Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Irene and The Honourable Schoolboy

"Perhaps a more realistic point of departure is a certain typhoon Saturday in mid-1974, three o'clock in the afternoon, when Hong Kong lay battened down waiting for the next onslaught."

Today is a Saturday in 2011 in Washington, DC and we have a hurricane, not a typhoon.  Hurricane Irene is starting to hit us but so far, we just have moderate rain.  I am staying home with my dog and waiting for the storm to pass.  We have plenty of food and water.  We do not have much ammunition - one full clip (17 rounds and one in the chamber, plus maybe 8  or 9 extra bullets I rescued from the laundry).  We do have plenty of books and in a minor coincidence, I happened to start John le Carre's The Honourable Schoolboy this week - a book that opens on a Saturday with a typhoon.

If the storm lasts a long time, I have the following books to go to:  Shutter Island - Dennis Lehane, Stormy Weather - Carl Hiassen (Note: I will reread a paperback copy, not the signed first edition or the signed pre-publication galley copy), Typhoon - Joseph Conrad, and The Perfect Storm - Sebastian Junger.  If things get really bad, I have a copy of The Tempest.  (It would serve me well to spend some time with The Tempest just to memorize some of the insults: 
A pox o' your throat, you bawling, blasphemous,
incharitable dog!
Hang, cur! hang, you whoreson, insolent noisemaker!)

The book I may want to read the most (and is set at sea and in storms so I think I can count it as hurricane reading), however, is The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall.  I picked up an ugly, foxed trade paperback copy at a sidewalk sale the day after the earthquake.  One of my favorite writers is Jonathan Coe and his last book, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, introduced me to the story of Donald Crowhurst.  (BTW - the same book also introduced me to the great David Nobbs and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.) Crowhurst entered a round the world solo boat race sponsored by the Sunday Times of London in 1968.  During the course of the race, he suffered a breakdown (mental) and falsified his progress in the voyage and then died at sea, having only sailed in the Atlantic. This is supposed to be a great book from what I hear.  There is a blurb from the New Yorker on the cover which claims it is the only book that magazine has ever called "a masterpiece."

[I found the review of The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst in the November 14, 1970 issue of the the magazine and it is indeed called a masterpiece.  But it is a small review.  The main book review in this issue of of Kingsley Amis's The Green Man.  It gets a good review.  Predictably, I am now kicking myself for not buying the first American edition I recently saw - it was a beautiful copy except for a tear in the dust jacket.  The book was so nice that the tear - about an inch long - was more disfiguring than a tear usually is, if you follow.  And in a bit of pointless literary gossip/coincidence: Nicholas Tomalin, author of the Crowhurst book, was married to Claire Tomalin, the great critic and biographer.  Tomalin was killed by a Syrian missile while covering the Yom Kippur war in 1973.  Claire soon became literary editor of The New Statesman and sometime thereafter had an affair with Martin Amis.  Tomalin is now married to Michael Frayn, making them, I think, the world's current greatest married pair of writers.  Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning has been the emergency back up book I carry in my bag for the past few months.]

Now I will read until the hurricane passes.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Now I know what an earthquake feels like.  It is very strange to feel the earth shake.  The quake in Washington, DC only lasted for 30 seconds (anything longer than that would have been terrifying - 30 seconds is just long enough to realize something strange is happening and to think about it for a bit and then it stops) and was just under 6.0 on the Richter scale -  much smaller than the quakes they get in Haiti, New Zealand, Japan and California.  But since we never have quakes like this on the east coast, it was quite remarkable.

The damage from the quake was minor.  My copy of The Little Book of Calm  (perhaps the one book I would need immediately after an earthquake) fell off the shelf it was on.  And a framed copy of a photograph of the Chicago Water Tower (one of only a few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871) fell off a bookcase and into a lampshade.  I have tons of books stacked all over the place - floor to ceiling stacks that are begging for trouble -  but for some reason, none fell.  (My desktop looked like a pile of rubble but that's kind of how it usually looks.)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Kim Philby, Book Glutton

There is an interesting piece in the August 6, 2011 issue of the Spectator which details the discovery of some correspondence between the spy Kim Philby and his Cambridge bookseller.  Writer Jeffrey Meyers has obtained several letters Philby wrote in the mid 1980s from Moscow to Bowes & Bowes in Cambridge.  Apparently Philby was unable to borrow books from any of the American and British lending libraries in the Soviet Union and he had to order books directly from the UK. 

It should be no surprise that Philby was an avid reader of thrillers and spy novels.  From the list of his orders published in the Spectator:

Thrillers and spy fiction: Agatha Christie (21), Francis Iles (1), Dashiell Hammett (2), Margery Allingham (4), Julian Symons (3), Michael Gilbert (3), Edmund Crispin (1), Dick Francis (1), P.D. James (1), Patricia Highsmith (12), Ed McBain (15), Nicolas Freeling (2), Anthony Price (1), John le Carré (1), Robert Parker (3).

 Twelve Patricia Highsmith novels!  And an Anthony PriceLook at all that Ed McBain, too.  Only one le Carre - I gather Philby and le Carre did not get along.  Meyers also writes that Graham Greene always sent Philby a copy of each new book he wrote.