Saturday, 30 August 2014

Missing Review Catch-Up

Though originally when I started this blog I wanted to fully review every book I read, the next two years of haphazard blogging proved that, for me, this was going to be impossible. It's not really anything to do with the amount of free time I have, but instead related to the main plan behind this blog in the first place; to push myself into becoming a better and more productive writer. Although trying to review everything helped with the latter aspect, it seemed to make the former harder when I came up against books that I simply didn't have the knowledge (or sometimes desire) with which to write a half-decent appraisal. The nadir of this came when I tried to write a review of established philosophy classic Fear and Trembling (which I keep accidentally writing as Fear and Loathing every damned time) by Soren Kiekergaard. It was less a review and more of an admission of incompetence.

So the best thing to do to tackle the few books I've read over the past year without fully reviewing them would be to put together a series of mini-reviews in one post, just to put my obsessive compulsive mind at rest- and as if by magic, here's a bunch of them right here. For those curious, the main reasons why I've skipped full reviews of certain books are that they're either too short, too technical, or too classical for me to put my ugly stamp on them.

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Auggie Wren's Christmas Story (1990/2004)
Paul Auster

I had no idea what Auggie Wren's Christmas Story was when I ordered it from Amazon a few months back. I'd never seen it in bookshops, rarely seen it listen in the usual 'also by this author' pages, and never looked at a summary on Wikipedia thanks to its mysterious and definitive red font colour status. I knew I had to have it regardless, since I'm working on a complete Auster collection, and was excited by the mystery of what this book might actually be. Obviously I worked out that it might be a story about Christmas.

When the Amazon package turned up at my door (well, my mother's door actually, since my apartment doesn't have a big enough letterbox for parcels, so I send them all to her), the mystery was revealed and left me feeling like I'd been more than a little ripped off, but also I didn't mind too much. Auggie Wren's Christmas story, it turns out, was originally a short story commissioned by The New York Times way back in 1990, back when Auster was the new in-thing in the NY literary world thanks to The New York Trilogy. This 2004 edition is a small hardback re-release featuring art by Isol (a woman I didn't know anything about prior to this, but apparently is a very highly-regarded children's illustrator). At no more than a few thousand words, the story and images barely make 30 pages, making it automatically not worth buying if you're not a huge Auster fan.

The story is a very nice, thoughtful modern Christmas tale, one that embodies the more intellectual and introspective side of the season thanks to being utterly Auster in its nature. Written early in Auster's career as a novelist, it's very much in the mold of The New York Trilogy and Moon Palace. I enjoyed it so much that I wish Auster would try out more short stories in the future. Unfortunately I didn't get the appeal of the art at all. Done in a style that I couldn't possibly name or even it seems describe, I didn't find it much to look at. Altogether then, considering the brevity of the text and non-interest of the art, it was a bit of a rip-off, but I'm in complete Auster fan-mode at this point in my life so it didn't really matter.

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The Disappearing Spoon- And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements (2011)
Sam Keane

The Disappearing Spoon was another attempt to try and break my way into somewhat understanding some aspects of science, since it seems to be the type of real world thing I should know something about, rather than just constantly writing about people and events that aren't real. Seriously though, I'm nowhere near as knowledgeable with science as I should be, so I'm at the point where I think trying to write a full review of a book like this would be redundant. In the past I have written a couple of science book reviews here (Elephants on Acid being the most recent), but The Disappearing Spoon fell short by addressing a subject I really needed some inspiration to get interested in and then not providing it. The book, if you didn't guess by the title, is about the elements and all that.

As a writer in the genre of popular science, Sam Keane's main task is to get on board all the stupid people like me who really don't know what he's talking about, by being affable and enthusiastic, while all the while leading them on a coherent path that somewhat resembles a narrative. He's okay at the former, but the latter is where this book really fell apart in my eyes, since it's essentially a collection of tangentially linked stories of scientific discovery and the occasional weirdness. As a result the book tackles human history just as much as scientific fact, which I appreciated, but once I'd finished I really didn't feel like I'd learned anything. That's probably mostly my fault, but it does mean that ultimately I can't particularly recommend The Disappearing Spoon as an enlightening read.

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 Signal To Noise (1992)
Neil Gaiman - Art by Dave McKean


I like Neil Gaiman, I really do, I'll read anything with his name on it, but I try not too expect too much each time. Gaiman has the mind of a genius storyteller, something he's proven time and time again over the years through his various short story collections, and of course his magnum opus (I love that phrase) the inestimably great The Sandman, a comic book series I've been meaning to write about on this blog for far too long but just don't have the courage. The problem is, in my opinion, that despite Gaiman's ability to develop a story like few others, his actual prose can often come up a little short. I don't think any of his longer novels can truly be called classics in the usual sense- alright, American Gods is probably a fantasy classic- and as such his best novel, again in my opinion obviously, was the co-authored Good Omens with Terry Pratchett. 

What I'm trying to say is that I wasn't surprised when I found Signal To Noise to be a very pretentious book with very little to offer, despite its creator's credentials. Providing the art for this graphic novel- for that is what it is- was Dave McKeane, most famous in comics for his artwork on Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum. Unfortunately I've never been particularly taken with McKean's neo-Gothic patchwork art style, as though it's very effective in establishing mood, I find it terrible at portraying a cohesive panel-to-panel story. I'm not sure how much of a part the art played in my lack of interest in the story, but it certainly played a part. The bottom line though was I found Gaiman's writing in Signal To Noise to be pretentious in its constant efforts to try and sound deep and meaningful, without any depth behind the attempted gravitas.

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 Doctor Faustus (1592)
Christopher Marlowe


To give it its full title, Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus will always hold a special place in my memory for being chronologically the first text I studied at University, in the English Literature department of a big university in a small town on the coast of Wales. Truth be told, I was never the most diligent student, and often if a book didn't take my interest I'd barely study it; especially if it was historically important and not particularly interesting to read today. Faustus, thank god, despite certain features that put me off, is still a rather entertaining play, and one that rewrote the old Germanic tale and defined the notion of the Faustian Pact. It's wordy influence crosses boundaries of interest for those who study Shakespeare (for Marlowe is his closest predecessor, to the extent that conspiracy theorists suggest they were the same person) and for those more into romanticism.

Personally I enjoy the bombastic, intentionally self-important tone of it all. My typical problem with the vast majority of classical literature in this vain is that I find extended decorative prose to be kind of annoying, frustratingly avoiding the issue of explaining things for the sake of sounding impressive and being classed as poetry. I'm way more of a fan of minimalism, as my love for Bukowski and Orwell hopefully shows. Marlow's Faustus, however, gets a pass from me in this respect because it's a very straightforward story with a straightforward plot, and the over-written dialogue to me represents the folly of Faustus' assumptions of self-control and Mephistopheles' amusement at his arrogance. I re-read the play recently since I found a nice hard-bound old copy also containing the rather similar topic of the review below. I much, much preferred Marlowe's work.

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Faust (1829)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  
I had to buy the hardback mentioned above, since though I already had a copy of Marlowe's Faustus somewhere on my bookshelves I'd never read the probably-even-more-fanous version of the folktale in Goethe's Faust, and needed to remedy that. I suppose that even beforehand I knew I most likely wasn't going to enjoy it a huge amount, especially since, unlike Marlowe's Faustus, Goethe's didn't have the advantage in my eyes of being associated with one of the definitive times of my life. There's also the consideration that my very slight exposure to Germanic literature so far had shown me that the style (translated, anyway), probably wasn't really for me thanks to the complete lack of humour and uber-seriousness.

As a result, I'm not going to try and properly review Goethe's Faust because I'm nowhere near capable of it. I can say that, reading it in 2014 (and taking a long time about it) reminded me that I don't like flowery poetry since I can't be bothered to spend the time doing the research to translate the antiquated terms or many intellectual references, and that's obviously my fault rather than the book. I'm sure that if I had a capable teacher leading me through it I would've enjoyed Faust, and maybe in the future I'll have reason to look at it again with more care.

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Complete Shorter Fiction (No idea what year and I've given up looking)
Oscar Wilde

I was optimistic about enjoying this Penguin collection of Oscar Wilde's Complete Shorter Fiction, having many years ago enjoyed The Picture of Dorian Gray, but as it turns out it didn't really happen. Wilde was far from a prolific prose author, hence this complete collection is a thin volume of some fairly random things, the most famous probably being The Canterville Ghost. Unfortunately I didn't enjoy or engage with any of these stories to anywhere near the same extent as Dorian Gray. Wilde's talent as a aesthetic writer is noticeable in every story, of course, but his style alone isn't enough for me, and I only have a very limited interest in the turn of the century British nobility. As a result I found myself deeply uninterested in a lot of these stories. 

Wilde also writes quite a few of his own fairy tales, included in this volume. They're okay, interesting at first but soon become repetitive, which is a feature not helped at all by Wilde's often-pompous prose style. I got a sense with each one of the stories in this collection that they were experimental writing exercises for Wilde to stretch and exercise his prose fiction muscles, and as a result of his reluctance to write in such a fashion very often (as opposed to his playwright career), he lacked the passion or methods to come up with many interesting short stories. I suppose I am glad I read it because it was interesting, just not as enjoyable as I hoped.

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That's it for now. I expect I'll have to do this again one day.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Haruki Murakami- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami
2013 (Japanese)/ 2014 (English)


Around two-and-half years ago I, like an idiot, decided to create a simple blog with a single objective; to obsessively compulsively review each book I read, as a personal exercise designed to make myself write more, and to understand the literature I'd read a little bit better. One of the first things I (badly) reviewed was Haruki Murakami's probably magnum opus 1Q84 (it really is quite a bad review, sorry about that), a book that I'd been extremely hyped for ever since I heard about it. So, when I finished reading, and after writing and posting my review, I automatically started tormenting myself with the knowledge that it'd no doubt be quite a while before Haruki Murakami wrote another book. From that point forward like any crazed fan I scoured the likely news sources for anything I could find, devouring each  eventual new snippet of information with aplomb. In the meantime I re-read After Dark and read Dance Dance Dance for the first time, and even wrote a pretty lazy preview of the upcoming Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I think what annoyed me the most about waiting was how the novel was being quickly translated into seemingly dozens of languages from all around the world, but the English translation (from the trusted Jay Rubin) kept me waiting and waiting.

When Colorless (which I'm going to spell without the 'u', even though as an Englishman this sickens me) finally arrived in the post, I didn't have the patience to allocate it a spot on the to-read pile and as soon as I'd finished The Art of Hunger I happily dove into it. Twenty-four hours later and I'd finished it, though its imprint has held tightly onto my thoughts ever since- to be absolutely honest, to do a fair review of this book I think I'd have to read it twice. I did contemplate doing that but there's only so many hours in the day and so many books to read, so for now I can only give my still raw impressions of a fascinating book. First things first, the immediate urge for many people on the Internet has been to classify this book within Murakami's bibliography in relation to its fellows. I hesitantly have to agree with the majority of opinions in classifying this as a 'minor' work, in that it's not an extremely complex odyssey in the manner of his longer works like Kafka on the Shore or 1Q84, but more in the vein of a more realistic psychological character study through relationships, like Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun. Again I emphasis I hesitate in using the word 'minor' since it seems to downgrade a book by its usage, which in this case would be very unfair. 

So, to the plot. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is the tale of a man named Tsukuru Tazaki who was caused great pain under mysterious circumstances in his youth and as an adult is finally ready to discover what happened. As a student and adolescent, Tsukuru was part of a very close-knit group of friends whom he loved and relied upon, until one day the other four ousted him from the group permanently, without a single explanation. After going through a period of great sadness, Tsukuru is pushed into confronting his past by a new girlfriend, to finally contact his old friends to discover just why he was ostracized. I'll refrain from going in to more detail, since the magic of Murakami's writing is in his beautiful contemplative prose, the quality of which is so great that my clumsy attempts to describe it only does it a disservice. I will say that the hook of an interesting mystery, one that proposes more questions when investigated, drew me in to the narrative very quickly, but, in a slight criticism, I must confess to being disappointed that the book doesn't really follow the detective direction for very long.

The overriding factor to Colorless is that it's extremely introspective, and Tsukuru Tazaki might be Murakami's most introspective character yet. Murakami goes to great pains to describe his mind, to emphasise and clarify the emotions that life's troubles have forced upon him, and how his discoveries through the novel change him in certain ways. The theme of psychological rebirth is fairly upfront, as is the trauma of emotion, the pointlessness of hindsight, and a constant feeling of surreality. Unlike say, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, here Murakami chooses to limit his supernatural surrealist tendencies to strange dream sequences, leaving a few open-ended possibilities for the reader to mull over (that I won't spoil, but which hark back to previous situations in Murakami novels where characters are unsure what they have or haven't done and can never find out the truth).

Overall I can't help but agree with the majority that Colorless isn't on the same level of quality fiction as Murakami's epic longer novels because in comparison it's very limited. The cast of characters is small, the events are subdued, and it lacks a particularly dramatic ending. It's based around an easy to understand concept, tackled from a few different directions with the aid of a likable, normal main character, but without the aid of the excessive surrealness Murakami gives some of his novels. It's an experimental character study that revels in the development of said character, using episodes of his past and present to paint a cohesive picture of depression and eventual recovery, of the folly of youth, and of the power of a good relationship. I really enjoyed it on the same scale as I did Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart, where the weirdness is controlled and mostly limited to tone, and the characters can breathe with the advantage of a realistic environment. I do, however, admittedly prefer Murakami's weird side so this definitely wasn't amongst my favourites, but I did remain enthralled throughout. It demands a re-read, and although that probably won't happen for a little while, the events of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will be floating in my mind for some time to come.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Paul Auster- The Art of Hunger

The Art of Hunger: 
Essays, Prefaces, Interviews, The Red Notebook
Penguin

Paul Auster
1993

Other Paul Auster Reviews- The Invention of Solitude - The Country of Last Things - Moon Palace - The Art of Hunger - Mr. Vertigo - Timbuktu - The Book of Illusions - Oracle Night - Invisible

“In the end, the art of hunger can be described as an existential art. It is a way of looking death in the face, and by death I mean death as we live it today: without God, without hope of salvation. Death as the abrupt and absurd end of life”

It's an obvious sign that you're obsessed with a particular author when you get unreasonably excited at the thought of reading their miscellany. Things like essays, unfinished scripts, correspondence and interviews might seem self-indulgent or irrelevant by people not quite so obsessed, but to you each individual random article is a potential goldmine of revelation. There are only a few authors in my collection who I've cared enough about to buy their assorted leftover crap, such as Douglas Adams' posthumous The Salmon of Doubt, Terry Pratchett's recent A Blink of the Screen, and, the master of extra-curricular collections, George Orwell's Shooting an Elephant. As anyone who's ever looked at this blog more than once might see, Paul Auster easily ranks alongside those greats as someone who's entire bibliography must be mine.

In many ways I think Paul Auster is potentially the ideal author for such a collection, since the works in his bibliography are extremely self-referential, drawing upon Auster's self-confessed obsessions (questions of identity and chance) and weaving them around absorbing narratives that always encourage the reader to think. He also a massive student of literature himself; each of his books is influenced by a seemingly limitless number of classic and cult classic authors whom laid the path out for Auster to re-imagine and re-invigourate. It's Auster's studentship that provides the foundation for this collection The Art of Hunger, released early on in Auster's career as a novelist but far enough into his life to be able to select a range of his non-fiction written from the 1970's onwards.

As indicated by its subheading, The Art of Hunger is split into four sections based on format. The first section collects a large selection of critical essays on literature, and was undoubtedly the section which dragged the most in certain places. Heavy critical literary analysis is never really fun to read, even if you're a fan of the subject matter. I hate to admit my own ignorance on this sort of thing, but I'd never read any of the main prose texts Auster wrote about in these pieces,  and while they each began on an interesting note, Auster's tendency to assume reader knowledge regarding the fairly obscure people and movements doesn't help maintain interest. Despite the heaviness of these essays, there are some interesting indications as to how Auster developed many of his ideas. The essays on poets and poetry, meanwhile, completely lost me since I just can't get into poetry. There's also an excellent article on French street performing legend Phillipe Petite that I very much enjoyed. 

The second section, the self-explanatory 'Prefaces', did nothing for me, since the majority of it was one Auster preface to a poetry collection that I couldn't begin to care about. It was the third section, 'Interviews', that gave me more of what I wanted; insight into the imagination and creative process behind some of my favourite books. One particularly long interview from 1990 sees Auster ruminating over the inspirations both direct and subconscious for his novels up to that point, from his autobiographical debut The Invention of Silence to the brilliant Moon Palace- as an aside, I was curious but not shocked to discover that his second fiction, In the Country of Last Things was something he started writing as a college student and eventually returned to after making his name.

The final section with the much more interesting title of 'The Red Notebook'  is the highlight of the book. It's comprised as a collection of short memoirs from Auster's life, each barely longer than a few pages, where the author highlights curious incidences that drove him to contemplate the powers of coincidence. Some are perhaps much less impressive than others, but the cumulative effect very much establishes the basis for one of Auster's obsessions that he toys with in his novels; specifically regarding the power of chance to change the course of an individual's life. Split into very small chapters, one includes Auster further extrapolating on the random phone call that inspired the beginning of City of Glass (first part of The New York Trilogy). It's far from Auster's best work, but it's a bemusing, thoughtful short piece, and the hidden gem I was hoping for when I picked this book up.

That's not to say that without it The Art of Hunger would be unenjoyable, but the more relaxing ending took my overall enjoyment of the book up a notch. Still, I wouldn't recommend it to anybody without a real attachment to Auster's bibliography since it's a rather self-indulgent compendium, but I did find it mostly interesting.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Max Brooks- World War Z

World War Z
Crown Publishing

Max Brooks
2006

“Most people don't believe something can happen until it already has. That's not stupidity or weakness, that's just human nature.”

Max Brook's 2006 pseudo-investigative journalism novel-turned-literary sale juggernaut World War Z by explaining how zombies took over the world prompted me to wonder the same question; just how did zombies take over the world? Well, the world of popular fiction on page and screen, at any rate. Sure, George R. Romero's first two zombie films Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were brilliant, popular horror movies, but each sequel offered diminishing returns in quality or inspiration, and I really don't recall any big mainstream zombie fiction in the gap between Dawn of the Dead and the sudden explosion of popularity over the past six to eight years (if you discount cult successes like the Evil Dead films at anyrate). I think a large amount of credit for elevating the living dead so highly in the public imagination should go to Robert Kirkman and Image Comics The Walking Dead series from 2003, and obviously the subsequent TV show was massive, but maybe just as much credit should be given to (probably) the biggest selling zombie fiction novel of all time...

Brooks' more popular follow-up to his first novel The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z seems to have achieved a seriously impressive feat in terms of critical reception in relation to book sales, as in; it's all pretty good. I've lost count of the amount of times I've read people praising this novel over the last eight years, so it was about time that I, as self-processed zombie lover, read this book... and so I did, and found it a pretty quick and engaging read over its 300+ pages- but not without some noticeable flaws that stop me from seeing it as a future Penguin Modern Classic. Essentially the critical successes and failures of this book all ride on the author's specific and, some would say, ingenious choice of narrative formatting. The over-arching plot is instantly familiar; a deadly new virus resembling rabies suddenly appears in China, and a lack of understanding or investigation allows it to spread to other countries. As time goes on and the virus spreads, its effects quickly become clear- and no I'm not going to bother explaining them- leading to mass panic across the world as each country scrambles to send in its military to battle to problem, which all leads to the full-on World War Z of the title.

Max Brooks
It's easy to see how a premise like that could turn the heads of the millions of living dead fans out there and it certainly turned mine, but it's also the type of idea that isn't going to go anywhere without a capable author to stamp their mark on a simplistic genre. Brooks decision to frame the book as a series of in-depth interviews was an inspired and brave one, and ultimately directly results in both my favourite and least favourite aspects of the project. I'll be cynical and start with the problems; most notably Brooks set himself a difficult challenge when he forced himself to create dozens of individual characters from all over the globe; especially the first person interview-subject narrative meant each character needed their own voice, distinctive enough to avoid repetition and the subsequent eventual destruction of any audience suspense of disbelief. Overall I think he personally just about gets away with creating a decent ratio of interesting to inevitably dull characters. I apologise for being a literary snob, but to me Brooks really isn't a standout prose author like the kind I usually fawn over, but instead a perfectly capable storyteller with a sense of the screenwriter about him in terms of his mostly realistic dialogue. There were some examples of characters whose voices seemed identical, but then there were also some standout hits.

My favourite of these were two characters who gave their stories and then promptly teamed-up, Kondo Tatsumi and Sensei Tomonaga. With those two Brooks impressed me with his ability to make their voices distinctive from the book's many Westerners, and in doing so composed two compelling short stories containing action, horror and a poignant tone. One of the major advantages of choosing this type of format for his fictional journalism for Brooks was his chance to write a series of short stories with thematic similarities, letting him repeatedly capture the readers attention with fresh scenarios while constantly reinforcing the main points he wanted to make. Unfortunately for me, one of the key themes that just kept on reoccuring was Brooks interest in the technical aspects of war, leading him to veer away from the zombie killing and character refining for the sake of giving lots of details about the various military hardware being used to fight the war. I have no idea if any (or all) of them are even real but I assume so, and so that sort of writing most likely gives the book an air of legitimacy, but frankly I couldn't care less about any of that stuff. I wasn't really interested in much of the war-based drama to be honest, particularly in the fragmented way Brooks presents it through the various interviews.

In my opinion World War Z isn't good enough overall to deserve to be called a modern classic, but I did mostly enjoy it and can absolutely see it as a cult classic novel. The scope and ambition is admirable and leads to moments of great storytelling, but I don't think Brooks had the prose voice nor spark of ingenious to pull the the pieces into enough of a cohesive plot for the book to reach the levels that it might have. I think it could've especially done with being edited for length and really needed a better ending, but I can't help respecting how Brooks' approach to the stagnating zombie genre helped resurrect the living dead once more by moving away from the cliche of a small group of survivors by taking it global. A fun, derivative book that I likely won't read again, but should fondly remember.

Excitable Post

My pre-ordered copy of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgramage by Haruki Murakami finally turned up today. After the brilliance of his last novel, the two-part (in the Western edition, anyway) 1Q84 released in 2011 I've been waiting impatiently for Murakami's next work. Now it's finally here it'll jump straight to the top of the to-read pile (which has about 40 books on it right now). I just have to finish my current in-progress review of World War Z, then finish reading my current main book (I usually have a back-up on the go, most often a book about science), Paul Auster's critical essay collection The Art of Hunger, which probably won't get a full review.  Then it's Tsukuru Tazaki a-go-go, baby.

I just felt I should write all this down for some reason.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Terry Pratchett's Discworld 21- Jingo

Jingo
Corgi Press

Terry Pratchett
1997


“Give a man a fire and he's warm for a day, but set fire to him and he's warm for the rest of his life.”

From an author in possession of such a wide fictional universe starring a cast of literally hundreds of lovingly-crafted characters, it seems a bit of a surprise to this reader, looking at the series in hindsight, that only two books and one year after the publication of the last book staring the City Watch, Pratchett would so quickly return to that same cast of characters for the twenty-first installment of the main Discworld series. The last Watch book, Feet of Clay, was very good, but inevitably suffered in comparison to the two Watch books that proceeded it, Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms; two of the very best things Terry Pratchett has ever written, in my opinion, setting somewhat impossibly high standards to replicate in the face of inevitable diminishing returns. That leads us, then, to Jingo, a very curious, often overlooked little Discworld book all about the silliness of over-zealous patriotism and, of course, jingoism. 

As a bit of an aside, Jingo was, following Hogfather, one of the first Discworld books I can remember reading, and I'm fairly sure I was bought a hardback edition as a Christmas present not long after its publication (along with a copy of Wyrd Sisters). It came with a fairly dull cover, where the (as-always) superb art of sadly missed cover artist extraordinaire Josh Kirby is squashed into the middle to make room for two massive frames of block colour for the book and author title. This was the style of the things at the time, but the unrestricted paperback covers- even the tatty second-hand editions I'd been cheaply buying- put them to shame, and as a result I think in my eyes Jingo was rather stigmatised amongst my collection at the time. Not exactly insightful reviewing here, I know, but I do feel like I'm still trying to work out why Jingo feels oddly uninteresting despite containing all the ingredients for a roaring adventure novel.

Regarding the plot Jingo is a not particularly straightforward tale of international espionage mixed in with Pratchett's typical interpretation of character based detective fiction, and it begins with the raising of an island. The formerly submerged hunk of rock known as Leshp just happened to emerge right in the middle of the Circle Sea that separates the states of the very familiar Ankh-Morpork and the dreadfully foreign Klatch. This and an assassination attempt on the life of a Klatchian Prince visiting Ankh-Morpork leads to the declaration of war. Ankh-Morpork is thrown into political turmoil that leads to the Patrician, Lord Vetinari resigning his post, quickly followed by Sam Vimes and the entire City Watch. Vimes turns the watch into his own private army (since he's technically been a powerful posh nob for quite a while now), and marches them off to Klatch to sort things out (and rescue Sgt. Angua, who was unhelpfully kidnapped). The Patrician, meanwhile, secretly enlists the genius of Leonard da Quirm (inventor of the submarine, don't you know) and the idiocy of Fred Colon and Nobby Nobs, and sets off with them to uncover the mystery of the odd new landmark.

That's a pretty interesting set-up, now I've been forced to explain it, made even more interesting in theory through its potential to take a good look at another part of the Discworld that's often been referred to but rarely been visited. Throughout the series prior, Klatch had been a reference point for anything foreign enough to be vaguely disconcerting for Morporkians, in a clear jab at the jingoistic trends of certain Britons. In this aptly-named novel Pratchett brings Klatch to life properly for the first time (aside from a few passages in Sourcery, I suppose) and presents it as a hybrid of French, Spanish and Middle Eastern aspects, with the focus on anything that's not quite paled skinned or following a familiar religion. The citizens of Ankh-Morpork without the guidance of Vetinari and the Watch are now very much against this sort of thing. It's a decent, if not quite spectacular set-up, but unfortunately one that I didn't feel really goes anywhere interesting.

I think the problem I had with the way the plot unfolds is that it feels so very obvious and predictable, without offering any particular highlights to make it seem more interesting overall. Completely inevitably when the Watch infiltrate Klatch and then meet the locals and their Klatchian police counterparts they all start to get on quite fabulously and quickly find out that they're not so different after all. Vimes and Klatch Vimes (alright, 71-hour Ahmed is his name) get to the bottom of the assassination attempt and find a couple of obvious suspects from both countries conspiring to profit from war, meaning it's not really anyone's fault. Vetinari and co, who were easily the most entertaining part of the novel through their oddball comedy, meanwhile discover that the tactical advantage posed by Leshp isn't as great as it seems, all of which leads to a climactic scene where Vetinari steps in to stop the hostilities with a moment of ingenuity, after which they all get their old jobs back. Coming away from the book, the underlying themes of xenophobia had been completely outdone by Vetinari's tactical masterstroke, ending the book on that impression rather than what Pratchett was really aiming for.

I suppose the problem was for me that Pratchett was preaching to the choir, and doing so without any particular stroke of ingenious. The threat of war as a huge, impaction storyline for the Discworld series never comes to fruition, and the transformation of the Watch into a private army didn't sit well for me, obviously it was only temporary but it didn't feel like a natural extension the organic growth that the characters had previously enjoyed, instead feeling far more like just another episode in their whacky lives. On the other hand there's nothing in this book that's outrageously bad, and the potentially blockbuster set-up kicks it off well, but the general unwillingness of Pratchett to really mix anything up with resonating storylines (such as the death of an important character, for example) left this book stagnating in the back of my mind as the very definition of a forgettable Discworld book. There aren't even any memorable new characters in the mix, adding really nothing to the Discworld's legacy apart from enhancing Vetinari's reputation as the most mysterious and genius character in the series. What I wouldn't give for Pratchett to write a definitive backstory novel for that character, but I very much doubt he ever will. Oh well. Anyway that's enough for Jingo, the most forgettable of all the Discworld novels, but still better than the next Watch book I'll be reviewing, so watch out.

Josh Kirby

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Jack Kerouac- On the Road

On the Road
Penguin

Jack Kerouac
1957

“What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

As ever, On the Road is one book among many others that I quickly devoured during my late adolescence, as though I was frantically running out of time to read everything ever written... and inevitably failed to absorb properly. I was so desperate to expose myself to all the great literature I'd never known of that I merely received a mushed imprint of the book in general, rather than understanding (to an extent) what it was I'd just spent my time on. I guess I like to think of it as an early preview, leaving the nagging feeling that I'd have to get around to reading it again some day. Almost ten years later (my catchphrase by now) that day finally came, thanks to me finding a new copy of the book designed to coincide with the 2012 film adaptation from director Walter Salles- I  haven't seen it, but it's on the mental list to watch now.

Back to 2014, and, as is habitual now, before I began reading On the Road I took a quick look at its page on Goodreads. By this point I've learned that Goodreads is not to be taken too seriously as a source of reliable review scores, since everything generally just ends up with a score between 3.8 and 4.0 as people quickly rank their favourites. Nevertheless, in the case of On the Road I was genuinely surprised at how many featured reviews gave the book two stars or less and slated it for being pointless and rambling. Obviously Jack Kerouac is known now as the voice of the beat generation, and therefore a pioneer in a particular style of prose much in the fashion of later favourites such as Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson- whose best work is more or less revered amongst almost every modern review I've seen. Is Kerouac's style just not as palatable as it is creative? Or have modern consumers of fiction been conditioned to expect clearer, more direct plotting with rounded character arcs to the expense of a more free-flowing anarchic storytelling? 

First of all, this time I liked On the Road a  great deal more than before. It is a fantastic, iconic achievement, in my opinion justifiable art that simply could not be reproduced in any other era. Having said that, there are aspects of the book that I can see might test the patience of a potential modern reader. In some respects, the framework of On the Road is an adjusted version of classic storytelling methods; presenting the biographical tale of an adventurous main character and his eccentric collection of friends, who wind in and out of his life as he observes first hand the wondrous world around him. In this way I don't think the formula is very different to much of the work of classical authors such as Charles Dickens (something like David Copperfield for example), where the full scope of the character study becomes clearer once the book is finished.

I think the general problem that some people have with On the Road is that despite embracing and defining the cool beatnik style, Kerouac never makes much of an effort to portray the ficionalised version of himself as Sal Paradise, and his famous literary friends, as anything but what they are; extremely flawed people. Though obviously I'd be amazingly surprised if the events Kerouac portrays haven't been massively changed for dramatic and thematic purposes, but the key point to me was that he resists the urge to genuinely deify characters like Sal's best friend, the irrepressible Dean Moriarty. Sure, he's made very much larger than life, but as the book rolls on and the characters get older and guiltier, Sal Paradise's narrating voice is able to look at the consequences of a consequence-free life with a great deal more cynicism and remorse. It's towards the end of the book, where the myriad of wild characters are spread out in more difficult circumstances, that such poignancy becomes most apparent, and it was at that point where I found myself enjoying Keroac's work the most.

I can understand why some people might not like the style of the bulk of the book, where Sal and his assorted friends travel around America at a breakneck pace, barely staying in one place long enough to establish a developing plot. Bukowski essentially does a similar thing in his novels like Factotum, but Kerouac's book differs crucially in its extended length and a lack of the black humour that Bukowski so effortlessly stamps his fiction with; making those books more easily consumable. Instead I personally found much of the tone of On the Road to be rather tragic, not so much during the tales of fun and adventure per sei, but with the dawn of the morning after, where characters guiltily remember the responsibilities they've been doing their best to ignore. The character of Dean Moriarty is obviously the prime example of all of this. He struck me as the Jay Gatsby to Sal Paradise's Nick Carraway, echoing The Great Gatsby in a narrator observing a larger than life friend succumbing to his own vices and secret emotional immaturity.

So then, to try and bring things to a conclusion, I'm very happy that I finally came back to On the Road. There were parts that laboured before my eyes more than others and I don't think I'm ever likely to call it personally one of my favourite books, but it was incredibly poignant with characters sure to lodge in my brain for eternity, as they have done for so many other readers. In terms of understanding the landscape of twentieth century American fiction the importance of the book is undeniable, with Kerouac's style (literary and coolness) going on to heavily shape the counter-cultural literary scene of the 1960's and 70's, with the help of writers like the ones fictionalised in On the Road. I think you have to take a look at it once, but perhaps the second time's the charm.