Pandemic books – my 2020 reading list

2020 started where 2019 had ended – half way through George Eliot’s Middlemarch (published 1871-1872). That was a bit of a struggle in places, but I finally got there. And, on reflection, I did quite enjoy it.

Feeling at a loss as to what to turn to, I decided to quickly devour a couple of Arnold Bennett novels. Last year, I’d downloaded the ‘complete works’ to my Kindle.

First it was The Pretty Lady (1918) set at the outset of the First World War in 1914, and progressing through the war years as protagonist Gilbert (GJ) Hoade, a fiftyish bachelor of independent means, progresses in his relationship with French courtesan Christine who escaped to London from the German Army advancing on Ostend in Belgium.

Then it was back to the Five Towns at the end of January for The Price of Love (1914), a tale of lost money.

I finished that by mid-February, so decided to return to George Eliot and Daniel Deronda (1876). But I didn’t get very far. I’d been listening to some fine music on Classic FM one morning while lying in bed drinking my early morning cuppa, when I began to ask myself questions abut the development of music.

That got me into Howard Goodall‘s The Story of Music, that I finished at the beginning of April.

Then I decided to tackle the two books by Hilary Mantel about Tudor Machiavellian Thomas Cromwell that both won the Man Booker Prize (in 2009 and 2012, respectively): Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. In March she published the last part of her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light, but because of the library closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I wasn’t able to get hold of it. Until later in the year.

During the pandemic I had expected to read more. But by the beginning of May I’d run out of steam. So it took me almost two months to finish re-reading Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar. It was fascinating to understand something about perhaps the greatest Roman (often based on his own words, as he was a prolific writer, ever keen to make sure his place in history was secure). I bought this book around 2007, and first read it while I was working in the Philippines.

Here’s a review that appeared in The Independent when the book was first published in 2006. It’s not an easy read, and I found myself constantly confused by Roman names, as so many individuals had the same or similar name. I couldn’t help being reminded of the Biggus Dickus scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Anyway, during the first week of July as we were preparing to move to Newcastle upon Tyne once our house sale has completed, I decided to return to the novels of Thomas Hardy, which I had first enjoyed in the 1970s when we lived in Costa Rica. A re-run of the 2008 adaptation by David Nicholls of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was screened on BBC4, so I decided to tackle that novel first to see just how true to the original the screenwriter had stayed. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t find Tess as easy a read as I had imagined. Somehow, Tess just didn’t click with me this time round. Maybe it was because I had so much on my mind. During August and September things were becoming rather fraught with regard to our house sale and move. I wasn’t sleeping well at all. Feeling anxious and stressed all day, every day.

Anyway, I eventually finished Tess and on 30 September the sale of our house went through and we moved north. Settling into our new home (a rental for six months until we found a house to buy – which we have), we registered with the local North Tyneside library, just ten minutes from home. And there, on the new books shelf was Hilary Mantel’s magnum opus, and the last in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light. Highly tipped to take the 2020 Booker Prize, The Mirror & the Light didn’t even make the shortlist.

Much as I enjoyed The Mirror & the Light, I don’t think it was the masterpiece that The Guardian reviewer Stephanie Merritt claimed. It was a long read, just over 900 pages. I think Hilary Mantel was being somewhat self-indulgent. She does have an accessible writing style, and although it took me over three weeks to finish, I almost never felt as if I was struggling with the text. It was only when she had her main protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, reminiscing in his own mind that the pace of the novel tapered off.

I finished The Mirror & the Light just before we went into our second national lockdown at the beginning of November, so I hurriedly returned it to the library, and searched for a couple of local histories. The first of these was Tyneside – A History of Newcastle and Gateshead from Earliest Times, by Alistair Moffat and George Rosie, published in 2005 (and made into a TV documentary, which I haven’t seen).

This was an ambitious history of the Tyneside region over the past 10,000 years. Ambitious, indeed! But remarkably accessible, with usefully placed boxes which went into greater detail on aspects related to the main narrative. Often, boxes such as these can be a distraction from the narrative, pulling the reader from the points at hand. But the authors have cleverly drafted their text such that the narrative came to a sort of conclusion just before a box, and picked up again afterwards.

I certainly have a better appreciation of the origins and history of Newcastle, and look forward to exploring over the coming years, especially those relating to the Roman occupation of the region between AD43 and AD410.

Next, I picked up A Man Most Driven, by Peter Firstbrook, about ‘Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the Founding of America’ in the early seventeenth century. Now, I’d heard about Captain Smith since I was a child. Just the other day I talking (via Zoom) about him and Pocahontas with my 8 year old grandaughter, Zoë, in Minnesota, just as I was getting into Firstbrook’s biography. Zoë had been reading all about Pocahontas for one of her remote schooling assignments, and reminded me that Pocahontas did not marry Captain Smith (as I actually believed), but another Englishman named John Rolfe.

A Man Most Driven is a fascinating story of a really driven man who, from his own (and very possibly exaggerated) accounts had certainly had some scrapes all before he was thirty, and lucky to escape with his life on more than one occasion. It also describes how close, and many times the Jamestown colony came to failure, and Smith’s role (from his own and some independent accounts) in ensuring the early survival.

Did Pocahontas (a daughter of the paramount chief of the Powhatan, named Wahunsenacawh) really save his life as Smith wrote in his The Generall Historie? She was just a young teenager when this happened just as Smith was about to have his brains bashed out by hostile Powhatan tribe members near the early Jamestown colony in present-day Virginia. After marrying John Rolfe, Pocahontas came to English and was presented to Queen Anne (wife of James I & VI). But she took sick before she could return to America and died (aged about 21) in Gravesend where she was buried. Unfortunately the site of her grave has been lost.

I then turned my attention to local Newcastle history once again, by former Northumberland county court judge and one-time MP for Newcastle Central from 1945-1951), Lyall Wilkes called Tyneside Portraits. It’s a short anthology of eight men who contributed to the artistic and cultural life of Newcastle since the seventeenth century, as well as its physical appearance through the buildings they designed and built. Among them was William Bell Scott, and Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet whose exquisite murals grace the walls of the central hall at Wallington Hall near Morpeth in Northumberland, a National Trust property we visited in August 2013.

This was the third and last book I had borrowed from the local library before the most recent pandemic lockdown and then Tier 3 restrictions locally. The library has not yet re-opened and I was unable to replace these books. So it was back to the Kindle and a touch of Rudyard Kipling once again: The Light That Failed, first published in January 1891 (his first novel, and not critically acclaimed).

With a number of things to occupy me during December (including my daily walk whenever the weather permits) I reckon The Light That Failed will see me through to the end of the month. I’ll include a summary in my 2021 reading list compilation a year from now.

So that’s another year’s reading accomplished. And what a year 2020 has been. Who could have imagined, as the clock was about to strike midnight on 31 December last, just what we would be facing in the coming months. We’ve made it through the pandemic so far, and having access to books, good music of every genre, and daily fresh air have been key to that achievement.

Keep safe. And let’s hope for a better 2021.


 

What I’ve been reading this year . . .

I started the year where I left off in 2018: continuing with (and enjoying) Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace [1]. I finished that around the second week of January then dived straight into his Anna Karenina [2].

I guess I started War and Peace (first published in a single volume in 1869, although it had been serialized between 1865 and 1867) because I had this feeling that it’s one of the books that I (at the age of 70) should have dipped into by now. In 2016, at the beginning of the year just as I broke my leg and was laid up for the next six weeks, the BBC broadcast an adaptation of War and Peace in six parts that Steph and I thoroughly enjoyed. It was certainly a lavish production. And quite a feat to condense such a large book into six hours.

War and Peace is quite a marathon, and it must have taken me almost seven weeks to complete. What I liked was Tolstoy’s contrast between the privileged lives of the nobility—Society—and the horrors of war brought to nations through the expansionist policies of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Having completed the book, we decided to revisit the TV series (fortunately available as a box set on the BBC iPlayer). Inevitably I found myself comparing the portrayal of the various characters on screen with those that had formed in my mind. Perhaps the closest was that by Jim Broadbent as Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, and to some extent, the weakest was Paul Dano as Count Pierre Bezukhov. Jack Lowden as Count Nikolai Rostov came across as a rather more callous individual than he appeared in the book.

Anna Karenina must have been regarded as quite racy when first published in 1878 (but serialized between 1873 and 1877) with themes of betrayal, faith, family, marriage, Imperial Russian society, desire, and rural vs. city life. The central plot is an adulterous affair between Anna (unhappy wife of a Russian bureaucrat in St Petersburg) and a cavalry officer, Count Alexei Vronsky.

One theme that recurs is the societal changes taking place in rural Russia, and the expansion of the railways. Suicide by railway is how Anna meets her unhappy end.

One small aspect that recurs throughout the novel is Tolstoy’s admiration for women’s bosoms. He seems quite obsessed by them considering his vivid descriptions.

Keeping with the Russian theme, I then moved on to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich [3].

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (published in 1962) is quite short, a novella in fact like F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (that I read in 2018). My first impressions were not promising. It’s just one long prose, no chapters. It’s one day in the life.

I persevered, and I’m glad I did. It’s a tale of survival told through the eyes of gulag prisoner Ivan Denisovich (and must have been autobiographical to some extent on Solzhenitsyn’s part). All the while I was reading Ivan Denisovich, I couldn’t help thinking about the prison sentence endured by one of my scientific heroes, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, one of the giants of genetics and agriculture of the 20th century. He fell out of favor with Stalin was imprisoned and died there in 1943.

It took me a week to read Ivan Denisovich. What next? More Russian authors or someone else? I decided on Russian, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I was able to purchase his 15 novels for my Kindle. But which one to begin with? It had to be Crime and Punishment, concentrating on the mental anguish and moral dilemma faced by the main protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov.

March. New month, a new book. I decided to go back to my North Staffordshire roots, and explore Arnold Bennett once again. I’m pretty sure I already read Anna of the Five Towns some time in the past, but I can’t remember when, nor the plot. So it was like opening the book for the first time. As with much of Bennett’s writing, there’s a focus on the strong Methodism in late 19th century Stoke-on-Trent.

Then I moved on to The Old Wives’ Tale, considered by many to be Bennett’s finest novel. Then, to complete a Bennett trilogy, I quickly devoured The Card, a delightful tale of Five Towns’ ambitions, and made into a memorable film starring Alec Guinness as Denry Machin in 1952.

Jane Austen is always a favorite of mine; I’ve read all her novels. A year ago I tried to return to Emma, but somehow, I just couldn’t settle to it. This time round, however, I persevered and thoroughly enjoyed my reacquaintance. I have become so accustomed to reading on my Kindle, that I find the small print in some books (as was the case with my Signet Classic edition of Emma) rather hard to handle, especially in the evening when my eyes are tired. With the Kindle I can at least change the font size.

Early April. Return to Dostoyevsky, and perhaps his most famous novel The Brothers Karamazov [5]. I got about two thirds of the way through, and just couldn’t take any more. Page after page of philosophical navel gazing. I very seldom give up on a book. In fact, over the past nine years I can only remember having done this once before – a biography of William Pitt the Elder that I started in 2012.

Over the Easter weekend (and in preparation for visiting his family home in Kent, three weeks later) I decided to re-read to The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

But I didn’t get very far at all. It’s a very hard read. Not the content, I hasten to add. That’s all very familiar to me. No, it’s Darwin’s writing style. Very Victorian. And the copy I have has such small typeface that I had to put the book aside with the hope that I might return to it later in the year.

And there I stopped reading for a month, until I decided to give Rudyard Kipling a try out, so to speak. During our week away in East Sussex and Kent, we spent an enjoyable morning at Kipling’s home, Bateman’s.

And that’s when I chose Kim as my next challenge, followed up a month later by The Man Who Would Be King (a short story in The Phantom ‘Rickshaw and Other Tales).

Kim. What a strange book. Not as easy as I thought it would be. Just as it was getting going, and I expected to read all about Kim’s exploits as a spy, it ended.

Given that The Man Who Would Be King was made into a feature film directed by John Huston, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine, no less, I was surprised to discover that it was only a short story, rather inconsequential. Kipling himself has a cameo role as a burgeoning newspaperman.

But, having worked my way through, and it having coming to an abrupt end, I opted for another Arnold Bennett tale as my next challenge. The Grand Babylon Hotel seemed to me a rather poor imitation of an Agatha Christie novel. Way before Christie was writing. The plot was weak and ludicrous, to say the least. And although it was a diversion for the five or so days for me to work through it, I found the next four Bennett novels much meatier and to my taste. It was back to The Potteries with Clayhanger, a ‘trilogy’ plus one: Clayhanger (a boy’s tale from the Five Towns), Hilda Lessways and These Twain, followed by Roll Call by mid-August.

Then it was Kipling once again – Plain Tales from the Hills, a collection of 40 short stories, 28 of which first appeared in the Civil and Military Gazette between November 1886 and June 1887. These took me about a week to devour.

I’m not sure if I’d already read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. We have a copy in the house. But I decided to download a copy on to my Kindle, and delved into it from late-August. It must count as one of the great social novels of the 19th century.

While in the USA in September, I bought a secondhand copy (for <$10) of the coffee table book, The Untold Civil War, published by National Geographic. Each page is a different story, liberally illustrated with contemporary photographs and cartoons. An excellent read and resource.

Just before departing for the USA, I finished North and South, and started George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, first published in 1860. But somehow, while away, always found something else to keep me occupied than settling to this novel. I was busy sorting and editing over 1000 images I’d taken during our road trip before traveling on to Minnesota. I’d only read a few pages, so on return home, I started from the beginning again. But didn’t get very far.

During the first part of October, I couldn’t settle to reading. First I was seriously jet-lagged and it took me longer to recover than after past trips. Then I went down with a nasty cold that laid me low for almost a fortnight. And during this period I just lost interest in Mill on the Floss.

At the beginning of November I decided I had to find something to read. So I returned to Arnold Bennett and his collection of short stories, The Matador of the Five Towns and Other Stories. I lost count of how many there were; it must have been 20-30. Most were excellent, and often quite humorous. Reading just a few pages a day, it took me almost a month to work through these.

And here we are, on 1 December, and I have just decided to tackle Middlemarch by George Eliot. Published in 1871-72, it’s regarded as her finest, a tale of love, life, and politics set in a fictitious Midlands town in the 1830s, and currently being serialised on BBC Radio 4. No doubt this will take me the whole month to devour, and probably into January. But I’m determined to persevere with George Eliot this time.

That’s it for 2019. Which book(s) did I enjoy most? On reflection, I think I’d have to choose Clayhanger.

I wonder what literary treats 2020 has in store?


[1] Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

[2] Translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude

[3] Translation by Gillon Aitken

[4] Translation by Constance Garnett

[5] Translated by Constance Garnett.