Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Books I Listened To/Read In May

Fiction
'The Ultimate Threshold. A Collection of the Finest in Soviet Science Fiction' translated and edited by Mirra Ginsburg
I was interested when I ran across this book, published in 1970 by Penguin to think that it was a collection of science fiction from a country that no longer existed.  The stories were published, 1963-68 through the more liberal Nikita Khrushchev years and into the harder time of Leonid Brezhnev.  Having seen imagery online of Soviet intentions for developments in space, I wondered what they thought would be the future in fiction.    As Ginsburg outlines at the start, it is a surprise.  It is clear, as she says, that authors in this genre had far greater freedom in others and they use this to express views that ran counter to the proclaimed Soviet attitude.  There is as much individualism in these stories as you would have found from a US science fiction collection of the time. Indeed 'One Less' by Igor Rosokhovatsky about the impact of the death of one man chimes with some anti-abortion arguments used in the USA presently.

The best story is probably 'The Useless Planet' by Olga Larionova which features aliens exploring Ancient Greece and determining how useless the planet is.  One explorer, like them all, able to take on a variety of forms and remains behind in the form of a statue which can come to life, so inspiring various legends.  There are overtones in this of how a large bureaucracy may define things that are essentially human as 'useless'.  A little in this line is the eponymous story by Herman Maximov about a device which allows people to commit suicide and 'When You Return' by Igor Rosokhovatsky about a dead husband/father being replaced by an android version of him with his memories but far stronger; able to fly which reminded me a little of 'Robocop' (1987/2014) but far gentler. 'We Played Under Your Window' by the same author shows alien technology bringing a man back to life, effectively the kind of clone seen in the 'Dune' series and work by Walter Jon Williams, though bittersweetly they do it too late for him to be reunited with those he loved.

Some of the stories have a kind of tone of a fable or morality tale, such as 'Icarus and Daedalus' by Henrik Altov about two pilots racing through a star.  'Erem' by Cleb Anfilov can almost be seen as a critique of how the Soviet system used its people through showing a sentient robot willing to work to save its base but with no reward bar 'death'.  Another is 'The Horn of Plenty' by Vladimir Grigoriev about a device to convert rubbish into useful products, turned by the Soviet system to producing rubbish from useful items.  Another like this is 'Preliminary Research' by Ilya Varshavsky in which scientists are brought to work for a sinister organisation and their ideas are distorted to benefit criminal and terroristic activities; those who resist are disappeared.  'He Who Leaves No Trace' by Mikhail Yemtsev and Yeremy Parnov is a kind of 'magician's apprentice' story of a man whose clones get out of control.

One interesting thing is that many of the authors were actual scientists, so you seen some interesting predictions.  One I was struck by in 'Icarus and Daedalus' by Anatoly Dneprov is that when light does not function to indicate their way, they use monitors of gravitational waves to find their path, a force only recently confirmed as existing.  'Formula of Immortality' from 1963 reminded me of 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' (1968) in its focus on people constructed using DNA but with a very fixed life duration built in.

'When Questions Are Asked' by Anatoly Dneprov is really a cautionary tale about being cautious with contamination of testing as is light hearted.  It stands out from the others for that fact.  Overall, if I had not known the authors were Soviet I would have felt this was a typical science fiction book of that golden age of the late 1960s/early 1970s.  It is clear that the genre bucked so many trends in Soviet society and like the best science fiction in any society held a mirror to the context from which it arose as much as speculating on the future.  The stories are generally crisp and cover ideas equal to anything coming out of the USA at the time.  I do wonder what happened to these authors and whether they are still read in Russia today, let alone being more widely available in the West than this obscure sampler of them.

'The Siege of Krishnapur' by J.G. Farrell
As regular readers of this blog will know, I rarely do well with books that have been recommended to me and this is a case in point.  I had read how this book, which won the Booker Prize in 1973, which is about a fictional village under siege during the Indian Rebellion of 1857-58, was based on diaries, memoirs and letters to make it very accurate.  That seemed like a good basis for a novel.  However, it is very disappointing.  The characters that are featured do give a good impression of the people involved in running India when it was under the control of the East India Company rather than the British Government.  While some have an efficiency or even self-assumed altruistic approach, the profit motive is at the heart of it all; the senior officer during the siege is the Collector.  We read some details of the opium trade.  The E.I.C. grew opium in India to sell to the Chinese population, contrary to the wishes of their government, in order to earn Chinese silver and to buy tea, porcelain, silk and rhubarb, in high demand in Britain.

Too many of the characters are quirky and Farrell's writing means that we never sympathise with any of them even when they are facing starvation and disease.  It is quite incredible that we care so little for these people in such circumstances.  By the end of the book you are just glad it is all over.  I think that the petty obsessions of each of the major characters makes it all seem rather frivolous and undermines any genuine concern we have for them.  There is also a surprising lack of tension in the book, even during the battles.  I guess that arises from us caring so little for the people being written about.  I do not know whether it was Farrell's intention to make the British colonisers to appear so useless; so wrapped up with all their hobbyhorses, to be dim when it came to their circumstances and waste time on the unimportant.  Either it is an incredibly subtle but acute critique of British society or it is just the failing of him being able to conjure up any character we engage with.  As a result of these flaws, I simply found this book tedious and was simply glad when it was over.  I regret reading the recommendation for this book which I saw on 'The Guardian' website.  I should have gone with my caution over recommendations.  A little hypocritically, I hope that my review is of use, but in warning you away from this tiresome novel, which despite the supposed background research, comes across very much as an artifice.

'Run Man Run' by Chester Himes
This book was published in 1967.  Though there are references to culture, especially outlets in New York, that date it, you could easily produce a hard-hitting drama based on the novel set in 2018 and still be highly relevant.  This book is far better than the two previous novels by Himes that I have read: 'The Crazy Kill' (1959) and 'The Big Gold Dream' (1960).  You can really see the author's development in his writing.  This novel does not feature the two black detectives, 'Grave' Digger Jones and 'Coffin' Ed Johnson, but is still set in Harlem and surrounding districts and features New York police, though in this case primarily two white detectives.  What makes 'Run Man Run'  current is the focus the killing of two black luncheonette workers and the wounding of a third, all shot by a white police detective, a challenge that remains 51 years later in many parts of the USA.  Without lecturing the reader, Himes works through the assumptions about black men and how they are so easily portrayed as being associated with crime even when in this case all three victims are working men and one is also a student at Columbia University.  The strength of the word of a black and a white man, especially a police officer, is shown here just as we see on the news regularly nowadays.

I have criticised Himes in the previous two novels I read for leading his characters running around Harlem not achieving a great deal and in the end becoming tiresome.  In this novel, however, he really jacks up the tension much more effectively especially when the third man is being pursued by the detective wanting to silence him.  Himes jumps between different perspectives abruptly, which may be criticised but it helps ensure that we have no idea of the outcome and how will survive. We also do not know who will be believed or dismissed.  Even the hero's girlfriend is uncertain of him and many of his complaints are thrown out as being insane.  As before there is excellent detail about the time and the place; the appearance of Malcolm X and a rising black consciousness towards the end of the 1960s is integrated.  It adds to the assumptions made against black men, that they are not just criminals but terrorists too and so there are parallels to views of the Irish in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s and Muslims in the USA in the present day.  This is a brisk (191 pages in my edition) book which is both an effective thriller and also engages with many American issues which are as alive today as in 1967.

Non-Fiction
'The Russian Revolution' by Sheila Fitzpatrick
I read the 1994 edition of this book which, originally published in 1982, had been updated and expanded following the fall of the USSR three years earlier.  This book is excellent and I can easily understand why it remains in print, with a newly revised edition out in 2017.  My edition was only 199 pages long including references, but Fitzpatrick's analysis is far sharper than many lumbering books I have read on the incidents.  She begins by defining what she sees as the revolution and while focused on Russia rather than other states that broke from its empire, she sees the revolution as running from 1917 to 1937.  The book is particularly strong on the period between the February/March Revolution and the October/November Revolution, a period which tends to get overlooked.  Fitzpatrick certainly does well in countering any assumption of inevitability about the Bolshevik victory, even Lenin's leadership of it.  Other highlights are her analysis of the social impact of Stalin's industrialisation, revealing how the working class had so declined as a result of the Bolshevik seizure of power and the civil war that followed.  She is also good on the Cultural Revolution that Stalin's consolidation brought about and how it established the future leaders of the USSR while killing so many others.  This is a crisp, highly perceptive book that I recommend.

Fiction - Audio Books
'Munich' by Robert Harris; read by David Rintoul
It is interesting that the events of September 1938 at the Munich Conference, despite being seen as the summit of the policy of appeasement are now so poorly known that I saw one commentator to the 'The Guardian' review of this book assume it was an alternate history.  Harris published one very successful alternate history book 'Fatherland' in 1992.  Since then his output has largely been historical novels, yes, fictional but embedded in what really happened.  This book is no different.  Harris, it is revealed in the acknowledgements was fascinated by the Munich Conference following being the presenter of a documentary broadcast in 1988, 'God Bless You, Mr Chamberlain'.  Thus this book is filled with immense detail about what happened in the days around the conference.  He does involve some adventure with his two 'heroes', a German and a British diplomat trying to make Chamberlain aware of the Hossbach Memorandum produced in 1937 that showed Hitler's objective was clearly war despite his rhetoric about peace.  One the German side we see a little of the Oster plot against Hitler, again genuine.

If you do not enjoy details of background discussions then this will not be the book for you.  However, I feel Harris brings to life the men involved, well representing their different characters and opinions around what was happening.  It is far better at 'explaining' Munich from the British side than the Lammers book I read in February.  I do feel that Harris is far too much of an apologist for Chamberlain.  It shows how stubbornly he clung to foolish opinions even when his colleagues in the Cabinet put forward different views that would have been more beneficial to Britain's position and above all to the Czechs.  Harris does show how much contempt Chamberlain had for the Czechs, at best patronising them but generally working from the basis that Czechoslovakia was illegitimate anyway and so it was nothing to give territory from it to Germany.  Running through this is a sense of national superiority on the part of Chamberlain, which far from being as harsh as Hitler's certainly bent that way.  I wish Harris had shown Chamberlain to have been more of the misguided fool that he actually was.  However, he does signal his ill-health which was to kill him a little over two years later.

The success of this book is in how it provides genuine tension even when we know the outcome.  It also succeeds in bringing alive very dull people from the past and giving us some insight into their context, especially how it shaped their behaviour, though falling at the last through being far too sympathetic to Chamberlain.  It is only at the end of the book that you are made truly aware of the futility of everything that was done at Munich and around the conference.  David Rintoul is perfect for reading this book, being able to produce a great range of voices to represent the different politicians and officials on both sides.  If you are more sympathetic to Neville Chamberlain than I am you might enjoy this book thoroughly.  For me it was decent, rather than outstanding; frustrating and ultimately depressing.

'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen; read by Joanna David
I realised from the woman who lived in my house watching the DVDs of the BBC 1995 dramatisation of the story that I knew pretty much all of this story.  It is very light, but at least given some humour to make it seem less insubstantial.  There are some rather over-emphasised characters especially in Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but they add some depth to the book.  I feel sorry for the people Austen portrays.  Yes, they are spared the poverty of many of the era, but have an insecurity of situation which especially for the women compels them to obsess over the game of finding a suitable partner to marry.  Aside from that their lives are very tedious, with some singing and piano playing; playing card games, visiting friends and relatives and the occasional ball, the only distractions.  The advantage of the book is that the omniscient narrator is able to show the inner thoughts of Mr Darcy which makes his shifting attitude towards Elizabeth Bennett seem to start earlier and be more logical than having to show this through facial expressions on the screen.  I would hardly say that I enjoyed the book, but it passed the time and it was good to have heard the original material and know how close the dramatisation that I know best, was to it.

Joanna David who appeared in that dramatisation as Mrs Gardiner is perfect for voicing this story.  She does the voices of the men as well as the range of the women and is especially good with Mrs. Bennett and Lady de Bourgh.

'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley; read by Richard Pasco
It is interesting how you gain an impression of a book from how it is represented in popular media rather than its actual pattern.  Of course, I knew this book was not the same as the horror movies of the 20th century.  However, I had not realised how much of a philosophical book it was and how many of the themes it explores have relevance now, perhaps more so even than in the intervening 200 years since it was published.  The approach is effectively nested monologues from an explorer of the Arctic relaying the monologue of Victor Frankenstein and in turn Frankenstein relaying what the creature says about his experiences and motives.  To some degree this approach excuses Victor in a way that I feel modern readers will not let him get away with. 

There is an early 19th century assumption that the deformed are inherently evil and should be dismissed anyway, in a way that would be intolerable nowadays.  Though, saying that, the last few years have again raised particular hostility towards the 'other' in terms of assumptions, for example, immigrants.  There also seems a return to the belief that certain behaviours are inherent in particular sorts of people, whereas Shelley shows effectively how mistreatment breeds mistreatment and can turn even the kindest spirit, malicious with repeated inflictions.

Victor Frankenstein does come across as a victim himself and I was not certain if Shelley intended this or expected the reader to see that he had brought about his own downfall and misery through his own reckless behaviour at the start and his unwillingness to recognise his responsibilities.  In that, even 200 years later, this book appears as a critique of the self-centred behaviour of young men, especially in terms of any children they may help conceive.

Richard Pasco's reading reminded me of William Roberts's reading of the Lovecraft stories that I listened to last month, though perhaps a little less bombastic, all for the better.  There are numerous dramatic scenes that he articulates well, without going over the top.  He communicates the earnestness of Shelley's writing and her articulation of assumed horror of the creature even before this is evidenced by his actions.  He draws out suitable voices for the different narrators and gives the book the appropriate period feel.  I would not say I enjoyed this book, but I was engaged with it and found it thought provoking and relevant to concerns today, despite its age.

'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens; read by Hugh Laurie
This was another book that I had misapprehensions about based primarily on images from the 1946 movie.  I had anticipated that it would be very gloomy in portrayal and depressing; something akin to 'Wuthering Heights' (1847), a book I was compelled to read at school some thirty years ago and have no wish to return to ever again.  Though there are what might be termed 'Gothic' elements, especially in the jilted bride, Miss Haversham and the decaying house she maintains; the bleak marshland in which she and the 'hero', Pip, live, it is a lighter book than I had anticipated.  There are some quirky characters, notably Joe Gargery the blacksmith, Mr. Wopsle a clerk who takes to the stage and especially John Wemmick, a solicitor's clerk with a wonderful fortress-like home.  I had anticipated that Pip would be utterly wrecked by his involvement with Miss Haversham and her plans to wreak revenge on men through her adopted daughter, Estella.  However, while not everything turns out jolly, it actually unfolds to not be such a tragedy and is more really a story of the various ups and downs of Pip's life from childhood into approaching middle age.  The interest stems from the particular nature of the different characters and the interlocking between them in ways which may have been less expected than these days when such coincidences have become over-used.

Hugh Laurie with his light tone, is appropriate for voicing a character who speaks in the first person throughout and is a boy for much of the book.  He pulls off a range of suitably Victorian voices, at times sounding like the late Jon Pertwee in some of his roles.  His tone also keeps the story from descending into that bleak Victorian gloom which so much of Dickens's work is at risk of sinking into and which puts off so many modern readers from even approaching it.  I would hardly say I thought this was a brilliant book, but I found listening to it far more pleasant than I had feared.

'Northanger Abbey' by Jane Austen; read by Jill Balcon
This is another novel that I had formed a misapprehension of.  I knew that it made fun of the taste in Gothic novels that was common at the start of the 19th century.  However, I thought that they made an impact on the book to a greater extent than is actually the case.  The Gothic tropes impinge just in two ways, first through the narrator talking about heroines and what they 'must' do and then when said heroine, Catherine Moreland goes to the eponymous abbey she assumes that the history of the Tilney family complies with the expectations of the novels, i.e. that the father mistreated the mother and kept her confined leading to her death.  However, at the heart the story is pretty much like 'Pride and Prejudice' (1813), i.e. a young middle-ranking woman trying to find a husband and various misunderstandings and upsets delaying the consummation with her target; in this book not helped by a father who is easily misled and another man, John Thorpe, who wants Catherine for himself.

The portrayal of the society around Bath and the various activities is interesting as is the reference to Gothic novels which were popular at the time.  In many ways the discussion of these between Catherine and Isabella Thorpe, makes the book sound contemporary, the girls (Catherine is 17 for most of the book) chatting about them seems very like social media behaviour of nowadays.  There is some light humour but I had hoped for a more dramatic novel even if it debunked the Gothic tropes.  Jill Balcon handles the voices, especially those of the girls, very well, though at times is a little quiet which can be a challenge for car-borne listeners.  If I had come to this book straight without having listened to 'Pride and Prejudice' so recently might have found it fresher.  However, ultimately it felt like more of the same.

'Oliver Twist' by Charles Dickens; read by Alex Jennings
Like a lot of people I probably know this story best from the musical movie, 'Oliver!' (1968) and as a consequence was unaware of how long the actual story is or how many characters outside the London gang of Fagin, Bill Sykes, Nancy and the Artful Dodger feature.  It begins as a gloomy book in the way that I had feared 'Great Expectations' (1861) would be.  However, it develops to be more like that book as it progresses with more hope for Oliver Twist; rich benefactors; a complex family rivalry and come-uppance for all the wicked people.  At least it does not revel in its misery as that horrendous book clearly inspired by this one, 'The Quincunx' (1989) does at such painful length and offers up at least some shreds of hope.  Dickens was clearly aiming to alert readers to the fate of workhouse orphans and the activities of criminal gangs in London.  There is detail of pick-pocketing and house-breaking; plus journeys through London.  There are a range of mean-spirited characters and at times Dickens shows the civic notables of Oliver's home town, in all their self-righteousness, to be more evil than the criminals in London.  The sense that the poor to blame for their own fate, gave dialogue that you could hear today applied to people on benefits.  Thus, it retains a relevance to today.  I had not expected it to be wrapped up as neatly as it was, but I guess that reflects the demands of the time when it was written.

Alex Jennings tends to fall to stereotypes when voicing Fagin and Bill Sykes, in the latter case unfortunately reminding me of the The Peppermint Nightmare from the television series of 'The Mighty Boosh' (2003-07).  However, he is otherwise very good at conjuring up a range of Victorian characters, especially the busybodies that direct Oliver's life with no compassion.

'Middlemarch' by George Eliot; read by Harriet Walter
As most people know, George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Anne Evans (1819–80).  You can sense a feminist perspective in this book.  In contrast to Jane Austen's (1775-1817) few of the marriages are a success and it is the wife who suffers from the husband's obsessions.  The only really happy one is when the widowed Dorothea goes off with the artist Will Ladislaw at the end of the book with heavily reduced wealth due to her husband disinheriting her of everything if she married him.  These were radical ideas when the book was published in 1871-72 especially when wrapped up in a book which seems on the service just to be a prolonged version of what Austen would have written.

This book is very highly rated.  However, to me, it was utterly tedious.  It is really a 19th century version of the television soap opera 'Emmerdale' (broadcast under two names since 1972).  We simply hear about various women deciding to marry unsuitable men; people borrowing or going short of money; old family scandals; fuss about the reputation of a doctor and various other people plus various philanthropic ventures such as a new hospital and improved housing for the peasants.  It dances around these characters all being very irritated with each other or ashamed of themselves and their behaviour.  Austen gets away with it for keeping everything quite short.  This book just goes on and on and feels far longer than the 6 hours 50 minutes it is read for in the edition I have.  The book is massively over-rated and quickly becomes tiresome, to such an extent it has driven me away from listening to any more of the 'classic' novels in audio book form from Penguin that I had lined up.

Harriet Walter is fine reading this, doing the female and male characters and trying to put some life and a little drama into what is an incredibly limp story.

Monday, 30 April 2018

The Books I Listened To/Read In April

Fiction
'A Dance With Dragons: Part 1 Dreams and Dust' by George R.R. Martin
This was the book that I really felt showed that Martin had lost his way.  This is the first half of the book published in 2011, six years after the previous book 'A Feast for Crows' had been published.  This book overlaps chronologically with that one but features other characters - various members of the Martell family in Dorne including Quentin who has been sent to Essos so his story is separate as he tries to reach Daenerys Targaryen; Reek, formerly Theon Greyjoy who is used by members of the Bolton family who control northern Westeros, John Snow at the Wall, Bran Stark beyond the Wall being absorbed into a tree, Lord Davos Seaworth seeking support for King Stannis along the eastern coast of Westeros, Tyrion Lannister making slow progress on the continent of Essos and Daenerys Targaryen simply sitting in Mereen on the same continent while other cities are ravaged and her opponents attack her from inside and without.

The trouble is, no-one does very much or achieves very much.  Despite the book, in my edition, being 690 pages long, most of it is taken up with people just worrying about things.  There are no major battles that we witness first-hand and for much of the time many of the characters achieve very little  Lord Seaworth spends a lot of time trying to win the support of one city.  Tyrion travels on various boats, being sick and fearing he has caught a disease and so on.  Daenerys goes nowhere and while she faces various threats, in fact the real tension for her is over who she is going to have marry and whether that is the same man as she is having sex with.

Martin is clearly in love with the world he has created and thinks we will all delight in it as much as he does.  However, all the epic drive of some of the earlier books, despite the range of situations he had set up is missing.  The slipping chronology does not help.  In this book, we see John Snow thinking about then sending off Sam Tarly, Gilly and Maester Aemon, but we know from the previous book what happens to them all.  It seems apparent that while impressive at first, Martin has lost control of the multiple characters and so they are left simply shifting around.  I am reminded of how quickly Frank Herbert's 'Dune' series similarly went to seed almost drowning beneath the weight of its epicness.  I would much more prefer to read the book of the television series; the narrative of which is much more engaging and surprising than the bloated, inert thing the books have become.

'Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen: Illustrated Modern Prose Adaptation' by Douglas Hill
There are quite a few books that put Spenser's allegorical stories into modern English.  This is a large format version published in the USA in 1980 and I was given it as a present some five years later.  The closest book to this that most readers will be familiar with is 'The Pilgrim's Progress' by John Bunyan.  This book features six 'books' set in a faux Middle Ages, some generations before each was produced, 1590-98, each focused on a worthy knight such as Sir Calidore representing Courtesy or Sir Guyon representing Justice.  They adventure around various locations encountering monsters or evil people such as Despair or Jealousy and places like the Lake of Idleness and Gulf of Greediness.  Some have different names, for example, Pride is represented by a woman called Lucifera.  Even these paragons are not perfect and have to take refuge at times or are aided by the one supreme knight, Prince Arthur, before he is King.  There is much reference to Faerie Land which is ruled over by Gloriana, a representation of Queen Elizabeth I, the monarch at the time Spenser was writing.  The imagery is rich if a little simplistic and the stories are quite similar with deceptive characters leading the heroes astray and women to be rescued.

The book is a kind of manual for men aspiring to be knightly.  However, some of the lessons are applicable today.  I particularly felt this with the second book of the story of Sir Guyon a representation of Temperance.  As Hill notes, temperance at the time did not mean abstinence, but a balance between that and over indulgence.  Interestingly, he shows young knights being easily offended by minor sleights and getting into dangerous battles notably with Furor aided by his mother Occasion.  I kept on being reminded of young men in town centres on Saturday nights these days.  Hill also points out that Chastity represented by the female knight Britomartis, another representation of Queen Elizabeth, is not about abstinence but having sex in a good marriage rather than promiscuously or selfishly.  Young people of today would see a book like this as stupid, but its warnings about risks of intemperate behaviour are still accurate today.

It is clear that authors down the centuries have been influenced by this book.  I kept seeing things that echoed characters and scenes in the 'Song of Ice and Fire' series by George R.R. Martin, not least Britomart herself who is very reminiscent of Brienne of Tarth, a tall, female knight throughout the series.  Knights associated with flowers remind me of Ser Loras Tyrell.  In the cowardly, comic character of Braggadochio and his squire Trompart of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, especially in his jousting.

The illustrations are pretty random, but I appreciate that Hill is trying to show the characters and settings in the way people of the time might have envisaged them and that is interesting.  For the modern reader this comes across as a very odd book.  However, it has some points, if laboured at times that seem to show Elizabethan society had similarities to our own.  It is also interesting as it helps correct some misapprehensions you might have about attitudes of the time especially around 'proper' behaviour.  It has clearly influenced subsequent authors and there may be references back to it in books nowadays that I am unaware of.

'Sherlock Holmes' by W.S. [William] Baring-Gould
This is a reprint of Baring-Gould's 1962 book, 'Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Life of the World's First Consulting Detective' and is effectively a biography of the character.  It draws extensively on the books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but also numerous pastiches and articles on the stories which appeared in the mid-20th century.  It is fascinating to see the cases outlined in chronological order rather than the way Dr Watson erratically covered them.  Baring-Gould covers any errors on Conan Doyle's part by making them Watson's or saying that details, especially dates, had been adjusted to protect the sensibilities of people, especially Watson's second wife (of three) and various members of European royalty that Holmes helped.

Holmes, we learn, contrary to every portrayal I have seen of him, was a Yorkshireman and spent a lot of his childhood in France.  He studied at Oxford and Cambridge Universities; at St. Bartholomew's Hospital and in Montpellier.  Baring-Gould adds in elements of his own.  Unlike the impression I imagine most readers have, Irene Adler's marriage turns out to have been bitter and she has a son by Holmes.  He, quite convincingly is shown to be a developing Buddhist especially following his return after his apparent death at Reichenbach Falls. Less convincing Baring-Gould has Holmes meeting everyone from Lewis Carroll to George Bernard Shaw and even Jack the Ripper.

Baring-Gould includes text usually from the start or the end of many of Holmes's cases.  If you have not read them then these will be 'spoilers'.  I do not really know why he felt it necessary to include these and can only think it is to add some gravitas to his own pastiche text.  There is enough of interest in the story of his life and those associated with him, notably Mycroft Holmes and Dr. Watson.  Much effort has gone into it, with Baring-Gould benefiting from extensive analysis and speculation by fans down the years.  Overall, I found it a brisk and engaging digest, aided by the fact that I had read all the original stories.  I liked the reference to the cases mentioned in those stories in passing to other cases now extensively written up by June Thomson.

Non-Fiction
'Modern Spain, 1875-1980' by Raymond Carr
As Carr outlines in the introduction he focuses more on the pre-1930 period than the fifty years after that, in large part because of the number of books in English on the Spanish Civil War.  Saying that, there do not seem to be a great deal on Franco's Spain and I found that section, if a little rushed, very interesting.  Despite the title, the book actually goes back to 1868 and it is strongest in giving a picture of the very complex situation of Spanish politics of the 19th century which is a very good basis for explaining the background for the civil war.  Carr takes time to go through the social and economic developments too and really brings out the variety of experiences across Spain; how diverse its agricultural and industrial patterns were.  He maintains this level into the period of the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera, 1923-30. 

Carr then accelerates and gives much thinner attention to his study, which leaves the book rather imbalanced.  He does draw out very interesting points on how close the civil war came to ending almost immediately and the importance of how the army divided in allowing the Republic to fight on.  His focus is largely Spanish so the intervention of other countries gets minimal mention.  I found the elements on Franco's rule 1939-75 very interesting especially in how he shows the shifting sands of the regime, its altering economic focus and how different groups rose and fell.  I think he could have said more about this.  I guess having published this in 1980, just five years after Franco's death, he might have believed readers would be familiar with the regime as current affairs.  Now, however, decades later, it is not familiar to us and this phase of the book would benefit from filling out.  The return to democracy is handled very quickly, but I guess, as most of the book is about how democracy failed because of a range of factors, it is right to draw to a close once it has been established.

This is an engaging book; well written even when explaining convoluted political developments.  It is good at challenging assumptions about Spain.  I think, despite Carr's sense at the time of writing, it would have been a stronger book if the post-1930, and especially the post-1939, sections were strengthened.  However, if you want detail on the period leading up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, this is a crisp and engaging book.

Fiction - Audio Book
'Casino Royale' by Ian Fleming; read by Dan Stevens
After how surprisingly therapeutic I found listening to 'Dr. No' last month I was able to get an unopened, second hand set of another four James Bond novels in the series, read by a range of actors.  This is the first James Bond book published in 1953.  It is very simple.  James Bond is sent to France to beat Soviet agent Le Chiffre at cards at the casino in the fictional Royale les Eaux on the Normandy coast; modelled on Deauville and Le Touquet.  Le Chiffre has lost a lot of money in a chain of brothels in northern France after they had been banned and has taken money from the funds of a Communist trade union based in Strasbourg. By bankrupting Le Chiffre it is expected that he will be killed by the Soviet assassination bureau Smersh so disrupting his activities in France and weakening Soviet influence there.

As Stevens notes in the interview at the end of the discs, the book is in three parts.  The first is the build up to the card game in which Bond works with the French agent, Mathis; British operative from S division, the anti-Soviet branch, Vesper Lynd and the CIA agent, Felix Leiter.  The climax of the book is the card game, baccarat followed by the second section, Bond's torture at the hands of Le Chiffre and his henchmen and then a holiday with Vesper along the French coast from Royale les Eaux.  The 2006 movie keeps very close to the book as far as it can given the great changes that have happened in the intervening 53 years.

The book is very much in the shadow of the Second World War which had ended only 8 years before it was published, even while being sharply engaged with the Cold War which followed.  Lynd's Polish boyfriend, Le Chiffre as a displaced person and Bond's connections from the war are some examples. Some of the luxuries seem mundane now - Bond has an avocado pear as dessert in an expensive hotel restaurant; Mathis's cover is as a radio salesmen bringing new radios to important customers.  Certainly to British readers the towns of the Normandy coast are now no more exotic than going to Brighton or perhaps even Bognor Regis.  However, for readers of the time it must have seemed very exciting.

There is less of a battle for Bond in this book compared to the later 'Dr. No', but each of the sections has its own trials - the tensions at the card table especially when Bond is losing, the sustained torture scene and then the fluctuating relationship with Lynd; at one stage Bond considers marrying her.  As with 'Dr. No', Bond's uncertainty about what he is doing, the morality of it, whether he can continue, is a large part of the book; not apparent in the movies before 'Goldeneye' (1995).  He is a flawed hero at best and comes out of the book emotionally as well as physically scarred: he gets the Cyrillic letter 'Щ' carved into the back of his hand. The leitmotif of Jamaica, where Fleming lived, appears even in this book set in Britain and France: at the casino Bond is supposed to be a millionaire from Jamaica.  Overall it is a straight forward book but with a lot going on in terms of the characters rather than the plot.

Dan Stevens's reading seemed pretty flat after that of Hugh Quashie, though his voicing of the women was far less unsettling, he adopts a light tone rather than a more explicitly feminine one.  He does not communicate the chases and the violence as well as Quashie did and overall lacks his rich tones.  His Le Chiffre voice is a good attempt but rather sounds like a cartoon villain.  I have three more of the Bond audio books to go, each with a different reader, so it will be useful to compare.

'Live and Let Die' by Ian Fleming; read by Rory Kinnear
This is the second James Bond book and follows a couple of weeks after 'Casino Royale'.  Bond is sent to New York to investigate the sale of old English gold coins by the black gangster 'Mr Big' who is based in Harlem but seems to be smuggling in coins from an island off Jamaica, which when the novel was published in 1954, was part of the British Empire and was where Fleming lived.  Fleming had written this book before 'Casino Royale' had been published.

Bond is again partnered with CIA operative Felix Leiter who appears in 'Casino Royale'.  However, Bond and Leiter really bumble around in this book each allowing himself to be captured twice by Mr. Big or his agents.  This leads to Leiter being mutilated by a shark in the way it is shown in the movie  'Licence to Kill' (1989) and Bond to be dragged almost to his death in a similar way to the portrayal in the movie 'For Your Eyes Only' (1981).  Big makes good use of the fact that blacks predominated in service-sector jobs in the USA, notably in transport. For much of the book, Big has the upper hand and this led me to realise that Fleming portrays Bond as quite bigoted, only to reveal how this weakens him.  In 'Casino Royale', Bond is highly dismissive of any role that a female agent like Vesper Lynd can play and is proven to be completely wrong.  In this novel, he sees black men as only recently coming to a position in which they could be a criminal mastermind.  The fate of Leiter and how difficult Bond finds bringing Big down, again proves how poor a judgement this is.  It is only by the luck of timing that Big is killed and Bond reprieved; it could have easily gone the other way around.  While Fleming was certainly a man of his time, he does challenge his hero's assumptions.

Fleming is very much of his time in being obsessed by physical appearance and as in the two previous Bond books I have heard read, his antagonist is physically distinct.  Big is very large, as bald as Dr. No and his skin is grey due to a heart condition.  Like Dr. No and Le Chiffre he is very intelligent and Fleming comments on the skill of his plans.  Fleming does not like the USA, seeing it as tawdry, often seedy, with poor quality clothing and cars and especially bad food.  However, he describes it in great detail and as with the other books, you can enjoy these as a window on to a country at a particular time in its history.  His attitude switches abruptly when Bond moves to Jamaica, a location that Fleming clearly loved and felt he had to extol. As in the other books we get a lesson on a subject or two, in this case about voodoo, used by Mr. Big to terrify his agents, and about barracuda.  Strangways and Quarrel, plus the house of Beaudesert, which all feature in 'Dr. No' feature for the first time in this book.

Sometime in the 1980s I read a criticism of a computer game which featured Bond accessing a stash of Benzedrine in order to replenish his energy to explore an island.  The reviewer was very critical saying he had never seen Bond take drugs in any of the movies.  However, it is clear that the game designers had gone back to the original novel because Bond is shown as deliberately taking Benzedrine in order to pull of the more-than-human exploits he does, in this book swimming to an island battling against and octopus and barracuda.  The more I hear the books the further I realise they are from the movies.  Bond has far more self-doubt.  Even a storm while he is flying to Jamaica puts him into a terror that he has to think himself out of with great effort.  He also has far less sex than in the movies.  Often that is postponed until very late in the book, or as in this case, after the book has finished.  Bond and Solitaire, the seer held captive by Mr. Big, but both is still too injured by the end of the book to do it.

Overall the book is simpler than the movie, as seems to be the case throughout with the adaptations.  It goes into immense detail rather than having great quantities of action.  Bond is very reflective but not always right and Fleming seems to feel obliged to have his character shown where his assumptions are wrong.  In this book he is out-classed by his antagonist and really only wins out through last-minute luck.

Rory Kinnear starts over very excitedly with his narration, but settles down as the book progresses.  He has a wide range of Americans to voice which he pulls off well; his voices for the black characters do not become caricatures nor are so strongly accented as to be difficult for a white British listener to understand.  His women are light, like Stevens's rather than attempting to go too far in being effeminate, though in this book Solitaire says a lot less than Honeychile Rider did.

'Moonraker' by Ian Fleming; read by Bill Nighy
When I started listening to the box set of four James Bond novels, far more familiar with the movie order, I had thought they were picked at random whereas in fact they are the first four.  There are brief references back to the previous story.  This one is very domestic and covers only a few days of activity.  We learn a lot about Bond's day-to-day work when not on a mission, largely reading reports about various espionage and criminal developments.  Even the mission is unusual.  It starts with Bond being used on personal business by M and then being used by Special Branch at a rocket development site in Kent.  Between London and the coast of Kent is as far as Bond goes in this book rather than to any exotic locales abroad.  It reminded me of novels like the movie 'The Small Back Room' (novel 1943; movie 1949) and 'Enigma' (novel 1995; movie 2001) set on such developmental bases, though in wartime.  This book, published in 1955, is very much shaped by the experience of the Second World War which had ended just ten years before its publication.

The book focuses on Sir Hugo Drax, a self-made millionaire who is developing an atomic missile for Britain.  However, Bond is drawn into investigating him first by M, his boss, who has been advised that Drax is cheating at cards at the gambling club 'Blades' of which M is a member.  Much of the early part of the book is taken up with Bond battling against Drax, playing Bridge.  However, Bond is then sent to Drax's development centre in Kent following a murder-suicide of the security officer and very slowly uncovers that neither Drax nor his plans are what they seem.  Again Fleming shows Bond as flawed.  His opinions of Drax keep on being shaped by the populist view of the 'Daily Express' newspaper and he tends to overlook worrying signs because he believes that Drax is a patriot and while eccentric and a cheat at cards, intends the best for Britain.

Bond under-estimates both the abilities of Drax and of Gala(tea) Brand, the Special Branch officer who is working undercover as Drax's aide.  Bond comes up with a fatal and foolhardy plan to prevent the outcome when Brand produces a much less hazardous and simple solution.  Bond expects to go off on holiday with Gala at the end of the book, because they have been pressed close in tunnels and under landslides at various occasions.  However, she points out that she is going to marry a fellow police officer; she had been wearing an engagement ring right throughout.  Brand deserves a series of her own.  She is very level-headed, highly intelligent and brave; bilingual in English and German.  Interestingly, her adept handling of the figures for controlling the rocket echoes the recent highlighting of the role of female mathematicians on the US space programme in the movie 'Hidden Figures' (2016) and in an episode of 'Timeless' (broadcast 2016/17).

Once again, Fleming shows Bond as physically courageous and generally cool, even devious, when under pressure.  However, his judgements as in the previous two books are often highly flawed and this leads him and others into danger.  This is another Bond book in which the hero has no sex.

Bill Nighy does the voices very well.  At times you think another actor has taken over.  He has less challenge than some of the other readers with only German accents to put on beside a range of British ones of different classes and only a couple of women who do not speak a great deal, despite, especially in Gala Brand's case, being central to the book.

'Diamonds Are Forever' by Ian Fleming; read by Damian Lewis
Published in 1956 this was the fourth book in the series which shows the rate that Fleming was turning them out.  Like 'Casino Royale' and 'Live and Let Die' it is on a small scale, with James Bond really working like an undercover detective, rather than facing down a megalomaniac bent on widespread destruction as was seen with the plot to launch a nuclear missile on London in 'Moonraker'.  The British Empire appears again as Sierra Leone is the source of diamonds being smuggled into the USA via London, at the time the location of 90% of the world's trade in diamonds.  Bond takes over the role of one of the smugglers in an effort to trace the course of the smuggling routes.  It is quickly revealed that it is carried out by The Spangled Mob, a Mafia family overseen by the two Spang brothers.  Again, as is a common theme in these books, Bond underestimates his opponents, dismissing all US gangs, despite his experience with Mr. Big some months earlier, as ostentatious and rather stupid.  Of course, he is proven to be mistaken leading to risks to his life and his kicking by men in football boots.

As I noted in 'Live and Let Die', Fleming had no love for the USA.  In this book he disparages New York once again and takes on both Saratoga and Las Vegas as tawdry, seedy places.  Felix Leiter, left missing an arm and a leg reappears working as a Pinkerton agent involved with corruption in horse racing and is important in rescuing Bond; seeming to work far more effectively than he did in 'Live and Let Die'.  Bond ends up killing a number of the criminals involved with the smuggling though almost inadvertently when responding to their attempts to kill him and Tiffany Case.  Case, an American, starts off as a smuggler's guard while Bond is acting in this role taking diamonds from Britain to the USA. She is also a croupier on crooked card games at the Spang's casino.  She ends up helping Bond.  However, despite their professions of affection we never see them actually having sex.  Fleming outlines that this was because she had been gang-raped when aged 16 and has challenges with intimacy.  Honeychile Rider had experienced a rape and Solitaire had kept herself apart from men because of her clairvoyance; Gala Brand because she was engaged.  Bond's appeal erodes some of Case's reticence, though ironically he is attracted to her toughness born from her involvement with crime from a young age.  However, contrary to what I had expected, it is not common to end up having sex with the primary female character.

With the references to empire - the book ends on the border of Sierra Leone and French Guinea and Bond travelling back to Europe on the 'Queen Elizabeth' ocean liner rather than by aeroplane, we are reminded that it is set in the 1950s.  It features a gay couple who are cruel hitmen, though Fleming does not draw any specific connection between their sexuality and their cruelty.  He does like to populate his books with people who stand out, often physically but also in other ways, as with Mr. Big's accidie, a intense boredom.  As Bond notes in 'Moonraker', homosexuality was still a crime in itself in Britain at the time, so by their very relationship Kyd and Wynt are 'criminal'.  Overall then, this is really a straight forward crime adventure.  Bond does face risks to his life and we learn a lot from Fleming about everything from diamond trade, the Saratoga races, Las Vegas and its casinos, even steam trains of the West of the USA.  Bond tends to be a little less self-reflective than in the preceding books and it is really only in the close that we see the world weariness that stood out in these other books.

Damian Lewis often portrays American characters and so is well equipped for the bulk of those in this story.  He also does a German pilot and an Afrikaaner dentist.  His tone, however, when covering the exposition bits, alternates between sounding like comedian and presenter Griff Rhys Jones and natural history presenter Sir David Attenborough and so can be a little too relaxing and soporific.  I guess it does make the tense passages stand out that much more.

'The Call of Cthulhu and Other Stories' [includes 'The Hound', 'The Dunwich Horror' and 'Dagon'] by H.P. Lovecraft; read by William Roberts
As with the James Bond novels, the Cthulhu stories are something many of us have heard of and have some dim idea about but have never read, or had read to us.  This was why I bought this set.  Lovecraft had a rich imagination.  These stories largely focus on the 'Old Ones' alien creatures from a distant galaxy able to travel in dimensions that we are not familiar with and who established vast cities on Earth long before the appearance of man.  However, for millennia they have been dormant, perhaps even dead, but able to infect the dreams of humans and lead some to be their worshippers, building towards the day when their dominion will be restored over Earth and probably most of humanity and current life on Earth will be destroyed.  The creatures Lovecraft describes are very alien, but usually have multiple tentacles and are misshapen, wallow in slime and certainly stink.  In 'The Call of Cthulhu' and 'Dagon' tremors under the sea force some of the structures to the surface leading to madness and hysteria in people and among cultists across the world.  In 'The Dunwich Horror' two hybrids of different sizes are born to a woman in Massachusetts and terrorise a very dreary part of the state.  'The Hound' is a more standard horror story about two men who set up a grotesque museum in their house until an amulet they grave rob attracts a supernatural force to terrorise them.

Lovecraft was writing in the 1920s and his language is of that era.  However, in his attempt to terrorise the reader and to emphasise the horror it is very contorted and certainly bombastic.  At times it becomes repetitive in its descriptions of the various slimy, tentacled, stinking beings and it actually has the effect or wearying you rather than adding to your fear.  One problem is probably that his various tropes such as arcane tomes, while themselves drawing on the Gothic but giving them a new approach, have since publication become so well embedded in subsequent popular culture that they seem unexceptional compared to when they were written.  Roberts, an American, certainly matches the tone of the books, really adding to the bombastic nature of them.  However, it is excessive and even though the stories are not lengthy, him repeatedly telling you how horrifying what he is describing is, with such vigour, actually has the opposite effect.  The landscapes he describes, all dank and rotting, also become tiresome as described so often.

There has been criticism of Lovecraft being racist.  He reflects an American of his time, and indeed more widely in Western society.  His attitude to race stems from racialism, i.e. the view that there are strong differences between different races of humans.  In addition, that the 'quality' of races can become 'decadent' what we might term degenerate.  Even among white families he mentions he makes distinctions, especially in the 'The Dunwich Horror' between branches of families that are decadent and those that are not.  The racism is clearest in 'The Call of Cthulhu' in which he speaks of 'mongrel' people, putting various mixed-race people in Louisiana into this category and seeing them as prone to being influenced by evil forces and behaving in a barbaric way.  The reference to 'diablist Eskimos' seems odd nowadays but is no less offensive.  Lovecraft, thus, has another layer of 'horror' for white American readers in the 1920s, i.e. the fear that their race was at threat not simply from unknown forces, but from other races and from falling into degeneracy itself.

Overall, I felt exhausted by listening to the stories constantly emphasising to me how frightened I should be and the details of the various dingy locations.  It was of interest to hear what Lovecraft wrote but unsettling that despite an interesting early engagement with galaxy-crossing aliens presented in an interesting way, it is wrapped up in attitudes to race that have long been unacceptable.

'Maigret Collected Cases' ['Maigret Goes Home'; 'Maigret in Montmatre'; 'Maigret Has Scruples'; 'Maigret in Society' and 'Maigret Sets a Trap'] starring Maurice Denham and Michael Gough
I do not usually review recordings of radio plays that I listen to, but am making an exception for this collection.  First it was a series of plays adapted from five of the Maigret novels by Georges Simenon, rather than being a play outright.  Second, this collection, though originally broadcast in 1976 has been released in 2017 as a box set of CDs and is widely available on eBay.  Each story lasts 45 minutes and so they are in some cases, notably in 'Maigret in Montmatre' and 'Maigret Sets a Trap' both recently dramatised featuring Rowan Atkinson in the eponymous role, there is compression.  However, the adaptation has been done very well and so you do not lose the essence of these stories.

The absence of narration is overcome, in part by the strange device of having Maigret discussing the cases with the author of the books, Georges Simenon.  Maigret books appeared 1931-72 and Simenon lived 1903-89, so they could be contemporaries, though Denham's voice seems no different when dealing with a case and when speaking to Simenon about it as Maigret, presumably meant to be in the 1970s.  In fact as is the case with the Maigret novels, there is a difficulty in pinning down the time when they are set, it is some vague, mid-20th century period. The selection does favour those stories in which Maigret crosses paths with the faded nobility of French society rather than the everyday people. 

The accents are very much English Received Pronunciation though pronunciation of the various places and names is in decent French.  It is very much in what might call the Radio 4 'house style' with lots of sound effects and different actors appearing on different speakers or more distant from the microphone to give a sense of space, but sometimes a challenge when sitting in a car listening (and a very different experience if in a left-hand drive car as in France!).  Overall I found these stories engaging, though I would have preferred them read rather than acted as I feel the narration would have allowed me to sink more deeply into them than was the case with this approach.  The fact that I felt that I they were too short and I wanted more, might be a sign that I felt they were decent.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

The Books I Listened To/Read In March

Fiction
'Sweetsmoke' by David Fuller
This is probably the best book I have read in a long time.  It is a crime novel set in 1862 and features a slave carpenter, Cassius as the detective.  He works on a tobacco plantation in Virginia and the woman who treated him when flogged and taught him to read, something very rare for slaves of the time, has been murdered. Fuller is skilful in exploring the relationships between different types of slaves, freedpeople and the whites.  He is attuned to the subtle interplay of rising and falling status among slaves and the variety of motives for their behaviour.  Naturally his protagonist's actions are more inhibited than those of most detectives and unlike Wallace Nicholls's Sollius, a Roman slave, he does not have a high status backer who can open doors.

Fuller is adept at quickly creating notable characters well, whether slaves or whites and this is a real strength of the novel.  It seems unfortunate that given the setting he feels compelled to have Cassius as a frontline witness to the Battle of Antietam; it would have been more realistic to have him further behind the lines.  However, this seems to be a pressure on any US author writing a story set within the timeframe of the American Civil War and if you read the old 'New York Times' review of the book, they bang on about how little he talks about the war as if this has to be compulsory.  This is not even a true judgement, Fuller shows the impact on the home front of the Confederacy and personally I have only seen that focus in 'Cold Mountain' (1997 book; 2003 movie).  There are satisfying twists in the novel which has a good pace and effective points of tension.  However, the real strength of this book is the interaction between people in very particular circumstances; Fuller handles this very well.  This is the first book that I have read in ages that I would recommend.  It certainly fits no classic model of any murder mystery story but it is possibly all the better for that.  It is very well written.

'The Power' by Frank M. Robinson
This 159-page book from 1956 (and 1968 movie based on it) should not be confused with 'The Power' (2016) by Naomi Alderman.  It is, however, also a science fiction book and interestingly, a very Nietzschean one at that.  It features scientist Jim Tanner who is working on a project funded by the US Navy to explore the extremes to which the human body can be put, for example in terms of cold or pain.  Though set in peacetime USA, this parallels experiments conducted by the Nazis at concentration camps on inmates, the results of which, controversially were used by some democratic countries after the end of the war.  As a result of these experiments, Tanner finds out that one of his colleagues on the project is a 'superman' with both telekinesis and the ability to alter people's perceptions of people and those around him.  For the time, interestingly, the team includes two female scientists, though they are later revealed to be catspaws.

Tanner is soon on the run from the 'superman' whose real name is Adam Hart and engineers Tanner's erasing from his career, his bank account, etc.  Hart even tries to make Tanner and his colleagues kill themselves.  Tanner's investigations take him across the USA to discover the origins of Hart and what he has done to the people of his home town.  However, much of the action takes place in Chicago.  One thing which is interesting is how many 24-hour outlets a city like that would have in the 1950s which enable Tanner to keep going especially when he seeks protection among crowds, in a way which is only recently becoming common in UK cities; he would have had a harder time dodging Hart in a city centre of closed up shops.

Some reviewers have criticised that Robinson gives no detail of how this next stage in human evolution represented by Hart comes about.  In some ways his book is a precursor of the X-Men arc, but Robinson's focus is more on the challenges of fighting back against such an individual rather than exploring how they come about or whether they are widespread.  As people note, Robinson is skilled in writing that unsettling approach about powerlessness.  The way different members of the team have been manipulated and often longer than realised, is well handled.  In this regard it reminded me of paranoid science fiction novels of the era like 'The Day of the Triffids' (1951; various television adaptations) and 'The Body Snatchers' (1954; became the movies 'The Invasion of the Body Snatchers').  Though it references the Korean War, the shadow of the Nazis and their views on eugenics hangs right over the book; ideas which would be very familiar to readers of the time.  Despite the period setting, even now, this is a successfully taut and unsettling book.

'Excalibur' by Bernard Cornwell
This is the final book in the Warlord Chronicles trilogy following a story of Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, Galahad, Lancelot and other characters from Arthurian legend but as if they had been real people in 5th and early 6th century Britain.  The books are well written, but given the nastiness of so many of the characters moving around a decaying post-Roman Britain often in appalling weather and simple grubbiness, it is hard to enjoy the books.  The book has a couple of set-piece large-scale Pagan events which are impressive and then there is the full-scale battle against the Saxons close to Bath which is well handled; Cornwell is always very good with battle scenes.  However, then the book goes on and the final two-fifths of it sits uncomfortably with the rest. 

I know Cornwell has aimed to eschew the legendary approach to Arthur but it does go down into even greater bleakness.  Furthermore, though there have been various curses and 'magic' rituals from Druids and others throughout the book, none of them have worked.  The cynicism about both the Pagan and Christian gods is common throughout but then abruptly, at this late stage, magic suddenly starts working causing agony for Ceinwyn, the narrator Lord Derfel's partner, at a distance.  It is almost as if Cornwell has forgotten the rules he has set himself.  As a result it is a pretty unsatisfactory ending and it would have been better to end with the bittersweet conclusion following the battle at Bath rather than carry on for another couple of hundred pages in  this peculiar coda.

Overall, I can say I have been impressed by the trilogy.  The action is engaging; the level of detail of the times and places is excellent and the characters are well drawn and believable with all their motives and baggage.  However, I cannot say I enjoyed these books and I will be more cautious about picking up another series by Cornwell.  I have been given a number of books in his Saxon Stories sequence, but reading the details they seem pretty similar to this trilogy, though now stretched out over 10 books already.  I do not think the premise is likely to be an enjoyable one and I certainly could not have continued with the Warlord Chronicles if they had run for ten books rather than three.

'The Big Gold Dream' by Chester Himes
This one was published in 1960 and like 'The Crazy Kill' (1959) which I read last month, features the black local Harlem detectives, 'Grave' Digger Jones and 'Coffin' Ed Johnson.  It is marginally better than 'The Crazy Kill', perhaps as Himes does not feel as obliged to take us on a guided tour of the food, clothing and culture of Harlem at the time.  His information on the local lotteries in the area is of interest and important to the story.  The problem is, however, as with 'The Crazy Kill', so much of the short book (160 pages in my edition) is spent with people going back and forth speculating about what is going on rather than anything much happening and despite the length, it becomes pretty tedious, pretty quickly.  Jones and Johnson, the latter much more antagonistic than portrayed in the book from the year before, only wander into the book about a quarter of the way in and feature sporadically before bringing the book to a close at the end.

The plot circles around a woman's winnings on three lottery games in the same day and some Confederate money.  The hunt for the winnings leads to a string of murders and people hunting around and threatening others to try to find out where it has gone.  There is the same kind of range of criminal characters and a peculiar clergyman, that seem compulsory in Himes's books.  However, it is almost as if, like one of the characters, you have sat in the window in an apartment in Harlem and watched people toing and froing without doing much in particular.  It is a curiosity these days; in part a record of a time and a place, but it utterly lacks tension and mystery.  By the end you are no longer interested in who did what to whom, just glad that the book has ended.

Fiction - Audio Book
'Dr. No' by Ian Fleming; read by Hugh Quashie
I drive for at least 10 hours every week.  As a result I have been listening to more radio than I watch television or DVDs and little less than I read.  Having had an irritating trip to try to find a new car, at two dealerships whose websites show vehicles that have long been sold or not as how shown or indeed the site itself had no staff visible, despite being open, I stopped at a service station.  With a constant barrage of the same news and often many of the same songs being repeated on the radio, I ended up picking up this audio book and in minutes had been converted to audio books.  I do not know why I had not thought of this before.  I have a good friend who has been into audio books since the days when you could borrow them on cassette from the library in those large thick boxes.  Indeed, I have clearly missed another era of them.  Most of the audio books now on sale, even if on CD, are as MP3 files which means you can download them to an MP3 device but cannot actually play them in a traditional CD player.  As a result, I am now a regular on eBay trying to buy up old CD versions.  With them having a duration of something like 6-7 hours for a typical unabridged novel, my capacity to consume them rapidly in an ordinary week, is clearly high.

There was a small selection of these audio books in the service station and I lit on this one as my introduction.  It was part of a 'Bond Reloaded' series in 2012 in which renowned movie and television actors each narrated a different one of Ian Fleming's books.  This was the first serious Bond movie made, though it was not the first of the books, so I guess it was from having seen the movie that I was influenced to turn to this one first.  As I am sure many people have said, the books are pretty different to the movies in many aspects.  Quashie, in a brief interview at the end of this one, outlines this himself.  Bond has much more self-doubt than in the movies, about his own abilities and what he has to do.  However, he is much more innovative and, rather than relying on gadgets, in the books he improvises.  A lot of the closing stages of this book revolves around what he can do with a sharpened steak knife, a table lighter and thick wire ripped from a ventilation shaft cover.

Though there are periods of high tension, the book is slow moving.  In part this is because of the amount of detail Fleming puts into what he is describing, whether it is an individual, a landscape or some food.  Furthermore, he gives a great deal of background information.  We learn a lot about Jamaica under British colonial rule and even about the guano industry.  You are reminded that the books began to come out before even package holidays were common and British people's knowledge even of the rest of Europe, let alone the Caribbean, came from books and occasional things they saw in movies.  However, as Quashie notes, nowadays this gives a window into a previous era.  The book was published in 1958, so Jamaica has not gained its independence and Cuba is not yet a Communist state.

Added to this, though there is reference to tampering with US rocket trials, the book, as Quashie points out, feels more like an adventure story from the Victorian period, more related to work by Rider Haggard than Robert Ludlum let alone Mick Herron.  For example, there are extended sections about paddling the canoe to Crab Key where Dr. No's base is and dealing with the surviving on the island.  Bond is assailed by quite an exotic array of creatures, but being menaced by a large centipede and a giant squid do sound as if they belong in an earlier age; I imagine the books that Fleming grew up reading. 

There is also the reference to race.  The racial characteristics of almost every character, certainly all the non-whites, are described.  Dr. No himself of mixed Chinese and German heritage and having used plastic surgery, is described in detail.  However, possibly uncharacteristically for the time, and maybe in contrast to other Fleming novels, he does not make judgements about people's character based on their race.  Bond has a genuine companionship with Quarrel, a Cayman islander and mourns his killing.  Bond is a long way from being a feminist and Fleming refers to most women as 'girls'.  Still Honeychile Rider, a white orphaned young woman, though she adds the sex interest to the novel (though Bond holds back from having sex with her until the end), towards the end of the book she actually frees herself from the trap Dr. No puts her in, using her knowledge of the local fauna to better effect than either No or Bond and is on her way to kill No with a screwdriver when Bond finds her again.

This book established many of the tropes seen in spy and adventure novels and movies throughout the 20th and into the 21st century - a disabled mastermind in a secret island base who monologues his plans to the hero and then rather than simply shooting him, puts him into a complexly perilous situation which with strength and ingenuity the hero can escape.  I guess we have seen this so much and the focus of satire so often that it seems a little ridiculous.  Quashie does well to freshen it up and restore some of the sinister nature to these encounters.

Unlike with a standard book, there is an additional aspect to review and that is the skill of the reader.  Quashie has a wonderfully rich voice that really adds to the extended descriptions and well conveys the urgency when Bond is battling for his life.  In the interview he explains he wanted to do all of the voices, both male and female and he produces a whole spectrum of them as would be done in the Roman 'pantomimes' for which one actor played every role.  He does not read the dialogue out, he acts it.  At times the accent of the Jamaicans and Quarrel are hard to follow especially when listening on a car's speakers.  I felt incredibly unsettled by him doing Honeychile Rider, though he does well at giving her a slight Jamaican twang, but it does sound rather odd, even unsettling.

Overall, then, the book was pretty different from what I expected.  It is a very old fashioned adventure even for 1958.  However, the rich description and the inner dialogue of Bond make it engaging.  The scenes where he is in mortal danger are well done and gripping.  As a result, I have got four more Bond books to listen to now.

Non-Fiction
'The Industrialisation of Russia 1700-1914' by M.E. Falkus
This is a short classic text beloved of numerous modern History courses in universities.  Having been published in 1972, as with 'Explaining Munich' by Lammers last month, it reminded me of how strong Marxist history once was and meant authors had to address its particular distorted view of historic developments.  Fortunately Falkus approaches the issues highlighted from the statistical data rather than trying to impose any particular political perspective on what he is considering.  While not coming to a firm conclusion about what stage of industrialisation Russia had reached by the outbreak of the First World War, he does show that the issues of distance and terrain had not really been overcome.  There were pockets of industrialisation in a vast agrarian country, that in output could rival, even exceed those of other Powers, but the impact of which was reduced by the context.  There were foundations laid for future industrialisation but there remained to be a long way to go.  Of course, we know that many of the comparators were not as industrialised as is often assumed, notably France and Italy, let alone the Netherlands.  Their industrialisation would not come for two to three decades later either.

What I found most interesting in this book when compared with general surveys of Russia in this period, was how well Falkus showed that Russian industry was in fact not really capitalist, but even after the 1861 Emancipation of the Serfs, was a kind of feudal industry.  Even the large scale of some industries, notably in the Ural Mountains actually betrayed an early level of development rather than a modern form of growth.  He shows well how different types of serf were put into industry before 1861 and that the cost of compensating former owners, shackled many of the post-1861 workers as much as if they had remained serfs.  This largely blocked the rural-urban migration that one would have anticipated and kept down the availability of industrial labour as a whole.  Furthermore, the locking in of poverty prevented the rise of a large internal mass market, another important driver for industrialisation.  In turn, this kept down returns and the accumulation of domestic capital, leading to the need for vast foreign investment, foreign advisors and workers, etc.  Though the role of the state in industrialisation fluctuated, declining through the latter 19th century, it was always there.  Given this context of state involvement and really, at best, a bastardised, capitalist economy, perhaps in fact Russia was fertile ground for the totalitarian industrialisation that Stalin introduced in the 1930s rather than a steady progress towards capitalist industrialisation seen elsewhere in Europe, anyway.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Books I Read in February

Fiction
'A Feast for Crows' by George R.R. Martin
This book is where the television series begins to diverge significantly from what the books tell.  I can see why as this book is very much a 'filler', with very little happening.  Many of the multiple characters' stories are not advanced at all.  Characters that we saw a lot of in the previous book, 'A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold' (2001) do not feature at all.  We see nothing of Brandon Stark, his brother and companions now they are North of the Wall; we see nothing of his half-brother Jon Snow despite him being in command of the Wall; we see nothing of Stannis Baratheon, claimant to the throne who went to the Wall to defend it and we are told that Ser Davos Seaworth has been executed; we certainly see nothing of Tyrwin Lannister despite him having killed his father and fled from Westeros along with Varys the spymaster; we see nothing of the advance of Daenerys Stormborn and dragons liberating cities in Esteros.  Theon Greyjoy who suffers lengthy torture in the series does not appear at all, despite coverage of his sister and uncles.

It is as if all the epic elements of the story have been left out.  Martin seems to have been compelled to write an apology at the end of the book explaining that he has not forgotten these characters.  He says that running parallel stories he decided to concentrate in this book on events associated with King's Landing.  We certainly spend too much time in the head of Queen Regent Cersei Baratheon.  She is a sociopath, she either sees people as a threat or as failures.  Her behaviour, uncomfortably resembles behaviour in too many UK workplaces.  However, it becomes tiresome to see her being paranoid and smug about everyone.  She becomes a dead weight and it is uncomfortable to keep returning to her with the story advanced minimally.  I do not know if Martin is trying to garner some sympathy for us by explaining how her sexual encounters with her husband were unsatisfactory.  We are told she has a range of lovers but clearly gets little pleasure from them as when she gives another woman an orgasm, she does not know what is happening.

At times I have said that Martin is really more interested in the world he created than in the actual narrative.  This particularly appears to be the case with this book.  As a result Brienne of Tarth is condemned to wander around the dreary, war weary landscape with little outcome.  Jaime Lannister gets a similar development as the book progresses, both end up going past places they have visited before with very little outcome.  Sam Tarly has a long sea voyage with a few interesting developments but mainly him vomiting repeatedly.  The child with him is different from the one in the series and we see him having sex.  It is all very jumpy and handled much better in the series.  We see Arya Stark apprenticed to the House of White and Black though her progress there is not half as exciting as shown in the series.  The election of a new king in the Iron Islands is interesting and the raids that they undertake.

Overall, this is a dull book that despite covering more than 800 pages does very little to advance the bulk of the stories.  It is often the case that when dramatised a book can be improved through resolving the anomalies in it.  This is certainly the case with this book.  I suggest you skip it and watch the programme instead.  A real disappointment after the previous book.

'Enemy of God' by Bernard Cornwell
This book is better than its predecessor, 'The Winter King' (1995).  We continue to explore the memoirs of Derfel Cadarn, sometime commander under warlord Arthur as he tries to bring peace to the kingdoms of Britain and adhere to his oaths.  The incompetence of young King Mordred and the duplicitousness of King Lancelot take up most of this book.  There is a lot of tramping around the British countryside, though ironically when Derfel accompanies the druid, Merlin to find the Cauldron of Clyddno Eiddyn, one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, rather than being an epic quest it is found in a handful of days but soon stolen again.  Despite the treachery, especially from Guinevere with Lancelot, there is some happiness for Derfel.  Arthur comes to see that he is going to have to take the lead in running Britain if not the crown.  Throughout the attention to historical detail is excellent.  However, it is an incredibly dreary landscape in which they operate, despite the climate of the time warming.  They move through a landscape in which everything is a pale shadow of the supposed Roman glory.  The characters are well drawn, with appropriate motives for people of the time, but not with the problem often encountered with historical novels with them made to appear less sophisticated in their thinking and behaviour than ourselves.  I would not say that I liked this book, but I found it rather more engaging than the previous one and I admire the effort which has gone into it.

'The Crazy Kill' by Chester Himes
I mentioned Chester Himes last year when he turned up as a character in 'Black Hornet' (1994) by James Sallis rather than 'The Black Hornet' (2017) by Rob Sinclair.  Himes (1909-84) was highly appreciated in France where he settled in the 1950s.  Though being published 1945-98, he was most renowned for the books set in Harlem featuring 'Grave' Digger Jones and 'Coffin' Ed Johnson, published 1957-69. The books were unusual at the time for having two black police officers as the lead characters.  This novel was published in 1959.  Himes had left a USA still plagued by segregation and race plays a large part in his stories.

The Harlem setting would have been unfamiliar to many readers beyond portrayals of night clubs and speakeasies of the 1920s.  Himes puts immense detail into portraying the context with a lot of information about what people are wearing, eating and drinking; he makes use of the jive language employed by the people living there.  For a modern reader this might seem unnecessary as we are more familiar with the setting not least from blaxploitation movies of the 1970s so of which were based on Himes novels.

The book is short (144 pages in my edition) but feels laboured.  It features the stabbing of a gambler at a wake for another gambler.  The suspects are the men and women at the wake, who are largely gamblers and their wives/girlfriends, so better off than many of their contemporaries in Harlem.  While it might be set in a city, the book is like a country house mystery.  Some bits jar, notably the pastor being pushed from the window into a bread basket on the street and then returning to the wake unharmed.  After the murder not much else happens.  The various characters spend a lot of time in discussion with each other, laying down accusations and trying to find out secrets behind that may be behind the killing.

These stretches of the book are pretty repetitive and tedious, so that by the end you do not really care who killed the victim.  It is a shame as from the reviews I had expected a gritty crime novel.  However, I think that for Himes, as was suggested in 'Black Hornet', crime was really simply a hook for Himes to exploit black lives in the USA at the time.  Thus, read now it is more a historical curiosity; a social commentary on particular people in a specific time and place rather than an engaging murder mystery.  I have two more books from Himes's Harlem series to read, one of which I have seen as a movie already.

'Dream Story' by Arthur Schnitzler
I got this book from a friend's brother who is into pretentious novels.  This is billed as an 'erotic' book and I was concerned that it would be pornographic.  In fact aside from some naked women dancing at a strange club, it is simply pathetic.  It features a doctor in Vienna at some time in the late 19th century, the reference to the project to build a railway in Anatolia, suggests early 1870s.  He meets various women he is attracted to an inveigles his way into this secret club, the members of whom threaten his life and compel the suicide of a woman there who supports him.  Not having any sexual encounters with any of the women he connects with, not even a prostitute, he flips from despising his wife to feeling he should be more candid with her.  That is it.  The descriptions are reasonable, but it comes over very much as a vanity project, the author trying to get some frisson from what might have happened to him if he had been an adult in those days.  It is not clear if the whole book is not a dream.  The introduction to my edition is terrible.  It rattles on about things unrelated to the courses of the book and neglects information or even opinion about the book itself.  Overall, very dull.  Do not be misled that this is either 'erotic' or a book of quality; it is highly over-rated.

Non-Fiction
'The Failure of Political Extremism in Inter-War Britain' ed. by Andrew Thorpe
This book consists of four sections.  The ones by Thorpe and by Bruce Coleman look respectively at how the Labour Party and the Conservative Party effectively neutralised the extremes of the left and right.  In the other two sections, Harry Harmer looks at the National Unemployed Workers' Movement (NUWM) and Richard Thurlow at the British Union of Fascists.  The NUWM was the most successful front organisation of the British Communist Party, but failed to politicise even the unemployed, with it largely dealing with benefit appeals cases; furthermore it put the Communists into a ghetto of the fluctuating unemployed rather than, ironically, building its strength among workers.  For the BUF it is shown how fragmented and often corrupt it was and that its profile largely came from brief newspaper support and rumour rather than the construction of a solid political party let alone one which could take power.

While at the start Thorpe cautions readers against the view that there was something inherent in British society which dampened support for extremist views even compared with democratic France, let alone further afield in Europe, we end up being shown a number of particularities about the British system which had this effect.  The relatively light impact of the Depression with some regions barely touched by it; the electoral system which predicated against burgeoning parties, indeed as the period progressed, against an third party, and the breadth of the umbrella of the Labour and Conservative parties that were able to accommodate some of the more radical views while at the same time, explicitly and actively in the case of Labour; in a more nuanced way with the Conservatives, kept radicals from challenging the mainstream direction of the party and also denying sympathisers to extremists beyond the party bounds.

I also think that Britain having a kind of semi one-party state, with the National Government, cross-party coalition in force from 1931 into the war, pursuing a policy of appeasing dictators up to 1939, effectively undermined the position of those who sought the suspension of democracy to resolve the economic and international situations.  Again it mopped up those who might not have been ardent advocates of a right-wing dictatorship but might have given backing to such a development if it had been allowed to seed.  Instead anything of that nature was thoroughly marginalised as to be of no real effect on British politics, bar perhaps, strengthening support for appeasement.

'Explaining Munich: The Search for Motive in British Policy' by Donald N. Lammers
I was advised to put a picture of the front cover in this review as it was felt to be the best thing about this book.  In some ways I am grateful for this book, published in 1966, for reminding how deeply Marxist perceptions of history, even among US historians, penetrated in the 1960s and 1970s.  Lammers confesses to being a Socialist at the start of this book.  However, his politics blinkers his historical analysis to a painful extent.  The book is less a 'search' for a motive of why British politicians behaved the way they did in the lead-up to the Munich Conference of September 1938 and more a man with some answers trying to force them on what he finds.

Lammers's dogmatism is embarrassing as he keeps on insisting that the prime motives for the British dealing with Hitler over Czechoslovakia were their anti-Soviet stance and their defence of middle class if not upper class values in Britain.  In fact he keeps finding evidence to oppose both of these viewpoints, especially in looking at the statements and behaviour of the politicians.  Still he hammers on, certain that somewhere, if he digs deep enough, he will find evidence for his approach, even though, ironically, he is critical of Eastern bloc views of the events.  Attitudes towards the Czechoslovaks themselves, let alone the whole Versailles process, are sorely neglected.  Lammers patronises the Czechoslovaks as much as the appeasers did themselves.

Lammers does make some interesting points about the attitude of other parts of the British Empire, especially Canada, to Britain being involved in a war in Europe.  However, his skewed perception of the whole event, heavily shaped by the Cold War persisting when he wrote this book, means he does not provide anything fresh or indeed insightful to the whole affair.  I am sure there are Marxist historians still publishing today but I imagine no publisher, especially an academic one, would allow any of them these days to get away with such a distorted analysis of any historical events.

I see that second hand it retails for US$9.90, so maybe I should sell my copy.

The cover:



Saturday, 10 February 2018

Wars to End: What If? Stories of the First World War

Wars to End: What If? Stories of the First World War
 
 
 
This is the latest in my what if? short story collections.  It seemed apt, with the centenary of the end of the First World War coming this November to focus on alternatives for that conflict.  This is the first collection I have organised on a chronological basis with stories in the book stretching from June 1914 with no assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to April 1940 approaching the anniversary of the success of the Gorlice-Tarlow Offensive in a world with no Second World War raging.  As is the case with my what if? collections, there is no attempt to provide an overarching history.  Instead, each of 22 stories starts from a different alternative.  Some stories see no First World War or a more restricted version breaking out; others see an even more devastating or longer version.  In this book, in contrast to other collections I have produce, the story is typically set just a short time away form the divergence from our history rather than decades or centuries later.

The changes vary in scope.  At the simplest level is a single assassin missing.  Then there are local changes, such as British mutinies spreading further and to a greater extent; an earlier German assault on the Verdun fortresses at a time when the French garrisons had been thinned greatly or the German plan to draw out British cruisers working better leading to a more conclusive Battle of Jutland.  There are changes at a strategic level, for example adherence to an earlier version of the German invasion plans which involved marching through the southern Netherlands rather than leaving it neutral and pulling back on the Lorraine Front to draw French forces further from Paris or in 1918 launching a more co-ordinated Kaiserschlacht so forcing the British back.  These were decisions that could have been made by the generals or their commanders.  Some others stem from geopolitical alterations, such as Italy remaining loyal to the Triple Alliance and invading French territory; the Japanese being an ally of the Germans rather than the British or Romania entering the war earlier and participating in the Brusilov Offensive or the Ottoman forces going into Egypt sooner than in our world.  Others have a technological alteration, such as the British developing tanks two years earlier; the appearance of biological weapons and the kinds of gas and tanks that were planned by the Entente to continue the war in 1919.

I hope that this book shakes off the attitude that tends to be so common especially in Britain, that 'it had to be that way'.  Some alternatives, such as Kaiser Friedrich III living into the 20th century are just from a twist of nature, but many could have arisen from influential people making different decisions at the time based on the information they had then so could have easily occurred.  Even if you disagree with the outcomes that I suggest in these stories, I hope this book will interest you and provoke thought and debate about how different the First World War might have been and, indeed, that it easily may not have occurred at all.