Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Books I Read In November

'The Chinese Gold Murders' by Robert Van Gulik
This is the fourth book in the series of novels published in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the Dutch diplomat and scholar, Robert Van Gulik which featured the 8th century Chinese judge/detective, Judge Dee.  Van Gulik had translated an actual 18th century book of Chinese detective stories set during the 7th-8th centuries, during the Tang dynasty.  He then used this style to write a series of novels himself featuring a historical character engaging in fictional crimes but often based on those of the 18th century or even incidents of the Tang dynasty.  As I have found myself, it can be a challenge to use a historical style in modern fiction as many readers do not 'get it' and feel the constraints of the style simply show poor writing.  It is a fine line to walk.  At times van Gulik's work feels to have a simple tone.  However, each of the novels features three inter-twined stories being investigated simultaneously, something many contemporary crime novels are unable to engage with.  Van Gulik is good at both conjuring up the time period and whilst it is very alien to us, you soon find yourself comfortable in it, just the way Ellis Peters made readers feel 'at home' in 12th century Shrewsbury.  This particular novel features Dee's first cases as a judge when he assigned to a port on the Shandong Peninsula and becomes involved with the assassination of his predecessor, smuggling, the Korean population of the town and a local Buddhist monastery.  Whilst Dee is the hero, he is a man of his time and culture and it is interesting when he expresses prejudices, for example, as an ardent Confucianist against Buddhism. As a rational man it is also interesting when he is faced by things that appear supernatural and certainly that many around him believe are so; reminiscent of Ichabod Crane. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it is a shame you only seem to find them in increasingly rare second hand editions.  If you like historical crime fiction, I certainly recommend seeking these out.

'Against the Day' by Michael Cronin
Michael Cronin is renowned to my generation as an actor for many years in the school-based series 'Grange Hill'.  He seems to have made a modest transition to writing.  This is a 'what if?' novel, the first of a trilogy, set in Sussex following a successful German invasion in 1940.  It is aimed at a children's audience, but there are only a few occasions when you feel as an adult reader that it is for children.  Cronin's focus on the perceptions of a small group of individuals in a small village which has a local headquarters for the Gestapo comes off very well, as in their own ways they seek to process what they have witnessed.  Different strands inter-twine as the hero, Frank Tate, tries to find out the fate of his father; preparations are made for the celebration of Hitler's birthday in 1941 and actions by the local 'stay behind' resistance begin. 

Cronin is very successful in character portrayal.  While there are characters we like and dislike and even heroes, all have flaws which influence how they respond to the (changing) circumstances.  This means that their reactions can be vacillating and ambiguous and certainly they evolve.  This is an aspect often missing in stories focused on a 'what if?' and I find it a good lesson for my own writing.  The action and the threats are appropriate for a children's audience but the development of the different characters and how they react to circumstances is handled very well and as an adult reader I found that facet engaging and will certainly look out for the following books.

Some commentators have noted that you do not find out a great deal about how history ran differently.  We witness scenes of the Germans coming ashore on the beaches of a fictional seaside resort close to Brighton and there are stories of a prolonged series of tank battles in the Midlands.  However, these aspects are less important than exploring how the occupation is imposed on Britain.  At times I think Cronin could have emphasised more the benefits of living in the country as it jarred occasionally how much cheese everyone was eating, even with the war having ended the previous year.  However, that is a tiny issue.  This may not appeal to some adult readers of alternate history but certainly is far better than some of the bombastic Hitler-won fiction.

'The Rachel Papers' by Martin Amis
It had been a good month up until this stage.  Having read many of the larger books I have owned on the practical basis of needing to reduce the amount of storage space I use, I am now onto shorter works.  This is one of those books that I regret buying and am glad I got it from a charity shop.  I saw part of the movie of the book and maybe was inspired to buy it as a result of that or maybe I was curious about Amis's work.  I have read his father's alternate history books.  I had found them interesting but irritating.  Amis (born 1949) exceeds his father in terms of irritation.  I accept that 'The Rachel Papers' (1973) was one of his earlier books, published when he was 24 and featuring a man in 1970 who is turning 20.  Even if I had not known that this would have struck me as being at least a semi-autobiographical book.

Perhaps one problem is that post-'Life on Mars' and 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy', the 1970s look incredibly seedy to us no matter what the focus of the story set then.  With the lack of technology, notably having to phone the neighbour of a friend to fetch them to answer the phone, it seems much further in the past than it is chronologically, more akin to the 1940s than the 1990s, for example.  However, the morality also seems very dated.  There is the racism, misogyny and class bigotry of the 1940s but then added to with what now seems a sordid attitude to sexual behaviour.  It is as if the period combined the worst of the uptight 1950s with the unpleasant aspects of the permissiveness of the late 1960s.  There are few books that I have read that have left me feeling 'soiled' but this is one of them. 

The book features a self-centred young man, Charles Highway, who rather than going to university has opted to attend a crammer school over the summer of his 19th year in order to gain 'O' Level Latin and to sit the Oxford University entrance examinations.  There seem to be flaws in this, why someone clearly capable of university entrance, has to take an 'O' Level aimed at 16 year olds and why he is doing this while 19 rising 20 rather than 18 rising 19 is not clear, though there is reference to his ill-health and he spits almost constantly through the book apparently due to bronchial problems.  I think Amis's own experiences have butted in here to blind him to the practicalities and so he feels no need to explain them.  While staying with his married sister in London he seeks to seduce Rachel who he sees as the necessary 'older woman' he must sleep with before ceasing to be a teenager.  Rachel is only a few months older than him.  Charles has casual sex with Gloria whose name seems anachronistic even in 1970 for a teenager who gives him a venereal disease.  He tries to get a girl to sleep with him though just through writing letters. Charles records his exploits and his strategems in a series of 'papers': books and pads with his self-reflections.  He is pretentious especially in regard to literature and despite all his introspection cannot appreciate the feelings of anyone around him despite the meltdown of his parents' marriage and the challenges his unsympathetic sister and brother-in-law face dealing with her pregnancy.

The story does not run chronologically.  The jumping back and forth in time is engineered pretty well; the approach of the papers makes this appear rational.  Amis is clearly fascinated by how time works especially in fiction and this is probably the only positive aspect of this book.  There are reasonable sex scenes that were probably had a greater frisson at the time, but today are generally refreshing in the ordinariness.  However, they are irritating due to Charles's constant inner monologue indeed dialogue while carrying them out.

Why do I dislike this book so much?  It shows up all the nasty things that Amis is accused of.  Anti-Semitism breaks in at an early stage and is complemented by general racism.  The attitude to women is appalling.  They are presented not just by the character but by the author himself as disposable.  Having slept with Rachel and uncertain whether he has made her pregnant, Charles simply gets rid of her in a very callous manner.  The author seems to think that young women should be grateful for the fact that a man has given them an orgasm and not expect anything else.  To anticipate any emotional engagement or even manners, is apparently, in Amis's view to be too 'clingy'.  This is certainly a pre-Feminist novel but exposes the nastiness of the author that many other far better commentators than myself have noted.  I will certainly read nothing else by Martin Amis and recommend that you do not waste your time if you have any self-respect.

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