Recent reading 1

In a world more perfect than this one, I would have time to write lengthy reviews of the books I’ve been reading recently.  In this world, all I have time for is a brief mention.

  • Tristam Hunt [2009]: The Frock-Coated Communist:  The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. (London, UK:  Allen Lane).  A superb and sympathetic biography of Engels, written by an historian very empathetic to the rise and culture of 19th century industrialism.   My only (minor) criticisms arise from Hunt’s infrequent, but jarring, use of slang (a failing common in English-educated writers under 40, I have found) and the occasional reference to something which the author thinks he has mentioned previously, but has not.  Perhaps the editor was asleep.
  • Ian Leslie [2009]: To Be President:  Quest for the White House 2008.  (London, UK:  Politico’s).  An account of the 2008 US Presidential election by British journalist Ian Leslie.  No surprises for those of us who followed the race as it happened, but well-written, and good to have on record.
  • Charles McCarry [1995]:  Shelley’s Heart. (New York, USA:  Overlook Press).  A riveting political thriller from this master writer of espionage, about an attempted take-over the US administration by the extreme left through mostly constitutional means.    Well-written, and almost devoid of implausible events or inconsistencies.  (On page 304, in the one slip I found, we read of “both Presidents’ eyes”  in a scene where one President had already left the room.)  The main implausibility concerns the very nature of the conspiracy, which seems to have been prepared for years in advance, yet depended on the chance nomination of one person to the Supreme Court. Surely, truly-serious plotters would not have left step 1 of the masterplan to the whims of people outside the circle.  The characters, however, especially those on the left, are mere caricatures, and lack the greater depth which McCarry’s spy-fiction regular participants typically reveal.   Although he seems to have tried hard to appear politically neutral in this book, it is clear from this (and from his other novels), that McCarry’s own sympathies are with the right.  He also does not like modern art.
  • Helen Vendler [1997]:  The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Cambridge, MA, USA:  Belknap Press).  A superb commentary and detailed analysis of Shakespeare’s masterwork, which I have read, one sonnet and commentary per day, over the last half-year or so.   There is no question, after reading this, of the intellectual, linguistic and emotional heft of the Sonnets.    It is undoubtedly Marlowe’s best work!

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