The Written World: review
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Allen&Unwin, at no cost. It’s available now; RRP $32.99.
The premise of this book is to examine how literature has shaped history – in fact, not just literature itself, but also the inventions that have facilitated the dissemination of literature around the world throughout history. It “offers a new and enticing perspective on human history,” according to the blurb.
Some of the ideas in the book are really interesting (can you tell where this review is going?). The first chapter, about Alexander and his obsession with the stories of Troy, offer quite an intriguing (although I don’t think new) insight into one of the things driving that man to go and conquer so much land. However, even if all the chapters were individually interesting, it doesn’t feel like there’s an overarching connection between them. Yes there’s the idea of literature (more on that in a bit), but the ways in which literature has impacted on people is vastly different, and Puchner doesn’t seem to try to find commonalities – or draw out the differences in any way. And then it jumps to chapters about technology, which I’m certainly interested in but they seem even more disconnected. Additionally, there’s way more emphasis on retelling stories, like that of Troy or Gilgamesh, than I had expected; it feels quite unnecessary when the specifics of a story aren’t important to the history that the book should be focusing on.
There are other issues, too. For instance, there are grand generalisations for instance about “scribes” and their roles and attitudes; and then there’s the bit where Puchner presents a short biography of the biblical figure Ezra… and then admits that it’s just one possible version of his life. But probably the most egregious is the fact that there is no effort to define literature. And that’s a serious problem. For me, ‘literature’ is fiction, and it’s a value judgement; you can’t consciously set out to write literature (we can have a fight about this if you like). Anyway: Iliad? Sure. Epic of Gilgamesh? No problem. The Tale of Genji? Haven’t read it but given its status, happy to accept it. The Bible? well… ok, I can see how that works. Anything written by Martin Luther? The Mayan codices? Ben Franklin’s newspapers and letters, The Communist Manifesto? Uh, I think not. And does it have to be written? Play scripts aren’t really intended to be read, for example; so there’s a whole issue with the chapter on enscribing oral traditions. So… what ties these together? Puchner doesn’t bother to tell us.
Yet more problems: there’s a chapter on Goethe that alleges to be about world literature as an idea, but it doesn’t develop that concept in the slightest, just talks about Goethe. The last chapter has an incredibly snobby attitude towards Harry Potter that’s remarkable for not being that remarkable. Apparently HP merchandising is “out-of-control” (p332) and… somehow that takes away from it being literature? Or something?
Apparently at some point Puchner’s editor said that he should add more of himself to the text, and I have to disagree with that decision here. Sometimes it works – Bethany Hughes’ reminiscences about being in Istanbul were charming – but here they just come across as indulgent; not helped by sometimes being irrelevant.
Some choice quotes that bugged me: “Nothing is more familiar to us than a rabbi holding a scroll…” (p56). You what? Also, on that same page: he calls it the Hebrew Bible. Dude.
Here’s a minor one: people using framing narratives as in One Thousand and One Nights: lots of people have used this idea, “from Chaucer to Boccaccio” (p134). Mate. Boccaccio died first, but also, they lived in the same century. That’s like saying “there’s been some good Australian musicians, from John Farnham to Jimmy Barnes!”
In the chapter about the Popol Vuh and writing in the Mayan culture, Puchner refers to the people being invaded by Pizarro, Cortes and their cohorts as “Indians” (chapter 8).
Hey authors, your job’s really easy right? “It’s not such a terrible job, being an author. You do some research, come up with characters, shape a plot that unfolds central themes and ideas. Once you’re done, you find a publisher, who in turn finds a printer…” (p193). Oh my. And apparently the American Declaration of Independence influenced the proclamation of independence in Haiti… by way of the French Revolution, which Puchner neglects to mention. Goethe talking to his friend about how excellent Chinese novels were, and the latter is amazed: Puchner comments: “One sympathises: Who wants to read thousands of Chinese novels?” (p235). OH MY WORD. DUDE.
The take away here is: great idea, average to occasionally poor execution. I was sad.
Daphne Park, Queen of Spies
The title is misleading, because she was never the head of MI6 or anything. But she was one of the few women working in MI6 when it first got going and she did end up pretty senior, so I guess it’s what you get when you’re trying to come up with a catchy title.
Anyway, Daphne Park sounds like one helluva woman. Grew up in Tanganyika in the 30s, stayed with aunts to go to school in the UK, got a job in World War 2 that was kind of undercover and went from there, with some missteps along the way, to being an actual spy in MI6. She was a product of her time: deeply suspicious of the USSR for her whole life, a supporter of Margaret Thatcher, and probably someone I would have argued with a lot by the end of her life. But she also seems to have been fearless, determined, entrepreneurial, ruthless, and generally pretty amazing as a spy. She was eventually made a peer! Can’t help but wonder what she and Gertrude Bell would have made of one another, what with their getting into other nations’ business and all.
As well as this being a biography of a remarkable woman (remarkable in what she did, and remarkable in being very rare for her time), it’s also an exploration of the role of spies during the Cold War. There were several moments where I vocally expressed my displeasure, for instance regarding the international interference in Congo’s first elections. I’m horrified by what the UK, and the US and others, felt they had a right to do in those third-party countries. So it’s unlikely you’ll come away from this thinking Park was always in the right… but she certainly did her job. Sometimes, above and beyond. And, while she didn’t quite do it backwards and in high heels like Ginger Rogers, she was definitely battling that good old sexism for pretty much her entire career.
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
Did your brain go totally Roald Dahl when you saw the title? Mine did. Anyway, this novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be available for you to read from 13 March, 2018 (which is this year!).
Somehow, don’t ask me how, I managed not to read “The Waters of Versailles,” Robson’s highly regarded short story from… last year? The year before? I don’t know how I managed not to read it, given everyone else was raving about it… I just didn’t get to it. I’m going to get to it now, because I’ve read this and it’s excellent.
Seriously, just go pre-order it. Do you like the paradoxes of time travel? Do you like cranky old women being cranky and smart? Do you like a bit of ancient Mesopotamia? GO. PRE-ORDER.
It’s well into the future, things haven’t gone so great for humanity but they’re maybe kinda improving, if people manage to focus on what’s relevant. Time travel is… probably not relevant. But it’s consuming a lot of attention. But maybe it could be used for something relevant? That’s what Minh is hoping, anyway, as she prepares a brief for an intriguing new job.
The world that Robson has developed here is suuuuper developed for such a short story; as in, I wouldn’t be surprised to read at least a novel just fleshing out the things that she hints at here in terms of economies and habitats and generational attitudes and… yeh. That bit alone is completely absorbing; reminded me a bit of Iain M Banks’ civilisations. And then you add time travel.
The opening is somewhat disconcerting, as there’s clearly two separate stories being told – one with gods and monsters, one with technology. Very quickly the links between the two become evident but exactly how things will resolve is not at all evident. I really enjoyed the way that Robson played off the two different civilisational points of view. I also really enjoyed the different characters she employs. Minh is my favourite, of course: how could she not be with her crankiness and her competence and her bloody-mindedness? But her companions are also great and offer excellent, necessary and important alternatives to Minh’s point of view.
I am well impressed with this novella.
Movies and TV of 2017
The Sum of All Fears * Sherlock Holmes (movie)* Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows * Like Water for Chocolate * Logan * Iris * Robin Hood (2010) * Hidden Figures * Last Cab to Darwin * Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise * Moana * Doctor Strange * For the Love of Spock * Wonder Woman * The Mummy (2017) * The Fate of the Furious * The Zookeeper’s Wife * Kong: Skull Island * Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them * Searching for Sugarman * The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies * Thor: Ragnarok * The Last Jedi *
The Italian Job (2003) * Arrival * The Expendables 2 * Gone in Sixty Seconds * Master and Commander * Gladiator * Spy Game * The Abyss * The Martian * Under Siege * Escape Plan * Arrival (yes, again) * Rogue One * Mad Max: Fury Road * Ghostbusters (2016) * Sahara * The Mummy * Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation * Rogue One (yes, again) * Wonder Woman * Ocean’s Eleven * Iron Man * Iron Man 2 * Iron Man 3 * Grease 2 * The Poseidon Adventure * The Towering Inferno * Thor * Thor: The Dark World * Men in Black * Men in Black II * Men in Black III * Jurassic Park * Charlie’s Angels * The Dark Knight Rises * Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle * Ocean’s 11 * Ocean’s 12 * Ocean’s 13 * Star Wars: A New Hope * The Empire Strikes Back * Attack of the Clones * Revenge of the Sith * The Force Awakens * Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban * Interstellar
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (Netflix 2016) * Ascension * A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix) * Arq * Person of Interest (season 2) * Person of Interest (season 3) * Person of Interest (season 4) * Chef’s Table (season 1) * Person of Interest (season 5) * The Blacklist (season 1) * The Blacklist (season 2) * Agents of SHIELD (season whatever we’re up to) * The Blacklist (season 3) * Orphan Black (season 5) * The Good Place (season 1) * The Blacklist (season 4) * Wynonna Earp (season 1) * The Expanse (season 2) * Glitch (season 2) * Doctor Who (season what, ten?) * Cake Master *
Some Doctor Who bits and pieces.