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J. Vernon (Surrey, UK)

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Emma, The Twice-Crowned Queen: England in the Viking Age
Emma, The Twice-Crowned Queen: England in the Viking Age
by Ruth Norrington
Edition: Paperback
Price: 12.72

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Important Queen of England, 15 Feb 2010
I have for a long time been interested in the history of England prior to the Norman conquest, and often browse this period of the history section of bookshops. I read the book rapidly - which is a good sign.

Emma was the wife and Queen of King Ethelred (`The unready') of the house of Wessex, and later the wife and Queen of the Danish King, Knut (also known as Canute). This is an extraordinary straddling of the two sides in the prolonged struggle for the control of England between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. As Ethelred's wife (1002 - 1016), she was on the losing side, while the country was progressively invaded. She was even forced into temporary exile with her young children, one of whom was Edward - who later became a king of England (known as `The Confessor').

As Knut's wife (1017 - 1035), she gave legitimacy to the Danish conquerors and made great efforts to heal the nation's wounds by gifts to the church. She also gave birth to a son by Knut, called Hardeknut, who was king of England for a short time.

In both marriages Emma had to compete or co-operate with another wife and her children. This was an age when the church winked at an informal polygamy, so important was securing the blood-line of kings. Ethelred had previously married Elgiva, one of whose many children was Edmund (`Ironside') who fought the Danish invaders, and whose bloodline stretches down to the present royal family. Knut had previously had an informal `marriage' with (another!) Elgiva (`of Northampton), who gave him a son, Harold (`Harefoot') who also was king of England for a short time.

Confused? The dynastic struggles of the period were complex, but extremely important in determining the whole direction of subsequent English history. So it is worth studying this period in detail. I am always annoyed by the victors' version of history which virtually starts at the Norman conquest, ignoring hundred of years of proud, independent and interesting history.

However, detail is something in short supply, unfortunately. Historians gave to glean information from a paucity of documents, with very little opportunity to cross-reference to establish the true facts. One could describe the known facts of Emma's life in a short monograph. Isabella Strachan has to pad out the book with other facts and a huge dose of speculation. Note the frequency of phrases and words, such as "one can imagine", "would", "if", "might have", "would have", "may", "possibly" and "probably", and one realises that very little can be relied on in this book.

I am not blaming the author, since this is an ineluctable problem with the history of the era. In fact, she makes a good (though sometimes mawkish) attempt at adding colour and drama to the story. However there are many unqualified sentences, especially those telling us what Emma thought (!) which are novelistic rather than historical.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 19, 2013 9:53 PM BST

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth
The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth
by Frances Wilson
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.99

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Strong feeling bordering on incest, 15 Feb 2010
I have been investigating the personal lives of some of the English Poets, and wanted to know more about William Wordsworth. This account of the life of his sister, Dorothy, seemed to be a profitable side-entrance to his life, and so it proved to be.

In particular, I wanted to know more about the love and sex life of Wordsworth, who had been portrayed as a supreme, upright and admirable poet to me. There is no sex to speak of in Wordsworth's poetry. The key issue directly, frankly and subtly explored by Frances Wilson in this book is the extraordinarily close, strong and passionate relationship between the siblings, particularly during the period December 1799 to October 1802, when they lived together in Dove Cottage, near Grasmere.

Dorothy devoted herself to her brother, caring for him, cooking meals, doing the washing, nursing his health, taking his dictation, walking with him, copying out his poems, reading other authors to him, talking together about nature and the landscape around them. She was certainly the midwife to much of his poetry.

She kept a journal during that period, revealing her character to be passionate and sensitive. She does not reveal any dark secrets, and probably nothing conclusive will ever be known, but Frances Wilson explores their relationship with great skill and perception. It is clear that William and Dorothy loved each other deeply, a sibling love that can find few comparisons. But the intensity of that love is revealed in a passage of her journal from the very morning of his marriage to Mary Hutchinson: "I saw them go down the avenue towards the church, William had parted from me upstairs. I gave him the wedding ring - with how deep a blessing! I took it from my forefinger where I had worn it the whole of the night before - he slipped it again onto my finger and blessed me fervently. When they were absent my dear little Sara [sister of the bride] prepared the breakfast. I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men running up the walk, coming to tell us it was over, I could stand it no longer and threw myself on the bed where I lay in stillness, neither hearing or seeing anything..."

This ritual of the ring symbolises William Wordsworth marrying two people that day. Is this true? Did Dorothy make it up? Does it not reveal a disturbing strength of feeling bordering on incest? Frances Wilson does not go so far as to suggest they had an incestuous physical relationship, but she picks out tiny details in the journals that suggest the turmoil of incestuous emotions in both of them.

This book is well written, poetic in its own right. The tone is just right, and the weighing of the facts balanced and perceptive. It certainly is extremely informative, giving us a picture of Dorothy Wordsworth from her point of view that is akin to a novel - or a ballad, to use her own title. I read it quickly (within five days) and found it deepened my understanding of both characters, and of the famous poetry that emerged from that period.

Incidentally, I identified closely with Dove Cottage, since I worked very close by in the summer of 1975. I did volunteer work clearing out the weed from White Moss Tarn, a few hundred yards from their house. Their favourite walk was past this tarn up to the Upper Rydal path. They walked out together virtually every day.

Stone Virgin
Stone Virgin
by Barry Unsworth
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Erotic and philosophical, 15 Feb 2010
This review is from: Stone Virgin (Paperback)
I rate Barry Unsworth highly, and have done so ever since he was recognised with the Booker Prize in 1992, for his book `Sacred Hunger' - a book I would recommend reading, together with much of his other works. This book, `Stone virgin', is brilliant, and I have just read it again for the third time, prompted by a holiday in Venice. I could understand the geography of Venice described in the book much better, with it fresh in my memory, and the pocket map of the city from my hotel beside me. Unsworth obviously knows the place, its people, its history and its culture very well, and can convey the atmosphere skilfully.

The stone virgin referred to in the title is a statue of the Madonna, which seems to shine with a mysterious light and affects the people around it. The figure was carved in the fifteenth century, and the circumstances of its modelling form the first story thread, including love, sex and a death. The book shifts to the twentieth century, telling the multi-layered story of it being restored, also including love, adultery and a death. An `interlude' from the eighteenth century is inserted, which is highly comic, telling a story of seduction and adultery, which explains how the statue came to be placed on the front of a particular church, ending in the death of its narrator.

Time and history are complexly layered, with almost occult influences across the years. Each of the three main stories echoes and reflects the others. Phrases and human actions are repeated down the centuries. The past invades and even seems to control the present. "All things are in threes", as it says on the final page. For instance much of the narrative is carried by first-person accounts by the three main protagonists, in their different centuries, one writing letters of appeal against his unjust condemnation to death, one writing his Casanova-style memoirs and one writing a diary. There is much food for philosophical thought in this complex book, but lightened with the author's sense of humour and sensitivity to beauty.

However the most dominant impression of this book is its sensuality. It dwells on bodies, mainly female, made of stone and of flesh. There is a pervading sense of arousal and sexuality in all three ages, with ardent, but strangely false, physical passion, vividly described. There is betrayal and intrigue in all the love stories, but I should not give away the surprising twists and turns of the stories. Unsworth has written here one of the most erotic books I have read, but elevated to a high literary plane by his rich, intelligent, sophisticated sensibility.

Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts
Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts
by Simon Jenkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two revolutions of the modern Leviathan, 15 Feb 2010
In a bookshop my hand hovered over a copy of `Atlas shrugged' which had been strongly recommended to me by a friend, but I veered away, put off by the ponderous size of the book; instead I picked up this book, since it seemed to have tangential relevance to the same themes. I wanted to learn more and think more about `Thatcherism', a political movement which has dominated my adult life. I would say from the start that I have tended to view `Thatcherism' with overall approval, though tempered with reservations and criticisms.

Simon Jenkins is well placed to give a detailed and insightful narrative of the whole movement (if that is the right word), and the level of detail is astonishing. He sweeps from the early 1970s, when the UK was struggling politically and economically, through to the accession of Gordon Brown to power - though the book came out before the current financial crisis. His amusing and persuasive argument is that the dominant political philosophy in this country is unbroken from Thatcher to Brown - hence the title and the cover picture of Thatcher walking along, with eager pupils - Major, Blair and Brown - scurrying after.

He explains vividly the origins of Thatcher's political views, giving due weight to other key figures, such as Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson and Keith Joseph. Surprisingly he portrays Thatcher herself as a timid and reluctant `Thatcherite' up to her second election victory in 1983. Quite rightly, he points out the many gaps between her stirring, stern rhetoric and what she actually did.

The first revolution that Jenkins identifies is the traditionally understood drive to change the UK fundamentally by privatisation, increasing entrepreneurial incentives, reducing the overweening power of the unions and so forth. Many interesting details and trenchant opinions are embedded in this account, many critical. He points out the self-serving untruths in Thatcher's autobiography along the way - such as her later assertion that she always believed in a strong defence policy, whereas the truth is that her government had plans for swingeing cuts in defence just before the Falklands war (including selling one of our aircraft carriers to Argentina!).

The second revolution he identifies is far less positive - the massive centralisation of power and increase in bureaucracy that she initiated. Here her central contradiction becomes starkly clear: she believed in revolutionising the state by giving power back to individuals, but because she thought so many organs of government were incompetent and tainted with socialism - especially local government - she then proceeded to gather more power into her hands in order to effect the changes she wanted to see. She could not let go and be true to her theoretical beliefs. She felt she was the only one who saw things correctly, and knew how to change them.

Jenkins' detailed account of how power was centralised in the Treasury and the number 10 cabinet office - something that went into overdrive under John Major - provides many facts and views of which I had not been fully aware. The argument of continuity of policy under the Labour party government is convincing. The drive for more central control then led to a myriad of `targets' and endless reforms. The increasing waste and incompetence of central government, especially under Gordon Brown's treasury and John Prescott's various roles, are bitterly savaged.

By the end of the book, we have a hideously compelling picture of the modern `Leviathan' which hunkers over our lives today, with a bloated public sector, gross waste of resources, infantile targets, endless inspections/ audits/reviews and higher taxes. Jenkins then brings out his proposal for a third revolution, which is to devolve more power to local government. He makes useful comparisons with the structures of local power in many of our European neighbours. He is generally approving of Scottish and Welsh devolution, and sees great potential in the very local structure of civic involvement, down to parishes and town councils. He likes the idea of city Mayors. It is a call to the revival of local democracy and civic pride.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 9, 2013 5:18 PM BST

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive
by Jared Diamond
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Warnings from History?, 31 Jan 2010
`Collapse' is sub-titled `How societies choose to fail or survive'. This reflects his ultimate message, where he gives an optimistic message about how society can save itself from a global collapse, tipped over by the multiple environmental catastrophes that accelerate abound us. It is also a wake-up call: our human society can survive only if it perceives the threats and changes its actions. If we go on as we are, however, our society will collapse, possibly quite soon and possibly catastrophically.

It is a chunky book, running to 560 pages and crammed with impressive detail. The author is a polymath, having had three distinct careers as a physiologist, a zoologlist and an environmental historian. Apparently he is learning his twelfth language. So evidently clever and wide-ranging his he that one reviewer has amusingly commented " `Jared Diamond' is suspected of actually being the pseudonym for a committee of experts." So we are in good hands.

Diamond looks are case studies of where societies have failed in the past, drawing on all historical, archaeological and ecological sources. These are Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, Henderson Island, Anasazi native Americans, the Mayan civilizations and the Greenland Viking settlements. These were clearly catastrophes and left nothing or only a fragment of its population behind, with their artefacts and buildings for scientists to dig up. The causes are various and the individual stories different, but common threads are identified in a systematic and wholly convincing way. The common thread can be summarised as environmental degradation (caused or speeded up by human activity), and the failure of people to adapt to the changes or to prevent them.

These stories are somewhat comforting, like what the Japanese call `a fire on the other side of the river'. We can shake our head at the wrong-headedness and the limited technology they had, assuming that we are above and beyond all that. They are also relatively small and exotic stories. However, Diamond shows how they did the best in the circumstances, within their mind-set. The limitations of their cultural mind-set are especially keenly felt in the case of the Norse Vikings eking out and increasingly desperate existence in two settlements in Western Greenland. While they died out, starving to death in poignant, isolated circumstances, the native Inuit were going about their business around them with success, surviving the colder climate with superior technology (e.g. kayaks) and adaptability.

Maybe to cheer us up, the author throws in a few examples of historical success, including the maintenance of their environment by the Papua New Guineans and the reforestation of Japan in the Tokugawa era. This is only one chapter, but enlightening.

Then he moves on to describe modern societies which have/are collapsed/collapsing. His case studies are Rwanda, Haiti, China and Australia. The genocide in Rwanda is clearly linked to the extreme overpopulation of this land and the extreme tensions arising from the need to have enough resources to survive. Haiti is just about the world's worst basket-case (maybe Somalia runs it close), and its desperately poor society is described as surviving on the edge, limping along with international aid. More than 95% of the land has been deforested and the soil is degrading rapidly with every rainstorm and hurricane.

China is necessarily described in broad brush terms, but the scale and variety of the environmental problems there are deeply depressing: climate change, sandstorms, desertification, soil erosion, salinisation, water shortages, floods, sediment discharge, acid rain, smog, chemical pollution of water, air and soil, wetland destruction, over-fishing, loss of native species, infestation by alien species, importation of garbage and so forth.

Australia? Yes, he points out that Australia is the first world country with the most severe environmental degradation. Nearly all the problems listed for China are present in Australia, if not proportionally worse. Australia is one of the driest countries in the world, with some of the least robust soils. The problems have been exacerbated by government policies over the decades, for instance requiring leasehold farmers to clear native vegetation as a condition of their lease. As it happens, my National Geographic magazine for this month also had an extensive article on the drying and salinisation of the Murray/Darling basin, so Diamond's assertions are powerfully corroborated.

Diamond describes the country's renewable resources as being `mined' - i.e. extracted at such a fast rate that they will never recover to their former level. Most stunning of all, the author cites an environmentalist's estimate that Australia can only sustain a long-term population of 8 million people. That puts paid to some politicians' dreams of a 50 million population, and, given that the present population is 20 million, one can envisage some catastrophic and pitiful shrinkage of the number of people left alive.

He by no means predicts an immediate collapse, and he is keen to demonstrate that policies and attitudes are already changing. However he does not need to spell it out - having just read about the complete deforestation of Easter Island, the reader can make the obvious connections, but on a much larger scale.

John Vernon

Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Mark Maslin
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The facts, but still too much optimism, 31 Jan 2010
This pocket-sized book is from the extensive series of `very short introductions' by Oxford University Press. It was very useful to read on trains. It is a solid reference book, with plenty of guides to further reading and study. It was perfect for my purpose - to become an informed amateur on the subject.

It explains the science and the politics of the science very fluently. It is calm and objective, but firmly putting down doubts and canards about whether global warming is actually happening and whether or not humans are a prime cause of the current phase of warming. The conclusions are clear, but still cast in an admirable Popperian humility and willingness to go on searching for truth and facing difficult facts.

Buried in it are some appallingly depressing facts. For instance, the worst case scenario of the IPCC for carbon dioxide emissions in the 21st Century is already being exceeded by a large margin and accelerating. The consensus modelled predictions for consequent temperature rise in by 2100 are around 6 degrees. The impacts of this scenario in terms of weather patterns, sea level, ocean acidity, fresh water scarcity, crop yields, disease, biodiversity and human population are so bad that the author simply writes `Don't go there' - having described the probable outcomes of lower temperature changes.

He tries to inject a positive note at the end by describing solutions and his personal vision of a new urban environment. But, frankly, these ideas seem like pissing in the wind, compared with the possible changes to our sustaining environment soberly examined in the book.

John Vernon
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 4, 2012 5:17 PM GMT

by Robert Harris
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars The greasy and treacherous pole of Roman politics, 31 Jan 2010
This review is from: Imperium (Paperback)
I hate Robert Harris because his books are so damn good. I am gnawed with envy, feeling that he and I are quite similar people. He is one year older than I, and also went to the same university. We have a shared outlook on history and a parallel sense of curiosity. Whereas my energy and time has been devoted to writing financial product essays, he has allowed himself to delve into more vivid subjects and in a more public way. I earn money from a private and specialised niche, while he researches and vivifies history, and has a wider public fame. But it is evident that he has a knack for creating a good story which I have not proved in any way.

This book, `Imperium' is about Cicero. It is fascinating and educative, bringing the reader back to one of the important foundation stones of European civilization: Ancient Rome. I was aware that Cicero was a great orator, but knew little about his life. This book tells us the story, based firmly on history and his speeches, from 79 to 64 BC. Since Cicero lived until 43 BC there are evidently further books on Cicero to come. `Imperium' is in two parts, the first mainly concerning his prosecution of Verres and his attainment of being a Praetorian. The second part concerns how he climbed the greasy and treacherous pole of Roman politics to being voted consul.

The plethora of characters is hard to keep up with, but key figures such as Pompey and Caesar come sharply into focus. It brings all those vague memories of Roman history and Shakespeare plays into clear shape. I feel far more educated and aware, after reading this book. So I am grateful - but still envious.

His other books, all of them thoroughly recommended, are `Fatherland', `Enigma', `Archangel' and `Pompeii'.

The Ghost
The Ghost
by Robert Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars An outlier airport novel, 31 Jan 2010
This review is from: The Ghost (Paperback)
This a classic `airport novel' - one you can pick up on impulse and read quickly. It certainly draws you in. Having read all Harris's previous novels, I found this an `outlier', less erudite and researched than the others, but still distinctively marked with his style of writing and plotting.

I read this quickly, compulsively turning the pages, mainly as I lay on a futon on the floor in Japan, suffering from jet lag. A post airport novel!

This book is boldly modelled on Tony Blair and his wife, and is very contemporary. It was obviously a money-making distraction from his promise to write more books about Cicero (see review on `Imperium'). It is a great story, and I recommend it. However I sadly sense Harris being nudged by commercial realities, rather than following where his heart lies in historical fiction. (Ironically, after only a few years, this book may plausibly be classified as historical fiction!) Perhaps that is why he includes some acid portraits of publishers and book agents.

John Vernon

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
by Alex Ross
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.87

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magisterial guide to 20th Century classical music, 30 Jan 2010
If you want to know more about Twentieth Century classical music, read `The rest is noise'. This book has already won widespread plaudits, including being the winner of the Guardian First Book award 2008. It is a chunky tome - you need strong wrists to read in bed! The main text ends on page 591, to be followed by about 100 pages of notes, recommended listening and a good index.

Ross has an astonishing breadth of knowledge, conveyed with clarity, so his is a very educational book. The classical music of the last century contains many streams and reputedly difficult pieces that make us wary. This fractured, controversial and confusing musical landscape needs a guide, a Virgil to lead us through hell, and Ross is that man. He is a likeable, positive and enthusiastic companion, and will surely lead you to listen to more of the music he recommends, as I have done under his influence.

Ross does not treat music in isolation, but sets it in a vivid context of the history of the times. Politics, war, literature, philosophy and so forth influence music, just as music influences other spheres of our society. He is most enlightening on the birth of modernism before the first world war, the negative impact of the Nazis, the terror under Stalin, the cultural battles of the cold war and so on. By reading this book, you should have a better overview of many themes of 20th century history.

The definition of `classical' music is deeply difficult in the 20th Century, but the author has a clear idea of what is the serious music that he wants to tell us about. He is catholic and eclectic in his tastes, with no trace of snobbery. He acknowledges and enthuses about the influences of music hall, jazz, blues, folk music, bebop, rock, electronic music and so on, as well as explaining how serious music influenced and informed them, in turn. As he wisely says in his epilogue: "Music history is too often treated as a kind of Mercator projection of the globe, a flat image representing a landscape that is in reality borderless and continuous".

The story opens with the dramatic and distinct impacts of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, while showing their connections back to Wagner and Debussy and so on. He explicates the revolutionary newness of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and their followers. The galvanic effect of the rule-breaking dissonances, atonality, rhythms and other innovations of that era can be appreciated from his narrative. However, none of us in this age can participate in the shock to audiences at, for instance, `Salome' in 1906 or `The rite of spring' in 1913, because our ears are already so attuned to the full range of modern styles and techniques. The audiences of a hundred years ago would have been purely soaked in what you could call the (first) Viennese school of classical music, and so more easily shocked.

Excitement to the ear comes from when the composer violates the established rules, gives us what we had not predicted. This is nothing new - Mozart famously wrote a `dissonnance' quartet and revolutionised the subject matter of Opera with `Figaro'. Artists like Schoenberg could enjoy the fight to break through conventions, and achieve fame / notoriety within intellectual circles. The musical history of the twentieth century could be (simplistically) described as successive waves of breaking convention, even insulting the audience, until you reach the extreme techniques of Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, Birtwhistle et al. However, the problem is a reductio ad boredom. When all the rules are broken, or there are no rules, then the excitement of breaking the rules disappears, leaving a sort of nothingness.

I reflected that the exciting iconoclasm occurring in music was mirrored in parallel events in painting (think of Picasso), poetry (for example Thomas Eliot), architecture (such as Frank Lloyd Wright) or even science (obviously, Einstein). There is an astonishing sense of the zeitgeist flowing in the same direction. Ross does not stray off his own patch; these are my own observations. Here again, free form poetry can be seen to tend towards boredom, compared with the admirable felicity of expressions within tight conventions, such as Alexander Pope.

Ironically, composers were just as much seeking to tie themselves within new rules, such as `12 tone' or `total serialism' or matrix compositions. Ross is not dogmatic or disparaging of many of these movements - he seems to find merit and interest in nearly everything. Naturally, with so much to choose from, he concentrates his writing on what he personally likes. He admits that he cannot cover all composers in any depth, and makes bold selections. For instance, he devotes many pages to Benjamin Britten, asking us to enjoy the analysis of the one British artist as representative of many other worthy artists from the same country.

One can argue about who you would like to see included in this tome - and each special plea would make the book longer and heavier. Clearly Ross had to draw the line somewhere. Well, I personally would have liked more coverage of Alexander Scriabin, Edward Elgar and Nicholas Maw. Possibly they do not fit the themes or the chapter headings, but they produced individual works that must surely rank as supreme achievements of the century, namely and respectively `The poem of Ecstasy', `Cello concerto' and `Odyssey'.

I like the way Ross pauses from the broad narrative to describe individual pieces in detail, such as Strauss's `Salome', Shostakovich's `Fifth symphony', Ellington's `Black, brown and beige', Messiaen's `Quartet for the end of time' or ` Berg's `Lulu'. These are high quality sleeve notes and engender a hunger to listen to the music. I responded by buying CDs of some of the pieces, and made enjoyable discoveries. Illustrating the point I made earlier about the modern ear being already attuned to the revolutionary techniques, I found Schoenberg's `5 pieces for orchestra' and Webern's `6 pieces for orchestra' very worthwhile - not shocking. Certainly one should not treat this music as background music - it deserves attention - but that applies to all serious music.

He has many arresting turns of phrase and witty thoughts; for example: "Cocteau and Poulenc were enjoying a one-night stand with a dark-skinned form, and they had no intention of striking up a conversation with it the following day." He comes up with connections, facts and interpretations that are enlightening, whether it is pointing out the high proportion of gay artists, the influences of Jazz (and the influences on Jazz) or the brilliant description of minimalist music (Reich etc) being like driving along the interstate highways of America.

Read this book for education, enjoyment and elevation. If you have patches of knowledge of Twentieth Century music (as I do), Ross will tie them together for you, give them more resonance and encourage you to listen to more. He would be someone I would like to join for a fortnight's journey on the trans-Siberian express (with an ipod to listen to the music samples as we went along). I feel a long and rewarding journey has been completed by reading this book through.

John Vernon

The Year of the Flood
The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.67

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Equivocal terrifying dystopia, 30 Jan 2010
This review is from: The Year of the Flood (Hardcover)
I attended the London launch event of this book on 2nd September, and found it rather odd and stilted, with actors reading out passages in a church. Given my great respect for the author (who was present at the launch - a small, sprightly, grey-haired lady), having read two of her works previously - `The blind assassin' and `Oryx and Crake' - I then bought this handsome hard-back book. I like its bright green inner covers and bookmark. Books do furnish a room.

The content is more equivocal. Margaret Atwood is delving further into the terrifying dystopia given us in `Oryx and Crake'. The further detail is fascinating and worthwhile. The author picks up on contemporary news stories, and distorts or extrapolates them into a plausible future, with a vividness that exceeds most science fiction writers. While reading the book, I heard a TV news story about scientists growing meat in a laboratory, and that is the sort of thing she puts into her stories, taking them to their logical and sickening conclusion.

`Sickening' is a good word to describe the future world she paints for us. `The flood' referred to in the title is a viral epidemic that kills most people in the world - again echoing contemporary news stories about Swine Flu, SARS, Ebola and such. For the sake of future readers, I will not reveal the specific cause of this epidemic, but it is part of Margaret Atwood's evident antipathy to large, powerful, selfish corporations.

She has a violent imagination. Death and physical violence are ubiquitous in her imagined world. It is curious to see her fascination with the abuse of women's bodies. Women are also among the strongest characters in her books, but not uniquely.

She has an exemplary vocabulary and range of interests. She used the word `spandrel', and I had to look it up in my Chambers 1972 edition dictionary, where it gave the definition "the space between the curve of an arch and the enclosing mouldings, string-course, or the like". This did not appear to make sense in the context of referring to hair. A Wikipedia search revealed that the term had a specific biological evolutionary meaning, from a 1979 article by Gould and Lewontin, referring to characteristics that were strictly unnecessary by-products of adaptive selection. So I could see that Atwood is smart and widely read - not that I doubted it.

But I say the content is equivocal, because it does not bear comparison with `Oryx and Crake'. It has a confusing chronology, and a story line that sags so much that I put the book down to read another for a couple of weeks. But I persisted to the end, and wondered if I had been fully rewarded. How much extra had I gained, compared with reading the first book?

The story mentions characters from `Oryx and Crake', filling in more biographical detail and bringing us to the same geographical point where `snowman' lives, but no clear climax. Clearly mankind has ruined itself and the planet. The message is clear, but the strange religion of `God's gardeners' is obviously not sufficient and seems to be satirised - the tone was very unstable for me.

Is Margaret Atwood working towards a trilogy? Maybe not, Margaret; leave it at that.

John Vernon
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 10, 2010 1:04 PM BST

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