Happy are you Poor, by Thomas Dubay

July 29, 2011 at 01:27 (Book Reviews, Poorly Rated Books, Theology) (, , , , )

2/10

There is a lot of praise that could be offered for this book, and an awful lot of bad things that could be said about it. Frankly, it is indigestible, unlikeable and supercilious; and though it does say quite a few very true (and by necessity unpopular) things, the air of pomposity and the snooty attitude poisons it quite badly. The old adage about eating the meat and spitting out the bones seems made for this book, but after Dubay’s pedantry washes over the reader for the umpteenth time, the metaphor loses some power; and eating skinny, bone-filled food gets tiresome after a while.

Dubay has a frustrating tendency to reassure readers that he isn’t the one to tell them what the spiritual poverty looks like in their personal circumstances, only to do exactly that (usually followed by a choice example of this saint or that mystic, who was effortlessly able to show us all up and do things right). His overarching argument appears to at odds with his general methodology, and after a few chapters of this sort of thing it all starts to feel rather cynical.

“The saints actually are the best examples we have of biblical exegesis.”

-Happy are you Poor

At the same time, the book is hard to criticise because it does point out several incredibly valuable scriptural principles, commands and recommendations that any serious Christian reader would do well to note. It is just a pity that Dubay’s lamentation in the first few pages that nobody else writes about this subject is (largely) true. The world is badly in need of a book on poverty of spirit and freedom from materialism that is realistic where he is fantastic, winsome where he is condemning, helpful where he waxes philosophical and (dare it be said?) relevant where he drifts off into storytales about saints ritually abusing themselves.

The most incongruous section of this troublesome book comes from his final chapter, “Joy”, which flies in the face of his melodramatic litanies of men and women who seemed not to be seeking the joy of the Lord, but instead physical pain and discomfort. In a spectacularly Orwellian twist, Dubay seems to imply that only through abject misery and self-mutilation can any form of happiness be found. This and many of the examples included in this book are highly questionable, and readers will wonder loudly how compatible they are with the joy that he so readily proclaims. Yet it must be said that to many, even the slighest morsel of meat in this book, in amidst the bones, might stave off spiritual starvation and point towards the sort of New Testament Christianity that is so unfashionable in the world, uncomfortable to the flesh, and vital for a relationship with Jesus.

Perhaps there is a filleted edition out there somewhere…

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How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, by Toby Young

July 26, 2011 at 17:33 (Biography, Book Reviews, Comedy, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , , )

4/10

Presumably, the people Toby Young intends to alienate begin with his reader. From the outset, this memoir is a roiling swirl of bile-swilling vitriol, snivelling obeisance, hedonistic abandon and smug, unapologetic, arrogant gittiness. The book is like a headache wrapped in Monday mornings, and leaves you with a pressing urge to brush your teeth. Oh, it is gritty and full of swagger, and in a certain light could be described as being clever and funny. It contains no laugh-out-loud moments, and the places where Young demonstrates his familiarity with the English ability to laugh at oneself (which he readily and unashamedly comments on) are unfortunately undone by his obsequious and cringing attitude towards the very people he professes to despise, and the very targets of this book’s most bitter acid.

What?

“Of course, I didn’t admit that the reason I wanted to come to America was because I wanted to plunge headfirst into the cesspool of celebrity culture.”

-How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Throughout the book, Young makes repeated attempts to kowtow towards his idiotic cartoon of a boss, lampooning the fellow’s tantrums and humourlessness while wheedling and slobbering shamelessly about the kindness and generosity of Graydon Carter the Just. Even his unavowed enemies are mocked, and then buttered up, until the whole sorry mess seems more like an insincere apology than a biting satirical exposé. There are a few attempts later in the book to reflect on life, the universe and meaningful relationships, and Young’s schoolboy attempts at psychoanalysis demonstrate that, in between the bootlicking and the tirades, he is making an effort to write something serious. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really come together, and the book trails off into some sort of existential cul-de-sac.

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The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, by Piers Brendon

July 24, 2011 at 12:31 (Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century) (, , , , , )

9/10

Piers Brendon writes with the sort of jocular and sardonic style that has become the form for modern histories; always gently mocking all that is positive in his chosen study, and phlegmatically acknowledging all that is negative, all the while maintaining a carefully constructed distance so as not to be sullied by the riff-raff he describes. This permits him astonishing liberties in both damning and lauding, but is a little frustrating due to the difficulty of pinning him down to an honest opinion: these he gives sparingly and reservedly.

While this book is an overview and a glossed account of some two hundred years of global history: in spite of–or even because of his title, Brendon spends very little time at all in the British Isles, and omits almost in their entirety such crucial subjects as the industrial revolution, the repeal of the corn laws, the liberalisation of the British Parliament and even the fierce battles of Disraeli and Gladstone for control of Bristish destiny. All of these subjects are admitted only insofar as they relate to Empire, and then only as they relate directly.

“They included Scottish Highlanders, bag-piped and red-coated, bonneted, plumed and kilted, who were variously thought to be women, eunuchs and demons with a keen appetite for ‘curried black babies.’ Certainly they were a terrifying array, once complimented by General Havelock for holding their fire until ‘you saw the colour of your enemy’s mustachios.'”

-The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

Despite this selectiveness and despite his massive scope, Brendon manages to treat several intricate colonial stories with surprising detail. There are the ubiquitous anecdotes and personal recollections and slanders, following modern history’s trend of focusing a little myopically on the “common people” (whoever they were) at the expense of wars and acts and personages; but Brendon allows himself enough space and time to pause on occasion to actually question the causes and reasons for some very singular events. Seldom does he allow himself to give a definitive answer, but at least he ventures so far as to offer out definitive questions.

With prose both lyrical and perversely vernacular, this is not the sort of book where any committed reader will find himself bogged down in a syntactically murderous discussion of dusty manuscript or appalling old civil servants and their historical meddling. It is thrilling in parts, but not gratuitously so, and has a depth that is unexpected in such a casual treatment of such a vast subject. The book’s greatest omission is its apparent failure to contextualise its history, or to link its chronology in a dynamic way to the evolution of global politics and society: however, this omission is apparent only at the first glance, and only because of the sheer mass of material presented, which outweighs the clear comparative commentary that Brendon provides. This is not a flawless work, and it is certainly not the last word on the subject; but it is a pleasing introduction written with a fluent pen and a surprising amount of insight and detail.

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The Sinking of the Lancastria, by Jonathan Fenby

July 21, 2011 at 11:39 (Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Second World War, War) (, , , )

5/10

Reading this book, it’s easy to see that Fenby has not really left behind his background of journalism. The formula of “find an event, slap a scandalous title on it, and interview as many people as possible who were remotely connected” is really the pith of this book. In contrast to Fenby’s much more meticulous work on the life of Chiang Kai Shek, it seems an extremely poor hash of a harrowing and tragic story.

“…a man swimming past a flaming patch of oil towards the float on which he sat. Suddenly, the man’s hair caught fire. He began to scream. His head went under, and the oil closed over him.”

-The Sinking of the Lancastria

For Fenby to take this dreadful event and try and squeeze a cheap conspiracy theory out of it seems rather cynical (the subtitle is, “The twentieth century’s deadliest naval disaster and Churchill’s plot to make it disappear”), and the disjointed journalese simply does not lend it credibility as a historical account (one might reasonably expect to see the individuals’ ages printed in brackets after their names). Needless to say there is not the slightest piece of evidence presented in the book to justify this book’s bombastic title, and surprisingly little attention given to either the Dunkirk evacuation (to which Fenby constantly references in passing but never in detail, and frequently with derision) or any contextual information detailing naval warfare, the legitimacy of troop ships as targets, or other peripheral essentials.

With those damning shortcomings, it has to be said that the quality of the interviews is second to none, and that if this book is useful in any regard, it gives the reader quite a good idea of what it would be like to survive a bombed ship during the Second World War. It is short and easy to read, and if the hyperactive claims and conspiracies are ignored then it is quite a useful source book.

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Porto Bello Gold, by A. D. Howden Smith

July 19, 2011 at 13:05 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , , )

4/10

A fitting tribute to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic masterpiece? Yes. A fitting prequel? No. This is a good adventure book, but it is a hollow and feckless creature compared to Treasure Island. Howden Smith leaves the reader with a strong feeling that he has simply been name-dropping the pirates–Anderson, Bones, Pew, O’Brien, Silver–instead of building their back stories; some of the most exciting and thrilling of Stevenson’s characters are entirely neglected – Israel Hands particularly. This is a story about very plain men doing some very plain things, and there are few surprises and very little incentive for the reader to invest anything into the characters.

If any mistake deserves to be investigated more closely, it is Howden Smith’s decision to give a little too much attention to his antihero Andrew Murray. While he would certainly draw some justified criticism if he had included no original elements whatsoever, Murray is a pale pastiche of the debonair and civilised villain, but his inanity turns him into a buffoon. It is easy to feel cheated when one is hankering for stories of John Flint and Long John  Silver, only to end up with a poor man’s Captain Hook.

“Peter groaned as we crawled over the thwarts. ‘Like der waves is my stomach–oop–andt down. Now I be sick, ja!’ And he was.”

-Porto Bello Gold

Porto Bello Gold also suffers somewhat from pacing problems, with a very slow beginning and a conclusion that is badly rushed. But the book’s chief problem is that there is just no pressing need for either a continuation or for further exposition of Treasure Island: neither now, nor in 1924. Stevenson’s classic was brilliant not for its original plot, nor for its complex characters or thrilling action. It managed to conjure up a mysterious and legendary history for a treasure that became almost mystical to its characters and even its readers. Silver was a magnificent villain, not because of his shrewd low cunning, but because the looming ghost of a pirate king made every one of Silver’s blunders and his petty doublecrossing into a thing sailing out of a mist from a magical past, at once unreachable and yet suddenly, uncomfortably present. Porto Bello Gold took everything that was powerful in the original novel, and rather unfortunately bungled it.

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The Mystery of Holly Lane, by Enid Blyton

July 14, 2011 at 17:21 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , , )

10/10

One of the stand-out Five Find-Outers books, and chiefly for the way in which Enid Blyton chooses to incorporate her secondary and tertiary characters. This book is one of the reasons why the series is not called Fatty and Goon. Furthermore, even her better novels seldom include more than one or two supporting characters in major roles, while this book features impressive roles from both Larry and Pip, as well as a delicious caricature of a pidgin-speaking, head-wagging excitable Frenchman, carried through the entire story heroically.

“In France policemen did not behave like that. They were interested and excited when a complaint was made to them…but this policeman had said “Gah” and gone cycling away. Extraordinary!”

-The Mystery of Holly Lane

Considering the effort Blyton went into with these fleshed-out portraits, it is perhaps unsurprising that this is not the most ambitious of mysteries the children have to solve: but her careful creation of Wilfrid and Marian, not to mention the clearest look we get at Larry outside of the first book in the series, is achieved at the expense of prosaic visits to the bakery, or arguing with parents about dinnertime punctuality, and there is still an adventure to be had. Coupled with the Five’s most entertaining set-piece at the mystery’s conclusion, this is surely one of the highest points in a very entertaining series.

Related reviews:
The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage
The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters
 

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The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John LeCarre

July 12, 2011 at 10:06 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Thriller) (, , , , )

9/10

All throughout, this book seems deucedly realistic, and littered with the sort of bungling and confused mistakes that apparently characterise the real security forces. The characters are a strong and clearly-written medley of personality disorders, petty jealousies, milquetoast obeisance and wilful ignorance; growing pasty around the midriff and set like concrete in their ways. From the first few chapters LeCarre showed his hand, and demonstrated rather keenly that trust and faith were going to be unaffordable luxuries in his book. Betrayal and double-blinds were always in the offing, and the destruction of the odious Mundt seems to the discerning reader an unlikely proposition. In LeCarre’s world, all that is honest and earnest must perish, while cynicism and crooked subhuman parasites survive.

Nevertheless, despite both the bleak outlook and the clarity of the story, dictated in its entirety almost from the first paragraphs, this book still retains an amazing amount of suspense. There are a handful of surprises, but the suspense seems mostly due to LeCarre’s superb abilities as a writer rather than any shocking plot twists. Whatever he might be writing–spy novels, mysteries, romance or adventure–a man who can write like that deserves a place on any bookshelf.

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Byzantium and the Crusades, by Jonathan Harris

July 5, 2011 at 13:24 (Book Reviews, Byzantium, Historical, Mediocre Books) (, , , )

7/10

Perhaps this ought to have been called “Byzantium, but Mostly the Crusades”. It was a useful resource and a thorough chronicle of the first few crusades, but there was very little about the city of Constantinople itself, in either its history or its culture or the misanthropes who ruled it. Harris paid excellent attention to the various adventures of the crusaders in the Holy Lands, and to their unpleasant deeds en route, but it felt like there was comparatively little information on the actual character of the city: only political theory seeking to explain some of the more peculiar choices made by the Greeks, and even then only as related to the Crusaders. It might be expected that this sort of approach would be characteristic of an entirely Western perspective; it is clear throughout, however, that Harris has no favourites in his history, and while the Crusades are seen through largely western eyes, they are described with a fairly neutral pen.

Also in Harris’ favour, his style is easy to understand without being simplistic, and although his scope is rather narrow he knows what he wants to talk about and sticks firmly to his chosen course. This is certainly a good history, but it is certainly not in the same class as Norwich, and can best be summed up as some interesting and convincing ideas and political theory wrapped in a rather brief overview of a few hundred years of Byzantine history.

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Common Sense, by Glenn Beck

July 3, 2011 at 16:01 (Book Reviews, Politics, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , , )

1/10

It would be easy and remarkably cathartic to rail against Glenn Beck’s hyper-right wing politics in this book, or to lay bare his anarchic vitriol against the government; but this is a book review, and not a political polemic. Thus, the most instantly objectionable part of this book will be its opening line: “I think I know who you are.”

Beck begins in this nauseatingly-chummy way, and proceeds to describe in immaculate detail his perfect upper-upper-middle class family: falling apart at the seams, politically illiterate and impotently angry, based on pettiness and denying its own rampant materialism. Presumably, this ideal reader is supposed to chuckle and admit, “That’s me, all right. In a nutshell.” It certainly frames the book in a revealing light.

Beck has the good grace to admit that he is no Thomas Paine. He does, however, have a gift for bungling the most dreadfully mixed metaphors, and explaining without any trace of irony that the boat and lifeboats are both sinking without any chance of winning the lottery, and the mob is on its way to break (the boat’s?) kneecaps. This bungling becomes less farcical and more concerning when he echoes the murderous rhetoric of the recent past, in condemning his political opponents as cockroaches, and balances his denouncement of armed revolution with constant invective and repeated insinuations that the “Progressive Class” is the unalterable and eternal enemy of all redblooded Americans.

Beck reveals himself to be something of a pedagogue, and seems to consider that one successful accusation of any historical figure, or any one quote that he can attribute to any politician ought to be enough to demonise that man or woman eternally. Lest we forget, he will soberly remind his reader, this is the same man who said thus in the last chapter. Ergo, what he has said now might as well have come from the lips of the devil himself. How will you trust him now? Regardless of his politics (some of his alleged faults found in others could easily be seen as virtues by less right wing readers), this is simply unconvincing as a basis on which to build a sound political theory.

His constant appeals to the ghost of Thomas Paine are, besides one quotation utterly ripped from any context, limited to three chapters of Paine’s work reprinted verbatim as a postscript to Beck’s book, and are apparently intended to stand on their own: no commentary or exposition are offered by Glenn Beck, and it is left to the reader to wonder how these ought to be interpreted. Beck’s philosophy is rather haphazard and scattered, and hardly expounded clearly. Mostly it is gleaned by Beck’s neo-McCarthyism, where certain figures are singled out for their sins against his brand of sickly and malnourished objectivism. This is a book without either warmth or clarity, and is as plain an example of preaching to the converted as anyone might wish to see. An ill-advised compendium of half-baked claptrap and humdrum sophistry.

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