Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré

I’ve never been much of a thriller reader. My father is a fan of the genre, but the closest I’ve come to reading the crime and spy novels he likes is a brief John Grisham phase in my teens, around the same time all the hot young things in Hollywood were starring in the movie adaptations. While it wasn’t exactly full of heart-throbs, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a fabulous movie. Once again I was inspired by celluloid to pick up a book and try one of the masters of the spy genre - John le Carré.

Those of you who have seen the movie will find the plot very similar. A British SIS officer is sent to Czechoslovakia on a top secret mission by the head of his agency, known only as Control. Control has reason to suspect a mole is operating amongst his highest officials, and a Czech general is promising him a name. When events go wrong, and the spy is shot, heads roll within the security service. Months later Control is dead, and rumours of a mole have resurfaced. Once a suspect, the ousted spy George Smiley is the ideal candidate to hunt out which of his former colleagues is spying for the Russians.

Because not only the set up, but also the way the plot plays out, is basically the same, I found it a bit of a shame that I hadn’t read the book first. Still, I enjoyed the book even though I knew what would happen. Unlike a lot of thrillers we are used to these days there is no race to solve the mystery. Instead we follow Smiley through his logical reconstruction of events, and eventual trap, to discover who the mole is, at the same time that Smiley has his (unvoiced) suspicions confirmed. If you are looking for a mystery to solve, this isn’t the book for you. Perhaps this is why I wasn’t bothered by knowing the outcome. Le Carré isn’t interested in red herrings, or tantalising details; he unfolds the mystery in a logical way, and at a calculated pace. It is the world of the spy that is of importance, not the mystery. The book is full of spy speak, which can take a while to get your head around - to be honest I got confused as to the difference between ‘shoemakers’ and ‘lamplighters’, though some, such as ‘pavement artist’ to describe those following a suspect, have a charm (and clarity).

The story is told in third person, following Smiley, as he tries to piece together what is going on. He does this by meeting fellow spies - talking to those who will talk secretly, hunting down those who were ousted after the Czech scandal. I found the way the narrative flowed interesting, as it meant that a lot of the real action in the novel is narrated, in conversation, after the fact. It is curious to me, looking back, that it works. Through Smiley’s conversations we build a thorough picture of that fateful night, who was where, talking to who, whose stories have gaps in them. But we also know the outcome. It could all be very dry, but le Carré brings each scene to life, so the stakes seem real.

Although this is the first of a trilogy, it is actually the fifth book Smiley has appeared in. He is le Carré ’s perfect spy - what he lacks in physical brilliance he makes up for in mental acuity. His last name is somewhat ironic, as he comes across as a rather inexpressive chap. I gather that this is not the only le Carré novel to find Smiley brought in from the outside somehow to investigate, or tidy up after other spies. As a narrative device it clearly works. I do wonder if I would find it so interesting after reading a few similar books. I am however sufficiently intrigued that I can see myself reading a few more of these at some stage in the future.

The Cold War is brought vividly to life, with a nice bit of moral ambiguity on both sides. The SIS might be a world peopled largely with middle aged white men, but the major players all have personalities that leap off the page - from repressed anger, or ruthless ambition, to the feeling of failure. The nit and grit of this book might be a spy story, but it is also a story of how people react to betrayal. The ending is beautifully understated. What the film made quite explicit, the book only implies. It might not end with a bang, but it’s not a whimper either. The pay off, if you have been paying sufficient attention, is a very satisfying conclusion.

Friday, 15 June 2012

A Visit From The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Another book that has been on my to-read list for some time was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad. Like everyone else I hadn’t heard of her a little over a year ago, but her profile has rocketed since winning the 2011 Pulitzer with this novel. I didn’t find it a perfect read, but it was enjoyable, and unlike many literary novels these days it was a fairly quick read.

The book sits somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories. Each chapter is a self contained story, following a diverse cast of interconnected characters, and together they build a thematic story of life in the modern world. Unlike true short stories, most of them need the context of the other stories to impart meaning. It isn’t just that they would lack emotional resonance, more that without the character information you have already built up over the course of the book, a reader would be somewhat lost reading later chapters on their own. While some connections are obvious, Egan weaves her stories together with a lot of detail. After finishing the book I went back to the first chapter and picked up on numerous references to other chapters. I imagine the level of detail in the book would reward rereading.

The book begins with Sasha, in her mid thirties, assistant to Bennie Salazar, a music producer. These two are the characters that probably pop up most often throughout the book. We slide along the time scale of their lives, meeting Bennie as a teenage punk, and as an ageing manager in a near future, trying one last time for success. We also get to know Bennie’s mentor Lou, the teenage girls he seduces, and his dysfunctional family. We have sub-plots involving dictators, mentally ill addicts, and sexual coercion. Yet Egan also finds some real heart and light in sections. The ‘Goon Squad’ of the title is a reference to the way life can beat you up sometimes.
Time’s a goon, right?
Her characters makes mistakes, screw up relationships, pass years in a haze of drugs and eventually realise life is passing them by. Occasionally Egan throws them a bone, and the moments of redemption, the hint of better things to come in their life is what stops this being a funny, but ultimately depressing book, and turns it into something with a soul.

The most memorable chapter is the novel’s most famous, because it sounds so gimmicky: a powerpoint presentation, taking up sixty pages. It is the slide journal of Sasha’s daughter, documenting her parents, her obsessive younger brother and all her family’s foibles. It is a brilliant chapter. Individually it tells a beautiful story of family: of the love that holds people together even when they drive you mad. They are by no means perfect, but in documenting the at times dysfunctional relationship between father and son Egan cuts to the essence of family. To the book as a whole it is also important. Sasha appears in a number of stories, and after tales of misspent youth and unhappy adulthood we need this story to swallow the bitter pill of the rest. Sasha’s family allows us to hope; after all the mess we need to see that lives can get better, that something beautiful is ahead.

I did have one problem with this book: it isn’t anything wrong with Egan’s writing, nor is it unique to her book. Why are so many books full of characters that are selfish and egotistical, especially when they purport to be exploring ‘modern’ life? Does this really reflect the world we live in today? I understand writers want to explore all kinds of characters, but to that end why are they all so unrelentingly narcissistic? Many excellent novels are like this, Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections being another example. It isn’t just books, it is television as well. Individually they can be fine, but the cumulative effect of this navel-gazing can be a little tiresome. Admittedly the egoism Egan’s characters exhibit works well with the black humour that makes this books enjoyable.

This is a very well constructed book, the structure and characters working together to tell a story that encompasses a wide breadth of human experience. It is not however flawless: some of her futuristic elements felt unoriginal and didn’t really add to the novel. Overall Egan brings humour to what are the painful truths of her character’s lives, revealing all their inadequacies. At times scathingly critical, and at others beautifully poignant, A Visit From The Goon Squad deserves much of the praise and attention it has received.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Death Comes To Pemberley, by P.D. James

There are no lack of Pride and Prejudice spin-offs in the world, none of which I have bothered to read. What sets this one apart is its author: P.D. James, who has written best selling crime novels in a career spanning fifty years. She wasn’t an early starter either: she is the same age as my grandfather - nearly 92. I’ve not read her novels before - crime is not my favourite genre - but a writer of this calibre taking on Jane Austen’s world got my interest.

Set six years after Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy are happily married with two small children (boys - the Darcy estate is safe). Elizabeth has adjusted to being the lady of the house at such a grand estate as Pemberley. Jane and Bingley live nearby, and Mr Bennet is a frequent, and welcome visitor, to their home. Dastardly Wickham and Lydia are most certainly not welcome at Pemberley. Georgiana is yet unmarried, though some suitors may be on the horizon. In short, everything is orderly and respectable. The household is busily engaged in preparations for the annual ball, one of the highlights of the local social scene, when, late at night, a carriage arrives at the house. A murder has been committed, throwing the previously orderly, happy home into uncertainty and chaos.

James invokes a strong sense of era, and her dialogue feels both natural and appropriate to the period. As this is a crime novel it encompasses aspects of Austen’s society we don’t see in her books. The body is examined by the local doctor, with what I assume is cutting edge skill for the time. There is an inquest, and then a trial, where we can see the foundations for the court system we know today. I am sure James has researched thoroughly, and these sections of the book work well. James introduces a young lawyer, Henry Alveston, who voices some rather liberal views in regards to women, mentioning Mary Woolstonecraft. Austen’s world is taken out of the parlour - the nineteenth century has arrived.

Much of the action at Pemberley, and indeed the murder itself, take place in an area of woodland on the estate. It is inhabited by an elderly servant, Thomas Bidwell, and his family, and while not otherwise neglected, it is considered wild in comparison to the rest of Pemberley. This is partly because of a family legacy: Darcy’s great grandfather committed suicide there, an act that has weighed heavily on the family for generations. There are of course ghost stories associated with the woodland. All this adds a gothic element to the book, a genre that Austen herself satirised brilliantly in Northanger Abbey. It works though, partly because James keeps it fairly subtle. The slight shifts in mood as the woods and weather close in when Elizabeth and Darcy find themselves in the woodlands give a lovely sense of the claustrophobia, and volatility, of both their physical surroundings and their situation.

For any potential readers out there, I don’t think this will in any way effect how I perceive the characters when I reread Pride & Prejudice. The style of the novel is too different, while I know they are the same as Austen’s characters, and James does write well, they don’t have the same feel. Nonetheless the book is written with skill and wit. It is a fairly light read, and enjoyable. I did find myself wondering why, other than that she is well established enough, and old enough to do whatever the hell she likes, James chose to write this book. I usually associate unofficial sequels with authors who can’t create their own worlds, not with someone with a proven track record of doing exactly that. While setting it in Austen’s world adds a sense of fun to the novel, much of the plot could be as well served by a story of James’s own creation. The one way the novel felt - at only a few moments to be fair - flat, was in scenes where characters are explaining their actions in Pride & Prejudice. I didn’t understand why Darcy would feel the need to explain to Elizabeth behaviour of six years earlier; especially as this is largely done through expository dialogue, it felt a bit clunky. Also, why would we be interested in James’s interpretation of events? I feel that filling in those gaps ourselves is often part of the joy of reading. Interestingly I listened to an interview online in which she discussed some aspects of Pride & Prejudice that had puzzled her, and that she wanted to explain. It is very deliberate, but I think it would be a stronger book without these sections.

If you are only ever going to read one sequel to a Jane Austen this is probably the one to read. Of course it doesn’t compare to one of the best loved novels of all time, but it does stand on its own two feet as a novel in its own right. James has wisely not written a romance; by writing in a different genre she is able to bring something new to the world of Elizabeth and Darcy. The crime aspect is fittingly ungrisly for the most part, and I thought the gothic aspects worked particularly well. A few quibbles aside, it is an entertaining read.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Egg & Sperm Race, by Matthew Cobb

I like science. It wasn’t a subject I excelled at in school; to my disappointment I only just scraped through my final year. Nevertheless I find mankind’s attempts to come to grips with the world around it deeply fascinating. From the far reaches of deep space to tiny subatomic particles, from the bottoms of oceans to the human brain, the scope of science is vast and encompasses every aspect of our lives. One of the big questions we have grappled with over the centuries is the origin of life. The Egg and Sperm Race takes us back to pre-enlightenment days; before Darwin could develop his theory of evolution we had to discover the answer to a much more fundamental problem: how do we breed?

It seems so obvious to us now - even a child can explain the basic concepts behind fertilisation - however not so many centuries ago even the top thinkers of the time were deeply muddled as to how life came about. As Matthew Cobb makes clear, even basic facts we take for granted aren’t that easy to establish. For example, there is no obvious indication of pregnancy for some time after intercourse; while people knew there was a connection, they didn’t know what that connection was. Some of the ideas circulating, even amongst learned members of society, seem ridiculous to us now. Since insects were so clearly identified with dirt and decay it was widely believed that they spontaneously generated in rotting matter. No wonder mammalian reproduction was little understood! While it was generally accepted that offspring took after their parents it wasn’t seen as the hard and fast rule we know it to be. In the seventeenth century the newly formed Royal Society was happy to listen to stories of mutant children of cats bred with rabbits. Although they were a bit confused, the Royal Society, and other European scientific institutions like it, began to develop a more rigorous approach to science.

It is easy to think of the history of science as a series of eureka moments, such as Newton’s apple, but Cobb gives a good sense of how science really happens: hard work and the slow accretion of facts over time building a picture. He also shows how poor methodology, and sometimes luck, play influential roles. William Harvey, one of the first ovists (those who believed the egg was primarily responsible for reproduction, as opposed to spermists), unfortunately chose deer to study. There was no way Harvey could have known, but deer are unusual in many ways, including that mating often begins before females are fertile. This lead Harvey to some false conclusions which, if he had made a luckier choice of animal, he might have avoided.

Another prominent figure in this book, Antoni Leeuwenhoek, was a Dutch draper who arose to prominence in the field of reproduction through his skill with a microscope. He was unusual in that he wasn’t from an aristocratic background; nevertheless he became a regular correspondent of the Royal Society. In 1677 Leeuwenhoek discovered spermatozoa, which was a remarkable achievement. The story Cobb relates though has a charm of its own. In his letter to the Royal Society Leeuwenhoek was at pains to clarify that he did not come across his semen sample through any immoral means, rather it was ‘the excess which Nature provided me in my conjugal relations‘. Leeuwenhoek’s wife must have been a very understanding woman!

Throughout this book Cobb does an excellent job of explaining the science clearly, in layman’s terms. He is particularly good at illustrating how cutting edge some of the techniques were for the time. This is helpful - as I have said it is difficult for us to imagine a time when reproduction was so poorly understand. He also brings to life society of the time, and the scientists working within it. This is a great pop-science read, accessible without being oversimplified.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Tallulah Rising, by Glen Duncan

In last year’s review of The Last Werewolf I anticipated the arrival of a sequel, and that I would read it. I was right, and no sooner did Tallulah Rising hit the shelf, I got my paws (sorry) on a copy. I really enjoyed these books, so I just want to state right here it is impossible to review without giving some spoilers of the first. I’ll try not to give away much, but if you even think you might read The Last Werewolf, stop now!

So, the big twist in The Last Werewolf was that Jake Marlow wasn’t really the last werewolf. He finds himself able to enjoy the company of a female werewolf, Tallulah. This female is the central character of the sequel. After various events in the previous book I am not explaining, Tallulah finds herself both pregnant and alone. Oh, and WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) still wants the werewolves dead. Also, did I mention the vampires in my last review? They are the werewolves’ natural enemy, but they want something from Tallulah that doesn’t involve her being dead. Yet.

Duncan certainly knows how to set up a plot, and he sets lots of plates spinning in this one. Even with all the plot he jams in, he still finds time to think and grapple with more existential questions, lifting this from a shlocky horror to something with a bit more bite. In this second book much of this revolves around Tallulah’s feelings with regard to her pregnancy and subsequent motherhood. Her fears have to do with the main theme of the first book: how does the human come to terms with the monster that lives inside them, especially when the monster eats another person every full moon? It isn’t simply a matter of sustenance - The Hunger (as it is called) also demands cruelty and horror.
It’s only the best for us if it’s the worst for them.
As we discover in The Last Werewolf, one of the best things for a werewolf is to consume someone you love. Hence Tallulah has rather complex fears over bonding with her baby; she is terrified that if she does, she will eat it. It is both a logical extension of themes already existing in the novel, and a metaphor for the complex feelings most new and expectant parents experience. A few times, especially early on, I had to wonder if this was a good book to be reading while I was pregnant, but at least I know I won’t have that problem!

Duncan really knows how to write a page turner. Often chapters and paragraphs end on a tantalising detail, so you just can‘t stop. He is a total tease, which makes this a terrible bed time book as you compulsively keep reading. The plotting is immaculately done, sometimes relating back to what seemed minor details in The Last Werewolf. Events are carefully layered, plans are hinted at but not explained, and every time you think a partial resolution might be coming Duncan throws in a twist, until the final quarter of the book, when events and characters all come together at a rapid pace. I did think the end of the book was a little deus ex machina, however it is clearly setting up the third of the planned trilogy, and it signals a possibly interesting direction for this book, so I’ll forgive him.

I criticized the first book for some slightly florid writing at times, a problem that reared its head once or twice in this book too. The change of voice from Jake to Tallulah allows Duncan to explore new territory which he clearly enjoys. Tallulah is a new werewolf, and a thoroughly modern woman, whereas Jake was world weary and laconic. Some of the ideas don’t change though. Sexual deviancy is a bit of a theme in both these books. I find it slightly bemusing how often anal sex seems to feature. I thought perhaps it was appropriate in a male werewolf, but Tallulah’s musings on it include pre-werewolf days, so I guess it wasn’t just that.

After slogging through Tristram Shandy, this was the perfect antidote. It is wonderful entertainment, full of sharp wit and black humour. The characters are engaging, and the plot draws you in. For all that Duncan writes this in a supernatural world, the characters are all battling with recognisably human desires. There is a lot of sex, and gore, but just enough literary pretension to lift it above much of what is being published in what is a very popular genre.