Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
The Old King in His Exile
Arno Geiger (And Other Stories: £9.99; e-book £5.63)
The author's father has seldom ventured beyond the beautiful confine of his home in Wolfurt in the Vorarlberg in Austria. Of farming stock, the family had an orchard and cattle, and schnapps was made in the cellar. He was, like so many, conscripted during the war and after being nursed in Prague was able, not without considerable difficulty, to make his way home. Arno Geiger recounts in sparing, honest prose, his father's descent through Alzheimer's, which had afflicted his father before him.
Weaving his father's daily progress and activity together with his own experience as observer, Geiger provides an insight to the frustration of those with a close relative with the illness, watching helplessly as the disease takes away the personality. However, there are moments of laughter, insight, the occasional return of his father but, most searing of all, the realisation that the best way to deal with the effects of the disease is to react to the moment the person finds themselves in.
As Geiger writes: “To give someone with dementia an answer that, according to the usual rules, is objectively correct, but which pays no attention to the place where that person finds him or herself, is to enforce a world that isn't his or her own.” This is no morbid retelling of decline and eclipse, but an honest, insightful observance of how family and sufferer relearn how to interact.
All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain's Political Class
Tim Shipman (William Collins: £25; e-book £9.99)
As we enter on the new year, some may reflect on the past year in politics. If they wish to reflect in greater detail on the political story that culminated in the June referendum on the UK's continued membership of the EU, they would do no better than consider the vast sweep and delicious detail of Tim Shipman's book. Shipman, political editor of the Sunday Times, draws on a huge cast of characters from all sides of the debate. The author provides the back story to the pressures that gave rise to the Prime Minister unilaterally deciding in late May 2012 at a pizza restaurant at O'Hare airport to hold a referendum.
The stage having been set, Shipman, unlike any other book currently available, takes us through the whole political history of the background, issues, concerns and political pressure that led to the referendum. Indeed, he goes further and the narrative continues through the events that followed the result with the internal party election of Theresa May as Prime Minister and the challenge to Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party. The author brings an acute journalistic approach to provide a highly readable and unbiased appraisal of the facts and, again unlike other books hitting the shelves, offers no argument or reflection on the pros and cons of the debate. The political fault lines, the influences, the pressure points and the personal interests are explored to disclose and explain a slow burning fuse that led to the decision to hold a referendum. This is assuredly the “go to” political history on the subject.
Island of Dreams: A personal history of a remarkable place
Dan Boothby (Picador: £8.99)
In the summer of 2016 I took the chance to re-read Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water, a book I had not lifted since my schooldays. I was on holiday on a Hebridean island at the time and found Maxwell's stories of life with his otters off the west coast of Scotland a great deal more interesting than the last time I read it!
Back home again, I acquired this book in which the author recounts his own journey in Maxwell's footsteps. Boothby is a self-confessed fan of Maxwell, and he took a considerable gamble on spending time in Maxwell's former home on the lighthouse island at Kyleakin. Often our heroes don't stand up to close scrutiny and looking too closely can reveal flaws we may wish we had never uncovered. Ultimately, Boothby's book is an interesting read for two reasons.
First, his description of Kyleakin and its residents is warm and gently humorous, as befits an island community. Boothby, as Maxwell before him, must have appeared to the locals a little eccentric to say the least. His analysis in chapter 5 of levels of acceptance in such a community will strike a chord with anyone who has moved to a new locale, only to be branded an "incomer". His descriptions of the locals, the weather and the beauty of the place make the book well worth a read for anyone with an interest in the Kyle of Lochalsh. Hot-foot from my holidays, I was sold on it and added Kyleakin to my list of places to visit.
The second point of interest however is more about what Boothby does not do, rather than what he does. He has a number of unanswered questions about Maxwell which he has carried over a period of many years, yet when faced with the chance to question people who might have had the answers, he declines to do so. Strangely, this does not detract from the overall satisfaction of the account. Sometimes digging into the past does nothing more than tarnish a treasured memory. Had Boothby been more of an investigative journalist and less of a human being, the outcome might have been very different. Instead it is to his credit that he focuses on the peace and serenity of the place which drew Maxwell to it in the last years of his life.
The Bertie Project: A 44 Scotland Street novel
Alexander McCall Smith (Polygon: £16.99)
Bertie Pollock is a seven year old resident in Scotland Street. His family, along with their neighbours and others, are exposed in their infinite variety by the author in this, the 11th in the series.
McCall Smith's style of writing is so sharp and entertaining, it is difficult not to sound gushing. The chapters are short, reflecting the original newspaper serial format; this helps maintain a good pace throughout. But it is in the detail and the characterisation and the sheer audacity of the situations portrayed that the true glory of this book lies. We all know a parent who has enrolled their small child in language classes, or music classes or martial arts, as a way to ensure they will ascend the ladder to success more quickly than their peers. We've overheard conversations in coffee bars about the pursuit of extreme sports. The difference is that McCall Smith, having picked up such nuggets, writes them down and lays them bare in an entirely credible and extremely readable way. I have to confess, for example, to having Googled para-mountain biking to find out more...
I was surprised – although delighted at the same time – to be asked to review this, as I find it hard to believe that there is anyone among the readership of the Journal who has not encountered Bertie and his neighbourhood before now. If there is anyone who falls into that category, please, do yourself a favour and read it. Your sense of humour, and your vocabulary, will thank you for it.