Tuesday, 8 January 2008

5 Reviews

Well isn’t this value blogging? Five book reviews for the price of one.

I shall review the five books I have read in recent weeks in order from worst to best.

Countdown. Countdown. Countdown. Bdrdrdrdrdrdr... Count DOWN!

At Number 5, Mere Anarchy by Woody Allen.

I have an old book of his short stories called Side Effects and it’s hilarious, and being that he hasn’t made a decent film since Crimes And Misdemeanours I was looking forward to this new collection of stories. It was a complete dud. It lacked all the humour and brilliant situations of his previous work and these were replaced with clever wordplays, amusing anecdotes and characters nobody could possibly identify with. I can get that sort of stuff out of Radio National for free if I want but this book set me back $24.95. There was one funny story near the end that echoed the magic realism of his previous short stories, but it came and went in under four pages.

I give it an E.

At number 4, How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton.

I’m a big fan of this pompous baldy, but this was his first book and you can tell. It lacks purpose. Or rather, it lacks the result of its purpose, or something. I learnt a bit about Proust, but not much from Proust, which was the bit de Botton promised in the title. My life was not changed. I read the book, woke up the next day still single, still employed, all previous opinions on life and the universe wholly intact and the cat wanted her breakfast as normal. Somewhere, a fly buzzed. The only benefit I got from the book is that I can drop trivial facts about Proust at parties and sound learned.

Pity I don’t go to many parties.

I give it a D.

At number 3, After Dark by Haruki Murukami.

He’s the dude that wrote Kafka By The Shore which I really liked. This is his next novel, following on from that massive success. He should’ve quit while he was ahead. This book is as easy to read and as more-ish as Kafka, but lacks some essential ingredients... like, characters we admire, situations we’re interested in and a storyline. I suppose it’s an okay book, but next to his last novel it’s rubbish. Then again, I think the same of Abbey Road following on from The White Album.

It’s all set on the one night. There’s a young chick in a place that reminded me of Stalactites in Melbourne (24 hour restaurant, not McDonalds / fast food) who is joined by a young musician who she kinda knows. Meanwhile her sister is asleep, and has been for months. The sleeping sister is swallowed by her own TV. Then later on, a nerdy IT bloke punches up a Chinese prostitute and her pimps are angry. The young girl from the restaurant helps translate some Chinese to Japanese and then hangs out at the cheap motel where the hooker was bashed, chatting away with the landlady, a former weightlifter. Then she goes back to the restaurant and chats some more with the musician, then goes home and gives her sister a kiss (she has since been spat back out by her own TV). End of book.

The point? I dunno. Maybe it’s: A lot can happen in one night. Or maybe it’s: If we talk through our problems, many things can be solved. Or maybe it’s: Night brings out in us the kookiness, the genius, the sense of abstract we so rarely tap into during daylight.

Or maybe he was just under pressure to write another book.

I give it a C.

At number 2 is Shakespeare by Bill Bryson.

This is more a long essay than a book, but it cost me $29.99 so I’ll treat it like a book. Very, very interesting. It’s a clever idea. Rather than write a book, like so many others have done, filled with assumptions and guesses (even educated ones) about the life of Shakespeare, Bryson simply records facts. It is a book that details what is factual about the life of Shakespeare... as in, things we have proof of, records, statements and so on. What starts to sink in after about 10 pages is puzzlement as to why anybody would think somebody else wrote his plays. As Bryson himself puts it, “The only absence of contemporary records is not of documents connecting Shakespeare to his works but of documents connecting any other human being to them.” There’s an industry of thought that suggests someone else must have written his works but they have not one piece of evidence, or even a clue, or a hint (I nearly used the word ‘skerrick’ then... I hate that word. I also hate the word ‘horse’. Such a crass word for a noble creature. I suggest ‘Equinea’ or something. I digress). And yet, there’s plenty to connect Shakespeare to his works, you know, like records and evidence of him as being the author. Bryson concedes that after his death his works may have been edited, and that even in his lifetime, actors and producers and other writers may have changed lines and whole scenes even, and some plays may have been co-authored, but even this is loose conjecture. Shakespeare wrote the plays of Shakespeare. That’s just fact, and it was good to read a book that presented that fact so eloquently.

It’s a neat, tidy booklet that arms one against the whackos who love suggesting someone else wrote his plays. These are usually the same people that believe Jews run the world, we never landed on the moon and September 11 was planned by the Bush administration.

One other little curiosity he talks about is all the new words that Shakespeare came up with. Much has been written on this topic, but Bryson again concedes that they may not have been Shakespeare’s inventions as such – it’s just that his plays are the first to record many words that are now common in English. But one little gift he seems to have given the language of his own volition is the prefix un-. What was once, ‘Cannot be imagined’ could now become ‘unimaginable’. Add to that: Unknown, undress, undo... Undo – there’s a good one. “Undo your shoelaces” must have been something like, “Loosen and separate your shoelaces.” Apparently, he came with the suffix of un for reasons of rhyme and meter. I found that interesting.

I give it a B-.

Which brings us to Number One, and it is Number One by a country mile. Hell, more than a country mile. It’s number one by the length of the Nullarbor.

Essays by George Orwell.

I’ll mark it now. A++. Fucking fantastic.

His essays, roughly, fall under the following topics. Politics, English society, literature and art, history.

I think every person who can read should read these essays, but unless you take an interest in at least three of the above four topics then you won’t get anything out of it. You go back to The Da Vinci Code or your Steven King books.

There’s no point trying to discuss individual essays in review form – there’s 41 essays in the book (Penguin, 2000) and the topics are wide and varied and really, every single essay could be reviewed on its own merits. But what I can do is list the reasons why I so admire the bloke and loved this book.

1. He wrote beautifully. So clearly, so concisely. In one brilliant essay entitled Politics And The English Essay written in 1947 he talked a bit about how businesses, journalists, governments and so on deliberately foul up the language with a lot of gobbledygook – somewhat pre-empting the current obsession with mission statements, weasel words and empty phrasing – but he fell short of praising his own usage of the language. I’ll do that for him. He wrote superbly, sharply. Rather than taking either the post-modern or ‘high-art’ options of making simple things sound complex, ol’ Georgey did what great writers are meant to do – take complex things and simplify them using sharp and effective sentences. Hemingway could do it as well. So could Steinbeck and recently, Raymond Carver. The beauty of Orwell though is his...

2. Relevance. Steinbeck and Hemingway touched on politics, but George Orwell dived in head first. Reading his essays now, in 2008, I find that what he is saying is just as relevant now as it was when we wrote them. So often, when discussing attitudes amongst the left-wing and right-wing groups of England I thought to myself, “If I change one word here, or even one name then that sentence right there could go into any publication tomorrow.” Here’s one example: He speaks of the writer Chesterton and says, “...when he looked outwards into the international field, he could forsake his principles without even noticing that he was doing so. Thus, his almost mystical belief in the virtues of democracy did not prevent him from admiring Mussolini.” I thought of all the anti-Bush protestors that are vehemently pro-democracy in Australia, but for some reason support extreme fascists like Hezbollah, Hamas and Sunni insurgents in their fight against the US. That’s one example. There’s thousands scattered through this book of essays. But it’s not all politics. Orwell is quite often very...

3. Funny. One of the first essays I was pointed to concerns Dali. Orwell says, “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.” As a friend pointed out, we think the same of Shane Warne. Orwell wrote many essays about writers and artists and he obviously thought long and hard about what he had to say, but it’s obvious that he was having fun with these non-political essays. He let himself go, linguistically, and came out with outrageous statements, often controversial, but always playful. He even wrote one essay in defence of English cooking, and one other is devoted solely to the examination of how much time and money he’d invested in purchasing and reading books (with a note on the comparative ‘worth’ of the investment), and then providing tables and charts to compare these statistics with the time and money (and subsequent worth) he’d invested in cigarettes and beer. I wish I came up with that. He is also...

4. Brave. I don’t mean physically (though he did trot off voluntarily to the Spanish Civil War and fought), but artistically. He takes risks. 1984 and Animal Farm are the most obvious examples of this, but you can see that these two are not just freak occurrences at the end of his life. Right from the start he wrote bravely – writing about what he thought and believed, and challenging all accepted thoughts, and writing in a style that was very much his own. He took on the hard targets. Anyone can pick on Paris Hilton but who’s going to hold TS Eliot to account? Orwell. He’s not interested in soft targets or petty observations, or the minutiae of our existence (which all ‘serious’ movies and novels seem to be about these days – yeah I’m looking at you American Beauty). He didn’t care for the trifles that Good Weekend make a living out of capturing. He said, “Right, let’s look at anti-semitism.” He said, “I don’t think Dickens was that bright.” He said, “Let’s look at the way the English Language is dying.” He charges at big themes with guns blazing, lands heavily on grand platforms and shakes them, spends all day pondering not where his keys are but matters of global importance, and did all of this in a manner that I personally find quite often breath-taking. I’m a fan. Unashamedly a fan. Finally, he also manages to...

5. Make topics that I know nothing about seem very interesting. I never cared for toads, I've never read Swift's Gulliver's Travels or taken any interest in English cooking, but essays on these and other topics I know nothing about are still very readable and entertaining.

Whether you’ve read his novels or not, I recommend his book of essays. You’ll get something out of it. You can’t not.

In our English-speaking history, he is only below Shakespeare. He sits, for me, in equal second place alongside the likes of Hemingway and Lord Byron, and just above the likes of Carver, cummings, Hardy, Dickens, Lawson, Dickinson and Patrick White.

(If I include non-English writers, I might put Dostoyevksy, Zola, Mishima, Nabakov, Kazantzikas and Marquez in or around, or even above the same level. I’d have to think that out.)

To re-iterate. A++

Next up: EXODUS by (allegedly) Moses.


Kitten Wrangler said...

A caring person would devote more time to discussing your reviews. Instead, I have this to say

1) I must read more Orwell. He had good things to say. Sadly though, he's down on the list after another Eco novel, Joyce's Ulysses, a couple of Italian-language things and, stupidly, a manga in Japanese (why stupidly? I don't speak the bloody language!)

After all of that, I promise, Orwell will be next.

2) If you're after a better word for Horse, I'd like to suggest 'Hippos'.

Funny. Funny.

Perseus said...

Maybe hippos and horses could do a swap.

I forgot to mention Faulkner in my list of writers 'up there' in the English language.

I've read Joyce's Ulysses. It has something to do with Dublin.

Thanks for commenting. I've had three people email me to comment, but none of them actually left a comment.

I really should drop the whole anonymous thing and tell all my friends.

Kitten Wrangler said...

Maybe instead of hippos being 'river horses', horses could become 'land hippos', that is a hippoge.

Then, the seahorses will have full control over the title 'horse', and quite welcome they are to it, as we can then drop the unneccessary word 'sea'.

I plan on reading Joyce either out loud (enjoying the sounds, not trying to follow a plot) or crossreferencing everything against footnotes or some 'Guide to 'getting' Joyce'. But first... an essay. Gah.

The Book Grocer said...

If I can be so presumptuous, might I recommend you read Mark Twain's review of Fenimore Cooper's writing? It's savagely brilliant, and the sort of clean English which you appear to enjoy.

Ambrose Bierce will probably also take you to a happy place.

Perseus said...

Ah yes, Ambrose does indeed take me to happy places.

And thank you, I will track down Twain's review. Do you sell it at your grocery?

Anonymous said...


Perseus said...

Bravely, I attempted to spell his name from memory. I failed, and not for the first time with this bloke.

Likewise, for the life of me I can't spell seperate / separate. Which one is it? No point me looking it up either, because I've often looked it up but can never remember which one it is.

Mrs Slocombe said...

A++ indeed always. But the thing to with Orwell is to read him and never ever extrapolate him into the present and especially not into one's own opinions. Everyone who does that is always wrong.
I'll be boring and quote Raymond Williams to you:
'We are never likely to reach a time when we can do without his frankness, his energy, his willingness to join in. These are the qualities we shall go on respecting in him, whatever other conclusions we may come to. But they are real qualities only if they are independent and active. The thing to do with his work, his history, is to read it, not imitate it. he is still there, tangibly, with the wound in his throat, the sad strong face, the plain words written in hardship and exposure. But then as we reach out to touch him we catch something of his hardness, a necessary hardness. We are acknowledging a presence and a distance; other names, other years; a history to respect, to remember, to move on from.'