Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Short reviews

It has finally dawned on me that if I am ever to mention all the books in the increasingly large pile beside my desk, I am going to have to write shorter reviews than is my wont. So here are a few to begin with.

Peter Bourne: The Deserter

Peter Bourne is another Macmillan New Writing talent, and The Deserter is due for publication on 6 October.

This is a contemporary novel, and Bourne's principal character is Lev Dubnow, a middle-aged Jewish doctor who has taken British citizenship. He returns to Israel following the death of his father, and is less than impressed by what he finds there. He discovers that even a Jew can be unwelcome in Israel if he says things that the majority don't want to hear.

In the end Lev's habit of saying what he thinks gets him (a) stabbed and (b) deported.

Peter Bourne has evidently spent a lot of time in the Near East himself, and I would imagine that Lev Dubnow's views are pretty much the author's own. In other words, this is a serious book about a serious subject, namely Israel's relationship with its near neighbours, and the country's treatment of the Palestinians in particular.

The author writes very well, and the bulk of the story is told through dialogue, which is always a smart move. Serious books do not, however, always make for fun reading, and I can't say that I actually enjoyed the experience all that much. And if you want to add something to your list of nasty things to worry about, here's another one, from page 223:
In a world where a nuclear device of some sort can be purchased for the price of a flat in central London anything could happen here at any time.
Julian Maclaren-Ross: Collected Memoirs

A few weeks ago, Robert McCrum wrote an Observer column about Julian Maclaren-Ross which prompted me to track down a copy of Maclaren-Ross's Collected Memoirs. Here's a taste of what McCrum said:
Maclaren-Ross was the laureate of London's post-war literary demi-monde, once best known as the model for X Trapnel in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. As a bon viveur with a capacity for hard living and moments of extraordinary imagination, he would be talked about in Charlotte and Old Compton Street for decades. In his camel-hair coat, with his cigarette holder, and silver topped Malacca cane, Julian Maclaren-Ross was not only the star of his own inimitable show, he was also the glamorous, and doomed representative of a vanishing, Saki-esque world, the London of Francis Bacon, John Heath-Stubbs, Dylan Thomas and, much later, Jeffrey Bernard.
So, as I say, I read Maclaren-Ross's Collected Memoirs. And everything that has been said about his writing is true.

Yes, Maclaren-Ross evokes time and place in vivid detail. But the problem, for me, is that he is largely writing about the period from 1935 to 1945, with the emphasis perhaps on the 1940s. And that was an absolutely hideous period of English life. In the 1940s we were either fighting a desperate war or trying frantically to get back on our feet after it. These were drab, dreary, depressing times, and by God it shows.

Not only that, but for most of these years, when he was not in the army, Maclaren-Ross was trying to make a living as a freelance writer, and he records his experiences in appalling, horrifying detail. Time after time he describes meeting publishers, or talking to the BBC, or trying to contact film producers and directors. This was at a point in his life when he often had no money, no food, and no heating, in the middle of a brutal winter. If you have ever been tempted to give up the day job and try this writing life for yourself, then perhaps you should read this book; after which committing suicide by regularly ingesting arsenic over a three-year period will come to look like a much more sensible alternative.

I have argued elsewhere that the experience of two world wars, in the early twentieth century, not only deprived England of nine tenths of its best and brightest young men and women, but also ensured that those who remained were driven insane. And Maclaren-Ross's memoirs provide living proof of that. No wonder he took refuge in drink and drugs, and no wonder he died young.

Many famous names appear in these pages. But do not rely on the index. Nina Hamnett, for example, was a well known artist, and the index says that she appears on page xx. Which she does, but she also appears on page 317. Nina was another of those crazy characters who propped up the bars of Soho. She was inclined, when the mood took her, to go on drinking until she was quite incapable of staggering anywhere; at which point she would carefully, and discreetly, be sick into her handbag.

Only occasionally do these pages raise a smile, as when the author tells us of an army pal called Ginger. The platoon sergeant did not regard Ginger as reliable; not after he was found peering into a hand grenade to see how the thing worked, after first having removed the pin.

Oh, by the way. Maclaren-Ross mentions a novel called The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, the author of which, he says, was unknown. Not any more he isn't: it was Ernest Borneman, who in the 1950s was a well known jazz critic. Borneman wrote the Floor book before he was twenty.
For the average bookish person these Collected Memoirs might be a fascinating read, for through their pages walk all the big names; but for anyone with literary ambitions, or any experience of trying to sell written work, they are uniquely horrible.

James Aylett and James Lark: Fringe

I mentioned Aylett and Lark's Fringe last week, in my discussion of the Edinburgh fringe festival, and now I've read it in full. The subtitle is 'seeing it, doing it, surviving it -- a complete guide to the Edinburgh fringe', and the book does what it says on the label.

Aylett and Lark are part of the theatre group The Uncertainty Division, and I suspect that this book will be most useful to anyone who wants to mount a show at Edinburgh; but it is also valuable to anyone who just wants to go there. At least you will understand how difficult it is to put on a fringe show (which doesn't stop 1800 different outfits from doing the job each year), and you might be a little less impatient and a bit more appreciative as a result.

The book has a lot of other useful information, about where to stay, where to eat, and what to avoid. Those who hang around the fringes of the fringe also get measured up. Scientologists, seeking to find converts, get given fairly short shrift, as do the street entertainers who pose as statues -- a group of alleged performers 'so talentless that they wouldn't even be considered for Big Brother.'

A good book for a tenner.

Wei-Meng Lee: Google Blogger

Novels are, in my view, relatively cheap when compared with other forms of entertainment, but non-fiction books can reasonably be compared with free sources of information. And here Wei-Meng Lee's Google Blogger falls down badly.

Google Blogger is a book which aims to teach you how to use Blogger, the software tool cum web server which hosts this very blog and about ten million others. And, well, yes, I guess the book does do that. Its accuracy has been assured by Biz Stone, a big name in early blogging and former senior specialist on the Google Blogger team.

On the other hand, this book does not, so far as I can see, tell you anything that you can't find out from Blogger Help or Knowledge. Furthermore, it doesn't answer some very important questions. Such as:

Why is Blogger so goddamned slow, even with broadband?
Why, when I click on the spell-check icon, does the spell-check box sometimes not appear?
Why does the spell-checker not recognise the words blog and blogger?
Why does the facility for setting the date and time of a post not appear by default, as it used to?

And so on. Sorry, but this one ain't worth the money.

Logan Pearsall Smith: A Treasury of English Aphorisms

I was going to say that Logan Pearsall Smith was an old-fashioned English man of letters. Except that I now discover that he was an American who settled in London. But he was a Balliol man, and that's about as English as you can get, even if you weren't born here.

About fifty years ago, a schoolmaster of mine recommended that I should read LPS's Trivia. And I fully intend to, when I find a copy. And actually I have no excuse now, because it seems to be available on Project Gutenberg. The Gutenberg page includes the following hilarious comment: 'Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook.' Oh dear oh dear. Laugh? I nearly had a nasty accident.

Anyway, that schoolmasterly comment about Trivia led me, when poking around a dusty old bookshop, to buy A Treasury of English Aphorisms, published by Constable in 1928.

You don't hear much about aphorisms these days, though Noah Cicero, you may recall, had some in Burning Babies. And should you not be familiar with the term, an aphorism is defined by Oxford as 'a pithy observation which defines a general truth'.

LPS begins his short book with a fifty-page essay on the aphorism through the ages, and, as you would expect, this is learned, scholarly, and slightly dull. There the follow a substantial collection of aphorisms, drawn from both ancient and modern writers of many different nationalities. These are grouped under about seventy different headings, such as Fashion, Flattery, Art, Religion, and so forth.

My reading of this book led to me to two conclusions. One, that our time does not lend itself to the construction or dissemination of aphorisms; somehow they don't match the modern age. And two, if LPS's collection represents the accumulated wisdom of the western world, then perhaps we haven't learnt very much.

But I may be wrong. Anyway, here are a handful of aphorisms relating (vaguely) to books and publishing;

The reciprocal civility of authors is one of the most risible scenes in the farce of life. (Dr Johnson)

Praise is the tribute which every man is expected to pay for the grant of perusing a manuscript. (Ditto)

The man who is asked by an author what he thinks of his work, is put to the torture, and is not obliged to speak the truth. (Ditto)

Envy, among other ingredients, has a mixture of the love of justice in it. We are more angry at undeserved than at deserved good fortune. (Hazlitt)

Our business in this world is not to succeed but to continue to fail, in good spirits. (R.L. Stevenson)

Success is the necessary misfortune of life, but it is only to the very unfortunate that it comes early. (Trollope)

Very few men, properly speaking, live at present, but are providing to live another time. (Swift)

I must complain the cards are ill-shuffled, till I have a good hand. (Also Swift)


Anonymous said...

That Dr Johnson was one grumpy old bookman.

Kitty said...

I can help you with your blogger questions.

1)Why is Blogger so goddamned slow, even with broadband? I dunno. I have broadband, too, and some days blogger is slow. It might have something to do with power brownouts in CA, where they're based. I've used other blogging hosts, and they're not any faster.

2)Why, when I click on the spell-check icon, does the spell-check box sometimes not appear?
Why does the spell-checker not recognise the words blog and blogger?
I never use the spell check. Instead, I write my text in a word doc. where I can spell check, then I copy'n'paste it into blogger.

3)Why does the facility for setting the date and time of a post not appear by default, as it used to? If you click on the post and comment options, lower left, the time & date options will drop down. I just discovered this recently myself. Before then, it drove me mad thinking that blooger had done away with those features which I use periodically.

Kitty said...

You may want to check this out: Blogger in beta.

Anonymous said...

I've loved Logan Pearsall Smith for years, his prose is so polished it's a wonder he never polished it completely away. In this regard, I was interested to see that there are numerous small differences between the Gutenberg version and that found in my 1933 Crown Constable edition of "All Trivia", which adds to "Trivia" his further works in the same vein "More Triva", "Afterthoughts", and "Last Words". It may reflect a difference between the original UK and US editions of "Trivia", but it's interesting to see that somewhere along the line he just couldn't leave the polishing alone.

Anonymous said...

The last is so often the best: "I must complain the cards are ill-shuffled, till I have a good hand."

Ah, yes. Writers take heed.

JodyTresidder said...

It has never - until this moment - occurred to me to question my cobwebby loyalty to Logan Pearsall Smith's "A Treasury of English Aphorisms".

I used to try and memorize examples for conversational advantage (as a prissy student) but never got very far - and assumed it was my fault. Just checked my copy again - my god, they're terrible!

The room seems to become stuffy, gloomy and jammed with unwanted furniture merely by reading them.

Martin said...

I also write my blog entries "locally", as the geeks say, in a text editor with a spelling checker. But Word isn't any good, because it messes up the quotation marks in the links. Also any apostrophes.

Anonymous said...

Peter Bourne said to the reviewer of his book 'The Deserter'..
So you didn't much like the experience of reading it..well, I have succeeded in communicating something very important to you because that's how most ordinary Israelis and Palstinian feel living where they do - they don't 'much like the experience' of living in the way they are forced to. I am sad though that my book didn't appear to have moved you more. The experience of the ordinary, everyday Palestinian trying, despite everything, to make a life is very moving to witness. I had hoped I had communicated that as well.

The Silver Eel said...

Maclaren-Ross and his contemporaries are given lengthy mention in the first volume of Anthony Burgess's autobiography "Little Wilson and Big God" (Vintage Classics); LPS is discussed in Gore Vidal's essay "Logan Pearsall Smith loves the adverb", which can be found in "United States" (Abacus). Both are, happily, in print.

Jon said...

Interested readers can find a bio of Bornemann alias 'Cameron McCabe' here, with links to a review of The Face on the Cutting Room Floor. The book itself is puerile, but somehow it managed to take in several distinguished critics.


James Lark said...

I like your blog a lot. Especially what you say about James Lark and James Aylett's book Fringe.