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Thursday, 5 January 2017

Best & Worst Books of 2016



Some of my books, resting quietly.





Looking at the list of books I read last year my first impression is that they are an odd bunch. The combination of books I read of my own volition and those that I read for the book club make strange bedfellows. Among the novels read for the book club Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata (2016), Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977) were among the best, but the most satisfying novel was undoubtedly Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara De Vos (2016) (I’m yet to write a review...). My library’s book club voted it their best book of the year and although it was not my personal choice for best book it was certainly close. As for the worst book of the year the book club agreed with me absolutely: Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (2015) was the most reprehensible novel I’ve read since Howard Jacobson’s dreaded The Finkler Question (2010).

Although Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest and The Three Body Problem and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch were all excellent reads, the prize for best book of 2016 has to go to Patrick Rothfuss’ fantasy novel The Name of the Wind (2007). Of all the books I read across 2016 The Name of the Wind came the closest to being rated as sublime. In hindsight I think that the only reason I did not give it the top rating was because of my unfamiliarity with the fantasy genre. Currently I’m reading its follow-up, The Wise Man’s Fear (2011) and although I’m only a third of the way through it’s looking like it could gain my highest rating in 2017.

Once again I’m looking forward to another year of reading, but as usual I wish that I had more time to get through my ever growing pile of unread books, but of course the one thing that is guaranteed is that I will not stop adding to the pile of books waiting to be read! Just give me more books!

Monday, 19 December 2016

The Drought - JG Ballard (1965)








It seems to be an unlikely conclusion to make, but perhaps the most interesting and significant section of The Drought are the two essays at the back of the book. One is by Ballard himself, entitled Cataclysms and Dooms (1977), in which he ruminates over the tradition of world cataclysms in literature. Here he states that “Psychiatric studies of the fantasies and dream life of the insane show that ideas of world destruction are latent in the unconscious mind.” The second essay is by British author Will Self, entitled The Ballard Tradition (2003), in which Self notes that “...Ballard has issued a series of bulletins on the modern world of almost unerring prescience.” Self goes on the conclude that “Indeed, the time has come to entertain the notion that one of the new seasons we are experiencing - dry spring, warm winter - should be named, simply, ‘Ballard’.”  During the post war period many of the possibilities offered up in science fiction have come to pass, from advanced computer driven technologies, medical breakthroughs, astronomical discoveries and most recently significant advances in the development of robotics and AI. Unfortunately the sad reality is that one of science fiction’s dominant tropes, a post apocalyptic world ruined by humanity’s short sighted hubris, is looking more and more likely to come to pass.

As Ballard himself noted, a novel such as The Drought does belong to the rich tradition of the cataclysmic, or post-apocalyptic novel. Human pollution results in the breaking the hydrologic cycle, creating successive years of drought, causing rivers to stop flowing and then civilization itself to collapse. Dr Charles Ransom, the novel’s principal protagonist is a typical Ballardian character, a brooding loner adrift in a situation in which he is more of an observer than an actor. An appropriate ensemble of eccentric and desperate characters surround him; Richard Lomax and his sister Miranda, wealthy eccentrics who exude a sophisticated kind of denial; Philip Jordan, denizen of a dying river; the brusque Reverend Johnstone, and Quilter, Lomax’s dwarf assistant. Rather than being a portrayal of a world-wide apocalyptic event, Ballard focuses the narrative on the lakeside town of Hamilton. As the drought progresses a sometimes surreal microcosm of civilization in decline plays out within the town. Fishermen hunt humans in the semi-deserted streets with nets, lions are let loose from the zoo, Quilter lurks in the half shadows and Ransom vacillates between leaving along with everyone else to the coast or staying with the Lomax siblings in their luxurious home whilst they blithely waste precious water keeping the lawns alive. Eventually Ransom does leave for the coast only to find the last vestige of civil order, in the form of the army, is attempting to keep the teeming hoards from leaving the mainland.

The Drought provides a timely reminder that from early in his career Ballard’s ability to explore human psychology under strain from unusual circumstances, and more significantly, under supposed normal circumstances, is one of his most enduring contributions to speculative fiction. It can be argued that The Drought stands as an early example of psycho-geography. Developed by Guy Debord, a French Marxist theorist, psycho-geography is “...the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Throughout the novel Ballard’s protagonists exist in a psychic limbo between the decay of humanity’s built environment and a natural environment rendered dysfunctional by human interference.

Although The Drought is a worthy read for Ballard fans, it is perhaps not a good place to start for novices. Often the novel seems unfocused, promising apocalyptic drama, only to have it resolve into a narrative plateau characterized by the psychological drift of Ransom. The writing is clunky at times and Ballard’s characteristically dry, almost emotionless tone is not yet fully formed, something that gives his subsequent work an almost unbearably pleasurable tautness. The novel’s endgame, although initially promising, passes by like a surreal dream during an afternoon nap on a hot day, leaving you feeling uneasy and then ultimately unsatisfied; as with most great and important artists and writers, the best was yet to come. The Drought makes up one part of a loose quartet of novels featuring cataclysmic natural phenomena; the others being The Wind from Nowhere (1961), The Drowned World (1962) and The Crystal World (1966), which is where things really start getting interesting. Meanwhile a good place to start for the curious will always be The Complete Collected Short Stories of J.G.Ballard (2009).

I’m not sure whether it was some kind of subconscious decision on my part, but I began reading The Drought during the last month of the US presidential campaign. I’m sure that Ballard, who died in 2009, would have been fascinated by the election and the manner in which it was conducted. The concept of a ‘post truth’ era and the osmotic bleed between the hyper-realism of both cyber and broadcast media and what passes for ‘reality’ these days would have stimulated him enormously. As his daughter noted recently in an essay for The Guardian, we are living in Ballard’s world now (with some Philip K Dick thrown in for good measure I believe...). Perhaps the most unerring and frightening aspect of this era is the retreat into the irrationality of conspiracy theories, in particular those of the climate change deniers, whose voices are nightmarishly becoming louder and louder. The conspiracy theorist displays a special kind of narcissism that allows a retreat into the safety of the ego, from where they can proselytise what they believe to be the ‘real truth’, a ‘truth’ that irrationally counters the carefully researched scientific conclusions of the majority. It makes them feel special and powerful, giving them an agency over the world that they would not otherwise have; I’d almost feel sorry for them if it wasn’t so horrifying. Significantly the climate change deniers only confirm Ballard’s theory that ideas of world destruction are innate within the human psyche (or, pointedly, just those of the insane?). Meanwhile as I watch in horror climate change deniers do all they can to protect and reassert the status quo that is ultimately only steering humanity toward an apocalyptic future of its own devising, I’m going to prepare myself further by reading Ballard’s The Drowned World.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Gustav Sonata - Rose Tremain (2016)








After finishing the first section of The Gustav Sonata I found myself wondering about just how many novels have been inspired by WWII. The war had such an impact on humanity that there is perhaps no end to the events, themes and existential issues that can be explored by novelists. The Gustav Sonata approaches the impact of the war in an unconventional manner, exploring the effects the war had on characters living in the neutral country of Switzerland. Although it is certainly not particularly innovative, The Gustav Sonata is quality literature and exactly the kind of novel that book club members love to read, so much so I also took some time to wonder whether there is a particular formula that novelists adhere to in order to attract the attention of the book club hoards that mill about in lounge rooms, cafes, pubs and libraries throughout the world.

The novel begins in post war Switzerland, a period of particular austerity for young Gustav and his mother, Emilie, who only just makes ends meet by working at a local cheese factory (accordingly she often smells strongly of cheese). Emilie tells Gustav that his father died because he helped to save Jews during the war. Emilie also tells young Gustav to be more like Switzerland itself: neutral, separate and strong. Gustav’s rather grey world improves when he befriends Anton, a child prodigy pianist and the son of Jewish parents who were sheltered from the horrors of the war by being Swiss citizens. Gustav and Anton initially share a fragile friendship, which then deepens across their shared childhoods. During the second part of the novel Tremain explores the lives of Gustav’s parents both before he was born and before the war. This section deftly provides a significant backstory and also further explores the novel’s major themes, in particular family dysfunction and how it often shapes the psychology of the individual. Gustav’s father, Erich, is a particularly well drawn and sympathetic character whose moralistic outlook is not shared by Emilie. Their marriage is blighted by differing perspectives and circumstances, providing ample narrative fodder for exploring the human psyche under pressure.

The third section explores Anton and Gustav’s lives as adults' right up to the early twenty-first century. Here the disappointments, tragedies and bitterness of the past haunt their lives. Gustav owns and runs a hotel in the town of his birth and still works hard to earn the love of his mother, which is often contingent and therefore rarely forthcoming. Anton lives a dissatisfied life as a piano teacher, having never had the nerve to succeed on stage. After an opportunity too good to be true takes Anton away from Gustav and their backwater town Gustav faces a life even more bereft of meaning. In other hands such existential bleakness could be over-bearing and exhausting, but Tremain’s classy, erudite style carries the narrative beautifully, allowing the reader to connect emotionally with the characters. When the final denouement comes it packs quite an emotional punch and it is here where the darker themes explored throughout the novel resolve into something like catharsis.

Tremain is certainly a skilled writer, exploring human temperament, morality, familial dysfunction and the complex nature of love, with subtlety and class. In an interview Tremain gave the following advice to writers: rather than writing about you know, try writing about what you don’t know. The same could be said about what you choose to read. The Gustav Sonata is a great example of the value of belonging to a book club; I simply would never have read the novel of my own volition, instead I was forced out of my comfort zone and into the splendid little world of a Rose Tremain novel. Although the novel will not go down as one of the most memorable books I have ever read, it was certainly worthy of my valuable reading time, and perhaps yours too.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Decline and Fall?



College girl Clinton


In 1776 Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his six volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of the great achievements in historical literature. Just what caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been one of the most contentious subjects within the discipline of history. Gibbon cited a decline in civic will coupled the pacifism of Christianity as prime contributors to the Roman Empire being susceptible to successive waves of barbarian invasions. More generally there were also many specific events and particular individuals whose abuse of power contributed to Rome’s eventual fate. There certainly would have been many occasions when the Roman Empire was at the crossroads of history.

How will future historians view this point in history in which the closest we have to a modern day analogue of the Roman Empire, the United State of America, stands at its own crossroads? Will it be the point when the decline becomes the fall if Donald Trump is elected president? Trump should be a very recognisable figure to anyone familiar with history - a true demagogue taking advantage of the fall-out from nearly forty years of neo-liberalism. Capitalism is itself also at the crossroads, but that is another story. The difference now is that rather than an empire’s future being at stake, the very future of humanity is on the line. The fact that Trump is a climate change denier (therefore a climate change criminal) is of much more concern than his racism, his misogyny, his unbridled narcissism, his anti-intellectualism and his blatant disregard for the facts. As hopeless as much of humanity’s attempts at addressing climate change has been there is still some hope, but the time to act is now and if Trump is elected then future generations world-wide will be the hapless victims of America’s poor judgement (or to take kinder point of view - the victims of the vicissitudes of history).

Hopefully the coming days will be viewed by future historians as an unprecedented time when America followed the election of its first black American president with the election of its first female president. It will be viewed as a time when action on climate change took its next crucial step and millions of Americans continued to enjoy some hard won freedoms. Perhaps never before in world history has one woman had such responsibility, and perhaps never before have the stakes been so high. So Hillary Clinton, for all your flaws and all your past and future mistakes I desperately hope that you are the next President of the United States of America and not Donald Trump, the greatest, and perhaps most dangerous, narcissistic fool of our age.

Monday, 31 October 2016

The Name of the Wind - The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One - Patrick Rothfuss (2007)



Rothfuss attempts to stop stroking his beard


The Name of the Wind is the very first fantasy novel I have ever read. I thought that I would never actually read fantasy until a good friend recommended the novel to me just as I was desiring something different to read. During my childhood and teenage years I tried to read some fantasy novels (only getting a few pages in...), but they just never appealed as much as science fiction, and lets face it, the Stainless Steel Rat is hard to beat right?  As with many novels in the fantasy and science fiction genres it is merely the first part of a trilogy, the second being The Wise Man’s Fear (2011). The third part is yet to be published and from what I can gather fans of these books are getting a little impatient with Mr Rothfuss. On Goodreads there is an entry for the third book, Doors of Stone, and somehow there are five star ratings, one star ratings coupled with complaints and also some entries professing disappointment in Rothfuss for taking so long and wasting everyone’s time. There are even some pretend reviews of the novel and Rothfuss himself makes an entry and hilariously concludes that it all must mean that “Time travelers love my books.” Passions, high expectations and narrative greed seem to run very high regarding this series, but after reading The Name of the Wind I can understand just why.

Perhaps the principle reason why The Name of the Wind is such a brilliant novel is that it is character driven, rather than relying on regular action scenes or a tense narrative pace, although the narrative certainly does have its moments. Essentially the novel is a coming of age story and the protagonist, Kvothe, is an engaging character who both possesses great talents and personality flaws such as hubris and impulsiveness, both of which cause him many problems. At the beginning of the novel Kvothe tends to his tavern somewhere in the backwoods of the lands that are mapped out in the front of the book (yes, of course there’s a map!), which immediately hooks the reader into wondering just how such a set of circumstances came about. Subsequently the arrival of a legendary scribe called ‘Chronicler’ ultimately causes Kvothe to agree to narrate his life story, recounting his experiences from childhood through to his attendance at a place known simply as ‘The University’, all of which takes one day. Kvothe’s storytelling is certainly engaging, but more importantly it raises many more questions than answers, which entices the reader ever onward through the narrative, which is never in a particular hurry. Fortunately Rothfuss possesses an admirably disciplined, yet poetic writing style and his descriptive powers are something to be admired. The Name of the Wind is a fine example of genre writing that is literary in both style and quality.

The Name of the Wind is infused with both magic and myth, but is also recognizably very human. This realism brings an added depth to the fantasy elements, creating a believable world, which makes for a powerful and intriguing narrative. Magic, which has its roots in physics, is taught at the University Kvothe attends, however any similarities to Hogwarts and Harry Potter end there. The long University section is brilliantly realized, filled with scenes rich with the adventure and drama of youth. Kvothe’s search for information and the whereabouts of mythical characters called 'The Chandrian' drives his studies and also provides a narrative arc that will no doubt cover all three books. Rothfuss is undoubtedly an author in love with storytelling, resulting in a novel that is richly layered with narratives. The sections in which Kvothe is telling his story, set in the present and told in the third person, act as a counterpoint to the main narrative. Much of the novel is told through the first person voice of Kvothe, but throughout there are many story songs sung by traveling performers (including Kvothe, whom is skilled with the lute and comes from the Edema Ruh, a troupe of traveling performers) and also storytellers spinning yarns in taverns about a past that may or may not be real.

After reading The Name of the Wind I can understand the impatience for the arrival of the third novel. Despite the fact I have nothing to really compare the novel to in terms of the fantasy genre, its attributes are such that it is undoubtedly an excellent novel. Rothfuss does almost nothing wrong and the novel is seriously addictive, drawing the reader into its world slowly and surely. There are a multitude of intriguing characters inhabiting its pages, but non more so than Kvothe, who stands as one of the great protagonists in speculative fiction. Fortunately I still have the second book sitting on my desk waiting patiently to be read (if books can be patient, then why can’t readers?). After I’ve completed that book then perhaps I’ll become one of the frustrated hoards waiting for Rothfuss to stop stroking his beard and do what all good fantasy writers should be doing, producing another epic 600 page plus tome to complete Kvothe’s story, and then everybody can be happy.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Green Island - Shawna Yang Ryan (2016)








Green Island begins in 1949 when Taiwan came under martial law instigated by the Chinese Nationalist Party, who had fled mainland China after finally being defeated by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War. In 1986 I studied Chinese history as one of my year 12 subjects. Green Island reminded me of some of what I learned, but mostly it alerted me to what was left out of our curriculum, as if the ensuing history of what then happened in Taiwan was irrelevant. Shawna Yang Ryan has provided Western readers with an accessible account of what life was like for the Taiwanese from February 1947 onward, from the massacres that resulted from the influx of Nationalist forces, through to the SARs epidemic of the early 2000s.

Ryan’s unnamed narrator recounts the story of her family, beginning when she was born in the family home in Taipei on the night of the first massacre (up to 30,000 people ended up dying at the hands of Nationalist soldiers). Ryan, a Chinese American, lived in Taiwan for two years in order to research for the novel, exploring the island, accessing historical media and talking to people who had lived through those times. Such commitment and depth of research does give the novel an authentic tone, which is something that can be absent from historical fiction. Throughout the novel there is a great deal of familial detail, which can sometimes result in an uneven narrative pace, however this is offset by the resulting emotional connection developed over the course of Green Island. I had underestimated Ryan’s writing, believing that I was reasonably indifferent to the lives of the characters, even through their many hardships, until late in the novel when the narrator returns to Taiwan after a long absence and is placed in danger by the KMT. I felt protective of her and her partner, the idealistically naive Wei, and I realised that Shawna Yang Ryan had hooked me without me even noticing.

My interest and involvement in the novel increased once the narrator marries and subsequently moves to California where her husband lectures at Berkley University. The narrator not only has to navigate a new culture but, more importantly, she is given first-hand experience of the reach and power of the KMT, something that she could only imagine previously through the experiences of her father who had suffered through eleven years in captivity during the first decade of martial law. In California they give shelter to an escaped activist, Jia Bao, who plots with Wei to expose the evils of the KMT regime. The narrator’s relationship with the stoic Jia Bao and the danger it puts her and her family in gives the narrative an injection of tension that acts as a pay-off for some of the more prosaic sections earlier in the novel.


Although Green Island is certainly flawed, by the concluding chapters the novel had revealed itself to be much more accomplished than it had initially promised. More importantly Green Island deserves admiration for raising awareness in the West of Taiwanese history. Significantly the novel gives a voice to the multitudes of Taiwanese who suffered under the longest period of martial law (40 years) in modern history. Green Island is also an example of the importance of quality fiction. Fiction reveals histories, ideas, psychologies and foreign cultures that would be otherwise inaccessible to readers who find the idea of reading door-stop sized history books unappealing.

Monday, 5 September 2016

The Age of Reinvention - Karine Tuil (2013, 2015 English translation)








With the publication of The Age of Reinvention French author Karine Tuil has added to the vast pile of literature that has been directly influenced by 911 and the West’s endless war on terror. The attack on the twin towers, the wars and the terrorism that have followed have had such a profound impact on culture that perhaps it is finally time to view this period as being apart from the Post-Modern era that developed since WWII. Coupled with the absolute reach of the World Wide Web and a myriad of other technological innovations surely cultural theorists can be inspired to come up with something, or are the stylistic tropes of Post Modernism really the last word in examining the current predicaments humanity finds itself in? (actually, the way forward lies in science fiction, but that’s just my opinion...) The Age of Reinvention does not offer anything new stylistically, but it does, depending on what you want from a novel, offer a relatively compelling exploration of human identity within the context of the current cultural and political climate.

At the centre of The Age of Reinvention is a love triangle between three university friends: Nina, the downtrodden goddess, the complex and brooding Samuel Baron and the French -Tunisian charmer Samir Tahar. The bulk of the narrative takes place twenty years after Nina and Samir have had an inevitable affair, which was subsequently curtailed by Samuel, who then proceeded to bind Nina to him with the worst kind of emotional blackmail. After twenty years Samuel is a failed novelist and Nina is a fashion catalogue model. In contrast Samir is now a successful lawyer living in New York and is married to the daughter of one of the richest Jews in the USA. The crucial plot device is that Samir has stolen Samuel’s life backstory, remodelling himself as a Sephardic Jew and in the process has disowned his mother and his much younger half-brother, who are both still living in poverty in the ethnic slums of Paris. When Samuel and Nina discover Tamir’s subterfuge (via the internet, of course...) they are drawn back into his life, with huge consequences for all concerned.
 

In an interview from last year Tuil states that “...there are novels which exist to entertain and novels which exist to ‘disturb’...” The Age of Reinvention can certainly be placed in the latter category. The curious thing about the novel is that its strengths are also its weaknesses, depending on the readers’ perspective. Tuil’s narrative style is intense and much of the action takes place in the present tense, which gives the novel an edginess that successfully conveys the desperation inherent in the protagonists' lives. Tuil delivers some fantastic lines, particularly in the first third of the novel, with some sentences covering almost half a page. These stylistic attributes drew me into the novel’s world and I felt a compulsion to read on to find out what would happen, but by the middle of the narrative Tuil’s style grew wearisome and I began to find certain aspects of the novel, such as the dialogue, to be jarring and melodramatic. Despite these flaws my enthusiasm remained undiminished; however other readers may find Tuil’s style to be overwrought and heavy-handed. There are also some quirks, such as footnotes that are used frequently to elaborate briefly on a minor character’s background, a technique I personally enjoyed, but others may find irritating. The wild swings in the fortunes of the protagonists may seem unrealistic and characterizations cliched and shallow, in particular that of Nina, who could be seen as a mere cipher for the submissive kept female, although, like the male protagonists, she does find a way to reinvent herself late in the novel.

The Age of Reinvention is a political novel, but is ultimately focused on the politics of the self rather than that of nations and the war on terror. The demands placed on an individual’s identity, ethnicity, sex and status by the forces of culture and history are Tuil’s chief obsessions here. Although the novel’s overall tone is bleak, in the end Tuil offers a glimmer of hope that the individual can ultimately be the master of their own destiny. The novel resonated with me, despite its flaws, and it provided an appropriate counterpoint to Michel Houellebeque’s controversial novel Submission (2015). I’m certain that The Age of Reinvention will not be the last word on this era’s discontents, but will it be remembered as one of its defining texts? We’ll see...