This page features a variety of types of review, including some longer ones for particular books. The thumbnail reviews are a very personal way for me to formulate my response to a book that I’ve just read. They have proved to be quite popular on Facebook, so I reproduce them here. Please note that they are not in any way intended to be formal judgments; they’re merely my immediate reactions. Star ratings are on a five-point scale, except for The Tale of Genji and Persuasion, which always receive six each time I read them.Building a Library 2016: The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
Apologies to any of my regular readers who, like me, found the new Dennis Washburn translation of The Tale of Genji in their Christmas stocking. I can’t recommend it. Where the Arthur Waley translation (1921-33), although elegant, now seems a little old-fashioned and mannered, the Washburn version (2015) turns the Genji into a kind of modern teen novel.
There are two problems. The crucial one is stylistic. In order to make the novel more accessible for the modern reader, Washburn has resorted to colloquial and imprecise language to make it more ‘racy’. The result is that there is a disconnect between the formality and ritual quality of almost all the action, and the informal and bathetic style of the translation. Worse, Washburn treats the characters according to modern sensibilities rather than Heian conventions and mores.
The second issue is that, again in the cause of accessibility, Washburn has dispensed with most footnotes, instead incorporating explanatory material within the text. The result is that what we are reading is not a faithful rendition of the original, but contains expansions which weaken the precision and flow of the narrative.
A couple of examples are sufficient to give a sense of what Washburn has done, and why I can’t approve of this new version. Comparisons below are with the translations by Waley, Edward Seidensticker (1976) and Royall Tyler (2001).
‘now she couldn’t help considering Genji weirdly depraved and dislikable.’ – Washburn
‘she had now taken a keen dislike to him.’ – Tyler
‘she found this solicitude, though remarkable, very distasteful.’ – Seidensticker
‘ever since their betrothal Murasaki had shown a certain shyness and diffidence in his presence.’ – Waley
It is clear that Washburn has added the concept that Genji at this point is ‘weirdly depraved’ – a modern judgment that has little to do with what is happening in terms of a Heian audience’s perception of the incident. I also find ‘dislikable’ awkward and ugly. Similarly:
‘his smugness was insufferable’ – Washburn
‘reprehensible self-satisfaction’ – Tyler
‘a note of self-satisfaction’ – Seidensticker
‘Genji had vanity enough to think’ – Waley
Washburn is directing the reader’s response in a much more overt way than the others, and loses the subtlety of the of the original. This is the key criticism, that Washburn imposes a modern (and personal) reading on an infinitely complex and difficult text.
If we abandon Washburn, and regrettably leave Waley aside as being rather outdated, we are left with the Seidensticker and Tyler translations. The two are quite similar in style and tone, but there is no doubt in my mind that the Tyler translation is the better one for the newcomer. It remains as faithful as it can to the original, not seeking to gloss over some of the difficulties like the nomenclature of characters, but supports the reader by starting each chapter with a character list (extremely useful in a work 1100 pages long and with dozens of major characters), and using footnotes (often 3 or 4 a page) in order to explain points or allusions. I marginally prefer the Seidensticker translation to read, but it’s a personal choice and anyone seeking to approach this greatest of literary works will be well served by either. But I would, alas, not choose the Washburn version.
Seidensticker ***** Tyler ***** Waley **** Washburn ***
Review #1 The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley
What a profound, frustrating disappointment. This could have been, should have been, one of the great books of our time. The prologue certainly promises as much, with its thesis that evolution ‘is the best way of understanding how the human world changes, as well as the natural world’, and its resounding assertion that ‘change in human institutions, artefacts and habits is incremental, inexorable and inevitable’. Brilliant. He argues that ‘it has no goal or end in mind; and it largely happens by trial and error – a version of natural selection.’ He largely dismisses the ‘Great Man’ and great institution theory of history. He boldly states: ‘I hope gradually to ‘disenthrall’ you over the course of this book, from the obsession with human intentionality, design and planning.’ Wonderful.
And he fails. He fails in the worst ways possible. Three of them, which I wish to outline as follows.
The first and worst failing is that he completely fails to follow his own logic. Having dismissed the great men, great events and great institutions approach to history, almost every page of the book is the story of … great men (sic; scarcely a single woman), great events, great institutions. Often he does this in order to suggest that they interfere with progress rather than aiding it, but nevertheless he retains the traditional language of great man history and even the outmoded vocabulary of sudden historical events – Renaissance, Enlightenment, Revolutions. Rather than detailing the ‘incremental, inexorable and inevitable’ changes that take place (which Richard Morris does so brilliantly in Time’s Anvil) he deals in broad brush sweeps of cause and effect. True, his argument is frequently that the two are reversed or misunderstood, but almost all his writing is at odds with the intentions stated in the preface.
The second failure is perhaps inevitable, but inexcusable. In trying to write a populist book dealing with 16 separate topics (the Universe, Religion, Money, Culture and so on) his treatment of each is so superficial as to be usually worthless. He begins his section on Education: ‘Compulsory, class-based education … is one of those universal things nobody ever questions. We just assume that’s the way learning happens.’ Well, no. None of us assume that’s the (only) way learning happens, and we do question it. Nor is it universal. Yes, class-based learning has a place in an education system, but that’s about it. The effect of this superficial approach is that whereas, when I started the book, I wanted to agree with his arguments, by half way through I was wanting to disagree with him, and frequently did.
The final failure is that the parallel with natural evolution doesn’t ultimately work. Biological evolution is truly ‘incremental, inexorable and inevitable’, and it truly has ‘no goal or end in mind.’ Every single item in nature – eyes, wings, human intelligence – is the product of random mutations preserved through selective survival pressure. There are no exceptions. And evolution does not imply or necessitate progress. Features can change, de-evolve, be lost or gained as circumstances require. Creatures grow and lose abilities to breathe air, swim, crawl, walk, fly and so on depending on the life chances of their species. Human history does not work like that. And Ridley clearly does believe in progress, because almost every section is about the historical development of a subject through time. His argument that such progress is frequently the result of accident rather than design is obviously right, but the fact is that human beings are always conscious designers. Their actions may often have unintended or unexpected consequences, but that doesn’t stop them trying. They may be lousy creators, but that nevertheless is what they want to be.
So in the end Ridley’s book defeats itself, and all the promise of its wonderful prologue is lost. Perhaps he could never hope to succeed in a project so sweeping and so strait-jacketed by a single thesis, but this effort makes you wish he hadn’t tried.
Review #2 A Shy and Simple Warrior by R. H. Parr
Written by a friend of mine, Rosemary Parr.
Demonstrably, this is a labour of love. Meticulously researched, at one level it is the story of the life of a single member of the Royal Navy (George Lancaster, the author’s grandfather), who was born in 1887 and died in 1945.
Yet it is much more than this. It is true history, which consists of the lives of individuals, their personal interests and loves and joys and tragedies, as opposed to the grand narrative version of history with its great men and great events. In this book the details of George’s primary schooling, the hat he wears on the beach, the postcards he collects on his travels, are of equal importance to the part he played in the Battle of Jutland.
The grand narrative is there too and forms the backdrop to the biography. Indeed, part of the point of the book is that George lived through and had first-hand experience of the ‘great’ events of the first half of the twentieth century (deftly summarised by the author at each stage). What happens is that these major events (the two world wars, the Russian Revolution, the China of Chiang Kai-Shek, and so on) are seen through the prism of the ordinary individual. The Battle of Jutland features largely, because George was a survivor of HMS Warrior, one of three armoured cruisers destroyed in the battle. The strategic picture is assessed by the author, but the story is told through the testimony of its participants. Whether the Battle of Jutland was a ‘success’ or ‘failure’ is of marginal significance: George’s life story (and his granddaughter’s) could only happen because he survived; many did not.
The same is true throughout the book. Again and again the author recounts historical events which involved appalling brutality and loss of life; I lost count of the number of pieces of human behaviour each resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Against all this is set the quiet, devoted and studious actions of one man who served effectively and loyally from 1909 to 1945.
And beyond it all is the individual human story, defined as much by his home life as his active service. Married with two daughters, he suffered the tragedy of losing the elder to cancer in 1939 when she was 25. The photo of her in 1937, serene and full of promise, is unbearably poignant; another history cut short.
The impulse for the book came from the author’s own parallel tragedy, with the death of her daughter from cancer in 2009. It is easy to see why the book needed to be written; it is easy to see why for all of us this is truer history than the sweeping grand narratives with which we were brought up.
Review #5 Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari
*sigh* I’d like to like this book. It starts strongly and persuasively, with Harari arguing that until recently mankind’s besetting problems have been famine, plague and war. In the twentieth century these changed from being insuperable to addressable practical challenges. Famine, disease and violence haven’t ceased, but they are viewed as problems that can or should be managed (he cites the global response to issues like AIDS and Ebola as instances). He therefore concludes that in the twenty-first century, mankind will be examining what new issues need confronting.
So far, so good. As an overview this works well. However, from here on Harari’s historical summations are sketchy and superficial, and frequently wrong. ‘Graeco-Roman epics and medieval chivalric romances were catalogues of heroic deeds, not feelings.’ The person who wrote that can’t have studied any Ancient or medieval literature. Similarly, he divides humanism into three crude branches – liberalism, socialism and evolutionary humanism. Yet I don’t recognise myself anywhere on the spectrum he presents, and the characterisation of these supposed categories is so flimsy as to be merely caricature. And this remains the problem with almost everything he covers. It’s all too simplistic. For example: ‘… the notion that you have a single self is just another liberal myth, debunked by the latest scientific research.’ The book is full of sweeping assertions like this which can be challenged on any number of levels.
The result is that, if Harari’s comments on the past and the present can’t be trusted, his views on the future have no particular credibility. Is it true that we are all just algorithms? Is it therefore true that homo sapiens will perforce be replaced by superior, non-human algorithms? This isn’t even extrapolation from known facts; it’s mere speculation.
All this is a great pity because this book, like the author’s previous Sapiens, contains lots of individual nuggets that are worthwhile and thought-provoking, even where you doubt or disagree with them. Overall, however, this isn’t a book I can recommend.
2016 Thumbnail Review #1 The Gossamer Years (Kagero Nikki)
To begin with, you think this isn’t half as interesting as the Sarashina Nikki (‘As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams’), but by the end you realise it’s even more extraordinary: a wife’s pitiless analysis of a dysfunctional marriage. It’s the earliest of the great Heian diaries, covering 954-974 AD. The translator (Edward Seidensticker) correctly summarises it as ‘a remarkably frank personal confession and a strong attempt to describe a difficult relationship and a disturbed state of mind’.
cf 2014 reviews #43, #45, #51, #55, #59, #60
2016 Thumbnail Review #2 Cymbeline by William Shakespeare
I’d forgotten what an odd play this is. All over the place, literally as well as tonally and thematically.
2016 Thumbnail Review #3 Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
OK, OK. It was one of those books I’d never read, OK?
Now it’s one of those films I’ve never seen.
2016 Thumbnail Review #4 The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (tr. Washburn)
Secondly, it’s an extraordinary (unique?) portrayal of a polygamous society, written by a woman but exploring the psychological impact of this on both male and female characters -which is why most of them are in an emotional mess. Mesmerising.
Note: alas, I still can’t recommend the Washburn translation as first choice. Read it if you have it, but then get the Tyler.
2016 Thumbnail Review #5 Neuromancer by William Gibson
I know, I know. Thirty years late. But so is it.
It’s all there: ‘cyberspace’, hacking, AI, the internet. But a bit frenetic for my liking, a bit nerdy; a paradigm of itself.
1984 ***** 2016 ***
2016 Thumbnail Review #6 The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson
But like all Bryson’s later books, lazily written and sloppily edited. For ***** Bryson, go back to The Lost Continent, the original and by far the best.
2016 Thumbnail Review #7 The Green Road by Anne Enright
Unaffecting. The multiple time shifts and characters in the first half mean that the narrative is episodic and disjointed, with the result that the second half is unengaging and one never cares enough about the outcomes.
2016 Thumbnail Review #8 The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud
2016 Thumbnail Review #8 The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud
Ultimately disappointing. An intriguing idea, as it promises to be both a critique of Camus and a reflection on life in Algeria from the Arab rather than the French perspective; but it doesn’t really get far with either.
2016 Thumbnail Review #9 The Outsider by Albert Camus
Still one of those slightly dislocating narratives, like Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Feels less revolutionary than when I first read it as a Sixth Former, but I guess we’re all existentialists now.
2016 Thumbnail Review #10 England and Other Stories by Graham Swift
Minor key short stories, rather like a fictional version of Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island. Well crafted, but the only compelling one for me was ‘Was She The Only One?’. But I’m not a great admirer of short stories.
2016 Thumbnail Review #11 After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry
Bought on a whim, because it has the name Eadwacer on p.2. A curious little work, with a dislocated protagonist arriving in a disjointed, almost surreal community. It didn’t quite catch me, but it may linger in the memory.
2016 Thumbnail Review #12 The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Insufficiently redeemed by Part IV.
2016 Thumbnail Review #13 The Day of the Scorpion by Paul Scott
The second book in The Raj Quartet. One of the interesting things about the quartet is the narrative technique, whereby the same events are constantly returned to and re-told from different viewpoints. A lot of the dialogue is unfeasibly long, but the cumulative effect is great.
2016 Thumbnail Review #14 Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
Over-wrought. It could only be French; their weather forecasts often read similarly.
‘Il éprouvait une volupté à connaître la vérité qui le passionnait dans cet exemplaire unique, éphémère et précieux, d’une matière translucide, si chaude et si belle.’
2016 Thumbnail Review #15 The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
This has grand ambitions, covering 3000 years and with the sub-title ‘A New History of the World’, and in it the author seeks to relocate the centre of gravity of world history from Europe to Asia. He partly succeeds, but only as far as shifting Eurocentric grand narrative into Eurasiancentric grand narrative. Bizarrely, the problem is that he is not ambitious enough. Japan, Australasia, Africa, South America hardly exist. This is old-school top-down grand sweep history, worth a look for some of its reassessments, but ultimately, maddeningly, limited in scope by its Eurasian focus.
2016 Thumbnail Review #16 The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas
Why do I persist with this author? The End of Mr Y was intriguing (although even that faded), but her books since have been progressively disappointing. I think this will be the last.
2016 Thumbnail Review #17 The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura
A miniature, quiet gem, like its subject matter.
2016 Thumbnail Review #18 Wings Over France by Harold E Hartney/Fighting the Flying Circus by Edward V Rickenbacker
The American experience of WW1 aviation, focusing on the fledgling U.S. Air Service of 1917 and 1918. Fascinating to read and compare with British and German accounts. The Rickenbacker was originally published in 1919 and so is more immediate; the Hartney (original title Up And At ‘Em) in 1940.
Hartney ****/Rickenbacker *****