2021 in books (April – June)

Books

Where does the time go?

The last few months have been incredibly busy. Live performances might still be few and far between (only one so far this year) but upcoming changes to my music therapy work have kept me in the office more than usual. I found myself lacking the energy or will to read at times, but lie most things in life, this too passed…

Here are the books I did manage to read in the last three months. They’re a bit of a mixed bag. More than ever, they made me think about other books I’ve read, some of which I have recommended below at appropriate points. Let’s dive in…

A moveable feast by Ernest Hemingway (1964, Vintage)

Hemingway’s account of his time in Paris, from around 1920-1926, was written in the last years of his life, at a distance of over three decades. It gives some insight into his method of working, at least at the time, as well as his opinions on other famous figures whom he came into contact with, including Scott F. Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach (proprietor of the famous Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on Paris’ Left Banke).

This memoir is an interesting dive into one period of the life of a man considered to be one of the Great American Novelists. It paints a strong picture of the streets and scenes of the City of Light during the so-called ‘Roaring Twenties’. However, don’t rely on it as a guide book. Almost a century on, Paris has changed, making this book of short, descriptive chapters something of a time capsule.

This book is one of many I’ve read about Paris, the ‘City of Light’. Despite their proximity to Britain and the intertwining histories of both nations, there’s so much to be learned from looking into the past of one of the UK’s closest neighbours. Other books on France and Paris which might be worth your time:

  • For a more up to date and light-hearted look at France’s wonderful capital, try Paris Revealed by Stephen Clarke. Chapters are divided by subject such as food, addrosiments, apartments and the Parisiennes themselves, all from the loving but bemused perspective of a Brit who has lived there for years (2011, Black Swan)
  • The Little Pleasures of Paris, meanwhile, is more of a small coffee-table book. Author Leslie Jonath divides the things she adores about the City of Light into four sections; one for each season. Each entry is short, but accompanied by beautifully chic illustrations by Lizzie Stewart (2016, Chronicle)
  • Jeremy Mercer’s Bedbugs and Baguettes is partly the memoirs of his time in Paris, and partly the history of where he ends up staying, the famous Left Banke bookshop Shakespeare & Co (named after the original shop, which had closed years before), as well as its colourful owner, George. One for bibliophiles (2007, Magna)
  • For a more general overview of the nation’s history, Modern France by Jonathan Fenby offers a fascinating insight into the how France got to where it is now, starting with the revolution of 1789 (2015, Simon and Schuster)

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (2013, Transworld)

Loaned to me by a friend, this fast-paced thriller is the debut novel of the screenwriter behind Mad Max 2, Dead Calm, Payback and From Hell, among many others. Two quotes from John Le Carre and Raymond Chandler at the preface of this book highlight Hayes’ influences in the world of espionage and detective fiction. View these alongside the many Clancy/Grisham style thrillers (which often end up being remade into the sort of film he’d write the screenplay for) and you have the measure of this novel.

Saying that, this is a good book. It’s 888 pages are divided into four parts, each of which is made up of short chapters that left me wanting to read ‘just one more’ before setting the book down for the night. Part one features a lot of flashback or scene-setting chapters that initially made me wonder exactly where this book was going. However, Hayes does a good job of tying up pretty much every thread in this novel. Very little is remains a mystery by the end of the book. If that’s something you like to see in your thrillers, give this book a go. Don’t expect a deep examination into the soul of humanity, or even genuine development of any of the side characters (or even the main protagonist narrating in first-person, for that matter). But be assured that the story is gripping.

Shylock is my name by Howard Jacobson (2016, Vintage)

Another Shakespeare adaptation, this time retelling The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is a challenging antagonist for modern audiences uncomfortable (and rightly so) with the antisemitism throughout the Bard’s original play. Jacobson won the Man Booker prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question, a novel which explores the author’s experience as a British Jew (you can read my short review for that book here), but has also written on heroes from Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps this reimagining of Shylock was the next logical step?

As you may have read previously, I had mixed feelings about The Finkler Question, and this novel leaves me with a similar feeling of dissatisfaction. It’s an interesting concept and a good story with lovely, funny moments in it, but overall, it felt like it wasn’t quite good enough. Fans of Jacobson will love this book, but it’s not high on my list of recommendations.

England’s forgotten past by Richard Tames (2010, Thames & Hudson)

The full title of this small (185 pages), fact-filled book is almost a chapter in itself: England’s forgotten past: the unsung heroes & heroines, valiant Kings, great battles & other generally overlooked episodes in our nation’s glorious history. It’s eight chapters are subdivided further, with various ‘fact boxes’ and illustrations along the way. As well as bringing lesser known characters and events from English history to light, Tames also sets the record straight on some common misconceptions. Worth a read for the casual history fan, although it’s brevity might make one feel as if they are reading a collection of factoids, such as those published by the BBC factual/comedy quiz QI (or Quite Interesting, to give the show’s full title).

Publisher Thames & Hudson have a wealth of interesting titles which, similarly to England’s Forgotten Past, offer brief glimpses into less well-examined areas of history. Of those I have read (and there several more on my ‘to buy list), personal favourites include:

  • Shakespeare’s London on 5 Groats a Day, also by Tames (2018), looks at the alehouses and streetlife of London during the Bard’s lifetime. Taking in everyone from “courtiers to cut-throats” and of course, the dramatists and actors who were Shakespeare’s colleagues and contemporaries, we get the interesting perspective of medieval history from street level
  • Histories of Nations: how their identities were forged (Ed. Peter Furtado, 2012) features contributions from numerous writers, usually focusing on one small facet of a country’s history and how it helped create, or reflects, the nation we might recognise today
  • The Great Cities in History (Ed. John Jules Norwich, 2009) is another brilliant collection of short essays by various writers. Divided into four parts (ancient, medieval, early modern & modern), each chapter focuses on a city in its heyday, from Thebes in the Golden Age of Egypt to present day Shanghai as “China’s Super-City”
  • Finally, History Day By Day (Peter Furtado, 2019) is a collection of quotes from history for every day of the year. The 366 voices compiled range from Joan of Arc to JFK, and Galileo to Gandhi, bringing history to life through the words of those who lived it

The algebraist by Iain M. Banks (2004, Orbit)

Banks was well known for holding down two slightly different fiction writing careers: ‘regular’ fiction such as debut novel The Wasp Factory as Iain Banks, and science fiction with the middle initial ‘M’. Most of his sci-fi output was his epic & complex Culture series. But this novel is one of his few standalone sci-fi stories.

Having read most of the Culture novels, I knew roughly what to expect and everything which makes that series so popular is present here, except for artificial intelligence (which is illegal in this story). Instead we get a very descriptive sort-of thriller inside a space opera, centered around varying species of life: the “quick”, who’ve only been round for mere thousands of years such as us, and the “slow” – jellyfish-like creatures inhabiting gas giants and almost as old as the galaxy itself. If you can get on board with that concept and the speculation which comes with it, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. I can see similarities between this and I Am Pilgrim, although this sci-fi novel has considerably longer chapters and isn’t quite as quick a read.

So there we are for now. As always, get in touch with your own thoughts and recommendations for future reading. I’ve had some great book chats with a few folk since I started cataloguing my ‘fun reading’ and my list of books to read is getting longer every week.

I’m already into the books which will be featured next time. Expect music, history, travel and an extraordinary adventure in search of a good coffee…

Poem: A political ghost flew, ruining my view

Poetry & Writing

The wheat it rises fast by summer late

Honey yellow melting into rich gold

Yet now, streaking through the swaying barley

Comes ex-P.M. from Euro state of old

Fleeing worldly problems and past mistakes

With childish abandon and youth-lost glee

Surprised, then angry; next, aloud thinks I:

“Well, that’s stained this golden moment for me!”

Credit: news.ctgn.com

Somehow, this silly little poem (about former UK Prime Minister Theresa May running through one of the fields of wheat outside my home) felt best suited to the sonnet form (of somewhat loosely – see below).

For context, here is May’s past form, regarding running through fields of wheat.

Please don’t judge my efforts too harshly. It is my first attempt at writing in this form since secondary school (twenty years ago). I most definitely haven’t adhered to the ‘galloping’ rhythm of traditional Iambic Pentameter (5 pairs of syllables per lone, going weak-strong each time). This would have been a strict requirement for stage actors reciting these lines (usually as dialogue) in Elizabethan age plays, most famously those penned by William Shakespeare.

However, I’m not Shakespeare, Marlowe or any sonnet writer of any note, by any stretch – that much should be clear by now! I’m just a bored dad trying to get his youngest child (currently teething) to sleep by taking them out in the buggy for an evening walk…

A year of books (Apr-Jun)

Books

It’s been three months since my last article on the books I am reading in 2020 (which you can read here). At the end of March, the UK was officially in lockdown, and throughout April many of us got used to new ways of working (or not working), as well as working out what to do with the extra time spent at home. At times, it felt like I was trying to make time for reading – but that’s a story for another blog. Suffice to say, I haven’t gotten through anywhere near as much of my to-read pile as I would have liked. Indeed, it has taken me over a month just to finish writing and editing this article!

As promised, I aim to log and write very brief reviews of every book (fiction & non-fiction) which I have read this year. The only exception to this is the academic texts I have to research as part of my work as a music therapist (which has partly continued during lockdown through working online). These books and papers will only appeal to a small audience, so it makes sense to create a specialist article to discuss them at a later date. For now, here are the books I have managed to read in the last three months:

The age of genius: the seventeenth century and the birth of the modern mind by Professor AC Grayling (2016, Bloomsbury)

The title might seem like a mouthful, but the premise is simple: Philosopher-historian Grayling puts forth the argument that the seventeenth century (i.e. the 1600’s) was the ‘epoch’ in human history in which we (or rather the leading minds of the day) began moving away from what we now call superstition, and finding confidence in scientific inquiry separate to religious belief. Grayling believes that this is what made us modern humans. His argument is compelling and very well written, with scores of examples. However, a book with so much detail obviously means many references are fleeting, and surely many more are (for any number of reasons) omitted altogether.

This book is worth looking into if the subject even remotely interests you. It’s surprisingly accessible and doesn’t get too weighed down in any particular area for too long, although that is also a downside for many. Would-be scholars to this subject should view this book as a primer, before moving onto the texts which have greater detail on certain areas – Galileo, The Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy, to name just a few – without the overall breadth Grayling is able to present here. Those looking for an introduction to philosophy would be best served by some of Grayling’s other excellent books on the subject.

Shakespeare for grown-ups: everything you need to know about the bard by E. Foley & B. Coates (2015, Penguin)

Written by the two in-house editors behind Penguin’s Homework For Grown-ups, this book offers a light-hearted and accessible look into the greatest (or at least most famous) playwright of all time. Filled with fascinating historical and contextual nuggets, no portion of this book is overlong, and serves equally well as a reference for fans of the Bard, as well as ‘cheat sheet’ for newbies. Among the many useful sections it covers are guides to the language (including examples of the many, many words and phrases coined by Shakespeare, which are still in common use today) and a very brief overview of each play, reduced to a handful of lines in one section for super-quick, and rather pithy) reference. The larger sections examine examples of Shakespeare’s, comedies, histories, tragedies and poetry, highlighting key themes and use of language. The authors are good at reminding the reader about what an Elizabethan audience would have understood or expected from the performances of these plays too, which is particularly useful when things appear a trifle anachronistic to modern readers and audiences. By no means the final word on Shakespeare, but a great place to start for many, and a welcome addition to the collection of more committed fans.

The Ickabog by JK Rowling (2020, online at theickabog.com; print publication on 10th November 2020 by Hachette)

Based on a story JK Rowling used to tell her children, years before the publication (and phenomenal success) of her Harry Potter series and wider franchise, The Ickabog is a fairy tale brought into the public eye, it seems, because of the COVID19 pandemic. A chapter or two was released every week between March and July this year, seemingly as a distraction for people during lockdown. However, Rowling has stated that a print version of the book will be released in November this year, with some of the proceeds going towards a charity helping young people affected by the pandemic. Cynics might argue that it takes attention away from the negative press Rowling has received this year for her personal views on certain subjects, but a good deed is still a good deed. And anyway, what about the story?

Th story is the form of a fable, told by an omnipotent narrator, about a fictional country with a weak and vain king, whose closest advisors manipulate in an increasingly elaborate version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, with a strong dash of the legend of The Lambton Worm (an ancient local tale of an apparently un-killable dragon-like creature which stole sheep from a town in the far north of England) thrown into the mix. The 60 chapters of the story move fast, taking in various characters and sweeping across the entire fictional land, as well as a timescale of around a decade, without feeling too rushed – at least for the most part. The ending is both unexpected and rather typical of Rowling’s more famous work, but doesn’t quite wrap up the character arcs in a satisfying way, save a bittersweet epilogue involving the first characters mentioned in the book.

The Ickabog is a quick read, once the installments were available. It was rather interesting reading a serialised story, the way many famous works, such as those by Dickens, first appeared. It is written, like most of Rowling’s books, for children, and uses easy language with little in the way of hidden themes. In fact, my biggest problem with the book was the lack of subtlety altogether – Rowling tells you everything, including in one particularly frustrating instance, what four different characters (most of them minor) or thinking, without feeling the need to back any of these pronouncements up with dialogue or actions by the characters – this person loves that person because Rowling says so, and that has to be good enough. I understand that this is a story aimed at younger readers, but credit them with some insight!

Life by Keith Richards with James Fox (2010, Little, Brown & Company)

The back cover of this autobiography reads: “This is the life. Believe it or not, I haven’t forgotten any of it”. Perhaps the contributions from journalist Fox helped fill the gaps in the extraordinary life and career of one of rock’s least likely survivors. ‘Keef’ is one of the founders and driving force behind The Rolling Stones, as well as it’s main songwriter with frontman Mick Jagger, a partnership equally famous for it’s stories of hellraising over the years. The book covers everything you’d hope for – the music, the drugs, the women, his relationship with Jagger over the years, as well as numerous stories from the early days of The Stones and through their classic albums (and some of the many well-known faces they’ve encountered on the way).

At times, this book felt a little bit like an extension of the Stones Brand, and Fox has certainly steered these memoirs into something more coherent, but the book is no less enjoyable for these factors. It’s a funny and insightful read, and will definitely appeal to fans of the band, as well as those with even a smidgeon of interest. My advice would be to buy the paperback, as the hardback (as is often the way, especially with biographies) takes up a fair amount of shelf space!

Bring up the bodies by Hilary Mantel (2012, Fourth Estate)

This one was a re-read. I first read Bring up the bodies a few years ago, having come late to the party – a theatre and TV adaptation of this book, and it’s predecessor, Wolf Hall (2009), had already been produced by the time I started reading Mantel’s ‘Thomas Cromwell Trilogy’. I loved the writing in both books, especially how Mantel fleshed out the life of a prominent historical character, of whom so little biographical information remains. Both books won the Booker Prize for fiction for Mantel (the first time a female writer has ever won the award twice). The long-awaited final installment, The Mirror and the light, was finally released this year, and has already been added to the shortlist for the 2020 Booker Prize – could it be an unprecedented third win for Mantel (and the trilogy)?

Before starting The Mirror and the light, I decided to refresh my memory and immerse myself in Cromwell’s world once again – not least because I have heard that the third book picks up the story precisely from where this one ends. The story was just as wonderful to read for the second time as the first. Now, with my appetite well and truly whetted, I have made my transition from Bring up the bodies to The Mirror and the light just as June slipped into July, so expect my review on this final installment in my next blog in this series…

Any others?

As I mentioned at the start of this article, I have dipped into a few academic texts as part of my work. I’ve also been reading plenty of magazines and periodicals, which I have listed in a separate article that you can read here.

What have you guys been reading? Drop me a comment and let me know!