Sunday, January 19, 2020

January 2020 in Books: What (I'll) Be Reading

Although I've seen that there are of course interesting new releases, I am going to read 'old' books this January.

One of these new releases is, All the Days Past, All the Days to Come, by Mildred D. Taylor, whose book The Well (about children in the face of racial prejudice) I found excellent.

As the Guardian's books preview of 2020 noted, Anne Brontë's 200th birthday was on January 17th. I'm ambivalent about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, so if anything I'd reread Agnes Grey. Featuring a heroine who leaves home to teach due to her family's financial position, it helps sap all of the illusions that one had about governess work after reading Jane Eyre.

Charlotte did try to adjust expectations in Shirley, but Charlotte's melodramatic vein weakens the effect of her warnings; you don't — or at least I don't — expect to find 'tiger-like' James Helstones pouncing on governesses regularly. To leap to another book, Mrs. Norris, the aunt of the heroine in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, is so villainous in an unspectacular, quotidian, realistic way that she makes you shudder; I'd say that the families with which Anne's character, Agnes, stays, impress you in that way as well.


At the beginning of the year I started with an anthology of news analysis and opinion columns from the Manchester Guardian that was published at the end of 2017: The Bedside Guardian 2017.

It was about Brexit, too, of course; the anthology was compiled the year after the hapless referendum. (The opinion columnists' wide-eyed enthusiasm about the Labour Party's chances of fixing things under Jeremy Corbyn was painful to read, although natural because of how badly the 2017 election went for Theresa May, considering what's happened with the most recent election.)

A few writers argue that Britain's socioeconomic fabric is deteriorating rapidly, apart from thriving hotspots like parts of London.

I guess that right-wing newspapers publish viewpoints that the European Union is to blame for this. But the Guardian's analysts tend to argue that British austerity measures, the 'bedroom tax' which has made living in council housing in Britain an even greater burden, financial exploitation by under-regulated industries (e.g. payday loans), and council taxes that are too low to pay for adequate community services, play a greater role.


A deeper look at Britain's economic woes is Mike Carter's book All Together Now?, which the Guardian's books arm also published in 2017. (I received it free of charge as a reward for being a member; and read it in December.)

In 2016 Carter travelled on foot between Liverpool and London, 'reliving' a labour rights march that his father took in the early 1980s. He explains his fraught relationship with his father, meets strangers and pre-arranged interviewees as he goes, records the battered socioeconomic order in the towns and cities through which he walks, and analyzes the causes.

He writes in a practiced way that does justice to his professional experience. It captures many facets with emotional engagement and great research, and he seems conscious of the reader and his (or her) interests but isn't too self-ingratiating. I think that nice scenery-painting of the British countryside enters the book, too. It had bluebells and stiles, sunshine and countryside promenades, alongside the weighty matter.

After being on a British road once, with thick and prickly hedges crowded at the edge, and a two-way stream of whizzing vehicles that make the narrow channels more of an obstacle course than a transportation method, I do think that he was either wildly courageous or foolhardy to walk along them for some of the route.

I was pleased that the book isn't articles that are strung together — to use a pretentious phrase — without any concatenating depth. Instead, it's a real, weighty book.

I would say that the author's personal hobby-horses in the text weren't always entirely germane, but he seemed half-conscious that this was so.

Secondly, when interviewees spoke, their quotations were greatly smoothed, so that the grammar and syntax were perfect. They often adhered to his own viewpoints, too, or made a point on his behalf. So I felt that the speaking styles were indistinct and that the speakers were too much like sock puppets.

But altogether the book was a 'four and a half star' read for me and I admired the ending. It left me with a nice feeling afterward.

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