Sunday 30 October 2011

Making History - high risk reading

Making History by Stephen Fry (Hutchinson: 1996) A young historian and a jaded physicist meet in the corridors of high education, discovering an unlikely common interest. Their curiosity leads them to developing a machine that poses more philosophical questions than they first realised. They use it unquestioningly, and the results are the stuff of high entertainment.
This is high risk reading. Danger at every corner with this one. First, it was a birthday present. Who goes on-line and disses a birthday present? Gits, that’s who.
Second, it’s by that delightful Stephen Fry. I (like most of you I’m sure) really like that guy. True, the last few years have given us perhaps a bit too much Fry, but he’s got a lot of credit in the bank from Jeeves and Wooster, credit that I can’t imagine him ever really exhausting.
Third, it was a bit big, which put some stress on my ability to try and finish a new book for you guys every week. On the plus side, the writing was real large.
So you can imagine my relief when the book started well. One of my main worries was that all I would hear is Stephen Fry talking to me. When the author is so famous, there’s the danger that the book itself will fail to speak. That the story won’t get a chance to really live under the weight of the author’s character. That didn’t happen here. The protagonist (and narrator of large passages) was lively and separate from Fry. He had his own personality, and Fry stayed diligently in the background.
And it was (as you’d expect from Fry) well written and well paced. It was very easy to read. The sentences and the paragraphs and the chapters were structured so effortlessly that you could just strap in and enjoy the ride. The book didn’t ask much from me, but equally I didn’t feel short changed. There was just enough to make me feel I was into something meaty, but not so much that I had to wade through it with furrowed brow.
So far, so good.
But then the plot kicked in properly. About half way through, or maybe three quarters, the plot really woke up. And I’m not sure I liked that.
Of course, it’s difficult to go through exactly why without giving away the ins and outs. Suffice to say that it all went a bit fantastical. It had its good points. It posed some interesting hypothetical questions. But I couldn’t help feeling I had leapt from a tightly woven narrative into some sort of contrived Back to the Future sequel.
And before you get on my back, I of course love Back to the Future. Love it. But I didn’t really feel it had a place here. It’s like watching Inspector Morse for an hour and a half, and then Doctor Who suddenly landing and waving his electric screwdriver around. I love them both, Morse and Who, but for different reasons, and I think I may cry if ever they were to trample on each other’s ground.
So yes, that spoiled it ever so slightly. But I continued to fly through the pages, continued to be entertained by the subtle wit that Fry dropped in wherever possible, continued to enjoy the characters her created, continued to race towards the 572nd page and the grand conclusion.
So in all, a good book. An enjoyable book. But one with flaws.
I’d read it again. And again. But maybe not again after that.
Next week, I give the latest Man Booker Prize winner a shot.

Sunday 23 October 2011

A Brief History of Time - a waste of mine

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (Bantam Press: 1988) One of the world’s greatest minds sets out to explain the very big (and very small) theories of the universe, exploring the nature of space time and the possibilities that our understanding of it opens up.
Hmmm.....yes, well.....right....hummmm, ok.
Uh huh.
Not quite sure where to start with this one. No doubt about it, it was a toughie.
I bounded into it full of enthusiasm. We all know about this book, and every time it’s talked of it’s praised for its ability to explain the mysteries of the universe in a populist, accessible way.
Well, that may be a bit harsh. It started out colourfully enough. And there were tid bits of light. The odd anecdote that brought a point to life, the odd passage that suddenly made the previous twenty pages of confusion make sense.
But for the most part, confusion reigned. Confusion and disappointment.
I’ve no doubt part of the fault was my own. I’m not an idiot, but I’m perhaps not the most scientifically minded either. I’m sure one or two people I know would have grasped a lot more of this than I did. But no more than one or two. OK, maybe three. Come to think of it, four, but that’s it. Four people I can think of that might skip through these pages a little more light footed than me, without having to read passages two or three times before they even began to make some sort of sense.
And the shame was that, after a while, I stopped caring. I hate it when that happens with a book. Here are these powerful little collections of pages, capable of huge things, truly huge things. They can (and have) changed worlds, inspired greatness, all that stuff. And here I was, with one of them in my hand, doing nothing other than reading the words in my head one after the other, taking none of it in. The words could have been anything by the end. Which felt like a massive waste.
I tried. I did try. I’ve read scientific books before. Philosophy books. Other books crammed with difficult ideas. But this one, this one drained away my enthusiasm and my patience to the point that (to my embarrassment) I simply stopped caring.
This book may succeed in its scientific mission, but it fails in its literary one. It may accurately put forth the important thoughts of a great mind, but it failed to take me along for the ride.
Which is, after all, what I was promised. I was promised the secrets in the universe packaged up in a way that made them accessible to me.
They were not.
Ouch! Sorry Stephen.
Right, I’ve held up my part of the bargain. Dave told me I couldn’t read and review this book. Well, I have and I did.
And the stakes? Well, Dave lost, so now Dave has to do a guest review.
Over to you, Davey boy.
Next week (presuming that Dave takes more than a week to do his review) an interesting idea from that delightful Stephen Fry.

Sunday 16 October 2011

A Handful of Dust - another maximum

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (Chapman and Hall: 1934). A novel following the fate of Tony Best, a man devoted to his wife and to his family home. As the declining morals of the age begin to impact on his own life, Tony takes everything quite in his stride as his world drifts away.
I’m on record as saying I love PG Wodehouse. I took a bit of stick for it at the time. All just a bit of fun, isn’t it? Just nice gentle comedy, right? Well, yes. Wonderful, sunny, affirming comedy. I don’t see why it should be downgraded as literature just for being funny. I don....
Well, let’s not get into that again. We’ve argued once you and me. Let’s not do it again.
Let’s instead skip into a bit of Evelyn Waugh. I bring up Wodehouse only to introduce Waugh. For me, the two have a lot of similarities. His books live in the same world. The carefree generation.
The (rather large) difference though is that Waugh takes it all a little more seriously. Not that you’d notice if you took every word at face value. It’s every bit as flippant and comedic and silly as Wodehouse. His characters are just as blind and just as wonderful. His plots carry the same eccentricity.
But between those ingredients are more serious issues. There’s so much between the lines in Waugh’s work that the subtext is almost louder than the words you read. Of the handful of Waugh books that I’ve read, this is the one where he packs the most into the space underneath the surface of the narrative.
It’s a skill. It really is. To bring out so much without ever really saying it. Whereas Wodehouse mined the quirkiness of this world for laughs, Waugh does so in a way that’s both amusing and heartbreaking. He makes you laugh at the antics of this valueless generation, but by the time you’ve finished the next line you’re also angry and aching and despairing.
I have no idea how he does it, but he does, and it’s beautiful.
Every inch of his pain from the breakup of his own marriage comes through in A Handful of Dust, but at no stage does he leap into arcs of emotional prose. At no stage does he catalogue the ways in which the hurt manifests itself. At no stage does he depart the whimsical, Wodehousian voice. But it’s all there. All the bitterness. It comes through and it hits you and it makes you feel. All in between the laughs.
Which leaves me with a dilemma. No doubt I love Evelyn Waugh. I’ve read a few of his books now and he’s fast becoming one of my favourite authors (watch out Steinbeck and Wodehouse...) And, of course, I gave Wodehouse a 10GBR score. Can I afford two in one year?
Let’s think about the downsides to this book.
I can’t. I just can’t think of the downsides. I don’t care if it’s another 10GBR and you’ll probably hate me for it. It’s only my second in ten months of reviewing a book a week. I’m afraid you’ll just have to live with it.
I loved this book. You should absolutely definitely positively go out and read it.
And if you don’t love it, come back here and tell me why.
Next week (if I finish it) a book that I’m reading for a bet. If I get through it, the loser will come on here and do a guest review of his own. You have been warned.

Monday 10 October 2011

Blame Dublin

Jason Derulo - took a battering in Dublin...

I know, I know, no blog entry yesterday. One of only a handful missed this year, and caused my a rather eventful weekend in Dublin.

On the plus side, we all got through it alive and we didn't leave a man behind, although there may still be bits of Nathan on the other side of the Irish sea. And I'm not sure Jason Derulo's reputation will ever be the same again.

I promise to post again at the usual time next Sunday. Until then, if you must read something, give paperblogprincess a read

Sunday 2 October 2011

Room - a one-click wonder

Room by Emma Donoghue (Picador: 2010) A novel centred on the life of Jack, a five year old who has been locked up in a single room with his mother for his whole life. As far as he’s concerned, that room is the whole world. Until his mother decides to tell him about outside. The results change both their lives.
Great ideas aren’t very difficult. We’ve all had them. A few beers , a bit of chat, a few “what if...” questions, and you’re pretty soon convinced you’ve come up with a great idea for a book or a film or a telly programme.
The premise is the easy bit. Room has a great one, I think. A book about a five year old boy who’s spent his whole life with his mum in a single room, in a Josef Fritzel sort of a way. Seeing the world through the boy’s eyes as he discovers that there’s a world outside his room – that’s a great idea for a book.
It's what made me buy it. A friend told me about it over a drink or two, and the idea was enough for me to Amazon one-click it there and then (a habit that I really need to get out of - damn one-click is dangerous).
Turning the idea into a book, that’s the difficult part.
It’s been a few days since I finished Room, and I still can’t decide if Donoghue really succeeded with it. There are a lot of things I like. It’s written in the first person, and the voice of the boy is well crafted. Donoghue never really lets the narrative break character. In places, it’s wonderfully fluent and natural. There were one or two places where the strain of maintaining the style came through, but on the whole, it was done convincingly. Which is quite impressive, given Donoghue was never actually a 5 year old boy herself (to the best of my knowledge).
The relationship the boy has with his mum is well explored as well, and Donoghue does a great job of giving some painful insights into the mother’s state of mind. Her pain and the complexity of her inner demons come through strongly, despite it all being presented through the eyes of a five year old boy. A significant trick and one achieved with style.
And the premise. I just can’t get away from the idea of the book. It’s brilliant. The idea of telling this story from the child’s perspective. The idea of a human being whose entire understanding of the world changes so radically and so swiftly. It’s just plain compelling, the more so with the real world Josef Fritzel saga in the back of your mind. I’m sure there are other examples of similar things happening, and that hint of reality gives the story a real edge.
That’s perhaps the one big weakness with this as well though, the reason why I still can’t quite decide if this is a good book or not. The premise is just so compelling that it dominates the whole of the book. I never really felt as if the story had a chance to develop fully. I knew the premise going in, and by the end I didn’t really feel as if it had been moved forward much. There just weren’t really any surprises in here, nothing new that made me feel as if the world was moving.
But I guess it’s not that kind of book. The pages flew by regardless. The idea was so fascinating, and the way it was explored was so expert, that I remained glued to it for long periods.
That’s what I love about this blog. It’s helping me think properly about what I’m reading. I started out writing this entry without a clear idea of what I felt about this book. But I’ve gone and answered my own question there, haven’t I? “I remained glued to it for long periods.” Got to have been a good book then, right? That it left me with a bit of an empty feeling, that it seemed like more could have been done with the premise, that the story seemed a little stunted – none of that matters.
Donoghue has created something that trumped all the other options I had in front of me when deciding how to spend my time. I wanted to pick the book up every day, and I didn’t want to put it down again.
It’s a great premise. It retains a well crafted voice throughout. It successfully represents a number of viewpoints through the eye of just one.
It wasn't perfect. But I can live with the flaws.
Next week, putting down the best seller list for a while to revisit one of my favourite authors for a bit of a tragic comedy. Mind you, I’m also on a stag do next week, so I may have to post the next one a bit late. I’m sure you’ll let me off though. You’re nice like that.