December 15, 2013 § Leave a Comment
NORMAN MAILER: A Double Life by J. Michael Lennon (Simon & Schuster, £30) amply proves that size still matters: a big life needs a big book, in this case 948 authorised pages. For sixty years, from 1948 when he published ‘The Naked and the Dead’ to his death in 2007, Mailer hardly stopped to draw breath. The sheer egotistical excess of written and oral material is both a biographer’s dream and nightmare; but Lennon, unlike his subject, resists getting punch drunk, keeping the literary wild man caged though still capable of self harm.
PENELOPE FITZGERALD: A Life by Hermoine Lee (Chatto & Windus, £25), comes in at just over half the size of the Mailer biography, but punches beyond its weight. Beneath the seemingly quiet, decent life of an innocuous-looking writer there lurked harrowing domestic catastrophes and a financial fecklessness that would have had even Mailer reeling on the ropes. In her career, the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald was saved and supported by the devotion of her publishers and now, in reputation, she is rewarded by a superb biographer who is intrigued by the ambivalence of “her tragic view of life and humorous style.”
THE TRIP TO ECHO SPRING: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Lang (Canongate, £20) is about writers behaving badly. Echo Spring is the pensive name that the alcoholic Brick gives to his liquor cabinet in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ and the play’s author, Tennessee Williams, is one of the usual suspects, along with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, and poet John Berryman. Laing’s lively, stylistically original and sometimes acutely personal study of writers and alcohol avoids literary cliché while coaxing out the subtext of their writings to show the causes and effects of addiction.
BECOMING A LONDONER by David Plante (Bloomsbury, £20) is also informed by ambivalent behaviour. Plante casts intriguing new light and shadow on the poet Stephen Spender who adopted the good-looking young American novelist and his lover, the brilliant poet and publisher Nikos Stangos, as conspirators within his marriage to Natasha Spender. The complexities of interconnected liberal literary and artistic life in 1960s and 1970s London are exposed in candid extracts from the extensive, sharply observant, drily witty diary Plante has kept since 1966.
AMMONITES & LEAPING FISH by Penelope Lively (Fig Tree, £14.99) speaks from memory. From an acute perception of what is remembered, Lively the novelist gives “the view from old age”, from eighty years of an active life of writing and being. Rather than any contemplation of the Four Last Things, Penelope Lively prefers to select six things that “articulate something of what I am.” In these “fragments of detritus” she rediscovers the dimensions of memory as “not just a private asset but something vast, collective, resonant.”
SCULPTOR’S DAUGHTER: a Childhood Memoir by Tove Jansson (Sort Of Books, £9.99) comes artfully and deliberately at memoir through short stories which tell the truth to be told in child’s play and in adult remembrance become an epic of rights and wrongs in small things. The artist and author of the ‘Moomins’ books, born in 1914 into an artistic Finnish bohemian family, writes simply and graphically of real events and people in her childhood. The introduction by Ali Smith is a dancing, light-footed delight.
PERIOD PIECE by Gwen Raverat (Slightly Foxed, £16), also written from a child’s perspective, gives a charmed view of plush, polite upper middle class life in late Victorian academic Cambridge. Since first publication in 1952, it has remained a well-beloved classic. “This is a circular book”, Raverat happily explains, “it is all going on at the same time, sticking out like the spokes of the hub, which is me”
A CAB AT THE DOOR by V. S. Pritchett (Slightly Foxed, £12) is another classic and well-beloved period memoir, but it comes from the other end of the social scale, cleverly and comically evocative of a down-at-heel, virtually Dickensian childhood in London before and during WWI. The cab at the door didn’t mean gentility – it meant that the family was about to do another moonlight flit.
THE LETTERS OF JOHN F. KENNEDY, edited by Martin W. Sandler (Bloomsbury, £20) is a short, savvy sampling of letters that mark the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s death. They reveal the complexity of his personal charm, political dramas, hidden health issues, special relationships with women and presidential charisma. As a taster, this collection primes the appetite for more from the full collection of two million letters filed in the Kennedy Library.
ELIZABETH OF YORK: The First Tudor Queen by Alison Weir (Jonathan Cape, £20) proves that memoir can serve justice, but biography is the best long term revenge on one’s enemies. Weir revises the controversial reputation and political influence of the eldest daughter of Edward IV who as a teenager survived the murderous reign of Richard III to unite the warring houses of Lancaster and York by becoming the wife of Henry VII. Once again, she perfectly combines the dramatic colour and timing of a historical novelist with the truth to fact of a scrupulous historian.
EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang (Jonathan Cape, £20) is an interesting complement to Elizabeth of York who lived in interestingly brutal times. Cixi made her own turbulent times even more interesting by seizing the moment and the power, emerging from behind the throne as an influential concubine to become not simply a figurehead Empress but a reforming stateswomen for a new age. Jung Chang charges her revisionist narrative with great energy and conviction.
DIANA VREELAND: Empress of Fashion by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart (Thames & Hudson, £19.95) was as powerful and revolutionary as any queen or empress in her own domain of 20th century fashion and style. As the iconic editor who established American ‘Vogue’ as the fashion Bible and latterly invented the great costume extravaganzas at the New York Met, her self-confident life in fashion can be summed up in Gwen Raverat ‘s words as “all going on at the same time, sticking out like the spokes of the hub, which is me.”
December 2, 2013 § Leave a Comment
MAN BELONG MRS QUEEN: Adventures with the Philip Worshippers by Matthew Baylis (Old Street, 276pp; £10.99)
There’s a ‘New Yorker’ cartoon of a volcano spouting fireworks, and a native worshipper saying “Whatever else the gods are, they’re not angry.” If your living god is called Philip, you might expect some firecracker humour. Philip’s great virtue as a deity is his absence. He visited briefly, and once passed nearby, but really made very little difference to the lives of the South Pacific islanders of Tanna who adopted him in … well, even they are not too sure exactly when or why. Matthew Baylis, who as an oddball teen took Prince Philip as his poster boy, travelled to Tanna in search of the Duke’s idolaters and came back with a very funny, wide-eyed, self-deprecating tale to tell. There is no sensible reason for his book; it adds little to the anthropology of cargo cults, but it does add greatly to the sum of readers’ (and the author’s) happiness.
THE LIFE OF THE AUTOMOBILE: A New History of the Motor Car by Steven Parissien (Atlantic, 438pp; £25)
Steven Parissien is not an obvious motorhead; rather, as a cultural historian, he looks less at the technology of cars than the people who designed and drove them. He has unkind things to say about the badly-managed British car industry in comparison with the dynamism of Europe and the USA, cruelly pointing out that the recent reinvention of the Mini was German, not British. The book is about consumer trends, design aesthetics, environmental impact and social mobility, but especially about the visionaries who have developed the car since the 1880s. Henry Ford didn’t invent the car – that was down to Benz and Daimler in 1885 – but he did invent mass production and drove us all on a gasoline-fuelled trip into the twentieth century and beyond. From a Ford Model-T, by way of glitzy Cadillacs, cool Golfs and hot Minis, to futuristic autos, this is an exhilarating ride over some bumpy roads.
IN BED WITH GORE VIDAL: Hustlers, Hollywood and the Private World of An American Master by Tim Teeman
Gore Vidal, though generally assumed to be gay, never declared himself to be so, preferring the ambiguous word ‘bisexual’ and defining ‘gay’ rather narrowly as a sexual act rather than a sexual identity. Despite this deliberate socio-political hair-splitting, Tim Teeman has made inquiries of Vidal’s friends, lovers and one-night stands and confirms that the elegant controversialist not only preferred guys to gals but was offhandedly promiscuous with young men right into his sixties. Teeman is not prurient; he tells rather a tender story of a young love memorialised in ‘The City and the Pillar’, an enduring but allegedly platonic companionship with Howard Austen and starstruck sex with A-list actors. Teeman is respectful of Vidal’s prolific literary career, his magisterial status as a political gadfly and entertainment value as a waspish literary/cultural critic. He is kinder to Vidal than the old curmudgeon’s last years were to his health, temper and reputation.
November 24, 2013 § Leave a Comment
IN SHORT: Non-Fiction: 23 November 2013
DANGEROUS DAYS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE: by Terry Deary (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 263pp; £9.99)
Terry Deary’s first adult-rated version of his child-friendly ‘Horrible Histories’ relishes “the terrors and the torments, the dirt, diseases and deaths suffered by our ancestors”. It was bad enough to be a Christian or a pagan in the Roman Empire; the next worse option was to be a slave. Worst of all was to be an emperor, except for those fun moments when, like Nero, you could set fire to heretics to light the public gardens. Deary knows the secret of popular pedagogy – always leave them laughing. No matter how gory and gruesome the details of life at the top and bottom of the Roman pile, he subverts five hundred years of Roman imperialism with a light quip and a quick aside. It survived “in spite of the bad, mad, cruel and egotistical psychopaths that sat at the top of the pyramid.” It was succeeded, Deary ironically concludes, by two thousand years of Christian cruelties. Horrible history repeated itself.
TWO GIRLS, ONE ON EACH KNEE: The Puzzling, Playful World of the Crossword by Alan Connor (Particular, 303pp; £12.99)
The first crossword was published one hundred years ago, on 21 December 1913, in an American newspaper. Though the addictive word game quickly went global, Connor says that English is the best language for crosswords. He claims that British crosswords are best, first because compilers are named and thus become authors of their puzzles; secondly, in British cryptic puzzles there are fewer white lights and so “more onus is placed on each individual clue to suggest an answer.” The language of crosswords used to have strict rules: no death, disease, war or taxes. Though these have been relaxed; political correctness has replaced social politeness. “A love of crosswords is a love of language”, says Connor. It’s a nice idea, to be balanced against the ruthlessness with which crossword fanatics play against time and one another. The ‘Times’ crossword has been solved in the time it takes to soft-boil an egg.
SNAKE DANCE: Journeys beneath a Nuclear Sky by Patrick Marnham (Chatto & Windus, 331pp; £18.99)
From Conrad’s experiences in 1890 that inspired ‘Heart of Darkness’ and the discovery of uranium in 1915 in the Congo, to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011, writer Patrick Marnham and film director Manu Riche travel with notebook and camera through nuclear history and happenstance. At Los Alamos in New Mexico they revisit the mid-20th century Manhattan Project where they link metaphorically the explosive force of the atom that created a bomb with the rattlesnake dance of the Pueblo Indians that was performed to harness the untamed energy of lightning. Since this is the book of the film, ‘Snake Dance’, Marnham’s traveller’s tales, past and present, are wrapped around the nuclear narrative. From the greedy colonial exploitation of slavery to the blind potential of scientific exploration to enslave us in turn, he makes a circular journey: the nuclear snake eats its own tail.
November 18, 2013 § Leave a Comment
MEETING THE DEVIL: A Book of Memoir from the London Review of Books (Heinemann, 394pp; £25)
Readers who ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?” or “What is it like to be a writer?” might find some hard answers in this anthology of disturbing short memoirs by twenty-nine modern novelists, journalists and poets. Unlike politicians, they are not economical with the truth. First we find Hilary Mantel thinking about writing her hospital diary and recalling the poet Jo Shapcott who defined confessional writing as “chasing your own ambulance.” There is a fascination, Mantel says, “about the line between writing and physical survival.” It is astonishing how the economist Wynne Godley survived a gruesomely inept psychoanalysis; how Andrew O’Hagan survived being a schoolboy bully; how Julian Barnes survived the madness of the Booker Prize; how Terry Castle survived the erotic spell cast by Susan Sontag: but they are here to tell the tale revealingly and, often enough, seemingly to the point of self-harm.
THE TRAIN IN SPAIN: Ten Great Journeys through the Interior by Christopher Howse (Bloomsbury, 244pp; £16.99)
A man who can reference the 18th Duchess of Alba, Corner Boy and Cutter from a story by Cervantes, and the world music maestro Manu Chao within a couple of pages of each other is clearly off on tracks of his own informed ingenuity. “This is a book about Spain, not about trains,” Howse declares in his first sentence, whereupon he gets off for a cigarette stop in the foothills of the Pyrenees. On his 3,000 mile trip around the interior of Spain, he is rather less blandly benevolent than Michael Palin and much more interestingly a blend of two great travel writers, the magisterial literary flâneur Norman Douglas and the romantically nostalgic Norman Lewis who wrote about post-war Spain just before its modern development. Howse visits Spain at a time of equal upheaval and finds its lore and traditions still surviving like wild herbs in the nooks and crannies of a rocky landscape.
STRINGS ATTACHED: One Tough Teacher and the Art of Perfection by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky (Simon & Schuster, 326pp; £14.99)
Perfection is tough enough to achieve and tougher still to maintain, so it’s a little scary that this memoir of a beloved but merciless music teacher is warmly endorsed by Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother. As a flag waver for tough love she recognises the ruthless discipline, to the point of calloused and bleeding fingers, demanded of his music students by Jerry Kupchynsky. His daughter Melanie, who became a professional violinist, and Joanne Lipman, a former Kupchynsky student, seek behind the martinet musician to discover his roots as a Jewish Armenian immigrant, a survivor of childhood abuse and a Nazi internment camp, a grieving father, married to an invalid wife, whose search for the truth about the murder of his youngest daughter consumed ten years of his life. To balance the darkness at the heart of the man, lively tribute is paid by many of his students who became world-class musicians.
November 10, 2013 § 1 Comment
IN SHORT: Non-Fiction: 09 November 2013
AMSTERDAM: A History of The World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto (Little, Brown, 358pp; £25)
“Amsterdam is a pokey place”, Shorto admits, but in comparison with bigger, brasher cities, it has traditionally been a testing ground for freedom, a beacon for political liberalism, religious tolerance and social equality. It has also always been a city long in its cultural and artistic reach. On the other hand … Shorto’s tender, truthful love letter to his adopted city admits that it has recently had a bit of trouble on all these fronts and grants that casual visitors translate them into free love and legal highs when they’re running about from one licensed brothel and hash bar to another. Even a mayor of Amsterdam has said “craziness is a value.” From the 1300s, when the first canals were constructed, the city has come to terms with the sea from which it derived its power and riches. Shorto’s lively book is true to its salty, contradictory character.
ANTI-UGLY: Excursions in English Architecture and Design by Gavin Stamp (Aurum, 260pp; £16.99)
If we are anti-ugly, we must first define beauty. Is it, in terms of architecture and landscape, the picturesque, the classical, the sublime? Or, since architectural historian Stamp spent a decade in Scotland, the simply bonny? They are all very different in the perception of the beholder, and Stamp is realistic enough to recognise that “today’s eyesore can become tomorrow’s masterpiece”. This collection of his unedited journalism, contributed from 2004 to the architecture and fine art magazine ‘Apollo’, mostly concern the Englishness of architecture and design. He makes an exception for the Gothic Revival sensibilities that informed the famous Eglinton Tournament in Ayrshire in 1839 because it inspired many of Stamp’s principal interests, especially Victorian architecture. He has been “banging on” about his enthusiasms, including railway stations, war memorials and churches for so long that he perceives elements of autobiography in these acute, erudite, elegant and amusing essays.
WHO TOUCHED BASE IN MY THOUGHT SHOWER? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon by Steven Poole (Sceptre, 212pp; £9.99)
Steven Poole hauls the jargon words of business and bureaucracy out of context and interrogates them ruthlessly for meaning. Mostly, he finds non-meaning. That envelope you’re pushing is empty. He has linguistic sense and sensibility on his side when he objects to obfuscation by buzzwords. What‘s said in the office should stay in the office, but it doesn’t. It leaks; it goes viral; it is seized upon by journalists, politicians, spin doctors and celebrities, loose-talkers of all sorts. It is remarkable how jargon is deliberately power-driven, macho, energising. Perhaps office work is so dull that it has to be dramatised, dressed up as more important and urgent than it really is. There is a case for loose or ludic language, but overuse of jargon is like telling a joke too often. Listen, guys: a matrix is really only a spreadsheet. And bases are for baseball players. Live with it.
November 4, 2013 § Leave a Comment
THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury, 306pp; £16.99, ebook £14.99)
The overnight success of ‘Bel Canto’, which won the Orange Prize in 2002, took a lifetime of writing and four previous novels to achieve. In this collection of essays culled from her journalism and public lectures Ann Patchett tells not only how it happened but what happened as a result of it. Literature is not necessarily a living: in the first decade of her career, she says, short stories and novels “were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was.” Through the day job of contributing non-fiction to glossy magazines she bought time for writing fiction by night. As an inspiration to new, young writers, Ann Patchett’s literary career is exemplary. As an established novelist, her commitment to freedom of speech is a model for other writers. As an ordinary, fallible human being with an extraordinary talent, her warmth, humour, generosity and honesty is an example to us all.
MANY A TRUE WORD: a Fascinating Journey through the Idiosyncrasies of the English Language by Richard Anthony Baker (Headline, 160pp; £12.99)
The continuation of the abbreviated title, “is spoken in jest”, cues this light, fantastical dance through some quiddities of the English language. As a former writer of the style book for BBC radio news, Baker treads with the precise step of a literalist dazed and confused in the Wonderland of English as she is spoken, resolutely sure-footed in his loyalty to precision and concision but resignedly wrong-footed by everyday usage. He is adamant, for instance, on the impropriety of the split infinitive. And who but he is to say where we should stand on whom? The pleasures of pedantry aside, this is a gallant gallimaufry of the language as used and abused for sound-bites and Scrabble, crosswords and clichés, insults and officialise, texting and internet, Google and gastronomy, homophones and solecisms, catch phrases and prayer. The pity is that it is so short: we need one of these every year.
AMERICAN SMOKE: Journeys to the End of the Light by Iain Sinclair (Hamish Hamilton, 310pp; £20)
The virtuality of everything Iain Sinclair knows is powdered in the dust and refracted through the desuetude of the British experience. In his nostalgic search for the shades of the American Beat writers it is the fulcrum on which he spikes this psalter of praise to the memory of Hip. In London, Allen Ginsberg garrulously held holy court on Primrose Hill and Bill Burroughs, subfusc, dried out from drugs in Duke Street: but there and anywhere beyond the States (of common country and communal mind) they were fragmented and fractured, out of their interconnected society. The fast shutter speed of Sinclair’s prose pins the dated cultural moments, his ventriloquism refracts the period jargon; the pinwheel of his imagination fires off the tangential topographical associations. This self-referential charivari, this discordant literary knockabout, is as noisy as Burroughs’ final bullet from the Kansas bunker and as durable as the literary gunslinger’s last whiff of cordite.
DEEP SEA AND FOREIGN GOING: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Brings You 90% of Everything by Rose George (Portobello, 308pp; £14.99)
Like they that go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters, Rose George sees wonders in the deep and along the international shipping lanes. She embarked on a humungous four-storey container ship at Felixstowe bound for Singapore by way of Gibraltar, thirty nine days at sea in “the most compellingly foreign environment I’m ever likely to encounter.” More than 100,000 ships carry all the solids, liquids and gases that we need to sustain our global living. The trade is remarkable for the secrecy with which is it conducted, not only for commercial reasons but because it is largely beyond the boundaries of law and civilisation. “The sea”, says Rose George, “dissolves paper … the ocean is still the world’s wildest place.” Her report from the hell of high water is a marvel of information, insight and intelligence laced with humour, humanity and high spirits.
October 28, 2013 § Leave a Comment
DARLING MONSTER: The Letters of Lady Diana Cooper to Her Son John Julius Norwich 1932-1952 by John Julius Norwich (Chatto & Windus, 520pp; £25)
The very first paragraph of her son’s introduction precisely recalls Julia Stitch, Diana Cooper’s fictional alter ego, writing her letters and organising the political and social lives of her friends and protégés from her bed. Her appearances as Mrs. Stitch in the comic novels of Evelyn Waugh and her self-presentation in letters pretty much coincide. Diana Cooper is as vivid in literature and social legend as she was in life. Her letters are frank, intimate, witty and humorous. As the youngest daughter of the Duke of Rutland, wife of high-flying diplomat Duff Cooper, dramatic actress, society beauty, social fixer and media darling, she is significant in the subtext of the English establishment before and after WWII. All the usual players in the high bohemian repertory company of the period stroll into her line of sight and are stitched into her colourful social sampler. Even Burlington Bertie shared a banana with Lady Diana.
CHINESE WHISPERS: Why Everything You’ve Heard about China Is Wrong by Ben Chu (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 278pp; £20)
In the context of a recent British political and trade mission to China, Chu decisively declares that we see in China what we want to see. Our beliefs about China are so traditional and of such long-standing, that we are slow to recognise the reality of recent social, economic and political changes in China. He takes issue with easy Western acceptance of cultural stereotypes and societal myths. We embarrass and hobble ourselves, he says, with outdated propaganda peddled by ‘Old China Hands’. Psychological projection also plays a part in our perception of China as arrogant and nationalistic, neo-colonialist in Africa and dedicated to economic world domination. These are paranoid fantasies, says Chu, based on nonsense spouted five hundred years ago by Jesuits, the fantasies of Victorian thriller writers and a residual fear of Maoism. Forget Confucius, Chu advises: China’s thinking is modern, not ancient.
ALL THE BEST LINES: An Informal History of the Movies in Quotes, Notes and Anecdotes by George Tiffin (Head of Zeus, 434pp; £20)
At last! The Hollywood hack gets top billing, and with any luck the starlet will feel less embarrassed about sleeping with the screenwriter. In this treasury of great screen lines, back lot bloopers, movie mogul malapropisms and legendary poster quotes, the writer is finally and fully credited as the true auteur. Five hundred and more zingy one-liners and fifty short special features on aspects of movie history are memorable. In longer script extracts, the quotes are not just showstoppers from the usual classic favourites but snappy snippets from modern film. Sometime the writer has the killer last line and the last bitter laugh. When director Frank Capra commented on every scene from one of his movies, saying “That’s the Capra touch”, he got a stack of blank sheets of paper from the scriptwriter with the note: “Put the Capra touch on this.” This is high-end QI material for the movies.