It's hard to wholeheartedly recommend this book. If, like me, you come to it with fond recollections of Robinson Crusoe, you'll be sorely disappointedIt's hard to wholeheartedly recommend this book. If, like me, you come to it with fond recollections of Robinson Crusoe, you'll be sorely disappointed. There's no semblance of Crusoe's structure or story arc here; the plot can be summarised thus: the Plague came to London.
That's not to say there's nothing of interest in the book. On the contrary, the light it sheds on this most bleak of periods is illuminating. 'Plague Year' is a written as a first-person manuscript; eye witness testimony of a time that was within living memory when the book came out. Its fictional author is not a writer by trade, so accordingly it is episodic and repetitious.
The strongest parts of the narrative are the briefly sketched scenes; distressed people, struggling desperately against their predicament. These are all the more moving since they are very likely based on truth. Defoe was scrupulous in his research, and additionally is thought to have drawn on family reminiscence for his story.
But for all that the repetition makes Plague Year very hard work. The protagonist is unchanged by his experiences, and we are introduced to no one else, save through hearsay or chance encounter. For the rest of it, we have a steady accretion of mortality tables and much — too much — on the Mayor's scheme of locking the afflicted up in their houses: marked with the infamous red crosses of our history books.
Add to that the absence of chapters and you are left with a book which I'd recommend seeking out if the era interests you, but perhaps as a reference piece to be dipped into, rather than read as a novel. ...more
By chance I have lately read two books inspired by the jungles of Burma. In George Orwell's 'Burmese Days', the debt is explicit, but Burma also proviBy chance I have lately read two books inspired by the jungles of Burma. In George Orwell's 'Burmese Days', the debt is explicit, but Burma also provides the imaginative underpinning of Aldiss' torrid dystopia 'Hothouse'.
Imaginative it certainly is. There are more ideas fizzing away in one of these pages than in the sum total of many novels. That's not to say it's totally successful; in many ways I was reminded of JG Ballard's 'Drowned World', a book published in the same year and similarly entranced by the idea of a planet in thrall to the jungle's savage embrace.
In both cases it's the clarity of the writers' vision which makes the books so compelling. They paint these nightmare worlds of viridescence with an intensity which commands attention. That they do this at the expense of narrative convention is a piece of legerdemain they both successfully achieve.
Hothouse is a delirious creation, drunk on invention. It's a world gone mad, where every evolutionary niche has been colonised by the vegetable kingdom. Within this carniverous greenhouse scamper our descendants; small, monkey-like creatures who occupy almost the bottom rung of the food chain. We follow the picaresque and peripatetic meanderings of one such tribe. They encounter wondrous things and many threats. Almost too many in fact; after the umpteenth predator attacks it starts to feel like reading the transcript of a 1930s movie serial.
In the course of their wanderings decisions are made, actions plotted, but little is ever resolved. One gets the feeling that Aldiss, besotted with the Orrery he has built, is content to simply watch it, untroubled by the need to formulate anything like a classical plot. Maybe that is the point though; maybe as mankind devolves, so too do human conceits and logic. Our requirement for a tidy narrative arc is a mammalian need, rendered hopelessly antique by the rampaging plants. Like the rest of the world of blood and bone, our concerns are choked and subsumed by the pitiless, remorseless advance of sap....more
There was an article in The Guardian today about the lamentable gaps in the History syllabus in Britain. A report complained that all our children werThere was an article in The Guardian today about the lamentable gaps in the History syllabus in Britain. A report complained that all our children were learning was a thin diet of 'Hitler and the Henrys', which sounds rather like a punk band to me.
I think they may have a point. History was one of my favourite subjects at school. What I learned in those classes has stayed with me for life, so I'm certain that I haven't simply forgotten large chunks of the curriculum. I'm fairly sure, for instance, that we never covered the Wars of the Roses. Admittedly I never studied History to A-Level standard (my chosen route was art and design), but I can't even recall the most cursory survey of the period.
I've found that this state of affairs has both its advantages and disadvantages. Yes, there are gaps in my historical knowledge which if filled could help enrich my perspective on life, but on the other hand — what enjoyment there is to be had for the enthusiastic autodidact! I can tackle books like Alison Weir's 'Lancaster and York' with a relish unspoilt by exact foreknowledge of the outcome.
And what a tangled web of intrigue, treachery and double dealing the Wars of The Roses were. Weir's excellent book exposes the 'divine right of Kings' for the platitude it always was. Kings it seems — in this country at least — were just as susceptible to the manipulation of powerbrokers and the whims of mob rule as ever democratic governments have been.
It's a labyrinthine struggle, played out across three countries and thirty years. Its principal instigators pursued power irregardless of responsibility, and consummately manipulated public opinion in a way that predates George Orwell's '1984' by 500 years.
At times it can be hard to follow the shifting dynastic allegiances and seemingly limitless supplies of Lords, but this doesn't actually detract from the overarching narrative, and the set-piece battles are clearly elucidated. The book ends in a period of stability. Edward IV sits comfortably on the throne, with two healthy sons waiting to succeed him. As somebody unwisely once said, "what could possibly go wrong?"...more
This is an ambitious single volume romp through 5,000 years of Mediterranean history. I found the first half of the book most entertaining; where we gThis is an ambitious single volume romp through 5,000 years of Mediterranean history. I found the first half of the book most entertaining; where we galloped through pen portraits of great civilisations and leaders, interspersed with engaging anecdotes and titbits of contemporary gossip.
I got bogged down a little in the last quarter of the history, where I rather lost track of the dizzingly complex dynasties and regents jostling for position in the area. That's not to say it's not an interesting read, it's just that the first part of the book is rather easier to digest.
The book ends at the close of WWI, when, as the author notes, of the five empires contesting the middle sea, three were dismembered and one was in its death throes. The Mediterranean now is a very different place, but in a thoughtful conclusion, Norwich wonders whether becoming a mere playground isn't such a bad thing after all; " for isn't it better that waters which once ran with so much blood, should now run instead with a thin film of Ambre Solair?"...more