A few of my favourite things.
It’s been a while since I did one of these (see May’s here) for more on why there has been such a delay see the most recent life update (here). But I did read a decent amount in June. Eight books to be precise:
1. 1968 by Joe Haldemann, who clearly had a rubbish time in the 60s.
This novel was something of a surprise. Haldemann, who is better known for The Forever War, seemed at first to be writing a Vietnam novel, with all the grimness, madness and corrupted youth that goes with that. But just a little way into the book Spider, the GI protagonist of the book ends up being sectioned back home after a really, really bad day in the jungle and the book turns into a State of the Nation novel for the USA in what turned out to be a really, really bad year for the USA.
The grimness, madness and corruption of youth continues stateside for the rest of the novel as Spider finds himself dealing with the barbarities of the psychiatry industry of the late 60s (an interesting UK comparison might be Will Self’s Umbrella and Shark). The story deals with PTSD, homophobia, homelessness and the mad political happenings of the year that MLK and RFK were shot and the Nixon-Agnew White House was inaugurated.
Which is all pretty fun and interesting. The main problem with the novel is the prose, which is plodding, and its failure to make more of the ideas with which it is playing. There was a really great novel in the shadows behind this book, and I wished I was reading that instead.
Overall, I think I would tentatively recommend to those who like that sort of thing.
2. The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa, who writes well about board games and abortions.
This novel, by a Sino-French author about the Sino-Japanese war, was an interesting one. The chapters are narrated alternately by a young Chinese girl as she discovers love, sex, death and politics; and a Japanese soldier as he the marches south towards Nanking discovering love, sex, death and politics. Eventually the two threads combine as the two characters meet in a public square and play a game of go.
The book is primarily about ‘growing up’ with an emphasis on loss of innocence. Both the plots contain stories of sexual awakening that lead to brutally unhappy conclusions, and both feature the characters learning about violence in ways that are linked to becoming and adult.
The book is very dense, at just over 200 pages it crams a lot of action and ideas into that narrow space. That is achieved by beautiful and extremely elegant prose, in which very short passages are often made to carry a huge amount of impact or information.
I would highly recommend.
3. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, who may or may not love Jesus and/or the Devil and/or neither.
This was an odd read and a super fun, if somewhat slapdashedly structured book. Master & Margarita tells the story of various members of Moscow’s literary and theatrical scene who run into the pranks and violence of the Devil and his entourage (including the unforgettable Behemoth a vodka drinking, chess playing, gigantic black cat) during their weekend jolly to Moscow.
The first half is an episodic mess as various characters fall foul of the pranks with often funny, sometimes horrifying results. While in the second half the titular characters are introduced and all those random happenings begin to pull together into a satisfying if slightly enigmatic end.
Occasionally cropping up within the novel is another novel about Pilate on the weekend of the crucifixion of Jesus and in which the events in Jerusalem have interesting parallels with happenings in the Moscow story.
I would highly recommend it. Both as an entertainment, full of weird – and occasionally quite dark – comedy; but also as a serious work of Literature.
4. The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare, who was the original bromancer.
The plot is roughly this: two besties fall in love with the same lass, shenanigans ensue.
There is some great poetry in it, especially about male friendships, but overall the play is far from being the best of Shakespeare’s work. The end is rather poorly telegraphed for example, and the character’s are not terribly rounded or interesting, it may be that it plays better on the stage, but I was not super convinced by it.
Don’t think I would recommend especially.
5. All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare, who seems to feel marrying a total arse makes for a happy ending, just because you fancy him.
A pretty solid and hugely underrated play with plenty of the slick wordplay and dialogue you get in things like the Merry Wives of Windsor and is at its very best in Much Ado About Nothing.
The sexual politics of the piece are a little concerning, the plot involves a woman who heals the King and in return has the King force the man she loves to marry her. He is so horrified by her low birth he goes off to war to avoid having sex with her saying he’ll never be her husband till she lays him. A couple of bed tricks later, he finds out that he accidentally had sex with her and grudgingly starts to act like a husband.
The plot works interestingly as a Rube-Goldberg machine, but is hard to take seriously as a human story. Still, a moderate recommend from me.
6. King Henry VIII by William Shakespeare, who Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Eurgh. So dull. So, so dull.
A few good speeches and no real plot get us from wife #1 to wife #2 (Fun note for trivia pedants: Henry VIII, despite the schoolroom rhyme never divorced anyone. The rhyme should go: Annulled, beheaded, died, annulled, beheaded, survived). At the end of the play Elizabeth I is born and the play ends.
Would not recommend.
7. The Memory of War and Children in Exile by James Fenton, who literally rode a North Vietnamese tank through Saigon.
A collection of poetry made up of poems from Fenton’s time in Vietnam and Cambodia, some from after his return to England. Some of the poems are very funny, others more complex and formal. All of them are pretty good and some are excellent.
Would recommend to poetical people.
8. King Harald’s Saga by Snorri Sturluson, who clearly fancies Norwegians and thinks the Danes smell weird.
King Harald’s Saga is taken from Heimskringla a huge history of Norway by the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson. It tells the story of Harald Hardradr, who every English school child knows as a footnote to the story of 1066.
In fact King Harald lived an interesting life before Stamford Bridge, something of a trickster and prone to violence he travelled Europe and fought as head of the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangian guard before coming home to Norway to fight the Danes and invading England to fight the English.
The story climaxes with an interesting description of Stamford Bridge as it were the climax of the story and which contains the immortal line from Harold II who, when asked what he would give Harald in return for a peace settlement, responded with: ‘Seven feet of English soil.’
Overall I would recommend, especially to anyone interested in Medieval European history. So basically everyone.