Thursday, 31 December 2009

2009: the good, the Bad, and the Ugly

So, I have lots of books lined up to start reading tomorrow, but there's no way I'm going to finish the book I'm currently reading by the end of today, so this will be the final post of 2009, and I thought I'd use it to summarise what I've read this year - the good books, the bad books, the surprising finds, and the ones that have finally been read after sitting on the shelf for years.

The Good:
Samuel Beckett; Waiting for Godot
Edmond Rostand; Cyrano de Bergerac

I just noticed that these are both plays. Oh well, that wasn't intentional, but is' not a bad thing either. They're both very, very good plays. I read both of them quite close to the start of 2009, and I have to say, it feels like a lot longer than a year since I read them.

Waiting for Godot needs little introduction. In it, two tramps await the arrival of their friend Godot, who will make all their troubles cease. The play comprises their dialogue as they wait for him. It has a very dark sense of humour which I find quite agreeable and is, I think, quite a humbling play in the sense that you read it or watch it, and come away thinking, "I know there is more to understand in that play than I understood just now." It lets you know you haven't quite got it, and entices you to read it again, to think about it harder, to put a little more effort in to try and understand it. At the same time it makes a mockery of those who just want to pretend they understood it all - it gives them a beaming smile and says 'ah, how great thou art!' whilst turning to the more humble reader with a wink and saying 'who is the real fool here?' 5 stars.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a play about a fine soldier who writes brilliant poetry but has a large nose. It's witty, funny, moving, and sad all in turn, and each aspect serves to accentuate the other aspects - the funny partspake teh sad parts more poignant, the sad parts make the funny parts all the more funny. Cyrano is a larger than life character, and you can't help but love him, nose and all. 5 stars.

The Bad:
George Mann; The Affinity Bridge
Richard Lederer; The Revenge of Anguished English

The Affinity Bridge is poorly written, badly thought out and a paltry offering to the detective genre. It follows Sir Newbury, supposedly one of England's best detectives (which you'd never realise without being told) as he tries to discover the cause behind the recent crashing of an airship, and whether it is linked in anyway to the ingenious new automatons that have started to appear in London.

Oh the problems, where to start?
Mann is clearly trying to write about characters who are smarter than he is, and as such, has no idea what to write or make them say to make them look smart - because he's just not that smart himself. The "mystery" is pathetically simple, and you will have solved it 100 pages or so before the characters do. Every plot twist is blatant and can be anticipated, completely removing any effect. And finally, the biggest problem is his statements of what he has written just don't match what he actually has written. For instance, he will say things at the end of a chapter such as "she had endeared herself to the ladies quite successfully" when in the actual text, she does no such thing. It's just poor. 1 star.

The Revenge of Anguished English isn't quite as bad as The Affinity Bridge, but it gets old and repetitive pretty quickly. it's a compilation of bloopers made by various people - students, children, politicians - whilst attempting to use the English language. The first two sections are funny, and then it starts to get old. The section on double entendres is far longer than is funny, and some of the quotes are misrepresented, (pray tell, how do you justify the idea that Groucho Marx had no idea of what he was actually saying when he said, "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member"?) as well as being so famous that I can guarantee you will have heard them before. It can have 2 stars.

The Pleasant Surprises:
Dickens; A Tale of Two Cities
Christopher Logue; Kings

A Tale of Two Cities
is so well known that it probably isn't surprising to anyone else that it's actually good. But I had bad experiences with Dickens when I was 10 or so, and it put me off him for a long time. I just couldn't see what anyone saw in him. Probably because very few 10 year olds are going to understand Dickens' subtle irony or wit. I only read this because someone bought me a copy after insisting I read it and... well, I didn't want to see rude. The story is set alternately in London and Paris during the time of the French Revolution, and concerns a Frenchman living in London and how he is affected by the revolution. As I have said before, Dickens is a master of characterisation. His characters are individual, unique, and real and therefore, you really care about them and what happens to them. The plot is tight, with no superfluity, no unnecessary detours that have no purpose other than dramatic effect. In short, Dickens is very obviously a master of his craft and many modern rambling authors who don't realise that irrelevant detail is boring could learn a lot from him. 5 stars.

Kings is a modern poem based on the Iliad. It's not just a translation, it's a re-telling. I thought when I picked it up that it was a going to be an article on the first two books of the Iliad, so I was certainly surprised when I opened it and found a poem. But since the book was so short, I decided to read it and I'm very glad I did. I loved his style and technique and I think he does a very good job of making the poem accessible to a modern audience, without removing any depth. 5 stars.

Modern Gems:
Phillip Reeves; Mortal Engines
Dan Simmons; The Hyperion Omnibus (Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion)

Since I spend so much of my time reading classics, and so little of it reading books that have been published in the last 20 years, I thought it worth mentioning the best of those modern books I have read. The first, Mortal Engines is a children's book. Most would probably call it "young adult", but I, in my stubbornness, maintain that 19-25 year olds are young adults - not 11 year olds. They're still kids. Regardless of that fact, like any good kids book, it can be enjoyed by adults as well. it's premise is joyfully fascinating - the cities of the world have mobilised after some great war in the past that devastated most of the land - now they roll around looking for other cities to eat for fuel and resources. The story follows Tom; who has been cast out of London by his hero after witnessing and assassination attempt in his idol's life, and Hesther; the assassin. It's not patronisingly simple or over explanative - it's engaging, thought-provoking and complex. It raises moral issues and lets you think about them rather than providing black and white answers. It has lots of intertextual references that add even more layers of meaning to the text. If I were a teacher, I would study this book with my kids - it would make a great introduction to textual analysis. There's just so much going on in it. 4 stars.

The Hyperion Omnibus comprises the first two books of a quartet. Well. I call it a quartet, but really, it reads as two pairs of two. You could quite happily stop reading after The Fall of Hyperion and have all the closure and sense of completeness you needed. These are sci-fi books, set in a future where the human race is now spread over a vast range of planets. On one of these planets, Hyperion, are a group of mysterious monoliths known as the Time Tombs. And something odd is beginning to happen around them.

These two books are gripping, engaging and again, full of intertextual references that make geeks like me squeal with joy - Chaucer, Keats, Yeats, Plato - they're all there. So I would say that you'll definitely get more out of this book the more you've read of various classics. But the book is perfectly enjoyable without getting those references - it was recommended to me by someone who's never read Keats and therefore hadn't picked up on certain facts - such as the titles of the books being named after the two long poems Keats wrote - Endymion and Hyperion. 4 stars.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Dickens; The Mystery of Edwin Drood

At the start of this year I'd never read any Dickens (I was put off him as a small child when forced to read some of his work at school). Now, I've read two of his works: A Tale of Two Cities and this, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Because after read A Tale of Two Cities I realised that actually, he's really good. And then I picked up a book by Dan Simmons called Drood. Having read another of Simmons' books which had been heavily influenced by Keats, I realised how important it was to read the Dickins Simmons was basing his book on to be able to appreciate it fully. So: to prepare myself to read Drood by Dan Simmons, I decided to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Dickens. That's the official excuse anyway. Not that you really need one to read Dickens.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is one of Dickens' least known books. Probably because he died before he could complete it. The tale is one of the disappearance of one Edwin Drood, and how this affects those whom he had known and loved. It is unsure as to whether Drood is dead or not, as no body is ever found, and this remains a mystery even today - Dickens notes do not reveal what he intended to be the climax of this novel.

There is obviously always going to be some frustration in reading a whodunit or murder mystery, or just general mystery when you know that the central mystery itself will never be solved because the book is unfinished. Equally, it also adds a certain allure - because it really is a mystery what happened. And speculating as to who you think did it can be quite entertaining in itself. In this book the fact that you don't find out the main mystery surrounding Edwin Drood isn't a huge problem - the key joy of this book is Dickens' humour and his excellent skills of characterisation - that's what keeps the story going. That's what sustains it.

Many of my friends have heard me rant and no doubt will hear me rant again, that one of the problems with many modern authors is that their characters just don't have any... character. They lack personality. Their lines could be said by any other character in the book because there is nothing individual about them. Dickens, along with Dumas, and several others, is a master of characters in that regards. All of his characters within one book have unique and individual personalities. So that if someone gave you a list of quotes from different characters in the book, you could quite confidently assign them to the correct character based not on what the quote might reveal about its context, but purely on the manner of speech - on how it is said, rather than what it says. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is worth reading for that alone. Add in Dicken's usual subtle and intelligent wit and insight into human nature and society and you're left with very little excuse not to read it.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Maria Edgeworth; Castle Rackrent

"Castle Rackrent may well be one of the most famous unread novels in English" begins the introduction to this book - the unread part I don't doubt is true, but I do feel that it is perhaps unread because it is not that famous either. I'd certainly never heard of it before, and I picked it up purely because it was an Oxford World Classic with the old style cover, not knowing anything about the book itself.

The problem with reading classics - or at least, my problem (I'm sure others do not share it) - is that you know you are reading a book that a great many intelligent people have considered worthy in one way or another. And therefore, if you do not like it, or do not see the value in it, you assume that this is because of a failing on your part - through lacking either the necessary literary or historical knowledge, which would reveal the depth of the book in question.

Castle Rackrent is (for those uncultured people like me, who had never heard of it before ) a portrait of the lives of four consecutive heirs of the Rackrent estate, as told through the eyes of the faithful servant Thady, with all of his personal bias laid open to the reader and adding to the charm. The four heirs are as varied in personality as is possibly imaginable and - here my problem beings - are taken to satiric extremes in their characterisation. Why is this a problem?

I'm really, really not a fan of satire. Too many students and just plain bad writers use it as an excuse to cower behind when someone criticises their writing. One of my student newspapers at my University is supposedly satirical and is, I believe, a travesty against the genre. It's just so crudely done. Thus my experience of bad satire has given me a slight bias against it - though I continue to read satirical novels in the hopes that one day I will find one that makes me yell for joy and say "This! This is how you do it. This is good." And whilst the satire in this is miles beyond the paltry student papers that attempt it, it's not enough to completely dispell my disliking for the genre. There just seems something incredibly crude and unsubtle about it. Again, I stress that this book is far beyond the usual attempts at satire I read, and only pushes the boundaries of belief rather than leaping whole-heartedly beyond them. But still, that was an element that just didn't sit entirely comfortably with me.

I'm certainly glad I read it, as I am glad to read most every book, but I did come away with the distinct feeling that this book has more historical value as a portrait of Irish life, and as the beginning of certain genres in literature than a great literary value as a triumphant example of the highest quality of those literary genres. Perhaps I simply don't know enough about the history of Ireland to appreciate the full breadth of it's qualities, but then, I suspect that this would be true of anyone else who was not particularly well-up on their Irish history. So if it has piqued you interest to read it, I would recommend reading the introduction, and putting in some time reading about Edgeworth's Ireland to be able to appreciate it more fully (or at least more fully than I perhaps did).

Saturday, 12 December 2009

H. Rider Haggard; Allan Quatermain

I was determined to finish this book before going home for Christmas so I could return it to the person who lent it to me. The reason he did so in the first place, was because by one of those strange coincidences, having never heard anyone mentioned H. Rider Haggard before, this person mentioned it a few days after I had finished reading King Solomon's Mines.

Haggard is an easy-going, read-in-a-day author, with a simple style, and who knows how to tell a story simply and effectively - in the hands of many modern authors this book would likely have been twice as long (and certainly more boring).

The problem I had with it is the vast similarity of its plot to that of King Solomon's Mines - adventurers set out, discover previously uncontacted civilisation, succeed, one of their party becomes king after a bloody civil war. The plot is not hard to guess, there are a few dead-give-away details that are hardly difficult to spot that tell you exactly where it's headed - add the fact that the plot is so similar to the previous book, and... well, it can be a little boring in places. There are a few variations that help keep up interest when they arrive, but there were definitely parts that made me think '... I've read this before. I know how this goes.' Obviously, within this genre of writing, there are going to be unavoidable similarities between books - people going off on adventures into the unexplored, and discovering new civilsations. Sure. But they don't always have to establish a new king wherever they go, or help win a civil war to do so.

It's an alright book, I think probably not his best, but unless you read some of this other Quatermain books and absolutely loved them, I would recommend either reading King Solomon's Mines or Allan Quatermain, not both (there is a chronological order to them, but one does not have to have read the previous books to be able to understand what is going on at all). Personally, I preferred King Solomon's Mines, but that may be more to do with my personal interest in Solomon.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Christopher Logue; Kings

This was a really pleasant book that I picked up thinking it to be a commentary or discussion of the first two books of the Iliad - it's not, it's part translation, part interpretation, part innovation. And it's really interesting.

It's anachronistic, it's language is interesting, how he describes things is fascinating - almost as a script writer, he doesn't just describe a scene and let you imagine it, he tells you how you should imagine a scene - looking at a fire whilst hearing words, seeing the silhouettes of figures through a tent, etc.

His choice of words is very clever - at one point, he calls refers to the "sea-dark wine" - "The wine-dark sea" is a famous Homeric phrase, at another Hector repeats a phrase which is pretty much Horace's famous dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. In another place he describes the fall of Hephaistos with "words so fair they shall forever be quoted in Paradise" - as in Paradise Lost and Milton's description of Hephaistos's fall. O intertextuality, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

The language makes a very interesting point in itself, there's something "primitive" about how the people speak - in a way you'd expect to find more in H. Rider Haggard's Zulus than Ancient Greeks. It makes you think about what we class as civilised and what barbarian, and about specific words in particular - the use of "she" constantly instead of 'woman', how Achilles addresses his mother as 'O Source'.

It's also fascinating how his perspective jumps about, how at one point he can say 'we' and be referring to the Greek army, and at another point to a personal experience the anonymous narrator had, and yet can still show scenes within the walls of Troy.

In short, the whole thing is fascinating, and I'm truly glad to have stumbled across it. Even if you've never read the Iliad, this would, I think, make a very good introduction to it. Kings is only part of the poem, the whole of which has not been published yet.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Terence; Phormio and Other Plays

The other plays being The Girl from Andros and The Self-Tormentor.

The main staple of Roman comedy is something like this: 'boy meets girl, boy wants to marry girl. Father disapproves. Much trickery ensues to try and allow boy to see/marry girl. In the end, we discover that girl is the long lost daughter of another character, and thus the marriage is now okay. Everyone rejoices. Not that all Roman comedy follows that basic plot, but these three do with slight variations on setting and details. Of the three, Phormio is the best, I think. It has the best developed plot with no irrelevant extra scenes or actions, and it has the soundest logic in its plot - it is the least contrived (which is one of the things I don't like about some of Shakespeare's comedies - they seem so contrived, in that there is no other reason for even x to happen other than that humour will ensue), and the most memorable character - Phormio himself.

I would love to see productions of some of these plays, though (alas, I decided to produce The Bacchae this year, instead), as the comedy comes through more in the actual production than in a reading of the script. From reading the plays, the main thing that comes across is the cleverness of the construction of the plot. Which is fine, and they're worth reading just for that, but it would be nice to hear and see it.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Richard Lederer; The Revenge of Anguished English

With my dissertation and Metamorphosis essay finally out of the way, I can finally get back to some of the books I've had to put on hold for the past two weeks. So, whilst I was round at Domi's house waiting for lunch-time before going home (the food for lunch was at his house, not mine), I finished off The Revenge of Anguished English, a book that I'd started about a week ago.

The book is a compilation of language bloopers made by students, children, politicians, advertising companies, etc. ranging from typos, to mixed metaphors and malapropisms. He starts with a section or two of comments made by kids and students which are genuinely amusing and mostly laugh-out-loud funny. Some of them look like they could have been written (with a few corrections) by Oscar Wilde or Jerome K. Jerome. Unfortunately, they're the funniest the book gets, and from there it goes down hill.

Maybe the effect would be staved off somewhat if you read it over several days, only reading one chapter at a time, but by the end of it I just wasn't finding it funny anymore. There are only so many double entendres you can find amusing in one go. But it was obvious he was running out of material too, quotes from earlier in the book started popping up again. And obviously, they're not as funny the second time around. Also, his introductions to each chapter start to get really tedious towards the end - not that they were particularly funny or witty at the start of the book.

My other problem with it is that one section, called 'fuzzy logic' is presented as comprising only bloopers of logical accidentally made. But the 'hall of fame' section at the end of the chapter lists famous comments by Groucho Marx, Oscar Wilde and Woody Allen, who are all obviously making intentional jokes and witticisms (the fact that he had to resort to using these incredibly famous quotes instead of the material submitted by his diligent readers emphasises my point that he's really running out of good material by this point).

In short: a good start, a bad end. If you're going to read it, I would advise reading the first few chapters and then stopping - you've read all the best stuff by that point, I promise.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

A-Z Reading Challenge 2010

This is a personal challenge of mine, that I decided upon after rearranging my bookshelves to try and fit my newest purchases in somewhere. The Challenge is to read one book per author for 26 author's whose surnames begin with all the different letters of the Alphabet - so one book by an author who's surname beings with 'A', one by an author whose surname begins with 'B', etc. In the case of Ancient authors, using the first name is fine since that's the name that appears on the cover. If anyone else sees this and wants to try it, they're welcome to join me. Or, if you see it, and know someone else who's hosting the same challenge, tell me, and I'll probably sign up to their challenge.

A - Aristophanes; Lysistrata and Other Plays
B - Buchan; The Thirty-Nine Steps
C - Crane, Stephen; The Red Badge of Courage
F - Freud; The Interpretation of Dreams
G - Gardiner, Patrick; Kierkegaard: A Very Short Introduction
H - Hurlburt & Schwitzgebel; Describing Inner Experience?
J - Jung; Four Archetypes: Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster
K - Kierkegaard; Fear and Trembling
L - Longus; Daphnis and Chloe
M -Mackenzie; The Man of Feeling
O - Orwell, Why I write
P - Paine, Thomas; Common Sense
R - Racine; Iphigenia, Phaedra, Athaliah
S - Stevenson, Robert Louis, Treasure Island
T - Theweleit, Klaus; Object-Choice (All You Need is Love...)
V - Voltaire; Letters on England
W - Walpole, Horace; The Castle of Otranto