This is a fairly odd novel, pitched somewhere between JG Ballard and David Foster Wallace in tone - set in the post-modern paradise of Dubai, where yoThis is a fairly odd novel, pitched somewhere between JG Ballard and David Foster Wallace in tone - set in the post-modern paradise of Dubai, where you can live an idyllic life, built on the limitless availability of cheap, rights-free labour (and no taxes), in conditions of almost perfect market freedom. It features a nameless but endlessly self-interrogating anti-hero (a lawyer in exile from NYC after a broken affair, or a 'murdered' marriage as his ex puts it) who ties us in knots with his ever-declining subclauses and parenthetical asides (with up to four sets of sub-brackets in some cases). He works for an obviously dubious 'foundation' run by the rich Batros family, for whom he does whatever they ask, either legal, administrative or other (such as baby-sitting a spoilt brat of one of the key family members) - his main job is to make sure no one steals from the family, though it is clear that they have probably stolen all their money themselves. He lives a solitary but luxurious life and uses prostitutes and pornography (as he is no longer able to contemplate real relations) and endlessly ethically appraises the ethics of doing so, and comes up with such tortured formulations as a win-win-win(-win) situation - some of this is quite funny and, certainly, very well written, but ultimately leaves you feeling quite empty (as life in Dubai seems to be for the anonymous lawyer)....more
Martin Amis’s last book (‘Lionel Asbo’) was so atrocious and embarrassing that I only got to page 32 (not Goodreads-able), so I was not looking forwarMartin Amis’s last book (‘Lionel Asbo’) was so atrocious and embarrassing that I only got to page 32 (not Goodreads-able), so I was not looking forward to his often overheated style being applied to such a monumental historical subject as the Holocaust. Probably aware of how problematic this would be, he has supplied a long reading list, in which he sets out his bona fides for writing such a book in the first place – he has, it appears, read all the relevant literature and even recruited Prof. Richard Evans (who supported Penguin in the libel case against David Irving) to check it through for historical accuracy and infelicities in the German-language usage. The latter is one slight issue with the book for me – he mainly uses German words to describe both the terms used for German officials and for the horrible terminology of the time [‘Endoslung’, for example, albeit without the umlaut over the ‘o’], as well as for the leering descriptions of parts of female anatomy offered by two of the main characters – is he drawing some kind of relationship between moral depravity and everyday sexism? Is he also trying to say that Nazism was only possible because of the particular qualities of the German language (yes, in fact, he more or less says that this is the case). It is a strangley un-Amis like book in general, aside from the insistence on using German terms and numerals for numbers [e.g. people say ‘have you got 1’ and so on], which is designed to emphasise the quantitative mindset involved in the planned termination of thousands of humans. The Nazi officials often discuss the whole process as if it were a business project, albeit one that you were expected to follow to the extent of the destruction of your own soul. Narrative wise, the book has three main protagonists – Angelus ‘Golo’ Thomsen, Paul Doll and Szmul – all of whom find themselves in one of the camps [Kat Zet]. Doll is the person responsible for greeting new prisoner and a keen national socialist, with a haughty and glamorous wife who despises him and is dallying with Thomsen, who is Martin Bormann’s nephew, and a Nazi official but not a true believer. Szmul is a Sonder, or an inmate forced to help with the processing of new prisoners to the camp. They are all party to an abominable crime but we are made to see Doll as the embodiment of the famous banality of evil, a boorish bureaucrat who murders with impunity and abuses his position for personal sexual gratification. He is almost a comic figure but it is hard to satirise someone who does what he does. Generally, this is the main weakness of the book for me – it is not Amisian/corrosive enough in its satire and deals, for example, with the case of the Sonder Szmul with compassion and humanity. Likewise, the much trumpeted (in the advance book publicity) love affair between Thomsen and Frau Doll never really happens (and she gives reasons why later on in the book, when the war is over and Berlin has been razed to the ground) and the whole effect is slightly listless (enervated, even). It is also a fairly short book and this is also seemingly at odds with the hugeness of the topic. The Afterword is, oddly, one of the best bits and I would have been interested in reading a fuller essay by Amis on this. ...more
This is a typical Iain Sinclair book, but a better read than the rather weak eulogy to Hackney and all things Hackneyish (i.e. anyone who had ever beeThis is a typical Iain Sinclair book, but a better read than the rather weak eulogy to Hackney and all things Hackneyish (i.e. anyone who had ever been there, it seemed). The current volume is ironically dedicated to the Mayor of Hackney for remaking the borough as a 'model surrealist wonderland' and this line is perhaps the key one to this long screed of slightly incoherent prose. Ostensibly a polemic on the use of architectural grand projects to 'renew' cities, epitomised by the Olympics/Westfield Axis in Stratford (which built on the superlative success of the Dome), as embraced by New Labour (in the footsteps of Albert Speer, as we are reminded many times), the book does nevertheless follow the familiar pattern of poetic rambling - literally so, as Sinclair embarks on many long urban walks and writes them up in his trademark gonzo-flaneurist style (there are such interesting hikes in Manchester, Berlin [brilliantly], Athens and San Francisco here, for a change in direction of travel). It rarely makes any 'sense' as a whole (most of the chapters are previously published essays) but there are, as ever, great moments and shafts of illuminating prose on a wide variety of cultural topics (novels, films, architecture) and we get a sense of alternative and strange worlds beyond our everyday mundane view of life that make one want to look again at the city we live in. That seems to be a victory of sorts, to me....more
Despite its eye-watering descriptions of urological investigations into his ongoing bladder pain (which have a special frisson for any male over a cerDespite its eye-watering descriptions of urological investigations into his ongoing bladder pain (which have a special frisson for any male over a certain age, it has to be said), this is a very enjoyable book by Tim Parks (or Tim 'Pax' as most of the Italians insist on calling him). Parks is an expat writer, who has made himself into a keen chronicler of modern Italian life (his book on following his local football team in Verona is essential), but this work of non-fiction is more about the connection between mind and body in Western life and, more specifically, the paradoxical dualism inherent in being a writer of English books while living in Italy, and also teaching translation.
Parks had severe and ongoing bladder pains, causing extreme nocturia (up to 6 visits per night) and after undergoing a series of medieval medical treatments, involving much deep probing (and some of these bits almost made me faint), he was told he had no cancer, no prostatis and nothing apparently wrong - and yet, he was in constant pain. As one does, he turned to the web for solace and found a book on paradoxical relaxation techniques, which meant a form of controlled and conscious breathing, and then moved on to a mountain retreat and the mysteries of Visapanna meditation.
Throughout, Parks muses on his constant need to put all life experience into words, as a writer, and the tension that this provoked in him, along with the (western) need to strive and achieve, which the meditation guru actively discourages - all life is suffering and it makes no difference in the end, so 'let go'. Parks comes from a strict Anglican background and he finds this kind of religious 'mumbo-jumbo' just as false as the teachings of Christianity, which he rejected as a teenager, but he nevertheless finds some pain relief and something approaching an ecstatic experience when in a meditative trance. In the end, though, he is a writer and must put experience into words and the endless need to reflect and 'translate' his life into prose is what he does. The book is somewhat of a series of long essays and does not go 'anywhere', but that is perhaps the point. He can write as well. ...more
Whenever I mentioned to people that I was reading this, they would always say 'Yes, I read that at school' and I do really wish I had done so as well,Whenever I mentioned to people that I was reading this, they would always say 'Yes, I read that at school' and I do really wish I had done so as well, since I could then have been excused for not reading it now, as it really should be read when one is young and, well, a bit naïve. Unlike most Dickens novels, it is narrative-driven, with few of the rambling subplots and over-the-top characterisation of his bigger works (all those grotesques!) - I don't always appreciate these tropes of his writing but when they are not there, you are not left with a lot in which to invest. The story here, which was allegedly plagiarised, is familiar and would not be out of place in a Disney film, so sentimental and ridiculous as it is. I quite liked Madame Defarge though. ...more
This was yet another of Roberto Bolaño's many posthumously published works, and supposedly found at the bottom of a drawer and possibly his first atteThis was yet another of Roberto Bolaño's many posthumously published works, and supposedly found at the bottom of a drawer and possibly his first attempt at a novel. We have a German tourist Udo Berger on holiday in Spain with his girlfriend, and another couple, who spends large amounts of his time playing a war game, 'Third Reich', which is a sort of Risk-style strategy game based on WWII (which type of game it seems Bolaño himself may also have been adept at so it is not just there for metaphorical reasons, though those too). The book is written in the form of a diary by the gauche protagonist, and this maintains the sense of his being distanced from ordinary human concerns, such as being on holiday with an attractive girlfriend, and more interested in 'winning' WWII on the board, by himself. Things take a turn for the novelistic when Udo's German friend, the boorish Charly, fails to reappear one night, after hanging out with two dubious locals, the Wolf and the Lamb, and there begins Udo's journey. After the disappearance of Charly (who probably drowned, it is thought) the other Germans leave but Udo stays on to wait for the corpse to be found and begins playing Third Reich with El Quemado ['the burned one'] a slightly sinister pedalo operator. As the wait for the body stretches out, Udo's hitherto expert wargaming skill deteriorates and he (playing Nazi Germany) eventually loses to the neophyte El Quemado. The whole thing has a frustating ambience not unlike the flm L'Avventura, and there is a building feeling of the inherent potential for violence as Bolaño expertly describes the slow downfall of Udo/Germany in the boardgame against the unskilled and slightly brutish opponent. ...more
I quite enjoyed this piece of late Le Carre without being very impressed. As with many of his later novels, the main focus has been turned on the machI quite enjoyed this piece of late Le Carre without being very impressed. As with many of his later novels, the main focus has been turned on the machinations of the corporate world - in this case, the use of Private Security companies, populated by ex-'mercs', to do off-the-books government dirty work, such as the assassination of a jihadist on Gibraltar (an interesting choice of location). For some unexplained reason, the governemnt minister involved decides to send along an old retainer (code-named 'Paul') as a his 'red telephone', which inevitably leads to a chain of unforeseen circumstances when the job goes horribly wrong (or totally to plan, depending on your point of view). The book starts as a Clancy-type thriller and then becomes a slightly more unlikely tale of a young Foreign Office high-flyer, Toby Bell, who decides to risk his career, and his life, to expose the dirty dealings of the government, in collaboration with 'Paul' (actually Sir Christopher Probyn, now, having been beknighted for services to black ops), and his, whaddayaknow, attractive young daughter (Le Carre always likes to bring in an at least one such female character). The book soon becomes a rather unlikely whistle-blowing exercise, which seemed completely unrealistic to me and more an exercise in demonstrating his knowledge of up to date security tradecraft and making some (valid) points about the current intelligence services. Le Carre's best books were mainly about the subtle, almost imperceptble, machinations of the secret services in the long game of the Cold War and they were written in a suitably languid and often quite turgid way. This book is, by contrast, mainly written in broad tabloidese, with a massive overkill of unnecessary adjectives, and weak characterisation - he is, nevertheless, still a great story-teller, but not a very good writer....more
Simon Callow is a gifted and insightful writer and while this biography is not quite as impressive as the multi-volume bio of Orson Welles (two down,Simon Callow is a gifted and insightful writer and while this biography is not quite as impressive as the multi-volume bio of Orson Welles (two down, one still to go), this is still an excellent treatment of an enigmatic actor. Laughton is, in Callow's estimation, right up there with Brando in the pantheon of great actors of the 20th century, and it would be hard to find a more physically different type.
Hailing from exotic Scarborough, where his family managed a hotel, Laughton went to war in 1914 and suffered the trauma of poison gas, which forever damaged his voice, and the memory of what he has seen. He then went on to become a very fine and mich-lauded stage actor (though not a classical Shakespearean actor, as Callow notes) before moving into films and then moving to Hollywood and becoming a massive movie star in the 30s. His big break was with the Alexander Korda-produced Private Life of Henry VIII, in which he demonstrated his ability to dredge his soul for unpleasantness and project this onto the screen in a way that was not really done at the time (method avant la lettre) - his much-vaunted ugliness (which he continually protested, too much) seemed to be almost an asset in technique of mining the grotesque. He went on to star in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Island of Lost Souls, Ruggles of Red Gap and Mutiny on the Bounty in the 1930s and his flamboyantly rhetorical and, by today's standards, mannered performances made him unique in Hollywood and in great demand.
Unfortunately, as the subtitle suggests, Laughton was not a happy soul and his self-loathing, which may, the book suggests, stem from his double life as a closeted homosexual, as well as his high-minded artistic inclination, which madee him almost unmanageable by the studio system. His career flatlined in the 1940s, when he made some decent films (This Land is Mine, with Renoir, The Big Clock, The Suspect) but a lot of dross to pay the bills, and for expanding art collection (Abbott and Costell Meet Captain Kidd, anyone?), and Callow suggests he increasingly lost all interest in the film industry. For a period in the 50s he began giving readings (of plays and other texts) around the US and set up a school for acting, which included such alumni as Shelly Winters and Robert Ryan, and directing plays (including with Bertolt Brect), before he was given the chance to direct a film. In 1955, Laughton directed one of the greatest films ever made in Hollywood, Night of the Hunter, which was a great critical success but a commerical disaster and he never directed again. Thereafter he tried to return to the theatre, and even took on Lear, but kept up a few appearances in films (notably in Spartacus, against his rival Olivier, with whom he is compared favourably by Callow, with Larry being described as more like an 'athlete' against Charles' deeper existential-poetic sense of artistry), before dying of cancer in his early 60s, having at last found some personal contentment. Callow's writing is intelligent, knowledgeable and sympathetic without being uncritical and it is hard to see how he could be bettered on this topic. ...more
This police-procedural was very much like a superior TV series like The Wire, which Price wrote for, and the dialogue in particular was brilliant. VerThis police-procedural was very much like a superior TV series like The Wire, which Price wrote for, and the dialogue in particular was brilliant. Very much a 'good read'....more
I first started reading this book in my final year at university, back in the day, and only got up to about page 300 or so, but now, thanks to Kindle,I first started reading this book in my final year at university, back in the day, and only got up to about page 300 or so, but now, thanks to Kindle, I have now read up to Loc 29131/100%, finally. This is the third baggy monster I have read in the last year or so (following Moby Dick and Les Miserables) and I would have to place it firmly behind those two, in all fairness, despite its fame as the novel of novels. This was the Maude translation, which was approved by Tolstoy, and it is full of archaisms, which did not aid my enjoyment, but even accounting for that, the book is still quite an odd fish. Tolstoy did not call it a novel and it often lapses into a sort of quasi-philosophical digressive mode, especially in the two epilogues, which are probably not really necessary after 1400-odd pages, wherein the count expounds his views on History and Free Will (hot topics at the time, no doubt, but still). As the title rightly implies, the book deals with Russian society and the effects of the Napoleonic War and aims to give an realistic, almost documentary account of the run up to the invasion and then the battles leading up to the sacking of Moscow, in 1812, and the subsequent retreat (the battle of Borodino in particular is good, though nowhere near as good as Waterloo in Les Mis). As often happens in 19c novels, we mainly learn about the effects on society via the elites, being the well-to-do Rostov family and their acquaintancesm, such as the slightly barking Pierre Buzukhov (who may well represent Tolstoy himself, we are told, via Kindle), and there is a slightly annoying pro-Tsar Alexander thread running through much of the narrative - he is depicted here as infallible, almost as if he were Kate Bush or something. By contrast, Tolstoy does not rate Napoleon at all - in fact, he ascribes his unparalleled run of military victories mainly to pure luck, and often calls him a criminal, though does not really account for why the French went with him for so long. Eventually, Napoleon is undone by his hubris, having taken Moscow, and Tolstoy makes great play of the strategic nous of the old Russian general Kutuzov, who gives up the city initially, only to win it back once the French Army dissipates itself. Whether or not this is historically accurate, I don't know, but a huge amount of research was clearly done, but as a 'novel', I found it slightly hard work, with too much speechifying and author-input - show don't tell, as they say. ...more
I was overwhelmed by Middlemarch but this George Eliot novel left me cold. It was her last book, and I would guess that an exploration of Jewishness iI was overwhelmed by Middlemarch but this George Eliot novel left me cold. It was her last book, and I would guess that an exploration of Jewishness in Britain (and political Zionism) was considered a risky topic at the time. Deronda is basically an orphan being brought up in an upper class family as a Christian, but the problem is that the issue of his origin/faith is dragged around behind him like a ball and chain and serves to obliterate him as a real character, so he becomes a mere cipher for an exploration of the issue. It does not help that he is also fairly dull and bloodless, nor that all the other characters seem to think he has some special talent for moral guidance and judgement (on no real evidence here) - he is a mouthpiece essentially (sock puppet in internet speak).
The other main characters in the novel are much interesting and more lifelike, especially Gwendolen Harleth, a beautiful, egocentric young woman who takes up much of the first part of the book. She is forced, by relative poverty, into marrying a rich local man, who then proceeds to treat her like a chattel and her inner struggle with this and her duty to her mother, was, for me, more resonant of a real life than DD's sudden interest in Judaism, which pretty comes out of the blue, after he rescues a young Jewish woman from drowning. Her brother Mordecai is a more complex character, being an intellectual and he convinces DD to look for his true origins and he then discovers his real parentage and so on, all of which is told in hugely turgid prose, and none of which convinced me for a moment. The best bit in the whole book for me was when Deronda tells Gwendolen (whose husband drowned in an accident at sea, leaving her, in her eyes, free to take up with DD) that he is going to marry another - this is quite moving and believable, while his spiritual journey was not, even if a laudable topic to be discussing in the late 19th century....more
This was my first ebook reading experience [via Kindle, which does actually work quite well, especially if your eyes are going a bit] and it was a reaThis was my first ebook reading experience [via Kindle, which does actually work quite well, especially if your eyes are going a bit] and it was a really good one to start with. The book is markedly inferior to the magnificent novelistic edifice that is Les Miserables, but it is definitely a 'good read', a rollicking good tale basically. That said, the central plot is, bien sur, basically a bit tedious and sentimental, but the real protagonists are not Esmeralda (the 15 year old gipsy girl), Quasimodo (Charles Laughton, in my mind's eye) or the evil deacon Frollo (George Osborne), but Notre Dame herself (see the title of this version). Hugo is obviously besotted with the cathedral and spends a fair proportion of the book expounding on the brilliance of its Gothic architecture, which he sees as a form of demotic 'literature', and on its mysterious decor and nooks and crannies. One good reason to read this on a Kindle is that the book is somewhat badly translated and is full of archaisms, which the dictionary function helped me with. I enjoyed the historical asides here more than in Les Mis, but that is probably an indicator that the characters were less strong here, and the plot less involving....more
This is a very good book, offering a fine-grained holistic overview of all aspects of 'The Great War' from the military conflict to the internationalThis is a very good book, offering a fine-grained holistic overview of all aspects of 'The Great War' from the military conflict to the international and domestic political situations that drove it forward. Also offers some useful chapters on the tragic aftermath. ...more
I like David Thomson's writing most of the time, but this book was somewhat disappointing, being just a run of the mill history of (Western) film in tI like David Thomson's writing most of the time, but this book was somewhat disappointing, being just a run of the mill history of (Western) film in the main. ...more
I chose this book mainly because I am an admirer of Kevin Brownlow rather than of David Lean - the former is one of the key historians of early HollywI chose this book mainly because I am an admirer of Kevin Brownlow rather than of David Lean - the former is one of the key historians of early Hollywood but this is not really his era and it seems a strange commission to me. I am not a huge fan of Lean's bloated epics (Lawrence excepted) but I do like his tighter, earlier B/W films, such as Great Expectations and In Which we Serve, and the incomparable stiff-upper-lip classic Brief Encounter. Lean made his name as an ace 'cutter' [film editor] and many critics disparage his directing work as too sanitised and clean, too technical and lacking in the poetry of, say, 'Micky' Powell (as he referred to here); an artisan not an artist, that is to say. This book is really good on the early years and how he got into directing and the early successes, but seems to be trying to emulate Lean's own overinflated grandisoity in the chapters which focus on the so-called 'great' later films, such as Bridge over the River Kwai, Lawrence, Dr Zhivago and Ryan's Daughter - most of these films get several chapters, charting almost every single event that took place in their chequered production histories. I usually love all that movie-lore stuff (especially the fighting with evil producers like the legendary Sam Spiegel - 'Dunes, baby, I want dunes!' as he said to Lean so piercingly about the sandy epic) but it is related here in a fairly boring, point-by-point fashion and it is quite tedious to have several chapters of this on one film, especially one as boring as Zhivago, without any real critcal insight being offered. Brownlow is an oral historian basically, which worked brilliantly for the silent era, but this book would be have been better had it been cut by a third, like most of Lean's later films. This book made me want to learn more about Sam Spiegel to be honest. ...more