There’s been a good variety of books completed this month including graphic novels, historical fiction, essays, memoirs, biographies, contemporary fiction, revolutionary pamphlets and plenty of history.
Christopher Hitchens and Thomas Paine
Last month I consumed oodles of Orwell and re-read Hitchens’ evaluation of the author’s importance to contemporary literature and journalism. This has led to re-discovering Thomas Paine‘s (1737-1809) writings including important pamphlets like Common Sense (1776) which is still the bestselling work ever published in America. It is difficult to imagine a writer having more influence and certainly, there are few who have managed to rise from such humble circumstances to have such revolutionary impact in articulating and shaping the values and everyday philosophy of a newly emerging nation.
Christopher Hitchen’s, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man emphasises how Paine, like Orwell, saw more clearly than most, if not all of his contemporaries and charted a course towards contemporary secular concepts of democratic society. He seemed to be able to peer just over the horizon to where democratic society was heading. Paine was friends with some of the leading characters of his era, in England, France and America. He fell out with some of them, most notably George Washington over religion.
I like Paine, and the story of his life, immensely much. His courage, his determination and his vision of what was true and what was best for the many is just inspiring.
Both Orwell and Paine made a virtue of plain-speaking in their writing style. This was particularly important as Paine’s work was read aloud more often than not to ordinary people. His writing spoke to them about what was self-evident, ‘common sense’ in language they could understand. Paine’s stated aim was:
…to make those that can scarcely read understand, I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put in language as plain as the alphabet.
Orwell’s aims were very similar:
“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
Hitchen’s makes the point that Paine, especially in the USA, is quoted in the same way people make biblical allusions or refer to Shakespeare. His thinking and prose has transcended that of a revolutionary and has become the voice of the establishment.
Orwell & Miller
I have not read any Orwell this month but have learned more about his ‘lower-upper-middle class’ background by reading Eric & Us, a memoir from his childhood friend, Jacintha Buddicom. It is not much of a book but I read it with great interest. It does open the door onto a world that we may easily not be able to see, young Eric well before George was even on the horizon. Although maybe this is not quite true as Blair often, apparently, said he wanted to be a ‘famous author’.
The photos, grainy and not too numerous, are still of interest. Young Eric seems to have carried a gun more often than not, enjoying hunting immensely. He wrote poetry, some of it showing his romantic, but unrequited interest in the author of this memoir. Perhaps the most stunning image is that of Eric standing on his head, on the day he met Jacintha, which seems so incongruous to our image of the lugubrious writer, of bleak dystopian novels, George Orwell.
.“…most writing is still museum stuff and that’s why it doesn’t catch fire, doesn’t inflame the world.” Henry Miller
Henry Miller’s On Writing is an unsual book. Yes, there’s much wisdom about writing but it feels more like a continuation of one of his early novels than a crib for budding authors. I recommend it highly for that reason. Miller is always so unmistakably Miller, obsessed with truth and the sublime.
“Why was I so obsessed about truth? And the answer to that also came clear and clean. Because there is only the truth and nothing but the truth.”
“We write, knowing we are licked before we start. Every day we beg for fresh torment. The more we itch and scratch the better we feel. And when our readers also begin to itch and scratch we feel sublime.” Henry Miller
I find his inclination to the mystical, or rather a kind of striving to touch the unknowable, less interesting than his observations of people or ideas or things. Certainly, there are few who give one as clear a sense of the inner life they lead.
You will enjoy Miller’s concise advice about writing.
Tudor England: Cromwell, Mantel & More
I re-read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel in preparation for the walk through a Holbein painting that is promised with the new BBC series adaptation. The novel is even better second time round. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue between Cromwell and Thomas More which, on first reading, was overshadowed by that of Wolsey and Cromwell. Mantel’s portrayal of Anne Boleyn is as unflattering as that of Cromwell’s is positive. I have never though much of the self-flagellating Thomas More but really want to know more.
Mantel has definitely led me reading more non fiction about some of these major historical figures. I am almost finished Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant by Tracy Borman. It is a good read. Mantel certainly sees the better side of Cromwell. You will find Mantel discussing what drew her to Cromwell an interesting read.
The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd makes me like him a little better. He has more of a sense humour than one would suspect of a self-flagellating, hair-shirt wearing sadist. His support for educating girls was also an interesting feature of his life. The detail of his life in London, especially his education was very illuminating.
Peter Ackroyd has always impressed me with his prodigious output and ability to make his subject, whether it be a river, city or a poet, engagingly understandable. His ‘brief’ biography of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), the artist, instantly impresses with the opening lines that make clear the painter’s cockney background and situates him as ‘a Londoner’.
Turner’s oil and watercolour painting explores light in a manner that was controversial in his day. There are many amusing anecdotes about the painter who was certainly a popular character with many, if not all of his contemporaries. Not all portray him in a good light.
I found it interesting that Turner was fascinated with the newly emerging photographic technology and did not appear to be threatened, merely curious about how light was captured by the camera. This was his abiding passion and lifelong interest. Reputedly, the artist’s dying words were ‘the sun is God’.
J.M.W. Turner pops up in contemporary culture with some regularity and you will likely smile at this scene where “the new Q” meets James Bond in front of a rather grand painting:
I read Ackroyd’s biography after watching the brilliant biopic, Mr Turner, directed by Mike Leigh, that deservedly maintains a 5 star rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Check out the trailer or this link may help if you are unfamiliar with Turner’s seascapes and artistic output.
Ackroyd’s biography of William Blake, another cockney, is one I highly recommend too.
A must read graphic novel
I devoured Here by Richard McGuire on my iPad in one sitting.
Originally published as a brief series of panels in Raw (1989) – edited by Art Spiegelman (MAUS is absolutely essential reading) and Françoise Mouly – McGuire has expanded the concept successfully into a full-length graphic novel exploring, in a non-linear narrative, American history from 10 000 000 BCE to 2213. The story is told from inside a suburban lounge room, with clever insets of what one easily imagines is the surrounding land, where a series of historical events, people and creatures are omnipresent. These panes make the reader sense the reverberations of the past in a very familiar family setting. The future is also rendered, with a homage of sorts to Ray Bradbury one suspects (well at least in my mind) as they walk along those duckboards.
Some screenshots from my iPad will give you the idea of McGuire’s style:
This is a graphic novel that should grace high school book rooms and reading lists. The style was very innovative for 1989 and influenced a generation of graphic novelists. I do wonder why it has taken McGuire so long to publish it? This article in Wired is worth reading if you’d like to know more about the text and McGuire.
I know more graphic novels should be on my bedside table or iPad. Any tips from your own reading over the last few years in this genre are more than welcome.
Last but not least
We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler was recommend to me sometime back by James Bradley and has just sat on the shelf for far too long. It is almost a five star book. Fowler’s ruminations about the nature of communication and language are the highlight of the novel. In fact, it is worth reading the book just to extract quotes about language.
“Language does this to our memories–simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”
The less I say about the novel the better. Don’t look at any reviews, just read it. Rosemary is an engaging narrator and you will wish you could spend more time with Fern, her ‘sister’. It is also worth looking at the cover closely before reading, and afterwards.
I have already reviewed Northern Lights by Andrew Scott at this blog last week and highly recommend it. It is an important read for those interested in new directions for Australian public policy, especially in education and for environmental issues.
I hope Scott gets more publicity in coming months. Our nation needs a new, positive public dialogue. Urgently.
I have more Orwell, Miller and a new dystopia, The Chimes, to read. I will continue with Cervantes but am really keen to get stuck into a new translation of Dante’s Inferno from Australian, Clive James.
What are you reading or planning to read?