Lots of reading; not much blogging….2014/2015 update

Hey, dear readers!  Yes, I just thought I would step away for a few minutes and then, wow!  It has turned into a four month hiatus.

But Livritome was never far from my thoughts.  I love my blog home and I’m now dashing around, opening the windows and brushing off the cobwebs.

I’ll admit that I’ve been struggling through a dry spell in my Guardian list reading.  I was doing well, spending the last part of October and early November finishing up the E.M Forster titles with A Passage to Indiapassagetoindia.  I enjoyed it, but didn’t find it as accessible as a some of his others, especially, Howards End.  I didn’t like many of the characters, and the brutality of the racism and hatred was so oppressive that I couldn’t work out a message I could walk away with.  The point seemed to be the complete random tragedy of stupid people who are careless with others’ lives.  I was lost by the spiritual aspects of the book as well.  So, not really a book for me, though I thought about it for quite a while afterwards.

I immediately jumped into another Guardian title, Riddle of the Sands.  I chose this one randomly from the list and was excited by the possibility of another book I would love that I didn’t know about before following the Guardian list.

mysteryUnfortunately, this didn’t work out.  I’ve been struggling with this book for weeks and have repeatedly crept away to read other, more interesting things….and I think I am about to hoist the white flag and declare surrender and not finish this book.

I know this is supposed to be the first spy novel, and I know this book inspired a young Winston Churchill to do everything he could to build up the English navy, and I’ve even read up on the author, Erskine Childers, who was a pretty fascinating and complex guy.  But every time I open this novel I feel like I am as fogged in as the two main characters out there, snooping-around in their yacht on the German coast.

Sad.  My first DNF for a Guardian title.

So, what else have I been reading?  Tons.

redqueenI lapped up Phillipa Gregory’s the Red Queen.  Phillipa’s always got some sort of trilogy or series or something going on with English royalty — goodness this lady is inexhaustible.  The Red Queen was about Margaret Beaufort, a true nut-case if this book is at all factual and the mother of the Tudor dynasty.  Guilty pleasure stuff — break out the chocolates.

 

I’ve also been feeding my love of medical history with two books, one a relative light weight and the other a superb book —

InfluenzaInfluenza 1918 was a quick read that could have used a better editor — had some repetitions throughout.  Because the 1918 epidemic is a personal obsession, I know that this book was written to accompany the PBS documentary on the same subject.  So, some illusions to individuals that seem strange in a stand alone book work when you know they were highlighted as “personal interest” stories in the documentary.  But if you hadn’t seen the documentary I don’t know how this would work for you.

GhostRegarding another epidemic, this one a cholera outbreak that decimated a London neighborhood in the mid-1800’s was Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map.  This is simply one of the finest books I’ve read in some time.  It’s about a brilliant doctor, John Snow, who makes a connection between cholera and contaminated water — well before germ theory.  Snow was a fantastic, original thinker and maybe the first person who used data and visualization to convince policy makers that action was needed.  His famous “ghost map” (I’ve actually seen a copy at the Walters Gallery in Baltimore Md!!!!) was a depiction of the deaths at each address and their relationship to a local pump.  But this book is about much more — it focuses on cities and what makes them livable or not.  It is also about social networks and what makes one person drink from a pump here (or live here, or have these friends but not others….) or not.  Fascinating stuff.

DissolutionI’ve discovered two mystery writers I’ve enjoyed — one is C. J. Sansom, who writes about Tudor England and whose protagonist is a hunchbacked lawyer who works for Thomas Cromwell.  The first one is about the dissolution of the abbeys and religious houses during Henry VIII’s reign and is called, appropriately, Dissolution.  A bit lengthy but good enough for me to want to check out the next title in the series.

WoodsA good friend turned me onto Tana French and her police procedurals set in present day Dublin.   The first one, In the Woods centers around the killing of a young girl in the same vicinity where two young children disappeared about 15 years earlier.  The investigative team that sets out to solve the murder have as many secrets and mysteries themselves as the murder they are trying to solve.  Very well written, with compelling characters and some dark twists.  Yes, I’ll be back for more.

Ok, that’s it for now.  Thanks for sticking with Livritome!

Strumpet City

strumpetStrumpet City

James Plunkett

Gill & Macmillan.  1969.   549 pgs with introduction by Fintan O’Toole.

Other books I’ve ready by Plunkett:  none.  Plunkett was a native Dubliner who worked as a producer for RTE, the Irish national radio broadcaster.  He was also active in the Workers Union of Ireland, where he operated as a staff secretary under the famous Irish labor organizer, Jim Larkin.  Plunkett wrote other books and plays; Strumpet City is considered his masterpiece.

And masterpiece it is.  Strumpet City follows  a handful of representative Dubliners — upper class, clergy, lower class — for seven critical years in the city’s history, concluding with the Dublin Lockout of 1913.

The Lockout was a brutal struggle between employers and workers in Dublin culminating with the eventual starving out and defeat of the workers.  The conflict revolved around the worker’s right to unionize, which at that time was a novel concept.  While the workers’ demands seemed relatively mild, including the right to be paid for overtime, the employers’ response was savage.  A federation of 300 employers, led by the owner of the city’s tramway company, forced workers to renounce their union memberships — or be “locked out” of their respective factories, shops or places of employment.  At the time of the Lockout, Dublin industry was service-based, and fueled by low-skilled, low-wage workers.  Living conditions were abysmalStatue of Jim Larkin.  Dublin had one of the highest infant mortality rates in Europe and tuberculosis was common.  As a result of the Lockout, 20,000 workers, representing about another 80,000 dependents, were thrown out of work.  Employers, in their turn, either shut down their workplaces or employed scab labor who toiled under police protection.  Accordingly, the Lockout resulted in many Dublin businesses declaring bankruptcy.  Many of the clergy, instead of protecting the helpless, connived with the employers by withholding charity from striking families.  To the clergy, the unions represented Socialism, one step away from atheism.  In one memorable scene, Dublin priests prevent a convoy of hungry children from leaving the city for refuge with Protestant trade unionist families.  Starvation, you see, would be preferable to the loss of the Catholic influence.

One of the novel’s strengths is it tapestry of characters — each drawn so skillfully that even the minor players haunt you once the book is over.   Plunkett divides his characters into upper class, clergy and lower class — but of course, nothing about the book is that simplistic.  There are heroes and devils sprinkled liberally throughout all three domains and perhaps even more terrifyingly — the horror of the banality of evil, poverty, disease and disparity between the haves and havenots.  In one of my favorite scenes, the alcoholic priest Father Giffley visits Jim Larkin, Dublin’s union leader and a real life character:

There is something I need advice about,’ Father Giffley said.  “Today, in one of the houses in my parish I found a body of police who were acting like blackguards.  They had beaten a man and terrified his wife and children….”

“Didn’t you know that it happens all the time?”

“Perhaps I did.  But I had never witnessed it before.  I intend to lodge a complaint and if necessary, give evidence.  I want advice on how best to go about it.”

“It would do no good.”

“It can be tried.”

“It has been tried countless times already,” Larkin said.  “by eminent men who have courage and sympathy.  And by a few men of your own calling, too, Father….”

Larkin rejects Father Giffley’s help because later in the interview he recognizes that the priest’s alcoholism disqualifies him as an ally and effective witness.  However, the rest of us are not so easily excused.  The lessons of Strumpet City are that the same disparities of class, education, opportunity and even health keep people as helpless today as the tenement dwellers of 1913 — and these problems still lock all of us out of our true human potential.