Monday 18 December 2017

Jonathan Sumption: Cursed Kings: The Hundred Years War IV (2015)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 2016
Review number: 1511

The fourth volume of Sumption's brilliant history of the Hundred Years' War is up to the standard he set in the earlier books, and very similar in many ways to them. Cursed Kings covers the early years of the fifteenth century (up to 1422). Until 1413, both countries were ruled by kings whose rule was compromised: Henry IV of England, who faced difficulties establishing the legitimacy of his rule after deposing Richard II; and Charles VI of France, who spent long periods mentally incapable of governing while the many other royal princes squabbled and diverted national resources to their personal gain. Neither reign was a period for a country to take pride in, and it often seems as though the governments of the two countries seem to be competing to make the poorest showing. Both crowns suffered from a chronic lack of financial resources, along with political disruption which was at times close to civil war. This means that the period was mostly one where the war was characterised by uneasy truces rather than open combat, at least until the accession of Henry V in 1413. The most interesting question about the early  years of the fifteenth century covered is what happened to make the immediate recovery of England so fast and so successful.

The second half of Cursed Kings is dominated by the effect of Henry V on the war. As Sumption says, "as with other successful warriors, his personality has been almost entirely masked by the uncritical adulation of contemporaries and the nostalgia of a later generation which lived to see his achievements undone". Being the subject of one of Shakespeare's best known and least ambiguous plays does not help, of course. I did occasionally feel that Sumption fell into the same trap that he warned about. Whatever he was like as a person, Henry's effect on the war was dramatic, and at one point, it looked as though France was about to be entirely extinguished as a nation. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that his personality, drive and ambition were the main reasons why the position changed so dramatically.

The book ends with the deaths of Henry V and Charles VI, paving the way for the final act of the long drawn out conflict to be covered in the final volume.

The book does include a fairly obvious copy editing error, not something I've seen in the earlier volumes. It is fairly minor (the town of Ham is described as "unwalled" on page 285, and then on page 286, its inhabitants "shout defiance" from these non-existent walls).

Friday 3 November 2017

Paul Beatty: The Sell Out (2015)

Edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015)
Review number: 1510

The Sell Out is a novel which divides opinion. If you look at online reviews, ones which give it very high ratings are common, but so are ones which give it very low ratings. The style and the content of Beatty's novel are responsible for both these extreme reactions, and I can really understand why people think of it in both ways.

I started out as a fan. The first part of the book is a tour de force of satirical humour: this is I think the only Booker Prize winner I have ever laughed out loud when reading. Basically the book starts with the ending. The narrator ends up before the US Supreme Court, basically for actions which call the comfortable assumption of white people that there is no longer any racial divide in the United States, which is the first chapter, with the rest of the book leading up to this appearance. The early parts of the book are an extended, vitriolic, riff on what it means to be black in twenty-first century America, full of references both literary and otherwise, and also full of language which may well shock.  It's kind of like the illegitimate child of Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and John Barth. Strong stuff, and although I was enjoying it, I didn't want to read more than a few pages at a time.

As the book goes on, the tone settles down somewhat, and this is actually a problem. The actually story is less interesting than the set pieces and jokes - things like a parody of The Charge of the Light Brigade, or a stand-up comedian making jokes in the format of academic reports on psychological experiments. Without the energy present at the start, The Sell Out reading experience becomes an impatient wait for the next extended joke.

If you don't get many of the references (and I'm sure I missed some, not being into gangsta rap), the jokes won't be as funny. If the language offends, you will find The Sell Out unreadable. It made a difference to me that the book was written by a black writer; I think I would have been offended if it had been written by anyone else. The first part is really love or hate; the second half is so much less successful that it was just mainly average. Overall, my rating for the book is 7/10.

Saturday 14 October 2017

G.K. Holloway: 1066 (2014)

Edition: Troubadour, 2014
Review number: 1509

What book could be more appropriate to review on 14th October, the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings!

1066 is clearly the defining date in British history, the one year everyone knows. It is probably the most important single date in English history. And it is also the end of a long series of complex events in English history, with roots in the renewed Viking attacks on England almost a century earlier. On top of this, the surviving contemporary documentation of what happened is scanty by modern standards, and some of the events as well as the details of characterisation are either disputed or recorded by biased sources. All of this makes the events of the year a challenging subject for a historical novel.

How as G.K. Holloway approached it? Well, for a start, neither the main title or what looks like a subtitle are entirely accurate. Holloway's narrative begins many years earlier than 1066, and doesn't reach that year until about two thirds of the way through the book. I would also have said that what happened during the year year is perhaps more driven by personalities than many historical events (particularly those of Edward the Confessor, Harold and William of Normandy). Despite the choice of quotation, Holloway's writing does suggest that these played a huge part - fates imposed remarkably little. (The source, by the way, is the moment in Shakespeare's Henry VI when Edward IV is offered the crown of the deposed Henry; another king overthrown by force, four hundred years or so later than Harold). Making the novel not quite as expected from the cover is not a big problem, though.

1066 is told from an apparently neutral third party perspective, as though it were a documentary - far more detailed, of course, than a historian could be with the available sources. Where sources disagree, or where they are biased or disputed by modern scholars, this means that Holloway has had to make a decision. So, for instance, the fictional version of Harold is killed by the arrow in the eye, though some historians would argue that the depiction in the Bayeux tapestry is at least ambiguous. More seriously, I find the character of Edward the Confessor not entirely convincing - the sources for this are works aimed at promoting the campaign to make him a saint, which are not going to present a rounded picture of an individual and which definitely use ambiguous word choices to do this (he is described a chaste using a Latin word which could either mean virginal - an important qualification for sainthood - or faithful within marriage, for instance). Holloway has clearly done a lot of work on researching the background, but it seems to me to be more trusting in the original sources than modern scholars think they deserve. Given the need to make choices, this is not entirely problematic, but a reader who has come across some of the debates will find it a little frustrating. I feel that the third party neutral narrative was a wrong choice; a first person account from an incidental figure (or multiple figures) might well have worked better.

The most important negative aspect for me in 1066 was the unleavened unpleasantness of the characters.  The men are mostly thugs or devious troublemakers, or  worse; the women are sex toys or helpless political pawns (with two exceptions, Harold's common law wife Eadgyth, and William's wife Matilda). There are some very unpleasant passages involving rape, torture and murder. To a large extent, this reflects the realities of life in eleventh century Europe, but it does become somewhat unrelenting. This was the main problem I had with the book, it was at times a chore to read.

However, there are many positive aspects to 1066. One difficulty with writing this novel is the large number of events which need to be described and put into context; here, Holloway succeeds admirably. It is easy to follow what's going on and who is who. The clear writing style helps with this, too. Of course, the astonishing events of the year make for a memorable tale. While this review may have spent more time on the negative aspects of the novel, they are outweighed in my opinion by the positive. My rating: 6/10.

Friday 29 September 2017

Iain Pears: Arcadia (2015)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 2016
Review number: 1508

Iain Pears' 2015 novel may seem to be something of a departure from his earlier work - if I'd been asked to read it blind and guess the author, I think I'd have picked David Mitchell. As both are among my favourite authors, this boded well for enjoying the book.

Arcadia is a complex narrative, with multiple strands and connections which involve time travel. The order of the chapters is (at least to begin with) not actually hugely important; indeed, it is sufficiently random that there is an app available to allow readers to restructure the book (which I haven't had the opportunity to try out). The complexity comes partly from the shortness of the chapters, but is mainly because they don't follow a chronological order as experienced by an individual character.

The structure is closely entwined with the form of time travel which Pears uses as the basis of the novel. Many time travel novels are built round an exploration of the grandfather paradox - how a time traveler in the past can influence the future to make it different from the one they came from - and this is no exception. It is, however, unusually fully thought through. In Arcadia, time travel is about manipulating probabilities. Only one universe can exist, but if that universe is no longer the most probable, then it disappears and a new sole universe not only come into being, but has always existed (except in the mind of the traveler). Pears is not absolutely consistent about this position, and there is debate among the characters about whether this is a true description of the universe. So far as I can remember, this is the only time travel novel I have read which is so ruthless about multiple timelines without making change impossible, though it perhaps has a predecessor in Clifford Simak's Time Quarry, which I was coincidentally reading at the same time.

There are three main universes in Arcadia. The central one is a version of Oxford in 1960, where a minor writer, one of the Inklings alongside Tolkien and Lewis, has written about his own fantasy world. This world itself is also a universe, deliberately brought into being in Professor Lytten's basement by Angela Meerson. She is a fugitive character from the third universe, a dystopian England where research into time travel is being carried out on a Hebridean island. A third major character is Rosie Wilson, a fifteen year old girl who becomes a friend of Professor Lytten and discovers Anterworld in the basement. A major theme, which I suspect may have been the original motivation for writing the book, is the relationship between Lytten and the world he imagined.

Clearly, Arcadia is extremely ambitious, more so than any of Pears' earlier novels. I found it challenging, partly because my reading of it wasn't helped by having to put it aside for days at a time on a number of occasions. In the end, I would have enjoyed it more if the narrative had been more traditional and linear; it felt as though the content was not quite interesting enough in itself to reward the effort of comprehending the structure. I think I'd have enjoyed it more at a time when I wasn't so distracted by other things. My rating: 6/10.

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Marc Bloch: Feudal Society (1940)

Translation: L.A. Manyon, 1962
Edition: Routledge Kegan Paul, 2014
Review number: 1507

The foreword to this Routledge Classics edition, by Geoffrey Kozol, starts by asking, "Why read a work of history written over seventy years ago?" Clearly, after such a long time, a scholarly work of this kind no longer represents current knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, any more than earlier historical classics like Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Carlyle's history of The French Revolution do.

Each of the books mentioned, including this one, has good reasons why you might want to read them. Three in particular are common to all of them: they have all been influential in one way or another; they are all quite general overviews of topics often treated on a smaller scale by specialists; and they are all of high literary quality.

In Feudal Society Bloch attempts a study of several centuries of Western European social history, analysing the genesis, flowering and eventual modification into something else of the culture known as "feudal" - that is, based around vassal/overlord relationships, tied to land grants (fees, the origin of the word feudal). Given the fragmentary state of the documentary record, especially in the early years going beyond the major chronicles to understand the society is hard work, but in this book Bloch uses a huge array of small scale records (mainly legal documents) to produce as full a picture as possible.

To research this way is now far more common, but the scale of the project in this case means that it is still an impressive synthesis - indeed, it would be fair to say that Bloch is phenomenally successful. Naive historical accounts, in any era, tend to paint a picture of society as though it remains the same over long periods of time, so that Roman customs and fashion appear to be constant from the late Republic to the end of the Empire, for instance, or (more relevantly) as though feudalism as an organising principle sprang into being in the tenth century and then was replaced during the fifteenth, and was the same in France, Germany, Italy and even England after the cataclysm of 1066. It is clear that these pictures are nonsensical, and Bloch of course gives a far more nuanced and subtle description of a culture which was never uniform, and which developed significantly over time. Bloch identifies the economic downturn of the late Carolingian era and the disruptions to social order and centralised power at the time of the Magyar and Viking raids as causes of the adoption of personal vassalage and serf labour in the manorial system, as a development of Germanic and Roman customs. The argument is convincing, but I would like to read a modern equivalent of this book to see how today's scholarship has modified this viewpoint. That is, of course, if there is a modern historian with such detailed and widespread knowledge and understanding.

At the end of Feudal Society, Bloch suggests that one area which could the focus of further study is how European feudalism is related to other historical cultures which have been described using the word. He discusses in particular the Japan of the samurai, and describes a number of significant differences from medieval western Europe. Although I don't think it's all that clear from the text, I'm sure that Bloch was perfectly well aware that the use of the "feudal" label for Japan is based on superficial likenesses: the real interest is to look at how and why the similarities and differences on opposite sides of the globe.

Overall, Feudal Society is an inspiring classic from "the father of scientific history", and, like Carlyle and Gibbon, deserves to be read and remembered. My rating: 10/10.

Saturday 22 July 2017

Michael Spivak: Calculus (1967)

Edition: Addison-Wesley (World Student Series)
Review number: 1506

Calculus was the very first textbook I read for my university degree. As well as being a fine description of the basics of analysis (mostly real, with a toe in the deep water of complex functions), it is an excelent book to ease the transition from mathematics as taught at school level to the rigours of university mathematics.

Unlike many writers of textbooks in mathematics, Spivak makes a big effort to give more than a dry exposition: theorem - proof - next theorem etc. Considerable attention is paid to motivating the discussion, showing why each result is important (though mainly in the pure mathematics context, applications of calculus being mainly found in the problems at the end of each chapter). Of especial use to the budding mathematician are the points where Spivak discusses potential proof strategies for the theorems, often explaining the pitfalls that student taking a naive approach could fall into. There are even occasional jokes, both in the text and the index.

For students with an interest in how analysis can be used in apparently unrelated parts of mateematics, a number of advanced sections give proofs of such topics as the transcendence of the number e, and a construction of the real numbers from set theoretic principles.

Calculus was not just the first university textbook I read, but one of the best.

My rating: 10/10.

Monday 30 January 2017

Alexander Broadie: Introduction to Medieval Logic (1993)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1993
Review number: 1505

The title is perhaps somewhat misleading. I would expect that a book introducing medieval logic should be fairly easy to follow for someone like myself, with a doctorate in modern mathematical logic and an interest in medieval philosophy. But the first few chapters assume a fair amount of prior understanding of the form of logic used in the middle ages, i.e. one based on natural language rather than symbolic representation of carefully pre-defined and abstract ideas of such ideas as truth, implication, proof and so on (this, the basis of modern mathematical logic, being the legacy of Frege and others such as Russell, Tarsky, and Gödel).

In fact, what is eventually revealed is a way to relate the arguments of medieval logicians, which can seem weird and monumentally pedantic, to a process which moves from the potential ambiguities of natural language towards more abstract understanding of the processes of logic. No matter how interesting that might be to me, though, the path travelled through mainly fourteenth century logical arguments is one I found hard to follow. For me, the best part of the book is the concluding chapter, in which Broadie discusses the transition from scholastic logical thought to humanistic ideas of proof, more based on rhetoric and Ciceronian legal arguments, and the relation of scholasticism to the ideas of modern mathematics.

I would have welcomed a lot more historical context, and also some way to connect the thematically organised discussion to that context

My rating: 5/10.

Tuesday 3 January 2017

Patrick Dennis: Auntie Mame (1955)

Edition: Pan, 1958
Review number: 1504

I'm a big fan of Patrick Dennis, although the difficulty of finding his books nowadays means I haven't read all that many of them - three out of sixteen (all published under various pseudonyms, his real name being Edward Everett Tanner III). Even the normally reliable Fantastic Fiction only lists the two Auntie Mame books.

This is the third of his books, the first under this name, and was hugely successful in the fifties, made into a play and then an Oscar nominated film with Rosalind Russell as the title character. The trailer for the film describes it as "the one you've been waiting for", and expects the watcher to guess the name of the title character. So this was a huge phenomenon at the time, and yet it seems to be almost forgotten today. (It later became a stage musical and another film.)

It is a parody of an autobiography, scenes from a bizarre Bohemian childhood. The narrator, named as Patrick Dennis, is sent as a nine year old to be brought up by his aunt after the death of his father. This catapults the boy into a completely different world - one which many today would still consider unsuitable for the raising of a child. In her company, he expands his vocabulary, meets a lot of strange people, and gets involved in many scrapes, as he becomes an integral part of his vivacious aunt's life. The last scene in the book depicts Patrick, now married and respectable, being persuaded by Mame to let his seven year old son join her on a trip to India: although the book's chronology would indicate that she was by this point in her seventies, she had not changed a bit. This also sets up Dennis' second novel, Around the World with Auntie Mame.

Auntie Mame and its sequel are lit up by the  larger than life character of Mame. I can easily imagine that she would be tiresome in the long term in real life. Indeed, the portrayal by Rosalind Russell in the film is wearingly strident to me, even in the short dose of the trailer. The literary version of the character has a lot more charm, and her dominance of the book makes liking Mame crucial to enjoyment of the humour.

It's easy to see why it was so popular. It's still immensely funny, and bears comparison with the best comic fiction ever written. Why, then, is it so much less well known today? Dennis himself stopped writing and became a butler before his death in 1976, but already by then his books were out of print. It is possible that revelations about the author's lifestyle (he was bisexual and was involved in the Greenwich Village gay community) made publishers less keen to promote his work. Indeed, a number of publishers rejected Auntie Mame, presumably because of its endorsement of an unconventional lifestyle, tame though much of it seems today. Maybe it was the opposite: in the liberated 1970s, did people no longer feel shocked enough by Dennis' writing to want to read it? I don't know what happened, but whatever it was, Patrick Dennis was too good a writer to deserve it.

My rating: 10/10.