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Putin, perfidy and pastry

Saturday, 23 April, 2016 2 Comments

There are many compelling reasons to read Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews. Perfidy is one. The villainy of Russia under Putin is well documented by non-Russian media, but it acquires a new pungency in a fiction that mirrors fact. Snippet:

“What fuelled the Kremlin kleptocracy, what motivated it, was not to bring back the Soviet Union, nor to reinstall the worldwide dread generated by the Red Army, nor to formulate a foreign policy based on national security requirements. In Russia today, everything happened to maintain the nadzirateli, the overseers, to protect their power, to continue looting the country’s patrimony.”

The characters in Palace of Treason ping-pong around the world — from Paris to Moscow to Athens to Vienna to Washington — as they attempt to steal secrets and outdo each other in a deadly game of influence zones, encompassing Europe and the Middle East. All of this activity demands feeding and Jason Matthews has come up with a novel touch: each chapter ends with a short recipe for one of the delicacies consumed by the protagonists. When an Iranian nuclear scientist is caught in a honey trip, he’s served shirini keshmeshi: Persian pastries dotted with raisins. “Jamshedi goggled at the cakes. Here he was, sitting with a blackmailing Russian intelligence officer, spilling his country’s secrets, and this prostitute was serving him the confection of this childhood.”

Palace of Treason recipe for shirini keshmeshi: “Thoroughly mix flour, sugar, melted butter, vegetable oil and eggs. Add saffron diluted in warm water, small raisins, and vanilla extract. Blend well. Put dollops of dough on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan and bake in a medium oven until golden brown.”

Palace of Treason


The Deceiver by Forsyth

Saturday, 5 March, 2016 0 Comments

Browsing this evening in a rather topsy-turvy second-hand bookshop run by an ex-banker and came across a thriller stamped “First English Edition.” Unusual, that. Especially unusual as the author is the great Frederick Forsyth. His “first editions” tend to be in English.

Anyway, The Deceiver is a page turner of the best kind and is full of ripping-yarn stuff. Rich dialogue, too. “Sam, I know you’ve been in more tight places than a shepherd’s right arm.”


World Book Day reading: The Yid

Thursday, 3 March, 2016 0 Comments

Today is World Book Day and our recommendation for this special occasion is The Yid by Paul Goldberg, a Russian émigré to New York in 1973. His debut novel opens in Moscow in February 1953, when three goons in a Black Maria leave the “castle-like gates” of the KGB headquarters in Lubyanka Square to arrest Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, a Red Army veteran and actor at the Jewish Theatre. But Levinson performs a grandiose stage trick and escapes. So begins this absurd, deadly droll escapade in which the “Yid” and his associates attempt to assassinate Stalin before he can see through his “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. Snippet:

A Black Maria is a distinctive piece of urban transport, chernyy voron, a vehicle that collects its passengers for reasons not necessarily political. The Russian people gave this ominous carriage a diminutive name: voronok, a little raven, a fledgling.

At night, Moscow is the czardom of black cats and Black Marias. The former dart between snowbanks in search of mice and companionship. The latter emerge from the improbably tall, castle-like gates of Lubyanka, to return laden with enemies of the people.

The arrest of Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, an actor from the defunct State Jewish Theater, is routine. An old, likely decrepit Yid, Levinson lives alone in a communal flat at 1/4 Chkalov Street. Apartment 40. No hand-wringing wife. No hysterical children. No farewells. No one to hand the old man a toothbrush through the bars of a departing Black Maria.

In the parlance of state security, arrests are “operations.” This operation is easier than most: collect some incriminating rubbish, put a seal on the door, help the old man into the truck, and a little before dawn, the Black Maria drives back through Lubyanka’s armored gates.

This is wonderful stuff and it shows just how powerful the book is as a format for entertainment and enlightenment. On World Book Day, then, let us remember what John Milton wrote in Areopagitica in 1644:

“For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

The Yid


Eco and Lee RIP

Saturday, 20 February, 2016 0 Comments

“In the beginning was the Word…”

With the deaths of Umberto Eco and Harper Lee we have lost two writers whose imaginative use of words helped people see life in a new light. Lee’s Alabama and Eco’s Milan were world’s apart, but both writers created works that found global audiences. Lee took small-town prejudice and transformed it into a drama about the struggle for justice. Her stroke of genius was telling the story from the half-innocent viewpoint of children. Eco most famously used the familiar format of the thriller to examine the meaning of religious belief and fanaticism in a time of terror. At the end, now, what remains of Harper Lee and Umberto Eco is the word, but it will persist.

“There, I said to myself, are the reasons for the silence and darkness that surround the library: it is the preserve of learning but can maintain this learning unsullied only if it prevents its reaching anyone at all, even the monks themselves. Learning is not like a coin, which remains whole even through the most infamous transactions; it is, rather, like a very handsome dress, which is worn out through use and ostentation. Is not a book like that, in fact?”

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

“Miss Gates is a nice lady, ain’t she?”
“Why sure,” said Jem. “I liked her when I was in her room.”
“She hates Hitler a lot . . .”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, she went on today about how bad it was him treating the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? I mean have mean thoughts about anybody, even, is it?”
“Gracious no, Scout. What’s eatin’ you?”
“Well, coming out of the courthouse that night Miss Gates was — she was going’ down the steps in front of us, you musta not seen her — she was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themelves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird


The Kingdom of Speech and the Human Beast

Tuesday, 16 February, 2016 0 Comments

Note the date and place your orders. Tom Wolfe’s new book, The Kingdom of Speech, will be published on 30 August. His central argument, and it is a controversial one, is that speech — not evolution — is responsible for humanity’s great achievements. It’s expected that the book will expand on on Wolfe’s 2006 Jefferson Lecture to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Speaking of the “Human Beast” then, he said:

“Evolution came to an end when the human beast developed speech! As soon as he became not Homo sapiens, ‘man reasoning,’ but Homo loquax, ‘man talking’! Speech gave the human beast far more than an ingenious tool. Speech was a veritable nuclear weapon! It gave the human beast the powers of reason, complex memory, and long-term planning, eventually in the form of print and engineering plans. Speech gave him the power to enlarge his food supply at will through an artifice called farming. Speech ended not only the evolution of man, by making it no longer necessary, but also the evolution of animals! Our animal friends — we’re very sentimental about predators these days, aren’t we — the lions, the tigers, the wolves, the rhinoceroses, the great apes, kangaroos, leopards, cheetahs, grizzly bears, polar bears, cougars — they’re ‘endangered,’ meaning hanging on for dear life. Today the so-called animal kingdom exists only at the human beast’s sufferance.”

The book is bound to be one of the hottest reads of the year because it’s expected that Wolfe will challenge Darwinism and, perhaps, argue the case for intelligent design. This time last year, he told the New Yorker that the way in which academics have ostracized proponents of intelligent design for “not believing in evolution the right way” invoked images of the Spanish Inquisition. Financially secure, his reputation established, this elegant homo loquax can afford to speak his mind without fear of of censorship.

The Kingdom of Speech


Book of the Year

Saturday, 19 December, 2015 2 Comments

What a twelve months it’s been for Angela Merkel: TIME Magazine anointed her its Person of the Year and the Financial Times followed suit. Even Vanessa Redgrave, that deranged old devotee of the blood-soaked PLO and the blood-drenched IRA hailed her as this year’s hero. It may be too early for Pope Francis to press her case for higher honours, but there’s already a move afoot to award her the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the light of such universal accord, it would be a brave person indeed who’d question Merkel’s Wir schaffen das (“We can do it”) approach to the challenge of accommodating one million migrants crossing Germany’s borders, but there are dissenting opinions. In fact, one was raised five years ago. In his 2010 best-seller, Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Is Doing Away With Itself), Thilo Sarrazin blamed the country’s suffocating multiculturalism for encouraging the growth of a hostile counter-culture. He was immediately ridiculed, his public readings were subjected to intimidation and some had to be abandoned because of attacks by PC mobs. Last year in France, Éric Zemmour mirrored Sarrazin when his Le Suicide français accused the French cultural elite of undermining the national identity, leaving the country unwilling and unable to defend itself against existential threats.

Submission Facts are interesting, opinion is good, but it’s fiction that captures the public imagination and while Sarrazin and Zemmour spurred debate, it took Michel Houellebecq to bring their contentious ideas to a mass audience. That’s why his Submission wins the Rainy Day Book of the Year award.

Submission is set in a near-future where two opposing political parties are battling for the soul of France: the National Front, which promises to return the country to its former glory, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which promises to convert it. The Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Ben Abbes becomes President with the support of the Socialist Party, which is determined to prevent a victory by Marine Le Pen at all costs. The morning after, the French wake up to a reality in which women go veiled, non-Muslims are forbidden to teach in schools and polygyny is the law of the land. All of this is related by a cast of academics and intellectuals who adjust remarkably quickly and compliantly to the new national order.

In his earlier works, Michel Houellebecq argued that the modern world, with its consumerism, individualism and hypersexuality, wrecks communities and makes people wretchedly unhappy. Patriarchy, in the form of Islam, is an alternative and in Submission it restores a sense of personal and public serenity that comforts the future French. “Europe had already committed suicide,” Houellebecq writes, echoing Zemmour. The triumph of Islam in France ends a civilization that had already surrendered, betrayed by its reputed guardians. Michel Houellebecq, as they say, goes there.

Tomorrow, here, the Rainy Day Film of the Year award.


From left to right: Houellebecq reviewed

Thursday, 19 November, 2015 0 Comments

As we approach the penultimate day of our Submission series, it’s time to take a look at how the book has been received on the left and on the right. First up, Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books. With a nod to the Bethlehem of Yeats in The Second Coming, his review is titled Slouching Toward Mecca. Lilla is at pains to emphasizes that none of the characters in Houellebecq’s novel expresses “hatred or even contempt of Muslims.” Instead, “It is about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca. There is not even drama here — no clash of spiritual armies, no martyrdom, no final conflagration. Stuff just happens, as in all Houellebecq’s fiction. All one hears at the end is a bone-chilling sigh of collective relief. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Whatever.”

Submission Douglas Murray takes a more robust approach in Quadrant with A Society Ripe for Submission. Like Lilla, however, he stresses that the novel is not the cartoon that its detractors have claimed it to be: “Of course it is worth stating from the outset — since in these times we seem to have to do such things — that even if Submission were the most anti-Islamic, ‘blasphemous’ and offensive novel ever written Houellebecq would have the right to publish it and do so without being judged by politicians or gunmen who in their different ways fire off over books they don’t read. As it happens, Submission is not a simple provocation. It is a deep, gripping and haunting novel which proves a culmination point of Houellebecq’s work so far and, in my view, a recent high-point for European fiction.”

In his conclusion, Mark Lilla interprets Submission as Houellebecq’s reckoning with a country and a continent that have run out of road in the modern world:

“He appears genuinely to believe that France has, regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self, but not because of immigration or the European Union or globalization. Those are just symptoms of a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be. For him, that wager has been lost. And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God. Who remains as remote and as silent as ever.”

The “Who” there is echoed in the “whose” at the close of Douglas Murray’s assessment of the novel:

“Houellebecq’s career has included several fateful coincidences of timing. But perhaps the most propitious is that his work has come to artistic maturity at just the moment to capture a society tipping from over-ripeness into something else. What precisely? More decadence, barbarism, or salvation? And if salvation, then what kind, and whose?”

Tomorrow, here, we conclude our week of Submission.


Knausgaard reads Houellebecq

Wednesday, 18 November, 2015 0 Comments

It was a brave decision on the part of the New York Times to ask Karl Ove Knausgård to review Submission by Michel Houellebecq. Brave because the Norwegian author is not known for his brevity. Knausgård is the author of Min Kamp (My Struggle), six controversial autobiographical novels that stretch across 3,600 pages.

“Before I begin this review, I have to make a small confession. I have never read Michel Houellebecq’s books,” writes Knausgård, warming up to his task. Eventually, he picks up the novel and opens it: “I leaned back in my chair under the bright light of the lamp, lit a cigarette, poured myself a coffee and began to read.”

Submission Submission is controversial, he finds, because “anything that has to do with immigration, the nation state, multiculturalism, ethnicity and religion is explosive stuff in Europe these days. Many of its elements are recognizable, like the newspapers omitting to mention, or mentioning only with caution, conflicts arising out of ethnic differences, or the political left’s anti-­racism overriding its feminism, making it wary of criticizing patriarchal structures within immigrant communities.”

Houellebecq’s savaging of political correctness prepares the ground for “a scenario of the future that realistically is less than likely, and yet entirely possible,” notes Knausgård. In this scenario, the French general election of 2022 is won by the Muslim Brotherhood with which the left collaborates to keep the National Front from power, and France as a result becomes a Muslim state. Snippet:

“What’s crucial for the novel is that the political events it portrays are psychologically as persuasive as they are credible, for this is what the novel is about, an entire culture’s enormous loss of meaning, its lack of, or highly depleted, faith, a culture in which the ties of community are dissolving and which, for want of resilience more than anything else, gives up on its most important values and submits to religious government.

But maybe that isn’t so bad? Maybe it doesn’t matter that much? Aren’t people just people, regardless of what they believe in, and of how they choose to organize their societies? It is these questions that the novel leads up to, since this entire seamless revolution is seen through the eyes of François, a man who believes in nothing and who consequently is bound by nothing other than himself and his own needs… This lack of attachment, this indifference, is as I see it the novel’s fundamental theme and issue, much more so than the Islamization of France, which in the logic of the book is merely a consequence.”

What does it mean to be a human being without faith? For Knausgård, that’s the key question posed by a novel that closes with the faithless protagonist looking forward in time to his own submission, “to the comedy, eventually converting to Islam in order to continue teaching at the Sorbonne, now a Muslim seat of learning.”

In the end, Knausgård is full of praise for what Houellebecq has written and declares Submission to be a great book: “The disillusioned gaze sees through everything, sees all the lies and the pretenses we concoct to give life meaning, the only thing it doesn’t see is its own origin, its own driving force. But what does that matter as long as it creates great literature, quivering with ambivalence, full of longing for meaning, which, if none is found, it creates itself?”


Reading the plausible and important Houellebec

Monday, 16 November, 2015 0 Comments

In Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, the year is 2022 and François is tiring of his career as a lecturer at the Sorbonne. The life of an expert on J.-K. Huysmans, the nineteenth-century author of À rebours, offers decent material rewards but decreasing spiritual benefits and the many hours spent on YouPorn are more satisfying than the day job. In the background, France is preparing for a general election and although François has zero interest in politics, he is vaguely aware that a strategic alliance between the Socialist party and Islamic party may be in the offing. He does notice, however, some subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the academic atmosphere. Snippet from the excellent translation by the editor of The Paris Review, Lorin Stein:

“When I reached my classroom — today I planned to discuss Jean Lorrain — there were three guys in their twenties, two of them Arab, one of them black, standing in the doorway. They weren’t armed, not that day. They stood there calmly. Nothing about them was overtly menacing. All the same, they were blocking the entrance. I had to say something. I stopped and faced them. They had to be under orders to avoid provocation and to treat the teachers with respect. At least I hoped so.

Submission “I’m a professor here. My class is about to start,” I said in a firm tone, addressing the group. It was the black guy who answered, with a broad smile. “No problem, monsieur, we’re just here to visit our sisters…” and he tilted his head reassuringly towards the classroom. The only sisters he could mean were two North African girls seated together in the back left row, both in black burkas, their eyes protected by mesh. They looked pretty irreproachable to me. “Well, there you have them,” I said, with bonhomie. Then I insisted: “Now you can go.” “No problem, monsieur,” he said with an even broader smile, then he turned on his heel, followed by the other two, neither of whom had said a word. He took three steps, then turned again. “Peace be with you, monsieur,” he said with a small bow. “That went well,” I told myself, closing the classroom door. “This time.” I don’t know just what I’d expected. Supposedly, teachers had been attacked in Mulhouse, Strasbourg, Aix-Marseille and Saint-Denis, but I had never met a colleague who’d been attacked, and I didn’t believe the rumours. According to Steve, an agreement had been struck between the young Salafists and the administration. All of a sudden, two years ago, the hoodlums and dealers had all vanished from the neighbourhood. Supposedly that was the proof. Had this agreement included a clause banning Jewish organizations from campus? Again, there was nothing to substantiate the rumour, but the fact was that, as of last autumn, the Jewish Students Union had no representatives on any Paris campus, while the youth division of the Muslim Brotherhood had opened new branches, here and there, across the city.”

As Melanie McDonagh writes in The Spectator: “Plausible? Sort of. Worrying? Yep. Important? Very.”


A Brief History of Seven Killings

Wednesday, 14 October, 2015 0 Comments

On 3 December 1976 in the violent run up to the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play a free concert in Kingston to ease tensions, seven men stormed his house with machine guns. Marley survived the attack and went on to perform at the concert. A Brief History of Seven Killings, which won Marlon James the Booker Prize last night in London, is an imagined oral history told by witnesses, killers, ghosts, politicians, beauty queens, CIA agents and Keith Richards’ drug dealer. The book is full of crime, cursing, sex, drugs, death, laughs and literary devices. Snippet:

Listen.

Dead people never stop talking. Maybe because death is not death at all, just a detention after school. You know where you’re coming from and you’re always returning from it. You know where you’re going though you never seem to get there and you’re just dead. Dead. It sounds final but it’s a word missing an ing. You come across men longer dead than you, walking all the time though heading nowhere and you listen to them howl and hiss because we’re all spirits or we think we are all spirits but we’re all just dead. Spirits that slip inside other spirits. Sometimes a woman slips inside a man and wails like the memory of making love. They moan and keen loud but it comes through the window like a whistle or a whisper under the bed, and little children think there’s a monster. The dead love lying under the living for three reasons. (1) We’re lying most of the time. (2) Under the bed looks like the top of a coffin, but (3) There is weight, human weight on top that you can slip into and make heavier, and you listen to the heart beat while you watch it pump and hear the nostrils hiss when their lungs press air and envy even the shortest breath. I have no memory of coffins.

But the dead never stop talking and sometimes the living hear. This is what I wanted to say. When you’re dead speech is nothing but tangents and detours and there’s nothing to do but stray and wander awhile. Well, that’s at least what the others do. My point being that the expired learn from the expired, but that’s tricky. I could listen to myself, still claiming to anybody that would hear that I didn’t fall, I was pushed over the balcony at the Sunset Beach Hotel in Montego Bay. And I can’t say shut your trap, Artie Jennings, because every morning I wake up having to put my pumpkin-smashed head back together. And even as I talk now I can hear how I sounded then, can you dig it, dingledoodies? meaning that the afterlife is just not a happening scene, not a groovy shindig, Daddy-O, see those cool cats on the mat? They could never dig it, and there’s nothing to do but wait for the man that killed me, but he won’t die, he only gets older and older and trades out wives for younger and younger and breeding a whole brood of slow-witted boys and running the country down into the ground.

A Brief History of Seven Killings Dead people never stop talking and sometimes the living hear. Sometimes he talks back if I catch him right as his eyes start to flicker in his sleep, talks until his wife slaps him. But I’d rather listen to the longer dead. I see men in split breeches and bloody longcoats and they talk, but blood comes out of their mouths and good heavens that slave rebellion was such ghastly business and that queen has of course been of bloody awful use ever since the West India Company began their rather shoddy decline compared to the East and why are there so many negroes taking to sleeping so unsoundly wherever they see fit and confound it all I seem to have misplaced the left half of my face. To be dead is to understand that dead is not gone, you’re in the flatness of the deadlands. Time doesn’t stop. You watch it move but you are still, like a painting with a Mona Lisa smile. In this space a three-hundred-year-old slit throat and two-minute-old crib death is the same.

If you don’t watch how you sleep, you’ll find yourself the way the living found you. Me, I’m lying on the floor, my head a smashed pumpkin with my right leg twisted behind the back and my two arms bent in a way that arms aren’t supposed to bend and from high up, from the balcony I look like a dead spider. I am up there and down here and from up there I see myself the way my killer saw me. The dead relive a motion, an action, a scream and they’re there again just like that, the train that never stopped running until it ran off the rails, the ledge from that building sixteen floors up, the car trunk that ran out of air. Rudeboys’ bodies bursting like pricked balloons, fifty-six bullets.

Nobody falls that way without being pushed. I know. And I know how it feels and looks, a body that falls fighting air all the way down, grabbing on to clumps of nothing and begging once, just once, just goddamn once, Jesus, you sniveling son of a mongrel bitch, just once that air gives a grip. And you land in a ditch five feet deep or a marble-tiled floor sixteen feet down, still fighting when the floor rises up and smashes into you because it got tired of waiting for blood. And we’re still dead but we wake up, me a crushed spider, him a burned cockroach. I have no memory of coffins.

Listen.

Living people wait and see because they fool themselves that they have time. Dead people see and wait. I once asked my Sunday school teacher, if heaven is the place of eternal life, and hell is the opposite of heaven, what does that make hell? A place for dirty little red boys like you, she said. She’s still alive. I see her, at the Eventide Old Folks Home getting too old and too stupid, not knowing her name and talking in so soft a rasp that nobody can hear that she’s scared of nightfall because that’s when the rats come for her good toes. I see more than that. Look hard enough or maybe just to the left and you see a country that was the same as I left it. It never changes, whenever I’m around people they are exactly as I had left them, aging making no difference.

The man who was father of a nation, father to me more than my own, cried like a sudden widow when he heard I had died. You never know when people’s dreams are connected to you before you’re gone and then there’s nothing to do, but watch them die in a different way, slow, limb by limb, system by system. Heart condition, diabetes, slow-killing diseases with slow-sounding names. This is the body going over to death with impatience, one part at a time. He will live to see them make him a national hero and he will die the only person thinking he had failed. That’s what happens when you personify hopes and dreams in one person. He becomes nothing more than a literary device.


Remarque on right and wrong

Saturday, 10 October, 2015 0 Comments

In the fourth installment in the Millennium series, The Girl in the Spider’s Web (original Swedish title: Det som inte dödar oss), author David Lagercrantz quotes Erich Maria Remarque as saying: “It’s always the wrong people who have the guilty conscience. Those who are really responsible for suffering in the world couldn’t care less. It’s the ones fighting for good who are consumed by remorse.”

The graves