Almost every mountain.
Publisher: Faber & Faber
First Published: 14th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 15th August 2016
Dan Richards discovers his great-great aunt by marriage, Dorothy Pilley, was a well-known mountaineer in the early 1900s. He sets out to find out more, staying in Cambridge to read the letters and articles left there by his aunt and her husband, Ivor, interviewing friends and family, and making various journeys of his own to cover the routes taken all those years ago.
Climbing Days is a humorous and intelligently written book that blends biographical history with a personal journey and nature writing. For its mix of subjects and the overall tone, it has wide appeal.
The book sports history in abundance. Richards spends a good few chapters sharing his research and the day to day of his time in Cambridge before he goes on to detail his own climbing ventures, adhering to his own chronology to set the scene. This means there’s a lot to get through but it’s peppered with anecdotes; the pace is swift. When it comes to Dorothy and Ivor themselves, the author favours subject over timeline, sectioning his text by mountain climbed. Richards writes from his own interests, telling the stories from a certain viewpoint with the result that you feel you know the couple very well. And he’s big on facts, using quotations liberally so you’re always hearing the thoughts of others.
As a reading experience it’s a delight. Richards’ style is friendly and inviting. There are footnotes aplenty, sometimes for reference purposes but mostly because the larger story surrounding the one being told he finds too good to leave out:
My mother’s Scottish grandmother, Margaret Greenland, was also famous for wearing a hat but she wore hers whilst she did the housework so that, should anyone come to the door, she could claim that she was ‘just on her way out’ and so not have to invite them in. She was a great exponent of ‘You’ll have had your tea’ as well, I’m told, from earliest afternoon onwards.
The writing is incredibly readable with the sort of attention to detail that means errors are few. It’s got that literary factor, good language, and articulation that at times may require a dictionary but never suggests the author used a thesaurus – there’s no pretentiousness here.
I picture the Pinnacles assembling – travelling to North Wales by train and motor car, collecting each other like raindrops on a window pane.
A lot of learning is part and parcel to the reading experience. Much of the studious detail is down to Ivor’s career in academia. Want to know why we as students in school and university have those difficult, often annoying exams in which we must study poems without knowing the context or who the poet is? Ivor Richards. Author Dan includes his own schooling, his time following the exam structure without knowing he was related to the man who created it.
‘In those days, even up in the Lakes, a girl couldn’t walk about a village in climbing clothes without hard stares from the women and sniggers from the louts.’1
Naturally there’s a lot of focus on women and independence. Women were not allowed to venture up a mountain alone so Dorothy’s younger brothers had to learn to climb. She left them far behind her when the time came. There is information about the first ladies’ climbing clubs, one of which Dorothy co-founded. And there are the blue prints for Richards’ 21st century follow-up journeying – Dorothy’s memoir, the original Climbing Days.
The climbs themselves see Richards travel to The Dent Blanche, The Lake District, and Barcelona among other places. Not a climber by nature, there are technical details included but a lot more about the room for error and danger, about training, and the process of climbing when you don’t know what you’re doing, all contrasted with Dorothy and Ivor’s passion and competence in a time when there were fewer safety measures.
It is Richards’ passion that makes Climbing Days what it is, that creates the broad appeal and enjoyment. There are no big surprises, no plot-like thrills, just that overall pleasure of reading, of the slow progress of the journey. It’s both escapist and anything but.
1 Taken from Pilley, Dorothy, ‘The Good Young Days’, Journal Of The Fell And Rock Climbing Club, no. 50, Vol. 17 (III), 1956; cited on page p.67.
Just don’t tell this monarch she’s a strong female character…
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
First Published: 9th October 2014
Date Reviewed: 26th November 2015
Hilton looks at Elizabeth I and her court, aiming to show how the queen was more of a prince than a princess (in keeping with the monarch’s own view).
Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince is a fairly good read that examines much of the period but has a tendency to follow forks in the road rather than remain focused on the Queen herself.
Let’s start with the writing style. Hilton writes in a way that is both highly academic and very colloquial. ‘Big’ words join phrases such as ‘he gave out that’, making for a book that suggests authority whilst remaining easy enough to read. Sometimes the text can be very dry – the prologue, laborious, in particular shouldn’t be considered an example of the book as a whole – but the fun episodes slotted in throughout keep it from becoming too much.
The vast majority of statements are backed up in some way, be it by primary or secondary sources. Hilton does tend to favour the research of others rather than her own, which can seem as though she needs to rely on other people’s thoughts when what she’s saying is sound, but it does add up the points in her favour so far as evidence is concerned. Sometimes the evidence is sketchy, for example her use of Bernard to make a point – Bernard’s the man who bases books on hunches – and, as another example, her use of what Anne Boleyn said in the tower in her last days as proof of what Anne believed (which again follows Bernard and, as I mentioned in my review of his book, one can’t really take as fact words said in times of trial). The author sometimes neglects other evidence or mainstream opinion without re-enforcing it, such as her statement that Anne Boleyn was not an active reformer and her talk of the gospel to Henry VIII was but part of courtly love (most historians see it as a subtle way of influencing the easily-influenced king’s mind, possibly on behalf of her family).
However when Hilton gets it right, she really gets it right. She is very biased against certain people others favour but relates stories in such a way that show why she is right to be biased – she may call Katherine Parr’s ‘collusion’ with Seymour during the tickling incidents ‘nasty’ but she makes plain the reason why without resorting to name-calling or manipulating the narrative of the event. She points out that, okay, perhaps Anne could have been a reformer but that there is no evidence of her individual involvement, for example, in ‘promoting sympathetic clerics to bishoprics’.
As a book on the whole it’s good; the problem comes with the title and stated focus: this book is not so much a biography of Elizabeth as it is a book about Elizabeth and her courtiers. So much time is spent detailing other people instead of looking at what the queen was doing and thinking, which is almost inevitable when we’ve no diaries and so forth, but does weaken the argument being made. The assertion of princeliness is compelling and believable but beyond a couple of quotations and repetitions of ‘Machiavellian’, the proposal isn’t strong enough to warrant a whole book about it, as shown by the amount of time devoted to other subjects. Instead, unfortunately, we have a book in which a queen does come across as more of a man but there is so much planning and law-making by the actual men, often away from the queen, that it can look like an afterthought.
Away from this believable but hard to show statement of manliness is a competent non-fiction that whilst it needs to be read with the knowledge it’s one person’s work – as most history books are – succeeds in being informative and a good choice for those looking to learn more about the Queen and the upper classes. Hilton’s background in television gives her book an edge others lack, making it, as suggested, both academic and commercial, and the amount of research undertaken practically oozes from it.
Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince is one to look for once you have a good grasp of the basics (the opinions mean you’ll appreciate it more if you’ve read the mainstream views first) and a good reminder for those who’ve been away from the history for a while. Granted, not all that much is new, but the handling of the information and the presentation of it is on the whole excellent; reading this book is a bit of an experience in itself.
I received this book for review from the publisher.
Figuring out the past. Concerning the present.
Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Random House)
First Published: 7th May 2015
Date Reviewed: 21st November 2015
I’ve never reviewed a book of poetry before, never reviewed a poem at all. As you may know I’m not a big reader of them – technically I like them a lot, the words, phrasing, beauty – but they often confuse me.
I’m giving it a go this time; Howe’s poetry is on the short-list for the Young Writer Of The Year award and having heard the poet read one of them herself, being able to hear her voice in my head and knowing when to pause, helped me a lot.
So, then, Howe’s collection is about her mother’s early life in China as an unwanted and later adopted girl. It’s about Howe’s own experiences as a young child in Hong Kong before the family moved to Britain. It’s a bit about politics, a bit about history, and a bit about Howe’s relationship with her husband. Many of the poems are also based around the divisions of animals as proposed by Dr Franz Kuhn. (The descriptions are included before the poetry begins.)
And whilst some of it flew over my head, I can still say it’s incredible. Howe makes use of various styles. She writes in one-word lines, she writes in a sort of way that echoes prose more than poetry, she uses long sentences, short ones, indented lines. The style that’s most compelling is the one used in the title poem. This is a poem wherein she’s listening to her mother talk about her life and near the end she writes as her mother speaks, using white space between words and phrases to show where her mother is pausing. You get a really good sense of how this conversation played out in reality.
Howe’s written voice moves through perspectives. She often writes from a distance, the third person. Sometimes she writes in the first; but the best times are when she questions the audience directly, or questions herself, or speaks in a particularly intimate way that defies description. It’s really lovely and makes you feel as though you’re privy to something special.
One of the standouts is Tame – hard-hitting, excellent. This is a poem in which Howe uses a quotation about how it’s better to raise geese than a girl as her base and works a fairy tale from it, dark, brutal ending and all. She wraps around the subject, coming full circle. Another is Innumerable wherein Howe remembers going on a day out around the time of Tiananmen; she contrasts the two and brings them together to show how things can be swept under the literal rug but not really.
About half the poems are stories, the other half tiny glimpses. The glimpses work well, you need to keep your wits about you to discover their true meaning.
The writing is quite flowery as you would expect, and very, very literary. Howe’s writing may require you to use a dictionary and you do have to pause sometimes, more than you usually would, to really make sense of what she’s saying – sort of the first step in the discovery program.
It’s a brilliant collection which I can confidently rate top marks even though I didn’t get it all.
I received this book at the Young Writer of the Year award blogger event.
After slavery came acceptance in France, which allowed something remarkable to happen.
Publisher: Crown (Random House)
First Published: 18th September 2012
Date Reviewed: 19th October 2012
Reiss details the life and career of the novelist Alexandre Dumas’s father, General Alex Dumas, born of a white French father and black African mother, who led armies during the French Revolution.
The Black Count is a remarkable book that details what can be learned from previously unpublicised sources to introduce to the world a fantastic soldier whom history had forgotten due to later racial prejudice. A rather long book for the sources used, Reiss provides ample context in which to set Dumas’s trials and happiness. This context can sometimes be a distraction as there is a great deal of it, perhaps too much, and it often goes off on a tangent. It is brilliant for the overall history and especially the history of abolition, but doesn’t quite match the premise of the book, which is to tell Dumas’s story.
However what is provided inevitably ends up trumping any arguments for premise; Reiss has given the history of slavery, abolition, general life, and the journey from acceptance back to intolerance. Whilst books about the period will include information about freed slaves and otherwise, the coverage and particular angle the writer takes puts them to shame. Instead of simply detailing, Reiss gets to the heart of his subject, discussing such aspects as the aristocratic day-to-day lives of free mixed-race citizens of the Caribbean and how accepting pre-Napoleonic France was of such citizens when they arrived in Europe. The author opens the door to a world that the modern world in general does not know nearly enough about, and it is surely important that these facts, as they relate to our present day, are provided for general consumption. In fact, the first few chapters themselves are so detailed as to render a several week course in colonial slavery somewhat superfluous. Reiss even includes the irony that came with a society suddenly finding their fashions being lauded by ex-slaves, feeling the need to be meticulous in their rules concerning the ban of such fashion in the colonies.
When, years later and by then a war hero, he lost his lackey in a storm at sea, he would find himself in a true predicament: facing enemy attack was one thing; arranging his own clothes was quite another.
Reiss provides all the knowledge he can about General Alex Dumas, the hero of wars who single-handedly won battles whilst living in a racially liberal world. He, Reiss, goes back and forth between sources to surmise the most likely story and, crucially, includes excepts from Dumas’s letters that only serve to further what is said – Reiss’s conclusions and suggestions are the understandable product of reading primary source material. The writer makes pauses for thought no concern, there is no reason not to believe what Reiss says. Dumas is the family man, the freedom fighter who unwittingly becomes a victim of his side’s success, and a true humanitarian. Despite what later goes against him, his aims remain strong and well meant: a republic for the equality of all.
The cautious reader may wish to know whether or not a prior acquaintance with the novelist Dumas’s works are necessary for comprehension. At first it seems so, but although he may not say it, Reiss has made his biography accessible and details all the literature references needed. He repeats information when new facts are to be added. Also included are quotations from (the novelist) Alexandre Dumas’s own memoirs, and these are treated with respect whilst being analysed for what they are – Reiss explains that the son idolised the father and thus although his words are used, they are acknowledged to be biased when other sources present opposing material.
Reiss refers to himself throughout the book, and it feels very natural. The references are there to demonstrate the discovery and usage of sources, and also to better describe to the reader present-day situations, such as the difficulty in gaining access to a vault. It’s a unique way of writing, more often used in documentaries, but due to the overall style, it works. As for the style it is readable, casual. Reiss himself says at the end that he wanted to avoid making his work particularly academic. However there are some occasions when it doesn’t quite seem right, such as references to a modern person in order to provide an illustration readers will understand. It doesn’t work because the people chosen are not universal, and thus the handy metaphor can be lost.
Reiss has an evident enthusiasm for his subject, yet remains objective. Indeed considering the sources he presents it is incredibly difficult to see Dumas as anything other than who Reiss presents him to be. There is some bias, however, and obvious personal opinions – for example Reiss dislikes Marie Antoinette, who he describes as “frivolous” and “fierce Austrian music snob that she was”, and leaves it like that without elaborating. Yet he achieves his basic aim, to introduce to the world General Alex Dumas. The book may be lacking in Dumas detail, but it is difficult to put that down to the author himself. The availability of sources and the likelihood of their destruction means that Reiss has undoubtedly made the best job of anyone yet, if indeed anyone else has tried. Such a work and research are to be commended for the valuable information they have uncovered for study.
With The Black Count, Reiss has done his job. May others now extend it and let it set an example.
I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.
Describing the self without words.
Publisher: Peirene Press
First Published: 2003
Date Reviewed: 1st October 2012
Original language: German
Original title: Meer der Tusche (Sea of Ink)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch
Bada Shanren was born in luxury but chose to abandon said luxury for the robes of a monk. Inspired by his father and taught by the abbot he begins to paint, learning about himself and the world in a unique way as he does so.
A mixture of fact and fiction, Weihe’s chaptered novella spans almost an entire life in a very short time. Whilst the background is given to the reader as a non-fiction account, and non-fiction it is – the story of the Manchu conquest of China – the rest is a mostly imaginary tale of Shanren’s life. For what Weihe includes in his narrative is the sort of content you do not find in biographies: detailed thoughts and a tale that is as artistic in its written style as it is in its subject.
And there is a large amount of detail in this book; indeed just like art, it is varied, some details existing as part of the narrative, others being more about structure of subtext. A great deal consists of a subtle philosophy – sentences, ideas – often not discussed and simply just put out there, so to speak. And on the other hand there is, for example, a difference in the written style of the military non-fictional section compared to the fiction – the non-fiction reading rather like a set of bullet points without the bullet points themselves, and the fiction flowing more like the water that plays such a big part in Shanren’s life. If the non-fiction feels stilted, the fiction is liquid prose and beautiful.
The philosophy concerns art, first and foremost, but is inevitably linked to life in general. Often poetic, it draws from a pool that seems a blend of regular worldly philosophy and classical Chinese sayings, the result being highly interesting.
For me as a painter the value of the mountain is not in its size, but in the possibility of mastering it with the paintbrush. When you look at a mountain you are seeing a piece of nature. But when you paint a mountain it becomes a mountain. You do not paint its size, you imply it.
What is particularly intriguing about Shanren, at least in the way Weihe presents him, is the link between the self and the way the painter continually changes his name. Weihe himself, in the afterword, speaks of the artwork being a representation of the painter. Whilst it may not always be the case, there often seems a match of one style or atmosphere to the paintings and the name Shanren goes by at the time. He changes his name to suit the place he is at in his journey to master technique, his art, and the answers to his abbot’s questions.
As an additional point the reader may find the parallel between Shanren’s life and the life of Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha, rather poignant. Like The Buddha, Shanren has an epiphany of sorts and decides to leave his wife and son in order to live simply with a spiritual aim. And like The Buddha – although Shanren does in fact seek a new wife after he realises his diversion from the path set by his ancestors – he comes to a spiritual awakening. The two figures shared a basic understanding of the world through Shanren’s following of the way of life created by The Buddha.
To read Sea Of Ink is to have a history lesson, art lesson, and language lesson at once. Jamie Bulloch’s translation seems at one with the original text, a good substitute where the original cannot be read. Weihe has included a lot of information and yet when reading it does not feel at all so. And the additions of the paintings themselves is a boon that allows Weihe to describe the method of painting in a way that means the reader can literally follow the brush. This written technique may at times feel overused, but it is an intriguing concept nonetheless.
If you are guided by human feelings you will easily lose your way, a wise saying went, but if you are guided by nature you will rarely go wrong.
Sea Of Ink, about art in its many forms, transcends the usual notions of appeal; it is far from restricted to those who have an interest in its most obvious aspects.
Sea Of Ink was originally written in Swiss German, and was translated into English by Jamie Bulloch.
I received this book for review from Peirene Press.