Poetic Lives:Shelley by Daniel Hahn

I didn’t know much about Shelley before I read Poetic Lives: Shelley by Daniel Hahn. This biography gives brief details of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s short but extraordinary life, from his birth in 1792 to his early death in 1822, shortly before his thirtieth birthday.

The opening paragraph caught my immediate attention in pointing out that Shelley was not that far away from the present day. Although he was born during the reign of mad King George III when there were struggles for independence in Europe – the French Revolution and then Napoleon’s rise to power, his granddaughter saw the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War and the Great Depression.

Shelley was an unhappy child, an unconventional teenager, an atheist and a radical reformer. He was expelled from Oxford University before he could complete his degree and was at odds with his father. He eloped with the daughter of a coffee-shop owner in 1811 but after three years the marriage was over when he met Mary Godwin. He was constantly in poor health and for much of the rest of his life they lived a nomadic existence travelling around Italy and France.

Hahn also quotes extracts from Shelley’s poems and prose. He also uses various sources such as Shelley’s friend Thomas Hogg, who wrote his Life of Shelley in 1857, Shelley’s cousin Tom Medwin who published a memoir of Shelley and a two-volume Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1847 and another friend, Edward Trelawney who wrote Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron in 1858.

I found parts of the book moving, Shelley’s  reaction to John Keats’s death for example and the events of his own death, but on the whole it is a prosaic account of Shelley’s life. Hahn’s repetitive use of the word “would” was irritating. It has interested me enough to want to read more about Shelley and his poems. I have started reading  Ann Wroe’s book Being Shelley: the Poet’s Search for Himself, which promises to be a much fuller account and also more about him as a poet. More about that book another time.

I received Poetic Lives:Shelley from the publishers via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers’ Programme.

The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk: a Book Review

I expected  The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk to be much better than it is. It begins well, and every now and then I thought this is really good, but at times it seems to get lost in itself. It’s about the life of a family – the Bradshaws, mainly concentrating on Thomas and his wife Tonie – over the course of a year. Not a lot happens on the surface but underneath everyone’s life is in turmoil and change.

Thomas is the middle brother. Howard is his older brother, married to Claudia; Leo, is his younger brother married to Susie. We also meet his parents and Tonie’s parents. The book is a series of episodes in their lives, both individually and collectively. It’s a mixture of straight forward narrative about their daily lives, interspersed with interesting reflections on such themes as what is real/unreal/artificial, what is the value and nature of success, what is art, the duality of character, the question of work/home balance, women going out to work versus staying at home, progress, the impossibility of perfection, the nature of love, the importance of wanting what you have and of avoiding not wanting what you have and so on and so forth.

 Thomas, the house-husband, is learning to play the piano whilst he is at home looking after Alexa, their eight-year old daughter, and much of the description of him has a musical theme – he is a “symphony” crashing about. Tonie, getting on with her career, seems a very negative character, usually dressed all in black and uncertain of what she wants from life. The crisis comes when Alexa falls ill and Thomas has to cope on his own. Howard and Claudia are muddling along with their three children and Skittle, their little dog and their crisis comes as they are preparing to go away on holiday – I found this chapter one of the most “real” in the book, describing the “ordeal” of it all.

My overall impression of it is that although it’s intense, it’s also emotionally detached; the characters are well drawn for the most part, but just as I was getting involved with them, the narrative moved away.

(The Bradshaw Variations – an Uncorrected Proof copy supplied by LibraryThing Early Reviewer Programme)

Turbulence by Giles Foden: Book Review


I received an uncorrected proof of Turbulence from the publishers Faber and Faber through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program. I should have found it boring because most of the characters are scientists – meteorologists, to be precise – and a lot of the dialogue is scientific concerning the theory of weather forecasting and mathematical forecasting in particular. Maths is not my strong subject and a lot of this was beyond me. There was just too much detailed information. Yet, strangely this book gripped me and once I’d got through the first chapter, which was very technical and odd, about making a ship out of ice to transport water to Saudia Arabia, it was compelling reading.

The main action takes place during 1944 in the run up to D-Day. The narrator is Henry Meadows a young meteorologist working for the Met Office. He is sent up to Scotland to find out about the “Ryman number”  from Wallace Ryman, a pacifist and former meteorologist who devised the formula that will make forecasting the weather over a longer period more accurate. This is just what the Allies need to know in preparing for the invasion of Normandy. Ryman is based on Lewis Fry Richardson, who devised the Richardson number, which enables the turbulence of different weather systems to be measured (hence the title of the book). I don’t have a clear picture from the novel of what this actually is or how it works, but it was his work in forecasting a  break in the bad weather conditions in the Channel that fixed the date of D-Day as 6 June 1944.

Ryman is the most interesting character in the  book. He is opposed to war, now  pursuing peace studies and is known as a difficult, stubborn character. Henry finds him awkward, uncooperative and reluctant to talk about his work at first. The book began to come to life for me in this section when Henry and Ryman and his wife Gill start to get to know each other, made more interesting by the tensions in the Rymans’ marriage. At this stage Henry’s own fragility becomes obvious from passages where he recalls his childhood in Africa and the death of his parents.

The action moved back to London and began to drag a little, but picked up as Henry became more involved in the disagreements between the meteorologists from different countries, brought together over the phone to pool their resources about methods and interpretation. Henry is assigned to go with the invasion forces as Met liaison between the British and Americans. This provides a dramatic ending to the book as he is injured on landing in France.

Turbulence is a combination of theoretical and scientific information, philosophical musings (which were more meaningful to me), and a portrayal of complex and emotional characters. In the end I thought it was well worth the effort of reading it.

When the Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett: Book Review

I saw When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Programme and the publishers’ description made me think maybe it would be interesting:

Over five years in the making, this book is not an academic history but something for the general reader, written with the vividness of a novel or the best works of American New Journalism. No such treatment of the seventies has been previously attempted. Hopefully the book will bring the decade back to life in its all its drama and complexity.

And it did bring that decade back to life. It’s a very detailed book, using original material such as diaries, letters, personal memoirs as well as books written about the period. I particularly liked the personal, face-to-face interviews with some of the key figures such as Ted Heath,  and his assessments of politicians such as this one of Margaret Thatcher in 1975 when she was a contender for the leadership of the Conservative Party:

 She was a fast learner, a holder of fierce convictions and a highly distinctive speaker and political presence. (page 261)

Margaret Thatcher was, essentially not easy to be around: ‘Thatcher was always tiresome,’ remembers the political journalist Michael White who spent a lot of time with her in the seventies. ‘There was no romance, no self-analysis, no self-consciously epic qaulity like you would have got with Churchill. (page 262)

When Beckett describes the strikes of the decade, and there were so many, the changes in the balance of power, the three-day week and the Winter of Discontent, I was back there living it all over again. My only criticism is a personal one – when he writes about the economic and financial situations with all the statistics he quotes I was a bit bored and have to admit that I skim read those sections. It was the personalities, the personal touches and the cultural and social scenes that I liked – for example during his interview with Denis Healey, who was Harold Wilson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer in the seventies Healey talked about Wilson’s lack of ambition:

‘In his second term he told many people that he planned only to stay a few months. He told me in the lavatory at No. 10 just before a Cabinet meeting.’ Healey giggled, characteristically delighting in the black comedy. Then, equally characteristically, he looked out of the window of his Sussex study and kicked Wilson’s reputation in the shins. ‘I thought, “About bloody time!” He was a terrible prime minister, actually.’ (page 162)

 Andy Beckett is a journalist and this book is very readable. As well as the personalities I also liked his descriptions of places, comparing how they are today with how they were in the seventies and his comparisons of the crises that faced Britain then with those facing us today:

At the least, a very seventies dread has seeped back into how people in Britain and other rich countries see the world. Economic crises, floods, food shortages, terrorism, the destruction of the environment: these spectres, so looming in the seventies did not go away during the eighties and nineties; yet they faded – they were often quite easy to forget about. Now that they have returned to haunt newspaper front pages almost daily, it is possible to wonder how many of Britain’s seventies problems were ever really solved. (page 522)

a Leap

a-leap002I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of a Leap by Anna Enquist, translated by Jeannette K Ringold from LibraryThing Early Reviewer’s Program. It’s a very short book (80 pages), to be published in April 2009, made up of six monologues. Overall they are sad, even tragic stories.

The first one, Alma, was commissioned by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival and its performance preceded a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. I liked the fact that it’s based on historical facts taken from letters and diaries. Alma was Gustav’s wife and she reflects on her life, having given up her own music to support him. It seems he forced her to do so and she is at once repelled and intoxicated by him, but she is torn between her love for him and Alex, a former lover. This is my favourite of the monologues.

The second story, Mendel Bronstein, shocked me. It’s about a Jewish tailor who decides to lter_small_transparentleave Rotterdam in 1912 to make a new life in America. He is desperate not to forget his own language, with disastrous consequences. This story actually made me squirm.

Cato and Leendert, form the interlinked monologues three and four. Set again in Rotterdam in the spring of 1940 they are a pair of young lovers. Cato first waits in the kitchen for Leendert as the bombs drop on the city and then goes out to search for him as the Germans take control. Meanwhile Leendert is still working at the zoo and ordered to kill the dangerous animals, including his favourite lion, Alexander. I thought this was a touching story full of pathos. It was also based on historical sources and together with Mendel Bronstein was written for the production of Lazarus as part of Rotterdam Cultural Capital of Europe in 2001.

The Doctor is a very short monologue also set in Rotterdam during World War II from a doctor who saves the life of a wounded German general. He wonders if he has done the right thing. This was commissioned by the Bonheur theater company in 2005 for the commemoration of the bombing of Rotterdam in 1940.

The final monologue is  …and I am Sara. Sara is alone in her parents house. She is twenty seven and so far her life has not turned out how she wanted. So much has gone wrong, but now it seems life is set to improve but then disaster overtakes her.

In all these stories fate or circumstances take control, no matter how the characters have struggled in their lives. Anna Enquist is a musician, and a pyschoanalyst as well as a poet and novelist. Her writing is clear bringing the people and places to life. I particularly liked the stage directions in first and last monologues and the insights into the characters’ thoughts.

LibraryThing – “Will I Like It?”

a-leap001I was nicely surprised the other day when I had a new comment on my LibraryThing Profile page telling me I’d snagged a copy of A Leap by Anna Enquist. Surprised because the closing date for requesting books hadn’t even ended. I’ve snagged a few books from Early Reviewers before but only received them months later. In fact, Sue Guiney’s Tangled Roots never arrived at all via LT  – I’ve now received a copy thanks to Sue, herself!  So I was even more surprised and delighted when A Leap popped through my letterbox this morning (it’s a slim book of 84 pages).

When I added it in to my library I found a new feature, well I’ve only just noticed it at any rate. It’s on each book’s Main Page headed “Will you like  it?” –  a bar sliding from “won’t like”, “will probably not like”  “will probably like” “will like”, “ will love”. So now I’ve been checking it out to see if it really can tell whether I’ll like a book or not.

I checked The Hidden by Tobias Hill, which I write about here. LT thinks I’ll “love it” – actually I liked it, well not far wrong there. So I then looked at Death of a Gossip, which found rather disappointing (I wrote about it here). I wouldn’t go as far as saying I don’t like it, but in LT’s terms I’d rate it “will probably not like”, but LT thinks I “will probably like it” – wrong!

Currently I’m reading Tartan Tragedy by Antonia Fraser and I’m thinking of giving up on it. It’s set in the Scottish Highlands where Jemima Shore is on holiday caught up with the mystery of Charles Beauregard’s death. Allegedly he was descended from Bonnie Prince Charlie.  I should be “loving it” according to LT but I’m not – it just seems to be so long winded and far-fetched. Part of my problem is that I’m fed up reading what all the characters are wearing. I don’t like to give up on a book (think of the time I’ve wasted but it’s a library book, so no cost involved).

Well, I suppose “Will I like it?” is just a guide and for fun really, but I hope it’s right about A Leap because it predicts that I “will like it”, maybe I’ll even love it..

Tuesday Thingers

Marie’s question today is:
Popular this Month on LibraryThing: Do you look at this list? Do you get ideas on what to read from it? Have you read any of the books on the list right now? Feel free to link to any reviews you’ve done as well.

Until today I’d never looked at the list so I’ve never used it at all. I haven’t read any of the books on the list, I don’t own any of them and I haven’t read anything by any of these authors. Some of them look interesting and certainly they have been reviewed many times on LT – is that the measure for their popularity or is it the number of people who’ve entered them in LT?

  1. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman – I’m tempted to read this.
  2. Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron – cats and libraries, may give this one a go sometime.
  3. Nation by Terry Pratchett – I think I should maybe have a look it this.
  4. Brisingr by Christopher Paolini – I don’t think so.
  5. Anathem by Neal Stephenson – this looks interesting but I’m not sure if I’m up to reading “esoteric mathematical philosophy” as one reviewer on LT describes it.
  6. American Wife: A Novel by Curtis Sittenfeld – not for me!
  7. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer – I’ve written about my reluctance to read this one, but if I see it in the library I’ll have a look.
  8. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel by David Wroblewski – described by one LT reviewer as a “coming-of-age novel, set in rural Wisconsin”, ” a modern take on Hamlet” – tempting.
  9. Any Given Doomsday by Lori Handeland – I don’t think so.
  10. Eclipse (The Twilight Saga, Book 3) by Stephenie Meyer – definitely not for me.

I’ve found it interesting to look at this feature but I shan’t be using it to get ideas on what to read. Reading tastes are very subjective and I prefer to choose books by reading reviews, mainly on book bloggers’s blogs and by picking up books off the shelves in lbraries and bookshops. The books on this list have varying reviews on LT anyway – some good and some not so good.