Reading. August thru October 2017



Sin                                                                                          Josephine Hart

I really loved this.  Wickedly entertaining, highly readable.  Funny and tragic and excellent.  I’ve bought all her books at Iliad….   Barnes and Noble had nothing.

The Kingdom of Speech                                                       Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe’s take down of Noam Chomsky’s apparently utterly worthless theories about the beginnings of language in homo sapiens.   Funny and elegantly done.   For a while Chomsky’s politically correct thesis was untouchable, now it appears no one knows anything at all about the beginnings of language.  I did just read a piece on line about Bonobos and Chimpanzees, which suggests that gesture is the beginning of language and this seems a very promising place to begin the search for this defining distinction between man and animals, though always remembering that the apes are animals, that birds talk and that trees communicate.

The Looking Glass War                                                       John Le Carré

An almost satirical look at the fuck ups still fighting the previous war, and the constant war amongst bureaucrats.  Three innocents caught up in this tale, only one survives.  Smiley appears trying to help a hopeless cause.  First published in 1965.   Very fine.

Dunbar                                                                                  Edward St. Aubyn

The third novel from the Hogarth Press from major writers adapting Shakespeare.  I’m not convinced it’s a good idea.   This is successful until almost the end and the character of Dunbar is a finely drawn Lear businessman incarcerated in a mental home  by his evil daughters.  The trouble is there is no room for manoeuvre in the plots.   You know what is to happen.  And a novel is not a play.  He is the finest of our young writers and he got me till almost the end.   But then more questions were raised than answered and they were interesting questions because he had created interesting versions of the evil sisters, but the play was over so the novel had to be.  I found this same limitation in the excellent Jeanette Winterson’s Winter’s Tale and now that I understand the premise I understand why Howard Jacobson’s Shylock also fell away.  I’m not sure first rate writers should be assigned to second rate publishing ideas.  I bet that a good TV writer might do a better job.   Just saying.  All three of these authors seem to have been constrained by the premise.   Now I see John Banville is finishing Henry James’ books.  Please authors write your own stuff, no matter what the advance….

Call for the Dead                                                                   John Le Carré

This is his first novel?   It is certainly his first Smiley novel.  It is more of a detective story with a spy setting, which is how he finds his feet I think.   I liked it very much.  The mystery call is the plot on which everything turns.   Finely worked out, elegantly told, it’s the beginning of the tale of Smiley, his failed marriage to Lady Ann and her early exploits before she returns to him.  Shows Smiley’s struggle with the bureaucracy of the spying world and how he works well with characters like Mendel.  Grand stuff.

The Age of Elegance                                                             Arthur Bryant

Continuing to re-read this eloquent history of the Napoleonic period from the British perspective.  I began half way through at Waterloo.  He writes so thoughtfully and then of the period after the war where the Industrial miracle changed the face of England and English society.  As always thought provoking and gripping.   Will resume next time I’m in that place.  Meanwhile will search Iliad for more of his work as he seems to have gone out of fashion and nothing is in print.

The Secret Pilgrim                                                                 John Le Carré

A wonderful book. A series of tales really as Smiley is invited back by Ned to talk to the graduating class at Sarrat.  During his speech which forms the framework of the book he reminisces about some episodes and leads Ned into remembering or questioning certain good or dubious things that happened over his lifetime in the Service.  It’s a valedictorum for both of them, since they are both shortly to retire.   It’s about the sadness of leaving the Service and passing it on to a questionable world which has lost the black and white certainties of the Cold War, and which leaves behind the questions what have we become, who are the real victors, and what do we stand for now?  Questions which have only become even harder to answer since this book was written during Glasnost and it seemed at the time like The Russia House were friends.  It’s an exquisite read.

The House of Rumour                                                          Jake Arnott

I found this sadly discarded on my shelves in France and picked it up again.  I had done it a severe injustice.   It’s not a perfect book but it is highly readable.   I picked up again and found that what I thought was a book about L Ron Hubbard and Crowley and some slightly naive folks in Pasadena was a far more complex book about the puzzling flight of Rudolph Hess to Scotland.  Was he lured or was he pushed?   Since the deputy leader of Nazi Germany flew solo to Scotland to the Duke of Hamilton’s Estate only six weeks before Hitler’s invasion of Russia which would take place crazily on the same day as Napoleon invaded and inevitably with the same result, Stalin certainly believed the British knew about it and didn’t warn him.  He had had several warnings and ignored them anyway and retired to bed for three weeks when Hitler turned on him.   Hess wished to prevent Germany fighting a war on two fronts and wanted to reach out to Churchill for an armistice.  Whether he did that on his own initiative or was in a situation of plausible deniability is uncertain, what is certain is he never reached Churchill or Hamilton and spent the rest of his life imprisoned and either faking memory loss or being mad. He was the last to die in Spandau and according to this by suicide.  Interwoven with this are three or four stories and some real people including Ian Fleming.   I very much enjoyed it and was so glad I picked it up again.  Reminding me of the entirely new adage that there’s nothing wrong with the book it’s the bloody readers…  (c) E.Idle 18th October 17 2017.)

Elephant                                                                                Raymond Carver

More wonderful tales from the world of Carver.  Can’t go wrong if it’s a short story last thing at night you’re needing.

Maigret Takes a Room                                                         Georges Simenon

Even though I’m pretty sure I read this before I was just as gripped by the story of Maigret, in the absence of Madame, taking a room in a boarding house with an over confident Proprietor to try and figure out who shot, but fortunately didn’t kill Janvier in a quiet street where they were watching for someone else.

Assembling California                                                          John McPhee

Again re-reading John McPhee’s entirely wonderful tale of the unlikely geological assemblage of California.

Forest Dark                                                                           Nicole Krauss

Praise from Philip Roth is about as good as it gets, I couldn’t wait to read it and it was excellent as promised.  I followed up on Kindle with

The History of Love                                                              Nicole Krauss

But didn’t find it so compelling.  An earlier work of course.  Get the first.  She’s good.




A Legacy of Spies                                                                  John Le Carré

I bought this his latest in NY and loved it of course.  This time Peter Guillam is hauled out of retirement and confronted with some issues over Alec Leamas, the anti-hero of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.  That was perfect timing for me as I had just watched the movie again, set against the bleak wall of Checkpoint Charlie with Richard Burton’s dead-on performance of a burned out spy, unfortunately let down by his love for the idealistic communist Claire Bloom. This long ago episode involving who was really betraying whom has left some questions.   Smiley helps him solve who was on who’s side after the ambivalence of almost fifty years.  I could read it again now.

The Bomb Maker                                                                  Thomas Perry

I saved up for my travels and sneakily took away with me this latest thriller from Thomas Perry and I found myself a little concerned about reading it at night, it is that gripping.   I don’t think it’s published until January and the only problem with the author slipping you an early copy is you have to wait even longer for the next one.    This is about a frightening bomb maker who takes on, and murders, the LA bomb squad.  It’s hard to think where we are going these days, but every street and every incident seems for real.

As if it wasn’t bad enough his wife has also written another perfect book

Dead is Good                                                                         Jo Perry

This is the third in her hopefully continuing series of a dead man and a dead dog.  I enjoyed this one even more.  Hard to solve or prevent crime when you are dead and that’s the brilliant originality of these books. Charles Stone, helped by the dog Rose tries to prevent someone murdering his late wife in LA.  Starts with a bang and goes on surprising.  Highly enjoyable and unique and there must be something in the water in the Perry household.   Oh and I was surprised to see myself quoted in one of the epithets that begin the chapters.

Maigret and The Tall Woman                                             Georges Simenon

A woman he arrested years before, who teased him then by appearing naked returns to his life to help him solve a crime.

Born Standing Up                                                                Steve Martin

Simple, elegant and eloquent.  Steve tells the tale of how he became a comedian.   And then stopped.  Fun to re-read this classic.

The Hidden Life of Trees                                                     Peter Wohlleben

I’m still dipping into this and finding new and surprising delights.   It’s not a book you can read straight through.  It has such mind boggling facts that it is worth keeping by the bedside to dip into.

Maigret and the Killer                                                          Georges Simenon

Another goodie.   From 1969, though the translation in this Book Club edition was 1971.   He is quite easy to find in second hand book shops, since he sold so well.   Worth it.



Absolute Friends                                                                   John Le Carré

I had such a nice time re-reading A Delicate Truth  that I plucked this one off the shelf to re-read.  Interestingly, and thanks to my book diary, I found I stopped reading at exactly the same point, about half way through, when I realised that the missing person he is describing, and whom he seeks, is actually an asshole.   Fortunately for me his new novel arrived from Amazon, and I bought a nice edition of Call for the Dead.   I have a feeling that it is the interim novels, after the Smiley world and before he gets into his later stride about the world of arms dealing, that the books aren’t quite so forceful, but I have to read further to pursue this theory.

A Gentleman in Moscow                                                      Amor Towles

I’m sorry I think this is fraudulent.    I became uncomfortable reading Rules of Civility and after a while this book gave me the same discomfort.  It’s not that he can’t write, he can, and well, it’s that this is pastiche.  The characters come from another place, and, indeed, book.  It’s parody without comedy.  Or context.  So I’m sorry, and I know there are many people who read and enjoy him without noticing that this character is from War and Peace and this one is from Eloise at The Plaza, but it makes me feel practised on. 

Maigret Bides His Time                                                        Georges Simenon

His books are like a steel trap.  People seem to be wandering around, many disconnected characters, and then suddenly the pace increases, connections are made, often violence explodes, and there it all is.  Everything is connected.   This one, a first edition from March 1965, is a perfect example of this method.

The Devil finds Work                                                           James Baldwin

These Idle hands love it.   I love everything he writes.  I once came face to face with him in St. Paul de Vence.  That unforgettable face.   Those eyes.  What a genius.

What The Dog Saw                                                              Malcolm Gladwell

Another impeccable book from this master, what? essayist I guess.  His particular genius is not only to write about what fascinates him, and he is clearly a fascinating man, but connecting disparate subjects and considering what they might have in common.   In this collection of essays from the New Yorker he writes about legendary Pitchmen, ketchup, sportspeople who choke, early and late bloomers, Cesar Millan, the paradoxes of plagiarism, homelessness, criminal profiling, etc etc The range of his interests are seemingly endless and he is always fascinating, and illuminating about everything that catches his attention.

A Delicate Truth                                                                   John Le Carré

Le Carré is perfect for jet lag, and I don’t mean that in a rude way that it helps you sleep, but the exact opposite: that you are happy to be awake all night because reading is such a pleasure. I enjoyed this one more on this my second read, and even more than The Night Manager.  It is cleverly constructed and tight and told from two different viewpoints.  You can see his new target becoming not the old Cold War warriors but the modern cynical arms dealers, without any side but their own.  Greed is the great modern sin, and combined with business efficiency he again targets the merchants of death.   Excellent.  I have downloaded a ton onto my Kindle for future travels.

What Makes Sammy Run?                                                 Budd Schulberg

There’s a reason this novel has sold continuously since it was first published in 1941: it’s very good.  He also has identified a then new type of American, Sammy Glick, the boy from the Ghetto who has learned to survive on his own wits and his own hutzpah.  Unfortunately that which lifts you up may also bring you down, which is what makes this book such a satisfactorily moral tale,  told through the eyes of Al Mannheim, who is, like everyone else in the book, used by Sammy Glick, but somehow retains an interest in him, through an interest in the question that makes the title of the book a recurring theme, what makes Sammy run?  In the end, by returning to his roots he has the best view of the true answer.

Maigret’s Christmas                                                             Georges Simenon

A collection of nine stories from the forties and fifties, only one of which Maigret in Retirement I had read before, and then was just as confounded by the outcome.   All are great.   Seven Little Crosses in a Notebook, Maigret and the Surly Inspector, The Evidence of the Altar Boy, The Most Obstinate Customer in the World, Death of a Nobody, Sale by Auction, The Man in the Street, as well as the title track.

Conversations with Friends                                                 Sally Rooney

Highly recommended from some magazine, I found this to be not so important as suggested and not so unputdownable, so I put it down.


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