June 16th, 2013


June Books 5) The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

In the dream I watch Aritomo walk on a path in the rainforest, pushing aside the overhanging branches and vines. Here and there the path narrows or crumbles into the river. He is not far ahead of me and I have the feeling that I am pursuing him, quietly, stealthily. Several times he slows down, as though allowing me to keep him in sight. Not once does he look back.
This novel is set in Malaysia, mainly in 1951 but with flashbacks to the Japanese occupation, and itself told as a flashback from the 1980s. It was interesting to read this so soon after Ballard's autobiography, and not all that long after I read A Town Like Alice. There is also a particular personal point of interest for me: my father was born in Penang in 1928, not very far in space or time from the novel's protagonist, where his father was involved in various rubber plantation enterprises which all collapsed a few years later in the Great Depression.

Even without that personal interest, I think this is a brilliant book. "Evening Mists" is an estate in the Cameron Highlands, the core resort of the Malay peninsula; the narrator is Yun Ling Teoh, and the story, told from her mid-1980s viewpoint as she retires as a judge and contemplates death, concerns her experiences as a Japanese prisoner during the war and her relationship with the Japanese gardener and artist Aritomo a few years later, during the Malay insurgency. I found it a fascinating meld of art, war and personal histories, in a part of the world which I have always wanted to know a bit more about, with a very neat plot twist at the end regarding Aritomo's hidden final work. Strongly recommended.

June Books 6) Clockworks (Locke & Key Vol 4), by Joe Hill

I enjoyed this volume of Joe Hill's series about a group of teenagers exploring the mysterious Keyhouse in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, more than I had the previous one. In particular, the first of the six issues collected here, a flashback to the revolutionary era from the present day, I found very effective. But it is rather difficult to appreciate the full scope of the story starting more than halfway through, and I'm not sufficiently swept away by it to want to get the earlier volumes to catch up.

June Books 7) The Irish Constitutional Revolution of the Sixteenth Century, by Brendan Bradshaw

What made the liberal formula unique was its strategy of conciliation. Where the moderate radicals proposed to achieve the assimilation of the Irishry by compulsion, the liberals envisaged achieving it by consent.
This is an in depth look at the Irish policy of the later part of the reign of Henry VIII, arguing that Thomas Cromwell was (as in everything else) a key actor in dismantling the old regime, of leaving Ireland to muddle through under the Earl of Kildare, and that after his fall, two relatively obscure figures from Irish history, Anthony St Leger and Thomas Cusack, engineered the policies of surrender and regrant and of making Ireland a kingdom under Henry VIII in its own right (previously English kings were "Lords of Ireland"). In both cases this was doggedly carried through in the teeth of resistance from the old guard and of vicious court politics in London; it is particularly interesting to see how the officials persuaded Henry to agree to their plans after he had expressed characteristic opposition, or alternatively where they just went ahead and did what they wanted anyway knowing that he was on the other side of the sea and had no easy way of punishing or replacing them.

The claim of the book's title that this was a "constitutional revolution" is a little exaggerated; the old system was overthrown, sure, but that is not really Bradshaw's focus; and the St Leger / Cusack reform policy, after a promising start, wasn't followed through as Henry ran out of money and time, and his successors had other concerns during their brief reigns. (St Leger continued to serve as head of the Irish government, off and on, under both Edward VI and Mary I.) But it's convincing to say that what was going on in the 1530s and 1540s was a genuinely interesting and different constitutional experiment, to incorporate the peripheral but troublesome Irishry into the English-rules realm, and it had a lot of contemporary resonances for me with my own work on unrecognised states.

I caught two possible family notes. When Wexford is seized by the Crown in 1536-7 (from its previous absentee English ruler), Bradshaw notes that the three men charged with running the town and surroundings, all "in close contact" with Thomas Cromwell, included one James White of Waterford as justice of the liberty. This James White is presumably my ancestor who was poisoned in London ten years later. The second is a brief account of a treatise written in 1555, extolling the virtues of the St Leger / Cusack approach and urging a continuation of those policies; the author is not known but appears to have been a Palesman living in London, possibly studying at the Inns of Court. The Treatise was never published but survives in the papers of the Cecil family. This is an interesting fit with James White's son, Nicholas White, who was certainly a law student in London and as far as I can tell was a tutor to Cecil's son Thomas in the mid-1550s. More research necessary (as ever).
white house

The Plunkett-Roosevelt correspondence

Going through my files, I came across my copies, taken in the mid-1990s, of the 1912 correspondence between veteran Irish politician Sir Horace Plunkett and former US President Theodore Roosevelt, who at the time was gearing up for his run as an independent candidate for that year's presidential election.

There's a three-page letter from Plunkett, dated 27 July, asking Roosevelt, in effect, what the heck he thinks he is doing, to which Roosevelt sends a densely typed and hand-corrected six-page reply on 3 August, admitting that he expects to lose to Wilson but setting out in detail why he thinks the fight is worth fighting anyway.

The correspondence is well known to Roosevelt scholars, though I note a couple of the hand-written amendments have not made it into canon, presumably because the historians have worked from Roosevelt's own carbon copy rather than the manuscript letter that was actually sent - eg the word "narrow-mindedness" is omitted from scholarly versions of the sentence, "Until he [Woodrow Wilson] was fifty years old, as college professor and college president he advocated with skill, intelligence, narrow-mindedness and good breeding the outworn doctrines which were responsible for four-fifths of the political troubles of the United States." (Emphasis added.) It rather changes the thrust of the sentence!

There is also a short exchange of notes following the assassination attempt which wounded Roosevelt on 14 October; Plunkett sends his sympathy and support on 23 October, and Roosevelt responds on 2 November, three days before the election, saying "We have a chance, but I think no better than one in four. However, the movement is so eternally right that I cannot help thinking it must in the end prevail."

It's an 8.4 MB PDF, and I've uploaded it to here.

June Books 8) Head Games, by Steve Lyons

‘We’re heroes,’ Dr Who proclaimed loftily. ‘We have come to arrest you, you evil miscreant.’
Next in the sequence of New Adventures, this is the only spinoff novel (as far as I know) which unites Mel with the Seventh Doctor (and Ace as well, along with current regulars, Benny, Chris and Roz), in a slightly surreal tale where the Doctor must deal with his alter ego, Dr Who, emanating somehow from the Land of Fiction and threatening the universe, or at least the planet Earth and another world. It's a sequel to Lyons' earlier Conundrum, and I confess I had forgotten many of the salient plot points so found it a bit confusing in places. But it's interesting to see Lyons' style developing; he is now one of the better Who spinoff writers, and this was published almost two decades ago.

June Books 9) Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig

"The first rule," Miriam says, "is that I only see what I see when skin touches skin. If I touch your elbow and you're wearing a shirt, then nothing. If I wear gloves – and I used to, because I didn't want to bear witness to all this craziness – then it prevents the vision from happening."
Another from this year's Hugo Voter Pack - and the last of the novels by Campbell nominees - this is actually fairly far into dark fantasy, a novel about Miriam Black who can see when people she touches are going to die. It has a strong start, grim and very violent; I felt it didn't quite deliver on the premise at the end, but it is a very good ride.

(Now to read the short stories submitted by Cho and Lafferty.)