Hiroshima, by John Hersey

February 29, 2012 at 17:36 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )

8/10

This book shines as a piece of primary-source history, and is elevated to excellence by the sterling work Hersey did in editing it. Published immediately after the end of the war in 1946, it contains very little of the sort of analysis or wider political context that many straight history books do, but also manages to veer away from gutter press journalism (despite the fact that these accounts were indeed published in The New Yorker). The story was sensational enough, and Hersey evidently saw no need to sensationalise it any further.

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki…had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

-Hiroshima

Instead, he captured the voices of his interviewees respectfully, without embellishment, and simply, editing the stories into compact and powerful narratives that somehow become as cohesive a tale as though he had invented the stories himself. His arrangement of the witness accounts in such a masterful way is impressive, especially given his constraints of telling the story through the eyes of his interviewed subjects.

For obvious reasons, this book is rather shy with statistics and wider analysis, and while that limits its usability in historical study, it does help the reader to see things more through the eyes of the victims, and helps transmit some of the emotional helplessness and fear that otherwise might have been lost by a more comfortable and more distant view. An excellent human-interest book, and an invaluable and unique historical document.

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Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

February 26, 2012 at 13:43 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Mediocre Books) (, , , , , )

6/10

Unfortunately, the prospect of this book is more interesting than the book itself. Two of contemporary fantasy’s most celebrated authors, conspiring together to pen an off-beat account of the apocalypse sounds like an excellent idea, and the inclusion of so many incredibly British institutions gives the immediate feeling of an invitation to a place of private camaraderie. It seems like Gaiman has both darkened and matured Pratchett’s writing, although the veneer of the story and many of its smaller details would not seem misplaced on the pages of any of the Discworld novels. In fact, this is in spite of the constant postscripts and addendums (or addenda, if you like) which make a great deal of the fact that neither author really knows who was responsible for what writing. It can only be said that if this is true, then Neil Gaiman has learned to write very much like Terry Pratchett. There are some very apparent echoes of The Satanic Verses in here, with Crowley and Aziraphale attempting to fill the shoes of Gibreel and Saladin. Unsurprisingly, Rushdie writes angels and demons better; somewhat more surprisingly, Rushdie is also funnier while doing it, and the sort of magical realism he captured is poorly replicated in Good Omens which is more of a magical magical book despite its real world setting.

“‘My people are more than happy for it to happen, you know. It’s what it’s all about, you see. The great final test. Flaming swords, the Four Horsemen, seas of blood, the whole tedious business.’ He shrugged.

‘And then Game Over, Insert Coin?’ said Crowley.”

-Good Omens

Considering the usual subjects and the well-publicised beliefs of both writers, it is then very surprising to find that the overwhelming flavour of this book is that of a prayer. Not a pious paternoster or a meek Gethsemane sort of prayer, but a prayer like one of the angry Psalms, or like Job. Essentially, the final third of the book (or more than that) is taken up with the writers slamming the brakes on the sort of apocalypse Tim LaHaye has instructed us to expect, and asking why in the world it has to be like that. The light humour and the dark humour and the quaintness and the winsomely awful puns and the absurdism is placed firmly on the shelf, and the book becomes something of a manifesto–except instead of saying that this is how the world is, and such-and-such is how I would do things, if I were God–the manifesto asks plaintively (and frequently angrily) why are things not this way?

There are occasional digs at aspects of organised religion or pieces of theology that either Pratchett or Gaiman find obtuse, but generally what these authors do is set out their own systematic theology, and despairingly ask why God–or people, or religion–is not like that. This does not make for entertaining writing, for the most part. It does not even make for very provocative writing, of the kind Pratchett came up with in Small Gods, for instance. Nor is it bad writing. Both of these writers are so naturally skilled and so incredibly experienced that it would be difficult to dismiss any of their work as downright bad. Make no mistake: anyone who picks up this book will finish it remarkably quickly and with plenty of chuckling. But it will not shake anyone to their core. It is a little smug, rather angry, and every so often moving, but it does not have much to offer either in the spheres of philosophy, religion, or good comedy literature.

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Wide is the Gate, by Upton Sinclair

February 22, 2012 at 19:50 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Literature, War and Politics) (, , , )

9/10

As one six-hundred-page volume in a ten-volume series, it is unreasonable to expect this book to be either fast-paced or action-filled. One of the most instantly noticeable things about it, then, is that by around the two-hundred-page mark, the snail pace does markedly pick up, and there are several briefer adventures amidst the endless politicking and banter that might have otherwise been expanded to full book length stories in their own right (Lanny Budd’s adventure in wartime Spain is nothing short of thrilling, and equals anything Hemingway or Fleming might write about martial high-jinks).

“Look at Ramsay MacDonald, look at boondoggling and the N.R.A. and the other messes of the New Deal! Look at what happened in Spain in the last four or five years!”

-Wide is the Gate

Sinclair has a lot to say, and he takes his time over it, which is perhaps his saving grace. His capitalist characters are greedy or ignorant, his fascists are memorable monsters and his socialists are brave-hearted rogues. If he plastered these definitions all over his book in three hundred pages, it would all be very dreary and impossible to bear, but he does take time to flesh his creations out before stuffing his thoughts into their mouths. He spreads a very thick message very thinly throughout an awful lot of absolutely terrific prose, and turns a lengthy sermon into an even lengthier piece of excellent literature.

“The green was beginning to fade from the landscapes, and a soft drizzling rain veiled every scene, making it look like an old painting whose varnish had turned brown.”

-Wide is the Gate

It is easy to see Sinclair himself as the tired and jaded socialist spiritualist living vicariously through Lanny Budd. The heroes of this book are equal parts evangelist and prophet of doom. It was written, by the way, in 1943, when the future of the Nazi government and the Allied opposition to it were far from settled. This mixture of heady fanatical optimism and grim pessimism ends up creating something of a perfect storm in terms of accutely believable (if occasionally fantastical) characters, and goes a great way towards offsetting the overt political messages pinned to every page. Due to its length (maybe some five thousand pages of Lanny Budd, if the rest of the story is taken into account) this book is an intimidating commitment to make: but very worth it. A lost gem from a seminal author, and deserving of higher praises in the pantheon of great literature.

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Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

February 18, 2012 at 15:52 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Dystopia, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )

4/10

It is important for a reader to be able to trust an author. Sometimes this is easy, and from the very first line of a book, a reader will relax in the knowledge that this is a writer who will not let them down, and whose every sentence is lovingly crafted and set into place with careless ease and sensational beauty. As a contrast, sometimes a reader will read tensely, silently and unconsciously praying that a writer will not drop the ball, and will make it to the end without tripping over and breaking something. This matter of trust does not necessarily affect the quality of the book. Bad authors can begin with undeserved confidence only to ruin their book chapters in, and good books can begin stiltingly. Dickens, for instance, can begin his books very precariously. And Suzanne Collins began this trilogy with two very pleasing entries, both above-average novels. Throughout The Hunger Games, a lot of the mistrust was wrapped around her tenuous and shaky writing whenever she wrote about her dystopic society. When she managed to convincingly describe this dystopia in Catching Fire, a lot of the nervous feeling was focussed on whether or not she could write a second gladiatorial book without ending up with a pale shadow of the first.

“Within seconds, a low-flying V-shaped formation of Capitol hoverplanes appears above us, and the bombs begin to fall. I’m blown off my feet, into the front wall of the warehouse. There’s a searing pain just above the back of my right knee. Something has struck my back as well, but doesn’t seem to have penetrated my vest.”

-Mockingjay

Finally, this trust deficit has caught up with her. It is impossible to miss the feeling that Collins has constantly been on a precipice with her writing, and that she has extended herself just a little too far. Although not necessarily a bad piece of writing, Mockingjay contains some very palpable flaws, and brings this series to a disappointing and anticlimactically lukewarm end. The problems begin almost immediately: apparently not satisfied with the cliffhanger she left herself with at the end of the last book, Collins quickly and awkwardly wraps up all of her loose ends, before launching the story in a new and unpredictable direction: mental instability. Writing a breakdown for Katniss makes for uncomfortable reading, and is seldom convincing. The result is a hundred-page tantrum, interspersed with unsettling episodes where the suspension of disbelief is deucedly difficult.

It did not look in the first book like Collins could write dystopia. She wrote marvellously. It did not look in the second book like she could write romance. She did. Strangely then, it is the sort of writing she has already proved that gives another stumbling block here. Having taken gladiatorial combat in her stride, Collins redirects this book into some sort of juvenile special forces narrative, falling rather flat. It is Mockingjay’s ending, then, that provides the only light in this dingy tunnel. A handful of rather intriguing twists and turns make for an unnecessarily preachy but exciting and surprising conclusion, and a vague sense of regret that the ending was connected to the earlier storylines (the mental breakdown and the special forces assault) by the most tenuous of links. A mixed bag, and a flawed ending to an otherwise good series.

Related reviews:
The Hunger Games
Catching Fire

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The Ersatz Elevator, by Lemony Snicket

February 16, 2012 at 04:52 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )

6/10

For a series that has been criticised for being formulaic, this entry is considerably different than the stories preceding it. The Ersatz Elevator builds on the firm foundation set in The Austere Academy, broadening the scope of the story to include more than just the characters of Olaf and the Orphans, who were beginning to feel just a little bit claustrophobic; and opening the prospect for a wider cast throughout the second half of the series.  While none of the characters introduced in this book are particularly spellbinding (both Esmé as a villain and Jerome as her witless accomplice are sadly a little two-dimensional, and mostly absent from the story), the setting marks another first for the series, in the strongest link yet to some sort of coherent story arc, returning the Baudelaires to the beginning of their saga and raising questions that surely must be answered at some point.

“Nowhere in this book will you find the words ‘bubble,’ ‘peacock,’ ‘vacation,’ or, unfortunately for me, anything about an execution being canceled [sic].”

-The Ersatz Elevator

Perhaps in spite of these redeeming characteristics, and notwithstanding the welcome breath of fresh air that it is to the series, as a stand alone book this is not one of the stronger installments in the Series of Unfortunate Events.  There is a little too much time spent on retroactively mending the structure of the series rather than presenting the reader with an engaging and interesting story.  In the wider story arc there need to be pit stops along the way, lest the reader grow wearied with the Baudelaires’ state of continual peril.   For all the menace that is forced into this story, the apartment of Esmé and Jerome is a safe place, and provides for this need admirably. But all of the high points we see here are exciting for what they suggest of the rest of the series; all of the most baffling clues or more stunning revelations are temporary visitors to this story, and belong properly to leftover events from the last book, or answer questions posed by the first book.  While this will undoubtedly be one of the more eagerly consumed volumes of this series, it stands on the merits of the books bracketing it, and not as a convincing adventure in its own right.

Related reviews:
The Miserable Mill
The Vile Village

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The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff

February 12, 2012 at 21:25 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , , )

10/10

Rosemary Sutcliff’s most famous book ought to be looked at in two different ways, and judged on two levels. Firstly, any reader venturing into historical fiction will be instantly drawn to it as a deserving classic. Every word of praise afforded Eagle of the Ninth is surely deserved, and every criticism should be scrutinised heavily. This book is not only a simple story; it is a revelation. It is a sudden meeting between the children’s and young adults’ fiction of the ’80s and ’90s, when children’s literature began to be taken seriously; and literature from the early twentieth century and the nineteenth century, when writers felt able to wax philosophic and lyrical, and were not so concerned with spending a hundred pages on diligently establishing a scene and building meticulously to a grand climax or a cheap twist.

“…he had just started on the fourth and last, when it came to him that he could not see as clearly as he had done a few moments ago. He looked up, and saw Esca’s face shining with sweat in the upward light of the glim; but surely the glim was giving less light than it had done? Even as he looked, the tiny flame began to sink, and the dark came crowding on.”

-The Eagle of the Ninth

Seen in this way, it is easy to understand why first-time readers of Eagle of the Ninth will turn treasure hunter, digging out forgotten volumes from Sutcliff’s vast library, and reading and rereading this book until it falls apart. But beyond the emotional attachment all readers will surely develop for this book, a little must be said on some of its difficulties. In the second way of looking at things, all emotional affection and nostalgic fondness ought to be set aside, and the thing should be examined somewhat more critically. Not necessarily for shortcomings (for it is incredibly difficult to say whether these difficult patches should have or could have been altered), but some of the aspects of this book that make it a difficult match for a template of great children’s literature.

Esca, that magnificently sculpted incarnation of the Noble Savage, manages to hold many of the advantages and few of the drawbacks of that literary trope. It can be asked whether his apparently easy acceptance of Marcus is wishful thinking or clumsy writing. It can be noted how abruptly he enters the story as a latecomer, almost halfway through. It can seem like he becomes only an appendage of Marcus, the book’s real hero; a plot device to help him out, but playing a very distant role the whole time. It is easy to wonder if this aspect of Esca’s character prompted such sweeping changes to his personality in the screen adaptation.

Much the same can be said for Cottia’s character (more strenuously and in a louder voice), and it will come as no surprise to any reader to learn that Sutcliff disliked writing women. Additionally, it can be claimed that this book is really a character study of one man, with hints and fringes of adventure sewn to the edges. Even in the wilds of Valentia the plot follows his journey, his physical weakness and his drifting thoughts, his singularity of purpose and his doggedly light heart.

These are, as mentioned above, difficulties rather than weaknesses to this book; and as difficulties they can be overcome. They are slight enough to be missed on the first readings of this book; mild enough to be ignored by seasoned readers. But for lovers of Sutcliff and devotees to this particular story, they are like mathematical problems to a scientist: to be questioned and teased out, toyed with as curiosities, and then set aside as a part of a precious and much-loved story.

It is impossible not to recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction or adventure.

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The Tea Party Goes to Washington, by Rand Paul

February 8, 2012 at 20:02 (Book Reviews, Mediocre Books, Philosophy, Politics) (, , , )

5/10

To glance the crudely-sketched comic on this book’s cover and take in the name emblazoned above its title, readers might fear the worst. How much political theory can really be compacted into a two-hundred page book? Which chapter might detail a raving warning about Liberals murthering us in our beds with the guns they’ve plucked from our patriotic hands?

But it is a welcoming surprise to find that Senator Rand Paul does not quite fit his caricature. He is full of the whimsy and self-important gas that most politicians of this age are, and his book is equal parts a clarion call to casual libertarians, and waffling autobiography. For the first fifty pages or so, Paul speaks softly and waxes conciliatory. He goes so far to acknowledge that some of the points he makes have another side to them, and that some of the issues he is most passionate about have good counter-points to them.

“…saying that libertarianism isn’t conservatism is like saying communism isn’t socialism or progressivism isn’t liberalism–yet, it’s amusing the degree to which some people still seem to think the two philosophies are incompatible or exclusive.”

-The Tea Party Goes to Washington

Speaking in a literary sense, it is difficult to take any writer seriously who refuses to recognise his own faults, or who makes pretend that his opponents are fiends in human guise. It is hard to stomach the blustering tirades of writers whose fanaticism pours out colourblind manifestos rather than carefully constructed arguments. Rand Paul is guilty of neither of these sins; not here, anyway. For this reason his book remains palatable, and will not be too difficult to read through to the end, for Republicans, for Democrats, or for the rest of us.

It does grow difficult, however, when his passion and fervour take him in dangerous directions. Where he stoops to childish parroting of stock phrases and hackneyed slogans, long bereft of any real meaning and designed for emotional impact only. To a rational reader, his constant invocation of the ghost of Reagan, the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, liberty, small government, freedom, the spectre of communism–all these are swiftly denuded of any actual meaning, and become as useless as old socialist dogma about the working class, the bloodstained flag, the bourgeouise, the reactionaries–and all that claptrap. Seldom does he stop to explain what he even means with some of his key phrases.

“My father also made the point that Obamacare, or the very concept of having a ‘right’ to healthcare, undermines not only the free market but some of the most basic precepts of American life and liberty.”

-The Tea Party Goes to Washington

Does he believe in the liberty to speak one’s mind, the liberty to wreak vengeance upon one’s enemy, the liberty to starve in the street, the liberty to own tanks, or the liberty to give children halucinogens? He never really explains. His definitions are fuzzy around the edges, and limited to one or two hard cases that are nonetheless themselves without context.  For instance, he loudly trumpets his cause against domestic espionage and wiretapping, presenting it as an obvious case where the Fourth Amendment is being violated. He may very well have a point there; but he makes a very poor show of demonstrating his point, contenting himself instead with leaving the point as self evident. This hurts him when he comes to more complex issues. He is simply not willing to venture beyond his catchphrase politics.

So what of this book? It makes a pretence of being some kind of systematic treatment of the Tea Party’s beliefs, but it is long on rhetorical posturing and short on substance. Rand Paul makes a fairly convincing case here that he is not a bad person, but that does not necessarily make him a good politician, or a good writer.

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George’s Marvellous Medicine, by Roald Dahl

February 2, 2012 at 01:49 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Comedy, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , )

5/10

One of Roald Dahl’s shortest children’s books, this can hardly be described as a complex story. Like many of his classics, the accusation could be very fairly made that he planned poorly, and relied on his peerless descriptive prowess to see him through; that he made things up as he went along, and truncated storylines when he ran out of ideas.

This book is split into three parts: the description of a dreadful life that Dahl did so well as to become a staple in subsequent children’s literature, a fabulous exploration of the medicine’s manifold and imaginitive ingredients, and then finally (and most confusingly) a series of descriptions about the medicine’s effects.

The first two parts are performed (if not masterfully) then to satisfaction. George’s life is not so magnificently written as Charlie Bucket’s or James Trotter’s, but it is classic Dahl. The creation of the potion is not so pregnant with excitement and magic as Danny and his father scraping together the ingredients for downing a flock of pheasants, but there is the same lyrical madness as some of Dahl’s poetry, and it makes for fun reading. Even the ending, the final part of the book, is not all bad. It is simply not Dahl’s best work. He seems unable or unwilling to finish a thought, and consequences (when they do happen) happen all in a rush and a tumble, and are a little anticlimactic in nature.

“The old hag opened her small wrinkled mouth, showing disgusting pale brown teeth.”

-George’s Marvellous Medicine

Attention must also be given to Roald Dahl’s description of George’s grandmother. Never one to censor his bile, it would be foolish to expect this writer who made his name writing violent and graphic stories to shirk his duty here. But the descriptions of the old hag are a little sharper and a little more bitter than in some of the other books. There is a little less fantasy and a slightly more disturbing result, and combined with the much weaker story, these problems aggregate to leave us with a wry and entertaining but ultimately unpalatable story.

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