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Cutting it Fine

Early twentieth-century Moscow is the setting for The Beginning of Spring, indeed its central presence. To Frank Reid, émigré printer’s son, its weird bureaucracy, endemic espionage and corruption, its ramshackle back streets and raucous tearooms, its frozen river clotted with debris, are both familiar and profoundly foreign. But even while absorbing the surroundings we’re plunged into the drama of events, for in paragraph one Frank’s wife Nellie has already left him, taking their children with her.
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Wrestling with the Amazons

I went to East Finchley cemetery a while ago. It was cold and damp. A few dead leaves clung soggily to the grass. It felt pretty forsaken. I stood in front of a tomb: a stolid stone pillar with a globe on top. It had been mounted so that the continent of Latin America would face the viewer. This is the monument to Henry Walter Bates, the great Victorian naturalist who, in 1848, set sail for the Amazon and remained in its ‘glorious forests’ for eleven years.
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Napoleon’s Last Garden

Napoleon’s Last Garden

The bright orange spine of The Emperor’s Last Island shone conspicuously. The author’s name didn’t register, but the powerful word ‘island’ most certainly did, and when I took the slim volume from the shelf and saw the painted sketch of Napoleon and read the subtitle, A Journey to St Helena, my pulse began to quicken. My great-grandparents were married there, a place more remote than anywhere else on earth; of greater significance to me, in the mid-1960s my own teenage eyes gazed briefly upon this island with its fortress-like cliffs; but in the intervening years I had read nothing about it.
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Having a Good Cry

‘The saddest story I ever wrote,’ Mrs Gaskell said of Sylvia’s Lovers, published in 1863. The book had been languishing in my daughter’s bookcase for years, bought (but not read) to encourage her when she studied the much more famous North and South for her English GCSE. A year or so ago, smitten by Richard Armitage, star of the four-part BBC adaptation of North and South, I went to find the lesser-known book again. And I decided Mrs Gaskell was probably right. There is deep sadness and grief in this novel. Unrequited love results in tragic and painful consequences. I was almost relieved my teenage daughter had not read it – then.
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A Lost World

Ali Khan Shirvanshir is the only son of a noble Baku family, a Shiite Muslim who loves the desert, the walls of his city and its Eastern ways. He also loves Nino Kipiani. Nino is a Georgian Christian beauty of princely blood, a city girl who remembers the wooded hills of her homeland while she longs for the ever more accessible pleasures and inventions of the West. They are opposites in many ways, not least because of their religions, and yet their love overcomes all obstacles. Topical? You bet. Ali and Nino was first published almost seventy years ago and yet this story of love winning through could have been written as a salve for our own world, caught between the opposing tactics of radical Christians and Muslims.
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Listening in to Prynne

J. H. Prynne is probably the most significant poet writing in Britain today. But he might as well have penned the complete weasel trapper’s manual as far as most people are concerned. This isn’t because we don’t care about poetry.We have pencil-marked favourite passages of Eliot and Auden. We have kept up with the output of Heaney and Hughes . We are perfectly accustomed to the complexities of Modernism. And who says we are snooty about contemporary stuff? We read the reviews and occasionally invest in the volume. We stay vaguely conversant with avant-garde tastes.
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Full Steam Ahead and Damn the Torpedoes

Full Steam Ahead and Damn the Torpedoes

Even today, most garden writing in Britain is still haunted by the ghosts of Percy Thrower and Arthur Hellyer. It is nuts and bolts stuff – professionals telling amateurs what to plant or build and why and how and when. The American garden writer Henry Mitchell, however, was something else. Above all, he was as much a writer as a gardener: and a good one. Know a man by his friends – and Mitchell’s included the novelist Eudora Welty and the New Yorker essayist E. B. White (who also wrote the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little).
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The Trouble with Sefton

Several years ago I described my mother’s and aunties’ interior decor as Hove Jewish Baroque Rococo and thought myself rather amusing. Then I read Howard Jacobson’s Coming from Behind. His description was far more impressive: ‘contemporary provincial Jewish Rococo’. Again and again I found myself identifying like mad with Mr J’s Protagonist Sefton Goldberg, English teacher in a West Midlands polytechnic. Sefton knew the furnishings, Sefton was not good enough in any sphere, he was not up to scratch physically, he was envious, guilty, sweaty and hairy, just like me, although I am a girl. How comforting it is to know that one is not suffering alone.
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The Maladroit Muse

The Maladroit Muse

When I attempted to look up D. B. Wyndham Lewis on the Internet, Google kindly asked me if I didn’t really mean Percy Wyndham Lewis. Emphatically not. The Vorticist painter (whose age, it was suggested, could be estimated by counting the rings on his collar) was not known for his sense of humour. His namesake, on the other hand, was the first ‘Beachcomber’ of the Daily Express, and the collaborator with Ronald Searle on the tales of that least conventional of ladies’ academies, St Trinian’s. But he was overshadowed by his successor, J. B. Morton, and likewise by Searle’s brilliant drawings. DB, however, doesn’t deserve the oblivion into which time appears to be edging him, if only because he was one of the two begetters of an ‘anthology of bad verse’ which he and Charles Lee – a quiet and unobtrusive writer of Cornish novels – entitled The Stuffed Owl.
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Driven Dotty by Dewey

In the olden days, when people went to public libraries to borrow books to read, they were probably unaware of the workings of the librarian’s mind. Librarians cherish the illusion that the Dewey Decimal Classification system is second nature to readers as well as librarians. Thus the reader in search of books on cookery will head immediately for the 641s, and anyone planning to travel to Germany to look at its architecture can be found in front of the 720s searching specifically for the numbers after the decimal point – 943 – because, as any fool knows, 720 is Architecture and 943 is Germany (although if you were to turn it round, 943. 7 is Czechoslovakia).
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History Man

It wouldn’t do to make excessive claims for Kenneth Roberts. Sixty years ago I might have; he was certainly my favourite writer then, to the extent that when I finally ran out of his books, at the age of 14, in desperation I tried novels by some other Robertses from the same shelf in the Ypsilanti Public Library. They proved to be highly unsatisfactory, nothing at all like Kenneth. What he wrote was history, American history, and I was fascinated by history. There seemed to be so little of it around in Michigan.
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