The Quiet American by Graham Greene

The emperor is dead, long live the emperor…

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Thomas Fowler is a veteran journalist who’s been stationed for some years in Vietnam, reporting on the rising violence as France tries to cling on to its colony and America’s involvement is growing. The story begins when Fowler is told of the death of Alden Pyle, a young American attaché who had arrived in Saigon a few months earlier. Fowler then tells us the history of his relationship with Pyle – acquaintanceship, perhaps friendship, certainly rivalry. For Pyle had stolen Fowler’s young Vietnamese lover, Phuong, promising marriage and entry to the glamorous American world of skyscrapers and fashion that Phuong had read about in magazines. And along the way Greene shows us old colonialism giving way to the new American mission to use its wealth and military might to westernize and democratize the world, whether the world likes it or not.

When I read the blurb, I wondered why the book had been considered “controversial”, and now having read it, I assume it’s because of the anti-Americanism that runs through it. To be honest, for a Brit of my generation and political leanings, that isn’t exactly controversial – it’s quite a mainstream position, and one that exists just as much, or perhaps even more, today as back in the early 1950s when this book is set. Anti-Americanism is the wrong term, really; it’s more anti-US foreign policy – a belief that the US blunders into situations around the world that it doesn’t understand, values non-American life cheaply in pursuit of its aim to create an American hegemony, and then retreats, its own nose bloodied, leaving the people in a worse state than they were in before the Americans arrived. (And sadly America’s allies, especially the UK, tend to allow the US to drag them into their military catastrophes.) Greene wrote this book before the Vietnam war, but he clearly saw the writing on the wall and uses Pyle as a metaphor for the sometimes well-meaning but always fundamentally ruthless and self-interested policies the US has pursued since it decided to declare itself the “leader of the free world” after the Second World War.

Book 19 of 20

However, old-style European colonialism fares no better. Greene shows it in its death throes, desperately trying to retain control of the colonies it still possesses, but gradually being forced into retreat, leaving the field open for the new superpowers to move in. The particular European empire in the book is the French, but Greene is clearly including all the old European empires in his critique. Fowler’s weary cynicism and fatalism about the future is as much a metaphor for tired and war-ravaged old Europe as Pyle is for brash young America. In their actions there’s not much to choose between them, but Europe, Greene seems to be suggesting, is finally learning the futility of trying to maintain its control over other peoples just at the point where the US has decided it will rule the world and impose its values and culture across the globe at the point of a gun. The question hangs unspoken in the Saigon air – how many lives are a price worth paying for the ideology of “freedom”? Pyle makes it clear that there’s no upper limit, so long, of course, as they’re not American lives.

Fortunately there’s an excellent human story to stop all this heavyweight political stuff from becoming too much. We learn of Pyle’s death in the first pages, and then go back to his arrival in Saigon as a seeming innocent. But he has more depth than first appears and Fowler is reluctantly drawn into a kind of intimacy with him because of Phuong, the young woman whom both men care about, though in different ways. Vietnam is in the midst of conflict with various factions fighting for power, sometimes with the overt or covert support of the various colonialist powers. Terrorist acts are a daily occurrence, and Greene shows the constant anxiety, the fear and the grief of living in a society in turmoil. And he shows the uncaring cruelty of those vying for power towards the people they use as pawns in their games.

Graham Greene

Most of all I feel it’s a wonderful character study of Fowler – a man whose cynicism is founded on age and experience, whose career as a journalist reporting from the trouble spots of the world has allowed him to see humanity at its worst and has left him wary of those who believe they have the right or the power to impose their culture and control on others. Pyle and Phuong are shown to us only through Fowler’s eyes, but he is an honest observer, able to see the strengths and weaknesses in both of them and, indeed, in himself. And eventually we learn what led to Pyle’s death.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Simon Cadell. While his narration is good overall, it has some weaknesses, not least that he sometimes seems to forget that Pyle is American. It’s also an older recording and the sound quality is not great – the volume dips and rises, and sometimes it’s a bit fuzzy. This is one case where I would recommend reading rather than listening, unless you can find a better narration. The book itself, though, is wonderful – undoubtedly one of Greene’s best and therefore highly recommended!

Audible UK Link

TBR Thursday 346…

Episode 346

A big drop in the TBR this week – down 3 to 172! I might even get below the magic 170 soon, if I don’t fall at the last hurdle…

Here are a few more I should run into soon…

Crime

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

My Looking Forward posts have made me thoroughly ashamed of all the books lingering on my TBR that I acquired because I’d enjoyed the author before. So I’m going to try my hardest to fit some of them into my reading schedule, starting with this one from Belinda Bauer, which I acquired in 2015!

The Blurb says: Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb digs holes on Exmoor, hoping to find a body. Every day after school, while his classmates swap football stickers, Steven goes digging to lay to rest the ghost of the uncle he never knew, who disappeared aged eleven and is assumed to have fallen victim to the notorious serial killer Arnold Avery.

Only Steven’s Nan is not convinced her son is dead. She still waits for him to come home, standing bitter guard at the front window while her family fragments around her. Steven is determined to heal the widening cracks between them before it’s too late. And if that means presenting his grandmother with the bones of her murdered son, he’ll do it.

So the boy takes the next logical step, carefully crafting a letter to Arnold Avery in prison. And there begins a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between a desperate child and a bored serial killer . . .

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Maigret on Audio

The Misty Harbour by Georges Simenon read by Gareth Armstrong

The last three for the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge. Having unexpectedly raced through the longest book left on my list over last weekend, it’s now looking possible that I might actually finish the challenge on time! First up, another admirably short Maigret, read as usual by the excellent Gareth Armstrong…

The Blurb says: A new translation of Georges Simenon’s gripping tale of lost identity. A man picked up for wandering in obvious distress among the cars and buses on the Grands Boulevards. Questioned in French, he remains mute… A madman?

In Maigret’s office, he is searched. His suit is new, his underwear is new, his shoes are new. All identifying labels have been removed. No identification papers. No wallet. Five crisp thousand-franc bills have been slipped into one of his pockets.

Answers lead Maigret to a small harbour town, whose quiet citizens conceal a poisonous malice.

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Greene on Audio

The Quiet American by Graham Greene read by Simon Cadell

One I haven’t read before from Graham Greene. It was the narrator as much as the book that made me choose this one as an audiobook – I have fond memories of the late Simon Cadell as an actor. The blurb sounds interesting too, though, and I’m intrigued to find out what it is that makes it “controversial”…

The Blurb says: “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused,” Graham Greene’s narrator Fowler remarks of Alden Pyle, the eponymous “Quiet American” of what is perhaps the most controversial novel of his career. Pyle is the brash young idealist sent out by Washington on a mysterious mission to Saigon, where the French Army struggles against the Vietminh guerrillas. As young Pyle’s well-intentioned policies blunder into bloodshed, Fowler, a seasoned and cynical British reporter, finds it impossible to stand safely aside as an observer. But Fowler’s motives for intervening are suspect, both to the police and himself, for Pyle has stolen Fowler’s beautiful Vietnamese mistress.

Originally published in 1956 and twice adapted to film, The Quiet American remains a terrifiying and prescient portrait of innocence at large. 

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Christie on Audio

By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

What better incentive to get to the end of the challenge than a Christie/Fraser/Tommy and Tuppence mystery! There are aspects of creepiness in this one that shiver my spine whenever I think of them…

The Blurb says: While visiting Tommy’s Aunt Ada at Sunny Ridge Nursing Home, Tuppence encounters some odd residents including Mrs. Lancaster who mystifies her with talk about “your poor child” and “something behind the fireplace”.

When Aunt Ada dies a few weeks later, she leaves Tommy and Tuppence a painting featuring a house, which Tuppence is sure she has seen before. This realization leads her on a dangerous adventure involving a missing tombstone, diamond smuggling and a horrible discovery of what Mrs. Lancaster was talking about.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The role of the narrator…

When narrating a book, a narrator has to decide how to interpret the various accents of different characters in the dialogue. This is crucial to allowing the reader to get lost in the book, and to being able to believe the placing of the characters in the social structure being portrayed in the book. The Power and the Glory is set in Mexico, and nearly all of the characters are Mexican. Therefore presumably they all speak Spanish or Mexican dialects. However, obviously, the book is written in English. So there are two choices open to the narrator: he can either give all of the Mexican characters appropriate Mexican accents, or he can give them all comparable English accents. (Of course, if the narrator and/or publisher were American, Canadian, Australian, Kiwi, etc., then it would make sense to give a range of the accents of those countries, but in this instance it’s an English author, and an English narrator.)

As an example, in the English-translation Maigret audiobooks, Gareth Armstrong chooses to give all of the characters appropriate English accents. If they are upper class he gives them a posh English accent. If they are working class he gives them a rougher London accent. If they don’t come from Paris he gives them a suitable regional English accent. This works very well. The only time he gives anyone a “foreign” accent is if the character is not French, and therefore would sound foreign to the French characters.

It would be equally logical, even if I feel it would be a little annoying, had he chosen to give all of the characters French accents. In order to do this effectively, he would obviously have to be able to give a range of French accents – educated, rural, working class, etc. – and I’m not sure many English speakers know enough about the range of French accents to catch the nuance of that. I certainly don’t.

Andrew Sachs as Manuel in Fawlty Towers

But it seems to me that the one choice a narrator can’t make, in these circumstances where every character is native to the setting of the book but the book is either written in or translated into English, is to give some of the characters English accents and some of the characters foreign accents. Where is the logic in that? And unfortunately that’s what Andrew Sachs has done in his narration of The Power and the Glory. Some of the characters, mostly the educated and/or powerful ones, sound English although they are Mexican, and then there’s a range of what I can only describe as caricatures of Mexican accents, mostly for the poor and downtrodden characters. I found it completely annoying and distracting and, dare I say, a touch condescending? But the point where I really began to wonder if I could take any more was when a mestizo character appears, and Sachs gives him an accent that at first I thought sounded very like Manuel from Fawlty Towers (not surprisingly since that is the “Spanish” accent that Andrew Sachs is most famous for), but then I realised that what it actually reminded me of was Calimero! This particular character whines quite often – “You’re going to leave me here to die, señor”, etc., – and I kept expecting him to finish every sentence with “It’s an injustice, it is, yeah!”

(If you don’t know Calimero, this is him – the most annoying cartoon character ever created, and as good an argument for eating chicken as I can think of.)

The result of this was that at no point did I connect with the book. If you’re a regular visitor you will know that Graham Greene is one of my favourite novelists and, while I don’t think The Power and the Glory is his best book, I certainly think it’s a good one. But although I struggled past the mestizo and Calimero incident and listened to the end, I found the narration too distracting to allow me to enjoy the book. In all fairness I should say that many people have found this an excellent narration, though some other reviewers have made comments similar to (though less brutally rude than) my own.

Book 4 of 20

I wouldn’t normally review a narration rather than the book itself, but this is one of my #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer, so I had to say something about it 😉 One day I’ll re-read a paper copy, and review the book properly.

Audible UK Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my recent reading in quotes…

….The commissioner added, “These guys talk about a Day of Retribution, when those who’ve made their lives miserable will get what’s coming to them. We’ve been seeing increasing references to it.”
….“It’s a delicate balancing act,” Joesbury said. “They want to get their communities excited, wound up about what’s coming, without giving too much away.”
….Brabin said, “Why babies? Why was the first attack on babies? How does that fit with their woman-hating agenda?”
….“We think it’s about attention?” Joesbury said. “Terrorists want to shock, to have everyone talking about them. An attack going unnoticed would be the worst kind of failure. Well, what would cause more outrage than an attack on a baby?”
….“Killing a puppy?” Brabin suggested.
….Joesbury let his lips relax into a half smile. “I stand corrected.”

~ The Dark by Sharon Bolton

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….While Mannering was gazing round the ruins, he heard from the interior of an apartment on the left hand the voice of the gipsey he had seen on the preceding evening. He soon found an aperture through which he could observe her without being himself visible; and could not help feeling that her figure, her employment, and her situation conveyed the exact impression of an ancient sibyl.
….She sate upon a broken corner-stone in the angle of a paved apartment, part of which she had swept clean to afford a smooth space for the evolutions of her spindle. A strong sunbeam through a lofty and narrow window fell upon her wild dress and features, and afforded her light for her occupation; the rest of the apartment was very gloomy. Equipt in a habit which mingled the national dress of the Scottish common people with something of an Eastern costume, she spun a thread drawn from wool of three different colours, black, white, and grey, by assistance of those ancient implements of housewifery now almost banished from the land, the distaff and spindle. As she spun, she sung what seemed to be a charm.

~ Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott

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….A week before he was due to leave, Katherine held a small goodbye tea party for her husband. He had few friends and most of them were also tuners: Mr Wiggers, who specialised in Broadwoods, Mr d’Argences, the Frenchman whose passion was Viennese uprights, and Mr Poffy, who wasn’t actually a piano tuner since he repaired organs mostly – It is nice, Edgar once explained to Katherine, to have variety in one’s friends. Of course, this hardly spanned the full array of Those Associated with Pianos. The London Directory alone, between Physicians and Pickle and Sauce Manufacturers, listed Pianoforte makers, Pianoforte action-makers, Pianoforte fret-cutters, hammer coverers, hammer- and damper-felt manufacturers, hammer rail-makers, ivory bleachers, ivory cutters, key makers, pin makers, silkers, small-work Manufacturers, Pianoforte string makers, Pianoforte tuners. Notably absent from the party was Mr Hastings, who also specialized in Erards, and who had snubbed Edgar ever since he had put up a sign in his workshop reading ‘Gone to Burma to tune in the service of Her Majesty; please consult Mr George Hastings for minor tunings that cannot await my return’.

~ The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

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….He began to hiccup with nerves at the thought of facing for the seven hundred and thirty-eighth time his harsh house-keeper – his wife. There she would be, lying in the big shameless bed that filled up half the room, a bony shadow within the mosquito tent, a lanky jaw and a short grey pigtail and an absurd bonnet. She thought she had a position to keep up: a government pensioner; the wife of the only married priest. She was proud of it. “José.”
….“I’m.. hic…coming, my love,” he said, and lifted himself from the crate. Somebody somewhere laughed.
….He lifted little pink eyes like those of a pig conscious of the slaughter-room. A high child’s voice said: “José.” He stared in a bewildered way around the patio. At a barred window opposite, three children watched him with deep gravity. He turned his back and took a step or two towards his door, moving very slowly because of his bulk. “José,” somebody squeaked again, “José.” He looked back over his shoulder and caught the faces out in expressions of wild glee; his little pink eyes showed no anger – he had no right to be angry; he moved his mouth into a ragged, baffled, disintegrated smile, and as if that sign of weakness gave them all the licence they needed, they squealed back at him without disguise, “José, José. Come to bed, José.” Their little shameless voices filled the patio, and he smiled humbly and sketched small gestures for silence, and there was no respect anywhere left for him in his home, in the town, in the whole abandoned star.

~ The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 335…

Episode 335

Another major drop in the TBR this time – down 3 to 174! I suspect this might be the last drop for a while – concentrating on audiobooks for #20BooksOfSummer means I’m falling way behind with my usual reading. And since I’ve never admitted to my audiobook stash in my TBR, they don’t count as drops when I read them! What a tangled web we weave…

TRIGGER WARNING!
MAJOR ARACHNOPHOBIA ALERT!

OOPS! SORRY! TOO LATE…

Here are a few more that should be scuttling my way soon…

Fiction

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

I loved Daniel Mason’s collection of short stories, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth, so added this to my TBR. It sounds very different but just as interesting, and it might even tick one of the elusive final boxes for my Wanderlust challenge

The Blurb says: One misty London afternoon in 1886, piano tuner Edgar Drake receives an unusual request from the War Office: he must leave his quiet life and travel to the jungles of Burma to repair a rare grand piano owned by an enigmatic army surgeon. So begins an extraordinary journey across Europe, the Red Sea, India and onwards, accompanied by an enchanting yet elusive woman. Edgar is at first captivated, then unnerved, as he begins to question the true motive behind his summons and whether he will return home unchanged to the wife who awaits him. . .

An instant bestseller, Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner has been published in 27 countries. Exquisitely told, this classic is a richly sensuous story of adventure, discovery, and how we confront our most deeply held fears and desires.

Thriller

Confidence by Denise Mina

Courtesy of Random House Vintage via NetGalley. I enjoyed the first book in this series, Conviction, although at the time I had no idea it was going to be the first book in a series! It was lighter than the other Denise Minas I’ve read, so I’m hoping this one too will be a fast-paced entertaining thriller…

The Blurb says: When Lisa Lee, a vulnerable young woman, vanishes from a pretty Scottish seaside town Anna and Fin find themselves at the centre of an internet frenzy to find her.

But Lisa may not be the hapless victim her father thinks. She had an unsuccessful YouTube channel and her last film showed her breaking into an abandoned French Chateau with other UrbExers and stumbling across a priceless Roman silver casket. One day after Lisa vanishes that casket gets listed for auction in Paris, reserve price fifty million euro and a catalogue entry that could challenge the fundamental principles of a major world religion.

On a thrilling chase across Europe, Anna and Fin are caught up in a world of international art smuggling, billionaire con artists and religious zealotry.

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Capote on Audio

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote read by Michael C. Hall

A little splurge of shorter audiobooks to keep me going with the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge, starting with this classic which I’ve not only never read, but have also never seen the movie! 

The Blurb says: Golden Globe-winning actor Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under) performs Truman Capote’s provocative, naturalistic masterstroke about a young writer’s charmed fascination with his unorthodox neighbor, the “American geisha” Holly Golightly. Holly – a World War II-era society girl in her late teens – survives via socialization, attending parties and restaurants with men from the wealthy upper class who also provide her with money and expensive gifts. Over the course of the novella, the seemingly shallow Holly slowly opens up to the curious protagonist, who eventually gets tossed away as her deepening character emerges. 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote’s most beloved work of fiction, introduced an independent and complex character who challenged audiences, revived Audrey Hepburn’s flagging career in the 1961 film version, and whose name and style has remained in the national idiom since publication. Hall uses his diligent attention to character to bring our unnamed narrator’s emotional vulnerability to the forefront of this American classic.

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Greene on Audio

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene read by Andrew Sachs

This was the first Greene I read, back when we were given it as a set text in school when I was around 14 or 15, I think. While being forced to analyse books to death was often enough to put me off an author for life, in this case it was the beginning of a life-long love affair…

The Blurb says: In a poor Mexican state in the 1930s, the Red Shirts have viciously persecuted the clergy and murdered many priests. Yet one remains – the ‘whisky priest’ who believes he’s lost his soul. On the run and with the police closing in, his routes of escape are being shut off, his chances getting fewer. But compassion and humanity force him along the road to his destiny…

Andrew Sachs reads Graham Greene’s powerful novel about a worldly Roman Catholic priest and his quest for penitence and dignity.

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Austen on Audio

Mansfield Park (Full Cast Dramatization) adapted from Jane Austen starring Billie Piper

I’ve had this kicking around for ages, but wanted to re-read the book before I listened to it – which I have recently done. Sounds like fun – I’ve enjoyed a few of these full cast dramatizations from Audible… 

The Blurb says: Adopted into the household of her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, Fanny Price grows up a meek outsider among her cousins in the unaccustomed elegance of Mansfield Park. Soon after Sir Thomas absents himself on business, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive at Mansfield, bringing with them London glamour and the seductive taste for flirtation and theatre that precipitates a crisis.

Directed by Tamsin Collison. With Matt Addis, Lucy Briers, James Corrigan, Scarlett Courtney, Rosalind Eleazar, Jennifer English, Emma Fielding, Ash Hunter, Joel MacCormack, Harry Myers, Esme Scarborough, Lucy Scott, Bert Seymour and Natalie Simpson.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Intimacy of strangers…

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As the Orient express makes its way from Ostend To Istanbul, the passengers on this long journey find themselves thrust into a kind of intimacy where secrets are revealed and character flaws are laid bare. Myers is a Jew in the currant business, going to Istanbul to supervise the purchase of a rival company. Coral Musker is a dancer, going out to join a dance group to replace a girl who has fallen ill. Mabel Warren, a journalist and a drunk, who is in the station at Ostend to see off the beautiful woman she loves, spots a man whom she recognises and jumps aboard as the train is about to leave. The man is travelling as Richard John, a teacher from a school in England, but Mabel knows he’s really Dr Czinner, who fled from Yugoslavia five years ago after giving evidence in the trial of a General in the ruling regime accused of rape. Czinner was then a prominent figure in the opposition to the dictatorship and Mabel realises that if he is now returning to Belgrade, there may be a story here that could get her a coveted byline on the front pages of her paper.

The book is set in the 1930s, and gives a real sense of the political unease throughout Europe in this between wars period. Through Czinner’s story, we see the rising clash of extreme right and left ideologies that scarred the twentieth century and, while Greene gives a sympathetic portrayal of Czinner as a man and an idealist, he indicates little belief that leftist regimes would be any better than the fascist dictatorships springing up across the continent. Poverty and inequality, Greene seems to suggest, make people open to any leader who convincingly promises to make life better, and those at bare subsistence level don’t much care what ideology that leader may be professing. Czinner wants to love his fellow man, and perhaps more importantly wants to be loved by him, but man is a fickle beast who will tend to follow the leader he fears most.

Greene’s treatment of Myers, the Jew, is undoubtedly problematic to modern eyes and makes for uncomfortable reading. However, if the reader can look past the surface, Greene is actually giving a remarkably sympathetic portrayal for that time. While accepting the perceived negative characteristics of Jews as actuality, Greene is seeking to show how, in Western Europe at least, they have developed in response to the discrimination and prejudice Jews have had to deal with on a daily basis. Jews, he suggests, who have run from pogroms before and fear that they will be driven out again from their new, uncertain places of refuge can hardly be blamed for their love of gold, as a form of portable security – a deposit against the need to buy acceptance in the now or future refuge elsewhere. We see Myers in a constant conflict of emotions. He is proud of his wealth and importance as the owner of a successful and growing business, but at the same time there is the constant anxiety of what we now call micro-aggressions and the growing fear, soon to be tragically justified, that those aggressions might at any time turn to violence. The race memory of centuries of persecution never sinks below the surface, and so he ingratiates himself to people he inwardly despises, and despises himself for doing so. Although I found some of this difficult reading, I felt that Greene was appealing for understanding and tolerance rather than intentionally contributing to the stereotyping that has done so much harm.

Mabel is also problematic as a character, in very similar ways. Greene is frank and open about her lesbianism in a way that was rare in literature as early as this. But he is a male author, writing in a time when lesbianism was still not openly discussed, and I felt again his portrayal relied too heavily on stereotypes, as if he was writing about something he didn’t properly understand. Like Myers, Mabel has more than her share of negative characteristics – she drinks, she hates men, she manipulates young women, she uses people without caring about the impact she may have on their lives, she wallows in self-pity. She is desperate for love, but Greene, perhaps unintentionally, gives the impression that lesbian love is doomed to be sordid and impermanent. Again, though, it seemed to me that he was seeking to elicit sympathy for her from a readership who largely would have no knowledge of the world of lesbian love and would mostly be heavily prejudiced against it. Mabel, he seems to be saying, is a horrible person, but how could she not be when her whole life has been one rejection after another, when the world treats her as a living perversion?

Graham Greene

Coral, happily, is considerably easier to like and to pity – a young woman alone in the world and tired of the insecurity of poverty. She may seem weak and some might judge her immoral but she has her reasons, and in the end she’s the one who shows herself to have the warmest heart.

The story itself is excellent, taking the characters into unfamiliar and frightening situations that will reveal them to themselves as much as to us. As with most Greene, it’s not exactly uplifting – in fact, in some ways it’s downright depressing – and there are no real heroes. But there is warmth and sympathy here, all under the already looming shadow of the horrors soon to be unleashed across Europe. I considered deducting a star for the stereotyping problems, but having allowed the book to settle in my mind for a few weeks, I really feel that it deserves to be cut some slack for the time of writing and for what I feel were Greene’s good intentions; and the quality of the writing, the storytelling and the humanity of it put it up there amongst Greene’s best for me.

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 304…

Episode 304

The seesaw has sawed. Or seed. Or seesawed. Yeah, I’ll go with that – the seesaw has seesawed! What I’m trying to say is the TBR has gone down again, by two to 186! Perfect reason to recycle this gif…

Here are a few more that should tip the balance even more soon… 

Fiction 

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje is one of those many authors I feel I should have read, but haven’t. He’s Karissa’s favourite, and her praise for him eventually brainwashed me into adding this one to my TBR! I’m also hoping it might fill another box on my Wanderlust challenge…

The Blurb says: With unsettling beauty and intelligence, this Golden Man Booker Prize–winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II.

The nurse Hana, exhausted by death, obsessively tends to her last surviving patient. Caravaggio, the thief, tries to reimagine who he is, now that his hands are hopelessly maimed. The Indian sapper Kip searches for hidden bombs in a landscape where nothing is safe but himself. And at the centre of his labyrinth lies the English patient, nameless and hideously burned, a man who is both a riddle and a provocation to his companions—and whose memories of suffering, rescue, and betrayal illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning.

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Vintage Crime

These Names Make Clues by ECR Lorac

Courtesy of the British Library. Always delighted to see ECR Lorac’s name pop up in the BL’s Crime Classics series, and this one sounds like she was having fun at the expense of her writing friends!

The Blurb says: Chief Inspector Macdonald has been invited to a treasure hunt party at the house of Graham Coombe, the celebrated publisher of Murder by Mesmerism. Despite a handful of misgivings, the inspector joins a guestlist of novelists and thriller writers disguised on the night under literary pseudonyms. The fun comes to an abrupt end, however, when ‘Samuel Pepys’ is found dead in the telephone room in bizarre circumstances.

Amidst the confusion of too many fake names, clues, ciphers and convoluted alibis, Macdonald and his allies in the CID must unravel a truly tangled case in this metafictional masterpiece, which returns to print for the first time since its publication in 1937.

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Crime

Still Life by Louise Penny

Another one that’s been hanging around my TBR for years, added originally because of all the glowing reviews I’ve seen around the blogosphere for this series. And another one that might fill a Wanderlust box!

The Blurb says: The discovery of a dead body in the woods on Thanksgiving Weekend brings Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his colleagues from the Surete du Quebec to a small village in the Eastern Townships. Gamache cannot understand why anyone would want to deliberately kill well-loved artist Jane Neal, especially any of the residents of Three Pines – a place so free from crime it doesn’t even have its own police force.

But Gamache knows that evil is lurking somewhere behind the white picket fences and that, if he watches closely enough, Three Pines will start to give up its dark secrets…

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Fiction

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

I think I read this during my major Graham Greene phase many years ago but I don’t have a clear memory of it, so it sounds like a re-visit is overdue. Plus… it might tick off a square on my Wanderlust card! (You can tell it’s getting towards the end of the year and I’m getting desperately worried about my challenge failures, can’t you? 😉 )

The Blurb says: Published in 1932 as an ‘entertainment’, Graham Greene’s gripping spy thriller unfolds aboard the majestic Orient Express as it crosses Europe from Ostend to Istanbul.

Weaving a web of subterfuge, murder and politics along the way, the novel focuses upon the disturbing relationship between Myatt, the pragmatic Jew, and naive chorus girl Coral Musker as they engage in a desperate, angst-ridden pas-de-deux before a chilling turn of events spells an end to the unlikely interlude. Exploring the many shades of despair and hope, innocence and duplicity, Stamboul Train offers a poignant testimony to Greene’s extraordinary powers of insight into the human condition.

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Review-alongers!

Now that we’ve had a chance to recover from Vanity Fair, it’s time to pick a new book, with a view to reviewing February-ish. Alyson and Christine, I nominate you to select two or three books each and stick the titles in the comments below. I’ll list your selections on next week’s TBR Thursday post and we can see which takes the popular fancy!

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Study of a psychopath…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Kolley Kibber has come to Brighton on a publicity campaign for his newspaper. He will walk the streets and any lucky reader who spots and challenges him will be given a cash prize. But on this day, Kolley Kibber – real name Charles “Fred” Hale – is scared. He knows that a Brighton gang he has written about is after him, intent on killing him. He feels he’ll be safer if he’s not alone, so tries to pick up one of the female day-trippers down from London to enjoy the beach and the bars and the sunshine. Ida Arnold is a kind-hearted good-time girl, who takes pity on this lonely stranger. But she leaves him for a few minutes to visit the public toilets and when she returns he’s gone. Later she hears that he has died, and doesn’t accept the report that his death was natural. She sets out to investigate. Meantime, Pinkie Brown, leader of the gang, is worried that one of his men may have done something that will give them all away just when it seems they have got off with murder. As his paranoia increases, he becomes caught in his own trap, every action he takes to avert the danger seeming to diminish his options more and more.

I loved Graham Greene with a passion back in my teens and twenties, but on a couple of recent revisits I’ve been a little disappointed. This is one I’d never read before and I’m delighted to say the old magic returned in full force as soon as it began. The first chapter is a masterclass in writing, creating fully-rounded and empathetic characters in Kolley Kibber and Ida Arnold, portraying wonderfully this seedy, poverty-ridden seaside town in the 1930s, and building a terrific atmosphere of tension and suspense. Although Kolley Kibber only appears for this short space of time, his disappearance and death hang over the rest of the book, so that his character becomes as unforgettable as those who are present throughout the whole book.

Ida is also an exceptionally well-drawn character, the beating heart of the book, with her warmth and joy in the act of living giving it the humanity it needs to relieve the otherwise pitch-black noir of the story. Later we will meet Rose, a young girl whose background is of such deprivation, both materially and emotionally, that she is easily persuaded to fancy herself in love with any boy who shows her attention, easy prey for Pinkie who comes to see her as a threat.

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie and Carol Marsh as Rose in the 1947 film of the book

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Pinkie, the boy gangster who too readily sees murder as the solution to all problems. This has to be one of the best character studies of a psychopath ever written. Greene gradually shows us what has brought Pinkie to this point – his unhappy childhood, the poverty and lack of opportunity for boys like him in the grim Depression-era world, the guilt and punishment inherent in his Catholic religion. Pinkie believes in Hell but can’t quite bring himself to believe in Heaven, at least not for the likes of him. His disgust at the idea of sex raises all sorts of psychological questions – is it because he lived in a house so small that as a child he could hear his parents performing their weekly conjugal rites? Or is he a closeted gay, closeted so deep he’s unaware of it himself? Or is he simply scared to show any kind of vulnerability, to perhaps fail at the crucial moment? Greene raises all sorts of questions about what may have made Pinkie who he is, but wisely leaves open the possibility that it’s simply a matter of nature. And yet, rotten though he is, Greene gives him a terrible humanity of his own – a lost and damaged soul for whom it’s impossible not to feel sympathy, to wonder whether if circumstances had been different he might have been saved, by man or his implacable God.

The suspense in the story comes from two angles. Will Ida succeed in learning the truth and getting some kind of justice for the man she briefly met and scarcely knew? And Rose – what will happen to Rose? All she wants is to be loved – is that too much to ask? But loving a boy who dislikes and fears her and who has already killed more than once – what will happen to Rose? As Pinkie fingers the bottle of vitriol he always carries in his pocket – what will happen to Rose? The tension of worrying about Rose becomes almost too much to bear.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Samuel West, and he does a wonderful job. Every word is clearly enunciated and while he doesn’t “act” the characters, he breathes life into their varied personalities. He lets the words speak for themselves, never letting his performance get in the way of the writing.

Graham Greene

Beautifully written and with a quartet of distinctively unforgettable characters, this has leapt into the lead as my favourite Greene – high praise indeed from a lifetime fan of his work. While it’s one of his “Catholic” novels, the religious aspects avoid the silly mysticism of The End of the Affair, reminding me more of the faith struggles of the priest and Scobie in The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter respectively. And they play only a small part in what is first and foremost a brilliant noir depiction of a psychopath in a superbly evoked time and place. A fabulous book which gets my highest recommendation!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….“But I do beg you will not countenance that thoughtless way people have of flinging them up into the air. It is liable to do great harm, to confuse their intellects; and a girl, when grown into a woman, has greater need of her intellect than a man. It is a grievous error to fling them to the ceiling.”
….“God’s my life!” cried Jack, pausing in his stride. “You don’t tell me so? I thought they liked being tossed up – they laugh and crow and so on, almost human. But I shall never do it again, although they are only girls, poor little swabs.”
….“It is curious, the way you dwell upon their sex. They are your own children, for all love, your very flesh; and yet I could almost suppose, and not only from your referring to them as swabs, a disobliging term, that you were disappointed in them, merely for being girls. It is, to be sure, a misfortune for them – the Orthodox Jew daily thanks his Maker for not having been born a woman, and we might well echo his gratitude – but I cannot for the life of me see how it affects you, your aim being, as I take it, posterity, a vicarious immortality: and for that a girl is if anything a better assurance than a boy.”

~The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian

* * * * *

….That same day Rachel couldn’t remember which side her father had parted his hair on, and she’d realized again what she’d learned at five when her mother left – that what made losing someone you loved bearable was not remembering but forgetting. Forgetting small things first, the smell of the soap her mother had bathed with, the color of the dress she’d worn to church, then after a while the sound of her mother’s voice, the color of her hair. It amazed Rachel how much you could forget, and everything you forgot made that person less alive inside you until you could finally endure it. After more time had passed you could let yourself remember, even want to remember. But even then what you felt those first days could return and remind you the grief was still there, like old barbed wire embedded in a tree’s heartwood.
….And now this brown-eyed child. Don’t love it, Rachel told herself. Don’t love anything that can be taken away.

~Serena by Ron Rash

* * * * *

….“But you do believe, don’t you,” Rose implored him, “you think it’s true?”
….“Of course it’s true,” the Boy said. “What else could there be?” he went scornfully on. “Why,” he said, “it’s the only thing that fits. These atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course there’s Hell. Flames and damnation,” he said with his eyes on the dark shifting water and the lightning and the lamps going out above the black struts of the Palace Pier, “torments.”
….“And Heaven too,” Rose said with anxiety, while the rain fell interminably on.
….“Oh, maybe,” the Boy said, “maybe.”

~Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

* * * * *

….Madam Flemington and the minister sat opposite to each other, silent. He was evidently trying to make a beginning of his business, but his companion was not in a mood to help him. He was a person who wearied her, and she hated red hair; besides which, she was an Episcopalian and out of sympathy with himself and his community. She found him common and limited, and at the present moment, intrusive.
….“It’s sma’ pleasure I have in coming to Ardguys the day,” he began, and then stopped, because her eyes paralysed his tongue.
….“You are no flatterer,” said she.
….But the contempt in her voice braced him.
….“Indeed, that I am not, madam,” he replied; “neither shall it be said of me that I gang back from my duty. Nane shall assail nor make mock of the Kirk while I am its minister.”
….“Who has made a mock of the Kirk, my good man?”
….“Airchie.”
….The vision of her eight-year-old grandson going forth, like a young David, to war against the Presbyterian stronghold, brought back Madam Flemington’s good-humour.
….“Ye may smile, madam,” said Duthie, plunged deeper into the vernacular by agitation, “ay, ye may lauch. But it ill beseems the grey hair on yer pow.”
….Irony always pleased her and she laughed outright, showing her strong white teeth. It was not only Archie and the Kirk that amused her, but the whimsical turn of her own fate which had made her hear such an argument from a man. It was not thus that men had approached her in the old days.

~Flemington by Violet Jacob

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So… are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….“We are deciding which gowns and kirtles to take to Greenwich next week, my lord,” Elizabeth explained to her husband. “I have so many new ones and Lady Verney is kindly modelling them for me so that I can see how they look.” She nodded at Eleanor to carry on and the king watched attentively as the model demonstrated an elegant green brocade gown, showing how the skirt flowed behind her as she walked, and the full marten-trimmed pink sleeves, tied with silver laces, were draped from the elbow to show the tight cream-embroidered linen sleeves of the kirtle beneath. His obvious interest led me to surmise that the world of female fashion was something of a mystery to him.

~The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

* * * * *

….Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong – belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian watercolour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.

~Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

* * * * *

….Walking back to the door, avoiding the broken floorboards, she realised something else had been bothering her all this time. And now she knew what it was: that smell from her dream last night, it was in here too.
….The room spun and suddenly all she could smell was that cloying stink, She needed to get out, needed fresh air.
….She waited, listening for anyone outside in the corridor, because she didn’t want them to find her here.
….When she turned the handle, it wobbled but the door didn’t move. She tried again, this time putting her weight behind it.
….The latch. The fucking latch. Why had she let it close behind her?
….She wrenched at the door handle, twisted and turned it, pushed and pulled. Come on, come on. Rattled and shook it. Move.
….At last the handle began to shift and she pushed down harder, shifted her weight backwards. And the handle came off in her hand.

~The Guest House by Abbie Frost

* * * * *

….He pretended to notice Wield for the first time, went close to him and put his mouth next to his ear.
….“Ah, Sergeant Wield,” he murmured. “Any messages for me?”
….“No, sir,” said Wield. “Not that I know of.”
….“Not even from the other bloody side!” bellowed Dalziel. He looked as if he was about to thump the sergeant with the paper.
….“It’s all a mistake, sir,” interposed Pascoe hastily.
….“Mistake? Certainly it’s a bloody mistake. I go down to Birmingham for a conference. Hello Andy, they all say. How’s that Choker of yours? they all say. Fine, I say. All under control, I say. That was the bloody mistake! You know what it says here in this rag?”
….He unfolded the paper with some difficulty.
….“It has long been common practice among American police forces to call on the aid of clairvoyants when they are baffled,” he read. “I leave a normal English CID unit doing its job. I come back and suddenly it’s the Mid-Yorkshire precinct and we’re baffled! No wonder Kojak’s bald.”
….Pascoe risked a smile. Lots of things made Dalziel angry. Not having his jokes appreciated was one of them.

~A Killing Kindness by Reginald Hill

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From the Archives:

….A small world might seem limiting, but think of the pleasure in owning a world the size of a small town and surveying the domain like a colossus. The gravity of Wild 2 is so weak you would literally be as light as a feather. A small push and you could escape your world and sail into deep space. And think of the glittering minerals – a hoard magnificent enough to power all the dreams ever dreamed.

~Dreams of Other Worlds by Chris Impey and Holly Henry

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 231…

Episode 231

I seem to be in  major reading slump this week and not one of the 213 (up one) books on the TBR is calling my name! I can only hope the postman has gone on holiday and doesn’t visit till I get back in the swing…

Here are a few that hopefully will tempt me soon…

Lit-Crit

Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

I bought this ages ago in one of my periodic fits of feeling I ought to know my own literary heritage better. I assumed, wrongly, that it would be one of these list-style books, like 1001 Books Before You Die, etc. It turned out to be a hefty tome full of essays on various aspects of Scottish literature. Not what I was looking for at the time, so it has lain neglected on my shelves ever since. Time to bite the bullet and see if I can struggle through it… and maybe even learn something! 

The Blurb says: From Treasure Island to Trainspotting, Scotland’s rich literary tradition has influenced writing across centuries and cultures far beyond its borders. Here, for the first time, is a single volume presenting the glories of fifteen centuries of Scottish literature.

In Scotland’s Books poet Robert Crawford tells the story of Scottish writing and its relationship to the country’s history. Stretching from the medieval masterpiece of St Columba’s Iona – the earliest surviving Scottish work – to the imaginative, thriving world of twenty-first-century writing with authors such as Ali Smith and James Kelman, this outstanding collection traces the development of literature in Scotland and explores the cultural, linguistic and literary heritage of the nation. It includes extracts from the writing discussed to give a flavour of the original work, full quotations in their own language, previously unpublished works by authors and plenty of new research. Informative and readable, this is the definitive guide to the marvellous legacy of Scottish literature.

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Historical Fiction

The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

Courtesy of HarperCollins via NetGalley. This one caught my eye because I’ve just finished reading a history of the Yorks, so for once I actually know who Elizabeth of York is! Better read it quick before I forget again… 

The Blurb says: Elizabeth of York, her life already tainted by dishonour and tragedy, now queen to the first Tudor king, Henry the VII.

Joan Vaux, servant of the court, straining against marriage and motherhood and privy to the deepest and darkest secrets of her queen. Like the ravens, Joan must use her eyes and her senses, as conspiracy whispers through the dark corridors of the Tower.

Through Joan’s eyes, The Lady of the Ravens inhabits the squalid streets of Tudor London, the whispering walls of its most fearsome fortress and the glamorous court of a kingdom in crisis.

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Adventure

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. When I saw they were bringing out a new edition of this adventure story, I couldn’t resist! Who doesn’t need a bit of swashbuckling in their lives every now and then? Doesn’t it sound like fun?

The Blurb says: ‘If love were the only thing, I would follow you-in rags if need be … But is love the only thing?’

Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda is a swashbuckling adventure set in Ruritania, a mythical pocket kingdom. Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll closely resembles the King of Ruritania, and to foil a coup by his rival to the throne, he is persuaded to impersonate him for a day. However, Rassendyll’s role becomes more complicated when the real king is kidnapped, and he falls for the lovely Princess Flavia. Although the story is set in the near past, Ruritania is a semi-feudal land in which a strong sword arm can carry the day, and Rassendyll and his allies fight to rescue the king. But if he succeeds, our hero and Flavia will have to choose between love and honour.

As Nicholas Daly’s introduction outlines, this thrilling tale inspired not only stage and screen adaptations, but also place names, and even a popular board game. A whole new subgenre of ‘Ruritanian romances’ followed, though no imitation managed to capture the charm, exuberance, and sheer storytelling power of Hope’s classic tale.

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Fiction on Audio

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

I loved Graham Greene when I was young, but have been rather disappointed by a couple of his books I’ve read recently. This has left me scared to revisit the ones I adored. This is one I’ve never read before and is considered one of his best, so fingers crossed it will revive my love. It’s narrated by Samuel West.

The Blurb says: A gang war is raging through the dark underworld of Brighton. Seventeen-year-old Pinkie, malign and ruthless, has killed a man. Believing he can escape retribution, he is unprepared for the courageous, life-embracing Ida Arnold. Greene’s gripping thriller, exposes a world of loneliness and fear, of life lived on the ‘dangerous edge of things’.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Audible UK or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene read by Colin Firth

Greene’s God works in mysterious ways indeed…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When Bendrix meets Henry in the park by chance one rainy night, it takes him back to the time, a couple of years earlier, when he was having an affair with Henry’s wife, Sarah. Now Bendrix is bitter – she left him and he has never really understood why. And Henry, unaware of their affair, now tells him that he thinks Sarah may be seeing someone else. All the old feelings brought to the surface, Bendrix feels he must know – did Sarah ever love him? Or was he just one in a long line of men…

This is a book of two halves for me, and so I must warn those who love it that I am going to be quite critical of it. I’m also going to go much further into spoiler territory than I normally do, so if you haven’t read the book and intend to, then you would be best to skip my review…

The first half of the book is quite wonderful. It’s a study of how jealousy and insecurity can lead someone to destroy the very love that is causing those emotions, and how easily a failed love can turn to bitterness, even hatred. Bendrix, the first person narrator, is arrogant and can be cruel, but he is also self-aware, which makes him tolerable if not likeable. The writing is fantastic from the very first sentences – lean and direct. Greene never tells us anything – he lets his characters speak for themselves, though we see them mostly through the filter of Bendrix’s jumble of emotions. Greene understands the vulnerability that comes with love, the weakness and insecurity that can cause us to seek excuses in advance for love’s failure, and, by doing so, create that failure through our own actions. There are occasional passages of pathos, done with a simplicity that makes them deeply moving without ever verging on the mawkish.

I listened to Colin Firth’s narration of the book and he does a superb job, making it feel both tense and intense. He doesn’t ‘act’ the dialogue, but uses the subtlest shifts in tone to convey the different characterisations. All the anger and bitterness is there on the surface, but he lets us hear the sorrow and love that still underlie those emotions. It’s not at all surprising that he won the Audie Award for Best Solo Narration for this in 2013.

Unfortunately the second half fell away sharply for me – and this is where spoiler territory begins.

Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr as Bendrix and Sarah in the 1955 movie directed by Edward Dmytryk

Many of Greene’s books reflect his own personal struggle with faith and his strange relationship with the Catholic Church, and this book is no exception. But whereas in other novels – The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory – I’ve found that both interesting and moving, in this one somehow it all feels forced and rather… OK, I’ve tried to think of a better word, but the one that suits is… silly. First we find the reason Sarah finished the relationship is because of a promise she made to a God she did not at that point believe in. I could accept that, just about.

But when, towards the end of the novel, Bendrix begins to think that she may be performing miracles from the great beyond, I choked. I hold my hands up – I’m a life-long atheist and that may have affected how I felt about it. But I actually don’t think it’s that – it seems to me the way Greene does it is crass, and I think I’d feel that way, perhaps even more so in fact, if I were a believer, particularly a Catholic. For one thing, we suddenly start being told by all and sundry what a ‘good’ woman she had been. In what way, I found myself asking? We know almost nothing about her except that she has been serially unfaithful to her husband throughout their marriage because he doesn’t provide her with sexual satisfaction. If she does good works or contributes to society in any positive way, we are not told so. And she has certainly never been devout. It seems to me this is a major failure in characterisation. This woman whom I thought I knew – a creature of emotion, a rather weak, shallow personality looking for episodes of love to fill her dull and rather pointless existence, is suddenly being lauded as a saint, in the literal sense of that word.

I could have accepted it had it only been Bendrix who was viewing her that way – love and grief do strange things to the memory and the mind, after all. But other people, even the priest, seem to be ready to beatify her within weeks of her death.

Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes in the roles in Neil Jordan’s 1999 version

There’s another suggestion that sat uneasily with me too. We discover late on that Sarah had been baptised as a Catholic, though it happened when she was too young to remember so she lived her life unaware of it. It hovers not quite spoken that this is at the root of her later dalliance with religion and possibly also her posthumous miracle-working. Hmm! I’m not sure even the Catholic Church would think it works quite like that.

So, in short, what starts as a wonderfully truthful depiction of love, jealousy and grief, turns into a superficial and incredible account of some kind of miraculous conversion. My real problem with it is that I have been saying for many years that The Heart of the Matter is one of my favourite books, and have put it on my Classics Club list for a re-read – and now I’m scared to re-read it in case Scobie’s struggles with his faith strike me in the same way. In other words, perhaps it’s this book, or perhaps I’ve just become too cynical for this kind of shallow, sentimental mysticism.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….I became aware that our love was doomed; love had turned into a love affair with a beginning and an end. I could name the very moment when it had begun, and one day I knew I should be able to name the final hour. When she left the house I couldn’t settle to work. I would reconstruct what we had said to each other; I would fan myself into anger or remorse. And all the time I knew I was forcing the pace. I was pushing, pushing the only thing I loved out of my life. As long as I could make believe that love lasted I was happy; I think I was even good to live with, and so love did last. But if love had to die, I wanted it to die quickly. It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death; I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck.

* * * * * * * * *

Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen

….At first the Immortalisation Commission was told by Dr Abrikosov that Lenin’s body could be preserved ‘for many, many years’ by refrigeration, if it was kept in the crypt, in a specially designed sarcophagus, at a carefully controlled temperature. But despite the most expensive and sophisticated freezing equipment bought from Germany, within two months there were already dark spots on Lenin’s face and torso and his eye sockets were deformed. The magnates were worried their plan would not work out, particularly as the weather was becoming warmer.
….Towards the end of March 1924 two prominent chemists, Vladimir Vorobyov and Boris Zbarsky, suggested re-embalming the body with a chemical mixture that they said ‘could last hundreds of years’. They had studied the ancient Egyptian techniques of mummification but they could do a lot better ‘and keep Vladimir Ilyich’s body looking natural’. They worked day and night whitening Lenin’s skin and devising the correct embalming fluid, under intense pressure, reporting directly to Stalin and Zinoviev. They experimented on several cadavers of fifty-ish-year-old men brought to them from morgues and scientific institutes in Moscow. After four months they found the correct formula of glycerin, alcohol, potassium acetate, quinine chlorate and another ingredient still strictly secret at the time of writing.

(FF says: I bet it’s beetroot soup…)

* * * * * * * * *

….It hadn’t taken the landlady very long to find out that her lodger had a queer kind of fear and dislike of women. When she was doing the staircase and landings she would often hear Mr Sleuth reading aloud to himself passages in the Bible that were very uncomplimentary to her sex. But Mrs. Bunting had no very great opinion of her sister woman, so that didn’t put her out. Besides, where one’s lodger is concerned, a dislike of women is better than – well, than the other thing.

* * * * * * * * *

….Gordon and Dudorov belonged to a good professional circle. They spent their lives among good books, good thinkers, good composers, good, always, yesterday and today, good and only good music, and they did not know that the calamity of mediocre taste is worse than the calamity of tastelessness. . . .
….He could see clearly the springs of their pathos, the shakiness of their sympathy, the mechanism of their reasonings. However, he could not very well say to them: ‘Dear friends, oh, how hopelessly ordinary you and the circle you represent, and the brilliance and art of your favourite names and authorities, all are. The only live and bright thing in you is that you lived at the same time as me and knew me.’ But how would it be if one could make such declarations to one’s friends! And so as not to distress them, Yuri Andreevich meekly listened to them.

* * * * * * * * *

….When the client came out, I noticed the fake tan on her calves looked a bit streaky, which almost never happens. She either hadn’t noticed, or didn’t mind. She winked at Mum and said, ‘Enjoy tonight – look forward to hearing all about it.’
….Mum says everybody spills out all their news in the Powder Room. She thinks that it’s something to do with lying with a nice white towel under your head and a blanket over your legs and feet. She says everybody feels like a child tucked up safely in bed, mostly because when she raises them up their feet can’t touch the floor anymore and they are warm and safe and so they sing like canaries. They tell her all manner of very personal things. Her way to describe this is womb talk. Some nights she’ll pour herself a glass of wine and say, ‘oh my goodness I’ve had so much womb talk tonight if someone else says menopause or hysterectomy to me I’ll start mixing HRT with the Fakebake.’

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 120…

Episode 120…

Aaarghhh! Up another 2 this week, to 197!! And review copies up too, to 35! It’s not my fault – I can’t help it if publishers keep publishing books I can’t resist! I’m sure it’s peaked though – it’ll start falling dramatically soon…

 

Here are a few that should rise to the top of the heap soon…

Fiction

I don’t often get unsolicited books in the mail, but the publishers of this one, Hodder & Stoughton, have sent me this one – twice! (See? It’s not my fault!!) It doesn’t sound like my kind of thing, but you never know. Sometimes it’s good to step off the well-trodden path…

The Blurb says: Minnie has always lived with her sister Clara in her family’s beautiful, grand, yet increasingly dilapidated house Rosemount. Now in her seventies, she finds herself looking back to a life that has been shrouded with sorrow, and a painful secret that she has guarded since her teens.

Eleven-year-old Max, who lives opposite Minnie on the housing estate built in Rosemount’s grounds, has grown up happily with his single mother. But his mum has begun a new relationship and suddenly life is starting to change.

As each of them tell their stories, she via a resurrected childhood journal, him via a Dictaphone, they spot each other through their bedroom windows and slowly and hesitantly an unlikely friendship begins to form. A friendship that might just help Max come to terms with the present and enable Minnie, finally, to lay to rest the ghosts of her past…

* * * * *

Sword and Sandals…

And talking of stepping off the path, it’s been a while since I read a rip-roaring sword and sandals adventure! Cornwell has a great reputation and I’ve been meaning to try one of his books for a long time. I’m doing a readalong of this one with a friend and have already started it…

 The Blurb says: This is the exciting—yet little known—story of the making of England in the 9th and 10th centuries, the years in which King Alfred the Great, his son and grandson defeated the Danish Vikings who had invaded and occupied three of England’s four kingdoms.

The story is seen through the eyes of Uhtred, a dispossessed nobleman, who is captured as a child by the Danes and then raised by them so that, by the time the Northmen begin their assault on Wessex (Alfred’s kingdom and the last territory in English hands) Uhtred almost thinks of himself as a Dane. He certainly has no love for Alfred, whom he considers a pious weakling and no match for Viking savagery, yet when Alfred unexpectedly defeats the Danes and the Danes themselves turn on Uhtred, he is finally forced to choose sides. By now he is a young man, in love, trained to fight and ready to take his place in the dreaded shield wall. Above all, though, he wishes to recover his father’s land, the enchanting fort of Bebbanburg by the wild northern sea.

This thrilling adventure—based on existing records of Bernard Cornwell’s ancestors—depicts a time when law and order were ripped violently apart by a pagan assault on Christian England, an assault that came very close to destroying England.

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Fiction on Audio…

Darcy reading Graham Greene to me??? If I suddenly disappear, it will probably be because I have swooned entirely away…

The Blurb says: Graham Greene’s evocative analysis of the love of self, the love of another, and the love of God is an English classic that has been translated for the stage, the screen, and even the opera house.

Academy Award-winning actor Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, A Single Man) turns in an authentic and stirring performance for this distinguished audio release. The End of the Affair, set in London during and just after World War II, is the story of a flourishing love affair between Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles. After a violent episode at Maurice’s apartment, Sarah suddenly and without explanation breaks off the affair.

This very intimate story about what actually constitutes love is enhanced by Mr. Firth’s narration. “This book struck me very, very particularly at the time when I read it and I thought my familiarity with it would give the journey a personal slant. I’m grateful for this honour,” Firth said when this production was recognized by the Audie Awards as Audiobook of the Year for 2013, “and grateful for the opportunity to narrate one of my favorite stories. A great novel told in the first person makes for the best script an actor could imagine. None better than The End of the Affair…. Theater and film each offer their own challenges and rewards, but narration is a new practice for me and the audiobook performance provides exhilarating possibilities for both actors and listeners. I’m thrilled to be involved in bringing this remarkable work of fiction to a wider audience, and thankful to Audible for offering me the opportunity to perform it and to engage with so many who share my passion for storytelling.”

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Poisoned Pen Press via NetGalley, another anthology of vintage short stories from the British Library Crime Classics series, edited by Martin Edwards….

The Blurb says: Impossible crime stories have been relished by puzzle-lovers ever since the invention of detective fiction. Fiendishly intricate cases were particularly well suited to the cerebral type of detective story that became so popular during the ‘golden age of murder’ between the two world wars. But the tradition goes back to the days of Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins, and impossible crime stories have been written by such luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham.

This anthology celebrates their work, alongside long-hidden gems by less familiar writers. Together these stories demonstrate the range and high accomplishment of the classic British impossible crime story over more than half a century.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

‘Tis better to travel hopefully…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Travels with my AuntWhen middle-aged Henry Pulling attends the cremation of his mother, he meets his mother’s sister, Aunt Augusta, a woman he knows only from old family photographs. It seems Aunt Augusta was something of the black sheep of the family, her distinctly racy and unconventional lifestyle making her unwelcome. But Henry finds himself drawn towards her, her frank stories of a life full of incident providing a contrast to his own rather dull and lonely existence as a retired bank manager in the respectable little community of Southwood. And soon Augusta entices Henry to join her on some of her journeys, first on the Orient Express to Istanbul and later to South America.

This is a gentle little comedy without any of the profundity of Greene’s major works but still with a certain amount of charm. Published in 1969, at a time when Greene was in his mid-60s, it does rather read like a tolerant older man’s view of the ‘permissive’ society of the ’60s, with its focus on ‘free love’ and incessant pot-smoking. However, through Aunt Augusta’s stories, we are also taken on a light trip back through the century, though her storytelling technique makes it hard to pin down the truth of any event she is describing. From running a church for dogs in Brighton to her rather seedy career in France, from possibly having something to do with the Resistance to consorting with Nazi war criminals, Augusta’s exuberant zest for life manages somehow to overcome Henry’s normal repugnance for anything not quite respectable. The lesson he must learn from Augusta is the simple one that there is a difference between the tedium of merely existing and the joy of experiencing life.

I went restlessly out and crossed the little garden where an American couple (from the St James or the Albany) were having tea. One of them was raising a little bag, like a drowned animal, from his cup at the end of a cord. At that distressing sight I felt very far away from England, and it was with a pang that I realized how much I was likely to miss Southwood and the dahlias in the company of Aunt Augusta.

The writing is, of course, excellent, especially the stories of their travels and the various places they pass through. It’s not a travelogue, so there are no tourist brochure style descriptions – instead, it’s a vague, impressionistic picture of the process of travelling and the places passed by as seen through Henry’s untutored, and often uninterested, eye. The reader is more likely to be told about the availability of ham sandwiches than the great architecture of a given town. This changes a little when they head off to South America – in this section, we begin to get a much clearer picture both of the natural world and the strange and rather corrupt society Henry finds himself sucked into.

orient express poster

When a train pulls into a great city I am reminded of the closing moments of an overture. All the rural and urban themes of our long journey were picked up again: a factory was followed by a meadow, a patch of autostrada by a country road, a gas-works by a modern church: the houses began to tread on each other’s heels, advertisements for Fiat cars swarmed closer together, the conductor who had brought breakfast passed, working intensely down the corridor to rouse some important passenger, the last fields were squeezed out and at last there were only houses, houses, houses, and Milano, flashed the signs, Milano.

The humour runs at a consistently gentle level throughout, never becoming riotously funny, but never getting lost either. Unfortunately a good deal of the humour is centred on Aunt Augusta’s younger lover, Wordsworth, a man from Sierra Leone, and to modern eyes his portrayal feels horribly stereotyped at best and somewhat racist at worst. In fact, given Greene’s age and the time of writing, Wordsworth is actually rather affectionately portrayed – indeed, he’s about the only likeable character, the only one with a true, warm and generous heart. But still, I found some of the dialect and his rather childish naivety made for pretty uncomfortable reading in places. Otherwise, however, the contrast between Henry’s buttoned-up mentality and Augusta’s free-wheeling acceptance of all life has to offer gives plenty of opportunity for Greene to quietly mock the society of the time.

The vicar was saying clearly, while the congregation buzzed ambiguously to disguise the fact that they had forgotten the words: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, have committed…” I noticed that the detective-sergeant, perhaps from professional prudence, did not join in this plea of guilty. “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings…” I had never before noticed how the prayer sounded like the words of an old lag addressing the Bench with a plea for mercy. The presence of Detective Sergeant Sparrow seemed to alter the whole tone of the service.

Graham Greene
Graham Greene

This would not be the book I would recommend to people wanting to sample Greene for the first time. Much better to try one of his more serious novels where the depth of the subject matter tends to withstand dating a little better. In truth, I think profundity suits his style better than humour. But, overall, I found this a pleasurable if rather light read – one where the journey is more enjoyable perhaps than the destination.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

(Ticking off the “Orient Express” category for the Around the World in 80 Books challenge.)

TBR Thursday 82…

Episode 82…

 

Ooh, the TBR has dropped 2 this week – to 167! So tchah! to all you gloaters who were trying to push me up to 200 – your nefarious schemes have failed!! (So far…)

Here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…

Fiction

Travels with my AuntA re-read from many years ago, by one of my favourite authors, this will take me on a journey on the Orient Express for the #AW80Books challenge…

The Blurb says: Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager, meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta for the first time in over fifty years at what he supposes to be his mother’s funeral. Soon after, she persuades Henry to abandon Southwood, his dahlias and the Major next door to travel her way, Brighton, Paris, Istanbul, Paraguay. Through Aunt Augusta, a veteran of Europe’s hotel bedrooms, Henry joins a shiftless, twilight society: mixing with hippies, war criminals, CIA men; smoking pot, breaking all the currency regulations and eventually coming alive after a dull suburban life.

In Travels with my Aunt Graham Greene not only gives us intoxicating entertainment but also confronts us with some of the most perplexing of human dilemmas.

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chapel springs survivalWell, this is listed on Amazon as “Religious and Inspirational Women’s Fiction” so you may well wonder why it’s turned up on my TBR! Because it’s edited by our very own Susan P, regular commenter, fellow cat-lover and all round good chap… how could I resist? I’ll be keeping a close eye on the grammar… 😉

The Blurb says: A mail-order bride, a town overrun with tourists, and illegal art ~ How on earth will Claire and Chapel Springs survive?

With the success of her Operation Marriage Revival, life is good for Claire Bennett. That is until the mayor’s brother blabs a secret: Claire’s nineteen-year-old son, Wes, has married a Brazilian mail order bride — one who is eight years older than him. When Claire tries to welcome her new daughter-in-law, she’s ridiculed, rebuffed, and rejected. Loving this girl is like hugging a prickly cactus. Will Claire and her family survive her son’s marriage? From the first sighting of a country music star in Claire’s gallery, The Painted Loon, to the visit of a Hollywood diva, Chapel Springs is inundated with stargazers, causing lifelong residents to flee the area. When her best friends, Patsy and Nathan, put their house on the market, Claire is forced to do something or lose the closest thing to a sister she’s got. With her son’s future at stake and the town looking to her to solve their problems, it’s Claire who needs a guardian angel.

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Crime

 

ruling passionContinuing my gradual re-read of the Dalziel and Pascoe series, this is book 3…

The Blurb says: From Yorkshire to the sleepy village of Thornton Lacey is only a morning’s drive, but for Detective-Sergeant Peter Pascoe, the distance will close off part of his life forever. Motoring down for a reunion with old friends, he arrives to find not a welcome but a grisly triple murder. Out of his jurisdiction, Pascoe is in an untenable position: one of his oldest friends is wanted for murder, his boss is ordering him back to Yorkshire, and his instincts are telling him that the local constabulary will never suspect that the crime’s true motive lies not in the obvious places…but in the unexplored zones of passion within a twisted heart.

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Sci-fi

 

2001 a space odysseyI think this is the last of my Christmas books – and I have the film to go with it! I’ve tried watching the film in the past but never made it all the way through – I’m hoping reading the book will help…

The Blurb says: Written when landing on the moon was still a dream, made into one of the most influential films of our century, brilliant, compulsive, prophetic, 2001: A Space Odyssey tackles the enduring theme of man’s place in the universe. On the moon an enigma is uncovered. So great are the implications that, for the first time, men are sent out deep into the solar system. But, before they can reach their destination, things begin to go wrong. Horribly wrong.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?