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Book Review: by Lang Reid

How hard can it be?

I believe this is the fourth volume in the series The World According to Clarkson, an annual compilation of Jeremy Clarkson’s columns in the British Sunday Times.  This one is entitled How Hard Can It Be? (ISBN 978-0-141-04876-5, Penguin Books, 2011).

As in his previous three volumes, Clarkson expounds on all his pet hobby-horses, the government and its inadequacies, the Health and Safety legislation and men in orange visi-jackets, his color-coded dustbins, the Archbishop of Canterbury and anything in the slightest considered politically correct.

Clarkson’s writing style is that of hyperbole, and it is this that makes one smile, and smile you certainly do.  And he does not shy away from subjects that you would normally gloss over, or tsk-tsk about.  African famine?  Clarkson blithely reports that “In Kenya, hunger has driven half the population to set fire to the other half.”  “I’ve argued time and time again that the old trade unionists and CND lesbians didn’t go away.  They just morphed into environmentalists.”

Sports come in for their fair share of vitriol.  Tennis is described as “15,000 phlebitis-ridden Surrey women in their size 16 summer frocks furiously banging their bingo wings together every time that poor Frenchie (Richard Gasquet) made a mistake.  And raising what’s left of the roof every time Murray, who looks like a piece of string with a knot in it, got a point.”

He waxes eloquent when he comes to looking at linguistics.  He looks at the 460,000 pounds spent by the government on preparing a language and dialect atlas of Britain.  He mentions that in Britain there is such diversity.  “In Britain you can drive for just one day and each time you stop for petrol, the cashier will sound different.  It’s Punjabi in the morning, Hindi at lunchtime and Tamil in the evening.”

Clarkson has also no time for the ‘scientific’ stories that appear in the popular press, “I’m only giving you the scientific news from Tuesday - we heard that women who take HRT will have a stroke; that smokers get depressed more easily; that Range Rovers cause global warming; and that if you take pills for high blood pressure you will become stick-thin and, I don’t know, fall through grates in the street or be taken away by a stork.”  Once again using the absurd to make his point in that humorous way.

With Clarkson’s scathing contributions to show how the world should be, it is interesting to pause for a moment to see if he has actually been successful in turning the societal tide.  When you look and see that this fourth book is actually reprinting his 2008 columns, you then understand that nothing has been changed in the three years since then.  Clarkson is in many ways a literary King Canute (Knut to be pedantically correct) trying to turn the tide, and being equally as successful as the Scandinavian royal.

With 52 weekly contributions, you get plenty to chuckle over for your B. 430 at Bookazine, but you need to have a personal healthy dislike of all things PC to get the most out of this book.

Top 10 of Everything 2012

This book is the 23rd Edition of the Top 10 of Everything.  I had initially thought that this was a knock-off from the Guinness Book of Records, but perhaps it was the other way around?

The book is huge, heavy, printed on glossy stock and gets you in as soon as you open it.  We as a species seem to have a fascination for “lists”, and this book Top 10 of Everything 2012 (ISBN 978-0-600-62335-9, Octopus Books, produced for Hamlyn by Palazzo Editions 2011) certainly panders to that need.  The pages are set up as if on a wall and ‘post-it notes’ and thumb tack items placed on them.  Each page has interesting items dotted through it, being far more than just a list of top 10’s.

The chapters are varied and cover many items, including the universe, deadliest animals, actors, music, health and illness, schools and universities, but there is much more.  As pointed out in the introduction, the lists provide a shorthand glimpse of what is happening with the world economy, global warming, deforestation, population growth and densities and a “fascinating and entertaining overview of the amazing diversity of our planet and its people.”  Did you know, for example, that the Chinese are launching what is called the Kuafu Space mission of three spacecraft dedicated to monitoring the earth’s climate?  I certainly did not, and this book will finally erase the pictures of a nation on bicycles.  Well it did for me!

The collection of interesting facts is almost endless.  Did you know that there are newspapers which began publishing in 1656 (Haarlems Dagblad), 1664 (Gazetta di Mantiva) and 1665 (The London Gazette)?  And did you also know that Thailand comes in at 7th equal as countries where the most reporters have died.  Fortunately that does not include book reviewers.

At B. 850 on the Bookazine shelves, it is a real bargain.  As a Xmas present for a young teenager it is ideal as it caters to the natural curiosity of the young, and will teach them much more than simple 1-10 listing.  It will even show them that there were some very successful pop singers before Lady Gaga, though of course she gets her place in a top 10 as well.  However, this book is not just for teenagers, I thoroughly enjoyed going through it, and with it being a hard-cover publication, it makes for an excellent resource book to be kept as well.

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

I have never been a particular fan of William Shakespeare, having been forced to learn lines from The Merchant of Venice at the point of a cane many years ago.  However, I have always been a fan of Bill Bryson, and when I saw Shakespeare by Bill Bryson on the Bookazine shelves, I had to take it home.  Would someone with Bryson’s consummate writing skills overpower my boyhood prejudices?

This biography, centuries after the playwright died, simply entitled Shakespeare (ISBN 978-0-00-719790-3, Harper’s Press, 2009) is yet another example of Bryson’s genius, let alone the reported genius of this Shakespeare fellow.

Bryson begins by showing us that nobody really ‘knew’ Shakespeare, let alone the bard of Stratford Upon Avon himself.  A man who spelled his own name in several different ways, was he perhaps more than one?  Bryson observes that “Shakespeare it seems is not so much a historical figure, as an academic obsession.”

The author admits that “this book was written, not because the world needs another book on Shakespeare, as because this series does.  The idea is a simple one: to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record.  Which is one reason of course, it is so slender.”  (And at 200 pages, including the bibliography, it is indeed slender.)

Bryson spends much time describing things we do know something about, especially the lives of the common man in the late 1500’s.  Plague or pestilence was a real threat, and longevity was not the norm.  Typhus and leprosy were commonplace, and there were no antibiotics, so even simple infections could carry one off.  TB, rickets, measles, scurvy and smallpox abounded.  We do not realize how fortunate we are today.

Life for the average Londoner was also very different from their lives today.  The Southwark end of London Bridge had poles where the heads of criminals were displayed.  There were so many of these that a “Keeper of the Heads” had to be employed.  A grisly job that must have been.

The sights and smells are recorded by Bryson with such edifying items as the leather tanners who steeped their products in vats of dog feces to make the leather more supple.  “No one reached a playhouse without encountering a good deal of odor.”

However, only when it is pointed out that Shakespeare introduced 2,035 new words to the English language, most of which are in common usage today, that you see what a towering literary giant he really was.  Consider these, “antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read and zany” just for starters.

This book does give the reader an insightful view of Shakespeare and the times.  At B. 485, this book deserves to sit beside Shakespeare’s sonnets.  Another example of how a mature writer can unearth facts, and present them in a readable and amusing fashion.  A truly enjoyable book, but heed Bryson’s final sentence, “Only one man had the circumstances and gifts to give us such incomparable works, and William Shakespeare of Stratford was unquestionable that man - whoever he was.”

Catch 22

There are literally hundreds of thousands of books in the stores, but very few of them will become classics. The book reviewed this week is a classic, from which a whole new genre of novels ensued. It is Joseph Heller’s masterpiece Catch 22 (ISBN 978-0-099-53601-7, Vintage publishers, 1994), a book that has been reprinted many times, and will continue to be so.

It was first published in 1961, and 50 years later it is still significant. Even the phrase Catch 22 has been adopted by the Western world to denote bureaucratic situations which become a lose-lose position for an affected person, and which is beyond the capabilities of the people involved to change it. Bureaucratic ‘double-speak’ taken to its ultimate end, where the content of a decision no longer matters, only the maintenance of the status quo.

Yossarian, a Bombardier in the US Air Force stationed on the island of Pianosa is the “hero” (in reality the “anti-hero”), with the setting being 1943 during WW II. Yossarian could be considered paranoiac, but it should always be remembered that just because one is paranoiac does not mean that nobody is out to get you!

The other members of Yossarian’s squadron are brought into the novel, with classic sketches such as the Mess Sergeant Milo Minderbender who runs the ultimate PX scams, using US planes and pilots to ferry his contraband to Europe and Colonel Cathcart, Yossarian’s nemesis, who continually raises the number of missions that must be flown before any airman can be sent home.

Others introduced are The Chaplain, who remains an innocent amongst the guilty, Major Major Major Major of whom the name makes sense in a military sense for a person christened Major Major Major, Doc Daneeka who wants to be put on the flight manifest but not actually go up so he can claim flight allowance but is actually afraid of flying, General Dreedle who wanted to shoot one of their own officers and had to be reminded that he was not allowed to shoot his own men, and the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, who officially was not there.

The book can be thought of as a tragi-comedy in black satirical humor, with the chapters introducing the individuals as humorous items, but then as you go further into the book, the tenor becomes blacker and thought producing.

Just in case you think I have exaggerated the importance of this book in contemporary literature, The Modern Library ranked Catch-22 as number 7 on its list of the greatest English language novels of the twentieth century. The Radcliffe Publishing Course ranks Catch-22 as number 15 of the twentieth century’s top 100 novels. The Observer listed Catch-22 as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time. TIME puts Catch-22 in the top 100 English language modern novels, and The Big Read from the BBC ranked Catch-22 as number 11 on a web poll of the UK’s best-loved books.

If you have not read this book before, do it now. The review copy came from Bookazine Royal Garden Plaza and the RRP is B. 385. The ultimate literary bargain.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

How hard can it be?

Top 10 of Everything 2012

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Catch 22