Book reviews


No, really, surely you ARE joking, Mr Feynman

Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman front cover

Knowing from experience how deflating a poor review can be, I have a rule that if I don’t get along with a book I usually simply put it aside without hurling vitriolic abuse at the poor author on Amazon. I can’t really see the point. Writing a book is damn hard enough without some talentless hater pouring scorn over your labour of love. However, if the author is deceased I figure I probably won’t be hurting their feelings, so I sometimes waive my rule.

Also, like a lot of wannabe novelists struggling to earn a living, it’s often rankled me that publishers who casually toss the manuscripts of unknown writers onto the slush pile with barely a second glance will fall over themselves to publish the floor-sweepings of celebrities. There seems to be one rule for the rich and famous and another one for everybody else.

I read one such book recently, Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman by, you guessed it, Richard Feynman. To say I read it is a bit of a porky. I actually got about a quarter of the way through, by which time I’d almost lost the will to live.

If you’ve never heard of him, Richard Feynman was a Nobel prize-winning scientist who was part of the team that cooked up the atom bomb in World War Two. Like most people who’d read a bit about him I knew he was a brilliant physicist. He was a maverick who had a knack of explaining really complicated things in simple ways, so he became a pop star of the scientific world. When I saw this book on Amazon I put it straight in my cart and headed to the checkout without even bothering to sample the ‘look inside’ free section at the beginning. I was sure it would be an entertaining read. I won’t make that mistake again.

Sadly, from page one I found this book to be a real slog. It seemed to me little more than a brain dump of dull and self-indulgent anecdotes from Feyman’s life, that were about as entertaining as the instructions on a soup packet. The chapters read like the rambling diary entries of a socially-challenged teenager who’s convinced he’s secretly the most gifted story-teller since Cervantes. The book’s title is a dead giveaway. You could almost hear Feynman laughing aloud at his own jokes as he wrote, but they just weren’t funny. I also found Feynman’s somewhat conceited view of himself a bit surprising for such a great scientist, and quite off-putting. There was hardly a page where he wasn’t telling us how he outsmarted someone, proving some poor sap was an idiot and he was the only one with any brains. “The world is full of this kind of smart-alec who doesn’t understand anything,” he smugly notes, like some pub bore bragging about besting his neighbour. He seemed to spend a fair bit of time perving after women too in his stories, but hey who am I to talk. Anyhow, after fifty pages I tried skipping forward to a few later chapters but they seemed just as irritating, so I gave up.

In doing so I’m sure someone will tell me I’ve missed out on some wonderful scientific insights. That may well be the case but hey, life is short and there’s only so many great books you can read without wasting time on disappointing ones. I think I heard somewhere that Feynman’s book had been based on recordings of conversations someone had taped with him. If that’s so, it would explain the clumsy prose style and awkward sentence constructions. Thank god Feynman had such a brilliant career as a scientist, because he was no writer, based on this title.

If I was rating it out of five, I’d give this book no more than two stars. If it had been written by anyone else I don’t think it would have seen the light of day. That said, I’m sure it may still appeal to any Feynman worshippers or disciples out there, eager to devour the most trivial fact they can find about his life. But if you’re not one of those, and you’re looking for a well-written autobiography by a born story teller, I would check out the free sample on Amazon before parting with your dosh. I may pick up this book again at some point in the future to see if the later chapters yield up some gripping scientific yarns, but for now it is firmly back on the bookshelf. RIP, Dick.

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52 Pick-up by Elmore Leonard – book review

52 Pick-up by Elmore Leonard

 

Flawed but highly readable early crime thriller by the daddy of naturalistic dialogue

Local businessman Harry Mitchell is the respectable, hard-working boss of a small Detroit engineering company. Happily married to his wife Barbara for twenty-two years, he has a mid-life crisis affair with a young model from a nudie bar. Turns out the model works for some local hoods who start blackmailing Mitchell, threatening to expose him if he doesn’t pay them large. That’s where the novel starts. The main storyline is about how Mitchell handles his predicament.

As you would expect from Leonard, even though this was one of his earlier books written in the 70s, it cracks along at a fair old pace. The characters’ dialogue is trademark Leonard – sharp, witty and believable. Leonard had the best ear for realistic urban dialogue of almost any writer I know. He was also a great believer in ‘taking out the boring bits’ – long narrative descriptions which slow the story down. In 52 Pick-up he pares those back to a few sparse details about drugs, guns, and engineering processes necessary to give the story ballast and credibility. But in terms of pacing a story, Leonard is still the gold standard. Any writer starting out would learn more from simply reading his work than they’d get from a lifetime of Creative Writing class.

Okay, now to the main flaw of 52 Pick-up, as I saw it. The blurb on Amazon says, “But they’ve picked the wrong man, because Harry Mitchell doesn’t get mad – he gets even,” and for me that was the main weakness of the book, in terms of the implausibility of the hero’s go-it-alone actions. At several points in the story, especially the beginning, you are yelling at Harry Mitchell to simply go tell the police. Job done. Then of course Leonard wouldn’t have a book. Which is fair enough, but Leonard never really solves the implausibility problem, or gives us a believable enough reason why Harry Mitchell wouldn’t go to the cops. There’s a slim bit of back story about his war record which attempts to convey an ‘inner steel’, but it doesn’t really explain why he’d act so irrationally. Mitchell is supposed to be an intelligent, law-abiding, self-made businessman. Yet when any sane person would want the law on their side he comes up with one phoney, half-assed excuse after another why he needs to do it ‘his way’. The most plausible reason of all – to keep it secret so his wife doesn’t find out – is discarded less than a quarter of the way into the book. After that, his continued pig-headedness is never really justified, from the reader’s point of view. Go. Tell. The. Police. You keep saying it to yourself, on every page.

Also, the way Mitchell reacts to horrifying events like murder, rape, having a burglar in your bedroom or a gun pointed at you, without even breaking sweat, just doesn’t ring true. His macho cock-suredness lacks the vulnerability, for instance, that gave the Paul Kersey vigilante his credibility in Death Wish. It also leads, ultimately, to a frankly unbelievable denouement at the end of 52 Pick-up. Without giving away too much (mild spoiler alert!) the author asks us to believe in ‘happy ever after’, when in reality the ramifications of Harry Mitchell’s actions at the end of the novel would have been catastrophic for his future – his liberty, his marriage, his family, his business, his reputation – all the things supposed to be most precious to him.

Despite these flaws in a relatively early Leonard book, I still enjoyed reading it. The story never flagged and the suspenseful end to every chapter left me eager to read the next. I’d probably sum it up best by saying I’d rather read a bad book by Elmore Leonard than a good one by a lesser writer. 52 Pick-up fits that description perfectly.

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In Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey – a book review

In Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey

In Praise of Older Women: The Amorous Recollections of Andras Vajda. 

If you only ever read two books in your life, make Stephen Vizinczey’s In Praise of Older Women one of them. I’d certainly have it up there in my top 100. This classic bildungsroman chronicles Vizinczey’s rite of passage from pre-pubescent childhood to sexual enlightenment, through the eyes of his fictional narrator, Andras.  Andras’s desperation to lose his virginity, to find the girl and fall in love, is set against the backdrop of the Second World War and the post-war communist bloc. The tale skips lightly over those momentous events, whose effects on the author we can only guess at. Stephen Vizinczey was two years old when his father was topped by the Nazis. Two decades later his uncle was whacked by the communists. Vizinczey fought in the abortive Hungarian Revolution of 1956 before being forced to flee as a refugee. Starts don’t come much tougher. After a spell in Italy Vizinczey ended up in Canada, where he gave up his job as a hack writer to publish this, his first novel, in 1965.

Andras, Vizinczey’s alter ego, plays down his harrowing childhood as though describing a series of days out in a city park. Never once does the tone descend into self-pity or get in the way of chronicling his journey from puberty to manhood. Much of his education he receives at the hands of older women, as the book’s title and dedication page suggests: “This book is addressed to young men and dedicated to older women – and the connection between the two is my proposition.” Like a Twentieth-Century Don Quixote, Andras meets each sexual rebuff, each personal humiliation, each fucked up relationship with a philosophical shrug before riding off to tilt his lance at some other woman, a little wiser if sadder for the experience.

Each chapter of this short novel is a mini parable about the war of love and sex that men and women wage. Lessons are hard learned, often repeated. Reading it felt like leafing through one’s teenage diaries in old age, wincing at every naïve, stupid thing you’d ever done or said.

As a Hungarian writing in English, Vizinczey writes with a lucidity and economy of prose that puts most native English writers to shame. For one so wise you won’t find a shred of ego in this modest little book. Only fun poked at himself, and by extension at all men and women, for the fools that love makes of us all.  Vizinczey also manages to write about sex with more class than most writers acquire in a lifetime. Described as one of ‘those foreigners who handle English in a way to make a native Anglophile pale with jealousy’, Anthony Burgess once said of him, ‘he can teach the English how to write English’.

A perfect example is a scene where Andras is left frustrated after necking a girl in the Budapest University library. Andras describes the event as stirring up an ocean of longing in him, setting off a storm that causes him to masturbate at his reading table. Afterwards he reflects sadly, “Of all the children I might have had, few could have been as full of life as the one I should have fathered at that instant.”  What a line.

Many of the lovers’ partings in this book trawled up the face of some girl from my own past, bringing back memories I had thought long buried. Reading it I experienced a melancholy nostalgia for lost youth, for all the loves I’d lost along the way, whose faces reappeared like pages from a fading photo album.

One of the more sobering take-outs from the novel is the idea that true love, til death us do part, is beyond most men and women. That, in fact, trying to live up to the ideal of sexual fidelity is what often causes so much unhappiness in life. When relationships break up, we label ourselves failures at love. When marriages go sour we think there’s something wrong with us. “This idea,” says Andras, late on in the book, “that you can only love one person, is the reason why most people live in confusion.” Like Andras, I wish someone had told me that thirty years ago. For much of the book the young narrator is genuinely in love with the idea of being in love. But by the end the message is clear, while a lucky few may find their soul-mate in life, most relationships will bloom and perish like passing flowers. As Andras himself put it:

“As love is an emotional glimpse of eternity, one can’t help half-believing that genuine love will last forever. When it would not, as in my case it never did, I couldn’t escape a sense of guilt about my inability to feel true and lasting emotions… In this I’m like most of my sceptical contemporaries… We think of ourselves as failures, rather than renounce our belief in the possibility of perfection. We hang on to the hope of eternal love by denying even its temporary validity. It’s less painful to think ‘I’m shallow’, ‘She’s self-centred’, ‘We couldn’t communicate’, ‘It was all just physical’, than to accept the simple fact that love is a passing sensation, for reasons beyond our control and even beyond our personalities. But who can reassure himself with his own rationalizations? No argument can fill the void of a dead feeling – that reminder of the ultimate void, our final inconstancy. We’re untrue even to life.”

This is without doubt one of the wisest books I’ve read in a long time. There’s a disarming modesty in the narrator’s voice that invests Vizinczey’s prose with a rare humanity, often lacking in flashier writers. A humanity hard won from a lifetime of being slugged on the chin by life, and whittled away at like a stick, by a succession of ill-fated relationships with women, from the flirtatious to the frigid, the prick-teaser to the femme fatale. Reading the novel was for me, as I suspect it will be for many, like looking into a mirror of our own experience. Surely the test of any great book.

Vizinczey’s gentle, wise, self-effacing humour is nowhere better personified than in the introspective reflections of Andras, which leaven this hilarious book throughout. “Later that afternoon – I’d felt it coming on for days – I came down with a severe case of self-pity. I’ve been periodically subjected to this illness ever since childhood – in fact, I never recovered from it completely, only learned to live with it. However, this time the attack was more violent than ever before.”

I feel almost embarrassed to have been ignorant of Stephen Vizinczey for most of my life. I must have devoured a trillion books over the years. It certainly feels like it. Only a slam dunk few made it through to my bookshelves today. But I also keep a special shelf, reserved for those wonderful books I’d take with me to a desert island. Old flames I never tire of meeting up with. Settling down into an armchair with one is like listening to an old friend whose conversation I never tire of, whose humour never fails, whose wisdom leaves me feeling I’ve found a ten pound note on the pavement. Discovering Vizinczey was like finding a new wine and wanting to go out and buy a whole case. I have since ordered two of Vizinczey’s other titles, An Innocent Millionaire, and Truth and Lies in Literature. I can only recommend to lovers of literature everywhere that you go out and do the same.

I’ll end with a book-jacket quote from Patrick Kielty, which sums up the book nicely: “A total revelation… a masterclass in the politics of men and women… truthful, erotic and uplifting… joyful… an essential handbook for the modern man. One day sex itself may be this good.”

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