19. Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms, by Gerard Russell

x1080-v0qYou might have heard of the Yazidis—they’ve been having some trouble, these past few years, from IS militiamen. You might even have heard of Zoroastrians, whose traditional burial rites involve leaving their dead in “sky towers” to be devoured by vultures (neither earth nor fire may be used to dispose of a body). But the Kalasha, or the Kam? The Copts of Egypt? The Samaritans? Ever heard of any of those? If not, don’t fret: Gerard Russell’s fantastically accessible and engaging book on minor religious traditions of the Middle East will tell you all about them. Russell is a former diplomat who has worked in Kabul, Cairo, Baghdad, and Jeddah, amongst other places; he doesn’t make many appearances in his own book, so that the impression the reader receives is of a pleasant, somewhat diffident man. (A photo of him partaking of local drinks with some Kalasha men seems to bear this image out.) Although each chapter involves him visiting an area of the Middle East where the religion in question is still practiced—the book therefore constituting a travelogue as well as a theology and history text—Russell’s personal experiences are rarely foregrounded. Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms is about the heirs of its title, the men, women and children who still practice arcane, even archaic, religious observances, and about what their lives are like.

Inevitably, Russell must discuss diasporas, and the relative ease or difficulty of maintaining the practice of a very small religion outside of its native land. Several of the belief systems he discusses are characterised by their secrecy. Only priests or elite members of the religious hierarchy of the Druze, for instance, are allowed to know what the whole thing is actually about: their followers are not required to read holy books or to keep any particular form of observance in dress, diet, abstinence, or really any other way. What is required of a lay Druze is the willingness to say “I am a Druze”, and to accept that the full meaning of that allegiance will probably remain forever closed to you. One woman recalls moving to America as a child and trying to explain her suspiciously lax religion to her teacher, who assumed she was lying. Only when her mother was asked, and confirmed that indeed their faith required absolutely nothing of them, did the teacher (apparently, though I’m sure she still didn’t really) believe her. But, as Russell notes, this also means it’s very hard to maintain a community of Druze outside of Lebanon. How do you protect and cultivate an identity which has no identity markers?

Some of the oldest of these religions are dead ends of Christianity or Islam, versions of those religions that stayed put when the majority of believers moved on to different, centralised, or officially sanctioned forms of worship. The creed of the modern-day Mandaeans, for instance, bears a strong resemblance to that of the early Christian sect the Marcionites, as well as to the beliefs of the highly popular and influential Manichaeans (Saint Augustine was one, before becoming a Christian). To an extent, these likenesses seem unremarkable: all of these versions of belief were developing around the same times, and around the same places. It should not strain our credulity that the two opposing forces of good and evil, light and darkness, appear in multiple different belief systems. But the idea that watching a Mandaean rite gets you closer to the experiences of Christ’s early followers than going to Mass does is an extremely enticing one. Moreover, it clarifies just how much major world religions have changed over the centuries, or millennia, of their existences. It’s hard to believe in the immutability of doctrine after reading Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms.

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18. Empire of Things, by Frank Trentmann

cover2This is not my usual sort of book at all. 880 pages of global economic history, nearly 200 of which are taken up by endnotes and bibliography? Gosh. But I put it on my #20BooksofSummer pile for a few reasons: we had sold a lot of it in the shop last summer, there was a damaged copy going, the front cover is utterly beautiful, and I am kind of interested in material culture: how people’s stuff relates to the way they treat themselves and each other, how self-fashioning is so often bound up with what you own and how you use it.

Since this is so enormous, I posted updates to Goodreads while I was working my way through it. They’re fairly indicative:

page 136 (15.45%): “So far, I’m impressed by Trentmann’s scope: he deals with consumerism in Ming China and in East African kingdoms, as well as in Britain, France, the Netherlands, etc. (There were big differences. Ming elites wanted antiques with provenance, not the new and shiny.) The focus of any given section is often unclear, though I’m willing to believe that this is the fault of a reader unaccustomed to reading economic history.”

page 370 (42.05%): “I’ve a better handle on the focus and structure now: part one is basically a chronological overview of global consumption trends (fun!!) Almost finished that section now and especially impressed with the analysis of consumption in the GDR and Soviet Russia. (Socialism doesn’t stop people wanting stuff. It’s not news, but the details on things like car ownership and food shopping are interesting and engaging.)”

page 735 (83.52%): “Covered lots of ground last night. Part 2 deals with present-day consumption issues, using historical examples to contextualise: the current chapter is on fair-trade movements. Interestingly, Trentmann’s analysis of the effects of state spending merely glances at contemporary austerity policies. He implies they only really affect the already-poor and disadvantaged, which is demonstrably untrue, at least in the UK.”

The very last bit was a short chapter looking into the future of consumption, which – obviously – is a tenuous one, given that if human civilisations continue to consume resources at the current rate, or anything like it, we’ll be in deep trouble very shortly. Trentmann has some interesting things to say on short-term strategies, like various municipal waste-management policies, but he stops short of advocating a real crackdown on waste or consumption. He keeps his own politics out of the narrative, mostly, as a good historian should, but globally we’ve reached a point where to be politically neutral is to make a political statement, so it doesn’t wash in this section, though it does in the earlier chapters.

It’s also too long, but then, any book of 880 pages is too long.

 

09. Chopin’s Piano, by Paul Kildea

cover-jpg-rendition-242-374It’s not really about Chopin’s piano.

Oh, it starts off adhering to its title well enough: Kildea gives some background information about Chopin and his lover, George Sand, an infamous female author who liked to scandalise Parisian salon society by dressing as a man. The two moved to the island of Mallorca for the winter of 1838-39, where Chopin’s lovely Pleyel piano got held up in customs and he was forced to make do with a pianino built by a local craftsman, Juan Bauza. That is the instrument on which he wrote his Preludes, “scraps” of music that have baffled listeners, players and critics ever since their premiere. Kildea’s idea, at least to begin with, is that tracing the pianino will shine some light not only on the circumstances under which the Preludes were composed, but on their vexed history of interpretation and performance. Since he also sees the Preludes as a symbol of Romanticism itself, the way in which pianists have approached them – from the ethereal stylings of Cortot to a later Romantic fad for greater attack and intensity, as befitted the larger halls in which public concerts could now be performed, and which publicly performed music now had to fill – is representative, for Kildea, of the history of the artistic movement in general.

None of that is particularly evident from the way he structures his book, though; I have come to the conclusion that this is what Kildea wants to explore because I’ve mentally winnowed the many, many pages of digression, distraction, tangent and plain irrelevance with which Chopin’s Piano is riddled. It’s not totally unenjoyable. If you have any interest in historical detail at all, some of it is great fun: descriptions of nineteenth-century Palma, the Mallorcan port town, are vivid (if too long), and the section set in the twentieth century doubles as a primer on the Nazi art-theft industry. (The pianino came into the hands of Wanda Landowska, a Polish pianist who had an affinity for Chopin and his music. Her instrument collection was scattered by the Nazi looting of great Parisian houses; some of it has been put back together, but the pianino has not been conclusively traced.) But there is just so much of it. Barely a few chapters into the book, Kildea launches into an explanation of how a nineteenth-century artist would produce a linocut. It goes on for some paragraphs. This has been prompted by the existence of a linocut of Palma as Chopin and Sand would have seen it. It’s interesting information on its own, but in a book like this, it’s vexing, an obstacle to the reader’s pursuit of the actual story.

Kildea does write evocatively about performance, which is historically his strength, given that his previous book was a biography of Benjamin Britten and that he was the artistic director of the Wigmore Hall from 2003-2005. He compares the various styles of the musicians who have attempted the Preludes with great thoroughness and erudition; it’s quite clear which side he comes down on (Cortot’s, and the gentler tradition’s), but he enables us to understand his partiality, because he can tell us what he hears. Nor is it his fault that the trail of the pianino goes cold, though it is narratively unsatisfying. The real issue, though, as Igor Toronyi-Lalic wrote in his Literary Review article on the book, is that one gets the impression Kildea is bored of being “a mere music biographer, and wants to be a Writer. Fatal.” I wouldn’t say fatal, but I would say it’s a waste of a good story.

04. The Stopping Places, by Damian Le Bas

41hq1jsvw3l-_sx309_bo1204203200_Damian Le Bas grew up around the Hampshire-Sussex border; he name-checks Petersfield on the first page, which is where my grandparents live and where I spent my summers from the age of seven onwards. Le Bas’s childhood, however, was spent selling flowers at the market there, and bombing around the countryside with various uncles and cousins, working on construction projects. He comes from a family of Travellers, or Gypsies, or Romanies—he uses the word Gypsy of himself and of people he knows, although my understanding is that for gorjies (outsiders), using either “Traveller” or “Romany” is less likely to give offense. He doesn’t, however, look particularly like a Traveller; he is light-skinned, fair-haired, blue-eyed. His education also marks him out: he won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital as a schoolboy, and went on to study theology at Oxford. Like many people whose life has taken them to places their early childhood never hinted at, Le Bas has anxieties about his identity, about what he can call himself and how to reconcile his heritage with the endless comments of “you don’t look like a Gypsy”. To that end, he decides to spend some time driving around Britain in search of atchin tans or stopping places: spots that traditional Traveller families knew as good sites to camp or to halt at, temporarily, on the road.

Despite Le Bas’s reminiscences of his childhood, the resulting book is really much more a travelogue than a memoir. His wife, Candis, for instance, appears regularly—she joins him for some of the later legs of his journey—but we don’t really get a sense of her as a personality, nor of how they met and entered into a relationship with each other. They seem not to speak much while they’re on the road, and he only rarely describes any particular feelings towards her; she’s just sort of there. Perhaps this is to free up space to talk about the atchin tans, which are interesting, although for at least the book’s first half there is a strong suggestion that the whole thing might end in failure: Le Bas finds himself unmoved by many of the stopping places he first visits, and there are several dark nights of the soul where he ponders why he’s making these trips in the first place. The reader could be forgiven for wondering the same thing.

Fortunately, after a trip to France to join in the Continental Gypsy pilgrimage to the shrine of St Sara-la-Kali, emotional engagement seems to kick in. Le Bas’s descriptions of Appleby horse fair, past and present, constitute some of the best and most evocative passages in the book. He’s also skilled at evoking the world of Traveller masculinity and honour, the rigid codes that govern a society that only appears free-wheeling to outsiders. But the most effective elements of The Stopping Places are Le Bas’s conversations with his indomitable grandmother, who grew up one of ten children in a world where Travellers still used wagons (they’re mostly in caravans or bungalows now): her retelling of her memories functions as a kind of oral history project. There’s too much in the way of regurgitated itinerary, and we don’t get to participate in Le Bas’s emotions and thought processes nearly as much as we ought; instead we’re mostly relegated to passive recipients of what he informs us he is thinking and feeling. But the fact that I can think of no other currently published mainstream book about Traveller life and culture is indicative of The Stopping Places‘ significance. It’s certainly a tantalising beginning.

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel

61n-3ut7n1l-_sx323_bo1204203200_It’s so nice when reading overlaps a little, and reading this back-to-back with Dragon Lords provided rather a good level of continuity. The first of the twelve manuscripts that De Hamel examines is known as the Gospel Book of St Augustine (of Canterbury), which dates from about the sixth century; saints and kings mentioned in Eleanor Parker’s book also get airtime here. De Hamel is the director of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, so he knows whereof he speaks. Twelve manuscripts spanning nearly a thousand years are given the full-on examination treatment: we get the histories of the material objects, the significance of the writing and illumination within, and, last but not least, a travelogue style of narrating, where De Hamel shares what it is actually like to look at the manuscripts. As he points out, most people with the will and the travel budget can go to see the Mona Lisa, if they want to; it is far harder to physically access a manuscript in person, though they are some of the greatest cultural treasures in the world. And so he gives us the experience, insofar as he can. We learn what it’s like to walk inside the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, or the Black Diamond building of the Royal Library in Copenhagen, or the Pierpont Library in New York. (Some of this stuff is worth the cover price for the sheer gossip value: De Hamel is always utterly professional, but his strong feelings about various buildings and their staff still come through. Copenhagen’s library seems like a lovely place to visit, full, as he describes it, of serenely long-haired students like time-frozen hippies and helpful, cheery staff; his experience with the Morgan library, by contrast, is one of polite bafflement at America’s love affair with bureaucracy, authority, and procedure.)

Not only is this book ridiculously beautiful (with lots of full-page colour illustrations, as you would hope), and outrageously informative (I know all about the difference between uncials, insular majuscule, and capitalis rustica now), it’s also far, far funnier than it has any right to be. De Hamel’s account of the day when both Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury bowed to him on live television (he was carrying an extremely old copy of the Gospels at the time) is characteristically excellent: self-deprecating, with a keen eye for the ridiculous, as when he describes various dolled-up prelates as “walking Christmas trees”. If all of this wasn’t enough, it’s full of trivia that makes you gasp: there’s a book called the Codex Amiatinus, for example, that is repeatedly referred to as being ridiculously huge, and when you finally see a photo of it, you immediately get it. (De Hamel says it weighs about 90 pounds; then, winningly, he adds that an eccentric antiquary of the Victorian era described it as “weighing about the same as a fully-grown female Great Dane”. De Hamel opts for the slightly more sensible comparison unit of a twelve-year-old boy. Either way, that is a very heavy book.) It’s not just for antiquarians, this; anyone who likes beautiful things, or old things, or books, in any way, would get a lot out of it. It’s certainly earned a spot on my best-of-2018 list.

In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up these reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.

Dragon Lords, by Eleanor Parker

51cfbybnhcl-_sx307_bo1204203200_If you were to choose a book to be reading in public with the deliberate strategic purpose of getting the number of the guy who works in your local Indian takeaway, it is unlikely that you would choose this one, but truth is stranger than fiction and I must therefore tell you that that is exactly what happened when I wandered into the curry house on Crouch Hill holding a copy of Dragon Lords. “The history and legends of Viking England” is quite an enticing subtitle, so perhaps that had something to do with it; it was certainly a major factor in my requesting a reading copy of this from the publisher’s rep. It’s also a slightly misleading subtitle, since Dragon Lords is both more focused and less conclusive than an overview of late antique/early medieval British history might be. I think it might be a book version of Parker’s doctorate (she’s now a tutor at Brasenose College, Oxford), which is no bad thing, though it meant re-accustoming myself to writing that isn’t necessarily for a general audience.

Dragon Lords is primarily interested in early medieval narratives about Anglo-Danish interaction. (Sexy!) Since there were multiple waves of Danish/Viking conquests, the history is not nearly as straightforward as the phrase “Anglo-Danish” makes it sound; the conquerors of one generation became the naturalised inhabitants of England, and the people conquered, in the next round of organised invasion. Intermarriage and cultural diffusion happened, as they always do, and the resulting culture was a whole lot of things rolled into one: pagan-Christian, Anglo-Saxon-Danish-with-a-splash-of-Norman. Naturally, the stories that this motley culture told itself over several hundred years—about where it came from, and why—also changed: sometimes a Dane is a good Christian king, sometimes he is the leader of a band of ravening, monk-murdering sea-wolves.

Because Parker’s emphasis is on the continuity (or not) of narrative elements, the sheer accumulation of detail can sometimes be difficult to follow. In the second chapter, for instance, she follows the trail of a mysterious figure called Ragnar Lothbrok, who appears in Anglo-Danish narratives in all manner of guises. Sometimes he’s a thug with many sons, murdered at the hands of the King of Mercia and avenged by his children; sometimes he’s a more innocent figure, a stranger in a strange land betrayed by a jealous courtier. It’s impossible to make any concrete assertions about the historical figure (or figures) that might have been behind the Lothbrok stories—he’s like Robin Hood or King Arthur—but Parker’s greatest asset as a writer is her curiosity, and that carries the reader a long way, too. (My particular interest in Viking Britain is literary, and I especially enjoyed her long section on the early verse romance Havelok the Dane. There are also some interesting sections on stories, or story elements, that Shakespeare clearly drew upon when he was writing Macbeth and Hamlet.) Dragon Lords is unashamedly niche, but if you want to know more about pre-Conquest Britain—and trust me, there are hundreds and hundreds of years’ worth of eventful, exciting, violent history there—this is for you.

In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up these reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.

Reading Diary: Apr. 30-May 12

coverIn 2009, a young music student named Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum’s exotic bird collection at Tring in Hertfordshire. He carried away around three hundred bird skins, many of which were not only immensely valuable on the black market, but had incalculable scientific value. Some of them were from Alfred Russell Wallace’s famous expedition in the Malay Archipelago, and still bore biodata tags with Wallace’s handwriting on them. Rist was caught, but questions remained: who was this kid, and how had he managed a heist of this magnitude? What had he wanted the feathers for in the first place? And—given the number of skins missing from the museum—had he been assisted by someone else? Where were those skins now?

In The Feather Thief, Kirk Wallace Johnson has written an outstandingly readable account of the theft and its aftermath. Rist was a homeschooler, a brilliant flute player, and a champion salmon fly-tier. Fly-tying is a curious community; tiers become obsessive about recreating Victorian “recipes”, which often call for extremely rare feathers, sometimes from birds that are now endangered or extinct. As a result, much of the international black market in feathers is represented by single-minded tiers looking for, let us say, a Flame Bowerbird skin. Rist sold much of his loot to people like this. Some, when he was busted, agreed to return what they’d purchased. Others—most of the others, in fact—either refused outright, or became increasingly cagey before refusing to return Johnson’s messages. (Johnson enters the narrative about two-thirds of the way through; he hears the story of the heist while on a fishing trip, and becomes increasingly invested in seeing as many of the skins returned to Tring as possible. He also interviews Rist, who escaped prison by way of a psychological assessment that concluded he had Asperger’s Syndrome and was not aware of the gravity of his actions. Johnson is not so certain, and his account of the interview raised serious doubts for this reader, as well; Rist displays none of the characteristics of someone with Asperger’s.)

In among the true crime stuff, Johnson sprinkles natural history and straight-up history: accounts of the first birds of paradise to be caught by Europeans, statistics regarding the wholesale slaughter of exotic birds for Victorian and Edwardian millinery, the esoteric world of salmon fishing and fly-tying, and the murky online forums where, in the early years of the twenty-first century, tiers swapped not only tips and tricks, but feathers: sometimes legally sourced, sometimes not. It’s a profusion of detail that could be confusing, but Johnson’s journalistic training means he writes with great clarity and restraint. The Feather Thief ticks so many boxes: science, history, true crime, and the mysterious now-what-the-hell factor that all good stories have. Very worthwhile.

9781786073228Shahad Al Rawi’s debut novel, The Baghdad Clock, isn’t metaphorically titled: there really is a large landmark clock in Baghdad with four faces. It perches on top of a tall stem, visible from all directions, like a kind of Martian Big Ben. In the novel, it serves as a place for the unnamed narrator and her best friend Nadia to meet up with the boys they love. It also serves as the title of the book the two girls decide to write: a history or memorial of their neighbourhood, which is increasingly decimated by emigration as sanctions tighten on Iraq during the late ’90s and early 2000s. The clock marks the forward pace of time, but it also helps to keep time still, to preserve moments and individuals forever in a particular state of being, as writing does.

Al Rawi explicitly cites Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude (our narrator, dreamy and imaginative, adores it; Nadia finds it boring). Unlike many novels that look to Marquez, Al Rawi seems to me to be a completely legitimate heir to his project; like him, she delineates the effects of the outside world, of time and strife, on a small community, in this case a middle-class neighbourhood in Baghdad. Magical realist touches are dotted throughout the story so naturally that it comes as something of a shock to discover that they’re there: when our narrator goes for a midnight stroll and encounters an enormous cruise liner parked next to the eponymous clock, it takes us some time to realise that it’s not a dream. This mostly succeeds because the narrator’s voice—by turns naive, sparky, precocious, and creative—is the medium through which we encounter the whole story, and it’s consistent and convincing. Fans of The Kite Runner and The Iraqi Christ, as well as the aforementioned Garcia Marquez, will want to read this.

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The Yukon River in Alaska is home to the king salmon, a fish that has been commercially hunted to the point of absolute peril and which also forms a large part of the religious and cultural life of the indigenous folk of both Alaska and Canada. (Adam Weymouth, in Kings of the Yukon, uses the words “Indian” and “Eskimo” to distinguish between ethnic groups which are not differentiated by catch-all terms like “First Nations” or “indigenous peoples”. He notes, also, that many Alaskan indigenes use “Indian” or “Eskimo” themselves. It never particularly stands out, or at least it didn’t to me, and never appears to be used in disrespect.) This book is an account of a voyage made down this enormous river in a canoe, over the course of several months, on the trail of king salmon.

Weymouth’s nature writing, particularly his descriptions of river, forest, and wildlife encounters, is reminiscent of John McPhee’s extraordinary Alaska travelogue Coming Into the Country. So is his journalistic eye: his encounters with the people who live and work along the Yukon are reported with a sense of interested detachment (except for a scene in which Weymouth and his partner Ulli Mattson encounter some young people at a fishing camp who seem particularly threatening; the intrusion of authorial fear is jarring enough that the reader understands how truly serious the situation seems.) The real star of the book is, of course, the king salmon, a mysterious creature that engages in behaviour unlike any other animal on earth, that has supported whole civilisations on its back. It is now the cheapest fish you can get in a supermarket. Weymouth focuses on the differences between commercial and subsistence fishing, demonstrating how enforced Department of Fish and Game quotas disproportionately affect subsistence fishers and do little to discourage big commercial actors. He also writes with some wonder on the weird biology of the king salmon, its restlessness and relentless homing instinct, and how hatcheries are at best a partial solution to the problem of a shrinking population. Most importantly, though, Kings of the Yukon is intensely readable: a mix of adventure and natural history with a dollop of sociology. Like The Feather Thief, it is immensely worth your time.

51teaie8lhl-_sx313_bo1204203200_It’s difficult for me to approach Bill Bryson with critical or analytical intent, mostly because he’s as integral a part of my childhood, and of my family’s particular culture, as winter picnics, or the annual intergenerational Thanksgiving football game, or putting out beer for Santa. (We do that.) A Walk in the Woods has always had a particularly special place in my heart because it’s about his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, which runs in part along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, about twenty minutes from where I grew up. (My parents spent a not inconsiderable amount of time pushing me and my brother up those trails when I was a young’un.) So when the bank holiday loomed and I decided not to bring any proofs away to Sussex with me, but instead to reread an old beloved or two, this was a natural choice.

There’s been some controversy surrounding A Walk in the Woods, mostly because of the way Bryson portrays his walking companion, an old school friend named Stephen Katz whom he hasn’t seen since they backpacked around Europe together twenty years earlier. Katz is a phenomenal comic creation: he’s philosophical, simple but able to get to the heart of things, amusingly materialistic, and most of all, crazy as a bedbug. (He has a temper tantrum and hurls some important things, like food, out of his pack and off a cliff. What sort of things, Bryson asks, worried. “I don’t know”, says Katz. “Heavy shit. Fuck.” We’ve all been there, no?) He’s also a reformed alcoholic, and near the end of the book comes a rather moving scene in which Katz attempts to open up to Bryson about the desperation and boredom of staring down the barrel of the rest of your shitty little life without booze to make it feel worthwhile. The scene is delicately rendered, suffused with a specifically male absence of demonstrative affection but full, nevertheless, of unspoken, deeply charged emotional truth. But it occurred to me, both then and in earlier scenes where Katz’s lack of physical fitness is dwelt upon, that this was potentially very hurtful material, and might even constitute something like a betrayal of trust. Writers’ friends are told not to trust them for good reason.

There are two primary virtues of A Walk in the Woods. Firstly, it is casually but highly informative about forests and human relationships to nature in America in general, and about the Appalachian Trail in particular. This is the sort of talent that enabled Bryson later to write A Short History of Nearly Everything, the best popsci primer I know. Secondly, and most importantly, it is devastatingly funny. There is a scene in which the two men have to escape Waynesboro, Virginia (a town through which my mother drives twice a week) without being shot by the husband of a woman Katz has inadvertently picked up in a laundromat, which has me nearly weeping with laughter every time I read it, and I’ve read it four times in the past ten years. He’s still the funniest travel writer I know.

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More Virginia with Kevin Powers’s second book, A Shout in the Ruins. Consensus seems to be that it’s good, but not on the same level as his debut novel, The Yellow Birds, which set the bar for early literary explorations of the (Second) Iraq War. Having not read The Yellow Birds, all I can say is that it must be absolutely bloody outstanding, because A Shout in the Ruins is really very, very, very good.

Powers is interested in war in general: A Shout in the Ruins alternates between chapters set during the American Civil War, and chapters set in the 1960s and 1980s, during which the Vietnam War and its aftermath crops up regularly. Much of Powers’s best writing focuses on the intimacy and the brutality of armed conflict, such as a scene in which Bob Reid, the owner of a shipping business near Richmond, loses half his arm during a skirmish near Mechanicsville. His conversation with a nearby, and equally badly wounded, enemy soldier is made possible because both men believe they will die. When Reid is rescued, the Confederate scavengers who find him savagely murder the man whose companionship has kept him awake and alive. Powers is too canny a writer to do more than show us a brief glimpse of this, but what we do see is haunting. He does the same thing when outlining emotional states. The manipulative behaviour of Mr. Levallois, Reid’s neighbour and eventual son-in-law; Reid’s mental disintegration after his injury; his daughter Emily’s diminishment in her marriage; and, over all, the untold emotional traumas of Rawls and Nurse, a slave couple whose fates are entwined with the Reids: all are recounted but not dwelt upon. Powers leaves us to conjure for ourselves the deep horror of, for instance, Rawls’s crippling, as a child, by a master determined to stop him running away.

The effect is that the evils of slavery are fully presented, but in a way that doesn’t read with the almost pornographic flavour of explicit violence. Unlike Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, or even a scene or two in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground RailroadA Shout in the Ruins doesn’t dive deeply into the physical torture inflicted upon slaves by white folks; it just shows us, on nearly every page, that it’s there. As a white Southern male author, Kevin Powers’s position in relation to the history of American slavery is necessarily going to be different from the positions of Whitehead or James, and as such, his decision prevents the novel from falling into prurience (the white gaze on the tortured black body). It feels as though the book respects its characters, even as their lives are made increasingly difficult.

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Historical literary fiction is doing rather well at the moment, and the casual reader could be forgiven for feeling perhaps a bit wearied of the whole thing: the elaborate covers, the gushing praise, the mannered titles. I’m here to tell you that The Illumination of Ursula Flight is worth the read. It would appeal, I think, to fans of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, but it is in many ways a very different book. Ursula, our protagonist, speaks to us in her own voice throughout, and it is a voice with wit, sparkle, and plenty of youthful callowness; she is far from a flawless heroine, making decisions that remind us of how very young she is when cast into the world (fifteen at her marriage, nineteen at the end of the book). If, occasionally, she almost seems more adult in her thinking than is plausible, recall Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair, who claimed to have ceased being a child at the age of eight.

Ursula is born on the night of the Great Comet in 1664, just before the Restoration of Charles II. Throughout the book, the tensions in England – vanquished Puritans vs. decadent courtiers – are mirrored by the tensions in Ursula’s own life: her family is noble but needs money and so she is married off to the dour (and foul-smelling) Lord Tyringham, whose devoutness is matched only by his hypocrisy (he has an almost fetishistic fondness for plain clothes that leads him to sexually assault his female servants). Ursula, who has grown up surrounded by love and the freedom to roam the fields, read what she will, and write her own plays, is suffocated by marriage; she takes joy in the Court, in fashion, and in the theatre. It may be a cruel world, but it glitters.

Crowhurst’s research is worn lightly, and mostly integrated in speech patterns. (I particularly like her characters’ attitude to grammar, which is manifest in letters from nobles of the time; they also say “how d’ye do”, never “how do you do”, and “babby” for “baby”. It’s small but pervasive, and it makes a huge difference to the sense of verisimilitude.) She’s also funny: Ursula’s observant and uncharitable teenaged eye makes her a good playwright but also an enjoyable narrator, reminding me very pleasantly of Catherine Called Birdy (did anyone else love that book as a kid?) My sole complaint is with the ending (spoilers in white, highlight to read): can we, just for once, have a story in which the heroine doesn’t carry her unexpected pregnancy to term? It makes sense in the context of Ursula’s character, and what she’s lost up to that point,  but I still found myself hoping that the abortifacient would work, and she would keep her liberty: single, unencumbered.

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Finally, Kat Gordon’s The Hunters is set in the 1920s and ’30s amongst the Happy Valley set in colonial Kenya. Theo Miller is fourteen, accompanying his parents and ten-year-old sister Maud to their new home outside of Nairobi. His father has been appointed director of the railways; his mother is preparing herself for a life of charitable works and social engagements, the model of a colonial industrialist’s wife. Everything changes, though, when Theo meets Freddie Hamilton and Sylvie de Croy in a Nairobi hotel. Bohemian, beautiful, worldly and yet ethereal, Freddie and Sylvie capture Theo’s imagination and his schoolboy heart. Over the course of fifteen years, Theo comes slowly to understand the darkness that lies behind the glamour and the gaiety of their unconventional circle. At the same time, his parents and sister are affected by the changing political situation in Kenya, the encroachment of World War II, and the decisions that must be made when one world replaces another.

For sheer atmosphere and addictiveness, The Hunters is going to take some beating as this season’s reasonably literary beach read. Gordon effortlessly conjures the wildness of the Happy Valley set: cocktails, croquet, open-topped cars, safaris, nights at the Nairobi Club, country house orgies, young gentlemen swinging from the chandeliers. Her most impressive achievement is her characterisation of Theo: although he’s our protagonist, he is a moth to flame, caught up too young in Freddie and Sylvie’s romantic games and nearly fatally unable to see them for the immature and thoughtless – and therefore cruel – people that they are. (It is a matter of conjecture as to why Theo’s parents permit him to go on overnight stays with adults ten years his senior, with whom they are not friends and about whom they have heard only negative things. From a modern perspective, he is being groomed; from a late Edwardian perspective, he is damaging his own prospects and possibly the family’s. Obviously, the plot requires that he be allowed to spend time with Freddie and Sylvie, so that is what happens.)

Our moral centre is Maud, Theo’s sister, and here is where The Hunters palls slightly; Maud is made into a white crusader for native rights, a clear-eyed anti-fascist when everyone around her is applauding Mosley and the Blackshirts. There are sometimes people who are capable of looking at their own time from a distance, but it always feels so very convenient when a work of fiction produces such a character and uses them as a demonstration of its own social progressiveness. I am not saying that Maud is necessarily anachronistic, merely that she is presented much as Miss Skeeter in The Help: this book’s obvious advocacy for sovereignty for Africans does not extend to giving its African characters particularly complex roles or even very much dialogue. Maud’s love for, and eventual bearing of a child with, Abdullah, the family’s house boy, is presented as bold and transgressive – for her. No one in the book ever pauses to contemplate the danger Abdullah faces in this relationship. In addition, the final thirty or so pages are unnecessarily melodramatic (why must there always be an accidental death?), in a way that drags down the (much fresher) rest of the book. Still, a page-turner: I read it in a day.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of wilderness. Also, I only read one book over the bank holiday weekend, which was weirdly liberating. There are so many proofs lined up on the shelves that to just let them all go for three days felt salutary.