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Recent reading.

By , July 25, 2017 7:42 am

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Hailed by many as a brilliant, wonderful, magnificent first novel, and it is that, a first novel, I found a little voice in my head wondering whether it was truly authentic. Two things bothered me: the period (1938) and the leading character who is the narrative voice in the story. I never really believed in her. I felt that she was too good to be true, and that who she ended up with, was entirely random. I wasn’t convinced by the period either. I thought that many of the characters had been drawn from literature and not from life. Even the whole idea of the poor outsider female making good in the glittering world of New York seemed familiar (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Sophie’s Choice, Sally Bowles etc.) and although very well written and constantly entertaining it reminded me of a certain kind of black and white Woody Allen film romanticising NY: a movie of a story rather than the story of a movie. Everything happened because it needed to on a Hollywood level. And so despite heavy recommendations from people I respect I offer these unnecessarily carping thoughts of an excellent read and will hold my opinion until I read his next.

The Night Manager John Le Carré

Spoiler Alert!

Having watched the TV version twice I loved it so much, it was fascinating to finally read the novel, which somehow I had missed. Also fascinating to see the differences in the excellent TV script, not merely setting the whole Roper episodes in Marbella, instead of the West Indies, which I get, but this was far more about the dark interior of Pine, and his instant love for Jed, because of his guilt over the murder of Freddie Hamid’s mistress. What stole the TV show was the brilliant Tom Holland as Corcoran, and the added satisfaction of his demise, not at all in the book, plus the wonderful performance of Hugh Lawrie as Roper, “the most awful man in the world.” This is like the same story but from a different Gospel. His writing is very good indeed and it’s well worth the read even if you have loved the small screen version.

Maigret at Picratt’s Georges Simenon

One of the least interesting Maigret’s I have ever read, probably because the victim whom we like, gets killed in the opening chapters and we never meet the killer till he is arrested.

Rock Solid Anna Grayson

A Natural History Museum Publication and one of the most fascinating and useful books I have ever read. Short, simple, lavishly illustrated. All you’ll ever need to know about the geological history of the British Isles. Which is totally and utterly fascinating. How young we are!


Into the Water Paula Hawkins

This book is at first confusing. I found it hard to keep up with the multiple changes of character and viewpoint.  In fact I thought about bailing but I’m glad I didn’t; I persisted and I was rewarded. She keeps it together and delivers. In a way she’s a modern Agatha Christie, except she is a far better writer and her characters have real life.  What I mean is that it is the whodunit aspect which keeps you going. She is a very sophisticated story teller.  We  know that from The Girl on the Train.  But this story will be clearer in the inevitable movie.   I sound carping but I very much enjoyed the second half of the novel, once I’d managed to sort out who was who (and there are about ten narrators) then I became intrigued by the tale and surprised by what I thought was the ending.   Actually it wasn’t. Like a cocktail she adds a final twist.  I’m not sure whether I believed the final revelation.  It was more bewildering than satisfying.  It didn’t seem to need it.  That’s what happens when you hold your cards close to your chest.  You can’t see the winning hand properly.

South and West  Joan Didion

If ever you needed to think Joan Didion was over rated this book will do it.  Almost a parody, it’s a virtual catalogue of inconsequential things and unimportant observations about uninteresting places. This is from her notebooks, where it should have stayed, far from the greed of publishers.

Three Minutes to Doomsday Joe Navarro

The good news is Joe Navarro suspects he is an asshole. The bad news is, he is. This over-written, over-long, hyper ventilated tale is filled with the sound of one hand clapping himself on the back. Not only is this detection of a spy from the late 80’s not the most significant act of espionage in the last one hundred years, it’s not even the most interesting. I guess when you are an ex-FBI guy you have to do something with your time. He should take up golf.

The Killing of Osama Bin Laden Seymour M. Hersh

Important corrections to history. The killing of Bin Laden took place in no way we were told. And the latest sarin gas attack was not necessarily Assad’s. The truth is the first casualty of war. Only now do we learn of the fearful loss of civilian life in Trump’s first adventures in warfare. Once again the vital importance of journalism and honest reporting is made clear. How to balance that against the need for State secrecy in the battle against terrorism is the issue.

The Hidden Life of Trees Peter Wohlleben

What they feel, How they Communicate. Discoveries from a Secret World.
“A Spruce in Sweden is more than 9,500 years old. 115 times the human lifetime.” One of many amazing facts about trees which I shamefully knew nothing about. Written essentially, by a German Lumberjack, this book will amaze anyone. Who knew? I kept saying.

4.50 From Paddington Agatha Christie

First edition 1957 picked up from Hatchards, this is a Miss Marple story. The amusingly named Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder on a train passing hers in the same direction. Ignored by authorities and with no dead body turning up Miss Marple encourages the exceptionally efficient and most unlikely and unlikely named Miss Eylesbarrow to pursue the case into the heart of the even more unlikely named Crackenthorpe family. Perfectly enjoyable train fare, it is still a long way from Simenon. The characters are never entirely real and the pleasure lies in the whodunit puzzle which it is impossible to pick or predict because she has set it up that way.

The Comedians Graham Greene

A magnificent 1965 novel (I found a nice 1981 Viking reissue on my bookshelf) this is classic Greene. His black comedy is superbly appropriate here in the heart of Haiti under the mad dictator Papa Doc Duvalier and his Tonton Macoutes. The country is sliding into chaos and random murder. Three characters meet on a boat headed to Port au Prince: comedically they are Smith, Jones and Brown. Brown, the narrator, owns The Trianon a once popular hotel which he has been in NY trying hopelessly to sell. The Smiths are two militant vegetarians from the heart of America intent on encouraging world peace through lack of meaty acidity. Jones, or Major Jones, as he likes to be called, is the kind of mysterious Alec Guinness innocent around whom the plot revolves. Brilliantly worked out and with Greene’s typical take on an adulterous romance, it is a glittering gem of a book. One to savour and revisit. We are all comedians, says Greene, at least in the French sense of playing out our roles, even if we are not all funny.

Difficulties with Girls Kingsley Amis

First edition 1988. “About a man who falls in love with his wife” says the FT. A philandering publisher Patrick Standish moves into a new block of restored flats with his wife Jenny and they interact with others, the fighting gay couple, the grasping wife of a British loser etc. all of whom are superbly delineated in character and speech. An excellent novel and a great read.

The Fatal Tree Jake Arnott

Jake Arnott is a brilliant novelist who needs a good editor. He seems to be going backwards. Here a perfectly fine setting for a novel of 18th Century bawdry is spoiled by endless canting and obscure phrases from its contemporary underground world of crooks and whores and highwaymen and lawyers. You just get tired of the language and can’t lose yourself in the story. Moll Flanders in Palare.

Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne Robert Hofler
Wonderful, gossipy, very readable, biography of the extraordinary life Dominick Dunne carved out of hip, hype, and horror to become the most celebrated of court room journalists. It would have been worth the easy ride if I had learned only that Nancy Reagan was famous for fellatio! The first lady of Frenching…