Sunday, 27 January 2008

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Fourth Estate

"THE book has survived the same human disaster over and over again,” says a character in People of the Book. “You've got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Conviencia, and everything's humming along, creative, prosperous.

“Then, somehow, this fear, this hate, this need to demonise 'the other' – it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extreme Serb nationalists...”

This is the basis for People of the Book – a brilliant set of historical stories linked together by the modern narrator's own story.

The common thread is the Sarajevo Haggadah, a mediaeval prayer book that the narrator, Hanna, is investigating. Hanna has her own problems – daughter of a brilliant but cold surgeon, she's now in love, and also finding her way into her mother's heart.

But not all stories have happy endings.

Hanna's story acts as a web holding in the stories of the Sarajevo Haggadah's travels through the Inquisition, 17th-century Venice, syphilis-ridden Mitteleurope, the Partisan guerrilla war against the Nazis, and the 1990s siege of Sarajevo.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is a real book, and was really saved by a Muslim during the Serbian attacks on the city, by the way.

“Our leader had said 'It takes two sides to fight a war, and we will not fight'. Not here, not in our precious Sarajevo, our idealistic Olympic city,” says the man Hanna is falling in love with, just after they've met, and just before she starts licking the sauce off his fingers in a restaurant...

If this isn't a bestseller, I'll eat my hat. Such stories, such characters, really a fabulous pageturner.

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

WHAT is it with mad scientists and poisoned apples?

Robert Oppenheimer, geeky progenitor of the atomic bomb, allegedly tried to poison Patrick Blackett, a Nobel physicist, with a poisoned apple.

Kurt Godel, famous for his 'incompleteness theory', incompleted himself to death, so paranoid of poisoned apples that he gradually starved.

And Alan Turing, true father of the computer, died by his own hand, eating an apple he'd treated with cyanide, in his misery after being subject to 'chemical castration', the sentence of an English court for the crime of having a love affair with a man.

Physicist Janna Levin teaches at Columbia University. She's worked at the Centre for Particle Astrophysics at Berkeley, and in Cambridge, and as scientist-in-residence at the Ruskin School in Oxford.

Her book comes garlanded with awards and praise, yet I found it rather like its subjects - Turing and Godel, with a sideswipe at Wittgenstein - eccentric, brilliant but cold.

The writing is truly lovely, and parts are truly funny. (The description of Turing, in the middle of breaking the Nazis' Enigma Code, hauling along a pram with €12,000 worth of silver in today's money to bury it in a wood had me laughing painfully.)

If you love science, you'll adore this book. Give it to all your left-brained friends.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

John Murray

BOOKER favourite Mister Pip fell at the last post, to be (ahem) pipped by Anne Enright's The Gathering. But it's made record sales all over the Southern Hemisphere.

It's a book I loved - until the end, when Jones dropped the ball.

Mister Pip is set on Bougainville island, a tropical paradise set in a dicey position between Australia, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

In the 1990s, angered by a mining company's exploitation of its huge copper sources while they got a pittance for the millions the company made, islanders revved up a Rising, and Papua New Guinea responded by sending in mercenaries - known to the very black-skinned Bougainvilleans as 'redskins' for their reddish-brown complexions.

This is the background of Lloyd Jones's story. It's narrated by Matilda, who's 13 when it starts.

The islanders' laughing-stock is Popeye, the last white left among them after sanctions are imposed. Popeye wanders around wearing a clown's red nose and towing his island-born wife on a trolley.

But when the rebellion begins and the men disappear to join the 'Rambos' - the guerrilla army of resistance - Popeye is asked to fill in as the teacher in the local school.

Transmuted into 'Mr Watts', he reads to the children from Dickens' Great Expectations, and they become increasingly haunted by the story.

There are threatening, then violent, and finally murderous visits by the Redskins and the Rambos.

It's gripping and enchanting, until it culminates in three strangely affect-less murders, upon which Matilda migrates to her father in Australia, grows up, becomes a Dickens-focused academic, and so on.

At this stage I felt a muttering begin in my rebellious heart. Why was a white man the centre of the story about these black islanders? Why were they portrayed as so amusingly naïve and simple? Suddenly I didn't like Mister Pip any more.

But for the first five-sixths, this is an absolutely brilliant story. Just forget to read the end.

Small Wars Permitting by Christina Lamb


FOREIGN correspondent Christina Lamb starts her book with an account of Benazir Bhutto's wedding 20 years ago, and ends it - two months before the assassination - with last October's suicide bombing of Bhutto's campaign bus.

In between are crazy moments with Afghani Mujahadeen, mercenaries searching for Osama Bin Laden or street children in Rio de Janeiro, or scarily under arrest in Pakistan - and all the time Lamb is wondering why she isn't at home with her little boy.

Foreign correspondents are legendarily male, twitchy, adrenaline-addicted and liable to early death. Lamb doesn't change the stereotype, except, perhaps, in getting her nails professionally manicured before going into a conflict zone.

One of the more uninflected pieces is about a landmine-busting trip to Angola with Princess Diana - whose charisma Lamb compares to Nelson Mandela's. It's one of the few articles in her book where someone's doing something decent, rather than trying to maim or kill other people.

This isn't literature - it's the daily churn of a working journalist - but if you want an outline guide to this decade's wars, you could do worse than read Small Wars Permitting.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Duma Key by Stephen King

Hodder & Stoughton

"LOOK for the picture inside the picture," Stephen King's hero advises would-be artists in Duma Key.

Edgar Freemantle, a millionaire developer, is on site when a crane backs into his car without warning, and takes out his right arm and part of his skull.

As he recovers, he discovers that a genius for art has been hiding out in him, and has been brought to the surface by the 'contracoup' damage to his brain.

Edgar finds himself on lonely Duma Key in Florida, renting an artists' house where Dali and Calder worked in their glory days.

But (this being Stephen King), there's a duppy lurking in the lagoon, and Edgar is drawing it back into reality.

I really like Stephen King's books. I like his characters, who are decent, kind, courteous people. I love the throbbing, electric tension, and even the sheer terror.

In the last couple of books, though, the storyline that once stretched taught from white-knuckle opening to bug-eye ending has gone slack.

The master has written 12 books since 1999, when a van driver ploughed into him as he walked on a country road, and injured him seriously enough that King's wife bought the guilty van, so it couldn't go on eBay as 'the van that killed King'.

But lately he hasn't been writing with the same power, lucidity or grace.

Duma Key has sequences where someone does something, followed by later sequences where the character describes the same action to others. It has cuddly love-ins where the protagonist's genius is lauded.

Every good writer is entitled to the occasional stinker, and heaven knows, King has written enough top-rate stories to have earned the right to a dud or two.

But I worry. I hope the next book has him back on form.

Death at Dawn by Caro Peacock


LIBERTY Lane is the feisty early-Victorian heroine of this strange thriller.

It's written by Gillian Linscott, who won a couple of awards for her historical whodunits about suffragist Nell Bray, but has now changed her name in the hope of better sales.

Liberty's father has, it appears, been killed in a duel. But Liberty believes no such thing, and, in governess mufti, sets herself up as a spy in the household of some kingmakers who want to replace the young Queen Victoria with a man of their own.

The story is fairly confused, romping around between the rights of working men and the glamorous adventures of villains who carry women in false compartments under their carriage.

Liberty is hunted by these buttoned baddies - you're always hoping for a flight across the downs on her trusty steed, but it doesn't properly materialise.

With all those stays and bodices, a little ripping might have been in order too, but it's all quite proper and Victorian.

This seems to be the first of a series. I won't be rushing out to grab the next, but I may be wrong; the series may pick up pace as it goes on.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Earls of Paradise by Adam Nicolson


WHAT a disappointment Earls of Paradise is. Based on the Herberts, earls of Pembroke, the book uses them as a spyglass into their world and time.

Its writer's aim is to take the Herberts - in-laws of Henry VIII (not that that's a rare honour) and fosterers of Shakespeare, Raleigh, Johnson, Donne, Herbert and van Dyck - and see how their Arcadian vision changed England.

William Herbert founded the family's wealth - and Nicolson fails to explain how.

One minute Herbert is on the run after murder, the next, he's best pal of Henry VIII, who hands him over the dissolved abbey and lands of Wilton in Shropshire, making his family the richest in England.

Presumably he gave Henry a dig-out - but who he killed or what favour he did isn't explored.

Nicolson also fails to probe the underside of England's Protestant Renaissance in depth, pairing the words 'clarity' and 'Protestant' time after time, while never mentioning the murderous work of these Bible-thumping thugs in Ireland.

He's apt to make leaps, conjecturing that one of the various Will Herberts might perhaps be the Mr WH of Shakespeare's sonnets - then confidently terming him Shakespeare's lover.

Where he's brilliant is in the revelation of local and national documents, quoting the living language of other centuries.

You'd have to love a writer who quotes descriptions like "a knave and gorbelly [fat] knave; that droncknen Gervys, that lubber Anthony Payne & slovyn William Yong, and that dobyll knave William Chester".

xxx and a half stars