Sunday 27 December 2015

My Top Ten Books of 2015

This overview of favourite books originally appeared in Critics at Large and I am reproducing on this site because it contains book about transgression and my more recent interest in reclaiming our humanity or exploring the better sides of our nature.

I have reviewed some of the following selections (link provides); all were read in 2015 and about half were published this year.  – Bob Douglas

All the Colours of Darkness by Peter Robinson (2008) was the first police procedural that I read that feature DCI Alan Banks. I was so gripped by the novel that I continued to read several more from the series but none of them surpassed its originality. We are never in doubt about the identity of the perpetrator but Robinson imaginably unfolds the why and the how by watching an amateur production of a Shakespearean drama about jealousy.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a dual account about an albino child prodigy in Nazi Germany and a blind girl in France before and during World War Two. Werner has an astonishing skill for fixing radios that earns him a place at a training school for the Nazi military elite. Then his talents are put at the service of the Reich to identify the sources of enemy transmissions, a task which will challenge his essential decency and morality. These chapters chillingly recreate the fanaticism and thuggery that we associate with the Third Reich and are among the best in the book. To compensate for her blindness, Marie-Laure’s father builds a model of the neighbourhood for her so that she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When the Nazis occupy Paris, the two of them flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo to live with his uncle who uses his radio transmitter on behalf of the Resistance. The lives of Werner and Marie-Laure will intersect during the Allied invasion. Despite an unnecessary subplot about a valuable and dangerous jewel and a few stereotyped minor characters, Doerr unfolds a completely new tale about a familiar terrain, one that Dickens might have written had he lived in the twentieth century.

Sunday 13 December 2015

The Impact of Aesthetics in Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and I reproduce on this site because That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) has several chapters on National Socialism ideology and its consequences and because one of its chapters explores Nazi aesthetics. In the book under review, aesthetics offers a stark counterpoint.

The living room at Villa Tugendhat (to the right of the onyx wall), the setting for Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room.

“The Glass Room remained indifferent, of course. Plain, balanced, perfect; and indifferent. Architecture should have no politics...” 
– Simon Mawer, The Glass Room
Simon Mawer is adept at reimagining and creating powerful storylines from history. His recent espionage novels,The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and Tightrope, are a tribute to the female resistance fighters in World War Two and an exploration of the nuclear politics of the early Cold War. In a somewhat different manner, his superb 2009 Booker Prize finalist, The Glass Room (Little, Brown) is inspired, as the author acknowledges, by the history of a cultural landmark, the Villa Tugendhat, currently a museum in the Czech Republic. It was once owned by a wealthy Jewish couple who were forced to flee to Switzerland when the Nazis incorporated Czechoslovakia into the Third Reich and the house itself was appropriated by the Nazis. Then it was confiscated by the Soviets who used it as a ballet school and a clinic before the Czech Republic acquired and renovated it and transformed it into a museum.

Mawer’s novel loosely follows the history of this “jewel of modern domestic architecture,” but in his reworking, he uses the house as a literary device to examine the dreams and illusions of its various inhabitants. The cool rationality and beauty of this exemplar of minimalist architecture serve as a counterpoint to the conflicted emotions of those who live within its spaces, compounded by the combustible forces of six decades of twentieth-century Central European History, much of it tragic. Almost the entire plot takes place within its shimmering spaces. When the narrative strays beyond it, the actions of the characters are a response to the luminescent architecture and its centrepiece, the Glass Room. As a result, a house, or more specifically a room, becomes the principal character in a novel that marries plot with aesthetics, but the aesthetics is not burdened with heavy-handedness or pretension.