Review: The Book Lovers Tale

15boorevThe comedic villain, from Richard III onwards, is a hard trick to pull off, for the balance between wit and evil is a tricky one.

Matt de Voy, Ivo Stourton’s anti-hero in this novel, has a mild manner concealing a psychopathic detachment from the world, but is nevertheless an attractive character for any book lover. For Matt is supremely well-read, full of sharp quotes and references, and living disproof of F R Leavis’s theory that the study of literature is an improving activity.

A rare-book collector who possesses a copy of Wynkyn de Worde’s 1498 edition of the Canterbury Tales, he makes a living by working alongside his wife’s interior decorating business. He advises the nouveaux riches which books to put on their shelves; even, in some cases, persuading them to open the tomes. In the course of business he encounters the lovely Claudia Swanson, who happens to have a miscarriage when Matt calls at her house. Claudia’s husband is a self-made man, whose lack of education enables Matt to despise him in spite of his wealth.

Matt’s love for Claudia leads into what, for him, is extreme behaviour. He takes a very valuable first edition off his shelves in order to read it, thereby reducing its value by turning the pages. He sets up a very special book club with only his beloved and himself as members – erotic material is the recommended reading so that they can enjoy “the artistic privilege of discussing pure filth”. Faced with the failure of this seduction technique, he takes a bold decision for an intellectual: he will kill the husband. But his simple plan to push his rival under a train proves far more difficult than he thinks. Though Matt is not exactly Camus’s “outsider”, he suffers from the failure of the passive intellectual to engage with the physicalities of life.

The reader is entertained by Matt’s sharp and cynical eye for the social types he encounters, especially the ghastly banker Hugo who, in a dinner-party clash with an Afghanistan war veteran, claims that real heroism is displayed by those noble souls who keep financial institutions running. The narrative is a bit too slow, but the book is very enjoyable reading. I totally disagree with Matt’s assertion that Robinson Crusoe is the first English novel – that honour surely belongs to Philip Sidney’s Arcadia – but all readers who love the book world will find stimulating amusement and argument here.

Recommended? Yes, if you are a hard-core book lover, you will appreciate the onslaught of literary references. This book is not a masterpiece, and certainly has it’s flaws, but it’s a fun read nonetheless.  


Review: The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.

curious-incidentChristopher Boone is 15. He knows “all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,507”. He lives in Swindon with his father and Toby, his pet rat. He abhors all yellow and brown things, thinks he would make a good astronaut, and has never been further than the end of the road on his own until his discovery of the “murder” of his neighbour’s dog turns him into an amateur detective.

Christopher has Asperger’s syndrome, though this is never specified. Mark Haddon’s study of the condition is superbly realised, but this is not simply a novel about disability. Haddon, rather like Daniel Keyes in his 1959 classic Flowers for Algernon , uses his narrator’s innocence as a means of commenting on the emotional and moral confusion in the lives of the adults around him. Christopher sees everything, remembers everything, but cannot prioritise – cannot sift out what most of us regard as important. On the day he is told his mother is dead, he records his Scrabble score, and notes that supper was spaghetti with tomato sauce. But he isn’t callous or indifferent. He can cope with facts, with concrete detail; emotions confuse and alarm him.

Autistic people are not easy subjects for novelists. Their interests are prescribed, their experiences static, their interaction with others limited. Haddon ingeniously uses Christopher’s admiration for Sherlock Holmes to lead him out of this stasis, not to effect some miraculous “cure”, but so that a story can happen. Detective fiction, relying on the accumulation of material facts, is the only fiction that makes sense to Christopher. As he collects facts relating to the death of the dog, he unwittingly pieces together a jigsaw that reveals to the reader the lies, grief and evasions of his parents’ lives.

There is, of course, a great novelistic tradition of children as observers of the darker side of adult behaviour – What Maisie Knew , To Kill a Mockingbird . But The Curious Incident is no out-of-Eden fable. The pathos of Christopher’s condition is that he can never understand the havoc his very existence has wreaked in the lives of those around him, however many facts he uncovers. I don’t want to give the story away, but the scene in which he reads his mother’s letters is one of the most affecting things I’ve read in years.

But there is comfort as well as sorrow. Christopher’s innocence makes him vulnerable, but it protects him too. At the end, when order is restored, we see that he is a touchstone for adult behaviour. Those concerned with his welfare have to learn to temper their emotional needs round his autistic inability to compromise.

“This will not be a funny book,” says Christopher. “I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them.” But it is a funny book, as well as a sad one. Christopher’s compulsive noting of mundane facts provides comedy reminiscent of the best of Adrian Mole, especially in his dealings with the police and his special-needs classmates. And Haddon’s inclusion of diagrams, timetables, maps, even maths problems, extends the normal scope of novel-writing and demonstrates the rich idiosyncrasies of the autistic brain. The Curious Incident is published simultaneously for adults and older children; despite its clarity and simplicity, it operates on several levels. I’d love to know what a reader with Asperger’s thinks of this book. I think it’s brilliant.

Review: Brave New World

Brave New World revolves around the idea of totalitarianism and is set in a futuristic world where a combination of science and pleasure form a rather feudalistic society. This idea of totalitarianism is achieved through test tube babies, and hypnotism, resulting in a pre-ordained caste system consisting of intelligent humans suited to the highest positions and conversely, serf-like beings genetically programmed to carry out menial works. In this world of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and the unfortunate Epsilons, exists drug-induced happiness, caused by what is known as soma. Here, “everyone belongs to everyone else” emphasising the system of forced promiscuity, brainwashed into the people from the moment of birth. At the core of this book is the horrific idea of eugenics and despite being written several decades ago, its message remains valid for our generation.

Brave New World explores the negatives of a ostensibly successful world in which everyone appears to be content and satisfied, with excessive carnal pleasures yet really, this stability is only achieved by sacrificing freedom in its true sense and the idea of personal responsibility.

I think this book is really interesting as it explores the dangers of technology and what it can do to a whole world; indeed, Huxley is trying to convey the idea that technology does not have the power to save us successfully. This theme is what makes the novel controversial – yet a classic that we can relate to, especially in today’s world, where technology is close enough to ruling our lives, what with high tech computers, music players and gaming consoles fast becoming a natural part of our lives. Additionally, Brave New World explores the idea of just how far science can go without being immoral. Would we really want to live in a world where eugenics rule and despite everyone being equal on the surface, deep underneath bubbles the idea of inequuality and unfairness? Not for me, thanks! The novel presents the contradictory idea of a Utopia, a perfect world, yet the word “utopia” is derived from two Greek words meaning “good place” and “no place”; this suggests that the perfect world is impossible.

It is true that this book is a complex read and I must confess that some parts I did not understand; however, the novel’s meaning has left a deep impression on me. It’s certainly a book I won’t forget, and I would recommend it to readers aged fourteen and over as the ideas presented are complex, and Huxley writes in a very adult-like manner, with exceedingly complicated sentences and very complex vocabulary.

Overall, Brave New World is a scary depiction of what could soon be our future. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this well written and thought provoking novel.