Posts Tagged ‘Book reviews

23
May
16

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a lot here to chew on. Democracy in America took me the better part of 2012 to read and that’s not just because I was pacing myself: it’s a dense volume, with a lot of information and analysis. Tocqueville moves from everything from what could cause a civil war in the US (he wasn’t far off on that one) to a future when the US and Russia are the dominant powers in the world (remarkably insightful for someone living in the early 19th century) to the tyranny of the majority (I’m still not sold on that one). I’m not sure it’s as indispensable as is sometimes claimed, but I feel like I have a much better grasp on the political theories around the way the US was constructed.

But like I said: this is a long read. He covers a lot of territory and a lot of theorizing. There’s some end notes, but I kept wishing there were more of them (and weren’t as obvious as explaining who people like Napoleon were) to help make some of his insights a little easier to digest. And for what it’s worth, the two essays included at the end of this book are enjoyable reading, too: they’re both accounts of Tocqueville’s travels along the Canadian/US border, plunging deep into the woods. Recommended for political buffs, but it might be overwhelming for casual readers.

 

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04
Jan
16

Book Review: Mumbo Jumbo – Ishmael Reed

Mumbo JumboMumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

A wild, vicious satire about jazz-age America, Mumbo Jumbo is a blast, in more ways than one.

Essentially, it follows PaPa LaBas, a sort of priest who’s looking for the text of a plague sweeping the country: Jes Grew, which makes people dance and create, a kind of spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, if you will. He’s opposed by the Knights Templar, the Wallflower Order, who’s slogan is “Lord, if I can’t dance, no one will,” and various New York heavies who may be gangsters, or immortal and possibly both, but definitely a bunch of white men trying to profit by ripping off black culture. Meanwhile, there’s the militant “Mu’tafikah,” who steal art from the Centre for Art Detention (be sure to look up it’s address) to return it back where it came; a proto-Nation of Islam, led by the cynically clever Abdul Sufi Hamid; spirits and ghosts; not to mention the true story of Osiris, Isis and Set, and where Homer got his stories from.

Really, the most exhilarating thing about this book – and arguably what’ll turn most people off – is it’s free-sampling style of construction. Reed routinely cuts between scenes and time at will, jumping and moving around and incorporating all kinds of found texts into his story: newspaper headlines, radio bulletins, quotes, and photos. People in the 20s make casual references to people living decades later. It gives his book a kinetic kind of punch; just when you think you’re getting the hang of things, along comes a photo of a group of men in suits side by side of a group of men hanging around a giant statue.

As I got there, I kept getting questions: is that Reed in the bottom? Who are those people up above? What’s he saying by placing them, countering not just each other, but the climax of his story itself? And this was literally only one page. There’s a lot to chew on here; this is the kind of book I imagine re-reads will pick up new elements in, particularly as one gets older and can start putting the photos and quotes in a new context.

Not that I expect it in a novel like this, but after I finished I kept thinking about how cool it’d be to have a critical edition of this, annotated with footnotes and smarter readers than I weighing in on it, helping to give it a little more context. At the same time, I think I generally got along without any real trouble and had a blast reading the thing.

It’s a smart, clever and darkly sharp satire, taking on everything from popular music to literary magazines to race relations. It’s a wild ride and I finished the last third in one long sitting. Recommended, especially if you think you’re up for a little challenge.

Rating: 8/10

09
Dec
15

Review: For Keeps – Pauline Kael

For Keeps: 9thirty Years at the MoviesFor Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies by Pauline Kael

This isn’t really the kind of book you’d sit and read cover to cover. Like, I did, but I’m not really a role model for how people should live their lives. I loved it, though.

What For Keeps is, is a collection of essays written for magazines (largely the New Yorker, but elsewhere too), generally reviewing then-current films. They were written back before screeners and largely before VHS/Beta allowed people to take movies into their homes, so a lot of her reviews try to capture her emotions after a screening or two.

Generally, when I read a collection of this sheer size and scope – it’s well over a thousand pages and over an inch thick – I find the essays all kind of bleed into each other and it’s hard to pick moments out of the pack. Fortunately, it’s not the case here. Although there are plenty of reviews for movies I’ve never seen (and probably never will), her prose, insight and instincts generally stand out well after I’ve read them. For example, when she writes about “Last Tango in Paris,” she carves into the raw sexuality of Brando. Elsewhere, she gets into the madness of Nicolas Cage, the way Paul Newman can make his characters appealing and looks at what made Cary Grant so good at what he did.

Similarly, taking her essays all in order lets you see how her judgment evolved, changed and focused over the years. For example, when she rips into “Full Metal Jacket,” it isn’t just a broadside against the movie, but a part of a long-running antagonistic relationship with Kubrick, who she feels lost himself when he moved to England and started taking himself too seriously. Or her long-running dislike for Clint Eastwood, where her arguments about violence in movies – particularly in how it rationalizes the violence viewers are supposed to embrace – sound as fresh as anything you’d read on AV Club, Grantland or New Yorker.

Still, there are moments which sound dated. Kael is probably best remembered for her insight or wit, but she also had a real nasty streak. When I read her calling someone a fatty, I wonder what’d she say about Melissa McCarthy. And her defence of a movie like “Driving Miss Daisy” seems a little reactionary, particularly since I’d read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist almost in tandem with For Keeps, and Gay’s approach to a movie like that comes off far better (to again make a modern parallel: would Kael have liked “The Help” or would she have seen through that, too?).

Probably the weakest moment in the book is her book-length essay “Raising Cain,” which is collected here in full. At the time, it was an incendiary shot at Orson Welles and Auteur Theory, arguing “Citizen Kane” was more the work of Herman Mankiewicz than Welles. Although it has it’s moments, particularly when dealing with Hollywood in the 30s, the essay is problematic: there are attribution issues where Kael claimed others work as her own; there are factual errors by Kael, too. I like the style and her essay is readable, but I also skimmed over it.

It’s a little hard to recommend a book of this scale and size. It’s a little unwieldy to carry around and the reviews are both too long and too few to really make it worthwhile as a companion to, say, Leonard Maltin’s books. (Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies might be a better choice there). But I’d still recommend it for anyone who enjoys reading good criticism, is interested in film or in writing their own criticism. For me, it has a nice spot next to Roger Ebert’s Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the Finest Writing From a Century of Film.

The thing about Kael isn’t her wit (although it’s nice), but the way poked into and at movies. I don’t think it’s a cliché to say she loved film, since it so vividly comes through with her writing, in the way she could enjoy both pulpy fare like “The Re-Animator” and high-class works like “The Dead.” But her love wasn’t uncritical: if a movie had holes, she’d poke at them: why was a character motiviated? What did the lighting do for a scene? Does a script take the time to explain a character? Etc, etc, etc.

These days, movie criticism is largely left to the specialists who work off in a corner that nobody really reads. Wesley Morris won a Pulitzer for his work, but Grantland struggled to find an audience. Instead, people gravitate towards people like Ebert, who would sum a movie with a hand gesture, or TV critics who award flicks on a sliding scale of three to five stars. It’s kind of funny when some of the best criticism comes from Gregg Turkington and Tim Hidecker’s funny web series “On Cinema at the Cinema.” So go back to Kael, go back and read about some movies you’ve forgotten or never seen, and enjoy yourself. I certainly did.

4/5

03
Oct
15

Book Review: The Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To Hadrian – Robin Lane Fox

Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To HadrianThe Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To Hadrian by Robin Lane Fox

Written right on the cover of Robin Lane Fox’s book about the history of Greece and Rome is the word epic. It’s there three times, actually. I guess that’s a word which has lost it’s power in recent years, but it used to apply to the ancient world a lot, particularly to long poems by Homer and Virgil.

Neither of them really have a large role here in his book, but the sheer size and scope of Fox’s book sort of reminded me of them: he attempts to take a good 600-plus years of history, pretty eventful ones at that, and condense them down to 600 pages. He did a pretty good job, but it’s more of a casual history than something in-depth.

Lane opens his history with the archaic Greece of Homer, Hesiod and the rise of city-states (nothing, sadly on the Mycenaean era) and wraps up with the emperor Hadrian. In between, he looks at the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, the rise of Rome and decline of Greek power, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Ptolemaic dynasty. He particularly writes with authority on the Roman years, especially when the last years of the Republic and the start of the Roman Empire. It’s all well and good, but it’s the kind of thing any textbook could have.

But where his book diverges is when it comes to literature and society, particularly in how they relate to the history he’s covering.

For example, his look at the first years of the Roman Empire is filled with references to the letters of the Younger Pilny, who he says produced the closest thing to an autobiography that’s come down to us. And the last years of the Republic are filled with references to the writings of Cicero: letters, speeches and works of philosophy. He uses these works of literature to show how people – at least the upper class, anyway – thought and felt, how they had to act publically and expressed in private.

It’s also interesting when he examines the roles of various forms of art, particularly portraits of people. What can the picture of a couple on a wall of a villa in Pompeii tell us about the people who lived there? What about the face of a boy painted on top of a mummy? There’s certainly some supposition, but Fox’s writing on what we know about these examples is fascinating stuff; I’ll admit to being a little haunted by the mummy portrait, too.

At the same time, his look at literature also jumps around and overlooks some people. Poets like Virgil and Horace show up a often, but others like Ovid and Juvenal barely show up at all. Lucretius, whose poem On the Nature of Things is arguably one of the most important pieces of literature to come out of Rome, is relegated to a single line.

But then again, he had only so much space to work with and condense into 600 pages. And there was a lot to cover. I’m reminded Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra, which tackled a similarly large, eventful era in a relatively small book. There was more ground covered there, but I think Fox did a similarly good job on this era. It’s readable, never gets bogged down in statistics or historical minutiae and should be pretty good for the general reader who’s interested in learning what happened so long ago and, more importantly, why we should know about it.

Rating: 7/10

24
Aug
15

Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

There’s been some buzz lately about Toronto bidding on a World’s Fair, which frankly sounds like a bad idea to me. Those things are expensive, take a long time to put together and don’t really have a lasting purpose. If I remember The Power Broker right, the World’s Fair is what brought Robert Moses down and he was as powerful a man as it got in New York.

Anyway, with World’s Fairs in mind, I decided to read a book I’ve had sitting around for a long time but never bothered to read: Erik Larson’s The Devil In the White City. Larson’s the author of several pop-history books: In the Garden of Beasts, about the rise of the Nazi party, and Dead Calm, about the sinking of the Lusitania. This one is about the 1893 World’s Fair, but also about infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes, too.

As far as pop history books go, White City is functional. There’s a story, characters and a setting. Things happen, characters explain why they happened and then something else happens. I suppose Larson deserves credit for that.

But as far as a good book goes, it misses the mark.

Essentially, Larson bounces back and forth between two plots, one about the Fair and another about Holmes. Occasionally, he follows a few other people, too, like crazed assassin Patrick Prendergrast.

In the left corner, there’s the story of how the fair came together, starting as a way to prove Chicago was a city on the same scale as New York and was the result of a few people’s focused visions: landscape, all-white architecture, the then-revolutionary invention of the Ferris wheel.

And in the right corner is Holmes, a manipulative and slick sociopath who constructed an infamous murder house, containing rooms that shot gas or contained soundproof incinerators. He killed perhaps dozens of people, typically young single women.

He weaves between these two plots (pausing occasionally to briefly follow Prendergrast) and tries to draw parallels and tie them together into one continuous narrative. It kind of works. Kinda.

The thing about these stories is how they all kind don’t really have anything to do with each other. They all happened at the same time, sure, but Holmes could’ve killed people in any city at any time, probably. Aside from a short visit to the fair, his story doesn’t really have any connection to the other plot. And on the other hand, none of the principals of the other story likely heard of Holmes before he was arrested.

But throughout the book, Larsen jumps back and forth at a nearly dizzying pace. One moment he writing about a specific kind of flower used in landscaping; a few pages later, he’s writing about how Holmes built a box to burn his victim’s bodies in. Eventually it’s hard to even connect the two, as Holmes moved on from Chicago to other cities: St. Louis and Toronto, most notably.

Taken as a whole, Larson’s book feels like it’s two underdeveloped books packed into one. Neither narrative really requires or builds off the other and at time, I felt like I was reading two padded-out magazine features at the same time. Before long, I found myself rushing to get through it.

But going a bit deeper made the book even more uninteresting. Larson admits his research methods rely heavily on period documents: he read many books, including Holmes own memoir. However, he admits he didn’t hire a researcher or use the internet, preferring to look at documents and make his own judgments. Which he does, quite a lot, packing his account with a lot of supposition.

This gets a little annoying and troublesome, especially for Holmes. After all, Larson admits, “what motivated Holmes may never be known.” Although he consulted with others on what he thinks happened, Larson tries to paint pictures of people’s final moments with Holmes and provide a motive where nobody can definitively say what happened or why. In other words, his accounts are colourful, but who knows if they’re correct.

Like I said above, the book felt like two stories that could’ve used some editing (particularly in how often they repeat information) and ran in a magazine somewhere. Here, they’re mashed together with some narrative twists and presented as one consecutive story. It’s too bad there isn’t one.

Rating: 3/10

23
Jul
15

Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau

Zazie in the MetroZazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau (translated by Barbara Wright)

Sometimes, I’ll call a book or story cinematic. Normally, I mean it as a way to say the writing is particularly visual, like the words immediately lend themselves to being seen. For example, when I think of Casey Plett’s story “Not Bleak” (review coming soon, I swear!), I can picture the wide-open fields of the Canadian prairies and the small Mennonite community, not to mention Zeke withdrawing into herself as they cross the border.

But here’s something else that seems cinematic, in a different sense of the word. Zazie at the Metro is cinematic in a Buster Keaton sense; it’s essentially the story of a young girl visiting her uncle in the city and wanting to ride the subway. But it goes off the rails in a series of increasingly madcap adventures, witty wordplay and punning, and alcohol. As written, the book practically is a screenplay; small wonder it was made into a film only a short while later.

As noted, it’s about a young kid visiting her uncle. That’s Zazie, visiting Paris to see her uncle Gabriel. She doesn’t like him, or anybody else, and is fixated on riding the Metro. Which is closed up because of a strike. Instead, Zazie starts amusing herself, stealing, lying and running amok through Paris. She – with Gabriel, his friend Charles and a handful of accomplices in tow – get mixed up in police conspiracies, different varieties of kidnapping and a drag nightclub.

It sounds simple enough, right? And it’s a wild story, the kind that gets crazier as it goes on, kind of like one of those old Keaton or Harold Lloyd flicks, where the hero ends up chased through town by thousands of people or climbs a skyscraper with their bare hands. The fun is in the telling, not in the realism.

Which gets me to my favourite thing about this book: the telling. During a life as a public intellectual, Queneau was known as something of a lingual jokester. One of his books is Exercises in Style, where a simple story is told in different forms, over and over, with Queneau parodying everything and anything. This is similar.

Throughout, he writes characters as a collection of clichés and accents, their words running together and slipping into puns. Zazie goes from childlike innocence to asking existential questions in a moment, characters emptily rely with “(gesture)” or “(sigh)”, and Queneau reaches for the wordiest of saying things: “the cameras crepitated,” and tourists talk with “a great berlitzscoulian effort.”

Or, for example, here’s a small taste of Queneau’s prose:

“Gabriel’s admirers had already installed him comfortably and, equipped with adequate apparatuses, were measuring the weight of the light in order to take his portrait with silhouette effect…” (pg 76)

The Penguin Classics edition is nice, coming with a decent introduction by Gilbert Adair, who sets the stage for the book: he sketches out Queneau’s biography, explains the reactions to this little book and draws a comparison between it and French New Wave, particularly to the films of Godard.

The translation by Barbara Wright is good, too. Between all the puns and linguistic wordplay, I imagine the text was a pain to translate. Although I found it a tad British at times – the police arrive in a black maria, for example – I can’t really speak to that being something she added or if it’s more a reflection of a particularly French synonym that defies translation. It certainly makes me want to polish up my abysmal French skills, anyway.

All in all, a wild, silly and highly enjoyable ride. If you’re the kind of person who likes re-reading stuff, there’s plenty of wordplay and such to go back and chew on; if you’re more into reading comic adventures, there’s a lot of that too. It’s probably a tad too clever for some people – I can imagine some saying it strays too far from reality for their tastes – but still, I’d recommend it unreservedly.

Rating: 8/10

30
Jun
15

Rome at the Brink: The Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust

The Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of CatilineThe Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust
(translated and edited by S.A. Handford)

The last years of the Roman Republic were a pretty wild time. Casear was running his army through Gaul, Pompey was battling out in the East and at home, there was discontent and riots. Two of the most interesting moments care rather early in the late period and were both covered by the same author in two short monographs.

Sallust was a senator and governor in these years. According to legend, he was wildly corrupt and made a killing before being asked to resign, when he retired to a private life of writing histories. Two of these have come down to us: one looks at the short war against Jurgantha, the other examines Cataline’s conspiracy to bring down the government in a coup. I can’t speak to Sallust the politician, but as an author, he’s an interesting one, if one that’s problematic.

Let’s start with the Jugurthine War. Jugurtha was a king in what’s now northern Africa and an ally to Rome, although someone who wanted power, which Rome wasn’t willing to give. He bribed people in the senate to overlook his naked power grabs as he marched up and down the country. He eventually ended up killing Romans and pissing off the republic, who sent an army down to deal with him. Sallust’s timeline isn’t exactly clear, but he generally follows as both Quintus Caecilius Metellus and Gaius Marius ran consecutive campaigns against him.

It’s pitched stuff. Roman armies come close to defeat, but pull out a win at the last moment. Roman leaders corrupt Jugurtha’s confidents, who then stage plots to kidnap and sell their king to Rome. Marius captures a city when a foot solider discovers an overlooked path that leads right around the strongholds. Finally, there’s an all-or-nothing battle where Jugurtha throws it all on the line and loses.

Meanwhile, the Catiline conspiracy is shorter, but even crazier. Catiline was “an ambitious careerist,” as Hardford puts it, who eventually decided he should rule Rome. After losing elections and seeing his enemy Cicero be elected to power, Catiline staged a conspiracy to put together an army and take Rome by force.

It wasn’t really all that crazy. At the time, Roman generals commanded a lot of personal power with their armies, who looked to them for everything from pay to a plot of land when they retired. And at the time, Pompey and his army were out in the far east.

In Sallust’s hands, it plays out like a morality play. Catiline corrupts people with his wealth and attracts all sorts of undesirables. Meanwhile, the upstanding leaders in Rome – Cicero, Cato and Caesar – investigate like detectives, debate appropriate punishments and set up resistance. Coming from a guy who was legendarily corrupt himself, seeing such moralizing is kind of funny. Although again: Sallust is great at setting tension and building a gripping narrative.

Here’s where the trouble comes in: he’s often confusing and misleading in his storytelling. At worst, he’s outright malicious and disingenuous. He places events where they have more dramatic impact, not when they actually happened. He gives people cool dramatic dialogue – “I will check the fire that threatens to consume me by pulling down everything about your ears.” – but provides it at the wrong time (and, according to Cicero, gives us the wrong words, too!).

This is where a good editor like the late S.A. Handford comes in handy: he establishes the misleading errors, provides context and lays out a clear timeline in two introductions and keeps the taut, dramatic narrative intact. Even if Sallust wasn’t an accurate historian, he was still a pretty solid writer, although I’d rank him in a second class behind Livy (Previously reviewed: The Rise of Rome (Books I-V); The War With Hannibal (Books XXI-XXX); Rome and Italy (books VI-X)  or Tacitus (Previously reviewed: The Annals).

Rating: 7/10

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