Friday, 9 January 2015

Books read 2014 (part 2)

Mini-reviews of all the books I read between July and the end of the year (yes, December was a bad month. I did read one book but it's not included here.) 

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

(22) Monday 7th July
The Sea Kingdoms
Alistair Moffat
Somewhere between a political manifesto, a history book, a travelogue and a personal spiritual journey, this is a heartfelt and often entertaining look at the history, traditions and culture of Britain’s Celtic fringe. Insofar as the book has a central point, it’s this: there is – or at least was – a distinct and very different way of viewing the world in Ireland, Cornwall, Wales and the Highlands and islands of Scotland, which stood for many centuries in opposition to the dominant English (and in Scotland, Lowland Scots) culture and political structures. Moffat ranges over language and myth and history to demonstrate this differentness and beauty of the Celtic way. There’s a lot here to like, especially for someone like me who to some extent straddles the Celtic and the English divide and loves empty wildernesses and slate-grey seas. Particularly welcome are the reminders of the relative cosmopolitanism of the Celtic cultures of the West and the extent of Scandinavian influence, and of the history of non-English peoples in a time when I know the English history rather well – but alongside the reminders of English perfidy, brutality and imperialism, there is a certain amount of speculative anti-modern romanticism and some rather tenuous conclusions. Moffat misunderstands, I think, the differences between “Celtic” and “Roman” Christianity, especially in the pre-Whitby era. Occasionally he is downright wrong – placing Augustine of Hippo in the sixth century – and he gets very muddled up about what Pelagianism was and how it related to other tensions and doctrinal currents in the early church. His treatment of Christianity as a whole is rather unsatisfactory – several times he compares Christian spirituality unfavourably with pre-Christian or early Christian spirituality without really explaining what he means by either, and several times notes with disapproval Christians’ attempts to curb Bacchanalian excess. His vague and ever-so slightly New Age-y fondness for “Celtic spirituality” is even more odd given that he provides detailed and gruesome descriptions of what it often involved – druidical human sacrifice, for instance. I was irritated by his attempt to relativise away the brutality and evil of older cultures with the hoary old “we mustn’t judge them by our standards” get-out – the Vikings were undoubtedly brave in crossing large oceans in small, unreliable boats, but physical courage is not the only virtue, and it ceases to be a virtue in any meaningful sense when put at the service of evil ends, such as murdering unarmed civilians and destroying cultural artefacts. And Moffat is quite happy to judge the English and their allies in oppression of the Celts by “modern standards”!  
                Overall a great book to read, and one I may return to, but not one I’d recommend without reservation.

(23) Tuesday 8th July
The Doors Of The Sea: Where Was God In The Tsunami?
David Bentley Hart
A reflection on theodicy (meta-theodicy?), questioning some of the more inadequate and poorly-reasoned responses – both Christian and atheist – to the immensely destructive Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day 2004. He takes particular aim at Calvinist and crypto-Calvinist accounts that make God the direct author of pain and suffering, or collapse the distinction between what God allows and what he wills, and he is very wary of complacent statements about grand plans and higher purposes. But the lazy atheist response that treats terrible suffering as an obvious disproof of God, as if Christians have never struggled with the problem of evil before, also earns a fierce rebuke. One particularly important theme is the extent to which the objection to Christianity from evil is itself unintelligible without an essentially Christian worldview. The central point is DBH’s insistence that there is evil and wickedness and wrong and pain in the world because of Original Sin and that those things are in opposition to God, that they were not part of the original divine plan, and that they will be defeated one day. A book to return to and think hard about, especially DBH’s discussion of the famous problems posed in The Brothers Karamazov.

(24) Saturday 12th July
Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform In the 21st Century Church
George Weigel
Authoritative in tone and enormously wide-ranging and ambitious, Weigel lays out an impressive manifesto for reform in the Church, based on what he describes as “Evangelical Catholicism”. This is the name he gives to a strong current within Catholicism that first emerged in the late nineteenth century after the First Vatican Council, focused on engagement with modernity, personal conversion, biblical literacy and radical Christ-focused transformation. He contrasts this with “Counter-Reformation Catholicism” – the Catholicism of the early modern period, which he argues was often strongly clericalist, preoccupied with institutional strength and a rather legalistic approach to catechetics, while hostile to other Christian groups and somewhat theocratic in its political approach.
There is barely any part of the Church which escapes his critical eye, from the sclerotic Curia, with its frustrating Italian working practices (can it really be true that the Vatican works a 36-hour 6-day week?!), to the bureaucratic national bishops’ conferences who have lost sight of what bishops are actually for and the millions of “baptised pagans” let down by poor catechesis. He wants every part of the Church to be streamlined for mission and proclamation and holiness. His remedies include better homiletics training for priests, better selection processes for bishops and an emphasis on the bishop as, above all, a teacher of the faith rather than an administrator or “manager of the local franchise of Catholic, Inc.”, and an emphasis on holy, Christ-focused individual Catholics. Some of the familiar targets of conservative Catholics – publicly dissenting politicians, flaky heretical nuns, the totalising liberal state – also come under (deservedly) heavy fire. He links many of the problems with open dissent in the Church with a lack of episcopal guts and determination. Interestingly he is not a Trad, and is quite critical of any kind of nostalgic or restorationist Catholic conservatism, arguing instead for the importance of beauty and reverence in the Mass and in church design and for a constructive, critical approach to modernity as part of the New Evangelisation.
In a sense, GW is preaching to the converted with me. I agree that Catholic life needs more vitality and solid teaching, more clarity and confidence in its mission, much less politics and worldliness in its leadership, more beauty in its worship, and a stronger public policy focus on those areas where the Church has a definite competence (although without losing track of the *principles* that undergird the Church’s broader social and economic teaching). Nevertheless, there is something in GW’s style that I don’t get on with – possibly the lack of room in his vision for eirenic, diffident ways of believing. And the scale of his proposed changes is intimidating. 

(25) Sunday 13th July      
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John Le Carre
A very fine book. Coming back to it I was impressed all over again by the intricacy of the storytelling, the creation of atmosphere, the finely drawn characters, and the depth of feeling at the heart of the plot. I also noticed, in a way I don’t think I did last time, the strongly implied following of Smiley by Jim Prideaux in the last days of the investigation (culminating in Haydon’s murder), and the fact that Roach – the Thurgood’s boy that Prideaux takes under his wing – has the Christian name “Bill”. I wish I could somehow read it without knowing who the mole was, because it seems to me that it is fairly clear over the course of the book, but I don’t know whether this is just because I already know! JLC does allude to this at the end, of course, when Smiley half-admits to himself that they had all, in some sense, known all along.

(26) Wednesday 23rd July
Short Breaks in Mordor: Dawns & Departures of a Scribbler’s Life
Peter Hitchens
Informative, well-written, amusing and thought-provoking essays from the last two decades of Hitchens’ foreign reporting. The reports from Bhutan, focusing on that country’s probably doomed attempts to resist the excesses of modernity and globalisation, were a personal favourite, but I greatly enjoyed reading PH’s views about China’s new and brutal imperialism in Africa and the need to engage more constructively and calmly with Iran. Also striking to see the change in his views on Russia – he has moved from being a New Cold Warrior, of sorts, to being a defender of Russia’s traditional quasi-imperial prerogatives in its sphere of influence. One quibble: reproducing dispatches written for different publications (The Mail on Sunday and The American Spectator) but based on the same trip and the same experiences sometimes leads to a slight feeling of sameness and repetition – though PH is a good enough writer to avoid this most of the time.

(27) Tuesday 5th August
The Fellowship Of The Ring
JRR Tolkien
This remains a wonderful book, probably my favourite of the LOTR trilogy. There is so much here, such a beautifully realised world full of wisdom and enchantment and strangeness. The gradual move from the quasi-Edenic seclusion of The Shire to the dangerous and uncertain world beyond its borders – and the accompanying realisation that its quiet rustic complacency is bought at a great price by others – works very well. I was also reminded of how well Tolkien describes a very old world, full of ruins, legends, half-remembered lore and sinister, haunted landscapes.  

(28) Monday 18th August
Died In The Wool
Ngaio Marsh
A country house mystery with a twist, viz. the country house in question is on an isolated upland sheep station in rural New Zealand, and has no mains electricity. Not perhaps a particularly complex or interesting mystery, but a splendidly atmospheric and enjoyable one, and explicitly anchored in a particular time (mid-1943) which adds to the sense of immersion in the story. The method of disposal of the body is almost comically gruesome, to the extent that I wonder whether NM – whose novels often have a slightly arch tone – might even be poking a bit of gentle fun at the excesses and conventions of the detective story. This is a distant cousin of Christie’s Five Little Pigs, with a murder in the past being recalled by a small circle of witness-suspects, but doesn’t have quite the depth and interest of that tale. Marsh is perhaps more formulaic and less inventive plot-wise than AC, but within those limitations she crafts very fine stories, with a humour and verve that AC often lacks. I’m still not entirely sure about Alleyn as a character – he can seem a little two-dimensional. I also wonder whether making the murder an essentially political rather a personal one is stretching the “rules” a bit.

(29) Friday 22nd August
Dead Water
Ngaio Marsh
A great idea for a setting: a spring near a sleepy fishing village somewhere on the south coast (I think it’s supposed to be Dorset or Devon, to judge by the accents of the rustics!) is the site of a seemingly miraculous cure of a young boy’s warts, and as a result becomes a kind of shrine, a cut-price Lourdes, with dangerous consequences. But it didn’t feel like NM really did justice to the set-up. The murder itself is quite pedestrian, and not exactly an impenetrable problem after the absolutely honking great clue that NM helpfully provides about four-fifths of the way through. One or two interesting plot threads just peter out and/or aren’t properly explored. The whole story feels a bit procedural and under-powered, and the portrait of rural life is rather hackneyed – e.g. the terribly nice but impoverished vicar and his terribly nice wife, and the stupid yokels. I’d have liked a bit more depth in exploring some of the wider themes – faith and healing and religion and disrupted community.

(30) Sunday 24th August
Death At The Dolphin
Ngaio Marsh
Another of Marsh’s theatrical mysteries, and another slight disappointment. This sticks closely to the Marsh formula of fairly long and slightly outlandish set-up – baroque death – detailed account of interviewing the suspects – a few further developments – Alleyn’s revelation of the killer. That’s not to say it’s not well-written and enjoyable (and funny in parts), but the denouement has a slightly unsatisfactory feel and the plot, clueing and detection are relatively uninspiring. If I were being pernickety, I might wonder whether the central killing is really a murder, rather than a flukey manslaughter. I like my whodunit murders premeditated and planned.  

(31) Wednesday 27th August
Pietr The Latvian
Georges Simenon
My first Maigret, and a very enjoyable read. It’s not a whodunit in the English tradition – it’s really more of a mystery thriller, and has echoes of the “hardboiled” American style – but Maigret is an instantly likeable and vividly drawn character, a bulky, dogged, amiable detective who likes a pipe, a pint and a sandwich (indeed, the image of him that formed in my mind bore a striking resemblance to GKC). The story here is engrossing, and even sad in some ways.

(32) Friday 5th September
The Forgotten Victory: The First World War Myths And Realities
Gary Sheffield
Brisk and readable revisionist account of the First World War. It’s revisionist in the sense that he questions many of the ingrained popular assumptions about the war – that Britain needn’t have fought, that the anti-war poets were/are an accurate reflection of veterans’ attitudes to the war, that it was the result of historical forces rather than individual decisions, that the Germans were not beaten in the field, and above all that the British Army were “lions led by donkeys”. Sheffield shows quite convincingly that the war was largely Germany’s fault, and makes a powerful argument against the “Better Off Out” position (to which I am sympathetic), on the grounds that Britain had a long-standing strategic interest in the independence and freedom of the Low Countries and France, and a moral imperative to resist the belligerence of a militaristic and quasi-authoritarian Germany. 
                The majority of the book is taken up with a well-argued and determined, though necessarily qualified, defence of the BEF’s conduct of the war on the Western Front, from the largely well-conducted (if costly) fighting retreats of 1914, through what GS calls the “steep learning curve” of the resulting years of trench warfare, to the repulsing of the Ludendorff Offensive and the subsequent skilfully led and executed counter-attacks in summer 1918. GS tries to set the record straight on Haig and his generals, arguing that while they were sometimes slow to adapt to the new conditions of warfare, they were not the cruel and unfeeling butchers of legend (I have read elsewhere that more than 200 British generals were killed in action in the war, which supports GS’s critique of the “cowering in their chateaux” line). He gives numerous examples of tactical innovation and flexibility by the BEF and its commanders, with a particular emphasis on the significant advances made in “all-arms” integration, and notes that even battles like the Somme and Passchendaele, held up as icons of futile and wasteful carnage, were not entirely unsuccessful.

(33) Thursday 11th September
 The Mystery Of A Hansom Cab
Fergus Hume
An early whodunit (published 1886), from a time when the detective genre was apparently still finding its feet and separating from the “sensation” novel so beloved of Victorian audiences. For my money, it hasn’t dated well. There are some interesting scenes of detection early on, and the murder mystery is neat (if not spectacular), but there is some rather purple prose and the more irritating conventions of late Victoriana are present and correct, as are tiresome sub-Dickensian working class characters. There is something almost comically OTT about their portrayal as stupid, brutish or squalid, and I could have done without so much phonetic rendering of their speech. The real problem, I think, is that the whodunit element is underdeveloped, and swamped by an overwritten and not very interesting “romantic” subplot. The Brave Young Hero Risking The Noose rather than hurt his Sweet Innocent Fiancée by revealing An Awful Secret is a pretty hackneyed trope, and the awful secret has to be pretty juicy to justify all the swooning and struggling for self-mastery on the verandah.
This “awful” secret is as follows: the fiancee’s widower father was an accidental and entirely innocent bigamist, because he had been lied to about the supposed death of his first wife and her child. Moreover, the Sweet Innocent Fiancee – also, of course, an heiress – has a half-sister who is, of all the terrible fates to befall a person, working-class.
Ho, and indeed hum.
The fact that the murder revolves around this ludicrous melodrama does not help with the suspension of one’s disbelief. Needless to say, the working-class half-sister is redeemed by her social betters, and the Sweet Innocent Fiancee is never told about the half-sister because it is, for some reason, Better That She Never Know; having to face a complicated but hardly unresolvable real-life situation might melt her delicate feminine brain or something.

(34) Wednesday 17th September
The Red Thumb Mark
R Austin Freeman
Strong echoes of Sherlock Holmes in this atmospheric Edwardian detective story about the barrister and forensic specialist Dr John Thorndyke and his friend/assistant Dr Jervis. The plot is simple: a bloody thumbprint at the scene of a jewel theft appears to incriminate a particular person, even though he seems a very unlikely candidate, and Thorndyke sets out to prove his innocence. The appeal of the tale is largely in Thorndyke’s approach to detection: Holmesian reasoning coupled with scientific knowledge and expertise. The slightly overwrought romantic sub-plot between Dr Jervis and the supposed inamorata of the wrongfully accused man doesn’t add much (as usual, the female characters are poorly drawn and one-dimensional), and the lack of suspense and depth in the answer to the question “who actually did it?” is a bit disappointing. That said, it’s well-written and I like the characters, even if they do feel a little derivative of Holmes and Watson.
(35) Thursday 18th September
The Mystery of 31 New Inn
R Austin Freeman
Well-constructed, well-clued mystery featuring Thorndyke and Jervis. Two initially separate stories gradually become entwined. This is a very entertaining read, with lots of clever detail and atmospheric toing and froing across London. I wasn’t a million miles from solving the mystery but hadn’t quite managed to set out everything in my head!

(36) Saturday 20th September
The Wolf’s Lair: Inside Hitler’s Germany
Roger Moorhouse
Short eBook of essays on various aspects of Nazi Germany – a rather interesting discussion of Hitler’s Eastern Front HQ at Rastenburg, its history, its size, the way it symbolised Hitler’s physical and metaphorical dislocation from the reality of the Second World War; a potted biography of Alfred Naujocks, the SD man who led the Gleiwitz raid (and participated in the Venlo operation) but later fell into disgrace; the story of the S-Bahn murderer, a Berlin serial killer; a discussion of the significance of the Wannsee conference, including a sometimes hard-to-read discursus on what and when Germans knew about the Holocaust; a rather odd little revisionist piece questioning the traditional view of Staufffenberg as “the good German”; and an enlightening look at the Germania architecture programme planned by Speer and Hitler. Mostly excellent vignettes, exploring areas about which I didn’t know very much. The Stauffenberg chapter feels like the weakest, straining too hard for revisionist impact and confused about what it’s trying to demonstrate. 

(37) Thursday 2nd October
The Two Towers
JRR Tolkien
Hugely enjoyable second instalment of the trilogy. The reader is immersed more and more deeply in Middle Earth, and in the struggles and conflicts and tensions thereof. The second half of the book, focusing on Frodo and Sam’s struggles to reach Mordor with Gollum as their guide, is particularly good, and the way in which JRRT explores sin and corruption and innocence and trust and forgiveness is clever and subtle. One scene that I don’t remember noticing before – in which the mistrustful Sam interrupts a moment of genuine moral clarity and even repentance for Gollum, thus losing an opportunity for redemption forever – is very insightful and sad.

(38) Wednesday 15th October
The Nursing Home Murder
Ngaio Marsh
Back to Marsh. A very strong and intriguing start, involving the death of Sir Derek O’Callaghan on the operating table. Unfortunately it doesn’t finish as well as it started. The red-herring Bolshies from A Man Lay Dead are still cluttering up the place. There’s not a great deal in the way of clueing, and making the murderer a madman seems a little bit of a cop-out (and is surely against the rules of the Golden Age!) – although a crazed eugenicist bumping off imperfect specimens is a nice little dig at the eugenics movement which was still very fashionable when this was published in 1935.

(39) Wednesday 22nd October
Death In Ecstasy
Ngaio Marsh
Once again we have a deliciously baroque murder, almost self-parodic in its rococo improbability – someone drops poison into the chalice during a bizarre cultic “communion” ceremony. This is another fun read, never taking itself too seriously and with some very sparky dialogue amid the traditional Marsh formula. But it must be said that there’s not a lot of substance to the central mystery, and one can’t help but feel that Christie or Sayers might have made a bit more of it. That said, this isn’t really Christie’s world, with its peculiar religious cults, relatively frank discussion of sex, and its focus on young(ish), single bohemians from the London middle class.    

(40) Sunday 26th October
Vintage Murder
Ngaio Marsh
Enjoyable New Zealand-set mystery involving a travelling theatre company and murder by a too-rapidly descending Jeroboam of champers. Although it sticks pretty closely to the Marsh formula, this is an above-average Alleyn story, with good background, very fair clueing, some well-written and thoughtful scenes, and colourfully drawn characters. NM obviously loved and knew both NZ and the theatre, and only occasionally does a character feel ridiculous (the ripe old ham in the twilight of his career and the ex-actor doorman with a vast store of anecdote sailed close to the wind in this respect).  

(41) Thursday 30th October
Death In A White Tie
Ngaio Marsh
A high society murder this time, with an affable old peer rather gruesomely suffocated by a blackmailer in a cab on the way home from a debs’ ball. A more than usually affecting murder; the victim was well-drawn and for a short time at the centre of the narrative, with the reader given access to his thoughts and feelings and insights and fears. Cleverly and fairly clued; a close and moderately imaginative reading would enable you to identify the killer, I think. NM is on sprightly form and there are some good scenes of character development, especially with Lady Alleyn and Agatha Troy (although her romantic scenes with RA have more than a hint of Mills & Boonery). There is an entertainingly described bounder as well, although his unpleasantness is laid on a bit too thick – certainly too thick for there to be any chance that he is the murderer.
On the downside, it feels like too much time is devoted to typically Marshesque detailed questioning. Such inquisition can feel rather schematic, with its focus on who was doing what, where, when and with whom. NM’s habitual reluctance or inability to pull rabbits out of hats re. motive or methods is also on display here, which detracts a little from the drama of the denouement. The solution itself bends, and perhaps even breaks, The Rules by making two of the major suspects accomplices. Also, I have a low tolerance threshold for Awful Secrets From The Long-Dead Past that turn out not to be very awful after all (cf. The Mystery Of A Hansom Cab).

(42) Saturday 8th November
The Return Of The King
JRR Tolkien
The key part of ROTK might just be the Scouring Of The Shire. Yes, it is a brief episode, seemingly a footnote to the defeat of Sauron and the resolution of the main business of the trilogy. But seen another way, it’s a chance for several of Tolkien’s key themes to play out.
It’s about the ambiguities of homecoming. It’s about the wrecking of a time-hallowed way of life by ugly, unthinking industrialism. It’s about the way in which small-scale evil, spite and pettiness and cowardice and the desire to boss people around, can wreak havoc. Over the course of the trilogy, JRRT never quite resolves the tension between different understandings of where the evil power of the ring comes from; whether it is evil in itself, or whether the power it offers merely draws out the potential for evil within people. My own instinct is that he believes both are true, but that the latter is more true, and the SOTS is certainly an illustration of the potential for wickedness from people who are bullying and loutish, or weak, rather than monstrous. The SOTS also illustrates the ongoing nature of the fight against evil, and the vulnerability of quiet, peaceable people to the strong and the malevolent, to say nothing of the way in which the virtues of quiet, peaceable people can easily become vices when the need to confront wickedness arises. Then of course there is the tension between Merry, Sam and Pippin’s determination to fight fire with fire, and Frodo’s war-weariness and impatience with violence. JRRT is sympathetic to both impulses, I suspect, and gives each a fair hearing. In the background of the SOTS lurk other questions too, noticeably about the dangers of going off on adventures to fight evils far away.
                The book itself is a fine end to LOTR. The fact that it is Gollum who eventually ensures the destruction of the Ring is both dramatically and thematically satisfying, vindicating the characters’ merciful attitude to him and striking a blow for trusting in goodness when it seems ludicrous and dangerous to do so. Sauron’s power is defeated, but not without cost. As Frodo says towards the end, “[the Shire] has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them”. The story of Frodo’s inability to truly return to normal life symbolises all those for whom the defeat of Sauron came at a very great price. The tragedy of Frodo’s alienation from the thing that he loves, that he saved, has strong resonances of the stories of returning soldiers all down the centuries (and of course JRRT was once himself a soldier coming back to a much-changed and much-disturbed home country). For me, the end of ROTK touches on the idea that the great human desire for home, for return, for what we once knew, is the reflection and echo of a greater and deeper need, for final reconciliation and entry into a heavenly home. Frodo comes home to the Shire, but he must eventually seek a truer Home – the Undying Lands.

(43) Wednesday 12th November
The Lost Stradivarius
JM Falkner
Old-fashioned and very compelling tragic ghost story in the grand Victorian/Edwardian tradition, slow-burning and understated but with some genuinely chilling moments. I struggled initially with a couple of points. One of these was the narrative style – the book is framed as a long letter to a boy from his dead father’s sister, and often depends on her narrating in the third person, and in some detail, events which she did not personally witness (with the explanation that she is reproducing detailed accounts given to her by others). But I swiftly overcame that, and was also able to ignore the besetting sin of many novelists of the time, i.e. weak and uninteresting female characters.
                On the whole this is a splendid tale. A clever and unsettling idea, capitalising on the strange power of music to move, captivate and corrupt, and with a deep sadness at its heart, like many great ghost stories. Even the Gothic clichés, such as a scary old portrait and the journey to the debased and seedy Latin world resulting in physical and spiritual sickness, do not detract from the plot. The symbolism of character names – Maltravers (French “bad crossing”?), Sophia (“wisdom”), Constance etc. – isn’t too laboured. The Oxford of the early Victorian period is well portrayed, although as ever in novels set in that city this is a particular Oxford – a rather lonely, spooky autumnal one.
The portrayal of Neo-platonic mysticism as dark and sinister is perhaps overdone and misconceived, but the decayed paganism which forms the main force for evil is well and sparingly evoked, and the opposition between that esoteric, sensuous paganism and the simple, wholesome austerity of Anglicanism is a powerful theme. I suppose I ought to defend Mediterranean Catholicism against its portrayal here as a sensuous fellow-traveller with the sinister pre-Christian forces, but it works very well dramatically and there is an element of truth to it. It might certainly have seemed alien and decadent to Anglicans in the 1840s.

(44) Wednesday 19th November
The Nebuly Coat
JM Falkner
Somewhere between a Thomas Hardy novel, an MR James ghost story, an early whodunit, and an Austenesque satirical comedy of manners (now there’s a Venn diagram to conjure with). I very much enjoyed it eventually – a slow-building but gripping story. A priggish young architect arrives in an isolated cathedral town in Dorset to supervise the restoration of a vast old minster, and becomes embroiled in a mystery concerning the local landowner, Lord Blandamer. Very well-crafted, with a few genuinely frightening moments and some clever authorial tricks. The claustrophobia, meanness, hypocrisy and prurience than can mark small town life is sharply observed and entertainingly satirised, and the odd and spooky atmosphere is well-evoked (it’s not always easy to convey a sense of near-supernatural dread without any actual portrayal of the supernatural). I appreciated Falkner’s decision not to tie up all the loose ends, which added to the overall sense of strangeness, and the deliberate ambiguity about the death of one character is well done and adds to the suspense of the climax. I’m slightly in two minds about how well the book ends, but willing to give JMF the benefit of the doubt. There’s even a genuinely interesting and complex female character, although her story isn’t really resolved.

(45) Friday 21st November
Bartleby, the Scrivener
Herman Melville
What a funny little short story this is. The narrator, a New York lawyer, takes on a copyist (the eponymous Bartleby), only to find himself entirely baffled by the man’s behaviour. He works hard but refuses to do anything except copy, declining any request or attempt at conversation with some variation on the words “I would prefer not to”. He remains silent and inscrutable, apparently living in the office and refusing to leave even when the narrator moves to different premises. Eventually he is removed to prison and even there refuses all conversation – and food. A little later, he dies, and no explanation of his behaviour is forthcoming. What are we meant to make of this tale? Is a parable about madness, or illness? Is Bartleby a hallucination or a metaphor for something? The narrator finds just one clue to Bartleby’s behaviour – his former role at the Dead Letter Office, dealing with mail that was addressed to deceased people. From this he tentatively hypothesises that Bartleby has been overwhelmed by the weight of grief and sadness and futility. Is that where the clue to the mystery lies? Other analysts, apparently, focus on the considerable peculiarity of the narrator’s own behaviour, or on the absurdist symbolism of Bartleby’s extreme assertion of individual will.

(46) Tuesday 25th November
Jurassic Park
Michael Crichton
It’s not great literature, but then it’s not pretending to be, and it is a superb example of the exciting techno-thriller. The apotheosis of the airport novel. A well-researched and entertaining story that rattles along at a great pace.

(47) Friday 28th November
The Lost World
Michael Crichton
I’d forgotten that this is a bit disappointing, as you might expect from a sequel that was supposedly written with some reluctance, to tie in with a film. It’s diverting and the story unfolds entertainingly enough, but there’s a lot of plot-driven recklessness – downright idiocy, even – which strains the suspension of disbelief to breaking point, and so spoiled my enjoyment. People acting foolishly or irrationally in extremis I can accept, but there are a ludicrous number of “unforced errors” here that exist only to push the story onwards.
Why didn’t anyone bring decent, or sufficient, weapons? Might Malcolm not have queried the decision to put the trailers near the top of a 500-foot cliff given his experiences with the rex on Isla Nublar? Indeed, it’s never quite clear why he comes to the island at all. Would Dodgson really have come to the island with such a small and badly equipped team? (The film version of The Lost World has its own problems, but its expansion of this expedition is an improvement on the book). Would anyone really have thought it was a good idea to take a baby T-rex from its nest, let alone keep it in the trailer to fix its leg? Would Levine really have thought that he and Diego could survive on the island? How did he do so for some time while merrily cycling through the jungle after T-rexes? What was his plan for getting off the island? Is it remotely plausible that no-one anticipated that a high hide barely fifteen feet off the ground might not be completely impregnable to predators (these people are all supposedly highly intelligent, remember)? Why didn’t they keep any weapons in the hide? Would anyone really have dropped litter from the hide in so cavalier a fashion under the circumstances?
                The death of Eddie “redshirt” Carr is very predictable, and the fact that he is both (a) the only goody to get eaten, and (b) the only blue-collar, non-academically brilliant adult on the goodies’ team, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. A propos of which, some of Malcolm’s long discourses on maths/philosophy/evolutionary theory seem even more extraneous and heavy-handed than in the original. It doesn’t help that he is, once again, delivering them while high on morphine having been badly injured by a T-rex.

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