Monday, 2 May 2011

The Grapes of Wrath

The great depression sure made John Steinbeck an angry man. And why not? Millions of people across the West Coast of America (not to mention the rest of the world) starving in camps, repressed by the local law enforcement, and forced to work for a pittance. This is the backdrop to the Grapes of Wrath, the story of the Joad Family.

The book follows the family from their farm in Oklahoma, where the land has been over farmed at the request of banks to the point where it isn’t possible to make a living any more. Evicted from the farm, they are forced to head west following rumours of plentiful work, excellent living conditions and a good life. From the title of the book you may be able to guess this isn’t what they find.

When the book was released it caused a huge outrage, with claims that Steinbeck was exaggerating the camps that had grown on the west coast at the time to make a profit from the book. For someone who wasn’t aware of the situation (i.e. me), it would be easy to see where these claims come from: The conditions in the book are horrific, with the Joads forced to give up everything in the hope of work, they are frequently starving, live in cramped conditions and death and loss surround them. A bit of research after reading revealed that Steinbeck in reality played down the condition of the camps in the book for fear the truth would infringe upon the story. It made me feel slightly ashamed that I wasn’t aware of this happening during the recession, not that I was around to help prevent it at the time, of course.

While the book is an angry, direct attack on the land owning classes, big business and the law enforcement, it also is a testament to the human spirit. Even when forced to go through the most degrading actions imaginable (one scene at the end of the book in particular made me squirm more than a human centipede ever could) the family do so with dignity, and they do so together, as a family.

The book is one of the most widely read in 20th Century American Literature and won the nobel prize for Steinbeck. I really cant recommend it enough. It’s tough going, and I cant promise a happy ending, but the anger that drives the book compels you to read on. Give it a shot.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

With David Foster Wallace’s last, unfinished, novel hitting book stores on April 15th, what better time would there be for me to review another of his books? Actually, I’m kind of misleading you. I read this book purely for the joy of it, and didn’t realise The Pale King (the new one) was coming out soon. What I found was a collection of short stories as brilliant as any of his other works, but with a newfound sense of anxiety underpinning many of the pieces.

If there’s one theme that ties all of the short stores together, it’s probably that many of them attempt to understand in very clear detail what’s happening in a large range of peoples minds. The title short story is split across the book, and simply consists of hideous men discussing their lives. These sections are often hilarious, with obscene twists, and frequently play on your expectations as a reader. This is the first book I’ve read by Foster Wallace written after Infinite Jest, and so there is a level of playfulness and inventiveness familiar to his readers, but here there is a brevity to the stories that really mark them out.

As I mentioned earlier, there is also a sense of anxiety. I first noticed this through ‘Octet’, which consists of a series of short stories which are immediately followed by a question, kind of like something from an English exam. There are two things that go wrong with this (and not go wrong as in don’t work). The second question ends with him realising that the set-up for the question has failed, and apologising for the inherent vagueness of the set up. There is a follow up question featuring the same characters, which luckily works. The final question, however, is the fifth (not the eighth), and is question nine. In this, you are asked to imagine that you’re a writer, who is attempting to write eight questions. The problem is, most of them don’t work. What follows is a bizarre insight into the writing process. Foster Wallace puts you into his position, talks you through what he’s been trying to do, and explains why he’s included 'octet' in the book. He then takes it a step further, and discusses his reasons for writing what you’re reading, explaining how much time he’s put into making it clear that the tone of what you’re currently reading has to be just right, and completely nakedly honest.

There are other examples of this kind of writing through the book, but I don’t want to ruin the whole thing. I admit I’m a huge fan of this guy, but I really feel his writing is simply better than anything else written in recent times. After reading this though, I was left with a big question. Is this anxiety real or imagined? Is his explanation of his thoughts into the writing process real, or is it entirely fictional, and playing with me? I suspect this is the real question at the heart of brief interviews.

Monday, 18 April 2011

The Corner

Regular book clubbers will be aware of my intense love affair with anything written by David Foster Wallace (If you're not aware of this, come back next week...). A little over a year ago, when I finished Infinite Jest, I was at a bit of a loss for how to follow it up. I ended up reading Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon, the creator of the Wire. Homicide, a non-fiction title which saw Simon follow detectives in the Baltimore police department for a year, was completely different in approach to Infinite Jest, but far more readable, and intensely gripping.

Let’s skip forward to last month when I bought the follow up, The Corner. The premise is similar, although this time co-authored by Ed Burns, a former BPD detective. Together they spent over a year following around life on the street, choosing the corner of West Fayette and Monroe Streets to centre their investigation. The resulting novel follows a broken family, the McCulloughs, who consist of Gary and Fran - separated but both dependant on drugs, and their son DeAndre, who has recently taken to slinging drugs from the corner.

If I’m being really honest, the book is consistently harrowing, At frequent points I had to stop, put it down, and recover from what I was reading. Overdoses are common amongst background players in the book, characters regularly steal, even from close family, and many of the addicts spend a lot of time lying to themselves in order to escape from the reality of their lives. One scene in particular, recounting how the daughter of Ella Thompson, who runs the local rec center, went missing only for her beaten, violated corpse to be found a few days later is particularly moving. Ella channels her grief into a personal mission to try and keep as many of the kids off the corner as possible. She knows she is fighting a losing battle, but her self determination is nothing short of inspirational.

The arguments made in the book will be familiar to anyone who has watched the Wire. That so many kids go on to lead the corner life is explained in very simple terms. The failure of the government, in both their strategies with law enforcement and the school system is disected. In a recently added afterward, the authors describe how a few years after the book, a guy who was running for city mayor held a copy of the Corner up at a press conference to show he understood how to deal with drugs. When a local reporter pointed out the book argues that the criminalisation of drugs has failed, the politician admitted to having not read the book. He was elected for two terms.

The Corner is an incredibly powerful and well written argument. It humanises a set of people that can seem alien to the majority of its readers. At the same time, the effects a lifetime of drug addiction can have are made very clear. While I think the book addresses very clearly what has gone wrong with areas such as West Baltimore, it also attempts to show a path for a better system. That they don’t claim to show an easy path is a credit to the authors. Ultimately only hard work can help get kids off the corners and their parents off drugs.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Sherlock Holmes: His Last Bow (and also a retrospective)

When I was about 10 I got a giant book containing all of the Sherlock Holmes tales for Christmas. It’s pretty hefty, with 4 novels and 56 short stories. I made several attempts to and try to read the lot in one go as a teenager, but usually dropped off around the time Conan Doyle killed him off, and then 10 years later brought him back from the dead. I guess I was always disappointed when I remembered that Moriarty, the guy who is supposed to be the ultimate nemesis of Holmes, never directly appears in the books. However, about 4 years ago I gave it another go, only this time I didn’t stop short, and I’ve been slowly working my way through the collection one book at a time…

Recently I came to His Last Bow, which starts of by letting me know that Holmes is still alive and well, although retired and suffering from the occasional bout of rheumatism. What follows is a collection of his adventures mostly taken from the early years with Watson, although the continuity in these books is so strained I haven’t got the slightest clue whether this sentence holds up to any form of scrutiny. If I’m being completely honest, this particular collection of stories aren’t the strongest, although they do have all the hallmarks familiar to the Sherlock Holmes cannon. These are some of my favourite recurring happenings:

1. Watson starts off a short story by alluding to a case involving a European Royal family, a lot of money, and Holmes saving the day, before immediately declaring that it can’t be told in public so we have to settle for something much more mundane.

2. Watson does something really stupid, which puts him in a lot of danger. Suddenly the tramp/street performer/lady across the street jumps forward and saves him, and then turns out to be Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock then admonishes Watson for being an idiot.

3. For some reason, Holmes can’t solve the case without creating an illusion of fallibility to Watson. It then turns out that he’s been in charge of the whole thing all along. This is best exemplified by a story in His Last Bow, in which Holmes pretends to be dying from a tropical disease for 3 days, in order to get Watson to go fetch a doctor who he knows is trying to kill him. Guess what? He’s not dying!

Even though these things happen repeatedly, I love these books. There is a wit about them, and an eye for the bizarre which provide a great hook to the mystery. I think my favourite short story (of all the ones I’ve read) is the league of red headed gentlemen. In it, a guy gets a job to write the dictionary on the basis of his perfectly red hair. After a few months of writing the dictionary, one day he can’t get in to the office. It all turns out to be an excuse to get this guy out of the house every day to help dig a tunnel for a bank robbery. Preposterous, but highly entertaining.

Although the book I just read is called ’His Last Bow’ there is still one more to go before I complete the set. I will read it one day, although I don’t hold much hope the standard will be very high. Still, when I do finish it, then I’ll be able to look back upon the stories with many great memories. A unique mixture of excitement, mystery and comedy keeps Sherlock Holmes very much alive in peoples minds today, as evidenced by all the screen adaptations. Sherlock Holmes also has a guiding catchphrase which I’d like to round this piece out with, for no reason other than my own satisfaction:

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”

Monday, 28 March 2011

The Millenium Trilogy

There’s no arguing with the success of the Millenium trilogy, handed by Steig Larsson over to his publisher shortly before his death. The main character, Lisbeth Salander, has been singled out as one of the most ‘unique’ heroines that crime fiction has ever produced. It was with this hype that I received the whole trilogy as a present over Christmas, and I set down to read the lot pretty much straight away. I wish I hadn’t.

I have many issues with the books, but I’m going to concentrate on one per book for the sake of brevity. The first is Larsson’s understanding of what constitutes a cliché. Early on in the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, one of the main characters has the novels central mystery described to him by an elderly man. He immediately remarks that the situation sounds like some kind of cliché from a crime novel, to which the elderly man responds by agreeing, but insisting it really happened. As far as I can tell, the book then seems to think that by addressing the fact it’s central mystery is clichéd, it has avoided this trap. In reality, Larsson only succeeds in bringing the shortcomings in his writing directly to your attention.

The Girl who Played with Fire, the second novel in the trilogy, manages to throw any lingering doubts of realism from the first book out of the window in the first 75 pages. Having made it through the events of the first book, Salandar goes on holiday, saves a woman from certain death at the hands of her abusive husband while a hurricane hits the beach, has her flight delayed by the threat of a terrorist on board the plane, and ruins a corrupt estate agent. While I understand that Larsson is trying to keep the readers attention whilst building plot for later in the novel, there is no need to do this by making every single thing the main character does some kind of incident. He only ends up creating a world where everyone who is not explicitly introduced as a ‘good person’ is essentially a devious arse-hole out to fuck someone over.

The trilogy concludes with The Girl who Kicked the Hornets Nest, which prefaces each section of the book with a mixture of historical fact and myth surrounding the idea of female warriors capable of taking on men. It’s at this stage when the true ideals, and limitations, behind the book are revealed. The trilogy proudly displays its ‘feminist’ credentials, taking you through an array of bad guys who deal in trafficking, or just plain like some good old fashioned rape. There are also multiple female characters who act as successful, independent role models. This in itself is a great ideal, but Larsson’s understanding of equality is hideous. His idea of proving the equality of women to men is by showing that they can beat men up. His ideal of female equality, in other words, is a distinctly male one.

I’ve not seen the Swedish film adaptations, and I’m writing this before the American remakes reach cinema screens. As a result, I can’t share my verdict with you on how this saga translates onto the big screen. My suspicion is that with a talented cast and production team, they could probably make a decent story out of this. Films often condense a novel into it’s highlights, usually by cutting out the crap. If they managed this with either adaptation, it’s bound to be a vastly improved, if considerably shortened, version.

Monday, 7 March 2011

I, Too, Am Malay

Working on the Southbank in London, I got to see a fair amount during the recent student protests in London. Helicopters flew over our office, while groups of protesters came streaming out of the station heading towards the march. Some clever UCL students set up a custom Google map, that allowed them to update the progress of the strike over the internet, allowing other students to view where any clashes were happening. This was brilliant. I can see Nelson atop his column from my desk, but couldn’t see any of the action below. This map allowed me, and the whole world, to get regular updates (roughly every few minutes) on the locations of protesters and police. Admittedly I had to question the accuracy of the map at times - I’m pretty sure the giant Godzilla icon that was placed in the Thames wasn’t real - but the map showed open, public defiance of the government.

It can sometimes be easy to forget the fact that such public opposition to the government is a right people in other countries struggle for. The current conflict in Libya is notably marked by Ghaddafi’s claims that all the people in Libya love him, an outright denial of such opposition even existing. I, Too, Am Malay, is a book written about a country where brutal force isn’t applied to those who disagree with government policy, but political ostracism is.

The author, Zaid Ibrahim, is a former minister of the Malaysian government. He resigned from his post in controversial circumstances, and was later kicked out of his political party. In this book, he recounts his life story, in which he founds the country's biggest law firm, he explains his version of events when he was in government, and sets out his idea of where the country should be going. If the book has one success, it’s in Ibrahim’s pleas for political debate to be encouraged, and for the nation to embrace it’s multi-ethnic population and learn to treat them all as equal citizens. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for this kind of rhetoric, which delves into the nations past and shows how the country was at it’s best when working together. Learning to accept each others differences can lead to a stronger society. If you don’t agree with these principles, you’re probably not worth listening to. Still, for Malaysian society, these are important principles, and are still being learned.

Where the book suffers is in Ibrahim’s treatment of his own life. While he seems to be gracious and respectful to all, he remains a politician. What I mean by this, is, that I don’t trust his version of events. He seems not to have a clue why certain events surrounding him transpired, especially when accusations of political opportunism are thrown at him. You get the impression that certain, crucial, events are being skimmed over in order for him to present himself in the most flattering light possible. It’s a shame that a book with such a positive message is, in a way, undermined by the author’s failure to acknowledge his own shortcomings. I still think the book contains enough inspiring material to merit a read, but if Ibrahim truly believes in the right to criticism, then he surely won’t mind my declaration that I don’t believe him.

Monday, 28 February 2011

The New Scientist Guide to Chaos

As a mathematician, I find it pretty easy to love science. I remember getting into New Scientist magazine during my A-Levels, and being excited by all the cool stories of scientific discovery, and the practical uses of these discoveries. A friend of mine bought a subscription to the magazine for a year, but barely read it. Luckily for me, I frequently stayed over at his after the pub (not like that, although there was a lot of tying up involved…), and as I always woke up before him in the morning I’d sit and read through his back catalogue of magazines, skipping to the best bits. I think we should move on to the book before I say anything incriminating.

The New Scientist Guide to Chaos was published in the mid-eighties, and designed as a guide to how Chaos theory was impacting many areas of science, and the importance of emerging computer technologies in driving these new theories and applications. The publishing date leads to two unavoidable, if slightly amusing, issues with reading this book now, in the early teenies. One is that most of what you’re reading is pretty dated, if theoretically sound. The other is that every now and again, some passage of the book shows up that dates the book in an extremely unflattering manner. One such passage occurs at the end of an essay on weather systems. The author begins to discuss climate change, but points out that any evidence pointing to global warming is still highly doubtful, and as such, scientists are hesitant to make any assertion that would imply the notion of climate change is real.

Despite the occasional reminder of how quickly scientific consensus can change, I really enjoyed the book. One of the reasons I stopped reading New Scientist was that, as my knowledge of Maths, Physics and science in general grew, I felt that it relied too heavily on metaphors and allusions, rather than just explaining what was going on directly. This book has few such problems, with frequent equations, experiments and direct explanations on display. The calibre of writer is also apparent, or at least I think it is - Mandelbrot, a famous Maths guy, writes one of the essays. That means I can assume everyone else is famous, right?

In terms of recommending this book to you, my loyal book clubbers (you are, after all, still loyal after the inappropriate jokes earlier on, aren't you?), it’s a difficult decision. The book is clearly dated, a relic of time, but on the other hand, it tells you a lot more about scientific processes than the last several dozen New Scientists I read. If you’re after a proper science read, Brian Cox’s book is probably a much better option, but for those of us who can't resist indulging in an old love affair, this will do fine.