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 provi...moreBy 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.(less)
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 wer...moreThere 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?"(less)
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 g...moreThis 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?"(less)
A slim but enjoyable ghost story by the author of 'The Woman In Black'. It's not a patch on the earlier book, and is really more of a short story than...moreA slim but enjoyable ghost story by the author of 'The Woman In Black'. It's not a patch on the earlier book, and is really more of a short story than a novella, but it's an atmospheric read which holds the attention, even if it never really succeeds in instilling that sense of unease to which all good ghost stories aspire.(less)
The 1839 British invasion of Afghanistan is a conflict I've read of several times before. As with his earlier book 'The Last Mughal' though, Dalrymple...moreThe 1839 British invasion of Afghanistan is a conflict I've read of several times before. As with his earlier book 'The Last Mughal' though, Dalrymple commands attention on even familiar subjects through both the mastery of his narrative style and the thoroughness of his research.
'The Last Mughal' was distinguished by its use of hitherto unpublished Urdu and Persian court documents. Similarly, for this book, Dalrymple has uncovered first-hand Afghan accounts of the war, bringing a new perspective to bear on a period usually only recounted from British testimonies.
As a cautionary tale it is without parallel, and one doesn't need the author's afterword to see the relevance of these long-past events to what is happening now. An interesting thing that comes out of the postscript however is just what long memories the Afghan peoples have. As Dalrymple says, the figureheads of the 1839 invasion, though long forgotten in Britain, are household names in Afghanistan. They have assumed mythic status; folk devils to scare the children with.
Folk devils could well describe the Victorian attitude to the Afghans themselves, but in this book they come into sharper focus than ever before. Here for the first time we see the shifting allegiances and motivations of a gallimaufry of tribes, and bloodthirsty though the denouement of this sorry affair was, it is hard not to admit that right was on their side.
For lovers of narrative history I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Amongst the popular historians working today that I've read, I'd have no hesitation in ranking Dalrymple in the top tier. His prose is elegant, his viewpoint balanced and his research formidable.(less)
This was thoroughly enjoyable to read, though quite preposterous in its solution. I think that by this point in her career Christie must have been so...moreThis was thoroughly enjoyable to read, though quite preposterous in its solution. I think that by this point in her career Christie must have been so wrapped up in the minutiae of the murder mystery that she'd quite lost the ability to see quite how unrealistic her plots were becoming. Still, you don't come to a Poirot novel for realism, do you? They're almost the literary equivalent of a crossword.(less)
It's a tribute to both the nature and scope of Ballard's imagination that this 1964 collection of stories has scarcely aged at all. The technological...moreIt's a tribute to both the nature and scope of Ballard's imagination that this 1964 collection of stories has scarcely aged at all. The technological barely concerns him, only intruding into his narratives as a part of the fabric of life. Where it is central, as with the capture of embedded sound in 'The Sound Sweep', it's often so bizarre as to be completely original. But what really seems to motivate Ballard is mood. Again and again he returns to the same haunting images, like a vulture circling the carcass of his unconscious. Abandoned cityscapes recur constantly, a recapitulation perhaps of his boyhood experiences of an evacuated Shanghai. It makes for an eerie body of fiction that I find irresistible.
The most notable stories in this collection are 'The Overloaded Man', a frightening study of the nature of perception, and 'The Garden of Time', a tale of decline and fall that is simple and momentous enough to achieve mythic status.(less)
An excellent primer to the 19th century battle which irrevocably changed the balance of power. At under 150 pages including notes this is only the bri...moreAn excellent primer to the 19th century battle which irrevocably changed the balance of power. At under 150 pages including notes this is only the briefest of introductions, and is necessarily light on background, but the salient points are tackled with verve and brio, and as an appetite whetter it can't be faulted.(less)
I've read all of Tom Holland's books to date, but this one has proved the most controversial by far. It recounts the birth of the three great Abrahami...moreI've read all of Tom Holland's books to date, but this one has proved the most controversial by far. It recounts the birth of the three great Abrahamic religions in late-antiquity, but predictably, given the current intellectual climate, it's his musings on the third, Islam, that has attracted the most ire. I read one review in particular, from a distinguished scholar that derided Holland's book in such excoriating terms as to make me take particular notice.
That review struck me at the time as having a more political agenda than its author was prepared to admit, and now, having read Holland's book I feel sure of it. I am no historian, nor yet an Arabic scholar, but one thing I do know: '...Shadow Of The Sword' is far from the sensationalist, Islamophobic tome that Glen Bowersock suggests. On the contrary, all of Holland's assertions seem well researched, fair minded and posed neither dogmatically nor idealistically. In short, Holland comes across as the historian, whereas Bowersock's review reeks of somebody afraid to rock the boat.
Besides all of that 'ITSOTS' is a fascinating history of a little-known (for me anyway) period. Holland's treatment of the religions is never less than respectful. The only point where he parts company with the faithful is in his refusal to accept divine intervention as history. Fair enough, I'd say.(less)
I vividly remember that spring morning in 1982 when my father opened the curtains with the declaration "Wake up boys — we're at war!". The Falklands w...moreI vividly remember that spring morning in 1982 when my father opened the curtains with the declaration "Wake up boys — we're at war!". The Falklands was the first conflict I have any clear memory of. I can remember the crowds cheering the carriers off to sea, I can remember the talk of the awesome power of the new, untried Harrier jump jets, I remember the controversy of the exclusion zone and the infamous 'GOTCHA!' headline of the odious, rabble-rousing Sun newspaper. I can remember the whispered playground tales of the SAS, and the stories of the Argies turning tail when they saw the flash of the Ghurka's Kukri knives — said to demand the appeasement of blood once drawn from the scabbard.
So it was of great interest to me to read an account which separated the apocrypha from the truth. This book was written contemporaneously with the conflict, so it has the urgency of a first-hand report. Surprisingly, there seems to have been little else published about this most curious campaign since.
And curious it certainly was. I remember my Dad telling me at the time that this would in all probability be the last colonial war Britain ever fought, and I fancy he has surely been proved right. This is a very good account of that war. Written entirely, it is true, from the British perspective, but interestingly none the less biased for that. The summation of the diplomatic case is entirely even handed — in fact if anything the authors come down narrowly on the side of the Argentinians. The main point of the book though is that this was a war that could have been so easily avoided; it's as much a tale of the failure of diplomacy as the success of arms. Of a long-running, often bitter argument, over a wind-swept cluster of rocks in the unforgiving south atlantic. The opening lines sum it up very neatly:
"The Falkland Islands' misfortune has always been to be wanted more than they are loved"
As recent events have shown. The conflict resolved nothing. The arguments persist, and the unloved islands remain as wanted as ever.(less)
When the nights draw in I feel a yen for this kind of book. There's an atavistic part of me that revels in the mystery hinted at by the long gloomy ni...moreWhen the nights draw in I feel a yen for this kind of book. There's an atavistic part of me that revels in the mystery hinted at by the long gloomy nights, as if all our learning were nothing but a mantle; slipping from our shoulders as we skulk back to the shadows from whence we came.
Folklore intrigues me. Some of the tropes are explicable; fireside storytellers making sense of the fearful and puzzling world outside. But still other ideas are testament to the wheels of imagination ever turning in the human mind. Fairyland, for instance, where the sands of time beneath the hills run at a hundredth the speed of those above ground. And where the inhabitants are wont to dance on midsummer evenings in a frenzied jig, liable to lure unwary watchers to their doom should they not close their ears.
I find in many of these tales, a glimpse, brief but startling, of the lives of our ancestors: the fear with which they contemplated the unconquered places; the bog, the forest, the hills. And the mistrust reserved for those governed by impulse: the eccentrics who threatened to atomise society through example.
This wonderful book collects twelve such stories together, and all of them rare enough to be worth the reading. Here are fairies, dragons and elves, and also Robin Hood, King Arthur, and that most English of heroes, Jack the Giant Killer.
The illustrations, by Arthur Rackham and his contemporaries are well chosen and used, and the book is beautifully produced on a very heavyweight matte stock. As a designer, the kind of details matter a lot to me, and I'd have no hesitation in recommending this collection as primer of English folklore. (less)
This is a marvelous book. Singh has managed to take an incredibly complex subject and write about it in such a way that anybody can follow it.
My mathe...moreThis is a marvelous book. Singh has managed to take an incredibly complex subject and write about it in such a way that anybody can follow it.
My mathematics is poor, but I love the aesthetics of this intangible, ineffable world, and enjoyed following the travails of great mathematicians in the way one might stand attentively on deck, watching a captain steering a mighty ship through ice floes. (less)