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.