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Category Archive for 'England'

If you think that the machinations, the rumor-mongering, and the outright lies we have seen in the latest election cycle in the United States is as bad as it gets, take a look at journalist John Preston’s latest book of non-fiction about a scandal in England in the 1960s and 1970s. Subtitled “Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament,” Preston’s thoroughly researched and dramatically presented study of MP Jeremy Thorpe and his small coterie of friends and family, both in and out of government, gives new meaning to the idea of political egotism, at the same time that it illustrates a British sense of reserve and a respect for privacy that has now vanished from the press and our own twenty-first century lives. At a time in which there was no internet, no reality TV, and no desire to destroy lives in order to sell newspapers with stories based solely on rumor, Jeremy Thorpe’s crimes would not come to a head and result in a trial until seventeen years had elapsed from his first contact with Norman Scott. Scott claims to have been a victim of rape by Thorpe when he was twenty, followed by several years of homosexual contact, both of which were against the law in the UK in 1960 when the relationship began. NIneteen years would pass before Scott would be vindicated. During that time Jeremy Thorpe came close to being named Prime Minister.

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I have to admit that when I read the premise of this novel, I cringed, thinking that it sounded too “cute”- even effete – to be taken seriously; author Ian McEwan relates this entire novel from the point of view of an unborn baby, nine months in the womb. Describing his “living room” with its cramped quarters within his mother Trudy’s belly, the unborn child points out that he has a surprising amount of control over his life, that he can overhear every conversation involving his mother, that he can participate in every physical act involving her, and that he likes his father, John, a poet, even though his mother has left him for a new lover, his father’s younger brother Claude. In the first pages of the novel, the baby tells us that his mother and Claude are planning a “dreadful event,” but the reader is not told the details of what that event is until after the author has described their characters and laid the groundwork for the action, something to do with “poison.” From this scenario within the first forty pages of the book, all the complications evolve for the remainder of the novel. McEwan’s descriptions, often hilarious, keep the reader completely involved, despite the obvious ironies and absurdities, as the baby-narrator develops a plan for revenge on his uncle and his mother – not for their plans to poison his father but for their betrayal in wanting the baby “placed” after its birth. A light-handed parody of Hamlet which stands on its own as a modern comedy with a tour de force ending.

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Author C. B. George, a mysterious author who provides no biographical information and no photograph, tells a story of contemporary Zimbabwe, still being ruled after almost thirty-six years by dictator Robert Mugabe, now aged ninety-two. President for over thirty years, he has been a one-party ruler, famed for his appropriation of white-owned lands and their redistribution to black farmers and political allies, the disappearance and death of political enemies, the use of terror, and gross human rights abuses, all to enforce his will and to ensure the retention of his office and his wealth. Author C. B. George, who lives in the UK, according to the book jacket, presents the narratives of three couples who represent different aspects of contemporary life in Zimbabwe, primarily in the capital of Harare. The author’s sense of drama and his ability to pace the narrative to keep the reader continuously involved in the lives of his characters, while simultaneously focusing on the attempts of these people and their families to lead “normal” lives, suggests that he may have a background in television or film. An unusual vision of Zimbabwe, one of the most corrupt nations in the world.

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I grew up with stories of the Titanic, as did my sisters, and they have been part of my family’s life since the beginning. My mother was born the night the Titanic hit the iceberg – on April 14, 1912 – a fact imprinted on us from birth. Shortly after midnight that night, the Titanic sank with a loss of over fifteen hundred passengers. Those who are students of the Titanic will already know something that hobbyists and people like my sisters and me might never have learned without a book like this one, something that is, in many ways, even more dramatic than the sinking of the Titanic itself: The Titanic was not alone at sea as it was sinking. There was another ship not ten miles away – the S.S. Californian – a ship which might have saved hundreds of passengers if it had gone to the rescue. The Californian’s crew saw the distress signals and the changes in the appearance of the Titanic’s on-deck lights, and though they informed the captain of what they saw, he never gave the order to go to the Titanic’s aid and never even came up to the bridge. This recently released “novel,” based on facts, is primarily the story of this ship, the Californian, its captain and crew, and why it never became the savior of some of the fifteen hundred who died.

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Marian Evans, the author known as George Eliot, is sixty years old as this biographical novel opens in June, 1880, and she is on the train to Venice for her honeymoon with new husband, John Walter Cross, a handsome young forty-year-old. Hiding her face behind a white lace mantilla so that she will not be pestered by fans of her books begging for autographs, she believes that the mantilla, “though not completely hiding her face…distracted from it, from her large nose and broad jaw, and she welcomed this because she believed that she was homely.” She had lived happily with philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes from 1854 until his death in 1878, and though she called herself Mrs. Lewes, they had never married. Lewes, already married, had an “open marriage” in which his wife ultimately had four children by another man, all of whom Lewes supported, and he was legally unable to get a divorce. As the train bearing the newlyweds heads toward Venice and a new life, Evans has reason to be alarmed by her new husband’s behavior – “It was as if he were drifting away from her, going farther and farther into his own world, and she didn’t know why.” He’d been frantically making plans for the wedding and their house in London; he hadn’t been sleeping; and he’d hardly been eating. Though he’d been as attentive to her needs as always, he was now hyperactive, operating at a level of speed and intensity she had never seen before, constantly moving and unable to relax. Author Smith’s research makes much of this novel come alive, providing both realism and excitement to this biography as she recreates the life of this intelligent scholar/author and how she became a success as a novelist.

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