Thursday, 11 September 2014

Books read 2014 - part 1 (Jan-June)

Mini-reviews of all the books I read between January and June this year. 

NB reviews of mysteries may contain spoilers, so proceed with caution!

Tuesday 7th January
Death and the Dancing Footman
Ngaio Marsh
Another proper old-fashioned country-house murder – almost the apotheosis of the genre, with the requisite eccentric gentleman inviting the requisite disparate group of people to the requisite beautiful old house in the English countryside, where the requisite mutual antagonisms play out with the requisite fatal consequences. I’m still getting to grips with Marsh’s style, and there is a little too much melodrama and an awful lot of Basil Exposition stuff along the lines of “Now, Mr Smith, you say that you left the library at five o’clock and crossed the hall, just as Lady Jones was entering the drawing room where the antique machine guns are kept. But the butler says that he saw Dr Brown crossing the terrace at two minutes after five…”. That said, I am a big fan of the genre, even when pushed to the limits of credibility and treated with a certain arch self-consciousness, and Marsh does play fair in the matter of clueing. Good characters too. The ending is a bit of an anti-climax, having been heavily foreshadowed with a reference to Busman’s Honeymoon, and could perhaps have been explained more thoroughly.

(2) Sunday 12th January
By The Pricking Of My Thumbs
Agatha Christie
Tommy and Tuppence spring back into action to investigate mysterious goings-on at a nursing home for old ladies. There’s a genuinely dramatic, tragic and sinister story at the heart of this one, but it’s underdeveloped – one of the key characters only shows up at the very end – and smothered by uninspired storytelling, with a lot of irrelevant and repetitive blather and a not very successful attempt to incorporate a Sixties gangland-themed subplot into a novel that in other ways (probably wisely) doesn’t try to reflect the (then) contemporary world at all. One thing Christie does do well here is evoke a slightly eerie and uneasy feel in a quiet English village.

(3) Wednesday 29th January
Collected Ghost Stories
MR James
I love these short, sparse chillers, mostly set in a seemingly orderly Victorian/Edwardian world of colleges, libraries and cathedrals that is actually deeply permeated with weirdness and sinister forces. Some are better than others, with a few absolute corkers (Mr Humphrys And His Inheritance and The Stalls Of Barchester Cathedral among them), but there are no duds.

(4) Wednesday 12th February
The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East
Robert Fisk
What to say about a 1300-page memoir/polemic/history book that ranges widely over time and space and took me more than eight months to read (on and off)? First, that Fisk has had a genuinely fascinating career as a Middle East correspondent and that his considerable knowledge of the region and its peoples is beyond doubt. Then you might praise his obvious thirst for justice and peace, and his interest in ordinary people’s stories and tragedies amid relentless violence, tyranny, fanaticism and disorder. I learned a lot from this book, and more importantly I understood a lot more about how the Middle East came to be the bloody and chaotic place that it is today. I became more sceptical about Western interventions and intentions there (especially re. the 1990s Iraq sanctions), and I thought more deeply about those who suffer, and gained more sympathy for those whom I previously regarded as US-hating, Israel-hating and reflexively anti-Western (this has been an ongoing process, also encouraged by other books on the ME). It cured me of neo-conservatism, and confirmed my growing war-scepticism and ambivalence about the arms trade.
                And yet, and yet. Fisk’s style and convictions are often infuriating. The book is much too long, and in parts repetitive and hectoring, and its author tiresomely unburdened by self-doubt. Being highly opinionated is all very well, but the relentless, often unfair, criticism of those who take a different view to him becomes tedious. He constantly ascribes the worst of motives to his opponents. Not once in 1300 pages does he engage in anything approaching genuine self-criticism. Nowhere does he take seriously the dilemma of Western leaders faced with the threat of terrorism and tyranny, relying instead on an array of cheap shots (amid much valid criticism). It’s all very well for pacifist journalists to criticise, but I often thought “well, what would you do instead, Robert?” He criticises the West for interfering in the Middle East and he criticises us for not interfering. He rebukes us for indulging dictators and he rebukes us for resisting them. Perhaps this is not what he intended, but we never get a chance to explore his thought in any serious depth – incredibly for such a long book – because his moral indignation is constantly turned up to eleven. The jaw-dropping description of a senior member of the Taliban as “thoughtful and intelligent” sits very oddly next to the near-total cynicism about Western leaders and motives. And while it is reasonable to argue that a law enforcement response to 9/11 was more appropriate than a military one, does Fisk really believe that the Taliban would have happily co-operated with the US Justice Department in handing over terrorist suspects?
The book also contains a good deal of what can only be described as moral dishonesty. For instance, several times we see statements like “The American soldiers were firing at the civilians by the river”. Now this is an interesting sentence. It is clearly meant to imply deliberate targeting, without quite saying so. This and similar sleights of hand crop up on numerous occasions. He never takes seriously the importance of intention in moral judgment about acts in conflict, misrepresenting attempts to distinguish between accidental and deliberate attacks on civilians as claims that the West can do what it likes because it is good and the enemy are evil.   
In short, an important, fascinating and profoundly challenging, but flawed, book.

(5) Wednesday 12th February
Making It Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS, & The Men Who Blew Up The British Economy
Iain Martin
Accessible and pacy look at the rise and fall of Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the most high-profile British casualties of the financial crisis, with a particular focus on its erstwhile CEO “Sir” Fred “the Shred” Goodwin. Some astonishing revelations about the events leading up to RBS’s near-bankruptcy in 2008 and the hubris and greed that led to the crash, especially about the US investment banking arm and the ABN Amro takeover. It’s been said a thousand times, but there really is an element of Greek tragedy in the whole thing. Is this Monday-morning quarterbacking? I don’t think so. Martin is pretty fair-minded and unhysterical about Goodwin, accepting that he is not solely to blame and that others within RBS should have stepped in. In any case, the fact is that some people did see what was coming and they were ignored – by, inter alia, Fred Goodwin (who, frustratingly, remains an enigma even after several hundred pages). I came away from this book feeling profound suspicion of the whole enterprise of modern investment banking, especially as Martin doesn’t really address the question of whether the systemic and regulatory failures that landed us so magnificently in the soup have actually been fixed.  

(6) Wednesday 12th February
The Silence Of Our Friends
Ed West
A timely “Kindle Mini” outlining the terrible suffering being endured by Christians in the Middle East, and lamenting and analysing the collective shrug with which the brutal Islamic persecution of Christians is met in the West. There are many, many horror stories here and a great deal about which to be indignant, as well as many martyrs to admire and be humbled by. West rightly calls for Western governments to do more to help Christians in the Muslim world, though it’s not clear that there’s a great deal we can do in practical terms. One excellent point he does make is that there is nothing wrong with prioritising Christian refugees from the current Syrian conflict because they find it very hard to settle locally and are treated very badly in existing camps in Jordan and Turkey. 

(7) Wednesday 19th February
How We Invented Freedom: And Why It Matters
Daniel Hannan
Undeniably entertaining, if rather flawed, defence of “Anglosphere” exceptionalism and a hymn of praise to the English-speaking peoples and their attachment to limited government, free markets, secure property rights, free speech and the rule of law. Very Whiggish in flavour, and not especially nuanced – Hannan tends to skate over the tensions and difficulties in the history of the “liberties of Englishmen” (Catholics, women, the poor and the Empire’s overseas subjects might tell different stories) – but this is one very important narrative within our broader national history, and one which historians often shrink from telling because it sits uncomfortably with modern dogmas. There is a large kernel of truth at the heart of the Whig interpretation of history. It is the case that, however imperfectly, the English were pioneers (if not the only pioneers, cf. Iceland) of representative and responsive government, and of self-government, as far back as the Anglo-Saxon period. It is true that the rule of law was much stronger, much earlier in England than elsewhere. It is true that Protestantism and individual liberty helped England to become prosperous and happy, and that the supremacy of Parliament over the Crown was an important constitutional achievement. It is true that Continental Europeans tend to misunderstand, mistrust and even dislike the English approach to law and politics, and that our system is largely superior to theirs. It is true that the US Constitution draws heavily on centuries-old English traditions.
                But there are other things that need saying (as ever). I thought of the poor and weak and unempowered who struggle to benefit from purely negative rights. I thought of the hundreds executed for their religious beliefs in the early modern period despite the English “love of liberty”. I think Hannan is far too conventional in his view of the US-UK special relationship and the idea that the English-speaking peoples “saved the world” in the Second World War.

(8) Friday 28th February
God’s Philosophers: How The Medieval World Laid The Foundations of Modern Science
James Hannam
Well-researched and important defence, albeit a necessarily qualified one, of the scientific legacy of the Middle Ages. Hannam takes great joy in scotching various ahistorical myths, though he is clear-eyed about the dark side of the period – the fragility, violence and uncertainty of life, and the ever-present (though sometimes overstated) spectre of being hauled in by the secular or ecclesiastical authorities for thinking the wrong thoughts or expressing the wrong ideas.

(9) Friday 7th March
Busman’s Honeymoon
Dorothy L Sayers
The last Wimsey novel, and a worthy finale to the canon. Peter and Harriet are off on honeymoon, finding their feet as a married couple. Not really a pure detective story, although there is a rather clever murder at the heart of it, and a particularly unpleasant murderer. I found some of the romantic sections a little florid and overdone, but that of course is just personal taste. The end – with Peter having a bad attack of shell shock mingled with deep guilt and ambivalence about sending yet another person to the gallows (he engages Impey Biggs KC for the defence) – is quite daring and unusual for a Golden Age mystery. It works well, adding a layer of depth and realism both to Peter’s detecting career, his long relationship with Bunter, and his complex courtship and marriage with Harriet.

(10) Tuesday 11th March
Bring Up The Bodies
Hilary Mantel
The sequel to Wolf Hall, straddling the occasionally antagonistic genres of historical and literary fiction. A great read – even Mantel’s stylistic tics, like using the present tense and that thing she does with pronouns, eventually become less noticeable as the story builds. She has a great sense of scene and place and a great feel for early Tudor England. Instilling genuine tension in a story whose resolution most readers will already know is no mean feat for a writer. It’s also striking how cleverly Mantel deals with the ambiguity over the charges against Anne Boleyn. We hear many characters discuss the alleged affairs with George Boleyn and with the Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber, from many angles and motivations, but there is no authorial commitment to believing them or not. Even when Cromwell is deciding how to proceed, it is left highly uncertain whether we’re meant to think that he believes the rumours or whether he is acting out of total cynicism. Mantel clearly likes Cromwell, or at least has a sneaking sympathy for him, and portrays him as a very flawed but complex and sympathetic character. That is my main “political” quibble with the book. I don’t think Cromwell was a very admirable man, all things considered, and while Mantel (and his other defenders) would no doubt say that he ought to be judged by the standards of his time, she doesn’t seem willing to extend the same understanding to (say) Thomas More, who at least died for an important principle rather than because he finally lost out in the endless deadly game of court intrigue.

(11) Friday 14th March
Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates The Claims of the Gospels
J. Warner Wallace
Fascinating and important book applying police detective techniques to the credibility of the Gospels and to Christian belief. Although the style can be jarring – every chapter starts with a rather Dan Brown-ish account of a criminal investigation from which evidential lessons can be drawn, and some of the references to detection feel a bit forced – there is some really excellent material here, especially on the “chain of custody” of the Gospels and on the extent to which they have been altered and miscopied (in short: not much), the relative strength of competing explanations for the Resurrection and other events, and some of the personalities of the early Church who attest to the truth of Christianity. I learned a lot. I don’t think it would satisfy really smart and well-informed atheists – Wallace doesn’t, for example, discuss the whole issue of “Christianities” which has become a fashionable academic concern in recent times, the arguments for theism section is underpowered, and he more or less just skates over the problem of evil – but this book performs a valuable service in presenting Christianity as a serious intellectual endeavour that is supported by a great weight of historical evidence. Great for apologists, wavering believers and open-minded sceptics. I’d like to read some respectful but critical reviews to see what the gaps and weaknesses of Wallace’s argument are. 

(12) Wednesday 19th March       
Prester John
John Buchan
Old-fashioned yarn about a Scottish lad who helps to thwart a native uprising in South Africa. Must confess this is probably the weakest John Buchan novel I’ve read. The racial politics are anachronistic and the story rather ropey. There are an awful lot of coincidences, a bit too much second-hand narration (“I was asleep while all this was going on but I was later told…” etc.), and once or twice the plot is moved on by poorly-explained and seemingly supernatural phenomena, e.g. black Africans’ supposed telepathy, and later some kind of mindmeld between the hero David Crawfurd and the chief villain. Buchan’s style and verve keep the thing rattling along, though.

(13) Monday 24th March
Evil And the God of Love
John Hick
A dense and thorough examination of some of the main Christian responses to the problem of evil, alongside Hick’s own argument for a so-called “soul-making” theodicy developed from the thought of St Ireneaus and his followers. Soul-making theodicies tend to reject, or at least to play down, the doctrine of man’s original perfection and calamitous fall, which are foundational in what Hick calls the Augustinian tradition of theodicy, in favour of the idea that men – although created in the imago Dei – were not always in the “likeness” of God, i.e. they were from the very beginning placed into a world where “God appears to be absent”, where they are at some epistemic distance from Him, and that the existence of natural and moral evils is tolerated by God in order that humans might, by free will and His grace, be moulded into the divine likeness. Augustinian theodicies tend to focus more strongly on the Fall, on the idea of evil as deprivation, on the reality of Satan and the semi-mythologised “War in Heaven”, but Hick has problems with this view, notably its failure to account for the existence of temptation to do wrong at all in an all-good creation and its over-emphasis on God as punisher. He rejects the various theodicies, mostly medieval ones, that resolve the problem in too impersonal a fashion, and also questions the traditional idea of Hell as “eternal conscious torment”, noting that – like annihilationism – it raises problems for God’s omnipotence if he cannot eventually reconcile all beings to himself. He flatly rejects predestination for the same reason (among others), embracing a sort of universalism, for which he finds some scriptural warrant, e.g. he questions whether Jesus’ words have been correctly translated and understood. He does not deny punishment in the next world, but sees it as a purgatorial process rather than the eternal fate of the lost.
It took me a long time to read this, but I’m drawn to Hick’s ideas. The Irenean tradition seems to raise fewer problems than the Augustinian, and to do a better job of reconciling God’s omnipotence with His benevolence. Nevertheless, Hick’s version of it is formally heretical from the Catholic perspective, and is apparently regarded with a certain suspicion by traditional Christians.

(14) Tuesday 8th April
Jane Austen
Cleverly written comedy of manners, with some striking moral insights. I don’t always get on with Austen’s style, partly through unfamiliarity, but she has a fluency and piquancy that I enjoy. Sometimes felt like an indictment – intentionally or not – of the restrictions placed on women’s horizons and ambitions by the social conventions and laws of early nineteenth century England, given its cast of women who are clever and curious but have little to do except gossip, look for husbands and fret about the trivia of their small community. Any exertion exceeding a brisk walk seems to be regarded with something approaching horror. That said, she seems also to endorse her contemporary social standards, especially regarding class. To know one’s place is a great virtue to her characters, although she also strongly advocates more defensible and timeless virtues – modesty, restraint, dignity, truthfulness, integrity, rationality, contentment. Fascinating how little a specifically Christian morality is discussed or put forward (also true of P&P, my only other experience of JA), and no clearly Christian critique is offered of this society. Must reread that article entitled “Jane Austen as Virtue Theorist”, or whatever it was. 

(15) Monday 14th April
The Napoleon of Notting Hill
GK Chesterton
An early GKC novel, first published in 1904, and a very Chestertonian one, pitting chivalry, colour, peculiarity and tradition against progress, rationalism and normality. Nominally set in the then-distant future of the late twentieth century (there is an entertaining introduction poking gentle fun at the absurd predictions of various would-be prophets and celebrating the robust sceptical common sense of the masses), the world of the novel actually feels more like a strange parallel version of Edwardian Britain, with gas lights and waistcoats and men in top hats. The story is typically surreal and whimsical – the king, one Auberon Quin, an eccentric randomly appointed by lot, is bored by a grey, passionless, pacific Britain, and so encourages London boroughs to behave like small medieval city states, complete with invented martial traditions and spurious histories. However, one man, Adam Wayne, takes local patriotism and a fierce love of home and hearth very seriously when the surrounding boroughs attempt to build a road through Notting Hill. Like quite a few bits of GKC writing, I’m not sure I liked this as much as I wanted to, but I’m still thinking about it and it does have something important to say about the need for unfashionable virtues and characteristics in the face of drab, apathetic modernity.         

(16) Sunday 27th April
The Art Of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service
Hank Crumpton
A fascinating and occasionally startling read documenting one man’s career with the CIA, from his first assignments in Africa to his taking charge of paramilitary operations against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the wake of 9/11. Lots of interesting snippets about what intelligence officers in the field actually do all day, and how exactly one corner of the war of terror was fought. Striking to see some damning assessments of the quality of CIA officers from Crumpton – it would appear that the CIA (and by inference, other Western intelligence agencies?) depend on a relatively small proportion of their officers for the majority of their strongest achievements. I had an ill-defined unease about some of the later sections of the book, which deal with the Agency’s counter-terrorist operations and intelligence-gathering in the late 90s and early 00s. That may be partly the result of Crumpton’s apparent ambivalence towards “massively kinetic” interrogation. One of the two further categories which he adds to the traditional MICE* categorisation of the reasons why people become intelligence assets is “coercion” (the other is “revenge”). It is also, I would imagine, a reflection of my own mixed feelings about US conduct in the war on terror.
*Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego.

(17) Wednesday 21st May
Terry Pratchett
My first Pratchett, and it took me a long time to read. It’s not that I don’t think TP isn’t good; the main impression that I took away was “this is what Lord Of The Rings would be like if it were written by PG Wodehouse and/or GK Chesterton”. And one of the problems was the horrible Kindle formatting which made it difficult to follow. Then there’s the fact that I just haven’t made enough time for reading of late. But I found it very put-downable – maybe because I miss some of the nuances, references and resonances that Discworld fans would pick up – and the plot didn’t seem very clear. Nevertheless, entertaining and often wise.

(18) Tuesday 3rd June
Enter A Murderer
Ngaio Marsh
An enjoyable little mystery, with a clever murder and a (literally) dramatic setting of a West End theatre. This is only Marsh’s second Alleyn book, apparently one of the first of several theatrical whodunnits, and it feels a bit like she is still finding her feet. The plot was a little sparse (and the murderer’s motivation not explained as thoroughly as it might have been) – certainly not up there with the best Christies, although NM is funnier and more satirical than AC. I found this a bit flat and uninvolving in parts, and there are moments of melodrama, especially involving female characters, that have dated very badly. NM also tends to take a very schematic approach, with a lot of precise description of physical clues and who was where at what time, which can get a bit dull. The supporting cast (in both senses!) are well-sketched, but not filled out, which narrows the possibilities for the murderer considerably.

(19) Thursday 5th June
The Realm: The True History Behind Game Of Thrones
Ed West
A brisk and very informative canter through English medieval history, from the end of the Roman occupation to the first Tudors, with a special focus on the incredibly complex Wars of the Roses (or “Cousins’ War”, as it was apparently known until the nineteenth century). Told with wit and verve and focusing on the many intriguing parallels between GoT and the story of England. EW has obviously done his homework very well re. the immensely complicated dynastic struggles that marked England at this time.

(20) Tuesday 17th June
Jane Austen
Well-written and entertaining, with lots of clever and wise moral insights, and truths about human nature, especially about social class and the way that people make decisions under pressure from others (hence the title). I’m still drawn to a more “political” reading of Austen, whereby she is – consciously or not – criticising the lack of opportunities for women and the oppressive nature of the social expectations, cf. the discussion between the heroine Anne Elliot and Captain Harville about how the male dominance of the arts has distorted perceptions of women’s constancy (echoes of Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own), and the portrayal of Mary Musgrove as a rather fretful, self-centred snob.    

(21) Sunday 29th June
Summer Lightning
PG Wodehouse
A re-read (for perhaps the third time) but who cares? Blandings is glorious as ever. Escaping to its joyous precincts is balm for the soul. There truly is something almost transcendently funny and innocent and good-natured about Plum’s writing. 

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