Being a subscriber to the daily English-language news review from German magazine Der Spiegel I was delighted to hear that one of their writers, David Crosland, had published a novel tackling the topic of the Neo-Nazi movement in Germany, The Jewish Candidate. Although this book may seem a little implausible (the rise of a new “Hitler” type character in modern Germany), anyone who reads Der Spiegel regularly will know that the Neo-Nazi movement has significant support in Germany, particularly in the East and is a constant concern to the authorities (see for example this article in Der Spiegel, Germany’s Risky Push to Outlaw Far Right Party).
Crosland’s book covers an election campaign in Germany, in which Rudolf Gutman, a German Jew is standing for election to the post of Chancellor. Standing against him is Hermann von Tietjen who uses a full set of “dirty tricks” to oppose Gutman. von Tietjen’s main enemy is the Muslim minority in Germany and he uses various tactics to whip up hatred for the Muslim minority and also to threaten the Jewish Gutman.
The story is told by Frank Carver, a British reporter who is covering the electtion campaign for the fictitious London Chronicle. Carver gets into various scrapes as he infiltrates neo-Nazi meetings and confronts the leaders of the movement. Before long he finds himself racing against time to foil a dreadful plot which could see von Tietjen massively increase his support.
My only quibble about the book is that David Crosland is not the greatest of writers. The book is “racy” but lacks style, and I found myself thinking that top writers like Philip Kerr, Gerald Seymour and Alan Furst would have made a better job of it. At times the sense of improbability was a little too great for me and I found myself in two minds whether to give up on it. However, the topicality of the story and the forward movement kept me going until the end. If I was to award three stars to the book, that would be cruel, but four gives seems rather too high because, although writer has a highly imaginative approach, the rather sensationalist writing style lets him down. One thing for sure, it would make a fantastic film.
I’d like to be able to write two articles a week as I have done over the last five or six years, but free time seems to have evaporated from my life over the last few months. It’s my own fault: after 30+ years working in the I.T industry, I still find myself fascinated by technology and when the opportunity came along to design a new website for a charity as a volunteer, I jumped at it, not quite realising how much work was involved. I find that I can do most of the work in the mornings between 7.30 and 9.30 (I don’t need a lot of sleep), but this of course is the time I devoted to this book blog. Never mind, this won’t go on forever and I hope that by about February I’ll have finished most of the web design work and will be able to come back to more regular book-reviewing.
The charity is Kiya Survivors, a charity founded by the remarkable Suzy Butler and now expanding rapidly in its work of helping Peruvian children with learning disabilities and autism. Their current website is on it’s last legs and is frequently down – you might be able to see it here but I wouldn’t guarantee it.
Something else which has taken up my time is the arrival of two new grand-sons, one from my daughter and one from my son’s wife. It’s been a joy to get involved in their tiny lives.
I have an in-built resistance to the current glut of self-help books on the subject of “happiness”. I’ve had a few of them sent to me and find them all very much the same, and I somehow doubt that you can learn to be happy by reading a book. Happiness is a nebulous thing anyway – most of us seem to be pretty content to bumble along feeling reasonable enough but also having no illusions that a state of constant happiness is either achievable or even desirable.
After all, isn’t a state of happiness only possible if you’ve known a corresponding period of unhappiness? We only enjoy weekends because we’ve had to go to work in the week. Before I ramble on too much, let me say that whatever my feelings about “happiness” books in general, I’m going to make an exception for this one, A Private History of Happiness by George Myerson.
The book is simple in concept. It contains 99 written accounts of times or things which made people happy, the “people” in this case being a wide and highly eclectic range of historic characters such as Robert Schumann, Anna Seward, John James Audubon, Montaigne, Horace, Walt Whitman, Dorothy Wordsworth and Anselm of Canterbury. Each episode is followed by a short commentary by George Myerson who tells his readers a little about the writers and fills out the context of the short pieces with information about what was going on in their lives at the time.
The result is rather like reading many short diary extracts, and reminded me a little of John Sutherland’s excellent anthology Love, Sex, Death and Words which provides a daily snapshot of an equally varied set of people (I have this book on my Kindle and often look up the entry for the current day). But with this Happiness book, I find that it does actually remind me to look for those little episodes in the day when everything comes together in a brief moment of calm.
Perhaps the best way of showing this is to give a couple of short extracts from the book (the quoted texts are longer than these I have included here). Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, writes about meeting his brother every morning to go bathing early every morning at the public bath-house.
. . . Carl comes several times a week at five or six o’clock in the morning to fetch me. Or course he finds me still in bed and with me that means the same as asleep; and what a pleasurable awaking it is, when I hear his footsteps in the passage, and he comes in so full of friendliness and bids me good morning. In the greatest hurry I then don my clothes, in the meantime he fills a pipe, and then we start. In a safe bathing room we lave our limbs in the somewhat coldish waters of the Planke, a little tributary of the Spree; at first shuddering at the cold, then laughing at our own cowardice; and after the plunge, feeling extremely well and cheerful. On our return, Carl breakfasts with me, generally on milk, or, on festive occasions, on chocolate; and while this is being partaken of, we chat, or read, or perhaps play a game at chess, and then each to his work. . .
George Myerson then tells us that Friedrich Schleiermacher was a hospital chaplain at the time of writing and describes his stage of mental development as a young man, beginning to participate in the intellectual life of the city. Myerson gives enough information about Schleiermacher to make you want to go right across to Wikipedia to look him up – and that is one of the pleasure of the book – the way these little snapshots make you want to read more about the individual concerned.
Another extract comes from Hans Christian Anderson writing a “letter to a friend”.
The Brocken Mountains
Here I am sitting on Blocksberg and writing to you in he middle of a cloud, a nasty cloud which perhaps looks very nice from below, and many a poetical genius wishes himself up in this heavenly land of the mountains; but they should try it! Here is snow, the fire is lit in the stove, and I have an Englishman for my neighbour. It is quite like winter; I have been obliged to take two glasses of punch, and I am now going to bed, therefore no more of this place.
In this very moment three of the servant girls are dancing outside the window. They have after the German fashion, flowing cloaks of cotton, and snoods over their heads; they are gathering flowers, while light, misty clouds pass them like lightning; it is like the witch scene in Macbeth! There is a party of thirty besides the other travellers; they have brought musical instruments with them, and play delightfully. As we cannot see anything, I am now going to sleep to sounds of music.
Myserson comments on this passage, “the present moment was suddenly beautiful and complete. He had no lingering thoughts about future prospects as he slipped gently and happily to sleep, accompanied by the music of the mountain”. And really this sums of Myerson’s thoughts on happiness: happiness is found in spontaneous appreciation of the present moment, those little epiphanies which crop up in all our lives, usually unexpectedly. The art of happiness consists of recognising these moments and realising that life is not all struggle.
I’ve enjoyed my time in this book and it’s definitely one which will remain on my shelves, to be dipped into again and again. It would make a fantastic Christmas present for someone who like reading snippets of diaries or perhaps someone who is going through a difficult time.
This book has also been reviewed by Maria Popova on her marvellous Brain Pickings website. If you’re interested in books or writing I recommend that you sign up to Maria’s weekly email, which will provide you with inspiration and new directions for your literary life. Brain Pickings is one of those websites which is supported by donations from its readers rather than by advertising, a method of financing which guarantees quality on the basis that people only pay for what they like.
The Discourtesy of Death is the fifth novel in Matthew Brodrick’s Father Anselm series in which Anselm, the barrister turned monk, takes on an investigation into the death of a famed ballet dancer. Did she die of the bowel cancer that was bound to take her in a few months time anyway, or was she helped to her grave by a concerned (or perhaps malicious) relative?
I have never read a Father Anselm novel before and was pleased to find that enough background material was provided in the earlier chapters for me to pick up his back-story without any difficulty. In this book, we see Anselm’s detective work receive a broader commission from his Prior; he is to take the “light of the monastery beyond the enclosure wall” by taking on cases “from anyone who contacts you, particularly regarding those who are on the margins of hope”.
Soon Father Anselm finds himself deeply involved with the families of two brothers, one of whom, Michael, is the bereaved father of the ballet dancer. Why is Michael on a mission with a Browning Hi-Power 9mm pistol? And what does his brother Nigel know about this? Michael had to confront his own demons while serving with the Army in Northern Ireland as an intelligence officer and still bears the scars resulting from terrible decisions he had to make while combating the IRA. Is history repeating himself as he seeks the alleged killer of his daughter? Will Father Anselm be able to move the case forward quickly enough to prevent another disaster from happening?
Click here to continue reading Review: The Discourtesy of Death – William Brodrick
While I have been reading as much as ever, I have been so busy with other things that I’ve not really had time to write reviews for the last couple of months. For one thing, we have a new grandson, Arthur, and our daughter has needed help with the baby’s two sisters, Iris and Florence, who are both under five years old (leading to many afternoons surrounded by plastic bouncers, ball-pools and climbing frames in “Soft Play”). I’ve also taken on the creation of a website for a charity which is taking up huge amount of my time. However, I’ve found time today to write a review of a book which has consumed much of my attention for the last week and here it is:
I am one of the many people who have been waiting for years for Donna Tartt to bring out a novel equal to her first – The Secret History. Her Second Novel, The Little Friend, did not really hit the spot for me, although I read through it happily enough while waiting for the same literary buzz that The Secret History gave me. Now at last, Donna Tartt has met my expectations by producing this fantastic, nearly 800 page novel, The Goldfinch.
I was fortunate enough to see a review copy of the book and while I was initially daunted by the scale of the book (and not exactly attracted by the blurb on the cover), I started to read it and was immediately drawn in and captivated. There is something about good writing which makes is just as satisfying as a good meal. I found a sort of nourishment going on in my head as I read through Tartt’s elegant prose. It’s not just the elegance however, it’s the sheer pulsating interest of the book – this is the ultimate “good read” sought after by book-lovers the world over. Even the first chapter has an extremely dramatic event at it’s core, and straight away you find yourself wondering “where can this go to next”?
Many reviewers have suggested that there is a sort of Dickensian feel to this book for like Dickens, Tartt can delve into huge amount of detail without being boring. There are even some similarities between The Goldfinch and Great Expectations in the way that a young boy finds fame and fortune through an extremely convoluted route.
Although the book has an epic scale, it can also seem microscopic in the way the author recounts small episodes. A tour round an art gallery makes you feel that you are there yourself, and nobody reading this book will be able to resist seeking out the painting of The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius on the website of The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in order to ponder the predicament of this tiny bird, chained to its perch.
Click here to continue reading Review: The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
After his success with his 2011 Booker long-listed novel Derby Day, D J Taylor’s new novel, The Windsor Faction comes into the category of an “alternative history” novel – a historical novel in which some key event has been changed so that the author can explore what might have happened as events move into a previously uncharted course.
I find this sort of thing very interesting and have already this year read a novel on similar lines – C J Sansom’s Dominion, being a similarly well-written exploration of the political realities of the time. There have been many other books which examine similar scenarios, from Len Deighton’s SS-GB to Robert Harris’s book Fatherland.
With so many predecessors, one might think that D J Taylor would find it difficult to enter such a crowded market. However, in The Windsor Faction, he has taken a different approach to his more dramatic predecessors who described a full-scale invasion or occupation. Taylor has invented a far more subtle event than that; the death of Wallis Simpson just before the war, and the gradual out-working of the consequences as King Edward VIII remains on the throne (rather than abdicating) and provides a rallying point for those who wish to avoid war at all costs. While the death of Wallis Simpson is not exactly the flutter of a butterfly’s wing (so often quoted in the context of chaos theory), it turns out to be one of those relatively minor events, which works through the politics of the time to shift the course of governments.
The book opens in a villa in Colombo, Ceylon where Cynthia lives with her parents, her father a tea-planter and her mother an active member of the expatriate social scene. Cynthia spends her time playing tennis with the sons of government officials attending routine cocktail parties with her parent’s friends and passing the time with uninteresting sons and daughters of other colonial families. But war is looming, and the Kirkpatrick family return to Britain where Cynthia realises that her parents are at a loss as to how to fit back into London life. They suggest various options for their daughter such as a shooting trip to Scotland or visits to relatives in Yorkshire but . . .
. . . Cynthia, staring at them as they sat in their sun-haloes, white-faced, frightened and resentful, realised that she had no idea of the kind of people they were, or what they thought about anything, that there was a separateness about them that appalled her and in which, inevitably, she was complicit. I am a ghost, she thought, until the solidity of the room, the hardness of the chair in which she sat, and – a bit later – the distant whining of a siren broke the spell and drew her home.
Click here to continue reading Review: The Windsor Faction – D J Taylor
A new book from Pushkin Press is always welcome and in I Was Jack Mortimer, they have found a gem of a novel, written in 1933 but as fresh as anything written today. The book, a mixture of farce, murder mystery and character study is set in Vienna.
The book’s author Alexander Lernet-Holenia had an interesting life. As a conscript, he took part in the invasion of Poland but from this he wrote what is thought of as the only Austrian resistance novel which was banned by the government because it contained “an ideologically troubled central character, hints at the existence of active political opposition” (Wikipedia). He died in 1976 with a reputation for controversy which made him “the difficult old man of Austrian literature”.
Ferdinand Sponer, a young taxi driver picks up a fare outside the railway station who wants to go to the Bristol Hotel. When he arrives at the hotel, he turns to speak to the passenger and finds him dead with a bullet hole in his throat and other wounds leaking blood into the back of his cab.
Sponer’s efforts to tell the police are thwarted at every turn and realising how implausible his story is, he decides to dump the body in the Danube and forget the whole thing. Needless to say, this is where things start to go terribly wrong for Sponer. Before long, due to a convoluted series of events he finds himself taking on the identity of the dead man (thus the title of the book). I have to admire the author’s inventiveness as the story takes off on a wildly erratic route, with surprises at every turn.
Click here to continue reading Review: I Was Jack Mortimer – Alexander Lernet-Holenia
Wherever you go in Britain you’ll find corner shops, run by Asian people, staying open all hours of day and night and selling all those things that people run out of such as milk and cigarettes, and countless impulse buys like chocolate, lottery tickets, magazines and bottles of soft drinks. Before the wave of immigration in the 1960s, it was impossible to buy anything after 6 o’clock in the evening, or on a Wednesday afternoon (early closing day) but now, Asian families toil day and night to help the people of Britain who are suddenly overcome with a chocolate craving or the need for a can of strong lager.
For quite a few years now I’ve known Sathnam Sanghera as an always-interesting newspaper columnist and although I knew he’d written a couple of books,they didn’t really grab my attention until Marriage Material came along this month. I got hold of a copy and I thought it was so good I finished it over the weekend. It’s witty book, describing the lives of a Sikh family in the insalubrious city of Wolverhampton, and is full of rare insights into life in an immigrant community.
Apparently Sanghera’s inspiration for Marriage Material was Arnold Bennett’s book, The Old Wives’ Tale which was written in 1908 which was itself inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s 1883 book A Life. Whereas Arnold Bennett’s book is set in a drapers shop in Staffordshire, Sathnam’s is set in a “corner shop” in Wolverhamton, the sort of shop which stays open 18 hours a day and meets the needs of those who missed the chance to top-up with necessities during the day.
The story is told by Arjan Banga, a young Sikh whose grand-father came to England in 1955 with just a shilling in his pocket (or so the story goes). With high hopes for a decent career, Arjan’s father, “Mr Bains” ends up in retail by buying a shop in the struggling city of Wolverhampton. By 1968 when the book opens, Mr Bains’ shop is fairly successful, but at great personal cost to himself for he is now confined to bed with a variety of ailments, while his wife and two daughters run the shop. Click here to continue reading Review: Marriage Material – Sathnam Sanghera
I’ve been finding it a little difficult to get back into writing reviews since my summer break. It’s not been helped that in the last week I’ve taken delivery of a new desktop computer and I’ve been enjoying setting it up just how I like it and then wasting time playing with it’s new features. I’ve find so much pleasure in this I probably qualify as ace-nerd of Sussex.
I’ve been reading some great books though and hope to start reviewing in earnest next week. Just for today however, I’m going to write an article I’ve been intending to write for a long time about Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled.
I rarely read a book more than once – the number can probably be counted on the fingers of both hands (I’ve listed a few at the end of this article). But The Unconsoled is one book which I have read six times and own in three different editions (2 paper and one e-book), and will probably read again at least another couple of times and which never seems to fade in my estimation. This is The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, one of his least-regarded novels, but to me his best and one of the best books ever written.
As I wrote the last paragraph, I am aware that my views on The Unconsoled are unusual to say the least and are probably marking me out as a man of very peculiar tastes. I can honestly say that although I read this book every two or three years, I find myself captivated by it every time I read it. I find it hard to put it down, even though I know the story very well indeed and I know what’s coming throughout its 500+ pages.
When I start to read it, a feeling of complete absorption comes over me and I find myself entering Ishiguro’s strange creation as it meanders up and down innumerable byways. It’s cyclic structure (the last chapter ends where the book began) which makes me feel like I’ve gone into a maze, but rather than feeling panicky, it makes me feel soporific and almost sedated. It’s a sort of Alice in Wonderland for grown-ups, with a dream-like, beguiling quality which draws the reader into the strange world contained in its pages. Click here to continue reading Review: The Unconsoled – Kazuo Ishiguro
I have had a summer break from writing book reviews and intend to return now autumn is on it’s way, although I may not manage to publish the two a week I was publishing before.
For once the summer weather in the UK has been fantastic and I can look back on a couple of holidays in England and France, and also many days at the beach here where I live in Sussex.
I can’t say I’ve been reading a great number of books, and those I have read have tended to be at the lighter end of the market, particularly a couple of good Scandi-crime novels.
The book highlight of the summer was without any doubt The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth, which I shall probably write about separately. The story of a highly dysfunctional family of English Mormons was very unusual and was an education about Mormonism as well as being a very funny and amusing story about how people find redepmtion in even the most-unlikely places.
My last read was David Thomas’s new novel Ostland which I found totally compelling from start to finish. The book concerns the career, throughout the 1940s, of German policeman (and later SS First Lieutenant) Georg Heuser.
Ostland opens in 1959, when young lawyer Paula Siebert joins part of a team investigating Georg Heuser for his participation in major war crimes and mass murder of Jews. Paula interviews Heuser, and finds him to be a devious interviewee with a knack of probing her own weak points in an attempt to turn the questions back on herself. The horror of what he is accused of seems almost impossible to reconcile with this unremarkable man with his prison pallor and thinning hair, his suit to large for his diminished frame.
The book then goes back to 1941 where a serial killer stalks the S-Bahn train system in Berlin, looking for solitary women to attack. Meanwhile the young Georg Heuser arrives at Police Headquarter to spend his first day as a member of the Berlin murder squad. He has had a brilliant academic career and this has landed him a job working alongside Wilhelm Ludtke the head of the Berlin murder squad. The squad are under great pressure to find the “S-Bahn Murderer” and Heuser soon finds himself at the heart of a major investigation as more murders are committed.
This section is written in the first person as though by Heuser himself and we learn of his single-minded adoption of Nazi philosophy and his ruthless pursuit of suspects.
Eventually, as the war develops, Heuser is transferred to work with the SS in the Russia. The German army are still advancing towards Moscow and the bad lands left in their wake are ideal locations for implementing the “Final Solution” which will see the death of millions of Jews. Heuser finds himself made responsible for dealing with train-loads of Jews, a task to which he applies his considerable administrative abilities, to devastating effect. Click here to continue reading Review: Ostland – David Thomas
I will be taking a break from reviewing books this summer and intend to return in September. I may write occasional posts but these will be few and far between. Life gets very busy during June to August and it’s difficult to find the time for serious reading and at the moment I’ve even been finding it hard to get through even a couple of Scandi-crime novels.
I hope all my readers and fellow book-bloggers have a good summer.
Seaford Beach, East Sussex, England