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Paul Bowes (Wales, United Kingdom)
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Wittgenstein Jr.
Wittgenstein Jr.
by Lars Iyer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.04

3.0 out of 5 stars Iyer extends his range, with mixed results, 16 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Wittgenstein Jr. (Hardcover)
'Wittgenstein Jr' is Lars Iyer's fourth novel, and his first stand-alone – the others being parts of a trilogy. Finishing the new book, I rather quickly formed the view that opinions among readers may differ significantly depending on whether they are completely new to Iyer, or have read at least one of the trilogy. 'Wittgenstein Jr' may be seen both as an extension of the earlier books and as an attempt to go beyond them. From either perspective, it is a partial success.

The novel is set in Cambridge, and the characters are undergraduate students of philosophy. A new tutor impresses them sufficiently by his evident seriousness and apparent weight of intellect for them to name him 'Wittgenstein'. Though the novel is set well after the real Wittgenstein's death, Iyer draws on his biography to flesh out the character, who in postmodern ludic mode both is and is not the philosopher.

Readers of the trilogy looking for more of the same will immediately recognise Iyer's comic manner, established and elaborated in 'Spurious', 'Dogma' and 'Exodus' – the mixture of high seriousness about, and low humour at the expense of philosophy and philosophers. Events then proceed roughly along the expected lines for most of the book. All amusing enough, but a mild disappointment from an author who has made the case for innovation and the original voice: the dangers of self-imitation were already becoming clear in the latter stages of the trilogy. In 'Wittgenstein Jr', Iyer doesn't always avoid the charge that he is now repeating himself, but more diffusely and at lower pressure: the jokes too familiar, the satire less biting, the point too elusive. Nonetheless, there are elements new to Iyer's writing here: in particular, an attention to the life of the emotions and the body that in the trilogy was confined mainly to the effects of gin and a very English sort of environmental horror. Drinking there is, and in full measure – these are undergraduates, after all – but the erotic also rears its head, and along with it forebodings of trouble that can't be dismissed with a philosophical bon mot.

The crux arrives in a drastic change of tone in the final section of the book, which has been ambling along in an entertaining but rather uninvolving manner. A character who to that point has been almost a passive onlooker joins 'Wittgenstein' centre-stage, and it becomes clear that this is something closer to a traditional Bildungsroman than a simple comedy of university life. Much depends on how one reacts to this: which is where the reader new to Iyer may have an advantage. Readers who are here purely for the jokes and the sarcasm may find that this unexpected emotional change of temperature is not what they signed up for. As a reader already familiar with the trilogy, I was heartened that Iyer had had the courage to try to develop away from the manner with which he had first attracted attention. I wasn't sufficiently convinced to re-evaluate my opinion of the opening sections completely: but I was at least able to forgive them their shortcomings.

I think it's a shame that 'Wittgenstein' has emerged after the trilogy. For much of its length it reads like an earlier, less focused attempt on similar material. I would recommend the final section, which might have made a fine short story, to anyone: the rest to Iyer's admirers. The uncommitted would probably do better to begin with 'Spurious', and see how they go.


Redeployment
Redeployment
by Phil Klay
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.50

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Competent but rather underwhelming debut volume of short stories, 1 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Redeployment (Paperback)
'Redeployment' is a collection of short stories linked by the theme of the second Iraq War. Each story is told in the voice of a different person. The narrators are all male, and are either serving Marines or closely and recently associated with the military. These voices necessarily have a certain uniformity of tone, but the speakers represent different arms and ranks, and over the length of the book the reader is given a fairly wide view. I say fairly wide, because the views of officers are largely unrepresented, as more expectedly are those of women, American civilians and Iraqis. The focus is firmly on the experience of service, and the aftermath of service: the perspective is that of the lower and middle ranks – infantrymen, specialists, NCOs, occasionally a lieutenant – and so of men in their late teens and early twenties. The atmosphere of their virtually all-male environment, with its easy obscenity and pervasive military jargon, will be familiar to anyone who has read fiction written during the last century on the subject of men at war.

The stories are broadly in the confessional mode familiar from journalism, in which the author merely records the other's words, refraining from intrusion and comment. The reader must read between the lines to infer the author's purpose and detect a connecting thread. This is standard writing workshop stuff: show, don't tell. Klay has been open about the amount of research his writing demanded, and the payoff is there, in that the scenarios Klay describes feel both authentically detailed and lived. (In one of the more successful stories, Klay makes use of the military's weakness for jargon by giving us a narrator whose every third or fourth word is an acronym, with no explanation provided. The reader immediately feels the distancing effect of this 'precise', 'efficient' language, and how it allows men to keep the truth of their actions at a bearable distance. The book as a whole could have done with more moments like this.)

'Redeployment' is competently written, and very readable. Nonetheless, there are two large problems here. One is that there is already a considerable body of first-rate nonfiction writing, and a little fiction, about the Iraq conflict, to which 'Redeployment' quite frankly makes rather a small addition. The second is that there is an even larger body of fictional and nonfictional writing about the experience of serving in the American military. Particularly relevant is that produced by veterans of the Vietnam War, which casts a long shadow over later writers. For any reader familiar with that literature, 'Redeployment' will provide a strong sense of déjà vu, and more importantly a feeling that one has seen this done elsewhere and with greater power. Klay's indignation at, for example, the amoral careerism of some senior officers, or the military's indifference to the difficulties of reintroducing able-bodied but psychologically traumatized veterans to a society for which war is something that happens on television, is clearly felt: but it has been rehearsed before, and to far greater effect, by other writers. The points that Klay makes are valid, but he lacks both the authorial equipment to make them fictionally compelling and the sheer rage that drives the best earlier accounts.

The sticking point for me was that even at the end it was never completely clear to me why these stories were being told as fiction. Klay has limited talents as a writer of fiction, or he has laboured hard to conceal them. The stories read like good, honest reportage: but there is nothing compellingly fictional about them. In fact, one of the oddities of this book was that, like a collection of journalistic articles, it had no detectable artistic structure. The individual stories accumulate, rather than build or coalesce: the pieces never make a picture. The impression is of material filling a book, rather than of a book conceived as such.

The stories in 'Redeployment' are worth reading, for anybody interested in the subject of the tales, rather than the manner of their telling. In its rather detached way, it provides a truthful account of one kind of contemporary war. Nonetheless, this debut volume isn't the stuff of prize-winning fiction. I can only see the book's recent triumph in the National Book Awards only as an instance of patriotism winning out over aesthetic sense.


D'Addario EXL130 XL Nickel Wound Extra Super Light  (.008-.038) Electric Guitar Strings
D'Addario EXL130 XL Nickel Wound Extra Super Light (.008-.038) Electric Guitar Strings
Price: £4.12

5.0 out of 5 stars Extra super light string set for electric guitar: very good, but make sure you understand what you're getting..., 18 Dec. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I bought these as an experiment: I usually use D'Addario .009 or .010 sets, depending on the instrument.

Very light indeed on a 25.5" (Strat/Tele) scale guitar tuned to standard pitch. I would regard these as almost unplayably light on a 24.75" scale (Gibson). For me, the bass strings in particular are simply too light: you need a very light touch to avoid bending these strings out of tune as you fret them. Great for very low action, big bends and single notes on the treble strings: not so wonderful for rhythm. The lack of volume and 'weight' from the wound strings is immediately obvious. These might be a better choice for instruments with active pickups, low frets and flatter radius fingerboards, and for players who are more concerned with sheer speed than quality of tone. Might be useful for a player with tendinitis or related hand problems, looking for low tension.

Otherwise, the usual sterling D'Addario quality: they last well and hold tune after stretching in. D'Addarios are consistently the best strings I have used without paying silly money.


Misswonder Torx T2 T3 T4 T5 T6 Cell Phone Repair Kit Tool Set Magnetic Screwdrivers Tools
Misswonder Torx T2 T3 T4 T5 T6 Cell Phone Repair Kit Tool Set Magnetic Screwdrivers Tools

5.0 out of 5 stars Useful Torx and case tool kit for small consumer electronics., 18 Dec. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Exactly as described: Torx screwdrivers in the useful small sizes, plus a number of plastic tools for prying open cases, etc., without damage. Useful for more than mobile phones.


Blindsight (Firefall Book 1)
Blindsight (Firefall Book 1)
Price: £1.93

5.0 out of 5 stars An unusually clever and literate science fiction novel., 18 Dec. 2014
An unusually clever and literate science fiction novel. 'Blindsight' combines a page-turning plot with memorable characters and cutting-edge neurological speculation. The result is a credible imagining of the first encounter between human beings and non-human aliens. As if this were not enough, Watts throws a couple of curve balls that invite serious thought about what it means to be human, and even what it means to be a conscious being.

A book that will reward the reader who wants to be made to think, and not merely to be entertained.


Under Fire
Under Fire
by Henri Barbusse
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.31

4.0 out of 5 stars A classic of war writing, 6 Dec. 2014
This review is from: Under Fire (Paperback)
'Le Feu' is one of the classics of war literature, composed by the invalided author while the war was still being fought, and published to a mixture of outrage and admiration in 1916. This translation appears to be the contemporary one of William Fitzwater Wray, (1917), which for a long time was the only one easily available, and is - I believe - now out of copyright. It is serviceable, but in 2014 bears the marks of having been written nearly a century ago. 'Under Fire' itself is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject, but the more recent translation by the late Robin Buss for Penguin (2003) is now preferred, if available.

Both translators struggle to render Barbusse's version of the salty language of the 'poilus' with any consistency. They also have difficulties, in their different ways, with the abrupt changes of tone between lyrical passages and brutal realism: but there the fault, if any, is in the original. It remains an unforgettable book.


African Psycho
African Psycho
by Alain Mabanckou
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.42

2.0 out of 5 stars Something of a misfire for this interesting writer, 7 Oct. 2014
This review is from: African Psycho (Paperback)
The title suggests that this novel (a translation of the French original, which appeared in 2003) is an African spin on Bret Easton Ellis' rather better known 'American Psycho' (1991). This is superficially obvious. The protagonists of both books are – depending on your reading – murderous psychopaths, or at the very least murderous fantasists preoccupied by scenarios of mayhem and revenge. Both authors have larger points to make about their societies, and about the relationship between personal and economic violence. Both novels are set in major cities - New York, and a barely-disguised Brazzaville – that serve as microcosms of the larger society, with great disparities of wealth and class thrown into high relief among a mass of people living in close proximity. Each book has a vein of grotesque humour.

In the end, however, these are two rather different approaches to a superficially similar scenario. Mabanckou is less of an ironist than Ellis: his literary roots are in the French existential tradition, which was heavily influenced by the agonised moralism of Dostoevsky. His protagonist, Gregoire Nakobomayo, is a classic marginal man: a 'picked-up child' – that is to say, an abandoned and adopted child – who has accumulated enormous resentment towards others and contempt towards himself. He has become fascinated by the notorious murderer Angoualima, whose campaign of violence is terminated only by his suicide – a final act of contempt against a world that could neither satisfy nor stop him. Though Angoualima has passed into legend, Gregoire is convinced that he lives on supernaturally, and adopts him as his mentor.

Mabanckou has drawn a great deal of attention, primarily in the French-speaking world – in which he is a multiple prize-winner - but more recently in Anglophone territories as his work has been translated. 'African Psycho', it has to be said, is not one of the works that has been most lauded. A relatively crude piece, the novel has things to say about the roots of violence and the role of male fantasy in Mabanckou's Congo of the imagination: but the novel is poorly structured and repetitive, and in the end fails to make any of its points with sufficient force. Unlike Ellis' Patrick Bateman, who can seem a reasonable Everyman in everything but his murderous propensities – a source of much of the humour in 'American Psycho' - Gregoire Nakobomayo seems from the beginning a deluded and damaged young man whose inability to translate his grandiose fantasies of destruction into reality is neither genuinely amusing, in the familiar vein of black humour, nor diagnostic of the failures of his culture. As a result, the violence that erupts at intervals often seems undermotivated and merely nasty, and the book ultimately fails to convince either as documentary or as moral farce.

By all means read Mabanckou, who has written much better than this: but don't start here.


Taipei
Taipei
by Tao Lin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.34

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The real Blank Generation?, 3 Oct. 2014
This review is from: Taipei (Paperback)
'Taipei' follows the career of Paul, a Chinese-American writer in his late twenties, over the course of a year that encompasses the making and breaking of a number of friendships and love affairs, and a book tour. These events, heavily repetitious in character, are bookended by parallel visits to Paul's parents, who after living in the United States for many years have returned to their native Taiwan. Heavily medicated, Paul stumbles through his conspicuously aimless life fending off his mother's worries, reflecting uncertainly on his childhood, and weaving an uncertain path through parties, book readings and abortive relationships.

This book was published as a novel, but as a glance at Tao Lin's social-media presence will confirm, it is so heavily autobiographical that it is almost impossible for the reader to determine what - if anything - is invented. From the point of view of a likely target audience more familiar with Twitter, Facebook and reality television than with literary fiction this may actually constitute a recommendation: old-media access to a new-media star.

For me, one of the most frustrating aspects of reading Tao Lin was the persistent feeling that he has something to say and potentially the ability to say it, but through laziness and distractibility has preferred to substitute barely filtered and unstructured documentary for fictional art. The prevailing mood is emotionally muffled, dispirited and anxious, in a way that will be familiar to older readers of American drug fiction. (I hesitated to call the book 'drug fiction', but the omnipresence of prescribed and recreational medications, without which Paul and his acquaintances seem unwilling or unable to function, is the abiding impression left by 'Taipei', and the source of its few moments of humour.)

Paul inhabits his world completely, to a such degree that his experience - itself as weightless and insignificant as an indulged teenager's long summer vacation - is almost continuously mediated by his drug diet and his omnipresent MacBook, with which he records anything and everything that briefly engages his attention. After a while the names of medications - Klonopin, Ambien, Adderall, Seroquel and a dozen others - their dosages and associated moods become more reliable, familiar and fleshed-out landmarks than places, events and persons. (Most of the other human characters in 'Taipei' are at best paler editions of Paul: only his mother escapes this fate). The MacBook, physical symbol of the virtual world, is bed companion, umbilical cord and recording angel.

The book has a certain sociological value in documenting aspects of the lives of a set of privileged, bored young people - nobody in the book seems to work - but is seriously lacking as a work of literary art, being effective neither as serious reflection nor as satire. Like other writers with extensive personal experience of this world, Lin greatly overestimates its fascination for the less involved. Certainly some of the passages of dialogue later in the book read as straightforward transcriptions of drug-addled conversations, with all their tedious hesitations and dead ends preserved alongside cursory editorial additions for context. At intervals, usually at the conclusion of a chapter or section, Paul has an uncharacteristic moment of lucidity - rarely for more than a paragraph; the tone changes, intelligence sparks, and the author gives a glimpse of what he might be capable of, given time, aesthetic distance and application. As a whole, however, one has to admit that over its length 'Taipei' is simply boring, when it isn't actively irritating: a natural consequence of trying to build a story around a figure who seems little interested in his own incoherent life.

Bret Easton Ellis' 'Less Than Zero', which critics were quick to invoke by way of comparison, was by contrast concise, eventful, tightly and stylishly written, and in many ways a straightforward morality play. 'Taipei' is what is left of that '80s world when any shred of moral perspective has vanished, leaving only the sense of a slowly decaying orbit documented with slightly cooler technology. Paul is so relentlessly childish and self-absorbed a character - so trivial, so lacking in insight into his own condition, so absent a centre - that it is as hard to criticise as to sympathise with him, and the author offers no other perspective.


The Seven Madmen (Extraordinary Classics)
The Seven Madmen (Extraordinary Classics)
by Roberto Arlt
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars An early Dostoevskian classic of twentieth-century Argentine literature, 23 Sept. 2014
'The Seven Madmen' (Los siete locos, 1929) is one of only two books by the Argentine novelist Roberto Arlt to have been translated into English. By common critical consent, it is also considered to be his best: but the reader without Spanish will have to take that on trust.

Arlt is sometimes considered to be one of the first, if not the first modern South American novelist. 'The Seven Madmen' is set in Buenos Aires in the late nineteen-twenties, at a time when Argentina's booming economy had made it one of the wealthiest countries in the world - but also one of the most politically fragile. In fact, Arlt's novel includes a prescient fantasy of a military coup that anticipates the reality of the coup of 1930.

The author's protagonist is a classic 'marginal man' of the interwar period: Remo Erdosain, a debt collector and part-time inventor who, as the novel opens, stands accused of defrauding his employers. His marriage is in trouble: his acquaintances are a motley collection of fantasists and petty criminals, none of whom is entirely what he seems. Erdosain, in the grip of an existential crisis, allows himself to be drawn into a conspiracy to found a secret society that will exploit the tensions of the time to overthrow the government.

Arlt's most obvious debt is to the tradition of metaphysical anguish inaugurated in fiction by Dostoevsky; but Arlt has his own, distinctive psychology. Like Dostoevsky, he is an uneven and hasty writer - he was a journalist by trade - who marries occasional clumsiness with intense passion and episodes of visionary power and penetration. His view of women is very much of its time and place. Nonetheless, 'The Seven Madmen' is a compelling portrait of a mind at war with itself and with external circumstances.

It also provides sharp insights into the temper of the times. This was the period between the first genuinely global war and its widely-anticipated successor, in which both democracy and capitalism, unstable and under savage attacks from extremists of right and left, seemed unlikely to survive, creating an atmosphere in which almost any paranoid fantasy, however surreal or nihilistic, might be entertained. 'The Seven Madmen''s fluid movement between reality and fantasy captures perfectly this febrile mood, in which an ordinary man might dream of being a Mussolini, a Lenin, or a leader of the Illuminati without incongruity.

Arlt continued the story in two further volumes, neither of which appears to have been translated into English. Nonetheless, 'The Seven Madmen' is complete in its own right. Any reader of fiction of the period, or of South American literature, will want to have read this book. It stands up well to comparison with European and North American literature of the period, and although largely ignored at the time of publication has since been acknowledged as an influence by Cortazar, among others.


The Children Act
The Children Act
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.49

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Novella set in the legal world, 13 Sept. 2014
This review is from: The Children Act (Hardcover)
'The Children Act' is a brief novel - really a novella - set in the legal world. The principal character is a judge specialising in cases involving children. As the book opens, she is performing her professional duties while dealing with the strain of the potential collapse of her marriage.

Ian McEwan has clearly done a great deal of research for this book, but I didn't feel that the story ever became merely a vehicle for hard-earned detail. The central character is convincingly inhabited, and the conflict that McEwan sets up when the clear and ordered world of the law is required to deal with the messy world of human emotions generates real tension.

Nonetheless, I felt that the book was only partially successful. McEwan writes well, in an understated way, and can create believably complex characters, but is much less secure in matters of plotting. The first half of the story works well. McEwan is at home in the world of successful professional people. How the reader feels about the whole, on the other hand, is likely to depend on how convinced he or she is by the second half, in which the judge becomes personally involved in a difficult case involving an adolescent who is refusing medical treatment. Although the outline of this fictional case is drawn from life, its presentation in fiction is curiously unconvincing: the denouement succumbs to melodrama.

The real fictional interest lies in the relationship between the judge and her restless husband, which is well handled and sustains interest. The legal material, which might have made for an interesting piece of journalism, here serves first as a pretext and ultimately as a distraction, even a red herring. As a result, the book carries less of a charge, and matters less than it might. The effect is less of chilliness than of distance: as of a judge carefully excluding emotional matters from a considered judgement.


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