Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Book Battle 5: Bibliomania

Just in time for Christmas, the return of a Monkeyshines “favourite” that precisely no-one has asked to see make a return! Yes, it’s a rather random, rather pointless, book battle, where the books (rather than the books’ characters) struggle against my tortuous metaphors and each other, and the rounds are decided using a list of adjectives from my random word generator. This time it’s a tag-team face-off between the books I’ve read since War and Peace.
In the red corner: Dune Messiah and Children of Dune by Frank Herbert;
and in the blue corner: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, and Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo.

Round 1: Whispering
The Finkler Question and Dune Messiah are first up, circling each other in the ring; The Finkler Question throws itself against the ropes, to return with momentum at its opponent. But the whispering sands of Dune Messiah solidify into an arm, which catches the lumbering Jewish novel in the neck. Verdict: Dune Messiah and Children of Dune.

Round 2: Homely
The Finkler Question‘s prone form struggles to its corner while Dune Messiah showboats, and manages to tag Cosmopolis, which tries to catch its cocky rival unawares. The roar of the crowd tips off Dune Messiah, however, and it hops over the scything move from Cosmopolis. The novels, both far from homely, grapple in an unseemly manner before the referee breaks them apart. Verdict: Draw.

Round 3: Adventurous
Out of nowhere Cosmopolis defies its weight disadvantage, and slams Dune Messiah into a corner post, before springing backwards in readiness for the finishing blow… But, wait, Children of Dune is stood on the post behind Cosmopolis, and launches itself across the ring! Cosmopolis senses the attack coming and sidesteps neatly, leaving a knee trailing to catch Children of Dune in the midsection. The adventurous prose and the scope of the imagination in DeLillo’s modern novel have KO’d the more conventional sense of adventure in the Dune novels; it’s a good job the pedestrian The Finkler Question wasn’t in the ring for this round, though. Verdict: The Finkler Question and Cosmopolis.

Round 4: Icy
Well, the decent story of Frank Herbert’s sequels couldn’t match the superior prose of their opponents, particularly Cosmopolis, and this bout is over after the third round. That’s quite a… WHAT?! Utopia by Lincoln Child has cracked a chair across the noggin of The Finkler Question, and it’s out cold! And The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross has hurdled the ropes to take on Cosmopolis; the sci-fi genre isn’t going to let the Dune books take a pounding without fighting back. The bleak, icy humour of The Atrocity Archives, bolstered by freezing winds from a portal to a dying universe, throws Cosmopolis to the canvas! Verdict: Utopia and The Atrocity Archives.

Round 5: Zealous
Utopia has been bundled to the ground, still outside the ring, by the judges of the Booker prize. Cosmopolis is up off the floor, and is looking to vanquish the remaining interloper. The fervour of The Atrocity Archives allows it to get Cosmopolis in a headlock; but the latter has plenty of fight left, and enough zeal to flip over, sending The Atrocity Archives flying into a tangled mess in the ropes. Verdict: Cosmopolis.

The winner: Cosmopolis. Being here, at a battle like this, we’re all winners. But the standout novel, from a pretty decent selection, is the rather strange, entirely absorbing, contribution from Don DeLillo.

Twinkle, Twinkle,…

I tend not to re-read books, largely because I extend my library at a faster rate than I read, so I’m slowly accumulating an ever-increasing number of unread books. But sometimes it’s nice to revisit an old favourite, either to find that while the text has remained constant, the reader has changed sufficiently to discover new facets to the story, or just to relish some well-written prose that has been deployed to good effect.

After the enjoyable challenge of War and Peace, I thought I’d treat myself to a re-reading of Dune, by Frank Herbert, which I first read when I was a teenager. I’ve re-read it several times since, so it was more a case of sitting back and enjoying the quality of the writing and the scope and depth of Herbert’s imagination, rather than a delving for new meanings. But it was interesting to read it having (relatively) recently tackled the first three Foundation books, by Isaac Asimov. As implausible as it seems in a world where we can’t even manage to feed all of the people, I do hope that these spectacular visions of our species sprawled across the stars are more prescient than wishful. Although I do worry that if it happens in my lifetime, my exploration of distant worlds might hinder me from reading all those books that I’ve got…

The War-and-Peace-O-Meter: Week Seventeen

Previous weeks: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16

And so we come to the end. I started War and Peace five months ago. Since then there have been riots on the streets of London, and the News of the World has closed due to the phone-hacking scandal. And on a more cheerful note, Mrs Monkeyshines and I managed to introduce a cute little monkey to the world.

War and Peace is unquestionably brilliant, and I enjoyed the characters, the history, and the slightly smug satisfaction one gets from reading such an immense work of literature. A more detailed review would be somewhat futile at this point; wittering on about how marvellous it is isn’t particularly ground-breaking, and I’m not presumptuous enough to think that I have any new insights.

I’m pleased that I got round to reading it, but I am now looking forward to a bit of a change of pace with my next book. I’ve already started The Midas Code by Boyd Morrison; sample paragraph (yes, paragraph): “Rohypnol. Otherwise known as roofies. The date-rape drug. He had put it in her coffee.” Amazing.

The War-and-Peace-O-Meter: Week Sixteen

Previous weeks: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14

I had thought that I’d have finished by now, and indeed, I have read the main body of the book plus most of the epilogue. But, to be honest, the latter part of the epilogue is a bit of a slog, being a post-narrative essay on the nature of historical studies. It’s interesting, but nothing like as riveting as the main story. I shall muster my thoughts for a final O-Meter post next week, but thought I should write an interim entry since I skipped last week as I was introducing the Little Monkey to the land of his forefathers…

The War-and-Peace-O-Meter: Week Fourteen

Previous weeks: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13

As one nears the end of an epic piece of literature, I think there’s often a small sadness, that your time in another world, with its cast of wonderful characters, is coming to an end. Certainly, a book can be re-read, but with so many books in the world, it’s hard to justify reading War and Peace many times over; and while there is a different sort of pleasure to be had in becoming very familiar with a text, it’s not the same experience.

This sort of feeling is not confined to books, of course; I think The Wire, and perhaps The West Wing, have the necessary ambition, grandeur and epicality* to prompt mildly melancholic thoughts at their completion. And epics do tend to make one feel like rather a small cog in humanity’s colossal machine; but as Tolstoy highlights when recognising the crucial contributions of overlooked generals, it’s the small cogs that keep the world turning…

*Epicality is clearly a more epic adjectival form than epicness.

The War-and-Peace-O-Meter: Week Thirteen

Previous weeks: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12

The pagination-odometer ticked round into four figures this week, which doesn’t happen often. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that long; I read all three Lord of the Rings books in a single tome, but I don’t think that counts. Moby Dick has suitably leviathan-like dimensions, but I don’t think it’s quite 1000+ pages (and anyway, I skimmed through the middle bit where Melville is just describing different whale species). One day I might read Clarissa, but perhaps not for a while yet, eh?…

The War-and-Peace-O-Meter: Week Twelve

Previous weeks: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11

Up to page 909 (of 1358) this week, roughly two-thirds through the book, and at the end of Part II of Volume III. I think this volume has already taught me more history than three years-worth of secondary school History education. (I wasn’t fool enough to commit myself to the GCSE, and two more years of it – I did Economics instead, which I was disappointed to find had little to do with maths, and rather more to do with a) spinning dull stories about past events, b) divination about future events, and c) endless fictional supply-and-demand plots. I don’t remember much economics, other than that the teacher constantly referred to “CD discs”, and that the price of salt is inelastic.) Tolstoy’s evocation of the battle of Borodino, and his accompanying critique of historical analyses, is eminently memorable, and I could discourse confidently (although not necessarily competently) on the significance of the loss of the Shevardino redoubt. And I didn’t even need to check the spellings of those placenames.

I don’t think that History was taught particularly badly at my school, but it certainly didn’t capture my imagination, focusing as it did on the history of events, rather than ideas. One of the few snippets that I do remember is dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori, and the oppressive nature of Wilfred Owen’s poems. So perhaps for historical events to be palatable to me, I have to have them presented in the form of literature. More theoretical fodder, such as the history of maths, I can swallow without a fictional coating; although it’s a shame that such subjects aren’t on the curricula of scientific education, even at undergraduate level…

The War-and-Peace-O-Meter: Week Eleven

Previous weeks: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Avid readers of my War-and-Peace-O-Meter will have wondered what happened to Week Ten’s instalment. Had I abandoned my mission, to concentrate on the oeuvre of Maeve Binchy? Had I dropped the book on my foot, broken every phalange and metatarsal, and spent the last fortnight in traction, unable to write rambling blog posts? Well, I can reassure both of you that neither of these, nor any other calamity, have befallen me. I was just on my holibobs last weekend (a somewhat damp but very agreeable few days on the North Wales coast). Normal service is now resumed.

It rather surprises me that, for all that I am enjoying War and Peace, and have previously enjoyed other classics of Russian literature, I don’t really have a yen to visit the country. I don’t dream of going to the place where Nikolay Rostov thundered across the battlefield, or the room where Bolkonsky danced with Natasha. Perhaps because the works that got translated, and have become part of the literary canon, in many ways transcend place (and maybe time), and deal with human life in all its infinite variety. Or, less pretentiously, perhaps it’s because barren steppe is not particularly appealing, and, in fact, many of these classics describe a country that literally no longer exists… which is, after all, part of their fascination.

The War-and-Peace-O-Meter: Week Nine

Previous weeks: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

We’re past the halfway mark, folks, and squarely into the book’s third volume. It starts with a rather fine, and admirably precise, review of the causes of the 1812 French invasion of Russia. Tolstoy muses on the strange way that huge incomprehensible events are attributable to everything and nothing; if enough of Napoleon’s generals had refused to come out of retirement, there could have been no war. Yet what difference could one general have made by refusing…

On a rather smaller scale, similar thoughts often occur when one is in a pensive mood about one’s own life. And I have been minded lately to pense the seemingly improbable existence of my freshly-minted son. If Mrs. Monkeyshines and I hadn’t met, there could have been no Little Monkey… if Sarah Beeny hadn’t started up that dating website… if people hadn’t watched her shows to give her the necessary cash and cachet… if there had been no property bubble for her to exploit… Our strange, contingent, complicated human lives are such funny little things. But it’s fun to think about them sometimes; and reading War and Peace is, for all of its stoutness, a rather simpler way to inspire such thoughts than having a baby. Although the latter is probably more rewarding in the long run. Swings and roundabouts, people, swings and roundabouts.

The War-and-Peace-O-Meter: Week Eight

Previous weeks: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

I’m glad that I’ve got a good solid hardback edition of the book; it’s taking quite a beating on my daily commute, but is bearing up well. I like to keep books looking as nice as possible, but there’s nothing sadder than a pristine book, it’s spine uncracked and it’s leaves uncut. This book’s dust jacket is looking pleasingly tatty around the edges, and the binding is getting a bit lop-sided. Any future readers of this tome will certainly know that it’s been read (and presumably enjoyed, since you’re not going to stick it out otherwise…)