Live and Let Die (1954) by Ian Fleming, a belated #1954 Club blogpost

Not really a review, not a synopsis. This are my comments on reading Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming, featuring the evil gangster Mr Big, the beautiful tarot card reader Solitaire, and a motley crew of henchmen and marauding fish. Plus some book serendipity and a strange coincidence that threw up my own personal theory about who might have inspired Fleming’s description of his villain, Mr Big.

If you loved the film Live and Let Die, then you might be disappointed by the book. It’s quite a different animal. Some of the plot points were used in other Bond films rather than the one in which Bond meets Solitaire, played by Jane Seymour, a beautiful tarot card reader. As I’m not a Bond film aficionado, I was perfectly happy with the book, except for the racist tropes Fleming used. I remember reading about Jamaica in the 1970s and the (official, white) view back then was that all races got along perfectly well with each other on Jamaica. This is reflected in how Fleming believed he was tolerant, but used racist terms to refer to Black people and used a background of voodoo, superstition and Black gangsters for this book. Looking past this, the villain, Mr Big, is satisfyingly evil and intelligent – a dangerous combination.

Comments and observations: spoilers within

Bond is whisked through American customs and driven to the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan by an FBI man. As he gets out of the car, he catches a glimpse of an older Black man with a female Black chauffeur driving off. Black people are referred to as Negroes, starting on the first page in the comment, “he disliked the idea of his dossier being in the possession of any foreign power. Anonymity was the chief tool of his trade. Every thread of his real identity that went on record in any file diminished his value and, ultimately, was a threat to his life. Here in America, where they knew all about him, he felt like a Negro whose shadow has been stolen by the witch-doctor.” An uncalled for simile made worse by a racist equation of Blackness with traditional African beliefs.

Chapter 2, Interview with M, is a flashback to a foggy day in London when Bond was called in to discuss the case. He has apparently had time off work to have a skin graft to replace the Russian letter ш (sch) cut into the skin on the back of his hand, the first letter of Spion (spy) to mark him asa spy by an agent of “the Soviet organ of vengeance, SMERSH, short for Smyert Spionum—Death to Spies”. (p.13)

The villain: Mr Big

Bond’s target in this book is a Haitian man known as Mr Big who is now a linchpin of the Harlem underworld, running several brothels and nightclubs employing call girls. His enemies have a habit of meeting a sticky end. During WWII, Mr Big was drafted in America, trained by the secret service “who trained him with great thoroughness and put him into Marseilles as an agent against the Pétain collaborationists,” working closely with a Russian agent. After the war, he disappeared for five years, presumed to have been trained as a Russian spy, then returned to Harlem.

“Those who deserve to die, die the death they deserve,” says Bond to Mr Big. Now I’ve read the book, I know what happened and, of course, Mr Big gets an appropriate comeuppance, but given the extent of his villainy, almost any death would have been appropriate.

Zombies and voodoo

“He was known to have originated an underground Voodoo temple in Harlem and to have established a link between it and the main cult in Haiti. The rumour had started that he was the Zombie or living corpse of Baron Samedi himself, the dreaded Prince of Darkness, and he fostered the story so that now it was accepted through all the lower strata of the Negro world. As a result, he commanded real fear, strongly substantiated by the immediate and often mysterious deaths of anyone who crossed him or disobeyed his orders.” “They believe the Big Man is the Zombie of Baron Samedi. Zombies are bad enough by themselves. They’re animated corpses that have been made to rise from the dead and obey the commands of the person who controls them.” Fleming claims “the fear of Voodoo and the supernatural, [are] still deeply, primevally ingrained in the Negro subconscious!” Of course, Mr Fleming, this is obviously true for all Black people, all over the world!

Bond’s view of America

To fit in, Bond has to be ‘Americanised’ with a single-breasted suit, “chilly white nylon shirts with long points to the collars, […],unusually patterned foulard ties, dark socks with fancy clocks, two or three handkerchiefs for his breast pocket, nylon vests and pants (called T-shirts and shorts)”, etc. and “two pairs of hand-stitched and very comfortable black moccasin casuals’.” There are also several mentions of Americans wearing ‘Truman shirts’. If anyone knows what these are, I’d love to know.

Some of the comments on American food and habits are rather scathing. Bond makes a comment about Americans adding milk to their scrambled egg and I was mystified because isn’t that how it is made? He is also rather rude about a Florida town full of ‘oldsters’ sitting on benches (Davenports) “like the starlings in Trafalgar square”. I would have expected sparrows or pigeons, but in any case Bond has a horror of becoming like those white-haired and blue-rinsed pensioners. Another poke at America is when his colleague tells him “to avoid words of more than two syllables“. Fleming really wasn’t out to make friends, was he?

The title

An alternative title in Dutch is Moord onder water (murder underwater), but it doesn’t really fit very well with the actual events. The title in English is introduced when Bond decides to go to Harlem to see Mr. Big’s area of operations. Captain Dexter agrees, but tells him not to stir up any trouble.

“‘This case isn’t ripe yet. Until it is, our policy with Mr. Big is ‘live and let live.’
Bond looked quizzically at Captain Dexter.
‘In my job,’ he said, ‘when I come up against a man like this one, I have another motto. It’s ‘live and let die.’”

Bond and his friend and CIA colleague Leiter go out on the town, ending up at a club called The Boneyard. We know that the Boss (Mr Big) knows exactly where they are, has placed them at a particular table and planned an ambush. When they arrive there, after midnight, I was surprised to find they order Scotch and soda and ham sandwiches. The walls are lacquered black to offset the reflections of lights on the different coloured ‘witch balls’ hanging around the room. “The whole scene was macabre and livid, as if El Greco had done a painting by moonlight of an exhumed graveyard in a burning town.” That would have been a wonderful description if Fleming hadn’t added racist slurs and sexualised descriptions of the people. Yes, I know it was in a strip joint, but he spent far too long describing the woman dancing. And many of the words he used about Black people were negative and related to animals: feral, chienne, growling. Mr Big’s eyes “were animal eyes, not human, and they seemed to blaze.”

The description of Mr Big

“It was a great football of a head, twice the normal size and very nearly round. The skin was grey-black, taut and shining like the face of a week-old corpse in the river. It was hairless, except for some grey-brown fluff above the ears. There were no eyebrows and eyelashes and the eyes were extraordinarily far apart, so that one could not focus on them both, but only on one at a time. […] The nose was wide without being particularly Negroid. The nostrils did not gape at you. The lips were only slightly everted, but thick and dark. […] There were very few wrinkles or creases on the face, but there were two deep clefts above the nose, the clefts of concentration. Above them, the forehead bulged slightly before merging with the polished, hairless crown.      Curiously, there was nothing disproportionate about the monstrous head. It was carried on a wide, short neck supported by the shoulders of a giant. Bond knew from the records that the Big Man was six and a half feet tall and weighed 280 pounds, and that little of it was fat. But the total impression was awe-inspiring, even terrifying, and Bond could imagine that so ghastly a misfit must have been bent since childhood on revenge against fate and against the world that hated because it feared him.”

Was Mr Big based on wrestler Maurice Tillet?

With a few exceptions, this description fits perfectly with a real person I looked up a few days ago (I can’t remember why), the French wrestling champion Maurice Tillet  who had a medical condition (acromegaly) that made his head and hands continue growing. He had originally planned to become a lawyer, but his disease prevented this. After WWII he became a worldwide wrestling star, who had visited the UK and was based in the USA. Fleming must have known about him and could have shoe-horned him into his new novel in the guise of Mr Big, changing his race to fit his setting. Even his weight fits, though Fleming makes him taller. Also note that the actor playing Mr Big in the 1973 film bears no resemblance to the description and the whole story was completely changed for the film.

A blogger who has been researching Tillet’s life for years has even gathered some circumstantial evidence that, like Mr Big, Maurice Tillet may have been a spy. After all, he had been in the French navy, spoke several languages and seems to have spent time with several celebrities who were spies, or were suspected of being so. This includes Josephine Baker and even his own manager, Karl Pojello, a Lithuanian-American.  Who knows, maybe he even met Fleming, who had also worked in intelligence. This makes it even more likely that he could have been the model for Mr Big!

It is entirely probable that Fleming saw Tillet fighting, live or saw him in black and white on TV or in the newspapers. He may have assumed he was black. He retired from wrestling in 1953, perfect timing for Fleming to write him into his new novel. Sadly Tillet died (perhaps of a broken heart) in September 1954  and the book was published in April of the same year, Fleming could easily have had him in mind when writing Mr Big. He was at one time listed as the highest paid sportsman and also appeared in films, so was a well-known figure.  Fleming did make notes on his inspirations for names, so perhaps his notebooks reveal the truth. I have absolutely no proof of this whatsoever, it is simply sheer coincidence that I was reading about him a few days before reading the book. What is almost certain is that Tilley was used as the inspiration for Shrek’s appearance, though Dreamworks refuse to corroborate this. 

Before he went to America, Tillet had bit parts in films, including as the barman in a 1935 film starring Josephine Baker, Princesse Tam Tam. In this excerpt with Baker singing, dancing and drinking a glass of water without using her hands, you can see that his appearance was not unusual at this stage, just something of a gentle giant. 15 years later he was virtually unrecognisable.

Maurice Tillet in Princesse Tam Tam, starring Josephine Baker

Locations: write about what you know

In 1952, Fleming and his wife Anne visited New York, took the Silver Meteor train to St. Petersburg in Florida, then flew to his Goldeneye Estate in Jamaica, all locations used in Live and Let Die. In May 1953 he travelled to the USA on the RMS Queen Elizabeth, a ship he used as a setting in his 1956 book Diamonds Are Forever (link to my review for the #1956club.  In Live and Let Die, Bond takes the Silver Phantom train to St. Petersburg, Florida from Pennsylvania Station, passing through Washington, Jacksonville, and Tampa, then changing to the Silver Meteor.

Bond, health, booze, drugs and smoking

When Mr Big is interviewing Bond, one of his henchmen breaks Bond’s little finger on his left hand. Bond faints. Who would have thought Bond was such a wimp? I somersaulted over my bicycle handlebars a few years ago and fractured the same finger. It really didn’t hurt that much! In fact, the adrenaline meant that I didn’t realise it was broken until I looked at it. I certainly didn’t faint. They do say women have higher pain thresholds than men. Poor Bond, his little finger is so painful, he is unable to make love to Solitaire when they are alone on the train. It’s probably just as well. If he had, maybe that would have been the end of him once and for all. Saved by a painful pinky!

Another instance of Bond showing us that he isn’t fearless is when he flies to Jamaica; he is suddenly aware of his mortality and the vulnerability of planes. I was also surprised to discover that Bond’s lightning fast reactions are enhanced by drugs. Perhaps that is to compensate for the vast quantities of booze he regularly consumes at all hours of the day, including breakfast. It’s interesting to note that even in 1954, Bond knows his drinking and smoking habits are not good for him. When he needs to get fit in earnest, he stops smoking and drinking and starts exercising, swimming and running.

Jamaica

As in all good Bond stories, the villain has a secret lair, preferably on an island or on top of a mountain. This time it’s an inhospitable island off the coast of Jamaica which had once been a pirate’s base. Here, Fleming throws in a little history that doesn’t put Britain in a particularly good light, or shows how sneaky they were, depending on your viewpoint. To avoid war with Spain in Europe, the colonial government of Jamaica pretended not to notice Bloody Morgan’s piracy until the Spanish had left the Caribbean. He was then given a knighthood and became Governor of Jamaica. In any case, the denouement takes place in and around the island, with Bond approaching underwater and fighting off a large octopus before even reaching the island and having to deal with his human enemies.

In the final scene, Mr Big toes a torpedo-shaped paravane behind his boat, the Secatur. I didn’t understand the description, so looked it up. Torpedo-shaped paravanes were used for minesweeping,  so were unlikely for a private boat. There are other sorts, also known as water kites, used for placing bait at specific levels for sport and commercial fishing and scientific purposes, which seem perfect for collecting rare fish such as those caught by Mr Big’s contacts. The torpedo shape (which Fleming repeats multiple times, without really explaining what it looks like) fits the Bond’s persona much better.

Another gadget Bond mentions are nightglasses. I didn’t realise they existed in 1954. In fact the first ones were developed in Germany in the 1930s, but as Fleming liked to refer to cutting edge technology, he was probably referring to US military night vision developed in 1948 or perhaps he had even heard talk of something that was still being developed, since the ITT corporation started to supply the US military with night vision equipment in 1958, four years after Live and Let Die was published. 

Book serendipity: Bond recommends a book!

Bond, I was surprised to discover, is keen on researching his work by extensive reading. In preparation for this job, he is reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Traveller’s Tree, a book which I do not possess. However, mere hours before I read this part, I had coincidentally picked up two of his other books from my bookshelf to see which countries they covered (the Netherlands and further travel across the continent). I understand why Bond was reading The Traveller’s Tree as part of the preparation for his assignment; it’s a travelogue of several Caribbean islands. Live and Let Die directly quotes about two and a half pages of lurid description of voodoo rites. I think I’ll probably give that book a miss!

Book serendipity: Trenton, New Jersey

This is the third book I have read recently that mentioned Trenton:

  • The whole of Janet Evanovich’s Two for the Dough is set in and around Trenton
  • In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s Americanah, Ifemelu travels to Trenton to visit a Black hair salon
  • In Live and Let Die, Bond sees Trenton from the train

Once more I prolonged my reading by Google reading, i.e. looking things up as I go along, a term I first encountered in Shawn the Book Maniac’s video about Reading Wales month. In spite of the old-fashioned view on race in Live and Let Die, it always amazes me just how many fascinating little details I pick up reading a book that was written decades ago. I don’t feel compelled to search out all the Bond books, but I have at least one more unread on the shelf and, if it should happen to fit in with a challenge, I just might go ahead and read it.

I’ve never been much of a fan, but after watching a few one Christmas, I must say it’s actually quite fun pointing out the sexism and enjoying the clothes, groovy decor and the scenery. Sean Connery is, of course, the best Bond by far, even if the films are shinier nowadays. Do you agree with me? And have you read any Bond books? Or are there other authors who write similar books that bring the genre up to date?

1954 Club: overview of books to read or to add to the wishlist #1954Club

If the books on my bookshelf and available in my library are anything to go by, 1954 was a varied and interesting publishing year. A couple of likely authors were conspicuous by their absence and there are some more I may read later. As it is, I am behind on my reading and blogging. #1954Club will keep me going for a while yet.

Twice a year, Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings run a challenge to read and blog about books from a particular year. This time the lucky year was 1954 and I was determined not to get caught out. I collected some books together, some of which I’d already read, some of which are short or children’s books. I even started reading early and prepared my overview blog. I was all set! And then things began to go pear-shaped. By the way, that is one of my very favourite English sayings. But not so wonderful when you’re living the pear-shaped life!

Excuses, excuses!

This time last week, I was unusually organised and couldn’t wait for the start of the 1954 Club week. At the beginning of the week, I was coasting, reading one of the 1954 library books I’d borrowed, commenting on other people’s blogs, getting sucked into Twitter. Many, many things need to happen in my garden and I’d forgotten it was Easter weekend, so my husband was there expecting action. Then, out of the blue, the translation agency I haven’t heard from for six months asked me to do a 15,000 word translation which involves a fair bit of checking jargon, so is going to take me into next week. To top it all, I realised that the book I’d borrowed on ILL (De wand/The Wall by Maren Haushofer) had been immediately re-reserved and needed to be read pronto and returned. Very inconsiderately, this was not a 1954 book, so more precious time was wasted. This is all a rather long-winded way of saying my contributions to the 1954 Club will mostly be belated ones, but in the immortal words of Magnus Magnusson, I’ve started, so I’ll finish! I will link to my reviews whenever I get round to posting them. Promises, promises!

1954 books in my possession 

These are the books already gracing our bookshelves, plus a couple I was able to borrow from our local library:

TBR:

  • Live and Let Die (Ian Fleming)
  • Under the Net (Iris Murdoch, 1001)
  • The Horse and His Boy (C.S. Lewis)
  • Moominsummer Madness (Tove Jansson)
  • The Song of the Abbey (Elsie J. Oxenham)
  • 3x Perry Mason (Erle Stanley Gardner):
    • The Case of the Fugitive Nurse
    • The Case of the Runaway Corpse
    • The Case of the Restless Redhead

Library books borrowed (in Dutch):

  • I Am Legend (Richard Matheson) – now read
  • De diamant [The diamond] (Harry Mulisch) – currently reading 
Books published in 1954
My books to read for #1954 Club

Online:

Already read:

  • The Wheel on the School (Meindert de Jong)

Couldn’t find:

  • The Mystery of Tally-Ho Cottage (Enid Blyton)
  • Jip en Janneke. First 21 stories (Annie M.G. Schmidt). It doesn’t surprise me I can’t find this one. It may be a Dutch children’s classic, but as a young mother I was not at all impressed by the two naughty pre-schoolers. In fact, in one of the earliest chapters, they dig all of the sand out of the sandpit and Jip’s lackadaisical mother says the equivalent of “Oh, you can have fun tomorrow putting it all back in the sandpit, darling.” As I had a similarly-aged child who annoyed me by doing this every time and had no interest whatsoever in clearing it up, that day or the next, the story made my blood boil. Some of Annie M.G. Schmidt’s books and songs are wonderful, but I don’t think I’ll ever make my peace with Jip and Janneke.

1954 wishlist and future possibilities

  • The Eagle of the Ninth (Rosemary Sutcliff). When we were clearing out my mother’s flat, we discovered that she had collected many of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books. Sadly, The Eagle of the Ninth is not one of them. In fact, it may be the only one of hers I have read, but my memory of it is as lost in the mists of time as the Roman Ninth Legion.
  • The Bafut Beagles & Three Singles to Adventure (Gerald Durrell). I am sure I read The Bafut Beagles many years ago because the title is so familiar, but I have read many of Gerald Durrell’s books and loved them for their humour and superbly sketched illustrations. As I don’t have a copy of this to review, I will direct you to a Goodreads review that consists almost entirely of direct quotes and illustrations from The Bafut Beagles. The book is an account of one of Durrell’s animal collecting trips to Cameroon. One of the things I noted when I read The Drunken Forest for the 1956 Club is that Durrell often didn’t have to do much hunting to find the animals himself. He was extremely adept at getting local people to show him where they were to be found. In addition to going out himself, once local people knew what sort of creatures he wanted, they were only too happy to bring creatures back for him. In this book, Durrell tells a story about ‘pagans’ who were scared photos would gradually gain control of their soul, so he sneakily took photos standing side on so they wouldn’t notice. This reminds me of the recent (in my opinion) over-zealous privacy laws that supposedly prohibit you from taking photos in public places of much-photographed sites like the Eiffel Tower. Only after two trips to Japan did I discover that it is illegal to post photos online of people without permission, unless you blur the faces. Just as well I am not an efficient blogger and never actually got round to posting anything about Japan on my expat blog.
  • Under Milk Wood (Dylan Thomas) I feel like I ought to read this, but…
  • The Sound of Waves (Yukio Mishima, 1001). Available in English, national ILL, €5
  • Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis, 1001).  Available in English, IL, free
  • Katherine (Anya Seton). Available in Dutch, national ILL, €5
  • The Living Room, a tragic play (Graham Greene)
  • Twenty-One Stories (Graham Greene)
  • Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (Barbara Comyns)

Prolific authors who didn’t publish anything in 1954

Elizabeth Goudge. The Heart of the Family, the third part of a trilogy about the Eliots of Damerosehay, came out in 1953, then there was a gap until The Rosemary Tree in 1956.

Mary Renault did exactly the same thing: The Charioteer in 1953 and The Last of the Wine in 1956. I’ve added The Charioteer to my wishlist because several reviewers said it perfectly expressed the experiences and self-loathing felt by gay men in the 1950s. The title made me expect it to be about the Romans, especially knowing some of her later books. How wrong I was; it’s about an injured WWII soldier convalescing in a British hospital and his developing relationship with a hospital orderly, a conscientious objector. As a sad corollary to this, I found this on an overview of notable events from 1954: Lester Callaway Hunt, Sr., a US Senator, committed suicide at his Capitol Hill desk after being blackmailed over his son’s homosexuality. 

Random 1954 events

  • Politics: Brown v. Board of Education legally ended “separate but equal” school segregation in the US.
  • Most popular songs included Sh-boom by The Chords, Mr. Sandman by The Chordettes and Oh! My Pa-Pa (O Mein Papa) by Eddie Fisher. I’ve always loved Mr. Sandman.
  • The most popular films included Rear Window, White Christmas and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
  • The world population was only ~ 2,772,000,000! It’s now at a mind-boggling 7,942 million and rising.
  • Sports: Roger Bannister becomes the first man to break the four minute mile, at 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.
  • The 1954 book I Am Legend by Richard Matheson has had three movie adaptations. The Omega Man (1971), The Last Man on Earth (1964), and I Am Legend(2007).
  • The Piña Colada was invented in Puerto Rico in 1954 at the Caribe Hilton. Source: Pop Culture US

The lure of the library 2

Catching up on all the library books I’ve borrowed, read, returned or reserved between September 2021 and March 2022. #LoveYourLibrary

My local library was closed from 1 January to 14 February, not, as you might imagine, due to Covid restrictions, but to reinforce the upstairs floor. Unbelievably, in these times of library closures, our local government invested in a brand new library building with an auditorium, as an extension to our local theatre. As I type that, I realise how lucky I am to live in this small town, Wijchen. Even though the library is only 5 or 6 years old, the building regulations have changed and the floor needed reinforcement. And so it was that we were encouraged to take as many books as we wanted so that the librarians didn’t have to temporarily rehouse so many books. I already had quite a pile, but I added a couple extra in December, just to be helpful. So selfless!

https://bookishbeck/LoveYourLibrary

Borrowed from the library

Library book covers, laid out on a Persian carpet
Borrowed from the library, March 2022

This is the current selection of library books I intend to read or have read, at the start of the month; things changed. I’m rather disgruntled that there are so many that were already on the pile when I wrote my last Lure of the Library post back in September. On the other hand, that means I have been reading other books from the TBR shelves, many of which will one day leave my house for another reader to enjoy.

Library books read

  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019) – Ocean Vong. This was truly exceptional, based on the premise of a young gay Vietnamese American man writing a letter explaining his feelings to his mother who cannot read it, remembering her cruelty and the close nurturing relationship he had with his grandmother. In places it was visceral and there was too much animal cruelty, but I loved the observations about language and immigrant life. The final section brings all his memories together; his mother is illiterate in this life, but he imagines her into being reincarnated into someone with a better life, who will be able to read the letter.
  • De avond is ongemak (The Discomfort of Evening) (2018) – Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, trans. into English from Dutch by Michele Hutchison. N.B. Early in 2022, Marijke Lucas Rijneveld decided to start using the pronouns he and his, instead of they and their. This was a book I hesitated to read because every review I read commented on how visceral it was, but I loved it. The writing was stupendous, the subject matter is horrendous, so it’s not for the fainthearted. It probably needs a trigger warning for everything but racism and homophobia. However, this is made up for in how Rijneveld writes and the way he uses repetition of details to remind the reader of what happened earlier. The way he recreates a child’s thought processes is fabulous. His similes use things that usually only children notice, like the way a juice carton collapses when you drink through a straw, and he writes a lot about the type of self-imposed rules children think up to stop something terrible happening. I’m glad I read this in Dutch because I wasn’t entirely happy with the English translation that I read in the online preview.
  • Piranesi (2020) – Susanna Clarke. This is one of those amazing books where you start off being totally confused with what is happening and gradually piece the truth together. It initially seems that the young wild thing Piranesi exists in a large ruined mansion or museum, so large it has its own climate system, with clouds in the top floor and a flooded ground floor with seas and freshwater lakes, fish and birds. He keeps journals to track his observations of wildlife and the – sometimes peculiar – statues that line the halls. The only other person there is an older man known as the Other, who treats Piranesi as a child. Gradually Piranesi begins to doubt that he is being told the truth, especially when he finds evidence of other people, some reduced to skeletons but some very much alive. Brilliant, with a gorgeous cover and endpapers.
  • Max Havelaar (1860) – Multatuli (Edward Douwes Dekker), translated into modern Dutch by Gijsbert van Es. I have had a copy of this since about 2008, but kept giving up after a few pages because of the antiquated Dutch. It is readable, but not so gripping that I managed to cross that hurdle. I held on to it because it is really a cornerstone of Dutch literature and actually caused such a scandal in the Netherlands that it led to radical change in the colonial administration of Indonesia. In that sense it is fascinating, but even in the translation into modern Dutch, some parts were not exactly scintillating. What did surprise me were the ‘modern’ techniques using letters and lists rather than a straight narrative. Much of the text was supposedly based on a disgraced colonial official’s papers, rewritten and read out as an evening entertainment by a clerk at the coffee merchants in Amsterdam, his boss writing his own disapproving responses in his journal, revealing himself to be a skinflint and representing the status quo. That injected some humour into the proceedings. I’m glad I’ve finally read it.
Books read or started in March 2022
Dystopian, non-fiction and epic

  • Station Eleven (2014) – Emily St. John Mandel. A couple of friends had recently been enthusiastic about this post-pandemic dystopian novel, so when I found out my book club was planning on reading something similar (Severance – see below), I reserved both, but read this first. Twenty years after a flu-like pandemic has wiped out 99% of the world’s population, a group travels the Great Lakes region performing Shakespeare plays and classical music, hunting to survive. There are flashbacks to the start of the pandemic and links between disparate individuals in the new world that only gradually become clear. This is not a pandemic novel as such and it’s not about groups fighting or attacking each other. It focuses on what happened much later and on personal relationships and memories. One of the things linking a couple of the characters is a limited edition artistic graphic novel telling the story of a man stranded on a space station resembling a planet called Station Eleven. I thoroughly enjoyed spotting the connections. Highly recommended.
  • Severance (2018) – Ling Ma. Once again, the world as we know it has been destroyed by the consequences of a pandemic, this time Shen Fever, a mysterious disease that makes people go into a fugue state, repeating the same actions and forgetting to eat and take care of themselves. Once you catch it, you die within four weeks. Ironically, so many people work so hard and have such routine jobs that it may be difficult to identify them. Chinese American Candace works at a publishers producing novelty and themed versions of the Bible, travelling to China to oversee their production at low-wage factories. When the disease starts to affect everyday life, a skeleton staff is left to hold the fort at the office in New York and later she moves in as there is no more public transport. Meanwhile she continues to post to her blog, NY Ghost, about what she sees on her long walks. When almost nobody is left, she goes on the road and joins up with a group driving to a refuge their leader calls the Facility, where he claims they can start again. By the way, don’t be fooled by the Goodreads blurb that this is a “hilarious, deadpan satire”. Yes, it points out the ironies of modern life, social media and brand obsession, but that doesn’t make it funny, except for a couple of occasions. It was interesting, but pales into insignificance compared to Station Eleven. For me it tapered off into inconclusiveness. There is a ‘fan theory’ online (in a Goodreads question thread) that seeks to explain what happens to Candace, but either the author wanted to leave an open ending (perhaps for a sequel) or she should have made it clear to all her readers without further explanation.
  • Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold (Azijnmeisje) (2016) – Anne Tyler, trans. into Dutch by Marijke Versluys . I borrowed this from library in Dutch, but then found a secondhand copy in English, so I read it in English and compared a little of the translation. The Dutch cover is much prettier than the English copy I bought, but it is available with the same cover in English, too. I hadn’t expected to enjoy this as much as I did, but it was much funnier than I had expected. I had also wondered if I would miss anything because I don’t know the plot of The Taming of the Shrew, but I needn’t have worried. It was a delight from start to finish. I particularly enjoyed the rendering of Pyotr’s (presumably) Russian accent, his delight in American idiom and Kate’s gradual realisation that speaking a foreign language is not as easy as one might imagine to perfect to native speaker level and that under the surface of poor grammar, an immigrant might just be thinking deeper thoughts than you at first suspected.

Currently reading

  • Oer en andere tijden (Primeval and Other Times / Prawiek i inne czasy) (1996) – Olga Tokarczuk, trans. into Dutch from Polish by Karol Lesman . I haven’t read enough of this yet t) o be able to say much. It seems to be a collection of overlapping stories about the inhabitants of a remote Polish village, Primeval in English, Oer in Dutch, through the ages. I’m enjoying it so far but have put it to one side to concentrate on something entirely different (Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie).

Borrowed, to be read

  • Melmoth (2018) – Sarah Perry. A translator in Prague, a secret from the past and a creepy woman in black, doomed to walk the world forever, tempting others to join her.
  • Het luizenpaleis (The Flea Palace, Bit Palas) – Elif Shafak, trans. into Dutch from Turkish by Margreet Dorleijn, Hanneke van der Heijden. The stories of the inhabitants of a dilapidated apartment block in Istanbul, many of them immigrants.
  • Mijn ex, de dood en ik (Sophia, der Tod und ich) (2015) – Thees Uhlmann, trans. into Dutch from German by Herman Vinckers. I borrowed this because I wanted to read a German novel. I picked up this humorous novel with Death as one of the main characters, apparently written by a German musician and music journalist. The translator’s name also seems familiar in the Netherlands becasue there is a Dutch comedian called Herman Finkers, but it is not he; it was translated by someone who works in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the University of Amsterdam.
  • Een bizarre bibliotheek (Une collection très particulière [A very peculiar library]) (2012) – Bernard Quiriny, trans. from French to Dutch by Wilma Beun. I borrowed this because I was looking for an author beginning with Q for a challenge, but the book itself sounds weird and wonderful: a library full of books with very odd, magical properties.
  • Holzer’s permacultuur (Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening) (2014) – Sepp Holzer. I’ve been interested in no-dig and permaculture methods of gardening for several years now. It’s time I read the original book of ideas by the inspirational Austrian Sepp Holzer.
  • De wand (The Wall / Die Mauer) (1963) – Marlen Haushofer, trans. into Dutch from German by Ria van Hengel. I’ve seen several reviews of this book recently. Apparently it has been out of print and is now poised for reissue in June 2022. It is the tale of a woman who is mysteriously cut off from the outside world, if indeed that still exists, by an invisible wall. I am intrigued.

Reserved

Nothing at the moment; I have enough to read!

Returned Unread

  • Geef me de ruimte [Give me space] (1976) – Thea Beckman. I borrowed this for the 1976 Club; I think I posted on it in 1976 Club part 1: options on my shelves. However, when I still hadn’t read it months later, I decided it was time to take it back. What’s more, it’s the first of a trilogy about the Hundred Years War and will undoubtedly still be there whenever I want to read it because it is a classic.

That is the current state of the library borrowings at the end of March 2022. Now I’ve realised I can borrow anything from the whole of the Dutch province of Gelderland, I’m going to try to use my library more often to source books on my wishlist. And my options are opened up even further if I use the National Interlibrary Loan System because paying €5 a book is almost always cheaper than buying the book myself. Long live public libraries (even if I do have to pay about €60 for the privilege of belonging; public libraries are not free in the Netherlands unless you are below the age of 14, sadly. I didn’t realise how wonderful the British system is when I lived there.

My year in non-fiction for #NonFicNov 2021

Taking a look at the non-fiction books I have read since November 2020, picking my favourites and the ones I hope to read for this month’s #NonFicNov and #NovNov. Plus the Brand New Books I have lined up for next year.

One of the reading/blogging challenges set for this month is Nonfiction in November or #NonFicNov. I have had an excellent year of non-fiction this year and will be taking the opportunity to fit in a few more during the #NovNov Novellas in November challenge. Due to various distractions, I’m afraid I’m posting late in response to the first prompt:

Week 1: (November 1-5) – Your Year in Nonfiction with Rennie at What’s Nonfiction: Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favourite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?  

What have I read since last November?

This year I’ve being making a concerted effort to read books that have been stuck on my shelf for years. They were not necessarily picked because they were the ones I wanted to read most but because they’ve been waiting the longest, making me feel vaguely guilty. This has thrown up some real surprises, most of them good ones.

You may ask why I want to read books that aren’t calling to me or why I even have them. Some of these older books are ones that I bought/acquired at some point in the dim and distant past. Some arrived in 5 boxes of books from the now defunct expat club. Many are books I picked up at BookCrossing meetings, so somebody else will be delighted when I finally write a BookCrossing review (a.k.a. journal entry), at which point they will hear back from their long-lost book. These are the ones I feel somewhat guilty about hanging on to for years, but I feel more or less the same about books I registered myself. After all, I ought to have read and passed them on by now, otherwise why register them? I’ve listed all this year’s non-fiction reads at the end.

My favourite non-fiction this year

In recent years, one of my favourite non-fiction reads was The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, but this year’s unexpected favourites have been:

The Orchid Thief (1998) by Susan Orlean

This was intended to be a simple interview with a man who had stolen rare orchids from a nature reserve in Florida. However, Susan Orlean met so many fascinating people during her investigation that it turned into a whole book. You can read my blogpost about it here. She became somewhat obsessed herself with orchids and collecting stories about the eccentric people in the plant growing and collecting world, many who live in this untamed area of Florida. This whole book spoke to my ADD, fact collecting, trivia-loving generalist brain. As I often translate texts about horticulture and am a keen gardener, it also fitted perfectly into my own interests. To a lesser extent, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren did this too, but I enjoyed The Orchid Thief more, probably because Orlean herself was so enthusiastic, whereas Jahren often complained about the difficulties of ‘being a scientist while female’ which didn’t ring entirely true with me as she somehow managed to start up her own lab after qualifying, not something most postgrads can expect to do, surely.

An Unreasonable Man by Henrie Mayne

I have passed over this book so many times because I thought it was going to be an uninspired slog of a novel like The Diary of a Nobody or Willem Elschott’s Kaas (Cheese), both supposedly humorous books about boring men with boring lives. To be honest, I only kept it because I like the cover. Instead, An Unreasonable Man is true: the portrait of a man who, whilst he was an eccentric pedant with strange habits and a difficult marriage, lived a fascinating life. The book was written by the daughter who was closest to him, I suspect as a response to her mother’s feminist book which painted their marriage as a trap and a disappointment. The reason I thought it was fiction was that she changed most of the names. This gave me the opportunity for many happy hours of scrabbling round the internet trying to find references to the family.

Arthur Mayne’s adult life spanned the Indian Civil Service at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century, retiring to Europe but diverted to Canada due to the outbreak of the First World War. His wife nagged him to do something useful so he became a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy and was seconded to Switzerland where he used his organisational talents for sending care packages to POWs, replacing mould-prone bread with a rusk that could be rehydrated and baked briefly. He then went to Berlin where he set up an incredibly efficient system for tracing POWs and refugees – I assume the basis of the Red Cross system still in use today. His repatriation system was so effective that all British POWs were back home within ten days of the end of hostilities and other countries asked him to do the same for them. This is all interleaved with personal anecdotes and tales of the family’s travels and hostilities between Arthur and his wife, who had been one of the few women to go to university and had expected more of life, and the oddness and eccentricities of a man who was almost certainly autistic. All told with much affection by the daughter who shared her mother’s exasperation, but who could see her father’s strengths, particularly as he summoned her to help his work in Switzerland. He wasn’t just an unreasonable man, he was misunderstood and made very little effort to fit in. Read my full review here.

The nonfiction I’m really drawn to

Given I already have such a ginormous TBR, I try not to buy too many new books myself, nor even second-hand ones. If I do buy something new, it’s because I really want to read it. And that’s the disadvantage of reading my oldest books first, because these shiny new books are still sitting there looking pretty without being read. I think I shall have to instigate a Brand New Books amnesty and read one a month next year. The topics that really interest me are travel, particularly to remote places, mountains and peoples. If that is mixed in with history and/or nature, then all the better. I also love a good biography or memoir that illuminates social history, not necessarily by someone famous.

Non-fiction read from November 2020 to October 2021

The Girl Who Smiled Beads (2018) – Clemantine Wamariya 5* As a small child, Wamariya and her sister became refugees from genocide in Rwanda, travelling through 7 countries before being granted asylum in the USA.

Annie John (1985) – Jamaica Kincaid 2* Memories of a childhood in Antigua. Read in Dutch.

Een zachte dood (Une mort très douce) (1964) – Simone de Beauvoir 2* Memories of the hospitalisation and demise of de Beauvoir’s mother. Read in Dutch.

Het sexleven van kannibalen (The Sex Life of Cannibals) (2003) – Maarten J. Troost 3* A young American who aspired to be an author went to live in the tiny Pacific island of Kiribati with his girlfriend who was working as an aid worker. Spoiler: the title is misleading! Reviewed in Dutch.

The Lost Heart of Asia (1994) – Colin Thubron 4* Respected travel writer Thubron travelled at leisure through the Central Asian states in 1991 to 1992, soon after they had gained independence from the Soviet Union. Fascinating.

Out of Africa (1937) – Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen 4* The fascinating account of life on a remote farm in Africa. Not as romantic as the film made it out to be. Not yet reviewed.

An Unreasonable Man (1976) – Henrie Mayne 5* Everyone thought Arthur Mayne was odd, yet the life of an administrator could be fascinating if you were born as a man in the right era and could work for the Indian Civil Service, the Red Cross in the First World War and travel the world.

The Drunken Forest (1956) – Gerald Durrell 4* A humorous account of an expedition to South America that did not go at all to plan. From the Johnny Morris school of naturalists.

In een sluier gevangen (Not Without My Daughter) (1987) – Betty Mahmoody 3* When American Mahmoody’s husband took her to his native Iran to meet family, his personality changed and she was virtually imprisoned and her daughter taken away by family. This is the story of how she tried to fit in and finally escaped. Better than I had expected! Read in Dutch. Not yet reviewed.

How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division (2020) – Elif Shafak 3* A mishmash of thoughts about the dangers of becoming so identified with a single belief or identity tat we no longer listen to other points of view. “Perhaps in an era when everything is in constant flux, in order to be more sane, we need a blend of conscious optimism and creative pessimism.” I read this too quickly to take in properly, but most enjoyed the parts about language and having multiple identities. I suspect I will prefer her fiction. I hope so; I seem to have recently acquired three via the library and second-hand bookshops.

The Insect Man (1949) – Eleanor Doorly 4* A children’s biography of scientist Jean Henri Fabre who made great advances in the study of insects using simple equipment and the power of observation and experimentation. Not yet reviewed.

Lab Girl (2016) – Hope Jahren 4* Trees, science and scientists.

The Olive Farm (2001) – Carol Drinkwater 3* Stories about renovating a dilapidated farmhouse and olive grove in the south of France. Not the best of its sort that I’ve read, but I will read the sequels because I have them on the shelf. Not yet reviewed.

Sarajevo Days, Sarajevo Nights (1996) – Elma Softic 3* Eye witness diary entries about life in Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict. Read in Dutch. Not yet reviewed. It was fascinating, but I lost interest when it got to letters Softic wrote.

Freshwater (2018) – Akwaeke Emezi 4* A fictionalised version of Emezi’s own life as someone who feels different and ‘othered’ in Nigeria and strongly identifies with the traditional concept of the mischievous ogbanje spirits that tempt the person they inhabit to die and return to the realm of spirits. Themes of sexual identity, gender dysmorphism, suicide, self-destructive behaviour. Now I want to read more by this author. Not yet reviewed.

De orchideeëndief (The Orchid Thief) (1998) – Susan Orlean 4* Full of fascinating facts about the flora and fauna of Florida and other things that don’t start with an F.

Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976) – Maya Angelou 4* The third of her autobiographical novels.

The Salt Path (2018) – Raynor Winn. After losing their home and discovering that Winn’s husband Moth has a degenerative disease, the couple take a small tent and walk the South West Coast Path, wild camping and often going hungry. The walking is a huge struggle yet strangely healing. Only half-read so far because I want to save the rest for later.

Non-fiction I hope to read in November

As it’s also #NovNov (Novels in November) time, I’ve picked short non-fiction, all under 200 pages:

Autobiographical

Under the Eye of the Clock (1988) – Christopher Nolan. A profoundly handicapped boy writes about his life.

Conundrum (1974) – Jan Morris. A famous travel writer transitions to become the woman that she has always felt herself to be.

Rebel voor het leger [Rebel for the army] (1985) – Eva den Hartog. Memoirs of a Dutch Salvation Army officer who spent her life working abroad, particularly during the decolonisation of the Belgian Congo, but later in Asia and the USA.

Nature

Winterbloei [Winter flowering] (2019) – Jan Wolkers. Excerpts from various books and letters, all around the theme of nature, by one of the Netherlands’ most prominent authors.

History, society, immigration 

Doe maar gewoon: 99 tips voor het omgaan met Nederlanders (Just act normal: 99 tips for dealing with the Dutch] (1994) – Hans Kaldenbach. Handy for expats/immigrants, providing they can speak Dutch.

What If Solving the Climate Crisis is Simple? (2020) – Tom Bowman. Something tells me it’s not that easy… One of my Brand New Books.

Finding a Voice (1978) – Amrit Wilson. Essays by Asian immigrants in the UK in the 1970s. A new edition of this appeared in 2018 with a new chapter about what the book meant to South Asian women in Britain and comparing their lives to the women in the original interviews.

52 Times Britain Was a Bellend – James Felton. An irreverent horrible history of the things that should make Britons feel ashamed.

Brand new non-fiction to look forward to

As well as the short non-fiction above, I also have some chunkier non-fiction on my TBR with themes of nature, climate and colonialism. Sadly I probably won’t get to these amazing books on my TBR this year, but I’m looking forward to reading all of them. These are the Brand New Books I need to give myself permission to read, as well as continuing to read from my backlist:

Wilding (2018) – Isabella Tree. All about rewilding a farm.

Utopia for Realists (2017) – Rutger Bregman. Changing how we run the world to make life better. The original Dutch title was Gratis geld voor iedereen: Free money for all!

Invisible Women (2019) – Caroline Criado Perez. The subtitle says it all: exposing data bias in a world designed for men.

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (2021) – Sathnam Sanghera

Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) – David Olusoga. The historical connections between Britain and Africa.

Salt on Your Tongue (2019) – Charlotte Runcie. Stories of women and the sea.

The Old Ways (2012) – Robert Macfarlane. Meditations on walking ancient footpaths.

Light Rains Sometimes Fall (2021) – Lev Parikian. A diary of British nature observations mapped on to Japan’s traditional microseasons, each lasting six days. 

Vesper Flights (2020) – Helen MacDonald. Essays about birds.

Whatever happens, I will always have some non-fiction waiting for me, much as I love fiction. There are just so many interesting facts to learn and history and life stories to read about. I don’t only read non-fiction in November, but the challenge is a good way of taking stock of what I’ve read throughout the year, seeing if themes are emerging and savouring the books I still have to read. If nothing else, this blogpost will be a good place to look back at in a year’s time and see how many of those Brand New Books I have actually read.

Have you read any of the same books I have, or the ones I have yet to read? Are there any you would recommend I bump up my list?

#1936Club – The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson

Which book was more popular than Gone With the Wind, annoyed Hitler but was tolerated by Stalin, was filmed by Disney twice and spawned songs and dances since 1936? Why, The Story of Ferdinand, of course!

This is a children’s book with a story about a little Spanish bull who preferred to sit under a tree and smell flowers rather than fight. It sounded very familiar: was it made into one of those short Disney cartoons? Indeed it was; made in 1938, it won an Oscar and was still being shown on television into the 1970s. In fact, in some countries it is shown every year on Christmas Eve. When they tried to replace it with something else in the 1980s in Sweden, it came back the following year after a public outcry. What a delightful and illogical tradition!

An image from the book, by Robert Lawson

What’s even more surprising than the fact I remember it is that Walt Disney himself voiced Ferdinand’s mother. According to one of the reviews on IMDB, the animated bandilleros and picadors were based on the cartoon’s animators and the matador on Walt Disney himself; he was reportedly Not Amused by that, though surely he must have vetted it, especially if he voiced part of it; that story sounds apocryphal to me.

A surprisingly political book

As it was published at the time of the Spanish civil war, General Franco – the man who led the violent uprising – was definitely not amused at the pacifist bull and banned the book. The ban was not lifted until his death in 1975. Hitler had all copies burned (“degenerate democratic propaganda”, he said, only he said it in German). After the war, 30,000 copies were printed and distributed free to German children to promote peace (source: Illustration Chronicles).  It was the only non-communist book allowed in Poland by Stalin. Even Ernest Hemingway, who fought in Spain, had something to write about it. Perhaps even more surprisingly, in the first year after publication, it sold more copies than Gone With the Wind, also a 1936 book, in America (source: Sothebys). 

It was fascinating reading about all the criticism, serious and tongue in cheek that has surrounded the book over the time since its publication. It’s been criticised and hailed (depending on your viewpoint) as pacifist, fascist, socialist, showing your feminine side, and championing individualism, being true to yourself and encouraging children to be lazy or refuse to stand up to their responsibilities (source: The New Yorker).

The Song of Ferdinand the Bull

Disney also promoted the cartoon well before it appeared by releasing The Song of Ferdinand the Bull that was later covered by various artists. This is discussed in this wonderful blogpost. Do take the time to listen to the embedded videos. The Slim Gaillard jazz version reminds me of the jazz in the backing of Tom and Jerry cartoons and has a wonderful section where the double bass imitates a cow. On the downside, it also has homophobic connotations, with Ferdinand with his hands (hooves?) on his hips and the singer commenting at the end (in a very camp voice, no less) that “Ferdinand’s a sissie!” I’m assuming this wasn’t part of the original. I recommend the Dixieland Swingsters version, which shows various versions of the book’s cover and the ‘bonus video’ showing the pantomime cow version of Ferdinand.

Back to the book

 The best way to read this book if you don’t have a copy is to have it read aloud to you with all the illustrations clearly visible. Try this video. It’s interesting to see that the Disney animators hardly changed a thing except the style. Even the men’s funny hats are virtually the same and you can see that the joke of the wine corks hanging off the cork tree comes from Robert Lawson’s illustrations. Not until the scene in the bull ring is the story changed. In the book, Ferdinand enjoys the flowers in the ladies’ hair. In the cartoon, the matador has been thrown a bunch of flowers and tears his hair out when Ferdinand won’t fight. Thank goodness all those bandilleros and picadors and the matador were so afraid of Ferdinand’s reputation, or the pain would have driven him to his death, given his exaggerated reaction to the bee sting. As it is, its a delightful pacifist tale that infuriated two dictators and that’s a win in my book. Perhaps a more realistic version of events is given in the 2017 full length computer animation film Ferdinand which was nominated for all sorts of Academy Awards, but had the misfortune to come out in the same year as Disney Pixar’s Coco, with Coco having a full month longer at the box office to create a buzz. I haven’t seen either of them.

It’s quite amazing that a little picture book can have such a legacy. After all, Munro Leaf claimed that he only wrote it so his friend Robert Lawson had something to draw.