Thursday, 8 September 2011

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Thomas Allen 2011)

This is a story of the death of jazz at the dawn of Nazism in Germany. The name 'Half-Blood Blues' takes its inspiration from the book's hero and a jazz legend in the making Hieronymous 'Hiero' Falk is just nineteen when he starts playing with the 'Hot Time Swingers' alongside Charles 'Chip Jones and Sidney 'Sid' Griffiths, the narrator of the tale. The son of a German woman and a French African brought in to marshal the Rheinland after that part of Germany was ceded to France after the Treaty of Versailles. Hiero is a half-breed or 'mischling'.

The story is set both in the 1940s in Berlin and Paris as the Trio try to stay one step ahead of Hitler's ever advancing army but also in the 1990s in a newly reunited Germany at a concert  in Hiero's honour. At the heart of the story is the secret Sid harbours as to how Hiero's fate was sealed.

I didn't expect to enjoy this book and it starts slowly but it is a tale that draws you in. Literary takes on music rarely seem to work but Edugyan is able to render the atmosphere of 1940s jazz, the language of the trio and banter between them feels authentic. The plot is a little weak to sustain the length and the potentially most interesting of the characters,  Hiero, is the least well developed but by the end of the book they seem like minor complaints as is the rather random and quite pointless inclusion of Louis Armstrong who makes an appearance. A more major complaint on my behalf is that the list price for this trade paperback is $24.95 which seems like daylight robbery especially since the text is littered with typos and printing errors; if you're going to charge that much then at least earn it with some better proofreading. However I shall not hold the publisher's problems against the author.


Monday, 5 September 2011

The Testament of Jessie Lamb

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Sandstone Press 2011)

This is one of the more unlikely  picks for the Booker prize longlist, published by a small publishing house in the highlands Scotland and extraordinarily difficult to purchase if you live in  North America where this particular book has no distribution deal.  Set not far in to the future a virus has spread affecting the entire world's population, some sort of cross between Aids and CJD, the effects of which are that any woman who gets pregnant soon develops a rather unfortunate Swiss cheese effect on her brain and dies before the infant can come to term.

In what could be described as a cross between Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go' and Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' the novel is told by the eponymous sixteen year old Jessie Lamb, in part as a remembrance of events past and in part first person narrative of Jessie, locked up by her geneticist father for her decision to volunteer to be a 'sleeping beauty': a sacrificial lamb who accepts an unaffected frozen embryo and is put into a coma giving just enough time for proper gestation.

The book details a world falling apart millions of women perish and world faces the prospect of no new human life on the planet. Society fractures as religious, feminist, youth and animal rights groups try to force their agenda through ever more militant methods. It is a world in which future prospects are gloomy and any solutions no matter how extreme are considered.

As I mentioned above, this isn't typical Booker territory and  you would be hard pushed to find anyone who would contend that this is one of the thirteen best eligible books of this year. The structure of the book is unfortunate as it essentially tells you how the book will end right from the beginning, the characters of Jessie's parents are poorly developed and the mood of the novel is unfalteringly dire, okay the last criticism could well be used against any dystopian literature. It is an interesting concept for a book but I'm afraid it's just not quite good enough for Booker material and I can't see it making the short list.


Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst  (Picador 2011)

The Stranger's Child is a book about the way a literary reputation changes over the years as social mores about behaviour and sexual proclivity change and as biographers and critics become more cut-throat in getting to the juiciest of secrets that will bolster their own literary reputation.

The totemic event of the book is the visit of the upper-class gentleman Cecil Valance, already a budding poetic talent, to the home of his Cambridge schoolmate George Sawle at their family pile Two Acres. George and Cecil's rather close attentions are rather thwarted that weekend by the close attentions of George's younger sister Daphne who is never far away, whether during skinny-dipping antics by the lake or frolicking in the hammock.

Flash forward a few years and Cecil has died, perished in the Great War but his reputation now blossoming as those who were present at Two Acres during Cecil's visit are assembled as a family friend, the rather tame and friendly Sebastian Stokes, gathers the sources for his unchallenging and safe biography. But as the years go by we see different volumes of his life and his letters, what truly happened between Cecil, George and Daphne becomes more distant, the more it is analysed.

This is a truly beautiful book. Cecil Valance is a Rupert Brooke/Siegfried Sassoon type Edwardian poet, perhaps not a genius of style but the creator of memorable lines who finds a place at the heart of a Bloomsbury Group style of Britishness: repressed homosexuality and upper-class excess. The book is set in five sections and in each as they get further from the original event we are not just treated to different social settings, mores and nuances but each adds to the complexity of the whole.

I cannot imagine how much planning this novel took but Hollinghurst is a master of prose and creativity at the height of his powers. The Booker Prize can only now be between this and Barnes's 'The Sense of an Ending' and I'm glad it's not my decision.


Wednesday, 24 August 2011

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards  (Oneworld Publications 2011)

Fourteen years ago Jinx witnesses the horrific murder of her mother in their flat in the Pemsbury Estate in Hackney, London. It's an event that will blight her future relationship with her future husband and child and force her into semi-obscurity, feeling most comfortable with the cadavers she tends at the mausoleum where she works.

One evening Lemon, an old friend of her mothers, turns up unannounced with news to break. But there's more, and over an weekend of alcohol, music and sumptuous Montserratian cuisine they revisit the events that led up to the fateful night.

Although set in and around my old stomping grounds in London around  Hackney Downs and Dalston Kingsland I did not expect to like this book. For a start it is littered with ridiculous name: Jinx, Lemon and Red, names which proffer and unnecessary distraction. However as the book went on I found myself wanting to know where it was going and even enjoying the process. The descriptions of the male characters, especially Berris and Lemon are well developed and harken back to a timeless sense of style, and the descriptions of the  food had me salivating.

It isn't in conventional booker territory so I would be surprised to see it going through to the shortlist but for a first time effort by Yvette Edwards, it isn't half bad.


Saturday, 20 August 2011

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (HarperCollins 2011)

Set in 1857 Jamrach's Menagerie tells the story of Jaffy, a poor but happy child who wanders the streets of the East End of London, through the mire and the open sewers bare footed without the least concern. When one day he encounters a tiger newly escaped from its captivity he brazenly walks up to pet its nose only to end up in the tiger's mouth. His rescue came in the form of the eponymous Jamrach, an exotic animal dealer who leaps atop the creature and forces its jaws apart. Jamrach's menagerie is a place of wonder filled with Tasmanian devils, all kinds of birds and primates and Jaffy takes a job there where he encounters Jamrach's assistant Tim Linver and Dan Rymer, the salty sea dog/animal tracker responsible for collecting some of Jamrach's more exotic products.

When one day a Mr Fledge comes in and asks that he be supplied a dragon (most likely a Komodo Dragon) Jaffy, Tim and Dan join the crew of one of Mr Fledge's whale boats and set out towards the South Seas in pursuit of their quarry. What follows is a somewhat harrowing tale of torture, starvation and whole lot of pain as things go from terrible to worse in a story partly inspired by the true tale of the Essex (a story which also partly inspired another infamous book of whaling ships, Moby Dick).

It is an intentionally difficult book to read as the author tries to put you into the mindset of the protagonists as they go through some pretty extreme torment and the result is that some chapters go by a great deal slower than the rest (reading a chapter about the doldrums is liable to send one into them oneself). It is a very evocative book and as Jaffy, Tim and Dan suffer, I could feel their pain.

The book is far from perfect. Some of the characters aren't developed well enough  such as Skip whose madness is just accepted but never questioned or explained, or Tim who becomes incredibly two-dimensioned once they set foot aboard the whaling ship. Also the ending is a little too rose-coloured as things at last come together in an ending Disney would be proud of. However, these are comparatively minor complaints and I wouldn't be surprised to see this making the Booker Prize shortlist.


Saturday, 13 August 2011

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (House of Anansi Press 2011)

The narrator, Harri Opoku, is an 11 year old recent Ghanaian immigrant who moved over to England with his mother, aunt Sonia and sister Lydia. They live on the Dell Farm housing estate in South London. When a kid gets stabbed  to death outside chicken restaurant, Harri and his CSI loving friend Dean decide that it's their duty to investigate and unearth the killer and on an estate where the Dell Farm Crew rule they are not short of suspects.

The title is something of a play on words referring both to the mixed Ghanaian and South London pidgin of the narrator (words and phrases like 'asweh', 'hutious' and 'advise yourself' abound) and because of his fascination with a wild pigeon who one day flew into their ninth floor flat and from then one believes is watching over him  ready to poop on anyone who threatens him. In some of the most clawing and hackneyed passages we are treated the philosophical musings of the pigeon itself.

Reading the booker prize novels has taught me something about myself. Starting with Room last year and now Pigeon English I have learnt that I cannot stand to read narration written from the perspective of a child simply because I believe that a narrative is far too important to be left to such an undeveloped mindset. Harri's thought-processes are so frenetic and changeable one would imagine it giving the novel a certain pace but instead it is just becomes tiring.

Partly inspired by the stabbing of the Nigerian schoolboy Damiola Taylor in 2000 the book taps in on the prevalence of  gang culture and knife crime in the council estates of London. Because it is one of few if any novels that attempts to deal with this issue, it is a novel that will do very well whether or not it is artistically merited. It wont be too long before this graces the syllabuses of the United Kingdom and the BBC have already commissioned an adaptation. I also expect it to make it through to the shortlist but sadly I don't think it merits it.


Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Snowdrops by A.D. Millers

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (HarperCollins 2010)

Set in Moscow in the mid-noughties, Snowdrops is the story of Nick Platt is a British Lawyer who when travelling home one night on metro fights off a would be mugger. His intended target is Masha and her younger sister Katya. As Masha and Nick begin to become involved he is introduced to their aunt Tatiana Vladimirovna and finds himself compelled to help out in the sale of her apartment. The other thread of the story is that of Nick's involvement in the financing of an oil project off the coast of Murmansk on the Barents Sea.

The eponymous snowdrops are not just the pretty bulbous early blooming flower - in Moscow slang it is a corpse that only unearth's itself in the thaw following the long Russian winter. As one of the characters of book says, 'in Russia there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories'. True or not, this is most certainly a crime story.'

Overall it is a pretty disappointing book. It is one that continues to promise action and intrigue but never actually delivers upon it. The plot is transparent and the ending easily forseen. The central character is so spineless and amoral that he simply isn't believable and the three threads of the story are essentially the same. Add to this a character called 'the Cossack' who could have stepped out of a cliché spy novel and characterisations of the Russians which verge on the racist mean that there is little good to be said of this book and once again I am left wondering how this made it into the Booker prize long list.


Saturday, 6 August 2011

Far to Go by Alison Pick

Far to Go by Alison Pick (House of Anansi Press 2010)

The Toronto based Alison Pick goes over somewhat familiar ground in her tale of a family of well-to-do Sudetenland jews and the events of their lives leading up to and following its annexation by Germany in 1948. At the heart of the story are the Bauers, Pavel who is a Jewish factory owner, his glamorous wife Annelies, their son Pepik and their maid Martha who narrates. Ultimately it is the story of the Kindertransport, for as the Bauers see that their options for escaping ever fiercer grip of Nazi rule diminish their only hope is to see Pepik out of the country safely.

The other aspect of the story is that of another Annelies, a holocaust researcher who is trying to track down Pavel in modern day Canada so that between them they can piece together the true story of what happened back in Czechoslovakia during the war.

This book suffers from the comparison to far greater books such as the immeasurably better Austerlitz by WG Sebald for all its haunting melancholic meta-fictional brilliance, or one can even look to last year's booker prize longlist for a more interesting holocaust novel in Simon Mawer's 'the Glass Room'. Alison Pick barely moves her narrative above the pedestrian and does nothing with her story that has not been done many times before.

Stylistically too the book has its flaws and one would never guess the author to be a poet because her symbolism and analogy are drab and obvious. Pick also hit against a pet peeve of mine by the pointless use of well-known foreign words to try and add an international flair, something usually the preserve of mediocre travel books.

Pick has clearly been inspired to tell the story of her own family history so I can understand why she has chosen to write it, but it's predictable conventionality means that it never lifts itself above the mediocre and I am at a loss as to explain how it made it into the Booker long list. I would be very disappointed to see it make the short list.


Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Random House Canada 2011)

This is a novel of youthful friendship and relationships, budding pretensions, teenage angst and middle-aged memories, reverie and regret. The book is told by Tony Webster, a middle-of -the-road type character who can best describe himself as peaceable. The first half of the book centres on the schoolboy friendship with Adrian Finn, a more intelligent, Camus-reading fellow pupil at their sixth form in central London. After the two separate for university, Adrian going to Cambridge and Tony to Bristol, we follow Tony's relationship with Veronica a woman who remains an enigma to Tony and whose feelings for him seem to swing between care and contempt. His relationship with Veronica simpered out after a year and she then goes out with Adrian. The chapter ends with the news of Adrian's death by his own hands.

The second half of the novel is set after Tony has retired, his marriage with Margaret lasting much longer but ending in amicable divorce. He is suddenly forced to reassess his past when a letter from a solicitor turns up informing him that he has been bequeathed Adrian's diary by Veronica's mother but also the news that Veronica, whom Tony had edited out of his past in discussions with Margaret, is currently in possession of the diary and looks unlikely to pass it on.

At the heart of the novel is an almost Proustian analysis of  memory and history and Tony is much more at home with the historical certainties of the Greeks and Romans than of the mess of uncertainty of the near past. The focus of his reminiscence is a disastrous trip he took with Veronica to spend a weekend in Kent at her home with her family and every nuance and uttering is re-evaluated with each new exchange with Veronica as he tries to prove to her for once and for all that he finally gets it.

This is a short volume coming in at 150 pages but every word packs its power. Only on looking back do you begin to realise the complexity of the story as you begin to wonder whether your memory of earlier events or his is the one which is correct. I haven't had a chance to reread the book but I'm sure it's one that would get even better on a second visit. It more than justifies its inclusion in the Booker long list and unless Alan Hollinghurst has pulled out a gem with 'the Stranger's Child' I believe this one could go all the way and bag the prize.


Monday, 1 August 2011

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (House of Anansi Press 2011)

And so the Booker reading begins. Set in 1851 right in the middle of the California gold rush, the novel tells the story of two infamous brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters who set out on a mission by the commodore from Oregon City to apprehend and kill Hermann Kermit Warm.

The chapters are short and the pace is brisk as the brothers drink, swear, trick and shoot their way west in pursuit of their quarry encountering a witch, an orphan and a prospector gone mad in the solitude of his work.

The narration of Eli Sisters is in a evocative cowboy patter and the description of the fairly frequent violence is vivid the effect being to put you in the saddle as they slaughter their way across the west toward California but it's not for the feint-hearted.

It's an entertaining yarn, the relationship between the younger Eli and the elder Charlie is an intelligent mix of admiration, jealousy and competition and the vivid prose is a real highlight. It is very light reading and I went through it in a couple of days without really trying. My judgement is that it's good but not booker good and I can't see this one getting through to the longlist.


The Booker Prize 2011 Challenge

For the third year I am going to try and read as many of the Booker Prize longlist and hopefully all of the shortlist before the winner is announced. Last year my favoured book 'In a Strange Room' by Damon Galgut was beaten by what I think is the far inferior 'The Finkler Question' by Howard Jacobson. Perhaps this year my opinion and the judges will intersect, well stranger things have happened

This year's 'Bookers Dozen' are:

Julian Barne - The Sense of an Ending 
Sebastian Barry - On Canaan's Side
Carol Birch - Jamrach's Menagerie
Patrick deWitt - The Sisters Brothers
Esi Edugyan - Half Blood Blues
Yvvette Edwards - A Cupboard Full of Coats
Alan Hollinghurst - The Stranger's Child
Stephen Kelman - Pigeon English
Patrick McGuinness - The Last Hundred Days
AD Miller - Snowdrops
Alison Pick - Far to Go 
Jane Rogers - The Testament of Jessie Lamb 
DJ Taylor - Derby Day

Not all the books are available to buy or not yet released  so it wont be the easiest job to read them through but wish me luck.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga (Doubleday Canada 2011)

I must admit that I only picked up this book in hopes of pre-empting the Booker judges long list selection and at first the book held no appeal. The concept of the book seemed archetypal possibly to point  of cliché. A powerful and corrupt construction magnate named Dharmen Shah decides upon a spot to build what might be his last project, the Shanghai built in 'Gothic style, Rajput touch, Art Deco fountain'. On the site Shah has chosen to build stand Towers A & B of the Vishram Society housing co-operative in Vakola, near the airport in Mumbai, the next area of the city due for gentrification in the Indian economic boom. Offered a more than generous settlement to purchase the apartments from members (some 250% of their value) one man, Yogesh Murthy (Masterji) a retired teacher, alone holds out against Shah, the last man in tower as one by one his friends, neighbours and even his own family turn against him feared of losing their ticket out of the slums.

If it is a story that sounds familiar it should because it is a common premise, take 'batteries not included' or  for a more recent example the recent animated feature film 'Up', all stories of plucky underdogs taking on the powerful corporations. However, this is where the similarities end and instead of a saccharine story of helpful little robot elves or of transcontinental building flight what we are offered is a sometimes very dark and almost deeply cynical view on Indian culture and the effect of its current economic prosperity.

My big criticism of the book is that it is bogged down by some highly visible and unsubtle symbolism. Chapters of the book are haunted by a lame and dying dog, we see a pair of fighting hawks and we see a mother crow have her nest and babies poked out from under her. If you throw in the Rubik's Cube that plays a more central role than necessary you can see that Adiga has employed far less that a light touch. Having said that, it is a highly readable book and although at the outset the book's plot would appear predictable, it doesn't quite follow the path you'd imagine and was still able to surprise an old cynic like me. Worth a read but I think the Booker judges have been wise to have left it out of the longlist.


David Lloyd George by Roy Hattersley

David Lloyd George: The Great Outsider by Roy Hattersley (Little Brown 2010)

Last summer I spent a while researching whether there were any decent biographies of Lloyd George. I have his multi-volume War Diaries purchased in a moment of financial whim in a charity shop in Preston, Lancs but if you were looking for a comprehensive take on Lloyd George's life, then last summer there was not one to be found. This is interesting in itself, David Lloyd George was the man who lead Great Britain to victory in the Great War surely, as with Churchill, there should have been dozens of titles. Part of the reason for this one wonders may have to do with how the book came to be written. Roy Jenkins, the stalwart of British political Biography whose titles include Gladstone, Asquith, Baldwin and Churchill, suggested to Roy Hattersley that he write the biography because he disliked Lloyd George 'so heartily that he could not write the book himself'

Money played an important part in Lloyd George's life and it was probably the lack of it in childhood that made him so desirous of it in later life. Born in Manchester he spent most of his childhood in North Wales, the country with which he would be so closely associated with. His later financial dealings nearly ruined his career as with his disastrous gold mining operations in Argentina where he continued to solicit investment even after he was aware there was no gold, and the Marconi scandal where a number of cabinet ministers were involved in speculating in the share value prior to the awarding of a large government contract. It was the issue of money that finally ended his run as Prime Minister when the extent of his involvement in selling honours became known.

After receiving the reputation of being something of a womaniser (a reputation that later led to his nickname of 'the goat'), at the age of 21 Lloyd George realised that he needed a woman who could provide 'the stability of indomitable domesticity'. The woman was Margaret Lloyd George (nee Owen). They stayed together until her death in 1944 although he was hardly faithful. In 1910 he met Frances Stevenson when she was hired as the childrens' tutor. She became Lloyd George's mistress and was to remain with him until his death, becoming the second Mrs Lloyd George following Margaret's death in 1944.

I said that Lloyd George was the man who lead Great Britain to victory in the Great War but he should be remembered for far more than that. He was the man who essentially started the modern welfare state by introducing state pensions and employment insurance, the man who strengthened British democracy by forcing the House of Lords into breaking a constitutional convention which led to the Parliament Act 1911 that limited the power of the unelected Lords to a suspensory veto. He is also a man to be remembered for two wars.  For his vehement opposition to the Boer War (that almost made him the most unpopular man in the country) to his stalwart leadership during the First World War. There is so much more to say about his achievements but my précis would be a poor substitution to reading the book itself.

Roy Jenkins book is an interesting one. He tries to be dispassionate about Lloyd George and I think like me he genuinely admires what he achieved but with each chapter you sense a growing dislike of the person. His treatment of his wife although mitigated by the fact that she refused to leave her native Leeds to join him in London, cannot be condoned. The book could have done with a concluding chapter just to sum up his thoughts on the man but sadly all we are given is half a paragraph. Otherwise this was a thoroughly interesting book on a very interesting period in British politics and I highly recommend it.


Sunday, 10 July 2011

Contested Will by James Shapiro

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare by James Shapiro (Simon and Schuster 2010)

I used to be what I guess you could call a casual Baconian. Without having read into the authorship debate in the slightest it was quite easy to pick up on casual  references in the media. It was also a good flight of fancy to imagine the man who essentially invented the scientific method could also be the genuine source of what is the jewel in England's cultural crown. However, thanks to James Shapiro's book I am now pretty firmly of the belief that the glovers' son from Stratford was the true author of the plays.

In the book Shapiro examines the arguments for two of the leading candidates in the authorship debate, Francis Bacon and Edward De Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Only when you study the arguments for these guys do you realise how nonsensical they are. Arguments that William Shakespeare didn't write the plays attributed to him (authorship which had not been challenged until the late Eighteenth Century) are based on the assumption that to have written the plays the author must have been a nobleman, familiar with the law and life in the Elizabethan court, with a university education, attributes, from what the documentary evidence indicates, that certainly cannot be applied to the glovers' son from Stratford. This would only be true if in the writing the plays the author was being autobiographical and wrote from experience never mind the fact that Elizabethan autobiography essential didn't exist outside ecclesiastical writings.

Finally Shapiro makes the argument for Shakespeare himself, detailing references to Shakespeare by contemporary authors such as Ben Jonson and recent textual studies into co-authorship, including five of Shakespeare's last ten plays, which strongly undermines the Oxfordian case. When asked why the authorship question is important, because no matter who wrote them we still have the plays Shapiro makes the interesting point that it does matter because by searching for a more suitable author we do great injustice to Shakespeare's most powerful tool, his imagination.

This is the second book by Shapiro I've read, the first was the Samuel Johnson award winning '1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare' and as with this book the concept was really interesting but the execution was just a little bit too academic for popular appeal and it took me quite a while to get through this rather slim book. That said, the subject matter really is interesting and if you've every wondered about the Shakespeare authorship question then this is probably as balanced and even-handed a take on it as you'll ever find especially now that the Oxfordian movement goes from strength to strength.


Thursday, 7 July 2011

On China by Henry Kissinger

On China by Henry Kissinger (Allen Lane 2011)

Before 1969 the People's Republic of China and USSR were seen as one large Communist bloc whose power centre was in Moscow however as 1969 rolled around and Russian troops massed on the Chinese border, nuclear war between Russia and China appeared probable (so much so that Chinese leaders were dispersed from Beijing around the country). At this point President Nixon decided that Russia was the worse of the two evils which made possible a heretofore unlikely meeting with Chairman Mao in 1972 and a relatively stable period of peaceful co-existence has existed between the USA and China since.

Henry Kissinger was the National Security Advisor to Nixon and was a key figure in setting up the meeting between the unlikely bedfellows. His book charts the history of China from its ancient origins, commenting on the nature of Chinese society and its early belief in its own superiority in the world, not in a proselytizing or crusading manner as one thinks of the neo-con crusade for the democratisation of the third world, but through sheer confidence in ones cultural superiority. And this confidence was badly shaken following the opium wars with the UK with one embarrassing concession after another to host of Western nations on trade, diplomatic relations and even ownership of Chinese lands.

It deals with the civil war that led to the Communist victory (the nationalists escaping to settle what is now known as Taiwan) as well as successive Communist policy blunders such as the Great Leap Forward, an aim to increase industrial output rapidly to overtake the West in 15 years with goals so unrealistic that local officials faked their grain figures which were then relied upon as Mao sold off much of China's remaining grain to Russia in exchange for weapons triggering a famine that killed as many as 45 million people. There is also the Cultural Revolution, part of Mao's vision of continual revolution, an attempt to wipe out all traces of China's Confucian inspired civil service in which many senior mandarins were removed from their positions and sent to labour in the fields, including in their ranks the future leads of the country Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin and very nearly Mao's right hand man Zhao Enlai.

The book is a very useful grounding in modern Chinese political history and it is interesting to observe Chinese foreign policy from the viewpoint of a game of Wei Qi in which two players place down respectively black and white tiles, the object being to encircle ones enemy. Kissinger is at some times almost an apologist for Mao and whilst some of the worst excesses are noted, more effort is put into understanding his decisions in the framework of Chinese history. An explanation for the softer tone towards Mao could be to lesson the burden of being the man to have established relations with a man responsible for more that 45 million deaths.

Henry Kissinger is very much a Republican and top marks to American forgeign policy go to Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes. Clinton and Carter are both criticised as being too gun-ho about trying to spread and apply Western values in a Chinese context.

Whatever the problems with this book I would certainly recommend it as an introductory book on Modern China because it is one that will make you want to read more.


Smut by Alan Bennett

Smut: Two Unseemly Stories by Alan Bennett (Faber & Faber/Profile Books 2011)

In this rather slight volumes sit two charming stories of unexpected sexuality. The first story is 'the Greening of Mrs Donaldson' and deals with a recently widowed middle-classed woman who to earn some extra income on the side takes a job at the local hospital as a part-time demonstrator helping medical students with their diagnosis technique by feigning different physical and mental conditions and at the same time catching the eye of their professor. As she takes in a couple of students as tenants she finds herself in an interesting predicament as the rent cheques begin to dry up there is an offer to pay the arrears in kind.

The Shielding of Mrs Forbes features another unorthadox sexual arrangement. Mrs Forbes has a handsome, eligible if not air-headed son called Graham and he is betrothed to a somewhat plain but extraordinarily intelligent woman. They would be set for a happy life if it weren't for the fact that Graham was a closeted homosexual whose extra-marital sexual encounters get him under the control of a blackmailing policeman.

Both stories are about people pretending to be whom they are not and failing miserably at the task. Both stories lead to rather unexpected conclusions and the brunt of the humour is rather directed not at the named protagonists themselves but at the people around who are in on the secret.

It's a slender volume and the stories are entertaining enough but it does leave me wondering  if they were of sufficient calibre to justify individual publishing. I think Alan Bennett has reached the same level as Umberto Eco where anything he says or writes from now on will be snapped up and bound which is great if you're an avid fan eager for new material but it is no guarantor of continuing or consistent quality.


Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (Pantheon 2009)

June 24th 1833 was the date when the word 'scientist' was arguably coined. At a meeting for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, William Whewell was addressing the packed Senate House on the nature of science when the applause died down one sole figure remained standing, and to the surprise of everyone present, it was that of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He remarked of the members present in the room that the name they used for their profession was no longer appropriate, men knee deep in mud searching for fossils being called 'natural philosophers' didn't quite seem right and the other moniker 'men of science' hardly included the likes of Caroline Herschel; something better had to be devised. As an actual metaphysician himself Coleridge wanted a name that would more reflect the practical and hands-on nature of their work. Whewell's suggestion was that one could by analogy of art to artist go from science to scientist and thus the word was born.

This book deals with how we progressed from the pure philosophy of the inductive reasoning of Bacon and Newton and the rationalism and foundationalism of Descartes, through the independently wealthy and crown sponsored men of Royal Society to the more familiar profession of science of Whewhell, Charles Darwin and beyond. At the heart of this book are biographies of three of the guiding lights of Romantic science. The first is of Sir Joseph Banks whose botanical voyages in Tahiti with Captain Cook opened his eyes to a world of experience and adventure which, when he himself was crippled by gout and unable to travel, encouraged in others as the President of the Royal Society. The second is William Herschell and his redoubtable sister Caroline who brought skill, ingenuity and a complete thoroughness to the science of astrology through regular nightly sweeps of the sky and better telescopic technology that helped them discover Uranus and two of its moons as well as two moons of Saturn and a catalogue of over 500 new nebulae. Finally we meet Sir Humphry Davy and his experiments with gases and electricity that made him a veritable rock star.

Part of what makes this period so exciting is that the arts and sciences had an almost symbiotic existence. Erasmus Darwin and Humpry Davy both composed poetry whilst the likes of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelly wrote pamphlets on science and natural philosophy. It was a synthesis that was mutually beneficial which makes me think that Stephen Hawking was all the more wrong when in his most recent book 'The Grand Design' he made the pronouncement that 'philosophy is dead' a somewhat ironically self-defeating philosophical stance.

It was an exciting period in history, the exploration of Africa and the islands of the South Pacific. The advent of flight with the early experiments in Ballooning. There was also an exciting cast, not just the poets and triumvirate of scientists mentioned above but the likes of Michael Faraday, Thomas Beddoes, Mungo Park and the rest. Holmes infuses the narrative with his own sense of wonder and as the book ends with Charles Darwin heading off on the HMS Beagle he leaves us wanting to know what comes next.


Saturday, 4 June 2011

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau 2009)

'We have nothing to envy in the world' go the lyrics to a song taught by Mi-Ran (she plays the accordion which is as we learn something that all teachers in North Korea are required to do because they are lightweight, cheap and music is a good tool for indoctrination) to a class of five and six year old children whom starvation has made look three or four and whose attendance numbers have ominously dropped down from fifty to fifteen.

'If you look at a satellite photo of the Far East at night, you'll see a splotch curiously lacking light' this Barbara Demick informs us is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In this darkness Mi-Ran and Jun-Sang can avoid the eyes of nosy neighbours by walking down the pitch-black streets unseen. Mi-Ran is from the lowest caste in North Korean society (beulsun - literally tainted blood) , her father was a soldier from the South taken prisoner by the North during the Korean War and with no hope of repatriation his family are forever condemned to the bottom rung. Jun-Sang is of an impeccable background and his good marks in chemistry mean that he has a future at one of the military universities in Pyongyang, the showtown capital of North Korea and a union with a beulsun would ruin his prospects.

Demick follows the lives of six protagonists from the same town, Chongjin and through them we experience vignettes of life in a country that has become a virtual black hole of information. We hear of infrastructure shutting down as people are no longer paid for their work and where a much more productive use of time is foraging for food, first rations from the government, then dogs and cats in the neighbourhood, then rats and mice and finally whatever plants and roots that can be boiled and made edible. The scale of privation is sometimes overwhelming but the book offers light at the end of the tunnel as the six escape to tell their stories.Although not every escape story is a success and China is all to willing to hand escapees back over to the Pyongyang regime where labour-camps and worse await their return.

North Korea is often in the news for its sabre-rattling nuclear experimentation. What this book so brilliantly does is to pierce the veil of secrecy they have erected and give insight into the lives of everyday people and one has to wonder how life can still exist like this in a world of such plenty.  Very compelling.


Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth (Random House 1969)

Philip Roth's fourth book, Portnoy's Complaint was the one that made his reputation for the man who is now the newly crowned Booker International Prize winner and who has been long touted for the Nobel Prize for literature. The book is a flowing and humorous monologue by Alexander Portnoy to his virtually silent psychoanalyst. It is a venerable tour de force of New Jersey Jewish neurosis and guilt.

Portnoy's complaint is an odyssey of sexual addiction. His early onanistic habit kept him locked in the toilet so frequently that he had to invent diarrhoea as an excuse, for which his high-strung mother assumes is caused by his eating fries instead of coming home to a hearty meal and which in one scene his eternally constipated father, jealous of Alex's free-flowing bowels, hammers at the door demanding to see evidence in the toilet bowl (a very funny scene which is parodied in the Simpsons where a young Krusty the Clown is caught practising clowning in the toilet by his overbearing Rabbi father).

As Portnoy matures, well at least ages, we see a succession of girlfriends and ever more bizarre sexual antics. A full-bodied but flat chested woman he calls the pumpkin, an emotionally stilted but sexually adventurous woman he calls the monkey and finally a Jewish woman he meets in Israel who resembles his mother but whom finds him somewhat repugnant.

It could be very easy to dismiss this book as just literary pornography but Roth uses sex to examine deeper themes, history, culture, identity, family. Themes he continues to develop in his later works such as American Pastoral and the Plot Against America, all told from Jewish characters living in or around New Jersey. I'd say for this reason that he is almost an American Mordecai Richler just a damn site dirtier.

I said that the psychoanalyst was almost silent, he has one line, the last one: 'So [said the doctor]. Now vee may to perhaps begin. Yes?'. Funny but don't let anyone read it over your shoulder!


How to Live by Sarah Bakewell

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Answers by Sarah Bakewell (Vintage 2011)

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born in 1533. His early education was entirely in Latin leaving him with little way to communicate with his family except through the shaky Latin of his father and conversational Latin of his servants. He lived in a tower overlooking his estate,  was a magistrate and sometime mayor of Bordeaux. It is hard to see how lessons on life from this mediaeval French philosopher can be relevant to a modern audience and yet throughout the centuries many people have read the Essays and seem themselves in their pages for the simple reason that he is so brutally honest and open about his life that one begins to look on Montaigne as a friend. We learn about his bowel  movements, his sexual exploits, what food he likes and about his relationship with his cat.

Montaigne was a true man of the Renaissance. Carved into the roof of his library were maxims of his Greek and Roman heroes, Cicero, Seneca, Virgil  and Socrates et al. His philosophy melded the Hellenic schools of Scepticism, Epicurianism and Stoicism holding key the two key principles that unite them all, eudaimonia, the pursuit of a good life and that of ataraxia, having a tranquillity of the mind. This means not being overcome by extreme emotions, and preparing oneself mentally for all the pitfalls life can offer, meeting them with a level head.

Bakewell's unconventional approach to biography pays off as one can see how fond she is of her subject, a trait which is quite contagious. Whilst Montaigne's philosophy can appear to be cold and unemotional, you can see that he is trying to save us from emotional pain, perhaps of the kind he underwent himself when he lost the closest friend of his life, his soul mate Etienne de la Boetie to the plague. But the highest compliment that can be paid to this book is that it makes you want turn to its source, the Essays themselves and for that reason alone I feel I can highly recommend this book.