Category Archives: History

A log jam of books

Several new novels have been piling up in the “having read waiting to post” pile. The new Barbara Kingsolver, the new Andrew Miller and the new Philip Teir.

 

These are each in their own way, brilliant. I regard Barbara Kingsolver as one of the best women writers from America in the last 25 years. She is, to my mind the Rachel Carson of the fiction world. Each of her many books has behind it a message for the planet. Whether it is the changing habits of Monarch butterflies (Flight Behaviour) or changing attitudes to evolution, there is behind each novel a scintilla of historical truth. But as with the butterflies, the changes are mirrored in the lives of the characters.

In Unsheltered, the reader is drawn into the nature of houses themselves, what does an old house tell us, if anything, about the people who lived in it before? In the present day, Willa is being given the horrific news that the house she and her family live in is no longer stable and should be pulled down.  Several rooms are already no longer inhabitable.

This leads back to the same block in the same town, but to a historic period when a teacher at the town school finds himself in difficulties with the strict Creationist beliefs of the founding patriarch of the new development, Vineland – Mr Charles Landis. Thatcher Greenwood, a biologist interested in the works of Charles Darwin, also lives in a house that is crumbling and he has not the means to pay for repairs, not least because the very building design – his father-in-law’s – was flawed from the start.

His neighbour, a botanist, is another “real-life” character in this novel. Mary Treat is a distinguished but mostly forgotten botanist who corresponded with such luminaries as Charles Darwin, Charles Riley and Asa Gray, and whose contribution to the understanding of environment to the life of plants such as the Venus fly-trap were singular and admired by these (unjustly) more famous men. Charles Landis is also a true character, as is one of the more startling events in the book. 1868 was a rather turbulent time in America, it seems.

There are many layered meanings in the title, not only the shelter of the roof over our heads but the discoveries and obfuscations that often follow any new idea, when the certainties of old belief system are uncovered by the discoveries of new science.

This is a marvellous blend of fact and fiction, a seamless combination of past and present as exemplified by the houses, slowly sinking back into their foundations. If someone famous lived there, can the house be saved? There is much to savour in this wonderful book.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is also an historical novel, set at the time of the Peninsula War.  Captain John Lacroix arrives home from the setback at Corunna. It is a love story, a murder story and a study of the human will to survive against all the odds. In modern parlance, Lacroix is suffering from PTSD, once he is back on his feet physically, he is expected to return to his regiment and the war with France. Instead, he turns North.

But all is not absolutely as it seems, grief and remorse are deeply lodged in his heart, and while he is fleeing from these emotions, there are other men who are in deadly pursuit. Merciless to himself, Lacroix is being pursued by an enemy even more desperate and implacable towards him.

Miller gets into the mind of his characters in a combined skill of both observation and description, so that the landscape and the weather are principals in the drama, as much as the human characters themselves.

The ending…it is sublime.

The Summer House is translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunally, she also translated his debut novel The Winter War.

Several families have left the city for their summer houses, near water and the sea. For Erik and Julia, it begins as a perfectly normal family holiday in her parents’ summer house, they have with them their two children, Alice and Anton. In a neighbouring house there seems to be a single woman, Kati, she does not make contact and seems to shun society.

Further away, but in a house that Julia knows well from her childhood and which she has included in her first novel, is a disparate group of neo-environmentalists. Led by Chris, they are of the view that climate change and its eventual outcomes are now inevitable, therefore peddling hope that we may find a solution in time to stem the catastrophe is pointless, so we should aim to live to the best of our abilities in the knowledge that we can change nothing, but to live with despair in a pre-industrial wilderness as hunter-gatherers with internet connection.

Among this group, is her childhood friend Marika. Summer progresses and things will never be the same again, for any of them.

This is not a plot driven novel, it is more a meditation upon the secrets and lies that every family has, little lies and big secrets – Erik has lost his job and not told Julia; she is still trying to decide whether their relationship is still worth keeping; Marika and Chris have a whole different set of problems, most of which they are trying to keep secret. It is about the barriers we put up to protect our masks, and the little things or events that happen that may eventually reveal the truth.

 

 

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More Shardlake, please

I have been hanging back on writing about the latest Shardlake novel from C J Sansom because some of my followers were also reading it and I didn’t want to crowd their pitch.

If you haven’t already discovered C J Sansom, or his novels about the barrister in law – Matthew Shardlake – then you have a treat in store. If you are already a passionate follower of the story, then you too have a wonderful treat in store because Tombland, the latest in the series of seven, is a truly remarkable and interesting book.

shardlakeMatthew Shardlake has to go to Norfolk on a small (and highly secret) business for Master Parry, the Comptroller of the Household for Lady Elizabeth (presently the bastardised daughter of Henry VIII). While there, the Kett rebellion begins and Shardlake is inadvertently caught up in is embroils.

The truly wondrous thing about these novels is that the telling draws the reader completely and absolutely into that period. The narrow streets, dirty and often smelly; the noisome and busy markets, where butchers bloody trays dripped gore and offal on to the open streets, beside bakers, candlestick makers and ladies selling lace; the noise of destruction as the dissolution of the cathedral buildings carried on apace and all that, with a busy, lively population of interesting characters.

This time Norwich, but we have also been there at the sinking of the Mary Rose, the royal pageant to the city of York, the horrible executions of Anne Boleyn and also of Thomas Cromwell; all these viscerally and vividly seen and heard and much more, as Matthew gets sent on one project or another by masters who have complete control of his body and soul (insofar as he allows it).

We are part of his domestic life also, his friend and servant Barak, his great friend and apothecary Guy, an ex-monk that he met in his first adventure in the Kent/Sussex marshes. And in this book we meet again his old housekeeper and her husband, who moved to other employment in Norfolk in a previous volume.

If you are just beginning this adventure and want to read the whole series, then most of them are in paperback; the early novels are also brilliantly told on audiobooks by Anton Lesser. If you simply want to read one book, then each one is also a stand-alone volume, there is no need to engage in the whole journey. But this is not a course that I would recommend. The slow absorption of the complete series is definitively more rewarding.

I am sure C J Sansom would not lay claim to have begun the great rush of historical ‘detective’ novels, but he is certainly a leader of the pack. I imagine Josephine Tey and Umberto Eco would say they had got there first, but whatever the different routes, the genre is the same. A wonderful story of investigation set in an historical and different time. Sheer genius.

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Lars Mytting

Last year, the must have book for English wood burners was called Norwegian Wood. This was quite simply an account of the way to stack, store and use wood in the home. The book was by Lars Mytting.

LarsThere is now a novel called The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, which is partly a mystery and partly an in-depth story about wood, its beauty and its value.

Edvard lives with his grandfather.  His parents have died, together, in an unexplained accident in France. Once his grandfather dies, Edvard is left with a lot of unexplained facts about his own life which he finds it imperative to uncover.

Who was his great uncle Einar, exactly?  And why was there such rabid dislike between Sverre (his grandfather) and Einar? The novel takes us on a splendid and amazing journey from its starting point in Norway, to the Shetlands and to France, along the way the reader picks up on the wonder of wood.

Einar was, in the end, a superb craftsman, who in the Shetlands was known for making coffins. He also had a workshop in Norway, near to Sverre’s potato farm; but although everything was beautifully organized, it was covered in dust, no one had been there for a long, long time.

Gradually, as he traces the journey that Einar made, Edvard discovers more and more about himself.

This is a moving and delicate story of self discovery, of love and sudden hate. And, not least, of wood.

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London Film Festival 2018/9

Penultimate day, penultimate film, how did it all go so fast?

Today my choice was from the Thrill section: “nerve-shredders that’ll get your adrenalin pumping and keep you on the edge of your seat”. El Angel is billed as having excessive violence, to the extent that there was even a warning at the entrance of the screening.

El Angel

So I was thinking that this would be way beyond my comfort zone. I was prepared for the worst but after several Scandi Noir series and the Netflix series Narcos, this was not the worst I have seen by far. But while this has a high body count, the amoral gangster with a cherubic face was not especially violent.

On a day when the torture and death of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi is slowly leaking out into the media, the true life story of Carlos Robiedo Puch hardly touches the sides. Brilliantly portraying the angel faced Carlitos, Lorenzo Ferro bursts on to the screen as a sizzlingly sexual predator, more lynx than lion.

It is in Carlitos’ calm, dreamlike deniability of his crimes, that makes this such an extraordinary film. His robberies are excessive, and begin even before he leaves school, but to start with he is a cat burglar without a gun; once his hands are on a gun (or two things become ugly, but still casual.

However terrible the reality, it is the thoughtlessness of it that makes this film so watchable. In the jewellery store heist with his partner in crime, Ramon, he puts on a pair of pearl earrings and admires himself in a mirror and tells Ramon to slow down, the scene is so seductive, and even beguiling – because he is enjoying himself so much.

The denouement has the same careless rapture: Carlitos is mindlessly dancing to music, graceful and abandoned – it is the exterior view that dramatically alters this perspective.

Luis Ortega has achieved a masterpiece here, a stylish and fast-paced biopic. The choice of music is sensational.

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London Film Festival 2018/8

Three glorious films today: Olivia Coleman strutting her stuff as Queen Anne in The Favourite, Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant as a criminal pair in the true story of the forger, Lee Israel and John McEnroe as himself in an instructional sports documentary.

Favourite

Whether entirely accurate historically, this was a lovely romp between three very different women and female actors. Rachel Weisz played Lady Malborough, the wife of the British warrior of Blenheim and the French Wars; Emma Stone played the wickedly scheming Abigail Hill, and Olivia Coleman the temperamental Queen.

Everything about this film was wonderful: gorgeous costumes, ridiculously extravagant hair – on the men especially – and lovely locations. Hampton Court for the kitchens and Hatfield House for much else.

The film was played for laughs, though there is a bitingly savage satire going on as one side plays off against the other, with a mixture of toadying, blackmailing and rampant sex.

Queen Anne, in history, was an unfortunate woman. She reigned over a newly unified country, Great Britain; her husband George of Denmark gave her many children all of whom died in infancy, then he himself died  in 1708.

The statue marking her visit to St Paul’s Cathedral on the creation of the Acts of Union between England, Scotland and Ireland still stands outside the cathedral, and is more often than not mistaken for Queen Victoria.

She presided over a two-party parliament, which was in its early manifestation and not entirely successful, since the Queen had controlling influence over finance and the cabinet. After her husband’s death she came increasingly under the influence of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough and as Sarah was of the same persuasion as her husband, that the war with France should continue until they sued for peace, this meant great increases in taxes.

Meanwhile Sarah’s cousin, the cunning little vixen, was conniving with the Opposition to have the taxes reduced, the Marlboroughs disgraced and Lord Godolphin’s Tory government deposed.

The occasional use of a fish-eye lens gives this film a strange sense of the surreal, which accentuates some of the more extremely scandalous behaviour of the Court, right up to the top levels.

My second film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is another example of a good actor portraying, sympathetically, a seriously transgressive character. This film is the true story of a woman who forged and sold over 400 letters, purporting to be by celebrities like Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and Emily Brice. When that activity came to grief, she began another career, replacing genuine letters in serious archives with copies. It is hard to know which of these two activities was the more reprehensible.

Forgive

Cultural forgery, whether paintings or belles lettres is a very serious matter, and so it must have been challenging to make Lee Israel in any way tolerable, and yet the portrayal is one of empathy. She was clearly a lonely, unfulfilled woman and not without talent; she was a published author, but that source of income had dried up and her agent suggested she find some other way to make money.

An accidental find, while doing genuine research, leads to a highly successful source of income, with Jack Hock as her partner in crime.

Later on, Jack cooperates with the FBI investigation and Lee is caught  At her trial she admits to having had the time of her life. She shows no remorse, only fury when she sees one of her own Dorothy Parker forgeries, authenticated as genuine, for sale at five times the price she was paid for it. She notified the seller, with a caustic letter of suitably Parkian vitriol.

The sports documentary which followed these two was odd, but brilliant. Hard to describe, but infinitely worth catching if you can.

McEnroe

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London Film Festival 2018/8

Another three film day. Altogether a more successful run, time wise, location and content.

My first film was another film with a female director, Celia Rico Clavellino, as was my last film today. This is pure accident, it just fell out that way, and also there are significantly more women director’s and teams in this year’s selection.

Journey to a Mother’s Room so easily could have been another coming-of-age movie and wasn’t. In this case, it is the life of the mother that goes under the microscope. Superbly acted by Lola Dueñas (see recently in Volver for which she won an Oscar), the mother first reacts against her daughter’s desire to leave home and then endorses it. From then on, having let her daughter loose, the film concentrates on her life and how she adapts to widowhood.

There are poignant moments when her grief almost overwhelms her, as when she opens a wardrobe still full of his clothes, but she grasps the nettle and deals with it.

The whole film has a tender humour about it, as she tricks the mobile phone company into sending her “husband” a brand new mobile with unlimited access; he is dead, of course, but she passes the security test and then learns how to use the phone to keep in touch with her daughter on Instagram and snap-chat. Her first attempt at a selfie, is an example of this.

This is a film full of depth and nuance. Delightful, a little sad and intimate.

Angelo, the second film, is a biopic of an African child, selected and strangely raised as a European in Vienna.

Angelo

In the end, the Q&A was rather more enlightening than the film. The film was delivered in three distinct chapters, Angelo the child; Angelo the adult and Angelo the old man.

Markus Schleinzer grew up with stories about Angelo Soliman, who was a famous exhibit; the educated and refined negro, but when he came to research the background for the film, he found that pretty nearly everything he had heard was wrong.

Angelo was not assimilated into Society, he was always an exhibition of “the other” and that created for the Director a different focus. In an Austria which now has a radical government and a poor history in race relations, Schleinzer aimed to make this film a more philosophical look at how “we” deal with “them”.

So in each section, differences and attitudes are implicit. In the child section, first the negro child is baptised and then taught to play an instrument and then exhibited performing; by the second section Angelo is more than a servant, for he becomes the companion to the Emperor, but once he transgresses (by marrying without permission to a white servant), the Emperor frees him and dismisses him from the Court. The third section is horrendous, he is an old man and when he dies his corpse is used as an exhibit, as the noble savage.

There is a lot to think about in all this, which applies so significantly at the moment, when so many people are refugees, economic migrants and struggling with the concept of nationalism and identity.

We should be kinder, to each other certainly.

Finally The Kindergarten Teacher.

KindergartenIt goes without saying that Maggie Gyllenhaal is wonderful in the role of Lisa, the teacher. How she took on such a transgressive character and brought to the screen a person whom one could understand, and even like, is quite extraordinary: for Lisa breaks every rule in the book.

Again, this was a film of strong female direction by Sara Colangelo and a largely female production team, so the Q&A was extremely interesting.

In fact all the Q&A sessions today were exceptionally interesting, fully realised with long and thought provoking answers.

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More journeys, but not mine

Two quite different and extraordinary books. The first a mixture of historical fact, myth and magic coupled with a searing currently relevant story of a family escaping from Syria. How might that work?

The contemporary heroine is a synaesthete (another – See Red Sparrow) and the book in partly set in Homs (See – Sea Prayer). Which considering this book was selected at random is slightly odd.

Salt and StarsIn The Map of Salt and Stars, the two stories are sectioned together in pairs. So in the historical-myth-magic section we follow the adventures of Rawiya, a young girl who leaves home to become apprentice (as a boy) to the twelfth century scholar and mapmaker Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi engaged by Roger II of Palermo to make a map of the known world and in the contemporary section we follow the story of Nour.

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar has skillfully woven the historical strand with parts of the stories of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights and also the stories of Sinbad the Sailor. These myths or fairytales are combined in a wonderfully starry tapestry following the actual known progress of al-Idrisi and his companions around the lands bordering the Mediterranean.

Rawiya’s partner in the contemporary world is Nour. She has grown up in New York, but on the death of her father, her mother and two older sisters return to Homs, and a quasi-uncle Abu Sayeed. The situation changes in Syria and the family are forced to flee, with devastating consequences. Nour, bolstered by her father’s wonderful story telling (as described above) treads courageously through the journey, in her head following in the footsteps of Rawiya.

The salt of the title are the tears that are shed along the way; but in all circumstances good people look to the stars hopefully, for stories and for comfort. No one who looks at the stars can be truly bad. This is what Nour/Rawiya firmly believes and it is borne out in her adventures.

But this is not all sweetness and light. There are passages in both sections that are unbearably tragic, and losses in one section are inevitably mirrored in the other, in much the same way as the exhibitions of tremendous courage and survival.

FrazierVarina is a book of a very different complexion. Charles Frazier has returned to Cold Mountain country; this time following the flight of Varina Davis away from the Federal troops and bounty hunters with a gaggle of children, not all of them her own. Accompanied by two faithful coloured retainers.

Varina is the wife of Jefferson Davis, upon whose head there is a bounty, and a suspicion that they are complicit in the death of Abraham Lincoln, and therefore guilty of murder and treason.

They are far away to the south before this small party hears about this; Jefferson has still not joined them and better it were by far that he had not.

This is historical fiction of the highest quality. A beautifully constructed story built upon the few details know about Varina and about her husband. Reconstructed over a period of weeks when one of the children, now grown up seeks her out to fill in the gaps in his own knowledge of himself, when he can only remember fragments of that terrible time.

So the sections switch from Saratoga Springs in 1906 to Varina’s youth in 1842, and the events of the American Civil War between about 1865 to 1879-93 as remembered by the two of them.

My knowledge of American history lags far behind that which it should, in spite of Gone with the Wind and other books. But Frazier brings it into focus in all its horror, messiness, mud and stink; the tragedy and betrayal of the African Americans; the brutality of the war itself and the unforgiving nature of the winners. It is all here and it is all pretty horrifying.

Read and learn.

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