Son of Reading Diary round-up

Again–more for me than you. Enjoy ’em, though.

Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon: Apparently Stapledon was genuinely surprised when people started telling him he’d written a “science fiction novel”, which actually makes perfect sense once you’ve read it because it’s not really a novel at all. Star Maker‘s closest generic ancestor is the medieval dream vision; like Chaucer’s narrators, Stapledon’s (never named) is vouchsafed a long journey into the heart of cosmic truth. There’s not much in the way of plot or character development, which hampers a reader’s ability to care, although Stapledon’s theology and conception of universal history (and obsession with “community”) is intellectually interesting. Worth reading, though, mostly because he anticipates huge numbers of science fictional tropes, including the Prime Directive.

Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts: A combination of Golden Age of SF and Golden Age of Crime elements into one occasionally frustrating, though generally satisfying, whole. Written in three parts–one a prison breakout mystery, one a whodunnit, and one a locked-room case–the novel’s overarching plot doesn’t quite come together (and by the book’s end I still didn’t feel convinced, as the jacket assured me I would, of the righteousness of the murders). The solutions are ingenious, if also fairly bonkers. This is my first Roberts novel and I’m not totally sold, but I’ll pick up more.

Sibilant Fricative: Essays and Reviews, by Adam Roberts: One thing I am sold on is Roberts’s criticism, though, which is funny and incisive. The best thing in this collection is probably his critical read-through of the entire Wheel of Time sequence, which, if you don’t remember it, absolutely dominated bookshelves of a certain ilk in the ’90s and consists mostly of painful attempts to recreate a Tolkien-esque atmosphere which fail because they’re not grounded in anything like intellectual coherence. Roberts’s increasing despair is articulated with precision and force. He’s also good on Philip K Dick, Neal Stephenson, Ursula K LeGuin and Tolkien himself.

The Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke: A pivot to a different genre thanks to my library expedition. This is the first of Burke’s New Orleans-set detective novels featuring Dave Robicheaux; it starts with a warning from a death row inmate due to be executed in three hours, proceeds through a series of frequently violet set pieces exposing gang violence and US government complicity in selling weapons to oppressive regimes in Central America, and concludes with our hero vindicated, though wiser, and having picked up a hottie along the way. It’s magnificent: southern Gothic meets urban noir. Clearly written in the ’80s (the love interest’s eyes are “childlike” a little too often), but I have high hopes for the rest of Burke’s canon and plan to read The Tin Roof Blowdown, set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, next.

That was a lot of male authors (and the forthcoming entry in 20 Books of Summer happens to be William Shakespeare, which doesn’t help). I’m currently reading Kate Atkinson’s new novel, though–Big Sky–and can confirm that a) she’s at the top of her game right now, and b) no previous Jackson Brodie experience is necessary.

If you like what I write (and I freely concede that this particular reading diary entry may have been of no use to you at all, but maybe it diverted you from spreadsheets for a minute or two), why not buy me a coffee?

Library Checkout!

I’ve started using my local public library a lot more recently, thanks in large part to this rather magnificent Twitter thread from Secret Library Gorgon. It reminded me that I do, in fact, possess an Islington Libraries card, and that until two weeks ago, I had only used it once in the course of nine or ten months. So I went down to the library a fortnight ago, borrowed five books (most of which were mentioned in my last reading roundup post), and had a whale of a time.

They were all due back today (one of the most embarrassing things about my relative virginity as a public libraries user is that I was genuinely unsure whether that meant I could return them at any time today, or whether I had to return them by the time it became today, e.g. yesterday. For anyone else similarly struggling: it is the former.) Duly, I returned them and immediately borrowed seven more:

One of the very nicest things about a public library is its free-ness. This should be obvious, but it allows for all sorts of experimentation in one’s reading that would be harder to defend if spending of actual cash were required. My job does provide me with a lot of free books, but these come from publisher’s reps and, as proof copies, are in the nature of “previews” of the things they’re going to be releasing this season. If I happen to want to read something published longer ago than, say, six to eight months, the reps are unlikely to have proof copies (though sometimes miracles do occur—reprint editions, how I love thee), and I will have to spend money on it in order to possess it. My staff discount from Heywood Hill is extremely good—we can buy books at cost price, more or less, which in practice generally means at least 45% discount and sometimes as much as 55%—but it’s still, you know, money.

I am, as you can probably see from the above pile, trying to expand my knowledge of iconic crime and science fiction, and it is much easier to do that when I don’t have to spend money on a book whose quality I can’t predict, precisely because my knowledge base in that genre is currently limited. I’m also trying to fill some of my classic literature gaps; these are probably smaller than most people’s, by the nature of the degree that I did, but with the best will in the world, even after three years of reading the Anglophone canon, one is going to have missed some things. And I’m being guided, in a vague sort of way, by the Guardian’s Top 1000 Novels list (although the more I examine it, the more I realize that it is noticeably biased, though the nature of that bias has yet to clarify itself. It contains, for instance, five novels by Michael Dibdin and three by Ian Fleming in the “crime” subcategory, which is itself composed of 146 titles. Even his champions will probably balk at the notion that Ian Fleming, neither the world’s greatest stylist nor its greatest plotsmith, wrote three—three!—entirely indispensable books. I have read two of the listed, Goldfinger and Casino Royale. Only the latter has a claim to that kind of significance, and its claim is mainly historic. The former is not even particularly good.)

Tangents aside, this is what I’ve come away with this time:

  • The Drowned World, by JG Ballard [on the Guardian list]
  • Non-Stop, by Brian Aldiss [on the Guardian list]
  • Sorcerer To the Crown, by Zen Cho [on my personal to-read list for years]
  • The Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke [on the Guardian list]
  • Blood Shot, also published as Toxic Shock, by Sara Paretsky [on the Guardian list]
  • Shirley, by Charlotte Brontë [on the Guardian list]
  • How Do You Like Me Now?, by Holly Bourke [recommended by my trustworthy colleague Faye]

Anyone read any of these, or want to? What should I read first? I’ve never read any of these authors before, except for Brontë, obviously.

Rebecca at Bookish Beck runs a regular Library Checkout feature, from which I’ve snitched this post title; the most recent one is here.

If you like what I write, why not buy me a coffee?

Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry

Popocatepetl volcano from Mexico City

I’ve just finished reading Under the Volcano, and I have to say it’s one of the most immersive fictional treatments of alcoholism I’ve ever read. It’s also quite stylistically tricky (which is why it took me nearly a week to read it, despite it only being about 375 pages). That said, it also keeps cropping up on Best-Novels-of-the-20th-Century and Best-Novels-Ever-Ever-Ever lists, so I figured it had to have something going for it, and bought it at the Gloucester Green bookstall intending to find out what that was.

An excellent strategy for reading this, by the way, is to use Chris Ackerley’s online and illustrated Companion to Under the Volcano. Think of it as a bunch of hypertextual footnotes–the one thing that most editors of Lowry’s novel, contemporary as it is, generally eschew. I didn’t discover Ackerley’s compendium before reading, but I suspect that when I read again with the Companion, a lot of things will be more clear.

Despite being tricky, Under the Volcano is strangely gratifying for a number of reasons, one of which is that the craziness of the prose works to mirror the degeneration that alcoholism produces in the brain. The main character is an ex-British Consul in Mexico named Geoffrey Firmin. His estranged wife, Yvonne, returns to him after spending a year away, and his half-brother Hugh arrives in town on the same day–the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday for the remembrance of family members and loved ones who have died. Over the course of the day, Firmin (aided and abetted by his staggeringly intense alcoholism) destroys his last chances of reuniting with his wife, who loves him and whom he loves, and ends up being killed (not really a spoiler, since the first chapter makes it quite clear) in an altercation with Fascist thugs at a bar. So it doesn’t end happily. But there are some intensely wonderful descriptions of the effect of booze: Firmin feels “the fire of the tequila run down his spine like lightning striking a tree which thereupon, miraculously, blossoms.”

The most depressing element of the book, however, is Firmin’s sheer helplessness in the face of his addiction. A dozen times, he comes so close to salvation, and a dozen times his efforts self-destruct:

“Nevertheless the desire remained–like an echo of Yvonne’s own–to find her, to find her now, to reverse their doom, it was a desire amounting almost to a resolution…Raise your head, Geoffrey Firmin, breathe your prayer of thankfulness, act before it is too late. But the weight of a great hand seemed to be pressing his head down. The desire passed. At the same time, as though a cloud had come over the sun, the aspect of the fair completely altered for him [;] the Consul needed a drink…”

A key to the self-inflicted misery of the whole thing lies in one of the epigraphs, which comes from John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding:

“Now I blessed the condition of the dog and toad…for I knew they had no soul to perish under the everlasting weight of Hell or Sin, as mine was like to do. Nay, and though I saw this, felt this, and was broken to pieces with it, yet that which added to my sorrow was, that I could not find with all my soul that I did desire deliverance.”

It’s a brilliant assessment of the insidious grasp of addiction upon the mind: we can know that we should change, we can know what we should want, and still find that we cannot–physically cannot–want it with all our hearts. It’s Firmin’s tragedy, in the end. He loves his wife, but the real love of his life is mescal.

The Mexican Day of the Dead adds to the surreal atmosphere, as does a style which jumps back and forth between tenses, memory and action within the space of the same sentence. It’s difficult to quote too much of it, because the effect of Under the Volcano is best grasped when you read paragraphs of the stuff. Suffice to say that the stream-of-consciousness [I hate that phrase but it’s convenient] frequently produces a feeling of drunkenness in the reader herself–like when you’ve had just one too many and your focus doesn’t move as quickly as your vision does, so that moving your head is like dragging the room, slowly and blurrily, past your eyeballs. And every so often, some small detail leaps out at you:

“Do you realize that while you’re battling against death, or whatever you imagine you’re doing, while what is mystical in you is being released…do you realize what extraordinary allowances are being made for you by the world which has to cope with you?”

And that’s the virtue of Under the Volcano: it may make Geoffrey Firmin sympathetic, a romantic hero even, but its ultimate purpose is to enforce an awareness of the extraordinary allowances addicts demand. The tragedy is that the world mostly isn’t prepared to make those allowances, and the addict mostly isn’t equipped to give up demanding them. Under the Volcano is difficult and abstruse at times, but it also rewards the reader, ultimately, with that revelation–which makes the whole thing worthwhile.

[PS: I read this with the aid of the most awesome things I’ve encountered for some time: mini Post-it flags. They are the best: instead of underlining something and then forgetting which page it’s on, you can underline something and then stick the flag on the edge of the page. Pure brilliance. Get them.]