Friday, February 28, 2014

Review: The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By

The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By
The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By by Georges Simenon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's my first brush with Simenon, so I'm expecting this 1938 roman dur to be something a bit noir and a bit psychological: somewhere between Albert Camus and Raymond Chandler. I was close on the first call: The Book With A Title Too Long To Quote In Full does seem to foreshadow Camus' [b:The Stranger|49552|The Stranger|Albert Camus||3324344], but it quickly becomes clear that this is a satire, not a thriller. Time to reorganise those Goodreads shelves again.

When his boss tells Kees Popinga that the company, and thus Kees himself, is on the brink of ruin, the mild-mannered, responsible family man decides to shrug off all socially imposed conventions and do whatever he pleases. Step one is to abandon his family, step on a train and seduce his former boss's mistress. She has other ideas and laughs so hard that he leaves her gagged on her hotel bed and debunks to Paris. Unfortunately, he gags her too tight and she dies, leading to a manhunt through the streets of Paris.

Simeonon has great fun puncturing Popinga's confused vanity: having declared that he is free from social conventions and the opinions of others, he then sits down and writes lengthy, self-justifying screeds to the newspapers complaining about how he has been misrepresented and misunderstood. In his new, 'free' life he is even more a slave to society's opinion than he ever was before.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung

Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung
Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bangs might have been 'the greatest music journalist ever', but his rambling, gonzo style is still an acquired taste. There was a clue to his limitations in the opening piece in [b:Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader|64668|Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste A Lester Bangs Reader|Lester Bangs||62770]: when he's not writing about music, Bangs is self-indulgently tedious. In short, there's a passion to his music writing that evaporates as soon as he strays into other areas.

This book contains plenty of his quirkily brilliant music journalism - hence the three stars - but it's weighed down by far too many rambling pieces with only the vaguest relevance to rock'n'roll. There's even a section entitled 'Unpublishable', and believe me that's an accurate description. One item details how he'd spent every New Year's Eve since 1967; then there's a book review followed by five pages of notes for the same review, which is an unutterably pointless waste of space.

Then there's a rambling, 12-page piece that I think is a movie review - though I had to check on the internet to be sure - which includes four pages of Bangs' own fantasy and a scene-by-scene synopsis of the film. It's tedious as hell.

Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste is a brilliant collection, so how can another collection by the same author fall so flat? Probably because the editors of Main Lines thought of Bangs as a music journalist, while this collection's editor, Greil Marcus, was a friend of Bangs and wanted to present "the story … of one man's attempt to confront his loathing of the world, his love for it, and to make sense of what he found in the world and within himself."

Marcus has taken a great writer and sought out his weakest and most dated writing - thankfully fleshed out with some of his good stuff - in an attempt to create a sort of posthumous autobiography. But Bangs was Marcus' friend, not mine, and I simply don't care.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a novel by a Booker Prize winner, Sweet Tooth seems, well, slight. McEwan seems to be cruising in third gear here, but then, McEwan in 3rd gear is like an Aston Martin in 3rd gear: exuding easy class while leaving mere Ford Mondeos in its wake. So four stars it is.

The blurb advertises a novel of betrayal and subterfuge; what it doesn't say is that the author is as untrustworthy as anyone. The result is that what seems like a highly readable yet not especially gripping novel has layers of subterfuge and dishonesty that run through every character and extend to the author himself.

The story concerns Serena, who is recruited into MI5 in the early 1970s and finds herself in charge of funding an unwitting author, who is expected to produce work that will validate the West in its ideological struggle with the Soviets. This gives McEwan the chance to find an outlet for the outlines of books he's now never going to write. Fair enough, author Tom's debut From The Somerset Levels looks a bit too close to [b:The Road|6288|The Road|Cormac McCarthy||3355573] by Cormac McCarthy for McEwan ever to publish it himself.

As the ending reveals, McEwan has been playing several games with the reader, all of which raise an appreciative chuckle. It's only then that the fundamental dishonesty of the book is revealed, with teases hidden away and lies usually having two levels. It's this that reinstates the fourth star that Sweet Tooth lost by being a thriller that is neither thrilling nor dangerous.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: Master and Commander

Master and Commander
Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's difficult to see why such a grossly flawed book could have won such high praise. Sure, there's a decent story here, but the prose is pedestrian, the action is confusing and O'Brian is obsessed with the minutiae of 1800s maritime life to the exclusion of all else. He doesn't want to tell a story; he wants to show off his research. What's worse, he doesn't even want you to understand what he's writing because his baffling descriptions of how a sailing ship works are intended to show that he's cleverer than you. Being confusing isn't simply an error: it's intentional.

So there are some fascinating actions fought, but O'Brian skips over them so he can get back to the really important business of describing how the topgallants are lanyarded through the larboard fo'c'sle or some other such nonsense.

Characters are introduced by other characters talking about them, so we don't get to learn about their personality; we simply have it explained in a style befitting a school report. O'Brian is clearly an exponent of the 'tell-don't-show' school of writing, and his characterisation is shallow. One of the most important relationships in the novel - that between Aubrey and Dillon - goes sour for barely explained reasons, and the dramatic tension that this could have created is lost by Dillon simply being written out of the book without any resolution, as if the author realised he had an interesting human story developing and wanted to kill it before it got in the way of another few paragraphs about rigging.

The blurb on the back of my copy includes a tribute from [a:Amanda Foreman|183491|Amanda Foreman|], which is worth quoting because it describes what a book such as this should do but utterly fails to do:
His novels … embody the cruelty of battle, the comedy of men's lives, the uncertain fears that plague their lives; and yet, not far away, is the vision of an ideal existence.

This is staggering, because O'Brian deliberately fails to do any of these things. Had he bothered with them, then Master & Commander would have been a brilliant novel. Instead, it's frustratingly half-baked.

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