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winning with the kenyans

My latest Sunday Telegraph review, of Adharanand Finn’s Running with the Kenyans, is online now:

When the men’s Olympic marathon is run in London in four months’ time, chances are the winner will be a Kenyan. The holder of the title is Kenyan; the world record holder is Kenyan; last year, 66 of the world’s 100 fastest marathons were run by Kenyans. “Few things from Africa,” a coach observes in this heartfelt, fish-out-of-water story, “generate such genuine awe, fear and unreserved respect, as a Kenyan runner on the start line of a marathon.”

And so Sunday’s London marathon was won Wilson Kipsang and Mary Keitany (left), both of Kenya, as predicted by Tom Payn, the British marathon runner I mentioned – trailing behind 300 Kenyans – in the review. Payn left his job as a technical sales engineer for a filtration company in Portsmouth and moved to Kenya in an attempt to make it to the Olympics. His blog gives a very realistic sense of what being a professional athlete is like (in short, painful).

Finn talks quite a bit about Mary Keitany in the book. Here’s what he had to say about her on his Running with the Kenyans blog for the Guardian website:

A shy girl who lives near Rudisha (and me) here in Iten, she also broke the world half marathon record earlier this year.

I visited her recently and asked her whether she thought she could win gold in London. She looked at me hesitantly. “I don’t know,” she said.

In Kenya, with so many other amazing athletes around, nobody is guaranteed a place on the national team, so talk of winning medals a year in advance can seem a bit presumptuous, even for world record holders.

It’s a good book. Read the whole review here.

left wondering

My review of Tom Perrotta’s book The Leftovers is published in this month’s Literary Review. Too literary to have a proper website, apparently, so here’s the whole thing, starting with those crucial first lines:

‘What mostly struck her, reading the files, was how deceptively normal things seemed in Mapleton.’ Swap ‘deceptively’ for ‘boringly’ or ‘frustratingly’ and you have the whole story of this book. 

I don’t like writing rude reviews, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Read the rest after the jump.

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some real singing

I’m working on something about Bob Dylan at the moment and reading Clinton Heylin’s biography Behind the Shades. Heylin is the Dylanologist’s Dylanologist, author of umpteen books, founder of Dylan fanzine Wanted Man, and chief obsessive chronicler of all things Bob.

I’m reading the 20th Anniversary edition of his biography Behind the Shades, which includes another 60,000 words on everything that’s happened since Behind the Shades: Take Two was published in 2000. No wonder if at times Heylin sounds peevish and frustrated.

Behind the Shades is definitive and comprehensive, often exhaustingly so. (For a Dylan novice looking for something more digestible, I’d recommend the excellent Q Magazine Bob Dylan Special Issue, which covers his career in a series of articles.) There’s endless detail about recording sessions (and Too Much Information about Dylan’s fondness for “well-endowed” girls), but little insight into Dylan’s psyche or creative drive, as this review notes:

Heylin’s narrative is sustained by a workable but perfunctory notion of Dylan’s life as the record of incessant challenges to “re-invent himself” in order to remain faithful to his demanding, difficult, ever elusive muse. Like his predecessors, Heylin acknowledges the teenage Dylan’s initial attraction to the world music opened to him as a means of escape from the stultifying imaginative confinement of his native Hibbing, but that’s the stereotypical story of millions of kids since the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll.

The most important questions remain unanswered:

Why has Dylan – like perhaps no other pop music devotee and like precious few artists of any kind – remained so stubbornly faithful to his muse for so long, and why has he kept this faith – as Heylin himself observes in his book’s somewhat grim final chapters – at the apparent expense of every other relation in his life? Why has Dylan’s commitment to his art always been so combative? So solitary? So perverse? So primal? Who is this guy anyway? 

Who knows?

But if Behind the Shades doesn’t have The Answer, that doesn’t stop it being appalling, mesmerising, weird and funny. It is Bob we’re talking about, after all. A taste of him is richer than a meal of anyone else.

I particularly enjoyed this anecdote, from 1985. Dylan had written a new song – another feather-light piece of fluff, Heylin calls it – and offered it to a country-punk band his new girlfriend liked. As the lead singer relates:

He came down to the studio when we were recording our first album and taught us the song. And he stayed around. He brought Ron Wood with him and they played on it … We ended up working on it a very long time because he didn’t like the way I sang it … It got to the point where finally I just did my best Bob Dylan imitation – and he said, “Ah now you’re doin’ SOME REAL SINGING!”

my name is asher lev by chaim potok

Asher Lev is born into a strict Hasidic family in 1950s Brooklyn. (I’ve been there, although obviously not in the 1950s. You walk ten blocks where everyone is Jewish, then you cross a street and everyone is black.) Asher has a prodigious artistic gift: he’s driven to draw and paint, even doodling in the pages of a sacred book. Yet Asher’s father believes that his son’s artistic passion is not a blessing but a curse. The novel follows Asher’s struggle to realise his talent while negotiating the demands of family and faith.

First things first: it’s good. (I’m not sure it deserves to make the Guardian list of 1000 novels to read before you die, but then 1000 books is an awful lot.)

It just wasn’t good for the reasons I expected.

Reason 1: religious tourism. Chaim Potok (or One Buttock, as I think of him) is a Jewish-American author and rabbi. I was recommended this book by a friend who’s training to be a rabbi – not an Orthodox rabbi, but still – as an authentic depiction of Orthodox Jewish life. But it’s actually too authentic for to make good religious tourism. It’s a genuine view from the inside: everything we might see as unusual is taken for granted and mentioned only in passing.

Reason 2: “hindered narration”. Asher Lev was published in 1972, but as Leo Benedictus observes in a (paywalled) recent essay in Prospect magazine:

This kind of novel, told in the first person by a character with a limited ability to understand the world or write about it, is the genre that defines our times. Every story told by an “I” implies some limitation, but books like Haddon’s [The Curious Tale of the Dog in the Night Time] take this further. These narrators are conspicuously powerless, often children or disabled people; usually their prose is full of (what the reader hitherto had thought were) errors. They are, in short, the world’s least likely authors. The poet and novelist Nick Laird has used the phrase “hindered narrator,” which describes it well.

An Hasidic, artistically obsessed boy – Asher Lev is a classic hindered narrator. What makes this book different from its present-day equivalents – Black Swan Green (a stammering boy), Vernon God Little (an outcast boy), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (an irritatingly precocious grieving boy) – is its calm, even placid authorial style. There are no writerly tics and tricks, no “errors”. The material is presented, if not quite straightforwardly, then certainly without too much “surface”.

It’s a good, old-fashioned first-person novel. After all those agitated narrators, I found it quite a relief.

alain de botton, religion for atheists

Alain de Botton has new book out and I’ve reviewed it for the Sunday Telegraph. Here’s the ever-so-catchy first paragraph:

This book should carry a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-style warning: DON’T PANIC. Don’t panic, this is not another contribution to the “debate” about God, the Eton wall game of contemporary discourse, where no one can see the ball, no one knows what the rules are, and there hasn’t been a goal in more than 100 years. Alain de Botton is an atheist, but he has no time for the “boring and unproductive question” of whether or not religion is true. His concern is the ways in which religions can be useful, even to non-believers.

It’s well worth checking out. De Botton – a friend of this blog – sums up the principal arguments in this comment piece from 2008.

breakfast with socrates

I reviewed this about two months ago for the Literary Review and have been “getting round” to posting it up ever since. Productivity reaches a new high.

Robert Rowland Smith is a consultant,writer and teacher with a great middle name. His book seems to be being received well, although it did get an enjoyably vicious review in the Observer, from Theodore Dalrymple:

No thought is too banal for Rowland Smith; unfortunately, his banality is perfectly compatible with error. He rarely loses an opportunity to suppress what is true and suggest what is false.

Funny, but harsh. I thought this was a case of “wrong reviewer, wrong book.” Dalrymple – a bit of a gun – seemed almost offended to be asked to review a work of popular philosophy. He attacked the form and genre, rather than the content, and gave little impression that he had actually read beyond the table of contents.

Reviewing is an immanent art. It works best when it adapts to the goals and conventions of its subject (while bearing in mind the genre, of course). Smith’s book is far from perfect. But Dalrymple’s review was the equivalent of criticising Woolf for failing to develop minor characters or Powell for lacking gripping plots.

You can read my effort (the original, not the cruelly cut Literary Review version) after the jump.

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