Monday, 31 March 2008

Review: War Crimes by Peter Carey

This is the second Peter Carey collection I've read (lent to me kindly by my friend B). I have one more (The Tax Inspector) up my sleeve. I wasn't as wowed by this one as I was by the first (A Fat Man in History, see here ) and upon review of that, er, review, I think it's the book's fault rather than mine. (By which I mean that I just preferred 'A Fat Man...', rather than me projecting too high an expectation on 'War Crimes'). Don't get me wrong, these stories are all well executed - beautifully executed. The whole time I was reading, I was always comfortable in the work, and not aware that I was reading (which is always a good sign). However, that extra factor of *ZOMG* WOW!!! was (on average) just not there.

According to the back blurb (which I read after finishing the book), these stories are all about power. Some of the are obviously so - particularly 'The Uses of Williamson's Wood' (which I quite liked), and 'Kristu-Du (which I liked less). My favorite story was probably "Do You Love Me?" and the rather sordid 'The Journey of a Lifetime' was also pretty memeorablee (And, yes, these are both about power too).

One odd thing I noticed with a lot of these stories, which I didn't notice with 'A Fat Man...' was the fact that most of them are split into numbered chapters (or scenes, perhaps, they're rather too small to be chapters). I'm not sure why Carey repeated this particular style so often. It didn't grate, but it was noticeable and I guess did disappoint me a little.

Finally I note that, again, this collection is old (not older than me this time, but almost) and yet none of the stories seem dated. That's pretty impressive in itself.

Review: The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Social ContractThis is the fourth book I (randomly) picked to read out of the Penguin Great Ideas Series. It's number 8 in the list and part of series one (the red series).

This book took a loooong time to read. Weeks and weeks! In comparison to other 'great ideas' it is relatively long - 167 pages, when most seem to be closer to 100. However, the length of time it took probably has less to do with the number of pages, rather than the depth of arguments and ideas presented here.

After looking at his wikipedia page, Jean-Jacques Rousseau seems to have been some literary, philosophical, musical, political genius (darn him). The first thing that struck me about 'The Social Contract' was the absolute logical rigour that Rousseau applies to all his arguments. They're razor sharp and the scientist in me loved this, even though it did make the text very dense (I'm sure I've not taken away half the information that I could have). Rousseau builds his arguments from first principles, which means that unlike some of the previous (and abridged) 'great ideas' the reader can appreciate all of Rousseau's arguments. Rousseau argues that for any form of governance, 'the people' must form together and agree to a binding social contract, which essentially strips them of all private will, so that only the greater public will remains. He then discusses the flaws which make such governance difficult (impossible??), such as the fact that the 'private will' of those in power will inevitably conflict with their 'public will'. He describes numerous forms and sizes of government, the role of religion (there isn't one), as well as the mechanics of legislative and administrative power.

This was the first book I felt I *had* to bookmark pages so that I could come back to sections later for the review. Because of the way Rousseau builds up his arguments, he came up with a number of points that I'd not considered or though of before:
  • the right of life and death in the social contract - 'whoever wishes to preserve their life at the expense of others must give his life for them when necessary'
  • the idea that there is only one good government for each state, and that different governments may suit different people and even different climates!
  • good laws lead men to make better ones; bad laws lead to worse
  • laws constantly gain strength in any well constituted state, if laws becom weaker this shows there is no longer any legislative power and the state is dead

And my favorite line, which made me think of many recent governments:

'Usurpers always choose troubled times to enact, in the atmosphere of general panic, laws which the public would never adopt when passions were cool'

I don't agree with all these ideas, but they did make me think. Ultimately I think many of Rousseau's arguments are outdated now. People, particularly in the western world, probably like their 'private self' too much to sublimate themselves totally to a greater public good, as Rousseau requires. Monarchy seems to be taken as a fundamental component in government in 'The Social Contract', and this is less so now. Finally, Rousseau's ideas of economic are very outdated - his economies are based almost entirely on agriculture and crops, with no thought of the technology and 'value adding' (tourism! entertainment! IT!) by which many nations make substantial portions of wealth now. I did not find it the 'blue print for political terror' as it was once considered.

Still, the books *was* written in 1762 and, despite the effort it required, I loved the absolute rational approach Rousseau takes to his work (William Hazlitt makes mention of this in 'The Pleasure of Hating', but more on that later). Overall it was a really interesting book to read.

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

I am completely sold on the Harry Potter phenomenon. Not enough (it has to be said) to be lining up on the day of release to buy my copy of 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows', although this is mostly because *my* copies of books 1 to 6 are paperback and I don't want to spoil the set with a hardback! I have only read this final chapter through the generosity of one of my work colleagues, who has lent me her hardback copy, as I wait for the paperback to come out (probably later this year).

It would have been nice to have worked up to reading 'The Deathly Hallows' by reading the first 6 books again. It's been over a year since I read 'The Half-blood Prince' for the first and only time and I don't have as good recollection of that volume as I do of books 1 to 5 (which I have read multiple times). Instead, I inhaled 'The Deathly Hallows' during a time of extreme busy-ness, my little luxury in the middle of the night (and it only took one).

I came to the book unspoilt to the final outcome and was glad to be so (and therefore will try not spoil others). Ultimately I was very happy with the outcome of the book. The narrative is quite surprising, completely missing the school-bound structure of the previous books, with the children's arrival at Hogwarts, Christmas break, exams etc. It's a very dark book, although to be honest I still found Harry's interactions with Dolores Umbridge in book 5 to be the darkest of all J. K. Rowling's writing. Still, people die. Good people die, and unfairly too. From that respect Rowling pulls very few punches and no character can be considered 'safe' from harm. Happily, 'The Deathly Hallows' does not suffer from the bloat of book five (and to a lesser extent books 4 and 6) and I think every one of my favorite minor characters makes an appearance for one final goodbye. In particular, I was so happy to read Neville's role in the final battle.

My opinion of the final epilogue appears to be similar to that of others - that it was largely unnecessary and not a little irritating. However, it did allow platform 9 and 3/4 to be visited one final time. I am unlikely to continue the Harry Potter story by reading fan fiction, etc, and so for me it is all finally over. However, I look forward to rereading the series as a whole (once I get my own copy of book 7!) and, of course, the final two movies.

Finally, I cannot recommend Tansy Rayner Roberts summary of 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows', printed over at ASiF!, highly enough. Tansy *did* read 'The Deathly Hallows' within hours of its release and reviewed it within a day. Not wanting to be spoiled, I'd waited to read her summary until I'd read the final book. The wait was worth it.

Revew: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

So many people had said to me OMG! The Kite Runner is *fantastic*! You have to read it! that - I have to say - when I finally came to it, I was a bit non-plussed. Don't get me wrong, this has a *fantastic* description of Afganistan - both before the Taliban and then after. The conditions post-Taliban are shocking (particularly in the orphanage), as is the portrayal of the effect of the regime on children. However, I didn't actually think the story was that well written. The writing is pretty simple, easy to read. However, my main annoyance was with the storyline, with the way in which it was almost *forced* to come full circle, when a few straggling threads would have been fine. There are a lot of coincidences at the end (reappearance of an early enemy, Hassan's son Sohrab following through on a threat his father made, Amir's facial disfigurement) which just irritated me. However, having said that, I *didn't* see the major 'twist' coming until a few lines beforehand so in that respect the storyline did a good job :-)

The characterisation of Amir and Hassan was interesting. Amir, the narrator, is not particularly likeable, although becomes more so during the course of the novel (as I assume he's meant to become). Hassan in a lot of ways remains a bit superficial - we know him as Amir sees him, but not perhaps as he actually was.

Soon after reading the book, I went and saw the movie, which I think did a good job of depicting the novel. All in all, I'd recommend both, although I won't be saying OMG! The Kite Runner is *fantastic*! You have to read it!, I'll just be saying it's ok :-)

Review: The Encyclopedia of Fonts by Gwyn Headley

This is the second art/design/whatever book I've read this year (which makes me about a month - or one book - behind atm...) It *could* have taken me 30 minutes if I'd only read the introduction (which is pretty short). However, *I* was going to do this properly!

And *properly* meant that I pored through every one of the 453 pages of fonts (2000 plus examples!) on and off over a period of several weeks. How many fonts of that do I remember? Eh - not many, but I'm not sure that's the point (though I'm not sure... :-)

I'm fascinated by the way the Headley has separated the fonts - not always obviously so I'm interested in finding out more about the classifications he (and others) use. In most cases the fonts are displayed using a 'font sample' (e.g. 'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog' but more interesting...), but every now and then Headley has gives description of the font - what the name means or something about the designer. And *every* now and then he makes a somewhat bitchy comment about the font (which was rather fun :-)

*LOTS* of fonts look the same as each other, and it was good to see development over time. Most of the 'common' fonts have been around a long time (perhaps it's a copyright thing??). I'm not sure what I'll do with the book now. I don't think it'll make picking fonts any easier, particularly when this is only a small selection of what's available! In fact, my head hurts (but I still like fonts :-)

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Review: Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan

'Red Spikes', Margo Lanagan's third collection, has the dubious honour of leaving me almost entirely cold. While I can appreciate that all the stories are well written, none of them really stand out for me as I review the table of contents for this post.

As I feel obliged to mention some of them:

'A Good Heart' stands out as being (I think) particularly well written for such a mundane storyline.

'Daughter of the Clay', a human girl and a clay girl who are born into each other's world swap places (giant simplification here). Some interesting ideas about belonging, until it dissolves in rambling clay talk.

'Forever Upward' describes a mother's desperate attempts to persuade the gods (in this case giant white floating organisms) to spare her sons from forced inscription into the Church, and her daughter's realisation that she has a connection to those Gods that her mother will never understand. It's actually not bad but it does feel like the beginning of a much longer story and in that respect is unsatisfying.

Possibly the only emotional connection I felt with the book was at the start of 'A Feather in the Breast of God' (the story I found... odd), where Lanagan dedicates this story to her departed budgies - amongst them Roy and HG! My favorite bit of the book was Lanagan's acknowlegements, which explained some of the inspiration behind her tales. To be completely fair, I read 'Red Spikes' in interstitial moments between being very busy and very tired and so perhaps it didn't get the attention it deserved. However, neither did the book demand that attention, and so I'm not sure it did deserve it after all...

Review: White Time by Margo Lanagan

'White Time' is Australian writer Margo Lanagan's first collection of short stories. The writing in the collection is solid enough, but after reading her second (Black Juice) and third (Red Spikes) collections, 'White Time' definitely feels like a first collection. I think the stories in the volume are... less sophisticated perhaps, maybe younger, maybe a bit less other-worldy. I'll think about it more :-) The book is marketed at (if not entirely for) the YA audience and this comes over quite strongly, particularly those stories with a teen protagonist (which is six out of ten: White Time, Tell and Kiss, The Night Lily, The Boy Who Didn't Yearn, Welcome Blue, Wealth). Interestingly my three favorite stories probably all come out of this group:

'Tell and Kiss' would be a fairly straightforward teen romance, but for the fact that in this world it is not excess calories that make a person get fat, but instead when when worries or concerns become a 'weight' on your mind. Some nice forboding in this, as a boy with a previous weight problem begins to slip again.

'White Time' is one of the more science fiction-based stories (which apparently appeal to me more than Lanagan's more fantastical works) about Sheneel (bogan name!!) undertakes work experience at the White time Laboratories, where entities stuck in time are redirected.

'Wealth', possibly the longest story in the collection, has perhaps for me the most interesting themes of all the stories and explores wealth, status and rebellion in world operating on a caste system where people are separated into Ord and Leet (presumably based on l33t, etc).

Although I have said that this first collection is less sophisticated than her latter collections, I do think I preferred the stories in the book to others. I'm not sure what that says about *me* :-) All in all, a good read, but it didn't inspire me as perhaps collections by other writers have.

(And the ant story really didn't do it for me).

Review: Eichmann and the Holocaust by Hannah Arendt

Eichmann and the Holocaust
This is the third book I (randomly) picked to read out of the Penguin Great Ideas Series. It's number 40 in the list (the last one!!) and part of series two (the blue series).

Hannah Arendt was a German (and Jewish) political theorist (not philospher), who fled both Germany and then France before travelling to the United States during World War II. Like both of the 'great ideas' I had read before this, 'Eichmann and the Holocaust' is not an original work in itself. Instead it provides excerpts of Arendt's commentary on Nazi Adolph Eichmann's trial, first printed in the New Yorker and then published as Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963.

For me the book suffered from a lack of context. Arendt is reporting on current events and she assumes her reader is familiar with the Eichmann trial and also the actions Eichmann carried out as part of the Final Solution. Whether this would be less of a problem in Eichmann in Jerusalem is hard to tell, but either way it's this is hardly Arendt's fault. Instead blame should probably be laid at Penguin's feet for the way it has packaged the book - or at mine for being not well-enough informed...

Still, there is much of interest in this book. Arendt's arguments are razor sharp and her description of Eichamnn as an arrogant but thick-headed dolt, and his embodiment of the 'banality of evil' is very thought provoking. Perhaps even more thought provoking, however, was her criticisms of prominent members of the Jewish community, who also cooperated with Nazi Germany and justified sacrificing 'less worthy Jews' as a means of saving others (when in fact very few Jews were saved by their actions in comparison to the thousands who died) . Arendt also criticises Israel for holding the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, argued that holding the trial in a more impartial state would have led more credence to the final judgement.

Despite her criticims, Arendt concludes her book:

'And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations - as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world - we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.'

Perhaps the best part of this book is the final postcript, in which Arendt answers criticisms leveled at Eichmann in Jerusalem, particularly for her attitudes towards Israel and those Jews who colluded with the Nazis. Because it was written 'after the fact', Arendt's summary of what she has previously written is clearer and more consise than the previous excerpts and I was very glad it was included in the book.