Author Archives: Vivien Horler

The biographer strikes back

Review: Vivien Horler

The Secret Life of John le Carré, by Adam Sisman (Profile Books)

Most of us will never have biographies written of our lives, and just as well, judging from the tension and upset between John le Carré and his biographer Adam Sisman.

John le Carré was published in 2015, and at least one reviewer complained there seemed to be a lot the reader was not being told. He was right, because it turned out Le Carré, whose real name was David Cornwell, had what he called “my own messy private life”, which he did not want made public.

Although the biography was written with Le Carré’s cooperation, it was agreed from the start that it would not be described as “authorised”. Sisman assumes this was so Cornwell could distance himself from it if necessary.

And as time went by he did want to distance himself, to the point that Sisman says Le Carré tried to undermine the work. Continue reading

The tale of a life by a master writer, in her own words

Review: Vivien Horler

A Memoir of my Former Self – A life in writing, by Hilary Mantel (John Murray)

Hilary Mantel was a serious writer, but not above the odd deliciously snide remark.

While we know her for her novels, especially the brilliant Wolf Hall trilogy that raked in two Booker Prizes, she also wrote extensively for newspapers and periodicals, including The Guardian, The Spectator, The New York Review of Books and the New Yorker.

Many of the pieces were film reviews, some of which are included in this volume.

She describes Babette’s Feast as “a perfect film”, adding pointedly: “There may be some people who don’t like it; but they will not be the sort of people you would like to dine with.” Continue reading

Murder, racial injustice, greed and corruption – the extraordinary tale of the Osage people

Review: Vivien Horler

Killers of the Flower Moon – Oil, money, murder and the birth of the FBI, by David Grann (Simon& Schuster)

While few people would condone murder, many might understand how it could be committed in the heat of the moment. But to plan and arrange a series of killings over a number of years, of people who were fond of you, with an eye on the main prize, seems particularly abhorrent.

This is at the centre of an extraordinary tale of greed and utter ruthlessness affecting members of the Native American Osage people in Osage County, Oklahoma, in the early 1920s.

The baddie behind the tale that unfolds in this book is a white man, William Hale, a businessman and cattleman of wide interests, and a respected reserve sheriff. He is considered by many Osage people as a benefactor. Continue reading

It’s snowing, it’s Christmas – and things are not going right

Review: Vivien Horler

Midnight at the Christmas Bookshop, by Jenny Colgan (Sphere/ Jonathan Ball)

Jenny Colgan is a best-selling writer of romantic comedy of whom I had never heard until I read Midnight at the Christmas Bookshop. If this is anything to go by, she’s a delightful writer.

And if you’ve never experienced Christmas in a snowy Edinburgh (I haven’t), this may inspire plans for your festive season this year.

Carmen is 30, unmarried, and working in a struggline bookshop in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Because she earns so little, she is living in a basement room in her lawyer sister’s beautiful house, along with sister Sofia, Sofia’s husband and their four children.

Carmen was in a bit of a bind and asked Sofia if she could stay for a couple of months, but it’s been a year now, and Sofia and her husband are getting fretful. Sofia is about to go back to work after maternity leave, and needs Carmen’s room for a new nanny. Continue reading

Bedside Table Books for January

These are among the books that landed on my desk this first month of 2024. The first four are from Exclusive Books’s top reads. Some will be reviewed in full later. – Vivien Horler

Normal Women – 900 years of making history, by Philippa Gregory (William Collins)

The Bayeux Tapestry, embroidered to embellish the newly built cathedral in Bayeux in 1077, tells the story of the conquest of England by William I, the French Duke of Normandy. It is 70m long and depicts an invasion force of 632 men, along with almost 200 horses, 55 dogs, 500 other animals and birds, and just five women – all of them threatened or suffering violence. In fact, points out author Philippa Gregory, there are more penises in the tapestry than women.

This indicates the way that women have been largely ignored by historians over the centuries. The only women of interest to male record keepers – mostly men of the church – were mothers, queens, taxpayers and criminals.

William Churchill’s magisterial A History of the English -Speaking Peoples, published in the 20th century, “is a description not of the ‘peoples’ but of English-speaking men, 1 413 named men, and just 98 named women. What we read as a history of [Britain] is a history of men, as viewed by men, as recorded by men”.

Gregory, an admired writer of historical novels, notably The Other Boleyn Girl, was originally inspired to write this (equally magisterial) book by the life of Mary Boleyn, sister to the unfortunate Anne. Mary “made her own remarkable life but enters history only as the sister to the more famous Anne. She made me think of all the other women whose names and stories are lost…”

Gregory says what she wanted to write was “a huge book about women – those engaged in unusual practices and those living uneventful lives…”

They were there, in history, brides and queens, nuns, witches and soldiers, “all part of women’s history… even though they lived and died without a man noticing them for long enough to write down their names”.

I think this book looks brilliant.

A Memoir of My Former Self – A life in writing, by Hilary Mantel (John Murray)

Hilary Mantel was the prize-winning author of the brilliant Wolf Hall trilogy, for which she won the Booker Prize twice, along with other novels and two works of non-fiction, Giving Up the Ghost and Mantel Pieces.

Now, following her death in 2022, her book editor for 20 years, Nicholas Pearson, has compiled a collection of her writing for newspapers and periodicals in which, he says, her wicked sense of humour often comes shining through.

The pieces reveal “a full and exhilarating self-portrait… she isn’t afraid to lay herself bare”. While Mantel Pieces was a collection of writing from the London Review of Books, this collection is drawn from wider sources.

She wrote for the Guardian for years, the New York Review of Books and The Spectator, as well as delivering the BBC Reith Lectures in 2017, which were meditations on how people interpret the past. Pearson says these lectures “are perhaps the finest distillation we have of the art of the historical novelist”.

In one piece, dated 2007, she refers to a remark by Martin Amis, who said he thought of journalism and criticism as writing left-handed, “where the connection isn’t to the part of me that novels come from”.

She says, being contrary and literal-minded, she decided to write a paragraph with her left hand, and this is what emerged:

“It’s so slow, so uncontrolled… the least flourish slides all over the paper… ‘W’ I find is the very devil… tension transmits to your whole body, as if you were trying to write with your legs. No wonder it was so tiring to be at infant school. Noon, and you were done for.”

I think this title looks great too.

Killers of the Flower Moon – Oil, money, murder and the birth of the FBI, by David Grann (Simon & Schuster)

This is an extraordinary story of indigenous people – Native Americans – who in the 1870s were kicked off their productive and traditional lands in Kansas to a barren reservation in Oklahoma, which turned out, several decades later, to be on top of some of some of the richest oil deposits in the US.

To access the oil, prospectors had to pay the Osage people for leases, rights and royalties, and by the early 1920s, the Osage were believed to be the wealthiest people per capita in the world.

At the centre of the story is Mollie Burkhart, a member of the Osage tribe, and her white husband, Ernest. In 1921 Osage people began to disappear, including Mollie’s older sister Anna, whose body was found a week or so later with a bullet wound to the top of the head.

The blurb on the back of this book says, “as the death toll climbed, the [fledgling] FBI took up the case and with the Osage began to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history”.

David Grann’s book, based on years of research, was first published in the US in 2017, but has now been rereleased to coincide with a Martin Scorsese feature film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert de Niro and Lily Gladstone.

I’ve watched the film’s trailer and read the first couple of chapters of the book, and it looks like a cracker.

The Secret Life of John le Carré, by Adam Sisman (Profile Books)

In his epigraph at the start of this volume, Adam Sisman quotes from John le Carré’s novel A Perfect Spy: “All his life he’s been inventing versions of himself that are untrue.” It appears that’s what Le Carré did too.

In 2015 Sisman published a biography of Le Carré, writing that it was the truth “insofar as I was able t ascertain it, but not the whole truth. While [Le Carré ] was alive, I was obliged to suppress some of what I knew.”

When the biography appeared, a reviewer wrote: “It’s hard not to feel there is a great deal we’re not being told.” He was right.

Among the information Sisman suppressed was the fact Le Carré had been a serial adulterer, with his pursuit of women apparently the key to unlocking his fiction.

In a letter to Sisman, Le Carré wrote: “My infidelities produced in my life a duality & tension that became almost a necessary drug for my writing, a dangerous edge of some kind… They are not therefore a ‘dark part’ of my life, separate from the ‘high calling’, so to speak, but, alas, integral to it, & inseparable.”

Sisman says without much effort he identified 11 women with whom Le Carré had had affairs in the first 30 years of his marriage, and he knew there were plenty more. Some were recognisable as characters in the novels.

Despite this, he forbade Sisman to write about them in his lifetime. Le Carré died in late 2020, and his wife Jane just a few weeks later.

This volume, then, is not a reworked biography but a supplement to the biography, containing material Sisman says he omitted then as well as information that has emerged since. “It might be described as What Was Left Out.”

How’s that for a teaser?

How to Fight a War, by Mike Martin (DeltaBooks/ Jonathan Ball)

With wars raging in Ukraine, the Middle East and Africa, geopolitical tensions  over China, Taiwan and the South China sea, “the world has not looked this chaotic for decades”.

Apparently there are ways to fight wars and ways not, and the current problem is that often those waging wars don’t have much grasp of the tried and tested ways to succeed.

A former British Army officer with military experience in Afghanistan, Mike Martin has a PhD in war studies, and is a senior visiting research fellow in the department of war studies at King’s College, London.

In his introduction he says at the core of How to Fight a War is the notion that winning wars “is about understanding and following basic principles… wars are almost always lost due to the same simple ideas being misapplied or ignored”.

“When war leaders fail in their aims, it is usually because they have ignored warfare’s simple ideas, thinking that, for instnance, logistics matter less to them than to their adversaries. This ‘wishing away’ happens because of three fallacies: overconfidence; being bewitched by a new technology that will ‘solve’ their problems; or misunderstanding the enemy and their perspective.”

The book is intended as a reference guide for the commander in chief of a nation’s military, because leaders need the strategic, operational and tactical skills to wage war successfully.

Martin has chapters on strategy, tactics, morale, training, the environment in which fighting takes place, the necessary land, sea and air forces, information and cyber operations, and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

He is nothing if not blunt.  Part three of the book, he says, “brings it all together and shows you how to orchestrate lethal violence to achieve your political goals. In other words, how to change your enemy’s mind, or kill them.”

The book has a foreword by Professor Abel Esterhuyse, chair of the department of strategic studies at Stellenbosch University’s faculty of military science.

Words Words Words, by David Crystal (Oxford University Press)

David Crystal OBE is a British academic who works on the linguistics of the English language. Linguistics is a highly technical and philosophical field, but Crystal’s brilliance – to my mind – is how he can make the subject fascinating to the lay person. He is the author of many readable books on the subject, including this one.

It is not a new book (it was first published in 2006) – but it is new to me; I spotted it on the Exclusive Books’ shelves at UCT’s summer school, and snapped it up.

He says while all the world’s 6 000 or so languages have fascinated him, English is his favourite, “probably because of its literature”. It is also his home language, which helps.

Everyone has some interest in words, whether in dialect words, or the way small children put words together, or the history of a word’s meaning.

So how many words are there in English? This is an impossible question, but we can get a hint from the Oxford English Dictionary which had over half a million words in its 1992 edition, or The Third New Webster International, the biggest American dictionary, which had 450 000 entries in 1961. Both dictionaries have grown since.

He writes about the development of language in children, saying most utter their first word around the age of 12 months, starting off with individual words, but some launch directly into simple sentences.

Lord Macaulay, the historian, was said to have been a late talker who began speaking in full sentences at three. There is a story, which Crystal is pretty sceptical about, that when he was asked, at three, why he started talking so late, Macaulay is said to have replied: “Hitherto, nothing of sufficient significance has warranted my verbal attention.”

This is a little book, but a delight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This story of a hero, told by a celebrated explorer and former soldier, makes for a great read

Review: Vivien Horler

Lawrence of Arabia, by Ranulph Fiennes (Michael Joseph)

Thomas Edward Lawrence was a history graduate with a first from Oxford when he first went to Arabia – in what is now southern Turkey – to supervise a British Museum archaeological dig in Carchemis, an ancient Hittite city.

It was1909 and he was 25. Within four years he was fluent in Arabic as well as a number of dialects, and had travelled far and wide, learning much about Arab customs and earning the respect of differing and often warring tribes.

He might have stayed there at the dig, had World War 1 not broken out in 1914, altering the course of history.

Little did Lawrence know, writes Ranulph Fiennes, that events in Syria would soon change the course of the war, “and the hopes and dreams of an Arab prince and much of the Middle East would rest on his shoulders”. Continue reading

Exploring the subleties, humour and pain of being coloured in SA

Review: Vivien Horler

Coloured – How classification became culture, by Tessa Dooms and Lynsey Ebony Chutel (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Trevor Noah, the South African treasure and winner of an Emmy award this month for The Daily Show, isn’t coloured.

That might surprise most South Africans, black and white, but perhaps not coloureds and almost certainly not Noah himself.

In his book Born a Crime he describes how he is the child of a liaison, illegal at the time, between a Xhosa mother and a (white) Swiss father. He then grew up in Soweto. Continue reading

Truth – the angel you cannot outrun

Review: Vivien Horler

The Little Liar, by Mitch Albom (Sphere)

The Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said once described Palestinians as “the victims of the victims, the refugees of the refugees”.

This was a reference to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and how the establishment of the state of Israel, prompted in part by Western guilt that the Holocaust had happened at all, led to Palestinians losing homes, livelihoods and lives.

The Little Liar, by the renowned Jewish-American writer Mitch Albom, is a Holocaust novel. It focuses on Greek Jews from Salonika (or Thessaloniki) who were rounded up by the Germans in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz. Continue reading

A memoir that remind us of what doctors are taught: First, do no harm.

Review: Vivien Horler

Undoctored, by Adam Kay (Trapeze)

Around six years ago a British junior doctor, Adam Kay, wrote a hilarious, poignant and often angry memoir called This is Going to Hurt, based on his experiences with the National Health Service.

He finished the memoir with a letter to the British Health Minister, pointing out the NHS wasn’t made up of hospitals, pharmacies and GP surgeries as much as it was made up of the people who worked there.

And he issued a heartfelt plea: “Be the politician in a generation who changes the stuck record and treats them with an ounce of respect.”

That plea fell on deaf ears. As I write this – on January 5, 2024 – UK junior doctors are on a six-day strike, with their picket-line posters protesting they are overworked and under-paid. Continue reading

If women had been in charge, we might have been driving electric cars for more than a century

Review: Vivien Horler

The Race to the Future – The adventure that accelerated the 20th century, by Kassia St Clair (John Murray/ Jonthan Ball)

In the world’s quest for fewer polluting emissions, electric cars are being touted as the next new best thing. And best they might be – but they’re certainly not new.

As author Kassia St Clair tells us, at the turn of the 20th century around 40% of American automobiles were powered by steam, 38% by electricity and just 22% by petrol, “which had a reputation for being smellier, noisier, less reliable and prone to price fluctuations”. (As we South Africans well know, bracing ourselves on the first Wednesday of every month.)

This is one of hundreds of fascinating facts St Clair has uncovered in this amazing title.

Central to the narrative is the description of the longest, toughest car race or rally ever have been held, from Peking (now Beijing) to Paris in 1907, over around 13 000km on roads that varied from good (although often cobbled for the convenience of horses) in major cities to dirt roads to mule and camel tracks. Continue reading