18 October, 2012

{Insert Title Here}

Gary Dexter

This is just the sort of thing i ought to love: A collection of essays gathered around a particular topic, in this case a very limited topic, the titles of books, by a man who knows the subject well and evidently loves it too ~ the two not always going together. Apparently Dexter drew on a column he writes or wrote (i don't know the appropriate tense) for The Telegraph on the subject of titles. One might think that such a topic would be too limited to sustain a series or make a book; it would appear not. 

 And yet.... I have to admit to a little dissatisfaction with this book because it does not seem to properly fulfil or stand by its premise. Plenty of the essays are, indeed, fascinating, learned, and i have learned from them about some of the more obscure titles ~ and the better known (Winnie-the-Pooh) ~ in literature. Unfortunately, on too many occasions Dexter strays from his self-appointed rôle as explainer of titles and starts offering an exploration or criticism of the book under question itself. I don't say that he does this poorly ~ in fact he's quite an interesting writer, both skilled and, as i mention above, immersed in a subject he enjoys ~ but i do say that it is not what his book is supposed to be about, and thus he could have used some strong guidance from an editor not afraid to say, “Gary, stick to the titles ~ or change your whole concept!” To take but one example, the chapter (21) on Around the World in Eighty Days spends more time on the subject matter than the title, even acknowledging that Verne gave no indication that he was aware someone had actually attempted to make that journey. Unfortunately, there are a number of chapters in which Dexter makes this or a similar mistake, writing about either the book or its subject matter rather than its title. Thus, i fear, this is a superb conception, not brought quite properly to fruition.

13 October, 2012

Quotable Quotes

Matthew Parris & Phil Mason

A collection of quotations by politicians, things that they really ought not to have said, either because they (the quotations) are unbelievably stupid, apparently dishonest, later proven incorrect, or display an astonishing quality of misjudgement by the speaker ~ or some combination of these. The title, of course, sets the tone for the book, as it is what was displayed behind the second President Bush on the occasion of his visit to an aircraft carrier to declare that the Iraq War was over: The sheer presumption, arrogance, stupidity even, of that phrase was noted by numerous commentators at the time, and has been held in ridicule ever since; while many of the quotes in the book are of a similar level of immediately apparent absurdity, there are a large number which have only through the passage of time revealed the truth.

This is the second edition of the book, apparently, and includes many which were not available to the first for precisely the delay in full revelation, that their absurdity had not yet come to light. One imagines that, as long as politicians continue speaking, and events continue happening, and historians continue investigating, there will be the possibility of many further editions. Rather a sad prospect, in a way. One would like to think that politicians, like the best of trainable animals, could learn, but that does not seem to be the case. All one can do, then, is assume that there will be further chances for amusement at their continuing to speak.

I must point out that i am a little disappointed in Matthew Parris; i enjoy listening to him on the radio occasionally, when he seems quite cogent and intelligent. He was, however, a politician previously, which makes him eligible for inclusion in this book ~ and, as a politician he doubtless, by definition, said things worthy of inclusion ~ and yet he is nowhere to be found. A little more self-examination, or honesty, might have been refreshing from a man who used to feed at the public trough.

01 October, 2012

Dick Francis

One of Francis' later books, this bears all his hallmarks ~ strong, self-sufficient protagonist, link to horse racing, a single but largely hidden enemy, a lot of research in a different field (in this case, politics) ~ but is not as strong or enjoyable a read as some of the earlier of his novels. I think that when following a structure or formula which has become very successful, the temptation for an author to skimp on novelty must become quite strong; i fear that this time Francis was not able to resist it as fully as he did on other occasions. There is little precise one can put a finger on and say, “This is poor” or “this ought to have been done differently”, but there is a general atmosphere of settling rather than driving for the best.

One sequence i feel that is less than sparkling is occurs towards the end of the book as the protagonist, a politician's son, is led to reconstruct an attempt which had been made on his father's life some years earlier; there is simply no reason given (presumably because Francis couldn't, or couldn't be bothered to, think of one) for this reconstruction, but it is necessary for the driving forward of the plot to the final dénouement Poor writing, i fear.

A second example is to be found a little earlier in the action, at 10Downing Street, when the politician father is unable to resist sitting in the Prime Minister's chair; we are already fully aware of his desire to progress, indeed of his ultimate aim of becoming Prime Minister, and that little action is not necessary: It adds nothing to our understanding of the character (except, perhaps, causing a little puzzlement about a man who cannot control his instant gratification desires), nor his son; indeed, the action is somewhat contrary to the revealed character, as this politician has clearly shown himself to be a man fully in control of his impulses, well aware of the appearance of his actions, in addition to understanding the fact that he was fully under observation. Again, an example of poor writing control.

I would not wish to imply, however, that the book is not enjoyable; i did like it, as i always do Francis' novels, just with a slight frisson of sadness that it wasn't quite up to the high standards he had set previously.