52 books in 52 weeks – June

A quick and late update on my current reading challenge, so quick, it doesn’t even have cover graphics!

69: Self and Self management by Arnold Bennett

Arnold Bennett was an early writer on various subjects, best known now perhaps for stingingly public arguments with Virginia Woolf. In this book, he considers how to find work which is satisfying. His book is, in part, written to women doing war work, and seems to be an expression of his frustration about  their complaints that the work is not personally rewarding. He’s an early exponent of the idea of psychological reframing.  Not as good as some of his other books, and a little dated, but an interesting look at the mindset of war workers.

70: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

This is the first time I’ve listened to this play, although I’ve seen it performed several times. I didn’t know there was a final act that’s basically unreadable.  I understand that its because plays in Shakespeare’s day were basically variety performances, and that he’s just putting in some of the later acts within the frame ofthe play, but,  my goodness, that’s some poor writing from the Bard. No wonder many groups truncate the last Act.

71: The Night Side of New York

This is a collection of short pieces, written supposedly by a group of anonymous reporters from New York newspapers. Each piece focuses on a type of venue that stays open late into the New York night, late in the Nineteenth Century. It’s a fantastic little series, describing the eateries, clubs, police stations and theatres: the whole midnight nation of the metropolis.

72: Amusement Only by Richard Marsh

A series of short stories, mostly situation comedies.  Passably interesting, but not recommendable when there’s so much else availalbe.

73: In The Bishop’s Carriage by Miriam Michelson

A smash success of a novel when it first came out in 1904, this novel’s stand-out point was that Nance Olden, the heroine, is a confidence trickster and a pickpocket. Throughout the book she keeps clawing her way toward happiness with a mixture of brains and daring. An interesting point is that the romantic lead is a man as considered attractive in Edwardian England, which means he’s both stout and far older than Nance. The description of him, then, is the sort of thing you’d never read in a modern novel.

74: When you are engulfed in flames by David Sedaris

I’ve heard various NPR rebroadcasts on ABC Radio, but not ever caught the name of the author until recently. I’m thus a late arrival to the David Sedaris fan party. His work’s excellent, though. It’s filled with self-depricating humor. It’s apathetically acidic, but mostly directed toward himself. Shockable readers might, however, choose something else. Sedaris uses the juxtaposition of his self-effacing, highly refined style of speech, and sudden changes into transgressive subjects to create the shock that’s relieved by laughter.

75: Autobiography of a Seaman: Volume 1, by Thomas Cochrane, Lord Dundonald

Cochrane had an interesting life, and his journals were the source material for a lot of later books set aboard the  Napoleonic Royal Navy. Patrick O’Brian, for example, clearly lifted the basic plot of two of his novels straight out of this book. When I recorded this book for Librivox, though, I made a mistake. Cochrane wrote it at the end of his life, determined to prove that his humiliations at the hands of the various Admirals who had harmed his career were undeserved. He harps on minutae, and he loves footnotes of self-justification.  I was hoping for a little less beauracracy and rather more swordfights…rather like The Phantom Menace.

What I should have recorded were the books by his son. The younger Thomas Cochrane, not personally feeling any need to prove his father innocent of anything (his father outlived his enemies and got the last word) wrote a far more concise, rather more action-packed, biography from his father’s papers.

At some point I’ll need to go back and record Volume 2, but not for at least six months.

76: The Snake, the Crocodille, and the Dog by Elizabeth Peters

Yet another Amelia Peabody mystery. This one lacks a central murder to get things hopping, and instead works through a series of kidnappings. Ramses, the son of the two lead characters, is as odious as ever, but the author has cleverly made sure he’s packed away in Britian, where he can’t solve the mystery with his godlike powers of Being A Precocious Fictional Child. He does, however, almost get his parents killed by solving a big chunk of the mystery, then demonstrating a suprising skill for picking locks and forging ancient Egyptian documents, for an eight year old.

It amazes me that the author kept using him to do things like this. She clearly knows, and indeed has most of her adult characters say, that Ramses is a profoundly unlikely sort of child. He does things which tend to indicate he’s possessed by an evil spirit, and he constantly breaks the tone of the novel.

77: Culture in Medieval Cairo

A highly technical look at the politicis of crowds in Cairo during the Middle Ages. Hard to recommend to the general reader.  8)

78: The Coming of the Fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This is, in some ways, a terribly sad book. Conan Doyle turned to spiritualism to help him deal with the vast wave of senseless death which had ravaged his family. His views made him, and I hope not to offend any spiritualists reading, terribly gullible,  because the way spiritualists demonstrated the veracity of their claims was so poor. Conan Doyle does not realise how credulous he is.

At one point, toward the end of Chapter One, he explains how the investigation of the Cottingley fairy photographs occured, and says he puts the technique before the public so any error on his part can be indentified. He’s just spent some time describing how a particular person is similar to the revelations given by a spiritualist claiming the aid of a spirit guide. As a detatched observer we can say “Well, you discounted all of the features which did not fit,  and your spiritualist has described the person who took the photographs as a professional photographer (who takes photographs?) of the predominant gender in the profession (male), of  average height, of average build, with a popular haircut (“hair brushed back” while staring into a camera) and using the average equipment for the time (owns expensive cameras, has many cameras, and some have crankable handles on them). The one distinctive characteristic is “fair hair”, but that’s hardly a postal address.” He then asks how the “best experts” could be fooled by the photographs, but he’s excluded from “best” the experts who have pointed out that the faeries have elaborate Parisian hairstyles.

The sad thing is that Conan Doyle hopes that faeries will crack the wall of scientists around him who say “You cannot prove that you are speaking to the dead. Therefore, you cannot prove that all of your dead realtives are still, in some sense, alive.” If the methods used to prove fairies existed were sound, then the same methods must be sound when used to prove the existence of ghosts. His advocacy for fairies comes from a place of terrible pain, which opens him up to humiliation.