Mike's Reviews

I'm a refugee from the doomed Shelfari who didn't like the look of Goodreads. I now use Leafmarks to keep track of all my reading data, and BookLikes to host my reviews.

 

It may take a while for me to upload all my reviews.

 

Leafmarks profile at: http://www.leafmarks.com/MikeF

Last.fm music profile at: http://www.last.fm/user/UberWeiner

'Redshirts' by John Scalzi (2012)

Redshirts - John Scalzi

John Scalzi, Redshirts (London: Gollancz, 2013), 309pp

 

A fantastically funny story which was exactly as I hoped it would be. John Scalzi tears into the 'redshirts' trope with glee but also with affection; this is one of those rare books that had me with a permanent grin etched on my face throughout. It is very funny, and will appeal to anyone who has ever watched a film or TV show and noticed that the anonymous red-shirted extra always gets killed whilst the hero survives, that the stormtroopers never seem to be able to shoot straight, that the characters spout dialogue that is completely inorganic and seems only to exist to drive the plot forward; above all, that there are innumerable plot holes and faulty logic at play.

It is very quick and easy to read, well-paced and never indulgent or overly self-referential. In a rather peculiar way, it reminded me a bit of an Elmore Leonard novel: very dialogue- and plot-driven and not boring the reader with oodles of descriptive writing. Scalzi also respects his readers; he doesn't try to shoehorn a romantic arc in with Dahl and Maia as I had feared he would, and the book also has a lot of heart, particularly where Jenkins' wife and Nick the bartender are concerned.

People may be worried about the complexity of the meta angle, but have no fears. Scalzi deals with this quite ably - his clarity is helped by the fact that, as mentioned above, the book is primarily dialogue-driven. The three codas are not as bad as some other reviewers have suggested; I was dreading reaching the end as I thought they would ruin the book, but I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, the novel might have been better if it had ended before then, leaving the focus on the redshirts, but they fit in well with the overall story and they didn't detract from my enjoyment of the previous two-hundred or so pages.

Overall, Redshirts is a well-crafted book and exactly the sort of thing that appeals to me. It's not for everyone, but if you're looking at it and think it sounds interesting then I think you'll like it. I would say it's great for people who like TVTropes.org and watch Community, people who liked the affectionate sci-fi geekiness of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One and the meta-comedy of David Wong's two John Dies at the End books. I wouldn't go so far as to put it on quite the same level as those three books, but it holds a similar place in my heart.

'Waiting Room' by V. M. Zito (2013)

Waiting Room: A Return Man Short Story - V. M. Zito

V. M. Zito, Waiting Room: A Return Man Short Story (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013), 13pp [electronic copy]

 

A bit disappointing, especially when considering how great Border Crossing, the other short story tied in to V. M. Zito's Return Man novel, was. Whereas Border Crossing was a self-contained story with a strong build-up and a neat finish, Waiting Room is just a by-the-numbers snapshot of how Marco goes about 'returning' zombies. It is very short (even by short story standards) and doesn't seem to have much to say - I can't fathom why the author even bothered with it. It does provide a decent taster of Zito's writing style, but I can't really recommend it.

'Narziss and Goldmund' by Hermann Hesse (1930)

Narcissus and Goldmund - Hermann Hesse, Ursule Molinaro

Hermann Hesse, Narziss and Goldmund (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1987), 301pp. Translated by Geoffrey Dunlop.

 

Having loved Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, I picked up Narziss and Goldmund with great confidence. I had read it described as his most accessible work, the one easiest to read and with the most universal message. Unfortunately, none of those turned out to be true for me. Whilst it had quite a few good lines, it was, in my opinion, unnecessarily slow and its central philosophical message rather muddled. There are some brief flashes of inspiration regarding the dichotomy between the spiritual and the rational, between the man and the woman, the mother and father, and so on, but unlike Siddhartha, these concepts are not made easier to grasp by being rendered in novel form.

Hesse holds that the world is "built on opposites, on division. Man or woman, vagabond or citizen, lover or thinker - no breath could be both in and out, none could be man and wife, free and yet orderly, knowing the urge of life and the joy of intellect. Always the one paid for the other, though each was equally precious and essential." He seems to maintain that our lives only have meaning "if both these goods could be achieved, and life herself had not been cleft by the barren division of alternatives." (both quotes from page 238). In other words, it is only through unification, rather than pursuing one single road (i.e. a life of intellect, or a life of passion) that one finds fulfilment. There is a nice conflict going on within Goldmund throughout the novel as he tries to align the two within himself, and a similar conflict to a lesser extent with Narziss. Indeed, it is Narziss who, towards the end of the book, muses: "Were men really made to live an ordered life, its virtues and duties set to the ringing of a bell?... Had not God made man with lusts and pride in him, with blood and darkness in his heart, with the freedom to sin, love and despair?" (pg. 287).

Hesse seems to advocate a sort of spiritual compromise, wherein people can pursue one road (i.e. a life of passion, for Goldmund) as long as they perceive and appreciate in others evidence of another road (i.e. intellect, in Narziss). "It is not our task to come together," Narziss says, "as little as it would be the task of sun and moon, of sea and land... Our destiny is not to become one. It is to behold each other for what we are, each perceiving and honouring it in his opposite; each finding his fulfilment and completion." (pp 43-44). Yet Hesse seems to undermine this theme of unification with Goldmund's final words of the book, wherein he asserts that Narziss, who has dedicated himself to a life of learning, is incomplete because he is beholden only to the father and "knows no mother", even though Narziss recognises and values that quality in Goldmund. As I say, it seems a very muddled philosophy Hesse is presenting, and I finished the book feeling rather dissatisfied.

Indeed, this dissatisfaction was enhanced by the negative reaction I had to the character of Goldmund. Arrogant, conceited and disparaging towards women, Goldmund is one of the most unlikeable protagonists I have ever encountered. A large chunk of the book consists of Goldmund on his vagabond travels, sleeping with many women (who often inexplicably fall into bed with him at the drop of a hat); usually these women are the wife or daughter of the man whose hospitality, shelter and food he is enjoying. He frequently speaks of "mastering" these "wenches", including shamelessly trying to court a grieving Jewish girl whose father has just been murdered and burned by an angry mob. He sees only beautiful women as his "equals" (he has no time for one woman, Maria, as she is rather plain and has a limp, even though she is consistently kind to him) and whenever he continues on his travels, he never feels the need to say goodbye to any of them ("It was not worth the trouble of taking seriously, so he said farewell to none but his landlord." (pg. 184)). It is hinted at early in the book that some of these women are beaten by their husbands for straying, though Goldmund is unmoved by this. Despite this behaviour, we are clearly intended by the author to see Goldmund as devoted, in his way, to all these women - "truer than the best of husbands" (pg. 289) - as after all he is searching for the spiritual "mother" to complement the "father". We are supposed to see him as this thoughtful, spiritual seeker of life's truths. But, in trying to find out the meaning of his life, he shamelessly wrecks many others' lives in his wake, particularly those women. In the end I didn't really give a shit about his selfish spiritual fulfilment.

With the preceding paragraph you may think I'm missing the point; criticising the characters of what is essentially a philosophical treatise in novel form, but it was all rather unpleasant for me and so I could not fully engage with the philosophising. Even when I could, though occasionally agreeable, I did not think the philosophical message was coherent or interesting enough to warrant the effort the book required me to put in. I'll continue to read Hesse's books, as I still remember how much I loved Siddhartha, but I'll be much less confident next time around.

'Border Crossing' by V. M. Zito (2012)

Border Crossing: A Return Man Short Story - V.M. Zito

V. M. Zito, Border Crossing: A Return Man Short Story (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2012), 32pp [electronic copy]

 

I must confess to being a little sceptical about this short story. Although I loved The Return Man, V. M. Zito's first novel, I have never really been all that convinced by the short story format. But Border Crossing, set just before the events of The Return Man, is excellent. The writing style is just as engaging as in Zito's novel, with some neat turns of phrase, particularly when explaining Wu's preference for knives over guns (knives, for Wu, are "beautiful, even poetic - a renewed connection to the predator's instinct and the ancestral claws that evolution had long ago subtracted from the human form."). There are also some excellent references to the story of Orpheus' encounter with Cerberus in Greek mythology which, in my opinion, elevate Border Crossing from a four-star to a five-star story.

'Jericho: Season 3' by Dan Shotz et al. (2013)

Jericho: Season Three Civil War - Robert Levine, Jason M. Burns, Matt Merhoff, Dan Shotz, Alejandro F. Giraldo

Dan Shotz, Robert Levine, Matthew Federman and Jason M. Burns, Jericho: Season 3 – Civil War (San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2013), 140pp

 

An adequate continuation of the Jericho television series, which was cancelled in 2008 after two seasons. It is not on a par with those seasons, but is a nice, brief insight into how it might have progressed. Unfortunately, the comic book medium is a much more inferior medium in which to present the Jericho story, lacking depth and nuance. This is particularly notable in the clumsy decisions of some of the characters, particularly Dale. And why would Hawkins' daughter join the ASA aid workers in Mississippi, other than to inject a bit of oomph into Hawkins' story arc? A tie-in novel would have been preferable, and not all that difficult to do. However, even this unfortunate choice does not excuse the odd plot-hole. Why, for example, would Texas - knowing what it now knows, and having shot down two of their fighter jets in the Season Two finale - not be alert to a possible military attack from the Allied States? The ASA even call it Operation Reprisal, for Chrissake! Although I loved the TV show, I acknowledge it had its flaws too. I still welcome any continuation of the Jericho story, but this could - nay, should - have been much, much better.

'William Shakespeare's Star Wars Educator's Guide' by Ian Doescher (2013)

Ian Doescher, William Shakespeare's Star Wars Educator's Guide (Philadelphia, PA: Quirk Books, 2013), 19pp [electronic copy]

 

A welcome companion piece to Ian Doescher's Shakespeare/Star Wars mash-up (it's available for free here), in which the author introduces us to the common elements that the two share. He talks about the structure of Shakespeare's plays in a clear way that should appeal to beginners. His passion for the Bard is rather infectious; in fact, I wish this was longer.

'William Shakespeare's Star Wars' by Ian Doescher (2013)

William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope - Ian Doescher

Ian Doescher, William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope (Philadelphia, PA: Quirk Books, 2013), 174pp

 

This book had me feeling giddy throughout. I read it with a constant smile on my face, loving it even more than I thought I would. But don't think that William Shakespeare's Star Wars is just another mash-up, which are all the rage at the moment with the likes of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This isn't a tired facsimile of the Star Wars script with the odd 'forsooth' or 'alas' thrown in - it is a genuinely clever and affectionate homage to both the works of William Shakespeare and to Star Wars, rendered in an authentic, flowing iambic pentameter that does the legacies of both the Bard and George Lucas proud.

You see, the advantage William Shakespeare's Star Wars has over other mash-ups is that, as writer Ian Doescher ably demonstrates in his Afterword with reference to Joseph Campbell, the two fall within the same populist story-telling tradition. Doescher identifies the common elements, of which there are many, and brings them together in perfect harmony. The heady Shakespearean prose lends itself well to Lucas' iconic dialogue, succeeding in etching a gigantic and immovable grin on my face. Doescher also adds his own ideas which makes it very much his own work. The Star Wars characters now have their own delightful Shakespearean inner monologues (think Hamlet's "The play's the thing/Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."), with R2-D2's being particularly interesting. He also handles the action scenes well without breaking the immersion in this Elizabethan simulation.

I have no doubt Star Wars nerds will relish it all, as I did. Aside from the cleverly re-imagined dialogue and the dignity of Shakespearean tragedy given to the characters (perhaps Sir Alec Guinness, who played Obi-Wan Kenobi, might have revised his opinions on the "banal lines" and "mumbo-jumbo" if Doescher had been around to demonstrate their true depth), Doescher also amusingly addresses fan sticking-points such as whether Han shot Greedo first and foreshadows the later Luke/Leia relationship reveal on page 33. There's also a highly amusing lampshading of the dumb, faceless mook trope on pp102-4, as two Imperial Stormtroopers question the wisdom of their superiors. And has there ever been a better description of Han Solo's beloved Millennium Falcon than as "a rough-hewn wayward scut" (pg. 82)? There's also a number of hidden gems for the Bard's fans; I noticed references to As You Like It (pg. 39), Macbeth (pp12, 95), Hamlet (pg. 124), Richard III (pg. 143) and numerous references to Henry V and Julius Caesar in Luke's rather badass final battle speeches à la the "band of brothers" (well, that wasn't in the original!). And I'm not even much of a Shakespeare aficionado; no doubt there are more that I missed.

There will be some who won't give this a chance; those who don't like Star Wars, perhaps (who are you people?) or those who have had an aversion to Shakespeare since high school. But those people are missing out on this amazingly well-executed and loving homage. If you are in two minds, then screw your courage to the sticking-place and give it a try. Like me, you'll be counting the days until the second book, The Empire Striketh Back. And for those of you worried about whether you'll be able to untangle the Shakespearean prose, rest assured that it flows very well. Consider, finally, the following passage which re-imagines the famous "let the Wookiee win" scene, after Chewbacca is frustrated at a move R2-D2 has made in a game of chess:

HAN
- Be thou wise, droid, mark well what
thou dost.
As it is said: black holes are worth thy fear,
But fear thou more a Wookiee's deadly wrath.
C-3PO
But Sir, no proverb warns the galaxy
Of how a droid may hotly anger'd be.
HAN
Aye, marry, 'tis because no droid hath e'er
Torn out of joint another being's arms
Upon a lesser insult e'en than this -
But Wookiees, golden droid, are not so tame.
C-3PO
Thy meaning, Sir, doth prick my circuit board.
'Tis best to play the fool, and not the sage,
To say it brief: pray let the Wookiee win.

'Zone One' by Colson Whitehead (2011)

Zone One - Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead, Zone One (London: Vintage Books, 2012), 259pp

 

Zone One is a very good novel; I think the reason it has not been well-received by ordinary readers is because the zombie plotline is rather straightforward. This plot is well-developed, but nothing special. But the reason the book is very good is its efficacy as satire. The zombies, you see, are rather incidental; if you read it not as a zombie story but as a social critique you will enjoy it much more.

It does take a while to get going, as Colson Whitehead seems to be the sort of writer who favours saying fifty words when just ten would suffice. It's very wordy, and sometimes you're half-way through a paragraph before you realise he's talking about a past event in flashback rather than the present narrative. Whitehead goes off on a lot of tangents, so that even though the story ostensibly takes place over three days it takes a long time to get there and the book as a whole seems a lot longer than its 250 or so pages.

But, if you are a tolerant and open-minded reader, you should find Zone One to be a very agreeable book. Though wordy, Whitehead does occasionally throw in a good nugget of lyricism. In one of my favourite examples, describing a mob of zombies staggering aimlessly down a road, he notes "the compasses in their veins quivering at no true north save the next square in front of them." (pg. 122). In another example describing a zombie's decrepitude, he begins: "She was around Mark Spitz's [the protagonist] age. not yet thirty when the plague dropped her in its amber..." (pg. 224). Occasionally, this lyricism does get out of hand. Early on, describing an office, he mentions how "The surfaces of the desks were thick and transparent, hacked out of plastic and elevating the curvilinear monitors and keyboards in dioramas of productivity. The empty ergonomic chairs posed like amiable spiders, whispering a multiplicity of comfort and lumbar massage." (pp11-12). But, for the most part, the prose is unobstructive, and it does seem to become less overwrought as the story unfolds.

Overall, my suggestion would be not to view it as a zombie novel; or rather, to view it as a zombie novel but staying mindful of the caveat that this is not its main focus. It's not about blowing zombies' brains out, or even about survival in a post-apocalyptic world. It's about using the end of the world trope as a black mirror for reflecting on our contemporary Western world. The book's targets, in its raison d'être as a social satire, are wide-ranging and the vast majority hit the mark, though hard to classify in a review. Even the plotline improves towards the middle and end. There is some foreshadowing of what is going to happen, a general atmosphere of impending doom (or, as Whitehead phrases it, "a disquieting under-tremor to every movement and sound." (pg. 192)). It is a rather clever book, and I think some readers are just so disappointed that it wasn't the page-turning zombie thriller they were hoping for that they overlooked its merits. While not exceptional, it cleverly uses a post-apocalyptic scenario to make us think about the current state of our existence and where we are headed: our society, our motivations, our humanity. It asks the question: if this world were to end, would we have it in us to respond and rebuild? Like all good satire, it doesn't answer the question - rather it expertly crafts the question and lets an enterprising reader make up their own mind. Mark Spitz put it at even money (pg. 139). What about you?

'Adolf in Wonderland' by Carlton Mellick III (2007)

Adolf in Wonderland - Carlton Mellick III

Carlton Mellick III, Adolf in Wonderland (Portland, OR: Eraserhead Press, 2007), 166pp

 

Adolf in Wonderland is a haphazard mix of Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka with a tangible Philip K. Dick influence and a little (just a little) dash of Monty Python. Actually, that makes it sound awesome, which is a state of being it approaches at times, but it is very uneven, a bit hit-and-miss. The dichotomy between the efficiency and 'perfection' of the Nazi master race and the chaos and imperfection of Wonderland drives the story nicely, and the book has its moments of humour, most notably the times when the amnesiac protagonist is trying to decipher his Nazi uniform in order to figure out his name. In my opinion, the moral of the story revealed at the end was interesting, but only just interesting enough to warrant the effort put in. It only just scraped through for me - I guess I just thought the execution would be a bit more assured, the ending a bit more profound. It's worth a look if you are intrigued by it (or by the title, as I was) and it is short and easy to read, so if you don't like it you won't have wasted much time on it. But this rabbit-hole doesn't go very deep.

'The Last Night of the Earth Poems' by Charles Bukowski (1992)

The Last Night of the Earth Poems - Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski, The Last Night of the Earth Poems (New York: Ecco, 2002), 405pp

 

A great collection of Charles Bukowski's poetry containing some of his best-known poems, including 'The Bluebird', 'Dinosauria, We' and 'Nirvana'. The collection has a certain melancholy about it, yet it is a melancholy mixed with hope, in line with the other stuff he wrote in his twilight years. He is at his best when describing the atmosphere and quiet dignity of bars and cafés and other non-descript rooms, in poems such as 'Bonaparte's Retreat', 'Last Seat at the End' and the afore-mentioned 'Nirvana'.

The thing with Bukowski is that he's always been an honest writer, and now when writing in his old age it is quite affecting. He is looking back on his life honestly, assessing his mistakes as well as his successes, and there is a simple dignity in this. This honesty is powerful to behold and quite bittersweet, most notably in 'The Bluebird' and 'Spark'. Bukowski is also a decidedly more likeable and sympathetic person in these later poems than in the novels that made his name. I think you need to delve into both his poetry and his prose to fully appreciate his character, but he allows an unrepentant sentimentality to come through in his poetry that he often suppressed in his somewhat muscular and hard-living prose. In this respect, 'The Bluebird' is the most eloquent and fascinating testament to this conflict within the man. It is rare to find a writer so open, and consequently Bukowski is one to cherish.

Personal favourites include: 'Begging', 'Air and Light and Time and Space', 'Car Wash', 'The Bluebird', 'Confession', 'Spark', 'The Science of Physiognomy', 'We Ain't Got No Money, Honey, But We Got Rain' (which reminds me of something Nick Cave might write), 'Bonaparte's Retreat', 'Dinosauria, We', 'Last Seat at the End', 'Charles the Lion-Hearted' and 'Nirvana' (which has been covered by Tom Waits).

'The Moaning of Life' by Karl Pilkington (2013)

The Moaning of Life: The Worldly Wisdom of Karl Pilkington - Karl Pilkington

Karl Pilkington, The Moaning of Life: The Worldly Wisdom of Karl Pilkington (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2013), 358pp

 

"Yes, I'm sure there can be plenty of nice moments when you have a child, but there's another side to everything. Hearing a baby laugh might be a lovely thing, but if I was woken up in the middle of the night by my baby laughing to itself, it would bloody terrify me." (pg. 131).

Another great offering from Karl Pilkington, who is as hilarious and absorbing as ever. Initially, I was worried that the material wouldn't be fresh as I have seen the television series that complements the book (or rather, the book complements the show). But the book was great, going into a bit more depth than the show was able to, and even the bits I knew were still funny.

I also think Karl might be getting smarter, or at least more eloquent in presenting his ideas to his readers/listeners/viewers. He writes well; the book is a breeze and a joy to read. It is also very well-presented, with illustrations that complement the text. The section on 'Happiness' is particularly good, demonstrating Karl's greater open-mindedness and self-awareness whilst still remaining extremely funny. He also seems to be able to quickly strike up a rapport with the people he meets, and comes across as a thoroughly likeable bloke. He's also always trying to save various animals, whether it is the goat in Mexico or Tony the turtle in Japan. If you're a Karl fan, you'll love it, and if you're not (yet), this is as good a place as any to start, aside from the TV show itself.

'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad (1899)

Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary (London: Penguin Classics, 2007), 136pp

 

An engrossing novella which unfortunately is almost as impenetrable as the Congo wilderness in which it is mostly set. There is much material addressing the book's twin themes of imperialism and the darkness in the human soul, but this material is distributed scattergun throughout the prose, so one can only get a handle on what Conrad is trying to say once one has finished the book and thought about it at length. Even now, I don't feel inclined to sift through the many tangents that Conrad explores, and I am exhausted by even the contemplation of it. The two major themes are interesting to ponder along with Marlow, the protagonist, but there's already a wealth of material out there if you want to discuss the themes in Heart of Darkness. However, I will say that the little vignettes depicting the futility of certain acts - the French warship firing aimlessly into the bush, the cliff blasted beside the railway, the vast hole dug purposelessly on a slope (pp16-18) - immediately make it clear why Heart of Darkness was seen as suitable material for adaptation into the Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now, whilst also providing commentary on man's struggle to confront his mortality and enact real change in the world; in fact, he is merely screaming into the void.

Conrad deploys a deeply lyrical prose, and his descriptions of the Congo river - this "immense snake uncoiled... its tail lost in the depths of the land" (pg. 9) - and the oppressively dark African wilderness are especially evocative and atmospheric. You really do get a sense for the horrors that Marlow witnesses, and the madness he experiences. I also liked the parts set in London, where Conrad invokes the Romans; conquerors who saw Britain as the end of the world, a dark place, just as the imperialists of Marlow's time saw Africa in general and the Congo in particular. Conrad's decision to bookend the novella with scenes set on the River Thames - providing a clever juxtaposition to the river in the Congo - was also a nice touch.

Overall, Heart of Darkness, despite its short length, carries a hefty weight, not only in the clamour to academically scrutinise its themes but also in the hefty toll it exacts from its reader. It is worth a read, but those who wish to journey on this river would do well to heed the advice Marlow is given on page 45. On a scribbled note atop a stack of firewood, by a remote hut some fifty miles from Kurtz's location, he is told: "Approach cautiously."

'Poems and Songs' by Leonard Cohen (2011)

Leonard Cohen: Poems and Songs - Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, with Robert Faggen (ed.), Poems and Songs (New York: Everyman's Library, 2011), 249pp

 

A very strong selection of Leonard Cohen's poetry, and certainly the best-presented. Whilst Stranger Music is the most comprehensive anthology I have yet read, I thought its presentation was a tad impersonal. But this Everyman's Library Pocket Poets collection has a delicacy and a majesty to its production that complements the sensuality of Cohen's work. However, unlike Stranger Music, this book does not make any effort to tell the reader when a certain poem or song was written (though, to my mind, it seemed roughly chronological). That said, there are no obvious omissions with regards to the material; this is a great book whether for new fans looking for an introduction to his work or for existing fans looking to revisit some of his best stuff.

'The Complete Lyrics' by Nick Cave (2013)

The Complete Lyrics 1978-2013 - Nick Cave

Nick Cave, The Complete Lyrics 1978-2013 (London: Penguin Books, 2013), updated edition, 529pp

 

A great collection which makes a mostly-successful attempt to recreate the power of Nick Cave's songs on paper. Cave is a exceptional poet and lyricist, and this shows in a lot of the songs included here (including some killer lines that you might have missed when listening to them). However, to a greater extent than, say, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, and more in line with Tom Waits, Cave's songwriting ability has always relied on the lyrics' harmony with the music (not to mention the interpretation inherent in the vocal performances). Consequently, some of the songs don't work when divorced from their musical accompaniment, especially the earlier ones when Cave was a less consistent writer.

These earlier songs aren't presented well, with repeated lines and a misguided attempt to render Cave's manic vocal inflections on the page. In addition, the songs from 2008's Dig, Lazarus, Dig! are also presented strangely, with a mass of exclamation marks and lines rendered in full capitals. In this latter section, words are also abbreviated in weird ways; 'you', for example, is rendered as 'y/', 'your' as 'yr', 'hand' as 'h&', 'with' as 'w/' and 'et cetera' as '&tc'. The lyrics in this section consequently become rather impenetrable, ruining a good set of songs, including my favourite, 'More News from Nowhere'. Thankfully, it is only this one album which is affected; others, particularly the songs from The Boatman's Call and No More Shall We Part, are elegant on the page.

Will Self's introduction didn't really do much for me, though he does make a decent argument about the decline of poetry as a popular art form and its usurpation by singer-songwriters. ("Whatever need we have for the esemplastic unities of sound, meaning and rhythm that were traditionally supplied by spoken verse, we now find, amply, in sung lyrics." (pg. x)). But Cave's own 'The Secret Life of the Love Song' lecture is exceptional, and worth the price of admission alone. Not only is it a thought-provoking piece (and a rare example of an artist talking fluently about his own inspiration and muse), but it also provides a useful framework in which to view the lyrics that follow in the rest of the book.

'Stoner' by John Williams (1965)

Stoner - John Edward Williams

John Williams, Stoner (London: Vintage Books, 2012), 288pp

 

I find it a bit difficult to collect my thoughts on this novel, because it seems my opinions differ hugely from the vast majority of other readers. Stoner, originally written in 1965 by John Williams, has become a universally-acclaimed success in 2013 but, for the life of me, I can't see why. [Note: This review contains spoilers, but in my opinion the plot is not really all that important.]

It's not that I found it boring - I didn't. Sure, not much happens, but it is well-written and I was open-minded enough to give it a chance. If you were just to read the synopsis, you would think it was the most excruciatingly dull book ever written, but Williams does manage to breathe some life into it. Whilst not exciting, it is at least somewhat engrossing. The problem is the characters, towards all of whom I experienced a negative reaction. All the characters seem emotionally repressed, which gives the reader a peculiar constipated feeling throughout. This is not helped by the fact that the third-person narrative is also rather formal and addresses the protagonist by his surname rather than his first name, reinforcing the emotional distance evident in Stoner's world. The reader is always made to feel like an outside observer, rather than someone immersed in Stoner's world. For example, too often we are just told what a character is feeling, rather than being shown, rather than being allowed to reason it out for ourselves. The oppressiveness and rigidity is such that when Stoner begins an affair with Katherine, it reminded me a little bit of the love affair between Winston and Julia in the totalitarian regime of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, only Orwell's dystopian world was less bleak.

Some apologists for this book have countered that if the characters bring a reaction from the reader, whether positive or negative, then that is the sign of a good book. But that's rubbish - the reason I didn't like the characters was because their motivations were baffling and irrational. Williams is gifted enough as an author to sketch out these characters so we invest in them, but then he has them do stupidly inexplicable things. What is the deal with Lomax and Walker, who go out of their way to fuck with Stoner for no reason, imagining that he has wronged them somehow (I re-read through dozens of scenes to try to figure out what these slights might be, but I'm at a loss). Why is Katherine, a young, beautiful, intelligent student, even interested in Stoner, this dour, unattractive, much older man? Even more frustratingly, why is Edith, Stoner's wife, such a bitch? (As with Lomax and Walker, I can't find any stage at which Stoner slighted her.) I won't even begin to chronicle her various irrational actions (as it would mean this review would at least double in size) but the point I'm trying to make is: the problem is not that she is a bitch, but that it's inexplicable why she is. It's baffling and frustrating to read about these characters; at times I just wanted to throw the book out the window.

And Stoner, the titular character, is the worst. The author seems to mistake stoicism for passivity, resulting in this mopey sod for a protagonist, a "man" who is screwed over at every stage of his life and bullied at both work and at home without lifting a single finger to change his lot in life. There's always something depressingly pathetic about a grown man being bullied, but the problem here is that he accepts it all with a shrug. Edith marries Stoner even though she makes no pretence to even like him, and after their wedding night he sleeps on the sofa for the rest of his life. She kicks him out of his home office with no warning, so he goes along amiably and sets up in another, much smaller, room. He finally finds true love in an affair with Katherine, but when it is discovered he makes no attempt to keep her. Most unforgivably, Edith systematically abuses their young, gentle and intelligent daughter Grace so that she grows up to be seriously messed up. "Popular" (ahem) with all the boys at school, Grace becomes a depressed alcoholic and a single mother who abandons her own child. And what does Stoner, her father, do? Fuck all. Like everything else, he accepts it with a shrug. Edith is a bad mother, to be sure, but Stoner is just as bad as a father as he acquiesces in the abuse when he should be protecting her. This is the character the author, and the vast majority of reviewers, it seems, label as a 'hero'.

This 'hero' label particularly annoys me, as we're supposed to believe that there is dignity and valour in living this stoic, unassuming life (though, as I've intimated, it's not so much stoicism as passivity) - that Stoner is a hero because he accepted his lot. He is happy with his job immersing himself in literature and is thankful for the very few, very brief moments of happiness he has in his 60+ year lifespan. In an interview quoted in the introduction, the author has explicitly stated that Stoner is 'a witness to the values that are important'. What, like child abuse? Letting people walk all over him, destroy his career, drive Katherine away, with only a sigh and a shrug of the shoulders as a response? Letting Edith abuse their daughter so that she grows up to be an alcoholic, knocked up and left with a war baby by a man she didn't even like, one of many boys she admits to being 'popular' with? Letting all this happen just because you enjoyed "the moment" is selfish and despicable.

A lot of people have touched on this "stoicism", and paid tribute to Williams' book as an uplifting paean to the human spirit. In fact, it's nihilistic. The author seems to revel in the fact that 'life is hard, then you die', with all efforts at improvement being futile. Using a farming analogy on page 110 he notes the circle of life, "the cost exacted, year after year, by the soil; and it remained as it had been - a little more barren, perhaps, a little more frugal of increase." For him, life is "expended in cheerless labour", a phrase which concisely describes my attempts to get through this book. The Stoner character takes "a grim and ironic pleasure" that all the knowledge he acquired in his life led him to realise "that in the long run all things... were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter." (pg. 184). Stoner admits at the end that he didn't even want things to be better, and is unmoved when he realises his now-grown-up daughter is "utterly without hope" (pg. 258) and is even happy that she uses alcoholism as a crutch (pg. 257). Stoicism as a philosophy is meant as a way of allowing for emotional freedom and integrity, not an excuse to repress emotion and take glee in failure and hardship. And Williams does seem to take glee in heaping misfortune onto his characters; I believe the only reason we are shown Grace as a gentle, adorable child is to make it harder to witness what Stoner and Edith allow her to become. When Stoner gets cancer, I had to laugh at the predictability of Williams' morosity.

I know I've gone on a bit of a rant here; if you like it, fine. Strange, but fine. But don't feel as though you have to like it just because everyone else seems to. It's the sort of book that doesn't have a lot to say but is presented in such a way as to trick people into over-intellectualising it. It certainly doesn't deserve all the hype. I still plan on reading more of Williams - Butcher's Crossing seems more like my cup of tea. I've heard it said that Butcher's Crossing reads like it was written by a completely different writer. Let's hope so. It wasn't that I didn't get this book, just that it wasn't very good. Many people seem to be making the mistake of equating its nihilism with gravitas. If Stoner can't be arsed with his life, why should we?

'Factotum' by Charles Bukowski (1975)

Factotum - Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski, Factotum (London: Virgin Books, 2009), 163pp

 

"I always started a job with the feeling that I'd soon quit or be fired, and this gave me a relaxed manner that was mistaken for intelligence or some secret power." (pp99-100).

Less focused than either Post Office or Ham on Rye, Factotum is nevertheless the one novel where Charles Bukowski most clearly sets out his philosophy on working life - the reasons why Chinaski behaves the way he does. A 'factotum' is a somewhat archaic term meaning someone who does any sort of work - a jack-of-all-trades, just trying to make ends meet. In chronicling some of his various encounters as a factotum - Henry Chinaski being a transparent pseudonym for Bukowski himself - he illustrates just why he has a problem with the routine of life. In my view, he sees it as a sort of spiritual slavery (though Bukowski is never that mushy) where a job becomes all-consuming, detracting from the more important things in life. As he says on page 97, "How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?"

There is a persistent theme of human beings not being in sync with one another and this is reflected in the somewhat disconnected, non-linear narrative; the book is essentially a series of vignettes involving characters (rich characters, even though they are brief) struggling to establish relationships with one another, whether working relationships, friendships or even just mechanical sexual relationships. Chinaski alludes to this lack of synchronicity in an admittedly rather sketchy car-based metaphor on page 91: "The sun was tired, and some of the cars went east and some of the cars went west, and it dawned on me that if everybody would only drive in the same direction everything would be solved."

But Factotum is no spiritual treatise; Bukowski doesn't have (nor does he claim to have) the answers. "Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed. So I stayed in bed and drank. When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn't have you by the throat." (pg. 46). Rather, Bukowski is an appalled observer, a reluctant but diligent chronicler of the darker side of human society. Alcohol and casual sex are his defence mechanisms rather than his solutions. This outlook might be a problem for some readers, but Chinaski's excesses in both whiskey and women are not oppressive. He skirts with apathy but does not embrace it, and the book is peppered with humour. Most importantly, there are suggestions of hope, of a spiritual resolve and a desire for a better future, throughout the book (the car metaphor noted above, for example) and indeed in Bukowski's other writings (particularly his later poetry). It is precisely this dichotomy between a dirty life and a clean(-ish) mind which makes Bukowski's work so interesting to read, though unfortunately there seem to be many people out there who fail to recognise these qualities. While Bukowski is certainly not a blueprint for how to live your life, there is a certain quality about his outlook which one can adapt to your own life. Take, for example, the following passage about the routine at a bicycle warehouse:

"Bums and indolents, all of us working there realized our days were numbered. So we relaxed and waited for them to find out how inept we were. Meanwhile, we lived with the system, gave them a few honest hours, and drank together at night." (pp64-5).

Leaving aside the alcoholism and the attitude towards work, this is quite a remarkable passage if one looks at it as a microcosm of life. We are all flawed people (bums and indolents), destined to work and then to die (our days were numbered). So why not relax and wait... accept the system, give as good as you get (a few honest hours) and celebrate and enjoy yourself when you can (drank together at night). Looked at this way (call 'bullshit' if you want), Factotum becomes a much more exhilarating piece of prose.