Starting New Books, Finishing Old Books

I just got a call from the library that a book I had recommended they order is in. It’s called Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath by Michael and Elizabeth Norman. My library has a couple of books on the Pacific theatre during World War II and this book gets such great reviews that I thought they should buy it. I haven’t worked in a library for over four years but I continually do collection development anyway! This book has very detailed information on the lives of ordinary soldiers rather than their commanders, including the Japanese who carried out the horrendous torture and brutality. It’s easy to stereotype the Japanese culture that produced such things, but more interesting to read of the human side in this dreadful episode, which the authors have apparently done here.

I also noticed that A.S. Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book is longlisted for the Booker prize so I got that out of the library. I am on page 245 and find it’s a real page-turner so far. I love Byatt’s short stories and have several collections. Years ago some guy I used to talk to sent me a copy of her book Possession which I really liked, but I never took to her series of novels about the character Frederica and her friends.

The Children’s Book is a lyrical look at the golden period of late Victorian and early Edwardian England with lots of references to the Fabian Society (which I am familiar with from recently reading a biography of G.B. Shaw.) Art Nouveau abounds for those of us mad for the artwork and crafts of the period, and Byatt manages her usual dreamy sexual tension and oddly erotic bits and pieces. At some point she covers World War I and its aftermath which is a period I’ve been interested in since I was a teenager. At 600-plus pages, I thought this was going to be a convoluted slog but she’s really captured something with this book. She won the Booker for Possession back in 1990, and so far this is panning out for me as another winner. It should definitely make the short list.

Although it’s not coming out until September, I have already put a hold on a library copy of Margaret Atwood’s new book After the Flood which is a pre and post-apocalyptic look at a pandemic. Very topical and I’ve always liked Atwood’s ability to follow characters and society and post-apocalyptic science fiction has forever been a favourite genre of mine. This looks very promising, and that’s saying a lot since I stopped reading Margaret Atwood books after Alias Grace back in 1996.

I am on the last 200 pages of the biography of Sir Richard Burton that I have been reading for several months called A Rage To Live by Mary S. Lovell. I found the book quite a page-turner after I got past the unpleasantness of his dealings with Speke. I have taken to calling our hero “Richard The B.” I like that the biographer tries to give us a more accurate picture of Burton’s wife Isabel and their relationship and interaction with others. The British Foreign Office in Victorian times was pretty frightful as one can see in some of Rudyard Kipling’s writing, and poor old Burton is often dealing with the inept authority and employees of the F.O. in this book. He was a very bright and capable person who was sidelined by gossip, jealousy, and his own intellect and lack of tact. But for that, he would have changed the world in the Middle East, and our current problems there, I am convinced.

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