Current Events

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Any Human Heart; Lord Jim; A Foreign Country; and Confidence Men

William Boyd.  Any Human Heart.  ©2002 2011   I was a way into this before I realized I had seen the BBC miniseries of this on PBS.  What reminded me was a chance meeting of the principal character, Logan Mountbatten, with the Duke of Windsor on a golf course in Portugal.  The Duke wanted to play through, asked for a light for his cigarette and then asked if he could keep the box.  The novel is drawn from disjointed entries in journals ranging from Logan’s childhood to his death at 85.  He’s a mildly successful author, journalist and art critic.  Along the way through his rather sordid life, he meets every English writer I’ve ever heard of plus Hemingway and many other Americans.  During WW II he works as an intelligence officer, gets cross wise with the Duke in the Bahamas, gets imprisoned in solitary in Switzerland for 18 months after parachuting in on a mission to trace fleeing Nazis and comes home to London to find that the love of his life, Freya, and his daughter were killed in an air raid.  Not only that, Freya had married an Icelander, because Logan was presumed dead and the Icelander now owned his house.  Later he runs an art gallery in New York owned by one of his public school classmates and then returns to London and ends up in the hospital after getting hit by a postal van.  When he gets out months later, his is so close to destitution that he makes dog food an important part of his diet and sells newspapers on the street for a radical political group, the SPK, which turns out to be a cell of the Baader-Meinhof  Gang..  Finally he moves to a country house in France that was left to him by a French writer friend.  It’s all very dreary and depressing, and Boyd can’t seem to resist burdening the reader with Logan’s sexual encounters and hang-ups.

Joseph Conrad.  Lord Jim.  1899-1900  Somehow I didn’t get this read 60 or 65 years ago, but I knew the story from the movie, and I guess I have mixed feelings about Peter O’Toole as Jim.  From the book Jim seemed less dreamy and more a man of action.  It’s a great story.  Jim loses all credibility in this world by joining the officers in abandoning a sinking ship and its passengers only to find that the ship didn’t sink and the passengers were rescued by another ship.  Jim redeems himself when he becomes the protector of a village way up a river in Patusan, a fictional country with a mixed Malay and Bugis population that is probably based on Berau, a part of Indonesian Borneo once visited by Conrad but may be Sarawak or a pirate colony on Sumatra.  The story is mostly narrated by Charles Marlow, a sea captain who witnesses Jim’s trial for abandoning ship but who later learns to value him.  Lord Jim is 85th on the Modern Library list of 100 greatest novels of the 20th C.     Wikipedia has an excellent review and analysis: 
Charles Cumming.  A Foreign Country.  ©2012  There’s still more to say about MI-6, although it’s called SIS in the novel and the chief is called “C” instead of  “M.”  The whole premise for this spy story is just unbelievable, but if one suspends belief, it’s pretty exciting.  Amelia is about to be appointed as C.  When she was 20 and working as a nanny for a French family in North Africa, her employer got her pregnant.  She had the child, a boy, and immediately gave it up for adoption by a French couple.  A unit of the French secret service sets out to use this to compromise her.  They have the adoptive parents murdered while on vacation in Egypt, and they kidnap the son.  Then they have one of their agents impersonate the son.  He contacts Amelia and they agree to meet in Tunis.  Naturally Amelia covers her tracks to hide this rendezvous from SIS.  A senior colleague and friend of Amelia’s becomes concerned at her apparent disappearance.  Because he doesn’t want to draw attention to something that might jeopardize Amelia’s appointment, he hires a disgraced former SIS operative, Thomas Kell, to track her down.  Kell does find her and while he’s at it, he unravels the French plot and rescues Amelia’s real son.

Ron Suskind.  Confidence Men.  2011   I thought I had followed the events of the past seven years rather closely and that I had a pretty good understanding of the who, what, when and why of events on Wall Street and in Washington.  Suskind gives his readers an in-depth analysis like nothing I’ve seen before.  About all I can say is that if you want the whole story, read this book.  Some random things that stuck with me are these:  Obama is incredibly smart and had an excellent understanding of the inner workings of Wall Street, but sometimes he failed to make critical decisions; Tim Geitner was too invested in Wall Street, even though he had never worked there in the private sector; Rahm Emmanuel was the wrong choice for Chief of Staff; Larry Summers may be a genius, but he knows this and it can get in the way of getting to the right decision on critical policies; everyone should have listened to Paul Volker; there are some good guys on Wall Street but they are far outnumbered by executives who are just plain dishonest -- true confidence men.  I was left with little hope that we will ever get back to an economy that works for anyone other than the investment bankers and corporate raiders.

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