A Book of Silence

Sara Maitland (2008)

An exploration of the power of silence, and a progressively ore extended periods in more remote locations. It’s an attractive journey for any introvert to hear about. It’s unfortunate that, in this telling, it gets wrapped-up on explorations of religion and linguistics.

Is the modern world uniquely hostile to silence? It certainly favours extroversion, but it also allows people to undertake solitary existences without having to give up much of its conveniences (as we’ve all discovered over two years of pandemic semi-isolation).

I’m unconvinced by some of the close-read arguments and religious ties. That fact that, in the Jewish-Christian tradition, God made the world with the Word doesn’t convince me that there’s an overwhelming and ancient bias against silence, as something that has morally to be broken. I’m also unconvinced by the other religious, philosophical, and psychological speculations that to my mind get in the way of reporting the more interesting first-person experiences. Perhaps that sort of reportage is a book remaining to be written.

3/5. Finished Saturday 12 February, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell

John Preston (2021)

As biographies of monsters go, this is one of the best. It sets out the whole sweep of Robert Maxwell’s complex and in the end perplexing personality: someone who courageously fought the Nazis, but committed (and admitted to) war crimes, who made and lost fortunes but never escaped the need to aggrandise. He transformed academic publishing – something I, as an academic, was unaware of – but engaged in outlandish stunts and competitions in tabloid journalism. His death was as dramatic and inexplicable as many of the events of his life.

It would be an easy story to sensationalise, and while there’s some of that in this book, overall it reads as a balances account by someone without too much of a stake in the outcome. It’s perhaps inevitable that the story has been overshadowed by the later tribulations of Ghislaine, Robert Maxwell’s daughter, but these events are in many ways foreshadowed by her earlier history. They’re certainly all of a piece with the story told here.

4/5. Finished Thursday 10 February, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War

Tim Bouverie (2019)

The history of the not-out-finest-hour that preceded our finest hour.

This is a very balanced treatment of a period that it’s difficult to treat fairly. It manages this by keeping a clear focus on what the protagonists know and believe at the time, without losing sight of whether those beliefs were reasonable: often they weren’t, and in the final analysis the idea that appeasement could ever have succeeded is well and truly exploded.

The use of extensive quotes from private correspondence is extremely revealing of the inner motivations of many, not least Chamberlain. But it also reveals something that I’d not noticed before: the subtle change in the meaning of the word appeasement over the course of the period. In the early years it comes across as simply a way of re-introducing equity into international relations, and only later acquires the sub-text of surrender and cowardice that it now has.

My only minor criticism is that there are a few places where a little more clarity as to the deceptions going on could have been welcome. The “Polish provocations” used by the Nazis to ramp-up the tensions prior to the attack, for example, were almost entirely imagined propaganda, culminating in the staged “incidents” used as the final justification.

5/5. Finished Sunday 30 January, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Covent Garden Ladies

Hallie Rubenhold (2005)

An entertaining dive into a part of 18th-century society that’s too often only considered voyeuristically. The survival of “Harris’ List” provides a starting point, but it’s the detailed archival study and the willingness to dig into the histories of the three main protagonists that really sets this book apart. In doing so it also gets to uncover some of the grimier realities of living on (or close to) the streets in a period when money was all that really counted in terms of life chances.

Rubenhold is very sympathetic to the Covent Garden ladies. “Prostitutes” (or “harlots” in the TV adaptation) is a too-harsh judgement: many adopted sex work only because society gave them no other options, or adopted it only periodically when forced to by poverty, or as a semi-acceptable companion to stage-work. She is also unforgiving of the male customers, who avoided most social sanctions or consequences.

The fact that “Harris’ List” ran for nearly four decades (and that we have examples of most of them) also makes it a revealing social document as the mores and morals of society change across the 18th century. The descriptions become less straightforward, more ornate and (one would imagine) less useful as time goes by and the publishers become more susceptible to legal action for obscenity (even as the underlying social conditions remain largely unaddressed).

4/5. Finished Saturday 22 January, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)


Courttia Newland (2017)

A great collection of new science fiction. Some new premises, and older ones deftly handled.

3/5. Finished Saturday 15 January, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)