Adventures in Bookland: The Naulahka by Rudyard Kipling

As a long-time apologist of Rudyard Kipling’s work and a fan of even longer standing (I was about six when I first read The Jungle Book, although the tales that really inspired me were those of the duel between the mongoose, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and the cobras Nag and Nagaina, and The White Seal‘s search for a birthing beach safe from the depredations of sealers), I was about two thirds of the way through The Naulahka and beginning to fear that I would not even be able to enjoy the story, let alone defend it, when the story flipped. What before I had read as the tale of Western disapproval of the East, as confirmation of all those lazy takes on Kipling as the apologist for Empire, I realised was something else entirely: The Naulahka is, in fact, a love letter to America and Americans. Kipling began writing the story in collaboration with Wolcott Balestier, the brother of his wife, Carrie Balestier, and its hero is as unabashedly American as Kipling could make him: the very personification of the men busy taming – and making money – from the expanding American frontier. The Naulahka puts such a man in India, not to illumine India, but to highlight America and Americans. Kipling makes no effort to present India or Indians from within – as he does in his other Indian stories – for the the protagonist is an outsider in India, and remains one for the entirety of the story. The Naulahka is Kipling’s version of de Tocqueville’s essay on America, an America exemplified by placing it in contrast to a stereotypical vision of India. Not Kipling’s best, but for this fan and apologist, enjoyable and defensible.


Adventures in Bookland: The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena by Bob Rickard and John Michell

Our contemporary world, on its comfortable surface so often mundane, is, under that surface, deeply strange. But its strange in three different strands. There is the weirdness of science, of the quantum and relativistic phenomena of physics that underlie the material world. There is the strangeness of religion, that underlies the spiritual realm, with God taking delight in making mockery of all men’s plans. And then there is the weirdness of a third realm, not really addressed by the thought systems of either religion or science: the strangeness of what we might call the shadow realm, the world, or worlds, that lie between the equations of science and the insights of theology. In ancient Irish thought, this was the Otherworld, accessed through dreams and visions, through boundaries and under hill, that once visited could never be forgotten, a world hinted at in sidelong glimpses and unexpected memories. It’s that world that is explored in this book, a book of glimpses and strangenesses, of, as it says on the cover, unexplained phenomena. While this third world might seem to have receded through the last centuries of rationalism, I suspect that it has simply become stranger and more elusive, taking the chameleon hues,  in its interaction with humans, of our changing expectations. So what were once fairies and elves are now greys and greens.

But perhaps the clearest signs of this wild weird are not the things that might make some sort of sense, such as alien visitors, but rather the things that make no sort of sense at all. Of these, my favourite are the rains of fish, and frogs, and frog spawn, and a whole extraordinary variety of other things, presented here with all the detached curiosity of two dedicated scholars of the field. From this litany of strangeness and coincidence, there appears to me to be a suggestion of a sort of gonzo humour underlying this level of the world, a humour that delights in raining unusual objects on the world right up to pretty well the ultimate in weird: fixing wings on kittens.

So, yes, the world is strange, and its strangeness lies all around, most of the time hiding in plain view, or at the edge of vision. This book is a wonderful – and I use the word precisely – compendium of that strangeness. Highly recommended.


Adventures in Bookland: The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh cleric (although possibly his family came from Brittany), wrote his Historia Regum Britanniae around 1135 and, almost immediately, it was dismissed by other chroniclers and historians as almost complete nonsense. It tells the story of the Kings of Britain, that is the native kings before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, finding the origins of the Britons in the fall of Troy and another princely Trojan refugee, Brutus in this instance. Virgil, the poet of imperial Rome, had of course mined a similar seam of history in his Aeneid, linking the origins of Rome to Prince Aeneas. So by linking the history of the Britons to that of Troy, Geoffrey was also implicitly making them cousins to Rome. It was a bold stroke for a marginalised people. He then went on to tell the stories of the kings of ancient Britain: in these pages you will find King Lear and his daughters, Old King Cole and, of course, Arthur. Geoffrey expands the few nuggets about Arthur that had appeared in previous works hugely, adding in the key figure of Merlin to the mix.

Despite the book being treated as nothing buy fantasy by historians such as William of Newburgh, it quickly became famous and widely read, introducing these kings into the folklore and folk memory of Britain. Having read the History of the Kings of Britain I can now see why. It is simply such great fun to read. Geoffrey breezes through the centuries, sometimes spending just a sentence on a king, at other times opening up the story to a chapter length or more. It’s a great piece of storytelling, dressed up as history.


Adventures in Bookland: Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

A Faust for the private dick. Falling Angel, a novel set in New York, was filmed by Ridley Scott as Angel Heart and translocated to New Orleans for the humidity and the implied dark magic, but in the book New York works just as well. If you’ve seen neither book nor film, beware, this review contains spoilers. The hero, a private detective named Harry Angel, is hired by a mysterious client to trace a missing person, a singer who went missing despite him owing the client something rather important. The book slowly, but quite chillingly, reveals that the missing person is Angel himself, a man so wicked in his previous life that he had sold his soul to the devil – and now the devil wants payment. But the conceit is that Angel, to hide from his deal, hid the memory of his own past from himself so that the devil could not find him.

I had read the book before, maybe 20 years ago, so I remembered little of the plot other than this key point. Rereading it, I was impressed at how Hjortsberg subtly suggests that Angel, despite having bought a new life and, almost, a new soul, actually remains as horrible a person in his new persona as he was in his last. There’s nothing particularly obvious, just an accumulation of little details, but they become clear on rereading. All in all, a brilliantly constructed, thoroughly chilling book.

Adventures in Bookland: Innocence by Dean Koontz

This story sticks in the mind in a way that few others do. In fact, it stuck in mine so much that I did something I rarely do: I reread it. Yes, there are technical issues with it, in that it muddles genres, switches pace abruptly, and doesn’t really foreshadow a major part of the climax so that that climax comes almost completely out of left field. But maybe in part because Koontz messes with reader expectations, these work fairly well. However, what really sticks in the mind is the book’s central premise: there is something about the hero, Addison Goodheart, that causes people, on first seeing him, to try to kill him. At birth, the midwife tried to kill him. His mother, after eight years bringing him up in solitude, sends him away and kills herself. It’s the answer to this conundrum around which the whole story revolves and that is what keeps it lingering in the memory long after other stories have vanished.

Adventures in Bookland: The Triumph of Christianity by Rodney Stark

How did a frightened rabble of Jews in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire produce a religion that endured Imperial persecution while slowly transforming the Empire from within before going on to produce the world’s largest – and still fastest growing – religion? In this fascinating book, Rodney Stark eschews the normal theological and historical answers to this question and sets out to answer the question through sociological analysis. For instance, the vastly higher status afforded Christian women meant that they both embraced the religion and, since the religion set its face sternly against the infanticide or abortion that affected infant girls far more than boys, ensured that more girls were actually born to Christian families, who then went on to have children themselves. Christian care of the sick ensured that those cared for by Christian families and communities survived illnesses at significantly higher rates than pagans.

The book is perhaps at its strongest in this initial analysis, but the rest of its sociological tour through two milliennia of Christian history is always interesting and frequently eye-opening, from Stark’s robust defence of the Crusades to the weakness inherent in the Church-state partnerships so prevalent in Europe, which Stark points to as the main cause for the relative weakness of present-day Christianity there as opposed to the rest of the world, where robust religious competition ensures freshness of ideas and congregations.

Always stimulating and highly recommended.

Adventures in Bookland: The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici by Christopher Hibbert

Ever gone into a second-hand bookshop? Have you glanced over the shelves of books, dusty and overlooked, their authors fading into forgetting? Writing a book is a tilt against futility, a challenge to eternity and entropy – but the shelves of second-hand bookshops tell us that almost all such challenges end in failure. Run your finger along the spines, reading off the names of the authors. Have you heard of any of them?

Unless it’s the inevitable row of Dickens, then probably not. They are being forgotten, consigned to oblivion as the graves in a cemetery slowly disappear under ivy as the rain wears the names from the headstones.

Christopher Hibbert, the author of The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, was one of the best-known writers of popular history in the 1970s and ’80s (he died in 2008). But, having taken this book off a shelf where it was slowly gathering dust, and having read it, I hope that the veil of oblivion will draw back from Hibbert’s work for a while, for this is an excellent book, with all the virtues of the best popular history – verve, narrative drive, vivid characters – and very few of the drawbacks. It deserves to be read, rather than forgotten. So if you’re at all interested in the history of the Renaissance, and the plots, intrigues and assassinations that drove it on, then this is a book for you. Fight back against entropy and decay: take the book off the shelf.


Adventures in Bookland: The Cambridge Companion to Bede edited by Scott DeGregorio

Probably the definitive single volume looking at Bede, his life, work and influence. An array of scholars examine what we know of his, generally uneventful considering the turbulence of the times, life and place Bede in the context of those times, when the first heroic generation of missionaries to the pagan Anglo-Saxons had died and the church was decided what it was and what it would be. How could an institution founded by a man whose refusal to take up the sword in his own defence find resonance and a home among a people so devoted, at least in their upper echelons, to violence, as passion, past time and purpose. There is an interesting contrast with the Romans and Romanised peoples in southern Europe. The Empire had fielded a professional army (it continued to field a professional army in defence of its eastern iteration in Constantinople), allowing for a separation in the state and the people between the civilian and the military. Indeed, this contrast endured in Italy, so that the city states there, during their interminable wars, generally preferred to employ mercenaries, condottieri, rather than calling on the citizenry or the nobility to fight. But in the north, among the descendants of the tribesmen who had settled in France and Britain, the elite fought. Indeed, the nobleman, the knight, was defined as a man who fought, a warrior. How to find purchase in a society like that?

One way was for a heroic religion, one marked by feats of spiritual daring that matched the feats of physical heroism and endurance that called forth songs from the scops. Such had been the approach from many of the Irish monks, men more than a little mad with God, who would as soon cast themselves upon the waves for providence to take them where it would as they would stand to their necks in the Irish Sea, singing psalms and prayers. Such endurance called forth the admiration of warriors. But another way was the way of prayer and study and learning, the new magic of writing that allowed a man and his words to be present where he was not. This was the way of Bede, and doing it, he became the greatest scholar of his age: a remarkably acute and subtle mind. This book is a worthy companion to his study.

Adventures in Bookland: Hitler’s Home Front by Nathan Morley

Life during wartime – in Germany. Hitler’s Home Front is arranged year by year, taking the reader through World War II, briskly covering what it was like to live in Germany during the war. The writing switches nimbly from diary extracts and reminiscences to statistics and overviews, providing a series of snapshots of the war experience for the different layers of German society. The research is fascinating, from the Ferntrauung, weddings conducted when the groom was serving at the front, where he made his vows to his commanding officer and the bride made hers to the mayor, with her husband represented by a steel helmet on the seat beside her, through to the widespread use of government prescribed amphetamines, basically crystal meth, to keep soldiers and workers doing. Recommended for a view of what it was like on the other side.


Adventures in Bookland: Double Eagle by Dan Abnett

Is there any theatre of war the Dan Man can’t write? In Double Eagle he turns his pen to air warfare, to the struggle for air supremacy in the 40k universe, and he does his customary taut and expertly paced job. In fact, I propose that the Dan Man should set himself the Stanley Kubrick target. You know how Kubrick set out to make the best film in every genre of film making, from the SF of 2001: A Space Odyssey, through war movies (Full Metal Jacket) and even porn (Eyes Wide Shut), I therefore set the Dan Man the task of covering every theatre of war. So, by my reckoning – and I haven’t read everything he’s written since I actually have a life outside of reading – that means that the Dan Man needs to write books on submarine warfare and naval warfare (of the marine rather than the space variety) to make the full set. Then, it will truly be possible to acclaim Dan Abnett the Warmaster!