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Christmas Book List: by Eric Idle - Dec-2014

These are the books I chose to send to friends this year:

The Zone of Interest  by Martin Amis
The Children Act  by Ian McEwan
Stalingrad  by Antony Beevor
Rubicon  by Tom Holland
Don’t Point That Thing At Me  by Kyril Bonfiglioli
Lost for Words  by Edward St. Aubyn
Who’s that Lady?  by Carey Harrison
The One From The Other  by Philip Kerr
So, Anyway  by John Cleese
The Unquiet Mind  by Dr. Kay Jamison

A String of Beads by Thomas Perry - Dec-2014

Santa was kind to me and brought me a new Jane Whitefield novel. I couldn’t put it down and devoured it hungrily like a Christmas dinner. Now I’m saddened that it’s over and I have to wait for a new one….

Reality & Dreams by Muriel Spark - Dec-2014

In Hatchards I found a very nice first edition 1996 of one of hers I hadn’t read. Not for the first time she writes of the movie business, in this instance about a film director recovering from a fall from a crane. Lovely writing.

Poodle Springs by Raymond Chandler & Robert B. Parker - Dec-2014

I’m not normally a fan of faux Chandler. I think people over write. They mistake his style, which is essential simple with startling metaphors, for bad Hollywood dialogue but I found this 1998 oddity in Odyssey and was tempted to pick it up because the first four chapters are by Chandler himself. To my surprise I stayed for the whole book. Robert B. Parker writes very well, and continues an interesting start which begins with Marlowe married to Linda, plots it elegantly and writes with style and simplicity so that it is as readable and enjoyable as Chandler. He is himself a detective story writer and his experience in the form shows.

The Saint-Fiacre Affair by Georges Simenon - Dec-2014

These are so good for traveling with. Devoured this one on BA. One of the best mysteries so far.

Night at The Crossroads by Georges Simenon - Dec-2014
The Grand Banks Café by Georges Simenon - Dec-2014

Another elegantly plotted and deceptively simply written short novel who dun it in the new Penguin translation. Good to the last bite.

The Takeover by Muriel Spark - Nov-2014

I picked up this nice 1976 first edition at Hatchards. A lovely, witty, elegant, cleverly crafted tale of sin and sinners around the town of Nemi in Italy. Always a joy to read.

Hack Attack by Nick Davies - Nov-2014

The shocking story of how Rupert Murdoch, his editors and his five newspapers deliberately corrupted the police and public officials, perverted the course of justice and only after years of deliberate lying in courts were they forced to “pay.” Not much at that. The foul News Of The World was shut down, but the Sun  popped up on Sunday. They blackmailed, bullied and corrupted public life, debasing debate in their own financial interests, using their papers to expose innocent people who in any way crossed or questioned them. The book makes you want to vomit. It is not quite so well written as Dial M for Murdoch which covered much of the same territory, as he is anxious to tell all of the tale. But still shocking.

The Yellow Dog by Georges Simenon - Nov-2014

Fabulous the way these Penguin Classic reissues pop up to jog your elbow and clear your palette when engrossed in other books. Classic who dun it as always with the unflappable Maigret and his disdain of all authority, so interesting in a policeman. His quick sketches of characters are excellent. And what is happening between them.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell - Nov-2014

Well I really enjoyed most of it, which is fairly extraordinary since I don’t like “unreality” books. But he writes so well I tolerated people changing into other people as long as I could. Then with a great sigh I let slip the mighty tome. He won’t put me off though. I shall await more.

A Journey to the Dark Heart of Nameless, Unspeakable Evil by Jane Bussman - Nov-2014

A very funny, and highly original autobiographical story of Jane Bussman, interviewer to the stars in Hollywood, leaving for Uganda in pursuit of a heart throb aid spokesman. She manages to become involved with Joseph Koni and his abducted captives, and in her savage anger she brilliantly exposes the Aid money racket which keeps the whole business of abducting young girls going, everyone needs the money, since they steal it from the beginning, and so they are not motivated to do what the money is supposed to be encouraging them to do:  stop him. Indeed one hand washes another, and they all profit from the trade. This has been going on for years and years and shows no end of ceasing. Her deceptively innocent pose reveals someone deeply disturbed by what she sees, and her apparent naivety takes her into scary territory where most journalists would not go.  A hilarious, laugh out loud book, on the most improbable subject.

So, Anyway by John Cleese - Oct-2014

I had to interview him about this book, so I was fascinated to see what he had done with this volume of autobiography, intriguingly, and surely unnecessarily, sub-titled The Making of a Python. The first surprise is that he only gets as far as Python, and then not very far into it, so that while we get Cambridge Circus, the Frost Report and At Last the 1948 Show there is very little of Fawlty and only the odd reference to Wanda so this is clearly only the beginning of what might become a trilogy if he can ever face it. The irritation that sneaks in about having to do it and publicize it, makes me doubt he’ll want to try. Irritation is a key word for John. The result is that the book is very long on the young days, with a lot of the unpleasant mother, and Prep school and Clifton College, and short on the fascinating self-questioning person who became the funniest man in Britain. The surprise for me is that when he gets accepted into Cambridge University he goes back and teaches for two years at his old Prep School which he describes as halcyon days. Here he was at his most happy, which I find extraordinary. There has always been a teacher inside John, and a yearning to teach, and at one point his parents set him up for a job at Marks and Spencer’s, and he even hankers for a moment about becoming a banker. Shades of Mr. Puty.  At Cambridge he drifts accidentally into the Footlights before revealing that amazing performing talent that was so evident in 1963, when I first met him. He talks generously of Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor, but John stood out head and shoulders above that crowd, and not just physically. He was always the funniest man on the stage. The book is well written and there are tender and affectionate portraits of his father, a favourite teacher, called Mr Bartlett, Graham Chapman of whom he writes lovingly and with great tolerance; greater tolerance than he expressed at the time; and he adores Connie Booth, revealing the kind heart that beats under the somewhat crusty exterior. He is a self-confessed wuss, and shy of women, until finally taken in hand by a forthright New Zealand lass on tour.

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton - Oct-2014

Reading Eleanor Catton’s precocious first novel revealing her extraordinary talent as a writer still did not quite prepare one for the amazing achievement of deservedly winning the Booker next time out with The Luminaries. Set in a high school, where a teacher has been interfering with a pupil, it concerns the first year classman of an acting school, raising questions about reality, acting, and concealment of truth, through the central figure of a saxophone teacher and the pupil’s sister. Complicated and not altogether satisfactory in conclusion, it raises more than it settles, but is a terrific read anyway. Her talent is immediately evident.

The Tudors by Peter Ackroyd - Oct-2014

Excellent voyage through somewhat familiar landscape. He is very good on Henry V111, less so on Elizabeth, but he views the Tudor world through the ever changing veil of religion, one man’s saint is another man’s cinder. Highly readable. Always interesting.

by - Oct-2014

On the road. London, Pompeii, Henley, San Francisco, Seattle.

This was a great month for new novels. I hit Hatchards in London delightedly finding a new Martin Amis, a new Ian McEwan, a new David Mitchell and the real Howard Jacobson signing his new book. He kindly invited me to his launch party where he introduced me to Philip Kerr, but I didn’t catch his full name until later, grr. However, I liked him without even knowing I loved him.

Two of these new novels are about the Holocaust but they couldn’t be more different.

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis - Oct-2014

I really enjoyed this book. He sidles you into the sudden startling realisation that the people talking, narrating, the talking heads who take us through the novel, are all in Auschwitz and to them it is a life, a job, and a career. Their various narratives show us the different ways humans deal with hell,  from denial to alcoholism. Almost all of them have an eventual realisation that something is terribly wrong here and they might have to pay for it. This is an extraordinary work that imagines the day to day banality of the reality of casually disposing of the carcasses  of human beings and the problems which that presents, smell, mess, leakage…. without ever recognising their humanity. A total denial of the real horror of what is going on. Amis creates a love story between a junior officer and the wife of the Commandant, a very dangerous liaison, that never quite takes place, but which provides the central theme of the book. He is the most honest of writers, and credits Primo Levi, and many others in his bibliography, but I find he has the most amazing ability to understand the truth about the human monster, and a pitiless glare exposing that moral monster. In this he is subtler than Dickens, who makes monsters comic for us to laugh at and dismiss when they get their come uppance, but you feel Martin Amis goes all the way to try and understand what makes a man into a monster, see for example his amazing book on Stalin, Korba the dread. His constant exposing of hypocrisy must be why he arouses such resentment in the British press, which is the home of hypocrisy. But he is an unrelenting satirist and the finest novelist.

J by Howard Jacobson - Oct-2014

A dystopian novel set in the future about the recent past. A big departure for him, and this is not one of my favourite genres, because I find the world complicated enough to understand without having to invent another fictional world with its own set of rules. Given that apologia this kept me going because, simply, I love the way he writes. In this one he eschews his masterful comic talents for something more serious. This is set in a post Holocaust world where everyone is encouraged by the state to be in denial about what might or might not have taken place. The J word of course is the subject. Certain humans do speak up and out, while others observe and report, so there is both paranoia and suspicion. In the midst of this he produces a love story between two misfits, struggling to survive in the violent, angry, and hostile world that has replaced the supposed “event” with silence.

I had the great pleasure of meeting him briefly and I shipped a signed copy home but picked up a nice travel paperback version at the airport because I couldn’t wait to read it. Also I just realised he looks like Shakespeare. If Shakespeare had been born in Manchester. Nominated for the Booker.

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare - Oct-2014

And quite by chance I was reading this play which does to me now, seem anti-Semitic. I guess the question is are the characters anti-Semitic, obviously yes, but is the play itself anti-Semitic. I’ll get back to you. I’m a bit tired of the silly casket business. Which reads even more like a tired idea for a game show. Why would you leave your daughter so at the mercy of a guessing game.

The Children Act by Ian McEwan - Oct-2014

A short but powerful book. I love the immediate reality of his characters and the way he writes about them. He brings a freshness to the kind of people he writes about, in this case a female married English judge whose husband announces he is leaving her. She must meet and decide on whether the court should forcibly give blood to a young 17 year old Jehovah’s Witness who will otherwise die. Complex moral problems and her own feelings intermingle as the young man begins to stalk her. I really enjoyed it.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel - Oct-2014

This is a far better title than book. In fact it’s just an eye catching title of a not particularly brilliant short story, which tries but fails to deliver on a promising concept. This is a publishers pot boiler. There are two schools of thought about Hilary Mantel and I’m afraid I fall into the other camp of what is the fuss all about? I couldn’t finish the Cromwell book, and was reasonably disappointed by the stage adaptation I saw recently. I felt that Peter Akroyd’s book on The Tudors knocked her fictionalisation into the proverbial cocked hat.

The Wonders of the Universe by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen - Sep-2014

While traveling I have found this an intensely interesting book to read on my Samsung. The amazing and astounding information it contains is better suited to bite sized reads. You can only digest the immensity and staggering size and wonder of the Universe a bit at a time. I find myself highlighting section after section, and saying “I didn’t know that” a lot out loud in airports. It’s a book I will never stop reading. What is also amazing, and hilarious, is that it is in parts already out of date! So I can tease Brian in the same way he got me…. Though it is astounding the pace of increase in our knowledge of the Universe, which can only be in response to the great threat to our own survival. It is up to the intelligent to defeat the forces of ignorance which are everywhere….  Survival of the what now?

France

The Unquiet Mind by Dr. Kay Jamison - Sep-2014

Probably the finest book written by and about bi-polar disorder, from someone who both suffered from and studied it, often, ironically, at the same time. She was a psychology student, while undergoing the encroachment of the manic state. The fact that Jamison was a Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a co-author of the standard medical text on bipolar illness, knew the disease as both clinician and patient, her outing of her affliction involved considerable professional risk. Her honesty and her writing skill reveal just how horrendous suffering from this disease is.   Written sympathetically, she tells her whole life story and struggles with this horror and reveals what it is like to suffer from manic depression. But her tale is optimistic since she fought and survived, thanks to intelligence, love of a brother and medication.

I also read:

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Dr. Kay Jamison - Sep-2014

To try and understand how a friend could be in such a position. There have been some bleak times this summer, but at least this book shows there is almost nothing we could have done. Depression is a killer.

Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler - Sep-2014

A very satisfactory classic who dun it. Somewhere between Agatha Christie and Graham Greene. Lovely book of a man suddenly involved in a police case in the south of France.