Monday, 21 December 2009

Thinking about John Irving

A few weeks ago my wife came home with a copy of John Irving's "Last Night in Twisted River", which has had really good reviews, and its arrival was a lovely and much appreciated gesture. A few years back I'd have been over the moon and I would have been able to cite chapter and verse of it and look forward to talking lots about the nuance in it. So why is it that it's still lurking by the bed, and sometimes creeping into the briefcase to come to work, but largely remaining unread?

I first encountered John Irving when a friend, conscious that I was going through a phase when I wanted to read books that were both haunting and sad, gave me a copy of "The Cider House Rules". That led to a summer when I raided all the local second hand bookstores for his work, and read all of them, loving some of them more than others, but unquestionably seeing him as the sort of author I wanted to have on my shelves,

When John Irving's good he's very very good. "A Prayer for Owen Meany" is still perhaps the best anti-war book, that doesn't really mention war, ever written. I've started to come think however that he's not quite the utterly reliable standby I used to think he was.

I say this for two reasons. First, a few years ago, stuck in the cultural wasteland of Washington Dulles I bought "The World According to Garp", thinking I could reread it in the back of a rickety United 767 as it bumped me back across the Atlantic. Second time around I didn't get on with it in the slightest, and discarded it in exasperation not long after Canada was left behind. This might have been whim, or circumstance, but then I came across "Until I Find You", which I enthusiastically bought, and have singularly failed to finish, finding it more tawdry and unpleasant than I wanted. It's still on the shelf, but to be honest it's on borrowed time before it makes its way to a charity shop.

With any other author I might think that this was just a case of me falling out of tune with him and move on, but I've since revisited others by him ("A Widow for One Year" working on a pretty consistent basis) and the memories I have of that summer mainlining his work is still a time I remember fondly.

So - should I launch into "Twisted River"? The first few pages seem promising, and its had genuinely good and thoughtful reviews, but there's still a reservation in the back of my mind.

Any thoughts gratefully received.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

“The Assault on Mavis A”, Norman Stahl

Lately I've been revisiting a whole number of books read a long time ago. Norman Stahl's “Assault on Mavis A”, long out of print, and properly obscure, was last read in my mid-teens, when I would devour thrillers at a ridiculous pace. Now, after 25 or so years, a second look seemed appropriate.

Sparked by now working in the shipping industry, and the discovery of an engaging if dormant list of nautical related fiction, eBay readily yielded a cheap, to be honest fairly tatty copy of it, and over the course of this wintery Sunday afternoon, it's been duly polished off. One striking thing about it however, is monumentally annoyingly eight pages had been removed from the book at some stage in its life, not enough to seriously impede understanding the plot, but nonetheless a reflection that at times when you pay more or less nothing for a book there are downsides!

Any book that can be hurtled through in the course of a few hours is going to be both undemanding and sufficiently interesting to keep attention. This isn't high literature, but then you can probably work this out by the tagline, which describes it as being “overflowing with violence, treachery, sex … a terrifying suspense story”, certainly a contender for most overblown subtitle in fiction.

The central premise, hijacking an oil tanker and crashing it into an oil platform is reasonably engaging, and Stahl brings a convincing level of detail to the way he writes about the ship itself. The scale of a very large crude carrier and its peripatetic existence moving from the Persian Gulf to Europe or North America is atmospherically brought to life to the extent that the vessel almost qualifies as a character in its own right.

While the plot cheerfully rattles along, it's both too busy and inherently suffers from being pretty full of holes, and the majority of the characters lack a much in the way of depth. More troublingly, it's unpleasant and needlessly violent on a number of levels. As the cover hints, there's a lot of sex in here, and none of it is well written, instead being more prurient than it needs to be. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with sex in a novel, but the level to which it's written in here doesn't quite work.

Ultimately once every quarter of a century is probably frequently enough to read a book like this. It's amiable enough nonsense to while away an afternoon, but it's not something that leaves you particularly fulfilled or informed.

Sometimes it's best to leave books read and enjoyed long ago in the past where they belong.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

“Second Violin”, John Lawton

Warning – there might be a spoiler or two in here, if you haven't read "Second Violin" and want to preserve suspense, might be best to look away now…

Sparked by a great blog post on Crime Scraps I was reminded how great John Lawton is as a writer, and there's an extra appeal to his style of prose in a London winter. His reinterpretation of mid 20th century history is also powerfully seductive, having weaved a complex universe with characters touching on the heart of power throughout. In this light he can be compared to other chroniclers of the 20th century such as Simon Raven and Anthony Powell.

I had initially wanted to reread his non-Troy book, "Sweet Sunday", which isn't London at all, and one coming on top of what initially had been the Troy trilogy felt dramatically different. In the intervening years however, Lawton's style of writing has changed, and I've got a lot more used to this new way of writing, which made me wonder if I'd now discover additional layers to the almost forgotten "Sweet Sunday".

It a humbling confession, but my fiction shelves aren't organised at all. There's a big pile under the bedside table, there are a few interspersed among more serious tomes in the study, and there's a big bookshelf in the guest room, where I should have a system, but don't, and all that's really clear is that it's overfull. As a result of this filing chaos, on Sunday evening, when casting around trying to lay my hands on "Sweet Sunday" it was nowhere to be seen. So, I thought, why not slake my Lawton thirst with something else, and "Second Violin" readily came to hand.

As such this isn't really much of a review, much more a case of some musing on Lawton and his core creation, Fred Troy. It's not intended to be definitive, and at some stage someone should write something really impressive in terms of literary criticism about them, but now is not the time for me to do so. Bearing these comments in mind I must reiterate my comments about caveat emptor. Not being a review means there may be spoiler contained – I think Lawton's long since moved beyond a typical suspense novel, but if you want to read him, in particular with his earlier works, as such, maybe you should click the back button now and come back when you've read them. I mean this, little is worse than having the pleasure of speculation stolen away, and I'd hate to diminish your enjoyment of Lawton's work.

This is a crime novel – murders happen, police feature, and Troy is central, but like most of the later Lawtons, the crime isn't at the heart of it. It's much more a novel about time and place and atmosphere, and as such it really works. For those looking for a pacey murder mystery, this is not the book for you, indeed almost 100 pages in and you'll still be searching for the crime or murder that a typical police procedural would concern itself with.

This shift in writing style is something Lawton is clearly aware of, and I particularly liked his self-deprecating denunciation of the 'whodunnit', as Troy says to his father

"Who-dunnits are the lowest form of fiction. Somewhere between whelks and snails." (p.365).

The absence in the majority of the story of much in the way of a common or garden English murder may frustrate one who is explicitly looking for 'traditional' crime fiction. This is a shame and, I think, misses the point. Here crime is not about the usual petty jealousies that lead to death, but about the crime of the century and the attempted extermination of an entire race by Nazi Germany. Contained within this there is also the still open case of the murder of God by rationality and science. This is still a contested issue, as the likes of Richard Dawkins readily shows, but in telling how the early phase of the holocaust stripped away faith while juxtaposing accounts of how numbers were starting to worry at the secret of the universe. As such it buys into the same territory occupied by Ian Rankin's really rather good and often forgotten BBC drama, "Reichenbach Falls", where God is seen as 'dying' sometime during the mid 1800s.

Troy remains a fascinating character. Most notably we see his easy womanising, as he juggles femme fatale Zette Borg and Kitty Stilton (and as such explaining their somewhat sparky relationship in "Riptide"). Yet for all the selfishness, of him clearly stating that he wants a relationship with both women, there's no glamourising of it as a lifestyle. The finality of his interaction with Borg, simply explained as "he never saw her again" is full of pathos, and can't really be called a happy ending.

Most significantly for the series, in the conclusion "Second Violin" talks of Troy in 1975, which comes as a relief. It offers the fact that Troy found life after the bleakness of 1963 and the ambiguous ending of "A Little White Death".

There is a conspicuous absence of closure, the murderer goes unidentified, his motive unexplained, yet this is still an enormously enjoyable book. If you want to get to grips with Lawton and Troy, despite this being the first chronologically of the books, in no circumstances should you start here - it won't make any sense – instead read Lawton like you would Raven's "Alms for Oblivion", jumping around time with pieces of narrative being filled in almost entirely non-sequentially. It doesn't work for everyone, and it may frustrate, but it's very British, and when it works, it's very good.


Friday, 11 December 2009

“The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest”, Po Bronson

Written in 1997 Po Bronson's second novel has, unusually for a tech novel, stood the test of time remarkably well, feeling as fresh now as it did in the heady period before reality crashed in and ruined the party. A lot of this is down to the fact that Bronson focuses on the human aspects of starting a business and doesn't allow the wonders of the technology to obscure the story.

Most of all however "The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest" is a highly prescient novel. Positing a world where computer hardware becomes considerably less significant and cheaper, where software and content no longer comes on disc but is delivered over the web, and ultimately where open source development can legitimately worry major manufacturers. Fast forward to 2009, where the majority of PCs are netbooks, where processor speed (does anyone know what the clock speed of their machine is?) is considerably less important than broadband connection speed, and where open source software such as Firefox can capture a major market share, and it becomes clear what Bronson was talking about all those years ago.

There are some anachronisms in here, as well as some points that firmly anchor it in the late '90s. By 1997 the Fiat X1/9 would have been very long in the tooth (if still a rather cool car), the clothing the characters wear is indescribably awful, and it still causes a wry nod of the head when the reader is reminded that in the late twentieth century Apple was a basket case of a company, suffering a lingering death before Jobs' return, the iMac, and iPod all served to reinvent it as, for some, the acme of cool.

Despite all this, there is a real tech story in the subtext. The quest to develop the next big chip in the late 1990s led to Intel's Pentium Pro, which despite a lot of brave words from Intel, was regarded as being slower than the previous '586' Pentium chips in running Windows application – even if this stutter in processor development has been long forgotten. Bronson skilfully picks up this somewhat geeky story and uses it as an underpinning the politics and business realities behind his fictional La Honda research institute.

"The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest" could very easily have been a dry niche story, loosely fictionalising events of interest to technophiles and MBA students, but what transforms it is the dry understated humour that suffuses the text. The interplay between the generally very likable characters rings true to life and at times some of the casual vignettes are laugh out loud funny.

Undoubtedly running a start up technology company is hard work, but if you have to go through it, you could do a lot worse than be guided by Po Bronson fictionalised account, in fact, I'd go so far as to say it should be required reading.