Friday, January 22, 2010

A Taste For Death

Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise novels were my favourite teenage reading and I last revisited them in my early 20s. It would therefore be around 30 years since I read this book.

For several years I have been looking for Modesty Blaise novels in every second-hand bookshop I've come across. My own copies disappeared long ago. A shop in my home town has had a hardcover first edition of one of the series for a couple of years - but $70.00 is much more than I am willing to pay.

This was the very first affordable Modesty Blaise book I've seen for years* and, allowing myself to be overcome by nostalgic urges, I bought it.

In reading this book I quickly recognised why O’Donnell’s stories had so much appeal especially to a teenage boy. It is the same kind of appeal that can be found in the Indiana Jones films, the appeal of the rollercoaster ride that lifts you to a peak of suspense and then lets you accelerate to a brief resolution before building up to the next peak. O’Donnell continually drops his heroes into impossibly desperate situations and then lets them work their own way out.

This kind of story could easily leave readers shaking their heads at the improbability of the plot but with skill a writer can suspend the reader’s sense of unbelief to hide the improbability from the readers mind. I can see two aspects of this skill in the Blaise books. Firstly O’Donnell creates very likeable heroes with backgrounds that equip them for the dangers they will face. Secondly he adds humour showing his tongue is very much at home in his cheek. And then there is no pretence that his villains are anything other than villainous – no attempt to justify their behaviour through questionable psychology. They are the baddies because they are evil, not because they are misunderstood or misguided.

Modesty Blaise is a former organized crime boss who made her fortune through illegal but not entirely immoral means, her crimes allegedly having no really innocent victims. Living in retirement, she retains an extraordinarily close bond with a former associate, Willie Garvin. It is a retirement that is regularly interrupted by their ability to attract – or be attracted to – trouble. In A Taste For Death, a holidaying Willie Garvin witnesses the murder of a young woman, after which he is able to rescue the victim’s companion from the murderers. In doing so he disrupts the plans of an old adversary and further confrontation becomes inevitable.

The books exotic settings, from the Caribbean to the deserts of North Africa are matched by the exotic and inventive challenges faced by Blaise and Garvin. In this book they are rejoined by Stephen Collier, a survivor from former adventures. Collier’s self-deprecating humour not only provides some of the books lighter moments, it becomes an important part of the plot with Collier being adopted as “court jester” by the book’s major villain Delicata, extending his life and also giving him access to vital intelligence.
Another recurring character is also introduced in this book. The girl rescued by Garvin at the beginning of the book, Dinah Pilgrim. She is the focal point of the villains’ plans, possessing a talent essential for their success. Garvin’s intervention ensures that he and Blaise will complicate those plans and be drawn into a deadly confrontation with a collection of adversaries from their past.

Some would call stories like this “comic book” and that criticism would not be entirely unjustified. Modesty Blaise started out as a comic strip character in the 1960s. The strip’s success led to a film adaptation with the original screenplay being written by O’Donnell. Unfortunately, the film business being as it can be, there were several rewrites and the result was far from satisfactory. At the time O’Donnell vowed never to allow his characters to be portrayed on film again unless he had personal control, a sentimnet he made known to me in a reply to a fan letter I wrote in the early 1980s.

After the disastrous film, O’Donnell salvaged the reputation of his characters by converting his screenplay into a novel, the first of a series which continued for 20 years. The Modesty Blaise books ended with a collection of short stories The Cobra Trap, published in 1996, 10 years after the last of the novels. However the comic strip continued until 2001.

Despite O’Donnell’s intentions regarding film adaptations of his characters, he relented to a degree and two other films were made. The first in 1982 was a telemovie, the pilot of a proposed TV series that never eventuated and the most recent being a prequel to the published Modesty Blaise stories. The latter made little impact and went straight to DVD. Maybe the most significant aspect of the DVD release was the bonus features, which include a lengthy interview with Peter O’Donnell who talks about his career and his relationship with the Modesty Blaise stories.


* Some of the series are available as new books but to me the old Pan paperback editions are an important part of the nostalgic experience.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The New Atheist Crusaders, by Becky Garrison

This was cheap book I picked up on sale at a Christian bookshop. The subtitle “The Misguided Quest to Destroy Your Faith” appealed to me. I have always found it very ironic that so many atheists are more vocal about a God in whom they don’t believe, than most professing Christians are about the God to whom they are supposed to be devoted.
The letters pages of most newspapers have their regular atheist contributors who seem to have little better to do than attack a “non-existent” God.

Becky Garrison is a self-described satirist whose specialty is writing religious exposés for “The Wittenburg Door, the oldest, largest and only religious satire magazine in the United States”. In this book she turns to her keyboard to deal with the “New Atheists” a currently prominent collection of men (the most well known perhaps being Richard Dawkins) who have recently become famous for attacking religious faith. Their view is that religion has been the cause of all human evils and the sooner it is abolished, the sooner mankind can settle down and be nice to each other.

The problem with this book is that Garrison doesn’t succeed with her attempt at “satire”. There was nothing really satirical within this book, even though Garrison keeps reminding the reader that she is a satirist, trying to convince us that she is using satire to make her point. Allying herself with “fellow satirist Jonathon Swift” hardly does her a favour; it merely highlights the chasm between a classic master of the form and a modern day wannabe.

I found this book works best when Garrison uses quotes from the targeted “New Atheists” who very readily shoot themselves in the foot with comments such as this one attributed to Sam Harris:
“If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion. I would not hesitate to get rid of religion”.

Other quotes highlight how theologically ignorant these men are, with many of their arguments based on their own imagined theological framework. The religious views they so eagerly demolish are mainly straw men of their own creation. There is more than a hint of “if I were God I’d do things this way and since the Christian God doesn’t do it like that, it’s clear that He doesn’t exist”.
For example, Richard Dawkins thinks “If he existed and chose to reveal it. God Himself could clinch the argument, noisily and unequivocally, in his favour”. The obvious implication is that God hasn’t done this so therefore He doesn’t exist. But why should the Creator of the universe stoop to fulfilling Dawkins’ expectations? If Dawkins took a little time to learn what God is like and how He relates to His creation it would be clear how pathetic Dawkins’ expectations are.
Likewise, while not exactly a “New” atheist the late Bertram Russell is quoted as saying “If I were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence”. Again it is an argument based on personal assumptions with no regard for the God of the Bible that is being refuted. These men create their own “God” and then tear Him apart.

However, perhaps it is expecting too much to wish that these men had a little more integrity with their treatment of religious belief and the nature of God. The promotion of religious ignorance is an effective tool in their hands. If they had done their Sunday school homework they would be guilty of wilful dishonesty instead of mere ignorance. But I have to admit that many Christians are no less careless in their approach to the sciences and therefore do their own beliefs no favours when they involve themselves with scientific arguments they don’t understand.

I found Garrison’s own approach to the Christian faith was also problematic at times, but I would have been better prepared for that if I’d taken better note of those who endorsed the book in the back cover promotion. While it currently has one of the most popular faces of the church today, the borderline syncretism of the “emergent church” is hardly representative of biblical Christianity. One of its major figures, Brian McLaren, is regularly referenced in the book and is one who gave his endorsement on the cover. To the emergent church “relevance” and tolerance have become the dominant characteristics, even if they lead to a compromising of the essential gospel message.

Certainly there are parts of Jesus’ gospel there, – the parts about loving your neighbour, feeding the hungry and caring for the poor, but they are placed within the context of improving the world and human existence as if they were the purpose of Jesus’ time on earth. But these very temporal matters were NOT the main focus of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection which was all about reconciling fallen man with a perfect God.
However, those things have such a strong feel-good aspect to them that it’s much easier to promote work towards a better world and a better life than it is to promote dying to ones’ self and living for God. Improving mankind’s temporal state is much easier to sell than it is to promote God’s eternal plans; especially to a generation who needs to have everything now.

While Garrison’s book does expose the hypocrisy of fundamentalist atheists calling for an end to religion, I felt that Garrison was more interested in getting everyone to play nicely together than in exploring the truth. Considering that Jesus said that He is THE TRUTH this book clearly fell short. Maybe we should consider which is most likely to destroy true faith, the loud mouthed clearly hostile atheist; or the purveyor of a watered down, compromised view of Jesus and His gospel.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Defeat? Or Coming to my Senses?

Could this be an admission of defeat? A confession of failure?

I suppose so it could be viewed that way – but I’m not proud or stubborn enough to battle on for the sake of making a point.
Now what on earth am I referring to?

It had been my intention to overcome the difficulties I’ve faced with finishing books by resolving to finish every book I start. That I will no longer back away and give up on a book once I’ve started it.
I have now realised the futility of such a plan. Why should a book I am not enjoying be given that kind of respect? Life is too short to waste it on bad books.

Now by “bad” I am not intending to make an overall value judgement of a book’s merits. I am merely recognising that a book is “bad” for me if the reading of it becomes a chore rather than a pleasure. After all I’m not following a compulsory required reading list. I went through that in the early 1990s when I studied for my BA.

I want to read for pleasure and for knowledge and not as a sport. It should not be an issue of endurance, or of ticking a book off a list to reach a desired target. So I have therefore decided to officially put aside Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and I will remove it from my “currently reading” list so that I don’t feel compelled to stick with a book that I have no desire to pick up and continue.

But I WILL continue with Wuthering Heights. While I’ve struggled with this book it IS one I want to read and eventually it will make its way onto my “read” list.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Last & First

The Time Traveller’s Wife is the kind of book responsible for the dilemma I experience with reading. As previously anticipated I received a copy for Christmas and spent most of the Christmas holidays reading it.

Firstly the positive…
It inspires the desire to read, with its interesting and original story of Henry, a man who is uncontrollably snatched from one time period to another. These shifts in time occasionally bring him into contact with important people from other periods in his life, enabling him to visit his childhood self and other people of personal importance. He is able to spend time with his wife throughout her childhood, preparing her for their eventual meeting and the novel alternates between his and her points of view.

Time travel stories have always appealed to me. There have been TV series like Dr Who and Time Tunnel; films like The Terminator and Back to the Future series, adaptations of HG Well’s The Time Machine (and of course the original book); Connie Willis’s award winning novel The Doomsday Book and so many other examples of time travel being explored.
Unlike all of those, Niffenegger’s book is not likely to be described as “Science Fiction” even though a scientific reason for Henry’s condition is lightly touched (some kind of genetic anomaly). This book’s major focus is on the effects of the time traveller’s condition upon his relationship with his wife Clare; effects that (to me) did not always ring true and left me wondering whether real people would react in the same way as this books characters when faced with the particular realities of their relationship and experiences. For example, would a woman be so accepting of her husband having an extramarital, sexual encounter with a younger woman – even if that woman was herself, many years before, during one of his time travelling episodes?

And next the negative…

This book is also an example of what annoys me about modern writing that makes me think twice about starting a book.
Like so many modern writers, Niffenegger follows the compulsion to soil her craft with the use of explicit sexual encounters and graphic language. What is it about today’s writers that make them think it’s necessary to include at least one obligatory oral sex scene in their novels? It’s a practice so common that it has become a cliché.

Many years ago an English work mate was telling me about his favourite author, a writer of pulp thrillers who, as part of his popular formula, always included “one fook per book”. It seems to me that otherwise talented “literary” writers today see it necessary to fall into the same formulaic trap, spicing up their stories with gratuitously explicit sexual encounters and obscene language. Is it REALLY necessary for a writer to use the crudest terms in the English language to describe genitalia?

Prior to reading this book I had been seriously considering Niffenegger’s next novel, but after reading this one – despite its many good points, I’m not likely to follow it up with any more of her writing.

The Time Traveller’s Wife was the last book I completed in 2009. The first to be finished in 2010 was Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, a book that I purchased through a series of mistakes and misunderstandings.
I saw it praised on a book blog and immediately assumed it was the same book I had recently left on the shelves of a charity shop’s book section. I was disappointed at missing out on such a highly recommended book that I could have bought for a few dollars, but my disappointment was eased when I found that I could buy an autographed copy direct from the author. Several days after placing my order it arrived and I realised that it had NOT been the book I had previously seen for a bargain price, which will now remain unidentified as the shop is a four hour drive from home.

Hill’s Howards End is a collection of writings that every book-lover should enjoy. Each chapter addresses a different aspect of Hill’s relationship with books, literature and the varied personalities involved with their creation. It is a personal insight into Hill herself, as well as to the many writers she has been privileged to meet. Along with anecdotes about people like Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming and Edith Sitwell, Hill writes about the memories stirred up by the different types of books (diaries, pop-up books, literary classics and more) that she rediscovers on her own bookshelves. In particular we are given a glimpse into her love of both Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy.
After my conflicting feelings about The Time Traveller’s Wife I was quite pleased to read Hill saying that love is “the most difficult thing to write about successfully. It is the litmus test of greatness in a novelist if a love story moves and convinces and never once makes the reader grimace, smirk or feel embarrassed. Modern novelists are bad at writing about love because they feel that it has to mean writing explicitly about sex.”
I certainly see that comment being applicable to parts of The Time Traveller’s Wife.

Susan Hill concludes her book with a list of her “Final Forty” which could be described as those books she would find as most essential if she had to cull her extensive library. Reading such a list makes it clear how subjective book choice is. Out of the forty I have only six of them in my own library – one of which is Wuthering Heights, a book that would clearly be absent from my own “Final Forty” (Read about my struggle with this book elsewhere on my blog).