Iain M. Banks: Consider Phlebas (Culture)
Iain M. Banks's Consider Phlebas is usually identified as a space opera, a play on the term soap opera, that suggests the dramatic, sometimes melodramatic, action that characterizes these kinds of books. If that's all Banks were offering us it would not be of much interest, at least to me. What saves it from action movie-style dullness is Banks's world-building, or more accurately, universe building. The book is the first of a series about "The Culture," a future society dispersed over the universe that is sort of Scandinavia on steroids, a society where all material needs (and wants) are met, where people are free to devote themselves to their pleasures, and where decision-making is done on a purely rational basis by sentient machines with much more brain power than mere human beings will ever have. The problem is, there is one desire the culture is unable to meet: the need human beings have not to feel useless. To address this the Culture practices what some of its members call "secular evangelistm": interfering in the histories of other cultures they encounter to bring them, willingly or not, around to the Culture's way of seeing and doing things. Unsurprisingly, this leads to war--though the Culture is ostensibly devoted to peace and opposed to the unreason that is war. This book is devoted to the war between the Culture and the Idirans, "a religiously inspired society determined to extend its influence over every technologically inferior civilization in its path regardless of either the initial toll of conquest or the subsequent attrition of occupation." And the war sets up the space opera in which the protagonist is actually an enemy of the culture with whom Banks skillfully makes us sympathize and who follows a winding path through a variety of worlds and adventures, worlds and adventures that are in every way satisfying.
Thomas R. H. Havens: Marathon Japan: Distance Racing and Civic Culture
This book is only for the running-obsessed. The eyes of all others will surely glaze over when turning the pages and (sometimes repetitious) pages of detailed accounts of Japanese athletes' achievements in various domestic and international events over the years—not only marathons, but also, in Japan, ekiden. Eyes may pop open briefly here and there if, for example, one hadn't realized that prior to the advent of the Africans in the 1990s the Japanese had been a real force in marathon running (between 1961 and 1970 fifty-two of the 100 fastest marathon times were by Japanese) or if one hadn't noticed that running is extraordinarily popular among the Japanese masses (302,000 runners, including me, applied for an entry in the Tokyo Marathon in 2014).
Although there are occasional stabs at analysis and interpretation, one leaves the book feeling like it is a job half done. Havens has the data—boy does he! Now he, or another scholar, needs to go to work on figuring out what it all means.
Assata Shakur: Assata: An Autobiography
Assata Shakur is an African American revolutionary currently living in exile in Cuba after escaping from an American prison. Her name's been in the news a bit lately because one of the arguments against the USA normalizing relations with Cuba is that they harbor terrorists, and when the the American right make this argument, Assata Shakur is usually the terrorist they are talking about.
It's hard to know if she is guilty of the crime for which she was being held at the time of her escape, the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper. She is a self-identified revolutionary and she does not (or did not at the time of writing her autobiography, anyway) disavow violence in service to the struggle to better the condition of oppressed people. At the same time, these were the bad old days of Cointelpro, the massive and ruthless FBI operation against a variety of domestic political groups including the largely successful infiltration and harassment of the Black Panthers (Assata had been a member). As a part of this program, Assata was charged with a number of crimes on the East Coast simply because they were committed by a black woman who might, more or less plausibly, have been her. She was tried for more than one robbery, murder, and kidnapping for which she was acquitted. Thus it is not hard to believe that her conviction for murder in the killing of the New Jersey trooper was tainted in a number of ways.
The autobiography doesn't quite tell, and for obvious reasons there are no details of her escape (though several people were arrested and charged for taking part in it).
Whether one agrees or not with the actions that Shakur (may have) committed or abetted it is hard to disagree with most of her analysis of the situation of black people in the USA and America's history of racism. It is sad to note that it seems as accurate today as ever--even with a black president.
The book is a gripping read. The slang with which Assata peppers her prose and the loose rhythms with which she writes enliven the book, as does the structure: beginning the night of her arrest for the trooper's murder, and then bouncing between that night and its aftermath and her earlier life where we learn how she turned into the disciplined revolutionary she became.
Avram Davidson: Peregrine Secundus
A few years ago I read Davidson's Peregrine Primus, the first in this series, and though I'm a great Davidson fan I was not overly impressed. Perhaps, though I'd picked the two books up in the same used bookstore haul, that's why I didn't rush to pick up Secundus. I finally got around to Secundus and found it to be altogether more delightful than its predecessor, not only witty and learned in the way one expects from Davidson, but also illuminating about life in the Dark Ages, especially in the far-flung outposts of what had been the Roman Empire. The good news is, you could easily read and enjoy Secundus without having read Primus.
Josephine Tey: Man in the Queue
Two dollars and sixty-four cents for the complete Josephine Tey on Kindle seemed like such a tremendous deal I just had to go for it, and, having enjoyed the first of the Inspector Alan Grant series, I'm glad I did. The plot is clever, and Grant is endearing, but what really drew me in is the quality of Tey's prose. She uses words well enough that I will go on with the series. After all, I paid for them.
Minae Mizumura: The Fall of Language in the Age of English
Minae Mizumura's The Fall of Language in the Age of English is a long and winding lament for the national languages—Japanese being one of them—that have been, or almost inevitably will be, displaced by the English juggernaut. To make her case that this is happening, and that it is a bad thing, she leads us through some linguistic history, and her take is interesting because she comes to her topic as a novelist and a lover of literature rather than as a linguist or a nationalist (though one begins to suspect that she is a bit of the latter). "What was once a national language may be reduced to nothing more than a local language that no discriminating person takes seriously."
Christopher Smart: My Cat Jeoffry: A Poem by Christopher Smart
Christopher Smart, it can be assumed, did not have many visitors or much to do while a resident of Bedlam between 1758 and 1763. He was, however, or so it appears, visited by a cat called Jeoffry, and he made it his business to observe Jeoffry as he went about his daily business, and this daily business entered into the long religious poem Smart was writing, "Jubilate Agno," unknown to the public until 1939. Smart sees that Jeoffry is blessed and beloved of God in each of his small actions, from the the cat's first act of worship in the morning (and if you've observed cats you'll know what Smart is writing about here) to the cat's nocturnal duties:
"For when his day's work is done
his business more properly begins
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the
night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of
darkness by his electrical skin and
For he counteracts the Devil, who
is death, by brisking about
It seems entirely apt that a Polish literary theorist met in Delhi introduced me to this odd poem by a mad English poet.
Robert Galbraith: The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike)
I've gone and done it. I've finally read a book by J.K. Rowling. Not, I hasten to add, a Harry Potter novel, but rather one that she wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, a more or less contemporary crime novel set in London and featuring a very large one-legged private eye with the unlikely name Cormoran Strike, and readers, it was good. The characters Strike encounters in the course of his investigation veer close to caricature at times--gay fashion designer, druggie pop star--but Rowling reliably veers off the well-trodden path and makes them more complex than we expect them to be. Strike himself is well done, too, with a back-story--father a rock star, mother a "super groupie," Oxford drop-out, Afghanistan war vet--rich in possibilities for future books in what will be, in fact already is, a series.
(But somehow I still can't get interested in her childre . . . I mean "young adult" novels.)
Chris Kraus: I Love Dick (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents)
Dick, I should probably begin by saying, is cultural theorist Dick Hebdige, a real person. He's slightly fictionalized in Chris Kraus's book, but still, like the other characters: Kraus's real-life husband, the critic and theorist, Sylvère Lotringer, and Chris Kraus herself, he is, in the pages of I Love Dick, close enough to his flesh-and-bone analog. That the book includes real people, and that it includes essays on artists like R.B. Kitaj and conditions like schizophrenia, along with fiction that seems much more fictionalized than the book as a whole, makes it difficult to slot into a generic category--and that is exactly what makes it so interesting. It is made up of letters, phone messages, conversations, stories, essays, memoir, and fiction, and each of those components is well done, and each form illuminates the other forms that surround it. The always adventurous publisher Semiotext(e) seems to have made a specialty of publishing this sort of generically promiscuous work, and women seem to have made a specialty of writing it. It's exciting stuff, and has made Semiotext(e) a publisher whose offerings always get my attention.
Pankaj Mishra: An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World
I'm a Pankaj Mishra fan, and there is much for a Pankaj Mishra fan to enjoy in this book. It is a mix of memoir, philosophy, and history and each of those components is well done. It probably says a lot about me that I enjoyed most the bits about Mishra himself, a young writer from a village on the Indian plain holing up in a cabin in the Himalaya to turn himself into a writer, an endeavor that includes making the first tentative stabs at this book, and that I enjoyed least the (well-thought-out, highly informed) forays into Buddhist philosophy. Reading those sections I invariably found myself hoping for the return of the first-person. I believe, though, that those more sympathetic to metaphysical / ethical philosophy will enjoy these sections as much as I did the bits of autobiography.