Unfinished: The Journal of Beatrix Potter transcribed by Leslie Linder

Yet another library oddity – a collection of Potter’s journals, which were originally written in code, transcribed by Linder. Unfortunately although the cracking of the code was interesting, the journal entries themselves had value only for dipping in and out of. Potter had kept a private diary for her own purposes, and as such this was not written from prosperity, but instead just a collection of very human comments.

I do want to see if I can hunt out the Beatrix Potter collection at the V&A next time I am in London though. Linder donated much of it as part of his fascination with Potter.

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Travels with My Sketchbook – Chris Riddell

As I ordinarily take my young son to the library, we always turn first to the children’s section so he can pick his books out to look through whilst I browse. As a Gaiman fan, I was therefore drawn to Riddle’s doodled journal, and borrowed it for me.

His daily doodles inspired me to pick up a new sketchpad, and they are often humerus and light. His role as Children’s Laureate was presented as both hard work and a dream come true as he trotted around the country giving talks and drawing on library and bookshop walls. Then there are bits and pieces from special events, or from projects going into publication which were absolute gifts. My favourites were generally illustrated quotes and poems.

Given its prominent placement in the library, I expected this to be very much a children’s book. It isn’t: it covers his children’s material, yes, but also current affairs commentary and his weekly Observer cartoon. Much as it stretches and humanises the Mediterranean crisis, the below is not an image that should be in a book in the junior (not even teenage) section of the library. There are many (every 3-4 pages) of these images humanising or mocking current affairs. I am glad they are there, they put his life into context against the events of 2015-16, but they change the tone of the book.

So don’t give this to your children, but do get it for yourself and share it with them as appropriate.

Bye Bye BnB – Joan Campell

Following two quite heavy-going books, Bye Bye B&B is a humorous anecdotal biography on the last year of operation of a B&B near Thurso in the far north of the Scottish Highlands. This had me laughing aloud at times, especially when Campbell is dealing with BT and their notoriously dreadful customer services. Or when she lets guests ride her own horses and they get carried away by them

The life of a B&B owner is not for everyone, and even for those who choose it certainly has its challenges. Not least the tourist board Visit Scotland’s changing standards and methods of inspection. This is hard enough for a woman who ultimately leaves her B&B for a career with VisitScotland, so you are left wondering just how those less connected to the organisation feel.

 

The Great Escape – Angus Deaton

In the original “Great Escape” some individuals escaped from a prisoner of war camp, but in doing so had little impact on, or even made things worse for, the people left behind. In this book Deaton argues that the Western economic and medical success is of a similar kind, and that much of the world has been left behind. The question then posed is is this inevitable? And are there solutions to the cruelty of inequality?

Although this is by no means a light read, I found the experience of reading an economic text from an economist who doesn’t necessary push that the solutions to structural problems lie in the market to be a good one. Having tackled the costs as well as value of IPR, he then moves onto the aid paradox, and how it can support regimes that would otherwise fall and for which a case should be made that they should be allowed to fall with the will of their citizens.

There are some good bubble charts in the early pages where the underlying patterns for how the health, wealth and inequality of nations are linked, and he makes all this analysis understandable to this statistician.

Since this book was written Deaton has won the Nobel Prize for Economics, which is promising for the recognition of the direction this field can go in.

The Path – Professor Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh

One of those books that just seems to have appeared in my to read pile, The Path didn’t grab me for a long time. But I finally picked it up prior to a road trip this summer, and it certainly gave me something to think about.

The central theme is that ancient Chinese philosphy is valuable to everyday life in the modern Western world. I was sceptical of this before I read it, certainly books that usually make such promises then disappear down a rabbit hole. But this book is short and to the point. Each philosopher’s teachings are linked back to the modern world and how they can help us today, and with generous margins this book comes in at under 200 pages.

Puett’s normal audience is an undergraduate course of, not necessarily philosophy, students. It is accessibly pitched and intended to help think about how to live your own life, but also how to manage others, be they family members or in a work environment. It is about how to find The Way, and guide your life so you are working with it rather than struggling against both your own nature and the outside world.

It is a very good sign when a non-fiction book leaves me hunting through the further reading section to learn more, and thinking about how what I read can be woven into my life.

Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood

This was part of my (not yet complete) attempt to read the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist for 2017. One of two which I purchased rather than accessed through the library, this one didn’t make the shortlist so was dropped into the guilt pile.

This was Atwood’s reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and there are two main ways that such a reimagining can take place: the character names and plot can be uplifted and used in a different setting without ever mentioning the source material, or a “book within a book” device can be used to include it directly. Atwood chose the latter option for Hag-Seed, which largely revolves around a production of the Tempest, as well as lifting the plot and characters. This enables her to delve deeply into analysis of how the plot works whilst creating another layer around it, and it works well.

The depths were enjoyable, and the revenge angle made this into the sort of book which cannot be put down, as I was desperate to find out how the plot would unfold.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Selected Letters – Edited by H. J. Jackson

I had been inspired to try Coleridge from reading The Lure of the Lake District, which specifically recommended some of Coleridge’s letters as further reading. This has been sitting on the “guilt pile” for a while, since the non-completion of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Selected Poems. But I added it to the set to take away with us on a camping trip, and rattled through it.

He has an enviable list of correspondents, including Wordsworth and Humphrey Davvy. It is fascinating to read the correspondence between these “Greats” as just friends who mostly discuss ordinary matters. But in his earlier years he did not shy away from big topics, some of which remain contemporary as he discusses the benefits a minimum wage, and guaranteed work “from the parish” and his and Poole’s plans for a Pantisocracy, a classless society.

Aside from his letters on living in the Lake District, I was surprised by his frankness with his correspondents on the subjects of his ill health, both depression and pain-related. He is an entertaining, satisfying letter writer, and I’m now tempted to keep an eye out for the full letter collections should I find them in a second hand shop.

BlueEyedBoy – Joanne Harris

I am more used to Harris’s magical realism, but this crime mystery novel is way outside this genre. I love the style it is told in: the protaganist’s blog posts and discussions in the comments. It reminds me of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book which I didn’t keep, but found a good strong read.

The setting is of course as grim and gritty as is expected in this style of book, and in the absence of magic we instead have synaesthesia, because Harris can never have characters who are entirely normal human beings. As the characters are built, we get the feeling of the rug being shifted under us, with nothing ever quite fitting the picture I already had. But despite knowing a twist must be coming, the one taken was not what I expected.

A disturbing but satisfying read.

The Secret People – John Wyndham

The Secret People is a scifi classic with a setup reministent of Blyton (plus extramarital passion). We have a rich boy with a private jet who manages to crash it in the most inconvenient place possible. But then we take a swift turn into the underworld and discover “The Secret People”.

I loved the main concepts of this: environmental changes and evolution of races of peoples. It also considers zenophobia and true fears. Everything hangs together well on the two central characters and their investigation of this world. My only quibble is that the ending could have been improved above the current one!

The Temeraire Series (9 titles) – Naomi Novik

I first started the Temeraire series some years ago, but ran out of momentum on book 6 (The Tongues of Serpents) which had a very weak ending. But on this reread I felt driven to continue on through the rest of the books, which return the series to the high standards of the series start.

Set in Napoleonic times, dragons are as important to the defence of Britain as its’ navy is, and Temeraire is a large and talented dragon, so obviously forms a key part of this. But he is not given just this simple role, but instead we learn about more of his talents as he undergoes character development and finds his own place in the world. His companion Laurence has similar struggles as he makes life-changing moral decisions and deals with love, the war and friendship on firstly the terms of others, and gradually his own terms.

Each book moves around the world, although some settings are returned to, and the cast around Temeraire evolves as life for a deployed member of His Majesty’s Service continues. I like the imaginative way that dragons become part of the Napoleonic era without displacing true history too much, and how they do not instantly solve problems but instead present new ones. But the best subplot is the one around dragons’ personhood, set against a backdrop of the abolition of the slave trade by parliament. This beast that can destroy ships and kill soldiers without effort has far more interest as a political being than as a warrior.