Friday, January 30, 2009
As it was the festive season I took time off to ignore my google reader, get research done and then take a couple of days off with my wife over our anniversary (shock horror no internet access crazy!), I also went to Plett with my family before returning to Italy. As my South African sojourn ended there were flights and waits in airports (someone should write 'Doha: An Ode'). Consequently, I managed to read some books, mostly works of fiction, but there are a few non-fiction works sticking there hands up in the air awaiting a mention.
I tooka little time to read my ever-companionable and enjoyable Galactic Milieu series by Julian May. In combination with the May's Saga of Pliocene Exile it is basically a tale of felix culpa for one of the main characters, Marc Remillard. I love this series for no obvious reason, it involves 'higher mind powers', aliens intervening in Earth Civilization in the early 21st century and odd Catholic theology, but I still love the main characters and the storyline. A human who takes a singular leap forward in evolution and basically becomes a disembodied brain sustained by his mindpowers! I can't really fathom why I appreciate this series so much, I think it appeals to the fantasist in me.
After May's series, I read Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited which I had been intending to read for ages. My wife has a fantastic hard cover Everyman's library version. Although somewhat strange to get into at first (I don't seem to have much sympathy for Oxfordian life), I enjoyed the second half of the book greatly. The reflections on cultural degeneration, the issue of reconciling religion and death, of what it means to be married in pre-WWII England and what lovelessness within marriage entails was both disturbing and enlivening (enlivening because I sympathise, I suppose, with the problems with reconciling areligiosity and death). I recommend this book strongly.
Following this, I read Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. Wow! I love it. It is a phenomenal book. It is an alternative history that considers what might have happened in the US if, instead of FD Roosevelt winning the 1940 US Election, Charles Lindbergh had run as the Republican candidate and beaten FDR. It is told mainly from the perspective of 8-year-old Philip Roth. Roth has a total command of his conceptualisation of this alternative history and writes the details of it well, focusing on the experiences of a working class Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey. Although potentially difficult for some because of its weighty factual nature in certain sections, the writing pulls you through, and brings you to a better understanding of the United States. This is high quality social commentary from Roth.
Next up was another work of fiction, John Updike's Terrorist. Updike follows a few characters in this book, the two main characters are a young Islamic man, Ahmad, who was abandoned by his Muslim father and lives at home with his American liberal, nurse's assistant cum artist mother. The second main character is Jack, a Jewish teacher and counselor at Ahmad's high school who becomes invested in the idea of Ahmad going to university rather than becoming a truck driver. Reading the two reviews on Amazon that gave the book one star, I can't help but think they gave the book an odd reading. The one complains that it gives a unidimensional account of Muslims, it doesn't, in fact the whole purpose of the book is to portray the kind of Islam that a devout, almost obsessive teenager constructs in order to satisfy his own preferences. It also does not portray this Islam as the Islam practised by other Muslims, in fact Updike goes to great lengths to show the different shades of Muslims once could potentially find in the world setting Ahmad in opposition to his boss Mr. Chehab. Anyway, the book does not have the grace that I have experienced reading some of Updike's earlier work, but it is definitely a worthwhile read. I'd give it four stars, not one, because he portrays the character of Ahmad well, I believe, even if he doesn't deal with the religion in as nuanced a way as some might like. If I was comparing it only to Updike's own work, rather than the work of the rest of the world, I'd give it three stars. Here is an interview with Updike about the book. Here's another (video) interview.
E.M. Forster's Maurice was next up on my shelf. Amy had been recommending this to me for ages, we had previously found a copy in that fantastic bookshop on Kloof Street (the name of which I forget), Book Lover's Paradise I think. It had sat on the shelf, unread, while I was here in Italy (Amy had read it previously for a course at uni). The book is a beautifully written, and fantastically witty, depiction of the adolescent and young adult life of Maurice, a young man from an upper class, but not noble, British family. Maurice is homosexual. Forster protrays the struggles that Maurice goes through with forcible and graceful language, portraying both Maurice's limitations to his partners, his fall, his classism (which Maurice fails to realise is as bad as homophobia) and, finally, a sexual and mental awakening to the ways in which his homosexuality will affect his life. The book is highly meaningful as one of the first pieces of genuine 21st century 'gay' literature, as Forster completed the work in 1914 but it was only published posthumously. Forster's reflections on the laws in the UK, which he wrote as part of an afterword during the 1960s, also shows how worried and anxious he was about the state of the law in the UK and how he felt that homosexuality would never be granted the status that it now has. This book is beautiful, easy to read and the timbre of Forster's writing voice is well worth listening to.
Finally, completing the fiction, I bought Terry Brooks's The Gypsy Morph in the Exclusive Books of Cape Town International Airport and finished it by the time I arrived in London (having sat in Doha for five hours twiddling my eyeballs). So yes, I had time to finish that. This book was the finale in Brooks's 'The Genesis of Shannara' trilogy. I am an old fantasy and sci-fi hack and I took pleasure in reading this book. This is good journeyman fantasy, decent battles, magic, elves, etc with a final resolution that ties together the world of a post-apocalyptic 'Earth' and that of Shannara. It was like a decent action movie: enough battles and thrilling events to keep the story moving, tied in with a worthwhile, if somewhat simple, plot. Perfect for hours in Doha waiting for my Qatar airways flight.
Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is a collection of essays on bibliophiles and their behaviour, which is often profoundly strange, yet simultaneously entertaining and endearing. I am a bibliophile (hopelessly misunderstood by my parents in that respect - I love books and had to get rid of almost two bookshelves worth when I left the country to start my PhD - the horror, the horror (don't worry I didn't get rid of my Conrads), let it be known, though, that my parents allowed me to keep two bookshelves full of books in my old room). Anyway, Fadiman's book is fantastic, she ruminates on being a sesquipedalianist, she assesses the myriad ways we treat our books (I am a scribbler and write in both fiction and non-fiction books), she meditates on whether his'er would work as a substitute for his in the phrase to each his own (she concludes, emphatically, thankfully, that it would not). Fadiman's essay are witty and insightful. The book was a pleasure to read. My wife, who is possibly as bibliomaniacal (in the metaphorical rather than diagnostic sense) as I am, gave this to me as part of an anniversary gift. We truly are kindred spirits.
As promised previously, a comment on Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers warrants some space. There has been a fair amount of commentary on this book (which I don't feel like linking to, sorry). Gladwell brings together a host of case studies and various research to bring together his ideas about success. He argues that success is basically composed of luck and hard work. However, you also have to be lucky enough to realise that hard work is necessary for success, so that is also part of the luck component. Underpinning both of these, though, are institutional structures (my terminology), such as the cutoff dates at school, the transaction costs of changing from one school to another (low during the 50s and 60s, high now), the mobility between areas, and the recognition given to one group rather than another (i.e. to what extent race disadvantages you because of the institutional structures reinforcing your position). The book is interesting, but I didn't get anything substantially 'new' from it except for some case studies. The studies link the argument together well, but they don't really do anything to tell us about how to change the system, or how to change people's thinking about success, except to show them the evidence against them. Historically, this has not worked: many libertarians still seem to believe in absolute freedom of choice and that institutional constraints don't exist. The book is worthwhile because it brings academic debates to hoi polloi and will hopefully strengthen the understanding that individuals are constrained by history and luck and that 'ability' doesn't always just shine on through.
Lastly, Alex Perry's Falling off the Edge is possibly one of the worst edited books of non-fiction I have read in a long time. This doesn't detract too much from his arguments about globalization, inequality and the dangers inherent in these, but seriously: repeated sentences, misspelled words, incorrect concord. Ahhh!!! I kept track until I lost the bookmark on which I was keeping track of the errors. The book is still worthwhile and I learned a hell of a lot about China, India and several other Asian countries, as well as some things that I didn't know about South Africa. I disagreed with some of Perry's more dire conclusions, such as the potential for a left-wing revolution to overthrow Asia's largest governments (China, India). Maybe I just hoped that these conclusions are wrong. I don't know enough about the countries he discusses to tell whether his arguments hold water or not. Anyway, give it a read, it's written in a reportage style (Perry being Time Magazine's African correspondent), with image plates thrown in to iron off the rougher edges. It falls into my 'racy' non-fiction category.
Graham Greene's The Quiet American, Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun and hopefully Roberto Bolano's 2666 once my order from Amazon arrives.