Holiday Reading Roundup

24Aug10

What I mostly like doing on holiday is reading … on the plane, on the beach, during siesta, on the apartment balcony in the evening ….  T’o-m reckons that if reading were an olympic discipline, I’d be gold medal standard. I don’t know about that, but I do know that I made a fair dent in the TBR pile and got through almost all the books I took with me … it’s a group that can only be called ‘eclectic’, I think.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – Marina Lewycka

In which a pneumatic asylum seeker with ‘superior breasts’ preys upon an aged Ukrainian widower, determined to use him to pursue a dream of Western wealth. His daughters unite to try and stop her, but their efforts rekindle memories of a grim European past.  I found it thought-provoking in terms of the aspects of Ukrainian history it brings to light and its light touch on the sticky immigration debacle, and also in terms of the reversal of the usual gender roles – with the greedy and powerful Valentina exploiting the lusts of a much weaker old man for her own ends, and in the process overturning the the image and memory of a mother as a caring, nurturing force. There’s more than a touch of the fairytale about it, with the wicked stepmother vanquished (eventually) by the virtuous daughters of the ailing king, but to reduce it to those terms is to short-sell the story as a whole. I didn’t find this laugh-out-loud hilarious – the humour is darker and more subtle than that, but this is a good read nonetheless.

The Trick is to Keep Breathing – Janice Galloway

Poignant, often painful, this is a powerful but sensitive internal portrait of a mind disintegrating, a struggle for order and meaning when everything has been swept away. The intensity of the first person narration took me right to the brink alongside the ‘heroine’, seducing me into her world of futility and incoherence, whilst at the same time maintaining an external outrage at the exploitation and incompetence of those surrounding her. Taut, intelligent and articulate, it’s a vivid portrait of a woman hanging on by her fingernails, and is made bearable by the merest glimmer of hope and change offered at the end.

Whit – Iain Banks

Iain Banks is one of my favourite authors (with the ‘M’ or without), so I was looking forward to this one. Although he always has a darker edge, his contemporary fiction tends to be lighter and more sardonically witty than his s-f alter ego. This is no exception, and I’d say it’s one of his best – giving us a glimpse of ourselves from the outside, from the perspective of a woman/girl raised to believe herself specially chosen by God by a sect that views the material accoutrements of modern life as corrupting. Her journey from unquestioning acolyte to politically astute leader, via treachery, falsehood and exposure to the modern world, is fascinating, gripping and often hilariously funny. The humour, though, has a sharp edge, giving us a mirror that shows modern society, with all its technological distractions, to be ultimately empty and meaningless, images of ourselves distorted as if in a fairground hall of mirrors. Just brilliant.

The Eye of the Storm – Peter Ratcliffe

This is t’o-m’s genre of choice, and generally not my cup of tea. As a rule, there’s only so much macho bullsh** I can stomach and I’m not a huge fan of the ‘death or glory’ mindset. However, I needed to research special forces for a novel I’m planning, and t’o-m recommended this one. I was pleasantly surprised. I liked the tone of the book – the attitude that “this is our job, it’s what we do” runs through the whole, and makes it comprehensible to me that it is regarded as both necessary and practical to maintain such a force, and goes a long way to correcting the distortions and exaggerations of other books about special forces. Politics drives what the special forces do, but their training and mindset comes across clearly in this book that offers a real insight into the degree of planning and preparation for the successful accomplishment of those political tasks. Predictably, it centres on the Gulf War, but offers an alternative to the blood-and-guts hyperbole of Bravo 2 zero and its ilk (it’s worth noting that the author is comprehensive in his condemnation of these) that makes much more sense, in pragmatic terms. In a nutshell, it gave me what I needed AND engaged me because I felt that the voice was both authentic and totally lacking in self-aggrandisement (though this last tempered by an awareness that the man *did*, after all, feel the need to write about it 😉 ).

The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

From one extreme to another … after all that male-dominated action, I needed an antidote, so a little early feminist writing seemed the perfect answer. I have read this before,  and the stories keep me coming back to them … it strikes me that despite some superficial external changes, very little has changed in terms of the balance of power in/nature of relationships between men and women from the early twentieth century until now, and these stories are therefore as relevant now as they were then. By keeping the focus on the domestic level, magnifying the minute detail to macro scale, these stories offer some powerful insights into how women are both constrained by and exploit their (often inferior) status in context of their relationship to the men surrounding them. Subtle, without the stridency of later feminist fiction, these stories are thought provoking and throw into stark relief the social, economic and personal relationships of men and women, and show both how they could improve.

Cup of Gold – John Steinbeck

Again, Steinbeck is one of my favourite authors, so I approached this, his first novel, with some apprehension. It seemed so far removed from his ‘normal’ subject – the social history of twentieth century America – that I wasn’t sure whether it would meet my expectations and feared disappointment. I needn’t have worried. Although this overtly swashbuckling story is a long way removed from his American novels, this is still a social history of America, though earlier than the others, and still holds true to what ‘matters’ about Steinbeck – his absolute immersion in character and how individuals – whether small or large in historical terms – both shape and reflect their own identities and the world around them through their actions and thoughts. It is the story of a life, and the power of dreams, disillusionment and loss are are as present, as forceful and as relevant as in any of his later novels. It is not on the scale of East of Eden or Grapes of Wrath, but the elements that makes those novels so important and resonant exist here, staking out a claim that he mines to rich conclusion both here and later. If you came to this  first, it would mark out the territory he later explores. Reading this afterwards, it highlights what it is about Steinbeck that makes him such a magnificent writer and storyteller.

The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

Thomas Hardy said of James’ highly stylised writing that it is a “ponderously warm manner of saying nothing in infinite sentences”. I’m afraid I have to agree. I know he’s one of the most influential writers of the turn of the century, and perhaps my failure to admire this novel is more a reflection on my intellectual capacity than his writing, but reading this novel was like wading through treacle. The language is as dense and formal as Dickens in extended purple and precise mode, and distanced me so far from the action and tension that I found myself completely incapable of caring what happened. Imagine, then, my disappointment, when I finally got to the end of this dreary, melodramatic thing and nothing was resolved. 120-odd pages of imagination, dread, supposition and allusion, and at the end of it no satisfactory answers. I could, I suppose, have conjectured any manner of answers from the clues laid down in the text, but to be honest ( and maybe this makes me a lazy reader?), I’d much rather that the writer had done the work for me and given me some answers. As it is, I can conjecture some conclusions from the coy postulations of the narrator, reading between the lines of late-Victorian prudery to shocking revelation, and ponder the deliberate ambiguity of the ending for some inner coherence … but you know what? I don’t want to. I want him to give me the explanation for the events he’s unfolded, and I want to know the precise junction of evil and intent between the children and Quint/Jessell, and how it impacted on the anonymous narrator of the opening. Awaiting that explanation was the only thing that kept me wading on through the narrator’s rather tedious sighings and somewhat hysterical clinging-to-virtue, and to be cheated of it made me feel I’d wasted my time. Pointless, ponderous (to the nth degree) and totally unsatisfying twaddle. So shoot for a heathen if I’m failing to appreciate the subtleties. If this is a classic, I’m with Mark Twain.

Against a Dark Background – Iain M Banks

After James, I needed something to wash the taste out. Back to familiar territory … but again with a certain amount of apprehension. Banks’ SF has become rather like Graham Greene in my mind – powerful writing and compelling story-telling, but always so stark and disturbing, leaving one broken-hearted, haunted, and mired in futility at the logical but bleak conclusion. This is not a ‘Culture’ novel, but it touches on the same themes and tensions that define those stories – the struggle of the individual against the massive impersonal forces of society and culture and human nature to define  a distinct self and maintain that integrity of self in the face of those pressures. I go into these novels expecting that there will *not* be a ‘happily-ever-after’ for the main character, and although I dread the eventual conclusion that the main character must sacrifice everything of meaning to them to gain ‘victory’, that same dread is what attracts me and keeps me reading. This story is no exception. Sharrow is damaged from the start, but that damage informs her every action and thought, leading us through the fallout to the ultimate betrayal – which, maybe because I’m used to the way Banks works, or maybe because of the trail of hints and clues he lays down through the story – wasn’t as much of a shock as some betrayals have been. He blends past and present so that each informs the other, and the savage and destructive conclusion leaves us as shell-shocked and desolate as Sharrow herself. Wonderfully disorientating.

The Marsh Arabs – Wilfred Thesiger

Time to bring myself back down to earth with a little shot of non-fiction. Thesiger is my travel writer of choice, not least because I grew up in the middle east, and his experiences echo the vestiges of a  culture I remember and mourn (even its foreshortened manifestation) as much as he does in anticipation of its passing. This book is best taken as a part of sequence of his travels in the middle east, and my reaction to it is highly coloured by my own memories, documenting as it does his travels amongst the Marsh Arabs of the Euphrates/Tigrus delta in the 1950’s. He makes no sentimental concessions to the harshness of the life endured by these peoples, but he illustrates the beauty of the inner coherence and connection of these people to their environment and heritage in a way that throws a stark and unforgiving reflection on British/western influence in the region. As in other parts of the middle east, the impact of western norms and economic imperatives were starting to cause incalculable damage in *his* time, and this book throws into stark relief the consequences of recent events in the region, showing them as natural progressions in a region where life, though primitive and harsh, had at least an internal logic and cohesion that has now been completely torn away, leaving little better than a vaccuum in its place.

Crash – J G Ballard

Ballard is explicit in his introduction to this novel about the ambiguity present in the modern world, the marriage between reason and nightmare, sex and technology, the gratification of personal needs and an overarching sinister scientific imperative, and the role of the novelist in this blurring of fact, fiction, past, present and future. With this, the reputation of both the book (and the film) in mind, and previous excursions into Ballard territory, I wasn’t sure if I actually *wanted* to read this book. But, nonetheless, it was there and I didn’t want to *not* read it. I suppose it’s kind of appropriate that I was ambiguous in my approach to the book. Yes, it’s pornographic from the outset, graphically so, but to a degree that is so clinical and devoid of emotion that it is almost completely de-sexualised – it becomes, as Ballard proposes, no more than a junction between biology and technology, a crazed symbiosis that is both fascinating and revolting, compellingly so. At almost every turn of the page, I was convinced I didn’t need to read this, but at the same time I was compelled to keep reading. It’s alien, but not to the extent that it’s unimaginable, and that is its horrifying power – it’s not beyond my capabilities to see myself reduced in meaning to these collisions between tissue and technology, as much as I didn’t want to see. Ballard’s visions – putting the self under the miscroscope to such an excruciating and highly magnified, narrow, detail – are neither comfortable nor comforting, but when all other boundaries have become blurred and meaning is distorted or eliminated by the enveloping contradictions with which our needs are surrounded, perhaps the only truth is the one we invent for ourselves.

Close Quarter Battle (CQB) – Mike Curtis

 

My poor brain needed a rest, so I shifted down several gears to overcome a natural reluctance to read *anything* the Daily Mail called ‘outstanding’ to read this – in the name of research, and again at t’o-m’s recommendation. Again, it surprised me. As with the Ratcliffe book, I liked the ‘this is what we are, this is what we do’ approach, and, perhaps because I’d read the Ratcliffe book previously, it struck me as more political than I’d expected. One of the things that struck me was, in essence, how few options there are available to the working class in this country – down the pit (or other blue-collar apprenticeship), into crime, or into the army. These days, the pit is long gone, but there’s little else available as alternative beyond crime or the army – it looks like a massive indictment for betrayal of an entire strata of society, though this (obviously) isn’t explored in this book … although at the end of it, with the writer coming out of the army, there seems few options at the other end either – service in the elite armed forces leaves these men pitifully equipped to thrive in anything approaching ‘normal’ life. Meanderings aside, expanding this account beyond the Gulf War to include the Falklands and Bosnia gave the book an extra dimension, and allowed for a powerful illustration of the very human dimension of the personal impacts of the political decisions that take nations to war, and how the actions and reactions of the individuals in those circumstances, honed by training, go above and beyond what one would think possible without losing humanity and compassion.

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One Response to “Holiday Reading Roundup”

  1. 1 Erin

    My word, but you got a lot of reading done! Makes me ashamed of the paltry bit I did on my own vacation. I’ll have to look for that Special Forces book; it sounds fascinating.

    Welcome back — I missed your posts on both your blogs.


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