Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Which books get to be reviewed and why?

Here's an email I wrote to the Assistant Managing Editor of the IHT, Katherine Knorr, who looks after, inter alia, what is known as 'the back of the book'.

Just in case you don't know, the Walter and Patricia referred to in this email, posted below, are Walter Wells, the ex-executive editor of the IHT, and his wife, Patricia, the paper's long-standing restaurant critic.

Dear Katherine,

OK, full disclosure: I like Walter even though he may well just humour me and think I was, and am, a commercial side jerk. I haven't read his book, I hear their editors weren't that interested in all the IHT stuff so hopefully I escaped without a shoeing.

But I nearly fell off my chair laughing when I read today's review [ ]. Too cruel. But my God, the picture on the web of the cover! Priceless.

Here's the thing: I too am an ex-IHT senior executive, albeit on the non-editorial side, and I too have written a book called A PLACE IN MY COUNTRY which was published by Wiedenfeld and Nicolson (London) last summer in hardback, and came out 1st May, 2008 in paperback (Phoenix).

I wrote to Walter, sent him a copy, asking him if he would be interested in reading it and reviewing it for the IHT.

He wrote back, said nice things about it, and raised two obstacles to it not getting into the IHT.

The first was 'conflict of interest'.

I'm not quite sure what he meant by that but I have noted no conflict of interest obstacles to blocking either the half page back page 'International Life' feature that recently ran in the IHT about his and Patricia's book, nor him being Patricia's boss when he was editor, nor in getting a review into today's paper.

The second obstacle was that you, according to Walter, refuse to review books which are not published in the USA.

If that is true that's a shame, because firstly, my book hasn't got an American publisher (and I sure would like one, so if know anyone in that world please do let me know and I will send them a copy - it would be much appreciated).

Secondly, there are as you know many good books out there, in English (including many translations of international writers not yet published in the USA) and perhaps now that the IHT is the global edition of the NYT it is a good time to revisit that policy? It doesn't sound very global to me, if it is indeed true.

However, a review of my book might also be of interest to IHT readers for four simple reasons:

  • the main narrator of the book used to be on the executive board of the IHT, the youngest I think in its history at that time, and it drove him to having pretty much a nervous breakdown, which is why he left.
  • the book is about returning to one's country of birth after many years away - in my case a decade largely serving our Lords and Masters in NY - and having to re-learn one's own country and sense of personal identity within it. That's something I think many, many IHT readers have had to, or will have to, confront.
  • the book has been extremely well reviewed, including by the FT, so it's not a bad book I'd like to think. (Please see the end of this email for those reviews from left, centre, and right in the UK broadsheets.)
  • I have been published by the IHT, which - and I will be absolutely honest with you about this, rather pathetic and slavish as it may sound - was one of the proudest days of my life. I had a number of emails from IHT readers, via my web site and they seemed to like my style.

Could I please ask you whether you would be prepared to put it out to review? Or perhaps think about it as a feature for your next At Home Abroad?

I know MOST but not all of your book reviews come from the NYT but would you make an exception, given the above?

(NB I'm not asking for a half page colour photo interview here at my home now in the Auvergne, although.... that would be nice and it might make for quite interesting reading about the IHT then and now, and its future.)

Anyway, it is I suppose not the done thing to be so blatant in asking for a book review, but I wrote to Sir Peter Stothard at the TLS, personally, asking him whether he would consider it, and funnily enough they ran a review, so there is precedent in my madness. (By the way, he is I think a very big fan of the IHT/NYT.)

Plus, and I'll be frank again, I kind of need the help here Katherine, so would you please at least consider it?

I would expect no more or less of a savaging than the one dished out to Walter and Patricia, and it will probably be well deserved for my temerity.

Hoping you are well; loving the paper as ever, which hits my post box at exactly 1.00 pm even here in deepest France. I don't think there could be an IHT reader who loves and reads it more closely than me and to have my first book reviewed in its pages would be, well, another very proud day.

(Check out, if you have a moment, what I am doing with the IHT at www.aplaceintheauvergne.blogspot : I am convinced the future of newspapers lies not in removing clear distinctions between news, news analysis, opinion and commentary, but in reorganising their [now outmoded] vertical information hierarchies e.g seperate pages for Europe, Asia, Business, Culture, Travel etc. Newspaper editors need to stand back and take a helicopter view on the day's news, not just the front page, and bring the day's events into something more resembling a daily narrative. This is what I try to do with my blog, using IHT material, to demonstrate how this might be done. Riffing off the MSM I think a well known editor once called it, except I don't riff really, rather I rap, and that could be a metaphor for what I call 'information ebru' on my blog. I'd love to come up and talk to the bigwigs about this concept, and how to market the paper, but I haven't yet got an invite. Still waiting like a love-sick dog.)

Kind regards,

(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hardcover July 2007; Phoenix paperback May 1, 2008 (the ones that have been published since May 1st, 2008, for the paperback are marked in bold; the rest were for the hardback)

'Stressed city couple seeks slower life in Cotswolds idyll'. The premise is so familiar there's even a predictably technical term for it: 'downshifting'. Yet it's hard to think in those terms about A Place in My Country, given the care with which Ian Walthew has skirted all the sprung traps of nostalgia and sentiment. A thoughtful observer and magpie-ish collector of oral history, Walthew has a sharp sense of the absurdities and the assets of his native land, reinforced by years living overseas. In his country life, escaped cows and the hunt ball jostle for space with barn raves and hawkish property developers. Avoiding the usual bland elegy for the rustic and redemptive, his book is a valuable memoir, both personal and social, a meditation on belonging in one of many Englands.
The Observer, 25/08/08

‘I have been reading about the British countryside all my life but this is the first post-modern take on a national asset so routinely taken for granted. Author Ian Walthew takes a 12-inch plough to the cosy complacency that so many apply to the subject and reveals that 21st century rural life is not a place for the genteel - in a corner of Gloucestershire most commonly viewed by outsiders from their 4x4s as they hurry to overpriced weekend retreats, he finds a farming heartbeat that is proud and defiant, defended by a cast of characters that outshine The Archers. A revelation of a book.’
Tim Butcher, 16/05/08
Author of Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart
(Galaxy Book of the Year 2008, 3rd Prize Winner)

'Far from being an idealistic paen to the English countryside, the book becomes a hard-edged and moving account of life rural Britain today.'
Sunday Times 11/05/08

'a poignant portrait of country life....the book could have been a rollicking, laugh-a-minute riff on ignorant townies having to ask what exactly a heifer is. There are certainly some fine comic episodes.. but it quickly turns into something more sombre - and more interesting...His beautifully written book is an elegy for an England that is dying, or at least in terminal decline.'
Daily Telegraph 25/04/08

‘Ian Walthew was a newspaper executive with a career that took him round the world, who one day did a mad thing. He saw a for-sale sign on a cottage in the Cotswolds, bought it, resigned and moved in. For the first few weeks he just lay on the grass in a daze. Then he started talking to his neighbours and digging into the rich history of this beautiful part of England. Out of his inquiries grew this affecting and inspiring memoir.
What sets it apart from others of its ilk is the author’s enviable immunity to cliché and his determination to love his homeland better than he used to. His elegiac account of relearning how to be an Englishman should be required reading for anyone who claims to know or love this country.’
Financial Times

‘Having lived and worked abroad as a director of the International Herald Tribune for most of his adult life, Walthew, along with his Australian wife, Han, made a snap decision, aged 34, to buy a house in Gloucestershire, and embrace life in the country.
This is familiar territory, but Walthew combines his own story - coming to terms with the untimely deaths of his father and brother - with that of the land and the people who make up village life.
Funny, touching and ultimately very moving, this is a beautiful, unsentimental account of a personal loss that is reflected in the rapidly changing texture of life in rural England.’
Sunday Telegraph

‘Even peripheral characters…really come to life; as does the beauty of the Cotswolds and the harsh realities it conceals. A Place in My Country is an edifying consideration of the English countryside, its rich history and its attempt to adapt in today’s world’
Times Literary Supplement

‘When stressed out media exec Ian Walthew panic buys a Cotswold cottage as an escape route from the urban treadmill, he unwittingly acquires a window on a corner of rural Britain at work and at play, and his writer’s eye sees just what’s going on. Walthew has a genuine gift for bringing both people and places to life and marshals his runaway real life narratives with a novelist’s skill. The story of his surprising friendship with his neighbour Norman - who is trying to keep his ramshackle farm and his dignity together with a few strands of baler twine, while his millionaire neighbours embrace the prairie concept of modern industrial farming - is compelling and often deeply moving. And Walthew’s own struggle with age-old issues of identity, friendship, community and a place to call home are fresh, sympathetic and never trying. It’s not the sort of book you’d pick up expecting a page-turner, but that’s exactly what it turn's out to be.’
Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall

’Unlike many escape to the country books this is a revealing and sometimes painful account of life in 21st century English countryside. Walthew discovers how class and wealth splinter rural communities but also finds personal contentment, if not a perfect idyll. It is beautifully written and very moving. This is a great book, if you like to have your misconceptions about our land thoroughly challenged’
BBC Countryfile Magazine

‘This is a story about a man who leaves the reassuring numbness of the rat race, in order to relearn how to live. Not usually a non-fiction reader, I'm generally wary of 'confessional' books, which I often find narcissistic and dull. A Place in My Country is beautifully written, poignant and wise and has all the narrative pace of the best fiction. For anyone who loves England but doesn't necessarily know why.’
Lucy Wadham, Author of Lost, Castro’s Dream, Greater Love (Faber and Faber)
Her first novel, 'Lost', was shortlisted for the Macallan Gold Dagger Award.

‘A tale of moving to the country that even those who actually live and work there might enjoy…’
The Shooting Times

‘All of life is here – birth, death, struggles with illness, hard work, lots of laughter. It will make you smile gently to yourself, laugh out loud, shed a quiet tear and feel angry about the changes happening in our countryside’
NFU Countryside Magazine

‘A riveting read....a warning to newcomers about the dangers of upsetting village hierarchies and sensibilities'
Country Life

‘One of “The Top Ten Summer Holiday Books You Must Own”
Mail on Sunday

‘At the age of 34 Ian Walthew was the worldwide marketing director of the International Herald Tribune living in various parts of the world and leading a jet-set lifestyle. He was also on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Faced with a move back to London, he resigned and rather than buy a property in London he and his Australian wife bought a cottage in the Cotswolds to give Ian the peace which he needed to recuperate.
The cottage was next door to Norman's farm. Norman was a bit fearsome until you got to know him, but his struggles to keep the farm going in the face of falling prices and competition from the highly mechanised 'agri-business' arable farms kept him under a lot of pressure. Little by little Ian and Han develop a relationship with Norman and the other characters of this tightly-knit community.
When I started this book I did wonder if it was going to be an English version of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence - an amusing and entertaining read but ultimately rather superficial. I couldn't have been further from the truth. This isn't just the story of two people wanting an escape from the city; it's an examination of the state of the British countryside and a careful consideration of whether or not the way of life is sustainable. At times the writing had me close to tears.
The stars of this book are the people. Although Ian narrates the book he doesn't dominate it, but allows the villagers to shine through. It was fascinating to see his relationship with them develop after it was initially assumed by some people in the village that he and Han would be part of a more upper-class set. The couple's growing relationship with Norman sees him take a fuller part in village life. Geoff, the larger than life landlord of the local pub becomes a firm friend, but it's Tom, the ex-gamekeeper, to whom Ian becomes closest and who introduces him to the real country way of life.
.t's several days now since I finished the book, but I was so moved by it that I didn't feel able to write about it immediately. It's by no means an easy read, but it's one of the most rewarding books that I've read for quite a while.’
Reviewer: Sue Magee

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