Paperback reviews: Including Revolution by Russell Brand and Twilight of the Eastern Gods, by Ismail Kadare

Also Courting Trouble, by Kathy Lette, The Secret of the Blue Glass, by Tomiko Inui and Eureka, by Peter Jones

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Revolution, by Russell Brand - Arrow Books, £7.99 - 2 stars

It’s a bit unclear whom this book is meant for. Ostensibly it is about politics – a plea for a (non-violent) revolution that will overthrow the corrupt capitalist system and put the people in charge, so that equality and niceness will reign. But those interested in politics won’t find a political philosophy or a coherent programme of policies here. Brand simply takes the piss out of things he doesn’t like. True, he scores a few hits: if it’s really the case that apples are grown in Kent and then flown out to South Africa to be washed before being flown back to be sold in British supermarkets, that is indeed ridiculous. And I agree with him that the “War on Drugs” causes more harm than good. But it’s easy to point to abuses and absurdities: harder to come up with positive ideas. One of the few practical proposals Brand floats is “liquid democracy” - getting people to use the internet to vote on issues that affect them. But again, how is this to be set up and made to run smoothly, how is the constituency of voters to be defined, how is a tyranny of the majority to be avoided?

Brand has dipped into Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, from which he quotes extensively, and “Ol’ Picketty”, and has chatted to an anarchist and an anthropologist, as well as a few of his mates. But there’s not much evidence of serious thinking or research, and his political philosophy gets no further than “Let’s not do bad stuff.”

Well, then, if this book isn’t for politicos, perhaps it’s for comedy fans? I’m afraid they will be disappointed. A few sections might work as routines in front of a sympathetic audience, but generally this is too wordy, self-righteous and meandering to generate many laughs.

Twilight of the Eastern Gods, by Ismail Kadare (trans. David Bellos) - Canongate, £8.99 - 4 stars

Ismail Kadare is widely thought of as Albania’s greatest living writer, and this short, haunting autobiographical novel, first published in 1978, suggests why. The narrator is an Albanian poet pursuing literary studies on an international programme for writers in Moscow in 1958. The oppressive atmosphere is conveyed in descriptions such as this view from a train window: “On the empty flat lands beyond the blackened panes, twilight and darkness fought it out in silence”. The writers meet daily for lectures and drink vodka in the evenings; when drunk, they brag about the experimental, oppositional, satirical, truth-telling fiction they will write, but when sober they know perfectly well that that sort of thing is not allowed; thus, “insurrections are transformed into art fairs on collective farms, massacres recast as prize-giving ceremonies”. During Kadare’s stay, Dr. Zhivago wins the Nobel Prize, triggering a vicious propaganda campaign against Pasternak, demanding that he turn the award down. Meanwhile, Kadare’s on-off love affair with the young Russian woman Lida runs its course, oddly mixed up with an Albanian legend about a man who returns from the dead to keep a promise. David Bellos’s translation (though from a French version, not the original Albanian) is fluent and poetic.

Courting Trouble, by Kathy Lette - Black Swan, £7.99 - 3 stars

The punning title gives fair warning of what to expect: every page is crammed with groan-inducing wordplay (sample: a gay dentist is called “the Tooth Fairy”, while a tax accountant is called “as little as possible”). The story centres on and is told by Tilly, a barrister whose husband has left her for another woman, and who teams up with her mum to defend a woman who shot the rapists of her grand-daughter in the testicles; later, by an improbable turn of events, she finds herself prosecuting the rapists. It’s warmhearted, occasionally amusing and has some good courtroom scenes, as well as some serious points to make about the levity with which rape is treated by courts and gangs alike; but the febrile punning doesn’t completely disguise the flat characterisation and creaky plot.

The Secret of the Blue Glass, by Tomiko Inui (trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori) - Pushkin Children’s Books, £7.99 - 4 stars

A strange, unusual children’s novel, first published in 1950 and set in wartime Japan, The Secret of the Blue Glass is about a household entrusted with looking after a family of Little People, no bigger than mice. The daughter of the family, Yuri, is the main carer, taking the Little People their milk in a sparkling blue glass every day, and keeps up this trust when she is evacuated to the country, while her father, an anti-war activist, is imprisoned as a traitor; and the Little People make friends with a pigeon and begin to explore the big wide world. By the conventions of modern children’s books this might seem rather slow-moving, but it has a sensibility and a poetry of its own – slightly similar, perhaps, to the work of Tove Jansson.

Eureka, by Peter Jones - Atlantic Books, £9.99 - 3 stars

Subtitled “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Ancient Greeks But Were Afraid to Ask”, this book offers a two-thousand-year sweep of Greek history, divided into bite-sized chunks: here you can read about the ancient Minoan civilisation, the first Olympic Game (there was only one event – the 200 metres), the Homeric heroes, Athenian democracy, the Peloponnesian War, the death of Socrates, the writings of Plato and Aristotle, and the rise of Alexander the Great. A picture of a fierce, violent yet uniquely artistic and intellectual people emerges, amazingly modern in some ways and deeply remote in others. It becomes clear that the Greeks virtually invented Western thinking on every topic. Some of the anecdotes are familiar, but it’s nice to have them all in the right order.

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