Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Books II

Posted by Simon Halliday | Tuesday, January 26, 2010 | Category: , , |

Here's the fiction and memoir section of this books post series. See Part 1 here. Gosh, it feels never-ending. Since writing most of this I've already finished several other books. Oh well, the next books post will arrive in early February, I'm sure. In the interim, enjoy this one.

Fiction & Memoir
Jill Ker Conway - A Woman's Education: A Memoir
The third book in Conway's autobiographical series, I do not believe it is as strong as the preceding two books. In the first book, The Road From Coorain, she detailed her life as a curious child who goes on to attend a private high school and later university, where she directly confronts sexist sentiments about academia and history. In the second book, True North, she arrives in Harvard and finds solace in the friends she makes while attending graduate school, researching, meeting her husband, and becoming the first female vice-president of a Canadian university. A Woman's Education lacks both the love of landscape and sense of attachment in The Road From Coorain and the strong undercurrent of growing feminist passion and life of True North. Instead, in A Woman's Education, Conway seems set to defend her presidency at Smith from those who might undermine her legacy there, a laudable position to take, but not that great as the basis for a book.

Though she defends her position well, the book did not enchant me as did the mythic tale of The Road From Coorain and the feminist quest of the True North. Maybe I feel this way because of something lacking in me, the book felt, nevertheless, like a pallid, stodgy conclusion to the bright and meteoric trajectories of the first two books. I did find parts of it engaging and interesting. I felt educated by what Conway believes constitutes a woman's education, and the methods required to marshall its growth and sustenance. Conway informed me about what is required for university administration, and for the basic sustenace and promotion of professional academic living. Finally, Conway's resoluteness to stop, to end her professional administrative career impressed me greatly - she could have gone on, but she chose to return to writing, to academia, to history, the products of which we observe in The Road From Coorain, True North and A Woman's Education. Collectively they make a formidable legacy of a woman who evidently contributed so much of her life and passions to edify women.

Simon Armitage - The White Stuff
Having only read Armitage's poetry previously, much of which is dark though often witty, The White Stuff felt like a great departure from his poetry. Nevertheless, it's an amusing book in which he conjures a couple who play out British stereotypes, both between themselves and amidst their friends. Little twists in the tale provide even funnier results, and also expose the patterns of intimacy in marriage and parenting. From depicting a trip to Ikea (very funny) to discussing semen (the eponymous 'white stuff'), to exposing the travails of attempting and navigating historic adoption, and to charting the meaning of intimacy with your neighbours, Armitage's novel makes a diverting, decently-written and enjoyable trip into the heartland of Britain. Though it didn't change my world, I chortled, smiled and enjoyed it. It doesn't meet the strengths of Armitage's poetry, but it's still fun. So have a read if you want something comedic, but nothing near as serious, or occasionally depressing, as Armitage's poetry.

Kazuo Ishiguro - A Pale View of Hills
A Pale View of Hills is the first book by Ishiguro that I've read, having intended to read him for quite some time [I've also subsequently read most of Never Let Me Go, which I went on to leave in South Africa having about 80pages left! AHHH!]. The book deals reverently with the life of a Japanese woman and her child as they live in post-Hiroshima Japan. Ishiguo intersperses the story with a contemporary interaction between a mother and daughter in the UK, and you spend part of the book trying to work out the specific connection between that narrative strand and the strand in Japan. Ishiguro writes quite sparsely - both his dialogue and his descriptive prose are tightly written, not too Hemingwayesque, but still the words are knitted tightly together and the plot - as much of it as there is - felt well-devised. I don't want to go into detail about the plot, suffice to say that it requires you to pay attention from start to finish to the clues that Ishiguro places here and there as to the exact tale he wishes to construct. I would strongly recommend this book to most people, though at first his style may take getting used to for some readers.

Raymond Carver - Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories
Because this contains essays it could also be 'non-fiction' but let's put it here nevertheless because the majority of the work in the book is either poetry or short stories. I have some of Carver's other collections What we talk about when we talk about love, Elephant and Cathedral and these two collections defined and altered my understanding of what constitutes a short story. An unsurprising revelelation considering the effect that critics believe Carver's writing has had on subsequent writers.

Anyway, this short collection brings together a diverse set of works, some of which appear in the collections I already own, others, the essays particularly, that I had not seen before. I appreciated the essays particularly as they revealed a side of Carver's writing that I had not encountered before, a part of him that shows his appreciation for his family and his mentor, John Gardner. Such appreciation obviously cannot be, and is not, displayed in his prose and poetry, but seeing an honest personal evaluation of his writing and to those he owes his debts was fantastic. I found his discussion of influences particularly apt - he differentiates between those writers, musicians and other artists whose work appeals to us and whose work and thinking we try to incorporate into our own, from the actual physical and emotional influences that affect us more than anything else, in Carver's case an early marriage and children when he was a teenager. Please read the essay; my summary does not do his ideas justice. If you have not encountered Carver before, either his prose, poetry or essays, then this is a good place to start to begin a relationship with a great writer.

Lionel Shriver - We Need to Talk About Kevin
Structured as series of letters to her husband, the narrator tells us the tale that leads to her son committing a Columbine-style killing at his high school. Don't worry, you know this from the outset as it's mentioned on the blurb and in numerous reviews. The interesting part of the story is the way in which the Shriver tells the story and in how the narrator weaves together a story about her son's eventual violence with a love/marriage story about her relationship with her husband and that relationship's vicissitudes.

The book also centres around the nature v. nurture debate, and, specifically the extent to which 'evil' is in-born, or is developed, activated, or cultivated. It also made me think extensively about the effects of peers and parents on a child who is intelligent, often intransigent, and decidedly self-reliant and self-determining. It's quite possible that there's remarkably little you can do as a parent, except control the peers to which your child is exposed, but that in itself becomes a battleground - what right do parents have to exert such control? I think that evil, the extent to which it develops, matures or coheres in acts in the people who commit those acts fascinates Shriver. Shriver seems to take the position of an adjudicator trying to play out scenes that will test people and to use her characters to plat out her own potential responses (if you choose to read into it, forgive me the vice). In Kevin, it seems as though Shriver asks what a mother would do, could do and should do in a situation where her child ends up committing mass murder. What does society expect of the mother? Do her child's action imply that she parented poorly? To what extent do her child's actions mirror her own vanities and insecurities, or at least perform to them? Shriver deals with all of these gracefully, and in a way that most people should access and reflect upon easily. Reading the book after my wife, Amy, had read it inspired many conversations about having children (we remain unresolved), what having children implies about the responsibilities of parenthood to both the child and to society at large, and all kinds of other keep-you-up-at-night stuff. Amy and I also spent substantial time discussing the feminist implications of the book - Shriver discussing the woman's body during pregnancy and motherhood, or her feelings about sex, intimacy and parenting and the acceptance of birthing a violent child. All fascinating, and all of which recommend the book, but also which make it doubly disturbing for those who are considering becoming parents, or are the parents of obdurate children.

The book fascinated me because I don't feel as though Shriver tried to write literary fiction, as some authors try so hard to do, instead she wrote about a topic that fascinated her in a way that some could interpret as literary (while others profoundly object). Nevertheless, the book's achieves success both because it resonates with many as parents and because it marks a moment in feminism where a woman grapples with many of the problems that still plague heterosexual couples in contemporary society. For me, the book failed because of Shriver's characterisation of the husband, Franklin, who often appeared utterly stupid and occasionally bland. Shriver did not convince me that her main character, Eva, would actually feel attracted to, or at least remain attracted to, Franklin. Maybe I have failed to imagine something here, or maybe I've got too Gen-Y a notion of relationships, but it didn't work for me and was the one place where I felt the book could be strengthened. Other than that, go and read it, spend time speaking about it, be disturbed by it.

Lionel Shriver - Double Fault
Where We Need to Talk About Kevin was intriguing and terrifying, Double Fault was pettier and less grave, though the main characters were equally flawed. It felt like a practice novel to me, a lead-up for an author who would eventually write We Need to Talk About Kevin. To a large extent some of the dynamics are similar - a love story realized, yet which begins to unwind from the internal and external pressures that press in on it. Whereas Kevin is a tale of horror eventually realised, Double Fault seems more like a jerky sliding, combined with the occasional sticky place of potential renewal. If anything, I would recommend the book as part of a method study to understand the path that an author takes to writing. Every novel is a learning experience, and the writing of this novel must have lent some sense of the research and some sense of the damaging aspects of love and self-love that also populate Kevin. Consequently, I would only recommend the novel to two groups of people: 1) those passionate about novels with tennis as a backdrop, 2) those interested in what Lionel Shriver was doing before she wrote Kevin. Otherwise, I don't think I'd bother.

E.M. Forster - Where Angels Fear to Tread
I struggled to get into the novel, unsure of where Forster was trying to take me: was it a novel about an Englishwoman in Italy, or a novel about her oddly controlling English family, or a novel about cultural clashes of some kind? Notwithstanding my initial uncertainty, I continued to read, eventually understanding that the novel is 'about' the development of two initially peripheral characters Miss Jones and Mr Herriton.

So, on to what I thought of the novel. The novel is short, so the initial confusion was brief and not too worrisome. My advice to potential readers, get past the first two chapters and enjoy the unfurling of the subsequent drama, the clash of bigotries and people, the strange inadequacies and idiosyncracies of the characters' perceptions of what constitutes and informs the good, and more. That said, I was nowhere near as satisfied with Angels as I was with other Forster novels, e.g., Maurice, parts of Angels fell flat, Forster's imagined San Gimignano (Monteriano) was arbitrary and he may as well have used the actual city itself. Also, if you've lived in Italy for any amount of time (which I have), then the gross simplifications of and the perpetuation of stereotrypes about its people, its form of patriarchy, and its culture are worryingly bigoted. I understand and acknowledget that Forster created the comparison to contrast vividly the dark shades of a passionate Latin culture with the white sterility of early twentieth century British culture. But, it seems to me that Forster creates a false dichotomy - I am not convinced that a 'civilized' culture necessarily lacks passion, nor that a passionate culture necessarily lacks civility, maybe I've read too much Coleridge and Keats and think that even within 19th and 20th century Britain there must have been underlying passions, veiled sexual tension, and the screams of love and joy beneath the rudiments of 'civilization'. I'd recommend reading the book nevertheless, because it won't take much time and it serves as a comparison to some of Forster's stronger work.

Terry Goodkind - Phantom
Somewhat entertaining fantasy, with not so veiled libertarianism/objectivism thrown in, consider the following choice quotation, "For the delusion of the common welfare, in the form of lofty slogans and vacuous notions that incite the feckless rabble into nothing more than a mindless lust for the unearned, everything good and noble will be sacrificed, deadening civilized men into little more than an organized mob of looters." (117-118). But they also contend that man's 'inherent wickedness' is part of this belief, which is an oddly non-communist belief, but rather a belief of many conservatives of the Bernard Mandeville persuasion. Oh well...

Apart from the preachiness of Richard, of which there was more than in any of the previous Sword of Truth novels, the story progressed well I just think that he could have cut most of the bad philosophy and just written the book. Instead of 'showing' he was 'telling' - if you really want me to believe in Objectivism (a tough sell indeed) then show me why it is better, don't tell me by having your characters suddenly starting to ram bad monologues down my throat. Ayn Rand tried that and it did not work, except for some crazy, zombie-like minority of people who really don't have a sufficient understanding of moral philosophy to know why objectivism falls flat. Noting which, Goodkind, on his website, argues that philosophy is at the centre of how people live - yes indeed it is. But again, if people live consistent with a philosophy, then witnesses will see their actions and believe there is something good about those actions, and maybe try to replicate them. But, when people become self-righteous, pissy and rantish, that's when people go 'Sorry? Once you were cool, oh well...' Terry Goodkind, once back in the days of Wizard's First Rule, you were cool. No longer. Even with your millions and the television rights of your book series sold [Don't even get me started on the heinousness of the television series.]

Terry Goodkind - Confessor
Worse than Phantom. More preaching, less showing, bad overuse of Deus ex machina 'How did you appear here right now exactly when I needed you? It must be um... your need to be FREE!' Um no. Bad writing. I don't want to spoil the hilariously bad plot for you, I'd rather recommend you don't read it. Oh wait, I do want to spoil one thing.

[Spoiler Alert]

Goodkind pulls a blatant 'I'm going to continue this series using parallel earths and by introducing the planet Earth in the future' I found out after reading Confessor that Goodkind did almost exactly like that with his next book 'Law of Nines' in which the main character Alex Rahl (yes, really) finds out about another planet, exactly like his, but with magic and stuff. Um... Come on Goodkind, enough with the plagiarism already - we had decent versions of this from Terry Brooks, Guy Gavriel Kay, and many others. So let's find a quote from you, Terry Goodkind, about the immorality of stealing another's property, ahh there we go, "Instead of creating something worthwhile, they want to steal what others have created." Hmm... sounds familiar?

Currently have 2 comments:

  1. Oh you MUST read Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day - it's just superb.

    And you have an "understund"

  2. Indeed, it is one of the many on my list.

    Thanks for the sp. suggestion :-) That's quite understud.