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Category Archives: Books

Book Corner – June 2018 (1)

The Misty Harbour – Georges Simenon

A man is picked up in Paris by the police. He has lost his memory, has recovered from a serious wound to his head and has five thousand francs in his pocket. The appearance of his maid, Julie, at the police station reveals that he is Yves Joris, the harbour master of the Normandy port of Ouistreham, just outside Caen. Within twenty four hours of his return to Ouistreham, Joris is dead. Maigret sets out to unravel the mystery.

As with many of Simenon’s novels, this book, first published in 1932, is very atmospheric. When Maigret arrives at the port, he can hardly see anything in front of him because of the mist, a metaphor which is picked up throughout the book as the detective slowly and methodically picks his way to the truth, despite the best efforts of the local community to close ranks and frustrate him. Maigret has to resort to some unorthodox methods – a spot of breaking and entering – to move his investigation on but, inevitably, he succeeds and a rather convoluted plot is unravelled. Central to the story is another tale of human frailty and a set of consequences that could so easily have been avoided.

Where the book is strong is in its descriptions of the port – it was apparently quite a busy place in the 1930s with its rather complex set of waterways. Simenon also paints a tremendously vivid picture of life in a community such as Ouistreham in his usual sparse, careful language – astonishing for someone who wrote so quickly. You can smell the fug of dampness, tobacco smoke, alcoholic vapours and coffee. I found I admired this book, longer than the norm for a Simenon novel, for its writing rather than the mystery Maigret was solving.

The Liberty Bar – Georges Simenon

In terms of atmosphere, this book, also published in 1932, is the polar opposite of the Misty Harbour. Set in Antibes we have sunlight and glare. Maigret is hot and sticky, uncomfortable, a fish out of water. He is sent from Paris to investigate the mysterious death of an Australian, William Brown. The two women who lived with Brown concoct an implausible story to account for his demise. Maigret, who is under strict instructions not to cause a drama, sets out to uncover the truth.

Brown, who has worked with French intelligence, has lived a double life. He would go off for a few days a month on a bender – his novena – and hook up with two other women. A fortune, a will and the petty jealousy between two of his women lead to his undoing. Maigret follows the trail – it is a rather low-key, low-energy investigation, reflective of Maigret’s instructions and his discomfort with the heat. But he gets there in the end. As often is the way with Maigret, though, he allows natural justice rather than the judiciary to prevail, the perpetrator left to see out their remaining few months at liberty but filled with remorse.

This is one of Simenon’s better Maigret novels and provides an interesting insight into the lifestyle on the Cote d’Azur in the 1930s as well as Maigret’s investigative methods and if you were looking to dip your toe into Simenon’s work, this is as good a place as any to start.

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Book Corner – May 2018 (3)

The Complete Short Stories of Saki – Hector Hugh Munro

Munro’s last words were said to be “put out that damned cigarette” before he was hit by a sniper’s bullet in France. The tragedy was that he needn’t have served – he volunteered at an age when he was too old to be called up – and so English literature lost one of its finest exponents of the short story. One wonders what heights he would have reached had he not been killed.

There are many collections of Munro’s stories – the one I read lovingly over a period of a year or so, dipping in and out when I needed something to smile about or gasp in amazement, was issued by Vintage Classics. His nom de plume, Saki, means one who serves wine in Urdu and like a waiter he tantalises, pours out his heady brew and leaves the reader gasping for more. His style is very economical, rarely is a word wasted or ill-chosen. His characters are vividly drawn and his stories are peppered with a mordant wit.

What struck me was how inventive Munro’s similes were and how delicious were his turns of phrase. To take just half a dozen at random: “The black sheep of a rather greyish family”, “People talk vaguely about the innocence of a little child, but they take mighty good care not to let it out of their sight for twenty minutes.” “The sacrifices of friendship were beautiful in her eyes as long as she was not asked to make them.” “The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened.” “The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.” “I’m living so far beyond my means that we may almost be said to be living apart.”  Wonderful.

In many ways Munro is the staging point between Oscar Wilde who must have been an influence and P G Wodehouse, whom he influenced. Many of his characters could have come out of the pages of Wodehouse – two of the recurring characters in his short stories, Reginald and Clovis Sangrail, do nothing more than move from country house to country house, getting into scrapes or causing mischief. There is a childish delight in Munro’s stories at the prospect of cocking a snook and puncturing the pretensions of the middle and upper classes. His stories are humorous but there is more there than you would find in Wodehouse. There is satire, something dark lurking beneath the surface, a touch of the bizarre and the gothic. Many of the stories have an unexpected twist.

My particular favourites are Tobermory, which is about a cat that is taught to talk with disastrous consequences for all, The Unrest Cure where a house’s calm is punctured by the threat of a pogrom, Filboid Studge, The Mouse that tried to help, which is a wonderful satirical attack on the world of advertising and Laura, a strange tale of reincarnation where the protagonists returns as a destructive otter. But there is something for everyone. Most of the stories are very short, some barely lasting a page or two and mostly three or four, but each one left me in awe of the skill and craftsmanship of the author.

For those of a sensitive, politically correct disposition, there are phrases and attitudes that may cause offence but then Munro was a creature of his time just as we are creatures of our own. Just enjoy his stories for what they are, the finest examples of the story in its short form. Shame about the fag.

We Call Upon The Author To Explain

The Eric Hoffer Book Award is one of the top and most prestigious American literary awards for independent books. Last Monday (May 14th) the results of the 2018 Book Award were announced.

I am delighted to reveal that my latest book, Fifty Curious Questions, made its way through a packed field to be named as a Category Finalist. If nothing else, it is gratifying to know that a quirky piece of English whimsy written firmly in a tongue-in-cheek style has transferred successfully across the Atlantic.

The book is available in all formats via http://www.martinfone.com

Closed Book

Here’s an intriguing questions to pose to bibliophiles; do you ever give up on a book?

According to one of those clever infographic things, this one produced by the book reader’s friend, Goodreads, 38.1% of readers plough on to the bitter end whereas 15.8% abandon all hope within the first 50 pages. 27.9% of those surveyed gave the book the benefit of the doubt before giving up before they had turned 100 pages.

As a reader I am reluctant to give up on a book entirely. Someone has slaved away over a hot keyboard or with a scratchy quill pen to put their thoughts down on paper and someone in the publishing world – although not necessarily so these days with the exponential growth in self-publishing – has thought that the work has sufficient merit to attract a wider audience. I feel that their work should be given due attention, even if at the end of it I conclude that I will give that writer a wide berth in future. Even if I profoundly disagree with their thesis or find their work a hard slog, I prefer to stick with it. Perhaps I am ever the optimist.

But there are occasions when I have given up a book in disgust, never to pick it up again. Usually it is for stylistic reasons. The writing style is too turgid or convoluted for my taste. More often, if I find a book hard going, I will put it down, pick up another and then return to it at a later date when I am ready to pick up the challenge again.

One of the benefits of reading e-books is that you can download a sample, usually the opening chapter or so. You can usually get a sense of whether you are going to get on with the book from this brief taster before you commit to purchasing it. The smart writer, though, will front-load their book with literary gems and intrigue to suck the reader in. Perhaps never judge a book by its first chapter is the e-book equivalent of the sage advice about covers.

We live in an age of instant communication and ever shortening attention spans. That being the case, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that 67.9% of readers jettison a book before they reach the end. I’m sure that percentage is likely to increase over time.

But it does raise an even more important question; why do we read? Of course, there are many reasons, ranging from a desire for entertainment, a thirst for knowledge, to stretch or improve the mind, to reduce stress, out of habit, to retreat into an imaginary world or just to pass the time away. It may just be that our motive behind picking up a book informs our decision whether to put a book down and never pick it up again.

Discarding a book is just as personal a choice as selecting it in the first place. We shouldn’t feel too bad about it. After all, the writer has had the benefit of the royalty.

Book Corner – May 2018 (2)

Afternoon Men – Anthony Powell

Humour is such a personal thing that I generally run a mile from a book described by some critic or other as the funniest thing you will ever read. But at least the tag, the funniest book you have never read, has a hint of mystery and intrigue about it. I am a fan of Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time series and am slowly working my way through some of his other works. Afternoon Men, published in 1931, was his first novel.

Probably like much of Powell’s work, it is like Marmite – you will either love it or hate it. There is no middle ground. In some ways it is much ado about nothing as very little of note happens as the subject matter is the aimless socialising of a group of vacuous promiscuous, privileged bohemians who are trying to make their way in the world of art, literature and journalism. This is classic Powell territory as are the plethora of characters who drift in and out of the book and the grand set pieces such as the drunken parties held in London, Mrs Race’s party which features a particularly dreadful batch of Balkan liqueur, a visit to a boxing match and a country house party.

Another Powell trait is that the narrative is seen through the eyes of a central character, William Atwater, who is a cynical and somewhat jaundiced commentator on the events going around him. The book is split into three parts – Montage, Perihelion and Palindrome – and there is a certain circularity that we come to expect of Powell’s later works in that at the end of the book the same group of friends, with one exception, meet in the same dreary club and make plans to attend yet another party without any degree of enthusiasm.

There are moments of comedy, particularly around the abortive suicide attempt of Raymond Pringle, a struggling painter, who had caught his friend, a better painter, in flagrante delicto with his mistress. Rather like Reggie Perrin he walks into the sea, leaving his clothes on the beach. His actions are observed by Atwell and Pringle’s mistress but they merely comment on his poor physique and, when he gets into trouble, his “pretentious side stoke” and how his head resembles “some curious red fruit floating along in the water.” Inevitably, Pringle is late for lunch, the guests find his suicide note and, then, in a moment of pure comic genius, Powell writes, “hungry, but thinking it hard to eat while their host’s body was driving down the channel, Atwater said: what shall we do?

Much of the book is taken up with dialogue, most of it inconsequential, but then most of our own dialogue is, somewhat oblique and full of knowing comments. It reminded me of Hemingway but without his portentousness. The longest speech begins ostensibly as a defence of friendship but then broadens out to a condemnation of the lives they are leading; “all the thousand hopeless, useless, wearying and never to be sufficiently regretted pleasures of our almost worse than futile lives inevitably lead us to.” In any other writer’s hands, the book could have become a bleak and wearying affair but Powell’s lightness of touch makes it an enjoyable read.

For those of sensitive dispositions there are moments of anti-semitism and male chauvinism but this was written at the start of the 30s, so I guess we have to expect it. The book reminded me of a gentler, archer, more knowing version of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. They both moved in the same circles, after all. An interesting book that can be read in an afternoon, if you can be bothered.

Book Corner – May 2018 (1)

Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800 – 1906 – David Cannadine

Most historians, charting Britain’s (temporary) rise to the top of the world pile in the 19th Century, tend to start after the Battle of Waterloo and end at the outbreak of World War One. As is increasingly fashionable amongst historiographers, Cannadine takes a different slice of the temporal pie, preferring to start with the Act of Union with Ireland in 1800 and finishing with the Liberal electoral landslide of 1906. Mathematically unsettling as this may be, it puts Ireland in the centre stage and the mainland’s relations with the Emerald Isle were a troublesome sideshow throughout the 19th century (as it was in the 20th and still is today).

The Act of Union which created what was known as the United Kingdom for the rest of the century was a rather botched affair and was passed for primarily defensive purposes. Corresponding legislation to deal with the internal governance of Ireland was dropped and this proved the blight that made relations with the predominantly Catholic population problematic. Anti-Catholic sentiments and the eugenic feeling that the Irish were an inferior race (although not as inferior as those races whose countries we would take over with gay abandon during the course of the century) proved too hard to dislodge.

Cannadine’s account is a tour-de-force and a rattling good read. His mastery of the subject matter is breath-taking and many an interesting insight. (Unusually for a history book) there are no footnotes, heightening the sense that he knows all there is to know and there is no sense in thinking otherwise. For the non-historian this is satisfying but one can’t help thinking that there are many other interpretations which may have some validity. The only concession to doubt Cannadine allows is provided by a prodigious usage of parantheses. I don’t think I have read a book with so many brackets sprinkled about, as if someone is whispering into your ear (sotto voce, no doubt) that there may (or may not be) other things to consider.

Aside from the Irish question, the take-aways (for me) from the book is how the empire grew through the actions of individuals in situ rather than through central fiat – indeed, for most of the century the government’s view was to constrain, if not reduce, expenditure and commitments in relation to overseas territories – and the dependence, even then, on the ability to trade with our European neighbours for economic prosperity rather than with the lands brought under the British yoke – an insight we might do well to heed.

The political colossi such as Gladstone, Disraeli, Pitt the Younger, the under-appreciated Earl of Derby (at least today) and Palmerston bestride the stage – what we would give for one or two of them now – but my admiration for Robert Peel grew as I turned the pages. It was a century when the extent of suffrage widened but still swathes of the population, including all women, were deprived of the vote and when parliamentary reorganisation finally rooted out the democratic abuse that were rotten boroughs.

On a macro-level it was a century of enormous progress – industrial, economic, cultural – but at a micro-level the lives of ordinary folk were a continual struggle in insanitary and disease-ridden conditions of squalour. Cannadine’s choice of epigrams to describe the period covered by his thoroughly enjoyable book are apt – Dickens’ opening line of A Tale of Two Cities – “it was the best of times, the worst of times” and Karl Marx’s observation that men and women “make their own history, but they do not do so … under conditions of their own choosing.”  The 19th century in a nutshell, methinks.

Book Corner – April 2018 (2)

The Saint-Fiacre Affair – Georges Simenon

I am working my way through the welcome Penguin Classics’ reissues of the Maigret series and the 13th book, the Saint-Fiacre affair, is a curious one. Maigret returns to the village of his birth – the original book, published in 1932, was called Maigret Goes Home – because an anonymous note has been sent to the Paris police claiming that a crime would be committed during the first mass held there on All Souls’ Day. Despite his attendance at the service, he notices an old woman, whom Maigret recognises to be the Countess of Saint-Fiacres, sitting motionless in her pew with her head in her hands. She is dead.

How did she die and who was responsible for her death? Maigret encounters a range of potential suspects who seem to come out of the pages of Agatha Christie – a gigolo masquerading as the Countess’ secretary, a spendthrift son, the estate manager who has been salting away some of the family’s money and his son. Indeed, the denouement is straight out of Christie where all the suspects are assembled in one room, although not by Maigret but by the Countess’ son, and the felon is revealed. It is a rather unconvincing finale and, in many ways, the novel betrays a hastily constructed plot which hardly satisfies the hardened crime fan.

Perhaps, though, there is more to this book than meets the eye and the key may be that it is for Maigret a nostalgic return to the village of his birth. The last time he visited was for the funeral of his father – he visits the grave and is appalled by its poor state of maintenance – and he wanders around the village unrecognised, shocked by the change in those he meets and the deterioration in the fortunes of the village. My sense is that for Maigret there is something cathartic in the return and it allows him to put the past to rest. George Orwell treated the theme more satisfactorily in Coming Up For Air seven years later. The moral of the story is never try to recreate your past.

The Flemish House

The 14th book in the series, originally published in 1941, is a darker affair. Maigret arrives at the border town of Givet, on the Meuse, at the request of one of his wife’s relatives, to look into the disappearance – it turns out that she has been murdered – of Germaine Piedboeuf. The suspects are a Flemish family, the Peeters, the son having put the unfortunate Geraldine in the family way.

The atmosphere in the town of Givet is antagonistic with the well-to-do Flems despised by the local French residents. The crime and the obvious inference that the Peeters’ got rid of the girl to enable their beloved son to marry into a respectable Flemish family, as was originally intended, stokes up the ill-feeling. The Peeters are a family under siege.

Simenon is at his best here when with a few words he describes the grim town, worsened by a river in full spate and torrential rain. You can almost see and smell the steam coming off Maigret’s overcoat as he trudges around the town, observing, rarely asking questions but it is clear that he is ahead of the local police, led by the comically inept Machere, in understanding the motivation behind the crime. Simenon’s characterisation of the Peeters family is spot on and Anna is a striking and, ultimately, complex character.

As often is the case with a Maigret novel, the felon eludes  criminal justice – Maigret decides not to reveal what happened to the local police – but from the final chapter it is clear that a more natural and eternal justice has been meted out. That’s Catholics for you but I do wonder how Maigret keeps his job!

Book Corner – April 2018 (1)

Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West – Michael Scott

There is a tendency, at least here in the West, to view ancient history as being principally about the Greeks and the Romans. After all, their achievements had some resonance in the Victorian mind with the British Empire, bringing the so-called benefits of (ahem) civilization to underdeveloped parts of the globe and the concept of democracy. Rightly, modern historiography seeks to bring to the attention of the general reader and student what was going on in more far-flung parts of the world such as the Indian sub-continent and what we now know as China at around the same time. This is Michael Scott’s attempt.

Scott takes three significant dates and tries to establish a connection between what was going on in the Mediterranean basin and the East. Firstly, he picks out 508 BCE which is when the seeds of what became the Athenian democracy were sown, when the structure of the Roman republic was established and when, in China, Confucius was at the height of his influence. Then we move to 218 BCE and the titanic struggle between Rome and Carthage, Hannibal et al, and when China and India saw empires emerging from periods of bloody and brutal internecine strife. The third significant date in Scott’s thesis is 312 CE when Constantine converted to Christianity (if he really did) and when Buddhism and Hinduism became the dominant religions in their respective territories.

The book is a very agreeable read and Scott displays his intellectual prowess in an engaging fashion, although there are too many recaps and repetitions for my taste. There are many interesting parallels in development in different parts of the globe which Scott points out and he is persuasive that there was much more interconnectivity between three worlds than we might have thought hitherto. Having tramped around southern India I was aware of the trading reach of the Greeks and Romans and silks and ceramics from the Orient were prized in the Roman Empire. Peter Frankopan in the Silk Roads has already argued persuasively, in my view, that the trade routes running from East to West were a sort of information super highway along which ideas as well as artefacts moved from one culture to another.

What troubles me and Scott doesn’t establish conclusively is whether these contemporaneous developments were just the result of happenstance or whether there was really a meaningful exchange of theories and influences. After all, as Scott admits, there is no real evidence to suggest that the Greeks and Romans were aware of what was out there in the east until the 4th century BCE so that pretty much defeats his argument in respect of political developments. It may be that in settled communities, however defined, there is a natural tendency to structure governance, religious thought and warfare that seems to best suit the circumstances at the time. No more or no less.

If we start to look for bigger pictures and greater connectivity than might otherwise have been there, we end up with a reductio ad absurdum that there is one controlling entity that structures the affairs of humans and their communities and we don’t want to go there.

Scott’s book is thought-provoking and taught me much I didn’t know about the development of Hinduism and Buddhism. I enjoyed the first part the most, perhaps because I was more familiar with the period. But as for Scott’s overriding thesis, I think the jury is out. If I was sitting in the agora of Athens I would cast my psephos against it.

Book Corner – March 2018 (2)

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – John Le Carre

When I was young, I fondly imagined myself as being recruited as a spy. I waited in vain to be approached by one of the dons at Cambridge to meet some interesting chaps who had an unusual proposal for me. I scoured the small ads in the Telegraph for an intriguing opportunity but all to no avail. With my mild lapses into absent-mindedness I thought I would be able to carry off sitting on a park bench in St James’ Park and leaving behind a briefcase with aplomb. Perhaps I viewed espionage more through the rose-tinted spectacles of Ian Fleming than the cynical, bottle-thick lenses of Le Carre.

I might well have been thankful for my lucky escape if I had read Le Carre’s third novel, published in 1963, earlier than I had. The world of espionage portrayed here is sordid, treacherous and downright dangerous. As the protagonist, Alec Leamas, states in probably the most quoted passage in the book, “What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.” Best out of it, methinks.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (TSWCIFTC) is an unremittingly dark, cynical tale of a triple-bluff perpetrated by the clever johnnies of the Circus – George Smiley et all – against their equivalents in communist East Germany, as was. As the tale unfolds, Leamas realises that instead of being the tool of vengeance as he thought when he signed up for the escapade he is really a powerless pawn in an even greater and more complex game. Part of Le Carre’s mastery is the way he spins the story so that the realisation of what really is happening dawns on the reader at the same time as the pfenning drops for Leamas.

The title of the book is an indication of the complexities that are at play in the novel. On one level, it can be read as the final operation before a veteran is pulled out of his life of deceit and deception. But for Leamas, there is another side to the story. His liaison with the naive, tragically-doomed Liz Gold sees him developing an emotional, human side to his character. He has a crucial decision to make atop the Berlin Wall and the heart overcomes the reflexes of a professional spy. In this sense, Leamas has come out of the emotional cold.

The portrayal of Liz Gold is heartless. She is innocently sucked into something that she doesn’t understand and cannot control. She is played mercilessly by the British to achieve the result that Smiley, but not Leamas, was hoping to get. And it is not difficult to see that her experiences of life behind the Iron Curtain were designed to open the eyes of those who considered life in a Communist state to be a kind of nirvana.

It is hard to write about TSWCIFTC without giving the game away, something even the most amateur practitioner of espionage should avoid. Suffice it to say, if you chose only to read one spy story, you should choose this one. It is a masterpiece, a page-turner, thought-provoking – a work of a writer at the top of his game.

Book Corner – March 2018 (1)

What’s Become of Waring – Anthony Powell

To paraphrase Nick Jenkins, I was at that time of life when I had read Dance to the Music of Time twice and so I decided I ought to explore some of Powell’s earlier works. I chose What’s become of Waring (WBoW) which was Powell’s fifth novel, published in 1939 on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War. Timing is everything and this rather put a dent in his sales.

The title comes from Robert Browning’s poem, Waring; “What’s become of Waring/ since he gave us all the slip/ chose land-travel or seafaring/ boots and chest or staff and scrip,/ rather than pace up and down/ any longer London town?” And that pretty much describes the novel which centres around the disappearance of an elusive travel writer, TT Waring, presumed dead, and the attempts to unravel who he was, what happened to him and why. Although there are certainly elements within the book of the classic mystery, the plot containing the statutory number of twists and turns to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, it works on more than one level. It is a light, well-written book which engages the reader so that they want to go on and also takes a gentle satirical jab at the pretensions of 1930s London society.

Rather like Dance to the Music of Time, the book is narrated in the first person, although unlike Nick Jenkins, the narrator here is anonymous. The use of a narrator allows Powell to show off his virtuosity because often he creates a void between what the narrator understands and what the reader has deduced, allowing the reader to feel superior because they have access to knowledge that the rather blinkered narrator has failed to grasp. The effect is carried off with aplomb.

I suppose it is wrong to judge a book with the benefit of hindsight but WBoW struck me as a dry run for the more substantial, in all senses, work that is the Dance sequence. As well as the use of a narrator, the book is set firmly in the world of publishing and literature. The narrator works for a firm of publishers, Judkins and Judkins, whose prime asset is Waring. Powell sends up literary types, particularly precious and mediocre authors, has the obligatory flighty woman – there is too much of Pamela Flitton in Roberta Payne to be a coincidence – and delights in the eccentricities of the bohemian set. Two séances, one towards the beginning of the novel and the other towards the end, have a significant impact on the story’s development. Powell is definitely sharpening up his craft to good effect.

Of course, the contemporary reading public did not have this sense of where Powell’s literary career was heading and so would judge the book on its merits. Using that perspective, it is a light, undemanding, amusing entertainment which could keep you cheerfully amused for a couple of evenings. My only disappointment was that I had worked out who Waring was early on.

On a more parochial note, part of the story centres around the Camberley area near to where Blogger Towers is situated. Powell clearly was not impressed with the place. “Some of the land showed traces of heath fires, charred roots and stones lying about on the blackened ground. Walking there was not at all like being in the country. Agriculture seemed as remote as in a London street. This waste land might have been some walled-in space in the suburbs where business men practised golfstrokes; or the corner of a cinema studio used for shooting wilderness scenes. It had neither memories of the past nor hope for the future.” It’s changed a bit now, I can assure you!