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Paul Bowes (Wales, United Kingdom)

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Leaving the Atocha Station
Leaving the Atocha Station
by Ben Lerner
Edition: Paperback

13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointed by a well-reviewed first novel from a leading young poet, 6 Jan 2012
Ben Lerner is a highly regarded young American poet. 'Leaving the Atocha Station' - the title is taken from a poem by John Ashbery, whom Lerner admires - is his first novel. Set around the time of the Madrid bombings in 2004, it recounts a few months in the life of Adam Gordon, a young American poet who has been awarded a writing scholarship in Spain. Adam is struggling: with doubts about his ability as a poet; with his relationships with women; with the Spanish language; with the question of whether to return to the States or pursue a new life in Spain; with drugs prescribed and unprescribed. The common factor is his sense of mediacy: of being in transit and yet without a defined goal, of being separated from his own experiences in a way that renders them null.

'Leaving the Atocha Station' has been highly praised by reviewers, but left me with a distinct sense of dissatisfaction. The novel of a young man's education in life is a firmly established genre, and certain types of cliché have become hard to avoid, but Lerner seems actively to court some of the worst. In particular, the reader's investment in the story is likely to turn on his or her response to the central character. Lerner is alive to Adam's selfishness and self-absorption, his casual cruelty and mythomanic propensities, and it may be that these qualities were intended to come across as essentially comic - especially as they rarely achieve the results Adam intends - but the abiding impression was of a highly privileged young man who might serve as a living exemplar of the American term 'ingrate'.

Characters that are hard to admire in life may nonetheless prove compelling in narrative. But Lerner never managed to make me care about Adam's intransitive state or his possible futures. He isn't a 'beau monstre'; merely a morally compromised person who, we are unconvincingly assured late in the book, is for all his doubts actually a good poet.

Lerner has taken on some large targets here - the nature and function of art, the mediated nature of almost all of contemporary experience, the relationship between art and politics - but seems to have little new or interesting to say about any of these things. Adam, his consciousness permanently blurred by his erratic drug intake and the interactions between his prescribed medication and the street drugs he uses habitually, loses himself in repetitive speculations about mediacy that aim at profundity but impressed me only as dryly solipsistic. It's never a good sign when a reader becomes impatient with a character in a book as short as this.

A further surprise was that Lerner evinces no particularly striking command of language here. The 'poet's novel' - long on surprising uses of words, short on plot and character - has itself become a cliché, but Lerner really offers nothing out of the way; much of the most powerful language here is in the form of quotations. Since this is a book in which very little 'happens', and which is dominated by Adam's internal monologue, some relief at the level of the word and sentence would have been welcome.

I hesitated before awarding this novel a third star, but this is a young man's writing, literate - which is increasingly unusual - and not actively bad. Readers who want to see what Ben Lerner can really do with words would do better at present to investigate his poetry.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 30, 2012 8:50 AM BST

Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab (Chicago Visions and Revisions)
Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab (Chicago Visions and Revisions)
by Dmitry Samarov
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.74

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What is it like to drive a Chicago cab for a living?, 2 Jan 2012
Dimitry Samarov is a Chicago cab driver, a trained artist and a blogger. His family emigrated to the USA from the former Soviet Union when he was still a child. As a result, he has retained something of an outsider's perspective on the habits of the country of which he is a citizen.

'Hack' is a distillation of his blog: an account of the working life of a Chicago cabbie, arranged by day of the week to give a sense of how the job changes with the changing rhythm of the city. The result is a collage of impressions that build up a composite portrait of Chicago street life seen from the perspective of a perennially tired man doing a job that almost nobody chooses to do; a job that brings him into intimate but brief contact with every social type from the homeless to the professional, and takes him to places in the city that many people will never visit.

The book is short - 124 pages, not the advertised 184, in the hardback edition - but this is to the reader's advantage: nothing outstays its welcome. Samarov is observant and writes well; his black-and-white sketches, mainly of the people he encounters and the places to which he has to take them, are characterful. As one might imagine, he has tales to tell, and the customers - often casually racist, drunken or drugged - are exactly the mix of voluble and demented that one might hope for; but he never overplays his hand, and the whole has the ring of truth to experience. The details of the job - the long hours, the indifferent management, the failing elderly equipment, the abusive work practices - will also ring true to anybody who has worked a minimum-wage job. I came away amused and informed.

Nazi Literature in the Americas
Nazi Literature in the Americas
by Roberto Bolano
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.59

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bolaño's homage to Borges, 1 Jan 2012
'Nazi Literature in America' is probably best understood as Bolaño's homage to Borges - the young Borges of the ' Historia universal de la infamia', with its concocted biographies of semi-legendary and non-existent criminals. 'Nazi Literature' is a compendium of fictional biographies of right-wing writers from the Americas, written as though from the standpoint of the mid-twenty-first century (a few of the writers are given dates of death as late as 2029). The biographies vary in length and style from a couple of pages to a substantial short story, from dispassionate dictionary entry - albeit with Borgesian adjectival ironies - to first-person narrative. The final story, 'The Infamous Ramirez Hoffman', was reworked into the excellent novella 'Distant Star', published in the same year (1996).

Bolaño's skill here is to allow these fragments of biography to conjure up an entire world in which political violence and literature are intimate bedfellows. The relevance of this perspective to Bolaño's own biography and the experience of many of his contemporaries is obvious, and perhaps one has to be Chilean or Argentinean to fully appreciate some of the ironies here. What is surprising is the way in which Bolaño is able to bring to life an entirely imaginary world through a host of casual details, and to make substantial points about the political and the literary worlds with considerable humour and without resorting to sledgehammer polemics. The 'monsters' he delineates are allowed the human dimensions - and the failures - that are necessary to make them human monstrosities rather than cartoons. Bolaño also manages to put his finger here on one of the reasons for the persistent appeal of fascism: the way in which it allows small people to make themselves part of an epic, albeit paranoid story in which even everyday failure is grandly meaningful - rather as penurious poets comfort themselves with the thought that they are too good for their audience's taste.

For the reader new to Bolaño, this is perhaps not the place to start. It is nonetheless an excellent piece in its own right, highly readable, sometimes very funny, with a lightness of touch that is not triviality.

Swing and Big Band Guitar [With CD]
Swing and Big Band Guitar [With CD]
by Charlton Johnson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.67

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The only credible manual for big band-style guitar, 26 Dec 2011
This is a guide to playing Freddie Greene-style big band guitar.

It deserves five stars for several reasons. It's really the only thing of its kind; it's severely practical - i.e., it tells you what working musicians actually do rather than what they might do in theory; it explains everything, rather than leaving the reader to work out why, for example, a particular set of voicings is being recommended; and it is comprehensive, in the sense that anybody who masters the contents will be well set to cope with the standard repertoire in a big band context. (And although it isn't intended to be a manual for the solo or small-group player, it's well worth a look for them, too.)

Charlton Johnson also explains pretty well everything the aspiring player needs to known about playing in a big band - the history of the style, suggested listening, choice of instrument and so on.

All examples and exercises are shown in traditional notation, chord chart symbols and chord boxes, and the exercises are logically arranged and progressive. There are 64 clear musical examples on the accompanying CD. This book is a model of its kind, and wonderful value for money.

Open City
Open City
by Teju Cole
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.67

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent novel by an individual voice, 26 Dec 2011
This review is from: Open City (Paperback)
'Open City' is Teju Cole's first novel, and it sets a standard that will be hard to keep up. Critics have been scrabbling for superlatives and reaching for comparisons with authors of real weight: Sebald and Coetzee are only the most stellar.

For me, much of the interest here lies in the fact that Cole's narrator 'Julian' both is and is not American, is and is not Nigerian, is and is not German; his view of the world is correspondingly oblique and detached. In the city he is a flâneur, an observer, a connoisseur of chance encounters, a devotee of hidden histories. This makes him at home, and an oddity, everywhere: in New York, where he is performing his psychiatric residency; in Brussels, where he spends the winter of 2006-7; and in Nigeria, from which he is partially estranged by his mixed parentage.

But his estrangement goes further. As Cole tells us, an 'open city' is a city that has declared that no resistance will be offered to an invader, in the hope of avoiding unnecessary bloodshed. As we read on, it becomes apparent that the real 'open city' is not New York - or even Brussels, which was 'opened' for real during the early stages of the Second World War - but the city of history and memory, both personal and communal. There is a price to be paid for detachment.

Cole explores serious issues with a light touch. This book is almost the opposite of the drum-banging 'novel of identity' that British readers have come to expect from American writers. The writer's prose is cool and careful - though not perhaps as extraordinary as some critics have suggested - and achieves its effects cumulatively, without straining for significance. The book is diary-like in its form, devoted to leisurely description, and always leaves something to inference. Cole knows his literary theory - the ghost of Walter Benjamin among others is present - and Julian's frequent artistic references are mainly to the greats of the European tradition; but this material is woven in for the most part unobtrusively.

The result is a complex portrait of an individual that seems to have more in common with the European existentialist tradition than with the mainstream of American prose fiction. I greatly enjoyed reading 'Open City'. If the comparisons with Sebald and Coetzee seem in the end a little overdone, that is forgiveable; the fact that the comparison could be made at all tells us something. Teju Cole has achieved a novel of real quality here.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 1, 2012 6:36 PM BST

Models.Behaving.Badly: Why Confusing Illusion with Reality Can Lead to Disaster, on Wall Street and in Life
Models.Behaving.Badly: Why Confusing Illusion with Reality Can Lead to Disaster, on Wall Street and in Life
by Emanuel Derman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.65

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The shortcomings of financial models and their role in the crisis, 12 Dec 2011
Emanuel Derman is an eminent financial modeller - author of 'My Life As a Quant' - with a background in physics. As such, he is well placed to appreciate the differences between the theories that have transformed our understanding of the universe and the models that physicists have used to develop those theories. In essence, the present book argues that many aspects of the financial crisis that has engulfed us since 2007 have their roots in the persistent confusion of models - simplified accounts of imaginary worlds that bear only an analogical or metaphorical relation to the real world - with true theories, which describe how that real world is. The physics envy of financial modellers and the mathematics envy of economists have led in recent years to inescapably crude financial models being oversold as theories with the certainty of axiomatic truths and the rigour of mathematical theorems.

Professor Derman has chosen an unusual form for this interesting book, with lengthy diversions into his personal history as a youth growing up in a racist South Africa, as a young physicist in the United States, and into Spinoza's theory of the emotions. This is not meaningless digression; Derman is laying the ground for the reader to understand his later insistence that the world of finance is dominated by the human in a way that makes comparisons with the world of elementary particles - whose behaviour can now be described with astonishing accuracy - wholly misleading.

In the third part of the book, Derman offers a lean, pungent analysis of the consequences of these conceptual failures in the real world and argues for a 'Modellers' Manifesto' that would recognise the limits of models as tools of financial analysis and impose a voluntary ethical code on those who develop and advertise them. Derman is an advocate of free markets, and of financial models used responsibly, but insists that those markets and those models must be operated in a principled way if they are not to forfeit confidence and with it their economic effectiveness.

Whether his call will be heeded remains to be seen. Nonetheless, this is an excellent exposition of the way in which recent financial theory failed to rise to the challenge of unusual events in the real world. Written primarily for the intelligent general reader, it is challenging reading in places but involves a bare minimum of mathematics and should be of interest to anybody seeking to understand recent events.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 15, 2011 7:37 AM GMT

by Adam Baker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Adequate survivalist horror for the train, 4 Dec 2011
This review is from: Outpost (Paperback)
'Outpost' is a survivalist horror thriller set in the Arctic aboard an oil platform. The author has drawn heavily on over-familiar films for inspiration: the reader will have fun spotting nods to 'Alien', 'The Thing', 'The Abyss', 'Thirty Days of Night' and several others. Adam Baker's writing style also owes a lot to the screenplay: short, choppy sentences and nervous scene transitions that resemble jump cuts more than chapters lend a somewhat jerky and disorientating feel to the narrative; characters seem to have been recruited from central casting. Nonetheless, this is a pacy if unoriginal tale, and the author's ruthlessness with his cast keeps the reader guessing who will survive and in what condition.

For me, the book falls the wrong side of memorable: too many plot holes, too many clichés, too much of a sense that the author is avoiding detailed explanations because he has none to offer. Recommended for fans of the genre as a tolerable but disposable read for the plane or train.

IQ: How Psychology Hijacked Intelligence
IQ: How Psychology Hijacked Intelligence
by Stephen Murdoch
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very readable introduction to the history of the IQ test and the concept of 'general intelligence', 4 Dec 2011
'IQ: The Brilliant Idea That Failed' sets out its store with its title. The author, a journalist with a background in law, believes that the concept of general intelligence - 'g' - as an identifiable genetic trait that can be measured by a single test has done irreparable harm since its invention both to individuals and to progressive politics.

Stephen Murdoch employs a mixture of conventional intellectual history, interviews and case studies to trace the origins, development and influence of the general intelligence test, primarily in the countries of western Europe and North America, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His purpose is simple: to demonstrate that the prestige and popularity of the IQ test is rooted in bad science and even more dubious social and political agendas. He looks at the origins of the modern conception of intelligence in the work of Francis Galton and Alfred Binet, Charles Spearman and Herbert Henry Goddard. He exposes the way in which the dubious intellectual basis of IQ was persistently ignored because the possibility of a single, reliable test for intelligence was deemed to be useful - and the way in which the first crude tests were quickly applied far beyond its most scrupulous exponents' intentions.

As Murdoch points out in his final chapters, these tests - in the form of SATS, for example - are still with us and crucially influential in the fates of individuals. Yet the powerful criticisms that were made of the concept of 'g' almost from the beginning have never been satisfactorily answered, and contemporary science has only made these questions more difficult to answer.

The book is aimed primarily at an American audience, but there is a substantial and well-informed chapter on the eleven-plus examination in England and Wales, and most of the other subjects - the use of IQ tests in war, in support of eugenic arguments, in the bolstering of racial prejudice and so on - are of universal relevance.

I found this to be an interesting book that avoids shrillness while making a strong argument for extreme scepticism concerning tests that claim to identify and measure general intelligence. It is highly readable, and the use of case studies within a basically chronological framework keeps the reader orientated. It would be of particular value to someone who wanted an overview of the subject prior to further reading, perhaps of a more technical nature.

Robopocalypse (Robo 1)
Robopocalypse (Robo 1)
by Daniel H. Wilson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.11

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, generic, disposable, 26 Nov 2011
This review is from: Robopocalypse (Robo 1) (Paperback)
'Robopocalypse' is a fast-reading science fiction adventure set in the near future. Humanity succeeds in creating the first viable artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, the AI's ideas about human-AI relations are rather different from those of its creators; the resulting struggle threatens humanity with subjugation or extinction.

Daniel Wilson has a background in robotics, and he seems confident in extrapolating from the current state of the art to this disastrous fictional scenario. Unfortunately, he isn't so able a writer as a scientist. 'Robopocalypse' reads like a less subtle version of Max Brooks' 'World War Z', with sentient and semi-sentient robots replacing the zombies in a very similar narrative structure, with multiple narrators.

Oddly, Wilson seems more comfortable when dealing with action than with the science, and the book has considerable pace - which is useful, in that the reader is carried rapidly past the numerous implausibilities. The author's grasp of character never develops much beyond stereotypes, and he seems frankly uninterested in some of the people he creates; a number of them simply drop out of the story, never to be heard from again. His grasp of politics and foreign affairs is minimal: it won't surprise the British reader to learn that this is yet another parochial American SF thriller in which a well-armed American citizenry saves the world (with a token tip of the hat to a solitary Japanese).

The premise itself is not contemptible - put simply, nobody has any real idea of what a human-created machine intelligence would be like - but Wilson never convinced me that he had considered the issues raised in any depth. His imagination seems heavily dependent on popular movies (spot the 'homages' to The Terminator, Star Trek's 'Data', 300, and Bladerunner along with the horde of generic 'apocalyptic survivalist' films) and a handful of fictional sources: Max Brooks in particular, but also Philip K. Dick ('Second Variety' and its film versions) and Vernor Vinge. The result is a page-turning but disposable book that reads less like a novel and more like a screenplay for one of those adequate but uninspiring SF movies that spring up in the wake of something more original. In fact, Wilson explicitly thanks DreamWorks SKG at the end of the book - the film rights were sold before the book was completed - and 'Robopocalypse' is at the time of writing to be filmed by Steven Spielberg, with an adapted screenplay by Drew Goddard of Cloverfield fame.

The Reach of a Chef: Professional Cooks in the Age of Celebrity
The Reach of a Chef: Professional Cooks in the Age of Celebrity
by Michael Ruhlman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The state of American high-end cooking, 23 Nov 2011
'The Reach of a Chef: Professional Cooks in the Age of Celebrity' is the third in the series of books that began with 'The Making of a Chef' and continued with 'The Soul of a Chef'. Michael Ruhlman, a journalist by profession, began by investigating the training of chefs at the Culinary Institute of America: followed some of those chefs out into the real world; and now in the third book, having established himself as one of the premier American food writers, looks at how the chef's life has been changed by America's new-found fascination with food, fine dining, and the chef as celebrity.

Ruhlman is both a lover of food and a trained cook who has worked in real kitchens. He has worked in close collaboration with Thomas Keller of French Kitchen fame on a series of books, and has published successful books on cooking in his own right. As a result, he combines an unusual degree of professional insight with journalistic skills of a high order. 'The Reach of a Chef' is a book for the reader who wants to know what happens in high-end kitchens: how the training at the CIA has had to change in response to a changed commercial environment since Ruhlman's own time there; how chefs of different temperament have managed to find workable niches in this notoriously tough and competitive industry; how television and cooking have fed off each other to create the celebrity cook as media phenomenon; and what happens when a chef's fame becomes so great that he becomes an exploitable brand.

The author explores all these subjects with humour and passion. He understands chefs and the industry, and the central paradox in which the successful cook is dragged further and further away from the kitchen.

All Michael Ruhlman's books are intelligently written and highly readable. It isn't necessary to have read the earlier books to make sense of 'The Reach of a Chef' (though I thoroughly recommend 'The Making of a Chef' in particular).

This is a very American book, written primarily for an American audience and rarely straying far from American scenes, personalities and concerns. The author assumes, not unreasonably, that the reader is interested in food and fine dining, and is willing to hear in some detail how dishes are conceived and assembled, how the opening of a new restaurant comes about, and how world-class reputations are made. Any such reader is likely to find this book an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience.

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