Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
Mario Giordano, translated by John Brownjohn (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99; e-book £6.64)
It really is just as well that these lovely people at Bitter Lemon Press don’t play darts, because no one else would stand a chance. With Auntie Poldi they have hit the bullseye yet again.
The eponymous heroine is of uncertain age, endowed with a spectacular thirst, an even more spectacular décolletage and a roving eye for good looking men in uniform. Having transposed herself from her native Bavaria to the family roots in Sicily, she clearly shows herself to be more Latin than Teutonic in temperament. So when the rather toothsome Valentino, who does the occasional odd job for her, disappears, she takes it upon herself to investigate. Like most amateur sleuths, she finds that her detective talents are not entirely appreciated by the professionals in charge, in particular by Commissario Vito Montana. He, curiously, is a good looking man of about Poldi’s age, almost in uniform. We shall say no more.
Set against the luscious background of Sicily, its delights and its daftness, narrated by Poldi’s writer nephew, this is a gentle pleasure throughout. Whatever your views on Poldi – and she ain’t no Miss Marple – I defy you not to have a smile on your face as you read this.
Angela Merkel: Europe's Most Influential Leader
Matthew Qvortrup (Duckworth Overlook: £25; e-book £17.99)
Merkel has recently announced she will stand for a fourth term as Chancellor of Germany. In the summer of 2015, she took the decisive decision to open Germany's borders to more than a million refugees, a decision made as much from Germany's historical status in the world as for humanitarian reasons. Despite increasing and significant criticism for her decision, she remains the most popular national leader in Europe and is largely regarded as unbeatable.
Merkel is described as the architect of the European austerity measures which played out most significantly in Greece. In this readable and extensively researched book, Professor Qvortrup has written a readable biography of the German leader based on extensive research including the Stasi archive in Berlin. While Merkel is well known outside Germany, until they have read this book, few will be able to understand the determining characteristics of the German Chancellor. With the impending negotiation between the UK and EU on future relations, it is clear Merkel will play a significant role and for those interested in considering the approach she may take, this book offers an insight.
She is described as cautious, taking time to evaluate the evidence, the pros and cons, even to the extent that she has been regarded as dithering. However, once the decision is made, tenacity follows. At the beginning of the book, the author narrates that when considering the response by the EU to the refugee crisis along with other European leaders, Merkel said: “I will not enter a competition in who can treat the refugees the worst.” The Hungarian leader was ill advised to observe that “It is only a matter of time before Germany will build a fence”; Merkel responded: “I lived a long time behind a fence; it is not something I wish to do again.”
Merkel was brought up by her parents in East Germany, her father a Lutheran pastor who chose to move east from Hamburg. She studied in physics in Leipzig and lived under the shadow of the Berlin Wall, occasionally visiting the west for conferences. Her political rise was meteoric, from attending a small political meeting with her brother just before the border between east and west was opened in October 1989 to being appointed by Helmut Kohl as Minister for Women and Young People in his first cabinet post the reunification of Germany in January 1991.
The book is also a reminder of the narrative of German politics in the years immediately after reunification, the time of Helmut Kohl and some of the colourful characters that populated the scene, such as Joschka Fischer, leader of the Alliance 90/Green Party and deputy Chancellor in Gerhard Schröder's Government who had been a former member of the Proletarian Union for Terror and Destruction.
The author brings a compelling narrative to the life, influences and political rise of Merkel.
“We Chose to Speak of War and Strife": The World of the Foreign Correspondent
John Simpson (Bloomsbury: £25; e-book £14.29)
John Simpson has travelled to around 190 countries as foreign correspondent. In this terrifically readable, engaging book, the author combines memoir with a look at the work of the foreign correspondent from the first British foreign correspondent, Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867), whose contacts included none other than William Wordsworth, Schiller and Goethe amongst others and whose first posting was to the town of Altona (now a suburb of Hamburg) to report on the diplomatic manoeuvrings of Napoleon.
There is also William Howard Russell who reported on the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. However, Kate Adie, Martin Bell, Sue Lloyd-Roberts, Martha Gellhorn and Hemingway all make appearances. The life of the foreign correspondent has changed almost beyond recognition, not least by the immediacy of reporting both in fact and technological ability. However the dangers remain unchanged, whether to the efforts of Archibald Forbes of Forres in risking life through Zulu held territory to deliver his report on the Zulu War to Landsmann's Drift, 120 miles from the scene of the battle of Isandlwana where 1,350 soldiers had been killed, or Simpson's own experience whether reporting from South Africa or Iraq. He has faced threats, but is pleased to report in his usual understated fashion that he has never been thrown out of a country.
Many engaging stories are told, and much light shed such as the search by Stanley for Livingstone. The author enjoys a good glass of wine, and that accompanied by his book would be a true pleasure to any reader.
A Quiet Place
Seicho Matsumoto, translated by Louise Heal Kawai (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99; e-book £6.64)
Although, I suspect, unknown to most of us, Seicho Masumoto was winning awards for his novels as long ago as 1952, and remained prolific until his death in 1992. He was credited with popularising crime fiction in Japan, and for introducing a new style, focusing more on human psychology and ordinary life.
A Quiet Place is certainly no run-of-the-mill whodunit. Tsuneo Asai is a middle ranking civil servant, hardworking and fairly dull. While on a business trip he receives word that his wife has suffered a fatal heart attack. Nothing suspicious there; it was her second heart attack. Yet all is not as it seems. Concerned to do the right thing (and there is much in this book about the necessary politenesses of Japanese society), he visits the shop where his wife died to express his thanks for their help. That leads to many places with many consequences. The spoiler alert function on my laptop prevents any more discussion of the plot, but the suspense is maintained to the very last page.
Matsumoto’s work has been compared to that of Georges Simenon, and one can see definite similarities here. Simenon, of course, was of his time; this book, although published in English for the first time this year, was written in 1975. It too is something of a period piece. It would have been reviewed more enthusiastically 40 years ago, but it remains a fine work by a major talent.
Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay
William Boyd (Bloomsbury: £7.99; e-book £3.66)
William Boyd is one of Britain’s finest novelists. This is his 16th book. Novels are works of fiction, yet the book is liberally studded with examples of the work of Amory Clay spanning her 40 year career. Explain.
The confusion may be further compounded by the fact that some of the characters mentioned are cited in the acknowledgments, for example Hannelore Hahn, one of the many exotic creatures encountered by Amory Clay in her travels through some of the most definitive places and times of the 20th century. In fact Boyd has woven the entire story, a complete work of fiction, using numerous photographs he has acquired over the years as his weft.
As he says, “After all, a life lived through a lens leaves its traces. Amory’s photographs illustrate her disasters and desires. If you write a novel about any kind of artist, whether it’s a composer, poet, novelist or a painter, one of the problems is you don’t see or hear the art produced. And so the great advantage of choosing a photographer as a protagonist was that I could not only show her work but also show people she knew.”
Amory Clay was born in East Sussex in 1908, with a conventional middle class upbringing – if you ignore the fact that her father announced her birth in The Times as a son, and later tried to kill her. The book is written in flashback, seen from the 1977 journal she is writing in an island in the west of Scotland. Defying expectations to study history at Oxford, Amory becomes a society photographer, until her headstrong experimental nature alienates an influential client. The search for scandal takes her to Berlin. Searches for other things take her to wartime France, to 1950s New York and to Vietnam. Her threescore years and 10 (for her this is a significant number) resemble a continuous series of Life magazine (or in her case Global-Photo), but the book is so much more than that, the complexity and variety of friendships and relationships set perfectly into their time and country. Flashback is not an easy medium. Boyd handles it perfectly, with little clues and tasters dropped in to keep us going.
But to be frank, he doesn’t need them. This is a master work from a master craftsman – even if the grainy photographs are not.
Scotland: Mapping the Islands
Fleet, Wilkes and Withers (Birlinn: £30)
This sumptuous book has been produced in association with the National Library of Scotland and follows the Saltire of Scotland research book of the year 2014, Scotland: Mapping a Nation. The National Library has digitised its extensive map collection from the 1558 Regno di Scotia, and coincidentally has an exhibition running to April 2017 on the importance and versatility of maps.
With modern means we take it for granted that the landscape around us can be mapped and is now easily accessible. But pausing to reflect, one wonders even more at the ability of our forebears to record the land around them and the purpose for doing so. Landownership required to be recorded, whether for the purposes of recording rent or exhibiting status. Whatever the utilitarian value then, this book demonstrates the depth of knowledge recorded on maps of the islands of Scotland.
These documents offer a wonderful insight to the history of our land, whether by place name or geographical changes brought by ecology. Who knew that Moray was once known as Moravia, or that Argyllshire was Argadia? Circumnavigation of Scotland in the 1540s brought the islands displayed on maps into a more geographical representation in terms of size and distance from each other, and the mainland as shown in the colour reproduction of the Scotia Regnum of 1595. More modern maps appear and are evocative of lost generations and times, such as that of St Kilda village from 1957 showing the factor's house, the manse, church and school grouped together, or the crofts last occupied and used in 1930.
The book is broken into various chapters, including one on “defending”, ranging from maps of the location of castles to defend the islands to a post-war era map produced by the Soviet Union which shows the width of roads and bridges. Another interesting chapter considers the geological exploitation of the land and shows the projection successfully used to oppose the Harris opencast mine and a map of the North Sea licence interests. This is a delightful book, beautifully reproduced and to be savoured.