Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Books I Read In August

'A Fool's Alphabet' by Sebastian Faulks
Given that I received this book from the friend of mine who also supplied me with 'Perfume: The Story of a Murderer' (1985) by Patrick Süskind, 'Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy' (1991) by Jostein Gaarder and 'Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe' (1991) by Bill Bryson, I should have realised that this book was going to be of that kind - pretentious and lacking entertainment.

'A Fool's Alphabet' has twenty-six chapters set in locations across the world beginning with each of the letters of the alphabet; the chapters are recounted in alphabetical rather than chronological order.  They cover incidents in the life of Pietro Russell; a few of his father Raymond Russell and one about his grandfather, between 1914 and 1991 (i.e. in Hobsbawm's 'short 20th century'), though most chapters are set in the 1970s and 1980s.  Sometimes the named location is simply the starting point and most of the chapter is actually about somewhere else entirely or, indeed actually about a different year to the one given in that title.

In theory, some mystery of Pietro Russell, a British man with an Italian mother, is supposed to come together as you read through the book and see short incidents from across his life and that of a couple of his relatives.  The only mystery is how a man is unhappy who has been sent to a crammer so he can get ahead; travels extensively; has wealthy largely pleasant friends; runs his own business; has a sustained relationship with a beautiful woman that even he recognises is out of his league and then marries, has three healthy children with and cheats on a Belgian woman far less patronising and harsh than most Belgian women.

For part of the time he undergoes psychotherapy, simply because he feels unlovable, nothing more serious than that.  Yet, the treatment seems to provide no benefit and he simply cheats on his wife before regretting it.  I do not know if Faulks lives in such a privileged existence to imagine that this is a hard life.  In fact Pietro should be aware that he has done far better not simply than his father and grandfather who fought (though admittedly survived) the two world wars, let alone many of the other people he encounters.  You quickly come to resent this ungrateful man and it is always difficult to enjoy reading incidents through the eyes of a character you come to despise.

The only good thing about this book are the descriptions of the different locations.  You get some well crafted vignettes of different locations with real care to detail so that nothing anachronistic appears despite the jumping through the decades.  It would have been better if different characters appeared in each, perhaps together providing some overarching 'message' about life.  Instead we end up with the fragmented story of a character who is easy to abhor.

'Funeral for Figaro' by Ellis Peters
I can understand why crime authors like the settings of theatre or the opera for their stories.  There are often a lots of jealousy and passion; people coming and going through the crime scene; ample opportunity for disguise and yet there is a fixed circle of characters, something which is often required for a crime story.  They end up as some of the most tedious or irritating novels the author can produce.  Michael Dibdin's, 'Cosi Fan Tutte' (1997) is, in no doubt, his worst book.  This one is seen through the eyes of the owner of the theatre who is also director of the operas, Johnny Truscott.  He is a bit of a mess and poor, as a widower, raising his 19-year old daughter, called Hero (she is known as 'Butch'; Peters saddles her young female characters with unpleasant nicknames, e.g. 'Tossa' from 'The Piper on the Mountain'), who is bent on marrying one of the singers; this gives away the age of the novel.  However, at least Truscott is not as pathetic and unlikeable as Tom Kenyon, the 'narrator' in 'Flight of a Witch' that I read last month.

This Peters story is around a very peculiar repertory opera house run by a man who operated small boats for clandestine Allied missions during the Second World War (the book was published in 1962).  Using an assortment of opera singers; technical staff largely left over from his wartime crew and others who he rescued from Occupied Europe, he runs a regular rotation of operas, bringing in better known performers for leading roles.  One of these is murdered, apparently by a sword used by another character in the 'The Marriage of Figaro'.  Among the small group there are many with reason to kill the man, sometime collaborator in wartime Austria.

The problem with this book, setting aside how unattractive 'luvvie' performers are both in real life and in fiction, is that it is scrappy.  Too much of it is about opera; even the detective involved, this time Inspector Musgrave rather than Felse, is an opera fan and spends a lot of time critiquing the performances rather than trying to solve the crime.  You need to have a reasonable grasp of opera to comprehend what is going on.  However, in general you do not really care about the characters sufficiently and unusually for Peters, except for a surprising car crash, there is no sense of jeopardy.  There are some good twists in the closing couple of chapters and unusually for a British crime novel, the detective goes home blaming the wrong person for the crime.  Overall, however, except for the closing sections this is a rather dull story which especially in the opening sections is difficult to follow unless you are a fan of Mozart operas.

'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' by J.K. Rowling
This is the fifth book in the Harry Potter series and as I have noted in reading the previous ones, as they progress they diverge more and more from the movies.  In part this is because they increase in length and to cover all the incidents, sub-plots and characters which feature in the book would need a mini-series.  My edition of this book was 766 pages long.  The other trend I have noted before, continues and expands in this book.  Rowling is more concerned with Harry Potter as a schoolboy than she is with him as an adventurer.  The concluding battle is far more complex than it is shown in the movie, but the majority of the book is about summer holidays and school days, especially revising for and taking the OWLS exams, the magic equivalent of GCSEs.  This aspect is less interesting to me than the adventure, but as I have noted before, that is probably because I am a man rather than a boy. 

Rowling handles the schoolboy aspects well, especially Potter's on-off intimate relationship with Cho Chang, his feelings for and his disappointment about his late parents and his godfather, plus all his doubts about his study.  However, covering all these pretty mundane elements at such length saps the book of dynamism which remained apparent especially in the first three books.  In part this reflects Rowling's success as publishers are happier to let an author write what they want without editing it down, once they are a sure-fire success as Rowling had become by this stage.  This could have been a punchier book if it had been trimmed down; it could have easily have been 200 pages shorter and still have been engaging, perhaps more so.  Rowling's writing certainly has improved since the first book and some will find this a rich book to really sink into.  However, I think with length much of the excitement, more apparent in earlier books, has been dissipated.

'Bonaparte's Sons' by Richard Howard
This book published in 1997 was the first in a series of six books running to 2002, about Alain Lausard, a fictional soldier in the 5th Dragoon Regiment of Napoleon's Army.  I am very surprised that he got this book let alone another five published.  I suppose publishers are always looking for new historical series and they guessed that this one would appeal to those who had read Bernard Cornwell's series, published 1981-2007, about Richard Sharpe, a British rifleman in the late 18th century and early 19th century, largely during the Napoleonic Wars.  Howard starts with an often neglected part of the period, Napoleon's campaign in northern Italy.  His historical detail is fine it is just that the writing is painfully clunky.  I suppose these days the art of editing is unaffordable to companies and more relies on the author getting it right.  When he wrote this book, it seems Howard lacked such skill.  In one description of a battle he says the cannon 'opened up' four times.

Unlike Cornell, for example, Howard is unable to get descriptions of weapons of the time into the story without sounding like a technical manual, e.g.:

'Canister shot consisted of a tin case which ruptured on leaving the barrel, transforming the cannon into a massive shotgun as it released up to eighty one-ounce balls which had been packed tightly within.  Heavy case was also used, a more lethal version which could send up to forty three-ounce metal balls to its target in excess of 450 feet per second.'

With the weather, conversely, he becomes very poetic, e.g.:

'The sun itself was a massive burnished orb slipping slowly below the horizon, its dying light the colour of bloodstained bronze.  Birds returning to their nests were black arrowheads against the crimson backdrop.'

The story works on a familiar premise about a group of prisoners pressed into service in the army, in this case to defend revolutionary France in 1797.  The start is very much like the Second World War movie, 'The Dirty Dozen' (1967), though it uses stereotypes and the poor religious character simply mouths almost identical statements throughout the entire book; the womanizer does little better.  Though Lausard is the prime focus this does not stop Howard jumping between the perspectives of different characters sometimes in consecutive sentences; towards the book we get to see the views of newcomers to the unit and even hear conversations held in German, a language spoken by only one of the French soldiers.  I have written stories featuring small units of soldiers and it can be difficult to cover battles from just one view and to have sufficient distinction between each of the soldiers in the unit.  However, Howard is inefficient in his writing, seeming to thinking that repeating the same statements will provide character to each one rather than just emphasising how shallowly developed they all are.

The battle scenes are fine and dramatic and there is a sense of jeopardy as you are not certain who will be injured or killed.  There are extensive descriptions of the wounds various men suffer.  The scene in the hospital comes over like a catalogue.  I guess Howard wanted it to sound gritty and realistic, but again, repetition does not add anything, indeed it blunts the emotion trying to be communicated.  The first book is always tricky as you have to establish the characters and have them trained, etc.  Howard seems to feel that he needs an adventure, but because he is wasteful, this seems tacked on, far too briefly at the end; its conclusion is incredibly rushed.  He might have done better to start with this and then have Lausard reflecting on what had happened to bring them to this situation and the men showing their various traits by how they act during the escapade - this is something that is done pretty well in 'The Dirty Dozen' especially the rapist portrayed by Telly Savalas whose obsession upsets the whole mission.  These days, however, I know that many readers insist on a linear narrative and feel unhappy if you jump around in chronology.

Clearly someone appreciated Howard's work sufficiently to publish six of his novels.  Perhaps they improve as they progress.  I think Howard certainly needed to become very familiar with the Sharpe novels and see how you can effectively work a story in such a context and from such a perspective.

'Fascism' by Noël O' Sullivan
Rather than being a history book this is a political philosophical analysis of Fascism.  O'Sullivan does focus on Nazism and Italian Fascism, rather dismissing any other strands, notably monarchical fascism and clerico-fascism as pale imitations of these with nothing original within them. O'Sullivan pays particular attention to the constitution, the Charter, of the short-lived republic of Fiume, the Regency of Carnaro Gabriele D'Annunzio, (1863–1938) established 1919-20.  He sees this as the best articulation of a Fascist perspective.

Across the latter three-quarters of the book, he makes a very convincing case that Fascism arose from philosophical and political changes really starting around the time of the French Revolution then strengthening through the 19th century to provide fertile ground for Fascism in the 20th century.  He looks at factors such as the redefinition of freedom as something within an individual rather than exterior, the rise of the concept that a better society could only be achieved by the efforts of people, rather than, as for example previous, devotion to God and, the sense that struggle and sacrifice, typically through warfare, were 'good' of themselves as well as paving the way for the desired society.  There was also the aspect promoted particularly by Napoleon Bonaparte, that the leader was always right and should be able simply to command utter loyalty in the 'struggle' even if his directions turned out to be contradictory. This provides an engaging case.  His attempt to portray Fascism as 'directed activist' in contrast to 'passive activist' let alone 'limited' forms of government works less effectively and given what he says earlier on about the similarities between Fascism and Communism, it then seems artificial as he does later to try to portray them as very different in terms of this degree of activism.

The central problem with this book is in its first part.  O'Sullivan is utterly scathing of any previous interpretation of Fascism provided by historians and politicians up to that date (the book was published in 1983).  He dismisses them as naive and foolish, seeking to through aside all of the attempts to analyse and synthesise on the political movement.  This makes very difficult reading and undermines the faith you have in O'Sullivan.  There is a sense that he damages his academic credibility in making sustained attacks on others in the field, with no concession.  It also rouses suspicions that he is less confident in his own line than one might expect and so feels he must blow away every last alternative before turning to his thesis.  I advise you to avoid Chapter 1 entirely.

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