Tuesday 29 December 2015

A year of 50 books - Part One (1-15)

Books provide one with such a colourful counteroffence against life's drudgery or its disconcerting machinations. To this end, I have embarked on reading as many books as I could this year.  

Part Two here: Part Three over here.

Part One:

1. Helliconia Spring: The first book in this monumental trilogy, for it is indeed a monumental pursuit by Brian Aldiss to capture the workings of the planet Helliconia, part of a binary planet system, the rise and fall of its civilisation over more than a thousand years, as the seasons on the planet last for centuries.
The planet of Helliconia is in a binary star system where it orbits one sun Batalix every four hundred days and another much larger, older sun Freyr every 2,500 years or so. Many of the inhabitants are unaware of this fact, as such a seasonal change that happens over a millennium is not easily documented, and if it is, such knowledge is either lost or becomes part of a myth.

It is not difficult to see where one may have difficulty with getting through this book, since the central character is the planet and as such the characters seem trivial and unengaging, for their time on the stage in the epic nature of the world they live in is so limited. One may feel a bit distanced by this. 

Nevertheless, it is a glorious geographical, biological, anthropological exploration of this quite imaginative earth-like setting. 

2. Wyrd Sisters: I've been basing my sojourn through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld on this excellent map of suggested reading order. I'm currently following the “witches” and “death” storylines. 

 Wyrd Sisters, if I'm not wrong, gives us the first proper introduction of Nanny Ogg, an alpha witch who serves as a counterpoint to the more pragmatic Granny Weatherwax, especially with her ribald humour. I didn't find Magrat, the third of the "sisters", as engaging as the other and missed the vivacious Eskarina of "Equal Rites" who I felt belonged here more than Magrat. 

The humour doesn't feel as fluid or effortless as in some of the other Discworld novels, and if you're well accustomed to references to Macbeth and Hamlet, you will see the jokes coming. Nevertheless, it's enjoyable. 


3. Ubik: This is one of the most compelling books I've read this year. Phillip K Dick is the master of pulling the reality from under you just when you think you've figured out where you are. The book presents you with a juxtaposition of two worlds and challenges you to figure out which one, if any, is real, not just by depicting the characters’ frustrations but also through cleverly placed clues and advertisements of a fictitious product called Ubik. I am fascinated when the tension in a book stretches like a rubber band through simple dialogue, without relying on needless complicated effects. I do hope they do not make a movie out of this.

4. The Picture of Dorian Gray: Oscar Wilde's sole novel is a brilliant exploration and depiction of aestheticism and its consequence on one's own identity. Apart from allusions and references to Tannhäuser and Faust, the book also presents the superficial natural of the society through Lord Henry and others, and their influence on Dorian. As Lord Henry points out, "there is something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence", thus teaching a lesson in individualism that is as relevant now as it was then. 

The homoerotic theme underlying the book was definitely a reflection of Wilde's own life, though how much of it was an attempt to philosophically justify his lifestyle, rather than it being part of his own wider aestheticism and refined culture, is a little unclear since Wilde was constrained by the homophobic society he lived in. Perhaps, it was a bit of both. 

 5. Slaughterhouse-Five: Kurt Vonnegut's quasi-autobiographical/science fiction story of Billy Pilgrim who goes back and forth in time and back and forth through the bombing of Dresden, and to and from the Tralfmadorians, is a satire on issues ranging from war and freewill to foresight, and perhaps even a satire of itself as it begins with the sentence "All this happened, more or less". Despite its fractured, non-linear narrative, one may find the prose a little repetitive and monotonous at times. Is there too much of "So, it goes"? It felt so half way through the book, though at the end, it seemed right. Even if you don't like it, you will probably appreciate what Vonnegut's doing here. I do both like and appreciate his work.

6. Brothers Karamazov:  “There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life...it's the Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but that's not enough," said Vonnegut of Dostoevsky's last novel in Slaughterhouse-Five. I think perhaps, it can be said, if it doesn't teach you, it definitely talks about almost everything you need to know. But it is Dostoevsky talking, and he is very passionate here, so it's worth listening to him, and he is hardly a bad teacher.

Ivan Karamazov is perhaps Dostoevsky's finest creation. Despite Dostovesky leaning towards one way more than (in the end) the other in the conflict between faith and doubt, he nevertheless scrutinises both rigorously. The nature of the Russian society as it battles or tries to reconcile itself with the influence from the West is also a fascinating discussion in the book. Maybe less Dickensian than his other books, the influence of Dickens on the prose is definitely present in the manners and idiosyncrasies of the characters, and it may be more fascinating to read it in Russian, despite the no doubt stellar translations of Pevear and Volokhonsky. More about the translations here.

7. Trigger Warning: Short Stories and Disturbances: This third collection of Neil Gaiman's short stories is quite diverse, ranging from homages to Gene Wolfe, Holmes, Dr Who, Ray Bradbury, to his usual terrifying stories (Click-clack the Rattlebag, my gosh!), and in my opinion, a successful online experiment that is "A Calendar of Tales". In the introduction, Gaiman tells us a little about the origins of each of the 24, and this itself is interesting!

For those of you who enjoyed American Gods, there's Black Dog where Shadow finds himself in a pub, and in rather scary, fun little adventure, perhaps on his way to American Gods 2.  I loved Sleeper and the Spindle, as well the illustrations by Chris Riddell. Though I never took to Dr Who, I found “Nothing O'clock” interesting. The collection also includes a story which would have an accompanying piece for a fashion article on David Bowie.

A thoroughly enjoyable collection.

8. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch: This is one of Phillip K Dick's first works to explore religious themes apart from the usual ones he delves into like reality/unreality and philosophy. It's difficult to talk about much of the plot without giving away elements that will spoil the story, save to say that it has to do with dreams, drugs, escapism and a more realistic take on what was offered to us by Nolan's Inception. But the similarities end there as Dick asks more profound questions such as "When does someone stop being human?". It is a little more incoherent than some of his other books, and is perhaps less enjoyable than “Ubik” or “Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep?”

9. Lolita: I finally got around to reading Nabokov's classic. I didn't think it was brilliant but I did think it was very good. I guess the conflict between morality and aesthetics is one for us and not for Humbert Humbert. However, this makes him less interesting and somewhat predictable despite him being an unreliable narrator. I thought there could have been more exploration on society's view on morality versus that of an individual. It's obvious Nabokov loved words as showcased by his clever word play, but I'm not sure I agree with the opinion of the majority who say that it gave the book a beauty that was not deserving of the shocking content it within. I didn't find H.H charming enough or interesting enough for that. Instead for me, it gave an insight into H.H, not to sympathize with him as such but to understand that he was flawed and not insane (that is not to say he didn't have mental issues) and agree with some of the issues he raises about the inadequacy of the simplicity of some psychiatry.     

10. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch: I loved this book. Quite often pop culture references in satires make you want to read/watch the original rather than read/watch the satire. That is to say, the satire just becomes a weak apery. In Good Omens, every such reference fits in really well with the narrative or its mood and doesn't feel contrived. Neil Gaiman's dark depiction of the Four Horsemen not only balances the other funny parts, but in a curious way adds to it, as we ask ourselves the very interesting question, "How much free will do demons, the Anti-Christ have?"  

Oh, and I'm Sure Agnes Nutter appreciated the Bohemian Rhapsody.

Very witty, very British, very brilliant.

 11. A Clockwork Orange: I think the language in this book (Nadsat) adds a lot to the whole setting. Yes, it serves as a distraction from the shocking scenes, but is also mesmeric and vague and alludes to the political setting around it. It felt a little odd in the film, but works excellently in the book, since Alex is a teenager and the Russian-Cockney-Malay hybrid fits the profile of the teenagers whose perorations have echoes of Shakespeare.

The final chapter brings the story around to a neat character conclusion, unlike the movie which I felt was driving the whole point of free will a little too ardently. It is a dark and compelling read.

12. Ringworld: There is no denying that Larry Niven's multiple award winning Ringworld is a major work in the field of science fiction literature. It is an amazing concept, that of a gargantuan ring-shaped structure encircling a star, particularly since it’s backed up by much scientific research by the author. An artist would find it quite fascinating depicting the perspective in such a world, and perhaps even puzzling. Please Google Ringworld art only AFTER you've read the book. The sole disappointment was the characterisation, which I found perfunctory, especially the female characters. Furthermore the idea of "breeding for luck" was very unconvincing to say the least. The world itself is very engaging, but the book on the whole with its rather forgettable characters makes me not too keen to go back to its sequels.

 13. In Cold Blood: It's quite amazing how Capote manages to keep the narrative tension throughout the book, even when the nature of the crime and the destiny of the characters is known to us in advance. Much of this is established through a complete character study of the two antagonists as well as the Clutter family, thus giving us an insight into the effect of the killings both on the murderers and the different people in the Holcomb community. Capote was apparently given unprecedented access to the case and the people involved. The veracity of the book, will of course, come into question, since no one can really confirm the actual internal monologues of the characters and some Kansas residents have questioned the re-created dialogue saying that they were misquoted or mischaracterised.  In what he coined a "non-fiction" novel, Capote's writing style feels impartial for the most part and factual while not sounding like a simple report. 

14. Iron Council: I felt this was best of the novels set in the Bas-Lag world created by China Mieville. I am in the minority though. It's generated mixed reviews due to its overtly political (leftish) tones, and the general radical nature of the characters. What is missed is that it is a love story, and Mieville's commentary on the nature of love is one of the finest I've read. It's a western, it's dark, cynical in its prose as well as the plot, and nearly a third of the book is a flashback. The prose is less baroque than Mieville's usual style and more along the lines of Cormac McCarthy's powerful, tight cadence. It's not for everyone, even for people who loved “Perdido Street Station” and “The Scar”. It's less fantastical, adventurous, grandiose and thrilling than either but is perhaps more complete than both, for it is very insistent, insistent in the relentless pursuit of the Iron Council towards their goal, insistent on the militia's pursuit of the Iron Council, insistent in its bleak outlook, and is so good, that the ending that is brought about by Mieville, despite being bizarre and peculiar, is nevertheless germane as anything else wouldn't have felt true after one's latter anamnesis of the book.

15 The Invisible Man: The original invisible man, the one that spawned many many stories and movies in this genre, has actually, as I recently learnt, as its substructure Plato's "Ring of Gyges". There's a classic conflict between the society and the individual, between collective good and scientific progress as a result of self-alienation. The struggles of the Invisible Man are very vivid, as H.G Wells portrays the difficulty of being invisible and inconspicuous at the same time as he shows us that the two need not necessarily go together. He also shows how a simplified scientific theory has the ingredients to make a harrowing story and this is interesting because a lot of books and movies are overburdened by complicated science that tries to justify its presence. Here, the science is just the backdrop, like an opening move in a game that it then leaves for more important players.