May 30, 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
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.)
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.