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review 2018-03-18 13:49
Arthur Conan Doyle - Beyond Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Sherlock Holmes - Andrew Norman

Arthur Conan Doyle - Beyond Sherlock Holmes, Andrew Norman's biography of Arthur Conan Doyle is one of those books that got off to a rocky start with me and I should have DNF'd after the Preface. 

 

However, I wanted to know how preposterous the book could actually get, or, ever so hopeful, if the premise set forth in the Preface was just an unlucky and sensationalist choice of "bait" that would be abandoned in the course of Norman's investigation of ACD's life. 

 

As I don't want to string anyone along, the book did not improve after page 11, which is where the Preface ended. In fact, if anything it got worse. So, if you plan to read on this short collection of thoughts about Norman's biography of ACD, you're in for a bit of a rant.

 

To recap, the Preface of the book seems to say that Norman's focus in this biography will be to explore what motivated a reasonable, logical fellow to believe in such ridiculous concepts as spiritualism and fairies, and the last paragraph of the Preface suggested that Norman's conclusion was that Doyle must have suffered from a mental illness:

Not only that, but this illness was itself a hereditable disease, in other words, one which Charles may have handed down to his son via the genes. Suddenly I realised that I now had an opportunity to solve what I consider to be the ultimate mystery, that of the bizarre and extraordinary nature of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself."

This was the in Preface! I don't know about other readers, but unless I am reading an academic text where the expectation is that the conclusion is summarised in the prefacing abstract, I am not looking to have the author's assumptions stated as facts on page 11 (!) of what I would hope to be a gripping biography of an extraordinary personality. 

 

Strike 1!

 

Next we get two (yes, TWO!) short chapters on Doyle's childhood, which are mostly pre-occupied with his the difficulties that his family had to cope with - mostly his father's alcoholism. There is, in fact, little about young Arthur in these chapters.

 

Following this we get no less than ten (TEN!) chapters about Sherlock Holmes. Not just about the writing and publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories but actual interpretation of Sherlock as a character - all substantiated with apparently randomly selected quotes from the different stories. 

 

Seriously? A book that carries the subtitle of "Beyond Sherlock Holmes" should not focus on the one topic that the subtitle seems to exclude. What is more, there are only 25 chapters in this book in total. Norman has spent 10 of them on Holmes. That is preposterous. 

 

Strike 2!

 

Luckily, we get back to ACD after this with a brief run down of his involvement in actual criminal cases, where he managed to prove vital in overturning two miscarriages of justice, and his work and life during and after the First World War. 

Unfortunately, there is nothing new or detailed in this, and the focus and ACD is superficial. Norman uses these chapters to write about ACD's father's illness and time in various mental institutions, surmising at what kind of psychiatric condition he suffered from. This, however, can only be guesswork on Norman's part. Charles Conan Doyle was hospitalised privately. There are few actual medical records. What is more,even if there had been medical records, the areas of psychiatry and medical treatment of addiction or mental illness in the 1890s was still in its infancy. The recording and diagnosis of cases of people who had been hospitalised or committed can hardly be described as reliable. And yet, Norman, with the help of The Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry (by Michael Gelder, Paul Harrison, and Philip Cohen) dares to presume to make a diagnosis of what illness may have plagued Charles Conan Doyle, and has the audacity to infer that Arthur Conan Doyle may have inherited the same potential for mental illness because in one of his works he wrote that he knew, rather than believed, that fairies existed!

 

What utter, utter rubbish!

 

And, btw, I kid you not, but the The Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry is referenced throughout the relevant chapters as the ONLY source to back-up Norman's ideas.

 

WTF?

 

Never mind that spiritualism was an actual thing in the early 1900s and that ACD was not alone in believing in fairies and magic and the paranormal. Instead of investigating ACD's interest, Norman's work in this book is not just superficial but outright lazy. He simply regurgitates the same outrage and disbelief over how a man of sound mind can belive in something fantastic. With this book, Norman simply jumps on the gravy train of sensationalism and continues an outcry over the notion that an author of fiction may have believed in something other than hard facts.

 

I can't even...

 

Fuck this book. (Note: This is Strike 3!)

 

Seriously, I have no idea what Norman's other books are like, but he seems to have written several other biographies featuring Charles Darwin, Agatha Christie, Robert Mugabe (seriously???), and others. 

 

None of which will ever end up on my reading list.

 

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review 2018-02-04 13:57
Wallace at Bay
Wallace at Bay (Wallace of the Secret Service) - Alexander Wilson

Wallace at Bay was my first encounter with Wallace, chief of the Secret Service, and it was not great. Maybe I should have started at the beginning of the series, but I somehow doubt that this would have changed anything because my issues with the book are not about the lack of background or setting, my issues are simply that the overtones of xenophobia and nationalism spoiled the book to an extent that I would even prefer a James Bond romp to this one. 

"Of course I don't know the district very well," Carter told her, "but it has struck me whenever I've been round this way, that the first house on this side - the one next door to the school - is about the most decayed of the lot. I suppose it is owned by the same landlord, isn't it?"

"Lord bless you, no! There's umpteen landlords own these houses and, if you ask me, they're all as bad as one another. Letting the places go to rack and ruin, that's what they're doing, but I don't suppose they care as long as they get their rent."

"Still," persisted Carter, "tidy tenants can improve even dilapidated houses by growing flowers in the front, banging up clean curtains and that sort of thing. The people in the house of which I am speaking don't seem to have any of what you might describe as home pride."

"Home pride!" snorted the lady behind the bar. "I should think not indeed. Do you know who live in that house?"

He smiled. "No, I'm afraid I don't."

"Foreigners, all the blesses lot of them. And what can you expect from foreigners?"

This is not the only instance - when the officials raid the house to arrest a bunch of "anarchists", the flat is described as a filthy hovel, but what else could one expect? 

 

There are other issues, too:

 

The "anarchists". This book was written in 1938. It does not seem to make sense to have "anarchists" as villains. To me this plot would have made more sense if it had been set pre-WWI, but it clearly isn't because the Cenotaph features in the plot.
In the second half of the book, Wilson seems to equate "anarchism" with "Bolshevism", which is not strictly true either. It would make more sense if he had focused on "Bolshies", but then why would their efforts be limited to the assassination of royalty? 

Of course, all of the villains, all of the "anarchists", are "foreigners" and the general description of the generalised "foreigners" is pretty harsh, and just ...stupid, including the made up accents, which seem to be all the same.

 

Wallace of the Secret Service is a pretentious snob, who is portrayed as the adored hero of all his underlings and the personal enemy of all villains everywhere. This is again ... ill-conceived.

Wallace does lead the operation but the actual story follows Carter, an agent who is at the forefront of all the action. Wallace hardly does anything in this book. It makes no sense for Carter or anyone else to focus on the amazing Wallace, when they're the ones solving all the puzzles. Holy sycophantic hero worship, Batman!

 

It all read like a boy's own adventure story - which it was. Literally. Apart from the two women discussing foreigners with Carter, there is only one mention of another. She doesn't even feature in the story, she is only mentioned! And in that mention, Carter, Wallace and the boys question her ... morals? ... for having a child by the evil chief villain ... who is a dwarf. 

 

I originally gave this story 2* but that was generous. It may been motivated by a sense of curiosity of whether Ian Fleming was aware of this series, because he also loved to display his villains as ugly, degenerate, perverted, or otherwise ... different.

 

In all earnest, tho, I cannot wait to remove the book from my shelves.

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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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