Reviewers: Ted Gioia

September 18th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Have been looking at various highly-regarded book reviewers, trying to figure out which I can trust. First up, Ted Giola.

This is the review that makes me distrust Ted: a positive review of a book I loved, but one that totally misses the point. Compare him to Sheila O’Malley. Ted:

But the most masterful aspect of the plot is the superimposition of
the two love stories, the 20th century one involving Mitchell and his
accomplice Dr. Maud Bailey, a famous LaMotte scholar, and the
19th century romance between Ash and LaMotte. The contrast is
not just one of couples, but also social mores, etiquette and gender
roles. Byatt is in complete control as she juxtaposes the pacing and
complications of these side-by-side stories.


Byatt doesn’t write about people who live in their subjective experience of life. She writes about academics and writers and research assistants – whose “love” for life is expressed through their driving obsession for whatever topic – people who spend their whole lives researching one minor female Victorian poet … and any real love that comes into the life of a person like that will either have to take a back seat, OR somehow inform and deepen that other obsession.

A.S. Byatt writes in this realm like no one’s business. She is the heir of George Eliot (someone she openly emulates). Life is BIG, and important – and it is not just our personal lives that give it resonance – but our passions, obsessions, intellectual pursuits and the wider culture and how it informs how we live.

Which one has managed to get inside the novel, and give you a reason to pick it up? No question, is there?

August 23rd, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

BooksWeLike seems now to be entirely dead. Pity. I guess Library Thing is now occupying much the same space, and better. Still, I have a bunch of reviews in there, and it’s always sad to see sites vanish when you turn your back for a couple of years. Sic transit gloria mundi, I guess.

Nina Power

May 26th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

One of many, many things I love about Zero Books is their continual willingness, even eagerness, to call out the cultural and intellectual conservatism of the time. Take the blurb to Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman:

That the height of supposed female emancipation coincides so perfectly with consumerism is a miserable index of a politically desolate time. Much contemporary feminism, particularly in its American formulation, doesn’t seem too concerned about this coincidence. This short book is partly an attack on the apparent abdication of any systematic political thought on the part of today’s positive, up-beat feminists. It suggests alternative ways of thinking about transformations in work, sexuality and culture that, while seemingly far-fetched in the current ideological climate, may provide more serious material for future feminism.

Have just ordered the book (and narrowly restrained myself from simultaneously ordering Militant Dysphoria); massively excited to see if it’s as good as Capitalist Realism.

Hunter S Thompson

May 16th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

My attitude to Hunter S Thompson is that of the owner of an overindulged rottweiler, calling him a harmless softie while barely restraining the beast. For sure, much of the HST mythos is true: doubtless he was a drug-addled psychotic bastard who you wouldn’t want to turn your back on. Posterity may have literally turned him into a cartoon — both Transmetropolitan‘s Spider Jerusalem and Doonesbury‘s Duke are based on him — but there was plenty of crazy lingering there from the get-go. Beneath it all, though, there’s a touching melange of disbaused idealism and a surprising affection for those working less dramatically from within the system.

Even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is, Duke keeps telling us, a search for the American Dream. The intrepid heroes purgatory their torsos, strain themselves to the point of breaking, and through this mortification uncover the nature of their world. The apparent nihilism is the aftermath of broken dreams, the realisation that the chnage which had appeared to be beginning in California in the 60s had come to a juddering halt:

[in the mid-Sixties] there was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda….You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high—water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

This sense of disappointed idealism, and the quest to regain it, appears much more strongly in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. his report from George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. He’s striking in his affection for the young staffes and volunteers fighting for McGovern from within the system, even when their positions are far more centrist and pragmatic than anything Thompson would himself countenance.

Book: The Night Sessions

May 15th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Ken MacLeod, The Night Sessions. Near-future Scotland, recovering from a post-9/11 replay of the Wars of Religion. Churches are allowed to exist only on a private level, with the state studiously ignoring their existence. So when Detective Adam Ferguson begins to investigate the murder of his priest, his attention — and his superiors’ — is on the political and bureaucratic consequences almost as much as on the rapidly-escalating series of killings.

MacLeod’s science fiction is, among much else, a vehicle for satire on the preset. Here it’s most entertaining when confined to small details: Creationist theme parks, for example, or gangster-ridden “Capitalism with Russian Characteristics”. His broader swipes on religion mostly fall flat. Towards the end there is a particularly ludicrous conversion as a True Believer is confronted with the contradictions of the bible* — a shaky plot device on the biblical literalism which a certain kind of atheist shares with only the most extreme of protestant sects.

The science fiction elements are largely window-dressing, with the exception of the robots. Macleod’s robots are superior not only in strength and intelligence, but in their ability to understand human emotion. They unnerve people, even though they are no longer given humanoid form to avoid this very problem. Police robots are loyal and devoted sidekicks to their masters, and the strength of this bond is one of the assumptions driving the plot. And, finally, there’s the question of whether robots could be affected by religion.

These are all interesting questions, but the pace of the book prevents MacLeod exploring them. The Night Sessions is fundamentally a thriller and a police procedural, and theories of robotic personhood have to take a back-seat to that.

* ETA: later, it occurs to me that the nature of this is partly a comment on the human/robot comparison. The human is defeated in the same way robots are according to B-movie cliche: show them a contradiction, and wait for them to blow a fuse. Meanwhile the robots, emotionally advanced far beyond human level, have no trouble on this point.

Book: Generation X

May 15th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Douglas Coupland, Generation X. An often uncomfortable book to read, because it’s a good one. Simultaneous identification with, loathing for and jealousy of the characters doesn’t make for a pleasant reading experience.

Like all his books, it’s set in an all-too-real world. The cast are young Americans, raised on marketing and branded aspiration, with every possible gestrue of rejection, independence or individuality already anticipated and commodified by the marketing industry. The plot developments are incidental; the action is in the stories and fantasies of the Generation Xers, mostly of where they find love and beauty within small moments of their lives:

“inspired by my meetings of the Alcoholics Anonymous organization, I instigated a policy of storytelling in my own life, a policy of “bedtime stories,” which Dag, Claire and I share among ourselves. It’s simple: we come up with stories and we tell them to each other. The only rule is that we’re not allowed to interrupt, just like in AA, and at the end we’re not allowed to criticize. This noncritical atmosphere works for us because the three of us are so tight assed about revealing our emotions. A clause like this was the only way we could feel secure with each other.”

Coupland’s happy-ever-after endpoint, here as elsewhere, is for this circle of friends to find a shared language, a common aesthetic in their savviness and semi-rejection of the world, and so an ability to share their perfect moments. The problem is that they aren’t really “tight assed about revealing [their] emotions”. Once the storytelling device clicks into place, they’re all able to talk in the style that is Coupland’s trademark, cannily picking apart the brands and marketed aspirations from which they’ve built their inner lives. The emotional fluency isn’t developed over the book; it’s present from the start, as plot device.

Not only is the endpoint present from the start, it’s also deeply unsatisfying in itself. We can’t leave any mark on the world, he seems to be saying, so should content ourselves with occasional brief moments of beauty and communication. This is both accurate, and sufficient reason to fling yourself off the nearest cliff.

Books on Italy

May 15th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Currently reading Tobias Jones’ The Dark Heart of Italy. So naturally I glance online to see what others have made of it. Equally naturally, I find they’re strongly suggesting I find better books on Italian politics. Noting their suggestions, in preparation for the next time my thoughts take a turn bootward:

Paul Ginsborg, Italy and Its Discontents, a history of Italy 1980-2001 (following an earlier book covering the period to 1980):

the 1980s were years of “cynicism, opportunism and fear” – the conditions in which corruption could flourish, and from which Berlusconi would benefit.

Much of the blame lies with the Communist Party. Rather than serve as gatekeeper, filtering Autonomy’s contributions, the party co-operated in the suppression of groups to its left. The result was a weakened political system, the left avid for respectability while the right operated without constraints. If the Italian left is to regain the initiative, it will need to open itself again to influences like those of the autonomists.

. CT comment:

I’d recommend anyone interested in post-war Italy to read Ginsborg; his previous book on Italy from Liberation to the 1980s is also excellent, and his short book on Berlusconi is good. Ginsborg’s weak spot is that he doesn’t devote much attention to the conspiratorial side of politics. In that respect David Lane’s book on Berlusconi (the book of the Economist feature) is surprisingly good – he turns over quite a few stones. Philip Willan’s The Puppetmasters is the conspiracist account of post-war Italian politics in English; God only knows how accurate it is, but it’s extremely suggestive. The Dark Heart of Italy… meh. I enjoyed it (Tobias Jones writes well), but it’s a bit Orientalist. [links added]

Long-grain pontiff

April 25th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m less than overwhelmed by Michael Bracewell’s book England is Mine. I do have to admit, though, that he has a nice turn of phrase — even if it is in a style that must have landed him in Pseuds Corner:

So pop, despite itself, became arty. English society, high on the new convenience foods, allowed English culture to develop a kind of boil-in-the-bag popism as the successor to the beans on toast of social realism. [80]

[slightly less entertaining on re-reading, when I realise that “boil-in-the-bag popism” probably means music rather than the Bishop of Rome]

April 24th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Sasha Frere-Jones on Patti Smith’s autobiography:

It’s refreshing to read a memoirist so dedicated to telling a version of her life that is more about ideas than bedpost notches, though sad to think that only someone like Smith could push this past her editors. The New Irony: only a rock star has the moxie to be a prude now.

Naturally, though, I’m more inspired by what the other Sasha finds in it:

It’s a love story, in every sense; not only an account of a love affair, but of a connection that goes beyond sexuality and familiarity into true understanding and devotion….
he pair were the cutting edge of late 60s and early 70s creative New York, and the energy and belief and idealism surrounding them practically wafts off the page.

The Arabs: a history

December 25th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

The Arabs: A history, by Eugene Rogan, has just been published in hardback. The various reviews present it as an important work, perhaps even as a successor to Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples — respected, but now somewhat long in the tooth. Hourani was Rogan’s “mentor”, whatever that means, but the younger historian has concentrated mainly on media and historical circumstances, in contrast to Hourani’s excursions into “demography, trading patterns and literature“.

Sadly, the reviews in the Guardian and Telegraph concentrate on the Arabs’ contact and conflict with the West. I’m hoping this is just an artefact of the British newspaper industry, not of a narrow focus in the book itself.

CT Fantasy recommendations

November 29th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Crooked Timber book recommendation threads are always, always worth reading. This time, fantasy, with an interesting number of people trying to worm some SF in one way or another. Why are there more people talking about ideas, people and society in an SF than a fantasy setting? Can we blame it all on Tolkein?

October 16th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Philip Pullman writing on Athensius Kircher (in the form of a book review) is a treat, lightly linking him to the post-pomo cultural melange, and the return of magic:

Kircher lived on the cusp between the magical world of the Middle Ages and the rational and scientific world of modernity – as perhaps we do again today, except that we’re going in the other direction. His half-sceptical, half-credulous cast of mind is very much to our current taste.

Qiu Xiaolong

October 16th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Qiu Xiaolong is a bestselling Chinese author of crime thrillers. But his depictions of Shanghai as a city of crime and corruption haven’t gone down well with the authorities.

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