Happy New Year folks!
A good and multi-talented friend of mine has obviously made a resolution to create a regular blog and to do so has launched this website. He is a brilliant writer, a musician and an artist, so worth a look.
In his first blog post he counted down his 15 favourite books that he read in 2014, irrespective of publishing date. I’ve read a lot wider this year than previous, with fewer 18th century titles then any in the last few years. I’m not sure why my friend picked a top 15 but I will follow his example, so here are my…
Starting at number 15
Sweeney Todd: A String of Pearls by James Malcolm Rymer
Exciting and atmospheric Victorian potboiler that launched Sweeney Todd into the world’s vision. Sweeney himself was an interesting character and I felt awful for his poor assistant, thrown into a corrupt mental asylum. The problem was that the whole book led to the earth shattering twist…that his victims were being turned into pies. Unfortunately, we already knew this which left the last bite a bit gummy.
The Cloud of Unknowing by an Anonymous Author
14th Century Christian mysticism is not my usual path but there was something about the central message of this text that did appeal. God is unknowable and between a human and God is the ‘cloud of unknowing’ which can never knowingly be penetrated by will, knowledge or prayer but can only be succumbed to. Thought-provoking and sometimes mind-bending. Worth a shufti.
Down and Out in Eighteenth Century London by Tim Hitchcock
A vivid evocation of life on the edge of eighteenth century society and the patchwork, cobbled together way in which such people got by. Extremely interesting but rather paltry in terms of evidence, grabbing small shards from across an entire century to build a picture that seemed to come more from a subjective viewpoint that the author had of what he thought might have happened. Probably like all history, but I like a historical writer to pretend to a little more authority.
Coming in at number 12
The Pretended Asian by Michael Keevak
I bought this expecting it to be a biography of George Psalmanazar, a man of unknown identity and origin who managed to fool Britain that he was Formosan (Taiwanese) for a time. Instead it was an in-depth look at how such a con managed to succeed. This boiled down to Psalmanazar’s memory, sticking to every detail he invented, no matter how ludicrous and his courage, combined with Europe’s lack of racial knowledge; racial identity being an unknown concept and mainly figured on language then physiology. I was engrossed, astonished and a little in love with Mr P.
Falstaff by Robert Nye
A romping, twisting turning ‘true’ biography of Falstaff from the big man himself. Perhaps a little too penis obsessed, a bit cruel and crude but also large and roaring with life. This was a big gassy novel that ended in a satisfied belch.
In at number 10
Pompey the Little by Francis Coventry
The first of three eighteenth century works in the list, I’ve already reviewed it extensively here. It’s a fun tripping tale of a little dog with big adventures. Think Tom Jones crossed with Lassie.
The Horned Man by James Lusdun
A 21st century novel in the mix. This is a creepy and haunting story of a man too rational to be completely sane. He is being stalked by some deeply irrational forces that gobble him up. I was hooked throughout and gobbled my way through it like Johnson at a dinner party.
The London Monster by Jan Bondeson
In the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century a fiend went around stabbing at and ripping lower parts of ladies’ dresses. This caused a huge hoo-hah from a media fond of stories located near bottoms and fanned by a massive reward. This is a study with a lot to say about modern moral panics, not to mention that it’s a fascinating tale itself, with bottoms.
Straight in at number 7
The Book of Beasts by TH White
I was going to pick ‘The Age of Scandal’ or ‘Scandalmonger’, his eighteenth century gossip books, which I also read this year but this was better. Those books had a distasteful flag waving imperialism and longing for a strong upper class that rubs me the wrong way, while this was a glorious translation of a medieval bestiary. The illustrations and legends of the beast were so evocative and inspiring that anything I write may well have a hidden manticore in it. To put a cherry on the top, the last essay by White about the transmission of information in the middle ages was worth framing. In it he made a beautifully impassioned case for respecting the medieval bestiarists for transmitting knowledge against great difficulty.
At number 6
Boswell’s Column, by James Boswell
I am not a big Boswell fan and I didn’t know that for many years he had written an anonymous column for The London Magazine. It’s Boswell without the big sell. He is touching and honest and sweet. Sometimes he over milks his quotations but in general he is wonderful and thoughtful company. The main downside was editor, Margary Bailey who so niggled and pedantified his Latin that I felt she was picking on him.
Time for the Top Five and at number 5 we have…
The Midwife (vols 1-3) by Christopher Smart
Okay I love Smart as visionary poet but I might love him as Mary Midnight more. Mary Midnight is the character he wrote (and sometimes performed) under in the years leading up to his incarceration for madness. Mary is a sarcastic woman who knows more then the men. My favourite part was Mary’s own confidence in her own abilities and her fondness for only one other writer, a certain Mr Smart. Jokes range from politics to fossilised turds and there is a sweep of invention, fun and enjoyment which can’t help but register.
The Trial of Socrates by IF Stone
A very rare trip to Ancient Greece now. I had heard the story of Socrates, martyr for free speech and philosophical thinking. This book gave me a whole different look at the world of Athens and the ways in which Socrates may well have goaded the city into killing him. It was a totally refreshing look at a world alien to me and I would like to go back another day.
The Air-Loom Gang by Mike Jay
Springboard for my new novel and a book that has inadvertently given me more to think about then any other this year. It tells the story of James Tilly Matthews, a man incarcerated in Bedlam for shouting Treason in parliament. He developed a whole delusional other-life of mind control machines, strange gangs and secretive deals with the French revolutionary government…only some of it may be true. If you like your history thought provoking and exciting, this is the book.
At number 2
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (and I forgot to get the name of the translator).
Wow, a nineteenth century book anywhere in the top twenty, have I gone mad? And French at that. What can I say but that I was wandering around Rouen at the time and it seemed like a nice idea to read a famous novel in which it featured. The story is about a little dull, bored lady has affairs to escape boredom - but the characters, they were wonderful. Flaubert’s specific skill as a writer is the telling detail and this book rings with them. Emma is lovely and tragic, her husband oblivious and my favourite character, Homais, was ludicrous, loveable and kind of nasty. I feel I wasn't supposed to find him lovable. This book is utterly not my kind of thing but it engrossed and lingered.
And now, for my top rated book what I read in 2014….
In at number 1
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
I make no secret of my distaste of Victorian stuff but this book was brilliant, involving, atmospheric and sad. I was completely carried along. The way Dickens builds up a scene, situation or character is astonishing. Now, I’ve read a few Dickens and enjoyed them but I was not expecting to enjoy this so much. My favourite element of Dickens is how over the top he goes, so often his description or metaphor goes too far and becomes gawky but the only response seems to be to laugh and go ‘oh Dickens you scallywag’. I’m definitely cracking into another one next year.
So that’s it, a look at the books I read in 2014. This new year should bring some more Dreamonger news (it’s in editorial purgatory at the moment), more 18th century japes, more #Jubilateagno on twitter and maybe a new novel. I hope it brings joy to you all - and to me also.