The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

January 26, 2013 at 16:13 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Thriller) (, , , )




Throughout this novel, Eco writes with an impressively dualistic pen (which is not a reference to the dual nature of his protagonist), managing a gentle and likeable humour in the midst of a biting and sarcastic narrative. It often seems that Eco loves his grotesque Simonini as much as he despises him; and the result is a sympathy that the reader cannot but help being drawn into.

“And when I was old enough to understand, he reminded me that the Jew, as well as being as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a Gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmyk, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti, is adulterous through uncontrollable lust…”

-The Prague Cemetery

The Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect of the story, introduced almost at the outset, at first seems like a bad idea–especially when the narrator adds his voice to the tumult, resulting in the sort of “believe me, gentle reader” voice that has been about done to death. Although the narrator’s intrusions remain a little unwieldy throughout the book, Eco’s protagonist (or protagonists) share their duties well, and the style is neither heavyhanded nor aggravating. A vanity, perhaps, but a useful one. Eco’s debt to Dumas is flaunted openly, but he is also skilled enough as a writer to address Dumas as a peer, and uses his predacessor as a gilded frame and not as a crutch. One of the gravest pitfalls of consciously emphasising another writer (in homage or in plagiarism) is to remind the reader how much they’d prefer to be reading that book rather than yours, and Eco avoids this trammel and remains convincing and lively throughout.

The subject matter is of the very coarsest: quite besides the outrageously racist and misogynistic protagonist, when the setting is the darkest slums and salons of nineteenth-century Paris and the cast includes corrupt priests and satanists, one might rightly expect some decidedly objectionable material. It is surprising then how discretely Eco treats his foulest and dirtiest plot elements, in a way that other authors ought to take careful note of. The pages of murders, whores, and assassinations are not visceral things dripping with clinically-described gore, and the casual sidestepping of the most indelicate acts is written neither lecherously nor prudishly. With exception to a few needlessly graphic pages near the end, this book might be a study in writing maturely and sensitively about the very nastiest of actions. Again, this might be a conscious emulation of Eco’s influencers.

It would be far too generous to say that this book is faultless, but it is a compelling thriller written by an author who is both competent and comfortable with his subject, and whose depiction of his antihero is subtle and clever.

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Despoilers of the Golden Empire, by Randall Garrett

January 19, 2013 at 10:17 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )




The problem with Randall Garrett, is that he was a writer with a tremendous imagination and an enormous stock of cleverness and creativity, but without a matching talent for writing. Despoilers of the Golden Empire showcases a terrific amount of clunky clauses and grammatical errors, some truly dreadful schoolboy dialogue, and reads much like an extended exercise from the workbook of a particularly gifted college student still learning his trade. Nevertheless, the surprise element of the story is managed with an almost careless finesse: it is difficult to criticise an author who–in the midst of his unprofessional demeanour–is nevertheless so very convincing.

“The sun, a yellow G-O star, hung hotly just above the towering mountains to the east. The alien air smelled odd in the men’s nostrils, and the weird foliage seemed to rustle menacingly.”

-Despoilers of the Golden Empire

It might almost be said that Garrett’s short stories lend themselves perfectly towards adaptation, where a clever idea might be seized upon, and all the unrefined penmanship in the world forgiven in a heartbeat–were it not for the perverse fact that so many of his stories are so intractably and immutably wed to their literary format, and by their nature would be deucedly difficult to adapt. Instead then, they ought to be read and cherished by those patient enough to recognise in his words an impatient dreamer, satisfied with scribbling his brainwave (or his private joke, or his tantalising but unfinished sketch) and abandoning it in mid-stroke. Misshapen, unlovely, but interesting in a very unique and attractive way.

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The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

January 14, 2013 at 07:58 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , , )


Perhaps no genre has been sullied by the feet of so many slipshod hacks as the genre of alternate history. Of all the vast morass of “genre fiction” (that is, popular fiction written around a literary trope specifically for a saturated market), it is possible to find excellent science fiction, or skilfully-written romances. Historical fiction and fantasy from masterful pens stands proud amongst the tidal waves of bad imitations. But explicitly state that a book is an alternate history, and it will almost certainly be no good at all.

Perhaps it is the tired habit of trotting out dozens of cameo appearances by characters who happened to share a time period. Maybe the temptation proves too great to bore the reader with a litany of improbable events that make “this” history distinct from what really happened: and there are few things more horrifying than an historical lecture by an amateur who thinks he knows everything. Perhaps it is an undiscovered physical constant, that an author declaring, “I think I shall write an alternate history” automatically churns out something dreadful.

“Lindbergh was the first famous living American whom I learned to hate–just as President Roosevelt was the first famous living American whom I was taught to love–and so his nomination by the Republicans to run against Roosevelt in 1940 assaulted, as nothing ever had before, that huge endowment of personal security that I had taken for granted as an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world.”

-The Plot Against America

Philip Roth is by no means a novice writer, nor is he a talentless hack. But tragically, this constant seems to apply to him as well. It really is too bad. Most of The Plot Against America is a tragic and dysfunctional narrative about a struggling working class family. There really is no reason why President Lindbergh has to put in an appearance at all. In fact for that reason alone, Roth actually succeeds in telling a very very good story. There is some excellent tension between the characters, and Roth even blindsides the reader to a degree in shuffling the cousin and the father and the elder brother in and out of the “villain” and “hero” boxes. Unreliable narrators are always fun to read, and unreliable characters even more so: the pettiness of heroes and the nobility of antiheroes is subtly depicted, and makes for excellent reading.

Here is an excellent piece of advice. Upon reading this book, when you reach page 300 (or thereabouts), stop. The final hundred pages contain a confused and incredibly bland denouement, written in much the same style as one might expect in a dull newspaper. Roth has been accused by some reviewers of pulling out a deus ex machina, but this is unfair to writers who use deus ex machinae. He pulls out at least three of them, and piles them up in a precarious and pointless mess. The whole ending reeks of a publisher’s deadline, or of a writer’s indecision. Incidentally, the whole ending is also the part where Roth plummets irretrievably into the alternate-history pitfall of dully explaining a convoluted and meaningless (in the context of the rest of his story) timeline.

Not a recommended read, and definitely not for finishing.

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American Patriots, by Rick Santorum

January 5, 2013 at 11:04 (Book Reviews, Historical, Politics) (, , , )




The striking thing about this book (one of only two that Santorum has written) is its pithy and generally amoral tone. Santorum himself has some decidedly outspoken views, and is a divisive figure in American politics, but one would hardly know it from reading American Patriots. He is loath to make strong statements, instead cataloguing a series of second-rate personalities from a war distant enough to be non-controversial with a milquetoast, ingratiating sort of voice. He takes great care to include chapters on ethnic minorities, different religions and denominations, and women; and on working-class men, merchants, and aristocrats–no matter how mundane their so-called achievements. Each chapter and each section is meticulously and clinically laid out to produce a disinfected and harshly scrubbed book that ought to appeal to any conscientious American voter. Santorum might not be seeking office right now, but he is plainly still a politician, and his ghostwriter (or writing persona) is much more of a sanitised middle-American than his more forceful image from the 2012 election.

“Having represented the state of Pennsylvania and the Cradle of Liberty–Philadelphia–as a United States senator for twelve years, I wanted to share what I was blessed to be exposed to there: the rich history of the American Revolution”

-American Patriots

It is with this general blandness in mind that the precise nature of the heroes Santorum chooses to venerate falls into sharp contrast. His scattering of “forgotten patriots” is a seething nest of pirates, liars, perjurers, murderers, blackguards, slavers, and traitors. The pages are soaked with blood, and provide a grizzly litany of prisoners-of-war shot and hanged in cold blood, men worked to death in the fields of masters who are held up as shining examples of benevolent slaveowners, knives flashed in the dark, and all sorts of other unsavoury actions. Beside these stories, preachers and statesmen are unironically compared, and the question has to be asked: does America have no more worthwhile heroes, or does Rick Santorum display a stark and confusing hypocrisy in his application of his Christian faith to history?

“Benjamin thought they should simply shoot them all. Not Nancy. Shooting was too good for these redcoats; she wanted them to hang. So they strung up the five remaining soldiers on a nearby tree.”

-American Patriots

This two-faced nature of Santorum’s compilation contributes significantly towards a lack of purpose in this book. There is neither a strong moral message, nor indeed a central exposition: only a seemingly-random series of various historical footnotes, stretched nearly to breaking point to scarcely fill out a hundred pages. Admittedly in spite of the bowdlerised and offensively inoffensive editorialising, the writing is smooth and constructed with care and skill, but the simplest answer to the problems in this book is that it is not really intended to be read. It is a very pretty book, with an excellent cover design and some fancy printing in the pages, but this is a book made to be gifted and displayed upon one’s bookshelf to announce a political worldview, and perhaps to be idly glanced at to pass time. To say that it is an empty book written by an empty writer would perhaps be calumnious; but it might at least be close to the mark.

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