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


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.

Monday, 20 February 2017


As an African national, I've always found it rather depressing that despite all the impact the British had on our continent we were not even an important part of their Empire. India was the jewel. We were just: there. And even within Africa, there was a heirarchy - South Africa and Nigeria at the top, and somewhere towards the bottom countries like Sierra Leone. This book tells the story of some sad British officials in Sierra Leone, and shows that at least some of the colonizers apparently felt they were having almost as bad a time as the colonized.

Freetown is all men on their way up or on their way down. Inspector Scobie is among the latter, and a rarity among the British in that city, in that he actually like Sierra Leone, and would like to stay there. He is not promoted however, and his wife is miserable at the idea of spending her life there with a minor official. A man so upright he is almost abnormal, Scobie agonises over taking a loan from a local businessman to be able to send his wife to South Africa. He does it in the end, and once she has left, he falls into an affair with a much younger woman. His wife changes her mind and comes home again, and he now is trapped: he feels bad for his wife, and bad for his mistress. Then major plot twist: his wife insists he attends Communion with her. Yes, I also didn't find this to be a major plot twist. But it clearly is to Graham Greene, and to his creation Scobie. He can't face the dishonesty, and so - he tells his wife the truth. Just joking! He tells his mistress the truth. Just joking! He doesn't do either of these rational things. He kills himself.

For all that I mock its ending, I really rather liked this book. It is, as ever with Greene, elegantly written, and evokes a wonderful sense of Sierra Leone in the second world war. Try this lovely description of a new arrival: "Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork. It was Sunday and the Cathedral bell clanged for matins. . . . (He) stroked his very young moustache and dreamed, waiting for his gin-and-bitters." Wilson will later fall in love with Scobie's wife, and here he sees Scobie for the first time:
He couldn't tell that this was one of those occasions a men never forgets: a small cicatrice had been made on the memory, a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined - the taste of gin at mid-day, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird flopping from perch to perch.

THE HEART OF THE MATTER captures a kind of overwrought moral universe that in some ways rather dates it; but for me at least it also rather made me reflect how many of my own problems might be self-created. As a side point, I do want to close by saying that it does includes a scene so common in literature as to be almost archetypal: a young man having a terrible time at a brothel. I wish I had begun at the start of this blog counting how many of these scenes I read. It's incredible how many of them there are, relative to how few there are about the people who are really having a bad time in brothels. But I guess prostitutes don't have that much time for writing.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding

It's great to re-read a classic and find out it's still a classic. One feels like this one in particular ought to have aged, with its nuclear anxiety and its public school boys, but I found it still as fresh as this morning's coffee.

LORD OF THE FLIES tells the story of a group of school boys whose plane crash lands on an island with no adults. It all then goes fairly wrong, fairly fast. It's high school with the brakes off.

LORD OF THE FLIES was Golding's first novel, and was written when he was working as a school teacher. It certainly shows - he understands the world of children very well, and I like the idea of him sitting at his desk in class, imaginging which of his children would be the first to be picked off, and by who, once the adults were out of the way. It's a compelling, child-eye view of the world which is rare in fiction. Here they are, off to find the monster they think hides in the mountains: "the darkness and desperate enterprise gave the night a kind of dentist's chair unreality." By the end you are truly afraid of the twelve-year-olds, and it is a real shock when an adult finally arrives on the island, and you see one of the most frightening characters suddenly reduced to "a little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his red hair and who carried the remains of a pair of spectacles on his waist."

It's a fantastic idea for a novel, fantastically well executed. Reading the author's biography, I see Golding continued to write for the rest of his life, but never again achieved such success. One always feels for those for whom success comes at the beginning, making all else an anti-climax; but I guess that's still way better than no success at all. Rather one classic to your name than - as with the rest of us - none.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

THE GROUP by Mary McCarthy

I'm always suspicious of books famous for breaking down taboos, and particularly of books that were banned. Very often, on reading them, one finds a rather so-so story, and realises they're only famous because they were salacious. I thus was hesitant about THE GROUP at first. Then I found out that stupid Norman Mailer hated it, and called it "a trivial lady writer's novel". Naturally, I bought it immediately.

Mailer is famous for the THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, a truly dire 'manly man' novel about the Vietnam War which is all about the glory of gore, and is very obviously written by someone with virtually no experience of actual combat. So in short if he doesn't like something I probably will. And boy, do I. This is a fantastic novel, as fresh today as when it rolled off the presses in 1963, and, as the author Mary McCarthy put it, "ruined my life".

It tells the story of a group of women graduating from Vassar in the 1930s, and follows them for a few years. The writing is boisterous and delicious. Try this description:
She had been amazingly altered, they felt, by a course in Animal Behaviour she taken with old Miss Washburn who had left her brain in her will to Science) during their junior year. This and her work with Hallie Flanagan in Dramatic Production had changed her from a shy, pretty, somewhat heavy Western girl with black lustrous curly hair and a wild-rose complexion, active in hockey, in the choir, given to large tight brassieres and copious menstruations, into a thin, hard-driving, authoritative young woman, dressed in dungarees, sweat shirt, and sneakers, with smears of paint in her unwashed hair, tobacco stains on her fingers, talking airily of "Hallie" and "Lester," Hallie's assistant, of flats and stippling, of oestrum and nymphomania, calling her friends by their last names loudly — "Eastlake," "Renfrew," "MacAusland" — counseling premarital experiment and the scientific choice of a mate. Love, she said, was an illusion.
Or this, on a girl with a gift for a pointed description:
Kay used to take their love affairs, as Lakey once said, away from them and returned them shrunk and labeled, like the laundry.

They're in that first generation of women to get a chance at university, and reading about them really reminded me how joyful a thing is education, and how glad I am that I got a chance to have one. Here's one girl losing her virginity in probably a way no one before her had:
All sorts of weird, irrelevant ideas floated through Dottie’s head as the key turned in the lock and she found herself, for the first time, alone with a man in his flat. Tonight was midsummer’s night, the summer solstice, when maids had given up their treasure to fructify the crops; she had that in background reading for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her Shakespeare teacher had been awfully keen on anthropology and had had them study in Frazer about the ancient fertility rites and how the peasants in Europe, till quite recent times, had lit big bonfires in honor of the Corn Maiden and then lain together in the fields. College, reflected Dottie as the lamp clicked on, had been almost too rich an experience. She felt stuffed with interesting thoughts that she could only confide in Mother, not in a man, certainly, who would probably suppose you were barmy if you started telling him about the Corn Maiden when you were just about to lose your virginity. Even the group would laugh if Dottie confessed that she was exactly in the mood for a long, comfy discussion with Dick, who was so frightfully attractive and unhappy and had so much to give.

It's fascinating to be reminded about other parts of the past too - how's this question, asked at a party?
Does you mother know about iceberg lettuce? It's a new variety, very crisp, with wonderful keeping powers
.And fascinatingly there's a lot on contraception. I didn't realise that for a long time there was a fight through the courts to keep the diaphragm illegal. I mean, let's face it, there's a lot you can say about the patriarchy, but for sure it's not SHY. There's lots of interesting stuff on how awkward the diaphragm made dating, as the men usually kept 'the equipment,' and then had to return it to you when you broke up. You can see where poor McCarthy faced some serious blowback: the reading public were horrified/thrilled.

It's impossible to read a book of this period, if you're female, without being profoundly grateful you yourself did not have to live through it. One character is committed to a psychiatric hospital by her husband, to get her out of the way, and everyone acts like this is quite normal. Another almost gets raped, and no one she tells freaks out about it. I read some of this book with my jaw on the floor. Here's one character, Priss, who has a baby with her husband Sloan:
. . her doctor ordered her to put on lipstick and powder right in the middle of labour; he and Sloan both thought it was important for a maternity patient to keep herself up to the mark.
Let me take this moment to say stupid Norman Mailer didn't like the book because he felt that none of her characters has "the power or dedication to wish to force events". DUH YOU IDIOT THAT'S WHAT THE BOOK'S ABOUT. Priss' fondness for Sloan quickly deteriorates as he tries to make her roadtest his theories on breast feeding:
There was a side of Sloan, she had decided, that she mistrusted, a side that could be summed up by saying that he was a Republican. Up to now this had not mattered; most men she knew were Republicans - it was almost part of being a man. But she did not like the thought of a Republican controlling the destiny of a helpless baby.

Most of this post has focused on how the way the book captured a certain historical moment, but I think as with all really fine novels what will stay with me is the characters - their struggles with losing their virginity, with getting jobs, with men who say they'll leave their wives, with over-involved mothers - and all this while they struggle with being given the gift of an education that means they can't really live the lives their parents have laid out for them. It very much reminded me that the opportunities in my life - the education, the cosmetics-free birth experience, the expectation that if someone tries to rape me other people will freak out about it - all come to me from long lines of women, going back into the past, who did their best for themselves, and so for me.

In summary, it makes me feel really awful for Hillary Clinton.

Saturday, 31 December 2016


I love the yearly recap. It’s fun to look back and remember what I read. It’s like taking a quick bite out of all the meals you ate this year, one after another. I find I’m often reminded of where I was when I read a particular book – that sun lounger, or that flight – or sometimes of what I was trying to avoid while reading it. Reading the posts themselves is also very weird, in that I’ve often forgotten what I thought of the book at the time, and it’s strange to encounter what must be my own narrative voice, and to meet myself again from the outside.

What’s the best of the year? There were not any huge standouts, as has sometimes happened, but lots of books I really enjoyed. I have a huge fondness for THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN by Christina Stead, which this person who wrote my blog described as ‘like drinking family life from a firehose’. I also enjoyed SOME RAIN MUST FALL by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the fifth book in his wonderfully dull saga of his life; THE GO-BETWEEN by LP Hartley, an unusual coming-of-age story, and PROBLEMS by Jade Sharma, a fun story of heroin addiction and sex work.

There were books I’m less grateful for. I gave up a lot of books this year – about ten – which is unusual for me. I think as I get older I realise how short a single life span really is, and am more careful what I spend it on. I really loathed WHAT I LOVED, by Siri Hustvedt, and THE KINDNESS by Polly Samson, both equally uptight stories of the British bourgeoisie, and THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen, an unnecessarily fraught tale of adolescent love.

For the second year in a row, I managed to read about as many women as men, which I’m happy about, though it was not a particular goal.

My books have been a real joy to me, this year, as every year. I’m so grateful for all of them, both the good and the bad, and for all the people who wrote them for me. They’ve taken me to Libya, and the Discworld, to the First World War and 1970s New York, to Tsarist Russia and future London. I can’t imagine where I’d be without them

1) MISLAID by Nell Zink
2) WHAT I LOVED by Siri Hustvedt
3) LIFE CLASS by Pat Barker
4) THE CHRYSALIDS by John Wyndham
5) MORT by Terry Pratchett
6) HEARTBURN by Nora Ephron
7) THE KINDNESS by Polly Samson
8) YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler
9) SOME RAIN MUST FALL by Karl Ove Knausgaard
10) A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara
11) GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN by James Baldwin
12) NEW GRUB STREET by George Gissing
13) NOW IN NOVEMBER by Josephine Johnson
14) FATHERS AND SON by Ivan Turgenev
16) MY SON, MY SON by Howard Spring
17) BRIGHTON ROCK by Graham Greene
19) THE BACHELOR by Stella Gibbons
20) THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN by Christina Stead
23) BOSSYPANTS by Tina Fey
24) THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins
26) THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton
27) THE POWER OF THE DOG by Thomas Savage
28) BEING BROOKE by Emma Hart
31) THE BEACH by Alex Garland
32) GOLDEN HILL by Francis Spufford
33) PROBLEMS by Jade Sharma
34) THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson
35) THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen
36) THE RETURN by Hisham Matar
37) MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub
38) THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras
39) THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Gacigalup

THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Bacigalupi

I feel like almost every scifi novel can be summarised: “Great premise, but the plot struggled”. I wonder why this is? It’s almost as if all the energy of the author goes into the monumental effort of creating a world, and none is left over for characters or plot.

The premise here is really fun. It’s Bangkok, after what is called the ‘Contraction’ a period that comes after our own, which is apparently known as the ‘Expansion.’ In this world, sea level rises have wiped out most major cities, and fossil fuels are rare and strictly forbidden. Genetic engineering is everywhere, creating ‘megadonts’ – huge elephants, who turn wheels to make factories run while there is no more electricity, but more importantly, also holding a total stranglehold on food production. The ‘Calorie men’ are all powerful, coming from companies with fantastic names such as Midwest Compact and AgriGen. People die of ‘generipped’ plagues left and right, with wonderful names such ‘cibiscosis 118. A’.

The plot is less fun, being some mish-mash of typical movie scenes, and going on for rather too long. It’s also amazingly old fashioned in regards to gender. The wind-up girl of the title is a very advanced cyborg, bred to obey. She was designed as a secretary in Japan, but has ended up abandoned by her owner in Thailand and being a prostitute. Boringly, because of her genetic programming, she orgasms no matter what, including during rape scenes. And rape scenes there are, written with poorly masked enjoyment.