Sunday, August 01, 2010

Summer reading

It is August already, and just as I always do at this point in the summer, I wonder where the hell the last few months went. The school year is just around the corner, and many of the things I had planned to get done by this point are still, well, piled up in the on-deck circle.

On the other hand, I have done an awful lot of reading—most of it research-related, but a lot of it has also been purely for pleasure (though this is one of the benefits of being an English professor whose area of specialization is contemporary: more than a few titles listed here have article potential. Any guesses which ones?) Here are the highlights:

Benjamin Black, Christine Falls and The Silver Swan.

Benjamin Black is the nom de plume for Booker-winning Irish novelist John Banville, who took up the new moniker so that he could write detective fiction. Not that there is much in the way of deception, considering that the author bio begins "Benjamin Black is the pen name of acclaimed author John Banville ..." and features Banville's recognizable mug quite prominently. I guess he wanted to make it clear that genre fiction was just a hobby. At any rate, the novels are quite good, and excellent antidotes to those who want to romanticize living in Ireland—they take place in 1950s Dublin, and more than anything else are atmospheric evocations of a grimy, impoverished and pettishly puritanical culture. Black/ Banville's "detective" is a broken down, quasi-alcoholic pathologist named Quirke who finds himself embroiled in mysteries that he sort of half-assedly investigates. The attraction of these novels is not in Quirke's talents as an investigator (he is, frankly, rather inept), so anyone hoping for a Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot will be disappointed. And while he's a hard-drinking ladies' man, Quirke lacks the edge of a Sam Spade, given that he sort of muddles through things. Call it soft-boiled detective fiction, and enjoy it for Banville/ Black's glorious prose.

Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals.

I have written about my love for Sir Terry's parodic fantasy fiction severaltimes on this blog. His wit and intelligence are always impressive, but his sheer productivity is mind-numbing. Unseen Academicals is his thirty-seventh Discworld novel (with number thirty-eight due out in the fall). Impressive for anyone—doubly impressive for someone battling Alzheimer's. I had the good fortune to read Unseen Academicals during the World Cup; this Discworld instalment is all about the ancient game of Foote-the-Ball and the changes the game adopts when it becomes imperative for the wizards of Unseen University to field a team and play the local thugs of the city of Ankh-Morpork. If you're utterly confused by this premise, you are obviously a Discworld virgin; I suggest you remedy that, and soon. Unseen Academicals has all the usual components of a Pratchett novel: sharp satire, absurd humour, a colourful yet deeply sympathetic (for the most part) cast of characters, and a multilayered storyline that never quite goes in the direction you expect. Highly recommended for the initiated.

John R. Hale, Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy.

Triremes! Sea battles! Brilliant Greek names like Themistocles, Pericles, Thrasybulus, and Demosthenes! I picked this book up on a whim at the UWO bookstore, out of a general fascination with ancient Greek and military history, and couldn't put it down. Hale is a brilliant historian—from my brief investigation of the guy's scholarly cred, he is pretty much the authority on ancient navies. And Vikings. But for my purposes, he also is an amazing storyteller. This book takes you from just before the first Persian War up to the death of Alexander the Great, and shows how Athens and its democratic legacy was basically made possible by its navy.

Jo Walton, Farthing and Ha'Penny.

These are two old-style English murder mysteries set in an alternative history in which England negotiated a truce with Hitler in 1941. I was surprised at first with how unobtrusive the alternative historical context was: it really does sort of fade into the background in Farthing, but with Ha'Penny Walton makes it increasingly prevalent. The effect is somewhat insidious: before you know it, you are taken out of the comfortable familiarity of the genteel English mystery and made to face an all-too-possible alternative history in which the blight of Nazism has not been eliminated from Europe and Britain is slowly but inexorably sliding into fascism itself. The third book of the trilogy, Half a Crown, I have not yet been able to lay my hands on.

Richard K. Morgan, Market Forces and Broken Angels.

Some of you will remember my post on Richard K. Morgan's Black Man back in May, something made rather remarkably memorable by the fact that Morgan himself responded to my criticisms of his novel in my comments section. This precipitated a great back-and-forth over email between me and the man himself, with the tentative promise of an interview that—ideally—I can shop to an SF journal in conjunction with an article on his novels. In the interests of said article, I needed to read the two Morgan books I hadn't yet got around to. Unfortunately, publishers have not been cooperating with me this summer: it seems that all the books I want to get are out of print or out of stock, or (in the case of the two Morgan books in question) only available in audio format. Fortunately, my good friend Tim Blackmore here at UWO (who was obliquely responsible for me discovering Morgan to begin with) came to my rescue with a loaner of the two novels in question. All of which is an account of everything but the books themselves. So: Market Forces is exactly one half of an extrapolative dystopia (which may well be a redundant term), depicting a future in which high-stakes capitalism literally entails killing to get ahead, and which overtly profits from conflicts in the developing world. This much is good; the Mad Max-style combat between corporate ladder-climbers—in which they do battle in souped-up cars on the highway—is out of step with the general intellectual seriousness of the rest of the novel. Broken Angels is the second of the three Takeshi Kovacs novels, and exhibits the same fusion of hard-boiled detective fiction and cyberpunk of the other two.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation.

Here's my two-part SF heresy: (1) I had never read Asimov's classic Foundation until this summer, and (2) I was totally underwhelmed by it. Even taking into account my belated encounter with it, having read a slew of contemporary SF classics that have all profited from Asimov's playbook, it felt pretty thin to me. Now, the overall concept, of a massive galactic empire in decay and the efforts of a group of scholars to preserve civilization through the inevitable crash and dark age that follows, is positively visionary. But the actual story that told was, well, insufficient to the promise of that concept. Granted, I have yet to read the subsequent Foundation novels, but the quality of the storytelling itself was disappointing enough to not make me enthusiastic about reading them. I'm sure I will at some point, for the simple need to cover my SF bases, but it is not currently high on my priority list.

Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged.

Speaking of the weird caprices of publishing this summer: after having The Blade Itself recommended to me a few years ago by a fellow fantasy enthusiast, I finally got around to picking it up this summer. I quite enjoyed it: it is a great story of, among other things, the world-weariness of those whose life is lived by the blade. The alternative world evoked is quite vivid, and the characters well realized. I avidly picked up book number two, Before They Are Hanged, but have not been able to lay hands on Last Argument of Kings ... for reasons passing understanding, the first two are readily available but the third has effectively vanished from this earth. Adding insult to injury, Abercrombie's most recent novel (which seems to take place in the same world some twenty years later) is also on the shelves.

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner.

Did anyone else find this novel way overrated? For a while after it first came out, it seemed to be all anyone could talk about. I'd heard its brilliance praised to the skies by many people whose opinions I respect, and so had always meant to get around to reading it. Well, I finally did ... and was waiting for that storytelling or technical brilliance to appear. Not so much. I found the story generally engaging, if a bit pedestrian, and the dramatic sequences really rather contrived. It kind of had all the set-pieces a western audience expects of a novel set in Afghanistan, with little to question, complicate, or challenge those assumptions.

Cormac McCarthy, Child of God.

I love love love Cormac McCarthy, and ever have since first reading Blood Meridian. It's a bit of a truism to call him William Faulkner's heir apparent—on one hand, I think that is true (him and Toni Morrison), but at the same time he's marked out his own thematic and stylistic territory. He stumbled a bit with All The Pretty Horses, but The Crossing and Cities of the Plain more than made up for that. And then, No Country for Old Men. And then ... The Road. B'Jaysus, of the handful of novels I've read that have left me metaphorically in the fetal position from sheer emotional exhaustion, that one is certainly in the top three. Anyway, I realised this summer I had not read any of his three earliest novels, and on the recommendation of s student decided to start with Child of God. And ... phew. OK, Cormac—I'm seeing some of your later fiction here, some of your key themes and tropes, but not with the subtlety and nuance you learn. Child of God is set in Tennessee mountain country and follows the exploits of Les Ballard, who may or may not be developmentally challenged. Les basically descends into increasingly depraved behaviour, much of it necrophiliac in nature. And that's all I will say, aside from the fact that McCarthy's prose makes even the most revolting situations worth reading.

Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.

I quite simply have to love Anthony Bourdain. His schtick as the bad boy of the food world and the iconoclast of the Food Network would be entertaining but ultimately boring if undertaken by anyone else. Many of his targets are pretty easy, especially food "personalities" like Rachael Ray. Back when he published Kitchen Confidential in 2000—the book that made his reputation and his subsequent career—he took equal aim at all celebrity chefs, especially the likes of Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Now, ten years later, he is far more seasoned and thoughtful, and quite willing to admit error. This last quality is what most endears me to Bourdain: it's easy to be an iconoclast, but pretty damn hard to be a thoughtful one willing to revise one's opinions. And revise he has: he bemoans the increasing slide into populism made by the Food Network, while acknowledging that of course the network will go where the money is; he continues to mock Emeril et al, but gently, and acknowledges the fact that they are and always were superior chefs to him; and on that note, he is quite frank about his own pedestrian talents in the kitchen—he is (or was) a journeyman cook, and offers heartfelt advice to those just starting out about how to avoid his own missteps; all the while still being utterly unforgiving to those he sees as villains of the food world, from the leaders of the "slow food" movement to manufacturers of ground beef. Whatever else you think of him, Bourdain is always an entertaining read.

1 comment:

Swain said...

So, as I was looking for things to listen to on my iPod, I came across something that I thought might interest you, as it links together a number of your interests. Those being podcasts, conspiracy theorists, and mediocre literature. In the realm of podcasts, there is the subgenre of podiobooks, ie books which are released as serialized podcasts, rather than as full audiobooks. I found one called Republic: A Novel of America's Future by Charles Sheehan-Miles ( The podcasts are interesting, and read by the author, who, while he clearly isn't a trained voice performer, is no worse than some of the terrible audiobook readers out there.
The book itself is about America twenty years from now when the government has grown so large that it is becoming a police state designed to protect the financial interests of the wealthy elite, rather than the citizens.
It isn't a particularly good book, but as I've also started reading The Last Patriot, which is basically The DaVinci Code meets Jack Ryan meets Islam, I've started noticing what could be a trend towards a special brand of Tea Party lit.
Just thought I would let you know.