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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 2018-03-17 00:00
Complete Idiot's Guide to the Old West
Complete Idiot's Guide to the Old West -... Complete Idiot's Guide to the Old West - Mike Flanagan Well written history of the Old West, starting with the earliest hunter-gatherers and how they reached the land mass that would become America, and going up to the late 1800's.

Mike Flanagan writes in an easy to read manner, and the book is scattered through with how to find some of the places mentioned, and explaining some of the language and giving some famous quotes.

He looks at the main characters who will be well known to most people, but also manages to bring other characters to the foreground to give them recognition that may have been missing.

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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 2017-07-06 18:20
'The Idiot' by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoyevsky,Larissa Volokhonsky,Richard Pevear

Now that I’ve reached the end of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (this edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) I have begun to see it as the story of a man scandalized by a world that disappoints nearly every effort at goodness. A man, the prince and maybe the author, who, having ventured into the world, extended sympathy out to the people he saw but has been broken by them and retreated to a shell of conservatism and safety.

 

The (relatively brief) synopsis: A young man of the Russian aristocratic class, Prince Lev Nikoláevich Mýshkin, arrives in St. Petersberg after having been raised in Switzerland where he was treated for what we assume is epilepsy. It’s told that he has seizures and was an “idiot” as well, mute and developmentally challenged as a child from the sounds of it. Arriving back in Russia he becomes known for extending sympathy and withholding judgement and for this naivete the label follows him throughout the novel as a term of abuse. He encounters several groups of people his first day back that become the basis of his social circle in Russia. Among these, a rich merchant Rogózhin, who is bullish and immediate in pursuing his desires, the Epanchin family that serves as a sort of “straight man” (or family) tumbled about by these external forces, the Ívolgin family, and Nastásya Filíppovna, a beautiful young woman who has been sexually abused by an adopted father-figure and has grown to be a troubled figure who tends to sow chaos.

 

Driving the story along is a  tortured love triangle between the prince, Rogózhin and Nastásya Filíppovna, with Agláya Epanchin, the youngest and most beautiful of three Epanchin daughters, eventually being thrown into the mix.

 

This is all hardly a skeleton of this 610 page story and if I had one piece of advice to impart before reading this book it would be to remember that it was published serially and to view it more like a television series than today’s more plot-driven novels. Chapters, much like episodes, are little stories within themselves that involve our main characters but often do not move the main story arch forward, much like a sitcom that weaves tidbits of larger romantic plots into the self-contained 30 minute adventures.

 

So if you find yourself wondering how a 20 page reading of the suicide note of the prince's consumptive neighbor ties into these primary goals, it doesn’t really, but not everything has to. Much of it is a way to imagine the simple, kind prince into contemporary — for its time — debates and conversations, which can make it feel dated. But while the specifics have changed, the conversations never change that much: faith, government, sexual mores, frivolous lawsuits, and stab-happy rival suitors.

 

The prince handles himself well in many circumstances, though is often scoffed at for some reason not necessarily related to the argument. But stepping back now and taking the novel as a whole, especially the ending, the story leaves a rather bleak impression.

 

If you are one to read the introduction or footnotes you should be tipped off by the association between this book and “Christ’s Body in the Tomb,” a painting by Hans Holbein depicting a gruesomely realistic dead body about which the prince says, “A man could even lose his faith from that painting!” Dostoevsky seems interested in what it would take to do just that.

 

The sensitive characters of this story: the prince, Nastásya, even Aglya and Ippolit, get ground down by the world they encounter. It’s a world they wish to embrace but one that is full of awful people and acts, where goodness is nigh impossible. While those who thrive in this story are the savvy and amoral. They are practical folks like Iván Fyódorovich Epanchin or cynical like Gavríla Ardaliónovich, Lebedev and Evgény Pávlovich.

 

Rogózhin seems a special case to me, too sensitive to be practical but certainly not sympathetic. In the end, he too gets broken down but he recovers mentally if not financially. He lives in a passion for the now and these can bring him as far as the breaking point but he is not introspective and doesn't really care for others so he is not haunted by the deaths and misfortunes of others. Nastásya proves almost too much for him and drives him to a sort of ruin for him though he lives and even recovers his wits. He chases a desire, lets it consume him even to disaster, but he picks himself up, dusts off his shoulders and runs headlong into the next disaster.

 

I don’t know how soon I could read this again after the couple months I spent in this world, but I would be interested to. Dostoevsky uses many long monogoues broken up only with brief descriptions of tone or intention in the character that more often confused me than enlightened. I wouldn't be surprised if whole scenes turned on a new impression of how Aglaya, Varvára Ardaliónovich, Gavríla, and others spoke or bore themselves in these conversations if I were to read them again with foreknowledge and in a different mood. Were they mocking or playful, obtuse or merely cautioned.

 

Lizavéta Prokófyevna Epanchin (Aglaya’s mother) may be the most fascinating character to revisit as she is in so much of the book and may be the most dynamic character. Lizavéta is drawn strongly to the prince and seems fascinated by him, is dedicated to being his friend, but at times it seems she is ready to throw him over for his lack of social savvy and too forgiving nature. Aglaya too acts and speak in a way that confounded me often and as she became a love interest I wondered if her feelings was genuine or cruel or something else.

 

This confusion may stem from many things, the author’s intention, different understandings of the world over 100 years apart, but leading them is a narrator whose role wasn’t entirely clear. Dostoevsky, like Charles Dickins in A Christmas Carol, let the narrator fade in and out of the story and gave them unclear powers. The narrator is not a named character, but is self-aware. They break the fourth wall,  referencing what we know or can know and even expressing difficulty in describing characters or situations. They seem omniscient, recounting private goings on and the inner thoughts and motivations of various characters, but then at moments take up a voice and explain why they do or do not know the content of some conversation or event. One story came through some reliable gossips in town and seemed the most likely version of the story, another was recounted in testimony or written in a letter. At one point the narrator says they can’t know what was said in a private conversation though just pages before they write word-for-word a long private discussion between the prince and Nastásya.

 

It can frustrating in its inconsistency, but I’m being generous and will take for granted that Dostoevsky was using the uncertain narrator to heighten moments when other characters are kept in the dark. When our protagonist is trying to learn something, when the author wants to build tension for a reveal by leaking that something is coming but making you read through to discover what it is.

 

If you’re a fan of Russian literature I hardly need to encourage you to pick up a Dostoevsky novel but if you’re not I’m not sure this is the best introduction. The best I can offer is that it is very much of the 19th century, and if you enjoy society types such as Henry James, I think you’ll find much to like in The Idiot, only a lot more of it and perhaps a bit more philosophical. Don’t treat it as a race to the finish and allow that this novel could take a while. But overall expect a thought provoking and often moving story.

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review 2017-06-01 10:14
Der lausigste Luzifer aller Zeiten
Devil Said Bang - Richard Kadrey

Satan. Herrscher der Hölle. Gottes ewiger Widersacher. Eine Position voller Macht und Prestige. James Stark alias Sandman Slim will den Job trotzdem nicht. Was nützt all die Macht, wenn ihm der Tag regelmäßig durch Budgetbesprechungen, sinnentleerte Rituale und lächerliche Attentatsversuche versaut wird? Nein, Stark will raus. Schließlich hat er sich nie um die Stelle beworben; der originale Luzifer trickste ihn aus und genießt jetzt Ferien im Himmel. Toll. Einfach Fabelhaft. Seit er Gebieter der Verdammten wurde, sucht Stark unermüdlich nach einem Weg, die Hölle zu verlassen und nach L.A. zurückzukehren. Ganz so simpel ist das nur leider nicht. Die Verdammten hassen ihn und wenn es nach ihm ginge, könnten sie ihm alle getrost den Buckel runterrutschen, aber die Hölle braucht einen Anführer; jemanden, der den Papa spielt und Händchen hält. Also, was macht man mit einem miesen Blatt? Richtig. Bluffen, was das Zeug hält und die erste günstige Gelegenheit beim Schopfe packen. Dummerweise wird Starks glorreiche Heimkehr nach L.A. von einem serienmordenden Geist überschattet, der offenbar im Auftrag einer Fraktion der Sub Rosas handelt, die die Realität umschreiben will. Diese Idioten schaffen es doch tatsächlich, ein Loch ins Universum zu reißen. Da sehnt man sich fast nach der bizarren Idylle der Hölle, nicht wahr?

 

Stark als Herrscher der Hölle. Ich muss immer noch in mich hineinkichern, wenn ich daran denke. Mein Kumpel Stark als Satan. Tut mir leid, aber das ist zum Brüllen komisch. Ironie des Schicksals. Es war doch wohl von Vornherein klar, dass das schiefgehen muss. Natürlich ist Stark ein lausiger Luzifer. In den vorangegangenen Bänden machte Richard Kadrey unmissverständlich klar, dass sein Protagonist nicht das Zeug zum Anführer hat und seine Eskapaden in „Devil Said Bang“ bestätigen diesen Eindruck zweifelsfrei. Stark hasst die Hölle, weil sie das Schlechteste in ihm zum Vorschein bringt. Er weiß genau, sucht er nicht so schnell wie möglich das Weite, wird die Verlockung, sein inneres Monster das Ruder übernehmen zu lassen, eines Tages zu groß sein. Er muss gehen, weil er sonst nie mehr geht. Mal davon abgesehen, dass mich Kadreys Darstellung der Hölle als bürokratischer Albtraum samt Meetings, Komitees und kleinlicher Politik köstlich amüsierte und ich die Idee, ihre Bewohner_innen als selbstmordgefährdet zu charakterisieren, fantastisch und erstaunlich naheliegend finde, bewundere ich vor allem seine einfühlsame Beschreibung von Starks Gefühlen, die Ambiguität seiner Empfindungen. Er ist sich vollkommen im Klaren darüber, zu was er fähig, wie tiefschwarz ein Teil seiner Seele ist. Er kämpft dagegen an, obwohl die Versuchung ach so süß ist und ihm eben diese Facette seiner Persönlichkeit wer weiß wie oft den Hintern rettete. Er gibt sich keinen Illusionen hin und ist trotzdem bestrebt, ein besserer Mensch (na ja, Nephilim) zu sein. Er will kein Monstrum sein. Seine Fähigkeit und Bereitschaft, sich permanent selbst zu hinterfragen und Kritik anzunehmen, beeindrucken mich jedes Mal aufs Neue. Daher macht es mir auch nicht allzu viel aus, dass sich dieser vierte Band wie ein Zwischenspiel anfühlte. Ich denke, dass „Devil Said Bang“ innerhalb der übergeordneten Handlung wichtig, für sich selbst aber eher belanglos ist. Das Buch ist keines von Kadreys besten Werken; ich stolperte durch eine Geschichte, die mir von arg vielen Zufällen geprägt und daher nicht überzeugend durchdacht erschien. Die Auflösung wirkte hastig und einige Szenen wurden ausschließlich durch Starks unvergleichlichen Humor und seine herrlich schlagfertigen Sprüche gerettet. Kadrey verdankt es seinem Protagonisten, dass ich nachsichtig bin und 3 Sterne vergebe. Ich fühle mich mit Stark einfach viel zu wohl, um die Bände der „Sandman Slim“ – Reihe nicht zu genießen, unabhängig davon, wie ungelenk die Handlung daherkommt. Nur eines kann ich meinem Kumpel nicht verzeihen: seine Beziehung zu dieser fürchterlichen Schnepfe Candy. Ich kann sie nicht ausstehen. Sie ist wie eine 14-Jährige mit einem Waffentick und einer Schwäche für große böse Jungs. Sie bringt Stark in Gefahr, weil für sie alles nur ein Spiel ist. Ich wünschte, er würde sie endlich abschießen, denn sie ist definitiv nicht die Richtige für ihn. Ich warte nur darauf, dass er erkennt, wie ungesund ihr seltsames Techtelmechtel für ihn ist und dass er jemanden braucht, der all die Konflikte in seinem Inneren versteht und beruhigt, statt sie anzufachen und zu verschärfen. Candy ignoriert den Krieg in seiner Seele bewusst. Ich hoffe, dass er bald eine Frau findet, die ihm Frieden schenkt. Bitte Stark, schick die blöde Gans in die Wüste!

 

„Devil Said Bang“ ist meiner Meinung nach bisher der schwächste Band der „Sandman Slim“ – Reihe. Ich hätte das Buch vermutlich noch weit kritischer bewertet, empfände ich nicht eine fast schon lächerlich intensive Nähe und Bindung zum Protagonisten Stark. Er ist mein Kumpel. Ich bin sein größter Fan. Trotzdem erwarte ich von Richard Kadrey, dass die Handlung des nächsten Bandes „Kill City Blues“ besser ist. Überzeugender. Ausgereifter. Nach der Erfahrung mit „Devil Said Bang“ bin ich ehrlich besorgt, dass die Reihe fortschreitend an Qualität einbüßt. Das möchte ich wirklich nicht erleben, denn es wäre tragisch, bedauerlich und ein Verbrechen des Autors an seinem Zugpferd. Stark ist eine herausragende Figur, die einen ebenso außerordentlichen und außergewöhnlichen Rahmen verdient, um sich nach Belieben auszutoben. Ich weiß, ein einziger mittelmäßiger Band bedeutet noch lange nicht, dass es mit der Reihe bergab geht und ich möchte den Teufel nicht an die Wand malen, aber ich habe so etwas schon viel zu oft durchgemacht, um die ersten Anzeichen zu ignorieren. Ich flehe Sie an Mr. Kadrey: lassen Sie Stark und mich nicht hängen.

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