reading May 2013

 

Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

Every now and again you come across a writer who is just flat out better than most every one else. This is one of those times.

Takes the form of an old preacher writing a letter to his young son to read when he is a man, telling the stories of their ancestors and the times of their small town. Extraordinary, beautifully written, resonant with wisdom and humanity.

People will still be reading this in a hundred years. One of the handful of books you can genuinely recommend to more or less everyone.

 

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

Comes with a big reputation. Charming, witty, but ultimately very long indeed. Clarke’s realisation of an alternate 1800s England with a deep magical history (including a faerie king of England for several hundred years) is genuinely delightful for the first few hundred pages, but does drag a bit, coming in at a whopping 900 or so pages. If you fall for the sense of humour – a very English snideness – and manner, then it will be great fun. The story itself, of two magicians bringing about a revival of magic, is decent. The faerie realm is better done than usual. Enjoyable but felt like work to get through it. One for long nights by the winter fire.

 

The Final Programme – Michael Moorcock

First of the legendary Jerry Cornelius novels. For the first third of it I felt like it was just plain shit. Poorly written, sloppy and slapdash, in the way that Moorcock has of writing short books very fast indeed. The characters were thin and uninteresting, and the action movie plot boring. But then it just kept getting crazier, with such a debonair disregard for any conventions of normality or reality that it won me over by the end. I have no idea what the fuck this book is about, or exactly what happened, but it is entertaining and disquieting and mindbending. If read as a teen it may do damage to impressionable minds; reading it now, its prose limitations are clear, but still, a heck of a ride.

 

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak

Any book narrated by Death is going to be kind of bleak. So when it is a young adult novel set in Nazi Germany, it is quite a trick to make it really quite lovely, gentle and humorous. This kept coming up on best of the century so far lists. I don’t think it will last long term, but it is very good, and I guess time will tell.

 

‘Exterminate all the brutes’ – Sven Lindqvist

Golly.

Unclassifiable non-fiction. Lindqvist takes as his starting point Kurtz’s final line in his final epistle to civilisation in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Exterminate all the brutes.” Lindqvist rides buses around the Sahara while poring over a mass of research material exhuming the history and attitudes in which Conrad wrote those words, and along the way, the shocking history of European genocides in Africa (and worldwide during the colonial expansion era). Ultimately, he suggests, the Holocaust of the Jews in WW2 was merely a continuation of this logic of wiping out inferior races.

An extraordinary mix of travel writing, literary criticism (shedding much light on Joseph Conrad, and HG Wells, in particular – War of the Worlds becomes the third in a trilogy about colonialism – the Martians here taking the European role, coming in with technological superiority and laying waste to us, the primitives), philosophy (as he traces the intellectual justifications for extermination through anthropology and the rise of evolutionary theory) and the insanity of public discourse (Stanley, of Livingstone fame, and his disastrous “rescue” of the Emin Pasha) around Africa and colonisation, and the gradual normalisation of exterminating peoples. And so much more.

A multi-leveled, dour, deeply personal and brilliant work; perhaps what is most shocking is how completely we have forgotten this history, all under 200 years old, of how the modern world was shaped. For that logic – exterminate all the brutes – has underlain the progress and shaping of today’s world.

Hugely recommended. (Especially for Ian and Morgue.)

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Hmm. Also read a bunch of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stuff (Black Dossier, Century) which I found a mixed bag. I read them in the wrong order, which probably didn’t help. Anyhow, his central concept of a fourth dimensional ideaspace in which our ideas and fictions exist immortally is pretty interesting; his narrative explorations and playtime through all of pulp story sort of less so. (Though [spoiler] Harry Potter as the antichrist is gleeful.)

Skimmed From The Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairytales – Sara Maitland, which is an examination of the relationship of landscape and psyche and story, and has some definitely interesting stuff to say.

Oh man, skimmed a bunch of stuff, actually. Feel like I have been reading too much fiction, which gets a bit empty. Time to get some gnarly thinking on.

Currently on: Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong – Gordon Mathews. Which is an amazing piece of anthropology of globalization in an incredibly diverse 17 story building in Hong Kong full of the fruits of informal and deviant globalization. Really fascinating. And have picked up Gurdjieff’s Meetings With Remarkable Men for another crack.

 

Review: Inferno (1980)

 

I first saw Inferno on late night TV, maybe somewhere in the 12-14 age bracket. It holds the distinction of being one of the very few films that ever genuinely scared me.

 

 

Later in life I rediscovered it as one of Italian horror legend Dario Argento’s masterpieces, a companion piece to the absolutely sublime Suspiria, one of my all time favourite cinematic experiences. They both feature the same bizarre mythology around the Three Mothers, Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum. They both feature the same insanely lurid colour palette and utterly dreamlike narration. They both use striking music to excellent effect.

 

Along the way I had came to regard Inferno as the lesser of the pair, neglecting its own magnificence, and hadn’t watched it for most of a decade. Rewatching it recently was a real treat.

Gorgeous, incredibly atmospheric and dreamlike. Very little actually happens in the story; it is an intense exercise in style in the telling. The action is simultaneously grounded in simple moments of reality that extend out forever – how can he hold the shots so long, and make them so gripping? – and a surreal inescapable nightmare layer, a world of constant descents into weirdly lit labyrinthine spaces.

What scared the younger me was not being able to work out what was happening. Atmospheric whispers, hooded figures, old books, malevolent cats, strange women, not quite human hands…. It was just so weird. Something is clearly going on, people are being killed horribly, but the motive and murderer is generally unknown; perhaps simply the power of evil itself unleashed.

As an adult the film barely makes sense, even on multiple viewings. It almost coheres, but is most effective on an unconscious, metaphoric and symbolic level. The encounter with a genuine archetypal force beyond us, working through us and the world, will not be a rational one.

And ultimately the forces at work in Inferno are transcendent. Death itself, present as a purposive force. There is no escape. Triumph is an abeyance. The flames change nothing.

Beyond its immediate visceral impact, Inferno remains a work of art with depth that rewards repeated consideration.

 

sunday mutants may

Scientific American interview with a guy who has been working out in depth plans for how New York could run on 100% renewable energy (wind, water and solar).

*

Jaron Lanier snarks massively as he reveals the feudal nature of the online economy with this damning adapted EULA.

*

Fascinating take on why capitalism won’t save us:

In a capitalist economy, it is not mere necessity, but purchasing-power-weighted necessity that is the mother of invention. American entrepreneurs don’t compete to meet the needs of money-poor Africans or Chinese. Instead, Chinese entrepreneurs compete to meet the needs of citizens of the country money comes from. Within the US, entrepreneurs don’t much innovate to discover and address unmet needs of the poor. That’s a rough business. The poor have more needs than they can pay for already, and entrepreneurs hope to be paid.

*

The Economist on China’s new leader, and the Chinese dream.

*

Russian family lived in complete isolation in the wilderness for 40 years.

Oh, and C02 is about to hit 400ppm…