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Queen's University

Book Reviews - Fiction and Miscellaneous

Bakker, R.T. (1995). Raptor red. Toronto: Bantam Books.

This book is a biography of a Utahraptor written from its viewpoint. An implausible premise you say? Bakker actually makes it work. A fun read.

Bloom, H. (2004). The best poems of the English Language: From Chaucer to Frost. NY: Harper/Collins.

I loved to memorize poems in high school and still recall large fragments of what I learned. So, I’ve been on the look out for a book that has the poems I already knew. This book fills the bill. It has great selections of the major English poets and well- known poems from many minor ones, together with some rather arcane and sometimes very tedious stuff (one gets very tired of personifications of aspects of nature and endless allusions to Greek and Roman gods).

The author’s commentary is sometimes rather ponderous, frequently repetitious, and sometimes obscure—the editor should be fired. Many of the poems, particularly the older ones or those in dialect are very hard to follow and there isn’t much help provided for the long-suffering reader. There are some translations of certain words in Chaucer but not necessarily the words readers are most likely to not understand. In addition, here as in other Chaucer explications I have seen, the translator chooses modern words that are not nearly as close as other modern words to the original—go figure.

For all this, one can’t help but love many of these works. Some of the poems have influenced the development of the language. One can identify the source of quite a few modern expressions.

Borges, J.L. (1964). Dreamtigers. Austin: University of Texas Press.

A charming little book of poetry from a deeply introspective writer pondering the meaning of it all. This is a very accessible translation from Spanish written by an admirer and colleague of Borges. The work is the more accessible to us because Borges is an expert on English literature.

Enright, D.J. (1955/1985). Academic year: A novel. Oxford University Press.

A wonderfully evocative novel about English academicians teaching in Alexandria during the last decadent days of King Farouk. How often the British Empire and Commonwealth created the “feel” of institutions around the world! I remember, for example, how vividly the correctional system in Hong Kong reminded me of the Canadian and British correctional systems. In this novel, aspects of the university, for example the centralized administration of examinations, reminds me of Queen’s.

The middle part of the book is about a “major” symposium at the Cultural Center of the university entitled Education: It’s scope and aims with one of the papers being The usefulness of education. All of this slightly boggles the mind because essentially the symposium concerns teaching the English classics to the Egyptians. The sheer silliness of it all will produce a profound sense of déjà vu in any academic.

This very funny but ultimately tragic little story is well worth reading on a number of levels, not least in 2006 because it invites one to ponder the precursors of recent Islamic militancy in their colonial context.

Keillor, G. (1985). Lake Wobegon days. Penguin.

I generally liked this series of short stories about the busy metropolis of Lake Wobegon. Lots of description, sentimental and nostalgic, but not usually too sappy.

Leckie, R. (1998). Scipio: A novel. London: Abacus.

A good novel about Hannibal’s nemesis. You’d think the Romans would have been grateful to him. The book describes a remarkable military life, with lots of action and historical detail. But one always wonders about the extent to which one is reading what a twentieth century person thinks that Scipio should have been thinking.

Leibovich, M. (2002). The new imperialists. Toronto: Prentice Hall.

A profoundly uninteresting book about guys who made fortunes in new technology companies. It's not at all clear why they are labeled "imperialists". The author tries to explain their success and vaulting ambition through superficial psychologizing (some of them had disappointments and loss in adolescence…and so forth). Of course, one can't tell whether these successes are any different than the many guys who tried and failed or succeeded more modestly. One thing I learned though, is that at least some of them, like Bill Gates, are godawful smart!

McGrath, P. (1997). Asylum. N.Y.: Vintage.

A recent novel by the master of unease.” Paddy McGrath lets the story line illustrate the nerdiness and exquisitely poor judgment of the protagonists rather than simply labelling them as dolts. The novel nicely and accurately illustrates certain aspects of the medical culture of English special hospitals.

A very good read. An attractive feature of the book is its narrative economy. What appear at first to be simple descriptive details, turn out later to be necessary for the plot.

Paddy worked for me many years ago and we were part of the same social circle at Oak Ridge. I can’t help but think I recognize some real people among his fictional characters.

Pawel, E. (1984). The nightmare of reason: A life of Franz Kafka. NY: Random House.

I first became interested in Kafka when I was a young man during the denouement of a long party held in an old house on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital. Six or seven people were seated about a long dinner table late in the night and the discussion turned to the topic of the worst thing that we had ever experienced. In turn, we each described some very depressing or horrifying event—one well-traveled guy, for example, described how he had seen two women stoned to death as witches near a train station in some part of India. The last person to speak confessed that he had no suitably horrific experiences of his own to relate. However, he said he had read a book that he would tell us about. The book he chose to describe was Kafka’s The Trial and I shall never forget it. As he told the nightmarish story of inescapable but nameless guilt, we could hear a woman’s tormented screams coming from one of the wards through the falling snow.

Pawel situates Kafka historically, in the late 19th and early 20th century death throes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The nationalist rivalry between the Czechs and Germans, who were seemingly united only in their hatred of the Jews, eventually tore the Empire apart. Some of the Jews attempted to be assimilated as secular Germans with little success—“it’s not their religion that makes them swine” one polemicist remarked. Others adopted Zionism. Kafka first tried assimilation and later, in his ambivalent manner, Zionism, but by then it was too late-- he was dying from tuberculosis of the larynx. One feels a premonition when reading this book of how all of this world would be swept away in the holocaust. Given that Kafka was Jewish and the subsequent political history of central Europe, it is no little irony that he became posthumously famous as the world’s best writer of German prose.

Pawel relates Kafka’s all-consuming guilt and self-loathing to Freudian notions of the Oedipal complex, guilt over masturbation, and fear of homosexuality, although Pawel cautions against any simple-minded deterministic explanations of Kafka’s art on these or other grounds. The similarity of Kafka’s remarkable neuroses to some of those that Freud described does make these psychoanalytic explanations appear more plausible than usual, undoubtedly because Kafka in Prague and Freud in Vienna shared a similar cultural milieu.

Kafka, unbearably unhappy and convinced of his own ineptitude and worthlessness, was nevertheless an extremely effective quasi-civil servant in the occupational insurance field. He was well liked by everybody in the organization, implemented pioneering measures to help industrial accident victims and later disabled veterans, and was consistently turned down for military service because his job performance made him invaluable to the war effort. Kafka was one of the very few to be retained when the Czechs took over from the Germans after the war. Kafka’s bosses invariably treated him considerately.

The office, however, was perceived by Kafka only as a sort of necessary purgatory, when it was not actually hell. He could only expiate his crimes through writing and any relief he found by this method was ephemeral. All this makes one wonder about how many anguished people there are, living within their heads, but without a voice.

Remnick, D. (2000). The new gilded age: The New Yorker looks at the culture of affluence. NY: Random House.

Although not up to the exceptional standard set by the previous volume of New Yorker essays (Life stories), the essays in this volume are generally well written and interesting. Several concern finding an apartment in New York City (even the modestly rich have problems) and a number of chapters deal with celebrities of the new gilded age (Donald Trump is described in a very funny essay and Alan Greenspan in an admiring one).

Two essays deserve further comment. The first, Marisa and Jeff, by Calvin Trillin, tells a pathetic true story of insider trading fraud. The story involves greed, a gullible and vulnerable woman, and a predatory crook, who meets expectations with his stupendous egocentricity. The second, The quarter of living dangerously, is written by David Denby. Denby writes a phenomenological narrative of his involvement in high risk, high tech stock trading. He masterfully makes the reader feel his greed and fear.

In all, these essays provoke a sense of unease. The easy money, the speculation bubble that everyone knows will burst, the environmental despoliation, and economic exploitation that underlie this modern economy combine to suggest a children’s game in which the object is to be the last one to take one’s hand from an alligator’s mouth before it snaps shut.

Russo, R. (1997). Straight man. NY: Random House.

This is a novel about a failed academic department head (who could imagine such a thing!). It’s very light reading and amusing in spots—at one point the hero threatens to throttle a goose on television in order to dramatize the effects of budget cuts. The inanity of the university budget process is one of the many details that will be familiar to academics.

Shelley, M. (1994). Frankenstein. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth.

Mary Shelley wrote this novel in 1816 when she was just 19. She was living on the continent with the poet Shelley with whom she had recently eloped. The novel was the result of an agreement between she, Shelley, and Byron to each write a ghost story.

The novel is a real page turner. Quite interesting from a historical viewpoint because of the science and science fiction that is used in creating Frankenstein. The book is a morality play written in the noble savage genre.

Simonds, M. (1996). The convict lover: A true story. Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter, & Ross.

In the attic of her Kingston house, the author found a collection of letters written by a Kingston Penitentiary inmate to its former owner around the time of the Great War. The novel/documentary is based upon these letters. I found this book enthralling.

Some interesting descriptions of the history of penitentiary reform. Sadly, those of us with a lot of experience with offenders doubtless read this book with a different set of expectations than others.


Turow, S. (2002). Reversible errors. Toronto: HarperCollins.

A fast-paced novel about prosecutors, judges, and cops. The plot is carefully constructed and the details are realistic. The story itself, though, I found a bit far-fetched. I suppose it's redundant to call a fictional plot contrived. The problem, I think, is that I don’t like fiction very much.

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