An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Open by Andre Agassi

I picked up Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, with a number of preconceptions. I was expecting the usual drive-to-succeed, how-I-found redemption motifs of the sporting memoir, seasoned with a hint of scandal. After all, this is Andre Agassi we are talking about – the enfant terrible of tennis who fell in love with the Hollywood lifestyle and spiralled into drugs and scandal, only to work his way back to the top, fall in love, and re-emerge as one of the elder statesmen of the sport. I might have picked up the book, but I thought I knew how this story went  already.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Agassi spent his career being drawn by the media as a caricature of himself. This book is his chance to finally present the whole story, and he does so with brutal honesty. A childhood dominated by a tyrannical father features prominently, and is one of the most memorable parts of the book. In a real sense, Agassi’s father shaped both his tennis game and his personality, and Agassi seems to have been searching ever since for a separate identity. There is a wistfulness and a paradox at the heart of the book – Agassi desperately wants to know what kind of a person he would have been without his father’s influence, but accepts that he will never find out.
Agassi’s love-hate relationship with tennis is also a central theme of the book. Dropping out of school and turning pro at seventeen, he never had a chance to explore other career options. For a while, he stubbornly maintains that he hates tennis, but eventually the media pressure becomes too much and he starts to give them what they want, lines about how much he loves the game. But while Agassi never comes to love the game in the pure sense, it does give him a great deal of satisfaction over the years. More importantly, by earning money it enables him to help others. The Agassi who dropped out of school discovers through others the value of education and it is genuinely moving to watch him try to create for others the opportunities that he was denied.
While the book is well-written enough, it’s not the prose that I will remember. Rather it is the sense that Agassi mined his soul for the book and laid himself bare on the page. I started the book thinking that I knew who Andre Agassi was; in the course of it I discovered I was wrong and I didn’t know him at all. It’s the rediscovery that takes place on reading the book that is the real revelation. You discover a man who has always been more of a thinker than a doer, who has struggled to free himself from his past and only partly succeeded, and who has made his peace with that. At the end of the day, you can only respect his courage and hope that his life post-tennis continues to give him the happiness that was missing in his early life.

Monday, April 11, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The God of the Hive by Laurie R. King

Sherlock Holmes has had a strange afterlife in fiction since Arthur Conan Doyle put away his pen. Most readers will have heard the famous story of how the public wouldn’t let Conan Doyle kill his most celebrated creation; judging by the number of fictional tributes it seems Holmes’ popularity is undiminished even today.  A number of these fall into the ‘novelty’ category (Holmes re-animated after death to fight crime in the 22nd century?) but most have simply faded away. The problem is that borrowing such a famous character inevitably leads to comparisons with the original, and Conan Doyle was a hard act to follow.
You may have gathered by now I’m something of a Sherlock Holmes fan. So when I say that in some respects I think Laurie King’s Mary Russell series actually improve on the original, it’s not a statement I make lightly.
King’s series (beginning with The Beekeepers’ Apprentice) feature Holmes but furnish him with a couple of elements missing in the original – a young female apprentice and an emotional life. It’s the second of these that is the true heart of these books. If I have a criticism of Conan Doyle it is that he hinted at Holmes’ inner life while never providing enough information to satisfy the reader. The cases always came first. While this can be refreshing in an age when fictional detectives seem to require a messy divorce and a ton of emotional baggage, it leaves a modern reader burning to know more.
I don’t want to talk in too much detail about King’s latest, The God of the Hive, in case it discourages readers from going back to read the earlier books. Suffice to say it features international espionage and master criminals, in the best Holmes tradition. It is also likely to keep you awake long past your bedtime – King is truly a master of suspense. My only criticism would be that occasionally the suspense is artificially heightened, for example by exaggeration or cutting off a chapter at a particularly inopportune point. At these times I felt like the joins of the work show a little, and it feels slightly forced rather than appropriately effortless.
The setting, however, seems absolutely effortless, though I have no doubt a substantial amount of research has gone into it. The London of this book is recognisably the same London of Sherlock Holmes; yet it has layers and textures that are far more detailed than Conan Doyle’s work. On the other hand, when you think that most of he Sherlock Holmes stories were originally published as newspaper serials, it makes sense that unnecessary description is omitted.
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice stands beside The Complete Sherlock Holmes on my bookshelf. I think it’s appropriate. This is one fictional tribute that bears comparisons with the original, and in my view there is no higher praise.