Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Books I Read In March

'Primary Colors' [sic] by Anonymous [Joe Klein]
I never do well with books that are lent or recommended to me and this is no exception.  My father insisted that I read it and I have had it hanging around for a few years.  It was only by the chance of where it ended up on my 'to read' pile that I have read it during the US primaries to choose the candidates for the Presidential election, later this year.  The book is about a young black political worker supporting the campaign of a fictional Democrat governor from a southern state in the primaries, probably in 1992.  The book was published in 1996 and the politician Jack Stanton and especially his wife Susan Stanton, seem to have parallels to Bill and Hilary Clinton.  Bill Clinton was elected US President in 1992 and was proven to be a philanderer though not to the extent that Jack Stanton is in this book.  The Anonymous was revealed in 1996 to be Joe Klein a columnist and an author of non-fiction books as well.  He had specifically covered the campaign of Bill Clinton in 1992.

The book is a mess.  The first seventy pages are a stream of consciousness pouring out frantically and so jammed with US political jargon as to be meaningless to anyone outside that context.  The pace slows down right through the book so that the last fifty pages really drag and you are left simply wishing that it would get to its conclusion.  There are no sympathetic characters in the book,  The best people are just naive, the rest are either seedy or downright sordid.  The narrator incessantly cheats on the woman supposed to be his girlfriend and there seems to be no genuine feelings from him, just cynical manipulation to salve whatever is troubling him at the time. Yes, if you are interested in the topic, it gives a bit of an insight into a particular phase of the US Presidential campaigns, but little else.  This is a very poor quality book and I think it probably only received the attention it did because it seems like a coded exposé of the Clintons.  If this book does bear any relation to how US politics really works, then it reveals a terribly corrupt system.

'Field Grey' by Philip Kerr
In a number of his recent Bernie Gunther detective stories, Philip Kerr has used the technique of jumping back and forth in time.  To a great extent this reduces the jeopardy for the character as we know that even when he is in grave situations during the Second World War and in this book the post-war period too, he is going to live on into the 1950s.  The trouble with this book is that the jumping back and forth is almost incessant.  Yes, there are consecutive chapters in the same era, but we see Gunther in Berlin in 1931, 1946 and 1954, in France in 1940, in the USSR in 1945-46, in Cuba, the USA, and two parts of West Germany - Bavaria and Lower Saxony in 1954. Large parts of the novel he is in one prison or another being interrogated.  In many ways this book fills in many of the gaps in the Bernie Gunther story but this means it is incredibly fragmented. At best it seems anecdotal.

There are a number of brief cases that he solves and at the back of it a big Cold War spy thriller with too many twists.  Gunther works for the US authorities and French authorities and is seen to work with the Stasi, the East German secret police.The book has a narrative running to 563 pages in my edition and as a result you have a long book made up of lots of bits which do not make a satisfactory whole.  It would have been better even if Kerr wanted to have this book focused on reminiscences to narrow the focus to one particular setting, e.g. his activities in France in 1940 or perhaps in Soviet prison camps in 1945.  There was enough there to produce a shorter but stronger book.

I know Kerr likes to show his knowledge of the settings but in this book he has to show us so many prisons and outline so many police and intelligence agencies of a number of countries, that in the end it is too much and trying to keep up with who he is speaking to and who he is working for, when reduces and tension.  Instead we have a kind of encyclopedia entries for various groups in this era.  Fewer big names feature in this book.  Arthur Nebe is seen briefly taking control of Gunther's life; Reinhard Heydrich is like a ghost in much of the book, referenced but not encountered in the way he was in 'Prague Fatale', though much of this book shadows the career of Erich Mielke who rose to be the Minister of State Security in East Germany 1957-89.

While I have enjoyed many elements of the Bernie Gunther series and admire Kerr's attention to detail, I feel that of all of them, this book fails most badly.  It is overblown and unnecessarily choppy really draining any potential tension from the story and instead leaving the reader bumping through fragments as they are tossed back and forth between years.  I still have a two more books in this series on my 'to read' shelf and hope that they have a tighter focus and greater tension.

'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' by J.K. Rowling
I effectively inherited the Harry Potter books from the boy who used to live in my house and feels not that he has outgrown them but that these days 'nobody reads books' even e-books let alone printed ones like this.  Like many people my view of the book has been shaped by the movie.  I had been told by Potter fans that the novels have many characters and sub-plots that are left out of the movies.  Perhaps because this is the first of the series, there were just a couple of scenes that I did not recall have seen and they did not really add much to the story though one in the Forest outside Hogwarts School would have been horrific if shown in the movie.

One problem I have always had with the Potter series is that it seems to lionise children who go to elite, fee-paying 'public' schools such as Eton, Winchester and Harrow.  Hogwarts seems to be the ultimate public school in that the children there are special and clearly apart from the normal population.  In British society more people who have attended public schools (and they are only a sub-set of the 7% of children who attend all fee-paying schools) become ministers, bishops, generals and judges than people who have attended other schools.  The current government is highly symptomatic of that.  So I have always been wary of books that signal to children, the bulk of whom will attend state schools that they are 'muggles' and should look up to their 'betters' at public schools.

Setting that aside there are additional elements that suggest Rowling has drawn heavily on public school novels of the 19th and 20th centuries.  I know she came from an ordinary background in Scotland so seems to have made assumptions about Middle Class life in southern England but seems to lump all of that class into the Upper Middle Class.  Unlike in the movie, in the book Dudley Dursley, Harry Potter's cousin, also goes to a lesser public school.  Yet his family live in an ordinary, not particularly large Middle Class house in a suburb and would not be able to afford such fees.  There is only one mention of a comprehensive school.  Maybe this is why the Potter books succeed because not only do they have a magical school, their portrayal of 'ordinary' Britain is very fictional too.  It seems Rowling inhabits the same country as Ian McEwan as I have noted earlier in the year.  Though the book was published in 1997, the technology mentioned seems to come from ten years earlier and the dialogue from thirty years even before that.  Once at Hogwarts, of course, everything is out of the flow of normal time and technology is early-mid 19th century with magical assistance.

The book improves greatly as it progresses.  Rowling is best when she is showing a true adventure.  In this first book you do feel that she has spent too long going into the background of Harry Potter's life, leaving insufficient time for the adventure.  I think the movie balances these aspects better.  Rowling is often criticised for the clunkiness of her writing.  I think it is less that and more that it is dated.  However, perhaps that was what made it seem acceptable to parents and teachers.  I imagine child readers will look beyond any social message to the excitement, which in the final third of this book Rowling handles deftly.  One notable aspect is the ambivalence of characters.  In particular Severus Snape (played so admirably by the late Alan Rickman) and the motives for his behaviour are refreshing in a children's book, especially at this stage there is no indication of his motives and this constantly leads to misapprehensions on the part of the leading characters.  I have the other six books in the series and have not been put off sufficiently by this one to abandon reading them.

'Red Gold' by Alan Furst
This is the sequel to 'The World at Night' (2002) which I thought I had read reasonably recently, but it turns out it was six years ago:  I suppose that says something decent about it that I can remember it this long on.  'Red Gold' covers the further adventures of Jean-Claude Casson a former movie producer living in Paris during the German Occupation.  The story has now reached 1941-42.  This leads us to the first problem with these books.  It is as if we are reading a dramatised biography and each book simply covers a chunk of Casson's life, rather than having a structure of its own.  This causes immense problems with pacing and climaxes which happen rather sporadically through the book.  Too much of this book is not at all exciting, it is incredibly dreary as we see Casson very short of cash, moving from one seedy location to another and so it feels like 'Down and Out in London and Paris' by George Orwell (1933) rather than a spy or adventure story.

Casson becomes involved with three resistance groups in this book including, the Communist FTP which became active when the Germans broke their non-aggression pact with the USSR and invaded in June 1941.  However, Furst has a problem with jeopardy.  This is apparent in other work of his.  I particularly recall the dramatisation of 'The Spies of Warsaw' (novel 2008; TV series 2013) which 'The Guardian' described as 'pallid'.  Furst is poor at communicating risk.  He tries in this book by having a number of failed actions by resisters.  However, he does not realise that they come and go so quickly that the reader has no investment in them as characters.  He develops no-one to the depth that he develops Casson, who despite becoming involved in many dubious activities seems invincible.  Furthermore, Casson is a philanderer and his women face some risk, but so far all end up with happy endings.  Perhaps if the novels were set in the 1930s or 1950s this would be tolerable, but in the heart of the war with the German secret police so active it loses credibility.

What Furst is excellent at is conjuring up the time and place.  His attention to detail on the lives of people from all kinds of social backgrounds living in Paris at the time are really good.  This can sometimes be a problem for some authors, especially of historical novels - the setting can become more important than the story.  To make a good book needed more strong characters and them at real risk.  It also need the book structured so that a climax such as the delivery of arms or the sabotage of a canal is not something passing but what the book works toward.  The last part of the book, especially the flight of Helene is terribly rushed as reduces the impact immensely.  Maybe Furst wanted to write a 1000-page novel, but when that was not feasible he should have reworked the components far more than he has done here so that the reader is not simply left with an odd assortment of activity that simply happens to fall into the chunk that Furst has sliced off on this occasion.

'Age of Austerity 1945-1951' ed. by Michael Sissons and Philip French
Though this book was published in 1964, when I started reading my copy I realised no-one had ever read it before.  I do not know if it was a gift or simply passed on from person to person without it stimulating sufficient interest to begin reading it.  That is a shame because it is an interesting and indeed engaging book.  As the title suggests it considers the years in Britain under the Labour governments, 1945-51.  Much of Europe faced similar challenges, but the USA was conversely going through a boom which is now often seen as the start of a golden age probably running to about 1963.

The book consists of 15 chapters written by journalists and authors, all of whom were children when the war ended.  They focus on a wide range of topics including political aspects such as the aftermath of the 1945 election and the British withdrawal from Greece but also cultural aspects such as the spiv, the New Look and the Festival of Britain.  Given the range of authors, the style varies considerably.  David Hughes's chapter on the spiv is interesting and highlights issues that are likely to have been forgotten, but is poorly drafted and jumps around what it is dealing with, weakening the force of what he is saying.

One thing unfortunately hangs over too much of the book.  It is bad practice to try to squeeze out lessons for your own time from a study of history, especially recent history.  It contaminates the historical process.  The writing for the book seems to have been completed in 1963, by which time the Labour Party had been out of office for 12 years.  Thus, there is much searching for what the Labour governments of 1945-51 had done 'wrong' to make themselves unelectable.   Following the October 1964, Labour was to be in power for 11 of the next 15 years.  As a result, we now tend to see its governments of 1945-51 in a less negative light and actually creating the kind of British economy and society that was accepted, even fostered, across the political spectrum until about 1975/76 and the shift to New Right attitudes that led to the Thatcher Consensus as the replacement for the Attlee Consensus.

This book is very good at reminding us how hard the post-war period was in Britain.  Though the fighting had stopped, supplies were even shorter than in wartime.  Rationing for consumers lasted until 1952 and for industry until 1956.  The extremely harsh 1947 winter plus the difficulty for Britain of making foreign earnings and trying to dismantle an empire which had become immense, made a bad situation even worse.  It shows us how dreary life was in the period and as the shortages continued that hope was soon lost.  Britain in these years easily looked like a country in the Soviet bloc.  The pettiness and indeed stupidity of those enforcing regulations suggests that while the UK never came close to the kind of Gestapo Winston Churchill warned of in 1945, the handling of resources did allow openings for numerous 'little Hitlers' to plague British lives.  I was particularly interested in Michael Frayn's brief study of the economic and practical challenges of the Festival of Britain which complements the more commonly seen analysis of the cultural impact.

Some of the chapters refer to things which have been lost from memory.  This is noticeable in Brian Glanville's chapter on sport.  I guess some people will recognise the footballers' names beyond Stanley Matthews and even have heard of the boxer Bruce Woodcock, but to me this chapter was largely meaningless, bar the fact of British sporting struggles seem unchanged seventy years later.  It was similar with David Pryce-Jones on novels and theatre.  T.S. Eliot is well known still, but when did you read or see anything by Angela Thirkell or Christopher Fry - two leading writers of the era,  Ironically the authors from the inter-war period that Pryce-Jones is so dismissive of, have endured far better,

Most of the chapters are concise and well rounded, but some become fragmented and are weaker as a result.  Peter Jenkins is fine covering the battles with the B.M.A. to get the National Health Service set up, again echoing current issues over doctors' contracts but then he launches off on coal nationalisation and economic planning each of which deserved their own chapters.  Godfrey Hodgson is weaker on the debates around nationalising the steel industry mainly because he is trying to find when the Labour Party ebbed into unelectability.  However, he also then goes off on the revival of the Conservative Party's ideas and organisation, really quite irrelevant to the issue of steel.

Another important thing this book does is to highlight factors, that of course unknowingly, would be a feature of our lives seventy years later.  Anthony Howard's chapter shows how the House of Lords prevent the government's legislation to abolish the death penalty, delaying this until 1965 and to nationalise the steel industry the first time.  It was partially achieved by 1951 but was almost immediately reversed.  I doubt many people will read David Leitch's chapter on the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.  This was done in an attempt to drive the British out of Palestine which they had controlled since 1919.  The difficulties faced in running a country divided alone religious/ethnic lines when both camps were hostile to the occupiers is a salutary lesson for anyone looking at post-conflict control in Iraq and Afghanistan.  David Watt's chapter on the British exit from Greece and the USA taking over adds more insight.  Furthermore, Leitch highlights the hostility towards Jews in Britain, provoked by what seem nowadays, minor, terrorist incidents. This aspect has eerie echoes in the current hostility towards Muslims in Britain, the USA and elsewhere.

This is an easily accessible book which despite the clear rooting of certain authors in a specific time context is very useful in reminding anyone interested in Britain in the immediate post-war period of how hard and ugly it was.  Effectively for many people in the UK the war did not really end in 1945 but just as the legal definition of Britain being at war had it, it continued until 1955.

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