Reviews of books (fiction, non-fiction and graphic novels) that I’ve read, and the occasional review of odd things like podcasts or lecture series too.

Review: “Er ist wieder da” (“Look Who’s Back”) by Timur Vermes

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes is a German satirical novel about Hitler. (As my German extends as far as noting that the apple is green and the girl’s dress is blue, I read it in translation as “Look Who’s Back” by Jamie Bulloch.)

The story begins with Hitler waking up, dazed and stinking of petrol, on an anonymous patch of parkland – in 2011. He has no memory of what came immediately before (his last memory is seemingly sitting with his wife Eva in the Fuhrerbunker) and no idea where he is or how he got there. In part, it is a standard fish out of water narrative – we laugh at his inaccurate impressions of fashion and technology while being reminded just how ridiculous and fleeting trends are.

But of course, he’s not just any old time traveller – he’s Hitler. His views are not just that of a man out of his time period or even a generic Nazi out of his time period, but … Hitler. Everything is seen from – and often misunderstood because of – his singular view point, which allows for some fun wordplay early on (think the Back to the Future ‘give me a Tab/I can’t give you a tab until you order something’ conversation but about advertising flyers & the Luftwaffe) and more involved political satire later on.

More interestingly, we see how others react to him. While he is clearly recognisable (especially when wearing his military uniform), no one really, truly accepts that he is who he says he is. He’s mistaken as a method actor or a committed comedian doing a bit to satirise the state of Germany in the 2010s, and a stroke of good fortune puts him on the path to becoming a television/YouTube star. He doesn’t try to be funny of course but people laugh anyway: partly at the non-sequiturs, partly out of discomfort and/or surprise that anyone has said such an outrageous thing and partly at the juxtaposition between his views & the reality of life today. The latter is key to his popularity – people assume he’s satirizing contemporary politics while actually he’s trying to regain his former position. In the end (spoilers), he enrages the wrong people (not who you’d think) and ends up in hospital – where he finds himself courted by the full rainbow of political parties in Germany because they each feel there is some overlap between his ideas and their own.

It’s an interesting premise which creates plenty of comedy, but ultimately I was a little disappointed with it. I suspect this is, in a large part, because I’m not intimately familiar with the current political situation in Germany (which is much more complicated than ours in the UK) so missed a lot of the nuance. But the book also let itself down on occasion too: for example, it tiptoes towards some difficult subjects (such as his secretary having Jewish ancestry and her grandmother losing her entire family in the Holocaust) but then at the last minute either backs away again or drops them all together. Hitler is also unnecessarily dumbed down on a few occasions simply to make “world be crazy now” jokes, when there are enough legitimate ones of those already: especially later on in the book, these undermine the developing character and narrative.

Having Hitler as the narrator also makes the book a little hard going. It’s very much Hitler rants, even when he’s

on his

– which gets a little tiresome. I realise criticising Hitler for being a “little too ranty” is an odd complaint but the use of heightened language for long stretches rather interfered with my enjoyment of reading: it was like being bludgeoned with words rather than happily absorbing them. Even with all the ranting though, I felt like the handling of the character was a little too sympathetic – or rather didn’t quite go far enough into the vileness of his beliefs and actions. I don’t think there is any value in simply portraying Hitler as an all-out evil monster (in fact I think that’s incredibly harmful) but I think the ultimate point of the book would be stronger if he was more accurately awful: that he could rise/return to power in spite of his worst ideas because ordinary people can see value in some parts of what he is saying and ignore the rest until it is too late.

Review: Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

I’m planning to read (or re-read) and review a number of graphic novels & comic collections in 2016. The reviews probably won’t be quite as in-depth as some of my others but anyway, this is the first:

Despite watching the film countless times over the years, I realised towards the end of last year that I’d somehow managed to only read a few chapters of Ghost World – I’d borrowed the book from the library back in the day but not got through it — which is odd because it’s pretty light.

It’s rightly acclaimed for its depiction of the contradictions, desires and downright scariness of adolescence, especially as the subsequent move into adulthood: two girls out of step with the rest of the world, clinging to a straining friendship because the future is even more terrifying alone.

Remembering my own teenage/university years, I heavily identified with the girls’ revulsion towards their contemporaries and the vapid world around them – the disgust secretly mixed with envy: how do people like the nauseous Melorra have their lives figured out while they/I’m still utterly lost? (Clue: in real life at least, they’re usually utterly lost too – they’re just better at faking it than I was/am.) On that note, I also appreciated Enid’s reluctance to commit to one aesthetic:


(I’m still envious of people who have that type of certainty of mind. I also enjoyed how Enid is judgmental of others adopting subcultures at a surface level – to distance herself from the fact she’s overtly doing the same.)

The girls, but especially Enid, are pleasantly unlikeable, or rather they are sympathetic characters who do unsympathetic things to continue to distance themselves from the rest of the world. They dick with strangers, are often openly obnoxious to those in closer proximity and even kick out at each other – but at least they, sometimes, have the decency to feel bad about it (sometimes in the moment, and sometimes wrapped up in their wider self-loathing). They become bitter and angry because it’s easier to do that than face up to themselves.

We see the world – as much as we see it at all – through the girls’ viewpoint. We learn nothing of note about the (presumably small) town in which they live, or about the vast majority of their lives up to that point or hopes for the future: we learn how Enid lost her virginity but not why Becky seemingly lives with her grandmother, and we learn that Enid takes an entrance exam for college, but not whether or not she actually wants to go, or what she might study there (possibly because she doesn’t know herself). In addition, there is a timeless quality to the book in general – it could take place at almost any point from, say, the early 1990s up to the present day. This tight view is perfect to illustrate their self-absorption – though you can tell they almost feel bad about this too, or at least are conscious that it’s not great to be so apathetic.

I had a note about not enjoying some of the artwork, especially that of the male characters – they’re less “cartoon” with more detail and shading accentuating fairly repugnant features, compared to the bold smooth lines of Enid & Becky – but considering the story as being told from the girls’ point of view, these depictions make sense — as does the fact the side characters are fairly flat in terms of characterisation: the girls see the men (either their ‘friends’ or strangers) as vile caricatures because they have no interest in seeing them as more fully formed humans. (And, in the case of John Ellis, the character pushes that angle himself: as is noted towards the end of the book, he obsesses about the offensive in order to distinguish himself from everyone else.) That said, it would have been nice to have had some more ‘good’ or at least more fleshed out characters with whom the girls could interact, so that we could see more sides of their personalities. (In Ghost World [DVD]“>the film, Enid has the Steve Buscemi character, Seymour, to play off: he’s seen as (and considers himself to be) a loser in many ways, but he’s less of a phony than most people in her life, and it’s interesting to see her play off him – and see a possible future for herself if she remains disengaged).

Overall, that was my main criticism of the book: that there wasn’t enough of it. It felt like it luxuriated in creating their small, bitter world to start with but the last two or three chapters rushed by: even without answering the better-left-unanswered ‘what next?’ question, I think there was room to explore the decline of their friendship and some of the tensions over Josh. (I also thought the Clowes cameo subplot was a bit of an indulgence given the slight nature of the limited chapters/thin final volume.) It feels for a bit of a cop out to set up these difficult characters, then just leave everything hanging at the end.

Book Review: “The Interestings” by Meg Wolitzer

I’m a sucker for coming of age stories and I picked up “The Interestings” by Meg Wolitzer because I thought it sounded a little like my beloved “Prep” – a close, carefully written examination of a group of teenagers. It does start that way but it quickly switches to going beyond that – it follows the group into adulthood and parenthood, until their offspring are young adults themselves: after all, coming of age doesn’t stop at the end of summer.

“The Interestings” come together as a group, and give themselves the semi-ironic nickname, in the mid 1970s, at a summer camp for artistically minded teens. We start from the point of view of the “everywoman” character, Jules, as she gets to know the rest of the cool kids – they are already established friends, more privileged and cultured, so of course she feels like a gawky interloper. As a someone who feels like a perennial gawky interloper, I’m more forgiving of this cliche than perhaps I should be and I bought the budding relationships: primarily that Jules would have a crush on the arrogant rich boy (Goodman), become devoted to his serene & sophisticated sister (Ash), and become the subject of affection for the least obviously cool of the boys, Ethan. The second chapter immediately undercuts the most predictable arcs from this set-up: we jump forward 30+ years to find that ugly Ethan is in fact married to beautiful Ash, and Jules, married to someone from outside the group, is irritated by the seeming perfection of their highly successful lives. The rest of the book is essentially filling in the gaps between these two points, from a variety of points of view, and focusing on different time periods.

While I remained largely absorbed in the relationships and the story from beginning to end, I found the main four characters rather flat – but perhaps that’s the point: Ash remains distant and floating by on a cloud of privilege throughout the novel; Goodman becomes literally distant and devolves into a nobody; Ethan’s only real emotional depth comes from his strained relationship with his autistic son; and Jules’ character development is stunted when she is pushed into the corners by the crowd of narrators. Wolitzer uses Ash and Goodman to explore the difficulties of wealthy upbringing and parental pressure, with Ash stepping up to the demands and Goodman falling by the wayside: Ash is allowed (though never as a point of view character) to comment on the double-edged sword of her good fortune and Jules critiques Ash further, noting that she would not be the professional success she becomes if not for the initial cushioning of her family and later bolstering from Ethan, but by sending Goodman into exile, Wolitzer loses the opportunity to develop the other side of the story. Goodman also serves as a Chekhov’s gun to bring down the novel’s perfect union: I’d have preferred a more human reason for the separation, not a melodramatic 30 year secret and a lazy “you were on speaker phone” moment. The latter could only have been accomplished though if we’d spent more time inside Ethan and Ash’s relationship instead of hearing about the products of their professional lives: Ethan’s path from being a budding animator in a remote shed into a Matt Groening/Mike Judge scale success is fun and Ash’s feminist readings of the theatre scene are accurate, but it feels like we get the details about those in lieu of more intimate examination of their adults selves and their marriage.

Aside from them, there are three featured secondary characters – Jules’ eventual husband Dennis (who I found to be more interesting than the so-called Interestings), quiet, sensitive Jonah (who largely feels unnecessary in the book, just a way to pull in some other cultural reference points such as the emergence of AIDS and the Moonies cult) and Cathy, who is unfortunately more of a plot point than a fully fleshed out character. Her flatness is especially unfortunate since the plot point in question is her being raped – yet another example of rape being used as a storytelling crux in service to other characters’ development. (Funnily enough the thing that is fleshed out about Cathy is the changing of her flesh – how she has to give up her beloved dancing once her boobs get too big.) When the main couples have children, their characters are similarly flat: Jules & Dennis’ daughter Rory is an always-active tomboy in contrast to Ash & Ethan’s Lark, who like her mother is artistic & cerebral, and Ash & Ethan’s son principally serves to blemish Ethan’s otherwise too decent nature, and provide a further big marriage-ending secret.

These criticisms aren’t to say it’s a bad book, or an unenjoyable read – in fact, my largest complaint is that there wasn’t quite enough of it in some places. It has a fairly hefty word count but even so, it is spread thinly over such a long time frame, especially when it also has to provide airtime for the secondary characters too. When we were zoomed in, I very much enjoyed the scene building, observations and (sometimes heightened) writing so it was a little frustrating when we jumped out to another time and another viewpoint. (The most frustrating thing though was either a mistake or just unfortunate phrasing: it’s repeatedly insinuated that Iceland is in the North Sea or thereabouts rather than the Atlantic. A tiny thing but oh my, it annoyed me ;).)

On the cover of my copy, there is a quote from Jeffrey Euginedes about the “wit, intelligence, and deep feeling of Wolitzer’s writing” in The Interestings – I think I’ll read it again, to focus on the journey rather than the destination, but if I want wit, intelligence and feeling over an epic timeframe, I’d prefer to re-read Euginedes’ Middlesex instead.

Review: “Foundations of Western Civilization II: A History of the Modern Western World” by Robert Bucholz

(A lecture series listened to while I’ve been spinning yarn)

I’ve long been a fan of modern history (20th century) and at university, we studied history and culture from various angles – almost all post-Industrial Revolution though. It is only in the last couple of years that I’ve expanding my range and that has, for various reasons, been largely British in focus. This lecture series, which covered European history from the 1300s, has helped me fill in some of my knowledge gaps.

The course begins with Bucholz setting out two themes which come into play time and time again through the years – geography as destiny and the Great Chain of Being. Part of the former is perhaps obvious – it’s surely no great surprise that the western sea-faring countries were the ones to
seize the “New World” to the west – but there is also subtler elements concerning political alliances, marriages and buffer zones, which was stayed particularly relevant all the way up to the end of history(tm) in 1989. The Great Chain of Being is largely an archaic idea now but one that was vital for societal stability for centuries: in one of the early lectures, Bucholz discusses how the GCoB is the reason there weren’t constant peasant revolts and whatnot – if your whole concept of the world is built around the Chain, to question the Chain is basically to question God and that wasn’t generally advised.

Once the core themes were established, the lectures progressed in a vaguely chronological order as you would expect – and I found some bits more interesting than others (also as you would expect). The lectures lasted about 25 hours in total – which is nothing when trying to cover 600+ years of history for a continent. I got a little annoyed when he didn’t particularly mention the Berlin Wall (and thought in general that a lot of the post-WW2 stuff was skimpy) but I guess it is understandable with so much to cover. He mixed in quotes from eyewitnesses and contemporary commentators, as well as poetry and bits of drama (Shakespeare) – some were overly long but others, particularly the quotes, were valuable — unless he tried to do an accent. Oh God, the British accents were excruciating. Overall though, and accents aside, I liked his teaching style – there was little padding and I thought it went at a good speed (not too fast or too not too plodding). It was far from a simple recitation of facts – a lot of time was spent looking at the bigger picture, at context, causes and underlying factors, and at contemporary and later responses to events: ie, proper historical study, not just lists of dates and names.

One thing that really got my goat, aside from (*read in the worst cockney accent you’ve ever heard*) the bloody accents, was his constant need to toe the national line on certain issues – for example, it felt like there was some rose-tinting in discussion of America, and the concepts of democracy and capitalism, and it was outright embarrassing the amount of pussyfooting he had to do around Marx or any time he used the terms “socialist” or “liberal”. There is providing an explanation to stop people getting the wrong end of the stick and there is helping give people the wrong end of the stick in the first place…

Overall though, two thumbs up.

Review: “Childhood’s End” by Arthur C Clark

(I like listening to audiobooks and lectures when I’m walking the dog by myself etc but struggle to find suitable fiction. This popped up a little while ago so even though I’m not particularly a fan of ACC, I thought I’d give it a go.)

I think the original premise that sold this book to me was something basic, along the lines of someone “watching humanity come to an end from a spaceship orbiting the Earth”. I’d pictured humans on something like the ISS watching the fit hit the shan a few hundred miles below but it was a whole lot more complicated than that: an alien race, “the overlords”, arrives and takes control of earth as, essentially, benevolent dictators for life. They eliminate war and nations, cruelty and inequality, and through their technology, they automate the production and distribution of all of life’s necessities. The world becomes a nicer place to live but also a duller one, since tranquillity does little to foster art and the pursuit of (higher level) science becomes pointless, since the overlords have already achieved so much in terms of technology (even if they don’t always share it with the humans). One man still has a desire for scientific discovery though and eventually, he stows away on a spaceship to the overlord’s home planet: to “escape the nursery”. Their “star drive” allows his return journey to only take a few months as far as he is concerned, but eighty years have passed for someone on Earth, and in that time, homo sapiens have died out, or rather have evolved into another species, part of a Borg-like civilisation called the Overmind, and gone into a type of suspended animation while their powers develop and they wait to join the collective. The overlords, who had been appointed by the Overmind to be nannies to homo sapiens and midwives to the new race, leave the Earth as the newbies dissolve the planet during their assimilation.

It is an intriguing book, with some interesting ideas on religion as well as science and culture, but overall, I found it uneven. Some early episodes (such as Stormgren’s abduction) seem out of place when looking back on it as a whole and other parts – including the background to the New Athens section and most of Jan’s time on the Overlords planet – seemed superfluous. I didn’t like the Greggsons’ as characters, particularly George (in fact everyone at Rupert’s party was pretty repugnant) – I can’t decide whether that was intentional or not. It was also dated – though set from 1975 to around the turn of the 22nd century, references dated it to the 1950s when it was written. There were few female characters and those that were included were flatly drawn, either wet and prone to silliness (Jean) or noteworthy only for their looks (Maia) (though we only see both through George’s eyes, so it might be that he’s just a sexist dick). The “homo sapiens = children” metaphor was good but laboured too much.

On the positive side though, I liked Stromgren and Overlord Karellen’s interactions and the idea that the race that is “overlords” to humanity is ultimately just a slave race to a greater force, one that it’ll never be able to join itself. There were also a few wonderful quotes, my favourite being “a well stocked mind is safe from boredom”: I think I might stitch that on a bookmark ;)

Review: “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

I have long heard good things about “The Road” but also long avoided it (and the film version) because, despite my love of post-apocalyptica, I’m a bit of a wuss and certain things stick in my head for a long time. In many ways, I was right about “The Road” – certain things from this will stick in my head for a long time! – but I’m glad I gave into the temptation too.

The Road” is, funnily enough, about a journey through post-apocalyptica. Some years before the story, an unknown catastrophe has destroyed civilisation and rendered the Earth a barren, ashy place, devoid of life save for the handful of desperate humans still scavenging around. The Man and his son, The Boy, as they are known throughout, are making the journey south, to avoid a freezing winter. Very little of their past is mentioned – we don’t know how they had survived up to the starting point of the story or anything of the Man’s life before the end of the world. This gives their roaming an eternal quality – as if it has been going on, and will go on, forever.

The Road” is, rightly, acclaimed and I was stunned by the variety and immense imagery of language. The whole world is grey by day, coated in the aforementioned ash, and black by night, and yet despite the monotone palette, McCarthy manages to paint a vivid picture of the world around them without becoming repetitive. I hope he dedicated the book to his thesaurus. Equally sparse is the language used between the pair: they are each other’s worlds, far beyond a normal parent/child relationship, and there is a private shorthand that is called back again and again – I found this pulling me further into their relationship.

Like most road trip tales, the story is relatively episodic with stretches of trekking in between. Some of the episodes felt conveniently fortuitous – reaching the absolute lowest ebb then stumbling across a perfectly stocked oasis of an underground bunker – but I am relatively forgiving of coincidences in novels if they further the story/characters (since it would have been a short book if they’d died at the first hurdle). Other episodes were as horrifying as I had worried they would be and I am trying not to think about them again **LA LA LA NOT THINKING**. Mostly though, it is about the passage and their threadbare survival in the wasteland and each fruitless expedition (they’re certainly not always lucky) drove home the futility of it: the Boy might keep the Man alive, by providing “the fire”, but to what end? “South” might be warmer but what was warmth if you starved to death or were killed so that someone else didn’t? For them, the aimless pilgrimage was its own destination but I could see why the woman, the Man’s wife and Boy’s mother, did what she did.

I realised about halfway through what it is that I usually like about post-apocalyptic stories – it is less about the end and more about the beginning (“ap-ositive-alypse” as I called it to John). There didn’t feel like there was any possible new beginning in “The Road” and that was, understandably and purposefully, depressing. But I kept going because I didn’t quite know how it was going to end. One possible ending, the expected (by the characters) one, would be unbearably painful to read yet a happy ending would be jarringly unrealistic: McCarthy went for a middle ground. I found some positivity in it – even though ultimately it was not more positive than any point of the journey – but keeping in mind what I said about coincidences above, I found it a little unnecessarily coincidental: I’d have been happier if the man in the ski jacket had been following them more closely, if he had intervened sooner after The Man’s death (um, spoiler alert) rather than happening to be on the road when the Boy finally decided to leave the woods. (It seemed unlikely that his band – possibly no more than two adults – would spare someone to wander aimlessly to look for the Boy; following closer because they saw the state of The Man would be more believable).

It’s not a cheerful book but it’s a bloody good one.