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!

A year of books: every title I read in 2020 (Jan-Mar)

Books

Every year is a year of books for me. I am an unashamedly committed bibliophile.

However, I rarely review the books I read, preferring to make recommendations in conversation with other book lovers.

This year is different. For those who don’t already know, the UK (like many countries) has been under a kind of lockdown since the end of March this year, due to the COVID19 pandemic. Although I’m still kept fairly busy, I’m making a conscious effort to post blogs & articles more regularly. With that in mind, I have decided to provide a quick summary & review of all the books I read in 2020.

Obviously, since it’s already April, this first installment will be looking back at the year (more or less) to date. I’ll post follow ups every couple of months throughout the year, with a pick of my favourites as 2020 draws to a close.

Picture taken from this interesting article by Literary Hub.

So, without further ado, here’s what I have read from January to the end of March, this year…

The book smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English (2017, William Collins)

The subtitle to this book, the quest for this storied city and the race to save its treasures, sums up the book perfectly. This once fabled city in Mali was home to thousands of manuscripts on poetry, history, religion, science and all manner of learned subjects. The takeover of the country by jihadists in 2012 threatened these ancient libraries.

The book weaves two threads in alternating chapters. The first chronicles the efforts made to smuggle as many texts to safety. The second is a history of Timbuktu, seen through the eyes of Western Europe’s expeditions to locate it, starting in 1788, and ending in 2003, almost bringing us up to date with the first narrative. Part history and part account of an ongoing operation, English brings the main protagonists to life, and provides enough historical detail to make you feel you’ve learned something. Highly recommended.


The accidental further adventures of the hundred-year-old man by Jonas Jonasson (English translation by Rachel Wilson-Broyles) (2018, HarperCollins)

This is the sequel to Jonasson’s hilarious comic novel The hundred-year-old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared. It’s funny and entertaining to meet the title character again, a cantankerous old man, Allan Karlsson, with a penchant for explosives and a knack for meeting (and enraging) a large cast of world leaders from recent history.

Where this sequel falls down is that it takes place roughly within one year, while it’s predecessor featured flashbacks through Karlsson’s long life, giving the book a fast paced feel which is still full of interesting detail, this follow-up feels a trifle forced. Jonasson said he felt compelled to write the sequel because he felt Karlsson’s voice talking to him about current events, such as Russian interference in worldwide elections and social media. While there is opportunity for humour and warning on this subject, story about Karlsson’s further adventures suffers slightly as a result. Best left for the enjoyment of die-hard fans of the original story.

The Popes: a history by John Julius Norwich (2011,Vintage Books)

A superb history of the papacy, from it’s Apostolic and Ancient Roman origins, through to Benedict XVI (this book was published in 2011, two years before Pope Benedict’s abdication, and the subsequent election of the Vatican’s current incumbent, Pope Francis).

Sometimes very detailed when discussing ‘dark ages’ popes, and on occasion it was difficult remembering who was who (there are a lot of cardinals, popes, kings and pretenders with the same name in some chapters), it nonetheless provides a thrilling insight into this millennia-old institution, the political crises it has faced – both within and against the rest of Europe and the world – as well as how it has survived and evolved over the centuries.

Norwich had an impressive career as a author of history books. This book is just one of many where he has skillfully brought his subjects to life. Also, despite having access to the Vatican library as part of his research, Norwich does not shy away from the seedier aspects of the papacy – a fitting subtitle might well have been Schism, simony and sodomy. However, it rises above gossipy, ‘Lives of the Caesars’ style titillation, and presents a fair light, good, bad and worst, on the men (and possibly one woman) who have held the position of Pontifex Maximus since St Peter. Worth a read, but only if you’re interested in the subject – casual fans of European Medieval history might prefer another of Norwich’s tomes, such as  Four Princes, which is on my to-read pile, awaiting me…


How to stop time by Matt Haig (2017, Canongate)

Haig is carving something of a niche in fantastical novels which certainly don’t qualify for a place in the Fantasy genre. This book is told from the viewpoint of a man of abnormally long life, one of a very small and secretive group known as ‘Albatrosses’. Frequently moving around the world to avoid arousing suspicion, not getting too close to others, having lost lost loved ones centuries earlier, what should happen if he fell in love again? So far, so Highlander, but told with Haig’s usual warmth and wit. It’s also very easy to read. I found myself finishing it almost before I was ready to. However, I found myself making comparisons to one of Haig’s earlier books, The Humans, which similarly deals with a man on the outside learning to love (or in that case, an alien sent to prevent humans progressing before their time). Of the two, I prefer the earlier novel, but How to stop time stands up well on it’s own merits, and is well worth a read.


Africa: by Richard Dowden (2008, Granta Books)

A well-written history of modern Africa, told by a journalist who has lived and returned to the continent several times in his life. At times delving into nearly-memoir, Dowden is able to pull back and maintain a journalistic eye on the wider events taking place in various countries through the later end of the 20th century onward. The book covers the Nations of Africa’s stories of post-colonialism, civil wars, economic growth and failings, as well as the AIDS epidemic, all told fairly and engagingly. The only downside was that no one book (even a 600+ page tome such as this) can truly cover the full history – even of just the 20th century – of such a large continent. Dowden’s book left me yearning to know more, and already I have more books on Africa ready in my to-read pile!

Any others?

Five books doesn’t feel like very many, even if two of them (The Popes & Africa) were quite long reads. However, my therapy work is (and must be) my priority, and there have been a few work-related books taking up my time this year too. As part of my work, I’ve been researching mentalisation and dissociation, specifically in relation to therapy with children, and have been dipping in and out of three or four very helpful books on these subjects recently. However, these titles are best left for an entirely separate article, one centered around music therapy and child psychotherapy. Expect that later in the year!


The next installment will cover April to the early summer [UPDATE – you can now read the April-June installment here]. It may well cover only the ‘lockdown months’, depending on how long that period turns out to be. Until then, stay safe and keep reading…