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?
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.
The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gattis - Sep-2014
I very much enjoyed these wickedly sinister tales from the acid pen of the brilliant Mark Gattis, who brought us Sherlock (and plays his brother) and The League of Gentlemen. What a clever chap he is.
Stalingrad by Antony Beevor - Sep-2014
Not just one of the best history books, but one of the best books I have ever read. A brilliant narrative history of the hubris and arrogance of Hitler’s Panzer drive into Russia, and the fearsome consequences and the terrible price paid by both the Russians and the Germans in one of the greatest military disasters of all time. Perhaps worse than Napoleon’s equally hubristic attack on Moscow. It also shows the frightening indifference of Stalin to Soviet losses; a man equally as monstrous as Hitler. It changed the course of the war while I was still in the womb. From this point on the war was lost as even the Wehrmacht knew. Of course the insane megalomaniac continued to cause the deaths of millions of more humans. He would fight until the last German. And he wanted that to be him. Beautifully written it reads like a novel, but is sadly all true. Lest we forget.
Demobbed by Alan Allport - Sep-2014
A friend gave me this interesting book about the problems of service men coming home after World War Two. He knows my sad tale. I wish my father had been demobbed…. Nicely told and with many insights into the problems of absent fathers and husbands, returning after four or five years to complete strangers of wives and children.
Rubicon by Tom Holland - Aug-2014
A wonderful narrative history of the fall of the Roman Republic under the autocratic rule of Emperors and tyrants. A compelling and brilliantly written book which never once mentions America but the thought of which is never a second away. I really enjoyed it and couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended.
A Crime in Holland by Georges Simenon - Aug-2014
Maigret journeys to a small town in Holland, at the request of an arrested lecturer, to solve the mystery of a murder in a small town which cannot admit of scandal. A classical and elegant tale, beautifully told.
The Mahé Circle by Georges Simenon - Aug-2014
Not a Maigret but one of his roman durs, tough, bleak, very fine short novels. Dr. Mahé on holiday on the island of Porquerolles falls prey to the delusion he can escape from his banal existence as a married doctor.
The Great Mordecai Moustache by Kyril Bonfiglioli - Aug-2014
The Fourth Charlie Mortdecai Novel. Completed by Craig Brown.
Charlie, proudly growing a moustache, is thrown out of the house for it by his wife. He finds himself in Oxford trying to solve the death of a female don who drove into an omnibus.
Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain - Aug-2014
I always get to the same point in this novel and I always stop, just as she prepares to open the Pie Shop. I think it’s because Mildred herself has no interior life. Steinbeck it ain’t. So while one is prepared to be moderately entertained for a while after the while I go I don’t care anymore.
Operation Shylock by Philip Roth - Aug-2014
Very entertaining but by the end there are so many twists and turns as to whether he is or he isn’t Philip Roth or whether the story is true or it ain’t that one gives a quiet sigh for being brought up a dull doubting Christian and didn’t have to go through all the tortured self-questioning guilt of a Jewish upbringing. Nevertheless there is no part of Judaism left unexplored in this quite remarkable novel.
Split Images by Elmore Leonard - Jul-2014
Holiday reading began in earnest with a re-read of an Elmore Leonard
The millionaire who likes killing for fun. A tragi-comic tale in the end.
After reading Muriel Spark my eye was caught by the Penguin reprint of an old favourite of mine The Charlie Mordecai novels of Kyril Bonfiglioli.
This is what I wrote when I first encountered what was then a trilogy by the already deceased author in 2000.
“Oh yes the best and the finest, the funniest and the most fabulous discovery. Ronald Firbank meets Raymond Chandler. Divine writing, hilarious description, gripping action. Everything and more. If there are three better books this year I will eat my wife….”
Apart from the ungainly metaphor these books are even funnier on a second rereading:
Don’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli - Jul-2014
The First Charlie Mortdecai Novel.
It’s the simple polished elegant style of the writer that grabs you right away plus the naughty antics he gets up to with Jock, his bruiser side kick. Charlie Mortdecai, degenerate aristocrat and amoral art dealer is at once a great comic creation and a hilarious character. Just relax and bathe in the fun.
After You With The Pistol by Kyril Bonfiglioli - Jul-2014
The Second Charlie Mortdecai Novel.
The adventures continue in America.
Something Nasty in the Woodshed by Kyril Bonfiglioli - Jul-2014
The Third Charlie Mortdecai Novel.
And in Jersey with a gruesome series of rapes.
Pom Poms Up! by Carol Cleveland - Jul-2014
Yes that is the title, complete with the exclamation mark, an “as told to” book of the story of the girl from Monty Python. She gave me an autographed copy, and of course I had contributed an interview about her with the author. Sweet Carol. She doesn’t get me at all, which is hardly her fault, but I do treasure waltzing with her and playing Mr. Bunn at O2. She is an utterly professional comedienne and totally reliable on stage, and never unprepared. She reveals glimpses of her naughty life, but is far too decent to tell tales out of school….
A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard - Jul-2014
My Struggle: 1.
This one came highly recommended but I forget by whom. Sadly I found this memoir of Norwegian adolescence over long and rather easy to put down. Sorry.