Tell us about your favorite book of the year.
That would be “The People Smuggler,” by Robin de Crespigny. It tells the story of an Iraqi dissident called Ali Al Jenabi. As a teenager he joined the Shia uprising against Saddam Hussein after the first Iraq war in 1991. He was captured by Saddam’s secret police, sent to Abu Ghraib and tortured. He watched his father being tortured to the point of insanity and thrown into a pit below the madhouse. He saw his kid brother being dismembered. When he got out of Abu Ghraib he tried to join anti-Saddam groups in Kurdistan, but they were too divided by infighting to be effective. So he turned his attentions to trying to get his remaining family out of Iraq. The numerous reverses and betrayals make the plot of “Les Misérables” look like plain sailing. In Indonesia, he found the operation for shipping refugees to Australia so useless and corrupt that he decided to run it himself. Having eventually got several boats safely to Australia, he found himself tried and imprisoned there for “people smuggling.” This is an astonishing story, at times barely credible, but very unsettling.
In the same week, I read Norman Lewis’s war diary, “Naples ’44,” an account of his time as an intelligence officer in a city where everyone was starving and two-thirds of the women of nubile age were selling their bodies. It is a wonderful book, droll, shocking and humane.
When and where do you like to read?
I read the above two books on a plane, but generally I read in my office, a two-room apartment overlooking a small park in West London, sitting in a hideous though comfortable leather recliner (think Joey in “Friends”). It is death to books to read them in 15-minute bursts in bed late at night when you are tired. I know that for people with real jobs there may be little choice, but the best way to read a 300-page novel is in three or four sittings. I do occasional crash courses to see what’s new in contemporary fiction and have just read Evie Wyld, Scarlett Thomas, Ross Raisin and Adam Foulds.
Having written one of the post-Ian Fleming Bond books, you must have opinions on 007. Which is your favorite Bond book?
I like the climactic scene in “Live and Let Die” when Bond and the girl are towed behind a speedboat as shark bait. I lost interest in the films after Sean Connery, but I did enjoy “Casino Royale” — though Daniel Craig looked as though he had been assembled in a factory. Eva Green was very good in it.
And now taking on the new Jeeves book, tell us about your favorite P. G. Wodehouse.
I like all the Jeeves books, the early ones especially. My favorites are “The Code of the Woosters,” “The Mating Season” and “Right Ho, Jeeves.” But they all have their glories, whether entire plots, set pieces or just single phrases. They depict a world that never truly existed yet in some odd way feels familiar. Heaven may be the cocktail hour at Brinkley Court, with Nobby Hopwood just arriving and Anatole preparing dinner.