27 January, 2010

Next Up...

The Life of Greece


Will Durant

The problem is, i feel completely inadequate to write anything about this work; it has so much history to it (sorry about the pun), so much approval for the series, so much scholarship, that i cannot truly make a judgement of its value. On the other hand, in each of these reviews i try merely to give my own response to the books i read; that i am competent to do.

So, my response is...? I like the book (there’s a tentative quality to my voice, can you catch it?), for the most part. I’m not even sure i can put my finger on anything specifically that i question; perhaps it is simply the history of the book ~ i ought to like it, so much, so many times have i read about it, seen it held up as a classic. Maybe i just don’t like having something pushed down my throat ~ in which case the question arises: Why did i bother to read it? A more interesting question is, Will i, now or later, find another of Durant’s series and read that? I think so, yes; later. So, from that perspective, i must have enjoyed Greece. Some things I might have enjoyed a little more (better reproductions of more artworks), but overall, yes, i did enjoy it.

I am fascinated ~ have been for years ~ with the origins of peoples, especially those of the eastern Mediterranean; Durant has some excellent information there ~ of course, it is seventy years old; i wonder what scholarship has changed since then? At the very least, i know, Linear B has been deciphered, so that’s a new line of information to follow. Perhaps i shall find another, more recent, book i can pursue it in; another measure of success for Greece! In the end, then, the tentative tone must leave my voice as i reiterate, i enjoyed reading Durant.

24 January, 2010

Next Review

How Now Shall We Live?

Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey

Fascinating explanation of how the Christian world has closed in on itself, partially to protect itself, and left definitions and understandings of religion, world-views, origins, beliefs to the "scientific" (that brought to full flourishing by the Enlightenment) world. Colson (he of Nixon's White House) has written to proclaim the necessity for Christians to reclaim a part of the defining of life. One of his biggest issues, as with so many conservative Christians, is a concern with the evolution/creation debate (a debate which is scarcely given the dignity of that name by the rationalist side) and the consequences (all negative) for Christians of ceding the terms to the rationalists. Colson and Pearcey's solution is to fully engage the world, refusing the allow it to set the agenda and bases of the world-view; instead they insist that Christians must understand that Christianity is not an overlay but an entire way of looking at the world, at culture, at life. Only in this way can we be complete Christians, rather than rationalists who have an extra belief.

19 January, 2010

The Last Enchantment

Mary Stewart

Concludes Stewart’s trilogy of the story of Merlin. Well written, with characters you care about and a plot which can surprise you, though you know the story ever so well. Reinterprets parts of the story, to try and show how the legends could have arisen around a real person’s actions.

17 January, 2010

The Alchemist

The Alchemist


Paolo Coelho

Yes. Well. The thing is, i don't like books like this, books with a message that is the sole purpose of the book, books that are supposed to inspire the reader to action, books that say that it's better to take a leap into the unknown than to be stable and secure, books that aim to change the reader's behaviour and don't bother to disguise that fact. And yet, to a degree, i did enjoy this. It is written very simply, in the style of Saint Exubery's Little Prince; maybe that is some of the appeal. The story is simple: It is a retelling of the search for treasure which ends up back at home where the true treasure is. In my background the locations are East Anglia, London Bridge, and East Anglia again. Here, the protagonist starts in Spain, goes to the pyramids, and returns to his home church where a treasure awaits him. The scoop here is that he picks up much wisdom ~ and the reader is supposed to along with him ~ in the journeying. All right, but it is heavy-handed, as these books almost can't help being. Why not be blatant about it and admit you're writing a self-help book? Because those have a different market; and because these things sell ~ God knows why, but they do. This is supposed to be one of the most successful books of the last decade or two. It's OK. Perhaps i needed to hear its message at the time i read it. It is not, however, ever going to be one of my favourite books, or styles.

14 January, 2010

Latest Review

A Warrior's Life; A Biography of Paulo Coelho

by Fernando Morais

I should confess, in the interests of honesty, at the outset, i was prepared not to like this book. I have read only one of Coelho’s works, and i did not especially enjoy it (though i’ve not yet reread my review of it, to see exactly how i felt). I was not impressed, then, when on page four an egregious error such as calling Hungary a “part of the former Soviet Union” was made; i expected to be frustrated by reading a book which needed copy-editing properly. So, to continue with the honesty, i was pleased as i continued; there were not a lot more ridiculous errors, nor typos, nor other nonsenses the reader can do without. To be sure, there are points about the book i don’t like (more later on that), but the microlevel structure, to put it that way, was not one of them. What did i like?

Actually, i liked Morais’s writing style; he is very easy to read and, once i was able to devote a bit of time to it, i moved very quickly through the book. I found, as i have found previously, that the introduction of names is an awkward thing in biographies, as the choice seems to be either to overwhelm the reader with footnotes or reminders or to confuse him by hoping he remembers with no context a name introduced fifty pages previously; neither is a good choice, yet some biographers manage to make the process work. Not, i am afraid, Morais; i did not struggle as badly as i have in the past, but i was confused a couple of times as a name was mentioned without a reminder of who it represented ~ one time, especially, as the person was described as Coelho’s best friend on the flimsiest of evidence yet given. This complaint, however, is minor, when compared with the fine work that Morais has done on his authorised biography. There is much good here, evidence of a great deal of research : Eighty-plus people listed as interviewees, forty-odd years Coelho’s personal diary gone through in detail, over four hundred and fifty pages of text. All leading to quite a detailed biography.

The questions raised for me, though, are several variations on Why? Why is Coelho so successful? Why will the book be read? And why, oh why did Coelho allow this book to be written? To take them in order. Success as a writer was not overly quick in coming to Coelho, as told here. He was successful fairly early on in life as a lyricist for an outstandingly popular Brazilian singer, and wrote enough lyrics to keep himself and his partner of the day in sufficient luxury not to have to worry about the morrow. The immense success that he now enjoys, however, that he longed for from childhood, was much longer in arriving. While it has, it is purely a popular success; the critics almost universally despise Coelho and his writing, for a number of different reasons, from its quality to its content (and, one suspects, its very popularity). So why this popularity? The biography doesn’t enter into any real critique of Coelho’s writings, those since his popularity began in the late eighties, anyway, so it is perhaps outside the remit of this review; the closest Morais comes to giving a reason for the success is to report straight-faced that not long before that success began Coelho made a promise to a particular image of Jesus in Prague that, in return for huge popularity, he would give Jesus a new cape.

The premise of the first question answers the second: Why will the biography be read? Because the huge numbers of Coelho’s readers (over 100 million books sold throughout the world) will want to know more about their author, what makes him tick, how he writes what he does. Curiously, i think that many of them will be less than thrilled, because much more of Morais’ attention is given to Coelho’s presuccess than to any exploration of his writing technique or practice; indeed, when talking about the next book, at one point, Morais effectively just says, “He thought about it for a time, then sat down for a fortnight and wrote it all out”, which gives very little insight to the compulsive fan about methods. Perhaps this was done, as it is an authorised biography, with Coelho’s agreement, in order to maintain that air of mystery and mysticism which appears to be so important to him. Again, surprisingly little information is given about what must be the crux of the book, Coelho’s meeting with and training by a mysterious figure known as (but surely not called) Jean, Coelho’s spiritual master in Regnus Agnus Mundi, apparently an organisation within the Church of Rome (to which Coelho once again belongs) devoted to the individual’s journey towards truth. He is now, it seems, completely obedient to Jean, who at times makes varying demands upon him, demands requiring strict compliance, with the results we have seen.

Finally, i have to ask myself, why has Coelho allowed his biography to be written; more specifically, why is it this biography which, as mentioned above, is authorised? Because it does not present its subject in a flattering light. At all. The Coelho we meet in these pages is egotistical, a monomaniac about being a hugely successful writer, polygamous while apparently expecting monoandry from his women, mystical or spiritual without being careful about the source spirit ~ not a flattering portrait at all. We learn that he was three times put under treatment, including electroshock therapy, in what appears basically to have been an insane asylum, sent there by his parents, whom he was defying ~ to no greater degree than is to be expected from any teenager. We see that, even in the course of his mystical training in the work of RAM, he was faulted and held back by his enormous ego. And we are shown a picture, indeed, just about the first image we are given, of an author whose sole concern is with publicising himself and his books, for whom no amount of success is enough. I find this very odd in a biography written with the subject’s blessing. Maybe he is looking for some spiritual release in the permission for the dark side being shown. I don’t know. In the end, though, the important question is, Is this a book worth reading? And i am ambivalent, i’m afraid. I’m glad i read it, but i’m not sure that i’d pick up another by Morais and, for me, that latter is the single criterion upon which i decide i like a book.

And, finally, i ought to continue my opening honesty, and state that i have gone back and read the review of the one Coelho i have read, and i liked it more at the time than i remembered. Funny, maybe i should read another, and see if he’s better in the actual book than my recollection.

Obviously, this is not one of the series of reviews i am posting; rather it is the latest book i have received and read from the Librarything Early Reviewer programme.  And it is a review i have struggled over (it's taken four different sessions over the five days since i finished it), so i am a bit tentative in offering it up.  But i feel bound to. 

I think i shall also put up the review of the one book of Coelho's that i have read, in the interests of completeness, if nothing else!  Soon to follow...

11 January, 2010

Ann the Word

by Richard Francis

Quite an unusual story. I did not previously know much about Ann Lee, beyond the basics that she had established (not founded) the Shakers, and considered herself somehow equivalent to Jesus Christ. This book carries all the knowledge of her i could need ~ except, perhaps, the cause of her beliefs and knowledge. Ann herself would answer, quite plainly, that God had given them to her; such an answer does not, quite, suffice for Francis.

Born in Manchester, illiterate, fluid of name (her maiden name was actually Lees), a cutter of velvet then an institutional cook, Ann became the most remarkable religious leader in North America between the Great Awakening and Transcendentalism, not excluding Joseph Smith, Junior, who was charismatic, but not original. The account Francis gives here of the remarkable decade she spent in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut is almost unbelievable in that one person could effect so much in so many lives. Equally amazing are both the resistance she and the Shakers encountered, and the acceptance they found. Francis records several occasions in different locations in New England on which Ann was beaten or physically abused, and innumerable occasions on which the Shakers were subjected to mob attacks or threats. Remarkably, these did not slow down the growth of the group; indeed, they, like the blood of the martyrs, seem to have helped it grow by ensuring that everyone knew about the Shakers.

The Epilogue is interesting, if a little sad, as it shows Ann’s group floundering somewhat after her death, and then turning from her patterns of behaviour as they work out a permanent plan of survival. Never, though, did they turn from their understanding of Ann as the female counterpart to Jesus, and a woman who possessed in an abundant measure the power and presence of God. Francis has made that woman alive again for his readers, thus doing a great favour to us. 

09 January, 2010

Sleeping Murder

by Agatha Christie

Rather a well performed production here. It is a bit of a stretch, as so much Christie is, with coincidences here and there to make the plot flow the way she wanted/needed it to. Once you get past the major one of actually going back to the same house, which Christie does explain relatively satisfactorily, the rest fall into place. Miss Marple is, as usual, perceptive where others are blind; the villain is devious and obvious. Again, a classic production, evidently dating from the middle of her career, when she was at the peak of her form, though it is described as Miss Marple's last case; that description is deceptive, because it was marketed in the same way as Curtain, but they are not comparable; after all, Poirot dies in his last case.

07 January, 2010

Number Two

There's Treasure Everywhere


Bill Watterson

I love Calvin and Hobbes. They are so funny, so real. Calvin is the six-year-old little boy; Hobbes the stuffed tiger who is real in Calvin’s mind and, hence, the pictures and their adventures. I especially like that once in a great while Watterson drew Hobbes from the outsiders’ point of view, and we see the stuffed toy, not the living, walking, talking tiger. Too bad Watterson stopped drawing this comic strip.

03 January, 2010

Songs of Distant Earth

by Arthur C. Clarke

Once again, we discover that Clarke can write.

Again, as in others of his works, the heroes are not Earthmen ~ though descended from human genotypes, they are native Thalassians, and have been for generations. The Earthmen, the last in the universe, appear in the spaceship Magellan (no symbolism there, is there?), on their way to another star system, hundreds of years away, and it becomes doubtful ~ briefly ~ whether they will play the part of antagonists or behave themselves and fulfil their mission. The true antagonists, though, that will in generations to come challenge the Thalassians, are a previously unknown true native (not from Earth genotype) of the oceans of Thalassa.

Clarke’s imagination, knowledge, and ability to guess ~ accurately ~ where he does not know, is, as always, phenomenal. The picture of a colony of humans on a planet of water, struggling for survival in what could be a harsh environment, since it is not the original of their genotype, is brilliant. Though they struggle, they also live indolently, like the original South Sea Islanders, obviously the source of much of the picture. Yet there is something wonderful and scary in the idea of their founders ~ the Earth scientists who created their Mother Ship, loaded it, sent it ~ choosing for them the form of their culture, the portions of history, literature, Art, that they would have access to. The Thalassians are truly not Earthmen, for they do not have the history of Earth behind them. What we are shown is what a culture of humans would be like without Earth. Interesting idea.

01 January, 2010

1000 Reviews!

Right, it’s the first of January, and the last book i read (as the previous entry on this blog shows) was the one thousandth since i began the process of writing a review of each book read shortly after finishing it. That surely makes this the perfect moment to offer a small selection of those reviews here. So i’ll post one every two or three days over the next month, till maybe twenty or so are on-line ~ about two percent of the total. Why not?

I’ll be honest about the reviews; i will randomly select them, and i won’t change the selection to choose a better review. In fact, to ensure mine honesty, i have just run a random number generator, so the reviews will be of books numbered: 162, 487, 566, 207, 34, 625, 155, 627, 618, 131, 541, 732, 588, 174, 133, 47, 583, 698, 22, and 42. I haven’t looked yet, so i hope these are good reviews. I’ll post them, either way. The only change i’ll make is in the unlikely event that there isn’t a review at the indicated number (there are a few, probably a couple of dozen, books without reviews, for assorted reasons, mostly to do with software messing up records); if that happens, i’ll take the next in line.

I do reserve the right, however, to edit them before i post them, but that’s nothing new, they are always edited, lightly or otherwise, before being moved to their permanent location in the computer storage.

In the meantime, let’s take a brief look at the statistics (always a fascinating subject), of the books i’ve read and recorded since 1999.

By genre, first, always remembering that these genre choices are purely subjective and somewhat arbitrary (are Jeeves stories humour or short stories, for example):

  1. Autobiography 22

  2. Biography 56
  3. Criticism 26
  4. Drama 5
  5. History 117
  6. Humour 9
  7. Language/Linguistics 11
  8. Reference 3
  9. Religion 26
  10. Children’s fiction 25
  11. Juvenile fiction 74
  12. Historical fiction 27
  13. Humorous fiction 24
  14. Mystery 202
  15. Science fiction 54
  16. Short stories 33
  17. Other fiction 177
  18. Poetry 4
  19. Assorted non-fiction 78

That doesn’t actually total 1000. Oh well; probably to do with my skills, or lack thereof, in manipulating formulae and spreadsheets. Still, it’s a large enough sample to get a picture of what i like to read.

Next, the view by year:

  • 1999 29
  • 2000 113
  • 2001 127
  • 2002 79
  • 2003 85
  • 2004/5 197 (computer error lost about ten months of dates)
  • 2006 136
  • 2007 93
  • 2008 78
  • 2009 63

Again, interesting: Some pretty productive years there, though i wonder if the “big” years tend to have shorter reviews. Last year, 2009, not such a good year for volume, but i read some quite large and detailed books, so that requires more time and devotion. Anyway, there it is.