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Reading blog, July through August

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By , August 16, 2017 7:08 am


Pounding away on my laptop I fell disgracefully behind, not on my reading dear reader, but on my writing about reading, so these are recreated memories of the pleasures I endured this summer. One of the reasons for keeping this writing diary is so I remember not to forget what I enjoyed, and yet here I am, packing to leave, with a stack of books on my shelf I can only dimly remember. Apologies to self. I can only hope my writing was worth it.

The Dog’s Last Walk. Howard Jacobson
This kept me company throughout the summer, selections of his fine writing from what I now I only just learn has become the defunct Independent. I really must try and keep up, but if the Brits won’t let me vote despite paying taxes and force me to Brexit despite allowing me a choice in the matter, then I shall continue to ignore their often sick and insane newspapers. Many a fine day was ended with a keenly turned polemic, many an afternoon siesta preceded by a finely tuned satire, from the Mancunian master and I am grateful for the company of his wonderful mind, sharing as I do a Cambridge education, a love of ping pong and some early years in Manchester. I promise never again to use the words “a good read.” Though this is!

Pussy. Howard Jacobson
I was also reading and enjoying his new novel before I became sickened by reading or listening to anything at all about the fat, dystopian, lunatic in the White House, and forswore to pay him what he most desperately craves, any more attention, even at the expense of abandoning the satirists who mock him. Perhaps when he is gone and if the world survives his inevitable demise my sense of humour about the monster will return.

I enjoyed catching up with two very fine books by the master of the Bernie Gunther novels, Philip Kerr, who seems to be able to turn his hand to anything.

Dark Matter. Philip Kerr
A most unlikely thriller starring Isaac Newton as a kind of Sherlock Maigret ensconced in the Tower of London with a satisfactorily proficient swordsman sidekick called Christopher Ellis. Sir Isaac has become Warden of the Royal Mint responsible for hunting down counterfeiters during a national emergency. Faced with having to solve problems of codes and withstand physical attacks from assassins this is a highly suspenseful original tale. I have no idea how much of this is based on any historical truth but it makes a very satisfactory historical thriller.

A Philosophical Investigation. Philip Kerr
This is his version of a modern detective story, set in a slightly more dystopian version of London in 2013, where serial murderers are sought by DNA detection and put into a “punitive coma.” A case weary, female detective “Jake” Jacowitz, matches wits with an intellectual serial killer. This is a brilliant story, told from both perspectives, and I enjoyed it very much.

The Plot against America. Philip Roth
So culled from contemporary headlines does this seem that it is almost impossible to believe it was published in 2004. It is what might have happened to America had the Republicans chosen Lindberg instead of returning Roosevelt for a third term in 1940. A Nazi appeaser in collaboration with his country’s enemies in the White House, couldn’t happen I hear you say… Told from the perspective of a Jewish boy growing up in Newark this step by step story of how fascism came to America is both prescient and terrifying. It should have been a warning, and yet, here we are, with the country rising up to vote in a monster. A must read.

The Day I Died. Lori Rader-Day
A very fine thriller about a handwriting expert pulled in by a sceptical detective to try and locate a boy and his mother who have gone missing. Having only recently moved into the area she has her own story of running away and hiding. Finely done and gripping throughout this is great fun.

An Officer and a Spy. Robert Harris
Another fine book from this author, this one set at the time of the Dreyfus scandal where a French army officer witnesses Alfred Dreyfus being publicly humiliated and exiled for life on Devil’s Island. Georges Picquart, promoted to run the Intelligence Unit that tracked him down discovers that secrets are still being handed over to the Germans and is drawn into a struggle that threatens his life. Very brilliant and effortlessly written, I loved it.

The Slaves of Solitude. Patrick Hamilton
A fine novel, described by some as his finest, though I have read no others, set in a Henley boarding house during World War Two about the mind numbing dullness of the English when in society together. Underneath the polite nothings of conversation are seething hatreds and cruel tortures. Miss Roach, through whose eyes we see everything, is horribly tormented by the cruel and pathetic non entity Mr. Thwaites, a sadistic prat who is both pompous and useless and the major comic thrust of the novel, with his clichéd language and his rush to judge and destroy. He wastes no time tormenting Miss Roach whose essential niceness is sorely tested by his irritating attacks. Into this cold-bed of turmoil come two outsiders, an alcoholic American Lieutenant, and a blonde haired German refugee Vicki whom Miss Roach has been attempting to aid. The one flirts wildly with her, while the other wastes no time scoring off her, so she is puzzled and confused and unhappy.
There is a kind of genre of Boarding House novels which reflect a certain time in English society when people not related were forced to lodge and dine together. It seems to me that this has come to an end, although Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils is a relic of it. This is a very fine example of the genre and the kind of patient suffering the British had to endure during the long length of World War Two.

So Long, See You Tomorrow. William Maxwell.
Slightly concerned not to notice at first I read this in January. This is what I wrote then. “The most magnificent short novel. Glorious. Beautiful written. Like the essence of a novel.” I suppose the good news of age is one can keep re-reading the same book!

Recent reading.

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By , July 25, 2017 7:42 am

Rules of Civility 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…

Reading List February thru March 2017

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By , June 13, 2017 8:38 am

The Rich Man. Georges Simenon
Another of the great series of psychological novels. I found a1971 First English (US) Edition at Iliad. Simenon is so wonderful about sex. He is completely non-judgemental. He describes it as it is. Something humans do. That can lead to crime, or just something to do after a decent bottle of white wine. This may be because he is French (well Belge) and also because that is what he did with a good deal of his time. He not only wrote more novels than anyone, he had more sex than anyone. Probably that’s why his books are so short. Short they may be, but they are deceptively complex. He has a deep understanding of the human condition, and writes about it superbly. Here we are with Victor Lecoin, who makes up for his sexless marriage, by having sex with locals and prostitutes, with his wife’s understanding. He completely falls for and becomes entirely obsessed with a rather plain 16 year old maid called Alice and tries desperately but without success to keep his hands off her.. and Simenon still manages to land a surprising end.
No Man’s Land. (and A Stranger’s Hand) Graham Greene
A couple of rediscovered Graham Greene novellas. Both worth a read. The former, a short spy novel set in Yugoslavia, and the latter set in Venice with a small, lonely ten year old English boy, waiting to meet his father. The latter was turned into a film, but he only wrote this first opening piece. It’s still amazing. There is a foreword by David Lodge. I like Greene’s film treatment stories, The Fallen Idol, The Third Man etc. and Lodge perceptively points out that “Graham Greene belonged to the first generation of British writers who grew up with the movies, and his work, like that of his contemporaries Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green and Christopher Isherwood, was deeply influenced by the new medium. What Greene learnt from cinema was how to hold his readers in the coils of a suspenseful plot while exploring moral and metaphysical themes, and how to evoke character and milieu with the verbal equivalent of cinematic close-ups and pans.”
Another Great Day at Sea. Geoff Dyer
Geoff Dyer spends time on a US Carrier in the Gulf. I got the big photographic version of this book but never read it. This I love, because he is such a great observer, and honest writer. He makes no attempt to hide his own crankiness and manages to get himself a single stateroom, and eventually decent food, almost unheard of on this huge floating, deafening island. But he meets people and paints them wonderfully. I enjoyed every sentence.
This Gun For Hire. Graham Greene
“Murder didn’t mean much to Raven. It was just a new job.” A fascinating spy novel about a hare-lipped, double-crossed assassin and his attempts to revenge himself on the people who employed him to shoot a good man in order to create a European war for profit. Originally published in 1936 in England under the title This Gun for Sale. I’ve been attracted to re-reading some of the lesser known novels in my collection of his books. He is that good.
Prussian Blue. Philip Kerr
One of the great delights was finding this new Philip Kerr Bernie Gunther novel in Hatchards. Alas not signed, but I devoured it on my return, dreading reaching the end. It’s set in Hitler’s winter white house of Berchtesgaden. He didn’t trust Berliners. Only Bavarians. It’s so fascinating to read about the corrupt Nazi world of his henchmen and cohorts, all busy building Villas next to the leader, and the mass of tunnels they’re constructing under the mountains, even before he has gone to war. Wonderfully ironic that he should be finally forced to suicide in Berlin, instead of in his billion dollar custom-built, air conditioned Bavarian bunkers. Here Bernie is brought in by Martin Bormann to solve a murder on the terrace of Hitler’s newly constructed tea-house before the leader gets there to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. Nazis are only a minority election away… This is as good as any of them and incredibly readable. I could start it right away again. Can’t wait for the Tom Hanks TV series.
Striptease. Georges Simenon. I found this Review Copy of the First American edition at the Iliad. Published September 20th 1989. I love these non Maigret novels. This one is set in a strip club in Nice. He is so brilliant with his characters. His style seems so simple, yet he paints scenes so clearly. I could read it again now.
The Patient. Georges Simenon
Another one of the non Maigret’s. I picked up this 1963 first edition at Hatchards. It’s about a successful businessman and newspaper editor who suffers a debilitating attack of hemiplegia. His loss of interest in life and the medical attempts to bring him back to “life” is clearly about Simenon’s own experience. A great example of being able to tell the truth about life more accurately in fiction.
Sylvia. Leonard Michaels.
I left this highly autobiographical first novel, about first love in New York, behind in London. And also this next book:
The Crofter and the Laird. John McPhee
About the author taking his family to spend some months on the lonely windswept Scottish island of Colonsay. I hope they forgave him… Cruel and unnecessary paternity it seems to me. The island is now owned by an English solicitor from Brighton. It is interesting to learn that before the foul Highland clearances (an early form of ethnic cleansing by the English on the defeated Scots after Culloden) this island was home to thousands of crofters. Perhaps luckily for them they all moved to Canada.
Snowdrops. A. D. Miller
This is a very good book. Occasionally I felt he was on the verge of making it a great book. I think it won’t be long. He can write. “Snowdrops” are bodies left in the snow and found in the spring in Moscow when the ice melts. He brings the metaphor home nicely. “That’s what I learned when my last Russian winter thawed. The lesson wasn’t about Russia. It never is, I don’t think, when a relationship ends. It isn’t your lover that you learn about. You learn about yourself. I was the man on the other side of the door. My snowdrop was me.”
Set in Moscow about corruption and relationships.
Maigret Takes a Room. Georges Simenon
Patience is one of Maigret’s greatest virtues. He waits. He watches. Then they crack. Here he moves into a well-kept boarding house, where all is not what it seems.
General Macarthur. William Manchester
A long and fascinating biography by a long and fascinating biographer. I knew nothing about the General. Now I know too much. Actually that’s not really true. Manchester is such a fascinating writer that what interests him interests us. Or in this case, me. On My I Pad as it is a long and rather heavy book. I’m still only up to half way through WW2 before the retaking of the Philippines and it assures me I have 9 hours to go, so I think it will be travelling with me. Manchester sees both his flaws and his genius and is fair to both.
Spring Fever. P .G. Wodehouse
A book I hadn’t quite finished before I had to leave for Europe. I haven’t yet picked it up again. He is really funny. I have an entire collection of his novels by the Overlook Press and have shamefully neglected them. They sit in my bedroom ruefully mocking me, but one day, when I can’t leave my bedroom I shall be grateful for them. Stock piling for that rainy day.

The Ides of March. Thru End of March.
UK. London. Cambridge. Copenhagen.

I read two books back to back which seemed coincidentally connected in theme – The Hand by Georges Simenon and The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene
The Hand. Georges Simenon
This is a very fine book indeed, and reveals just what a good novelist Simenon is, especially here where Maigret is not only not involved, but it is set in a snow storm in Connecticut, far from Paris and the French. Simply and clearly written with four characters, it’s about how little we really know of each other. The unhappy local lawyer Donald Dodd discovers in the accidental death of his best friend Ray in a blizzard, that he didn’t like him at all, and he may even have murdered him. He comes to realise he really cannot stand his long time wife Isabel who seems to just look at and through him. His life is torn apart by his passion for Ray’s wife Mona, a physical affair, at the end of which he is faced with emptiness and misunderstanding. It is “a devastating psychological novel…which…delves into the lies we tell ourselves and the darkness within us.” Published in 1968 in French, part of a series of books known as Les Romans Durs, and as John Banville notes “they are tough, bleak, offhandedly violent, suffused with guilt and bitterness, redolent of place….utterly unsentimental, frightening in the pitilessness of their gaze, yet wonderfully entertaining.” This is by far the best of them I have read so far.
The Ministry of Fear. Graham Greene
An Entertainment. Published in 1943.
Greene’s very well-written thriller is set in 1941 in the Blitz, where the central character, Arthur Rowe, suffers from self-loathing because, as we learn, he has killed his wife, but solely to free her from pain. For this he has been found not guilty and confined for a while to a mental hospital. He emerges into a confusing world of random violence from the skies, the nightly bombing raids from Germany, and accidental interaction with some banal characters at a Fete who puzzle and confuse him when he wins a cake in a raffle.
It seems to me the novel owes a lot to John Buchan (The 39 Steps) It is largely all action with mysterious foreign spies engaged in a conspiracy with an overseas power. Greene’s tale is empowered by love, the love of a sympathetic sister, and is resolved through it. Rowe is empowered and escapes his past. Again, like the Simenon, there is the issue of self-loathing, or lack of self-knowledge and a yearning desire for self-destruction.
Maigret and The Man on The Beach. Georges Simenon
Maigret as a close observer of human behaviour is engrossed by a single detail of a man, found stabbed to death in an alley. He wears goose shit green shoes. But why, when he is so dull otherwise?
Hidden Killers. Lynda La Plante
An airport buy, and a perfect travel book, WPC Jane Tennison is a genuinely original Detective character creation, and of course it helps that we cannot read about her without picturing the brilliant and extraordinary Helen Mirren, but nevertheless Madame La Plante is a very good creator of story and the thriller genre. She knows about plot and her stories are gripping. I enjoyed it and it took me happily to Denmark and back.
The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By. Georges Simenon
Not exactly a Maigret, but Inspector Lucas is involved peripherally. It’s a portrait of madness. A comfortable middle aged Dutch clerk goes off the rails when he discovers his employer is a cheat and a fraudster. He does a runner, leaving wife, hearth and family, to the puzzlement of the world. To him he has discovered sanity. A man on the run from himself, and the constraints of life. A Roman Dur.

Fuck Selfies

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By , February 9, 2017 12:07 pm

C E7
Here’s a little song
F #
It won’t take very long
C A7
It’s about the world today
D7 G7
Something I badly need to say…

Fuck Selfies
And all those stupid gits
Who take selfies,
They just get on my tits
C E7
Fuck grinning like a lunatic
With people you don’t know
D7 G7
It takes them half an hour to get their fucking phones to go
F F# C A7
And then another fourteen other fucking people show…

C. Am
So tell those selfish selfie pricks
F G7
Next time they bloody ask
C. Am
To take their fucking selfie sticks
Dm7 G7 C
And shove ‘em up their ass.

c) words and music Eric Idle.
13th October 2016