January's been a solid month of Christmas books, with one exception noted below. Thanks to everyone whose online gift vouchers contributed to this jamboree.
Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, various (ed & trans Warren Motte)
Turned out to be a translated selection of essays from La litterature potentielle and Atlas de litterature potentielle, which is what I was hoping for. A kind of English manifesto for Oulipo. A nice companion piece for the Oulipo Compendium (see below). It does also include one of those introductions – you know, one of those – that consists almost entirely of rehashed bits of the constituent essays, and quotes so extensively from them that by the time you get onto the essays themselves, you feel you've already read them. (Never mind that the essays quote each other several times.) So I'm unlikely ever to look at the introduction again, but apart from that it's a very welcome reference book.
Sherlock Holmes' War of the Worlds, Manly Wade Wellman & Wade Wellman
Another step further back in time from Willie Rushton's WG Grace's Last Case and Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, we find this team-up of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger against the Martians. This is quite definitely an alt-Holmes – he's carrying on an affair with a shapely blonde Mrs Hudson, in something of a departure from Conan Doyle's canon. Fidelity to the source material is perhaps on a par with Willie Rushton. The story feels like a write-up of a Hollywood film circa time of publication, two fists firmly to the fore with the heroes' brains as back-up, although that might just be Professor Challenger's influence. On the other hand, the overall atmosphere and several of the scenes are a good fit for Wells' novel. It's by no means bad, but I wouldn't say it was the finest example of crossover fiction.
The Real Inspector Hound and Other Plays, Tom Stoppard
The only Tom Stoppard I've ever seen was a student production of Arcadia that I acted in. Interesting to read some of his other works. Yes, this is the first time I'd read Hound – there's an admission for you. I haven't read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead either – will have to track that down at some point.
The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, Jesse Bullington
A story of two grotesque tomb-robbing brothers in medieval Germany and their quest to reach Egypt, where all the best tombs are. Along the way, using a combination of folk knowledge and lots and lots of violence, they become expert monster slayers. I believe “picaresque” is the appropriate word. The Guardian described it as “Tarantino crossed with Rabelais”, which sums it up pretty well – it's fairly unpleasant reading to begin with, but gets more entertaining once the demons, dodgy friars and vulgar (in every sense) theosophy start to appear. I did spend the entire book rooting for the Grossbarts to die, but I did also follow them all the way to the end.
The Rise of the Iron Moon, Stephen Hunt
Another future-steampunk-fantasy-adventure from the author of The Court of the Air and The Kingdom Beyond the Waves. I think this one's his best yet. The world of Jackelia and Quatershift faces a war of the worlds when an artificial moon appears overhead and an apparently unstoppable army sweeps down from the north. Includes plenty of red (hot?) planetary action and the lovely moment when an intelligent space capsule defends itself by reciting the magical mantra: “My shields can deflect particles at point-one-C under lightspeed, my shields can deflect particles at point-one-C under lightspeed...”
And Another Thing, Eoin Colfer
This was always going to be an odd item – a Hitchhikers' Guide novel not written by Douglas Adams. Rather than build on the fragment of The Salmon of Doubt that Adams left behind, Colfer has approached the story (and the familiar characters) entirely in his own way. This is probably for the best, but it does also lead to a few jarring moments. Arthur Dent, for instance, comes across as more of a matey geezer than he ever did before, while Zaphod seems to have gone from being a vacuous waster to a bit of a wheeler-dealer. Perhaps it's a parallel universe thing.
One thing I do hold hugely in Colfer's favour is the self-awareness of And Another Thing – the prologue pretty explicitly presents the book as an appendix to the foregoing series, and there are cheeky little references here and there to the novel adaptations of the original radio series, the radio adaptations of the later novels, possibly also to the film. I think viewing the book as a comment on the Hitchhikers' series as much as a continuation of it makes it easier to swallow.
Probably not going to be one of my top reads of 2010, but it's a welcome postscript to the Adams canon, and in that capacity I think it's a success.
Mikhail Bulgakov: A Critical Biography, Lesley Milne
Library book. I actually persuaded the library to buy this one, he said smugly. Now I have to borrow it at regular intervals to convince them that there's a demand for it.
A new reprint of a nearly twenty-year-old book, not a new book as I'd thought. Now, I was brought up to believe that just about every story Bulgakov ever wrote has a caricature of Lenin in it, that his number one preoccupation was spoofing the Revolution, and that The Master and Margarita is all about Bulgakov himself, in the figure (naturally!) of the Master. Milne disabuses me of my first two misconceptions in no uncertain terms – in fact, she lays out in fantastic detail exactly which specific contemporary events and which other literary and theatrical works Bulgakov spoofed with each story. It all makes a hell of a lot more sense now. There was even a period, in the early '20s, when Bulgakov was demonstrably optimistic about the NEP (before Stalin abandoned it), and when the Soviet critical apparatus was actually prepared to take his ribbing in good part. Re The Master and Margarita, Milne only confirms what I'd been told, which is a disappointment because it had always seemed a very thin argument to me; however, she fleshes it out and makes it a lot more convincing. Apparently the Master and the Devil both represent Bulgakov, which I hadn't previously considered.
Might have to keep an eye out for my own copy of this, assuming the price ever comes down to a sane level.
Exercices de style, Raymond Queneau (texte integral)
Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau (trans Barbara Wright)
A short anecdote told 99 different ways. This is, if you like, French literature's answer to JS Bach. The “texte integral” (with notes and essays!) replaces my old French text, and this is the first time I've owned the English translation. According to the introduction to the English edition, Queneau swapped out some of the variations when the French edition was revised, so what I've actually got is an English translation of the original French and a French translation of the original French... the confusion... in my mind... (Apparently, what with Queneau's various amendments and side-projects, altogether there've been no fewer than 116 “exercices”. What price a definitive edition?) So that explains some of the differences between the texts. There are also a couple of instances where the French “exercice” had to be replaced by an English “exercise” that was similar in concept but different in execution – for example, an “exercice” in a regional French accent (rustic) has been translated as an “exercise” in a regional English accent (cockney), to differing effect. Reading through the two texts together was fun. Now to put some of Queneau's novels on the birthday list.
Oulipo Compendium, various (ed & trans Harry Mathews & Alastair Brotchie)
Much more than I'd hoped for, being a sampler of Oulipo texts and an encyclopaedia of Oulipian writers and methods in equal measure. Also includes a large section on the Oulipo's sister organisations that focus on painting, crime fiction, music and comics. It's surprising how many Oulipian comic books there are - I look forward to tracking one or two of them down at some point.