Sunday, 2 January 2011

Books I Read In 2010

This is the latest in my annual series of reviews of books I have read.  See:
for previous postings in this series.

The number of books I am reading seems to be steadily falling from between 30-40 per year back in the 1990s to much lower figures now.  Interestingly there is a direct correlation between how much I am unemployed in a year and how little I read.  You might think that being out of work would leave me lots of time for reading, but it is also about being inspired to read and when I am without a job, the debilitating lethargy quickly creeps over me.  I guess this is why I know I could never be self-employed.  Like the huge majority of the population from the moment I started play school I have been conditioned to having my day structured for me whether directly or indirectly through people making timed demands.  As a result, being out of work so much in 2010 I have read less than even in the previous years.

Some people say that the book is dead and young people in particular tend not to read books.  Pre-secondary school children do still seem to engage well with books, as sales of things like the Beast Quest series show.  Reading is in fact at a height.  The internet, though providing lots of video content, is actually full of text.  A lot of that text is very badly spelt, but it is text all the same.  Blogging is a very text based art and develops writing skills, though I accept to a limited extent in some cases, and reading too.  The book as a medium rather than reading as an activity may be in decline but it is not that apparent.  I remember when supermarkets did not sell novels or any books in fact, and yet, these days even comparatively small branches have a row of books.  I find them in 99p shops too.  Some of this I imagine is about the digital divide; 30% of people in the UK have no internet access and many others have poor, low band access.  I am a well educated person who cannot afford a Kindle, whereas I can fill my house with books from charity shops and actually have a backlog of a few hundred books to read; I have not bought a new book in the past two years trying to keep the stack down.  People give me books too.  I think the tactile element of reading, the robustness of books, their ease of reading in a variety of light situations, the fact no-one is liable to steal your book, means that they will be around for a lot longer.  The recession means they will be more appealing to those with few funds and a lot of time.

Anyway, for me, not having travel on public transport, no longer having a lunch break and having a lover who is often averse to me reading in bed, my chances for reading for pleasure rather than for information or trying to find a job have declined severely, and last year's very short list of book titles shows that.  Expecting to have to move house at any time last year I focused on the heaviest books in my collection.  Many removal companies refuse to move books (certainly three companies out of the last four I have used) and so I was concerned that if I could not reduce the weight I would have to abandon large quantities of my collection if I could not fit them in my car.

'The Daffodil Affair' by Michael Innes.
This was the third in a three-book collection of terribly over-rated novels by Michael Innes. I commented on 'Death at the President's Lodging' and 'Hamlet, Revenge!' last year.  This third book was even worse than them.  It is a weird fantasy of a police detective sent during the Second World War to South America to investigate a man interested in psychic phenonmena who has abducted various people, a horse and even haunted buildings and brought them to a settlement he was creating.  How anyone could do that during wartime seems odd.  Of course, many of the people simply have mental health issues.  The whole novel is very peculiar, totally unbelievable and a real waste of time.  In nothing I have read by Innes does he seem to warrant the acclaim he was given.

'Chimera' by John Barth.
I really seem to have had a bad run of novels.  This one was an utter shambles.  It received an award in the mid-1970s and I can only imagine the award jury were on drugs at the time.  It is supposedly a three-part novel that draws on Greek myths and stories from the Arabian Nights.  It starts rationally enough re-interpreting the stories from a 1970s perspective though set in the ancient world.  However, quickly the text becomes almost incomprehensible with the plot running out of steam and even if you know great details of the original myths, the writing is soon a mish-mash of phrases and snippets that seem to think they are so clever but in fact are pathetic.  I certainly would warn you away from this novel, though I imagine there cannot be many left in circulation.

'The Deadly Percheron' by John Franklin Bardin.
I immediately worried that this was a kind of re-run of 'The Daffodil Affair' being a story set during the Second World War and involving a disappearing horse.  In fact it is far better being about a plot to divert, even brain wash as leading psychologist so that he cannot reveal the identity of a murderer.  It is written from the psychologist's perspective and is especially well done when he wakes up after having been almost murdered by being pushed in front of a train and begins to try to recapture his identity.  As a European reader, seeing New York portrayed in the early 1940s, so apparently untouched by the war is interesting.  The novel has elements of film noir stories, but with a greater psychological element than even those.  Not a cheerful novel, but well written and engaging all the same.

'The World at Night' by Alan Furst.
Furst is renowned for his spy/intrigue/murder novels set in 1930s and 1940s Europe.  This one was a real disappointment.  It features a Parisian movie producer who is drawn into being a double agent working for SOE and the SD in wartime France and Spain.  In the meantime he tries to make movies during the period of occupation and has lots of affairs before falling in love with an actress living in Lyons, which unlike Paris, lay in the Vichy region of the country.  The whole novel feels like Furst is simply going through the motions.  There is a real lack of tension throughout even in scenes as when the protagonist is escaping from a Gestapo prison.  There is a lack of passion in the numerous sex scenes too.  Furst is pretty good at conjuring up the context and details of the period, but in this case it makes the book as dreary as living in wartime Paris must have been.  Something to engage the reader is really lacking from this book.

'The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology' ed. by John W. Campbell, Jr.
I have no idea where I got this book from but it is one of the best I have read in a long time.  It is a collection of stories from the US science fiction magazine, Astounding Stories, which became Astounding Science Fiction in 1938.  It is still being published, since 1992 under the title Analog Science Fiction and Fact.  The magazine started in 1930 and Campbell was its editor 1937-71.  This anthology published in 1952 includes short stories appearing in the magazine 1940-51, a period that Campbell feels was when science fiction was moving from being just the substance of 'pulp' magazines to becoming a more serious genre.  I will list the short stories below because you will see many familiar names.  I have included one of the stories from the anthology in a posting before:

I certainly think that a lot of contemporary science fiction writers especially those of the overblown, door-stop kind of writing should go back to these stories and see good writing in the genre.  These were clearly the cream of the stories over an 11-year period, but despite their age they stand up well today and I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.  Of course, in 1940 the nuclear bomb was guessed at but had not been created, but already writers were analysing the likely impacts on humans and the struggles of dealing with such power.  Interestingly only in a couple of the stories do you see Cold War sensibilities, and this is really only apparent in the later end of the collection.  Knowledge of the solar system seems a little naive today, with primitive life on the Moon and bases established beneath seas on Venus, but to some extent show writing at that cusp before all the fantasies of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells about our neighbouring bodies were finally dismissed by space travel.  Certainly 'Clash by Night' by Lawrence O'Donnell (1943) portraying battling companies of mercenaries on Venus could stand up beside the 'Dune' series even today. 

As you would expect from science fiction there are stories questioning assured mutual destruction, first contact with aliens, brilliant children and creating immortality through manipulating cells.  Though the language [for example people say 'good-by' rather than 'goodbye'], the clothing and some of the ordinary technology seems very dated now, it added to the charm for me as it gave a window into not only science fiction ideas but those of a mid-20th century US context.  As with all best short stories, these pack stimulating ideas into a small package and often have an excellent pay off, sometimes in the final phrase.

'Blowups Happen' by Robert Heinlein, 1940
About the psychological pressures on men overseeing nuclear weapons.

'Hindsight' by Jack Williamson, 1940
About personal and inter-planetary rivalry in a colonised solar system, involving weaponry firing through time.

'Vault of the Beast' by A.E. van Vogt, 1940
About unleashing a sleeping alien entity.

'The Exalted' by L. Sprague de Camp, 1940
 Rather comic tale of an intelligent bear investigating mischief at a US university.

'Nightfall' by Isaac Asimov, 1941
Great story about how, on a planet which suffers periodic eclipses, myths and cults arise explaining what is happening, with particular consequences.

'When the Bough Breaks' by Lewis Padgett, 1941
Parents' view of raising a genius child desired by a future civilisation, a kind of antidote to 'Terminator' (1984) and its sequels (1991; 2003).

'Clash by Night' by Lawrence O'Donnell, 1943
City-states on Venus use mercenary companies to fight their battles; tactical nuclear weapons are banned.

'Invariant' by John Pierce, 1944
A man has found a way for him and his dog to become immortal, with unexpected consequences.

'First Contact' by Murray Leinster, 1945
A really good exploration of the challenges of encountering new intelligent life on the edge of human space.

'Meihem In Ce Klasrum' by Dolton Edwards, 1946
Clever essay on the ridiculous aspects of English spelling.

'Hobbyist' by Eric Frank Russell, 1947
Lone human space explorer cannot determine why there is only one of each species on a planet.

'E for Effort' by T.L. Sherred, 1947
Really fascinating story of the careers of two men who develop a device which can show images from any time or place in history. A little reminiscent of 'Deja Vu' (2006) though on a far larger scale.

'Child's Play' by William Tenn, 1947
A very 'Twilight Zone' like story in which a man receives a child's kit from the future enabling him to create life.

'Thunder and Roses' by Theodore Sturgeon, 1947
Quite a sentimental story with a real 1940s feel about a female singer touring the USA in the wake of a nuclear war begging for the counter-attacks to cease for the sake of the world.

'Late Night Final' by Eric Frank Russell, 1948
Uptight commander of alien invasion fleet tries to prevent his crews fraternising with the humans.  The character reminds me of Arnold Rimmer in the 'Red Dwarf' comedy science fiction television series (1988-99; 2009).

'Cold War' by Kris Neville, 1949
Very similar to 'Blowups Happen' looking at the psychological pressures on men manning nuclear weapon armed space stations circling the Earth.

'Eternity Lost' by Clifford D. Simak, 1949
About a man who has already had his life extended centuries seeking to have one, last, vital extension.

'The Witches of Karres' by James H. Schmitz, 1949
A playful story, a kind of 'Dances with Wolves' (1990) on the borderlands of a vast space empire with mischievous inhabitants of Karres.

'Over the Top' by Lester del Rey, 1949
An explorer is stranded on the Moon while Earth is on the verge of a nuclear war; reminiscent of parts of 'The Martian Chronicles' by Ray Bradbury (1950).

'Meteor' by William T. Powers, 1950
Nice twist on the usual meteor-threatening-to-crash-into-Earth story; the oldest story I know featuring mining within asteroids.

'Last Enemy' by H. Beam Piper, 1950
About staff who monitor different parallel universes being drawn into exploration of reincarnation on one version of Earth; one of the two stories in the collection with apparent US-side Cold War sensibilities but an interesting portrayal of behaviour in a society in which reincarnation is an established fact.

'Historical Note' by Murray Leinster, 1951
Very much a Cold War spoof exploring the consequences of developing personal flying devices in the USSR.

'Protected Species' by H.B. Fyfe, 1951
Nice consideration of colonial attitudes in space exploration, with excellent final line pay-off.

'French Revolutions' by Tim Moore.
An entertaining account of the author cycling around the 2000 route of the Tour de France, which I should have read long ago.  Entertaining as all the best travel books are and especially good if you have enjoyed cycle touring and/or know France.  For the impact had on my perception of myself see the posting:

'The Collapse of the Third Republic' by William L. Shirer
A very good exploration of the fall of France in 1940 and the reasons behind it dating back decades.  Shirer is renowned for his work on Nazi Germany.  As a US journalist he was in France and Germany during the 1930s and into the war period.  The USA being neutral until December 1941 he was pretty free to move around even during the war.  He is excellent on the political aspects in the 1930s and early 1940s.  He tends to get overwhelmed when describing the complexities of the fighting in 1940 and the book could have benefited from more maps at that stage.  His journalistic style makes the book very readable and it is very informative on the period.

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