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Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
by John Edward Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Gives the mudane its beautiful due, 26 Jun 2014
Looking through the reviews posted here, one is struck by the refrain, "Why isn't this book more famous?" Yet I think we should count ourselves lucky that it was published at all, that it is at last being widely appreciated decades after its publication, because if it had been written in the 21st century, I'm not sure it would even have been taken on. In this world of hooks and killer opening lines, it would take a brave agent or commissioning editor indeed to champion a book that, on its opening page, basically says that the main character is someone who left little impression on the world, a man no one thought a great deal of; a failure or, at best, a very qualified success.
William Stoner is a son of the heartland soil who becomes an academic and teacher. He marries badly, spends his entire career at the same university, publishes one 'pedestrian' book, suffers through departmental feuding, has an affair, and, at the end of the book, he dies. Great events of the time - the two World Wars, the Great Depression - are viewed through the prism of academia. They do not directly affect the tenured professor, yet indirectly, they affect him a great deal.
John Williams is a wonderful writer. It seems his unshowy prose could capture every nuance of human emotion, or every hue on a magpie's wing. Here is a writer who, to quote John Updike, truly can "give the mundane its beautiful due."
In the same way Stoner cannot articulate the importance of literature to his students, I don't feel able to explain quite what makes this such a marvellous book. And yet it is marvellous - of that I'm quite sure.


The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
Price: 5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Another sunrise with the Bury boys, 17 April 2014
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So, Elbow are back - and not before time.
Some have said this album lacks ambition, and there's something to be said for that, which is why I've rated it at four stars instead of five. But Elbow playing it safe are still much better, musically and lyrically, than most of the stuff out there. This album is a low-key affair, with an immersive quality that reminds me of "Asleep In The Back". The closest they get to an anthem is probably "My Sad Captains", a cracking song that perfectly captures the joy of friendship, and the melancholy of growing older.
When I listen to Elbow, the world always seems a slightly nicer, sadder, and more beautiful place, and for that, I am very grateful to them.


Portrait
Portrait
Price: 11.25

4.0 out of 5 stars Bittersweet and beautiful, 31 Jan 2014
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This review is from: Portrait (Audio CD)
This is a gem. I've rated it as four rather than five as a couple of the tracks are fillers, but most of them are wonderful - simple and beautiful harmonies and a bittersweet voice that seems to have lived an age, the sort of stuff that will have you pulling your car over and sobbing your heart out.


Our Friends In The North BBC [DVD] [1996]
Our Friends In The North BBC [DVD] [1996]
Dvd ~ Christopher Eccleston
Price: 19.33

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best of British, 31 Jan 2014
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A stellar cast on top of its game. A script that thrums with a barely-supressed anger at corruption and social injutice. A shining example of what can be achieved when you give a gifted writer editorial control, a la HBO. A sobering reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.


Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
by Katherine Boo
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.14

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not much hope, but maybe just enough, 22 Mar 2013
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I must confess I picked this book up with some trepidation. The subtitle - "Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum" - and the cover (of my copy), a young boy sprinting up steps into bright sunlight, made me think it might be another of those. You know, those. The post-Slumdog reportage. "Yes, conditions in Indian slums are appalling. But wait! Look at the way the children run and play! The sights, the smells! The way they can still laugh, in the face of such hardship. The way they just get on with the life they've got!" (What else are they supposed to do?) "So life-affirming!"
The hope of it all!
"Slumdog" is a good film. And a lot of the reportage is also good, and if it's not it's generally well-meaning. But I find it all a bit discomfiting. It's human to believe in hope, but it seems to me that, as Westerners, focussing on the small hopes that slum-dwellers have might be a convenient way of deflecting our own guilt that people have to live this way. (And the likes of Amitabh Bachchan castigating "Slumdog" for focussing on a small part of Indian life might be an Indian way of doing the same thing).
I thought this book might be more of the same. It wasn't.
Boo is no polemicist. She's a true journalist, and she tells this story with a journalistic dispassion, making it all the more affecting. (She has a novelist's eye, though; at times, the prose is breathtaking.) The stories are set in a small slum, rather than one of the giant cities-within-a-city like Dharavi; a wise choice, as she manages to paint a picture of a whole community, almost like a small village. There are a lot of characters to keep up with, and at times it's downright confusing. But even this makes sense. After all, urban India is a confusing place, teeming with people.
Despite the wonderful writing, there were times when I felt I could not go on. When I read about the disease and the filth and children being bitten by rats as they slept. The fungus "like butterfly wings" that grows on feet in the monsoon season. The exploitation and corruption, the abuse of slum-dwellers by the authorities, the abuse of slum children by their own families. The unsolved murders and streets-sweepers left to die on the pavements, the infanticide and the many suicides. And the hope - what there is of it - is almost the worst. That a family, pursued by a rotten judicial system, might not go to prison for a crime they did not commit. That one slum-dweller might, just possibly, scramble over others and into a very slightly less hardscrabble life.
I cried again and again. I became very angry. Occasionally, I laughed out loud. At times I was so scared for the characters that I felt ill with it. And when I had finished, I thought about them all for a long time, and wondered what they are doing now, the ones that survived. Because, of course, there's no story-book ending. Jamal does not win his millions. He doesn't get his Latika. The story might end, but life in the slum staggers and claws and bites and struggles on.
The people of the slum do questionable things - sometimes terrible things - to survive. But I think there is hope. They also do good things. That people forced to live like this could ever be decent, live by any kind of moral code, gives one hope of a sort.


Dominion
Dominion
by C. J. Sansom
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 7.60

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but flawed, 9 Jan 2013
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This review is from: Dominion (Hardcover)
I bought this after reading a couple of very positive reviews, and because I'm a big fan of "Fatherland" by Robert Harris. While there's lots to admire here, I'm sorry to say I'm a little disappointed.
First, the positives. Sansom deserves great credit for building up a detailed and very believable alternative history. His post-war world is depressingly convincing. Britain is grubby and apathetic, quietly falling to bits; Germany, while proclaiming itself the brave new world, is locked in an unwinnable war with Russia in which millions have died, and Berlin is full of dust from the Nazis' relentless construction. His portrayal of historical figures is excellent, and often inventive - for example, media magnate Lord Beaverbrook as Prime Minister, Marie Stopes as a government advisor on Jewish sterilisation.
Sansom also asks a very interesting and, for a British reader, a rather disturbing question. If Neville Chamberlain, rather than Churchill, had carried the day, and the Nazis had won the war, would Britain have become a Nazi satellite, a cat's paw for Germany? We like to think it would never have happened, that as a people we are too noble or simply too cynical to swallow fascist diatribe, but of course it's entirely possible it would have fallen out the way Sansom imagines it; some would have swallowed the propaganda the Nazis were so adept at, while others, while disagreeing with it, would have been too scared to do anything about it.
But out of all this great material, what he has produced is a rather plodding thriller. I found his writing style ponderous, with a few exceptions - one scene, set on Tottenham Court Road, is electrifying - but the main issue for me was the characterisation. The most interesting and complex character was Gunther, the Nazi intelligence officer - a man who believes completely in Germany's destiny, proclaims that the Final Solution was necessary, and yet is disarmingly self-effacing, has a messy private life, and shows empathy, even kindness. It's quite a daring thing to do, and works very well. It's not enough to redeem the British characters, though, who I found rather dull - particularly David, the key protagonist. OK, they are Brits, and it's the 50s, so I would expect them to be rather buttoned-up, but there's no sign of hidden fires at all.
'Dominion' is not bad, but it's not 'Fatherland'. Read the latter, if you haven't - if you have, and you liked it, I'd recommend 'Dominion', but not wholeheartedly.


A Visit From the Goon Squad
A Visit From the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Sweet music, 26 Sep 2012
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I'd heard a lot about this book, and was excited and a little nervous about reading it. Excited, because of the hype; nervous, because something that is so hyped often disappoints.
It didn't.
"A Visit From The Goon Squad" is an ambitious and profound book. It's a number of disparate but loosely connected stories, set across several decades (including the future), and written in different styles. Egan is not scared to break the rules, writing in first, second and third person, moving suddenly from straightforward linear narrative to, as an omniscient author, tell us about a character's future, breaking off to wax philosophical, even (famously) writing an entire chapter in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. It's easy (indeed, several readers on this site have done so) to level the charge of being pretentious at a book like this. Easy, and lazy. This is not a pretentious novel. When Egan writes in the second person, she does it in such an unshowy way that I was well into the chapter before I noticed. The PowerPoint section, which could have been horrible, was brilliant, a bitter-sweet portrayal of an unhappy marriage, and a father's struggles to relate to his (presumably) autistic son, told from the point of view of a teenaged girl.
Egan has the ability, as gifted writers do, of making even peripheral characters real; the most memorable, for me, is Dean, a vacuous, pretty-boy actor suddenly given a sinister aspect when showing slightly too much interest in an underaged girl. The connections between the characters are subtle but strong, highlighting the themes of the book; time, interconnectivity, music, common human experiences through changing times. And that stories do not end. Several times, we meet a character at a low ebb - a failing marriage, a drug habit, illness - only to meet them later with a revived career, a stable relationship, or (brilliantly) a dairy farm. It's wise, affecting, a reminder that there are always second chances.
Reading "Goon Squad" was like listening to a great album. Breathtaking chapters come thick and fast, like barnstorming tracks, interspersed with quieter, more reflective pieces, equally essential, if less glittering. Not a single track wasted. And a witty, intelligent stream of dialogue runs throughout, jangling like brilliant guitar riffs.
Sublime.


We Need To Talk About Kevin (Serpent's Tail Classics)
We Need To Talk About Kevin (Serpent's Tail Classics)
by Lionel Shriver
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars You need to read about Kevin, 3 Aug 2012
This is a disturbing read. That might seem like the world's most obvious statement, given the subject matter, but stay with me.
Yesterday I read a number of online reviews of the book. There was a lot of comment on the narrator, Eva, mainly along the lines of "I hated Eva", "I wanted to shake/slap her." I'll confess to feeling the same, at times - she's not the most sympathetic of characters. But it got me thinking. This is a mother whose teenage son has committed mass murder, and we're talking about shaking her, slapping her, hating her? Are we, as readers, doing what her neighbours, the media and society in general do to Eva in the book - condemning a woman for something her son has done, something she can not have been directly responsible for? And what does that say about us?
Eva is an interesting character - intelligent, arrogant, hugely guilty about what Kevin has done, defensive at the condemnation she has suffered, and thus unable to treat the rare kindness and understanding she receives - from the mother of a victim, the mother of another boy at the juvenile detention facility where Kevin's being held - at face value. The book is written as a series of letters to her husband, Franklin, so it's a recollection of facts by a woman who has been through a hugely traumatic experience - i.e. an unreliable account. Some of her thoughts about Kevin are so completely outlandish - for example, she sees his refusal to breast feed as a deliberate attempt to upset her - that it leads you to doubt practically anything she has to say. There's no doubt Franklin would tell a different story. Yet in describing her own shortcomings, her perceived failures as a mother and a person - she is unsparingly frank.
Fraklin is a bobby sox and apple pie American, but more interesting than he sounds, and a warm hearted and positive, if naive, presence. And Kevin?
He's chilling, as he should be. His classmates don't bully him. They fear him. But he's also funny, in the way Jerry Sadowitz is funny, in a way that appeals to the playground bully, the cynic, the misanthrope that lurks in all of us. This, too, is disturbing.
At times, it's brilliantly written - some of the set pieces, and a lot of the dialogue, crackle with energy. Eva's narration is often overblown - probably in order to portray the character's intellectual pretension, but even so, it grates, and makes it hard going at times. It's not a book I'm likely to return to, but I'm glad I read it. I think it's an important book.


The Guardians (New Windmills)
The Guardians (New Windmills)
by John Christopher
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 8.60

5.0 out of 5 stars A small piece of perfection, 21 Nov 2011
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I re-acquainted myself with The Guardians recently after about twenty years, and I'm really glad I did. It's a little jewel of a book and really should be back in print. I supect the reason it's not is that, due to being written in the 70s, its vision of the future (and futuristic words like plastiglass, holovision, lumoglobes) seem very dated, and would be seen as unlikely to strike a chord with people today, particularly youngsters, at whom the book is chiefly aimed. But the book's themes - mental conditioning, human freedom, and most of all the division between the rich and poor, the factory workers and factory owners - are more pertinent than ever. It's a short, plot-driven book, and the prose is spare, but nevertheless the world it creates is convincing in its detail, as are the characters. Running through it all is a rather troubling question - if people are conditioned to be happy, but are nevertheless happy, is that really such a bad thing?


The Fifth Head of Cerberus (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
The Fifth Head of Cerberus (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
by Gene Wolfe
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Hugely subtle and deeply satisfying, 31 May 2011
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This is the most interesting book I've read in a long time. It's the first time I've read Gene Wolfe, but I've known for a while that he is thought by many to be the most influential science fiction writer alive today. I don't know enough about the genre to comment on that, but I will say that if you like superb writing that will make you think, you should give this a whirl, even if you are put off sci-fi by thoughts of gamma rays/singularities/force fields, etc etc.
The book consists of three very different but interlinked novellas, set on the twin worlds of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix; a coming of age narrative by the son (apparently) of a brothel-keeper/sinister scientist, an etheral, hallucinatory tale about the original, aboriginal inhabitants of Sainte Anne, who (possibly) are later exterminated by settlers from Earth, and (ostensibly) the tale of an anthropologist from Earth, who has made it his life's work to study the history of the aboriginals.
But, in all the above tales, nothing is as straightforward as it seems, or indeed straightforward in any way.
Wolfe's themes are myriad, but the most obvious ones are identity, existence and the fallibility of human perception, nature versus nurture, and rites of passage. Wolfe handles them with dazzling skill; there are a number of fairly clear ambiguities, none of which are directly answered, and any amount of others that are hinted at with a breathtaking subtlety. He is either a genius or a very, very clever conjurer - I can't quite decide which. He writes beautifully, too.
The filmmaker Michael Haneke has said that he wants to pose questions to his viewers, rather than give answers. If this is the kind of thing you like, then I urge you to read this.


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