June Books

I finished reading seven books this month. I’ve already written about Jenny Diski’s On Trying To Keep Still here, John Pollock’s Wilberforce here and Anne Tyler’s Digging To America here. The other books –

  • Death’s Jest-Book – Reginald Hill
  • The Poe Shadow –  Matthew Pearl
  • King of the Streets – John Baker
  • Theft  – Peter Carey

all deal with crime and death. It seems that murder has become somewhat of a theme in my reading, especially as the next book I’m reading is Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, a fascinating novel set in 12th century England concerning the investigation into the death of three children in Cambridge by a Adelia, a doctor from Salerno – more in a later post on this one.

However it may look, I don’t have a reading plan at all and pick up a book as it appeals to me. So, I am surprised to find connections between the books, even when it seems that they are widely different. For example, The Poe Shadow contains many references to slavery, one of the main topics in the Wilberforce biography and is set mainly in Baltimore, as is Digging To America, although more than a century later. The Poe Shadow is a long novel about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Edgar Allan Poe’s death in 1849. It is based on authentic details, combined with the results of research in various archives and libraries. It uses historical figures as well as fictional characters in the search to explain how Poe died in a hospital in Baltimore, after being found in an inn, dressed in dirty, shabby clothes. His visit to Baltimore was unexplained and over the years numerous theories have been put forward to explain how he died. The novel also explores who was the real ‘Dupin’ of Poe’s mystery tales. Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination was on my parents’ bookshelves and I dipped into them as a teenager. I’ve now dug out a copy and have started to read The Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring Dupin. I was surprised that the opening of this tale is a detailed analysis of analysis, using as comparison the games of draughts, chess and whist.

I have always found Poe fascinating and previously read The American Boy by Andrew Taylor, a novel about Poe’s childhood. The Poe Society has much more information on him.

Murder is of course a staple subject of the detective story, and Reginald Hill and John Baker are both experts in the field. Reginald Hill’s Death’s Jest-Book and John Baker’s King of the Streets cover violent murders in graphic detail, some of which I found hard to stomach, but as one of the characters in the Mistress of the Art of Death says: ‘To ignore his [ie man’s] capacity for evil is as obtuse as blinding oneself to the height to which he can soar.’

I read Hill’s Death’s Jest-Book quickly, even given that I had to look up the meaning of several words and the long, rambling letters from Roote, an ex-convict, which troubled Pascoe so much that he became obsessed with finding Roote guilty again. There are a number of sub-plots running through this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, particularly exploring the psychology of the criminal mind.

Baker’s King of the Streets is also a quick read, although the subject matter of the abuse and murder of children is neither easy nor pleasant to contemplate. This is the third book I’ve read by Baker, all featuring the private detective, Sam Turner and his assistant Geordie (naive, but street-wise). It’s well written, giving insight into the minds of both the detective and the criminal characters. I particularly liked the nickname ‘Gog’ for one of the ‘minders’, who trashes Sam’s office. Gog is, as the name suggests, a huge giant of a man, with little reasoning power, but plenty of brawn, looked after (not very successfully) by his brother, Ben. Gog and Magog, hills near Cambridge, crop again in Franklin’s book, ‘British giants as pagan as their name’. Baker also refers to Gulliver’s Travels in describing Gog as ‘Brobdingnagian’. All, very appropriate.

Theft, by Peter Carey, ends this month’s list of books. This is a very different book from the others, but is still on the theme of crime, although the sub-title is ‘A Love Story’, which it is as well. This time it is in the art world, with forgeries and details of the international art scene. The book ranges from Australia to Japan and America, split between alternating accounts from the two Boone brothers, Michael the artist, and Hugh his ‘Broken’ brother, who he is ‘looking after’. Another shared theme in the King of the Streets and Theft, is that both books feature brothers, one of whom is ‘damaged’ and cared for by the other. Hugh’s sections of the books counter-balance Michael’s, giving additional insight into the action of the book. I found it hard to read in parts, not knowing anything of the technicalities of the art world, but feel I’ve learned quite a lot. This is only the second book by Carey that I’ve read, and whilst I prefer Oscar and Lucinda I think Theft is still worth reading.

The Sleep Over

At the weekend we went to stay with our son (P) and family and were greeted excitedly by our grandchildren and G (grandson), exclaimed “You’re having a sleepover and, Grandad – you’re sleeping with me!” Normally we don’t stay over night as we only live an hour’s drive away. The reason we were staying over was that P and G were getting up at the crack of dawn to go to a carboot sale and we didn’t fancy getting up before 5am to get there in time. As it was, we were awake when they went out, as was G, who promptly got into bed with us. Not long after granddaughter no. 2 (M) woke up, so in she came as well, closely followed by E (granddaughter no. 1). After lots of wriggling about, giggling and “I want to watch TV” (not allowed until after breakfast and washed and dressed) we all got up and had breakfast.

The rain had threatened on Saturday, but had kept away. It had been pouring down all week though and the carboot was cancelled and P & G had to bring all the stuff back. We looked through the carboot book boxes and came home with a pile of books (I can never resist books). Later in the morning we took E and G to Sunday School, sorry Junior Church, where appropriately the story was about the foolish man who built his house on the sand and the wise man who built his house on the sand – and the rains came down etc!!

After that we went to McDonald’s where the main attraction was the free Shrek that came with the children’s meal. McDonald’s is really quick and the children seem to like eating out of cardboard boxes and paper bags, sitting on small chairs specially designed for them. G said he wanted a burger, but big sister E said he didn’t like it when he had one before. G replied that it was only the middle he didn’t like and E replied in a teacher voice “You can’t eat just the bread, G”. So they both had fish fingers. We all had fun with the Shreks, although E would really have preferred the Gingerbread Man. When you press a button he says, “I’m an Ogre”, another press and he burbs magnificently – G loved that! So all the way home we had both Shreks repeating “I’m an Ogre”, burping and saying “Oh My” (at least that’s what I think it sounded like), with both children copying it with the sound effects and us grandparents in fits laughing. Here’s Shrek on the pile of books that came home with us.

The books behind Shrek are (from the bottom up)

  • Into the Box of Delights: a history of Children’s Television by Anna Home – lots of nostalgia here
  • Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide – to help me decide what to read next
  • Big Chief Elizabeth: how England’s Adventures gambled and won the New World by Giles Milton – I hope it’s as good as his Nathaniel’s Nutmeg
  • Faithful Unto Death by Caroline Graham – a Midsomer Murders book, because I’ve never read any and I like the TV series.
  • Four Ian Rankin books – The Hanging Garden, Resurrection Men, the Black Book, and Set in Darkness – I hope they’re not as gory as Rebus, the TV series!

Booking through Thursday

Since school is out for the summer (in most places, at least), here’s a school-themed question for the week:
Do you have any old school books? Did you keep yours from college? Old textbooks from garage sales? Old workbooks from classes gone by?
How about your old notes, exams, papers? Do you save them? Or have they long since gone to the great Locker-in-the-sky?

Oh, yes I do have some old school books, library school and university books. I haven’t kept them all, but I do have my school books from A Level History and English (I didn’t keep the French), some old, and I mean old, text books and even some from O Levels. I also have my school report book and some copies of the annual school magazine; you got mentioned if you played in the school teams (lacrosse for me) and the exam results are listed.

This week we’ve been trying to de-clutter and I decided to look through my university papers and throw them out, but I just couldn’t do it. So, they’re still here, although when I’ll actually look at them again, let alone read them, I just don’t know.

Digging to America – Anne Tyler

I’m so glad I’ve read Digging to America. I’d been resisting reading it because when I first heard about I just didn’t like the sound of it; I think what put me off were the names of some of the characters, particularly Bitsy who came over to me as a know-it-all bossy woman. It just shows you shouldn’ make snap judgements like that.

This book had me captivated right from the start, with the description of two contrasting families waiting at Baltimore Airport for the arrival of two Korean babies they have adopted. The story develops as the two girls, Jo-Hin and Susan (originally Sooki) are integrated into their families – one American, the Donaldsons, outgoing and confident and the other the Yazdans, American/Iranian, reserved and restrained. Each year they have a party on ‘Arrival Day’- and it is through these parties as well as in their everyday lives that the contrast between the two families is revealed and how they are gradually brought to a greater understanding and appreciation.

There are a number of themes running through the book as well as the cultural differences between the families – what it means to be American, being one. But it’s not just specific to America. There are universal issues such as not being able to have a child; being an outsider or a foreigner, or being different; illness and death; growing old; family relationships between the generations, in-laws and the extended family; traditions, pride and independence; and in particular friendship. Even though it was a quick read, there is so much in this brilliant book, giving insight into human nature that I think it will stay with me for a long time. I shall certainly be looking for more books by Anne Tyler.

By the way, Baltimore is also, coincidentally, the setting for The Poe Shadow, which I had to stop reading once I started to read Digging to America.

Wilberforce by John Pollock

D and I finished reading Wilberforce by John Pollock with only a couple of hours to go before the book group meeting last Thursday. As D said it was like climbing a mountain, ‘a hard slog at first and when you get half way you wonder why you are reading it and whether you should give up but as you’ve got so far decide to carry on. When you reach the top you see that it was all worthwhile.’

It’s an achievement and also somewhat of a relief to complete the book. We both found it hard to get into and probably wouldn’t have read it if it wasn’t for the book group. Part of the difficulty is that there are so many references to the people of the time, both in politics and society in general, that without some background in the period you begin to flounder and the eyes glaze over. Other members of the group had found the same. But if you like reading historical and biographical books don’t let this put you off. There are fascinating insights into family life in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, references to the French Revolution and its effect in England, visits to Yorkshire, the Lake District, Buxton (to take the water and endure the ‘horrible treatment of Skin Rotations‘ – a massage bath lying on a flat dish of copper), and to Bath, to mention but a few.

The main cause and aim of Wilberforce’s life was the abolition of the slave trade and the end of slavery itself. He also wanted to remake England by reforming the morals, attitudes and fashions of the nation. The majority of the book is made up of the account of the twenty years struggle to end the slave trade through legislation, culminating in the passing of the Act of Abolition in March 1807. This made the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire. In America also an Act of Congress outlawed the slave trade.

Wilberforce’s character gradually reveals itself throughout the book in extracts from his letters, diary entries, and contemporary accounts of him by friends, supporters and opponents. I particularly liked Marianne Thornton’s memory of him:

He was as restless and volatile as a child himself and during the long and grave discussions that went on between him and my father and others, he was most thankful to refresh himself by throwing a ball or a bunch of flowers at me, or opening the glass door and going off with me for a race on the lawn ‘˜to warm his feet’. I knew one of my first lessons was that I must never disturb Papa when he was talking or reading, but no such prohibition existed with Mr Wilberforce. His love for, and enjoyment in, all children was remarkable.

The Wilberforce household at Broomfield in Clapham was ‘a rather eccentric home‘, with its unkempt shrubberies and domestic servants who ‘were deserving rather than efficient, nor would he cast off the useless or infirm until they found suitable berths.‘ The servants adored Wilberforce. Guests had to fend for themselves in ‘Yorkshire‘ way at dinner -Barbara (Wilberforce’s wife) would

see that Wilberforce’s plate had plenty and he was too short-sighted to notice the others; then Dean Milner’s stentorian voice (so Marianne Thornton recalls) would be heard roaring ‘There was nothing on earth to eat‘; and desiring the servants to bring some bread and butter, he would add ‘and bring plenty without limit’, while Mr W would join in with ‘Thank you, thank you kindly, Milner, for seeing to these things. Mrs Wilberforce is not strong enough to meddle much in domestic matters.’

Wilberforce was an excellent orator, good company, and irresistibly happy according to his friends’ accounts. He was involved in so many other causes, including agricultural improvements, medical aid for the poor, education in charity and Sunday Schools, improving living conditions for the poor, campaigning against the use of boys as chimney sweeps, distributing Bibles through the British and Foreign Bible Society, improving conditions for prisoners, education for the deaf and training for young men who would make good clergymen, etc, etc. As Pollock says ‘Good causes attached themselves to Wilberforce like pins to a magnet.’

Wilberforce was converted to Christianity in 1785. At first he felt he was not ‘in the true sense of the word a Christian‘, because he was still behaving as a man of the world. Pollack writes that Wilberforce ‘began to sicken of the profligacy and selfish luxury of the rich, of the hours they wasted in eating.’ He thought he must withdraw from the world, but after correspondence and talks with Pitt and later with John Newton (author of ‘Amazing Grace‘ and many other hymns) he remained in politics. He introduced family prayers in his household, and took ‘the Sacrament regularly. On Sundays he went to church twice, and would neither travel nor discuss politics except in gravest emergency.’ He tried to introduce a new spirit of tolerance ‘ it was his ‘endeavour to promote the essentials of Christianity, softening prejudices, healing divisions, and striving to substitute a rational and honest zeal for fundamentals, in place of a hot party spirit.’

He was buried on 3 August 1833 in Westminster Abbey. Thousands of Londoners mourned.

Two royal dukes, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker and four peers supported the Pall. Members of both Houses walked in the procession.

‘The attendance was very great’, recorded a Member in his diary that night. ‘The funeral itself with the exception of the Choir of the Abbey perfectly plain. The noblest and most fitting testimony to the estimation of the man.

Writing et al

One of the promises I made to myself when I left work was that I wouldn’t be doing any housework at the weekend. What have I done today? After a leisurely start with coffee whilst reading The Poe Shadow in bed, then a quick look (well not very quick) at blogs, I started to write about Wilberforce, when I was overcome with the need to tidy the house. Old habits do die hard and I spent the rest of the morning until now tidying up, dusting and vacuuming – still got upstairs to do. Then I remembered my promise and slowed down.

Litlove recently wrote a Writing Meme . The idea is to write seven random points about writing and then tag someone else. If you fancy doing this consider yourself tagged.

Here are my seven, in no particular order:

  1. I disliked doing ‘Precis’ in English Language lessons at school. The teacher never seemed to give us enough time and it had to be done quickly. Strange that now I find myself doing something similar in writing this blog and I’m enjoying it, but of course it’s my choice and in my own time.
  2. I once set out to write a novel about life at a fairground. I didn’t get very far, knowing next to nothing about fairgrounds. I haven’t tried since.
  3. I ‘m excellent at reading books on how to write, but just can’t bring myself to do the exercises they suggest. It all seems so boring. But last year I did write ‘Morning Pages’, which is one of Julia Cameron’s ideas in her Right to Write. I tried it for a few weeks and did enjoy it. The idea is that first thing in the morning you write and don’t read what you have written. Looking back I see that I wrote about my dreams, words, thoughts on what I’d be doing later on in the day, and my childhood.
  4. After I’d read Wilfred Owen’s war poems I wrote a poem on the horrors of war and submitted it for the school magazine. It must have been awful and it didn’t get in. I still fancy writing poetry.
  5. In my previous job in local government I wrote many reports for the councillors to make decisions on various applications. This involved investgiating the claims, putting all the evidence for and against the proposals with a recommendation. This was satisfying, even if they were not always to everybody’s liking.
  6. I am usually not very satisfied with what I write and constantly revise and cut what I’ve written. This was difficult before the computer made it easy. Previously my drafts were full of crossings out, insertions with asterisks, paragraphs cut and stapled at the right place. Now cutting and pasting is so much easier.
  7. Finally a couple of quotations to add to Litlove’s:

“If you can’t annoy somebody with what you write, I think there’s little point in writing.” Kingsley Amis

“Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” Samuel Johnson

I’ll post my thoughts on Wilberforce will be next, that is after I’ve finished re-writing and cutting it!

The Duke of Marmalade and the Count de Limonade

These names intrigue me and I couldn’t believe they were real when I read about them in Pollock’s Wilberforce. All they meant to me was toast and marmalade and a fizzy drink.

So I looked them up and couldn’t find out much.

Henri Christophe (Wikipedia has an article on him) had seized power in Haiti. He had created a nobility from the former slaves. Their names were derived from the slave holders’ estates and so we have the Duke of Marmalade who was the Commander in Chief and the Comte de Limonade who was the Secretary of State. So, it was oranges and lemons.

I’m always going off on tangents when I’m reading a book – one book always leads to others.