Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Proverbs Reduced To Truth

They say, most cliches contain a grain of truth. THIS IS THE NEWS: a grain is not very much. I mean, look at sand. Tiny. Wouldn't it be good if there were some sayings that contained a more reasonable amount of truth?

Yes it would. In fact, yes it is.

Because I have boiled down some proverbs, evaporating the  excess non-truth, to leave them pure. 100% Polyunsaturated Truth. Each serving contains 100% of an adult's RDA. IT'S GOOD FOR YOU.

Here we go:

1. A watched pot often boils.

2. Three lefts make a right.

3. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts (that contain hostile military forces).

4. You have to accumulate to accumulate.

5. A leopard cannot change a lightbulb. It lacks the manual dexterity.

6. Charity begins with a C.

7. People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw orgies.

8. The grass is always greener where there is an abundant supply of water, sunshine and nutrients.

9. Very few men are any form of landmass.

10. Better late than excessively late.

Monday, 28 March 2011

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Mohsin Hamid

Changez, the eponymous narrator of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is charming, polite, and irresistibly likable. It becomes apparent, however, that he is holding something something back; he is not all he seems.

How much of this is the deliberate distancing of respect that his American friends find so endearing, and how much is slick, narratorial deceit, is deliberately unclear.

But this is no con. Hamid draws you in, and it is a cold reader indeed who does not emphasise fully with Changez. And when it is revealed that Changez is, to whichever degree you choose to read into it, a fundamentalist, there is no sleight of hand involved.

The gentle, grey area blend from American success story to riot-stirring anti-American is both the craft and the message of this book. We are presented with two extremely opposite points of view, and the book is a dialogue between them. Are they fundamentally different positions, separate in essense? Hamid doesn't think so.

Changez's own journey to becoming a fundamentalist might feel like a trick, because there is never one moment when something of essense changes. We never feel the train run over the joints in the track; instead, it's a smooth ride from one position to the other.

And that's because there is no defining line in the sand, between one position and the other. They are opposite ends of a completely crossable spectrum.

How far Changez, and Hamid, carry you with them in ideals, is debatable; but also beside the point. It is how far our empathy can be carried that is the revelation.

I was given this book through the very excellent World Book Night: and I'm going to pass it on to someone, soon. Has anyone else recieved a World Book Night copy of anything?

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Alexander At The World's End

Tom Holt

I've read Tom Holt on and off for nearly a decade. He writes comic fantasy -- hilarious but not cheerful, smart, densely plotted and British. I've always viewed his work as a reliably good read, well-suited to my basic tastes and not needing excessive attention. Not the sort of thing I tend to get excited about, or recommend to a friend, maybe, but worth a thumbs-up if I see you reading it on a train.

When I first saw Alexander at the World's End -- or it might have been the first in the series, The Walled Orchard -- I wasn't sure it was the same Tom Holt. Serious historical fiction? Really? Was Alexander the Great possessed by the spirit of a young English temp who got a job in the wrong office?

When it turned out it was  the same Tom Holt, I still didn't dive in. Historical fiction isn't my favourite flavour, and honestly, I wasn't confident how well Holt would cope outside his unique, meticulously carved niche.

For shame, Benjamin, for shame. Have more faith.

Alexander at the World's End is fantastic. The humour is still there, and perhaps has even reached its zenith, in the voice of con-kid turned Yapping Dog philosopher, Euxenus. This book is his story, not Alexander's, though Alexander casts a shadow across the whole thing. In fact, it is his lurking presence, and his strange ties with Euxenus and his family, that keep the musings and memories of an old Greek man compelling.

That's a plus I didn't expect from the jump to historical fiction. Holt's novels are pretty compelling anyway, in their own way, and surelyThe Past could opnly lessen that. But this, that looks like a thriller in precisely no aspect, had me captivated.

Tom Holt did one thing, that nobody else was doing, and did it very well indeed. What gave him the confidence to step away from it, at least for a while, for something completely different? Or maybe I have this backwards, and he always wanted to write about Ancient Greece. How many times has he approached his agent with this idea, saying thi is what I really want to write?

Who else has changed direction mid-career? Have any thriller writers changed tack and tried to win the Booker? Who has succeeded? Who has failed?

Monday, 21 March 2011

The Laying On Of Hands

Alan Bennett

The Laying on of Hands is the story of a particularly well-attended memorial service. Clive Dunlop, who died aged 34, was ostensibly a masseur, but his talents stretched far beyond that.

Father Jolliffe, taking the service, was also a friend and client of Clive. He is surprised by the array of show-business types on display at the service; and the show-biz themselves are surprised at the extent of Clive's connections, too. He was, as well as warmly tactile, scrupulously tactful.

We hear Father Jolliffe preparing mentally for the service, as well as wrestling with the implications of his own association with Clive; we hear Archdeacon Treacher, (standing for dignity, formality and self-restraint, Bennett tells us), vetting the service for his Bishop; we hear the publisher, attending the funeral as a dutiful favour to the author he is probably losing, searching for the easiest way to cash in on the collective and esoteric fame united in the church.

Through whipsered conversation, the mutations of spreading rumour, and moments of inner dialogue, we trace the audience (as Jolliffe has always thought of a congregation as, anyway) question the cause of death. There is the unspoken worry, very practical to many in attendance, of Aids. And as people (invited by Jolliffe) contribute their favourite memories of Clive, it soon becomes far less unspoken, and much more of a worry. Aids is a certainty, then questionable, and then -- hope heartbreakingly dashed -- a certainty again.

By the time Clive's doctor speaks up to finally set the record straight, Jolliffe has completely lost control of his audience. Treacher, hidden away near a pillar, makes a final, scornful note, condemning the service and Jolliffe's role in it. We look over his shoulder as he does so, to Bennett's obvious pleasure, and our own.

In fact, Bennett takes obvious pleasure in walking invisible through the church and the Order of Service, sitting next to whoever he chooses, listening in to any private conversation he likes, pencil and pad in hand. The only cruelty, as always, is in capturing exactly what people do say, and nothing more.

There is a sharper satire here than at first glance. Bennett, who uses such gentle colours and such humble brush-strokes, can paint a far more honest picture than most. How we judge, who we judge, and how we present ourselves are all here, but the real target, as with all good satire, is hypocrisy.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Ad Infinitum

Nicholas Ostler

This history of Latin is a lot more than just that. The changing role of  language in a tribe, nation, empire and church is the perfect window through which to view the growing pains of civilization's teenage years.

There is a tangible tipping point in Ad Infinitum. Before that point, the Roman Empire, standing united and unconquerable, becomes an animal of two halves. The Latin-speaking west, in which the heart of Rome beats, and the Greek-speaking East; this is cellular division, one creature becoming two, before our eyes.

There is a last moment of hope, as this fragmenting empire is united again, perhaps as it has never been united before, by the spread of Christianity and the establishing of the Catholic Church. Catholic, of course, being another word for united.

But then the tipping point. The Church spreads, and with one eye perhaps on the causal crack in the proceeding empire, it actively spreads the use of Latin. And suddenly, it becomes obvious. Language, across barriers, borders and oceans, makes the most natural sense of the extent of a community. More than the economics of trade, or the ideals of religion, the pragmatics of who you can understand is the real divider and uniter.

So when that red shading on the map that represents the (Holy Roman) Empire doesn't match up with green shading of the Latin-speaking empire, there's only one of those that are going to win.

This is a biography as much as a history, because Latin grows and changes and ages. And as such, the massive success story is underpinned with a bittersweet tug of Ozymandias, and this too shall pass. We know where Latin ends up (although whether it is the end remains to be seen), in the backwaters of select English private schools and botanical naming classes.

Monday, 14 March 2011

A Display Of Lights (9)

Val Gilbert

You've got to have a system. I can't imagine going through life without one: simply 'buying' books when I decide to buy them, and 'reading' them when I decide to read them? It's implausible, to say the least.

Having said that, I don't think systems necessarily help; they're just a lot of fun. In fact, if you completely reinvent your system every few months as I do, you're most likely making yourself far less efficient. But: fun.

The last couple of years, my reading has been largely dependent on serendipity. Book fairs, vouchers, spur-of-the-moments and heartfelt recommendations have taken me, non-linear and unshaven, to strange and inconsistent places.

The latest system is a reaction to that. Book-buying was frozen as of 1st January 2011; the To Be Read shelf was edited/pruned/decimated; the rejects were carried (pallbeared) to the nearest Oxfam; the survivors stand in line, waiting to be devoured.

(Once the survivors are gone, I will return to the new favourites the last two years of exploration have unearthed, and a few older favourites, read new works by each and every, discover what my taste actually involves.)

I'm working through the surviors now, and they are a strange breed. They are books I have bought over the last couple of years but never read, but, come crunch-time, they are the ones too interestiong or enticing to be dismissed. They are books like A Display Of Lights (9), an enthusiast's biography of the six most influential cryptic crossword setters in the history of The Daily Telegraph.

When I call the author an enthusiast, I don't mean he is an amateur -- only that he loves his subject and ends many, many sentences with exclamation marks! Val Gilbert (!) was in fact Crossword Editor at the Telegraph  for 30 years, and a good number of the select six he writes about were colleagues of his at some time or other. But it is the cryptic crossword, not its setters, that is his real passion.

And who can blame him? Take this (apparently contraversial) gem from Douglas Barnard:

Burns 'em in boxes (8)

Cremates! 'em in boxes = EM in CRATES = CREMATES = burns 'em in boxes!

It turns out you can't write about crptics without getting enthusiastic. I will leave you with two items:

1. The title of the book is itself a cryptic clue, and the answer is, unfathomably, CROSSWORD. Answers on a postcard.

2. I made my friend a cryptic crossword for his last birthday, and here is my favourite clue: Be agile without me, I'm a dog (6) Can you answer?

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Corrections

Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections is one of the best novels I have read in a long time (surely this author should get a little hype... oh wait....) It's the portrait of a family, painted viscerally and sentimentally, and written with a welcoming brilliance that nearly matches its cast. 

I'm reminded of one of the first conclusions I came to on this blog, from that old master, David Lodge: great writing is great characters, who care about each other.

I have a thing for long, sprawling, virtuoso novels at the moment. It's a relatively new thing, and I'm still exploring it. One thing that has struck me already, however, is how badly these beautiful, fat children end.

Seriously, I can count the number of heavy novels that ended well on the fingers of one knee. There's no single factor to blame, but a few that coincide:

1. The longer the book, the bigger the expectations of the pay-off.
2. The more an author sprawls -- ie, ignores direct linear plotting and things like The Main Character, The Single Story -- the harder it is to tie things together or even decide what needs tying.
3. The more virtuoso a writer is (whatever that means right this second) the less emphasis there is, generally, on exterior plot events -- the very things that make endings paint-by-numbers easy.

Franzen, I think, answers all these with typically literary non-answers. He overcomes them with limits.

He limits the expectations on the ending by telling us very early on what it will involve -- a Lambert Family Christmas either happening or failing to happen. He limits the distance he can sprawl with that same promise; he cannot go beyond this family, or that Christmas. And his virtusosity is, clever clever, showing how far he can go within those limits.

Now, that's not the real solution to the great-big-novel/piss-poor-ending conundrum, but it is certainly a neat sidestep. So, I should read Freedom?

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Death On The Nile

Agatha Christie

Last Thursday, the 3rd of March, was World Book Day, and the evening of last Saturday was host to the very first World Book Night massive book giveaway.

It pains me to say my sole involvement in the whole big, amazing-shaped give-party was watching all the TV shows about it. Really, I need to be better informed. Somebody, do something about that.

One of those shows followed Sue Perkins, wonderful person and former Booker Prize judge, delving deep into the land of the bestseller list... was it Henry James who pointed out that if you can't have a list of a single item, so you can't have a list of best-anythings?

The likes of John Grisham, James Patterson, Lee Child, Jackie Collins and Sophie Kinsella were talked about, some even appearing as talking heads to get very defensive (and I don't blame them).

I sell these books all day long, but I never buy them, and -- having never read them -- should probably have felt guilty about smirking along with Sue at the covers, prose and premises. But guilt didn't really happen. I'm on Sue's side.

I stoped smirking when Agatha Christie got mentioned, though; and interestingly, so did Sue (we have so much in common... it's love). Why is it okay for literary types to read formulaic, dated crime puzzles -- or, why is it not okay for literary types to ignore them -- when they have Agatha Christie written on the front?

Could we cite the lack of cheap thrill, lusty gore and gory lust? The constant cleverness of the plot? (They're formulaic, but you'll never crack the formula before Poirot does. Ever). The I-did-it-first rule? (One third of the cliches and predictabilities of crime novels were started by Christie, so maybe aren't cliches there). How about the sheer, plain, elegance of Christie's writing?

The problem with all these answers is something I've already mentioned: I've never read any of the books I'm snobbish about, so how do I know they don't have these things going on?

Can it really be that I like Poirot novels simply because they're old? Or simply because of David Suchet? Or simply because people like Sue Perkins like them too?

Friday, 4 March 2011

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop

Can literature be funny?

This question surprises me. Is that even an issue? All my literary favourites are hilarious, I think. If they're not, they're the exceptions. I hate to bandy around the same few names every time, but the big guns -- Evelyn Waugh, Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Chabon, David Markson, David Lodge, David Foster Wallace, David-anything, really, PG Wodehouse (heavily dependant on which definition of literary you use); less well known ones -- Toby Litt, Nicola Barker, Andrew Crumey, Matthew Kneale, Mark Watson... I could go on.

That's a lot of names. Every single one of them is some combination of literary and funny. (Notice, I have ignored the second question: what is your favourite humourous literary novel. TOO DAMN HARD.)

Also, some admin: this post marks my return to the land of blogging after a too-busy fortnight. It's my New Year's Resolution to be more punctual, and as such, I have only just made my second New Year's Resolution. That is, to blog more regularly, rather than two weeks of posting every day, and then a fortnight without thinking.

My framework will be every Monday and every Friday, for now. If that isn't enough to contain my unabashed tide of wordiness, et cetera, then Wednesdays might get a regular go to. Lucky Wednesdays, if so.