Sunday 29 September 2013

Tom Wolfe: Bonfire of the Vanities

The recent appearance of a new novel by Tom Wolfe (you can read my post on it here) has provided me with the excuse — as if I needed one — to re-read all of his novels, starting with the first one, Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987.

I won't do a long song and dance about my immense admiration for Wolfe. You can either peruse the earlier post, or take it as read.

Bonfire of the Vanities is an extraordinary feat. In it Wolfe brings to life the utterly complacent and contemptible Sherman McCoy. Vastly wealthy, selfish, casually unfaithful to his wife, Sherman is a 'Master of the Universe' (one of many terms coined by Wolfe which would pass into common usage), a bond trader on Wall Street. 

The depiction of Sherman and the rest of the super-rich financial elite living in their insulated world and looking down with disdain on us mere mortals is, sadly, more true than ever today.

But Wolfe brings Sherman low. He drags him down into the mire with the lowest of society, stripping away from him his wealth and prestige and position. And in the process he achieves something remarkable. From despising Sherman and wanting to see him fall, we reverse our attitude, feeling huge sympathy for him and wanting to see him prevail.

Wolfe is a master novelist. And, thanks to his background as a journalist, his research is immaculate. One of his characters is a British reporter and when we're reading about him Wolfe correctly refers to a biro (instead of a ballpoint pen) and council flats (instead of housing projects).

Along with the faultless research, Wolfe also occasionally just makes stuff up — to amuse us, to amuse himself, and to trip up the unwary. Thus the reference to a fine French wine called Vieux Galouches — a name that actually means 'old boots'. 

Some dullards have misinterpreted this as Wolfe getting it wrong. But they're wrong. When Wolfe refers to cricket being played at Tottenham Park, he hasn't made an error. He's just made the name up. And it's a convincing one, too.

Wolfe's writing is constantly hilarious, as when he refers to someone's "as yet unwrung neck." His descriptions are wonderful: "a gray upholstered chair that was so sleek and close to the floor it looked like a submarine surfacing." And this knack for apt description combines wonderfully with his gift for satire. Pop videos are playing in a club: "foggy grainy videotapes... full of morose skinny boys and smokebombs." His prose is always splendidly evocative. A room is "lit by the hectic flash of the television set."

But there is more to Wolfe than his brilliant, uproarious, felicitous descriptions. His work has great depth and insight. When Sherman goes to his father for help and reveals that he's in serious trouble, the poor, tired old man who had thought life was finally sorted out and comfortable is "wearier than ever at the thought of trying to hoist the Protector's armour back onto his shoulders again, now, so far down the line."

And when Sherman tells his cold, proud, haughty wife that he's about to be arrested: "That knocked the condescending look off her face. Her shoulders dropped. She was just a little woman in a big chair."

Poor Sherman. We start off hating him, but his predicament ends up breaking our hearts. After he's had his first taste of being dragged through the living hell of the justice system in the Bronx, he stands on the steps outside the court looking up at the lovely summer sky and thinking: "The only shotgun he had was, in fact, double-barrelled. It was a big old thing. He stood on 161st Street, a block from the Grand Concourse, in the Bronx, and wondered if he could get both barrels in his mouth."

The book also offers unbearable suspense as Sherman tries to escape his nightmarish trap. And it delivers a powerful, moving conclusion.

A great novel.

(Footnote: some editions come with a substantial introduction by Wolfe in the form of a 24 page essay about the decline of the realistic novel in America. It's fascinating, stimulating stuff and you should try to find one of these copies if you can. Or, in a pinch, you can find a somewhat fuzzy PDF of the piece here — allegedly reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.)

(Image credits: I heaved a sigh of relief that I was able to find all these covers at the admirable Good Reads. The German one is particularly nice, isn't it? Perhaps worryingly, it seems that some of the good folk at Good Reads think that this Tom Wolfe is the same one who wrote Look Homeward Angel.)

Sunday 22 September 2013

White House Up: James Vanderbilt

I wasn't going to write about movies again for a while after the glut of summer blockbusters. But this was such a surprise that I simply couldn't resist.

I'd expected to dismiss White House Down out of hand. It had been preceded by another Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movie called Olympus Has Fallen which was very weak indeed. And at first I thought White House Down was heading the same way. ("You've heard of the military industrial complex?")

But in fact it was a real surprise. An outstanding, vastly enjoyable thriller. 

My first inkling that a treat was in store came with a scene between Channing Tatum and a squirrel.  However, I was completely sold after the following exchange between Tatum's character John Cale and his estranged 11 year old daughter. "We're both adults here, John," says the little girl. "Speak for yourself," says Cale.

The inclusion of a child for the hero is just one of the intelligent choices the excellent script makes.

White House Down is superbly written by James Vanderbilt who also previously transmuted an unpromising project with his script for The Losers (co-written with Peter Berg, based on material by Andy Diggle).

White House Down features a first rate cast and Roland Emmerich does a splendid, bravura job of directing — as he tends to do when working from a good script. The film makes none of the mistakes of Olympus Has Fallen and makes all the right choices where that earlier movie made all the wrong ones.

If you're looking for a rousing, cleverly constructed thriller then hasten to the cinema.

(Image credits: All the images, including the one of Channing Tatum and Joey King as his daughter, were from a very useful site called Ace Show Biz. Thanks, folks!)

Sunday 15 September 2013

Whip Hand by Dick Francis

I recently finished doing jury duty. But not before I ran out of books to read.

Knowing there would be long, boring periods of down-time and waiting around, I had taken a big fat classic World War 2 novel with me. But through bad planning I managed to finish this book before the jury service was finished with me.

So I went to inspect the shelf of books which were provided by the crown court for the enjoyment of us jurors (there was also the world's worst collection of freebie give-away magazines). The book shelf was actually better than I expected. I had anticipated lots of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, and sure enough there they were. But there was also Margaret Atwood...

And my old friend Dick Francis.

Whip Hand is the second adventure of Sid Halley, a former jockey turned private detective who lost his hand after it was crushed by a horse. He now has an electronic prosthetic with which he is rather adept. Halley appeared in four novels, starting with Odds Against, and he is the author's only real series character.

Whip Hand was sheer delight to read. Having gone away from Dick Francis for a while, I'd forgotten how beautifully written his books are, and how addictively readable.

All of Francis's virtues were on display: the vivid character names (Rammileese), the enthralling plot (which springs a neat surprise at the end — I absolutely did not see it coming) and the minimal yet richly evocative descriptions — he describes how the hero and his sidekick, on a burglary mission, pause in a stairwell and "dumped the clinking bag of tools" and then, once they've broken into the office to seek out the information they're after: "in the strong evening sunlight we sat and read the reports."

Another distinctive feature of Dick Francis's thrillers is how remarkably non-vindictive they are. At the end after Sid has been put through hell by the bad guys and finally triumphed over them, his father-in-law, a retired admiral, asks him if he doesn't want to gloat. Sid says, "And in your war at sea, what did you do when you saw an enemy drowning? Gloat? Push him under?"

"Take him prisoner," says the Admiral. 

(However, having recently read The Cruel Sea, I might point out to Sid and the Admiral that there was a certain amount of leaving the enemy to drown, not to mention machine-gunning them in the water. Particularly if they were U-boat crews.)

Oh yes, one last thing. I resisted any urge to steal the crown court's copy of Whip Hand and returned it to their book shelf for another lucky juror to enjoy.

(Image credits: Normally in these Dick Francis posts I use the covers with the Colin Thomas photographs as my main image at the top, because they're so terrific. But this time I just had to use the cover design by the great David Larkin. Not only was it the copy I actually read, it's also a quiet little masterpiece of design. Look at how Larkin has put the text of the cover inside the hand to strengthen the image. This is from Manyhill Books via ABE. The Colin Thomas cover, also excellent, is the second one down. It's from the ever reliable Jan-Willem Hubbers — a fine Dick Francis resource. The striking painted shotgun-and-hand cover, referencing a crucial plot point, is from Noble Net. The other covers are from Good Reads.)

Sunday 8 September 2013

The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat

I started jury duty last week, and I knew enough about what was likely to be in store to look for a long and engrossing novel to take with me. Luckily I found an old Penguin paperback of Nicholas Monsarrat's classic The Cruel Sea.

During the long periods of waiting for a trial I managed to improve my chess game (thanks, Omar) and read The Cruel Sea. It's an engrossing and vivid story of the battle between Allied escort ships and Nazi U-boats in the Atlantic convoys of World War 2. I was about to say it's also really well researched, but I suspect that Monsarrat didn't so much research it as live through it.

The writing is often brilliant. A fast moving destroyer is described as "throwing out a bow-wave like the slicing of a huge cream cake" and the bridge of a ship "which seemed to have taken a direct hit from a bomb or a shell, looked like a twisted metal cage from which something violent and strong had ripped a way to freedom." 

And here's how he writes about the convoy when one of the vessels gets torpedoed and bursts into flame: "The ships on either side of her, and the ships astern, fanned outwards, like men stepping past a hole in the road."

This is an excellent novel, full of knowledge and insight. There is a slightly drippy romantic subplot, which is the only somewhat false note, but it's completely outweighed by the other superb qualities of the book.

The scene where our heroes' ship has to stop dead for hours during an engine repair, utterly vulnerable to attack, is almost unbearably suspenseful, as is the scene where they are relentlessly chasing a surfaced U-boat, trying to get close enough to attack before they are spotted.

There are also shocking scenes of death and the sinking of ships — and a startling line of humour. Monsarrat can really write and he creates a large cast of excellent characters. He also has a neat way of reminding the reader of who's who — "Barnard, the bearded coxswain" — which is essential with a cast of this size.

Highly recommended. 

(And I was delighted to see that the Good Reads website also recommends Richard McKenna's brilliant novel The Sand Pebbles and Len Deighton's classic Bomber for people who enjoyed The Cruel Sea. They're quite right.)

(Image credits: The main picture, with cover art by Paul Wright, is the edition I read — and similarly battered. It is from an interesting blog called Olman's Fifty. The guy also has a Winnipeg connection, like I do. The really nice pink and green early Penguin cover art is from the Facebook WWII page, of all places. The clever and elegant periscope-view Penguin cover is an archived pic from eBay. The 'Permanent Penguin' edition — what a great series they were — is from Jacket Flap.)

Sunday 1 September 2013

Farewell, Dave (Sob)

Just over four years ago I began writing this blog. The third post I wrote, during my first week, was about the Ikea 'Dave' laptop table. A dull subject? Not if you're a professional writer. Especially a professional writer who doesn't want his wrists to turn to jelly because he spends most of his day typing at a computer.

The great thing about Dave was that it wasn't just a flat table. You could tilt it at the proper angle for typing. Old fashioned typewriters were designed so your hands met the keyboard at a comfortable slant. Thus people didn't suffer from the kind of repetitive strain injury that can occur typing on a modern, flat computer keyboard.

Dave was absolutely the ideal solution. I was delighted when I bought it. But I should have bought three Daves. Or maybe three dozen.

Because the tilting mechanism which adjusts the angle of the table is made of plastic, and plastic grows brittle. After four years of constant motion and adjustment, Dave started to break up. The little plastic guide tabs that smooth out the tilting motion, and prevent the table tilting the wrong way, were the first things to go. And then poor Dave simply began to fall apart.

This probably wasn't surprising. I'd put the table to a lot of hard use. I estimate I typed a million words on it.

But of course, the very day I began to shop around for a replacement, Ikea announced it was putting Dave out of production. Classic Ikea. My heart sank. Then Ikea  announced a replacement laptop table called Svartasen. It looked just like Dave! It cost the same price as Dave! My heart soared. Then I read the fine print. And my heart sank again. Because the sinisterly named Svartasen doesn't tilt.

That's right, Ikea have taken their uniquely useful product and replaced it with one which is the same in every regard, except they've left out the uniquely useful aspect. Classic Ikea.

What followed was a frantic search on eBay. I finally managed to buy a replacement Dave from a nice lady scuba diver in Crystal Palace. It is white rather than the sexy red of my original. And being a later model it has been manufactured without those fragile little plastic tags my old one had. (Obviously as the years went by, Ikea decided to streamline the design and drop some of the more fiddly aspects of it.) This means the mechanism doesn't operate quite as smoothly as the original model, and it has a slight tendency to tip backwards.

But I'm not complaining. I'm back in action and busy typing my next million words.

(Image credits: The laptop on the red table is from Fat Bag. The white Dave is from Underpinmywindow, which is a blog by another Dave aficionado. The evil black Svartasen is from Ikea. Hiss. The photo of the broken plastic tag was taken with my own fair hand. Literally.)