The Selected Poems of Li Po

I don’t read a lot of poetry because I mostly don’t really get it, but occasionally something catches me. In this case, a quote in Civilization VI, when you receive the Great Writer Li Bai, an 8th century Chinese poet:

Flowers surround me, alone with my drink,
I pour for myself, no companion to join me.
I raise my glass and toast the full moon,
Who shall with my shadow make us three.

I liked it partly because Civ VI is narrated by Sean Bean and I could listen to him read anything, and partly I liked the simplicity, and partly that Li Bai mostly seems to write about wine. As a result I bought The Selected Poems of Li Po (the westernized name of Li Bai). They are beautiful. Simple and profound. And probably much deeper and more complex than I’m capable of appreciating.

As it happens, neither of the poems quoted in Civ VI were actually in this collection. This is from my favourite, On Hsieh T’iao’s Tower in Hsüan-Chou: A Farewell Dinner for Shu Yün:

 But slice water with a knife, and water still flows,
empty a winecup to end grief, and grief remains grief.

The Sagas of the Icelanders

This is another of the books that has been sitting on my shelf unread for years because it’s too heavy to carry around on the train. The Sagas of the Icelanders, published as a Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, is a collection of some sagas and tales from the Viking age. Translated and edited by a number of scholars, it contains ten sagas and seven tales. With the maps, commentary and reference section it runs to nearly 800 pages and the deluxe edition is printed on thick rough edged papers. Which makes it very pleasing in the tactile sense, but pretty heavy.

Thanks to my new morning routine, I finished The Sagas of the Icelanders this week after months of reading. There are worse ways to start the day for sure. The Sagas selected are a small sample of the whole body of literature. The emphasis in this collection are on the Sagas that depict a realistic view of the lives of Icelanders – or at least the lives of the Chieftain class.

It starts with several very long sagas depicting the movement of significant families from Norway to Iceland, usually because of difficulties getting along with the earls competing to be kings but sometimes as a result of being outlawed for killing someone. They’re mainly set in 900-1000AD and were written down around 1100-1200AD which makes the writing of them contemporary with Chrétien de Troyes and slightly earlier than Chaucer and Dante. It also means that there is some uncertainty over the reflection of the spiritual practices of pre-Christian Icelanders and how much the writing down has sanitized the oral tradition.

On the cover of the book is a comment from Milan Kundera that if the Sagas had been written in a less isolated European country they would have had a much more significant effect on the development of the modern novel. In this selection the Sagas and, especially, the Tales do really read like modern stories, notably the thriller. They are stories of people navigating social expectations of honour and the power of reputation. My favourites were the Saga of Ref the Sly, which is about a man who would prefer to avoid conflict but is pushed into it by others who think it is weak to not fight, and Egil’s Saga, which is the story of Egil Skallagrimson and his family’s generational feud with the kings of Norway.

In the Saga of Ref the Sly, Ref wants to avoid conflict, so pretends he doesn’t know what is said about him. Others consider this weak and push him into answering these slights. Ref fights successfully but is then outlawed which meant that Ref is considered a criminal and can be killed by anyone. Whoever kills him will gain honour. The Saga deals with what it means to spend your life in hiding.

Egil’s Saga spans 150 years and is largely set in Norway. The background is King Harald Fair-Hair’s merciless unification of the country of Norway. Egil’s grandfather and father refuse to swear allegiance to Harald and so go to Iceland and claim land there. The adventures of Egil reflect this stubbornness and inability to accept authority. He’s not an entirely likeable character but is very relatable. His sons are characters in their own Sagas.

The Sagas are probably more accessible than most medieval literature and I enjoyed reading them. I’d recommend them. Possibly in a smaller, more portable, version of the book.

The Handmaid’s Tale

handmaid's taleHow have I waited so long to read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? It’s a classic, and has been televised, and is the kind of thing that sometimes you don’t read because you think you know all you need to about it. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and I really should have read it long ago.

Sometime in the 20th century a Christian extremist sect sets up a totalitarian theocracy in the US. The handmaids are a caste of women able to have children which is now a rare ability, due to widespread sterility. It’s not clear if that because of environmental toxins or out-of-control STDs. Offred doesn’t know what’s true and what isn’t, so neither does the reader. The ruling elite use propaganda to create the beliefs they want the populace to have, and much of what the narrator, Offred, relates is what she’s been encouraged to believe. The parallels between that and the distortion of reality created in today’s media are striking.

Offred describes her life, her illegal relationships with the Commander and his driver, Nick, and her eventual escape via an underground railroad. It is compelling. The claustrophobic nightmare of Offred’s life is vivid. What struck me the most was the boredom. Offred has nothing to do. People are not permitted to read or to write and a handmaid’s only role is to breed. Offred is allowed a daily trip to obtain rationed food but she has no other role, so she spends a lot of time on her own in her room doing nothing. There are exercises and prayers but Offred is not a true believer.

I was gripped by the story. I’d expected, as it was published in 1985, to find it dated. Scarily, the opposite was true. It seems like a future that is only a couple of steps away. One or two wrong turns and we could easily end up there. Atwood’s realisation of the impact of living in a totalitarian society is chilling. It’s an important book and is still relevant. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t wait any longer.


Buy my book Fragments at Amazon or Smashwords.

Seven Viking Romances

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a long time, wanting to read it but thinking it might be hard work. Seven Viking Romances, translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, is a collection of Viking adventure stories.


These tales are less serious than the Icelandic Sagas and have many more fantastical elements. There are seven stories, drawn from several centuries, with a common theme of raiding, pillaging and  theft.

This book was an easier read than I thought it would be, in large part because the stories are meant to be entertaining and funny. They are essentially episodes of sailing around the world looking for notable warriors to kill and treasure to steal. For dramatic effect, once or twice the protagonists of the stories fail to kill the notable warrior. When that happens they either join forces with him or run away and come back later.

I was wrong to think that this would be heavy-going. It’s actually delightful and there were parts that made me laugh out loud. These stories don’t explore the ideas of right and wrong or offer a deep psychological insight into the motivations of the characters, or try to educate the listener/reader about the world. They are just entertaining tales from another time and place.

A Moveable Feast and The Paris Wife

June Book Club was a double bill: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway and The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.

A Moveable Feast is a collection of vignettes recalling the years in the 1920s Hemingway spent living in Paris. Each of the people he knew there, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and several others, has their story told. The depictions aren’t always flattering but there is a sense that all the fluff has been cut away and that Hemingway gets to the core of who people really are. While technically this is non-fiction it was written many years after the events, and knowing that Hemingway’s fiction is closely based on his life, there is the sense that story and style matter more than fact. The truth that Hemingway is in search of is a truth of the heart and mind, not the truth of reportage. The content isn’t something I’d normally enjoy; it’s a bit gossipy and has a slight feel of Heat magazine to it, but I love the writing style.

I love the deceptively simple bare bones starkness of it. I love the way every single word matters. I love the intensity and the sense of striving for emotional truth. I first read this when I was nineteen and it’s always interesting to read again the things that had a big impact when you were young, just to see whether it’s as good as you remember, or whether the greatness was fuelled by teen angst. It was better second time round. I will definitely be re-reading the rest of his work at some point soon.

The Paris Wife is the story of Hadley, Hemingway’s wife during the Paris years. Hadley is a shadowy figure in A Moveable Feast and barely gets mentioned. She isn’t even named until halfway through. It was a brave choice to write this book, given that Hemingway is one of those writers that tends to inspire irrational fandom. It starts when they meet in Chicago, tells the story of their courtship and marriage, and then the story of their time in Paris up until Hemingway falls in love with someone else and their marriage ends.

I didn’t find McLain’s portrayal of Hadley sympathetic. From the notes to the book, it seems McLain did a lot of research and tried to keep her story as factual as possible – although when I was reading the story I wasn’t convinced she’d done any research at all. For the first half of the book I was intensely annoyed; the tone was all wrong, the language was too modern and the dialogue didn’t ring true. Fortunately, it’s a very easy read so it didn’t take long to get through it. And by the halfway point I was totally engaged. The second half of the book was much better and much of what’s wrong with it would have been fixed by cutting the first 150 pages.

The Paris Wife makes an interesting counterpoint to A Moveable Feast and it’s worth reading to round out your perspective. It’s particularly illuminating about the events that became The Sun Also Rises.  Any Hemingway is worth reading.

War and Peace

Reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy was my main reading goal for this year. I spend a couple of hours a day on a train and I like to use that time constructively. Some books need a bit of time and effort, and commuting makes it easy to do that. War and Peace has been pretty high on my ‘should read’ list for a long time but I’ve been put off by reports of its difficulty.

Commuting presents the best opportunity I’m going to get to tackle the hard stuff. In this case, I didn’t make it. It’s 550,000 words, which is not that daunting for fantasy readers, I think. (As an aside, wikipedia has a list of the longest novels. In Search of Lost Time, I’m coming for you).

To start with I was really enjoying it. It’s in three volumes and volume 1 is wonderful; easy to read, full of beautifully drawn characters and believable dialogue. Most of this part is set in aristocratic society in Moscow and St Petersburg and it is lovingly brought to life. Most of volume 2 was pretty good as well. The pace was good, and aside from the length, I was struggling to identify what was supposed to be so intimidating about it.

The Peace bits were better than the War bits. The parts where the action was about relationships and society were very natural and had quite a modern feel about them, in that there was little exposition and a lot of showing things on the page. The War bits were harder to read. I wondered if this was a deliberate attempt to create a feeling of discomfort in the reader or evidence of lack of familiarity with the situation. Or perhaps it’s just that a modern reader is used to more cinematic descriptions of battle. There was more exposition and less flow. I liked that Tolstoy focussed on the confusion and general wandering about of armies, rather than presenting a heroic battle.

As the book goes on there is more War and less Peace. By the time I got to volume 3 there was another problem. Tolstoy stops telling a story and starts ruminating about historical determinism, fate and the ‘great man’ theory of history. All interesting stuff, but heavy going, and all the time you want to get back to the story. I got about 85% of the way through and my reading rate had dropped to about thirty pages a day (from a high point of about 80 pages a day). I stopped to read the book for my book club and found I really didn’t want to pick War and Peace up again.

If you’ve ever wanted to read this book, I’d say give it a go. Much of it is brilliant. I never really understood what was meant when people talk about Russian fatalism, but now I do. Volumes 1 and 2 are engaging and enjoyable and it’s worth it just for that.

The Way We Live Now

Free kindle books! Yay. There are books now out of copyright that are available free for the kindle and I have availed myself of a few. One of them is The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope which I wanted to read as it was mentioned in an article on The Business Case for Reading Novels.

Mr Melmotte arrives in London amidst rumours of vast wealth, shady deals and a lack of breeding. It is set in London in 1870 and there are several lordlets in search of an heiress. Melmotte’s wealth is reckoned to be so great it overrides any considerations that he might be a commoner.

One of the lordlets is Felix Carbury whose mother has decided that she will make a living (she has to because her son gambles away her money) writing books. She surmises that it is more important to persuade influential critics to say her books are good than it is to actually write good books. Felix’s sister, Hetta, has an offer of marriage from her cousin, Roger Carbury, who is a model of virtue. But she is in love with Paul Montague, a hapless young man who is manipulated into investing his entire wealth in a transamerican railway and finds it hard to disentangle himself from a previous engagement.

Melmotte is brought in on the railway scam and the share price rises. Melmotte’s wealth is reckoned to be incalculable and his ego is flattered to the point that he is persuaded to stand for parliament. Then everything starts to unravel.

This was originally published as a serial and occasionally there is a bit of recapping. Obviously this is a very old book so there’s not much to say about style – it is of its time. However, I found it highly readable and was completely absorbed. None of the characters really come out well and yet it is hard to say who is really bad.

It was funny in places and is very relevant to the current economic climate. I was a little disppointed by the ending and would have preferred a less fairytale resolution, but that’s a minor point. Overall it was an excellent read and I recommend it.

100 Books in 2011: Heart of Darkness

I’ve not read many classics this year, due to a perception that they take longer to read that modern novels of the same length, and I’ve been conscious of having a target. Towards the end of the year I stopped picking short books in order to meet the target because I wanted to read books I could get my teeth into. One of those was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

It’s the story of a man, Marlow, who takes up an ivory trading post in the Congo. While there he accepts a commission to travel into the jungle to find and return Kurtz. Kurtz was a trader, like Marlow, but has been in the jungle for a long time and there are disturbing reports.

Marlow is confronted with the venality of his fellow Europeans and dismayed with their treatment of Africans. When he sets off to find Kurtz he is deeply conflicted about what he is doing. His inner turmoil is increased when he finds Kurtz, who he experiences as a very charismatic man, and discovers that Kurtz has set himself up as a King. His hold over the Africans is derived from his willingness to present himself as a supernatural being; he encourages them to worship him by participating in their rites.

Kurtz is ill, so Marlow is able to take him from the tribe, to the great distress of the woman who was his mistress, but he dies on the way back down-river. Back in Europe, Marlow is sought out by people who knew Kurtz and has to decide what he will say about the man’s final years.

I found this surprisingly easy to read. Surprising, because I picked it up a few years ago and had trouble getting into it. That’s the benefit of a long commute – you have time to get into books that require a bit of time and effort. Once I got going, I found it quite hard to put down. It uses the frame narrative technique, a story within a story, which I find quite tedious. It’s a slow way of getting into a story and I’m glad it’s fallen out of fashion.

I liked the sense of oppression. The world Conrad describes is indeed dark, things happen at night, inside dark buildings and under the canopy of the jungle where the light rarely penetrates. He shows European colonists as small and greedy as they claim the Africans they’re enslaving are. The European characters, including Kurtz, talk about the civilising influence that empires bring to Africa while demonstrating behaviour that belies the claim. Conrad doesn’t pull any punches about the nature of colonialism. Marlow’s confusion and disillusionment is well drawn.

This is a book with a big reputation and is definitely one of those books you should have read. Fortunately, it’s pretty good and I really enjoyed it.

The books we should have read…

I do like lists. From the Huffington Post, here’s a list of books that apparently people claim to have read but haven’t.

The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer – I read the Knight’s Tale at school, and it’s on book mountain, but I haven’t read any more tales.

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville – nope. Maybe I should add it to the list.

Ulysses by James Joyce – nope. Probably won’t either.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – nope. The excessive sentimentality of the films put me off.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie – no. It’s on book mountain so I probably will.

Moby Dick by Hermann Melville – why yes. Lots of lists of whales.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking – yes, I have. And I understood some of it.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – um no, never heard of it.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco – no. Saw the movie.

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust – no. But I really feel I should.

Don Quixote by Cervantes – no. It’s on book mountain.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner – no. I might though; I really like the title.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoi – no, but it is on book mountain, so one day I will.

Two for me then. What about you?

Thoughts on reading: The Turn of the Screw

Last year, there was a television adaptation of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and thus there followed much discussion of its horror and psychological twists. Well, what more reason do you need to read a book?

I struggled with the language. This was a surprise. I read the odd classic and although it takes a few pages to get into the rhythm of the writing, usually I find that it is perfectly clear once you get used to it. Perhaps it’s because the classics I tend to read are by English authors – Dickens, Hardy, Austen – and James is American. I wondered if the reason I was finding it hard to get to grips with was because it was an American classic and the language was subtly different to English literature of the same era.

What I found really frustrating was that I didn’t know what was going on. Things weren’t spelt out. There were coded references to socially unacceptable behaviour, which to me could have meant all sorts of horrors. Some people find that leaving things to the imagination makes it more scary. Not me. I can imagine a lot of things and not being able to choose which is the thing being described (because there aren’t enough clues to nail it down to one thing) is frustrating. It certainly underlines my belief that detail is what convinces in fiction. For me, the horror was reduced by the vagueness and ambiguity, not increased.

My non-fiction book was Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan. It was excellent, full of good advice, good examples and lots of things to try out in my work-in-progress.