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Review: The New Atheist Novel by Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate

The New Atheist Novel by Arthur Bradley book cover
The New Atheist Novel: Fiction, Philosophy and Polemic After 9/11 (2010) by Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate is an attempt to consider the emerging genre of New Atheist fiction, which the authors suggest has grown out of the New Atheism movement driven by Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens (occasionally described as the Four Horsemen) from around 2004. The authors acknowledge the difficulty of defining the New Atheist novel, but choose here to focus on four novelists: Ian McEwan, Philip Pullman, Martin Amis, and Salman Rushdie, to spark “an increasingly urgent debate about the quality of our public intellectual discourse on religion”. While they admit that The New Atheist Novel is “not always a neutral or dispassionate discussion that subscribes to the normal codes of academic politesse” - when they label specific members of the New Atheist movement "cronies", one is apt to agree - the authors do suggest that their positions (one an atheist, one a Christian) will have helped provide some form of balance.

It quickly becomes clear that Bradley and Tate are far from fans of New Atheism or its exponents, suggesting that “they seem to know comparatively little about the Enlightenment tradition they claim to uphold”. This intellectual impoverishment leads Bradley and Tate to conclude that New Atheism’s appeal is based not on its substance, but on its position as a counterpoint to the more extreme religious viewpoints that have been increasingly aired during the twenty-first century. They suggest that New Atheism seeks to replace religions with “a Neo-Lucretian reverence for nature, a Comtean scientific positivism, a Hegelian historical teleology, a Protestant-Capitalist work ethic and, finally, an entirely Judeo-Christian belief in the exceptional place of the human race at the centre of all these schemas”. It is in the aestheticising of this vision that Bradley and Tate begin to draw in the New Atheists’ influence on literature, claiming that New Atheist fiction not only reflects this aestheticising of science and nature, but also sets literature up as a symbol of secular achievement and freedom of thought.

Before discussing the book itself, it is worth considering for a few moments its organising principle, which is more than a little muddled. The title would suggest the project’s aim is to consider fiction influenced by the New Atheist movement, while the subtitle seems to place the focus more on the rhetoric that followed, and which was related to, 9/11. While Bradley and Tate suggest that it is the 9/11 attacks that enabled the popularisation of New Atheism (“the single defining political context for the New Atheism was the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks”), the broader scope suggested by the subtitle is beyond The New Atheist Novel. Ignoring the title, the best attempt at explaining the book’s rationale comes in the authors’ introduction: “[T]he New Atheist novel exhibits many of the strengths of its philosophical equivalent, however, we will argue that it demonstrates many of the latter’s well-documented intellectual, political and theological blind spots. In what follows, we will argue that (for all its claims to champion freedom of thought, action and expression) what defines the New Atheist novel is really a disturbing aesthetico-political dogmatism – about science, about reason, about religion and, in many cases, about Islam.”

It seems then, that the aim is to discuss novels influenced by the New Atheist movement as represented by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris. However, a look at the four main texts covered shows that one (Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy) was written before 2004 when Bradley and Tate date the New Atheist period to have begun with the publication of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (a significant chunk of work considered in the McEwan chapter also predates this), and one (Amis’s The Second Plane) is not a novel but a collection of essays. The last, Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, appears to be the only one that fully meets the criteria, and this section is distracted with positioning 1988’s The Satanic Verses as the first real New Atheist novel, confusing matters even more.

One might also note that none of the novelists’ religious positions changed significantly following 9/11 or the New Atheist movement, which makes book-ending a period with either slightly unnecessary (and one might suggest that using both as themes for this book was down as much to promotional value as intellectual necessity). In the section on McEwan’s literature, it is specifically noted that his world view pre- and post- 9/11 is consistent, and that it is only his imagery and way of elucidating his position that alters. In fact, the only one of the four authors discussed whose stated position changed after 9/11, was Martin Amis, who shifted from atheism to agnosticism. Hardly a startling leap.

In truth, the authors discussed here feel like they have been chosen not for their literary or intellectual links to New Atheism but for their personal links to the key members of the New Atheist movement. The result is a badly conceived vehicle which seems to have been contrived to attack perceived Islamophobia and pick apart – at times, judiciously – alleged problems with four prominent novelists who have taken on religion, and perhaps specifically, Islam(ism).

One of Bradley and Tate’s contentions is that the veneration of science, reason, and literature, is no more rational than religious faith and no less dangerous. That the authors they discuss, as well as New Atheism’s key members, seem to promote and cultivate a sense of wonder at the natural world, and the written word, places them as polar opposites of religious extremists but in an equally problematic position according to this logic. One is tempted to suggest that idolising something that exists is better than idolising something that doesn’t, but this is a matter of opinion, one must concede. A more interesting route for investigation might have been to question the surety of the New Atheists’ various positions. Bradley and Tate touch on this when they accuse them of being self-referential within their texts, and forming a type of in-group whose claims border on tautological. This begins to get at the more prescient point: that an absolute position is problematic, no matter how strongly one agrees with the general notion. A fuller consideration of whether the novelists took up such an absolute position following 9/11 would have enriched The New Atheist Novel considerably.

Bradley and Tate also skirt around the interesting topic of setting literature against religious extremism – surely what the book should have been about. Using Briony Tallis of McEwan’s Atonement as a model of someone who refuses to acknowledge the inner life of others, Bradley and Tate start on a good if underdeveloped examination of the way in which the New Atheist novelists other religious fanatics, depriving them of fully-formed personalities, and relegating them to dull-headed theocrats. There is room to go on and discuss further. For example, worth noting is a contradiction within Amis’s writing, which at times claims that terrorists, lacking imagination, are infecting the world with dull-headed boredom, but in other passages appreciates the orchestration of the 9/11 attacks as a symbol, an image, more potent than anything that literature could muster in response. This is one of the points on which Bradley and Tate’s political-literary analysis is strongest, and one could have stood a good deal more on the representation of religious characters in atheist novels.

The section on Philip Pullman is devoted largely to discussing the ways in which Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is borne out of the Judeo-Christian literary tradition, and typically religious concepts like grace, redemption, and sacrifice are used within the story in much the same way as they are in biblical tales. While moderately interesting, it’s hard to know what Bradley and Tate are attempting here as their points appear to be self-evident to anyone familiar with Pullman’s work, and, indeed, a conscious aping of religious style on his part.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the more complex moral position Salman Rushdie often reaches for in his fiction, as well as his personal brushes with extremism by virtue of the infamous fatwa placed upon him in 1989, Rushdie is the most sympathetically treated of the novelists discussed. There is a slight sense that The Satanic Verses and the fallout from its publication are what Bradley and Tate would most like to be discussing, but in keeping with the credo of The New Atheist Novel, they offer instead a rather flaccid discussion of Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence.

The conclusion, which imagines what post-Atheist fiction (note the dropping of ‘New’ here) will offer, is largely a glib liberal drone on the importance of understanding and balance, pointing to authors that do this more successfully than McEwan, Pullman, Amis, or Rushdie, while crediting the endeavour of the New Atheists in exposing religious behaviours that lead to undesirable discrimination, etc. Compassion for others is vital, as all four of the novelists discussed would likely agree, but quite why taking a position equates to lacking compassion for others, is not quite clear. Certainly, those around the New Atheist movement have nearly all been guilty of slips and short-sightedness at times, as any fallible human has, but there is an underlying assumption in The New Atheist Novel, which seems to suggest opposing religious belief is in itself problematic, as though potentially causing offence to people who disagree is a reason not voice a deeply held opinion at all. In The Second Plane, Amis asserts that the opposite of religious belief is not atheism but freedom of thought, a position that Bradley and Tate seem to take issue with. However, their own position is too vague and this leads to a lot of the problems in their analyses. One could easily have stood for less on the problems of New Atheism being reiterated and more on authors who Bradley and Tate suggest tackle the infinitely tricky issues of religion, god, and secularism in the modern world most judiciously, offering the reader a real insight into how these problems can be sensitively addressed.

Atheism in fiction is an interesting topic for discussion, particularly in relation to the increasingly polarised positions that seem to be treated as representative of both Atheist and Religious views by the media. New Atheism, too, is an area that could well do with a serious critique. Sadly, The New Atheist Novel offers only sporadically an engaging literary examination of the novelists discussed, and too often the book becomes bogged down in critiquing or sniping at New Atheism, and this detracts and distracts from the more interesting literary analyses, which should form the book’s core. One of the key problems here is the woolly definition of the New Atheist novel, and the confusing interweaving of the response to 9/11, which, while associated, seems to be an issue beyond the reasonable scope of a short work like this. Added to this the self-evident bias within the text, which leads to numerous misinterpretations or partial reportings of the position of the authors discussed, and the almost incomprehensible organising principle, and one is left having to extract what is of value and disregard the rest. Ultimately, the book lacks the deeper, more refined reasoning that its authors admire in Rushdie’s novels, seeming to fall into just about all the problems they cite with the novelists discussed.

There was some good stuff in here, but the problems and distractions ended up spoiling it for me.


Useful Links
Reviews of The New Atheist Novel on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The New Atheist Novel on Amazon (US)

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Review: Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet by Laurie Penny

Cybersexism by Laurie Penny book cover
Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet (2013) by Laurie Penny is an extended essay on sexism in the digital environment, taking in examples to demonstrate the misogyny fast becoming ubiquitous in the digital world. The essay considers instances of discrimination, rape culture, and male privilege, and ties the existence of sexism online into the long-standing discrimination women have faced in the real world. Penny treats the digital environment as an extension of real space, its openness exposing the traditional patriarchy that has long existed rather than cultivating a new form of misogyny. In the digital space of the internet men are still given primacy, rape culture and slut shaming exist perhaps more openly, and the typically protective advice given to women if they want to avoid this digital lads’ club is to avoid it altogether.

Penny writes mostly about the extremes, but sexism comes in many shades online, not all as pernicious as rape threats. Often it’s the silencing or disregarding of women’s opinions that can be the most damaging consequence of misogyny online. Undoubtedly some of this comes from the threat of abuse, but much of it is more subtle, from the gamer who is immediately treated differently the moment she reveals her gender to the blogger whose opinion is slated constantly where a male equivalent might expect more sanguine discussion. Lack of censorship has always been one of the things most lauded about the internet, but whether anyone truly has freedom of speech is debatable, and so too, in light of the abuses of this privilege, is the merit of such an open system. Penny writes about her own experiences online – the discrimination and threatening behaviour she received when speaking out and speaking up. The anxiety of being attacked for one’s opinions is a feeling that women are more than familiar with and which forces them away from public life whether that be online or in the real world. As Penny reports, the persistent retort to this is that women need to ‘man up’, after all, everyone in public life has to deal with a multitude of hateful responses to their opinions. Certainly, equality means women can’t be treated as more vulnerable than anyone else online (although why anyone should expect to be abused for voicing an opinion is a fairly pertinent question), but the persistent and heightened opposition that their opinions are met with inevitably has a demoralising effect to the point where their voices are gradually suppressed. It’s not simply a case of manning up.

The male gaze under which women have always lived is replicated online in chat forums and across social media platforms, which allow constant surveillance (not just of women but of all). Living under this level of scrutiny, the ‘liberation’ the net promises in fact becomes a performance, where every user is encouraged to cultivate a particular character online. The fact is that every user is generating revenue for companies like Facebook, unknowingly commoditising themselves and their lives, as the male gaze, in particular, is monetised. The sexism inherent in the characters people are encouraged to be online is more destructive, Penny argues, than the more openly misogynist world of pornography. This is debatable, but what’s important is that it’s not just from men that women face pressure to conform to narrow stereotypes if they don’t want to be discriminated against – women, too, enforce, often subtly, these stereotypes through social media etc., and there is certainly room for more discussion of these different forms of oppression in Cybersexism.

Towards the end of the essay, Penny explores geek culture in some detail, discussing how the internet has broadened out to a mass audience, despite starting as something niche that was the domain of the geek. Geek culture, Penny concludes, both propagates, and may be the solution to, online sexism. A good start, Penny suggests, would be to address the lack of women in tech jobs. One underlying assumption that seems to creep in across a lot of the discussion is that men, specifically geek men here, are somehow more able to cope with the online environment, that it is tailored to their wants and is a safe place for them. This is too much of a generalisation, and conforms too firmly to traditional gender roles to be given any serious credit. Certainly, men might not face the level of discrimination that women do, but it is problematic to suggest that they are more capable of dealing with bullying online, or that their behaviour is any less shaped by what is deemed acceptable for them online.

Penny’s informal style is symptomatic of her blogging roots, where she honed her writing style, and her conversational tone is easy to follow. A few typos aside, this makes for an easy read, which doesn’t get bogged down in the academia that sits behind many of the topics covered. For those that follow the various blogs and websites that are dedicated to feminism, there probably won’t be any major revelations here, but for others this will act as a useful overview of the current thought on the treatment of women online (its length dictates that it can’t be anything more comprehensive).

The internet has forced much of life into a more public sphere – the problems women have had to face over all of human history are now more evident than ever because of this, and, while some pretty unpleasant behaviour is to be found coursing up and down the telephone cables that connect us all together, realisation of the problem is the first step to resolving it. What Penny makes clear is that sexism online is not limited to any particular group, that it can come from regular guys who work regular jobs and function perfectly fine in society. The fact is simple: everyone is plugged in now. Ultimately, the internet has the power to bring people together as well as expose underlying problems in our society. Penny is a great advocate of digital activism, which is helping to turn the spotlight onto truths that have surrounded us for years, and essays like Cybersexism can only help in this cause.

I count myself as a semi-engaged audience for this book (I certainly don't trawl feminist blogs, but I am sympathetic to just about all of the causes discussed here, even if I don't read all the situations the same as Penny) and I felt this was a pretty good introduction to 'cybersexism', aimed at an already engaged readership.


Useful Links
Reviews of Cvbersexism on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Cybersexism on Amazon (US)

Author Guide: Martin Amis

“Possibly the most fully engaged writer of our time” 
- The Times

Biography

Martin Amis (born 1949) is one of the best known English novelists of the late-twentieth / early-twenty-first centuries. His work belongs to the satirical tradition that includes great English writers like Henry Fielding and Jane Austen, but he is very much a transatlantic writer, whose personal influences include Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov. His penchant for the Grotesque and his fascination with London also lead to easy comparisons with Charles Dickens being drawn.

Amis has spent his whole life surrounded by creative endeavour. His father, Kingsley Amis, was a prominent comic novelist of the mid-twentieth century and his step-mother Elizabeth Jane Howard, another novelist, nurtured an interest in books, which prepared him for study at Exeter College, Oxford, where he met lifetime friend Christopher Hitchens. Later, when writing at the New Statesman, Amis’s set included not only Hitchens (who he only became proper friends with after Oxford) but Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, Julian Barnes (who Amis would later, very publicly, fall out with), and Ian McEwan, amongst others.

Much of Amis’s writing satirises Western capitalist society, and deals with masculinity in the modern world, the reality of the nuclear age, and sexual politics. During the twenty-first century, Amis has been vocal on the subject of Islamism and terrorism in the post-9/11 world, but even before this his writing took on big subjects like the holocaust, and the Gulag.

As well as having 16 fiction titles to his name, Amis is also a prolific journalist, and has released 6 non-fiction books including collections of his essays, as well as his memoir, Experience. He’s lived in both England and the USA throughout his life (as well as a spell in Uruguay), and taught at University of Manchester between 2007 and 2011.

Seen as somewhat of a playboy novelist in his early years, Amis went on to step out of his father’s shadow and become one of the most important English novelists of his time, tackling many of the Big Issues in his own vibrant, comic style, and influencing a new generation of engaged British writers.

Three Books You Should Read

In a career that has already spanned over four decades, it might seem strange that the three books I have picked are from a seven year period. However, this was, I think most people would agree, Amis's strongest creative period. While I enjoy his early fiction, and his later, more technically sound, novels - perhaps not entirely in tune with popular opinion here - I still find the verve of his writing during the 1980s to be the most seductive, the most pleasing overall.

1. Money: A Suicide Note (1984)

Money by Martin Amis book cover “Money doesn't mind if we say it's evil, it goes from strength to strength. It's a fiction, an addiction, and a tacit conspiracy.”

Money is Amis’s best-known novel and, arguably, signalled the start of his richest creative period. The novel follows the story of chain-smoking, booze-filled lout and director of (semi-pornographic) advertisements, John Self, as he tries to launch himself into the big-time by putting together a blockbuster movie. Splitting his time between Old London and the gleaming promise land of America, Self, without culture or serious money, is out of his depth, and his attempts to impress women, placate minor Hollywood stars, and generally have a good time are hilariously written. As a satire on 80s excess and the de-intellectualisation of the masses, Money is the perfect vehicle for Amis’s inimitable style and ranks as one of the best novels of and on the period. [Read my full review of Money]

“Oh Christ, the exhaustion of not knowing anything. It's so tiring and hard on the nerves. It really takes it out of you, not knowing anything. You're given comedy and miss all the jokes. Every hour you get weaker. Sometimes, as I sit alone in my flat in London and stare at the window, I think how dismal it is, how heavy, to watch the rain and not know why it falls.”

“You never can tell, though, with suicide notes, can you? In the planetary aggregate of all life, there are many more suicide notes than there are suicides. They're like poems in that respect, suicide notes: nearly everyone tries their hand at them some time, with or without the talent.”


2. London Fields (1989)

London Fields by Martin Amis book cover “Death helps. Death gives us something to do. Because it's a full-time job looking the other way.”

Along with Money (1984) and The Information (1995), London Fields is part of Amis’s unofficial London trilogy. Told from the perspective of dying American author, Samson Young, who meets the characters on a trip to London, London Fields is a murder mystery, in reverse. After having a premonition about her own death, sexually savvy Nichola Six – a willing murderee – seeks out her murderer, striking up relationships with the yobbish Keith Talent, a petty criminal and darts enthusiast, and the affluent but weak Guy Clinch. What starts as a comment on the nuclear age – Nichola a stand-in for mother Earth – soon becomes a metaphor for writing, and Amis’s wonderful prose creates a London full of colloquial personality in which his characters’ stories are unfurled. [Read my full review of London Fields]

“So in his own way Guy Clinch confronted the central question of his time, a question you saw being asked and answered everywhere you looked, in every headline and haircut: if, at any moment, nothing might matter, then who said that nothing didn't matter already?”

“And meanwhile time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit.”

“We used to live and die without any sense of the planet getting older, of mother earth getting older, living and dying. We used to live outside history. But now we're all coterminous. We're inside history now all right, on its leading edge, with the wind ripping past our ears. Hard to love, when you're bracing yourself for impact. And maybe love can't bear it either, and flees all planets when they reach this condition, when they get to the end of their twentieth centuries.”


3. Time's Arrow, or, The Nature of the Offence (1991)

Time's Arrow by Martin Amis book cover
“Human cruelty is fixed and eternal. Only styles change.”

Written between London Fields and The Information, Time’s Arrow breaks Amis’s creative direction during the period when he was writing his London trilogy and is, for me, a refreshing technical experiment. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Time’s Arrow is a unique and controversial novel about the life of a Nazi doctor who served at Auschwitz. Told backwards, the narrative picks up as the central character, Tod T. Friendly, wakes from death and follows him backwards towards birth, in an ambitious and disorienting style. The narrator, a part of Tod’s personality, struggles to understand the world that plays out around him, and the reader is hauled through odd juxtapositions with the narrator, ranging from the comical to the sinister. Tod has no free will in this world, no choice over the course his life takes as he is dragged back through it; he, like the reader, is a passenger, helplessly witnessing the atrocities, powerless to intervene. Amis is not always at his best when tackling the Big Issues, but here he deals with the Holocaust in a unique and engaging way. For me, Time’s Arrow also signals the start of a period in Amis’s career where his plots slackened and his fiction became too reliant on his style to carry the ideas he wanted to explore. With its unusual narrative, Time’s Arrow just about escapes the necessity for a strong plot, and that’s why I’d recommend it to readers ahead of The Information – admittedly a good book, but certainly at the weaker end of Amis’s strongest period. [Read my full review of Time's Arrow]

“People are free then, then, they are generally free, then are they? Well they don't look free. Tipping, staggering, with croaked or choking voices, blundering backward along lines seemingly already crossed, already mapped… Never watching where they are going, the people move through something prearranged, armed with lies. They're always looking forward to going places they've just come back from, or regretting doing things they haven't yet done. They say hello when they mean goodbye.”

What to Read Next

As I alluded to above, The Information is certainly worth reading. As a satire of the publishing industry and a comic look at the pitfalls of the aging male (novelist), there is plenty of very funny material in the final book of Amis’s London trilogy, even if the plot is significantly less trim than it could be. [Read my review of The Information]

I can also highly recommend Amis’s memoir Experience – a brilliant and sensitively written record of a life overflowing with, well, experience. Beyond the famous father and his circle of literary friends, Amis’s life has been filled with engaging liaisons, intellectual and physical, but there is sadness too: his parents’ divorce, the suicide of his sister, an estranged daughter, and the murder of his cousin at the hands of Fred West. As an author whose life is discussed in the gossip columns more than just about any other in England, a chance to read about the quieter, more intimate side of Amis’s life is invaluable.

If, like Amis’s father, you are not a fan of books that “bugger about with the reader” (which Kingsley reportedly claimed Money did) you might try his first novel, The Rachel Papers, which, while written in the embryonic form of Amis’s familiar style, is a far more traditional narrative of a young man’s relationship with the eponymous Rachel. This won the Somerset Maugham award and set Amis up as a serious novelist in his own right – a significant step, when your father was as well recognised as Martin’s. [Read my review of The Rachel Papers]

Amis’s non-fiction offers some interesting thoughts too – but his writing and temperament are best suited to the novel form, I think, and consequently his essays are more sporadically successful, and his collections harder to recommend.

And then there is Invasion of the Space Invaders, Amis’s book about the classic arcade game… yes, seriously. In fact, I’m lucky enough to own a first edition (not sure if there was a second!), so can vouch for its existence. I think I read somewhere that good old Mart asked for this not to be included in lists of his titles at one point, but I don’t know why: it’s fun and different. Novelists can’t be properly serious all the time, can they?

Full Bibliography

This is a bibliography of books written by Martin Amis. There is also a good list of books and essays on Amis’s work here, if you want to read something about, rather than by, Amis: http://www.martinamisweb.com/scholarship.shtml 

Fiction

The Rachel Papers, 1973   [Read my review] [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Dead Babies, 1975   [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Success, 1978   [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Other People: A Mystery Story, 1981   [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Money: A Suicide Note, 1984   [Read my review] [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Einstein’s Monsters, 1987 [Read my review] [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

London Fields, 1989   [Read my review] [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Time’s Arrow, or, The Nature of the Offence, 1991   [Read my review] [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Information, 1995   [Read my review] [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Night Train, 1997   [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Heavy Water and Other Stories, 1998   [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Yellow Dog, 2003   [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

House of Meetings, 2006   [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Pregnant Widow, 2010   [Read my review] [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Lionel Asbo: State of England, 2012   [Read my review] [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Zone of Interest, 2014   [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Non-Fiction

Invasion of the Space Invaders, 1982   [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America, 1986   [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions, 1993   [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Experience: A Memoir, 2000   [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000, 2001   [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, 2002   [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Second Plane, 2008   [Read my review] [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Reading Plan: July 2014

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte book cover
Well now, if memory serves me correctly (which it rarely does), this past month is the first since starting the blog where I have failed to post a review. Quite shocking, I know. As those of you who follow me on Twitter (@thebibliofreak for those who don’t) will know, I’ve been polishing off a couple of manuscripts recently: it seems that at the moment I’m willing to write anything but reviews. That being the case, it’s hard to make promise of any posts to come in July – I have a folder full of half-completed efforts, but nothing concrete as yet. I hope I am forgiven.

For my own reading life, I’ve been desperately trying to distract myself from Ulysses, which remains stubbornly unread and discarded on my desk. My latest plan is to spend the summer filling in the most shameful blanks in my knowledge of nineteenth century literature. Seeing as this seems to be a lot of people’s favourite period, I feel quite behind on it all, so my plan is to put together a must-read of nineteenth century literature and then, umm, well, read it.

The first thing I want to start with is Jane Eyre as it seems to have been referenced frequently enough this year for me to have been forced to reveal my ignorance to just about all of my classmates at one point or another. (I know, I know, it’s very appalling. How it is possible not to have read it yet is almost beyond comprehension, I quite agree, and I can feel your disappointment from across the digital divide.)

But I’d like your suggestions of what else I must read from the nineteenth century if I am not to look like a complete buffoon every time someone flings Gaskell in my direction, or tries to wheedle an opinion on Mark Twain out of me.

So sock it me, you lovely bunch of boffin-heads – 19th Century must-reads, go…

Reading Plan: June 2014

After spending most of May preparing my novel for Jonathan Cape’s open submissions month, I ‘m currently torn somewhere between relief at having sent the thing off, and absolute fear that someone out there might be reading my sweary-nonsense right this minute and slowly shaking their head in disgust and horror. Still, that’s their problem, not mine – I just write the filthy philosophy. One way or another, I do feel a bit less pushed for time now the manuscript has gone off so I’m hoping to have a productive June. As well as cranking out a few reviews, I’m also ready to start planning my next couple of writing projects in more detail, and thinking about persuading an agent to take me on.

So, what to read in June? Well, I still have Lord of the Flies outstanding. In fact, if my feeble memory is to be trusted at all, I think I started a review at one point so that shouldn’t be too tricky a task. I also read Laurie Penny’s extended essay Cybersexism last week while doing some final background reading to ensure my own novel wasn’t too far off the mark, so wouldn’t mind sharing some thoughts about that this month too.

Let’s see, Alex Garland’s The Coma was also mentioned as something that might prove a useful reference point for my own writing, so if I get a chance I’ll pick that up. As the title suggests it’s a novel from inside a coma, possibly. As time and experience distorts, neither the reader nor the protagonist can truly tell if they are experiencing reality or fantasy. From the synopsis it reminds me a little of The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, although it’s about half the size.

It’s probably also worth mentioning that me and a friend are trying to read Ulysses this summer. We’re less than 100 pages in and I’m already a bit fed up of it, but that’s probably because I’m a complete cretin (and haven’t read any explanatory notes on it yet). Tantrums about its inaccessibility for terminally stupid people aside, I suspect a lot of my reading time over the next few months will go to Joyce’s mind-bending behemoth. Your sympathies are kindly sought.

Notable Posts from May

Review: Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography by Sir Alex Ferguson

Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography by Sir Alex Ferguson book cover
Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography (2013), ghost-written by Paul Hayward, is the latest book from football’s preeminent manager of the last two decades. Following his retirement in May 2013 after 26 and a half years in charge of Manchester United, this is a chance for Sir Alex Ferguson to settle some old scores, and share a few opinions previously unvoiced in public. Although there are a few sections relating to his life outside of United, this isn’t a full autobiography per se, but rather a collection of Ferguson’s thoughts on his players and achievements from about 2001-2013. Managers he pitted his wits against like Benitez and Wenger, players he managed like Keane and Beckham, or faced like Gerrard and Xavi; all come in for the Ferguson treatment here. Some fare better than others, but all are subject to an uncensored appraisal from the most successful manager in the history of English football.

If there’s one message that shines out from Ferguson’s writing it is the importance of control. Ferguson’s credo was that control was everything – as soon as a player threatened his control, he had to go (Beckham, Keane - to name but the most prominent). At times Ferguson’s dogged adherence to this notion tips, almost, into paranoia, and it certainly seems that Ferguson was a man all too aware of the potential influence of others over his life and career. But this is perhaps not surprising for a man at the top of his game for such a long period of time. Indeed, Ferguson’s long-term approach to management is refreshing and something many people, in and outside of football, could learn from. The ability to manage change and look always to the future, never to be tricked into short-termism, was the key to Ferguson’s success.

One of the main elements to this long-term thinking was an investment in United’s youth team, and here there a real sense of the bond Ferguson developed with his young players as they came through the ranks at United – it was a youth system in which he showed an almost paternal pride. In a book where much is petty, it’s good to see Ferguson’s affectionate side too – undoubtedly, the tough Glaswegian who prowled the touchline at Old Trafford over the past 26 years, barracking officials and players alike, is but one side of Ferguson’s personality. The family man, with plenty of interests beyond football, and who gives his time to worthy causes, breaks through at times here.

Ferguson is of the old school, undoubtedly, but his ability to adapt is what kept him at the absolute pinnacle of the game until his retirement. One could have stood more on how he adapted to the new culture of celebrity players living the million-dollar lifestyle, of sports scientists, and tiki-taka. But perhaps his glib dismissal of all but the latter in the book reflects his approach in life.

Although ghost-written, the book captures Ferguson’s tone, the narrative jumping about and running on tangents frequently. It’s an interesting insight into the way Ferguson’s mind works, but it doesn’t always make for an easy read. There are a few too many sloppy passages, where some repeated sentiments could have been excised, or thoughts brought to a more concise head. For a fan of Manchester United, though, the prose rolls along nicely, almost like having a meandering conversation with Ferguson. He’s affable enough, acknowledging some of his own errors if skipping over others. His judgements of the players he managed, and the teams and managers he came up against, are fascinating, if not revelatory. Certainly, there isn’t any great amount of new material here – few fresh stories to whet the appetite – but rather the book offers a different perspective on already familiar situations. Some topics do, however, remain untouched: the Glazers control of United, which surely offended at least some of Ferguson’s (socialist) sensibilities; the row with John Magnier over ownership of champion racehorse Rock of Gibraltar; Ferguson’s decision to back David Moyes as United’s next manager ahead of other candidates (most notably, Jose Mourinho).

After all the sensationalist press around the book, Ferguson’s views are less biting than might have been expected. Although he’s happy to settle some scores here, most of his opinions are balanced and, whether one agrees with them wholeheartedly or not, few feel like vicious attacks. Ultimately, this is rather a rolling book, lacking structure, but will still be a pleasure for United fans, eager to hear more from the man who filled the trophy cabinets at Old Trafford many times over and turned their club into a global powerhouse.

This is a light, and pretty enjoyable read. Lacking in detail or significantly new material, it's still a book that most United fans will want to pick up.


Useful Links
Reviews of Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography on Amazon (US)

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Reading Plan: May 2014

Another month slides by, and here we are again. I hope you’ve all been having a lovely time out there in the big wide world. Things are good in these parts – a few reviews under my belt, and I’m moving along nicely with my own writing. So nicely, in fact, that I’m going to spend most of May pressing forward with a second draft of my own novel as well as a couple of other writing projects I’ve fallen into. This will likely mean that times are quiet in these parts – I hope you’ll all forgive me on that score; I promise to write reviews with any spare time I might find, but time is likely to be a rare commodity this month.

I have been wondering whether to dip my toe into the world of video blogging too – ‘Vlogging’ as I believe the trendy gits circa 2008 might have called it – it seems a much quicker fix for when one wants to share opinions with the world! Of course, needless digressions can’t be edited out like they can in print, so I wonder if I’d survive as a vlogger. Still, what do you all think – any interest in me branching out into videos as well as writing?

In the meantime, I will try and write the previously promised review of Lord of the Flies this month, and see how the rest of my time falls out.

Notable Posts from April

Review: The Library: A World History by James W. P. Campbell and Will Pryce

The Library by James Campbell book cover
The Library: A World History (2013) by James W. P. Campbell, with photographs from Will Pryce, is an architectural history of library design. From ancient Mesopotamia to the modern world, the book traces the development of libraries through the ages, not only from a purely aesthetic standpoint, but also looking at ways of storing information and creating a space for scholars and readers. With accompanying photography, this is a survey of the big, beautiful libraries designed, as artistic endeavours, to be adored. The high concepts of information storage are all here, wrapped up not in the functional library of daily use, but in delicious, voluminous spaces, intended to make an impression.

From clay tablets and scrolls in the Ancient World to Medieval European libraries where manuscripts were chained to shelving or desks, on to the lavish baroque and rococo design of the 17th and 18th centuries, and, finally, to the modern information space, The Library encompasses the great themes in library design through the ages. The history that spans two millennia is well-organised, and rich in detail. With the splendid photography, it would be easy to see this book, like many of the libraries featured, as purely an aesthetic project, but it is certainly more than this. Campbell’s text, although occasionally tipping into the overly academic, is full of enthusiasm; The Library is a delicate and informative guide to the history of libraries and methods of housing information.

The need for purpose to be balanced with aesthetics is a topic raised in the book, and Campbell acknowledges the tension between architect and librarian, design and functionality. While the libraries featured are sumptuous, there’s something rather unpleasant about treating books as design objects – little in library design sets one on edge as much as seeing bay upon bay of perfectly uniform, specially bound volumes, identical in size, shade, and lack of use. But one has to accept that the libraries featured here are grand libraries; not the sort enjoyed on a daily basis, but the sort one marvels at – pure pornography, really.

Will Pryce’s photography makes the most of this. He captures the outstanding grandiosity of the libraries included brilliantly, and creates a real sense of each space. The images are the perfect complement to the highly informative text, and Pryce’s photographs are reproduced in exquisite detail and laid out to provide a pleasing balance between the text and images. The Library, then, is a large, beautifully designed object, which is a pleasure to peruse.

This is a book for all admirers of libraries; a testament to both the human desire to preserve and cherish knowledge, and to the craft and one-upmanship of the architects who designed these beautiful spaces, not purely as functional repositories but as statements of artistic intent. At a time where libraries are closing at an alarming rate, it is all the more important to celebrate not just the beauty of the few but the spirit of the many. Pondering the future of libraries, and whether they will be a part of our future as well as our past, Campbell says this: “Humankind has created an extraordinary variety of spaces in which to read, to think, to dream and to celebrate knowledge. As long as it continues to value these activities, it will continue to build places to house them. Whether they will involve books or will still be called libraries only time will tell”.

Quite honestly, this is a wonderful book. I know I'm basically the absolute prime target audience for this, but I'm still right: it's super.


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Review: The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007 by Martin Amis

THe Second Plane by Martin Amis book cover
The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007 (2008) is a collection of essays and short stories by Martin Amis, which attempt to make sense of the post-9/11 world, from wars to Islamism. One of the most prominent novelists writing today, Amis reflects on September 11th through the lens of literature, suggesting that terrorism, or ‘horrorism’ as he prefers it at times, has increased the quota of boredom in the world, that extremist religion lacks not only rationality but imagination. Presented chronologically, each piece in this collection charts Amis’s personal attempt to assimilate the most startling event of our time. It’s not always pretty, but it is straight.

Most known as a satiric novelist, writing ‘straight’ may not be Amis’s natural style (indeed, there is plenty of biting humour here, even in the straightest of essays) but he has approached the ‘big’ topics before – the holocaust, nuclear weapons – so it is hardly a surprise that in the decade following September 11th, Amis’s preoccupation was with that world-altering event.

He addresses early on the notion of the second plane, noting it as the lesion in history that marked the start of the post-9/11 world: “That was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her. ... That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanized with malice, and wholly alien. For those thousands in the South Tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.”

There is something startlingly aesthetic about the image of the twin towers on September 11th, 2001, just as there is about the giant mushroom cloud that ushered in the age of atomic anxiety. In Einstein’s Monsters, Amis grappled with the nuclear age, here he takes on the post-9/11 world, but in both cases, words are barely a match for the startling, scarring images that preceded them. As Amis asserts, “after a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12 … all writers on earth were considering the course that Lenin urged on Maxim Gorky: a change of occupation.”

For Amis, this creative blockage was short-lived, and he had soon turned to writing about the changed world, as he saw it. His argument for his own ability to write on the topic of 9/11 is not his knowledge of geopolitics, but of masculinity. Whether any justification was needed is doubtful – whether the line about masculinity would suffice if one was required is more doubtful still. But one does not read Amis for political insight, one reads him for style, for touching on the human, and, if for any sort of insight, then for artistic insight.

It’s no surprise that when it comes to the political, much of Amis’s focus falls on religion. At times, the line between Islamism – the extremist offshoot – and Islam becomes blurred, perhaps as it often has done in life and the media. Predominantly though, Amis is concerned with the violent end of the spectrum; the most imminent threat. His self-proclaimed agnosticism (which most would class as atheism) at its core colours Amis’s perception of much, and this in itself helps to confuse the line between Islam and Islamism. To clarify Amis’s position, he writes this on the Western tolerance of religion:

"Here we walk on eggshells. Because religion is itself an eggshell. Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief - unless we think that ignorance, reaction, and sentimentality are good excuses."

What is clear for Amis is that reason is to be favoured over religiosity (the antithesis of religion is not, he claims, atheism, but independence of mind), and that for him the two do not mix in any significant way (apparently, nor do art and religiosity, incidentally). The narrative thread does develop into a ‘them’ and ‘us’ paradigm in many ways, with Amis seeming to conclude that acts like 9/11 are outside of the rational, that seeking motive or moral equivalence is futile (although to be clear, Amis is as sneering of Bush’s ‘faith’ as he is of anyone else’s, and acknowledges that the appeal of Islamism is not faith but violence and a definite idea in a world of relative truths). Whether readers will find this acceptable or not, may depend on their own position to atheism / religion.

The collection’s subtitle (September 11, 2001-2007) hints at the fact that the impact of September 11th is not contained within the events of 2001, but is destined to spill over many years, as the consequences of this most startling event are felt. Amis himself identifies the events of 2003 – the invasion of Iraq – as the lasting consequence of the attacks of 2001: "We are arriving at an axiom in long-term thinking about international terrorism: the real danger lies, not in what it inflicts, but in what it provokes. Thus by far the gravest consequence of September 11, to date, is Iraq."

The two short stories in the collection – one narrated by the body double of a Saddam Hussein-type dictator, the other by Muhammad Atta (hijacker and pilot of the first plane) on his final day – feel a little limp. There is a dark humour in them, but no great insight into either the humanity (or otherwise, if one prefers) of the characters or the larger issues in which they are caught up. The essays are more robust – with more to say about the response to 9/11. Amis is on stronger ground when talking not about politics but about the literary and human response. Particularly good are his thoughts on the deadening effects of terrorism, and, by extension, religion. For Amis, creativity and vitality (embodied perfectly, for him, by Joyce’s Ulysses) are what he fights for – others are placed far better to deal with the political or the military responses, here language and the creative spirit are the things.

In a large way, the disjointed patchwork of responses that the essays and stories represent as a whole is the best representation of the human response to startling terror. Writing only days after the attacks, in the collection’s first piece, Amis is clear on what the response will be, but firm in his opinion that foreign lands "should not be bombarded with cruise missiles; they should be bombarded with consignments of food, firmly marked LENDLEASE USA" – a remarkably humanitarian response. From this starting point, Amis’s thoughts twist and turn back on themselves, wrestling with the almost unconquerable problem of assimilating this new ‘horrorism’. It’s a process many readers will recognise in themselves, and in the world in general.

On its publication, The Second Plane was criticised in much of the press for tipping into Islamophobia, as was Amis himself. One suspects that much of this view was formed by a string of rather ill-advised remarks Amis made in interviews, rather than what is contained within the pages of this collection. Amis represents a very human response; that he is prepared to talk on a perpetually difficult issue with real reflectiveness is to his credit. Is he always right? Certainly not – some of what he says is reductive, simplistic, or plain wrong (much is also right, clear-eyed, and prescient) – but quashing the freedom to publicly attempt to assimilate world events like 9/11 is not the answer either. The Second Plane is far more thoughtful than a lot of the press around it would suggest, and, while there’s still plenty to argue about within it, the arguments are reasonable and worth having.

As with Einstein's Monsters, words seem such fragile things compared to the topic they approach. Amis's developing thoughts on the post-9/11 world are, however, a fascinating insight into someone attempting to assimilate the horrific.


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