Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Elmore Leonard - Glitz

In some ways this is a fairly bog standard detective thriller, but because it reads so easily, and seems to have avoided some of the cliches, it's better than you might think. According to Wikipedia, Leonard's "two major influences" are Gangsters and the Detroit Tigers baseball team. But the latter is absent totally from the novel, and the former is only there in passing.

In common with many writers in this genre, Leonard seems to avoid complicated character portrayal, except with his hero. Everyone else is either a bad, corrupt flawed person or an innocent waiting to be hurt. Needless to say the good guy prevails.

Unusually for this type of book, there are some memorable scenes. For instance, the moment when the hero, Vincent, takes the ashes of the murdered woman he loved, home to her family...

"Vincent presented the stainless steel urn to the grandmother. She hesitated before taking it and passed it on quickly as she saw her reflection in the polished metal. Each woman in turn looked away to avoid seeing herself in the urn, passing it on and making the sign of the cross"

Sometimes, detective fiction can try to hard to emulate the observational writing style of an author like Raymond Chandler, but at least in this case it doesn't feel too forced.

This book also has the perfect nasty evil bloke. Terry, the murderous rapist, some of who's crimes are a little to detailed here, is out to get his revenge on Vincent, who locked him up years before. The other characters revolve around this central theme like planets around the sun, affecting the courses of the main protagonists, but never really coming into proper sight. It makes for a enjoyable, but ultimately predictable read.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Robert Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land

Recently I briefly mentioned Robert Heinlein in a post, and following on from that and a comment made by Stefanie I decided to re-read "Stranger in a Strange Land" [SIASL] a book that I was very impressed with as a teenager, and certainly, from my later reading of Heinlein, probably his best.

Heinlein uses the story of Michael Valentine Smith in two ways. Firstly he produces the interesting and clever story of the "Man from Mars" visiting Earth and struggling to comprehend human ways and then uses the story to criticise many aspects of society and secondly he uses the characters as a platform to expound his own ideas.

SIASL2It should be said at this point, that many of Heinlein's criticisms of the role of church, organised religion and the state are ones I share, though I think his solutions and ideas (of rampant individualism, his sexism and his homophobia) are abhorrent to me. However, clearly as he was writing this, his own personal ideologies haven't been fully fleshed out, and this makes SIASL somewhat less heavy going then some of his later novels (Too Sail Beyond the Sunset in particular).

The book is well written, but a bit like struggling through treacle in places (did I really read all the long sermons that Jubal - Heinlein personified - gives in my teenage years?)

The basic story is good and holds up well compared to more modern Sci-Fi, when you clear the junk away in your head, and certainly there is much here that will upset and shock those high-up in the church.

Heinlein predicted the world of huge televised churches and rich super-preachers of today. As an aside, I am surprised by how badly Heinlein predicted the society of the near future. His characters still use faxes, computers receive only a single mention, and any idea of person to person communication, surely one of the easiest things to predict, is absence. Also, the idea that they send humans to Mars, before robot probes made me laugh. But in Heinlein's defence he wasn't writing THAT sort of Sci-Fi.

All in all this is still an interesting read, holding up well compared to Sci-Fi today. It's chief interest though, is as a starting point for Heinlein's political trajectory, which ended with him writing some dreadfully reactionary old tosh. Though there are glimmers of this. This quote by the character Jill shocked me as I didn't remember reading it before. It gives an idea of where Heinlein was heading.

"Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's at least partly her own fault"

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Angus Calder - The Myth of the Blitz

What springs to mind when you you hear about the Blitz? Probably, if you have lived in Britain for any length of time, you'll imagine chirpy cockneys standing together against the might of Hitler's armies. You might well think of pictures of the contrails caused by the dogfights as Spitfires battled Messerschmitts in gloriously sunny skies over Kent.

Even if you don't think of these things, you'll have heard of them, and you will also have heard of the way that the whole of England pulled together and stood united, uncomplaining against the common foe.

Angus Calder's book "The Myth of the Blitz" would no doubt leave many retired colonels spluttering into their Daily Telegraphs, because he seeks to examine the story of the Blitz, as it is normally told, and unsurprisingly he finds that it is not without fault.

First and foremost he demolishes the idea of unity. Firstly the idea of class unity is taken apart - unsurprisingly the workers worked longer and harder, and suffered more (no deep bomb shelters for the East Enders, the tube stations had to be occupied, in a struggle often led by the Communist Party).

Calder examines how the "Myth" was created, even as the battles and bombings were being fought. From the moment Churchill made his speeches (hated by many in the Tory party) he was part of weaving a story, backed up by the media and filmmakers, of plucky little England.

It's interesting for instance, how even shortly after the Battle of Britain, observers describe the lovely summer, even though the weather was unusually bad. This is important, because it shows how quickly particular images and ideas took root in popular consciousness.

Calder uses many little examples to proves his sweeping points (how many fishermen refused to travel to Dunkirk, and how even the ones that did helped little - but that doesn't stop the myth of the small ships being created). He then discusses the idea of "Deep England" as the backbone to the myth, from both the left and the right.

This part is much harder to totally agree with. The theory is that a vision of England as a pastoral, classless country with thatched roofs and small villages is what was created to try and pull the English together. No doubt there is some truth in this, but I think he gives it too much importance. You can read more in the Wikipedia article here.

Either way this is an important book, pulling away as it does the lies and half-truths told about one of the most important periods in recent English history and pointing the way to a better understanding of the social and political forces that ended up shaping the later half of the last century.

Related Reviews

Angus Calder - The People's War: Britain 1939 - 1945
Houston - Went the Day Well?
Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Gluckstein (ed) - Fighting on all Fronts: Popular Resistance in the Second World War

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Iain Banks - Raw Spirit

There comes a time (or a book) in most author's canon, when devoted readers realise that the author they have loved for a long time isn't perfect. I well remember the moment I realised as a teenager that Robert Heinlein wasn't the amazing visionary I'd thought, but a rather bigoted dirty old man.

Iain Banks will never be described like that. Nor, I hope, will the rest of his literary output sink as low in my opinion as this one.

"Raw Spirit" is a travel book about drink and life. It's subtitled "In search of the perfect dram", and is about Banks' journey around the Scottish distilleries that produce, with centuries old practices and care, his favourite tipple.

Unfortunately, while the book has many interesting points and amusing anecdotes. That's really all it has got. It reads a bit like the conversation a sober person has with a close friend who has drank too much. So Banks' rambling anecdotes are amusing, but only as amusing as those that every group of friends has.

The interesting bits of history of the various glens, towns and distilleries are short and far between. And you have to be a real "petrol-head" to find the overlong eulogies to cars, motorbikes and roads of any real interest.

Banks rightly wears his politics on his sleeve. He's an unreconstructed socialist, and he polemicises against the Iraq war throughout the book (though there is little new here, and at times you feel that Banks was the only one who opposed the conflict).

This opposition is good, but it tends to get on your nerves as he discusses once again how much money he's spent on drink, cars, motorbikes and the like - this is hardly a book for the working-class Glaswegian who likes whiskey and wants to find the perfect dram - I suspect they'll go away feeling slightly worthless.

It's a real shame the book turned out like this, I suspect it was envisaged very different, it's a long way from Iain Banks' novels in style and substance and I can only hope that his latest offering, The Algebraist is a return to form.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird

It is almost true to say that I was embarrassed into reading this book. I got sent one of those lists of "a hundred greatest novels" or something, and when I mentioned I hadn't read this to several people, I was mocked(!) for ignoring one of the greatest pieces of literature ever.

And indeed it is. It's an easy read, but filled with discussion points and great thoughts and ideas - a quick Google search on the title will bring you up dozens of pages discussing it, because it is so often (in Britain at least) picked for English students.

It centres on attitudes to racism, through a rape trial in a small town in the Deep South. What makes it superb, is that the racism, and the attitudes of the townsfolk - racist, liberal or black are described through the naive but hopeful eyes of Scout, an eight year old girl.

Scout's innocence helps emphasise the absurdity and awfulness of racism, and makes the outcome of the trail even more distinct.

Read this novel before you're embarrassed too. Oh, anyone know if it's ever taught in the Deep South today?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Peter Linebaugh & Marcus Rediker - The Many Headed Hydra

As he stood on the scaffold waiting to hang for his part in trying to organise a revolutionary army to seize power in London and declare a republic, in February 1803, Col. Edward Despard made this powerful speech

“Fellow citizens, I come here…after serving my country – faithfully, honourably…for thirty years and upwards to suffer death upon a scaffold for a crime of which I protest I am not guilty. I solemnly declare that I am no more guilty of it that any of you who may be hearing me.

But though his Majesty’s ministers know as well as I do that I am not guilty yet they avail themselves of a legal pretext to destroy a man, because he has been a friend to truth, to liberty and to justice. Because he has been a friend to the poor and the oppressed. But Citizens. I hope and tryst, notwithstanding my fate and the fate of those who no doubt will soon follow me, that the princriples of freedom, of humanity and of justice will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny and delusion, and every principle inimical to the interests of the human race."

Despard was one in a long line of people who developed and fought for freedom and justice on both sides of the Atlantic. Linebaugh and Rediker’s book documents the forgotten stories of those who, from before the English revolution to the American war of independence and beyond believed that “the poorest man hath has true a title and just right to the land as the richest man”.

One of the most powerful sections in the book is the chapter on piracy – originally encouraged as a way of undermining Spanish power in the west Indies, the sailors of the British ships often realised that piracy was away out of their rotten life – often little more than slavery itself.

The pirates of history are not the stuff of Hollywood legends – rather their revolts produced democratic ships with captains accountable to crews and collective decision making. They also shared the spoils out properly – irrespective of the rank of crewman – or his colour.

This last point is important – many of the revolts, uprising and mutinies involved black, white and Indian standing shoulder to shoulder, at the height of slavery the poor of the world understood the need to stand together long before the Wilberforces of the world had ever thought through the moral rights and wrongs (Despard for instance had a black wife, who was a fellow campaigner and comrade for many years, at a time when many in "polite society" would have considered a black person fit only for servitude).

I can’t recommend this book enough. It is difficult in places – particularly if your knowledge of the English Revolution is limited as mine is to the battles between Parliament and Crown.

This is not surprising because this is how it is taught and the authors are trying to rescue a forgotten history. This is why one thing that may strike progressives today as unusual is the role of religion – the bible is quoted, read and debated time and time again.

But often the radicals of past centuries only had their religion and the bible to interpret the world with, and they searched hard to find the real meaning behind the words.

This is why so much of those who fled to the New World, fearing persecution at home, hoped that they could build a promised land. It wasn’t to be, but their half-forgotten struggles to build a new Jerusalem are brought to life by this excellent book, if only to inspire us to try again.

Related Reviews

Rediker - The Amistad Rebellion
Rediker - The Slave Ship
Rediker - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Rediker & Linebaugh - The Many Headed Hydra 

Monday, August 01, 2005

J.K. Rowling - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

A few days ago, I did a simple piece of original research - to see whether there were now more people reading the latest Harry Potter novel on the London Underground than people reading one of Dan Brown's awful bestsellers. I was pleased to note, that Harry Potter was winning.

Pleased, because I refuse to turn my nose up at Ms Rowling's creation. True, it's not great literature, true it's a children's series read avidly by adults. True, there are lots of things to be said about it's marketing, and I ain't convinced that simply getting more children to read Harry Potter improves their general consumption of books.

But there is no doubt that Harry Potter offers adults and children the thing that everyone needs once in a while - escapism.

These debates have been explored elsewhere, I don't want to repeat what others have said. does the latest book compare and is it worth it? Well, it's fun in the way that the earlier books are. As other reviewers have said it's not as refined as the earlier ones, the themes are perhaps more adult-like (though the characters have now reached 16 and 17, so that's not surprising), in places it reads like it's been written more for the adult audience than younger readers.

But the main criticism I'd have and it's been made elsewhere is that this is a filler novel. It ties up some loose ends (creates a few more) and is all about setting the scene for the final book. Given that the wizarding world (and the human one too - we meet the British Prime Minister in the first couple of chapters) is entering the final showdown between good and evil, it was always going to be unlikely that too much of the novel would be taken up with the day to day goings on at Hogwarts, the wizard school.

So the termtime pattern from the earlier novels (arrival at Hogwarts, various birthdays, Quidditch matches and Christmas) is there more as a backdrop to the main story line. But Rowling has wisely kept this in, after all it's what made the earlier books so original and fascinating to the earlier readers. Some of it though is a little bit clumsey - there are a couple of things added in earlier in the book simply to make the ending work better, whats the old Latin phrase that sounds like a spell? Ah yes. Deux ex machina.

Ultimately of course, anyone who enjoyed the earlier books will read this and it's sequel. But I hope that Ms Rowling and her publisher don't rush the next one out. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince would have benefited from a little more work.

I'm not going to say more. If you like Potter, you'll read it. If you poo-poo it you won't and little I can say will change that.