The Sky Remembers
This is quite possibly the worst book I have ever managed to finish. Doing so was an effort of will, undertaken for reasons that are not clear to me but may involve my desire to write this review.
The story is simple enough. A cocky fighter pilot, a real leader of men, has had the stuffing knocked out of him by a near death experience. He’s recuperating, he’s lost his bottle, but it’s the darkest days of the Battle of Britain and he’s needed in the air.
He battles through his overwhelming doubt and his many losses and proceeds to return to the fight.
It could be all right. But the prose…
It’s relentless. It goes on like some kind of incantation. Here’s a bit more:
And on it goes. It reminds me of Beckett’s The Unnameable, but not in a good way. It’s 155 pages but a well-written 50 could have made this an evocative little piece. Instead, the author flings words at the reader in a desperate attempt to convince and evoke. Why say something once when you can say it three times?
The longest 155 pages I have ever read.
Children of Hurin
J R R Tolkien
I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in my early teens and enjoyed them well enough. I read The Silmarillion a few years later, and actually quite liked it, in a funny way. I mean, if approached as a novel it is not really adequate; but then by modern standards many long narratives are not really novels in the sense of being a story of evolution of character, or at least a character with a problem to solve. As pseudomythology, The Silmarillion is an interesting exercise. Creation myth, evil coming into the world, fate and doom, etc. I quite liked Melkor/Morgoth as a mythological figure. Driven to take part in creation but limited to a subservient role by the deity, he decided he needed his own world to rule. And though in the end defeated, his influence could never be eradicated. As he poured his spite and lies into the world, he became less, more limited, more worthy of scorn himself. Turning the world dark cost him his own substance yet meant that the world could never be free of his shadow. It’s a neat idea, well implemented.
So in that great battle of mere Men and Elves against the he who had been the right hand of the creator, there were, the prefatory material tels us, three key tales that Tolkien wanted to flesh out. This is the one that he came closest to finishing and thus the one tht allowed itself to be shaped into a coherent volume without the need for new text. And because Tolkien is a name to conjure with, and to sell many book, here we have Children of Hurin.
It is really the tragedy of Turin, son of Hurin. Powerful, impetuous, he fights and flees and fights and flees and where’er he goes Morgoth’s hordes follow and wreak destruction, such that Turin is like a plague, bringing disaster upon whoever helps him.
It’s all very high and mighty and mythic. But it is also more like a ‘normal’ story than The Silmarillion — it’s more like a novel. And weirdly that (for me) makes it less successful than The Silmarillion (caveat — I was young when I read the latter, and perhaps less critical). It makes no sense to judge The Silmarillion as a novel, but Hurin is a novel, yet the plot is like a Greek myth, the hero more like Beowulf, and the result is a weird clashing. Turin is so stupid! He is this great fighter who eggs on his supporters to fight Morgoth and so brings them destruction, and then he utterly fails to learn anything from this. In a myth, that might work, when everything is seen from a distance, like chess pieces viewed from above. But in a novel we expect at least some kind of sense from our actors, so his behaviour just fails to ring true and so undermines the whole story; we have grandeur, but no sense. “Who is carrying the idiot ball this week?”
When reading The Iliad, an adjustment modern readers have to make is that the players do emphatically not rise and fall based on their own strengths as people. They rise and fall based on who is favoured by the gods, which can make the plot seem arbitrary and lacking in internal motivation. It is a fundamental split from what we have come to expect in our fiction since probably the 18th century at least. Hurin needs to be read in a similar way, at least that’s what I found; I had to make a conscious effort to not expect what I usually expect from a novel. (What do I implicitly expect? A person has a problem, external or internal, and makes attempts to solve it/overcome it/avoid it. These attempts at least seem reasonable to the reader or seem like the kinds of things the protagonist would actually do given their character. A skillful writer can make the protagonist very different from the reader and yet still reasonable to the reader. )
Turin never becomes enough of a character for me to see his actions as reasonable in his terms, yet behaves irrationally in my terms. I think that’s why the book ultimately was unsatisfactory. The book is interesting if Tolkien’s world is interesting. It is not at all bereft of grandeur and striking images, notably the battle with Glaurung. Worth a read for the fan of fantasy, but it must be recognised that it is closer in tone to The Silmarillion than to The Lord of the Rings.
Dirty Work is not a highly regarded Stones album. In fact, it often comes at the very bottom of rankings of Stones albums. Not entirely unfairly.
On the other hand, it does have its (perhaps quirky) fans – for one, eminent music writer, Robert Christgau. And, I would submit, he’s right. Now, big caveat; a considerable fraction of the interest the album accrues only counts if you are a Stones fan. Considered purely on its musical merits (as of course it should be), it is clearly nowhere near the top of the Stones‘ list of achievements. What is interesting, and what Christgau puts his finger on, is that it is the last album the Stones did before they became a nostalgia act — and I say that as someone who saw them on the Voodoo Lounge tour and really likes Blue & Lonesome. Steel Wheels, the next record, was a conscious regrouping and consolidation, partly no doubt brought on by the poor commercial and critical reception Dirty Work got (at least by Stones standards). The Stones needed a success if they were to remain a going concern. Steel Wheels clearly evolved out of Dirty Work, but it has an air of calculation that is pronounced, even by the standards of the Stones, a band known for calculation and cynicism. (Which is not to say Steel Wheels does not have its own charms.) Dirty Work, by contrast, has an air of anger and desperation, which is about as genuine a reflection of where they were at as the Stones ever committed to vinyl — and where they were at was pretty damned messy. The film clip to ‘One hit (to the body)’ shows Jagger and Richards kicking and glaring at each other. The songs have titles like ‘One hit (to the body)’, ‘Fight’, ‘Had it with you’ and ‘Dirty work’. Even the artwork is nasty.<img class="wp-image-3822 size-large" src="https://darrengoossens.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/dwcover.jpeg?w=519" alt="Cassette inlay card from Dirty Work. Pretty dirty itself.” width=”519″ height=”173″ /> Cassette inlay card from Dirty Work. Pretty dirty itself.
So all this is fascinating if you’re into the band. The lyrics of ‘Hold back’, a churning, booming rock number lacking great riffs or a great tune, read exactly like Jagger justifying his studio excursions outside the band (his She’s the Boss came out a year or two before Dirty Work, and Primitive Cool about as much later). ‘If you don’t take chances you won’t make advances’ he yells. ‘Grab opportunity while you’re alive … it’s do or dare … trust your gut reaction.’ It’s Jagger explaining why he went outside the band. ‘Fight’ begins ‘Gonna pulp you to a mass of bruises‘ then gets even angrier. ‘Had it with you’ sounds like Keith complaining back at Mick, who’s always ‘shouting out instructions‘, while on ‘Dirty work’ (the song), Mick points out that for a large fraction of the 70s Keith was a passenger while Mick kept the show on the road (‘Living high sitting in the sun, sit on your ass till your work is done…’).
So, great material for the Stones’ group therapy sessions, but what about the tracks themselves? Well, the lyrics having an agenda does help propel the songs, but it is true that the tunes and riffs are weak. ‘One hit’ brings in Jimmy Page to provide the solo (what does that tell us about Ronnie?) and works well as a a latter day Stones rocker. Indeed, its rather a blueprint for Stones rockers ever since. We get ‘Harlem shuffle’ and ‘Too rude’ — 2 covers in 10 tracks; no Stones studio effort had two covers since the much longer Exile … well, I must confess I like ‘em (only one of ’em’s rock’n’roll). ‘Shuffle’ drives along nicely and doesn’t outstay its welcome, and ‘Too rude’ offers a nice change from the growling, thudding rock songs around it — it’s a growling, thudding reggae number. ‘Fight’ is competent. ‘Dirty work’ is ok, but makes a song out of fewer musical ideas than the Stones used to throw away in an outro. ‘Had it with you’ is the same, but the honking guitars, tighter song structure and Charlie’s drumming drive it nicely. On a good album it would be a little, pleasant diversion. On this one, it’s one of the better songs (if only for the focussed lyrics and concision).
The album highlight, for me, is ‘Sleep tonight’, Keith’s closing ballad. Piano-based, lyrically ambivalent but generous, it’s one of those songs that seem to get labelled ‘deep album cuts‘. Keith’s ‘All about you’ (off Emotional Rescue) and ‘How can I stop’ (Bridges to Babylon) are high points on those records. They bring a bit of heart and a change of pace. Even on a strong album, one that does not get dismissed out of hand, ‘Sleep tonight’ would be in the top couple of tracks. Here, it is probably the outstanding composition (as distinct from bunch of riffs) on the record. Maybe it’s for Anita Pallenberg, I don’t know; but it’s a lovely track. I like ‘One hit’ and ‘Sleep tonight’ better than anything on Undercover, the preceding album, and I find myself listening to this record more often than Steel Wheels or Voodoo Lounge, both far more commercially and critically successful works.
Amidst the desperation and anger and threats, there’s a glimpse of something real and human that all too often the Stones, especially Jagger with his cliché-ridden lyrics, fail to approach.
Plus, it ends with a little of Ian Stewart’s boogie woogie piano. I like that too. Next I’m gonna get Boogie 4 Stu.
The Balloon Factory by Alexander Frater
The cover says ‘the story of the men who built Britain’s first flying machines’ but what it really is is ‘The story of the author’s journey to go to places related to the men who built Britain’s first flying machines’. There is a lot of the author in this book. Now, if you like the author to take centre stage and tell us about his own flying lessons and about how he went to Africa (or whatever) and the interesting chap he had lunch with while researching this book, then that suits fine. It’s a bit like those nature documentaries where we mostly see the presenter talking about their efforts to find the animal, rather than the animal itself.
The book contains some stuff about Sam Cody, De Havilland and Sir George Cayley, and J. W. Dunne who made strange but effective aeroplanes and An Experiment with Time. It is written with great fluency and charm, and does indeed contain some interesting information. Perhaps because written by a travel writer, it does not spend too much time on the technical aspects but tells the human stories of its protagonists, and they are an interesting bunch. On the other hand, it is far from comprehensive — there were many significant figures (the Short brothers, for example) who get very little attention. The author has been captured by a couple of personalities, mainly Cody who seems to occupy fully half the book, and so the picture is skewed and highly personal.
Despite the title, there is very little in it on balloons. Just FYI.
Conclusion: If you like a congenial host getting between you and the material and telling you his story as well as the story of his subject, this is a very pleasant read. If you prefer a book to focus on the subject rather than the teller, this may not suit. It is not a bad book, but it may not be what you expect.
The battle between the Monitor and the Virginia appears with monotonous regularity in books about ships, particularly fighting ships. It was the first battle between iron ships, the first involving a ship with a turret, the first involving ships that did not rely on sail, nor even have masts as backup to the engines.
One thing this book brings home is how small it was. No great fleet action like Jutland or Lepanto or Trafalgar — it was really just a skirmish, though one with great repercussions.
deKay does a nice job of bringing these repercussions to light. They were strategic, technological and even geopolitical.
Strategic: The Confederate states needed access to weapons and materiel from Europe, and the Virginia‘s job was to break the blockade set up by the North. Hampton Roads was a vital nexus for bringing cargo from the Atlantic to inland waterways, and it was here that Virginia sallied out and caused pandemonium amongst the wooden ships. Though she was slow and hard to control, she was also impervious to their shots and could stand off and pound the Union ships into pieces. Had the Monitor not been flanged together in about 3 months and thrown into battle against the _Virginia_ almost as soon as completed, the civil was could have looked very different. Had the Confederates gained mastery of the east coast the marked superiority of the North in terms of industrial capacity would have been at least partially mitigated by better access to imports. Further, it is supposed that had the South been able to maintain this kind of sovereignty over its borders, which would promote interchange with Europe, it might have been granted diplomatic recognition by more potential trading partners. So the book pitches the one-on-one battle as a kind of ‘for want of a nail’ situation. Of course, it’s natural for an author to point out the significance of their topic — they’ve bothered to write about it after all — but there is some substance to this. Had the South been closer in stature to the North, the likelihood of a genuine fissioning of the USA would have to have been greater. We shall never know. Most likely, the war would have gone on even longer, caused even more suffering, and had the same outcome.
Technological: At a stroke, Monitor ushered in a new age in warship design. Though it low freeboard and raft-like construction limited it to coastal waters, it’s general concept — an iron hulled ship, powered by steam, dispensing with sail altogether and armed with turreted guns — was to dominate naval thinking until the rise of the aircraft carrier during WWII. Previous ironclads had looked like modified sailing ships, still arranging their guns in broadsides and still carrying a full complement of sails. Monitor must have looked like something from another world. Just as the Dreadnought reset the benchmarks in 1905, the Monitor forced a reappraisal of what made for a power navy. What value was a hundred ships of the line if a handful of ironclads could pick them off at leisure? So influential was the design of the Monitor that it leant it’s name to a style of ship. Shipyards around the world started building ‘monitors’, and would continue to turn them out for fifty years to come.
Geopolitical: It could be argued that the Monitor is the first significant example of the USA gaining technical, military leadership over Europe. It can be thought of as the very beginning of the process that led the USA to gain military and technological leadership during the 20th century. Ericsson, the man behind the Monitor, was a migrant who had been unable to sell his design in Europe. The strength of the US coming from its inclusiveness is a very modern idea, and the Monitor is an early and potent example.
Anyway, the book follows the politics and the military sides of the story. How the ship got built, how the battles were fought, and what it all meant. I would have liked more technical details — we do not even get a table summarising the capacities of the two combatants. Some more diagrams, perhaps cutaway, and clearer illustrations of how the two ships were laid out and so on, would have buttressed the work nicely and made it more rounded in its coverage. As it is, it is a nice little read.
The Age of Napoleon by Alistair Horne.
This book does a very readable job of looking at the influence of Napoleon. The famous battles — Austerlitz, Trafalgar, Wagram and all — are mentioned but not discussed in detail. They provide context, they chart the rise and fall of his empire, but they are not the focus of the book. In many ways Bonaparte reminds more of Alexander the Great than other modern conquerors. His time in charge was brief, he founded no long-lasting, united empire. Yet his influence was enormous and did persist. His was an epoch when the work of centuries seemed to happen in years. Much of what the revolution started was finished (or at least advanced far enough to make turning back impossible) by the dictator. From the metric system to reorganisation of schools and the redesigning of Paris itself.
Paris. In many ways this is a book of two stars. Paris and Napoleon, for in this book France and Paris are synonymous. We get the occasional sentence pointing out how desperate things were in the provinces, but we never visit there. That is the only real weakness of the book (aside from some odd editing — there is considerable repetition that might have been excised). Yes, it takes us away from the political histories that focus on battles and borders and the struggle for leadership, but only as far as the salons and streets of Paris. How did Paris react to the rise and fall of Bonaparte? What monuments did he build there? How were the Prussians and the English received after the fall(s)? It’s all here — if it happened in Paris.
The book does cover the age of Napoleon in Paris. His influence on the rest of the continent is alluded to (he is credited with releasing the ‘genie of German nationalism’, thus triggering the events of the next 130 years, events that would end in another conquering dictator whose efforts ended in ignominy). Hitler is explicitly compared with Napoleon, and reasonably enough comes off poorly, since Napoleon does not seem to have engaged in genocide, slavery or rampant anti-Semitism. He did run a police state, though, and was rather keen on monumental architecture.
The book is a quick, easy read. It does a nice job of outlining the times and the man’s role in them.
A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes.
Russia 120 years ago was, for most of its in habitants, a horrible place to live. But that’s the view from here. From inside, it was just how things were. This is the story of how that inevitability was challenged, and how it fell. The central, though hollow, figure is the Tsar. Every opportunity for compromise was rejected by a man incapable of being an autocrat. He would have made an ideal constitutional monarch, since he was an indolent vacillator, but instead he demanded absolute obedience and then failed to lead.
Great events are, I’ve often thought, like a bomb and a fuse. Even when great historical forces have created the situation where change is looming, still a fuse needs to be lit. With a firmer Tsar on the throne the revolution would still have come, but later. With a Tsar who was wise enough to compromise because he could see that the telegraph and the written word and the advances occurring elsewhere in the world meant that the old way could not survive, it may not have had to happen at all. The bomb could have been defused. Instead a decade of fighting lead to 70 years of Soviet Russia and its tens of millions of victims and eye-watering brutality. I’ve read several times, though I can’t recall where, that even Russians will admit it takes a dictator to run the country, be it the Tsar, Stalin or Putin.
The book talks about a kind of ‘darkness’ in the peasant. A will to anarchy, and an intergenerational brutality handed down by husbands to brutalised wives and children. Here’s some advice:
Hit your wife with the butt of the axe, get down and see if she’s breathing. If she is, she’s shamming and wants some more.
The more you beat the old woman, the tastier the soup will be.
Life was cheap, and the only rewards came in heaven.
This book is a remarkable achievement. Deep, wide, beginning many years before 1917 — which, though venerated, is only one part of the story — and ending with the death of Lenin, it covers society, polity, military aspects of the many struggles that went on.
The title is apt. One gets the impression the revolution was a tragedy for everybody except Stalin (who shows up quite late in proceedings). So many opportunities to relieve the suffering pass because of vested interests, pig-headedness or greed for power. That is the tragedy of all peoples throughout history; some more, some less.
The book makes a few things clear; Russia under Lenin, had he lived another 20 years, would not have been very different from Russia under Stalin. Lenin is only less reviled because he died before committing his large-scale atrocities. If Hitler had died in 1939 he’d be remembered as a flawed genius who put Germany on the road to recovery but had some pretty unfortunate policies, rather than evil personified. Lenin is the other side of the calculation. Indeed, one quote in there says something like: He did not take power to bring the revolution, he brought the revolution because it gave him a chance to take power.
At 900 pages, it’s a big book; but not a word is wasted.
Yeah, it’s really funny. Reads very much like spoken word written down. Words fly by quickly, often ironic or mordant. It’s short, generously leaded, so probably not that many words. It’s like therapy bound into a codex and sold.
Fortunately, there’s not too much about Starwars, since I am over 12 years old and don’t care about it. It’s kind of sad how large it loomed in her life. It’s often struck me that being an entertainer is a funny sort of thing, from the point of view of fulfilment. Is helping people pass their time away satisfying? I guess the key thing, if you’re the reflective type, would be whether you feel that you’re enriching the viewers’ lives or just helping pass the time until the grave. But what value a laugh or a thrill? People love those movies, probably too much. What’s wrong with giving people something that they just plain really like? Nothing.
The book made me think about people with the same mental issues as Fisher but without the cushion of money or the spotlight of fame. I don’t know what’s worse, but it seems to me she could always afford and find a therapist, so maybe the money and fame might be preferable as a position to inhabit while battling demons. Also, you can write a book about it and people will read it ‘cos they’ve heard of you.
Her story certainly makes a strong case that it would be preferable to win fame after a few years in the real world, rather than spending your whole live in an unmoored bubble.
Funny. Honest. Worth the little time it takes to read it. Probably better on stage, but sadly it’s too late for that now. The self-destructive stories in the book take on a darker tone now that they’ve taken their tithe. Perhaps it’s not as funny as it would have been a little while ago…
How many people who’ve read this book have never seen an episode of 30 Rock or SNL? Not many, I’m guessing. But I am one such. SNL has never to my knowledge been shown on free-to-air TV in Australia (and I’ve yet to see a compelling reason to pay for TV). 30 Rock has been on Aussie TV, but slid past my radar of the time.
It’s a good book. The stuff of greatest value (at least for me as a white male) outlines the biases (conscious and unconscious) that she faced moving upwards in the comedy business. I’ve seen the same prejudices in science and heard of it in so many fields, I always end up wondering how many potentially fantastic talents have been stifled, often intentionally. Sadly, a second theme, or at least undercurrent, is that these biases are overcome through patronage rather than cultural change. One enlightened individual in a position of power makes all the difference.
It’s a funny, easy read. Made me laugh out loud in a few places, and was consistently amusing and often insightful. Recommended if you like comedy or autobiographies or yellow. And it’s not a problem if her shows are not familiar, though they do feature heavily — after all, they are a big part of the setting of her story.
Why this is subtitled ‘The Complete Peter Cook’ I don’t know. Unless it’s like an epithet, as in ‘you’re a complete twit’; I mean, Peter Cook was clearly a complete Peter Cook, but this book is not the complete Peter Cook, not even close. It admits as much itself. Anyway. If you don’t know, Peter Cook was the funniest man alive until he died, after which he became the funniest man dead, an even greater achievement. By the age of 30 he had had successful reviews in the West End and on Broadway, had starred in movies, started a nightclub and was owner of Private Eye, the satirical newspaper. By the time he was 40 we was kind of over it, and seemed to only bother to exert his still-remarkable talents when there was a point to prove or some pompous public figure to deflate. That his powers remained undimmed until his untimely, alcohol-fuelled death in 1995 is apparent. Perhaps the flood slowed to a meander, but even a cursory look (for example here, at Alan Latchley) shows that the brilliance was still there. John Cleese has come in second on lists of (Brit) ‘comedians’ comedian’ type polls, always to Cook, and he said that whereas it took he and his contemporaries six hours to produce a three minute sketch, it took Cook precisely three minutes, or so it seemed. More than one person has said he seemed to turn on a tap, tune in to some amazing stream of logical absurdity, and just let it flow.
This book samples most of the more significant corners of Cook’s career. From before Beyond the Fringe (he was writing West End shows for Kenneth Williams while still an undergraduate, sharing the writing duties with Harold Pinter and others), through the Fringe, through Not Only… But Also… and Private Eye, on to the depths of Derek and Clive and the last flashes of genius. The book is… amusing. Very funny in a few places. Would it have been as funny were I not familiar with his work? I don’t know. I’ve heard or seen quite a few of these pieces, especially the Pete and Dud and Beyond the Fringe stuff, so I hear the words in my mind’s version of his voice. Most of what he wrote was not written to be read. Indeed, there are often no ‘standard’ written versions at all. Some of the sketches reproduced here were taken from scripts but many were transcribed, because he would improvise and invent. He got bored with fixed material and would change it every night during a run on stage, though there were ‘bits’ that tended to stay.
The book is uneven, of course, because it is a book of bits, (though not bits of a book). Often the funniest stuff is the stuff that works least well on paper. Pete and Dud in the Art Gallery needs to be seen — or at least heard. Even though there are relatively few visual gags and the sketch is essentially a conversation, the gleam in Peter’s eye as he tries to make Dudley corpse, the little smile when he says, “you didn’t spit sandwich at him, did you?” or whatever it is; only when you can see those things does the relationship really come alive and then the lines come to life. The brilliance can be seen on the page, but not fully appreciated without the video. You tube, it’s all there these days.
The Private Eye stuff I did not much like. That and Derek and Clive are probably the low points. I know Cook and Moore busted boundaries and pushed back the borders of the possible with Derek and Clive. I know some people think it’s great. I don’t. The rudeness does not bother me, but the nastiness and the lack of actual humour does. This book does a decent job of selecting the few bits of Derek and Clive that are actually (mildly) witty. It always seems to me that if an artist is going to throw off strictures, if they are not going to be bound, then they need to be better than usual. Just busting limits is not funny of itself. Shocked people might titter nervously, but a good comic is, I think, not aiming for that laugh. Broaching topics and images that have been taboo is all well and good, but that needs to be a path to something. It needs to say something that is worth saying that could not be said otherwise, or at least make a joke that could not be made otherwise. It needs to be more than ‘aren’t we shocking! Tee hee hee!’ Derek and Clive fails as comedy for the simple reason that it is not funny; there were some jokes and as I said this does a decent job of picking them out. That work was the end of Cook’s partnership with Moore. He was relentlessly nasty to Moore during the taping of the last album, and drove him away. Moore was breaking into Hollywood at that time and was soon to star in 10 and Arthur, and he never worked with Cook again, apart from bringing out some old material for Galas and the like.
The work does noticeably thin out after 1980. Cook was only in his early 40s at that stage, but decided to slow down lest he fulfil his potential. You might know him as the ‘Impressive Clergyman’ in The Princess Bride, who talks endlessly about ‘twoo wuv’, as Nigel in Supergirl (unlikely — no one likes that movie. I’ve not seen it) or … no, he’s pretty much invisible these days if you don’t go looking for him.
This book is not the place to start. But for the Cook fan it’s a nice little compendium.