Some not-very-recent reading

Read these yonks ago, but never got round to posting anything on them…

A Brief History of the Future – John Naughton

This is an excellent study of the origins of the internet, by academic and journalist John Naughton, whose Observer column (go to The Observer site and search on his name, or try his entertaining blog) is essential reading for anyone remotely interested in the ‘net and its possible applications. He traces the web all the way back, before ARPAnet at the Pentagon and discusses the ideas and theories expressed by those dreamers who imagined a vast communications network before any of the technology existed. He writes well, and manages to pass on his enthusiasm to the reader, especially when discussing issues such as open-source technology and the collaborative nature of the internet. Highly recommended.

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World – Francis Wheen

Another non-fiction one, this time dealing with the current decline of rationality in both politics and society in general. Written by Francis Wheen, a columnist on The Guardian, it is by no means lefty polemic, though much of the neo-conservative values are attacked, quite rightly, as being completely irrational. Other targets include ‘New’ Labour, spiritualism, homeopathy and Islamic fundamentalists. Wheen starts off with the rise of Marget Thatcher and her idolation of the free market; but mirrors that with the coming to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Thatcher wanted to taken Britain back to her golden age of late-Victorian values and entrepreneurism; the Ayatollah also wished to take his country back in time, but to a medieval-like society. All kinds of fuzzy thinking is subjected to Wheen’s witty and thoughtful attack – he genuinely laments the apparent loss of scientific understanding in almost every walk of life. Of course, much of what he writes is mere common sense – the taking of any political or religious creed to extremes is a pretty dumb thing to do – but I think this is a timely book, and a call-to-arms for all of us of the opinion that all people need to do is think now and again, and then everything will be ok. The trouble is, of course, is that they never will, and nor will it ever be.

More reading…

I have abandoned ‘Consider Phlebas’ with a third of the way to go. At the end of the day, I don’t like SF enough to read nearly 600 pages of the stuff.

So, fiction-wise I am reading ‘Lolita’ now, which hopefully will be a quick one. The few chapters I have read make it clear what a superbly written book it is, and it should be a real joy.

Non-fiction-wise, I have still got Boris Johnson’s ‘Lend Me Your Ears’ on the go, though that is a good dip-in-and-out-of book. I’m certainly enjoying the early Politics section which covers the early 1990s, specifically on Europe. Obviously it comes from a sceptic viewpoint, but it is still filling me in on a time when I was too young to know what was going on.

I am also seriously keen to start John Naughton’s book. In fact I might do so tonight.

Consider Phlebas

This is still going well, and I am hooked into the action scenes. Banks does write well, especially in his early books. Mind you, this is going to have stiff competition as I am going to treat myself to a copy of John Naughton’s book about the internet later today, which I have been after for a while.

Current Reading

I am currently reading Consider Phlebas, by Iain ‘M’ Banks. It is the first Science Fiction novel I have read since I was a kid, and I have to say it took quite a long time to get into. The problem, I am only slightly ashamed to admit, was the funny names.

Still, now I have got used to daft things like having apostrophes in the middle of names and stuff, I am starting to enjoy it. It’s fairly fast paced, and Banks keeps the action coming. One of the slight problems I have is that I believe Banks uses several standard SF motifs and ideas, but never bothers explaining them. Fine for most fans of the genre, but they tend to fly over my head. Still there are plenty of political parallels in this which I can pick up, and Banks doesn’t shy away from the serious stuff in favour of making it all about zapping aliens.

Palimpsest have an informative ‘M’ Banks page

The Crime Trade – Simon Kernick

I finished The Crime Trade, Simon Kernick’s third novel, in hardback (I must be keen!) last night, and it was really rather good. I have something of a soft spot for dark crime fiction, and this certainly hit the spot.

John Gallan, who was the star of the show in The Murder Exchange returns, and he is a good hero. Suitably miserable and dogged, he also has a wicked line in black humour. The reader warms to him pretty quickly. Plus, he’s fairly realistic: as a forty-odd year old copper, he is regularly out run and out fought by the bad guys – he certainly isn’t a superman. Gallan has managed to find himself a girlfriend, too, Tina Boyd, another detective.

What’s also refreshing about Kernick’s books is that the plots don’t rely on people making incredible imaginitive leaps, there are very few Holmes moments where one character suddenly is able to divine exactly what is going on. Instead, the books develop in a methodical manner, similar to the slow, meticulous investigations undertaken by the police.

I won’t bother giving away any of the plot, but suffice to say that this is a well written, witty and exciting read. Kernick seems to improve massively book by book, and I am certainly looking orward to his fourth.

Some Recent Reading

‘Like a Fiery Elephant’ – Jonathon Coe

An awesome book, magnificent. Anyone who cares about books, reading, and novels should have a look at this. It’s a biography of BS Johnson, the modernist author who killed himself in 1973. Johnson isn’t always a chap one can sympathise with, many of his views on the novel (‘telling stories is telling lies’) being rather difficult to agree with. But the story is presented so well by Coe that you’re gripped from the off. A brilliant, brilliant book, which will be the missing tenth in my Top Ten.

‘The Closed Circle’ – Jonathon Coe

This is the sequel to The Rotters’ Club, one of my Top 10 books, and continues the style of that book: plenty of narrative viewpoints, lots of uses of different forms (emails, letters, diaries, different perspectives) and big themes: war, terrorism, New Labour, the decline of industry in the UK, love, families, racism.

Indeed, many of the criticisms in the press about this book have been that it tries to do too much, and it is a valid one. But I don’t think he could have written it any other way. I think that it was always going to have its flaws and would never be a perfect book, but that doesn’t make it any the less enjoyable.

Most of the loose ends from the first book are tied up, though not always to the protagonists’ satisfaction, let alone the reader’s. Coe almost seems rushed at times, as if he knows he has a lot of stuff to get through by the end of the book. These two books were originally going to be six, and one wonders whether he has just crammed everything in he could.

I don’t want to be unduly negative – this is still a great book. It’s funny, moving, surprising and heartwarming, just like its predecessor. What Coe does brilliantly is that his characters are just so likeable, even the shallow Paul Trotter elicits sympathy rather than aversion. Benjamin Trotter is the heart and the soul of these novels, and in a way his life runs a parallel course with that of the ‘accidental woman’ of Coe’s first novel.

Anyway, it’s very good, if flawed. Read The Rotters’ Club, then this – you will feel a lot better for it.

Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry – BS Johnson

This is the first Johnson I have read, and it is widely considered to be his most accessible. It’s a breeze to read, only taking a few hours, and is often hilarious. Christie works in accounts in a bank, and later in a baker’s, and he develops a system of moral double entry book-keeping, where any slight or annoyance he suffers is a ‘debit’, and the revenge he takes is a ‘credit’. The first example of this is of a building Christie is forced to walk around to get to work – to counter this irritation he scratches the brickwork with a coin. Some of the ‘debits’ are hilarious: “Chagrin at learning no secrets” and “unpleasantness felt at presence of Reverand” being two pearls. But
what is obvious as the book progresses is that we are watching the development of a terrorist mindset, which results in Christie poisoning London’s water supply and killing 20,000 people to try and balance the debit “Socialism not given a chance”. The book is full of dark humour, and the odd Johnson-esque authorial interventions, one of which consists of the author talking to Christie, a conversation which offers a pretty bleak view of the novel as a form. Another example of this is when one character pauses for breath, in order that what might have been a daunting mass of type is broken up, and one character says to Christie, I’d tell you more about it, but we don’t have time, this is only a short novel (paraphrased). Then there are the Chapter
headings: ‘Not the Longest Chapter in the Novel’ etc. It’s very good, and recommend it to everyone.