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Book Log For The First Half of 2010

July 2, 2010

Having not read very many books last year, I made a pledge to read 50 books this year and to keep track of my thoughts and feelings about them.  Six months in and I have read 49 books, which I think must be some kind of record for me.  I’ve counted graphic novels perhaps controversially but seeing as there were not that many of them, I feel justified.

Initially, I tried to read only for style but more recently I’ve fallen into a groove of reading one genre novel, one mainstream novel and a work of non-fiction between the two.  This seems to work quite nicely as it allows me to keep up with the genre, expand my horizons and add grist to the critical mill.

As with this segment’s film log, there is a sizable gap in the record caused by my computer crash and failure to back up my files properly.  Still… 49 is not too bad at all for me.

JANUARY

1.  Light (2002) – By M. John Harrison : First book of the year is a re-read but it is a good one.  Much like The Centauri Device, the bare bones of Light are something of an old genre saw, namely the idea of some kind of technological/spiritual singularity replete with mystical foreshadowing.  However, as with that other book, Harrison manages to make the old saw sing with his combination of weird characters, weird set-dressing, elliptical story-telling techniques and prose style that never allows you to settle down.  I took my time over this and I’m glad I did, the section where the physicist begins weeping fractals is sublime.

2.  The Brothers Karamazov (1880) – By Fyodor Dostoyevsky : Really enjoyed most of this though it does have its longueurs.  The meat of the novel lies in not only the quality of the characterisation but the approach taken to it.  Each character we encounter is fully fleshed out, his worldview explained, his emotional hotspots mapped and his inner conflicts exposed.  But more than that, Dostoyevsky also finds a unique way for each of them to talk.  It’s possible to pick up the book and open a page at random and identify the speaker of a line of dialogue.  Politically, the book is an interesting contrast to Madame Bovary as I think it deals in some quite similar themes.  Nearly all of Dostoyevsky’s characters are members of the idle rich.  Theyre either rich in fact or rich in terms of being able to access money if they need to.  Free from having to actually work, they devote their times to these insane psychodramas filled with talk of passion and God.  Where Flaubert’s characters express their ennui in shades of grey, Dostoyevsky’s express theirs in blood reds and neon lights.  The only character who does not flit at random between self-loathing abnegation and utter selfishness is the proletarian ‘everyman’ and he is presented as a dead-eyed psychopath and manipulator.  A genuinely extraordinary book but I did find myself wishing it was about 200 pages shorter.  Once you’ve heard a character berate themselves for their weaknesses a dozen times it starts to get a bit repetitive and to lose its impact.

3.  Love and Sleep (1994) By John Crowley : Really not convinced by this book.  I think it does what it tries to do very well indeed, but still question the wisdom of a 500 page speed bump.  The book is characterised by a lack of movement that is completely at odds with the sense of dynamic change at the end of The Solitudes.  Characters languish without doing anything and everything gets bogged down.  The Book within a Book is a particularly good indication of this as while the sections in the first book were fun to read, these were just dull due largely to the fact that they felt hideously over-written.  There’s one point at which Kraft comments that he can’t do characters anymore only description… well bingo.  The ending promises change again by killing off some characters and presenting Pierce’s path as quite a complex one but I was struck by how this book effectively killed the urgency of the narrative.  Suddenly we’re not in a world about to change, we’re in a world full of annoying set-backs and trivial chores to be dealt with before progress can be made.  I realise that this is intentional but I think it’s asking a lot of your audience to go “I’m going to be boring for a quarter of the series… on purpose.  Trust me, there’s a reason for this.”.  Blah.

4.  Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961) By Stanislaw Lem
[Ruthless Culture]  : Possibly one of the best works of science fiction I have ever read.  Initially, the story presentsitself as a Kafkaesque dystopia.  A world in which administrative order and purpose have broken down leaving only a web of people relentlessly spying and informing on each other.  But Lem develop the idea further than Kafka.  His dystopia is a semiotic one.  A world in which all meaning has come adrift.  As one character puts it, ‘everything is code’.  But if everything is code regardless of content or intent then nothing is code.  Lem brilliantly steers his character through a series of false dawn conceptual breakthroughs where he learns the nature of his mission and the true nature of the building only to have that understanding crushed before him.  Towards the end of the novel even language and action start to fall apart as the sentence structures become disjointed and the character seems incapable of even the most basic of actions.  The truth is that there is no truth because all theories are both objectively true and utterly absurd.  I think this is a much better book than The Trial.

5.  Silence (1966) By Shusaku Endo
: An example of me reading outside my comfort zone.  The masterwork of a Japanese Catholic who spent most of his life musing on the fact that his faith was a poor fit for his life and culture.  The story deals with the torture of a Catholic priest sent to serve as a missionary to feudal Japan.  Right from the start, we can sense the unease of the fit.  The Catholic priests have naked contempt for their flock (“miserable peasants”), their manners, their dwellings, their food and their country.  They spend their time fantasising about being back home in Europe where they can enjoy hearty soup and thick bread.  The main protagonist is fixated on the present.  He is happy when he is building his network of clandestine Christians but there is little realisation of the wider role of Christianity in Japan and quite which itch it manages to scratch.  When he is eventually betrayed and tortured, he imagines God revealing himself to him triumphantly.  He imagines martyrdom as something that happens with trumpets blaring and flags fluttering.  He believes in almost physical beatification before death.  But that reward in the present never comes.  Christ eventually reveals himself as a broken and prostate Jew.  A man who exists in order to suffer for the world.  For the Japanese,  Endo seems to argue, suffering is the point of religion.  Rewards and vindication are always in the future.  The book did not really move me and historical stuff aside, I wasn’t blown away by it.  This is partly because Christianity leaves me cold and partly because I recently finished another book that is obsessed with faith.  Well-written and interesting enough but I’m not sure why you would consider it an earth-shaking classic.  Aren’t pretty much all novels written by Christians along these lines?

6.  Conquest of the Useless (2009) By Werner Herzog : This book starts off very nicely indeed.  Herzog’s diaries from the set of Fitzcarraldo make for interesting reading as he muses with his laconic detachment upon the weirdness of making a film out in the jungle.  However, having seen My Best Fiend, I was struck by how much of this diary I was already familiar with.  Herzog has been dining out on the tantrums, the fallings out, the disasters and the surreal horror of the jungle for years now.  The result is a book that is not as interesting as it could have been because it gets repetitive after a while.  Disappointing.

7.  Laidlaw (1977) By William McIlvanney : Interesting to compare this with the Derek Raymond novels I read last year.  They make many of the same moves (sensitive copper, in-station rivalries, unsympathetic brass, estranged wife) but, while it does not carry off the human drama as well as He Died With His Eyes Open, it is much better written.  Some of the descriptions of the victim’s father are amazing as are odd passages throughout the book.  He also has a real knack for timing his outlay of information.  A number of chapters begin filled with “he”s and “hers” before slowly revealing who the scene features, thereby suddenly revealing some previously known fact about a previously introduced character.  Great stuff.


LOG FILE LOST

MARCH

13.  The Concept of Mind (1949) By Gilbert Ryle :  Before reading this book, I had a fairly clear idea of the arguments it made.  Turns out pretty much all of those arguments are presented in the book’s introduction.  The rest of the book is essentially an extended exercise in disentangling our language about the mind from dualistic tendencies.  Undeniably necessary in the long run but undeniably dull at the same time.

14.  Moxyland (2008) By Lauren Beukes [The Zone] :  A nice, simple little book which does near-future cyberpunk in a post-Pattern Recognition stylee but without filling the book with unlikable pricks… or at least without filling the book with unlikeable pricks that we are supposed to think are cool.  Reading this after Ryle was actually kind of helpful as I think Beukes demonstrates the need to disentangle our talk about alienation from the iconography of cyberpunk… it has been tainted by corporate appropriation, which is why Gibson winds up writing about smug middle-class Nathan Barley clones.

15.  The Birth of Tragedy (1872)  By Friedrich Nietzsche
:  Ugh.  Ugh.  Ugh.  Ugh.  The problem with this book is that nothing is argued for and very little is explained.  Rather than a work of philosophy, it is really much more like a work of undergraduate literary criticism : filled with absurd metaphysical diktats and broad declarative sentences.  The ending is also bizarre as it spirals off into an extended fanwank over Richard Wagner.  This is a bad blogpost elevated to the status of philosophy.  Absolutely hated it.

16.  The Windup Girl (2009)  By Paolo Bacigalupi [The Zone]  :  Hmm.  Initially I was not too sure what to make of TWUG.  It opens on a bustling market place and I thought “here we go… post-cyberpunk orientalism AGAIN” and that tendency is shot through the book.  In fact, the Windup Girl herself seems to be a symbol for Asia – Beautiful, exotic, alien, attractive to westerners, seemingly submissive but terrifying when roused.  The continued degradation of the Windup Girl seems to be a comment upon Western colonial tendencies.  This is a trick that Bacigalupi uses again and again : the battle between the environment and trade ministries is a microcosm of the continuing political battle between capital and environment and Gibbons is a very Baxterian image of a profoundly un-natural man.  It’s a very atmospheric book, a very symbolic book but the actual narrative itself is rather indistinct and directionless… in fact it is not until there’s a revolution AND an environmental catastrophe that the book acquires much of a shape.  I think this is a book that works really well at the level of ideas but its human elements don’t work particularly well.

17.  The Steppenwolf (1927)  By Hermann Hesse :  This reads an awful lot like Jarmila.  It has the exact same tone.  I wonder whether this is not a product of the process of translating a work from German into English?  The book itself is okay but did not blow me away… isolated intellectual sees himself as a wolf ill-suited for the company of other humans.  Then he meets a woman who gradually socialises him.  Written this way the plot sounds like a romantic comedy but in truth it seems to me to be an ode on the tendency of so-called intellectuals to create these images for themselves that are completely absurd.  The narrator is a lot of fun as there’s an opening section in which he describes the Steppenwolf as undermining all of western learning with “a look” suggesting that the Steppenwolf’s intellectual credentials are largely bullshit (backed up by his tendency to quote seemingly random bits of text).  I think I may actually re-read this as there seems to be quite a lot more going on than I thought upon completing it… maybe a hint of skewering of self-satisfied intellectuals?

18.  Nostromo (1904)  By Joseph Conrad :  Bounced out of this one I am ashamed to say.  To be fair, I searched it out in the hope that it would be like the Secret Agent or Heart of Darkness but instead it is a lot less focussed.  It is almost baggy : Lots of history, lots of secondary characters, lots of pissing about before the plot settles down.  May re-read at some point but I think it failed to engage because it is not Heart of Darkness ultimately.

19.  Shadow of the Torturer (1980) By Gene Wolfe [Ruthless Culture] : Christ Gene Wolfe is a twat!  The book is beautifully written but from as far as I can tell it is effectively a Lars von Trier-style prank that plays with the language of metaphor whilst not actually containing any.  It then berates the reader for failing to fathom the mind of God.  Quite an accomplishment but I feel faintly soiled for having read it.

20.  The Best Horror of the Year – Volume 2 (2010) Edited by Ellen Datlow [SF Signal]  : Great anthology.  There are a couple of stories that are merely so-so but none of them are bad or grating or annoying.  In fact, all of the stories are enjoyable it is just that some are admirable as well as enjoyable.  I’m also surprised at how innovative and varied Horror fiction is.  Firstly, the stories are stylistically a lot more impressive than you find in most SF shortlists.  Secondly, while the same techniques pop up again and again, you rarely see the same ideas being re-used.  In fact, when you do encounter a familiar idea, it almost comes as a disappointment.  Thirdly, the sheer scope of the technical skill is mesmerising.  Also love the opening summation that recaps all the good stuff to appear in the Horror genre over the last year.

21.  The Odyssey (????) By Homer : Enjoyed this quite a bit actually.  There is some quite funny stuff that dates it like the tendency of certain phrases to pop up again and again (a mnemonic aid clearly) and the endless agriculture porn that makes it read like the Observer Food Monthly but the non-linear structure is fantastic and Odysseus is a nicely complex character who is incredibly clever but also very prone to following his emotions (Odysseus evidently means child of anger or something of that ilk).  The story’s ethics are somewhat lost on me though… if Odysseus disappeared for twenty years and was presumed dead long enough that his son came to rule the house then why did Telemachus not get rid of the suitors?  If Penelope was so dead set against them, why did she not tell them to push off?  Seems to me that the sub-text of the story is that Penny was a bit of an old flirt and Telemachus is an indecisive manchild.  Good fun though.

22.  Black Mass : Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007) By John Gray : I really enjoyed this book despite it pretty much exactly matching a) what I think and b) what I know.  It suggests that utopian political thought is an expression of utopian religious thought and that these forms of thinking necessarily lead to brutality and death.  Some of the arguments are a bit ropey (there’s lots of ‘this is a bit like that’ going on) and towards the end it kind of devolves into an extended rant about the Iraq war but other than that, a splendidly cynical read that winds up advocating a version of Hedley Bull’s realism.  Very unfashionable.

APRIL

23.  The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) By G. K. Chesterton : Hmm.  I really enjoyed the start of this – It is really beautifully written, very funny and quite surreal.  However, then – about half-way through – the book turns into a combination of Road Movie and Benny Hill chase sequence and it all becomes rather tiresome and predictable.  Partly this is a reflection of how influential the book has been but I found the revelation that there were no anarchists and the symbolic role of Sunday to be quite clicheed.  Was definitely glad to finish this.

24.  The World House (2010) By Guy Adams [Strange Horizons]  : Quite an interesting novel – It is essentially a Wainscott fantasy story based around the exploration of a box that hides a fantastically huge house full of weird rooms and creatures.  The characters all have their own unique voices but very little actual character… in fact, they are simply there to provide some kind of narrative shape to the exploration of the box.  But the ideas making up the box are not particularly interesting or particularly well developed.  So it is a bit like a thriller but with no emotional investment and it is a bit like an SF novel, but with no actual ideas.  Kind of like an inverted MacGuffin-hunt except instead of the plot coupon serving to give meaning to the lives of the characters, the characters serve to give some kind of human context to the exploration of the gidget.  The book is also massively padded and it is only the first volume of what looks to be a series.  Bit pants but quite quickly read.

25.  Far North (2009) By Marcel Theroux
[The Zone]  : Really liked this.  The foreground ideas are a bit tame and seem watered down but structurally the work is a tour-de-force anchored to the fleeting nature of identity both at the level of the self and the world.  Some beautiful writing in it too and really deft pieces of characterisation.

26.  The Claw of the Conciliator (1981) By Gene Wolfe [Ruthless Culture]  : Enjoyed this though it is pretty much more of the same.  The language is just as fluid despite its complexity, the imagery is still as vibrant and the symbolism is still as dense.  However, where the first book’s symbolism seemed empty, this book’s images are getting much closer to being readable.  There’s some play with a book within a book and a play within a play but these address the imagery of the book itself by providing us with more traditional set of semiotic queues.

27.  Captain Alatriste (1996) By Arturo Perez-Reverte : Hmm… this was something of a disappointment.  I appreciate the darker tone and the more thoughtful characters that are typical in most swashbucklers as well as the Spanish setting but I found it really quite derivative of Dumas but without the wit and absurdity.  Bit dull really.

28.  Notes on Directing (2006) By Frank Hauser and Russell Reich : Useful little collection of dos and donts for aspiring directors.  Will return to say more about it once I have had a chance to put some of its advice into practice.

29.  Child of God (1973) By Cormac McCarthy : Was a bit disappointed by this actually.  I admire the prose style… no punctuation and no editorialising of the “he said knowingly”-variety thereby creating a sense of incredibly cold and detached characters.  I also admire how he embellishes this basic style with colloquial turns of phrase that serve to inject vibrant colour into the nakedness of the prose along with the occasional poetic flourishes.  I also admire the aggressive scene-framing that actually skirts around most of the horrors contained in the novel.  I also like the way in which the landscape gets as much screen time as the characters thereby suggesting that Ballard’s crimes are almost a natural expression of the place he lives in.  I admire all of these things and yet I found the story and the characters a little dull… seen it all before I guess and I’m familiar enough with McCarthy’s style that it struggles to carry this early novel.  Still… glad I read it.

30.  The Girl Who Played With Fire (2006) By Stieg Larsson : I really enjoyed the film of the first book in the Millennium series and so I thought I would track down the second novel.  What I loved about the film was how plot-driven it was and how deftly it handled its weird characters.  However, far from being plot-driven, this novel is a mess of bloat.  Bloat that sees descriptions of mathematical principles that Larsson had clearly read about.  Bloat that sees detailed descriptions of trips to Ikea.  Bloat that sees painstaking analyses of the characters’ complicated sex lives.  Bloat that sees astonishingly reductive and self-righteous ranting about how prostitution is always and necessarily rape and torture… even when the women choose to work as prostitutes of their own free will.  The central character is still weird and fascinating but I really don’t need to hear about her getting a boob job and trying on lingerie.  Horrid.

MAY

31.  Logicomix (2009) By Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou : Was very disappointed with this.  It ticks along nicely but it falls between two stools – On the one hand it does not actually get to grips with ANY of the maths, logic or philosophy involved in the question of Russell’s search for the logical foundation of mathematics BUT on the other hand, it is lacking in biographical insight and treats its human characters as nothing but placeholders for ideological positions.  The fact that the narrative is framed by a series of tedious ‘behind the scenes’ vignettes in which the writers and artists discuss the narrative does not compensate for the fact that narratively and intellectually, this comic is empty.  Meh.

32.  Ex Machina : The First Hundred Days (2004) By Brian K. Vaughan : Expected this to be quite lightweight and silly as with the politicisation of superheroes in Marvel’s recent ‘Civil War’ series but I was really impressed at the way Vaughan concentrates on the politics and uses superhero themes and tropes (like the recruitment of a team, hidden secrets) to shed light on American politics.  I intend to track down the rest of the series.

33.  Stitches (2009) By David Small : Beautifully drawn and paced graphic novel dealing with a young man’s torturous upbringing amidst a family blighted by medical and psychological problems.  Kind of puts my own upbringing into perspective but I found it really genuinely beautiful and sad in al the right kinds of ways.

34.  Ex Machina : Tag (2005) By Brian K. Vaughan : Still enjoying this comic, which is unusual.  The freshness having disappeared, the comic falls into a formula that is certainly effective – Delving into the character’s past, some super-hero stuff and some West Wing-style political arguing as people wander down corridors.  The balance just about works here as it deals with some of the fallout from the lead character’s weird alien powers.

35.  Ex Machina : Fact V. Fiction (2006) By Brian K. Vaughan : Hmm.  Did not particularly enjoy this one.  In fact, I’m struggling to remember what actually happened in it.  I think that the politics have become problematic as Vaughan is obviously a liberal and so he is finding it difficult to maintain the illusion that his character is an outsider who is sometimes conservative and sometimes progressive.  The discussion of school vouchers was very very poor and forced through with the suggestion that left-wingers are all hypocrites.  the digging into the character’s past was also quite weak in this volume.  I don’t think I’ll read any further.

36.  The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) By Naomi Klein : I read No Logo when it came out and while I enjoyed it, I thought it was quite lightweight.  This feels a good deal more substantial.  In fact, at times it feels like Chomsky at his best – lots of great historical analysis and a case being made for grand historical patterns that are as ugly as sin.  However, 1) Klein is fond of using hyperbolic language even though this frequent use of hyperbole actually serves to weaken her case – the book considers the radical measures taken by Friedman’s economic disciples to effectively break up economies and strip them for parts, keeping only those elements of the state that are useful in repressing the population and compares them to the Behaviourist inspired belief that you could cure mental illness by erasing a person’s personality using ECT, drugs and sensory deprivation.  A weak comparison weakened by her frequent use of the word ‘torture’.  The fact speak for themselves… this hyperbole really is not necessary.  2) Klein is a decent historian but a lousy economist and the book never really gets to grips with the economic arguments in favour of Keynesianism over the doctrines of Friedman – a pity.  Will definitely be reading her next book though as I enjoyed this immensely.

37.  Sunshine State (2010) By James Miller [Vector]  : Mixed feelings about this one.  I was annoyed by how generic and unoriginal the spy trappings felt and by the outrageous use of Heart of Darkness as a template, but as the book moves on it becomes clear that the book’s references are cinematic more than literary and so the book owes less to Conrad than it does to Apocalypse Now and Easy Rider.  I particularly liked the way in which the trip through the swamp became a series of encounters with elements of the American soul.  Sadly, while there are good ideas in the novel, the generic aspects of it weigh it down terribly and make it feel padded.  There’s a real lack of psychological and political precision about the book that means that it never gains much of an intellectual focus.  It’s not really about anything.  Pleasant enough though… Miller’s definitely one to watch.

38.  The Paperchase (2001) By Marcel Theroux : Tracked this down on the basis of Far North and the fact that it touches upon Mycroft Holmes.  The Paperchase contains a lot of the stuff I really liked about Far North – it has the same postmodern sensibility (a book about the author that is about a short story that is about its author and the relationship between the character and his brother) and the same magnificent control of tone, atmosphere and structure.  I also really liked the comments he made about how families can die even when all their members are alive – those really touched me – but on the whole I thought it was perhaps a little bit too clever to be really powerful and the genre elements are not particularly well handled and so feel a bit artificial and clunky.  On the whole though, I really enjoyed it.  Read it in two sittings.

39.  You Are Not A Gadget – A Manifesto (2010) By Jaron Lanier : Begins well with a discussion of the concept of ‘lock-in’ and how an early engineering decision can become so widely accepted that it becomes true simply because there’s no space for anyone to design something different.  Sadly though, from there it moves on to an unfocused and rather rambling blog post that takes issue with the major tenets of slashdot/Digg political libertarianism.  Some of the criticisms are good.  Some are weaker.  Many depend upon key concepts that are poorly fleshed out.  Meh.

40.  The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) By John Le Carre : An excellent book.  It really brings to the fore the sense of imperial decline and of wasted potential that haunts Tinker Tailor.  I love the way in which the circus spends most of the novel fighting a rear-guard bureaucratic battle to avoid being taken over by the US and how they effectively surrender Hong Kong to the Americans decades before they actually pull out.  I also love the awareness of class and how that grounding in public school mentality really filters all the way through the corporate culture.  I can’t think of a more insightful analysis of the post-War British establishment.  Also love the characterisation and the control of pace and the exquisite scenes of bureaucratic struggle… all bonhommie and false deference disguising vicious turf wars and political infighting.  Exceptional stuff.  I shall read more Le Carre.

41.  Retribution Falls (2009) By Chris Wooding [Vector] : Not convinced by this at all.  It presents itself as a joyous adventure romp but while there are action sequences, they are interspersed with scenes in which the characters look backwards and brood over past decisions they have made.  As the book progresses, it becomes clear that, Retribution Falls is not a genre adventure novel, it is an anaemic melodrama in which paper-thin characters work their way through generic feelings of alienation before coming together as a family in order to triumph over an equally generic set of baddies engaged in an utterly generic (and actually rather awkwardly constructed) conspiracy.  Weak stuff.  World-building is also shockingly thin… were it not for the cover illustration, I would have no idea what the aircraft actually looked like.

JUNE

42.  How Fiction Works (2008) By James Wood : An excellent find.  I don’t really read the New Yorker so I was only vaguely familiar with Wood as a critic.  It turns out that rather than being all about the interpretation, he is very much a close reader who is concerned about fiction from word-choice upwards.  This is the kind of book I had been looking for and I am delightedI found it.  Really interesting and thought provoking stuff that plays perfectly to my current approach to criticism.

43.  Three to Kill (1976) By Jean-Patrick Manchette [Ruthless Culture]  : One of the most satisfying reads I have had all year.  The novel takes the noire trope that we are all a hair’s breadth away from savagery and suggests that rather than being absolutes, these two states are actually part of a complex dialogue related to that of class and privilege.  Beautifully dry, witty and dark writing… really speaks to me this kind of novel.

44.  Placing Movies – The Practice of Film Criticism (1995) By Jonathan Rosenbaum : Really enjoyed this.  Found it to be a surprisingly quick read too despite being quite a chunky book.  It presents itself as a ‘how to get into film criticism’ guide but in truth it’s more of a semi-autobiographical criticism collection that is broken up into choronological and thematic sections that represent the different phases of Rosenbaum’s career with neat introductions discussing the challenges associated with those periods (varying styles, fitting in with certain cultures, feuds with other critics, political engagement).  Made me want to read more by Rosenbaum.

45.  A Dark Matter (2010) By Peter Straub [Strange Horizons]  : Beautifully written Rashomon-style story in which a group of grown-ups revisit a traumatic experience from their past.  Has the requisite number of creepy sections you would demand from a work of Horror but the novel’s real power comes from its engagement with the concept of regret and the way in which powerful and traumatic memories can damage us and trap us.  The book builds towards a climax that does not work narratively but thematically is superb… having spent their lives trying to come to terms with a trauma endured as a result of a spiritual dalliance, the group heals itself by accepting the version of a Christ-like member of the group.  Was that the truth of what happened?  Not likely and it’s just a jumble of vaguely christian images, but it serves a purpose.  It allows people to heal.  It allows people to move on.

46.  Storytelling – Bewitching the Modern Mind (2010) By Christian Salmon [Ruthless Culture]  : This book had such potential.  The issue of the way our brains prefer the polished shapes of narrative to the ugliness of raw facts is at the heart of many of humanity’s more problematic quirks and the issue is in desperate need of deconstruction and analysis.  Unfortunately Salmon is not the man to provide it.  The book defines ‘storytelling’ so widely that his comments are pretty much meaningless, his arguments are weak and his writing frequently poor.  Very much a disappointment.

47.  Faint Praise – The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (2007) By Gail Pool :  Not — as I expected — a book-long rant about the state of literary criticism, but instead something far more interesting, namely a careful examination of many of the institutional pressures on reviewers and reviews editors that result in a lower quality of review than might otherwise be desired.  Pool is insightful and clearly very experienced and her analysis of the problems facing the critical form is unsentimental and even-handed.  My only caveats are that the book is mis-titled (it really is mainly about book review editing) and that her final chapter’s recommendations are woolly and impractical.  Otherwise a great read and a valuable resource if only for its excellent scholarship and extensive footnotes tracking the generation upon generation of ‘crises’ reviewing has had dating right back to the 1700s.  Lovely little book.

48.  Vanishing Point – Not a Memoir (2009) By Ander Monson [Ruthless Culture]  : An intriguing and thought provoking if somewhat frustrating read this.  It is essentially a collection of non-fiction pieces about the life of the author.  These essays do not constitute a traditional memoir as a) he makes no attempt to really comment on his life in any great depth, b) he makes no attempt to form his life into a coherent narrative, c) the book pushes at the boundaries of books as a physical format and d) the whole point of the book is that the self and the world are in a constant state of change and so there is no real point in trying to catalogue the state of either at a particular point.  The nature of the universe makes such snapshots irrelevant the second they are taken.  What frustrated me was the fact that while Monson quite clearly has no time for the conceits of either fiction or the traditional memoir, he creates his own pack of conceits that mean that his ideas and arguments still need to be ‘de-coded’ in much the way as you would if you were reading a novel.  Case in point are the ‘assembloir’ chapters which are short autobiographical essays made by cutting and pasting from other memoirs (Monson provides a huge list of them at the end of the book).  I’m really not sure what’s to be gained from this type of play… perhaps that all insights are generic?  Still… a good and thought provoking read that is, at times, very very strong indeed.

49.  The Human Factor (1978) By Graham Greene : Wonderful book.  A slowly paced spy novel dealing with Britain’s hypocrisy regarding the Apartheid Regime and how a man who wanted nothing more from life than a quiet life and a pension is forced into becoming a double-agent by his own sense of guilt and gratitude towards the Communist agent who helped get his Black wife out of South Africa.  Filled with some wonderfully cutting comments about the British class system, the loneliness of secrecy and an absolutely world-class villain, this really is a beautifully written book.

2 Comments
  1. Liz permalink
    July 5, 2010 2:51 pm

    I’ve read another few volumes of Ex Machina and have very little recollection of them – I remember they were alright, but they don’t reach the level of the first volume, which I really enjoyed. I might finish the series off at some point, but I’m in no hurry to do so, and I think you’re right to quit while you’re ahead.

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  2. July 5, 2010 4:55 pm

    Hi Liz :-)

    I think it starts very strongly but it quite quickly falls into formula. To be fair, it is a lot better than it could have been but I did get pissed off with it quite quickly. Glad I made the right decision by giving up. Next up on the Graphic Novel TBR pile : Mouseguard!

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