Tuesday, March 04, 2014

BOOKS READ IN FEBRUARY

Tough Without A Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart by Stefan Kanzer
Sharpe’s Rifles by Bernard Cornwell  
One for the Books by Joe Queenan  
White Fire by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
The Prince by Machiavelli  
On Machiavelli – The Search for Glory by Alan Ryan  
Vicious Circle by Wilbur Smith

And so the great push to read more than fifty books this year continues to store up literary goodwill for those months when book consumption is reduced to a trickle: seven books this month to add to last month’s eight, which isn’t too shabby. Mind you, I didn’t get to at least two books that I was supposed to have read. One arrived in the mail while I was in the middle of other stuff, and I’d already read the second, so technically that would have been a reread, although it would still have counted towards the final total even if it didn’t succeed in contributing to the fulfillment of my basic aim, which is to reduce the number of unread books on my shelves.

But we move on, for this month’s reading material provoked a number of questions, the first of which is: When should a writer stop writing? It’s an interesting question. Should writers continue until the pen is prized from their cold dead hands, a bit like Chuck Heston’s guns, or should they stop when they begin to experience doubts about the quality of their output? Is that even possible, given that most writers are so riven by doubt anyway? If concern about the quality of their work was a factor, most would have stopped writing long ago and gone off to become window cleaners.

Jim Crace announced last year that Harvest was to be his last novel. Here’s an extract from an interview with Crace about that subject in the London Independent newspaper.
"Retiring from writing is not to retire from life," he says: there's his painting, politics and tennis, as well as his first grandchild and regular trips to the US – Crace has a sinecure at the University of Texas, where his archive is held. "But," he continues, "retiring from writing is to avoid the inevitable bitterness which a writing career is bound to deliver as its end product, in almost every case."
Does a writing career always end in bitterness? I do hope not. Disappointment I can understand – a writer is never quite as successful as he might have wished, never as critically or commercially garlanded, and never quite manages to write the book that was in his head when he started – but that sense of existential dissatisfaction is true of most lives, whether creative or not. Bitterness is something very different. We can live with disappointment, but bitterness poisons the soul.

Anyway, I mention this only because Wilbur Smith, whose latest novel I read last month, turned 81 in January, and is still publishing a book every two years. I interviewed Smith a long time ago and found him to be an interesting, if peculiar, man. He was clearly a product of the nineteenth century who happened to be born in the twentieth, and was set to struggle with the twenty-first. His worldview was essentially colonial and, given what appeared to be his problematical relationship with his daughter, I was kind of glad that he wasn’t my dad.

On the other hand, his novels — the historical ones, at least — had given me enormous entertainment over the years, even as I began to recognize their sometimes outdated, and possibly offensive, sexual and racial underpinnings. He was perfectly pleasant company for the hour or two we spent talking at Dublin Airport, and had no particular airs about him. And it’s no mean achievement to reach one’s ninth decade and still be writing, although the £15 million book deal that he signed in 2012 includes a promise to produce up to two titles a year for three years with the help of “carefully selected co-authors.” As one newspaper put it, “Smith will reportedly sketch plot outlines and characters, leaving his appointed writers to flesh the skeletons out into full books.” Make of that what you will.

All of which is a preamble to discussing Vicious Circle, his latest novel and the second to feature security expert Hector Cross, when, in fact, I’d rather forget that I ever read it, and have that part of my brain excised. Smith’s novels set in the present day are always more problematical than his historical fictions, perhaps in part because it’s easier to gloss over the sexism and racism in the historicals by partially excusing them as reflections of the eras in which they’re set. Vicious Circle may just be the most unpleasant book that I’ve read in recent times, featuring a level of sexual violence inflicted on women and children unlike anything I’ve never previously encountered in a work of commercial fiction, including pedophilia, rape, anal rape, disembowelment, the removal of organs (ears, to be specific), shooting, stabbing, drowning, and the feeding of live women to hogs and crocodiles. The women who didn’t die came straight from central stock casting, and the only thing more disturbing than the content was the fact that there will apparently be a further sequel. Frankly, if I was one of his proposed ghostwriters and was handed an outline for another novel like this one, I think I’d wash my hands of the whole business and leave with my pride and dignity intact.

So the reading month ended on a sorry note, but until then it had been going reasonably well. I’ve never had a huge interest in Humphrey Bogart, to be perfectly honest, although I’ve generally liked his films, but I was in the mood for a piece of cinema biography, and Kanzer’s book had been well reviewed. The typeface and setting on my Faber edition of the book wasn’t great, though, and made reading it more difficult than it should have been, but I finished it admiring Bogart more than I had at the beginning – which is always good – and understanding him more as well, which is even better. He was generally, as P.G. Wodehouse might have put it, a good egg, and a better actor than some give him credit for. He himself admitted that he made “more lousy pictures than any actor in history,” but the mark of greatness is that you can still be good when surrounded by mediocrity, and Bogart managed that more often than not. He knew that he owed his public a good performance, and he tried to give that in every film. It’s a simple motto to live by, but a hard one to live up to: Do Your Best.

Bernard Cornwell was one of the first writers ever to say anything nice about me in print, and we entered into a brief correspondence – and an exchange of books – which I really should resurrect, if only to tell him how much I enjoyed Sharpe’s Rifles. I’ve dipped in and out of the Sharpe books, which details the exploits of the titular British rifleman during the period before, during, and after the Napoleonic Wars, but somehow I’d never read Sharpe’s Rifles, chronologically the first in the series but actually the sixth to be published. It’s a real gift to be able to write sustained action (in a way, it seems to go against the whole notion of “show, don’t tell,” since action requires description — “telling” — to bring it to life, and that’s harder to do than it appears) and maintain momentum over the course of an entire book without sacrificing nuances of character, but Cornwell succeeds. Neither does he overwhelm with historical and military detail, which is another rare skill: it’s obvious that he knows his stuff, and is confident in his knowledge, which allows him to leave most of it out. After all, nobody likes a show-off.

Why was I reading Machiavelli? It’s a long story. I’d tried to read him in my teenage years, but I don’t think that I wanted to be a despot badly enough back then. For various reasons I was required to attempt The Prince again last month, and while I probably fancy being a despot more than I did at the age of sixteen, I don’t really believe that I have the energy for it any more. There does seem to be rather a lot of essential, if sometimes regrettable, killing involved, and, if you live by Machiavelli’s model, you really have very little time to do much else. He doesn’t have much truck with all of that art and music nonsense. If you’re serious about ruling, then get out there and start knocking off the opposition and scouting out the landscape to defend it from all those other rulers who’ve also been reading The Prince. Like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, The Prince is one of those books sociopathic business executives read in the hope that it will give them the edge on their rivals. Unfortunately, unlike Machiavelli or Sun Tzu, they probably haven’t read very much else, and therefore their frame of reference is distinctly limited. Alan Ryan’s commentary on Machiavelli and his best-known work was more informative than the book itself, which still seems to me to combine the odd nugget of common sense (don’t hire a servant who is more interested in enriching himself than enriching you) with the bloodthirstiness of someone who has never killed and therefore finds it very easy to advise other people on how, and why, to kill. Nasty piece of work, Machiavelli — and his lessons from history are a bit dubious to boot.

As someone who has collaborated on a book (Conquest with Jennie Ridyard, Mrs. Her Indoors) I have a certain curiosity about the collaborations of others. It’s not terribly usual in fiction, when you think about it (Wilbur Smith’s future Pattersonesque experiments excepted), and, as a reader, there is always the temptation to try and spot the join. I remember reading Black House, the Stephen King/Peter Straub collaboration, and being aware of a certain disjunction in style.(Straub is, in general, a denser writer.) King, though, has claimed that the parts people think were written by him were written by Straub, and vice versa. I’m not entirely sure that I buy his argument, although he may well have fancied having a go at writing like Straub. Why, I don’t know. Not that Straub is a bad writer, but it does seem a bit pointless for King to write like him when he has a perfectly good Peter Straub metaphorically sitting in the same room as him, and Straub, in turn, has a very decent Stephen King to hand.

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have been writing together since about 1995, I think, although I seem to remember that Relic, their first collaboration, was attributed in the UK to “Preston Child,” and only later were they surgically separated, as it were. Again, there is a slight shift in style between the writers, with Preston, I’d guess, being the denser prose stylist.

White Fire is the thirteenth of their books to feature FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast, many of which have been good fun. They did hit a bit of a bump in the road with the so-called “Helen Trilogy,” comprising a series of novels that required not so much a suspension of disbelief as the racking of it, culminating in an attempt to explain how someone could appear to be eaten by a lion when, in fact, that person may not actually have been, which is a difficult trick to pull off for all concerned. I remember once being asked if I worried about my novels becoming a bit like the later seasons of The X-Files, when the show became tied up with its own mythologies to a self-defeating extent, and the Helen Trilogy veered close to that territory. (I can’t comment on my own books.)

So it may have been that I approached White Fire with a certain degree of caution. It moves along at a fair old pace, and does dispense with all of the wife/lion business to concentrate on a self-contained plot but, unfortunately for me, that plot involves a lot of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, pivoting, as it does, on a supposedly “lost” Holmes story. I’m sorry: Holmes remains a kind of blind spot for me. I enjoyed the original stories, and I’m very fond of the BBC’s modern reinvention of the character, even if — as in the latter half of Conan Doyle’s own career — the plots are less involving than the characters of Holmes and Watson themselves. But I really don’t have any patience with Sherlockiana, or people writing pastiches of Conan Doyle, however affectionately meant or well done they may be. I’m starting to feel that, when authors die, their characters should be allowed to die with them. So it’s not the fault of Preston or Child, who strike me as very decent sorts. It’s not you, guys, it’s me.

Okay, and maybe a little bit you.

Finally, we come to Joe Queenan, a writer who could snark for his country. I think I first encountered Queenan back in 1999 in the form of If You’re Talking to Me Your Career Must Be in Trouble, a collection of sharp-edged essays and interviews, which remains the best thing that he’s published, although One for the Books comes close. It is a memoir of books and reading, and part of the pleasure of it lies in finding opinions with which one wholeheartedly agrees (He likes Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier! He gets annoyed with people who force books on him, insisting that he should read them, but he gets really angry with people who lend books to him while insisting that he should read them: if they want him to read their chosen books so badly then they should just buy copies of them for him!), leading one to suspect that Queenan may be a reasonable, right-thinking individual after all, only to immediately stumble across other opinions so wrong-headed as to make one wonder if Queenan has been the victim of some unfortunate industrial accident or botched cranial intervention. (He doesn’t like P.G. Wodehouse! He quite likes Anil’s Ghost!)

I particularly liked his diatribe against blurbing, the practice of writers producing excessively admiring quotes about other writers for use on the front of books.
Blurbs in particular can no longer be trusted. Usually they are written by liars and sycophants to advance the careers of bozos and sluts. In many cases authors will call in favors from friends who praise books they know to be dismally inadequate. This is volitionally cruel, because writers know that other writers hate writing blurbs. They hate it when their editors ask for them, and they really hate it when their friends ask for them. Being asked to write a blurb for a friend is like being asked to give your friend’s gross, dysfunctional kid a summer job. . . Conversely, writers hate writing blurbs for strangers, because it forces them to read books they do not want to read, at a point when time itself is running out on them. All blurbs should be written before the age of fifty; after that, one should never read a book one does not want to read, unless there is money in it.
On that note — and I kid you not — I have to go and write a blurb...

Friday, February 07, 2014

BOOKS READ IN JANUARY

The English Girl by Daniel Silva  
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon 
Rough Country by John Sandford
Brimstone by Robert B. Parker
Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith
Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett 
Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann 
Adventures with the Wife in Space by Neil Perryman  

So, as a kind of New Year’s resolution, I decided to start keeping a record of the books that I read during 2014. In some ways, I regret not starting this much earlier in life – somewhere around the time that I read my first book, which was a Secret Seven adventure by Enid Blyton, which I think might have been when I was five or six – but it’s a little late for that now. Still, it would have been rather lovely to have a record of all that I’ve read, an indicator of progress and accomplishment. I could even have marked particular achievements with a gold star, like finishing Don Quixote, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, and War and Peace, and little frowny faces of regret for those books started but then abandoned (A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, which I still believe talks about me behind my back in a French accent) and books that should never have been started to begin with (too many to name, I suspect, but I still want back that time spent on The Da Vinci Code).

Anyway, eight books read in January doesn’t seem like a bad start to the year, as I’m tentatively aiming for an average of a book a week, so knocking down eight in one month will make up for those inevitable periods when I either get bogged down in a book, or encounter one that takes a little more time and effort to read.  (In the Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland’s study of the birth of Islam, was one such book last year. I learned a lot from it, most of which I fear I’ve already forgotten, but the minutiae of various branches of the faith detailed in the last third proved to be heavy going, and I felt like a man slogging through thick, compacted snow.)

And what of those books? Well, I’m something of a fan of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon books, even if, as often happens with an ongoing series, the structure of each novel is pretty standard: Allon, an art restorer and Israeli agent, is pulled reluctantly into some case of international terrorism; bad things happen; he gets his gang together; and vengeance is meted out.  Actually, leaving out the international terrorism element, that could describe most mystery novels, my own included. In Silva’s case, this is all accomplished with a considerable measure of style, and no small amount of tension. He’s very good.

Here’s the thing: I don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures. If you like something, and it doesn’t do anyone else any harm — or, indeed, yourself —then it’s fine to like it. If anything about the Allon books makes me slightly uneasy, it’s a general tendency to paint the Israelis entirely as a force for good, and the Arabs or Russians as pretty much uniformly bad. Now I’m no expert, but I suspect the geopolitical situation is slightly more complex than that. End of note.

That notion of guilty pleasures is one that is explored both tacitly and explicitly in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which had been on my shelf for a long time marked, metaphorically speaking, “to be read . . . sometime.” I read Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when I was in college and liked it a lot. It was one of a number of books given to me as a thank-you by one of my classmates in return for escorting her to the Trinity Ball, which was no chore. (She also gave me Looking for Rachel Wallace, which was my introduction to the novels of Robert B. Parker.)  

Kavalier & Clay is set in the world of comic books during and after the Second World War — the first golden age of comics, if you will. It also functions as a passionate defense of the idea of escapist fiction, and the fact that the hero of the comic book created by the title characters is called “The Escapist” is no coincidence. The final pages contain a lovely defense of escapism, taking as its starting point the myth of the golem, the defender of Prague’s Jews created from clay, which is worth quoting here:
The shaping of a golem, to him, was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something — one poor, dumb, powerful thing — exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape. To slip, like the Escapist, free of the entangling chain of reality and the straitjacket of physical laws . . . The newspaper articles that Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited “escapism” among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life.
Lovely, isn’t it? If, as a reader or, indeed, a writer, you ever feel called upon to defend your choice of reading or subject matter respectively, it would be worth learning that section so you can quote it back in full in the face of your critics.  Actually, I had a meal recently with someone who, with the best possible intentions, seemed determined to force me to expose what s/he believed to be my inner demons, the monkeys on my back that drove me to write. I know that I have them, but I tend to keep them to myself. But when I tried to explain that, on one level, to leave my readers feeling contented with the time they had spent with my book was the most basic requirement I make of my work, my interrogator appeared rather disappointed, as if this was somehow insufficient.   It’s not everything, I said, but if it was all that I could offer, then it would be enough.

We move on. The John Sandford novel, a co-write with a friend of his (although his friend’s name doesn’t appear on the cover, which is a bit underhand) is one of the novels featuring the Minnesota police investigator Virgil Flowers novels as opposed to Sandford’s better-known books centering on Flowers’s boss, Lucas Davenport. Sandford, either alone or in cahoots, has a particular gift for writing action, which is harder to do than it sounds. He’s also funny in print, which again is harder to do than it sounds. 

The late Robert B. Parker had the same gifts, and while Brimstone is one of his westerns, it still reads very much like one of his Spenser PI novels, which were, in their way, westerns set in present-day Boston. Parker’s work is proof positive that we read for character, not plot. Brimstone’s plot isn’t up to much, and the same could be said for any number of the Spenser novels, but it was a pleasure to spend time in the company of the characters, and his books have passed many a happy flight for me, and kept me entertained over solo dinners when I’m away from home.  God rest his soul. 

Tatiana, meanwhile, is the latest of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, and is published in the shadow of the writer’s struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. I understand that it was dictated, and it seems to me that this process has altered the texture of his writing. MCS was always a very good prose stylist, but the writing in Tatiana is particularly graceful, with a distinctive rhythm to it.  It’s one of the best of the later Renko novels, maybe even the best.

Terry Pratchett, too, writes while dealing with a debilitating illness, in his case Alzheimer’s, which seems to me a particularly cruel affliction with which to curse a novelist, given the importance of keeping a thousand small details in play from start to finish. Raising Steam, the latest Discworld novel, bears no trace of Pratchett’s illness and, while it’s not the funniest of the series, it’s still a joy to enter that perfectly constructed world. I had the pleasure of interviewing Pratchett in Dublin some years ago, and I enjoyed his company. He’s on the board of trustees of the Orangutan Foundation, incidentally, in no small part because the Librarian of the Unseen University was transformed into an orangutan during an unfortunate magical incident and decided to stay that way, as it made it easier to get around the stacks.

I’m not really much for political books as a rule, but Halperin’s and Heilemann’s Game Change, about the 2008 US presidential election, gripped like a thriller, as well as amusing me greatly. Double Down isn’t quite as interesting, mainly because the tension between the emerging Obama and the Clintons isn’t as strong, and there is no Sarah Palin moment. The most entertaining scenes occur during the Republican Party’s nomination process, as a series of increasingly unlikely candidates (hello, Herman Cain) pop up, ignite briefly, and then fall to the ground in flames. Poor old Mitt Romney comes across as someone who has been told how regular human beings behave but has never actually met one, and so must go purely on misguided instinct when he’s forced to imitate one. I actually ended up rather liking Romney, even though I wouldn’t want to be trapped in an elevator with him and forced to try and make awkward conversation.  

And finally, a little salve for my geek soul: Neil Perryman’s Adventures with the Wife in Space deals with the author’s mission to force his wife Sue to watch every episode of classic Doctor Who — in other words, from the BBC sci-fi series’ birth with William Hartnell to its temporary demise with Sylvester McCoy.  It helps if you know what they’re talking about, or else discussions of Daleks, Yeti, Zygons, and the sartorial selections inflicted on Sixth Doctor Colin Baker may well go over your head, but it’s funny and loving as a portrait both of fandom and marriage, even if, by the end, Perryman concludes that no small number of Doctor Who episodes just aren’t very good.  It’s that plot/character thing again, and something else: no matter how bad the episodes, those of us who were, and are, devoted to the series came back because we got to spend time with the Doctor in the Tardis.

We got to escape, for a time . . .