“Scott-Clark and Levy’s retelling of the disaster from the vantage points of trapped and imperiled guests and staff, as well as from the perspective of the terrorists themselves, reads like an expertly-constructed thriller that’s all the more heart-stopping because it actually happened. Hiding out in various parts of the hotel, hearing the staccato of gunshots overhead and underfoot as gunmen roamed the building, hundreds of people faced a terrible choice: if you barricaded yourself in a room, you might avoid getting shot, but you might end up burnt or asphyxiated as the gunmen started fires and caused explosions. Will Pike, a 28-year-old Londoner, decided that the only way out of his room, 60 feet above ground, was through the window, whose double-glazed panes he smashed with a marble coffee table. Sabina Sehgal Saikia, a prominent restaurant critic and mother of two, stayed huddled in her magnificent suite. Only one of them survived.”—From my review ofThe Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel, Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy’s fantastically well-researched account of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.
Hicks remembers it all with immense charm, wit, and brio, capturing a bygone world of sprawling country estates, glass cigarette holders kept in a petticoat pocket, sapphire-studded powder compacts, dials on bedroom doors that turned to indicate when you’d like to be woken with tea and biscuits, and enough pets to populate an exotic zoo—including two wallabies from New Guinea, a bush baby, an anteater named Schnozzle, and a lion cub named Sabi that Lady Edwina brought home from southern Africa when Hicks was 8. “Sabi was adorable,” she writes, “and became a treasured member of our menagerie … he grew so fast that he was soon much bigger than the dogs, and although he never bit or clawed, he was so strong that he knocked me over a couple of times. When he started to get on his hind legs and rest his paws on people’s shoulders, he was quickly rehoused in a loose box in the stables.”
At the end of Casey’s life, she and Woody were not on speaking terms. Nor had Sale seen her in months, since she went to “rescue” Casey’s three-year-old adopted daughter from her “emotionally drowning” mother. January 4, 2010, when Casey was found dead at her West Hollywood home, was “the worst day of my life,” said her father, who had donated millions to diabetes research. But Woody, starkly revealed by Crazy Rich as the world’s least enviable billionaire, was destined to be confronted, like his frustrated grandfather on his death bed, with the limitations of wealth’s potency.
The impetus for her lifetime of feminine self-flagellation, she reiterates throughout the book, was her conviction that she was profoundly unattractive. “I wish someone had told me, not that I was beautiful because I know I’m not, but that I was normal and acceptable. Then, perhaps, I wouldn’t have spent my life trying quite so hard to be better than I am.” No wonder she was drawn like a proverbial moth to a career in women’s media—although the way she tells it, it’s not so much that fashion magazines aim to stoke women’s inadequacies, it’s that the corrupt symbiosis of advertisers and editors renders irrelevant the interests or wishes of readers. “Ever wondered,” asks Jones, “why all the glossy editors applauded when animal rights protestors were dragged by their hair from the Burberry catwalk by bouncers? They each had shiny Burberry totes at their toes, delivered that morning.”
Some people, Marie knows, smash through life while paying no heed to unseen vibrations, to shadows and subtleties. Though no stranger to violent impulses herself, she prefers to leave as soft an impression as possible, like her careful fingers creating the sea in a 3-D rendering of William Dyce’s ‘Pegwell Bay’: ‘Very gently I pressed my thumbs down on the gold leaf not wanting to tear it, gently gently till the surface became rippled, like a gilt shimmer on water capturing the last of the day’s sun in the low tide, clinging to those last bits of illumination.’
Such bold-faced aplomb would be deployed time and time again in dealing with the Nazis. When working for SEO (Special Operations Executive, the secret wartime sabotage unit) in the Alps, where she trekked between the French and Italian sides and transmitted vital information about enemy activity, Christine was stopped by the German frontier patrol. In her hand she held a silk map of the region, given to agents to avoid the giveaway rustle of paper in pockets. With no hope of concealing it, she casually shook the fabric out and used it to replace the headscarf she was wearing, greeting the soldiers in French as if she were simply a local on an errand. Another time she and Andrzej Kowerski, her on-off lover and frequent partner in crime, were arrested and interrogated by Gestapo officers in Budapest. Christine had been suffering from flu, so she exaggerated her hacking cough and bit her tongue so hard that she appeared to be bringing up blood. Presumed to be infected with tuberculosis—potentially fatal and frighteningly infectious—she and Kowerski were released.
Holder, a 22-year-old African-American Vietnam veteran, and Kerkow, a fun-loving 20-year-old masseuse enamored of her bookish firebrand boyfriend, could have been flagged based on one of the official screening criteria: paying for tickets by unconventional means. First Kerkow tried to pass a bad check, then when that was discovered, she successfully exchanged an unused round-trip ticket to Seattle, mailed to her by her father, for two one-way tickets. The remainder of the escapade’s execution, masterminded by Holder, was equally haphazard. Wielding a briefcase that he claimed held a bomb, the lanky bespectacled youth, clad in full army regalia and chain-smoking joints, oversaw a 30-hour saga involving the collection of $500,000 in ransom, a change of planes at San Francisco, refueling at Kennedy, and—instead of Hanoi, his initial choice of destination—a final stop in Algiers, where Holder demanded to be met by exiled Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.
Like the kids on FX’s (totally addictive, imo) Cold War thriller The Americans, foreign correspondent Scott C. Johnson grew up with no idea that his father was a spy — until the secret was uncovered when he was 14. Johnson’s beautifully written, candid, and surprising memoir, The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA, traces his struggle to come to terms with the deception that reverberates through his adult life, and looks back on his own globe-spanning, death-dodging career — which, he comes to recognize, is not so different from espionage. I reviewed the book at The Daily Beast.
Keen to outline his various admirable qualities and relieved when his exemplariness is recognized—asked to accompany Emilia to her sister’s coffin, Huberman remarks that it is “always a comfort to encounter individuals capable of valuing my qualities as a spiritual guide”—the good doctor’s heroic stance does tend to falter slightly whenever anything gets between him and his food. On the morning the dead body is discovered, he goes to the kitchen to request his “habitual broth with toast points,” only to be “met with a disagreeable sight: Andrea was pale and a tremble in her jaw foretold the imminence of a sob. Barely hiding my impatience, I realized that a delay in the arrival of my soup was all but inevitable.” Bad enough that Mary’s untimely demise is interfering with his writing, for it to disrupt his meals is scarcely tolerable.
Where There’s Love There’s Hate — an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo first published in 1946 and only now translated into English — is pretty amazing.
Mila 18 doesn’t, by a long shot, qualify as great literature—the characterization is mostly crude, everyone inexplicably speaks in the cadence and idioms of 1950s America (“Heck!” says a teenage boy during his first romantic tryst. “This isn’t the way I figured it would be”), and the style is serviceable at best—but as a sensational yet historically accurate account of a pivotal episode in history, its value cannot be underestimated. Contemporary audiences certainly read it in droves: it became a Book of the Month selection, spent thirty-one weeks on the bestseller lists, and forced Joseph Heller to change the title of his debut novel from Catch 18 to Catch 22.
She politely writes back, and after a few more letters have been exchanged, Mapple’s reason for choosing Nothomb as a pen pal emerges. To anyone familiar with her oeuvre, it makes perfect sense: he has coped with the trauma of combat, of “rocket fire, tanks, bodies exploding next to me,” by gorging on food. Now he weighs 400 pounds: the equivalent, he points out, of carrying around a whole extra person. His fleshy double is named Scheherazade, he has decided, and when he’s in bed he likes to imagine that the female form of Scheherazade is lying over him, rather than his own immensity. “I know that you won’t judge me,” he writes to Nothomb. “You have a few obese characters in your books, and the way you portray them they never lack dignity.”
James Lasdun — author of disturbing and brilliant novel The Horned Man — had his life turned upside down when he acquired an unhinged cyberstalker who, in her words, planned to “ruin him” and almost did. Lasdun’s gripping memoir about his living nightmare, which I reviewed at The Daily Beast, is out tomorrow.
This short first marriage produced one child, a boy named Bobbie whose very existence was seen as something of a miracle. According to Fort, before her wedding night Nancy had not “comprehended the facts of life,” and following a “brief, unproductive tumult” had extracted herself from the marriage bed and fled home to her parents in a state of shock. They persuaded her to give it another try, but Nancy’s report of waking up to see Bob brandishing a chloroform sponge, evidently determined to assert his conjugal rights, aptly illustrates why their relationship was doomed.
What no one can dispute, though, is that Plath would be thrilled to witness the intricacies of her life still drawing fascination 50 years on: More than anything else, she longed to be famous, immortal, celebrated. Hughes once complained that scholarly interest in Plath was motivated by “curiosity of quite a low order, the ordinary village kind, the bloodsport kind.” But she instinctively knew that only by taking herself as the sole subject for her art, before the term “confessional poetry” had even been coined — and way in advance of our current preoccupation with the whys and wherefores of writerly oversharing — would she attract the level of attention she craved.
She was right, of course: Not only has Plath’s small oeuvre spawned an ever-flourishing worldwide industry of biographical interpretation, but her writing so seamlessly fused self-obsession with an otherworldly gift for language that, on reading, it’s impossible to differentiate between scholarly interest and “curiosity of quite a low order” in one’s mind. This entrancing quality, this perfect, irreproducible formula of unadulterated narcissism and true genius, is what sustains her place in the spotlight just as much as the posthumously self-perpetuating Plath-Hughes soap opera.
Alice mourned the loss of her lover, and her exalted status as his mistress, but would never soften her unsentimental view that for people of her background, wedlock had nothing to do with romance. “Things were done much better in my day,” was her lofty reaction to Edward VIII’s abdication as King to marry Wallis Simpson, and she bullied her lesbian daughter, Violet, into a sham marriage. (Violet was the documented lover of Sackville-West.) Toute vérité n’est pas bonne à dire was the proverb Alice lived by: The truth is sometimes better left unsaid, a philosophy conveniently negating the need to mention that Violet was conceived not by George Keppel, but by Ernest William Beckett, 2nd Baron Grimthorpe and Alice’s paramour before Bertie.
But in our dimension’s timeline—whether it’s the darkest one is obviously not for this column to say—dear Sadie has struck out on her own, and maintained uninterrupted public notoriety with nothing but the sweat of her brow, a string of dalliances with foppish pretty boys, and regular vacations in the company of Kate Moss and the world’s paparazzi. That the raven-haired 47-year-old, whose only noteworthy acting role was in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula twenty years ago, has pulled this off is not so much remarkable as gloomily axiomatic of British society, where possessing any actual talent—outside of a gift for concisely obliterating the dreams of talent show entrants, which is God’s work—is nowadays an impediment to top-echelon fame.
Aliefka Bijlsma's new novel, The Consult General’s Wife, is a sad, funny, and eye-opening story about an aging Dutch diplomat in Brazil. At Words Without Borders, Bijlsma and I talked about topics including: her childhood spent in various different continents; the challenges of creating a character who’s different in age, sex, and temperament to yourself; and what happened when she got lost in a favela ruled by Rio’s main gang.
While the suspense is maximally exploited—whether the gorgeous, charming Professor Portecorvo is a thoroughly depraved individual or a victimized innocent is a truly intriguing puzzle—the novel is just as preoccupied with how truths and falsehoods can be perceived as slippery, or subjective, or tailored to public opinion. As defense lawyers are fond of saying, the truth is less important than the convincingness of a story, and Leo goes one step further than that. “The only true story,” he thinks in despair, “… is the one everyone will believe,” which “speaks of the moral corruption of a twelve-year-old girl by a fifty-year-old man at the peak of success.”
For her New York Times Magazine mini-column this week, Maud talks about the strange bedfellows of war and astrology, namely stargazer Miriam Binyamini’s assurance that “war does not loom between Iran and Israel,” and the wartime exploits of MI5’s spy-astrologer Louis de Wohl. At the Times' “6th Floor” blog, Maud expands on the topic, and she and I discuss de Wohl’s participation in the clandestine and outrageous campaign to drag America into WWII.
Palestinian author Adania Shibli’s dreamy, beautiful second novel, We Are All Equally Far From Love, is set in an unnamed West Bank-like place. As I say in my review, the story’s multiple perspectives and hypnotic imagery make it feel like the best kind of arty film.
If the Celebrity Gods created a mystical creature who fulfilled each and every criteria for newsworthyness, she wouldn’t be as tabloid-perfect as Tulisa, the mononymous British singer and X Factor judge whose tumultuous life I reveal at The Awl. (Or indeed, what he said!)
It was thus a matter of crushing disappointment to the nation’s tireless documentarians of extravagance when the divorce settlement paid to his second wife Irina, the mother of five of his children, which had promised to be the biggest in history, only just squeaked into the top five. Irina accepted $300 million, which Roman had completely forgotten was in the pocket of those jeans anyway.
Permit me to set the scene: Britain, spring of 2011. Her Majesty’s subjects were enjoying the warmest April for 350 years while psyching themselves up for the looming nuptials of Kate and Wills, little aware that in an office in Wapping, the Sun’s Gary O’Shea—single-handedly playing Woodward and Bernstein’s roles in the historic proceedings—was preparing to eclipse Royal Wedding fever with the bombshell that “lovestruck” Imogen had been “romping” in a “string of luxury hotels” with a “married Premier League star,” sometimes—and sports fans are cautioned to reach for the smelling salts for this next bit—just before key games.
Readers of a prudish disposition—and I know there are many of you—will be relieved to hear that in each month’s portrait, Amy’s modesty is fully maintained with bits of lace or fabric; as she often mentions, elegance and refinement are her bywords. “I didn’t do it because I wanted to get them out all the time,” she has said of her decision to acquire silicone implants, “I just thought it would be nice to show a little bit of cleavage…I love modeling underwear and bikinis but the classy side.” (Whether posing for a tabloid newspaper with nothing but crystals between oneself and a chilly draftquite qualifies as classy is a gray area into which your columnist demurs to wade, especially since the malevolent octogenarian Countesses who ran her Swiss finishing school neglected to cover The Etiquette of Vajazzle Display.)
What with the sex scandals, the fondness for classical allusions, and the irrepressible wisecracking, Mayor Bloomberg’s London counterpart is what you might politely call a politico in the European tradition—so naturally it’s time for him to take his rightful place alongside Jordan et al in my Awl guide to the most important UK celebs.
Dora’s own doctorly ambitions were thwarted by her father, who was of the firm opinion that studying medicine ‘would ruin her eyes, her looks, her reproductive health and any prospect of a settled future’, so she’s only too pleased that her duties for Dr Kemble extend well beyond typing and filing. In her first week she’s posing as the ‘alley murder’ victim while the doctor tears at her blouse to see ‘whether the assailant was left- or right-handed’, attending a ‘morbid anatomy demonstration’ on a man hideously ravaged by tertiary syphilis, and sitting in the public gallery of the ‘charm bracelet murder’ trial, where Dr Kemble is giving evidence in the case of another dead blonde, this one older and, as the defence counsel damningly establishes, ‘fond of society’.
All of which sordidness brings us vis-à-vis with a question of such pressing national import, one hopes that a special parliamentary committee is as we speak convening to address it: why oh why does adorable, salt of the earth Coleen, now 25 and the mother of baby Kai, stay married to the faithless Wayne, said to possess all the charm of a root canal and by popular consent no oil painting?