May 2013 tbrTwo non-fiction books to review today, but rather different from one another, so April’s happy pairings were obviously a fluke.  But both good reads in their different ways!

Andrew Marr – “The Diamond Queen”

(13 September 2012)

Very much NOT “The book of the TV series”, as Marr states in the introduction, this is much more, and different, concentrating more on background, history, precedent and administration than last summer’s telly offering, which featured more of Princess Beatrice in the Queen’s life-size dolls’ house, etc. As reading a book is supposed to be more satisfying than watching a few hours of TV (isn’t it?), this was how it should be, and the book was fascinating.

There is lots of detail about the monarchy in the 20th century and, indeed, its relatives around Europe. This gives an excellent background to both the rituals of the current monarchy and the way the Queen reacts and behaves. It is a little bit hagiographical – but Marr is careful to point out that he observed the Queen closely during her public engagements and could not fail to be impressed. I am by no means a Royalist, but I did find the descriptions of her commitment to her role, shyness at public speaking and care for her people quite moving. I also liked the odd sign of cheek and liveliness most amusing: apparently the Queen and Prince Philip go driving around London in a nondescript car from time to time, still.

I read this at the same time as a friend reading it on Kindle, and I think it would have been a shame to read it without the pictures: it’s fairly lavishly illustrated with well- and lesser-known photographs and a set of pictures of the official portraits (including one featuring a corgi which bears a striking resemblance to one of our cats).  It’s written with care, in that Marr style with which we’re familiar from both his TV series and his other books: slightly dry and wry and more conversational than one might expect. All of the family scandals are brought out and examined (which does undermine the chronological structure of the book at times) and he’s obviously not a huge fan of some of those associated with the Royal Family. I found the discussions of the various Prime Ministers and what they said about their weekly audiences with the Queen, and the clarification on how exactly Blair overstepped the mark when talking about these in his own autobiography, the most interesting part of what was a wholly interesting and satisfying read.

Robin Harvie – “Why We Run: A Story of Obsession”

(13 September 2012)

Second in a bunch of books bought at the Book People shop on the local High Street – and I don’t think I’d even been to the dentist on that occasion. This is a dangerous book to read if you’re contemplating extending your half marathon training to see how far you can run (building up gradually) and then considering a marathon. Or a good book. I’m not sure.

Harvie had done a few marathons when he decided to join the rather alarming world of Ultra running – running distances longer than the 26.2 mile classic marathon. He sets his sights on the Spartathlon, oddly enough taking place in Greece, but does a lot of interesting races in between, decides fell running is a bit too scary, trains maybe a little too hard and obsessively, worries his wife and worries himself that he’s running away from issues in the family. All of this is set amongst a useful if slightly too well-known to someone who’s read a few long-distance running book) potted history of the marathon and beyond, references to other great books on the topic from Haruki Murakami (“What I Talk About When I Talk About Running“) and Richard Askwith (“Feet in the Clouds”) among others, and some amazing, visceral descriptions of his own long training runs or race attempts.

There was no greater end than that which this journey was satisfying, although there were plenty of other things I could have spent the last twelve months doing that would have been infinitely more pleasurable. (p. 257)

These passages are the stars of the book and really get into the nitty-gritty of what it feels like to be a distance runner. They inspire empathy, wincing and the desire to emulate his trials and achievements – after all, pretty well anybody can train for a marathon and there’s a joy in pushing yourself past your limits (he makes an interesting point about it being fair enough to praise the person who only ever runs one marathon because that is the pinnacle of their physical achievement, but if someone does more than one, they can probably do a bit more – do other runners agree with this?). His descriptions of attempting the Spartathlon are uncomfortable but unforgettable reading. Did he make it to the end? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

Oh – and there’s a quotation from Iris Murdoch on page 202, about attention teaching us how to observe things without greedily appropriating them for ourselves”, although this is tantalisingly not referenced. But one for my friend, Pamela, who likes to collect references to IM in what we read!