Monkeyshines

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.

Book Battle 4: The Hare with Amber Eyes vs The World of Yesterday

When I’m off on my travels, I like to read books that are set in my destination. And ordinarily I read fiction, as real pastos (pron: past-ohs) aren’t really my cup of tea. However, in an effort to combat my long-standing antipathy towards History (in the sense of the school subject, rather than the past itself), I recently read two exceptional memoirs that were partially set in Vienna. The Hare with Amber Eyes and The World of Yesterday, by Edmund de Waal and Stefan Zweig, respectively, have been extensively lauded elsewhere (de Waal: The Spectator, The Guardian; Zweig: The Guardian, Quarterly Conversation, but also see London Review of Books), and with good reason. My understanding of Europe in the first half of the 20th century has improved immeasurably, and the narratives of the people in the book were genuinely gripping. (I did sneak in a bit of fiction too, again partially set in war-torn Austria, in the shape of Shadow Without A Name, by Ignacio Padilla. It’s somewhat challenging, due to the multiple narrators and lots of identity-swapping, but it’s superbly written and plotted, which made it a rewarding and enjoyable read.)

So, given two excellent memoirs, how does a historically-ill-informed monkey assess which is best? Why, a book battle of course! The books themselves, rather than the books’ characters, duke it out, and the rounds are decided using the ‘Condition’ list of adjectives from my random word generator.

Round 1: Modern
The Hare with Amber Eyes saunters up to the table, and smooths its cornflower-blue jacket before sitting down. The World of Yesterday, heavy-set yet elegant, strides purposefully to meet its opponent, and sits on the opposite side of table. Beautifully sculpted chess pieces have been set out on a walnut board with inlaid nacre squares. Both books start their game confidently, but a reckless move by The World of Yesterday leads to the loss of a knight, as the innovative approach of The Hare with Amber Eyes comes into play. Verdict: The Hare with Amber Eyes.

Round 2: Tender
The World of Yesterday is clearly rattled, and its lack of personal details about Zweig enables The Hare with Amber Eyes, with its lovingly rendered family portraits, to threaten its opponent’s king. The danger is averted, but the damage has been done. Verdict: The Hare with Amber Eyes.

Round 3: Concerned
Furrowing its metaphorical brow, The World of Yesterday moves on the offensive, cutting through a swathe of its adversary’s pawns with a concern for humanity and pan-European culture. The Hare with Amber Eyes counters with evocative descriptions of 20th century turmoil, but the round has already been won. Verdict: The World of Yesterday.

Round 4: Powerful
The autobiographical nature of The World of Yesterday gives it a striking immediacy, and the stoicism and, ultimately, optimism of Zweig lends it a power that sends rooks and bishops into imposing positions. But the historical perspective that is necessarily lacking in the The World of Yesterday is the strength of The Hare with Amber Eyes, and it responds with aggressive sacrifices that set up a finely balanced endgame. Verdict: Draw.

Round 5: Wandering
Both books are fundamentally peripatetic, dealing as they do with Jews in the twentieth century, but while the author of The Hare with Amber Eyes travels as widely as Zweig, the latter’s first-person sketches of the Europe of last century carry this round. The World of Yesterday advances its pieces with nimble fingers, and The Hare with Amber Eyes is backed into a corner, but isn’t quite beaten yet… Verdict: The World of Yesterday.

The winner: Draw. An entertaining stalemate; neither book has enough pieces left to force a checkmate, so they nobly acknowledge the draw, don smoking jackets, and retire for port and cigars in the drawing room.

Book Battle 3: Akira Book 5 vs Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction

After allowing weapons in the previous battle, it only seems natural for these books to properly tool themselves up. I’ve written about the first 4 Akira books before (part one, part two); they’re written by Katsuhiro Otomo, and volume 5 is the penultimate book in the series. Adrian Mole and the WMD is, clearly, the latest in the Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend; I read the first one when I was about 13¾ myself, so I remember very little of it, and I probably didn’t get most of the jokes. As in previous book battles, it is the books themselves, rather than the eponymous characters, that square up, and the rounds are decided using the ‘All Adjectives’ list from my random word generator.

Round 1: Defiant
Adrian Mole and the WMD pulls a bazooka from its pages and fires off a missile that perversely represents it’s defiant anti-war stance. But the anti-establishment tone of Akira 5, and Kaneda’s complete lack of compromise, allow the book to leap out of the way while pumping a few rounds from a machine gun into its opponent. Verdict: Akira 5.

Round 2: Gentle
The gentle humour at the start of Adrian Mole and the WMD allows it to rally, and it aims a rifle squarely at Akira 5; but Gielgud the swan and the steeliness of the novel cause the gun to jam. Equally, Akira 5 has little to offer in this round – the romantic(ish) scenes with Kei and Kaneda, and Kaori and Tetsuo provide some gentle relief from the action, but this a sci-fi, action-filled, brute of a book Verdict: Draw.

Round 3: Sharp
The nimble, perceptive narrative of Adrian Mole and the WMD allows it to attach a bayonet to its rifle, while Akira 5 fiddles with a bio-dart gun. Akira 5 sustains a few lacerations before it fires off a bio-dart, and the needle-sharp detail and precision of the drawing, and the book’s wonderfully honed characterisation ward off a groggy Adrian Mole and the WMD. Verdict: Draw.

Round 4: Elegant
The stylish Akira 5 capitalises on its advantage, and it bombards Adrian Mole and the WMD with elegantly depicted visions of destruction. The broad satire of the latter causes it to stumble, and Akira 5‘s graceful lines carry the round. Verdict: Akira 5.

Round 5: Outstanding
Akira 5 tugs a small trigger from a hidden recess, carefully points it at Adrian Mole and the WMD, and squeezes. In orbit, a satellite whirrs, its base glows phosphorus white, and a brilliant laser arcs down from the heavens. Akira 5 literally blows Adrian Mole and the WMD away. Verdict: Akira 5.

The winner: Akira 5. Adrian Mole and the WMD is very funny in places, but is ultimately no match for the remarkable Akira 5.

Book Battle 2: The Girl Who Played with Fire vs One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

I rather enjoyed my first book battle, so thought I’d stage another bout, with my latest reads, which don’t have much in common other than unfeasibly long titles. If you’ve been living in a popular-trend-proof room for the last few years, The Girl Who… is a thriller by Stieg Larsson, the sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; I liked it better than its predecessor. One Day… is a wonderful, devastating book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one of the few books that I re-read periodically. To mix things up a bit, this fight will determine which book sounds better, using the ‘Sound’ adjective list from my random word generator.

Round 1: Squealing
One Day… draws a battered sabre from its rope-belt and stands defensively, too proud to squeal; although its valenki do squeak in the snow beneath it. The Girl Who… brandishes two lengths of iron pipe and manages a couple of tentative jabs, easily parried, but it is a book that bellows, rather than squeals. Verdict: Draw.

Round 2: Harsh
One Day… whips the sabre through the air, and with ferocious speed and skill forces The Girl Who… to its knees (or whatever it is that books have in place of knees) – the arena resounds with the harsh clang of metal on metal, and One Day… exhales hard, with a chill, Siberian breath that makes its opponent shudder. Verdict: One Day….

Round 3: Thundering
The bell saved The Girl Who… last round, and it regains some confidence with its iron pipes, landing some decent blows. One Day…‘s quiet anger is no match for the thundering voice of The Girl Who…, whose rage builds through the round, as it does in the story. Verdict: The Girl Who….

Round 4: Cooing
Umm… both books stay in their corner for this round, swiping their weapons through the air, sizing each other up. Verdict: Draw.

Round 5: Hushed
One Day… swings its sabre once, clanging against The Girl Who…‘s iron pipe like a hammer against a suspended length of rail. The metallic peal dies out and One Day… drops its sabre, which lands noiselessly in the snow. The Girl Who… takes a step back, and drops its pipes, which crash loudly against one another. Verdict: One Day….

The winner: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. A powerful book with spare, heart-rending detail; and it sounds good too!

Book Battle: Fathers and Sons vs Eve Green

I recently read Eve Green, by Susan Fletcher, on the strength of it garnering glowing reviews and having won a major award. I was utterly underwhelmed, and looked to Amazon to see what real people thought of it. Opinion is divided: it’s either a beautiful, mysterious evocation of Wales or a dull trudge through an unlikeable, self-involved character’s tedious past. I fall squarely in the latter camp, but I wondered if that was partly because I was so smitten with Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev, which I read immediately before.

So, I’m pitting the two books against each other, but I decided that it wasn’t fair to choose the battleground myself; I want a good clean fight, here. Being the geek that I am, I had no trouble knocking up a simple random word generator, to decide on the categories on which each book shall be judged. I used the ‘All Adjectives’ word list to generate 5 random categories.

Round 1: Clear
A tricky start for Eve Green, as it comes out flailing with some oblique references and flowery language; for some people these are it’s strengths, but Fathers and Sons lands a stinging blow with a title that tells you exactly what to expect, followed up by a flurry of descriptive passages that are the epitome of clarity. Verdict: Fathers and Sons.

Round 2: Immense
Interpreting ‘immense’ literally, both books move on the defensive, as neither will break a toe if dropped on a foot. A few cagey jabs later, and this damp squib of a round is over. Verdict: Draw.

Round 3: Fluffy
Fathers and Sons is on the ropes, reeling from an unprecedented attack by a cuddly toy dog from Eve Green, but it rallies towards the end of the round as Eve Green‘s darker heart asserts itself. The spectre of death haunts both of these distinctively un-fluffy novels, and it’s another tied round. Verdict: Draw.

Round 4: Curious
After a quiet couple of rounds Fathers and Sons gradually builds up a strong sequence of curious punches: smack – inter-generational dynamics; smack – our place in the universe; smack – frustrated desire. Eve Green is curious about human nature on a smaller scale, and counters with a few hits of loneliness and the nature of evil, but now looks like a broken book. Verdict: Fathers and Sons.

Round 5: Wandering
The episodic nature of Fathers and Sons comes out swinging in this round, but its attack weakens as it becomes clear that the trajectory of Bazarov’s fate has been far from aimless. Eve Green takes advantage with a few time-travelling blows, finishing with a pointless and devastating granny’s-dead-Cornish-sailor of an uppercut. Verdict: Eve Green.

The winner: Father and Sons. A victory for both literature and websites with random word generators.