Sherlock Holmes was Wrong, by Pierre Bayard

January 5, 2014 at 22:53 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Fiction, Literature, Mediocre Books, Mystery) (, , , )

HolmesWasWrong

6/10

6/10

Pierre Bayard needs three things to make this book a success: a compelling argument to back up his audacious title, a solid grounding in mystery literature in general and Arthur Conan Doyle in particular, and at least twenty five thousand words of really good stuff. Unfortunately for Bayard and for his readers, he has only the first two.

This book can be broadly divided into three sections. In the first, he explains why Holmes’ conclusions in The Hound of the Baskervilles are completely wrong. In the second, he offers an introduction to literary criticism and psychoanalysis, and explains why the prospect can even be considered. In the third, he suggests an alternate explanation.

“Faced with this patchwork narrative, only blind faith could impel a reader to accept without reservations…the account that has been imposed on us for more than a century…”

-Sherlock Holmes was Wrong

The first problem has its germ in this particular layout. Nowhere does the cover of this book suggest that it will be an academic text discussing the freudian reflexes of Doyle, or the ideas of characters and readers immigrating and emmigrating to and from the text. Bayard can be excused–grudgingly, of course–on the grounds that this second section is not interminably long, and that it is really quite interesting, and presented succinctly and with a certain style.

So much, then, for the first problem. The second problem lies in the fact that once this middle section is excluded, there remains only an essay of middling length to explain Holmes’ faults and the author’s theories. It might even be considered to Bayard’s credit that these theories so instantly hold water, and that it does not take pages of haranguing to prove the fictional detective’s mistakes. It does, however, mean that this book is really not very satisfying as a whole. It is a quick cover-to-cover read, and it is of course worth the small effort. Bayard might have done better to write a wider critique of Holmes as a character and a man: then the literary criticism would have formed a natural introduction, and the Baskerville episode could have formed one thrilling case study among several others.

The problem with that, of course, is that nobody would have read it. This book’s snappy title and salacious promises certainly do not leave one empty; but neither are they especially filling.

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War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

November 30, 2013 at 10:18 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literature, Mediocre Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , )

WarAndPeace

6/10

6/10

It seems foolish to complain that this book is so exceptionally long; like complaining the Bible has too much religion, or the Magna Carta has too much politics. The complaint that really ought to be laid at Tolstoy’s door is this: for a writer so obtusely uneconomical with his words, he does not do nearly as much with them as he might have. When an author spends thousands of pages describing a place, a person, an idea; there ought to be a strong emotional or impressionable impact on the reader. Tolstoy comes a certain distance towards this. Certainly it would be untrue to claim that he does not adequately describe his creations. It would not be fair to say that his is a problem of detail. Rather, it is a problem of beauty.

Compare him for an instance with Melville. Melville is thicker and sludgier and harder to read for pleasure than Tolstoy, but when he describes a smoke-rimed tavern or the vivifying enormity of a storm, it is impossible to fail to be moved and captured. Or let us look at Hemingway. If the problem is a problem of inadequate floridness, let us pit Tolstoy against an author renowned for his refusal to bow to poetry! But there is an impact and a seething, brusque emotion in Hemingway that is utterly devoid in War and Peace.

“The general on horseback at the entrance to the dam raised his hand and opened his mouth to address Dolokhov. Suddenly a cannon ball hissed so low above the crowd that everyone ducked. It flopped into something moist, and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood. Nobody gave him a look or thought of raising him.”

-War and Peace

This book feels like reading Pride and Prejudice seven times through, only with more death and without Jane Austen’s humour. The Peace is bland drawing-room scandal and folly. The War is interesting, but only on an intellectual level. This summary seems damning, and it is distinctly peculiar that the book is honestly not a bad read. In fact, in spite of its unnecessary length it is really worth the time; particularly in an age when the vapid lives of soap opera and sitcom characters fill vastly more hours than it takes to plough through this novel. The point is not that it is uninteresting. The characters are immaculately drawn (those that matter, anyway) and the historical narrative is truly fascinating. In fact, by the end of the (first) epilogue, this could almost be called a page-turner.

The problems then, if they are not the book’s monstrous size or quality of writing, are twofold. First is simply a case of expectation. Tolstoy’s style (or the styles of at least two of his translators) is vexingly drifty, without a very powerful narrative stamp. He seems to absorb by osmosis some of the aristocratic lassitude of Pierre and the Rostovs, and there is a displeasing lack of decisive direction. For an author to take his readers so deeply into any story, he really must have the humour or the choler or the wryness to truly captivate his reader: not merely to tell an interesting story and trust that the reader is following along. The second problem is the generally unremarkable aspect of so many of his characters. There is nobody to love and nobody to hate.

“Rostov became thoughtful.
‘I never go back on my word, he said. ‘Besides, Sonya is so charming that only a fool would renounce such happiness.'”

-War and Peace

Books are paintings, and come in as many sharply contrasting styles as works of visual art. There are the Caravaggios, with menacingly daubed streaks of deep contrast and dazzling light. There are impressionistic streams of consciousness or works of muzzy pointillism. But if Tolstoy painted, he would paint an enormous canvas with a Gainsborough landscape, covering the entire wall of a gallery and dotting in each painstaking figure and wisp of cloud. This is the lasting feeling of War and Peace: it leaves nothing out, and there is nothing to complain about; but it never draws itself to a point as if to say this!–is what the story is about!

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Peter the Great, by Jacob Abbott

September 15, 2013 at 19:39 (Biography, Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics) (, , )

6/10

There are few reasons to elevate this book above any other historical biography. In fact, it might be expected that a book about so colourful a character as Peter ought to make thrilling reading from start to finish. There are, therefore, two things that must be granted to Abbott before commencing. The first is the admission that in spite of such a colourful subject, he seldom succumbed to the temptation to indulge in creative writing, or really any sort of sensationalism whatsoever. Rather than seeking to either panegyrise or demonise Peter with a magniloquent pen, he does his level best to judge him as a seventeenth century monarch, and to give the dull but important scenes from his life at least equal footing with the rambunctious but trivial.

“The sending of a grand embassage like this from one royal or imperial potentate to another was a very common occurrence in those times. The pomp and parade with which they were accompanied were intended equally for the purpose of illustrating the magnificence of the government that sent them, and of offering a splendid token of respect to the one to which they were sent.”

-Peter the Great (Abbott)

Abbott’s second success lies in his crucial effort to offer his suggestions on the significance of Peter’s reign and life, both on Russia and on European history. He strikes a patient and pleasant balance between investigating the long-term effects of Peter’s reign, without overstepping his bounds as a reporter and analyst of a particular era.

With these bright spots acknowledged, it must be said that this book is neither groundbreaking nor controversial. It is a bread-and-butter history text, and while useful or even necessary for a student of Russian history, has little unique to recommend it, either in its facts or in its style. Again: it should be impressed upon the prospective reader that these two points in favour of Abbott’s history are issues that many, many other historians trip upon, and trip upon badly. Peter the Great is extremely useful, and it is even quite interesting. It isn’t thrilling, and if the author cannot really be faulted for this then he cannot either be lionised for a rather prosaic work. It is in many ways like reading a school textbook. Some very memorable hours can be whiled away in reading school textbooks, but when in school, even poetry textbooks are never poetic.

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Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig

June 30, 2013 at 15:01 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Literature, Mediocre Books, Music, Philosophy, Science and Technology) (, , )

FreeCulture

6/10

6/10

There is a sort of schizophrenic veering between Lessig’s historical contextualising of the evolution and development of copyright law, and his impassioned denouncement of so-called ‘Big Media’. His attempts to draw a straight line between the two are not always entirely successful, and hostile readers might well suspect him of permitting his motives to lead him on an unwarranted crusade. Where he is successful, he is often convincing and guileless, and speaks with a great deal of conviction. His forays into historical documentation are amateur sketches of dogeared case-studies that have held his own attention for years, but are nevertheless interesting with only a few exceptions. His contemporary hectoring tends to be a lot more vibrant, and the autobiographical sections detailing his own Supreme Court case manages to be at the same time exciting and frustrating, bearing the fault that it has been trimmed down to a bare summary of the facts.

“The hard question is therefore not whether a culture is free. All cultures are free to some degree. The hard question instead is “How free is this culture?” How much, and how broadly, is the culture free for others to take and build upon? Is that freedom limited to party members? To members of the royal family? …To artists generally, whether affiliated with the Met or not? To musicians generally, whether white or not? To filmmakers generally, whether affiliated with a studio or not?”

-Free Culture

Lessig has the flaw of being needlessly paternalistic and pedagogical, particularly when describing the absolute worst-case scenarios that he anticipates. In spite of his flaws he is deeply passionate about his subject, and although it is this passion which often leads him astray it also breaks up the monotony of his drier material and lays his biases and motives fairly plainly out for all to see.

This is neither great literature nor a particularly cunning or sophisticated piece of work, but it is the work of a true believer with a strong argument to make. Doubtless there are more informative texts on the battle for copyright protection; also doubtless there are books written by men and women whose expertise on copyright history is a little more solidly defined. This is therefore a difficult book to recommend. It is a good book, but not a great book. It is a good entry-level text, but has faults that might deter further inquiry into the subject. It is easy to read, but it might have been both easier to read and less repetitive, with a more comprehensive exposition.

Read it, enjoy it, but don’t expect it to be the best or most scholarly piece of work available.

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Candide, by Voltaire

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

Candide

6/10

6/10

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.'”

-Candide

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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Peter and the Secret of Rundoon, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

March 31, 2013 at 17:58 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , , )

5/10

This book was a difficult one to rate. Ultimately, it was more exciting and action-packed than either of its predacessors. Unfortunately, even well-written action and adventure cannot compensate for a poor story, and in spite of a fast pace and some magnificent set-pieces, it was simply not as good.

There are some books that fall apart on one terrible issue that the author cannot get his head around: a devastatingly anticlimactic ending, or a limp and flat character inexplicably placed in the centre of everything. But Peter and the Secret of Rundoon dies a death of a thousand pinpricks. Popped seams and stretched plausibility from the earlier books — repairable mistakes left for a moment too long — combine to create an ultimately negative impression. Errors that ought to have been corrected by now, by a competent editor at least–or by an excellent writer–finally come of age and somewhat capsize this venture.

“The figure stepped into the torchlight. Again Molly fought back a scream. A long black moustache slashed across a familiar hatchet-thin face.
Hook!

-Peter and the Secret of Rundoon

Molly has always been rather desperately pushed forward by the authors as a strong female character, usually comedically contrasted with Tinkerbell’s jealous sniping and grousing. She has never been a tiresome nag or a helpless idiot, but the feeling has always hung heavy that Tinkerbell is actually right, and that all of the jokes have contained a serious edge. Molly has several very uncomfortable and grown-up fights with several of the characters at a couple of different points, and this does an enormous amount of damage to the painstakingly cultivated character that Barry and Pearson nurtured over two other books.

The decision is finally made for the ghastly and mysterious Lord Ombra to come clean about his origins and his goals: which ultimately proves to be a disastrous choice. There is a bleak and surprisingly atheistic rant that comes out of nowhere, and the villains become considerably more prosaic and less impressive as a result. Indeed, the story loses much of the magic and fairytale beauty that it had managed to create in a surprisingly short time. Coupled with some bewilderingly anachronistic inventions that are shoehorned into the story seemingly to lazily patch plot holes, and any reader might be forgiven for wondering if the burst of enthusiasm with which this series began, has…run out of pixie dust?

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Despoilers of the Golden Empire, by Randall Garrett

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

5/10

5/10

DespoilersOfTheGoldenEmpire

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 Difficult Relationship, by Richard Aldous

December 8, 2012 at 11:42 (Book Reviews, English History, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )

4/10

4/10

TheDifficultRelationshipThose readers who are not thoroughly tired of two-hundred page history books marketing themselves with sensationalist claims of the untold shocking story that will redefine the world – probably ought to be. At first glance, this book looks like more of the same. It’s not entirely true. But the title is subtle enough to provide a few misconceptions. A marriage (to borrow a metaphor often pasted onto the Reagan-Thatcher relationship) can be “difficult” because the couple are constantly at each other’s throats, or it can be “difficult” because they loyally and patiently endure difficult times, without ever turning on each other. Aldous does a rather good job playing with the two definitions, and seems to go back and forth between which one he prefers.

Predictably, he spends most of his time dwelling on the hardest parts of the relationship, but outside of the first few pages where he makes his initial case that Thatcher and Reagan were hardly wearing rose-tinted glasses he provides a very level and unambitious catalogue of the political crises that affected both leaders. Is this book weighted to emphasise the negative and entirely eclipse the positive? Of course it is. But not in a dishonest way. Any myopia is entirely appropriate to his context, and Aldous never claims to be giving a comprehensive view of events. He is simply doing what he promised, in laying out the difficulties faced by both parties; whether the difficulties were caused by differences in policy, differences in temperament, mutual misunderstandings, allies and enemies, or deliberate antagonism.

“For the first time it seemed in hours, Thatcher stopped talking. Even with her thick skin, impervious as she was to criticism or embarrassment, the prime minister understood that she had gone too far. Around the table, nobody moved as Reagan maintained eye contact.”

-The Difficult Relationship

Where this book falls slightly short is its failure to offer much in the way of complex explanations for what Aldous observes. Thatcher was angry with Reagan for his vacillating on the Falklands issue, for instance. That was due solely to Reagan’s concern for nurturing Argentina as an anti-communist bastion in the western hemisphere. So far, so good. But Aldous is content to accept this at face value. He rarely speculates, and while to his credit he does explain the agendas of certain figures like Shultz, this is done in a general axiomatic way, without any attempt to look deeper at the politics of 1980s America. Likewise, Thatcher is portrayed largely as mistress of her own destiny. Domestic troubles are occasionally noted when they impacted her transatlantic friendship, but for all intents and purposes both leaders are set in a vacuum that contains only each other, at their most intractable.

As noted above, this is the history that Aldous sets out to tell, and so he should not be judged harshly on what he omits. However, he slashes and ignores enough of real significance that it does begin to weigh against him in the end: and also, against his brash title. There is nothing groundbreaking or sensational in this book, and although he does highlight certain difficulties, they are rocky reefs in an otherwise navigable ocean. Of limited use to an historian, and even less use to those looking for an entry level guide to Anglo-American politics in the 1980s, this book is more of a general case study that might complement other books, but is just as likely to find itself repeating more thorough sources.

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The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy

November 25, 2012 at 19:41 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , , )

4/10

“The technical aspects are covered in a way which is rare in the modern novel,” reads one enthusiastic review on the dust jacket of Red October. There is a good reason for that. Clancy has made a career for himself out of knowing stuff about tanks, but it is here in his earlier work that the reputation was made–indeed, where the tail wagged the dog just a little too much. It is unsurprising that Clancy had trouble finding a publisher for this book; equally unsurprising that his eventual publisher was an arm of the US Navy. There is simply far too much jargon, far too many detailed descriptions of trivial machines and dated technology, too many parenthetical and bracketed explanations of rambling groups of acronyms–to make this a good story.

“‘We cannot shoot. Your men cannot shoot. We cannot run from him–he is faster. We cannot hide–his sonar is better. He will move east, use his speed to contain us and his sonar to locate us. By moving west, we have the best chance to escape. This he will not expect.'”

-The Hunt for Red October

Later, Clancy would realise that good books need things like characters and plots, and while he has never abandoned his roots in technical manuals and tactical theses, his writing today is worlds away from Red October. One of the book’s key problems is the misnomer contained in the title. A more apt name might be The Finding of Red October, for the secretive boat has one fatal flaw: it is a Soviet creation, and therefore is located by the plucky American heroes within a chapter of disembarking. This sets the scene for what is really alternate parts propaganda for the West in general and the USA in particular, and a crude and mostly dull litany of bungling and tomfoolery by the inept Reds.

It is difficult to feel much in the way of suspense when presented with Clancy’s ubermenschen in shining armour. Certainly it is impossible to consider for a moment that the utterly incompetent and pantomime Soviets will salvage even a pyrrhic victory. In one jarring chapter, the virtues and blessings of the magnificent world of capitalism are extolled for pages on end, with one character noting offhand that nobody who wants a job and financial security in the West can fail to find both.

This is a fantasy, but with too much technical realism to be a good fantasy. It is a technical manual, but written sarcastically and bitterly. Tom Clancy has never been lionised as a particularly brilliant author, but this is one of his harder books to engage with.

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Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank

November 18, 2012 at 17:57 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Dystopia, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books, War and Politics) (, , , )

7/10

A deeply interesting and occasionally exciting piece of speculative fiction, with some surprising and rather drastic swings between poles of optimism and pessimism. The lure of this book is the story and the hypotheses, not the quality or skill of the writing, but Frank does a better job than might be expected of him under the circumstances, and comes away with something better than the common-or-garden airport novelist. As thriller writers go, he is a good sight better than Ludlum, and might be ranked between Puzo on a bad day or Clancy at his best.

“Edgar rocked in his chair, furious. It wasn’t a reason. It was a riddle. He repeated Randy’s words. They made no sense at all, unless Mark expected some big cataclysm, like all the banks closing, and of course that was ridiculous.”

-Alas, Babylon

Considering the bleak and horrific subject of the story, the book is extremely mild, and would make an excellent choice for teenage readers, perhaps as part of a curriculum. That is to say, it is neither provocative nor grotesque, and is at least as sociological as it is geopolitical. There are more questions of small-town politics and living off the land than there are of tactical decisions or ethical dilemmas.

It ought to be asked: should a book be panned, simply because there is little sensational about it? Should a story remain unexplored, simply because the problems and crises faced by its inhabitants generally last no longer than one of the chapters? Alas, Babylon is heavier on the speculation than on the fiction, and Pat Frank is not the most imaginative of writers, but for all its mildness this is an interesting book, and one which succeeds in keeping a patient reader on his toes, and even sometimes surprised. Those left disappointed or wanting more must stop and wonder if Pat Frank has cheated out of a more meticulous story, or if he has neglected to tell the sort of story they were expecting. The choices he makes particularly in the omissions of certain details and subjects are blinders he chooses to wear out of respect for his blinkered and isolated protagonists, not necessarily because of his inability to tell a more holistic story, but because of his keen interest in his smaller scope.

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