The final instalment in the Regeneration Trilogy struck me as a bit unfocused and heavy-handed in its use of symbolism and parallel storylines. Howeve...moreThe final instalment in the Regeneration Trilogy struck me as a bit unfocused and heavy-handed in its use of symbolism and parallel storylines. However, certain scenes were very powerful, and the ending packed a punch.
I'm not sure why The Ghost Road rather than Regeneration or The Eye in the Door won the Booker Prize. I can only assume the Booker judges wanted to honour the trilogy somehow and so picked the last book to show their appreciation, much like the Academy showered The Return of the King with Oscars even though The Fellowship of the Ring was a vastly superior film. Personally, I thought The Ghost Road was the weakest of the three books (rated a mere 3.5 stars, as opposed to the 4 and 4.5 stars I gave the other two books), but it didn't mar my overall impression of the trilogy, which is good.
The second book of Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy is every bit as good as the first one, and probably better. While I'm not sure how I feel about t...moreThe second book of Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy is every bit as good as the first one, and probably better. While I'm not sure how I feel about the split personality thing, I loved the psychological drama and the period detail. Some fascinating stuff there. I'll post a proper review once I've finished the trilogy.(less)
Regeneration, the first part of Pat Barker's acclaimed Regeneration Trilogy, centres on Dr W.H.R. Rivers, a real-life army psychiatrist at Craiglockha...moreRegeneration, the first part of Pat Barker's acclaimed Regeneration Trilogy, centres on Dr W.H.R. Rivers, a real-life army psychiatrist at Craiglockhart War Hospital who treated the likes of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen for shell-shock. Well-researched, well-imagined and well-written, it's an interesting mix of fact and fiction that provides a good insight into Great War-era Britain and early-twentieth-century psychiatry. A proper review will follow once I've read the whole trilogy.(less)
I got into Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series about eight years ago. Despite protestations from friends that...moreWow. Was this ever a pleasant surprise.
I got into Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series about eight years ago. Despite protestations from friends that I should steer clear of it because it went completely off the rails after about five books and probably wouldn't ever be finished, I gave it a shot, and like so many other readers I got hooked. This was unfortunate, because as I discovered halfway through the series, my friends were right. The Wheel of Time did go off the rails, and badly, with Robert Jordan losing himself in so many insignificant subplots and failing so utterly to bring the story closer to its conclusion that it seemed doubtful that it would ever be finished. Nevertheless I soldiered on, reading each new instalment despite my mounting frustration with them, because hey, I was hooked. So much so that I actually joined a Wheel of Time newsgroup at one point, where I spent many hours discussing theories about characters' double identities and where the series might be headed. That newsgroup probably did more for my love of fantasy literature than The Lord of Rings (my introduction to the genre, which I still love to death) ever did. I miss it quite a bit -- it was fabulous.
And then Robert Jordan did something incredible. Something his fans had joked about for years but had never considered a serious possibility. He passed away before he could finish the series, rendering the massive investment his fans had made in it (we are talking about eleven books of about nine hundred pages each) virtually useless, because after all that theorising, after all those looooooooong hours spent discussing the minutiae of the books, no one would ever find out how the story ended.
Enter Brandon Sanderson, a lesser-known fantasy author of whom I had never heard before, although with hindsight I probably should have. He was hired by Jordan's wife to finish the series, using her husband's extensive notes, unfinished passages and instructions for support. Like many others, I was sceptical about the enterprise, and not sure I wanted to read the result.
But then the prologue to Sanderson's sequel was posted on line, about a month before the book's release date, and to my infinite surprise it was good. And about a week later the first chapter of the sequel was leaked on line, and to my mounting surprise that was good, too -- more focussed than anything Jordan himself had written in a while, except perhaps New Spring, the much-maligned prequel to the series. In just two short chapters, Sanderson had got rid of several characters and plotlines which had irked myself and other fans for ages. It actually looked like he was getting the plot to move forwards, which was such a pleasant surprise that I suddenly found myself really, really looking forward to seeing what else he had done to Jordan's universe. So I bought the book the day it was released, ready to lose myself in Randland once more.
So what has Sanderson done to Randland? In a word, he has revived the series. The Gathering Storm is by far the best instalment in the Wheel of Time saga of the last ten years. An action-packed romp which actually takes the story forwards several weeks (gasp), it's a return to the form of the earliest books, before Jordan started introducing every single Aes Sedai in existence, expecting us to care about their minor squabbles. In marked contrast to Jordan's later books, The Gathering Storm actually focuses on the main characters (you know, the original heroes of the series, who got us interested in it in the first place), allowing them to achieve goals which had eluded them for quite some time. It eliminates unnecessary side plots like the Prophet and the Shaido, often swiftly so. It is largely free of padding (although a very critical reader might ask what exactly Mat's storyline is meant to accomplish, other than getting him on his way to the Tower of Ghenjei and showing that the Dark One is touching the world). And best of all, it is faithful to the style of the early Jordan, which is to say without endless descriptions of clothes and characters taking baths, yanking their braids, tapping their feet, etc. Nynaeve actually overcomes her urge to yank her braid every time she gets mad at the beginning of the book, which I'm sure is a development welcomed by any reader of the series. In other words, Sanderson has managed to channel Jordan without all the latter's infuriating obsessions, following Jordan's style without copying its bad aspects. I wouldn't say the transition is seamless (Sanderson's style, featuring many short sentences, is punchier than Jordan's), but it certainly isn't jarring, either. While there is the odd moment where you'll find yourself thinking, 'Hmmm, that didn't sound entirely Jordanesque,' these moments are more than made up for by Sanderson's ability to focus on essentials, in my opinion. It's refreshing, reading Randland stories without all the padding.
So what actually happens in The Gathering Storm? (WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD) Well, the Prophet finally dies (about time). Tuon (one of my favourite characters, though less so here than before) finally becomes Empress of Seanchan. The Seanchan finally attack the White Tower, which Egwene has been prophesying for ages. Egwene herself finally becomes Amyrlin Seat, in quite an impressive manner. Rand, who seemed to be going increasingly mad in the last few books, finally finds himself again, in a way which holds promise for the future. Perrin finally accepts his wolf self, while Mat and his cronies finally set out for the Tower of Ghenjei, a subplot anyone with a brain has seen coming for the last seven books or so. For her part, Aviendha is finally accepted as a Wise One, in a manner befitting those strange Aiel customs. Gawyn, who was fighting on the wrong side, finally sees the light (ha!) and joins the rebel Aes Sedai. Siuan Sanche and Gareth Bryne finally become an item, though rather chastely so. Two more Forsaken are taken care of (presumably). And in two of the more brilliant plot twists, a mysterious character from the beginning of the series is revealed to be Black Ajah (a jaw-dropping chapter, very well written and conceived), while Elaida is deposed in a way which had me chuckling out loud. I'm not sure who came up with the idea for Elaida's demise, Jordan or Sanderson, but whoever it was, he has a rich sense of poetic justice. It's just too, too good.
Of course, many storylines still remain unresolved, and Sanderson now believes he will need two books to tie them up, not one, as previously planned. I have faith in him, though. I know that these two books of his will really be two books, not seven (as with Jordan). And I have no doubt that they will be good books. Books in which we will finally see Moiraine make a reappearance. Books in which all the prophecies and viewings which have been bandied around for the last twelve books will finally be fulfilled (or not, as the case may be). In which Perrin, Lan, Logain, Mazrim Taim, Slayer, Elayne, Galad, Thom, Birgitte, Olver, the Sea Folk and the Kin will probably get to see more action than they did in The Gathering Storm, and in which the stage is well and truly set for Tarmon Gai’don, the final battle. And I also know that thanks to Sanderson, I am excited about this series again. I will probably spend more time than I care for at Wheel of Time websites over the next few months, looking up old prophecies and comparing theories about where the story is heading. And when it's all over, two books from now, I will in all likelihood look back on the Wheel of Time series with fondness, rather than the bitterness Jordan was increasingly inspiring in me.
Thanks for that, Brandon. After all the time I have invested in this series, I need to love it again, rather than despair of it. It now looks like I may, which is great.(less)
There was no way I was not going to love this book. Experience has shown that I love Guy Gavriel Kay and the characters he comes up with. They are, wi...moreThere was no way I was not going to love this book. Experience has shown that I love Guy Gavriel Kay and the characters he comes up with. They are, without exception, passionate people, and I love reading about passionate people, especially when they have a Cause. And boy, do the characters in this book have a cause. Can you say, epic cause?
Tigana is the name of one of the countries of the Palm, a peninsula loosely based on Renaissance Italy. Divided and distrustful of one another, and unlikely ever to unite, the countries of the Palm are an easy prey for overseas invaders. When the story proper starts, two sorcerer-kings from abroad, Brandin of Ygrath and Alberico of Barbadior, have carved out the Palm between them, each ruling about half of the peninsula, each greedy for the other half. One of the sorcerers, Brandin, has destroyed the country of Tigana and cursed it so comprehensively that none but its older inhabitants remember its existence. The very name 'Tigana' cannot be written, spoken or heard, except by those Tiganans who were alive when the outrage that provoked Brandin's wrath occurred: the death of his son Stevan at the hands of Prince Valentin of Tigana, a noble man determined to protect his country from the mighty invader. Twenty years later, Valentin's son Alessan, along with a ragtag crew of similarly minded nobles, commoners and wizards, sets out to overthrow Brandin (preferably in a way which will not yield his land to his arch rival Alberico) and restore once-beautiful Tigana to its former glory. And that, in a nutshell, is what Tigana is all about.
Except, of course, that it is not allTigana is about. A big and ambitious book, Tigana is about the things that make people tick, the things that keep them going when all their efforts seem futile. It's about loyalty, justice and politics, about how to be a good and inspiring leader in troubled times, and about how to orchestrate changes if you need them. It's about shared memories and how they bind people together, forging a shared identity. It's about nationalism and how to get people to unite behind a common ideal when being divided isn't working for them. It's about shame and despair and what they will drive us to. It's about all these things and more, and Kay effortlessly weaves them into a coherent story, which somehow manages to be both epic and startlingly intimate. It's a literary tour de force, and then some.
Needless to say, though, it's not just about ideas. Central to the book are two very human tales of two very extraordinary humans, Alessan and Dianora. The former is a charismatic leader who tries to look beyond the needs of his own country and work for the greater good of all the people of the Palm, only to be cursed by his proud mother for not focussing enough on poor Tigana and revenge. The latter is a beautiful girl whose family has been wrecked by Brandin and who sets out to kill him, only to fall deeply and devastatingly in love with him and actually save his life when someone else has a go at assassinating him, to her own amazement and mortification. The relationship between Dianora and Brandin has to be one of the most haunting ones I've come across in any type of fiction. There is real internal drama here, and genuine, heart-felt emotionality, and Kay expertly takes you through it all, from Dianora's early anger to her anguished acceptance of her own feelings for Brandin, revealing layer after layer of involvement until the heart-wrenching finale. It's riveting stuff, told by someone who really, really understands the conflicts of the human heart, and it just about broke my own heart.
The other characters are less thoroughly fleshed out than Alessan and Dianora, but they do make for an interesting mosaic of personalities and storylines. Due to the constant switches in perspective, some parts of the story have a somewhat jarring quality, but the fast pace and sheer balls of the story more than make up for this. Some plot turns are predictable and a little cheap, but Kay always puts in sufficient pathos to make them interesting. Other plot turns, like the unexpected twist which ends Brandin's storyline, are surprising and quite brilliantly handled. I actually found myself nodding with admiration at the conclusion to the book, something I hardly ever do. And as usual, I just loved Kay's characters, who are so driven that one can't help rooting for them. I don’t think I cared for Tigana's heroes quite as much as I did for The Lions of al-Rassan's, but I cared, and in Dianora's case my heart broke a little at the denouement of her story. I never expected her to live happily ever after (it was obvious that her storyline was headed for tragedy), but to see such promise wasted like that was, well, tragic. Genuinely tragic, as opposed to the overwrought sentimentality that passes for tragedy in many other fantasy novels.
Tragedy aside, the real genius of Tigana is, in my opinion, Kay's refusal to make his characters either completely good or completely bad. There are many shades of grey here. The hero of the story, Alessan, is a great guy who justifiably attracts many followers, but he is not without flaws. Nor is the main villain of the piece, Brandin, without redeeming qualities. One of the most surprising things about Tigana is how sorry you feel, towards the end, for Brandin, the powerful sorcerer who may have wrecked a country and an entire generation of people, but did so out of bottomless grief and love. He's a complex villain, is Brandin, and his inevitable demise at the end is not as satisfying as you might expect it to be because you have actually come to care for him a little. It takes a brave author to attempt a conflicted ending like this, but it makes for a rich and rewarding reading experience. If only more fantasy writers were prepared to write stories like this...
So why, after all that praise, am I withholding one star? Mostly because I feel the book could have done with better editing. There are sloppily written passages where the punctuation is a little off and where Kay randomly switches tenses, two things to which I'm quite allergic. Furthermore, Kay has a habit of breaking off the action mid-sentence only to continue it in the next paragraph for greater dramatic effect, which tends to annoy me. Finally, and most seriously, I feel Kay is frequently guilty of telling rather showing in Tigana, a flaw any good editor could and should have pointed out to him. However, these are minor quibbles. By and large, I loved the book, and I'd recommend it to any lover of good fantasy fiction. I quite look forward to continuing my acquaintance with Kay. I think I'll tackle A Song for Arbonne next...
I love travelogues. I love classical antiquity. So I really expected to enjoy Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels with Herodotus, an attempt to mix modern l...moreI love travelogues. I love classical antiquity. So I really expected to enjoy Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels with Herodotus, an attempt to mix modern literary reportage with the writings of one of the greatest travelling reporters of all time, Herodotus. Sadly, however, the book was a bit of letdown. The old and new stuff didn't blend well, so the final result, while occasionally poignant and insightful, was a little underwhelming.
Maybe I went in with the wrong expectations. When I bought the book, I was expecting it to be something like Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah, a frightfully erudite book with quotes so absurd that they frequently made me howl with laughter (in public, which was rather embarrassing). Travels with a Tangerine is a very focused author's attempt to follow in the footsteps of Ibn Battutah, visiting the places the great fourteenth-century Arab traveller visited and trying to recreate the experiences he had there. It is a genuinely interesting, genuinely insightful and ever so entertaining book. I naively assumed Travels with Herodotus would be a similar read, only focusing on the places Herodotus described: Persia, Egypt, Eastern Europe, etc. Sadly, Kapuscinski took a different approach. Travels with Herodotus is not an attempt to retrace Herodotus' steps (admittedly a tall order, as Herodotus was probably the best-travelled man of his age, or many another age for that matter). Rather it is a loving tribute to the book Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish foreign correspondent working in Africa and Asia for most of the second half of the twentieth century, calls his greatest inspiration, his main source of sustenance and his favourite travelling companion: Herodotus' Histories. In between recollections of his own travels, many of them beautifully written, Kapuscinski quotes from the Histories, analysing Herodotus' method and explaining how it came to shape his own views of the world and travel reportage. Sometimes the quotes are tenuously linked with places Kapuscinski himself visited or historical events Kapuscinski himself witnessed, but most of the time they seem randomly chosen, with nary an attempt at contextualisation or analysis. In the end, I grew rather weary of this method. I found myself increasingly skipping the Herodotus quotes, not because they were dull (they weren't), but because I failed to see their relevance to Kapuscinski's muddled narrative. I finished the book thinking I would rather have read Herodotus without Kapuscinski's asides, or Kapuscinski's memoirs without his constant digressions on Herodotus. Judging from other reviews of the book, I'm not the only reader who feels this way.
It's a pity Kapuscinski chose such an ill-thought-out approach to his last book, because when he is not losing himself in overambitious homage, he is a fine writer. Travels with Herodotus contains some excellent reportage, most of it dealing with the African countries where Kapuscinski spent a considerable part of his life. Like Herodotus before him, Kapuscinski is an objective reporter who seldom judges the people he meets (even when they rob him). Also like Herodotus, he has an eye for telling detail, recounting small stories as well as monumental ones, and often instead of monumental ones. His Socialist background adds an interesting touch. And he does really understand the subjects he is dealing with. On the rare occasions when he does go into analysis, he makes interesting observations on life and politics in developing countries, observations of which Herodotus himself would be proud. Unfortunately, however, most of the analyses and anecdotes recounted in Travels with Herodotus are too fragmented and disjointed to be truly memorable or insightful. They focus so much on isolated moments in Kapuscinski's travels that they fail to provide an insight into the greater picture. There are some great anecdotes in the book, but since they don't really go anywhere, they ultimately leave the reader unsatisfied. I myself ended up feeling that I would have liked to read more about Kapuscinski's time in the Sudan than merely his recollection of a Louis Armstrong concert he attended there, and more about his experiences in civil-war-era Congo than just his nerve-racking meeting with two soldiers who walked up to him all menacingly, only to humbly ask him for a cigarette. I also would have liked to read more about his experiences in 1960 Egypt (which was just then in the grips of an anti-alcohol campaign) than his nervous attempt to get rid of an empty beer bottle while being watched by people who might well be police informants. Because as evocative as these anecdotes are (they are!), they don't tell the whole story of the place and the age, nor even a tenth of it. They are fragmented impressions -- interesting and well-written, but fragmented nonetheless. In short, I guess I'll have to read some of Ryszard Kapuscinki's other books to find out why he is considered one of the greatest reporters of the twentieth century. I'm sure he has written books in which he does go into detail, sticks to the topic at hand and really reports, rather than leisurely recounting disjointed memories. Unfortunately, Travels with Herodotus isn't one of them.
As for Herodotus, I'll obviously have to reread his Histories, for whatever the shortcomings of Travels with Herodotus, it did most definitely whet my appetite for more Herodotus.
Is it wrong that I kept seeing Audrey Hepburn in my mind's eye while reading Breakfast at Tiffany's, Truman Capote's best-known novella? I guess it's...moreIs it wrong that I kept seeing Audrey Hepburn in my mind's eye while reading Breakfast at Tiffany's, Truman Capote's best-known novella? I guess it's understandable, given how iconic Hepburn's portrayal of Holly Golightly is. In fact, I think Hepburn's Holly may well be my all-time favourite movie heroine. She's a slut, a snob and a gold-digger, and her life is so shallow and vapid that it should be reprehensible to me, but at the same time she is so delightfully charming and eccentric that it is impossible not to fall under her spell and end up madly in love with her. As played by Hepburn, Holly is the ultimate It Girl, witty and beautiful and so stylish it hurts, but vulnerable and conflicted enough for us not to envy her.
Capote's Holly is slightly different from Hepburn's. She is tougher and more potty-mouthed than her movie counterpart, with a touch of racism that I don't remember from the film. She also seems a bit more hell-bent on self-destruction, and less inclined to be saved by the well-meaning narrator. For these and other reasons, she should be mildly off-putting, but for some reason she's not. I guess it's because she is immensely alive -- less girlishly and innocently so than in the film, but just as alluring. And she doesn't need Hepburn's charm to come off the page. Capote did a great job imagining Holly and fleshing her out, giving her one good line after the other and endearing quirks galore. It probably isn't fair to him that I (along with millions of other readers, no doubt) kept picturing Audrey Hepburn while reading his descriptions of Holly, to the point where I was shocked to discover Capote imagined her as a blonde (surely not?), but thankfully, my love for the film didn't prevent me from recognising the quality of the writing, which is beyond dispute. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Capote was a master storyteller with a finely developed ear for dialogue and a massive flair for making the unglamorous glamorous. He used both gifts to great effect in Breakfast at Tiffany's, creating a story which, while less romantic and emotionally gratifying than the film adaptation, nevertheless succeeds in making the reader yearn for Holly the same way the narrator does. The prose is effortlessly elegant, even when it refers to ugly things, which it does rather more regularly than George Axelrod and Blake Edwards seem to have cared to replicate in the film. Timeless and evocative, it is a story about friendship valued and lost, about belonging and refusing to belong, and like the film, it stays with you as the perfect blend of cynicism and sentiment, with an added sense of loss. I can't think why I waited so long to read it...
The other three stories in the collection, 'House of Flowers', 'A Diamond Guitar' and 'A Christmas Memory', are almost as strong as Breakfast at Tiffany's. Like the better-known novella which opens the book, 'A Diamond Guitar' and 'A Christmas Memory' are elegies on broken friendships, on bonds shared and then lost, and like Tiffany’s, they are poignant and evocative, with moments of startling intimacy and many a well-turned phrase and eye-opening observation. 'House of Flowers' (about the romance between the most beautiful prostitute in Port-au-Prince and the peasant who makes an honest woman of her) is less poignant, but just as memorable for its matter-of-fact weirdness and quirkiness (spider bread, anyone?). All three short stories prove that Capote was a master of the genre, equally at home in first-person narratives and third-person ones, with male heroes and female ones, with child protagonists and more mature ones. The four stories contained in Breakfast at Tiffany's all have vastly different points of view, styles and subjects, but in their own ways, they are all interesting and memorable, making it all the more regrettable that Capote only published so few of them. He was obviously quite the short-story teller.
Do seek this collection out if you haven't already -- you won't regret it. (less)
The Daughter of Time is an unlikely detective story. It's the story of a police inspector who, whilst laid up in bed because of a leg injury, is prese...moreThe Daughter of Time is an unlikely detective story. It's the story of a police inspector who, whilst laid up in bed because of a leg injury, is presented with a portrait of England's King Richard III (reigned 1483-1485) and comes to the conclusion that a man so genteel-looking couldn't possibly be the ruthless murderer Shakespeare made him out to be, because 'villains don't suffer, and that face is full of the most dreadful pain' (judge for yourself here). So with a little help from the nurses and the friends and colleagues who come and visit him in the hospital, he starts digging in fifteenth-century history, only to come up with a few interesting theories of his own, all of which seem to point to history's having given Richard a rotten deal. For in reality, Tey has her bed-ridden hero discover, Richard III had no motive to have half of his family (including his two under-age nephews) murdered, as sixteenth-century historians alleged. He may not have been a hunchback, either. Rather he was the victim of revisionist history as written by the Tudor kings who succeeded him and who had their own reasons for vilifying him. History, lest we forget, is written by the victors, and boy, can they do damage to a guy's reputation if they have a talented playwright on their side. Just ask Macbeth of Scotland, who was by all accounts a fairly good and popular king.
I'm not sure how historically accurate the details of Tey's argument are, nor whether her evidence would stand up in a modern court of justice, but the case for Richard is presented in a convincing manner and makes a gripping read, mainly because the protagonist, Inspector Alan Grant, is absolutely convinced of Richard's innocence and hell-bent on finding evidence to support his subjective impression of the man, taking a violent dislike to Richard's most famous biographer, Sir Thomas More, in the process. I love books in which the characters get passionate and even a little obsessive about things, and Tey's Inspector Grant is nothing if not obsessive. His ferocious zeal for his quest (often expressed in violent outbursts to startled nurses) is quite infectious, to the point where you find yourself wishing for a big pile of history books and access to the British Museum to verify Grabt's discoveries for yourself. At least that's what the book did for me. After finishing The Daughter of Time, I spent several hours on line Googling the authors and historians Tey mentions in her book, some historical, others seemingly fictitious. In the course of my research, I came across several Ricardian societies, all working towards a rehabilitation of the last Plantagenet king. Many of their members seem to have joined after reading The Daughter of Time. In short, Tey's book has been influential, and for good reason -- it's a fascinating journey through English history, and a grand tale of high-minded obsession to boot. It had me add several history books to my to-read list. I love books which make me enthusiastic for previously unexplored subjects, so as far as that's concerned, Tey did a great job.
Is that to say The Daughter of Time is a faultless book? By no means. While I was impressed with the way in which Tey shared her research and sustained her reader's interest in her detective's quest for the truth, I often found the dialogue in The Daughter of Time lacklustre. Not only do Tey's researchers regularly have unlikely conversations about clues which I suspect would be very hard to dig up five hundred years after the fact (even if one had access to the venerable records held by the British Museum), but to make matters worse they all sound identical, all speaking in the same benignly polite but slightly ironic voice. As portrayed by Tey, middle-aged British police inspector Alan Grant and his much younger American assistant Brent Carradine sound much the same, and there is little to distinguish between the female characters, either. I think the book could have done with slightly more individualised and characteristic dialogue, but really, that's a minor complaint. For the most part, The Daughter of Time succeeds admirably in what it does, which is making and keeping its readers interested in a five hundred-year-old mystery, while making a few interesting observations about the way history is written along the way. I liked the examples of what Inspector Grant refers to as 'Tonypandy' -- legendary historical events which live on in popular consciousness despite the fact that they have been proven to be untrue. If Tey's research is anything to go by, the legend of Richard III falls squarely into the Tonypandy category. Needless to say, that doesn't make Shakespeare's play of the same name any less interesting, but it does add an interesting dimension to the story, doesn't it?
Every once in a while when I return from a holiday, I fantasise about becoming a travel writer-cum-photographer. At the risk of sounding like an insuf...moreEvery once in a while when I return from a holiday, I fantasise about becoming a travel writer-cum-photographer. At the risk of sounding like an insufferable show-off here, I think I've earned my dues in the travel world. I've visited 36 countries in five continents, including a few stints as a tour guide in China. I speak my languages, have a fairly strong stomach, can deal with grotty hotels as long as they're not too noisy, and am both a decent writer and a decent photographer, a combination which I think might be of some interest to publishers of guidebooks and travel magazines. Needless to say, I occasionally dream of becoming a Lonely Planet writer, so you can imagine how eagerly I snapped up Thomas Kohnstamm's Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, a tell-all tale of the author's first tour of duty as a Lonely Planet researcher in Brazil. It seemed the ideal book for me -- a book about a guy who had the job I want, although I fully expected him to tell me it wasn't a dream job at all.
What I didn't realise when I bought the book was that Kohnstamm was the guy who seriously embarrassed Lonely Planet last year when he admitted in an interview to plagiarising whole sections of his LP guidebooks and writing about places he had never even visited, forcing Lonely Planet to embark on a major revision of the books and chapters he had written in an effort to control the damage done by his widely publicised interview. Clearly, Lonely Planet takes its credibility seriously. However, I suspect that Kohnstamm's modus operandi is rather more common among guidebook researchers than LP wishes to acknowledge, judging from the number of times I've visited hotels recommended by LP only to find that they had been closed for years...
Anyhow, being a travel junkie and aspiring Lonely Planet writer myself, I had high expectations for Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?. Unfortunately, it turned out that the author and I were a bad match. Kohnstamm, you see, is the kind of traveller I loathe -- the kind of backpacker who only seems to travel to get drunk, stoned and laid (usually in that order), who only goes to Cambodia to find one-dollar bags of weed, visits Northern Thailand and Northern Laos to smoke opium with the hill tribes, spends most of his time in India comparing the relative effects of ganja and bhang lassis, and, when told that I'm from Holland, will say with glazed-over eyes, 'Holland, eh? I've been to Amsterdam. I love Amsterdam,' only to answer my 'Really? Whereabouts in Amsterdam have you been?' with a shrug and a non-committal 'Can't remember. I was stoned all the time.' I've met too many guys like that, and at the risk of sounding like a goody two-shoes, they annoy me. I'm not sure whether that's because I'm secretly envious of their freewheeling ways or rather because I'm genuinely repulsed by their attempts to be cool and 'out there', but either way, I find them annoying. I guess I'm old-fashioned that way.
Sadly, Thomas Kohnstamm is the very stereotype of the dreaded sex-and-drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll tourist, something I didn't realise when I bought his book because the blurb conveniently failed to mention it (although in retrospect, the subtitle, 'A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventure, Questionable Ethics and Professional Hedonism', should have been a bit of a give-away). Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? reads like a modern update of a Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson novel. Its first chapters contain so many references to sex, masturbation and binge-induced vomiting that I actually found it quite off-putting. The rest of the book is marginally better, but still, I don't think I'm wide of the mark when I say that one third of the narrative is about the drugs and alcohol the author ingests in Brazil, another third is about the women he beds (all gorgeous, obviously), and the remaining third is roughly divided between his attempts to sell ecstasy to fund the remainder of his trip (...) and his repeated vows to change his lifestyle and focus on the job at hand, only to be dragged to yet another booze-fuelled party half a page later. I'm sure this description sounds fabulous to people who like their travelogues Kerouac-style, but to my judgemental self, it got very tedious after a while. After just a few chapters of Kohnstamm's immature behaviour, I found myself wanting to read more about Brazil and its attractions, and less about the fuckheads with whom the author hung out during his trip (although I do admit that he drew those fuckheads very well). Kohnstamm's repeated assurances that he was basically doing an undoable job because Lonely Planet's deadlines are ridiculous and the pay is not nearly generous enough to cover all the expenses quickly began to grate on me, especially in the light of the long nights he apparently spent drinking and the long mornings he supposedly spent sleeping off his hangovers. I found myself increasingly annoyed with his constant excuses for not doing his job properly and with the weird decisions he kept making, such as staying in a flat for two weeks to have sex with a pretty prostitute when he was supposed to be researching hotels. So I guess you could say Kohnstamm wasn't the right author for me, nor I his intended audience. He's too much of a Hunter S. Thompson wannabe for me, and I'm not enough of a sleaze-loving frat boy to appreciate that kind of thing. I guess we were both to blame for the mismatch.
It's a pity Kohnstamm is such a shallow, self-congratulatory arsehole, because I suspect he's a decent writer underneath all the bluff and bravura. He has an engaging writing style, a decent sense of humour and a good ear for dialogue. Furthermore, he obviously has a brain on him, albeit an alcohol-addled one, and judging from some of the more outrageous descriptions in the book, he also has a lively imagination. When he is not bragging, whining, breaking half a dozen laws or generally being obnoxious, he actually makes some astute observations about travelling, guidebooks and being a guidebook contributor. He has insightful ideas on Lonely Planet users like myself (sheep who like to think of themselves as intrepid travellers but all end up doing exactly the same things), the way Lonely Planet has changed (and in some cases ruined) tourism in certain places, and the way Lonely Planet has sold out over the last fifteen years, a fact to which anyone who owns an LP guidebook from before the year 2000 can attest. He also provides some good insight into the compromised nature of travel writing, which tallies with my own experiences as a tour guide in China. Sadly, though, these observations are lost amidst increasingly repetitive tales of drunken debaucheries and sexual exploits. I'm sure the latter will appeal to many readers (judging from the staggering number of five-star reviews the book has received on Amazon USA, there is definitely a market for this sort of thing), but again, I would have preferred a less sleazy write-up of Kohnstamm's experiences in Brazil, one which told me more about travelling in Brazil and the job of being a travel writer and less about Thomas Kohnstamm's propensity to get himself into trouble. Call me holier than thou, call me a jealous wannabe travel writer, but really, this book could have been better, both as a travelogue and as a travel industry exposé.
2.5 stars, rounded down to two because I'm in an ungenerous mood. (less)
All Quiet on the Western Front (or, to give it its German title, Nothing New in the West) has been hailed as the best war novel ever, and it's easy to...moreAll Quiet on the Western Front (or, to give it its German title, Nothing New in the West) has been hailed as the best war novel ever, and it's easy to see why. World War I is described in such vivid non-glory in its pages that you are sucked into the story straight away and stay there for the next two hundred pages. It is obvious that the author, Erich Maria Remarque, had first-hand experience of the things he writes about; the details are so right and authentic-sounding that they couldn't possibly have been wholly made up. Needless to say, the ring of authenticity adds quite a punch to the reading experience, elevating a good war story into an absolute classic of the genre.
All Quiet is a short book, but remarkably complete. All the aspects of trench warfare are there -- the excitement, the tedium, the horror, the pain, the fear, the hunger, the dirt, the loss, the sense of alienation, the awareness that you may die any minute, and last but not least, the realisation of the futility of it all. All Quiet has a pervasive sense of futility, an initially unvoiced but later fully expressed question of 'Just what is this war all about, and why am I putting my life on the line for it? What could be worth such a sacrifice?' The answer is, obviously, nothing, because if this book has one message, it is that war is awful and young men ought not to be forced to fight them. This is not a book which glorifies the war effort, or portrays soldiers as heroes. It is not a book which tries to justify Germany's involvement in World War I. In Remarque's own words, it is 'an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war -- even those of it who survived the shelling'. As such, it is brutal and confronting, but in the best possible way. Anti-war fiction has seldom been this effective, or this memorable for that matter.
All Quiet tells the story of Paul Bäumer, a young man who gets talked by an idealistic teacher into joining the German army fighting World War I in Belgium. In short, business-like sentences, Paul tells the reader about his experiences in and around the trenches, plus those of his similarly duped classmates, all of whom end up dead. All Quiet does a brilliant job of evoking the strain of being at the front, providing vivid descriptions of the horrors of night-time shelling, being caught in no man's land, the smell of gangrene in the hospital, etc. Reading the book, you get a good feel for what it must have been like to be a soldier in World War I. Remarque does not spare his reader. He not only tells you what it's like to hide from the shells that are coming your way, but also what it feels like to crawl through a recently dug cemetery where shells have just exposed some body parts, and what it's like to crawl deeper and deeper beneath a coffin so that it will protect you, 'even if Death himself is already in it'. He tells you what it's like to hear friendly voices after having been stuck in no man's land for what seems like an eternity, and what it's like to have an unscratchable itch because there are lice underneath your plaster cast. He tells you what it's like to stare longingly at the picture of a squeaky clean pretty girl when you're absolutely filthy yourself and crawling with lice. He tells you why you need coarse and black humour to deal with the horrors of war, and why you need girls, or at least fantasies about girls. He also tells you what it's like to talk to the parents of a soldier who has died a horrible death. And last but not least, he shows you the aftermath. All Quiet on the Western Front demonstrates quite unequivocally how scarred the soldiers emerged from the trenches, because, as one of Paul's classmates says halfway through the book, 'Two years of rifle fire and hand-grenades -- you can't just take it all off like a pair of socks afterwards.' It shows how alienated the veterans of trench warfare felt from those at home, who could not for the life of them understand what it was like to experience the things they were going through. I guess this was the most powerful part of the book for me -- the part where Paul goes home and finds that he cannot communicate with his family, that he cannot possibly share the horrors of his recent experiences with his loved ones, because (1) they wouldn't understand, and (2) he does not want to upset them any more than their concerns for his well-being have already done. With chilling accuracy, Paul describes how empty his war experiences have made him feel. War, he says, brutalises soldiers, turning them into human animals, to the point where they have nothing to live for, as their former interests, dreams, tenderness and the future have all 'collapsed in the shelling, the despair and the army brothels'. His sense of desolation and isolation is so exquisitely rendered that by the time his leave is over and he has to return to the front, you find yourself agreeing with his classmate Albert: 'The war has ruined us for everything.'
As you can probably tell from the above, I had a strong reaction to All Quiet on the Western Front. From the sparse but effective prose to the expert way in which Remarque builds up the final two deaths, I just loved the book, responding to it unreservedly, jotting down astute observations and sharing passages from it with my boyfriend, who is a World War I buff. I felt like I was experiencing the boys' emotions with them, the good ones as well as the bad ones. I was shocked, horrified and repulsed when Remarque wanted me to be, but also got a few chuckles out of the book, because all the bad stuff really makes the good moments the boys experience stand out. I loved the male camaraderie which occasionally drips off the pages. I loved the descriptions of the little acts of vengeance the boys enact on those who have wronged them, as well as the few moments of genuine happiness they experience at the front, such as when they eat a stolen goose, raid an officers' supply depot or make their way to some girls they are not supposed to visit. These events are drawn so vividly and have such a genuine feel of relief and excitement about them that it's hard not to get drawn in. Mostly, though, I just sympathised with the boys, asking with them why war is necessary, and whether those who wage wars on others have any idea what they're doing to the men who fight the wars for them. I think All Quiet on the Western Front should be compulsory reading for every leader who has ever considered going to war. The fact that the book is eighty years old and deals with events which took place nearly a century ago does not make its message any less valid today.
A note on the Vintage English translation: Brian Murdoch's translation is good but a bit sloppy at times, especially in the second half of the book, where he occasionally uses German-sounding grammar and makes a few typos. It also sounds a bit too British for my taste, to the point where I occasionally had to remind myself that I was reading about German soldiers, as they all sounded so terribly English! I would have preferred a slightly less 'placeable' translation, but really, that's a minor complaint. By and large, Murdoch did a good job. Next time round, though, I think I'll read the book in the original German.(less)