At last we are on to the November reads, although having started off with a quite challenging one in intellectual terms, and a quite challenging one in terms of it being rather slow going, I fear I’m not going to finish many this month (see my note at the end on that point)!

Sarah Scott – “Millenium Hall”

(26 January 2012)

A Virago find from my Stratford Haul, this is an unusual book, published in 1762, and the kind of read I haven’t experienced since my University days. It’s a rather amazing Utopian fantasy which follows a novelistic convention of the time by presenting a framed narrative consisting of a series of biographical and “improving” vignettes, but with the first wave feminist aim of presenting a society of women who have eschewed marriage and the patriarchy to live in a community and do good deeds. All is practical and explained in detail, although some of the biographies resemble the gothic / sensationalist literature with their horrible stepmothers and reunited family members. Not the easiest of reads, but valuable and worthwhile and altogether fascinating.

Kaggsy from Kaggsysbookishramblings has done a far more detailed review here.

Niall Ferguson (ed.) – “Virtual History”

(26 January 2012)

Although this was subtitled “Alternatives and Counterfactuals”, there weren’t as many stories as I had hoped and expected. It was mostly a reiteration / exploration of the historical backgrounds to various “turning points” in history, with some treatment of what else could have happened. A bit dry, for the most part. The most fun and storylike section was in the editor’s epilogue, which cleverly drew together the strands of the individual essays to produce more of what I had expected throughout – a flight of fantasy grounded in historical possibility. Unfortunately, by this point I was flagging (going to the gym in order to force myself through more of the book while enjoying a cycle on a machine!), especially as I’d been reading it on and off since August!

Christina Stead – “Cotter’s England” (D.N.F.)

(26 January 2012)

A Virago on which I fell gleefully on my charity shop trip in Stratford. It’s about the 1930s, the working class, the Labour movement … but yet the prose is somehow dense and treacly, I found the characters confusing and kept having to check back, and looking through and reading the introduction did nothing to persuade me that I would find it any easier going if I persisted. So I didn’t.

Larry McMurtry – “When the Light Goes” and “Rhino Ranch”

(27 March and 17 March 2012)

At last, the fourth and fifth in the Thalia “trilogy”. I will read anything (non gruesome cowboy) this man writes, and these, although melancholy, valedictory and in one case more than a bit rude, these do round things up in Thalia in a satisfying way. McMurtry charts the changes in the South-West, where cowboys are dying out and new people come in to run old businesses, but some things – sex, depression, friendship – remain constant.

“When the Light Goes” is short, almost perfunctory in getting the story going along, and is the more dark of the two. Duane gets back from a trip and has apparently become irresistible to younger women. Then again, if you look around Thalia, he’s probably the only man in town who’s clean, reasonably sane, solvent and not missing any body parts. We lost some more main characters, time passes and we become sad.

In “Rhino Ranch”, Thalia and the series are enlivened by the arrival of a rich woman from the north who establishes a Black Rhino sanctuary, with amusing consequences. One rhino takes a shine to Duane and this is quite poignant – the last of their species, wandering through Texas. Although the inevitable does happen (you can check this if you flick to the end, as I had to, having spent significant amounts of time with Duane over the years), but it’s done well and not unbearably, with hope for the future, too. This one is not actually as sad as “When the Light Goes”.

These two have been criticised in reviews for being a bit rude and sketchy, but McMurtry does cover all aspects of life, for the young and older, in his books, and I don’t see anything wrong with them. I am glad I’ve followed Duane through his life, and will miss Thalia, although I’m sure it will crop up in other works by McMurtry.

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I feel like I really haven’t read much recently. The problem actually is that I haven’t finished much: I’m still reading, and very much enjoying, a biography of Michael Foot, Hardy’s “The Laodician” and a Michael Muhammad Knight book about travelling around the Islamic world. I just haven’t finished them yet!