Sunday, May 29, 2011

James Bond:The Authorised Biography - John Pearson

A Fictional Biography. ( From the inside cover ).

 I went to library yesterday because I was absolutely slogging my way through T.H White's, The Once and Future King. I read it ten years ago and thought I do so again, except after the first two books I ground to a ignominious halt!! With only Charles Dickens' Bleak house left fiction wise, and utterly unwilling to delve into that tome at this stage, I felt I needed something lighter to read. I was overwhelmed in the library, and quite literally pulled out the first three novels I saw, then escaped before the choice became too much. I read a review of this several years. I think it was re-issued to coincide with Daniel Craig's Casino Royale. Well being a Bond fan I thought I give this novel a whirl.

 You would have to have spent your life in a cave or with your head up your...umm..yeah, I think you get the drift, not to have know the name, James Bond. 007, shaken not stirred, Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, Craig, and so and so forth. He is a literary, and cinematic giant, that has sold over 100 millions novels, and is the highest grossing franchise in cinematic history with over US$8 Billion.  It is an instantly unidentifiable name that brings so much, to so many, in so any different ways.

 Of course he is the figment of Ian Fleming's imagination. Fleming himself served in British Naval Intelligence during WW2  in both Britain and Washington. Due to his wartime experiences Fleming came up with the idea of James Bond and the rest is history. Many believe Bond is modelled on Fleming himself but this is unlikely as Flemings wartime role was nowhere the life led by his famous creation. John Pearson in turn has written a biography of  Fleming called Life of Ian Fleming. It was published in 1966 and was the first biography of Fleming ever written. It is now a collectors item and a must have by all Bond aficionados.

 Pearson wrote James Bond : The official Biography in 1973, nine years after Flemings death. He is the third official Bond novelist. In this Bond novel, which has divided Bond aficionados opinions, Pearson takes an auto-biographical look at Bond. It is a very clever piece of writing in my opinion, and in the process added a new and unique look at the character.

 The cleverness is taking a totally fictional character as James Bond is, and writing a biography of the real man all the while staying within the realms of fiction. In short this novel is a fictional biography, of an already fictional person! Like I said, very, very clever. But not totally original as I read a novel like it many years ago about W.E. Johns very famous,  Biggles. The premise here is James Bond was real, and that Fleming had initially written the novels with M.'s consent as a way to convince the Russians 007 was actually a myth, and a figment of fiction. This was because Smersh were intent of killing Bond, and getting all too close in doing so in retaliation to him killing their own operative Oborin.

 It is a wonderfully crafted premise, and I couldn't put the novel done. I managed to read its 345 pages in a little over six hours. I really liked how Pearson injected himself into the novel as a type of narrator. He is convinced that Bond is a real man, and after some initial heavy handed warnings from MI6, he is given carte blanche to meet Bond and write his biography. It is felt by MI6 that to release a biography is a smart move as they realise his real life activities will eventually be discovered and published anyway. By agreeing to Pearson's writing of the biography they are jumping the gun to avoid any controversy further down the track. Better to get it out in the open than try and hide it any longer.

 The Bond Pearson meets is nothing like the Bond of the novels or movies. Bond himself doesn't particularly like them and is uncomfortable with them as he feels it isn't really him. He calls Sean Connery, ' That Connery fellow', and although agreeing with the need to write the books, he dislikes Fleming for altering his persona so much. He feels his life, and his very 'self', are no longer his own. The real Bond is a womanizer but not the smooth one we know him as. Bond is somewhat insecure with woman and yet needs their 'company'. He certainly gets it, and in bucketfuls. But he is a character who wants love but cannot settle down to provide it. He has several close marriage calls but they fail because of his job and inability to give want he himself wants to receive.

 M. as a character is much more a cold hearted bastard that what the books and movies portray. In fact he and Bond are both quite hot headed and have quite a few heated arguments. M. isn't a likable fellow and is quietly envious of Bond and his success as a 00. Bond does admit that M. was the man for the job, and has respect for him, even though he doesn't really like him personally.

 The other clever bit of writing Pearson does is have Bond talk as little as possible. He starts each chapter with Bond initially talking and then fades into his own words to describe what Bond had told him. It is quite a clever bit of literature and I think lifts this novel in stature. It isn't a masterpiece of Charles Dickens stature, but it is extremely clever in its premise and delivery. Bond purists may not like the Bond Pearson meets and describes but that is not the point. The point is that the Bond Fleming wrote about is nothing like the Bond he is based upon. It is like the skin of an onion as there are several layers going on here. It is fiction within fiction and that is its cleverness. As a novel it is unique way of bringing another angle, and piece of reading to the world of James Bond

 In short then this is a good novel. The premise is superb and a new take on a great literary character. I just marveled at the idea of writing a spoof type fictional biography as an actually biography of a real man. It is the classic example of fiction within fiction. John Pearson does a brilliant job in 344 pages in bringing to life a real character, then infusing him with Fleming, and the character he created from Pearson's own James Bond. It is almost a reverse look at Fleming and Bond. I couldn't help but think of the movie Inception with its byline 'A dream within a dream'. Pearson has done the same thing with a fictional character, and written a novel that is fiction with fiction. Clever, very, very clever.

 Recommended. It is an easy read without being overly simplistic, and a great premise. And even though it was written nearly forty years ago still feels fresh and doesn't suffer from a feeling of datedness. A good read for anyone even remotely interested in James Bond.

 Click here for some more on the novel, and some useful links to other Bond/Fleming facts:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Wild Geese - Daniel Carney

 I first read this novel way back in 1987 as a snot nosed seventeen year old. Then the copy I had sat around gathering dust until I pulled it out, dusted it off, and read it at work several months ago. It has now made its way to the second hand book shop along with a heap of other books I've hung onto since I was a teenager.

 Like so many of the books I've reviewed this was also made into a movie. It was made in 1978, and unlike many book adaptations the movie couldn't actually be made until the book was published. Daniel Carney had initially written the book and titled it The Thin White line, but couldn't find anyone willing to publish it. I'm not sure why, but maybe the mercenary content was considered somewhat taboo, or, as I suspect, the title was considered somewhat racist. Think about it. The Thin White Line, about a group of fifty white mercenaries rescuing a deposed black  leader from the Congo.

Also the movie is unusual because it better known than the book it is based on. Film producer Euan Llyod liked the book after a chance meeting with Carney, and agreed to get the book published so that he could buy the rights to make a movie from it. He had a offer from publisher after taking it to Hollywood. The novel was finally published in 1977, a year before the movie was itself released. The title was changed from Carney's as well, and took that of the movie's. This is where I believe the title was changed because of its apparent racial undertone. I also think it is too close to James Jones' novel, The Thin Red Line, and the producers and publishers wanted to make a clear delineation between the two novels. 

 As with most book adaptations the movie is complete bollocks compared to the book. The characters are the same but much has been fiddled with. The book is relatively short, especially on action sequences. The movie has fleshed them out, and there is far more fighting in it. Where the movie accurately mirrors the book is in the age of the characters. In the book they are older men, and the actors used mirror their age. Overall the changes, although necessary at times, are a shame because The Wild Geese isn't exactly a complex novel, and could have easily been adapted to film.

 For you who aren't in the know The Wild Geese is about a group of fifty mercenaries who have been given a contract by a British merchant banker to rescue deposed Congolese leader Limbani before he is executed. It starts with Limbani initially hijacked by the CIA before protagonist William Faulknor can take him back to the Congo and mount a coup. The story moves forward two years and sees Faulknor in London, broke, and in need of money. Fortunately he is offered a contract to rescue Limbani and bring him back to England.

 Faulknor readily agrees, one to restore his reputation, and two, he realises he is getting older and wants one final contract to retire on. He is all but blackmailed into the contract, but would have taken it anyway. I have read some time ago that Daniel Carney was himself an ex-mercenary. I have since read he was actually Rhodesian, and served in the South African police with no mercer nary past mentioned. Who knows, but Africa was a continent that saw a hell of a lot of mercenary usage, and Carney may have just met alot of these soldiers of fortune in his duties as a policeman. To me that seems more likely than him having being one himself.

 What follows is I believe a quite reasonable portrayal of mercenary recruitment. Faulknor is an old dog, and since this is to be his retirement contract he digs up all his old cronies. Most are involved in dubious occupations and all are ex-military. Faulknor is determined the job succeeds so he only wants men who are in it for the soldiering, and not the money or 'adventure'. I have read a few books written by ex-mercenaries, and did a bit at uni on them too. Most mercenary leaders wanted ex-soldiers as they didn't need training and were used to discipline. Sometimes though they had to take those searching for adventure or a quick buck to fill out the ranks. Much of what Carney has written in Faulknor's recruitment seems to ring true.

 Carney then has Faulknor procuring weapons. It is a political under taking as the British know of a dealer who is selling to the IRA. Through Faulknor they give him an ultimatum. Sell him the weapons destined for the IRA or else he'll see the inside of a prison very quickly. The dealer is agrees to the terms to save a trip courtesy of Her Majesty. He isn't concerned because he has dealt so often with the IRA he knows he can stall them until he gets more for them. Again it has a feel of authenticity because often mercenary action was used by governments as a way of deniability. They couldn't provide arms themselves that could be traced, so they provided funds so that weapons could be purchased from arms dealers.

 The fifty men then gather in Mozambique to begin training under a ruthless RSM. He is a utter hard bastard. An ex-para, or 'Red Devil', who served at Arnhem. He licks the assorted lot into shape quite quickly. Many know the regime and do it easy. Others are boozers who are unfit and do it tough. The RSM becomes so unpopular several of the men attempt to murder him, but he beats them up in their attempt. He is despised, and yet respected by the men.

  The novel then sees the men drop into the Congo and the plan quickly go pear shaped. The group are chased by a larger group of 'Simbas', who are nothing more than ruthless blood thirsty militia. They are highly regarded in black Africa, but against trained soldiers they take a beating. But the mercenaries are in trouble and have to get out quick with Limbani. Any of the mercenaries who are badly wounded are killed by the RSM instead of letting them fall into the hands of the Simbas. Interestingly Carney then introduces a bit of white-black African by play as a mercenary and Limbani come to understand each other and their races more. The white is a racist and yet comes to accept Limbani as a man and not just a 'kaffir'.

  The group make it to an alternative airfield after their intial plane is denied them from Mozambique. They find an old Dakota which they load up and fly out on. They make it to Rhodesian airspace where they ask to land but are denied until they say they have Limbani on board. There the novel basically finishes. The movie embellishes much of the end and sees Faulknor in London killing the merchant banker who gave him the contract. It was him that had the plane from Mozambique stopped as he wanted the mercenaries dead as the political situation regarding Limbani had changed. A case of dead men tell no tales, huh?!

 I have several quibbles with this novel. It isn't very long, and Carney has had to flesh it out somewhat. Firstly one character is estranged from his young son, and a fair chunk of the novel is used up on his attempts to connect with him. He takes on the contract reluctantly as he wants the money so he can return to South Africa and start up a farm for him and his boy. Secondly Flynn, the pilot, falls in love with a prostitute in Mozambique. Again too much time is spent on this relationship.

 These two 'relationship' tangents highlight how little Carney had to work with in writing this novel. It is based around a single in-out type mission by fifty mercenaries. It goes through all the ins and out of mercenary life, and is  quite a credible portrayal. It is fleshed out though and I found it boring to say the least. Carney has tried to provide depth of character because he has so little to work with to provide enough for a novel. To me the novel has an over riding feel of thinness about it. Without the fleshing out it would be nothing more than a novella.

 I do like The Wild Geese though. If you get through the characterisations the mercenary parts are excellent. I still think that Frederick Forsyth's The Dogs of War is superior. It is longer, better written, and hence I believe a more satisfying read. The Wild Geese though, I feel, is a more accurate look into the world of late Twentieth Century mercenaries.

 Daniel Carney wrote five novels, three of which were made into movies. After his death the  ownership rights to his works passed to his family who have consistently refused permission for his novels to be re-issued, or even the movies based on them. This even though The Wild Geese was the fourteenth highest grossing movie in 1978. Go figure!!

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Devil Rides Out - Dennis Wheatley

 As with horror movies I've never been a great aficianado of horror novels. I can honestly say I haven't read a horror novel in ten years now. I can't even remember the name of the author now, but I do re-call he was an Australian, and his novels were actually quite scary. Before that I had had another ten year hiatus as The Stand was the last horror I read way back in 1990-91-ish.

The Stand is also the novel that turned me off Stephen King. At the time I had read a raft of his novels but eventually got sick of his characters 'wanking' off in every novel. He went from horror to just gross. Gross isn't good horror writing I'm afraid. Of all the novels I have read of his Salem's Lot is the stand out. But over all I'm not a King fan. Each to own though. I also read Clive Barker and a few others, but over all I have found the horror writing genre completely barren and uninteresting.

 The Exorcist wasn't a particularly good novel which the film absolutely surpassed. For me horror is a genre that doesn't translate well within the written word. It is more visual, and I find it much better as a cinematic experience. Even then it is deeply flawed genre with most movies being garbage. Constant gore is a substitute for genuine scares, and yet it does produce some chilling movies to save itself. The Exorcist, Paranormal Activity, Rosemary's Baby, etc, are scary because they play on our beliefs of the unknown.

 The idea of the occult and satanism itself has always fascinated me. I'm a strict atheist and yet the idea of the Devil unsettles me. That is why say Paranormal Activity is so scary because it is all too believable. It beats hands down cute girls being butchered by a masked maniac in the endless stream of slasher movies. Demons, possession, satanism, is much scarier, and far more unsettling, than a knife wielding Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers could ever be.

 So surprisingly amongst all of this there is actually a novel written that is satanic and damn scary to boot. Denis Wheatley made a name for himself writing historical novels, and more famously, of an occult nature. He was ahead of his time, and his novels were somewhat frowned on as it was felt the public wasn't ready for such material in the 1930's. At his height Wheatley was selling a million novels a year world wide in the 1960's. He came to be regarded as an authority on the occult, exorcism, black magic, and the supernatural, even though he neither practised or believed in any of it. He did join a group called the Ghost Club, but it was more to further his knowledge than as a practise of the occult.

Denis Wheatley in 1975.
 During his writing career he wrote over fifty  novels. He is now somewhat forgotten as his works are difficult to re-print due to copyright issues. Recently Heron Books published all his novels in a set, so hopefully this presages a wider re-issuing of them. It is hard to believe that I have real trouble finding his novels. You would think after selling millions of copies over many years that the books would still be in supply. I have found the opposite, and the copy of The Devil Rides Out was severely beaten up with no dust jacket. The only other novel I have read of his was The Man Who Missed the War, and that was in 1987, my last year of high school. That was also a beat up copy, and twenty four years later I have rarely seen  a novel of his anywhere. 

The poster for the movie

  To many now he is a complete unknown which is a crying shame considering he was such a prolific writer. I cannot possibly say which of his novels is regarded as the best, but possibly The Devil Rides Out may be his best known. It was of course made into a film by Hammer Film Studios in 1968. It was re-named The Devil's Bride for the U.S market though. I have seen it although over twenty years ago now. There are minor changes from the book but as I re-call it captured the satanic essence of the book well. Christopher Lee for once was cast as the goodie in a Hammer film. He actually met Wheatley after reading the book, and approached Hammer to make the book into a movie in 1963. The studio was reluctant due to its satanic content and yet relented in 1968. It is now considered one the best films Hammer ever made.

 I have been unable to find out how many copies this novel sold but I do re-call as a kid my mother amongst many talking of this book. I remember hearing people saying how terrified by it they were even in the middle of the day with the curtains open!! Admittedly it has dated somewhat as it is definitely a 1934 book in style, but if you read it as a 1930's novel you will only appreciate how ahead of its time it was. It has to be remembered that no one else was writing such stuff back then. To me it mirrors Tolkien in Lord of the Rings in being the book that started a whole genre in the modern age. Bram Stoker's Dracula aside in the horror genre, but that wasn't scary as Devil proved to be.

 Modern audiences may sniff at this as they are more attuned to King and co, but for me this is what horror is all about. It doesn't delve into gruesomeness or the gross. The best, and possibly most famous scene of the book is still terrifying. It has three of the characters subjected to a night of satanic attacks by Mocata a devil worshipper who summons the Angel of Death. Honestly it is the most satanic thing I have ever read and nothing, upon nothing has ever come close to it. It is dark ,scary, black, satanic, occultism at its best, It is a shame the scene isn't well known to modern audiences. It is far better than anything the horror community can produce today.

 The Devil Rides Out for me is one of the greatest horror novels ever written. Modern horror writers should take note of it as it puts their efforts to shame. It is supremely satanic and very, very black. My skin crawled during the Angel of Death's attack!! It is a very famous scene and sadly somewhat forgotten as Wheatley's novels are as a whole. I would love to see his works re-published and brought to a new generation of readers, especially this novel so that modern horror readers can read it and experience its occultism. I feel occultism as a horror genre has gone by the by somewhat as the idea of demons, rather than Satan himself, has taken over. I personally find the occult disturbing and somewhat frightening. Meddling in those types of things you get what you deserve!! This then is a truly scary novel that should satisfy the most discerning ( and jaded ), horror aficianado!! But I recommend it to all as it is a fine stand alone novel regardless of genre, written by a novelist who is now sadly somewhat forgotten.

 Click here for a short biography of Denis Wheatley which has a link to the book and film:

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Queen - Alex Haley & David Stevens

 I'm actually a bit out of sequence here as I finished this before delving into From here to Eternity. If you haven't read my review on Roots then I hope you do!..and do so before reading this review. Queen is the second of Haley's novels and to understand Roots is to better understand and appreciate Queen.

 Alex Haley actually died before finishing Queen and David Stevens wrote much of it. Fortunately he had all of Haley's notes to work from. For me it is difficult to distinguish between Haley's writing and Stevens. Queen is written very much in the style of Roots. Both are nicely written ( for lack of another term ), clear, concise, and hence very readable. I like Haley's writing style as his books, even though flawed, are important works and should be read by all. By making them so accessible Haley has made his works available to a wide spectrum of readers and reading ability.

 Maybe with Stevens finishing Queen after Haley's death much of the controversy of Roots was forgotten. As is now well known much of Roots was plagiarised and parts factually incorrect. I think Stevens has taken on board Haley's failings of Roots and produced an end product that was a novel without any pretense of being factual. We may never know how much of Roots and Queen are real, but for their flaws they are both quite brilliant portrayals of slavery in the southern states of America.

 Queen is apparently the story of Alex Haley's father and his ancestry. Again how much is fictional and non-fictional will probably never be known. After reading Roots, and finding out about the flaws of that novel, I read Queen with a grain of salt as to its authenticity. I read it purely as a work of historical fiction alone with no factual basis. Unfortunately with Roots Haley sullied his name and his researches became questionable at least. But for all this Roots and Queen are still great works and I believe still very relevant. They both add to what Uncle Tom's Cabin started just before the American Civil War.

 Queen covers more in depth what Roots alluded to, especially in regards to children born to black slave woman sired from their white owners. Whereas Roots went into how slaves were caught in Africa and brought to America, Queen has a more specific field in regards to these 'children of the plantations'. Roots is the shameful expose of the slave trade. Queen is the shameful treatment of white men towards the black slave woman and the children they sired. But it also expands into how the Red Indians were forced of their lands to make way for the slave trade.

 The book opens with Haley's supposed ancestor in Ireland. As stated the novel must be read with a grain of salt factually. But Haley has been quite clever as he starts with a people who were subjugated by the British. He doesn't dwell too long in Ireland, just long enough to have his character ( James ) pick up his prejudices about the rights and wrongs of what the British were doing to the Catholics. It is clever because this character then moves to America  where he quickly encounters the subjugation of the Red Indian. It is well done as a person of one subjugated race sympathises with another and is prepared to deal with them discreetly. He finds out that all he has heard about the Indians is nonsense as they are not heathen savages who kill the white men willy-nilly. He is told that there is a fortune to made out west 'if only you can survive the Indians'.

 What he encounters is what he saw in Ireland. A race of people being forced off their ancestral lands, and either having to accept the terms imposed on them, or  perish. What he sees initially horrifies him, and yet he realises he can't change anything. But as he settles into his new life and gains wealth his attitudes slowly change. Without realising it he becomes hypocritical towards the plight of the minorities. This comes about after he is abused for asking for help in his store. He is told by a local authority and bully, future president Andrew Jackson, that the job on offer is beneath whites and he must buy himself a slave.

 At first he is horrified but he realises if he is too survive financially he must take the advice. He finds he doesn't like the idea of slavery and ownership of another human being. He buys a young boy. This is the start of his downwards slide into unimagined wealth out of the slavery. He treats his slaves moderately well compared to most slave owners, but in all reality he comes to realise he has sold his soul into something evil. He just never gains the ability to tell himself that though. As he struggles with this he cannot fathom why the slaves believe in a god that tells them they have no souls because they are black. He himself believes the 'uppity niggers', or 'jungle bunnies', to be soulless.

 The Indians feature in the first half of the novel, but as more and more of their lands are taken from them they fade from the book, and the subjugated become the blacks. I really like how Haley has shown historically how one people were brutalised out of the way to make way for the whites, and how they then made enormous sums of money from those same lands through slavery. It does not make a good indictment of the white Americans of the times. The Indians leave the novel as a defeated people who perish in droves as they are driven further and further westward by the whites onto poor land. The whites then turn around and can't understand why the Indians are dying in such large numbers. They call them lazy when in fact the Indians know the land they have been given is poor and cannot support them. They are a race that had been broken, and had all but given up. It is brutal, harrowing reading, and it must never be forgotten that the Indians suffered just as much from the white man as the blacks did.

 This is the first third of the novel. It is well written and to me an accurate, albeit fictionalised, account of the times. The next two thirds of the novel deal with the birth of James son, Jass, and his love affair with the black slave girl Easter. Through this affair Queen is sired. ( It must be noted she was born white. Apparently some children of mixed parentage could look almost like pure white instead of the usual yellow 'mulatto' ). Much of slave life is repeated from Roots, but Haley expands on a particular aspects of slave life, and that is the fate of the children born to mixed races. Many of these children were born to rape victims. An unbelievable amount of black women were raped by there owners, and incredibly the children were even more maligned than the blacks themselves were. Because they were of mixed parentage they weren't welcomed into either society. The whites still saw them as 'niggers', and the blacks didn't want anything to do with them either. They found themselves living in a sort of no man's land.

 It was an incredibly sad existence. Haley has superbly put into words what it must have been like to be one of these children in Queen. Her mother does love her but the rest of the slaves tease or ignore her. It is unbelievable that a child who is innocent of her parentage could be treated so. Her father is indifferent and sees her as another slave, albeit one he is more kindly towards. Towards the middle of the book the Civil War erupts. Haley also makes mention of a novel that had stirred up much attention on slavery called Uncle Tom's Cabin. The southern whites can't believe it and call it 'sacrilege'. Apparently the blacks read it too, but this is unlikely as most blacks couldn't read, and in fact it was illegal in most southern states to teach them to. I believe Haley plagiarised, or used it heavily Uncle's Tom Cabin in Roots, but in Queen it is refered to in its historical sense. It was and still remains an important work on slavery.

 The Civil War could almost have been lifted straight from Gone With the Wind. There were many similarities that could be coincidence, or they may be not. I'll leave it there instead of calling it plagiarising. The thing here is the slaves becoming aware that their long forred freedom is approaching. We see the plantation fall into disrepair ( Tara??!! ), and the slaves drifting off. Queen has no where to go as the slaves won't take her. She is then told that she will not be taken in by her father's family. She is basically cut off. Her father comes home from the war and tells her as much. From here her life gets worse. She may have her freedom but she is still not accepted into the white or black world. She tries to pass herself of as white but her secret is discovered and she learns to accept herself as ' black', and tells everyone so.

 Like Roots, Haley shows how just because the war was over, and the blacks were freed, racism hadn't disappeared. If anything the blacks were even more despised, and none more so than those of mixed blood. Like Gone With the Wind the Ku Klux Klan appears, and the blacks under go terrorising at their hands. It is really interesting reading. So much written about slavery focuses on pre-Civil War events. What is forgotten is the events after the war. Suddenly forty percent of the South's population became free, but they were free without skills or education. It is a social phenomenon that still resonates in America to this day. It is no coincidence that a huge minority of the poor in modern America  are black. It stems all the way back to their gaining of freedom without any skills in which to use it.

 Queen then is a sweeping saga. Alex Haley writes them well even though he must be taken with a grain of salt historically. In Queen he has expanded on Roots, and included the Red Indians, and the part they played in slavery as their own fate was bound up with that of the slaves. It was their lands that were used for the cotton plantations the blacks toiled on. As one race was subjugated another brought in to replace them. Haley does show that Indians were used as slaves, but they were found to worse than the blacks and hence never used. They also fought back when their land was forcibly taken from them. The blacks had no choice having been brought from Africa. They had no where else to go having no affinity with the land, or country, as did the Indians and whites. Both the blacks and Indians suffered appalling abuses from the whites. Haley doesn't quite say it but in between the lines the reader can hear his bitterness against them. Fair enough I say.

 I really like Queen. It is well written and easy to read without being too simple. I read it in two days as I just couldn't put tit down. I only have one criticism and that is the sex scenes. I'm not a prude, far from it!! but I got sick of the sex and Haley's use of them. I didn't really feel they were necessary as such. I understand love and how sex is a part of it, but he went overboard. I threw my hands up in the air in one scene where James withdrew from his wife to sow his 'seed' on the ground to consummate his land....the very land that was robbed from the Indians, and which had been sacred to them. But I did laugh how he says that many slave owners raped black woman because 'once black you never go back'! I think it was more a case of having a convenient, pliable source of 'pussy', that couldn't do a damn thing about being raped. The sex scenes are my only complaint in an other wise fine novel.

 So Queen is worth reading. It is of the same quality as Roots and I believe an important novel in bringing the evils of slavery to light in an accessible form. It can be read by people with differing reading abilities. It encompasses racism not just towards blacks, but Indians, and the Irish as well. In fact these races can be inter-changed with any because racism is an evil no matter who it is aimed at. I think with Stevens finishing this novel the faults of Haley in purporting to historical accuracy have been dropped. I think this was a good move, and as I have already stated, I advise reading this as a straight novel even though it has it base in historical events. I find it too much of a stretch that Alex Haley's ancestor came from Ireland and just happened to become friends with Andrew Jackson. It seems to good to be true and probably is. It makes for a good story though!!

 A damn fine read, and a good starting point like Roots if you want to understand the slave trade and slavery. It gives a good feel of the times, and the reader can be better prepared to move on to the wealth of non-fiction written on this appalling of events.

 An Imperfect God -Henry Wieneck is a good book to read. It is about George Washington and his decision to free his slaves in his will. The book goes into good detail about slavery, particularly that of Virginia, in Washington's era. Much of Roots and Queen can be found it's pages in a genuine historical sense and setting.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Dead Of Jericho - Colin Dexter

 'The triumph is the character of Morse'

From the back cover of the novel.

 In my last Colin Dexter review, well it was more of an appraisal than a review, I pretty much summed up all I had to say on the Morse novels in general. Or did I? After finishing The Dead of Jericho early this morning I now find myself in the position of being able to add some more. After my last review, er, appraisal, I didn't think I'd bother with reviewing, oops, appraising the next two Morse novels I was to read.

Again I find myself unable to quite separate the novel from the TV series. The interesting thing here is the very first episode was based on this very novel. It first aired in the UK in January of 1987, six years after the novel was published. It wasn't the first Morse novel Dexter wrote ( Last Bus to Woodstock has that distinction, being written in 1975 ),  and I have no idea why this was selected first for adaptation. I note too that some of the names in the episode were changed from the novel. Again, who knows why.

 I have also fallen over myself here somewhat. In my appraisal of Nicholas Quinn I stated that I was unsure if Dexter wrote the novels in a way as to be unsolvable by the reader.  I also clearly stated I'm as a rule untuned to crime writing. Well as I read this Morse novel I found myself gathering my suspicions about whodunit. By the time Morse had it sorted out and done the arresting I was pleased to note I had been on the right track, albeit in a muddied type way. I certainly didn't get it spot on, but I certainly was on the right track. So chuffed with myself I was!!

 I also stated that so far I haven't really got a favorite Morse novel as such. Well I can now confirm that this one is undoubtedly a favorite!! It has got to do with almost having solved it, and by doing so appreciated Dexter's cunning and devious writing skills even more. I also like how in this Lewis is the one who really cracked the case and not Morse. Morse knows Lewis done so but doesn't actually acknowledge as much to him verbally. It is a rare thing in a Morse novel to see Lewis get his due for once. This is after at one stage Morse has a serious temper explosion at him for sloppiness in his reports. Again I can't help but feel Dexter himself is highly egotistical, knows it, and is able to so faithfully replicate his vanity in Morse.

 In this novel too Dexter displays his personal knowledge thorough his creature, Inspector Morse. Dexter had been a senior classics teacher in Northamptonshire before his retirement due to deafness. In the novel Morse has a theory that is similar to Oedipus Rex by the Greek tragedian Sophocles. It is quite an interesting discourse as Morse attempts to convince a somewhat uneducated and baffled Lewis. Lewis brings out Morse's ego by calling him educated which Morse replies egotistically 'By right I am!'

 So The Dead of Jericho is another very good Morse outing. I liked it more than any other Morse novel I have read, mainly because I came close to solving it! I also like how Lewis was given credit for once and looked like the good copper he his. Morse gives him grudging praise after his tantrum by saying they were a team. So much of Morses' success is off the back of the drudgery he sends Lewis off to do. Yes, this is a good crime novel and I again liked Dexter's knowledge, deviousness, and use of obscure words in bringing to life the intriguing, flawed character of Morse.

The Silent World Of Nicholas Quinn - Colin Dexter

 The last Inspector Morse novel I read was The Remorseless Day in which Colin Dexter killed off his irascible character, Inspector E. Morse. Previous to that I had read over half of Dexter's novel as they were a staple there for a while in our house. As a rule I don't usual find crime novels particularly appealing. They, along with horror, and science fiction, rarely find their way into my hot little hands. But Morse is an intriguing character as is his creator who he somewhat egotistically bases him on.

 Of course the Morse novels spawned the highly successful television series of which their were thirty three episodes made. Twenty more than actual written novels. Dexter is such an egoist that he mirrors Alfred Hitchcock who made cameos in several of his films. Dexter does the same in many of the Morse series. Of course it is a bit of tongue in cheek homage, but really both Hitchcock and Dexter are just showing off their inflated egos and self worth to us all.

 It is actually difficult to write a strictly novel review in this case without referring to the series. After Morse was killed of the series was kept alive with Lewis for sixteen more episodes. I felt that the series tempered both Morse and Lewis somewhat. In the novels Morse is bad tempered and snaps at Lewis a lot. Lewis and he aren't quite as chummy in the novels either. Morse is too egotistical to ever think much of anyone else but himself, and is quite dis-missive of Lewis. This adds so much interest to the novels as Morse and Lewis are like chalk and cheese. As you read them you sympathise with Lewis and feel angry at Morse's treatment of him. Morse is also somewhat crude and lewd, almost a dirty old man. Thaw was nothing of the sort. The Lewis in the series is a real wet blanket where as in the novels he maybe isn't quite the brightest bulb in the box, but he is methodical and respects Morse even though he hates him at times. I feel in the series he was too dim witted, where as in the novels he was actually a bit sharper.

 As much as I like the TV series I prefer the novels. Morse is a more interesting character than that portrayed by Thaw. He is a man you are both intrigued by, and yet have reservations about. Lewis finds him un-necessarily crude at times and he is. Morse is a show off and his crudeness is just to ruffle people up. He is also a raving egoist. He quite often tells people he meets that he ' has the best mind in Oxford'!! I mean come on! How egotistical can you get. For me that is why I like Morse. He has many dualities to his make up which I both admire and loath him for. Certainly Colin Dexter has put great thought in creating Morse by giving him great strengths, particularly of mind, but deep flaws as well. He has given Morse a literary face.

 I can't help but feel with Morse though that Dexter has put alot of himself into the character. I'm not just talking about Dexter's own interests such as ale, English literature, cryptic crosswords, etc, but his characteristics and personality. I think Colin Dexter is a vain egotistical man with an extraordinary intellect who knows it. Just as his creation does. Dexter reminds me of Samuel Pepys. In his diary Pepys wrote his own thoughts on himself mentally and of his personality etc. It was an extra- ordinary self examination and in Morse I feel that Dexter has done a similar thing all be it in a fictionalised way. Some how as you read Morse you feel you are inside Colin Dexter himself and not a character of fiction. Morse/Dexter knows his faults but is unable to apologise for them. Raving egoists are simply unable to do that. 

 In this particular novel too we get a character who Dexter is able to give credibility to through his own life experiences. Dexter was a teacher who had to retire because of deafness. He took up a position at UODLE in oxford. In this novel we have Nicholas Quinn who is accepted into a similar position even though he is almost totally deaf. Later in the novel Morse finds out that Quinn was an exceptional lip reader. Dexter goes into how Morse finds how how certain letters are difficult for lip readers to distinguish between.  He arrests the wrong man and then realises that because of the similarity between the actual murderers name and his arrestee he has the wrong person. As I read this I was amazed at Dexter's knowledge. It was only reading about him on wikipedia that I saw how and where the idea for the novel came from. Quinn is a quiet representation of Dexter himself and his own deafness.

 That is the crux of why I like the Morse novels. It is Dexter's knowledge that is more personal than researched. He knows Oxford, and I love being guided around that most famous of university cities by him. He is very clever as in each novel he never revisits the same parts of Oxford. Occasionally a main thoroughfare, such as Woodstock Road, is mentioned, but never the same buildings, pubs, or suburbs, etc.

 As I have previously stated I very rarely read crime novels. Dexter is apparently a devious crime writer and I have yet to figure out 'who done it' yet from any of his novels. I'm not sure if it is because Dexter intentionally writes the novels in a way as they can't be figured out, or if I'm just not attuned enough with crime writing to do so. Either way I still enjoy the Morse novels and give each one as much thought as I can in figuring out the ending. I notice though that Dexter has never had a butler as a murderer!!

 So far I haven't read a Morse novel I liked over another. They are all devious and riddled with red herrings. Morse is an intriguing character and I read these novels more for him than for the crime genre per se. As novels they are eminently readable with many interesting and obscure words thrown in. They are generally only about three hundred pages long with medium sizes print. I can knock a Morse novel out in about three hours reading time. Sometimes I can read them too fast and miss important facets of the plot, which catches me out towards the end as Morse is unravelling it all too the reader and a flabbergasted Lewis.

 The Morse novels are great reads. I enjoy them and can't escape the feeling they are written by a towering egoist!! Morse as a character is one of the more memorable I have come across in a franchise. I like him because he is so interesting and flawed in his own way. He may be vain and intellectually blessed but he is also human. That for me is why Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse is so believable, because like you and me he has his strengths and weaknesses and knows what they are.

 Click here for a short biography of Colin Dexter and information on the Morse novels:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


 Well I whistled through this in two days!! It was only 477 pages long, and like its predecessor in relatively large print. And like The Thin Red Line it was written well after the last novel. After having read the trilogy I don't think Jones succeeded in writing three stand alone novels. From Here to Eternity of the three can only claim that status I think as the two following novels are too similar in style as to be almost indistinguishable. Interestingly Whistle is the only book of the trilogy that hasn't been made into a film.

 Whistle is like Red line in being grammatically better than Eternity. There were some jarring sentences that made me cringe, but over all Jones had moved away from the awfulness of Eternity. It was a blessing because I really thought I wouldn't be able to read the next two books of the trilogy if they were as bad. Luckily they weren't and I personally think the last two books are the superior of the three, and of the three Whistle is the one I enjoyed the most.

 This may be that by this stage I had got used to Jones' style and rhythm of writing. But I think it is more than that. The last two novels really are an intelligent look, and appraisal, on the human condition and warfare. In Red Line if you have read my review I explain how Jones goes into death and the effects it has on those who witness it. In Whistle Jones takes that and expands on it into the territory of the long term effects on the soldiers.

 The novel has the wounded from the Solomons Campaign returning to the States on a hospital ship. He has four of his protagonists from the last two novels under new names. Why I'll never understand. It seems pointless and I wish he had kept their names right throughout the trilogy. I found just because he says they are the same characters I couldn't buy into it, and felt they were completely different. Maybe with the time difference between each novel James diluted them unintentionally, but for me I just read them as new characters and not as roll over ones from the previous novels. It was an unusual stance to take from Jones and I'm just unsure why he took it. I found it strange.

 As a novel though this for me was the best of the three. I've done papers at uni on combat fatigue etc and so really recognised what Jones was saying right throughout Whistle. It starts on a hospital ship, and like Red Line, in the minds of the four protagonists. Two are badly wounded, one has a dickey heart, and one is slightly wounded but in need of delicate hand surgery. They all view their home coming differently. In their own way they feel guilty that they have been wounded and are out of the fight. But it is the sense of loss from the security and comradeship of their company that really hits them. They have been through hell and they are all changed mentally. What they quickly find once ashore and in hospital, is that there are no systems in place to ease them back into another unit or society.

 In Red Line Jones shows how combat and its inherent horrors made the men want to leave it behind. But when these four have the opportunity they find they can't re-adjust to any other environment. All Quiet on the Western Front has several chapters that dwells on this as soldiers on leave find they have been scarred by their experiences and cannot cope with the civilian world. Jones does this for an entire novel and does it superbly as we watch these four men mentally disintegrate.

 As on Guadalcanal their initial escape route is in copious amounts of booze. At first it works but slowly they start to have nightmares that the booze can't keep out. They wake up screaming in the middle of the night in sweats. One doesn't feel secure until he has a pistol or bayonet under his pillow at night, even though he is in perfect safety. The inability to readjust manifests itself into violence. One was once a mild mannered clerk, but after his experiences he comes home and becomes a different person. He is full of anger and rage, especially at the army, and picks fights after heavy drinking .He usually wins out of sheer rage, and gets a reputation as a guy not to mess with.

 I like the way Jones has shown how each man tries to deal with his experiences in their own way. They are individual to each and mirrored the real mental traumas suffered by returning wounded from the battle fields of WW2. Jones has canvased so much territory and written it brilliantly into his four characters. I like how he has Prell as a very reluctant Medal of Honour recipient and the politics behind his award. He was severely wounded in both legs which weren't healing. The doctors said they'd have to amputate one to save his life. Prell refuses and we see how his decision may affect the outcome of his medal. It is deemed that it isn't in the public interest to see a Medal of Honour winner with only one leg. Political chicanery at its worse as opinion is valued more than the individual soldier and his well being.

 Prell himself is unsure of his own right to be awarded the medal. He feels he didn't deserve it because he was still alive and believes only those who are killed should be awarded it. He starts to heal after one of the other characters intervenes and helps him with some unflattering comments. He does walk again, gets married to a girl he gets pregnant and goes on a country wide War Bonds trip. He is successful at it but slowly his nightmares start and anger builds in him which he can't explain or rid himself of. He also starts to fight and is killed in a drunken bar room brawl.

 This is the heart of the novel. How the four of them quickly unravelled once they were taken out of the security of their company in the Solomons. It shows the paradox of wanting to escape the fear and death, and yet how once out, the inability to adjust to new surroundings. Jones subtly shows how the army de-humanises its soldiers to the point of the needed discipline to function. But by doing so fails to recognise that the same men need rehabilitating at some stage, and how there is no system in place in which to do so. They are sent home, hospitalised, cured, and then either reassigned or discharged. The army is shown to not realise the men had come to rely heavily on their units, and comrades, that by separating them they quickly felt isolated and alone.

 The comradeship inherent to a units performance is important and without that shield the four feel naked and abandoned. Also with their experiences they find there is little or no support for them in dealing with what they have seen and been through. We see one killed in a fight he started, one ends up in an army pysch ward because of his nightmares that cause him to crack, and two commit suicide. Jones may look melo-dramatic in killing off all four but by doing so he is making his point across a wide spectrum of what many returning soldiers experienced. I think this wasn't a problem many knew existed during WW2, and was only recognised after the Vietnam war as a real condition that needed to be taken seriously.

 For me From Here to Eternity didn't really say anything. Maybe when he wrote it Jones wasn't aware of far he was going to take things, and didn't envisage a trilogy. I didn't really like Eternity but I'm mightily impressed by the next two novels. I'd go are far as to say forget Eternity and just read Red Line and Whistle as they are the more potent and intelligent books. Jones has superbly put the reader into the minds of men who have witnessed the horrors of war and uncompromisingly shown us, who haven't, what it does to the minds who have. It is a brutal and frank appraisal of not just war, but the armies who send these men out to die, and the almost unbending bureaucracy that sees them relegated to automatons. As automatons no thought, or systems, were put in place to pick up the pieces, and give them the opportunity to readjust to life inside or outside of the army.

 For me Whistle is the best of the three novels. Jones has been through what he writes, and though he never expresses anger ,the reader can feel it through his characters. This is a unique novel because very few novels, or for that matter works of non-fiction, deal with the effects of war on those who experienced it. It was a subject that was quietly swept under the carpet, and any man who was mentally scarred treated with derision and seen as a pussy or unheroic who needed to 'harden up'. It was disgraceful treatment and luckily a syndrome that is much better understood. There are quite a few good movies and books coming out recently that highlight it. ( The Hurt Locker is a good example ).

 As a stand alone novel I don't think Jones succeeded in his desire. It is definitely a follow on from The thin Red line and reads like it. I don't think you can read Whistle and get the most out of it without reading Red Line first. It is a brilliant expose of combat fatigue. I like how Jones has shown in Red Line the why and in Whistle the result of the why. These men came back not only damaged in body, but more importantly in mind. Jones goes inside those damaged minds from which the reader can only sympathise with there plight, and almost callously say to themselves, 'thank god that wasn't me.

 James Jones didn't actually finish Whistle. He died with the last four chapters uncompleted. He left enough notes though that another author was able to write short sketches of each chapter. They provide enough so the reader gets a rough idea of how Jones was going to wind things up. He died at the age of 55 from congestive heart failure. He must have known he had this illness because Sgt Winch in Whistle has the same condition.

 Whistle is a grammatical improvement on From Here to Eternity and hence much easier to read. My only criticism is that Jones has an annoying obsession in Whistle with oral sex. I don't know why it is relative to the core message but he goes into oral sex too much. While I'm not a prude I felt it unnecessary, and left me wondering, why? It almost gets crude to the point of crudeness for crudeness sake, and it doesn't fit the novel at all. In Eternity there are no sex scenes but in Whistle they are explicit and all involve 'cunt', 'cock', 'come', etc. It is an unfortunate diversion from where the book was going. But if you can see past it and understand Jones' appraisal on the damaged minds of soldiers you'll be alright.

 Definitely worth a read if you want to understand what returning soldiers go through in trying to readjust to an old way of life that they no longer identify with.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Thin Red Line - James Jones

Every man fights his own war.

 I don't usually read books by the same author one after the other as I feel they can run into one another, blurring, and become too familiar. After the disappointment, and sheer struggle, just to finish From Here to Eternity I really thought I wouldn't even be able to start the second of this trilogy. Well not only did I start it I finished it in only two days! It sounds good but in all reality it is only 477 pages long and the print is reasonably sized.

 First of all The Thin Red Line was written eleven years after From Here to Eternity. For whatever reason it is a far superior novel grammatically. There were several lines that made me grit my teeth but overall it is a far easier read that its predecessor. For this I was relieved as I wanted to read this the most out of the three as it is based on Guadalcanal, and of the three details solely with combat. The whole trilogy is well thought out with the first novel being about army life in general, the second being on combat, and the third about wounded soldiers and military hospitals. The trilogy canvases all aspects of army life.

 James Jones wanted each novel to be able stand alone as a novel in their own right and not be a standard trilogy. I think he has done well as there are marked differences between the first and second novel. ( My only criticism was the use of four characters from the first book and the change of their names. It seemed pointless and I couldn't buy into Prewitt becoming Witt after being killed in Eternity!! ). It was a relief then  to actually be able to read this without any real difficulty over grammar. Here are the only lines I found in the whole novel that made me cringe:

So there wasn't nothing left but.....

...and had never taken no shit off nobody and never would...

We none of us are...

...didn't like being no tool... get up and kick them all three in the ass...

You never got nobody told nothing....

Arrrgggggghhhhhhh terrible stuff isn't it??!! But no where near as bad as From Here to Eternity.

 As a novel I enjoyed this far more than Eternity. It wasn't just the better grammar even though it made it easier to read but more the subject matter. This is without doubt one of the most well thought out war novels ever penned. I think The Boat, and All Quiet on the Western Front are still superior, but The Thin Red Line looks at combat in a different light. Jones writes from the point of view of the individual. He subtly charges that even within an army, with all the discipline and orders,men are not automatons and still individuals with the ability to think for themselves. Many of his characters find this out and debate within their own minds their position within the army. Jones very ably puts the reader into the minds of his different characters and shows us how each deals with infantry combat. It is a unique perspective as each character finds things about themselves they never knew, and how each man, even though within a team environment, is still an individual fighting their own individual war, physically and mentally In a quiet way Jones is pushing across a well worn thesis that very few combat novelists explore or are even aware of.

 Jones does this by looking into the minds of a coward, a soft officer who is afraid to risk his men's lives, high ranking officers who are more interested in their own advancement at the expense of the men under them, the braggart, those who are initially unable to kill but when they do like it, the malingerers, drunks, selfish sadists, etc, etc,etc. Every conceivable personality angle is analyzed by Jones and it is quite brilliant. His eye for the human condition is incredibly sharp. He therefore writes with real authority and credibility.Terence Malik re-made this in 1998 into a  film which just does not in anyway capture Jones' characterisations and their individual outlook on the fighting. Malik tried and I admire the attempt but somehow I think Jones has written something that cannot translate at all well to film, and can only be expressed through the written word. It is a very complex issue Jones is expressing.

 I like for instance how Jones has quite accurately ( I believe ), described the attitudes to the wounded and dead. Men in combat lived with the constant threat of wounds or death, and corpses were a reminder of what could happen to them all. They all tried to get rid of corpses as quickly as possible because looking at them made them think 'That could be me'. Wounded were almost an embarrassment as again the feeling of it could have been me made all to real in their minds. They almost grew callous to those who were wounded, not in a physical way but in a mental way. In many respects Jones shows that they had to just to stay mentally sane amongst all the blood and agony. Here the meaning of The Thin Red line' becomes apparent as the line between sanity and madness caused by combat is harshly revealed to the soldiers. Many men felt indignant at being wounded and asked themselves 'why me', and not someone else to the point of wishing it on friends, anyone. Anyone else but themselves.

 The soldiers saw some terrible things but Jones doesn't really get overly graphic. He doesn't need to and what he does write is powerful enough for what he has to say. Corpses in the tropics stunk very quickly and in one part the green troops stumble onto a grave of Japanese corpses. They pull one out and the smell drives them off. I have personally read of this smell many times in my non-fictional readings. Robert Fisk in Pity the Nation describes it like no other after witnessing several massacres in Lebanon in 1982. It is said the smell of death is appalling ( Fisk states that human corpses smell worse than animal ones ), and Jones describes it vividly, to the point of it being an almost  visible poisonous vapour. The corpses in the grave are slimy green and I have read of such things from the Western Front of The Great War. It must be remembered that James Jones served in the American Army during WW2 and writes from his own experience and observations. It gives him a unique eye from which he wrote the three novels.

 Death is certainly the central theme of The Thin Red Line. Obviously war is about killing so this comes as no surprise. The combat scenes are well written but not the best I have read. All Quiet on the Western Front is the best novel on infantry written I believe. But Jones isn't writing a war novel here per se, more as what war does to those involved. He breaks it down from one whole mass to it being about a group of individuals, and how each sees, and copes, with what is happening to, and around them. I have not read a war novel that takes this stance even though it has been done non-fictionally, ie, John Keegan's The Face of Battle, who though writing a superb book on combat, never actually saw any.

 Because its focus is so death orientated the reader can easily find an identifiable character who they think matches they way they may act and feel in the same situation, But then Jones' changes the rules by showing how some characters change dramatically  from their experiences. We see one character, who is initially a clerk, thrown into the front line who thinks himself a coward. After he kills his first Japanese he changes and finds he can cope with combat, and its horrors, and emerges a changed man. Jones' also explores the world of combat fatigue. During the war it was still called shell-shock and was still somewhat mis-understood. It wasn't until the Vietnam war that it was recognised as a real malady and taken seriously. Up until then it was seen as malingering. It wasn't known that men could only stay in the front lines for a certain amount of time before their combat efficiency dropped, and they had to be pulled back. Jones calls it 'combat numbness'. He goes into how the soldiers coped with copious lashings of alcohol, and how once it wore off how they found themselves so dramatically changed, then how they collectively looked at each other.

 I also had an ulterior motive in wanting to read this novel. It has nothing to do with Malik's film either. I liked it but the sound track was poor and I couldn't hear much of it. It was also too long even after being edited down from five hours!! There is actually little recognisable from the book. No. It is the fact my Grandfather served on Guadalcanal with the 3rd New Zealand Division. So much of Red Line I can corroborate from my Grandfather. The mud, the constant rain, the humidity and heat, the rain, the clouds of mosquito's, the malaria, ( which NZ troops were better looked after than their American counter parts ), the poor rations, the rain, the mud, and the rain. Guadalcanal is virtually on the equator so it rained pretty much all year round. My Grandfather described it as ' The place God forgot'. Jones describes the same thing. Initially the soldiers are scared of the jungle and wonder why they are there as they hadn't received jungle training ( NZ troops were trained for jungle warfare in the NZ bush, and hence more prepared than most American troops ). The mud, and the inability to be free of it, combined with the swarms of mosquito's, are as much a fact of life as the ever present threat of death. This by all accounts was not a nice place to be let alone fight a battle.

 It was so bad that many of the soldiers were desperate to get off. Not only did they suffer wounds but there were a myriad of tropical diseases to catch. The poor rations didn't help in keeping the men healthy either. But the most pressing one was malaria. Virtually every soldier suffered it in one form or another. If it was too severe they were shipped off to rear area hospitals in Australia or New Zealand. most had to stay and just suffer the bouts and the fever as best they could. As much as many wanted to escape there were some who actually felt guilty at being sent off to hospital. They were rare cases though as most wounded were pleased to get away and hoped they were wounded badly enough to make it back State side and never return. By the end of the book Jones succinctly shows how the attrition of the campaign on the men had altered the make-up of C Company to the point where it was unrecognisable to those who did return. there were many new faces to in the way of replacements and field promotions were common due to wastage. There really aren't too many angles Jones hasn't covered here as he keenly shows what infantry warfare on Guadalcanal was all about.

 In all James Jones hasn't written a war novel in the classic sense. It isn't entertainment such as Sven Hassel, or Leo Kessler,etc, but an intelligent, prescient look into the minds of those who experience infantry combat. Also it is a very good representation of what jungle warfare was like to those who fought in the Pacific. The combat scenes aren't the best I have read but this isn't what Jones was pushing. He wanted to put across to those who have never been under fire in a war, or experienced its inherent horrors, what it is like, and how those who were could not come out the other side unscathed. May be not physically, but definitely mentally. In essence it is the same message as All Quiet on the Western Front. The Thin Red Line has gathered a reputation as being a great look at combat in the Pacific, but it is in all intents and purposes an anti-war novel as Jones uncompromisingly shows what war does to the individual.

 This is the key of the novel. Never does Jones wander from how war is about individuals, no matter how big the army, or the numbers involved. Each man fights his own war is the epithet for the book and it is spot on. I recommend The Thin Red line to all even if you have no military inclination. I think all Quiet on the Western Front is still its superior, but this is still in the top category of great anti-war novels. Right through out you can never can you escape the ever present grim reaper. If you want to know what you yourself may experience under fire then this is a fine place to start as it is intelligently realised and well written, especially against its predecessor.

 The last sentence of the book is very poignant and sums up so much the experiences of those who served, It goes:

 One day one of their number would write a book about all this, but none of them would believe it, because none of them would remember it that way.

 It all comes back to how each man saw and felt things differently in having had experiences unique to themselves, and how they dealt with them in their own individual way. They would remember it all from their point of view. And that is James Jones' point.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

From Here To Eternity - James Jones

 On the cover of my copy of this novel it states, 'The most famous novel of WW2'. Is it? Well there are many famous novels of that conflict but after reading From Here to Eternity I'm not convinced this is the most famous, and in my opinion far from the best.

 I have many issues with this novel and must almost be one of the few who aren't overly fussed on it. As a work of fiction it is highly regarded even without gathering any further fame from its famous cinematic adaptation, ( which is an adaptation in every sense of the word! ). The famous kiss in the surf scene? Pure nonsense as there is no such scene in the novel. As with so many film adaptations there are a raft of differences which I won't go into here as I've got enough bones to pick with the novel without including the movie.

 I found this a difficult and frustrating read as the grammar at times is absolutely appalling. To be sure Jones does put into words very well the way many people speak as some of his characters were un-educated hicks with little education, and hence sense of diction. But if you read any slave novel like Roots or Uncle Tom's Cabin the grammar and diction of the slaves is easier to read than Jones' soldiers are. Not only is it the way they speak but Jones himself is guilty of some sloppy grammar. Unfortunately I find some American authors can suffer this as they fall into poor sentence structure and use of words. I find it pure laziness, and can't believe I haven't read a review elsewhere that criticises Jones for it.

 I personally can't abide poor grammar and I found reading the novel extremely difficult going as I stumbled over Jones' mis-placed words and constant use of shortening words within sentences. Instead of using 'every' he used 'ever', ( ie, he went ever where that day, agggggghhhhhh! ). They weren't spelling mistakes either as it was quite common, and yet the sentence still worked in its own way. And try this one,  He didn't do nothing  , ahhhhhhhhh, how bad is that!! It makes my blood boil and my hair curl!! Very frustrating and difficult to read. It took me several weeks to read the first 100 hundred pages as this grammatical nightmare be-fuddled my poor mind. At first I couldn't put my finger on why I was having such difficulties. It wasn't until I picked it up in earnest several days ago and read several hundred pages more that I saw why. For all the praise this  novel has received for me personally it is poorly, if not straight out lazily written, and damn difficult to read because of it.

 So to me it is flawed as a piece of pure literature. Sure Jones has shown us how 'soljers' of little education spoke but his own grammar should have been better. I gritted my teeth though as I was determined to read this even though I really wasn't enjoying it. It was a grind as the novel is just over 800 pages and that is a lot when your enjoyment factor is pretty much zero.

 But if you can look past, or read around, the jarring grammar then there is a good story underneath. I liked how Jones described army life in an American unit based in Hawaii on the cusp of America's entry into the war. He goes through the workings and life of a small army unit describing the daily affairs. For all of it though I never felt it was 'army' enough! I just couldn't get any 'feel' from Jones' writing. He goes into 'The Treatment', the pulling of rank, the bureaucracy, the sadism of superiors, especially in the stockade etc, but still I have read better descriptions of army life and soldiering that I 'felt'. There was a general blandness to this which I couldn't define or put my finger on, which left me with a small voice at the back of my mind going, 'what is it?' Some of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's novels were better and more 'army' in feel.

 For me the best parts of the novel are Prewitt's time in the stockade and the last chapters detailing the attack on Pearl Harbour and the start of the war. The rest of the novel just didn't do anything for me. One thing that did jump out at me though was the 'whores' and the use of the word. When Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's he was absolutely savaged for writing such pornography and material of such bad taste. And yet Jones writes about the workings of brothels and prostitution much more descriptively than Capote did and no-one battered an eye-lid. Go figure. Capote was almost subliminal in Holly Golightly's activities compared to those of Lorene who we are in no way blinded as to her profession. And this was written in 1952!

 For such a famous and highly regarded novel I was disappointed in this. I honestly didn't enjoy it and am now hesitant to even think about reading The Thin Red Line and Whistle. I do admire the eight years he put into the writing of it, and his ability at entering the psyche of his characters for his readers, but I still don't like Jones' literary style. It just isn't to my taste at all. With my particular interest in this period of history I was again disappointed. It isn't a war novel per se even though there is a short description of Pearl Harbour as it is more about daily  life in the American army. To call it a war novel is a mis-nomer as it is more an army novel.

 Overall all I can say is I didn't really like From Here to Eternity. Taste is unique and individual to all and I'm sure there are others who didn't get into this novel. I can't, and won't say it is bad or rubbish because it does have some strong merits. But it is the poor grammar that I take away from this novel the most and have difficulty circumventing. I can't recommend it as such because I don't think it is an enjoyable read or an easy one. I like a challenging read such as Charles Dickens provides because he uses words and grammar correctly whereas James Jones is somewhat sloppy and the novel suffers for it.

 In short a grammatically frustrating read that leaves you unfulfilled, even though there are some strong points, and a good story lurking between the pages.....if  you can only grit your teeth through that grammar!! Just straight out difficult to read, and hence, truly un-enjoyable.

( If you want to see this novel without reading it then watch Stanley Kubrik's brilliant Full Metal Jacket. Sure it is Vietnam era but much of what Jones describes barracks wise is depicted in Metal Jacket. The movie adaptation is a very, very loose attempt and made more for audience taste rather than as a faithful adaptation. The romance is way over played. I also believe it was made into a mini-series in the 1980's which I haven't seen and may have followed the books essence far better ).