May 15, 2013 § 1 Comment
TINY ISLANDS: 60 Remarkable Little Worlds around Britain by Dixe Wills (AA, 320pp; £14.99)
Definitions first: there are 6,289 fragments of land dotted round the British coast, most of them not very interesting (i.e. uninhabited and without a pub). An island, for travel writer Wills, is smaller than mainland Britain but “bigger than a rock that happens to stick out of the water”: say, no larger than 300 acres and no smaller than 10. His choice of sixty visitor-friendly islands (excepting that one of them, Burgh Island, was the site of a murder in an Agatha Christie crime novel) is quirky in concept and rich in cultural, historical and geographical quiddities. Basically, this is a useful holiday guide, prettily decorated with atmospheric colour photographs and hand-drawn maps. Helpful information about access, admission prices, accommodation, tearooms, pubs and things to do is neatly and concisely attached to each island entry. With a genial, laid-back style, Wills does a jaunty job of downsizing from mainland macro to insular micro.
A STING IN THE TALE by Dave Goulson (Cape, 264pp; £16.99)
In view of the recent debate about the brain-deranging effect of neo-nicotinoids on bees, and the disturbing implications for the ecology and the economy of a long-term decline in the bee population, this is a timely book. Goulson, Professor of Biological Sciences and founder in 2006 of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust acknowledges that the British love bees, but the damage done nationally by modern intensive agriculture has resulted, in extreme cases, in the extinction of some bee species, notably the short-haired bumblebee nationally, and a serious loss of numbers globally in others. Even literature is threatened: “Stands the church clock at ten to three, and is there honey still for tea?” Not likely, nowadays. And Pooh Bear’s favourite snack may be in short supply, if the bumblebee is not protected. Goulson combines cheerful personal enthusiasm with lively academic authority, addressing the amateur beekeeper and the professional apiarist in well-judged proportion.
May 6, 2013 § 1 Comment
A TOURIST IN THE ARAB SPRING by Tom Chesshyre (Bradt Travel Guides, 248pp; £9.99)
When the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won – that’s the moment to survey the war zone and hear what the survivors have to say about what happens next. Tom Chesshyre took leave from his day job as a travel writer for The Times to make a tour of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in the aftermath of the recent democratic uprisings. He wanted an adventure, and a brave new world (allowing for the literary irony in the phrase) seemed a likely place to find it. With no brief other than curiosity, equipped with pretty much nothing more than courage and compassion, he discovered that word of mouth was his best entry visa into the confidence of people whose lives had been so disrupted. He talked to everyone, and his frank, raw conversations say everything necessary about the reality of life at ground level in North Africa before, during and after bloody revolution.
BE AWESOME: Modern Life for Modern Ladies by Hadley Freeman (4th Estate, 266pp; £12.99)
India Knight, Caitlin Moran and – of course – Bridget Jones, welcome Hadley Freeman, a cultural columnist and fashion journalist, to the battleground of a modern woman’s life. “The truth will set you free,” said radical feminist Gloria Steinem, “but first it will piss you off.” Hadley is outraged by the slingbacks and horrors of the fortunes conjured for her as a modern young woman, mostly by her self-loathing sisters who labour in the mass media of women’s magazines, newspapers and celebrity culture. Though angry, she is rueful; though witty, she willingly admits her own complicity. In a supportive, self-help book for a suffering, self-deluding sorority, she fretfully points up the ironies, the inanities, the idiocies, the contradictions and compromises of a woman’s life. Fiercely, and with great footnotes, she recommends books, films, female role models, sexual attitudes and nutritional advice to sustain a regiment of women marching along the high road to awesomeness and redemption.
April 30, 2013 § Leave a Comment
PAYBACK: The Case for Revenge by Thane Rosenbaum (University of Chicago, 314pp; £18)
Rosenbaum spells out the virtually unspeakable in a liberal humanitarian culture: justice is revenge. To put it crudely, it expresses a sense of fairness, of appropriate restitution. It maintains the social balance. Law, he says, must act with the same moral entitlement, and the same spirit of human fulfilment, as the righteous avenger. Revenge is one of the great themes of literature, drama and religion as well as law, and Rosenbaum provides many examples supportive of his thesis. For the most part, he discusses justice in the West, largely the USA, with some excursions into Europe. On the other hand, he is obliged to admit that some other cultures and legal/religious codes of justice “know how to give revenge a bad name.” For anyone whose default position is that rehabilitation matters as much as retribution, Rosenbaum’s readiness to question the basis of justice in modern society is a tough read.
1913: The World before the Great War by Charles Emmerson (Bodley Head, 528pp; £25)
Emmerson reminds us that “for those alive in 1913, the 1880s and 1890s were no more distant than the 1980s and 190s are to us.” Indeed, many geopolitical values taken for granted in 2013 are reflected in the mirror of 1913. With that perspective of time, he presents time capsules of social life in the major cities of the world. From London to Los Angeles, from Berlin to Bombay, from Shanghai to St Petersburg, oblivious to any concept of global ruin, the world in a nutshell was exciting, energetic, colourful and contrasting. It is perhaps surprising to discover the strength of optimism in nations great and small for peaceful unity through the bonds of international trade, the modernity of contemporary culture and new ideals of modern progress. But the old empires were beginning to implode, the centres could no longer hold. In an ambitious book, Emmerson catches their last vital sparks in the year before darkness fell.
April 22, 2013 § Leave a Comment
INTO THE WOODS: A Five Act Journey into Story by John Yorke (Particular, 231pp; £16.99)
As William Goldman famously said of Hollywood, “nobody knows anything”. Nevertheless, these know-nothings know story structure when they see it, and they know film theory. However half-assed their understanding, they are not often wrong. Cranky screenwriters, says Yorke (himself a successful film and TV writer, editor and executive), may kick against such rigidities, but they will almost inevitably, albeit unconsciously, fall into line in terms of inherent screenplay structure and archetypal storytelling. Yorke calls up the words and works poets, philosophers, playwrights and musicians from the vasty deeps of the creative process to bolster his illustration of story and analysis of how to tell it. As a manual for screenwriters it gives familiar advice, but its strength is Yorke’s acute perception of the wellsprings of universal narrative structures relevant to all artistic activities. “Dramatic structure”, he says, “is not a construct, but a product of human psychology, biology and physics.” Discuss.
GULP: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach (Oneworld, 317pp; £11.99)
We are what we eat, in the pop foodie phrase, but the biological process of digestion is kinda icky. Happily, Mary Roach is beyond embarrassment and she has a strong stomach. “Lunch”, she says, “is an opening act.” She discovers, through her exuberant researches, that we are not only what we eat, we are how we eat. As a science writer, she gives full value; as an entertainer she points out that writers have profiled every body part except the gut: “The pie hole and the feed chute are mine.” Could we survive being swallowed alive by a whale? Did constipation kill Elvis? Why do the Greeks spit so much? Why is crunchy food so good? How many pies can you eat in five minutes? All these pressing alimentary issues are discussed with so much sassy sensibility and good-humoured gusto that the trip from feeding to faeces is laugh-a-minute painless. Burp!
THE MARQUESS OF QUEENSBERRY: Wilde’s Nemesis by Linda Stratmann (Yale, 316pp; £20)
Nobody comes out of this revisionary biography of Queensberry with any great credit. If it is true that we must judge him in terms of the laws and social norms of late Victorian society, then it follows that we must also so judge Oscar Wilde, who sued for libel when described by Queensberry as “posing as a somdomite” [sic]. Linda Stratmann presents her defence of Queensberry very judiciously and without special pleading. The facts, frankly, are not as we might now wish them to be. We have made a “convenient villain” of Queensberry, she declares. The true villain of the piece is his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, whose “carelessness, arrogance, vindictive pursuit of his father, and fatal beauty all conspired to bring about Wilde’s destruction.” On that, most would now agree. Queensberry is compellingly portrayed as an unhappy, disappointed man, frustrated at every turn, without support or comfort in his personal life.
CAPTURING THE LIGHT: The Birth of Photography by Roger Watson & Helen Rappaport (Macmillan, …pp; £20)
The Anglo-French rivalry in the 1830s between Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre to be the first to capture an image and preserve it remains controversial. As a founding father of photography, Talbot is perceived as the also-ran, hindered perhaps by his character as a modest amateur scientist and an English rural gentleman who claimed merely to have initiated a method and an art that others would develop. In dramatic contrast, Daguerre was an artist, a born showman, grandiloquent and assertively entrepreneurial. Their different temperaments may also explain why the sharp, lifelike first photographic portraits, famous as ‘daguerreotypes’ were preferred to Talbot’s softer ‘calotypes’. The question of who was first will never be resolved. Daguerre and Talbot are, say the authors, “a classic example of the Hedgehog and the Fox”: Talbot dogged and determined, Daguerre mercurial and fast-footed. In the end, it was character that determined their fates and reputations.
April 8, 2013 § Leave a Comment
THE SULTAN’S ISTANBUL ON FIVE KURUSH A DAY by Charles FitzRoy (Thames and Hudson, 144pp; £12.95)
It is 1750. You are on the Grand Tour, in Istanbul at the apogee of the Ottoman Empire. You’re on a budget, and there is no high-minded Baedeker or low-humoured ‘Rough Guide’ to help you negotiate this great hub city. The first thing to understand is that Europeans are treated politely, but are not well-regarded. They are “hogs, infidels and blasphemers.” As an Englishman, you are a filthy swine. Literally. You wash and go to church once a week, if necessary. The Turks go daily to the baths and to the mosques. These, like many public places in Istanbul, enchant and awe the eye with their magnificence. The bazaars are at the commercial heart of this great cosmopolitan city. You will not get the better of Turkish traders. In the latest addition to a cleverly conceived series of travel books, the history and culture of Istanbul is painlessly, playfully and concisely conveyed to the modern tourist.
THE PRINCE, THE PRINCESS AND THE PERFECT MURDER by Andrew Rose (Coronet, 336pp; £20)
On the night of 9th July 1923, in suite 41 at the Savoy hotel, at the height of a tremendous thunderstorm, a shot rings out! A man falls dead! The trial of the former high-class whore Marguerite Alibert for the murder of her playboy husband, ‘Prince’ Ali Fahmy, is one of the great set-pieces of the Old Bailey. Like Miss Otis, in a velvet gown with a smoking gun, the beautiful Mme. Fahmy had not only murder but her neck to worry about. After a lurid trial, she was surprisingly acquitted. As a late witness for the prosecution, Andrew Rose gives a virtuoso performance. He cracks the case in dramatic detail, turning up compelling new evidence of a secret conspiracy by the royals and the judiciary to prevent any disclosure of compromising love letters between the then Prince of Wales and Marguerite who threatened to exploit them to save herself from the gallows.
April 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
THE LAST MAN IN RUSSIA: And the Struggle to Save a Dying Nation by Oliver Bullough (Allen Lane, 284pp; £20)
While we Westerners are health-consciously calculating alcohol units to the milligram, too many Russians are sinking a litre of bog-standard vodka (tasting “like an unsuccessful science experiment”) before breakfast and dying before they can collect their pension. “One man’s alcoholism”, says Bullough, is a personal tragedy, but a whole nation’s alcoholism is symptomatic of a collective breakdown. On an epic trip through the blighted history of a benighted country, he perceives the Russian character principally through the work and writings of Father Dmitri, an Orthodox priest whose life in a totalitarian state from 1922 to 2004, coinciding pretty much with the birth and death of the Soviet Union, exposes the imbalance between the crushing effects of communism and the liberating benefits of spirituality. Like Father Dmitri, Bullough is inspired by a wish to save Russians from themselves and he finds a spark of hope in the brave, new post-Gorbachev generation.
DINNER WITH LENNY: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein by Jonathan Cott (OUP, 184pp; £16.99)
In 1989, the year before his death, Bernstein talked for twelve hours with Cott for ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine. This is a transcript of that interview in which he ranges from the first notes of his musical career (“I was ten when I first touched those piano keys … and that was before I could get a hard-on”) until his final appearance at Tanglewood. If they’d sold tickets, it would have been a sell-out performance. “Wow!” said Stravinsky after listening to Bernstein’s recording of ‘The Rite of Spring’, and ‘Wow!’ is the word for the shock value of his whole life as – in Cott’s phrase when he bumped up against Lenny dancing bare-chested to disco music at Studio 54 – “the Maestro-Dionysus himself!” Lenny is laugh-out loud witty, erudite, wicked, and epigrammatic, sparked to off-the cuff reminiscences about friends and colleagues and well-informed reflections on major composers by Cott’s informed but informal questioning.
March 25, 2013 § Leave a Comment
SHE LEFT ME THE GUN: My Mother’s Life Before Me by Emma Brockes (Faber, 342pp; £16.99)
The gun was a little pearl-handled number, smuggled in a trunk from South Africa by Emma Brockes’s mother Paula when she emigrated to England in 1960 and who kept it until she handed it in to the police in 1990 during a gun amnesty. Emma Brockes is “not, on the whole, sentimental about the gun” as a lost heirloom. Nor is she, on the whole, sentimental about her mother who prided herself on being a strong, capable woman and who said to Emma, then aged ten, “One day I will tell you the story of my life and you will be amazed.” She died without disclosing the details, so it was up to Emma, a journalist, to investigate the back story of Paula’s extended family in South Africa. The discovery of dark, violent crimes was grim enough, but in the wry, jaunty tone of this miscreant memoir there is positive resolution of past secrets and recovery of present relationships.
A SLOW PASSION: Snails, My Garden and Me by Ruth Brooks (Bloomsbury, 248pp; £12.99)
Snails have been first a bane and finally a boon to Ruth Brooks. In 2010, she was awarded the title ‘BBC Amateur Scientist of the Year’ for her work on the homing instinct of snails, a subject that briefly galvanised the nation’s interest in gastropods and redeemed her local reputation in Totnes, Devon, as “that mad snail lady.” Her interest in the domestic habits of snails has been lifelong and intense, sometimes excited, mostly exasperated. “Gardening is the national pastime. Snails are the national pest.” Her story of how she moved in late middle age from total warfare against snails as destructive blights on horticulture to tolerating them as creatures of extreme scientific interest is warm-hearted, witty and admirably rigorous in terms of home-made experiments and personal research. Once in a while, a book innocently intrigues the head and endearingly beguiles the heart. This is one of them.