Candide, by Voltaire

June 8, 2013 at 08:01 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Comedy, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Philosophy) (, , , )




Voltaire’s controversial masterpiece is an impressive chunk of book; none the less considering it is still able to provoke strong reactions two and a half centuries after its initial publication. That alone does not make it worthwhile or amazing: strong emotions can be conjured by simple things. But there is no denying its cleverness. Cursed cleverness sometimes, and seldom in the service of anything clearly noble or even clear. Voltaire’s mockery of altruism is as plain as the nose on one’s face, but his derision for any who might dare to read his tragicomedy so straightforwardly shows through in many places, leading astute readers to suspect that he is equally contemptuous of pessimists, who might nod sagely at his farcical series of mishaps while he laughs behind the backs of both.

“‘It is demonstrable,’ said he, ‘that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles—thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles—therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten—therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best.'”


It is the great trick of snide writers to be able to sneer at any strong belief their readers hold, regardless of what that belief is. An excellent review (for which this review is at least partly an apologetic) makes the very salient point that Candide paints so black a picture of the worldview it seeks to emasculate that it becomes useless, and distorts everything into a caricature. But Voltaire’s clumsy straw man is a pastiche not only of altruism, but a cruel sketch of those who would themselves construct such straw men.

It is very unpleasant to be laughed at, and for that reason it is tempting to adopt the same distant aloofness and join Voltaire in his ivory tower. He is a misanthrope, and it is very difficult to see things from a misanthrope’s point of view without also joining him in his pathology. This can cause problems for readers unwilling to enter into conspiracy with the author. Several writers both modern and classic exhibit this same disagreeable trait of being unbearably clever (and sometimes even witty) without being at all likeable or honest: Joseph Heller, for instance; or Will Self.

There is a great deal of parable in Candide, and a hallmark of a parable is its licence to dispense with logical storyline (“and then, because it suits my purposes, an Ogre appeared in Grimsby”), dispense with a willing suspension of disbelief (“and just as her pursuers caught up to her, she grew great wings and took to the sky”), and dispense with solid characters (“once upon a time there was a wicked witch”). Because of this, if one is unwilling to enter into conspiracy against the public with Voltaire, there is very little in this book that will be at all interesting. Because of this, the author clearly expects shortcomings in his story to be forgiven at the behest of his message. One’s willingness to do this (or at least to feign it) will be directly proportional to one’s enjoyment (or at least tolerance) of this book.


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After Magritte, by Tom Stoppard

April 28, 2013 at 22:22 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Theatrical Plays) (, , )




Tom Stoppard’s humour is not necessarily of the zinger-punchline sort. He tends to be wry and ironic; but evidently the overly pronounced surrealism in After Magritte persuaded him to let loose just a little bit, and there are passages in here to elicit more than the occasional snort of laughter or satisfied chuckle. It goes without saying that the dialogue is razor sharp; and the characters, constructed in such a short time, will remain memorable and distinct even after speeding into and out of the reader’s attention. More tellingly, they are more than just props with which to adorn a clever repartee. Not a lot more (there simply isn’t time or space for that), but Stoppard skirts around the edges of pathos and offers up the vaguest hints of elaborate and unlikely backstories. He demonstrates very well how successfully a single uttered word at the right time can speak volumes for a character’s motivations, general attitudes, and inclinations.

“You can’t find your search warrant!”

-After Magritte

It is not necessary to be familiar with or even aware of René Magritte’s work to thoroughly enjoy this play, although certain set-pieces and tangential features will seem like a little wasted space as a consequence. If a criticism is to be made, it is that the exposition and the build-up to the play’s climax are proportionally a little too long for the conclusion, which is remarkably sudden and brief. Despite this perceived imbalance, the ending is not at all unsatisfying, and at risk of charging Stoppard with conceit, makes some nicely subtle references towards Magritte’s own theories of art.

Unlike Stoppard’s more famous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, this play is markedly more straightforward and simple to understand, for all that it is a surrealist nod to a surrealist icon. For that reason alone although it might not be the ideal entry point into his catalogue, it would certainly not be a bad place to start for a reader investigating all of the well-deserved hubub around this renowned writer.

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Anthem, by Ayn Rand

June 23, 2012 at 21:09 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Dystopia, Fiction, Philosophy, Poorly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , )


It is important to not mince words. Ayn Rand was a hack, a shuddering and grating alarm blaring a single-noted siren with a stygian monotony. She never knew Dante, but if she had, she would surely have figured in his magnum opus as one of the particularly graceless staff of his infernal establishment. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she represents the absolute bottom rung of the tiresome ladder of the written word, pasting up antisocial complaints and hideously self-satisfied whining and expecting it to be hailed as literature.

But let the philosophers judge her defunct philosophies for what they are! It is for the students of literature to pick over the carcass they have left, and see if there remains an actual story beneath the epistle of this raving prophet. In Atlas Shrugged, the clear answer is no. In Anthem, the answer might be a little more complicated.

“I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of the spirit. I guard my treasures, my thought, my will, my freedom; and the greatest of these is freedom.”


In her favour, there is a story to be found: a light dystopia such as Lois Lowry might have penned for children; a simple parable with an equally simple message behind it. Never mind that the message in Rand’s case is abhorent. At least it is a story, and told in a consistent if petulant voice. She aspires to Orwell and ends up with a juvenile pulp novelette, but although the product is trite, rushed and muddled, it is at least not nauseating.

A great deal of this changes in the penultimate chapter, which is the light version of John Galt’s speech in her more famous book. There are no apologies, no warnings, and if ever there were a distilled version of Rand’s own ten verbose commandments, they would be found starkly inscribed here. A tedious chapter and a predictable and shabby end for a book, but the fact that this one chapter is so noticeably worse than the others, is a pyrrhic point in favour for Anthem.

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Great Apes, by Will Self

June 6, 2012 at 06:51 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Poorly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , )


Will Self is a frighteningly intelligent man who takes a perverse delight in doing disgusting things to beautiful words. Great Apes is one of those books that begins with a clever or original idea (although honestly, not all that original) and works behind it as under a mask to make the initial premise the unwilling slave of a certain conceit of style, or flavour. This book is all atmosphere and very little substance, and all commentary and very little story. It is difficult to tell whether Will Self is unutterably pleased with himself for being so blamed clever all the time, or if he is adopting such a persona in order to laugh at it. It is not really very important which.

The central idea is that human beings are as noble and arrogant as any batch of greasy apes happen to be; and again and again this is piled on with a trowel in much the same way as Orson Scott Card in Lovelock. There is not much more than this, and what might have been an excellent display of Self’s ample wit and silver tongue is instead contorted into a tiresome sneer at humanity.

“Then their tongues slid over and under, pink shrews blindly questing.”

-Great Apes

As might be expected, Will Self writes with a deucedly elegant pen, and weighs and portions his words like an apothecary, or a lover, dosing the reader meticulously with impeccably crafted language, placing each jot and tittle with immaculate care: and using them to paint an ugly and cheap picture of cartoonish horror. There lies the greatest disappointment with this book. It might have been excellent. Instead, it is like the genius in the class who insists on clowning around in every lesson, turning in every assignment late, and with more of an eye towards upsetting the teacher than proving his worth.

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To Own a Dragon, by Donald Miller

June 3, 2012 at 18:46 (Biography, Book Reviews, Comedy, Highly Rated Books, Theology) (, , , , )


Is…that a moustache? It looks like a wheat field, but…no, that’s definitely a moustache. As uncomfortably close as anyone might wish to get to a stranger’s moustache, but a moustache nonetheless. A soul patch, maybe, but certainly a subset of the moustache species.

Putting aside (with difficulty) the brazen cover art, To Own a Dragon might be the first book Donald Miller has written as a grown-up. This could be a good thing or a bad thing. One of the reasons his previous books (Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What, etc.) were so brilliant, so re-readable and heartfelt, was because they had an unquenchable air of rebellion about them. They were emphatically not written by a stodgy old know-it-all. They were not preachy because it was impossible to imagine a preacher scrabbling around beneath a hippy van in a sunbleached corner of Arizona. They were written by a fellow who listened to Ani DiFranco.

“In the end, women are really attracted to guys who have their crap together. I doubt there are many women enamored (sic) by the idea of living in a box under a bridge, sucking on a bouillon cube while her man reads Emerson. This is probably not what the old ovaries are pining for.”

-To Own a Dragon

In To Own a Dragon Miller has noticeably matured, and seems to have shed some of the rambling artist along the way. His voice and his authority are clearer, and for perhaps the first time he writes with the weight of experience (rather than the rather novel concept of emphasising his weight of inexperience that so characterised his earlier books).

This makes To Own a Dragon a little less funny than it might have been, but does not necessarily make it more profound. It is simply a different tone for a different subject, and while it can be compared just a little less favourably than its predacessors, it is a valuable book with some excellent theology and wise principles to live by laid out in a gentle and very appealing way.

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All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, by Tod Wodicka

April 29, 2012 at 14:59 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )


Another reviewer has somewhere said, “I enjoyed it, but had to brush my teeth afterward.” This witty soundbyte sums up All Shall Be Well… fairly perfectly, and is a very fitting evaluation (it is tempting to say “epitaph”) for this absurdist tragicomedy. There is an interesting contrast at work here, between cutely funny and desperately melancholic, and unfortunately the latter tends to drown out the former. It bears repeating: where Wodicka aims for sweet and empathetic, he does it very well. When he aims for overwhelming depression, he perhaps does it too well.

Of the two main characters, Hecker and his wife (and the added extra of his wife’s bipolar personalities) a strong comparison can be drawn with Beckett’s Nagg and Nell: trapped in both past and present and horrified to find the future only a grim copy of their memories. They are bleak, hopeful in a very depressing way, sly and distinctly unappealing. Their troublesome lives are reflected in repeated allusions towards Hecker’s patchwork of history: he is the latest in a long parade of failures. This theme is subverted somewhat by the inclusion of a few notes of what smells suspiciously like hope towards the end of his story; Wodicka spiting Hecker’s historical incarnations and forcing the question as to whether this book is a condemnation or an affirmation of predeterminism.

“Dawn, or its German equivalent, cannot be far off.”

-All Shall Be Well…

And this is where the quote from the beginning comes in: this is an enjoyable book, and Wodicka does have a unique and fervid style. But perhaps the story is told from too close a vantage point, and Hecker’s sickly mead binges and sordid, ugly life drags on, chapter by chapter, a litany of the gross and excessive with only occasional relief. Hecker is sent on a pilgrimage to rediscover his son, his daughter, his lawyer, his sense of purpose, and all of the mixed reasons why characters in novels go on pilgrimages. It is not that his character fails; only that the pilgrimage is only barely distinguishable from his regular life. It is not this novel’s bleakness that damages it (for bleak novels can be tremendous fun and deeply moving) but its stagnancy.

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Snuff, by Terry Pratchett

April 18, 2012 at 18:30 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , )


Sam Vimes is one of Pratchett’s best and most enduring characters, starring in more Discworld books than even Rincewind. He tends to embody Pratchett’s view of an ideal hero (particularly in his constant struggles against his own darkness, and his rigid adherance to the rule of law), and if ever he falls, it is not very far and not for very long. It must be acknowledged that Sam Vimes is easily Pratchett’s most likeable character. Combined, these traits make this book instantly readable, but also rather predictable. It is hardly likely that Terry Pratchett will choose to have his pristine hero watch his wife or son die, or lose his fortune or his reputation, any more than Ankh Morpork will be destroyed or Vetinari will be permanently unseated. Such are the hazards of writing a forty-book series. Eventually, suspense wanes.

There is a fair amount of dallying back-and-forth that goes on in Snuff, which might lead some to suspect that the story has been needlessly padded out. Vimes spends an unwarranted amount of time bouncing between his manorial estate, the local tavern, the goblin den and the local gaol. In any other mystery story (most of the Watch stories boil down to mysteries sooner or later) this would be time well spent in digging through the surprising secrets and scandalous miscellania of the extended cast, as well as building up the main characters. This doesn’t really happen.

“He would want Vimes to know who was killing him. Vimes, Vimes realised, knew killers too well for his own peace of mind.”


Vimes has been well-explored in several other books, and it would be unfair to say that his character is neglected in Snuff. But after reading this book, Discworld aficionados will not have glimpsed much more about Sybil, or Young Sam, or Vetinari, or even Lord Rust or Willikins. Instead of meaningful exposition, Pratchett serves up occasional cameo glimpses of a handful of characters who serve little purpose other than as placation for fans. These diversions are seldom necessary and always distracting, and break up the pace of this book terribly. The entire subplot in Ankh Morpork is entirely unnecessary, and is the worst example of this habit. Snuff is spread too thinly and insubstantially across too wide an area, and while it is a charming adventure story for Sam Vimes, it does not contain anywhere near the depth, the attention to detail, or the sophistication of Pratchett’s best works.

The writing is generally good, but the hazards of writing interior monologues for characters written in the third person catches up with Pratchett from time to time, resulting in some peculiar sentence structures and clumsy descriptions. It is sad to say, but an enduring epitaph to the Discworld series might be that it all began to sound the same. There is the distinct feeling of a slightly frustrated author who is not quite sure how to clearly communicate what he wants to say. Fans of Terry Pratchett will forgive this instantly, but for newer readers the verdict will be the same as it has been for the last half-dozen novels: don’t start with this one. He writes much better than this.

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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) (, , )


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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How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, by Toby Young

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


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.


“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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Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett

June 14, 2011 at 15:36 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , , )


Terry Pratchett writes three types of Discworld books: those that are packed with stale, recycled jokes; original and charming work overflowing with surprising and bombastic set-piece comedy, and those that have genuinely interesting plot concepts that make thrilling novels even without the sly puns and cutting pastiches.

Thief of Time is one of the latter. It might not be the funniest thing he’s ever written, but neither is it boring, and was written before he began to run out of ideas. The plot is genuine fantasy adventure material, and feels something like a collaboration between Douglas Adams and Philip K. Dick. Thief of Time certainly ranks with Small Gods and Thud! in terms of fresh and new characters and creatures being introduced (though of course old favourites surface here and there) and equals Small Gods for making the reader sit up and think. It is deeply refreshing to find an author so keenly dedicated to dreaming up fantastic ideas, but then sticking with them and building them into autonomous creatures that grow and breed naturally and organically. All sorts of philosophical questions are raised, as well as Pratchett’s own delightful brand of pseudoscience, pseudoanatomy, pseudomathematics and such. And besides; when else have you known a writer to devote an entire book to explaining his own plot holes?

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