Thursday 30 December 2021

A Literary High - 2021 Round-Up


Here we are again, another year of reading against the dark background of the pandemic, failing democracies and world leaders fiddling while the world burns, oh, and an engagement (my own). Reading is a fine way of grounding oneself while such events come and go, perhaps the best way. It's been a year of either starting or finishing off trilogies. I completed the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, finally reading Cixin Liu's Death's End (2010), which proved to be not only the best book of the year, but also one of the greatest science fiction novels I have ever read. I read two novels of Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy - Suldrun's Garden (1983) and The Green Pearl (1986), both were excellent and also made me want to read more fantasy. I began Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy with Red Mars (1992), which I also rated as Sublime, joining Colm Toibin's The Magician (2021) and Don DeLillos' Zero K (2016) as among the best books I've read this year. 

In hindsight it was quite a good year for reading, with other notable books being Walter Tevis' brilliant novel The Queen's Gambit (1983) and Curtis Sittenfeld's alternate history novel, Rodham (2020). It was also great to read two Iain M. Banks books, with the short story collection The State of the Art (1991) compelling me to read The Culture novel The Hydrogen Sonata (2012), which was both excellent and a lot of fun. There's always a book that doesn't measure up, and although regular readers will know that I am not a harsh critic, the Alfred Bester novel, Tiger Tiger (1956) was absurd and bloated science fiction, and a very disappointing read. As for the year ahead? I look forward to completing the trilogies I began and my aim will be to read more classics. Reading The Magician about Thomas Mann has reminded me that there's a whole range of classics I've never read, Mann himself and also the Russian greats. I just need to prepare myself for all of the extremely long names and intense existential themes, which shouldn't be a problem, as it will be light reading compared to the daily news...

Tuesday 28 December 2021

The Magician - Colm Toibin (2021)


Rating: Sublime

For a multitude of reasons The Magician truly is a sublime novel, however I will qualify that statement by saying that it isn't for everyone, particularly for those that enjoy fast paced novels. The novel unfolds like a long evening in the study of a well-spoken individual who is greatly interested in what lies beneath every-day things, while discussing it over many whiskies and cigars. Essentially The Magician is biographical fiction about the life of the German writer Thomas Mann, who was one of the great modernist authors. This is serious literary fiction about a cautious, yet talented man who was caught up both in the tumult of German history and within the careful repression of his own homosexual desires. I finished the novel feeling like I really got to know Mann, almost like I was his confidant. Within the novel lies profound human psychological depths, not just regarding Mann, but also his wife Katia, their six children and the German nation and its peoples. Toibin really is a remarkable writer, his prose is focussed, poised and capable of providing great insight. There's also some sly wit and at times the novel is filled with humour and warmth, but also it does not shy away from exploring the darkness of living during interesting times.

Toibin explores twentieth century history through the prism of the Mann family. Rather than going over familiar historical ground, the culture, history and society of the times are revealed via the lives of the Mann family, in particular through the eldest children, Erika and Klaus, who in the nineteen thirties live the kind of lives that was unimaginable to Thomas Mann himself; they were free to socialise widely and explore their sexuality openly. It's as much their story as it is Thomas Mann's. The same can be said for Katia, and some of the other children, such as the resolute Golo, who after Thomas Mann's death became a historian. The character studies are superb and we are also treated to many cameos of famous authors and prominent historical figures, such as Einstein and the writers W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, who are both treated to some of Mann's withering German wit. The novel also provides great insight into what it is like to live in exile and to be alienated from your own homeland. The Mann's personal pain regarding what happened in Germany is rendered palpable. Once again, The Magician is not for everyone, but it stands as a brilliant achievement by Toibin that makes you want to explore the writings of Mann, which is actually something I'm yet to do.

Monday 6 December 2021

The Hydrogen Sonata - Iain M. Banks (2012)


Rating: Excellent

Well, that certainly was fun. I'd read that the last two Culture novels were not as good as the earlier ones, however The Hydrogen Sonata, the last, unfortunately, due to the author's death in 2013, is no slouch when it comes to Culture driven thrills. The novel is flawed, in that, as usual, Banks can really take a long time to get to the point, both when putting a plot together and during certain scenes in which dialogue or extrapolation is lengthy, however to many this is part of the attraction, including myself. Other than Banks' usual stylistic predilections, The Hydrogen Sonata is quality science fiction. The principal theme of the novel is the concept of subliming, when an advanced species has been around long enough and has achieved enough that it can move on to a higher reality. In the novel this is helpfully described as a limitless lucid dream state existence. The humanoid Gzilt, who once could have joined in on setting up the Culture, are set to sublime, however some have their doubts and there is a possibility that their holy book, The Gzilt Book of Truth, which ultimately directed them to this point, is all a pack of lies.

The Culture becomes very interested in whether the Gzilt are about to sublime under false pretences, as are two opposing factions of the Gzilt. Enter Vyr Cossont, an eccentric Gzilt women who sports an extra pair of arms so she can play T. C. Vilabier's 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented - 'The Hydrogen Sonata', on an instrument called an eleven string. Cossont is asked to look for Ngaroe QiRia, an extremely long-lived man who should have memories of when the Book of Truth was introduced to the Gzilt. This is a typical Banks premise, as is the clever humour and the legion of Culture ship Minds who band together to try and solve the mystery. I enjoyed the Minds in this Culture novel much more than in other some of the other books in the series, I'm not sure exactly why, but their personalities and motives seem much more tangible. The novel is ultimately nicely paced, once you get used to Banks' style of course, but where he really excels, as usual, is in the many set pieces that show off what was an exceptionally creative imagination. One of the best being the scenes on a Gzilt party ship, travelling through an immense tunnel within a circular habitat, partying hard for five years until the subliming, most notably when Cossont meets the chief partier, a body artist called Ximenyer, who features forty eight penises all over his body. Enough said, perhaps, except to say that The Hydrogen Sonata did not disappoint and Banks was at the height of his considerable powers nearing his premature death. It's such a pity he is no longer with us, as I'm sure he had many more Culture novels left to write.