Friday, 31 August 2012

Review: The Guard by Peter Terrin

Have you ever heard of the European Union Prize for Literature?  Oxymoronic as it sounds, this award actually exists, and in 2010 it was won (in its prestigious Belgian division) by Peter Terrin's De Bewaker.  This week the book has finally been released in English, titled The Guard, and I was at the front of the (ebook) queue to find out what all the fuss was about.

Terrin's novel tells the story of Michel, a guard in the basement of a luxury block of flats, in a very probably dystopian future.  I say 'very probably dystopian' because poor Michel finds himself confined to the aforementioned basement, guarding the building (with the assistance of fellow-guard Harry) even when almost all of the residents have mysteriously abandoned the building.

The premise of the book is what initially caught my eye.  It resembles a thought experiment - what would you do if you were trapped in a basement with one other person, with no idea if the rest of the world was existing as normal, or indeed even existing?  As the novel begins to unfold, and it becomes clearer that something is very wrong in the outside world, Terrin's novel clearly begins to satirise the more fundamental aspects of religious faith - even when all evidence points to the two guards being abandoned, Harry insists that they are being tested by an all-powerful Organisation which wants the best for them, and will reward them for their diligence.  All very interesting.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Anna Karenina: the joy of long books

In a possibly ill-advised move, I decided yesterday that I wanted to read Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina before the new film adaptation (starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law; trailer below).  Armed with a disgracefully cheap Wordsworth Classics copy, I quickly got to work on its 806 pages.  Unfortunately, it quickly emerged that (presumably to cut costs) the publisher had used the smallest font possible.  The nine days until the film release suddenly don't seem so long.

Now, I'm no stranger to long books.  With an English degree behind me I've tucked away 20 Victorian novels in a term, as well as chewing through James Joyce's Ulysses and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (the longest poem in English, I believe).  I only drew the line at Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, which comes in at a smidgeon under a million words - in my defence I had to write about the almost-as-long Tom Jones and the not insubstantial Pamela in the same week, and I ended up writing an essay on why Clarissa's length made it impossible to study.  But I digress.  (Much like Tolstoy.)

Monday, 27 August 2012

Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

I would guess I am quite rare in approaching Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? without having read Jeanette Winterson's first and most famous novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, to which this new memoir is (the blurb tells us) a 'silent twin'.

Clearly, and justifiably, Winterson assumes some knowledge with that earlier novel, which narrates the childhood of an adopted girl named Jeanette, growing up as a lesbian in a strictly Christian household in northern England.  That this memoir could be summarised in precisely the same words indicates how autobiographical that novel was, although as Winterson addresses in the first chapter of Happy, that Oranges contained such details does not mean it was not fictional. Now, 25 years later, Winterson revisits the same story, this time in the guise of a memoir which admits 'Part fact part fiction is what life is'.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Best Book Review Sites

(by Claire Davis)

E-readers offer many conveniences when shopping for books online. One of the things that they cannot replicate, however, is that of book-browsing. You all know that feeling: entering a shop lined with novels, wandering between its aisles and touching the shiny new covers. You stop on occasion, pulling a chosen one down from the shelf, flicking through its pages and reading the blurb. After a pleasant perusal, you leave the shop clutching a promising new novel under your arm, or perhaps with a list of your next ten reads.

So in a digital world where book-browsing is less feasible, how do we know which book is our next page-turner? The answer, of course, is to read online reviews (as Joel blogged about last week!). Here are the top 5 book review sites that  The Bookshelf puts its faith in, so that the next time you’re lost in book-browsing cyberspace, you know where to turn before hitting that buy button.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Joyce, Yeats, and the impact of Literature on Dublin

While in Dublin last week, I discovered the city is currently the UNESCO City of Literature.  Normally I have little time for such accolades; (London)derry in Northern Ireland will imminently become the EU City of Culture, and even as a fan of Northern Irish literature that seems an awful stretch.  Yet walking around the Irish capital, it is clear that Dublin has a remarkable literary heritage for a relatively small European capital.

The range of literary links is exhaustive.  The Chester Beatty Library contains an enormous collection of ancient manuscripts, predominantly from the Middle and Far East.  Trinity College holds the magnificant Book of Kells (pictured).  Jonathan Swift was Dean of the bizarre Gothic structure of St Patrick's Cathedral, while the 19th Century saw the births of Charles Maturin, Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde, to name but a few.

Yet it was the early decades of the twentieth century which produced the two most famous Dublin figures: James Joyce and WB Yeats.  Joyce's Ulysses is widely regarded as the greatest novel of the twentieth century, Yeats won a Nobel Prize, and along the way Ireland followed the United States of America in becoming the second ex-colonial nation, achieving independence in 1922.  Both men were obviously influenced by these monumental events, but the difference between their responses highlights two very different ideas of literature.

Review: Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan


I love America.

I think John Jeremiah Sullivan does too.

While I, like most people, know very little about love, I am fairly sure it isn't simple. That it's made up of thousands of varieties and eccentricities and a load of stuff that doesn't make a lot of sense.

It is this kind of love that Sullivan applies to his country in this collection of journalistic essays. He writes about: reality TV, animal attacks, Michael Jackson, the Tea Party, Indian cave painting, 19th century naturalists, Christian rock festivals, Axl Rose, One Tree Hill, Hurricane Katrina, the Blues, Disney Land, Bunny Wailer (of Bob Marley & the Wailers fame), comas, cranky old men.

His articles' style varies quite a bit too. At his best, his very very best, as good as it gets for anyone writing this sort of thing, he functions a bit like Louis Theroux. Usually he is a little more meditative, a little more investigative, a little more autobiographical.

Monday, 20 August 2012

On Batman & Dickens

WARNING! major plot spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises and A Tale of Two Cities.

(via wikipedia)
The most recent Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, was the big event of the summer before the Olympics came along, dancing and attention-hogging. But, a few scant weeks ago, hard as it is to imagine that simpler time, Christopher Nolan's third man-in-cape movie was generating serious press attention.

Reading through some of the reviews, a central issue of contention seemed to be whether a superhero blockbuster could count as serious art. Some favourable critics praised the film for this very achievement – although usually with the caveat that it transcended its comic-book origins, rather than admitting Batman into the pantheon of great characters with Odysseus and Hamlet and those guys from The Godfather. The few dissenting critics usually accused the film of pretension, of over-reaching its generic shortcomings, and toppling embarrassingly. Chris Tookey, the Daily Mail's ever ill-judged critic, hammered this point home, somehow managing to accuse the film of failing to be serious in the serious art sense and simultaneously being too serious and not enough fun.

It is perhaps in defence of the serious, artistic nature of his film that Nolan has revealed the influence of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities on The Dark Knight Rises. As a staunch lover of Dickens, it was this possible precursor of the film that was at the forefront of my mind as I entered the cinema.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Judging a Book by its Cover : Kafka's The Trial

(by Rob Lee)

We all know the old adage, and hopefully apply it to things outside of the literary world, but what if, we invert its meaning and take it literally?

How well does a cover seek to draw in a new reader? How well does it summarise the premise and tone? How convincingly does it conjure up the context or personality of the time it was written, and how well does it represent the character of the author?

Points will be given from one to five based on these kinds of concerns, along with a little sprinkling of personal opinion and humour of course. Alright, let’s do this!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Review: Bed of Nails by Antonin Varenne (original title: Fakirs; translated by Sian Reynolds)

As an utter novice to the world of French crime fiction, I had very few preconceptions as I began Bed of Nails, the debut novel of French author Antonin Varenne (originally titled Fakirs).  It was a very pleasant surprise, then, to find a crime thriller that defied genre expectations, although this does come with a dark cost.

The novel begins with two apparently unrelated plotlines.  Guerin, a Parisian detective, is investigating what he believes to be suspicious circumstances relating to a string of suicides, all the while struggling with (not unfounded) accusations from colleagues that these links exist only in his troubled mind.  Meanwhile John Nichols, an American hippy with an academic past, is called to Paris to identify the body of Alan Mustgrave, who died during his own S&M routine.  Inevitably the two men collide, as Guerin turns his attention to Mustgrave’s suspicious demise.

The novel, translated by Sian Reynolds, is brisk and well written, making up in detail what it lacks in humour.  There are plenty of fascinating characters here, not least the two leads, but also an ex-con Parisian park keeper and an apparently dim-witted junior officer.  Varenne doesn’t worry too hard about making these figures likeable, but he does make them morbidly believeable.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Future of Islam (1934)

In part two of our series on literature and the Middle East, we look at one ignored scholar's predictions for Islam's future. Read part one here.

One of life's great pleasures can be found in a second-hand bookshop. The joy of second-hand shopping is in its eclecticism and unpredictability. When applied to books, the results can be fascinating or ecstatic, or, sadly, terribly tedious. While famous books should be loved and appreciated, forgotten books can be filled with gems, that, if more modest than Dickensian diamonds, can cast the light on the wall in the most interesting ways.

Blickling Hall: surprisingly good bookshop. (via
All this is by way of saying that, last summer, on a family outing to a stately home in Norfolk, a ramshackle Elizabethan place with lots of chimneys, if I recall, I discovered such a modest gem in a modest second-hand bookshop. (My enthusiasm had already been raised by the examination of the home's excellent and neglected library, which contained, amongst other things, a beautiful edition of Alexander Pope's poems from the eighteenth century, the leaves still uncut.) Perusing the section labelled religion, I found a battered pocket volume entitled An Outline of Islâm by a man called C.R. North (M.A., Handsworth College, Birmingham). published by the Epworth Press in London in 1934. Both author and publisher are so obscure that all I can find of them in Google is listings by rare books dealers.

I sensed that Mr North's work could be a minor but interesting footnote to my abiding interest in Orientalism. At the very least, I reasoned, there would be some outrageous examples of Imperial British pomposity and ignorance.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Review: The City's Son by Tom Pollock

Released last week, in the middle of the Olympic Games which have drawn global attention to London, it is fitting that the building sites and back streets of East London form the canvas on which Tom Pollock paints this manic vision of apocalyptic fantasy warfare.

Pollock perhaps missed a trick by not including the Olympic Park, but apart from that his brilliant imagination presents a distorted reflection of all aspects of London – duelling snake-like trains, graffiti-coated tunnels, skyscraper thrones and drunken Russian tramps.  In amongst this, though, it is surprisingly the human (or, at least, anthropomorphic) characters which shine through.

Make no mistake; the urban fantasyscape that Pollock creates is breathtaking.  The only reason not to describe the novel as cinematic is a doubt that film technology could keep up: this is an example of the descriptive power the written word still keeps, even in the Avatar-era.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

What's the point of a book review?

It might, after more than a month of reviewing books, be an odd time to question the purpose of a book review.  Hopefully you’ll have read some of our existing efforts, and with any luck you’ll think we’ve understood our task relatively successfully, so why stop to worry about it now?

Well, to start with it seems there are two very distinct audiences for a book review, and they serve two very different purposes.  Sometimes a review will be read by someone who is wondering whether or not they should read a book (or watch a film, or listen to an album…), and sometimes they will find a reader who has already read the work in question and wants to compare their experiences with someone new.  Of course, there are also those who read book reviews in a desperate attempt to write a semi-informed essay on a book they haven’t read, but it’s hard to legislate for them.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Review: Field Grey by Philip Kerr

Having not read a thriller for a while, I was pleasantly surprised by Philip Kerr’s 2010 cold war tale, Field Grey.  The latest in the Bernie Gunther series, the novel’s meandering narrative sees Bernie dragged back to Germany as a pawn in a CIA plot to capture a leading Stasi agent, Erich Mielke.

The slow-burning plot, casting a cynical eye over Americans, Russians, Frenchmen and Germans alike, is perhaps not the novel’s strength.  Told largely in flashback as Bernie recounts his story to various captors, the first 450 pages cover a lot of ground without ever catching fire.

It is thus fortunate that the first-person persona Kerr creates in Gunther is so wonderful.  Bernie Gunther veers from a tortured soul to a hyper-self-conscious James Bond, and ensures that even the most pedestrian passages of plot flow smoothly.  The only thing Bernie loves more than beautiful women is a one-liner, and obviously both simultaneously is ideal: “You aren’t looking for a policeman.  You’re looking for a man who’s eager to please and looking for advancement in the communist party... The last time I was looking for advancement in a party a pretty girl slapped my face.”

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Reading Books & the Arab Spring

In part one of our series on literature and the Middle East, we examine some of the political implications of the ways we read.

T.E. Lawrence hanging out with a camel
T.E. Lawrence, better know as Lawrence of Arabia, was a badass. This much is evident from any brief description of his achievements in the desert: uniting the Bedu tribes; devising guerilla warfare; overcoming a far larger Turkish army; crossing the Sinai Desert alone; getting into Magdalen College, Oxford (unlike yours truly).

Lawrence is one of those rare figures who seems to stand apart from the rest of their culture, figures who can influence the ebb and flow of history, rather than be merely buffeted to and fro like flotsam. He manages to resist not just the events around him, but the attitudes. The most remarkable thing about T.E. Lawrence was that, at the height of British Imperialism (if only in terms of landmass), at a time of Western political and cultural hegemony, of untrammelled racism and chauvinism towards all those who were not Anglo-Saxon, he managed to not be an Orientalist.

Orientalism is a complicated concept, and needs a brief pause of explanation. The Influential critic Edward Said devoted a whole book to it; I shall try to cram it into a few paragraphs. Roughly speaking, the Orientalist is the Westerner who takes an exceptional interest in the Orient – defined as 'not West', but usually referring to either East Asian or Middle Eastern cultures. Said argues that the interest of the Orientalist will always be somewhat chauvinistic, based on caricature and generalisation, on definitions of other cultures not in their own terms, but in opposition to the culture of the Orientalist himself. He goes further, and argues for a political dimension to Orientalism, with the Orientalist, in Said's conception, ideologically furthering the doctrines of Western Imperialism by justifying the subjugation and rule of Orientals by Occidentals.

Sinai Desert (from here)
Said's position is inflammatory, and not without its critics. Examples can be produced of various Orientalists resistant to the biases and epistemological pitfalls Said identifies. Lawrence is my favourite of these. His shimmering memoir of his desert-war years, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, demonstrates a profound respect for Bedu culture as a whole and the individual tribesman with which he interacts, and a profound shame for Imperial Britain's treatment of the Arabs.

This Western mistreatment of the Arab peoples is the subject (or one of the subjects) of James Barr's recent history of Anglo-French relations in the Middle East, A Line in the Sand. During the First World War, the British, in part inspired and assisted by T.E. Lawrence, convinced the Arabic populations of what are now Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria to fight against the Turks. The Middle East was, at that time, under the rule of the decaying Ottoman Turkish Empire, and the bait Britain offered to the Arabs, as price for their military assistance, was independence and nationhood.

James Barr's A Line in the Sand, showing the division of the Middle East (via

As Barr details, these promises were, unsurprisingly, broken. After the war, the British and the French divided the Middle East between themselves, giving Lebanon and Syria to the French and Iraq, Jordan and Israel to the British. Arab concerns were ignored. The attitudes that allowed for such a betrayal were Orientalist in the most extreme and obscene way. Arabs were not capable of self-governance, the British thought. It is our right to govern Syria, the French argued. The great powers of the West forged an agreement because both prioritised pleasing the other above pleasing the Arabs. When the war was over, the Arabs were dispensable as allies.

The motivation for the betrayal that Barr does not explicitly identify is even more sad. The reason the French and the British valued one another's allegiance so much in 1919 is that, following the Treaty of Versailles, senior government figures on both sides of the Channel considered another war with Germany an inevitability. The harshness of the terms imposed by the Allies on Germany, they feared, necessitated further conflict. Arabian self-determination was the first of many casualties of such a petty and vindictive Treaty.

It is perhaps ironic that similar harsh peace terms were offered to Turkey – terms so harsh that they instigated nationalist revolution, and created the kind of secular, self-governed state the Versailles terms precluded in the former Ottoman Empire.

The various imperial machinations of the 1920s and 30s do not make for pleasant reading, and Barr does not flinch from brutal honesty about the pettiness, self-interest and callousness of imperial officials. It is clear that Barr disapproves of how his own nation had behaved. And yet his history retains vestiges of the same kind of Orientalism that allowed for such behaviour in the first place.

The most obvious way in which Barr demonstrates his Orientalism is in his marginalising of Arab influence. It may seem unfair to criticise a history of British and French foreign policy for focussing too much on the British and French, but in this case it is reasonable. There is no sense of the effects of these policies on Arabs, and only a very limited sense of Arab agency in resisting or abetting European policy. The effect is to implicitly justify the cold pragmatism of European policy, to condemn the results and motivations, but not to condemn a policy of regional influence itself. It is the same attitude that condones the support of the Saudi or Mubarak regimes to enhance stability and protect European oil concerns.

Classic Orientalism:
Jean-Léon GérômePool in a Harem, c. 1876 (via wikipedia)
Barr's elision of Arab action is thrown more starkly into contrast in the later parts of the book, which deal with Zionist terrorism against the British in Palestine. He emphasises, as he does in earlier sections about Arab terrorism and uprising in French-controlled Syria, the role of Western backers in providing arms, money and intelligence. But he also emphasises the role of Zionists in attracting this support, and describes their degree of activity and success in far more detail than that of equivalent Arab movements. One comes away with the idea that Israel was won by the hard work, cunning and determination of the (mostly European) Jewish community, while Palestine was lost by the disorganisation and ultimate passivity of the Arab population. Said would note, with a disapproving but unsurprised shake of the head, that passivity was one of the most frequent of Orientalist stereotypes.

There are mitigating factors in Barr's differing treatments of Arab and Jewish resistances. For one thing, Jewish terrorism did actually produce its desired goal. To analyse in such a post hoc manner is not especially desirable. It assumes that all other conditions remained the same for this one factor to have determined the outcome, and it assumes, to an extent, that the final outcome was inevitable. My criticism, however, is more of Barr's writing than of his argument, though: the differences in descriptive treatment between the two groups is not excusable, even if a difference in argumentative force is.

The other reason for Barr's bias, perhaps, is that he does not speak Arabic. I cannot say this with certainty, but the bibliography provided in his book shows a very limited reading of Arab primary sources and of Arab scholars. Many Jewish sources were written by European immigrants, and written in French or German, and are therefore more accessible to the European scholar. Linguistic barriers, Said would wearily note, often result in deficient Orientalist scholarship, in the inability of Western scholars to fully understand Arab culture. (It should be pointed out that Said excludes a volume of influential European Oriental scholarship – including German, Austrian, Dutch and Italian work – from his own argument due to a lack of linguistic proficiency in those areas: it seems that language barriers apply in all cultural exchanges.)

Rebels have fashion sense too (via
The worry is that, while these may be mitigating factors in the skew of Barr's analysis, the central cause is somewhat more deep-rooted and pernicious than these scholarly weeds. There has not been a great development – in popular circles at least – in attitudes towards the Middle East. Orientalism continues to pervade, even if it has been modified. For many, the Middle East remains an Arabian Nights fantasia of camels and deserts and sultans and gemstones. Or, at least, they wish it were so, and acknowledge, with what I'm sure they'd dress as admirable pragmatism, that the cultural gems of Arabic culture are being eroded by pernicious, unifying forces. Islamism, perhaps. Or the Arab Spring. Or petro-dollars.

I'm often alarmed myself at how easily I slip into these modern stereotypes. Alarmed at how casually I have referred to the Middle East as an entity of relatively uniform characteristics, resting on the safe assumption that most anyone reading this will know sort of what I mean. I often find it a shock to see footage of the Arab Spring, to see young people in jeans and hoodies and iPhones, in apartment blocks that could be in Spain or Italy. Somehow it surprises me that a Syrian could own a smartphone, and yet I am completely unsurprised that the Syrian government own tanks. It seems that modern life only applies in some parts of my Middle East.

Tahrir Square (from
Even with a heightened level of self-consciousness, the best description I can offer of the existence of the average Egyptian, say, is very limited. I'm fairly sure most people aren't Islamic Fundamentalists, whatever that means. I'm fairly sure they worry about bills and unemployment and crime just like everyone else does. They probably think about getting laid a lot. They probably don't own camels. I know for a fact that it isn't sweltering desert heat all the time. (But when I imagine the scenes in Tahrir Square, it's always approaching 45oC.) I know Egypt are surprisingly good at football.

What is perhaps even more frightening is that those who do claim to be in the know don't seem to make things clearer. Take recent news coverage of the Egyptian elections. Mohamed Morsi (let's not go into transliteration issues), I am assured, is an Islamist of some sort. I don't really know what this means. As this article on the excellent blog The Arabist points out, most of these labels are nebulous. Pinning down what politicians actually believe is always a tricky business, but the whole process is made harder by obfuscating words and the lack of nuance they create.

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's current
president (via
Which brings us back to language. Thinking about the words we apply to things is one of the ways in which language – and, by extend, literature – can become politically significant. This is one of the advantages to be gained by approaching non-literary works like Barr's from a literary perspective. It can be attitudinally revealing. It can be somewhat dispiriting. But it can remind us, as we should often be reminded, to re-evaluate our own attitudes, and our own words. Above all, it should remind us that words are not enough, that the entirety of existence cannot be captured on the page. Barr tries heroically to represent thirty-five years of Middle Eastern history, but fails to represent the people who actually live in the Middle East; the West tries to represent the vast and varied change in the Middle East, and, again, leaves out so much that is essential, and leaves us with tunnel-vision.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

William Shakespeare: Where to start

If you're British, you literally cannot have legally avoided William Shakespeare.  His work is plastered all over the national English curriculum almost as comprehensively as Nazi Germany is for history, meaning every British teen will have studied at least two of his plays.

In spite of this (or, more likely, because of it) many people view Shakespeare with bafflement, or even loathing.  Why, you might ask, should we still care about a man who died 400 years ago?  The argument that he is simply wonderful doesn't really pull much weight if (to borrow a brilliant Tim Vine joke) your own experience of Macbeth was only once-in-a-lifetime in the sense that you don't ever want to do it again.

Fear not!  Following the success of our Dickens guide last month, we've taken a look at how to begin Shakespeare - not for an exam, but to actually try and see what all the fuss is about...