Profile for Paul Bowes > Reviews

Personal Profile

Content by Paul Bowes
Top Reviewer Ranking: 504
Helpful Votes: 1562

Learn more about Your Profile.

Reviews Written by
Paul Bowes (Wales, United Kingdom)
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   

Show:  
Page: 1-10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21-30
pixel
The Summer Book
The Summer Book
by Tove Jansson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A modern Scandinavian classic, 21 April 2012
This review is from: The Summer Book (Paperback)
'The Summer Book' was first published in 1972, when Tove Jansson was 58 and already well known as the author of the 'Moomin' books. It is an oddity: a highly autobiographical book in which the author never appears as a character. Instead, the book traces the relationship between an elderly woman and her young grand-daughter, whose mother has died, as it develops during their summer sojourns on a small island in the Gulf of Finland.

At the heart of the book - constructed as a series of short, self-contained chapters - is a meditation on mortality; on what it means to have lived a life, and how a sense of what is important is transmitted from generation to generation. Grandmother and grand-daughter become co-conspirators against the world of responsible adults, without losing any sense of their individuality, occasionally lapsing into the kind of dramatic enmity that is only possible to people who are sure of each other's love. Jansson avoids sentimentality. She is an acute observer of relations between the very old and the very young, and of the difficulties for children of dealing with strong feelings without the experience to put them into perspective.

The island is the third character of importance. Jansson develops a powerful sense of place through attention to small details, while allowing the reader to see how this style of living has conditioned the characters and expectations of the inhabitants. The book is almost environmentalist in its preoccupation with knowing how to respect a place, though the human beings remain the centre of attention. But one great strength of Jansson's writing is that she never lectures.

'The Summer Book' is accepted as a classic in Scandinavia, and it's not hard to see why. This is one of those small books in which nothing much happens, but that echoes in the mind.


Ragnarok: the End of the Gods (Myths)
Ragnarok: the End of the Gods (Myths)
by A. S. Byatt
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.94

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling return to Norse myth for one of Britain's best writers, 14 April 2012
'Ragnarok' is A. S. Byatt's retelling of the Norse myth of the ending of the world, which she first encountered as a child during the Second World War. The author has managed something very difficult here: she has told a story about one aspect of childhood - the mythic dimension of a child's burgeoning imagination - in an unsentimental way that makes sense to an adult without distorting the original experience. In addition, she has rescued an authentic northern European mythology from the Christianizing overcast that has concealed it in recent centuries, and has reconnected it to our own world of conflict, waste and environmental destruction without merely substituting one clumsy allegorical reading for another.

Byatt's prose here is plain and muscular, achieving many of its effects rhythmically and additively, respecting the strangeness of the myth and yet restoring a degree of accurate detail - particularly of the lives of living things - that gives the imagination purchase. The author's intelligence shines through at every point.

I greatly enjoyed this book. The only false step for me is in the concluding chapter, 'Thoughts On Myths', in which Byatt muses about the imaginative origins of the story and her own understanding of the nature and function of myth. For me this was an unnecessary glimpse behind the scenes, bringing much that is already clearly implicit in Byatt's telling too far into the light of day. I would strongly advise any reader who might be tempted to read that final chapter first, as a crib to the main text, to resist the temptation.


The Collected Works of Paul Valery
The Collected Works of Paul Valery
by Paul Valery
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A hero of early modernist consciousness, 19 Mar. 2012
Valéry wrote 'La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste' (which he originally intended to dedicate to Edgar Degas) in 1894, long before his poetry made his reputation; but he returned to the subject of his unusual hero repeatedly, though never for long, before his death in 1945. The result is less 'Valéry's novel', as it has been called, than a thought-experiment in prose; a fragmentary sketch for a novel or mock-biography that was never written. This volume collects in one place all of Valéry's writings on Teste and a relevant selection of excerpts from Valéry's own notebooks.

M. Teste is one of the early figures of literary modernism. Valéry imagines a man bent on living a fully conscious life, acutely aware of the dangers of a lapse into mere being, resistant to being understood by others. He fascinates his few friends and his wife by the degree to which he seems to stand aside from them. Yet Teste himself is never satisfied; his relentless interrogation of his perceptions, moment to moment, is a life-long project that must be constantly renewed.

Valéry's thought here is difficult and his language often abstract; more likely to satisfy readers of a philosophical and aphoristic bent than those seeking the pleasures of conventional fiction. The fragmentary and incomplete nature of the materials is sometimes frustrating: one wants to know more than Valéry is prepared to reveal. As no doubt he would have wished, Teste slides in and out of focus. Is he a species of Cartesian monster, or an inquisitor of human consciousness as acute as Poe's Dupin, a universal mind comparable to Da Vinci?

'Monsieur Teste' is never an easy read. But the book deserves to be read as a record of a restless and scrupulous mind, and as a sidelight on the poetry.


Dogma
Dogma
by Lars Iyer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Round 2 in the existential combat that began with 'Spurious', 18 Mar. 2012
This review is from: Dogma (Paperback)
In his first novel, 'Spurious', Lars Iyer introduced us to the hapless aspirant philosophers W. and his friend 'Lars'. This pair of minor academics, unwillingly peripatetic, haunted by the threat of unemployment, harassed by aspects of the natural world and the built environment, and horribly aware of their intellectual shortcomings, nonetheless sought transcendence; and in so doing generated a great deal of high and low comedy. 'Dogma' sees their gin-soaked carnival of self-immolation teeter a little closer to its end.

For the admirer of 'Spurious' there will be an immediate sense of déjà vu. Here is the Indo-Danish pseudo-Iyer, with his foundering flat and his unfulfilled promise; here is his 'friend' W., still prone to hyperbolical pessimism and lacerating bouts of self-criticism relieved only by still more lacerating criticism of Iyer. Here are the oceans of Plymouth gin in which our anti-heroes take temporary refuge from the pain of self-awareness.

But the pain is deeper now, the desperation more acute, the catastrophe more imminent. Driven to extremes, the pair devise their own intellectual movement, stealing its name - Dogma - shamelessly from the Dogme95 movement: but is not one of the rules of Dogma that plagiarism is acceptable, even mandatory? The result is philosophy as performance art of a particularly regrettable kind. Meanwhile, the spectre of redundancy hangs ever lower over the head of W., while Lars, the 'Hindu fatalist' and 'betrayer', listens exclusively to the tuneless music of the idiot genius non-musician Jandek. Below his flat the rats are gathering...

The most pertinent criticism I can make of 'Dogma' is that it suffers slightly by comparison with its predecessor from being the second volume of a projected trilogy. Middle volumes have a tendency to repetition, digression and shapelessness, and some of the hares that Iyer starts here are not followed to their lairs. 'Spurious' had novelty on its side; by comparison, 'Dogma' has to work harder for its effects, and sometimes seems less certain of its success.

I'm not sure how far a reading of 'Dogma' requires a prior acquaintance with the earlier novel; in some senses it is less a sequel than a recapitulation with different emphases. Nonetheless, I would advise reading the two books in the order of publication, and I suspect that we will have to wait for the third volume to see the whole structure - and to answer the question as to whether that structure is determined or accidental, linear or cyclical.

Docked one star, then. But still intelligent, funny, and recommended; and I look forward to the final volume.


Ratner's Star
Ratner's Star
by Don Delillo
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Complex and demanding novel of science and belief, 14 Mar. 2012
This review is from: Ratner's Star (Paperback)
'Ratner's Star' is Don DeLillo's fourth novel, published in 1976. I suspect that it is also the least read and the most frequently abandoned - which would be a pity, since in some ways it shares the qualities of the later, more popular books.

DeLillo's public profile changed in 1985 when 'White Noise' won a National Book Award, and there now seem to be two distinct DeLillo audiences: one that discovered him at that time and knows him primarily through that book and its successors, particularly 'Libra' and 'Mao II', all big sellers and now firmly ensconced on university syllabuses; and a second audience that has followed him from his beginnings in the early '70s, and for whom these later books are not a surprise but a continuation. For these readers, 'White Noise' is if anything a relaxation into comedy from DeLillo's thorniest efforts, of which 'Ratner's Star' is the first and 'The Names' the second.

DeLillo is on record as stating that Thomas Pynchon set the benchmark for his generation of American writers, and 'Ratner's Star' is arguably DeLillo's most Pynchonesque book. Set at an unspecified point in the mid-twenty-first century, this is also DeLillo's closest approach to science fiction - though this takes the form of mild extrapolation from the late twentieth century and speculation about advances in mathematics and physics rather than technological fantasies about the far future. In fact DeLillo persistently derives comedy from the unforeseen consequences of technological innovation - a tactic that gives him something in common with Kurt Vonnegut.

Interviewed by Adam Begley for Paris Review in 1992, DeLillo stated that "I was drawn to the beauty of scientific language, the mystery of numbers, the idea of pure mathematics as a secret history and secret language--and to the notion of a fourteen-year-old mathematical genius at the center of all this. I guess it's also a book of games, mathematics being chief among them." This gives an idea of one aspect of the book. Only Richard Powers among younger writers has come so close to writing a novel that is a scientific novel rather than a novel 'about' science. There are wonderful sections in which DeLillo conveys something of the beauty of pure mathematics and cosmology. Inevitably, there are others that are almost impenetrable at first reading.

The central difficulty is that the book seems to be trying to accomplish two rather incompatible things. One is a celebration of the human capacity for abstract thought. The other is a satire of human arrogance and complacency. In theory the two might be thought to be sides of the same coin. In practice, DeLillo sometimes struggles to link them. The plot - in which Billy Twillig, a young Nobel Laureate in mathematics, is dragooned into joining a scientific project to investigate the meaning of a mysterious message received from the vicinity of Ratner's star - is essentially a point of departure and a source of red herrings. Underlying the comic episodes - the general character of which any DeLillo reader will recognise - is a persistent metaphysical disquiet. As with both Pynchon and Vonnegut, an unstinting admiration for the powers of intellect is combined with a suspicion about individual motives and morals, a fatalism about man's powers in the face of natural forces, and an acknowledgement of the irrational.

For me, the saving graces, as always, were DeLillo's language and his gift for the absurd. But make no mistake: this is a long, demanding book, possibly the most difficult that DeLillo has published, and not a complete success.


Night Train
Night Train
by Martin Amis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Competent but minor mid-period Amis, 9 Mar. 2012
This review is from: Night Train (Paperback)
'Night Train', published in 1997, belongs to the period of unexpected decline in Martin Amis' reputation as a novelist, which runs roughly from the ambivalent reception of 'The Information' in 1995 to the partial rehabilitation that begins with 'House of Meetings' ten years later. During this decade, Amis seemed to be struggling consciously to avoid self-imitation by finding new themes, but his diversions into non-fiction often seemed more successful than his novels and short stories. 'Night Train' is one example of this search; a excursion into hard-boiled noir fiction set in an unnamed American city.

Amis has clearly done his research; in fact, the tone and trappings and much of the language seem taken not from pulp fiction as such but from such books of police reportage as David Simon's 'Homicide - A Year On the Killing Streets' (1991), which was set in Baltimore. Amis being Amis, this framework has been tweaked in the direction of postmodern knowingness. The result is a heightened hybrid of fiction and verisimilitude that is almost but not entirely convincing as the language of plausible human beings.

The basic noir plot - a detective with a troubled personal life is called in to investigate an apparent suicide that may not be what it seems - might be straight from Chandler. But again, Amis must complicate. 'Night Train' is one of those literary genre novels that cannot be content with the straightforward pleasures of the detective thriller. Instead it persistently evolves towards the status of metaphysical mystery, with the enigmatic figure of the 'suicide' at its centre and the living characters revolving around it like doomed planets round a black hole.

Amis is too good a writer for anything he produces to be worthless, and it may be that in time the books of this period will be seen as undervalued. A concise 160 pages, 'Night Train' never overstays its welcome. There is an invigorating, nasty edge here, too - Amis can be funny and unforgiving about human weakness - that will be familiar to readers who rate the early Amis above the more famous Amis of 'Money' and 'London Fields'. There is also a hint of the controversial Amis in the obsession with unstable, manipulative females that has given him a reputation in some circles for misogyny.

Nonetheless, for me 'Night Train' struggled in the end to escape the sense of an exercise by a writer who is playing without full commitment with material that is somewhat below his highest powers. Amis has never repeated the experiment. Admirers will want to read this; but it seems inescapably minor.


How to Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great! (Guitar Player Book)
How to Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great! (Guitar Player Book)
by Dan Erlewine
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent practical guide by a renowned repairer and guitar tech, 7 Mar. 2012
'How To Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great!' is a guide to electric guitar setup by one of the most experienced American guitar repairers. Dan Erlewine walks the reader through all aspects of setup in clear language and with helpful photographic illustrations.

Because of his long experience as a repairer, Erlewine knows how guitars are constructed and has seen most of the problems that arise. He is candid about the likely faults of new instruments as well as those that result from long hard playing. He is also humble enough to seek the opinions of other techs on complex subjects such as the tremolo system; as a result, we hear the views of the likes of Trev Wilkinson, Buzz Feiten, and Tom Anderson.

This isn't just a which-screw-to-twist guide; I came away with a far better understanding of guitar hardware - and even the subtleties of tuning the instrument - than I had before. The author also provides details of the personal setups of a number of highly experienced professional players, which give some idea of the wide variation that is possible for the player who wants to tweak his own guitars to his personal preferences.

For me, part of the value of this book lies in showing clearly what can and can't be done without the resources of a professional workshop or the paid assistance of a professional repairer. Erlewine is particularly good at explaining how and why the different parts of the instrument work to produce the final setup. For example, I thought I understood how a truss-rod works; Erlewine showed me that that there was a little more to it than I had thought.

As anybody who has played a guitar before and after a pro setup will know, there is a real difference in playability. I doubt that there is a better guide to the subject than this book.


Germline: The Subterrene War: Book One
Germline: The Subterrene War: Book One
by T. C. McCarthy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Superior military SF debut, 21 Feb. 2012
'Germline' is the first book in T. C. McCarthy's series 'The Subterrene War'. Set in the twenty-second century, the world of the novel is a plausible extrapolation from our own time. Resources have become increasingly scarce, and are ever more obviously the real causes and prizes of war. The United States is still fighting its wars abroad - in this case, across the Central Asian republics - and the immediate enemy is a Russia that is no longer so much an ideological opponent as a simple economic and military competitor.

Advances in weapons technology have made surface warfare increasingly unsurvivable for unarmoured humans and even for their cloned, physically augmented auxiliary troops. Much of the fighting has assumed an almost medieval character - fought in tunnels deep underground, away from the autonomous drones and the plasma bombardments. Into this cauldron of war ventures Oscar Wendell: a rich kid with a heavy drug addiction who has burned his boats at home, and sees a chance for redemption in war journalism.

McCarthy has the background in biological science and military analysis to give his vision of the future of geopolitical warfare the ring of credibility. As a writer, he's a cut above the generic authors of military SF. He gives the impression of having been strongly influenced by the journalists and writers of the Vietnam period, and not just by Joe Haldeman; certainly anyone familiar with Michael Herr's 'Dispatches', the writing of Philip Caputo and Tim O'Brien, and Stephen Wright's 'Meditations in Green' will find powerful similarities of tone. Like these writers, McCarthy is trying to render the whole experience of warfare - in particular, the way in which terrible personal experiences cannot prevent war from becoming a kind of home.

The book does have weaknesses. The romantic sub-plot is too sentimental for my taste, and the ending a little improbable - certainly compared with the conviction with which McCarthy handles the relationships between his male characters. Some readers may find the time spent detailing Oscar's drug experiences excessive. The scenes of military action are competently handled, but perhaps too similar in character. Nonetheless, 'Germline' has real virtues, and is unusual among American military SF in taking a disillusioned view of the motives of senior military personnel and politicians, and the naivety and callousness of civilians who are content to see the wars that keep them in relative luxury fought at a distance by troops created for the purpose and discarded without compunction. I look forward to reading the second book in the three-book series, 'Exogene'.


Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World
Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Timely analysis of the ideology of positive thinking, 19 Feb. 2012
"Smile or Die" ("Bright-Sided" in the USA) is a beady-eyed dissection of the rise of 'positive thinking' - the belief that attitude affects outcome across a whole range of human endeavours. Highly influential in the States, it migrated across the Atlantic with the spread of American business culture in the '80s and is particularly on show in the entertainment business - all those singers and actors who won't have 'negative' people around them, believe that ignorance of what's happening in the world is a necessary form of protection, and think that they can have anything they want by wishing for it.

Ehrenreich is a feminist, academic and activist who has specialised in recent years in exposing the realities of life in the States for those who live their lives outside the enclaves of wealth. She traces the rise of 'positive thinking' as an ideology to its roots in nineteenth century religion, where it manifests as an inversion of the harsh Calvinism that many early immigrants brought with them. Secularised and applied to other areas of life by the likes of Norman Vincent Peale, in our own time it has expanded its range beyond the ranks of professional optimists and may now be found informing the world-views of businesspeople, medical professionals and politicians. It also forms the basis of a multi-million dollar industry of inspiration.

Ehrenreich herself first notices the extent to which an infantilised, even delusional 'positivity' has become a compulsory attitude when she is diagnosed with breast cancer. In a series of tightly-written chapters, she looks at the evidence for the influence of positive attitude and draws attention to the dark side of willed, compulsory optimism: the easy assumption that people who fail to 'win their battle' with disease have brought their fate on themselves; that one need not pay attention to how wealth comes, because prosperity is an entitlement and its own proof of God's favour; that gamblers in the financial world may assume that markets will always rise, because they simply must do so in a world in which things are always getting better. Cruelty is never far away in a society in which individuals are held wholly responsible for their own failure, even in circumstances that are clearly beyond any individual's control.

Ehrenreich offers a hard-headed economic analysis for the sudden ubiquity of 'positive thinking' in America, linking it to the unprecedented wave of white-collar redundancies during the Reagan '80s and the sudden insecurity of an entire generation that had bought into the 'American Dream' of high and rising standards of living only to find the reality rather different. With her characteristic intelligence and dry wit, she shows how widely and deeply this style of thinking has penetrated American society, hollowing out traditional notions of character and putting realism and stoicism out of business. British readers may find her descriptions of the worshippers of the 'prosperity gospel' very American; but we have suffered our own tide of 'inspirational literature', and the whole world is now dealing with the consequences of making 'positive thinking' compulsory in the financial sector.

This is a timely, penetrating and very readable book.


Point Omega
Point Omega
by Don DeLillo
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling novella by one of America's best living writers, 7 Feb. 2012
This review is from: Point Omega (Paperback)
'Point Omega' is the latest of a group of short novels or novellas that Don DeLillo has published since the appearance of the very long and much admired 'Underworld' in 1997 underlined his claim to be the best living American writer of prose fiction. All four books are short and sparely written; all are haunted by a sense of time running out.

In one reading 'Point Omega' is an existential thriller about a disappearance, perhaps a murder. In another, a warning about the dangers of looking into the abyss. In a third, it is a meditation on cultural and psychic exhaustion.

DeLillo takes an idea of Teilhard de Chardin's - the 'omega point' of absolute concentration of information and communication towards which de Chardin believed mankind was being drawn - and inverts it. The book presents an alternative to the view of technological optimists who believe in an evolution of human consciousness towards a 'singularity' - a takeoff point beyond which humanity will begin to transcend its limitations. In DeLillo's dark parable, complexity and selfconsciousness, ever-finer attention to ever-greater detail, ever-greater knowledge, lead over an event horizon into a black hole of solipsism and ultimate insignificance. For one of the central characters, human beings want to become stones again, giving up the burden of consciousness.

As a long-time admirer, I expected to enjoy 'Point Omega', but I hadn't expected it to be so good. The book is beautifully written, in what I suppose we are obliged to call DeLillo's late manner. There is nothing flashy here, and the opening section demands a little patience as the author conceals his intentions. But there is a plain continuity of thought with earlier novels - particularly 'End Zone' and 'The Names' - that makes it very much a part of DeLillo's distinctive artistic achievement. On this showing, 'late' DeLillo still has a lot to offer.


Page: 1-10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21-30