What I’ve been reading lately, part 38

Tremendous Trifles — G. K. Chesterton

One of the better ways to approach Chesterton is through a collection like this one, consisting of 30 or 40 or so short, self-contained pieces in which he thinks about things he has seen or done. He is always a keen observer, quick to see beneath the surface of things, and able at drawing analogies between trivial occurrences and the most profound matters. And of course, he is fun.

The pieces collected as Tremendous Trifles vary rather wildly in quality, but in any one of them fails to appeal, there’s always the knowledge that the next one will be along soon. It’s the second time I’ve read this (see my notes on the first time), and won’t be the last.

Pride and Prejudice — Jane Austen

Everything about this book is perfect. It absolutely deserves its classic status. Not a page goes by without someone saying something eminently quotable, and hardly a page without a laugh-out-loud funny moment. It has of course spawned two classic adaptations: the BBC mini-series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, and the 2005 film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. I love them both, and have watched them repeatedly, but the book is still better than either.

There really is no reason why you shouldn’t get yourself over to Project Gutenberg and pick up a free copy right now. You’ll thank me.

Blind Faith — Ben Elton

Astonishingly, from a writer whose work is such easy reading, this is one of the most oppressive books I’ve ever read. I nearly put it down and abandoned it a couple of times because it was so depressing to read, but in the end I was sufficiently drawn in by the story to make it to the conclusion.

Blind Faith is a sort of alternative 1984, but instead of a grimly serious state watching you all the time, it’s about the elevation of the worst kind of social meda triviality into religious orthodoxy, with everyone obsessively watching everyone else all the time as entertainment. In the world of Blind Faith, you are never alone: in the middle of the night, your tenement’s chatroom moderator can turn up on the video screen and see and hear whatever you’re doing. And whatever happens to you, good or bad, you are expected to share it, to shout about it, to tell the world. Failure to do so is a sign of a dangerous mental aberration. Every woman is expected to have breast implants. Everybody has to believe in themselves and big themselves up and trust in their dream. By law, everyone is famous.

There’s a lot more going on in this book, which is set in a post-apocalyptic London devastated by permanent flooding brought about by climate change, in which vaccines are illegal and the childhood survival rate is 50%. All of it is interesting, but it’s the awful 24/7 mutual surveillance that really bears down on me.

The Pale Horse — Agatha Christie

One of the most unique, and most interesting, of Agatha Christie’s novels. A secret society that arranges undetectable murders by supernatural means: how can it possibly work, who is behind it, and how can they be unmasked? Fun and facinating, and ultimately pretty satisfying (though with a few loose ends).

Cranford — Elizabeth Gaskell

I came to this from the rather free 2007 BBC adaptation, featuring an oddly miscast Judi Dench as the withdrawn, timid Miss Matty.

The novel (originally a set of short stories serialised in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words) is a real curiosity. Each episode is minutely observed, and the characters emerge clearly from the page, but almost nothing actually happens. For example one of the sixteen chapters is given over entirely to how the various old maids of Cranford become panicky about an imagined crime wave, when it seems absolutely no thefts have actually occurred.

On one level I admire the craftsmanship that make so much from so little; on the other hand, I did sometimes just want to scream and bang the characters’ heads together. For all that, I will probably go on to read the semi-sequel, My Lady Ludlow. But not in the immediate future.

Tangled Up in Pooh — Andrew Rilstone

I will read pretty much anything Rilstone writes, because whatever the subject his analysis is facinating. Much of the time, the things he is analyzing (Star Wars, Spider-Man, the Gospels, Tolkien) are things that I love anyway; but occasionally he writes about something I didn’t previously care about — in this case, Winnie-the-Pooh — and sure enough it draws me in anyway. I came away from this short book (47 pages) feeling not just enlightened by positively moved by subtleties in Pooh that I had never suspected for a moment. Highly recommended.

Pooh and Piglet go hunting, Winnie-the-Pooh chapter 3, pen and ink sketch

Rilstone’s thesis, which emerges only gradually, is that the stories in Winnie-the-Pooh quietly but persistently portray the ability to read and write as the discriminator between childhood and adulthood — and so as Christopher Robin becomes better at reading, so he progressively separates from his world of make-believe. The irony is that this process is shown us in a book that we read, or read to children.

That’s a much-too-simplified summary, anyway. I will go back and read the books themsleves and see to what extent they sustain this reading. Meanwhile, even if Rilstone is wrong, he is wrong in a fascinating way. So you should definitely read this if you love the Pooh stories.

Here’s Looking at You — Mhairi McFarlane

The third McFarlane book I’ve read, and she keeps delivering the goods. Chick-Lit is not a genre I would usually bother with, but she writes with precision, humour and devastating emotional honesty. Top quality.

Five go on a Strategy Away Day — Bruno Vincent (writing as Enid Blyton)

I was given this book as a joke when four of us who are involved in leading our local church went away for a day to think and pray through a bunch of issues. (Sadly, we did not have a Timmy The Dog to round the numbers up to five.) I read it because it was there. And, surprisingly, it was pretty funny. It’s in the same series as Five on Brexit Island, which I also liked, and it seems Bruno Vincent has hit a rich seam. These work because of the undemonstrative way Vincent tells adult stories using all the verbal tics and conventions of classic children’s stories — not drawing attention to the incongruity, just leave it there for us to gently enjoy.

The higlight for me: Julian’s irrational resentment of Peter, the leader of the Secret Seven.

4 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 38

  1. Chesterton is out of copyright as well:
    https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/80

    I always check first if the book I want is available in https://standardebooks.org/ though. They take the Guttenberg sources and apply the finishing touches you would expect from a traditional publisher (the PG versions can be quite janky sometimes). The whole process is collaborative an the book sources are up on GitHub. Tremendous Trifles isn’t on there yet, but Pride and Prejudice is (as you’d expect!)

  2. Thanks, Pedro, for the important reminder that Chesteron is free!

    I had not heard of https://standardebooks.org/ — thanks for the link.

  3. If you’re into science fiction, I highly, highly recommend Cixin Liu’s, “The Three-Body Problem” and especially it’s sequel, “The Dark Forest”. All three books in the series were translated to English by Ken Liu.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, bwsd!

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