Thursday, February 16, 2017

Medieval Europe by Chris Wickham

Well there won’t be much from me for the next few months as I plough through about eight books that form the compulsory pre-reading for my Cambridge course in Medieval Studies later this year. I’ve always been attracted to the medieval period, but knew nothing much about it. While this book by academic Chris Wickham is not on that list, it was in fact the impetus for me to enrol in the course in the first place. It is an utterly fascinating study of the entire medieval period, sweeping across Europe and into Byzantium from the beginning of the period and the fall of the Roman empire, through to the end, which Wickham believes is marked by the Reformation in the 1500s. It’s incredibly dense and very soon I found I needed a pencil for underlining key points, and then that of course developed into a full summary of each chapter. Its focus is primarily political, because that is what people are, political animals. And tied in with that is the ownership of land and the resources that brings contrasted against the practice of taxation. How a society handles its money it seems, is the most important thing of all! It certainly drives political and social development and the differences between his examples are sometimes astonishing. Threaded through all this is the other player, the church. I knew all this but I didn’t, I really didn’t. It’s been one eureka moment after the next for me as I’ve ploughed through this tome. It’s a serious undertaking, like studying something properly, to read this book but it is utterly wonderful.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

What a truly awful book. It’s a combination of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, but without the brilliance. It’s a sort of dystopian novel, though the setting is contemporary, about women who have been shamed by the media as sluts – women who have slept with the whole football team, who’ve been caught having affairs with politicians and so forth. Other people in their lives – friends, brothers, other women – somehow have the power to have them disappeared by a group called Hardings. There are shades of the forced lobotomies of the early 20th century, of the corporate run detention centres of the present, of the systematic abuses of children in care. But it’s such a miserable, depressing, gloomy read. Some women cave in, other women find strength, lots of women go mad. I can see this writer is a fire and brimstone feminist, and good on her for that, but the book is just so bloody depressing. And again, so mundanely written. And it just goes on and on. Emma, who lent it to me, told me not to bother returning it.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Husbands Secret by Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty's books are chick lit really but absolutely terrific when you're on holidays and cant be bothered concentrating on something more serious. This one is about a murder that took place a long time ago and about the people who knew and or know the family of the girl who died, Janie. It's fast paced and compelling and pretty well written.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This was a compelling book that jumped around in time a bit and was told from the point of view of the three main women in the story, Rachel, Anna and Megan. It's a murder mystery thriller thing. The problem was that I really didn't like any of the women in it, much less the men, and so didn't engage with them or hope things turned out OK for them. At the same time, I did want to know who dunnit so powered through it on trains and so forth. It was an easy enough holiday read.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

What a heartbreaker: this absolutely top notch gifted neurosurgeon struck down by cancer at the age of 35. His thoughts on death and dying, on a person’s place in life, their purpose, what matters, what doesn’t and, fundamentally, their connection with and responsibilities to other people. Box of tissues required.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

What a magical little book. It's the story of two older people finding companionship and love but also of the mean spiritedness of others, damaged people like the woman's son. It’s just an afternoon’s read but wise, wonderful and mature.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Commonwealth by Anne Patchett

I loved this book. It’s the freewheeling story of a family riven by infidelity, divorce, betrayals and yet somehow retaining a weird kind of loyalty and love despite everything. It’s beautifully written, compelling and clever. I particularly liked the way Patchett managed to get those unfinished bits and pieces that flow around families. There are gaps and loose ends. Not everything is explained. The reader has to think. This gives the story an authenticity that is rare in family sagas and I came away feeling I really knew Franny and Jeanette, from whose point of view the story is mostly told.