Click here to listen to Kathleen Kinder’s talk on the Modern Book Scene (Part 5).
You can view the talk by Sarah Wiltshire, co-ordinator with ACE Settle, here.
A fascinating look at Anne Boleyn’s Dad. A talk, given by Bob to the U3A in October 2021, gives an insight into the family’s rise and subsequent downfall.
The Modern Book Scene 4 22/09/21 Kathleen Kinder
I extend a warm welcome to everyone watching and listening, wherever you are. Some of you have been here before, so welcome back. This is the fourth Zoom talk this year on the Modern Book Scene, but each Talk is different as there is a huge variety to choose from. New books seem to come into the library almost as soon as they are published. Others are on order. Older books are to consider too. I thank the Settle library management committee for their continued support , and especially Hazel Allen, for organising the event, putting the Talk notes and Book list online at -settlelibrary.org.uk/projects. You will find copies of previous Talks and Booklists there. Hazel also produces a recording of the Talks; the link for this one will be available in due course. Thank you also to friends for encouragement & help with the publicity.
I interpret “The Modern Book Scene” as books published in the last 10-20 years, most, in the last 3-4 years, several as recently as a few weeks ago. Release of money frozen by the lock-down. The emphasis is on books in a prize list, have stirred up discussion and controversy, make good reviews and reflect current interests. I hope also to provide for local library preferences. I have more to say on some books than on others. Most are fiction, a few non fiction. I try to group under headings; I don’t always succeed, especially if books are mixed genre, or general fiction. I end as usual, with books that encourage “ a feel good factor”, fiction and non fiction,
Murder, Mystery and Thrillers – the largest fiction group. As I’ve said on previous occasions, there is great variety under this label. First, 2 books under a new sub heading of Global Outreach. These are followed by 4 thrillers under End of Career Investigators. Novelists have different ways of retiring, killing off, or finding a career change for a crime investigator, who has out lived his or her usefulness in the novelist’s view, and in the readers’ too..
Global Outreach. Outbreak, Frank Gardner, 2021. The author is well known as the BBC’s Security Correspondent. This is the third book in a thriller series featuring Luke Charlton, an operator in the SIS, the Secret Intelligence Service, a branch of MI6. The 2 previous books, S.T bestsellers, are Crisis ,2016 & Ultimatum, 2019. Outbreak is a Read Alone, but to judge by the ending, it won’t be the last in the series. It soon occurred to me from his crisp, accomplished, style of writing that Frank Gardner, is a modern successor to Ian Fleming, and Luke Charlton, a modern James Bond. The novel owes part of its inspiration to the Salisbury poisonings of a few years ago. The book begins with 3 UK scientists approaching a seemingly deserted hut near Svalbard, the Norwegian Arctic. The scientist 1 who enters, discovers a decaying, putrid human body. He unknowingly becomes infected with a deadly chemical agent and dies in hospital shortly afterwards. Luke Charlton, who leaves Elise, his girl friend behind, is drafted in to deal with the case. He finds himself involved with a terrifying series of events. What emerges is that Russia has developed a new generation of deadly bio-weapons destined to kill thousands at a glance. Luke discovers that one of the canisters of this substance has fallen into the hands of a right-wing fascist organisation who plan to use it at Kings Cross Station during rush hour to kill a huge crowd of people in one action. There are lots of twists and turns in the plot, all very expertly engineered and in which Luke and Elise are involved. This is a brilliantly written book, but a terrifying read, because we realise that what this book is all about, is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
The Whole Truth, David Baldacci, 2008. The book was referenced in an article where the writer mentioned that it was a novel prophesying the Trump presidency 8 years before its time. The epigraph at the beginning of the book reads, “Why waste time discovering the truth when you can so easily create it”. The Special Intelligence agent Shaw, who is in the American, hard-boiled cop tradition, is the main character, deeply in love with Anna Fischer, who works for an organisation investigating Russian hostile activity. Soon after Shaw and she got engaged, Anna is killed in a raid on her offices. Enter Katie James, an intelligent reporter. Word had got around that the raid had been the work of Russian agents, but that was “fake news”. The perpetrator proved to be a Trump figure, Nicholas Creel, a powerful American billionaire, posing as a philanthropist, owner of the Ares Corporation, who was prepared to work with Russia and China to create mayhem. Shaw had quite a job on his hands. He and Katie survived to fight another day. I nearly abandoned the book. The violence and blood shed were almost too much, but I’m glad I stayed with it. I realised what a remarkable piece of prophetic writing it was.
End of Career Investigators – A Song for Dark Times, Ian Rankin 2021. John Rebus, Ian Rankin’s fictional detective, has featured in over 20 thrillers. He is at the point of retiring when he has a desperate phone-call from his daughter, Samantha , who lives in a remote part of NE Scotland ,telling him that Keith, her partner and father of her child, is missing. Rebus hastens to the scene to help with the hunt for the missing partner. The hunt turns eventually into a multiple murder investigation . Rebus operates solo for part of the time, but does what he can to assist the local police, who regard him with a mixture of irritation and respect. In Edinburgh, Rebus’ former colleagues have their own murder to investigate which seems to have a connection with the ones in NE Scotland. Rebus and the local police solve 2 the various connected mysteries and arrest the murderers. I find it interesting how Rankin can demonstrate with knowledge and skill how the police work together as a team, sifting through evidence to solve the various crimes on their work load. What else will Rebus find to occupy his retirement, or is that the end of his career? Rankin, is an Agatha Christie writer; he does not write psychological thrillers.
Trust Me, T.M. Logan, 2021. “biggest thriller of the summer” Sunday Times Best Seller.TML- British crime writer, whose psychological thrillers have become very popular in the UK. The book is written in the 1st person by Ellen Devlin ,who is on a train when she is asked by a young woman to look after the woman’s baby while she goes to the loo. She does not return.That is the beginning of a fast-paced, murder mystery which really got me thoroughly involved. There are some frightening, violent and sinister incidents. Ellen is seemingly helped by a DI Stuart Gilbourne, who is near retirement ,after 30 years service. I honestly had no idea until nearly the end who the murderer was, and that came as quite a shock. I did have some queries though, regarding characterisation and plot, but then this kind of fast-paced thriller often provokes questions.
The Darkness, Ragnar Jonasson, 2018. This is an Icelandic, Nordic noir thriller, one of the Times 100 best crime novels since 1945. It is the first book in a trilogy, but it is the last book in the life and career of DI Hulda Hermannsdottir, who is 64 and told by her superior that she has to retire immediately. She pleads for more time and is granted her request to re-open what is called a “cold case”, that of a woman who was presumed to have committed suicide. Hulda sets about the investigation impressively, and eventually uncovers sufficient evidence to show the woman was murdered. Then she makes a serious blunder. The novel moves towards a shocking and horrific end. The way the 3 novels are written, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” is most unusual, The 2 missing books in the trilogy featuring Hulda earlier in her career are The Island, 2020, The Mist , 2019. Booklist.
The Lantern Men, Ellie Griffiths, 2020, Sunday Times Best seller. This is Ellie Griffiths’ 12th novel featuring the forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway, who is now 50, has changed her job to that of lecturer, though she still works for the police when required, as so happens in this book. She has also got a new partner Frank. Retirement is not on the cards! Just a mid-life, all-round change. There’s a creepy, supernatural element. A Norfolk legend tells of presences, the Lantern men, whose flickering lights lure the unwary to their deaths in the fens. The first murder on a lonely road, is followed by others. This is a skilfully plotted thriller woven around the lives of very credible characters who generate a warm humanity. The climax is brilliantly 3 done. Ellie Griffiths bring the suspects together as per Agatha C. Not in a room, in a cycle race to reveal the murderer, who stages a horrific attack on Ruth before he is brought down. I really enjoyed this thriller. Ellie G. a favourite author.
The Sea as Environment 3 books – first, still a murder mystery The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex, 2021, S.T. Best seller. The story is inspired by real events. It is 1972; 3 keepers vanish from a remote light-house off the Cornish coast. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The table is set for a meal for 3. The clocks have stopped. The keepers’ log describes a violent storm, but the weather is calm. No sign of the keepers at all. In 1992, 20 years later, the women left behind are still struggling to move on. The novel moves between the dates, having the women, then the men tell their story. It becomes obvious that each person has secrets, not revealed until nearly the end when the whole picture, more or less, emerges. In the final chapter, the reader is privileged to know what the women will never know, what exactly happened on that day in 1972. This is a bleak, gripping story, with the plot cleverly managed. We are left though with the thought that only the sea can give the fullest explanation.
The Mercies Kiran Millwood Hargrave, 2020- many international credits. Based on a true story, the location is Vardo, remote northern Norwegian coast, 1620. There is an ominous quote at the beginning from King Christian of Norway & Denmark, influenced by James I’s Daemonologie. that anyone found guilty of making a pact with the devil, should die. The story begins with a tragedy. Forty men from the community, out fishing, are drowned in a violent storm. The women are left to fend for themselves to survive and feed their families. That meant taking on roles that men would have fulfilled. In this strict Lutheran community that eventually would bring trouble. We learn about individual women and their strong resourceful personalities, how they help and support one another. Then the story switches to Bergen where a woman, Ursa, is about to be married to an austere Scotsman, Absolom Cornet, who is appointed to be commissioner of the Varro region to see that the people are abiding by the rules of state and religion. The marriage is deeply unhappy and Ursa finds friendship amongst the Varro women. Her husband is shocked at the reversal of male-female roles and soon witch trials begin, ending with the execution of some of the women. There is both tragedy at the end and a sign of hope. This is a very powerful book. The writing is exquisitely done, often poetic and lyrical, and at other times, vibrant and muscular with not a word wasted. A remarkable book indeed.
On Wilder Seas, Nikki Marmery, 2020. This is another book based on fact, concerned with the Americas part of Francis Drake’s famous 4 circumnavigation around the world, 1577-80. Amongst the motley English crew is a former black slave girl. Maria, who escaped from a Spanish ship on to Drake’s Golden Hind during an engagement in the port of Acapulco. This is an account of her difficult and dangerous life, the only woman amongst 80 men, a few of whom abuse her but she finds a friend, Diego, a freed black man, former slave, but actually a trusted servant of Francis Drake. From Diego, she learns that on English soil she would be free. This is a gripping, fascinating book, told in the first person by Maria and is very good to read. The violent, vibrant atmosphere is conveyed through a very well-written text. This is a voyage of discovery and there are currents of eager expectation running through the crew as the ship sails through uncharted waters and meets strange, new groups of people when there are visits to the shore line. There is a positive ending, but I question its credibility. This book has a link with the next topic (Wikip’s D’s circumnavigation)
Escape from slavery, death, a natural disaster, a brothel. (4 books) The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitbread, 2017, lots of plaudits world-wide, winner of the Pullitzer prize, 2017, again, based on fact. Location, Georgia, USA, 1820s. The story is told by Cora, a slave on a plantation run by a cruel, ruthless family, but where slaves care for each other. The style, written in the speech rhythms of the American south, is crisp, rhythmic , and moves at quite a pace, taking the reader with it. The story grips you from the word go. Cora, following in the footsteps of her escaped mother, longs for freedom. We are not spared details of the enduring horror of the lives of the black slaves. Any escaped slave who has found refuge in a neighbouring state is ruthlessly hunted down, by a slave catcher, if the state allows it. This happened to Cora the first time she tried. She knows there is an underground tunnel leading from one state to another where she can be free. There is a nail-biting finish. A powerful, memorable book.
American Dirt, Jeanine Cummings, 2020, NY Times, Sun. Times Best Sellers etc. The story begins in a family home in Mexico. The wife Lydia and 8 year old son, Luke, are in the bathroom while husband Sebastian, a fearless reporter who has been exposing a powerful drug cartel, is outside with friends and relatives, when members of the cartel burst in and shoot them all dead. Lydia and Luke escape but know they must leave Mexico to save their own lives. That is the beginning of a nail-biting, epic journey during which it dawns on Lydia that Javier, a regular visitor to her bookshop, was the leader of the cartel and his gang will be out to kill her wherever she and Luke go. Near the end, they discover a traitor in their travelling group. They survive several near death experiences. The book is an edge of the seat, nail-biting “read”, absolutely brilliant. It will stay with me for a very long time. I began to read it the night Taliban entered Kabul.5
Pompeii, Robert Harris, 2010. Robert Harris one of the UK’s greatest novelists, one of the few men who still write fiction, in an area now dominated by women. He is a classicist as several of his novels reveal, but the scope of his interest is considerable. This book is a talking point once more. I wonder why? Location is Pompeii AD79, just before the eruption of Vesuvius destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and created devastation over a wide area. The central fictional character is Marcus Attilius, a young water engineer, an aquarius, sent by Rome to check the water supply brought by the magnificent 62 mile aqueduct, the Via Augusta, built to provide fresh water for the communities living around base of the active volcano. Map in the book shows the route of the aqueduct as it actually was. Attilius was there because his predecessor had mysteriously disappeared. His presence was regarded with great suspicion by a surly overseer and a local millionaire, to whose daughter Corelia, Attilius is attracted. A. soon discovers that all is not well with the water supply, which is becoming erratic, smelling of sulphur, killing fish in a pool. A slave is blamed for that and is put to death. This is powerful writing, made more so by the fact that the reader knows what is going to happen. Attilius however, gets near the truth when he observes a spring turning to steam, & earth tremors becoming frequent and violent. When he climbs up the slopes of the volcano, he finds the body of his predecessor. This is a magnificent book, superbly researched. Corelia comes to warn Attilius that his life is in danger just as the eruption happens. Do they survive? The book ends with an intriguing possibility. To download: The Last Days of Pompeii,
Edward Bulwer Lytton, 1834. (lion & Christian) See Booklist for link.
An eye-witness account- supplied by Pliny the younger, staying out of harm’s way, across the bay, with his uncle, Pliny the Elder, admiral of the fleet. He ventured nearer the source and was killed. He appears in my next book.
The Wolf Den, Elodie Harper, 2021 also based in Pompeii, AD74, 5 years before the eruption. The Latin lupa, means either a she-wolf or a prostitute. The luparum = wolf-den was one of Pompeii’s 9 brothels and this is a fictional story based on its people and activities. The main character is Amara, daughter of a doctor, educated and a musician, sold into slavery by her mother, left impoverished after her husband’s death. Slavery of one kind or another, was the foundation of both Greek and Roman civilisations, but not the early Church. The only way out of slavery was to have someone buy you out. The owner of the Luparum brothel, Felix, was a cruel, ruthless but quite complex man. The characterisation is particularly rich and varied and the girls develop caring relationships with one another, the only family they have. They come alive during the day when they are out in 6 the town attracting customers, but having some free time. Amara has many friends and is permitted to offer some musical entertainment providing there is profit to be had by Felix, the pimp. There is a budding love relationship with Menander, another slave, The men, the girls’ clients are a mixed bunch, some kind, some cruel. There is little detail about their work, because the girls withdraw their feelings into a state of numbness. This is cleverly conveyed by the author, who is an accomplished story teller. The money to buy Amara’s freedom comes from an unexpected source, but the ending is a mixture of sadness and joy (no spoilers). I found the book a very absorbing read. (anachronisms). Before I leave the classical period, 2 brief reviews:
Two Opposing Views of the Ending of the Trojan War -briefly Troy, Stephen Fry,2020. This is the third book in a trilogy, the other two being, Mythos, 2017 and Heroes, 2019. I’ve read Mythos and mentioned it previously. SF is a man of many parts, who loves the classics; his lively prose is a joy to read. You can hear his voice. Troy is written in an epic, heroic, triumphalist style. When I got to the story of how the siege of Troy came to an end, the Greeks taking it by a brilliant deception and then rampaging through the city killing and burning, I realised that Fry was very clearly on the side of the Greeks.
A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes, 2021. I read this immediately after Troy. I started it after listening to the agonising stories on the news of people struggling to get out of Kabul. NH is also a brilliant writer. I talked about her Radio 4 Talks last time. See Booklist 3. She takes the reader into Troy after the Greeks had done their worst. We are with the women, mourning the deaths of their men folk and children, wailing over their burning city, waiting in dread to be taken into slavery by the triumphant Greeks. Contrasting texts? An idea for Bk Grps perhaps? V. good to read. Now for something very different:
Historical Characters in Fiction – 4 painters, I philosopher . The Moon and Sixpence, Somerset Maugham, 1919. S.M. is an early modern novelist, and is one of the first writers to use a real life painter, Paul Gauguin as the main character in this story. Indeed, if Somerst Maugham had used the real names instead of pseudonyms, you could call this short novelette, a biography. Gauguin had died in 1903 and maybe a 16 years gap was not long enough. It soon became known that Charles Strickland was Paul Gauguin. S.M. tells a good story and Charles Strickland’s life follows closely the pattern of Paul Gauguin’s. We follow him as he, obsessed with a desire to paint, leaves his wife and family, cutting off all communication. He ends as P.G. did in Tahiti, in a bigamous marriage, creating new styles in painting which were not recognised until after his death. Only a library e-audiobook. See book list for Gutenberg link download. 7
The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier, 1999-2010. Much acclaimed. Over 5 million copies sold, several reprints. Popular with book groups. Modern authors do not not follow S.M’s example. Their real life celebrities are incorporated into part fictional stories. This book’s location is 17 c. Delft, Holland, in the painter Vermeer’s large family household, where one of the maids Griet, becomes the model for his famous painting. This is a very well-written account seen through Griet’s eyes of how she becomes involved with Vermeer and his work. She even mixes his paints for him. On his suggestion, as his model for the painting, she wears a single earring belonging to his wife. Vermeer remains a slightly withdrawn character. Griet’s feelings for him grow in intensity and we get a strong indication from body language and the glances they exchange, that Vermeer could respond. This is all skilfully and sensitively conveyed by the author, but there is no sexual relationship. One sees very clearly the contrast of the poverty and low expectations of a maid with the situation of a wealthy family in 17thc Holland. We see it even more clearly in the next book, but the maid there makes something of her life and talents.
The Words in my Hands, Guinevere Glasfurd, 2015. A beautifully, written book. Shortlisted Costa Book Award, 2015. Many plaudits. Location – 17th c Amsterdam This is the re-imagined, part-fictional story of Helena Jans, a maid, working for an English bookseller, when a mysterious and reclusive lodger arrives, the Monsieur, who turns out to be René Descartes, the French philosopher, and mathematician. At first, the relationship remains formal. Descartes notices that Helena’s hands and limbs are covered in scrawled letters in beetroot juice, and begins to appreciate that she yearns for knowledge and literacy. Gradually the relationship deepens into a surprising story of mutual love . Eventually Helena is able to make a little money with her artistic talents, but when she becomes pregnant she has to leave her post. Descartes, unlike many men who desert servant girls they have made pregnant, helps to support her and the child. He visits from time to time, but he cannot marry her. Her first child, a girl. dies, but she then has another, a boy. . The ending of the book is more positive than you would expect for Helena and her son, A truly lovely book.
The Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hoffman, 2015. S.T. Best seller. Set during early-mid 19thc on St Thomas, an island in the then Danish W.Indies. Written in a rich sensuous style, conveying the sights, sounds and smells of this exotic, idyllic place, and focussing on the young woman who would eventually become mother of Camille Pissarro, a leader in the French impressionist school of painting. Rachel a strong-minded, talented girl from one of the wealthy French-Danish Jewish families, was forced into an early marriage with an older widower with 3 children. Rachel bears him 3 children before 8 he dies. The family business is taken over by her husband’s young handsome nephew Frederic Pisarro. He and Rachel fall passionately in love and in spite of opposition from the local Jewish community are able to marry. The last part of the novel cum family biography tells us more about their third son, Camille, who left St Thomas to follow his painting career in Paris. A beautifully told, engrossing story. I loved it.
Mr Mac and Me, Esther Freud, 2015. many plaudits – Times, Guardian etc. Location is Walberswick, on the Suffolk coast, 1914, at the beginning of WWI. The story is told through the eyes of a young boy, Thomas Maggs, only surviving son of the local publican who deliberately lamed the boy as a baby so that he would never go to sea. When famous, Scottish Art Nouveau artists, Charles Rennie Macintosh and his wife Margaret first arrive in the village they are treated with suspicion. Eventually, a warm friendship is formed between Thomas Maggs and the new arrivals. He learns much from their companionship. This is a well-written, atmospheric and gently told story and we are soon engrossed. The sea is never far away . Villagers look across the water nervously, knowing that the battle front in France and Belgium is very close. We learn about the village, its characters, its history, its customs and legends through Thomas’s eyes. We read and discussed this in our Book Group and we enjoyed it. A change from thrillers?
People without Partners – through old age, war, accident, or by choice Olive Again, Elizabeth Strout. 2019, who has written several books in which Olive Kitteridge is a link or the main character as in the Pulitzer prize winning novel Olve Kitteridge, 2013. which I read and enjoyed some time ago. In Olive Again, the author writes a series of vignettes, or short stories concentrating on the lives of individual people and groups in the community. So skilfully is this accomplished that in each one the reader is made to be fully integrated with the people under the microscope. Olive Kitteridge appears in each one, revealing different aspects of her personality as appropriate for the people she is with at the time. She ages throughout the book. Her second husband has died and she has increasing problems with old age which the author gradually unfolds with great sensitivity. Not often do you come across writers who can write so convincingly about old age. I was truly impressed by this book.
Akin, Emma Donaghue, 2019 “ Daft premise, clever writing”, wrote a Guardian reviewer. Emma Donaghue is an accomplished writer who ranges over a wide variety of themes in her novels. I’ve read several and this title, meaning A Relative, is the shortest of any title. A 79 year old retired widower professor, Noah, is about to set off on a sentimental journey, a holiday, to Nice and the Cote d’Azur, when 9 he finds himself lumbered with his 11 year old great nephew. Michael who has been put several places to stay previously because his mother is in gaol. Michael has to go with Noah on the holiday. The book is is not plot-driven. It relies mainly on dialogue exchanges between the old man with his scholarly, genteel way of speaking and this dynamic, quirky little boy, who speaks in the laconic slang of down-town New York. There is so much explaining for Noah to do as he tells Michael his memories of his parents and grand-parents, WWII, Jewish connections and so on. The dialogue reveals the huge generational differences. As they move round different places in southern France, the reader begins to see Noah’s great patience being rewarded by warmer responses from Michael. The ending offers a future for both which they had not thought of before.
A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier, 2019. This is the 2nd T. C. book reviewed in this Talk and like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, it is well-written & has a bitter-sweet ending. Violet Speedwell lost her brother and her fiancé in WW1. From then until the 1930s, when the story begins, she, aged 38, has been holding up a boring office job and living a dispiriting existence with a demanding mother. She has however, a fiercely independent spirit, longing to make a better life for herself in a men-scarce world . She moves to Winchester to start a new life and joins the team of embroiderers at the Cathedral amongst whom she makes new friends. I enjoyed this part of the novel particularly. She also gets to know Arthur, a married man, a cyclist & a bell ringer at the cathedral. Violet takes up cycling, but knowing Arthur will not leave his wife, persuades him when they are out cycling amidst hedgerows and green fields, to have sex with her. This he does. She eventually gives birth to a little girl, Iris, and then is offered a housekeeping job by 2 lesbian friends in Southampton. Iris is baptised in Winchester Cathedral in the company of friends & family, while Arthur incognito, rings a solitary bell overhead.
Small Pleasures, Clare Chambers, 2021. This is already long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Historical period 1957, is meticulously researched. Begins with an announcement of a train crash in the newspaper where Jean Swinney is a reporter. We do not know the significance of the crash until the end. Jean, is single and lives with her mother and does not seem to resent the demands made on her. She has virtually no social life & is seemingly content with “small pleasures”. At work, Jean is given the task of investigating the claims of a married woman, Mrs Gretchen Tilbury, that her daughter, Margaret is the result of a virgin birth. During the lengthy investigations, answers to which are not entirely satisfactory. Jean becomes deeply involved with the family, especially with Harold, the husband. The story ends as it began with the notice of the 10 crash. The ending may be tragic, but it avoids a betrayal & deceit. Very good book.
Conclave, Robert Harris, 2016. This book has been highly acclaimed and has won many awards. Beautifully written and is full of agonising suspense with a final twist in the tail. It is about the election of a pope with acute observations of the lives and personalities of the cardinal candidates, all men, drawn to the Vatican from all parts of the world-wide RC church. Cardinal Lomeli is the main character. He is not a candidate but the lynchpin who is in charge of the organisation. We see characters & the activity through his eyes. He is responsible for seeing to the needs of the cardinals in their separate rooms. On one visit, he notices that one candidate does not use a razor. There are several ballots in the process of elimination before the final one. The suspense is unbearable Then the white smoke goes up from the Vatican chimney. A new pope has been elected. Who is it?
Feel Good Factor Books- romance , people, environment, natural world The Switch, Beth O’Leary, 2021 , S.T. Best seller, Rom Com, from RNA website. Eileen, the 79 year old grandmother who lives on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales and Leena her grand daughter in London, take it in turns to tell the story. Leena has been given 2 months paid leave from her firm, as she is suffering from stress from mourning the loss of her sister. Eileen whose husband has left her for the dancing instructress, and Leena, agree to switch homes for the two months. Eileen promptly forms a relationship with an old guy, while Leena takes on her grandmother’s various roles in the village, during which she is attracted to Jackson, a primary school teacher, while trying to be faithful to Ethan, her boy friend at home. Once Ethan is proved unfaithful to her the way is clear for a relationship with Jackson. The story is well-told and it rips along at quite a pace. It is a bit of a romp, but fun to read. Escapist? Yes. Don’t despise that. We all are!
Woodston, John Lewis Stempel, 2021. Sunday T. Best Seller. The author has a reputation of being England’s finest writer on the natural world. In 2017, his work won the Wainwright Prize, and other awards as well. He is also a farmer. Woodston is the name of his family farm, situated on the Herefordshire-Gloucestershire- Worcestershire border. He can trace his Herefordshire family roots back 700 years and his farming connections to the area, several generations. He is no mere observer of natural features, a recorder of seasonal changes and the events of the farming year. He is a historian whose profound and extensive knowledge of the land, its wildlife and people, their land usage and animal husbandry goes back to prehistoric times and that is where he begins. The organisation of material follows a clear and distinct pattern. There is nothing boring about this book. The 11 writes beautiful, lyrical prose from a rich and impressive background, and grabs the reader’s attention. I really enjoyed this book.
The Midnight Library, Matthew Haig, 2020, Waterstone’s list. Norah Seed, at 36, feels that she has made a mess of her life. The story in her dream begins in the library of her old school where she is telling Mrs Elm, the librarian that she Nora has only 19 more years to live. In her dream, she is in the Midnight library with Mrs Elm who is advising Nora to choose books appropriate for different phases of Nora’s life. She has to make right choices and live the rest of her life more positively to avoid the prophesy of her early death . The book reminded me of Dickens’ Christmas Carol where Scrooge learns from the 3 ghostly visitors that he has to change the direction of his life & move towards caring for others. The book is well-written but I felt it did not quite fit my situation. It is is amazingly popular.
The Comfort Book, Matt Haig, 2021, “instant S.T. best seller”, a collection of MH’s “Life Rafts”, a book to browse through, It reads like a secular Bk of Proverbs. Some sayings are trivial, some quite profound. I found myself mulling over quite a few. Here are a couple, “Continually looking for the meaning of life is like looking for the meaning of a piece of toast. It is sometimes better just to eat the toast.” and “Life is short. Be kind”. And finally, …..
The Wild Silence, Raynor Winn, 2020. Sunday Times Best Seller. Many accolades This book is proving to be as popular as its predecessor, The Salt Path, mentioned in a previous Talk. Popular in Book Groups, huge international sales. The first part of The Wild Silence recalls how Moth, Raynor’s husband was diagnosed with a terminal, degenerative disease. After they lost their home in a disastrous sales deal and were nearly penniless, they decided to walk the South Coast Path. Both of them loved the outdoors and if anything could keep Moth going, it would be this venture. By the time Ray starts her second book, Moth seems to be still in a period of remission, which puzzles his doctors. In hope and with great courage, Moth enrols for a university course. Amazingly he does well and is offered work as a result. Just when they are wondering how to cope with the next stage of life , they are offered a farm to re-wild. The owner does not want to take up residence in the immediate future. They enter into it with great gusto. Towards the end of the book, it dawns on them that living in the outdoors has been the means of Moth’s remission .and decide to go on a walking trip to Iceland. This is a wonderful, inspirational book, and Ray is truly a very gifted and passionate writer, both of the natural world and of her deep, personal relationship with Moth. Their story is one of hope over despair. Thank you for listening and watching. 12
Modern Book Scene, Talk 4, Book List Kathleen Kinder 9/9/21
Murder, mysteries and Thrillers, – Global Outreach
Outbreak, Frank Gardner, 2021 – featuring Luke Charlton, SIS operator
(Crisis, Frank Gardner, 2016). – featuring Luke Charlton, SIS operator
(Ultimatum, Frank Gardner, 2019). – featuring Luke Charlton, SIS operator
The Whole Truth, David Baldacci, 2008
Murder, mysteries and Thrillers – End of Career Investigators
A Song for Dark Times, Ian Rankin, 2021
Trust Me, T.M. Logan, 2021
The Darkness, Ragnar Jonasson, 2018 -3 in trilogy, featuring D.I. Hulda Hermannsdottir.
(The Island, Ragnar Jonasson , 2020 -1)
(The Mist , Ragnar Jonasson, 2019 -2)
The Lantern Men, Ellie Griffiths, 2020
The Sea as Environment
The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex, 2021
The Mercies, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, 2020
On Wilder Seas, Nikki Marmery, 2020
Escape from slavery, death, a natural disaster, a brothel
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitbread, 2017
American Dirt, Jeanine Cummings, 2020
Pompeii, Robert Harris, 2010
(The Last Days of Pompeii, Edward Bulwer Lytton, 1834, www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1565)
The Wolf Den, Elodie Harper, 2021
Two Opposing Views of the Ending of the Trojan War Troy
Stephen Fry,2020 -3 in Greek Myths trilogy
(Mythos, Stephen Fry, 2017 -1)
(Heroes, Stephen Fry, 2019 -2)
A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes, 2021
Historical Characters in Fiction – 4 painters, I writer
The Moon and Sixpence, Somerset Maugham, 1919. www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/222
The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier, 1999, 2009
The Words in my Hands, Guinevere Glasfurd, 2015
The Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hoffman, 2015
Mr Mac and Me, Esther Freud, 2015
People without Partners – through old age, war, accident or by choice
Olive Again, Elizabeth Strout. 2019, (Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout, 2013)
Akin, Emma Donaghue, 2019
A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier, 2019
Small Pleasures, Clare Chambers, 2021
Conclave, Robert Harris, 2016
Feel Good Factor Books- romance , people, environment, natural world
The Switch, Beth O’Leary, 2021
Woodston, John Lewis Stempel, 2021
The Midnight Library, Matt Haig, 2020
The Comfort Book, Matt Haig, 2021
The Wild Silence, Raynor Winn, 2020
(30 reviews, 38 books total)
Murder, Mysteries and Thrillers
The Postscript Murders, Ellie Griffiths, 2021.
The Killings at Kingfisher Hall, Sophie Hannah, 2020.
Moonflower Murders, Anthony Horowitz 2020.
I See You, Clare Mackintosh, 2016
The Silent Patient, Alex Michaelides , 2019. (5)
Mixed Genre: Mystery, Suspense, Murder, Historical, Romance, Paranormal
Women of the Dunes, Sarah Maine,2019. Waterstones Scottish Book of the Month
Beyond the Wild River, Sarah Maine, 2018.
The House Between, Sarah Maine, 2018. Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year,
Alchemy and Rose, Sarah Maine, 2021, recently published, good reviews,
The Silk House, Kayte Nunn, 2021. (5)
Novels based on the Greek Myths and Legends (feminist issues),
The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker, short-listed for the 2019 Women’s Prize for fiction, Costa…
The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood, 2006, re-issued 2013 [about Penelope, Odysseus’ wife].
The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller, Orange Women’s prize for fiction, 2012, etc, etc.
Circe, Madeline Miller, short-listed for The Women’s Prize for fiction, 2019.
Galatea, 2020, Madeline Miller, [re-told from Greek to Latin, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses X. 7]
Ariadne, Jennifer Saint, 2021, [good reviews, re-told to Latin, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses VIII. 2]
The Wooden Horse, Eric Williams, 2013, re-issued, WWII escape from Nazi prison. (7)
17th century Witchcraft in England , Lancashire 1612-18, Essex 1644-7 (feminism)
The Familiars, Stacey Halls, 2019, Sunday Times Best Seller.
The Manningtree Witches, A. K. Blakemore, 2021.
Mist over Pendle, Robert Neill, 1953, 1 library copy, recent editions can be bought elsewhere.
The Witch-Finder’s Sister, Beth Underdown, 2017, good account, not in the library, (4)
Myths from the Sea- Caribbean, Icelandic,
The Mermaid of Black Conch, Monique Roffe, Costa Book Prize, 2020
The Seal Woman’s Gift, Sally Magnusson, 2018, Zoe Ball Book Club choice. (2)
Jewish Diaspora [Dispersion], 20th and 21st centuries,
The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal, 2010.
Letters to Comondo, Edmund de Waal, 2021.
House of Glass, Hadley Freeman, 2020. (3)
2 Remarkable Novels
The Shadow King, Maasa Mengiste, 2020, short-listed Booker Prize, N.Y.Times etc etc
Apeirogon, Colum McCann, 2020, Waterstones Best Seller. (2)
“Feel good Factor” Books – romance, relationships and the natural world
I belong here, Anita Sethi, 2021, a journey along the Pennine backbone of England.
This is happiness, Niall Williams, 2019. Irish memoir.
A summer to remember, Sue Moorcroft, 2020, Goldsboro Books Romantic Novel Award.
The Authenticity Project , Clare Pooley, 2020.
A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess, Amanda Owen, 2016, Sund.Times Best seller.
Native, Patrick Laurie, 2020.
Life in the Garden, Penelope Lively, 2017,
H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald, 2014, Costa Book Award.
Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald, 2021, Guardian Book of the Year, etc., etc,. (9)
38 titles, 29 reviews
Project Gutenberg is a e-book store with free e-books to download (link also on NYCC Library web site). These were published before the American copyright start date, i.e. c.1925 www.gutenberg.org . To increase understanding & knowledge of topics/characters from ancient classical myths, legends & 17th c witchcraft, in a large number of recently published novels, many dealing with feminist issues, I offer a choice of background reading. Some myths are remembered from my own childhood and school days. It is timely that many writers are recovering and re-interpreting for a modern readership, the powerful, timeless stories from ancient classical sources, which enriched the state education of my generation.
English Translations :Odyssey, Iliad & Aeneid etc from Greek & Latin, –
Aeneid – Virgil, www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1885
Stories from the Iliad – Homer? www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/43993 * useful info. on Achilles
Tales from Troy and Greece, Andrew Lang www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/32326 * [easy read]
Tanglewood Tales, Nathaniel Hawthorn, www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/976 * [I read as a child]
Note: Odysseus is known as Ulysses [Latin name] in some translations. The Iliad deals with the last years of the 10 year old siege of Troy by the Greeks, The Odyssey, the adventures of Odysseus [Ulysses] & his mariners en route for home [Ithaca, Greece], The Aeneid, with the adventures of Aeneas en route for Italy. The final Greek destruction of Troy [the wooden horse etc] is described in The Aeneid, ch. 2. * = favourites. Andrew Lang – recommended.
How to download, read and save – Example: Stories from the Iliad – Homer
Click on/finger touch www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/43993 ** The cover of the book will appear. Choose the format, epub, if you have already down-loaded the Overdrive-Libby App. from the App. Store, to read library e-books. Alternatively, choose html, to read in your browser, which everyone can choose. If the latter, the book will appear as a book mark. SAVE immediately by clicking the tab to change to black on the top line. If epub, the book should appear in the Overdrive folder from Downloads. Overdrive allows you to move between chapters. If you want to remove the book, click on the 3 faint dots at right of title and choose Delete. Inside the book, tap on the page to bring up a top menu. Click on the 3 tiny lollipop symbols at the top right for the chapters. If using html, read to the end of the book chapter and make a note of it. You can return to it, by clicking on the number in the contents list.
Natalie Haynes, Greek Classics – https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/brand/b077x8pc Half an hour Talks from BBC Sounds, [very interesting and amusing – one on Iliad]
To download a book of your choice in Gutenberg:
As an example, I use Ovid’s Metamorphoses VIII-XV Go to www.gutenberg.org On the Home page, Choose Find Free Ebooks/ Search and Browse/Quick Search. On line, type Ovid. Choose from the selection Metamorphoses VIII-XV . Proceed from ** above. It is useful to make a note of the catalogue number for easy access: www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/26073 = The Metamorphoses of Ovid VIII-XV. See p1 of Book list to locate the Ariadne and Pygmalion-Galatea myths from that link.
Documents relating to 17th c. Witchcraft [feminist issues in Talk 3]
Daemonologie, King James I, 1597, www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/25929. Book II, Ch.5, 40%
Discoverie of Witches, 1612-18, Thomas Potts’ www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/18253 [Lancs.]
.. .. .. , 1647, Matthew Hopkins, www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14015 [Essex]
Victorian Novel [Talk 3]
The Lancashire Witches, 1849, Harrison Ainsworth www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15493 Gothic-type novel.
For over three hundred years English literature has been enriched by a long line of Anglo-Irish writers, starting with Jonathan Swift, running through Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and W. B. Yeats and continuing down to our times with the writer I want to discuss here – John Banville.
William John Banville was born in Wexford in 1945. He is approaching 76 and still writing. Part of his education was with the fearsome Christian Brothers, a Catholic institution later rendered infamous for its abuse of children and its capacity for cover-up. After leaving school, Banville decided not to go to university. “A great mistake. I should have gone…but I wanted to get away from my family.” On the other hand, he said, “I don’t think I would have had the nerve to tackle some of the things I tackled as a young writer if I had been to university – I would have been beaten into submission…” So, eschewing university, he joined Aer Lingus as a clerk (the employee cheap tickets enabling him to travel extensively) then worked as a sub-editor with the Irish Press, and later with the Irish Times.
Banville’s first novel, Nightspawn, was published in 1971, when he was 26. His seventh novel, The Book of Evidence, was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize but lost that year to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. In 2005, Banville’s thirteenth novel, The Sea, did win the Booker, defeating, in neat symmetry, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Some of the Booker committee members disputed the choice of The Sea, and did so publicly. One described Banville’s win as “possibly the most perverse decision in the history of the award”. Banville felt hurt, saying, “If they give me the bloody prize, why can’t they say nice things about me?” In 2019 more hurt came when Banville received a phone call advising that he was to be put forward as that year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The call turned out to be a hoax, which Banville took generously. He told The Irish Times, “I have the distinct impression that I wasn’t the target…I think [the hoaxer] assumed that I would make a big fuss in the newspapers and embarrass the Academy…It has the hallmarks of a man with a grudge, but not a grudge against me.”
In 2005, the year of his Booker triumph, Banville sat down to write a novel in what was then for him a new genre – a mystery/crime novel set in 1950s Dublin. It was entitled Christine Falls, and its chief character was Quirke (no first name given, then or later), a heavy-drinking forensic pathologist attached to the Dublin coroner’s office. Banville chose to publish Christine Falls under the pen name Benjamin Black and under that pseudonym went on to complete six more Quirke novels.
Banville (writing as Banville) is renowned, indeed revered, for his flawless prose, which he is known to write at a painstakingly slow pace. Here are some of the descriptions that critics have applied to it:
“perfectly crafted, beautiful, dazzling…
“dangerous and clear-running prose…
“lyrical, fastidious, and occasionally hilarious…
“flowing prose [with] lyricism, patrician irony and aching sense of loss…”
In interviews and articles Banville contrives to portray Benjamin Black as a distinct person, with a life and faculties of his own. Black, he says, works more quickly than John Banville. Banville has described to the New York Times the start Black made on Christine Falls. “By lunchtime he had 1,500 words — or a week’s worth at [Banville’s] usual pace. He thought to himself, ‘John Banville, you slut,’ but kept going and finished in five or six months. ‘I was a little appalled at the speed with which I got the thing done.’ Perhaps we should not be surprised that, while Banville writes out his novels longhand in bound notebooks, Black uses a computer.
Banville is a startlingly harsh critic of the books published under his own name. In 2009 he told the Irish Examiner, “I hate them all … I loathe them. They’re all a standing embarrassment…you have to crank yourself up every morning and think about all the awful stuff you did yesterday, and how you can compensate for that by doing better today.” Yet, says Banville, the Benjamin Black books aren’t too bad. In interview he admitted, “I was surprised and highly gratified to discover that they weren’t bad at all…”.
For all Black’s success, Banville has now decided to kill him off. “When I found that I liked the Blacks, I said to myself, ‘Why do I need this rascal anyway?’ So I shut him in a room with a pistol, a phial of sleeping pills and a bottle of Scotch, and that was the end of him.” Therein may lie a problem, though. Benjamin Black has a huge following in Spain, so he may have to live on there. On the Costa del Crime, perhaps?
Banville and Black are together prolific, having completed over thirty novels. I turn now to three of them – The Sea (2005), The Infinities (2009), and Snow (2019). All are set in Ireland and all involve dysfunctional Irish families and their interactions with others. Class awareness is a recurring feature, as is Banville’s treatment of Catholic and Protestant lives.
Of the three books, The Sea is arguably the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. Its narrator, Max Morden, is a retired art historian attempting to come to terms with the deaths of people he loved, from childhood through to adulthood. The Sea is set in a well-to-do Irish family home which Max visited as a child and now revisits in his mature years. As he recalls the events of his life, the chronology is comprehensively jumbled up; his memories are repeatedly shot through with grief and innocence. Banville couches Max’s careful ruminations in that delicate, sensitive prose that attracted the majority of the Booker judges. And while commentary weighs more heavily than action in The Sea, the novel’s dénouement – in the literal sense of the word, i.e. un-knotting, in this case of a hidden identity – is eye-opening.
The Infinities deals with the Godley family (Godley and godly having a connection that you soon realise). Again, we are peering into a dysfunctional Irish family. Old Adam, a retired academic mathematician, lies on his deathbed in a coma, while his son, his wife, his daughter and daughter-in-law try, not always successfully, to make sense of old Adam’s life. What sets The Infinities apart is that the narrator is the Greek god Hermes, who, with his father Zeus, manipulates the mortals below. Zeus is an unreconstructed mischief-maker: as young Adam fails to satisfy his wife sexually, Zeus one morning inserts himself – literally – to give her some wholly unaccustomed ecstasy. He does so in the guise of her husband, leaving Helen to hasten to the bathroom, telling the uncomprehending Adam, “I’m sopping”. So we learn that, for all his genteel characters and refined prose, Banville can shock. The Infinities is peppered with comic and erotic moments that require the reader to have a smattering of Greek mythology; a smattering is all that I have, but I coped. In imaginative and technical skill The Infinities is easily the equal of The Sea, but much more light-hearted.
Finally, The Snow, Banville’s latest published novel, which appeared in 2019. In effect, this is Benjamin Black writing as John Banville, and confirms that Banville has (probably) killed Black off. Snow is a murder mystery – and a top class one too. It begins in the Wexford countryside, not too far from Dublin, in the winter of 1957, when snow not only mantles the landscape but cloaks the actions of the main characters. A Catholic priest is found murdered – stabbed in the neck and castrated while still alive – in the house of the upper-class Protestant Osborne family. The senior investigating policeman is St John Strafford, also a comfortably-off Protestant. The Osborne family and the local Catholic working class close ranks against Strafford; and Strafford gets no support from his superior in Dublin, Hackett, a character who also appears in the Quirke novels. Both Hackett and the archbishop of Dublin attempt to persuade Strafford to constrain his search for the killer in order not to embarrass the Catholic church – even though Strafford’s colleague is killed in the search. The Banville-Black hallmarks are all there: nutty family, self-questioning lead character, class awareness, and deception. I won’t say more than that, but it’s a treat. Snow lacks fast action and shoot-outs, and the cars are slow and unreliable, but, my goodness, how it grips you!
If you want an easy entry into Banville’s writing, then Snow is your way in. After that, I suggest, The Sea and then The Infinities. As regards the Benjamin Black novels, start with the first, Christine Falls, and work your way through the rest in any order you like. There are vestigial connections (of character rather than plot) between the Quirke books, but they don’t determine a reading sequence.
Even if you get no further than Snow, you will be well rewarded. Better still if, like me, you deplore the seemingly remorseless decline in the quality of so much written and spoken English in our time, Banville’s work is a restorative like no other.
A postscript which I hope may be helpful: if you like to hear the voice of a living writer, Banville may be heard in quite a large number of recorded interviews. The most recent I have found, and the lengthiest (at 55 minutes), is an interview he gave at the Irish Cultural Centre in London, 2020. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40v0FQySk_w.
Murder, mysteries and Thrillers, 6
The Dry, Jane Harper, 2016 (Australian);
Firewall, Henning Mankell, 2008 (Swedish);
Reykjavik Nights , Arnaldur Indridason 2014 (Icelandic) ;
The Second Deadly Sin, Asa Larsson 2014 (Swedish);
Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz,2017;
The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman, 2020;
Does the punishment fit the Crime? 2
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent, 2013.
Apple Tree Yard, Louise Doughty, 2014.
Mystery, no murder (a “feel good factor” novel) 1
The Cleaner of Chartres , Sally Vickers, 2007;
A Spy Novel & the biography of a Spy, 2
Restless, William Boyd , 2006;
A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell, 2019;
Classic Novels featuring Masters of Disguise, 2
The Four Feathers A.E. W. Mason, 1901, downloaded free from Gutenberg.org
The Scarlett Pimpernel. 1905, Baroness Orczy, downloaded free from Gutenberg.org
One Novel & the Effects of Social Deprivation & Alcoholism. (Booker Prize 2020); 1
Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart, 2020;
3 Novels, A True account of the Effects of War and Conflict + an essay ; 5
A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende, 2020, (Spanish);
Guernica- Dave Boling, 2009;
The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan En, 2012, (Malay);
Endell Street Wendy Moore, 2020;
The Subjection of Women, essay-John Stuart Mill,1869, downloaded free from Gutenberg.org;
3 fiction & 3 non fiction books featuring aspects of the Subjection of Women, 6
Man of Property, John Galsworthy, 1906, download free from Gutenberg.org;
Stay with me, Ayobami Adebayo, 2017,(polygamy in modern Nigeria, Yoruba) ;
Riders of the Purple Sage, Zane Grey, 1904 downloaded free from Gutenberg.org;
Educated, Tara Westover, 2018, (Mormon);
Unorthodox, Deborah Feldman, 2012, (Jewish);
Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2006, (Somali Muslim- author was placed under a fatwa);
It could have been different, 1
Katarina Luther, Anne Boileau, 2016;
Romance, Family and the Natural world 4+1+ 5 The Girl from the Tanner’s Yard, Diane Allen, 2020.
This Love, Dani Atkins, 2018;
All the Lonely People, Mike Gayle 2021;
The Other Bennet Sister, Jane Hadlow, 2020;
Miss Austen, Gill Hornsby 2020;
Wildwood – a Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin 2008;
Rootbound – Rewilding a Life. Alice Vincent, 2020;
Sightlines Kathleen Jamie, 2012;
The Stubborn Light of Things- a Nature diary – Melissa Harrison, 2020,
The Summer Isles – a sea voyage, Philip Marsden, 2019. (TOTAL = 36 publications)
The Script from Kathleen Kinder’s talk
I extend a warm welcome to everyone watching and listening, wherever you are. I’ll speak around 60 minutes with time for questions afterwards. This is the second Zoom talk on the Modern Book Scene. I thank the Settle library management committee for their continued support, particularly, Hazel Allen, for organising the event and agreeing to put the Talk notes online as last time, settlelibrary.org.uk and this time recording it online as well.
Thank you also to friends who have helped with the publicity. During the lock-down I’ve been able to borrow from the NY library service the e-books I needed. There are library copies of all of the modern books discussed (except for one – I’ll explain later). Libraries are now open nationally & printed books can be borrowed again.
Project Gutenberg. I am also recommending a few free books you can download. Go to the web-site gutenberg.org. On the Home page select Find Free Books/Search & Browse/Quick Search. Write the title. Select the book from the list and the format, epub if you have the app. or html. I have chosen those pre 1925 © books to enrich our appreciation of modern book origins. It is one way we study and enjoy our literary heritage, to show how techniques, topics, attitudes etc develop over the centuries. We are enriched by our past. Try to silence it, as sometimes happens in a secular environment (my experience), then cultural impoverishment is a real possibility.
I interpret “The Modern Book Scene” as books published in the last 10-20 years, a few as recently as a few weeks ago. The emphasis is on books that have been in a prize list, have stirred up discussion and controversy, and which reflect current interests amongst the general public. I hope also to provide for local library interests, having worked as a volunteer in the Settle library for 3 years, and having oversight of our 14 Book Groups, as they were before lock down.
I have more to say on some books than on others. Most are fiction, a few non fiction. Mixed genre books feature several themes in one volume, For example, historical fiction can be the backdrop to feminist issues, slavery, romance and murder. I end with books that encourage “ a feel good factor”, fiction and non fiction.
Murder, Mystery and Thrillers – the largest fiction group
I include in this Group, one book that features mystery, intrigue but no murder. There is great variety here. I begin with a book which I consider a classic murder mystery. The Dry by Jane Harper, an Australian author. Published in 2016, this book has won many international awards,(New York & Sunday Times) and sold over a million copies worldwide. The main character Aaron Falk, a federal police investigator, has returned to his Australian outback home town of Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his best friend, Luke, who is thought to have committed suicide after murdering his wife and child. Falk returns to the town during the worst period of drought the area has suffered for years. He soon finds himself drawn into a claustrophobic web of hatred and lies. The plot is cleverly managed. After overcoming the suspicion which surrounds him, Falk proves to be a skilful investigator. The reader’s attention is held to the very end & this is one of the best murder mysteries I have ever read.
Nordic Noir Murder Mysteries. These are good translations into English, very popular throughout Europe. Before Icelandic thriller writers joined with those from Norway, Finland and Sweden, these murder mysteries were called Scandi Noir and they certainly are dark. Considering how the terrible heat and drought intensify the atmosphere in the Jane Harper novel, I then thought of the 3 Nordic Noir novels I’ve read where near Arctic conditions of intense winter cold and lack of sunlight add to the horror and suspense, while the perpetual daylight during the summer months does not help either.
1.Firewall: Henning Mankell 2008 (Swedish). This is the first of the Inspector Kurt Wallander books, (recent series on TV ). It begins dramatically. A man about to use a town cash machine, falls down dead. Two teenage girls murder a taxi driver; one girl disappears. The horror intensifies when there is a complete blackout throughout the area. This was my first encounter with the use of cyber crime in a murder mystery. That hyped up the atmosphere even more. Inspector Wallander has a lot on his hands and of course, he sorts it all out brilliantly. “A very good novel”. That’s the note in my little Red Book.
2.Reykjavik Nights Arnaldur Indridason 2014,who is called “ King of Icelandic crime”. This is the prequel, or first in a series of crime novels, now world famous, featuring Inspector Erlandur, although in this prequel he has just joined the police force as a night traffic officer. He has a particular concern for missing persons and it is that which leads him to the trail of murderers lurking in the city’s dark underworld. The author paints a vivid, warm picture of the Icelanders , their culture and extraordinary environment – volcanoes & glaciers. The atmosphere is unique. I hope to read more, eventually.
3.The Second Deadly Sin, 2014, woman novelist, Asa Larsson,(Swedish). The Arctic location is the north of Sweden. This is the 5th novel to feature female investigator Rebecka Martinsson. It has all the ingredients of an accomplished Scandi noir novel with a well-paced plot, good characterisation, a budding love relationship and a terrifying episode with a bear. It begins with the murder of a woman in her home. Note on the novel in my little Red Book -“good but grim”.
Sunday Times Best Seller – Magpie Murders – Anthony Horowitz 2017. This is the first of two books to feature character, Susan Ryeland, crime editor of Clover Leaf Books, investigator of murder mysteries. It has a double story interest. The first novel” within a novel is reminiscent of Agatha Christie and is an Atticus Pund murder mystery by the fictional author, Alan Conway. The murder of the housekeeper is supposedly solved by the end, but who killed Sir Marcus Pye? The final chapter is missing. Susan Ryeland begins the second novel by considering the suspects in the first, but then Alan Conway is mysteriously killed. Who is his murderer? The book is over twice the normal size simply because there are 2 in 1. The two novels are given different typesets in the printed edition. The double novel is cleverly written and is one for the specialist lover of crime fiction to enjoy. (U3A Crime Novel Book Group) Moonflower Murders , its sequel, was published late 2020. I have just begun to read it!
Novel by a popular TV Presenter. The Thursday Murder Club , Richard Osman, 2020, appears to be one of the most sought after murder mystery novels. A friend kindly offered me her printed copy to read, as I was 95th in the queue for 34 e-books! The sentences and chapters are short, giving the writing style a jerky, staccato effect. It was a good idea to have in a retirement village, an informal club whose 4 members have qualifications, suited to the task of murder investigation, although their relationship with the police when a murder has been committed, is rather odd The book is funny in places and I enjoyed about 2/3rds of it. Then the author lost the plot, too many red herrings and a sub plot to add to the mix. However…..
“Does the punishment fit the crime?” was a question I asked the next 2 novels, which initially were choices of 2 members of my Book Group. One of the values of a Book Group is you often appreciate choices that are not yours, and it was so in both these cases.
- Burial Rites, Hannah Kent, 2013. This novel is based on a true account from Icelandic records of a young woman, Agnes Magnusdottir, who, in 1828 it was “believed” by the district supervisor to be complicit with 2 others, in the murder of her employer ,Natan Ketilson. Agnes was sentenced to death by beheading. She was sent to live with a family, a husband, wife and 2 daughters. until her sentence could be carried out. At first, the family were terrified of her, but as the weeks went by, she proved to be utterly docile. She was intelligent, caring, gifted and a hard worker . Before she had to face death, Agnes told Margret, the mother, what really happened to the murdered man, who in life, was a cruel, vindictive character who raped the girls who worked for him, and who were referred to as “whores” in the trial. The family are torn with grief as Agnes is taken away. This is a gripping story, beautifully told against the poverty of the people, the background of a stern Protestantism and the unforgiving Icelandic climate. You will not put the book down until you have read it. Was Justice done?
- Apple Tree Yard- Louise Doughty, 2014. Written in the first person by Yvonne Carmichael and addressed to “X”, her partner in crime. She recalls the series of events which put them both in the dock accused of murder. The modern location is central London. Yvonne, a highly qualified scientist is “happily married”, so she says, with 2 teenage children. One day, as she leaves her office, she is drawn into conversation with a man who is watching her in the street. She accepts his invitation to look at the chapel underneath the Palace of Westminster where the first act of consensual sex takes place, something that had been missing from her own marriage for 2 years.
Over the next few weeks, this act is repeated in various locations of which Apple Tree Yard is one. Matters come to a head when after a party, she is raped by a colleague, George Craddock, who calls her a whore and reveals he knows of her liaison with X. Later she tells X, “Something will have to be done about GC”, and X, alias Mark Costley, who turns out to be a serial sexual predator, kills GC. The court’s verdict is that X is given a number of years in prison, while Yvonne has just 6 months, after which Guy, her husband, who also had had an affair, and her children, welcome her home . Nearly at the end of the book, Yvonne recalls a remark made to X, which if it had been revealed in the trial would have given her many more years in gaol, and reduced Mark’s sentence considerably. Was justice done? A squalid tale? No, a brilliantly written moral tale, worthy of a Shakespeare tragedy, and Yvonne, a Lady Macbeth.
Mystery – no murder It is time, after all that gloom, for a novel with a “feel good factor”, that ends with a love relationship and one that has all the mystery solved. Well, not quite!
The Cleaner of Chartres , Sally Vickers, 2007 (some may know it). On St Agnes Day, in modern times, in the French cathedral city of Chartres, a baby girl is found abandoned in a basket with an earring beside her. Her origins are a mystery. She is given the name Agnes and is brought up by nuns. Later, as she works in an orchard, she is raped and gives birth to a baby boy she calls Gabriel. The baby is removed for adoption. The loss affects Agnes deeply and disturbs her mental and emotional equilibrium. She then works as a cleaner for Mme Bec, one of 2 friends, who are gossipy, nasty old ladies, but the real joy of Agnes’ life is being able to work as a cleaner in the magnificent, ancient cathedral where she meets and falls in love with Alain, who is a craftsman restoring the cathedral’s medieval stonework. It is the mellow, peaceful presence of the great cathedral presiding over human activity which gives hope that “all will be well” (Julian of Norwich). At the end, in a clever and amusing twist of the plot, the identity of Agnes’ mother is revealed and the second earring recovered. Alain and Agnes have their own baby son, but Agnes to her sorrow, never finds Gabriel. A delightful book, one to enjoy.
A Spy Novel (not attempted before) & the biography of a Spy.
Restless, William Boyd winner of the Costa Book prize, 2006. This is a classic spy novel , an utterly absorbing page turner. During the summer of 1976, Ruth Martin discovers that her seemingly English and reclusive mother Sally , is really a Russian emigrée, Eva Delectorskeya, who was a spy for the British during WW11. Recruited in 1939, aged 29 and a beauty, Eva is trained by the enigmatic Lucas Romer to be the perfect spy, covering up her tracks and disappearing when she suspects discovery. She has to hide her emotions and trust no one, not even Romer with whom she has an affair. It is after this that she begins to have suspicions of the presence of a double agent, a traitor in the team, who has compromised her. This time, in her late middle age, she needs her daughter’s help to give the traitor his just deserts and does she succeed? This is a powerful novel with a fast moving, evolving plot. A compelling “read”, as we say. Next, a biog.
A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell, 2019. Most people know of Odette, the woman spy ,who survived torture by the Nazis during WW11. Very few have heard of the wealthy American, Virginia Hall who also worked as a spy for the British & Americans during WW11. After the war, she received the highest awards for bravery from the British, Americans and French, but Virginia wished for anonymity. Her story remained untold until Sonia Purnell, an accomplished biographer, wrote it down. Virginia was regarded by the Germans as the most dangerous enemy spy. The Gestapo longed to get hold of her, but never did. Amazingly, Virginia was disabled. She lost a leg in a shooting accident before the war and managed very well with a prosthetic leg. She was a master of disguises, constantly outwitting the Gestapo. On her retirement in the USA, she married her lover & colleague, Paul. She had difficulty at first, in persuading the CIA to employ her because she was a woman. She died in 1982, aged 76. A thrilling book, and you will not put it down until you have read it. Master of disguises led me to think of 2 books which I first read in my teenage years and which I downloaded from gutenberg.org by entering each title on the Quick Search line. (new discovery)
The Four Feathers A.E. W. Mason, 1901, (Harry Feversham) and The Scarlett Pimpernel. 1905, Baroness Orczy (Sir Percy Blakeney).
One Novel & the Effects of Social Deprivation & Alcoholism
Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart, winner of the Booker Prize 2020. I saw a TV interview with the author, who admitted the book was partly autobiographical and it took him 10 years to write. I’m not surprised; it is a magnificent achievement. The location is the tenement slums of south Glasgow in the 1980s, during the miners’ strike, no work in the dockyards and steel industry. Shuggie (slang for Hugh)Bain lives with his alcoholic mother Agnes, older brother Leek and sister Catherine. His father is about to move out at the beginning of the book and gradually, his siblings follow suit. Only Shuggie remains to cope with his mother’s drink problems, her violence, unpredictability, mood swings and money for drink, but not food. Shuggie is not like other boys, who call him a “pouf”, but he stays with his mother, caring for her to the very end. He copes with her death with amazing resilience, leaving us with the conviction that he will survive to fashion his own life and cope well with whatever lies ahead. A deeply moving book.
3 Novels & A True account of the Effects of War and Conflict
A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende, 2020. – a highly regarded author, born in Peru, but most associated with Chile. The book is an excellent translation from the Spanish. It is about Victor Dalmain, a young Spanish doctor whose family are caught up in the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War. He, together with Rosa, his widowed sister in law whom he marries for convenience, but later grows to love, flee from Barcelona to exile in Chile. The book follows the lives of 4 generations of displaced persons forced to flee, first from repression in Spain and then in Chile, The story describes the political developments in Spain to the death of Franco, to the beginning of WW11 and in Chile, to the fall of Pinochet 1990. The book has received many international plaudits. At the end, as the characters pick up the pieces of their lives, they are determined to look forward with positive hope for the future. It is a great book; I loved it and there are plenty of library copies…
Guernica- Dave Boling, 2009, 1 library copy, The book follows the lives and experiences of 2 families who lived in this coastal town in Northern. Spain before and after the devastating 1937 bombing by the German Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civll war . The bombing which destroyed most of the town and killed thousands of people was all the more horrific because Guernica had no strategic importance. whatsoever. It was a rehearsal by the German Luftwaffe for the WW11 London blitz. Picasso, who appears briefly in the novel, painted his famous picture Guernica, which describes the horror graphically. When the picture was on display in Paris, a German officer asked Picasso if it was his work. And his reply: “No. it’s yours”.
The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng 2012. The author is a Malay who lives in Penang. He is a master of English in all its variety and I am in awe at his achievement This, his second book, has received several awards, not only in the West ,but in the Far East . As English is a lingua franca, literate people can download this book as an e-book, anywhere, because there are a million copies available. Look it up on the library web site (brown cover). NY library has “always available”. Because of the book’s importance, it is probably used as a global textbook. This surely provides a world-wide extension of English literary skills. Book groups world-wide whose members have tablets or i-pads have instant access to this reading material. It is a wonderful book to read with plenty of issues to discuss. You could, of course, discuss it on Zoom internationally. There are, I’m afraid, just 3 printed copies in the library. Why? Here is a bit about the fictional plot and its characters. Teoh Yun Ling is the main character and first person narrator. She is a law graduate, trained in Cambridge, only the second woman to be a supreme judge in Malaya. Now beginning to suffer from a degenerative disease she is about to take early retirement.
The book draws on her memories of her experiences, people, war and events. ”Memories I had locked away have begun to break free, like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf. In sleep, these broken floes drift towards the morning light of remembrance..” That is just an example of the author’s beautiful English. Teoh returns to the Cameroon Highlands to live and recalls how she first went there to become an apprentice to Arimoto, famous Japanese gardener, who had offered to teach Teoh how to create a Japanese garden in memory of her sister, who had died as a result of being in a Japanese POW camp, where Teoh too had lost some fingers. The book is packed full of remembrances, some sad, some horrific to do with the war, some joyous, some quite lovely, all vividly described and told, and making the reading experience a truly memorable one.
Endell Street Wendy Moore late 2020, causing a lot of interest.
This is the first, fully referenced account of the WW1 military hospital, staffed entirely by women, who were surgeons, anaesthetists physicians, nurses and ancillary staff,the only man, the policeman on guard at the entrance. In 1914, at the beginning of the War, the opposition in England to women doctors running a hospital for male casualties was total. Women who had been trained as doctors since the 1860s, had only ever worked with children and women.
The French, beginning to be overwhelmed by the casualties at the Front, accepted the offer of a group of women doctors and nurses led by a surgeon, Louisa Garrett Anderson, daughter of the first woman doctor, Elizabeth G.A. and her close friend and anaesthetist, Flora Murray. The women set up a hospital in Claridges Hotel in Paris. The women had never dealt with male patients before, never mind the horrific injuries sustained by many of them. Most of the women were from upper class families in Britain and had been suffragettes. The battle front moved closer to Paris, and there were more and more casualties. The women knew they had to leave. In 1915, the British authorities, impressed by the excellent reports of the women’s hospital in Paris, offered the women a disused building in Endell Street, near Covent Garden, to convert into a military hospital. This is what they did. The outstanding care the men received became legendary, and wounded men asked to go the Endell St. Hospital!
After treating over 24,000 men in 4 years, Endell Street Hospital was dismantled in 1919. Doctors, who were former soldiers and officers, took the places of the dedicated and now highly skilled women staff, who were told to go back to looking after women and children, or to their “place” in the home. I found myself sharing the anger of the author, anger which spilled off the pages as I was reading, that there was no attempt by the men to learn about the new amputation methods women surgeons had developed, nor how women anaesthetists learnt to use ether and chloroform more efficiently. Male surgeons, anaesthetists and physicians simply picked up where they had left off in 1914. Women were to understand that they had merely been stop gaps, and they were thanked. Male doctors would catch up quickly. Was it not so that men had larger brains than women, and women anyway should not be allowed to see or deal with men’s naked bodies…..? . More online, youtube, photos. This book has not been out long and in the library, there are 2 e-books, 2 large print books, 1 CD, and 1 e-Audiobook. We need to ask for some standard print hbks and pbks. I was so impressed with the book; I bought a copy. That led me to download from Gutenberg..
The Subjection of Women, essay by John Stuart Mill, 1869,
This was written when women were first trained as doctors. Florence Nightingale had been celebrated for her work in the Crimea. Victoria was on the throne. There were already outstanding women writers, but women were corseted into gigantic crinoline cages,- always fainting & were regarded as feeble. John Stuart Mill wrote of an experiment where the brain of a man and one of a woman had been weighed, and the woman’s brain was found to be larger and 8 heavier! John Stuart Mill’s view was that since women’s inferior status had never been proven, there was no case for subjection. Views on the subjection of women came from 2 sources, ancient Greece and an ancient Hebrew myth, used by the 3 Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and which persists in their conservative branches. In Gen 3,16, God says to Eve, “Your husband….shall rule over you..” Polygamy may still be practised in some parts of Africa, to uphold tribal status, and continuation of family lines. In Mormonism (sub Christian sect), monogamy has been in the main US church since 1890, but polygamy could return. Joseph Smith,- 43 wives; Brigholm Young, 53 wives & 55 children, but Solomon, 700, OT, 1K11 (wealth).
Six Books to support what I have just said – 3f+3nf
Man of Property, John Galsworthy, 1906. Gutbg. wife as property. Riders of the Purple Sage, Zane Grey,1904 Gutbg.3rd Mormon wife. Stay with me, Ayobami Adebayo, 2017, polygamy in modern Nigeria.
Educated, Tara Westover, 2018, Mormon to Cambridge University Unorthodox, Deborah Feldman, 2012, rejection of Hasidic Judaism. Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2006, from Islam to atheism. See Youtube videos
Katarina Luther, Anne Boileau, 2016 (based on fact, not in the library)
This is one of several books written about Katarina von Bora, the wife of Martin Luther, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Suddenly, after all these centuries, the importance of this lady is at last being recognised & celebrated.
Katarina, b. 1499, was put in a convent when she was 5 by her stepmother and there she stayed, taking her vows as a nun when she was 15. She was quite a scholar and assumed a teaching role in the convent. Luther’s writings were smuggled in. Katarina and some others read them avidly, especially the paper calling monks and nuns to come out of their cloisters to marry and lead a normal life. The nuns wrote to Luther who arranged for the man who brought salted herrings to the convent to hide the nuns in the empty barrels on his return to Wittenberg where Luther lived. Soon 5 dishevelled nuns smelling of old kippers arrived . One of Luther’s students wrote. “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town, all more eager for marriage than for life. God grant them husbands, lest worse befall”. Four of the five were soon settled. Only Katarina remained. She went to the household of a friend of Luther’s to teach the children, and do housework. Luther, an Augustinian monk, was worried after she had turned down 2 offers of marriage. She then told him, she would marry him. Luther wrote to a friend,”If I marry, it would please my father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh and the devils to weep.”
He accepted her proposal; he was 42, she 26,(not pretty, he, unkempt & overweight). Luther invited her to meet his students who were in a theological debate. When Katarina joined in, Luther sternly rebuked her and said a woman had no part in men’s talk. She got up and walked out, but hung around outside till he was free. She then told him in no uncertain way that if he did not treat her as an equal, she would not marry him. No Old Testament subordination for her!
Luther was intrigued by this feisty lady who knew her NT and St Paul’s greeting to women as his “partners” in Christ. Luther apologised. After marriage, they fell in love, had 6 children. She was his ”lord Katy”. Each morning, he liked to see her “pigtails on the pillow”. Katarina was known as “the female doctor”, or “the Lutheress”. She was a tireless worker, created a student hostel, brewed beer, grew vegetables, ran the farm business and opened a hospital for plague victims. Luther admitted she “sometimes” advised him on church matters. We must ask for library books about her if only to show that the OT subjection of women, no longer applies, and should never have done so in the first place. (Kindle £3.99)
“Feel good Factor” books.- romance, family and natural world
The Girl from the Tanner’s Yard, Diane Allen, 2020. This book was in the shortlist for the RNA’s award for the prize for the best Romance Saga Novel, 2021. Diane Allen is a local author from LP, and we congratulate her on her achievement. The story, based in the 1850s, is located in the bleak moorland near Haworth. I was impressed by the vivid description of the poverty of the people trying to scrape a subsistence living in this beautiful, but unforgiving landscape. We also read of the enormous problems encountered by parents trying to bring up increasingly large families. As you would expect, there is considerable Bronte influence. The heroine, Lucy, like Jane Eyre, is quite a bit younger than the hero, Adam, but unlike Rochester and Jane, Adam is handsome and Lucy pretty. As in the novel, Jane Eyre, this has a happy ending, not only for Lucy and Adam but for other struggling family members. A very pleasant “read”. Thank you, Diane.
This Love Dani Atkins, This novel won the RNA Award for the best Romance novel of 2018. The story begins dramatically when a fire destroys the flat where the heroine Sophie lives. She is rescued by a stranger, Ben, who offers the homeless Sophie the basement flat in his house. The love relationship develops slowly. There is a “high incidence of coincidence”, to move on the story. We become aware that there is a mystery surrounding Ben, which slowly comes to light . If sadness is there, then we are reminded that true love lasts till death do us part and that comes for some, earlier than for others. A well-written, thought-provoking novel.
All the Lonely People, Mike Gayle 2021, who has won the RNA’s 2021 Outstanding Achievement Award. Of W. Indian heritage, Mike is an established author of light romance fiction (ladlit) The novel tackles the prejudice a mixed race marriage encounters, family tragedies, & loneliness. A young, single mum Ashleigh befriends an 84 year old widower Hubert. There are time switches into Hubert’s past, his family life, and his present lonely situation. The sadness is matched by the warmth and joy of new multi-racial friendships. There is much to commend in this book which breaks into an area where the light romance fiction genre has not ventured before,- very apt for now.
The Other Bennet Sister Jane Hadlow 2020 This is one of several modern re-takes or extensions of a Jane Austen novel, and is a very good one. The novelist aims by a series of makeovers and relationships to transform Mary, the plain, intellectual, boring, left on the shelf Bennet sister, into an acceptable, romantic heroine attracting at least one or maybe two, suitors. The novelist succeeds very well,- ugly duckling into a presentable swan. I was impressed by the style, modelled convincingly on that of P&P, but yet quite modern.
I did have one concern; the makeover of Mr Collins’ character into a studious, caring scholar who was a great help to Mary, is not entirely convincing. However, the dialogue between Mary and the hero Tom Hayward is every bit as accomplished as that between Darcy, Elizabeth and other characters in P&P. There is of course, a happy ending to a very enjoyable novel, a really good one.
Miss Austen, Gill Hornsby 2020, a good, well-written, semi-novel re. Cassandra Austen, d.1845, Jane’s older sister who was her life-long companion and who out-lived Jane (d.1817) by many years. I really enjoyed this book. As far as the narrative is concerned, it is a slow-burner, but is never dull, with a lot of fascinating insights into the lives of Austen family members. A good follow on from the previous book.
Books about Enjoying The Natural World- last section.
Wildwood – a Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin 2008, who died soon after this classic was written. I love trees and enjoy sitting in their presence, watching and listening to what goes on in them and around them, a very restful occupation. In the book, the author weaves together the cultural associations and the natural world which trees inhabit. The author takes us from the trees in Suffolk where he lives, to experience the trees in the New Forest, the Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean. Then we are transported overseas to the distinctive species of trees in the Pyrenees of France, Poland, Lesbos island, Kyrgyzstan and Australia. I remember listening to and watching a kookaburra in a eucalyptus in a friend’s garden on the edge of the Blue Mts, in Australia, 1992. I’m sorry the author did not get to the great redwood forests of California. I remember in 1985 being driven by friends in a motorhome, right through an archway- tunnel formed by the massive roots of a giant sequoia . A great experience.
Rootbound – Rewilding a Life. Alice Vincent, 2020 This is a first person, autobiographical account written in a beautiful lyrical style, rich in imagery as the author describes her experience with plants and flowers, first enjoyed in her grandfather’s garden. She writes of their history and of the famous gardeners who introduced and nurtured them. Interspersed with these rich passages of prose are the poignant accounts of how keenly she felt the loss of a much loved husband who suddenly announced that he did not wish to be married any more.
Eventually the darkness and loss are lessened with the therapy of gardening, and even more so when she meets Matt. The relationship develops slowly and gradually. By the end of the book, the reader feels that the author’s pain and loss are being replaced by a new-found happiness, a healing brought about not only by the new relationship, but by the flowers and plants which so enrich her life.
Brief Mention – authors recommended by friends, plenty of copies
Sightlines Kathleen Jamie, 2012 – The author a well-known Scottish poet writes beautiful prose which brings to mind vividly the remote places she visits, the wildlife and habitats she encounters, mostly northern, killer whales & seals, Greenland icebergs, St Kilda.
The Stubborn Light of Things- a Nature diary – Melissa Harrison, 2020, Times writer of the monthly nature notes. Keen observational skills ability to express what she sees makes for very interesting reading.
The Summer Isles – a sea voyage, Philip Marsden, 2019. I love the sea and I miss not being able to visit the coastline every year. This book is refreshing and delightful to read. It is an account of a sea voyage along the spectacular, Atlantic west coast of Ireland, and then across the Irish Sea, sailing through the waters between the inner Hebrides & north to the archipelago of the Summer Isles. The account is full of varied interests. The author has a dinghy on board so he can leave his boat anchored in deep waters while he goes to shore to do some sight-seeing (Aran Is), or visit a local pub, where he meets some interesting and delightful characters. On one occasion whilst sailing up the north west coast of Ireland, there is a storm. His description of his battle against the wind, the rain and the huge waves is mind-chilling, a relief when he comes safely through. Once he gets to the Summer Isles, he has reached his journey’s end and I’ve reached mine too. Thank you for watching & listening.
For many people, including me, reading usually means reading prose. We are wary of poetry, perhaps (again, in my case) because it was so clumsily dinned into us at school. A small dose of poetry in Class 2 could vaccinate you against it for the rest of your life. Nevertheless, there is one modern English poet who in my view can help us break through the barrier into an appreciation of what poetry can achieve. That is John Betjeman.
Betjeman was born in London in 1906. His family was comfortably off, with servants and a horse and brougham, and in due course John was packed off to a good public boarding school, Marlborough. After Marlborough, he made it to Oxford but, partly through having an excessively good time there, failed one essential exam and was thrown out. Betjeman’s father, Ernest, owned and ran a factory in Islington which made cabinetry, its best-known product the Tantalus, a carrying device which locked bottles of alcoholic liquor in place to prevent servants from filching their contents. As the Betjemans’ money mounted up, so the family moved up, indeed uphill, from socially less desirable Gospel Oak to better class Highgate. Ernest intended his son to succeed him in the business (he would have been the fourth generation) but young John was having none of it, and the result was near-lifelong bitterness between them.
Though determined from early years to be a poet, Betjeman found that poetry made little money, so he had to turn his talents elsewhere. After Oxford he taught, though unsuccessfully and not for long, then for five years he edited the Architectural Review. At the same time, he helped to devise the Shell Guides for motorists and wrote the Devon and Cornwall volumes. On top of that – and while writing poetry – he gave a large number of talks for the BBC Home Service (what we would now know as Radio 4) on a wide variety of topics that included the desecration of England’s architectural heritage and lesser-known writers who had taken his fancy. A collection of his radio broadcasts appears in a delightful anthology entitled Trains and Buttered Toast, edited by Stephen Games and published by John Murray, 2006.
Betjeman’s personal life was not plain sailing. In 1933, at the age of 27, he married Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of a Field Marshal. Socially, she was some way his superior, but then he always had his eye on upward mobility. They produced two children, but the relationship was not otherwise happy, and they drifted apart. Then in 1951, in a chance encounter at a dinner party, Betjeman became instantly smitten with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of the Duke of Devonshire – and she with him. They formed a lifelong living-together relationship. However, Betjeman couldn’t bring himself to divorce Penelope, and he tortured himself to the end of his days over his treatment of her.
After the war, Betjeman’s reputation steadily increased, not only on account of his poetry but also (and probably more) because of his tireless campaigning, especially on television, to preserve the best of Victorian England. In 1969 Betjeman was knighted and in 1972 was appointed Poet Laureate. Although throughout life London was Betjeman’s working centre of gravity, his great pleasure was Cornwall – and it was his solace too, both from the miseries of childhood and from the miseries of old age, which, sadly, took the form of Parkinson’s Disease. Some years before his death, in 1984, at the age of 77, Betjeman had bought a small house in Trebetherick, on the north Cornwall coast near Polzeath. He died there and is buried nearby at the church of St Enodoc.
It is Betjeman’s involvement in the real world around him that makes him so accessible. He is able to see something memorable, poetic, sad or wryly comic in the everyday. Moreover, he captures them in everyday words and phrases, far removed from the near-incomprehensible guff that characterises some other modern poetry. Betjeman’s contemporary, W. H. Auden, wrote that he is “so at home with the provincial gaslit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium“, while Philip Larkin, himself not given to warm sentiment, says, “how much more interesting & worth writing about Betjeman’s subjects are than most other modern poets…”.
I hope the following few excerpts from Betjeman’s poems will illustrate the praise heaped upon him by his peers.
One of his best-known lines, “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough”, is often mistakenly assumed to relate to the Second World War. In fact, it was written two years before, and deals with the wanton destruction of older rural England through the connivance of philistine councillors and spiv builders. Here is a little more:
Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough,
It isn’t fit for humans now.
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!
Come bombs and blow to smithereens
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath… (From Continual Dew, 1937)
Betjeman is alive not only to the built environment but also to the lives and thoughts and deeds of the people who work in it. He sees, and celebrates, their diversity, whether they are bolshy, deserving of sympathy, or somewhere in between. Here is a verse from The Lift Man, written in 1940 but not published until 1982:
For weeks I’ve worked a morning shift
On this old Waygood-Otis lift.
And goodness don’t I love
To press the knob that shuts the gate
When customers are shouting “Wait!”
And soar to floors above. (From Uncollected Poems, 1982)
Then, also from Uncollected Poems, he writes of an old man, a retired postal clerk, whose wife has recently died:
I sold the Morris out Benhilton Way
– I couldn’t keep it in this summer weather –
That empty seat beside me all the day
Along the roads we used to go together.
Out to Carshalton Beeches for a spin
And back by Chislehurst and Bromley Town,
Where Mum would have her lemon juice and gin
And I would have a half of old and brown –
And those last months when she was really bad
Those were the only pleasures that she had. (The Retired Postal Clerk, 1940)
Betjeman often includes in his poems such mundanities as brand names: not only the Morris car and the Waygood-Otis lift in the examples above, but also Ovaltine, Robertson’s marmalade and Sturmey-Archer bicycle gears. He has a schoolboy’s alertness to modes of transport: to railways – the North London, the Metropolitan (Early Electric!), the Great Western and the London and South Western – and to cars and trams as well. Here are a few of the opening lines from Betjeman’s verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells (1960):
Once a Delaunay-Belleville crawling up
West Hill in bottom gear made such a noise
As drew me from my dream-world…
Here from my eyrie, as the sun went down,
I heard the old North London puff and shunt,
Glad that I did not live in Gospel Oak
In Middlesex too the brand names come thick and fast as he writes of Elaine going off to work:
Well-cut Windsmoor flapping lightly,
Jacqmar scarf of mauve and green
Hiding hair which, Friday nightly,
Delicately drowns in Drene.
Fair Elaine, the bobby-soxer,
Fresh-complexioned with Innoxa… (From A Few Late Chrysanthemums, 1954)
And on to Kentish Town and barking dogs
And costers’ carts and crowded grocers’ shops
And Daniels’ store, the local Selfridges,
The Bon Marché, the Electric Palace…. (From Summoned by Bells)
While none of this is laugh-out-loud funny, Betjeman’s use of everyday names brings out a wry smile because of their very unexpectedness in poetry.
Social niceties come within his purview too. In How To Get On In Society he mocks lower-middle class pretentiousness over afternoon tea:
Phone for the fish-knives, Norman,
As Cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.
Milk then and just as it comes, dear?
I’m afraid the preserve’s full of stones;
Beg pardon, I’m spoiling the doileys
With afternoon teacakes and scones. (From A Few Late Chrysanthemums, 1954)
Class awareness emerges often in Betjeman’s poems, especially in those that touch upon religious faith. His own faith has been a matter of some dispute: while he loves the enfolding warmth of Christianity it is uncertain whether he actually believes it. Although he loves churches, does he prefer places of worship to worship itself? I am inclined to think he does, but you should read him and decide for yourself. On clergymen can be especially funny. His leanings mark Betjeman out as High Church, so it is generally Low Church people who walk the plank, as in the second stanza below, from Distant View of a Provincial Town.
…St. Mary’s where the Rector preached
In such a jolly, friendly way
On cricket, football, things that reached
The simple life of every day.
And that United Benefice
With entrance permanently locked,
How Gothic grey and sad it is
Since Mr Grogley was unfrocked! Continual Dew, 1937)
And how does Betjeman write about women? He deals hardly at all with romantic or sexual feelings, but he makes plain repeatedly that the women who attract him are sturdy and sporty – and dominate him. Try A Subaltern’s Love Song:
Miss J Hunter Dunn, Miss J Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament, you against me!
Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn. (New Bats in Old Belfries, 1945)
Elsewhere he writes in praise of meaty female thighs and of his tennis racquet being pressed submissively against a female breast. His apparent obsessiveness with masculine women has led some to speculate that Betjeman may have been mildly bisexual, repressing his penchant in real life but letting it off the lead in his poetry.
As to poetic technique, Betjeman is for the most part a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist. Almost all of his poems are in rhyme (Summoned by Bells is the major exception) and he uses the simplest of metre – the iambic – in lines of six, eight or ten syllables. His outward simplicity (though simplicity is often hard to achieve) makes his verse easy to comprehend and easy to memorise. When he does deviate from standard technique, he reveals arresting but always intelligible cleverness.
I find it hard to sum up my admiration for Betjeman in a snappy one-liner. I will say simply this: if, in my dying moments, I am lucky enough hear music in my head, I hope it will be Schubert, and if it is poetry, I hope it will be Betjeman.
By and large, Betjeman is not well served by local libraries (philistine councillors?). NYCC holds a small number of Betjeman selections in book form, and one copy of an audio CD containing his complete poetry except Summoned by Bells. I don’t recommend the CD because in my view the readers are not up to much. In any event, if you want poetry, I suggest you don’t borrow it but buy it, then keep returning to it. So, I have some purchases to suggest.
The three must-have volumes are Collected Poems, Summoned by Bells, and Trains and Buttered Toast. With these you have almost the entirety of Betjeman’s output. I would urge you also to buy A. N. Wilson’s excellent biography, entitled simply Betjeman. Here are details of the books, with typical retail prices:
Collected Poems, John Murray, first published 1958, most recently 2001 (£7)
Summoned by Bells, John Murray, first published 1960 (£7)
Trains and Buttered Toast, ed. Stephen Games, John Murray, 2006 (£7)
Betjeman, A. N. Wilson, Arrow Books, 2006 (£9)
To see Betjeman at work, go to https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p025jt33 for a short list of Betjeman’s TV appearances, though be warned that you may have to fiddle around with iPlayer to get them. His TV performances are easier to find on DVD from Amazon and other on-line retailers, though they are not cheap. My suggested best buy is a boxed set of four from Amazon at £22. It is hard to obtain the BBC’s sound recordings of Betjeman’s voice but, again, if you search Amazon and other on-line retailers you will find good collections on CD – and they are a lot less expensive than the DVDs, generally between £7 and £10.
Bob Young, March 2021
15/01/21 Kathleen Kinder
I extend a warm welcome to everyone watching and listening, wherever you are. I’ll speak around 50-60 minutes with time for questions afterwards. I have given Talks to the public on books available from Settle library many times, but I have never used Zoom before. I would like to thank the Settle library management committee for their support and particularly, Hazel Richardson, for organising the event and agreeing to put the Talk notes online afterwards, so there is no need to write down book titles.
Thank you to the North Yorkshire library service for providing me promptly with all the e-books and a few printed books I wanted to borrow and read during the restrictions from the end of March until now. I could not have done this Talk without all the help I’ve been given. There are copies of the books discussed in the NY library system, and I’m sure in other county library systems elsewhere.
If you want to know more about the growth of interest in e-books amongst library borrowers world-wide, please read my articles and notes on the web site: settlelibrary.org.uk (small case). You will also find notes too on Gutenberg, the free book store.
I interpret “The Modern Book Scene” as books mostly, but not entirely, published in the last 4-5 years, a few as recently as just weeks ago . The emphasis is on books that have been in a prize list, have stirred up discussion and controversy and which reflect current interests amongst the reading public and in society at large. I’m also very conscious of local library interests, having worked as a volunteer in the Settle library for 3 years, and having oversight of our 14 Book Groups. I have more material than I can possibly use in one Talk.
I have more to say on some books than on others. Most books are fiction, a few non fiction. Many books feature several themes in one volume, For example, historical fiction can be the backdrop to feminist issues, slavery, romance and murder. I end, as I should in this era of pandemic with books that encourage “ a feel good factor”.
Murder, Mystery and Thrillers – the largest fiction group
As a starter, I’d like to point to books which feature, horror, suspense and/or mystery, but no murder. For example, there is Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which was popular with our Book Groups a year or so ago. It was the 2017 British Booksellers Book of the Year. Then there is the 2019 Sunday Times Bestseller, Diane Setterfield’s Once upon a River. The book begins with a man coming into an inn carrying the body of a dead girl who comes back to life again. There is quite a mystery to solve. There is a love story and some lovely lyrical description of the river Thames and its life. It is a book to enjoy.
Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, which was long listed for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction, could have been a murder thriller, but just misses it by a whisker. The first chapter located in pre-history, is a creepy account of a ritual sacrifice of a woman in a Northumberland bog. From then, we are located to an archaeological camp in present day Northumberland which 17 year old Silvie and her parents have joined. Her father, who rules his family with a rod of iron, is obsessed with the prehistoric period, particularly with its gruesome rituals. Her mother and she are frightened of him. The professor in charge shares the father’s enthusiasm. Members of the camp have to live as prehistoric people and try to feed off herbs, plants and rabbit stew.
On a hot day, after Sylvie has been out gathering plants, she strips off and has a dip in a lonely moorland pool. Her masochistic father happens to pass by, sees his naked daughter, takes off his belt and beats her until ugly weals appear on her body. Back in the camp, she tries to hide her wounds, but when the professor and her father want to re-enact a ritual sacrifice with Sylvie as the pretend victim, friends in the camp steal away to find help. The ending is, as T.S.Eliot wrote, satisfactory. It’s a good novel.
A few months ago, when the media were reflecting on the huge rise in e-book popularity, I came across an online review from which I learnt that the most popular e-books read during the first 5 months of the lock down were murder mysteries. Lee Child’s books were mentioned, but Gillian Galbraith’s first book Blood on the Water (2007) figured prominently. There are plenty of printed copies, by the way, but I borrowed an e-book. Gillian Galbraith is an Edinburgh author, and her fictional detective, Alice Rice, is from the Edinburgh CID. Alice purports to have filled the gap left by Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, who has retired from Edinburgh to live with his daughter in a village in NE Scotland, where, believe it or not, a murder has been committed. This is the subject of Ian Rankin’s next Rebus book.
I found Gillian Galbraith’s style very good to read. She captures expertly the atmosphere of Edinburgh, a city I love, and especially of its poorest quarters. There are 4 murder victims. The author builds up each character’s lifestyle and interests so that when each is murdered, the reader has a real sense of loss. Alice Rice, works as a team member of the CID team, unlike some other fictional detectives, Agatha Christie’s Poirot, for example. But in Blood on the Water it is Alice who usually picks up a clue that takes the team in the right direction. I did not guess who the murderer was. Towards the end, I felt a little confused by too many characters making a brief appearance. On the whole, a good reading experience. This after all, was the author’s first book. There are plenty of copies in the library of this and of her more recent murder mysteries.
I then came across Ruth Ware who is dubbed “the queen of creepy crime”. Her latest book The Turn of the Key, published 2020, had just appeared in the library system. I borrowed the e-book version and was immediately interested when I read that The Turn of the Key was based on Henry James’ 1898 novella ,The Turn of the Screw, often regarded as the first psychological thriller. To revive my memory, and since there were printed, but no e-book copies in the library, I downloaded a free copy from Gutenberg.
The characters, location and setting of each novel are similar. A governess is appointed to look after children in a large, remote house reputedly haunted. There is a house-keeper, and in The Turn of the Key, a mysterious handyman who lives in a cottage down the road. The events are narrated in the first person by the governess, but in The Turn of the Key the governess is writing from gaol, there, because she is accused of the murder of a little girl, one of her 3 charges, whose death is recorded at the end of her story. In the Turn of the Screw, there is a skilful building up of the atmosphere of foreboding and impending death. The governess as well as the boy and the girl, experience the presence of 2 frightening apparitions, reputed to be the ghosts of a former governess and a male retainer. The governess gradually realises that it is the little boy who is the focus of their evil, ghostly intention. She sends the little girl away to safety with the housekeeper, but the little boy dies in her arms.
I’ve not really given a spoiler. The governess in The Turn of the Key offers a rational cause for the little girl’s death (no spoiler). What really happened to the boy at the end of The Turn of the Screw has been a matter of conjecture ever since 1898. These 2 books would be ideal for a Book Group to read/ discuss.
This category covers an enormous range of interpretation and I must be selective. Recently, I have read 3 newly published books where during the course of the story, the heroine or her friend, has been on trial for murder and was acquitted. All 3 books are well worth reading (strictly not in this category ). One is Where the Crawdads sing by Delia Owens,(Crayfish). This was a Sunday Times best seller in 2018.
The second book, located in the USA, c.1870s is A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry, sequel to Days without End, told in the words of Winona, the American Indian orphan adopted by Thomas MacNulty and John Cole, 2020 The 3rd one, located in the 1930s USA, is in Jo Jo Moyes delightful The Giver of Stars, published 2019. The cause of the charge in each of those 3 books is that of killing a man who attempted rape on the women. All 3 accused were acquitted. Was justice done in each case? I wonder. All 3 books are very good to read and 2, the Jo Jo Moyes and Delia Owens are love stories.
One book I want to comment on more fully is one of the most moving I have ever read. The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins won the 2019 Costa First Book Prize. Frannie, a mulatto slave, 1830s, like the governess in The Turn of the Key, writes her confessions in prison where she is held accused of the murder of her master and mistress, the Benhams, to whom she has been gifted by her father and owner, John Langton, on his return to England. She writes of her origins in Jamaica, her mother a black slave, her father, the white English owner of the plantation. Frannie as a mulatto, half caste is despised by the black slaves and the white masters. Her situation is similar to that of Winona in Sebastian Barry’s book. She too is despised by both black and white servants because she is a North American Indian. Frannie’s father had seen to it that she had had a good education, not for any worthy cause, but to test his theory that black blood meant inferiority of imagination, sensibility, intelligence, and intellect. To his dismay, his experiments proved the very opposite, but the belief of the inferiority of black, brown, and mixed race peoples persists in many quarters today, as we know.
To return to Frannie, she becomes very close to her neurotic mistress, Marguerite Benham, who introduces her to the habit of taking the drug laudanum. One morning, Frannie wakes to find the bloodied corpses of both her master and mistress and she herself covered in blood. She remembers nothing and that’s why she is in gaol awaiting her trial for murder. No spoilers. If you google the title of this book, you will come up with dozens of web sites discussing the book and its outcome, because it is a novel which exposes graphically some of the deepest racial prejudices, current in our society today. It is also a beautifully written book. You will not put it down until you have read it, if you are like me. There are plenty of library copies in all formats.
Authors of a non white heritage who write in English
Refugees and Displacement. It should not surprise us in our day and age to see an increase in the number of books about or by refugees . The English writing ability of many of these overseas authors is good enough to do without the services of a translator. In fact, these authors enrich our writing tradition considerably.
I’ve read recently 2 published books by refugees. Both are very well-written, – plenty of library copies too. One is The Lightless Sky by Gulwali Passerlay (2018). As a boy, Gulwali was sent away from Afghanistan after his father was killed . After being smuggled into Iran, he began a harrowing 12 month journey via Turkey, across the Mediterranean and through Europe, to arrive eventually at a miserable refugee camp in Calais. Somehow he survived and got to Britain, where he was fostered, sent to a good school and won a place at Manchester university . He carried the Olympic torch in 2012.
The second book is The Beekeeeper of Aleppo by Christi Lefteri, who had been a refugee herself and who worked for a time at a refugee camp in Greece. This book became the 2020 Sunday Times Bestseller and the choice of the Richard and Judy Book Club. It is most moving; the horrors punctuated by haunting, lyrical accounts of happy memories which sustained the bee-keeper Neri and his blind wife Afra, throughout the terrifying journey from Aleppo in Syria to the UK. As well as desperation and suffering, this story has hope and love in it too. The ending was so heartening. Mustafa, Neri’s great nephew, had made it to Yorkshire and had found work as a bee-keeper. He invited Neri and his wife to join him, warning him that Yorkshire bees were not like Syrian ones and there would be new things to learn. I don’t often cry over a book but I did over this. How can we refuse to help refugees?
There are 3 novels written by Igbos from Eastern Nigeria which are considered of high quality world-wide. I choose them because I know a bit about about their background,
From 1957-9, I taught English to Igbo women students at a U.M. secondary training college in Umuahia, Eastern Nigeria. I was not a missionary, but on government appointment. I should have stayed longer, but had met my future husband just before I left England.
The first thing I learnt was that Igbos in common with all West Africans, have no written culture. Their alphabets were invented by Europeans and the Igbos certainly do not use Igbo for creative writing. All tribal languages are different, and English is the lingua franca. The Igbos in particular are gifted in their use of spoken and written English as I discovered when I taught them in class and when I produced with an Igbo student cast, the court scene from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, followed later by the full play of A Midsummer Knight’s Dream. The Igbo speech rhythms are not the same as ours, and they emphasise different syllables in a word or phrase. Above all, the Igbo actors illustrated beautifully the universality and greatness of Shakespeare. I’ll tell you later of the great reception A Midsummer Night’s Dream received in a leper colony. I am not surprised that today the Igbos have writers whose novels are of such high quality. The 3 books I’ve chosen are well represented in our library . All of them tell of a clash of cultures, European and tribal African, and have tragedy written into the story.
- Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe. 1958, which is the first book in a trilogy. This was published while I was in E. Nigeria. Before I left in 1959, it had established itself world wide as a great novel. Copies are still in the library. The book is one of the BBC’s 100 Novels That Shaped The World. It is often used as a text in multiracial schools and colleges. The book tells of Okonkwo, an outstanding warrior who is banished from his village after accidentally killing a man. When he returns, he finds great changes wrought by missionaries and colonial officials. The period is late 19th Century. Okonkwo cannot cope and hurtles towards tragedy.
- Half of a Yellow Sun- by a woman, now a prolific novelist. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, who lives in the USA. This book was the winner of the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction and in 2017 won the Women’s Prize for Fiction “Winner of Winners” prize, for being the book most consistently re-issued, read and sold in 10 years.
The period in the novel is during the Biafran war in the late 1960s-early 1970s, which brought widespread slaughter to the Igbo population, who had tried to create the new state of Biafra. There was massive destruction of communities and nation-wide famine. Many of the students I taught were killed, including Virginia Ezuanala, who played Portia and Titania – so brilliantly. The book’s story concerns a small group of people, European and African. As the horrific war engulfs them, they are thrown together and then pulled apart in ways they never thought could have happened.
- An Orchestra of Minorities by Chingozie Obioma, who is now an associate professor of English at the Nebraska-Lincoln university, USA. The book was on the Booker Prize long-list for 2019. It concerns Chinonso, a poor farmer who falls in love with Ndali, a woman he saves from falling to her death on a river bridge. Ndali comes from a higher social class family who refuse permission for their marriage. Chinonso goes to Cyprus to improve his education and his status in the eyes of Ndali’s family. When he returns, he finds a drastically changed situation.
The book is written in the mythic style of the Igbo oral tradition. Chingozie’s “chi”, his companion spirit, is ever with him, advising and commenting on Chingozie’s thoughts and actions. Considering the outcome, the chi cannot be compared to a Christian guardian angel.
The Shared Booker Prize of 2019
- A joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize is Bernardine Evaristo’s
Girl, Woman, Other. The author is British, a leading academic, the winner of several awards, and the first black woman to win the Booker Prize. Her father was a Yoruba, from Western Nigeria. Interesting! The book follows over a number of years, the lives of 12 black heritage characters of different ages, lifestyles and status. As the author shares a common ethnicity with her characters, she provides a unique and brilliantly written insight into their lives. The book unfortunately for me, has no punctuation and I had a headache at the end of it. There are great empty spaces on some pages as well. I’ve read 2 other books like it recently – no, or just selective, punctuation.
I taught English language and literature. Punctuation developed from the need to translate into writing an oral story. There are marks for meaning, expression, and where you breathe. I remember a joke: a sentence & a cat? But who am I to complain? I went to university 70 years ago. I’m a relic of an age long gone. Bernadine Evaristo on the other hand, is professor of Creative Writing at Brunel university.
- The Testaments by Margaret Atwood also shared the 2019 Booker prize. This book is the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale 1985. Did you watch the TV version? Both are distopic novels. In 1921, a Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote a prophetic, satirical novel We of the authoritarian state the Russian Revolution would produce. He was right. The English translation influenced 3 Western authors who could detect authoritarian growing influences in the societies of their day. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, was published in 1932, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four 1948, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale 1985, and The Testaments 2019 – prophetic, yes!
Margaret Atwood’s fictional authoritarian state Gilead, which had taken over the USA in both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, was based on a distorted Old Testament patriarchal society, not a Christian One. Gilead, in the OT was where the spices and healing herbs came from. Jeremiah’s question, ch 9, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” was a proverbial saying. Margaret Atwood uses the name in biting cynicism. It was the place where women like Offred, captured from the outside world, were treated like brood mares, forced to have regular sex with a Commander in the hope of producing more children to people Gilead. Anyone who broke the rules was executed or banished to colonies. The action in The Testaments takes place some years later and works towards the downfall of Gilead through the plotting of Aunt Lydia. Of the two, I think The Testaments is the better book. Maybe, it was coincidence that The Testaments arrived on the scene in the USA to herald the defeat of Donald Trump.
Brief Mention of 3 Books published in 2020 (all in the library).
When the lock down happened at the end of March, some of us were looking forward to receiving Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, which is the final part of the trilogy concerned with Thomas Cromwell. It is a huge book (there are now e-book copies to borrow). It took me a bit to get into it. I got there when I realised that the book was written entirely from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view. Then I became totally absorbed. The reader enters his mind, follows the decisions he makes, notes how he regards others, always careful in the opinions he expresses and so on. There are some lovely lyrical passages and vivid descriptions of the Tudor environment. We know Cromwell’s death is inevitable . No need for spoilers. At the end of the book, as he mounts the steps of the scaffold, we enter his mind to the very moment that the axe falls.
The second book is Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, also 2020. This is partly a fictional story based on the wife and family Shakespeare left behind in Stratford while he was making his name as a playwright in London. He is a shadowy figure, never named, but one who makes unannounced visits to his family. The family centres on his wife, called Agnes here, not Anne. She is a gifted, spirited, woman, who has great knowledge of local medicinal herbs and plants, much needed in 1594 when first, her daughter Judith catches the plague. She recovers while her brother, the Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet , or is it Hamlet, dies. The book is beautifully written with rich imagery, and offers a masterly account of overwhelming grief and loss. It touched me deeply, a lovely book.
Apart from the coincidence of the present covid pandemic, the book was describing the same outbreak of bubonic plague which arrived in London in 1592, worked its way north, and according to the plague stone opposite the Craven Arms, affected the communities of the ancient parish of Giggleswick from 1597-8. I have spent a lot of time researching the considerable archives of Giggleswick’s St Alkelda’s Church for our new web site. According to parish records, from November 1597-February 1598 66 parishioners died of plague, adding to the total of 129 burials in the churchyard over a 12 month period.
The third book is Marilynne Robinson’s Jack .2020, This is a companion volume to 3 other books: Gilead 2004, Home 2008, Lila 2014, and now Jack 2020. The stories they tell are not in chronological order. Rather, each is primarily concerned with a character who belongs to one of the families of 2 great friends, the Rev Boughton, the Rev John Ames, one a Presbyterian and the other a Congregational minister. Their homes and parishes are in the small fictional town of Gilead, in Iowa. Here Gilead takes on its true Biblical meaning as a place where people come for a healing. Jack is the ne’er do well son of the Rev Boughton. The book is located in a segregated St Louis during the 1950s where Jack meets and falls in love with Della, a beautiful Afro-American teacher whose intelligence and background match his. They consider themselves married and Della becomes pregnant. This illegal relationship seems doomed to failure. Jack drifts along as a vagrant, stealing and drinking, homeless, then in and out of cheap lodgings. He does not seem to have the will to break the cycle of self-destruction. Jack then returns to Gilead. I found Jack a moving book, a profound study of a man dogged by failure. Although the novel is a “stand alone,” both Home and Gilead reveal more about Jack’s future life. Can “the leopard change his spots?”, Jack recalls from Jeremiah 14? The author has an answer to that elsewhere.
Marilynne Robinson’s books have won many prizes. As well as being considered one of the US’s leading intellectuals, she is regarded by many critics as the world’s greatest novelist, irrespective of whether they as critics , share her faith or not. She has an elegant, fluid and rich style of writing which has a near universal appeal. I found myself swept along by her narrative, wanting to know more. (no e-books. See The Givenness of Things 2015; Balm in Gilead 2018).
Finally- Books with a Feel Good Factor
First the classic Romance novel – A few months ago, I visited the Romance Novelists’ Association web site – a good source of romance novel suggestions. I discovered that a 2019 prize for a best romance novel had just been awarded to Milly Johnson’s The Magnificent Mrs Mayhew. I borrowed an e-book copy and thoroughly enjoyed a well-written, romantic story with a good plot. I read romance novels when I’m tired and want to relax or escape from stress. The heroine Mrs Mayhew was fed up with being the beautiful wife of a politician who wanted to show off her charms to further his ambition to be prime minister. Eventually, she ran away to a North Yorkshire village near where she had been at school. She was befriended by the vicar’s sister and allowed to live in an empty almshouse . Her marriage had ended. She and the vicar fell in love. It was, as we say, “a good read”, very well-written, with a lovely, warm feel to it.
A couple of years ago, I used to hear a lot from Book Group people about how they had enjoyed a book called. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, 2009. It is what I call a mixed genre novel and I find these more satisfying than just a straight forward, simple romance. There is a delightful, love story emerging from stark memories of the suffering and horror of the German occupation. The date is 1946 when the memories were still very raw. It is the first novel I’ve reviewed with a plot entirely emerging from letters several of the characters wrote to each other. It is very skilfully done and a thorough delight to read. (recent film presentation; BBC i-player)
I’ve already mentioned briefly Jo Jo Moyes The Giver of Stars published 2019. I think this is her best novel to date. It is based on a true story about a little group of women who during the 1930s, in a poor part of Kentucky, organised a mobile library service for the benefit of people living in remote places. It also has as heroine, an innocent girl who marries into an unhappy family, her husband, unable to consummate the marriage, his father, a brute who beats her for working with the library and not trying to get pregnant. It all works out in the end. Her unhappy marriage is annulled. A true romance develops from a caring friendship with the guy who houses the books for the library, and there is a happy ending – of course!.
I have also read and enjoyed Dinah Jefferies’ book Before the Rains 2017. It is on my Kindle. Dinah Jefferies is a well-known writer of romantic fiction, mentioned on the RNA website. There are plenty of her books, e-books too, in the library . Before the Rains has the elements of classic romance fiction : it has an exotic 1930s Indian location with a handsome prince who forms passionate love relationship with a beautiful widow, an English woman photographer, whose family had connections with his part of India. There is a high incidence of coincidence, as well as obstacles to overcome en route for the happy ending. This is no basic Mills and Boon novelette. The treatment of women, social and political issues of 1930s’ India are interwoven with the story, and there is rich description of the colour and romance of the Indian landscape and the beautiful architecture.
Lastly, Nature, the Environment and the Great Outdoors
The last few years have seen an explosion of new, mostly non fiction books concerned with one or more aspect of this wide- reaching topic. Sometimes the books spring from TV programmes, or the other way round, like All Creatures Great and Small (James Herriot ) and The Yorkshire Shepherdess (Amanda Owens – books in the library )
An important contributor to the debate surrounding the present and future of northern hill farming is James Rebank, himself a practising Cumbrian sheep farmer as well as an international spokesperson on the future of farming and its impact on the environment.
We read and enjoyed The Shepherd’s Life 2015 in our Book Group, a absorbing autobiographical account of Rebank’s life to his marriage, his return to farming and the arrival of his young family. Rebank writes bitterly of his schooldays where he was given the impression than the non-academic were the losers in life. With the help of extra tuition and support from Helen, later his wife, he won a scholarship to Oxford. After his graduation, they returned to their beloved Lake District, to his family farm, HerdwicK sheep and the dogs. Additionally, he became involved internationally in environmental issues. He writes passionately and this book is a delight to read.
His latest book, The English Pastoral 2020, is the S.T. Nature Book of the Year. We learn about his farm which had been in his family for generations, his grandfather who taught him so much about sheep and the care of the land. He describes how he takes his own young children with him on his daily tasks. There are some lovely descriptions of the changing seasons and the countryside. He admits several times that without an extra source of income it would not be viable to live off sheep farming on the Cumbrian fells (Dales too?).
H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald, 2014 is another book we read and enjoyed in our Book Group. As a child, Helen Macdonald was determined to become a falconer. When her father died, she was stricken with grief. She then bought a goshawk determined to train it. As she does so in the wide open spaces of Norfolk, she finds that her exacting task, its eventual success and the training ground’s natural landscape provided the therapy to help her emerge from her grief.
Another book The Outrun by Amy Liptrot 2016 describes how the author, an alcoholic, whose life in London had gone to pieces, returns to a primitive order of living in Orkney where she was born. Gradually, the simplicity of her life, and the wild, remote beauty of sea and landscapes, its birds, animals and people help her towards the healing and freedom from addiction she so desires. There are some wonderful descriptions in this book, really beautiful.
Walking for me in the past has been a great therapy. It still is in a small way, and of course, we are encouraged to walk in the lock down. If you look at the BPT website, you will see just how many pilgrimage walks have sprung up in the last few years, based on walks between ancient religious sites. I mention my own book St Alkeldas Way 2019 , in the library, which traces the 32 mile ancient route through the YDNP between St Mary’s and St Alkelda’s Church, Middleham Wensleydale and St Alkelda’s, Church, Giggleswick, the only 2 churches which have this A.S. Dales martyr, as patronal saint.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn 2018. The author describes that when Moth, her husband, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and they had lost their home, they decided to use their meagre resources to fund the 63 miles of SW Coast Walk. The book is a vivid account of how they managed the walk, the changing scenery, the people they met and the help they got from strangers. At the end of this astonishing marathon, they found that Moth was in remission from the cancer. In September 2020, Raynor’s second book The Wild Silence was published. It is in the library, a 10 week wait for the ebook!
I can’t leave the theme of walks without mentioning Simon Armitage’s delightful book Walking Home, the account of Simon walking the N-S length of the Pennine Way in 2013. He is our poet laureate – I love his poetry. He had arranged various poetry reading sessions in villages along the way. He writes with humour and vivacity. The characters of the people he met and those who walked with him for part of the way, really leap off the pages. The changes in the weather are recorded, a lot of rain and mist ,as you would expect. The variety of landscape is keenly observed and vividly described. I well remember his description of leaving the bright, limey green, grass- covered limestone slopes of Malham for the Bronte country’s dark, brown-green, brooding moors of millstone grit, then walking towards the finishing point, and his home in South Yorkshire.
My final book could have a universal appeal. It is Rob Cowan’s Common Ground, 2015. After an over-burdened life and stressful job in the south of England, Rob Cowan, a journalist, and his wife return to Yorkshire and buy a house in Bilton, once a separate village, but now a suburb of Harrogate. I do know Bilton; we have relatives there.
The houses stop suddenly at their lower NE boundary. A wooded and grassy slope emerges, hiding a disused railway line. The river Nidd flows through a narrow, tangled, tree-covered gorge below, This overgrown area becomes the author’s “wilderness place”. He goes there regularly to sit in a secluded spot to look, observe and record the sights: the plants, the flowers, the butterflies, birds, the deer, rabbits, hare, fox, and a pair of lovers beyond the tufts of grass. He watches a hawk overhead, listens to the sounds of birdsong and the murmur of rushing water he cannot quite see. All this in a place where nature has taken over. So near and yet so far from a bustling town.
I think, living where we do, we can all find such a wilderness place, however small it is. Thank you for listening and watching.
When John le Carré died in December 2020, columnist Ben McIntyre, writing in The Times, recalled an interview with le Carré ten years before, in which he had described the author as Britain’s greatest living novelist. At the time, McIntyre’s comment aroused some controversy because among the literati the belief persists that espionage novels – le Carré’s chosen genre – are not serious literature. To my mind, this is utterly mistaken: serious English literature is much the poorer for le Carré’s passing.
The name John le Carré was a pseudonym. The real man underneath was David Cornwell, born in 1931 to parents whose talents for bringing up children were, to say the least, questionable. When young David was five, his mother ran off with an estate agent, and he didn’t see her again “for sixteen hugless years”, as he put it in interview. Achieving the reunion involved some subterfuge on the part of his uncle but it eventually took place, awkwardly, on Ipswich railway station (“the up platform” – same interview). David’s father, Ronnie, took on the upbringing of his two boys (there was an elder brother, Anthony) but as an accomplished conman and womaniser, and occasional guest of Her Majesty, he was an egregiously unsuitable father. “To run the household with no money,” said David later, “required a lot of serious lying, to the local garage man, the local butcher, the local everybody.” In fact, Ronnie’s deceptions ran on a far larger scale than locally. The Times records that Ronnie left behind “a trail of unpaid debts, false names, bogus letterheads, perplexed women, unsuccessful racehorses, luxurious motor cars and dubious financial schemes”. Nevertheless, Ronnie got David and his brother into Sherborne, one of the better English public schools, which, unfortunately, young Cornwell came to hate. So, at the age of sixteen he absconded to Switzerland, where he had previously enjoyed (probably unpaid-for) holidays, and there completed his schooling by somehow enrolling at the University of Berne. At eighteen, he was called up for National Service, serving throughout in the Intelligence Corps, with postings to Vienna and Graz. Fluent in German, he then went up to Oxford to read Modern Languages, and on graduating taught for two years at Eton. Then in 1958, aged twenty-seven, he entered, or rather re-entered, British intelligence, employed first by MI5 and subsequently by what we now know as MI6 (back in 1958 HMG did not formally admit to the existence of MI6).
On his daily commute into London, Cornwell began to write. His formative experiences under Ronnie, coupled with the below-the-radar practices and ethos of secret service employers, fed his writing for the rest of his life. His first novel, Call for the Dead, was published in 1961. It is a spy story featuring the first appearance of a character who looms large in le Carré’s later writing – George Smiley. His second novel, A Murder of Quality, more detective fiction than espionage, was published in 1962 and also featured George Smiley. For both books Cornwell was required by his employer to use a pseudonym, and that is how the name John le Carré came into existence. Le Carré claims to have forgotten how he chose it, though he once suggested (then later denied) that he had seen it on a bus.
It was his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from The Cold (1963) that catapulted le Carré to fame. The leading character is Alec Leamas, a disillusioned British agent who sets out to avenge the death of one of his agents in East Germany, only to find himself betrayed by his own side. It ends badly, for Leamas as well as for the lonely lady librarian, Liz, with whom he has begun an affair. Leamas’ disillusion is said to mirror le Carré’s own at the time. “Spies?” says Leamas. “They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.” In embarking on a lifetime of writing spy fiction, le Carré acknowledged his debt to Ian Fleming for James Bond, whose escapades, suffused as they were with colourful places, plots and sex, had long since whetted readers’ appetites for spies. (The first Bond novel, Casino Royale, had appeared in 1953, a full ten years before The Spy Who Came in from The Cold.) For le Carré The Spy Who Came in from The Cold was decisively important because it garnered such financial success as to enable le Carré to leave the service and write full time.
Curiously, his next three novels – The Looking Glass War, A Small Town in Germany, and The Naïve and Sentimental Lover – achieved nothing like the success of The Spy Who Came in from The Cold. The last of these three, The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, is an oddity among le Carré’s works. Neither spy nor crime fiction, it concerns dysfunctional relationships among odd people in Ireland, and is said to have elements of autobiography in it. As an aside, I must admit that I simply don’t get it: for all my admiration of le Carré, I have twice abandoned it.
During the 1970s le Carré hit his stride with the three great – indeed, incomparable – Smiley novels, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979). These, his crowning achievement in my view, are sometimes known as the Karla trilogy, Karla being Smiley’s Soviet counterpart and arch-opponent (and a man, despite the female name). The theme that runs through all three books is betrayal. Smiley is seeking to discover who has betrayed the Circus – le Carré’s fictional version of MI6 – and is himself betrayed by his wife, whose lover turns out to be none other than the Circus traitor. I won’t name names for fear of spoiling it. Le Carré’s skills with character serve, I think, to place him firmly in the pantheon of great English novelists. His characters drive the situations and the situations drive the plot; and with his mastery of these techniques le Carré is easily the equal of Graham Greene. George Smiley is not your regular spook: he is officially retired, getting on in years, overweight, worn down with care, meticulous in his habits (he writes notes on a single sheet of paper which rests on glass so that no impression marks are left behind), and unhappy in his marriage. Smiley’s colleagues in the Circus are a characterful lot too. As for situation, over and over again le Carré contrives to be mesmerising. The scene that sticks most in my mind (and probably in the minds of many other le Carré fans) is Smiley’s encounter with Karla in a Delhi jail. Despite Smiley’s expert cajoling, Karla says not a word – an unpromising situation, you might think – yet in le Carré’s hands, and because of what we know about the two characters, the meeting is heart-stopping. Furthermore, le Carré has an enviable gift for creating the subtlest of atmosphere with the plainest of words. You know what it feels like to be in the Circus; and le Carré’s description of Hong Kong under a leaden sky in the opening pages of The Honourable Schoolboy still rings big bells with me, thirty-plus years on, because I was standing in Hong Kong under a leaden sky when I first read it.
After the Karla trilogy le Carré began to turn his attention away from the Cold War and towards international terrorism – which is no less fertile ground for espionage. The Little Drummer Girl, on Palestine-Israeli hostilities, emerged in 1983, and The Night Manager on the international arms trade, in 1993. Terrorism of a different kind – the hidden practices of the pharmaceutical giants feature in The Constant Gardener (2001), where anger is palpable. Le Carré was seventy when he wrote it, and he went on writing in anger until the year before his death, at the age of eighty-nine. It is, again, anger with people and the situations they create: see, for example, the despicable high-ranking British diplomat, Pellegrin, in The Constant Gardener and the arms dealer Dickie Roper (“the worst man in the world”) in The Night Manager.
Even after the end of the Cold Warm, spying kept recurring throughout le Carré’s writing. A Perfect Spy (1986) comes as close as we are likely to get to le Carré’s autobiography, as we see the lead character, Magnus Pym, drawn along by his father from a boyhood of minor deceptions and falsehoods into the adult world of spying. The Russia House (1989), Our Game (1995), The Tailor of Panama (1996), and Absolute Friends (2003) all involve secrecy, deception, and betrayal, and the immorality of the government organisations that trade on them.
The wheel almost turned full circle late in le Carré’ life, when he returned to George Smile with Agent Running in the Field (2019), which looks back on Smiley’s career and methods. This proved to be his last book, written at the age of 88.
Le Carré was much fêted as a writer: both his old universities, Berne and Oxford, awarded him honorary doctorates, and during his writing career he received no fewer than thirteen awards from literary prize-givers at home and abroad. He is the only Brit to have been awarded the Swedish Olaf Palme prize, in recognition of his contribution to international security (and he gave the $100,000 prize money to Médecins sans Frontières). Yet he would have no truck with literary competitions, refusing, for example, to allow any of his books to be considered for the (Man) Booker prize.
Happily, le Carré has been very well served by tv and film adaptations of his work, so if you are unsure about reading your way into his murky world, try getting into it via the small screen.
Easily the best place to start is with the BBC-published DVD box set of most of the Karla trilogy, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley. Le Carré himself greatly admired Alec Guinness’s performance, but the rest of the cast is outstanding too. The 1979 recording lacks modern HD picture quality, but nevertheless it is one of the best dramatisations the BBC has ever done. The set is available from Amazon as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, though no doubt other retailers will supply it.
The Karla trilogy has also been condensed into a single feature-length film (dating from 2011 and running for just over two hours) starring Gary Oldman as Smiley. The adaptation is not quite in the same league as the BBC’s, but it is still very good, and if you are tight for time and/or want HD video, the film is a worthwhile buy. It is available on DVD from Amazon, though at the time I wrote this article, Amazon’s stocks were low.
The Constant Gardener is available on DVD (produced in 2005). Starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz and Bill Nighy, it is commendably faithful to le Carré. The Night Manager is likewise available on a BBC DVD (produced in 2016), with memorable performances from Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie. If you watch carefully, you will see le Carré himself in a cameo role in the restaurant scene. Both DVDs are well worth buying.
The Spy Who Came in from The Cold has been filmed, though the DVD is hard to find. But the search is worthwhile: Richard Burton stars as Leamas and Claire Bloom as Liz, and it is shot in black and white, which heightens the atmosphere.
And to end, let me mention that you can get a good look at le Carré in the interview he did with Mark Lawson in 2008. The interview runs for an hour and reveals both le Carré’s complicated childhood and the evolution of his writing career. The interview can be seen on iPlayer at:
For a near-postscript I will add that this week the BBC is showing a number of le Carré works, including the Mark Lawson interview. So, if you have a moment, get out your Radio Times, and either set your recorder or hook up your iPlayer. There are treats in store!
Bob Young, January 2021
Sometimes a non-fiction book comes along that tells such an enthralling tale in such an enthralling manner that it comes across almost as a work of fiction. A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to come across just such a book. But just such a book can make for a lengthy review, so I apologise in advance if I bang on longer than usual.
The book is entitled The Greatest Knight, and carries the wordy subtitle The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, The Power Behind Five English Thrones (Simon & Schuster, 2015). NYCC libraries hold two copies. The author is Thomas Asbridge, a fellow of Queen Mary University, London. To my mind Asbridge is one of those gifted writers who can bring history alive.
William Marshal was born in 1147 and he lived long, to the age of 72, at a time when average male life expectancy was 31 years and when even well-nourished men were considered old in their forties. Yet William nearly had no life at all, for at the age of 5 he came close to being hanged. In those times it was customary for a person who had promised to do something important for another to hand over an item of value as surety, to be redeemed when the promise was fulfilled. The item of value was often a person, and in this case young William’s father, John, had handed him over to no less a person than the King of England, Stephen. Having pledged service to Stephen, John promptly broke his word. Enraged, Stephen ordered the little boy’s hanging. Then at the last moment he relented. John Marshal said he was unconcerned about the fate of William; the youngster was, after all, only a second son, and he (John) was easily capable of procreating more.
The Marshals were minor gentry from Wiltshire. William’s mother, Sybil, was rather better bred than her husband. While John was a doughty warrior whose military advice was valued by royalty, Sybil brought with her some sense of honour and kindness. Young William inherited the best of both his parents. His upbringing took place largely in France. By the twelfth century Kings of England ruled the western half of France, from the Channel down to the Pyrenees. This huge land area was, with England, one political whole – the Angevin Empire. Many English families had wider family in France, so at the age of thirteen William was sent for his upbringing to an uncle in Normandy – William of Tancarville. This latter William brought William Marshal up exceedingly well: in Normandy he earned a knighthood, developed remarkable very considerable military skill, and acquired respect for bravery and for honourable conduct. As he grew, William honed a talent for diplomacy that stood him in good stead for the rest of his life.
At the age of 21, William was captured fighting in France. By then his reputation had travelled to the court of King Henry II in England, and he was ransomed by the formidable Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife. At that time, Henry was mulling over his own succession, always a tricky problem at times when might could easily overcome right. In 1170, with the aim of securing an orderly transition, Henry took the unheard-of step of crowning his 15-year old son, also named Henry, as joint King. The younger Henry was to rule jointly with his father, and William Marshal was appointed Young Henry’s tutor at arms. The joint ruler arrangement quickly unravelled. Old Henry held the reins too tight, and in 1173 Young Henry rebelled. He thus dropped William Marshal into a difficult and dangerous position. As Young Henry’s tutor, William owed him loyalty, but his sense of right and wrong could not countenance rebellion against his father. Judging correctly that Old Henry would be somewhat indulgent towards his son, William took steps to cool Young Henry’s hot head, and stuck with him. Thus Marshal’s skill on the political tightrope came to Old Henry’s notice.
Although he was not formally exiled, Young Henry, with William Marshal at his side, spent the next three years on the French tournament circuit (tournaments were banned in England). The tournament was no mere joust but a serious competition between armed men, run sometimes over very large tracts of land. Skill at arms and mastery of a horse were the ingredients of success. Henry wasn’t bad, but William Marshal was spectacularly good. Over three years he became the Lewis Hamilton of the tournament. From his feats he earned a small fortune, not from prize money (there was none) but from capturing opponents and ransoming them – the accepted practice of the age. A high-ranking captive could earn his captor a huge ransom; if the knight were only middle-ranking, his horse might be ransomed for more.
Here I should break off to praise Thomas Asbridge’s memorable descriptions of tournaments and of the sometimes (though not always) chivalrous conduct of the participants. Asbridge also offers new insights into the notion of chivalry itself: it was not the soft, chastely romantic stuff that many people (me included) are brought up to believe. Asbridge skilfully interpolates this absorbing material with such ease as not to spoil his rollicking narrative.
In 1181 William fell out of favour with Young Henry after being accused of conducting an affair with Henry’s wife. We don’t know whether he cuckolded Henry or not, but after a year Henry accepted that William was innocent and the two reunited. The year after that, Young Henry tried another rebellion against his father, failed, then died of a fever in 1183 at the age of 28. For William this was bad enough, but worse, in honour of a promise given to his dying master, William reluctantly set off to the Holy Land on the Second Crusade. For him crusading was a chore. The evidence suggests that he did a bit of desultory fighting, then quickly came home again. Jerusalem was a long way to go for little or no benefit.
Shortly after his return to England William was invited to re-join King Henry’s court. By then he was 39, verging on middle age. In the final years of Henry II’s reign, William’s star rose and rose. You need to read Dr Asbridge’s book for the details, but suffice it to say that William acquired considerable wealth in return for his shrewd and unfailing support to Henry. He drove a hard bargain too: William knew his worth and wasn’t above whingeing for it.
One of his better prizes was the wardship of a very wealthy orphaned lady, Isabel of Clare. Isabel was a ward of the crown, and in those times the crown would often pass the wardship to a nobleman of merit or political convenience. It was not unusual for the guardian to marry his ward, and William did indeed marry Isabel in 1189. She was then 20, less than half William’s age. But she was by far his social superior, bringing with her extensive landholdings in Wales and Ireland and making William a baron to be reckoned with.
That same year Henry II died and was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, known to us as Richard I or the Lionheart. In our times Richard has been portrayed as a warrior king of good Christian virtue and kindness. While his military prowess was unquestionable, his conduct in other respects was appalling. In Aquitaine, that part of France which his father had earlier given him to govern, Richard was loathed for his brutality, greed and debauchery. William Marshal, already well known to Richard, occupied the same valued advisor position he had earned with Henry II, and when Richard decided to absent himself on the Third Crusade in 1190, William was appointed a justiciar of England – in effect a non-royal regent. William had thus risen very high, and that same year rose even higher when Richard elevated William to the nobility as Earl of Pembroke. After returning from four years in the Holy Land, Richard almost immediately set off (with William Marshal) to fight in France, where the Angevin lands had come under serious and sustained attack by the French. The fighting went on for several years, and it finally cost Richard his life. In 1199 he took a crossbow bolt in his shoulder, the wound turned gangrenous, and at the age of 42 he died.
Richard, having no heirs, was succeeded by his brother, John. John had already caused a great deal of grief. He was even more greedy, brutal and debauched than Richard, and completely untrustworthy into the bargain. In military matters he was incompetent and cowardly. While Richard was away crusading John had misguidedly and treacherously surrendered most of the Angevin lands to the canny and untrustworthy French king, Philippe II. Nevertheless, on becoming king, John wanted William Marshal to hand, and William, notwithstanding his contempt for John as a character, accepted. Six years later, however, they fell out and William retreated to his lands in Wales and Ireland.
Again, I will now divert briefly to praise Thomas Asbridge’s treatment of these tumultuous times. Complicated though they were, Asbridge’s well-aired prose cuts cleanly through the plots and sustains his reader’s unflagging interest. This is history-telling at its best.
In England, John had alienated many who might otherwise have supported him – so much so that civil war was brewing. William Marshal, seeing from afar the parlous state of king and country, proffered a hand of friendship to John, had it accepted, and returned to court, albeit with misgivings, in 1212. In 1215 peace of a kind was secured between a grudging King John and his affronted barons through an agreement that history has come to know as Magna Carta. But no sooner had the deal been done than John began reneging on it; it then had to be rewritten twice, in 1217 and 1225, before it could be regarded as one of the cornerstones of later English law. John did not live to see the revisions: his dissolute life had weakened his health, and in 1216 he died of dysentery – an unpleasant end, richly deserved.
Even with King John’s death, there remained seething discontent among the barons – enough that it looked as though there would be an insurrection, aided and abetted by the French (of course) against the new king, John’s son, Henry III. Henry was then nine years old. It is thought that John on his deathbed gave Henry into William Marshal’s care. In effect William became de facto king in an astonishing ascent from his undistinguished origins. On Henry’s accession William embarked on what proved to be his final act of service to the Angevin dynasty, leading troops on Henry’s behalf at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217. His victory was decisive, and the boy king grew up to become one of England’s longest-serving monarchs. One cannot help wondering if, in taking up Henry’s cause, William saw in him the same little boy, facing death, that he himself had been some seventy years before.
William died peacefully in 1219, aged 72. Sadly, all that he had built up in his lifetime ran into the sand within a generation. Isabel died a year after her husband, their sons produced no male heirs, and their daughters married husbands who had no aptitude for managing vast estates.
In his seventy-odd years, William saw – one might say oversaw – a transformation in the role of knights and the landowning aristocracy from one of dependency sustained by the caprices of a king’s good will, to one of acting as a check on corrupt and overweening monarchy. This was a first step, and a faltering one at that, towards constitutional rule that took centuries to come to fruition. Nevertheless, William Marshal’s role in kick-starting it is undeniable. We owe him. And we owe Thomas Asbridge too, for telling William’s tale in such erudite yet colourful and memorable terms.
This is a detective novel set in 1919 Calcutta, the seat of British rule of the Bengal area at the time of the British Raj in India. The main character is Detective Inspector Captain Sam Wyndham, ex-Scotland Yard, who has taken a job with the Calcutta Police Force to make a new start, following recovery from his injuries in the Great War and the loss of his young wife in the influenza pandemic. His side-kick is an Indian Sergeant called Surrender-not Banerjee (because a colleague couldn’t pronounce Sarendrath) product of a public school/Oxbridge education in England. Much of the story shows the developing trust and understanding between the two and by the end Banerjee has saved Wyndham’s life twice and they are sharing an apartment together because Banerjee has been disowned by his parents for working with the British.
The story begins when the British aide to the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal is found brutally murdered in an alley near a brothel. Wyndham investigates in the face of interference from the military secret service and senior administrators and the author weaves a clever tale as Wyndham and Banerjee gradually gather information and unravel the complexity of relationships in the British Raj, including the activities of Indian terrorists seeking to end British rule, commercial interests of very rich and powerful men and the underworld of brothels and opium dens. A potential love interest for Wyndham is introduced in the form of a beautiful mixed-race woman who was secretary to the murdered man.
Through a host of characters’ dialogue the author gives the reader much historical background (perhaps a little overdone at times). Many of the characters have something to hide, including Wyndham himself, who has a dependency on ‘O’ following extensive treatment with morphine for his head injury in the war.
The Rising Man of the title is revealed as the murdered man, but later the author also applies the same label to another character, a terrorist turned peaceful protestor, and to Wyndham himself as he establishes himself in his new role and learns to work the system.
The book is written in the first person, from Wyndham’s POV, descriptions of various areas of Calcutta are well drawn, as are the various characters and the plot has a few unexpected twists.
The author, son of immigrant Indian parents, grew up in Scotland, but now lives in London. This is his first novel, published 2016, since when three more have followed featuring the same detective. It won a CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger and the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition.
Review by Susan Fisher
E-books –Update Summary (see my article E-Book borrowing from the Library*) K.Kinder
If you have an i-phone or smart phone, use it to download and open this Update Summary from the library’s web address:
You will now be able to follow the instructions below, step by step on your i-pad or tablet.
Please be aware that the icon and symbol arrangements on each tablet or i-pad may differ from mine.
Acquiring the Overdrive – Libby App
On older e-books, you cannot download, read any library e-book, or listen to any eAudiobook until you have installed the Overdrive – Libby app from either the Google Play Apps or Apple Apps (for i-pads). For more help, go to the main web site https://www.northyorks.gov.uk/libraries-0 and choose Digital Library/Download e-books, e-magazines and digital audio books. Scan the list below on the screen to find Launch Overdrive and Libby….. Once installed the Overdrive App will have a blue icon with a circle on it. This will appear on the main page of your tablet or i-pad.
However, see NYCC Library – A New Development for E-book Readers, at the end.
Once you have an idea as to what book title you are interested in go to https://capitadiscovery.co.uk/northyorkshire/ and save the web site as a Favourite. See * article for suggestions. Type the author’s name or title of the book into the long, tube-shaped box. One or more pictorial icons of the book’s cover will appear. Choose the one for “e-book” and follow the instructions. “E-Audiobook” also works with these instructions. You will need your member’s passcode and PIN number. Unless you want just 7 borrowing days, click on the little box and choose 14 or 21 days. If you have forgotten your PIN number, during the covid lock-down, ring 01609 533878 (Northallerton library HQ).
The Overdrive -Libby interface
You will be advised when the book is down-loaded. Finger-touch/click on the Overdrive icon to open it. Inside you will see a pictorial icon of the book’s cover. Underneath, on the screen is the title and the number of borrowing days. At the right side of the title are 3 tiny, pale grey dots. Finger-touch/click on those and you will see you can send the book back to the library before the expiry date. The book’s pages proceed to the right, or the left to go back. It just requires the merest touch to turn a page. When you have finished a reading session and closed the programme, you will find on your return, that the e-book opens at the page where you left it. If you want to open at any particular chapter, give the page a firm press in the middle of the page. Up pops a little black box. You will then see what percentage of the book you have read. Note it for future reference if you wish. The top of the page exposes a narrow menu bar. At the extreme top right, there is the pages icon, looking like 3 mini lollipops! Finger-touch/click on that. You will see the complete chapter headings’ list appear on the left. Finger touch-click on any one chapter and you will be taken straight there. Apologies for omitting this instruction in the article E-Book borrowing from the Library*.
Combined Kindle- Tablet – please read the advice in the * article.
To go to Gutenberg Home page , click on/finger touch https://www.gutenberg.org There is a lot to read on this page. To give you an idea of which book you would like to choose first, look at Frequently down-loaded……. or consult the list in the article*.
Next, choose Search and Browse, followed by Browsing Options on the next page. Decide whether you want to go for the title or the author. I usually choose the author so that I can see what works are on offer, although if you choose John Buchan, whose name I accidentally omitted from the list in the article*, it is a long way down to u! Scroll with your finger at the right hand side. It may take a short or a longer time As soon as you find the author’s name , highlight a book title. You are taken to a list of formats to download. If you use Overdrive, choose epub; if Kindle, choose mobi. (the largest download, takes up the most computer space). Alternatively, you can choose to download as txt (text), or html to read online. You can choose html (better than txt) without any extra software, so have a go. NB. On occasions, you are offered a book with or without illustrations. Illustrations and photos are re-produced beautifully. I have recently down-loaded as html, Dickens’ Christmas Carol, complete with 19th century illustrations.
The html Format
The text goes immediately on to the internet screen. It is good to read and scrolls from top to bottom in one continuous page. Gutenberg are constantly upgrading the presentation of their e-books and the most recent have blue, activated Page Contents lists. The older Gutenberg html files do not re-open on your return at the page you last read, as do both the Overdrive and Amazon Kindle formats, so before ending a reading session, it is best to read to the end of the chapter and then make a note of it. In books of poems from Gutenberg, like Poems of Emily Dickinson:Three series (lovely book), it is the list of poems (in blue type) and not chapters, that can be accessed by a click on/finger touch on the chosen poem. You save an html file by making it into a bookmark. To do that, click on/finger touch the empty tab at the top of the screen. To re-open, you will find the book file in the Bookmarks list. To remove the file from the Bookmarks list, click on/finger touch the Bookmark symbol to make it blank.
Here is another experience, I have downloaded Beowulf and read till stanza XXV, when I saved the file as a bookmark before closing down the program. On loading the file again from the Bookmarks folder Beowulf opened at stanza XXV! Be aware of the possibilities.
Overdrive- Libby and Gutenberg
Try Gutenberg first. Then if you have not already done so, move on to downloading the free Overdrive-Libby App from either the Google Play App store, or if you have an i-pad, from the Apple App store. See above. If you are nervous about this, ask a friend or family member, who knows how to down-load apps, to do it for you. By choosing the epub format, you can now download Gutenberg books into the Overdrive folder alongside the books from the library. You will then enjoy the best of both worlds. At the time of writing, the libraries are closed and no more printed books are circulating, but there are plenty of e-books speeding on their invisible way to be read on people’s tablets and i-pads.
New Developments for Book Groups
A meeting of the Book Group of which I am a member, was due to take place at the end of March 2020 and was postponed until the end of November 2020. It was my turn to introduce the book, on this occasion, Stacey Hall’s The Familiars. All the printed borrowed copies had been returned to the library, but I had the e-book copy on my tablet. Before I left home, I downloaded the book and left the tablet open at the page I wanted. The tablet then went into “sleep mode”. Because the download had not been disturbed, the book was still available for reference in a house where the tablet was not receiving wifi. This experience points the way to which tablets can be used much more in Book Groups, especially when there is a shortage of printed copies.
NYCC Library – A New Development for E-book Readers 15/11/20
I have just downloaded 2 more e-books, published recently in 2020. As well as the epub format extension for the Libby software, I was offered a download onto my web browser. This will have an html extension, exactly like what I can choose in Gutenberg. As with html in Gutenberg, you save as a Bookmark by clicking the blank Bookmark label at the top. The title will appear in the Bookmark List. I downloaded one of the 2 books into my browser. The print is clear and the pages turn normally, left-right, right-left. Finger-tap/click towards the bottom and a small info menu appears with page number and percentage of the book read info.. I’ve taken to photographing that with my i-phone. You can use a smartphone too. Leave the page where you have finished reading and go back to the Home screen. When you return, the book will open where you left it before.
Please expect slight variations in lay out and facilities in new e-books as attempts are made to improve the reading experience for borrowers. One thing is sure, many more e-books have appeared in the library system since 2019.
A Late Discovery for Kindle owners
You can now download the Overdrive app from the Amazon store into your Kindle and can download e-books from the NYCC library and Gutenberg.
The Accompanying Photographs (soon to appear) The books with full colour picture covers are library downloads. The others are downloads from Gutenberg in the epub extension. The photograph of Marley’s ghost + text. is from the 1843 first edition of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, down-loaded as html from Gutenberg into the internet browser. You can of course, do this without any Overdrive app.
Kathleen Kinder – Friend: Settle Community Library. 15/11/20
Until March 23rd 2020, e-book borrowing from the library had been very much a minority but a slowly growing interest as more people possessed i-pads and tablets on which they could comfortably read downloaded e-books. Many of us who enjoy reading both printed as well as e-books, have had Kindles for some time, in my case, since 2011. These books from Amazon are bought at a price, less than that we would pay in a bookshop. Now however, with the addition of postage, many books from Amazon Kindle can be nearly the same price as those from our local bookshop. Amazon were not the first to offer e-books to the public. That honour goes to Project Gutenberg https://www.gutenberg.org/ which from the 1970s has offered as free downloads, in several formats and languages, of more than 60,000 fiction and non-fiction books, all of which have been published before the American copyright cut-off date, at present 1925. These books are in the public domain; they are not borrowed; they are ours to keep on our device, if we wish.
I learned from members of an online Book Group in 2011 how to down-load from Gutenberg on to my Kindle using a USB cable. Now, the download process is much easier. I do not think I would have been able to have delivered the Talks I gave in the library some 3-4 years ago, on the History and Development of the English Novel, and then on Murder, Mystery, and Thrillers had I not been able to download free from Gutenberg, all the examples of English classic literature I wished to consult and keep. I started with Beowulf and continued with examples to the present day. I explain how to use Gutenberg as well as the main North Yorkshire library web sites below.
Gutenberg poses no threat to the North Yorkshire library service. A link to the Gutenberg web site is given on the North Yorkshire web site.
North Yorkshire continue to hold printed copies of classic books more than 50 years old, but in reduced numbers, a few in e-book format. Jane Austen’s books are some of the exceptions. There are plenty of library copies of her titles. In normal times, thousands of books, many of them fiction, are published every month. Whether their books go into e-book or e-Audiobook format, or not, writers need to have books in printed format to make money if they can, and novelists in particular, are anxious that their books should be present in their local library. Physical storage has now become a real problem. There is a policy of removal of worn and least- read books to avoid libraries being overwhelmed. E-books take little invisible computer storage space, and if they go into “cloud storage”, like my Kindle books, you only see the print when you choose to download the publication. You can select, order and begin to read an e-book at home without leaving the comfort of your chair.
Since the pandemic lock-down, e-book borrowing has become a significant minority interest . During the lock down, the libraries were closed so no printed books were going in or out. E-books and e-Audiobooks were the only borrowing concerns of the libraries nation-wide. No printing presses were operating and therefore, no new printed books were being published. One major supplier of new books to North Yorkshire County library went out of business. The movement of people was severely curtailed. Even when there was an easing of restrictions, and libraries were opening their doors again, albeit in a carefully managed way, many older and the most vulnerable borrowers stayed at home, fearful of going out into a public space. The footfall in libraries country-wide was much reduced. At the time of writing, with the steady increase of corvid 19 cases again in the country, another national lock-down is about to come into force. By a fortunate coincidence, North Yorkshire had just completed an overhaul of their comprehensive library web-site just before their branch libraries close for a second time, giving us a chance to re-consider our e- borrowing options.
In recent days, there has been considerable discussion nation-wide about the rise in the numbers of borrowers asking for more e-books to. These titles are not cheap for libraries to procure. North Yorkshire Library been holding titles in e-format for some time. I’ve made a note of nearly 100 e-book authors which interest me, some of whose books I have read as either e-books or printed copies. I append some of them (my choice, of course) to give you an idea of the choice our library has to offer. More are appearing each time I look. See https://northyorks.overdrive.com/ for the latest impressive number, and you can download any of these by clicking/finger-tapping any one of your choice, if you already have the Overdrive – Libby app on your device. See below.
The e-book format usually accompanies the book in hard back, paperback, eAudiobook and CD formats on the web site. I have found one exception; there maybe more. Margaret Irwin whose historical novels inspired Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory, is represented by just 4 e-books. I loved her books as a teenager, especially, Young Bess. Josephine Tey, the great crime writer who like Margaret Irwin, wrote from the 1930s-50s is represented by a number of titles. I have just downloaded the single e-book copy of her book The Daughter of Time, voted in 1990 by the Crime Writer’s Association as no. 1 in The Top 100 Crime Novels of all Time. It concerns a modern police officer’s investigation into the alleged crimes of Richard III. Did he kill those little princes in the tower? The e-book was being borrowed initially, but I was informed by email 3 days after, that it was available for download. This highlights a growing problem with e-book borrowing when the number of copies available of a popular book is only 1. Will the library eventually be able to afford more than 1 copy?
You can of course, download eAudiobooks, but not CDs, for which there is a rental to pay in the library. In around 6 months, from March 2020, some 3000 borrowers and would -be borrowers asked North Yorkshire library service to provide more e-books. With branch libraries closed or partially open, more people are joining the library online to make use of North Yorkshire’s e-book collections. Normally, if you want to join, and it is free, you would go to your local library, or online to https://www.northyorks.gov.uk/libraries-general-information, but the covid pandemic has made other arrangements necessary. There is a web site to consult:
Membership card numbers and PIN will be emailed to you separately. To join the library, renew
membership or get your PIN number, please call tel. 01609 533878.
Equipment, and Overdrive – Libby App Required
You cannot download and read any library ebook, or listen to any eAudiobook until you have installed the Overdrive – Libby app from either the Google Play Apps or Apple Apps (for i-pads). For more help, go to the main web site https://www.northyorks.gov.uk/libraries-0 and choose Digital Library/Download e-books, e-magazines and digital audio books. Scan the list below on the screen to find Launch Overdrive and Libby….. I am not yet an e-Audiobook listener. I have also a desk top PC. for main typing tasks.
Since 2018, I have used an Amazon Fire 10, a combined tablet-Kindle for e-book reading, the internet and email. Amazon then did not provide easy access to Google Play to get the Overdrive Libby app. I had to seek expert advice to down-load the app. However, there was success eventually. The Overdrive – Libby App was down-loaded and I’m very happy with the result. Now, I understand from a friend who has recently acquired an Amazon Fire 10, that the download for her presented no problem whatsoever, and like me, she is thoroughly satisfied with the tablet and is enjoying having the best of all worlds. There are dedicated e-readers available to buy online , but some people go for an Apple i-pad , or a tablet to have access to email and the internet as well. Choose a tablet or i-pad, if possible with a viewing screen of 8 or10 inch in size, with a back- lit screen and access to Google Play, if non-Apple. If you have an old Kindle and want to upgrade, go for the Amazon Fire 10. Reading from it is a very comfortable experience indeed. It also has an excellent camera for Zoom. E-books can be read uncomfortably from an i-phone or Smart phone.
How to borrow an e-book or e-Audiobook and a selection of Authors with e-books in the North Yorkshire Library,
The selection below is based on the authors of some e-books I’ve read and also what I observed from borrowing habits relating to printed books when I was working as a library volunteer in Settle Community library. In each case, I checked whether the author’s work was offered also in the e-book format. To see what is on offer, go to https://capitadiscovery.co.uk/northyorkshire/ and save the web site as a Favourite. This web site is a link from the main one (above). You will use the capitaldiscovery web site the most. It is a good idea to become thoroughly acquainted with what it has to offer. On my P.C., I need only to type in the Search slot once, but on my tablet, a second or third attempt is often required. The experience with your device may be different. The web site demands a correct spelling. It has no imagination to guess a title or author’s name with just one letter missing or one incorrect. Therefore, type correctly a chosen author’s name. When the list of his/her publications appears, scroll down to find which is in e-format.
If you would like to borrow any, click/finger-tap Check Availability. When the next screen appears, read the information carefully. Have you membership and pin numbers ready and then click/finger-tap Log in to request . Follow the rest of the instructions. Decide whether you want 7, 14 or 21 days of borrowing time. The e-book or e Audiobook will go into your Download folder. To activate the e-book, click/finger tap on the download. The book opens and its presence is then located in the Overdrive folder where you are told to choose the reading time from 7,14 or 21days The number decreases day by day. At the end, the book disappears. Delete it from the Downloads. Recently I chose 21 days to read Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, a sequel to and better than The Handmaid’s Tale in my view. As I had read it in a week, a polite request appeared to the effect that since I had read the book, did I want it removed before the 21 days of borrowing time were up? I wrote “Yes”, and the e-book melted into the ether. You can borrow 3-4 e-books at any one time and can download an e-book for a second time, provided it is not reserved for anyone else.
Here is a selected list of authors with e-books mostly in adult fiction:
Diane Allen, Isabel Allende, Simon Armitage, Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, David Baldacci, Muriel Barbery, Sebastian Barry, Julian Barnes, Alan Bennett, William Boyd, Bill Bryson, Julia Chapman, Lee Child, Tracy Chevalier, Ann Cleeves, Bernard Cornwell, Emma Donaghue, Helen Dunmore, Sebastian Faulks, Elena Ferrante, Leah Fleming, Ken Follett, Gillian Galbraith, Stacey Halls, Joanne Harris, Robert Harris, Victoria Hislop, Dinah Jefferies, Linda La Plante, Hilary Mantel, Val McDermid, Ian McEwan, Santa Montefiore, Michelle Obama, Amanda Owen, Ann Patchett, Terry Pratchett, Ian Rankin, Danielle Steele, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler, Sally Vickers……and many more.
The E-reading Experience
E- book reading has had to face some opposition. “I prefer real books” is a common utterance. I love browsing through the printed books in my several book cases. It is a pleasure to sit and look at them and sometimes, re-read. I tend to read a mixture of e-books and printed books. The authenticity of a book is less to do with whether it is digitally produced or printed, but more to do with the pleasure and learning capacity of the reading experience. There are no physical limitations as with printed books, the library circulation of which is being severely curtailed by the covid pandemic. Novels in an e-book format can be read quickly; you lightly touch a page to turn it, not flick it over. Both Kindle and the Overdrive Libby app, open at the page you have left when you return for another reading session.
On October 23rd, the following article appeared in the Books section of the online Guardian, which explains the current situation clearly:
“Library ebook lending surges as UK turns to fiction during lock-down.”
Ebooks need not damage the library’s place in the community, nor the position of printed books at all. Krystal Vittles, the head of the Suffolk library services in a later Guardian article thinks that the digital revolution will bring advantages, not disadvantages:
No doubt, the future will reveal all.
In c .1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press in Strasbourg and introduced the modern era of mass communication of information and knowledge. The e-book revolution is nowhere near as world-changing where communication and the speedy spread of knowledge are concerned. What the e-book is doing is working alongside the printed book to enlarge the sphere of communication and broaden the base along which knowledge and information are disseminated. What is most important, is that it has the means to bring into the public domain the knowledge, learning and wisdom of past ages. The secular culture of major western countries has had a tendency to disregard the “dead language” of the past. Many do not see it as the bedrock of what we read and learn today. Project Gutenberg with their offer of free books for the last nearly 50 years have been doing their utmost to right the balance with their offer on every conceivable subject and in several of the world’s major languages, free books published before 1925.
To go to Gutenberg Home page , click on/finger touch https://www.gutenberg.org There is a lot to read on this page. You will learn eventually that Gutenberg downloads books in several formats. If you use Overdrive, choose epub; if Kindle, choose mobi. Alternatively, you can choose to download as txt (text), or html to read online. You can choose the latter without any extra software, so have a go.
Next, choose Search and Browse, followed by Browsing Options on the next page. Decide whether you want to go for the title or the author. I usually choose the author so that I can see what works are on offer. Scroll with your finger at the right hand side. It may take some time. As soon as you highlight the author’s or title’s name, you are taken to a list of formats to download.
I give 3 examples:
- I go for Wilkie Collins and his novel Armadale, which is another of his excellent mystery novels. I already have read and have kept The Woman in White, The Moonstone and No Name in my e-library. The format I choose is epub, which is the one used by Overdrive – Libby. An instruction to OPEN appears at the bottom. I click on it and Armadale appears in the Overdrive folder, besides the books on loan from the library. Go to the Downloads folder on your tablet where the book first landed. The last item at the top is your book identified by a numerical code. Click/finger-tap the 3 dots at the right and choose Rename. Type the name Armadale. You also can Delete the book from here, when you wish to remove it.
- I enjoy the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and I’d like to have an e-book copy of his work. I select The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and then, because I have a combined-Kindle tablet, I choose mobi –for download. When the line of text appears at the bottom, telling me the book has downloaded, I select Open to check. I then close the Gutenberg web site and go to Downloads. The new file with a numerical code is at the top. I go to the 3 dots at the right and choose Re-name. The name I choose is of course, The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. If I want to Delete, then I choose that. Unlike, the Amazon Kindle and Overdrive systems, the page you left is not memorised, even though you have used the mobi format. The book of course, is from Gutenberg and not from an Amazon source for the Kindle. Before you end the reading session, you need to note the location. Alternatively, you could read to the end of a chapter in a novel and note the number of the next one. When you return to the book, pull out a menu from the left side, and choose either the chapter number/heading, or Go to for the location.
A disadvantage is that e-book pages are not so easy to find without noting down the location beforehand. That is necessary if one wants to go back to re-read a section on a previous page. If you tap a page twice in quick succession, you learn where the location is and what percentage has been read. When you return to the book, pull out the menu from the left side, and choose Go to for the location. Overdrive does not provide a left side pull-out contents menu.
- As I have explained previously, if you have a tablet that has no Overdrive-Libby or Kindle app, you can still read Gutenberg books by choosing the html format (better than txt) and read from the internet. Save as a Favourite. There are quite a few titles children might enjoy in Gutenberg’s store. You could download all the Beatrix Potter stories if you wish. All E.Nesbitt books are available. I’ve downloaded my favourite The Railway Children. On my tablet, all the chapters are highlighted on the internet screen for easy access. The background is cream , but the print is still easy to read. This is a good way to try out this new method of reading books before you download the Overdrive – Libby app.
To give you an idea what novels and stories are on offer amongst the Gutenberg books, here is a selection of novelists and writers. Most are from the 19th or early 20th century.
Daniel Defoe, Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, William Thackeray, Mary Webb, H.G.Wells, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Anne Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Arnold Bennett, Anthony Trollope, John Galsworthy, E.M.Forster, Agatha Christie, Rudyard Kipling, Wilkie Collins, Louisa Alcott, Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Nathaniel Hawthorn, O.Henry, Eden Phillpotts, Edgar Wallace, Rose Macaulay, Katherine Mansfield, Samuel Pepys, Arthur Conan Doyle, A.E.W. Mason, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lytton Strachey, Edith Wharton, John Buchan, Edgar Allen Poe, Lewis Carroll, P.G. Wodehouse, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Beatrix Potter, Virginia Woolf. Jerome K Jerome, Henry James, Bram Stoker, Frederick Marryat, Sir Walter Scott. G.K. Chesterton, Rafael Sabatini, H. Rider Haggard. Oscar Wilde. Charles Kingsley.
New Developments for Book Groups
A meeting of the Book Group of which I am a member, was due to take place at the end of March 2020 and was postponed until the end of November 2020. It was my turn to introduce the book, on this occasion, Stacey Hall’s The Familiars. All the printed borrowed copies had been returned to the library, but I had the e-book copy on my tablet. Before I left home, I downloaded the book and left the tablet open at the page I wanted. The tablet then went into “sleep mode”. Because the download had not been disturbed, the book was still available for reference in a house where the tablet was not receiving wifi. This experience points the way to which tablets can be used much more in Book Groups, especially when there is a shortage of printed copies. Book Groups cannot meet physically during a lock-down,. I’ve just heard from a friend in Surrey of a Book Group, where all the members, who live in different counties, have tablets or i-pads. They propose to down-load from Gutenberg one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels and discuss its contents together on Zoom. Only Gutenberg can offer free limitless copies of one e-book title at the present time. When the libraries are able to do that, there will indeed be a revolution in verbal, pictorial and oral communication.
Kathleen Kinder Nov 2020
Among English-language poets this rare title has been held for well over a century by William McGonagall. Many people who enjoy literature will know his name and be aware of the accolade. But who was he? What poetry did he write and why is it so bad? And why is he regarded as the greatest of the bad poets? Here I shall try to answer the questions.
I – McGonagall’s life and creative process
William McGonagall was born in 1825, to impoverished cottage weavers who had come over to Scotland from Donegal. First they tried Edinburgh, where William was born, then Glasgow, and then Paisley, finally settling in Dundee. In 1846 William married Jean King, a lady of Stirling, thereafter spending most of their lives in Dundee. Jean was illiterate (she had to sign William’s death certificate with a cross) so she was perhaps not the obvious partner for an aspiring litterateur; and there is not one mention in William’s writing of Jean or of the seven children they had. So the marriage is hard to fathom.
While working in the family weaving business William became smitten with the theatre, above all with Shakespeare. He began to think of himself primarily as an actor, eventually going freelance and giving performances that, in his own description, were tumultuously received. As a thespian, William was not short of self-confidence: he once rewrote Macbeth in order not to be killed off in the final act because in his view the actor playing Macduff (Macbeth’s murderer) was merely trying to upstage him.
Once he had mastered Shakespeare, William went on to write poetry of his own, and then to declaim his verse in public, perhaps aiming to emulate Dickens, whose public readings had been lucrative sell-outs.
In 1878 William walked the sixty miles from Dundee to Balmoral with the intention of asking Queen Victoria to appoint him “The Queen’s Poet”, apparently unperturbed by the fact that Tennyson was already Poet Laureate. The Queen did not receive William, but he was treated kindly, fed and watered, and politely sent packing.
He then tried performing further afield, travelling by boat to London in 1880. Touring did not make him any money, but in 1887, at the age of 62, he tried again, this time in New York. What made him think that New York audiences would comprehend him, let alone flock to hear him, is hard to imagine. Unsurprisingly his misjudgement cost him dear, so much so that he had to cadge the fare home from a fellow Dundonian in the city.
Throughout his career, William was roundly mocked, and nowhere more hurtfully than in Dundee. At some of his appearances fruit and eggs were thrown, and for a while the city magistrates made him refrain from performing. Regardless, William kept his head down and continued writing. His apparent ability to shrug off denigration and turn in on himself has prompted one psychologist to suggest that William perhaps lay somewhere on the Asperger’s to Autism spectrum.
In 1890 a letter unexpectedly arrived advising that the King of Burma had appointed William a Grand Knight of the Holy Order of the White Elephant, with the title Sir William Topaz McGonagall. Whether William saw this as a hoax or simply ignored is not recorded; but thereafter he took to advertising himself under his new honorific.
Nevertheless, his money problems kept mounting. Friends bailed him out in 1890 by financing the first publication of his work, a volume wordily entitled Poetic gems selected from the works of William McGonagall, poet and tragedian, with biographical sketch by the author and portrait. Poetic Gems contains the first 32 poems of the 258 that William eventually composed.
In 1893, tired of Dundee, he declared that he was intending to leave the city forthwith. Mockery still followed him, though; for someone on the local paper wrote waspishly that because Dundee rhymed conveniently with 1893 William was unlikely to leave that year – and indeed he didn’t depart until 1894.
In his final years, having moved to Edinburgh, William must have cut a very sad figure. He remained poor and became increasingly ill. He died in 1902, at the age of 77, of a cerebral haemorrhage. He is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirkyard.
I turn now to William’s poetic process. He writes that in June 1877, when he was 52, some form of divine combustion consumed him, turning him instantly into a fully-fledged poet. Here is how he describes his transformation:
“A flame, as Lord Byron has said, seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry; and I felt so happy, so happy that I was inclined to dance, then I began to pace backwards and forwards in the room, trying to shake off all thought of writing poetry; but the more I tried, the more strong the sensation became. It was so strong, I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, ‘Write” Write!’ So I said to myself, ruminating, let me see; what shall I write?…”
He then proceeded “while under the divine inspiration” to write his first poem, a piece in praise of his recently deceased friend, the Reverend George Gilfillan (1877). Signing his poem “W.M’G., Dundee” he dropped it through the letterbox of the Dundee Weekly News, which published it. After that there was no holding William back. He carried on writing in an unbroken stream, covering events great and small, for twenty-five more years, right up to his death.
So why is his verse regarded as so bad? What are its hallmarks?
The short answer is his determination to make his lines rhyme – no matter what. If it rhymed it was poetry. It didn’t matter how long each line turned out to be nor whether the stressed syllable in each word fell in the right place. He either had no respect for, or did not understand, metre. Worse, his vocabulary is of the most banal.
Now see for yourself!
II – Extracts from his poems
It is arguably The Tay Bridge Disaster that brought William to prominence both in and beyond Dundee. On December 28th, 1879, the railway bridge across the Firth of Tay collapsed in a severe gale as a train was crossing on its journey to Dundee. The entire train fell into the Firth, with the loss of all lives. This horrifying event got William’s creative juices flowing. Here are the first and last verses of the poem he completed a month after the event.
The Tay Bridge Disaster (1880)
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.
These lines pick up characteristics from William’s first poems, and they reappear time and time again through to his last. Note:
- reference to the Firth of Tay as “silv’ry”. The Tay occurs often in his poems, and it is always silver, never blue or angry or sparkling, or anything else
- the widely differing lengths of the two verses
- William’s readiness to ride roughshod over grammatical correctness in order to force a rhyme, as in the two lines beginning “Had they been supported…”
- the banality of “Which will be remember’d for a very long time”, which occurs four times
These self-same features – cliché, lack of metre, and forced rhyme – figure prominently in the extracts below, taken from two further poems written ten years apart:
The Inauguration of the College of Dundee (1883)
I hope the ladies and gentlemen of Dundee will try and learn knowledge
At home in Dundee in their nice little College,
Because knowledge is sweeter than honey or jam,
Therefore let them try and gain knowledge as quick as they can.
Lines in Memoriam Regarding the Entertainment I Gave on the 31st March, 1893, in Reform Street Hall, Dundee
’Twas on the 31st of March, and in the year of 1893,
I gave an entertainment in the city of Dundee,
To a select party of gentlemen, big and small,
Who appreciated my recital in Reform Street Hall.
The meeting was convened by J. P. Smith’s manager, High Street,
And many of J. P. Smith’s employees were there me to greet,
And several other gentlemen within the city,
Who were all delighted with the entertainment they got from me…
For sheer banality, as well as lack of metre, the line beginning “The meeting was convened…” strikes me as verging on genius.
That same year William wrote up his decision to leave Dundee:
A New Year’s Resolution to Leave Dundee (1893)
Every morning when I go out
The ignorant rabble they do shout
‘There goes Mad McGonagall’
In derisive shouts as loud as they can bawl,
And lifts stones and snowballs, throws them at me;
And such actions are shameful to be heard in the city of Dundee…
Nevertheless, he couldn’t keep away altogether, for here he is, three years later, covering the Dundee Flower Show:
The Dundee Flower Show (1886)
The Industrial School Boys Band were there on Saturday
And played most eloquent music both plaintive and gay
Which met with the appreciation of the people there
And for the time being helped drive away dull care
For beauty such plants and flowers here have been seen
That were displayed in the Flower Show on the Magdalen Green
Especially plants in pots, were most lovely to see
Belonging to W. P. Laird & Sinclair, Dundee
On top of everything else, the second verse betrays a shaky grasp of punctuation.
Finally, here is his poem on the coronation of Edward VII.
The Coronation of King Edward VII (1902)
And as the Archbishop approached to put the crown on his head,
A silence fell on the great congregation, as of the dead,
Because they saw the Archbishop seemed pale and shaky with dread,
And felt unable to put the crown on the King’s head,
But the King saw what was wrong, but he didn’t frown,
And with the aid of his own hands he put on the crown.
When Queen Alexandra was being crowned she looked lovely and gay,
And the ceremony took only a few minutes’ delay,
And the King permitted the Archbishop to retire to his chair,
Likewise the Primate felt very weak, he was well aware.
The sameness of William’s output throughout his life is remarkable. You cannot pick up an undated piece of MacGonagall and say, “Well, that’s an early one” or “That’s from his middle period” because in twenty-five years of writing William developed his technique not one bit.
That is why, perhaps, he is regarded as the greatest of the bad poets, and why he will be remember’d for a very long time.
Having been consumed by the same fiery poetic spirit that consumed William, I round off this piece with two verses of my own of which I hope he would approve.
To the beautiful town of Settle (in respectful acknowledgement of the Tay Bridge Disaster)
Elegant ladies and gentlemen of the beautiful town of Settle,
Which is set so fair on the banks of the silv’ry Ribble,
Your tow’ring crags and tea-rooms little, most nourishingly the Naked Man and the Singing Kettle,
Do cast a wondrous spell and cause a poet to scribble
By the beautiful banks of the silv’ry Ribble!
But many sensible men does say
That even poets must learn to call it a day
Along the beautiful banks of the silv’ry Ribble.
So now I must end my modest little article,
Which among English letters is but an insignificant little particle,
For the more I do make my verses shorter,
At any rate to be no longer than they ought to,
The less I shall make the elegant citizens of Settle to be bored,
And the less chance I have of being ignored.
For those who would like to know more about William McGonagall and his work, I recommend the McGonagall online website. It contains much detail about his life, and most of his works. If you would like to hear Scotsman Roy Macready recite The Tay Bridge Disaster, it can be found on YouTube. It runs for 3½ minutes.
North Yorkshire County Council libraries hold one copy of William McGonagall – Collected Poems, 2006. Also available is a CD narrated by Scottish actor David Rintoul, entitled William McGonagall…the world’s worst poet? (2016).
Appendix – metre, rhyme and vocabulary in poetry
While most people can recognise and appreciate poetry when they hear it, the technical terms that define it are perhaps less well known, so a short explanation may be helpful.
English words are heavily stressed, so, for example we always say “bacon” with the stress on the first syllable and “about” with the stress on the second. Stressed syllables falling in a regular pattern are what makes poetry poetry. Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, but it does need the regularity that stressed syllables provide, and the pattern of regularity that poets use is known as metre, or sometimes scansion.
To quote Wordsworth:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils…
Here there are eight syllables to each line, and the natural stress in each word provides a steady rhythm.
The use of rhyme – or not – is entirely up to the poet. Shakespeare, for example, uses relatively little rhyme, quite often reserving a couple of rhyming lines to round off a lengthy speech. On the other hand, in the daffodils piece above, Wordsworth is keen to rhyme, and he keeps it up through the whole poem. In the short extract above rhyming words occur at every other line: cloud/crowd in lines 1 and 3, and hills/daffodils in lines 2 and 4.
Down the years, the combination of rhythm and rhyme have made Wordsworth’s verse both memorable and enjoyable to countless readers.
To be memorable, poetry often places together – juxtaposes – words that we wouldn’t normally see together. Here is the opening to Samuel Taylor-Coleridge’s Kubla Khan:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Unexpected juxtapositions that stick in the mind here are stately/pleasure; caverns/measureless; and sunless/sea. The rhythm and rhymes too are as regularly patterned as in Wordsworth.
Incidentally, what can be said about poetry can also be said about music. Music doesn’t have to have a tune to be music, but it does have to have rhythm.
LAWRENCE DURRELL – THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET
The Alexandria Quartet. No, not a small band of string players but the crowning achievement of English novelist Lawrence Durrell, and arguably one of the great literary masterpieces of the twentieth century.
Lawrence George Durrell1 was born in India in 1912 to British colonial parents. Sent off to England at the age of eleven for his education, then failing to make it into Cambridge, Durrell took his disenchantment abroad, spending much of his life in the eastern Mediterranean. He first became known for his poetry; his prose writing took some years to achieve recognition but has remained his enduring legacy. To augment his income from writing Durrell worked for some years for the Foreign Office. His official postings and private sojourns during and after World War II inspired much of his work – and “inspire” is the right word: he writes memorably of Corfu, Rhodes, Cyprus and Egypt. He finally settled in Provence, where he lived for thirty years before his death in 1990.
The four novels that form The Alexandria Quartet were published between 1957 and 1960. In order they are Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958), and Clea (1960), each book taking its title from one of its leading characters. The first three present the perspectives of different people of a single set of events in Alexandria in the years just before the Second World War; the fourth book is set six years later.
In his preface Durrell says that “this group of four novels is intended to be read as a single work”, and I have found for myself that it does indeed work properly only as one whole thing. Durrell describes it as “an investigation of modern love”. Modern love is shot through with sexual and political intrigue, some of the relationships conducted à deux, some as triangles, others as polygons. The fraying fabric on which Durrell’s characters weave their web of interactions, perceptions and reminiscences is the city of Alexandria, beautiful and repellent.
The city is the one constant in the whole work, and Durrell’s portrayal of it sticks in the mind: his prose-poetry is unsurpassed at conveying its sights, smells and tastes. Margaret Drabble describes Durrell’s style as “ornate, lyrical and sensual, perhaps too much so for English tastes…” and she argues that, perhaps for that reason, The Quartet has been much more highly regarded outside England than within. Personally, I don’t find Durrell’s writing “too much”. Here is a small sample, taken from the opening paragraphs of the first book.
“Five languages, five races, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar… Light filtered through the essence of lemons. An air full of brick-dust, sweet-smelling brick-dust, and the odour of hot pavements slaked with water… The sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion.”
The principal narrator of The Quartet is an impoverished teacher of English, L. G. Darley (the initials those of Durrell himself). Chief among the Egyptian characters are members of the Coptic, i.e. Christian, Hosnani family. The eldest son, Nessim, is married to Justine, a beautiful Jewish girl whom he plucked from abject poverty. Nessim’s younger, hare-lipped brother, Narouz, is swept up in the rising tide of anti-British resentment that began in the 1930s and exploded in the Suez conflict of 1956. Narouz is trouble, and he eventually pays with his life, though at whose hand is not clear.
The sexual intrigues mingle Egyptians and expatriates. In the opening book Darley is the lover of Melissa, a Greek night-club dancer (and a little more besides) but has just begun a clandestine affair with Justine Hosnani. Justine’s personal magnetism is irresistible, but she is unreadable, unpredictable and untamed – a handful, one might say. She is not the only Hosnani playing away: her mother-in-law, Leila, is conducting a passionate relationship with a much younger British diplomat, David Mountolive; that affair drives some of the later narrative. These relationships are fraught with danger, creating tensions that Durrell exploits with great skill.
Mountolive recruits another Alexandrian ex-pat, the novelist Pursewarden, as his advisor, i.e. spy. Pursewarden is led into a painful conflict between friendship and duty, and it ends badly. Pursewarden’s own story is related by another narrator, Balthazar, who gives his name to the second book. Darley and Balthazar exchange reminiscences throughout The Quartet, the second narrator subtly revealing further perspectives on the same set of events.
The main characters are educated, articulate and generally not wealthy – except for the Hosnanis, who are filthy rich. But the secondary characters play vitally important roles. Durrell uses Darley’s connections to depict the lower life of Alexandria – as well as to throw in some howlingly funny dialogue and scenes. (There is a parallel here with Shakespeare’s knockabout characters popping up in serious drama.) We are thus entertained by Scobie, transvestite and closet homosexual (“I have The Tendency, old man”) who is, improbably, recruited into the Egyptian police force. Shockingly, El Scob, as he is known to the Egyptians, one evening goes prowling the docks in drag and is beaten to death by British sailors. Equally unforgettably, there appears Pombal, a minor overweight French consular official. Such a delicious name: you can almost hear the air whistling out of a leather cushion as he sits down. Pombal routinely struggles for the right English phrase in translation. The French phrase émissions nocturnes sur les ondes courtes (intended to mean night-time broadcasts on the short wave) emerges in Pombal’s English as nocturnal emissions on the short hairs.
The fourth and final book, Clea, provides a sense of passing time which the previous three do not. It covers the war years and after, adding to and nudging our earlier understanding of what had taken place. Clea is a Greek artist with a lesbian past, notwithstanding which she and Darley begin a brief affair after bumping into each other in the street. Thus the sexual provender of Alexandria, noted at the beginning of the quartet, remains unexhausted at the end.
Clea reveals that, while war prevents Mountolive and Leila from forming a permanent relationship, happiness continues to elude them when it is over, for reasons which I will not divulge here. Improbably, Justine and Nessim reunite in a relationship that is physically and intellectually satisfying. Balthazar and Clea pursue their separate lives in Alexandria. Darley takes himself off to a remote Greek island with the dead Melissa’s illegitimate child, there to write his recollections.
So, no happy ending and no sad one either, and, in a sense, no ending at all. Durrell’s thesis is that, amid the characters’ diverse perceptions of what went on, there is no such thing as the objective truth. There are only individual perceptions of it, and these may overlap, but they are never completely congruent and do not necessarily lead to conclusions.
Durrell is undeniably demanding on his readers’ education and concentration, but that is how he casts his spell. The Quartet is a lengthy read too, some 900 pages in standard paperback format. But what a rewarding read it is! During my adult life I have read The Quartet three times, always end-to-end without a break, and each time have found it more satisfying than the time before. I am not ashamed to say that, despite the plethora of other pleasures in modern English writing, I feel a fourth reading coming on.
Endnote: There are three copies of The Alexandria Quartet available through NYCC libraries. Note also that the first of the four books, Justine, was filmed in 1969, with Anouk Aimée as the title character. It failed to do justice to Durrell’s language or vision and was deservedly panned by the critics. It was a financial flop too. Well worth avoiding!
1 Lawrence Durrell was the eldest brother of Gerald Durrell, who is best known for his TV zoo series, drawn from his book My Family and Other Animals.