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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 35)

Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity

Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity

Prue Shaw

2014


There aren't many books or poems that need (or deserve) another book to explain them, but Dante's Commedia is one, and this is an excellent guide.

Reading Dante isn't the usual guide book, though. Instead of following the structure of the poem, it picks out a few themes (love, power, the use of language) and traces them through the complete hierarchy of hell, purgatory, and heaven. Along the way it provides a vital guide to the social and political context of 14th century Italy and some sights in Florence to see and relate to Dante's time. Linking to one of my other great loves, it's also full of illuminated letters and images used in the various editions of Commedia (although sady not in colour). For someone like me who reads Dante in translation, it both highlights the effects that only come through in the original, and acts as a spur to learn Italian if for no other reason than to enjoy Dante more.

One other thing that I think I should note is the physicality of the book itself. It's beautifully presented, with deckle-edged (unevenly torn) pages, and typeset very sympathetically. Altogether a delight to read, although often quite intense.

5/5. Finished 11 April 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Shackleton's Whisky: The extraordinary story of an heroic explorer and twenty-five cases of unique MacKinlay's Old Scotch

Shackleton's Whisky: The extraordinary story of an heroic explorer and twenty-five cases of unique MacKinlay's Old Scotch

Neville Peat

2012


Two biographies for the price of one! – of an heroic adventurer and a classic whisky.

The book is in two parts. The first is the history of Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition of 1907. Peat manages to convey the emptiness of the Antarctic and the struggles and successes of the expedition. He does an excellent job of combining the adventure, the science, and the hardship that the away team underwent – and indeed those that happened on the long trip from England to Antarctica via New Zealand.

The second part is the story of the whisky's temporary recovery back to the distillery to be tasted, tested, and re-created by blending modern whiskies. Anyone with any interest in whisky will find this fascinating, both the processes involved and the taste of the resulting dram. The very idea that it's possible to re-create an old Scotch so faithfully is quite remarkable, and I'm very tempted by a bottle.

The link between the two parts is a little tenuous in places, not least because Shackleton, as a teetotaller, studiously avoided talking about the drinking habits of the expedition in his books, so Peat is reduced to pointing out what isn't mentioned. That's hardly his fault, and it's a limitation that doesn't really reduce the pace of the story or the centrality that century-old whisky has for Antarctic exploration's human side.

4/5. Finished 09 March 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Gone Girl

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn

2012


I have to admit I saw the film before reading the book: and the book's better. It's not a book to read if your relationship is in any way shaky.

It's a close-run thing, but it's definitely better for the story to have the direct feed into the characters' innermost thoughts. Both the protagonists are well and deeply drawn. It's a depressing story, of course, the tale of a marriage doomed by stress and indifference, before being "saved" – if by saved you mean the husband being trapped into acquiescence with his wife's ideal. The sting in the tail, of course, is that he's not entirely unhappy with this outcome, as it makes him in some senses a better man: he's passed through anger and confusion and come to an understanding with his admittedly psychopathic wife.

5/5. Finished 08 March 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Fatal Fortnight: Arthur Ponsonby and the Fight for British Neutrality in 1914

Fatal Fortnight: Arthur Ponsonby and the Fight for British Neutrality in 1914

Duncan Marlor

2014


The story of Parliament during the run-up to the First World War isn't well-known: certainly significantly less has been written about it than about the run-up to the Second. So this book is an interesting addition to the literature.

Marlor presents a view "from the bottom", in the sense that he's concerned with the actions of backbench MPs trying to keep Britain neutral. The book is therefore good to compare against The Guns of August which looks at the same events more from the view of the protagonists. It's driven largely by diaries and letters, and uses them unsparingly as comparisons against the "official" history promulgated by The Times and other newspapers of the fortnight's events.

The overriding impression is one of the impotence of Parliament in the face of pre-existing commitments that had been made but never publicised, as well as an ability to exploit the ambiguities of treaties to justify an already-decided policy. It rapidly becomes clear that the "debates" on Britain's war conduct were simply window-dressing with no potential to influence events – although it has to be admitted that the rebels were unwilling to go all the way to opposing the supply motions that provided funds for the war. Things haven't changed all that much, and there's lots to commend in this book as a filter through which to view more contemporary events.

5/5. Finished 28 February 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. Selected Prose 1966-1978

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. Selected Prose 1966-1978

Adrienne Rich

1979


I was brought to this book through one of the essays in it, Claiming an education, that talks about the need for students (and especially women students) to actively claim their educations rather than passively receive them. I still think this is the most powerful element of this collection, but there's lots more to engage the reader.

It's not an easy collection for a man to read, not least because of the sense of powerlessness it evokes – which is ironic, given that many of the essays are replete with the power of patriarchy and men's dominance of women. But there's a powerlessness too, a sense that, as a man, there's no redemption, no way to help or bridge the gap, no way to avoid being an obstacle that women must struggle against despite your own individual actions and intentions.

Some of the essays are nearly fifty years old, but they're aged well, and the issues they address are still very much alive. In many ways they've broadened beyond being purely women's issues. It's easy to read in many of them a rage that any powerless group might feel against any establishment. In some ways Rich's arguments are occasionally almost weakened by their feminism, in that many men in powerless roles would identify with the feelings she examines. But they give a powerful insight into a feminist perspective on life and education (important for me as an academic), even to elements one might like to think were purely objective.

Some of these perspective don't translate well to me, for example the notion of women (especially gay women) often having no sense of real identity because they haven't been realistically represented in literature – the idea being that a gay woman would have no literary role models against which to judge her own feelings and value. As a science-inclined young boy, there were very few good scientist role models in literature either: plenty of "mad scientists", "evil scientists", and even overly dedicated and over-rational scientists, but none who did what it is we actually do as scientists. I'm not convinced that this literary lack did much to impact my sense of identity, I can accept that better models might help to make people's choices more comprehensible to those around them.

4/5. Finished 21 February 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)