Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Wayward Bus - John Steinbeck

 I read John Steinbeck's 1947 novel The Wayward Bus several months ago and absolutely loved it. But even though loving it I have found it difficult to write a review that does justice to such a remarkable novel. Now John Steinbeck should really need no introductions should he? After all he is quite possibly the greatest American writer of the 20th Century. Over a career that spanned 50 years he wrote three of America's most seminal novels which raked in a 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature in the process.

 Of course those three novels are the 1939 Pulitzer winning The Grapes of Wrath, 1952's East of Eden, and the 1937 novella Of Mice and Men. All three have been adapted to film with East of Eden starring James Dean. Unfortunately I haven't read anything else by Steinbeck so it is hard to gauge how good, or how well, this 350 page novel stacks up against his acknowledged masterworks. I believe it is considered one of his weaker works even though it was at the time financially more successful than any of his previous novels.

 Well for me it is pointless trying to gauge this against his other novels since I haven't read any of them. So I can only critique it as a stand alone novel. Well the first thing I can say is this. If this is considered a weaker Steinbeck novel I can't wait to read his better ones! Seriously this is a superb novel and I just haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I read it. What makes it so memorable? For me it is the characterisations and how incredibly vivid they are. Steinbeck wrote all the characters so believable that any reader can recognise at least some of them from their own lives. It is a short novel that takes place over the space of one day and involves a disparate group of people on a short bus trip between bus stops.

 But it isn't the trip that is the focus, it is the people themselves, their individuals lives and characters. There are nine protagonists of whom none dominates the narrative. The viewpoint shifts between them all and changes from external dialogue to internal monologue as the reader experiences each individuals thoughts. This is the novel's core as it establishes and delineates each character. The obscure bus stop and the bus trip are just a back drop and setting to the people. Not a lot actually happens in the novel as it is characterisations that its heart and how each is so different from the other which mirrors real life.

 What I like is just how vivid a picture of each character Steinbeck paints. He is such a great writer that as I read the novel I became so engrossed in it that everything else around me ceased to exist. It transported me into its 1947 setting and I quite literally felt as if I was there with these people. But Steinbeck goes a bit further because with his personal monologues the reader gets into each characters mind and how each views themselves, their situations, lives, and those around them. It is just as we ourselves do which is why I found this such a remarkable work. It is about humans and how individualistic we are all the whilst inter-acting with other humans around us.

 I won't take up your time in describing each character individually. But of the nine one was a particular stand out for me. Before that though I'll highlight what makes Steinbeck such a remarkable writer. In one scene the wife of the bus driver stays behind whilst her husband and passengers trundle off in the dilapidated old bus to the next stop. She does so with the express purpose of getting sozzled. And sozzled she does!! The remarkable thing is that Steinbeck's writing skills are so keen that the reader themselves feel as if it is themselves getting wasted and not a character in a novel. It is an incredible piece of writing and I marveled at how I quite literally felt myself getting more and more light headed just as the woman was! Suffice to say though she gets so inebriated that she falls over and passes out....and passes out of the novel completely. It was such a vivid scene that I pictured in my minds eye as if I actually there witnessing it. Just a superb piece of writing.

 The other characters are the woman's husband who is also co owner of the cafe and the bus driver, their hired help young guy with a dreadful case of acne, a waitress who quits after her mail is read by the cafe owner, a traveling salesman who has the Medal of Honour, a family of three traveling to Mexico for a holiday, and a local going back home. But the last is the most interesting character of them all. She is a young, curvy, stunning blonde woman who is the only character who remains un-named. Of them all she was also the most realised hence the most interesting ( to my mind at least ).

 What makes her so interesting is that her incredible looks are an actual curse. Other females feel threatened by her because she is so stunning and males just want to screw her. Steinbeck writes from inside her mind as she details her curse and how she has tried to combat it. Everything from wearing severe clothes to drab, to letting herself be ' kept ' be several rich men to keep other males away, to living alone or with another females. But what is so wonderful is her absolute ability to read men! She just knows which ones are going to instantly proposition her and the ones who try to be ' friends'  in the hope of scoring later. In one scene she knows what is about to be said by one guy as inside her mind she says ' Here it comes. ' And sure enough the guy starts hitting on her!

 I like this character because through her Steinbeck shows how humanity can be so judgmental to other people. This young woman is so outcast because of her looks she has trouble finding work with other females. As to men, well all they try to do is fuck her. So she is pushed into the world of stripping to make a living. It is a shame because as she says to herself she is an intelligent well read person, but all the world can see is what is on the outside and don't bother looking past it. She has become adept at keeping people and herself at arms length from them by spinning stories about herself, which again is a shame as the real person is resorting to deceptions. This character is the reason I haven't been able to stop thinking about The Wayward Bus since I read it in early August.  For some reason her vividness and individual plight struck a chord because it is so true. It speaks not only for a stunning looking female but of anyone who looks or may be perceived as  'different ' and how people react and treat them.

 I have not had a day go by that I haven't thought of this novel. It is incredible to think that is is considered a ' weak ' novel because it is just so vividly realised. It may be a novel but John Steinbeck brings each character to life in a way no other author I have read has ever done. Each one is similar in one way or another to someone we know. Seriously read this novel! It isn't a difficult read but still a genuine piece of literature that both satisfies with its prose and its subject matter. All I can say in conclusion is this. If this is a weaker Steinbeck novel then I can't wait until I read his greater works...The Grapes of Wrath here I come!!

 In a word.....BRILLIANT.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Day Of The Triffids - John Wyndam

Cover of the first hardback edition.
 It is funny how things in life transpire isn't it?? I had no longer finished John Wyndam's classic 1951 sci-fi-horror The Day of the Triffids than the 2010 BBC mini-series re-played on telly!! This was quite cool because I got to watch that, then afterwards 1981 Bond film For Your Eyes Only. So it was quite a good night in front of the box! I won't bother with novel/series comparisons. Suffice to say there are differences, but overall it kept the essence of the novel quite well.

  I first read The Day of the Triffids way back in 1987 as a 17 year old in my last year of high school. For some reason I had a class where I had to read enough books that would equate to reading 1000km of words if they were laid out ( all within the space of six weeks ). Well I breezed that because I read Leon Uris' Exodus which took a great chunk out of the 1000km! I then turned my attention to John Wyndham's classic novel, of which I had wanted to read for some time.

 Suffice to say I've read it several times since. The last time must have been almost 15 years. So several weeks ago I decided to re-visit this novel and see if my initial impressions of it still stood. I'm sure all of you have read novels many years ago that you have re-read and found them to be different than from the first time round. Time, age, wisdom etc changes things and many novels I didn't like, or understand when younger, are now my first choice of reading material. Heaven forbid I remember the groans at school when we had to read Shakespeare and yet now I love reading the Bard!

 The Day of the Triffids is a novel that has always frustrated me. In 1987 I loved the first half of it but felt the second rather flat. That is the way it appeared to me in each of my subsequent readings as well. And after my lasted delve into it I still find it a novel that frustrates me. As I always do before writing a review I undertook some web searching on the novel. What I found was that many reviews elsewhere, from both professional and non-professional critics alik,e also comment on the novels unsatisfying second half and ambiguous ending.

 So what is it about? The Day of the Triffids is a 1951 post-apocalyptic novel written by English science fiction author John Wyndam Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, more commonly known under his pen name John Wyndam ( thank goodness! ). He wrote numerous novels and short stories, but this is his best known work. The novel is about ' Triffids ', tall aggressive plants with intelligent behaviour that can move about on three legs. They can communicate with each other and have a deadly whip like poisonous sting that enables them to kill and fed on their prey. The novels main protagonist is Bill Masen who has worked with the Triffids ( their oils are superior to conventional vegetable oils and they are cultivated all over the world ). With his background he develops a theory that they were bio-engineered in the USSR and then accidentally released when a plane smuggling their seeds was shot down.

 The novel opens with Masen in hospital with his eyes bandaged up after Triffid venom was splashed in them. As he convalesces a meteor shower occurs which blinds all who witnessed it ( later on in the novel he theorises that it was a orbiting weapons system that caused the meteor shower after it mal-functioned ). After waking up. and finding a quiet hospital. he unbadages his eyes and finds London's population almost entirely blinded and civilisation collapsing. On the way he meets a sighted novelist Josella Playton who he rescues from a violent blind man who is forcing her to help him. From there the two encounter various groups with differing agendas. Some want to pair up the seeing with the blind and start re-populating the planet through monogamous sex. Whilst others want to abandon the blind to their fate and start colonies of the seeing alone. 

 During this the two are separated and Madsen spends his time trying to find Josella. He manages to with the help of a seeing girl called Susan. The three then go off on their own and establish a self sufficient farm for themselves with reasonable success. But as the Triffids grow more numerous it becomes harder to keep them out. Finally their hand is forced when a group of despotic soldiers appear who represent a new government which wants to establish feudal like enclaves across the country. The three escape with a former faction leader to a successfully established colony on the Isle of Wight. Wyndam ambiguously winds up the novel with the three joining the new colony determined to find a way to destroy the Triffids and reclaim the earth.

 Overall The Day of the Triffids is a very good post apocalyptic sci-fi novel. But it owes a debt to H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds as Wyndam freely acknowledges. But then again it has influenced other sci-fi ventures itself. The opening hospital scene in the film 28 Days Later is very much inspired by that of The Day of the Triffids. The novel also contains what became common Wyndam trademarks. This was his use of the Soviet Union as an opaque, inscrutable menace. Throughout his writings he went to great lengths in not explicitly detailing the origin of the threat faced by the protagonists. In other words it was obviously Soviet Union in origin but he doesn't state so explicitly, the reader need do no more than read betwwen the lines. Remember 1951 was the era of the era of the Cold War and the Soviet Union ( and communism ) were seen as real world wide threats.

 Wyndam's other themes include the dissection of human nature, and male and female gender roles. And as post a apocalyptic novel he focuses on issues of self sufficiency, which faces the survivors of the catastrophe. He clearly points out that living off scavenged tin food is not a viable survival strategy. He then goes even further along with this scavenger theme in that over time humanity would have to build and develop the capacity to make and grow what they need all over again.

 I have stated that I found the second part of the novel unsatisfying. It is up to a point. But what I mean is that Wyndam superbly shows what post-apocalyptic humanity would face just to survive. He shows how humanity breaks down in lawlessness and how we are tied to super markets etc to live. One of my favorite scenes from the second part of the novel is where Madsen is driving through a deserted London and the buildings, roads etc showing signs of decay and neglect. The sound of his engine and the rumble of the tyres makes several pieces of masonry to fall of buildings. It is an eerie scene and one which vividly shows Wyndam's vision of a post human world.

 The problem for me, and many others, is that whilst this is all good and well the Triffids are glaringly obvious for their absence. Wyndam starts the novel out as a sci-fi end of humanity novel and then goes into the world of the survivors. But what about the Triffids?? The novel loses track half way through and the cause of it all is pushed aside so that Wyndam can hold discourses on human nature. To be sure it is a post apocalyptic novel, and what humanity would be like as a central issue, but he needed to keep the Triffids to the fore as well. And this is why the second part of the novel is criticised by many.

 The Day of the Triffids then it is fair to say is a somewhat flawed novel. Its major failing is that it is two halves of which don't quite marry to one another. The first part is the end of humanity and the rise of the Triffids, and the second about how the survivors lived on. The problem is that the Triffids are all but absent when in all reality they should still have been a more visible and constant threat. But this is my only criticism, because otherwise the novel is a chilling look at post-apocalyptic life, and how the schisms in humanity would appear without law and order.

 So from a criticism to praise. I especially like the novel for its original sci-fi use of something else but aliens and spaceships! All too often the term ' sci-fi ' connotates just those two things. And yet it shouldn't be so, because what The Day of the Triffids shows is that sci-fi can include such an innocuous thing as a plant being the end of civilization.

 I do like this novel even though it frustrates me for its unsatisfying, ambiguous conclusion. After a great start it tails off somewhat and the sci-fi element is replaced by a somewhat philosophical look at humanity after a catastrophe. Both halves of the novel are excellent in themselves. It is just that they somehow don't fit together. It is as if two separate, unrelated books, had been ripped apart and then joined together. And to me this is how the novel feels, one of two halves, which doesn't work for me. But flaws aside The Day of the Triffids is an original sci-fi novel that is worth reading all the same.

 Amazon has this with 4.5/5 stars from 129 reviews. I'd agree with that ( even though it frustrates me as a novel ) simply because it is convincing, chilling and quite original.

 Click here for a fine essay on the novel:

 And here more some interesting stuff:

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

 The problem that faces Alice Sebold's debut novel The Lovely Bones is that, as you all know, Peter Jackson adapted it to film......and made a complete bollocks up of it! With so many people the film adaptation has in many ways come to overshadow the novel. Because the first thing that springs to mind when The Lovely Bones is mentioned is Jackson's interpretation. Well I find it has. as there are still many out there who haven't read the novel. But even myself who has read it find when my thoughts drift Bones'  way, it is the film I usually think of first.

 It is of course then that I think of the novel and ask myself ' How could Peter Jackson have got it so wrong? ' Suffice to say the majority of those I have spoken to who have read the novel, and seen the film, ask the same question. In fact most agree it was a poor adaptation that Jackson turned into a CGI show case at the expense of the novel's tale of grief.

 Now since this is meant to be a book review I won't go too deeply into the films failings. Suffice to say I thought the CGI way overdone. The novel really has nothing in it that warrants its use. Secondly it isn't an overly complex novel and a decent script writer could have adapted it well. Jackson for me played around with the novels chronology too much. He even changed very basic things that annoyed me as well. But worse, the feeling of the family's grief is just so obviously void onscreen. Grief is a central part of the novel.

 So film criticism out of the way what about he novel? Well first of all it has divided opinions as much as the film!! On several book review pages on the net I frequent opinions vary markedly. It seems to be a novel you are either going to like or dislike There doesn't appear to be very much middle ground. I found this interesting because even before Jackson announced his decision to adapt the novel it was fairly well known. But what got me was how could this be so when so many people genuinely didn't think much of it. Regardless it became a best seller.

 Well if you don't know what it is about then read on! Susie Salmon is a 14 year old who, on her way home from school, is raped and murdered by a serial killer after he lures her into a makeshift underground den. The murderer is no less than her neighbour who she knew as Mr. Harvey. The novel unfolds with Susie watching the subsequent events surrounding her murder from heaven. She narrates as she watches over her grieving family, her murderer, and the police. As she does so she struggles to accept her death, all the while trying to cling to the world of the living.

 She follows her family's struggles with grief and how each deals with it in their individual ways. Her father becomes obsessed with finding her killer, her mother leaving the family and moving to the west coast of the US, her sister's growth from teenager to adult hood, and her younger brother trying to make sense of the hole in his family. All the while the murderer is feeling the so called itch to kill again. It is somewhat unsettling to think that she knows where her body is hidden. Even more so when her sister stands next to the safe the body is hidden in inside the murderer's basement. So close and yet so far away.

  If you have seen the film, and yet not read the novel, there is still much of the novel that is recognisable. But the film is chronologically out from the novel. But what the film utter fails to convey is the grief of the novel. The Lovely Bones is a moving exploration of loss and mourning. But it is almost a novel of two halves, and the sadness I felt didn't really kick in until the last third of the novel. It wasn't through lack of build up because the novel opens with Susie's murder. But even though we see Susie looking over her old world from heaven the sense of grief and loss isn't there for some time. But believe me when it kicks in it is emotionally draining stuff and very, very sad stuff.

 I can't believe such a novel could come from the human mind, and yet grief is an inescapable part of life. I think the first 2/3 of the novel, whilst a reasonable story, rather bland. But the last third are well worth sticking around for as Sebold opens up the grief stakes...and they become a flood! I found myself  profoundly moved by the last third of the novel and couldn't put it down.

 Yes I can see both sides of the equation when it comes to this novel. The first 2/3 confounded me and I wondered if I would bother finishing it. It is not that it is poorly written or un-engaging, but I felt a flatness to it. But when the last 100 pages come along it really becomes something else. Even though a novel it could almost be a text book on grief and grieving. The novel winds up with Susie's family slowly but surely coming out of the blackness and moving forward. It has taken many years but they manage. One thing I do like, which adds to the heinousness of the crime and impact on the family, is that Susie's body is never found. I think this added to her family's breakdown as they didn't have closure. That is so much a part of their grieving.

 Amazon has this with 4/5 stars from a staggering 3,212 reviews! For me I would give the first 200 pages a 3/5, and the last 100 odd, 5/5. It is here where it really picks up and destroys your emotions. Honestly I've never read anything that just so portrayed sadness as Alice Sebold did in the last pages of this her debut novel. Hard to genuinely recommend because it has so divided opinions. As such it is hard to gauge what an individual would make of it. From over-rated to excellent ultimately the reader must, and will, decide for themselves.

 I for one feel ambiguous to it except for those last 100 pages, which are superb. But I'll say this. Even though a bit flawed it far surpasses the film!

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Dirty Dozen - E. M. Nathanson

 I first read E. M. Nathanson's classic novel The Dirty Dozen way back in 1989 as a snot nosed 18-19 year old. The same copy then sat among my prodigious amount of books with me intending to read it again. Well I managed to do so recently. I read it at work instead of listening to the banal smoko talk of my colleagues involved in the slave trade called employment. It took me a month just reading a few pages each break. It was a real pleasure to revisit this great novel even though much of it had been forgotten in the mist of time.

 First of it has, as you are probably aware, been adapted to film. It was done so in 1967 a year after the novel's best selling release. Sadly though the adaptation is well....just total crap. It is another instance of a fine novel being butchered by its film counterpart. The film's biggest failing is that it has taken a novel that is probably 10% war novel and turned it into 90% war movie. In the process everything that made the novel so great was lost.

 The novel is called a 'war' novel and yet I think that too simplistic. Sure it is based in 1944 Britain on the eve of D-Day, but it is more a psychological drama within a military setting. The plot involves a tough American soldier, Major John Reisman who has undertaken behind enemy lines missions, given another. But this is one with a real difference. This time he has to train twelve men from within American military prisons awaiting trial for various misdemeanors, from theft, to rape, and murder. What follows is an extraordinary novel of his attempts to meld this disparate bunch, full of hatred and prejudices, into a fully fit, functioning military unit.

 As stated the novel is not a war novel per se. 90% of it is involved in the training of this so called 'dirty dozen' and the trials and tribulation the Major faces. But whilst the training is one huge part of the novel it really is the twelve individual characters and personalities of the men that is the central focus. It is almost part crime novel wrapped around a military setting. The dozen are all from different back grounds and situations. But they are not all former civilian world criminals. Each has their own story to tell as to how they ended up in the stockade. Nathanson tells each man's story through out the narrative. His characterisations are superbly realised with each becoming all too real for the reader.

 Some of them are straight out repulsive. Others we have a shred of sympathy for. And one the reader feels sure is innocent, until the finale reveals he isn't. As their training for their suicide mission starts the reader is instantly thrown into how difficult a task it is going to be. To make the mission a success the dozen must work as team and trust one another. All good military units must do this to be successful. What happens is the twelve splinter off into groups that snipe and grizzle about each other. God they behaved like little children!!

 We swing from a red-neck, an intelligent and educated negro who is there after a race fueled man slaughter, a sex offender, a young boy like man who is up on a charge of rape and murder ( he is seemingly innocent but finds out during the mission he isn't, as his own flash backs are revealed under the stress of combat ). A quiet but hugely built Red Indian, and several compulsive thieves and liars. But the two main protagonists out of the group are the red-neck and the negro. The red neck attempts to alienate him, all the while the Major tries to induce him into a leadership role. Suffice to say whilst the dozen hate and despise each other they hate and despise the authority of the Major!!

 The psychological battles are superbly written. This battle of wills is the reason behind the name 'dirty dozen' . At one stage the group all agree not to shave in response to one of Reisman's orders. He lets it go and the twelve quickly become dirty and smelly. But they finally do shave just on the eve of the mission. The dozen during training overall swing between individuals wanting to fit in, do the mission and gain their pardons. Whilst others just have no social skills or understanding and are real pains in the arse. Sounds just like real life and what we all face in the work force doesn't it?!! The Major has his work cut out and the way he coerces , threatens, conjoles and kicks the twelve into shape is brilliant. But he has his doubts as to their final abilities to do the job. After all he has been given a very short period of time in which to lick the twelve into shape.

 The most interesting parts for me was when Major Reisman finally teaches the men hand to hand combat. These ruffians take to it like a bull to a red flag. Their almost animal instincts come the fore and they excel at beating each up using martial arts!! The funny thing is that as they get more proficient at it they don't start on each other after training is over. They realise they have been well taught and are fairly evenly matched. This is the slight turning of the corner and the next test is actually being given real weapons. The Major teaches them how to use various firearms such as pistols and sub-machine guns. But due to the fear they will  turn on him and the guards, they are strictly monitored, and carry around the weapons unloaded on exercises. They are only issued personal live ammunition for the mission!

 Yes if they all weren't such dubious, to repulsive characters, it would be funny. But these are grown men behaving like little children. Even though this is a novel I found my temper rising as did Major Reisamn's!! How he didn't kill any of those shits is beyond me! But this is the novel's core. He uses psychology to win them over whilst trying to get through to them that it is either, see out their individual sentences, or pull together and do the assigned mission. It is incredible that even with such a simple fact hanging over their heads some of them just wouldn't let it penetrate.

 Suffice to say the dozen with Reisamn are packed off to France on the eve of D-Day. Here the mission is played out. And yet it isn't narrative driven as such, more in the form of an after action report. It isn't particularly long taking up only about 40 out of the novel's 600 pages. As stated this isn't a war novel, and if you have seen the film and not read the novel, it will give you a false impression as to what the novel is about. This is a novel that is very much psychology based. it is an unsettling look into the disparate minds of those who fall to the bottom of societies rung, where they have delved into theft, murder, rape and other unsavoury ways.

 I highly recommend this novel. If you don't read war novels as such don't be put off by this a because it isn't strictly speaking a war novel. Just as the recently reviewed The Crusader wasn't strictly speaking just a novel about the Crusades The Dirty Dozen uses the back drop of WW II for this masterful novel. At 607 pages it is good, satisfying, meaty, read. I just wonder why it is that more modern novelists can't seem to write novels of such breadth and epicness like this anymore.

 This is a true classic that is crying out for a decent film adaptation. The film is OK as a war film but I object to it being called The Dirty Dozen. It takes the premise of twelve condemned prisoners and butchers the best part of the novel. I found Lee Marvin mis-cast as Major Reisman because the novel's Reisamn, whilst hard in front of the prisoners, was actually an articulate man with doubts, anxieties and lingering memories from his behind enemy lines missions.

 The last word here is that the novel is very loosely based on an American soldier and his unit which served in the famed 101st Airborne, the famous Screaming Eagles. He was involved in numerous scrapes with authority even though having a distinguished fighting record. Click below for a link to him, his unit, and how he came to be the basis of  E.M. Nathanson's fine, commendable, classic novel.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart - Jesse Bullington

 It is said ' never judge a book by it's cover '. And yet for once I disagree, because the cover to The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart  is quite simply the best, coolest, most original cover to a book I've ever seen. The puny little picture I've posted here doesn't do it justice. To be honest you have to pick the book up and move it about to get the full effect.

 Like all novels in a library I just pulled it out of the shelf on a whim. And yet as soon as I saw that cover I instantly knew it was going home with me. This is Jesse Bullington's debut novel and just on the strength of this cover I also brought home his second novel The Enterprise of Death. Now be warned neither novel is for the faint hearted, easily offended or the squeamish!! Seriously these two novels are bawdy, gross, graphic, blasphemous, bloodthirsty and just sheer straight out fun!!

 If you cross Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo Del Toro with the Brothers Grimm then this is what you would get. What Jesse Bullington has done is re-imagined the Middle Ages with its inherent mythology and ignorance and turned it into a Grimm's Fairy Tale for adults. T. H .White done a similar re-imagining of the Middle ages and the Tale of King Arthur in his magisterial masterpiece The Once and Future King. But Bullington's vision is much darker and plays heavily on the ignorance of the times.

 So what's it about? In essence it is about two brothers from the region of West Germany in the mid-13th century. They are a couple of ignorant, illiterate, uneducated, uncouth, bawdy murderous swine who can't see what low lifes they are!! After they murder a young family at the start of the novel, these two grave robbers by profession decide to go south and attempt to get to Egypt, where they have grand designs on the tombs there. On the way, and in between their internecine bickering, the two brothers encounter all manner of vile creatures. All lifted straight from Middle Age ignorance and mythology of which the Brothers Grimm immortalised so well.

 There are witches, demons, fallen priests, a mermaid and that demon again! Included is copious amounts of vomiting, cursing, killing, grossness and other goings on. The first creature they met confounds the brothers and the reader isn't quite sure what it is. Suffice to say the brothers kill it but nor before one is infected by touching the creature's fur. The healthy brother carries him to a near by house which is inhabited by a witch. Well from here on the novel really opens up and throws out all stops in it gross and lewdness! The witch says to the healthy brother she will cure the sick brother only if he 'services' her! The brother confesses to being a good catholic and doesn't believe in sex before marriage. He is too embarased to admit he is a virgin in other words!

 The dumb Grossbart actually believes he and his brother are good men who have been done wrong. The witch seemingly accepts this, but tricks him into drinking a potion that makes her appear sexually desirable to him, even though her appearance is the same. What follows is a hilarious sexscapade as the brother ' services ' the ugly old hag in all sorts of ways. No orifice is left untouched and no position  untried!. At once stage he ' services ' her with his tongue and as he is doing so the potion wears off! Imagine the vomiting that occurred!! When she then offers him some food that he rejects she quite tells him he had just ' eaten ' worse!! Well if this scene puts you off then this novel is not for you and you should stay clear of it!!

 From here the dastardly brothers encounter a shape changing demon which they nearly kill. In the process it harbours a grudge against the two. It, and the father of the young murdered family, join forces and pursue the brothers all the way to Egypt, and a final confrontation. But before that the brothers pick up a fallen priest who debates theology with them. These two numb nuts honestly believe they are the height of religious fervour and consider themselves holier than the Pope! It is hilarious as the two squabble among themselves as to who is holier than the other. On the way they pick up an unusual female passenger who has a mysterious voice that lures men to the nearest water.

 Of course she is a mermaid and her ' owner ' is going south as well. On the way several men die mysteriously in very small pools of water. Later the brothers are rid of her mid-Mediterranean and eat her tail!! But before this bawdy sea faring expedition the book hits a palpable flat spot. It is my only criticism of the novel. Once the brothers hit Italy and find lodgings the book slows right down for about 5 or 6 chapters. When in Italy almost nothing happens except for a few fights and an encounter with an Arab who can't speak his own language. I slogged my way through these chapters and it really brought the otherwise swift narrative to a screaming halt. Unfortunately once the Brothers leave Italy it takes the reader a while to get back into the swing of the novel and its bawdiness. This is unfortunate because the ship bound scene is quite good but as the reader is just getting their swing back it ends.

 The brothers are now in Egypt and create all sorts of blasphemes against Islam as they seemingly mount there own two man Crusade( ably helped by their warped priest friend who has now deified the pair!! ). The novel ends with them vanquishing the disgruntled demon and father who have been pursuing them. But not before one final grave robbery which goes wrong and the brothers are entombed, but still bickering!!

 This is one of the most astonishingly original novels I have ever read! It is NOT for all tastes though! I kid you not. If you are easily offended then steer well clear of this, Jesse Bullington's debut novel. But if you are extremely open  minded and want something totally original then I recommend this no end. You will grossed out and yet laugh about it at the same time. The only let down is the way the novel comes to a screeching halt about half way through and goes off the boil. It comes back on later, but reading the chapters in between was a real chore.

 Stunning just stunning in its originality, bawdiness, and general slap in the face to political correctness. If you are open minded enough then you just cannot pass up the chance to read this novel. Bullington's next novel is just as gross and bawdy, and if anything even stronger.

 Amazon has this with 4/5 stars from 42 customer reviews. I'd agree with that and would have given it a perfect 5, if it wasn't for the slack part in the middle, which slowed the novel down.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Crusader - Michael Eisner

 Ah The Crusades. Just how controversial are they even today, 1000 years after the last Crusaders were booted out off their last enclave, Acre, in 1291?! But that aside they are a period of history that cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet. Like all dubious historical events they happened and must be dealt with. As a history lover the Crusades hold a real interest. Not all the major Holy Land Crusades, but certainly the initial 1098 Crusade, and then Richard the Lionheart's attempt to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims between 1189-1192. And to a certain degree the Fourth and the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

 I will state now I'm not an expert!! I did do several papers that had Crusades content for uni and have read a few books, but I'm more a buff than a serious aficionado. Anyway I'm not averse to reading a novel that is based during those times. In fact any decent look through your public library will undoubtedly unearth a plethora of Crusade based novels ( certainly the two Holy Orders of the Hospitallers and Templars alone are juicy ground for a novelist ). My own  public library has many but you know the old proverb..too many books and not enough time.Honestly I would need 20 lifetimes to read even half of what I would want too!

 I read Michael Eisner's 2003 novel The Crusader when I brought it new several years ago. I have actually gone back to reading non-fiction for the time being. And yet this is such a light easy read I whipped through it in between the non-fiction stuff. Over the last few years I have read a few reviews on this novel and opinions vary widely. I suppose that can be said about any novel. But I have taken an interest in this because I like  the novel and don't consider it as dull as so many do.

 The story revolves around the experiences of a Spanish Knight's Crusade in the Holy Land.  It is based in the later half of the 13th century and is a well imagined, clearly writen novel. After his brother Sergio drowns on his way to the Holy Land with 500 other knights, main protagonist Francisco de Montcada dedicates himself to the Cross. Reported dead after the siege and loss of the great crusader castle Krak de Chevaliers, Montcada returns to Spain a wreck and shadow of his former self. Seemingly possessed  he is chained in a Cistercian monastery's dungeon. There Monk Brother Lucas attempts to get Montcada to speak of his experiences. In the process he hopes to earn the reward Montcada's wealthy father has offered for his son's recovery.

 When he starts to speak he begins with his brother, his strong, confident cousin Andres, and his sister Isabel. Montcada tells of slowly falling in love in her before he goes off to train in Catatrava to become a knight before departing for the Holy Land. The novel artfully balances Montcada's reminisces and a sub-plot involving Brother Lucas and his dreams of glory within the Church. What transpires is a tale of salvation that not only concerns the mind of Montcada but of Brother Lucas as well. Montcada's tale involves an encounter at the Krak with Don Fernando who has subsequently risen to high authority with the church. It transpires Fernando conspired to keep Montcada imprisoned by the Muslims and keep his secrets safe.

 Suffice to say good conquers the evil hypocrisy of Don Fernando with Brother Lucas gets his reward and desires in the process. I liked this as an historical novel and especially its structure. The way Eisner bounces back and forth through history and the lives of his characters is fantastic. Whilst not strictly speaking a Crusades novel it uses it as a backdrop to what transpires between Don Fernando and Brother Lucas. There are only two somewhat short battle scenes of which the first involves Montcada and his cousin Andres storming a Muslim held castle. It is well realised and very vividly written The second is a great scene of the Muslim investment and subsequent capture of Krak de Chevalier, which is based on real events.

 The scenes where Montcada is imprisoned in a Muslim dungeon are excellent and the reader can feel his fear and despair. This is especially so as one by one his fellow prisoners either die, or are taken out of the pit because their ransoms have been paid by rich relatives. But for me the highlight of the novel is the broken spirit of Montcada. Eisner has graphically written of a man who is completely broken and seemingly possessed. It is a novel that shows how historically mental health and well being were unknown in the Middle Ages. Any sign of brokenness was mis-construed as possession. Of course today Montcada's condition would be identified as untreated post traumatic stress ( or in old parlance shell shock ).

 So yes if you like historical fiction and the Crusades in particular, then this is for you. It isn't a hack and slash Crusades novel as such, but uses them as a backdrop to a sub-plot involving corruption within the church. It isn't an overly long novel and is quickly read but there is enough meat to satisfy. I liked how Michael Eisner cleverly jumps between time frames, from the present, back to past, and back again. In the process he tells the tale of two men who serve the cross and how their lives have crossed with each having a different tale to tell.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Rome & Jerusalem - Martin Goodman

 When I started this blog I fully intended to keep it as strictly fiction based. As a rule I read more non-fiction than fiction and I actually wanted to start yet another blog on the non-fiction I read. But as I have quickly learnt from this blog alone, and the running of two, it requires a lot of time and effort. Not to mention a considerable amount of work!! I'm sure you with a blog, or blogs, that you regularly update can testify and relate too this!

 So I have decided to forgo another blog and incorporate some of the non-fiction I read into this blog alone. I hope what I read and review is of interest to some of you and in the process of use. After all the world of the written word is immense and it is often interesting to know what others thought of something we ourselves may be contemplating reading. My hope is that others with an interest in history like myself will read, benefit and leave well reasoned comments along the way.

 So what is it about? The title should give an indication! In short Martin Goodman has written a quite thorough and exhaustive treatise on the Jewish revolt of 66AD which culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70AD. Goodman starts the book off with a short prologue that quickly skims over the events of those 4 years. At the end he asks the question, was this inevitable? To answer his own question he juxtaposes life from both the Roman and Jewish point of views. What quickly becomes apparent is the fact that even though Rome was the dominant power it tolerated, and to a large degree, left the Jews alone to their own devices.

 Goodman does this by analyzing every conceivable aspect of life of these two ancient peoples. From food to religion to sex to parenthood to burial procedures etc etc etc. Everything thing possible about life is looked at. What Goodman is doing by this thoroughness is not only pushing forward his own obvious deep knowledge, but in the process showing the reader how the events of 66-70 AD were in no way inevitable. Even though both Romans and Jews were quite different in every aspect of life they did live together fairly harmoniously.

 So what happened to change all this?? In essence it was a small insignificant matter that ballooned out of all proportion. In many respects it mirrors the origins of WW 1 as the nations stumbled their way into a quite un-necessary, preventable war. Flours, Roman Governor of Judea in a fit of political folly and grandstanding ordered the Jewish population of Jerusalem to exit the city and acknowledge the entrance of some Roman troops. The Jews declined and hot heads prevailed, scuffles started, and the next thing a Legion from Syria was involved. But against all odds the Jews all but massacred the legion as it was poorly withdrawn from the city.

 This led to Emperor Nero in having to retaliate. This was mainly to stop other regions of the Empire rising up in imitation as the Jews had done. But before retribution could be extracted Nero died and in quick succession there erupted a civil war as three men tried to take the role of Emperor. Eventually Vespasian was made emperor and in 70 Ad he sent his son Titus to Judea with a huge force of 60,000 men including foreign auxiliaries. What ensued was the capture or Jerusalem and the inadvertent destruction of the Jew's most holy site. Incredibly its destruction was a mistake as Titus was under no orders to destroy it even though he let his troops loot the temple and Jerusalem.

 ( What happened was in the heat of the moment the Roman equivalent of the ' Molotov Cocktail ' was thrown by a Roman soldier into the Temple. Titus in fact tried valiantly to have the fire put out but failed. ) Emperor Hadrian actually rebuilt Jerusalem but renamed it Aelia Capitolina and forbid all Jews from ever worshipping there. ( Salt was rubbed in the wound by the introduction of a universal tax on all Jews in the Empire. Anti-semitism had started ). Is it no wonder we see modern Jews using The Wailing Wall because they are unable to use the actual spot where the temple used to be?? It is staggering when you realise how old Judaism is and how long its collective memory is with it. When I read this my eyes opened even further to the almost insoluable problems that permeate modern Jerusalem.

 The first half of the book is a look at life in Rome and Jerusalem . Whilst interesting the second half is the better because it goes into the hows and whys. It is absorbing reading and anyone who wishes to know more about the rise of anti-semitism should read this. I didn't realise that the destruction of the temple was a mistake that the Flavian era of Roman emperors turned into a myth. This was because they couldn't admit it was a mistake so they turned it around into a great victory against a dangerous enemy. It is from this that anti-semitism arose as the Romans painted the Jews in the most vilest light possible.

 Goodman then brings in the Christians and the influence they had on the rise of anti-semitism. Of course Christianity was born out of Judaism. But under the Romans Christians wanted to distance themselves from their Jewish roots and joined in the Roman campaign of hate against the Jews. One thing interested me in regards to Emperor Julian. He of course wanted to return the Empire back to its pagan ways. One of the ways he intended to do this was to discredit Christianity by re-building the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. He of course died before he was able to do so. ( I recommend Gore Vidal's historical novel Julian which whilst fiction is a good place to start if contemplating reading this emperor ). All this is extremely interesting and I was absorbed by it all. It is incredible to think that the events of 2000 years ago are still resonating today. And what fascinated me was they were created by an empire that has long gone and yet the things it done are still with us.

 So Martin Goodman winds his superb book up with a final word on the evolution of anti-semitism. In the process he answers the question he asked in the prologue. Was it all inevitable??  Were Roman and Jew on an unpreventable course? The answer is an indefatigable no. Although tensions arose at times it really was the stupidity of a mediocre Roman administrator that precipitated what was to come.

 This is not a book for anyone less than above average reading ability. It is not that it is difficult to read it is just extremely, extremely detailed. I mean Goodman can take the reader from end of the Mediterranean to the other ....and back in just one page!! It is 585 pages long and it took me a week to read. I have read criticisms that it is too dry and boringly written. But I refute this because Goodman's target audience is obviously fellow scholars and anyone with a deep understanding of the period. I'm neither!! But even though my knowledge was somewhat limited the amount of information here is staggering and the whole book engaged me from cover to cover. As I read it I thought ' I'm not taking this in as it is too detailed '. But once I finished and thought about it I realised I had absorbed much of it. In fact as soon as I finished it I wanted to read it again!!

 So be warned this is not light reading! Believe me you won't read this one in a night! But if you are a competent enough reader with a love of history then this is a highly recommend book from me. I have been interested in anti-semitism for some time now and this book perfectly explained to me its origins. I found it uncontroversial considering its subject matter as Martin Goodman uses prodigious use of classical documents like The Dead Sea Scrolls to back up his ideas. In fact I was surprised that a book of such depth could be written out of a seemingly dearth of surviving original sources. But obviously there are enough!

  Maybe not the easiest of reads but it is extremely detailed and deeply fascinating. For me it expanded prodigiously on my initially limited knowledge of the period. The destruction of the Jews Temple is fascinating beyond words and it inspired a trip to wikipedia to see pictures of the site. In my ignorance I didn't realise that it is the same site that is Islam's third holiest site Dome of the Rock. I now know why it is so contentious!! But it all started in 66AD with a poor administrative decision and its effects are still felt in our world today.

 Fascinating stuff. In the process it shows how such simple events can can lead to bigger more cataclysmic ones. What it will also do is clarify the origins of the controveries etc involving modern day Jerusalem and why it is the centre of three religions. And it was all the Roman's fault!! But they are no longer here to point the finger at and demand recompense!!

 Click here for an interesting site devoted to the Second Temple: