Sunday, September 04, 2005

The best book I've read this year

Also in today's blog

Prince Bira's Bentley
"Heyeroines in need of a slap"

Prince Bira's Bentley

One of the nicest things about being a writer is receiving letters and emails from readers.
Recently I was emailed by Nora who, after introducing herself as a fan of my books about Longwarden, a fictional English stately home, suggested I might like to read the following
"TheTwain Have Met" by Prince Chula Chakrabongse. The Prince is the grandson of King Chulalongkorn and his mother is a Russian. It is an insight into mixed marriages. The other book is "Fanny and the Regent of Siam" by Minney, I think.
Fanny is the daughter of the British Consul in Bangkok but Fanny's mother is Thai.
I read them about 30 years ago, so they will be out of print. I would very much like to see your comments if you manage to obtain and read the above books.

Nora's email made me search my bookshelves for another book by Prince Chula called Lords of Life. Bought by me from an antiquarian book dealer, it is signed "For Phyllis Evans with good wishes – Chula of Thailand October 2 1960". I bought it after spending some time in Thailand and while writing about Allegra Carlyon's love affair with a Thai prince. Like most of my books it has my pencilled notes on the endpapers and press clippings tucked among the pages.

One of the clippings, dated 20/9/94, is headed "Blue remembered thrills of Prince Bira's Bentley" with a photograph of a 1934 open-topped Bentley which Prince Bira, educated at Eton and Cambridge, had painted blue to match the evening dress of a Danish girl he had met at a party. The article says that "Bira blue" with a yellow stripe was later adopted as the official Siamese racing livery.

The car was expected to fetched more than £100,000 at auction. Also in the book is a fax I sent to Simon Kidston of Coys of Kensington Ltd.
31 October 1995 Dear Mr Kidston The piece which appeared in the Telegraph in September 1994 about the then forthcoming auction of Prince Bira's Bentley was of great interest to me. Such a romantic gesture to have one's car painted to match a lovely girl's dress! I have given a similar car to the hero of my current novel.
I wonder if you would be very kind and tell me what the Bira Bentley fetched and who it was sold to, unless the buyer prefers to remain anonymous. I was going abroad when I read the pre-auction story, and thought no more about it until the clipping surfaced in my "ideas" file while I was planning the book in hand."

What happened to Mr Kidston's reply I'm not sure. No doubt it will come to light eventually.

Heyeroines in need of a slap…

…is the title of a series of fans-of-Georgette Heyer teases which Stephen Bowden, blogging name Wenlock, began last Tuesday.

I wonder if he has read The Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge in which the author reveals that Venetia, with whom Bowden opens his series, was thought by Heyer to be one of the two best novels among her later works?

Jane Aiken Hodge describes Venetia as "one of the most liberated of Georgette Heyer's heroines, and a great realist about men, having learnt about them from her brothers."

I liked Venetia and fell heavily for Lord Damerel the first time I met him in 1958.

J A H tells us that Robert Pitman, then with the Sunday Express approached Heyer's publisher Heinemann with a view to a Heyer interview. As usual, she turned down the suggestion. "Even if I wanted to oblige that particular section of the press, which I don't, I couldn't possibly be "interviewed". For years now I have consistently refused to see reporters, and to make an exception would not only be invidious, but would lead to trouble…If the Sunday Express wants to write about me, let it supply someone to write about my books, not about me – myself."

J A H adds, "As always, Venetia sold its 60,000 copies without help from the Sunday Express."

Heyer was never well-served by the artists who painted her covers, but Lord Damerel on my 1958 paperback is closer to my visualisation of him than the man with the womanly hips and backside on the cover shown here. No wonder Venetia is recoiling from his embrace. Who wouldn't?

Stephen Bowden finds Venetia irritating because "While the best of Heyer's heroines…take a while to build up one's irritation, Venetia achieves this in the very first paragraph when she comes in wittering over-dramatically about a fox in among the chickens, and then answers herself in a silly voice."

No doubt his blog will receive a lot of cross comments from the type of Heyer fan who won't hear a word said against her. I'm greatly looking forward to seeing Stephen Bowden and three other colleagues on the Romantic Novelists' Association team in the second semi-final of University Challenge : The Professionals tomorrow [Monday] night on BBC2 TV.

The best book I've read this year

The maddening thing about this book is that it was first published in 1999 under another title. In 2000 it reappeared with the current title. Somehow I missed the reviews. Last month I discovered it in the Guille-Allès public library. Half way through, I knew I must have my own copy. But when I went to order it from a local bookseller, as soon as he heard the publisher's name, he rolled his eyes and his mouth turned down in a sardonic grimace.

If you haven't read Guy Dennis's piece in the Money section of the UK Daily Telegraph, headed "Penguin loses the plot - A state-of-the-art warehouse was designed to improve efficiency in the Pearson empire but it created chaos and delivery delays", it will explain the bookseller's reaction.

"It seems to be out of print," he told me. "But it could be re-printing. With Penguin…who knows?" Another roll of the eyes.

Originally published as Secrets of the Press, the book has been re-titled The Penguin Book of Journalism. At Amazon UK there's a used copy on offer for £20 [the price of the paperback was £9] and a reader from Cardiff writes -
This is a great book for journalists, would-be reporters and those interested in Fleet Street, past and present. Major name reporters and writers provide insight and tips on their brand of journalism, from tabloid writing to Lynn Barber on celebrity interviews. Accessible and very enjoyable.

A fuller review by Tom Maliti is worth reading.


In a writers' forum discussion about the pros and cons of erotica, someone mentioned Anaïs Nin, one of whose published diaries I started to read a long time ago but it didn't grab me. However as the writer who mentioned her is someone whose opinion I respect, I decided to check out Nin at the library and on the web. If you've never heard of Nin, the best place to start is at the Salon interview with her biographer.
"…when literary scholar and journalist Deirdre Bair first embarked on an exploration of the life of Anaïs Nin, she knew little about the famous diarist and writer of erotic fiction beyond the most public details of her life. But after poring over more than 250,000 pages of Nin's handwritten diaries and conducting countless interviews with those who knew Nin, Bair emerged with a portrait very different than that which the diaries alone suggested."

Asked why she thought Anaïs Nin was so severely denounced for having lied in her own diaries, Deirdre Bair replied -
"Well, somebody once said that memoir, diary, journal or private writing has to be truth. This was before the age of postmodernism, when we all said, "There is no truth, there's no one truth. There's your truth and my truth." So when Nin's diaries were published, women in the '60s, in the dawning of the feminist movement, were reading these diaries and were saying, "Oh my God, here's one woman who really had the perfect life. She went around the world independently, she lived independently, she did whatever she wanted, she was in charge of her own sexuality, her own finances, everything. We all want to be Anaïs Nin." "

She also said –
But there are two facts that are very, very wrong and have to be corrected. One was that Anaïs Nin never, ever had a physical relationship with June Miller. Anaïs Nin's first lesbian relationship happened during an orgy in the 1940s in New York City, and she didn't like it. And she never had a physical relationship with women after that.
The second thing was that Hugh Guiler, her husband, was not the buffoon, the fool , the cuckold, the stupid, silly man that Phil Kaufman turned him into in that film. Hugh Guiler was an extremely sensitive, sophisticated man who knew everything that was going on but simply chose not to see it. So those two things notwithstanding, everything else in the film was pretty accurate."

The interview ends –
"But the most moving thing that happened to me in my professional career was that Anaïs Nin's brother Joaquin, a distinguished musician/musicologist who lives in Berkeley and is the former chair of the music department at Berkeley, when I sent him the book, he wrote me a letter. He said, "Well, you've proven every terrible thing I've long suspected that my sister had done. But you wrote it in such a way that you still allow me to love her." "

I didn't know there had been a film and, although Deirdre Bair sounds a good biographer, I don't feel inclined to read the book because Nin, Henry Miller and their circle - "literary" bigshots with complicated and messy private lives - are not the kind of people who interest me.

Coming next Sunday…maybe

Karin Slaughter's thrillers

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