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Tales of the Jazz Age (Alma Classics)
Tales of the Jazz Age (Alma Classics)
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Where all the best girls round here marry fellas and go off somewhere, 26 July 2016
This is a collection of short stories produced by a still youthful Scott Fitzgerald before he fell prey to the alcoholism which befuddled so many of his characters. The list of contents is accompanied by the author's own explanatory comments, written at the point when they were assembled in 1922 from different magazines where they had been originally published. He was clearly a natural story teller, capable of producing a piece at great speed, such as "The Camel's Back" which he wrote in a day.

His style can be quite pedantically C19: "So gaily and noisily were the peace and prosperity hymned by the scribes and poets of the conquering people that more and more spenders had gathered from the provinces to drink the wine of excitement, and faster and faster did the the merchants dispose of their trinkets and slippers until they sent up a mighty cry for more trinkets and more slippers in order that they might give in barter what was demanded of them". At times, Scott Fitzgerald reminds me of PG Wodehouse or Jerome K Jerome, but without the humour, in fact, with a darker thread beneath the flippancy. I found the stories, set mainly in the well-heeled middle class world of 1920s urban America, quite dated, and grew rapidly tired of the boozy - if skilfully lampooned - US version of Hooray Henries, and the shallow, over-protected young daughters of Aluminium Men, Iron Men or Brass Men, etcetera, destined only for the marriage market.

Although I appreciate the author's fluency and wit, I could only take so much of these stories, choosing to focus on those with more original and creative plots, such as "The diamond as big as the Ritz" which imagines the consequences of discovering a diamond so huge that to advertise one's find would immediately destroy the scarcity value and therefore monetary benefit of the stone. This is also a reflection on the corrupting effect of power in a secret, self-contained world financed by judicial exploitation of the diamond.

"The Curious case of Benjamin Button", recently made into a film, is also an interesting story, inspired by Mark Twain's remark that "it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and worst part at the end", although I'm not sure everyone would agree that babyhood is the best part. Benjamin Button duly starts off as an old man, who find most companionship with his grandfather, ending up as a small boy who enjoys going to kindergarten and playing with his grandson. The best part of his life is the brief period in which his capacity and appearance match his actual age, so that he can be a successful soldier, a useful means of avoiding the wife who has become too old for his taste. Apart from the snobbery, there are frequent little flashes of racism which, although an aspect of the times, are a bit disconcerting now, as when Benjamin Button's father, traumatised by the birth of a son who looks like an old man, passed "the bustling stores, the slave market (it's the 1860s) and "for a dark instant wished passionately that his son was black".

Despite its rather chauvinist ending, I liked the farcical " The Camel's Back", about a young man who goes partying in a camel suit, with his taxi driver serving as the back legs, after a row with his fiancee who is reluctant to commit to marriage - this sounds very Bertie Woosterish. I was most impressed by "May Day" which in portraying the frenetic life in the New York of 1920, "in the general hysteria of that spring which inaugurated the Age of Jazz" also manages to convey grim undercurrents beneath the hectic partying, with soldiers trying to adjust to life as peacetime nonetities and the hounding of socially conscious "communists" foreshadowing the McCarthyism to come.

DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guide: Iceland
DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guide: Iceland
by DK
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars The real land of fire and ice, 26 July 2016
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I used this compact guide as a supplement to a four nights’ package holiday in the Reykjavik area of south-west Iceland, where four of the recommended “top 10 highlights” are located and lived up to expectations, namely: Žingvellir National Park (anglicised to Thingvellir) and the site of the original 36 chieftains’ annual national assembly; the Geysir Hot Springs including Strokkur, Iceland’s equivalent of Old Faithful; the magnificent Gullfoss waterfall where it is possible to get terrifyingly close to the thundering water and spray; Blue Lagoon with its warm continually replenished geothermal waters, cloudy with supposedly health-giving chemicals and good for floating

As is typical of Eyewitness Guides, it is beautifully presented with plenty of photographs giving an accurate impression of the country, useful maps (including one fold-out map of the whole island and a handy laminated pull-out map) and concise, relevant information. It is set out very clearly, by both area and comprehensive range of topics and would be helpful for a longer self-organised tour of say, 7-10 days.

Apart from emphasising that everyone working in the service sector seems to speak good English (at least in Reykjavik where there also seems to be a good deal of migrant labour) with credit cards readily accepted, an omission is the failure to mention the at times mind-boggling prices for British tourists, with items often costing two, even three times more than they would in the UK. Admittedly I changed my pounds into króna at possibly the worst possible time just after Brexit. It was ironical that we were able to explore free of charge the fascinating (if possible white elephant folly) Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, baled out for completion with government money after the financial crisis of 2008, but decided not to pay the equivalent of more than £12 each for a 15 minute video shown there about Iceland.

Nightblind (Dark Iceland)
Nightblind (Dark Iceland)
by Ragnar Jonasson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.83

4.0 out of 5 stars Astray in men and weather, 25 July 2016
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It seemed particularly relevant to read this on a trip to Iceland, having enjoyed “Snowblind”, the first in the “Dark Iceland Series” featuring the decent if at times impulsive young police officer Ari Thór who rashly accepts a post in the remote northern town of Siglufjördur, still economically depressed "since the herring disappeared", where “the fact he was untainted by local tradition, gossip, small-town politics and old feuds was a strong point in his favour”. Town-bred, he fails “to understand what was so enchanting about loneliness, isolation and cold” and remains “puzzled by the attraction of skiing”.

“Nightblind” is set five years later, that is after the financial crisis which shook Iceland, with Ari Thór, now father of a small boy, communications with his partner Kristin still troubled, partly because of his reticence over his father’s disappearance when he was young. Ari Thór is soon embroiled in investigating the shooting of his new boss, Inspector Herjóldur, who seems to have “pulled strings” to gain the promotion for which Ari Thór also applired. The gun crime is sufficiently grave to make not just national but Nordic news in general, attacks on the police being so rare in Iceland. An intriguing parallel theme cuts continually into the main storyline in the form of extracts from a journal written some thirty years previously. A patient in a psychiatric ward, the author’s identity and relevance to the crime are kept a mystery until near the end.

Like the first novel, this is meticulous in its plotting, a page turner which avoids being formulaic, but with an occasionally clunky style, particularly in the dialogue, which may be the fault of the translator rather than the author himself.

Given an authentic note by his lawyer’s training and experience, Ragnar Jonasson creates a strong sense of atmosphere with descriptions of the snow and “all-enveloping darkness” of winter in contrast to the “dazzlingly bright days” of the brief summer. Yet he seems much more interested in psychology, exploring people’s characters, often complex, shifting emotions and what makes them tick. He conveys a sense of Icelandic attitudes and values: a kind of pragmatic liberalism, underlain by darker threads of corruption and male domestic violence. He creates an impression of life in Iceland through continual images and vignettes: the depressing effect on the town mayor of the October rain, the rented property in the shadow of the town’s avalanche defences; the abandoned house with a tragic history, now the haunt of drug dealers, located near the mouth of the tunnel which connects Siglufjördur with the outside world, easing the sense of claustrophobia by making it "almost impossible to be snowbound any longer".

I shall certainly read the third novel “Blackout”, although I am disappointed that it is set in time immediately after “Snowblind”, when I prefer to read novels in sequence to see how the recurring characters progress.

Hunters in the Dark
Hunters in the Dark
by Lawrence Osborne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

3.0 out of 5 stars Not being Graham Greene, 14 July 2016
This review is from: Hunters in the Dark (Paperback)
An English teacher in his late twenties, Robert escapes every summer from rural Sussex, which some people might consider a pleasant “prison”, to drift ever further afield. Having found Iceland and Greece “remarkably similar” – which suggests a certain ignorance or lack of observation on his part, Robert finds himself in Cambodia, having crossed the border from Thailand. It is unclear what he is escaping from, and what he hopes to find. “His rage was not obvious to himself. What was it directed against?” Drifting between places with no clear focus of interest, he comes across a Buddhist temple in a nondescript town. “It was a place with its own solitude and austerity and he liked it”. But only the previous evening he was escaping boredom in a casino. Eventually, he slides into involvement with some shady characters. Will this destroy him, or shake him into a more purposeful life?

The front cover likens the author Lawrence Osborne to Graham Greene. He has led a nomadic life in countries including Thailand, which suggests that he both understands wanderlust, and has a first-hand knowledge of Cambodia. Although it sounded like the type of novel I would enjoy, it failed to engage me. There was nothing to compensate for the fact that the plot is too slow to get off the blocks. The prose seemed wooden, with irritating little glitches (How could he see the rolling green hills of Cambodia in the dark, or fill his pockets with notes worth in total only 100 US dollars? What’s an “awkward” shirt?). I found the characters two-dimensional, dialogues banal, a lack of humour, no perceptive insights or startling imagery.

I agree with reviewers who have commented on the descriptions which read like extracts from guide books, on the tendency to tell us what to think about Robert, rather than reveal his character traits for us to mull over, and the abrupt changes in “point of view” later in the novel. I would also have liked a glossary of Cambodian terms to save the distraction of having to stop reading to look them up – or remain frustrated with a partial understanding.

Yet both professional and amateur reviews are on balance positive, so perhaps the chance reading of some exceptionally well-written books recently has made me set the bar too high.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither
Spill Simmer Falter Wither
by Sara Baume
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Not the kind of person who is able to do things, 11 July 2016
The intriguing title is a sufficient magnet for this original take on Ray, prematurely aged at fifty-seven, a social outcast since childhood, who forms a relationship with a dog he names “One Eye”, mutilated by a badger attack. The dog’s reduced range of vision reflects Ray’s limited and distorted view of life. They have much in common: both are physically repulsive, the dog because of the way he has been trained to dig out and bait badgers, the man through lack of normal “socialisation” as a child, never attending school, and as an adult never having kissed a woman or made a telephone call. Living in squalor, he fills his deceased father’s house with junk in what seems like an advanced state of OCD, yet he shows frequent kindness to the dog, and his voracious reading and listening to the radio have given him a quirky general knowledge which informs his turns insightful, warped and even humorous observation of his surroundings. An unfortunate chain of events convinces Ray he must take to the road with One Eye, in a trek which one knows must end badly.

Early on, Ray’s stated, “I’m especially afraid of children” suggests that he may be feared by the local community as a paedophile. As we discover fragments of his past non-life, our sympathy may grow, yet there is also an increasing sense of darkness and unease, that despite his normal passivity, even gentleness, he may be as capable of uncontrolled or amoral violence as One Eye. At one point, Ray’s observation that the dog, with his frenetic energy, is of course mad, is an irony since it appears that his own sanity is slipping.

The decision to make Ray the first person narrator, addressing a one way monologue to One Eye, involves us more directly. There is poignancy in Ray’s speculation over the lives other people live behind closed doors, existences which he can never know, but in their way as futile as his. Like other readers, I found that Ray’s “voice” belongs too much to the star of a creative writing course rather than an isolated man self-educated on a diet of junk shop and mobile library books, his experience confined to a small Irish seaside community.

This book is set apart by the original, poetic style which needs to be read slowly to absorb its intensity. The alliteration and rich wordplay reminds me of Dylan Thomas: “I dream it’s dungeon dark…I’m belting.. Demented, directionless.” The capacity to develop descriptions of ordinary objects and situations, to sustain them, page after page, brings to mind Proust, except that his genteel madeleine is a far cry from a decrepit cane chair, or a self-harming habit of picking at one’s finger tips until the bloody wounds go septic. Striking descriptions of a shoreline are outweighed by unflinching images of nature’s violence, the ugliness of pollution, the sordid detail of bodily functions. “There’s a layer of filth sunk into the grooves of the skirting board, buttered across the lino. Bugs creep out of the wall at night to gnaw the filth and its stickiness gathers tiny tumbleweeds of passing hair.”

Eventually, this unrelenting preoccupation with dirt and decay becomes oppressive and monotonous. I grew tired of the repetition of One Eye’s “maggoty noseand the triplets of present participles: the dog “running, running, running”; “We are driving, driving, driving”; the conger eels are “nibbling, nibbling, nibbling”. Also, as an author who grew up in Ireland rather than America, why do her characters “look out the window”?

Clearly very talented, Sarah Baume mars her first novel by laying all the putrefaction, bodily fluids and general repulsiveness on too thickly. In not knowing when to stop, the book becomes too protracted to support its slender storyline. I felt so bludgeoned and desensitised that I only kept on reading to discover exactly what sad conclusion it would reach. I believe that the ending has left some readers confused. After a few moments reflection, I was convinced that I understood it and that what seemed at first like a rather trite epilogue was in fact quite effective, except that some readers will find too bleak the sense that an individual human existence does not matter in the overriding life force which just goes on.

This will provide a well-manured field of topics for a book group: it will divide readers, examples of what makes the writing so original are worth discussing, together with questions about Ray. To what extent is he responsible for his past actions, or even his inaction in allowing himself to sink into the vicious cycle of being shunned by others because he does not comply with the accepted norms of behaviour? Is it credible that he could be so dysfunctional in some ways yet resourceful in others? His life may seem a tragic waste, but has he gained something precious in his ability to observe objects and the world above him so closely?

So Long, See You Tomorrow (Vintage Classics)
So Long, See You Tomorrow (Vintage Classics)
by William Maxwell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.56

4.0 out of 5 stars Destroyed by what was not his doing, 6 July 2016
This is not the only novel by William Maxwell to have been born out of an acute, lifelong sense of desolation over the loss of his mother when he was only ten. The opening page hooks the reader with the account of a pistol shot, marking the murder of Illinois tenant farmer Lloyd Wilson. However, it gradually becomes apparent that this is not a murder mystery, but rather a slow-paced, introspective exploration of how people’s lives can be irrevocably damaged by different kinds of loss: on one hand, recalling events as an old man, the narrator describes how he was affected by his mother’s death and his father’s remarriage; on the other, Maxwell provides a moving account of how the narrator’s childhood friend Cletus Smith was devastated by the effects of his mother’s infidelity. Maxwell manages to create sympathy for all the parties involved. For Cletus, the loss of a familiar routine, a sense of purpose as he helped on the farm, the company of his dog, were the most devastating aspects of the tragedy.

The novel’s strengths lie in the author’s ability to express so truthfully and with such deceptive ease how people think, to conjure up vivid visual impressions of the Illinois praires - plus the all-pervading quiet in which small sounds travel long distances - and also to convey a sense of society in rural or small town, conservative, hidebound 1920s America.

The story has an unusual structure, switching between first person recollection, and third person drama containing facts which the narrator could not have known – at some points we even enter into the mind of Cletus Smith’s faithful dog Trixie. Maxwell’s style sometimes seems best suited to short story mode, since he is easily distracted into the thumbnail sketch of a character who then fades out of the story, or into an anecdote which loses sight of any main plot or narrative drive. Perhaps I have missed something, but even the title does not seem to quite fit.

It seems that as fiction editor for the New Yorker, William Maxwell is remembered mainly for nurturing the talent of such major writers as John Updike. Regarded as denied due recognition in his lifetime, Maxwell is now receiving belated praise in a recent revival, often being compared with John Williams, the similarly acclaimed author of “Stoner”, another novel which portrays thought processes and emotions in great detail.

I found this novel absorbing, the kind of writing which needs to be read slowly and more than once to appreciate fully both its technical skill and the ideas conveyed. Yet, although I was struck by the originality of Maxwell’s approach, its focus on bleakness, hints of obsessive self-absorption, and the repetitious hammering home of certain points in a structure which often seems unduly fractured combine to leave me with an ambivalent view of this book.

La Femme Au Carnet Rouge
La Femme Au Carnet Rouge
by Antoine Laurain
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £8.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If Belphégor could speak, 5 July 2016
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When bookseller Laurent finds a mauve handbag, presumably discarded by a thief since it contains neither purse nor phone, the personal possessions it still contains, not least a red notebook of quirky reflections, arouses his interest in the woman who owns it. Through a mixture of persistence, advice from his shrewd teenage daughter and sheer luck, he manages to discover her name, locate her address, even insinuate himself into her life. But will the real woman, perhaps tritely named Laure, live up to the imagined one? Will she be able to forgive an intrusion which has troubled some readers as obsessive to the point of seeming a little creepy?

What is essentially a light, whimsical romance with a somewhat contrived ending has frequent touches of humour or poignancy, and is given depth by some striking passages as when Laurent muses on the relevance to his life of a book title, “La Nostalgie du possible” Can one feel nostalgia for events which have never taken place – regrets for situations in which we are almost sure of not having made the right decision, as in a relationship?

References to real life writers may seem a bit pretentious at times, but I was interested to read about the writer and installation artist Sophie Calle, who may well have inspired this novel’s plot by her habit of following complete strangers without their knowledge in order to produce striking photographs of them. This led to the famous “Suite vénitienne” where she pursed a man to Venice, in a bizarre artistic inversion of male stalking of women.

An enjoyable read in French because of the flowing, musical prose, I would probably enjoy it less in English.

Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare
Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare
by Jonathan Bate
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Re-entrance to a plauditry, 3 July 2016
Sequenced to follow the seven phases of a man’s life in the famous “All the world’s a stage” soliliquy, chapters takes the form of themed essays.

Readers will be struck by different revelations and insights in the spate of ideas. I realised for the first time that it was the banning of the cycles of medieval mystery plays by the Protestant Reformation which created a vacuum into which Shakespeare could present his new plays, untrammelled by dogma, relatively free to range over a wide range of topics and ideas.

I liked the idea of Shakespeare continually drawing on his Warwickshire roots. So, when culling ideas for “As You Like It” from a prose romance called “Rosalynd”, he turned the forests of the Ardennes into Arden. When insulted for his lowly origins by an educated, now forgotten rival playwright, who called him “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers”, Shakespeare took humorous revenge in “The Comedy of Errors” with a punning dialogue on “breaking in with a crow without feather” that is to say, a crowbar. The exchange is much more entertaining when you know the context.

It was the father of a friend of Shakespeare’s who translated into English details of the universe according to Copernicus, with the sun at the centre. When the accepted belief was in the “necessary correspondence between the order of the cosmos and that of the state”, Shakespeare showed his independence of mind and flexibility of thought in giving humorous irony to to Edmund in “King Lear”:

“when we are sick in fortune – often the surfeits of our own behaviour – we make guilty of our disaster the sun, the moon and stars, as if we were villains of necessity…..My father compounded with my mother under the dragon’s tail and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous”.

Just before the abortive coup which ended in his execution, the Earl of Essex may have been inspired to sedition by Shakespeare’s Richard II: if Shakespeare had been sent to the Tower for this, great works such as Othello, Lear, Macbeth and the Tempest might never have been written. As it was, eighteen of his major plays which did not appear in print in his lifetime would probably have been lost if two colleagues from the Company of King’s Men to which he belonged had not ensured their publication after his death.

We see Shakespeare daring to experiment with the ideas of Montaigne, exploring a range of philosophies including the Epicurean view, suspected because of its association with atheism: the need to give vent to one’s feelings rather than maintain Stoical patience, for “Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopped, Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.”

There are gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare. Was he obliged to steer clear of King James’s court for a while since he had syphilis? Yet we have many remarkable details, such as the amount a colleague left him in his will, the fact that his energy was exhausting, but there was widespread admiration for his “wit” in the widest sense of linguistic talent, humour, imagination and judgement. So, the author's occasional attempts at surmise seem like unnecessary contrivance.

With his astonishing knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and works, perhaps Jonathan Bate may be forgiven a convoluted style and a weight of detail which is sometimes too much to absorb. This book has helped me to appreciate Shakespeare’s wit and insight, filling me with good intentions to revisit his sonnets, even study some of his plays again.

The Glorious Heresies: Winner of the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliot Prize 2016
The Glorious Heresies: Winner of the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliot Prize 2016
by Lisa McInerney
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Stab at a female Irish Irvine Welsh?, 30 Jun. 2016
“It hit him like a midwife’s slap” is a good line in the Irish idiom, but what would a teenage boy know about midwives? I appreciate the raw energy of Lisa McInery’s style and the sincerity of her portrayal of a group of dead-end Cork-based drug-takers and dealers, prostitutes and criminals, their excuse being poverty in post-financial crash Eire, and a flaky, hypocritical Catholic tradition.

Nevertheless, what is described on the back cover as a “punchy, edgy, sexy, fizzling, feast of a debut novel”, “a gripping and often riotously funny tale”, left me cold. I found the unrelenting sordid violence unrelieved by any of the famous Irish quirky humour or lyrical prose. At one point, when a man is shot, there is no real sense of shock or emotion. It may of course have been the author’s intention to portray death like that in an arcade game, but across the board, characters are not developed in any way that makes me engage with them. Although it did not promise a “happy ever after”, the ending seemed somewhat sentimental.

This is one of those novels which divides readers. Whether or not one likes a novel is always subjective. Some of the most challenging novels the most worth reading are an acquired taste. However, after decades of reading a wide variety of fiction, I may commend this as a debut novel (but why should one make allowances for a first book anyway?) but, as others have said, it is quite long with a shambling plot, and I did not feel it was worth spending the time needed to read it.

The History of Modern France: From the Revolution to the War with Terror
The History of Modern France: From the Revolution to the War with Terror
by Jonathan Fenby
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.24

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From Catholic monarchy versus social justice to "bleak chic", 21 Jun. 2016
Observing the newly restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII’s reluctant choice of ministers, the devious Talleyrand leaning on the arm of brutal Fouché , Chateaubriand described “vice leaning on the arm of crime”. A Christmas Eve dinner during the Prussian siege of Paris in 1871 included, elephant consommé and bear ribs in pepper sauce from slaughtered zoo animals, along with the more mundane stuffed donkey’ s head and roast cat with rats. These entertaining asides spice up Jonathan Fenby’s broad sweep from the ill-fated attempt to restore the monarchy, after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, in the shape of the unimaginative, ageing brother of the guillotined Louis XV1, to the economic decline under the unpopular socialist President Hollande, aggravated by terrorist events like the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Throughout the book, I kept seeing parallels between past popular revolts and the present unrest: left-wing republicans trying to limit working hours, although the modern-day 35 hours a week was a ten hour day in the Paris of 1848; C19 Parisians uprooting trees to form barricades, and today’s CGT unionists burning tyres outside power stations in protest against legislation to make organisations more competitive, with the irony of a modern socialist government seeming to work on the side of employers. Of course, the paradox of the First Republic of 1848 was far keener, “a reminder of how eminently respectable republicans turned the troops on their own people motivated primarily by the desire for a decent livelihood.”

Jonathan Fenby is most readable when he focuses on particular people or events: the succession of four monarchs, including the well-intentioned “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe, whose approach to reform was too moderate to appease the republican genie let out of the bottle, particularly in 1848, the Year of Revolutions, which perhaps the author could have explained more. Napoleon’s step-nephew (I think, a few family trees would have been useful) managed to hold power for eighteen years as France’s last monarch, and presided over some much-needed economic progress and restoration of national standing, despite being dismissed by Bismarck as “a sphinx without riddles” and criticised for his amoral pragmatism. The humiliation of his loss of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 is an aspect of the ongoing rivalry between the two countries either side of the Rhine: now, France suffers by comparison with Germany as regards growth rates and trade deficits.

Fenby paints a fascinating portrait of De Gaulle, who comes across as an egotistical dictator, alternating as is often the case between arrogant certainty and melancholy, profoundly ungrateful for the help received from Britain and America, presumably a constant reminder of his own impotence when France was occupied in WW2.

The price of covering so much is a text at times so condensed as to become indigestible and occasionally unclear, particularly in the period 1870-1939 which I found hard going. I accept that forty-two governments between two world wars, with a system resulting in short-lived coalitions, is hard to cover adequately. Fenby tries to aid clarity with subheadings, boxes to feature somewhat arbitrarily chosen individuals, and day-by-day accounts of some key periods of unrest. However, I could have done with a glossary of the large number of players involved, a timeline of key events, plus an explanation of the current French voting system, to avoid the need to refer elsewhere.

Fenby leaves us with a rather bleak picture of a depressed country which despite its sense of being special, has fallen behind as it prefers “to reject economic modernisation in favour of defence of tradition”. Although the Republic has been accepted since 1870 as the regime that divides the French the least, the warring factions remain: “the country invariably opts for right over left with occasional eruptions to prove that the revolutionary legacy is not dead”. I would have preferred more of this kind of an analysis, perhaps a two volume history with a break in 1945, to give more space to develop themes.
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