5 November 2018

Dialogue on the Tides / Galileo Galilei

It is scarcity and plenty that make the vulgar take things to be precious or worthless; they call a diamond very beautiful because it is like pure water, and then would not exchange one for ten barrels of water.

29 October 2018

The Western Wind / Samantha Harvey

Set just before Lent in a small English village in the late Middle Ages, The Western Wind is told entirely from the point of view of its priest, John Reve. Mostly through his private thoughts and internal dialogue, he recounts the apparently accidental death of the hamlet's most influential inhabitant, Thomas Newman, who allegedly drowned in the river that separates Oakham from the rest of society. Reve's concerns also turn to the events big and small that occur around this tragedy: his beloved sister's wedding and subsequent departure; the 3 days' worth of confessions he receives; his pleas with God for a Western wind; the second failure at constructing a bridge over the impassable river; the strange debilitating illness afflicting a young woman freshly returned from a pilgrimage; the threat to the village by envious monks; the facial injury incurred by the young man who saw Newman twice in the river; the dean's cavalier appropriation of Newman's house and goods... Throughout, Reve's sense of powerlessness is palpable and all too understandable.

By virtue of his position, John Reve has no one in whom he can confide, and so the book acts as a confessional — a written counterpart to the makeshift wooden box that stands in the little community's church. It exposes and explores the uncertainties, ambiguities, disorientations and dilemmas that emerge when things are about to shift, as they do here in multiple ways. Indeed, we are at the very end of the Middle Ages, Reve's companionable life with his sister is over, the period of relative ease before Lent is coming to a close, and it appears inevitable that the peace and prosperity of Oakham (which itself sits on the edge of a waterway) has run its course.

Despite its unfortunate anachronisms, this is a remarkable novel not only owing to the reverse structure of its 4-day narrative, but also by virtue of its profoundly human and introspective nature. 

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Grove Atlantic, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: ****

22 October 2018

Yorkshire / Richard Morris

A hitherto unknown photo of Richard Morris' mother as a young child prompted this exploration of the archaeological, geological, industrial, agricultural and social history of Yorkshire, "England's greatest county."

Conscientious objectors, emigration to Canada, silk, airships, whaling, fly-fishing, mining, the Romans, wars and roads — Morris flits between topics as he would in a friendly conversation around the dinner table. He visits each Riding in turn, introducing their distinct personalities like old friends.

What comes through most clearly is Yorkshire's extraordinary impact on literature, with the Brontës of course, but also J.B. Priestley, Ted Hughes, Winifred Holtby, Daniel Defoe, Philip Larkin, Robin Hood and King Arthur all making an appearance.

I never would have read this engaging book if John Mitchinson hadn't enthused about it on an episode of the Backlisted podcast. While I have no connection with Yorkshire (my ancestors being from other parts of Europe), I've long been fascinated by Great Britain and had an interest in the more ground-level aspects of history. I spent quite a few happy evenings roaming Morris' Yorkshire.

I purchased this book online.

Rating: ***½

15 October 2018

L'Œuvre au noir / Marguerite Yourcenar

«Vos craintes sont naturelles et raisonnables, mais la honte et le regret sont aussi des maux.» (Zénon)

8 October 2018

Circe / Madeline Miller

My whole life I had waited for tragedy to find me. I never doubted that it would, for I had desires and defiance and power more than others thought I deserved, all the things that draw the thunderstroke. A dozen times grief had scorched, but its fire had never burned through my skin. My madness in those days rose from a new certainty: that at last, I had met the thing the gods could use against me.

We know Circe as a sorceress who turned men into pigs. This, in essence, is her chance to tell her own story.

Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios and the nymph Perse, knows she is different: a goddess with a conscience, self-doubts and a too-human voice. She is further isolated by her fascination with mortals, which the vain, cruel, self-absorbed deities among whom she lives find baffling and worthy of scorn. Indeed, it's this partiality, along with her sense of guilt and her awareness of her own fallibility, that causes her downfall — and yet.

Exiled to the island of Aiaia, surrounded by tame beasts, Circe learns the secrets of plants and finds the words of power that bring her will to life. This isolation that was meant as a punishment instead affords her the space to come into her own. Over the span of hundreds of generations of humans, she lives with the remorse to which other gods appear immune. Alas, she is not left in peace... Figures from ancient mythology and literature enter her existence, all leaving their indelible marks: the Minotaur, Daedalus, Medea, Hermes, Odysseus and his crew (of course), and countless others.

This autobiographical tale of a goddess who is too clear-eyed for her own good is simply fascinating. I found myself rooting for her constantly, and loved watching her confidence grow in her secluded island home. I fell in love with Madeline Miller's writing from the very first scene. My only issue with this novel is that it came to an end!

I borrowed this book from my local library.

Rating: ****

1 October 2018

Cloud Atlas / David Mitchell

Books don't offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw. (Timothy Cavendish)

24 September 2018

Cahiers de jeunesse / Simone de Beauvoir

On ne connaît jamais un être, puisque, en connaît-on tous les éléments, la manière unique dont se forme la synthèse n'est perçue que par l'être lui-même, et c'est cela seul qui importe [...]

17 September 2018

Journal / Katherine Mansfield

Is it not possible that the rage for confession, autobiography, especially for memories of earliest childhood, is explained by our persistent yet mysterious belief in a self which is continuous and permanent; which, untouched by all we acquire and all we shed, pushes a green spear through the dead leaves and through the mould, thrusts a scaled bud through years of darkness until, one day, the light discovers it and shakes the flower free and — we are alive — we are flowering for our moment upon the earth? (1920)

10 September 2018

Tous les hommes sont mortels / Simone de Beauvoir

Les premières étoiles perçaient le bleu sombre du ciel, on pouvait encore les compter; tapies dans la lumière du crépuscule, il y en avait des millions et des millions qui attendaient d'éclore; et par derrière il y en avait d'autres encore qui demeureraient invisibles à nos faibles yeux; mais c'était toujours les mêmes qui s'allumaient les premières; depuis des siècles, la voûte céleste n'avait pas changé; c'était depuis des siècles au-dessus de ma tête le même scintillement glacé.

3 September 2018

Clouds of Witness / Dorothy L. Sayers

"What an awfully charmin' house this is, isn't it? All so jolly stark and grim and all the rest of it." (Lord Peter Wimsey)