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Baswoods Books

Club Read 2018

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Dec 27, 2017, 7:58pm Top

Starting the New year with some categories for books to read. I like to have a list of what to read otherwise I might spend too much time hesitating to pick up the next book. The age old problem of ‘What to read next’ is circumvented.

Everything Tudor - Literature, History, Drama:

The School Of Abuse - Stephen Gosson
The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy - M C Bradbrook
The Shepherds Calendar - Edmund Spenser
Zelauto - Anthony Munday
The True Tragedy of Richard III - anonymous
Poetry and Courtliness in Renaissance England - Daniel Javitch1580 - Robert Greene Mamillia (on line books)
Mamillia - Robert Greene
Barnaby Riche, his farewell to militaire proffesion (online books)
George Peele - The Arraignement of Paris
The English Novel in the time of Shakespeare - J J Jusserand
Campapsi, Sapho and Phao - John Lyly
Voyages and Discoveries - Richard Hakluyt
Portuguese Voyages 1498-1663 edited by C. D. Ley
The Spanish Armada - Colin Martin & Geoffrey Parker
English Romayne life - Anthony Munday
Meleager - William Gager
Hecatomphthia or passionate century of love - Thomas Watson
The Anatomy of Abuses - Philip Stubbs
Philip Sidney: A double life - Alan Stewart
Astrophel and Stella - Philip Sidney
The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia - Philip Sidney
An apology for poetry - Philip Sidney

Also a couple of essential books from the Continent published in the 16th century:

Essays - Michel de Montaigne
Jerusalem Delivered - Torquato Tasso

Books from my Shelves
From the top left hand corner of my shelves books that I have not read, I am thinking that there must be a reason why I have kept these books.

Peter Ackroyd - English Music
Jorg Amado - The double death of Quinces Water-bray
Hans Christian Anderson - Eighty Fairy tales
Mary Angelou - I know why the caged birds sing
Mary Angelou - The heart of the woman
Margarey Atwood - Surfacing
Jane Austen - Mansfield Park
Paul Auster - Invisible
Paul Auster - True tales of American life
Lynn Alexander - Resonating bodies
Poul Anderson - The boat of a million years
Isaac Asimov - Robot visions
Isaac Asimov - a choice of catastrophes
Issac Asimov - foundation and earth
Isaac Asimov - forward the foundation
Isaac Asimov - The rest of the robots
Isaac Asimov - nightfall two
Isaac Asimov - Asimov chronicles

Fleur Adcock - selected poems
W H Auden - Selected poems.
Karen Armstrong - A history of God.

The end is in sight for my Doris Lessing Project and so I have these books left to read:

Walking in the Shade; part two of her autobiography
Mara and Dann
Ben in the World
The Sweetest Dream
The Grandmothers
The Story of General Dann and Mara’s daughter
The Cleft
Alfred and Emily

Science Fiction when it wasn’t called science fiction

1751 The life and astonishing adventures of John Daniel - Ralph Morris
1771 Memoirs of the year two thousand five hundred - Louis Sebastien Mercier
1781 Discovery by a flying man - Restif de la Bretonne
1803 The Temple of Nature - Erasmus Darwin
1805 The last man - Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville
1836 Three Hundred years Hence - Mary Griffiths
1848 Charles Rowcroft - The Triumph of Women
1851 Gulliver Joi - Elbert Perce
1858 Phantastes - George McDonald
1858 The Diamond Lens - Fitz-James O’Brien
1863 Paris in the 20th century - Jules Verne

Science Fiction from the early 1950’s

A E van Vogt - The voyage of the Space Beagle
Albert Joseph Guerard - Night Journey
L Sprague de Camp - Genus homo
Paul Capon - The other side of the sun
Ray Bradbury - The illustrated man
L Sprague du camp - Rogue Queen
Arthur C Clarke - Prelude to Space
Hal Clement - Ice World
Philip Jose Farmer - The lovers
Austin Hall - The Blind Spot
Alfred Bester - The demolished Man
Ward Moore - Bring the Jubilee
Theodore Sturgeon - More than Human
Frederik Pohl & C M Kornbluth - The Space Merchants
Arthur C Clarke - Childhoods End
Richard Matheson - I Am legend
Hal Clement - Mission of Gravity

Dec 31, 2017, 6:08am Top

Just dropping by to tell you I'll be lurking around here. I'll be interested in your thoughts on Maya Angelou and Paul Auster in particular. I think I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a very touching novel.

Dec 31, 2017, 12:29pm Top

Same here, and happy new year to you baswood! Surely that age-old problem of what to read next is one of life’s delicious pleasures?

Edited: Jan 2, 7:04pm Top

The Schoole of Abuse by Stephen Gosson
This pamphlet was published in 1579 and dedicated to Master Philip Sidney and its full title was:

"The Schoole of Abuse, Conteining a plesaunt invective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Iesters and such like Caterpillers of a commonwealth; Setting vp the Flagge of Defiance to their mischieuous exercise, and ouerthroing their Bulwarkes, by Prophane Writers, Naturall reason, and common experience”

Gosson has been described as a satirist, a playwright and a pastoralist, but only incomplete versions of his plays survive and none of his pastorals and so we are left with his The Schoole of Abuse into which Philip Sidney is asked to enter. I expected to read a rant against the evils and corrupting influence of poetry and plays from the standpoint of an advocate of the new protestant religion bordering on Puritanism. However while there are plenty of arguments as to how 16th century culture in respect of poetry and plays was undermining the moral fabric of society there is very little evidence taken from/or reference to the bible.

Two things struck me immediately. First was the style of writing which draws heavily on John Lyly’s euphuistic approach, with its extended sentences containing any number of example, some of which appear almost contradictory and certainly hint at dualism. It does not have the intricate word play that is so striking in Lyly’s work but its ornate style makes it sound quite similar. The second thing that stands out is the overwhelming number of references to classical authors; if Gosson was intent on showing his humanist education and background then he certainly does this in this pamphlet. The references keep coming; sentence after sentence.
Here is an example of Gosson’s style and also contains his underlying theme that men of his own time are losing their manly and martial qualities through the influences of poetry and theatre going:

“Oh what a woonderfull chaunge is this? Our wreastling at armes, is turned to wallowyng in Ladies laps, our courage to cowardice, our running to ryot, our Bowes into Bolles, and our Dartes to Dishes. We haue robbed Greece of Gluttonie, Italy of wantonnesse, Spaine of pride, Fraunce of deceite, and Dutchland of quaffing.”

Gosson himself wrote plays for the theatre and he is keen to stress that he is not condemming all theatrical productions and he is also concerned that by highlighting the abuses he is teaching them rather than forbidding them. He is a man not without a sense of humour who can see the possible falseness of his own position. After the publication of this pamphlet he retired from London to the country and eventually took holy orders.

He has provided an interesting footnote to Sixteenth century culture and one which at the time sparked a response from Sir Philip Sidney. It may today appear rather ambiguous, but I don’t think it is satirical. I found it interesting and enjoyed reading it. 3 stars

Jan 1, 4:36pm Top

I had planned to start English Music today, but this morning went up to our friends house to help clear away the empties after last nights party. Discovered a couple of unopened bottles of champagne and the rest of the day sort of slid away.

Jan 2, 5:07pm Top

>5 baswood: sounds like an auspicious start to the year!

Jan 2, 8:24pm Top

Seems like you have a good year of reading planned out. All of the books on your 50s science fiction list are also ones I'm intending to read eventually, aside from the couple I already have. Looking forward to following all your reviews.

Jan 3, 9:29pm Top

Goodness, would Gosson approve of the champagne? Or would he lecture you with all that charming spelling? It's January 3 and I don't think I have had a drink in this year yet, perhaps I need the lecture. Wishing you a great year. I do hope to read whatever you post on here.

Edited: Jan 5, 8:00am Top

Jan 5, 8:02am Top

English Music by Peter Ackroyd.
There is something about English Music that stops it from being the great book it wants to be. There are many positives. The story of the life of Timothy Holcomb that binds the book is a good one, full of mystery, great characters and a sense of wonder that is a page turning experience. Alternate chapters are dream visions that lead the reader through ikons of English artistic culture in an attempt to provide a spirit and a feel for what is so uniquely English. No lack of ambition here then; especially as Ackroyd manages in most cases to provide a workable pastiche of the men who he feels are the most influential figures in literature, art and music. The book has a variety of writing styles all held together by the central story which like the dream visions is full of imagination and very well written. What holds it back in my view is an overall feeling of misery and depression and a political message that manages to have a whiff, a malodor of nationalism and if I was being very critical maybe even of racism and sexism.

The book starts with Timothy Holcombe looking back on his life as he revisits an old building in London which served as a meeting hall where he and his father attracted a number of people who were seeking to be cured of their afflictions. His Father Clement was an upbeat individual who by his powerful personality and well modulated speaking voice attracted a number of followers and a few that became part of an inner circle; this inner circle was made up of the lonely and unloved. The climax to the meetings was a healing session where Father and son were able to cure mild afflictions, but it is soon apparent that it is Timothy that has the real power. Clement takes it upon himself to educate his son (his wife had died giving birth to Timothy) and they read together every evening from the great English works of literature. Timothy both loves and admires his father and it comes as a shock to him when his father packs him off to live with his grandfather in the country. The ostensible reason is that Timothy should go to school, but his father has started a relationship with Gloria one of his followers and there is no room for the boy. Timothy has started to have his visions first of all in the safety of his own bed in the form of dreams, but later in times of stress or when feeling unwell. He successfully cures his grandmother of a shaking ailment, but at some cost to himself because it makes him unwell for a time. Timothy seeks out his father in his teenage years back in London and they get back together as a duo although they are not as successful as they were previously and his father disappears again. Their paths cross again later in life when he discovers his father as part of a circus; acting as a magician, he needs little persuasion in becoming again part of his fathers act and they become stronger together; and Timothy is drawn back into using his healing powers.

Timothys dream visions (told in alternate chapters) place the boy in worlds in which he meets characters from famous novels or the authors themselves, he also imagines himself in works of art or as a musician. There are chapters featuring characters from Pilgrims progress and Alice in Wonderland, Great Expectations and a meeting with Charles Dickens, The famous Detective Austin Smallwood who is a dead ringer for Sherlock Holmes, an adventure on Robinson Crusoe’s island, he has a music lesson with William Byrd, he walks the streets of London with Hogarth in search of the perfect line of beauty, He enters into a landscape by Thomas Gainsborough which morphs into one by Constable and then Turner and meets characters from Wuthering Heights and Mill on the Floss, after reading William Blake he composes his own Blake like poem and finally he is in the world of Mallory and Morte D’Arthur with echoes of T S Elliots Waste land. In many of these visions a sense of wonder is created only to be suffused with an impending sense of doom, Timothy himself is never in any real danger, but he sees and feels things that disturb and distress him. Ackroyd links these episodes with events in Timothy’s own life that reflect his thoughts and feelings, but some are more successful than others.

The dream visions are an integral part of the novel and being set out in alternating chapters means that the reader is prepared for what is coming. The main story is suspended while we are in the more imaginary world of Timothy’s dreams. Ackroyd overreaches in some of these sections, I am thinking of the pastiche of the Blake poem which I can imagine many readers skipping over and also in the music lesson with William Byrd, which gets bogged down in musical theory. Some however are a triumph; the walk through London in the company of Hogarth, the swirl of the changing landscapes in the pictures of Constable, Whistler, Turner and Gainsborough; a marvellous imaginary episode from Great Expectations where Dickens characters are recreated in all their grotesque obtuseness. In Ackroyd’s acknowledgment he says:

“The scholarly reader will soon realize that I have appropriated passages from Thomas Browne, Thomas Mallory, William Hogarth, Lewis Carrol, Samuel Johnson, Daniel Defoe, and many other English writers, the alert reader will understand why I have done so”

This could be off putting for some readers who may feel that they will not be “getting” the themes running through the dream visions, but Ackroyd for the most part labels them fairly well. The reader knows which books, artists or musicians that the dreams are based on and the quotes and explanations within the text add further guidance.

Palimpsest is a favourite word of Ackroyd’s he sees history and people from the past blending into present day scenarios, throughout the novel he is looking for these connections like Hogarth walking around the impoverished streets of London looking for the perfect line; the perfect form or Defoe’s idea that music is to be found as much in books as in instruments and that he hit on a “shadowed and hieroglyphical lesson of the whole world.” Ackroyd seems to be searching for a harmony of the spheres that comes originally from Aristotle but was a feature of medieval thought explained in some detail in C S Lewis’s The Discarded Image. The search for an English harmony is only one aspect of this book as another central theme emerges; literature, art and music as a barricade against misery and abandonment. Robinson Crusoe says to Timothy:

“But think not where you are or where you may go, since with these books you are in England, everywhere and under any meridian. Darkness may bury your eyes but not your imagination……… Do you understand how you came by this Island?
‘I came by way of England’
And that is the way you must return, but do not hope to make such a journey in some poor bark without a mast or sail. Feel something of your ancestors within your own self, and trust not simply to your own compass. Fill your sails with English music.”

What is the nature of an Englishman’s inheritance? asks Timothy and at the very end he realises that it is an acknowledgement of his past, and a knowledge gained form the books that he enjoyed with his father.

My misgivings about this book are the messages that it sends. It is no accident that Ackroyd stops his dream visions at the start of the 20th century, he seems to want to go back to a glorious past that on reflection from my standpoint today was not so glorious. I cannot put my finger on why I need to politicise this book, but that is probably inherent in the writing of Ackroyd. It is just so damn conservative. I do not need to think to much about the choices made in the subjects for the dream visions to realise that these are solely the visions of men. Women hardly feature even in the story of the life of Timothy Holcomb; there are no important voices from them.

I enjoyed the story of Timothy Holcomb, I enjoyed many of the dream vision chapters, characters come alive and the ambition of the novel is immense. As usual the London of Ackroyd is dirty, grimy even Dickensian but it has a glorious past. People in the novel live on the edge of desperation, they are for the most part individuals who have trouble in communicating; they are diseased, crippled, dwarfs, or characters from the circus, existing as best they can without human love and warmth. The Holcomb family shine like a beacon among them and even though Clement has his problems and Timothy struggles with his own questions of what he should be in the world, they struggle on in hope of better things to come. English Music is at times a great reading experience even if its themes can get a little preachy, the reader is left in no doubt where Ackroyd stands and this is the issue for me because his politics stink. 4 stars

Jan 5, 8:55am Top

I’ll be here lurking to see how you are doing with your impressive reading goals. I’m interested in the Everything Tudor category.

Jan 6, 6:00pm Top

Enjoy reading about your battles with Ackroyd and what appears to be his version of the entire English literary canon.

Jan 6, 9:43pm Top

I'm happy to see that you'll be posting again this year. The Finding of the Forgotten Champagne sounds like an auspicious beginning to the year.

Jan 8, 1:23pm Top

>10 baswood: I wonder if part of the problem is that Ackroyd rarely needs to keep the threads of a story together - his non-fiction is narrative but it is a long way from there to a novel. And a novel makes it even easier to inject one's own feelings on a subject... Great review - not a book I would read but I enjoyed reading your review.

Jan 8, 10:24pm Top

Interested to marvel at your reading again this year!

Edited: Jan 10, 11:48am Top

Edited: Jan 10, 11:49am Top

Walking in the Shade by Doris Lessing
Subtitled Part two of my autobiography 1949 - 1962. Part one had covered Lessing’s early years in Zimbabwe and this second part starts with her arrival by boat to England when she was 30 years old accompanied by her 2 and a half year old son Peter and 150 pounds sterling. Her first novel The Grass is Singing had been sold to a publishing firm in South Africa along with a number of short stories. London was to become her adopted home and she had the feeling that her life was just starting.

Walking in the Shade was published in 1997 when Lessing was 78 years old and so there is very much the feel of an elderly woman looking back on the life of her younger self with the advantage of the wisdom of years. The early years in London were a struggle, but with the success of her novels (the first three volumes of her Children of Violence series were published in 1952, 1954 and 1958) by 1962 with the event of The Golden Notebook she was an established literary star. She combines world events with issues that effected her life as a writer and because she was a very political person her views both then and when she was writing her autobiography are always cogent and interesting. She re-joined the communist party in the early fifties and that put her in touch with a variety of left wing intellectuals and artists, this did not harm her career as a writer or her standing in public life, but it harmed her emotionally when Khrushchev the leader of the Soviet Union came clean over the Stalin era and later ordered the invasion of Budapest. Any lingering idealism was shattered and a cause that she had flirted with through most of her adult life was no longer tenable.

The book is certainly not all politics, she tells us of the life of a writer and the discipline necessary to produce a volume of work, she had an active and eventful love life being a ‘child of the sixties’ a decade earlier than most women, she name drops about many of the celebrities from the political left who were active in the world of literature and art, her large flat became a safe haven for African exiles, some of whom would later go on to become leaders of their countries, others would be imprisoned or assassinated. She tells of her involvement with the Aldermaston Marches and the formation of the committee of one hundred, of being an honorary figure in the writing group that were known as ‘the Angry Young Men and her involvement in setting up projects for New Theatre Groups. Doris certainly got around, but there is no hint of self congratulation; rather we get the nitty gritty of trying to get things moving, of personality clashes, or of fighting against the establishment.

My reading of Lessing’s work (I have read 20 of her novels and most of her short stories) has led me to believe that she is a writer who wears her heart on her sleeve. She is honest with her characters and she is honest with herself. Many of her non science fiction books are semi autobiographical and so it is interesting to see how events in her life have shaped her stories. She helps the reader in some instances by making the connections obvious. If you didn’t already know, then her autobiography makes it clear where she stands on certain issues; her disillusionment with politics, her thoroughly modern approach to love and sex, her ambivalence to male chauvinism and to the feminist movement, her fear and dislike of Nationalism, and her integrity as a writer and an artist. When she was struggling to make a living in those early years in London and she had offers from the gutter press to write for them she says:

‘But I did linger sometimes in an editors office out of curiosity. I could not believe that this was happening, that people could be so low, so unscrupulous. But surely they can’t believe writers would write against their own beliefs, their consciences? Write less than their best for money.’

Her most strident invective is against the stirrers-up of mass political movements (she would have hated Trump and Brexit and maybe the hysteria over Harvey Weinstein):

‘The other day a group of women on one television channel were complaining about men’s rudeness to them, and on another a woman was saying that all men are slimebags.
Could we have foreseen this efflorescence of crude stupidity? Yes, because every mass political movement unleashes the worst in human behaviour and admires it. For a time at least.”

Whether Lessing is describing London in the late 1950’s, or telling us about influential figures in the arts world, her career as an activist or as a writer, her own personal and private life, or her disillusionment with the political world, then her thoughts come through fresh and clear in some excellent prose. Having lived for half of my life in London and as a very young teenager been aware of the issues that sparked Lessing then I found her account of events fascinating. A friend of mine from my now defunct book club said that the writer he would most like to spend the night with was Colette. Me I am torn between D H Lawrence or Doris Lessing, but as Lessing said of Lawrence that:

“For if he knew very little about sex, he did know a lot about love”

Perhaps I should swing with Doris and give her autobiography 5 stars.

Jan 10, 12:07pm Top

>17 baswood: Me I am torn between D H Lawrence or Doris Lessing


I suspect that you'd find Doris Lessing too honest - just imagine reading about yourself the next day. OTOH, I don't think DHL's beard and cough would be much fun...

Jimmy Baldwin for me, every time.

cf. here: http://lithub.com/tag/the-tournament-of-literary-sex-writing/

Jan 10, 3:21pm Top

Wonderful review of the Lessing autobiography.. I've read most of her novels, but not the autobios. They're certainly on my radar now.

Edited: Jan 12, 5:08pm Top

The Triumph of Woman

Edited: Jan 12, 5:09pm Top

The Triumph of Woman: A Christmas Story by Charles Rowcroft
This Victorian novel published in 1848 is now considered to be proto science fiction, of course Rowcroft would not have realised this when he wrote it. He must have thought that he was writing an entertainment of some kind with some light hearted satire, but also one where he could stretch his readers imagination and wrap it all up with a love story spiced with a bit of adventure. It features an alien from another planet with an advanced civilisation, who has special powers, there is an attempt at scientific explanation and there is a certain sense of wonder.

The novel starts with Doctor Asterscop a celebrated German Astronomer looking through his telescope “so powerful that you may see into the middle of next week” seeing an unidentified object hurtling towards earth. It is Christmas day and his shrewish wife is calling for him to come down to dinner as all their important guests have arrived. Asterscop is thinking he might be witnessing the destruction of earth, but the hectoring voice of his wife and the smell of the roast goose pries him from his vantage point and downstairs. Just as the family and guests are sitting down to dinner they hear a noise in the garden and go and investigate. They meet a strange man who tells them that he has come from another world and after some initial awkwardness they invite him into dinner. Zhara the stranger, convinces them he is telling the truth by turning their copper coins into gold with the aid of a gizmo that he carries with him. A couple of servants having witnessed the demonstration, attempt to steal the device, but find themselves transported away from the house. Zhara is distraught as he can no longer return home, but he has started to have strange feelings for Angela, Dr Astercorp’s beautiful daughter,

Zhara reveals that the elders of his planet have banned all women because they are far too dangerous, but he cannot help being fascinated with them as he embarks on a series of adventures around Europe in a quest for his lost gizmo. His adventures all seem to involve women and he is by turns exasperated, frightened, cheated and lost in admiration. He is constantly in danger of being treated with suspicion and has a succession of narrow scrapes, while still nurturing the strange feelings he has for Angela. The major part of the novel is a gentle caricature of the various women from Countries in Europe that Zhara meets along the way and the question he keeps asking is: were the elders on his planet right to ban all women? Ha the clue is in the title.

It’s all good fun and fairly well written and so three stars.

Jan 13, 11:08am Top

>21 baswood: Sounds like science fiction's view of women actually had not progressed much by the 1950s/1960s titles I read as a teenager, a century later.

Jan 14, 11:57am Top

>22 dukedom_enough: It astonishes me that these mid-century writers, who could be so innovative and far-seeing in the rest of their work, could never see women as anything other than housekeepers and sex-objects. Quite the failure of imagination.

Jan 14, 9:28pm Top

I went back to read Stranger in a Strange Land a few years ago and was unable to do more than skim it, whilst I loved it years earlier and was really looking forward to rereading it. It was written in the early 60s, and Heinlein seemed to want to be modern but couldn't do more than put a gloss over his attitudes by making the women open to sexual freedom but otherwise still just the secretaries, assistants, etc. The whole thing backfired, I thought. I'd much rather read SF from the 50s, where at least I know the representation of women's lives will be patly old fashioned - say, John Wyndham, or "On the Beach" (no touchstone!)

Wait, now I'm thinking maybe I'll go back and reread some of my favorites: Day of the Triffids (1951), Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), Magister Ludi (aka The Glass Bead Game, 1943) by Hermann Hesse), or maybe "On the Beach" itself. Yesssss - that sounds verrrry appealing right now.

Edited: Jan 15, 3:48am Top

>25 auntmarge64: Go for it auntmarge64 and tell us what you think of them now.

Jan 19, 7:05am Top

Nicholas Poussin's "In Arcadia"

The inscription the shepherds are puzzling over says "Even in Arcadia there am I" (the I refers to death)

Edited: Jan 19, 7:25am Top

The Shepheardes Calender by Edmund Spenser.
The greatest poetical work in English (published 1579) since Chaucer’s Canterbury tales written some two centuries earlier - well Spenser certainly thought so and I am inclined to agree. It is a cycle of twelve pastoral poems known classically as eclogues and Spenser’s grand vision tied each one to the months of the year. Characters dip in and out of the poems whose central character Colin Clout dips out more than he dips in, but his influence if felt throughout the cycle giving the whole thing a sense of unity. Spenser had it in mind to go on to write the great English epic poem and he largely succeeded with the Faerie Queen (he never finished it, but then Chaucer didn’t finish The Canterbury Tales) and The Shepheardes Calender he saw as his apprentice work. The Latin poet Virgil had written his eclogues as his first serious attempts at poetry and Spenser always with an eye on his place in the poetical canon followed suite and told his readers that this was exactly what he was doing.

In my opinion the grand theme; the raison d’etre if you like of the poem is poetry itself; its importance, and the difficulties the poet faces in making it so. Of course the Shepheardes Calender is ostensibly about many other issues and themes and at its most simple level it is the old story of unrequited love. We meet young Colin Clout in the January eclogue and he is already suffering. He issues forth with his complaint which he compares with the miserable January weather:

"Such rage as winter's reigneth in my heart,
My life-blood freezing with unkindly cold;
Such stormy stoures do breed my baleful smart,
As if my year were waste and waxen old;
And yet, alas! but now my spring begun,
And yet, alas! it is already done.

"All so my lustful leaf is dry and sere,
My timely buds with wailing all are wasted;
The blossom which my branch of youth did bear,
With breathed sighs is blown away and blasted;
And from mine eyes the drizzling tears descend,
As on your boughs the icicles depend.”

A major theme of much Renaissance poetry is man’s complaint about the pain he suffers from his unsuccessful attempt to woo the woman of his dreams. It was the major theme of Courtly Love Poetry and as much of the poetry was written by Courtiers, or men very close to the Royal Family then the audience for Spenser’s first poem would have been very familiar with the theme and for Spenser it puts him right at the heart of poetic tradition. Spenser however was a whole lot more ambitious and he explains this in an epistle attached to the start of the poem written by one E. K. and the mystery attributed to the Calender starts there.

E. K. could have been Edward Kirke a contemporary and probable friend of Spenser, but there is much speculation that the epistle and the glosses were written in collaboration with Spenser himself. Much of what Spenser would have wanted to say is contained in this epistle. He is referred to as a ‘new poet’ who ‘still has the sounds of those ancient poets ringing in his ears’. His use of some archaic language brings ‘authority to the verse’ and of course reinforces his connections with the poets of the past particularly Chaucer. E. K. goes on to say that he has added a certain gloss (footnotes) for the exposition of old words and harder phrases. He tells us this is a story of a man who has long wandered in the ‘labyrinth of love’ and now has time as an older man to ‘mitigate and allay the heat of his passion’ and to warn the young shepherds his equals and companions of his unfortunate folly, and Colin Clout is the name under which the ‘authors name is shadowed’. Spenser published the poem under a pseudonym, but as manuscript copies of the poems would have been circulated to friends before publication it was an open secret as to identity of the author and E. K. tells us that his name will soon become well known.

The epistle provides the launching pad for Spenser to write about poetry: a theme that has occupied many poets throughout the ages; from Chaucer to Wordsworth and on up to Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. They wrestle with the problem of how to define poetical inspiration, where does it come from, how can it be harnessed, how can it be expressed on paper, are poets the teachers or guardians of other peoples souls? do they have a moral duty? Who should take care of the poets and in Spenser’s case particularly, who should provide the patronage or the money to allow the poet to practice his calling. These issues are touched on throughout The Calender from the moment in the first eclogue when Colin Clout throws down his shepherds pipe while suffering the pangs of love. The whole of the October Eclogue is based around the question of what makes good poetry: Cuddie a young poet expresses his woes to his elder compatriot Piers:

Piers, I have piped erst so long with pain,
That all mine oaten reeds be rent and wore,
And my poor Muse hath spent her spared store,
Yet little good hath got, and much less gain.
Such pleasance makes the grasshopper so poor,
And lig so laid, when winter doth her strain.

Spenser uses the idea of the shepherd’s songs of which Colin Clout is the revered master among his contemporaries to stand for poetry.

Spenser’s appeal for patronage would have been clear to his contemporary readers, but the political aspects of his Calender stretch much further than this. As a Courtier it was important for Spenser to seek the attention of the rising factions at Queen Elizabeth’s court, but he also had to heap praise on the queen herself and these two ideals were not always the same and so a careful line needed to be trod. The purpose of the April eclogue was to honour and praise the most Sovereign Queen Elizabeth and he does this, praising her to the skies to such an extent he imagines her as the fourth Grace taking her place amongst the saints in heaven. However Colin/Spenser does not directly sing these fourteen stanzas himself, Colin has retired from the company of other shepherds and it is left to his friend Hobbinol to recall Colins famous song while in conversation with his fellow shepherd Thenot. The big issue for Queen and country in 1579 when the poem was published was a proposal that Elizabeth might marry the Catholic French Duke of Alencon. Spenser would have been concerned not to give unwanted advice especially as a pamphlet on the subject recently published had resulted in the author and his publishers being condemned to having their right hands severed in an all too public ceremony. The political aspects of the poem have fascinated more modern critics and there has been speculation that Rosalind the lady who spurns Colin Clout’s love is also Queen Elizabeth.

The poem takes stock of the religious controversy of the Tudor Court and Elizabeth’s religious settlement in favour of the protestants hangs over some of the eclogues. The May eclogue features a debate between two pasteurs/pastors: Piers the protestant and Palinode the catholic on how the youth should be educated. In May time the sap has definitely risen and Palinode is wishing he could join in the abundant May time celebrations:

O that I were there,
To helpen the ladies their Maybush bear!

Piers reprimands Palinode saying that the frolicking shepherds are leaving their flocks unattended. It is the Shepherds job to educate the young and curb their foolish pleasures.

The poems concern is with the nature of human life and Spenser’s vision of linking the changing seasons with the life of Colin Clout from his reflections on youth in January to his thoughts on death in December is a masterstroke. Throughout the poem there is a dialogue between youth and age, town and country, protestant and catholic, bucolic life in an Arcadia of the classicists and current political machinations. Spenser’s use of the classical eclogue format placing his poem in a pastoral setting hankering after a vision of a golden age contrasts with the realities of modern (Tudor) life.

The poem after repeated readings seems to have a life of its own; always a sign of a great work of art and this is because of: the variety of the eclogues themselves, the lively debates, the characters of the shepherds, that appear and reappear throughout the seasons, the stories within stories and of course some sublime versifying by Spenser. But let me take you through some of my favourite months. February is described by E. K. in his gloss as a moral tale. It takes the form of a debate between Thenot an old shepherd (90 years old he claims) and Cuddie a young man who is not prepared to listen to any advice; he has the knowledge of Youth. Thenot tells a delightful story of two trees on top of a hill; an ancient grand old oak tree that is now suffering from disease and a young Briar tree that is fighting the oak for light and water. The Briar tree complains vociferously to the goodman farmer who is seduced by the succulent young foliage and flowers and runs home to get his axe. After a struggle he chops down the oak tree with disastrous results, but young Cuddie has the last word saying he has wasted his day listening to old Thenot. Spenser tells the story in ten syllable rhyming couplets. The August eclogue features a song competition between Willie and Perigot. Willie says he is sorrowful because he has learned a new dance and it is not a good one; he is referring to his new love which has misled himself and his children. They agree that the competition should take the form of Willie inventing the first line and Perigot supplying the next. The whole thing develops into a call and response idiom that reaches back to old folk songs or troubadours lays:

PER. As the bonilass passed by,
WIL. Hey, ho, bonilass!
PER. She rov'd at me with glancing eye,
WIL. As clear as the crystal glass:
PER. All as the sunny beam so bright,
WIL. Hey, ho, the sun-beam!
PER. Glanceth from Phœbus' face forthright,
WIL. So love into thy heart did stream:
PER. Or as the thunder cleaves the clouds,
WIL. Hey, ho, the thunder!
PER. Wherein the lightsome levin shrouds,
WIL. So cleaves thy soul asunder:
PER. Or as Dame Cynthia's silver ray,
WIL. Hey, ho, the moonlight!
PER. Upon the glittering wave doth play,
WIL. Such play is a piteous plight.
PER. The glance into my heart did glide,
WIL. Hey, ho, the glider!
PER. Therewith my soul was sharply gryde,
WIL. Such wounds soon waxen wider.

Cuddie decides that honours are even but ends with a song that he has learned from Colin Clout. It is Colin in the depths of despair still pining for his beloved Rosalind.

Colin himself returns for the November eclogue and it is an elegy to love. He forsees his death and is reflecting on his misery, and he makes a song about the death of Dido and her lover Lobbin, but his song/poem has a turn around when he lights on the idea that death is perhaps not the end. Here are two verses from the middle of the poem:

O trustless state of earthly things, and slipper hope
Of mortal men, that swink and sweat for nought,
And, shooting wide, doth miss the marked scope;
Now have I learn'd (a lesson dearly bought)
That n'is on earth assurance to be sought;
For what might be in earthly mould,
That did her buried body hold?
O heavy herse!
Yet saw I on the bier when it was brought;
O careful verse!

"But maugre Death, and dreaded Sisters' deadly spite,
And gates of hell, and fiery Furies' force,
She hath the bonds broke of eternal night,
Her soul unbodied of the burdenous corse.
Why then weeps Lobbin so without remorse?
O Lobb! thy loss no longer lament;
Dido is dead, but into heaven hent.
O happy herse!
Cease now, my Muse, now cease thy sorrows' source,
O joyful verse!

In the December eclogue Colin faces his own death and sums up his life in relation to the seasons. There is remorse but no bitterness in his final verse I think:

"Adieu, delights, that lulled me asleep;
Adieu, my dear, whose love I bought so dear;
Adieu, my little lambs and loved sheep;
Adieu, ye woods, that oft my witness were:
Adieu, good Hobbinol, that was so true,
Tell Rosalind, her Colin bids her adieu.”

Edmund Spenser is not an easy poet to read and for the modern reader he demands some work to appreciate his verse. His use of allegory in the Callender is not so difficult to work out; the shepherds could be pastors, politicians, poets or other leaders while the flock are the uneducated masses that need to be led. What is difficult is Spenser’s use of archaic language and the footnotes or glosses supplied by E. K. raise more questions than they give answers. It would also be useful to have an understanding of why Spenser chose to use a pastoral setting for his poem and so an acquaintance with the classics would be an advantage. Having said all that there is some sublime poetry here and the sounds the words make, the stories they tell and the variety of voices used will entrance any reader willing to meet it half way. Spenser was correct in believing he had written a masterpiece 5 stars.

Jan 19, 8:36am Top

>28 baswood: Stunning review! Spenser kept coming up when I was reading Milton last year, but I’ve never really tried to read him. Your examples make me feel I should - that mixture of alliteration and rhyme is really captivating. Even if the rhymes sometimes make you realise that we don’t speak the same way as Spenser any more.

Edited: Jan 20, 12:26pm Top

>28 baswood: thanks for that -- I have a dim memory of learning of this from childhood, that i'd entirely forgotten. I haven't really read Spenser, I have him lined up from reading of Keats reading him but will remember your enthusiastic and generous review, and if and when I get a chance to get to him, but some others are ahead in the queue.

Jan 20, 2:07pm Top

>27 baswood: This is one heck of a review. Simply outstanding!

Edited: Jan 21, 7:16pm Top

Excellent review! I've only read bits and pieces of The Shepheardes Calendar, but I love The Faerie Queen.

Jan 20, 9:55pm Top

It's hard not to think of Virgil while reading your review. Will you turn to the Faerie Queen next?

I'm just catching your Doris Lessing review, which was quite moving. And 20 books by Lessing is a lot.

Jan 21, 4:33am Top

Yes a lot of Lessing

Jan 21, 5:19pm Top

>33 dchaikin: Yes the Faerie Queen is on the horizon. I have previously attempted it and stopped after the first three books. I will start again this time.

Jan 21, 7:05pm Top

>34 baswood: punny.

Hoping you get long lost in the Faerie Queen.

Edited: Jan 23, 5:37pm Top

Narbonus The laberynth of libertie by Austin Saker
A novel from 1580 subtitled as ‘very pleasant for young gentlemen to peruse, and passing profitable for them to prosecute.’ John Lyly’s groundbreaking first book length novel (Ephueus the Anatomy of Wit) was published the previous year and Austin Saker’s novel has all the attributes of Lyly’s elaborate writing style. That is to say that sentences are stretched to their limit to include as many examples as the author could pack in; with rhetorical skills being used to give both sides of the argument to create a certain duality. Saker’s style does not have quite the invention of Lyly’s: there is less duality, resorting to mere lists of examples, but he does use colloquial, phrases and sayings and has an ear attuned to word play. This begs the question as to whether Saker was copying Lyly’s style or wether this was the language in use by certain courtiers to Queen Elizabeth - a sort of lingua franca.

Narbonus is in two parts and has more of a feel of a straightforward storytelling novel, than Lyly’s novel and there is certainly more story to tell. Narbonus is a young man whose father was a wealthy merchant, he is living under the guardianship of his Uncle in Vienna following his fathers death and sells some of his lands to fund a hedonistic lifestyle in Venice. The money runs out and he returns to Vienna and to his uncle as a sort of prodigal son, the only positive he brings back from Italy is his friendship with Phemocles. Back with his Uncle they are invited to a wealthy neighbours house for dinner where Narbonus falls in love with Fidelia. His overtures are returned but Narbonus has a problem he is reliant on his Uncle for money and so when he is called up to the Austrian army for a war with Spain his Uncle refuses to use his influence to stop the enlistment. Narbonus is posted straightaway to Spain and he chooses not to call on FIdelia before he goes. Narbonus as a merchants son has no rank in the army and when a battle is lost he finds himself lucky to be alive but destitute and on the point of starvation. Meanwhile Phemocles sets out under his own volition to search for his friend in Spain and the story continues through a second part.

The lengthy sentences during the first part of the novel hold the story back for no apparent reason, other than for Saker to pack his prose with examples and witticisms. They are slow going and events only really come to life when Narbonus sets eyes on Fidelia for the first time. Saker is intent in telling his readers how Narbonus feels and reacts to his love at first sight experience, and he curbs his elaborations to write some good prose. A similar thing happens when the story picks up Narbonus in Spain and we get a vivid description of the horrors of war as seen by an ordinary soldier in the camp of a defeated army; the stench and desperation of wounded soldiers begging to be put out of their misery and the battle to get anything to eat. Civilians are tortured for information on their food stocks and Narbonus’ only hope of survival is to borrow enough money from one of the captains to get him to the coast and a chance of a boat across the Mediterranean.

The life of a merchant is contrasted with the life of a courtier to the advantage of the merchant and Narbonus’ uncle says to him:

I know when thou commest to Vienna, thou wilt follow the Merchaunts, the better lyked shalt thou be of others, and the more loued of mee:

Saker points out that many people at Court were servingmen to the high aristocracy and they really had the worst of it: spending much of their time hanging around, or fetching and carrying or doing something quite risky. The court at Vienna is described as though it was an English court there is no feeling of it being any different. The final section of the book is written as an instruction to young men of wealthy families about the dangers of drink and drugs (apothecary’s shops) and the wasting of their inheritance. It would appear that it was a last resort of many such young men to search for a wife who would bring them a dowry, and which would place those women in unenviable positions.

Narbonus is an example of one of the earliest book length English novels to have survived and would really only be of interest to those readers who want to delve into the history of the novel.
3 stars.

Edited: Jan 24, 1:54pm Top

The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray by Jorge Amado
This penguin classics edition is translated by Gregory Rabassa. The story itself reads well for its mere 70 pages and the black humour will entertain many readers. Pass the cachaça and read rebeccanyc’s review

Jan 24, 3:31pm Top

>38 baswood: Thank you for this one.

Edited: Jan 30, 6:39am Top

Mara and Dann by Doris Lessing
Lessing once again plunges her readership into the world of science fiction, or dystopia to be more precise. She imagines a far distant future on earth when succeeding ice ages have had their effect on animal and vegetable life. Climate change is still happening but the people on earth have long ago lost the science to enable them to alleviate the effects. Machines from the past have been vandalised for raw materials; magnificent cities now lie under water and the present in habitants of the earth exist in a sort of civilisation akin to our middle ages, where a glorious past has been largely forgotten. A new drought is affecting the continent of Africa or “Ifrik” where the story takes place.

Lessing has subtitled her novel as “An Adventure” and it tells a story of a brother and sister fighting for survival as they travel North to escape the drought that is decimating the Southern continent of Ifrik. In some ways it reads like science fiction from the nineteen sixties as Mara and Dann keep heading north experiencing adventures in the towns and cities that are always their next destination. Most of the towns are dominated by a distinct racial group and are based on a slave culture, but this is under threat because of the changing climate conditions, wars and rebellions, spies and totalitarianism are the building blocks as factions fight for power and survival. Mara and Dann are Mahondis a race of tall straight haired and elegant people who were once powerful rulers, it soon emerges that brother and sister have a destiny that seems to be managed by others; they are children of a powerful family that are not only in danger from the extreme conditions but also from would be assassins. Brother and sister dimly recognise that their futures are inextricably linked and although their trials and tribulations cause separations, they find themselves re-united on the road to the next adventure. They fight off mutant insects, they narrowly escape a drug culture that threatens to overwhelm Dann, they find themselves on different sides in a war in the centre of the continent and they battle refugees and slave traders on a river boat expedition to the promised land. There is an opportunity for Lessing to portray different societies all living without the aid of motor power or machinery: corruption and greed are rife almost everywhere, little pockets of a more gentle, human lifestyle are always under threat as resources are scarce and man’s natural instinct to fight for control always leads in the end to most of the downtrodden people fighting over the scraps. Lessing does not paint a pretty picture, although humans do not quite degenerate into societies portrayed in the Mad Max movies.

An adventure first and foremost with the protagonists always in danger and constantly fighting to survive, and so the book does take on the aspects of a page turner, or a road movie/book. Like much of this genre there are unlikely coincidences and grand escapes from danger and although Lessing handles this well enough her readers might be looking for something more. This might be what she wanted to achieve with the characterisation of Mara and Dann, where Mara the older sister is the strongest character. Dann seems to suffer from a restless, split personality and is more liable to lead the two of them into danger. There is also the fable aspect to the story as two siblings set off in search of their destiny, which most readers will pretty much guess early on in the novel, but Lessing does have a surprise in store. Really the science fiction/dystopia aspects of the novel are much to the fore and Lessing can create that sense of wonder that is so important to carry her readers along. An enjoyable read that probably does not need to be scrutinised too much for deep and meaningful messages. We all know human beings are basically shit behind a veneer of civilisation and Lessing gives us some hope, but not much 3.5 stars.

Jan 30, 11:16am Top

Excellent review of Mara and Dann. I agree with your conclusions. It did highlight the fragility of our civilizations and the endurance, through inexorable change, of the earth itself.

Jan 30, 2:42pm Top

>40 baswood: Thanks for another great Lessing review.
I think this won't be the first Lessing I read though, as it doesn't seem to me that it's among the most important ones.

Feb 1, 12:32pm Top

For a somewhat different take on (sort of) post-technological Earth, I suggest Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home. Long after everything came crashing down, a small population lives north of what was San Francisco. The difference from most such stories is that they live pretty well, all in all. John Scalzi talks about how it influenced him. Beautifully written book from a writer we lost just last month.

Edited: Feb 1, 7:05pm Top

Feb 1, 7:00pm Top

>43 dukedom_enough: thanks for the suggestion

Edited: Feb 1, 7:06pm Top

The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. Van Vogt
Science fiction from 1950. I have recently read The World of Null-A by Van Vogt which had been published two years earlier and I had not been impressed; it was a number of shorter stories cobbled together into a novel which proved to be fairly incoherent. A similar approach had been taken with The Space Beagle, but obviously lessons had been learnt because it is a great success. Two interplanetary magazine stories from 1939, one from 1943 and one from 1950 are linked with an overarching story of the voyage of the Space Beagle. It is the first intergalactic expedition taking 1000 men of different professional fields in search of whatever lies out there. The men who have all been chemically altered to stop their sex drive are nevertheless competing on an interdepartmental basis, with the chemists and the mathematicians in the forefront, both trying to establish their control over the mission. In each of the stories this faction fighting crew face four life and death struggles with alien life forms, but it is Elliott Grosvenor of the newly formed Nexial department who is the only man who can analyse the problems effectively.

The four stories are all excellent, each one setting the crew against formidable odds. In the story formerly known as The Black Destroyer a large cat like creature (a coeurl) is encountered on a ruined planet and behaves in a neutral way when accosted, however it has an alien intelligence and it is hungry for living flesh, The crew take it on board the Space Beagle with disastrous results. In the War of Nerves members of the crew suffer hallucinations and they are pinpointed as coming from a nearby planet. Grosvenor realises that the only way of fighting the menace is to mind-meld with the alien race. Discord in Scarlet is a prototype story that predates “The Alien” films. A super powerful alien creature who can change its molecular structure tricks its way aboard the spaceship in its search for living material into which it will plant its eggs. Ixtl is the creature which appears to be indestructible, selecting its victims and carrying them off to the ship’s hold to foster its offspring. In the final story M33 in Andromeda the crew face an entire galaxy that has been taken over by a dominant life form which needs to expand.

In both The Black Destroyer and Discord in Scarlet, Van Vogt tells some of the story from the aliens point of view, inviting his readers to feel the hunger and desire of the Coeurl and Ixtl. This has the effect of lessening the mystery and perhaps the tension, but effectively ratchets up the horror and desperation facing the crew. Most of the action takes place on board the spaceship. War of Nerves strikes me as quite an original story and with the mind-melding aspect; Van Vogt is again able to describe an alien presence. The overarching story of the interdepartmental faction fighting develops into all out war in the final story and is a bigger threat to the mission than the alien menace. Grosvenor’s Nexial Department (there are only four of them) are intent in forging an holistic approach and Van Vogt’s big idea is that lives will be in danger if people do not work together. It is an effective way of binding the stories together with the same characters appearing in each story, learning or not learning from previous experiences.

This is excellent 1950’s science fiction, with enough science to make the stories plausible and enough psychology to make them believable. There is very little evidence of sexism with all the characters being men (apart from the obvious) and these men have left their sex drive back on earth. I thoroughly enjoyed the read and so 5 stars for the genre.

Feb 1, 8:21pm Top

>46 baswood: Really enjoyed your review of Voyage of the Space Beagle. I read Black Destroyer a few years ago in Asimov's excellent anthology of stories from 1939 and really enjoyed it, but I'd completely forgotten that it formed part of this novel. Sounds like this is one for my sci-fi reading list.

Feb 1, 8:21pm Top

“We all know human beings are basically shit behind a veneer of civilisation and Lessing gives us some hope, but not much.”

This is wisdom not found in my other wisdom reading. Enjoying all these posts, as always.

Feb 2, 3:33am Top

>46 baswood: Ooh I have a copy of that one, not yet read though. Maybe I'll have to throw it into the read sooner pile. :P

Feb 2, 11:13am Top

>46 baswood: I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of this author, although, the covers look very familiar. My one brother is a huge sci-fi fan, so it is possible that I’ve seen them somewhere.

Feb 2, 11:59am Top

>46 baswood: I recall from when Alien came out that many people noted the similarity to "Discord in Scarlet," and that van Vogt sued. IIRC there was a settlement, with $50,000 being the number. Don't remember where I read this, though, so use the usual grain of salt.

Edited: Feb 2, 12:44pm Top

>46 baswood: Great review of Voyage of the Space Beagle.
I read it a bit less than 10 years ago. As usual, I don't remember much about it but I remember I did not like it much.
Reading again my review of the time (in French and another site), I see that I was annoyed by the fact that the book was dated. I didn't like the tendance of scientists to capture / kill creatures they encountered without much thought. I also thought Nexialism felt more like magic than science, because Grovesnor's reasoning were not sufficiently explained.

But then I read it in French. Moreover I just checked, and the translation dates back to 1952, a time at which science-fiction was not taken very seriously by editors in France and translations could be terrible.

Edited: Feb 5, 2:43am Top

Zelauto: The Fountaine of Fame by Anthony Munday
Anthony Munday (1560-1633) was one of Tudor/Stuart England’s most
prolific writers. Over the course of a literary career that lasted for more than fifty years, Munday penned over eighty works, many published more than once. Playwright, pamphleteer, translator, historian, pageant-master, royal messenger, and spy--this is certainly a disparate group of genres and jobs for one man. Yet Anthony Munday appears to have been all of these things.

Zelauto was published in 1580 and chronologically it is the fifth or sixth Elizabethan novel. It is an early work by Munday who went on to earn his living largely by his pen. It is influenced by the writing style of John Lyly, but also includes elements of courtly love, chivalric romance and pastoralism. Munday’s hero Zelauto begs leave from his father to go travelling for a period of six years. In the sixth year of his travel he arrives in Sicily and while travelling in the interior he meets the hermit: Astraepho. They fight and Zelauto is forced to beg for his life, this is granted but Zelauto must entertain Astaepho with stories from his travels. Only three stories are told before the book ends, promising more in a subsequent volume, which was never written.

The first story describes how Zelauto and his companion were attacked by bandits, his companion was killed and Zelauto was robbed and stripped; he crawls to an Osteria (Inn) where the patroness looks after him. Zelauto then meets some English merchants and travels with them to England, where he has an audience with Queen Elizabeth and attends some pageants. The queen is described in glowing terms and the section ends with a story of a female warrior overcoming a knight who disparages the queens beauty. This is interesting for some descriptions of the pageants. The second story is set in Turkey, where Zalauto fights the Sultan’s son in armed combat to secure the release of a christian lady. The story ends when there is need for supper and bed for the night and the next morning Astaepho gives Zalauto a script to read which becomes the third story. This is a courtly love type story set in Verona in Italy and tells the story of Strabino who falls in love with Cornelia, but her father has already promised her to Truculento an old money lender. There is much discussion about the pains of love suffered by gentlemen and the cruelness of women witholding their favours, however Cornelia refutes this with the difficulties faced by women in a male dominated society and wins the argument. The story is also notable for the debt owed to the money lender who secures his loans on the pain of the recipient losing his right eye if defaulting. The verdict of the court is that Truculento can inflict his punishment but only if he can remove the eye without spilling a drop of blood.

The structure of the stories is interesting and the final story has some good passages, but this is really only for those with an interest in Tudor literature or early novels - 2.5 stars.

Feb 6, 9:31am Top

>53 baswood: Your review made me think of the discussion of what was the first novel. As there are many novels to claim the title. I was always thinking it was Pilgrim's Progress but looking it up many sources name Le Morte d'Arthur. I will have to read up on the earliest novels ever published.
Too bad that Zelauto was not copletely your cup of tea.

Edited: Feb 6, 3:49pm Top

Interesting review of Zelauto, but I think I'll skip this one.

54> As you said, there are many early novels to claim the title of first, but probably the earliest is Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji from Heian Japan in the 11th century.

Feb 7, 6:51am Top

>46 baswood: - Van Vogt sued the the producers of Alien over the similarity between Discord in Scarlet and the film. (It was settled out of court). It's been a while since I have read him but at his best he was a good bad writer; unfortunately a lot of the time he was just a bad bad writer.

Edited: Feb 10, 7:08pm Top

Belange by Patrick Cauvin
Patrick Cauvin est un scénariste et romancier français. Il a ecrit plus que trente romans et Belange a été publié en 2006, quatre ans avant sa mort en 2010. Belange peut-être est caractéristique de sa oeuvre. C’est un roman romantique presque chic-lit.

Adrien Beurecourt est le directeur d’une maison d’edition à Paris et tout les weekends il conduit à chez lui a Normandie. Il a une grande maison dans la campagne s’appelle Belange. Comme d’habitude il arrive chez lui trop tard mais il pense qu’il y a quelqu’un dedans la maison. La prochaine matin il trouve des preuve que il y a un squatteur. Le Squatteur habite la maison quand il travaille a Paris mais le squatteur est très propre et bien rangé. Au fils de temps le squatteur laisse Adrien quelques lignes sur le table de la cuisine. Le squatteur lui préviens que il y a un orage, pendant le lundi matin et il dois débranchez la télé après usage. Adrien rencontre le squatteur finalement et souffrit avoir un coup de coeur avec la jeune fille, mais le cours du veritable amour n’a jamais functionné en douceur. Aussi il y a Bob L’autre squatteur…………………..

Il y a beaucoup d’humour - Les clients de Adrien sont fous et leur livres que Adrien doit edit l’envoyer dedans un monde different. Il y a beaucoup de confusion entre le monde des squatteurs et le monde des livres. Pas mal, mais ce n’est pas le grand littérature. Donc trois étoiles.

Feb 10, 9:21pm Top

I had not expected you to be reading something close to chick-lit, Bas.

Feb 11, 10:38am Top

>58 RidgewayGirl: The book was selected at random from a book pile in a French bookshop some years ago. (I was so desperate to buy books in a bookshop, that I bought books in a language I could not read) and so I did not really know much about it. Now with a renewed drive to master the French language I will be reading more French books.

Feb 11, 11:42am Top

Compliments for having the courage to review it in French, anyway!

Feb 11, 3:53pm Top

>57 baswood: Sounds like fun and like his scriptwriting side possibly had a film in mind. I enjoyed Man on a Train

Bravo on the French!

Feb 13, 1:46pm Top

Feb 13, 1:47pm Top

Poetry and Courtliness in Renaissance England by Daniel Javitch
This felt like a university thesis that had been expanded into book form by the Princeton University Press, however it was an interesting read and it made some good points. Javitch claims that in the 1580’s courtiers to Queen Elizabeth I were very heavily influenced by Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier to such an extent that it shaped their behaviour at Court. He relies heavily on George Puttenham’s The art of English poesie published in 1589 which claims that the best poetry obscures and retards the disclosure of its meaning. This was stock in trade to being a courtier and it was no surprise that poetry flourished at Queen Elizabeths court. Javitch says that behaviour and prestige at Court tended to override the education in rhetoric that most courtiers would have grown up with at school.

Sprezzatura was the key skill for a Courtier as Identified by Castiglione. It was the supreme skill of being knowledgable, sophisticated, efficient, and charismatic, without appearing to make any effort. These people at the heart of the cultural centre would both practice and appreciate poetry. As George Gascoigne said: “the art of allegory was to conceal certain truths from the base and profane multitude.” Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney are used as example of the poetic art of the period, however there is very few references to anyone else. The 1590’s saw a change in the culture; Elizabeth was coming to the end of her long reign and the war with Spain had left the country short of money. Corruption was beginning to take a stranglehold of the court and people in power found it more difficult to keep to the ideals set out in The Book of The Courtier.

The final chapter in the book looks for evidence of criticism of the Court in Spenser’s Faerie Queen and concludes there is more evidence of this in the final three books that were published. After the turn of the century Courtiers were no longer the teachers of poets but were being taught by them to keep standards high. Javitch claims that the clearest purpose of The Faerie Queen was “to fashion a gentlemen or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline. Worth a read, but much of it can be read down the middle. 3 stars.

Feb 14, 1:34pm Top

>57 baswood: Bravo pour la critique en français ! Merci, c'est très agréable de lire un peu de français ici. :)

I'm still enjoying your reviews of ancient English works, by the way. These are books that to be honest I'll probably never get to, but it's nice to have an inkling of what they are.

Edited: Feb 19, 6:52am Top

Edited: Feb 19, 6:53am Top

Eighty Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Anderson
This collection in The Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore library published in 1982 is proud of its translations from the Danish by R P Keigwin. Elias Bredsdorf in his introduction points out that there are still many very bad; older translations from the Danish around because there are no copyright duties to pay on them. This collection of tales certainly reads smoothly and Andersens own particular writing style is evident in all of them. He was writing these stories for children or more probably to be read to children and so more adult themes emerge, which could be used for talking about afterwards or when the stories are reread. From 1835 until his death in 1875 Andersen wrote 156 stories, eighty of which are published here in largely chronological order.

“Now listen! I’m going to tell you a story I heard when I was a boy. Since then the story seems to have become nicer every time I’ve thought about it. You see, stories are like a good many people - they get nicer and nicer as they grow older and that is so pleasant”

This introduction to the Story Dad’s always Right is quite typical; Andersen immediately takes his reader into his confidence and at the same time makes it personal. It is though Andersen is sitting down in front of you and telling his story and hie finishes with:

“Well what do you think of that for a story? I heard it as a child and now you have heard it, too and realise that Dad’s always right.”

Most of the stories are from Andersen’s own imagination, very few come from Danish folklore. Most of the famous ones are included: The `Emperors New clothes’, The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, The Red Shoes, The Flying Trunk, The Staunch Tin Soldier etc, but unless you are an aficionado there are many stories that will be new. There are some familiar motifs that feature in many of the tales: animals and plants can talk and express their feelings as can many inanimate objects There is a story about a bottle that ends its life as just a bottleneck, but it is still useful in providing a water container for a caged bird. I particularly like one of the later stories called “What the Thistle Found Out” which is so typical; the thistle grows outside of a beautiful garden, but a young Scots lady who is going to marry the prince selects one of its flowers for her button hole. The thistle is so proud and wonders if she will be replanted in the garden, meanwhile the donkey tethered across the track spend its life wondering if he will ever get to reach the thistle, because it looks such a tasty morsel. Human frailties are certainly reflected in most of these tales.

Andersen does not spare his readers from the dark side of life and many of his stories end in the death of his characters, but as he explains we all know we are going to die and the best that most of us can hope for is to be useful while alive. This idea can become a little mawkish especially as one of his major tropes is the will of God. Modern readers should bear in mind that these stories date from the nineteenth century and he was writing for children whom he believed could be taught to love God. Where Andersen absolutely excels is his descriptions of nature and natural life , they are sharp and delight in a childish wonder at the world outside of the towns and cities.

This book was the next one on my shelf to read, I don’t know where I got it from, probably a charity shop, but it wont be going back there. I want to read some of the stories again and I wonder if children of today would like them, fantasy, wonder and good stories and an undeniable charm that courses through all of them, however there are not many fairies. My edition has plenty of illustrations and is nicely printed - 5 stars.

Feb 19, 12:13pm Top

That's a lovely review of the Hans Christian Anderson.

Feb 19, 2:02pm Top

>66 baswood: Thanks for a great review! This makes me want to get to the Anderson tales I have, but read them little by little.
I never knew that The ugly duckling was by Andersen, BTW.

Edited: Feb 20, 9:59am Top

Ben in the world by Doris Lessing
I read the prequel The fifth Child in one sitting and Ben in the world also’. The Fifth child ended with Ben leading a gang of young delinquents as his family tried all they could to distance themselves from him. Ben is an abnormal child a throwback to some sort of caveman. He is tremendously strong and a sort of blood lust in him is easily evoked. In the Fifth Child Lessing focuses rather more on Bens effect on the people around him. Ben in the world finds Ben happy enough working on a farm he realises now that he must curb his emotions or he will find himself caged and drugged. He does all the hard work on the farm which is gradually sinking into insolvency and he must move on. He works on a building site but is cheated out of most of his money and lives a hand to mouth existence. He befriends a prostitute who finds sex with Ben exciting and her pimp Johnson is looking for one big deal that will get him clear of his debts. They get Ben a passport and his is escorted to Marseille carrying a huge payload of narcotics. Johnson’s idea is that because Ben is so odd he will not be stopped or searched and they are lucky it works. Everyone gets rich and Ben is looked after by the criminal fraternity, however when this situation starts wearing thin we find Ben able to cope with living in a good class hotel, people look out for him. A film director sees Ben and immediately dreams of a film featuring Ben, he arranges for him to go to Rio de Janeiro and finds a house in the suburbs where Ben is looked after by his girlfriend.

This fast moving and unlikely novel focuses on Ben. Lessing puts her readers inside Bens thoughts and feelings. Ben just wants to find somewhere that he can call home. He dreams of going somewhere safe, perhaps back to the farm or to Johnson. He struggle with his eyes which cannot cope with bright sunlight. He does not know who to trust, he has periods where he becomes morose and uncommunicative. Lessing takes us through the Rio Favelas where Teresa Bens latest nursemaid has fought her way up and out. There is a plot to capture Ben for scientific research, but it is thwarted and Ben is told that there are people like him High up in the mountains. An expedition is launched and the party go higher and higher. Ben with his huge barrel chest is the only member of the group who is comfortable at greater and greater altitudes……. The book ends in the snowy wastes and there is something a bit Lawrentian about it.

It is fast paced and our sympathies are all with Ben as he Battles against the strange world he has been born into. To be read in one sitting and to be read for its strangeness and for enjoyment. 3.5 stars.

Edited: Feb 21, 4:01am Top

>66 baswood: - a few years ago I did a course on Victorian fantasy which covered HCA. We all think we know tales lie The Little Mermaid but in reality we know the Disney-fied, for want of a different expression, version. The real versions are a strange version of mawkishness and savagery which reflects Andersen's brand of Christianity. Characters like the little mermaid or the little match girl suffer horribly in the real but that's OK because when they are dead they will get their reward in heaven. The one that has always stuck with me is The Red Shoes - it's hard to take an angel appearing to a child and informing her that she is condemned to dance to death as a warning against vanity, almost as hard as when she finds an executioner to chop off her feet and then asks God for mercy, the answer to her prayer is the angel re-appearing granting mercy, at which point her heart literally bursts with joy.
I'm surprised that the children who read this tales could bear getting out of bed in case they offended God. Naturally, in Andersen land, a child in bed would probably be eaten by rats but be saved by remembering the good times in their life, i.e., when they dragged to church and condemned as a sinner. (In the real world, a child obviously couldn't stay in bed as they would be sacked by their employer and then starve to death).
I wonder if Andersen's tales in their original form have a market beyond academia and personal interest now.

Andersen famously became an unwelcome guest with Dickens - https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/10/charles-dickens-hans-christian-andersen-letters-correspondence-auction

Feb 21, 10:02am Top

>69 baswood: Nice review, though Ben in the world probably won't be my first Lessing.

>70 Jargoneer: Now I have to read The Red Shoes!

Feb 21, 10:39am Top

>70 Jargoneer: beware of the bad house guest - in the worst case scenario they might never leave.

Yes the red shoes is a good example, but there are plenty of others. I was wrong to say in my review that Andersen believed that children could be taught to love God. It would be more appropriate to say that children should be taught to fear God, but then again many people believe that these two positions are one and the same thing.

Feb 21, 10:40am Top

>71 chlorine: Make sure you read a good modern translation not a bowdlerised Victorian one.

Feb 21, 10:53am Top

>73 baswood: Yes, translation will be a problem. I'll have to look into it. Having an e-reader and a proponent of the public domain it's always a dilemma for me to decide whether to go for a free, publicly available version, or to buy a copyrighted, but better, one...

Feb 21, 1:10pm Top

Couldn't have a fairy tale without a strong moral lesson! It's also interesting how much similar tales differ between countries. I read through English Fairy Tales in the last couple years and found the women had so much more agency than their counterparts in continental Europe.

Feb 25, 8:32am Top

Just love your reading categories, especially the Tudor one! I'm sure I will be picking up some BB's!

Edited: Feb 25, 5:54pm Top

Edited: Feb 25, 5:54pm Top

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Eight, sir; seven, sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two, sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun

This is the song that Ben Reich has implanted in his brain on a continuous loop to stop the detectives with telepathic powers from sensing his culpability to murder. Like most of this short but action packed science fiction novel it is extremely effective; as I was reading I found myself putting a tune to those words.

The novel is set in the twenty fourth century; a minority of people have become telepaths, espers or more colloquially peepers. They are employed in the top echelons of society and form a powerful group that are treated with some suspicion, however their involvement in crime prevention has resulted in no cases of murder for the last 70 years. Ben Reich the brash and brilliant leader of one of the largest conglomerates plans the murder of D’Courtney from a rival company. Police prefect Lincoln Powell a class I peeper knows that Rich is planning a murder and sets out to try and prevent him. What follows is a police procedural with Reich for most of the novel one step ahead of Powell, with the added incentive that he is funding an anti peeper programme. The novel moves swiftly through an extravagant murder scene at the home of a rich society lady with a taste for adventurous sex, to a chase scenario and a tracking down of accomplishes to a final denouement. The plot is well worked with some twists and surprises, however the nightmare ending takes the novel into another level making it an unforgettable reading experience

The novel takes place almost exclusively in the world of the super rich and Bester creates this world of wealthy sycophants whose lives are put under stress by the war between Reich and the peepers. Colourful characters breeze in and out of the story as the plot rolls relentlessly on. He uses different forms of writing to differentiate between peepers and normals. The peepers at the party/murder scene delight in creating word games taking the form of concrete poetry in Bester’s rendition, it helps to create a feeling of other worldliness or that sense of wonder that is so important for science fiction.
This must be one of the great science fiction novels of the 1950’s, originally serialised in 1952 and then published as a novel the year after. It stays true to its origins in that it is a fast paced story novel which would have appealed to its target audience, but a few of these novels almost step outside of their genre with their invention and creation of their own world. This is certainly one of those and if it has passed you by, then its worth spending an evening catching up with it. 5 stars

Feb 26, 1:01am Top

>78 baswood: I read that book decades ago, and I swear, that little rhyme still sometimes pops into my head and gets stuck there.

Edited: Feb 26, 4:19am Top

>79 bragan: You certainly hear it all through the book, and now everyone can hear it that reads this thread. A service to the community - perhaps not.

Feb 26, 11:57am Top

78> Intriguing review of The Demolished Man.

Feb 27, 1:55am Top

>78 baswood: Thanks for a very good review of The demolished man. I don't plan to read the Hugo awards in chronological order as I think some of the older stuff hasn't stood the test of time well, but it sounds as if this one did!

Feb 27, 9:53am Top

>66 baswood: Full of good reasons to go back to this classic. My ancient illustrated copy handed down to me has disappeared over the years. I hope I find a version as good as yours.

>70 Jargoneer: Great article -- fun to imagine the dinner table.

Feb 27, 3:17pm Top

>78 baswood: I haven't read it since the 1960s; glad to hear it's still readable today.

Feb 27, 11:49pm Top

The Demolished Man sounds fascinating. Definitely putting it on my list.

Edited: Feb 28, 10:26am Top

Edited: Feb 28, 10:27am Top

La Place, Annie Ernaux
In many ways this is a simple story, told in the first person as a sort of autobiography of the authors early life. She starts when she has recently passed her practical examination to become a Professor and she writes home to her parents with the good news. Her mother replies that her father is ill. This causes Annie to think about her parents lives and in particular about her father. He came from a very poor family and had to leave school at 14 years to become a cowherd on a local farm. He was too young to fight in the first world war, but the lack of men enabled him to get a job in a factory. He was a good worker and saved hard until he could afford to get married and eventually to buy a small grocer’s shop with a cafe attached. Annie was the only child that survived and she remembers her early life helping out sometimes in the cafe. Annie studied hard at school passing examinations and getting a scholarship so that she left her parents far behind. She has become part of the bourgeoise while her parents have remained firmly working class. The difference in life styles and in expectations gets progressively bigger as Annie grows up and then away from home.

Annie is married with a child of her own, her husband cannot stand visiting her parents, the banality of their existence upsets him and Annie realises that the gap cannot be breached. She can and does return to her parents during her fathers final illness and does what she can to help, but she now comes from a different world. The strength of this short novel (113 pages) comes from the way that Ernaux uses the words and phrases that her parents would have used and in the closely observed situations that she describes. The paragraphs are short and seem to float freely and she manages to say an awful lot without using too many words. One gets the feeling that every word in this novel has been thought through and weighed carefully for its effect. It goes without saying that the world created/remebered of a small town in Normandy (France) feels absolutely right. This short novel may be slight, but it is beautifully formed and so four stars.

Feb 28, 10:44am Top

>87 baswood: she manages to say an awful lot without using too many words - That’s a nice way to sum her up! Glad you enjoyed it. I think she has a great gift for noticing everyday things and working out what it is that’s remarkable about them.

Mar 2, 7:59am Top

>87 baswood: Thanks for a great review of La Place. I have wishlisted it and I see my library has it, so hopefully I will get to it sooner rather than later.

Mar 2, 9:46am Top

>87 baswood: Sounds lovely and on wish list it goes!

Edited: Mar 15, 7:33pm Top

Hers A Alvarez
Another book plucked from my shelves that must have been sitting there for at least 20 years. Alvarez was the poetry editor and critic for the Observer newspaper for a ten year period 1956-66 and editor of the well received The New poetry in 1962. A poet himself he has also a noted essayist and it is perhaps a little strange that his novels appear to be overlooked. There are 12 people listed on LibraryThing as owning a copy of "Hers"; a novel from 1974 and there are no reviews.

"Hers" tells the story of Julie and the men in her life. She spent her childhood in war torn Germany but at the start of the novel we find her married to Charles a professor at a University somewhere in the Midlands of England. Although Julie is thirty and has two children she looks much younger and is an attraction to many of the students who attend her husbands summer school. She has always resisted her husbands students advances, until she falls for Sam and the affair leads to a crisis in her own marriage and she becomes unwell. She travels back to Germany to a clinic/retreat near where she spent her childhood to undertake a cure and perhaps to exorcise the ghosts from her past. Sam follows her to Germany………..

A Alvarez writes clearly and intelligently and is on home ground when describing Charles and his attempts to make his way in the academic world, having come from a working class background. He is also very good in capturing the character of Julie a woman caught between two worlds and a lost childhood. His descriptive writing is also very fine and he is excellent when writing about sex, never overplaying his hand but giving readers enough detail to imagine the scenes taking place. The story is a decent one and although not page turning material it did lead this reader to care about the characters and to wonder how it would end. Themes explored are: differences in the age of married partners, mid life crisis, alienation, the rapid urbanisation of the nineteen seventies and challenges from a new feckless class of young people.

This is a good novel that does not break any new ground, but errs on the right side of literature with its intelligence and thoughtfulness. Unjustly overlooked in my opinion although the front cover seems to be an attempt to lure the less discerning reader (me for instance). Merits a good 3.5 stars.

Mar 16, 1:10am Top

>91 baswood: Interesting — I vaguely know about Al Alvarez as a poet and I have one or two anthologies where his work appears or which he edited, but had no idea he’d written novels as well. According to Wikipedia he’s still around, though in his late eighties now.

No need to feel embarrassed about the cover — apparently-naked women were as ubiquitous in the early 70s as headless women are now. And rarely had anything to do with the actual contents. I even have a couple of m/m love stories from that period where the publisher has misjudged the market far enough to put a naked woman on the cover...

Mar 16, 1:31pm Top

>92 thorold: Headless women? Is that really a thing?

Mar 16, 6:32pm Top

>93 FlorenceArt: Not Anne Boleyn with her head tucked underneath her arm, but images of women cropped in such a way that you can't see the face - apparently it saves the publisher from paying the model an extra fee, or something of the sort. It was a notorious cliché of genres like historical fiction for a while, but so many people have been making fun of it on the internet that it may have faded a bit.

Mar 18, 7:41pm Top

>93 FlorenceArt: Another thing along the same lines is a woman with her back to you. She at least usually has a head.

Mar 19, 7:27am Top

>91 baswood: - I'm afraid Alvarez now seems reduced to a walk-on part in the Hughes-Plath drama. One of the latest books suggests he had an affair with her which he has always denied. Writing a study on suicide a few years after Plath's death probably hindered any possible escape from the story.

(It's amazing how passionate some people still get about this - a couple of weeks ago on Lithub one of the female books chose ten books about posthumous works chose Ariel and then accused the "much less talented" Hughes of fucking (her expression) with her work. I can't comment on the latter statement but saying Hughes is much less talented is farcical).

Edited: Mar 20, 7:42am Top

Edited: Mar 20, 7:44am Top

Pour une nuit d'amour : Suivi de L'Inondation by Émile Zola
Actually there are two novellas in this folio paperback edition: L’Inondation is the second story and while L’Inondation is typical Zola, Pour une nuit d’amour takes the writer into pure horror story territory; darker than dark. The length of the story reminded me of those tales written by Edgar Allan Poe, where you know that the main character is going to come to a sticky end and the horror is in how he gets there. Zola’s story is similar but he takes the reader into a darker world of sexual perversion: a place where Edgar Alan Poe dared not go.

Julien Michon is a young man living in a small town in Northern France. He is something of a gentle giant, but he is clumsy with his large hands and he is very shy. The village girls make fun of him and he keeps himself to himself taking solace in playing a flute in the evenings in his small apartment across a courtyard from a mansion owned by the Marquise. Thérèse is the daughter of the Marquise and she has a troubled child hood, her only friend being Colombel the son of her maid. Colombel is a small boy with a large head and even he can mock Julien, however Thérèse has a cruel streak and she tortures little Colombel jumping on his back and whipping him as if he was a horse. Thérèse is packed off to a convent and the story picks up when she returns home at a marriageable age, living in an apartment across the courtyard from Julien. He is enamoured by her and waits at his window to catch a glimpse of her. Thérèse has a reputation of being extremely religious, but her ruby red lips and pale white face hint at something more sinister. Julien attempts to attract Thérèse with his flute playing, but he is plunged into misery when he overhears her say that she is annoyed by that awful sound of a flute that she hears every night. Thérèse takes up with Colombel again and Julien sees that her shutters are closed now most of the time. One night his vigil is rewarded by seeing Thérèse opening her shutters, she blows him a kiss and beckons him over to her apartment. We know that things are not going to go well for Julien.

The Flood is a more straightforward story which tells of the River Garonne bursting its banks one late afternoon and flooding a nearby village. Zola focuses on one of the most successful farms on the edge of the village and the story of the horrific night is told by the 70 year old man who is the head of a large family. It is Zola and so we know that the happy successful family are going to be devastated by the forces of nature.

The novella or shorter story format seems to reign in Zola a little, but he is still able to create plenty of atmosphere and some readers might find this format more easily digestible. I like a full blown Zola but after reading Pour une nuit d’amour I kind of wish that there were more shorter stories available. 5 stars from me.

Mar 20, 9:12am Top

>98 baswood: Sounds like classic Zola! Thanks for the intriguing review of a title I didn't know.

May 3, 11:58am Top

Just a quick note to say I haven't fallen off the perch, but I have not been reading any literature recently. I am mainly concerned with reading magazine article's in French for my upcoming Naturalisation interview.

May 3, 9:00pm Top

Good luck with your interview!

May 6, 1:20pm Top

Good luck with the interview! How long after it will you have an answer?

I wasn't aware of these shorter Zola works and am really intrigued by Pour une nuit d'amour !

May 6, 4:29pm Top

100> Bon chance!

May 6, 4:38pm Top

>100 baswood: I’m sure you’ve been using this in your revision: https://youtu.be/DGXx56WqqJw

May 9, 4:03am Top

Good luck with the interview!

May 12, 11:52am Top

Thanks everybody. >102 chlorine: I think It will take 12-18 months to get an answer (if my paperwork is in order) and so I won't be holding my breath.

May 13, 7:36am Top

>106 baswood:. Ugh. I apologise for our so slow bureaucracy. :/

Jul 2, 5:26pm Top

Wondering how it all went....

Jul 3, 10:17am Top

>108 avaland: Hi Lois, I think it went well, but it will be a long time till I find out. The next stage will be a visit from the Gendarmes.

Edited: Jul 3, 10:21am Top

Skulls of Istria by Rick Harsch
The last book I read in the English language was over four months ago and the first book I picked up after this sojourn was Skulls of Istria by Rick Harsch and the second book I picked up was Skulls of Istria by Rick Harsch, thats right I read Harsch’s novel and was so impressed I immediately re-read it. Being a little out of touch with the English language in novel form, may have helped because Harsch bends and twists his words in ways that gets the most out of them, for example:

“How many secret stercoricolous tribes of coprophagi have lived and died unknown”

Perhaps the most disgusting sentence in the whole novel, but at the end of the day I am glad that those tribes lived and died unknown.

Weighing in at 144 pages the novel is not one to exhaust the reader or lead him to regret that time may have been misspent, because the curious thing is that it is also very readable and because I was so fascinated by the word play on that first reading I imagined I might have missed some fundamental themes and a good story and so when I re-read it I found I this to be absolutely correct.

Novel writers live by the art of their story telling and this novel opens with the Speaker/Author inviting a customer at a waterside taverna to sit at his table while he plies him with drinks and proceeds to spin his tales of loves lost and won, plagiarism, intrigue and murder with dollops of Balkan history and a background of a rugged terrain. The speaker/author is an historian (perhaps the best story tellers) with particular knowledge of the coastal towns of Croatia where much of the action takes place, but the speaker/author is also an American and he brings with him the persona of a life time battle with “Uncle Sam”. This is not a two way conversation as the author/speaker says to his guest:

“ But lets not talk politics, you and I, In fact I’d rather you not talk at all, you just listen, I’ll talk.

And talk he does; about the Burja wind, about the history of the peoples living along the coastline laced with passing references to the story he really wants to tell: how he became victim to the machinations of people still trying to escape from the aftermath of yet another vicious war in the Balkans. He tells of his academic career in America his fascination with the war torn region, his attempts to write a masterpiece, the plagiarism that led to his fleeing the country and landing up in Croatia with his partner Rosa. In Croatia he finds a subject on which to hang his chief d’oeuvre, but he is seduced by the gypsy-like Maja who involves him in a Balkan intrigue all of his own.

So what better way than to spend an afternoon sitting at a table opposite this voluble American while he plies you with drinks and tells stories that will shock and awe you, that will drip with the harshness of a people and their surroundings and the history that no one can escape, but underneath there is also a human story of love and lust and that age old conundrum that concerns so many writers: the search for a subject that will satisfy the serious artist. Mr Harsch is well on the way to finding that with this novel whose individual voice will fascinate and entertain the reader in equal measure. Highly recommended and a five star read.

Jul 3, 7:37pm Top

I'm glad you enjoyed the Harsch. I've got one of his on my tbr and I really should get to it.

Jul 13, 10:52am Top

Edited: Jul 13, 10:57am Top

Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays translated and edited with an introduction and notes by M. A. Screech.

How to Live, A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell.

Reading the Complete essays I had to wait a long time before I came across that “How did he know that about me” moment which Sarah Bakewell claims in her book is a feature many readers experience, this was mine:

“As soon as I arrived I spelled out my character faithfully and truly, just as I know myself to be – no memory, no concentration, no experience, no drive; no hatred either, no ambition, no covetousness, no ferocity – so that they should be told, and therefore know, what to expect from my service”

(Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays (p. 1137). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.)

This quote is in the essay/chapter “ on restraining your will and covers Montaigne’s two periods as Mayor of Bordeaux. It comes from book three page 1,137 out of a total page count of 1,269 pages and so as a reader you have to be pretty keen to read through the whole lot. I was helped by M. A. Screech’s excellent translation that somehow brings the 16th century text alive and readable for 21st century readers. He aids the reader by an excellent main introduction; a heading to each new chapter and over 250 pages of notes.

The essays vary wildly in length for example the first chapter of book 1 “We reach the same end by discrepant means” is four pages long whereas “An Apology for Raymond Sebond” clocks in at nearly 200 pages almost a book in itself. Montaigne was a Renaissance man and so his store of knowledge, his ideas on philosophy were mostly generated by his love for antiquity. The majority of his anecdotes come from classical literature, with many quotes in Latin and Screech translates these for us immediately following the quotation so the flow of the essays is not interrupted. Montaigne spent 20 years ruminating and adding to his work and each edition during his lifetime had amendments (usually additions to the original text) Screech incorporates these into the main body of the text with a symbol (A, A1, B, or C) to denote their origin. This all seems to work pretty smoothly.

There is no substitute to reading the essays themselves, they are a unique experience. Montaigne writes exclusively about himself, but without a hint of pride, boastfulness or grandeur, he is aiming at self knowledge with the belief that if he can get some of it down on paper then he will also be writing about most other people as well, because he believed that the similarities vastly outweighed the differences. From Montaigne we understand that the way people see and feel about issues and about themselves change with age, with new experiences, or even depending on how they felt that particular day, but there is a basic thread running throughout our lives that Montaigne wishes to expose. Perhaps that is why so many readers through the centuries have seen themselves in Montaigne’s essays. Montaigne writes about day to day events, about travel, about education about death, about work, about being in the moment, about sex, about melancholy, about anger and about a natural theology. All the time he sets down how he feels about the subject that is concerning him and links it back to the wisdom (or otherwise) of antiquity. He can be humorous, serious, thoughtful, but never didactic; his search for truth makes his honesty almost painful at times. He exposes himself so that others can see themselves and I think you need a certain amount of courage to do that.

Montaigne’s world seems equally divided between 16th century France and classical Rome and some readers might find too much classicism in the essays, but this grounds the author as a typical renaissance man. A man of his times that can communicate forward to current times. Not to be missed especially with M A Screech’s excellent translation and introductions. 5 stars.

Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, A life of Montaigne is written for contemporary readers almost like an overnight sensation - wham bam thank you mame - This is Montaigne she shouts, don’t miss out - you too will find yourself in my/this book. In her first chapter she nails her colours too the mast:

“Since it is a twenty-first-century book it is inevitably pervaded by a twenty-first-century Montaigne . As one of his favourite adages had it, there is no escaping our perspective: we can walk on our own legs and sit only on our own bum.”

So Bakewell sets about picking out the bits of Montaigne that she thinks will appeal to her 21st century audience, which unsurprisingly misses some of what Montaigne was about.

Having read the essays myself I asked myself the following questions before picking up Sarah Bakewell’s book:

1) Does the book add anything to the reading of the essays.

2) Does it supply any additional information.

3) Is it a substitute for reading Montaigne

4) How accurate is it with reference to the text?

Well lets start with the positives: Bakewell’s book is subtitled A Life of Montaigne and she does fill in some background information. She has good chapters on the religious wars that for most of his life threatened to engulf Montaigne, she tells us about Montaigne's family and private life and how he worked, she tells us about the printing history of the book; its reception at the time and then through the subsequent centuries and so in this respect it answers questions 1) and 2). I found Bakewell’s writing lively and interesting; of course she cannot help but add her own thoughts on Montaigne’s situation but I found nothing too jarring here. She even attempts to provide her readers with a bit of grounding in Hellenistic philosophy and although I found this chapter a little glib it was better than nothing.

So far so good, but then doubts started to creep in, surely she was going to say something more about Montaigne’s classical references, especially after she had told us that Montaigne was made to converse in Latin from his first attempts at speech until he was sent away to school. Surely she was going to “home in” on the near 200 page essay where Montaigne expounds his ideas on a natural theology. It was important enough for him to write such a long chapter, so there should be some commentary from Bakewell. Montaigne had a deep respect for nature in which he saw Gods handiwork, this is an underlying theme throughout the essays and is nailed down in his “Apology for Raymond Sebond. Bakewell rightly highlights Montaigne’s preoccupation with death and his own approach to death, but picks out the chapter where he describes his own near death experience after a hunting accident and makes this a sort of watershed for all subsequent thoughts. Then there is her claim that Montaigne had never been a soldier ………………..

So does Bakewell see her book as a sort of substitute for reading Montaigne’s essays, she never says it is, but I can imagine that many readers will read this book and think that they have read Montaigne. They would be wrong, because reading Bakewells comments on Montaigne would be like reading a commentary on Moby-Dick which claimed the main theme of that book was a mans obsession with killing a white whale. So I cannot recommend this book as a critique of Montaigne and it falls short in being A Life, however it is an entertaining read and if it leads people to dip into the real thing then it cannot be all bad 3.5 stars.

Jul 14, 2:30am Top

I’ve never given much thought to Montaigne, but you make me want to read him...

Edited: Jul 16, 7:06pm Top

The Life and Adventures of John Daniel was published 1751 and now takes its place in the proto science fiction catalogue. The framing device for the story is claimed to be by one Ralph Morris although the actual story is told in the first person by John Daniel. Ralph Morris is a pseudonym, but the fantastic adventures of John Daniel bears such a resemblance to Robert Paltock’s The Life and adventures of Peter Wilkins also published in 1751 that it would be no surprise if they were both written by the same hand. Both books tell the story of an Englishman shipwrecked on a desert island who unexpectedly finds a woman with whom he can start a tribe of his own. Both books deal with sexual encounters in a mildly erotic fashion; John Daniels has to fight off his fathers young wife before escaping to sea and then must overcome an aversion to incest to start his own island race.

The book was originally published in two volumes, the first details his struggles to survive on his desert island and this has an edgy realistic feel of a survival manual as the story takes place over a number of years. Later he is helped by being able to salvage equipment from a couple of shipwrecks and it becomes a bit like Robinson Crusoe. The second book finds him having populated his island and takes off into real fantasy when he discovers that one of his sons has invented a flying machine. Together they try out the machine and soon lose control and find themselves flying into a long period of darkness. They eventually land and meet strange hominid creatures who treat them favourably, but they cannot find enough food to sustain them for a long period and they are disorientated by nights that seem to last for more than two weeks. They take off again and finally crash land on a rocky island where they find a man who like John Daniel has started his own colony, this man surmises from Daniel’s story of his adventures that he has probably visited the dark side of the moon. The island children are misshapen and seem to have gills and Daniel discovers that his new friend’s wife has been sleeping with a sea monster. John Daniel and his son repair their flying machine and take off again and find themselves in Lapland, where Daniel finally finds a way back to England and his home town of Royston; he is now a sprightly 93 years old. The book is on a par with The Life and adventures of Peter Wilkins and considering its time of publication is an interesting fantasy adventure tale with enough detail and suspense that kept me reading until the end - 3 stars.

Jul 18, 3:54pm Top

Like Florence, I have never wanted to read Montaigne (btw an uncle and an aunt of mine are literary scholars and have spent a lot of time on Montaigne, but being from the scientific branch of the family that has not pushed me towards him), but your comments make me more inclined to the idea.

I see that you didn't feel up to reading him in French! ;)

Jul 19, 11:36am Top

>1I6 chlorine I see that you didn't feel up to reading him in French! ;)

I thought about it for a nano second

Jul 19, 3:56pm Top

That's already giving it a lot of thought given the challenge! I don't know if I would be able to follow the old French.

Edited: Jul 21, 10:36am Top

The Alteration by Kingsley Amis
KIngsley Amis was one of the leading writers of his generation and by the time he published The Alteration in 1976 he had fifteen novels under his belt. In my view he is one of those authors who straddles a line between populism and literature, his first novel Lucky Jim was a comic novel on life and times in post war Britain and was a great success; funny and slightly titillating. Subsequently there was criticism that his novels seemed to stray more and more into an outdated swinging sixties view of sex with accusations of misogyny. I think this is unfair: although it cannot be denied that Amis was always keen to write about sex especially in a way that sounded a little like he wanted to entertain with salacious views of his character lives, but in my opinion he also did much to debunk the hypocrisy surrounding the subject. No surprise then that the central story line in the Alteration concerns the castration of a 10 year old boy.

The Alteration has plenty of surprises in store, for a start it could easily fit into the genre of science fiction being an alternate history of the world and could also be seen to be a damming indictment of religion. Amis’s alternate history stems from him imagining that Henry VIII never became king of England and that his older bother Arthur survived to claim the throne and together with his Spanish queen Catherine of Aragon tied the country to the Roman Catholic faith. Britain became a world power wedded to the Papacy and soon became a theocracy. The result was that progress was held back by about 200 years; electricity was considered by the church too dangerous to use, horse and cart was the transport used by the poor, a diesel engine has been invented and express carriages sped along the road system. The mass of the population were still of peasant stock wearing drab clothes and living in small houses, medical science had not developed to any great extent and the cities had remained small with the population of London being around the million mark; outbreaks of plague were still rumoured. The church governed everything with the Pope in Rome now a Yorkshireman from England. Hubert Anvil is a ten year old boy blessed with a superb soprano voice; the best in living memory and the story opens with him singing at the funeral of king Stephen III of England in 1976. The authorities agree that he must be castrated before his voice breaks, but Hubert is just starting to have an inkling of what he will be be sacrificing if the operation goes ahead.

Fornication under church rules is considered a sin, just about allowable in wedlock, but outside of this punishments can be severe. The clergy still operates under rules of celibacy and Hubert first learns about sex through observing a peasant couple going at it in the woods near his boarding school. His parents are from the wealthy merchant class and as usual in such families have their own pastor; father Lyall, however he falls in love with the merchants wife and is reluctant to sign the forms that will authorise Hubert’s operation. Amis gets to write about his favourite subject; illicit sex and the sexual awakening of a young boy, while the battle for Hubert’s balls rages within the church hierarchy. Amis tells the story well and there is a nice twist near the end to keep the reader entertained.

It is a short novel; just over 200 pages and so there is little opportunity for Amis to develop a complicated alternate world scenario. He does create an atmosphere of life within a strictly structured theocracy, but this takes second place to the story he wishes to tell. There is in the background the war against the Turks, the war against Islam, but the big war against science has been won:

“It was a close thing. A little longer, and science would have abolished God and brought our world to ruin”

In Amis’s alternate world there are throwaway lines that refer to famous artworks by the Netherlander de Kooning or the English Channel bridge engineered by Sopwith or the vast Turner ceiling in St Pauls. Amis provides just enough detail to sketch in the background to his story. It is an entertaining read, but whether the reader wishes to make of it a satire on religion, an alternate universe or a story of sexual awakening then he is free to do so. 3 stars from me.

Edited: Jul 24, 10:06am Top

Barnabe Riche His Farewell to Military profession: containing very pleasant discourses fit for a peaceable time.
Riche dedicates his eight short stories to the right courteous Gentlewomen saying:

Gentlewomen I am sure there are many (but especially of such that best know me) that will not a little wonder to see such alteration in me, that having spent my younger days in the wars amongst men, and vowed myself only unto Mars, should now in my riper years, desire to live in peace amongst women, and to consecrate myself wholly unto Venus.

Barnabe Riche published his Farewell to Militarie profession in 1580 after temporarily retiring from soldering, he claims that five of them were original and three were translated from the Italian. The stories certainly have the same feel as those that were popular in Italy and later in England, authors such as Boccaccio, Massuccio, and Bandello spring to mind, but Riche has adapted them for an English audience.

1 Duke Sappho tells the story of a successful soldier returning from the wars, who is unable to deal with the intrigue at Court and is sent into exile, he loses his wife: Melessina and his son: Aurielanus. The son is adopted by a noble family and proves his worth as a gentleman and a soldier, but is condemned to death when he attempts to marry above his station in life. Riche manages to create a tense situation until Aurielanus is saved when it is discovered he is a Duke’s son.

2 Apolonius and Silla - this story is famous as being a source material for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It has a cross dressed women as a central theme for a case of mistaken identity, but like Shakespeare’s play it all comes right in the end.

3 Nicander and Lucilla is another story centred around a pair of star crossed lovers who cannot marry because Lucilla has no dowry. Lucilla attracts the attention of another suitor and her desperate mother arranges for the young man to have access to her bedroom. He enters the chamber to find Lucilla naked on her bed and she must talk her way out of being molested. The bedroom scene is well handled by Riche

4 Fineo and Fiamma are two lovers who are shipwrecked in separate instances and both end up as slaves in the Mohammedan court of the King of Tunis.

5 The two Bretheren and their wives. This story stands out as being different from the rest, it is more a comedy of manners, much more down to earth and owes its success to its social commentary rather than a story of fantastic coincidences. Two brother choose very different wives, one is chosen for her beauty and the other is chosen for her money. The beautiful wife attracts attention from other men, but is discrete in her arrangements and no harm is done. The other wife is a rich widow and while she provides her husband with comforts he could not afford himself she is a constant scold. The first marriage is a success the second becomes impossible, Riche says:

Better to be married to a cheating wife (the harte never grieves what thee eye sees not) than to a faithful scold.

The majority of the story revolves around the beautiful wife who has to resort to hiding her lover in a trunk, she also has to negotiate between a doctor and a lawyer who both want her for themselves. It is however her soldier lover; rough and ready as he is who has the best advice to give.

6 Gonsalves and his virtuous wife Agatha. Gonsalves wants to poison his wife so that he can move in with a harlot who lives down the road. His friend a doctor of Physike sells Gonsalves a sleeping draft instead of a poison with a plan to save Agatha’s life and perhaps win her for himself. A tragedy is avoided, but things turn out differently than expected. This is another story that has a feel of involving ordinary people rather than the nobility.

7 Aramanthus born a Leper. Aramanthus is a king’s son and he is sent away to an island of Lepers. He is shipwrecked and on making landfall he is taken in by a farming community within the realm of Turkey who cure his illness with local remedies. Aramanthus father the king is captured by the Turks and is saved by his lost son.

8 Lotus and Emelia. the final story has a complicated plot which I never got to grips with especially as some of the pages were missing in the version that I read online.

A mixed bag of tales that are entertaining and have a more balanced critique of male/female relationships than one finds in some of the Italian Renaissance novels. Honour and honesty are the overriding themes, but I never got the feeling that I was reading these tales for my moral education. Entertainment is the key word here: 3 stars.

Edited: Jul 31, 5:54am Top

Renaissance Self-fashioning from More to Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt.
This is a collection of essays of Literary criticism of some of the seminal works of the 16th century. The book concerns itself in taking a holistic view of the texts and authors under discussion and so the culture in which the authors lived and worked becomes as important as the the works themselves. This is the sort of literary criticism that I find the most beneficial to a better understanding of literature from this period and is one of the reasons why I have chosen to absorb myself in all things sixteenth century. Greenblatt was on a winner with me from the start and I found his book very interesting, also his writing is lively, rich in detail and encourages his readers to take perhaps another look at the texts themselves. There are dangers in Greenblatt’s approach and the most significant one is that the criticism will place too much influence on the surrounding culture so that in an attempt to get inside the minds of the authors the critic may be misinterpreting the works, especially if he has set himself with a theme or new idea from the start and he tries to make the works fit into that: Greenblatt could be accused of this, but this is for the reader to decide.

“At the Table of the Great: Mores Self-fashioning and Self-Cancellation” takes as its central text Sir Thomas Mores Utopia. It asks the question of how Thomas More could write an idealised tract on an imaginary land that seemed so realistic, (it had people wondering how they could get there) and so different from Tudor England and yet ten years later he was enthusiastically torturing and burning protestant heretics who he saw as a challenge to everything fundamentally English. The Island of Utopia seems on first reading to demonstrate an enlightened view on a society, where every individual is encouraged to seek a work/life balance for himself and his community with a clear indication that togetherness and equality will reap the best rewards. For 21st century readers this first impression is offset by some very dark clouds indeed: for example the need for a system of slavery, and almost a complete absence of privacy. Greenblatt’s reading of the text shows that in some ways Utopia bore similarities to the culture of Tudor England and Tudor power and while it certainly could be interpreted at a critique of Tudor society it was also an attempt by More to fantasise on his own internal struggles.

“The Word of God in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” takes as its central text Tyndale’s ‘Obedience of a Christian Man’ A text that benefited from being able to be printed relatively cheaply and celebrated as a seminal text given to Henry VIII by the protestant Anne Boleyn. The Obedience of a Christian Man was no less than a battleground for the soul of Christians and was answered by Thomas More from the catholic side first by a refutation in print and then by savage repression. Greenblatt is excellent in describing this battle of the religions in an understandable way for his modern readers, some examples from Obedience of a Christian Man are highlighted with some insightful commentary that really brings this intense struggle to life. Tudor power once again becomes a central issue with Tyndale’s works in Greenblatt’s opinion being no less than an attempt at a grab for power. He is able to build on his ideas from the first essay on Thomas More and in doing so produces my favourite essay of the six.

“Power, Sexuality, and Inwardness in Wyatt’s Poetry”. The central texts here are some examples from Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poems. The most notable are Wyatt’s translations of the Penitential Psalms which Greenblatt claims reveal much about Wyatt’s inner self and the culture of the times. He closes another excellent essay with close readings of Wyatt’s two most famous poems; “Whoso list to Hunt” and “They flee from me that sometimes did me seek.” Two of Wyatt’s poems that appeal to the modern reader, because of what can be read into them with our knowledge of Wyatt’s eventful life: Imprisoned twice in the Tower of London and once being suspected of being Anne Boleyn’s lover. Someone has said that for a woman, Wyatt would have been the most dangerous of lovers with his ability to charm and manipulate for his own ends and these poems are full of the inner Wyatt. However it may be unfair to judge the man from these two examples, because much of Wyatts poetry is for amusement in the courtly love tradition, he composed many of them as songs, he was by all accounts an excellent musician.

“To Fashion a Gentleman: Spenser and the Destruction of the Bower of Bliss”. In this chapter Greenblatt recaps on the previous three chapters and then launches into an episode from The Faerie Queen: Guyon the knight of Temperance and his complete destruction of the bower of Bliss. Spenser is portrayed by Greenblatt as the arch colonialist who carried out what today would be seen as horrendous crimes in Ireland. There is no doubt that The Faerie Queen is a homage to Gloriana (Queen Elizabeth I ) and so Greenblatt’s view on the idea of Spenser’s knight being involved in a struggle to assert the power of Queen Elizabeth is on safe ground. But as in all of these essays there is much more going on as Greenblatt guides us through the culture and society of the court of Queen Elizabeth I: for example there is an excellent section on the importance of rhetoric in the society and literature of the time.

“Marlowe and the Will to Absolute Play” takes as its central text Marlowe’s play “Tamburlaine the Great” I was at a disadvantage here because this is the only text that I had not read myself, but I still enjoyed Greenblatt’s discussion, however whether I agree with his views on Marlowe’s play will have to wait until I have read it. The title of the chapter with its reference to “Will” leads us nicely into the final chapter.

"The Improvisation of Power," which takes as its central text Othello. I was on safer ground here because Othello is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and even though I know it fairly well I still found much that was insightful in Greenblatts commentary. I did not agree with everything he claimed to read into the text, but nevertheless enjoyed the discussion and noticed that Greenblatt had finally got the P word (that is power) into the title of his essay. Greenblatt is not very kind to Tudor society and culture. The impression he leaves is of a repressive absolute monarchy where image counts for almost everything and this had an effect on the literature that resulted from this culture of repression.

There is an introduction (and an epilogue) to these essays where Greenblatt explains why he has used the title “Renaissance Self fashioning.” I did not fully understand it on first reading and after going back to the introduction after reading the essays I was still not sure I understood the supposed glue that binds these essays together. No matter; the essays themselves are so rich in content that I will return to them from time to time. I have hardly been able to do them justice in this brief review. Excellent and 4.5 stars.

Edited: Aug 3, 9:02am Top

Night Journey, Albert J. Guerard
Albert J Guerard (1914-2000) was an American critic novelist and professor. He published ten novels between 1938-1995 and Night Journey came to my attention because it was published in 1950 and has been considered to be science fiction. It is not typical of 1950’s science fiction as it reads more like a literary novel of imaginative fiction, it seems to have received decent reviews at the time (New York herald Tribune) but has since been forgotten, which is a bit of a shame as it is a good psychological novel with convincing elements of realism. I bought a first edition of the novel online at a very reasonable price.

The novel opens with an army man talking about a disciplinary case he is investigating. It is set in a period sometime after the second world war in Europe when the author imagines that individual states (perhaps the Balkans) are still involved in wars that have been going on for some time. He is stationed in the town of Moratan which has just been retaken from the enemy (the dictatorship). Much of the town has been destroyed by war and the disciplinary compound is in a field outside the town. Here he is trying to piece together the story of Paul Haldan. The point of view switches to Haldan who tells his story in the first person. He is a man almost destroyed by his wartime experiences, he was one of the first soldiers to enter Moratan in the company of a civilian M. Montalva who is an expert at working behind enemy lines. Their job was to encourage an underground socialist cell to take over the key military objectives of the town before the army rolled in with its tanks. The socialists were in a dilemma because their military sources were telling them to stay underground but Montalva persuaded them to take action, saying the occupation forces were on their way. This proved to be the case but after 31 hours they withdrew in the face of a counter attack leaving the socialists high and dry. Haldan had been party to the negotiations and found himself waiting for Montalva to evacuate him in the last vehicle in town. He saw Montalva running down the steps of the town hall, but made a snap decision to betray him and drove out. Haldan was racked by guilt believing that he had left Montalva to die, but when the army again retook Moratan he was tasked with contacting the socialist where he learned that Montalva was still active.

Albert J. Guerard served in the army during the second world war as a technical sergeant in the psychological wartime branch and uses these experiences to paint a convincing picture of the effect of war on the soldiers involved. The early chapters are almost Kafka-esque when Haldan is first posted and cannot find out who he should report to, or what he should be doing, everybody else seems to be in the same situation where the latest rumours of action are spoken about as though they are happening to other people. Soldiers must and do accept the situation, but when Haldan gets the chance to work with Montalva he jumps at it despite warnings from the ‘old hands’. Haldan is taken out of his comfort zone when he is no longer is in a chain of command, because working with a civilian forces him to make moral choices. Guerard portrays the war torn town of Moratan very convincingly as well as the battlegrounds outside the town, but the main strength in his writing is in getting his readers to understand Haldan’s situation and so he is allowed to incorporate incidents from his past in his confessions.

Guerard hones in on the psychological war efforts used by the antagonists and so propaganda techniques are used by both sides, nobody seems to have a real idea of what the objectives are and the novel has been compared to Orwell’s 1984, which was published a year earlier. Guerard’s novel is different in that it takes the psychology right down into the battle fields that would still have been fresh in the minds of his readers. Guerard’s book contains elements of an alternate history and the enemy does have weapons that the army does not possess: there are midget tanks and a bomb that can reduce a whole area to fine dust, but these are not important to the story only acting on a psychological level for the reader rather than the protagonists.

This is a good novel, well written with a story that retains mystery and suspense throughout. The portrayal of war on the ground and the actions of the army are convincing, it captures a period in time effectively and the dust and dirt of urban warfare clings to the text. The book might be overlong for some readers, but it is conscious of telling it’s story while not neglecting to place the reader in the situations faced by the characters. Many elements make for an interesting read and it just about holds a place in the genre of science fiction. I rate it at 3.5 stars.

Edited: Aug 6, 5:15pm Top

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou
This was a re-read for me and I enjoyed and appreciated it much more the second time round. Published in 1969 it is the first of a seven part autobiographical series. The book covers the first seventeen years of Maya’s life and has been described as autobiographical fiction, because there is far too much detail in the story telling (whole conversations are repeated verbatim) for it to be an accurate biography. She was over forty when she was encouraged to write her autobiography and while she based the story around the facts of her life she seems to have been more concerned about getting across what it felt like to be a black girl growing up in America before second world war and in this she has been very successful. My reading experience was one of looking over the shoulder of a person in an environment that I knew something about from other reading, but this biography filled out the picture. The book was a best seller in 1969 and garnered much critical acclaim.

Maya writes about her childhood in Stamps Arkansas, where segregation was a matter of course and then her later teen years in San Francisco, where racism was a little more subtle. She writes with painful honesty about a rape when she was eight years old, about her rose tinted vision of her father and to a certain extent her mother and about her own pregnancy at seventeen years old. Her naivety about sex is particularly well expressed and enables the reader to understand perfectly well how things happened to her the way they did. The book has important things to say about black female identity, racism, sex, religion, education and living conditions for black people in America in the 1930’s and these are assisted by the 40 year old authors reflections and story telling. This is an heartfelt autobiography dredged from the memories of an articulate and brave black woman written in a style that holds the readers attention. A deserved success and a book that feels as fresh to me as it did in the 1970’s. 4 stars.

Aug 6, 10:46pm Top

And that's a great picture, too.

Aug 7, 5:42am Top

>123 baswood: Great book, great picture!

Aug 7, 9:05am Top

Nice review of an outstanding book. I hadn't seen that photo before; thanks for posting it!

Aug 11, 6:01am Top

>123 baswood:
The book has important things to say about black female identity, racism, sex, religion, education and living conditions for black people in America in the 1930’s and these are assisted by the 40 year old authors reflections and story telling.
I could not agree more! Thank you for reminding me of such a great book.

Aug 12, 3:12am Top

>123 baswood: Great review. Have you read any of the other autobiographical volumes?

Aug 12, 2:04pm Top

>128 Rebeki: not yet, but I have The Heart of a Woman on my shelf and I will read it soon. This is the fourth volume in the series and covers the period when she was in Harlem and was working in the Civil Rights Movement with Martin Luther King

Edited: Aug 18, 7:32am Top

Montaigne Visits Torquato Tasso in a monastery, towards the end of Tasso's life when the Italian was suffering with something like depression.

The two authors were responsible for the best selling books of the 1580's

Edited: Aug 18, 7:34am Top

Jerusalem Delivered
John Addington Symonds a nineteenth century critic said that Torquato Tasso thought he was writing a religious heroic poem but Jerusalem Delivered (Gerusalemme liberata) turned out to be a poem of sentiment and passion. First published in 1581 it was immediately popular and a complete translation by Edward Fairfax appeared in 1600 and this was the version that I read. The Fairfax translation is considered a work of literature in its own right because he took liberties with Tasso’s original, heightening the passion and sentiment as he thought fit. It reads beautifully with some purple passages that sing out from the page:

"So, in the passing of a day, doth pass
The bud and blossom of the life of man,
Nor e'er doth flourish more, but like the grass
Cut down, becometh withered, pale and wan:
Oh gather then the rose while time thou hast
Short is the day, done when it scant began,
Gather the rose of love, while yet thou mayest,
Loving, be loved; embracing, be embraced.”

Tasso’s long poem of 20 cantos is subdivided by Fairfax into stanzas of eight lines with a rhyming scheme that adds to the ease of reading.

Jerusalem Delivered is a romantic treatment of the first crusade when Godfrey led a force of 80,000 foot soldiers and 10,000 horse and reached Jerusalem in 1099. He captured the city after a siege of five weeks and ruled for a year. The poem tells the story of the siege but also tells of the love affairs between the French knights and the pagan (Moslem) women. Although Godfrey (Goffredo) is the hero of the history poem and the voice of reason and piety, it is the warriors Rinaldo and Tancredi who grab the attention. Rinaldo is tempted by the pagan sorceress Armida who lures him away from the fighting and encourages his banishment by Godfrey. The entrapment gradually turns into a real love affair which overwhelms the two characters. Tancredi falls in love with the warrior pagan woman Clorinda but kills her when he doesn’t realise who she is on the battle field:

But now, alas, the fatal hour arrives
That her sweet life must leave that tender hold,
His sword into her bosom deep he drives,
And bathed in lukewarm blood his iron cold,
Between her breasts the cruel weapon rives
Her curious square, embossed with swelling gold,
Her knees grow weak, the pains of death she feels,
And like a falling cedar bends and reels.

When he removes her helmet he is mortified, but Clorinda’s last request is that he baptise her, so that he can save her soul. Tancredi is beset with visions of Clorinda throughout the poem, but there is yet another pagan women in love with him: Erminia who he saved and protected at the battle of Antioch on the way to Jerusalem. Tasso’s female characters are as strong as their male counterparts whether they are warriors, or sorceresses.

Tasso’s poem is a carefully planned epic and differs in this respect from Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso” and Spenser’s Faerie Queen. It has its fair share of fantasy for example the isle of temptation created by Armida or the pagan sorcerer Ismen’s spells that guard a sacred wood and on the christian side there is the archangel Michael who intervenes in critical moments on the battlefield, but they are interwoven into the overall scheme of Tasso’s story and don’t feel like fantasy add-ons. The battle scenes are rich in detail and Tasso/Fairfax’s poetry rises to the occasion, it certainly has an epic feel.

Tasso makes his pagan characters as heroic and as chivalrous as their christian counterparts. It would appear that he was worried about the way his poem would be read by his catholic patrons and he submitted it for scrutiny before publication and then worried himself to the point of insanity with revisions; eventually producing Gerusalemme Conquistata, which excised the romantic and fantasy elements and which nobody reads today.

Not everything in Jerusalem Delivered is wonderful, there are some cantos that look backward to earlier poetry, for example the majority of canto 17 is little more than a list of the leaders of the Egyptian army who are travelling to Jerusalem to support their Moslem compatriots, however the longueurs are few and far between and for the most part this is a very readable poem with some exciting battle scenes and plenty of romance with not a little compassion and even a hint of eroticism:

These naked wantons, tender, fair and white,
Moved so far the warriors' stubborn hearts,
That on their shapes they gazed with delight;
The nymphs applied their sweet alluring arts,
And one of them above the waters quite,
Lift up her head, her breasts and higher parts,
And all that might weak eyes subdue and take,
Her lower beauties veiled the gentle lake.

One of the great epic poems of the Renaissance and for me the Fairfax translation was a five star read.

Aug 21, 4:57am Top

The English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare - J. J. Jusserand
This was translated from French by Elizabeth Lee in 1893, three years after its publication and she took the opportunity to revise and enlarge the original. The first couple of chapters provide a history of the novel from the time of Beowulf through the Norman invasion of 1066 and up to the time of John Lyly in the 1570’s. There follows chapters on the major writers and their followers between 1580 and 1605.

Jusserand or Lee calls Lyly the father of the English novel and the chapter on his works and his influence is fairly good. I have read Lyly and so I can appreciate the criticism of his unique writing style. The following chapters are on Robert Greene and his followers, Sir Philip Sidney and his pastoral romance, Thomas Nashe and the picaresque and realist novels and finally the first half of the seventeenth century after Shakespeare (however this final chapter dismisses almost all of the English authors of this period)

This book would serve as a useful introduction to the major novelists of the late Elizabethan period, It showcases the most critically acclaimed novels by the authors, but it is not in any way exhaustive. Shakespeare is mentioned in the title and the book highlights possible source materiel for his plays, but again there is not much detail. A useful book: now free on the internet and I would rate it as 3 stars.

Edited: Aug 22, 2:26pm Top

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore
Published in 1952 this novel has been collected in the SF Masterwork series. I have read that it is the earliest book in the alternative history sub genre, but whatever its claims it is a very good novel and excellent science fiction.

“Although I am writing this in the year 1877, I was not born until 1921. Neither the dates nor the tenses are error - let me explain:”

So Hodgins Backmaker starts the account of his extraordinary life. During his adolescence he lives in a small rural community in the United States - United States with just 13 member states because the Union lost the American Civil war. The Confederacy agreed to the union keeping much of its territory but extracted a huge indemnity that beggared the Union for the foreseeable future. This has not only resulted in the United States becoming a third world country, but also hindered the development of science and engineering on a world wide scale. There are still no aeroplanes and no electricity and many of its citizens are indentured to international companies, there are repatriation schemes for the black population and the country suffers not only from poverty, but also from mean spiritedness. Hodgins must find his own way in a difficult world and at 17 years old starts his four day walk to New York.

The story continues with a lucky encounter in the big city and he gets a position working in a book store. He is fascinated by books and wants to learn and so agrees to work for bed and board for a little pocket money and free access to the books. The book store is also a front for the rebel Grand Army and Hodgins faces a steep learning curve involving his education, life in the city, romance and steering clear of trouble. His studying leads to a dream of an academic life, he wants to be a historian, but there are no worthwhile academic centres in the Union, however he manages to become involved in a self supporting academic community who live out in the countryside, where he continues his education and becomes a leading historian specialising in the American Civil war.

Ward Moore writes well and easily, his characters are particularly well drawn and the novel for much of its length is a very good bildungsroman. It switches smoothly between its story telling to being a novel of ideas and a tableau of an alternative world. The world building itself is not attempted in any detail, but just enough to create a fascinating backdrop for the story. This is not anything like a typical male oriented 1950’s science fiction, it has an egalitarian undertow that sets it apart from much science fiction and probably much popular writing of that era.

It builds to a good climax and I was interested enough to do a bit of research on the battle of Gettysburg before the final denouement. Of course any member of the reading community would guess the ending, but it might have been different in 1952 when this book was published. No matter there is plenty enough in this novel even for non science fiction readers to enjoy. A bit of a gem this one and so 4 stars.

Aug 22, 5:06pm Top

>133 baswood:

As you note, it's not the first alternate history story. The SF Encyclopedia claims that record for a French novel from 1836.

The Moore novel has been vaguely on my TBR for decades now; glad you liked it.

Aug 22, 6:01pm Top

>133 baswood: I'm generally wary about alternate histories about the American Civil War with the South winning, especially after an awful book I read a couple of years back, but you've certainly made this one sound interesting. I hadn't actually come across it before.

Aug 23, 1:48pm Top

>133 baswood: I read The Man in the High Castle last year and then it was suggested to me to read The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, probably because a novel with the same title plays an important role in Dick's novel. The actual novel by Chandler Duke, however, does not have to do anything with TMITHC. Your review just reminded me as The Grasshopper has the same premise and is also categorized as alternate history. I do understand >135 valkyrdeath: 's concerns, though, and I cannot say anything about The Grasshopper as I haven't read it.

Aug 27, 6:36pm Top

The Heart of a Woman - Maya Angelou
This is the fourth book in Maya Angelou’s autobiographical series and starts with Billie Holliday as a house guest and goes on to describe her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and meetings with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. She organised the Cabaret for Freedom in support of Martin Luther Kings Southern Christian Leadership Conference and acted in Jean Genet’s play The Blacks with Abbey Lincoln, Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge, and Cicely Tyson. The final part of the book sees her married to South African Freedom Fighter Vusumzi Make and living in Cairo. An eventful period in her life and she certainly adds plenty of drama to her story.

This period sees her looking at the world from her position within the Black civil rights movement and it is a hostile vision of the white society that controls America. All white’s are ‘Crackers’ never to be trusted and she willingly goes to Africa to escape from the oppression that is part of a black persons lot in 1960’s America. Maya Angelou captures the feelings of those people involved in the struggle as she catapults around in a sphere of now famous people from the movement. Her writing hasn’t lost its edge in this fourth volume and so another four star read.

Edited: Sep 10, 6:46pm Top

Mansfield Park - Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park has been on my bookshelves for years and I took it away on holiday thinking I might get round to reading it at last. A couple of novels later and I started in on Austen’s longest book and found that I could hardly put it down. A beach read, it is not as it presents problems for the modern reader that must be overcome, before enjoyment completely takes hold, but when it does it provides an immensely satisfying read. Banyuls-sur-Mere is a pretty little town on the French Mediterranean coast and one that I love to visit, but this trip will be remembered for the time I spent on the balcony of my holiday apartment clutching my copy of Mansfield Park.

I had no internet connection and so there were no distractions, but this meant also that I could not google for background information and so this first reading was very much a first impression. I have read other novels by Jane Austen and so it was not a complete leap in the dark, but it did lead me to think of issues that modern readers might face, when approaching this book for the first time.

Austen’s sentence structure and syntax can be a little confusing, especially when she is reporting conversation. It is not always easy to understand who is saying what to whom: she also writes the occasional word in a paragraph in italics which I presume is for emphasis, but this style is not much used today. An omniscient author writes the first three chapters and by this time Fanny Price (the heroine) is approaching seventeen; most of the subsequent events are seen through her eyes, however Austen does add her own commentary from time to time and the reader has to be aware whether the views expressed are authorial or those which Fanny might be saying or thinking.

The novel was published in 1814 at a time when Europe was still engaged in the Napoleonic wars, the French revolution was still very much in the minds of many educated people and Austen’s novel reads for the most part like a celebration of English traditions and manners. It is almost as though the industrial revolution had not yet taken place as the novel is firmly situated amongst the genteel rich patrons of the English countryside. The class system is firmly in place and in Austen’s characters views, everybody should know their place and more importantly for the most part keep to it; rights according to birth are sacrosanct. It is a novel that looks backwards to a golden age rather than forward to a changing society, respect for ones betters according to birthright is the accepted norm.

In Austen’s world family and property defines who you are and people are judged by their manners, politeness and how well they do by their family. The family grows rich together and marriages are seen as a means of enhancing a family’s connections: arrangements are made and while suitability is a consideration; love is something that may develop in time, but is mostly accepted as not being prerequisite for an ideal marriage. Feminism has no place in this society and although readers might be encouraged to admire the resolve of female characters, they will find them castigated if they stray too far from accepted family values.

The profession of clergymen was still at this time the most likely avenue for the second son of a well to do family. In Mansfield Park the first son (Tom) will inherit everything and so it is Edmund who will follow the traditional career path as the second son. For Edmund being a clergyman is a vocation. He sees it as a unifying force within his community and he will do his best to succeed in guiding his flock for the betterment of mankind, prayers, sermons and preaching are essential requisites for the community. Edmund is the steady hand of tradition in his family and the son most admired.

Throughout the novel there is resistance to change. The fashion for landscape gardens advocated by Henry Crawford is a step to far for Edmund. Sir Thomas Bertram head of the family is an authoritarian figure who immediately puts a stop to a theatrical event at his house. Fanny Price the adopted daughter of the Bertram household is perhaps the most resistant of all to change and it is she as the central character that seems to pose the most problems for readers. She is non-assertive, meek, mild and an upholder of family values. She seems always to put other people first and suffers in silence as a result. But this novel is essentially a bildungsroman and Fanny Price’s development as a person becomes a shinning example to some of those around her; Edmund, Tom, her brother William, Sir Thomas himself are all affected by her good heart, her respectability and finally an inner strength. She is the embodiment of all that a woman should be to fit into this patriarchal society and this in depth study demonstrates the qualities and strengths needed to uphold the values in which she instinctively believes.

The raison d’être for the novel is of course a romance. The Bertram family have two sons and two daughters of marriageable age. Maria Bertram the beauty of the family marries for money and position, with the wholehearted support of the family, her sister Julia tries to make her own opportunities. Edmund falls in love with Miss Mary Crawford a society woman of independent means, but she does not wish to marry a clergyman. The central love story is Mary’s brother the forward looking wealthy Henry Crawford who falls in love with Fanny after a dalliance with the two Bertram sisters. A match that would seem to be a superb opportunity for an adopted daughter with few prospects. Fanny against all advice rejects Henry, she finds him fascinating, with some good qualities, but she does not love him and most seriously of all she cannot trust him. The third part of the novel is Henry’s continued pursuit of Fanny; a suit that causes her grief and pain.

Austen takes her readers into the world of Regency splendour. The culture and manners of that society are brilliantly evoked. There are some amazing set pieces; the amateur production of the play Lovers Vows, Fanny’s first trip out with her new family to Sotherton, her coming out ball and her banishment back to her working class family in Portsmouth. At the centre of everything is Fanny Price’s world and inner world views. It is steady, respectable, dutiful and gracious, which makes her at times seem almost an anti-heroine, she is physically weak and lacks assertiveness, but her strength is her firm belief in tradition and family values.

To appreciate this novel fully one must not judge Mansfield Park by modern standards or by equality of opportunity. It is a different world brought richly to life and full of characters whose human frailties can be ameliorated by a central character; a virtuous woman working away quietly amongst them. The story is a good one, once the reader gets used to the writing style and has got further into the novel than the story setting it becomes a page turner. So much to enjoy, a fabulous reading experience and five stars.

Sep 13, 9:13am Top

>138 baswood: Wonderful review of one of my favorites.

Sep 13, 4:37pm Top

>138 baswood: Yes, it's a wonderfully complex and interesting book. I've caught myself hoping when I re-read it that Edmund and Mary Crawford will get together this time round - I'm sure she would make a much more interesting clergyman's wife than Fanny...

What did you think about the offstage sugar plantations that Edward Said (and others) got so worked up about?

Sep 13, 6:36pm Top

>140 thorold: Ah yes The Slave trade. The source of the Bertram families increasing wealth. Slavery was made illegal in England in 1807 and in the novel Sir Thomas has to spend two years sorting out problems with his sugar plantations, which he does successfully and this may have been because of abolition. I would have thought many families owed their wealth to slavery at the turn of the nineteenth century and the Bertram's would have not been unusual in this respect. I can't remember any direct references to slavery and Antigua in the novel and so very much an off stage event.

Edited: Sep 16, 12:32pm Top

Surfacing - Margaret Atwood
Another holiday read for me, but I would not want to go on holiday with any of the protagonists in this book. This is in essence a back to nature fable - a young woman strives to strip away layers of civilisation in an attempt to communicate with her estranged father.

Written in the first person by a young woman who travels to a remote part of Quebec in search of her father who has been reported missing. She is accompanied by her boyfriend Joe and a couple of married friends Anne and David. Joe and David have hired some movie equipment and want to make a cinema verite film of their experiences. The young woman (who is never named) teaches her friends basic skills for living in a remote part of the country: her fathers dwelling place is a wooden shack on an island in the middle of a lake with no electricity. The young woman’s search leads her away from her friends and we see them through her eyes as she quickly becomes remote from their city-like culture and life style.

The missing father has been involved in his own search for evidence of a missing Indian culture around the lakes and the young woman seems to want to step into his shoes to track down what happened to him. Meetings with rich American vacationers/hunters on the lake upset everybody and the book has a particular Canadian anti-American feel to it. David spouts anti-capitalist dogma at every opportunity, when he isn’t being mean to his wife Anna. Joe proposes marriage to the young woman but by this time she really does not want to have anything much to do with the other three. She retreats into her own world and rapidly goes insane.

The young woman’s descent into madness; happening so quickly is far from convincing and while the first part of the novel has a certain atmosphere of suspense in that the reader feels that something is about to happen as people are unravelling on the trip, it plunges into a denouement that is surprising and just not believable. This is an early novel by Margaret Atwood written in a style of short sharp sentences that do give the book a realist feel, but I felt that there was something missing in the core of this novel. I have yet to be convinced by Atwood and so three stars for this.

Edited: Sep 16, 2:00pm Top

The Rest of the Robots - Isaac Asimov
Published in 1967 this is a short story collection of Asimov’s robot stories. They come with a general introduction by the author and then a note about each story and this all adds up to a sort of historical document of the robot series.

Asimov laid down the now famous Three Laws of Robotics in 1941:

1) A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm
2) A robot must obey given it by human beings except where such orders conflict with the first law
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

The stories are based around these three laws. Situations are developed that give robots and humans dilemmas as to how they should act and it is to Asimov’s credit that he makes all the stories interesting and some are just very good science fiction. The earliest stories date from 1941 and the latest is 1957 and so some feel a little quaint and outdated, but making allowances for this and they are still entertaining.

Asimov’s introduction is a little essay in itself which trumpets his breaking away from the traditional Frankenstein tales of robots. His innovation was to make the reader feel sympathy for the machines and for some of the people involved in their invention/production. Asimov’s notes also reveal a little about the author himself and so if like me you are a fan of Asimov’s science fiction these stories will not disappoint, but if you are a fan then you may have read several of them before. They make great holiday reading and so 4 stars.

Edited: Sep 17, 5:04am Top

Portuguese Voyages 1498-1663 edited by Charles David Ley.
The preface to this volume (No 986 in the Everyman’s Library) says the aim in this volume is to give the human record, from contemporary accounts, of the great Portuguese Age of Discovery. Published in 1947 it wished to celebrate the achievements of the Portuguese explorers as Edgar Prestage makes clear in his introduction;

“In our day Portugal has built up a new colonial empire in East and West Africa, and after fifty years of warfare and unrest has pacified the natives and made them into loyal subjects. Great public works have been undertaken, and the other needs of modern civilisation supplied”

However although the selections were supposed to show the achievements of the Portuguese, in that they tamed the barbarity of the native peoples, what actually comes through is the barbarity and religious zeal of the explorers themselves, because these are contemporary records written by men who made no bones about what they were doing and who they were doing it for.

First up is an extract from the journal of the First Voyages of Vasco Da Gama in 1497-9, which was written by a crew member. It is entitled The Route to India and is a fairly straightforward account of the explorers having to land on various parts of the African coast for water and wood. They meet various native people and generally are able to negotiate with them for what they need. There are isolated attempts by natives to steal from the boats, but generally violence is avoided. It makes fascinating reading. The second is a letter complete in itself by Luis Vaz de Caminha titled “The Discovery of Brazil. On the Brazilian coastline they encounter the Tupi Indians and this is what he says about them:

“They seem to be such innocent people that, if we could understand their speech and they ours, they would immediately become Christians, seeing that, by all appearances they do not understand about faith.”

The tactics of the Portuguese is to leave exiles (convicted Portuguese criminals sentenced to exile) in the Indian villages to learn their language and customs. The Tupi do not want them to stay and try and drive them away and this cat and mouse game is played out again and again.

“The Lands of Prester John” describes the Portuguese attempts to search for Christian communities in ancient Abyssinia in East Africa. The account is fairly confused and difficult to follow. However it is not as tiresome to read as ‘The Furthest East’ by far the longest extract in the collection. This is a journal by a Portuguese privateer Antonio de Faria of his adventures in China and Japan. It starts with the ships crew landing on the Chinese coast where there are large graveyards/tombs guarded by religious hermits. They drive off the hermits and smash open the tombs searching for silver and gold. They travel further inland are denounced as thieves and become prisoners. The account becomes more fantastical as various civilisations are described as they cheat and bribe their way across the Chinese mainland, eventually taking ship to Japan. Much of it sounds wildly exaggerated with endless descriptions of pageants and parades. It was a relief to get to the next extract which was a description of two shipwrecks off the coast of Natal. These stories were popular in Portugal and they are vivid descriptions full of hardship and violence with few survivors. The piece was entitled ‘The Tragic History of the Sea 1552 and 1585.

‘The Jesuits in Abyssinia’ is a lively account of Father Lobo’s bravery and missionary zeal amongst the natives of what is now Ethiopia. This was translated by Samuel Johnson in 1735 and is full of detail and makes for an interesting read. The final piece is an extract from an account by another Jesuit Father Manuel Godinho and describes a difficult and dangerous journey overland from India back to Europe in 1663. This reads more like a modern travelogue as he describes fighting his way through bandit country.

A mixed bag of contemporary reports and journals from the Portuguese explorers, adventurers and missionaries. 3 stars.

Sep 20, 2:12pm Top

I thought I had read Surfacing but I don’t recognize much from your review. I didn’t much like it, if that’s what I read, so maybe that’s why I forgot most of it...

I should probably try reading Asimov. Some day...

Sep 22, 9:01am Top

>142 baswood: Another book to reread. This summer I was at a book club meeting about Atwood's Alias Grace. Many in the room, male and female, had had a period where they were plain atwooded out (my term for it). Some had come back, some hadn't. The discussion turned to what book of Atwood's stood out for people, and Surfacing, was probably the number one choice. The host proudly pulled out a first edition signed by Atwood. Reading what you say about the "particular Canadian anti-American feel to it", I wonder if that is part of what sparked so many people to embrace the book, as that was a difficult time in US-Canadian relations (sort of like now, although the Americans may not be aware of it). Her non fiction is always more appealing to me, as her grasp of just about everything comes through so strongly in it.

Edited: Sep 23, 5:48am Top

>146 SassyLassy: Interesting. Does the 'politics' of a book make it popular even though it may not be the best book in a writer's oeuvre.
I would say beware of the 'populist choice'.

Remember: the majority of people are wrong most of the time and you can certainly fool most of the people all of the time.

Edited: Sep 23, 7:16pm Top

Edited: Sep 23, 7:17pm Top

Richard Hakluyt - Voyages and Discoveries
This is an extract from a longer work entitled Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English nation, which was a collection of documents made in the sixteenth century by Richard Hakluyt: a man whose gratuitous pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was to him life’s most important end. This penguin edition is about one tenth of the whole collection. He could lay claim to be Englands first geographer. The authors of these documents were mostly hard headed practical men who were a distinctive break from the tradition of renaissance cosmology writing weighed down by references to classical texts.

England in the late sixteenth century lagged behind other European powers in exploration and colonisation of the rest of the world. The Portuguese were the leaders in Exploration, the Spanish controlled much of the shipping routes to South America in their search for gold and precious stones, while the French were already establishing colonies on the continent of North America. The English were late to the party, but were determined to grab something for themselves and so a mixture of a genuine desire to establish trade and business relations sat uneasily with a need to indulge in piracy on the high seas. The documents detail the voyages of traders and pirates desperate not to lose out on the riches of exotic goods, slavery, and precious metals. There is very little in the way of new discoveries, these seamen were largely going where others had gone before.

From the documents collected here it would seem that England had three options: one was to find the mythical North West passage, the sea route that would link the Atlantic ocean to the Pacific ocean through the North American land mass. The other was to approach the exotic east of China and Japan through a sort of North East passage that took traders through the Caspian sea into Russia and on through Persia. The final option was to muscle in on the lucrative slave and mineral trade already established by the Spanish, French and Portuguese; taking in Africa and the Americas. The documents (there are 76) which were written by those who had first hand knowledge of the voyages are of course a mixed bag: containing practical accounts by traders such as Anthony Jenkins of a voyage to the city of Bokhara in Bactria in 1558, to a letter in verse written by the poet George Tuberville out of Moscovy in 1568 and finally the very eloquent account by Sir Walter Raleigh of the beautiful Empire of Guiana and the search for the Spanish Eldorado.

This is an extract from George Turbeville’s letter in verse concerning the Russians:

A people passing rude, to vices vile inclined,
Folk fit to be of Bacchus trained, so quaffing is their kind.
Drink is their whole desire, the pot is all their pride,
The soberest head doth once a day stand needful of a guide….
The house that hath no god, or painted saint within,
Is not to be resorted to, that the roof is full of sin.

Many of these despatches from Russia talk of traders being well received in Moscow and then taking the Volga river down to Astrakhan on the Caspian sea, where the travelling gets more difficult and finally into Persia where it is bandit country. The would be traders and business men arm themselves to fight their way from one caravanserai to another in a search for exotic goods from the east.

The search for the North West passage claimed many lives: Martin Frobisher undertook more than one voyage in artic conditions as did John Davis and their accounts of their battles with ice and extreme weather would make most people think twice about attempting the voyage. The details of the voyages are probably taken from the ships log; in Frobisher’s case they were written by somebody on board his ship, but it would appear that John Davis wrote his own account in the first person.

The first document that contains details of the English acting as slave traders and pirates is “The voyage made by Mr John Hawkins to the coast of Guinea and the Indies of Nova Hispania 1564” The casual business of buying negro slaves from the Portuguese colonists makes horrific reading today as does the pillaging and burning of settlements. From the African coast Hawkins and his ships voyaged to the West Indies where they did business with the Spaniards, always ready to use force where necessary and then onto French settlements on the Florida coast. There follows a discourse by Miles Philips (Englishman) who was put on shore in the West Indies by John Hawkins when an expedition was dangerously low on food; half the ships company were left with a promise that they would be picked up next year. Miles Philips was one of the few survivors finally getting back to England 16 years later.

The documents are arranged in date order and over half of the book deals with expeditions from 1580 to 1596. Sir Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish voyaged around the world pirating and plundering as they went, while England was officially and unofficially at war with Spain. Amongst the pirating and plundering other voyages are described including one for the relief of colonists in Virginia, who are castigated by a representative of Sir Walter Raleigh for their bad treatment of the Indian natives. There is a report on the defeat of the Spanish armada and the mystery of the colonists at Roanoak.

If these documents demonstrate anything it is the English captains desire to do business, whether that is by making trading agreements, finding new routes or plundering the ships of other nations. There was an appalling loss of life amongst the ordinary seamen, through starvation, disease, hypothermia, or in skirmishes, some of which is recorded in grim details in these despatches. There are a few documents that seem little more than travellers tales, but mostly they are realistic with some communicating a tremendous sense of adventure and hardship. The penguin edition has some useful biographical notes of the major characters as well as some brief notes on the text. The sentences and word order of Hakluyt’s original edition has been largely unaltered, but the spelling has been modernised. There are no maps or bibliography and so it is useful to have access to more information while reading. This book serves as an excellent introduction for the interested reader and so 4 stars.

Edited: Oct 8, 7:04pm Top

Memoirs of the The Year 2,500 by Louis-Sebastien Mercier
One of the pleasures of reading proto-science fiction is coming across unexpected gems. Louis-Sebastien Mercier’s L’An 2,440: réve s’il en fut jamais (the original title) is an Utopian dream written in pre-revolutionary France. It was published in 1771 and became an underground success, one of the most important clandestine novels of it’s time. The author fled to Switzerland but came back from exile to take his place in the Convention during the revolution.

As a story it hardly exists at all, it is just a framework for Mercier’s vision of the future; the book starts with the author being wakened from a dream, but his dream has such an effect on him that he must write it down before he sleeps again. He sees a future where the feudal society of his day had been swept aside by a revolution and France along with other countries of the world enjoys a freer democratic society.

His dedicatory epistle nails his colours firmly to the mast:

“The names of the friends, the defenders of humanity, shall live and be honoured by their glory shall be pure and radiant, but that vile herd of kings, who have been, in every sense the tormentors of mankind, still more deeply plunged into oblivion than in the regions of death, can only escape from infamy by the favour of inanity.”

In his dream Mercier awakes to find himself in Paris in the year 2440 which like the rest of the world has been transformed: it is 670 years in the future when humans have become reasonable and public spirited and have lost the vices of avarice, vanity and ostentation. On his arrival, he creates a stir in the city because of his strange clothes, but somebody soon steps out of the crowd of on-lookers to help him in his confusion. He is taken to a clothes shop where loose fitting modern garments are bought for him and he is persuaded to part with his sword and his new friend takes him on a guided tour of the city. He is at once impressed by the changes; the wide boulevards, the cleanliness, the absence of the chaos on the roads and this is the strength of the book, because he is continually comparing the Paris of his dream to the Paris of his own time. We learn just what it was like to live in Paris in the 1770’s: the sheer volume of horses and carriages trying to make their way down the narrow streets, the big carriages of the rich barging their way through the throng, not caring about running over pedestrians, not keeping to the right side of the road and the inevitable long waits because of congestion and accidents. In the Paris of the future the hovels have been cleared away from the bridges and there are separate beds in the hospitals where people now have hope of being cured. The gunpowder magazines are no longer a feature in sections of the city and the air is clear and breathable.

After his walk around Paris he is taken to various building where he sees the new government in action. The monarchy still exists, but presides over a democracy and bows to the will of the people, slavery has been abolished, Countries no longer have colonies and the catholic church has ceased to exist, people believe in a supreme being, but teaching is based on philosophy, rather than faith, atheists are given the cold shoulder and their appears to be a re-education programme, women support their husbands and their duties are in the home, but marriages are no longer arranged or made for social advancement.

The authors vision of Utopia does not stretch to any scientific inventions or predictions, but is a cleaner, healthier, democrat society based on equality with the major advances being in medicine, education and government. The book is therefore a critique of society in the 1770’s, with many of its barbs aimed at inequality, poor government and the corruption of the noble classes.

In 2440 the nobility and the rich are treated the same as everybody else:

“ They use their own legs and so have more money and less of the gout”

It is not a Utopia that we might subscribe to today even within its narrow confines, the most striking thing is obviously the inequality for women and their place in society, but there are other issues that we could not accept. Although freedom of the press is sacrosanct, there has been a revision in the world of the arts. All books that do not conform to the new societies culture and morals have been burnt and others where the literature is still considered worth keeping have been excised of all ideas that are considered abhorrent: Jean Jaques Rousseau is about the only author who has come through unscathed. Painting and other visual arts must have moral worth and poetry is most highly praised when it brings fresh light on society. They regard universal education as madness, each child is educated according to his station in life and the author is told that:

“We teach them little history, because history is the disgrace of humanity”

There are some interesting ideas and the writing can be lively. The version I read was a translation by W Hooper who says in his introduction:

“who the author of this work is we will not pretend to determine: perhaps the reader will be satisfied with finding that he is a man of sense, of taste, and learning, of a lively imagination, a strong spirit of liberty, and, what is worth them all a warm benevolence of heart”

An interesting find which I rate as 3.5 stars.

Oct 2, 2:09pm Top

>150 baswood: Fascinating! I’ve heard about Le Tableau de Paris which I vaguely mean to read some day, but never about this book.

Oct 6, 11:17pm Top

>148 baswood: that's quite a stack of volumes. The Hakluyt and Mercier both sound fascinating.

Edited: Oct 8, 6:50pm Top

More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
Another in the SF Masterworks series, this one was published in 1953. It consists of three interlinked stories and knowing this before reading will help with an understanding of the novel. The connection between the stories is the development of a gestalt consciousness. In the first story Lone, who professes to be a sort of village idiot gathers around him children with extraordinary gifts: telekinesis, telepathy, computer type brains who live in a cave in the woods and are pretty much sociopaths. They exist by meshing their gifts into one enhanced being. In the second story we meet Gerry who is seeking help from a psychiatrist. He had become part of Lone’s group and when Lone was accidentally killed had become the groups focal point. The third story introduces Hip Barrows who after serving in the war as an engineer ended up in an asylum with severe amnesia; with help from one of the gestalt groups previous members he pieces together his memory and his confrontation with Gerry.

Sturgeon writes in a style that is at times similar to a stream of consciousness, while introducing some arresting imagery. This serves to make the gestalt group appear strange and out of the ordinary, he links these passages with more regular story telling and so gives his readers some solid groundwork for the development of the novel. While admiring Sturgeons personal writing style and enjoying some of the imagery I was not always convinced that the novel held together. This maybe because the first story which introduces the reader to the gestalt group is written in the third person, while the second story is written in the first person by somebody who is a new character and his connection to the group is not immediately apparent. This literary style lifts the novel out of the run of the mill story telling of much of the nineteen fifties science fiction writing and I can understand why it is considered a ‘masterwork’ in the genre.

The jury is out on this one for me, perhaps it needs re-reading, because I am not sure that I grasped all of where Sturgeon was taking me. I felt that his attempt to wrap up the novel became a little pedestrian, which again was not in keeping with what had been written previously. A strange mixture and one that in my opinion is a little too ambitious and so three stars.

Oct 10, 9:12am Top

The English Romayne Life by Anthony Munday
This is not a memoir by a Romany gypsy or travellers tales from deepest England, but a report of a journey made by Antony Munday in 1580 to a seminary in Rome. A travelogue or perhaps something more?. In addition to the usual dedications Munday appears anxious to say why he undertook the journey and says:

“When as desire to sée straunge Countreies, as also affection to learne the languages, had perswaded me to leaue my natiue Countrey, and not any other intent or cause, God is my record: I committed the small wealth I had, into my purse, a Trauelers wéede on my backe,”

Donna B Hamilton in her book Anthony Munday and the Catholics questions whether he was just an innocent abroad as he claims. He has hardly crossed the channel before he is involved with catholic intriguers busily plotting an invasion of England to remove the protestant Jezebel (Elizabeth I) from the throne. He strenuously denies any involvement, always displaying his protestant credentials, but saying that he has to play along with the plotters in order to stay alive. So the questions remain: was he sent to Rome to spy on the catholics, was he an atheist playing both ends against the middle or was he a catholic who turned informer to save his skin. Whatever the reasons Munday has written a fascinating document that puts into sharp perspective the catholic threat to England from the continent.

Munday travels with a companion: Thomas Nowell and they get into trouble just outside Amiens in northern France, by straying into an army camp which is in the process of breaking up, they are robbed and beaten, but make it to the town of Amiens where they throw themselves on the mercy of the English community. These turn out to be catholic exiles and their price for aid is to take sealed letters to other catholic groups in France. Meanwhile the catholic priest Maister Woodward tries his utmost to convert Munday and his companion and believes he has been successful. They travel on to Paris where they are given more documents to take to Rome; Paris seems to be full of English catholic exiles and their is talk of a doctor Saunders landing in Ireland with ships full of Spanish invaders, all of which Munday eagerly reports.

They arrive in Rome and by this time Munday has taken a false identity, they are immediately surrounded by English exiles seeking news from home. Munday is shown a list of the men in Elizabeth’s government who they will put to death when the queen is overthrown together with details of how they will die. Munday is careful to report the names of some of the plotters. The travellers are accepted into the Jesuit college in Rome and Munday details the daily routines highlighting the self flagellation carried out with gusto by the Jesuits and their students as penance for misdemeanours, however the food is excellent. Munday says he never whipped himself although he was invited into the chambers where it took place. The Jesuit teaching has its effect on his companion and Thomas Nowell is converted to catholicism, joining in with the regular denunciations of the protestants in England. Munday admits that he regularly attends mass and knowing his protestant integrity will be challenged in England he says something to the effect that ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans……..’

"And because my aduer∣saries obiect against me, that I went to Masse, & helped the Préest my selfe to say Masse: so that (say they) who is wurst, I am as euill as he. I aunswer, I did so in déed, for he that is in Roome, especially in ye Colledge amōg the Schollers: must liue as he may, not as he will, fa∣uour comes by conformitie, and death by obstinacie.”

Munday was involved in the denunciation of the Jesuit cell in England led by Edmund Campion and reminds his readers of the part he played in bringing Campion to justice and reports how the so called martyrs showed fear at their execution.

The students are taken to the seven churches of Rome where they are invited to admire/worship the sacred relics. Munday describes the believers in very disparaging terms; how they are fooled by the clergy to part with their money, the priests touching their beads against the supposed bones of the saints. Munday and the students are taken to the vaults beneath some of the churches and he describes in some detail the various relics, pointing out the numerous nails from the cross that keep reappearing. There is a chapter on a dispute between the Welsh and the English students at the college and the Pope’s intervention to sort things out. Munday finishes with a couple of chapters that appear tacked onto the main thrust of his report. He describes the Roman Carne Valle where people in carriages and on horse back are masked, murders are committed, old scores are settled and the Jews are goaded to run naked in front of the horses. The final chapter describes the burning of the protestant zealot Richard Atkins and how he showed no fear despite being burnt slowly by degrees.

Munday in this early stage of his career writes well and he would live for another fifty years writing plays, verse and prose. At the time of his journey to Rome he already had a stage career as an actor under his belt, which may have helped him amongst the catholics. What exactly he was doing in Rome is open to conjecture, but his book reveals the difficulties for a protestant man journeying on the continent at this time 4 stars.

Oct 10, 10:06am Top

>150 baswood: I'm constantly amazed at these old gems you manage to find.

Oct 10, 10:33pm Top

>154 baswood: Not sure what I would think of the book, trying to penetrate that prose, but thoroughly enjoyed your review Munday’s venture to Rome. What an era...

Edited: Oct 12, 1:08pm Top

Meleager - William Gager
Running parallel to the the popular and vernacular theatre in Elizabethan England was the University dramatists, where many of the plays were performed in Latin. William Gager was one of the chief dramatists of his day at Oxford University and his first play Meleager was produced in 1582. There is an English translation free on the internet by Dana F Sutton of the University of California and I was interested to read this as an example of English renaissance drama.

The play is a five act tragedy following the pattern set down by the classical Greek dramatist Seneca. Dana F Sutton says in her introduction that much of Meleager is original, Gager says in his own introduction that the subject of his play Meleager appears in the Illiad, but he got his inspiration from a character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (Thats enough of a textual history from me as my knowledge of classical drama is very limited, but Sutton says that much of the play is original.)

The play (in Latin) found its way into print in 1593 with dedications and introductions from Gager himself which make fascinating reading. He says the play was first performed in the presence of the Earls of Pembroke and Leicester and the most noble Philip Sidney and other members of the court. It seems it was something of a success.

"And let Sidney, that shining star of our firmament, choose to present a friendly countenance. But you gentlemen, since this has been acted once three years ago, I ask that now you give it a second kindly hearing.”

The introduction also outlines the plot:
“See lofty Calydon, capital of the Aetolian race, and the royal palace. Here distinguished king Oeneus holds sway. While he was joyously sacrificing the year’s firstfruits to the heavenly gods, they say that only Diana’s altar stood bereft of incense. Whether this was a crime or a mistake, it aroused the goddess’ terrible wrath. And now, behold, she sends a boar against the fields, an avenger of her scorned cult. Fiercely he metes out slaughter, nor does all Calydon suffice for his great bane. Oeneus is peevish, and in his folly he does not trouble himself to propitiate the goddess by prayers. He begs Greece’s champions. They appear, together with Atalanta, daughter of Schoeneus, king of the Arcadians. Young Meleager (he is Oeneus’ son) immediately burns for her. Next they go off on the hunt, having first agreed that the victor willcarry off the spoils of the bristling boar. The hunt takes place. Behold, Atalanta is the first to strike it from afar with her dart, and Meleager draws near and kills the beast. He, the victor, yields his glory to Atalanta. His uncles Plexippus and Toxeus begrudge this gesture. Immediately a quarrel arises, they snatch the spoils from the maiden, and Meleager, incensed with anger, stabs both in the side with his dagger. His mother Althaea discovers this crime when he admits to it. She burns, complains, rages, and prepares death for her son to avenge her brothers . An altar is built, a log is laid on the pyre, in which the life of Meleager himself lies concealed. When the log is consumed, Meleager dies. Having confessed her crime, the queen stabs herself in the breast. A dire madness overcomes the haughty king, and he throws himself headlong from the high citadel. All Calydon is laid low in miserable squalor and mothers’ lamentations, and pride has this outcome.”

In translation it read s very well with some lively dialogue and some character development. The influence of John Lyly is apparent in the early part of the play where Meleager and Atlanta trade extended metaphors on the subject of marriage and chastity. The action of the killing of the bristling boar takes place off stage and is reported by the messenger, but the aftermath of this event where Meleager kills his two uncles Plexippus and Toexeus happens onstage as does much of the following action. The torment of Meleager’s mother Althaea comes straight from Greek tragedy, but her dialogue with the nurse is lively and extended as is Oeneus suicide following his revelations of his soul in torment to his soothsayer.

I am sure this well rounded play would have provided lively entertainment for the Elizabethan court and I enjoyed reading the translation today and so 4 stars

Oct 12, 1:28pm Top

Maleager and Atalanta are largely missed in the preserved literature. Homer tells of Maleager when the Greeks are trying to convince Achilles to come and fight with them again. He doesn’t mention Atalanta as far as I can recall. Apollonius of Rhodes kicks Atalanta off Argonaut voyage. (Criminal!) Ovid likes gaps, and has his own versions of Atalanta and the Caledonian Boar hunt. He brings her alive again. But it’s just bits and pieces. I can’t recall any references in the Greek plays. I think most preserved ancient references are just that - sideline references by Pindar or whatnot.

Anyway, glad you highlighted this, and admire that you read it and here review it for us.

Edited: Oct 17, 7:12pm Top

Thomas Watson - Hekatompathia or Passionate Centurie of Love.
Thomas Watson (1555-92) was an English poet and translator, and the pioneer of the English madrigal. He published his Hekatompathia in 1882 which consisted of one hundred sonnets. In his introduction to the “friendly reader” he says:

“I hope that thou wilt in respect of my travail in penning these love-passions, or for pity of my pains in suffering them (although but supposed) so survey the faults herein escaped, as either to wink at them, as oversights of a blind Lover; or to excuse them, as idle toys proceeding from a youngling frenzy…….Therefore, if I rough-hewed my verse, where my sense was unsettled, whether through the nature of the passion, which I felt, or by rule of art, which I had learned, it may seem a happy fault; or if it were so framed by counsel, thou mayest think it well done; if by chance, happily.”

Unfortunately if he thought he was publishing passionate love poems he was very much wide of the mark. Most of these poems are mechanical, with little trace of passion. He follows Petrarch’s template of writing about an unrequited love, without bringing anything new to the genre. Any innovations he makes are technical. This is courtly love poetry without a hint of soul. The best that can be said of them is that they are technically proficient as Watson finds one hundred different ways of writing the same poem.

Love is a sour delight; a sug'red grief;

A living death; an ever-dying life;

A breach of Reason's law; a secret thief;

A sea of tears; an ever-lasting strife;

A bait for fools; a scourge of noble wits;

A Deadly wound; a shot which ever hits.

Love is a blinded God; an angry boy;

A Labyrinth of doubts; an idle lust;

A slave to Beauty's will; a witless toy;

A ravening bird, a tyrant most unjust;

A burning heat; a cold; a flatt'ring foe;

A private hell; a very world of woe.

Yet mighty Love regard not what I say,

Which lie in trance bereft of all my wits,

But blame the light that leads me thus astray,

And makes my tongue blaspheme by frantic fits:

Yet hurt her not, left I sustain the smart,

Which am content to lodge her in my heart.

This (sonnet no.18) is one of the better examples. It can be seen that the poet lengthened the usual fourteen line sonnet to eighteen lines, however because each set of six lines ends in a rhyming couplet it feels like just three sets of six lines with no integration into a whole stanza. It was an innovation that did not catch on. The poems are collected in two parts: the first eighty poems are complaints from the rejected lover, while the last twenty are the poets reflection on his folly and new found freedom now he has woken up to the fact that he has been wasting his time. Poem number 80 is the watershed and Watson has set this out in the form of a pillar or large jug: an early example of concrete poetry. He does not tell us why he has untangled himself from his love lorn existence, only saying that he has finally seen reason.

The poetry is heavily laced with examples from the classical world, but Watson usually fails to find anything different or innovative to say. Reading through these poems I got the feeling that Watson was more intent in showing off his wit and technical skills; they seem horribly cliched today, however they read quite well, without too many rough edges. Not recommended for poetry lovers, only for completists like me. 2.5 stars.

Oct 17, 8:15pm Top

Your reviews can bring bad poets to life too. I'm trying to decide if Watson would be published today...I mean, in my head, contemporizing him a bit.

Oct 18, 7:11pm Top

100. The Code of the Woosters (PG Wodehouse, 1938) X
99. There but for the (Ali Smith, 2011) X
98. Under the Volcano (Malcolm Lowry,1947)
97. The Chronicles of Narnia (CS Lewis, 1949-1954)
96. Memoirs of a Survivor (Doris Lessing, 1974)
95. The Buddha of Suburbia (Hanif Kureishi, 1990) X
94. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (James Hogg, 1824) X
93. Lord of the Flies (William Golding, 1954) X
92. Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons, 1932)
91. The Forsyte Saga (John Galsworthy, 1922) X
90. The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins, 1859) X
89. The Horse’s Mouth (Joyce Cary, 1944) X
88. The Death of the Heart (Elizabeth Bowen, 1938) X
87. The Old Wives’ Tale (Arnold Bennett,1908)
86. A Legacy (Sybille Bedford, 1956) X
85. Regeneration Trilogy (Pat Barker, 1991-1995)
84. Scoop (Evelyn Waugh, 1938)
83. Barchester Towers (Anthony Trollope, 1857) X
82. The Patrick Melrose Novels (Edward St Aubyn, 1992-2012) X
81. The Jewel in the Crown (Paul Scott, 1966) X
80. Excellent Women (Barbara Pym, 1952) X
79. His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman, 1995-2000) X
78. A House for Mr Biswas (VS Naipaul, 1961) X
77. Of Human Bondage (W Somerset Maugham, 1915)
76. Small Island (Andrea Levy, 2004) X
75. Women in Love (DH Lawrence, 1920)
74. The Mayor of Casterbridge (Thomas Hardy, 1886)
73. The Blue Flower (Penelope Fitzgerald, 1995) X
72. The Heart of the Matter (Graham Greene, 1948)
71. Old Filth (Jane Gardam, 2004) X
70. Daniel Deronda (George Eliot, 1876) X
69. Nostromo (Joseph Conrad, 1904)
68. A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962)
67. Crash (JG Ballard 1973)
66. Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen, 1811)
65. Orlando (Virginia Woolf, 1928)
64. The Way We Live Now (Anthony Trollope, 1875) X
63. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark, 1961) X
62. Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945)
61. The Sea, The Sea (Iris Murdoch, 1978) X
60. Sons and Lovers (DH Lawrence, 1913)
59. The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst, 2004) X
58. Loving (Henry Green, 1945) X
57. Parade’s End (Ford Madox Ford, 1924-1928) X
56. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (Jeanette Winterson, 1985)
55. Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift, 1726)
54. NW (Zadie Smith, 2012) X
53. Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys, 1966)
52. New Grub Street (George Gissing, 1891) X
51. Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy, 1891)
50. A Passage to India (EM Forster, 1924)
49. Possession (AS Byatt, 1990)
48. Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis, 1954)
47. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Laurence Sterne, 1759)
46. Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie, 1981)
45. The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters, 2009) X
44. Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel, 2009)
43. The Swimming Pool Library (Alan Hollinghurst, 1988) X
42. Brighton Rock (Graham Greene, 1938)
41. Dombey and Son (Charles Dickens, 1848) X
40. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865)
39. The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes, 2011)
38. The Passion (Jeanette Winterson, 1987) X
37. Decline and Fall (Evelyn Waugh, 1928)
36. A Dance to the Music of Time (Anthony Powell, 1951-1975) X
35. Remainder (Tom McCarthy, 2005) X
34. Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005)
33. The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame, 1908) X
32. A Room with a View (EM Forster, 1908)
31. The End of the Affair (Graham Greene, 1951)
30. Moll Flanders (Daniel Defoe, 1722) X
29. Brick Lane (Monica Ali, 2003) X
28. Villette (Charlotte Brontë, 1853)
27. Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe, 1719)
26. The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien, 1954)
25. White Teeth (Zadie Smith, 2000) X
24. The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing, 1962)
23. Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy, 1895)
22. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (Henry Fielding, 1749)
21. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad, 1899) X
20. Persuasion (Jane Austen, 1817)
19. Emma (Jane Austen, 1815)
18. Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989) X
17. Howards End (EM Forster, 1910)
16. The Waves (Virginia Woolf, 1931)
15. Atonement (Ian McEwan, 2001)
14. Clarissa (Samuel Richardson,1748) X
13. The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford, 1915)
12. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1949)
11. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813)
10. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848)
9. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
8. David Copperfield (Charles Dickens, 1850)
7. Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë, 1847)
6. Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853) X
5. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë, 1847)
4. Great Expectations (Charles Dickens, 1861)
3. Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925)
2. To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf, 1927)
1. Middlemarch (George Eliot, 1874) X

I came across this list recently, published by BBC culture - The hundred best British novels. It starts from the bottom (typical BBC) I looked to see how many I had read and was encouraged to find that I had read 17 out of the top 25, but things then went to pot and I obviously have some catching up to do because there are 43 novels that I have not read (X against the title)

Oct 18, 7:58pm Top

14 read... : |

Oct 19, 12:45am Top

>159 baswood: Sounds as though Thomas Watson would have done better to stick to making typewriters and computers! :-)

>161 baswood: Funny, I hadn’t heard of this particular list until yesterday, when I saw it mentioned in the blurb of Old filth (no.71). Some slightly questionable choices and omissions, the usual over-generous approach to things published in the last 20 years, some vagueness about books vs. series, and the usual opportunities for quibbling about what they mean by “British” - why Lessing and Naipaul are in, but James Joyce and Henry James are out, for instance - but on the whole a more consistent list than that other famous “BBC” top 100 that keeps popping up on the internet, but has nothing to do with the BBC. If I counted right, I’ve read 84.

There’s every excuse for not having read Middlemarch yet - it’s a book you need to give plenty of space to appreciate - but there’s no excuse for not having read The code of the Woosters, which will only take you an afternoon even if you decide you don’t like it. :-)

Yesterday, 11:45am Top

I’m too lazy to count how many I have read, certainly much less than half. However there are a few I strongly object to, so that’s a list I would take with a grain of salt. Which is as it should be, since this is a highly subjective exercise. Coincidentally I finished number 100 very recently.

Yesterday, 11:51am Top

Ok, I did try to count :-)

I think I read 17 of them, not counting Of Human Bondage which I violently disliked and did not finish. Many of them did not leave a great impression in my memory, except the Austens and Tristram Shandy. And of course the Maugham, but not in a good way. Ugh. Disgusting piece of filth.

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