Happy Dynamic Living

Happy Dynamic Living

Tat Wood offers some suggestions for more adventurous reading in 2014.

We all have stories about what we were doing when 1999 turned into 2000 (well, all right, not Valentina but most of us). I’ll tell you mine properly one day but the thing to note here is that my New Year’s Resolution then was one I’ve stuck to: I am trying to actually read all the books people often talk about as if they’d read them.

So if you’ve not made a resolution yet, here’s one to try: read more different types of things. Don’t limit your horizons to whatever 3 for 2 offer is on at the local bookshop, or whatever last year’s 3 for 2 deal makes abundant in charity shops come February. Don’t let the commuter peer-pressure lead you into another mistake like Three Cups of Tea or Olivia Joules. Don’t let a book’s reputation daunt you.

I’ve devised a few not-entirely-arbitrary categories and picked three for each from our three thousand-odd titles, this time in ascending order of effort required (for most people. Some might be easier for you than the ones before in some cases, but I’m working from experience and reports from other people who’ve also read them). If you try one per category, per month, that’ll get you up to October and then you can decide on what to do next for yourself.

I notice, looking back over it now, that all the fiction here is the sort of thing that you have to read twice or more to really get to grips with it. They are novels that the first read helps you acclimatise and then develop stronger connections as you revisit them. One of the obstacles to any kind of fiction is learning the ground-rules. If any of these is your first go at a specific way of reading you’ll need a practice run and then come back with more experience. Then you’ll know why this specimen is outstanding in its field. So maybe your resolution this year might be not to read more but to read more thoroughly.

The Great American Doorstop

Americans, especially male writers, are obsessed with that mythical entity the Great American Novel. Whatever this may be, it’s somehow able to convey everything about American-ness and speak to every kind of reader. Most people who try to write one land up making something huge, grandiose and forbidding. The GCSE syllabus often has one, as English novels are, apparently, too parochial and less ‘relevant’. (I made a good living explaining the throwaway lines in To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men to kids whose teachers didn’t get the references). From Moby Dick and Portrait of a Lady to The Corrections and Infinite Jest it’s been the duty of a serious reader to have wrestled with these solemn, self-consciously monumental works.

Stuff that for a game of soldiers. Nothing should be compulsory and certainly not foreign books. However, it’s not succumbing to cultural imperialism to be aware of what sort of thing gets the nod from American critics and readers. Here are three we’ve got that have appealed to different audiences, discussed what America means (or ought to) and which are actually good. Updike and Bellow and Dos Passos and Fitzgerald and all that lot aren’t going away, so maybe work up to them with some of these.

hemmingway It’s all Batman’s fault. I was nine, and he was fighting a new   foe  called ‘The Bookworm’, played by Roddy McDowell, who   did book-related crimes. Most of the plot hinged on the fact that Batman not only knew the plot of For Whom the Bell Tolls and could anticipate Bookworm’s next move but knew that the title was a quotation from an Elizabethan poem and used this to thwart the cliffhanger with Robin about to be blown up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNE2CTx8DUM I decided that this was how Grown Ups did things (an opinion later confirmed by the Target novelisation Doctor Who and the Green Death, where the meaning and origin on ‘Serendipity’ was significant). So, I thought, when I’m a grown up I’ll read Ernest Hemingway. Look, it was the seventies.

By the eighties the reputation of Papa Hemingway was a bit dented and anyone seen reading anything of his was hounded by the Right-Ons. Alan Bennett started it by having him supposedly say when I reach for my gun I hear the word ‘Culture’. Now, despite recent attempts to make his glamorous early life seem interesting independently of anything he wrote https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzoOA473wq0, Hemingway’s almost vanished. You can’t imagine that Christian Bale’s Batman has ever read him (although it’s unlikely he’d read anything that isn’t an instruction manual for a laser-guided RPG.) There are lots of people who like many of his other works, especially his short stories, but can’t stand this one. Others think that this is his only halfway-decent book (‘decent’ as regards quality – there’s sex and violence and badly-translated swearing, and this is the book that gave the world ‘Did the Earth move for you?’) For all the bullfighting and drinking and the whole cult of machismo Hemingway’s followers built around him he’s an observant and deft writer. Humourless, yes 1; ruthlessly self-disciplined about adjectives or modifiers, undeniably; he’s the equivalent of a detox diet for anyone thinking about writing. The whole of The Old Man and the Sea has fewer adjectives than a page of Ray Bradbury. He writes like that on purpose, a necessary step after the Nineteenth Century American ‘greats’. Trouble is, this book does other things with language that aren’t as helpful, especially when trying to convey idiomatic Spanish.

The plot’s simple enough: Robert Jordan’s gone to Spain to fight in the Civil War there, so is sent to blow up a bridge to stop the Fascists getting through. One of his colleagues tries to sabotage this and the plan goes wrong. What’s more interesting is the idea that people who believe in absolutes have more in common with others who believe different absoluties than with ordinary people. Jordon moves away from adolescent, linear, black-and-white distinctions over the four days of this book. A lot else is going on under the surface of this storyline. Hemingway makes small details do the work of whole paragraphs of description and hints at insights Robert has during this intense – and probably final – few hours.

Muddle SexIt’s not about cricket, and most Americans aren’t aware of it as a place name (there is a county of that name there, although it’s less distinctive than ours). The Virgin Suicides was always going to be a tough act to follow and Eugenides manages to avoid it being overtly autobiographical by creating a narrative voice as singular, in its own way, as the Chorus-like ‘us’ of his first book. Maybe it was critics picking on the term ‘Greek Chorus’ and the author’s surname that made this book’s handling of a Greco-American family so difficult to manage without a fairly hefty disclaimer such as a narrator whose sex is biologically ambiguous.

You will never read another book quite like this one. My memory, admittedly a bit partial and hazy after a decade, is that I read it in an afternoon in that stupidly hot summer of 2003. There are two outstanding set-pieces that seem to come from eye-witness sources: one is the fall of Smyrna in 1922, a vivid account filled with minute observations and unlike any other version I’ve seen. It’s as if the consensus version of 20th Century history is one of the problems our narrator is trying to counter. This goes double for the Detroit riots, an event mythologised and deployed by pundits on all sides of America’s lurid political spectrum. This version is curiously intimate, from the perspective of a family-run shop, and is all about trying to keep going while everything looks likely to go up in flames. Other passages seem to be culled from textbooks. In telling a story of a hyphenated family (Greek-American) through the lens of a hyphenated narrator we get a hyphenated book; it’s been criticised for being two different novels yoked uneasily together, but that’s rather the point. Things that don’t quite belong together having to function as if unified is, it appears, part of being a 20th Century American. The narrator, Cal or Callie, becomes at times an unfocussed, omniscient viewpoint, able to perceive events thousands of miles away. It’s a novel that takes risks and these generally come off.

Where it fails, it does so heroically. There’s an effort to attach symbolism from Greek mythology to a family saga about immigration and a story of Cal’s biology running athwart traditionalist Greek – well, any first-generation migrant – efforts to stick to the old values. On top of that there’s a botched magic-realist story that Cal’s the result of a transgressive relationship two generations past, but using what were at the time of writing current genetic theories and some misguided 1980s thinking on gender-identity to create the narrative persona. Making these three tiers of storytelling mesh at sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph and chapter-by-chapter levels and between those levels is pretty much impossible, yet he so nearly pulls it off it’s inspiring. Even though this book too nine years to write the execution, especially the race towards the end, seems hasty. It would require a Junot Diaz or John Crowley to achieve what Eugenides attempts here and they have other fish to fry. For a book reworking so much family history it seems oddly impersonal, a flaw also in his next book, The Marriage Plot, but that’s Eugenides almost admitting that books of the kind he wants to read can’t be written now.

Manson NixonI’m not sure if Pynchon set out deliberately to be the anti-Hemingway. You could ask him, I suppose.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9k_TNk2mtTA

The United States has a written constitution, with a lot of Amendments. There are a lot of people who base their claims to impose their views on the mass by reference to this document, and across the political divides they all think they have unique insight into the minds of the Founding Fathers. Pynchon’s idea is that they were closer to the hippies than to the Tea Party. The Enlightenment values on which the Declaration of Independence were based weren’t the only game in town at the time As you might know, Mason and Dixon crossed the North American continent and their route is the de facto border between the North and the South. They were supposedly attempting to map a transit of Venus. What you might not know is that they were born in England; Pynchon’s usual detailed research includes getting the Geordie accent right and knowing that there is an annual event in Gloucestershire where people run away from a giant cheese rolling down a hill on pancake day. You may have heard about Vaucanson, the French engineer who built a clockwork duck that could digest grain. This novel has the escaped automaton flying over our heroes like a smart bomb and chasing a French chef across the world. As with his most celebrated novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, the major historical events are almost off-stage annoyances and the scientific and conceptual framework is manifested in every detail. The apparently random incidents are all placed to make the point. Plot, such as it is, is there to make the sequence of events a pattern.

The book purports to be an account narrated by their friend Revd. Wicks Cherrycoke (there was a character with the same improbable surname in earlier Pynchon novels). He has an axe to grind about Feng Shui and another about Jesuits, and for him they seem to be interchangeable,. There are good jokes, deliberately rotten jokes and outright absurdities. The latter are almost all from obscure documents from the time. The dialogue has f-bombs but they have to write ‘G-d’. One teenage girl uses ‘as’ a lot, the way our kids use ‘like’. (This is, I’m assured, not a parody https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUtuY96vOUU ) A discussion of Plato and the Harmony of the Spheres leads to Benjamin Franklin inventing rock and roll and the possibility of surf music. In many ways, the apparent anachronisms are closer to what is documented than the soundbite version. In many more ways, who gets to write the ‘official’ version is the bigger question.

It’s a big book. You can be forgiven for getting lost in it the way our protagonists so often did. The best thing to do, if you have time, is to enjoy the journey first time and then, a few years later, revisit it with a clearer idea of what’s where in the book and then establish what exactly Pynchon is saying about America now. As is often the case, his interest is in information, as a commodity, a structuring and shaping of objects and energy or something that can be garbled and corrupted. (Neal Stephenson’s ‘Renaissance’ trilogy covers similar themes but we only currently have books 2 and 3.) Pynchon’s early admirers, from the 60s, are exactly the people who invented and colonised the internet when it started and were writing newsletters and crib-sheets that were prototype wikis and blogs in the 70s and 80s. Thus you can find no end of helpful advice and spoiler-free assistance. This http://masondixon.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page is a good start.

Whydunnits

Once upon a time detectives solved elegant crimes committed in country houses just as if they were crossword puzzles. Things got interesting one writers started thinking about what drives people to such extraordinary lengths and what makes people want to put themselves in danger just to find out what happened. That makes sense: the original crime writer, Edgar Allen Poe, wrote up case-studies of a rational investigator into bizarre events that influenced both Arthur Conan Doyle and Sigmund Freud. While a lot of authors get type-cast as crime writers, some are able to dip in and out. Two of the three I’ve picked thought they could do a quick one just to get into print then move on to the sort of thing they really wanted to write but landed up so popular and successful that any attempt to do anything else is reviewed by specialist crime critics who scratch their heads at these weird ‘experiments’.

Naming of the DeadThey tried putting the Rebus books on telly, twice, with wildly different actors. Partly for that reason, a lot of people muddle it up with the miserable Taggart series, where drunk cops slouch through council estates investigating ‘muddah’. Rankin’s been using crime to write a social history of Britain, especially Edinburgh, since the late 80s. This one explores the weirdest week of this century (so far), the one that started with the G8 Summit at Gleneagles and had Live8, the announcement of London getting the Olympics and the July 7th bombing. (He’s disappointingly quiet on Eccleston regenerating into Tennant, that week’s other big event). By this time Rankin was himself a public figure and was invited into many of the prestigious places where Rebus is reluctantly allowed in the course of his enquiries. What makes this book as good a start as anyone could want for this series is that the history happening affects the case in unexpected ways, and the reportage of the bits of the demonstration and backstage protocol negotiations that didn’t make it on to television is something unique to this novel. Even if crime isn’t your thing it’s a document of an extraordinary time.

Rebus himself is close to retirement and has made just enough enemies to be still on what seem to be intractable cases. His protegee, Siobhan Clarke, is just experienced enough to lead one of the two cases being handled, the murder of a rapist just out of jail whose death seems to connect to others. The deceased’s employer is a crime-boss whose continued liberty and influence annoys Rebus. Meanwhile, an MP dies in a fall while at the pre-summit negotiations and a smarmy Special Branch officer is persuading the locals to just treat it as a suicide. Clarke’s Hampstead Radical parents are up for the demo and a local councillor is throwing his weight around.

This is the seventeenth book in a series that Rankin started as a quick calling-card before writing the sort of book he thought he’d be doing. Using his home town as a backdrop inclined him to think about Burke and Hare and Robert Louis Stevenson and John Rebus (the name means a sort of picture-puzzle) was only a cop to make his first book, Knots and Crosses, zip along in under a thousand pages. Rankin was surprised to find he’d become a crime writer, and Rebus has become more like the standard maverick-cop-with-a-drinking-problem that gets two-hour TV films made. However, in a surprisingly realistic touch, the character ages and events have consequences, unlike the reset button Reginald Hill presses on Dalziel and Pascoe. There is a real risk that Rebus, already close to retirement (the next book, Exit Music, was intended to be the last) might be fired, not in the ‘you’re off the case… oh all right, you have 24 hours’ formula from Starsky and Hutch et al. Rankin has obviously asked local shopkeepers what they thought about having to shut because of Italian anarchists, clowns, the police from three countries and Midge bloody Ure. He’s clearly thought about what music the protagonists listen to (especially as the book begins with Rebus at his younger brother’s funeral: Quadrophenia by The Who dominates the book to the extent of it being divided into four ‘sides’, like a double album, although Elbow’s Leaders of the Free World provides a counterpoint).

It’s a historical novel set at the time of writing. Ten years from now this book will need footnotes or a Brodie’s guidebook of its own. If you don’t remember Jack Straw, or Dubya falling off his bike, it might be hard to recapture the flavour of the times. Already, comments about AOL and floppy discs and the Forensics boys all trying to be like CSI are red-shifting away from us. This might be how the books survive. If you read some of the earlier ones in our collection it’s almost like reading Orwell or Graham Greene. Tooth and Nail captures London between the Crash of 87 and the Poll Tax riots. If only they hadn’t made TV movies with Ken Stott, Rankin’s reputation would be higher than that of Martin Amis. Which of these will still be read in a thirty years and which will be a ‘what were we thinking?’ oddity like Colin Wilson or Lawrence Durrell. We’ll let history judge but my money’s on Rankin outlasting Amis.

Easy Tiger(A 1990 novel, set in 1947, named after a 1964 song – no moving pictures so you can play this as you read the following https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmdH5hAhs_8 )

If you’re quick, we have a second copy, a bit beaten-up, for 50p in our sale. The state of the book tells you that it hasn’t languished unread. It was first published in 1990 and was both Mosley’s debut and that of his most famous protagonist, Easy Rawlins. By 1995 it had been made into a film, which is why Denzel’s on the cover of our two copies. (Vintage 90s in a worrrrld… trailer voice-over https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVpZD8m2BTc ) The book’s less orthodox. It’s the tale of how Rawlins accidentally winds up as an unregistered private eye but, more significantly, it’s about what life in Watts, the predominantly black Los Angeles district, was like in 1947. Subsequent books take Rawlins and his milieu forward to 1967 and he has a lot of other jobs along the way. Thing is, Easy’s black, so he can’t make wise-cracks (well, not out loud), carry a gun or be confident that the police won’t book him on a trumped-up charge or just shoot him. His friends aren’t the most reliable either; Mouse is borderline psychotic. Rawlins lacks experience or the sort of contacts Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe would use but he has a little voice in his head warning him when things aren’t right.

There’s an obvious debt to Raymond Chandler but Rawlins isn’t Marlowe; he’s just been laid off from wartime munitions work and has seen active duty. There are a lot of damaged people in noir thrillers, on screen or in print, but add the pressure-cooker environment of Watts to this and put in a focal character who isn’t by nature a gumshoe but needed some quick cash and the book goes off in very different directions from the traditional PI format. Mosley had already written a non-crime book about Rawlins and Mouse pre-WWII (Gone Fishin’) but that was only published after several hit books with primary colours in their titles. He knew Rawlins as a character before shoving him into an investigation, and it makes a difference. Easy’s insights aren’t the kind that work in film.

If you want to know what Easy did next, we have the next two books in the series in our crime section. If you want to see what Mosley thought he’d be doing once he’d got a first novel into print, we have Blue Light in the general fiction stacks. It’s different enough to have confused Mark Lawson but he’s out of his depth in anything that isn’t a familiar genre. With it in mind, though, it’s clearer that Mosley was trying to complicate over-familiar accounts of post-war African American experience and that reconfiguring the private eye genre from within was a commercially and artistically successful means to do this. That makes this books seem like a rant; it isn’t. But it isn’t just another murder-mystery with vintage cars either.

VictoriaVanishesThis was filed under ‘Teen Reads’ and I’d not want to discourage anyone under thirty from reading it. However, there’s a lot in Fowler’s books that would be lost on them. What teenager would appreciate references to milk stout, Fry’s Five Fruits chocolate or old films starring Diana Dors or Googie Withers? Just at a very basic level, who among them would get the joke of detectives called ‘Bryant and May’? And both the protagonists are getting on a bit, although one’s tech-savvy and one resolutely isn’t. The point of these books is that one of the detectives, Arthur Bryant, wouldn’t be drastically out of place in an Edgar Wallace, and the mysteries the Peculiar Crimes Unit investigate are the sort of thing other writers set in a Dickensian London-as-we-want-it-to-have-been, but the gothic and grand guignol is all happening in more or less present-day London. (Mostly: one is a flashback to 1973 and the first goes to World War II to sketch in the start of the Unit). This book is the sixth of ten (so far) and Fowler had hit his stride. It does have references back to earlier books but not so many as to make this a bad start. Just pay attention and wait for Chapter Eight, when the team are introduced to a new member (one who has already alienated them in an earlier book) for the benefit of new readers..

Along the way, we get a lot of stuff about why pubs are important. A lot of stuff. The case hinges on obscure historical and technical details so the only way to preserve the mystery is to bury the ones that matter in among a lot of others that are less significant or more memorable. Thus people tend to ramble on about pet subjects, realistically, and a less-attentive reader might skip bits. There’s a flurry of arcana, including half-remembered news items to ground the bits of the plot that seem absurd in reality. Sometimes this has someone telling someone else who might normally be expected to already know.

This is a book about London and loss. Even the PCU is facing closure as the book begins. The pathologist has himself died and Bryant can’t remember what he did with the urn. There was a great old-fashioned mystery writer, Edmund Crispin, who did a book called The Moving Toyshop in which his donnish sleuth, Gervase Fen, had to deal with a crime-scene that vanished. There’s more than a hint of that here – knowingly – but the problem is also that Bryant’s worried that he may actually be able to lose entire pubs. Indeed, with so many closing now the sense of London as a city with a form of memory-loss is lurking in this book too. Fowler loves this city and many of the earlier books in this series, and his Roofworld, make London almost the most important character.(Here’s what he has to say about exploring the metropolis:

http://www.wanderlust.co.uk/magazine/blogs/insider-secrets/christopher-fowler-bryant-and-may-guide-to-hidden-london?page=all ) If you’ve read his first two volumes of memoirs, Paperboy and Film Freak (available in the main Leytonstone library) you’ll see how much of this is observation, and how much else he’d done before becoming a full-time novelist. There’s a murder in Chapter One but after that the investigation starts in Chapter Nine. As you might expect from the above, the journey is more important as the destination. In tone, these are close cousins to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (and I don’t care what anyone says, the original TV version is the real thing and all adaptations are substitutes) or Ben Aaronovitch’s fantasy crime novels starting with Rivers of London. The key difference is that however much Fowler evokes that atmosphere he’s keeping the solution and detection firmly rational.

Everything You Know Is Wrong

Popular Science – a field in which a lot of people have made big reputations and sales, if not impact. There are a lot of readers who buy such books with the best of intentions but either lose momentum or think that just having them handy will allow science-ness to seep in (much like sleeping with a book under your pillow instead of reading it will aid in exams). Yes, we have a donated edition of A Brief History of Time but I won’t advocate that here simply because the really cool discoveries have happened since it was published. (It’s still 95% valid, but as backfill after you’ve seen what Brian Greene and others have explained about the recent, post-Hubble, post LHC findings and what they tell us that wasn’t predicted in the 90s). The books I’ve picked all opened doors for the general reader at the time and now allow an informed appreciation of what’s subsequently been added to our world-view. More importantly, what they remove from the conventional world-view is precisely the sort of ‘common sense’ that is used to justify a lot of questionable activities.

MagrittingsThis book was everywhere in the 80s. It became an opera (punctuated with an on-screen brain-dissection lecture, although not in this clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvrSRvniu_A ), inspired an album by Travis and the film Memento and made Sacks recognisable enough to be parodied https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nq_A6IYJYu4 . It’s twenty-four inspiring and intriguing case-studies of patients whose brains were telling them things that other people didn’t perceive. One of the patients is Sacks himself, but he only admitted this much later.

What made this book so popular was a combination of Sacks’ obvious compassion and interest in these patients as people and the recurrent point that the tiny changes to their brains had an enormous impact on their perceptions but not on who they were. The distress they experienced when they were unable, looking from inside, to make that distinction did affect some of them. It allowed anyone who thought that personality was somehow separate from brain-state to continue with that thought, whether they were religious or hard-line social constructivists, whilst removing the discredited Cartesian Dualist idea that the self was somehow disconnected from the body. It also allowed people to dignify small differences in ability with long words, so that anyone who’d hitherto been a bit crap at remembering faces now could say ‘I have prosopagnesia’.

Sacks’ concern went a bit deeper in this book. What he is emphatically not doing here is drawing a straightforward linear correlation between a small defect in a specific part of the brain and a peculiar set of perceptual differences between the afflicted individual. That’s ‘peculiar’ as in ‘unique to’, but the accounts usually start with an extreme manifestation. What comes across time and again in his work is that the mind is a set of processes as much as a cluster of neurons and peptides. A disruption in that process has knock-on effects that aren’t pedictable in advance and the personality of the individual will tend to try to overcome those disruptions or work them into the previously routine activities as though nothing had changed. This book predates the huge strides in imaging techniques and the wholly new realisation that, far from being set in stone at around 19 and just decaying slowly thereafter, the brain rewires itself and can, in some circumstances, expand some portions. Neural plasticity, as a concept, was laughable in the 80s.

Paradoxically, that makes Sacks’ diligent observations more interesting. He’s witnessing changes that he can’t measure the way someone with an fMRI scanner can now. Whilst he’s a long way from the largely-discredited work of Freud his anecdotal reports (‘anecdotal’ in the sense of ‘not deliberately engineering a situation with a control-group, non-experimental’) have the same potency as those of a century earlier, as a sort of folklore of odd behaviour indicating an obscure inward cause. In all such cases the message is the same: the part of me I call ‘me’ is only part of the story and is a work-in-progress, not a fixed, knowable object. Everything we think we are depends on thousands of interlinked systems all not-going-wrong simultaneously and continuously for decades. Miraculously, for most of us, we get away with it and take this to be normal (which it is) and thus unremarkable (which it isn’t).

gleickAnother book that was in the air in the late 80s but, unlike Sacks, few of the people who read it, and even fewer who heard about it in documentaries and everyday speech, took the basic message seriously. You might dimly remember something about fractals, conch-shells, butterflies in the Philippines and Bruce Springsteen causing the Crash of 874 but the precise connection between that bulbous shape (the Mandelbrot Set, as used in the backdrop for endless naff Rave videos and the odd Crop Circle) and hurricanes is hazy. The world got excited, looked at the pretty pictures, then shrugged and went on to this new Interweb thingy everyone was talking about.

Look again. What’s underlying all the journalistic ‘colour’ about the people involved (at the start of every chapter it’s all human interest, in accordance to some guideline about popular science writing that seems to be in the US Constitution somewhere between the right to not self-incriminate and repealing Prohibition) is a stark truth. The laws of mathematics, for two millennia the benchmark of rigid, deterministic single-solution answers, demand that there are certain conditions for which there is now way to control or predict outcomes. It’s not just that we don’t yet know how to resolve these things into yes/no definition, it’s that it’s just as impossible as making two plus two equal anything other than four. And when I say ‘certain conditions’, I mean a lot of everyday circumstances, to the extent that it’s the pin-point precision of most of the maths we did at school that’s a special case, not the other way around. It’s not that the outcomes are random, it’s that they follow inevitably from the previous conditions in ways that can only be clear in hindsight.

Since this book caused its splash we’ve had a fairly hefty economic crisis that everyone claimed they saw coming just after it happened. That was, it must be admitted, fairly obviously the result of ineptitude in the Bush Administration and under-regulation of global banking. The point is, even if that had been addressed in time, something similar would have had to have happened eventually because the international financial market is a giant feedback loop and governments who think they can control it are as deluded as a Filipino Bond Villain trying to take over the world by breeding butterflies might be.

It may be that you glanced at this book around the time everyone suddenly realised that shoulder-pads looked stupid and then got on with your life. It might be that you thought this was a bit high-brow and nothing to do with you. You may not have been born when people were last talking about this. Gleick’s book is probably the best start even now for a subject that pulls the rug out from anyone who thinks they can control complicated systems. It also shows the hidden connections between natural and man-made events and processes and makes it, however fleetingly, possible to admire something simply because it was unexpected and unrepeatable.

(Oh all right. Here are some pretty pictures https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwWyTts06tU and here’s what they mean https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjzkW1IlVI4 )

I wonder if it'll be friends with meWhen looking for an image of the cover I noticed an embarrassing problem. Almost every review of the book quoted one line or other as evidence of Jones’ prose style that turned out to be a quotation from elsewhere. The main source of these is Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species is the conceptual and structural basis for this. Jones riffs on all of Darwin’s themes, in the same sequence, partly to fill in all the developments and observations denied to the original’s author but also to answer those annoying Creationist whiners who always pipe up with where’s the evidence?

This book was published in 1999, back in the era of ‘Intelligent Design’. There was a museum at the Grand Canyon purporting to show evidence of Creationist claims http://usgovinfo.about.com/b/2007/01/20/groups-grand-canyon-creationist-claim-shown-bogus.htm . These people weren’t some fringe cultists, they were, according to surveys, in the majority in America and, shortly after this book came out, got one into the White House. Darwin was somewhere between Saddam Hussein and David Icke to such folks. Jones patiently sets out, once again, how it all works and where we can find the facts, as well as discussing how little of what we know to be true can be demonstrated to the same degree of certainty. Along the way there are anecdotes and facts with which to regale anyone who’s in the same room, so it’s probably best to read this alone.

As a case for Darwin and a battery of data and arguments to support anyone trying to withstand half-baked arguments (or refusals to argue because it’s “just a theory”, like gravity) this is more than ample. It has a serious flaw at its core, that split between Darwin’s prose and Jones’. This was never intended to put forward Steve Jones’ views of how evolution works – he’d done that a lot already – but to buttress Darwin for another 150 years of assaults from zealots. In some ways, this is entirely how science should function; it’s a process, rather than a body of facts, and flourishes through doubt and testing. Had Americans (and people from other theocratic regimes) not been so noisy and persistent, Jones wouldn’t have had to be so clear, so detailed and so patient. Yet this book leaves the last word to Darwin, who turned out to be right despite not having any notion of how it might work – he published almost exactly a century before the discovery of the double helix and longer before Plate Techtonics was taken seriously. Darwin’s magisterial prose is at odds with Jones’ pithy, acerbic writing.

Intensities

These are books that a certain type of rather earnest and urgent young chap will always be seen carrying around. Just because they are props or lifestyle accessories for people you hope won’t sit next to you on the bus doesn’t make them bad books.

josephWe’ve all met Apocalypse Now obsessives. For them, this book is only important as a source for the film that managed to make Vietnam boring. There are also people who bang on about this book as confirmation of how terrible the British Empire was, which is odd as the majority of the book is in Belgian territories, run with a brutality that made even the British ashamed on behalf of Europe. There is more to this novel than either of these special-interest interpretations.

First things first: is it actually a novel? It’s short enough to be included in with other works in a standard-size paperback. Moreover, the storytelling device of Marlow, the possibly unreliable narrator, makes this yarn a little elusive and inconclusive. It begins on the Thames Estuary with a comment that, for the invading Romans, London was terra incognita, a blank space on a map for them to fill, regardless of what anyone already there thought. Automatically, the inversion of the British Empire’s hubris is there as a rhetorical device (as in that other great anti-Imperialist how-would-you­-like-it short novel of the 1890s, The War of the Worlds, which had London invaded by technologically-superior beings who died of local diseases). For much of the narrative, the Thames is an analogy for the Congo and I’ve seen it argued that the story is improvised based on what the speaker can see on the journey upstream (as with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, perhaps). Moreover, the route into an almost-inaccessible dark jungle to find a man who has set himself up as a god has a strong similarity to Freudian analysis (as well as to Badger’s house in The WInd In The WIllows and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, also books that have suffered in translation to the screen). I’m not being flippant in these comparisons (well, not just being flippant): to reduce this work to any one interpretation is to do it a disservice. You can decide which of the many interpretations available works for you after you’ve read it, not before.

Another obvious thing to point out is that the author was a sailor from Poland who learned English after French and Russian and his native tongue. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for writing in his fourth language and having had a ‘proper’ job for most of his life. A less-obvious point for anyone reading it after 1895 – the Foreign Office couldn’t always spare officials to check on the safety or reliability of transport routes, so they used an improvised test of whether you could get Huntley and Palmer’s biscuits (rather like doctors using a radioactive marker to follow blood-flow in the body). Now that I’ve told you this, watch out for the reference. This is a book written by someone who had been places and seen things and then decided to use them in his writing, rather than the Graham Greene/ Norman Mailer procedure. That mix of observation and conscious shaping of events to make a point makes it tempting to think that it all ‘really happened’ as described, as so many of the details are plausible and verifiable. There are whole theses to be written on how much he saw or heard about the incidents described or the overall patterning of events. Regardless of whether it is art or journalism, it had an effect on a generation of readers. Much of this was in the narrative voice used, to the extent that Orson Welles tried to film it and came unstuck, deciding to do Ciizen Kane rather than explain to audiences how to watch a movie differently. John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola had to dilute this apparently artless narrative to make their flick. Read the real thing, and read it on its own terms instead of as a footnote to a film.

Smell that son? That’s Huntley and Palmer’s. No, doesn’t work, does it?

catcher-in-the-ryeThis is, notoriously, the novel-of-choice for Americans who take assault-rifles into High Schools or stalk celebrities with homicidal intent. That doesn’t make it intrinsically bad. The problem seems to be that the narrator, Holden Caulfield, is the prototypical angsty teenage outsider who condemns everyone who isn’t as full-on as him as frauds and phoneys. By our standards he’s very comfortably-off and hasn’t any genuine problems that aren’t of his own making. He is a compelling narrative voice but lacks the insight to spot that he’s just as bad as the people who are, as he puts it, ‘screwed up’ (this book is credited with popularising that phrase. This is lost on precisely the kind of reader who identifies wholly with Holden.

By the end of the book Holden’s not really changed, just decided to act differently because he misses the people who gave him a hard time. He hasn’t learned anything, or developed as a character. To read his account straight is to assume that Salinger identified completely with his creation. There’s strong evidence that he did at the time but after around 1960 he went all Pynchon on us so we only have conflicting accounts.That silence has fed into the mystique of the book and it’s oddly disconcerting to read it (or read it again as an adult) with all this halo and hype. He wrote better novels after this, especially his stories of the Glass family, and authors from Goethe through Flaubert to Joyce have had the Neurotic Boy Outsider (TM) as the critic of social mores and stifling convention. These cliches don’t start here (see also Nausea, below, or Hamlet by local author William Shakespeare) but this novel put them in a handy, portable form.

It’s been massively influential on a whole sub-genre of teenage alienation-lit and films as apparently diverse as The Breakfast Club and Donnie Darko. In that regard, it’s hard to see why anyone thought it was part of a Communist plot to overthrow America, but they did. It’s also very clearly a product of its time. You can spot which films Holden watches and pick out the period slang with the aid of a cottage-industry of guidebooks. More to the point, it has a very nineteenth-century idea of childhood as a state of angelic innocence that needs to be preserved. Holden thinks of this as his job, which is where the title comes from. That idea of restoration of lost innocence, or preservation of it in a new generation, was especially popular just after World War II. It’s still worth a look, just as Lewis Carroll’s effort to stave off ‘corruption’ of childhood is still a must-read, it just isn’t as ground-breaking now as it seemed then and seems to be preserved in aspic.

Robert Jordan, from For Whom the Bell Tolls, is plausibly Holden a few years on. There have been lots of unofficial sequels or partial rewrites but the best is a novel from fifteen years earlier by Salinger’s first champion.

Nausea(This one has a soundtrack too https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3VbNjVOkt4 )

Unlike Salinger, Kafka, Dostoievsky, Conrad and all the other mardy lads beloved of sulky graduates with long black coats, Sartre’s fallen from his former ubiquity. He used to be the touchstone for self-pitiers everywhere, and the key writer for anyone who tried to dignify angst as a political statement. Nausea was his pre-war smash, and then he did something or other in the Resistance (the extent of his actual involvement seems far less than, say, Camus or Beckett but he talked about it a lot more) then set about trying to ‘complete’ Marxist theory. People in black roll-necks (a look I have been known to rock) would blether about ‘Existentialism’ and ‘Anomie’ and his name would seldom be far from the conversation. Along the way he was so sexist that his various mistresses invented First Wave Feminism and took a lot of the credit for les evenements of May 1968, but didn’t actually risk his elder-statesman status by actually doing anything that might have got him arrested or thumped by les flics. By the time I was reading Literature in the late 80s and early 90s, and especially during my MA in 1994, he was a standing joke.

(He’d been that before, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crIJvcWkVcs which is where my generation first heard of him before the dreary adaptation of The Roads to Freedom and the 70s reissues of his books in Penguin. At school, we called him Jean-Paul ‘Parrot-Face’ Sartre, for reasons nobody under forty will get without prompting 2.)

As even the introduction to our edition suggests, reading Nausea without knowing where the author took the ideas afterwards is hard even now that he’s a punchline. His post-war activities cast a shadow over the book. This is unfair. As a novel, very firmly in the mold of Notes From the Underground but with fewer laughs, it functions as a psychological insight rather than a political tract. As suggested, maybe the fact that the narrator and his ex-girlfriend have names beginning with A, as does ‘Autodidact’, the scholar whom Roquentin ridicules for actively caring about the subjects of his study but not about the methodology, might indicate that they are three aspects of the same personality. The manifestations of Roquentin’s anomie are hallucinations, a sense that his hand belongs to someone else and a disgust at all of humanity (and most of nature). These are all well-documented symptoms with a known pathology but because it’s described as if from the inside the book transcends the usual misery-memoir; we have little idea if Sartre underwent the same delusions or if he was working from case-histories or imagination. The consensus is that he took a lot from Rilke’s similar Notebook fo Malte Laurids Brigge and some from psychological studies: he wanted to call the book Melancholia (see the Robert Burton book, below). Rather than get help or dose himself, the narrator tries to work through his situation by keeping a journal and working on the history textbook he was writing when it all began. In this he details how he can see through everyone and everything to the decay and falsehood in everyone and everything. He decides to make a decision, one day. And then he legs it.

I read it first when I was nineteen, and my main thought was a now-forgotten series on the terribly earnest new Channel 4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJHGg9c86fs I tried again when I was thirty, and my opinion of it had fallen somewhat. I read it again when I had to stay put to let the builder in to Ros’ house last month (yes, she had a copy all along, despite her search for it in various libraries and eventually discovering our library had it). It struck me this time that this might all be a huge wind-up. Maybe the translation’s too precious and stilted for me to see the book Sartre wrote, maybe his subsequent reputation and output made it inconsistent for his first hit to be thought in any way ironic or playful. He’s not going for any form of bourgeois-realist character-motivation or sequential narrative, just putting his focal-point narrator in places where he can lecture us about how he sees what’s there. I was never that kind of sixth-former and my adult life’s been punctuated by genuine problems, but I can dimly see why it was so popular and why it isn’t now.

It’s a period-piece. Not just for constantly referring to Ethel Waters or, more plausibly from the description, Sophie Tucker as ‘The Negress’ (that could be ascribed to Robert Baldick, the translator 3) or the nonchalant way he pops over to Vietnam to work on an archaeological dig or Alexandria for a date with Anny, but the way small-town life, with one doctor and one librarian, is assumed to be so universal that he only lets slip by accident the oddness (for us) of provincial French pre-war life. He sees the town as always about to be engulfed in Nature, always living through the same days (Sunday being a slightly tidier version of that day) and reasonable, normal life being a thin veneer over chaos and decay. It’s hard these days to see that as any kind of revelation. As with Citizen Kane and early Beatles singles, what caught on became so common as to be almost invisible and the innovations that didn’t become standard look like oddities. Don’t go into this thinking you’ll magically ‘get’ Existentialist thinking in one go; it’s not a primer, it’s a novel.

If you find one or all of these worth your while, we have many more in similar vein: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (once rather unfairly called Nausea for grown-ups and once again a book to be found on every self-pitying student’s shelf until about 1980), Genet’s The Thief’s Journal, Kafka’s short-story collection that starts with Metamorphosis and gets better (I rather took to “The Burrow”) and even Joyce’s relatively straightforward Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Alternative History

Rather than just rote-learning dates and facts, the O-Level and A-Level I did in the late seventies and early eighties was a course in evaluating information-sources and comparing different accounts based on their methodology and theoretical base. You don’t get as much of that now. History-as-taught is offputting, and the success of TV shows and odd books indicates that there’s a lot of interest in the subject among people who decided not to take it at GCSE. What’s also true is that advertisers and politicians (like there’s a difference these days) want to have a set-in-stone version of ‘the past’ that ignores inconvenient facts and other possible arguments. Here are three books that mess with those simplified pageants and set out a case for a different version of How Things Were.

CogsworthNot the most resounding title. Give it a chance, though, because this is the book to set straight anyone who still thinks that the Victorian habit of referring to everything after the Romans left as ‘The Dark Ages’ is helpful in any way. It was all happening in Moorish Spain. The notions that the Greeks tried out on a small scale got tested and improved on, with the North African input making all the difference. There’s a chapter here about adapting sailing techniques and inventing the windmill that on its own makes it obvious how much more was going on while Alfred the Great was sloshing through swamps.

The book is more thematic than purely chronological, tackling aqueducts, bridges and other big Civil Engineering monuments, then mechanisms used in agriculture or navigation and finally to astrolabes, surgical devices, clocks and, most surprisingly, automata. I was intrigued by the copper birds that the Islamic scholars and artificers devised, water-powered and capable of singing and spreading their wings, by all accounts. I could have stood to have seen better photos and more illustrations but the complete lack of gosh-wow Discovery Channel-ness was refreshing. It’s a sober, scholarly book about an astonishing subject, which makes the content that bit more exciting because you know it’s not being over-sold to make a quick buck.

Ooer 2The title’s a bit misleading, especially the singular pronoun. This is a lot of histories, both personal (interviews, mainly with French women) and more orthodox and thoroughly researched, and with each chapter starting with a person’s story (in French histoire) and broadening out to a wider consideration of the issue across different times and cultures.

Some readers wanted more of the talky bits and less recital of historical stats and data. Others wanted a ‘proper’ history book and less about French women chatting. Some reviewers wanted a book they could describe easily in a few words, something to make smart-alec comments about and a way to give it marks out of five. This is a book that follows its own rules and has its own purposes. It’s a bit like James Burke’s Connections but with social relations instead of technology, and it’s a bit like Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality without the relentless insistence that absolutely bloody everything is socially-conditioned and nobody has any agency of their own. It also has bibliographies that make you realise how much there is to know out there.

It’s an ambitious book because it suggests something a lot of people would rather not have anyone thinking: so-called ‘human nature’ is more fluid than is generally thought. Civilisation is a work-in-progress. People accept as ‘natural’ all sorts of weird situations and expectations. Moreover, unlike most historians, Zeldin is suggesting that we can take this lesson and apply it to our own daily lives, relations with institutions and other citizens around us and maybe make things better, or at least differently wrong. As he states a few times in the book, we’re encumbered by seven thousand years of history but now we can start shedding anything that’s no longer helpful and start the next seven thousand years afresh.

FudgeA bumper book of essays, this time mainly written for other people and collected into clusters based on their broad themes. I read this when it first came out and was interested, if a little amused by the author’s ivory-towers insularity. He cites Jon Savage as the origin of the phrase no future in England’s Dreaming, for example. I saw a new edition in our library and noted that the introduction was by my MA supervisor so I gave it another look.

Samuel’s basic thread through these pieces was that a lot of effort has gone into creating a theme-park shorthand of each period of British history, a simplified and sellable one that omits any mention of the work real people had to do. He was acutely aware of the political dimension to the Laura Ashleyfication of architecture in the 80s, all that ‘vernacular’ style we know from out-of-town supermarkets and Stratford ‘Business Village’. He was ahead of the game in questioning why those Past Times boutiques of knick-knacks felts so much like the shops we’d have if the Nazis had won. Even his perspective on mid-90s NME articles about taxonomical distinctions between types of music was so far out of the loop he didn’t know there was a loop, which makes him – perversely – seem like the kind of writer Paul Morley wanted to be.

The new cover photo shows women on a day out to the Festival of Britain. That’s something of a touchstone here. Poised at the mid-point of the Twentieth Century, it was a concerted attempt to sum up Britishness in a few bold strokes, to build new houses and restore old traditions (Stepney and Poplar have whole estates conceived here, but Morris Dancing sides got funding too). The future was all jaunty ‘contemporary’ design and primary colours. Above all, it was a fun fair and trade-fair all in one on the South Bank, summing up the past as a consensus narrative then offering the Dome of Discovery as the gateway to our exciting future. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9uGlfvyH0M By 1953 this had been flattened (except the Royal Festival Hall) and the incoming government tried to make out that the whole reign of George VI was a bad dream, which is where things started going retro. Samuel was too shrewd to portray the following debate as simply Linear-Progress-Upwards = Left and Invented-Consensus-Nostalgia = Right and the tensions and alliances between all four poles of that argument created fascinating micro-climates for him to investigate. The old left, especially the lemonsucking Frankfurt School, had been very keen on telling everyone off for relishing nostalgia and old things, but Samuel entirely saw the appeal and was seeking to detach it from consumerism, defuse it and if possible use that energy in what he thought was a more positive way.

As I hinted, he was more at home in the political theory of the late 80s and early 90s than, well, Britain in that period. He reported on shops and magazines, buildings and TV shows as if he’d just landed after decades on a desert island with only the New Statesman and a flask of tea parachuted down every week. That bewilderment is rather disarming, however frustrating it is to have things everyone else knew explained as if to a Martian and then paragraphs assuming a familiarity with now-half-forgotten thinkers of the 50s. He was also quite nonchalant about fact-checking, something other historians have allowed him some leeway for simply because he never based his argument on any one piece of supposed evidence but on a set of unspoken assumptions he sought to lay bare.

Ess Eff, If You Please

I’m the first to admit it, the library’s stock of SF is a bit patchy. We’ve got lots of books that are part two of a trilogy and a few Teen-read fantasies, way too much about vampires, but there are more novels about SF readers here than actual SF novels 4.

Worse, not everything we have that’s up to snuff for an experienced reader (you can tell them, they’re the ones who wince when you call it ‘Sci Fi’) is what you’d give a novice. As what’s most significant about an SF novel is not so much the setting or props in the story as how you go about reading differently (to summarise crudely a complicated argument), anyone who starts as an adult has to have a bit of coaching on what it is seasoned readers are seeing that they miss. SF’s a conversation that’s been going on for 87 years – no wonder Margaret Atwood’s out of her depth.

Imagine taking an American to the Oval and you’ll have some idea what it’s like.

I’ve spent five years trying to work up a quick and relatively painless crash-course on uninstalling bad or lazy reading-habits and guiding people through the bog of substandard works on sale at the moment. Sadly, none of the books I recommend in that project5 can – as yet – be found in our library6. But from what we’ve got today I can get you started and at least sketch in the sheer variety of things under this label.

NusuthYou might have heard about this but it’s – unusually for a famous old SF book – as good as its sales and reputation suggest.

This book has joined To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984, Catch-22, The Gulag Archipelago, Fahrenheit 451, Of Mice and Men, Catcher In the Rye and Neverwhere as a book the deranged American ‘family values’ zealots have banned. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbBtMNTuzrY A library consisting only of books on this list would be almost ideal for raising well-adjusted teens and this novel is, in every other regard, worthy of mention alongside the others. And you need to read it, just as a citizen.

This is a narrative punctuated by old stories. The stories offer sidelights on the events in the main story. That story is the account by a human anthropologist sent as an emissary to a world that might want to join the rest of the humanoid races in the galaxy. All the major civilisations seem to have been seeded on planets with small genetic tweaks and left to see how they developed. Earth may or may not have been one of these. Gethen, or Winter, is an ice-world with scarce resources but as much technology as it needs, if no more. They’ve not had a war for millennia, but instead conduct intricate political deals and a system of owed favours and implied insults. Our narrator is not a fool but still manages to fall foul of this byzantine politicking. How he gets out is the substance of the story.

And if you have heard of this book, you’ll undoubtedly know the one thing I’ve not mentioned. A lot of people have assumed that the thing I’m omitting is what the book’s ‘about’. They aren’t really right; it’s more about the difficulty and importance of trusting someone you know to have a completely different set of beliefs and values. University courses have tried to cramp this book into headings such as ‘Feminist Utopian Fiction’ but it’s not really a Utopia (it’s too readable and the society is flawed in ways that make the protagonist’s mission worth doing) and it takes a bit of squinting to make it an uncomplicatedly Feminist work.(It predates a lot of the debate and indeed much of the current vocabulary for discussing such issues https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tm4AGbJWSTE ). Read it as a Historical novel set in a bit of history that hasn’t happened yet and you’re closer to the mark.

JingsIf you’ve spent a lot of time online you’ll know what the title means, but it’s helpfully explained early on if not. If you’ve spent any time watching news items about technology then the kerfuffle over 3D printers and Google Glass can’t have escaped your notice. (If it has, somehow, 

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jan/06/fighter-jet-flies-with-3d-printed-parts

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/10542288/3D-printer-creates-chocolate-sculpture-of-your-face.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf_rf6bGvhw  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jK3WLILYhQs . Although if you’re that insular and out-of-touch, why are you looking at a website?). Right, so project… oh… ten years ought to do it, and Edinburgh cop Liz Kavanaugh’s cleaning up the mess (some of it literal) after what seems to be a horrible auto-erotic death, Anwar Hussein fnds that a spell in prison seems to qualify him to be the new Scottish Embassy official for a dodgy Eastern European nation no-one’s heard of who export bread-mix and a hired assassin’s finding that nothing is going to plan. These three braided narratives interlock and answer the first few questions while raising many more.

The big one you’ll be wondering is why is the whole book in the second-person present tense? Stross’ previous book was also like that, but Halting State was done as a shout-out to text-led computer games of the 80s (anyone else play The Hobbit on a ZX Spectrum?) That’s not what’s happening here. The narrator lets one first-person reference by three-fifths of the way through the book but that’s all the help I’m giving you. It’s up to you if you find the solution Utopian or Dystopian.

Along the way there’s even more thought gone into this book’s evaluation of what a devolved Scotland would have to deal with than the SNP’s thumping great White Paper, and not all of it’s as rosy as their notion. Devo-Max has backfired badly, although most people in the book prefer it to the available alternatives. It’s a sly, gleefully nasty book with a neat line in train-of-thought allusions; very little anyone says or thinks is completely invented but some of you might need to have Google handy for things like ‘The Streisand Effect’ or Marvin Minsky, or indeed a street-map of Edinburgh (there is a neat skewering of Rebus and Taggart along the way). There’s a risk that this sort of thing could date rapidly but the energy of the book might keep it fresh for longer than most. Along the way there’s a lot of borderline sick humour and, under that, a meditative quality that the pace and flurry of references can’t quite mask.

This sort of not-quite-journalism, not-quite-made-up near-future SF is hard to pull off. Elsewhere in the library we have William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition so you can see whether that’s aged well.

NOVASort of a beatnik Great Gatsby, with a young writer and the playboy aristocrat both driven to extreme acts; a futuristic Moby Dick with obsession and colourful sailors and at least one character trying to rethink what a novel can do; an exotic bildungsroman where the cerebral and the instinctive are both shown to be incomplete and a weirdly inverted quest-epic where succes destroys the person making the quest and the ‘boon’ he gives to society looks likely to destroy it. Attempting to find analogies in mainstream lit is a mug’s game when you’re dealing with Delany, because he’d read all of the ones anyone might have thought of and a lot more besides. And he was twenty-five when he wrote this, his eighth published novel.

On a surface level it’s easy to follow, despite the complicated flashbacks. Two big families, the Von Rays and the Reds, have been feuding for centuries and one outcaste member, Lorq Von Ray tries to end the stalemate and social stagnation by a desperate gamble. The mineral on which the galaxy depends is formed in stellar explosions, and mined on worlds formed near where one had happened, but this time he’s going to fly a ship inside a nova as it erupts and grab enough of the stuff to bankrupt both families’ mines. He finds a crew of misfits with nothing to lose. That’s the outward story, and it sounds simple, the way Moby Dick, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Old Man and the Sea are all outwardly old fishermen talking about The One That Got Away.

This book came at the end of a ferocious early spurt and while he was travelling from his native New York to London, Greece, Istanbul and the Milford workshop. In one way he’s bidding farewell to the kinds of book he could write then before embarking on his thousand-page Dhalgren. It’s also the beginning of his thinking on how SF works, a process that led him to become Professor of Comparative Literature and Visiting Fellow of half a dozen universities. His first big idea, which this novel illustrates, is that SF is a sort of text-space where otherwise nonsensical sentences work and tell us about the fictional world by indirection. Try that idea out on this book if you’ve not got much experience of SF reading. The characters aren’t interested in giving us lectures (except one, and he’s ridiculed for it), they are getting on with messy, complicated lives in a lived-in, kaleidoscopic galaxy. We have to work it all out from the hints they let slip. Every detail in this book serves a purpose. It’s a book about the senses, to the extent of having three drastically different narrators giving their perspectives on events.

If this kind of space-opera-plus-symbolism appeals to you, then you might want to try the peculiar stories of Cordwainer Smith, in the collection The Rediscovery of Man. I won’t tell you who ‘Smith’ was, who some people think he might also have been or what he did for a day-job, nor will I point out all the references in the stories, but I’d recommend you save the first one, ‘Scanners Live In Vain’ until you’ve read some of the others.

(NB: Do not confuse this with Nova Swing by M. John Harrison. That’s also a lurid and heavily symbolic three-ply space opera but it’s the middle of a trilogy and we haven’t got Light or Empty Space. Ask me nicely and I may get these out of storage).

The Whole Wide World

There was a trend towards packaging anything from a former colony as ‘post-colonial literature’, as if these nations and stories were (a) interchangeable and (b) just diatribes about how bad colonialism was. It was bad, we get that, so why read someone else telling us how bad it was once the message has been received?

But anything with ‘post-‘ at the start can mean two things. It can be ‘we’re over that now’ or ‘we’ve integrated it into who we are and what we do’. So postmodernism isn’t just a rejection of 1930s Modernists and their big ideas, it’s what happens when their once-radical breakthroughs have been fitted as standard for a generation or more. Similarly post-colonial writing isn’t just resentment about colonialism but using what that experience threw into the mix. The three authors here are products of nations that had a school system implanted in the Nineteenth Century that treated getting to London or, better yet, Oxford or Cambridge, as the pinnacle of success. They also grew up with America as the hallmark of global power and influence. In short, they thought of themselves as global citizens with something to bring from their backgrounds that could be measured on an international level, not just good-of-its-kind.

SMALL THINGSIn some ways this is like Midnight’s Children but, being shorter and with a more photogenic author, it caught on more quickly. The prose-style isn’t quite as chatty but has a lot of well-practiced spontaneity and quirk; it reads a bit like Dylan Thomas and, with the Mock-Serious Use of Capitals for Important Topics, a bit like Winnie the Pooh. It begins in the present (at time of writing) and flashes back to 1969, with flashbacks inside the flashbacks.

As you probably know, the author is as famous for her campaigning and protests as for this one (bestselling) book so, for anyone coming to the novel for the first time now, it seems peculiarly whimsical for someone so committed. The point seems to be that such a division between ‘serious’ (i.e. like Europeans) and ‘frivolous’ is an artificial, imposed construction. Despite the horrible and bizarre things that happen to this family the tone is resolutely Jackanory because that tone is in itself a form of defiance. Back in the 90s a lot of writers thought that resisting something was, indirectly, reinforcing it. This book barely notices the outside influences and concentrates on the local, emphasising that world’s values over the ‘official’ ones. It’s a trick Jane Austen also used, downplaying the Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution in favour of a bubble-universe where feminine values outweighed the others.

After this was published we had a lot of books from second-generation minority female authors, so it’s possible you’ve seen this clustered with Small Island, White Teeth, Brick Lane and others. Amazon seems to think if you buy one you’ll buy all of these. They aren’t interchangeable. Twenty years on, we can now judge the book for itself and see its style and subject-matter as deliberate choices rather than just being what the author’s like.

Second BestAfter last month, when I didn’t get the photo of the books I’d picked and Ysr tried to illustrate it with covers from other editions, I’ve tried to locate the correct covers for each of these books. This one, I’m afraid, eluded me. Our copy’s too old. In fact, it’s a schools edition from the 60s. I can’t imagine a book such as this being in a school library these days. This novel is brutal. Had it been any longer it would be intolerably grim.

It’s two interlocking stories. One is how one member of a community, Okwonko, tries to overcome the shame his dissolute father brought on the family and to assert himself as a patriarch. Wrestling a lion helps, but he is so afraid of seeming weak that he makes several wrong moves. People die as a result. The other story is how, while he is serving his exile, the Europeans come and convert the Igbo townsfolk. The first missionary is sympathetic and tries to learn as much as he teaches, but is replaced by a zealot who antagonises the hold-outs. Once again, Okwokwo has to choose between seeming weak and listening to the Oracles who advise caution.

What emerged in the recent obituaries for the author is the paradox that emerging from being colonised was, for Achebe, almost a completion of the absorption of Western values. Coming to London he saw the Europeans not as monsters or demi-gods but as people who’d almost sorted out their internal problems unaided, an example to developing nations as much as a problem for them. In using a title from Yeats he was clearly indicating that he was straddling both sides of the story, showing it from Okwonkwo’s perspective and treating the Earth Mother and Oracles as just as real as cowrie shells but not entirely siding with the capital-R Romantic notion of the Noble Savage as a repository of all the right values. Moreover, the missionaries gave Nigeria the ability to tell their stories in English, to reach a worldwide audience, and ground their claims for independence in the Enlightenment rhetoric of universal values and rights. Achebe uses all the opportunities afforded by the novel as a form to show an unsympathetic character from the inside and depict a way of life that was receding beyond even memory in the 1950s. As a result, he became Africa’s first literary star, paving the way for novelists, playwrights and poets from an entire continent to be taken seriously and judged on their merits rather than as exotic blooms. His death just under a year ago, was front-page news and an occasion for national mourning and reflection much as Mandela’s was for South Africa.

Watching and Smiling AgainTrinidad’s Hindu community wasn’t really visible until this book hit the book-stands and big time in the early 60s. It was odd enough that there was an island with a Spanish name, French historical sites and an English-speaking population that close to Venuzuela. Naipaul, working for the BBC after Oxford, thought he was going to be a comic novelist and this book has the shape of one if few actual reasons to smile. The opening chapter about the protagonist’s birth calls him ‘Mr Biswas’ even after we’ve had it explained why his mother called him ‘Mohun’, for example.

Mr Biswas finds himself married into the Tulsi family, an autocratic dynasty who don’t seem to think of him as much more than a source of more children. His attempt to establish himself as a paterfamilis is fairly obviously symbolised by wanting to move out of the family demesne, Hanuman House, and get somewhere of his own for his children and wife where he is in control. This almost happens, several times. It can get a bit repetitive, but stick with it. As with Bleak House and Howards’ End the identification of house-ownership with control of the cultural identity of the nation is suggested fairly clearly. Naipaul sincerely believed himself to be worthy of mention alongside Forster and Dickens and bridles against being thought of as ‘merely’ a post-colonial novelist. Yet the use of a village pundit to foresee baby Biswas’ future is something the Great Tradition authors then cited as what literature should be like never would have tried.

At the beginning of Part Two, Mr Biswas is trying to write for a living and uses a correspondence course from the Ideal School of Journalism, Edgeware Road, which recommends ‘everyday’ subjects he has no reason to ever have seen. Biswas is exactly the kind of parochial also-ran Naipaul feared himself becoming but also (from what we can gather) very like his father.

You Know… For Kids

After last time I was asked to recommend some teen-reads that weren’t outright fantasy. Why this embargo was so important I cannot imagine (perhaps the person who asked also has trouble imagining). Nonetheless, here are three I’ve read that are on our red shelf and which may or may not resemble the lives of our younger members more than dystopian dog-eat-dog contests, apprentice wizards sent to a school that’s run by people who think it’s 1935 or Byronic vampires.

Life on MagrsI’d read a lot of his stuff before, and we have mutual friends (enough for me to know his surname sounds like ‘Mars’), but that didn’t help as much as I’d expected here. Yes, I pretty much figured out the way the relationship between the shy, bereaved outsider Simon and the equally bookish Goth-chick Kelly would pan out but I was wrong-footed by everything else.

The prose-style (and the rather misleading blurb) keep you half-expecting things that don’t quite materialise. You think Kelly’s going to sprout wings next chapter and she doesn’t. The book-exchange at the core of the novel isn’t really any bigger inside and the back room doesn’t lead to adventures like in Mr Benn. At least, not that kind of adventure. Simon’s grandparents look likely to come to blows but their conflict, predictably over reading and its uses, goes in an odd direction and is resolved offstage. Simon’s gran, Winnie, has a relationship with the once-local celebrity author Ada Jones (obviously Catherine Cookson) and the flashbacks make it seem as if a Big Secret is about to be revealed, but that’s not quite what we get either. Magrs usually combines Magic Realist malarkey with very detailed descriptions of his home town in the North East but the place-names and specifics are replaced by vagueries and the locale became more generic here.

At heart this is a book about the power of books to heal. The character with most of the wisdom to make this work is the Exchange’s manager, Terrance (and for those mutual friends and me that spelling is significant but he’s more than an in-joke). He’s barely in it. Instead, the characters who don’t find books, especially Ada’s books, especially valuable are all shown as part of the reason Simon and Kelly will probably leave this town soon. There’s a lot left unsaid in this book, and at several stages it’s almost possible to imagine the author considering where the story will go next and deciding against what he really wanted to do because that’s exactly what we all expect. This isn’t a bad thing, as for once the restraining of his usual exuberence and jiggery-pokery is what the book needs. But if you pick up that sense that magic’s almost about to happen once every couple of chapters it can be frustrating. I’ve already told you how un-fantastical events in this book are but it’s written by someone who sees the everyday world as potentially no different from a wild tale of enchantment.

Jerusalem or GlobeAll sorts of ‘autobiographical first novel’ alarms went off when I looked at this, and then it turned out that the narrator lives in Hampstead (so even the school bully listens to Radio 4) and has a relentlessly chirpy terminally-ill gran and a crush on a boy who survived the Rwandan genocide. By a third of the way through the unlikely-coincidence-o-meter was in the red zone. It looked at first as if this story would be overburdened with Issues, of the kind you have to have if your teen-read is to win an award (see, for example, Sobibor on the shelf below it).

But somehow it all works. That’s mainly down to the pacing of incidents. The four members of the writing group tell their stories and undercut Mira’s present-tense diary. That diary has her doodles on the first page of each day – one day is all doodle and no text – and has just enough wonky grammar and resolute avoidance of ‘said’ (as Yr 7s are always told to do) to be plausible, however much the rest of the book makes her seem a lot older and more insightful than is natural for that age. It’s odd that a book printed in 2011 seems so out-of-time, but Mira is barely able to master a mobile, and never mentions any social media. I can’t imagine any real twelve-year-old girls identifying with Mira too strenuously but the people in her world are all worth having her introduce us to them. I mentioned the similarity to the author’s circumstances and those of the Levenson family: looking back, I can’t remember the mother getting more that two lines of dialogue. Instead we get a hands-on dad and two wise and funny older women, a couple of misguided female authority-figures the right age and some supernaturally smart dogs.

IncurableDeep down, we all suspected that there’d be a teenage version of Babyfather one of these days. Thank goodness Malorie Blackman got there first. You can sort of work out the storyline from the premise (Dante’s waiting for his A-Level results and gets a baby daughter dumped on him) but what’s good about that is that you can see all the potential pitfalls coming and admire the author for resisting the obvious.

And sometimes, resisting the plausible. Anyone who’s seen what a baby does to someone’s life will be thinking ‘hang on, what about…?’ at some of the curious omissions. There’s nothing about making the house baby-safe, apart from one incident whenre she’s about to fall downstairs. Dante’s dad would remember all of that from last time and embark on a massive DIY binge. Anyone with any experience of how A-Level results are delivered will wonder why he’s waiting for the postman rather than going to his sixth-form to pick them up.

What’s impressive is that the author seems to have a pretty good idea of how an all-male household works. Dante’s mum died a few years back so it’s him, his dad and his brother. There’s an equally predictable sub-plot going on there which feeds in to the main one. It works as a novel, with this contrapuntal narrative and alternating narrators, but there are things along the way that act as information-dispensing cues (and the back of the book has those if you have been affected by these issues addresses and websites). It’s a work of fiction, designed to entertain. Only the baby and the brother ever get described, so that anyone reading can see themselves in one or more characters (it’s scrupilously non-race-specific, unlike the trailer – ys, books get trailers now http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t87HvtuI1Yc ) and the U-certificate not-quite-swearing hints at what the people involved would really have said in the circumstances.

What’s So Amazing ‘Bout Really Deep Thoughts?

We have quite a few religious books, some textbooks on religion and a handful of Classics that touch on Philosophy (and indeed Protagoras and Meno by Plato, if you’re up for it) but not as big a Philosophy section as I’d like. It’s still better than most branch libraries’ and there are a couple I haven’t yet read. Out of those I have, here are some good starter-courses.

Clutching Forks and KnivesIt’s a simple enough concept: a book of page-long thought experiments to see how far you can take an idea. They are all fairly familiar ideas to people like me, but that doesn’t make this treatment of them fruitless. Some are Philosophy standbies, such as Wittgenstein’s ‘Beetle in a Box’, Rawls’ ‘Veil of Ignorance’ and Lewis Carroll’s ‘Achilles and the Tortoise, some are the core of old SF books or recent film dilutions (Minority Report -can you try someone for a crime you know they will commit but haven’t yet? Blade Runner/ Total Recall – is a memory that is implanted ‘yours’ and as good as one you had yourself? Good old PKD, always there to lend a dumb action movie some theoretical clout – but let’s see someone film ‘Faith of Our Fathers’). The title is a reworking of an old saw most famously expressed as the Dish of the Day in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but also to be found in Alice. By picking a pig rather than a goat or chicken he’s rather stupidly ignored dietary laws in at least two popular and successful religions.

Most bright kids go through most of these ideas in some form, but not stated as clearly or with such high stakes for the people in the question. The author also refrains from putting his own preferences into the discussion. There are 100 such hypotheticals and they almost all manage to avoid an answer that’s just simply reinforcing or restating your previously-held assumptions. You can take books out of our library for three weeks at a time, so that’s five a day.

Tetrahedra mean reasonAt first sight you might think that this was a simpler read than the Baggini. It’s done as a comic, with one author’s head photographed and stuck inside the drawings. However, the thought-experiments cover a wide array of subjects within philosophy and this investigates one knotty one from the start to the present. It takes us through John Locke and Bishop Berkeley, Hobbes and AJ Ayer. None of these is naturally amenable to sound-bite summaries, so the pictures and text have to get quite detailed whilst pretending to be chatty and chummy. It’s sometimes hard to make the connection between one page and the next even if you studied this for a year (as I did).

Empiricism is, if you want a one-line description, the study of how we can know anything for a fact just through investigation. It became the root of the Scientific Method, testing hypotheses through observation. Locke and Hobbes both derived political theories from this bottom-up process that appalled the top-down establishment of the day (although they were both, perhaps ironically, instrumental in inspiring Adam Smith’s thinking on capitalism and Thomas Paine’s actions towards individual liberty). It is, ultimately, a materialist conception of how to live well and discover the truth of things. This doesn’t rule out religion, but functions as well with it as not. If there is a patron Saint of Empiricists it’s Benjamin Franklin, who saw no distinction between belief in reincarnation, inventing bifocals, leading a revolution and flying a kite in a thunderstorm.

This book skims along briskly but covers a lot of ground thoroughly. It might be read in an hour or so but I suspect it’s more use as backfill for when reading something else. It was probably intended as a reference guide for sixth-formers. When I was that age we had Bryan Magee on BBC2 discussing Kierkegaard before re-runs of Grange Hill or Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. These days it would be a podcast or something. The existence of a book such as this makes me feel old. Nevertheless I’m glad it exists and that someone thought it was worth doing.

ANATOMYWhen I was young and foolish (well, 36 and bored) I tried reading this in a week. That’s perversely missing the point, as we’ll see, but it removed the ‘curse’ of looking at a book this meaty and thinking ‘too much’. I don’t recommend this approach for everyone, but as a means to get the measure of the book and its intentions it helped me.

It’s a work by a seventeenth century scholar attempting to understand his own disposition towards… well, we don’t quite have the concept ‘melancholia’ the same way they did. It isn’t straightforward depression, or Sartrean nausée, or even endemic gloominess. The ancient Greeks had posited a system of ‘humours’ (liquids) supposedly in balance but in practice always slightly favouring one over the others due to one’s star-sign, rising planet and so forth. Particular herbs, gods, subjects of interest and gemstones associated with these were thought to be helpful in restoring balance.You can find traces of this in Shakespeare, once you know where to look. Burton was trying to collate all known information on Melancholia (the state resulting from excessive black bile http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melancholia ), its treatment and possible useful side-effects. Yes, useful: one aspect of this is that it’s a form of brain-state conducive to great art, intensive study and feats of memory (and the historians of Mediaeval and Renaissance Ars Memoria have had a field-day with this, notably Dame Frances Yates and Mary Carruthers). However, this is a self-help book with a difference. By the nature of melancholy, reading a big, slow, painstakingly-detailed book at its pace rather than yours is, in itself, a remedy. So is spending decades writing one.

This is a book to re-read and digest slowly in your retirement. However, in order to re-read something you have to have read it a first time. I’m not the only one who’s tried to zoom through this work. A recent production by a Birmingham theatre company attempted to make it work on stage. http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/nov/06/anatomy-of-melancholy-robert-burton My sprint-read was exactly the opposite of what this book’s for, as I now realise. Paradoxically, however, one of the primary causes Burton identifies for this condition is ‘over-much study’, so maybe I avoided that. As you might recall from last month, WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn alludes to this book a lot. So do many other works, not always by name. In some ways this is the secret link between Albrecht Durer and Virginia Woolf, Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Dance to the Music of Time. I doubt that all of you will queue up to take it out but knowing that it exists is a backstage pass to a lot of literature and history.

Respectable But Fantastical

The usual critical term for this stuff in ‘Magic Realism’. You may have heard the term and wondered what people were on about. It’s one of those terms like ‘Jazz’ or ‘SF’ that you comprehend when looking at what connects examples you’ve come across better than you would if you looked in a textbook first.

If you want a quick-and-dirty description, it’s fiction by people who believe, or affect to believe when writing, in a world-view that predates empiricism and side-steps rationality. Authors can micro-manage freakish coincidences, family curses or miraculous events because that’s how the world either seems to them or to their parents when they were kids. There’s a strong link with Catholicism and Islam, the idea that there’s a God who’s lurking behind the bushes intervening to make our plots come out right rather than one who set up the Laws of the Universe then retired and isn’t taking requests. The more experienced readers among you will be asking ‘how is this different from Dickens or Wuthering Heights?’ and I have to answer, truthfully, ‘because the term wasn’t invented until the 1940s and applied to South American writers’. Others might ask ‘what differentiates Magic Realism from Gothic?’ and the consensus is that Gothic lit is written by people who don’t believe this, which is why the authors of the early ones all made out they’d found the book we’re about to read in an attic. Some might ask ‘What differentiates Magic Realism from Fantasy?’ and I sigh and say ‘how much a famous author doing it gets paid per word and how many column-inches they get in the broadsheets’. Both have a tendency to become generic and formulaic if the author isn’t motivated by something other than paying bills.

MARQUEZIn his native Columbia, ‘Gabo’ is the most famous man alive (the most famous woman being his friend and fan Shakira). This is the book that made him a global figure and the story has almost become part of folklore, something that really happened. That’s odd, because it’s about a family curse, a book that foretells the future and the weather defying reason to help the people against a foreign company’s dominion. Along the way there’s a girl so pure that she ascends to heaven to evade lustful men and a boy born with a pig’s tail because his parents were too closely related. (See, I told you Middlesex was influenced by this tradition, and probably this very book).

You’re not supposed to read this the way you would a departure-lounge thriller. Neither are you to read it as a Worthy Tome. Amazon have it listed as a children’s book. Our library’s copy has clearly never been opened but just sat on a shelf making its former owner look clever. In Britain, more people talk about this kind of book than actually read them but, as I indicated, these aren’t forbiddingly difficult, just a bit unfamiliar. In Columbia, the book’s something taxi-drivers have all read. English-reading audiences are used to something a bit more well-behaved, with clearly-defined generic boxes to put things in and a linear progression. You have Historical Fiction over here and Fantasy over here and Family Saga over here and so on. Even delineating clear boundaries for what is and isn’t Magic Realism is an attempt to tame writers who don’t fit the bookseller’s neat categories. Most of my favourite books are exercises in taxonomy-evasion. Just to confuse matters, many of the details in the novel are taken from real events and situations. There’s research in between all the fairytale elements, and genuine, uncompromising anger at the causes of these past injustices. To confuse matters further, the main family in this saga tend to give their sons the same names across generations, so there are ‘Aureliano’s and ‘Arcadio’s hither and yon. It’s confused more than a few readers:

arcadio-or-aurelianoYou might want to take notes on your first go, or just flag up anything you can’t follow for next time. The reasons why this book is the way it is are complex and connected to Columbia’s murky and bloody history (and, at the time it was written, present) but it’s as much as anything a book where people who inflict their stories on others come unstuck. To paraphrase an old 70s slogan: objectivity is European/ yanqui subjectivity. Malgudi is an island (sort of) upon which one man thought he could impose his will and vision of the world. That’s about all the help you’ll need for a first reading. Enjoy the ride and then maybe come back to it, armed with the copious online resources – which I recommend you steer clear of beforehand… yes, even Oprah – and see what else was in it.

CorkyA novel written under Stalin, published samisdat in the 50s and released to the world in my lifetime, in which Satan, Jesus and a Soviet-style writing authority all figure. You can see why some, if not most, readers assume this to be some kind of anti-Totalitarian allegory. If it were just that nobody would bother with it now. It wouldn’t be so popular in present-day Moscow that, in 2010 when the forest fires surrounded the city after a prolonged, unnatural-seeming heat-wave, the newspapers were making jokes about cats and broomsticks. You’d not see things like this http://flavorwire.com/417116/10-bizarre-literary-landmarks-everyone-should-visit/ If this had just been Stalinism’s ba-ad, M’kay? it would have joined Solzhenitsin gathering dust in second-hand shops.

Neither is it uncomplicatedly about religion. yes, Satan’s there, and Jesus, and the authorities take a dim view of a book that claims Jesus was just some bloke that got mythologised a bit after his death because he did a lot of good and made people feel better. That’s worse, to these drab jobsworths, than claiming the usual Son-of-God/ Water-into-wine/ died-for-our-sins-and-came-back stuff. Satan isn’t on the side of the authorities (although a big bipedal cat is sort of a liaison between them) and Margarita, the forlorn devotee of the author identified as ‘the Master’, becomes a witch and is granted wishes by the (ahem) man of wealth and taste who’s pleased to meet her.8 And, yes, the Master, like Bulgakov, tried to burn his manuscript. So some people see it as a roman a clef with the characters all representing real people the author knew (except, maybe, Jesus).

In fact, the allegory, if such it is, is so obscure that it’s easy to imagine Bulgakov fleeing to America and writing almost the same book about New York or Miami. If you doubt this, read it and then investigate Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, also on our shelves. Although it officially predates the Magic Realist movement, it has a lot of features in common, the weird time-frame, the mix of fantasy and closely-observed detail, the blurring of history, myth and dream and the use of the imagination as a tool of resistance to oppression. It fed into the movement as it developed in the 60s and 70s, especially in Soviet satellite countries. Without it, we might not have had Milan Kundera, the Strugastky brothers or Stanislav Lem.

It's Chapatti and I'll cry if I want toAfter a largely ignored first book and a spell toiling as an ad-man, pushing cream-cakes, Rushdie attempted to write a Serious Novel of the kind people in 70s England were thinking only Americans were allowed to do (see above). In order to make a splash, he picked India as his topic and Magic Realism as his toolkit but couldn’t help including film-buff Hollywood allusions. The basic conceit is a sort of John Wyndham idea that all children born in India or the two Pakistans at the precise moment of Partition in 1947 were gifted with super-powers. Yes, a bit like Heroes. Our narrator, Saleem Sinai, is trying to tell his and the country’s story to his girlfriend but keeps digressing and trying to balance explaining everything with keeping it chronological.Tristram Shandy is an ancestor of this book as well as the Ramayana and Garcia Marquez. I found it hard not to think of Ronnie Corbett first time I read it.

It’s a lot less haphazard than it presents itself as being. A great deal of effort and trial runs must have gone into positioning the references to the implied listener getting frustrated or bored at the times when nine out of ten readers are thinking exactly that. It’s far from random but it attempts to seem improvised. A similar effort has gone into making sure that a detailed knowledge of Indian politics and the various religions and mythologies isn’t compulsory before you start. This is, however, not to be trusted as a primer on such topics.

Above all, it’s a book that is concerned with the sensation of being overwhelmed. On a first reading it’s all you can do to keep your head above water and struggle to the end. That’s not a bad thing in itself. It might almost be a good analogy for living in India under Indira Gandhi. Rushdie throws every trick he knows into this novel and nothing he’s done since quite matches up. The next-best attempt at an Anglo-Indian Magic Realist saga, The Satanic Verses, might as well have been called Tonight, Matthew, I’m Going to be One Hundred Years of Solitude. 9 Rushdie’s got a knighthood now, hangs out with Bono and dates models. He’s an insider, a pillar of the establishment, a position he earned by articulating a special form of not-quite-outsider status.

Next time, with the Baftas and Oscars looming, I’ll run through a few of our books that are better than the films or TV adaptations they spawned and a few other things you might want to try.

Oh look, footnotes!

1 That humour thing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NyTi9v9QPxE

2 I’m thhhick-thhhick-thhhick up to ‘ere. http://www.stageoneproductions.co.uk/

3 Another seventies TV memory: Terry Nation’s botched attempt to do Steampunk http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xstp9n_the-incredible-robert-baldick-never-come-night-1972-unsold-pilot_shortfilms . The fantasy/Nausea crossover continues, as the first English version was a translation by Lloyd Alexander, of The Book of Three fame. He may be the only author to have translated Sartre and had a book animated by Disney – The Black Cauldron, a film so duff that Tim Burton quit animation to start directing halfway through.

4 The story went around that the less-than-expected sales of Tunnel of Love affected CBS’s share-price at the close of trading on a Friday. By the time the Tokyo exchange opened on Monday this had caused analysts to worry, then Frankfurt worried that the Han Seng was jittery for no clear reason, then Paris worried about Frankfurt an hour later, then London – affected by the Hurricane causing a lot of traders to stay home, plus the so-called ‘Big Bang’ of automated systems to monitor fluctuations installed with a lot of champagne and stripy-shirted prats going ‘Yah!’ a few months earlier but programmed on the assumption that nothing like this could happen – so when Wall Street opened confidence in US shares was unexpectedly at rock-bottom after years of steady rises and this caused a panic and so on and so forth. Result: yuppigeddon. This is probably not quite what happened.

5 No, you can find them for yourselves. I’ve mentioned one in this very article.

6 Ask me about it some time. It’s a pretty intense crash-course but I could use more test-subjects before unleashing it on the great unwashed.

7 There’s one work we have that, for a veteran, is as good as it gets but (a) we’ve only got the first half of it and (b) anyone else who tried it unaided would get nosebleeds trying to figure out what’s really happening and whether the narrator’s lying. It’s listed as The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe but it’s only books 1 and 2 of a four-volume story and you need to find out what happened between the narrator experiencing these things and getting to write them down to really get the message.

8 Mick’n’Keef have never confirmed or denied that this book’s what inspired Sympathy for the Devil but most commentators assume so.

9 Never mind the Ayatollahs – if Miriam Margoles gets to read about ‘Mimi Mamoulian’ Sir Salman’s dead meat. As someone living in Leicester at the time, I can only say that I lost all respect for Keith Vas, my MP, when he refused to speak out against the nutters burning books in our main throughfare for fear of being deselected.

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