Sunday, January 10, 2016

2016 books, #1-5

The pie at night: in search of the North at play, by Stuart Maconie. London: Ebury, 2015.

Mr Maconie does it again, with his combination of romance and realism.  Having looked at the industrial history of the North in Pies and prejudice several years ago, he's gone back to find out how the British, and particularly the Northern English, have fun.  Different chapters cover the industrial heritage industry (with a lovely section on Beamish Museum), football, bowls, going to the dogs, museums, music, theatre, walking, eating and drinking, and the different experience of North and South.  And while Bill Bryson might write a book like this and dip into snideness, Maconie has such a huge curiosity and affection for his subject and for the people he meets that there's no danger of that here.  Highly recommended.

The double eagle, by James Twining [audiobook].  Read by Andrew Wincott. Rearsby, Leics: WF Howes, 2006.

In Paris, the body of a priest is dumped into the Seine; but during the post-mortem, a coin is found in his body - a rare double eagle, a coin thought not to exist.  Jennifer Browne of the FBI is commissioned to investigate, and this leads to the discovery of a robbery at Fort Knox, and the possible involvement of Tom Kirk, an art thief and former CIA agent.  The mystery takes Browne and Kirk all over Europe, with a brilliant reveal at the Invalides back in Paris.  Very well plotted - I guessed part of the plot but then it twisted again - and a good reading from Wincott (even if it is a bit strange hearing Adam-from-the-Archers doing a variety of US accents...).

L'étranger [usually, English: The Outsider], par Albert Camus. PDF downloaded to Kindle [originally published Paris: Gallimard, 1942].

I was uncomfortable with the potential illegality of the PDF I used for this re-read; but honestly, not uncomfortable enough to go up into my loft over Christmas to dig out my college copy, and this was one of January's book group books.  I had forgotten quite how good this is.  I re-read it in French because I knew I'd remember so many fervently-memorised quotes that it would be wrong not to; and because the language is so simple, but also so luminous, so clear-cut.  Reading it again while watching The Bridge and Sherlock, I wondered whether Meursault was another person who was entirely involved in society while absolutely puzzled by the feelings and expectations of others.  I was wary of coming back to something I'd been so blown away by as a 16-year-old, and then as a 22-year-old, but I got more out of this book again at more than twice that age.  And, of course, one of the central themes of colonisation/oppression/unrest between les arabes and the prevailing authorities is sadly as prevalent now as it was in 1942.

The Meursault investigation, by Kamel Daoud. Translated from the French by John Cullen. London: Oneworld, 2015 [originally published as Meursault, contre-enquête, Oran, Algeria: Editions Barzakh, 2013].

Our other book group book for January (both this and L'étranger are short reads).  The brother of the "Arab on the beach" speaks, and gives him a name, Musa, and a family; and tells the story both of Musa's life and of his own.  From the first sentence Mama is still alive today (contrasting with Camus's Aujourd'hui, Maman est morte) there are parallels with L'étranger throughout.  Most notably a memorable rant about the non-existence of God, which is repeated almost word for word in a totally different context.  Daoud explores the complete anonymity of Meursault's victim and the non-white population of Algeria as a whole in the period; he creates a garrulous, not entirely reliable narrator with a powerful voice of his own; and the way that Algerian society has changed in the period between its emergence as a nation and presence, with the increasing domination of religion. While acknowledging that he doesn't have the narrative gift of the original book, which he has been trying to throw off all his life (and, indeed, this really wouldn't work as a standalone novel), Daoud has created a fascinating companion piece.

Day of Atonement, by Jay Rayner. Kindle edition. Originally published in 1998.

Two Jewish teenagers in Edgware, Mal and Solly, go into business to produce Solly's "Pollomatic", an invention which cooks and strains the stock for chicken soup in a new, faster way.  When they start to expand their business, though, they need a longer spoon to sup with their main backer, a very savvy and ruthless businessman.  Although they later marry, the friendship between Mal and Solly is the bedrock of this book, and there are themes of loyalty and betrayal, family, Jewish identity (or lack of) and, of course, food.  It's an extremely funny book, but the ending did see me crying on the Tube. I enjoyed Rayner's The Oyster House siege several years ago but enjoyed this even more. Brilliant read.

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