Thursday, January 06, 2005

Book Review Compendium: Volume One

Even a precursory read of today's fiction leaves you in little doubt: mathematicians are no longer a lonely number. Indeed, unless your lead character is the type to sort their peas into prime numbers their chances of a quick one-plus-one coupling let alone a happy ending can be calculated in very small fractions. Maths is so sexy in these profit-slash-loss fictions it's now feasible for tax inspectors to be plausible romantic heroines, as in Tobias Hill's The Cryptographer. It's a beautifully-written book with some exquisite sentences, and its' near-future setting and premise of digital money is suitably intriguing. And yet, take away the futuristic trappings and modish references to cryptography and codebreaking and what you have is essentially glorified romantic fiction which offers the possibility that a megalomaniac quadrillionaire could prove to be a down-to-earth altruist ready to throw it all away for the love of a mousy civil servant. And the other thing that this book has in common with Mills & Boon is its complete lack of spunk: I found it a little depressing that a young, handsome and gifted novelist like Hill should produce such a precise and formal work devoid of passion or even a hint of extravagance or arrogance. This will divide readers, though: you'll either love it as a kind of geekish spin on The Great Gatsby or you just might consider that something in The Cryptographer doesn't quite add up.

Meanwhile, Louise Wener follows up her debut Goodnight Steve McQueen with The Big Blind in which her redhead heroine is (guess what?) someone who daydreams about primary numbers in addition to wetdreaming about a threeway with Bono and Edge while Larry Mullen Jr looks on (what? Adam Clayton went missing AGAIN?!). A chance encounter with a twenty-stone agorophobic draws her into high-stakes poker which offers her the possibility of self-actualisation as well as resolving feelings of resentment about her maths teacher dad disappearing without trace after blowing all his cash to gambling addiction. OK, the book isn't exactly The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis, but it's nevertheless an entertaining and frisky read in which Wener shows a wider range and greater maturity than on her debut. She does a pretty good job of papering over the plot contrivances but is occasionally let down by the formulaic 70s sitcom approach to humour: if she has the courage to develop her talents for character-driven drama and ditches the cheeky-chappy stuff and over-familiar pop-culture references there's a great novel in her yet.

Another musician who clearly fancies himself as a writer is Bob Dylan, whose Chronicles Volume 1 had the temerity to storm into my top 12 books of the year before I got round to properly(?) reviewing it. I don't think I've ever read an autobiography from cover to cover before, but with its pithy, pulpy writing style; enigmatic structuring; mischievous undercutting and brilliant conveyance of era and atmosphere, I found it a quick but thoroughly absorbing read. Those expecting kiss-and-tell or soul-baring will be disappointed (Bob is disingenuous to the last when discussing his relationships, particularly in reference to his songs) but over the course of the book you do get a glimpse of the Zimmerman you wouldn't credit from his rather grumpy and taciturn public persona: a voracious culture-vulture thoroughly immersed in showbusiness traditions, generous to his peers and those who paid their dues, with a rogueish sense of humour and a roving eye for the ladies.

Dylan provides good balance in contrasting the heady, exciting early days with the career slumps that followed in the early 70s and mid-80s. When describing the latter post-Empire Burlesque fallout, he comes up with about thirty different metaphors for his creative slough within about three pages and his lengthy account of the troubled recording of the Daniel Lanois-produced 'Oh Mercy!' which revived his fortunes and restored his reputation is heavy-going stuff but possibly the most rewarding part of the book for hardcore Dylan enthusiasts. Overall, though, it's a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in pop culture from the late 50s to mid-80s and the best recommendation I can give is that you certainly don't need to be a big Dylan fan to find it a worthwhile investment of your time.


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