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thorold loves all the forms of the radiant frost in Q1

This is a continuation of the topic thorold loves all the forms of the radiant frost in Q1 .

Club Read 2020

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Edited: Mar 13, 12:10am Top

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Mar 13, 6:52am Top

Never mind, since we've got the continuation thread, we might as well use it and save everyone waiting for the old one to load!

I've been doing some boring filing work over the last couple of days, and finished a couple more audiobooks that I started on the beach...

First, a sort of warm-up for the coming Southern Africa thread:

Don't let's go to the dogs tonight (2001) by Alexandra Fuller (UK, Zimbabwe, US, etc., 1969- ), audiobook read by Lisette Lecat


This is a classic example of the good old-fashioned "I grew up on a farm in Africa" memoir, complete with beautiful African scenery and smells, frightening political upheaval, grinding ecological disaster, family tragedy and comic interludes, and featuring embittered, gun-toting, drunken white people and lovable, impoverished, unreliable, drunken black people. And a lot of very heavy drinking.

Except that it's not set in the Olive Schreiner/Karen Blixen era, or even the Doris Lessing era, but much closer to our own experience, in the 1970s and 80s. Fuller describes her childhood on her parents' farm in Zimbabwe during the guerrilla war; after Mugabe comes to power they lose their farm and move first to another less promising farm in Zimbabwe, then to the poverty and political oppression of Hastings Banda's Malawi, and finally to Zambia.

Although the Fullers are probably not people you would want to be trapped with in a restaurant, they are fun to read about, and the author's talent for vivid description and the warmth of her obvious love for Africa more than makes up for the occasional bit of overwritten purple prose. She's not Doris Lessing, and there's no deep political analysis going on here, still less any suggestion of how she thinks Africa should be run, but she doesn't hesitate to criticise the attitudes of the colonialist class she was brought up in when they are clearly wrong. But, equally, she wants us to see that farmers like her parents are not just colonial exploiters, but they are also people who have built up a lot of knowledge about how to make African land productive in sustainable ways. It's just a pity that they should invest all that effort in tobacco, a product the world would be a lot better without...

Mar 13, 7:27am Top

Cosmos (1980; audio 2017) by Carl Sagan (USA, 1934-1996) audiobook read by LeVar Burton


The Cosmos TV series of 1980 seems to have been a life-transforming experience for a lot of people I know, but I somehow missed out on it at the time: I think simply because it was shown on the BBC while I was a physics undergraduate, and we didn't really get the chance to watch TV at all during term-time, even if it was physics-related (too much other stuff going on).

Anyway, the book has now popped up on audio, so I thought I'd give it a chance and find out what all the fuss was about.

As the title implies, it's an attempt to describe everything, to the extent that it was known in 1980, with the emphasis on astrophysics and planetary science, but a lot of excursions into the history of science and philosophy, biology and the origins of life, prospects for finding other intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, and so on. All ground that has been gone over by a lot of other people since then, but still very nicely presented, in a way that should be accessible to most people, but without much obvious dumbing-down. Obviously it has the limitations of when it was written and the way it was written as a companion to a TV series: there's a lot of full-on science-evangelism and some very elated passages of awe-and-wonder that haven't aged as well as they might have. But on the whole it still struck me as quite readable, and I'm sure I learnt one or two things I didn't know in between all the recapitulation of things I once knew about the Solar System.

Interesting to see how the balance of optimism and terror has shifted since 1980: we don't seem to be as worried about nuclear weapons and population growth as we were forty years ago (even though neither threat has gone away), and equally we seem to have lost a lot of the interest we had in exploring space, but climate-change now has moved from a speculative footnote to centre-stage. I suspect that Sagan, were he still with us, would have been revising down his estimate for the likelihood that intelligent civilisations would achieve interstellar travel before destroying themselves.

Mar 15, 5:49am Top

Since there's no live music for a while, I've been catching up on streaming films.

On Friday night I watched John Schlesinger's A kind of loving (1962) — I read the book, by Yorkshire novelist Stan Barstow, a long time ago, but I'd never seen the film. Schlesinger moves the visual setting (but not the accents, which are all over the place) to Lancashire, so a lot of the locations were places I knew from when I was growing up there. Fun to see James Bolam looking like a teenager (in reality he was about the same age as Alan Bates, in his late twenties), and Thora Hird not realising that she would go on playing censorious mother-in-law parts for another forty years...
But the main thing that struck me from the film was how much the world has changed in my own short lifetime — even really basic things like the jobs people do: Bates works in a room full of young men with pencils and drawing-boards, Ritchie in between rows and rows of other "girls" on typewriters (And Bates's father drives a steam loco, plays trombone in a brass band and grows tomatoes on his allotment). Canteen meals cost 9d or 1/3d, buses had conductors, pubs had piano players, etc., etc.
Funny too how some things have come round again: mindless game shows on TV, a housing shortage that means young people get stuck living with their parents...

Last night I saw one of my favourite films ever, Louis Malle's Zazie dans le Métro. Made two years before A kind of loving, but in colour and altogether looking much more modern, which probably says something about the difference between Paris and Lancashire. Completely off-the-wall, and making very little sense even the third or fourth time you see it, but surreal, funny, stylish and altogether brilliant.

Edited: Mar 15, 1:02pm Top

Back to books. I should be nurturing and treasuring my library pile — who knows when I'll be able to change them again?(*) — but I finished another one yesterday. This is autofiction again — I've seen this one mentioned by a couple of other people in CR lately (I think Kay was reading it), and it won a major German prize, so it will almost certainly come out in English sooner rather than later:

Herkunft (2019) by Saša Stanišić (Yugoslavia, Germany, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1978- )


In an explicitly autobiographical novel, Stanišić looks at the arbitrary, random nature of our cultural and geographic origins and how they contribute to, but don't determine, who we are. He describes growing up in Višegrad, close to the border between Serbia and Bosnia, and of course the site of Ivo Andrić's iconic Bridge on the Drina. His parents, one from a Serb and one from a Muslim family, are both people who have been brought up to see themselves primarily as Yugoslavians and socialists, and young Saša doesn't grow up with any important cultural heritage beyond supporting Red Star Belgrade and mythologising Tito's partisans. When everything falls apart in 1992 and there are rumours of a coming attack on Muslims, the family escape to Germany just in time.

Stanišić writes with obvious gratitude about the way he was given the chance to build a new life in a multi-culti suburb of Heidelberg, where the centre of out-of-school social life for the diverse group of migrant and refugee teenagers was the ARAL filling-station (only rule: no smoking near the pumps). He had the good luck to go to a school where most people were from "somewhere else" and you didn't have to waste time in silly disputes between Yugo's and Germans. But he's always interspersing his positive comments with little snippets from 2018 news bulletins, and there's a barely-buried message to his German readers: if you go on voting for these AfD nutters, you'll end up where we did in 1992.

At the same time, the adult Saša, now a full-time writer living in Hamburg with his partner and son, is rediscovering his links with his Stanišić grandmother in Višegrad. She takes him to the mountain village his great-grandparents came from, once a thriving community but now shrunk to thirteen elderly residents and a graveyard where most of the tombstones say "Stanišić". As his elderly grandmother's mind starts to go off in directions of its own, the writer also finds himself roaming at will through his creative imagination, introducing dragons and snakes and then ironically commenting on their zoological inappropriateness.

Witty, very upbeat considering that it's a novel whose central themes include genocide, dementia and exile, always poetic and formally experimental: a very interesting book. I don't know if it will be the Tin drum of the 2020s (the little throwaway references to Grass's classic suggest that Stanišić may well be hoping for this), but it certainly stands a good chance.


(*) At the moment the city library says it's staying shut until 31 March, while my current stack is only due back on the 30th, so it's not that critical yet. But of course there's every chance that the current preventive measures will be extended into April.

Mar 15, 11:39am Top

I'm behind on my commentary as Ducks and Cornavirus are sucking up all my energy at the moment, but I'm lurking and continuing to enjoy your reviews.

Mar 16, 5:35am Top

>6 AlisonY: Thanks, and good luck with the ducks and the viruses! I'm trying to steer clear of both for the moment...

Another one from my dwindling library pile: this was something that caught my eye on the "recent acquisitions" table, and looked as though it might be an interesting follow-up to The establishment: and how they get away with it, which I read a month or so ago.

I should point out that economics is probably the mainstream academic discipline I know least about. Diving straight in with a book whose objective is to criticise all the things economists have been doing wrong over the last seventy years or so possibly isn't the most sensible approach!

Aldred teaches economics in Cambridge and is a Fellow of Emmanuel College. The book comes plastered with endorsements by his colleague Ha-Joon Chang, so it's unlikely to be featuring on many neo-liberal Christmas lists (not that neo-liberals believe in non-monetary gifts anyway...).

Licence to be bad : how economics corrupted us (2019) by Jonathan Aldred (UK, - )


Some seventy years after a bunch of right-wing economists staged a coup d'état in Chicago (...or rather during a holiday on Lac Léman), it turns out that humans still haven't learnt to behave like the "rational" homo economicus of economic theory, letting self-interest guide all our actions. We still persist in doing anomalous things like collaborating with each other, letting our actions be guided by irrelevant and unproductive factors like class loyalty, friendship, altruism and inertia. We even continue voting in elections, when the merest first-year economics student could prove to us that the chance of our individual vote making a difference is vanishingly small. The situation is so fraught that there's now a whole branch of economics devoted to the study of (surreptitious) ways of making us change our behaviour.

There also seems to be something fundamentally wrong with what Aldred calls the "physics-envy" side of economics, the assumption that the economy is a closed, independent system susceptible to precise scientific measurements, that behaves according to a set of invariant mathematical laws. Given that economists frequently dish out advice to entities within the system (and get paid for doing so), it's not an assumption that anyone outside the field could take seriously, if they ever stopped to think about it, yet important real-world decisions are constantly being taken on the basis of the supposedly precise predictions of the theory. Even physicists know that the act of measuring a system always influences it in some way...

And there's more, much more, until we start thinking that Alfred Nobel might have done more harm to the world by legitimising the idea of economics as a serious discipline than he did by manufacturing explosives. It's almost as if he'd instituted a Nobel Prize for homoeopathy or UFO research...

A useful, thoughtful and entertaining critique, and probably something that economics undergraduates ought to read and take to heart before venturing out into the real world, but possibly a bit too one-sided for non-experts to read in isolation.

Edited: Mar 16, 6:09am Top

>7 thorold: Although I agree about "physics envy" and so on, Alfred Nobel himself is not guilty of legitimising the idea of economics as a serious discipline.
The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize in Economics, is an award for outstanding contributions to the field of economics, and generally regarded as the most prestigious award for that field. The award's official name is The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (Swedish: Sveriges riksbanks pris i ekonomisk vetenskap till Alfred Nobels minne).

The prize was established in 1968 by a donation from Sweden's central bank Sveriges Riksbank to the Nobel Foundation to commemorate the bank's 300th anniversary. As it is not one of the prizes that Alfred Nobel established in his will in 1895, it is not a Nobel Prize. However, it is administered and referred to along with the Nobel Prizes by the Nobel Foundation. Laureates are announced with the Nobel Prize laureates, and receive the award at the same ceremony.

Note that the Sveriges Riksbank is guilty of "Economic Sciences", but I think that the "physics envy" started well before 1968.

ETA because I ought to cite my sources, that quotation is of course from the Wikipedia page. The rest of the page contains some interesting criticisms of the whole idea of an "economics Nobel", including some from economists, and even one from Friedrich Hayek at his acceptance speech.

Mar 16, 7:41am Top

>8 haydninvienna: Thanks, I didn’t know that. Aldred mentions at least two winners who felt that their work had been over-valued or misunderstood by the prize committee and said so either in the acceptance speech or later. Obviously a fascinating field of study in itself!

Mar 16, 7:13pm Top

I've meant to read this for years, reinforced by reading what Elaine Showalter had to say about it in A literature of their own a few months ago, and re-reinforced by thinking about Southern Africa...

This is one of the books I borrowed from my South African friends, a 1949 paperback with an advertisement for tinned pilchards ("Helps keep food bills down" ... "We pack them in a tall can so they come to you clean and unbroken") on the back cover:

The story of an African farm (1883) by Olive Schreiner (South Africa, UK, 1855-1920)


Elaine Showalter sums up Schreiner as "A freethinker marked to the marrow of her bones with the Calvinism of her missionary parents; a disciple of Darwin, Mill and Spencer who floated in a sea of sentimentality; a dedicated writer who could never finish a book; a feminist who hated being a woman; a maternal spirit who never became a mother — everything about her life is a paradox." Not totally straightforward then!

This is really exactly the kind of book you would expect from a complicated, clever young person who grew up in the arch-conservative back of beyond in a time seething with exciting new ideas. It's about a couple of sisters, the wild and progressive Lyndall and the placid and domesticated Em, growing up on a remote farm in the Eastern Cape together with young Waldo, the overseer's son, working as a farmhand but looking as though he is going to turn into a brilliant engineer, or possibly a poet, or a sculptor, or none of the above. Throw in an Afrikaans stepmother, an Irish con-man, a cross-dressing farm-manager, and a trunk full of our late father's radical books, and tragedy is just about inevitable.

There are glorious chapter-long feminist rants, endless agonising about what it really means to live in a world where you can't seriously believe in God any more, more symbolism than you can shake an elaborately-carved stick at, lots of lovely African scenery and weather, a bizarrely complicated series of emotional and sexual entanglements, and a large supporting cast of nameless black people treated with a curious mixture of late-Victorian "scientific" racism and semi-enlightened humanity. A book so hopelessly messy that you can pull just about anything you like out of it, but a great account of growing up in confusing times, all the same.

Mar 18, 4:07pm Top

Interesting turn you’ve taken towards quantum physics alongside everything else. I’m caught up with your thread, from several weeks ago, and, only significant to me personally, it’s the only thread I’m caught up with in that time. Have some LT reading to do.

Mar 18, 10:50pm Top

My library is closed indefinitely, and they extended due dates until April 30 - I might actually finish all of my library books before I have to take them back!

>10 thorold: This sounds interesting?

Edited: Mar 19, 6:18am Top

>11 dchaikin: Yes, I've been getting behind with other people's threads too. Don't know what is...

>12 BLBera: Definitely. It was a big seller in its day.

I'm partway through another African book, but in the meantime here's a book I didn't know about — although it's obviously attracted quite a bit of attention — that was discussed in the Gerrit Jan Zwier book I read a week ago:

The shepherd's life: a tale of the Lake District (2015) by James Rebanks (UK, 1974- )


This is a great, almost deceptively straightforward account of what upland sheep farmers do, and why, and a thought-provoking memoir about what it feels like to grow up in a family with a farming tradition. And it's also a challenge to the reader to provoke us into looking at landscape not just aesthetically, but also in terms of the ways humans have interacted with it productively, and continue to do so.

When Rebanks, as a rebellious teenager counting the days to the end of school, was first presented with the Wainwright-and-Wordsworth way of looking at his native region, he couldn't see the point of it. He'd been brought up to think of fells and fields according to the kind of grazing and weather-protection they offered, who owned them, who farmed them, and so on; no-one he knew would be daft enough to climb a hill unless there was work to be done at the top of it. Nowadays he's a bit more nuanced: he admits that Wordsworth had a lot of respect for shepherds and the work they did, he doesn't begrudge Wainwright his escape from Blackburn, and recognises that both have something relevant to say about the region, even if the people who climb mountains clutching their books don't always get it...

The only Lakeland writer he has serious respect for, though, is Beatrix Potter, who, whatever you might think of her children's books, was a committed breeder of Herdwick sheep and a responsible landowner, as well as employing a highly-respected shepherd whose advice she was prepared to listen to. And Herdwick sheep are clearly Rebanks's real passion: he often has to rein himself in when he starts getting lyrical about the finer points of ewes and tups he has known. Even if you barely know one end of a sheep from the other, this makes for interesting reading, because it's so evidently something Rebank cares deeply about and takes the trouble to communicate clearly.

The autobiographical parts of the book are very interesting, too. Firstly, of course, we have to think about the big question of "tradition" — do you have a special claim on something just because it's what your grandfather and father did? Why should people who happened to be born in the Lake District have a better right to work there than those born in Manchester or Blackburn? Rebanks doesn't quite confront this, but he tries to demonstrate how important it is to the work he does that he has been around sheep and shepherds since early childhood. Hill-farming techniques have been optimised in very local ways over hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years, and are best learnt from people with local knowledge. Only long experience gives you the ability to anticipate problems and be in the right place at the right time to deal with them. Also, perhaps less obviously, farming is an activity that involves complicated networks of deals between farmers who have different surpluses and needs at different times, and most of these deals rely on trust that has been built up over a long period. It's much easier to trust someone if you've known and worked with their family for several generations, even if you don't know them personally.

The other striking autobiographical element is his slightly unusual background as someone who got into the least favourable channel of the English education system, left it as early as he could with no qualifications to speak of, and then went back into education as an adult. He has a lot of nicely caustic things to say about the terrible school he went to, as well as making fun of the people who only know him as a sheep-farmer and suddenly start taking him more seriously when they discover that he has an Oxford degree (and a high-powered second job advising UNESCO...).

I have a feeling that this is not just the book you bring back from the gift-shop at (insert Lakeland tourist attraction), but something that will stand up as one of those minor classics of rural writing that people are still discovering with pleasure in secondhand bookshops in fifty years' time.

Mar 19, 6:24am Top

>10 thorold: I vaguely remember that book discussed in the Showalter (I read that sometime in the 90s) Very tempting to chase down...but, perhaps I'll content myself with your fab review.

Mar 19, 7:21am Top

>13 thorold: sounds very interesting, hope things that stable in 50 years (and in between).

Mar 19, 8:37am Top

>13 thorold: enjoyed this review

Mar 19, 9:33am Top

Hope I'm not intruding here, but I intend to follow the thread, Thorold.

>13 thorold: Redbanks reminds me of Homer Hickam : hillbilly and rocket scientist and erudite writer. Surprise!
Have you checked out his photography book as well? The Shepherd's View

Mar 19, 10:21am Top

>13 thorold: I had a few friends who really liked this when it came out, and then I promptly forgot about it... thanks for putting it back on my radar. It sounds fascinating in a low-key way.

Mar 19, 4:38pm Top

>14 avaland: >16 dchaikin: Thanks!

>17 2wonderY: All welcome, the more the merrier! I didn't know about Hickam — thanks!
I saw that Rebanks had done a photography book, but I haven't come across it as yet.

>18 lisapeet: Yes, and it was a pleasant surprise to find my library had it: I wasn't expecting that. Hill-farming isn't really a core topic in The Hague...
It's a really interesting mixture of the technical detail about farming and the social analysis of how farmers fit in to the modern world (or rather how the modern world fits in around them).

Edited: Mar 22, 7:02am Top

Back to the Southern Hemisphere!

I wanted to have a go at reading something in Afrikaans, to see how much sense I could make of it without any real preparation other than a knowledge of modern Dutch. I forgot to check what they had in the library (and I won't be able to go back there until things get back to normal...), but then the translation of this one came up in Darryl's posting of the Booker International longlist. I checked and it turned out that I could get the Afrikaans original as an ebook, so I plunged in. A chunky postmodern historical novel perhaps wasn't the best choice for a "first lesson", but I got into the swing of things after a few chapters...

Afrikaans and modern Dutch have been developing largely independently of each other since the seventeenth century, so you have to look quite hard to realise that they both started in the same place. Nowadays they have wildly different spelling conventions, many words in both languages have changed their written forms to match pronunciation changes, some words have changed meaning in one language but not the other, both have introduced new words from different places; gender, articles, tenses, auxiliary verbs, pronouns, and lots of other quite basic grammatical things are different. You need quite a lot of lateral thinking ability if you're going in blind, but it's an entertaining challenge!

Buys: 'n Grensroman (2014; Red dog: a novel of the African frontier) by Willem Anker (South Africa, 1979- )


Willem Anker makes the seven-foot-tall hunter, farmer, cattle-thief, poacher, smuggler, mercenary, frontiersman, polygamist and general nuisance to all in authority, Coenraad de Buys (1761-1821), the narrator of this postmodern historical novel. Not the historical Buys, though, but "Alom-Buys" (omnipresent Buys), a figure outside the limitations of time and place, who can look back on his life with a certain amount of perspective and an awareness of the true and false things history has said about him.

Buys-the-narrator works on us rather like Huck Finn or Flashman: he's a totally reprehensible character in most respects, but he has an engagingly unrestrained comic voice, constantly saying things we half-wish we dared to say ourselves, he has a clear-sighted view of his own failings as well as those of everyone else around him, and he lets us look into a fascinating historical period from a rather unusual perspective. And his voice even becomes unexpectedly touching as Buys starts to get old and lose the physical ability to dominate the world around him.

Although the real Buys is obviously a hero-figure in Afrikaner culture (in a Ned Kelly kind of way), in Anker's view of him he is everything but an Afrikaner nationalist: he chooses friends, wives, allies and enemies on the basis of their personal qualities (and how many cattle and spearmen they can bring into the camp...), without any thought for race or colour. His aim is always to make a good life for Buys and his ever increasing herd of multi-coloured children and grandchildren and never mind whether his neighbours are Xhosa, Portuguese, or Dutch.

Buys with his caravan of wives, children, beasts and hangers-on constantly moving around to find unclaimed and potentially fertile corners of the veld sometimes comes over as an Old-Testament patriarch, sometimes as the leader of a pack of ravening beasts, and Anker has fun with both of these metaphors throughout. We know the mysterious dog-pack that is constantly shadowing his progress must be there for a reason, but it takes a while before we work it out.

Very enjoyable, and an interesting introduction to a period I didn't know much about.


https://af.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coenraad_de_Buys (go on, try to read the Afrikaans version before you click on the English!)

Mar 22, 7:41am Top

>4 thorold:

I've been having another film weekend, with two films famous for their jazz soundtracks from MUBI's John Schlesinger and Louis Malle seasons:

Darling (1965) turned out to be a slick satire on the swinging sixties. Julie Christie plays a self-centred blonde and Dirk Bogarde is the intellectual (BBC arts presenter!) she falls in love with but loses. Lots of fun bits of slightly-encoded pre-Wolfenden LGBT interest in the background, but the main storyline has dated rather badly. (As had the Dankworth soundtrack, as far as I'm concerned...)

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958) is a film noir classic, with a totally silly crime plot: a murderer commits an almost perfect crime but gets stuck in the lift on his way out of the building, and two teenagers take the opportunity to steal his car and end up committing a quite separate murder which gets pinned on the man in the lift. But Jeanne Moreau is rather marvellous dashing around Paris-by-night asking everyone whether they've seen Julien, Maurice Ronet hangs from ropes very stylishly, and Miles Davis does his best to earn his fee.

Mar 23, 7:28am Top

...and I saw yet another Louis Malle film last night, the very silly Viva Maria (1965), with Jeanne Moreau again, this time side-by-side with Brigitte Bardot, in a Mexican-revolution-comedy that was either meant as a very subtle parody of Hollywood clichés or a blatant imitation of them: it's hard to tell. It made me laugh, but I don't think it was a very good film...

And a book from the TBR pile. I meant to read this before my visit to Granada last October — better late than never!

The Moor's last stand (2017) by Elizabeth Drayson (UK, - )


Elizabeth Drayson teaches Spanish literature at Cambridge.

In Granada on the 2nd of January, 1492, Abu Abdallah Muhammad b. Ali, Muhammad XI, known as Boabdil to the Christian Spanish, surrendered the keys of the Alhambra to Ferdinand and Isabella, bringing Islamic rule in the Iberian peninsula to an end. An iconic moment in Spanish history, exploited to the maximum for publicity purposes both by Ferdinand and by the Pope, and one that has continued to pop up in novels, plays, paintings, statues, TV series and all sorts of other places to this day.

But Boabdil himself comes across as a rather elusive character, a hero to some, a pathetic fool or a traitor to others. Drayson sets out to take us through what we actually know about him and the last years of Islamic Granada from the historical sources, which turns out to be surprisingly little, especially given the usual fondness of both Spanish and Islamic administrations for writing everything down and archiving it. (The greatest flowering of Spanish bureaucracy was a bit later, of course, in the days of Philip II)

The picture that does emerge is a complicated and sometimes contradictory one. Boabdil seems to have been a cultivated man and a competent administrator, as well as showing no hesitation to get into the thick of the fighting when he found himself in battle, but he was either reckless or very unlucky in allowing himself to be taken prisoner at Lucena in 1483. That capture — and the damaging deal he had to make with the Catholic Monarchs to get his freedom back — put him at a serious disadvantage for the rest of his time in power, and gave his uncle, "El Zagal", the excuse to stage a coup, further undermining the ability of the Granadans to resist the considerable power Ferdinand and Isabella could draw up against them.

With hindsight, it's astonishing that they managed to hold out for another nine years, with the Christians cutting them off from the sea and nibbling away at frontier towns. By the autumn of 1491, though, the writing was clearly on the wall: the siege of Granada was so well established that the invaders had built a complete new town, Santa Fé, to act as a support base for them. Drayson praises Boabdil for the negotiating skill he deployed to get the best possible deal for himself and his people, and it's obvious that he was right to negotiate rather than attempt to fight to the death, but you do have to wonder whether he really believed that the guarantees of freedom of worship for Muslims (and Jews!) he obtained would be enforceable. Of course, we know with hindsight that they weren't...

There's a curious fascination in the fact that we don't know for sure what happened to Boabdil after the surrender. We know he left Spain for North Africa, and some sources say he died shortly afterwards, others that he lived on into the 1530s. There's a likely grave site in Fez, and an equally likely memorial stone in Tlemcen. But neither is proven to be his.

I was looking forward to Drayson's examination of the various representations of Boabdil in art and literature, but I found it a little disappointing when I got that far — there's plenty of material there for building a reading list, but not much real analysis, and the discussion was rather dry.

Edited: Mar 23, 7:52am Top

I haven't quite exhausted the library pile...

Maanlicht (2012) by Hella S. Haasse (Netherlands, 1918-2011)


In her last years, Hella Haasse often mentioned a white folder of unpublished stories that had gone missing somewhere. Her editor, Patricia de Groot, didn't succeed in finding the missing folder, but she has managed to piece together four early short stories from stray pages that she found here and there in Haasse's papers. They all seem to have been written between 1938 and 1950, and are in a style de Groot describes (quoting an essay by Rosemarie Buikema) as "homely gothic". Strange things happen, either in mysterious old houses or in the protagonist's subconscious, we're never allowed to be quite sure which.

In "Een Verhaal" ("A story"), the earliest piece, a Robinson Crusoe figure tells us how he fled to an uninhabited island after seeing a dance in which the true natures of his fellow humans seemed to be revealed. The title story is a ghost story set in a 17th-century Amsterdam house, in which a visitor is bitten by a ghostly dog. In "Landschap in olieverf" the protagonist finds herself stepping into an idyllic painting where one of her new husband's ancestors is holding out a rose for her, and in "Caulder Hall" a visitor to a Scottish B&B is strangely reassured by the nocturnal sounds coming from the neighbouring room — until she finds out that it was empty. It seems to have been written in 1950, before the Calder Hall nuclear power station was built, so the title was probably just an unlucky coincidence.

Not my favourite kind of short story, but very well done, lovely economic writing where every phrase is doing something important.

Mar 24, 6:17am Top

Last night's film was another French blast from the past, Robert Bresson's 1951 adaptation of Journal d'un curé de campagne, a book I really need to get around to reading one day. Rather heavy going for the current mood, but a lovely film. Would be worth seeing just for Claude Laydu's hair...

And another short book from the TBR pile, another French novel of the thirties, which I picked up from a little free library before Christmas, a tatty "Livre de demain" paperback with a superb 1950s dustjacket design.

Regain (1930; Second harvest) by Jean Giono (France, 1895-1970)


A re-greening parable in a similar sort of vein to Giono's famous novella "The man who planted trees", this is the story of how the last remaining inhabitant of a dying hamlet in difficult hill country manages to reverse the trend of rural depopulation. A bit Hardyesque, with a tendency to tell the story indirectly through conversations between peripheral rustic characters, but full of fresh air and great descriptions of the wide-open spaces of Provence. A good book to read when you're housebound, maybe!

Mar 24, 5:44pm Top

I have recently read and enjoyed L'homme qui plantain des arbres in my french language class and was thinking I might read Le Hussard sur le toit but recent events have made me pause.

Mar 25, 2:51am Top

>25 baswood: L'homme qui plantain des arbres — once again, autocorrect turns everything banana-shaped :-)

I’ve also got the Hussard sur le rayon TBR, reluctant to take it down for similar reasons.

Mar 26, 6:45am Top

Taking advantage of the enforced leisure to catch up with another chunk of Pilgrimage — see here for Volume 1, which I read in January: https://www.librarything.com/topic/314548#7039660

Pilgrimage 2: The tunnel, Interim (1919) by Dorothy M. Richardson (UK, 1873-1957)


These two parts of the cycle, published in February and December 1919, follow on directly from each other, with no real break. Miriam moves into lodgings in the St Pancras area and is working as assistant to a posh dentist in Wimpole Street. Money is tight, but nonetheless she's enjoying the life of the independent working woman and exploring what the capital has to offer: she goes to concerts and galleries, visits artist friends, sees Henry Irving playing Shakespeare and hears Lord Kelvin lecturing on colour photography (I suspect she's got this last one mixed up: it was Gabriel Lippmann who developed a colour photography process in the 1890s, and he gave a paper on the subject at the Royal Institution in April 1896; Kelvin was supposed to be lecturing but was unable to attend). She takes lessons at a cycling-school, acquires some cycling knickers, and — after the inevitable wobbly start — is ravished to discover the joy of solitary bike-rides.

Potentially interesting men flutter about and then flutter away again — her dentist boss briefly shows an interest and then embarrassingly draws back when he's warned off by his sisters and his cousins and his aunts, and then in Interim there's a whole house full of eligible Canadian junior doctors she wastes by gadding about with the much more amusing, but not in the least eligible, M. Mendizzable. Female friendship is a little more rewarding: there are splendidly girly nights-in eating ragout irlandaise in Mag and Jan's flat, there is Christmas with some of her North London friends from Backwater, and there are arty expeditions with Miss Szigmondy. But her sister Eve's brief attempt to work in London is a disappointment, and there is also the appallingly needy Miss Dear, forever getting into embarrassments and expecting her friends to bail her out.

A book absolutely bubbling with youthful energy, full of gushing reflections on this, that and the other: it's hard to imagine how Richardson managed to recapture the feeling of being twenty and open to everything life might throw at her in the postwar glumness of 1919. Mrs Dalloway on speed, perhaps... But enormous fun to read.

Edited: Mar 26, 10:24am Top

>27 thorold: The Tunnel was my favorite volume -- I started reading it just as I was searching for a new apartment and thst helped me really connect with it. Plus the youthful opening up of her life in London is gloriously described.

Mar 26, 8:17am Top

>28 ELiz_M: My favorite as well!

Mar 26, 10:13am Top

>13 thorold: Your review convinced me to order this, as well as another title, A Shepherd's Life, dealing with the same topic 100 years earlier. Feels like school: Compare and Contrast!

Re Beatrix Potter: Back in the fall I read Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life, which did go into her farming life as well as her garden, not to mention her efforts at land conservation, which is an ancillary in some ways of the question of "tradition" you mention.

>10 thorold: "A book so hopelessly messy that you can pull just about anything you like out of it,..." loved that description which is completely apt. Could do without the tinned pilchards though - disgusting.

>22 thorold: Intrigued by this

Edited: Mar 26, 12:29pm Top

>28 ELiz_M: >29 japaul22: I'm looking forward to the other two volumes — maybe even a bit more motivated after Vol.2 than I was after Vol.1

>30 SassyLassy: Rebanks talks about the W H Hudson book — which he dug out of a pile of old books from his non-farming grandparents — as one of the main things that convinced him that literature and history could be relevant to him. I think he's been largely responsible for getting it back into print!

ETA: I expect you already know all about Thomas Firbank, since he was Canadian — if not, I bought a mountain is the other interesting "compare and contrast" there!

Schreiner has been Gutenberged, so the pilchards are entirely optional. The bepilcharded edition is probably not easy to find in the Northern hemisphere anyway. I've mostly seen the Virago or the Penguin Modern Classics.

Darryl posted an interesting review of The Moor's last stand as well. That was partly what made me go and look for it.


Astonishingly, this whole Covid-19 not-quite-lockdown — which feels as if it's been going on forever — is so recent that my library books still haven't got to their original due date. And I've even got two or three left unread! This was another of those essay-symposia from the recent acquisitions table:

De handen van Cicero: retorische antwoorden op de retoriek van onze tijd (2019) edited by Coen Simon (Netherlands, 1972- )


When the classicists take to the barricades, you know things are getting really bad...

A bunch of Dutch classicists, philosophers, historians, lawyers, journalists, an economist and a political speechwriter get together to discuss the relevance of the ideas of classical rhetoric, as taught by Aristotle and Quintilian, to modern public life. The book sometimes seems to have been conceived as a kind of extended plug for Piet Gerbrandy's Dutch translation of Quintilian, but a lot of the essays are quite interesting in themselves. I particularly enjoyed Gerard Spong's clear exposition of how he puts together a speech in a criminal case, which went very well with the eloquent prosecution speech in a hypothetical (but not very hypothetical...) historical sexual abuse case by his fellow advocate Liesbeth Zegveld. Luuk van Middelaar's thoughts on the role of authenticity in political speeches, drawing on his experience of writing for Herman Van Rompuy, were also very interesting, as were Henk te Velde's reflections on the differences between political debate (a form of theatre) and political negotiation (an attempt to find a solution to problems).

If there is an overall conclusion, it seems to be that not much has changed in the techniques of rhetoric since Quintilian's day, but that what counts is not so much how the tools are used (since we all know they are being used) but what vision or inspiration is behind them. And none of the contributors seems to find much vision in contemporary politics.

Mar 26, 11:47am Top

...and while I was busy with that, the postman dropped off (at a safe distance) a box of six shiny new African books. The TBR pile is struggling to cope...

Mar 29, 10:57am Top

Even though there isn't much overlap in our reading, I very much enjoy reading your reviews.

Mar 31, 3:38pm Top

>33 rhian_of_oz: Thanks!

For those who haven't been utterly exhausted by three months in which I read more books than I sometimes read in a whole year, the fun continues in my Q2 thread here: https://www.librarything.com/topic/318358

Group: Club Read 2020

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