Saturday, 1 December 2007

A Jew, Muslim, Christian, Atheist And A Vampyre…

…walked into a bar. Okay, okay…actually they are characters from the last few books I read. Well, along with tempting offers to the mind-numbing paradise that is digital satellite TV, I got yet another Official Warning in the post today from the TV Licensing Board threatening me that if I do not pay my annual TV Licence I could be slapped on the wrist, incarcerated with soap-dropping spotters or horror-of-horrors…forced to watch re-runs of TV reality shows ad nauseum.


It’s been over 5 years 5 months since I’ve binned the dead metal. I refuse in principle to pay good money for being a passive consumer of commercial shit. Plus I don’t really have the time to watch shit (far more profitable to waste my time in front of the computer, of course). I’d rather see what I want, when I want (the internet and DVDs serve that purpose well enough for me). But I’ve also ended up reading more books, devouring at least one a week. Anyway…the last random few were…

Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian” (2005)

This book left me anaemic with horror. Horrified at how interminably boring it was.

First off, it’s pretty damn obvious that this is a labour of love for an author who adores history, genealogy, librarians and the legend of Dracula. I mean, that in theory should be a winning combination for me…especially when a character utters thus:

"It's my belief that the study of history should be our preparation for understanding the present, rather than escape from it." (p335)

Yup, pretty much the standard aphorism I do in fact utter but that was all the enjoyment I got I’m afraid because several things annoyed the hell out of me. The novel started off promisingly in a gothic way but vapidly descended in the most protracted way possible into a sappy love story between the standard atheistic dashing academic chap (why of course) and a beautiful atheistic intelligent jaded woman (you don’t say!) using a hybrid attempt of crosses and a touch of Islam to fight off the undead. C’MON! Maybe it's because I am a cynical bastard but there were a lot of suspiciously fortuitous happenstance and serendipity used to drive the narrative from point A to point B plus gratuitous doses of rose tinted idealism between the interactions of human characters that I found utterly unbelievable. They were also convenient walking-talking-encyclopaedias of history, furniture and what-have-you, to the point they all conversed in the same bland way…even Vlad Dracula himself, who just seemed so emasculated and wooden when we finally meet him (who incidentally is the titular “Historian”…to the in-joke of him actually having a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in his own library…*winces*). Seriously, a trimming of the fat here and there and a stake through its heart would have made a more taut novel. Bite me.

(For the record, my favourite Vampyre novel of all time, besides Bram Stoker’s "Dracula" (1897), is the much under-rated Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s "Carmilla" (1872). The 19th century Irish seriously knew how to wield the gothic pen.

For the study of Vampyre lore in literature, Christopher Frayling’s “Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula” (1992) comes highly recommended by moi.)

Sam Bourne’s “The Last Testament” (2007)

Another Da Vinci Code wannabe that actually has a good McGuffin looted from the Iraqi National Museum during the war in 2003 that may change the Middle East conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s the same formulaic religious history thriller in bite sized chapters ending with useless non-suspenseful mini-cliff-hangers, a hot intelligent ballsy lapsed-Catholic babe© and a handsome macho yet sensitive Jewish man© (yes, they do bang each other) in a race against time to locate…well, read it to find out what it is.

But having found out what it is, any Tom, Dick and Ahmed can guess the uncontroversial pedestrian ending. It’s undemanding pulp fiction full of clichéd cardboard characters for people who know jack-shit about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Abrahamic religions. Which means it should sell.

Justin Cartwright’s “The Song Before It Is Sung” (2007)

This is a moving well-crafted piece of work that is elegant, morally and intellectually engaging and poetically elegiac. I would rate Cartwright amongst the best of contemporary British writers and this book was simply a delightful find. By the use of differently named characters, it’s essentially a fictionalised historical story of the relationship between Isaiah Berlin, the Jewish Oxford philosopher, and Adam von Trott, the German aristocrat who had been a Rhodes scholar in Oxford, and a token card carrying Nazi but true German patriot who plotted to assassinate Adolf Hitler at the “Wolf’s Lair” in 1944. The book’s narrator, a dreamy Conrad Senior, having been bequeathed various personal documents, becomes obsessed about finding out the past (and the location of the only surviving film of the German patriot’s eventual execution ironically filmed by a Jewish cameraman still living in present day Berlin) to the detriment of his relationship with an emotionally frigid unsympathetic lover who cheats on him.

The history is essentially iffy but ignoring that one stain, the novel’s delving into the larger questions of fate, friendship, and the contrast between talk and action as exemplified by the two main characters was masterful.

Shimon Ballas’ “Outcast” (English translation from Hebrew 2007)

This is a rare little gem from a contemporary Israeli writer originally from Iraq. Admittedly this review was what got me interested:

" . . . reveals more about modern Iraq than nearly all Americans put together know, and Ballas creates one of the most relevant, most important characters in contemporary fiction." – Booklist, Starred Review

Ouch. That was a bit harsh hyperbole heaped on the Americans (even though it might be true…heh). It’s a fictionalised historical memoir of Haroun Sassoon (based on the real figure of Ahmad Nissim Soussa), an Arab Iraqi Jew who embraced Islam in the 1930s and his personal interactions with family and friends set against the tumultuous background of Iraqi politics. Now talk about a Pandora’s box of issues.

I loved the insights the narrator made on himself, people, religion and politics. The depressing narrative sometimes rambles a bit and goes off into seemingly unpromising tangents but it does tap into issues of identity, loyalty and family dynamics as it does so…a scene where the narrator stands in front of the cross of the grave of his wife with his Jewish son and Muslim daughter pretty much sums up the poignancy of his life. This book could probably benefit with a timeline of Iraqi history for the general reader since even with my paltry knowledge I felt it was hard to follow.

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