Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Moby-Dick or, the Whale by Herman Melville

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Call me a dick – but this is great! This is one beast of a book. It’s all consuming when reding it so I read it in sporadic bursts. There is nothing quite like it and it feels like you are making history just by reading it. It’s a fantastic experience as well as being a book to ponder over. It does take some time to get through so I recommend reading the clusters of chapters. There are several ‘digressions’ which are illuminating but take us away from the main story arc.

The characterisation is amazing and the details are obviously copious – Melville spent four years on whaling vessels. It’s biblical in many places with references and style. One of the early chapters is actually a sermon. There is a sense of inevitable dread which intensifies towards the climax. I felt like I was constantly being sucked into the hunt.

I used a map in places just to chart the progress. The language is niche and reflects the time, character and in some cases, the status of the characters. After a few chapters it gets easier to read though. Reading modern works seems kind of shallow and unrewarding after this beast. I recommend it to anyone who lives on planet Earth.

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Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far NorthIbn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North by Ahmad ibn Fadlān
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very objective account of an embassy sent from the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad to instruct the (Volga)Bulgars in matters of Islam. The journey takes in some of the most noteable tribes of the 11th century north of the Caspian and Black seas. He travels well into Russia which was in its infancy. He also travels across the Tundra to visit other semi nomadic tribes.

The account is very detailed and doesn’t belittle or pour scorn upon other races – common at the time. It was fascinating to read about the Viking burial and some of their customs which seem so alien both today, and even more so back then.

The introduction is a welcome account of the traveller, although not much is known about him. There are also several accounts from the Arab world about the various peoples of Europe. I feel like these collection eventually became Geography as we know it.

I’d recommend this to those who enjoy Herodotus and the Travels of Ibn Battutah.

Title: How to be Idle

Author: Tom Hodgkinson

Genre: Self Help/ Humour (but really common sense)

Lazy cliche: An instruction manual for the modern idler.

Within the one broad theme of ‘Idleness’, Hodgkinson manages to encompass so many neglegted yet important facets of life. Our need to work less and play more is justified in a very well written book using examples and quotes from some great thinkers through history.
The greatest strength of this book is that it gives you a warm feeling that things you enjoy – beer gardens, sleeping etc – are actually really good for you. The guilt associated with not working so many hours per week, or needing to get up early to do DIY, are actually relics from the industrial revolution. This era of mass production with time as a mere commodity can be changed if people take on board the ideas of this book and adjust their lives to suit their soul and not their bank balance.
The book is divided into neat sections, each with a well placed quote, this makes it easy to read when visiting the toilet or having a bath. Although the tone is humourous and flippant I think you can take a serious message from How to be Idle. I think Tom Hodgkinson should be commended for his bravery in taking on outdated and traditional thinking methods. Most people still work as if there is a war on, or of the British Empire is still steaming ahead. In reality we should realise that most modern practices do little to further our health, families, and general wellbeing.

It sits amongst other slow living titles very easily and continues a growing trend of questioning why we still live the Victorians. Who would I recommend this book to? Well…, everyone really.

Title: The Road to Oxiana

Author: Robert Byron

Genre: Classic Travel Literature

Lazy cliche: …Indiana Jones meets Noel Coward in exotic Central Asia

Byron set out to investigate and explore Islāmic architecture but he found himself doing far more. I don’t doubt his interest and knowledge on the initial subject matter, but I feel it was mainly an excuse to express his unique perspective on all manner of things.
The narrative takes in the people and places surrounding his quirky quest from Persia through to the Oxiana river in Turkestan (present day Afghanistan I think). There is a vast cast of characters breezing in and out of the pages which gives it a real Jazz-age feel. This style is of its time and takes a while for the modern reader to be acquainted with the fractured descriptions. Once you get past this whimsical style, the book rewards you with some pretty lyrical descriptions of far-flung places. The undertone of  dry humour and numerous witty asides make it very entertaining and enjoyable to read. Byron is at his best when recounting his rakish behaviour e.g – passing himself off as Muslim to enter a Mosque, he is also a master at recording and mocking numerous eccentric conversations.
This book is not really for a general readership;  if you enjoy those ‘picking-olive-blossoms-in-the-Tuscan-breeze’ type books you may not get into this. If you like well written classics from the Imperial past like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene etc you will love this book.


I have been a big fan of Edward I since I saw his chain of castles in North Wales. I have been told by people not to use the word fan in this context; I ignored their advice. Edward I is often overlooked in our history of the monarchs, especially with recent Henry VIII events. Without this book Edward ‘Longshanks’ ran the risk of being a supporting character in a Mel Gibson film, and the associated history has also been romaticized to support or justify various modern notions of nationhood and independence.
Luckily for us, Morris has provided an in depth study of the man the myth and the mayhem of this interesting period of history. The book is accessible enough for someone with little or no prior knowledge of Edward I, it also has more than enough for any serious study into this period. We follow the deeply flawed and often superficial reign of Henry III through the actions of Edward, an ambitious Prince keen on asserting his own qualities to deal with his own affairs. The narrative includes Edward’s Crusades, dealings with the complex dynastic problems of Europe and his changing relationships with the various factions at court. The skill of Morris is his use of archive sources to piece together a rounded view of Edward the man.
I already had a reasonable knowledge of Edward’s reign and his ventures into Wales and Scotland. I studied this in year 8 or 9 History class and when I say studied I actually memorized the essays word for word and got an ‘A’ in the exam. It was rare for m to study but when something took my interest I would study obsessively, not for the temporary reward of achieving a good grade but for the sake of wanting to know something. When I saw this book as an adult it reignited my interest in this period of history and in Edward himself. This book was really helpful in illuminating the political complexities associated with ‘The Hammer of the Scots’. Forget the two dimensional views put forward by ‘patriots’ from England, Wales and Scotland… the political truth is far more interesting and enjoyable. When you consider that most of the problems between England and Scotland resulted from a young Norwegian girl dying en route to Scotland, it puts Hollywood speeches about freedom into a new context.

So, there you have it… a superb historical thriller with Political intrigue, giant Trebuchets, Chivalry and a King who must surely be placed in the company of Alfred the Great, Richard the Lionheart and Henry VIII.