Friday 29 May 1998

Doris Mary Stenton: Engish Society in the Early Middle Ages (1066-1307) (1951)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 56

This book forms part of the excellent, though now rather outdated, Pelican History of England, and it shows both the merits of the series as a whole and the limitations of its approach. Each period possesses its own difficulties for historiographers; in the Middle Ages these are the paucity and one-sided nature of sources, and the alienness of the medieval mindset to modern Western Europeans. The statistical sources so important to the work of historians like Braudel are completely missing; it is thus difficult to check on economic and even on political statements in the sources which do exist. The clerical monopoly on literary endeavour also leads to bias, though I doubt that this is so much a problem as is somethimes thought - the number of clerics was sufficiently large to prevent them all being of one mind on issues such as the character of the king.

Stenton's book is intended for a popular readership, to such an extent that she was not allowed to include footnotes in early editions. This and the limitations of length, and her understanding of the period prevent the above from becoming too great a problem. Her concentration on social history - this is the only book in the series to have the word "Society" in its title - means that she can avoid the snap judgements on prominent figures common in such works and parodied by Sellars and Yeatman in 1066 and All That ("King John was a bad king.") It does mean that the paucity of resources becomes a problem; what can be said, for example, about changes in land ownership when one register was used as an authority on ownership throughout the period (the Domesday Book). The many excellencies in her treatment of the issues, particularly the growth of the state, are complemented by an attempt to understand the people from every walk of life from nobles to peasants. I look forward to re-reading the other books in the series.

Thursday 28 May 1998

Orson Scott Card: Earthfall (1995)

Edition: Tor, 1995
Earthfall coverReview number: 55

This is the fourth and final volume of Card's Homecoming series. The story of the series is that of one of earth's colonies, which has a satellite put up by the original, pacifist, colonisers to monitor the community and ensure that no technology capable of mass destruction is developed. It has the ability to influence the minds of the people on the world below it to ensure this happens. After forty million years, the satellite is beginning to wear out, and it gathers together a party to return to Earth.

Earthfall describes the trip to earth, with continuing hostility between Nafai and his elder brother Elemak. This has already reached a murderous pitch in the earlier books, and now the main issue is whether or not the enmity between them is to be continued into the next generation.

When they arrive on Earth, they discover that humans have died out; the dominant races are evolved bats ("angels") and rats ("diggers"), who live in perpetual a state of perpetual war. The small human community attempts to bring peace to the world, but these attempts are undermined by the continuing tension between themselves.

You need to read the other books in this series to have any hope of understanding this one. I felt that, like Card's Alvin Maker series, it started off strongly and rather tailed off at the end. This is partly because Earth and its colony form wildly different environments, and the portrayal of the future Earth is less well thought out than that of Basilica.

Tuesday 26 May 1998

Henry James: The Aspern Papers / The Turn of the Screw (1898)

Edition: Penguin, 1984
Review number: 53, 54 (combined)

The Aspern Papers is a story of a scholarly obsession. The narrator is an expert on the (imaginary) American poet, Jeffrey Aspern. He and a friend are working on a biography of Aspern, when they discover that his lover, the inspiration for some of his most famous poems, is not dead as they expected but living as a reclusive old lady in Venice with her niece.

Believing her to have some papers which might make his name academically, and the direct approach to the old lady to ask for them having failed, the narrator makes his way to Venice determined to trick the Misses Bordereau (as they are known) into giving them up. He takes a room in their palazzo under an assumed name, paying an extortionate rent to do so.

The story is really about obsession, and its dehumanising effects; the narrator is prepared to do just about anything to get his hands on the papers - and he doesn't know what is in them, so they could be completely meaningless - up to the point of making love to the neice and attempting to steal the papers by rifling through the old lady's furniture while she lies on her deathbed.

The Turn of the Screw is one of the most famous ghost stories ever written, and is a psychological horror story to rival any written since. Like many ghost stories, it begins at a houseparty where people are telling stories; the first person narrator of this part tells his friends that he needs to obtain the journal that he received from the woman whose story it is, and forces them all to wait for several days while this is sent for.

The story then, consists of that journal; it must be remembered when reading this, and even more so when reading some of the theories people have had about this short novel, that a first person narrative is liable to distortion. The Turn of the Screw is, like The Aspern Papers, a study in obsession.

The narrator is hired as a governess by a strange man she immediately falls in love with. She is to go to his country house and there take on the education of two small children, his brother's children. One, Flora, will be permanently under her care; the other, Miles, will be for her to look after during his vacation from school. But there is a mysterious condition, not explained anywhere by James, that she must under no circumstances bother her employer with reports about the children.

On arriving, she discovers that Miles has now been expelled from his school for some awful crime which is unnamed in the letter sent by the headmaster. The governess' immediate response is to disbelieve that such an angelic child can possibly have done anything wicked whatsoever.

This feeling starts to change when she begins to see two important figures from the children's past, two figures emanating evil: Miss Jessel, Flora's previous governess, and Peter Quint, servant and Miss Jessel's lover. These are the people who have corrupted the angelic children, and these are the presences who are continuing to corrupt the children.

The book develops with a struggle for "possession" of the children between the living and the dead, which ends with Miles being freed from the influence of Quint only to die himself.

The reason this novel is so disturbing is because of the apparent innocence of the children. The struggle is for control over (or even, possession of) the children, so it is not surprising that many modern readers see suggestions of paedophilia in the story. I'm not sure how much James meant this to be read into this story; it is more than effective without the idea.

Friday 22 May 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Overture to Death (1939)

Edition: Fontana, 1972
Review number: 52

This novel could be cited as among the most typical crime fiction novels of all time. The murder takes place in a small village at an amateur theatrical production; everybody in the cast of the play can be suspected; the characters consist of the squire and his son, the rector and his daughter (involved in a romance with the squire's son which is opposed by their fathers), two elderly spinsters in jealous rivalry for the affections of the rector, the village doctor and his mistress.

The murder itself is contrived through an ingenious booby-trap, originally set up by a small boy to fire a water pistol through the cloth front of a piano onto the player when the "soft pedal" is pressed; the murderer replaced the water pistol with a gun. As the pianist was changed at the last minute, the question to be answered by Alleyn is whether the attack was meant for the original or replacement pianist.

Overture to Death is certainly very competently done, but it feels in the end as though something is lacking: the elements are so much part of the genre that it cannot stand out as particularly original (even considering that it was written over fifty years ago). But these criticisms don't stop the book being an enjoyable read; after all, originality is not altogether the prime concern for genre addicts.

Wednesday 20 May 1998

John A. Sloboda: The Musical Mind (1985)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1986
Review number: 51

This is a really excellent book for anyone interested in how the mind perceives and understands music. As the author points out, most of the literature in this area is either written by psychologists who are not musicians, or by musicians with no background in psychology. John Sloboda is unusual in being both a musician and a psychologist, teaching the piano as well as being a professor of psychology. The fact that he is involved in both fields means that he avoids the trap of missing the parts of the musical experience which are important to the musician that the psychologists often fall into - particularly when they are devising experiments. He can also avoid the complementary trap of devising explanations of musical phenomena which are psychologically discredited which musicians often fall into.

The book covers current research in just about every area you could imagine, from musical education to composing and improvising to pitch, rhythm and musical structure perception and understanding. Sloboda also suggests areas where more research is needed.

This is a thought provoking book, and one to which I am sure I will return again and again.

Tuesday 19 May 1998

Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night (1935)

Edition: New English Library, 1975
This is one of my favourite novels, partly because I have a soft spot for the Peter Wimsey series, and partly because it is set in Oxford. It reads as though Dorothy Sayers was finally really indulging herself - she resolves the long-running romantic tension between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter, and she clearly also had very fond memories of her own time in Oxford. The plot may be self indulgent, but the writing is as good as ever; this is probably going to be the favourite among most Peter Wimsey fans.

The plot isn't actually a murder mystery, but is concerned with an investigation into a poison pen letter writer and player of nasty practical jokes in Harriet Vane's old college. The seriousness of these attacks are shown by an attempted suicide by one of the students.
It is not until Peter returns from abroad that progress can be made in solving the mystery - naturally, since he's the Sherlock Holmes to Harriet Vane's Watson; but the mystery is not so important as the relationship between the two of them and the background of Oxford in the thirties.

Ivan Turgenev: Home of the Gentry (1856)

Translation: Richard Freeborn, 1970
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 46

This is the novel which made Turgenev's name outside Russia. The Russian title, Dvoranskoye gnezdo, has connotations of "Nest" rather than "Home", but there isn't really an easy way to translate that into English. The novel is really about Russia, perhaps even more so than is the case with most Russian novels. It deals with the relationship between the aristocracy and the land, and the way that the true Russian returns to his native country, no matter how influenced he may be by the sophisticated Western culture that was the rage in fashionable Russian circles.

Home of the Gentry is mainly concerned with the young nobleman Lavretsky, who makes an unfortunate marriage with Varvara Pavlovna. She becomes addicted to the frivolity of Paris society, and he ends up leaving her and returning to his estate after discovering that she is having an affair.

On his return, he renews contact with a family of old friends, and rapidly finds himself falling in love with the young woman of the house, named Liza. Reading an old newspaper, he sees that his wife has died, and so begins to court Liza. But disaster strikes when Varvara Pavlovna turns up on his doorstep; the newspaper report was a mistake. Lavretsky cannot accept her back, and he cannot go on with his courtship. Liza finds consolation in her real religion, and becomes a nun.

This was one of the first Russian novels to become known outside Russia, and the sense of Russianness is really overpowering. It is also a really sad novel, where the characters are very well drawn. In fact, it has all the qualities of every good Russian novel!

Thursday 14 May 1998

Elizabeth Peters: The Deeds of the Disturber (1988)

Edition: MacMillan
Review number: 48

This is the fifth in Peters' series of mysteries featuring a nineteenth century Egyptologist and early feminist Amelia Peabody. The series maintains a lighthearted, humourous tone and is always fun to read. This novel, unusually, takes place in London rather than Egypt. As usual, Emerson and Peabody allow themselves to be dragged into a murder investigation kicking and screaming but really enjoying every minute of it. In this case, the murders are in the British Museum, centred around a particular mummy in the Egyptian collection. A nice little touch, if deliberate, is that the murder is investigated by Inspector Cuff, presumably a promoted Sergeant Cuff from Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone.

The series doesn't rely heavily on knowledge of the earlier books, but it obviously helps to have read at least the first of them. One good thing about Elizabeth Peters is that enjoying any one of her books is a fairly good guide to whether you will enjoy the rest; they are also sufficiently easy-going to be fun to read no matter how tired or ill you might be.

Colin Forbes: Year of the Golden Ape (1974)

Edition: Hamlyn
Review number: 49

This is another very seventies thriller from Colin Forbes. Its theme is the oil crisis, and what might have happened if it had occurred at a period when real extremists were running the Arab states.

The plot concerns a hijack attempt on a British tanker carrying American oil, which is to be used to take a nuclear warhead into San Francisco Bay, to cause a situation which the Arabs will then take advantage of. That this plot is eventually foiled will come as a surprise to no one, but this is a thriller with no hero: everyone is pretty much as bad as each other. There is much that is predictable; in the end, the thriller is a pale imitation of one of the more unpleasant novels by a writer like Alastair Maclean. A problem for today's reader is the racism, which I'm sure is unintentional; the phrase "golden apes" is coined by a journalist in the story to describe the Arabs; perhaps it is good to be reminded that this sort of behaviour would have been considered acceptable to a newspaper of the time. It was considered acceptable even more recently by some - I remember the coverage of the Gulf crisis by the English tabloids (and I was working alongside a principally Musilim workforce at the time).

Tuesday 12 May 1998

Jeffery Farnol: Black Bartlemy's Treasure (1920)

Edition: Pan, 1972
Review number: 47

Swashbuckling would not have been the same without Jeffery Farnol. He wrote many books in the spirit of the Errol Flynn films of the twenties; this one and its sequel, Martin Conisby's Vengeance, are typical, though among his best. These are the sources parodied affectionately by George Macdonald Fraser's Pyrates.

There are plenty of "Ar-hars" and "Wi'a curse" here to parody, but they are fun even today. Black Bartlemy's Treasure is perhaps less good than Martin Conisby's Vengeance; there is a fair amount of padding - about a third of the book is a fairly straight rip-off of Robinson Crusoe, though with an English aristocratic lady as a Man Friday.

Martin Conisby is already seeking his vengeance on Sir Richard Brandon, who has ruined him, and arranged his sale as a galley slave into long years of torture. He falls in with a group of buccanneers who are seeking the treasure hoard of the infamous Black Bartlemy, and who take service on a ship with Richard Brandon's cousin and daughter Joan (she is the one stranded on a desert island with Martin). Naturally, he falls in love with Joan, and spends the rest of the book trying to make the agonising decision of foregoing the revenge that has been keeping him going or losing the woman he loves. The island he is stranded on, naturally, turns out to be the one on which the treasure is hidden; but he is only interested in those parts of it which he can use in living on the island - it won't help him with his revenge. Their rescue more or less ends the book, though there are many plot issues remaining to be sorted out in the sequel.

Jane Jakeman: Let There Be Blood (1997)

Let There Be Blood CoverEdition: Headline, 1997
Review number: 45

Jane Jakeman's first novel is a Regency period detective story, with a hero (Lord Ambrose) clearly based on Byron. Lord Ambrose has returned to England following the Greek war of independence (in which Byron also fought), sickened by the sights of war. He takes up a hermit-like existence, which is only interrupted when, in the absence of the local squire, he is called to the scene of a local murder.

He immediately makes himself unpopular by stopping the lynching of a gypsy who was in the area at the time of the murder, and then meets the widow of one of the murdered men, who were farmers, father and son. He also meets the governess of her young son, about whom there is some mystery - she is clearly from a very well-off genteel background, but she has hired herself out as governess on a farm; indeed, the older farmer boasted that he bought her at the fair. Lord Ambrose finds himself strangely drawn to this woman, a fellow voluntary outcast from the human race.

The novel has a good, gothic novel style atmosphere, though Jakeman doesn't have the touch for creating the Regency period which Georgette Heyer (for example) had. There are one or two infelicities in her writing; no editor should have allowed the word for word repetition of descriptions which occurs. (They form a clue to the mystery as well, for the repetition draws attention to a particular feature.)

The title of the novel is from Byron's Childe Harolde.

Monday 11 May 1998

Igor Stravinsky: The Poetics of Music (1947)

Translation: Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl, 1947
Edition: Harvard University Press
Review number: 41

This book consists of a series of six lectures delivered in Paris, translated from the original French.

Considering how much I like Stravinsky's music, and how much the music he made influenced the development of twentieth century classical music, his views about music turned out to be somewhat disappointing. He subscribed to the idea that there was little of any intellectual content in romantic music, for example, and is extremely dismissive of it. The introduction, by George Seferis, is a probably best skipped, being both pretentious and uninteresting.

By far the most interesting part of the book is the section on Russian music, where Stravinsky naturally has a particular personal viewpoint.

Friday 8 May 1998

George Bernard Shaw: Pygmalion (1916)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 43

Pygmalion is a play which is concerned with Shaw's ideas about society and class in much the same way as Saint Joan is concerned with his ideas about religion. Pygmalion doesn't have a useful introduction like Saint Joan's, so the ideas have to come from the narrative in the play.

The play is rather unusual in its appearance; it is set out as though it were a novel with dramatised speech, which can be a little bit disconcerting (and is certainly irritating). The particular Penguin edition I read also has pointless illustrations.

The title comes from the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who created a statue of surpassing beauty; at his request, the gods animated the statue as Galatea. The myth is updated, and substantially altered, by Shaw; instead of a statue, Galatea is Eliza Doolittle, a Covent Garden flower-girl, whose accent immediately marks her out as from the very bottom of the English class structure. Pygmalion is represented by Henry Higgins, who is an expert on accents and pronunciation, and who undertakes to transform her speech so that she can be taken for a duchess at a society party.

The play concentrates on the comedy of the early lessons, and the early attempts to pass Eliza off into society. Shaw makes some effort to avoid sentimentality - the fact that despite the title Henry and Eliza don't end up falling in love is an example - and his lead could with profit have been followed by those who adapted Pygmalion as the musical My Fair Lady. However, Shaw suffers from a sort of non-romantic sentimentality, as can be seen from the Epilogue, which tells the later stories of the characters. This is about success through personal endeavour - Eliza ends up setting up a flower shop with her upper class but poor husband, studying accounting and making a good living. In the cynical 1990s, this seems almost as unbelievable as the romance.

Robert A. Heinlein: Farnham's Freehold (1964)

Edition: Corgi, 1976
Review number: 44

When I first read this book some years ago, it came over as racist and sexist. Re-reading it, I'm not so sure; I think Heinlein was trying to do something rather more subtle.

Farnham's Freehold starts as a fairly standard post-apocalyptic tale, with a Russian missile attack on the US leading to the Farnham family hiding out in the bunker built by Hugh Farnham and derided by most of the family. Damage to the bunker forces the family - and Barbara, who was spending the evening with them - to leave it early, and they emerge to discover themselves in a completely different world, an apparently untouched wilderness version of the mountains in which they lived.

Here, the problems between Hugh and his son Duke eventually pale into insignificance when they are captured by the people who rule this world, in which they have unknowingly set themselves up in a private park. They turn out to be living in a world ruled by black men, who treat white slaves very harshly though it is not seen in this light by the slaves who have been conditioned to it by thousands of years of breeding. The slaves suffer, among other things, cannibalism (though this isn't how it is perceived, as the whites are not considered human) and sexual relations between grown men and girls of fourteen and less.

The question of racism hinges on the reasons why Heinlein sets up this society. If Heinlein is intending the way in which whites are treated to make a predominantly white readership realise how black people felt in sixties America, then what he is doing is not racist. The exaggerations beyond what would be considered acceptable are there to bring home to the reader the evils of what was going on around them. On the other hand, if the exaggerations are supposed to show how much further black rulers might go, then it is a profoundly racist book. On the whole, I am inclined to go for the former rather than the latter; in his other books, Heinlein only appears racist through lack of thought.

Thursday 7 May 1998

A.L. Rowse: The Early Churchills (1956)

Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 42

A.L. Rowse attempted to do something slightly different with this book; not a biography of an individual, which often ignores much of their family background, nor a genealogical record of the family history, which often ignores much of the character of the members of the family. The family chosen for this is that of the early Churchills (i.e. up until the point where the Marlborough title passed through the female line to the Spencers who took the surname of Churchill). The idea doesn't really work, as the book actually ends up reading like a set of short biographies; the principal ones here are Winston Churchill, who really founded the fortunes of the family and was a prominent lawyer and MP during the early years of Charles II; Arabella Churchill, mistress of James II; John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough and easily the most famous member of the family; and Sarah Churchill, his wife and the most interesting member of the family.

Although praised at the time (there is praise, for example, in J.P. Kenyon's The Stuarts), the book today seems old-fashioned. I gained this impression particularly from the eagerness with which Rowse turns anything he can into praise for the twentieth century Winston Churchill; every quality he mentions - and the Churchills he talks about were entirely praiseworthy according to Rowse - is also shown in the character of the prime minister.

Basically, in the nineties I think we want more critical biographies than are provided in this book.

Friday 1 May 1998

Ruth Rendell: The Speaker of Mandarin (1984)

Edition: Arrow
Review number: 40

This is a short member of the Inspector Wexford series of crime novels. The first half describes a holiday he had in China; the second his investigation of the murder of a middle-aged woman who was on a coach-party he met there.

The description of the trip to China is the most interesting part of the novel; the murder and investigation seem almost to have been put in to pad the novel out and to fit it in with the general themes of the series.

The juxtaposition of the two parts does mean that the novel suffers from the complaint I particularly dislike about Ngaio Marsh: the strange coincidence which means the investigator meets the victim beforehand.

The mystery also has a rather abrupt ending, and is rather unsatisfactory; to explain why I would have to give it away. In conclusion, there are better Wexford books, but the description of a holiday in China before these were commonplace is worth reading.