I hadn’t actually finished that final volume because I’d started at university and just didn’t have the time to devote to it. Damn, and now it’s gnawing away at me to finish the final volume….or shall I ‘just’ re-read the whole thing? Oh, and I also regret selling the physical copies I had; after all, who would want to read ‘Decline & Fall’ on a kindle?

There are many others I could choose to look at, such as The Koran which I’ve tried to read at least three times, but I think I’ll end this post here. I think I’ve had more ‘failures’ this year than previous years because my choices are being influenced increasingly by what I think I ‘should’ read rather than what I ‘want’ to read. I’m going to re-evaluate those books that are currently on my TBR lists, sort out those I genuinely want to read and knuckle down…..well, that’s the plan.

Have you abandoned any books this year? Do you have any that you’ve been meaning to finish for years?

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‘The Black Death’ by Philip Ziegler

Zeigler-Black-Death-fcx-700pxI’m not really in a novel-reading mood at the moment; short stories and non-fiction is what I crave. So I recently read The Black Death by Philip Ziegler which I’ve been meaning to read for years. It was first published in 1969 so it’s probably a bit out of date but it’s still a good book for the general reader. It’s a pretty standard text and starts with the origins of the plague, then covers the state of Medieval Europe then the spread of the plague across Europe as it heads towards Britain. Ziegler admits in the introduction that he has concentrated more on England in an attempt to confine the subject to a manageable length but I suspect it’s also partly because he is English himself and he was writing predominately for an English audience.

The speed with which the Black Death spread across Europe is amazing (roughly from 1347 to 1350) and must have been truly shocking for everyone caught up in it. Not knowing the cause of the disease was another aspect of the terror it inflicted on the Medieval mind. The book got bogged down with statistics at times, debating whether the percentage that died in such-and-such a place was 25% or 27% and whether that could be extrapolated to the rest of the country or to the whole of Europe. Usually the answer the author gave was ‘no, it couldn’t’ so it did seem a bit boring and pointless at times. However, the chapter on the Brotherhood of the Flagellants and the Persecution of the Jews was particularly interesting. The Flagellants travelled around Europe scourging themselves in towns and recruiting more members. The movement virtually died out once the plague was over. The Jews, along with lepers and Arabs in Spain were often made scapegoats for the disease, where they were accused of poisoning the wells of Christians or otherwise deliberately spreading the disease. Massacres followed which were often encouraged by the Flagellants. In England persecution of the Jews was almost nonexistent but only because Edward I had expelled most Jewish people in 1290. Meanwhile the Flagellants didn’t seem to impress the English.

In one chapter Ziegler uses a narrative form to show how the plague may have spread through a typical English village. Although Ziegler admits that the academic historian would mistrust such an approach, I agree with the author when he states:

But if the effect of the Black Death is really to be understood then it must be studied at work in a small village community and some attempt be made to evoke the atmosphere which it created and which it left behind.

So Ziegler uses ‘imaginative reconstruction’ to synthesise known details about different towns and villages to describe what might have happened to this fictional town called Blakwater that consists of about thirty families. It’s certainly effective and is an approach that John Hatcher uses in a more recent book, The Black Death: The Intimate Story of a Village in Crisis, 1345-1350, only Hatcher uses a real village, Walsham in Suffolk, as his starting point. I’m looking forward to reading that book.

There are some contemporary written records of the plague and one that is quoted in this book I found particularly powerful and descriptive. It was written by a Welsh poet called Jeuan Gethin and was originally written in March or April 1349. The quoted passage came from a book by W. Rees on the Black Death in Wales:

We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy for fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob, a white lump. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of an ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. They are similar to the seeds of the black peas, broken fragments of brittle sea-coal and crowds precede the end. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. They are like a shower of peas, the early ornaments of black death, cinders of the peelings of the cockle weed, a mixed multitude, a black plague like halfpence, like berries. It is a grievous thing that they should be on a fair skin.

In the end the plague killed about a third of the population of Europe; and there were further plagues to come in the fourteenth century, though none were as violent as the Black Death. The aftermath of the Black Death is covered as well and how it affected society and the church. So the book covers a lot of ground but I was left wondering about several things: why did the Black Death diminish so quickly? Were those that were left somehow more resistant to it? Did it only spread from east to west or did it spread further east? As always, further study is needed.

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Filed under Non-fiction, Ziegler, Philip