Adventures in Bookland: Fairacre Festival by Miss Read

I don’t know how it is with you, but my wife and I have a running joke that one way of ensuring either of us never read a book is for the other to recommend it. We have very different reading tastes: my wife’s ideal, as she says herself, is a book where nothing much happens, there are no particularly high stakes, and everyone ends up reasonably happy ever after. The wife (Harriet) is the most voracious reader I know, probably reading over 200 books a year, whizzing through them at the rate of three or four a week! She reads to calm what is the most active, imaginative and empathic of minds, one that will engage so completely in the drama on the page that it’s for her own good that she avoids the grimmer reaches of modern fiction (although she is kind enough to read my stories in manuscript and, at times, when the mood is right, she will whizz through a whole shelf of classics).

Among her favourites has long been an author named ‘Miss Read’, a rather precious pseudonym it seemed to me, the pen name of one Dora Saint. Miss Read wrote tales of rural English life set in two villages, Fairacre and Thrush Green, where, as would be expected in any English villages outsider Midsomershire, nothing much happens. The Fairacre novels are written in partial first person by, in a metafiction device before anyone else had ever heard of metafiction, Miss Read herself: an unmarried teacher who is headmistress of the the one-form village school (it literally is one form, not one-form entry, with everyone above the infants taught in the same class by Miss Read). Harriet has read and reread every single one of the Miss Read books (the smaller set featuring Miss Read and the larger set written by ‘Miss Read’), returning to them in times of stress and difficulty to settle back into life at Fairacre. The stories are set in a slightly indeterminate time, both between the Wars and in the two or three decades after the end of the Second War.

There, you can tell how much and often Harriet had recommended the books to me by the amount I know about them without even reading one. But then, finally, barricaded in the small room to find some peace and solitude during this lockdown, I realised my only companion, and reason for staying longer in this grabbed-for chance for privacy, was a Miss Read book, Fairacre Festival, left on the floor by Harriet. So, I picked it up. I started reading it. And ended having the family check on me that I hadn’t died on the toilet!

It’s a delight. The story itself is light: a storm damages the roof of the parish church and the village rallies round to stage a festival to raise funds for its restoration. But the skill and dexterity of its telling revealed a master literary craftsman at work. The story is written in partial first person, with some chapters told from Miss Read’s (that is, the village headmistress) point of view and others in third person. The shifts between perspective are done effortlessly, without the reader realising any of the craft that went into smoothing out these transitions. The style itself, apparently so simple and unaffected, serves to put all the reader’s attention on the story and characters: it is the purest of storytelling and among the cleanest examples of prose writing I have read, comparable, if truth be told, to the literary cleanness and clarity of no less a writer than Evelyn Waugh.

The hardest thing of all is to write simple stories. Ornamentation serves to hide any underlying weaknesses, but strip this off and all that is left is story: people and plot. Miss Read (her real name was Dora Saint) wrote simple stories of ordinary people leading normal lives and infuses them with a particularity and place that makes them, effectively, timeless. A masterclass in writing. I will have to read some more of Harriet’s recommendations.

Adventures in Bookland: Marik’s Way by Nick Brown

Nick Brown is one of my favourite contemporary writers of historical fiction, bringing some much needed intelligence and character insight to its Roman Empire sub-genre with his Agent of Rome series. Now, with Marik’s Way, Brown tries his hand at fantasy and he proves as adept and engaging a writer in this field as he is with historical fiction. Admittedly, the world building does not stray that far from the tropes of historical fiction, being a largely medieval creation, but it’s sketched in well enough to make a convincing setting for the story’s main focus, Marik himself, which allows Brown’s greatest talent, the creation of interesting, engaging protagonists, to come to the fore.

With Marik, Brown has written a worthy companion to Cassius Corbulo, the Agent of Rome. Like Corbulo, Marik is a man who relies on his intelligence to get him out of bad situations (although if it does come down to fighting, he’s far better at it than Corbulo without becoming the sort of ridiculous invincible warrior that disfigures so much historical fiction), with a proper moral code and sufficient motivation, by way of shame and guilt, to keep driving him on to fresh adventures. I, for one, hope that Nick Brown will write further adventures for Marik and reveal some more about the world he has begun sketching out. Highly recommended.

Adventures in Bookland: Little, Big by John Crowley

How do you write about something that escapes words? It might sound like a relatively restricted problem – after all, we are an incessantly garrulous species whose rise has been intimately intertwined with our ability to speak and, later, to read – but in fact there are whole classes of experience that are almost impossible to speak or write about in any other way than by appealing to a shared experience of the subject in question. Take the smell of a rose. How on earth would it be possible to describe the perfume to someone who has never pushed their nose into one? The vocabulary we have for smells is dependent on analogies that only work if you have experienced something similar – simply an extension of the impossibility of describing red to a blind man. So language has limits of application to common areas of human experience.

But what about its application to uncommon areas of human experience? In Little, Big, John Crowley tries, and almost succeeds, in doing this. The area of human experience he deals with is the borderland between humanity and the Otherworld – not the spiritual realm of the heavens but the crossing dimensions of the Grey Folk. The people and places glimpsed in peripheral vision, the sudden recollection of a dream dreamt a month ago, the shimmer between being there and not being there. There is no language for this because it is an analogue, in human experience, to the quantum realm where the more precisely one knows the momentum of a particle the less one knows its position. The closer one looks the more it escapes from view (in astronomy, one has to look from the corner of the eye to see the faintest stars as the light-sensitive rod receptors are richer in peripheral vision).

In Little, Big, a family lives, in a house of indeterminate size and interdimensional complexity upon the story borders between this, prosaic, world and an Otherworld that is so other that, for the most part, it escapes description. Its presence is felt by its effect and the silence of those who have slipped over the border and come back changed. Crowley attempts to convey this through a rich prose style, studded with unusual words (Little, Big required me to repair to a dictionary to look up unknown words once every three or four chapters) and an allusive, elliptical story telling style. And he succeeds extremely well for most of the book, suggesting without stating the other worlds that impinge upon Edgewood, the big house on the edge, and its generations of inhabitants. In fact, I think it only really breaks down a bit when Crowley, towards the end, imposes a narrative upon the events, with manners all rushing towards a conclusion that has slipped from my memory in the way that the overall feel and mood of the book has not. A remarkable book that almost manages to express the inexpressible.

Adventures in Bookland: Remote People by Evelyn Waugh

Having discovered, presumably to his delight, that he was a good enough writer that people would actually pay to read his ‘what I did in my holidays’ essays’, Evelyn Waugh clearly decided to pen his way around the world, on this occasion convincing a Fleet Street newspaper to pay for his travels in Africa. The notional peg on which he hung his expense account was that he would write an account of the coronation of the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and indeed he did, and highly entertaining it is too, but clearly Waugh was basically blagging: getting other people and organisations with more money to pay for him to have adventures while, preferably, staying in the best accommodation and eating at the best restaurants around.

However, being Waugh, Evelyn manages to make this eminently readable and, on the personal level, he was able to eschew comfort when necessary in order to venture further off the beaten track. Still, travelling in the mid-1930s, when the British Empire reached its global height, and having all the confidence of a journalistic remit, a public-school and Oxbrige education, and the sublime self-confidence that came from realising that he was the supreme stylist of the English language writing, Waugh could, and did, go anywhere, talk himself into anything, and emerge unscathed and, usually, with a decent glass of champagne in hand. Remarkable adventures of a remarkable man. Highly recommended.

Adventures in Bookland: NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman

As the father of two autistic boys, I’ve read more than my fair share of the burgeoning field of autistic books so it’s a pleasure to find a new departure in reading on the subject. Up until now, most books on autism have fallen into one of three categories:

  • the inspiring parental story of recovering a child from the depths of autistic disengagement via some new and unlikely therapy often involving animals and/or shamans;
  • the inspiring autistic autobiography, telling how an autistic person overcame discrimination and misunderstanding to achieve personal autonomy and a good life;
  • the how-to guide for parents with autistic children.

Now Steve Silberman has added a third category: the history of autism as a medically recognised condition, from the physicians who first spotted it and struggled, more or less successfully, to describe, through the various therapies tried to cure/treat/ameliorate/accommodate it, to the split between different autistic ‘camps’ and schools, to about where we are now: a condition that has gone from almost nothing to almost everyday within two generations.

As a history, it’s generally excellent, although a little marred by Silberman’s tendency to paint people as ‘good guys’ (Hans Asperger – the Austrian physician who first recognised the condition and pioneered a notably gentle and appreciative treatment) and ‘bad guys’ (Leo Kanner – Austrian-American psychiatrist who popularised a restrictive view of autism in America whom Silberger basically accuses of stealing Asperger’s work). The reality seems greyer and harder to define, particularly in light of recent evidence that Asperger fell into the morally grey areas of a doctor working under the Nazi regime: he seems to have sent at least two of his children to the Spiegelgrund clinic knowing that they would likely be euthanised there, while managing to protect most of the children under his care.

The history of autism thus becomes entwined with the history of the century and the changing nature of medical theorising: from restrictive diagnoses that sought to exclude those who were borderline to diagnoses that now tend to bring far more children within a diagnostic framework. What is clear, is that autism is a spectrum, with many of its traits being potentially highly useful.

I do sometimes wonder, as a parent, whether the insight that drove the MMR anxiety that linked the vaccine to the increase in levels of autism might have other sources. It’s quite common for parents of autistic children to think they are developing normally and then, at an early age but usually somewhere between one and three, for there to be a sudden falling off in the child’s development: the first of many subsequent meltdowns. I remember that with the eldest of my two autistic sons. In his case, the decline coincided with his starting at school. Now autism is a developmental disorder and I wonder if one possible factor in its increase is the earlier and earlier ages at which we are putting children into school. For any child, and particularly for boys, the sudden move from the predictable and stable environment of home, dealing mainly with parents and siblings, into the far less predictable environment of school where volatile peers are the main source of interaction might cause a social-system overload leading to a massive withdrawal from social and linguistic learning as the child tries desperately to accommodate and cope with the sudden huge increase in stimuli, both physical and sensory. If there’s any truth in this idea, then countries where children begin school later should have lower rates of autism. It would be interesting to see if this bears out.

In the meantime, read Silberman’s book if you want to know how autism, as a medically recognised condition with a wide and often competing range of therapies, arrived at its present stage. For all our difficulties today, it’s still a huge improvement over the days of ‘refrigerator mothers’ when much of the medical profession basically blamed the parents for the child’s condition or some of the frankly horrible ‘cures’ devised by the Behaviourist. It also serves as a useful reminder that the real expert is one who understands that he still has much to learn about a subject.

Adventures in Bookland: The Measure of Iron by Jamie Crisalli

Book 7 in the new Black Library Novella series and, I must say, the quality of these stories has remained consistently high throughout. Jamie Crisalli’s story of the Iron Golems maintains these high standards. I must admit that I am still a bit hazy about the new Warhammer: Age of Sigmar universe. With the old Warhammer universe having ended in a colossal Ragnarok during the few years when I took a break from reading and playinng the game, I’ve struggled to get a grasp on the new worlds that have opened up with the rebirth of the Warhammer universe in its new Age of Sigmar. The Measure of Iron doesn’t really help in that respect but what it does do is tell a solid tale of the Iron Golems. As far as I can remember, Iron Golems did not feature in the old Warhammer universe but from Crisalli’s story, they are an appropriate addition in its new iteration: basically armoured up weaponsmiths, human but preferring and relying on iron more than flesh and blood. As such, they’re not the jolliest of warbands, but they are very, very tough. On the tabletop in a battle I’d expect them to be very hard to kill without some insanely lucky die rolling, but slow to move around: sort of a crawling tabletop battering ram. In the story, they are rather similar, so Crisalli does an excellent job instilling life and interest into what creatures that are even more bombastically militant than Space Marines (and that’s saying something!). All round, an excellent introduction to the Iron Golems and their unforgiving world.

Adventures in Bookland: Paul by N.T. Wright

He doesn’t need a surnmame. Two thousand years after his death, the subject of this biography is still known by what would come to be called, in some large part because of his efforts, his Christian name. Paul. Paul. It is still enough to identify him. Paul, once of Tarsus, latterly Saul, but most of all Apostle – even though Paul was never one of the original 12.

In this book, Tom Wright, the leading New Testament historian alive today, attempts to tell Paul’s life through the refracting lenses of the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s own letters. Of course, the problem with both of these as source material for a life of Paul is that they were all written with entirely different purposes in mind: to tell the Good News that Paul spent his life in spreading. So a life of Paul is, in large part, an exercise in inference: a slightly hypothetical biography to be read alongside the Pauline epistles. And, indeed, this is largely what Wright does in this book, taking the epistles, and the circumstances and reasons for their writing, as the bones of his life of Paul. This is as well: Paul’s bones were made over into the Good News that he told.

So the book is best read as a companion to a rereading of Paul’s epistles, Wright’s efforts to situate each letter within the wider context of Paul’s life and the Roman world and the nascent Church, when the two will very usefully illuminate each other. Read on its own, as I did, I found it a little disappointing, although I find it hard to tell the reason for that disappointment. I have loved Wright’s previous books, in particular Jesus and the Victory of God and The Resurrection of the Son of God, so this came as a surprise. I suspect that the problem lay more with me: although I read the book fast, I seemed to have read it with little attention – having been caught up with other matters while reading it – and it has left surprisingly little mark in memory. As I say, I think the fault is mine. When time allows, I intend to reread Paul’s epistles but to do so in tandem with the relevant chapter’s in Wright’s book. Then, I think, it will truly come into its own.

Adventures in Bookland: Flashman and the Mountain of Light by George MacDonald Fraser

I’m rereading the Flashman novels in chronological order (the first time round I read them in writing order). So it’s interesting to read this one, dealing with Flashie’s misadventures in the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1845/46, as the fourth novel in the series whereas before I read it as the ninth.

I do think it doesn’t quite have the freshness and verve of the early Flashman novels, nor their capacity to surprise. In the first novels, Flashman really was a cad and a scoundrel but by the time Fraser wrote this one, there was a sense in which Flashman had become the hero; rhetorically he might argue that he did the right thing only through force of circumstance and the desire not to be found out, but in the adventures here, a true coward could have found a way to absent himself without too much difficulty, particularly since Flashman spends most of the book operating behind enemy lines as, in effect, a secret agent.

The research is, as ever, superb although naturally inclined towards the most salacious takes on the people involved – although Maharani Jind Kaur is one of those 19th century rulers that were too vivid to endure into the prosaic 20th century – and Flashie, of course, is pressed into service with her.

For 99 per cent of writers of historical fiction, this would be a novel at the absolute top of their game. For George MacDonald Fraser, it’s slightly down on his best Flashman work.

Adventures in Bookland: The Jamaica Station by Chris Durbin

The third instalment in Chris Durbin’s Carlisle and Holbroke naval adventures set during the Seven Years’ War, the global conflict that saw Britain vault up to the top-rank of world powers on the back of the superb seamanship and extraordinary, not to say reckless, courage of its Navy. The first novel in the series deals with the Menorca debacle that saw, extraordinarily, an Admiral of the Blue, Admiral Byng, court martialled and executed for desertion in the face of the enemy. The aftermath of that, naturally, was that British admirals were inclined to attack, whatever the odds, and the end result was British naval dominance. This book follows Captain Carlisle and Lieutenant Holbroke to the Caribbean and a series of well-drawn adventures there, based on excellent historical research and naval knowledge. While not quite in the top drawer in terms of writing (although not far off), Chris Durbin makes up for this in nautical nous – he really knows ships and the men who sailed them.

Adventures in Bookland: Labels by Evelyn Waugh

‘What I did in the holidays’ is, deservedly, a cliche for a tired English-writing class task but when the pen writing the account is that of Evelyn Waugh, it becomes something different even when the actual underlying structure remains the same. This really is the account of what Evelyn did in his holiday, in 1930 if I remember right, when he took ship from Portsmouth and fetched up in the Mediterranean. It’s the tale of people met, restaurants eaten in (a particular concern of Waugh’s) and the minutiae of travelling a well-worn road. Unlike his later travel books, Waugh was not bringing anywhere unknown to light but simply commenting on the familiar. He doesn’t even really shed any particularly new light on the familiar. But it’s the writing: the sheer, brilliant, crystalline precision of the writing that makes it all worthwhile. So while the skeleton is the same tired old English-writing task, it’s made somehow translucent, effervescent and slightly cruelly alive by Waugh’s prose. My goodness, the man could write.