The one good thing that's come out of my having sat through this is, I now know a thing or two about mosquitoes, parasites and Ronald Ross. That's a p...moreThe one good thing that's come out of my having sat through this is, I now know a thing or two about mosquitoes, parasites and Ronald Ross. That's a point in favour of Mr.Ghosh. The man is clearly a human encyclopaedia. Everything I've read of his, which admittedly isn't a great deal, has been packed with technical detail about whatever subject it is that he's taken upon himself to write about.
In The Sea of Poppies, he manages to build a powerful, thrusting narrative on the foundations of his trademarked academic rigour, making it, in the process, the towering achievement it is; in The Hungry Tide, on the other hand, there's a sense of the facts dominating the somewhat rickety plot, but the book works nevertheless, because the facts themselves command interest.
The Calcutta Chromosome is, of all things, an attempt at science fiction, which falls flat because there's almost nothing to chew on except the occasional monologue about the history and science of early tropical medicine. Fascinating as the subject is, it isn't substantial enough to hold an entire novel up on its own merits, and the lesson in all of this is, books mustn't be written for reasons of vanity alone; there's a point to stories that hold one's attention and tie up in the end.
Quite apart from that, and this comes as a surprise, the book is poorly written. The dialogue is weak - in what seems like an attempt to give the story's Mr.Murugan a little character, Ghosh saddles the poor man with cod-American speech, a move which has the opposite effect, and instantly cuts the poor man down to a caricature. What makes me even more uneasy are the translations of Bengali figures of speech, done tactlessly and literally - this bothers me a little in The Hungry Tide, and it bothers me a lot more with this book, appearing as it does amidst already leaden prose - chatar matha may fit seamlessly into Bengali; "umbrella head" sounds horrible and meaningless in English, and you'd think any author with an ear for dialogue would notice.
But the real crime is the plot. The entire story reads like something Ghosh made up as he went along - carroming wildly from era to era and sub-plot to sub-plot, all in aid of the thoroughly flimsy premise which has practically the entire city of Calcutta in on a senseless, unprofitable, untenable conspiracy, one which is neither interesting nor scary, merely... odd, lacking a point.
On top of this, each time the narrative paints itself into a corner, along comes a bizarre and unworldly coincidence or digression which sorts it all out. Now, I'm as willing to suspend my disbelief as the next man, but there's a limit, and this "Lutchman was actually Laakhan!!" and "Tara was really Urmila!" and "Mrs.Ana-whatever-it-was was actually the goddess of mosquitoes!" stuff is a cop-out which has very nearly succeeded in convincing me that when Amitav Ghosh started writing this novel, he had no idea where he wanted it to end.
In the meanwhile, the devices used to build up tension - the ghost train, the ritual that one of the women stumbles upon in the abandoned house - are arbitrary and simplistic; they come across as sort of thing one may try to scare kids with, but won't wash when you've paid money to read an award-winning novelist.
It's hard to think of the book as anything more than an academic's conceit, a little fantasy too obscure to engage the lay reader. The Calcutta Chromosomoe finds Amitav Ghosh floundering out of his depth, plays to almost none of his strengths, revealing instead all his shortcomings as a writer.
This particular four out of five is a qualified four out of five. I certainly did "really like it", as far as the scale for grading these things goes,...moreThis particular four out of five is a qualified four out of five. I certainly did "really like it", as far as the scale for grading these things goes, but, for all that, this book's limitations stand out sharply amongst its many qualities, and I'm not convinced that my own enjoyment of it automatically translates into a wholehearted recommendation.
The bits that grate, then:
Having arrived at this directly from the self-assured Sea of Poppies, I found, to my surprise, that Mr.Ghosh's writing for large stretches of this book is dry, almost stilted. While he's as lucid as ever - and one wouldn't expect anything less after Poppies - the language itself is featureless, academic, utilitarian, unsuited to describing these particular people and their particular lives, out of place, uncomfortable and foreign, the exact opposite of another novel I read recently, Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, where the English seems completely at home in its own skin, familiar in its territory, a language from and of Brighton and the best candidate for capturing its nuances and subtleties.
Maybe places only really ever make sense in their mother tongues. Or maybe Ghosh just didn't try hard enough.
Why does this even bother me, I wonder, that this almost reads like a third-party translation of something that was originally laid out in Bengali (like Gopa Mazumder's translations of Satyajit Ray) - a language native to both the "tide country" in which this novel is set, and to Ghosh himself?
Perhaps it's because, at the end of it, I'm unable to decide if I liked it merely because I'm both familiar with and interested in that part of the world already, or because it actually succeeds on its own terms as a novel. I can't tell if the book transcends its context, or whether its a product of it and limited by it. Or, put simply, I'm not sure if it works nearly as well if you're not a Bengali yourself.
Ghosh is a mine of information of all sorts, scientific, political, historical, geographical and geological, and the story reads like a transparent excuse for him to carry on about all manner of things he knows about and cares for - something I'm glad for, simply because he clearly knows about so much. The plot itself is disposable. It's as a document of that part of the world that the book is most valuable.
What I got out of it was a three day look at the Tide Country through the informed eyes of the author. And this is a place which is as otherworldly as they come for all its being practically next door, a land that's not really land, with its rivers that aren't really rivers, with its history and its terrors, and the many, many skeletons in its many, many closets, and its so many people who still try so very hard, a place that's in danger of being forgotten, a place that, if it weren't for people like Amitav Ghosh, would, in our hearts, cease to exist.
I am indebted to Mr.Ghosh for opening it up to us.(less)
I bought this expecting it to be an in-depth song-by-song analysis of the world famous folk singing father-and-daughter duo from Kiltimagh. Instead it...moreI bought this expecting it to be an in-depth song-by-song analysis of the world famous folk singing father-and-daughter duo from Kiltimagh. Instead it turned out to be a biography of sorts of some tin pot band of the same name who sold a handful of home made tapes out of a garage in the Home Counties, written in his free time by a friend of the drummer's.
Most of the stories deal with the growth pangs of the four lads who took to doing leaden, lumpy blues covers equipped with an electric guitar, a Fender bass and a washboard, and, while it's fascinating in its own way, isn't a patch on reading about the lives and the times of the makers of such fragile ballads as 'There's a Wilting Rose in Eire' and 'The Snowflakes Melt on Fanny Green', who, to me, will always remain the REAL Led Zeppelin.
There's some stuff about something they did with a fourteen year old and a bathtub full of fish backstage at the local charity ball, and a lot more besides which mostly involves girls who, whatever their faults, were certainly precocious.
All very entertaining no doubt, but I couldn't finish the whole thing in the end as I had my knitting to get back to.(less)
How does it come to be that a book which starts off being as gripping as they come can wind up fizzling out in an self-satisfied ramble that leaves yo...moreHow does it come to be that a book which starts off being as gripping as they come can wind up fizzling out in an self-satisfied ramble that leaves you demanding the last two days of your life back?
I'd studiously avoided M.Amis through uni and beyond, on the strength of a not unjustifiable prejudice sparked and fuelled by a pompous Eng Lit type who used to carry on about Time's Arrow and how clever it was because it ran backwards, which had struck me at the time as being exactly the sort of technical dick-waving that sucks all the fun out of books.
This made it all the worse when I finally caved in years later and bought this book - my first Martin Amis, and likely my last - for two extremely unsound reasons, namely that I liked father Kingsley's work a lot so perhaps the son was to be trusted after all, and that the blurb at the back claimed that this particular novel was all sorts of good things.
The book is presented in two halves. The first is magnificently clever - so much so that any kneejerk annoyance that a certain smug brand of craftsmanship normally provokes in me was well overshadowed by the astuteness of the observations, the quickness of the humour, the exponential build-up of suspense and the endless flow of wicked puns. The fact that there appear to be four or five parallel plots only serves to heighten the tension, leading one to expect a final, climactic, nimbly handled tie-up along the lines of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, with Martin Amis pulling a literary rabbit out of his top hat with a swish, a cloud of fairy dust, and an "Et voila!"
The second half is the worst thing I've ever read.
Not only do the plots not tie up after all - which leads you to wonder why anyone bothers - but it's astounding in its arrogance, the sheer hubris of single-mindedly dwelling for hundreds of pages on the kind of character and life that only M.Amis himself could possibly care about.
Which is something Amis Sr. is periodically guilty of himself, except that he remains funny and light in his touch, so it might be forgiven in the scheme of things.
Now, I will always stand by the notion that we must meet our best authors halfway, and that reading mustn't be reduced to passively waiting to be entertained, but Amis's ponderous and stately ascent up his own arse offers no rewards to his audience one way or another. It isn't funny and it isn't smart, and the symbolism - assuming that that's what he was aiming for - is worthless because it is two-dimensional, reducing real life to a caricature at the expense of all clarity and depth.
It is the worst sort of pretension because it exists only for its own benefit.
There are only two things worth doing with Yellow Dog.
1. Read the first half and try to make up your own ending, which might keep you amused for a bit, or,
2. Leave it to rot in the discount bin, where it belongs.
What is it about the symbolic use of characters and details that impresses so many educated people? It's not very hard to do: almost any detail or person or event in our lives can be pressed into symbolic service, but to what end? I take my dogs for a walk in New York City in January and see examples of ``alienation.'' An old Negro woman is crooning, ``The world out here is lonely and cold.'' A shuffling old man mutters, ``Never did and never will, never again and never will.'' And there's a crazy lady who glowers at my dogs and shouts, ``They're not fit to shine my canary's shoes!'' Do they tell us anything about a ``decaying society''? No, but if you had some banal polemical, social or moral point to make, you could turn them into cardboard figures marked with arrows. In so doing I think you would diminish their individuality and their range of meaning, but you would probably increase your chances of being acclaimed as a deep thinker.
- Pauline Kael, ``Tourist in the City of Youth'', Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Atlantic Monthly Book Press, 1968, First Edition, page 36-37
I bought this a few weeks ago on the strength of the cover picture (which I fell in love with instantly), and what little information I could glean fr...moreI bought this a few weeks ago on the strength of the cover picture (which I fell in love with instantly), and what little information I could glean from the blurb at the back (which wasn't very much at all).
I'd never heard of this Mick Jackson before, and I certainly know nothing of the life and doings of the particular Duke of Portland who (very loosely) forms the basis for the central character of this novel. This means that, for the first time in a very long time, I've had to approach a book not knowing what to expect at all.
The book is structured as a series of loosely strung vignettes, which range from the hilarious to the heartbreaking, mostly in first person narrative by the Duke himself. The précis at the back says he is "an inspired hypochondriac, a true naif, a fount of nineteenth century curiosity, a sweet and strange man", which is exactly right as he is in fact revealed to be all of these things over the course of the book.
It has barely any plot, so people who like their fiction fast-paced are advised to steer well clear. However, like many of my favourite books, it weaves a cosy, self-contained reality of its own that one can temporarily inhabit. It shows us life through the eyes of an eccentric old man who, over time, gives in to his melancholia and his inwardness until it overwhelms him altogether.
Perhaps it loses a little steam towards the end, and eventually comes to a close a bit too abruptly, but I've always been fond of these introverted books which carry their own little worlds around like snails carrying their shells.
What is most masterful about this novel is the completeness of the central character, who is elaborate and subtle enough to allow us to spend time with him without losing patience.
I liked Girls at Play in much the same way as I like a lot of Kingsley Amis' second rung novels, in that I wouldn't recommend them to someone who wasn...moreI liked Girls at Play in much the same way as I like a lot of Kingsley Amis' second rung novels, in that I wouldn't recommend them to someone who wasn't already familiar with the author, and, in spite of enjoying it quite a lot myself, wouldn't necessarily expect anybody else to do so.
It's not a fun book and it's not a trendy book, and it requires us to meet Theroux further than halfway to get anything out of it. It's exactly the sort of book that wouldn't be a best-seller.
The Mosquito Coast and The Old Patagonian Express are Paul Theroux's classics (do you put an 's' after the apostrophe if the name ends in an 'x'?), and they're where he writes the most universally, with the least amount of self-indulgence and a maximum of keeping his audience in mind.
Like Amis, like Evelyn Waugh and Malcolm Bradbury, and like a lot of other prolific writers, Theroux however has a large number of novels which seem to have been knocked off more for his own amusement than anything else. So, in Girls at Play, you effectively get a lot of things that he cares, worries or fantasises about, and you get a lot of his own thinly veiled opinions and prejudices. In this, this book appears to be more a product of the author's personality rather than his imagination; he has not separated himself from the world of his novel.
I've read enough Paul Theroux by now, and I've come to respect and sympathise with his world view, so there's enough in this book - mostly the descriptions, the armchair psychology and the occasional social commentary - that kept me interested throughout.
Others may find it a little jarring, unfocussed and haphazard in places, the ending a little too brutal, the characters flat and stereotypical sometimes, and the whole thing a little too insular to be truly enjoyable. These things don't particularly bother me, but, as criticisms, would be fair too.
Recommended, but with a small 'r', and only after you've done his travel books or Mosquito Coast already.(less)
The review isn't mine, and I hope the guy who wrote it shan't mind (or will never find out), but it's just what I'd have wanted to write, only better....moreThe review isn't mine, and I hope the guy who wrote it shan't mind (or will never find out), but it's just what I'd have wanted to write, only better.
Jane Austen is a big bloody con, and the worst reading experience I have ever had including badly translated East European porn novels.
Years ago I was reading people interviewed about their vision of happiness, and one fellow said 'To read, reread, endlessly and to forget, the prose of Jane Austen'.
So I thought, right, I haven't read a bit of it, let alone forgotten some of it. SO I got hold of Pride and Prejudice.
My God that book is dull. And pointless. Let me give you a taste of Jane Austen, and unless this type of thing appeals, I should forget about her at once:
'If I may interject', said Mr Darcy, his coal eyes burning with a ferocity which had a meaning his listeners could only just begin to comprehend, try as they might, 'I was merely making the point, though not too boldly I am sure, that the views expressed by the previous speaker might be qualified were we to glean more of the circumstances which gave rise to our perception of those observations'.
Emma (or Charlotte, or whatever her fucking name was) sat transfixed by this lone, solitary, dashing and yet perplexing figure of a man as he toyed with a prawn vol au von. His expressions betrayed what Emma perceived as a decidedly perceptible attachment to views which Emma might have described as awkwardly at odds with her own, if only anyone could remember what the fuck everyone was talking about.
Meanwhile, outside, the Napoleonic wars raged. Europe was being transformed, the foundations of the modern world were being laid, men were dying in their thousands as new concepts of warfare were introduced by a brilliant, cunning, yet haughty and fatally flawed military leader who hurled himself towards his ultimate and inevitable defeat and humiliation, a man whose vision for the continent would echo down the centuries.
Heroism, victory in battle against unimaginable odds, cynicism and the death of the ancient concepts of valour were the order of the day, as men were literally torn apart by new weapons technology including artillery and advances in small weaponry.
But these are boys things, only of interest to males, and perfectly horrid. Join us as we observe Emma in preparation for a tea party, as she finds herself strangely drawn to thoughts of the perfectly infuriating Mr Darcy, recalling his impertinent and harsh words at the intimate gathering the previous Wednesday. If only Emma's mother were not so infuriatingly obsessed with trivialities, Emma could seek her advice on the subject of Mr Darcy, which is all the wretched book seems to be about and the poor sod never even gets a shag by the end of it.
DBC Pierre's début, Vernon God Little, was shot down in flames by practically all my friends who'd read it, for being "too clever". Sod them, with fri...moreDBC Pierre's début, Vernon God Little, was shot down in flames by practically all my friends who'd read it, for being "too clever". Sod them, with friends like that I'm better off drinking myself to sleep alone every night. Anybody who knows what's good in the world will naturally acknowledge Vernon for the brilliantly twisted, inspired triumph of writing that it is.
Making such a pat judgement about Ludmila's Broken English is harder, simply because it's obviously the less focussed of the two books, the one given to more exciting flights of imagination and, simultaneously, the one suffering from a plot which gets uncomfortably close to breaking down at several points and whose conclusion seems hurried and forced, as if old Pierre simply ran out of juice and decided to put an end to it all with the first thing he could think of, only just slightly short of the "...and then I woke up" twist favoured by so many aspiring magazine contributors.
In any case, if you're me - which you're not - you'd put reckless fantasizing over such plodding virtues as tight plotsmanship, and LBE works because it can be read "live", simply by going through one absurdist situation after another and taking them as they come, disregarding the - frankly, artificial - notion that all of this must somehow add up perfectly in the end.
The settings and the characters are theatrical and very much the product of Pierre's clearly indisciplined and colourful head, which isn't to say that the book is one large exercise in self-indulgence - there is more realism, more genuine pain and hurt, in there than I'd initially given the man credit for.
Oddly, I find reading Ludmila's Broken English to be an experience closer to listening to a record than to reading a novel. The pleasure lies in the individual scenes and dialogues rather in the overall story, which I can take or leave, which is in sharp contrast to his début, which hinges around the plot as much as around the details. This novel is a little like all the bootlegs, B-sides and live albums I'm so fond of, wild and creative without a sharp editorial hand behind it, not something I'd recommend as a starting point to the artist by any means, but something which I've grown much more fond of over the years than the acknowledged "classics".
In the interests of fairness, I will add, however, that some of the stabs at political satire aren't exactly subtle. And the ending might be the most frustrating one I've read in years.
That's a petty quibble, though. I'm glad this book exists and that I have it. It's a little, mad, grotesque world and it's good fun to escape into now and then.(less)
It's interesting that, of the handful of people who've admitted to reading this book, I'm the only one who's rated it highly.
Quite what that says abo...moreIt's interesting that, of the handful of people who've admitted to reading this book, I'm the only one who's rated it highly.
Quite what that says about me I don't know, but this little piece of madness set in a deserted corner of Australia is exactly the sort of book I love most.
It's hardly a romp tho', being one of the bleakest things I've ever read. It's hopeless to begin with, set as it is in an infertile, dying patch of land at the end of the world, and then Keneally chooses to kick things into a whole new level of brutality by deftly introducing just the right amount of magic into the mix.
A Dutiful Daughter is a thought experiment into what might happen to the heads of those people who are abandoned on a corner of the earth with nobody but themselves for company, with no hope of escape and every minute bringing them lower, breaking their pride and their sense of compassion a little more. It is all about loneliness and sickness of the mind.
It is as frightening as it's deeply sad, pathetic even, and, while this is far from my idea of a good time, I'd still swear that it is a great, great book.(less)
It makes me squirm with unease to give a book, any book, a full five stars out of five, because it seems to suggest that there isn't anything better t...moreIt makes me squirm with unease to give a book, any book, a full five stars out of five, because it seems to suggest that there isn't anything better to be found out there.
It makes it doubly worse, because I can think of a dozen obvious problems with Lucky Jim right at the outset. Objectively, it doesn't stand out particularly from a whole lot of mid- to late-20th century British fiction. It doesn't have the bite of Evelyn Waugh's finest, it doesn't play out on as many levels as some of Malcolm Bradbury's do, it's not as conceptually innovative as a lot of things David Lodge has written, and I'm not even really sure any more that it's my favourite Kingsley Amis work.
The bright side: it might be the only K.Amis novel written for the audience's amusement rather than his own, which makes it a good point of entry, and, having been successfully initiated, one can then go on to work through his quite substantial and quite rewarding catalogue, which is as good a way of spending the long winter evenings as any.
It's funny, of course, but in a Kingsley Amis sort of way, written cleverly to the point of being mildly obnoxious. And Jim Dixon, if we were to take a razor to it, is a pretty oafish two-dimensional character, some way removed from someone as singularly distinguished as, say, Psmith. And, as if all this weren't bad enough, it's vaguely misogynistic, which might've been the norm at the time, but tends to stick in the throat a bit these days.
And yet, if this isn't a classic, then what is?(less)