So much beauty out there

May 2, 2010

Milan Kundera: Identity

Filed under: All,Reviews — Josh @ 12:48 pm
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I’ve never read any Kundera, partly because I assumed he would write impenetrable prose. In fact, he is perfectly readable, the problem is more with the plot and his pre-occupations than his writing. The main issue I have is that for much of this novella, he seems to have little interest in the narrative at all. At times, the two protagonists, Chantal and Jean-Marc, seem merely vessels for Kundera’s (not particularly interesting) philosophical meditations, at other times they become psychoanalytical case studies without actually developing as characters. It took me several attempts to plough through it.

Then, suddenly, about half way through the (actually quite interesting) plot begins to grip and for 60 pages or so it actually works both as a story and as a convincing account of mutual misunderstanding within a relationship. However, the genuine tension that is created here is promptly squandered by some post-modern silliness at the end.

Strangely, despite my disappointment with Identity, I’m actually more inclined to read more by Kundera than I was before, and The Joke is supposed to be excellent. Maybe, I’ll try that next.

April 10, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

As a big Austen fan you might expect me to come to this with my mind made up to hate it, but I was actually quite looking forward to it. The concept is a pretty clever one, taking the basic text of Pride and Prejudice, but weaving in a story of zombie killing. Unfortunately the execution doesn’t match up.
This isn’t wholly surprising, not many writers could put their prose right next to Austen and see it hold up, and Grahame-Smith doesn’t quite manage to get her tone right either. But that needn’t be a fatal flaw, and it’s really other defects that are more damaging. The major one is that there is a fundamental lack of suspense. Given that Grahame-Smith is sticking to Austen’s text, he can’t really kill off anyone before they disappear from the main plot, so the only way to have victims of the zombies is either to add characters simply in order to kill them off (which arouses only apathy) or to eliminate more minor characters. I won’t name them, but they aren’t ones you’re likely to shed too many tears for. Given that suspense is the primary reason for reading horror, this hugely undermines its rationale.
The other way that the revision could work is if it was funny. It has its moments but not nearly enough, and it has some truly dreadful knob jokes. The only really funny bit comes at the end with the Readers Discussion Guide, which is hilarious. At other times, the zombie references seem forced in, presumably because Grahame-Smith feels he’s got to earn his money.
It’s not that bad though, its certainly easy to imagine it being a lot worse. In fact the only thing that I really disliked was that the book seems to take it upon itself to wreak vengeance on the unappealing characters in the original. It just felt gratuitous, and even more counter to Austen’s style than sticking in a zombie invasion.

February 20, 2010

Philip Kerr – The One From The Other

Twenty years ago, Kerr wrote the Berlin Noir trilogy of books, following a private eye called Bernie Gunther, working in Nazi Germany. They were, unsurprisingly, very dark but they were also very good, gripping and atmospheric. He’s now returned to Gunther with three more books, The One From The Other is the first. It’s set in 1949, while Germany undergoes a de-Nazification process. There’s no need to have read any of the previous novels in order to appreciate this one.

Once again, the best aspect of the novel is Kerr’s sense of place, the atmosphere envelopes the story. While Forsyth’s The Odessa File treated the subject as a straight fight between good and evil, Kerr is excellent at drawing out the ambiguities, where everyone is compromised, and the spectrum ranges from pitch black to flinty grey with not much in the way of purity. Virtue brings no reward at all.

The plotting is tight, with enough twists to keep you on your toes, but with sufficient foreshadowing that you don’t suddenly have credibility evaporate with a surprise coming out of nowhere. There are a few gumshoe cliches, this one by far the worst: “I would head to the Hofbrauhaus and spend the evening with a nice brunette. Several brunettes probably – the silent kind with nice creamy heads and not a hard luck story between them, all lined up along a bartop.” Other than that, horrible, exception, the writing is very good, and the book works both as genre fiction and beyond that.

February 11, 2010

James Baldwin – If Beale Street Could Talk

Filed under: All,Reviews — Josh @ 3:18 pm
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If you ever are asked to illustrate the maxim about not judging a book from it’s cover, then I suggest this is a perfect example. The cover could be used for a Harlequin romance, and both front and back covers are plastered with quotations about what a wonderful love story it is.

I can only assume that this was a desperate attempt by the publishers not to frighten people off, this is not a love story, this is an angry book. It’s angry at the system, the white man, and those who substitute faith for decency. But if it is a polemic, it is no less effective as a work of fiction. The love story might not be the main theme of the book, but it is convincingly written, and the family relationships that form the emotional core of the book are superbly done. The prose snaps, the dialogue crackles (not sure if anything pops).

January 31, 2010

Ursula Le Guin – The Lathe of Heaven

Filed under: All,Reviews — Josh @ 3:23 pm
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Sci-fi is not my novel genre of choice, but Le Guin is a fine writer so I only hesitated a little while before spending a dollar on this one. Actually it barely constitutes a novel at all, following the lives of the protagonists comes a distant second to an extended allegory on the merits of utilitarianism as a philosophy.

This is done through the interaction between George Orr, who has the ability to alter reality in dramatic ways through his dreams and wants to be cured of this power, and his therapist, William Haber,  who is able to give direction to the dreams and thus shape the world to his choosing.

Naturally this raises potentially interesting issues as to whether Haber’s largely benevolent ends can justify the means, the inevitability of unintended consequences and so on, but the book doesn’t really explore them because the examples are so grotesque. For instance, when Haber tries to address the problem of overpopulation that afflicts Portland in approx 2020 (when the book is set), Orr imagines a plague a couple of decades before which killed off 6 billion people, reducing the world’s population down to 1 billion.

The regular tropes of sci-fi set in Earth’s future are all present and correct – environmental catastrophe, alien invasion, totalitarian autocracy, though the invasion at least is neatly subverted. But while the events of the book are often overblown, the writing and the characters are much more understated. Orr generally responds fatalistically to the changes wrought in his world, while Haber eschews most mad scientist traits. Le Guin’s prose is very good, clearly and convincingly delineating the threads of history and avoiding melodramatic descriptions. It’s this restraint which makes the book readable, if not one worth searching out.

[edit]I just had a nap and dreamt very vividly that a) I was Bruce Springsteen’s brother, circa Born In The USA; and b) that I had incredible difficulty doing up my belt. I think humanity can be grateful that my dreaming does not materially affect reality.[/edit]

January 25, 2010

Philip Roth – The Human Stain

Filed under: All,Reviews — Josh @ 12:12 am
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Roth can write a beautiful sentence. Indeed he can write a beautiful paragraph. And The Human Stain has lots of them, it’s a very easy book to read. But once I’d put it down, I felt under very little compulsion to pick it up again. Ultimately, I don’t think it adds up to the sum of its parts.

Partly this is personal preference. I like plots. And throughout, the plot comes third behind Roth’s desire to expand on his characters, and the books message. As a character study, the main protagonist, Coleman Silk, is brilliantly portrayed and wholly convincing, as is his family and upbringing. Roth’s ear and tone for New Jersey in the 1940s is superb, and also for the academia parts. When he leaves that setting though he’s less successful. Faunia Farley never really seems a real person, while considerable (and sometimes repetetive) exposition fails to lift her ex-husband from cliche. The book struggles to grip you as soon as Silk is not directly involved.

The other problem is Roth’s agenda. The book clearly sets itself against multi-cultural, relativist, political culture in academia, against some assumed ideal humanist, meritocratic, liberal utopia, with echoes of David Mamet’s Oleanna. Roth cleverly uses subversive mouthpieces for his viewpoints. Silk, an ostensibly Jewish professor who is secretly from a light-skinned African-American family is undermined by ridiculous allegations of racism. His sister rails against Black History Month, while another black professor decries political correctness. Meanwhile a young French female literary theorist incarnates all that is wrong with contemporary academia, she is not only the villain of the piece, but also revealed as sceptical herself of the value of theory and in awe of the elite culture humanist scholars.

The Human Stain is not quite as reactionary or as blunt as that paragraph might suggest, but however much sympathy he might get for his arguments they don’t work as a sociological analysis. Likewise, as a work of fiction, it’s undermined by the way the narrative has to fit around Roth’s thesis. It’s a testament to his strengths as a writer that this flaw is not fatal to enjoying the book.

December 22, 2009

David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas

Filed under: All,Reviews — Josh @ 12:28 pm
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It’s a difficult task to get a reader immersed in a story, rip it away from them mid-flow, replacing it with a completely different story, set in another period, told in another voice. But Mitchell doesn’t just manage this, he repeats the trick four times, before reversing the process in the second half of the book to bring the stories to their conclusions. The stories are supposed to be linked, but the connections are slight and each story could stand alone, without reference to the others. What keeps the page turning is the spellbinding quality of the prose, and Mitchell’s mastery of language. (more…)

December 17, 2009

Wilkie Collins – No Name

Filed under: All,Reviews — Josh @ 12:48 pm
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I read this book on the 12 hour trip back from Edinburgh, and it was the ideal read for that sort of situation. A proper door stop example of the Victorian novel, with a genuinely gripping storyline.
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December 16, 2009

As opposed to Bunty for boys?

Bunty for Girls, Summer Special (1972)

This came free with the Guardian a while back. While I wasn’t imagining a modern feminist progressive perspective, it was a bit shocking to see the expectations for women born only a few years before me.
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December 14, 2009

Murukami/Wodehouse

Filed under: All,Reviews — Josh @ 4:36 pm
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Haruki MurukamiDance Dance Dance

Murukami usually arouses contradictory feelings in me. I love his writing style, but I hate stories where impossible events happen. I have no problem with unlikely or improbable plot twists, (indeed many of my favourite authors depend on them) or sci-fi/fantasy books that from the start posit a different reality. But I dislike following a realistic narrative only for something extraordinary to be mixed in. And Murakami likes to do that, a great deal.

But although such elements are present in Dance Dance Dance, they don’t affect the storyline. Which is an engrossing one, with engaging characters. None of the characters or their relationships with each other really convince but it doesn’t really matter; while the traditional whodunit element is undermined by the main character fundamentally not caring who did it, beyond the extent to which it effects himself. This is a common pose in detective story anti-heroes, but its refreshing to see it being stuck to, rather than being undermined by better instincts or love.

P.G. WodehouseThe Girl in Blue

Although Wodehouse was amazingly consistent in quality over a very lengthy career, his milieu of the idle rich worked better in their untroubled pre-World War 2 idyll. After that, with their stately homes only kept up for Americans to rent and good domestic staff hard to find, his inconsequential froth begins to jar slightly against reality.

So, finding that the heroine in this story is an air hostess is a disappointment. Air travel should have no part in Wodehouse’s world. He’s also guilty of pinching jokes from earlier works (the joke about arriving slowly because of needing spikes and running shoes was also in Do Butlers Burgle Banks).

Despite this, reading Wodehouse is never hard work, and anyone who doesn’t get a warm fuzzy feeling from passages like this…

“Hullo! Is there something wrong, darling? You look like a startled codfish. Suits you, of course. Very becoming. But it gives me the idea that something has happened to upset you.”

…is missing out

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