Book micro-review: 84K by Claire North

If the conservative vision of the corporate future is mildly annoying, this left-wing dystopia is terrifying. The main character who’s real name we never learn is called Theo. He should be called Winston. He doesn’t work in the Ministry of Truth but in Ministry for Justice assigning costs for crimes to be paid by the perpetrators.

It’s unsettling to see seeds of the dystopian future in the present. Public-private partnerships. Segregation by wealth. Monetisation of convicts’ labour. Use of apprentices as a cheap labour with short self life. Uselessness of university degrees in the absence of “connections”.
Schools curriculum being skewed by commerce – a recurrent topic in modern SF and “The Simpsons”.

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Book review: by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler colours in the other, yin side of the Great American Novel. While some writers – mostly men – construct sweeping epics about the state of the world, she describes the human condition in exquisite details.

In Noah’s Compass (2010) a teacher on a cusp of retirement is fired, gets whacked on the head, falls in love with a woman that achingly reminded me of myself twenty years ago. In The Beginner’s Goodbye (2012)  a man is followed by a ghost of his wife. A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) describes the rise and dispersal of an all American family via the history of a family house.

Anne Tyler’s books are hard to put down. But after the downing, it is difficult to describe what it was all about and to pick it up again. The characters are fallible without redeemable features. Beyond prying, it’s hard to care about these random humans. The large picture of society is a negative space, absent like on Eastern paintings.

This is Chekov reborn as an American a century later. I never liked Chekov.

But it’s possible that I try reading Tyler’s book at a wrong time in my life. I tried to read ”Mrs Dalloway” when I was in my early twenties and couldn’t. The book rushed at me and drowned me, there was too much happening at once. I read it a decade later and loved it.

Maybe when I slow down in a decade or two and finally despair of the wider world, this will be the time to read the rest of Anne Tyler’s novels.

Book review: “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Suddenly I am fascinated by the book presented to me for the new year. Written by a Somali refugee that became a Duch member of Parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Aly “Infidel”. She is two years younger than my brother, her grandmother is the age of my grandmother, the mother my mother’s. I can also emphasize with somebody who moved to the West from a different culture as a young adult.

The book is a well-written, detailed account of a personal journey and social history of East Africa the life at the end of the 20th century. The author’s father was in opposition to the dictator, who was trying to build Soviet-style “socialism” in Somalia. During her childhood, Hirsi Ali had to live in the capital and rural Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and later in Germany and Holland.

Mosaic of tribes, clans, and religions in African countries she describes is amazing. She vividly describes the rising popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood, causes and development of Somali Civil War. The civil war in the Western press usually explained as “nomads against settled” or “Arabs against blacks”, but the author sees this in a completely different way: the clan against the clan.

The relationships within the clan are fascinating for me as somebody from a country with much looser nepotism culture. The personal name itself is more of a genealogy. Everyone is obliged to help the others belonging to the clan. Which sounds fabulous until you recognise the suffocating power of each decision making an impact not only on yourself but your family and wider clan.

The family relationship was complicated. The father married four times not always troubling himself with divorce: the first time the wife was Somali, then another Somali, then an Ethiopian, then the first Somali. There were children from each marriage and nobody was supposed to show any jealousy.

There was also a rural grandmother and mother, who tied and beat children with a stick and dumped all the homework on Hirsi Ali quite early. The grandmother arranged the genital mutilation of 6 and 4-year-old granddaughters in the absence of the mother. FGM was not the worst kind – the clitoris and small labia were excised and sewed up and sometimes all external genitals cut off. The consequences of this are also described, and terrible.

Women who have had unsuccessful sex – except virgins, I don’t know if there are such women – can imagine sensations when everything is sewn up to such an extent that the urine does not flow, but drips and this scar is broken by a penis.

Hirsi Ali is a very controversial figure, she was expelled from Holland, where she illegally obtained asylum. To escape the heart of darkness, anybody would lie and cheat.

But this is the case when the power of the work makes you close your eyes to the imperfection of the author as a person. Even if Hirsi Ali didn’t do a day’s work anymore the book more than pays back for the kindness of Duch people

Book review: “Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons

For those who like their English Classic Literature obscure and humorous. If P. G. Wodehouse was a woman and switched from describing city gents and their true masters to rural settings, he might have approached the blend of apt descriptions and sarcasm of “Cold Comfort Farm”.
You will never hear the word ”woodshed” as an innocent description of a place to store logs.

If you can get it, I recommend the Penguin Classics edition as British writer Lynne Truss’ preface contains perfect information about the writer and as to why the book was forgotten for almost a hundred years after an initial wild success.

Gibbons (no relation) committed several sins that doomed her in the manner of books by D. H. Lawrence she parodies. Firstly, she was a woman, which disqualified her from being funny. Secondly, she was a journalist. Then she mocked both Arts and Crafts and Bloomsbury set. Finally, she sold too many copies of her debut novel and collected several awards irritating my beloved Virginia Woolf and Co.

I don’t think the novel is perfect. The urbane heroine, Flora an orphan with meager £100 annual income decides aginst earning her keep or going to a jolly set because she would have to share a room. She goes instead to live on the title farm. Here ignoring reigning inbreeding, doom, and portents she effortlessly rearranges life of farm inhabitants including a quartet of cows named Graceless, Aimless etc. I kept expecting her plans to find at least a minor obstacle to overcome, but everything went swimmingly.

In three weeks, Flora remodels her cousin Elfine from a wild child fleeting in disheveled hair and clothes on the moors similar to Perdita from Mary Shelley’s ”The Last Man of Earth” to an elegant and dull debutante worthy of becoming the young squire’s fiance. Flora categorically decrees her cousin to stop writing poetry and Elfine complies.

The most irritating is the finale (spoiler alert). After arranging all escape routes for her farm relatives, she is rescued by a knight in a canvas plane – a lot of plot development relies on planes taking off from rural fields – that invited her to live with him at the beginning of the book. Domestic bliss beckons.

It’s all well to join in mocking erotic symbolism and the Bloomsbury set after they won and became the next Establishment, but Woolf had had a right to be irritated by clever and funny trolling while the culture battle was ongoing.

Book micro-review: “A Naked Singularity” by Sergio de la Pava

I love reading “state of the nation = world”, cinder block like candidates for The Next Great American Novel that Meg Wolitzer witheringly writes about in ”The Wife”  by ‎Jonathan Franzen or ‎Jonathan Safran Foer.

Here’s another one, by the New York public defense attorney Sergio de la Pava ”A Naked Singularity”. Nothing to do with astrophysics, it’s dissecting the US judicial system. Jesus wept. Kafka also wept.

Book review: “Great North Road” by Peter Hamilton

Image result for great north road bookThey say that those who are not politically left while young, have no heart, and those who are not on the right while old have no intellect. Eminent space opera write Peter Hamilton is certainly clever; he is 58.

The book is a sprawling as usual, 1000 pages whodunit. It set at the end of the 22nd century in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK where I used to live.  I was happy to follow the familiar street descriptions especially of “ancient buildings” that were being built while I lived there.

There are also original evil aliens that are light years ahead of usual insects on spaceships with lasers, but there’s not enough of them.

But among smart dust that covers Newcastle streets and records every breath some features are curiously retro. The civilisation that spread to numerous star systems via space-time portals still heavily depends on oil, it grows oil-producing algae on tropical planets. It also transports welfare recipients off Earth giving them some land and a tent on virgin soil, 18th-century style.

Newcastle and the rest of Britain are also heavily under snow, which is never explained but reads like a dig at climate change science. The future people mastered human cloning (an interesting plot device but with unrealistic details as the clones manage to propagate themselves via normal conception) but not clean energy retrieval and storage.

A recent example of similar projection of technology and social progress stagnation is Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man”.  But while I can excuse an early 19th-century genre pioneer, I cannot extend my magnanimity to the 21st-century professional.

The book is also transparently anti-EU, not as much as Neal Asher’s (57) The Departure but close. There are repeated lengthy descriptions of how one of the main protagonist, a detective, as well as everybody and his dog,  evade taxes because they are too high while complaining about crumbling infrastructure. My heart refuses to bleed for somebody who’s using proceeds of corruption for buying a 5 bedroom house for 4 people in a  Newcastle district that is currently an equivalent of Manhattan.

Not completely incidentally the totally evil, caricature character, a bureaucrat is a woman, and she is the only female figure of authority. An occasional soldier or detective is female, but the central female character is a blonde, elfin femme fatale who wraps male character around her finger – sometimes literally – using her feminine wiles.

The book is ponderous, meandering and long, and around page 200 I started to count pages until the end. Hamilton has never been a concise writer, but I swallowed his “Night Dawn” trilogy, 3000+ pages without any problem and wanted more.

I gave up on page 350 after an underwhelming revelation,  and yet another one description of porn – like  (mechanistic and without any feeling) – sex, in the middle of Green  Zone set in an alien jungle. If you want quality humane SF, you’d better read Sevenaves by Neal Stephenson (58).

Book review: “The Last Man” by Mary Shelley

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Mary Shelley, the mother of science fiction around the time she wrote The Last Man.  By Reginald Easton (1820)  via Wikimedia Commons

Panning for gold and letting the sand go in the stream of time, Literature selects timeless books by their quality. If a writer is known by only one book while she wrote prolifically, it’s usually for a reason. I found it’s true for many writers from J. D. Salinger to H. Beecher-Stowe.

Mary Shelley is not an exception. She is known as “the mother of science fiction” for “Frankenstein“, arguably the first SF novel, but most of us would struggle to name any of her other books, while she wrote 7 novels, 2 travelogues, biography, poems, short stories, and children’s books.

The Last Man” was Shelley’s third novel published in 1826. It is an apocalyptic novel, allegedly the first apocalyptic novel, the subgenre “death by plague”. It’s nowhere as good as “Frankenstein” and a great deal longer.

The first 250 pages are an example of a novel that parents were advised against in the 19th century.  There are two noble orphans living in poverty as the father was a witty spendthrift and squandered friendship of the last king of England. He died, children’s mother died. The son is a shepherd and hooligan who supports his dreamy sister.

shelleylastmanThe action starts when the son of the abdicated king, Adrian, the Earl of Windsor befriends the shepherd. The noblest Adrian was modelled on Mary’s late husband, romantic poet Percy Bissy Shelley.

The children grow into adults. Under the angelic Adrian tutelage, the shepherd acquires education fit for a diplomatic aide in a year.

The Earl of Windsor is in love with a Greek princess. The princess rejects him as she secretly loves The General and the Earl goes mad.  The shepherd is in love with the Earl of Windsor’s sister. The sister is courted by The General, a cross between Lord Byron, Alexander the Great and Napoleon as he has the imperial ambitions. But The General is in love with shepherd’s sister and renounces his ambitions to be with his love.

The language is florid and pompous, I always imagined the speaker in Roman robes,  arms raised to Heaven declaring:

“Nor are outward objects alone the receptacles of the Spirit of Good. Look into the mind of man, where wisdom reigns enthroned; where imagination, the painter, sits, with his pencil dipt in hues lovelier than those of sunset, adorning familiar life with glowing tints. What a noble boon, worthy the giver, is the imagination! it takes from reality its leaden hue: it envelopes all thought and sensation in a radiant veil, and with an hand of beauty beckons us from the sterile seas of life, to her gardens, and bowers, and glades of bliss. And is not love a gift of the divinity? Love, and her child, Hope, which can bestow wealth on poverty, strength on the weak, and happiness on the sorrowing.

The novel set at the end of the 21st century but the progress is minor, it’s early 19th century all around. The most shocking development is the king of the United Kingdom abdication and replacement by the Lord Protector, sort of president. Incidentally, two centuries later there’s no serious republican movement in the real UK as the Royal family settled in a role of a cross between a tourist attraction and the Kardashians.

In the book, although some politicians want to abolish aristocracy, there’s still abject poverty where people die from hunger. The world is sharply divided between “people of value and leisure” and everybody else.

The other conspicuously absent change that I expected from the daughter of one of the first European feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft is the role of women. They are always talked about in the context of marriage and looking after their family. All members of parliament and officials, even inn-keepers are men. Women are shown as caring and emotional beings incapable of any intellectual occupation. When a man shows an emotion, he apologises for behaving like a woman.

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A painting inspired by Thomas Campbell’s poem with the same name  – The Last Man  by John Martin (1849)

The technology did not progress. People still travel by carriage or riding a horse, the only concession to the future is to travel by an air balloon, and a steamship mentioned once. They still fight with bayonets and swords. There are no methods of communication on short or long distances except letters. If you want to see how horrible the relatively recent part was, just read this description of the future.

After 250 pages and with some main characters tragically dead, the plague that was smoldering in barbaric Turkey inundates Europe and reaches England’s shores. As the science did not advance, there is no way to do something about it and the population of British Isles is reduced to a couple of thousand people. This enlivens the narrative to no end.

A lot of apocalyptic cliches are already there. “Vegetation” growing on the pavements of London. The abundance of material goods per person, which leads to breaking ranks. Although nobody produces any food, nobody starves. A cult leader splits the survivors.

The novel was written following the poem of the same name  (1823). Essentially, the book is n interminably long, an indulegnt love letter to Shelley’s late husband. The contemporary critics didn’t like the book and it was forgotten for almost 200 years.  I say let it remain in Lethe.

You may ask why didn’t I quit this book after the first 50 pages. It was a part of the book club (read the review) and I was one of the 4 people who has managed to finish it.