Wednesday 27 April 2011

A brief diversion - what 10GBR means

Top scores are given away
too easily for some things. Can
you say "Strictly come Dancing"?
The first ever in the GBR world seemed to spark a bit of debate, judging by the comments as well as the unprecedented spike in visitors the blog has had in the last few days. So I decided to take another unprecedented step - a mid week post (and not even a review).

I feel so rebellious.

I think it’s worthwhile though. It’s important to me that you don’t see the first ever 10GBR score as a sign that I’ve become soft. I’ve heard that blog readers can smell weakness. We're like bunnies that way.

I stick by the principle that a (for anything) is (and should remain) a rarely deserved feat. The world is littered with people giving ten out of ten for pretty much anything they like a lot. I’ve said it before and I say it again - ten out of ten means perfect. Not really really good, not I heart it, not OMG that’s brilliant, not most fave eva. Perfect. It means that you can’t conceive anything in that form being any better. It means no imperfections. None.

Fractions just confuse scoring. Who
wants "nine and seven ninths out of
ten"? Not me.
This of course comes with some important disclaimers, (everything does). Firstly, an “out of ten” system leaves the judge with a little wiggle room. If something is better than a 9, and (like me) you’re averse to giving fractions out as scores, then the only other option is a 10. If you want to mark something out as better than anything you’ve ever given a 9 to, then it simply has to be a 10. Of course, I could change the system to be out of a hundred or out of a million to make it more precise, but that’d be silly. Who wants a book review score out of 989,432 out of 1,000,000?

Secondly, I want to address the point that the “perfect “, ten out of ten book needs to tick all the boxes. I simply don't think that's possible. A book can never be all things to all men (and women). It cannot be simultaneously the perfect thriller, the perfect piece of literary fiction, have endless depth, be flawlessly funny, be the darkest thing you’ve ever read, be… well, you get the idea. I reserve the right (respectfully, of course) to give 10GBR to books from more than one genre.

Some also feel that, rather than all the boxes being ticked, some very specific ones need to be ticked. Some feel that only a book with emotional depth can be perfect. Some feel that only a book with glorious philosophical points can be perfect. Some feel that only a book with matchless humour can be perfect. I, however, feel that a book of any flavour can be perfect.

That's just what I think. If you disagree, that's OK. I hope we don't fall out about it, cos I think you're cool.

Thirdly, I do not think a 10GBR book necessarily needs to be original. It needs to be a lot of things, but an entirely new thought? No. I’m quite happy to admit that a perfect book can come from a successful attempt to take a genre, or an idea, or a structure, or a premise, and use that initial spark to create something wonderful. It’s not in the original thought that 10GBR can be reached, but in what is achieved with it. I’ve read plenty of books that are fairly mind blowing with their originality. But unless that originality is backed up by a host of other things, then it’ll fall short.

And speaking of “other things”, I feel that a 10GBR book does need to display three important characteristics: 
  1. It needs to change your life. Not for a few minutes, not for a few days, but genuinely change the way you look at the world around you. Forever
  2. It needs to make you love reading. Not just that book (though that should be pretty much a given), but it should give you a thirst for literature generally. It should make you fall in love with reading books (again). It should restore your faith in the power of the written word
  3. Perhaps most importantly, reading it should be right at the top of the most enjoyable things you have ever done. Enjoyment - that’s the key. Not necessarily something that made you really think, or that made you laugh, or that made you cry, or that made you scared, or that made you whatever - simply something that gave you a pretty unparalleled amount of enjoyment.
So that’s it, my thoughts on what it takes to get 10GBR. I think it’s a very strict criteria. And I also think that in my whole life I don’t expect to read more than a small handful of them.

And most importantly, I maintain that The World of Jeeves is one of them.

As always, let me know what you think about it. Feel free to disagree. These are books we're talking about here, so we're all going to think differently about them. And that's OK. I want to know what you think about them.  

Vive le difference (as my wife would say).

Sunday 24 April 2011

The World of Jeeves - a perfect world

The World of Jeeves by PG Wodehouse (Arrow Books, 2008) An omnibus of Jeeves and Wooster stories. (I feel silly even explaining what Jeeves and Wooster is about. If you don’t know already, shame on you. But, for the sake of form...) A series of short stories following the life of Bertie Wooster, one of a society of idle rich in a comic world created by one of the world’s greatest ever writers of sunny slapstick. Jeeves is Wooster’s “man”, taking care of every little thing for him, displaying a quiet cunning and an intelligence that contrasts sharply with his master’s loveable pompous idiocy. (There, did I catch it properly? No, I didn’t think so either...)
Here’s a GBR first. A review of a book that I haven’t finished.  But I couldn’t help myself.
We’ve all seen Jeeves and Wooster on the telly, Fry and Laurie flexing their finest comedy muscles in a setting that seems made for them. The perfectness of their performance made me avoid the original for a while. I didn’t want to spoil it for myself. I didn’t want the Fry and Laurie version to be sullied by a version that failed to live up to them.
But, of course, PG Wodehouse didn’t write a version of Jeeves and Wooster. It’s Fry and Laurie that are doing the interpreting here. Wodehouse is the creator of this world, so sooner or later I had to dip in to see where the spark came from.
So I got this omnibus. Thirty-four Jeeves and Wooster stories, all about 20 or 30 pages long. Each following on from the last, all connected, all neatly packaged.
And that’s a key word, I think – “neat.” I’m not sure I can tell you anything you don’t already know about the worlds that Wodehouse creates. They’re all just plain wonderful. Sunny. Delightful. Pleasant. Comic. Wry. Warming. Consistently all these things. But neat too. It all adds up. It all plays out to a neat conclusion. It’s rewarding and fulfilling. It just all makes sense.
But why an omnibus? Why not pick up a full blown Wodehouse novel?
Well this omnibus has become my perfect reading companion, because it’s an amazing bridge between books. The World of Jeeves resets everything. It allows you to escape completely and come up at the end of each story utterly refreshed. After two or three stories from this omnibus, I’ve shaken off everything from the last full blown book I’ve read and am ready to get stuck into the next one.
And that’s how this book should be used. As the world’s most effective pallet cleanser. One day I’ll pick up a “proper” Wodehouse and read it start to finish. But in the meantime, these shots of Jeeves and Wooster are about as close to perfect reading as I’ve ever found.
I couldn’t sit down and read all 34 stories one after the other. If there’s a weakness to Wodehouse, it’s that the same plot tools get used time after time. After two or three of these, they tend to blend into one, and you can see what’s coming around the corner.
Not that that’s a bad thing. I love the structure of these stories. I think the world is a much richer place with them in it. If they changed entirely from one story to the next, they simply wouldn’t be Jeeves and Wooster. They’d lose their caught-in-time quality. They’d lose a lot of why I love them.
This book makes everything else I read better. It makes me happy when I read it. It refreshes me. It fills me with the life stuff that’s needed to attack something new. It is, without a doubt, the easiest GBR score I’ve ever given...
10 GBR
There, I did it, my first ten. And 100% deserved as well. If a book makes your whole life better, the least I can do is put all my thumbs up as high as I can for it.

Sunday 17 April 2011

The Unnamed - a book you can care about

On Marathon day, a book about endurance...

The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris (Viking, 2010). A New York lawyer struggles with an unexplained affliction – the inability to stop walking. It slowly starts to ruin his life, and leaves him in the middle of a battle between his body and his will. The course he takes leads him to question what it is to be a human being, and leads his family to question what it is to be his wife/daughter.
Making people care about stuff is a big talent. I think it’s because there’s no such thing as a blank slate. Give me someone with nothing inside them, an entirely open persona without any prejudices or other distractions, and I think it’d be fairly easy to get them interested in pretty much anything.
But those people don’t exist. Every reader, every watcher, every listener comes to every book, every TV show, every song with an existing life’s worth of thoughts. We’re a pretty congested race. So to get us to care about something, you’ve got to raise it above the din of everything else. Make it more real. Make it a cause or a case or a fate that touches you in a way that dims everything else, for a few moments at least.
That’s why I think I like Joshua Ferris. This is the second book of his I’ve read. The first had a pretty light hearted setting (a struggling ad agency staffed with big personalities) and had a good deal of wit. This book is very different. There are few characters, and the most prominent ones are fairly unremarkable in most ways.
But that’s OK. Because Ferris takes a single quirk (namely, an unexplained condition that forces the central figure to go on epic walks against his will) and uses it to explore every inch of humanity in his characters.
He uses the quirk to explore what it is to be human. He asks one big question – are we more than the sum of our parts, do we have souls or is it all just electrical impulses in our brains – and he does it without grandiosity, without showboating, within a very human and personal context.
He focuses on this theme tenaciously, but he avoids becoming repetitive. Don’t ask me how. I really don’t know. Maybe because he’s really quite a good writer.
And he does all of this in a way that makes you care. That was the biggest impression that stuck with me when I picked this book up and when I put it down again. I really and truly cared about the relationships he maps out, and the people he created. There are some fairly abstract sections in here, some bizarre details. But it all feels real. He’s inserted a strange plot into a very believable narrative.
And let’s face it, that’s what he’s done. He’s sat down and he’s made all this up. That’s the problem with caring about fiction. It’s all just made up, and Joshua Ferris tricked me into investing emotionally in it all.
That’s probably why I’ll pick up the next book Joshua Ferris writes. Because he creates real people and he poses them massive questions. He creates someone you can care about, then puts them in an unreal position. The overall effect leaves you a little exhausted, but satisfied that you’ve just read a very good book.
Not quite the 9 GBR un-put-downable quality of I, Lucifer, but pretty darn good nonetheless.
A couple of high scores in a row. Things are looking up. Might have to read something rubbish next, just so you don’t think I’m too much of an easy touch.

p.s. Good luck to all on the marathon today, especially Jim and Amy. You guys rule.

Sunday 10 April 2011

I, Lucifer - move over Matt Smith

I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan (Scribner: 2002). A novel in the first person. With the final "good vs evil" battle looming, Lucifer is given a chance to redeem himself by living a sinless life as an every-day human. Lucifer, though, takes the opportunity to indulge in worldly pleasures to an unhealthy extent.
I, Lucifer is brilliant. Go buy it and read it.
Sometimes, that’s all the review that’s needed. But I guess if you want to find out a little bit more about why it’s brilliant (and a fairly significant possible downside), feel free to read on.
I picked this up after reading one or two books that really didn’t grab me. It had been a while since I had that real thirst for reading something. That feeling you get when you’re fully engrossed and racing through the pages. This was one of those books for me.
It’s well written. It’s entirely in the first person, and the characterisation is (as far as I can tell) pretty flawless. The premise is wonderful, and the voice that Duncan gives to Lucifer is arresting. But it’s more than a good plot and a good protagonist. Duncan weaves in some massive themes, some incredibly intelligent reflections, and some thundering insights. And he does it all whilst ensuring your eyes don’t roll. When most people write something smart, it can come off as show offy (possibly because it often is). When Duncan writes, he achieves something very genuine.
He’s clever. And he does it in a way that is not ostentatious. It’s simply honest and engaging. It doesn’t sound like he’s trying to be intelligent. It just sounds like the way he speaks, or rather, the way Lucifer speaks.
The only problem with the book is I don’t think it lives very long after you put it down. I finished this a couple of weeks ago now. At the time, Glen Duncan was my new hero (temporarily replacing Matt Smith). It wouldn’t be too strong to say that, if I was, I would.

Photo Credit: Richard Whitehead

But give it a week, and cracks start to appear. Give it a bit of distance, and (quite gradually) I started to think of the book as a little bit up its own you-know-what. What’s more, I made the fatal error of looking at the headshot of the author (see pic on the right) and reading his I’d like to thank page (complete with a dedication to the friend that conceived the sound track to the book). I found it difficult to shake from my head the image of this guy sitting mired in his own sense of self brilliance.
The problem is, I think Glen Duncan is brilliant. Can I blame him for agreeing with me?
This novel is outstanding when you're smack bang in the rough and tumble of it. But as soon as you let it go, as soon as you break the spell that Duncan casts and think about it using only on your own imperfect recollection, it suddenly becomes (a little) pretentious. Distanced from Duncan’s talent, it’s difficult to fully recreate the tone he achieves. You can’t remember how Duncan had you gripped the way that he did. You can’t remember how natural he made the Big Questions sound. All the wit of the book starts to fade and begins to look instead like something approaching smugness.
So, what to believe? Is I, Lucifer a giant of a book, or was I temporarily blinded by something new and shiny, mistaking a smug know-it-all for a witty intellectual?
Either way, I loved it when I read it, and that has to trump everything else, surely.
For the way this book made me feel, for the way Duncan’s writing set my own brain firing, for the way in which it achieved something I can barely believe once the immediate memory of it fades, I give I, Lucifer...
Oooooh! That’s close. Not ten? Well, was it perfect? No. Just very, very, very, very good.

p.s. Glen Duncan has a new one out at the moment as well, The Last Werewolf.

Sunday 3 April 2011

A Palace in the Old Village - from Morocco with indifference

A Palace in the Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun (First published in the UK by Arcadia Books in 2011) A short novel that centres on an immigrant worker in France as he approaches retirement. He’s become disenchanted with his adopted country and the values it’s instilling in his children. To overcome it, he plans to spend his retirement back in his Moroccan village, building a house for his whole family to live in.
One of the great things about books (and tv, film, paintings, photography, music...well, you get the picture) is that they can take you to places (and times) you’ve never been before. Art can be your own personal transporter, just like in Star Trek but without Scotty (or Geordi for you Next Generation fans). It can instantly transport you anywhere.
If it’s done well, of course.
If not, you end up just hanging around in the departure lounge.
I had high hopes for this book, from “Morocco’s greatest living author” no less. I love books that take me places I know nothing about. There’s been a lot from India in recent years, and Japanese novels seem to have got a lot of fans too. But I’d never read anything from North Africa. So I packed a bag and settled in for a trip.
It’s not that the book is particularly badly written. Tahar Ben Jelloun clearly has a lot of control of his art, or he wouldn’t have such a reputation or be so widely published. The purpose of the book was clear, the story lucid enough, the narrative coherent. He portrayed a very believable and sympathetic central character. All the right ingredients were there.
But there simply wasn’t enough bite to it. I’m not a reader that demands a twist in every page. If anything, I verge more on the pretentious side of the scale than the thrill seeker (much as I dislike myself for it). But even for me, this book was too much “issue” and not enough “story”. (Is overboard to admit to being a little pretentious and use quote marks in the same paragraph? Oh well, too late...)
The author has very obviously started out with a message, and then tried to construct a story that will help him to tell it.
I don’t like that.
I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done, just that it shouldn’t be done so starkly. There’s nothing wrong with making a point through fiction. Orwell did it all the time, and I like reading him. In fact, I’d go as far as to say a book needs to have a wider moral point or two in there, but it needs to be in the background. In A Palace in the Old Village, it’s not so much in the foreground as permanently tattooed on your eyeballs. You simply can’t escape it for a second or two and just enjoy the story.
There is, however, one saving grace. The book constantly switches between first person and third person narrative. “That must be distracting”, I hear you scream. Well, no, it isn’t. In fact, the first few times the tense was switched, I didn’t even notice it. Hand on heart, it was done so subtly that I didn’t know it’d happened. I’ve never seen that attempted, never mind achieved. It really was very well done, and was a quirk that meant the book didn’t totally suck balls.
Until the very end of course, when the resolution of the story was so contrived that Paolo Coelho should be a little worried (that’s right, I just dissed Coelho. I guess I just don’t like anyone much in this blog post, huh?) The fairytale quality of the last few pages jarred so violently with the rest of the book that it left a bit of a scowl on my face when I turned the last page. Not a taste you want a book to leave in your mouth.
Maybe it was on purpose. Maybe the author was making a point about the differences between France and Morocco (again).
Either way, it didn’t work for me.
And that’s mainly because of the whole first person/third person quirk.
After that, I need the next thing I read to be good, I really do. Not time to give Coelho another try, then.