Wednesday, November 30, 2011

2,524: The Big Red Train Ride by Eric Newby

I’ve always enjoyed long train journeys.  I like the feeling of being close to the country through which you are passing and having the leisure to observe it without having to concentrate as one does whilst driving.  It’s less antiseptic and homogenous than modern air travel, where one airport could be another, and far less strenuous than cycling.  Some of my favourite train journeys have been the overnighter from Moscow to Leningrad I did in 1987, the trip down the East Coast and South of the US I made a decade later and the journey I made from London to the Swedish part of the Arctic Circle I did with Mrs F on our honeymoon a few years ago.

One trip we haven’t made though is the Trans-Siberian (or Trans-Manchurian if you drop Vladivostock and head down through Mongolia to China) Railway and this remains an ambition of ours, a trip we hope to do when and if I finally get to retire.  It’s probably the most famous railway of them all, stretching nearly 6000 miles from Moscow to the Russian Pacific coast and passing through seven time zones.  As Eric Newby described it in The Big Red Train Ride, “The Trans-Siberian is the big train ride.  All the rest are peanuts.”

Newby, the author of many travel books, including the classic A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, made the journey with his Slovenian wife, Wanda, in 1977.  Back in those days, of course, the Soviet Union still existed and the Communist authorities tightly controlled the travel schedules of those foreigners it permitted to enter the country.  The Newbys were therefore required to travel with Otto, a German photographer, and Mischa, a guide from the official Intourist travel agency, whose role was not only to help them but also to shepherd them and ensure they saw only what the authorities would want them to see.

The Big Red Train Ride is a bit of a curate’s egg.  On the positive side, it is an interesting historical record of the way in which foreign travellers in the Soviet Union were treated during the Communist era and also a picture of life in rural Russia at that time. There are evocative word portraits of the limited availability of food stuffs and consumer products and some amusing vignettes of bizarre official visits arranged for the Newbys and Otto by Intourist.

There are also some entertaining passages detailing life on the train and, in particular, the attitudes of the female train conductors, some of whom appeared to be acting almost as guards, attempting top prevent the Newbys from getting access to the other part of the train where the travellers were Russian.

However, Newby runs into the problem that writers are almost bound to experience when writing about train journeys.  Trains are, by their very nature, closed environments and make finite stops for limited periods of time.  This can make for limited source material for the hopeful author.  Writers such as Paul Theroux gets round this problem either by using a number of train journeys in their books (The Great Railway Bazaar, Riding the Iron Rooster) or by making extended stops along the way (The Old Patagonian Express).  Unfortunately for Newby, he has neither of these opportunities.  The Trans-Siberian is a single train for the length of its journey, with the same passengers for most of the way and, at the time he weas writing, he was only allowed to alight at certain specified stations and then only for eh amount of time Intourist would let him.

It may be that a Paul Theroux could still have made something of this, especially in light of the wonderful descriptions of his travelling companions on the Orient Express in The Great Railway Bazaar but, to be honest, I don’t think Newby is in the same league as Theroux as a writer and, in any event, he was pretty much restricted to being with his wife, Otto and Mischa for much of the journey and there is only so much one can do with such a limited cast.

What this means, though, is that Newby has to pad the book out somewhat with potted histories of not only places he visits but also places the train just happens to be passing and, although some of the information is interesting, there is is just too much of it for a travel book.

Overall, this is a patchy book, worth reading if you are interested in Russia, train travel or the Trans-Siberian itself but eminently skippable if you are not.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

2,525: An Open Secret by Carlos Gamerro

I’ll get the full disclosure bit out of the way up front.  I was sent a review copy of the new English translation of Carlos Gamerro’s 2002 novel, An Open Secret by Pushkin Press, its publisher.  I’m very grateful to them for this as it is not a book that I would probably have come across otherwise and, as such, is an object reminder to me to step outside my usual literary territory once in a while.

During the so-called Argentine “Dirty War” in which the ruling military junta violently repressed political dissidents, trades unionists and other opponents of the regime, thousands of individuals were illegally detained, tortured and often murdered.  Many of them were drugged, loaded onto airplanes, flown out over the South Atlantic and thrown into the ocean to drown.  As there were no dead bodies to evidence their deaths, the junta was able to deny that they had been killed.  They became known as Los Desaparecidos – The Disappeared.  According to the various estimates, between 9,000 and 30,000 Argentineans were disappeared between 1976 and 1983, either in this way or other equally terrible ways.  Pregnant women who were detained by the junta had their newborn children snatched from them at birth to be given to childless couples who supported the military government.

Fortunately, those times have ended and Argentina is now a civilian democracy but the memories live on and the plight of los desaparecidos is a perennially popular topic for Argentine novelists.

In An Open Secret, Carlos Gamerro has chosen to examine those times by focussing on a single (fictional) incident.  His protagonist, Fefe, is a young veteran of the Falklands War (or Las Malvinas, if you are from Argentina or other parts of Latin America).  He has returned to Malihuel, the small town where his grandparents and parents were from and where he spent his childhood summers to investigate a disappearance that took place in 1976, on the same weekend as one Diego Maradona made his debut for Argentina’s national football team.

Ostensibly collecting material for a novel, Fefe interviews many of the town’s notables about the events that led to the disappearance of one Dario Ezcurra, the town lothario and also an activist left wing journalist.  Slowly, a dark, sordid story of complicity and murder emerges from the mass of lies, evasions and self-serving memories that Fefe’s questions reveal until the unpalatable truth of Ezcurra’s “disappearance” is uncovered, as are the secrets of Fefe’s own parents and grandparents.

It would have been easy for Gamerro to portray Ezcurra as a poster-boy for protest journalism but this would have made the story much less textured and thoughtful.  Instead, he paints Ezcurra as a self-obsessed womanizer who leaves a trail of outraged and bitter fathers and (less so) mothers behind him.  In so doing, he shows forensically how the personal grudges of the townsfolk dovetailed with the political forces of the police and government to seal Ezcurra’s fate.  Instead, the people of Malihuel are complicit in his murder.  It is a nuanced characterisation that goes beyond a wish to varnish los desaparecidos as simple heroes but shows a desire to get at the naked truth.  

Complicity is a common theme in many countries where totalitarian repression has taken place.  In both Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia, for example, a similar cocktail of personal hatred and fear of the authorities combined to keep the populace not only quiet but also as silent participants in the repression.

This unwillingness to denounce or admit to the crime in their midst is sometimes referred to as a conspiracy of silence but, as Gamerro points out, it is anything but that.  Indeed, the inhabitants of Malihuel are only to happy to admit that, really, they knew what was happening and who was responsible.  Not a conspiracy of silence, more a “conspiracy of chattiness”.  At times, the flood of self-serving claptrap served up to Fefe by the self-justifying locals feels overwhelming, a sensation created in part by Gamerro’s clever, but irritating, decision to omit most punctuation in his characters’ speech.

What the locals also unwittingly reveal is that each and every one of them was more than a scared observer.  Ezcurra’s murder and the subsequent murder of his mother, killed because she wouldn’t stop protesting about his murder, could have been stopped if any of the local notables had objected to the police superintendent.  Yet they didn’t and thus prove the local military commander right when he says that the disappearances are perfect crimes because they are “committed in the sight of everyone—because then there are no witnesses, only accomplices.”

Gamerro also introduces some subtle touches of symbolism – Ezcurra’s body is dumped in the town’s lagoon, an echo of the dumping of victims in the Atlantic, and his mother is the only one to protest his death, an echo of the mothers of los desaparecidos who formed a protest group, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – and the laconic way in which Fefe reports the self-serving nature of the locals is damming – in particular, there are two paragraphs in which rival hoteliers denounce each other for the same fault where every word other than their names and hotel locations is identical.

An Open Secret is a forceful exposition of the hypocrisy and cowardice that allow things like forced disappearances to occur and the long-term effects that they have.  It is a thought-provoking and powerful read and well worth the effort of getting hold of a copy.

Top Ten Tuesday: What do I want to read this winter?

It’s getting to that time of year already.  I love Christmas time.  Time off from work without people loading up your inbox for your return.  Family.  Good food and drink.  Twinkly lights and decorations.  Over-excited children.  Fantastic.  I’ve surprised myself this year by being pretty well-organised.  The puddings have been made and are maturing away.  The turkey and ham have been ordered in time to get a good price from the butcher.  I’ve already bitten off a big chunk of the present buying and I’ve even managed to get the requisite family feud out of the way early!  So I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself so far.  And with work beginning its seasonal winding down and a manageable number of seasonal lunches, dinners and drinks parties in the calendar, I can look forward to battening down the hatches on Christmas Eve with relative equanimity.

There is one small issue, however, as after Christmas comes the end of the year.  A time to look back and reflect upon the triumphs, failures and general events of the past twelve months.  Although the year has been quite a good one from a personal perspective, the turmoil in the outside world and the uncertain outlook for the global economy and for many people around the world will, I am sure, cast a shadow over the New Year celebrations.  And the good folks at the Broke and the Bookish have decided to kickstart the reflection process by asking us to list our Top Ten books to read from the TBR pile/list for winter.  If I were a glass-half-full kind of guy, I could list ten books I’m really looking forward to reading or ten books that will be coming out soon but, as I’m in a glass-half-empty mood and it’s the look back at 2011 time of year, here are ten books I intended to read in 2011 and never got round to.

1.         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.  It’s also appeared in not one, but TWO of my Top Ten Tuesday posts this year as a book I was going to read this year and, guess what.  Haven’t. Even. Opened. It.

2.         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.  I said I was going to read it this year in my New Year’s resolution Top Ten Tuesday.  Still haven’t even bought a copy.

3.         Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka.  A debut novel, published in the UK in June, this novel has cricket as a central element, with the Chinaman of the title being a type of spin bowling.  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 was so excited about this, I pre-ordered the hardback which duly arrived at my office on the day of publication, where it still sits today.

4.         Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian.  This is the second in the Aubrey and Maturin series and, surprisingly, for a naval series, much of the action takes place on land.  O’Brian’s admiration for Jane Austen is often commented on and this particular volume is sometimes said to be his particular tribute to her.  I planned to read this on my summer holiday where, instead, it ended up as just another bit of extra baggage.  I really do want to read this and don’t know why I haven’t done so yet.

5.         A Clockwork Christmas by Various.  This is a collection of four Christmas themed, steampunk tales.  I got an electronic review copy from Netgalley, thinking it would make a good pre-Christmas read as I’m curious to read more steampunk.  The clock is ticking though.  Look out for a review soon.

6.         At Home by Heston Blumenthal.  I’ve got a review copy of Great Britain’s favourite mad scientist chef on my Kindle and I’m just waiting for the apposite moment to read it.  I also promise to cook one of his recipes and blog that as well, to see whether they really do work for your common or garden home cook.

7.         The Fear Index by Robert Harris.  I’ve loved each and every one of his novels so far and this one has been sitting on my Kindle for a while, shouting “read me”.  Soon.  Soon, I promise.

8.         The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.  When I was younger, I used to re-read it annually but have fallen out of that habit over the past few years.  I noticed it on the shelves at home the other day and suddenly had a hankering to read it again, which I think I might well do during the Christmas break.

9.         Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.  I have singularly failed in my resolution to crack on with my 1,001 Books challenge and have read pitifully few of them this year.  I want to get this read and An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro before the end of the year to retain any vestige of self-respect.

10.       The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore.  Slight cheat this one but I am looking forward to reading it again this winter because when I do, it will mean that it is the evening of Christmas Eve, mini-Falaise will be about to go off to bed with visions of reindeer and Father Christmas in her head, the front door will be locked and Christmas will be upon us.  Can’t wait.

Monday, November 28, 2011

2,526: Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr

Prague Fatale is the eighth book in Philip Kerr’s series of novels featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther.  The books, although they jump back and forth in Bernie’s timeline, roughly follow his career as, firstly, a Berlin police detective in the 1930s, through his short-lived stints as the hotel detective at the Adlon, one of Berlin’s finest, and private detective, and back to being a police detective, albeit under the Nazis and with a technical commission in the SS.  The novels are an engaging blend of historical fiction and hard-boiled detective fiction, with Bernie as a Germanic Philip Marlowe.

In this new instalment, Bernie is back at his desk in Berlin.  It is 1941.  The Wehrmacht is fighting its way into the Soviet Union and the persecution of Germany’s Jews is reaching its pre-Final Solution zenith.  Bernie is trying to help the two Jewish sisters living in the same block as him by taking them tinned food when he comes upon an attempted rape, which he prevents.  With this being a Bernie Gunther story, the victim turns out to be a wise-cracking beauty with whom he begins an affair.

So far, so good.  But there is a problem just around the problem in the form of Bernie’s ultimate boss, one Reinhard Heydrich.  Recently promoted to Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Heydrich is worried both about a group of Czech resistance fighters known as the Three Kings and threats to his own personal safety.  Heydrich makes Bernie an offer he simply can’t refuse (especially given his own known lack of Nazi feelings).  Bernie becomes Heydrich’s personal detective and moves to Prague, along with his new lady friend.

Murder indeed does happen but Heydrich is not the victim.  At a weekend house party at Heydrich’s castle in Prague, one of his adjutants, a homosexual who was sent back from the Eastern Front in disgrace for refusing to take part in the murder of Jews, is found dead in his locked bedroom, both drugged and shot.  Bernie takes charge of the investigation to unmask the killer.

Prague Fatale begins like previous Bernie Gunther novels as a World War II set hard-boiled detective story.  Although over the course of the series, Bernie has moved from being wise-crackingly cynical about the Nazis and Germany’s situation to being a little more melancholic, there is still plenty of fast-talking , a wealth of urban Berlin detail and some nice historical touches, particularly a clever snapshot of Bernie going through Heydrich’s diary and finding an entry scheduling a meeting at Wannsee in Janary 1942.  As World War II aficionados will appreciate, this is a reference to the infamous Wannsee Conference, at which the Final Solution was promulgated and adopted.  It is a nice idea, merely making a throwaway reference to such a significant event and lends added historical authenticity to the book.

About halfway through, though, the entire style seems to change and we shift into an Agatha Christie-esque country house murder, which then morphs further into a classic John Dickson Carr-type locked room mystery.  Now, none of this throws Bernie off his stride, especially as the suspects are all high-ranking SS and SD officers, whom Bernie thoroughly enjoys interrogating.  Our hero unmasks the killer but, being Bernie, there is a typically downbeat ending for him.

I found Prague Fatale both better and worse than its predecessor, .  It has a cleaner, more cohesive story line and avoids both the jumping around in time of Field Grey and some of the internal inconsistencies that it introduced into Bernie’s backstory.  I can appreciate that some Bernie fans will get irritated at the introduction of soft-boiled detective themes into Prague Fatale but I actually quite enjoyed the excursion.  I am also unable to resist the image of Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague, as an inveterate fan of Hercule Poirot and Agatha Christie’s novels.  I have no idea whether there is any basis in fact for this but it makes for an unsettling, if amusing image.

On the down side, there is less meat to Prague Fatale than any of its predecessors.  Although Field Grey was flawed as a story, it was an interesting examination of Bernie’s character and the nature of the compromises required in the Third Reich.  Prague Fatale has no such depth and is merely a clever detective story.  Bernie is far less complex here, with none of the moral ambiguities of earlier books in the series.

It’s probably fair to say that the original trilogy, published in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s are superior to the later books (and may well have been intended to be a complete series in themselves) and Kerr may well be jumping back and forth in time to fill in gaps and make sure he has squeezed all he can from Gunther but, even so, this is one of my favourite detective series and well worth a look (but start at the beginning, not the middle).

Thursday, November 24, 2011

2,527: Smiley's People by John le Carré

Although I’m a big fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, I can’t help but think that they have done spy novels a tremendous disservice.  Even though they are far less shallow than the films, they still slide over the heart of espionage, skipping over subtleties with a gadget, a fight or a perfectly made cocktail.

Not so with le Carré.  His novels strip away all the illusions we may have about the glamour of spying, exposing the corrosive effects of lives of constant betrayal and suspicion.  Even Smiley, probably one of the drabbest heroes of literature, is not immune to this, suffering from the acid drips of repeated lies, exploitation and treachery.  Like its predecessors in the so-called Karla trilogy, Smiley’s People is an unemotional exploration of the darker side of human nature and the effects on otherwise decent men of being required to live and work on that side.

At the end of The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley has been outmanoeuvred by the odious Saul Enderby who, together with Sam Collins applies a stiletto to Smiley’s back and replaces him as Head of the Circus.  This state of play continues to exist at the beginning of Smiley’s People, with George in enforced retirement and again deserted by his errant wife, Ann.

But old spies never truly retire and Smiley is pressed back into service, albeit on a totally deniable basis, by Enderby and Lacon, a senior civil servant with no distinguishing virtues.  A relic of the Circus’ past, an Estonian émigré who had once led a spy network controlled by George has turned up dead on Hampstead Heath, having tried to re-establish contact with the Circus.

Although Lacon and Enderby merely want the matter swept under the carpet by George, he begins to investigate and finds a connection to a old Russian woman living in Paris, whose daughter’s identity has been taken by the KGB to use as a “legend” to insert an agent into Western Europe.

Smiley slowly pieces together the puzzle by forcing former colleagues and agents to give him information and himself travelling through Europe to assemble the clues.  It becomes apparent that the “legend” has been used unofficially by Smiley’s nemesis, Karla, to get his illegitimate daughter out of the Soviet Union and into a hospital in Switzerland.

There’s a different feel to Smiley’s People than the other two books in the trilogy.  Although the pace of the story remains deliberate, Smiley is a much more active character, not being content to pull strings from behind the scenes but actually getting out there to find information and manage a sting that enables him finally to make contact with Karla.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy began the trilogy by telling the story of Karla’s greatest victory over Smiley by infiltrating the Circus through Bill Haydon and encouraging Haydon not only to betray Smiley but also to have an affair with Ann, adding a second betrayal.  Smiley’s People, therefore, provides a satisfying conclusion as Smiley uses Karla’s own techniques against him, using the leverage of his knowledge of Karla’s weakness – his daughter – to force him to defect.  At the very end, we see Karla walking across a bridge from East to West Germany.  Symbolically, as he arrives in the West, he drops the cigarette lighter that he had taken from George in Tinker, Tailor, the lighter inscribed from Ann to George and which hinted at George’s weak spot.

Yet Smiley’s revenge is hollow.  He leaves the lighter on the ground and takes no pleasure in his incredible coup.  He is even diminished by his success.  He is less of a man for having lowered himself to Karla’s level by using his daughter against him. I was left with an empty feeling at the end, that there were no winners, only men beaten by the demands of the secret world.  Smiley has served his country faithfully, despite the politics and the treachery within his own service and has been left broken in spirit, an anonymous casualty of the Cold War.

I could leave it here and simply say that Smiley’s People and the Karla trilogy as a whole are supreme examples of the true spy novel, setting a standard that hasn’t yet been matched by any Western writer, although Robert Littell and Alan Furst come quite close, Graham Greene would definitely be up there if one considers some of his books to be spy novels and Charles Cumming is also treading some of the same ground.

But I don’t think that is fair.  Like Greene, le Carré deals with the human condition.  He counterpoints professional treachery and deception with the personal.  Each of the books in the Karla trilogy has his characters suffering on a personal level, with Smiley himself suffering repeatedly from the cheating of his wife.  In Smiley’s people, there is an awkward scene where Lacon takes George for dinner and spends the meal trying to get George to give him relationship advice as he too is facing losing his wife.  Never a strong character, this leaves him looking even more foolish and ineffectual than ever.

In some ways, I think le Carré almost uses the world of espionage as a prism through which to explore these aspects of the human character, to show what happens to people who both perpetrate the lies and are also the victims of hem.  It is notable that all of the former agents and colleagues whom Smiley involves in his investigation in Smiley’s People are somehow damaged or reduced by their involvement with the Circus, from Toby Esterhase, eking out an existence as a shady art dealer to dear old Connie, an alcoholic wreck, living in squalor with her partner.  There’s not a great deal of hope or happiness in le Carré’s writing, just a sense of the futility of it all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!

I suppose the honest answer to this week’s Top Ten Tuesday from the Broke and the Bookish would be for me to submit a blank page.  Unfortunately, being British, I won’t be having a Thanksgiving dinner and so have nothing to which I could invite anyone, let alone cool authors.

I've always assumed that Thanksgiving was one of those American things, something culturally specific, like American Football (played using the hands – go figure), and thus to be appreciated by me as an observer rather than as a participant.  What I didn’t realise though was that it isn’t just Americans who celebrate it.  Oh no!  I knew that Canadians do, albeit earlier in the month but I didn’t know that Liberians (as opposed to librarians) do Thanksgiving, as do the inhabitants of Leiden in the Netherlands, apparently to celebrate the raising of the Siege of Leiden in 1574 (God, Wikipedia is good.).  And, of course, we mustn’t forget the good citizens of Norfolk Island, who will be sitting down to whatever feast they have at Thanksgiving on 30th November this year.

So lots of different people have their own versions of Thanksgiving.  But not us Brits.  The closest we get is Harvest Festival, which used to be quite big when I was at primary school but about which I don’t hear much these days.  I do seem to remember it as a day when we all had to collect food to give to the less fortunate.  I’m not sure what the local poor made of the random collection of tinned beans, potatoes and mushy peas that my classmates and I would hand over, supplemented by some more exciting (or dangerous, depending on your views on health and safety) past their sell-by-date items.  Frankly, I wouldn’t want to invite any of my favourite authors to eat our old Harvest Festival comestibles for fear of killing them or, at the very least, giving them indigestion.

But it would be unfair of me to leave you with a blank page to contemplate, as you have been so kind as to come over for a visit so I will assume that my parents had followed through with their plan to leave Merrie Olde England in the early ‘70s and, instead of landing in Canada as intended, had made landfall south of the 49th parallel, thereby ensuring that I ended up with a US passport.  With whom shall I share my turkey and pumpkin pie then?

I’m going to give myself a bit of flexibility.  As I’ve adopted a fantasy nationality and will be sitting at an imaginary table, with unreal food, I’m going to allow myself to invite both the quick and the dead and to provide each of my guests and me with a universal simultaneous translator, to ensure that we can all enjoy ourselves.  So, who has made the cut for my fantasy Thanksgiving dinner?

1.         Dorothy Parker. As a founder member of the Algonquin Round Table and a famous wit, I think Dorothy would be an entertaining dinner guest, especially as she was fond of a drink or three.  Anyone who can write this verse is certainly value for a free meal:

            “Love is a glorious medley of song,
            A medley of extemporanea;
            And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
            And I am Marie of Romania.”

2.         Oscar Wilde.  Decadent, brilliant, witty and with a hell of a back story, what dinner table wouldn’t be enlivened by Oscar?

3.         Colette.  Despite being responsible for the execrable Le Blé en Herbe, which I was required to read for my French A-level, she gets an invite to my turkey supper for probably having a fund of stories about her life of scandalous excess, yet still managing to become the first French woman to be awarded a state funeral.

4.         Evelyn Waugh.  If you’ve ever read his diaries or letters, you’ll know that, as well as being one the great 20th Century British satirists, he was a hilariously malicious gossip.  Assuming he was on good form, he would be an asset to any gossipy dinner party.

5.         Jan Morris.  To my mind, she is one of the very best travel writers of the modern age.  In particular, her book on Venice manages to be an absolutely beautiful read whilst still painting a true picture of the city.  Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza is co-hosting Venice in February and I suggest that, if you haven’t already read this, you sign up for the challenge, if only as an excuse to read it.  Jan gets an invite so she can enthral us with tales of the faraway.

6.         Hunter S Thompson.  So far, my table is looking witty, interesting but relatively civilised.  Every self-respecting dinner party should have at least one token drug-bingeing, drunken lunatic to liven up proceedings and everyone’s favourite gonzo journalist fits that bill nicely.  I just hope he leaves his gun at home.

7.         Mary Shelley. Having written Frankenstein after a house party with Percy Shelley, Byron and Polidori, I wonder what she could come up with after an evening with this lot.  And I bet she’d have some stories to tell.

8.         Stephen Fry.  Now officially a British National Treasure, he is highly amusing, polymathic and even seems to be a nice chap so he gets an invite.  He also once played Oscar Wilde in a film so it would be fun to see their conversation.

9.         Rebecca West.  As a journalist and author, I think her reputation has faded a little unfairly in recent years and certainly since Time magazine called her "indisputably the world's number one woman writer" in 1947.  Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her combined travel and history work about Yugoslavia in the 1930s was described in the New York Times as “not only the magnification and intensification of the travel book form, but, one may say, its apotheosis."  I also love her memoir of the Nuremberg War Trials, a topic of endless interest to me and so I would love to talk to her about her coverage of the trials over the Thanksgiving repast.

10.       Ernest Hemingway.  My favourite literary wild man, I’d love to see him and Hunter Thompson going head to head over dinner……..even if there’d be a hell of a mess to clear up afterwards.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's Stir-up Sunday!

Christmas has officially arrived early at Falaise Towers.  Unofficially, of course, it has been here for a while, with mini-Falaise having been asking about it for a couple of weeks now, especially after being cast as a star on the Christmas tree in her nursery school nativity play.  Although tedious at times, there are some compensations for the constant questions about Santa Claus as the big man is also an excellent disciplinary tool – as in “If you don’t behave, I’ll call Santa and tell him not to come.” Works every time between November and December 25th.

Anyway, on a more official note, today is Stir-up Sunday and we joined with tradition in making our Christmas Pudding this morning.  We all took our turn stirring the beast, youngest first and we all made our wish.  I’ve not made a Christmas Pud before and have gone for Nigella’s recipe, using extravagantly expensive Pedro Ximenez sherry as the alcohol of choice.  To be fair, it is smelling very Christmassy and Nigella has always been a favourite of mine, despite her recent descent into self-parody and the ridiculous mendacity of pretending that her TV studio is really her home and that the demographically perfect gang of renta-mob –extras supplied by her casting agent are really her bosom buddies.

Nevertheless, Nigella is OK with me for the simple reason that her recipes work for me.  I find that I can cook her food, whereas some other writers, such as Saint Delia of Norwich City, just don’t work when I try their dishes.  Rick Stein does, Simon Hopkinson does, Nigella does and Raymond Blanc does.  Unfortunately, neither Delia nor Gordon Ramsay do.   Noone’s fault, just the way it is.

Back to Stir-up Sunday, which always falls on the last Sunday before Advent.  Back in the old days, the 1549 Book of Common Prayer dictated that the Collect for this Sunday began:

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

This, allegedly, reminded the ladies of the congregation, and their cooks, that it was about time to get the Christmas pudding made so that it would have time to mature before the big day. Consequently, the making of the pudding became associated with this day.

Unsurprisingly, there is a distinct lack of cooks or other domestic staff at Falaise Towers and so it fell to me, assisted (in the loosest sense of the word) by mini-Falaise, to make the pudding. All three of us gave it the traditional East to West stir and made a wish. I have no idea what Mrs F’s is and mine will remain a secret but mini was very keen to explain that she’d wished for a Jessie from Toy Story toy for Christmas. She’s not slow, is our Mini-Falaise. She’s not very subtle either.

Hopefully you too have managed to get your’s done. Here’s a picture of the mixture before it went in the steamer – it looked and smelt a lot better after three hours of steaming!

Friday, November 18, 2011

2,528: The Odin Mission by James Holland

I don’t know if they are still around but, when I was a little boy, thee used to be these little comics, with titles like Commando or Battle.  The stories in these comics were all set during the Second World War and featured heroic, salt of the earth Tommies battling against villainous Nazis, whose vocabularies was largely limited to variations on “Achtung!” and “Schweinehund”, or Japanese, who were depicted as, basically, a collection of racial stereotypes.  They were exciting but morally simplistic.  I loved them but rarely got to read them as my parents were generally disapproving of comics.

James Holland’s The Odin Mission has something of the better side of Commando comics in it.  Billed as a Sharpe for the Blitz years, it is the first in a series of tales featuring Sergeant Jack Tanner of the fictional King’s Own Yorkshire Rangers.  Set during the disastrous campaign to defend Norway in 1940, following the German invasion, Tanner and his group of barely trained squaddies finds itself cut off from Allied lines and with the responsibility of shepherding a Norwegian scientist to safety.  He is hampered in this task not only by the efforts of the Germans, who are keen to seize the scientist and his secrets, but also by an arrogantly inept French officer, Lieutenant Chevannes, and his platoon of mountain troops.

If you are looking for a sensitive look at the effects of war on men or a richly drawn, character-driven novel with a deep psychological undertone, you should probably turn away now.  This isn’t it.  If, on the other hand, you are in the mood for a fast-paced, action-packed tale where the good guys are heroic paragons and the bad guys might as well be wearing black, then this may well be one for you.

This was the fourth and final book sent to me by Transworld as part of their book group reading challenge and it obviously got to me at just the right time, as I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I was definitely in the mood for some blood and thunder action and this provided it to me in spades.

James Holland is a military historian by trade and it shows.  The Odin Mission is filled with historical fact and period slang.  There is a real feel of the period about it, even if he is less good at making his Nordic setting come alive – his skill is clearly in the pacing and the plotting.

There is nothing remotely subtle or deep about his characters.  Tanner, the hero of the series is improbably heroic, despite vague hints of a disreputable past.  His sidekick, Sykes, is a classically chirpy Cockney who, despite a criminal past, is on the side of the angels.  By contrast, the Germans, and especially Hauptmann Zellner, who appears set to be Tanner’s nemesis in the series, are melodrama-worthy villains.  Zellner establishes this beyond doubt in the first couple of pages, shooting an unarmed Norwegian farmer dead in front of his wife.  Lieutenant Chevannes, Tanner’s French rival, reflects so clearly the stereotypical British view of the French that he may as well be wearing a beret and a string of onions whilst humming the Marseillaise and smelling strongly of garlic.

To see this as a criticism, however, would be, I think, to miss the point.  This is, and I believe is intended to be, a Boy’s Own story, to be enjoyed but not taken too seriously.  On this evidence, Jack Tanner is not a Sharpe for the 20th Century as Bernard Cornwell’s creation was more rounded in characterisation and his conflicts were as much about his position in 19th Century British society with its rigid class structure, as they were about his fighting ability.  The Odin Mission is Holland’s debut, however, and so maybe Tanner will develop and grow as the series progresses.

Overall, this was fun and easy light reading, just right for the mood I was in when I read it, although had I been in a more thoughtful mood, I may have found it a bit shallow.  Maybe the final word ion this is that I have already bought the second Jack Tanner book, Darkest Hour, and am looking forward to reading it when next I am in a light reading mood, although I do feel sorry for poor Sergeant Tanner, whom I fear is going to dragged on a circuit tour of the more unpleasant parts of World War II.

I’ve now finished the four books I chose as part of the Transworld Book Group Challenge and would like to thank Transworld for the opportunity to read some new authors.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: What's Hiding In The Pile?

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday from the Broke and the Bookish taps in to our secret need for confession.  Yes, my friends, let us stand up and admit to the world what has been sitting on our bookshelves, waiting for us to pull them out and read them.

I know I’m not alone in having two TBR piles – a real one, with real books that I have already shelled out for, and a virtual one, comprising books I want to read but haven’t yet got round to buying.  I suppose that the former pile is the one that should cause more guilt as it is a continual reminder of my financial profligacy.  It’s also a kind of memorial to bygone short-lived enthusiasms – the collection of books on mathematics, for example – and periodic fits of worthiness – the set of E.M. Forster’s novels gathering dust bears mute witness to this.

Oddly enough though, it’s the aging tail end of my virtual TBR pile that tends to cause me more trouble.  A quick scan through my Amazon wish list in moments of boredom will have me thinking, “Why haven’t I got round to this one yet?” or “Ooh, really must read this one soon” before financial prudence takes over or another (metaphorical) shiny bauble catches my eye.

So, anyway, here is a mix of items from my TBR pile that have been wistfully waiting for a while to catch my eye:

1.         Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.  This is one of those “Big Daddy” type books that “everyone” has either read or is about to read.  I’ve been in the latter camp for about ten years now.  My Penguin classics copy sits on my shelves, still looking shop-fresh.  Shame on me.

2.         The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad.  Doesn’t have quite the same length of tenure on the shelf as Don Quixote but is still a long-term resident.  I just know I will enjoy this when I do get round to this…….it’s just that there’s always something more immediately appealing.

3.         The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman.  My name is Falaise and I am a wuss.  I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed both Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife but I know that sad things are going to happen in The Amber Spyglass and I don’t think I can take it.  And, no I really don’t think that is a pathetic view for a grown man to take.  Honest.

4.         The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius.  This was put on my Amazon wish list in April 2008 and has still not managed to make its way to South West London.  I recall I was going through one of my periodic ancient history phases which ended up getting stalled halfway through Caesar’s Civil Wars.  One day, I will be back in the mood for some Roman history and then, just maybe, Suetonius will have his day in the sun.

5.         Mr Dick or the Tenth Book by Jean-Pierre Ohl.  Translated from the French, the basic idea of this novel is that two students become obsessed with Dickens and are trying to discover the ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, whilst living their lives through Dickens.  I love the concept of this one and it has made it up two floors of my house, from basement bookshelves to bedside table which may mean it is nearly time to open it up.

6.         Men of Mathematics by E. Bell.  I hinted at a dark passion for maths above and this is pat of the evidence.  Why, exactly, did I buy a collection of potted biographies of old mathematicians?  Your guess is probably as good as mine and I don’t need a crystal ball to foresee that this one will be staying on the shelf a while longer.

7.         20,000 Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne.  The only reason I can think for this still being on the shelf is that it’s a hard back and not well-suited for Tube reading.  I’m tinkering with the idea of joining the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen challenge for 2012 that is currently going around the blogosphere, in which event, this will finally get an airing.

8.         A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes.  This is another one that’s been sitting on the shelf for more years than I care to admit.  I’m fascinated by Russia and its history, I’ve enjoyed several of Figes’ other books so why haven’t I finished this one by now?  It’s just soooo big and heavy.  Like Robert Fisk’s The Great War of Civilisation, this is crying out for a Kindle edition, if only to stop me from getting a strained wrist trying to read it.

9.         The Third Reich at War by Richard Evans.  The third and final part of Richard Evans’ magisterial history of Nazi Germany is also a denizen of the Falaise basement bookshelves.  I want to read it but it’s never quite the right time.  Maybe soon.

10.       Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.  Part of a Dickens boxed set I bought a decade or more ago, I simply have never mustered the enthusiasm to read it.  Don’t know why and I’m sure it’s a dreadful reflection on me but I’ve just never fancied it.  It’s the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth next year so maybe I’ll read it then as my homage to the great man.  Or maybe not.

Monday, November 14, 2011

2,529: Ten Days That Shook The World by John Reed

There’s a moment at the very end of John Reed’s first-hand account of Russia’s October Revolution of 1917 that made me give an involuntary groan.  The bolsheviki have assumed power in Petersburg and Moscow and the Revolution is, at least for now.  The workers, peasants and soldiers come together to celebrate and to look forward with unbridled optimism to a socialist future and the creation of a better society.

It’s hard for the modern reader, whatever their political views, not to draw breath and feel a sense of foreboding when reading this scene as we know that the innocent optimism expressed here will soon be beaten into submission by the ascension of Stalin, the corruption and repression of the Soviet system and the impact of a sclerotic economy.

Although John Reed was working as a journalist for an American socialist newspaper in covering the Russian Revolution, he is open about his engagement in it.  Reed was no mere observer but, at least in moral and political terms, a participant.  He may not have acted physically to help the Revolution along but it is clear in his writing (and is admitted by him) that he was in sympathy with the Bolsheviks.

At times, this is awkwardly obvious as his strained attempts to put the Bolsheviks on the moral high ground show.  His closeness to the new regime can also be seen in the fact that, after his untimely death in 1920, he was buried a hero of the revolution in the Kremlin.

Nevertheless, despite his obvious bias, Ten Days That Shook The World remains probably the leading first-hand account of the October revolution.  It is important to note, and sometimes overlooked, that this was not a revolution against the Tsar – he had abdicated following the February Revolution – but was a revolution against the provisional government of Kerensky that had been formed amongst the political parties other than some of this on the far left.

Disaffection had set in with the policies of this government which did not appear to its critics to be radical or socialist enough and the Soviets, essentially workers’ councils, had grown to be a competing source of power.

Reed’s book tells vividly of the rising tension between government, Soviets and people in Petrograd (the new, less German name for Petersburg) in the months after Lenin’s return from exile in Germany in April 1917.  Increased suffering by the Russian army on the Eastern Front with Germany and a number of domestic crises reduced the ability of the provisional government to exercise power and enabled Lenin’s Bolsheviks to increase their influence to a point where, in the chaos into which Petrograd had fallen by October 1917, the Bolsheviks were able to emerge and take control of Russia.

There is a real immediacy and pace to Reed’s writing and even though I knew what was going to happen and even though I despise everything the Bolsheviks were, it still had me willing them on.  The journalist in Reed was also skilled in telling part of the story through encounters he had with individuals.

Reed’s view was that the October Revolution was led by the workers and rank and file soldiers who almost dragged the politicians along, even outrunning many of the Bolsheviks in their revolutionary fervour.  I am slightly cynical about this but the overall tone of the book suggests the Bolsheviks taking power, not after a carefully planned coup, but almost accidentally, having been carried along by events and simply being the most decisive political group.  Indeed, the iconic storming of the Winter Palace is depicted as nothing of the sort.  Reed’s description has the Bolsheviks pretty much walking in and assuming power by virtue of just giving clear instructions to functionaries.  In many ways, Reed’s Bolsheviks were beneficiaries of the inchoate will of the people rather than being a conscious popular choice.  In light of what would come next, I found myself at various points in Reed’s text lamenting the coincidences and the indecisiveness of other political groups and marvelling at the seemingly tiny decisions and events that enabled Lenin to take control and the Communist Party then to wield absolute power for the next three quarters of a century.

Another startling point coming out of Ten Days That Shook The World is the lack of importance of Stalin in the narrative of the Revolution.  Given that, for many people, the Revolution was really just a stage setter for Stalin’s brutal rule, it is notable that he only merits two mentions in the text, one of which is just as part of a list of Commissars and the other as a counter-signatory of a letter.  Trotsky, Stalin’s great enemy is far more present in this narrative, which may be one reason why, despite Lenin’s endorsement of Reed’s book, it was banned in the Soviet Union by Stalin.

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in Russia or that period in history.  I’m also a great believer that we can find lessons for today in history and would recommend it to politicians in the UK and Europe today as a warning of how general unrest and disaffection with government can spiral into a full-blown uprising without any conscious plan, potentially enabling an opportunistic but determined minority party to fill the void.  It led to catastrophe in Russia – let’s hope nothing similar happens here in these troubled times.

Friday, November 11, 2011

2,530: 8.55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames

In one of those serendipitous events that seem to be a frequent occurrence in the lives of many writers, Andrew Eames was staying in Baron’s Hotel in Aleppo, where he was introduced to the mother of the owner who was persuaded to retell the story of how Agatha Christie and her second husband, Max Mallowan had come to dinner with her and her husband.

As Eames later found out, in the aftermath of the breakdown of her first marriage and her infamous eleven day “disappearance”, Christie had, on a whim, decided to take the train to Iraq for a holiday.  Outlandish as this may seem today, in 1928, when she took her trip, this was a perfectly “doable” exercise, which took eight days, using two luxury trains.  It was on this trip that she first met Max Mallowan, a young archaeologist and, having married him in 1930, she would spend her summers for the next 30 years assisting him on his digs in Syria and Iraq.

The route of Christie’s original trip took her through a veritable gazetteer of modern trouble spots: the Balkans, Syria and Iraq and, spotting a good “hook”, Eames decided to recreate her journey in early 2005, before the Iraq war but at a point where it looked inevitable.

The resulting book, 8.55 to Baghdad, traces this journey and interweaves his impressions of these countries today with his quest to find traces of Christie’s journey in the places he visits, starting in Sunningdale, the scene of the last years of Christie’s unhappy first marriage, where Eames catches the titular 8.55 train, which actually takes him to Victoria to catch the Orient Express.

Eames’ concept is quite a tricky one as he is trying to fit two very distinct stories into one book: the personal history of a middle class novelist in the 1920s and the story of the impact of conflict in the 20th and 21st Centuries.  Although, for me, he doesn’t quite manage to carry the whole thing off, it is, nevertheless, an enjoyable piece of travel writing.

There are some vivid passages in the book and, given the material to work with, Eames is capable of telling a good story, in particular, his journey through Iraq with a spectacularly mismatched bunch of tourists, all clearly members of that weird sub-species of travellers who are drawn like lemmings to grim places for their holidays.

He is also very good at illustrating, through the accounts of his personal encounters, the general humanity and kindness of people who can often be perceived as nameless and faceless representatives of countries with whom we are in conflict.  Eames reminds us that, regardless of where we are from, most of us are reasonably decent people, just trying to make a life for ourselves and our families.

Although Eames professes to be a Christie fan and to be interested in following her steps, 8.55 to Baghdad doesn’t really show this and the Christie bits seem to be a little half-hearted and even suggest a lack of familiarity with her and her books.  Indeed, he confesses at the beginning to not even knowing who Max Mallowan was.  The book feels like Christie was just a tool to link his travels together.

I also found that his historical interludes, whilst interesting, were a bit shallow and came across as if he’d done a little bit of basic research to fill out his personal stories, rather than showing any detailed knowledge.  It’ a bit of a quibble but it detracted from the book for me.

Overall, though, despite these issues, I enjoyed the book, although I suspect that it won’t stick long in the mind.  It was, however, sufficiently interesting and informative that I will be checking out his other travel book, Blue River, Black Sea.