Monday, 29 February 2016

The Books I Read In February

'Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers' by Grant Naylor
This book covers the first episodes of the first season of the television series 'Red Dwarf' (1988-93; 1997-99; 2009; 2012 - two new series will be broadcast in 2016-17). It is a situation comedy about a small number of characters on a spaceship.  I have seen these multiple times. It was popular among my friends when first broadcast and the woman and boy who used to live in my house, loved it so much that the DVDs were regularly watched.  There is a lot of toilet humour that appeals to children.  The series does tackle issues that are popular in science fiction as the characters travel around space running into debris and encountering other races.  They also get mixed up with wormholes and temporal anomalies and even a 'what if?' history story.

I have a friend who hates it if a movie or television adaptation diverges one iota from the source book.  He forgets that a short story is more than enough to fill a 1-hour television programme, a novel could produce a series.  In addition, viewers do not want a multiplicity of minor characters and it is difficult to include footnotes on screen; it was only really successfully done by 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' (TV series, 1981) and even then it had to break up the flow of the action.  For myself, I actually like the divergence between the different media as it means that I do not precisely know what is coming up.  This book keeps incredibly close to the series in almost every aspect and the trouble is that I know what it features far too well.  There is some back story which does not feature in the series and, because the book does not lead off into the series as a whole, the final section is new.

The dialogue for most part is identical to that seen in the series.  However, I found little humour in the book.  It showed to me that the lead characters - Dave Lister (played by Craig Charles), a smelly slob; Arnold J. Rimmer (played by Chris Barrie) a self-centred but bitter pedant and the Cat (played by Danny John-Jules) - the ultimate narcissist, are not sympathetic characters.  In the book they come across as pretty unpleasant.  I realised that a lot of the humour was visual, physical stuff and came from the way the actors delivered the lines rather than the lines themselves.  I have 'Better Than Life', the sequel, to read and I hope that this diverges more from the television series.

'Better Than Life' by Grant Naylor
As my current girlfriend allows me to read in bed in a way other woman have not done, the number of books I am getting through at the moment is higher than in the past.  As noted above, this book is the sequel to 'Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers', in fact largely picking up where the last book left off.  It again features the four characters from the television series, initially trying to get out of the game Better Than Life and then deal with the consequences of the computer on board the spaceship 'Red Dwarf' having become senile and then having its intelligence boosted but its life shortened.  Scenes from the television series are mixed in with other elements that did not appear in it.  There is a brief period on the version of Earth where time runs backwards but showing different events to in the series.  There is the use of planets like snooker balls and there is the polymorph which feeds on emotions, shown reasonably like what happened in the television series.  However, there is also Lister on Earth as Garbage Planet with vast cockroaches.  Thus, even for a fan of the television series there is new material here which is interesting in a standard science fiction way.  However, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is very episodic and unfortunately largely lacking in humour.  This books is probably best to read if you have never seen the television series 'Red Dwarf' otherwise it is only a mildly interesting progress through various scenes with you looking out for familiar dialogue or settings from what you know.

'A Man Without Breath' by Philip Kerr
This is another of Kerr's Bernie Gunther stories, largely set in German-occupied Smolensk in March-April 1943; some scenes occur in Berlin.  It is better than 'Prague Fatale' that I read last month:  However, Kerr seems bent on ensuring that Gunther comes into contact with many of the leading Nazis, in this book, Dr Josef Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister and central events of the regime: here two attempts on Adolf Hitler's life and the uncovering of the massacre of 4000 Polish officers by the Soviets in Katyn Forest.  As before, the issue of investigating murders at a time when both sides in the conflict were committing massacres is raised.  However, for much of the time Gunther is shown what he does best, down at ground level disentangling various killings and dodging the internal politics of the Nazi regime.  Kerr is very good at portraying Smolensk and the surrounding areas during the period and the different types of German units there.

Kerr likes to highlight elements of the period that tend to be overlooked such as the German War Crimes Bureau which sought to document war crimes by other nations at the same time as the SS and parts of the Wehrmacht were carrying out very similar or even more vicious war crimes.  He also highlights the experimentation on Communist prisoners carried out by the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War; protest by Aryan women married to Jewish men in Berlin in 1943 that had some released and the Jewish Hospital that continued in Berlin until it was liberated in 1945 with 800 patients alive.  In this book, Kerr also gives an insight into the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.

The only real drawbacks of this book is that it goes on a little too long (513 pages of narrative in the edition I read) and yet, as with 'Prague Fatale', the conclusion feels very rushed.  In addition, I do not know why Kerr felt he had to have a deus ex machina to resolve everything.  Given the time that has passed and the distances this seems unfeasible and undermines the grittiness of the rest of the novel.  He should have removed some of the additional murders and could have built to a satisfying conclusion without the intervention he feels compelled to engineer to end the story.

The writing is good and the characters are interesting and well drawn.  It moves along briskly.  It just seems as is a common problem these days even with leading authors, that the absence of thorough editing means that the book is good rather than excellent in the way it could have been with some trimming and rethinking.

'Neither Here Nor There' by Bill Bryson
Bryson is a travel writer and sometime cultural commentator.  He was originally from the USA but has lived for the past few decades in the UK.  I read his 'Notes from a Small Island' (1996) which was one of his bestsellers - a book about living and travelling in the UK, some years back.  I found it reasonably funny in a dry sometimes almost cynical way.  'Neither Here Nor There' was published in 1991 about Bryson's trip across continental Europe from northern Norway to Istanbul in Turkey in 1990 but it also regularly references a similar trip he had made in 1973.

Despite the commentary on the cover, this book is utterly lacking in humour.  Bryson does not stop complaining.  Every country, every town and city is either filthy and full of litter or too pristine to be interesting.  Despite travelling to so many places he seems to have found very few instances when he was at all happy.  He hates modern architecture, but expects the latest facilities wherever he goes.  He expects everyone to understand him.  He expects every town to have entertainment that will delight him without being too dated or too contemporary.  All that satisfies him are a handful of museums, the occasional park and some views and these are all few and far between.  He wants food that is not like that which you could get in an American city but then complains incessantly about what he is served.  Anything which costs more than it would have done in backwoods USA in his youth he deems to be too expensive.  He is incredibly repetitive often moaning about the prices and litter in a particular city more than once.  Almost everyone he meets he finds aloof or rude; drunk or loutish and most he feels are smelly.

Bryson is a useless traveller or he certainly was in 1990 when he made this trip.  Constantly he simply assumed he could go to the next town without checking the transport arrangements, schedules or costs.  As a result many of his plans are frustrated.  He seems incapable of speaking any languages apart from English and as a result is often totally uncomprehending of what is going on or being able to communicate what he assumes will happen.  He constantly travels with no food supplies and often without the correct currency and then is upset when he arrives in a town and is hungry and cannot get food or a hotel room.  Despite his declared love of the picturesque and the historic over the modern, it seems he struggles unless there is a 24/7 service everywhere.

Bryson in this book is the worst kind of traveller.  He is a mixture of an arrogant Briton of the 1950s style, blended with a schizophrenic American who cannot understand why the rest of the world is different and yet also complains whenever it is too American in approach.  This is a book of moaning.  It is the worst travel book I have read and I cannot understand how it got published.  I guess it sells well to UKIP supporters and their antecedents who want their disgust at the rest of Europe simply reinforced to make themselves feel superior.  There is no humour in this book; reading it is unpleasant and it should be retitled 'The Bigot's Guide to Europe'.  Another failure in terms of me selecting books to read.

'The Writing on the Wall' by Will Hutton
This is the third book by Hutton after 'The State We're In' (1994) which I read back in January: and 'The World We're In' (2002).  Like them it looks at the problems for the world of the collapse of civil society; in this book based on Enlightenment values and how this has allowed capitalism to create increasingly divisive countries and ironically for industry and business to become less successful.  In this book first published in 2006, though I was reading an edition from the following year, Hutton looks at the rise of China from the history of the 19th and 20th centuries to its adoption and success with capitalism.  Hutton highlights the challenges this poses for the world but also reassures American readers that the USA has far from lost.

Hutton's book is a very good survey of Chinese capitalism with its peculiarities that in the case of huge savings in part promoted by the collapse of the welfare state and the one-child policy, plus regional support for business that have helped the economy to grow so spectacularly.  However, he also highlights how the state controls so much even now and the dangers of corruption.  Like many commentators on China, Hutton insists that China cannot continue with successful capitalism and yet remain a totalitarian dictatorship.  I have been reading such insistence on what must happen to China since John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman argued this line in 'China - A New History' (1992).  Even nine years on from Hutton's book and 24 years on from Fairbank and Goldman's what they felt must happen, has not come about and shows no sign of doing so.  In Hutton's case his insistence that capitalism must lead to pluralism does seem strange as for the last third of this book as in his previous ones, he outlines how a liberal civil society is being destroyed in the USA and Britain.  Why, if he sees the pluralist elements decaying in the West does he feel that they must thrive in China?  Is it not more accurate to believe as some Chinese have voiced to me, that the West is actually becoming more like China in its authoritarianism.

The book is weakened by the switch to focusing on the USA on its own and not in relation to China.  Hutton has covered these topics before and this jump makes it feel as if you have gone into another book.  At 436 pages in the copy I read, he could easily have dropped much of this section and made a tighter, stronger book consistently focused on China.  Despite this notable flaw, the book particularly in the first two-thirds is decent.  There are some oddities often when Hutton uncharacteristically allows himself to believe myths.  He says that Bologna University was the first university in Europe.  It is the longest enduring but was predated by the universities of Al-Andalus in southern Spain, reference to which has been chased off large sections of the internet.  He later twice says the GMD (Nationalist) forces of China were so exhausted in fighting the Japanese invasions 1931-45 that they were too weak to properly combat the CCP (Communists).  This is rubbish, Chiang Kai-shek [Jiang Jieshi] leader of the GMD was so negligent in opposing the Japanese he had to be kidnapped by his own officers to persuade him to resist them at all.  He spent the war in Chongqing, building up reserves of weaponry but not fighting the Japanese, much to the exasperation of the Americans.  As late as 1944, the Japanese were able to easily launch a large-scale offensive to take vast areas of southern China.  The CCP remained pretty passive certainly from 1940 and it was down to local forces beholden to neither faction, to fight the Japanese.  Hutton even says that the USA effectively won the Vietnam War through delaying the North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam until 1975, so apparently allowing capitalism to establish elsewhere in East Asia, though of course, in Laos and Cambodia it did not.  These are surprising mistakes.

Overall this is a useful and interesting book which would benefit from a new edition now that rather than the Chinese currency needing to be devalued, the Chinese are seeking to keep it buoyant; oil prices have slumped to a fraction of what they were in 2007 and his warnings about the US housing market have come true leading to sustained difficulties.  Yet, China is no nearer to democracy and in recent months there has been a clampdown on those involved in labour protests or writing/publishing about the country's problems, hardly the growth of Enlightenment civil society that Hutton insisted was imminent.

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