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Mr Hire's Engagement

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Simenon showing what he could do when he was really trying, in an early non-Maigret story. A young woman has been murdered, and as far as the police and his neighbours are concerned the sleazy M. Hire, a middle-aged loner who lives in an apartment building close to the scene of the crime, is the obvious suspect. The only person who seems curiously unafraid of him is the woman across the courtyard, whom he watches undressing every night.It's a surprisingly simple storyline, and we see roughly where it’s headed a long time before the end, but Simenon handles it very cleverly, building up the atmosphere with cunning use of repetition and trivial detail. When it comes to the pursuit sequences, he shows off his real mastery of the genre: there aren't many writers who can get anything like the psychological mileage Simenon gets out of a Métro ticket. Maybe Patricia Highsmith? The only place where Simenon perhaps shows his inexperience a bit is in the ludicrously-overdone final sequence. Although perhaps there is some method in his madness even there: semi-comic grand-guignol is a lot less likely to go wrong and upset the readers than an attempt at real tragedy, which can so easily turn into mere sentiment. And it's a great hook for any film producer who might happen to come across your work...
Die Gärten der Finzi-Contini

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An Italian friend said "Oh, that's a book we read at school" when I mentioned it to her; despite that, I liked it, even if it felt a bit like an Italian version of Brideshead Revisited. You know the sort of thing — young man with literary aspirations ingratiates himself with grand-but-doomed family. But there's lots of very enjoyable detail, symbolism that works but doesn't thrust itself down your throat, and political, artistic and emotional storylines that complement each other very stylishly. Jamie McKendrick's translation for Penguin Modern Classics also seems to work very well, hinting at the linguistic complexity of the original but not getting too adventurous in rendering it into English.
A Certain Justice: An Adam Dalgliesh Novel

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This is another one where P.D. James has a hard time getting beyond her general disenchantment with modern British society. As in Private Patient, the victim is a successful career-woman (in this case a QC) who has managed to build up a very impressive portfolio of people with strong motives to murder her. Reading James, you sometimes wonder how it is that women ever manage to avoid violent death as they rise in the professions: coming within range of the glass ceiling must expose you to a murder rate unmatched anywhere outside Cotswold villages and small Swedish towns... On the other hand, the suspects are mostly as unattractive as the victim, so I suppose it's fair.On the positive side, James is always good at digging out what makes small workplace communities tick. Her technique works very well when applied to barristers’ chambers - even if there are inevitable echoes of John Mortimer and we half expect a cloud of Rumpole’s cigar smoke to emerge from behind one of the oaken doors. Her discussion of the criminal lawyer’s basic ethical dilemma - how to justify defending someone whom you yourself suspect to be guilty - doesn't really tell us anything new, but it sets out very clearly why it has to be like that, at the same time as illustrating the price that we sometimes have to pay for having a system that tries to be fair to the innocent.
Boswell's London Journal

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This journal isn't quite the intimate personal record it pretends to be: Boswell wrote it as a kind of serial letter for one of his friends, and there is a certain amount of artfulness about it, and at times (e.g. in the "Louisa" story) it reads as if Boswell were casting himself as the hero of a novel by Smollett or someone. But that's a minor level of gloss on the surface. Bubbling away under it is all the lively energy of a twenty-two-year-old who's finally got away from his overbearing father. (Or rather been let out on a long leash: London is still full of powerful Scotsmen who don't want to offend a Judge of the Court of Session, and most of them evidently have their instructions from Auchinleck Castle...) Boswell is, as always, gloriously human and delightfully inconsistent. He's one of the few people in English literature who could, without seeming either priggish or hypocritical, recall with one hand up a woman's skirt that it's Sunday afternoon and there's still time to get to church. His descriptions of his various sexual adventures (which ensured this book an unusually large print-run for a scholarly text when it appeared in 1950) have an element of youthful bravado about them: the cool way he dismisses an encounter with a prostitute as we might a dinner in an unmemorable restaurant is almost certainly assumed for the benefit of the friend for whom he's writing this. But the constant assertions that he's never going to do it again are pure Boswell. Pottle points out in his introduction that it's pure chance that the journal has such a satisfying narrative arc to it: whilst we could expect that our hero arrives in London, has adventures, is frustrated in his ambitions, and eventually has to move on elsewhere, the Big Moment when Boswell meets Johnson might so easily never have happened, or have happened too soon. As it is, they meet at a moment when Boswell's immediate future is already decided, and their friendship is only just beginning when they have to part for a considerable time. Exactly the point where you feel Volume 1 should end...
Girl with a Pearl Earring

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Pleasant, undemanding historical fiction, with plenty of nice pictures to look at. Chevalier doesn't attempt anything very risky or sensational with her heroine: at the end of the book I felt a bit like asking “is that all?” We are supposed to work out that there is more to the story than Griet is telling us, of course, but the ending is something of an anticlimax.It’s very much a book about pictures and painting: the constant reference to set-piece scenes we know from Vermeer and other Dutch painters sometimes makes it feel more like a series of tableaux-vivants than a novel. But the positive side of that is that there's little that would make any normal reader feel “that couldn't happen in 17th century Holland”. Writing in English about characters who are supposed to be speaking Dutch also removes the usual problem of how far the dialogue should confined to authentic 17th century language.
Importance of Being Seven, The (A 44 Scotland Street Novel)

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Alexander McCall Smith is one of the few writers who can get away with being thoroughly inoffensive while still making you feel that he's not insulting your intelligence. Like all really good light literature, the plots are instantly forgettable but characters stay with you. I'm sure everyone who's read even one of these books has a clear mental image of long-suffering Bertie, overbearing Irene, and all the rest of them, but few would be able to summarise the storyline of any of the books. Does the baby get lost in the same book as the Volvo? When do we first meet the distressed-oatmeal sweater? No-one really cares, and in fact we're happy to forget the story if it gives us an excuse to re-read the book a year later.
The Wheelwright's Shop

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Rather like Thomas Hardy, George Sturt was the educated son of a country craftsman, growing up with one foot in late-Victorian intellectual life and the other in the last relics of the pre-industrial culture of southern England. He was working as a grammar-school teacher in the mid-1890s when his father fell ill and he unexpectedly had to take over the running of the family business. This book is his classic account of how the traditional wheelwright gets from a felled tree to a completed farm-wagon or cart, described with the unique insight of someone who knew the business intimately at a time when everything was still done with hand tools, but is able to step far enough back to give a clear explanation to outsiders of why things were done in that particular way. One thing he makes very clear is his view that the farm-wagon - probably the most complex and sophisticated wooden machine in common use, if you exclude ships - was not an arbitrary, aesthetic form, but the result of a long process of evolution and purposeful refinement. The complicated curves and tapers were all there for good reasons, the size of the wheels was determined by nature of the terrain the wagon had to travel over, even the orientation of the planks on the floor was determined by the need to unload using shovels. What is also very striking is the timescale the business worked on. Materials had to be bought about ten years ahead of the time they wee likely to be needed: the wood had to be seasoned slowly for the wagon to have the necessary strength and longevity. Farmers would order new wagons in spring and pay for them at Christmas; a new wagon would be expected to last at least the lifetime of its purchaser (but might come in for repairs after 20 or 30 years); the shop kept patterns for wagons that had been adapted to suit the slightly different conditions of all the local farms, even though it was unlikely that any given pattern would be used more than once or twice a century. When you put that business model together with dangerous tools, cold, dark and dirty workshops, hard, repetitive but precise work, and the need for skills that take many years to learn, it isn't hard to work out why you don't see many wheelwright’s shops around nowadays.
Ciao Bella: In Search of New Relatives and Dante in Italy

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This is as near as heavyweight German philosophers come to letting their hair down and having a good laugh (ok, Schopenhauer's hair naturally tended upwards, but you know what I mean). What in our time would have been a highly profitable little "How-to" book, this was actually written with satirical intent, in mock-defence of the proposition that in academic life it is more important to win the argument than to have the truth on your side.Schopenhauer gives us a short introduction, heavily laced with references to Aristotle and other authorities, on the history of arguments as objects of philosophical enquiry, and then offers thirty-eight infallible strategies for winning one. The choice of thirty-eight is a masterful touch, of course. Had he taken ten, or fifty, or 1001, we would say "this is just another of those list books". But thirty-eight is a number that doesn't fit into any pattern: we feel that he must have picked it simply because he knew of precisely thirty-eight strategies worth documenting. Perhaps that should have been point 39: "If you use a list of heads of argument, never pick a predictable number..."This sort of book works because it documents what we already know in an amusing way, not because it teaches us something new (cf. Scott Adams's Dilbert character). If you have ever lost an argument when you knew you were right, you will have seen at least some of the thirty-eight deployed against you: you have probably also used most of them against other people at one time or another. Schopenhauer somehow doesn't sound like the sort of person to have lost many arguments, but presumably he had some personal experience to fall back on too. And more than likely some of the examples he cites were not just random, but digs at specific people. Fun, anyway.
Parnassus on Wheels

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Slight but charming little escapist romance, more or less in the style of G.K. Chesterton, but roughened up with a bit of New England homespun quality and a few in-jokes about the US publishing business. Not the sort of book to read too seriously: if you stop to think about it, you realise that it's deeply patronising in the way it treats the woman narrator. But if you take it on its own terms, there are some very good lines and a lot of period charm about it.
A Perfectly Good Man

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After the disappointing The whole day through, I wasn't in a big rush to run out and buy this one, but I certainly ought to have been: as botogol says below, Gale is back on top form with this complex and satisfying novel, which uses a variant of the faceted narrative technique that was so effective in Notes from an exhibition. As usual, there are characters and incidents that cross-over between the novels, but it isn't a sequel to Notes. Essentially, it does what it says on the tin, exploring what might be called "the problem of good": how do you live with someone who spends his whole life on his best behaviour? Gale's strength, as ever, is his skill in writing about the odd and unexpected ways in which relationships and extended families cope with crisis of one sort or another, but this book isn't a "problem novel" in the usual sense: the focus is much broader than in his last two or three books. It's not a book that you can summarise as being "about coping with X".Gale takes an ironic but affectionate look at what organised religion really means in an age when religious belief of any kind is relatively rare. Father Barnaby seems to be destined to become one of the great clergymen of English literature, a slightly less stiff-necked, more 21st-century version of Trollope's Mr Crawley: someone who sincerely tries to take his job-description from the needs of the community he's serving, rather than from his contract of employment. Perhaps he's an idealised picture, but all the same, to anyone who has anything to do with the modern clergy there will be a lot about Barnaby (and his parishioners!) that is very recognisable.
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