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Once Were Cops
Once Were Cops
by Ken Bruen
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What's Green and Blue and Noir All Over?, 7 April 2009
This review is from: Once Were Cops (Hardcover)
Ken Bruen specializes in dark, brutal, intense crime novels which tap into the deep psychosis of a particular type of Irish soul. No Celtic tiger or Grand Slam champions here, but a grim complex of guilt about mothers, priests and emigration, the refuge of the downtrodden in hurley and drink, a deeply rooted ambivalence towards the law and the conviction that success and corruption always ride together.

In "Once Were Cops," Bruen moves beyond his familiar Irish and London stages to New York City. Galway Garda Michael "Shea" O"Shea covets an opportunity to participate in an exchange program with his idealized NYPD Blues. He makes his wish come true by applying a canny touch of blackmail. Once in the Big Apple, he gets in deep. He is partnered with a solitary, unpopular and brutal cop nicknamed Kebar on account of his liberal use of a metal truncheon with the same name. Kebar is on the take, though only for the purest of motives : to maintain his disabled sister in an expensive care facility. Shea quickly becomes implicated in the corruption and tries to extricate himself through illegal action. Internal Affairs begins to harry him on both his own and Kebar's account. As if this were not enough, Shea harbors a dark, deadly secret - I won't betray the plot, but think: "Dexter" - which takes him well over the edge. Then, as his world is exploding, he pulls a rabbit from his peaked cap and not only escapes but lives on to become one of NYPD's best detectives. The story fast forwards, and we see his past begin to close in.

Bruen manages the transition to New York well. His cop patois and neighborhood feel are convincing if not necessarily authentic. However, his plot has more holes than a bag of bagels: lack of realism regarding the organization or protocols of the NYPD; the unlikelihood that a rooky and foreign cop with a mouth on him like Shea's would emerge as the star of the Department; the mob's anachronistic use of a non-digital camera to garner incriminating evidence just because the story depends on recovering the photo; the failure of one of the best resourced law enforcement agencies on the planet to apply even a modicum of forensic science or crack some rather obvious cases; blatant stereotyping of Internal Affairs goons and Italian mobsters. It also loses momentum between the first and second acts, as if the final part of the book were a mere postscript included in the closing credits to let us know what happened to the protagonists after the movie was over. (None of them becomes President and very few become grandparents...).

Despite this shoddiness, Bruen's writing has a gripping quality that draws the reader in. This comes from the intensity , even at times the poetry, of the prose and the darkness of the mood. Bruen alternates between the first and third person and between inner and external dialogue. He writes short, spare sentences separated by blank lines, so that the book is considerably shorter than its 304 pages suggests (even more so given that there are two or three blank pages separating each chapter). Whatever this might imply about value for money, it is integral to the style and ethos of the novel.

Net, net, "Once Were Cops" is not without its flaws, but it is a good read - probably best with a cold Bud and a back of John Jameson . Or six or ten. Before duty.


Night and Day (Jesse Stone Novels)
Night and Day (Jesse Stone Novels)
by Robert B. Parker
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not For Mortal Stakes, 3 April 2009
"Night and Day" is not one of Robert B. Parker's better works, but if you are a fan, like I am, it is still well worth reading.

"Night and Day" is the eighth book in Parker's Jesse Stone series. Stone is a small town cop, the chief of Paradise, Massachusetts, a coastal town at the very edge of commuting distance from Boston. He came to this position after having had to abandon his career in major league baseball following a shoulder injury and after being fired from the LAPD for alcoholism. He continues to fight the ghosts of these two former careers and to wrestle with drink. He has an obsessive relationship with his ex-wife, a promiscuous television personality who also leans on him when she is between jobs and lovers. He is a very good chief.

Parker started writing crime novels when he was a Professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston. His Masters and Doctoral research was on the classic American detective novels. His early, continuing and brilliant series, the Spenser novels, explores the nature of the "Detective," and this theme is continued in the Stone series, the Sunny Randall (a female Spenser) series and the Virgil Cole Western series. Parker's detective is a modern day knight who is defined by what he does. What he does is prescribed by a code as elaborate as that of Castiglione's renaissance "Courtier." Spenser and his fellows are defined by their sense of justice, honor, courage, and insouciance. They are prepared to break the law, to kill and to defy power and authority, but they always do what is right and they protect the weak, especially women.

As Parker's career has developed, he has increasingly expatiated on his signature themes both through the dialogue among his characters (for example the banter between Stone and his subordinate, Molly and his occasional lover, Sunny Randall, in this novel) and in the elaborate interplay among, in the literary sense, various "types" of Spenser. Stone, Randall and Cole are types of Spenser, but so too are many of the villains or half-villains such as Hawk in the Spenser series, Crow in an earlier Stone story, and the gunslinger Shelton brothers in Appaloosa. These dark types share much of the detective's code but have a different sense of morality. Hawk will protect a woman, for example, but he will quite easily kill a man for money.There is a clear sense in all this interplay that Parker is toying with his readers, but it is also evident that he knows that we know that he knows... etc. Given his academic credentials, it is perhaps not unfair to classify this as post-modern, self-referential irony.

"Night and Day" has many of the ingredients of a classic Parker novel. Stone is an obvious Spenser type. While he lacks Spenser's wholeness and comfort-in-his-skin in his personal life - for Spenser a drink is a pleasure to be indulged in the company of a friend, a good woman or an excellent meal, for Stone it is a doorway to the abyss- he has all his self assurance and innate sense of the right thing to do in his professional role as Chief . There is however, a vital ingredient missing. In "Mortal Stakes," one of the early Spenser novels, Parker took both his title and his epigraph from Robert Frost:

"Only where love and need are one, '
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
'Is the deed ever really done '
For Heaven and the future's sakes."

In most of Parker's oeuvre, mortal stakes are an essential element in defining the detective. In "Night and Day," the stakes are not mortal and this absence is felt. The plot revolves around interlinked tales of a peeping tom , a violation of pupils' rights by an overbearing headmistress and a suburban swingers club. These plot elements allow for entertaining musing about sexuality and provide a vehicle for Parker's marvelous dialogue and his set piece confrontations between the detective knight and pompous authority (here incarnate in the managing partner of a major law firm), but the edge is missing.

Thus, without the edge, and because Stone is not quite Spenser, this is not one of Parker's best works. I was tempted to award it an extra star anyway because I enjoy Parker so much. But somehow, I felt that this would violate the code.


Love's Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie: Letters and Diaries 1941-1973
Love's Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie: Letters and Diaries 1941-1973
by Judith Robertson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.50

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Absence Makes the Heart Grow, 22 Mar 2009
"Love's Civil War" recounts the remarkable story of the 32 year extramarital love affair between Elizabeth Bowen, the Anglo-Irish writer, and Charles Ritchie a senior Canadian diplomat through the medium of her surviving letters and his excerpted diaries. The book is edited by the distinguished biographer, Victoria Glendenning (who published a life of Bowen in 1977 before these materials became available) and Judith Robinson, the lifelong fiend of Ritchie's niece and the eventual inheritor of the manuscripts. Their introductions and notes perform excellent service in providing the context for the relationship. In a sense, however, the real editor was Ritchie, who destroyed his own letters (whose ghosts may be traced here through Bowen's references to them), destroyed quite a few of hers, and expurgated others by ripping out the more intimate portions.

Bowen and Ritchie met at a christening in Oxford in 1941. Bowen was 42, had been married for 18 years and was already a successful writer (the link between Woolf and Murdoch and Spark, Glendenning observes in her biography). Ritchie was 35, an officer with the Canadian embassy and still single. Their affair began soon afterwards and lasted until Bowen's death in 1973. It survived Ritchie's marriage in 1948 and the death of Bowen's husband in 1952. Ritchie's diplomatic career took him back and forth to Ottawa, New York, Bonn, Washington, Brussels, Paris and London. Thus large portions of their relationship were conducted at long distance , via correspondence and through snatched liaisons in hotels in several cities. Only during periodic stays together at Bowen's court, Elizabeth's ancestral pile in Cork (which she had to sell in 1958) did they ever truly have "quality time" together. Almost certainly it was the separation and the illicitness of their affair that sustained it at the intense "in love" stage and kept it from evolving into the more stable, marriage like condition which most relationships assume over time.

There is an asymmetry between the two versions of the affair, as letters and diaries present very different takes on reality. Moreover, both letters and diaries are potentially deceptive forms of communication. In her comments on Diana Cooper's letters, Bowen herself warns us that correspondents may "sweat blood to give a relationship an immense buildup for the benefit of each other" , and long ago, Dostoevsky reminded us that there is no reason why a man should be more truthful in his diary than he is in any other forum. From Glendenning's biography of Bowen and from Ritchie's published "diplomatic diaries" we know that there was more to their lives than the relationship at the centre of this collection. Nonetheless, it is clear that the affair was pivotal to both.

For Bowen, her love for Charles was her "life illusion." She recounts all the symptoms of an obsessive love: the imagining of the beloved's presence, the repeating of his name, the association of places with their time together, the mental tracking of his movements, attempts to insert herself into his family circle, unbecoming and uncomfortable sniping at his spouse. She "wills" their relationship and suffers a breakdown because of it. Ritchie is more cynical. He attributes Elizabeth's clinging to him to her age: "I am her last, and she knows it." He initially sees this as just one more affair (he had and continued to have many); he talks himself into believing that he loves her, does not love her, has stopped loving her, is afraid she has stopped loving him and so on. He is, however, deeply attracted by her personality and her intellect - she is "one of the minds of our generation" - and finds himself under her spell " she is a witch, a good witch." We conclude that he was not as cold as he pretends and that his love for her was real and defining. The final two sentences in the book capture it all: "I would give anything I have to give to talk to her again, just for an hour. If she ever thought that she loved me more than I did her, she is revenged."

I confess that on reaching page 295, I exclaimed to myself "My God, it is only 1958, I have another 15 years to go!" Is the book too long? The truthful answer is "almost." There is considerable repetition - most of Ritchie's diaries inevitably fall into this category since the editors have included only excerpts relevant to this affair, and there are entire sections of Bowen's letters which replay variations on the same theme. However, we are pulled back from the edge by the collateral benefits of Bowen's writing. There is the writing itself, but also the atmospheric glimpses of the fading world of the Anglo-Irish with their eccentric friends and retainers and their crumbling, under-heated and under-plumbed homes - I especially loved the butler's interruption of dinner at one such home with the announcement: "The light on the upper landing has failed and there are six bats in her ladyship's bedroom." There is also the gossip about Bowen's literary and upper-class friends - all the usual suspects , her travel reporting (she is deliciously wicked about Scotland) and glimpses into her times: her discovery of a new pen, for example, "it's called a Biro," or the information that in the early days of passenger aviation, jet-lag was called "flying-tiredness," and there is the ubiquitous alcohol on which the affair was, in Ritchie's words, "floated."

My final verdict on the book may best be summed by saying that I have since bought Glendenning's 1977 biography of Bowen, Bowen's "The Heat of the Day," the fictionalized story of the early part of the affair, and her "Bowen's Court," her history of the house at the centre of the story.


The Lazarus Project
The Lazarus Project
by Aleksandar Hemon
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 13 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Take Up Thy Bed And ..... Yawn, 18 Mar 2009
This review is from: The Lazarus Project (Hardcover)
Aleksandar Hemon is a Bosnian immigrant journalist in Chicago and the recipient of Guggenheim and MacCarthy Foundation grants. "The Lazarus Project" is his third book. It recounts two interlinked narratives: the first tells the true story of the unexplained killing of Lazerus Averbuch, a Jewish refugee from the Kishnev pogroms by Chicago's Chief of Police at the latter's home in 1908; the second is that of the narrator, Vladimir Brik - an, er, Bosnian immigrant journalist in Chicago and the recipient of a Foundation grant - who sets out to research and write up the first story.

I was disappointed by the novel. Its plots are disjointed, its characters undeveloped and its voice immature and inconsistent. Hemon has an astonishing command of English for a non native speaker (cue: comparisons to Conrad, Nabokov, Stoppard etc) but he forces in so many images and tricks of vocabulary that his writing seems like an unbroken horse whose rider has dropped the reins and may actually have fallen off.

The Lazarus story is potentially the more interesting. It recounts the aftermath of the young refugee's death in a Chicago gripped by fears of anarchism akin to our present day Islamophobia (we had our own "Tottenham Outrage" around the same time), with the occasional predictable flashback to the pogroms in the Ukraine. The story is partly told through possibly authentic news clippings and partly through a narrative voice which we must infer belongs to Brik. Since, we know from the larger narrative that his research is superficial, it must be imaginative reconstruction rather than historical documentary. In any event, it goes no where.

Brik's own story begins with him leading a listless life in Chicago. He receives his grant and decides to conduct his research for his Lazarus Project by embarking on a trip to the Ukraine, Moldova, Rumania and Bosnia in the company of Rora, a wisecracking war photographer who doesn't appear to like him very much. This research trip becomes a picaresque travelogue through the seedier parts of New Europe: bars, motels, brothels, cemeteries, community centres, stations, hospitals, badly driven taxis , interspersed with Rora's anecdotes about the war in the Balkans and feeble jokes about Bosnians in America. One gets the feeling that much of this was written before this book was conceived, unearthed from some computer file and spliced in.

The obvious link between the stories is the exploration of the displaced sensibility of a refugee or immigrant in the United States. As the book proceeds, paragraphs from the two narratives begin to interweave breathlessly suggesting a mounting crisis in Brik's mind. This isn't credible because Brik isn't that kind of person.

Indeed, Brik is both unlikable and unconvincing. He starts off as a shallow freerider on the American dream - cushy life, successful brain surgeon wife, Foundation grant - and the deeper we get into the book, the more shallow he becomes. It is hard to believe that he cares about Lazarus or suffers "an accumulated sense of guilt.. about war, genocide and mass graves .. and all that." As for the rest of the characters , Brik's wife Mary is a cardboard cutout slice of American Pie, and Rora, the partisan Rambo, the newsman, Miller and the taxi-drivers have dropped straight out of central casting for a straight- to -video thriller about the Balkans.

Hemon does have a facility with language and imagery. For example, he writes of the weather : "clouds and cloudettes were bunching up over a distant hill, as if getting ready for an assault," of a taxi ; "the Lada was trembling with lullabying speed," and of Bucharest station: "The bathroom walls were daubed over with various venereal diseases." But his expressons are too often forced, and never achieve the grand harmony of, say, Salman Rushdie's. Far from suggesting profundity, they remind one of a wisecracking, noir detective under the influence of speed.

I finished the book with difficulty.


Maurice Bowra: A Life
Maurice Bowra: A Life
by Leslie Mitchell
Edition: Hardcover

31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars World Famous in Oxford, 16 Mar 2009
This review is from: Maurice Bowra: A Life (Hardcover)
Leslie Mitchell has written a literate, well-researched and richly atmospheric life of one of Oxford's most iconic dons.

Maurice Bowra was born in Kiukiang in south central China in 1898, where his father was a mandarin in the Chinese Customs Service. He was sent to England at an early age and spent the rest of his life in institutions: school at Cheltenham, active service on the Western Front,New College as a de-mobbed undergraduate and then Wadham from 1922 until his death in 1971. He was Master of Wadham from 1938 to 1970, and also served as the University's Professor of Poetry and Vice Chancellor. So cocooned was he in Oxford, that he dreaded vacations and went to lengths to secure invitations from old friends to fill the blanks between terms. He spent his final days in apartments generously supplied by his college and which he called "Reduced Circumstances."

Bowra's distinction was not primarily as an academic. Although he published several useful books, he never quite reached the top rank and was blocked in his pursuit of the Professorship of Greek by his mentor Gilbert Murray . Nor did he achieve the status he sought as a poet, due , in the view of Cyril Connolly, to " an intractable inhibition," though he continued to produce witty and often filthy verse entertainments for his friends. He was not an influencer-behind-the-scenes of great events; indeed,while many of his contemporaries were recruited to important war roles, Bowra found himself blackballed and instead commanded a company of Dad's Army, which he supervised on drills in Wadham's quads and led to services at the "rather low" St Mary's, Grandpoint, where he took delight in selecting as a reading "a particularly obscure and succulent passage" from Revelations.

Bowra was famous, rather, for his personality and wit, for his moulding of Wadham and his promotion and incarnation of a particular type of Oxford. He was the Sun at the centre of several overlapping solar systems of "Bowristas," which included Betjeman, Day Lewis, Waugh, Sparrow, Hampshire, Berlin, Bowen, Gaitskill, von Trott, and many others. Names such as Yeats, Eliot, Shostakovich, Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Woolf also passed through his orbit. He systematically upgraded the quality of teaching at Wadham, intervening directly in the election of Fellows and involving himself actively in the admission of undergraduates where his criteria were " clever boys, interesting boys, pretty boys - no shits." He championed recruitment from grammar schools.

Mitchell traces Bowra's famous wit through Adrian Bishop back to Oscar Wilde. It was not simply an instrument of entertainment nor a protective carapace developed first at Cheltenham , but also one of the several tools which Bowra used to promote his values and philosophy. These values were grounded in the ideal of the university as an elite environment dedicated, in Annan's expression, to the cultivation of the mind. They were committed to the first rate - given a choice between a friend and the top class, Bowra would always pick the top class ; they demanded absolute loyalty to Oxford; they were decidedly humanist and hostile to the sciences - even PPE was suspect; and they rejected every form of sanctimoniousness. Bowra saw himself as the leader of "the Immoral Front," though liberal or tolerant may have been a more accurate adjective.

Sexual gossip, innuendo and speculation were very much part of Bowra's world. Mitchell provides a balanced and non prurient assessment of his sexuality. He had early passions for members of both sexes and in addition to trips to Berlin with Duff Cooper and Bob Boothby for homosexual pleasures, he claimed that he "used to dash over to Paris now and again for a French tart." Although a founding member of the homintern, he was anxious not to be perceived as "one of the queers" and on becoming Master may have ceased to be sexually active, a "non-playing captain" in Annan's words.

Bowra lived to see his Oxford disappear into a new era of commissions, civil servants, scientists and new graduate colleges. Empowered and unkempt students took the place of undergraduates. He despised this. One wonders how Oxford might have evolved differently had Bowra and his peers done more to welcome and shape the future rather than deny it.

Mitchell has principally organized his biography around themes - sexuality, faith,poetry, the wider world. I thought that I would not like this, but it works well. The book provides an informative and interesting tour of Bowra's world as well as insight into the man. I would have liked more and better examples of the famous wit, but this is notoriously difficult to capture in print and out of context. Oxford has many layers and many ghosts, and some vestiges of Bowra's world still inhere. Leslie Mitchell has done useful service in ensuring that this layer remains part of our future memories.


The Gamble: General Petraeus and the Untold Story of the American Surge in Iraq, 2006 - 2008: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008
The Gamble: General Petraeus and the Untold Story of the American Surge in Iraq, 2006 - 2008: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008
by Thomas E. Ricks
Edition: Hardcover

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Help Wanted: A secular strongman, with demonstrated ability to maintain law and order, and opposed to Iran., 10 Mar 2009
The Gamble is Thomas Ricks' blow-by-blow account of the conception and execution of the "surge" in Iraq and is a sequel to his well-received "Fiasco" which documented the stages of the war prior to this putative turning point (and whose title speaks for itself). Ricks belongs to the Woodward school of history, providing detail of the protagonists' inner thoughts and conversations throughout based on triangulated interviews. Thus his narrative takes on the pace and tone at times of a novel. He tracks the genesis of the surge from the development of counterinsurgency doctrine at Fort Leavenworth through its reluctant adoption by the US Army and Marines in the field and its cooption by the President's men who were desperately seeking a face saving alternative to withdrawal. The story, necessarily, has a different balance from Bob Woodward's "The War Within", as Ricks points out.

The change in approach to the occupation in Iraq promoted by General David Petraeus and General Raymond Odierno has been termed the "Surge" because of the defiantly, counter tidal move by President Bush to commit more forces at a time when virtually everyone including most of the generals in place was demanding a stepdown. In fact, the change was more characterized by an entire shift in doctrine (which to be sure required more boots on the ground) radically resetting the mission from "kill and capture" insurgents to protect the Iraqi people. This shift in mental paradigm altered how the forces behaved and how they were received by the local population. Although there were many initial casualties it worked as a means of greatly reducing violence and creating a degree of what Petraeus calls "sustainable stability."

The story of how the new strategy came to be adopted constitutes both a disturbing indictment of the politicisation, in-fighting, cognitive biases and sheer bureaucratic inertia of the massive US military machine (at one point we are told that Petraeus left Iraq briefly to address the promotion ceremony for forty - yes forty - new generals in Washington) on the one hand, and a more uplifting demonstration of how effectively the actual forces on the ground can learn and change. As Gen. Odierno's testy, English advisor. Emma Sky, remarks, sometimes "America doesn't deserve its military." As an aside, President Bush comes across more positively in this account than one might expect, more intelligent, informed, engaged and flexible than his image as the "Decider" suggests.

However, we also learn that a further key success factor behind the new stability, was Petraeus' willingness to cut deals with warlords who had American blood on their hands. These included Moqtada al-Sadr on the Shia side and many Sunni militias who were financially induced to turn against al Qaeda. At one point these "Sons of Iraq" were on Uncle Sam's payroll to the tune of $30,000,000 a month - but that was alright since it was such a tiny fraction of the total cost of the war. War critics tend to downplay the fact that it is not really the Americans or Brits who have been killing Iraqis but other Iraqis. The country is seething with warring tribes that are armed to the teeth. The government, the police and the army are often part of this pattern. General Petraeus bought stability for a time, but as an Iraqi cabinet minister observed, it is one thing to play with a crocodile when it is a baby, another when it is fully grown.

Thus to the bottom line. Petraeus posed the question before the mission as to "How all this ends?" Well, it appears that Obama will draw down US presence and that the Iraqi government, despite some new confidence on the part of Prime Minister al Maliki, did not use the umbrella of temporary "sustainable stability" to build a framework for permanent sustainable stability. The crocodiles will start snapping. Moqtada may stop biding his time. The prognosis by one US colonel that the real Iraqi civil war has yet to be fought may prove tragically correct. Ricks thinks that Lebanonisation is a likely outcome, with Iran exerting considerable influence.The opportunity provided by the almost certainly temporary success of the surge was not taken.

As for the general on the cover of the book, Ricks paints a portrait of David Petraeus as exceptionally smart, tough, driven and aloof. He is promoted before the end of the story in the book to Centcom commander with responsibility for both Iraq and Afghanistan. Ricks predicts that he may appear at some point as Obama's National Security Advisor. It would not be totally surprising if his thoughts about the White House were not so limited.

This book could easily have been shorter- there is far more journalistic recreation of events than is needed to convey the argument or the story - and there could have been more on the role of Iran. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and found it thought provoking. Anyone who wishes to feel qualified to express an opinion on the war should read it.


Samuel Johnson: A Biography
Samuel Johnson: A Biography
by Peter Martin
Edition: Hardcover

27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Character: The person with his assemblage of qualities", 4 Mar 2009
This is the tercentenary of Johnson's birth, and we have three fine new biographies - two of Johnson himself by Peter Martin and Jeffrey Meyers, and another of Hester Thrale by Ian McIntyre - to help us celebrate.

Peter Martin, who previously wrote a biography of Boswell, has produced a readable and informative account of the Doctor's life. It focuses more on the man than on the work, and more on his human qualities - oddities, frailties, anxieties - than on the public persona documented so effectively by Boswell. From birth, Johnson was beset by infirmities, part blindness, part deafness, scrofulla, a strange lumbering body and a serious tic, retrospectively diagnosed as a form of Tourettes. He suffered many disappointments - the drive to escape his father's failing booksellers business, his own failure as a schoolmaster, dropping out of Oxford without a degree due to lack of funds. (Britain's second most famous doctor received the degree on an honorary basis from both Oxford and Trinity College Dublin, but based on his own definition - " a man so well versed in his faculty as to be qualified to teach it," a doctor he deserved to be)- the efforts to establish his literary career, the frequent overcommitments - to produce the Dictionary by himself in three years, for example, when it took forty French scholars forty years to compile theirs ("so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman;") numerous sexual frustrations, some of which apparently were requited, several crises of faith (including the conviction that he was damned and would be "sent to hell, Sir, and damned everlastingly"), and a deep-rooted and pathetic fear of death. This is the Johnson, large and lonely, that Martin paints. The qualities that made his " stupendous" company a much sought after pleasure are more elusive. I even came away wondering why on earth Boswell, given his own character and proclivities, developed the hero worship which made Johnson famous.

Martin's coverage of Johnson's works is dutiful rather than enthusiastic or especially insightful, though to be fair much of the Doctor's oeuvre was closer to journalism than to literature, and much of it was of his time. He is, after all, famously famous for his personality and conversation rather than his work itself, the Dictionary aside.

At 466 pages before the notes, "Samuel Johnson:a biography" invites reference to the Doctor's comment about "Paradise Lost: ":"no man ever wished it longer," but for the most part it flows well and is a pleasure to read. Martin breaks the wall once or twice, lapsing into anachronistic comparisons: "bull-sessions" and the idea that Johnson would have been "a popular guest for television interviews" - what next, the Doctor on Facebook, no man but a bloghead ever wrote save for money? Nonetheless, this is a welcome and worthy addition to my growing mini library of books by and on Johnson and his milieu. It brings a fresh perspective but at the same time takes one back to the comfort of old and familiar friends.

PS Since I wrote this review, a third new biography of Johnson has been published : "Samuel Johnson: A Life" by David Nokes, who tragically died just as the favorable notices were coming in. This, too, is an excellent book, slightly less readable than Martin's or Meyers' but arguably more academically impactful. I recommend all three.


Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You
Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You
by Sam Gosling
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Consulting Detective's Guide to the Bleeding Obvious, 3 Mar 2009
Sam Gosling is an English-born professor of psychology at the University of Texas. He has been recruited to appear on television to deduce a subject's personality from photos of his or her bedroom effects. Sherlock Holmes meets Big Brother. Now he has written the Guide on how to do it.

My own inner detective was hoping that reading this book would enable me to gain the advantage in business negotiations by glancing at my counterpart's office or score points at dinner parties by scanning my host's den. It didn't happen, but that really doesn't matter.

It didn't happen partly because Gosling belongs to the Ronnie Corbett school of story telling - the punch line is oft deferred through a series of diversions and anecdotes - perhaps , living in Austin, he has succumbed to the Texan art of the philibuster - and partly because the conclusions from snooping are so obvious. Indeed, psychologists' ability to deduce the obvious from quasi scientific experiments and then endow it with quasi scientific labels (self -verification, the aspired self etc) verges on self parody.

It doesn't matter for three reasons. First, the digressions are generally quite interesting in themselves. We learn about the Big Five personality descriptors, about the concentration of personality traits in different regions of the USA and that the thieves who stole Mr Rogers' car returned it out of respect for his public persona and so on. Second, the bleeding obvious isn't as obvious as we think. True, when the clues suggest that someone is "open" or "extravert' or even "conscientious, " chances are that they are. However, clues that suggest "agreeableness" or "neuroticism" are often misleading. Gosling provides several useful tables which compare what observers routinely deduce with what is actually the case and it seems that our vaunted" blink" ability to make snap judgements is often simply wrong. Finally, Gosling is a witty and interesting writer who maintains interest throughout.

Net, net this is not quite a weighty, Holmesian monograph, but it is a moderately entertaining read.


Txtng: The Gr8 Db8
Txtng: The Gr8 Db8
by David Crystal
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars y bthr?, 20 Feb 2009
This review is from: Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 (Hardcover)
I have been reading books by Prof Crystal since I was at university and hold him in regard. This one, I rate as "mildly interesting" and never astonishing. That is it supplies a framework and basis of fact around a set of observations and insights which I could quickly have come up with myself if forced at gunpoint to write an essay on the subject. No "wow, I hadn't thought of that" moments,and rather a lot of padding (such as international text practices).

Crystal sets up the bogeyman view that the phenomenon of texting (3 times the revenues produced as Hollywood) is ruining the use of language and then proceeds to dismantle it. But did anyone really believe that texting was a threat to literacy? The argot of texting borrows from and lends to general language just as other technologies have done, or as trade and migration do.

The ergonomic limitations of the traditional phone keypad have prompted creative shortcuts - which Crystal usefully categorizes as logograms, pictograms,rebus,initialisation,contraction and abbreviation. All of these existed before and have merely been incorporated. The telegraph, ham radio (with its Biggles like over and roger) and IM have also spawned shortcuts and indeed the telegraph required its whole new morse code. Restrictions can promote creativity - Crystal cites the discipline of the sonnet form as a parallel. The proliferation of qwerty keypads and touchscreens on mobile devices will no doubt lead to further evolution of txtspk.

The social implications of texting deserve more attention, though perhaps these go beyond the linguistician's domain. The human's marginal propensity to communicate as the cost and technological barriers come down is shocking. Whole patterns of social interaction have changed. How often is one surrounded by people happily texting or emailing in public spaces while simultaneouosly cocooned in their ipod sound systems and generally oblivious to the people actually there around them? So, we communicate more but interact less?

There are some interesting observatons: for example on how woman tend to differ from men in texting (longer, more grammatical, more emoticons, politer - am I surprised?) or why the US took longer to catch up (lack of common standards, driving are cited, though the broader availability and lower costs of alternative media may also have played a role). But, as I say, mildly interesting, hardly astonishing.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 8, 2011 10:36 AM GMT


Ulysses (Modern Classics - Unabridged)
Ulysses (Modern Classics - Unabridged)
by James Joyce
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £68.00

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoor de Fahrts, 18 Feb 2009
Tom Stoppard had Joyce answer the question of "what did you do in the war?" with "I wrote Ulysses, what did you do?" Jim Norton might answer a corresponding question about what did he do during the end of the world, with "I read Ulysses, what did you do." It is quite magnificent, transcending the medium of the audio book to create a genre for itself. Norton acts all the parts (except, finally for the affirmative Molly who is breathed out by Marcella Riordan) and makes this best of all and most difficult of all novels completely comprehensible. If you ever tried to read Ulysses and gave up, start again with this recording either by itself or in parallel with the written word. It will stay in your memory forever and you will be enriched.


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