Books September 2006
Sebastian Faulks: Human Traces (E)
An enticing blurb, many positive reviews, comparisons with Tolstoy… this clearly must be a good book. Nope, it isn't. It's the badly written, overly drawn-out history of Jacques and Thomas who meet as young boys in the Deauville of the 1860s and develop a life-long friendship. Their shared interest in the human brain and mind leads them to study medicine and specialise as doctors in the still young field of psychiatry. They establish a sanatorium-cum-clinic in the Alps, develop all sorts of psychiatric theories (Jacques is a fore-runner of Freud, while Thomas is a more pragmatic type and sticks with his Darwin). Well, they find partners and marry — Jacques Thomas' sister and Thomas an ex-patient: how very imaginative; there are of course children and they do have a few bad quarrels. All rather predictable and boring as an income tax form, especially since Faulks needs over 600 pages to tell the tale. Somehow the main characters (with the possible exception of the later Thomas and his wife) never really come to life. The science is flat and presented in a casual, off-handed way that sometimes made me cringe. Some scenes are sparkling (Thomas in Africa, for instance) but on the whole the book was a slog… one of the few cases where I almost stopped half-way through. (Thank goodness, the second half was slightly better.)
- Tolstoy must be rotating in his grave. Give this a miss; read something from McEwan instead.
Richard Preston: Brown's Britain (E)
Just in time for the Labour conference in Manchester:-) The title is slightly misleading, though: the main theme is not, as I rashly assumed, how Britain might look under a PM Brown. The book rather deals with the way Blair (and Brown) set up the New Labour power machine, how Blair (and Brown) won the 1997 election, how Blair (and Brown) (mis-)used their positions as PM and Chancellor respectively afterwards — and how the two of them finally fell out. There are many fascinating insights (into the way Britain, Blair, Brown, the Treasury, No 10 etc. etc. works) and vignettes; the book is much more hands-on and topical (and cynical) than the Simpson text. Preston may be slightly biased towards the Brown side of the story, but not in a way that I found distracting (and let's face it: Blair has the advantage of commanding a massive PR machinery). As far as the facts are concerned Preston tried very hard to be precise and impartial. Two points I would criticise: a bit more about Brown, the man, (not easy, I know) and the way Britain might feel under him (all conjecture, I know) would have been good, especially given the catchy title. And there are quite a few needless repetitions in the text: the thing was clearly written and edited in great haste.
- A very readable book. Recommended, though die-hard Blairites or Brownites (I am neither) won't be convinced.
Anthony Simpson: Who Runs That Place? (E)
“That place” is our beloved United Kingdom. Simpson tries in this book of 2005 to untangle who has power in the UK and who hasn't. He starts with what used to be the fount of power, the Parliament, jumps to the Lords, the PM, the Queen and then to pretty much everybody and everything that has something to say in this country (or thinks it has…). I have a copy of his “Anatomy of Britain” which had an almost identical brief but appeared in 1961, more than 40 years earlier. As the structure of both books is similar, it's easy and tempting to compare the two. The general tone of this book is definitely more pessimistic, even if Mr Simpson tries hard to see the positive side of things. Both texts are often dry and have a tendency to state and repeat the obvious. Nevertheless, Mr Simpson gives an honest account of the major players in the UK (and perhaps too many minor players) but he almost never takes a firm position on their relevance and whether and how they discharge their responsibility. This is a strength and a weakness at the same time: this way, he stands above the fray, but he also leaves readers alone with the many facts he heaps upon them. Sometimes I also had the (very British) feeling that he tries to be fair to all and avoids cutting too deep… it might hurt somebody.
- Interesting but ultimately not incisive enough.
Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, Henry Lincoln: The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (E)
This is the (non-fiction) book that inspired Dan Brown to write The Da Vinci Code. (In fact, the authors brought a court case of plagiarism against Brown… without success.) I just wrote “non-fiction”, but more than 20 years after the appearance of the first edition it is clear that the three enthusiastic authors fell victim to a very clever and elaborate hoax. Their research into Jesus Christ, the Templars, the Merovingians etc., though perhaps not always up to the highest standards, is in general trustworthy. However, their main argument is based on a series of papers that were “planted” by a Frenchman () during the 1950s in the French Bibliotheque Nationale. These papers tell the story of a secret society (called The Priory of Sion) that allegedly grew out of the Templars and has survived to this day. The purpose of the Priory is to help M (whose bloodline apparently goes back to the Merovingian kings) to win back the French throne. (Obviously the authors never asked themselves why the would-be king would suddenly publish heaps of documents about this supposedly secret society: perhaps they thought the story was too good to be a hoax.) Nevertheless, the book makes for interesting reading, though some passages are overly detailed.
- Mildly intriguing tale about historical and contemporary human follies, probably better read after Brown's Da Vinci Code.
$updated from: Books September 2006.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:22 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$