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Showing posts with label Alex Preston In Love and War. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alex Preston In Love and War. Show all posts

Friday 24 May 2024

Book Blogging since 2012: A Retrospective


My original reviews of books mentioned in this essay can be located by typing author and title into the search bar above.


I buy, read and review books, but not always in that order: sometimes I imagine a review then track down the book. I don’t hold library tickets so always have skin in the game, the unread books on my shelves failed investments.  The rewards are the pleasures (but also irritations) of reading and the more controllable pleasures of writing, to which is added such satisfaction as can be got from Google’s page view counter.

A review in a print journal might lead me to a book; as do footnote references and, latterly, a taste for reading and re-reading classics.  I browse in town centre bookshops but that challenges my sensibilities. It’s the wallpaper. The garish covers and lurid blurbs are the graphic design version of over-excited talk shows.  With exceptions (Penguin Classics and Modern Classics, Fitzcarraldo) the current state of book cover art is decidedly down market, comparing unfavourably with the stylish packaging of own brand goods in supermarkets

Blurbs are less reliable than small print food labels and not always to the advantage of the author. I have accumulated a selection of trade misdescriptions and reprise three here:

Faber published Alex Preston’s In Love and War (2017) and the reviewer at GQ made it onto cover telling us that it’s a book for the beach, “the perfect read to pair with that first sundowner”. I proceed to the novel: the hero Esmond dies horribly under Gestapo torture and his lover Ada dies in a concentration camp. Gin and Auschwitz? Really?

The 2018 Penguin paperback cover for Zadie Smith’s Swing Time quotes from a review in The Observer claiming that the novel “Has brilliant things to say about race, class and gender” which cuts Zadie Smith off at the ankles for a book in which dancing plays a leading part; it puts her on a level with Bernardine Evaristo. I did go to the original Observer review by Taiye Selasi, more subtle than the blurb extract, but if you want to sample the stunning prose of which Smith is capable - showing not saying - go to pages 321-30 of the paperback to find a beautifully structured and   emotionally-charged scene set in a small north London pizza joint.

In 2018 Penguin published Sally Vickers’ The Librarian and Adam Phillips was there on cover noting that “Vickers writes of relationships with undaunted clarity”. Well, I admire Adam Phillips and he sealed the purchase. The quote is actually from a review of another book by Vickers (Cousins) though as I started to read I could see how it worked for this one too:

“ ‘ What would you wish for, Sylvia?’ But he had stooped and was gathering her body to his, so she didn’t answer. “I have wanted to do that since I met you in the foundry”’

I felt like the victim of a Borat prank. Adam Phillips was writing tongue in cheek and I had bought a Mills & Swoon.



Most of us let that wonderful invention, Microsoft Word, run the writing show. There are hazards, especially for pedants.

In 2020 Princeton University Press published an academic monograph on loan words written by the British professor Richard Scholar. The cover of the book spells out its topic: ÉMIGRÉS French Words that Turned English. It’s a clever title because émigré is itself a loan word. But when I type it in lower case Microsoft automatically supplies two diacritical marks. That’s surely wrong. As an assimilated loan word emigré requires only that one diacritical mark to guide us to acceptable pronunciation: think café and naïve and compare with hotel which requires no guidance (those three words printed now as Microsoft delivered them).

Microsoft also obliges with an accent on capitalised CAFÉ though in French accents over capital letters are fairly optional. For proof, google photographs of “typical Parisian café”. In short, if someone asks whether written English uses diacritical marks, the correct answer is Yes, but sparingly, thank goodness. And in French, Yes, but the rules are a bit different for lower case and upper case. Don’t ask me to be more precise because life is short. But on such matters Microsoft can be plus royaliste que le roi. And Princeton University Press even more so with two accents on capitalised EMIGRES which do not appear when I type it. Dear Pedantic Reader, do you vote for two, one or no diacritical marks on the capitalised word made from the letters E M I G R E S?

There are real issues about the currently popular use of diacritical marks to render Roman alphabet versions of languages which don’t use the Roman alphabet. It’s a genuine question whether they undermine lazy colonialist mindsets or are themselves just a legacy of colonialism. There is a good basis for a case study in the rendering of spoken Yoruba in Oyinkan Braithwaite’s accomplished novel My Sister, The Serial Killer (2019).

But hold fire; there is an App now in common use by publishers, especially in the USA, which dumbs down texts, especially academic ones. The App may have a human incarnation as a copy editor following an inclusive rule book.

Richard Scholar’s book is an academic monograph aimed at a small audience of readers familiar with French and English literature especially of the eighteenth century.  It severely tests my own knowledge. But at page 114 I read this, “The French-speaking Genevan thinker and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) ….”.

What has gone wrong? The App has spotted a proper name and provided an explanatory gloss. Give it “William Shakespeare” and it would hand back “The English-speaking Stratford-upon-Avon poet and playwright …” I guess the idea is to get the book into the hands of 101 readers; but it won’t when the book is not pitched at them. And for actual readers it is just bizarre and, when repeated, reads as standardised patter which cuts across whatever personal style the author may have. The App knows nothing of prosody and never reads aloud to itself.

I can offer a hand proof that this App really is at work in Scholar’s book. At page 162, the title of a sequence of poems is given in untranslated French with no gloss that the words are those which the French-speaking painter Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903) inscribed on his most famous painting. Now that would be useful 101 stuff. But how come the gloss isn’t there?  In the immediate vicinity of this bit of text there is no one’s name present to jolt the App into life.


Bad books get published; we all know that. But they are bad in different ways. There are the books which read like drafts of Ph.Ds. In a previous life, I was obliged to read such things; it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it. It’s exasperating to read a printed book where the work clearly hasn’t been done. In 2011 Oxford University Press published Gerald Steinacher’s Nazis on the Run - disjointed, repetitive, and inconclusive where it needs to be decisive. The last problem was undoubtedly connected to problems of access (#openthevaticanarchives) but it also involves care in choices between modal verbs and adverbs to ensure that the text does not become simply evasive. Better to state clearly what the important question is and record that in the present state of knowledge it cannot be answered.  In a Ph D, modality matters.

Rather different is the case of the student who has received criticism, records it, and then carries on as if nothing has happened. In Emma Dabiri’s interesting Don’t Touch My Hair (2018) it happens twice. There is a long rant about cultural appropriation (pages 178ff) at the end of which the reader is offered “[Fred] Astaire is certainly worth further consideration when discussing the important distinction between appropriation and borrowing, the latter undoubtedly the basis of evolving culture” (page 190). That is a tacked-on remark which goes nowhere, just passed off as if duty done. In the second case, someone is actually quoted taking issue. The search for “Roots” (forgive the pun) is problematic because it usually stops when satisfying ones are found. Dabiri’s Africa is characterised by “wholeness” (a word which belongs in a chain which goes down all the way to wholesome and wholegrain). There isn’t much local violence in the African past which interests her and none at all in the African present. Her history remains fairly firmly in the realms of Uplifting Story, which publishers like. But she then quotes an email from Ron Eglash who tries to draw her away from the Search for Roots toward something more structural:


“The temptation is to dive into the competition over ‘who discovered it first’. But that kind of competition is a framework created for Intellectual Property rights…. Reversal never works. ‘We discovered it first’ is not a rebuke of white supremacy, it is just adopting their tactics. That is what Audre Lorde meant when she said, ‘ the master’s tools will never tear down the master’s house’ (pages 216 - 17)


These words just sit there. And the reader will no doubt go on calling out cultural appropriation and searching for roots. I’m with Audre Lorde.

Then there are books which have clearly involved a lot of googling and maybe not much else. As someone who likes to sit at home, I cannot plausibly deny it. But it’s an art and you need to do it extremely well.  Annie Ernaux and Olga Tokarczuk make it work but we lesser artists easily fail.  This is true of Tiffany Watt Smith’s very short Schadenfreude (2018) which though it has a German loan word for its title comes up in the text with “The Genealogy of Morals written by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche”. (Sound familiar?). 

But now, as a standout example of modern internet-enabled prose we have Peter Ackroyd’s cut and paste The English Soul (2024), a sort of hardback Wikipedia into which Ackroyd’s contribution is concentrated as a string of one-liners; I quote four and if you don’t like them there are others quoted in the full review of the book

On Thomas More, “The burnings [of heretics] continued, shedding fitful light on the English soul.” (page 73)

On the Authorized Version: “It might even act as a mirror of Englishness itself, and by extension the English soul” (140)

On George Herbert: “Little Gidding became, for Herbert, a vision of spirituality in the world. It became a corner of the English soul.” (147)

On William Blake: “Yet in truth his vision has never been lost. It is integral to the English soul.” (240)

Well, bless my English soul. Trot it out often enough and it becomes trite or simply vacuous.



Finally, there are translations which I do read. Nearly sixty years ago I was given L’Etranger to help improve my schoolboy French. A girlfriend who went on to become a Professor of French wanted to level me up. I thought to speed the process by setting beside it a copy of Penguin’s The Outsider, baffled to discover that the two texts didn’t seem to match up. I was unaware that I had bought Stuart Gilbert’s Variations on a Theme by Albert Camus. I have been wary ever since and when I’m going to read a book translated from French I’ll usually buy the French to put alongside. In that way, I was able to confirm that a sentence in the English translation of Annie Ernaux’s The Years which made no sense does in fact invert the order of events in the French original.

But what can you do when reading translations from languages you don’t know? Well, it can be contextually obvious that all is not well. Ismail Kadare’s The Concert (1988) was translated by Barbara Bray from the French translation from the Albanian. Set in Communist Albania, the version I read is peopled by Home Secretaries and Foreign Secretaries and one is surprised not to find Whitehall in Tirana. What cultural blindness blocked the use of Ministers of the Interior and Foreign Ministers? Out of the same failure of imagination we find Albanian Communists under pressure giving vent to Phew! (page 137) What a ghastly day! (139) and expressing frustration over the whole blessed evening (170). Unless I’m missing something (it happens) the register is so obviously wrong that it casts doubt on the whole translation. (Is there an Albanian reader out there who can confirm or deny?)















Wednesday 21 August 2019

The Publisher’s Bad Blurb Prize

The Literary Review makes an annual Bad Sex Award for really, really badly written sex scenes in novels which may have other merits but when it comes to sex, none at all.

They should add a Bad Blurb prize. Bad Blurbs are quotes cut and pasted onto book jackets and sometimes onto front pages which are meant to attract readers to the book but in fact display a certain inappropriateness for the book they supposedly blurb.

Until this week I had only accumulated two examples, books which have been previously reviewed on this Blog:

Novel: Alex Preston In Love and War
Publisher: Faber 2017
Relevant plot summary: Hero dies horribly at hands of Gestapo; heroine dies in Auschwitz

Bad Blurb: selected by the Publisher from GQ magazine which tells us that it’s a book for the beach, “The perfect read to pair with that first sundowner”
Comment: Gin and Auschwitz, anyone?


Novel: Megan Hunter The End We Start From
Publisher:  Pan Macmillan 2018
Relevant Fact: Under 20 000 words, disguised by using wide spacing, sixteen pages of end materials, and thick paper

Bad Blurb: “I read it in one sitting” (a breathless Hannah Kent of Burial Rites fame)

Comment: How could one not?


But this week I can add a third one:

Novel: Sally Vickers, The Librarian
Publisher: Penguin 2018
Relevant plot summary: Mills & Boon. I gave up at page 155-6 where Doctor finally kisses Nurse, sorry, Librarian, “ ‘ What would you wish for, Sylvia?’ But he had stooped and was gathering her body to his, so she didn’t answer./ “I have wanted to do that since I met you in the foundry”’

Bad Blurb: “Vickers writes of relationships with undaunted clarity” (Adam Phillips, no less, who sold the book to me)

Comment: Phillips was reviewing another book by Vickers, Cousins. But in any case there surely has to be a sotto voce continuation to his phrase: “ undaunted clarity as if Freud, modernism, the War, post-Modernism had never happened”. "Undaunted clarity" from the pen of Adam Phillips  gives the game way. It is something no longer available to us, outside the world of Mills & Boon novels.


Added 2 August 2020:

I have now discovered a variant on the genre. I just bought a Penguin Modern Classics edition of Nabokov's Ada or Ardor. The spare pages at the end are used to advertise other books by Nabokov. This is how Penguin introduces its edition of Lolita:

"Humbert Humbert - scholar, aesthete and romantic - has fallen completely and utterly in love with Lolita Haze ......"

It continues. [ For those who haven' read the novel, her name is Dolores Haze].

Monday 21 May 2018

Review: Megan Hunter, The End We Start From

The publicity departments of corporate publishing like to decorate book covers with the Ooohs! and Aahs! of the great and the good, sometimes without much thought about what they say or imply. I drew attention to the dangers in my review of Alex Preston’s In Love and War (reviewed 8 January 2017). Megan Hunter’s book is covered with nine puffs on the outside and twenty four on the inside; among those on the outside, there is this from Hannah Kent (of Burial Rites – reviewed here very favourably on 7 June 2014):

Extraordinary …. I read it in one sitting.

Well, yes, how can one not? This first novel may have been fattened to 128 pages of text and 16 of end materials pages on heavy duty paper, but it is comfortably under 20 000 words long (on page 102, for example, there are just 80 words but I am reckoning an average of 150). The average reader will get through in under two hours, between dinner and bedtime. It is only remarkable to read something at one sitting when it keeps you up past bedtime and even into the small hours. Of course, there are novels which are impossible to read at one sitting, like the one I reviewed yesterday: Jane Eyre is well over 200 000 words long and that is twenty hours plus of reading time.

Nowadays, what with electric light and social media, few people are willing to devote ten or a dozen evenings after work or after the children have gone to bed to read just one novel, but with a book which takes only one evening, I reckon you are in with a better chance. The secret of success is to print the long short story or the novella on thick paper, to give the illusion of substance.

The End We Start From has a stripped-down plot: Woman has Baby (as Private Eye reports when royal babies are born) and at the same time The Great Flood submerges London, forcing mother and baby and car-driving partner to flee north to Scotland. Partner goes missing on the way as civil order breaks down and people start to fight each other lethally for food and accommodation. The Flood subsides, mother and baby return, find partner, and story closes as baby takes his first steps in the brave new post-flood world. I understand it is called cli-fi:  climate fiction but that must be a close call in this case because there is as much here about breast feeding and nappies as about floods.

It is clever and readable with nicely weighed sentences. The author understands that you can leave things to the reader’s imagination since we have all read about flood disasters, about refugees, and about the war of all against all which develops as people struggle for survival. Hunter even dispenses with names for her characters – they just get initials: the baby is Z. You can’t get much more stripped down than that.

Tuesday 1 August 2017

Review: Alex Preston, In Love and War

Click on Image to Magnify

The cynicism of the cover drew my attention to this book on the Waterstones table. We have seen this cover before: it normally targets the person walking into W H Smith to buy the Rothermere paper and a bar of Toblerone and who wants the past – not the distant past, but anywhere between the 1930s and the 1950s (before Suez) when England was posh and glorious and Toblerone was a very special treat. It could have been more cynical: the novel features a dog but we are spared Tatters on the cover. Maybe Faber and Faber drew the line; it cannot be very many years ago that they would have committed suicide rather than commit to a cover like this. It's gold-embossed, in case that's not clear from my scan.

All’s fair in publishing nowadays and, indeed, I bought the book. I looked around for the Toblerone but Waterstones doesn’t stock it yet.

I read the novel and felt ambivalent. I don’t often feel ambivalent – the last time was when I read a copper’s autobiography (Clive Driscoll’s The Pursuit of the Truth) and felt I was being led by an unreliable narrator. With this novel, the cover had primed me to look for cynicism and it is there all over the text if you want to find it, the tropes we are familiar with wheeled on to the page one after another: posh country house England, young chap up at Cambridge, ambivalent sexuality, unwise flirtations with fascism, the woman who reminds him what decency is. For the first hundred pages I was inclined to give up. It all seemed lifeless, the prose even or flat, no anguish and remarkably untroubled passion which I suppose goes with the privilege of being posh. When Preston kills off his first heroine Fiamma at page 110, it doesn’t matter very much.

The novel then becomes more stylistically inventive and gets better but there are relapses. Thus Preston’s leading man, Esmond, recording privately on disc for posterity after the outbreak of War finds a new love and delivers himself of the following thoughts:

If it strikes you as strange, after Philip, after Gerald, that I should love Ada, it shouldn’t. It is not only that Fiamma, dear dead Fiamma, served as a copula, a springboard, a bridge. I have always loved beauty and the gender of those I love matters to me as little as their shoe size. It seems odd to me that so many humans limit themselves, slavishly. For now, it is Ada. (page 201)

It’s true that Esmond does grow up a lot after recording this drivel, but what he records does rather suggest he has done a tick-box degree in Queer Studies where you learn that sex is not acceptable in polite society and must be replaced by gender. But this point of social etiquette dates from the 1980s not the 1930s.  I now felt sorry for Fiamma.

By page 241 Esmond is reading The Communist Manifesto but by this point the dog has entered the story so the reader can feel Esmond must be on the right path notwithstanding. Dogs enter novels at the author’s peril. Milan Kundera does it extremely well in The Unbearable Lightness of Being so it can’t be absolutely wrong. 

Thanks to his new love, Ada, Esmond finds himself a fighter in the Italian Resistance and it is the exploits of the resistance which make up much of the text in the latter part of the book.

I made it to the end (page 340) by which time Esmond is horribly but courageously dead and Ada in Auschwitz. I didn’t shed any tears and that may explain why one of the jacket reviews, quoted from GQ, tells us that it’s a book for the beach, “The perfect read to pair with that first sundowner”.  Those who signed off the cover at Faber and Faber presumably had no qualms about that product endorsement. Gin and Auschwitz, anyone?

The late Stuart Hood’s Pebbles From My Skull, later reworked as Carlino, is an impressive  memoir of escape from a Prisoner of War camp and a year spent in the Italian Resistance in Tuscany. This seems a good place to recommend it. Hood (1915 – 2011) was what used to be called “a man of the Left” but in the 1940s he was a British military intelligence officer - though one should say, British as in Scottish. Sometime in the 1980s, I discovered he lived in Brighton and got him appointed as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Sussex to contribute to the MA programme I directed. The University was too stupid to recognise his many distinctions and  refused to give him an honorary doctorate for his lifetime work, preferring local notables. Hood’s wartime experience was clearly an ever-present fact of his life, not only in the form of reunions with old comrades (a Piazza is named after him somewhere in Tuscany) but also in doubts and anxieties. I recall walking across the Sussex campus one evening and asking him if his experience still affected his everyday, ordinary life. Yes, he replied, in the evenings I get anxious about where I am going to sleep – his own house and home a couple of miles from where we were walking.