I read The History of the Bible this weekend and enjoyed it a lot. I have a little collection of books about theology now, not because of any interest in faith but because I think it’s an interesting vein of history and culture. The bible is so often quoted, wittingly or unwittingly, in popular culture and everyday speech. Here are some good excerpts from the book.
The first I’ve included because I like the readings of the Old Testament that give God a personality.
I’m reading the epic biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, at the moment. At the moment it’s the 1920s and Moses is trying to wrestle swathes of land off the robber barons who’ve built their manor houses on Long Island, so that he can build extensive park systems and a parkway to connect them to the city.
It’s a mammoth book but I’m really enjoying it. The 1920s is an interesting era in American history not just because of my teenage obsession with The Great Gatsby and the associated milieu, but because it’s also a period when the Klan were incredibly active in white, Protestant communities all over the country, and because it’s when the robber barons of the Gilded Age were really trying to hand onto their wealth.
MK: That brings me to another question about the women in your novels. Something that comes up rather often when talking about your work. I’m thinking of the way that women are depicted, the roles they’re assigned.
It’s common for my female friends to say to me, ‘If you love Haruki Murakami’s work so much, how do you justify his portrayal of women?’ The notion being that there’s something disconcerting about the depiction of women in your stories.
But, in an odd way, Stephen Joyce is probably one of the last of his kind we’ll see. D.T. Max, the journalist who profiled him, also happens to be David Foster Wallace’s biographer, and in the notes to his biography he writes that “David may have been the last great letter writer in American literature (with the advent of email his correspondence grows terser, less ambitious).” This is a claim that will probably be plausibly made about other writers in that generation or just before.
I just finished Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. I really enjoyed it without really knowing what to make of it. It’s structured in a stream-of-consciousness way, with distinct sections (which aren’t quite chapters) that sometimes relate to what’s come before with a dream logic. Here are some of my favourite sections, or at least a couple that got me thinking.
There are countries where people speak English. But not like us — we have our own languages hidden in our carry-on luggage, in our cosmetics bags, only ever using English when we travel, and then only in foreign countries, to foreign people.
These are the books I most enjoyed reading in 2019, compiled from my Goodreads Reading Challenge.
Fiction A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimar McBride Catch-22 by Joseph Heller A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré Enigma Variations by André Aciman The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai Non-Fiction The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples by Bede The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks Queer City by Peter Ackroyd
I read the Penguin Classics translation of Wasps by Aristophanes the other day. It’s a satirical play about how an older generation of Athenians who fought in the Peloponnesian War were taken in by a pandering demagogue called Cleon. To grasp what’s happening and get the jokes, you have to know a little bit about the context of Athenian politics at the time and how the jury system worked. But all of that is explained in a very quick note at the beginning of the edition.
There were lots of interesting and terrible things in Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini but here’s something that stood out. Eugenics was a widely respected field of study around the time of the turn of the 20th century, well before the rash of state-sponsored genocide programs we now associate with Nazis etc. University College London established a Eugenics Record Office, that aimed to study races of man and conct the best ways to hone the (presumably white) superior race to perfection.
I started reading Little by Edward Carey without knowing what it was about. Soon it emerged that it’s a fictionalisation of the life of Madame Tussaud based on her memoirs. It is typical of a revolutionary French narrative in that it involves a exploited child orphan, the beautiful disarray of Paris at the time, and finally: no shortage of chance encounters with significant historical figures that begin to stretch the reader’s credulity.