Tag Archives: robert graves

August Book Reviews

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Not all of my books are for entertainment. Just most of them…

Not too much fiction this month, but plenty of history, psychology and literary advice. All of which adds up to, well, probably a need to dive into something a little more lightweight in September, what with all the craziness about to be fighting for my brain space.

In the Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland: Holland has made a career out of examining turning points in history, and this time he dives into one of the most contentious and mystery-shrouded upheavals: the birth of Islam and the world that it overturned. He first delineates the nature of that world, then offers up a strong argument that Islam was not so much a new divine revelation as a new tapestry woven out of the threads of the old world. Covering a vast span of space and time, it remains readable despite the depth of detail, as all of Holland’s books have been, but with few strong and vivid characters, readers might struggle to find an entry point into this strange world of clashing civilisations, religions and desires for domination.

Style: The Art of Writing Well, F.L. Lucas: A classic among books on writing, yet out of print for four decades, Lucas’s book excels in practicing what it preaches: it not only tells one how to write well, but it is also written well. The modern reader will occasionally bump against the author’s viewpoint (that of a scholarly Englishman in the post-World War II world), but his advice is always easy to understand, often funny, and bolstered with examples of the finest writing in many languages. Only one of the eleven chapters delves into technical matters – the rest cover more fundamental issues of style, focusing on how writers can best communicate with readers and providing plenty for both to learn from and enjoy.

Ancient Echoes, Robert Holdstock: Once more delving into the psychological and mythical depths that provided him with the material for Mythago Wood, Holdstock provides a tale that feels more specific and grounded, yet less satisfying at the same time. To a large degree, the meat of the story takes place within the psyche of the protagonist, with the narrative point of view zooming in and out relative to how deep the story is delving, and as he comes face to face with remnants of prehistoric time, buried cities and their need for vengeance, and the threat of marriage and parenthood dissolving. It’s a heady brew to manage, and it never quite comes together, with a heavy expository passage towards the end and a reliance on a rather literal deus ex machina to bring it all to some sort of closure.

I, Claudius, Robert Graves: Fact and fiction form a perfect mix in Graves’ famous pseudo-memoir of the fourth Emperor of Rome. Ever the outsider, Claudius observes the long, tortured decline of his family, from the travails of Augustus to the depravity of Tiberius and insanity of Caligula, not sparing his own foibles and failings as he presents a picture of lethal ambition that is surprisingly fresh and modern. For all the evident depth of research underlying this work, it’s an easy read, with an unassuming narrator who capably manages his sprawling cast.

The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius (translated by Robert Graves): The lives of the rulers of Rome, from Julius Caesar to Domitian, are laid out in cleared-eyed detail in this fine edition of the classic set of biographies. Suetonius pulls no punches when it comes to describing the worst qualities of the Caesars, but nor does he neglect to mention the finer moments of even the worst of them, and the result is an even handed description of the rulers that Rome suffered and gloried in during the first century AD. In the wealth of incidental detail he provides, there’s plenty to be learned about Roman society and morals, and in his determination to stick with the facts he can find, Suetonius is surprisingly modern (apart from a recurring focus on the importance of omens and auguries in the life and death struggles over the rulership of Rome).

The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge: In a series of eye-opening case studies, Doidge reveals the brain’s ability to change itself to recover from trauma and to continue to change all the way through adulthood and old age. Overturning the notion of the brain as a machine that gets more and more fixed in its ways from childhood onwards, he shows in inspiring fashion that every one of us is capable of gaining new knowledge and behaviours all through our lives. Although it seems on some places too good to be true, if even a portion of its potential is real, this is a book worth owning, not just reading.

Schadenfreude, or The Little Book of Black Delights, Tim Lihoreau: I will happily admit to suffering from “calicurrophilia”, and while I am resistant to the appeal of “tollophilia”, “mecutempophilia” is another matter (though that might be saying entirely too much). Adopting the tone of an upper-class English savant, Lihoreau takes readers on a ride through the spurious offshoots of schadenfreude, in the form of delights in varying shades of grey and black, with titles that twist the scholarly use of Latin far beyond what it was intended to achieve. It’s not a laugh-out-loud book, but there are few who will read it without finding themselves smiling involuntarily when they are reminded of a pleasure that they perhaps should be more than a little ashamed of.

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July Book Reviews

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Nothing to do with books, just a visual representation of my state of mind.

In the absence of anything resembling a summer, it was no hardship to retreat into a few good books (and at least one not so good). Wholly fiction this time out, if with a hint of history in some of the pieces reviewed. Plus, my first review of a graphic novel and a stand-out piece at that.

The Betrayal, Helen Dunmore: In the years after World War II, a Leningrad doctor and his family find themselves caught up in the politics of paranoia and fear, where the desire to be a good human being comes into conflict with the need to protect oneself and those one cares about. Deeply researched, this is a very human story taking place in a world that feels entirely genuine, from the daily lives of those surviving in the last days of Stalin’s reign to the constant fear of the political apparatus that surrounds them and crushes those that come to its notice. It never hits the heights of drama, but that’s not really the point: this is a human story of endurance and patience, one in which the small victory of surviving is enough to overcome the terror of being mangled by the machinery of an oppressive state.

Seven Days in New Crete, Robert Graves: Cast into a future utopia founded on Goddess worship and occult social control, a poet finds himself the catalyst for the introduction of evil as a force for change. Writing in the wake of WWII, from the perspective of a veteran of WWI, Graves is clinical as he cuts into the notion of how ensuring the best of all possible worlds can’t account for the imperfections and the desires of the human heart. His vision of a future grown stagnant in its peaceful compacency is a chilly one, even as it builds towards a frenzied climax, but it’s the voice of the observer who comes to understand the world he finds himself in even as he begins the process of its disintegration that makes this worth reading.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan: Charting a spiral course through the lives of an interconnected group of characters, Egan’s novel constucts a web-like frame on which she hangs the struggles of those characters to connect, comprehend and survive everything that life throws at them, as well as their decisions to maintain their masks or reveal their fragile selves. That unusual structure provides much of the life for this novel, which paints its characters in humour and desperation as they strut their brief moments on the stage before stepping into the background of someone else’s tale. It’s an easy book to become attached to, and it’s over all too soon.

Surface Detail, Iain M. Banks: Returning to the Culture, his galactic society of hyper-intelligent AIs and adventurous and occasionally lost humans and aliens, for a tale of war, revenge and heaven and hell, Banks proves himself in fine, if somewhat light, form. The central conceit of artificially constructed hells and a war fought over the moral right to destroy them interweaves with a woman seeking revenge for her own murder, but this is a romp with disturbing overtones rather than an exploration of deeper themes. Tinged with more Adamsian touches than usual, particularly in the form of a warship AI absurdly delighted at the opportunity to exercise his gifts, but this is a fine addition to the series of Culture novels in its own right, albeit one where the whimsy occludes the admittedly heavy subject matter.

Criminal: The Deluxe Edition, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips: Brubaker and Phillips are one of the finest writer-artist teams in comics, and this beautifully presented collection of three interwoven tales of betrayal and secrets among the criminal fraternity is a fantastic introduction to their oeuvre. Damned by their own pasts, the protagonists of the three tales may be the most moral of the characters inhabiting their shared world, but that’s a relative term, and the world of the lawless that they inhabit is one where no-one has clean hands and the spark of hope is always at risk of being snuffed out by someone more brutal or better prepared to step beyond the bounds of the unthinkable. Phillips’ scratchy, yet solid, art perfectly matches Brubaker’s terse dialogue and descriptive narration, and together they create a world of dark corners and filthy alleys that’s impossible not to get sucked into.

Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock: Delving back deeper than Tolkienian fantasy, Holdstock works with the clay of primal mythmaking as he crafts a tale of a family whose encounters with the last vestiges of chilly antiquity change them utterly. Steeped in British folklore and spanning the human imagination from the last ice age to the second world war, this is a story in which the very human emotions of love and loss are rooted in and sometimes overwhelmed by the unconscious need to craft stories out of the world that surrounds us. Deservedly a modern classic of the fantasy genre, it’s a fascinating read, dominated by the stunning creation of the myth-infused world that lies within a single scrap of primeval woodland.

The Bone Hunters, Tom Holland: When one of your leading characters is a “naive but wilful heiress,” you know that you’re in for a traditional romance, for all that the setting is the Bone Wars between palaeontologists in 19th century U.S., amid the blood and recrimination of the Indian Wars. So it proves to be, though that’s a far less important sin for this book than the kludgy language and the choice of the author to mark every encounter and glance between two characters with at least three paragraphs of insight, flashback and emotional resonance. There’s an interesting story here, one with historical resonance and clever use of its setting, but it’s buried very, very deeply by the language and syntax, and I’m still not altogether sure it was worth unearthing it.