Birdcage Walk

by Helen Dunmore

This is the fourth book I have read by Dunmore.  I picked it up at my aunt’s home when I visited last week.  Knowing that her house is full of books (and that she seems to have stopped reading), I decided not to bring a book with me.  I had heard varying views on this book, but after being very impressed with Exposure, I thought I would give it a try.

I wasn’t as impressed with this book as with Exposure.  Dunmore seems to focus heavily on her characters, giving us a good view of who they are, but at the expense of the plot – or so it seems to me.  The story is that of Lizzie Tredevant, the daughter of Radical parents who marries a Bristol property developer.  The backdrop to the story is the French Revolution – welcomed initially by the likes of Lizzie’s mother and her friends, but which causes a downturn in trade that ruins her husband.  The key events of the Revolution are communicated effectively; and the author manages effectively to demonstrate how ordinary lives might be played out in troubled times.  This was her intention, as she states clearly in the Afterword.

Lizzie is a resourceful young woman, slightly in awe of her husband whilst enjoying a vigorous sex life with him.  She remains close to her family and, after her mother dies in childbirth, effectively adopts her baby half-brother.  The Clifton landscape of the late eighteenth century is skilfully imagined, and I am sure that if I knew Bristol better, I would be able to place much of the action around the city.

John ‘Diner’ Tredevant, Lizzie’s husband, has a dark secret which is hinted at near the start of the novel, but only fully revealed (though the reader might have guessed it) very near the end.  Somehow this seems to me to be superfluous and not a really gripping plot.  The book seems to be mainly about setting, historical context and character.  The story doesn’t really get going, for me.

Birdcage Walk was Dunmore’s last published novel.  She died just over a year ago, aged 64.  RIP.

I think I will give Dunmore’s novels a rest.  I may try reading some of her poems and short stories instead.


Camino Island

by John Grisham

A great holiday read.  It has everything – classy writing, fast pace, a thriller story, characters that may be stereotypes but nevertheless endear themselves to the reader, and a literary context that is a departure from Grisham’s more usual legal world.

A gang of art thieves stages a diversionary ‘terrorist attack’ at Princeton University and successfully makes off with an invaluable collection of the original manuscripts of F Scott Fitzgerald’s five novels.  As the FBI tries to track these down, the action focusses on a holiday town in Florida where a bookseller is suspected of having purchased the papers.

The bookseller appears at the start of the story as a young man whose direction in life is not yet set, when he inherits some money from his father along with some rare books, and decides to buy a bookstore in a Florida holiday town.  He makes a success of his business and develops relationships with the locals.

A young writer who chooses to spend her summer at her late grandmother’s cabin is recruited by the FBI to assist in their investigation.

The plot is compelling and fast-moving.  The characters leap from the page and draw the reader in.  I waited a couple of years to read this – and picked it up at exactly the right moment.  I’ve passed the book on to my daughter-in-law Debbie.  I hope she enjoys the ride as much as I did!

The Plot against America

by Philip Roth

I’m on a Roth roll, since his death two months ago.  This seemed to be the logical next read (I also bought The Human Stain which I can’t wait to get my teeth into – but I will defer this pleasure a little while, as I don’t like to read books by the same author sequentially).

This book seems to be very pertinent at the current point in US political history, even though it was written in 2004.  I can understand why several critics have urged readers to read (or re-read) it in the light of the Trump administration.

The main character is Philip Roth, aged seven at the start of the story and nine by its end.  Most of the story is of everyday family life in the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of Weequahic, Newark – where Roth himself grew up.  The background to the characters’ lives is the fictional Lindbergh administration – the aviator Charles Lindbergh having been elected as president in 1940 instead of F D Roosevelt who was actually elected for an unprecedented third term.  Lindbergh’s main policy is to keep the US out of the Second World War.  His unashamedly anti-Semitic stance evokes a nervousness in the Jewish community which is the backdrop to most of the action.  Despite this, Lindbergh’s actions against the Jews are far less draconian than those perpetrated by the Nazis Germany and all the other European countries they conquered.  For much of the story, the reader is beginning to think – as no doubt we are supposed to – “well, it’s not life as normal, but it could be worse”.  Some of the Roth family’s friends and neighbours decide to emigrate to Canada, but Philip’s father is determined to stay, putting his confidence in a system of las and order that has so far never failed him, even though he is an outspoken and determined opponent of the regime.

It is only in the last few chapters that we learn what the “plot against America” really is, and it is far more sinister than the election of a popular anti-Semite as president.  As details of the extent of Russian backing for Trump’s presidential campaign emerge daily on our news broadcasts (as well as that country’s desire for the break-up of the European Union reflected in its support for the ‘Leave’ campaign in the UK in 2016), the idea of a German plot to put Lindbergh in place as a populist president and enact Nazi policies through him and his senior team suddenly does not seem so far-fetched.

Roth tells a great story, and was at the height of his powers when he wrote this novel.  His understanding of the details and tensions of family life; his narrator’s utterly believable viewpoint and actions as a young child; and his understanding of the ways in which individuals and communities respond in times of crisis – all are minutely observed and depicted.  This would be a satisfying read without the political backdrop; with it, it is compelling as much as it is chilling to read.

[I should add that the “plot against America” can equally be taken to refer to the alleged plotting of ‘international Jewry’ which is used to bolster any action or argument against the Jews, justifying every unjust action against them – not just in this story, but also at oh so many points in the history of the world.]

The Spring of Kasper Meier

by Ben Fergusson

Oh dear.  Yet another book that I really didn’t enjoy.

It was a book group selection and I found it available to download cheaply (which can be suspicious).  I downloaded and read it fairly quickly, with only about a week in hand before the book group meeting – which in the end I missed, though I did provide feedback.

The book is set in Berlin at a specific point in time: the spring of 1946.  The author has evidently gone to some lengths to research the period, and the atmosphere and setting are very evocative and, one must assume, at least to some extent realistic.  Berlin is in ruins; the four occupying powers have numbers of soldiers in the city, and the remaining Germans are in the main women, old people and those injured or incapacitated in some way.  Our ‘hero’, Kasper Meier (the non-German spelling of Kaspar grates already) is a trader on the black market who ran a bar before the Nazi era.  As a gay man, he has something to hide, and as the sole carer of his elderly and inform father, he has something (someone) to protect.  He is a prime candidate for blackmail, and when a young woman approaches him with a request to find a specific English pilot stationed in Berlin, he sets out to do so – but also to find out something more about Eva’s story, which he suspects from the first.

Interspersed with Kasper’s story and his growing relationship with Eva are apparently unconnected incidents involving members of the various occupying forces who appear to be the victims of targeted shootings.  We gradually learn how Kasper’s role fits with these shootings, and in a somewhat surprising ending, we learn that the mysterious Frau Beckmann who has masterminded these shootings is not the person she appears to be, and is running the whole criminal enterprise for quite another reason than the reader (and Kasper) at first suspected.

The dénouement is quite clever, though barely believable.  It does not compensate for the very thin plot that gets us there.  This novel appears to be all about the setting, with the story as an afterthought.  Even the characters are not very interesting or convincing.  Kasper is a gay man with only one eye, who, we learn, had a happy relationship in the past which he hasn’t yet got over.  His partner was arrested and, we may assume, transported and/or executed.  We don’t really find out what makes Kasper tick.  Eva’s character is even less satisfying: she is very young and has had some horrific experiences which have left her ready to take life – or so the reader is led to believe.

Aside from the spelling of Kasper’s name, there were a few other features that seemed to me unrealistic, as well as some basic grammatical mistakes; these never fail to make me wince.  Most of Kasper’s trade is done by means of barter, which seems realistic.  But when he offers money, would he really have used German currency (the non-specific “Mark”)?  The action takes place two years before German currency reform. Surely a foreign soldier would not have accepted anything other than hard currency for his goods.

Sorry – this one got 5/10 from me, and I wonder if I was being a little over-generous.  It’s back to Philip Roth and Marcel Proust for me now.  Plenty more good stuff to read!


The Tobacconist

by Robert Seethaler

A short book, easy to read.  Not sure why or where I bought it, whether it was full price or not (it looks new) but I started reading this somewhat angry at myself for not getting hold of a copy in the original German.  I became even more annoyed as I read, since the translation is in places quite sloppy.  Though I don’t have the original in front of me, I feel I could have done a better job!

That said, the book grabbed my attention while I was reading it.  Like A Gentleman in Moscow, the basic story is of a decent person trying to lead a good life in troubled times.  In this case, the setting is Vienna in 1937-8 and the person is a young man freshly arrived in the city from his mother’s home in the Salzkammergut.  He is naïve and lonely, but the tobacconist for whom he works is an upright person, and Franz learns the job and begins to explore the city. He strikes up an unusual friendship with a customer, one Professor Sigmund Freud.

The book is about becoming an adult, learning about the world – in this case, sex and human nature, but also the natural world and the minutiae of the city environment – and doing the right thing.  Franz sees the behaviour of Nazis and sympathisers around him, but he doesn’t just look on.  In his own little ways, he acts.  And in his conversations with Freud, he shares his own insights with ‘the professor’ which seem to be entirely home-grown and natural.

I’m afraid that this story is a fantasy.  Franz is the innocent, pure person we would all wish to be, who behaves the right way even though he doesn’t particularly think about what the right thing is.  Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable read and a book that lingers, and makes  you think.

Earthly Remains

by Donna Leon

I have only read one of Leon’s novels prior to this one, but she is a firm favourite with my aunt Wendy, who left this book at our home after her Christmas visit.  It seemed like a good, undemanding read for our holiday; and indeed, having finished it halfway through our five days away, I think it was an excellent choice.

Commissario Brunetti fakes a heart attack while interviewing a suspect, in order to save the career of his junior colleague who, he is sure, is about to assault the man.  He is urged to take some time off, and arranges to spend two weeks at the villa of a distant relation of his wife Paola, on the island of Sant’Erasmo.  So begins a friendship between Brunetti and the caretaker of the villa, a retired factory worker by the name of Davide Casati.  Casati is a skilled boatman who, it transpires, knew Brunetti’s father, who was also a good rower.  Brunetti finds his relaxation in accompanying Casati each day as he rows around the lagoon checking up on his beehives.

When Casati goes missing on the night of a thunderstorm, Brunetti joins the search, and his connection with the family makes him want to follow up on Casati’s story and try to find out what really happened to him.  What did happen is only revealed, darkly, at the very end of the book – though there are more than enough hints along the way.

As a thriller, this was not as fact-paced or breath-holding as many.  But it is a well-told story with a satisfactory, if not satisfying, conclusion.

A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles

It is unusual for me to give up on a book, but I really didn’t want to waste my time finishing this one.  Life is short, and there are plenty more things I want to read.

The book was a recommendation from someone in my book group (though, thankfully, not one that we are reading together).  The idea is original: a ‘gentleman’, used to a comfortable life, finds himself under house arrest in a Moscow hotel after the Bolshevik revolution.  The action takes place in 1922, when Count Rostov is sentenced to his new lifestyle.  His daily life in the hotel is described in minute detail, and the reader learns that to be a gentleman is an attitude to life, and not dictated by means or circumstances.  This, I think, is the point that the author wishes to make.  Rostov befriends a little girl, Nina, who is staying (or also living?) in the hotel, and together they explore the building.

THat’s as far as I got.  I daresay that there is more to the story, but 100 pages in it seemed to be no more than a minute description of the Count’s daily life.  And I have to admit that the description is well executed, and the reader can picture the hotel, the dining room, and the Count’s room quite clearly.

I think I was set against this book from the first by some clumsy phrases and inaccuracies.  Already on the first page, we learn that blackberries are growing – in June??  Plums and plum tart also feature.  I am sure that in Moscow, plums are no more available in June than they are in other parts of northern Europe. Table lamps are fashioned from “ebony elephants”. And in the same short paragraph, “fashioned” is used twice.  I gave up recording these pretty quickly.  Sorry, perhaps I am a little anal, but these things just grate with me and spoil my enjoyment of the story.  I really feel that an editor’s job is to iron these things out.  Maybe this is an unrealistic expectation, or maybe the author insisted on keeping his text word for word as he had written it.

In any case, it was the escapist nature of this book and not its language that most jarred with me.  On another occasion, I might have enjoyed it; but right now it is not the book for me.