Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent

Well, you see, I knew this man. This man was very confident. He was a great speaker, a fluent and funny man. Actually, maybe not funny. He wasn’t funny. He was witty – acerbic even.  And he was tall and wore black (you know, that might have been a clue, had I been looking for clues) even in summer. Not ‘Man in Black’ type black, but a lot of black, a lot of the time.

I wanted to win this man’s attention. I wanted him to think well of me. Did I mention he was very good-looking? Well he was, but that wasn’t particularly germane – it was his intellectual calibre that mattered most. You see, he seemed rather dismissive of me; he didn’t seem to rate my intellect as highly as I did his.


Looking back, what this man didn’t like about me was everything that made me and my life worthwhile. He didn’t like what I read – he particularly didn’t like H E Bates and Nabakov and Colette, all the earthy, vital, life-enhancing writers (well, I accept that Nabakov is somewhat dubious as ‘life-enhancing’ and maybe not even earthy, but vital, yes … read Lolita and feel America thrum through their mad road trip like an electric current) I loved. He didn’t like that fact I wore red. He didn’t like it when I laughed.

He suggested I read Simenon and Conrad. He didn’t go quite as far as suggesting I buy a black roll-neck sweater and read Ginsberg, but he wasn’t far off. I think the only reason we didn’t get to the sweater moment is that it would have hidden my cleavage which was largely on display when he was around. He did like my cleavage.

I liked Simenon – in translation and in the original French. I didn’t notice at the time that the man didn’t appreciate that I could read Simenon in French – but he didn’t like it at all, it turned out. He couldn’t read French, you see.

I didn’t get on so well with Conrad. I tried. I really tried. But both The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness were so unremittingly unpleasant that I struggled to feel any connection to the narrative at all. I liked the brevity of Conrad’s prose and I found the subject matter he chose powerful. There’s no way that you could have visited most African states in the 1990s, but Somalia and Niger in particular, and not have found Heart of Darkness surrounding you whenever you stepped out of the International airport terminal. I went to those places, and I saw Conrad’s fiction in reality.

I got the man. He wasn’t worth it. His cool rationalism extended into his (lack of) emotional life. It was like spending time with an alabaster egg: smooth, cool, pale, attractive - ultimately purposeless. Looking back, I can’t even remember him, only the desire I had to win his attention, which, once achieved, was a worthless achievement.

The man went. The book goes too….

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Amin Maalouf – The First Century After Beatrice

I have been distracted from posting by (a) needing to do the mundanities of moving house (b) the necessity to be writing. And yet the books must go, and soon. Onward then, to the shelves.

I first read this book as part of a high level think-tank exercise. The think-tank, composed of a number of thinkers of international high renown, was looking at population and migration and this book, along with a whole stack of tomes from Malthus to UNHCR reports, was the grist from which we were supposed to mill … something.

I’m not sure we milled anything very much. But this elegant little fable certainly had an effect on me. Two things struck me very strongly – the first was the lyricism of the relationship between an anonymous entomologist who falls in love with a free-spirited woman. It is a love story of the most unusual type, in that it defies most conventions of relationships and writing about love, and it works on a prickly, sometimes disturbing, level. The second was the parable of economics that results from the scarcity of a product. In this case, the scarce product is young women, and it results from consumer choice – a form of bean, readily available and affordable, allows poor families to only have boy children. Their choice, inevitably and inexorably, is to do so – but the effect of the bean is irreversible. When a couple have their first boy child, they find they cannot have anything else … so who will produce the girls for those boys?

I don’t want to destroy the value of this book by spoilers, but it’s a fantastic exercise in terms of how, with extreme brevity, it explores the role of choice, the nature of gender bias and the way that commodification destroys humanity, on the individual and the global scale.

A keeper.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

John Varley – The Gaea Trilogy

I am totally thrown of balance to discover that the third book in the trilogy is missing. We took all the books off one of the floor to ceiling stacks a few weeks ago, and I wasn’t the person who replaced them. I know the book is here, in the house, I just don’t know where. I have hunted, but not as thoroughly as necessary. It will turn up.

Doubly thrown off balance. Just went to look at Varley’s website to calm myself down – found his list of read books. It almost exactly mirrors a large part of my own bookshelf. Okay, he’s short on 19th century literature, Russian and French short stories in translation and garden books but … well, let’s take a look.

John Varley read:

HEMINGWAY'S CHAIR by Michael Palin – nope

GLITZ by Elmore Leonard – nope, but I read a lot of Leonard

THE BOYFRIEND by Thomas Perry (not yet, but I am possibly the biggest Perry fan in the UK, it’s on my wishlist when I get some cash)

A CASE OF NEED by Michael Crichton – nope – but I have a lot of Crichton on my shelves

AH, TREACHERY! by Ross Thomas - nope

HARK! by Ed McBain - yup

WODEHOUSE ON CRIME by D.R. Bensen – not this edition but there ain’t not nothin’ Wodehouse I ain’t read!

GUILT by Jonathan Kellerman - yup

SUSPECT by Robert Crais - yup


THE RIPTIDE ULTRA-GLIDE by Tim Dorsey - nope

THE BIG BAMBOO by Tim Dorsey - nope

BOWL OF HEAVEN by Greg Benford and Larry Niven – yup

THE TEMPLE OF GOLD by William Goldman - yup

THE BIG PICTURE by William Goldman - yup

TELEGRAPH AVENUE by Michael Chabon – nope, but it’s only my list

NOCTURNE by Ed McBain - yup

THE FOURTH DURANGO by Ross Thomas - nope

FATHER'S DAY by William Goldman - nope

SLEIGHT OF HAND by Kate Wilhelm - nope

A WRONGFUL DEATH by Kate Wilhelm - nope


TALK TALK by T.C. Boyle – yup, and it’s a big fat keeper to come on this blog

SUNSTROKE by Jesse Kellerman – nope but I read Jonathan and Faye Kellerman until I was cured of my Kellerman Jones about three years ago.

I find that spooky – in a good way.

So, Demon, Wizard and Titan – the Gaea Trilogy. There’s world-building and world-building. Is Varley the Best Writer in America as Tom Clancy says? I don’t know. Is the best world-building writer ever? In my view he’s up there with Ray Bradbury, Ursula K le Guin, Brian Aldiss and Frank Herbert – and that’s prestigious company to keep.

I was stunned by the complexity of Varley’s female characters at a time when little sf or even sff had women in it, even one dimensional women. There was Le Guin, of course, and Octavia Butler and Anne McCaffrey but they were lone voices, each clear and true but each singing a solo part in a different hemisphere of the science fiction/fantasy universe. Against them was ranged a mass choir of bloke fiction. And then there was Varley. Gods bless him.

Rocky (Cirocco) Jones is a real heroine, bloody, flawed and believable. The world in which she finds herself (a hollow torus habitat created by a world-building creature: Gaea) is unbelievable, but at each incredible turn, Varley pulls the skew-whiff sense of surrealism back to a bedrock starting point. It’s very simple; Gaea adapted her world to what she learned of ours. However nasty the surprises, Rocky and her companions have humanity to thank for them.

It’s dazzling, it’s funny, it’s thought-provoking, it has a sixty foot tall Marilyn Monroe … it’s clearly a keeper!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Frances Ferguson – Identity Unknown

I have no memory of reading this book. 

I have no idea why I still have it on my shelves. 

It’s history.