Sunday, May 03, 2009

Books read in April

An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge, John O'Farrell
A humorous write-up of British history, it seemed a natural choice of read after The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. I wouldn't put it quite in that league, though. Much of the text is either valuably informative or (more rarely) dryly witty, but there's also a large helping of the sort of humour you find in certain Radio 4 comedies. The kind that you don't tune in for after the first week. Most of it's presented as imagined dialogue, so you can bet O'Farrell's already got his eye on a radio adaptation, or at least the talking book market. Worse yet were the frequent moments when, clearly feeling compelled to show his learning and/or avoid outraged letters, O'Farrell would cap a section of dialogue-humour with a footnote beginning "Actually...".
It was hard going to trawl through the flat material in search of the occasional gems of wit, notwithstanding the sheer size of the book. I had to pause just after the Tudors (barely halfway through) to read the following two books and revive my flagging spirits.

The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin
Yer seminal critical work on the theatre of Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and others like them. I'd previously only read the chapter on Ionesco back in school, and was tempted by the shiny revised paperback edition (now with added Harold Pinter!). Mmm, delicious absurdist theatre.

Why I Have Not Written Any Of My Books, Marcel Benabou (translator David Kornacker)
Hard work for little reward. Considering how short this book is (less than 100 pages, once you discount all the blank pages between chapters), that's no mean feat.
It sounds like it ought to be fun - I mean, would you ignore a book with that title? Benabou, or possibly an anonymous narrator (it depends on whether you take it as fiction or not) explains at great length why he keeps failing to write a novel. It could have been a wry satire on the world of writers and writing, perhaps even laugh-out-loud. The people quoted on the back cover seem to have thought that it was. Somehow it just never came to life for me - there wasn't any sparkle, just page after page of florid prose and those peculiarly French extra-long multi-claused sentences.
This is a shame, as Benabou's a member of the Oulipo, and so in my mind his work came with the, if you will, implicit recommendation of Perec and Queneau. Perhaps I should hold onto it and try again at some point - it's only one or two days' reading anyway. First impression, however, is not good. After this I was ready to limp back to the rest of the O'Farrell.

The Dragon's Nine Sons, Chris Roberson
A bit of light reading, adventure by the book. A misfit group of soldiers under arrest are given the chance to escape execution by going on a top secret suicide mission, and oh, you know the rest. The key difference here is that the story takes place in a parallel future where the space race was between the Empires of China and the Aztecs. (The title sounds like it might be a colourful Chinese description of the solar system, but turns out in fact to refer to the story's Dirty Three-Quarters-Of-A-Dozen.)
It's an interesting set-up, but owing to the nature of the story it isn't developed in very great detail - the Mexica (as the Aztec Empire is called here) is only seen from outside, but we do see a lot more of it than of the Chinese Empire. Most of the book is preoccupied with revealing the soldiers' various stories of shame and having them bump heads with each other before developing a grudging respect, etc, on board the cramped spacecraft in which they plan to infiltrate a Mexica asteroid base. An excess of background world-building here would only detract from the much smaller-scale character story at the heart of the book.
By no means mould-breaking, but enjoyable. Familiar, in a pleasant sort of way.

No comments: