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All That Man Is
All That Man Is
by David Szalay
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Who's Szalay now?, 23 July 2016
This review is from: All That Man Is (Hardcover)
David Szalays latest book is something of a hybrid- a novel that isn’t a novel; a collection of short stories that are short stories pretending to be a novel; that pretence maintained by the linking of the short stories around a theme of what it is to be a man- a life journey spread over nine different men who get older chronologically as the book progresses. So far so tricksy. Perhaps we need a new word for the novel that is a short story collection- a “snovel” perhaps? This could easily be written off as a pretentious creative writing exercise. The idea that each male character is out of place – displaced- either by a holiday, work trip or as an emigre is interesting but too easily a bolster for the spiritual journey each man is supposedly making- I say supposedly, because some characters seem to learn nothing or progress-indeed any ‘progression’ is outside the bounds of most of these stories.

Szalay is perhaps trying to say everything and nothing at the same time. Life very often presents us with banalities or seemingly innocuous events from which we search (sometimes desperately) in retrospect for profundity. Reading this book despite all the caveats about its form and its ambition the stories themselves were oddly compelling. I don’t particularly buy the idea of modern man as some sort of neutered man baby in a society that has forgotten what men are for. Nor I think does Szalay. Still his men were a sorry bunch- yet he did still manage to make the reader feel for them, root for them and occasionally be happy that they were not these characters in these situations.

It seems pointless to describe each story or character. There are the pleasures of recognizing the stories that are resonant for this reader. There are also the pleasures of recognizing how well written the pieces are. Szalay writes quite brilliantly with a clever turn of phrase- a real estate manager disapproving of a development –“expense had been spared”…Occasionally characters lapse into cliché- the minder who harbours a secret affection for the gangsters moll.

Many stories ended in not so much a dying fall- sometimes dangerously close to a damp squib or like a car running out of fuel and clearly Szalay wants the reader to ask for more. The obvious thing to do would be for him to take one of those stories and develop both backstories and future events for a strong or memorable character. The fun would be to make the case for each one. Simon- part of the pairing in the first story of two 17 year old backpackers- is referred to in the last story- a circularity of sorts. I liked the elderly diplomat at the end in the last story. I also liked the Minder with the crush. I was less taken with the Russian oligarch ( a story taken from reality perhaps) and the ‘real estate’ agent. The journalist who betrays his friend for the sake of a good story seemed a little too Steig Larsson for me. However, the writing of each and the remarkable throw away comments and observations were first class.

So- this was the first David Szalay I have read. I will certainly seek out his other novels and this book would certainly bear re-reading. I am sure there are many facets and nuances I have missed. Take this review as a first draft. It is clear he is a highly talented writer. His author photo shows a man looking slightly anxious and askew, questioning and challenging the viewer. His writing does the same thing.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 23, 2016 1:53 AM BST


Stephen (Penguin Monarchs): The Reign of Anarchy
Stephen (Penguin Monarchs): The Reign of Anarchy
by Carl Watkins
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.68

5.0 out of 5 stars Anarchy Anarchy they have all got it in for narky me.., 2 July 2016
This is another volume in the increasingly laudable Penguin Monarchs series. There is something inherently mysterious, nay even wrong about King Stephen- even the name jars and sounds wrong -King S t e p h e n ????? Was there a King Stephen? Was he even king? The answer is of course yes and yes but you would be forgiven for thinking not after reading this excellent volume by Carl Watkins. The mystery is compounded in part because it is the reign (or rather non reign?) of this king that Ellis Peters chose to set the Cadfael novels and mysterious murders, not to say violence were a muffled and blurred feature of the reign. The reign of Stephen also saw two Matilda's one being his clever and capable wife- a sort of dual metaphor for the duality of the reign which saw both claim the throne.
Watkins begins with a prologue in old fashioned storyteller mode telling the tale off the white ship. this in part reminds us of an empire on both sides of the channel.
Carl Watkins has a thesis- in part it is that Stephen could not get used to being king and act in a consistently kingly way- he could not adopt a consistent persona and therefore was a witness to his own fakery- my words, not Watkins's. He also seemed to lack a ruthless streak, being hidebound by chivalric codes- during the reign of "anarchy" ( a label that Watkins questions) both Stephen and Matilda manage to capture each other at various points only to release said prisoner or see them escape into the night. Once again this seems careless and mysterious adding to the mix. Stephen was careful to build up and enhance castles for defensive reasons only to end up trading said castles for the return of prisoners. He tried to avoid sieges of castles- ironically ones he himself had strengthened but the set piece battles and skirmishes were often ones that put his liberty directly in peril.
Watkins tells all this in an engaging tone. He is in complete command of his material. Indeed, this is one of the best of this series that I have read.
Would be queen Matilda perhaps deserves a bit more attention coming across as something of a cipher but Stephen remains rightly the focus both enigmatic and ever so slightly comical as he fights personal demons and potential national anarchy. He was fortunate to have a structure of government made strong and familiar by King Henry 1 and leant on this heavily. Whilst acknowledging recent work by other scholars on Stephen Watkins rightly points out that "anarchy" was not necessarily the right word- government of a sort continued and some areas were unaffected. This is a difficult story to tell encompassing the empire across the channel as well as a large cast of characters and regional areas.
That Watkins makes you want to read more on Stephen is to his credit and the book- as ever comes with scholarly notes and a decent bibliography all beautifully encased in the now familiar white binding with a striking colour picture in profile of Stephen.
More than just an introduction Watkins writes with style and élan and I may seek out other work by him as well- it might also send me back To Cadfael. Recommended for those who like their kings to be complex and occasionally human with flaws to boot.


Victims and Survivors: The Nazi Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands 1940-1945: Nazi Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands, 1940-45 (Studies in Russian and East European)
Victims and Survivors: The Nazi Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands 1940-1945: Nazi Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands, 1940-45 (Studies in Russian and East European)
by Bob Moore
Edition: Paperback
Price: £31.97

4.0 out of 5 stars Important and useful micro history..., 21 Jun. 2016
Bob Moore sets out to examine why the Holocaust was so all encompassing in Holland, where Jews suffered a higher mortality rate than in any other comparable western European country. What were the reasons for this and what conditions prevailed that made this possible. This is a dense but meticulously well researched micro history that is crystal clear in its framing of problems and questions and its presentation of the available evidence. Moore covers pretty much everything from the exceptionally successful registration of the jewish population; the concentration of Jews in certain areas, the cooperation of the Jewish council in compiling lists for deportation and the unrelenting hunt for Jews in hiding- the use of jew hunters and the risks ordinary people took to hide jews. The Anne Frank story is perhaps deliberately eschewed ( limited to two or three references only in the index) in favour of a micro look at the whole range of experiences and narratives from less familiar sources. What comes across is the unrelenting and ceaseless mission by the Germans to literally hunt down all Jews and the lengths they went to the bend all resources available- including people with axes to grind and local knowledge- to complete their mission. The controversies surrounding possible collaboration are also carefully dealt with and Moore is both balanced and skilled in presenting narratives that are sometimes piecemeal and contradictory. His method of posing questions at the beginning of each chapter or section is clear and useful but pays a price in terms of flow and style. This is not a book written with a flourish (appropriately perhaps) or with a stylish narrative flow. It is an admirable academic history presented with considerable skill and a major contribution to the history of the holocaust in the West- sometimes overwhelmed by the horror and atrocities committed in the East. It is a model for how to write an inquiring book focussing on an individual country. What it lacks in style is balanced by the rewards found in its carefully presented evidence.


Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love
Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love
by James Booth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Larkin- with no warts- and all...., 12 May 2016
James Booth "knew" Philip Larkin, though only in a public capacity at events run by Hull University, where Booth was in the English department (which was in turn consciously avoided by Larkin.) Booth is now a leading light in the Larkin society and this hefty volume is heralded as a corrective to the warts and all work of Andrew Motion and to a much lesser degree Anthony Thwaite- both of which also "knew" Larkin. Booth seeks to provide a narrative that shows and perhaps justifies or explains some of Larkin's supposed "warts"- his "racism"; sexism, little Englander, curmudgeonly presence that spills over into his poetry and his private life. That he ordered all his diaries to be burned on his death suggests that he wanted a public profile and poetic reputation to be untarnished by such private peccadilloes. Booth seeks to provide a more rounded and grounded explanation for such behaviour by closely examining his relationships and by attempting to "know" or surmise his likely motivations and mindset.
The book has been criticised by some for explaining away or excusing his behaviour, particularly in relation to the women in his life- he was far from a hermit but like many writers needed a muse and solitary time away from said muse to produce poetry- though in point of truth he was forever sending drafts (mainly to Monica Jones) asking for opinions or suggestions which he usually, but not always ignored.
For me, as a reader I felt Booths narrative was strong and well organised. He doesn't always excuse Larkin but there are occasions when you wish he didn't feel the need to provide surmised motivations or a list of possible excuses why he behaved the way he did...What Booth is strong on is the poetry itself which is carefully analysed and the portrayal of Larkins perambulatory existence from Coventry to Wellingborough to Belfast too Hull.
Booth writes very well about Larkin's emotional states and his growing interdependence on Monica Jones which almost came to marriage but fell on the stony ground of Larkin's worries about that final (and perhaps for him) irrevocable commitment which would mean losing his own space and his own thought world....he only lived with Monica when she was unable to look after herself. There are occasional glimpses of humour. Larkin was razor sharp and caustic about other poets. Ted Hughes, in particular seemed to unnerve and annoy him. Booth is also good on his relationships with other women, with the ever present "noise" of Monica in the background. The final chapters are irrevocably sad. Larkin, whose poetry often referenced death died at the same age as his father, of the same condition- which is strangely and darkly poetic.
Whatever the faults of Booths book it is still a fine piece of work and perhaps we did need another full biography to go alongside the works of Motion and Richard Bradford and to accompany both the wonderful, Letters to Monica (Thwaite ed.) and the excellent book on Larkin's photographic life-
The Importance of Elsewhere. I suspect we won't need another biography for at least a generation or more unless some new aspect of his life and work is evidenced. Booths book may jettison the warts but Larkin is still recognisably the man who could memorably (and irresistibly) pastiche Ted Hughes when they were both commissioned to write a quatrain on the queens jubilee-
The sky split apart in malice
Stars rattled like pans on a shelf
Crow shat on Buckingham palace
God pissed Himself...

Its that humour and Larkin's glee in using it that can be missed in accounts of Larkin- he cared deeply about many things but also recognised the occasion where only a dagger would do. At times Booth suggests that biography had the daggers out for Larkin himself and as a corrective his book is fine, but its more than that. Its a respectful and empathetic account of a complex man who expressed himself in carefully chosen words. A writer, a poet and a mere human mortal man with faults and frailties who left us - perhaps too soon..


The Noise of Time
The Noise of Time
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars You wait for one aphorism and three come along at once..., 19 April 2016
This review is from: The Noise of Time (Hardcover)
Right at the end of this book Barnes suggests that if the reader has not enjoyed his book they should read Elizabeth Wilsons exemplary biography instead. The problem is I could have done with this advice on the cover...It is rare that I don't enjoy or admire a book by Barnes so I came to this with high hopes reading about a composers life with which I was not famiiar against a Stalinist background about which i have read alot. The problem with this book for me was that it was a series of vignettes- some quite striking that did't add up to much more than a comment on the moral and personal compromises his hero went through in order to survive the purges of Stalin. Once you have got this point there isn't much left. It is written inn a staccato style as though an exercise on finding an aphorism in a...well...wordstack...or book by Julian Barnes. There is no real sense of the terror that was Stalin and the historical context, whilst admittedly difficult to sketch in, within a book of this length is ignored and severely underdeveloped. There is not much sense of the person either. So who is this book for? Musicologists? Stalin completists? Shostakovich completists? Fans of Julian Barnes? As a fan of Barnes I was disappointed and left somewhat cold by an exercise in writing with not much heart as though Barnes had censored his talent to spite the nasty Stalin. There are a bravura couple of last pages where it looks like he has finally hit his mark but by then its too late. Few writers can avoid writing a bad book on occasion and in truth this isn't a bad book but by Barnes standards its hard work. I am off to find Elizabeth Wilson's biography. I am taking Barnes' advice!


William II (Penguin Monarchs): The Red King
William II (Penguin Monarchs): The Red King
by John Gillingham
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.68

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Character assassination under the microscope...slings, arrows and all.., 3 April 2016
This is an excellent account of the life and reign of William Rufus. Written with verve and style it is more interested in the character assassination of William than his actual assassination and is skilful in negotiating the minefield of contradictory sources and myriad motivations. Following on from his father, "the conqueror" was always going to be a tall order though Gillingham emphasises both his military skill- not least in spending the right money at the right time to achieve a military victory. The 'problem' of his brothers Robert and Henry was never far from view as was the need to retain command of an empire across the channel coupled with hostility closer to home in Scotland and more problematically in Wales. Gillingham also finds time to focus on other aspects of Williams character that were criticised- not least, his supposedly deviant sexual proclivities. This is all dealt with carefully and with out lapses into prurience. Indeed, Gillingham is crystal clear on the sources he is more likely to trust and the pros and cons of contemporary chroniclers. Overall, despite the brevity expected from this series, Gillingham manages a wide ranging discussion of many aspects and provides a useful bibliography. The death of Rufus is dealt with in a few lines and he is true to his word in seeing this aspect as a possible distraction from the very real achievements of a life lived as a Norman king.


Thatcher Stole My Trousers
Thatcher Stole My Trousers
by Alexei Sayle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hello John, got a new anecdote?, 2 April 2016
Firstly, this is a very nicely produced book. A bold red cover with evocative black and white photos inside as well as some colour ones. It does Sayle proud. I bought this not having read his first volume (the wonderfully titled, Stalin Ate My Homework) so this was my first encounter with his prose.
Sayle is in no hurry to tell his story. I was halfway through the book before he had reached any level of fame but he tells a compelling a nicely written series of anecdotes about his time at Chelsea Art college and his slow discovery of his very own comic potential. There are some lovely stories about Britain in the 1970s and 80s and the trademark Sayle wit- once again as with books by some other comics "off the tele" I read it imagining Sayle reading it himself and hearing his intelligent but unmistakeable Liverpudlian drawl. It easy to underestimate Sayle's power and his self proclaimed invention of "stand up" and "alternative" comedy. This was in part due to his own confidence in his material and his unique style. Paul Merton (in his own volume) talks about seeing Sayle and being inspired to become a comedian.....So its completely convincing that he could wield such power and that his slowish rise was haphazard and sometimes seemingly accidental but always going to happen at some point. That he had stumbled into Drama teaching was a sort of surprise and his constant underplaying of all skills and achievements that were not "stand up" serves to highlight the focus he needed to succeed. Much credit is given to his girlfriend and subsequent wife, Linda who comes across as the absolute rock that he needed to stay on track. So- a good read with some laughs but only four stars because Sayle tells it (understandably perhaps) as a series of "sets" or "anecdotes" like a good comedian would. However, this structure means that chapters and stories themselves end suddenly with no resolution for follow through and link together clunkily, sometimes upsetting the tone. Overall, its a good, sometimes compelling read and may take me back to his first volume and maybe his fiction.


The Globe Guide to Shakespeare: The plays, the productions, the life
The Globe Guide to Shakespeare: The plays, the productions, the life
by Andrew Dickson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A revamped title but this is not a "new" book, 2 April 2016
This looks almost identical to a book by the same author called "The Rough Guide to Shakespeare" published in 2005. That this isn't acknowledged in the first few pages is naughty. Clearly its been updated and there are additional contributions but to attribute it as a publication solely originating as a "new" book from the Globe or Globe education is misleading. As for the content it is comprehensive, nicely laid out and includes some pretty up to date references to film versions for example with a comment on the recent Fassbender Macbeth. There is a full annotated bibliography and glossary. However, once again it is identical in layout to the "Rough Guide". So Four stars for the content- would maybe have been five if there had been some honesty about this book not being a new book!!
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 8, 2016 8:56 PM BST


Morecambe and Wise
Morecambe and Wise
by Graham McCann
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars What do you think of it so far?, 26 Mar. 2016
This review is from: Morecambe and Wise (Hardcover)
When first published in 1998 this told what was then, a less familiar story about the rise of the best double act of all time. Reading this now , despite their story having been retold on television and in numerous books and DVDs that celebrate the duo, it is still one with surprises- not least how hard they had to work in the early days to get recognition and their telling loyalty to the act when there was a temptation to pursue solo careers.
McCann is a sympathetic storyteller and provides good context on the role of the BBC and its strict rules as a medium initially dominated by radio that forbad any innuendo and was nervous about a variety routine. The 20 minutes of material that served them well in theatres was not enough for TV. Thus the role of the writer is also emphasised. Their first foray into TV could have been their last-Running Wild was a disaster- one scathing review was carried around by Morecambe forever after- "whats the definition of television- the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in".
Only with the arrival of Eddie Braben as a writer did they really have a muse- who understood their rhythms and personalities and the golden years of their TV careers arrived. McCann is hard pressed to explain their move to ITV - Wise claimed it was simply about money but McCann reveals that the BBC matched ITV's offer- his own theory is that ITV promised the duo another go at making a film after their risible trio of films in the 60s had failed to produce any film career, particularly important for Wise...
The final years saw a decline in their fortunes, in part due to Morecambe's health and his desire to rest- though he was incapable of that pursuing numerous hobbies including writing a number of novels- I would have liked a little more on the novels - McCann hurries over this aspect.
Finally the tragedy of Morecambe's death and its effect on Wise are dealt with and there book ends on a literally dying fall......a worthy book with an extensive listing of all the duo's performances in theatre, radio and TV plus a full set of scholarly notes and a bibliography make this a book well worth reading. Anyone who disagrees....I'll smash his face in...


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season Two [2012] [DVD]
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season Two [2012] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Rob Paulsen
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome dudes..., 24 Mar. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
These are wonderfully well made programmes. There is wit, humour and a variety of layered storylines that are complex and entertaining for adults whilst keeping my youngster happy and excited. Indeed, the writers and makers of this should be congratulated for not patronising its viewers. There is a great balance between entertainment and some genuinely clever and creative decisions. Good value for money and a really entertaining season. The programmes themselves look great with some really clever artwork and plenty of fun, action and laughs.


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