What I’m Reading In December
As the papers fill with ‘Best Of’ lists we’re being presented with all sorts of interesting books for the winter months, plus some not-very-well-hidden PR promotions. Bookshops charge for table space and listings magazine charge for entries, so to counteract these here’s a selection from my current reading pile, my only agenda being enjoyment and/or enlightenment. These are the physical books; I’m currently reading modern fiction on my remaining unsmashed Kindle. Audiobooks are about to overtake e-book sales for the first time but the book remains and thrives whatever its format.
So, from the bottom to the top; Jerry Toner’s ‘Infamy’ is a history of Rome filleted of the boring senatorial bits and cutting to the chase; sex, violence and alarmingly random acts of cruelty. The metings-out of justice prove shocking and sometimes common-sensical, like the punishment of those who knowingly lend burglary tools to a friend.
Emma Smith’s ‘This Is Shakespeare’ is a no-brainer for all readers. Twenty plays dissected in essays that balance informed opinion and fresh intelligent thinking, clear and concise and kicking off with the problem of the Shrew. Shakespeare’s plays are a black hole you can vanish down for years. Check out the NT’s ‘The Tempest’ app, complete with scripts and clips.
I’m reading a lot of Giles Milton, who highlights forgotten moments not history with clarity and a sense of humorous detachment. ‘Paradise Lost’ is not typical (He’s written more about 20th century Britain), but this story of the destruction of Islam’s city of tolerance, Smyrna, in 1922 is riveting, honest and tragic.
Kathleen Hewitt has been rescued from history’s waste-basket and her wartime classic ‘Plenty Under the Counter’ sets a whodunnit in the Blitz, inspired by her own experiences in wartime London. A highly welcome reissue, one of four from the War Museum.
Speaking of this city, ‘London: A Travel Guide Through Time’ by Dr Matthew Green is a rather brilliant idea that seems impossible to pull off. The plan is to lift readers by the scruffs of their necks and drop them into different moments in time to absorb the sights, sounds and unfortunate smells of the metropolis, so that we’re whisked from plague pit to Fleet Street pub to Smithfield and back in six different time frames. It’s accessible and fun but is highly atmospheric and enlightens with enough surprises for even the most jaded Londoner.
My classic forgotten author of the week is Norman Collins, to whom I come back again and again. He’s a more suburban Muriel Spark, highly popular in his time, but his novels – like ‘The Husband’s Story’ here – mysteriously lost traction and are mostly hard to find now. I’ve yet to read one I haven’t loved.