I’ve been busy, and haven’t felt the oomph factor when reading books lately to hurl me into writing about them at length. But here are six good books I recommend, fresh entries from my reading diary.
Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age
For all you pagans out there, this is a compelling assemblage of the horrific things that Christians did to suppress and obliterate non-Christian belief systems, worship practices, art and architecture in the first five centuries in the Western world. The sheer ideological pressure was remarkable, and has horrifying parallels with Stalinism, Maoism and Isis/Daesh. Targeted destruction, thought police, reporting your neighbours, desecration, murder, rape, mutilation, the whole works. There is not a trace of toleration, love or charity, and too many monomaniac psychopaths with charisma and power.
Nixey tries to leaven this depressing story with a few jokes, but reading how Christianity brought about the Dark Ages in the West is too grim for them to help. The murder of Hypatia (for being non-Christian, a woman and a philosopher) by flaying and dismemberment while alive is fairly typical. This is a thoroughly depressing revision of history, and I hope it’s prescribed in vicar and priest school.
Cover: super-glittery and Byzantine shiny.
Update: since posting this brief review of Nixey’s book, which is itself four years old, a reader has alerted me to a review criticising her book, and me for having a different opinion. The link to that review is in the comments for you to follow up as you want. Subsequent comments being snarky to me have been deleted because, guys, I am not interested in your petty squabbles. Argue with Nixey, not with me.
Margaret Kennedy, The Feast
I loved this novel from 1950, but by golly it’s unsettling. It begins by establishing that a recent cliff-fall on the Cornish coast has completely destroyed a hotel in its path, killing everyone inside, but that there were some survivors. And then we go back to a week earlier, and meet all the inhabitants. Kennedy lived in St Ives during the war (see Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry) and had observed Cornwall’s visitors closely. The hotel is run by Mrs Siddall and her doctor son, with some help from her young schoolboy sons and none at all from her infuriating husband who has left the Bar for no good reason. She has a vile housekeeper, Miss Ellis, who does no work but drips gossip and poison into the indignant ear of Nancibel the maid of all work. The guests are a mixed lot of misery, fear, suppressed secrets and anger, and the hotel becomes a tinder-box. But then there are the child guests, whose rebellions, outrages and annoyances take the adults out of themselves, to give them something different to dwell on.
Kennedy’s wicked trick is to involve the reader’s emotions so closely with the characters that we soon become very aware that some are going to die in the cliff-fall, and we don’t know how many, or who. Tension mounts absolutely everywhere, as the reader thinks ‘He’s got to go, and her, and I hope she does too, but I couldn’t bear it if they both died. Or any of the children. Well, perhaps just that one …’ There is, of course, a crucial reveal that the reader does not know about but might guess in the course of reading. Cathy Rentzenbrink’s introduction to the new Faber edition makes all clear. But read it after you’ve gobbled this excellent novel.
Cover: quite a nice illustration, but I would have preferred something more foreboding.
Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White Poeple About Race
I read this for our Racism and Quakers reading group, and it was a storming success. Some people in the group found it overwhelming, and will be going back to read it again, and probably again. I found it a bit hard to begin, but then I accelerated through it, and found it thoroughly useful.
It’s packed with teachable moments, and clear, effective illustrations and discussions of institutional racism, structural racism, white privilege, what biracial children may encounter with racists in their white families, and the ghastly bind of black and brown (in fact, non-white) people having to work twice as hard to even begin to keep up with the progress of white people in society, education, industry, the professions, work, life, opportunity, mere existence. Eddo-Lodge has won vast praise for this book, and it’s well deserved. White people now have to do the work of dismantling the racist society they have created over centuries of oppressive and violent manipulation. (Try Bernadine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots if you’d like a novel about what a reversed black colonial world might have looked like.)
Cover: brilliant use of design to reflect the text, and deserves prizes.
Scott Weidensaul, A World on the Wing
If, like me, you are a sucker for books about birds flying long distances, and how we know this, this is a book for you (though you might want to wait for the paperback: I binged on the hardback, which I rather regret now, as it’s pretty big.) I especially like maps of their colossal migrations, and want to know how the scientists track them, and how the improved technology has opened up new sets of data, like heart rate acceleration.
Weidensaul is a journalist, and his book is a classic example of US long-form journalism where you interlace personal anecdotes of pacy events with The Science, and The Politics. He ranges very widely, all over the world, following birds and their birders, and – often – their protectors. There are statistics, lots of ’em.
The chapter are arranged around case histories, of particular birds and the perils they face from human predation (I will probably never willingly holiday in Cyprus now, but the Nagaland chapter is uplifting), and climate change. He’s a very good writer, so while this book does drag under its sheer weight, it’s good. Read it in bits.
Cover: nice, not memorable. The size of the book makes the impression, as it’s known in this house as ‘the big book about birds’.
Amy Sherman, The Bells of Old Tokyo
I’ve been reading more about Japan: this time a book tracking the whereabouts and history of the bells that were hung in the temples of Imperial Tokyo, as the only way the inhabitants could all know the time, pre-clocks. Sherman is an American ex-pat who lived in Japan for a very long time, and while the book compresses what must be years of her wanderings around this enormous city into what feels like one single walk, she makes it a beautiful travelogue.
It’s a meditation on Japanese culture and history, and a story of Tokyo when it was called Edo. Old Japanese clocks are fiendishly difficult to mend and maintain, and also told a different time to the bells. (I admit: I got a bit muddled over this point.) Her walks around the streets and areas of Tokyo are superb travel writing, and are punctuated with visits, at different times throughout her extended stay in Japan, with visits to Daibo’s coffee house, in which the art of making and drinking coffee also has a relationship with time.
It’s a remarkable scrapbook, presented as a linear narrative that somehow fizzles out towards the end, when Daibo closes the coffee shop and ends a legend. That prevents it being an excellent book; it is merely great.
Cover: beautiful use of the famous restored gold mending. But says nothing about bells or time, just Japan.
Paula Byrne, The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym
I bought this book before it was even taken out of the box at Topping in Bath, so eager was I to get my hands on it. It’s also a hardback, but I think in this case a hardback feels right: this is an epic biography of a perfectly nice woman constantly falling in love with the wrong man and writing novels about her observations of human behaviour. Byrne goes much further than Pym’s previous biographer (and friend), and reveals some disturbing aspects of Pym’s life: her need for masculine attention and affection, her obtuse need to keep seeing men who are bad for her and Want Only One Thing (as probably did she, but Pym tore those pages out of her diaries), and the Nazi period.
No, Pym was not a Nazi. Yes, she went to Germany a lot in the 1930s as a very young woman, to sightsee, to make friends and had an affair with at least one Nazi. She was having doubts about his fervent belief in Hitler before the war, but it took her far longer than many of her peers to realise that Nazis were bad. She did come to a much more clear understanding during the war, of course, in which she served in the WRNS. Pym does not come across as a woman who thought deeply about much apart from her relationships and their nuances, and literature: her capacity for quotation and apposite tags is really impressive. Byrne drew largely from Pym’s papers in the Bodleian, and from her own intelligent parallel readings from Pym’s novels, so she had a limited set of sources, but does her best with them. She’s produced a far better biography than what we had before, and it is a darn good read in itself, even if one wants to shake Pym by the scruff of her neck and give her something worthwhile to do for other people, rather than waste years of her life daydreaming over unsuitable attachments. The novels are the fruits of that, so I suppose I am grateful.
Cover: horrible. But certainly eye-catching.