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August (early September) books

September 7, 2015

August_September books

Books read in August and September

HOLIDAY reading was off the scale with great weather in Brittany allowing for prolonged periods of lounging in the sun.

Rod Kedward, La Vie en Bleu, (Penguin, 2006).

This brilliant history of 20th Century France by an eminent professor was primarily read for an article I am writing on Brittany and Breton nationalism. Typically, as a man of a certain age, I ended up engrossed in the Second World War history of France. Although the Breton nationalism section is quite short, there is a brilliant evocation of the development of regionalism in France and how new French identities have been forged in the post colonial era. (On loan from Steve Corkhill.)

Edward Pickering, The Yellow Jersey Club, (Bantam Press, 2015).

Cycling is inundated with brilliant stories and it is no surprise that it has more great journalists and writers than almost any other sport other than boxing. Pickering is one of those great writers and he tells some of the great stories behind the winners of the last 40 or so Tours de France. If you have read the autobiographies of some of these riders (Hinault, Lemond, Roche and Fignon) and the handful of great books about the Tour, there isn’t much new here. However, it is a rewarding read and works as a top class toilet book – it doesn’t need to be read in order. By the way, a great toilet book is perhaps one of the greatest accolades a man of a certain age can bestow on a tome.

S.J. Parris, Heresy, (Harper Collins, 2011).

This is Guardian and Observer journalist Stephanie Merritt’s first book of historical fiction starring the Italian former monk and radical thinker turned sleuth Giordano Bruno. There have been three further books in the series since this one, and it’s not hard to see why there is a market for it in the post Wolf Hall world. Impeccably plotted and massively atmospheric in its period detail, it is perhaps not quite so strong in dialogue which is at times stilted and expositional. However, crucially for a series, Bruno is both a charismatic and believable character with TV written all over his late 16th Century self.

Flann O’Brien, The Best of Miles (Flamingo, 1993); Myles Before Myles, (Grafton Books, 1988).

Flann O’Brien is the alpha and the omega of modern Irish writing (and comedy), and these two collections of newspaper columns, letters to newspapers and other assorted ephemera show why he remains the gold standard. Best of Myles, culled from the Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times, illustrates the giddy, comedic invention of the ultimate piss taker. An absurd kaleidoscope of ridiculous half baked theories, puns and Irish social commentary which introduces us to among other the Brother, the Plain People of Ireland  and Sir Myles Na gCopaleen. By far the most important contribution to mid-20th Century comic writing are the ‘Keats and Chapman’ columns and the ‘Myles Na gCopaleen Catechism of Cliché’ from which it is not hard to imagine a young Woody Allen taking notes. Myles Before Myles is patchier but students of modern (Irish) literature will love the ‘Henrik Ibsen and Patrick Kavanagh’ chapter, where O’Brien and friends invented the ‘Letters of Controversy’: spurious letters written in fictitious names that connect writers and philosophers in tremendous flights of fantasy. Flann is one of those writers, like Woody Allen, that you should have by your bed or in your toilet. I see a pattern emerging here.

Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, (Kindle, 2014).

Morozov is the most important and cogent current critic of the idiocy of technological determinism and is the scourge of the faux intellectual coterie of Internet evangelists that includes Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis and Kevin Kelly (among others). He’s not a hippie, so doesn’t buy into the idea that the Internet can free us, and coming from a Belarus background, he knows that technology doesn’t simply bring down despotic relationships. I can’t think of another author who has altered my world view more in the last 10 years than Morozov. This book and his previous The Net Delusion, are essential reading for anyone interested in the role of the Internet in modern politics.

Not pictured

Iain Banks, Stonemouth, (Abacus, 2013).

No-one writes about returning to claustrophobic small towns like the late, and much lamented, Banks. Almost the worst thing that can be levelled at a modern British novelist is that they are readable, Banks is immensely readable and he didn’t give a shit. I have a mate who wanted to write a PhD on his books and took Banks for a pint to talk about it, Banks told him to wise up. It says much about the man that he even went for a pint in the first place. Despite his ability to produce popular, page turning books that fly off the shelves of high street stores and HMV, he is also unparalleled in highbrow British literary fiction practitioners in being able to highlight the foibles and internal pressures of both families and small town life. Stonemouth is effectively a whodunnit told in flashback by Stewart Gilmour, a lighting designer coming back to the eponymous Scots fishing port having been run out of town by his ex-fiancée’s drug lord family. It’s just great: engaging narratively and with characters that you really believe in, it deals well in that most essential characteristic of growing up in small communities, memory and the escaping the past. Banks’ books I love include Complicity, The Crow Road and The Wasp Factory, but I think Stonemouth might be my favourite. I read this in one day and avoided all responsibilities, where possible to do so. (On loan from Jane & Rob Murdoch)

John le Carré, The Night Manager, (Hodder and Stoughton, 1993).

A post-Cold War thriller that makes sense of the rapidly changing global political economy of espionage and weapons dealing after the fall of communism, le Carré produces yet another breakneck adventure tale. Jonathan Pine, the suave and efficient eponymous hotel manager, runs into billionaire businessman and villain arms dealer Roper in Switzerland who has been partly responsible for the death of Pine’s lover. Pine, a former British soldier in Northern Ireland, becomes set on a course of capturing Roper and bringing the competing factions of British and US espionage into collision with one another. Taking in super rich Caribbean jet set hideaways, it is rich on plot and status details. As usual, it provides a brilliantly caustic commentary on the British upper classes, the corruption of the closed shop of the public school old boys club in the civil service and their often venal moral terpitude. (On loan from Craig Boylan).

Not pictured: Iain Banks

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