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August 23, 2012 / Louisa Yates

Just enough time to squeeze in a few books…

‘Pretty soon’ did not quite go to plan. I’ve spent a lot of time on trains – no good for writing but good for reading! As it comes to an end, let me Think about the Things I have read in July and August:

 Mark Forsyth – The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (2011): I was always going to like this, wasn’t I? Much like this blog, it does exactly what it says on the tin, meandering across the interesting corners of the English language. Will definitely provide at least one of the Fascinating Facts of the Day on this blog – it’s that kind of book. But the format does it no favours at all – far too list-like to be a truly comfortable read. Bill Bryson might not be better at etymology itself, but he is better about writing about it.

Emma Donoghue – Room (2010): Personally I found this disappointing; perhaps because I’d been told a lot of fantastic things about it and was expecting something quite different.

Jennifer Egan – Look at Me (2002, relaunched 2011): A less-than-successful first novel, this has been given a massive publisher push because of Egan’s recent success with A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011). Largely an interesting premise – a model smashes every bone in her face in a car accident; the resulting reconstructive surgery leaves her beautiful but unrecognizable to anyone who knew her ‘before’ – this doesn’t always convince. The strands of the narrative hang loosely together, connected by a character whom Keegan seems to have set out to make thoroughly unlikeable, but doesn’t always have the guts to see it through. Similarly, you can see the joins in Egan’s self-conscious ‘purple passages’, normally when she’s considering Americana.

SOUND THE NEO-VICTORIAN KLAXON!

Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crimes and the Lunatic Asylum – Mark Stevens – pretty good, particularly for a short book compiled by an archivist that is free on Kindle. Inevitably neo-Victorian, in that it ‘discovers’ intriguing information about four notorious Victorian figures. There isn’t as much reference to the Victorian perception of mental illness as I’d like, and the text is curiously silent about the treatments that were considered effective.

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime – Judith Flanders (2011) – A whacking great doorstop of a book that saw me through a solid week of travel. It’s great stuff from Flanders, who really excels at this sort of widescale analysis; the book is crammed with newspaper factoids, plenty of sources and a few witty asides that only ever work when an scholar knows their stuff as well as Flanders does. Particular bonus points are gained by the fact that I was reading the section about the particularly grisly fate to befall Sweet Fanny Adams as I was actually journeying towards Alton, Hampshire, which is where she met her end. I wish the book had spent a little more on the Road murders, as Flanders hints at quite a different end to Mr Whicher than is suggested by Kate Summerscale’s excellent The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

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