Staff Picks | April 2020

0
630

There has arguably never been a better time for reading, and we at The London Magazine have plunged ourselves into books of all shapes and sizes this month. Although many of the reads here explore weighty themes, our aim for April was to focus more on remedial or escapist books, rather than literature about isolation. We hope there will be something here for everyone to enjoy.

Steven O’Brien, Editor
I am reading:
1. The Book of Taliesin: Poems of Warfare and Praise in an Enchanted Britain, translated by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams. Spiky and magical bardic poetry from our distant past. The Battle of the Trees is profoundly odd, like being plugged in to another way of looking at the world.

2. The Inimitable Jeeves, P. G. Wodehouse. Consolation in a world of japes and arch valets.

3. North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell. Charlotte Brontë was Gaskell’s friend and said that ‘she understood the soul of the north.’ Nineteenth-century industrial unrest, glowering men and a triumphant woman from the south.

Matthew Scott, Editor
Among other more literary things, I’ve been gruesomely absorbed by two histories of the Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson and C. V. Wedgwood. The former (2009) is immense and comprehensive; slow going, it is often confusing for the non-expert and seems to give equal weight to side issues and matters of central importance. But as a whole account of this little-known, bafflingly complex and truly epochal set of conflicts, it is peerless. The latter, which I had read before, is a total contrast. Veronica Wedgwood was only twenty-eight when she drew together her masterful, fast-paced account in often stunningly eloquent prose. It’s full of the kind of broad statements that historians would now be shy of making without a wealth of evidence, and yet she seems to have an instinctive sense of how this period functioned and of how parallels might be drawn between that time of unrivalled barbarity in Central Europe and her own time – even though, in 1938, she cannot have known how prescient she was being. 

Lucy Binnersley, Assistant Editor
Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, Lonesome Dove, is of those rare species of novels that exists both as a nail-biting page-turner and a literary masterpiece. Set in the 1880s, with the sweeping scope of the American West as its backdrop, it follows two ageing Texas Rangers embarking on one last adventure. It is a cattle drive, all 800 pages of it; nothing more than thousands of cattle being moved from Texas to Montana. McMurtry does not falter in his weaving of dense plot, multitudes of characters and compelling action; gunfights, stampedes, hangings and horse-stealings are just some of the adventures that occur on this long journey.

And yet this novel is more than just a romantic, mythical tale of the West, or an action-packed, trail-driving Great Cowboy tale. It is an odyssey abundant in calamity, brutality, humour, melancholy and love. The Rangers’ quest to tame the frontier falters and appears futile at times, but it is the lives within this hostile land that give it meaning. Alongside the action are a great many scenes in which nothing happens, other than people talking. McMurtry is a master at dialogue and the book is filled with wonderful talkers and conversations; from the wise-cracking and the grumbling to the touching and the poignant. Undeniably heroic and mythic at times, it is the human spirit, captured by McMurtry, that makes Lonesome Dove timeless.

Jack Solloway, Marketing and Online Editor
I’ve been distractedly flitting between books. Firstly, there’s Shoshana Zuboff’s prescient tome The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which I began reading on recommendation by Analog Sea editor Jonathon Simons, who I interviewed recently about publishing in the information age. The book is essential reading, exploring what Zuboff calls a ‘new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices’ – the buying and selling of personal data, breaches in privacy for profit, mass behavior modification, the rise of a surveillance economy. It’s the best garden read since Das Kapital.

When Zuboff’s propping open my door instead, I’ve taken to listening to audio books or poems narrated by guilty pleasure Richard Burton, escaping to Llareggub Hill in the BBC’s definitive adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s Welsh Arcadia in his radio play Under Milk Wood; or gamely carping along to ‘Adlestrop’ (though Edward Thomas’s poem has developed an unintended and somewhat sinister edge to it: ‘The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat. / No one left and no one came / On the bare platform’).

For those who are likewise unable to escape the constant reminder of lockdown, I’d point you to Gabriel Josipovici’s Forgetting, a collection of essays which expertly charts the stygian waters of cultural memory and remembrance. A sensitive and instructive read for life after crisis.

Briony Willis, Subscriptions & Digital Executive
During self-isolation, I have been reading literature that keeps me enthused and optimistic, taking advantage of this opportunity for self-reflection. I’ve needed stories where my mind can escape while my feet remain shackled to the ground and, for me, this is at the heart of a good surrealist novel. I rediscovered Haruki Murakami just prior to lockdown and during this challenging time I have found his ‘easily accessible, yet profoundly complex’ literature to be a comforting antidote for inertia, most recently his 1999 novel Sputnik Sweetheart.

Embedded with an aching loneliness as love goes unrequited, potential remains unfulfilled and passions are left unsatisfied, Sputnik Sweetheart is a love story at its core. Just like the titular Soviet satellites, people’s separate worlds orbit the same desire for belonging, crossing paths with one another for the briefest moment before being plunged back into solitude and feelings of confusion and inadequacy. Murakami presents this potentially bleak existentialism with a delicate blend of reality and wonder, combining the simplicity of his prose with the complexity of his characters. The ordinary becomes extraordinary as the deepest aspects of human psychology are challenged: how detrimentally do we mistake lust for love? Does the loneliness of others make our own loneliness more bearable? To what extent is loneliness or happiness a choice? In Murakami’s words, ‘No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.’

James Riding, Intern
I sought my escapism in The Club by Leo Damrosch and was richly rewarded. It’s a delightful, accessible study of the remarkable time during eighteenth-century London when the leading lights of seemingly every field – literature, politics, drama, art, economics and more – met at the Turk’s Head tavern on Fridays to dine, drink and engage in brilliant conversation. (It’s also the age in which the The London Magazine first emerged – at one point, James Boswell has a drawing of himself made to be engraved for the magazine.) Many of the cast members are familiar: Boswell, Dr Johnson, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Adam Smith. But Damrosch also explores less well-known players and rivals such as John Wilkes and David Hume, as well as the female members of Johnson’s circle like Hester Thrale and Fanny Burney who, although not officially part of the Club, were famed for their wit and central to many discussions. The many illustrations, including a contemporary map of London, are particularly immersive, but what I love the most is Damrosch’s brilliant ear for anecdotes. One of my favourites: two members of the Club call on Johnson at three in the morning, thundering at his door to get him to join him –

At last he appeared in his shirt, with his little black wig on the top of his head instead of a nightcap, and a poker in his hand, imagining probably that some ruffians were coming to attack him. When he discovered who they were and was told their errand, he smiled, and with great good humour agreed to their proposal: ‘What, is it you, you dogs! I’ll have a frisk with you.’

There is a brilliant quotation or a laugh-out-loud story like this on almost every page.

_

Words by The London Magazine team.
Compiled and edited by James Riding.


To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.