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review 2018-01-15 19:55
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Cold Comfort Farm. - Stella Gibbons

This is novel is an artifact of the interwar years of Great Britain and a satire of the great and small English authors who wrote so passionately about the deep and rich life of the rural poor. I confess I'm not as familiar with the authors Stella Gibbons is lampooning in Cold Comfort Farm as I should be, other than Austen, I've read a novel and a half of D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy apiece, and I'd never heard of Hugh Walpole until I had to find out who she was mocking in the preface. Other popular writers of the time were more responsible for the content and the character of the Starkadder Family and Cold Comfort Farm itself were so bludgeoned into obscurity I can't bring myself to name them here.

The plot involves one Flora Poste, an elegant and educated girl of 19 who finding herself without parents and knowing the stigma attached to living off of friends, decides to foist herself on some unknown relatives in Sussex. She finds the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm to be hampered with ignorance, psychosis, stifled ambitions and general uncleanliness. One by one she begins to transform them to her liking.

It is all very contrived and patronizing, but a few cuts come in close and I can't say Gibbons was wrong. It was entertaining and passed a few cold evenings. I read the Folio Society edition and was disappointed, for the first time, in Quentin Blake's illustrations. They didn't do anything for me or for the story. Happily, the text carries itself.

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text 2013-12-28 21:12
My Challenge reads for 2014
The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton
In Patagonia - Bruce Chatwin
H.M.S. Surprise (Folio Society) - Patric... H.M.S. Surprise (Folio Society) - Patrick O'Brian
A King's Ransom - Sharon Kay Penman
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betr... The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo - Tom Reiss
The Honourable Schoolboy: A George Smiley Novel - John le Carré
The Emancipator's Wife - Barbara Hambly
The Accursed - Joyce Carol Oates
The Abominable - Dan Simmons
The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War - Michael Shaara

And this, ma amiee's are the only have-to reads for 2014.


1. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
2. H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian
3. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
4. A King's Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman
5. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss
6. The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré
7. The Emancipator's Wife by Barbara Hambly
8. The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates
9. The Abominable by Dan Simmons
10. The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara
11. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
12. The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields

+1. The Winter Crown by Elizabeth Chadwick
+2. Egyptomania: Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs by Bob Brier
+3. The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley
+4. The Annotated Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

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review 2013-12-01 11:19
Talleyrand - Duff Cooper

Talleyrand was the greatest statesman of his age, and his age was one of the most dangerously eventful in Europe's history. Such was his renown as the archetypally cunning diplomat that when his death was reported in 1838, the reaction of Metternich, his Austrian counterpart, was: ‘I wonder what he meant by that?’

The story is probably apocryphal, but it's revealing. No one knew how to read Talleyrand, and history's verdict on the great man is still not in. Above all, he was a survivor: almost the only person to make it through France's numerous state shake-ups in one piece, from the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, through the days of the Directorate and then the Consulate, the Napoleonic takeover and the proclamation of Empire, the Restoration of the Bourbons, and finally the July Monarchy in the 1830s. None of these regimes was known for its leniency towards predecessors, and yet Talleyrand didn't just survive every coup and revolution (he was behind several of them), he actually maintained a steady rise in power and influence.

So people cannot decide what to make of him. Either he was a brilliantly adaptable politician whose skills and experience made him impossible to ignore, even by those who would have liked to exclude him from power; or, he was the worst kind of opportunist – ‘a byword for tergiversation’, in Duff Cooper's wonderful phrase – who ditched his principles time and again in order to save his own skin.

This biography is broadly sympathetic – indeed when you read it, it's impossible not to like the man. No fan of hard work, Talleyrand looked down on younger, more zealous colleagues, and took the view that a diplomat's main job was to develop a refined sort of laziness and to excel in conversation. He was a product of that extraordinary French eighteenth century, when ‘such conversation as was then audible in Paris had never, perhaps, been heard since certain voices in Athens fell silent two thousand years before’. Talleyrand was always the wittiest and most intelligent man in any room. One contemporary describes him as

lounging nonchalantly on a sofa…his face unchanging and impenetrable, his hair powdered, talking little, sometimes putting in one subtle and mordant phrase, lighting up the conversation with a sparkling flash and then sinking back into his attitude of distinguished weariness and indifference.

He emerges from this book as a sort of aristocratic French Blackadder – witty, brilliant, dissolute, and quite prepared to be unprincipled if necessary. But this is unfair. Talleyrand may not have been willing to die for his principles – ‘nor even suffer serious inconvenience on their account’, as Cooper says – but he did have them. Cooper argues convincingly that there was a set of core beliefs to which he held throughout his whole career, beliefs which often made him unpopular with those in power. Prime among them were a desire for peace rather than conquest, and a commitment to constitutional monarchy. The former explains why he abandoned Napoleon. The latter is even more interesting, because it provides – if you're so minded – a justification for his other changes of allegiance: he supported the Revolution because the monarchy was not constitutional, and he supported the Restoration because the revolutionary government had shown that it did not have the ‘legitimacy’ of monarchy. (Hence his lifelong admiration for Britain, where he thought the perfect balance had been struck: a legitimate king whose power was held in check by a healthy parliament.)

All of this meant that he often acted for the interests of a peaceful Europe even when this ran counter to the wishes of the French government that he was currently serving. Sent by Napoleon to negotiate with Alexander I of Russia in 1806, Talleyrand simply told the tsar to refuse all of Napoleon's demands: ‘Sire, it is in your power to save Europe […] The French people are civilised, their sovereign is not. The sovereign of Russia is civilised and his people are not: the sovereign of Russia should therefore be the ally of the French people.’

Talleyrand was first published in 1932 and doubtless modern historians have moved the scholarship forward somewhat; nevertheless, it's very difficult to imagine this being done any better. Cooper writes beautifully, with a flair for efficient throwaway remarks of the kind modern historians shy away from now: he credits his readers with the intelligence to understand when he is speaking in generalisations for the sake of advancing an argument. He has a great turn of phrase, too. When Fanny Burney and her friends get to know Talleyrand during his exile in London, Cooper summarises the experience like this:

Prim little figures, they had wondered out of the sedate drawing-rooms of Sense and Sensibility and were in danger of losing themselves in the elegantly disordered alcoves of Les Liaisons dangereuses.

The idea cannot be captured more perfectly or economically. So I liked Talleyrand very much, and I liked Talleyrand very much too. He was the man still standing when the smoke cleared, the man not guided by stern morals but by practical genius and a love of the joys of civilisation that only peace can provide. ‘To the gospel of common sense he remained true.’ And although the few principles he did stick to were not always popular, they've become crucial to the Europe of today. Talleyrand may have played the long game, and enjoyed himself along the way, but in the final analysis he got it right.

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review 2013-08-20 00:00
The Sea, The Sea (Folio Society)
The Sea, The Sea (Folio Society) - Iris ... The Sea, The Sea (Folio Society) - Iris Murdoch, Tatsuro Kiuchi ”Even a middling novelist can tell quite a lot of truth. His humble medium is on the side of truth. Whereas the theatre, even at its most ‘realistic’, is connected with the level at which, and the methods by which, we tell our everyday lies. This is the sense in which ‘ordinary’ theatre resembles life, and dramatists are disgraceful liars unless they are very good. On the other hand, in a purely formal sense the theatre is the nearest to poetry of all the arts. I used to think that if I could have been a poet I would never have bothered with the theatre at all, but of course this is nonsense. What I needed with all my starved and silent soul was just that particular way of shouting back at the world. The theatre is an attack on mankind carried on by magic: to victimise an audience every night, to make them laugh and cry and suffer and miss their trains. Of course actors regard audiences as enemies, to be deceived, drugged, incarcerated, stupefied. This is partly because the audience is also a court against which there is no appeal.”

photo TheSea_zps472fa548.jpg
Schruff End. Charles Arrowby’s place by The Sea.

Charles Arrowby has retired from the theatre to a damp, drafty, but dramatic home by the sea. His plan is to live on his own, read, and eat well while he writes his memoirs. He is famous, certainly well known enough to be recognized on the street from his days acting and directing on the stage. He wants to be anonymous, but as I can tell anyone from personal experience the last place one can be anonymous is in a small town.

”I could have told you the country is the least peaceful and private place to live. The most peaceful and secluded place in the world is a flat in Kensington.”

I found myself liking him. I especially enjoyed reading about him figuring out this life of reading, eating, and writing. It sounds ideal. As the plot advances it will take many shattering blows for me to let go of the Arrowby I liked and replace him with a man that is on the verge of lunacy. Charles may miss the drama of the stage, but he doesn’t miss it for long because his life becomes a stage play. It all starts to unwind when he goes to the village and sees his first love, Hartley appear as if by magic. As it turns out he is the only one that calls her Hartley everyone else calls her Mary. He knew her briefly before the war and during the war, as happened with many people, he lost track of her. Her life is a Mary life not a Hartley life. Charles can not accept the person he sees before him. She must metamorphosize and he is the man to make it happen

”I saw: a stout elderly woman in a shapeless brown tent-like dress, holding a shopping bag and working her way, very slowly as if in a dream, along the street, past the Black Lion in the direction of the shop. This figure, which I had so vaguely, idly, noticed before was now utterly changing in my eyes. The whole world was its background. And between me and it there hovered, perhaps for the last time, the vision of a slim long-legged girl with gleaming thighs.”

Oh good lord!

Now Clement, who he actually talks the least about of all his lovers seems to be the woman that made him into the successful man he is today.

”Clement was the reality of my life, its bread and its wine. She made me, she invented me, she created me, she was my university, my partner, my teacher, my mother, later my child, my soul’s mate, my absolute mistress.”

Clement made him feel so good that he did not attempt to find Hartley. She kept him from his one true love by...being...so...terrific. The Poor Bastard.

Lizzie visits him, another one of his ex-lovers. She has decided to move in with their mutual friend Gilbert. ”Lizzie is half Scottish, half Sephardi Jew. Although she has the most adorable breasts of any woman I ever made love to, she is not really beautiful, and never was even when she was young, but she has charm.” Unfortunately Lizzie is still in love with Charles and even though he really doesn’t want her back he doesn’t want her with Gilbert either.

photo TheSea2_zps877ae8b2.jpg

”Jealousy is born with love, but does not always die with love.”

Rosina shows up as well yet another ex-lover. They can’t let him go any better than he can let them go. She is a famous actress almost as obsessed with Charles as Charles is becoming with Hartley. She breaks into house not once, but several times and soon knows all there is to know about this silly Hartley business. It seems that Charles broke up her marriage and then casually tossed her aside, but Rosina as it turns out is not the type to be so casually flung anywhere. She is more likely to pick Charles up and fling him into the sea or run over him with her car or brain him with a rock.

Charles seems to have a most powerful effect on women, but his charms are having no influence on Hartley. Despite being resoundingly rebuffed his fantasy continues to grow.

”Her large brow, which looked white in the candlelight, was puckered and pitted with little shadows, but the way she had turned up the collar of her green cotton coat behind her hair gave her a girlish look. Perhaps that was what she used to do with her mackintosh collar in the days when we went bicycling. And even as I was listening intently to her words. I was all the time gazing with a kind of creative passion at her candlelit face, like some god reassembling her beauty for my own purposes.”

Own purposes indeed.

”She did not have to join my grand intimidating alien world. To wed his beggar maid the king would, and how gladly, become a beggar too. The vision of that healing humility would henceforth be my guide. This was indeed the very condition of her freedom, why had I not seen this before? I would at last see her face changing. It was, I found, a part of my thought of the future that when she was with me Hartley would actually regain much of her old beauty: like a prisoner released from a labour camp who at first looks old, but then with freedom and rest and good food soon becomes young again.”

Okay so he is losing all grip on reality, but isn’t that what actors do? They make the role their own and transcend the script.

This book won the Booker Prize in 1978. This is the first Iris Murdoch I’ve read and I’ve got to say how impressed I am by her writing style and ability. I can’t believe I’ve never read her before. She wrote twenty-five works of fiction until 1995 when she began to experience the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease which she at first attributed to writer’s block. There is something so sad about a woman who thinks her writing ability has simply shut down only to learn that her body is failing her. She had more stories to tell us, but unfortunately they became locked up in the corridors of her mind with doors without knobs and crooked, meandering hallways.

photo IrisMurdoch_zps800cefa8.jpg
Iris Murdoch

When we first meet Charles he seems like a man that we would love to know, a favorite uncle or a friend to grab a beer with occasionally. As we get to know him better his selfishness, his egotism, his dramatic persona turns him into a person that I would avoid as if he were sporting bubonic plague. Murdoch brings us along, masterfully, through the dementia of Charles’s growing obsession with possessing something that frankly no longer exists. By the end he has proved to be as chimeric as the youthful Hartley. ”Last night someone on a BBC quiz did not know who I was.”

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review 2012-08-01 00:00
The Honourable Schoolboy (Folio Society)... The Honourable Schoolboy (Folio Society) - John le Carré, Tim Laing Popular opinion has it that this is the weakest of the three Karla novels. I thought it was a masterpiece, and a more ambitious novel than Tinker, Tailor.

It is very different from the last book: suddenly there is this unexpectedly huge scope of Southeast Asia to go alongside the muted meetings in grey London office rooms. I can well understand how some readers might have felt it was two books jammed together, but for me the contrast worked perfectly and I was riveted by how brilliantly Le Carré unfurls the story. The writing here is simply incredible. I can't think of another writer who could have me on the edge of my seat with a twenty-page description of an interdepartmental meeting, but somehow that's what we get here. Here's the halfway point of the meeting, after several pages of close, detailed description: just admire how easily he suddenly slips into this spare, witty style:

‘Lunch,’ Martindale announced without much optimism. They ate it upstairs, glumly, off plastic catering trays delivered by van. The partitions were too low and Guillam's custard flowed into his meat.

The Southeast Asia sections are wonderfully accomplished. We have thumbnail sketches of the Laotian capital, the Cambodian Civil War, rich descriptions of pre-handover Hong Kong. Jerry Westerby, the hack reporter who doubles as an occasional stringer for British Intelligence, is a character who will ring true to anyone who's worked in journalism. As a reporter myself, I've never yet read a better description of why journalists do dangerous things for so little money – why they get out of the car, cross the road, head towards the gunshots:

Sometimes you do it to save face, thought Jerry, other times you just do it because you haven't done your job unless you've scared yourself to death. Other times again, you go in order to remind yourself that survival is a fluke. But mostly you go because the others go; for machismo; and because in order to belong you must share.

This comes in a long, virtuoso section which sees Jerry digging up information on a contact under cover of writing a story on frontline fighting in Cambodia. The book is full of such delights: everything from tiny foreign airline lounges to fashion shows to opium dens have an air of truth to them. I don't know if Le Carré is drawing on personal experiences, or if he just writes so well that I believe anything he says. Either way it makes this book a pleasure.

There are flaws. The final third is less good than what comes before, and the one main female character is too much of a damsel-in-distress, who has really no reason except convention for falling for our antihero. But I'll take that, for the joys of reading a spy novel I can actually believe, with some descriptive set-pieces of ‘The East’ that are unmatched.
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