A book review: Light Boxes

Light BoxesLight Boxes by Shane Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books are rather unusual and Light Boxes is one of them. The book is a fantasy in which anything is possible. February has come, but February has no intention of leaving and the towns people of a unnamed town are subjected to an unending spell of chilly weather dominated by snow and ice.
The towns people are late to resist, for how does one resist February? But February, now personified, kidnaps and murders children and the people, led by Thaddeus Lowe and the Solution, a group of men wearing bird-masks, plan a revolt.
But how to revolt against February?
How indeed.
Light Boxes reminded me of a dream I once had when I was feverish. Logic and reason, causality, death and any other rock solid idea are toyed with. People get killed, come to life later in the story, or make themselves even come to life. February is a man who can be killed, but his death will end the month too. But even February isn’t February, for he could be someone else. And perhaps the cause of all problems might not be February, but maybe it was the creators that should be blamed.
Shane Jones is not tied down by anything and he does not hold back on style either. Almost any kind or writing style is used and this is supported by the design of the book. Some pages just contain one word, others contain one line, some one line repeated over and over, jet others contain huge letters and some are just notes jutted down.
I personally like this kind of experimental writing and I liked the story, but I can understand that some people find it hugely annoying as it is a unusual book and writing style. I hope other books will follow.

View all my reviews

Bookreview: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure IslandTreasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Treasure Island is no doubt a prime example of the boy adventure book. Written by Robert Louis Stevenson at the end of the 19th century, it is the story of Jim Hawkins, the boy who finds the treasure map that sets the tale in motion.

The story of treasure island was originally serialized in a children’s magazine called Young Folks, I read in Wikipedia. It was a story for boys that fantasize about a great adventure and end up getting rich.
The latter seems more like the required reward than a goal. The treasure is the MacGuffin for the story. It is all about the adventure.

But treasure island is a little bit more than an adventure. The tale. on the face of it, sees Jim Hawkins, helped by Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawney travel to an island that is simply called Treasure Island. Their great adversary is Long John Silver, who initially takes on a job as the ships cook, but when arrived at the island basically takes over power with the bulk of the crew, who happen to consist mostly of pirates and buccaneers, which Trelawney recruited on the advice of Silver.

This does not go unnoticed by the captain, Mr Smollett, a taciturn man, who expresses his concern about the nature of the bulk of crew of which he in general disapproves. He wasn’t wrong to do so, as it turns out.

Although the story seems on the face of it to be one of treasure seeking, the fact is that there is actually not much treasure seeking being done. Indeed, the story seems more about the conflict between the group of mutineers and the small group of people who oppose them. It is also a lot about duplicity and betrayal against loyalty.

The story is rife with double crossing and treachery. Long John Silver is at the center of it. Pretending to be a honest inn keeper who helps out as a cook on board, Jim Hawkins finds out about his true nature when Hawkins is inside a barrel and hears Silver plot with his crew mates against Hawkins and friends.

There is also this mysterious death of the first mate in which Silver has a hand. The first Mate, a good for nothing drunk, somehow gains access to alcohol (which is forbidden) and finally disappears completely. The idea is that he has fallen overboard, but who knows, maybe he was helped with the falling.

Hawkings finds out that it was Silver who was supplying the first Mate with alcohol. But what is more, his convenient death made way for Silver to basically step in.

Silver is continuous playing both sides against the middle. He takes control of the mutiny against Hawkings, but when Hawkins is captured later by the pirates, he secretly plots against them with Hawkins. Hawkins however is playing his own game against Silver. He doesn’t trust him one bit, knowing very well about his double dealing plans he overheard when hiding in a barrel.

In the end it is Silver who is double crossed by both Hawkins and Dr. Livesey, or rather by Ben Gunn. But how that works out, you have to read for yourself.

Treasure island seems to have had a remarkable influence as it has had many adaptions. There is good reason for that and this lies in the fact that the story is tightly controlled. Stevenson keeps it clear cut, tight and simple. There is barely a word too much in this story. The characters are given the right amount of space and are fleshed out according to their role in the story. Stevenson throws just enough lines in for Silver and the other pirates to make them feel genuine, but he never overdoes it.

The same goes with the background and scenery. Stevenson spices the story about his fictional pirates with pirates who really existed, which gives the whole a feel of reality. Captain Flint, the pirate who has buried the treasure never existed, but he is described with enough details that allude to real events and real pirates.

Pirates have captured the imagination of writer and readers throughout history. For instance: the movie pirates of the Caribbean is still popular. I sometimes think that heroes like Lara Croft or Indiana Jones are in a certain way the successors to these pirates. These successor are however a more positive version of treasure hunters. More benevolent. Usually they do not do it to get rich but rather for a more lofty goal like furthering knowledge or thwarting nazis.

It is interesting to have read this book, but personally I find it a bit too light for my taste. Stevenson keeps it tight, as said before, and this means there is little time spend on character developments. For instance squire Trelawney is an interesting man, in that he seems like someone too full of himself and a bit senseless, and there is room for him to grow.

Stevenson presents us with a whole set of these interesting characters: Smollet, Dr. Livesey, Trewlaney and Silver, but most get just enough space to make the proper impact, but nothing more. And women, they hardly feature at all in this book, only in the role of Hawkins’ mother and Silver’s, mentioned, but not presented, wife.

As said, it’s a boys book, and for boys women are beings from another planet which are best to be avoided probably because the S thing might crop up. The boys world is one of ascetic purity.

It’s a boy’s world and Treasure Island is a boy’s book. Something you might read just to know how one looks like, but I don’t think I’ll read another:P

View all my reviews

Book review: Junky by William S. Burroughs

JunkyJunky by William S. Burroughs My rating: 4 of 5 stars Junky is a horrid book. The focus of this novella is the shallow and deplorable life of the drugs addict as he ambles through life to get to his next fix. Burroughs’ book is unmitigated, the focus is the constant struggle with addiction, for an addict is torn by two opposing desires; to get his fix and to kick his habit.

If this was a movie then the camera would be constant on Burroughs, thinking of ways to get money to get a fix, trying to get a fix, suffering before and after, then trying to get rid of it, actually succeeding in getting clean up for a short while and then falling back into his old life in no time at all. In the mean time he is constantly experimenting with an ever increasing selection of drugs to find that heavenly kick on the cheap. Sometimes you wonder where he gets the money or what social life he has except for hanging out with his junky buddies or being high or strung out. At times he tells us a few things. Like he has a kind of allowance that gives him a certain yearly income. And at one time he buys a farm with a buddy that eventually earns him a profit that evaporates when he wastes it all on his addictions. Sometimes we get a glimpse of other people. He is married, for at times, especially when he is in Mexico, his wife puts in an appearance. But these are just brief excursions, for the camera gets yanked back to focus on him. It is a lurid life.

The lines between users and pushers(sellers) is blurred as users start pushing to be able to fund their addiction(s). Sometimes they turn informer for the police, when they get arrested and strike deal or for money. Or just for any other reason. Burroughs tells us, in a matter of fact voice, how these addicts degenerate morally, turning to all manners of illegal behavior such as stealing or robbing drunks. This degeneration of morals even affect certain doctors, nicknamed croakers, who write out prescriptions for them so they can get a shot of morphine knowing fully well that they actually do not need them for what morphine is meant for.

Shocking are the experiments with new drugs. In their desire for a next fix and due to the constant lack to fund their addiction they are willing to try anything that might seem to suffice. Almost anything that could be taken for a drug is tried out eventually. It is not a nice book to read and sometimes you want to put it down because the life of these people are so dreary, shallow and shockingly grotesque. But somehow you keep on reading, perhaps because you assume that their must be some kind of end. A closure. There is one and it is better not to tell much about it, just that it is not what I would have expected.

This books reminds me somewhat of A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. The latter has more story perhaps, but there is similarity in the way they describe the lives of addicts. No doubt because Dick was an addict himself and knew what he was writing about, like Burroughs. Although I do not think this is a book to ‘enjoy’ it is no doubt a book to read just to get an idea about what it must be to be an addict. And perhaps that is the major strength of this book, especially if you are an aspiring writer and want to get an glimpse of the life of a drugs addict, without going through the experience yourself.

I was hovering between a 3.5 and a 4. View all my reviews

Book review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules of CivilityRules of Civility by Amor Towles

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Think thirties – with the linger touch of the roaring twenties -, think mystery, think romance, think New York in grey with the Empire State building looming in the background, think high life, think jazz, think autumn in New York, think smoky bar with an attentive crowd silenced enough to hear the pensive tune of the crumpled jazz trombonist over the background noise.

That sort of thing.

Rules of Civility is the lingering remembrance of a time that perhaps never was but is served up tasty, steamy and hot by Amor Towles. The prologue is the bait. It is set in 1969 and ends, a handful of pages later, with a cliff hanger: “A case of riches to rags,” says Val, the husband of our protagonist about one Tinker Grey. “Not quite,” our protagonist Katey Kontent answers. Or rather, as is written,: -Not quite,. Because in my version of the tale the ” ” denoting speech is replaced by a single – at the start of a sentence. It sometimes leads to confusion when the spoken sentence continues after the comma.

Towles baits us in another way to: a man arranges his live according to the rules of civility set forth by George Washington. Rules that are that old? So how is that going to work out in a more modern setting with different morals? I was curious.
So it is fast backwards towards 1937. We are with Katey again, but now she is twenty five years old and with her roomy Eve hitting downtown New York to celebrate the closing of the year. They run into Theodore Grey; Tinker to friends.

And friends they become. It is a bit of a mystery why this man, who obviously belongs to the well-to-do, should associate himself with two women of the working class type. But hey.. he is a nice guy and they are nice gals.

And why not?

At first it looks like Katey and Tinker are the couple, but Eve intervenes and Tinker and Eve fade into the background from which an occasional update informs us and Katey of their budding romance. A party here, a vacation there. It seems all to be sunshine and roses.
In the meantime Katey has nothing to complain. Her association with Tinker gets her an association with Wallace. And later on she bumps into Dick. All three men belong in one way or another to the affluent layers of society. Katey is hot with the bon ton and, as irony will have it, she doesn’t even realize it.

Another storyline splits off at some point. Katey is a second generation Russian immigrant who works as a white-collar worker. Her task is to neatly and precisely type out contracts for third parties. She does so to the satisfaction of her employers. She even gets promoted.

But Katey has ambitions and while waiting for an interview with a possible new employer she meets an older man running a publishing company, who gives her a job. Cause that is what older men are for. A chapter later it is his referral that lands her a job by a starting high society magazine named ‘Gotham’. Gotham…. Wait? Isn’t that? It might be, but I am probably missing the point.

Katey is either one lucky broad, or a very talented one or very pretty one. Probably she is all three. If I was only told.
But what happened to the mystery? You know, the one that the book starts out with? The riches to rags thing?

We are coming to that about two thirds or so in. So after Tinker we have Wallace and after Wallace we have Dick. And we get back to Tinker again because the affair between Tinker and Eve was just make believe. In fact it was a string of disasters from the start, so Eve tells Katey.

^^

After Eve is out of the picture -she takes a train trip into the sunset and we never hear from her again- Tinker and Katey hook up.

Are you still with me?

Time for a little romance then, but we hit another bump in the road: Tinker has something with Anne. Yup.. it turns out that all the time Anne was his sugar mommy. Poor Tinker is actually only rich with someone else’s money: Anne’s money that is.

Right.

So Katey, wounded in the heart, disassociates herself from Tinker and now we finally get to that other cliffhanger. The one from the title: the rules of Civility.. Tinker lives according to them, but it is all pretense. At least that is what Katey thinks in her anger. He is a fake gentleman, but a better man than most.. According to his painter brother.

At this point in the book I lost patience.

I had a hard time believing the fortunes of Katey. She is white collar girl who gains access to social stratum where millionaires abide. Now I do not doubt that this is possible, but it is never made plausible in the case of Katey.

If Katey was portrayed as an intelligent capable beautiful woman (Katherine Hepburn springs to mind) who stands out, then it might have been understandable for her to do the socially upward mobility thing, but Katey is a nothing.

For instance: Katey exists in a void. Despite the fact that she actually lives in her hometown we never get to meet any of her friends and family. Her father is dead, her mother is missing and she has an uncle who is only mentioned in relation to the death of her father. Eve does not even count as friend as she is her roommate. Otherwise she seems to have no relations from her past at all.

In her hometown?

Is New York so big that she looses contact with the people she knew from her childhood? Does anyone have a clean break like that from the past?

But what makes her upward social move itself so implausible is her passivity. You might expect her to be of an ambitious nature with an intelligence and a drive to match, but Katey is simply not pictured that way by Towles. Instead she retreats most of the time to her apartment to read Dickens and Christie and only sallies forth to partake of parties when invited by others. And her dalliances with the men who are infatuated with her, is on their invitation and not hers.
But why her.. why not any of the other girls? Why Katey? She is a docile party animal at best and a social climber by accident.

Towles entices with a mystery and a complication but both sizzle out in the end. They are promises, but little is delivered. What is left is cute but implausible romance with a sad ending.
It is a bit too forced and unbelievable.

A pity.. it seemed to promise more.

However: Extra points for the catchy dialogues though. Towles does not hold back.

View all my reviews

Book review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 (Catch-22, #1)Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Some weeks ago I found that I sleep better when I read something, but I did not have any books of my own anymore. I used to have a collection of mostly science-fiction and fantasy books, a size able part of which was handed down to me by my father. Another part -the cheaper ones- I had collected myself. But I did them away. Some I gave to good causes, others to friends and others I threw away as they were in a bad shape. It felt odd to completely remove all books from my house, as they had been my companions for years, but I figured that most of them I could get digital and read them that way. As fate would have it: my digital reader broke down.
So I went to the local library and got me whatever book they had that looked interesting to read according to the cover blurb. At first I tried some Dutch books, both written in dutch or translated from other languages, but I have always read English books, so after that brief encounter with my native language I moved over to the English section of the library, which was good size smaller, which made it easier to choose.

One book that I found was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I had heard of it before, but never what it was about. So I decided to read it with some trepidation as it is considered literature and I am not much of a well-read reader, being more interested in non-fiction or fringe books. However I thought that the reading of a good book would rub off on me and I would write better for it. I write, because it is my desire to tell stories and writing is one way of doing it.
Catch-22 left me somewhat confused in whether I liked it or not. I have that more often of late, in that I do not quite know what to make of a book or a movie. It is why I have two characters doing my movie reviews. I am sometimes of two minds, or even more.
Catch-22 is the story of group of American bomber crew based on an imaginary small island of the coast of Sicily at the end of world war II. The most important MacGuffin of this book is the war or better the missions the men have to fly over Italy. When I read about that I immediately knew what that meant. The air missions in World War II were notorious for their casualty rates. At the height of the war this could even mean a loss of over 10% of the crews involved for one mission only. In the wikipedia you will find that the average rate of a Bomber Command mission was 2.2 percent throughout the war. Since a normal tour of duty was considered to be twenty missions this amounted to a 44 percent casualty rate at least if we use Bomber Commands figures to illustrate the situation. In Catch-22 the amount of missions they have to fulfill is an absurd fifty at the start of the book and that number increases during the book. Facing almost certain death makes that some of the men involved go to great lengths to get out of the war, one way or another, or die trying. This is what basically drives one of the main persons: Yossarian. One way to get out of the war would be to be declared crazy. And this is where the title comes in: Catch-22 is basically an logic fallacy: you can not get out of the war on the grounds that you are crazy, because that is the desire of a sane man.
This illogic you will find throughout the book, not only in the attempts to escape the war, but for instance in the desire of an atheist assistant of a chaplain to replace that chaplain, because he thinks he can do a better job at what the chaplain is supposed to do.
Next to this Catch-22 the whole book is a bit of a jumble of scenes and situations who only seem related because the men all belonged to the same unit. It reminded me somewhat of Mash, but more absurd and more satirical, but also less focused. Mash is of course of a later date then Catch-22 and it is probably inspired by Catch-22, but I name it because it give me a neat bridge to one of my problems with the book.
Catch-22 reads as an absurd satire and when it was released that might have been a novelty. However nowadays, over sixty years after the book was first published, we have seen a lot of absurd and satirical series and movies. Mash is one, the Monty Python series another. South Park and Red Dwarf all added their satire. The consequence is that Catch-22 is not much of an eye opener as an satirical book. There are little story lines that stuck with me, such as the guy Milo who manages to set up an expansive free trade network all over Europe and the Middle East using (bomber) airplanes of both sides to trade with anyone for a profit. Free market capitalism unites people in their thirst for greed. It sounds like a thing to wish for until Milo shows his mettle by having the American bomber crew bomb their own airfield, because he has been contracted to do so. In the mean time his greatest worry is how to get rid of the complete Egyptian cotton harvest that he acquired but nobody wants to buy from him, thus threatening him with bankruptcy. One attempt is to sell it off as cotton candy by dipping it in chocolate.
Perhaps because the satire and absurd situations are not very new or exciting there are two problems that suddenly comes to the foreground: the plot and the characters. There is hardly any plot. In fact you might cut up each chapter and see it as a separate standalone episode, just like an episode of Mash. Now Mash was at least consistent in that most of the time the same cast was used, but in Catch-22 this is not the case. Different people are central to different chapters without any apparent organization or reason. But even in this there is no consistency as there is even a chapter named after a person who hardly features in that chapter.
All of this might of course be a subtle way of telling a story with a deeper meaning, but if that was the case it is lost on me. If it was to tell that war is hell and life is absurd, then it might have been a novel way back then, by using satire and ridiculous situations, but nowadays it is hard to get more than a ‘Meh’ reaction. It has been said over and over again. And personally I somehow find Monty Python’s killer joke sketch a lot more funnier then the situations in Catch-22.
The last problem I want to mention with this book are the personalities involved. I simply could not connect to any of the people. They behaved in absurd and sometimes hurtful ways and because of the haphazard plot line the focus kept shifting from one to the other.

Catch-22 is for me an ok book, but the lack of a consistent plot and someone to identify with made it hard to keep on reading. I did therefore not finish the book but stopped two thirds in.

View all my reviews

Book review: Julian

JulianJulian by Gore Vidal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although it is not impossible for an imperfect person to write a perfect work, few people, perfect or imperfect, will do so and therefore it is not hard to be a critic of someone’s work. Not hard at all.
Thus I found myself writing one critical review after the other.
Granted, mostly about movies and games, which I spent much more time with and upon then with reading. This felt like a kind of downwards spiral of negativity. There is too much wrong if everything has to be right. And nothing but perfection can stop criticism. Perhaps not even that.
I wanted to stop sliding movement into the darkness and so I decided to write a positive review. Something to lighten the mood so to speak.
I selected a book from memory which I really liked and thus I selected Julian by Gore Vidal.
But why?

I am not a good reader by any means. I am too impatient to appreciate the elaborate well written paragraphs that give other people such literary thrills. I tried a few other books written by Gore Vidal, Lincoln for instance, but it did not grip me and draw me in the same way Julian did. But I liked his enjoyable and human critical article about Ayn Rand and her objectivism.
So why did I like Julian?
Perhaps it was because Julian reminded me of a friend and thus he became a person whom I got empathy with because I knew him in a way. Julian strikes me mostly as the kind of person that gives his whole life to this one passion: philosophy.
That friend I have is like that, only his love is music. To be more specific: modern classical music.
Philosophy is what Julian adores most and it is this burning passion that basically drives him throughout the book. This might sound boring, but it is not given the fact that Julian is also a close relative to the sole autocratic ruler of the Roman Empire, the Emperor Constantius II, a man controlling an fast tottering empire beset by serious social and financial problems and threats from both within and without. In fact Julian is the nephew of both those emperors and he is even closer to the throne than this might suggest, because Constantius II has massacred most of his family after he gained the throne and has no sons and daughters. This makes Julian both a danger and a salvation. A danger for he could be used to dethrone the emperor and a salvation because an emperor without a successor in increasingly in danger when he grows older.
It is not boring either because precisely at that point in time Christianity gained the favor of the emperors, first the tacit support of Constantine I (the Great) and then the more committed one of his successor Constantius.
Julian finds himself dragged into the middle of all of this, while he rather wants to spend his days as a philosopher in Athens, a city that has at that point in time lost much of it’s former splendor.
Julian comes to his love via the church. A great irony in hindsight. First he is being taught the tenets of the Christian faith by priests and bishops, but then they also introduce him to those other more worldly teachings of philosophers.
Now Julians finds himself in turmoil, for the teachings of the one do not fit well with the other. Julian is losing his religion and replacing it with an another. In fact with many others. He is returning to polytheism.
And while he is struggling with this, fate intervenes. Or rather, the emperor. Constantius II – kinslayer – lacking sons and anyone else to trust, turns towards his few remaining relatives for aid. First Julian’s brother Gallus, who is instated as a prince of the realms. But Gallus soon reveals himself to be a homicidal maniac and has to be disposed by the emperor in a sinister plot that makes you wonder about the power of an emperor that needs to use backstabbing methods to dispose of an unruly subordinate. For a moment Julian’s life hangs in the balance as he stands a great change to be one of the hapless victims of his brothers demise, but he survives his brothers death by the timely (and gentle)intervention of the Empress.
And then, secondly, in almost ironical turn of fate, Julian himself is appointed prince.
He is then sent off to head an army that has to deal with the marauding barbarians that took the opportunity of the empire’s momentary weakness to cross the Rhine and pillage Gaul. In an astonishing campaign Julian amazes friend and foe alike by restoring order and routing the invaders against all odds. He restores peace swiftly. He is competent..too much so.
And now Julian too becomes a threat..for his success is too great and threatens the emperor. At least that is what the enemies of Julian at court say.
I leave the rest for you to read but I want to mention Julian’s development in his religious ideas, because that is what he is most famous for. For Julian is the Julian the Apostate.
Julian, as emperor, eventually turns against Christianity and in doing so he treads the path of the despot. At first he thinks that not supporting Christianity is enough to make people turn away from Christianity and return to the old ways. But he soon comes to the insight that merely not supporting Christianity is not enough. So he starts to actively and openly support the old religions. But eventually he realizes that even that is not enough and..
But we will never quite know how far he would have gone, yet when you read about Antioch you know where he was going.
What fate lies in store for Julian can be found in the book. It is greatly written..Gore Vidal gives us vivid idea of this Julian and his world. Gore is a great juggler. He gives us just enough but never too much. He draws a picture and is precise where he needs to be and broad and general when that is all that is required. He does so by having the story told by two old philosophers who write letters to each other. This allows Vidal to skip steps and have them explain things so we can understand what is going on.

However I feel there should be a bit of a caution attached to his book. In hindsight I find the depiction of Julian is somewhat detached. You never get quite feel of this man. We have no idea about his sexuality for instance. We know he is married, but it is all described in a detached way. Some people seem to take it that he was gay, but from the book this is hard to tell. In fact it might be much more believable that he was just absorbed by his passion for philosophy and his desire to turn back the clock religiously speaking. I know people who seem to have completely substituted their sexual desires in that way. I once thought my friend, mentioned above, was like that, but even he has a partner, a intelligent girlfriend who somehow matches him. Take heart in that, if you feel like you are an outsider.
Women play almost no part in this book except for when it seems absolutely necessary, like when Empress Eusebia intervenes on Julian’s behalf with Constantius.
This is man’s world mostly, not of a ladies man mind you, but one of the mind where men discuss and talk and are friends with men and his world is chiefly occupied with religion. friendships and relationship with other men(but not in any sexual way) and politics. You will find no romantic developments.
Perhaps in that way it is not perfect book. But for me it is perfect enough.

(I edited it a day later, because I was writing this and it was already 2 am, but i saw the flaws.. it still has many flaws.. I wished I could write like Gore Vidal can.. oh well).

Note: amazingly Gore Vidal never ever mentions the name of Ammianus Marcellinus.. which is really strange as not doubt Ammianus was the one who must have supplied him with all the relevant information. Ammianus was a close friend to Julian, an officer and a historian of the roman empire who is the prime source of the live of Julian. Yet I cannot recall him to appear in the book or being mentioned even in an aside. But mabye I remember it wrong.

View all my reviews