Monday, January 31, 2011

2,576: 1,001 Books Challenge - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

Amongst many readers there appears to be a kind of sub-conscious prejudice against “genre” books.  “Oh, it’s only a romance story” or “It’s not bad…….for a science fiction novel.”  It’s almost as if, by forming part of a recognisable category of story, a book is somehow disqualified from being considered as just a “good book”.  Some people would even go as far as to conceal their reading of such books or, in some cases, to deny reading them altogether.

Now I am not, for a second, claiming that all, or even many, “genre” books count as good literature.  One of the reason thrillers or horror stories can form recognisable genres is that there are certain conventions that can easily slip into formula and, being essentially plot-driven, it becomes possible to hide poor characterisation, weak imagery and wooden dialogue behind a clever (or at least flashy) plot.  Equally, I am not for a second arguing that disliking “genre” novels is an invalid choice or a lie – indeed I can’t abide romance or horror novels, in general.  All I am saying is that a novel shouldn’t be disqualified from consideration as good literature merely by virtue of its subject matter.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a case in point.  On its face, it is the tale of how George Smiley, a former senior member of the Circus (le Carré’s proxy for MI6) is brought back secretly to investigate a report from an unreliable agent in the field that there is a Soviet mole high up in the Circus.  As he becomes convinced that the report is true, Smiley begins to suspect that the mole was also responsible for the failure of an operation to kidnap a Czech general that ended with the responsible agent, Jim Prideaux, being shot and captured.

Prideaux, having been repatriated in a spy swap, reveals that Control, the disgraced former Head of the Circus, had also suspected the existence of a mole and had narrowed it down to four men, the new Head, Percy Alleline and his three closest colleagues, Roy Bland, Bill Haydon and Toby Esterhase.  Each of these had been given a nickname from an old children’s rhyme – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poorman.

Alleline had risen to prominence in the Circus by his source of intelligence on the Soviet Union, codenamed Merlin.  This source has convinced the British that he is able to maintain his cover in Moscow by pretending to feed information to them from a false British mole.  Smiley deduces that Karla, the mastermind of Moscow Centre (the proxy for the KGB) has set this up both to discourage the powers at the Circus from hunting for a mole and to act as a cover for the real mole passing real intelligence back to Moscow.  In the end, Smiley unmasks the traitor who is murdered before he can be sent to Moscow.

So far, so standard but Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is far more than “just” a spy novel.  The characterisation is rich and detailed.  The main characters are not just stereotypical spies and traitors – they have real lives and real emotions.  One of the hallmarks of the book is how their private lives affect their feelings and leak into their professional lives from Smiley’s relationship with his promiscuous wife to Peter Guillam’s suspicions and paranoia about his younger girlfriend and Toby Esterhase’s perpetual feeling of being an outsider in Britain.

Le Carré uses these characters to explore his central theme of deception.  This theme runs through the novel, not just in the obvious sense of the deception of the Circus by Moscow and the traitor but also the betrayal of friendships by the mole and the personal betrayals that several of the main characters experience.  In a sense, the hunt for the mole is almost a backdrop or setting for his exploration of trust and betrayal.

The imagery of Tinker, Tailor is also wonderful.  Written in 1970s, the drabness and gloom of Britain at that time pervades the book and is wonderfully evoked by le Carré.  This is not James Bond or Jason Bourne.  The world of le Carré’s spies is one of shadows and ambiguities.  Their beliefs seem less than solid and, at times, they appear to have more in common with their enemies than with people in the ordinary world.  There is no glamour here, no car chases or luxury hotels, just bedsits in Bayswater and run-down safe houses.

Tinker, Tailor is the first in a cycle of three novels, known as the Karla Trilogy, which explore the struggle between Smiley and his Soviet rival, Karla.  An earlier novel, the Spy Who came in from the Cold was lauded by Time magazine as one of its All-time 100 Novels and has been praised as the best spy novel of all time but, in my opinion, Tinker, Tailor matches it.  To call this “just” a spy story is a bit like saying that Lennon and McCartney could knock out a bit of a tune – it really doesn’t tell the whole story.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Book Blogger Hop: Books I am anticipating this year

Book Blogger Hop
I’m taking part for the first time in the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Crazy for Books.  This week’s question is:

What book are you most looking forward to seeing published in 2011?  Why are you anticipating that book?”

Talk about a difficult question to answer!  2011, like every other year, looks like throwing up a number of stunning debut novels as well as a solid stream of fantastic new books by established writers.  My ever-expanding virtual TBR list (actually an Amazon wish list) already includes a whole slew of books that are due to be published this year as well as a number of books that were published in the USA last year but will not make it across the Pond for a few months yet.  And it’s still only January!

Quite frankly, I cannot in good faith pick just one book to mention (or, at any rate, the time it would take me to decide would mean this post would not be written until the Book Blog Hop had finished for this week).  So I am going to pick two novels and one non-fiction book.  Yes, I know it says one book – I happily admit to being a big, fat (well, not so fat any more – I’ve lost 14 lbs since Christmas Eve) cheat.  I’m sure no-one will mind too much.


Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.  This debut novel, to be published in the UK in September, tells the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of Patroclus, the best friend and, according to some sources, lover of Achilles.  The story starts when the heroes meet as boys on the island of Phthia after Patroclus is forced into exile there, having accidentally killed his friend, Clysonymus.  It will take the two princes to the battlefield of Troy and, in the end, to the death of Patroclus at the hands of Hector, son of King Priam.  I’ve always thought Patroclus to be a bit of a berk.  Having persuaded the sulking Achilles to lend him his armour, Patroclus comes over all big time Charlie, charging all the way up to the gates of Troy where he gets a (rather unfair) smack on the head from the god, Apollo, before being sliced up by Hector.  Paddy, Paddy, Paddy.  You really should have remembered something – YOU WEREN’T DIPPED IN THE STYX LIKE YOUR MATE ACHILLES!!!  YOU’RE NOT INVULNERABLE!!!  Whoops, too late.

Anyway, enough rant.  I love the Iliad and the stories of the Greek heroes so I am looking forward to this retelling from a different perspective.  I used to read Mary Renault’s books when I was younger and I wonder whether this will be similar or more “literary”.  Miller’s agent, Julie Barer said this about Miller on the Ploughshares Blog:

“The last time I fell in love with a book out of the blue was The Song of Achilles, a debut novel by Madeline Miller which tells the story of the Illiad and the Achilles legend from the point of view of Patroclus as Achilles' lover. I have always been a fan of Greek mythology and so the query letter caught my eye. I brought the novel home and read it in one sitting without a break (I'm a big on snacking when I read at home and I know I'm falling in love with something when I won't even stop for food). From page one I was completely absorbed by the world she had created, and the way she had seamlessly married Greek legend and mythology with a heart wrenching love story. The minute I finished it I knew I had to represent it, and I couldn't wait to tell every editor I knew about it. You can't manufacture that feeling, no matter how much you might want to love something, and sometimes it's even hard to say why you love this book and not that one. We often use the phrase 'I just didn't fall in love' when rejecting something, and I don't know if authors realize how much we really mean just that.”

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka.  Another debut novel, to be published in the UK in June, this was featured in Waterstones' 11, their list of the best eleven first novels of 2011.  The Chinaman of the title is not a gentleman from the Far East.  It is a type of spin bowling in cricket.  The book’s protagonist is a retired cricket writer who spends the last months of his life being unpleasant to his family and tracking down a spin bowler who has disappeared and who he considers to be an unsung genius.  The novel is not just about cricket but also about modern Sri Lanka and has been described as “one of the most imaginative works of contemporary Sri Lankan fiction”.

I like cricket and am intrigued by its popularity in South Asia and so I am very much looking forward to this one, especially given the previews it has been receiving.


Civilisation: the West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson.  Whenever I open a newspaper these days, there seems to be another article or opinion piece warning that the West is going to be overtaken economically and politically by the rising superpowers of China and India.  There is also a growing sub-genre of books dealing with the same themes.  Niall Ferguson, one of the UK’s leading historians, the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and the William Ziegler Professor at Harvard Business School, will enter the fray in March with his new book.

With impeccable timing (as with an earlier book, the Ascent of Money), Ferguson takes us back to 1411 when what would become the West looked backward and impoverished, compared to the flourishing civilisations of the Ottomans, the Aztecs and Incas and Ming China.  He argues that, at this point in time, the notion that the West would come to dominate the world for the next 500 years or so would have been seen as laughable.  And yet, that’s exactly what happened.

Ferguson has identified what he believes are six “killer apps” that the West developed and that the Rest lacked.  His central argument is that it was these things – competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic – that allowed the West to get ahead.  He examines whether the West has lost its monopoly (or at least advantage) in these areas and, if so, whether this heralds the end of Western ascendancy.

Ferguson is a great historian and has developed an engaging writing style and an interesting way of looking at history.  His recent books have been accompanied by big-budget documentary series on British TV which are a joy to watch.  I didn’t buy the Ascent of Money until after the TV series and this slightly spoilt it for me so I am going to make sure I get this one as soon as it is published.

I have pre-ordered all three of these to be sure of getting them hot off the presses and posts will follow.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

2,577: Lysistrata by Aristophanes

I had a really hard time deciding what to write about for this month’s Classics Circuit tour – the Ancient Greeks.  You see, I have history with the ancient Greeks.  I studied both Latin and Ancient Greek at school until I was 18 and, as part of that, had to read great chunks of the classics in the original.  Virtually all of Homer, most of Thucydides, significant bits of Xenophon, Herodotus, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides – all was grist to my mill.  I debated discussing Herodotus, the Father of History, which would have married my love of classics with my love of history.  I almost went with Xenophon but decided against it.  I thought lots of my fellow “tourists” would write about Homer so opted for something else.  I was stumped.  And then I noticed the calendar and remembered.

You may or may not know that every three years, students and alumni of Cambridge University (Britain’s second best university – guess who went to Oxford!) put on a play in the Cambridge Arts Theatre.  It’s a very special play, one of the ancient Greek classics, performed in the original Greek.  They’ve been doing this since 1882, with breaks only for those minor inconveniences of the First and Second World Wars. 

And that’s where my reference to the calendar comes in.  Because 25 years ago, almost to the week, young Falaise and his colleagues from the Upper Sixth Greek set were sat in the Cambridge Arts Theatre, plotting how many illicit drinks we might be able to consume before being hauled back to school.  We were there to watch  the subject of this post, the 1986 Cambridge Greek play, Lysistrata, by Aristophanes.

The plot of Lysistrata is well known.  In (very brief) summary, the men of Greece have been fighting the Peloponnesian War for years.  Lysistrata, a woman of Athens calls a meeting of women from all the Greek city-states, at which she persuades them to swear an oath to withhold sexual favours from their husbands until they agree to end the war.   At the same time, the old women of Athens seize the state treasury and barricade themselves inside the Acropolis to deprive the men of the funds they need to fight the war.  After the old men of Athens try but fail to recapture the Acropolis, a magistrate appears and, after reflecting on "the problem with women", he is humiliated by them before being lectured to by Lysistrata on the frustrations that women have with war.

Next, having foiled a mutiny by the womenfolk, who are desperate for sex, Lysistrata persuades Myrrhine, the husband of Cinesias, a Spartan, to tease him until he is in a state of sexual frustration and then to refuse him until he agrees to try and seek peace.  The men, suffering from large and panful erections, then call a peace conference and, after a certain amount of squabbling, peace is declared and the play ends with a big celebration and a sing-song.

As a school boy, I have to confess that the thing that amused me most about the production we saw was the unfeasibly large wooden penises that the men began to sport as their sexual frustration mounted.  Childish I know but it was very funny.   Otherwise, the most striking thing was just how funny a 2,400 year old play could be, even when performed in its original language.

Behind the comedy, I suppose I took away the view that this was, in essence, a play which portrayed an unconventional view of women for its time, a play that could even be described as feminist in its outlook, as well as anti-war.  I think this is probably a common view of Lysistrata.  But, is this view correct?

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.  Lysistrata is, indeed, a strong woman, prepared to challenge male hegemony and the view that men should have total control of politics and the finances of the city.  The play does also, it is true, spell out the message of the cost of war, not just in lives lost and money spent but also the impact it has on those left behind.

But this is only half the story.  Lysistrata’s fellow conspirators are not all portrayed as emancipated women.  Aristophanes can’t help painting the generality of women as being feckless, uncontrolled creatures in need of protection by men, even protection from their own worst instincts.  Even Lysistrata is only driven to revolt when she realises that the men aren’t strong enough to being an end to the war themselves.

Lysistrata has to govern the women with a fist of iron, forcing them to take an oath to withhold sex and having to whip them back into line when the revolt starts to waver and some of the women want to go home to sleep with their husbands.  As a general rule, with the exception of Lysistrata, the women of the play are painted as sex-crazed and only interested in fun, being content to leave serious matters to their husbands. This is not a play about the strength and wisdom of women overcoming the stupidity and aggression of men.  It is a play about a single, strong woman manipulating others of her gender to achieve her goal.

Lysistrata is a very funny play to watch but, as a reading experience, depends heavily on the quality of the translation.  I read an online version that wasn’t great but I am sure there are some good ones out there.
And one final question:  can anyone enlighten me on the nature of the “Lioness on the Cheese Grater” sexual position?  And is it as uncomfortable as it sounds?

Other stops on the Ancient Greeks tour today (Thursday 27th January):
Please do visit them and all of the other Ancient Greek tourists.  Let's keep the classics alive.

    Tuesday, January 25, 2011

    Top Ten Tuesday: The Books I Wish I'd Read As A Child

    It’s Top Ten Tuesday again at the Broke and the Bookish and this week’s topic is the top ten  children’s books I wish I’d read as a child.  It’s actually been a difficult one for me to write.  My parents were very education-oriented and so reading was strongly encouraged from an early age.  Weekly trips to the library on Saturday mornings were a feature of life and created a habit that lasted until adulthood and the interference of things like work and hangovers.  I can’t remember either of my parents refusing to buy me a book if we were out shopping and books were also the standard rewards for me doing well academically.  When I went away to boarding school, it was normal for parents to open an account at the village bookshop, with a maximum spending amount.  I was allowed as much as I wanted “within reason”.

    In essence, this meant that, if I wanted a book, I could get it.  So, in writing this list, I’ve really had to look at books I didn’t know about, books I didn’t want to read but, looking back, I probably should have and books I wish had been written when I was a child. So, in no particular order.......

    1.            The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.  I never really had the urge to read this as a child.  I don’t know why.  I first read it as an adult and loved it.  I know now that I would have thoroughly enjoyed the adventures of Toad, Ratty, Mole and Badger had I only tried it.

    2.              The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger.  Yes, it’s true.  I have never read the Catcher in the Rye.  Not as a child and not as an adult.  It feels somehow shameful.  Everybody has read this.  Except me.  I feel as if I should have read it as a teenager and wonder whether Holden Caulfield would have spoken to me the way he appears to have spoken to so many others.  I will read it one day, I promise.

    3.            Asterix by Goscinny and Underzo.   I simply love Asterix.  I think the stories are great and the visual jokes are clever and even reward repeated readings, an unusual thing for a comic strip.  Technically speaking, I did read these as a youngster but, owing to my father’s unreasonable prejudice against comics, I was only allowed to read them in French or Latin and didn’t read them in English until I became an adult.  Summer holidays to France were never complete without me buying a couple of hardback albums to add to my collection.

    4.            The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum.  Never read the book, always hated the film.  It was one of those Christmas Day classics, along with the Sound of Music (also on my list of least liked) and James Bond (yay!).  I now have a feeling that the book may have had more to say than Judy Garland and that wretched dog.  Not in Kansas anymore?  No s**t, Sherlock!  Anyway, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it but I may have done.

    5.            The Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  Virtually every schoolchild of a certain age in England read this as a set book .  Except at my school.  I am absolutely sure I would have enjoyed it and that it would have spoken to my inner savage.  I suspect I wouldn’t particularly enjoy it now.

    6.            The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner.  This is a classic British children’s fantasy novel about Susan, the unwitting owner of the Weirdstone, who is hunted by the minions of Nastrond, a dark spirit.  This book would have been right up my alley as a child and I haven’t the foggiest why I didn’t.  It may be a bit late for me to read this now.

    7.            Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer.  Described as “Die Hard with fairies”, the title character is a teenage criminal mastermind, whose nefarious schemes are thwarted by the LEP, the fairy police.  I was an adult by the time the first novel in the series was written but I wish they had been around in my day as I would have loved them.

    8.            How the Grinch stole Christmas by Doctor Seuss.  I don’t know about now but when I was a child, the Doctor Seuss books were not particularly well known in Britain and seemed to be very much an American thing.  This one sounds like one I would have enjoyed if I had only known about it.

    9.            The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.  I actually did read the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a kid but, for some reason, never got round to reading the rest of the cycle.  No idea why, no idea whether I would enjoy them now.

    10.          Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant.  Only joking!

    Thursday, January 20, 2011

    Literary Blog Hop: The Book I Hate

    Literary Blog Hop
    Over at the Literary Blog Hop this week, the discussion topic is:

    Discuss a work of literary merit that you hated when you were made to read it in school or university.  Why did you dislike it?”

    And, immediately, my mind is cast back to the spring of 1985.  A younger, slimmer, spottier Falaise, sporting the hairstyle David Bowie would have been wearing had he been forced to have his hair cut in a small village by a gnarled old crone, is staring out of a classroom window over a windswept Essex landscape.  On his desk lies a copy of the book that will soon fill him with bile and rage and which, even today, can raise his blood pressure to a level of which his doctor would strongly disapprove.

    Falaise opens the book and, at the instruction of his English teacher, begins to read:

    Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo”

    Falaise foolishly hopes that things can only get better.  He is wrong.  And I stand (well, sit) here today and am not ashamed to say: I hate A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.

    I know, I know.  James Joyce was a literary genius.  Time magazine included him as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century and three of his novels (including Portrait of the Artist) appear in the Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the 20th Century.  I completely understand that many great writers such as Samuel Beckett and John Updike were influenced by him.  I just can’t abide his novels.  In fact, he is the only author to whose works I have a physical reaction of nausea.

    I don’t like stream of consciousness writing. I don’t like interior monologues, which always come across to me as self-indulgent.  And I’m not a big fan of coming of age novels in general.  All of which probably gives a fairly big clue as to why I don’t like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

    Looking back from across the years, it may simply be the case that I wasn’t mature enough really to appreciate it.  I wonder what my reaction would be to it if I were to pick it up now, never having read it.  I don’t think it is simply due to it being a book I had to study – in general I enjoyed the books I had to study, including works by Shakespeare, Hughes, Sartre, Racine, Homer and Thucydides.  I just didn’t like this one (or Le Blé en Herbe by Colette for that matter – but that’s another story).

    Wednesday, January 19, 2011

    2,578: The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by G.P. Dahlquist

    Celeste Temple is perturbed.  Her fiancé, Roger Bascombe, an up-and-coming young man at the Ministry, has just broken off their engagement for no apparent reason.  A spirited girl, she decides to go to the Ministry and to follow Roger about his business so as to find out the reason for the breaking of the troth.  She does so and is immediately plunged into a most peculiar party at a mysterious country house, where she encounters what will turn out to be a powerful cabal, intent on acquiring power and influence beyond belief.

    But she does not stand alone. As the story progresses, Miss Temple is joined by ‘Cardinal’ Chang, a flamboyantly dressed assassin with weak eyes and Dr Svensson, a mild-mannered doctor and spy, who is chaperone to the dissolute Prince Karl-Horst of Macklenburg, one of the planned victims of the cabal.  Together they will discover the secrets of the glass books and wreck the conspiracy.

    The central conceit of the Glass Books of the Dream Eaters relates to the mysterious blue glass from which the glass books are made.  It is possible to store memories and emotions in the glass and to use the glass to extract them from subjects who undergo a secret Process.  The Process removes all doubt from those who undergo it and enables them to achieve all their goals in life.  However, it binds them to the leaders of the cabal who use their acolytes in their bid for power.

    The ringleaders, who include the Contessa (an alluring noblewoman), Francis Xonck (a rich businessman) and the Comte d’Orkancz (the “scientific” brains behind the group) are trying to obtain control over the supply of an indigo clay that is necessary for the manufacture of the blue glass. The duchy of Macklenburg is the location of large deposits of this material and the cunning plan is to suborn the heir to the duchy, the afore-mentioned Karl-Horst into undergoing the Process and marrying Lydia Vandaariff, the daughter of Robert Vandaariff, a wealthy man who is under the control of the cabal.  The Duke of Macklenburg will then be bumped off and the cabal will control the ruling family of Macklenburg and, hence, the indigo clay.  OK, are you with me so far?

    Miss Temple, Cardinal Chang and Dr Svensson spend most of the book chasing around after the cabal, being captured and then miraculously escaping their clutches before finally scuppering the cabal’s plans. 

    So, how would I summarise the Glass Books of the Dream Eaters?  Well, if you take a base of Victorian pastiche, layer it up with slatherings of Dumas and Anthony Hope-style derring-do and action, liberally splash with steampunk elements, season generously with erotica and sprinkle on a little gothic, you would come up with something like this.

    Without question, there is a lot of entertainment to be had from this book and the first 300 or so pages galloped past.  There are fights, chases, escapes, sex, spying and all manner of other excitements.  The problem is, however, that the book runs to nearly 800 pages and the remaining 500 pages contained even more fights, chases, escapes, sex and spying.  It all became a bit repetitive.  One or more of our heroes would do a bit of snooping, come across a member or minion of the cabal, get chased, have a struggle, be captured and escape in a seemingly endless cycle without moving the plot significantly forward.  After a while, I wanted to scream “get on with it” at the author and it became a little dull.  Now, interestingly, I believe the book was originally published in the US in two parts, which might have broken it up a bit and reduced the repetition but, published in a single volume, it all became too much.

    There was definitely a sense that the author was actually making the plot up as he went along.  It meandered and didn’t really go anywhere with conviction.  There are plenty of good ideas but I felt as if, in keeping with the heavy eroticism that runs through the book, I was witnessing a case of literary premature ejaculation.  The author appeared to have had a really good idea for a plot and setting and some fun and interesting gimmicks to use but hadn’t really thought it all through before splurging it all out over the page.  Ultimately, I would have enjoyed it more at two thirds the length and, although I have the sequel in one of my TBR piles and will read it one day, it will not be emerging from the pile any day soon.

    If you like Victorian-style adventure or steampunk or you enjoy reading books with kinky bits in, then you will probably enjoy it, but I would read half of it, have a break and then read the rest.  One final word of warning: if you are of a sensitive disposition when it comes to sex, this may not be one for you.

    Friday, January 14, 2011

    2,579: The Last Days of Hitler by Hugh Trevor-Roper

    I have personal history with this book.  Many, many years ago, as a sixth-former at a small public school in England, Hugh Trevor-Roper (by then, Lord Dacre) came to speak to a small group of us about the last days of Hitler.  I was quite excited by this, having heard of his book and being very interested in that period of history.  Even though his reputation had by then suffered as a result of the affair of Hitler’s Diaries, I was looking forward to some insights on to those cataclysmic days of late April 1945.

    Instead, I sat bemused as this old man sat and gave a lengthy discourse on how he had ridden around Germany on a motor cycle in late 1945 and 1946.  In disgust, I stopped listening and enjoyed a restorative hour or so of day-dreaming.  In hindsight, of course, my immaturity meant that I missed out on a story quite as interesting as that of Hitler’s last days – the story of how a young Oxford don turned Army intelligence officer managed to find and interview many of the last people to be with Hitler and to piece together the story of what happened not only to Hitler personally but also to the other leading Nazis whilst the Russian armies were besieging Berlin.  I try not to have many regrets in life but failing to appreciate Trevor-Roper’s talk and wasting the chance to ask him about his time in Germany will always count as one of them.

    The Last Days of Hitler was first published in 1947 and has remained in print continuously since then.  The book was updated by Trevor-Roper on several occasions to reflect new information that had come to light and he also wrote a number of new forewords explaining some of the key controversies over Hitler’s death and how new evidence had solved them.  Even today, it remains the leading work on the final weeks of Hitler’s life and is not only academically impeccable but also a wonderful read.

    Berlin in April 1945 must have been like a scene from Dante’s Inferno or maybe a Bosch painting.  As Russian artillery shells rained down, turning the city to rubble and as the massed Russian armies raced towards the Reich Chancellery, looting, raping and pillaging as they went, Hitler, Eva Braun, the Goebbels family and their immediate staff lived a twilit existence in a bunker underneath the Chancellery.  As Hitler’s mental health disintegrated, leaving only fantasies of secret wonder weapons and, in his most maniacal moments, dreams of a Wagnerian Götterdämmerung, outside, Nazis such as Himmler, Speer and Doenitz were desperately seeking their own salvation and trying to make peace with the Western Allies.  Eventually, the inevitable happened.  In the early hours of 30 April 1945, Hitler, having married Eva Braun the day before retreated with his bride to their quarters.  Eva took a cyanide pill and Hitler shot himself.  In a macabre twist, he used the same pistol that his beloved niece, Geli Raubal, had used to kill herself years previously.

    Hugh Trevor-Roper was commissioned by Sir Dick White, Head of British Counter-Intelligence in the British Zone of Germany, to find out what had happened in the bunker in order to quash the lurid rumours circulating in late 1945 about Hitler’s fate.  The Last Days of Hitler is a testament to a remarkable piece of detective work by Trevor-Roper, in which he tracked down most of Hitler’s immediate circle and persuaded them to tell their stories.

    I’ve read posts on other blogs over the past couple of months that have discussed whether non-fiction books can have literary merit (or, at least, can be written in a literary fashion).  I would point anyone who doubts this in the direction of the Last Days of Hitler.  Trevor-Roper, in common with his near-contemporary AJP Taylor, manages to combine academic precision with an expressive writing style that uses creative imagery and great pacing to tell his story.  He also has a sardonic and witty way of encapsulating the character flaws of leading Nazis in pithy descriptions and asides.  It is that rare thing - a academically sound text that reads like a populist work.

    In many ways, Trevor-Roper’s career was book-ended by Hitler.  The last Days of Hitler brought him to general attention in 1947 and, almost 40 years later, his erroneous attribution of validity to the forged Hitler diaries was to bring him general notoriety as Dacre of the diaries.  Nevertheless, this book is, quite simply, essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in its subject matter.

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    Get out of jail free card 2

    When I decided to read through the 1,001 Books list, I immediately realised that there were some books I simply couldn't face reading so I gave myself a little "cheat" - the get out of jail free cards.  I am allowing myself to choose not to read up to 50 of the 1,001 Books but, instead, to replace them with books that are in other editions of the book, but not the 2008 edition from which I have taken the list.

    I used my first on Buddenbrooks a couple of months ago and really didn’t think I would be playing my second so soon afterwards.  The next book should have been Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro.  I’m sure it’s a very good book.  I really am.  But this is the product description on Amazon:

    The story of Del Jordan growing up in gossipy and insular Jubilee begins with a frog-catching expedition and ends with a shattered love affair. Between, lies the rich and unforgettable texture of female experience.”

    And, I’m sorry but my heart sank into my shoes when I read it.  Call me closed-minded if you will but I’m pretty sure I would not enjoy this at all.  So, with apologies to Alice Munro, I’m going to skip it and, in its place, will be reading Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carre, much more to my taste.

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    2,580: 1,001 Books Challenge - The Crime of Father Amaro by Jose Maria de Eça de Queiroz

    There is a street in the small Portuguese city of Leiria named after Jose Maria de Eça de Queiroz, the author of The Crime of Father Amaro.  It is, apparently, no more than a dark back alley which may seem a little disrespectful to one of Portugal’s greatest writers, a man considered by Zola to be greater than Flaubert.  Once you have read The Crime of Father Amaro, however, not only will you understand such disrespect but you will probably be surprised that even a back alley was given his name as Eça de Queiroz’ views on the 19th Century inhabitants of Leiria are damming.

    The Leiria of The Crime of Father Amaro is filled with provincial, small-minded and hypocritical people.  There are liberals with few principles, women in thrall to the Church and priests who, between them, display pretty much every one of the seven deadly sins.  The town is a hotbed of gossip and intrigue, both political and social.  Indeed, there are only two characters in the novel painted in a positive light – Father Ferrão, a country priest, and Doctor Gouveia, Leiria’s resident medic.  Unsurprisingly, both of these are considered by commentators to reflect Eça de Queiroz’ own beliefs.

    The plot of The Crime of Father Amaro centres around the house of São Joaneira at Rua da Misericordia, where she lives with her daughter, Amelia.  São Joaneira is a widow and the mistress of Canon Dias, the senior priest in Leiria.  Into this household comes Father Amaro, a new priest in the city.

    Amaro grew up in the household of a noblewoman and, after the death of his parents, was babied by the women of the house.  Lazy and weak, he is put into the seminary and becomes an ordained priest, although he has no true vocation.  He uses his aristocratic connections to have himself transferred from a remote mountain parish to the cathedral in Leiria, where the Canon arranges for him to lodge with São Joaneira.

    He quickly becomes infatuated with Amelia, who, in turn, falls in love with him.  Amelia is engaged to Joao Eduardo, a liberal clerk who, on becoming aware of the attraction between Amelia and Amaro, writes a polemic for Leiria’s liberal newspaper, denouncing Amaro and the other priests in the city for their peccadilloes.  The priests discover that Eduardo is the author and set about destroying his life, having Amelia break off her engagement and arranging for Eduardo to lose his job.  Even the city’s leading liberal politician, Godinho, refuses to help as he has reached a political arrangement with the Church.

    Amaro, having had a crisis of conscience over Amelia takes his opportunity to seduce Amelia when he discovers the Canon’s ongoing affair with São Joaneira and the two become lovers, using the sexton’s house as their love nest under the pretext of ministering to the sexton’s disabled daughter Toto.  One of the most striking images in the book is that of Amelia and Amaro making love upstairs, while Toto lies sick in bed downstairs, listening.

    Eventually, their sins catch up with them.  Amelia begins to feel guilt over the affair and becomes strained and unwell.  The Canon finds out about the affair and threatens to inform the Church authorities until Amaro points out that he knows about the Canon’s affair with São Joaneira.  Dias becomes complicit in the affair until the inevitable happens and Amelia falls pregnant.

    Amaro tries but fails to find Eduardo and to get him to marry Amelia and hides her away in the countryside where she is ministered to by Father Ferrão, a kindly cleric who almost succeeds in freeing her from Amaro’s control.  In the end, however, Amaro’s hold is too strong.

    Amelia gives birth to a son.  Amaro takes the child and hands him over to the “weaver of angels”, an alleged wet nurse who specialises in making sure that unwanted and inconvenient babies perish.  The baby dies and, on the same night, so does Amelia, without ever seeing her son.

    Amaro leaves Leiria, feeling distraught and guilty but, as the book ends, we see him in Lisbon, chatting to the Canon and to the Conde de Ribamar about how terrible it is that priests are not respected very much and joking about how he only takes confession from married women, after Amelia.

    There are no happy endings here.  Amelia may have achieved spiritual redemption on her death bed but she is still dead and never even gets to hold her baby, despite her pleas.  The wicked go unpunished and, apparently, unremorseful.  Eça de Queiroz is scathing about the lack of morality and charity of the priests and has a wonderful way of showing their character flaws in a couple of short details, such as the Canon’s hairy hand stroking Amelia’s cheek.

    This was a wonderful book.  There is a lot of sly humour in it as well as Eça de Queiroz’ serious points.  As well as the main plot, there are numerous sub-plots and a whole rogue’s gallery of richly drawn minor characters.  The writing sparkles and the book simply bulges with detail and life.

    Eça de Queiroz was a great fan of Dickens and some of the characterisation and humour is redolent of Dickens at his best but without the sentimentality or the verbosity.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it heartily.  Super stuff!

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    Top Ten Books I resolve to read in 2011

    For the first time, I am (belatedly) participating in the Top Ten Tuesday meme, hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s list is Ten Books I resolve to read in 2011.  In order to fit in with my own anti-resolution philosophy, I am treating a resolution to read as an intention to read.  This may be a little “hair-splitting” but it works for me.

    As I’m already committed to my first five selections from the 1001 Books challenge for 2011 and have also committed to a couple of challenges, I am not going to include any of these in my list.  I am, instead, going to focus on my physical TBR piles and my virtual TBR list.  I’m also going to pick 5 novels and 5 non-fiction works for balance.  So, eyes down and here goes:


    The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason.  A collection of 44 “re-imaginings” of passages from Homer’s Odyssey, this has had rave reviews and, given my love of Greek classics, should be a good one.

    The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.  This is a novel about the lives and dreams of the staff on an English language newspaper in Rome, whose future looks grim.  It was described by the New York Times as a cross between Waugh’s Scoop and Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Not much to live up to there, then.

    The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa.  I’ve read a number of positive reviews of this story about a mathematics professor with a faltering memory and his new, younger housekeeper and it sounds intriguing.

    Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope.  I read the Warden a couple of years ago but was put off this one by its length and wasn’t sure I would be able to deal with Trollope’s style for that long.  The recent Trollope Tour has given me a bit of impetus though and it has been sitting in my TBR box in the basement at home for too long.

    A Question of Belief by Donna Leon.  This is the 19th Commissario Brunetti detective novel by Leon.  Set in Venice (where she lives), they are as much about the city and Brunetti’s relationships with his wife, family and colleagues as they are about murder.  I’ve enjoyed every single one of them so far and have no reason to believe A Question of Belief will be any different.


    A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes.  This is a hefty monster of a book, one of the leading histories of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the immediate aftermath, despite the controversies that dog its author.  It’s been sitting in my TBR box for a while and the only thing that has been putting me off is its sheer length.  This year will be the year for me to delve into it.

    50 Literature Ideas You Really Need to Know by John Sutherland.  I gave up studying English Literature formally at 16, following my O-Levels and since starting to blog about books, I have become increasingly aware of my lack of a basic theoretical framework on which to hang any criticisms of fiction.  Sutherland has produced this book to help readers understand the basic concepts of literary theories and concepts as he believes that the falling out of fashion of literary criticism (at least in Britain) means that we are not able to enjoy and appreciate literature as well as we should.

    Contested Will:  Who wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro.  Call me simple but I honestly believe that Shakespeare did write Shakespeare.  I know it’s not very clever or cool to think that but I do.  I am, however, endlessly fascinated by the theories on who else might have written his plays.  I think Shapiro concludes that Shakespeare wrote them but we shall see.

    Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd.  I love Venice, with all its mystery and history and I suspect Ackroyd’s style is perfectly suited to writing about it.  It will take a lot to surpass Jan Morris’ Venice but I have high hopes.

    From the Boer War to the Cold War: Essays on Twentieth Century Europe by A.J.P. Taylor.  This is one of the volumes in the excellent Faber Finds series of reprints of out of print books (both fiction and non-fiction) and is a collection of AJP Taylor’s essays, which I intend to dip in and out of through the year.  Great historian and a great writer too.

    What I have found most encouraging is that I really struggled to limit my list to ten volumes and there were tens more on my TBR list and in my TBR box that I wanted to write about so it looks like 2011 is going to be a wonderful reading year.

    Saturday, January 1, 2011

    It's 2011 - Happy New Year!!

    So, how was it for you?  I suspect your New Year’s Eve was more fun than it was in the Falaise household.  We have been hit by seasonal illness and were all tucked up in bed very early on, although we were woken up at midnight by the London fireworks display, which we did manage to see on the TV.

    Anyway, it’s a fond farewell to 2010 and a big hello to 2011.  I hope it brings you everything you wish for and that it becomes your best year to date.  As for me, I have decided to maintain my long held opposition to New Year’s resolutions.  Frankly, I’ve always been hopeless at keeping them and either go over the top, making long lists of impossible goals, or set myself such ludicrously easy targets that they really weren’t worth setting.   So, there won’t be any for me this year.

    Having said that, there are a few aims I have for my reading this year.  Firstly, I want to step up the pace slightly on my 1,001 Books Challenge.  I only managed 9 in the 4 months since I started this blog, which was a pretty rubbish effort so, this year, I intend to tick off another 40 or so.

    Talking of challenges, I have an exceptionally poor record there too, having participated in one and having failed to complete it.  This is even more pathetic than it appears as the target for the challenge was one I set myself!  So, I am going to try and improve on this by participating in a small number of challenges that also fit in with my overall reading plans.  These are:

    •         The 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die Challenge hosted by Caitie at Pub Writes.  This is a bit of a cheat actually as I am already following my own goal of reading through the list.  Anyway, I shall be going for the PhD level of 16+ books.

    •          The War Through the Generations 2011 Challenge.  This year the challenge is focusing on the American Civil War.  As I received the new John Keegan history of it for Christmas, I thought this one would be interesting.

    •          The One, Two, Theme Challenge, co-hosted by Alex from The Sleepless Reader and Joanna from It's All About Me.  I was slightly hesitant about this as it is an open-ended challenge of the kind that could lure me into over-commitment and probable failure.  Nevertheless, I have chosen the themes of comic books/graphic novels, Russia, baseball, steampunk and mathematics.

    •          The Classics Circuit Tours.  This isn’t really a challenge but it is an excellent circuit for the classics.  I’ve participated in the last two, on Trollope and Meiji era literature and will be posting on Lysistrata by Aristophanes on 26 January.

    My third aim is to discover a bit more about the book blogging community and to become more involved.  Having only cursorily scratched the surface so far, it appears there are all sorts of things going on out there of which I have been blissfully ignorant.

    Fourthly, I intend to write some posts on some of my favourite books even if they are not part of my current reading and also to post more general posts rather than just the reviews I have been posting up to now.

    Fifthly, I am going to get myself up to date on reviews over the next couple of weeks.  I still have 5 reviews to write of 2010 reads and I need to get going on them.

    Finally (and most unpalatably) I am also going on a book buying detox for the next two months and will not be buying any new books (other than orders already placed to which I am committed).  A quick inspection of the TBR pile and my recent bank statements has persuaded me that this would be a good idea.

    So it’s shaping up to be a busy 2011 as far as my book activities are concerned.  I’m looking forward to it.