Wednesday, 07 October 2015

Book Reviews: 9 October

The Lady reviews of the latest books available to buy or download now


books---ted-hugesTed Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate (William Collins, £30; offer price, £27)
Poet Laureate Ted Hughes attracted more scandal than any other since Lord Byron. His magnetic personality, dark, smouldering looks, sexual appetite and poetry of deep tenderness ensured that he had tempestuous love affairs galore. For decades, biographers have argued over whether he was a voracious, philandering lover (whose behaviour caused the suicide of his first wife, poet Sylvia Plath, and his mistress Assia Wevill) or a victim, as hunted as the jaguar in his famous poem. Bate spent five years researching Hughes’s archives and what he discovered worried Hughes’s private estate enough to bar him. Among the revelations was that Hughes was working on Birthday Letters, a collection of poems examining his life with Plath, almost from the day she committed suicide in 1963, and that Plath’s hitherto unseen diary for the last week of her life reveals that they were close to ‘being reconciled’. Other secrets include a string of affairs after his marriage to Carol Orchard in 1970, with novelist Emma Tennant among others.

Hughes wasn’t completely to blame, writes Bate: at parties ‘women swooned around him’, throwing themselves at his feet. This gripping portrait of the troubled poet has been longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. It’s 672 pages long – so block out your diary!
Rebecca Wallersteiner

books---church-of-spiesChurch Of Spies by Mark Riebling (Basic Books, £20; offer price, £18)
The controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII ’s role in the Second World War is reflected in the very book purporting to tell the untold story of the Vatican’s relationship with Hitler. In Church Of Spies, Riebling sets out to show how Pius XII used the Catholic Church’s organisation in Germany and occupied Europe to collect intelligence that could defeat the Third Reich. Previous books on this subject have mostly focused on how the allied intelligence services liaised with the Vatican during the war, so an examination of the Vatican’s own intelligence efforts is timely and welcome.

Sadly, Riebling is not wholly successful in his aim. He does not distinguish between intelligence, the systematic analysis of information to predict an adversary’s intentions, and covert diplomacy. While he shows that the Vatican could and did collect information covertly from various sources, he is unconvincing in demonstrating that the Vatican developed an analytical intelligence capability.

There are some wonderful vignettes of brave Catholics, but not the scholarship to do them justice.
Stephen Coulson


books-book-of-the-weekA Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (Picador, £16.99; offer price, £14.99)
Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) was relatively unknown during her lifetime. Published by small printing presses, she had a modest but devoted following in her native America.

This collection of short stories portrays people facing difficult situations such as broken relationships and addiction, and explores the subject of motherhood and the need to belong to a community. The stories are somewhat autobiographical, set in 1960s, 1970s and 1980s working-class America, and give insight into Berlin’s life at the time: she spent her youth in Texas and Latin America, was an alcoholic, experienced the break-up of three marriages, and had several jobs to support her four sons.

Her early stories draw on her haphazard childhood in El Paso with her extended family, mirroring the racist views of the time. The later ones follow various protagonists as they attempt to survive and piece together the fragments of their lives. Berlin’s ability to gaze into a person’s soul is reflected in her writing: it is incisive, and the boldness of her prose jumps off the page. Told in a conversational style, her tales are poignant, comic and beautifully observed. An instant bestseller upon its release, Berlin’s collection proves why she was regarded as America’s best-kept literary secret.
Lyndsy Spence


British Wildlife Photography Awards : Collection 6 (AA Publishing, £25; offer price, £22.50)
Now in its sixth year, the British Wildlife Photography Awards not only celebrates excellence in wildlife photography but records the diversity and beauty of our country’s flora and fauna. From marine life and animal behaviour to tiny insects and urban wildlife, the exquisite images are full of surprises and dramatic close-ups.


Magnificent creatures in their natural habitats seem to spring from the page in vibrant colour and texture, and accompanying text describes the inspiration for each one and the techniques and equipment used. A fitting tribute to our best photographers – and to the wonders of the natural world.
Juanita Coulson


The Theatre Of War by Bryan Doerries (Scribe, £14.99; offer price, £13.49)
Doerries, an American director and writer, is the founder of Theater Of War, a fascinating project that produces ancient Greek plays for returning soldiers and their families, and raises awareness of the wounds, physical and mental, caused by conflict. His book moves effortlessly between a social discourse on war, autobiography and a love letter to classical academia. Personal stories of loss and encounters with servicemen and women are made more poignant by their juxtaposition with characters from classical drama. The tragic figures of Ajax and Philoctetes, for example, take on an entirely new and very relevant meaning and, as Doerries points out, would have been watched by military personnel in the ancient world. A profoundly moving case for the healing power of drama.
Helena Gumley-Mason

The Prison Book Club by Ann Walmsley (Oneworld, £12.99; offer price, £11.69)
A Canadian prison may seem an unlikely setting for a book club – that’s exactly what Ann Walmsley thought before she was drafted in to help run it.

Overcoming her own fears (Ann was once aggressively mugged) she begins to relish the unique contributions and depth that prisoners, including violent offenders, bring to each meeting. Reading and discussing classics from all genres helped bridge gaps within the prison community: one member remarked that it had ‘totally knocked down’ barriers between racial, ethnic and gang-affiliated groups.

Walmsley’s account reveals the redemptive power of reading, with unexpected and morally acute insights from some of Canada’s most fierce criminals.
Lilly Cox

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