Tag Archives: non-fiction

Difficult Women: David Plante

“You like difficult women, don’t you?”

David Plante’s non fiction book Difficult Women chronicles the author’s relationships with three women: Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and finally, Germaine Greer. What do these three women have in common? They are/were ‘difficult,’ according to the author, and by the time the book is finished, many questions are raised, not just about the relationships recorded in the book, but relationships in general. Why are we attracted to some people and not others? What do we seek in relationships? Why do we expect people to give us what we want when this so obviously won’t happen?

difficult women

It’s 1975 when the author goes to a shabby, depressing hotel in South Kensington for a meeting with Jean Rhys. Jean Rhys is now elderly, over 80, in trouble with her taxes, and a heavy drinker (no surprise there). The author, David Plante, is there in a professional capacity and ends up helping piece together Jean Rhys’s autobiography. It’s not an easy job. Jean’s mind wanders, she’s cantankerous, and manipulative. Anyone who’s read any of Jean Rhys’s novels shouldn’t be surprised to find the descriptions of an elderly Rhys depressing.

This section of the book raises ethical/moral questions. Jean Rhys is a wreck but should this be written about?  But why not? The details of her dodgy make up seem cruel, but then again, are writers, esteemed or otherwise, sacrosanct?

As her hands were shaky, her make-up was hit-and-miss; there were patches of thick beige powder on her jaw and on the side of her nose, her lipstick was as much around her lips as on them, the marks of the eye pencil criss-crossed her lids, so I thought she might easily have jabbed it in her eyes. But the eyes were very clear and blue and strong, and the angles of her cheekbones sharp.

Jean Rhys, naturally, has many stories to tell, mostly between drinks. It’s almost an entirely one-way relationship with Jean talking and the author listening. At one point he mentions his mother:

“How can you like listening to me talk on and on?”

I said, “I used to listen to my mother-“

The corner of her upper lip rose and her face took on the hardness of an old whore who, her eyes red with having wept for so long, suddenly decides to be hard. “Your mother?” she snapped. “I don’t want to hear about your mother.”

I shut up. I thought: What am I doing here, listening to her? Is it because she is a writer? I am not sure I have read all her books, not even sure I admire her greatly as a novelist. Is it because I want to know her so well that I will know her better than anyone else, or know at least secrets she has kept from everyone else, which I will always keep to myself? If so, why?

The relationship with Jean remains difficult. There are times when the author thinks about walking away, but he always returns but can never really pin down Jean’s true opinions. He never infiltrates Jean’s deeper, more intimate memories; she’s locked in the past, but it’s a version of the past which wavers under examination.

I think of how Hardy was protected by his wife, Florence, with a very specific presentation given to the world. After a certain age, mentally fragile people probably should stop giving interviews or limit access unless it’s under some protective supervision. (Of course, some people shouldn’t open their mouths in public, period, but that’s a different story entirely.)

The second section concerns Sonia Orwell. If the section on Jean Rhys is sad, the section on Sonia Orwell is depressing. The author describes Sonia’s tendency, as he sees it, to continually censure others–like some moral policeman. Sonia is a woman of very strong opinions, and over the course of the relationship, the author continually sees Sonia become involved in the problems of others–in a voyeuristic fashion, and when she becomes interested in someone, because of their problems, then she becomes a moral champion whose understanding cannot be matched.

She said, the hardness now, in her voice, “That’s nothing to joke about. It’s a very sad affair, a very very sad affair, and not to be treated frivolously.”

“I”m sorry,” I said.

My flowers in her hand, she said, “No one seems to understand what happens in human relationships, and the sadness of it all. It isn’t anything to joke about. It really isn’t.” 

Sonia also, according to the author, has the habit of picking a “victim” at her parties, “usually a male,” and then this person is belittled every time he opens his mouth. Again the author seeks a deeper, more personal relationship but it isn’t forthcoming. Sonia comes across as humourless, but the author persists in seeking out her company even though the results are mostly aversive.

The final, highly entertaining, section features Germaine Greer. The first view we have of Germaine Greer is not pleasant as she swears like a sailor at a toddler who isn’t fingerpainting ‘properly.’ To be perfectly honest, I came to this section without much prior knowledge of this feminist icon, but I left feeling impressed. What a woman! Yes, probably too much, too competent, too capable, too intelligent, too demanding for any one man, but the force of life bubbling under the surface of Germaine’s skin is evident. The author travels with Germaine Greer to Italy and later meets her in Tulsa, Oklahoma (of all places). In one scene, she chops up a testicle for her cats, in another she talks in Italian about shock absorbers, in another possesses all the technical terms to order up, in Italian, the “proper bricks” for a dovecot she designed. There’s a term for the “renaissance man, ” but what’s the female version?

I recognized that she was always doing something other in her mind, and as intense as her concentration was in what she was doing, there was an air about her of considering, more intensely, something else. I had the vivid impression from her of, at some high level, trying to sort out, not her personal problems , but other people’s problems.

Germaine clearly doesn’t tolerate boors or fools, and milquetoasts had better steer clear. While the author does achieve a personal relationship with Germaine, it’s not quite what he expected, and although these portraits are of three very different women, somehow they reflect back an image of the man who wrote them.

So one man’s view of three women. I wonder what they thought of him? The best biographies offer multiple opinions from multiple relationships. Ask ten different people their opinions of anyone, and you’ll get ten different answers. But here we have memoirs from a man who knew three incredible women. The book was apparently notorious in its day for its backstabbing betrayals. It’s probably less astonishing now, thanks to the invasive times we live in, but it’s still a fascinating read.

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Filed under Non Fiction, Plante David

Browse : The World in Bookshops edited by Henry Hitchings

“It is on our own bookshelves, packed with our purchases, that we find the archives of our desires, enthusiasms and madnesses.” (Henry Hitchings)

In Pushkin Press’s Browse: The World in Bookshops I expected a collection of essays about bookshops from around the globe, but the book is far richer than that; it’s a celebration of the glory of reading. Anyone who reads and loves books, anyone who cannot imagine a life without books, will dip into these essays and find a great deal to love and chew over, even as we reminisce about the great bookshops in our own lives.

Browse

The introduction from Henry Hitchings takes a predictable, yet interesting stand as he takes us through various bookshops at various stages of his life. The word ‘predictable’ is not to be taken negatively as all readers can most likely recall the watershed book moments in their lives. Hitchings leads the reader into themes which appear in the other essays–bookshops where readers hang out, booksellers who jealously guard their stock, the hunt for the unknown, the quest for the impossible find.

There are 15 essays:

Bookshop Time: Ali Smith (Scotland)

Something that Doesn’t Exist: Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine)

The Pillars of Hercules: Ian Sansom (UK)

A Tale of Two Bookshops: Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia)

Leitner and I: Saša Stanišić (Bosnia)

All that Offers a Happy Ending is a Fairy Tale: Yiyun Li (China)

If You Wound a Snake: Alaa Al Aswany (Egypt)

Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya)

Snow Day: Michael Dirda (USA)

Dussmann: A Conversation: Daniel Kehlmann (Germany)

La Palmaverde: Stefano Benni (Italy)

A Bookshop in the Age of Progress: Pankaj Mishra (India)

Intimacy: Dorthe Nors (Denmark)

Bohemia Road: Iain Sinclair (Wales)

My Homeland is Storyland: Elif Shafak (Turkey)

Ali Smith talks about the “detritus” we find in books while the essay from Dorthe Nors is arguably the most personal. The essay involves a troubling incident with a nasty bookseller (Dorthe, if you read this, she was probably a frustrated writer). In Elif Shafak’s essay My Homeland is Storyland, she recalls her grandmother being an “amazing storyteller” with the stories all beginning “once there was, once there wasn’t.”  This opening line matches the contradictions in the author’s childhood.

A few essays illustrate how politics can impact bookshops. While much of Andrey Kurkov’s essay focuses on Bukinist in Ukraine, he gives us a different vision of the ever-topical subject of bookshop survival:

I can clearly remember the time of transition to a new order: in 1991, the stark contrast between grocery shops, with their empty shelves and arrogant, ill-mannered employees, and bookshops, where the bewildered staff stood before shelves full of Soviet literature which was of no use to anyone anymore. Bookshops were the first victims of the crisis. They closed meekly and without protest, without even trying to fight for their survival.

In Alaa Al Aswany’s essay If You Wound a Snake, it’s the twilight of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, and the author attends a book signing attended by readers and a few Agent Provocateurs minglers.  In Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor describes returning to Nairobi which is in a period of “delirium of reconstructive surgery” and the hunt for a much-loved bookshop from childhood.

Yiyun Li grew up unaware that “there was such a thing as a bookshop.” Later comes the chaos of Beijing and books kept behind counters or in glass cases.  Finally in a bookshop, Yiyun Li encounters a great mystery behind a sign: “Foreign Visitors Not Allowed.”  This essay reinforces how lucky we are to have libraries, bookshops or just the ways and means to buy books.

In Pankaj Mishra’s essay A Bookshop in the Age of Progress, he notes that the word ‘bookshop’ meant a place you could buy school textbooks with “some variety offered by mobile bookshops subsidized by the Soviet Union.” When the author finally visits a real bookshop, he longs to be the sort of customer who can afford the wonderful books he sees stocked on the shelves.

One of my favourites in the collection is The Pillars of Hercules from Ian Sansom, and this essay focuses on the author’s two years spent working at Foyle’s Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. While he notes that “working at Foyles was not really a career choice; it was supposed to be a stop-gap,” he lingered there while the shop became his “own personal library.

I was initially a little bothered by Michael Dirda’s essay Snow Day. The author’s wife is safely out of the picture, and so he takes a day to prowl through Second Story Books, a shop the author confirms will remain open until the snow falls. If you’re wondering why I was bothered by the essay, well it’s because the author frequently tells us how much everything costs (and how much it’s worth). This is explained by his admission “bear in mind that I grew up the son of a working-class, shopaholic mother who loved bargains.” Gradually, no that’s not true, rapidly, I began to warm to Dirda when he mentions that he rents a storage unit for books (which may amount to 15,000-20,000 books). Finally someone worse than me!

Yet, am I, in fact, a collector? Somewhere I read that if you couldn’t lay your hands on any book you owned in five minutes, you were just an accumulator, a hoarder. I couldn’t lay my hands on some of my books if I had five days to search for them.

Dirda admits he’s learned the “prudence of sneaking any newly acquired treasures into the house as covertly as possible. There’s nothing like a baleful glance from one’s beloved spouse to ruin a good day’s booking.” I laughed out loud when he said he’s only in top form in the bookshop for the first 4-5 hours. We readers know that no one else can match our stamina. Well for looking at books, at least.

Snow Day and Iain Sinclair’s Bohemia Road, are in the final judgment, my favorites in the collection. The former because I identified so much with the author, and the latter because the author catalogues the history of a great bookshop in the context of the history of its location and the rising value of real estate. Iain Sinclair tells the story of Bookmans Halt bought by a new owner in 1980 and closed in 2016. The bookshop survived “Thatcherite economics”  but by the time of its demise was a haven for those who used the shop as a baseline to price online.

Bohemia Road was the perfect address for a functioning used-book pit that represented everything now amputated from the good life in the imaginary state we call England. 

By presenting the history of the bookshop’s address, Sinclair presents a history of economic trends. Finally free of the shop (a “pygmy kingdom”), the owner seems liberated and “revived.”  The end of Bookmans Halt is a sign of the shifting times. We all tend to moan about the loss of bookshops, but is this just the sound of progress–the machinery of the figurative backhoe?

After finishing the last essay, I found myself wondering what makes some people such avid readers. Some of the writers in this collection were book-deprived as children (as I was) and were certainly not encouraged to read. Conclusively, all of the essay writers were attracted to books early in life, some in spite of deprivation, in spite of a lack of encouragement and in spite of, sometimes, the lack of means to get books.  In other words, with all the indications to encourage avid readership absent, a love of books and reading still broke through.

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Filed under Kurkov Andrey, Non Fiction, Smith Ali

Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon

“A writer’s all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.”

Fay Weldon’s book Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen takes the epistolary form from the author to her niece, Alice. I knew with the glorious combo of Jane Austen and Fay Weldon, two authors (and women) I admire, I couldn’t go wrong. And I was correct; this is delightful, humorous read, and yes while it’s about Jane Austen, the book is about a lot more than that. Weldon gives us her take on what it means to be a writer, what is means to be a reader, as well as sundry tips to Alice, poor girl, who seems, seen through this one-sided correspondence, to be a bit overwhelmed by … life. And who better to set this young woman straight than her Aunt Fay?

letters to alice

The 16 letters from Aunt Fay (inspired by letters written by Austen to her niece) appear to have started with 18-year-old Alice having a crisis. She’s at university and finds Jane Austen “boring, petty and irrelevant.” Not only does Fay Weldon urge Alice to continue reading, separating entertainment from enlightenment, but argues for the importance of reading literature as perhaps the one thing that can save in us in this life. And thus begins a marvellous description of The City of Invention:

Those who founded it, who built it, house by house, are the novelists, the writers, the poets. And it is to this city that the readers come, to admire, to learn, to marvel and explore. 

Let us look around the city: become acquainted with it, make it our eternal, our immortal home. Looming over everything, of course, heart of the City, is the great Castle Shakespeare. You see it whichever way you look. It rears its head into the clouds, reaching into the celestial sky, dominating everything around. It’s a rather uneven building, frankly. Some complain it’s shoddy, and carelessly constructed in parts, others grumble that Shakespeare never built it anyway, and a few say the whole thing ought to be pulled down to make way for the newer and more relevant, and this prime building site released for younger talent: but the Castle keeps standing through the centuries, and build as others may they can never achieve the same grandeur. 

Fay Weldon argues that “books can be dangerous,” and there’s the example of Alice’s mother who suffered “an overdose of Georgette Heyer” which led to her marriage to Alice’s father. There’s friction between Fay, her sister and brother-in-law, and disapproval of Aunt Fay’s relationship with Alice seeps through the pages. Over the course of the letters, we see slivers of this disapproval as well as extremely witty glimpses of Alice’s life as she converts her love affair with a married professor into writing a book.

Who reads Arnold Bennett now, or Sinclair Lewis? But perhaps soon, with any luck, they’ll be rediscovered. ‘How interesting,’ people will say, pushing open the creaking doors. ‘How remarkable! Don’t you feel the atmosphere here? So familiar, so true: the amazing masquerading as the ordinary? Why haven’t we been here for so long?’ And Bennett, Lewis, or whoever, will be rediscovered, and the houses of his imagination be renovated, restored, and hinges oiled so that doors open easily, and the builder, the writer, takes his rightful place again in the great alternative hierarchy. 

Using Jane Austen as an example, the author also discusses the importance of audience, and argues that while “the life and personality of writers” are not “particularly pertinent to their work,” that writers cannot be separated from “the times” in which they live. Of course, Jane Austen is a wonderful example of that argument. Some of the letters contain some fascinating information about marriage and birth rates during Austen’s lifetime, and just the few succinct statistics really hammer home societal expectations that Austen faced.

The letters also discuss the modern writer’s life as compared to that of Austen. Whereas a modern, published writer may attend book readings and be prepared to “have your own view on everything” it wasn’t so for Austen:

Jane Austen and her contemporaries, of course, did none of this. They saved their public and their private energies for writing. They were not sent in to bat by their publishers in the interest of increased sales, nor did they feel obliged to present themselves upon public platforms as living vindication of their right to make up stories which others are expected to read.

This book of letters is typical Fay Weldon fare: lots of energy, lots of opinions (and some of those opinions are most definitely and refreshingly not PC), and bucketloads of wit. This is a delightful read for fans of Austen, fans of Weldon or those who are considering writing, which is, as Weldon argues “not a profession, it is an activity, an essential amateur occupation. It is what you do when you are not living.”

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Is It All In Your Head?: True Stories of Imaginary Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan, M.D.

It is not necessarily the greatest suffering that receives the greatest consideration and sympathy. Illness is not scored in that way. Deadly disease obviously scores higher than others. After that there is an unofficial ranking system for illness in which psychiatric disorders are the out-and-out losers. Psychiatric disorders manifesting as physical disease are at the very bottom of that pile. They’re the charlatans of illness. 

In Is It All In Your Head? True Stories of Imaginary Illness, M.D. Suzanne O’Sullivan, whose specialties are neurology and clinical neuropathy, offers a casebook of patients who presented with powerful physical symptoms and yet in time various illness and diseases were systematically ruled out. This left these ill, debilitated people, technically speaking, or at least in the eyes of the doctors who treated them, with nothing wrong, no diagnoses.

Up to one-third of people seen in an average general neurology clinic have neurological symptoms that cannot be explained; in these people an emotional cause is often suspected. It is very difficult for a patient to be given the news that their physical illness may have a psychological cause. It is a difficult diagnosis to understand, let alone accept. And doctors can be reluctant to offer it up, partly for fear of angering their patients but also for fear of what they might have missed. Patients often find themselves trapped in a zone between worlds of medicine and psychiatry.

The book’s introduction builds a pathway to the case histories here, and I particularly loved the way the author pointed out that “modern society likes the idea that we can think ourselves better,” and while accepting that a “positive mental attitude” is invaluable, Suzanne O’Sullivan argues that “society has not fully woken up to the frequency with which people do the opposite–unconsciously think themselves ill.” The lead-in intro paves the way with commonly acknowledged physical symptoms caused by emotions or stress, and from this common point of acceptance, the author takes into her patient casebook.

 is-it-all-in-your-head

As for the case histories, there’s a range: Pauline, a 27-year-old woman with an extensive medical history, whose been ill since age 15. A general feeling of being “unwell” morphed into burning pain when passing urine. Then followed years of, how can I say this, being bounced around the medical community, being given vague diagnoses and even an unnecessary appendectomy. Finally after losing the use of her legs, Pauline ended up in a wheelchair. If you think this sounds bad, well just keep reading Pauline’s case; it’s truly appalling. I’m not going to blame the doctors here because if a person keeps complaining about pain & various other symptoms, the doctors are going to keep looking for causes (that’s their job,) and that, at the very least, led to even more complications for Pauline who ended up being kicked out of the hospital only to suffer seizures right before her release.

Wheelchair-bound Matthew is convinced that he has Multiple Sclerosis ( he can’t feel anything in his lower body, yet “despite the lifelessness of his legs the reflexes reacted as they should”) ; Shahina‘s problems began when someone accidentally steps on her hand. Yvonne becomes blind after a few drops of glass cleaning solution accidentally land in her eyes.  The treatment given her by the junior doctors and medical students is appalling, (“there’ll be no Oscars for that performance.”) Alice, I found perhaps the most interesting of the case histories, since her story started with breast cancer and from that moment on, the experience tapped into Alice’s subconscious mind. Camilla spent years with unacknowledged grief which manifested itself in other ways.

The most disturbing, controversial chapter concerns Rachel, who suffers from Chronic Fatigue symptom/ME and ends up in a locked psychiatric unit. Rachel seems to be the other end of the spectrum–someone who does indeed have something physically/clinically wrong with her even though Dr O’Sullivan argues that “psychological factors and behavioral issues, if they are not the entire cause, at the very least contribute in a significant way to prolonging the disability that occurs in chronic fatigue syndrome. Do I know that for sure? No, nobody does: but I am influenced by the lack of evidence for an organic disease. ME/CFS sufferers do not usually have any objective physical findings to explain their fatigue. They have been likened to those who had multiple sclerosis before that disease was properly understood.”  Fatigue (CFS) is a problem as it tends to gather up the label of malingering and that is so unfair. And on the subject of Rachel, just because a patient makes a big demonstration of being unable to do something doesn’t necessarily mean a thing. We all bring our characters to our illnesses and our diseases. Some of us suck it up and some of us don’t.

The chapters go back and forth from the case history under examination to other cases and also the history of various medical practices. This can be distracting, even though I can understand why the author took this approach. Some of the stories were tied up too neatly with a bow, but I suppose that is how the doctor’s casebook ends when the patient walks through (or wheels out of) the door for the last time and lands on someone else’s patient list. Ultimately this was an interesting read–even though I didn’t agree with the author about every issue.

In a matter of semantics, I had a bit of a problem with the book’s byline: True stories of Imaginary Illness as it implies, at least to this reader, that the patients in these pages ‘imagined’ their illnesses as in fabricated. But the whole point of the book is that these patients suffered very real physical symptoms as a result of psychological distress. They weren’t imagining anything.

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Sam Giancana: The Rise and Fall of a Chicago Mobster by Susan McNicoll

“His propensity for immense cruelty had begun to show itself.”

Running at just under 100 pages, Susan McNicoll’s book, Sam Giancana: The Rise and Fall of a Chicago Mobster is a brief overview of a criminal career. Giancana, with his iconic appearance (see the book’s cover) is a significant figure in the history of organized crime, and like many other figures in the underworld, he started off in poverty, with humble beginnings. Sam’s  (Salvatore) father was a Sicilian peddler who left behind his pregnant bride to emigrate to America. Arriving in 1905 at age 24, Antonio Giancana moved to a  Chicago slum. An unsavoury picture emerges of Little Italy with crowded conditions, inadequate plumbing, rampant disease, and dead animals in the streets.

Antonio, working as an independent street peddler, managed to save enough money to send for his wife, and the family moved to slightly better living conditions.  Momo Salvatore, or Sam, was born in 1908, but in 1910, Sam’s mother died from a miscarriage. Sam’s father remarried, and Sam’s childhood, brief and violent, sounds miserable. The author argues that perhaps these frequent beatings led to “a defiance few adults knew how to control.” Sam ended up in a reformatory school for boys but escaped, and at age 11 was living, homeless, on the streets of Chicago until he joined a gang of boys who specialised in stealing “shorts” slang for unattended cars. Sam’s skill at “whipping” (“taking corners at high speed”) developed into skills as a getaway driver. This band of young criminals eventually became known as the 42 Gang.

By the age of 13, he was dubbed “Mooney” because of his unpredictability and crazy, out-of-control behaviour, alluding to people who supposedly go crazy to the time of the full moon. 

This information about Sam’s formative years sets the stage for what’s to come–a life of violent crime, murder and racketeering.

sam-giancana

As always with mob bios, we enter a murky world, and there’s always a degree of speculation about just who did what….In other words, what can actually be proved? The book delves into the muddy connections between Joseph Kennedy and Sam Giancana, and mob hits contracted by the CIA on Fidel Castro. The information about Sam’s relationships with Sinatra, the Kennedys, election rigging, and Marilyn Monroe is fascinating (see The Empty Glass). There’s a lot here I’d like to know more about, FBI agent William Roemer, “Sam’s true antagonist,” for example. But the book’s length aims at an overview more than an in-depth exploration of Sam Giancana’s life with the result that while the reader, at the conclusion of the book, may know what Sam Giancana did, just what made Sam tick, eludes the narrative. There are many quotes included from Sam Giancana’s daughter, Antoinette’s biography, Mafia Princess, so that’s probably a good source for additional reading.

One complaint. The swear words are abbreviated. I’m sure there was a reason for this but given the subject matter, it’s odd, and feels as though there’s a censor at work. Here’s an example.

If I was gonna get f-ed, at least it shoulda felt good.

On a final note, at one point, the book mentions that a hit was ordered on Big Jim Colosimo by Johnny Torrio, and while I’m not arguing that Torrio wasn’t responsible, I’m not sure that that’s ever been proved solidly.

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The Mistresses of Cliveden: Natalie Livingstone

Cliveden, once the home of noblemen, is now a five-star hotel. It’s only five miles from Windsor Castle, but Cliveden, a huge spectacular house, in spite of its size and grandeur, somehow exudes illicit intimacy. Perhaps it’s the Fountain of Love statue or perhaps it’s the reputation of the Spring Cottage added in the early nineteenth century and rented by Stephen Ward. I first read about Cliveden in connection to the Profumo Affair, for it was at Cliveden that John Profumo met a naked Christine Keeler frolicking in the pool.

the mistresses of cliveden

But the Profumo Affair is not Cliveden’s only claim to fame. In the 17h century, Cliveden was originally two lodges on 160 acres when it was purchased by the notorious rake, George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham who then built Cliveden as a “monument to his scandalous affair” with his married mistress Anna Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury. Their very public affair led to a duel between Buckingham and Shrewsbury which resulted in Shrewsbury’s death, and eventually a penitent Countess of Shrewsbury gave up Buckingham and reconciled with her son after many years of estrangement.

It’s the history of Buckingham and the Countess of Shrewsbury that launches this non-fiction book, and sets the tone for the idea that Cliveden is a very special place–initially designed as a splendid, shameless love nest for the married-to-other-people couple who flaunted their love affair and damned the consequences. The fact that with the death of Shrewsbury, Buckingham and the Countess of Shrewsbury got what they wanted–only to discover that it came at too high a price, also places a sort of mark upon Cliveden. Not a stain, not a blemish, but a reputation….

During its dawn in the 1660s as much as its twilight in the 1960s, Cliveden was an emblem of elite misbehavior and intrigue.

This reputation which includes a huge degree of notoriety continues with the stories of the other women who inhabited Cliveden throughout the centuries in The Mistresses of Cliveden: Three Centuries of Power, Scandal, and Intrigue in an English Stately Home by Natalie Livingstone.  Other mistresses of Cliveden include: Elizabeth Villiers, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, and Nancy Astor. Adding to the sense of scandal which seems to hang like a cloud over Cliveden’s history, Elizabeth Villiers was mistress to William III, a rather lucrative job, as it turns out.

Author Natalie Livingstone clearly loves her subject providing minute details about the building of Cliveden. For some readers who are familiar with British history, some of the information will be already well-known. The section of the Duke of Buckingham, for example, goes into the English Civil war and Buckingham’s privileged relationship to Charles II. While it’s necessary to include this information in a where-does-a story-begin-and-end sort of way, some of it will be a repeat for readers at all familiar with the period. However, there’s masses of information here about daily life including the stringent 18th century mourning requirements that necessitated the covering of any shining surface.  While the book’s title emphasizes The Mistresses of Cliveden, this is essentially the history of a house–originally designed as an ostentatious love nest (the word ‘nest’ seems ironic in this case,) and the history of this house is set within the larger context of the shifting history of England.

Cliveden had been reduced to a charred ruin. Following the fire, Mary lived alone, a tragic figure, residing in the dilapidated wing that had escaped the flames. The remains of the house, along with the lone inhabitant, became a source of morbid fascination to the public.  Her fallen situation and the ruins in which she lived fitted well with the late 18th-century trend for Gothic sites. In the latter part of the century, under the influence of writers such as Horace Walpole and William Sotheby, ‘picturesque’ and ‘melancholy’ settings began to attract artists, writers, and as the fashion for the Gothic took hold, crowds of tourists.

The house, soaked in scandal, rebuilt in the nineteenth century following a catastrophic fire, morphs with the times and with each new owner until it became a huge unsustainable white elephant that could be put to best use as a hotel. For its owners however, the house started as a temple to a licentious  man’s mistress, and ended as a symbol of monumental indiscretion.

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The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction: M. A. Orthofer

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction provides an entry point and more general overview of various nations’ literatures, as well as a foundation to help readers navigate what is available on the internet.”

Years ago, I was so busy burning through the ‘canon’ of British and the American literature, I didn’t give a great deal of thought to reading books in translation. Certainly, I read the Greats–the ones most of us come across in university courses, and I can comfortably say that almost everything assigned, I loved. Tolstoy, Madame Bovary, etc. etc. Well, why bore anyone–after all most of us have read those same books… It’s only been the past few years that I really became interested in books in translation, and again, not as a topic, but the awakening probably began through curiosity about crime novels in translation. Of course, there are a handful of publishers who do a marvelous job of bringing books to the shelves that we would not have otherwise–special thanks here must go to the publisher of international crime titles,  Bitter Lemon Press who delighted me, repeatedly, with Claudia Piñeiro.

complete review guide

Thanks to the efforts of some publishers I’ve read some marvelous books in translation, but let’s face it, beyond the Great Novels, it’s almost impossible to ‘break’ into a country’s literature without some sort of help. Someone who can point us in the right direction … And that brings me to The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction from M. A. Orthofera must-have reference volume for any reader seeking to broaden the reading experience. And I’m going to add here that ‘reference’ book sounds a bit ominous, and yet this book is very accessible, very readable, and very well organized. Don’t miss reading a page of this book.

The intro begins very informatively laying out the current publishing situation in America with “only a few hundred” translated books hitting the market very year. Orthofer points out that we “are arguably spoiled for choice,” and that’s a good way of putting it as when I visit a brick and mortar book shop, I see row upon row of new books but very little captures my attention. But things aren’t bleak at all: Orthofer states “an established group of smaller publishers that have found success in focusing largely or exclusively on fiction in translation,” are shaking up our choices, and that we may very well be “entering a golden age of literary dissemination and exposure.” The goal of Orthofer’s book, then is to “lead readers into and through this rapidly expanding world.”

Does this volume accomplish this admirable goal? Yes indeed it does. I can’t remember ever being this excited about a reference book, so that should tell you something. Here’s a quote I loved:

When publishers in the United States do seek out translated works, they often take their cues from elsewhere. Critical acclaim, literary prizes, and best-seller status–preferably in  several different markets, rather than just the original local one–are prerequisites for most foreign fiction to be considered for the American market, especially by large commercial publishers. The herd mentality is widely practiced elsewhere as well, leading to a narrow, homogenous tier of international fiction that is widely available throughout the world and in many languages whereas excellent works from less internationally celebrated authors can struggle to find the recognition and readers they deserve. Even though exceptional works do come into circulation this way, too often it is the second-rate works-the earnest prizewinning novels and imitative local thrillers that make the cut and disappoint readers (with their mediocre quality) and publishers (with their low sales).

Sound familiar?

Orthofer goes on to explain that “smaller and more nimble publishers” are bringing a “broader and more innovative range of foreign fiction to American audiences,” but as we all know, these publishers have “fewer resources.”

Another quote I must add, simply because I’d never come to this conclusion, even though I loathe a lot of the mush being published here:

Readers in the United States seem to prefer that in this nation of immigrants and assimilation, their authors become recognizably Americanized beyond writing in English. Nostalgia for the old country is permissible, but America should be the reference point. The durable formula of combining ethnic background and American contexts has proved remarkably successful, and variations on the multigenerational, transnational historic saga are the most popular kind of vaguely foreign fiction-as long as they are strongly tied to present-day America: The Joy Luck Club, to name just one title out of thousands, is indicative of this phenomenon.

Finally I understand The Joy Luck Club’s success. I’ve been baffled about that for years. And that brings up another point–probably a fairly obvious one–that “the success of a movie version can lead to the rebranding of a book” for the American market.

I knew I loved this book when Orthofer mentioned a pet peeve of mine when it comes to foreign crime series:

publishers also continue to present foreign series out of sequence. When new authors are introduced into translation, American and British publishers generally select the particular volume they believe will appeal most to English-speaking readers, and in the case of mystery series, this is rarely the first volume. If more work by the author is deemed worth translating, publication may be haphazard, a major irritant when authors develop their characters across several books.

Rants and excitement aside, I cannot empathize enough what a great resource this book is. Countries and/or regions are separated geographically into chapters. First we get an overview of the books considered classics, then the important writers of the 20th century (with brief descriptions of their work), sections about more modern writers and then there’s a ‘Keep in Mind’ section in some of the chapters. There’s a section called Eastern Europe which goes into some detail regarding how the collapse of Communism impacted the book market. Apparently modern Russian books are a much harder sell than books published in the Soviet era. Some chapters are shorter than others, which is to be expected, and if a reader is knowledge about a specific country’s literature, I’m sure he/she will argue that a name or two has been omitted or disagree with the author’s opinions.

I came away from this guide with a long list of new names, more book titles to read, and a determination to increase support for publishers bringing translated fiction to the marketplace.  I should add, though, that getting this knowledge doesn’t solve all the problems. Just check out the price of Lucky Per, a classic from Danish author Henrik Pontoppidan. The paperback on Amazon is 82.95 (as of 6/25/16) with private sellers running about $20 less. But on a positive note, I found plenty of other contemporary titles, some out of print, very reasonably priced.

Special thanks to Karen from BookerTalk for turning me onto this book in the first place. This book is going on my Best-of-Year list.

Review copy.

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A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising: Miron Bialoszewski

“Then-the sun was just going down-the partisans undressed at a command. Then it became fairly dark and we were sent down the road to our new quarters. We saw them standing there and standing here, stripped down to their underwear for the time being. There was nothing ominous-despite this-in the warm breeze. And yet, as we know, after dark they had to strip naked and wait. What happened later-is hard to determine. Some were taken elsewhere. Some came back. Survived. But the others-no one knows what happened. They vanished. Were they silently taken off somewhere to the side that night? Or later? It’s never been completely explained.”

A certain synchronicity brought me to A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising on the tail of Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz. The latter book, a fictional account of a brief segment in the life of the Polish author shows Bruno Schultz, in 1938, desperately trying to communicate with the outside world via Thomas Mann. The Germans have yet to arrive in Schultz’s hometown of Drohobycz. The novel makes reference to the horrific slaughter committed by the Nazis yet to come, and in Miron Bialoszewski’s A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, the slaughter is well underway.

memoir of the warsaw uprisingThe memoir begins on August 1 1944. Author Bialoszewski was a civilian during the uprising so this is not a military overview of the event but rather the book concentrates on memories which recall the chaotic period. Almost immediately, we know that the author survives:

I shall be frank recollecting my distant self in small facts, perhaps excessively precise, but there will be only the truth. I am forty-five years old now, twenty-three years have gone by, I am lying here on my couch safe and sound, free, in good health and spirits, it is October, night 1967, Warsaw once again has 1,300,00 inhabitants. I was seventeen years old when I went to bed one day and for the first time in my life heard artillery fire. It was the front. And that was probably September 2, 1939. I was right to be terrified. Five years later the all too familiar Germans were still walking along the streets in their uniforms.

Bialoszewski tells his story rather as though we are sitting in the same room with him listening to his account. His memories are subject to revision–almost as though he tries to pull the scenes out of the fog and present them to his audience. Sometimes his style is abrupt–staccato, and there’s breathlessness to the action.

August 1 starts inauspiciously enough with the author being sent, by his mother, to collect bread. People are gathering on the streets and he hears that “they killed two Germans in Ogrodowa Street.” Tanks are “cruising around,” the author hears shooting, “heavier weapons” including cannons, and then people begin cheering: “The uprising,” we told each other immediately like everyone else in Warsaw.

In spite of the sounds of machine guns and rocket flares, the general mood is definitely excitement. Civilians join in; barricades are erected. The author, now at a friend’s house, has a meal, nonchalantly plays a game and goes to sleep.

It was raining. Drizzling. It was cold. We could hear machine guns, that rat-a-tat. Nearer burst, then farther off. And rocket flares. Every so often. In the sky. We fell asleep to their noise, I think.

That short quote is a good example of the author’s style as memories flood back. There’s a sense that every detail is important. Every incident witnessed must be recorded.

The holiday mood of the uprising continues with intense organization. Partisans “showed up,” and “several fronts” are established on the streets. Tanks ride right over the barricades, and the author remembers people “throwing down tables, chairs, wardrobes onto the street” to fortify the barricades. But when furniture proves futile against tanks, concrete is removed from the pavement. Still, in spite of dire signs, the excitement continues. But by the fourth of August, the atmosphere begins to change.

We ran out into Choldna Street. The street was covered with clouds. Rust colored and dark brown. From bricks, from smoke. When it settled we saw a terrifying transformation. A reddish-gray dust was covering everything. Trees. Leaves. A centimeter thick, I think. And that devastation. One Wache less. But at what a cost. Anyway. Things were already beginning to change. To anxiety. And always for the worse. Visually too. From Zelazna Bram Square, from Bank Square, from Elektoralna Street along our side of Choldna against the wall, people were running and running–women, children, all hnched over, gray, covered with some kind of powder. I remember the sun was setting. Fires were burning. The people ran on and on. A flood of people. From the bombed-out houses. They were fleeing to Wola.

The atrocities begin….Water and food become critical issues, and at one point in the book an exciting escape via the sewers takes place, yet grim realities set in as the author asks if the Polish will receive help from the outside world: “perhaps it was worthwhile to defend, to rescue whatever and whomever could be rescued. Maybe at this point someone would smile pityingly.”

The Warsaw Uprising: August 1, 1944-October 2, 1944 –an important event in the history of WWII for several reasons–is recounted here by someone who lived through it, and this remarkable memoir grants the reader a sense of this event. Miron Bialoszewski (1922-1983), who was just 22 years old when the uprising took place, wrote the memoir more than twenty years after it occurred. The book’s introduction explains the background of the uprising: the Red Army was “encamped in the working-class suburb of Praga, directly across the river from Warsaw,” and how the Polish resistance Home Army “encouraged and directed by the London government in exile […] initiated the uprising in the capital.” But as the introduction, by translator Madeline G. Levine, tells us “the people of Warsaw were left to fight and die by themselves.” By the time the uprising ended, over 200,000 Poles were dead.

Originally published in 1970. Maps are included at the end of the book.

Translated by Madeline G. Levine

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Cocktail Noir: From Gangsters and Gin Joints to Gumshoes and Gimlets by Scott M. Deitche

“People act differently sometimes when they’re drunk. They bother me.” (Lucky Luciano)

Scott M. Deitche’s book, Cocktail Noir: From Gangsters and Gin Joints to Gumshoes and Gimlets pays homage to the “intertwining of alcohol and the underworld.” Watch any classic noir or crime film, and you can’t help but be impressed at the way the characters knock back booze regardless of the time of day or the company they keep, and Deitche’s book effectively taps into that by-gone era. This book’s first chapter: The Dark Corner with Cocktail in Hand talks about “the rise of cocktail culture,” the revival of certain classic cocktails and includes recipes of such cocktails as the Negroni, the Stork Club Cooler and the Sloe Gin Fizz.

After this introduction, the author moves to the subject of Prohibition and discusses the various types of alcohol prevalent during this period: Rum, the entrepreneurial upswing in Moonshine, and Whiskey. While I knew about the Volstead Act’s “ban on consumption of alcohol up to twelve miles offshore,” I was unaware that this law paved the way to the birth of the “booze cruise.” Make a law and people find ways to get around it….

cocktail noirOther chapters (all with an emphasis on alcohol) include: Crime Novelists and their Characters, Mob Authors, Cocktail Noir on Screen, Bar Noir (“A tour through the best of these watering holes,”) and Gangster Bars (includes a page on the Stork Club and another on The Cotton Club). Each chapter includes photos and, of course, cocktail recipes, so we read about authors’ favourite drinks, crime bosses’ chosen drinks and the various places they hung out.

This is not an in-depth non fiction exploration of prohibition, but short, fact-filled, theme-based chapters, accompanied by some great quotes, and with the content leaning towards trivia, linking alcohol and organized crime. Some of the trivia is regarding figures from the 70s and 80s, so this book is not about prohibition–although that’s where it starts. I could almost call this a coffee-table book, but that would not be accurate. While the book has 237 pages, it’s undersized; you can hold it in one hand and have a cocktail in the other. This book is targeted for noir/crime lovers, those who wish to try some of the classic recipes mentioned in noir fiction and film, and would make a great gift for the noir aficionado in your life. And honestly, you have to be curious about a drink called The Corpse Reviver, don’t you?

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Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him by T.J. English

“Was the Bulger story about one very crafty psychopath who had corrupted the system? Or was it about a preexisting corrupt system into which one very wily gangster insinuated himself and then played it for all it was worth?”

Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him, a non-fiction book from T. J. English explores the trial of Boston’s notorious criminal and asks some tough questions about how Bulger continued his criminal operations for so many years. English, a journalist and screenwriter is the perfect author for this book. With The Westies: Inside New York’s Irish Mob and Paddywhacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster to his credit, T.J English is well-versed in the American organized crime scene. It should come as no surprise that English’s reputation preceded him, and doors that would have remained closed to others, opened for this author.

With the recent release of the film  Black Mass which stars Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger, many film watchers will turn with curiosity to a book on the subject. Where the Bodies Were Buried is not for the Bulger novice, for English examines Bulger’s trial and crimes, so anyone coming to this book had better already have an idea of what Whitey Bulger was all about and also have knowledge of the major players in this story of just how organized crime flourished in Boston for decades.

where the bodies were buriedT.J. English worked hard for this book, attending the trial, driving through Boston neighbourhoods and interviewing Bulger’s former associates and families of Bulger’s victims and alleged victims. The title refers not just to Bulger’s many victims, a number of whom ended up buried in the basement of a house in Boston but also refers to the many skeletons in the cupboards of this astounding story of how Bulger ran his criminal world. Bulger squashed and murdered rivals with the support of his handler, former, now incarcerated, FBI agent John Connelly and allegedly, according to the defense, with the nod from other figures in the U.S Attorney’s office and the Department of Justice.

The book covers the trial of Whitey Bulger who was finally captured in 2011 after going on the run in 1995 following a tip from Connelly about an impending indictment, but unofficially on trial here is the entire Top Echelon Informant programme, run by the FBI with the Justice Department responsible for oversight.

While ostensibly it makes sense to recruit informers from within (since civilians aren’t going to know anything about the mafia or organized crime), the realities of the programme stir some very muddy waters regarding the collusion of criminals and law enforcement. English scatters FBI memos and interviews with Bulger associates against coverage of the trial.  Bulger was indicted on thirty-two counts of racketeering and nineteen murders. He was “the last of a certain type of old-school gangster, with a criminal lineage that stretched back at least to the 1950s.”

English argues that the historic precedent for Whitey Bulger can be found in the case of Joseph “Animal” Barboza, a “renowned mob hit man” who testified in the murder trial of Edward “Teddy” Deegan. Deegan’s killer was Vincent, “Jimmy the Bear” Flemmi, an FBI informant, and thanks to Barboza’s fabricated testimony, other men were framed for the crime with the “acquiescence of many people in the criminal justice system, including field agents, prosecutors and supervisors–all the way up to J. Edgar Hoover.” And here I’m going to quote a 1965 memo regarding Jimmy Flemmi from an FBI field agent to Hoover:

“[Flemmi] is going to continue to commit murder, but informant’s potential outweighs the risk involved.”

One of the men framed for Deegan’s murder was Joe Salvati, who suffered “one of the most outrageous miscarriages of justice in the history of the United States” and served 30 years for a murder he did not commit. Interestingly, “the same FBI agents who originally recruited Bulger and Flemmi had played a role in framing Joe Salvati and his codefendants back in 1967.” Stephen Flemmi (brother of “Jimmy the Bear,“) was “Whitey’s criminal partner for twenty years.” and part of Flemmi’s defense at his trial was :

he could not be prosecuted for crimes that he had committed, because he and Bulger had been given immunity from prosecution in exchange for their serving as informants in the DOJ’s war against the mafia. 

The account of the trial is fascinating–not only for what’s said but also for what’s left buried. Law enforcement witnesses expressed frustration at attempts to investigate Whitey which were “sabotaged by the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office,” while Bulger’s defense argued that he was never “an informant for John Connolly.” Yet before the trial, Bulger argued that he’d been given immunity from prosecution for his crimes by a now-deceased federal prosecutor. Were Bulger and Connolly friends, “a corrupt team,” with Connolly “creating a fictional informant file to justify his relationship with Whitey,” or was being a Top Echelon Informant a great gig for Bulger and the Winter Hill gang? The biggest and toughest question this book tackles is just how far the Justice Department was involved in giving Whitey Bulger carte blanche when it came to his criminal activities. Was John Connelly, now in prison, some sort of rogue FBI agent who accepted “thousands of dollars in bribes,” or was the Boston office uniquely corruptible? Or is the Whitey Bulger case just part of a bigger picture of how the Top Echelon Informant programme, in a culture of collusion, really works in an ends-justifies-the-means approach:

There would no longer be good guys and bad guys, just one big criminal underworld in which cops and the criminals were all merely co-conspirators in an ongoing effort to manipulate the universe to suit their needs and the needs of their overseers.

If you’re not a cynical person, then Where The Bodies Were Buried will shock you. If you’re already cynical, then like me, you’ll know that Whitey Bulger’s trial isn’t the end of this ongoing story. Recruiting informants from within criminal organizations is problematic. It doesn’t take brilliance to understand that an FBI informer will commit further crimes as an informant. How can they inform unless they are privy to or a participant in crimes? As one of the interviewees, Pat Nee tells English:

“You do things you don’t want to sometimes because it’s all part of the life you’ve chosen. It’s not always possible to just say no and walk away. People get killed when they try to walk away from a situation like that.”

Where should the Justice Department draw a line? What sort of moral imperative gives a nod to wiping out one criminal crew by allowing another to continue operations? How far should the FBI/Justice Department go when handling informants? What is acceptable ‘collateral damage’?

On a final note, I’m fairly sure (being sarcastic here) that FBI agents who are handlers of Top Echelon Informants aren’t supposed to be accepting thousands of dollars from their criminal informants, so that aspect of the complex Bulger case muddies the waters even further….

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Filed under English T. J., Non Fiction