Saturday, November 30, 2013

January 2014

From 'The Guardian': In 1930 a young journalist called Stella Gibbons started a new job on the Lady, "the magazine for gentlewomen", where she applied her versatility as a writer to every subject under the sun, bar cookery, which was the province of a certain Mrs Peel. Soon after her arrival, however, Gibbons also began work on another, more exciting project, a novel – her "masterpiece", she jokingly called it – which she planned to write in spare moments, in a little room at the end of a passage in the Lady's Covent Garden offices. The book was to be a take-off of the "loam and love child" novels then so popular: novels such as Mary Webb's Precious Bane and Sheila Kaye-Smith's Sussex Gorse, in which earthy and primitive types, gloomy happenings and archaic rural landscapes are depicted in prose so overwrought that to call it purple would be a wild understatement ("the kind of story in which peasants have babies in cowsheds and push each other down wells", as Punch put it). She intended to call it Cold Comfort Farm.
Gibbons believed she might have a hit on her hands early on: the girls who typed her manuscript laughed out loud at it, and when it was published in September 1932 so it proved. Everyone adored it, even if one critic was convinced that Stella Gibbons was a pseudonym for Evelyn Waugh. The following year the novel even won the Prix Étranger of the Prix Femina-Vie heureuse, a surprising literary award for a comic novel, and one that infuriated Virginia Woolf ("I was enraged to see they gave the £40 to Gibbons," Woolf wrote to Elizabeth Bowen. "Still, now you and Rosamond [Lehmann] can join in blaming her. Who is she? What is this book?").

From 'The Guardian': Oscar Wao is an unlikely hero, and Díaz's Pulitzer-winning debut novel an improbable triumph. Wao, a second-generation Dominican living in New Jersey, crams his face with pizza and his head with comic books, trying to make up in geekery what he lacks in sex appeal. As Oscar grows from chubby child to uncomfortable young man, the curse that has haunted his family is never far away. Yet even his swelling body is dwarfed by the presence of Rafael Trujillo, whose self-serving rule defined Dominica between 1930 and 1961. Alert to the latest plots and the prettiest girls, "El Jefe" is rarely seen, but his influence is everywhere as his informants feed him half-truths and his men deliver horrific beatings. Díaz's narrative is full of characters who should be caricatures - the ugly duckling turned buxom swan, the timid doctor, the laddish lothario. His skill is to colour them in with humour and compassion, forming a sparkling tale of banter, love and rage. Sharp, sad and gleeful, this passionate and richly rewarding novel deserves its plaudits.

From Bookforum: In 2009, David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist who served as chair of Britain's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), published a paper in a medical journal that offered a provocative thesis: horseback riding, he wrote, was more dangerous than taking ecstasy. Examining the two activities across a range of metrics, Nutt estimated that every 10,000th ecstasy pill leads to an "adverse event," while a rider is injured every 350th episode.
The story went viral and the details of Nutt's analysis were lost in the ensuing media tempest. His own organization tried to distance itself from him, saying that the article was part of his academic work. His governmental bosses were even more displeased: He was soon fired, earning the sobriquet "the scientist who was sacked."
The book doesn't offer a program to win over recalcitrant government officials, but it's loaded with studies and policy suggestions that, if properly applied, would certainly save money and lives. Decriminalization, needle-exchange programs, relaxing onerous restrictions surrounding medical research involving psychedelics and other illegal drugs, even allowing users to bring their drugs to hospitals to be tested (so that officials know what's out there and users know what they're taking)—Nutt's list is long, and his arguments convincing. But politicians, fearful of seeming soft, have shown little appetite for such thinking. For example, when ecstasy took off as a club drug, some venues started selling bottled water and providing "chill-out rooms" where patrons could cool off and hydrate. These measures caused authorities to accuse clubs of "catering to the needs of ecstasy users," and helped to inspire Congress in 2003 to pass the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

From 'The Guardian': 'Perhaps the funniest passage in Walter Isaacson's monumental book about Steve Jobs comes three quarters of the way through. It is 2009 and Jobs is recovering from a liver transplant and pneumonia. At one point the pulmonologist tries to put a mask over his face when he is deeply sedated. Jobs rips it off and mumbles that he hates the design and refuses to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he orders them to bring five different options for the mask so that he can pick a design he likes. Even in the depths of his hallucinations, Jobs was a control-freak and a rude sod to boot. Imagine what he was like in the pink of health. As it happens, you don't need to: every discoverable fact about how Jobs, ahem, coaxed excellence from his co-workers is here.
As Isaacson makes clear, Jobs wasn't a visionary or even a particularly talented electronic engineer. But he was a businessman of astonishing flair and focus, a marketing genius, and – when he was getting it right, which wasn't always – had an intuitive sense of what the customer would want before the customer had any idea. He was obsessed with the products, rather than with the money: happily, as he discovered, if you get the products right, the money will come.' 

From 'The Book Haven': 'Lonesome Dove is an excellent rebuttal to the pretty, shiny, clean perceptions of cowboy life. The events in the story actually seem quite real. It isn't a depressing book, but the tragedies aren't sugar coated, either. There is some good, some bad, and some things you just can't explain. Such is real life, and that's why I have a lot of respect for the author and his work.

The book is  entertaining, yet draining. Though it is about a bunch of hardened men, the story is very moving and descriptive. As a reader, I could almost taste the dust of the cattle drive. I found myself feeling the same solitary feelings the men experienced out on the plains. At the end of the book, I became exhausted as though I had driven those cattle myself. Strange, but true. Mr. McMurtry's writing can have that affect on people.

Lonesome Dove is not a book for sissies. At 900+ paperback pages, it will demand all of your attention for a considerable amount of time. If you feel you're up to the challenge, I highly recommend you take the journey into the Old West. It's worth the trip.'

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

From the Guardian: 'As the book opens, Tony is spending a good deal of his time thinking about his relationship with his schoolfriend Adrian Finn, who committed suicide as a young man. Tony is Pooterishly content with his life and mediocrity (exemplified by his 2:1 from Bristol), which he contrasts with Finn's burning and forensic intelligence. Even as a schoolboy, Finn demonstrated a precocious understanding of philosophy and history. He said that "he hates the way the English have of not being serious about being serious" – words quoted twice in the novel. This is a Barnesian theme too, lying behind much of his work, fiction and nonfiction, even when it is at its most playful.
This is a very fine book, skilfully plotted, boldly conceived, full of bleak insight into the questions of ageing and memory, and producing a very real kick – or peripeteia – at its end. As Kermode wrote: "At some very low level we all share certain fictions about time, and they testify to the continuity of what is called human nature…" Barnes has achieved, in this shortish account of a not very attractive man, something of universal importance.'

From The Independent: 'Paul Auster began this memoir one month before his 64th birthday; it is the meditation of a man about to enter old age, looking back on his life.

Those who admire Auster's novels will find all his usual virtues on display here: the bright, lucid style, the emphasis on the concrete, the decent, liberal sensibilities, the fascination with art, the profluence that pulls you along through the story, desperate to learn what is going to happen next. Auster tells his story largely through the experiences of his body: the foods he's eaten, the walks he's taken, the wine he's drunk and the cigars he's smoked, the accidents and injuries he's had, his sexual experiences, the sports he's played, the fights he got into as a boy (until he learned that he could end any fight in seconds by kneeing his opponent in the balls). He writes of houses that he's lived in, quarrels he's had, the love of family and friends, and the slow march of age. It is a personal memoir, but much of what he relates is universal, and bears out Pope's dictum that true art lies in saying "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well-expressed".

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

August 2013

From Wikipedia:

 The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins is a 19th-century British epistolary novel, generally considered the first detective novel in the English language. The story was originally serialized in Charles Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round. The Moonstone and The Woman in White are considered Wilkie Collins’ best novels. Besides creating many of the ground rules of the detective novel, The Moonstone also reflected Collins’ enlightened social attitudes in his treatment of the Indians and the servants in the novel.

From a reviewer:
I’m still trying to decide if I liked The Moonstone better or The Woman in White… but it’s a silly question, really.  Both books are fun reads, if you can say that about Victorian novels the size of these two books.  You can see how they were real cliffhanger reads at the time, and why Collins was so successful.  They are full of mystery and adventure and – I think – are not meant to be taken too seriously.

 Part of a review by Martin Amis:

When, in 1960, Anthony Burgess sat down to write “A Clockwork Orange,” we may be pretty sure that he had a handful of certainties about what lay ahead of him. He knew the novel would be set in the near future (and that it would take the standard science-fictional route, developing, and fiercely exaggerating, current tendencies). He knew his vicious antihero, Alex, would narrate, and that he would do so in an argot or idiolect the world had never heard before (he eventually settled on a blend of Russian, Romany and rhyming slang). He knew it would have something to do with Good and Bad, and Free Will. And he knew, crucially, that Alex would harbor a highly implausible passion: an ecstatic love of classical music.
We see the wayward brilliance of that last decision when we reacquaint ourselves, after half a century, with Burgess’ leering, sneering, sniggering, sniveling young sociopath (a type unimprovably caught by Malcolm McDowell in Stanley Kubrick’s uneven but justly celebrated film). “It wasn’t me, brother, sir” Alex whines at his social worker, who has hurried to the local jailhouse: “Speak up for me, sir, for I’m not so bad.” But Alex is so bad; and he knows it. The opening chapters of “A Clockwork Orange” still deliver the shock of the new: a red streak of gleeful evil.

.... It is a book that can still be read with steady pleasure, continuous amusement and — at times — incredulous admiration.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

From a review found on Amazon "The Master and Margarita," Mikhail Bulgakov's sparkling fantasy of Satan's visit to Moscow under the guise of a magician named Professor Woland, must rank as one of the greatest acts of literary heroism of the past century. Bulgakov wrote the novel in the late 1930s, under what was arguably the most repressive government ever on earth--the Soviet Union at the height of Stalin's power. When even the mildest criticism of the regime led to a death sentence, Bulgakov dared to place all the cruelty, venality and treachery of 1930s Russia under a microscope. The book was of course unpublishable in Bulgakov's lifetime; it only appeared in its original form nearly a half-century after the author's death. We can chuckle at the wicked tricks Woland and his retinue play on various arrogant, incompetent Soviet officials, but knowledge of the power wielded by the real-life counterparts of those officials gives the chuckles a grim undertone indeed. The titular characters don't even appear until the book is nearly half-over: the Master, a despondent writer sent to an asylum after his novel about Pontius Pilate is rejected by the Soviet writers' union, and Margarita, the beautiful woman who loves him and will literally go to Hell for his sake. Through their dealings with Woland, Bulgakov exalts the power of the imagination, the need for the spiritual dimension in life and the courage to live by one's own convictions--virtues that Stalinist Russia strove, mostly successfully, to undermine. Interspersed with the tale of Woland, the Master and Margarita are chapters from the Master's novel, depicting Pontius Pilate's dealings on the day of the Crucifixion with Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth), Levi Matvei (St. Matthew) and Judas of Kerioth (Iscariot). The leading theme of those chapters is the essential nature of humankind: are people good, as Yeshua argues, or bad, as Pilate does? Bulgakov never answers this question, and Christian fundamentalists will be outraged to find Levi Matvei and Woland at the end to be allies, albeit uneasy ones. But in the Stalinist moral vacuum that denied the existence of both Heaven and Hell, how could they avoid working together? Bulgakov insists that people have moral choices, and that the greatest evil comes from abdicating those choices, as Stalin not only encouraged but demanded.

French naturalist Dr. Aronnax embarks on an expedition to hunt down a sea monster, only to discover instead the Nautilus, a remarkable submarine built by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. Together Nemo and Aronnax explore the underwater marvels, undergo a transcendent experience amongst the ruins of Atlantis, and plant a black flag at the South Pole. But Nemo's mission is one of revenge-and his methods coldly efficient

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

'The Ghost Writer introduces Nathan Zuckerman in the 1950s; a budding writer infatuated with the Great Books, discovering the contradictory claims of literature and experience while an overnight guest in the secluded New England farmhouse of his literary idol, E. I. Lonoff.

At Lonoff's, Zuckerman meets Amy Bellette, a haunting young woman of indeterminate foreign background who turns out to be a former student of Lonoff's and who may also have been his mistress. Zuckerman, with his active, youthful imagination, wonders if she could be the paradigmatic victim of Nazi persecution. If she were, it might change his life...

The first volume of the trilogy and epilogue Zuckerman Bound, The Ghost Writer is about the tensions between literature and life, artistic truthfulness and conventional decency - and about those implacable practitioners who live with the consequences of sacrificing one for the other.'

'The Germans must have a term for it. Doppel­gedanken, perhaps: the sensation, when reading, that your own mind is giving birth to the words as they appear on the page. Such is the ego that in these rare instances you wonder, “How could the author have known what I was thinking?” Of course, what has happened isn’t this at all, though it’s no less astonishing. Rather, you’ve been drawn so deftly into another world that you’re breathing with someone else’s rhythms, seeing someone else’s visions as your own.

One of the pleasures of reading Alice Munro derives from her ability to impart this sensation. It’s the sort of gift that requires enormous modesty on the part of the writer, who must shun pyrotechnics for something less flashy: an empathy so pitch-­perfect as to be nearly undetectable. But it’s most arresting in the hands of a writer who isn’t too modest — one possessed of a fearless, at times, fearsome, ambition.
The collection’s 10 stories take on some sensational subjects. In fact, a quick tally yields all the elements of pulp fiction: violence, adultery, extreme cruelty, duplicity, theft, suicide, murder. But while in pulp fiction the emotional climax coincides with the height of external drama, a ­Munro story works according to a different scheme. Here the nominally momentous event is little more than an anteroom to an echo chamber filled with subtle and far-reaching thematic reverberations. '

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

March 2013

 From 'The Independent':

'The Book of Dave is a conflation of two potentially discrete books. The first is an oddly realistic, if gleefully supercharged, account of the declining years of Dave Rudman, a North London cabbie trying vainly to prise his son from the grasp of an absconding wife while operating as a sort of cosmic symbol for cab-land culture. The second is a dystopian vision of our northern metropolis in the 2500s, in which the "Six Families" inhabit the deliquescing island of "Ham", while the outlines of "New London" lie downstream in the murk.
Uniting these two deeply uneasy worlds is the book of the title, the self-aggrandising monologue hidden by vengeful, put-upon Dave in a Hampstead garden centuries before. From this the Hamsters derive their behavioural tools and spiritual understanding, greeting each other with the salutation "Ware2, guv?", acknowledging their daily deliverance from harm with the formula "Thanks Dave, for picking us up". Ham's protocols, its vocabulary, its fourth dimension, are extremely funny: pre-maternal women are "opares"; the day divides into three "tariffs"; while, in recognition of Dave's domestic difficulties, fathers and mothers live in separate accommodation, transferring offspring at "Changeover".'
As to what The Book of Dave is "about", the satire of revealed religion promised by the blurb is the least of its attractions, being conducted with all the subtlety of a power-hose trained on concrete. Struggling to get out from beneath this conventional assault on that dim-witted part of the populace which has the effrontery to believe in God is a wide-ranging novel - microscopic and panoramic at the same time - of London life, harking back to Richard Jeffries' After London and ending in the same orbit as Patrick Hamilton's Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky.

'Serena Frome – blond, "rather gorgeous" and "rhymes with plume" – graduates with a third in maths. A speed-reader of novels, she toys at first with an English degree but is persuaded by her mother that it's her "duty as a woman" to grapple instead with numbers. At Cambridge she falls, in an equally dutiful, quasi-somnambulant way, into an affair with a much older, much married history professor and finds herself being groomed for an interview with MI5. When the professor dumps her – literally in a layby off the A45 – she is devastated. She starts working for MI5 anyway but is disappointed to find herself doing mere grunt work as junior assistant officer in a "grubby little office" in Curzon Street.
Continuing in her spare time to work her way through the cream of contemporary fiction (in paperback: she can't afford hardbacks) she's startled to find herself summoned upstairs to face a roomful of men: "'We understand… you're rather well up on modern writing – literature, novels, that sort of thing – bang up to date on, what's the word… contemporary literature... yes, awfully well read and quite in with the scene.'"
Happy to let them think she's "in with the scene", Serena accepts an exciting mission. She is to immerse herself in the work of a young novelist called TH Haley, then meet him and assess whether or not he should be offered the chance of a stipend – "enough to keep a chap from having to do a day job for a year or two, even three". A struggling novelist's dream, in other words.'

Friday, January 25, 2013

February 2013

One review below.
'All That I Am is a masterful and exhilarating exploration of bravery and betrayal, of the risks and sacrifices some people make for their beliefs, and of heroism hidden in the most unexpected places.

When eighteen-year-old Ruth Becker visits her cousin Dora in Munich in 1923, she meets the love of her life, the dashing young journalist Hans Wesemann, and eagerly joins in the heady activities of the militant political Left in Germany. Ten years later, Ruth and Hans are married and living in Weimar Berlin when Hitler is elected chancellor of Germany. Together with Dora and her lover, Ernst Toller, the celebrated poet and self-doubting revolutionary, the four become hunted outlaws overnight and are forced to flee to London. Inspired by the fearless Dora to breathtaking acts of courage, the friends risk betrayal and deceit as they dedicate themselves to a dangerous mission: to inform the British government of the very real Nazi threat to which it remains willfully blind. All That I Am is the heartbreaking story of these extraordinary people, who discover that Hitler’s reach extends much further than they had thought.

Gripping, compassionate, and inspiring, this remarkable debut novel reveals an uncommon depth of humanity and wisdom. Anna Funder has given us a searing and intimate portrait of courage and its price, of desire and ambition, and of the devastating consequences when they are thwarted.'

Link to interesting article about the author:

Review of 'Infinite Jest' from The Independent.

'For all David Foster Wallace's formidable and, to a bunch of woolly humanities graduates, estrangingly mathematical intelligence, when my friends and I first read 'Infinite Jest' about a year after it came out in 1996, we felt the instantaneous devotee's delusion of ownership. This guy was ours. Here was a way of writing that restored to literary English the crackle of contemporaneity it lacked, absorbing the registers of psychotherapy and street slang and hard-core analytic maths into a style that might have sagged under the weight of its own syntactic ambition had it not been underwritten, always, by Wallace's whistle-bright logical clarity, comic inventiveness and unexpected largeness of heart. When, a few years later, I began to write myself, it took a conscious effort to wean myself off the rhythms and loop-the-loop habits of mind of a writer to whom, judging by my concave-spined and painstakingly sellotaped copy of 'Infinite Jest', I had perhaps become a little addicted.

And addiction, of course, is the subject of 'Infinite Jest'. To TV and film, to drugs and alcohol, to the anaesthetic pleasures of contemporary America: like and unlike Martin Amis's John Self, Wallace's characters are addicted to the 21st century. Set in an indeterminate near-future in which time itself is subject to corporate sponsorship – the events of the book mostly take place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment – the plot concerns the lost master copy of a film so entertaining it induces a state of eventually fatal catatonia in its viewers. Hal Incandenza, an academically gifted teenage tennis prodigy at a Boston sports academy, and Don Gately, a recovering Demerol addict at a nearby halfway house, become involved in the search for the film.
This is only the main narrative thrust in a book that derives its power from a thousand incidental victories: the brilliant riff on videophone technology, the heartbreaking story of bedraggled drag queen Poor Tony Krause, who weighs in at 50 kilos and has "skin...the color of summer squash", the street-fight between Gately's fellow-inmates and a cell of Québécois separatists, in which Gately is shot and sees the gunman "drawing a second bead on Don's big head... with the bore's lightless eye and a little pubic curl of smoke coming up from the vented muzzle".
The gun's "lightless eye", the "pubic curl of smoke": DFW's style is so relaxed, and so sparsely punctuated, that the eye speeds past phrases another writer might have cushioned in commas, as jewels worthy of the reader's special attention. Wallace once said that the goal of modern fiction was to "take it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic", and "ask how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn't have a price". And this insistent faith in human generosity is enacted in his talent, in the superabundant felicities of his prose: he gives them away.