How James Bond Saved Britain

Have you been wondering who the next James Bond will be after Daniel Craig?  James Norton?  Idris Elba?  Theo James?  The maddening possibilities include Richard Madden, who’s the same height as beefy Daniel Craig, and the slighter and somewhat shorter Tom Holland.  Lots of women have been suggested too, actors like Ruth Negga, Lily James, Emilia Clarke, Claire Foy, Charlize Theron and Thandiwe Newton among others.

Have you exhausted yourself re-watching every single Bond movie with every single Bond?  Even the less-than-stellar films? 

Well, there’s a great book to engross and entertain you till the revelation of the New Bond is vouchsafed to eager theatergoers and streamers: Simon Winder’s hilarious The Man Who Saved Britain.  It’s my second read and I have to report that when I first had this marvelous book in my hands, I was on an author tour across the U.S. and startled passengers on planes and in airports because I kept laughing aloud at his wit.  Luckily this time around, I’m at home and can only alarm my dogs.

Part memoir, part geopolitical analysis, part literary survey, part history, part standup routine, the book explores the role of the wildly popular Bond books in the 1950’s and 60’s a time when Britain was exhausted by WWII, broke,  and losing the empire that had given it a feeling of being a world class power.  Early on in that period, Britain lacked food and fuel and despite having won the war, there was a widespread feeling that the country was a beggar at what was becoming an American feast (with Europe seated below the salt). 

Winder notes that the Bond novels’ “entire purpose can be seen as carrying forward the certainties many felt about the war into the disorienting bitterness of an ever more impotent Britain.” Winder pursues his own purpose of entertaining and skewering through sardonic humor and metaphors:

“The British governments of the 1950s now give out an overwhelming sense of weariness.  This was less true at the time because there was such a hail of events that they appeared quite busy, but it was only the seemingly busy behaviour of a corpse being dragged around by dogs.”

“James Bond can exist only because he is British.  No other country has developed an ideology over so many years that makes ever other nation so available, so pitiful and funny.  This has come from either ruling them or attacking them at various points.”

Bond’s creator Ian Fleming had an intelligence background, was part of the British elite, and created a tough hero who could save the world, or most of it, single-handedly. 

“As the 1960s progressed, Bond’s ability to maim and kill foreigners became a great consolation to millions of embittered and confused people whose traditional world picture had changed with alarming speed.  Bond in fact became in the 1960s pretty much the only British national capable of damaging anybody at all.”

Among many fine distinctions, Winder points out that the novels are far less gadget-focused than the movies and not nearly as flashy, but enough of them make for good, quick and dirty reads.  

And Bond in the novels isn’t as promiscuous as he is in the films, though the view of sex demonstrates what Winder calls “the male fantasy of a permanent, never-aging present in which an infinity of girls from around the world could be sampled in the manner of cigars.”

Winder is a deft analyst of every aspect of the books and the films, some of which he’s seen dozens of times.  So there’s something to ponder, deplore or laugh about on almost every page thanks to a dazzling, chatty, very British raconteur. The Man Who Saved Britain is a must-read for Bond fans and a superb window into a time when Britain was very different than it is today, though lingering animus towards Europe and general griping about its place in the world seem a flame that hasn’t died.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books including 10 crime novels.  He has taught creative writing at Michigan State University and Regents College in London.

(Full disclosure: Winder was one of my editors at St. Martin’s Press in New York thirty years ago and when I first found this book I didn’t know that he was also a writer, a comic, and a Bond aficionado living in London)

Sarah Perry’s Amazing 𝙈𝙚𝙡𝙢𝙤𝙩𝙝

In Sarah Perry’s second novel, Melmoth, Helen Franklin is a bland, depressed English translator in her 40s who lives and works in Prague but doesn’t think much of its fabled baroque beauty.  In fact, she has contempt for it. She lives a severely monastic life, denies herself pleasure so profoundly that she rents a room from a nosy, obnoxious elderly woman who mocks her and whom she herself finds gross and grotesque.

Despite her knowledge of German and Czech, which might expand her interests and social life, Franklin’s life in Prague is stupefyingly dull as she works on boring projects like translating technical manuals.  And then something dazzling changes everything.  It’s a manuscript containing a handful of bizarre and even horrific stories, given to her by one of her only Czech friends who seems shattered by having read it. 

Franklin reads the manuscript in pieces and begins to be drawn into its dark labyrinth.  Is she insane?  Is what she experiences really happening or has her undisclosed past finally caught up with her?  And what’s led her to live such a claustrophobic, self-denying life in a city that seems to offer joy, pleasure, and even simple amusement at every turn?

The stories are narratives of encounters with “Melmoth the Witness,” a woman invariably dressed in mourner’s black who wanders the Earth lonely, barefoot, stalking people who have either sunk into despair, done something terrible–or both.  Melmoth’s own crime that led to her being cursed was to deny what other women saw when the stone was rolled away from the tomb of Jesus.  Since that time, she’s been the ghostly, seductive epitome of suffering and pain, inexorably drawn to misery in many forms, leaving bloody footprints wherever she roams.

All the stories, ranging across countries and centuries, focus on human misery and criminality–but this isn’t a crime novel per se.  It’s a new take on the Gothic. You don’t have to know the classic novels by Ann Radcliffe, “Monk” Lewis or Charles Maturin (who’s name checked here) to appreciate the stunning achievement.  

But if you have, you’ll be even more gobsmacked by the dazzling and disturbing mix of the two original strands of Gothic.  There’s Terror Gothic: Is Franklin being followed?  Is someone about to do her harm?  What is the dark secret that torments her? 

And then there’s Horror Gothic in many forms, including a ghastly scene that feels like an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.  Melmoth herself is horrifying, given that everything about her seems both dead and alive at the same time.  She’s a ghost, a zombie, a vampire of sorts, a shape shifter.

Melmoth is a surprisingly short novel overflowing with color, texture, and stories, stories, stories.  The book’s narrator speaks to you directly in a voice that will not be denied, and don’t be surprised if Melmoth makes you wonder if someone is spying on you–with evil intent.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres, has taught creative writing at Michigan State University, and currently edits and coaches writers at writewitoutborders.com.

 

“The Paris Showroom” Was Badly Edited

This historical novel builds on fascinating, horrible facts. While plundering the belongings of deported or imprisoned Jews, rich and poor, the Nazis in Occupied Paris “processed” their goods in three locales, including the Lévitan department store

Anything valuable that officers, their wives or mistresses might want was displayed and the rest sent off to Germany, no matter how prosaic an item it was.  Damaged goods were repaired for the greater glory of the Reich and personal effects like letters and photos were burned.

The 800 prisoners forced to do this labor lived in appalling conditions and the author makes their plight very vivid, but that’s one of the book’s few strengths.

I really wanted to love The Paris Showroom because I’ve read hundreds of books over the years, fiction and nonfiction, about WWII, including books about France during the Occupation. 

But I couldn’t. The dialogue too often seems American and contemporary, with characters saying things like “Whatever” and “True that” and “Beats the heck out of me.”

Then there’s an apartment house concierge who sounds like a 2022 guru or life coach and far too wise.  Worse than that, one of the two main heroines seems unbelievably naive and uninformed: though she’s twenty-one, in 1944 she still doesn’t understand how or why the war started (!) or what the Occupation really means. Her questions can be unbelievably dim and it’s hard to root for someone so out of touch with reality.

Blackwell also gets some things wrong like the French name for The Phony War, that period from September 1939 and April 1940 when there was virtually no fighting on the Western Front.  How could she have missed something so basic?

Another error that’s hard to comprehend from a seasoned author: She says the Jews wore “golden stars.” Not remotely: it was a Yellow Star. I suspect professional historians might find even more problems than I did. 

Though she peppers the book with bits of French for atmosphere, Blackwell for some reason uses the English “huh?” rather than the French “hein?” which you’d get from context. And rather than use “bibelot” she employs the very popular American word from Yiddish “tchotchke”– but doesn’t quite get its meaning right either.  The book is filled with choices like this which you would expect a careful editor or copy editor would have caught.

While there’s a touching family reunion in The Paris Showroom, that and almost everything else in the book is often overshadowed by minute details about fan making.  Don’t ask.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work has been translated into 15 languages and he coaches, mentors, and edits writers at https://www.writewithoutborders.com.

Five Great Books About Conquering Adversity

I grew up with adversity.  My parents emigrated to the U.S. from Europe with very little money and weren’t helped nearly enough by relatives.  Their early years in the U.S. were very hard.  But this cloud hanging over us was nothing compared to the nightmarish storms they had survived in the Holocaust.  I knew bits and pieces of what happened to them while I was growing up, and learned more when I became a writer and paid homage to them in a memoir, My Germany.

My mother and her family attempted to escape their Polish city into Russia in the summer of 1941 when the Nazis sent millions of murderous troops into Poland and the Baltic countries.  It was the very last train, but inside the Russian border they were thrown off because they were Jews.  Her father was eventually murdered by the Nazis, her mother murdered in a concentration camp, and she survived a ghetto and several concentration camps.

My Czechoslovak father was forced into the Hungarian army as a slave laborer on the Eastern Front with other healthy young Jews and was subject ed to sadistic treatment by the officers.  One beating left him close to death.  He still bears shrapnel in his body from when he dodged a hand grenade thrown right at him.  The grenade killed his best friend. His stories of survival are something out of a thriller.

Nothing in my own life could have possibly matched the adversity they faced for years during the war, yet their survival buoyed me up through many dark times in my career as an author.  Being a writer is the kind of career where success is fleeting and failure is always around the corner–and sometimes it’s so huge it’s stupefying.

When a new website for book lovers invited me to choose a topic and list five books that exemplified it, “conquering adversity” sprung immediately to mind as the organizing theme.  The books I chose with my writing partner are from different genres and feature wildly different people, from Winston Churchill to a Black maid in the South, but they all have that theme and are meant to inspire readers to never give uphttps://shepherd.com/best-books/conquering-adversity.

Whatever adverse situations you’re facing, I hope these five books we picked speak to you and give you courage and hope.

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Huffington Post, Bibliobuffet and other publications as well as three Michigan radio stations. 

(free image from Pixabay)

“Transcription” Is The Dullest WW II Novel I’ve Read In Years

When I started reviewing crime fiction and other genres for the Detroit Free Press back in the 90s, I made an odd discovery.  Reviewers, friends, acquaintances would be raving about a book or an author.  I’d get a review copy and think, “Huh?  What am I missing?”  I remember one book that was hailed across the country in almost ridiculous terms, with one major reviewer gushing that it wasn’t just a book, it was an experience.

Well, isn’t reading every book an experience of some kind?

The second part of this discovery was that when I’d be out on tour for one of my own books, when it came time for Q&A, eventually someone would ask about one of these books the whole world seemed to worship and adore.  The questions always came a bit tentatively, as if it was heretical to even raise them.  I would be honest but focus on something technical.  For instance, with one wild best seller, I said I just didn’t believe the voice was the voice of a teenager.

I’ve been observing the love fest for Kate Atkinson for awhile. Friends have urged me to read Life After Life or Case Histories, and I just couldn’t get into them.  Then a best friend sent me three of her books as holiday gifts.  I picked Transcription because it was the shortest, and I was determined to finish it so we could discuss it.  This is the story of a young woman, Juliet Armstrong, drawn into the fringes of England intelligence in 1940. Her job is typing up transcriptions of bugged conversations of British Nazi sympathizers.  If it sounds dull, it is.

Nothing dramatic happens until halfway, and even then, the drama is relative. Eventually something more exciting does take place, but as WW II books go, this is a sleeper.  I have nothing against war novels that are literary fiction: One of my favorites is Helen Humphreys’ Coventry, which is poetic and intensely dramatic.  But Transcription was annoying in a number of ways.  Apparently shifting decades is one of Atkinson’s “things.”  I found it frustrating.  A straightforward narrative would have ramped up the tension.

But the narrative itself was more awkward and off-putting than the structure.  Juliet is given to incessant thinking about her thinking and to making silly puns.  When told to keep an ear out, she notes that she has two.  Hah.  Hah.  The trivial focus on her mental commentary is relentless and her observations are sometimes ridiculously banal: “But then, what constituted real?  Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?”

There’s a plot twist at the end that doesn’t quite relieve the boredom of the previous 250+ pages. There’s also so much tea drinking that after awhile you begin to wonder if the book is meant to be some kind of spoof of British fiction.

After finishing, I found that a host of highly disappointed readers on Amazon found similar problems with the book.  Me, I read it out of loyalty to my friend, and finally out of morbid curiosity: could it really go on like this page after page?  It did.

With twenty years of university teaching behind him, Lev Raphael offers a range of creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com “Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael is like seeing ‘Blade Runner’ for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, Michigan