Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Book reviews

I neglected blogging for much of this year: nothing chronicling News of The World phone hacking, the London Riots, or Europe's sovereign debt crisis; nothing written on the deaths of Osama Bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi, or Jimmy Savile. But I have not been completely idle. For example, I have read a number of good books, which are critiqued below.
Rather than reviewing these books in onerous detail, immediately after reading, hopefully there's some value in giving brief but lasting impressions, retrospectively, as well as providing breadth in coverage at one stroke, by covering the several titles below.
In the order I read them...

The Junior Officers' Reading Club, Patrick Hennessey
This is a good book, very valuable as a record of what it means for my generation to go to war: pinned down in Helmand; pockets lined with Haribo; and 'Terry' Taliban's RPG's whizzing overhead. The Sandhurst training described provides good insight into what it means to go from civilian to soldier, while the sudden staccato chaos of combat is well described. I've still not made up my mind  on the frequent use by the author of email fragments: the reasons why are clear enough, but I wasn't sure whether they could be said to fit coherently, or were in some cases too contrived. But it's an important book, and it prompted me to read some of the titles on Hennessey's own wartime reading list.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, Stieg Larsson
Everyone else has read them, so why not! Great suspenseful novels these, and a zillion times better than your average two-bit airport thriller. Larsson seems to have set off some sort of posthumous Scandinavian crime fiction craze with Wallander, etc, on telly in recent years. Now of course his Millennium Trilogy has been remade by Hollywood.

Stylistically,  these books are simple. Larsson uses some novel devices to assure us of his fiction's realism: the use of banal details like Lisbeth's supermarket shopping lists; or the detailed specifications of her latest laptop computer. Like all good thrillers, the chase builds, and both books have dramatic finales worthy of the silver screen. The first book is, upon several months' reflection, the better of the two, but that's not to say they aren't both thoroughly exciting yarns. 
However, donning my financial journalist hat for a moment (and my own Conservative views), Blomkvist's leftist celebrity crusade against simplified corporate corruption and its right-wing backers, portrayed in naive black and white terms by Larsson, did make me blush a little. Just not realistic.

 Still, it's a relatively minor niggle. The books are still great reads. I will complete the series and tackle the third when I get round to it. It's very rare - Patrick O'Brian aside, several times over - that I will read a series of books in order without interruption.

The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monsarrat
Strongly recommended: gripping, painful, essential reading. I'd long been fan of the film. Perhaps that's the only way I can start to approach reviewing the book, as it informed me before reading it. Jack Hawkins was well cast as Ericson on screen: stoical, professional, embittered. Donald Sinden was great as Lockhart: dedicated and loyal. Hawkins' spitting "Attacking!", hunting the pitiless German U-boats, and the wonderful way he pronounced the world "Cruel" stick in the memory. Like the movie (1953), the book (1951) was written with memories of the war still raw. The film was gritty for its day: the gore is not shown; instead you see the young men's faces, and must imagine what they witness.

Like the film, the book focuses on the psychological war of the Battle of the Atlantic (the longest-fought campaign of World War II, maybe the least glamorous, but arguably the most vital). The tiredness, boredom, irritability and wrenching command decisions are all portrayed. Decision-making recalls one scene in particular: Ericson's corvette detects an underwater contact in a patch of water where survivors are swimming. The dilemma is whether to be merciful or to drop high explosive depth charges into the water, killing the survivors as well as the enemy submarine. "Attacking!" barks Ericson.

That scene highlights the difference between film and book. The novel tells you what happened to the men in the water. They are "pulped" into nothing, shreds of flesh and bone left where people had been previously. The horror of it hits you. In another scene, several men must spend a night aboard a crippled merchant ship. The bombed ship's bridge is a mess of blood, guts and bone fragments. The job is to clean it up. This was raw to an audience who had recently lost husbands, sons and family members not long before. You know Monsarrat writes from experience; he served his war in Atlantic corvettes. The story is fiction but the details are real. Superb.

The Rum Diary, Hunter S Thompson
Also now a movie with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. This was my holiday reading in June. It's a book that should be read in summer, preferably with a cold beer, maybe with last night's fading hangover, and nothing much to do with your day. Thompson was a great gonzo author, and you can't help but want to approach life with the same carefree, bizarre adventurer's approach as him and his protagonists. That is his art, and The Rum Diary does it quite well.

That said, there is not much of a plot or direction to The Rum Diary. Like a literary Withnail and I, this book rests on its style, which works to its favour, and on the meandering lives of its characters, loosely based on Thompson's own experiences as a young reporter working in Puerto Rico in the 1960s. There's no great weight to this book, but it is a good read, especially if you have a soft spot for Thompson's course for misspent youth and liquor-soaked adventure. 

For which I do.

The Last Cruise of the Emden, Edwin P Hoyt
Some factual stories, the saying goes, are better than fiction; this is one of them. The literary style is fairly run-of-the-mill, but the true-life content ensures that The Last Cruise of the Emden is a boy's own adventure story to delight most of our inner children.

In short: the Emden was a German warship in the First World War which played havoc with British and Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean, capturing and sinking dozens of ships, becoming famous in the process. Outnumbered, far from home, and surrounded by hostile forces, the daring and chivalry of the small ship became widely reported and renowned even in Britain. Even after the Emden's cruise had ended, some of its crew refused to throw in the towel, instead striking for home, thousands of miles away.

The underdog heroine of the book is the Emden; the heroes are the warship's crew. This is a thousand miles from The Cruel Sea. The ship's crew show chivalry to their enemies, compassion in victory and resourcefulness in defeat. Romanticism for bygone chivalry in war is part of this book's appeal. That's not a fashionable theme now, which dates this book, but should not by default remove its appeal. The First World War is primarily thought about in terms of the mud and mechanised slaughter of the Western Front: so many brave young men killed going off to fight what they thought was a noble or romantic cause, met by the reality of industrial-scale death and destruction. The exploits of the Emden provide a rare twilight glimpse of the sort of  honourable war which the mass slaughter of the Great War left so little room.

Helmet for my Pillow, Robert Leckie
The first of two war memoirs I was inspired to read after watching HBO's brilliant miniseries The Pacific. Leckie writes well, and his memoir is candid. A journalist before volunteering for the US Marine Corps, Leckie goes through the highs and lows of training, combat, veteran, cynic, lover, drunk and 'brig rat' repeat offender, before illness ends his war.

The vivid descriptions of vicious combat and toil on Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester and Peleliu are probably some of the strongest sections of the book. Leckie gives honest descriptions of unheroic aspects of fighting as a US Marine in the Pacific: hunting for grisly souvenirs from Japanese dead, men cracking up or killing themselves from the strain of combat, tragic mistakes in the confusion of darkness leading to men dying for nothing, and unfairness at the hands of some of his officers.

Leckie keeps the objects of his ire anonymous, but resentment verging on hatred for certain officers becomes a recurring theme.  His common gripes against Lieutenants Commando and Ivy League are made more bitter as an adroit and educated enlisted man, frustrated at encountering less able superiors. Leckie's faults are what makes the book interesting: his anger, bitterness, cynicism and weakness complete his character. This is a good book, and a great historical insight. Bring on the second memoir used by HBO, Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, which is on my shelf, ready to read.

I, Partridge: We need to talk about Alan, Alan Partridge
Probably the best satire of the present generation of celebrities' vacuous trend for slapdash, semi-fictional autobiographies. Steve Coogan returns as Partridge, allowing fans of the original fly-on-the-wall mockumentary to relive some of the classic moments of cringe comedy through the protagonist's rose-tinted view. Okay, rose tinted is a vast understatement: wholesale fabrication is nearer the mark.

There's much more to I, Partridge than mere reminiscence. I'm still considering buying the audio-book to listen to get the full benefit of hearing Coogan deliver his choice lines. The Partridge style is hilarious, and this medium gives vents it with the most freedom yet.

Phrases like "Snow flakes fell from the sky like tiny pieces of a snowman who had stood on a landmine" and "I'm pretty gungho about cod liver oil" spring to mind. There are so many more that I can't recall without delving back into it. I, Partridge is a great comic autobiography from one of the greatest comic characters in UK television history.

Dispatches, Michael Herr
I was led to this book by its prominence on Patrick Hennessey's own reading list. Since then I've become more aware of Dispatches' place on the pantheon of war literature. First impressions within a page or two were of disorder, chaos and hazy recollection. Herr was not a soldier or marine, but a war correspondent in Vietnam.

The fog and madness of the war is brought to bear like an epic militarised version of a Hunter S Thompson-esque binge. The memories are raw; the results are searing. Grim anecdotes abound: flying home in a helicopter full of body bags; the look of aged fatigue on a young soldier's face; swapping horror stories with Marine grunts and with the other reporters.

As the book progresses, it weaves together a coherent narrative of experiencing the Tet Offensive with the muddy Marines and dashing helicopter-borne "Cav", brutal fighting to recapture Hue, the misery of bombardment and counter-bombardment at Khe Sanh, and the utter wasteland left behind by the war, on the terrain and on the men fighting for it. Essential reading.

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