April 16, 2014 § Leave a comment
DEAREST JANE: My Father’s Life and Letters by Jane Torday and Roger Mortimer (Constable, 418pp; £14.99)
The legacy of a public life and private letters left to children by a writer is too often a double-edged sword with which they profit from fame at second hand but cut themselves to pieces in the management of it. For thirty years from 1947, after surviving five years as a prisoner of war, Roger Mortimer was the racing correspondent for ‘The Sunday Times’. He was also a prolific, prolix and ponderously humorous writer of letters which display an irritated sense of a disappointed life glossed over by a ferocious facetiousness. Selections from his letters have been published first by his son, then by a younger daughter. The eldest child, Jane, deeply exasperated by these collections, has raised a personal monument to her father in her own tendentious memoir. Mortimer’s ersatz-Wodehousian, sub-Waughian epistolary style, which has delighted us all long enough, is by now almost secondary to the apparent family feud and almost certainly survives in print only because of it.
THE SPY WITH 29 NAMES: The Story of the Second World War’s Most Audacious Double Agent by Jason Webster (Chatto and Windus, 322pp; £16.99)
Since most of this country’s best-known, home-grown spies have turned out to be double agents against our national interests, it is heartening to hear of a Spaniard, Juan Pujol, who was decorated with an Iron Cross by Germany and awarded an MBE by Britain for his double-dealing during World War II in the interests of British democracy and freedom. Jason Webster dramatically resurrects a quirky figure of fantastical duplicity, a juggler of multiple fictional personalities, and a prestidigitator of disinfomation, who was lured from Lisbon, where he was an agent for the Germans, to London where he established a network of non-existent spies for MI5. Possibly his most important achievement was to divert German Panzer Divisions away from Normandy before D-Day. Webster, whose non-fiction and crime novels benefit from his long familiarity with Spain, adds significant new detail to Pujol’s early career and brilliantly fleshes out his character as the enigmatic Agent Garbo.
PLEASURES OF THE GARDEN: A Literary Anthology selected by Christina Hardyment (British Library, 224pp; £20)
On a primary level this collection of prose, poetry and pictures has been thoughtfully designed as a pretty gift book to boost the takings at museum shops. On a prestige level, however, its contents are given weight by Christina Hardyment’s intelligent, intuitive selection of writings about gardens from the Garden of Eden to the Eden Project. Her exploration in this evocative anthology of four themes – love, design, work and solace – turns up surprises for even the best-read horticulturalist. ‘Digging’, a poem by Edward Thomas which she describes as haiku-like in its intensity, evokes the sharp odour that rises when “the spade wounds the root of tree” and is redolent of the “scents dead leaves yield.” In Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson reclaimed a garden from wilderness, but in his home thoughts from abroad he remembered Robert, an old Scots gardener. But here too, comfortingly, are familiar words of botanical joy and earthy pleasure from the beloved, booted figure of Gertrude Jekyll.
April 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
THE DUCHAMP DICTIONARY by Thomas Girst, illustrated by Luke Frost & Therese Vandling (Thames & Hudson, 224pp; £16.95)
Almost everything you ever wanted to know about Marcel Duchamp and really shouldn’t have been afraid to ask is here in digressive dictionary definition. As well as a fear of flying in an aeroplane, he had “an almost morbid horror of hair”; the pavilion at the end of Herne Bay’s pier was the inspiration for his ‘Large Glass” work; though perhaps best not to ask what those stains on black velvet, in ‘Paysage Fautif’ may be (but think Monica Lewinsky’s dress). He thought Surrealism, which he helped to found, “embodied the most beautiful dream of a moment in the world.” Famously, when he died, his epitaph read: “Besides, it is always the others who die.” Instead of Duchamp ceasing to be, everything else passed away from “the visual world that became a dictionary of subjects which he isolated by the mere act of choosing them.” Here are some moments from his world that ceased to be but lives still in Duchamp.
PACKING UP: Further Adventures of a Trailing Spouse by Brigid Keenan (Bloomsbury, £14.99)
Ten years ago, Brigid Keenan wrote about giving up her successful career as the fashion editor of The Sunday Times’ in the mid-1970s to become a ‘trailing spouse’ at several far-flung embassies: “I was described as a ‘Young Meteor’, but when I married A W I became a falling star”. Her first book, ‘Diplomatic Baggage’, was charmingly mischievous and elegantly amusing. Still in much the same mode of culture shock and everyday awry, she presents her diary of their last postings to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, also shuttling between homes and shuffling children and grandchildren in London and Brussels. With flashes of Nancy Mitford wit about ambassadorial life and her own bemused humour as a Facebook neophyte (William Dalrymple ‘friended’ her; Philip Hensher snubbed her) and a cancer survivor, Brigid Keenan is as skittish as a kitten with needle claws, as stricken as a deer in headlights, and as smart as a cage of monkeys performing old and new tricks. Brava!
LORDS OF THE SEA: How Athenian Trireme Battles Changed History by John R. Hale (Gibson Square, £9.99)
The fearsome trireme is evoked as an emblem of liberty and democracy and also as a weapon of Athenian imperial ambition. In their years of greatness, the Athenians were bound to the sea, says Hale. These great warships, “black with pitch, packed with men, and bristling with oars”, patrolled the seaways and defended the frontiers of a vast maritime empire now virtually forgotten. From the first, from the victory at Salamis in 480 B.C., democracy ruled the Athenian navy; the rowers were not slaves, officers were not high handed; crews were not resentful, and great leaders, schooled in the navy, were held personally responsible for glorious victories and catastrophic defeats. Undermined by vindictive politics and antidemocratic betrayal, the golden age of the navy ended suddenly in 322 B.C. In this heroic-tragic epitaph to an epic adventure, historian Hale combines the literary techniques of fast-paced action-adventure fiction with the academic discipline of rigorously researched truth to fact.
March 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
LITTLE FAILURE: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99)
Gary Shteyngart was coached in self-sabotage as a kid in Brooklyn by his Jewish Russian immigrant mother who, inventively hybridising English and Russian, called him “Failurchka” – Little Failure. Ever since, as a hyped-up humorous novelist and Manhattan-dysfunctional ‘New Yorker’ writer getting by in the world, he has learned to beat opponents, rivals and those he has offended by parodying them in fiction, to the sucker punches to his self-esteem by whacking himself first. A lot of people, including his own parents, have been waiting in line to pop him one. A memoir “full of dysfunction and hammer-armed assassins” he says, “needs an adult in the room”. Someone to tell the hero that he has to change: a psychoanalyst. Then Shteyngart writes his successful first novel, ‘The Russian Debutante’s Handbook’ and later writes this memoir as a belated love letter to himself and a fearful joy for his readers.
RUNNING FREE: A Runner’s Journey Back to Nature by Richard Askwith (Yellow Jersey, £16.9)
Show Richard Askwith an open road at dawn and he’s high-tailing down it like a dog let off a leash. Indeed, he writes lyrically of voluntarily running as the quarry for a Northamptonshire hunt, pursued by hounds, and beginning to perceive the terrain like one of them interpreting the world primarily through scent This is the second book he has written about running and in this one he goes off piste to run wild, run fast, run free, and especially run beyond the merchandising that has infected the sport. You don’t need shiny new kit: suitable footwear, a pair of shorts, a head full of thumping Janis Joplin songs and a stretch of open country will do just fine. Askwith is honest enough to admit it can be damn cold, bloody wet and usually muddy, so why flirt with hypothermia? One good reason: running keeps a person sane. His prose is as easeful and exhilarating as his energy and attitude.
A LITTLE PIECE OF ENGLAND: A Tale of Self-Sufficiency by John Jackson (JJ Books, 222pp; £12.99)
The traditional beliefs and attitudes of John Jackson, a founder of the Countryside Alliance, were set in literary aspic thirty five years ago in a book which took its title, ‘A Bucket of Nuts and a Herring Net’, from the only two things Jackson required to round up sheep. From need, as a boy in Dorset in the 1930s, he learned early to forage winkles from the beach, to look after himself and to value the community that came together to work the land. With a change of title, this book still gives the reader what it says on the tin. As a memoir of running a smallholding in rural Kent and feeling lucky to do so, Jackson is neither a literary Laurie Lee nor a lyrical Richard Mabey; but in amiable anecdotal mode he is as warmly devoted to his family as he is to his livestock, and the land that sustains him body and spirit through his care and proper use of it.
March 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
THE AMBIGUITY OF VIRTUE: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews by Bernard Wasserstein (Harvard UP, 334pp; £20)
In 1933, some forty thousand German Jews fled Hitler’s Germany. Many settled in Holland, where two Committees for Special Jewish Interests and Jewish Refugees were formed to help them. Gertrude van Tijn, an energetic, middle-aged convert to Zionism, was appointed as secretary to both. Until the end of the war and years after, she worked tirelessly to raise relief funds and negotiate the emigration of thousands of Jews from Holland. But Gertrude made one great fatal mistake, trustingly giving a list of two hundred and ten young people for whose wellbeing she was responsible to SS officer Klaus Barbie who had them arrested and killed in 1941. Virtue is not its own reward: after the war, she was obliged to defend her strategies and reputation. As defence counsel, though he is sympathetic to Gertrude as a true heroine, Wasserstein gives full weight to the wretched personal dilemmas she faced and candidly considers the narrow path she trod between collaboration and resistance.
LADY BETTE AND THE MURDER OF MR THYNN: A Scandalous Story of Marriage and Betrayal in Restoration England by N. A. Pickford (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 308pp; £20)
Money, power, ambition, political and royal conspiracy; a young teenage heiress in sore distress, a dastardly fortune-hunter shot down in the street: you couldn’t make it up? You don’t have to. The story of fourteen year-old Lady Bette, married off by Countess Howard, her grandmother, to Thomas Thynn, a middle-aged rake, for control of her great Northumberland estates, is the very stuff of Gothic romance or Restoration tragedy. Bette flees to Holland, her lover Count Konigsmark is suspected of contracting for Thynn’s murder (though it might equally be a political assassination in the interests of the royalist Catholic faction), and the entire country is in a fever of low gossip and deep suspicion. Three suspected assassins are strung up at the Haymarket in 1682, the lust for retribution is satisfied and the furore dies down. But in this dashing revival of the case, Pickford asks the crucial whodunit question: how much did Lady Bette know?
SINGING FROM THE FLOOR: A History of British Folk Clubs by J. P. Bean (Faber, 426pp; £17.99)
For fifty years and more, it’s been good fun to scoff at beer-swigging leftie folk singers in Aran sweaters and bushy beards playing in pubs and church halls to raucous sing-along audiences who looked just like them. The truth is, they revived our national music and saved traditional songs. With minimal comment, J. P. Bean presents a chorus of the anarchic folk movement, the likes of Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, Ralph McTell, Mike Harding, Woody Guthrie, even Billy Connolly, who took banjo lessons and, when he forgot the words of a song, just told the story. They tell it like it was with humour and nostalgic affection. Their boisterous memories of the grass roots post-war club and pub folk music scene, infused with American folk & blues, preserves the oral history of those who were there in good times and bad and loudly busked the anthems of the dispossessed, true to their spirit, if not always in tune with each other.
March 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
A HISTORY OF SILENCE: A Family Memoir by Lloyd Jones (John Murray, 274pp; £16.99)
The New Zealand novelist Lloyd Jones describes the earthquake that struck Christchurch in February 2011 as “a violent moment, like the snap of a tablecloth. A city’s past now lay revealed and it was not as most had imagined.” In the careful numbering of stones recovered to rebuild the city’s cathedral, he was prompted to think of how to identify and retrieve his own past. The ‘silence’ in this book’s title is the omission of Jones’s family to talk about their dead, and about the Welsh heritage of his grandfather. In a quest to understand, Jones travels to Wales where he discovered a story that was not as he had imagined. In a movingly elegiac, impressionistic quest to give voice to the unspoken, Jones identifies the disconcerting quality of Welshness that he has inherited – “an attraction to the anarchic and a general rage, a constant irritability” – and visits an old ghost in her long, lost rest.
THE ROAD TO MIDDLEMARCH: My Life with George Eliot by Rebecca Mead (Granta, 294pp; £16.99)
There are books that become a palimpsest of a reader’s life: at different ages, the reader superimposes her personal experience of living on the stories and characters, discovering them and herself anew. The novel ‘Middlemarch’ and its heroine, Dorothea Brooke has been a guiding light to Rebecca Meades since her teenage years and in every decade since. Virginia Woolf declared that ‘Middlemarch’ is “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”, and in this lively literary memoir, through the prism of that novel, we observe Rebecca Meades becoming a grown-up, first as an Oxford student, then journalist in New York, writer and critic. George Eliot, memorably described by Henry James as “magnificently ugly – deliciously hideous”, is the plain heroine of this biography woven with memoir in which she is lovingly rediscovered for a new generation as a novelist and mentor just as relevant to our ordinary lives now as in her own mid-Victorian times.
FIVE CAME BACK: A Story of Five Legendary Film Directors and the Second World War by Mark Harris (Canongate, 512pp; £30)
In 1941, after Pearl Harbor, five film directors signed up to do their patriotic duty: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, George Stevens and Frank Capra. When they took their cameras into battle, photographing the war in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and in North Africa and Europe, they changed their lives in ways that profoundly influenced their careers, characters and post-war cinema. Harris points out that the Hollywood studio heads, pre-war, had been cautious about rocking financial and political boats; they were dealing with Germany and Austria and were timid about the first Congressional investigations into alleged Communist activity among film industry professionals. The courage and expertise of these five film makers significantly helped to reshape the reputation of their industry. Film historian Harris tells the dramatic story of how they changed the history of film in their battles for liberty with Hollywood and Washington as much in their war with Hitler.
March 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
THE SURE THING: The Greatest Coup in Horse Racing History by Nick Townsend (Century, 404pp; £20)
Big time betting is a high stakes game dependent on high risk strategies to win high rewards. Professional gamblers become national heroes when they take the bookies spectacularly to the cleaners. Barney Curley has done it three times; winning the equivalent today of £2.5 million in 1970, near enough £3.9 million in 2010, and an estimated £3 million this year. For those of us who have ever torn up and thrown away tote tickets, Nick Townsend, Curley’s close friend and confidant, gives the lowdown on how to beat the system, to confound even modern high-tech systems designed to detect betting abnormalities. Curley is not exactly an enigmatic or self-doubting personality, but he says now that he feels he has wasted his life, and he has no desire that his tombstone should only be inscribed ‘Legendary Punter’. He has also been a priest, philanthropist and survived near-death experiences. Here he presents himself as the bigger, better man beyond the tabloid headlines.
SEXTANT: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans by David Barrie (William Collins, 348pp; £16.99)
To steer a steady course across the seas without GPS, you need a sextant, a graduated arc of 60 degrees and a sighting mechanism which measures the angular distances between objects. As an essential instrument of navigation, it was invented only three hundred years ago. To sail by a star is a romantic conceit and metaphorically unreliable, which may explain why the Flying Dutchman is still hopelessly lost. In this anniversary year of the Longitude Act of 1714, Barrie focuses on the great maritime adventures of the Pacific; and if Europeans take centre stage, that is because, Barrie says, the sextant was a European invention. As an enthusiastic and experienced sailor, he tells a breezy and bracing historical tale of how captains, cartographers, explorers, adventurers, ocean racers and seamen cast adrift have depended on an essential piece of kit that was developed by mathematicians, astronomers and instrument makers before being supplanted by high-tech offshore navigation.
CENSORING QUEEN VICTORIA: How Two Gentlemen Edited a Queen and Created an Icon by Yvonne M. Ward (Oneworld, 208pp; £16.99)
In 1901, on the death of Queen Victoria, two gay men, the cautious courtier Lord Esher and the literary cleric A, C. Benson, answerable to King Edward VII, were given the job of editing her vast output of letters for publication in three volumes. Though the editors dickered and differed in detail, their aims finally were “not to give offence and not to create scandal, but to make each of the three volumes of the book dramatic”. Scandal, such as the false accusation of Lady Flora Hastings’ pregnancy, was omitted and a romantically idealised story was created of Victoria as a young, innocent girl who became a good and wise constitutional monarch under the care and guidance of gifted gentlemen. Even in terms of modern media manipulation, Yvonne Ward’s exposure of the motives and the men behind this skilful piece of powerfully persuasive and permanent Edwardian political spin is astonishing.
March 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
MR SELDEN’S MAP OF CHINA: The Spice Trade, A Lost Chart and the South China Sea by Timothy Brook (Profile, 212pp; 18.99)
In 1659 a unique map dating from the Ming dynasty was bequeathed to the Bodleian Library by John Selden, a distinguished lawyer, provocative politician and scholarly Orientalist. Since its rescue from obscurity in 2009, the map has markedly altered our traditional perspectives of China and its relations with the rest of the world. It has been particularly provocative in the modern context of China’s claim to historical right of sovereignty by discovery over the South China Sea. First assuring himself that the Selden map is genuine, Timothy Brook, an expert in Chinese history, ingeniously and minutely deconstructs it, releasing dragons that fly along global trade networks, breathe over the shoulders of scholars labouring to decipher the map and discover the secret significances of compasses, sea law and magnetic signatures. The great charm of this book lies not only in its illustrative, erudite detail but in the serendipity that regularly seizes Brooks and adds spice to a spellbinding story.
TURKISH AWAKENING: A Personal Discovery of Modern Turkey by Alev Scott (Faber, 312pp; £14.99)
The rioting last year in Gezi Park took Alev Scott by surprise. She had moved to Istanbul to live and work in her mother’s country and there she was choking in an alley with an old woman who kindly gave her lemon oil to counteract the effects of tear gas. Living near Taksim Square, her view of Turkey was that of her friends who were leftist, progressive, creative and sexually diverse. As a young European woman, she resented being invisible to shopkeepers when out with her boyfriend, but she was respectful of ingrained Islamic attitudes and came to realise that European influence is more conceptual than actual. Without downplaying abuses of human and minority rights, Alev Scott discusses them frankly in terms of Turkish national pride. Turkish culture may incorporate elements of European life, but she believes that traditional, patriotic Turkishness will always prevail, uniting all Turks of all political tendencies. In a colourful survey of a complex, often paradoxical country on the cusp of social and cultural change, Alev Scott is an open-minded, fresh-eyed reporter.
THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Bloomsbury, 324pp; £20)
If ‘The Sixth Extinction’ sounds like the title of an apocalyptic Bruce Willis movie, be very afraid: it’s worse than that. Bruce can’t save us from ourselves. In terms of our predominance as a species, our fifteen minutes of humanity is almost up. Five times there has been an extinction event. This time it’s personal. We are not only our own worst enemy; we are the worst enemy for every other living thing on the planet. Even our best intentions and empathetic humanity are deadly. The Panamanian frog has nothing to thank us for: it is now extinct in the wild. Also on their way out are a third of fresh-water molluscs, sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and a sixth of all birds. Look no further than your own back yard, says Kolbert, for evidence of extinction. Among the prophetic Cassandras of global catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert’s voice rings out clearly and convincingly.