Friday, 24 April 2020

What I'm reading: a Dog and his Ghost-writer


I have to declare an interest here. Havoc, the author of this travel memoir, stayed at my flat in Hastings in 2007, halfway through his 5,000-mile walk round the coast of Britain – raising over £50,000 for Guide Dogs and the Lifeboats.

It’s not often you read a book written by a dog. Havoc’s ‘ghost-writer’ Wendy is my second cousin. She gets the dog’s ‘voice’ exactly right. During a spell of pet-sitting: ‘I soon put the other dogs in their place and let them know that I was still top dog, whoever’s house we were in.’

Havoc’s perspective on their 11-month trek (and subsequent campervan excursions to the Scottish Isles, Ireland, France and the Spanish costas) is loaded in favour of riverside walks, beach chases, food and treats, dogs and other animals encountered. There’s quite a lot of peeing and pooing, but he does take time to notice the scenery and historical attractions. He also records the break-up of his Mum’s relationship with an abusive partner and its happier sequel with a new partner (soon husband), who drives the campervan on their later adventures. And he touchingly chronicles his own declining health on their continental journey. Expect to shed some tears.

If you loved Marley and Me and A Dog’s Purpose (and how could you fail to?), you will very much enjoy this happy/sad autobiography of an adored and adorable collie/terrier cross.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

What I'm reading: rewriting the Book of Genesis

Dan Brown: ORIGIN

The Da Vinci Code is where most of us first encountered Dan Brown, although his first Robert Langdon thriller Angels and Demons is in my opinion a better thriller and slightly more plausible (the book rather than the movie). The Lost Symbol was clunky (similar to but not as good as the Nicholas Cage movie National Treasure), and Inferno was seriously daft.

Now comes Origin, which in some ways is more daring than Da Vinci with its descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, a challenge to Christians everywhere, especially Catholics. Now Mr Brown flings mud in the eye of followers of every faith by offering, he claims, scientific proof of the origins of life in the universe. Evolution is also redefined, so Brown sets out to upset Darwin’s disciples almost as much as those (half the population of the USA, we are reminded) who insist that the Six Days of Creation in the Book of Genesis is the only true version of How It Happened.

Dan Brown
Edmond Hirsch, the techno-geek author of this new theory, is murdered to block its presentation, in Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum where Robert Langdon is among the audience. Langdon, like Indiana Jones, is soon on the run again – yes, with a beautiful distressed damsel, of course – and trying to sort out which of the suspects is the real villain. A Catholic bishop is one, the (fictionalized) Crown Prince of Spain is another. We are also introduced to a breakaway Catholic sect – the Palmarians (Google them!) – who have their own cathedral in Andalusia and their own pope (fictionalized here). The Palmarians are ultra-conservative believers and bound to be ultra-offended by the novel.  

The story reaches its climax in Barcelona with its weirdly wonderful church of the Sagrada Familia. Langdon’s ability to decipher codes and symbols is under-used in this adventure. He and his companion are helped by an AI computer voice inspired by Hal in 2001, a borrowing the author acknowledges and perhaps overdoes. As thrillers go, this one, like Inferno, is pretty daft, but – plus or minus the pseudo-science – it’s an undeniable page-turner. The goods are sometimes shoddy, but Dan Brown always delivers.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

What I'm reading: Love in the shadow of the gas chambers


I had reservations about this. I still do. A love story in a Nazi death camp? I still question the ethical stand of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which made the fate of one German officer’s son an ironical counter-point to the systematic slaughter of six million victims of Adolf Hitler's extermination programme.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who chanced into the job of tattooing the new arrivals, Jewish and Romany, at the twin Polish concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. He falls in love with Gita, also from Slovakia, who escapes the gas chamber by getting clerical work documenting the deportees (the Nazi obsession with documentation makes the Holocaust even more chilling). Their love affair consists of snatched moments together and is overshadowed by the constant threat of illness or execution. The most beautiful girl in the camp becomes the plaything of the commandant. Some of the women processing new arrivals steal cash and jewellery which Lale smuggles to the local villages through bribed guards to be exchanged for extra food. 

'Work will set you free.' The great Nazi lie.
This is a harsh story, but it could have been harsher. Heather Morris gives us one glimpse of the gas chamber in operation and a few glimpses of the rain of ash from the crematorium chimneys, but she spares readers the most harrowing images we have seen in other accounts and TV documentaries. Josef Mengele appears (‘this man whose soul is colder than his scalpel,’ she calls him), but she gives barely a hint of his obscene medical experiments on prisoners. Yes, it’s all been detailed before, but I think we do the six million dead an injustice if we gloss over the full horrors of the Final Solution.

Morris writes in the present tense, as does Hilary Mantel. Past history in the present tense grates with me (the only time I enjoyed it was in John Updike’s Rabbit quartet, four of the greatest novels of my lifetime). But, for all my reservations, I can see why The Tattooist of Auschwitz has been so widely acclaimed. It has a surprise ending. And there is an irresistible charm to the notion that Love can blossom, can flourish, even on what in another memorable phrase the author calls ‘the threshold of Hell.’