Saturday, 31 January 2009

Where Angels Fear To Tread (E. M. Forster)

--The blurb--
"When attractive, impulsive English widow Lilia takes a holiday in Italy, she causes a scandal by marrying Gino, a dashing and highly unsuitable Italian twelve years her junior. Her prim, snobbish in-laws make no attempts to hide their disapproval, and when Lilia’s decision eventually brings disaster, her English relatives embark on an expedition to face the uncouth foreigner. But when they are confronted by the beauty of Italy and the charm and vitality of the disreputable Gino, they are forced to examine their own narrow lives, and their reactions are emotional, violent and unexpected."
blurb from

--The review--
Having only read A Room With A View before now, and even that still some years ago, I still feel like something of a Forster 'virgin': he seems a complex author, combining moral and didactic purposes with skilfully-crafted prose, and all without coming across as preachy or patronising. Where Angels Fear To Tread is not very optimistic in its subject matter, but still generally accessible, although the Italian language is used throughout the book without being translated. The author's interest in Italy and the country's language is apparent throughout, though simultaneously serves to satirise those who go abroad and religiously follow guidebooks. The plot is well-rounded, and its overall outcome connects well to the title and overriding theme.

I did have one problem, however, and that was with the characterisation. I found none of the characters especially believable; they were stiff, one-dimensional and occasionally irritating. Even if this was an intentional literary device, utilised in order to emphasise the satirical and moral aspects of the novel, I personally found it offputting: I like to be able to engage with a novel's characters one way or the other, and Forster's characters, when they were irritating, were not irritating in a good way. While the dialogic style is perhaps reflective of the English aristocracy at this time, it is easier to bear in modern times when the characters are fleshed out more successfully, allowing readers to identify with characters despite the datedness of the dialogue.

As previously mentioned, the plot was strong, and the small core of characters kept the storyline intense, even though more detail could have been useful in some of them (it was at times difficult to penetrate and explore some very major characters' personalities, such as Harriet), as Forster's overall style is very distant and attempts at extreme emotion, such as anger, just come across as parodic and silly. Again, whether or not this is intentional could influence one's reading of the characterisation and general style as a whole.

Yet despite these challenges in interpreting the characterisation, I enjoyed Where Angels Fear To Tread. Certainly plot-wise it is subtle and simultaneously accessible, but still has a clear point to make, realised completely in the suddenness of the near-ending. And yet the story continues beyond the novel's main resolution, allowing the reader's shock to be tempered with further food for thought, although the convincingness of the novel's romantic aspects would have been further improved by better characterisation. Beyond characterisation problems, Forster blends his literary and satiric aims and talents successfully, encouraging further reading of his core of classic novels.

Other works by E. M. Forster
The Longest Journey (1907)
A Room With A View (1908)
Howard's End (1910)
A Passage To India (1924)
Maurice (finished 1914; published posthumously in 1971)

Friday, 23 January 2009

Du phonographe au MP3: une histoire de la musique enregistrée, XIXè au XXIè siècle (Ludovic Tournès)

--The blurb--
"At a time when the history of music has been engaged in historic change since the turn of the century, this work sheds invaluable light on the industry, allowing reader to understand changes that are simultaneously technical, economic and cultural. Market globalisation, the formation of massive multimedia companies, rapports between major and independent labels, the evolution of recording techniques, the interbreeding of different types of music, and the changes in the way we listen are a multitude of issues that are successfully analysed together and given a more long-term perspective. It also presents the revolution provoked by the appearance of vinyl. And so in this work the history of different recording techniques is presented, as is the history of the record industry, the story of musicians who saw their world turned upside down by the arrival of sound recording, and the history of the general public, whose way of listening to music has developed all the way to the MP3 player. This teeming history brings together numerous artists who, despite their differing styles, have allowed the recording of music to become a historic method of distribution: Enrico Caruso, Charles Trenet, the Beatles, Glenn Gould, Michael Jackson, and many others.
(blurb from; translation mine)

--The review--
Continuing my non-fiction journey, this 2008 offering struck me as a unique entity: very few music technology books deal specifically with the art of recording and even fewer deal with it right through into the 21st century. This book's appearance is therefore encouraging, and what's even more encouraging is its conciseness, accessibility, and general dynamism. History books, of any description, are often written in a very dull manner, but Tournès's attempt is thankfully written with a vivid, lively, enthusiastic and engaging voice. This deep interest is highly contagious and is conveyed from the very first pages: it is always most helpful when an author is clearly enamoured with their subject.

The book is clearly and chronologically laid out, going from the very first methods and problems of recording right up to the obsolescence of tapes and records. It is crammed full of interesting facts, including how temperature could affect early recordings, and a beginners' glossary to help the uneducated decode various acronyms. There are also many monochrome pictures to help the authenticity factor along. The facts are well-researched and don't need much pimping to make them interesting, although, bizarrely, it was implied in the book's conclusion that the CD had already died out to make way for the MP3. A satiric prophecy, or something else? In any case, Tournès balances detail and finesse with accessibility and enthusiasm, leading me to hope that his books will soon be translated into English for the reading pleasure of Anglophones worldwide.

Other works by Ludovic Tournès
New Orleans sur Seine: histoire du jazz en France (1999)
L'informatique pour les historiens (2005)

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Le Dossier: How To Survive The English (translated by Sarah Long)

--The blurb--
"In this robust, insightful and hitherto only privately available handbook, Parisian wife and mother Hortense de Monplaisir shares with us the secrets of her survival amongst the English. Exiled to London for the sake of her husband’s career, pioneer, Hortense delves into the many aspects of la perfide Albion that have long puzzled its closest neighbour and oldest enemy. No one and nothing is safe from Hortense’s penetrating eye as she discusses a diverse range of topics from the inability of the English to speak their mind, their bizarre love of rituals such as the stag party and the country fete and their passion for long muddy walks, to their obsession with World War II, estate agents and incomprehensible fondness for the traditional English pantomime. The result is a double-edged comedy: here are the foibles of the English, seen through the jaundiced gaze of a sophisticated Parisienne. Hortense’s confident interpretations of some of our best-loved national habits (jam with meat, anyone?) will only confirm our long-held view that the French are, indeed, very different.”
blurb from

--The review--
Le Dossier, narrated by Hortense de Monplaisir and translated by an Englishwoman, Sarah Long, simultaneously allows Brits to do what they do best on two counts: make fun of themselves, and make fun of the French. Hortense de Monplaisir is in fact a fictional narrator invented by Sarah Long, the 'translator', an Englishwoman who lived in Paris for ten years. It is clear from the outset that Hortense is intended to embody only a very specific Parisian demographic (the rich trophy wife), and not all French people. Long's pointed inclusion of specific detail, such as the location to which Hortense has been expatriated and her references to her regular visit to the coiffeur, makes this evident quickly. Long also assumes the persona of a French woman well, and the 'French accent' with which her character speaks rings loudly throughout the narration almost from the beginning. She makes several very accurate observations about the French as well as about the English, doing this as well implicitly as she does explicitly, and all aspects of both English and French life are well covered and tautly compared.

The positive reaction that I had to this piece of double-edged satire therefore made my perusal of Amazon's comment page very surprising: a disproportionate number of people seemed to find this novel lacking in humour, insulting, or both. The only people who felt this way clearly didn't 'get' the novel's concept, and for this to happen, in my mind, you have to be a few sandwiches short of a picnic. Hortense is crafted to the pinnacle of extremity in her actions, reactions, and thoughts, and while some of these things are representative of the French as a nation (hypochondria, anyone?), she is deliberately designed as a caricature, and as a piece of satirical comedy, the novel comes off very smoothly. It is in no way intended as a serious piece of literature, and bearing this in mind greatly aids the reader's general enjoyment.

Le Dossier combines stereotypes with wit and humour beautifully, and equally mixes disrespect and respect for both cultures. Some of the points Long makes about English culture are particularly salient, and since Le Dossier is satirical and she therefore may not mean them, it does provoke the question of why Long, who lived in Paris for ten years, returned to England; furthermore, instead of adhering to one comment on the book's cover, which assures readers that this book will change their minds if they ever decide that idyllically renovating a French château is a good idea, Le Dossier is perhaps more likely to send the English running towards France faster than ever before, for the novel is as blunt about England's faults as it is about France's. The only weakness in the novel is some slightly shoddy editing: missing footnotes, for instance, and a couple of ill-aimed accents (e.g. château being written chateâu).

Sarah Long reveals herself in the 'about the translator' section, saying 'Madame de Monplaisir, c'est moi!' I kindly instruct anyone who still misses the point of this novel after reading that preface to read the novel over again. It is a rare gem in being both amusing and true, and it is to be hoped that this will propel Ms Long and her work into the limelight, where they both deserve to belong.

Other works by Sarah Long
And What Do You Do?
The Next Best Thing

Saturday, 10 January 2009

You Are Here (Rory Bremner, John Bird, John Fortune)

--The blurb--
"'Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against the Americans putting a man on Mars, just as long as it's George Bush.'
Like the most recent critically acclaimed Bremner, Bird and Fortune series on Channel 4, YOU ARE HERE picks away at the scabs of international politics with the voice and credibility of Rory and the two Johns, and will appeal to an audience hungry for a mix of entertainment and information - tough facts made funny. The book lampoons the contradiction at the heart of Britain since Tony Blair became Prime Minister after the landslide General Election result of 1997. Warm beer and skittles, and Fortress Europe. A superpower, yet humane. A sort of America Lite. Same policies, but with all the guilt taken out. In the face of the fog of confusion created by New Labour, it can be difficult to discover the real truth. After all, why spin if you don't want people to get dizzy? But if it all gets a little confusing, then just remember: it all connects. Giant B52 planes flying out of Fairford over the Oxfordshire countryside; the collapse of the railway system; Alistair Campbell and the Hutton Report; the failings, the mess, everything. None of it is in isolation. What the British reader needs is this witty and original map explaining how it all connects, a guide to how we got here. And remember - You Are Here."

--The review--
In 2005, the world was still reeling from the current bellicose world situation, and yet revelling smugly in financial stability, and this presentation of extremes could arguably serve quite well as a microcosm of England politically (both then and 3-4 years later). The United Kingdom: the land where greatness and abject failure collide. And so, in 2005, the perhaps notorious television hosts Bremner, Bird, and Fortune (primarily famous for their eponymous television programme) committed their analysis of this status quo to paper. And, a few years on, has much really changed? A significant proportion of the book still seems close to home, and, worryingly, will probably continue to be so. This is not a historical text, calling time on the mistakes of the past; it is almost a diary of current events, charting predictions of what may follow by holding up the present as examples. This also allows reflection on the duality of the title, which not only reflects the British government's frequent opacity in the style of a top secret military base ('you are here. We are not') but also instils in the reader, by the end of the doomsaying that makes up the book, a feeling of 'Holy Moses...we really are can I get the hell out?' (in the style of dystopian fiction).

And yet the doomsaying is not only mixed with the trio's trademark humour, but is tied together with painful accuracy. The book is well researched, with plenty of references and evidence for its claims. This is balanced by outright insults directed at various members of the English Cabinet, particularly John Prescott, who is the subject of many derogatory broadsheet-style cartoons throughout the book, which mainly describe alternative uses for the man (bouncy castle, traffic-calming measure...). There are also extracts from interviews with various politicians and details of policy, and yet it is in no way unreadable: its depth of knowledge is tempered by its accessibility, allowing it to appeal to political savants, political novices, and to fans of the authors' show alike. The book is also just the right length - entertaining and substantial, but not cumbersome - and is suited to any person interested in current affairs, male or female, probably from about the age of 14/15 upwards.

Unlike many celebrities who choose to express themselves in written form, it is clear from the outset that these three know their stuff, and express it in a manner beset with humour and intelligence in equal measure. It is fairly surely not ghostwritten, and is unlikely to become consigned to the bottom of bookshop bargain bins. These three are famous, but unlike many, they are actually famous for something: their acerbic observations and eminently positive and successful collaboration as a team. This particular output is perhaps best read in chunks, to allow for appropriate digestion of the information and to avoid overclouding with too many facts at once. However, this is not to be taken as a negative: the book is densely layered and covers a wide range of topics, easily meriting multiple reads. Other written output from this trio would be much appreciated as we move out of this decade and (it is to be hoped) into a different government, as a valuable supplement to their usual televisual form of entertainment for the thinking man.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Let the challenge commence

Happy New Year to one and all. May it be happy, healthy and prosperous :)

As mentioned in my inaugural post, I had several reasons for setting up this blog. One of them was to carry out my own personal '50 book challenge', which I carried out for the first time in 2007 as part of a Livejournal community. The clue is in the title: the aim is to read 50 or more books in 2009, not counting rereads.

I would ideally like to read some Proust this year, and I would also like to get to two other authors who were on my hit list in 2007: Toni Morrison and Terry Pratchett. My list is also bound to be littered with random French-language finds from the local library and from my boyfriend's personal collection. I am open to recommendations. I am starting, however, with You Are Here, by the perhaps infamous (in Britain anyway) Bremner, Bird and Fortune. Arrivals in my hopefully-soon-to-arrive Amazon package thanks to a €30 gift voucher from my uncle this Christmas (cheers Neil!) will make up #2 and #3 - Born on a Blue Day, by Daniel Trammett, and The Tale of Genji, an ancient Japanese epic. I told you my tastes were varied ;)

Beyond this...we'll see. For now...on with the show. The list of books I read in 2007 (not counting books read for my course, or rereads), can be viewed below:
1. The Blind Watchmaker (Richard Dawkins)
2. My Uncle Oswald (Roald Dahl)
3. Switch Bitch (Roald Dahl)
4. Someone Like You (Roald Dahl)
5. Espresso Tales (Alexander McCall Smith)
6. Pistache (Sebastian Faulks)
7. Common People (Martin Knight)
8. Losing My Virginity (Richard Branson)
9. The Musical Companion (A.L. Bacharach)
10. A Short History of French Literature (Geoffrey Brereton)
11. The Space of Joy (John Fuller)
12. The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh of Homer (Irwin et al)
13. The Pointe Book: Shoes, Training and Technique (Barringer & Schlesinger)
14. War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)
15. The Secret History (Donna Tartt)
16. Suite Française (Irène Némirovsky)
17. The Time Traveller's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)
18. Campus Conspiracy (anon)
19. Poppy Shakespeare (Clare Allan)
20. One Red Paperclip (Kyle Macdonald)
21. The Adventure of English (Melvyn Bragg)
22. So Many Ways To Begin (Jon McGregor)
23. Salmon Fishing In The Yemen (Paul Torday)
24. Black Swan Green (David Mitchell)
25. A Million Little Pieces (James Frey)
26. The Snapper (Roddy Doyle)
27. Music of Chance (Paul Auster)
28. The Turn of the Screw (Henry James)
29. The Human Stain (Philip Roth)
30. Inconnu à cette adresse (Taylor Kressman)
31. Retour d'Uruguay (Pascale Kramer)
32. Méfie-toi des fruits (Anna Rozen)
33. Elle sera de jaspe et de corail (Werewere Liking)
34. The Rose and the Beast (Francesca Lia Block)
35. Bush at War (Bob Woodward)
36. How To Talk To A Widower (Jonathan Tropper)
37. Ghosts/A Public Enemy/When We Dead Wake (Henrik Ibsen; collection of 3 plays)
38. One For My Baby (Tony Parsons)
39. Moab Is My Washpot (Stephen Fry)

+ 4 fictional course books, and Lord knows how many non-fictional course books!