books, Books 2018

Books 2018 – Slow Horses by Mick Herron

9781473674189

I’ve missed a couple or so of books out since my last review; a Susan Sontag, a couple of John Bergers.  Good books in themselves but the Sontag on Photography was heavier than a Box Brownie on a tripod and John Berger writes like an Olympian.  But a week or two ago, looking for a holiday read for a short trip to Spain I picked up on the author Mick Herron during an interview on the BBC TV show, Meet The Author.  A bit of research led me to the author’s series of novels about British spy Jackson Lamb and the Slough House stories.  So I bought the first and second in the series, Slow Horses and Dead Lions.  I just finished Slow Horses.

I usually steer clear of the Crime and Thriller shelves in book shops but the last time I read a spy novel was the conclusion of the George Smiley series by John Le Carre in Benalmadena, Spain 4 years ago.  And I enjoyed the lot of them.  A skim of the cover suggested these novels would be good so Slow Horses became my holiday reading of choice.  And what a book!  A great read, a real page turner (I know, I know), unputdownable.

Jackson Lamb is a blown up, washed out British spy, long beyond his Bond days but like the footballer Teddy Sheringham, his brain is worth an extra yard of pace.  Exiled to the attic office of the run down building that is Slough House, Lamb presides over a motley assortment of has beens, never have beens and nor never will be’s.  And yet when a young man is abducted and his kidnappers threaten to behead him, it’s Lamb’s Slow Horses who are dragged into the fray for a final sprint round the track.

The language, the characters, the story all contribute to a dynamic, rewarding read.  I’ve finished the first and the fifth, London Rules has just been published.  I aim to read the lot and I wouldn’t blame you if you did either.

Books 2018

Books 2018 – All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski

all-of-nothing

I discovered Walter Kempowski’s novel, All For Nothing, during a trip to the London Review Bookshop where I spotted it on the LRB Recommends shelf.  I hadn’t previously heard of the author but I was attracted to the story as it was described on the outside back cover which begins,

“It is January 1945.  The German army is retreating from the Russian advance and refugees are fleeing the occupied territories in their thousands, in cars and carts and on foot”.

I still harbour a deep interest in the war, developed during childhood through playing with Airfix models and Airfix toy soldiers and this was a story I was familiar with through the books of, amongst others, Anthony Beevor.

Walter Kempwski, I learned, was a chronicler of German history throughout the war and All For Nothing was his last book before he died in 2007.  It is translated which caused me to baulk slightly due to the last German book I read which was poorly translated from the German, Alone In Berlin by Hans Fallada.  I noticed the translator of AFN was Anita Bell who, through the power of the internet, I learned is the brother of Martin Bell, the former BBC war correspondent known as the Man In The White Suit during the time he successfully campaigned to become MP for the Tatton constituency as an Independent MP in 1997.  Ms Bell’s credentials are impeccable and I seem to recall reading she has received an OBE or was it an MBE?  I can’t remember but she provides an excellent translation.

What a story.  By 1945 the tide of the second world war in the East had turned decisively with The Red Army standing at the border of the German Frontier waiting for the order to launch a counter invasion and bring the war to an end.  Scores of refugees are already passing through the little town of Mitkau in Eastern Prussia, fleeing from the occupied territories in the face of the Russian onslaught.  The story centres on The Georgenhof, a once grand country estate now in semi-ruin where the beautiful but unworldly Katharina von Globig lives with her son Peter while her husband Eberhard has a comfortable desk job in Northern Italy supervising the sequestration of Italian produce to feed the Third Reich.  Along with the von Globigs lives a sinewy old spinster, the indomitable housekeeper ‘Auntie’ who keeps everything running, a pair of squabbling Ukrainian women and a former Polish army private.  The house is visited upon by a succession of characters who help make up the ensemble cast of the book and whose own stories intertwine with those of the refugees in their great trek west.

The pessimism contained in the book’s title provides an inkling of where the story goes as defeat for Nazi Germany looms and the family face the prospect of joining the refugees or staying to face the Russians.  Refugees are temporarily billeted in the house and each have their own stories to tell which pepper the book with interest and intrigue We often meet up with these characters somewhere else as the story progresses as we learn their fate, often seen through the eyes of a child.  It’s a story of epic movement and touches on the plight of refugees in the modern world and the human story of those millions of people who give up everything to flee in the face of something cataclysmically worse.

Here’s a great book, written around an extraordinary story from recent history by an author we really deserve to read more of in the English speaking world.

Books 2018

Books 2018 – Ways of Seeing

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Phew, what a read;  I think I read each paragraph, on average, three times or as many times as it took for me to comprehend what was on the page.  You see, when it comes to art, I don’t know my stuff.  The book is attributed to John Berger as author but inside its making is credited to five individuals, none of whom I have heard of, except for John Berger.

John Berger, I know, was an intellectual.  I have watched a couple of videos of him including one of him in conversation with American intellectual giant Susan Sontag and I recently finished another of his books, Confabulations (see previous review).

Published in 1972, Ways of Seeing is written by an intellectual in an intellectual style.  But at a time when there were only 2 or 3 TV channels and AJP Tayor could command a huge prime-time TV audience just by standing infant of a camera and speaking, off the cuff, about history for half an hour.  Our population at that time had not yet been subject to the dumbed-down, celebrity led culture which began in earnest in the 1980s.  Before then, when miners formed their own poetry groups, people could read this kind of stuff and understand it.  I often struggled but even though I feel like I read this book three or more times in one go, I kind of got it.  In fact, part way through I visited Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery and the knowledge I gained from both this book and the recently read Keeping an Eye Open by Julia Barnes helped me enjoy a much more tangible experience with art.

John Berger was a committed Marxist and saw art as the province of the ruling classes.  He makes many references to capitalism, ownership, class and the objectivity of women in art.  Many of his political points are supported by the inclusion of a gallery of paintings depicted in black and white thought the book.  Published in 1971 it is the earliest example in a book I know of which covers the subject of sexism by the objectification of women in culture and art in the centuries of patriarchal society.  Berger describes a painting of a nude woman by Memling (1435-1494).  An attractive woman painted in full frontal nudity, is holding a mirror and thus the painting is called Vanity.  The mirror is a device simply used to disparage the woman and detract from the real intention of the commissioner or buyer of the painting to provide sexual titillation, a  form of 15th century pornography.

The final chapter brings art up to date (or as up to date as it could have been in 1971) by both focussing on publicity and drawing on the parallels between painting in oil and advertising.  I took from this chapter the line, “Publicity is the culture of the consumer society.”   Where art was once commissioned by men of property to project their status, now, publicity is used to fill the space caused by the deficit in democracy in our age of consumerism by projecting the image of our future selves which, as much as we envy it, is never attainable always deferred.

If, like me, you’ve been to a gallery and felt intimidated by the sheer volume of art on display without having a real understanding of whether it’s any good or not, you will gain a great deal of insight from this book and books like it.  I read it through over three days but feel like I read it three or four times it was that much of a challenge.  It was first published in 1972 at a time when miners formed poetry groups at colliery meetings and austere historian AJP Taylor could command an enormous prime-time TV audience just from standing before a camera and speaking, unscripted, for thirty minutes on a topic from history.  It’s a reminder of just how dumbed-down our culture has become over the past three decades but this book remains accessible if challenging and the reward for reading it is immense.  Read it and then visit a gallery.  I was pleased to note that some of the art on display at The Whitworth was crap but other was sublime – that will be Francis N Souza.

Books 2018

Books 2018 – Confabulations

cover

What would you like to know about this book?  That I couldn’t put it down?  That I read it over two days?  That I can’t remember much of the content?  That it is utterly brilliant?

When a friend mentioned the name John Berger to me recently it lightly tinkled a bell in my subconscious but nothing Quasimodo would be interested in peeling.  But on being told his book Ways Of Seeing is a must read insight into understanding art, I was more intrigued by the content of the back cover of Confabulations which begins, “Language is a body, a living creature…”  I bought it.

John Berger is a story-teller; or rather was.  I learned he died in 2017 and, prompted to look at some videos he produced, I recognised that familiar, rugged face.  There is an episode of a 60 minute programme he made for Chanel 4 television back in 1984 called About Time in which he explores the concept of time, punctuating his own thinking with fables and stories of old in a style reminiscent of Aesop and a book of his fables I read as a small boy.  Another video sees him in an hour long tête-à-tête with Susan Sontag.  They discuss story-telling but lofty as the conversation is, it felt contrived.

Confabulations is a book of stories from Berger’s own experience which he relates to the subject of language.  Language in all things, song, in art, in objects, even in flowers all born of the mother tongue.  I was reminded of a line in Maggie Nelson’s book, Argonauts, my first reading of 2018 in which she asked, are words good enough?  John Berger is certain they are not:

“A spoken language is a body, a living creature, whose physiognomy is verbal and whose visceral functions are linguistic.  And this creature’s home is the inarticulate as well as the articulate.”

John Berger’s stories are wonderfully entertaining and the great thing about reviewing a book is it provides an opportunity to revisit them.  I did and they contain more and offer more the more they are read.  They are mainly about lives, lives different to our own but appealing lives, lives we would perhaps like to live ourselves if only we weren’t so tied to the lives we live.

Please read this book.  It has helped me understand where language exists and where to find it.  It is a book of discoveries and to discover it is to enrich.

 

books, Books 2018

Books 2018 – The Argonauts

Must.Find.A.Purpose.

And what better purpose than to make a list; a list of books I read this year?  I kept a list of the books I read last year which was 2017 in a Moleskin notebook with was like a blog without the digital transformation.  It was on paper.  So to get in the digital swing with my analogous reading I’m going to keep a list of books read in 2018 here.  It may be of interest to me it may be of interest to others who knows?  I’m also cutting down my use of the comma you may have noticed in that last paragraph I did.

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Maggie Nelson – The Argonauts

So here we go.  Book 1 of 2018.  I started reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts in 2017  inspired to read it after watching a 70 minute interview with the author by Olivia Laing at the London Review Bookshop on You Tube.  I didn’t keep too well up with the interview because Maggie Nelson seemed a bit coy and evasive, a bit shy I thought.  Read the book, watch the video, you’ll realise why (commas ffs!).

OK, the author is lesbian and she tells the story of the relationship with her partner the all round artisan, Harry Dodge.  Harry Dodge is gender fluid and the story starts with interests surrounding the son he gave birth to and their desire to give further birth which pans out at the end of the book.  The book is bookended by children but in between is an examination of what is is  like to embark on a queer relationship in the 21st Century – and here I imagine a venn diagram of hetero-normative relationships against homo-normative relations.  Ms Nelson uses challenging adjectives such as sodomite mothers (I know ‘mothers’ is a noun) and examines the progress or otherwise of Joe Public to accept relationships outside of the not-so-long-ago established norm.  It’s no wonder she appears coy in her interview with Olivia Laing, these are very personal issues easier committed to the blank page than to a stranger in front of a paying audience in a cosy Bloomsbury book shop.

I read this book and it made me think a lot.  Maggie Nelson is very happy in her relationship in which she notes both her own and Harry Dodge’s perversions align perfectly.  They sound like a great couple and I’m confident those kids will grow up confident, healthy, tolerant and wise.