Like a lonesome cowboy and a wanderin’ hobo, I will soon be taking my leave of this humble island – for a month, that is. I survived Game of Thrones, I survived the semester, I survived many big editing projects. A childhood friend from Colombia came to visit, as did my sister (her first visit to the UK in thirteen years! As my uncle observed, Granny was only 89 then, as opposed to 102.) And now it is time for the wind to blow the empty husk of my body away *praying hands emoji* For twenty-six days, I shall be like a free man in Paris, unfettered and alive, nobody calling me up for favours and nobody’s future to decide. Blessed be. I don’t know how many more times in my life I’ll be able to take off like this so I’m going to enjoy and appreciate the hell out of it!
What, pray then, did I read over the past month and a half?
I read two sci-fi books, The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán and Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (the sequel to Ancillary Justice, which I read earlier this year). Bottom of the Sky is the more ‘literary’ of the two, a homage to Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick, in terms of content and style. I very much enjoy Fresán’s raw energy and enthusiasm, even though I found the main plot (a love story between two guys and a girl) kinda babyish.
Ancillary Sword I arguably enjoyed more. Much has been made out of Leckie’s “experimental” narration, in which gender isn’t specified; everyone is narrated as ‘she.’ This… isn’t that weird? I mean, come ON.
I like the central concept of the trilogy very much – it’s basically narrated from the point of view of an A.I., the central intelligence of an Iain Banks-esque spaceship, who becomes trapped in single human body (to put it very simply). I like the strangeness of Leckie’s narration a lot; she’s definitely created a world that feels very “other” – characters never nod or shake their heads, for example, they always gesture. And I like how Leckie is always specific about what language they’re speaking, what terms do and don’t translate. The themes of Rome-esque empire expansion and colonialism are also very cool, even if a bit heavy-handed at time. So yeah, I would recommend this one, with the caveat that I sometimes find it hard to understand what’s happening on the page – not because of the narration, but because I find myself craving just a bit more BASIC KNOWLEDGE about how things in this world ACTUALLY WORK. Like – how is the narrator able to communicate/watch the other soldiers on the ship, for example, when she’s no longer an A.I.? In this case, it’s like I basically just had to arbitrarily tell myself “okay, I guess this is a rule in this world, she can still watch her soldiers even though she’s no longer an A.I.” without having any idea of the LOGISTICS behind this. Like, can all captains of all ships do this, or just her, because of her A.I. nature? I WANT TO KNOW.
Anyway, I look forward to finishing the trilogy.
Books by people I vaguely know/am connected to
UGH, sometimes I suffer from a terrible ennui of trying to stay ON TOP OF MY READING, especially of books by people I know/am vaguely connected to/want to support, and sometimes it causes me TERRIBLE GUILT. Does anyone else ever feel that way??? There must be a word in Japanese or Icelandic that describes it. But I am not perfect; I am only human.
In any case, I was able to read Your Fault by Andrew Cowan, Mothers by Chris Powers, The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal and Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry. Your Fault is written by my former teacher, the first person who ever made me feel truly validated as a writer, like I was someone who had something worth saying, AND FOR THAT I WILL BE ETERNALLY GRATEFUL. So it pleases me to say that Your Fault is genuinely a deeply interesting and provocative book: narrated in the second person, with the narrator looking back on his life in 1960’s England, it’s an examination of masculinity, judgement, and shame.
Chris Powers and I share the same publisher, and his debut book Mothers a very strong collection of stories, with recurrent themes of travel and escape. The story set at the wedding in Mexico, in which a guy’s on-and-off secret lover is now the groom, was probably my favourite (who doesn’t love a hot illicit shame-inducing make-out session in the dark, amirite?). The Doll Factory is a historical thriller set in Victorian England and while historical fiction is not my thing (with the exception of Hilary Mantel), I REALLY enjoyed reading this; it was the perfect book to read during marking season, when I needed something relaxing and enjoyable to wind down with in the evening. It’s dark and Dickens-esque and has a good plot. And Stranger Baby was a poetry collection by one of my favourite poets, Emily Berry, an alumni from the same university as me, and was just as strong and memorable as I expected it to be (my favourite was this poem, which closes the collection).
Other books I read
Okay, now onto the “juicy” stuff. Lord of all the Dead by Javier Cercas was purchased by me (along with three other books – SO MUCH FOR MY BOOK BUYING BAN!!!) at a European-themed literature event, at which Cercas was in attendance. During the talk he spoke about his interest in writing about what truth means – what we want to hear versus what we want to tell, what should be written vs what needs to be written (yes, I took notes on my phone while he was talking – I am OBSESSED with this man, let me tell you. OBSESSED). He talked about how a common theme in his fiction is how to deal with the inheritance of the civil war, and if Soldados de salamis was a vindication of the best past of the country, then this book, Lord of all the Dead, is the acknowledgement of its worst. The book is about his mother’s cousin, a teenager who joined the Fasicsts at seventeen and died two years later in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. So basically, there’d always been this awkward shadow cast over Cercas’ youth – the fact that the family “hero” had been fighting for the “wrong” side, and had arguably died a pointless death. Can you be noble and pure and still fight for a mistaken cause? How can decent men be drawn to fascism? At the talk, Cercas said, (paraphrased from my notes):
“It’s quite easy to know what to do with the ‘good’ past. But what do we do with the bad past? Conceal it? Invent it? I thought when I was young, I could not deal with it – this family member who was a heroe in famly lore, a young man who went to war to save our family. We are our heritage. I am my family. I am my country. Know it. Acknowledge the complexity. Understand it. To understand is not to justify. To understand is the contrary – it gives you the instruments to not make the same mistakes. If you know your inheritance, you can understand it; you can control it. If not, it controls you and you repeat the same mistake. I write not to be written. I became a writer to avoid becoming the things that wanted to confine me.”
SO INTERESTING, no? The other aspect of the book I found super fascinating was its discussion of heroism. The title comes from the Odyssey, from a part in which Ulysses confronts Achilles in the underworld with Hades. Achilles is described as the perfect man, the ideal hero: someone who gave his life for a bigger cause, and died a “perfect death.” As the Greeks didn’t believe in heaven, Achilles would live on in the equivalent, in everyone’s memory: as man who did what should be done. Ulysses, on the other hand, is a man who grows old – the opposite of Achilles. And so we have two competing viewpoints of masculinity, of what it means to live a “good” life. And in the confrontation with Ulysses in the underworld, Achilles acknowleges that he has made a mistake: I would rather be humble and alive as opposed to lord of all the dead.
Powerful, fascinating stuff. Definitely my favourite book of this reading period.
The Lighthouse by Allison Moore and Nocturnes by the always reliable Kazuo Ishiguro were also two very strong reads. The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012 and published by the always reliable Salt Publishers (ugh, that’s another reading list I can never stay on top of – supporting the indies. THERE ARE TOO MANY BOOKS IN THE WORLD! TOO MANY! I CAN’T HANDLE THEM ALL!!!). Ahem. Anyway, Lighthouse was a strong read and I think I’m quickly becoming a big fan of Moore’s readable, understated style. The Lighthouse is a very ‘simple’ story on the surface level – the story of a man on a walking holiday in Germany – but it feels like there’s a lot more going on underneath – a terrible sense of dread and tension, an obsession with smells (the narrator’s job is manufacturing artificial scents), flashbacks of a weird quasi-incestuous relationship with the neighbour who becomes his stepmother. I think Moore is going to warrant a PhD thesis overview of her work one day.
I only just finished Nocturnes yesterday, in this weird period where I don’t want to start a book that I’m not going to be able to finish before I leave. I’d never read short fiction by Ishiguro before (are these the only short stories he’s ever attempted?) but I unsurprisingly really enjoyed this. There some very strong stories here, especially the third one, “The Malvern Hills.” I was surprised by the amount of SLAPSTICK and COMEDY in some of these stories (especially the second one) – who would have thought Ishiguro had it in him!!
I liked how most of the stories felt like metaphors for writing – in fact, I’m CONVINCED that’s what they are. The title story, ‘Nocturne,’ about a sax player who gets plastic surgery because his ex-wife thinks that’s what will make him successful, has a lot of interesting bits about what true talent is – what it means to be successful. And the last story, “Cellist,” about a self-professed “virtuoso” cell player who’s actually never touched a cello in their life, was also really powerful – Bolaño-esque in its considerations of what it means to be a “true” artist. The last paragraph, in which we glimpse someone in the future, bitter and twisted, is really affecting. And I like the Gatsby-esque position from which the story is narrated – by a band member who seems to find contentment and enjoyment in his art, even though he’s not super famous or “successful” in a way that mainstream capitalist society would recognise.
So overall, a truly enjoyable collection. I love that Ishiguro’s stories have such heart in them, and that he’s so obsessed with themes like regret and “the life not lived.”
Now I just need to decide what books I’m bringing with me in my suitcase… I might be REALLY strict and restrain myself to my Kindle, and The Makioka Sisters, and maybe one other ‘big’ book I can read on the plane…