It’s fairly rare for me to bother reviewing anything I read on here, however since I had some spare minutes and some actual opinions on some of the books I read this last month, there seemed to be enough to say to make up at least a short post. In fact it turned out to be a bit on the long side, so scroll down the relevant review if you’re really interested—being Stephen Fry’s strange debut The Liar, J.M. Coetzee’s rather aggravating Slow Man, Isabel Allende’s book for children City of Beasts, Zadie Smith’s impressive opener White Teeth and Murray Walker’s charming little autobiography Unless I’m Very Much Mistaken.
This wasn’t really one on my reading list, rather something I was asked to read for my opinion. I read Fry’s autobiographical Moab is my Washpot some time ago and found it a fairly interesting tale, though wasn’t particularly attracted enough to turn to his works of fiction. Fry’s reputation obviously precedes him, and despite The Liar being his first work of fiction, came with some reasonable acclaim and decent reviews.
Plunging in, it quickly became clear how much the plot owes to Fry’s own life (at least judging from what was revealed in Moab). At every turn I was reminded of snippets of that work of autobiography, stretched and bedecked with fansifications from Fry’s extremely fertile mind. Whilst I’ve no doubt many of the characters are based on real people, the book very much feels aloof from reality and announces itself as such. But such an approach doesn’t make a book bad. What The Liar lacked was anything to appeal to it beyond the language. Plot, such as there was, often became confusing, with frequent unmarked jumps of scene and timeframe. Whilst they weren’t so outrageous as to get the reader lost, they did sometimes require a bit of backtracking, particularly when picking the book up again. Added to that were some sections in italics in which the characters’ identities were disguised, and whilst they may have been intended like so much corn flour to thicken the plot, they were abstract in the utmost and entirely destroyed come the book’s final revelations. To my mind, the problem was that the story tried to offer too much, instead of focusing on being a lighthearted yarn. It’s a work of fiction, and tries to be funny with it, but I felt the few openly amusing moments were all too infrequent on account of making the plot out to be something that much more than it was.
As his first work of fiction, I can’t claim that Fry did a particularly bad job. It was interesting enough to make me want to finish it, and whilst at times the unexpected time jumps and secluded identities made the plot a little confusing, the ultimate lightness of the storyline meant that this wasn’t too much of a problem. The writing itself is of course interesting and pleasant to read, as one would expect from such an eloquent and vociferous character. This itself was enough to carry the story to its rather overinflated conclusion, but the book was ultimately a disappointment. Perhaps I should’ve been more wary of the fact that some of the highest words of praise on the book’s jacket came from Fry’s longtime friend Hugh Laurie:
It’s very unfair. It took Joseph Heller seven years to write Catch 22. Stephen seems to have knocked this one off on a couple of wet Wednesday afternoons in Norfolk.
A couple of wet afternoons, indeed, and any comparison to Catch 22 is rather a tad on the optimistic side! Only for the die-hard Fry fans, I can only assume his later works show a more mature hand, but for those who expect novels to deliver what they promise, I recommend reading Moab is my Washpot, the original version of The Liar, sans the guff.
Coetzee is an author I’d never picked up before, but given the reputation thought I should try on for size. And the opening third of the book certainly appealed to me. The writing is concise, descriptive, and at times you might say beautiful. And the story appeals for its simplicity: an active, elderly man loses a leg in a cycling accident, and has to deal with this sudden change in his life. Not only has his whole way of life been affected by the alteration, but he is sharply introduced to the way society views him, an old man, perhaps even before he became emasculated.
Then come the people in his life. The early introduction of helpers with whom he has to become accustomed promises much of the story, and indeed starts off as an interesting exploration. All of which is sent completely out of the window with the appearance of Elizabeth Costello. As an author who appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the story, it’s difficult to know exactly how to deal with her. Is she supposed to embody Paul, the main character’s inner thoughts? Or perhaps she’s supposed to be Coetzee himself, and the ensuing discussions which take place principally between Paul and Elizabeth are a form of dialogue that investigate the very nature of the author’s relation to his subject? Who the fuck knows. I’m afraid to say, I don’t. It’s a very rare book indeed that I start and don’t manage to get through to the end, and for a book as short as Slow Man, it says rather a lot that I didn’t. The character of Elizabeth is irritating in the extreme; her presence, quite baffling. In the end I found myself put off by the combination of these two factors and moved on to other things. Perhaps those interested more in writing than reading will find more to earn from reading this book, but for myself it was off-putting.
What began as an intriguing, well-styled look at such everyday relations was completely spoiled by this aggravating and unexplained intrusion. I can only assume it was all something I didn’t understand, else Coetzee’s acclaim stems from his other works.
Moving on up from Coetzee should’ve been easy, but unfortunately I made a mistake with this work from Isabel Allende. Another author I’d never previously got around to reading, I picked this book up on a whim from the library shelves, and took it as being a ‘dead cert’ after the disappointments of Slow Man. What I hadn’t realised however (and what wasn’t particularly clear from the cover—a fact a lot of Amazon reviewers also agreed with), was that City of the Beasts is a book for young adults.
Such as it was, I actually got through a fair few chapters before giving up, which may be a good sign at least as far as recommending this book to the intended age group. The subject matter is probably sufficiently interesting, the sense of adventure reasonably acute, and the writing free-flowing and inviting enough to appeal to children of the right age. Of course the main character is a child, and the other main protagonists are suitably bland figures lacking in much depth that is probably well-suited to a younger mind. There was no way I could stomach forcing myself through to the end, however. I’m still very much of the opinion, as the wonderful and very sadly missed Linda Smith remarked, that adults who wish to ‘read’ books like Harry Potter in public should at least have the decency or common sense to disguise it with something more appropriate like pornography. 1YouTube links to Linda Smith’s Room 101 possibly available here: 1, 2, 3. Not that there’s anything wrong with children of the right age reading it, but I honestly fail to see the appeal or sense in reading trivialities, largely no doubt on the basis that it is popular, when there’s such a wealth out there to choose from.
Whether City of the Beasts really lives up to such expectations then, you’ll have to find out elsewhere. But for me this was just another sad disappointment in a month of poor reads.
Fortunately, this month of bad picks was finally rescued by Zadie Smith’s surprisingly excellent first novel. I’d originally intended to read this book on the recommendation of a friend almost ten years ago, and it was just by chance that I finally got around to picking it up now. After the thorough disappointment of the previous books, I suppose anything with half a plot and a few interesting characters would have sufficed, but White Teeth lived up to its reputation as the award-winning bestseller it is advertised as.
The book follows the tribulations of a handful of families thrown together in the London melting pot, taking snippets out of their lives as the decades roll by. Described by some as a ‘serious comic novel’, Smith certainly approaches her subject in a light-hearted manner, weaving plenty of humourous little moments into what is otherwise a fairly serious look at the issues of multiculturalism in late-twentieth century Britain. Despite the large cast of characters, the different generations and jumps back and forth in time, Smith does a good job of keeping the reader aware of what’s going on, and it never felt unnecessarily confusing or convoluted. There are occasional threads in the story that appear to have little meaning or significance in the overall plot, and could have been left out to save a few pages, but the writing is so attractive that it didn’t detract from the overall goal.
Whether White Teeth would have come so highly acclaimed had it not been published when it was, however, is another matter entirely. Although perfectly readable, and highly entertaining, the book is not without its fair share of problems. The novel is built upon the strength of its characters, and Smith has what has elsewhere been described as a Dickensian tendency to deliver a rich array of supporting players, each of them individual, each as important as a major character. Whilst it was clear to see where the adjective had sprung from, Smith’s minor characters don’t quite have that sublime combination of simplicity and depth of Dickens, yet worse is the fact that some of her major characters felt rather more wooden than these throwaway roles. Smith’s guiding light, however, is not a man like Dickens but rather Salman Rushdie. The few references thrown in along the way are only the more glaring hints that it is this style which Smith is trying to emulate. White Teeth appeals at heart as a contrastive and comparative look at dealing with the gray areas of multiculturalism, from different perspectives and different generations, yet there are clear signs that Smith was attempting to turn the novel into an epic along the lines of Midnight’s Children, spanning more generations and decades, entwining key historical events. The only thing really missing was the magic realism of Rushdie. Yet where others have lambasted the mimicry, I rather enjoyed the similarity, because Smith is far from being just a mockingbird, and her own unique voice was a pleasure to read.
For a first novel, White Teeth certainly illustrates a lot of promise and potential in Smith’s writing. Many complained that the book did not deserve the praise it received, and they certainly are justified in pointing out certain problems in the overall picture. But personally, I found any complaints I had were niggling and temporary, and thoroughly enjoyed the style, the characters and message of this debut novel. I only need wait and see now whether it takes me another decade to pick up another Zadie Smith or not.
Normally I wouldn’t review an autobiographical work such as this, let alone read one. I have little patience for most self-eulogies, but occasionally I find myself tempted, and for a man like Murray Walker, I gladly make an exception.
I should perhaps first make clear that I’m not the greatest motor racing fan. Particularly when I was younger, I was perhaps aware that it went on, and would occasionally make a mental note of the results when such would appear on the news, but this was usually limited to a few races a year, and I don’t believe I ever actually sat down to watch a race. Yet I was nevertheless aware of this man’s presence. He really was the Voice of Formula 1 like no man perhaps ever again shall be. With British television being as it was, sports coverage was for many years dominated by the BBC. As the independent stations began to take a keen interest, and of course the cable and satellite subscription services became popular, after some competitive bargaining the BBC was left with scant coverage of generally fairly lesser ranking events for some years. Formula 1 moved over to ITV, but unlike in pretty much every other instance, at least that springs to mind, that voice of commentary went with it!
And that’s pretty much where I came into F1 racing I think. For whatever reason, with the move to ITV I finally found myself taking the time on a Sunday afternoon to put my feet up and watch the coverage from wherever the event happened to be. That might have principally been down to the terrible television signal we had for the BBC stations at that time. Either way, it’s testament to the man’s presence that perhaps without really knowing his name or who he was, I knew Murray Walker’s voice like I knew my own father’s. Whoever was in the run, wherever the action took place, the scene wouldn’t be complete without his commentary.
Formula 1 is a sport that virtually cannot exist without commentary. If you’ve ever watched a race with the sound off, you’ll perhaps understand what I mean. Since the action doesn’t always happen in front of your eyes, and the nature of the race means that the full stretch of track can have important events happening at once, motor racing does at times seem singularly unsuited as a spectator sport. Perhaps the reason why the Americans took to the circular track form to make it more spectator-friendly. With cars pitting, crashing, overtaking and lapping, the order can get very confusing, very quickly, till the viewer has hardly more clue about who’s leading the race as a boxing fan knows who’s winning a fight on points.
Which is where Murray Walker seemed perfectly made for his job. As a motor racing enthusiast and son of a fairly successful motorcycle racer, he had the opportunity early in life to take up the commentator’s microphone. From humble beginnings blossomed a long-standing career, as private passion first accompanied then replaced his regular work in advertising. And what a fortune for those of us on the receiving end. His genuine enthusiasm for the sport turned Formula 1 seasons into thrilling epics akin to gladiatorial fights. When something happened on the track, you’d know instantly just how important that was, and what that meant for the race and the championship. Throwing in some extra tidbits of information from races and seasons past, even the relatively quiet moments of a Grand Prix would be filled with something informative, an important accessory in a sport in which for large periods of time, the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that nothing of any import was happening. When someone at the back of the field was making progress, you’d hear; when someone made a pitstop, you’d understand what that meant for the ones around him; when someone set the fastest lap, you’d know how that compared to previous years or previous fastest laps. All these little hints and titbits made his commentary all the more engaging and informative, but kept the viewer exactly on the button in an otherwise incredibly detailed sport.
Of course, given such details and the speed with which things happen in motorsport, people make mistakes, and Murray Walker was infamous for them. The very title of his autobiography indicates as much. Whilst some might argue that his ‘Murrayisms’ detracted from the commentary and were indications that he was losing it towards the end of his career, I couldn’t disagree more. There was always something harmless about his gaffs, something comical and endearing, that neither detracted from what he was trying to say (at least most of the time—there were occasions when it was difficult to work out what he was on about) nor interrupted the wonderful flow of enthusiasm he conveyed. A few of his more illustrious Murrayisms are on this blog’s Quote Collection—a full list could exhaust a post of itself!
After reading this book, I had originally planned to write a separate post about this wonderful man. However, since I’d already decided to write about some of my recent reads, it seemed more appropriate to append it to this post. One final thing that became clear from reading Murray Walker’s autobiography was how great a gentleman he really was. So much was fairly clear from his commentary, and I can hardly imagine a harsh word spoken by him about any of the competitors, even when all around him were screaming abuse for one reason or another. When accusation of cheating or unsportsmanship were floating around, Murray would always give the benefit of the doubt, and it’s not difficult to see why he was so well liked by his colleagues and associates. Although some of his thoughts and opinions might not be everyone’s cup of tea, he was deserved of every accolade he received, and more besides. A true pillar of sport commentary, F1 hasn’t been the same without him, and whilst rumours abound about his return with the shift of F1 coverage back to the BBC, I think it would be wrong of him to take any role greater than the one of website commentator already revealed.
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