Review: A Delicate Truth

I was on holiday recently and I had finished reading The Grapes of Wrath.  Hoping to find a new book, I noticed that the hotel shop had a shelf of books – all in English, which I thought was a bit unusual as it was a Mexican resort.  I asked the shop keeper whether they were for sale.

“No,” she said, “but you can borrow one.”

That wouldn’t do, because we were going to leave that hotel soon and I wanted to finish a book at leisure.  So, I asked, “Is it possible to trade a book?”

“Yes, that would be fine.”  So I left them The Grapes of Wrath and I selected A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré.  I have to say that the hotel got the better part of that deal, but I bought another copy of The Grapes of Wrath when I got home.

John le Carré is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell who was born in 1931 in Poole, Dorset, England.  He is a British author of espionage novels. During the 1950s and 1960s, he worked for both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), became an international best-seller and remains one of his best-known works. Following the success of this novel, he left MI6 to become a full-time author. Several of his books have been adapted for film and television, including The Constant Gardener, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Night Manager. 

He studied foreign languages at the University of Bern in Switzerland. In 1950, he joined the Intelligence Corp of the British Army garrisoned in Allied-occupied Austria, working as a German language interrogator of people who crossed the Iron Curtain to the West.  In 1952, he returned to England to study at Lincoln College,Oxford, where he worked covertly for the British Security Service, spying on far-left groups for information about possible Soviet agents.  When his father was declared bankrupt in 1954, Cornwell left Oxford to teach at Millfield Preparatory School.  In 1955, he returned to Oxford, and graduated in 1956 with a first class degree in modern languages. He then taught French and German at Eton College for two years, becoming an MI5 officer in 1958. He ran agents, conducted interrogations, tapped telephone lines and effected break-ins.  In 2011, he was awarded the Goethe Medal, and official award of the Federal Republic of Germany, given annually by the Goethe-Institut to “non-Germans who have performed outstanding service for the German language and for international cultural relations”.

John le Carré

This novel, published in 2013, concerns a failed plot by the British and Americans to capture a jihadist who was, reportedly, about to buy arms in Gibraltar.  The plot was conceived by a shadowy American private intelligence firm and endorsed by a British minister.  It involved British special forces who would flush the jihadist from a meeting with a notorious Middle Eastern arms dealer into the hands of the Americans who had their special forces in a boat on the water.   A middle ranking British Foreign Officer, who was observing events in Gibraltar was to advise the minister whether the situation was ‘go’.  When events turned sour, the officer advised ‘no’, but the minister with American backing decided ‘yes’.   The result was a failed operation which resulted in the deaths of an innocent civilian and her child.  In the aftermath of the operation, there was a cover-up, the minister was reassigned, and the observing officer was given a knighthood and a plum assignment in the Caribbean.  The bulk of the story concerns Toby Bell, a rising star in the Foreign Office, who was not involved, but who was suspicious at the time.  Bell gradually uncovers the whole story, its participants, and has to decide whether to risk his career to blow the whistle.

This novel is not on a par with John le Carré’s typical craftsmanship. It seems contrived and hastily put together.  For me, the author did not get the balance right between the credibility of the story, which would have been enhanced by more detail and a more deliberate pace, and the aura of secrecy surrounding the story.  The sensational aspects of the story contribute to a believe-ability problem in the sense that how likely is (or was) it that all these features would coincide in real life: a stubborn, wilful, isolated minister, an incompetent, headstrong group of Americans, a secret arms transfer being made on the streets of Gibraltar, a notorious, super-rich arms dealer on his yacht in Gibraltar harbour, a middle grade officer being given a knighthood for his meaningless participation, two murders in Gibraltar that go unnoticed and so on?  The characters are real; the suspense and the intrigue are vintage le Carré, but the editor was asleep.

Give it a pass.  There are much better le Carré novels.

The Popularity of Poetry

There is an article, “Poetry Sales Soar as Political Millennials Search for Clarity”, in the January 21 issue of The Guardian by Donna Ferguson, which I found interesting.   Donna Ferguson is an award winning freelance journalist specialising in finance.  (Perhaps she knows something about literature, as well.)

Donna Ferguson

“A passion for politics, particularly among teenagers and young millennials, is fuelling a dramatic growth in the popularity of poetry, with sales of poetry books hitting an all-time high in 2018.  Statistics from UK book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan show that sales grew by just over 12% last year, for the second year in a row. In total, 1.3m volumes of poetry were sold in 2018, adding up to £12.3m in sales, a rise of £1.3m on 2017. Two-thirds of buyers were younger than 34 and 41% were aged 13 to 22, with teenage girls and young women identified as the biggest consumers last year.

“Rupi Kaur, a 26-year-old Canadian poet with 3.4 million followers on Instagram, leads the bestsellers list and was responsible for almost £1m of sales. “You tell me to quiet down / cause my opinions make me less beautiful,” she writes in Milk and Honey, the No 1 bestselling collection of 2018, “but I was not made with a fire in my belly / so I could be put out.”  (It’s interesting that at least one poet is able to make a decent living.)

“Andre Breedt, for Nielsen, said that sales were booming because in times of political upheaval and uncertainty, people turn to poems to make sense of the world: “Poetry is resonating with people who are looking for understanding. It is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty.”  He added that the form’s brevity also meant it could be easily consumed on phones and shared on social media.

“In the immediate aftermath of the Manchester bombing, Tony Walsh’s reading of his poem, This is the Place, at Manchester town hall was shared thousands of times online and became instantly famous worldwide. Ben Okri’s poem, Grenfell Tower, June 2017, written in the aftermath of the fire, followed a similar trajectory.

“At these moments of national crisis, the words that spread and the words that were heard were not the words of politicians, they were the words of poets,” said Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation, which runs the Forward prizes for poetry and National Poetry Day. “Almost everything a politician says is incredibly forgettable. There is a hunger out there for more nuanced and memorable forms of language.”  People wanted to cut through the verbiage of Brexit to see the bigger picture in 2018, she said: “Language gets stale in politics. Words begin to lose their meaning. Poetry occupies a different space to the humdrum. It is a way of renewing what words actually mean. It offers you a different way of looking at the world.”

“Poetry as a form can capture the immediate responses of people to divisive and controversial current events. It questions who has the authority to put their narrative forward, when it is written by people who don’t otherwise hold this power,” she said. “Writing poetry and sharing it in this context is a radical event, an act of resistance to encourage other people to come round to your perspective.”  Social media and technology have made poetry much easier to access and pass along, magnifying its impact, Shaw said.

Could this mean that millennials want existential emotion in their novels?

 

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

There’s an article by Lawrence Block republished in yesterday’s issue of the Writer’s Digest which was originally in the same magazine twenty years ago.  Lawrence Block, born 1938, is an American crime writer who is best known for a series set in New York about the recovering alcoholic and private investigator, Matthew Scudder and the gentleman burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Lawrence Block

I quote from Mr Block’s article as follows: “A couple of years ago, two friends of mine, a man and woman I’d known for most of a decade, made the papers. They did so in a rather spectacular fashion when the husband, a Wall Street stock analyst, murdered the wife, drove around for a while with her in the trunk of the car, dumped her at the side of the road, and was in very short order apprehended and charged with homicide. At the time of his arrest, he was wearing women’s underwear.

“Eventually the case came to trial, but not before he had been released on bail, married someone else, beat up the new wife, and had his bail revoked. He stood trial, was convicted, and was in jail awaiting sentencing when he rather abruptly died, evidently of AIDS. The new wife attended his funeral service in the company of a woman who’d been in the news a while back when a former Miss America stood trial on a charge of using unlawful influence to get a judge to lower her lover’s alimony payments to a former wife. The new wife’s companion at the funeral was the daughter of the judge in question, and achieved some local notoriety by testifying against the former Miss America. What she’s doing in this story is beyond me, but I guess everybody has to be someplace.

“After the funeral, the wife and her friend hurried back to the deceased’s house and stole everything they could carry.”

Mr Block, discussing this with a friend, said that it was a lot like a soap opera.

“’No,’ the friend said. ‘No, soap opera has a certain internal logic to it. That’s how you can distinguish between it and Real Life.’

“Fiction has to make sense. Life does not, and I suppose it’s just as well, or vast chunks of life would bounce back from the Big Editor in the Sky with form rejection slips attached to them. When we want to praise fiction, we say that it’s true to life, but it’s not that often the case. Life, unlike fiction, gives every indication of operating utterly at random, with no underlying structure, no unifying principles, no rules of drama. I think it was Chekhov who pointed out that it was dramatically essential that any cannon that appeared onstage in Act 1 had damn well better be fired before the final curtain. Life doesn’t work that way. In life, onstage cannons are forever silent, while others never seen go off in the wings, with spectacular results. Characters play major roles in the opening scenes, then wander off and are never heard from again. Perhaps it all balances out, perhaps there’s some sort of cosmic justice visited in another lifetime or another world, but all that is hard to prove and not too satisfying dramatically.

“What I’m really getting at, though, is not so much that life is a tale told by an idiot as that fiction had better be otherwise. And, simply because fiction has to make sense, we take for granted certain things that hardly ever happen in real life.

“Consider premonitions. Now, everybody has premonitions from time to time—the sudden illogical hunches that lead us to stay off an airplane, bet a number, or cross a street. Every once in a while a premonition actually turns out to be warranted—the number comes up, the plane comes down, whatever.  But in the vast majority of instances the premonition is a bum steer or a false alarm. The warning that came to us in a dream, and that we did or didn’t act upon, winds up amounting to nothing at all. The lottery ticket’s a loser. The plane lands safely.  Not so in fiction. Every premonition means something, though not necessarily what it seems to mean; in fiction, we ignore omens and hunches at our peril, and to our chagrin.

“Just look at the supermarket tabloids. They usually run extensive predictions around the first of the year, with famous psychics telling us what to expect over the next 12 months. Except for the can’t-miss shotgun predictions (“I foresee that somewhere in the world there will be a disaster, with great loss of life. Washington will be rocked with charges of political corruption and financial mismanagement. And, on the Hollywood scene, I see a marriage breaking up.”), the predictors hardly ever get anything right.

“In fiction, they almost always get almost everything right, and it never occurs to us to regard this as unrealistic.  ‘Oh, this is silly,’ a character says. ‘I’m not superstitious. I’m going to walk under this ladder.’ Or break this mirror, or forbear to throw this spilled salt over my shoulder, or whatever. And he does, and we know something’s going to happen to him before his story’s over. We may not be superstitious ourselves. We may detour around ladders, just on the general principle that it couldn’t hurt, but we don’t take the whole thing seriously.  Not in real life we don’t. In fiction, we know better.

“And what does all this mean?   Because I’m not sure just what it all means, or precisely what implications it has for us as writers of fiction. It could probably be argued that one of the reasons fiction exists, a reason it is written and a reason it is read, is that it is orderly and logical, that it makes sense in a way that life does not. Frustrated with the apparent random nature of the universe, we take refuge in a made-up world in which actions have consequences.

“Truth, as we’ve been told enough, is stranger than fiction. Of course it is—because it can get away with it. It flat-out happens, and it’s undeniable, so it doesn’t have to make sense. If my friend’s story, replete with uxoricide and transvestism and the remarriage and the beating of the new wife and the trial and the death, if all of that were placed without apology between book covers and presented as fiction, I’m sure I’d have tossed the book aside unfinished; if I made it all the way through, I’d surely be infuriated by the virus ex machina ending. The loose ends would annoy me and the inconsistencies would drive me nuts.

“But it’s fact. It happened. I can’t dispute it on dramatic grounds. I can’t say it’s improbable, or illogical. It happened. It’s what is. I may not like it, I may be saddened or horrified by it, but I can’t lay the book aside because it’s not a book. It’s real.

“I’ve seen writers react to criticism that their stories were implausible, that they relied too greatly on coincidence, that they were unresolved dramatically, by arguing that their fiction had been faithful to actual circumstance. ‘How can you say that?’ they demand. ‘That’s how it happened in real life! That’s exactly how it happened!’

“Indeed, and that’s the trouble. If real life were fiction, you couldn’t get the damn thing published.”

Emotional Danger

On the Writer’s Digest blog there is a discussion by Amy Jones of the book by Jordan Rosenfeld, How to Write a Page Turner, about the use of emotional danger in writing.  Ms Rosenfeld is author of the suspense novels Women in RedForged in Grace and Night Oracle as well as seven writing guides,

Jordan Rosenfeld

In her book, Ms Rosenfeld says, “Danger is a master tension tool. When it’s present, your reader will have a difficult time looking away. What’s more, it’s a good way to build empathy for a character and to keep the story tension high.  Of course, like any element, you don’t want to overdo danger. If your character is always and endlessly in one horrible scenario after another, you may wear your reader down. You want to create just enough, as you’ll see in the examples below, to lock on to the reader’s heart and mind so they don’t stop reading.

“Physical danger is obvious; it needs little backstory or clarification. You can create it out of the circumstances at hand. Psychological and emotional danger are deeper and more complex forms of danger that require planning. They should be true to the dynamics between characters, whereas a natural disaster can have nothing to do with a character’s personality or choices.

“What do I mean by psychological danger, anyway? Another phrase for this, as mentioned above, is ’emotional danger.’ This is when a character stands to gain or lose a person’s trust, respect, love, affection, etc. When another character has the power to affect your protagonist’s marriage, livelihood, or standing in the community, you’ve entered the territory of psychological danger. The same is true when the antagonist terrorises, shames, or blackmails your protagonist, to name a few examples.

“Here’s a good example from Sara Pinborough’s thriller Behind Her Eyes. In it, frumpy, divorced, single mom Louise meets a man named David in a bar and makes out with him. The next day she learns he’s her boss at her new job. That alone is a form of psychological danger—a relationship with a boss could put one’s job in jeopardy. So she tries hard to squash any feelings for him, and then she finds out he’s also married, which creates a whole new kind of emotional danger as affairs come with consequences for multiple people.

“But then, one day, on her way to work, she runs into a woman, literally knocking her down. The woman turns out to be David’s wife, Adele. Adele, who doesn’t work and comes across as emotionally fragile, is hungry for a friend, and Louise can’t help herself, so she agrees to hang out with Adele. Adele asks that she not tell David, who she says can be a little controlling.

“Pretty soon, David begins to make romantic overtures to Louise again. He describes his marriage as unhappy, and Louise, suffering a major lack of affection, begins an affair with David despite her better intentions.

“Do you see where this is going? Louise is now in a secret friendship with David’s wife and in a secret affair with Adele’s husband. Emotional danger is written all over this situation, with many ways it can go wrong for Louise.”

The example seems a bit too contrived for my taste, and I believe I might have put the book down thinking that Louise is an idiot.  However, I think that the basic point about emotional tension is a good one.

Hachette’s Future Bookshelf Project

 

There is an article in the winter 2019 edition of The Author, the journal of the Society of Authors, titled “Bursting the Bubble” and written by Francine Toon, who is an editor at Hodder & Stoughton, a Hachette imprint.  She writes about her involvement in Hachette’s Future Bookshelf project which is intended to get poorer and ethnic minority authors into print.  Ms Toon is herself a debut author: her first novel, Pine, will be published by Doubleday in January.

Francine Toon

Ms Toon says that being from the Highlands of Scotland, where literary events are rare, working as an editor for a publishing house, seeing many books in a wide range of genres, and having her first novel published made her realise that there may be other potential authors who are unfamiliar with the process, or don’t have the funds to go on an expensive creative writing course.  She therefore joined a small group of her colleagues who started the Future Bookshelf Project in 2016.  They used paid advertising and their outreach presence at different communities of writers to encourage writers to submit their manuscripts during the second year of open submissions.  In December 2017 they issued a call for submissions by unpublished, un-agented authors who self-defined as ‘under-represented’, owing to such characteristics as age, disability or race.  Authors were asked to write a short personal statement outlining why they felt under-represented when they submitted a sample of their work.  The top five reasons applicants gave were, in order, race, sexual orientation, age, disability and socio-economic status.

757 submissions were read by 59 in-house readers from across the four divisions of Hackette.  Since this reading was in addition to the day work commitments of the readers, it took almost a year to complete.  The most promising submissions were passed on the commissioning editors.  No decisions were made at the outset as to the number of authors to be published, and since the project ran in parallel to reading submissions from agents, the commissioning editors decided which books they felt passionate about and took those books through the normal submission process.  “The aim of the open submissions was to consider authors we wouldn’t see through the agenting route.  However, during the acquisition process, we tried our best to match authors with agents if they so wanted.”

“Among the three authors whose work we were thrilled to acquire, I found Elizabeth Okoh, a British Nigerian writer, whose transportive gem of a novel, The Returnees, held me spellbound.”  Rather than calling the selected authors ‘winners’, they are called the Class of 2018.

“As I write this, hundreds more submissions are filling the Future Bookshelf’s inbox.  This year we have spread our wings to include colleagues from Orion and Little, Brown, and are advertising the project through channels that might reach under-represented writers more effectively.”

More information on The Future Bookshelf can be found at thefuturebookshelf.co.uk.

Review: The Cut Out Girl

The Cut Out Girl, by Bart Van Es, won the Costa Book of the Year prize in 2018 after being named biography of the year.  It is non-fiction about a Dutch girl of Jewish heritage who was placed by her parents in the care of others in 1942.  As such, it bears some resemblance to The Diary of Anne Frank, but the girl, Hesseline (Lien) de Jong is moved on multiple occasions to escape being sent to the to the death camps, where most of her family, including her parents were murdered.  The story is told by the grandson of the couple who were Lien’s principal foster parents.  Bart Van Es, who was born in the Netherlands in 1972, researched the story and is a professor of English literature at Oxford University.

Bart Van Es

Lien de Jong is now over 80, living in Amsterdam; she has children of her own.  Born into a middle-class, secular Jewish family, she was seven years old when, in 1942, her parents decided to place her into a Christian family for her safety.  At the time Jews were being deported to the death camps and had already been stigmatised.  Over 80% of the Jews living in Holland at the beginning of the war died in the Holocaust.  This is a gripping story of bravery on the part of many non-Jews in the Netherlands during the war; they risked their own lives to save thousands of children.  The story proceeds along two tracks: Lien’s story – her background, the events of the war years, and the after war years; and the author’s account of his thorough and painstaking research into the events, the people and the places that Lien experienced, as well as into the culture and circumstances as they affected Jews in Holland during the war years.  Since the author had heard that his grandparents had fostered Lien and that at one time she was considered part of the Van Es family, he wanted to understand why, after the war, Lien had fallen out with his grandparents.

The title is derived from Lien’s ‘poesy album’ in which she kept notes and little poems written by her friends, and in which there are pasted several cut outs of old fashioned girls.  But Lien, herself is a cut out girl being moved from one family to another without notice.

This story is timely, as Antisemitism is once again on the rise in Europe.  The author’s fear that this is just another Holocaust story is un-founded.  It is told with such detail of the events, the feelings and motivations of the people involved that it is difficult to put down.  One is almost literally trans-located to the cities, villages, and houses in war-time Holland.  The author’s writing is straight forward and without extra emotional embellishment.  One has to admire the meticulousness of his research into people, places and events.  He clearly established a remarkably close relationship with Lien, the central figure, nearly twice his age, who had fallen out with his family.  My only quibble about the book is that I found it difficult to keep track of the numerous families who provided shelter to Lien, and what their relationships were to one another.  Clearly, though, Lien didn’t know this either.

This is without a doubt the best biography I’ve read in a long time.  It’s one that gives you faith in human nature is spite of all the evil around us.

Review: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

I decided I had to read this book which is considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century.  It is written by Carson McCullers, who was born in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, the oldest of three children of Lamar Smith, a jeweller of French Huguenot descent, and Marguerite Waters.  As a child, she was encouraged both to play the piano and to write stories.  At the age of seventeen she went to New York City to study music at Julliard School of Music, but she lost her enrolment money on the subway.  She returned to Columbus temporarily to recover from rheumatic fever.  Back in New York, she studied writing and produced her first piece of writing.  She married Reeves McCullers, and ex-soldier and aspiring writer in 1937.  In 1940, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published to considerable critical acclaim.  She went on to write three more novels, several plays and short stories.  She divorced Reeves in 1941 and remarried him in 1945.  In the interim, she fell in love with several women, including Gypsy Rose Lee, but, reportedly, her attempts to have sex with any of them came to naught.  Reeves committed suicide in 1953, having failed in his aim to persuade his wife to commit suicide with him.  Carson McCullers was an alcoholic who suffered from strokes; she was paralysed on her left side from the age of 31 and died at the age of 50 in Nyack, NY.  Her writing style is described as Southern Gothic.

Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, originally titled The Mute, takes its name from the poem The Lonely Heart by William Sharp: “Deep Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still, But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.”

The novel has six main characters: John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos who are both deaf mutes and close friends.  Spiros is hospitalised when his mental health deteriorates.  Singer stays in the small mill town in Georgia, where he works as a silver engraver in the 1930’s,  There are also Mick Kelly, a tomboyish girl who loves music and dreams of owning a piano, but, out of necessity, has to work at Woolworths; Dr Benedict Copeland, an old black doctor who is filled with anger at the plight of blacks in the South; Biff Brannon, the observant owner of a twenty-four hour diner; and Jake Blount, an alcoholic, violent labour organiser.  Each of these latter four is attracted to John Singer by his placid demeanour and his apparent sympathy with their individual angst.  The well-drawn characters suffer from loneliness which McCullers interprets with deep empathy.

When the book was first published, it was unusual for a young author to write with such effective sympathy about those who are rejected, forgotten, mistreated or oppressed.  She also highlights the oppressive race relations in the South in the 1930’s.

For me, however, the book moves at too slow a pace, and while this largely matches the pace of the setting, I found myself losing interest now and then.  The characters, the setting and the emotions are very real; the writing is excellent, if only it moved a little faster.

Master and Commander

I have long been addicted to Patrick O’Brian’s novels which featured Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin in tales of sea battles with French warships in the early nineteenth century.  There was an article in The Sunday Telegraph on November 3rd by Lewis Jones entitled “The Dark Story Behind ‘Master and Commander’, the first of O’Brian’s twenty novels.  I probably read all twenty, which were addictive to an ex-Navy officer like me, because of the incredibly realistic accounts of life aboard British warships during the Napoleonic era.  But more than that, Aubrey is a roast-beef British, dashing, but sometimes thoughtless character, accurately played by Russell Crowe in the film, and Maturin is an Irish-Catalan naturalist, doctor, and spy.  They are shipmates, friends, musicians, and adventurers in the series.  O’Brian had an amazing talent for concocting what looked like sure wins for Aubrey, which suddenly became disastrous, but from which Aubrey extracted a brilliant win over his French adversary.

The Telegraph article mentions some interesting facts about O’Brian, the author.  He was born in 1914 in Buckinghamshire; during the war, he worked in British intelligence with his second wife, Mary Tolstoy, who had been married to a Russian, Count Tolstoy.  After the war, he moved to the Catalan part of France where he spent decades writing, half a dozen novels, a biography of Picasso, numerous short stories and translations.  He had friendly reviews, but he wrote in obscurity and he was always broke.  In 1967, when O’Brian was at a low ebb, he received a letter from the American publisher, J B Lippencott, noting the C S Forester had died the previous year and that he, O’Brian, would be well qualified to fill the void left by Forester’s Hornblower series.  In 1969, Master and Commander was published.  By the 1990’s O’Brian was rich and famous, was appointed a CBE and the world wanted to know about him.  As an intensely private person, this irritated him considerably.   He was the eighth of nine children born to an English ‘pox doctor’ (venereologist) of German descent and an English woman of Irish descent.  He was ‘briefly’ educated at grammar schools.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of O’Brian’s biography is the speculation about how he acquired his naval knowledge.  In a 1994 essay, O’Brian himself said, “my particular friend Edward, who shared a tutor with me, had a cousin who possessed an ocean-going yacht, a converted square-rigged merchantman, that he used to crew with undergraduates and fair-sized boys, together with some real seamen, and sail far off into the Atlantic. The young are wonderfully resilient, and although I never became much of a topman, after a while I could hand, reef and steer without disgrace, which allowed more ambitious sailoring later on.”

But, in 1995, the venture capitalist, Thomas Perkins, offered O’Brian a two-week cruise aboard his then sailing yacht, a 154 ft ketch.  He later said, “his knowledge of the practical aspects of sailing seemed, amazingly, almost nil” and “…he seemed to have no feeling for the wind and the course, and frequently I had to intervene to prevent a full standing gybe. I began to suspect that his autobiographical references to his months at sea as a youth were fanciful.”

In any event his tales of seamanship and combat at sea are remarkably realistic and entertaining.  Patrick O’Brian died in 2000.

Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

As a particular fan of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and other pieces by Mark Twain, I thought that this would be a particularly good book to which to listen, so I down loaded it from Audible and my wife and I started listening to it.  She lost interest almost immediately, but I carried on to the bitter end.

Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clements, (1835-1910), an American writer humorist, entrepreneur, publisher and lecturer.  His obituary in the New York Times, called him “the greatest humorist this country has produced”, and his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has often been called “The Great American Novel”.  He worked as a miner in California and as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River.  His pen name is the call of the leadsman on a riverboat reporting two fathoms beneath the keel of the boat – a safe depth of water.

Mark Twain

A Connecticut Yankee begins with the protagonist, Hank Morgan, wakes up after being hit on the head in early medieval England near Camelot, the mythical King Arthur’s kingdom, in an environment of chivalry, knighthood, slavery, serfdom, domination of the Catholic Church, and an autocratic ruling class.  Hank competes with Merlin, King Arthur’s great sorcerer, using nineteenth century technology to win the kings favour and become ‘The Boss’, the second most powerful man in the kingdom.  Secretly, Hank introduces gun powder, the telephone, hydraulic pumps, electricity, etc. behind the scenes in Camelot.  The average citizen of Camelot is depicted as a gullible illiterate, ready to believe the most improbable presentations.  Knights are hardly chivalrous, kings are tyrants and magic is everywhere.  Hank is challenged to joust with various knights and he defeats several by lassoing them, and the rest by shooting them with a pistol.   Eventually the church causes a revolt against Hank which results in a war of knights with swords and spears against Gatling guns and electrified fences, where the victors, except Hank, succumb to disease; Merlin puts Hank under a spell for 1300 years and then is electrocuted.

The novel is a satire of the romanticised views of chivalry in the middle ages; it is also an attack on the mysticism and the controlling nature of the Roman Catholic Church of the time.  The concept of time travel as a sub-genre of science fiction is significant in that it was followed almost immediately by several other novels.

I found the novel boring, probably because I have no romantic notions of knighthood and chivalry or misconceptions about the role of the Church which require correction.   There is one passage which lists just the names of a large number of knights.  I found it beyond credibility that a single nineteenth century engineer could build a ‘modern’ infrastructure in the iron age in only a few years.  Twain also mistakenly refers to steel armour well before it was invented.  Apparently Twain had a falling out with Sir Walter Scott who wrote romantic novels about chivalry and on whom he blamed the start of the American Civil War for Scott’s promotion of distinctive titles.  The story seems to have no unifying plot, but meanders from one set of circumstances to another at the whim of Hank Morgan.   The characters are largely one-dimensional, with the exception of ‘Sandy’ (Demoiselle Alisande a la Carteloise).  I found myself asking repeatedly, “What’s the point?”

Forget about the Connecticut Yankee; go with Huckleberry Finn.

 

Review: Me Before You

My wife and I listened to this audio book on our way back to London from Sicily.  I had selected it because I thought my wife would like it, and because its author, Jojo Moyes, contributed a lot of money to a program to help illiterate adults to read.  (My way of saying ‘thank you’!)

Jojo Moyes was born in 1969 on Maidstone, England.  She attended Royal Holloway, University of London and City University for a post graduate course in journalism.  She worked for The Independent newspaper for about ten years.  She wrote three manuscripts of novels that were all rejected.  With one child and another on the way, she was writing her fourth novel, which she decided would be her last if it were rejected.  Wikipedia says. “After submitting the first three chapters of her fourth book to various publishers, six of them began a bidding war for the rights.  Moyes became a full-time novelist in 2002, when her first book Sheltering Rain was published. She continues to write articles for The Daily Telegraph.  Moyes’ publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, did not take up the novel Me Before You and Moyes sold it to Penguin.”  It has sold fourteen million copies world-wide, went to number one in nine countries, and reinvigorated her back catalogue resulting in three of her novels being on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time.  Moyes would later write two sequels starring Louisa Clark, the protagonist of Me Before YouAfter You in 2015 and Still Me in 2018.  “Moyes lives on a farm in Essex with her husband, journalist Charles Arthur, and their three children.  She enjoys riding her ex-racehorse, Brian, as well as tending to the numerous animals on her family’s farm, including Nanook, or ‘BigDog’, a rescued 58 kg female Pyrenean mountain dog.”

Jojo Moyes

Me Before You is a romantic novel, but it is also a tragedy on a serious, controversial subject: euthanasia.   The protagonist, Louisa Clark, aged 27, an attractive girl from a small, historic English town and an ordinary, lower middle class family, is laid off from her job working in a cafe and takes a job as a carer for a quadriplegic 35-year-old man, Will, who was injured in an accident, is wise, good-looking, worldly and was enormously successful in business.  He isn’t sure he wants to continue living in his present state.  There are many other characters: Louisa’s parents and sister, Will’s parents and sister, Louisa’s boyfriend, Will’s girlfriend, and a medical carer.  It is a long book: 512 pages, and the listening time is 16 hours.

The book is certainly addictive; it is difficult to put it down.  Apart from the first chapter which begins rather slowly, the book is electrified with wave after wave of emotional crises, all quite real and believable.  There are job crises, romantic crises, existential crises, financial crises, personal crises.  The dialogue and the scene-setting is very good indeed.  Also impressive is the medical research that Ms Moyes must have done to make this novel as believable as it is.  The central characters are all clearly defined, and their development is entirely credible.  The only criticism I can offer is that one becomes somewhat emotionally fatigued reading the novel.  Could it have been a little bit more memorable and effective if it had been a hundred pages shorter?

If you’re a reader who likes emotional roller coasters, this one is definitely for you!