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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


The mole in the machine

Saturday, 17 September, 2016 0 Comments

Dame Stella Rimington was the Director General of MI5, the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence agency, from 1992 to 1996. After retiring from the world of enigmas, she turned her hand to writing spy thrillers, a genre she loved long before she became a spy herself. In July 2004, her first novel, At Risk, about a female intelligence officer, Liz Carlyle, was published. This was followed by Secret Asset, Illegal Action, Dead Line, Present Danger, Rip Tide, The Geneva Trap and Close Call.

Liz Carlyle is summoned to Switzerland in The Geneva Trap for a meeting with a Russian agent who has approached the British with an offer of information. But he will only speak to Liz. He tells her that there is a mole in the Ministry of Defence in London, working for an unnamed third country tasked with stealing information about a secret US-UK project involving the next generation of drones. When one of the drones ignores the instructions of its human operator and self-destructs, it becomes obvious that someone is able to gain control of them and the race is on to find the hackers. Who are they? The Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans? Snippet:

“Clarity is concerned with the communication systems and commands sent to drones. We’ve developed protocols that let us send instructions to these new drones in natural language.”
“Natural?” asked Liz.
“As opposed to artificial – which is what computer languages are. Look.” And he flipped open the top of his laptop and tapped a key. The screen was filled with row after row of numbers and symbols. “That’s raw ASCII, the bits and bytes that tell this machine what to do.”
“Looks like Chinese to me,” said Peggy. Then realising what she’d said, blushed and added, “Oh, sorry. Let’s hope it’s not.”


“This is no way a dreadful book.”

Wednesday, 14 September, 2016 0 Comments

Truman Capote is supposed to have dismissed, immortally, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road by saying: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Dorothy Parker was typically acidic in spurning Lucius Beebe’s Shoot if You Must: “This must be a gift book. That is to say, a book which you wouldn’t take on any other terms.” And the old master of the put down, Mark Twain, put Henry James down thus: “Once you’ve put one of his books down, you simply can’t pick it up again.”

The diss is a staple of the reviewing industry and Lionel Shriver added to the lore in the FT Weekend section with a one-sentence appraisal of Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney. She wrote: “This is no way a dreadful book.” Ouch. ‘Nuff said.

Bright, Precious Days


Behind the veil in Saudi Arabia

Saturday, 27 August, 2016 0 Comments

“On every vacant lot in time appears the jumble of brownish brick, the metal spines of scaffolding, the sheets of plate glass; then last of all the marble, the most popular facing material, held on to the plain walls behind it with some sort of adhesive. From a distance it lends a spurious air of antiquity to the scene.” Hilary Mantel’s Saudi Arabia, as depicted in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, is a place of impersonal ugliness and stifling heat, a kingdom of sexual repression, corruption and violence.

Andrew Shore, a civil engineer, accepts a lucrative package from a British firm that has been commissioned to erect an opulent office building for the Saudi government. When his contrary, independent wife, Frances — a cartographer by trade — arrives in Jeddah to join Andrew, she’s instantly disquieted by the city and soon finds herself despising this masked society peopled by expats, who are mostly alcohol-sodden mercenaries, evasive Muslim neighbours and cruel, capricious officialdom. Confined in her apartment for most of the day, she begins to hear sounds of suffering from the supposedly empty flat above. Shopping provides some relief, but not much:

In the supermarket, Francis bought mangos. She put them in a plastic bag and handed them to a Filipino. He weighed them, twisted the bag closed, gave it back to her, but he did not even glance her way. Around her, women plucked tins from shelves. Women with layers of thick black cloth were their faces should be; only their hands reached out, heavy with gold.

She caught up with Andrew, laying her hand on the handle of the trolley beside his, careful not to touch.

“I didn’t know the veil was like this,” she whispered. “I thought you would see their eyes. How do they breathe? Don’t they feel stifled? Can they see where they’re going?

Andrew said, “These are the liberated ones. They get to go shopping.”

Thirty years after its original publication, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is still as disturbing as ever. Frances Shore is not a radical feminist but Hilary Mantel’s character is a dedicated opponent of fabricated separatism: “I would like to stride up to the next veiled woman I see and tear the black cloth from her face and rip it up before her eyes. I know that would be wrong, but I would like to do it.”

The naqab


James Joyce and Italo Svevo, Trieste and Zurich

Thursday, 11 August, 2016 0 Comments

In The Spectator, Philip Hensher offers a poignant review of Stanley Price’s James Joyce and Italo Svevo: The Story of a Friendship. Trieste played a key role in this happy episode of literary history and, recalling his time in the Italian seaport, Joyce said, “I met more kindness in Trieste than I ever met anywhere else.”

Joyce and his family had to leave Trieste shortly after the outbreak of World War I and they settled in Zurich, where most of Ulysses was written. The story goes that he went for a walk one evening by the shore of Lake Zurich and bumped into the English painter and Ministry of Information employee, Frank Budgen. After exchanging pleasantries, Budgen inquired as to how the novel was progressing and Joyce said that he had managed to produce two sentences during the day.

“You have been seeking the right words?” asked Budgen.
“No,” replied Joyce, “I have the right words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentences I have.”

When the anti-hero of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus, is walking along Sandymount Strand, he observes a dog belonging to a pair of cockle pickers discovering the body of another dog washed up by the sea. Here’s how Joyce used his vocabulary and syntax to convey the animal’s reactions:

“Unheeded he kept by them as they came towards the drier sand, a rag of wolfstongue redpanting from his jaws. His speckled body ambled ahead of them and then loped off at a calf’s gallop. The carcass lay on his path. He stopped, sniffed, stalked round it, brother, nosing closer, went round it, sniffing rapidly like a dog all over the dead dog’s bedraggled fell. Dogskull, dogsniff, eyes on the ground, moves to one great goal. Ah, poor dogsbody. Here lies dogsbody’s body.”

The perfect order of words.


Girls gone, gone, gone, gone, gone

Monday, 8 August, 2016 0 Comments

The huge commercial success of both Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has not passed unnoticed by the modern version of Grub Street, the London thoroughfare once famed for “its concentration of impoverished ‘hack writers’, aspiring poets, and low-end publishers and booksellers.” Young women have been pressed into service by this cruel trade in the hope that another lady-vanishes winner can be typed while the genre is hot. Five hopefuls for the crock of gold:

Good as Gone by Amy Gentry. “When 13-year-old Julie Whitaker is kidnapped from her bedroom in the middle of the night, her family shatters. As the years go by and the search for Julie turns up nothing, even her mother Anna begins to lose hope. Then one night, the doorbell rings.”

All The Missing Girls by Megan Miranda. “It’s been ten years since Nicolette Farrell left her rural hometown after her best friend, Corinne, disappeared from Cooley Ridge without a trace.”

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner. “As soon as Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw sees the photograph of missing Edith Hind — a beautiful Cambridge post-grad from a well-connected family — she knows the case will be big.”

Under The Harrow by Flynn Berry. “A woman is missing in the East Riding. She vanished from Hedon, near where we grew up. When Rachel will learn of the disappearance, she will think it’s him.”

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott. “This would be the piece that mattered most later, months later when Ryan was gone. She would think of their arrival and wonder why she hadn’t seen it all coming. But who could have seen anything at all that night but their bright-spangled beauty?”

According to the Paris Review, George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) “is good for a whole host of reasons, but it’s a particularly potent corrective to the current cottage industry centering on ‘the writing life’ — in which literary production is seen as glamorous, in which photos of writers’ desks appear on Pinterest and readers obsess over the perfect pen with which to write their buried masterpiece.” Ouch!

“Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. Whatever he has to sell, he’ll get payment for it from all sorts of various quarters; none of your unpractical selling for a lump sum to a middleman who will make six distinct profits.” — George Gissing, New Grub Street