Wednesday 30 December 2020

Countdown of 2020s top ten books (10-6)

 It’s been a tough year, yadda yadda, we all know and are frankly fed up with being told. One of the benefits of lockdown and general limiting of entertainment is that there was lots of time to read. On the down side, I found it harder to concentrate than usual.

Despite that, I got through a great many books this year, most of them were very good and some moved me a great deal. If you want to check if you’ve read any of the things I did, click here.

Also, books were something of a comfort buy - I have a list of shame of books I acquired this year also, to see what I shouldn’t have got, click here.

Special mention should go to Savage Girls and Wild Boys by Michael Newton and Genie: A Scientific Tragedy by Russ Rymer which were both wonderful books but too sad to be a favourite exactly. Another special mention to The Tennant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bront├ź, which would have been much higher up this list hadn’t all the Christmas tiers not been announced when I was halfway through, taking my attention away.

Finally, before I go on to the books that placed 10-6, to The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, the worst book of this year and one of the worst books I’ve ever read.

10) Impostures by Al Hariri and Michael Cooperson

In a year full of peculiar and ingenious books, this is one the most peculiar and ingenious. I was so intrigued I pre-ordered it, sight un-seen and I was not disappointed. 

I wrote in full about it here, but in short, this is a collection of 10th century Arabic stories, which all follow a similar pattern. The narrator sees someone using an impressive display of language to manipulate other people, he recognises that person from previous encounters, the two go their separate directions. The aim of the book is to showcase the flexibility and joy of language, an aim which has proved an almost impossible one to translate.

The solution Cooperson chooses is a very clever one. He decides the aspect of English to celebrate is its range and so each one of these fifty stories are told in a different style, whether geographical, historical or class. There’s a lot of effort put into making each style as accurate as possible, using only words found in one author’s body of work or hiring native speakers of different dialects to double-check authenticity.

What raises this book even higher, are the little essays at the end of each story where the translator provides details about the story he’s translating, the style he’s translating it into and the decisions he’s made. This transparency about the translation process, and this way of involving the reader in the decisions he made along the way, really engage the reader in the process as a whole as well as this book in particular.

9) Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer

Wolkstein brings the skills of storyteller and poet, Kramer his lifelong research on the Sumerian period and culture and together, the two produce a book unlike any other I have ever read. The basic texts are religious in nature, there are parts of the Bible (especially Psalms and Song of Songs) that have their influence in these texts. However, the Bible never sounded quite like this.

The first section has Enki, the God of Wisdom battling the forces of the Underworld and Ereshkigal while a young woman called Inanna finds the Huluppu tree, brings it to her sacred garden in Uruk and longs to make a great throne and bed. She’s hampered by evil creatures colonising the tree but is later helped by Gilgamesh who uses his big chopper to cut the tree down and make the throne and bed. - It’s an odd beginning, our Goddess is at one of her weakest positions but she knows what she wants, power and sex.

The second is my favourite. Now established in Uruk, Inanna takes her miraculous boat of heaven to Enki, the God of Wisdom’s abode of Enlil. There she gets him drunk on beer (both bread and beer being considered feminine in Sumerian culture) and tricks him into offering her 79 Mes, and it’s this concept I love. A Me is an important cultural lesson, represented by an object and having the Me is essentially to become the God of the skill. The ones Inanna steals include priesthood, kingship and beer, but also coloured cloth and black cloth. When Enki sobers up, he realises what he does and sets monsters on Inanna, but her servant Ninshibur beats them up as she steers them safe into port. The notion of Me are fascinating but there’s something I find extremely enticing about a Goddess that simply takes the building blocks of civilisation, like a brazen female Prometheus.

The next section deals with Inanna thinking of her wondrous vulva. Initially she thinks the farmer will satisfy her but realises that actually it is Dumuzi the Shepherd King who can ‘plow my vulva’, ‘fill my lap with cream’ and ‘be my honey man’. Following the initial sensuality, he is made King through his relationship with Inanna (the same relationship Gilgamesh rejects in the Epic of Gilgamesh) and has sort of moved beyond Inanna in some way.

Inanna, being a little superfluous, decides to have a trip to her sister, Ereshkigal’s abode in the Underworld. She dresses in her nine finest and most symbolic bits of bling which she strips to get in. Once there she is killed and hung on hooks like a dead animal. Luckily, she has a backup, comes back to life and rises from the underworld. She can’t be stopped - she’s Inanna, bitch - but neither can she stop the demons from following her. She decides to set them on Dumuzi, because he’s been undervaluing her recently.  The next section is Dumuzi trying to avoid the demons and failing and the next is Inanna actually feeling pretty bad about her actions and making a deal that he’ll spend half the year in the Underworld and those shall be the infertile months, essentially he becomes the Sumerian Persephone.

The next section is a bunch of hymns saying how great Inanna is and the pack half puts it all into context and discusses what we’ve read. 

The poetry in this book isn’t always as exciting as it could be, the repetition begins to grate, there aren’t big spaces of blank page to emphasise loss or loneliness, but this was all redeemed by the way the stories build on Inanna’s character, make her terrifying and endearing, a figure of power but also a trickster on the human’s side.

Forget all these Wispy Wiccans, we need some Inanna worshippers in full, lusty, fresh-limbed wonder.

8) The Journey to the Mayflower by Stephen Tomkins

I borrowed this book from my Dad because I thought the topic of non-conformist churches and the lead up to the Mayflower voyage sounded fairly interesting, I read it because I wanted to clear my desk of borrowed books, I did not expect it to be a well told, action-packed rollercoaster. A book on church history thrilled me.

The tone is set by the first paragraph which introduces a Bishop being called to pay a fine “but everyone knew the truth: the Queen wanted him burned alive.” There then follows a description of Bishop Hooper’s imprisonment, torture and the an absolutely graphic extract from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs depicting his botched execution. (On a side-note, why isn’t there a proper edition of that book available?)

We move on to an explanation behind the Marian burnings of protestants as more than mad zeal. That religion, to a Tudor mind, was more than just a part of society, it was society itself and that it had to include everyone whether they wanted or not. It also shocked me by reminding me that Britain had been Catholic for over a thousand years and that protestantism was the foreign invader from Germany - a notion so obvious but so obliterated by growing up in a nominally protestant UK, that I was surprised.

The first few chapters of this book could be as easily in the action genre as the history, there are people escaping down the Thames and using their shoes as paddles. There was a man called John Bolton who was locked in prison with ‘a marvellous evil smell’ and where his captors sometimes threw in fireworks.There was also dreams and visions, one man called Symson who dreamt of a glowing man saying ‘ha’ at him ‘which he apparently found a great comfort’.

Come the reign of Elizabeth I and things should have improved for the protestants. However, they had been radicalised and greatly engaged by the experience of persecution and expected more reform from her than they got. The Act of Uniformity, which instituted a very mild form of protestantism, was expected to be a temporary measure. This is either because Elizabeth was expected to marry and power go to her husband, or because she wasn’t expected to rule without being deposed for very long. As it was, she ruled for over forty years and what was expected to be a placeholder reform, became the basis of the Church of England as it is now.

Those who had suffered under Mary’s persecution wanted a far more rigorous form of protestantism, and they wanted it to be enforced on the country. “As much as they accepted being tolerated for now, tolerance is not what they wanted.” The first fight was about vestments. These ‘Popish’ robes needed to go as they were un-Biblical, there were struggles between clergy who didn’t wear them and the authorities who required them.

Eventually, some of those who thought the CoE didn’t go far enough set up their own private congregations. I have to say I felt very sorry for Grindal, the Bishop of London, whose sympathies were with those who thought the church needed more vigour but was forced by his position to oppress those who refused to agree with the state church. 

We are introduced to Cartwright, a Cambridge professor so engaging, they took the glass out of the windows when he was lecturing so more people outside could hear. He argued that people shouldn’t separate from the Church of England but that it needed reforming, especially the functions of Bishops, which aren’t mentioned in the Bible. setting up a presbytery instead. 

We are also introduced to Browne, who argued that people couldn’t automatically belong to a church, but voluntarily signed up to a covenant and have the congregation rule itself as a body of believers, separate from the state. Many later separatists were known as Browneists. We also get the interesting titbit that Browne was from Rutland and his grandfather had been given a special dispensation to wear a hat in the presence of Henry VIII, though wasn’t told why. Browne later also tried to convince people to set up Stamford as a rival to Oxford, which never happened.. poor Stamford, always the bridesmaid. Browne as a whole seems impossible to work with, seeing himself as too holy to compromise with anyone else, this will prove an issue with subsequent churches.

It’s at this point the book becomes filled with so many different independent church leaders and congregations that the book is hard to summarise. Needless to say, it is all very well explained and coherent in the book.

Particular favourites included William Hackett, a man who bit off and ate up a schoolmaster’s nose in a fight, claimed he’d wrestled lions and won, said a Catholic set a witch on him, planned to overthrow everyone and become the King of Europe, and believed he was Christ - only to be arrested in Billingsgate, hanged, drawn and quartered. 

I also enjoyed Martin Marprelate who jokingly wrote to ‘his Canterburiness’ and summarised a particularly turgid tome as light enough to transport ‘if you have a strong horse’. Martin Marprelated was of course refuted by Mar-Martin, who was in turn refuted by Mar-Mar-Martin.

There was also a man called Barrow who managed to write an enormous body of work illegally whilst in prison, including a who full-length book written in the margins of, and responding to, another book.

Oh.. and references to the Church of England’s torturers, now known as a praise band.

To escape increasing persecution, some separatists moved to Holland. The trouble is, separatists got to separate and from one church (which called itself the Ancient Church because it was twenty years old) there became five or six. On church became the Baptists, who split into four, one of which consisted of one member and another of which tried to join a group of Dutch anabaptists but weren’t let in. 

In the end, it was the most welcoming of the churches, led by a man called Robinson, who decided to sailed on the Mayflower (thought Robinson didn’t go as he was too old to make the voyage). Unlike the myth I’ve heard from US media, it wasn’t that they were escaping persecution, as they weren’t being persecuted in Holland, indeed the Robinson congregation was growing in respect in Leyden. It was more the Biblical pull to create a promised land - and they royally screwed it up most steps along the way.

There was much wrangling to be allowed to go in the first place, almost destroyed by a man called William Brewster, who published anti-monarchist books in his small Dutch press. (Incidentally, he boarded the Mayflower with his wife and two of his sons called Love and Wrestling, I love Puritan names). Then they spent loads of money for two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. The Speedwell was in such bad condition it almost sank, they had to return to London to fix it, then it almost sank again so they ditched it. The book ends with a group of people with no knowledge on how to run a colony getting lost and finding themselves on Plymouth Rock… the rest is history.

I really enjoyed The Journey to the Mayflower, it was exciting, funny, surprising and delighted me far more than a book about a bunch of argumentative God-botherers ought to.

7) Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row has a wonderfully bucolic, nostalgic tone, which is odd because it reaches its second suicide by page eighteen, and that one with an icepick. Early on, the reader gets to see a metaphor of the book while looking into a rock pool. It’s a lush description of the creatures living their lives ‘tranquil and lovely and murderous’. 

It’s the solid shard of ice imbedded in the story, found in the suicides, the floating body, the casual references to spousal abuse and rape, that ensure that the book doesn’t become just a nostalgic look at character-filled poverty. Without that, it’d be like a chocolate box cover with picturesque poor people and their quirky lives. The book has the power to shock as much as it has the power to charm.

It is, however, a very charming book and, oddly, reminds me of nothing more than Cranford. Like that book, it appears to be a collection of short stories about a colourful cast of characters in a small location which becomes a celebration of the quiet heroic qualities of human niceness. In Cranford it’s Miss Matty but in Cannery Row, it’s Doc. 

Doc runs a marine biology lab, where he preserves sea creatures he has captured and sends them to university, school and industry laboratories. He invites young women over and plays them records of Benedictine monk chanting, he nightly visits Lee Chong’s shop to buy beer and he’s the a source of kindness and wisdom to everyone on the street. A group of very casual workers, live in an old warehouse just the road led by a man called Mack. The broad plot of the book is about Mack and the boy’s attempts to throw a successful party for Doc.

There are some wonderful sequences; the guys catching frogs, the woman who invites cats for a tea party, the couple living in a boiler who rent out pipes to people, the tour to catch octopuses where Doc eats brie with pineapple pies and a beer milkshake. There are also some wonderful sentences; like the one about the man going to a reform school where he was supposed to be taught violence but didn’t listen or the kid who couldn’t measure crayfish because ‘size relations just didn’t get through to him’. As someone with issues with size relations myself, I knew how the kid felt. 

I really loved this book and really enjoyed spending time with the characters, yet I felt the book was telling me something, by dappling the violence in with the charm, about the texture of life.

6) Charlotte by Katherine Shevelow 

Another book I’ve talked about before. I really regret not having read this sooner because Charlotte Charke’s life was a fascinating one, full of elements I really enjoy. Any story that involves cross-dressing, theatrical shenanigans and a resourceful, cheerful and independent main character, is likely to draw me in.

Written with the verve of a novel but all the notes and bibliography to make it trustworthy, I thoroughly recommend it.

Next week we'll count down to one.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Video: But What About.. Pamela?


I tend to make these videos come Christmastime, I think it's the multiple A Christmas Carols that does it. This is the first one I've ever made without a cold - ironically there is sickness everywhere, it's got the country in a grip and I don't have a cold for once. 

Have a as good a Christmas as you can, and I hope for a better new year.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Casanova by Ian Kelly at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

 Ian Kelly came to the Dr Johnson House to meet the Reading Circle in December 2018 for a conversation about his book Mr Foote’s Other Leg. It being 2020, he needed to join us online this time to talk about Casanova.

We started with a question from Ian: having finished the book, what did we make of Casanova himself? Some were surprised at how much more there was to him than his reputation suggested; others felt disappointed that he lived his life in a permanent state of adolescence and that it was almost a shame had had to live so after his glory days. Some thought he was a vile parasite; others that he was a creature of his time. Almost certainly a good dinner guest. All of these reactions can easily be justified by the text and by a life so dense with event that it boggles the mind.

Casanova wrote about own life, of course, in the twelve volume Histoire de ma vie, started on recommendations of his doctor to combat his melancholy. This ‘Dance to the Music of Time meets l’Encyclop├ędie,’ as Kelly described it, was written for itself rather than for publication and is a relentless accumulation of people, places, schemes and adventures. The impressiveness of Ian Kelly’s biography is that it manages to wrestle this unwieldy beast together with historical commentary and context into a fast-paced and absorbing 400 pages.

The book is structured into five acts, with an intermezzo between each. It’s in these intermezzi that we meet Casanova the food writer, his sensuality (and memory) for food matching the energy he puts into other bodily reminiscences. Oysters in the eighteenth century were a cheap street food (remember Johnson buying them for his cat Hodge?). It may be thanks to Casanova that they became known as potent aphrodisiacs. We also learnt that people in Venice often had their pasta with sugar and cinnamon, that it was possible to get macaroni in St Petersburg, and that it was important to travel with a stove. Another intermezzo deals with Casanova the traveller, who as well as a stove, took with him coffee, Italian herbs and a pot to piss in. The memoirs mention twenty different types of vehicle and the various irritations and intimacies possible in each. There’s another intermezzo about the Cabbala in which Casanova had a great interest. But Kelly said he’d mainly included this section at the insistence of his publisher, Madonna being into Cabbala at the time. This section, he mentioned modestly, can be skipped.

An unskippable intermezzo is the one about sex, a subject that can’t be ignored in any work about Casanova. While not exactly chaste, Casanova is relatively restrained considering his name is now synonymous with libertinism. The memoirs catalogue 120 different sexual partners, far fewer, Ian pointed out than Byron’s sexual encounters in his two years in Venice. One of the differences between Casanova’s handling in the subject is that he was nakedly honest, and frequently honestly naked. He shares the distinction of being one of few writers of the period to mention premature ejaculation and erectile disfunction. He also has to be one of the few writers to have ever talked about a faked male ejaculation. In part, his reputation for sex is derived from the way his memoirs leaked out into the world, as abridged selections on the most erotic passages for private consumption at a time where his other adventures and achievements had been forgotten.

But what of the five Acts of the biography? We have Casanova as the son of an actress in an intrinsically theatrical city, learning which masks to wear when. We see him gain confidence, lose innocence, win friends and lovers and get arrested by the Venetian Inquisition, far more invested in enforcing class- than religious orthodoxy. Then we have Casanova go to France, become one of the drivers behind the French lottery, as well as in-house wizard to a wealthy French widow. He takes up spying duties and when things wobble in France, goes to London, Brunswick, St Petersburg, Lisbon - each time making new friends, involving himself in elaborate love affairs and trying to set up further lotteries. When he was allowed to return to Venice, it finally looked like he was settling down. But his sharp pen had him needing to run away and his breathless life of travel restarted, until he found himself in old age, trapped in the weary town of Dux as librarian. Here he wrote a number of works, including his memoirs and a sci-fi novel and here it was he died aged 73 in 1798.

Casanova met many people over the course of his roving life. His memoirs offer pen-portraits of Catherine the Great and Voltaire. But did he really meet Dr Johnson in London, the Reading Circle wanted to know? It’s possible: Casanova briefly notes meeting him near St Paul’s Cathedral and talking about the word ‘committee’. But there’s no reference to this in the Life of Johnson. And in his private journals, Boswell only once notes meeting Casanova. It was 1764, the year after he’d met Johnson, and Boswell is distinctly dismissive of the man whose name he renders in German: ‘I dined at Rufin's, where Nehaus, an Italian, wanted to shine as a great philosopher, and accordingly doubted of his existence and of everything else. I thought him a blockhead.’

Having read Boswell’s London Journey together we could see some definite links between Boswell and Casanova, from their accumulation of famous encounters (both, for example, met Voltaire) to their notorious sexual appetites. Boswell, however, usually felt ashamed of his sexual encounters, whereas Casanova implies most of his were delightfully pleasant affairs: he remained good friends with many former lovers. It’s also interesting that one of the men would obtain literary immortality with a book about himself, while the other found it with a book about a friend.

We talked long after our allotted time. We were intrigued to hear that 12% of the population of Casanova’s Venice were courtesans and the possibility that Casanova touched up Da Ponte’s libretto of Don Giovanni.  Finally, we wanted to know whether Ian Kelly felt he had done with his subject when the book has ended: well, Casanova certainly hadn’t done with him. An exhibition about him was inspired directly by the book, although it needed modification in America in the light of Me Too: the original title Casanova: The Seduction of Europe had to be changed to Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure and Power in the 18th Century. Some of Ian’s revelations inadvertently led to shocked Italian headlines. And beyond this, he even found himself persuaded to write a scenario for Northern Ballet’s 2017 Casanova

Both the evening and the book were very enjoyable, crammed full of ideas and a fair bit of laughter. A comment by a book festival attendee could have applied to us: we were all ‘titivated’.

Wednesday 9 December 2020

Under the Glass: The March of the Guards to Finchley

 On the 4th December 1745, the Jacobite Army reached the city of Derby, as far south as it would reach. Armies. London fielded its finest soldiers, ready to defend it from the foe, mustering in the nearby village of Finchley.

Five years later, Hogarth took the opportunity to create an artwork of this moment, filling it with character and movement, planning it as a gift for King George II. He famously declared that he “hated poetry, and painting too,” and spurned the gift for its burlesque nature. Insulted, Hogarth reassigned it to Frederick, the King of Prussia who liked the painting more than George had but also declined to keep the painting. In the end, Hogarth decided to use the painting as a prize in a raffle for the Foundling Hospital, of which he was an ardent supporter. However, even this raffle wasn’t the success Hogarth had hoped for and he petulantly gave most of the tickets to the Hospital who duly won it and keep it to this day.

The painting us famously full of event and detail, from Mother Douglas’s brothel, transposed to the Tottenham Court road, the many dolled up women waving to their leaving sweethearts. If Jeoffry: the Poet’s Cat is correct, then even the young Jeoffry is cavorting on the top of the building. Drunken soldiers weave, hat’s askew, some fallen on the ground having more gin poured down their throats. Other soldiers one last grope, wearily leave behind the pregnant women and women with babies fighting over them. Possibly the only sober soldier is a young fife player, adding to the tumult.

..Yet, there may be more to this famously full picture.

Jeremy Bell, a freemason and historian of freemasons is also a keen Hogarth fan and has put his interests together in the form of a number of books. My favourite titled has to be The Fine Art of Dickpics and Selfies, yet the one that concerns us most is William Hogarth – A Freemasons Harlot. Here he uses his knowledge of free-masonary, ten years research and a very keen eye to find even more in Hogarth’s paintings than have been seen before.

He has found, within the painting, pictures of both Charles James Stuart, The Young Pretender, and Cumberland, now passed down into history as the butcher of Culloden. A young man is seeing off his pregnant wife while being attacked by a woman in almost nun-like robes and, in the print made of this picture, a pro-Jacobite newspaper. Through a trick of perspective, it seems like the newspaper impales a burly man in the back. This man, particularly in the print version, looks a lot like the equally burly Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, George II’s youngest son who led the Hanoverian troops against the Jacobites.

But, even the Bonnie Prince may be found in this painting. After the battle, he famously escaped to Skye disguised as a maid and his slight, wispy figure may have helped him in this ruse (though he showed too much of his legs under his dress). This figure, standing ‘straight as a lance’ as the Prince was known to do, stares north towards the Jacobite army. Also in that direction is an oak tree - the oak being a symbol of the Stuart house after the future King Charles II famously his up one. The oak is bare, to show the ultimate failure of his venture. He also stands among a set of people stealing from each other, as he planned to ‘steal’ the British Throne. Incidentally, this is a big year for him, the 31st of December will be his 300th birthday.

Although King George II turned down the painting, largely for its burlesqueries on the English army, it may be that the hidden message is more supportive of the Hanoverian cause than it first appears.

If such speculation, intrigue and plain, good, fun interest you, it may be worth checking out the website and seeing what other fascinating things may be found in your favourite Hogarth pictures.

Wednesday 2 December 2020

Review: On Murder as Considered one of the Fine Arts by Thomas de Quincey

 I first read De Quincey in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, finding him the quintessence of every drug bore I’ve ever met and was happily prepared to spend no more time with him. However, I had been very intrigued by this essay, it having been mentioned in a documentary about murder literature and featuring very prominently in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Finding a copy of it for free in a book-swap and needing to stand in a very long breadline with nothing else to read, I started this.

At first, I was glad I did. I very much enjoyed the introduction to this ‘lecture’ about the aesthetics of murder. I liked the image of Samuel Taylor Coleridge setting out to ‘enjoy’ a good fire and the gags about his weight. I was also charmed by the idea of the doctor who can declare ulcers ‘beautiful’ but still makes war against them ‘without suffering himself to be seduced by their charms’.

Then the lecture itself starts. The idea is solid, that there could be a dispassionate way to view and rate murder and so id the humourous potential of people who saw it such being tempted to create their own ‘art’ but it doesn’t much land. He doesn’t particularly lean into the two interesting ideas in the essay. He sounds like a cut price Montaigne, lots of anecdotal classical detail to illustrate a point that has rather got lost somewhere.

The run about philosophers nearly getting killed was almost funny, but having a BA in philosophy, I thought it sad that the philosophers weren’t quite dead enough.

Oh, and I liked the gag about cat murder.