Firebrand Books

My Reading and Book Review Blog

A Week in Reading: Bright Days and Kenneth ‘Napoleon’ Clark

I’m combining more than a week’s worth of reading but despite January being hectic and chaotic I don’t want to pass it over completely. There were three real bookish threads of note in the month: a book I loved was adapted for the radio, a book took me to Venice but left me drifting there hopelessly and I spent rather a lot of time with a deliciously opinionated author. Oh and I accidentally borrowed a book from the library that could break my foot if I dropped it…

Firstly, there was that radio adaptation: J B Priestley’s Bright Day for the BBC. If you’re in the UK you can still listen to it for the next week or so. Bright Day was my first experience of Priestley’s fiction and, as I’ve since found some of his novels very hit-and-miss, I think this one was a great place to start. It’s under 300 pages, full of very people-y characters and at its heart is the contradiction of what we remember happening vs. what really did happen. It’s a little bit like Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending in that respect now that I think about it. It also manages to capture the sense of working 9-5 in the city and then joyfully scampering away to the hills and parties at the weekend just about perfectly.

Secondly, there was a book I really enjoyed but was frustrated mightily by: Bidisha’s Venetian Masters. London-based writer Bidisha spent a couple of weeks staying in Venice with a rich friend and her family and was then seduced and curious enough to return to the city to find her own place and live there for several months. She has a happy knack of perfectly capturing the feel of a market or standing in a particular square at a particular hour in just a few fragmented sentences. Like this passing mention on page 10:

‘We go to the fish market, the pescheria, in the oldest part of town: wet shadows, sour, addictive fish smells, sluiced water, columns white and grey.’

But all this evocative scene-sketching frustratingly doesn’t seem to add up to anything more. I kept wondering whether there would be anything to give the memories shape but eventually drifted away from the book after a couple of hundred pages when it just continued floating along like an unmoored, directionless gondola. I loved her style but I guess I need more substance to a narrative like this. If you don’t mind a very relaxed, meandering travelogue though, this would perfect.

Thirdly, I spent rather a lot of January in the mind of one author and he’d already popped up in another book I’d read in December too. Essentially it went like this: in October my Open University course on art history mentioned a work of art I remembered being covered in the iconic 1969 documentary series, Civilisation: A Personal View which was made and presented by the art historian Kenneth Clark. I own the series on DVD but remembered the scripts had been edited into a book so I went hunting it in the library thinking I could quote from it in one of my essays. And since I like Clark’s refusal to dumb material down and love arguing with his opinions sometimes, I borrowed a couple of his other books that were relevant to the course too.

In December I was reading Carola Hicks’s Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait (I’m not sure I’d write a full review of it here since it’s so specifically about one art work but I’ll manage a mini one) and found the wonderful story about Clark being so determined to do things his way at the National Gallery when he was director there that he gained the nickname Kenneth ‘Napoleon’ Clark. Based on that I don’t suppose I’d have liked working with him for one moment but, after immersing myself in them last month, I really do love reading his books. They’re packed full of a lifetime’s worth of observations and absorbed readings and it feels like taking a walk with the most passionate, argumentative guide imaginable. Even when he’s wrong I love being pushed to consider my own opinion and its foundations. I foresee even more of his books in my future.

Finally, a reminder to always check exactly what you’re reserving at the library. The juicy, new history book I reserved in January arrived for me to collect this week and I was equal parts delighted and horrified to find it on the Awaiting Collection shelf and realise it is over 1000 pages long. And there’s another reservation against it so I have to finish it before the 23rd. Aie! It’s Robert Tombs’s The English and their History in case you’re wondering. I reserved it because I was rather intrigued by the fact that Tombs is a professor of French History rather than British but I somehow managed to miss any reference to its hefty dimensions. Having had a look at the bibliography it appears to be very idiosyncratic so I am somewhat dubious about this one.

Yes, I am the kind of girl that starts a book like this by looking through the bibliography. 🙂

Anyhow, this brings us to this week’s reading which appears to contain rather a lot of English history. I really must dig into my stacks and find some fiction to balance it out with. Maybe some of Tove Jansson’s A Winter Book? I don’t think I’ve read any Jansson at all but I’ve seen a lot of love for her around my favourite blogs so I think it would be a good pick…

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