February Superlatives

February! I started working at Heywood Hill. I followed the Jhalak Prize long list. In a perhaps not shocking turn of events, my to-read list grew significantly. I am beginning to worry about bookshelf space again. Not as many books this month—only fourteen update: fifteen! I forgot one!—but in a month as short as February, that’s a book every two days, which isn’t bad at all.

most whimsical: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the tale of a Danish woman’s travails in learning to drive as an adult, by Dorthe Nors. Poor Sonja; somehow her life has become something she never intended it to be, but she doesn’t know where she went wrong. It’s a fairly plotless book, but I think that suits its subject matter.

best short stories for people who don’t like short stories: Rick Bass’s beautiful, monumental collection from Pushkin Press, For A Little While. Bass writes stories the way Maxine Beneba Clarke does: they seem like miniature novels, tiny but perfectly formed and evocative, little jewels of description and characterisation. He writes like a dream on the sentence level, and his interest in the lost or confused people of the world is sincere and generous and kind. This collection is a marvel.

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THIS COVER. I DIE.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The Ghana/America splitscreen through the ages that you get in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Starting with two estranged sisters in eighteenth-century Asanteland, the novel follows each woman’s descendants through history. Comparing the lives of the Ghanaian branch of the family to the American branch over the centuries is fascinating—such a tiny difference to start with, but such a huge gulf in only a few years’ time—and the ending is crazy satisfying without being completely unrealistic.

so close! so close!: Irenosen Okojie’s short story collection Speak Gigantular, which has fantastic, surreal ideas rendered in a highly original way, but which is let down by a general failure on her publisher’s part to check for things like typos. It’s an amazing collection, and it could be even better with a little attention to detail.

most skillfully written: This is a tough one to award elsewhere while Rick Bass’s stories are on the list, but Kei Miller’s prose in Augustown is so controlled, so subtle, so confident in itself, that from the very first page you can feel yourself relaxing, knowing you’re in good hands. It’s a lovely feeling to have when you open a book, that total trust in the writer’s ability.

best book to give someone who “doesn’t read YA”: Patrice Lawrence’s novel Orangeboy, which is significantly better than many adult novels. Marlon’s teenaged attempts to protect his family are rendered with such sympathy and lack of judgmentalism, I think it’s a book a lot of young people (and those who work with them) should be reading.

most fascinating: Not a shadow of a doubt here: Black and British, David Olusoga’s overview of black British history. I guarantee that you will learn something new from it, and that this new thing will be, moreover, wildly intriguing and contradictory to the history you remember from school.

most accidentally forgotten: Do not make assumptions about the fact that, in the first version of this post, I forgot Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OK! It’s about a teenager who slowly comes to terms with the fact that, like her beloved and now dead father, she is an alcoholic. Nina’s situation is complicated by a trauma that happens at the beginning of the book and which she must acknowledge before she can begin to handle her alcoholism. Khorsandi is bitingly funny, sad, spirited, and never sentimental. I loved it.

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most grudgingly liked: I do not want to like the work of Paul Kingsnorth. It subscribes to a philosophy of back-to-nature manhood, unfettered by things like infants or women, that I find at best eye-roll-worthy, at worst destructive and juvenile. But his writing is none of these things; it is evocative, assured, and bold. His second novel, Beast, is about a man slowly unravelling on what seems to be Dartmoor. It’s short and very impressive.

best comfort read: The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett’s charming fable about what might happen if the Queen took up reading for pleasure. It’s so tiny and cute that you can read it in an hour, then go about the rest of your day with a small smile on your face. I particularly like the way Bennett characterises the Duke of Edinburgh—so succinct, so efficient!—through his curmudgeonly dialogue.

best reread: So, guys… whisper it. I didn’t really get all the love for The Essex Serpent when it came out. I mean, I liked the book, I thought the landscape and food descriptions were gorgeous, Perry’s writing is lush. But I also thought her first book hung together better, was a more perfect object, and I didn’t feel the same adoration for Cora and Will that lots of people seemed to. They were fine. I just didn’t love them. Then I read it again, really really slowly, over the course of about six weeks—mostly on my phone during five-minute bathroom breaks at the restaurant—and finished it this weekend, and although I still don’t feel fanatical about it, I think I understand it better.

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most serviceable thriller: I read William Shaw’s Kent-set murder mystery, The Birdwatcher, because it’s gotten a lot of love from people at work and it seemed worth checking out. It was perfectly acceptable, but my benchmark for thrillers/mysteries is now Tana French. Not many people can meet that standard—certainly not on the qualities of dialogue, descriptive writing and psychological depth—so, while Shaw’s book was a pretty solid example of the genre, and gripping as hell, it won’t knock French from her pedestal.

most evocative: Days Without End, Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning novel about nineteenth-century Irish-American soldiers John Cole and Thomas McNulty: best friends, brothers-in-arms, lovers. The way that Barry allows their relationship its proper dignity, the way that he balances maternal feeling with military prowess in the character of McNulty, the way that he writes about the American West, is both roughly beautiful and incredibly elegant. It reminded me a lot of True History of the Kelly Gang.

best holiday reading: My dilemma about what to take on a four-day trip to France was solved by my friend Helen, who recommended Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. It’s a long and thoughtful novel but it never fails to be interesting – on dance and the body, on opportunity, on girls and friendship and hateship and growing up, on selfishness and revenge. I know it’s had mixed reviews, but me, I really liked it.

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most pleasant surprise: Anthony Horowitz’s reboot of the Sherlock Holmes universe, The House of Silk. I bought it on my phone mostly because it was 99p, and read it because I didn’t fancy anything too involved given my levels of sleep-deprivation at the time. It turned out to be a pretty gripping and not ill-written book; maybe a little mannered, but then so is Conan Doyle, and Horowitz always has a sense of humour about the project. The dénouement could conceivably lay the book open to charges of homophobia, but I think Horowitz is aiming less at closeted men and more at men who exploit the powerless. Anyway, I enjoyed it.

up next: Currently reading Sand, another crime novel (I think I’m becoming old) by a German author called Wolfgang Herrndorf. It’s set in Morocco circa 1972 and extremely diffuse; only now, at 100+ pages in, do I feel I have a sense of what’s going on. Review to follow.

Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein

When you come right to it, it’s a lot easier to die than it is to use your head.

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This was the very last of my holiday reading books, although I had been back from my holiday for several weeks before I finished it. My friend JonBoy told me to read this years ago—I think we were still in high school when he recommended it—but my first exposure to it was from the movie made in 1997. What most people know is that the film is almost nothing like the book; Paul Verhoeven satirizes the military society that Heinlein describes, where only combat veterans are permitted to vote and the expansion of humanity across the stars is as god-given a right as Manifest Destiny was to the settlers of the American West. The book is still fascinating, though: indeed, its interest lies precisely in its extremely right-wing politics, because the thought processes behind this society are overwhelmingly rational. The problem with them is that they are founded on premises that we now (mostly) believe to be erroneous.

The book follows Johnny Rico, heir to an immense manufacturing fortune, who signs up for military service along with his best friend from high school, Carl. (One of the many things that’s different about the book: Rico barely sees Carl after they join up, and hears later that he’s been killed in action. In the film, the Carl character is played by Neil Patrick Harris and his ability as an empath makes him an increasingly scary rising star in military R&D.) In theory, Rico is being trained as an infantryman, a mud foot, a grunt—almost but not quite cannon fodder—to take part in wars against the Bugs. The Bugs are generally described as being arachnoid, but they’re not:

They are arthropods who happen to look like a madman’s idea of a giant, intelligent spider, but their organization, psychological and economic, is more like that of ants or termites; they are communal entities, the ultimate dictatorship of the hive.

(Spot the extreme manifestation of Communism! This was written in 1959 and you can kind of tell.)

There are workers, warriors, brains, and queens in Bug society. Workers are harmless and infantrymen don’t waste time or ammo on them. Warriors are the terrifying ones; brains and queens are both hidden underground. The ultimate aim of Rico’s final mission—and the primary focus of the 1997 film—is an attempt to capture either a brain or a queen, in order to learn more about them and possibly trade them for human captives.

What’s interesting about the book is the distinct impression you get that Heinlein really doesn’t care very much about his plot. The final mission, which is by far the most exciting section of the novel (apart from the in medias res first chapter), takes up about sixty pages in a book of 275. The vast majority of the rest of it is comprised of two things: detailed writing about life in the infantry and about the army in general, and expository chunks cunningly disguised as discussions in Rico’s History & Moral Philosophy classes. (The technique is a lot like the bits of Nineteen Eighty-Four that are supposed to be from Emmanuel Goldstein’s book.)

Amazingly, Heinlein makes both sorts of section interesting. Infantry training—any kind of military training—is primarily psychological. Heinlein himself graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis and was a naval officer, and although he’s writing about the army (and therefore has his characters evincing a tribal scorn for Navy men), the principles of training members of either service are very similar. When he writes about the techniques used to mould men into a fighting unit, you can see the beginnings of the political philosophy that shapes both Starship Troopers and, I think, the worldview of many right-wing voters:

It was the firm opinion of every recruit that this was sheer meanness, calculated sadism, fiendish delight of witless morons in making other people suffer.

It was not. It was too scheduled, too intellectual, too efficiently and impersonally organized to be cruelty for the sick pleasure of cruelty; it was planned like surgery for purposes as unimpassioned as those of a surgeon. Oh, I admit that some of the instructors may have enjoyed it but I don’t know that they did—and I do know (now) that the psych officers tried to weed out any bullies in selecting instructors. They looked for skilled and dedicated craftsmen to follow the art of making things as tough as possible for a recruit; a bully is too stupid, himself too emotionally involved, and too likely to grow tired of his fun and slack off, to be efficient.

The dogma that being cruel to be kind is effective in areas of life other than military training is what underpins things like “bootstraps philosophy”, harsh prison sentences for relatively minor misdemeanors (i.e. New York City’s “broken windows policy”), and welfare reform that disqualifies all but the most abjectly poverty-stricken from government assistance. The idea that the only people qualified to bring such policies to fruition are those clever enough to be disengaged is what spawns public servants like Michael Gove.

Not that a Gove figure has any place in the world of Starship Troopers, where you cannot even stand for office unless you have served a term of duty in the armed forces.

None of the rhetoric actually struck me as new or particularly horrifying for quite a long time, and given what I knew of Heinlein’s political reputation, I was surprised by this. Much of what he says makes a certain amount of sense even—especially—to the historically oppressed (e.g. non-white, non-male, non-cissexual people). Like this:

Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.

That’s one of Starship Troopers‘ most famous quotations, and if you look at it with thoroughly objective eyes, it is not wrong. Violence is our go-to solution, from the individual and immature (punch our brother for his toy truck) to the collective and political (invade a neighboring country for its oil). It’s not nice, and there do exist other ways of arbitrating disputes, but violence in one form or another is a trump card that either side of an argument always knows it can play.

What did make me flinch, and where Heinlein is pretty clearly working with facts we’d now consider outdated, is his defense of corporal and capital punishment. In a History & Moral Philosophy class, the instructor’s entire argument rests on the legitimacy of a simile between a misbehaving human youth and a puppy that needs training.

“These children were often caught; police arrested batches every day. Were they scolded? Yes, often scathingly. Were their noses rubbed in it? Rarely. News organs and officials usually kept their names secret—in many places the law so required for criminals under eighteen. Were they spanked? Indeed not! Many had never been spanked even as small children; there was a widespread belief that any punishment involving pain did a child permanent psychic damage…

“While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment—and pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution.”

This is a perfectly logical line of reasoning if the premise is sound—if it is in fact true that nothing is a better, more effective deterrent for children and young adults than physical pain and humiliation—but it isn’t true; every behavioral study we have on juvenile psychology supports the opposite conclusion.

I have always found it difficult to handle writing like this, because it feels too much like a free pass for bigotry if I just label it “old-fashioned” and consider it no more. The Chaos, when I mentioned it to him, made a helpful suggestion: that the difference between someone truly being “of their era” and someone being “objectively” racist, sexist, reactionary, etc. is how they react when confronted with contradictory evidence. I suppose you’d have to read interviews with Heinlein at a later stage in his life (he died in 1988) to determine whether his views adapted; I haven’t done that, so I can’t write him off as a libertarian loon just yet. And I would very much like to read Stranger In a Strange Land (themes: culture shock, colonialism, nature vs. nurture) and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (AI sentience, anarchy). Heinlein’s talent for explaining the subculture of the infantry, and the promising nature of his plot in Starship Troopers—even if he doesn’t make the most of it—suggests that his less overtly political novels might be real winners.