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Paul Bowes (Wales, United Kingdom)
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Fremder
Fremder
by Russell Hoban
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.31

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hoban's take on science fiction in the manner of Harrison and Dick, 1 Sep 2012
This review is from: Fremder (Paperback)
'Fremder' (1996) is an oddity in the Hoban canon: of his adult novels, it's the one that most explicitly adopts the tropes of science fiction. This being Hoban, however, the book's relationship with that genre is literary and oblique, and takes in the many parallels between narratives of the far future and those of the ancient past: forging imaginative links between classical myth and modern physics, the prophetic books of the Bible and quantum entanglement.

Set in the middle of an imagined twenty-first century, this is Hoban-land on a galactic scale, in which minor planets in remote galaxies bear an odd resemblance to transitory locations - truckstops, cafés, pay-per-hour hotels - in '90s London. Near-instantaneous travel to those galaxies is now possible, but Earth itself is a toxic sinkhole of warring subcultures governed by a matriarchal bureaucracy. The titular hero, Fremder Gorn, is significant only as the son of a famous but suicidal mother - until he becomes of interest to the powers that be as the man who, as the navigator of the ship Clever Daughter, survives an unsurvivable accident.

For me, 'Fremder' is not as successful as its immediate predecessor, 'The Medusa Frequency' (1987), with which it has a certain commonality of themes and imagery. Hoban seems at times a little bored by the future world he has created, disinclined to take it seriously, unwilling to flesh it out. Even his deployment of his most characteristic devices - quotations from song lyrics, references to Bach, Chopin and Vermeer - lack energy. The characteristic interest in women and sex here teeters on the edge of misogyny. However, Hoban's fascination is real: the book takes off when the focus of interest shifts from Fremder to his dead mother, Helen, a far more vivid character and one worthy of the Greek themes to which Hoban alludes.

There are echoes of Angela Carter, of M. John Harrison - notably 'The Centauri Device', which also revolves around a loser who is unaccountably central to other people's concerns - and of Philip K. Dick. The echoes of Orwell are obvious enough, but far more to the point is the influence of New Wave science fiction and of its depressed, pessimistic successors of the '70s and '80s.

In the end, 'Fremder' is an ambitious book that takes on too much and fails to reconcile its serious concerns with its derivative form. Worth reading nonetheless, as an example of an important writer's variation on a theme.


Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting 21st Century Philistinism
Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting 21st Century Philistinism
by Frank Furedi
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent discussion of the diminished role of intellectuals in contemporary society, 27 Aug 2012
This is an intelligent discussion of the problem of the vanishing intellectual. Furedi examines the nature and role of the intellectual and asks why intellectuals do not currently enjoy their historic status and influence.

Rather than lay the blame on a single factor, he explores the political, social and educational ecology that permitted the intellectual to flourish, and finds evidence to suggest that the diminished status of the intellectual is a symptom of wider problems - the instrumentalising of learning, the pathologising of difficulty and the valuing of 'inclusion' over educational achievement - that amount to an officially-endorsed culture of philistinism. Academics, politicians of right and left, educators, the business community and a section of the contemporary intellectual elite itself all come in for criticism.

Furedi's approach is balanced and his argument is persuasive. In spite of the book's brevity (150 pages of text) there is some repetition; and by the end some readers may feel that the ostensible focus on the intellectual has become rather blurred as Furedi pursues bigger game. But in the nearly ten years since the book appeared, at least some of what Furedi had to say here has become far less contentious than it was on first appearance.

This is the first edition of the book. A second edition added a chapter in which Furedi responded to some of his critics; but this is inessential. There is a useful bibliography for anybody interested in recent (to 2003) writing on the subject of the intellectual in society.


Are You My Mother?
Are You My Mother?
by Alison Bechdel
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.89

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Serious study of a daughter's relationship with her mother that fails to spark, 18 Aug 2012
This review is from: Are You My Mother? (Hardcover)
'Are You My Mother?', which borrows its title from a Dr. Seuss book, is Alison Bechdel's second exploration of her family background, following on from the well-regarded 'Fun Home'. In that book, she concentrated on her father. Here, the focus changes to the relationship with her mother, from childhood through to the present, as Bechdel gradually establishes her independence, begins to earn a living and asserts her identity as a gay woman.

The subtitle is 'A Comic Drama'; but it has to be said immediately that there are few outright laughs here, and readers who come to the book from Bechdel's 'Dykes To Watch Out For' strips may find this heavy going. Bechdel appears to have spent most of her adult life in therapy, and she uses her experiences in therapy and her dream life as a way of structuring the book.

Bechdel's, and Bechdel's mother's interests are heavily literary, so it's no surprise to find that books make a strong appearance. Virginia Woolf is a constant presence, alongside the pioneering child psychologist Donald Winnicott, and Alice Miller, author of 'The Drama of the Gifted Child'. Bechdel weaves a complex - and sometimes confusing - structure in seven sections, moving backwards and forwards in time as the focus of her interest shifts from past to present, from one lover or therapist to another. The result is a collage of quotations and original writing enlivened and sometimes counterpointed by Bechdel's distinctive artwork.

One can't doubt Bechdel's seriousness, but for me this is ultimately a disappointing book that bears too much evidence of hard labour: a book that the author clearly had to write, but that seems to have little sense of audience. A great deal is likely to turn on how much patience the reader has with psychoanalytic psychology, with its deadening jargon and contorted reasoning. Bechdel takes a rather uncritical and very American view of the value of therapy. Her orientation is essentially Freudian, albeit in a version softened and humanised by the influence of Winnicott and feminist theory. She applies these ideas to her understanding of her relationship with her mother. The result is too often a self-absorbed, earnest and airless atmosphere - writing as self-therapy - that queries the relevance of the whole endeavour for anyone other than Bechdel herself. To be fair, Bechdel understands this; quoting her mother as insisting that "the self has no place in good writing". But irony only goes so far to deflect impatience. I read the book in sections; a little went a long way.

Although Bechdel's mother is in theory central to 'Are You My Mother?', the book is really about Bechdel, and Bechdel's need to reach some sort of accommodation with her mother in order to go forward in her own life. Although the author tries to broaden the significance of her material, there is a limit to how much her subject is likely to interest others. There are interesting things to consider after a reading of this book - about the unknowability of other people, about the dangers of self-absorption, about the limits of contemporary 'life-writing' as a substitute for fiction - but I suspect that they are not the things Bechdel intended.

Recommended to readers who are certain of their interest in the author. Others are advised to start with 'Dykes' or 'Fun Home'.


Life and Times of Michael K
Life and Times of Michael K
by J M Coetzee
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Worthy winner of the Booker, 14 Aug 2012
'Life and Times of Michael K' was the first of Coetzee's two Booker-winning novels. Published in 1983, it is set in a temporally unspecific South Africa that is sliding into civil war. It follows the wanderings of the eponymous Michael, a poor and uneducated man with a harelip who works as a gardener in Cape Town. Michael attempts to accompany his sickening mother to her hazily-remembered birthplace in the country. Coetzee uses this ill-advised expedition to reflect on the human predicament of individuals who refuse to surrender to compulsion.

The novel's title immediately suggests Kafka, and there are also echoes of Beckett, but it has also been suggested that the book is a re-imagining of Kleist's 'Michael Kohlhaas'. It says a great deal that Coetzee's novel doesn't immediately founder under the weight of such comparisons. The book has been assimilated to the category of anti-apartheid protest novels, and of course it may be read as such; but it is in fact far more general and subtle in its examination of man's existential plight, his relationship to his fellow men and broader questions of freedom and dependence. In that sense, it is as resonant as any of the novels that have taken the Holocaust as emblematic of our contemporary condition.

I greatly enjoyed this book, which is in some ways a companion piece to its predecessor, 'Waiting For the Barbarians', a more abstract and literary treatment of similar themes also drawing on a predecessor text: in that case, Dino Buzzati's 'The Tartar Steppe'.

Coetzee is a major writer here. These were the books that established his reputation, and must have played a large part in his subsequent Nobel Prize award. Highly recommended to anybody interested in serious postwar fiction in English. For once, this a prize-winning book that earns its plaudits.


Guilt
Guilt
by Ferdinand von Schirach
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.26

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stories that accumulate real moral force, 4 Aug 2012
This review is from: Guilt (Hardcover)
'Guilt' (which appeared in German in 2010) is the second volume of stories in which the author has drawn on his eminent legal career for the outlines of events. The first volume, 'Crime', was a runaway best-seller in Europe and has also been translated.

For the reader new to von Schirach, the first impression may be that these are simply recountings of real-life legal cases fleshed out with a little journalistic reconstruction. The straightforward tone - closer to that of a policeman dispassionately documenting the facts than that of a lawyer making a case - encourages that illusion. Certainly the book might be enjoyed at that level. But rest assured: these are stories, and as they accumulate it become clear that they work together as well as in isolation.

In each tale, Von Schirach gives us a series of events that in theory lead to a clean conclusion and then pulls the rug out from under the reader's reasonable expectations. By the end of the book, one is left with a deep sense of the fragility of human lives and the limits to which other people may be known. Von Schirach is unsparing, where need be, with the forensic details, but nothing is exaggerated or forced: there is never a sense of horror indulged for its own sake. He can also be dryly funny, and on occasion - as in the story 'The Key' - a master of farce.

As a practising lawyer, von Schirach is well aware of the ambiguity of the terms of his trade - 'crime', 'guilt', 'remorse', 'punishment', and so on. The sheer messiness of life makes any simple understanding of these straightforward conceptual categories inadequate. The impression is of a deep humanity struggling against moral exhaustion in the face of mankind's ever-renewed capacity for self-harm and the failure of simple ideas adequately to accommodate complex reality. But 'Guilt' is the work of a real writer, not a moonlighting lawyer with a simplistic agenda, and there is considerable if unobtrusive literary skill here.

Thoroughly recommended. The interested reader on a budget may prefer to seek out the joint volume in which 'Guilt' is published alongside 'Crime'.


Steppenwolf (Penguin Translated Texts)
Steppenwolf (Penguin Translated Texts)
by Hermann Hesse
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Finally a new translation of this 20s classic and 60s cult novel, 29 July 2012
'Steppenwolf' is a product of Hesse's mid-life crisis. Published in German in 1927, it was translated into English within two years. At the time of writing, Hesse had already become a Swiss citizen. His reputation in Germany was low because of his unpopular anti-militarist views, and his personal life was in a state of disarray. He had been plagued by depressive episodes since childhood. It is perhaps unsurprising that he responded by writing a highly autobiographical novel about a social outcast, an internal exile from the bourgeoisie, who is undergoing a spiritual crisis and, as he approaches fifty with no end in sight, is contemplating suicide.

The novel enjoyed mixed fortunes before being picked up - along with Hesse's other work, almost all of which was completed before 1945 - by American countercultural figures during the 1960s. By the 1970s, the revival of Hesse in the United States had fed back into Germany, and the author's revived reputation was matched by heavy sales and wide translation. 'Steppenwolf' had become a key title in the countercultural library.

Hesse noted just before his death in 1962 that the novel was the most misunderstood of all his works, and drew particular attention to the fact that although it dealt with the problems of middle age it had been seized upon by the young. In particular, the openness with which the novel discusses the use of mood-altering drugs and states of altered consciousness, and its frank references to bisexuality and sexual freedom, allied to Hesse's anti-war message, made 'Steppenwolf' read as a precursor text for the 'Sixties underground. As an insight into a particular kind of modern psychological crisis, the novel still packs something of a punch, and the reader will find that it is worth persisting.

Hesse was unusually open-minded and eclectic in his approach to sources of ideas, mixing Buddhism with Schopenhauer, Indian philosophy with Nietzsche and Jung; and he was a pioneer in diagnosing the sickness of his society in a way that spoke loudly to young Americans during the Vietnam years. The result in 'Steppenwolf' is an extended fable with serious intellectual and spiritual ambitions that still escapes the circumstances of its composition and has something to offer to later readers.

Important: this modern, smooth, accurate 2012 Penguin edition finally supplants the much criticised, anachronistic, stiff, rather faulty 1929 translation, inadequately revised in 1963, which was showing its age almost on publication and has done Hesse few favours with English-speaking readers. In 2010 a new translation of Steppenwolf from Algora by Thomas Wayne appeared that claimed to be more modern, literal and complete than the Creighton translation. However, it is also more expensive: so this new David Horrocks translation, which one imagines is Penguin's response to the Wayne version, is now the preferred version. As a result, the English-speaking reader can now read 'Steppenwolf' as a novel written in the 1920s rather than the 1880s.

[It appears that the older Penguin Creighton version may also still be available from some sources, and the interested reader should be careful that they have the 2012 Horrocks version.]


Steppenwolf (Penguin Modern Classics)
Steppenwolf (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Hermann Hesse
Edition: Paperback

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Old translation, 28 July 2012
According to the copyright page, this Penguin edition uses the original 1929 translation, revised in 1963, which has long been showing its age and does Hesse no favours with the English-speaking reader. In particular, there are many anachronisms that make the book read more like a product of the late Victorian period than of the Jazz Age.

There is another, 2010 translation of Steppenwolf from Algora that claims to be more literal and more complete. However, it is also significantly more expensive. In response(?) Penguin have finally released (2012) their own new translation of Steppenwolf (Penguin Translated Texts)by David Horrocks that addresses all the faults of the older version, and the interested reader is directed to that version. Unfortunately, both versions use the same cover illustration, though they have different ISBNs.

Update: Penguin have now changed the cover illustration for this edition.


Embedded (Angry Robot)
Embedded (Angry Robot)
by Dan Abnett
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.85

4.0 out of 5 stars Military SF from a superior talent, 25 July 2012
This review is from: Embedded (Angry Robot) (Paperback)
'Embedded' is a superior example of politico-military SF from an author well-experienced in the genre. Here he takes the opportunity to step back from his more generic Warhammer-style books to explore character and plot with greater complexity and nuance.

The book is set in the relatively near future - and, as one hint suggests, an alternate timeline - during an expanding human colonisation effort in which existing power-bloc divisions and ideologies have been extended beyond the bounds of earth itself. It centres on an unusual protagonist: a middle-aged journalist who has almost burned himself out in the pursuit of stories around human-inhabited space. On Eighty-Six, a newly colonised world of no special distinction, he finds himself drawn into an intrigue in which he can progress only by obtaining evidence first-hand. But the military has become steadily more expert in news management. That demands that he lends himself to a risky procedure: allowing his consciousness to be embedded within that of a fighting soldier who can go where a crusading journalist is not permitted.

Abnett is expert at the depiction of convincing military action, and there is plenty of that. But he is also a cut above most other writers in the genre in his range of reference, command of style and ability to create credible characters. 'Embedded' is a brisk, entertaining read, but also something more: an attempt to push the genre towards self-consciousness. The main motivators of plot here, as in the real world, are economic and ideological - rather than just the need to showcase bigger and better weapons and more and more improbable action - and Abnett's characters have mixed motives and considerable capacity for self-deception. In fact, I hope that Abnett has the courage to pursue this line of development further: on this showing, he doesn't deserve to be typed as a 'Warhammer' author.

My only real criticism lies with the ending, which, although perfectly consistent with the plot, has a curiously perfunctory feel - almost as though the book had been brutally edited for length, or material were being held back for a sequel. But there is plenty here to enjoy for anybody looking for action SF with a brain.


The Medusa Frequency
The Medusa Frequency
by Russell Hoban
Edition: Paperback
Price: 12.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hoban's fantasia on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, 23 July 2012
This review is from: The Medusa Frequency (Paperback)
'The Medusa Frequency', published in 1987, is one of Russell Hoban's almost unclassifiable fictions for adults. It might be described as a serious comedy; a comic fantasia on the sources of art and the relationships between men and women, drawing on elements of legend and fable but set in a computerised late-'80s London; combining a realistic narrative about a writer stuck in the world of commercial work with a surrealistic adventure in search of a lost woman and artistic inspiration.

Hoban combines these disparate elements with a sure and light touch, recognising the potential silliness of some of the material - the head of Orpheus manifesting in the form of a rotten cabbage or a football, the farcical discovery of a woman's multiple lovers - and drawing out the humorous potential. The result is an entertaining farrago that makes some serious points. Hoban is one of the most interesting writers of his period, and deserves to be known as more than just the author of his most famous book, 'Riddley Walker'. This would be a good start for anybody looking to explore.


Fit2Fat2Fit
Fit2Fat2Fit
by Drew Manning
Edition: Paperback
Price: 15.03

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An unusual perspective on weight loss, 23 July 2012
This review is from: Fit2Fat2Fit (Paperback)
The American author, a part-time physical trainer who had always been fit and active, set out deliberately to mimic the bad habits of some of his clients, with a view to gaining insight into why so many of them found losing fat and gaining fitness so difficult. At the peak of his 75lb/33kg weight gain he would reverse the process: in theory, this would demonstrate that he was right and that his clients were whiners. He would blog about the whole process.

The result was an emotional rollercoaster for the author and his family. Having become obese for the first time in his life, the author encountered all the associated psychological problems as well as the novel experience of pain, breathlessness and disinclination to exercise that he had thought his clients were exaggerating. He emerged from his ordeal only with the support of family members, and with an enhanced respect for people who do succeed in turning their lives around.

There is a diet plan for rapid weight loss and sensible suggestions for exercise. The only problem I had with the book was the feeling that this was essentially a magazine article expanded to the length of a book; there is a fair amount of repetition, and as with all diet and exercise books that stick to the facts about weight loss, there is nothing really new here. But the author writes amusingly, and he deserves some credit for having challenged preconceptions among the fit and active about how easy it is for the ordinary person to lose weight.


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