Join us as we discuss Benjamín Labatut’s Booker International Prize shortlisted novel When We Cease to Understand the World, 2021 Baillie Gifford prizewinner One, Two, Three, Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown and 2021 Costa Biography prizewinner Fall: A Life of Robert Maxwell by John Preston, The Outlander by Gil Adams, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab and The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse. Did we love them? Did we loathe them? Listen via the media player above, or your favourite podcast app via this podfollow link to find out.
When We Cease to Understand the World, Benjamín Labatut (Pushkin Press). One of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2021 and shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize, Labatut’s book is an intriguing mixture of fact and fiction, something that may delight or disconcert you. He picks out key scientific thinkers from history, exploring through a web of associations the way these men changed the course of human history. (Where are the great female scientists? Indeed, let’s discuss.) For Kate this was an exhilarating read that immediately shot into her best reads of the year. But Laura and her book club had other views, listen in for the debate. (03:34:00)
The Outlander by Gil Adams (Bloomsbury) Laura discovered this one in the delightful Mermaid Tales bookshop (her new favourite place to be). ‘On a moonlit night in 1903, a mysterious young woman flees alone across the Canadian wilderness, one quick step ahead of her pursuers. Mary Boulton is nineteen years old, half mad, and widowed – by her own hand. Tearing through the forest with dogs howling in the distance, she is desperate, her nerves burning, and she is certain of one thing only – that her every move is being traced. Two red-headed brothers, rifles across their backs, lurch close behind her: monstrous figures, identical in every way, with the predatory look of hyenas. She has murdered their brother, and their cold lust for vengeance is unswerving.’ The Herald Tribune called it ‘One of those books so gorgeous in the writing that you simultaneously can’t wait to read what happens next and want to savour the beauty of the writing,’ while here in the UK The Guardian wrote ‘Striking, thoughtful, full of unexpected twists, The Outlander is that rare delight: a novel that is beautifully written yet as gripping as any airport page-turner.’ Laura felt the same. (14:50:00)
One, Two, Three, Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown (Harper Collins) ‘John Updike compared them to “the sun coming out on an Easter morning”. Bob Dylan introduced them to drugs. The Duchess of Windsor adored them. Noel Coward despised them. JRR Tolkien snubbed them. The Rolling Stones copied them. Loenard Bernstein admired them. Muhammad Ali called them ‘little sissies’. Successive Prime Ministers sucked up to them. No one has remained unaffected by the music of The Beatles. As Queen Elizabeth II observed on her golden wedding anniversary, ‘Think what we would have missed if we had never heard The Beatles.’ Having initially put-off reading it, thinking she already knew everything she needed to know about The Beatles, Kate ended up adoring this ‘kaleidoscopic’ biography. Listen in for why she loved it. And do take a look at the follow-up links, in the notes below. One, Two, Three, Four won the Baillie Gifford Prize in 2020. (19:13:00)
Fall: A Life of Robert Maxwell by John Preston (Penguin) In this 2021 Costa biography award-winner John Preston tells the story of how Maxwell built up his publishing business, how he became an MP, how he lost control of his publishing house, Pergamon, and then eventually won it back again, and how he acquired The Mirror newspaper and built his media empire. It shows the high life he enjoyed and his Succession-style relationships with his children. Ultimately it charts his downfall and although Preston doesn’t offer any conclusive answer to the mystery of Maxwell’s death, it does leave you with enough to draw your own conclusions. Kate couldn’t put this down. ‘It’s everything I want from a biography’, she says, ‘fascinating, pacey, with larger-than-life characters, a good story really well told. I loved it.’ (26:00:00)
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab An old friend for Kate (listen in to our best books of 2020 for when we first discussed it on the pod), Laura finally got around to reading V.E. Schwab’s immersive historical fantasy. ‘When Addie La Rue makes a pact with the devil, she trades her soul for immortality. But there’s always a price – the devil takes away her place in the world, cursing her to be forgotten by everyone. Addie flees her tiny home town in 18th-century France, beginning a journey that takes her across the world, learning to live a life where no one remembers her and everything she owns is lost and broken. Until one day, in a second hand bookshop in Manhattan, Addie meets someone who remembers her. Suddenly thrust back into a real, normal life, Addie realises she can’t escape her fate forever. Moreover she can’t escape the entity who bound her to that fate in the first place.’ But while Kate was happy to remove her critical hat in order to thoroughly enjoy this book Laura kept hers on and had some comments! Listen in for the discussion. (33:54:00)
The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse (Penguin) You could read 260,000 words of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Or, Laura argues, you could potentially have a much nicer time reading this pacey, atmospheric thriller that has been on international bestseller lists. Set in a luxury hotel in a building that used to be a sanatorium for TB patients, police detective Elin finds herself entangled in a web of missing persons, complicated family relationships while she remains haunted by her own past. Laura describes it as ‘the most fun I’ve had reading this year’. Listen in to find out more. (35:45:00)
Hello and welcome to The Book Club Review. I’m Laura.
And this is the podcast about book clubs and the books that get you talking.
Today we bring you Bookshelf, an episode dedicated to the books were each reading outside of book club, the ones we get to pick and choose. On my list from the International Booker Prize shortlist I’ve got when we cease to understand the world by Benjamín Labatut and two prizewinners, One, Two, Three, Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown, which won the prize back in 2020. And Fall, John Preston’s life of media baron Robert Maxwell, which won the Costa Biography prize in 2021.
Meanwhile, I’ve got the lighter end of the scale covered with The Outlander by Gil Adamson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab, and The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse. And so whatever you’re in the mood for, we’ve got you covered. Keep listening to find out what we thought of them.
How excited are we right now?
I mean, only regular listeners to the show will know this, any newcomers coming along will be like ‘Why are they excited? Don’t they do this all the time?’ The thing is, we haven’t been able to do this for a while, mainly because we had a raft of Christmas specials due to my disastrous tendency to come up with ideas for special episodes all the time. And then we thought we were going to be getting together in Vancouver, I was going to fly out there. And so had merrily assumed that we would be recording like more than one Bookshelf episode while we were there. And then at the last minute, I got COVID and wasn’t able to go and so, crushed! In the meantime, I had lined up various other types of episodes – we did Long Reads, and we did, you know, this and that – we’ve been doing other things. Anyway, so it is with great delight that we sit down at our respective computers to catch up on what we’ve been reading.
You know, I was thinking the other day, why did we start this podcast again? Listeners you should know we’re coming up to our five year anniversary. Why did we start this podcast? At the most basic level it was so that Kate and I could talk about books together. Because I was then in her book club, and she would often drive me home. And we would sit outside my flat and talk about books for another half an hour before I would go inside. And we could have kept going right? We just wanted to chat, chat, chat about books. And I always think of our Bookshelf episodes as being the purest form of that chat. So here we are, and we’re excited.
And I had to get kind of re-excited about the first book that I want to talk about because I read it just after Christmas. And I think subsequently, you mentioned to me that your book club are reading it? Or have read it? This is called When We Cease to Understand the World by an author whose name I found out you pronounce not Benjamin Labatut, but “Ben-ham-een” Labatut. He’s from Holland, and he now lives in Chile. Am I right? Have you read this?
Yes, my book club has read this. I listened to it and got very disappointed looks from my book club, like proper testy looks because I only got about 15% of the way through on audiobook. Whereas the rest of the book club ploughed through it.
Was it the first chapter that unsettled you? Because I think the first chapter is very tough. It’s quite a difficult book to sum up. It’s a series of five essays with some fictional elements. And the proportion of fiction increases as the book goes on. So the first chapter is all fact with the exception of one paragraph, which is fiction.
The thing is you don’t know this, as you’re reading it. It’s only at the end in the little afterword, where he actually makes a point of explaining that. So as you’re reading this book, it feels like facts, you feel like you’re reading about these scientists and mathematicians. And he pulls out various key thinkers who have really shaped scientific thought and changed human history and draws out their stories. And you sort of feel like you might be reading some factual work about their lives. But then at the same time, there are moments where you’re like, ‘Oh, that can’t be right’, or ‘hang on a minute, what am I reading?’
Most of the time, I quite happily suspended that questioning part of my mind anyway, because I was just so fascinated and electrified by this writing and this incredible combination of thoughts and ideas and facts. And the stories that he weaves and the web of associations that are conjured up by each focal point. It just took my breath away. How did you get on? The first chapter is a tough one, because he’s looking at the development of cyanide. And the German chemist Fritz Haber, who developed the gas that was eventually used, first of all, in the First World War in the trenches. And then much later on, it was appropriated by the Nazis to use, obviously, as the key weapon in the Holocaust. And yet, at the same time, he also was responsible for figuring out how to synthesise nitrogen, which previously, no-one had known how to do. And so if you wanted fertiliser, before he came along, you had to use human bones or organic material. And then he worked out how to do it chemically. And so in doing so, he changed the course of human history because he enabled people to be able to grow much more food than they had been able to before and sort of solved a population problem.
My primary feeling, listening to you describe that first chapter is one of humbleness because honestly – I listened to it, I think that was a problem – but a lot of it just went right over my head. So that was a brilliant summary of what’s going on in that first chapter. What slightly put me off going further, was my book club saying how the style shifted. So in that first chapter is this web of associations, and it’s quite disorienting, but you’re just going on this journey through 19th and 20th century science and history. And it’s all over the place, but it stitches together really beautifully by the end.
Whereas in the later chapters, it sounds like they’re much more linear. And the fact/fiction made people uncomfortable. They weren’t sure why he was doing this. What are the ethics of doing this, especially putting it in the afterword rather than the foreword, so people know what they’re interacting with.
It’s full of incredibly interesting choices. And it makes you ask so many questions as you go through it. The first chapter I found really tough, I actually had to put it aside and read something else. I had read a bit of Georgia Heyer, because I found it quite distressing. It’s talking about the Holocaust. It was hard, it was really hard to read. And I at that point, thought, ‘God, can I read this book?’ I then picked it up again. And I carried on and the second chapter had me gripped and then I just happily carried on through the whole rest of the book.
The third chapter is the one that really stole my heart. It’s called ‘The Heart of the Heart’. And it talks about a Japanese mathematician, Mochizuki, his name was, and a German mathematician, Grothon-, Grothendieck. I mean, people who know more about science than me might know who these people are, I didn’t have any clue who any of them – well, I knew about Einstein, but Alexander Grothendieck, a world-famous mathematician who revolutionised geometry as no-one had since the time of Euclid, and who inexplicably gave up mathematics at the height of his international fame, leaving a bewildering legacy that is still sending shockwaves through all branches of his discipline, but which he completely refused to discuss right up to his death in 2014.
So he left all these boxes, and it’s like, they probably contain the key to everything, but no one’s ever seen them or been able to work them out. That chapter, I believe is more fictional, has more fictional elements in it. That chapter, I thought was perfection, it was perfection as a piece of writing, I actually wanted to put the book down and weep, because I thought it was so good. It was so good.
I carried on. And then the next chapter gets into quantum theory. And I think you’re not supposed to understand it, because no one understands quantum mechanics anyway. But that’s sort of the point about them. And yet, they somehow work and it explains everything. So this book leaves you bewildered, and you don’t quite know what to grasp onto. And you don’t know how to respond to things. And I think that’s also important, because that’s part of it. That’s part of what he’s trying to get at. And this sense of awe, and terror, and the idea of playing with forces that are beyond our understanding – all of this contained in this one two-hundred page book!
And then at the end, just as I was thinking ‘Where did all this come from? I don’t understand’, – I was completely turned around by this book. And then at the end, there’s this wonderful little short series of five micro-essays, in a way, which is called ‘The Night Gardener’. And it seems to be the author or the narrator. And he’s in his garden. And he meets a neighbour who’s also a gardener, and they talk and it’s just a little bit of observation about the natural world around them. And he focuses on little things, and all of the elements that previously he’s touched on throughout the book drop into place, and you see where they came from. And that was so extraordinary.
I’ve never read anything like it. It’s rare to find a book that I can’t talk about. It’s uncategorizable, unquantifiable, utterly extraordinary – I thought. What did your book club think?
Well, we could make a whole book-club episode about this. That boat has sailed so I won’t get too much into the detail. I would say there was a general feeling of being underwhelmed, actually.
Indeed, and an irritation with his emphasis on great male-minds who are unfathomable and intriguing and have a certain stature.
Yes, that’s fair
Frances was asking ‘Why is this book getting so much attention now? Is this the book we need now?’ It felt like it came from a place maybe 10 years ago, someone flagged. Okay, perhaps yes, some of the most famous scientific mathematical minds, they have been predominantly male in the 19th and 20th century for a whole host of reasons. But where’s Marie Curie then, you know? She could be there, her discoveries could be there. But you’re in good company. Obama loved it. Others loved it. It’s had huge cut-through especially for a novel, or essays, or whatever you want to call it, in translation. But yeah, intriguing, intriguing that you loved it so very much.
I think it’d be so good for book club. I think it would be really divisive. Definitely, there were elements that I was really uncomfortable with and unsure about. And when I finished it, the reason I haven’t been raving about it as the most perfect book I’ve ever read is because I didn’t think everything was as good as that one chapter in the middle. I remember texting Phil, and I just said, ‘If the whole book had been like this, it would have been perfection’, but I felt it lost its way a bit at the end, perhaps. But anyway, yes, we should say, it was shortlisted for the International Booker prize last year. And it was also on the New York Times top 10 notable books of 2021, which is how it popped up on my radar. But yeah, anyways, I’m going in strong.
Going in strong!. I’m feeling a little bit nervous about my reading, because I have to say it has a more frivolous streak. Since December. Please tell me you’ve got something light in the mix for later on.
Oh, yeah. I think they get progressively lighter as I go on.
Okay. All right. Let’s get to it. I’ve had a really tough go with reading since about Christmas time. I have started and put down probably about eight books, books that I would have thought I liked. I’ve got a few of them stacked up in front of me. One of them is Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You? Not good, Kate, not good. Really. I saw on Instagram that someone said that’s not her strongest novel but if you love Sally Rooney, you’ll still love this book. I disagree. I think she is probably having a tough time finding her voice when she’s in this stew of fame and critical acclaim that comes through in one of the characters, but it’s rough. I don’t think it’s very good. And I’m not going to get through it. I put it down.
I picked it up again, three weeks later thinking ‘Come on. It’s Sally Rooney, the woman can write,’ and had to put it down again. There are these long emails between friends and it is very GCSE politics. It doesn’t do anything to develop the characters. It doesn’t do anything to develop the plot. The observations aren’t particularly insightful. I sound very harsh. I’m a huge Sally Rooney fan, but I don’t think this is the book for her. I think the next one – she’s in her late ’20s. She’s still so young. Maybe as she enters the next phase of her life, we’ll get a different type of narrative, a different type of view.
I thought that when I saw her speak about it at the Southbank Centre, which was really interesting, I haven’t yet read it. But I was fascinated just to hear her in person and to see what she was like, and you know how she always seems incredibly serious whenever you see photos of her, she never smiles. It’s kind of interesting, you know, and an absolutely fair-enough stance. Why should women authors always be smiling in photos? That in itself is a really interesting debate and I think she’s probably quite carefully considers how she presents herself. But anyway, in person, she’s so funny and jolly and sort of nice. But I remember thinking to myself, I can’t wait to read, you know, should I be spared, the book that she writes when she’s in her mid ’40s When she’s just had so much more life experience. It’s a weird position to be in. I want to know her take on where I am in my life, midlife, when I’ll be such an old lady. Hopefully some will be able to come and read it to me in my care home!
I also struggled with other books. There is a part of me that thinks it’s not Sally Rooney, it’s me. I started Elif’ Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees. My mother loved that book. It’s had a lot of press and attention. I’ve seen people raving about it on Instagram. Two chapters in and no. Same thing with a very different book The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern who wrote The Night Circus. Did you read that? Ten years ago?
I did. I don’t remember it. I feel like it didn’t touch the sides much. I think that it was enjoyable, but I don’t remember a word of it.
Absolutely. Neither do I. But I saw The Starless Sea at the library and I enjoyed The Night Circus. I thought ‘Maybe this book will help me get out of my reading rut.’ No, no, it did not do the trick.
So then the question probably is, ‘well, what book did what book did I actually get through over the past eight and a half weeks? And for that I have to share the most delightful bookish experience of my life in Canada thus far. I travelled to Tofino on the far west coast of Canada, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, with these beautiful sandy beaches, and I popped into a bookshop called Mermaid Tales. And it was revelatory. It was the best independent bookshop I have ever been to. And that’s partially because we’re so starved for independent book shops in Vancouver. They are very few and far between. Chapters / Indigo is the big-boy bookstore here, and they have displays that read like ‘what’s hot on Tik Tok?’
There are some very nice use bookshops in Vancouver, The Paper Hound, Pulp Fiction, I love them. But you need a really attentive, thoughtful bookseller, don’t you, to curate that selection for you? And I walked into the space and I wanted to read everything. And I had read many of those books too. So it was like encountering old friends. And some of them were really obscure. I was like, ‘Oh, you’ve got Jess Kidd’s Himself. I loved that book! I mean, she’s not a nobody, but still to find her, an Irish author on the west coast of Canada, was very exciting. And the bookseller to top it all off was delightful and very friendly.
So what did you buy?
Well, I bought The Outlander by Gil Adamson, which is not by Diana Gabaldon. It’s important to say it’s very different to Diana Gabaldon. Let me just read you the back: ‘In 1903, a mysterious desperate woman flees alone across the West, one quick step ahead of the law. She has just become a widow by her own hand. Vengeful brothers and a pack of bloodhounds track her across the wilderness. She is nineteen years old and half mad. Gil Adamson’s extraordinary award-winning novel opens in heart-pounding midflight and propels the reader through a gripping road trip with a twist. The steely outlaw in the story is a grief-stricken young woman.
Hmm. Doesn’t that sound good? Especially when you’re on holiday and you’re looking to get over your reading slump?
It sounds beachy.
But so here’s the thing, it does sound beachy. It is gripping, it is beautifully written. And as I was just preparing to tell you a little bit more about the book, I’m going to refresh my memory because it’s been a few weeks, I came across this quote from Ann Patchett. ‘The Outlander deserves to be read twice. First for the plots and the complex characters which make this a page-turner of the highest order. And then a second time slowly to savour the marvel of Gil Adamson’s writing. This novel is a true wonder. So page-turner, beautiful prose. I don’t know if this is an official genre, but I would like to dub it ‘Frontier Fiction’. It reminded me very much of Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, a book I loved and which is set in America in the 19th century. This is set in Canada, probably in the last few decades of the 19th century, maybe the first few decades of the 20th. And it’s this really solid reminder of how, well, there was nothing here. It was frontier, it was lawless, and it attracted this ragtag bunch of people, some are malevolent, some are good. You have this terrible depiction of this woman’s life, why she committed murder? Why she murdered her husband – we know that from the very beginning – and is there redemption? Is there a way for her to move beyond the trauma and find a home for herself? Super good. You’re Googling whether or not it’s available in the UK aren’t you?
I am, but the trouble is, if you Google ‘The Outlander novel’ – because I couldn’t remember the author’s name – you just get pages and pages and pages of Diana Gabaldon. That book is really popular, isn’t it!
Yes. Because of the TV series, right?
Yeah. Yeah, quite sexy. I couldn’t really get past the whole thing with the kilt though.
I didn’t read it, I watched the first series. enjoyed that and then thought, ‘Okay, that’s enough’. This is a very different book, but I highly recommend it.
And yes, it is available here in the UK.
Alright, so listeners, if you’re looking for a bit of Frontier Fiction that is exquisitely written…
I also have a bit of a joyful read. It’s called One, Two, Three, Four: The Beatles in Time. It’s by Craig Brown. People may have read his previous book Ma’am, Darling, which was a life of Princess Margaret, which I read and enjoyed hugely. I would never have thought in a million years that I would be remotely interested in the life of Princess Margaret, and I’m not a Crown watcher. I think that would be more of a logical leap for people who love The Crown, but that’s not me. And I absolutely ate it up. It was so delightful the way that he had written it.
And so as a result, I’d asked for this book One, Two, Three, Four, for Christmas last year and be given it and then it just sat on my shelf. I hadn’t picked it up. It’s quite a big hardback. And it won the Baillie Gifford prize, which is the prize I love. I don’t think I’ve ever read a bad Baillie Gifford, either shortlisted book or prize winner. It’s such a reliable source of good recommendations. And yet despite all of that, I didn’t pick it up because I think part of me was feeling like, ‘Well, can you possibly tell me about the Beatles?’ Which is not to say that I am someone who knows a lot about the Beatles, I’m not at all. But you know, it just feels like you know everything about them.
They’re the Beatles. Like what could be surprising about that?
That’s right! But one day I picked it up and Brown begins
One, Two, Three, Four. In their neat black suits and ties, Brian Epstein and his personal assistant Alister Taylor make their way down the eighteen steep steps into the sweaty basement on Matthew Street. Brian finds it as black as a deep grave, dank and damp and smelly. He wishes he hadn’t come. Both he and Taylor would prefer to be attending a classical concert at the Philharmonic, but curiosity got the better of them.
Four young musicians saunter onto the stage. Brian recognises them from the family record shop he manages, they are the ones who lounge around in the booths, listening to the latest discs and chatting to the girls with absolutely no intention whatsoever of buying a record between songs. The three yobs with guitar start yelling and swearing, turning their backs on the audience and pretending to hit one another. Taylor notices Brian’s eyes widen with amazement. Taylor himself is undergoing one of the most shocking experiences of his life, like someone thumping you, and he is pretty sure Brian feels the same.
After the show, Taylor says ‘they’re just awful’. ‘They are awful’ agrees Brian, ‘but I also think they’re fabulous. Let’s just go and say hello.’
George is the first of the Beatles to spot the man from the record shop approaching. ‘Hello there’, he says, ‘What brings Mr. Epstein here?’
And so it goes on. It’s chronological. But each chapter is a little essay. And it can be from anyone’s point of view. So it might be someone like, for example, the tour guide, showing Craig Brown around the National Trust house that was Paul McCartney’s house. Or it could be someone like Epstein and diaries and letters and reminiscences or people contemporaneously, fellow musicians, wives, fans, enthusiasts. It’s the same way that he did the Princess Margaret book. I don’t know why, but this felt like a step up from that. It’s somehow greater, it reaches further because in telling the story of this iconic band, he’s also exploring why their music means what it means to people. It’s exploring a particular period in history, one that has gone and will never return in music terms, but also in terms of society as it was then the way it is now.
And the thing that really got my attention was at the beginning there’s an epigraph and I’m a bit lazy about – I don’t always read epigraphs, because I kind of want to get on and read the book. But you know, that’s wrong of me because the author puts them there for a reason! And he starts with a Thomas Hardy poem:
In five score summers, all new eyes
New minds, new modes, new fools, new wise
New woes to weep, new joys to prize
With nothing left of me and you
In that live century’s vivid view
Beyond a pinch of dust or two
A century, which if not sublime,
Will show, I doubt not, at its prime
A scope above this blinkered time.
And just that, as a sort of framing device, made me think ‘this is more than just a biography!’ Anyway, anyone familiar with Brown’s writing will know, he is brilliant at characters, humour, funny details, fascinating details, the way he draws it all together is wonderful. And ultimately, you sit back and you really, really know about the Beatles! At the end. I’m not, you know, I’m a bit hopeless, I read things, and then my mind moves on to other things. I’m not someone who retains stuff unfortunately, it’s a bit disastrous, but when I had finished this, you could have asked me anything about the Beatles, anything. And I would have been instantly able to answer you, because Brown brought them to life for me so much. And it’s so interesting: they weren’t very nice! I think that’s one of the things that surprised me most, they behaved pretty appallingly a LOT of the time, I really disapproved of them and just felt like I wouldn’t have wanted to be around these people.
But Kate, you know, I think the most interesting people tend to be not very nice, because they’re egocentric and driven and singular in their vision. And they’re going to get there and you know, if there’s hell to pay, who cares?
All of that. And then after I finished it, there is a documentary, a film sequence based on archive footage. It’s called Get back. It’s a documentary. It’s nine hours, I think, of this recording session towards the end. So Yoko Ono is there. It’s that phase of their careers, and it’s where they ended up performing on the rooftop. I imagine it would be a brilliant an interesting film to watch. If you were just coming to it cold. If you come to it, having read One, Two, Three, Four, it’s absolutely riveting. Every glance, every nuance, because you know, it’s like you’ve lived it all with them. You know, by the time you get to this point, I just thought it was extraordinary. And the other thing I should say I did, which perhaps is not so highbrow, but James Corden does this thing carpool karaoke where he gets a musician and they drive around in his car and they sing along, and it’s a lot of fun. I quite like it. But anyway, he does one with Paul McCartney. And I swear to God, it had me in tears, crying, because it captured so beautifully what I think Craig Brown is getting at – one of the things about the Beatles, which is that it’s a reflection of us, you know, the way people feel about the Beatles. And the Beatles music tells us something about ourselves. And that’s a very hard thing to define or articulate. But it’s there in this James Corden thing. I’ll leave it to you to watch on YouTube.
And the Vancouver Art Gallery has an exhibition of Yoko Ono right now. And I have passes to Vancouver art gallery that I’ve yet to use. So I should really go. And I would hope that might be on sale at the gift shop, because it could come together nicely.
The fascinating thing I didn’t know about Yoko Ono was that she is the daughter of one of Japan’s wealthiest families. Did you know that she came from extraordinary money? She wasn’t some nobody who came along. You know, she was kind of like a Japanese princess.
It’s often the way with these Bohemians, Kate. I want you to tell me your third read today before I get onto my second and third because they are of a type and they will kind of lead on from one-another. So tell me what was the third book we’re going to talk about today? Listeners, you should know we’re trying to limit ourselves to three. Obviously, there’s many, many diversions and segues and all that. But third book:
Yes, briefly, this is another non-fiction. Another biography actually, it’s by John Preston and it’s called Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell. He tells the story of the media baron Robert Maxwell’s life.
In February 1991 the media mogul and former MP Robert Maxwell made a triumphant entrance into Manhattan harbour aboard his yacht, The Lady Ghislaine to complete his purchase of the ailing New York Daily News. Crowds lined the quayside to watch his arrival. Taxi drivers stopped their cabs to shake his hand and children asked for his autograph. But just ten months later, Maxwell disappeared from the same yacht off the Canary Islands only to be found dead in the water soon afterwards.
Maxwell was the embodiment of Britain’s postwar boom. Born an Orthodox Jew he had escaped the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, fought in World War Two, and was decorated for his heroism with the Military Cross. He went on to become a Labour MP and an astonishingly successful businessman, owning a number of newspapers and publishing companies. But on his death, his empire fell apart as long-hidden debts and unscrupulous dealings came to light. Within a few days, Maxwell was being reviled as the embodiment of greed and corruption. No one had ever fallen so far, and so quickly. What went so wrong? How did a war hero a model of society become reduced to a bloated, amoral wreck? In this gripping book, John Preston delivers the definitive account of Maxwell’s extraordinary rise and scandalous fall.
So this was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize, and it won the 2021 Costa prize in the biography category.
Oh I hadn’t realised it was a new book.
I’d ordered it from the library, and then forgotten all about it. And then one day it turned up. Yeah, it was published in 2020. The other thing I hadn’t clocked or hadn’t quite put two and two together was that John Preston is the same John Preston, who wrote The Dig, which is the book about Basil Brown and the excavation of the Sutton Hoo treasures. I haven’t read that, but I was completely, like most people in the UK, captivated by the film of it that they made that was on last summer. And he also wrote A Very English Scandal, which is about the MP Jeremy Thorpe, famously played by Hugh Grant in again, another excellent TV adaptation of his book, which again, I was enthralled by. I really, really enjoyed that. And I realised this is the same John Preston. And what that told me was that John Preston is very, very good at finding these characters and bringing them to life and he absolutely delivers with this.
I think one of the things that I liked so much about it was that I didn’t really know that much about Maxwell. I vaguely remembered, you know, the story about his death. Was he murdered? Was it suicide, there’s big mystery about what happened. Preston really engages your sympathy for him at the very beginning, just purely by telling you about his story. He came from an incredibly poor family of Jews who lived in a place called Slotvino, and he just was very bright and had to learn quite early on to fend for himself. And then he travelled into Europe and then got caught up in when the war started. He ended up serving in the armed forces. He was very good at languages. He taught himself English, he taught himself German, so he became quite useful. He ended up working for the British army. There are various acts of heroism that won him the Military Cross but they were also some acts where his behaviour was very questionable. So even from the very beginning, you’re ambivalent about him. But I have to say you’re really rooting for him.
And the other thing about him was his family story. He had nine children in the end. Preston makes the point that he may well have been trying to recreate his own large family, who were all killed during the war. They all perished in Auschwitz, except for I think, two of his sisters. Anyway, so he then met Betty, his French wife, and they came to live in Britain, and went on to have nine children between them, but two of their children died when they were young. One little girl died when she was three of leukaemia, and that story is just heartbreaking. And then his eldest son was in a car accident, and was left in a vegetative state for I think it was seven years before he finally died. And it changed him, it had a huge impact on their family that had a huge impact on him as a man.
And although subsequently he does all these things that you’re really just, you know, are not good things, dodgy business dealings, and it’s all driven by this arrogance and drive for success. And he has this sort of strange, one sided relationship with Rupert Murdoch. And yet, actually, Rupert Murdoch did recognise him as something of a strange kinship that they had. There’s something there, which Preston weaves in, which is a very enjoyable thread of the book. And he tells it so well, it’s just a rollicking read.
You don’t find out at the end, there’s nothing conclusive about what happened. You don’t know why he came to die the way that he did. But Preston gives you enough information that you feel like you can draw your own conclusions; it’s satisfying in that way – you feel like you understand and have a pretty good idea for yourself of what you think happened.
It was just everything I want from a from a non-fiction read, really. I didn’t want to put it down. I found it absolutely riveting. And I really admired the economy – in fact, he’s really good at something I’m not good at, which is, yeah, the kind of economy of it, you know, he didn’t tell you anything more than you needed to know, to tell the story really, really well.
I actually would have liked more, I would have liked more on the financials, which I felt like he really skated over, you know? Someone like Michael Lewis would have had a great time diving into all of that, and would have really brought the business-side of it to life. Preston doesn’t do that. I think he made a conscious choice not to get into that. But it leaves you then with this character driven story that I really, really enjoyed. And I highly recommend it. I thought it was excellent.
It appeals to me a lot more than the Beatles biography. And I think that’s because when I dive into non-fiction, I do have a preference for business. And I think that really comes from Michael Lewis’s influence. He’s trained me up to think that the world of business and the characters who populate it in the financial world are inherently interesting. So this is definitely the one I would be picking up.
Before I turn to my next two books. I did want to say that I have read some literary fiction over the past few months. I’m just not going to talk about it because the real standout book is Leiïla Slimani’s In the Country of Others. And that is a book club book, and we are going to discuss it on an upcoming book club episode. But I flag that in defence of my next two choices, which are as light and frivolous as you can get.
What have you been reading?
The first was a gift from my brother, which was The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab. And it’s a book I wanted to read because, listeners, Kate loved this book. Kate thought this was a great read.
You’re gonna savage it. I did love it!
You loved it, as did many others. You know, my copy is a special Barnes and Noble exclusive edition.
I mean, I didn’t uncritically love it. I thought –
I know. I know. I know. Let listeners hear what it’s about first.
In the vein of the Time Traveler’s Wife and Life After Life. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is New York Times bestselling author V.E. Schwab’s genre-defying tour de force. A life no-one will remember, a story you will never forget.
France 1714. In a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever, and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets. Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents across history and art. As a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.
Then everything changes when after nearly three-hundred years Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name.
Dun dun dun. So I think what V.E. Schwab is very good at is a hook because that is a strong hook. You’re interested, aren’t you? You think ‘what will that woman do? What will that mean to live forever, but to always be forgotten?’ and you think ‘she’s gonna do some amazing things. She’s gonna travel around the world. We’re gonna have some amazing adventures. I’m excited.’
And then Kate, all she seems to do – certainly by the time she’s in New York in the 21st century – is sleep with young men who all look the same, and kind of be heartbroken. I’m like ‘you’re three-hundred-years old! Can you stop letching on these young men who don’t remember you and do something interesting with your time? And you know, it goes back and forth, back and forth…
She’s a woman. She has her needs!
I know, but nineteen-year-old men?
You’re missing what for me was the primary hook, which is this on/off relationship she has with the with The Darkness, the character who she calls upon, in this dark rite. And he grants her this immortality, but there’s always a catch and this catch that he enfolds her in is this idea she will leave no trace, no-one will remember her.
So obviously, she hates him! And he’s really annoying. But does she does she? Maybe he’s not so annoying… And he’s very manipulative. She’s trying to beat him at his own game. As the centuries unfold, they keep encountering one another or she calls on him – he’s got a thing, hasn’t he, where every year on the anniversary, he’ll turn up and buy her drink or something and annoy her and then leave. And I have to say that that had me pretty hooked! I was very invested in that relationship and where it was gonna go. And I liked the way Schwab wrapped it up.
But yeah, if anything, it felt a bit baggy to me. I think that’s the thing. It’s a long-old book. And she was having slightly too much fun going through all these different historical periods where, as you say, not that much actually happens.
She just didn’t do anything that interesting! I’m like, ‘I know, you’re gonna get to go to some amazing world events.’ Is she going to use this perspective? You know, she’s lived all these years, like, ‘what might she learn? What languages might she speak?’ ‘Not many’, would be the answer.
But I don’t want to judge you too harshly. Because I feel we all have, I don’t know what I want to call it, but we all have novels – and often it’s like a specific genre of novel – where we just don’t care. You know, we just take off our critical hat and just go, ‘Oh, I’m just going to enjoy it.’
And that’s what my third read was. And it was a bit of a surprise, because you and I both don’t read much crime, or thrillers, we’re kind of scaredy cats. I’ll talk with probably more than a hint of pretension about the fact that crime novels glorify the death of young women. And that feels very problematic to me. I really don’t like that.
And I don’t like that drip, drip, drip of information. I’m too impatient. I’m like, ‘just get on with it. Tell me who did the thing. Tell me now!’
But honestly, we are outliers, because most people love crime novels. And I picked up – there’s even more context to this. As listeners will know, Kate has been reading The Magic Mountain. We just did an episode on The Magic Mountain and other long reads, I read about 150 pages of that 800-page-plus novel set in a Swiss sanatorium. And as I was supposed to be reading that book, I instead came across The Sanatorium, a novel by Sarah Pearse, which has the Reese’s Book Club stamp on it. And since I picked it up, I have seen it on the bestseller lists and in nearly every bookshop I’ve gone into, so this is the book very much on people’s radar.
Yeah, I think it’s been on the bestseller list here in the UK.
It is set in a luxury hotel that was once a Swiss sanatorium:
The newly renovated hotel, Le Sommet, a former sanatorium high in the Swiss Alps, has long been plagued by dark rumours. When detective Elin Warner’s estranged brother Isaac and his fiancee, Laure invite her to celebrate their engagement at the hotel Elin reluctantly accepts. Arriving in the midst of a threatening storm, Elin immediately feels on edge. And when Laure suddenly vanishes, Elin must trust her instincts if they hope to find her.
When the snow cuts off all access to Le Sommet the remaining guests start to panic. Then another woman disappears. And she’s the only person who could have warned them of just how much danger they are all in. This was the most fun I’ve had reading this year. And it is ridiculous. Elin, our hero, our protagonist, is a police detective in the southwest of England, but she’s been on leave for over a year because of a traumatic case, when you don’t think we’re going to get that backstory for some time. But actually, you do quite quickly realise what had happened. So she’s dealing with a bit of PTSD. But crucially, she’s a trained detective. And yet, she does stupid thing after stupid thing, you know, going into all these dangerous situations without any backup, and you’re like, ‘why are you wandering off into this dark room?’ When there’s a killer on the loose like this it feels very unsensible. She also tells all the evidence to all the people. So like anyone who talks to her, she’ll be like, ‘Oh, well, I learned this and I learned that and I learned this’ and you’re like ‘everyone’s a suspect Elin, shut your mouth!’
Nonetheless, I just ploughed through it. It was exactly what I needed. So listeners I mean, if you need something light and silly, and if you like a crime novel, I say that maybe it’s because I don’t read much crime that I had such high tolerance for this one.
Richard Osman apparently says The Sanatorium will keep you checking over your shoulder, ‘this spine-tingling atmospheric thriller has it all, an eerie Alpine setting, sharp prose and twists you’ll never see coming.’ Did it have twists that you didn’t see coming?
Well, only in the sense that they’re sort of nonsensical. That would also be the criticism I level at crime novels is that the killer – they’re not rational. And that’s sort of the point if it’s a serial killer, that they’re not going to be rational. And yet nonetheless, you’re like, ‘Really? That was your motivation? Hmm. And you did that? Oh, okay. All right. Sure, sure.’ I think the setting is a big part of it. I did feel like I was there. And I don’t know if that’s the right thing or not, or just the world that it conjured up for me. I think that she did that really well. She kind of just nailed the perfect scenario, this isolated luxury resort or sanatorium, isolated, snow all around. I read this while I was actually at a resort and was walking from the lodge to the cabin in the dark. And I had to pat myself on the back, resist the urge to check over my shoulder. ‘There are no killers, you’re walking through greenery. This isn’t snow. There are no killers at this resort.’
Or so you thought
[laughs] Or so I thought.
Well, that sounds like a lot of fun. I don’t know whether it will enrich and enhance my life the way that 226,000 words of Thomas Mann did, actually, I think that’s fair, because it was rewarding. But I definitely want to read this.
I should say before we sign off listeners, it was quite funny because they paint the sanatorium as this really dark, horrible place. And actually the tone that Thomas Mann has, at least in the first 150 pages, is that the sanatorium was really quite a nice setup. You know, the upper classes, they hung out there and they had music and they ate a lot and they had a good time great food. So it was quite at odds with the picture that Sarah Pearse paints and I kept being like, ‘No, Sarah, it was fine. They were fine. Yeah, they had TB, but it was okay. They had a good time.’
Our book recommendations were When We Seek to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, The Outlander by Gil Adamson, One, Two, Three, Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown, Fall by John Preston, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab, and The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse.
Enjoyed the show? Looking for more? How about that episode on long reads we mentioned where we discussed The Magic Mountain and other long tomes. Listen in for our tips on tackling the door stoppers plus recommendations of our favourites, not in the mood for that we’ll have a browse through our archive. You’ll find it on our website, thebookclubreview.co.uk, where there are over one-hundred episodes just waiting for you to choose from, plus articles and more.
Next up if you’re looking for reading recommendations that match your mood and the season, we’ve got the perfect episode as we talk to Francesca Bowman, publisher at Persephone books, bookshop proprietor and author. Her latest book The Literary Almanac offers a year of seasonal reading recommendations to listen in for the perfect book for when you’re wondering what to read next.
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