Sunday, 25 June 2017

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL by Ira Levin

I wouldn’t say I am a big thriller reader and yet somehow I am on my way to having read almost all of Levin’s novels. A lot of them have been made into movies, I suspect because they are fantastic as one line pitches: Suburban husbands replace wives with robots; women gives birth to devil; etc. I’ve found he has you turning pages like it’s your job to get the novel read. I can’t say the same for THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL.

The premise is fun in theory SPOILER ALERT with Dr Mengele aiming to produce an army of Hilter clones. See how awesome that is as a one line pitch? And yet somehow it doesn’t quite come off. I thought for a while it was because it was rather dated. And while this is a problem, I’m starting to think it is instead because what we really read thrillers for is not the fright factor, but the fun factor – and this novel is just not very fun. I think this is not Levin’s fault. It’s basically unavoidable, because given the subject matter, the Holocaust is ever present – and that topic is so terrible, and so dark, and so sad, that it is almost impossible to read a book in which it features, and find it fun. In fact, after a while, even though I enjoy an army of thirteen year old Hitlers as much as anyone, I started to find the whole thing in rather bad taste. Somehow that’s just not as much of a problem with satanic babies and robot wives.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

CAUGHT IN THE REVOLUTION by Helen Rappaport

I rarely read non-fiction, but this was the 'one free' of a 'buy one get one free' deal, so here we are.

I am interested generally in revolutions, and this turned out to be an interesting book. Released to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, it tells the story of the year 1917 in Petrograd by means of the diaries and letters of foreign visitors, who were, as the title dramatically tells us "caught in the revolution." There's an array of types: diplomats, servants, Emily Pankhurst; hundreds of British governesses, left destitute when their wealthy employers flee, etc. Quite a fair number of visitors however were not "caught in the revolution" but in fact trying to catch it; the town was awash with foreign journalists. As one hilariously put it: "I smell trouble . . . . and thank god I am here to get the photographs of it."

Interestingly, quite a few of these journalists were women, many of whom sound quite frighteningly badass. One woman reporting was Louise Bryant, a fervent communist who began with divorce and ended with alcoholism via typhus, proving you don't need to have the vote to have a fantastic time.

I learnt from this book that the revolution had many causes, but that the most pressing one was hunger. Queues for food were days long, in temperatures well below freezing. What surprised me was what caused the hunger:
By February the daily consignment of flour to Petrograd had dropped to just twenty-one wagonloads, instead of the normal 120 needed. . . . Official mismanagement, corruption and wastage of supplies were prodigious, made worse by a crippled rail network that was unable to transport food efficiently from the provinces – where it was still plentiful – to the cities that most needed it. People were incensed to discover that, due to the hikes in the price of oats and hay, much of the black bread – the staple diet of the poor – was being fed to the capital's 80,000 horses to keep them alive: 'every horse was eating up the black bread allowance of ten men'. . . . Word spread like wildfire about food going to waste, of 'millions of pounds of cheap Siberian beef' being left to rot in railway sidings. Few of the munition-workers, whose wives or children spent more than half their time in the queue before a bread-shop, had not heard of the 'fish graveyards' of Astrakhan, where thousands of tons of the spoiled harvest of the Caspian were buried; and all classes had heard of the 'saccharine rivers' which travellers had seen flowing from leaky sugar warehouses in the great beet-growing districts of South Russia and Podolia.
I guess I know that famines have generally historically been due to lack of political will to resolve them, rather than a lack of food. Even today, globally we create more food than we need, while people starve in Yemen, but I was amazed to learn that even while the Russian government knew they teetered on the brink they couldn't get their act together to just get the railroads moving.

It is interesting to read what it was like for the Russians suddenly set free of the Tsar. So little experience did they have of freedom of expression or freedom of association that they had to borrow an English word to describe what they are were now doing: Meetinki. It is wild to imagine what it would be like to finally be free to have an opinion.
Groups of twenty or thirty would spontaneously gather, and then 'one of the company mounts a stone, or a bench, or a heap of snow and talks his head off, gesticulating wildly. The audience gazes fixedly at the orator and listens in a kind of rapt absorption. As soon as he stops another takes his place and immediately gets the same fervent silence and concentrated attention
As one American diplomat telegraphed President Wilson: "We have here an infant class in the art of being free containing one hundred and seventy million people, and they need to be supplied with kindergarten material."

Some of what went on was not very kindergarten. There was quite a lot of violence, especially against the Tsarist police, who very much sound like they deserved what was coming to them (i.e., being beaten to death). Weapons were everywhere, as one journalist noted: "Even street urchins seemed to have picked up revolvers, and were blazing away at stray pigeons." The author, Helen Rappoport, makes free use of some very questionable adjectives, calling violence 'senseless,' and damaged imperial decor 'sad' which I don't think the starving would agree it was. That said, I enjoyed it overall and am glad I took a break to read some non-fiction, not least because I shall now sound crushingly well-informed about the Russian revolution when the topic comes up. As obviously I now hope it will. Let me think of how to angle dinner party chit-chat in that direction.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

POUR ME by AA Gill

There are very few journalists who can write a good book, and AA Gill is not one of them.

It starts well, with the account of the alcoholism of his 20s. Memoirs of addiction are difficult, being all basically the same story, but he gives his an interesting spin. Here he is on his recovery through William Glasser therapy methods:
Bill Glasser . . . believed that there were five things that people needed in order to function properly, and the first and the greatest of these was love. It wasn’t an original thought. But they don’t tell us this, because frankly no one wants to be told that the answer to everything is love. No one wants the payoff of his tragedy to be the chorus of a pop song.

And there are some nice turns of phrase - here is on his father: "My dad died of Alzheimer's. I watched him retreat like Napoleon as the frozen winter of the illness buried his memories. He retreated further and further, fighting dogged but ultimately unmemorable rear-guard actions over the remembrances of his life . . . "

But once he is recovered, and himself again, I find I don't really like that self very much. For a start, he seems to be a kind of pretentious guy. Try this little piece of showing off: "Cookery books are the unconsidered diaries of family life, the everyday history of breakfast, the Veda of lunch, the Decalogue of dinner." And there's a lot of this kind of thing: " . . . the cruet set brought back from honeymoon that sat on a dresser for a lifetime, too silly to use, to fond to throw away, still with the grains of salt that had rested there, the symbol of a friendship and hospitality for a lifetime."

Worse than this, is its extraordinary insularity. There is a tiny section of North London - a hard core of few hundred people who regard themselves as a sort of intelligentsia - who, like Welsh miners, have heroically resisted globalisation, and a view of their own un-importance in the big world. Antonia Fraser's MUST YOU GO - read in the dark days before this blog was begun - is the summit of this world view, but this one is pretty bad too. There's also some extraordinarily awkward name-dropping Try this: "Snowdon: old people and fancy bantams. You could never accuse him of snobbery: he treated them both exactly the same. I'm very fond of Tony, but he could be a bugger just for the devilment of it." It's that 'Tony' that really grates. And don't even get me started on his mention of snobbery: Gill has a lot to say on this, but I think you have to have been born in England to know what he's on about - it drips with unacknowledged class anxiety, which, if you weren't brought up to it, is one part hard to understand and two parts annoying.

I feel bad to pan this book, as I understand AA Gill has recently passed away. I don't like to speak ill of the dead; but I suppose it's all right to speak ill of the dead's book.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

THE GRAND SOPHY by Georgette Heyer

To read Georgette Heyer is to learn to appreciate Jane Austen. Some readers - usually male - argue that Austen cannot be considered a serious writer - like her heavily bearded nineteenth century peers -because she wrote what they dismissively describe as 'love stories'.

Quite what is wrong would be wrong with that, I'm not sure, as these people never object to stories on other emotions. However it's not accurate. Austen's books are not so much about romance as they are about learning to live with yourself in the world; making bad choices; and facing the consequences. Heyer's, on the other hand, while apparently similar - a love story, a Regency setting - are quite plainly and simply about nothing very much. They're sheer joyous escapism. You can read them with happy confidence that all will turn out well, for those who deserve it to. As per Oscar Wilde:
The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

I read a good amount of Georgette Heyer as a teenager, but haven't opened her in a couple of decades. I was driven to it recently by an urgent need for escape - for the good to end happily - and THE GRAND SOPHY provided a delightful weekend's reading. I was a little shame faced over reading such trash, until I looked Heyer's life up. I was impressed to learn that she started her career back when women were barely allowed to be employed, in the 1920s, and her writing supported her flakey husband, two flakey brothers, and flakey son for the rest of her life. I was even more impressed to learn that she single-handedly invented the genre of historical romance.

I also reflected that she's only trashy in so far as someone like Kipling - her near contemporary - was trashy: lots of plot, lots of moral, not much challenge; and yet Kipling is in the cannon. One hates to have to bring up gender all the time - so I won't. But draw your own conclusions.

Monday, 1 May 2017

THE GIRL WITH THE LOWER BACK TATTOO by Amy Schumer

I was midway through a serious novel on POWs on the Burmese railroad when I realised I was just in too fragile a state for quality fiction about crimes against humanity. I therefore took emergency action on Amazon, and this yielded THE GIRL WITH THE LOWER BACK TATTOO.

I recently took similarly urgent action in an airport before a transatlantic flight with two other books by female American comics: Tina Fey's BOSSYPANTS (great) and Amy Poehler's YES PLEASE (horrible). I always used to hesitate to remunerate what I know to be cynical publishers trying to make money of TV tie-ins, but I guess I'm just getting less scrupulous as I get older. By the time I'm fifty I'll be reading golfer's autobiographies.

Schumer's book is unexpectedly wonderful. It's very funny, and very clever, and kind of dirty, as you'd expect. But it's also sort of inspirational. Let's start with the funny and clever. Here she is on Hollywood:
I'm sure no one is too shocked to hear that it's an industry of people who judge most women almost solely on their appearance, and where every day women feel themselves barreling toward death and decay while smaller, hotter actresses like Selena keep appearing like Russian nesting dolls.
Or on being caught by the paparazzi:
One of the first times I was papped they caught me stand-up paddle boarding in Hawaii. I didn't even recognise myself. I saw the shots and thought, 'Oh cool, Alfred Hitchcock is alive and likes water sports.' But nope. It was me.

And on to the inspirational. It's hard to capture exactly what I mean by this. It's largely I think about the degree of honesty with which Schumer talks about her life, and particularly her family. People so rarely tell you how they really feel that it's always touching when they do. Being a comedian who talks about her own life means that Amy has spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to share yourself. She tells a story about a time she was with a group of friends in the early years of high school, and had an experience which earned her the nickname 'silver dollars'.
While we were hanging on the playground, the ten guys somehow convinced the six girls to lift up their shirts and show them their boobs. They’d presented the very good argument of “Why not?” We had no counterargument for that, so we lined up and, on the count of three, lifted our shirts. I wrapped my fourteen-year-old fingers around the bottom of my Gap tee and yanked it over my pimpled, plump face with abandon. . . . I then looked down the line and realized that all the other girls had just shown their bras. In a perfect metaphor for my life, I had revealed too much. I’d pulled up my entire bra too. I was the only skins player on the team. . .This was my very first experience of the stripped-down, cold, unprotected space where vulnerability meets either confidence or shame. It was my choice, and I had to learn (I’m still learning) how to choose to be proud of who I am rather than ashamed. Lucky for me, I’m a woman, so I’ve had the opportunity to practice this lesson over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

She is particularly interesting in her acceptance of - and openess about - her own mistakes. That is in fact what the title is about - the terrible cheesy lower back tattoo she got when she was eighteen.
So now, . . . , I'm thirty five, and any time I'm in a bathing suit people immediately know in their hearts that I'm trash. Any time I take my clothes off for the first time in front of a man and he sees it, he also knows in his heart that I'm trash and that I make poor, poor decisions. And now that the paparazzi think it’s interesting to take photos of me doing absolutely nothing noteworthy on a beach somewhere, the whole world has been treated to photos of my lower back tattoo hovering crookedly over my bikini bottoms. But I promise you from the bottom of my heart I don’t care. I wear my mistakes like badges of honor, and I celebrate them. They make me human. Now that all of my work, my relationships, my tweets, my body parts, and my sandwiches are publicly analyzed, I’m proud that I labeled myself a flawed, normal human before anyone else did. I beat all the critics and Internet trolls to the punch. I’ve been called everything in the book, but I already branded myself a tramp, so the haters are going to have to come up with something fresh.

Somehow, though the above may sound a little cliche taken out of context, I actually believe her - believe she accepts her mistakes. And I find the idea that someone could actually really do that sort of mindboggling and also very encouraging.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

JAMAICA INN by Daphne du Maurier

One thing that’s just fantastically fun is to have a book to read on vacation that’s written in that location. A weekend in Cornwall demands du Maurier almost as much as it does cream teas.

It’s a gothic thriller with a high cheese factor: dark moors, dark nights, dark men. But it’s still a fun and engaging read. I kept failing to look at the view because I was busy seeing where the book would go. Also, I appreciate Daphne fighting the good fight with the patriarchy: the main character is a woman – unusual for a book of the thirties – and a woman who is very much in charge of her own decisions and her own destiny. There’s a love story woven in here somewhere, in the middle of shipwrecks and albino vicars, and this – which could have been the cheesiest part of the story – is in fact the most complicated. He’s difficult, and she’s difficult too, and SPOILER while they get together at the end, it’s already a very prosaic negotiation: an unexpected burst of reality in the midst of murder and mayhem.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER by James Hogg

The first appeal of this book is that the author was an eighteenth century shepherd who taught himself to read. It’s not so often that the illiterate get a look in. It’s a strange story, full of unreliable narrators, including the author himself, who appears as a shepherd in the story.

It’s a thriller whose thrill is based on the Calvinist theory of predestination. Yes, you read that right. Apparently predestination was a hot topic in the eighteenth century. It’s the idea that as the saved are a chosen people, and as God has planned your life in advance, if you are one of the chosen you are always chosen, no matter what you do: you can’t sin yourself out of your pre-determined salvation, even by sinning a lot. This makes a sort of sense, if you think about it a lot, and shows the dangers of thinking a lot on anything. Logic has a lot of dead ends.

Predestination was I guess a kind of a cultural madness, and Hogg attempts to show this by taking it to its furthest extreme. A young man who believes himself saved is approached by another young man (‘Gil Martin’) and encouraged to think that it is his duty to smite the unbelievers. He’s hesitant, but is eventually convinced that even if he is in the wrong, he is saved in any case, so any error cannot keep him from heaven. He starts by smiting a local parson with whom he disagrees on some microscopic points of doctrine, and it goes downhill from there. It’s obvious to the reader from the beginning that Gil Martin is probably Satan, and over time it becomes horribly obvious to the young man also, who is driven to ever more desperate measures.

It made me think about the young men who join Daesh. It must take real courage to do what you think is right, and more courage to realise you were wrong, and an even more terrible courage to do anything about it.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

BEL CANTO by Ann Pratchett

This sounded like it was going to be good: 50 wealthy people taken hostage and held by terrorists for four months in a ballroom. But I found it unfortunately rather bad: a great premise, but a lame and unlikely story.

First thing that was unlikely: there is an opera singer among the hostages, who decides she needs to practice, and so sings for two hours a day - and the people ACTUALLY LIKE IT. This strains credulity. I can’t imagine anything worse than being imprisoned and then made to listen to opera. I think this is supposed to be some kind of reflection on the universal redemptive power of great art but I guess what I learnt is that I don’t believe in that power.

Second thing unlikely: this opera singer and some man fall in love, despite not speaking the same language. I think this is supposed to be some kind of reflection on love existing on a plane beyond language. I guess I also don’t believe in that.

Third thing unlikely: one of the hostages and one of the terrorists fall in love. This, despite a truly vast gap in class and experience in violence. I guess I do believe in Stockholm Syndrome, but I don’t think that’s what Pratchett was going for.

In short, I guess this book was educational. I learnt I don’t believe either art or love conquer all.

Monday, 17 April 2017

BOSWELL’S LONDON JOURNAL 1762-1763 by James Boswell, edited by Frederick A Pottle

I don’t suppose many people read Boswell, and those who do probably don’t begin with his lesser works. But there you go: such are the perils and pleasures of not letting the Amazon algorithm suggest what you read, but rather the mysterious inner workings of a charity shop at Clapham Junction.

The algorithm rationally assigns you what you would probably enjoy (i.e., the big classic: Boswell’s Life of Johnson). The British Heart Foundation shop erratically suggests the reading preferences of whoever has died that week. This I really quite enjoy, as for some reason this particular charity shop has really rather highbrow donors. It’s surprising. I suspect it is because readers of similar tastes go there, and so donate there, and so go there. It’s me and a bunch of OAPs, would be my guess. So that’s the story of why I am reading a relatively obscure 18th century diary in an even more obscure 1950 edition the cover of which I struggled to find on Google images for your thumbnail enjoyment.

I love a good diary. There is something extraordinarily reassuring in seeing the day-to-day of someone else’s life, even if that someone has been dead for 200 years. Here’s a flavor, from the footnotes:
About this time he (Boswell) began also to write a series of memoranda, one octavo page every day, apparently jotted down the last thing before he went to bed or the first thing in the morning before he put on his clothes. In them he tells himself, always in the second person, what to eat, what to wear, what supplies to get in, what books to read; makes schedules for calls; gives directions for pleasures; orders himself to keep his journal posted; implores himself to try to attain to greater gravity.

It’s touching to see how other people suffer days when they are down, for no reason; that other people have to make resolutions; have to find self-control, and exercise that boring daily discipline of happiness. It’s particularly touching to read the diary of someone in their early twenties, as I don’t think that’s something often preserved (unless they are a suicide). I’m struck by how much time Boswell spends resolving on ‘manner’ – on being this or that type of person. I recall that from my twenties, and it’s interesting to see I don’t seem to do that anymore. Perhaps I am actually an adult.

There’s also a charming and sometimes horrifying flavor of 18th century London. Boswell is always to be found drinking coffee, going to the theatre, eating in chop houses, etc. Here we are with a prostitute (he’s always having sex with these poor women in the street):
In the Strand I picked up a little profligate wretch and gave her sixpence. She allowed me entrance. But the miscreant refused me performance. I was much stronger than her, and volens nolens pushed her up against the wall. She however gave a sudden spring from me; and screaming out, a parcel of more whores and soldiers came to her relief.
I have a lot of questions that I don’t really want answered about all of that. Near the end of his diary Boswell finally meets Johnson, and we see here his first notes that would become the famous Life. It’s enormously quotable, and makes me feel I need to work on polishing my conversational knife a little further:
Sir, I was once a greater arguer for the advantages of poverty, but I was at the same time very discontented. Sir, the great deal of arguing which we hear to represent poverty as no evil shows it to be evidently a great one. You never knew people laboring to convince you that you might live very happily upon a plentiful fortune.
And:
Mr Johnson said today that a woman’s preaching was like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It was not done well, but you were surprised to find it done at all.
Also charming are the editor’s almost insanely detailed, and sweetly dated, footnotes, which clearly mark how much this academic loves this man. Example - Boswell is busy with another prostitute, and the editor comments: “ ‘roger’ of course has a different meaning today, in this age of radio-telephony”

I love that line of Alan Bennett’s about reading being "as if a hand has come out and taken yours” from across time. This book made me feel like that, in the best possible way.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin

This is a wonderful novel, deeply engaging, remarkably concise; creating a world and characters you care about in a brief 250 pages. It is at the same time entirely forgettable. It's a strange mixture. I felt like I just swallowed it whole and now it's over and I have some kind of eater's remorse.

BROOKLYN tells the story of a young Irish woman who moves to America, leaving behind her widowed mother and sister, as she is unable to find work at home. She is deeply unhappy at first, but finally finds love with an Italian. It's an interesting window into a truly immigrant New York, where she has to be trained in how to eat spaghetti before she goes to meet his parents. Then SPOILER ALERT her sister dies, and her boyfriend asks that she marries him before she goes home to see her mother, as he is scared she will never return. She does so, secretly, thinking it a little silly, as she fully intends to come back. Once in Ireland, she finds out - as do many who return home - that home is strangely powerful. Almost immediately America disappears like a dream, in the scary way that not-here can do.

She meets someone new, and it turns out it was smart of her Italian to get the marriage done before she left. It comes out, the world being a small place even before the internet, and she heads back to America, wiser now, confident that home too can disappear, given time.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

EMPIRE OF THE SUN by JG Ballard

Anthony Burgess called EMPIRE OF THE SUN "an incredible literary achievement," and he's not wrong. It's a remarkable work. I am perhaps the more struck by it because I first read a much earlier and less sucessful book of Ballard's - THE DROWNED WORLD - which, though a sci-fi set in London, has many of same themes: apocalyptic collapse; loneliness; final decisions. It's fascinating to see a writer take the same set of pre-occupations and move them from middling to masterpiece.

The book is based on Ballard's own experience of spending his early adolescence in a Japanese prison camp during the second world war. The Ballard proxy, a child named Jim, lives a privileged life in Shanghai until he is about ten, when the war comes and he is interned. Let's caveat though that privileged is perhaps a relative term, as pre-war Shangai sounds fairly intense. The Chinese are taking it to the next level with frequent "public stranglings" and some delicious street snacks
He turned away, tripping over the charcoal brazier in which a pavement vendor was frying pieces of battered snake. Drops of fat splashed into the wooden bucket, where a single snake swam, thrashing itself as it leapt at the hissing oil.

Yum. After a little while interned in the camp with 3000 others, the fried snake starts to sound pretty good. The prisoners get very little to eat, and go from picking out the weevils to cherishing them for their protein. It's interesting to see particularly how pragmatically the child handles the war. The adults are bogged down in morals and sentiment, but Jim isn't burdened with any of that. Here he is thinking about a doctor he meets who has made a passing comment on dentistry:
He was suspicious of the physician, of his long legs and his English manner and his interest in teeth. Perhaps he and Basie would team up as corpse-robbers? Jim thought about the goat which Dr Ransome wanted to buy from the Japanese. Everything he had read about goats confirmed that they wree difficult and wayward creatures, and this suggested that there was something impractical about Dr Ransome. Few Europeans had gold teeth, and the only dead people the doctor was likely to see for a long time would be Europeans.

The peace proves more dangerous than the war. Once the Japanese leave them, they have no more food, and no one to protect them from the various other starving groups: the communists, the nationalists, the civilians. Then the Americans start dropping canisters of food from their planes. Jim manages to find one, which is full of Spam.
Smiling to himself, Jim thought of his mother - he could no longer remember her face but he could all too well imagine her response to the Spam.

The book is fantastically interesting historically, emotionally compelling, and very beautifully written. Much of the book is, bizarrely, given its subject matter, very lovely. Particularly, there is a focus on the beauty of aviation. Jim develops an elaborate fantasy life around the airplanes he sees in the sky, mixed up with the dark time he spends as slave labour on a kamikaze plan runway.
The whiteness of the runway excited Jim, its sun bleached surface mixed with the calcinated bones of the dead Chinese, and even perhaps with his own bones in a death that might have been.
It's a remarkable translation of horror into poetry.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman

As the title suggests, LIFE AND FATE is a novel with a wide scope. It's a gigantic account of Stalinist Russia, mostly during the second World War, written by someone who was there: who survived the siege of Stalingrad; who lost his mother to the Holocaust; who took items from Hitler's desk immediately after his death; and who of course - in the best tradition of all truly important Russian novelists of the twentieth century - saw his own novel kept from publication till all relevant people, including himself, were dead.

To give you some measure of how vast it is, and how difficult it is to write any kind of pathetic little blog post on it, let me tell you the list of characters alone is eight pages long. And it's desperately needed, as you move wildly around from Stalingrad, to kolkhozes, to death camps (on both the Fascist and Soviet sides), to Moscow laboratories, to minor Ukranian towns, to the Lubyanka. This last is a major prison in Moscow, in which I spent so much time in Solzhenitsyn's THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO that it was like meeting an old friend.

I read some years ago the autobiography of Lenin's wife (hilariously pictured below), and was struck then by what seemed an almost insane level of idealism. There was lots of sitting around in cellars with your three friends from university and talking about how you were going to bring down Tsarist Russia. Then incredibly they actually did bring down Tsarist Russia, not without some serious weeping in the streets of Zurich while singing the Internationale.
And you see in this book the end point of this kind of wild belief in a better future. There is a long dark shadow of "1937" across this book, which is a kind of code for talking about Stalin's purges. I'd heard of these before, but in this book I really learnt of their scale. Almost the entire leadership of every area was executed (or "sentenced to ten years without right of correspondence," i.e., executed). This meant huge number of highly capable people were lost, but as the system insisted on confessions, and denunciations, and 'evidence,' it also left behind an even larger number of people carrying an enormous - and in some cases - unbearable burden of guilt, for providing the requisite denunciations and evidences. And yet somehow many people still convinced themselves that the state was still fundamentally right, and revolutionary justice was outside the realms of ordinary justice. People informed on each other left and right, and felt alright about themselves while doing it. Overall, it makes some African dictatorships I know of look pretty good.

In fact, this book made my life overall look pretty great. Try this, on the siege:
The German air raids stopped at dusk. A man arriving in Stalingrad at night, deafened by the guns, might well imagine that some cruel fate had brought him there just as a major offensive was being launched. For the veterans, however, this was the time to shave, to wash clothes and write letters; for the turners, mechanics, solderers and watchmakers this was was the time to repair clocks, cigarette-lighters, cigarette-holders, and the oil-lamps made from old shellcases with strips of greatcoats as wicks.
Or this, on life in the Russian military:
All his life as a soldier he had been afraid of having to account for lost ammunition and ordnance, lost fuel, lost time; afraid o fhaving to explain why he had abandoned a summit or crossroads without permission. Not once had he known a superior officer show real anger because an operation had been wasteful in terms of human lives. He had even known officers send their men under fire simply to avoid the anger of their superiors, to be able to throw up their hands and say: 'What could I do? I lost half my men, but I was unable to reach the objective'

While dark, the world of the book is also hilarious and very weird. This is because I think it is pretty much written direct from life. Grossman himself was asked to denounce people, and did so. So he knows what he means when he speaks of guilt. Try these conversations from Stalingrad:
"He's a fine fellow. A Bolshevik. A true Stalinist. A man with experience of leadership. And stamina. I remember him from 1937. Yezhov sent him to clean up the military district. Well, I wasn't exactly running a kindergarten myself at that time, but he really did do a thorough job. He was an axe - he had whole lists of men liquidated."
Apparently that's how we speak about the security organs. And here we are on the correct Stalinist view of women:
"She's got legs like a stork, no arse worth speaking of, and great cow-like eyes. Call that a woman?"
"You just like big tits," Chentsov retorted. "That's an outmoded, pre-revolutionary point of view."

I could go on. I think I've given you a flavour of maybe ten percent.




Saturday, 25 February 2017

THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM by Cixin Liu

I haven't read much Chinese fiction, and certain never any Chinese science fiction. It is plenty weird. First, it is written by a former software engineer and it shows. How delightfully loopy is this:
Battles like this one raged across Beijing like a multitude of CPUs working in parallel, their combined output, the Cultural Revolution.
. Or this reflection on a woman the protagonist is in love with:
Wang subconsciously thought of her as the long-obsolete DOS operating system: a blank, black screen, a bare “C:>” prompt, a blinking cursor. Whatever you entered, it echoed back. Not one extra letter and not a single change. But now he knew that behind the “C:>” was a bottomless abyss.

The story covers the first contact of humanity with an alien civilization, who are seeking to leave their planet, Trisolaris, because it has a catastrophic climate driven by the fact that is has three suns. This is the 'three body problem' that the aliens spend many millenia trying to solve. It's a major achievement to make a math problem into an exciting element of your novel's plot, and Liu doesn't manage it. I skipped a lot of this part, not least because it was unfolded in a - wait for it, this is so dorky - video game. Important note, prospective authors: just as dreams are boring in ordinary fiction, so are video games in science fiction.

Back on our planet, a Chinese astrophysicist who has lost her family in the Cultural Revolution manages to send a message out beyond our solar system. She gets a reply, which is incredibly: "Do not answer! Do not answer! Do not answer!" It is sent by a pacifist on Trisolaris who knows that if the Trisolarins can figure out where the messages are coming from they will come to take over the Earth. In an awesome twist, the astrophysicist immediately responds. She is furious with humanity for what has happened to her family and believes that we deserve what is coming to us. Even more awesomely, the Trisolarins immediately do two things: send out a fleet to reach us, and begin to plot how to kill or confuse all our physicists. They are not afraid of our current armaments, but of what our science could do; and most particularly of what the physicists could do, as no major breakthrough happens without them. It's not often you think of physicists as our first line of defence.

Anyway, despite what has turned into a generally positive review, and the fact that this book won the Hugo I thought it was kind of boring. The characters are truly impressively thin, and the plot while fun was deeply questionable. On the other hand, it was not quite like anything else I've ever read, so I'm glad I blitzed through it.