In The Garden of Beasts: Love and terror in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

This isn’t America and you can’t say all the things you think’…

..the words spoken to Martha Dodd as she was driven past the burnt out ruin of the Reichstag on arrival in Berlin, after she asked if the suspicious circumstances of the fire had anything to do with arson.

Although a work of non-fiction this book reads like a novel. It paints a vivid picture of Berlin in 1933/4 as the Nazis starts to choke German democracy.

The narrative centres on William E Dodd and his twenty something daughter, Martha.

He’s the lame and tame American academic surprisingly appointed U. S Ambassador to Berlin in 1933. He’s the central character in the book and the dullest. His personal position on anti Semitism means he doesn’t’ `wake up and smell the coffee’ about what is going on in Berlin for at least a year, and spends most his time focussing on his primary brief - recovering US debts.

However, his twenty something daughter Martha is a social animal and star struck. She quickly jumps on the Berlin society circuit and very becomes involved in a sequence of romances and affairs with high-ranking officials, including the Head of the Gestapo and an NKVD agent.

As the political climate changes, tensions escalate; resulting in the `Night of the long knives’, and the reality of what is happening comes into sharp focus. Dodd and his daughter realise the full horror of what is going on.

It’s an easy read and provides an excellent insight into Berlin during the period, the larger than life characters,and the rise of the Nazis.

My only niggle is I’d like to have seen more photographs.

( Looks like a film version is planned with Tom Hanks and Natalie Portman)

Loving this Nashville groups latest release- a great summery sound

(Source: Spotify)

True Grit.

Never read this one, but seen the John Wayne film.

First western I’ve read in a long time.

Strong characters in Mattie and Rooster Cogburn. Great names- Yarndell Poindexter for one- and the cat with the incomparable name of General Sterling Price.

Although Wayne was in my mind’s eye throughout, it didn’t distract from my enjoyment. The sharp, crisp style and directness of the dialogue reads like a script.

The book is a great read. Highly recommend. Stands the test of time.

George Pelecanos also raves about the enduring power of this novel, here.

The Wayne original was a materpiece. Now to see the Coen’s version.

(Salon’s comparison)

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.

It’s hyped in the quality press as the ‘must read literary beach novel’ of the summer.

I sought it out. My local Waterstones had a copy.

The cover is very sixties, and not good sixties in my opinion. If you judged it by its cover (apparently 76% of people do judge books by their cover) you’d have picked something else. Subsequent checking shows the US edition has a much more appealing image.

Nick Hornby’s comment on the cover was ambiguous ‘ Beautiful Ruins is unlike any other novel you’re likely to read this year’.

But as Hornby had put his name to it, I decided to give it go.

I read it to the end. The plot spans 50 years or so and the chapters shift back and forth between periods and people from the outset. It moves along swiftly.

Pasquale Turi is the central character, and the story begins in 1962 at his Hotel Adequate in Porto Vergogna, Italy. It concerns a young starlet Dee Moray being despatched from the set of the film Cleopatra, which is being shot with Richard Burton and Liz Taylor further south. Michael Deane, a Hollywood publicist, seizes an opportunity to exploit scandal, fame and celebrity to promote the film, and ultimately his career, whilst the real story goes untold…until now. It’s about enduring love.

‘The smaller the space between your desire and what is right, the happier you will be’ drives the plot. A wide range of colourful characters, including a rather one-dimensional portrayal of Richard Burton, is all touched by the truth and not the perception.

The story has loads of sub-plots. It zooms between decades and places (Italy, Idaho, Edinburgh, London, Hollywood and more) illustrating the way fame, celebrity, scandal and narcissism have come to the forefront of today’s world.

Is it the blockbuster novel of choice for the summer?

I’m not sure about that as I haven’t read many other contenders, however, I do recommend this as a good holiday read. 

David Bowie is.

That’s the title of the sell-out Bowie retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Tickets are changing hands on e-bay for @£300, but a £70 membership secured our tickets and the license to visit it and exhibits at the museum ad infinitum.

I was never a David Bowie aficionado, more a fan of his music during the 70’s. From Major Tom at the beginning of the decade, through Ziggy Stardust and Young Americans, to his Berlin period and seeing him live on the Heroes tour to Ashes to Ashes and Loving the Alien that saw it out.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Bowie has played no part in the curation of the exhibit, other than give the V&A the key to his archive.

They extracted a mix of diary pages, costumes, letters, photos, video, artwork and other assorted flotsam and jetsam from Bowie’s career, right down to the keys to his 80’s Berlin apartment- enormous keys by today’s standards.

And they’ve thrown it altogether into a tsunami of an exhibit.

Entering the V&A by the main entrance you pass sculptures and cavernous galleries containing ‘dust collectors’ from previous centuries and eerily you can hear Bowie’s songs echo down through this vast museum as you approach the entrance point at which you’re handed a headset. A weird counterpoint to the everything else the V&A houses.

It’s dark as you enter. No ambient light. Shards of Bowie’s songs echo. A lot of people ahead. Exhibits are stage lit on black walls. The galleries are all enclosed by black out curtains. It’s the equivalent of entering a dark labyrinth of rooms, booths and wide- open arenas. You can hardly believe you’re still in the V&A.

The first two or three areas of the exhibit are pedestrian and chronological. Images of post-war Brixton, his birthplace. Fifties Britain, Bowie’s early career starts, the seamy and druggy world of Soho. Then, a large diorama of the Apollo programme looms round the corner containing artefacts of the period and video footage of Space Oddity that launched Bowie’s Major Tom persona. The song is ringing in your ears via the headset.

Then boom!

Ch-ch-ch-changes…

Whilst your headset plays extracts from interviews and snippets of songs, the massive multiple screens play video footage of concerts from various years. Speakers blast out the music ambiently. Mannequins wearing various Bowie’s stage costumes are set out as if in a large department store. Interspersed are short run displays of artefacts that relate to each persona and the period.

You are now totally immersed in the Bowie experience. It’s as though you’ve stepped into a nightclub. Lots of people. A deluge of sound and vision. A trip down memory lane. With lots of memorabilia.

What surprised me were many of the pages of original lyrics written by hand, often with very few changes. Amazing words, straight off the bat. Pages from old diaries. Letters to William Burroughs from his Mum. His mileage log from the US tour. £1.50 admission prices on his 70’s tour tickets. The Verbal Randomizer. The fact Mark Chapman had a ticket to see Bowie in the stage show The Elephant Man the evening after he shot Lennon. Those keys. The influence of 20’s film on his Man who sold the World album cover- never seen it like that before. His letters to George Orwell’s widow to let him adapt 1984 as a musical ( a track on Diamond Dogs was as close as he got). Bowie’s sketches of his characters, stage sets, video storyboards and of course the costumes- Ziggy’s in a glazed coffin. You can’t believe how small he was – waif like in his strung out days. In addition there are film clips and references to all of his film roles, from The Prestige to Tevis’s The Man who fell to Earth. The cocaine spoon he used during the filming of the latter. And even background to the videos and album art of his latest release The Next Day.

David Bowie is made me realise just what a true artist David Bowie is. The genuine article. A talent. Not the product of a music machine or industry. A fragile man with demons for sure. Actor, musician, artist, performer, chameleon. A man of his time. Could he flourish in the same way if he were staring out today? I doubt it.

It’s a fascinating exhibition.

About 2 hours later you exit into the V&A shop, filled with Bowie books, buttons, t-shirts and assorted quality merchandise at premium prices. Bowie the recluse now canonised at premium prices.

A cinema poster from the film The Man who fell to Earth, just like the one that once hung on my wall in the seventies, now hangs in a simple black frame. Price? £700.

But more than this, he’s now truly become The Man who sold the World.

Interesting that Stephen King, one of the first blockbuster authors to embrace the internet, has declared that this book will only ever be available as a ‘pulp’ paperback, and never as an e-book.

It’s published by Hard Case Crime, and appears to be King’s way of supporting and acknowledging the booksellers who have supported him over the years. More power to him.

The book cover artwork is by Glen Orbik and is wholly reminiscent of all those great illustrations that decorated the covers of hardboiled crime paperbacks of the 50/60/70s. No e-book could ever do them justice. The two featured above are from the worldwide paperback  and limited edition slipcase edition.

This is a classic supernatural thriller from King, set in the seventies and absolutely of the period. The narrator Dev Jones, writing in the present, makes reference to the ‘googliness’ of today but through the story takes us back in time, to a world only 30 years ago that seems so distant and almost quaint now, played out to a soundtrack of The Doors, Pink Floyd and Zep, early Elvis and The Hollies.

Joyland of the title is an independent amusement park, the like of which probably doesn’t exist now. Bigger businesses and Health and safety regs have crushed them. The might of Walt’s world too.

Joyland is in North Carolina, and it’s the perfect place to work through the summer for students Dev, redhead of the cover Erin, and Tom, renting at Emmalina Shoplaw’s boarding house in Heaven’s Bay. The language and life of the ‘carnies’ of Joyland is peppered throughout the book (and King refers to it specifically in his afterword), but despite all the fun of the fair, an unsolved murder of Linda Gray in the House of Horrors, and the presence of her ghost seen by only a few, haunt Dev. The fairground psychic is a character that sets the novel running and predicts the importance of Annie and Mike Ross to it.

The story is a light and quick read. A classic pulp crime thriller blended with a coming of age novel that has a blueprint to make it a Hard Case Classic.

King can tell a story, and this, like 11-22-63, is yet another example of him being able to turn his hand away from the horror genre that earned him his status and stardom, to a create a novel and thriller that harks back to pure seventies pulp and story-telling delight in every way.