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review 2017-04-09 21:44
The Courts of Babylon
Courts of Babylon - Peter Bodo

As many of you know, I like tennis.

 

Where I live, spring has finally sprung, and this means tennis season is back on. I usually try to read a tennis themed book in the run up to the European season, and today it just felt right to chill my tennis-tired bones after two days of matches (who doesn't go over-board on the first chance of playing outdoors?!) with an attempt to finish off some current reads. One of those was Peter Bodo's The Courts of Babylon, first published in 1995.

 

I usually like to start of my reviews with a quote, but in this case I simply could not find any meaningful, witty, or interesting quote that was not offensive in any way.

 

Which brings me to the issue I have with this book: While there are some interesting tidbits about tennis in the 1980s, much of the book is made up of yellow press gossip, and Bodo's own - VERY frustrating - notions on not only the the game and politics of tennis in the 80s, but also included his own judgement of the private lives of players, which was incredibly biased. And when I say biased, I do mean full of patronising, imperialist, sexist, and bigoted comments.

 

Here are a few examples:

 

Let's start with an innocent generalisation:

"Professional tennis players are rarely well-rounded individuals. Many of them are result-oriented, rule-addled, lavishly compensated victims of a totalitarian way of life."

Not to mention the constant assumptions about people's motivations or state of mind:

A few years ago Steffi Graf bought a lavish duplex in a new, fashionable building near Union Square in Manhattan. This was a remarkable choice for a thoroughly German girl going on twenty-three whose only other personal residence was a room upstairs in the enormous house she built for her family in her native Bruehl, Germany—a room that her agent Phil De Picciotto once described as “a really, really neat room.”

And don't get me started on what the hell he might supposed would be more "appropriate" for a "thoroughly German girl"...

 

But while we are at it, let's look at more national stereotyping:

This was not the only fashion error promulgated by Adidas, the German company that once produced tasteful, bold, and above all sporty clothes for characters as different as Stan Smith and Ilie Nastase. At about the same time that what-you-see-is-what-you-get Stef, Citizen Stef, was dressed like a walking Rorschach test, Adidas had leggy, petloving, family-centric Steffi Graf wearing shirts that came directly from the Salvador Dali school of design. One of those shirts appeared to be made from strands of genetic material, suggesting that maybe the Germans were up to their old tricks again, trying to revive some Uberfrau theme from their dark past.

This is the point where I would like to call the author a few names, but there is more (oh, so much more...)

Australians, whose only conscious national dogma is informality, like to call their nation “Oz.” Being a literal bunch, the Aussies don’t appreciate how accurate—and funny—that characterization is. But the problem with Oz—or other fantasy lands such as Disney World—is that spending too much time there becomes, well, boring. You might be oblivious to that fundamental fact of life if you live there, but it is brought home dramatically when you visit. Spend enough time in Oz, and you can feel the boredom creeping into your days with tidal consistency. That’s when you realize that there are disadvantages to developing as Australia did, in natural isolation from the peppery cross-influence enjoyed by the other, contiguous continents. On the surface, Australian people seem a lot like Americans. They inhabit a vast, underpopulated nation rich in natural resources and they have a rich store of frontier myths and sprawling suburbs. The Australians exterminated aborigines, the continent’s indigenous people, with a relish that even American settlers were hard put to match. Besides, while walking around in some quaint European city, you could easily mistake an Aussie for a Yank at fifty yards. They share an affinity for ghastly T-shirts, short pants, white socks pulled up to the knee, and running shoes that allow you to see if not hear them coming from a mile away. Australians surf. They drink beer. They barbecue. They drink beer. They like their own elementary version of football (Aussie rules). And they like to live in one-story, ranch-style houses with big garages and little windows that look out on identical setups where other people barbecue and drink beer.

Still with me?

There was a point during this part of the book where I still thought that maybe Bodo just wanted be cheeky-charming. It obviously didn't work.

 

Where I completely lost it with Bode, tho, was when he honed in on Women's tennis, the WTA, Billie Jean King's sexuality, oh and Martina Navratilova's too, you know, because the public portrayal of their personal lives is so erosive to the sport, whereas male players are mere eccentircs.

 

Let me make this clear: I don't object to the mention of elements of the personal lives of players, but the chapters didn't contain anything worthwhile - absolutely NOTHING - about tennis.

 

I should have thrown in the towel on this book when Bodo commented as follows on King's match against Bobby Riggs as follows:

"On that day, Billie Jean probably got 80 percent of the American population momentarily interested in something that was marginally about tennis. And that is a heck of an achievement.

But the important question is: Was that Battle of the Sexes a significant event in the growth of tennis and society’s march toward equality and female empowerment, or was it a chimerical happening that evaporated not long after the last ball was struck?"

The above are just a few of the passages that I had a problem with. There were many, many more, that I don't want to bore you with.

 

Overall, Bodo makes a lot of statements and assumptions, but few of them seem to be discussing issues from any perspectives other than his own bias. And trying to save his insults with a paragraph or two about how great certain players are does nothing to rehabilitate his self-congratulatory, dumbass comments, because the statement that they are or were great players does not require Bodo's validation - their respective titles and match records evidence this already.

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review 2017-01-15 04:44
The Spy Who Loved Me
The Spy Who Loved Me - Ian Fleming

I WAS RUNNING away. I was running away from England, from my childhood, from the winter, from a sequence of untidy, unattractive love-affairs, from the few sticks of furniture and jumble of overworn clothes that my London life had collected around me; and I was running away from drabness, fustiness, snobbery, the claustrophobia of close horizons and from my inability, although I am quite an attractive rat, to make headway in the rat-race. In fact, I was running away from almost everything except the law.

That is not a bad start for a book, is it? It's intriguing. It tells of a backstory that is about to be revealed, and it foreshadows whatever else is going to happen whilst the character is on the run. 

 

To be honest, when I started the book, I was really looking forward to reading this. Not just because it was the beginning of another fun buddy read, but also because I had not read The Spy Who Loved Me before. I knew the film, of course, but the film, I was advised, bears no resemblance to the book. Not even close. So, after a few decent Bond stories that followed the abysmally bad From Russia With Love, I thought Fleming had maybe found his template. That maybe From Russia With Love was him scraping the bottom of the barrel, and that surely ANY other book had to be better.

 

Well, I was wrong. I was so wrong. 

 

Also, when reviewing that hot mess that is From Russia With Love, I did mention that it would have been helpful if Fleming had provided a bit more insight into the internal monologue of the books female lead. Yes, I bemoaned that Fleming did not write any part from the female perspective. 

 

Well, folks, it goes to show that I should be careful what I wish for because Fleming did exactly that in The Spy Who Loved Me, and it does not work. What Fleming gives us is Viv, a young Canadian whom we again learn very little about other than she's been in some seriously messed up relationships. Yes, Fleming defines her through the relationships she's been in, mostly being taken advantage of.

What doesn't work about this is that Viv's own account is just dripping with Fleming's misogyny. At one point, he has her describe an abortion as follows:

It was as mentally distressing but as physically painless as I had expected, and three days later I was back in my hotel.

That is all Fleming has Viv say about it. Doesn't sound convincing, does it. 

 

Fleming tries to sell her history as a tough backstory and which is supposed to set Viv up for a resolution to stop being a push-over, be more confident, and not be groped at every turn.

Well, that was the end of that! From now on I would take and not give. The world had shown me its teeth. I would show mine. I had been wet behind the ears. Now I was dry. I stuck my chin out like a good little Canadian (well, a fairly good little Canadian!), and having learnt to take it, decided for a change to dish it out.

So, Viv ends up "on the run" in rural New York, stuck in a short-term motel job, where again she first falls prey to the husband of the owner and then ends up being held for five hours by two thugs who beat her up and threaten her with rape every five minutes. And for a large chunk of the book, this is all the plot there is. Until Bond turns up and saves the day, upon which Bond claims Viv as his reward. 

 

Let's recap: Viv had just undergone severe beatings, rape and death threats, and the one thing on Bond's mind is to have sex with her.

 

The idiotic thing - well, another one, is that Viv, who previously had resolved to escape from abusive relationships, feels she had to go along with Bond's request.

But I knew in my heart that I had to. He would go on alone and I would have to, too. No woman had ever held this man. None ever would. He was a solitary, a man who walked alone and kept his heart to himself. He would hate involvement. I sighed. All right. I would play it that way. I would let him go. I wouldn’t cry when he did. Not even afterwards. Wasn’t I the girl who had decided to operate without a heart? Silly idiot! Silly, infatuated goose! This was a fine time to maunder like a girl in a woman’s magazine! I shook my head angrily and went into the bedroom and got on with what I had to do.

WTF??? Why???

 

This is the point in the book when I no longer asked myself if Fleming lost his mind, but whether he had one in the first place. 

And as if this wasn't sick enough, it actually got worse:

I think I know why I gave myself so completely to this man, how I was capable of it with someone I had met only six hours before. Apart from the excitement of his looks, his authority, his maleness, he had come from nowhere, like the prince in the fairy tales, and he had saved me from the dragon. But for him, I would now be dead, after suffering God knows what before. He could have changed the wheel on his car and gone off, or, when danger came, he could have saved his own skin. But he had fought for my life as if it had been his own. And then, when the dragon was dead, he had taken me as his reward. In a few hours, I knew, he would be gone – without protestations of love, without apologies or excuses. And that would be the end of that – gone, finished. All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful.

Seriously, what utter bullshit! I have not felt so nauseated and enraged by a book since

From Russia With Love. I had hoped Fleming got his act together in the books that followed, but clearly he was a leopard that could not change his spots, which is a shame because the premise of the book was great. It is just that a misogynist dumbass writing from a point of view he has no interest in understanding or even exploring will inevitably end up with a book full of misogynist dumbassery.

 

Avoid at all costs.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-07-17 22:35
From Russia with Love
From Russia With Love - Ian Fleming

"A blue and green dragon-fly flashed out from among the rose bushes at the end of the garden and hovered in mid-air a few inches above the base of the man’s spine. It had been attracted by the golden shimmer of the June sunshine on the ridge of fine blond hairs above the coccyx. A puff of breeze came off the sea. The tiny field of hairs bent gently. The dragon-fly darted nervously sideways and hung above the man’s left shoulder, looking down. The young grass below the man’s open mouth stirred. A large drop of sweat rolled down the side of the fleshy nose and dropped glittering into the grass. That was enough. The dragon-fly flashed away through the roses and over the jagged glass on top of the high garden wall. It might be good food, but it moved."

 

I've said this before. Fleming really could write. It is snippets like the above which have kept me interested in the Bond series, despite my dislike of the "hero" of the books. 

 

With "From Russia with Love", however, I have reached a new low point in my already strained reader-author relationship with Ian Fleming. In fact, I would probably abandon the series, if I wasn't on this quest to investigate the myth of Bond for myself, away from the legend created by the films and the franchise, and also if wasn't so much fun to read this as a buddy read.

So, let me count the ways in which I hate this book - I hope you have time, it's quite a list:

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review 2015-11-23 01:10
Out of Africa
Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass - Karen Blixen,Isak Dinesen

"There is something strangely determinate and fatal about a single shot in the night. It is as if someone had cried a message to you in one word, and would not repeat it. I stood for some time wondering what it had meant. Nobody could aim at anything at this hour, and, to scare away something, a person would fire two shots or more."

 

There is some truly beautiful writing in this book.

 

When describing the land and the wildlife of Africa, Dinesen (i.e. Karen Blixen) truly shines as a writer and I can only believe that it is this aspect of her book that resonates with so many who rate this book, Out of Africa, highly. I mean, the film of the same title is not really based on and has little to do with this book, so clearly readers must see something else in the book that appeals to them - and I'm guessing it is the lyrical description of the African landscape. If the book contained itself to her impressions of the land, I would have loved this book, too.

 

Unfortunately, no amount of lyrical prose was able to outweigh the aspects of the book that really drove me nuts, none more so than the way author writes about the people of Kenya and, by doing so, what we learn about the author herself.

 

After reading only a couple of chapter I was utterly conflicted whether the author's constant racism was a result of her genuine believe that white Europeans were supreme to the primitive natives or whether her offensive descriptions of "the Natives" was a result of some sort of mistake in articulating what she really meant.

Seeing the she continued to generalise about African people and compare them to animals throughout the book, it leaves little argument against the assumption that Dinesen really believed in the superiority of the white "Immigrants". 

 

So the next question that occurred (and as one fellow reader pointed out also) is, how much of the casual racism was a result of the time that Dinesen lived in?

 

Well, seeing that she lived in Africa between 1915 and 1931 (Out of Africa was published in 1937), it is of course to be expected that her views are reflecting the mores of a less enlightened time, which is somewhat ironic as she fills the book with literary and philosophical references in an attempt to show off her worldliness and pretends to present herself as an enlightened, witty and intellectual woman. This in particular made me want to smack her with a copy Markham's West with the Night. Markham may have had her shortcomings but she did not need to fuel her self-confidence by patronising anyone, least her African neighbours.

 

As much as Dinesen's racism may have been a reflection of her time, it became clear when reading the first story in Shadows on the Grass, that Dinesen's believe of superiority must have been ingrained in her more deeply than just as an expression of a sentiment that was popular within her social circles.

 

Shadows on the Grass was published in 1960. So, at that time Dinesen had not only returned to Europe, but had also widely travelled, was at home in the artistic and literary circles of Europe and the US, and as any enlightened intellectual of the time would have been exposed to current affairs of the world such as the beginning of the civil rights movement in the US, the demise of the colonial systems as a result of the moral issues raised with supremacist theories after WWII, etc. Yet, the first story in Shadows on the Grass contains the same racist bullshit as Out of Africa including the following:

 

"The dark nations of Africa, strikingly precocious as young children, seemed to come to a standstill in their mental growth at different ages. The Kikuyu, Kawirondo and Wakamba, the people who worked for me at the farm, in early childhood were far ahead of the white children of the same age, but they stopped quite suddenly at a stage corresponding to that of a European child of nine."

 

She even goes on to say that she found some pseudo-scientific theory to support her musings on the qualities of different races. Of course, this only takes up one paragraph in the book and she does not present any arguments that may contradict her opinions.

 

How is this supportable by the justification that she was a writer of her time? Had she been "of her time" I would have expected her to move on, but no.

 

What the book also told me about Dinesen is that she had more appreciation and compassion for animals than for human beings. She was against killing animals for sport - except lions (lions were fair game, apparently), which was quite unusual for a member of the society she lived in, and also considering that the love of her life, Denys Finch-Hatton, organised safaris for wealthy big game hunters.  And yet, when confronted with the victim of a shooting accident, a child who had been shot accidentally, all she can say is the following:

 

"When you are brought suddenly within the presence of such disaster, there seems to be but one advice, it is the remedy of the shooting-field and the farmyard: that you should kill quickly and at any cost. And yet you know that you cannot kill, and your brain turns with fear. I put my hands to the child's head and pressed it in my despair, and, as if I had really killed him, he at the same moment stopped screaming, and sat erect with his arms hanging down, as if he was made of wood. So now I know what it feels like to heal by imposition."

 

So, her first instinct is to shoot the child? The second insight she gains is that she deludes herself into thinking she could heal by laying on hands?

 

Actually, there is more about her delusional exploits as a medic when deciding to become the primary medical care giver to the Natives on her farm. Granted, any first aid may have been better than none, but at no time does she pretend to want to find out if what she's doing is of any medical help, and it looks like failures didn't make her stop to think, either:

 

"I knew very little of doctoring, just what you learn at a first aid course. But my renown as a doctor had been spread by a few chance lucky cures, and had not been decreased the catastrophic mistakes that I had made."

 

So, again while some of the writing is great, I just cannot muster any sympathy or liking for the author, who, to me, came across as an ignorant, utterly delusional, racist, ever pretending to be something she was not.

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text 2015-11-21 17:03
Out of Africa - Reading progress update: I've read 20 out of 462 pages.
Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass - Karen Blixen,Isak Dinesen

"Noble found I
ever the Native
and insipid the Immigrant."

 

Yup. None more so than the author it seems. This is going to be a long, frustrating read.

 

I'm only a chapter in but so far Dinesen/Blixen seems naive or utterly stupid at best, willfully ignorant or supremacist at worst.

 

How is this a beloved classic if the first 20 pages already thrive on tripe like this?

 

"The Natives were Africa in flesh and blood. The tall extinct volcano of Longonot that rises above the Rift Valley, the broad Mimosa trees along the rivers, the Elephant and the Giraffe, were not more truly Africa than the Natives were, - small figures in an immense scenery. All were different expressions of one idea, variations upon the same theme."

 

or

 

"When we really did break into the Natives' existence, they behaved like ants, when you poke a stick into their ant-hill; they wiped out the damage with unwearied energy, swiftly and silently, - as if obliterating an unseemly action.

We could not know, and could not imagine, what the dangers were that they feared from our hands. I myself think that they were afraid of us more in the manner in which you are afraid of a sudden terrific noise, than as you are afraid of suffering and death."

 

Yeah, because all "Natives" are basically the same and colonialism was not at all ruled by suffering and death?

Stupid, stupid woman.

 

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