Monday, 30 April 2012

The books of April

I read too many books this month. I read a lot while I was in Devon over Easter, and then carried on doing it when I got back, during breaks in revision which were rather longer than they should have been. Here are the ones I enjoyed most:

1. The Gil Cunningham books by Pat McIntosh. This series, starting with The Harper's Quine, is about a clerk in late fifteenth-century Glasgow who solves crimes. It's amiable and interesting, and I do like the use of proper Scots. (There's a glossary but it's more appealing without.) They were all on kindle for 99p each when I read them.

2. I've read quite a lot of twentieth-century social history, and I would strongly recommend Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth and Nella Last's War: the Second-World-War Diaries of 'Housewife, 49'. The first is the memoir which lies behind the BBC tea-time drama, and though I haven't seen that I do think they must have toned it down a bit to get it pre-watershed. It's shocking how recently this happened -- the kids in the book would be contemporaries of my mum and dad. I read it on a day when I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and it made me feel like I had been mentally slapped. Nella Last's diary is a great thing. She was one of the people recruited into the Mass Observation Project in the late 30s, an attempt to do the "anthropology of ourselves". She clearly had a flair for diary-writing, and her account of the great stresses of the war -- and also of marriage -- are compelling and very readable.

3. Two good American history books: The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, and Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne. The Killer Angels is a novelisation of the battle of Gettysburg. It won the Pullitzer, and is kind of a big deal in America. It's very well done; the sort of novel that teaches more about history than a history lesson. I read it because I heard it inspired Joss Whedon to write Firefly, but actually it doesn't have anything much about the post-war era in it, except for a brief summary of what happened to each of the main characters. Empire of the Summer Moon, about the last Comanches and particularly their great leader Quanah Parker, is a startling book if, like me, you don't know much about American history. The Comanches were violent and lived by war, and were really the frightening killers of playground Cowboys and Indians games. The Texans weren't much better of course. The author is good at conveying both sides of this culture clash, and the tragedy of Cynthia Ann Parker, captured in a violent raid by Comanches at the age of 9, and then captured back again in another violent raid by Texans decades later, and never allowed to rejoin her two young sons despite her increasingly desperate attempts to escape back to the Comanches.

4. Iain Pears, Stone's Fall. Iain Pears is one of my favourite novelists, and perhaps the one I'd most like to be like. He usually writes about art, but in this book he brings out the elegance and beauty of industry and finance. It's also one of those satisfying books in which you learn more and more about the past -- there are three narratives each of which is from further back in time. Go Iain Pears!

5. Vanessa Gebbie, The Coward's Tale.  I think this was another Kindle book I took a chance on for 99p and it turned out to be very good.  It's about a small Welsh mining town still traumatised by a terrible pit accident a generation before.  A boy moves there to stay with his Gran while his parents have problems, and gets to know the town beggar who tells stories to the people in the cinema queue in return for toffees.

I also read three books by Jonathan Carroll who may or may not be great -- I haven't decided yet. He's an odd one.

P.S. I've scheduled this post to appear while I'm in the middle of one of my exams. I'd forgotten quite how truly horrible exams and revision are, and young people have my sympathy.

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