What I’ve been reading lately, part 18

[See also previous and subsequent posts in this series.]

Evil under the Sun — Agatha Christie

Like And Then There Were None, this is set on a smallish island off the south coast of Britian — in fact, apparently, it’s a slightly differently fictionalised version of the same island.

The real Burgh Island Hotel, with the rest of the island behind it. From the hotel's own website.

The real Burgh Island Hotel, with the rest of the island behind it. From the hotel’s own website.

This time, though, it’s a bit more civilised, the island is connected to the mainland by a causeway at low tide, and Poirot is there to sort out what’s going on before too many victims succumb. Lots of very neatly laid false trails, well-planted clues, and a resolution that I didn’t at all see coming but which made sense once it was explained. One of the better Christies, though not in the very top rank.

N or M? — Agatha Christie

The third of the five Tommy and Tuppence books, and the second T&T novel (since their second book was a collection of short stories). I am oddly partial to these characters, perhaps in part because they age in real time, unlike Christie’s other recurring characters. In The Secret Adversary (1922) they are a couple in their early 20s, but by the time of N or M (1941), they are in their forties, and considered too old to play a role in the Second World War. Their children, young adults themselves, view them with affectionate tolerance, and remain oblivious throughout of the crucial role that their parents are playing in rooting out a fifth columnist. (Later in the series, they will be positively elderly.)

The title this time is misleading: it suggests that our heroes have a binary choice to make, but in fact they are trying to pick out which of the dozen or so denizens of their hotel and its environs is an undercover Nazi agent. As usual with Christie, the clues are all there if you’re paying attention; and there is one clue so blindingly stand-out obvious that you have to admire the craftsmanship with which she directs you away from the obvious conclusion. Most enjoyable.

Unoffendable — Brant Hansen (FOR THE SECOND TIME)

I already wrote about this book back in part 4, but I re-read it just because it’s such a life-giving read. It reminds me why I love being a Christian — not because I was raised as one (I wasn’t) or from fear of punishment, or from obligation, but because God is good. I know that word is weak sauce, but I hardly know what else to use in its place. It’s very different from saying that God is great. I almost want to use the word “lovable” except that it has patronising implications.

Hansen is a very idiomatic and scathingly honest writer who gets right to the heart of issues in a way that can be simultaneously heart-breaking and very funny. He paints a Christianity a million miles away from the cult that has adopted that name across many of the southern states — a Christianity which I think Jesus would recognise immediately. It’s based first of all on God’s goodness and on what a privilege it is that he forgives us — all of us, no exceptions. And from there, it goes on to argue (or maybe I should say persuade) that there’s no justification in our holding on to anger or grudges towards other people. A timely lesson for me in the wake of the Trump election.

I’ve bought three copies of Unoffendable now: two to give away, and one to keep. I really can’t recommend it highly enough, especially to people who look at Christianity and wonder how on earth anyone could want that. Here are the links if you want to buy it on Amazon: [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child —  Jack Thorne and J. K. Rowling

We bought this back in summer, but for some reason I didn’t get around to it — probably put off by the theatre-script format. I’m very glad I finally did: once I got started, I devoured Cursed Child in two sittings, staying up late on consecutive nights to finish it.

Part of what works well is that, while our old friends all appear in the book, the story very much doesn’t focus on them, so it doesn’t feel at all like a retread. We understand the world that it’s taking place in, from seven previous books and eight films, but we are going to very different narrative places, even as we revisit familiar geographical places.

I would love to see the play — actually two plays, as the whole story is too long to fit into a single one — but it’s booked solid for the foreseeable future. Oh well: one day.

The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream — John Bunyan

I’ve never read this classic before, but I finally grabbed my copy from Project Gutenberg because I have been listening obsessively to the new Neal Morse Band album The Similitude of a Dream, which is based on it — or, more precisely, on the first half of it.


To be honest, I read it without much expectation of enjoying it in its own right — after all, it was written in 1678, nearly 340 years ago, and the language as is archaic as you’d expect. I read it only so that I could better understand the songs on the Neal Morse album. But I was pleasantly surprised by how easy a read it was, and how engaging; and, ultimately, how moving.

I can see myself returning to this periodically.

(There’s a sequel, also by Bunyan, that relates the subsequent journey of the hero’s wife and children. But I can’t seem to find that on Project Gutenberg.)

testimony — Neal MorSe

A departure for Neal Morse, who is my very favourite musician: a book telling his life story, with a special emphasis on the long and sometimes painful process by which he made the transition from an agnostic youth to Christianity, finally making the step some time after his 40th birthday. As a big fan of the music I found this fascinating. But I am not sure it would hold a lot of appeal for people who don’t know or don’t like his music. He is a competent writer, but not an artful one.

The Pilgrim’s Regress — C. S. Lewis

As discussed in an earlier post, this was Lewis’s first Christian book. Published in 1933, just four years after he “gave in and admitted the God was God … perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in England”, the book is an allegorical account of his own journey into Christianity, which was largely a philosophical and intellectual rather than an emotional or personal one.

I very much enjoyed the first three quarters or so; but as the book draws towards its climax, the characters display a regrettable tendency to break into poetry — a form which I have always struggled with.

Knowing something of Lewis’s life, and having had a broadly similar story myself, I found Regress fascinating; but I would not truthfully recommend it as a first or even fifth Lewis book for someone new to his writing. He’s not really found his style at this stage in his career, and he constantly lapses into Latin phrases that he assumes we know. Disappointingly, even by the third edition (which is what I read) the publishers have not added footnotes translating these.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — J. K. Rowling

I’ve started re-reading all the Harry Potter books. There’s a bit of a back-story here, which is that the night before my eldest went off to university for the first time, the whole family sat down and watched the first of the Potter films. It seemed appropriate: the boy leaving home for an astonishing and beautiful educational establishment. Then while Dan was away, we other four went through all the other films together. It was as a culmination to this that I went on to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; and that experience of the films and the new book left me wanting to experience the original books again.

Everyone knows the strengths and weaknesses of the Potter books by now: the story is absolutely gripping (even on the fourth read, which is what I think this is) but the actual prose can be pretty lumpen. The best thing about the first film is how, well, magical it all seems — Daniel Radcliffe can’t really act at this early stage, but what he can do is be our representative at Hogwarts, breathing it all in for us and showing us someone reacting exactly as we would. I was pleased to find on re-reading the book that that same straightforward, childlike sense of astonishment and delight is present in the written version as well. Most enjoyable.

You may notice, by the way, that the title I mentioned here is the Sorcerer’s Stone, not the Philosopher’s Stone. That’s because, rather than read our paperback, I pirated a copy to read on my Kindle and it happened that, without really paying attention, I got the American edition. It is very strange. Petunia Dursley cuts all Harry’s hair except his “bangs”; Vernon Dursley buys packets of “chips”; Hagrid refers to Harry’s “mom”; Harry and Ron buy “candy”; he and Hermione eat “english muffins”; Dean Thomas talks about “soccer”.

I don’t really understand the motivation for this. Are American children really so unimaginative that they can’t cope with these minor vocabulary differences? The book is very firmly set in Britain: geographically (King’s Cross Station in London is a fairly significant location, for example) and of course culturally (the whole Hogwarts ethos is a classic British boarding school). Surely part of what Americans enjoy about the Potter books is that slightly alien feel of a different culture, just as I enjoy (for example) the distinctively 1930s Los Angeles feel of The Big Sleep or the late-19th-Century Canadian feel of Anne of Green Gables.

Blindsight — Peter Watts

This was fascinating to read in juxtaposition with Sorcerer’s Stone, because the writing in each has its own very different quality of badness. Rowling’s over-pedantic prose is well-known — spelling things out that don’t need saying, as in “‘Don’t go in there!’, said Hermione warningly.” Watts goes in the other direction, leaving you constantly guessing what’s going on and adjusting your perspective as you go along. It’s draining. Now it may be that Watts is perfectly capable of crystal-clear prose and has deliberately elected to write confusingly here, to reflect the state of his constantly-surprised characters. But even if that’s a conscious choice, I found it an unhelpful one, and it reduced what could have been a fascinating reading experience to a frankly exhausting one — I was relieved when I reached the end.

And that’s a shame, because Blindsight, which was Hugo-nominated, is packed with ideas: Charles Stross described it as “neurobiology-obsessed version of Greg Egan writing a first contact with aliens story from the point of view of a zombie posthuman crewman aboard a starship captained by a vampire”, and that is actually not a bad summary. But as with the prose style, this endless piling of concept on concept also becomes ultimately exhausting. When you’re dealing with a dozen unfamiliar concepts, the thirteenth is not welcome, it’s disorientating.

The opposite of Blindsight is Arthur C. Clarke’s justly revered Rendezvous with Rama (1973). Both books have in common that they deal with the first contact of humans with an alien artifact., But Clarke’s is much more minimalist. The crew members are all regular people, and the story is all about exploring the alien ship, trying to determine the nature of the aliens and understand their motives. In a sense, not much actually happens — but that is all to the good, because the book works primarily by presenting an utterly believable portrayal of the atmosphere of such an exploration. By contrast, the endless stream of events and revolutions in Blindsight ends up feeling like the endless stream of explosions in a Michael Bay movie.

With all that said, there is a lot going on in Blindsight, and other readers may enjoy it more than I did — see for example Pedro’s comment below. If you’d like to try it for yourself, the good news is that it is available free, in a variety of formats, at the author’s website.


7 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 18

  1. WRT to Harry Potter – I do recommend reading it out loud; suddenly the lumpen prose takes on a whole new feel.
    Do you do that with poetry? I find that reading poems out loud often helps me to get to grips with it in a way that the text on a page may not. Although for me, not necessarily when someone else reads it.

    And WRT to Pilgrim’s Progress; although you express certain doubts about poetry, can I recommend Clive James’ translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. It’s not the most technically accurate translation (but he has good reasons for this which make sense) but it really does have a glorious flow that helps you understand why the original has survived.

  2. Well, David, I’ve read all seven Harry Potter books out loud twice — once to my two eldest sons, and then again to the youngest. (One of the things I really miss about their growing up is that reading out loud to them is no longer a sensible thing to do.) I used to do all the men’s and boys’ voices pretty well, but struggled to differentiate the girls and women apart from McGonagall. I’m afraid I don’t find Rowling’s prose much better read out loud — in fact a lot of the longer serial sentences that the eye skims over on the page become a bit of an ordeal to handle out loud.

    As for reading poetry out loud — I have basically given up on poetry in any form other than rhyming comic verse (and even then I struggle with anything more demanding than Spike Milligan). The fault is entirely on my side: I just can’t cope with it.

    That said, I really do want to read The Divine Comedy somehow. If I can’t find a good prose translation, then maybe I will take a stab at the Clive James one. (I had no idea he had done anything like this — I know him as a TV critic and autobiographer!)

  3. Fair enough. :-)

  4. Mike, you should probably mention Blindsight can be had for free at the author’s website (http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm).

    I read Blindsight after someone recommended it offhand in a discussion about properly alien aliens in SF (it certainly delivers on that front!). It instantly became my favorite bit of SF in a long time. The real underlying subject of the book is the tangle of intelligence, conscience and self awareness, their causes and consequences, what shapes them and how they shape the world in turn, and so on. The book explores many facets of this, beautifully and intelligently, without ever resorting to exposition or even slowing down the pace of the action.

    Still, I can see how people might struggle with it. These have long been subjects of fascination for me so I came to the book with some knowlege that Watts does seem to take for granted. For example, at one point the aliens’ response is described as a “chinese room”, with no further explanation. If you don’t already know what that means, and don’t bother to look it up, you’ll miss a crucial bit of understanding. There’s other stuff too, the protagonist in inherently unsynpathetic, and the sheer tone of existential horror might be too much for some. But these things are deliberate and they actually heightened the impact of the book for me. (re the protagonist specifically, his nature just serves as one more angle from which Watts can poke at the central themes of the book.)

  5. Thanks for that alternative perspective on Blindsight, Pedro — and for the reminder that the book is free on the author’s website (which is where I got it from). I added a paragraph at the end to that effect.

    I do agree with every positive thing you have to say about the book; all I can tell you is that I didn’t much enjoy it. Perhaps it didn’t help that I read it in fragments, interleaved with bits of other books. Maybe if I’d taken a good long run at it, reading on a beach in the summer, I would have been better able to sink into Watts’s world.

    But the bottom line is that I enjoyed Harry Potter a lot more :-)

  6. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 20 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  7. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 22 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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