Thursday, September 5, 2013

Tim Finch

Tim Finch works for a London think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. He was a BBC political journalist and is a former director of communications for the Refugee Council.

His new novel is The House of Journalists.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what he was reading. Finch's reply:
Whatever happened to one book at a time? I ask myself this question constantly as over the years I have moved from near monogamy to outrageous promiscuity in my reading habits. Ridiculously large towers of books sit by my desk and by my side of the bed, all in some sense ‘on the go’. That said, having dipped into new books – which I am acquiring constantly - I tend to put them aside and only return to them intensely later. And, mercifully for this entry, the list of books in that latter stage at this moment is much briefer.

John Maynard Keynes, Vol. 3: Fighting for Freedom, 1937-1946 - by Robert Skidelsky

I’m only fifty or so pages into this third and final volume of Skidelsky’s monumental biography of Keynes, having greatly enjoyed the previous two volumes. Fighting for Freedom was published in 2001 at a time when Keynes could hardly have been more out of fashion: neo-liberal market capitalism was at its Fukuyamian zenith, not least among the mainstream Left. Then came the financial crash and with it renewed interest in Keynesianism. Indeed Skidelsky published a short book in 2010 called The Return of the Master to emphasise that Keynes would not only have seen the crash coming, but that counter-cyclical stimulus measures by governments were still the best way save the world from 1930s style Depression. (Fortunately Obama and the then British prime minister Gordon Brown had already taken note.) I read this much shorter book, like so many other lapsed Keynesians, when it came out, and it led me back to the full biography and indeed to Keynes’s masterpiece The General Theory. If all of this sounds rather dry, don’t be put off. Skidelsky is brilliantly skilful at making Keynes’s economic and wider thinking accessible to the lay reader (while also showing what a lucid and delightful writer Keynes was). But more than that Keynes had an absolutely fascinating life, illuminated by wonderfully varied interests. Most notably and famously, he was one of the ‘Bloomsbury group’ along with Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant and Lytton Strachey. All this means that the life of Keynes is a excellent way of finding out about the history of politics, philosophy, economics and the arts during a fascinating period of British history.

The Enigma of the Return - by Dany Laferriere

I recently appeared at the Edinburgh International Book festival, and I was very honoured to be share a platform with the distinguished Haitian/Canadian writer Dany Laferriere. Rather to my shame, I hadn’t heard of Laferriere until the event organisers drew him to my attention. But I’m delighted they did, because I found this ‘novel’ - which I've just finished - a revelation. I put the word ‘novel’ in inverted commas because the The Enigma of the Return really defies categorisation. Fictionalised memoir captures some of it; but while it is written in prose (largely), it is laid out like poetry (generally) and reads something like free verse (with small sections of formal Haiku-like meditation). I came to understand why Laferriere adopted this singular and highly effective style during the Edinburgh discussion. While on a trip back to Haiti, the country he’d fled from 30 years earlier, to visit his mother after the death of his father, Laferriere wrote down his observations and reflections in a notebook. His original intention was to write this ‘up’ into a more conventional book when he got back to Canada. But when he looked at the notebook he realised that with some polishing (doubtless harder work than he made it sound) the fragmentary form worked well. It was an inspired decision, making this book about the poignancy of return to homeland after many years in exile a work of beauty and power. For English readers, thanks should also go to the translator David Homel who has done a great job of rendering Laferriere’s French into English.

Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets – by Don Paterson

Well, at some stage you have to, don’t you? But I must confess that previous attempts at the sonnets had petered out – not least because I found myself thinking that among the gems there were some real stinkers. (And who was I to think that?) It turns out though that I’m not alone, and not the least of the pleasure of Paterson’s commentary is that if he thinks a sonnet is rubbish he says so with gusto. Here are his first words on Sonnet 70 – That thou art blamed shall not be thy defect – ‘Dear me, this is a mess in a dress’. And his reaction to Sonnet 27 – Weary with toil, I haste me to bed? ‘Yawn, I was half asleep when I read this… There’s something facile in its mimsy, prettified tone’. You get the idea. Patterson (one of Britain’s leading contemporary poets) is as far from an all-admiring academic analyser of Shakespeare as it is possible to be (and indeed he has great fun debunking some of the more far fetched theories about the sonnets propagated by leading experts). Even his praise can be delightfully irreverent. Of Sonnet 68 – Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn – he says ‘Ah yes, the ‘wig’ sonnet. A tirade against wigs by a baldie. That’s always going to get my vote.’ However, allied to this breezy style, Patterson also brilliantly (and seriously) illuminates the beauty and genius of most of the sonnets. And of course in the end, for all the pleasure of Patterson’s commentary, it is Shakespeare’s poetry which is the real star of this book.

East Lynne – by Mrs Henry Wood

My last choice is the novel I am currently reading to my wife. Our most common practice is to go to sleep to the BBC Radio 4 midnight news. But on other occasions, particularly when we are away from home or we’ve overdosed on news during the day, I read aloud to her. I put great effort into it (or so I think), dramatising the scenes, adopting different and appropriate voices and accents (to my ears at least), and generally bringing the prose vividly to life. It’s a great surprise therefore, that my wife (who as a rule finds dropping off the sleep difficult) is comatose almost within seconds. (She seems to hear my theatrical efforts as ‘a boring drone’.) A more likely reason, I suspect, is that East Lynne is really not very good. It’s one of those serial Victorian pot boilers – nowhere near in Dickens’s league. At the moment – around page 450 of 644 – a preposterous plot in which the disgraced Lady Isabella, in deep disguise, is serving as governess to her own abandoned children in the house (East Lynne) of her husband, Archibald Carlyle, who now has a new wife, thinking his old one, Lady Isabella, is dead, is playing out at interminable length. I really should give up on East Lynne. After all, my wife wouldn’t care if I read out the phone book. But it does have a certain addictive quality. And as with most books I start on, I’ll probably finish it – despite that huge pile of books still to read. I may be promiscuous, but that doesn't stop me being faithful.
Visit Tim Finch's Twitter perch, and learn more about The House of Journalists.

--Marshal Zeringue