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Munich by Robert Harris

Sunday, 12 March, 2017 0 Comments

Munich’s Oktoberfest, the world’s biggest beer festival, will run from 16 September to 3 October this year and some six million visitors are expected to take part in the annual swilling. It’s a global event and the organizers are constantly seeking ways to broaden the appeal. Their latest innovation is the Oktoberfest 7s, an international rugby tournament. Sevens is a variant of rugby union in which teams of seven players play seven-minute halves, instead of the usual 15 players playing 40-minute halves. The Oktoberfest 7s hopes to emulate the success of the Hong Kong Sevens tournament, which has evangelized the game in Asia and now features teams from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Munich While all the scrimmaging and drinking are taking place in the Bavarian capital, Robert Harris will debut his new novel, titled simply Munich. According to the blurb, “Munich is a spy thriller about treason and conscience, loyalty and betrayal, filled with real-life characters and actual events.”

The book is set over four days during the infamous Munich Conference of September 1938, which ended with the signing of an agreement by the major powers of Europe that permitted Nazi Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia. Anticipating this act of appeasement, Winston Churchill remarked, “England has been offered a choice between war and shame. She has chosen shame, and will get war.” And that’s exactly what happened.

Between beer and betrayal, Munich shoulders an enormous weight of culture and history with impressive dignity. The past and the present intersect on most streets and one is commemorated as the other is celebrated. Robert Harris has chosen his subject and his timing well.


Camille Paglia talks Trump

Wednesday, 8 March, 2017 1 Comment

Camile Paglia’s new book is called Free Women, Free Men and it’s a compilation of her writings about sex, gender and feminism. In advance of publication next week, Paglia spoke to Molly Fischer of New York Magazine. The sisterhood will not be pleased with her take on Trump, Clinton and the US election results. Snippet:

“I felt the Trump victory coming for a long time,” she told me. Writing last spring, she’d called Trump “raw, crude and uninformed” but also “smart, intuitive and a quick study”; she praised his “bumptious exuberance and slashing humor” (and took some pleasure in watching him fluster the GOP). Speaking two weeks into his administration, she sounded altogether less troubled by the president than any other self-declared feminist I’d encountered since Inauguration Day: “He is supported by half the country, hello! And also, this ethically indefensible excuse that all Trump voters are racist, sexist, misogynistic, and all that — American democracy cannot proceed like this, with this reviling half the country.”

Paglia In fact, she has had to restrain herself from agreeing with the president, at least on certain matters. “I have been on an anti–Meryl Streep campaign for about 30 years,” she said. When Trump called the actress “overrated” in a January tweet, “I wanted to leap into print and take that line but I couldn’t, because Trump said it.”

It’s true that there is not infrequently something Trumpian in Paglia’s cadence (lots of ingenuous exclamation points — “This tyrannical infantilizing of young Americans must stop!”), as well as her irresistible compulsion to revisit enemies, slights, and idées fixes (substitute “Gloria Steinem” and “Lacan” for “the failing New York Times”). And then, perhaps most important: She, like Trump, gives her audience the vicarious thrill of watching someone who appears to be saying whatever the hell they want. Reading Paglia is a bit like how it must have felt to be an enthusiastic attendee at a Trump campaign rally: She can’t possibly REALLY mean that, you think, and laugh, bewildered — but can you imagine how annoyed it must make people?

Camille Paglia Predicted 2017 makes for refreshing reading in this time of faux media outrage.


Portraits and Profiles of warriors and senators

Friday, 3 March, 2017 0 Comments

After leaving the White House in 2009, George W. Bush found inspiration in painting. This has now resulted in a book of 66 portraits of post-9/11 US veterans called Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors. The proceeds from the book will be donated to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, “a non-profit organization whose Military Service Initiative works to ensure that post-9/11 veterans and their families make successful transitions to civilian life with a focus on gaining meaningful employment and overcoming the invisible wounds of war.”

Portraits of Courage

Note: Portraits of Courage echoes Profiles in Courage, a 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Senator John F. Kennedy. Profiles consisted of short biographies describing acts of courage and integrity by eight United States Senators throughout the Senate’s history. The book became a best seller, but in his 2008 autobiography, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, Kennedy’s speechwriter Ted Sorensen claimed that, while the senator had provided the theme, the speechwriter wrote most of the book.


The Christian conundrum

Tuesday, 28 February, 2017 0 Comments

Early Christianity expanded rapidly through Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece and Italy. Because it had no linguistic, cultural, ethnic or territorial centre, it spread to towns, cities and communities that differed widely from one another. The rulers of Rome had seen nothing like it and were confounded by this new and challenging ideology. The British classicist Mary Beard discusses how the Romans viewed the conundrum of Christianity in her excellent SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. Snippet:

“First, it had no ancestral home. In their ordered religious geography, Romans expected deities to be from somewhere: Isis from Egypt, Mithras from Persia, the Jewish god from Judaea. The Christian god was rootless, claimed to be universal and sought more adherents. All kinds of mystical moments of enlightenment might attract new worshippers to (say) the religion of Isis. But Christianity was defined entirely by a process of spiritual conversion that was utterly new. What is more, some Christians were preaching values that threatened to overturn some of the most fundamental Greco-Roman assumptions about the nature of the world and of the people within it: that poverty, for example, was good; or that the body was to be tamed or rejected rather than cared for. SPQR All these factors help to explain the worries, confusion and hostility of Pliny and others like him. At the same time, the success of Christianity was rooted in the Roman Empire, in its territorial extent, in the mobility that it promoted, in its towns and its cultural mix. From Pliny’s Bithynia to Perpetua’s Carthage, Christianity spread from its small-scale origins in Judaea largely because of the channels of communication across the Mediterranean world that the Roman Empire had opened up and because of the movement through those channels of people, goods, books and ideas. The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.”

Is past prologue? Could a faith-based or technology-driven belief system challenge the fundamentals of our world? Note: The phrase “What’s past is prologue” comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Act 2, Scene I. In contemporary usage, the phrase stands for the idea that history sets the context for the present. The quotation is engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.


The dreary quarrels of Northern Ireland re-emerge

Wednesday, 11 January, 2017 0 Comments

In a time of global turbulence, when we should be focused on issues that will affect stability and prosperity, Northern Ireland threatens to divert attention with a crisis fueled by, well, fuel, and headlined “Cash for Ash”. The bizarre Renewable Heat Incentive scandal is exposing the old tribal antagonisms and the brittle peace is endangered. Nothing new, however. Let us pause for a moment and go back a century to Winston Churchill describing the aftermath of World War I:

“The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous change in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”

High Dive The integrity of that quarrel is central to the latest novel by Jonathan Lee. High Dive centres on an event that took place at the Grand Hotel in Brighton on 12 October 1984. Then, the Provisional IRA terrorists group attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet, who were staying at the hotel for the Conservative Party conference. Although Mrs Thatcher narrowly escaped injury, five people were killed including a Conservative MP, and 31 were injured, by the long-delay time bomb planted in the hotel by the IRA.

Jonathan Lee’s book doesn’t offer an analysis of violent Irish republicanism or Tory party politics, but it excels in describing the particulars of the English hospitality trade. Lee, like so many members of the writing class, harbours some sympathy for the “rebels”, but the reader should be aware that the characters in his novel are no idealists. More than three decades after the Brighton bombing, the antagonists of Northern Ireland have turned their dreary, squalid feud into an industry that supplies their claques with cash from ash and other combustibles. The integrity of their quarrel is endless.


Seven eggs for a prince

Monday, 28 November, 2016 0 Comments

While watching the modest breakfast egg boiling, our thoughts turned to eggs royal and On Royalty. Jeremy Paxman claims on page 275 that “one of the prince’s friends” told him that after a day’s hunting, Prince Charles likes to have a boiled egg but is so fussy about its consistency that his staff routinely provide seven eggs, numbered according to cooking time, so that if number five is too soft he can move on to number six.

The story was denied by Clarence House, the Prince of Wales’s official residence and metonym for his private office. “It is not by chance that the boiled-egg story has been so much touted in pre-publication publicity for On Royalty: it is almost the only exciting moment in an otherwise dull tome,” wrote the hard-boiled Lynn Barber as she consigned Paxo’s book to the nesting box of hens and history.

Eggs


Michael Wolff goes to Wolf Hall in Manhattan

Saturday, 19 November, 2016 3 Comments

“The real business of journalism, or at least a major sideline, is envy of those who get lucky,” writes the columnist Michael Wolff. “Nice to be the lucky one this time,” he adds. Wolff was responding to a barrage of Twitter criticism directed at his scoop interview for the Hollywood Reporter with Steve Bannon, chief strategist and Senior Counselor for the Presidency of Donald Trump. It’s a remarkable piece of reportage and one that will send shivers down the liberal spine. Snippet:

“It’s the Bannon theme, the myopia of the media, that it tells only the story that confirms its own view, that in the end it was incapable of seeing an alternative outcome and of making a true risk assessment of the political variables — reaffirming the Hillary Clinton camp’s own political myopia. This defines the parallel realities in which liberals, in their view of themselves, represent a morally superior character and Bannon — immortalized on Twitter as a white nationalist, racist, anti-Semite thug — the ultimate depravity of Trumpism.”

But now the tables have been turned. Bannon is in Trump Tower and world leaders are booking suites above his office in the hope of getting access to his boss, the US President-elect. It’s a revolution and heads are going to roll:

“Bannon represents, he not unreasonably believes, the fall of the establishment. The self-satisfied, in-bred and homogenous views of the establishment are both what he is against and what has provided the opening for the Trump revolution. ‘The media bubble is the ultimate symbol of what’s wrong with this country,’ he continues. ‘It’s just a circle of people talking to themselves who have no f—ing idea what’s going on. If The New York Times didn’t exist, CNN and MSNBC would be a test pattern. The Huffington Post and everything else is predicated on The New York Times. It’s a closed circle of information from which Hillary Clinton got all her information — and her confidence. That was our opening.'”

And now? And next? Time to read some of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which documents the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. Steve Bannon has read it and understood it and intends to live it.

“I am,” he says, with relish, “Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors.” Some five hundred years from now, a lucky journalist might conduct an interview that concludes, “I am,” he says, with relish, “Steve Bannon in the court of the Trumps.”


The Silence of the Lambs

Sunday, 6 November, 2016 0 Comments

Monster with lambs

“Nothing makes us more vulnerable than loneliness except greed.”
— Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs


The story is about…

Tuesday, 1 November, 2016 0 Comments

… simplicity. The 20 thrillers written by Lee Child have sold more than 40 million copies in 75 countries and one of the secrets of his success is that each story can be summed up succinctly, in a word or two: justice, retribution, salvation or Jack Reacher, for example. Along with Child’s advice to tell the story so tightly that it can be expressed pithily, he offers the following six tips for writers:

1. Set daily word counts
2. The only qualification you need to be a writer is to be a reader
3. Character is king
4. Don’t fall in love with your characters
5. The beginning of the story is crucial
6. Ignore advice!

After losing his job in the television industry in 1995, Lee Child turned his hand to writing novels. His role model was the American pulp fiction genius John D MacDonald and it was his tough-guy character, Travis McGee, who offered a template for Jack Reacher. Child recently explained his fascination with MacDonald and McGee in an excellent BBC Radio 4 programme, 21 Shades of Noir: Lee Child on John D MacDonald.

Note: The 21st book in the Jack Reacher series, Night School, will be published on Monday. The second film in the series, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, premiered on 21 October and has taken in almost $94 million at the box office so far. Moral of story: Keep it simple and encapsulate your concept in a word, or two.


Kim Cattrall reads Rosemary’s Baby

Sunday, 30 October, 2016 0 Comments

Satanism on Manhattan’s Upper West Side? Ira Levin’s 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby sold more than four million copies and launched the modern horror genre. The following year, it was made into a controversial film starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes and directed by Roman Polanski. This weekend, especially for Halloween, it’s being read terrifically, terrifyingly, as part of BBC Radio 4’s Fright Night series by Kim Cattrall, the English-Canadian actress who became famous as Samantha Jones in Sex and the City.

Rosemary's Baby

“Are you aware that the Bramford had a rather unpleasant reputation around the turn of the century? It’s where the Trench sisters conducted their little dietary experiments. And Keith Kennedy held his parties. Adrian Marcato lived there too… The Trench sisters were two proper Victorian ladies — they cooked and ate several young children including a niece…Adrian Marcato practiced witchcraft. He made quite a splash in the ’90s by announcing that he’d conjured up the living devil. Apparently, people believed him so they attacked and nearly killed him in the lobby of the Bramford… Later, the Keith Kennedy business began and by the ’20s, the house was half empty… World War II filled the house up again… They called it Black Bramford… This house has a high incidence of unpleasant happenings. In 1959, a dead infant was found wrapped in newspaper in the basement…”


The Stoner sonnet

Friday, 30 September, 2016 0 Comments

The central character in Stoner, a 1965 novel by the American writer John Williams, is William Stoner, who begins life as a farm boy in Missouri. His parents send him to the University of Missouri to study agriculture, but after reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, Stoner switches to studying literature. After receiving his Ph.D. he continues at the university as an assistant professor of English, the job he holds for the rest of his career.

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.” — John Williams, Stoner

The novel sold poorly when it was published but that changed at the beginning of this century, when it became an international bestseller. Stoner was reissued in 2006 by New York Review Books Classics with an introduction by John McGahern, who wrote that Stoner is a “novel about work.” This includes not only traditional work, such as Stoner’s tasks on the farm and his academic duties, but also the work he puts into relationships. It’s also a book about passion, and Stoner’s passions are knowledge and love. According to the critic Morris Dickstein, “he fails at both.” It’s Shakespearian.

Sonnet 73

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

William Shakespeare

September