Archive for Graham Greene

a journal of the plague year [december reviews]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2020 by xi'an

Read only a part of a Brandon Sanderson’s novel, Steelheart, that I found incredibly terrible (given the achievements of the writer). With a few cardboard characters, incl. the (compulsory) nerdy teenager with unique skills and a David Copperfield childhood (also named David) and cartoonesque villains with superpowers. Until I realised, while looking at its Wikipedia page, that this was intended as a (very?) young adult novel… And did not try to finish the book (first of a trilogy) before leaving it in the exchange section in front of our University library.

Cooked (and enjoyed) a fennel and (local) honey tarte tatin and a broccoli polenta with Vacherin (cheese). Made several rye breads as I find them easier to knead and bake than other flours, once I found that I could get fresh yeast by the gram from my favourite bakery.  Fell into a routine of cooking winter vegetables, like pumpkins, butternuts, and cabbages, Jerusalem artichokes (a pain to peel!) and (expensive) tuberous chervil. Plus the available mushrooms.

Watched a few episodes of the Korean drama Two Cops (투깝스), more for the scenes showing bits and pieces of Seoul, than for a very thin and predictive plot. Following a radio broadcast mentioning Carol Reed’s The Third Man as one of the best movies ever—although I had read Greene’s novel a long while ago—, I tried to find it online but ended up instead watching for the first time Fritz Lang’s Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse,  which is his third Mabuse film and the last film he shot (in 1960). While the harsh lights and grainy surveillance TV screens, along with absolutely everyone smoking, put some perspective to the story, connecting post-war West Germany with its immediate past, I did not enjoy much the acting, which sounded very artificial, and the plot was quasi-nonexistent.

Read Olin Steinhauer’s The Bridge of Sighs, which was his first novel, as I had greatly enjoyed The Tourist. It takes place in an unnamed Eastern European country that could be Moldova (since Hungary and Czechoslovakia are described as West, while Romania is mentioned as another country, but the city could well be Szeged, both for having its own Bridge of Sighs and for being crossed by the Tisa), right after the War, as a Stalinist regime is under construction and a rookie cop, grand-son of a communist ex-hero, tries to navigate the new regime. I really liked the book: it is very well-written, meaning an attention to style and perspective that stays away from the usual endless dialogues in crime novelsand the characters have depth and originality, I enjoyed also the somewhat Mediterranean cum Balkanic feel of this post-war Soviet satellite. And will presumably seek the following volumes from UK resellers…

the 101 favourite novels of Le Monde readers

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2020 by xi'an

Le Monde called its readers to vote for their five favourite novels, with no major surprise in the results, except maybe Harry Potter coming up top. Before Voyage au bout de la nuit and (the predictable) A la recherche du temps perdu. And a complete unknown, Damasio’s La Horde du Contrevent, as 12th and first science fiction book. Above both the Foundation novels (16th). And Dune (32nd). And Hyperion Cantos (52). But no Jules Verne! In a sense, it reflects upon the French high school curriculum on literature that almost uniquely focus on French 19th and 20th books. (Missing also Abe, Conrad, Chandler, Dickens, Ishiguro, Joyce, Kawabata, Madame de Lafayette, Levi, Morante, Naipaul, Rabelais, Rushdie, Singer, and so many others…) Interestingly (or not), Sartre did not make it to the list, despite his literature 1953 Nobel Prize, maybe because so few read the (appalling) books of his chemins de la liberté trilogy.

I did send my vote in due time but cannot remember for certain all the five titles I chose except for Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (2nd), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (74th) and maybe Fedor Dostoievski’s Brothers Karamazov (24th). Maybe not as I may have included Barbey d’Aurevilly’s L’ensorcelée, Iain Pears’ An instance at the fingerpost, and Graham Greene’s The End of the affair, neither of which made it in the list. Here are some books from the list that would have made it to my own 101 list, although not necessarily as my first choice of titles for authors like Hugo (1793!) or Malraux (l’Espoir). (Warning: Amazon Associate links).

Berlin [and Vienna] noir [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2017 by xi'an

While in Cambridge last month, I picked a few books from a local bookstore as fodder for my incoming vacations. Including this omnibus volume made of the first three books by Philip Kerr featuring Bernie Gunther, a private and Reich detective in Nazi Germany, namely, March Violets (1989), The Pale Criminal (1990), and A German Requiem (1991). (Book that I actually read before the vacations!) The stories take place before the war, in 1938, and right after, in 1946, in Berlin and Vienna. The books centre on a German version of Philip Marlowe, wise cracks included, with various degrees of success. (There actually is a silly comparison with Chandler on the back of the book! And I found somewhere else a similarly inappropriate comparison with Graham Greene‘s The Third Man…) Although I read the whole three books in a single week, which clearly shows some undeniable addictive quality in the plots, I find those plots somewhat shallow and contrived, especially the second one revolving around a serial killer of young girls that aims at blaming Jews for those crimes and at justifying further Nazi persecutions. Or the time spent in Dachau by Bernie Gunther as undercover agent for Heydrich. If anything, the third volume taking place in post-war Berlin and Wien is much better at recreating the murky atmosphere of those cities under Allied occupations. But overall there is much too much info-dump passages in those novels to make them a good read. The author has clearly done his documentation job correctly, from the early homosexual persecutions to Kristallnacht, to the fights for control between the occupying forces, but the information about the historical context is not always delivered in the most fluent way. And having the main character working under Heydrich, then joining the SS, does make relating to him rather unlikely, to say the least. It is hence unclear to me why those books are so popular, apart from the easy marketing line that stories involving Nazis are more likely to sell… Nothing to be compared with the fantastic Alone in Berlin, depicting the somewhat senseless resistance of a Berliner during the Nazi years, dropping hand-written messages against the regime under strangers’ doors.

Rogue Male [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , on October 4, 2014 by xi'an

When I was about to leave a library in Birmingham, I spotted a “buy one get one half-price” book on a pile next to the cashier. Despite a rather weird title, Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male looked classic enough to rank with Graham Green’s Confidential Agent or Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands or yet John Buchan’s 39 Steps… Not mentioning the early Eric Ambler novels. I mean, a classic British thriller with political ramifications and a central character exposed with shortcomings and doubts.  After reading the book last week, I am glad I impulsively bought it. Rogue Male is not a Greene’s novel and this for several reason: (a) it is much more nationalistic, to the point of refusing to contact English authorities for fear of exposing some official backup of the attempted assassination, while Greene seemed to lean more to the Left, (b) it is both less and more psychological, in that it (i) superbly describes the process of getting rogue, i.e. of being hunted and of cutting or trying to cut [some] human feelings to rely on animal instincts for survival but (ii) leaves the overall motivation for Hitler’s attempted assassination and for the hunt by Nazi secret agents mostly unspecified  (c) it involves a very limited number of characters, all of them men, (d) it leaves so much of the action at the periphery that this appears as a weakness of the book… Still, there are some features also found in Greene’s Confidential Agent like the character failing in his attempt and being nearly captured or killed in the ensuing hunt, or the inner doubts about the (un)ethical nature of the fight… (Actually, both Greene and Household worked for the British secret services.) The overall story behind Rogue Male is a wee bit shallow and often too allusive to make sense but the underground part with the final psychological battle is superb. Truly a classic!

Saigon snapshots

Posted in Books, pictures, Running, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2013 by xi'an

DSC_4994I did not have too much time to explore Saigon and even less Vietnam in the 62 hours I spent there, especially with the course and the conference, but I very much enjoyed the feeling. From riding on the back of  a motorbike in the traffic (thanks to a guest student!) to having pho in a simple restaurant by the side of the street, from watching improbable loads going by on the same motorbikes to wandering in the shops around, to talking with students around the course, my snapshots all came back in the best possible light and I found my stress about food safety, street security, pollution, &tc., very quickly fading away and I wish my suitcase would have arrived in time so that I could have gone jogging in the vicinity of my hotel (rather than using the treadmill in the hotel). DSC_4968I have obviously seen nothing of the countryside and wish I can go back there in the future.

This most kind student also took me to the War Remnants Museum, which is a highly sobering place about the destruction and long-term health consequences of the Vietnam War, in particular the generations of victims of the Agent Orange sprays… Even when accounting for the (mild) propaganda bias. Actually, a few days prior to flying to Vietnam, I had read Bao Ninh’ Sorrow of War, a moving and very grim account of the war and of the after-war from a disillusioned soldier.  (The book was banned in Vietnam for a while. And thus I was unsure I could travel with it…) Continue reading

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