Hamamatsu, Japan | Member Since 2007
This is a tellingly different account of modern diplomatic life than the name-dropping and rather self-satisfied account rendered by Christopher Meyer, former UK ambassador to the USA (1997-2003), in his book "DC Confidential" - also available on audiobook at this site. In spite of his off-putting double-barreled name (why do the Brits insist on doing this?) Cowper-Coles, or CC as from now on I will call him, comes across as a decent bloke with an open mind. He started off in the cauldron of Northern Ireland (Norn Iron in localspeak) in the 1970s and his reading list before taking up his post was impressive if slightly risible. At least he was taking the job seriously and not just waltzing in and waltzing out as so many of our diplo/ politico neighbours from Across the Water do. Yes, I am Irish, and judge these performances with a gimlet eye. I was impressed by the fact that he made solid and lasting contacts with his opposite numbers in the Irish Dept. of Foreign Affairs. That is not always easy to do since these fellows (I know them) tend to be impatient with ignorant Brits. CC is never ignorant and he stands up for his own side as indeed he should. He moves on to various other postings throughout the world and shows a delightful willingness to get in touch with people from all walks of life. In fact he chooses to take up one of his first distant posts by driving across Europe in a banger of a car with a few friends. It's a wonder they ever made it! He has an adventurous and questing spirit which makes the listener gradually warm to him. This is no pompous mannikin glaring at the locals from under a ridiculous hat topped with ostrich feathers as the Royal Marine Band plays "God Save the Queen". This is a guy who goes out and tries to solve problems wherever he happens to be. And he has courage. He drives through the night to reach the site of a bombing in Saudi Arabia in which British civilians have been killed and immediately plunges in although the security people want to get him the hell away. CC doesn't blow a trumpet. He just tells his story: this - this - and this happened. So what I decided to do was this - that - and the other. He comes across as a very attractive personality, a chap who is actually pretty good at his job, and who believes in the real value of representing the UK abroad. I came away from this reading with a feeling of respect for CC ... if not for the Foreign Office or HMG as a whole! CC? Definitely one of the good guys.
Scandinavian gloom reaches its fascinating apogee with this series of detective novels by Henning Mankell, of which The Troubled Man would appear to be the last. Kurt Wallender, the middle-aged police detective and anti-hero of the series, is a divorced, lonely, rather unhappy man, who happens to have a real talent for sniffing out the truth behind complicated criminal cases. Two television series (one English, starring Kenneth Branagh, and the other Swedish which is far more authentic if you can get your head around Swedish with subtitles - I swear you begin to understand the language more and more!) have been made about these books. The stories are centred around the town of Ystad on the southern tip of Sweden and the characters always seem to be hopping over to nearby Copenhagen for some R&R, possibly for relief from the rather earnest nature of rural Sweden. The plots are interesting because they bring in issues such as refugee-smuggling and the sometimes difficult relations between Sweden and its Baltic neighbours. The country's neutral role during WWII and it's ambivalent relationship to NATO also come under inspection. Wallender has a daughter Linda who has become involved with a young financier (working in Copenhagen, naturally!) whose parents suddenly disappear one after the other. The father was a former naval officer and submarine commander who was concerned with several (actual) Soviet submarine incursions into Swedish territorial waters during the early 1980s. There is more than a hint of political intrigue tying in to the pro-American attitudes of the Swedish military and its open distaste for the Social Democrat prime minister Olof Palme, who was assassinated on a Stockholm street in 1986, a crime which has never been solved to this day. Wallender, plagued by his failed marriage, dental problems, and his growing fear of death as he passes the 60 mark finds himself leaving his dog with his neighbours more and more ("Are you sure you don't want to sell him?") as he travels to Riga, Berlin and various parts of Sweden in an attempt to unravel the puzzle. There are times when one feels like giving him a good swift kick but his obduracy and dogged unrelenting approach to the problem elicit reluctant admiration. What really happened? Read (or listen to) the book!
I have long been a fan of this brilliant series and jumped at the chance to hear it read by the redoubtable Robert Hardy. Hardy brings the characters to life in a way that enhances my memories of the printed page and the only bittersweet disappointment involved was that he was reading from an abridged version. No, no, no! Read the whole thing! We are missing all the asides and digressive bits that admittedly add nothing to the plot but which constitute so much of the period charm of this fascinating ongoing tale. It is primarily the story of a deep and enduring friendship between two very unlike men, one the bluff and hearty Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy, lucky at sea but prone to every disaster on land, and the other the sardonic and secretive surgeon and natural philosopher Stephen Maturin with his mixed Catalan and Irish loyalties. They clash, they reconcile, they play music together, they watch out for one another's interests ... and then they clash again. The background to all this is the war at sea against the Empire of Napoleon and the action ranges from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and from there to the furthest oceans of the world. This is rivetting stuff and is punctuated by periods ashore where the sharp-witted Stephen proves himself more adroit than his naive and trusting companion.
Oh dear! Nothing to be done. With a sidelong glance at my perilous bank account I went out and bought the whole series and spent a week or so rather blissfully submerged in a bygone world so well recreated that you can actually feel yourself within it. I was quite casually referring to male friends as 'my dear' and 'my love' in conversation, oblivious of some rather strange looks ....
Belatedly, an unabridged version of this series has begun to appear which comprises (so far) the first three volumes; 'Master and Commander', 'Post Captain', and 'HMS Surprise' read quite creditably by Ric Jerrom. When I tell you that these versions run from 15 to 18 hours apiece compared to Robert Hardy's average of about 3 hours you can understand the source of my anguish above. What to do? Do as I did, I suppose. Start with the whole series read by Hardy and then go back and do it more slowly with Ric Jerrom. On the other hand, if you don't like spoilers start with the unabridged versions. But if you choose to go that way you will miss the unparalleled spine-tingling readings of Hardy! Tough decision.
I think one of the best films I have ever seen was Stanley Kubrick's classic production of this title and now I have gone back to this reading of the original. There are the inevitable omissions, deletions, variations and outright changes between the movie and the book but there can be no question that Kubrick caught the very spirit and essence of this work. Thackeray was a major rival to Dickens in the world of popular mid-Victorian literature and to my mind was the better if far less prolific writer. Both authors shared vivid if not to say startling powers of imagination. Whereas Dickens often descends into sentimentality Thackeray is cool and acerbic throughout and in consequence his humour is far more subtle and telling with a very distinct sting in the tail. "Vanity Fair" is of course his most famous and lasting work (also made into an excellent British TV series in the early 90s, a thousand times better than the frothy 2004 film starring Reese Witherspoon) but this earlier novel does not suffer by comparison. It is a tongue-in-cheek version of "Tom Jones" set in Ireland and follows the adventures and vicissitudes of the young Redmond Barry as he ascends from rural anonymity to the status of a great 18th century English Gentleman. After the Rise comes the inevitable Fall which is funny and tragic in equal degrees. The tone and pace of the language may be slightly off-putting to the modern listener accustomed to snappy dialogue and rapid transitions but a little patience with the opening chapters will be amply rewarded as the tale unfolds. This is really good stuff. If time is short, by all means go out and rent the movie!
This book was a huge hit in Japan although many Japanese readers don't know what to make of this guy: "He writes like a Westerner in translation", they claim, and it is true that Murakami is equally well known over here as a translator. He is an elusive figure, choosing to live in New York, and refusing to appear on Japanese TV. He says he wants to be able to walk the streets of Tokyo without being recognized. Given the frenzy that surrounds even minor celebrities in Japan, that makes sense. He has long been disdained by the Japanese literary elite but he sells more books than any of them, not only in this country but overseas as well. Few contemporary Japanese authors are read in other countries but it seems everything Murakami writes is almost simultaneously rendered into English and then other languages. In this case, parts 1 and 2 were started by one translator and part 3 embarked upon by another so that the whole work could appear as a single volume. Was Murakami helpful? Not really. The two translators (both resident Americans) got together from time to time to keep the whole rambling work more or less even in tone. One would have to say they did a good job considering how elliptic the Japanese language can be (many sentences have no subjects, verbs can be elusive and vague, often you can't tell who is speaking: what the hell is going on?) and consequently the work comes across more sharply in English than it does in the original Japanese. (OK, OK I got through about 5 pages of the Japanese original before turning to the English where everything started to make better sense). Murakami is obviously a force to be reckoned with in spite of the muted weirdness and recurring obsessions which come out in all of his books -- but he is not about to explain any of this. Take it or leave it. In an impressed but puzzled sort of way, we do.
Just not up to the usual Ambler standard: this doesn't even begin to compare with, say, "The Mask of Demetrios".
This book is the first of the Baroque Cycle series ... which seems to go on forever and ever and ever. That is actually a Good Thing because Stephenson draws the reader into the convoluted secret world of the 17th century (with, admittedly, a few lapses and boring bits en route) in such a way that s/he will never quite see it the same way again. The research that must have gone into the writing of this series is nothing short of colossal but Stephenson never quite parades it in our faces -- although coming close from time to time -- but puts it to the service of a rip-roaring tale that seems to gather speed as it moves along. Cabals, codes, cyphers, the adulteration of the money supply, pirates, the Turkish siege of Vienna, Newton, Leibnitz, Louis XIV, the political manoeuvring behind the Hanoverian succession to the British throne (their descendants still occupy the position)... it's all there, with much more besides. This book comprises the overture to a heaving seething gallimaufry of a work which can be totally exhilarating or totally exhausting depending upon the reader's response to the ideas, themes and speculations which it introduces.
The middle-aged narrator is living in fairly comfortable retirement, divorced from his wife, and filling his time with virtuous but hardly strenuous pursuits when he receives an unexpected solicitor's letter informing him of a delayed bequest from the long-dead mother of a college friend. Difficulties ensue, and this brings him back in contact with an old girlfriend from the 1960s. The story unravels slowly with some fine and rather wicked social observations, leading to a surprise ending which I must confess I found initially rather difficult to understand. The narration is excellent and the writing is finely-honed and dryly intelligent as one has come to expect from Julian Barnes. He does this sort of thing less brashly than Martin Amis and slightly better than Ian McEwan.
Frank Delaney is a shanachie, following on in the old tradition of the storytellers of Ireland. This would seem to be the method he employs, but to be more precise, behind the apparent simplicity and anecdotal nature of the tales he tells lies a very sharply-honed novelist's mind. There is a design behind the loosely linked series of stories through which the principal narrator Charles O'Brien sets out his own life story from the 1860s through to the early 20th century. Charles acts as a witness to the way in which the land was restored to the dispossessed and embittered native population and comes in contact, often quite innocently, with major figures of the period such as Parnell, Oscar Wilde, Yeats and Shaw. Other voices interject from time to time to indicate that Charles for all his confidence in his own eloquence and grasp of the situation surrounding him often doesn't quite understand how others see him nor what is really taking place in the country. This is wonderfully well done and constitutes a fresh and rather variegated look at a period which most of us in Ireland only know from textbooks. One of the most devastating and politically incorrect and possibly quite true themes that continually comes through (flying in the face of the pieties of the modern Republic) is that there is such an enormous disparity between native Catholics and settler Protestants, both of whom passionately love the land, that there is practically no hope whatsoever of the two tribes or even species -- it goes way beyond simple things such as religious differences -- ever being able to comprehend one another. And all this is done indirectly through anecdote and story in such a familiar idiom for those of us who were born and live or have lived on this island that it brings me back to the title for this review: familiarity shading into amazement!
I thought I had made a mistake when I started listening to this diary: date, three or four sentence entry; next date, another short entry; another date, another short entry, etc., etc.
This is not a literary work, as such. It's just a record of what happened every day. What sets it apart from most other works of its kind is that the author ("Missy") a young exiled White Russian aristocrat more or less exiled in Nazi Germany has to make a living and deal with events as the war becomes ever more menacing and encroaches on the lives of herself and her sister Tatiana and their wonderfully large and diverse circle of friends and relatives, who seem to be fighting or suffering on all sides in the war.
As the diary progresses it takes hold. It is not retrospective, written at leisure in hindsight: it's a record of the war in triumphant and then losing Germany day by day as seen from the eyes of an apolitical young woman. She obviously doesn't like the Nazis but she works for a branch of the Foreign Ministry and likes some of her bosses and hates others. She's a moral person in a crazy upside-down world but just gets on with things. Her male acquaintances from her former life are in the German, French, British, Italian and American armies and she just hopes they'll all survive the madness. Obviously, some don't. She grieves the death of one young friend, a Luftwaffe pilot who shot down 63 American planes. He was no Nazi, he wanted to kill Hitler, he just got caught up in his role in the war from which there was no escape -- except death.
Missy gets caught up in the conspiracy to kill Hitler which failed after the bomb attempt on July 20, 1944, after which the arrests and widening circle of executions began. This is probably one of the best first-hand records of that time that exists. And the bombing: 600,000 people lost their lives in Germany compared to 62,000 in Britain during the Blitz.
The writing is not extraordinary. It is the events which are extraordinary.
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