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Books July and August 2006

A long pause, due to our last trip, but here we go again.

Toby Faber: Stradivarius (E)

A slim volume about the celebrated Cremonese builder of violins and other string instruments. Beside the life and times of Stradivari (about whom apparently not enough is known to fill a whole book) Mr Faber follows six of his most famous creations, five violins and one cello, through the last three centuries. The book left me a little disappointed: it certainly deals with a fascinating topic and there are some real eye-openers but in general the author handles the wealth of his material in a rather dry and linear fashion. There were quite a few occasions where I had the feeling that a more thorough author could (or should) have probed a little deeper and might have unearthed something of interest.

Lionel Shriver: We need to talk about Kevin (E)

This is an impressive novel. It's the story of Eva, her husband Franklin and their son Kevin, who has killed nine people in his school. The book shows the attempts of Eva, through the medium of a string of long letters to her husband, to find explanations (or at least hints to explanations) for what Kevin did. Eva is brutally open, with herself, with Franklin, with her son and with many assumptions we automatically make about mothers, sons and families. Some people may have problems to connect to Eva (and the way her brain functions) in a meaningful way: she is a very clever and independent woman of American-Armenian origin, but she thinks too much about all sorts of things (well, I know something about that affliction:-)). In fact, her aloofness, her intellectual arrogance and implied criticism of all things American may well form part of the reasons why Kevin did turn into a killer. Then again, her account makes clear that there are many other, perhaps more important factors at play (if that's the right word). There is much in the book that makes one think and I can easily imagine that some people might (at least temporarily) be put off having a baby after reading it. The one criticism I have is that the text is about 100 pages too long. A shorter, more consise version would have had an even stronger effect.

Jeremy Paxman: The Political Animal (E)

Sounds catchy, the title. And the name “Paxman” promises some incisive remarks and observations. Well, forget it. This is a book desperately in search of a leitmotif, some sort of red thread, as the Germans like to say. As it stands, it's more a loose, unedifying collection of funny or sad anecdotes, strange stories, stupid jokes and sometimes interesting facts that, in the broadest sense, have something to do with British politics. There is almost no attempt to analyse the material in any coherent manner. For once I have to agree with William Hague, who said about this book (rather predictably, of course:-)) that he found it disappointing.

James Clavell: Whirlwind (E)

I am a big fan of James Clavell and his Asian saga, so I had already read this book about twenty years ago. I decided to re-read it, mainly because it deals with revolutionary Iran and we've just returned from the country. The book tells the story of S G Helicopters, a British company (related to the Noble House of earlier Clavell novels) which struggles to get most of its birds and all personnel out of Iran during the 1979 Khomeini upheaval. Well, the first time round I found this a very readable, credible, intelligent thriller. This time, I am much less convinced. There are quite a few obvious holes in the story, far too many close encounters with death or destruction and a litter of stereotypes. I even found some of Mr Clavell's writing racist, though in an old-fashioned, gentlemanly way: the WASPs are clearly the good guys, whereas most of the Iranians are equally plainly never up to much good. And luckily for our heroes, the people (and there are many) who are killed during the three weeks of action are mostly Iranian “sons of burnt fathers”.

Guillermo Martínez: The Oxford Murders (E)

A crime novel, so not what I would normally read, but the blurb talked about mathematics, logic, Gödel, Fermat's Last and all sorts of other interesting things. Well, I need not have bothered. The story of how Arthur Seldom, a famous Oxford logician and philosopher, tries to uncover a math-mad serial killer is readable, but nothing remarkable. There are some good ideas and unexpected cross-connections which render the first half of the book rather promising, but then Mr Martinez runs out of steam. Most of his characters never rise much above cardboard level. There are paragraphs after paragraphs with not very enlightening philosophical ramblings (I do love philosophy, but originality has never made a book worse), there are too many obvious red herrings and, worst of all, the denouement is ludicrous.

$updated from: Books July and August 2006.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:22 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$