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Use of Weapons (Culture)
Use of Weapons (Culture)
by Iain M. Banks
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.70
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pure Brilliance!, March 4, 2010
Ingenious. Melancholy yet consistently funny. Thought-provoking. Had enough yet?

I really shouldn't review this book. Bad idea. How can I criticize something that comes as close to perfection as I dare hope for in this imperfect world? So excuse me if what follows seems more of a love-in than an objective critique. If it will make you feel better, I promise to be rude about J.D. Salinger or make jokes about Kurt Vonnegut. The pinheads.

I love "Use of Weapons" as a science fiction novel that isn't about science fiction. Oh, for sure, it takes place in Mr Banks's "Culture" universe, first introduced in "Consider Phlebas", a galactic society with technology so mind-bogglingly advanced that everyone has everything they could wish for, except for a sense of purpose. But the book isn't about the Culture. Instead, it's about people, or rather one man in particular, a man called Cheradenine Zakalwe, and his purpose is quite clear. To quote, "the need was obvious: to defeat that which opposed [his] life. The method was that taking and bending of materials and peoples to one purpose ... that talent, that ability, that use of weapons".

As the title suggests then, the book struggles with questions of ends and means, and the justifications we require to bridge the two. Zakalwe is a mercenary in the service of the Culture, tasked with intervening in the wars of less-developed civilizations in order to steer them towards becoming kinder, gentler, more Culture-like people. He is also a very troubled man, haunted by a horrific event in his past. The title works on two levels then; it questions how societies that consider themselves moral and just rationalize the use of sometimes ruthless means to make others so too, and on the personal level, how each person justifies their own existence.

There's that philosophical edge, but this is no cerebral treatise. It is space opera with a point, Han Solo as Hamlet. Zakalwe is the classic Harrison Ford-fiqure, snarky humor and brash cynicism wrapped around a surprisingly vulnerable core. The structure compliments that message beautifully. It feels like sliding down the proverbial slippery slope, like riding on a bomb as it leaves the bay doors. The genius of the book is in the way Mr Banks shows us that moment, the point of impact.

We begin after the bomb. Zakalwe, scarred psychically, begins another mission for his paymasters in the Culture. From there, Mr Banks sends us blasting both forwards and backwards in time through Zakalwe's life in alternating chapters -- following the course of the mission on the one hand, and viewing progressively earlier and earlier episodes from Zakalwe's career on the other. The two tales travel in opposite directions, but loop back together as we hurtle towards the inevitable detonation, the revelation of the dark secret in Zakalwe's past.

The flashback chapters in particular are wonderfully inventive, and oddly moving. Zakalwe cycles through just about every activity mankind has found to excuse its existence, and finds them wanting; loyalty to a country (he is betrayed); love (it doesn't last); art (it can't hide ugliness); even drugs (they prove illusory). It's almost a high-tech version of John Gardner's "Grendel" in its quest for meaning. It's Zakalwe's rather sad realization that the struggle for life is all there is, that using weapons is its own justification, that lifts "Use of Weapons" from mere adventure store to top-tier literature.

Some may find the final revelation too melodramatic, too out of character for Zakalwe. Then again, some people don't like Belgian beer, British luxury cars or "The Lion in Winter". So hell with them.

What else can I say? "Use of Weapons" is beautifully written, dazzlingly original, haunting. Pure brilliance, really. OK, I'll stop now.

How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle - How the World's Smartest Company Selects the Most Creative Thinkers
How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle - How the World's Smartest Company Selects the Most Creative Thinkers
by William Poundstone
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fireside Chat with a Favorite Uncle, March 1, 2010
After a really bad job interview, ever felt the interviewer had it in for you right from the get-go? It may not be just in your head. A Harvard study found that random people watching a 15-second clip of job candidates entering, shaking hands with their interviewer and then sitting down scored the candidates almost identically to the interviewers themselves.

That's just one of the fascinating anecdotes that percolates through William Poundstone's tasty blend of corporate history, puzzle book and job-seeker advice, "How Would You Mount Fuji?".

The book feels more like a collection of loosely-linked magazine articles than a single narrative. While it's ostensibly about the "logic puzzles" used in Microsoft's job interviews, Mr Poundstone is more interested in telling a good story than helping you land a job coding for Mr Gates and co. Instead of a how-to guide, it's more like a friendly chat with a beloved but scatterbrained uncle.

Mr Poundstone starts with a critique of traditional interview techniques, where he mentions the Harvard study. He explains how the failings of these methods led to the increasing use of logic puzzles and branteasers in interviews, especially at Microsoft and at investment banks. Next we get a look at the organization and corporate philosophy of Microsoft itself. Mr Poundstone follows with a sample of the puzzles themselves. The second half of the book is more prescriptive, with advice for both job-seekers and interviewers on how to ask and answer logic-puzzle questions.

Regardless of the slightly butterfly progression from topic to topic, Mr Poundstone is always a highly entertaining guide, and despite the math-heavy subject, he writes clearly and simply enough even for an amateur booker reviewer to understand. Some of his proposed solutions to the puzzles seem a little too literal (his answer to the question of the title is to calculate the volume of Mt. Fuji using the formula for a cone, then calculate the number of dump trucks required to haul all the stone away). For most of the others though, you'll be kicking yourself for not getting his answer.

Since the book was originally published in 2003, the reputation of Miscrosoft, and especially its spiritual siblings on Wall Street--such as Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs--have taken a bit of a beating, so whether their model of interviewing is worthy imitating or not is a bit of an open question. The book's utility and appeal to job-seekers therefore seems a little doubtful. However, it is an enormously funny read for anyone just interested in puzzles, the history of interview questions, or the culture of Silicon Valley.

P.S. How would I move Mount Fuji? Stand on my head. Voila! I've turned it upside-down.

The Innocent Mage: Kingmaker, Kingbreaker -  Book One
The Innocent Mage: Kingmaker, Kingbreaker - Book One
by Karen Miller
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $8.10
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Hurry Up and Wait, and Wait, and Wait..., February 24, 2010
"The Innocent Mage", the 2005 breakthrough fantasy novel by prolific Australian author Karen Miller, pulps together a number of genre stand-bys (boy of humble origins rises to fame, prophecy foretells his coming to save the world from world-dominating evil), but produces only a thin gruel.

This first book of a two-book series is set in the hermit kingdom of Lur, shuttered against a world overrun by evil behind a magical wall. Ms Miller gives this evil a name, and it is ... Morgan. Sigh. "Morgan the insurance claims adjuster" I buy, "Morgan the evil sorcerer" I do not (Actually, I have trouble taking anyone named Morgan seriously, unless preceded by the title "Captain"). The rest of the novel is likewise enjoyable only as a campy fantasy, a throwaway time-filler.

Asher, the youngest son of a large fishing family, travels to the kingdom's capital, hoping to save enough money to buy a boat of his own. By the second chapter, he is catapulted into the retinue of Prince Gar, the king's eldest son, and it is revealed Asher is a long-awaited savior destined to save the kingdom from impending doom. Oddly, the book is in no hurry to get him doing anything heroic, preferring instead to focus on dialogue and the drama of the royal family. Characterization is strong by unsophisticated, a drum solo rather than a 20-piece orchestra. This focus on character would work better if Asher were a bit less irritating. Ms Miller makes him a peculiarly repulsive form of stick-insect, a prickly, rude and thuggish boor you could cheerfully strangle. Flawed heroes are all well and good, but Ms Miller has her entire supporting cast fall instantly and inexplicably in love with Asher, leading you to suspect we're actually supposed to like this annoying little tick.

Ms Miller's blend of fantasy-lite and talky romance may appeal to adolescents, but there is little here for more grown-up readers. The series concludes in book two, "The Awakened Mage", but after such thin fare it's hard to muster much of an appetite for the sequel.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 8, 2010 5:44 PM PST

Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe
Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe
by Mark Mazower
Edition: Paperback
12 used & new from $7.39

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Inglourious Empire, February 18, 2010
George Santayana famously said "those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it". You are unlikely to ever forget reading Mark Mazower's "Hitler's Empire".

I must confess a geeky fascination with war and military history, with the pageantry of uniforms and the dash of arrows on a map. "Hitler's Empire" is the perfect antidote, reality's slap in the face of boys' bloodthirsty fantasies. It offers no happy endings; there are no Schindler Lists or Bielski partisans waiting to rescue the condemned.

Neither is this popular history in the spirit of John Keegan or Anthony Beevor. Instead, it is an exhaustively researched work of scholarship, the kind of account reviewers tend to describe as "weighty" or "definitive" rather than "readable". It's slow going, and the subject matter, the interminable roll-call of stupidity, greed and murder, does not help. You'll be forgiven for putting the book down once a chapter to go hug your family.

Mr Mazower tries to explain the competing visions that lay behind Germany's conquests, and how they played out in real life. The structure wobbles occasionally, as Mr Mazower tries to juggle both a chronological account of the occupation, as well as thematic discussions on topics that traditionally get little airtime in story of World War II, such as the German use of foreign slave labor, and the occupation regimes of Hitler's allies, such as the Romanians. Some interesting ideas, such as the parallels between German rule and the colonial empires of Britain and France, are raised but then abandoned. A "dramatis personae" and perhaps a timeline would have helped anchor the reader against the flood of details. However, this is more than compensated for by Mr Mazower's ability to tell the inside story, how the Nazis conceptualized their mission, by examining their own speeches, papers and journals.

The narrative that emerges is not a comforting one. For us in the West, the defining story of the German occupation has been defined by the unholy trinity of Hitler, the SS and the Holocaust. Would that it were so simple. Mr Mazower takes pains to show it was not only Hitler, not only the SS, and indeed, not only the Germans who engaged in wholesale slaughter on an unprecedented scale. The victims were not only Jews, though they suffered horrifically, but also included millions of Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and others considered "subhuman".

The other leitmotif running through the book is the inability of the Nazis, in the words of Hitler's interpreter Paul Schmidt, to "think ahead for more than five minutes". Mr Mazower shows that the occupation of Europe was a jerry-built (sorry!) amalgamation of regimes wildly different in aims, execution and effectiveness, riven by infighting among the Nazi Party, the SS and the military. The only constant was their desire to ensure the primacy of the German race, and to make Europe serve their war machine. Mr Mazower shows how the first aim invariably undermined the latter, making their rule as shortsighted as it was brutal, and leaving the reader to wonder how such trigger-happy bunglers were ever capable of bringing Europe to its knees. The sobering conclusion is that they succeeded in large part due to the complicity, or at least apathy, of most of those they ruled.

This book will likely only appeal to specialists, which is a shame. The war in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda show we have already repeated history. Reading this book will help us to remember, no matter how unpleasant the memory.

Japan's Cultural Code Words: 233 Key Terms That Explain the Attitudes and Behavior of the Japanese
Japan's Cultural Code Words: 233 Key Terms That Explain the Attitudes and Behavior of the Japanese
by Boye Lafayette De Mente
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.62
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Travel Companion, Not a Guide, February 11, 2010
In "Japan's Cultural Code Words", American author Boye Lafayette De Mente seeks to provide businessmen dealing with Japan a primer on negotiations, by using key concepts in Japanese society and psychology as a window into their behavior. The book works as a traveling companion, one you dip into now and again, but likely fails in its mission to act as a guide.

The 200-plus expressions are arranged alphabetically, from ageashi ("tripping on your tongue") to zanrei ("breaking the molds of the past"). Mr De Mente explains the origins of each term in light of Japan's more-Orwell-than-Orwell feudal past or atomic defeat in World War II, then suggests ways foreigners can accommodate or adapt to each.

Mr De Mente's book offers a kind of cut-away diagram into the Japanese soul, and there are insights here even for experienced Japan-watchers. However, he does at times appear removed from the grittier aspect of Japanese society--for example, he claims "Freetas" (from the English for freelancer, used in Japan to describe anyone working on freelance or short-term contract work rather than in a permanent position) are envied for their freedom, when in fact the growing number of people unable to find stable employment is considered a serious social ill.

Mr De Mente is generally balanced and fair in his description of Japanese behavior. He praises their virtues, but pulls no punches with what he sees are their fundamental faults, especially their enduring parochialism and the strange mix of smugness and envy that lace their dealings with the West. Those whose exposure to Japanese culture is limited to the occasional California roll at a Korean deli will doubtless find him overly critical, but experience teaches that his criticism is usually justified. (Full disclosure: I have lived and worked for the past 10 years in Japan).

The book is aimed squarely at the business community, and Mr De Mente attempts whenever possible to proffer potential negotiators with advice on how to handle their Japanese counterparts. This raises the book above the level of mere catalogue, even if the advice often boils down to "deal with it".

Unfortunately, organizing the terms alphabetically rather undermines this effort. It's a garage sale of sociology, a dusty attic with unorganized memorabilia, a primer that is 90 percent tertiary information. There are some shiny new ideas and sparkling insights, but finding them requires considerable hunting. The books offers no bulleted list of things to do, no consistent rules to follow; nothing, in short, that your would-be entrepreneur to wrap their brain around. Some of the information is highly abstract and esoteric, and likely wouldn't be much use to negotiators even if it was put in an easier-to-digest format.

More to the point, the book begs the question why outsiders should go out of their way to accommodate the Japanese rather than vice versa. Particularly given Japan's 20 years of stagnant growth and its rapidly-disappearing lead over competitors in fields such as household electronics and automobiles, it's getting harder and harder to justify the extra effort it takes to do business with the Japanese. The demand to be treated on their own terms might have been justifiable when they lead the world; this position grows increasingly untenable the farther they fall behind their neighbors.

If a reader is patient and thorough, this reference guide will doubtless help them navigate the notoriously difficult business climate in Japan. It's harder to say why anyone should still care to try.

Spook Country
Spook Country
by William Gibson
Edition: Hardcover
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Smooth as Ceramic, Thin as a Microchip, February 8, 2010
This review is from: Spook Country (Hardcover)
A slick casing of ultra-modern style hold a wafer-thin plot in William Gibson's "Spook Country". Mr Gibson returns to the augmented-reality world of 2003's "Pattern Recognition" and uploads us into the minds of Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist working for a magazine that may not even exist, Tito, a Russian-trained Chinese-Cuban smuggler delivering iPods to a mysterious client, and Milgrim, a benzo-addicted Russian translator kidnapped by a pseudo-military team shadowing Tito.

Mr Gibson's writing is ceramic-smooth minimalism, slick and stylish as an iPod, and easily its match in self-conscious hipness. Sentences are subject, verb, object, although two of these may be optional. "She'd Google him later" sums up the style--five words or less, including brand name. There is much guff talk about "preubiquitous media" and cyberspace "everting", but the prose is rescued from pretentious silliness by eye-catching imagery, like calling a sidewalk an "abstract in blackened chewing gum". It shouldn't work, but it so often does. It's a powerfully immediate and electrifying style. Sadly, there are some distractions. Mr Gibson outfits his text with more name brands than a Tokyo teenager, and sometimes the triple-lacquer layer of coolness is as numbing as it is hypnotic, like watching computer-generated fractals on endless loop.

The real letdown is the plot. There's some silliness involving superman criminals using Russian martial arts and voodoo to outwit Blackwell government types, and the subtext of the novel reads like an unsubtle small-l liberal bible, name-checking such cause celebre as disaffection with the war in Iraq and anguish over the growing divide between haves and have-nots. What's worse, the patently silly denouement in Mr Gibson's hometown of Vancouver robs the story of any gravitas it may have had.

It's a pity. Such silken skill with words should be put to use with a more engaging story. That said, Mr Gibson's invigorating Hunter S Thompson-does-sociology approach remains one of the most interesting, original voices in fiction. Let's hope he downloads something meatier for his next oeuvre.

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood (Winnie-The-Pooh Collection)
Return to the Hundred Acre Wood (Winnie-The-Pooh Collection)
by A. A. Milne
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.81
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Artifact of a Literary Cargo Cult, February 3, 2010
Christopher Robin, Winnie-the-Pooh and all their friends are back for more adventures in this loving recreation of the tone and setting of the original stories. Sadly, it's almost the inverse of the charge of the Light Brigade - It's Pooh, but it isn't magnificent.

"Return to the Hundred Acre Wood" is billed as the first sequel in 80 years to A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories, but of course it isn't. Thanks to the magic of Disney, anyone born after about 1970 has been positively deluged in books, videos and toys bearing Pooh's beaming, beatific face. How can he "return" when he never left?

Ah well, author David Benedictus and the trustees of the Milne estate would rather you forget the decades of Disney marketing, and return to the kinder, simpler, "classic" Pooh. Pooh does not wear a shirt, Tigger does not bounce on his tail, and Piglet is a lovely forest green. Mr Benedictus presents us with 10 new Pooh stories that are more an act of homage than work of children's literature. The question is not really whether he succeeds, but how badly he fails.

You see, as far as most book lovers are concerned, publishing an "authorize sequel" to a beloved classic tends to rate on the literary respectability scale somewhere between ghost writing and necrophilia. There's always the suspicion that the author is lacking in talent, imagination and scruples. Sequels to classics as varied as Gone With the Wind, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Peter Pan have been met with scorn, derision and outright hostility. It isn't "necessary", fans grumble, not "respectful". The author must walk a fine line: Too much imagination smacks of adolescent fan fiction, too little, of plagiarism.

Mr Benedictus falls fairly firmly on the "too little" side of the divide.

Is the book necessary? What a rubbish question. Of course not. But then, how is Shakespeare "necessary", unless you have a draft or an especially wobbly table? Certainly, the appeal will largely be limited to British and Anglophile purists of a certain age who despise the Disney Pooh as precisely the Wrong Sort of Bear, who like all redshirts should be disposed of quickly. Mr Benedictus and the illustrator, Mark Burgess, are at pains to recreate the look and feel of Milne's originals, and in this they have largely succeeded.

Is it respectful? Heavens, yes. Mr Benedictus is positively self-flagellating in his devotion to Mr Milne. The new stories excel in following the form of the classics, but it often feels like hollow mimicry, a kind of South Pacific cargo cult pining for the 1920's. There's the same capitalization of Important Words, the same energy devoted to doing Nothing, the same idyllic world--cricket and crosswords are as exciting as this gets. But all in all, it succeeds in being merely pleasantly bland, a bit like a digestive biscuit.

Partly, I suspect, this is because of a difference in perspective. Mr Benedictus is over 70, nearly twice the age Mr Milne was when he wrote the originals. And the stories a grandfather tells his grandchildren are inevitably different from those a father tells his son. There's less adventure, more warmth and fuzziness and "In all the world, you are the one and only, incomparable Winnie-the-Pooh"-ness. The humor is of the "Spell it" "I-T" level, rather than the wry wit of the original. Mr Benedictus's one foray into new ground is the addition to the cast of Lottie the Otter, which goes about as well as you'd expect, in that Mr Benedictus has the sense to keep her appearances to a minimum.

The truth, alas, is that Mr Milne is dead, even Christopher Robin Milne is dead, and we shall not see their like again. Attempting to recreate the magic only underscores its absence. I appreciate the thought, but I'd much rather find something new that makes me feel the way I felt when I first read Winnie-the-Pooh, than sit here and pick at the loss like a hole in my childhood.

The Darkness That Comes Before (The Prince of Nothing, Book 1)
The Darkness That Comes Before (The Prince of Nothing, Book 1)
by R. Scott Bakker
Edition: Paperback
101 used & new from $0.01

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Much Ado about "Nothing", January 27, 2010
High fantasy is the Rodney Dangerfield of literary genres, where tentative stabs at seriousness tend to result in self-inflicted wounds. Such, alas, is the case with Canadian author R Scott Bakker. The quest for artistic respectability through moral ambiguity and "realistic" writing reaches its zenith (or nadir) in his "Prince of Nothing" trilogy. Part alternate history, party weighty meditation on the nature of free will, the book's airy ideas are nearly asphyxiated by a setting not merely "gritty", but downright squalid.

The book's realism is mostly borrowed, having been lifted directly from the annals of medieval history. The main story arc reads like a palimpsest of a text on the First Crusade: The Shriah (Pope) declares a Holy War (Crusade) against the herectical Fanim (Muslims) who occupy the holy city of Shimeh (Jerusalem). Even minor events like the People's Crusade find their parallel in the book.

In a nod to the cliches of the genre, there is also a shadowy bunch of black hats with the unlikely corporatist name of "the Consult" (I picture them not slaughtering innocents, but boring them to death with business buzzwords and endless PowerPoint presentations), out to destroy the world by resurrecting their "No-God".

If that ambition sounds like something out of Nietzsche, it's no mistake. Mr Bakker holds a Ph D in philosophy, and the central figure in his tale is the Nietzschean super-man Anasurimbor Kellhus, who plans to control the Holy War for his own ends. Kellhus possesses a kind of Spock-like emotional detachment and intellect, and in Mr Bakker's worldview, this enables him to manipulate those around him, since their actions are guided not by free will, but by ingrained habit, culture and emotion.

To his credit, Mr Bakker is able to insert these ideas into the plot without reducing the novel to a Socratic dialogue. Sadly, Mr Bakker's writing style detracts from this complex message. He brings the trend towards greater realism full circle, presenting us a world that is so relentlessly bleak, it is utterly unbelievable. Battle scenes wallow in gore, like a Frank Miller comic without the distracting pictures. There is also a distasteful obession with sexual degradation -- the two major female characters are both prostitutes, and the agents of the evil Consult are fixated on the subject. The other main characters are almost uniformly unsympathetic; Kellhus is repellently cold, calculating and manipulative; his barbarian companion Cnaiur, savage, bestial and nihilistic, a pseudo-Scythian with Gnostic tendencies ("The world is a lie," he claims, and you know, he's right--it's a complete fiction).

Another distraction is Mr Bakker's indulgence in that worst of high-fantasy vices -- silly names. I've never seen an author quite so in love with the dieresis. He confettis the page with dotted vowels, pausing only to slap a cricumflex on the odd "u" or two.

"The Darkness that Comes Before" and the rest of the series deserve respect, if only for the depth of research and the complexity of its theme. However, the presentation is so unpleasant, it is unlikely to get it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
Edition: Paperback
53 used & new from $0.01

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Strange brew an acquired taste, January 21, 2010
"Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" is a series of contradictions. It's a magical tale about the mundane, an alternate history nearly identical to our own, a comedy of manners that is itself as affected as a smoking jacket and meerschaum pipe. It's at once refreshingly new and hugely derivative, a mashup -- "The Prestige" as directed by Tim Burton and produced by Merchant Ivory. Deserved or not, it is a phenomenon.

"Jonathan Strange..." arrives like a Duchess at a royal ball, bedecked with "Best Novel" honors from the Hugo, World Fantasy and Locus awards. Its path was strewn with praise by fantasy's regining King of Cool, Neil Gaiman. The publisher reportedly paid Ms Clarke a seven-figure advance, a bet that paid off when the book peaked at number three on the New York Times bestseller list.

So it's with great trepidation that I step in front of this lumbering bandwagon as it caterpillars toward me, and say, I do not like it.

Sorry. I admire it, respect it, but I don't like it. However much I stand in awe of Ms Clarke's work, and I do, it is awesome in the same way that Stalinist architecture is awesome: the sheer scale takes your breath away, but it is hard to love the final product.

In Ms Clarke's England, magic and fairies (think "Labyrinth", not "Peter Pan") are real but forgotten, and there have been no true magicians for centuries. None, that is, until magic stages a return in the persons of scholarly and Scrooge-ish Gilbert Norrell, and talented gentleman amateur Jonathan Strange. The focus falls first on Norrell, as he rises to fame after bringing back to life the fiancee of a leading politician, then on Strange, as he first becomes Norrell's pupil but then rejects his master's timid approach. In the third act, the two are thrown back together to face the deadly consequences of Mr Norrell's earlier act of resurrection.

Ms Clarke's innovation is two-fold. First, she sets her tale not in some unpronounceable empire ruled by jockstrapping barbarians and pneumatic princesses, nor in a medieval kindgom of errant knights and distressed damsels, but in the stuffy drawing room of 19th century England. Second, the book itself is written in the Romantic style of 19th century literature. Ms Clark uses archaic spellings such as "shewed" and "chuse" in place of "showed" and "choose". The plot is episodic and the pacing not so much glacial as granitic. Finally, the nameless narrator is a keen observer of social manners and possessed of a positively Saharan sense of humor. The illusion of historicity is buttressed by hundreds of footnotes, some of them pages long, detailing an invented history of magic and folklore.

Sustaining this style and tone over the course of a 1,000+ page novel is an act of endurance on par with running back-to-back marathons. Bravo. Sadly, what should be immersive winds up being distancing. "Jonathan Strange..." has been compared to the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, but frankly it feels closer to "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies", a one-line joke that gets carried on for an entire novel. What's worse, the slightly mocking tone invites you to ridicule rather than sympathize with the characters, and it is hard to find much warmth for either Norrell or Strange when the author herself regards them so coolly.

As a work of imagination, too, "Jonathan Strange..." is a bit of a letdown. No, scratch that. It positively bubbles and froths with invention and ideas. A pity they are almost all buried in the footnotes. Ms Clarke presents us with a richly-detailed, colorful backdrop, then foregrounds a rather dull, grey tale. The first three quarters of the book are so singularly lacking in incident that the language becomes not sedate but soporific. The final break between the two main characters, for example, involves a mildly critical magazine article.

Despite the hype, this is far too inaccessible a novel to merit the mantle of "Harry Potter for adults". Indeed, the book's highest accomplishment will probably to help move fantasy beyond Rowling and Tolkien wannabes. Funny that a book so rooted in the past should propel the genre forward, but hey, what's one more contradiction?

AA Gill is Away
AA Gill is Away
by A. A. Gill
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.78
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I'll be black..., January 15, 2010
This review is from: AA Gill is Away (Paperback)
The cover is black. Matte, ominous, "2001" monolith black, the title spelled out in stark white letters. It's a collection of travel writing, but no clues for guessing that when AA Gill is away, he's not sunning his backside in St. Tropez or picking sunflowers in Andalusia (or if he is, he has to good sense not to tell anyone). It's not just the cover that's black and white: Mr Gill takes us to some of humanity's darkest hellholes, but also shines a light in some surprising places. He veers between apoplectic rage and childish glee, but his writing always sears like a quicklime shower. This is travel writing like you've never seen before. Ladies and gentlemen, AA Gill is the new black.

The AA Gill of the title is Adrian Anthony Gill, restaurant and TV critic for the UK's Sunday Times newspaper, travel writer and contributor to magazines such as Vanity Fair and GQ. The key word there is "critic", and Mr Gill has scribbled himself a very profitable byline in being an outrageously, provocatively opinionated ass about most things. In the course of his literary career he has managed to give offense to--in order of decreasing plausibility--animal-lovers, the Germans, the Albanians, and the Welsh. Irritatingly, he also happens to be a very, very talented ass. Mr Gill is the master to the unexpected metaphor and vivid visual imagery, each page hitting you like a psychedelic thunderstorm.

He's also one of the few writers this side of Edgar Allan Poe who appears aware that English is a spoken language, not just a written one. Try reading it out loud, "chuckling children being bathed in tin buckets ... gaggling women at the wheezing water pump filling the first of interminable four-gallon plastic cans", and you realize there's more to Mr Gill than foreigner-baiting. It's travel writing, but at times it's closer to poetry.

"AA Gill is Away" is a collection of 25 travel articles by Mr Gill, previously published in either the Sunday Times or GQ (the latter are easy to spot--they're about either cars or porn), mainly between 1998 and 2001. The book is divided into four sections, titled South, East, West and North, though these divisions only make sense if you happen to be Maltese: Argentina and Cuba are West, but Milan and Monaco are North.

Mr Gill is not a foreign correspondent, and these pieces tend to be more snapshots than in-depth analyses. Often, when he takes us somewhere unexpected or makes us look at something in a new way--he spends several days as the director of a pornographic movie--this is effective and informative. Bethlehem on the eve of the new millennium is a revelation, his piece on sleeping sickness in Uganda is a wakeup call. However, when it really is just AA Gill on holiday, the end result meanders about very prettily but doesn't leave any lasting impressions.

As delightful as the articles are, Mr Gill's hyperactive vocabulary and emotional extremes can be a little wearying. Sometimes, too, he's so busy tossing out Technicolor commentary he forgets there are readers trying to keep up with him. You want to sit him down, fix him some ice tea, and say "Now the Gilly, what was that about Canadians and Cubans being the opposite poles of human variation? Can't make head nor tail of it." What does he mean when he says hating Germans is "the only thing that truly emulsifies us"? I don't hate the Germans; I know what an emulsion is, but I'm clearer of how they work in chemistry than international relations. Maybe the line works better in Britain, as do the references to Britons famous in the UK and not elsewhere.

Intellectually, "AA Gill is Away" is like learning at the feet of Socrates. You shake your head. "If only I could write like this". Emotionally though, it's hard to know how to react to the book. Mr Gill is a professional critic; that is, he earns a living by being contentious. You always wonder how much is heartfelt, how much is calculated to push your buttons. Does he really hate Japan or is that what he thought would make a better story? A little of both, perhaps. No doubt he feels, but also he exaggerates.

I doubt I could be friends with Mr Gill, and I certainly wouldn't want to travel with him. Yet I could read and re-read almost any one of these pieces endlessly and call it perfection. Black, you see, never goes out of style.

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