Monday, December 5, 2011

Book review: The Last Tycoon

Reading an unfinished novel might seem to be an activity that could serve only to frustrate and disappoint. Characters are not fully developed; plots are left hanging; themes supposed to unify the story, giving it shape & meaning, won't be fully worked-through; and the writing itself will likely be unpolished. Yet devotees of certain authors will regardless read these unfinished books anyway, hoping that the pleasures of what do exist will outweigh the frustrations inherent in setting out to read something you know doesn't properly end. There's an added level of sadness too when the author was relatively young and potentially could have had a much larger bibliography had they not died when they did. Reading Vladimir Nabokov's The Original of Laura, for instance, is frustrating for the lost chance for another masterpiece, but countered by the fact that Nabokov died an old man with an extensive catalogue of novels & stories. Reading David Foster Wallace's The Pale King or F Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon is made all the more disappointing for the realisation that both men were relatively young, with comparatively small bodies of work, when they died.

Like Wallace's work, Fitzgerald's gives his readers a taste of what might have been, presenting as much of the story as he had completed (although obviously he would have rewritten & edited these chapters before publication) and supplementing this with some of his notes, letters & drafts indicating where the rest of the book might have gone.  And also like The Pale King, The Last Tycoon reveals itself to be up to the highest standards of its author's previous work. After what I felt to be the slight dip of Tender Is The Night, The Last Tycoon (or, at least, what we have of it) stands up to the best of Fitzgerald's work - the early short stories & The Great Gatsby. In his notes, Fitzgerald identifies that novel as the closest thing, structurally speaking, to what he was aiming for with The Last Tycoon. They share the narrative trick of having the narrator not being the main character, but using the comparatively detached eye of the narrator-character to examine the life of a compelling lead.

The Last Tycoon is a Hollywood novel, which is the only thing (other than its incomplete status) many people know of it - it was all I knew before starting it. Told (mainly) by the daughter, Cecelia, of a famous producer, and focusing on hotshot young producer Monroe Stahr, the novel centres around a group of movie-makers & their associated hangers-on in the late-1930s-early-1940s. Most of the story focus is on Monroe's relationship with Kathleen, but Fitzgerald also spends time with Monroe at his work. Under pressure to continue creating hits, Monroe's health is fading, with his relationship with Kathleen being a troubled highpoint in his life.

The 'completed' section of The Last Tycoon lasts only 150 pages, with another 30-ish of Fitzgerald's notes. The story itself never really comes together, as one would expect, but what is here is very good - there are some wonderful scenes at the studios, and the origins of Monroe & Kathleen's romance is as good as anything Fitzgerald ever wrote. It's hard to get a true picture from his notes of how the rest of the novel would have gone, but the general themes and ideas are all present to at least some extent.

Unfortunately its unfinished status will ensure The Last Tycoon will never have a terribly wide audience. For that reason, it's really only recommended to committed fans of Fitzgerald who are happy to read what he was able to write before his untimely death. But for those who do bother, The Last Tycoon does offer the prospect of some of his finest writing and the possiblity that, had he lived to finish it, The Great Gatsby's place as his masterpiece might not have been quite so clear-cut.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Book review: The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes is a novelist I've never quite been able to get into. I've read a fair few of his books, and enjoyed some of them (Talking It Over, Flaubert's Parrot, Arthur & George), but have never felt passionately strongly about any of them. There's also been a couple I've disliked or have forgotten soon after reading them.

Yet, for many, Barnes was the great hope of this year's Booker Prize shortlist. I won't go into the details here (there's plenty elsewhere on the internet if you care), but this year's Booker long- & shortlists disappointed many because of the dominance of unremarkable novels and a general sense that the chosen novels were far from being representative of the best fiction published by Commonwealth authors in the last year. I've not read enough of them to really weigh in on that question - although that's in part because a lot of the shortlist, let alone the longlist, had no appeal to me, which may add some credence to that school of thought - but it was certainly a common reaction. Against all this, one author & their book were received near-universally well, so the sorts of people who care about these sorts of things hoped that Barnes' The Sense of an Ending would take the prize this year. And, indeed, it did.

All that background aside, The Sense of an Ending in any year would make a worthy contender for the Booker Prize. I say that for two reasons: first, it is a very good novel; and second, it is the sort of thing Booker panels over the last few decades have tended to reward. That latter is, perhaps, a slightly backhanded compliment, since it can be argued - not unfairly - that the Booker Prize does favour, amongst a few other things, beautifully written accounts of middle-class people taking stock of their lives. Sometimes that sort of book drives me to tears of boredom, but sometimes - as with The Sense of an Ending - it can be done effectively and made into something more than the genre trappings would suggest.

Key to the success of The Sense of an Ending is the perfectly-pitched narrative voice. Tony Webster is not always perfect, but he is likeable. At one point, the older Tony realises what an awful, childish thing he did to a friend when they were at university, but Barnes conveys this convincingly - his embarrasment at realising how badly he'd reacted, his genuine surprise at learning this and his remorse for the consequences of his actions.  And that scene, and its aftermath, is a good microcosm of Tony thoughout the book - honest about his failings without being self-pitying, and generally accurate in his self-assessments. And, not incidentally, often quite funny.

The first section of The Sense of an Ending takes place at Tony's school, within his little group of friends, and specifically focuses on newcomer Adrian. Slightly distant from his new friends and classmates, the high school-aged Adrian demonstrates a remarkably mature & philosophical approach to life, which is often played against the adolescent pretensions of Tony and their other friends. The boys head off to (different) universities, but remain in contact for a while. However, Tony's spiteful reaction to news from Adrian ends their friendship and they fall out of touch. In the second, longer, section Tony reflects on his relationship with Adrian & also his first real girlfriend, Veronica, and in the process learns some things about each of them, including himself.

Reduced to such a description, The Sense of an Ending might sound both slight & boring*, yet I found it to be neither. It is indeed short (150 pages in the small hardcover format), but Barnes packs those pages with more events and character development than many much longer books. There is a mystery which Tony has to figure out, and things he must confront, but these are organic parts of the story - unlike in some novels, in which such plot points feel tacked on, here it is impossible to imagine anything like this book without Tony's low-key search to figure out exactly what happened between him & Adrian, and Veronica. (There are, in case it's not already obvious, fairly significant plot points from the first section of the novel which I'm choosing not to mention here. That may make this summary seem vague, but I personally hate reviews which spoil such surprises.)

In some ways it seems unfair that Barnes should have won the Booker in a year generally considered to have one of the weakest longlists in the prize's history. Yet, in years to come, people will forget that, and see The Sense of an Ending as another winner, and one which was deservedly chosen. And, for most people, who don't care about the Booker Prize one way or another, it will remain nothing more or less than a very good novel.

* Almost all novels, from literary fiction to airport potboilers, sound either boring or ludicrous (or both) when their plot is described in a paragraph or less.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Book review: The Sisters Brothers

For a host of reasons, including the sad fact that I have not yet learned how to bend time so I get more chances to read, I decided a while ago not to repeat last year's Blogging the Booker longlist effort.  However, since the library at my work has all six of the shortlisted titles, I thought I'd take a look at some of them, both before & after the winner is announced later this month.

The first to grab my attention was Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers.  Unusually for a Booker nominee, The Sisters Brothers is a very American novel.  (The Booker, for those who don't track these things, is for Commonwealth writers. deWitt was born in British Columbia, hence his eligibility.)  Indeed, it is that most American of genres, the Western.  Falling somewhere in between True Grit (novel & 2010 movie; I can't speak for the original film version) and Deadwood (with the violence, without the swearing), The Sisters Brothers is the story of Eli & Charlie Sisters, two famous (in the world of the novel) assassins in 1850s Oregon.  They work for a mysterious boss known as The Commodore, and the story begins with him sending them on a job to California, to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm, who has stolen something from him.  Charlie, the leader of the two, is enthusiastic and violent; Eli, who narrates, is more passive, seemingly falling into his line of work because his brother did.  Much of the book revolves around the doubts Eli increasingly has about making his living as a killer and the tensions between the two brothers.

Yet despite all that, The Sisters Brothers is often quite funny, and both brothers are engaging company as we follow them from town to town on their trip to California.  Like in the two comparison points I mentioned above, there is much enjoyment to be had in The Sisters Brothers by placing wildly different characters together and watching them interact.  The two brothers, contrasting in many ways, have a fundamentally solid relationship nonetheless - a troubled one in many ways, but still with a core of genuine affection to it.  And as with other revisionist Westerns, deWitt makes the most of highlighting small, everyday things as much as the actual story - including Eli's discovery, via a helpful dentist of the then-new practice of brushing one's teeth.  He becomes a devotee, promoting the idea to his brother and others he meets, trying new flavours of toothpaste and remembering to brush regularly, regardless of what else is going on in his life.

Once they get to California, of course, things take another turn, and the brothers begin to realise that there's more to the story between their employer and their prey than they had been told.  Warm is another colourful character, and the last section of the book, while maintaining the brothers at its centre, becomes quite a different story in some ways.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Sisters Brothers.  deWitt has a fine ear for dialogue, and his narration, via Eli, is evocative and compelling.  As a big fan of the revisionist-western genre, I found this novel an enjoyable and well-told addition to the field.  As I noted last year in my Booker series, I don't always agree with the judges' choices for shortlist and winner, but I usually find at least a couple of books that I would probably have otherwise missed but end up being very glad to have read.  The Sisters Brothers is an excellent example of that, and I hope its shortlisting brings many more readers to deWitt's wonderful novel.

(I should also note that I love the front cover illustration, by Dan Stiles.  It's effective, eye-catching and fits the book well.)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book review: Tender Is The Night

Tender Is The Night was F. Scott Fitzgerald's final completed novel (only the unfinished The Last Tycoon remains), and in some ways that this is the work of an older author is apparent.  Compared to the earlier novels - and most of his stories - Tender Is The Night seems like a more mature novel: the characters are a little older, there's a more-obvious attempt to take them out of the autobiographical surrounds of his earliest work, and only The Beautiful And Damned is longer.

Tender Is The Night centres on the Divers, Dick & Nicole.  At the start of the novel they are a relatively recently married young couple holidaying in Europe (unlike any of his other novels, almost none of Tender Is The Night occurs in America). They are the centre of a social circle there, including our initial POV character, Rosemary, a young actress.  One of the differences between Tender Is The Night and most other Fitzgerald novels is that the perspective from which we get the story changes regularly - mostly it's from Dick's, but other views are also given to fill in both story and character details. After the initial section, following the Divers and their friends, lovers and other acquaintances, we jump back in time to the beginning of their relationship, before moving to later (around five years after the first section) as their marriage falls apart.

While The Great Gatsby obviously remains Fitzgerald's most famous novel, I know that some hold Tender Is The Night in higher esteem.  Yet for me it simply didn't hang together as well as his earlier novels.  Certainly more mature, and perhaps an insight into the sort of books Fitzgerald would have written had he lived & written for a longer time (although The Last Tycoon is clearly going to be a better indication of that), but Tender Is The Night also seems lifeless compared to anything up to & including Gatsby.  The shifting timeframes and perspectives help keep things interesting, and of course he remains a beautiful writer, but Tender Is The Night never grabbed me in the way that his other books have.  Perhaps this is as much my fault as his - and I will definitely revisit it in the future to see if my opinion shifts - but I found less to love in this polished, mature work than I did in his somewhat-flawed first books.  Part of the problem is Dick, for whom I never got much of a feel.  Perhaps less-obviously autobiographical than some of this other main characters, possibly Fitzgerald never quite figured him out either.  There are still some wonderful scenes, and the final section is quite effective, but Tender Is The Night was a bit of a disappointment for me considering Fitzgerald's tremendous talents.

Guest tea review: Glenbog Fine Teas' Stockholm

A special guest review by my sister Karla!  (This tea is a similar blend to the Glogg I reviewed recently.)

Tea flavour: Stockholm
Tea type: Leaf
Drunk: Black, no sugar
Blurb: "
black tea with orange peel, safflower, calendula, vanilla pieces, apricot and rose petals".

The dried bouquet is delicate, gently fruity, with a lingering floral motif.

Once brewed, the orange and apricot become more dominant in the aroma, and I'm probably smelling those safflowers and calendula as well but just don't know it.

The vanilla becomes evident upon drinking, and the rose petals also make their presence felt. Smooth and gentle on the palate, with fruit and floral flavours perfectly united. Overall, a very pleasant tea-drinking experience: soft and delicate, with a mild citrus overtone. Lovely over strawberries and yoghurt on a lazy Sunday morning, but would also be well-paired with a light sponge cake at afternoon tea.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book review: Woman's World

Norma and Roy are sister & brother in their twenties who live with their mother in London.  It appears to be the early 1960s, although this is never explicitly stated. Roy has just started a new job as a delivery driver for a local laundry company. Norma is obsessed with looking her best & being a glamorous modern woman. Their mother, Mary, doesn't seem to like Norma very much, but is always glad to see Roy.

For most of the first couple of hundred pages, Woman's World is dedicated to setting up its characters and the world they occupy. The plot doesn't really kick in until about halfway through the book, but the first part of the book is nonetheless ripe with mysteries: why does Mary distrust Norma? As the book begins, Roy has just returned from being away for a while - where had he been? What lies beneath Norma's superficial-seeming character? What is the significance of Norma's 'accident' in the past that gets mentioned a few times?

Woman's World has an intriguingly noir-ish setup. Rawls tempts the reader with these puzzles before bringing it all into sharper focus with the mid-book plot twists. I don't intend to say anything about those, in part because my reading of Woman's World was somewhat spoiled by having read an indiscreet review which gave away a major plot point without acknowledging that it was about to do so.

What is worth mentioning, however, is the unique and fascinating way in which Woman's World was written: Rawls wrote the basic story in rough draft form, and then pieced all his words together by cutting up old women's magazines. Every single word, punctuation mark, page or chapter number comes from an actual women's magazine - articles, stories, advertisements: according to the author's postscript it took five years to assemble. While this is an interesting gimmick, it's not only a gimmick: since Norma narrates the story (even the bits at which Roy but not she is present), we begin to understand her addiction to these magazines and devotion to presenting herself as the sort of woman 1960s magazines idealised.  For the reader, it is often a subtle commentary on these standards, as Norma's narration occasionally veers off into endorsements of cleaning products or clothing styles.  It also acts to underline the contrived nature of Norma's character as she tries to present it to the reader. As the book progresses, we get a better idea of why she might use such a method to tell her story.

As I said, I'm not going to reveal too much more of the plot or revelations throughout Woman's World. Yet I give it a strong endorsement, since it manages to succeed on two levels: on a mechanical level, it's an intriguing way of writing a book, and yet the story & characters are interesting enough that the form serves in conjunction with the content, rather than distracting from it or covering up a shortage of actual ideas. Woman's World is well worth your time and should attract an admiring audience.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tea review: Glenbog Fine Teas' Glogg

Tea flavour: Glogg
Tea type: Leaf
Drunk: Black, no sugar
Blurb: "A warming Scandinavian blend of black tea with cinnamon, ginger, cloves, orange peel and almond pieces".

 My apologies for the long wait between tea reviews here on Joel's Blog #1.  On the positive side, a couple of weeks ago I discovered a new tea vendor, who conveniently enough sells his wares just down the road (albeit only on Sundays), so I've got a few new types to review... not to mention the prospect of more types to come...

Anyway, Glogg is a delicious smelling tea - a product of the variety of spices and flavours it contains. The picture to the right is not the exact same one I have (different brand), but the appearance is very similar - mixed in with the black tea leaves are big chunks of almond, orange peel and cloves. Smelling it in its dry form reveals a strong cinnamon aroma, with the cloves also noticeable.

Glogg is a very smooth tea - even an extended infusing period (I left mine for over five minutes) does not turn the cup bitter or sharp.  Not surprisingly, the smell of the brewed cup is significantly weaker than the dry tea, but brewing brings out the ginger aromas along with the cinnamon.

Cinnamon is probably the dominant flavour other than the tea leaves themselves. The cloves are not particularly evident, flavour-wise (probably just as well, most people would think), but the orange peel does add a touch of citrus, and of course works well with the subtle ginger flavours.

In fact, the combination of flavours works well as a whole. The list of spices might look like a mash of too many things, but the overall tea is actually quite low-key. Glogg is not weak, but it is a finely balanced flavoured tea - unlike some flavoured teas, its aroma and taste both are pleasant without hitting you over the head. I recommend Glogg to those who would like a black tea that's a little different but quite delicious.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book review: Flat Earth News

You can argue that a free, independent media is not of foremost importance to a democratic political system, but only if you want to be wrong. I may be biased (my Honours thesis was on the topic), but I find the topic endlessly interesting. Nick Davies has been in the news recently as the Guardian journalist who broke the News of the World phone-hacking story in the UK, but this book - published in 2008 - also caused quite a stir on its release.

Davies's basic argument in Flat Earth News is that modern journalism is, by & large, a mere shadow of what it should be. Rather than serving to investigate issues and hold the powerful to account, most (not all, Davies is eager to point out) modern journalism is sloppy, rushed, written by non-specialists and based (often unquestioningly) on sources with their own agendas.

Flat Earth News is filled with examples - Davies certainly didn't make any friends in the journalism industry here - and while it is largely British-based, both US & Australian journalists also come in for scrutiny. Beginning by tracking the Millennium Bug hysteria of the late 1990s (an entire industry based on extremely unlikely scenarios increasingly exaggerated by decreasingly expert sources), Davies then looks at the root cause of journalism's current malaise: the commercial imperatives of modern media owners.

Interested in running news media primarily (perhaps only) to make money, these owners are unwilling to spend the money and take the time that quality investigative journalism demands. Instead, they pare newsrooms down to the bare minimum while expecting ever-increasing quantities of content. One study Davies commissioned found that journalists are now expected to produce three times as many stories as they were a few decades ago. This is not conductive to long, detailed, thoughtful work, but rather to simply throwing together whatever comes in with minimal checking - write down what someone says, perhaps get a reaction quote from an opponent and publish: the axiom of 'More With Less' in action. (Here in Australia we see an example of this with the ABC - without any increase in budget, they've launched a 24-hr news channel on top of their existing services. And every mainstream commercial news source is much the same - decreasing the size of the staff without decreasing the quantity of news produced.)

Davies terms these workers 'churnalists', since the focus is on churning out as many stories as quickly and non-controversially as possible. This makes them particularly susceptible to PR firms, acting for governments, commercial interests or well-resourced lobby groups. These firms understand the pressures on churnalists and tailor their products accordingly, so that their clients' message can be published with as few changes as possible. Churnalists and their editors/owners are also eager to rock the established boat as little as they can, so stories are inevitably reported from the same angles time after time. Davies also takes into consideration the pressure on journalists to produce scoops and front-page (or digital equivalent) stories, thus leading to what he calls 'The Dark Arts' of journalists employing barely (or sometimes not-even-remotely) legal methods for gathering news information. This section, of course, is now overshadowed by the Murdoch press's phone hacking techniques, but even without those developments Davies points to some truly shocking lengths that journalists will go to in order to break a story, however trivial the issue may seem.

Flat Earth News concludes with three extended case studies drawn from British newspapers: the gradual decline of The Times' Insight investigative team, the surprisingly pro-war (in Iraq) stance of the notionally left-leaning Observer, and the barefaced lies & institutional bigotry of the Daily Mail. While the specifics of these cases may be less-familiar to non-British readers, the stories are compelling enough - and the parallels to other media organs elsewhere in the world obvious enough - for international readers to not get bored.

One of Davies's main criticisms of modern churnalism is one which has been rattling around in my mind for a while now, and he's articulated it well. The obsession with 'balance' in much journalism requires both sides of a story to presented as equal: here's something the PM said, so here's the Opposition Leader's response, and who cares which of them is more accurate? The cases on either side of the climate change debate are equal and therefore should be reported as such, and who cares if that makes the overwhelming scientific consensus of only the same importance as a tiny minority view?

The great blockbuster myth of modern journalism is objectivity, the idea that a good newspaper or broadcaster simply collects and reproduces the objective truth... In reality, what they generally promote is not objectivity at all. It's neutrality, which is a very different beast.

Neutrality requires the journalist to become invisible, to refrain deliberately (under threat of discipline) from expressing the judgements which are essential for journalism. Neutrality requires the packaging of conflicting claims, which is precisely the opposite of truth-telling.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tea review: Twinings Russian Caravan

Tea flavour: Russian Caravan
Tea type: Standard teabag
Drunk: Black, no sugar
Blurb: "A fragrant blend of Keemun and other fine China teas, producing a delicate nutty flavour".

So, I thought it might be fun to expand the world of Joel's Blog #1, featuring regular reviews of different sorts of tea in addition to my book reviews & other such junk. I can't remember why I thought this might be a good idea, but here we are. As a dedicated tea drinker*, and appreciator of many different types of tea, I'll try to cover a range - but must admit that I have a strong bias towards black teas, so you won't see too many green/herbal teas here. (At present, I have seven varieties of tea at home, with an additional one in the office, so those will provide a start, and by the time I get through those, I'll have picked up some more to review.)

Leading off is the somewhat-polarising Russian Caravan tea, here represented by the Twinings teabag version (they also do a leaf-tea pack). I first tried Russian Caravan back in 2004, when the parents of my then-girlfriend were given a sampler box of different tea varieties, and found that nobody wanted the Russian Caravan. So I decided to try it. It made something of an impression, although I don't think I drank it again until several years later at High Tea at the (Brisbane) Stamford, when I somewhat foolishly ordered a whole pot of it (in fairness: when they serve all-you-can-drink tea, you don't stick with the thing you've got at home). The rest of my table - none of whom were tea-drinkers - found the aroma distinctly disgusting (an opinion they choose not to keep to themselves). One of my tablemates, who has since become my wife, subsequently refused to be present while Russian Caravan tea was made or consumed, and only came around after I introduced her to Lapsang Souchong, a tea so, um, noticeable in its aroma (& taste, for that matter) that even through several layers of packaging it can make dogs weep and train tracks buckle. Next to that, Russian Caravan smells like slightly insipid water.

Its most prominent flavour is actually a smoky taste and smell - in that sense, quite neatly capturing the world of the long journeys by which the tea originally made its way from Asia to Russia (hence the name). It has a taste & smell almost of Australian billy tea, tea made over an open fire while camping. The Twinings packet suggests drinking it with milk or lemon, but - as usual for me - I prefer it black. That way the full flavour is allowed out, and despite the distinctive aroma, Russian Caravan is actually not a overly flavoured tea. Actually, it's quite a smooth flavour, quite drinkable, even though I wouldn't choose to drink it every day for the rest of my life.

Very possibly, the chief asset of Russian Caravan tea is that it is almost peerless among teas in evoking the world from which it comes. I don't know how it's possible for a tea to be the beverage equivalent of a camel & caravan trip from Asia to deliver tea to the Russian aristocracy of the 19th century, but somehow it is. If all teas were as successful in that aim as Russian Caravan is, the world would be a better place...

* Less-kind descriptions have also been used.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book review: The Great Gatsby

As I noted back when I began this trip through the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby was the only one of his novels I had previously read. And thus, it's the only one for whom this read was a re-read. Since it's also Fitzgerald's best-known novel, I'll keep my plot-recounting even slimmer than usual, and focus instead on some thoughts I had about The Great Gatsby.
Unlike either This Side of Paradise or The Beautiful & Damned, The Great Gatsby is told in the first person, and this removes the slightly distant feel of the two earlier novels. Yet Nick Carraway is still something of a cipher - his character is not the central one of the book (or, at least, of the plot of the book), and even his relationships are relatively insignificant. His romantic relationship with Jordan Baker is never all that important - either to Nick, I suspect, or to us. And even his relationship with Jay Gatsby is oddly unimportant - I had remembered their friendship as being a focus of the book, but it's kept in the background, almost unnoticed - it doesn't seem to matter all that much to Gatsby, and doesn't really change Nick all that much either.

In fact, one of the notable things about The Great Gatsby as a novel is how short it is. In the edition I read, under 200 pages. And Jay Gatsby, although discussed earlier, doesn't appear until page 50. Somehow this seems wrong - when you think of the ideal of The Great American Novel, the sort of thing that comes to mind is something big, sprawling, vastly populated. Most of the other contenders for that (entirely arbitrary, subjective, frustrating) title do fall more or less into that category. Yet Gatsby is short, has only a handful of significant characters, takes place over a short period and is chiefly marked by containing a plot which serves much the same role as it does in Fitzgerald's other novels: as a frame for him to hang some characters and moods. There is a plot, of course, but it's not really Gatsby's selling point.

Instead, as always with Fitzgerald, we get characters and scenes painted with incredible vividness. Jordan Baker, for instance, is pegged in our minds the whole time: we know from the first time Nick meets her that there's something slightly dubious about her, and never quite shake the impression that a long-term relationship between her & Nick is neither plausible nor advisable. Yet we are never hit over the head with this - it's just something Fitzgerald sneaks into our consciousness. And, indeed, when she & Nick break up (er, spoiler!), it makes very little difference to the story or the characters. This is, again, Fitzgerald's slight coolness towards his characters. Other authors would have made a much bigger deal of both this relationship and its end, yet in doing so would have derailed the book, not to mention changed the character of Nick so much as to completely alter everything else. Nick Carraway is one of fiction's most passive narrators: skimming past his own life, providing only enough detail so we can understand what he wants to tell us about. Fitzgerald as author and Nick as narrator also make the interesting structural choice to let us know about Gatsby's past earlier in the book than Nick knows it in the story - clearly saying, 'people in this story are interested in this background. you shouldn't be, or at least no more than I want you to be'.

In the end, the theme here is pretty straightforward, if no less profound for that. We can't escape the past. As the famous final lines have it:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Or, as D'Angelo Barksdale would say:

The past is always with us. Where we come from, what we go through, how we go through it: all that shit matters.

And that is why people still read The Great Gatsby, and still consider it one of the greatest American (or anywhere) novels of the 20th century.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Book review: The Novels of Eric Ambler

Posting has been a little light here recently, I know, since I've spent most of my life over the last few weeks engaged in marking essays. But I thought I'd do a little post on a series of books I've read over the past few months.

Near Central Station, on my way to work, is a bargain bookshop - full of remainders and other unloved but new books. They offer a completely unpredictable range of books, mostly pretty cheap, so I stop by there on a regular basis and see what's in stock. Sometimes I go weeks without buying anything, other times I'll pick up a handful of books on a single morning. The cheap prices can be good at inspiring me to check out things I probably wouldn't have otherwise, and Eric Ambler's books are a case in point. They had a few of his five books as recently republished by Penguin, in their Modern Classics line. The striking black & white photos caught my eye, and then the blurbs and quotes convinced me to pick up a couple of books by an author whom I hadn't even of until then. Over the next month or two they got in a copy or two each of his other books from this series, so I now have read all five that Penguin reprinted (he wrote more than that).

After the cover art, the thing that attracted me the most was some touchstones mentioned in the blurbs - Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock. Both of those are good comparions, so far as I'm concerned, so I paid my couple of dollars per book and started reading one (Epitaph for a Spy) that night.

The Greene & Hitchcock comparions were accurate. The latter's regular theme of Innocent Man Caught In Conspiracy runs through Epitaph, as well as most of the others (Cause For Alarm most particularly). Written during the late 1930s and early '40s, WWII is looming for everyone. Ambler effectively captures the tone of innocent - sometimes naive - men who get embroiled in international intrigue. The conventions of the IMCIM genre are pretty well established by now, of course, but some of that groundwork was laid by Ambler in these books.

Each of these books has its own charms. I found Uncommon Danger (the earliest of these five) to be a little weaker than the rest, but all of them pack compelling plots, well-drawn characters and tight prose into relatively short books. Ambler also sought to reflect a left-wing political perspective into his stories, arguing that the spy genre should not be the exclusive bounds of the political right (particularly during the WWII era). Thus both the villians and the plots are built on a more left-wing political perspective than most modern spy/thriller novels. The politics is certainly never preachy, however - Amber's aim, generally realised, was to incoporate his political leanings into the fabric of his novels without making them overtly political (& therefore tedious) novels.

I considered including some brief plot synopses here, but decided against it because they seem sort of silly when reduced to a sentence or two. And of course, to some extent, they are silly - spy or crime novels from earlier ages usually do sound as such, revolving as they tend to do around singular master criminals whose defeat signals the collapse of their whole network and organisations with names like The Red Hand Brigade and reliant on the non-existence of technologies (how many Agatha Christie novels, for instance, make sense in a world in which almost everyone has a mobile phone?). Thankfully none of Ambler's books are based on the Master Criminal Whose Death Or Capture Solves All The Problems, one of my least-favourite tropes in fiction. Nonetheless, Innocent Man Caught In Conspiracy stories perhaps fare worst of all when summarised. They rely for their entertainment value on the reader/viewer being pulled into the world, wondering how they would cope themselves, and knowing that the hero will 'win', but not knowing how that's possible. Yes, they can be silly, but they can also be a heck of a lot of fun.

Eric Ambler has been largely forgotten compared to some of his contemporaries, but unjustly so. Kudos to Penguin for reprinting his novels, and I'm glad to see that some of his others are also available from other publishers via Amazon. If you feel like a quick, entertaining but thoughtful read, I can happily recommend Eric Ambler to you.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book review: Hangover Square

Most of us who read regularly have books that are on our radar for a while before we get to them. A casual reference somewhere, a review that sounded promising, having a look in a bookshop (tactile or electronic). As someone who not only reads a lot, but is always on the look-out for reading suggestions, I constantly have a bunch of books on a mental list that I mean to read sometime soon. (This is in addition to the bunch of books I have sitting on the bookshelf next to my bed that I mean to read sometime...)

Patrick Hamilton's 1941 novel Hangover Square: A story of darkest Earl's Court was one such book. As often happens with these things, I can't put my finger on where or from whom I got the idea that I should read it, but over the last couple of days, I finally have. Sometimes these long-intended books are ultimately disappointments, or simply underwhelming. Hangover Square was neither: it is a compelling, involving, even moving book.

George Harvey Bone lives in London, in 1939. He scrapes by with bits of money from here & there, rarely working, but often drinking. He has fallen in with a small group of similar people - all in their late-20s-early-30s, and all of whom enjoy drinking their nights away. Central to this group, and George's reason for sticking with them, is the beautiful Netta. George is somewhat slow, friendlier than most of his group; Netta is contemptuous, an aspiring film star. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. But George is also prone to what he calls 'dead moments', where his genial, somewhat passive, personality is replaced by one in which he realises that it is his duty to kill Netta. When his head clickes back to normal after one of these periods, he has no memory of any of these thoughts. (None of this, I should point out, is spoiler: Penguin included it in their blurb, and indeed we learn all this in the first chapter regardless.)

Hangover Square is thus a portrait of two different sides of George, neither of which is fully aware of the other. It succeeds because both work: the straightforward George chapters are a moving story about a hapless fool infatuated with an awful woman (& make no mistake: Netta is one of the least-likeable characters I have ever encountered in fiction - she treats George appallingly, taking advantage of his doglike devotion to get him to pay for her to do things intended to attract other men, and not even stooping to basic civility in her relationship with him while doing so), and also trying to break out of wasting his life away via his drinking habit. The 'dead moment' chapters give a compelling feel to a clear case of mental illness, a man who is driven to kill someone, without really knowing why. That both sections are about the same man only heightens the tension.

In many ways, Hamilton has written a thoroughly modern novel - one that, with a few alterations of period detail, could have been published in the last few years. (Early on, characters treat ten pounds as a significant chunk of money, and are able to go out several nights in a row, including once to a high-class restaurant, off the haul. The imminent WWII looms over the book & characters, particularly in the last few chapters.) George, when not in his dead moments, is sympathetic despite his frustrating incapacity to ditch Netta. Hangover Square is often grim, and it will be the rare reader who finds Netta anything other than utterly despicable, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am glad I finally got around to reading it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book review: Flappers and Philosophers

Like almost all writers of fiction in the first half of the twentieth century (especially American ones), F. Scott Fitzgerald filled his time between novels with short stories, often publishing at least a handful each year. Early 20C USA was, in many ways, the golden era of the short story, with many magazines publishing them to a wide audience (radio & then tv, of course, would chip away at that before long). And current wisdom holds that nobody reads short stories anymore ('why bother learning new characters every 20 pages?' being the common complaint), although personally I love a good short story as much as I love a good novel - which is to say, a whole damn lot.

This collection contains most - but, frustratingly, not all - of Fitzgerald's short stories, published over a twenty-year span. And while Fitzgerald is probably best known for The Great Gatsby & Tender is the Night, several of his short works also rank amongst the best-known short stories in the English language.

The early stories (this collection is more or less chronological) are rightfully remembered as classics of their era: his second book of stories is even called Tales From the Jazz Age. Most of these stories have young protagonists seeking to find their place in the world, and while in some ways they seem like period pieces, many of the themes here are timeless (social climbers, friendship, unsatisfying marriages). The last two in the section are amongst the most famous: 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' (which bears almost no resemblance to the movie, other than the central conceit of a baby being born as an old man and getting younger through time) and 'The Diamond as Big as the Ritz', a fantastic (in both senses) story of fabulous wealth.

The middle section (stories from the mid-1920s to the mid-'30s) shows both writer and characters maturing. Most of the characters are now young parents, and a sense of regret or disappointment with life does pervade many of the stories. During this period - when he also published his two most-famous novels - was Fitzgerald's peak as an author, and even more so than elsewhere in this book, the prose shines here.

Flappers and Philosophers concludes with a selection of Fitzgerald's later stories, including the Pat Hobby cycle (18 stories, just over 100 pages). Hobby is a perennially-49-year-old screenwriter in Hollywood, whose glory years were a long time ago and never that glorious anyway. Each story covers a new chance for him, although it usually just ends up being a fresh chance for him to embarrass himself. Living on short contracts (three weeks is about the standard), Hobby combines desperation with an almost astonishing lack of motivation or capacity for actual ideas or work.

At nearly 650 pages, and containing 45 stories, Flappers and Philosophers is a pretty immense collection (the two longest stories are in the 40-50pp range). For that reason, it might not be an ideal introduction to Fitzgerald, yet if you can get past that, the stories contained within are, almost without exception, wonderful. Aside from his ever-enjoyable writing, Fitzgerald demonstrates why short stories can be as, or even more, satisfying than novels: fully realised characters, subtly played-out themes, and the ready ability to mix a variety of moods, styles and ideas across a book.

Next on my ongoing trip through Fitzgerald's works: I return to 'The Great American Novel', The Great Gatsby.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Book review: The Pale King

One Monday morning in September 2008, I got to my desk in Parliament House, turned on my computer and began my morning, as i usually did, by reading the news on various websites. This particular morning, however, had a pall cast over it. I read that David Foster Wallace, one of my favourite writers, had died the previous Friday evening. After a decades-long struggle (or series of struggles) with depression, with his medication no longer working, he hanged himself.
Reading this, I felt as if I'd been punched in the stomach. Not only had Wallace been one of my favourite writers of novels, stories and non-fiction, his style encourages feelings of intimacy. Without ever having met him, I felt like I knew more about his mind than I do about those of people I've known for years. (A slightly haunting coincidence is that on that same Friday afternoon, Eastern Australia time, I was listening to him read one of his essays on audiobook as I travelled to Sydney from Canberra.) This was not an uncommon reaction, I was to learn as I read comments around the internet over the next few days and weeks.
Wallace's second novel, and most famous book, Infinite Jest, was published in 1996. Since then, he had released two books of short stories, two collections of essays and non-fiction, and a book on mathematics. His third novel, parts of which had been excerpted over the previous few years in various journals and magazines, was approaching completion at the time of his death. It has now been released, under the care of his long-time editor, in conjunction with his wife and his agent, as The Pale King.
Like Infinite Jest, The Pale King revolves around multiple characters, but the effect here, despite the clearly unfinished nature of the novel, is in fact less fragmentary than is Infinite Jest. All of The Pale King's characters work for the IRS, at the Peoria, Illinois Regional Examination Center. The first few chapters will likely throw many readers off, as we are introduced to some of the cast as they are traveling to the Center, some as children, some as young adults. At this point, none are connected in any way we can see. Some chapters are short, some are long. They are written in noticeably different styles, and the idea of there being a main character is thoroughly dismissed. 70-something pages in, we get an Author's Foreword, written by The Pale King's putative author, one David Foster Wallace, ex-IRS employee.
There's no way to hide that The Pale King is an unfinished novel (even by Wallace's standards - Infinite Jest famously ends on a moderately ambiguous note, some 1100 pages after it began, and his debut novel, The Broom of the System, actually ends mid-sentence). Yet the fragmentary, non-linear and distinctly plot-light The Pale King is nonetheless a satisfying read. Even had he finished it, Wallace would almost certainly have not tied together the various mini-stories or character (semi-) arcs anyway: it's really best seen as a collection of character pieces and interconnected short stories. It's also, as I am contractually obliged to mention in this review, as every other review has/will, a novel about the boredom and mundanity of working life, and the toll that can have on a person. Wallace was very specific that this book would not culminate in a big action set-piece: as one of his notes (included at the back of the book) indicates, he wanted to make The Pale King about: "Realism, monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens".
As mentioned above, the different styles of different chapters allows Wallace to unleash the greatest weapon he has in his pretty formidable collection of writing skills: his peerless talent as a writer of monologues (or occasionally dialogues) (see: the Brief Interviews With Hideous Men series from the story collection of the same name, or Oblivion's title story). Many of the chapters consist of various characters monologuing for various reasons (interviews for a documentary, lengthy Friday-night-at-the-pub life story tellings). Many of these are hilarious, revealing or otherwise entertaining. Indeed, I cannot stress enough just how enjoyable The Pale King is, containing as it does long stretches of David Foster Wallace at the top of his game. And David Foster Wallace at the top of his game is a pleasure matched by few other authors in my reading life.
I guess the final question is whether 'new' readers of Wallace will find The Pale King enjoyable. It's actually a difficult question: as I've noted, it's a remarkably accessible book (with the proviso that if you value plot above all else, you'll find little here to sink your teeth into), yet at the same time I feel strange recommending it to Wallace neophytes. The two collections of non-fiction are probably the best place to start, but I would also recommend his last book of short stories, Oblivion, as being the best taster for his fiction style, which in general is much more formally difficult than are his essays. It's also a good representation of his style in The Pale King - no surprise, since they at least somewhat overlapped temporally. It is, of course, a tragedy on multiple levels that The Pale King will be the last novel we can read from David Foster Wallace. But for me at least, that feeling is countered by the great joy I felt in reading it. The world is a tiny bit sadder for no longer having David Foster Wallace in it, but it is also a little bit better for having The Pale King.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Book review: Stoner

John William's novel Stoner was published in 1965, but has recently enjoyed a slight return to appreciation thanks to a reprint from New York Review Books. I'd stumbled across a couple of reviews of it over last few months, and since all of them were very positive I ordered the book and looked forward to it with much anticipation.

Thankfully, this was rewarded. Stoner is a quiet, well-observed novel of some considerable emotional heft. It's the story of William Stoner, a young man from rural Missouri in the early 20th century. Sent by his farming family to study the new Agriculture degree at the university, Stoner is instead entranced by the compulsory English literature course he takes, and changes degree (without telling his parents until graduation day). From there, he continues with postgraduate study and teaching, eventually making a full-time career of it. At the same time, he meets, falls for & marries Edith, and Stoner is the story of his two relationships: with his career and with his wife.

At a little under 300 pages, Stoner takes us through its protagonist's life from 18 through to the end of his career in his mid-60s, yet never feels rushed. It's a slow, quiet story, and thus finds the perfect marriage of form & content, since Stoner the man is also slow, quiet and low key. He finds his feet as a lecturer, becoming popular on campus, but also making an enemy of one of his colleagues in the department. Meanwhile, his marriage to Edith descends fairly quickly into a mutual disappointment (it is clear from early on that she doesn't particularly care for him at all), and thus Stoner finds his main satisfactions in life through his teaching.

Williams' prose throughout is spare, simple and beautiful. The main characters - Stoner, Edith, and his best friend Gordon Finch - are all well-drawn, although Edith sometimes edges a little close to being cruel to Stoner for its own sake. (Although this can be explained by the novel presenting his side of their relationship.) Lomax, Stoner's nemesis, seems mostly to serve as a plot device, rather than as a character in his own right, but again: his relationship to Stoner is essentially that of an obstacle.

There are several fine university novels, and for obvious reasons I am a fan of the genre. With Stoner, I think John Williams has written one of the best. NYRB has also published another of his novels, Butcher's Crossing, and soon after I finished Stoner I jumped online and ordered it. Recommendations from me don't come much higher than that...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book review: The Beautiful and Damned

F. Scott Fitzgerald's second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, was published in 1922. Like This Side of Paradise, there are clearly some autobiographical themes here, even to those who know little about Fitzgerald's life. Most obviously, central characters Anthony and Gloria are in some ways representative of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda.

Moving on a bit from his first novel, the focus here is on characters in their mid to late twenties, and the sense of tragedy which hangs over The Beautiful and Damned (from title on down) goes deeper than the atmosphere of Fitzgerald's debut. Anthony Patch is the only grandson of famed industrial-turned-moral reformer Adam Patch, and grows up in a life of moderate privilege with the expectation of more to come. Through the first part of the novel, we spend time with him and his friends, eventually settling on his up & down relationship with the beautiful & self-absorbed Gloria. The two get married, and essentially spend the rest of the novel spending more money than they have, getting depressed about that fact, and continuing on anyway. Anthony finds the idea of work anathema. In many ways his generation for whom the idea of working for a living was not an automatic assumption: think of Anthony as the American equivalent of one of Bertie Wooster's poorer friends, a class who don't quite have enough money to live without working but who nonetheless believe that earning a salary is beneath them.

Fitzgerald charts Anthony & Gloria's decline as they run through their resources with a remorseless eye. It's very hard to feel sympathetic to either of them - their good intentions of spending less or actually earning money through any kind of work never last longer than a day or two. Pure inertia seems to be their defining characteristic, as they find it easier to drink the days and nights away. And, in one of the novel's cruelest themes, they never really enjoy themselves either - their extravagance mostly consists in drinking near-constantly, but mostly in a desperate way, and in living in houses which are just outside their means, but which they are still underwhelmed by. Perhaps key to this novel is that the title has only the one definite article: it's not The Beautiful and The Damned, but The Beautiful and Damned. The Beautiful are, perhaps inherently, Damned.

The ending of The Beautiful and Damned, which I have no intention of giving away, is something I am a bit uncertain about: I'm not sure if it's a perfect conclusion or a bad flub by Fitzgerald. Either way, it completely reversed my expectations, so I guess that's usually a plus. Right now, having only just finished reading, I think he got it right, but I can see how one might make the case that it went the other way.

If all of this sounds unbearably depressing, it's saved by Fitzgerald's customary lightness of prose. Even in some early passages which describe the working class in terms that would make C. Montgomery Burns blush, Fitzgerald has an eye for the spot-on description or effortlessly memorable phrase. I particularly liked his description of a conversation between Anthony and his two closest friends early in the book: "They are engaged in one of those easy short-speech conversationsthat only men under thirty or men under great stress indulge in", and also a later passing description of a Lieutenant Kretching: "[He] was considered a good fellow and a fine leader, until a year later, when he disappeared with a mess fund of eleven hundred dollars and, like so many leaders, proved exceedingly difficult to follow". That has nothing to do with anything in the story, but it's an indication of the small things that great writers get right.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Book review: Pilcrow

So, the posting here has been pretty sparse lately, I realise. Semester starting and all sorts of other things going on will do that. I will try harder to maintain a more-regular posting schedule from now on...

First, credit where it's due: I read Pilcrow after reading the wonderful reviews of it & Cedilla (which we'll get to in a moment) over at the wonderful book-reviewin' blog Asylum. If you're interested in thoughtful reviews of interesting books on a regular basis, I recommend you keep an eye on that blog.

Anyway, Pilcrow is the first book in a (proposed) four-volume novel by British writer Adam Mars-Jones tracking the life of its narrator, John Cromer. (The aforementioned Cedilla, volume two, was published late last year.) Pilcrow is also the name of the paragraph-break punctuation mark that you're probably familiar with if you've done much of the accursed Track Changes in MS Word.

Pilcrow (the novel) begins - after a brief flash-forward to him learning to drive - with John's boyhood in 1950s England. He is a curious (as in, interested) boy, probably fairly typical in a lot of ways for 1950s English children. His father was a pilot in the war, and is emotionally reserved towards his family (again, fairly typically, I suspect, although there are also hints that his nature goes beyond this), and his mother is the dominant figure in his life - something of a snob, perhaps even a social climber. The early sections of the book lay out this life in a low-key way, setting the scene for the change that drives most of the rest of the story: when still quite young (five or thereabouts), John is struck with a rare illness that vastly reduces his mobility. Essentially, he loses all movement in his legs, and most of that in his arms. Confined to his bed, and needing near-constant care from his mother, John's life takes a significant turn.

Through the rest of Pilcrow, we follow John up until his mid-to-late teens. He eventually moves from his home to a hospital, where he stays for several years until moving to a school for handicapped children. During that time he undergoes the things that almost everyone does during those ages (emotional and intellectual developments, sexual awakening, struggles with friends and family), plus of course the issues brought on by his near-total immobility.

And that's about it, plot-wise. Thankfully, Mars-Jones is interested enough in the premise and characters of his story to not overstuff the plot. Through John's narration (from a later age), he are taken slowly, but always compellingly, through what it might have been like to grow up as John: the narrator's voice is wonderfully done, and the sizeable array of supporting characters are evocatively described. Few of them are as deftly-drawn as John's mother, although some of his schoolmates & teachers are strikingly well-observed (I have a special fondness for the spying/secret agent-obsessed Julian). Rather than an inherently-propulsive plot, what makes Pilcrow such a pleasure to read are the small details: Mars-Jones has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about what John's life would have entailed. And he describes it all in a pitch-perfect voice - while John is perhaps more reflective than the average child, the combination of his reflection-encouraging circumstances and the fact that the book is narrated from later in his life means that Mars-Jones avoids the pitfalls of the rarely not-annoying implausibly brilliant child narrator.

Doubtless a 525 page book with a distinct absence of whiz-bang plottery is not for everybody - especially when the book sorta just ends, with three books to come (Cedilla, I should note, is even longer - 700+ pages in hardcover). But those who are willing to delve into John Cromer's life will find much to enjoy, from the consistently sparkling prose and well-imagined characters to the various set pieces throughout. Pilcrow is a novel to move through slowly, not a novel to race through, but neither did it ever feel like a slog. I'm now eager to get (& get into) Cedilla, even though that will still mean a few years (presumably) until the next volume comes out.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Book review: The Imperfectionists

Tom Rachman's first novel, The Imperfectionists, comes with some pretty weighty expectations: my paperback copy is covered with laudatory quotes from what seems like every reputable paper in the US. (It also features that other sign of successful fiction of recent years: an author interview & reading group questions at the back.)

I'm happy to report that The Imperfectionists lives up to the many fine reviews it has received. It is both compelling (in that I didn't want to put it down) and a finely-tuned character(s) study. Based around an English-language newspaper published from Rome, each of the eleven chapters focuses on a different member of the staff (or, in one case, a devoted reader). Thus, the central character of an early chapter is a minor player in later chapters (or vice-versa), and all links together. It is not much of a spoiler, however, to note that The Imperfectionists is concerned more with character than plot - this isn't like, for instance, when Dickens tells his story through rotating perspectives in Bleak House (another recent read). Each chapter could stand as a discrete short story, although undoubtedly they gain more from recognising characters from earlier chapters.

There is some plot, however: the paper (never named here), is, like all others really, in financial trouble. Begun in the 1950s by an American businessman for personal reasons, the paper's history is told in short sections at the end of each chapter, from its founding through its heyday in the 1980s and subsequent decline as a result of competition from the internet and other technological advances (a recurring point is that, by 2005, the paper still had no website). It should be noted that Rachman worked for a few years as an editor at the International Herald-Tribune, so he clearly knows the world of this paper well. The Roman setting is also used well - the fact that most of the paper's staff are ex-pat Americans living in Italy but still working in an English-speaking environment contributes to the isolation brought on by the fact that they are working at a dying instance of a dying medium.

So while that theme plays through The Imperfectionists, the novel's real strength is the characters who populate it. Rachman paints all of them at least somewhat sympathetically (although some are more likeable than others). Most of the chapters end of a faint note of irresolution - not in an unsatisfying way, but emphasising that each chapter tells only a little slice of each person's life. I am a bit of a sucker for novels which alternate between different narrators/character POVs (purely off the top of my head, see most of David Mitchell's novels, or Paul Murray's Skippy Dies, but there are many more examples). It is, however, a hard trick to pull off - even aside from the question of which characters will provide the readers with their POV, the author has to balance all sorts of considerations like how often to switch, how various characters will be portrayed by the different narrators, how much the stories need to/should overlap, how best to represent the different voices of the characters etc etc. Part of the success of The Imperfectionists is that Rachman has done this perfectly - as I said, any part could stand alone, but each has also been composed with the others in mind, so that little pieces fall into place from earlier chapters, and also set up later developments. A lot of thought has clearly gone into the planning of this book - if done even slightly less well, the overall effect would be vastly reduced, I think.

Anyway, now that I've added in my small way to the rave reviews for The Imperfectionists, all I can suggest is that you read it!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book review: This Side of Paradise

Late last year, for reasons that have much to do with the fact that they were all given beautiful new designs by the good people at Penguin (the image to the right gives some idea, but doesn't really convey the shiny metallic nature of the dustjacket), I purchased a complete set of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books: four novels, one unfinished one, and a collection of his short stories. At that point, a many-years-ago reading of The Great Gatsby was the extent of my Fitzgerald-readership, so I thought I would read them all, in order, and briefly review them. I've been working through the short stories (it is a 600-page book), and yesterday evening I finished his first published novel, 1920's This Side of Paradise.
In many ways, This Side of Paradise is a typical first novel. According to the introduction (which I skimmed afterwards - I hate reading these first, mostly because they tend to assume a familiarity with the work), it does contain some directly autobiographical themes, but I probably could have guessed that anyway. Amory Blaine is the only son of a fairly wealthy family: his father is background at best, as mother and son essentially ignore him, moving around the world for the first few years of Amory's life, inhabiting a world of quiet privilege and ad-hoc education. After his mother takes ill, Amory returns to the US, lives with an aunt & uncle, and begins his formal education at an exclusive boarding school. Self-centred (& a self-proclaimed genius), he remains unpopular for several years, before finding other like-minded scholars to befriend. He also comes into a close, substitute-father relationship with a priest, Monsignor Darcy. We follow Amory through his school and then university (at Princeton) days, and on into the war and the workforce (advertising, although he consistently half-tries to write poems and stories), dropping in on his conversations with friends, classmates, teachers, girls and Darcy.
Amory Blaine is not a particularly likeable character - which is reflected in how most other characters relate to him as well. Inherently snobby, solipsistic and self-dramatising, his intelligence is referred to, rather than seen. He has several love-affairs, all of which peter out for one reason or another, and few of his friendships remain strong for long - tending, instead, to be brief, all-consuming and then pushed aside for the next great influence (Monsignor Darcy remains his longest-lasting relationship).
While it is very much an example of a younger writer finding his feet,This Side of Paradise is nonetheless an intriguing start to Fitzgerald's career. He conveys Amory's world perfectly (possibly because it was also his own), keeps the book moving at a steady pace despite the lack of a particularly dominant central plot, and the prose falls with the casual elegance which would come to define Fitzgerald's style as a whole. He also doesn't condemn Amory too harshly for his failings, instead recording the follies of youth with a sympathetic touch. I knew little about This Side of Paradise when I started it, but it has made me look forward to working through Fitzgerald's remaining three & a half novels.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Albums of 2010: Write About Love

(So, as it turns out, starting a new series on my blog a week before Christmas was a bad idea. But I'll try to regain some momentum by finishing off my little reviews of albums from 2010 I liked, and then get back into some book reviews and other stuff...)

Like Sufjan Stevens, Belle & Sebastian had gone several years without releasing an album by 2010. Also like Stevens, there had been diversions along the way, most notably 2009's God Help the Girl album of songs written by bandleader Stuart Murdoch, and featuring most of the group (albeit with vocal duties handled by outsiders), as well as the 2008 release of The BBC Sessions. So it may not have seemed like it, but by the release of Write About Love, four and half years had passed since the last studio album by Belle & Sebastian - by far their longest break (and approximately as long as the break between posts on this humble blog...).

Unlike The Age of Adz, however, Write About Love does not see B&S breaking much new ground - think of it more as a refinement of the last few albums, with some influence from their earlier period as well. (Bluffer's guide to B&S's musical evolution: first two albums & associated eps were quiet, subdued indie pop; the next few years saw increasing orchestration and variety, but within a largely similar sonic framework; and from 2004 onwards a distinct '70s pop influence started to dominate proceedings.)

The album opens with Sarah Martin's 'I Didn't See It Coming', the first time one of the band's non-Murdoch members has been handed opening-track duties. And 'I Didn't See It Coming' is easily Martin's best song to date - a gorgeous melody, and wonderful vocals from her & Murdoch. 'Come On Sister' is similarly upbeat, and points to the album being similar in feel to its predecessor 'The Life Pursuit'. Track three, 'Calculating Bimbo', quietens things down, however, and also provides this album's first character-sketch-as-lyric song (a speciality of Murdoch's).

My favourite track off Write About Love (& one of my favourites by anyone in 2010) is up next: 'I Want The World To Stop'. It's an unashamedly pop song, with Murdoch's vocals, superbly supported by some of the others, atop the band firing on all cylinders. Unfortunately, it's followed by the underwhelming Norah Jones duet, 'Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John'. While Murdoch's & Jones's voices play well off each other, and the production is as lush as B&S will ever provide, it definitely feels like a Norah Jones song, not her on a B&S song. An interesting diversion, yes, but not much more than that.

The second half of the album kicks off with a bang with the title track, as catchy a pop ditty as you're likely to hear. Guest vocalist on this track Carey Mulligan chips in behind Murdoch, subtly undermining him:

I know the way
(So you know the way...)
Get on your skinny knees and pray
(Maybe not today)

Guitarist Stevie Jackson's lone songwriting contributing to Write About Love is 'I'm Not Living in the Real World', and it shares the off-kilter pop feel of many of his songs. Two quiet songs follow, 'The Ghost of Rockschool' and 'Read the Blessed Pages'. Both are pleasant without being particularly memorable (the latter sounds a little as if it is about former bandmember/Murdoch ex- Isobel Campbell - but that might not be accurate or fair). If I had a criticism to make of modern Belle & Sebastian, it's that the slower songs seem to have lost their bite - while slow, quiet songs on the band's first few albums tended to be some of the highlights, these two (along with 'Calculating Bimbo' & 'Little Lou...') are a little too '70s radio pop for me. A decade ago, who could have imagined that the peaks on the new Belle & Sebastian album would be soul-inflected pop songs that you could dance to, and the hushed ballads would feel out of place? That's testament to the band's growth, of course, but it also feels odd to be underwhelmed by the quiet tracks here.

Luckily, the last two songs restore some of the tempo: Martin's 'I Can See Your Future' may not stack up to 'I Didn't See It Coming', but it marks her continuing development as a songwriter, and 'Sunday's Pretty Icons' sounds like a quintessential B&S album closer - upbeat, a little optimistic, and eminently hummable. (Itunes bonus track 'Blue Eyes of a Millionaire' is also worth springing for, being a simple & sparse but lovely slice of acoustic guitar-driven pop.)

Write About Love does not mark a huge leap forward for B&S, as, say, Dear Catastrophe Waitress did. But it's a concise, punchy albums with at least three songs ('I Didn't See It Coming', 'I Want the World to Stop', 'Write About Love') that stand amongst the band's best, and hopefully also signals their return to regular album-making & touring...

'I Want The World To Stop' (YouTube)