Monday, 11 June 2012

I read it in May

Here are my May reading highlights, in order of excellence:

1. Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now -- As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It by Craig Taylor
This is a very good book indeed, a series of interviews about London. It's a good concept, but the thing that really makes the book great is the quality of the interviews and the diversity of the people he found to talk to.

2. Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.
Although it's made of 12 books they are actually all quite short -- about 200 pages. Not much really happens in the first and second books, and limited amounts in the books after that, but I did find it very enjoyable once I'd stopped worrying about this. It's a bit like a cross between Proust and Nancy Mitford -- it's not quite as funny as Mitford but then again, it's nowhere near as French as Proust. I would recommend it not as something one ought to read but as something that you might well enjoy reading. There's always an anxiety about starting a long set of books, because if they're hard work you either have to decide to give up or try to power on through. But when you start a long set of books and realise that you enjoy them then that's a very pleasant feeling, you can abandon any pressure to finish and just read them at your own pace, and you know you've got good reading material lined up for some time to come. And there's something very comfortable about novels which take you into a different but entirely sustained world, and because one of the themes of the series is how fate throws people together in a complicated pattern there are many recurring characters. In fact if I were to summarise it in seven words they would be these:
The man turned round. It was Widmerpool.

3. Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale
This story isn't quite as engrossing as The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, but then that was a truly phenomenal book, one you could enjoy yourself while also being sure that your Grandma and all your other relatives would love it too. This is about one of the earliest divorce cases brought in England when the switch was made from divorce being something only achievable by Act of Parliament, e.g. for the very very rich and influential only, to being handled by the courts. Isabella Robinson kept an ill-advised diary, and she had ill-advised crushes on handsome men. When it gets really interesting (after a rather slow beginning) is when those diaries are advanced by her husband as evidence of her adultery, and are considered in the courts and the newspapers as possible evidence of her mental derangement. It was one of those issues around which the mores and assumptions of the day crystallised and Kate Summerscale does a great job of putting it all in its context. I was amazed by the young man from a genteel Edinburgh family who faked his own death in order to spend a few years undergoing painful penis-cauterising operations in the hope of curing his tendency to masturbation. He finally found peace when someone suggested to him that he try having sex with women -- he turned to prostitutes and found the urge to masturbate became less. Now I'm not a fan of prostitution, but however much one disapproves of it you'd think someone might try that before convincing their large loving family that they're dead and then repeatedly attacking their private parts with hot wires. Wierd.

4. The Mongoliad: Book One of the Foreworld Saga by Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson, etc etc etc.
This isn't a brilliant book but it's enjoyable, and it sneaks onto this list because it was better than I had feared. It's a jointly written book which arose from some fantasy-writers' sword-fighting classes. It's set in the (more-or-less) past, at the time that the Mongolian hoards were starting to threaten Europe. This book is part of a wider project that's experimenting with what a book is, something which I approve of people doing but in which I don't really feel that interested in taking part. I posted about it before.

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