Saturday, 31 March 2018

The Books I Listened To/Read In March

'Sweetsmoke' by David Fuller
This is probably the best book I have read in a long time.  It is a crime novel set in 1862 and features a slave carpenter, Cassius as the detective.  He works on a tobacco plantation in Virginia and the woman who treated him when flogged and taught him to read, something very rare for slaves of the time, has been murdered. Fuller is skilful in exploring the relationships between different types of slaves, freedpeople and the whites.  He is attuned to the subtle interplay of rising and falling status among slaves and the variety of motives for their behaviour.  Naturally his protagonist's actions are more inhibited than those of most detectives and unlike Wallace Nicholls's Sollius, a Roman slave, he does not have a high status backer who can open doors.

Fuller is adept at quickly creating notable characters well, whether slaves or whites and this is a real strength of the novel.  It seems unfortunate that given the setting he feels compelled to have Cassius as a frontline witness to the Battle of Antietam; it would have been more realistic to have him further behind the lines.  However, this seems to be a pressure on any US author writing a story set within the timeframe of the American Civil War and if you read the old 'New York Times' review of the book, they bang on about how little he talks about the war as if this has to be compulsory.  This is not even a true judgement, Fuller shows the impact on the home front of the Confederacy and personally I have only seen that focus in 'Cold Mountain' (1997 book; 2003 movie).  There are satisfying twists in the novel which has a good pace and effective points of tension.  However, the real strength of this book is the interaction between people in very particular circumstances; Fuller handles this very well.  This is the first book that I have read in ages that I would recommend.  It certainly fits no classic model of any murder mystery story but it is possibly all the better for that.  It is very well written.

'The Power' by Frank M. Robinson
This 159-page book from 1956 (and 1968 movie based on it) should not be confused with 'The Power' (2016) by Naomi Alderman.  It is, however, also a science fiction book and interestingly, a very Nietzschean one at that.  It features scientist Jim Tanner who is working on a project funded by the US Navy to explore the extremes to which the human body can be put, for example in terms of cold or pain.  Though set in peacetime USA, this parallels experiments conducted by the Nazis at concentration camps on inmates, the results of which, controversially were used by some democratic countries after the end of the war.  As a result of these experiments, Tanner finds out that one of his colleagues on the project is a 'superman' with both telekinesis and the ability to alter people's perceptions of people and those around him.  For the time, interestingly, the team includes two female scientists, though they are later revealed to be catspaws.

Tanner is soon on the run from the 'superman' whose real name is Adam Hart and engineers Tanner's erasing from his career, his bank account, etc.  Hart even tries to make Tanner and his colleagues kill themselves.  Tanner's investigations take him across the USA to discover the origins of Hart and what he has done to the people of his home town.  However, much of the action takes place in Chicago.  One thing which is interesting is how many 24-hour outlets a city like that would have in the 1950s which enable Tanner to keep going especially when he seeks protection among crowds, in a way which is only recently becoming common in UK cities; he would have had a harder time dodging Hart in a city centre of closed up shops.

Some reviewers have criticised that Robinson gives no detail of how this next stage in human evolution represented by Hart comes about.  In some ways his book is a precursor of the X-Men arc, but Robinson's focus is more on the challenges of fighting back against such an individual rather than exploring how they come about or whether they are widespread.  As people note, Robinson is skilled in writing that unsettling approach about powerlessness.  The way different members of the team have been manipulated and often longer than realised, is well handled.  In this regard it reminded me of paranoid science fiction novels of the era like 'The Day of the Triffids' (1951; various television adaptations) and 'The Body Snatchers' (1954; became the movies 'The Invasion of the Body Snatchers').  Though it references the Korean War, the shadow of the Nazis and their views on eugenics hangs right over the book; ideas which would be very familiar to readers of the time.  Despite the period setting, even now, this is a successfully taut and unsettling book.

'Excalibur' by Bernard Cornwell
This is the final book in the Warlord Chronicles trilogy following a story of Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, Galahad, Lancelot and other characters from Arthurian legend but as if they had been real people in 5th and early 6th century Britain.  The books are well written, but given the nastiness of so many of the characters moving around a decaying post-Roman Britain often in appalling weather and simple grubbiness, it is hard to enjoy the books.  The book has a couple of set-piece large-scale Pagan events which are impressive and then there is the full-scale battle against the Saxons close to Bath which is well handled; Cornwell is always very good with battle scenes.  However, then the book goes on and the final two-fifths of it sits uncomfortably with the rest. 

I know Cornwell has aimed to eschew the legendary approach to Arthur but it does go down into even greater bleakness.  Furthermore, though there have been various curses and 'magic' rituals from Druids and others throughout the book, none of them have worked.  The cynicism about both the Pagan and Christian gods is common throughout but then abruptly, at this late stage, magic suddenly starts working causing agony for Ceinwyn, the narrator Lord Derfel's partner, at a distance.  It is almost as if Cornwell has forgotten the rules he has set himself.  As a result it is a pretty unsatisfactory ending and it would have been better to end with the bittersweet conclusion following the battle at Bath rather than carry on for another couple of hundred pages in  this peculiar coda.

Overall, I can say I have been impressed by the trilogy.  The action is engaging; the level of detail of the times and places is excellent and the characters are well drawn and believable with all their motives and baggage.  However, I cannot say I enjoyed these books and I will be more cautious about picking up another series by Cornwell.  I have been given a number of books in his Saxon Stories sequence, but reading the details they seem pretty similar to this trilogy, though now stretched out over 10 books already.  I do not think the premise is likely to be an enjoyable one and I certainly could not have continued with the Warlord Chronicles if they had run for ten books rather than three.

'The Big Gold Dream' by Chester Himes
This one was published in 1960 and like 'The Crazy Kill' (1959) which I read last month, features the black local Harlem detectives, 'Grave' Digger Jones and 'Coffin' Ed Johnson.  It is marginally better than 'The Crazy Kill', perhaps as Himes does not feel as obliged to take us on a guided tour of the food, clothing and culture of Harlem at the time.  His information on the local lotteries in the area is of interest and important to the story.  The problem is, however, as with 'The Crazy Kill', so much of the short book (160 pages in my edition) is spent with people going back and forth speculating about what is going on rather than anything much happening and despite the length, it becomes pretty tedious, pretty quickly.  Jones and Johnson, the latter much more antagonistic than portrayed in the book from the year before, only wander into the book about a quarter of the way in and feature sporadically before bringing the book to a close at the end.

The plot circles around a woman's winnings on three lottery games in the same day and some Confederate money.  The hunt for the winnings leads to a string of murders and people hunting around and threatening others to try to find out where it has gone.  There is the same kind of range of criminal characters and a peculiar clergyman, that seem compulsory in Himes's books.  However, it is almost as if, like one of the characters, you have sat in the window in an apartment in Harlem and watched people toing and froing without doing much in particular.  It is a curiosity these days; in part a record of a time and a place, but it utterly lacks tension and mystery.  By the end you are no longer interested in who did what to whom, just glad that the book has ended.

Fiction - Audio Book
'Dr. No' by Ian Fleming; read by Hugh Quashie
I drive for at least 10 hours every week.  As a result I have been listening to more radio than I watch television or DVDs and little less than I read.  Having had an irritating trip to try to find a new car, at two dealerships whose websites show vehicles that have long been sold or not as how shown or indeed the site itself had no staff visible, despite being open, I stopped at a service station.  With a constant barrage of the same news and often many of the same songs being repeated on the radio, I ended up picking up this audio book and in minutes had been converted to audio books.  I do not know why I had not thought of this before.  I have a good friend who has been into audio books since the days when you could borrow them on cassette from the library in those large thick boxes.  Indeed, I have clearly missed another era of them.  Most of the audio books now on sale, even if on CD, are as MP3 files which means you can download them to an MP3 device but cannot actually play them in a traditional CD player.  As a result, I am now a regular on eBay trying to buy up old CD versions.  With them having a duration of something like 6-7 hours for a typical unabridged novel, my capacity to consume them rapidly in an ordinary week, is clearly high.

There was a small selection of these audio books in the service station and I lit on this one as my introduction.  It was part of a 'Bond Reloaded' series in 2012 in which renowned movie and television actors each narrated a different one of Ian Fleming's books.  This was the first serious Bond movie made, though it was not the first of the books, so I guess it was from having seen the movie that I was influenced to turn to this one first.  As I am sure many people have said, the books are pretty different to the movies in many aspects.  Quashie, in a brief interview at the end of this one, outlines this himself.  Bond has much more self-doubt than in the movies, about his own abilities and what he has to do.  However, he is much more innovative and, rather than relying on gadgets, in the books he improvises.  A lot of the closing stages of this book revolves around what he can do with a sharpened steak knife, a table lighter and thick wire ripped from a ventilation shaft cover.

Though there are periods of high tension, the book is slow moving.  In part this is because of the amount of detail Fleming puts into what he is describing, whether it is an individual, a landscape or some food.  Furthermore, he gives a great deal of background information.  We learn a lot about Jamaica under British colonial rule and even about the guano industry.  You are reminded that the books began to come out before even package holidays were common and British people's knowledge even of the rest of Europe, let alone the Caribbean, came from books and occasional things they saw in movies.  However, as Quashie notes, nowadays this gives a window into a previous era.  The book was published in 1958, so Jamaica has not gained its independence and Cuba is not yet a Communist state.

Added to this, though there is reference to tampering with US rocket trials, the book, as Quashie points out, feels more like an adventure story from the Victorian period, more related to work by Rider Haggard than Robert Ludlum let alone Mick Herron.  For example, there are extended sections about paddling the canoe to Crab Key where Dr. No's base is and dealing with the surviving on the island.  Bond is assailed by quite an exotic array of creatures, but being menaced by a large centipede and a giant squid do sound as if they belong in an earlier age; I imagine the books that Fleming grew up reading. 

There is also the reference to race.  The racial characteristics of almost every character, certainly all the non-whites, are described.  Dr. No himself of mixed Chinese and German heritage and having used plastic surgery, is described in detail.  However, possibly uncharacteristically for the time, and maybe in contrast to other Fleming novels, he does not make judgements about people's character based on their race.  Bond has a genuine companionship with Quarrel, a Cayman islander and mourns his killing.  Bond is a long way from being a feminist and Fleming refers to most women as 'girls'.  Still Honeychile Rider, a white orphaned young woman, though she adds the sex interest to the novel (though Bond holds back from having sex with her until the end), towards the end of the book she actually frees herself from the trap Dr. No puts her in, using her knowledge of the local fauna to better effect than either No or Bond and is on her way to kill No with a screwdriver when Bond finds her again.

This book established many of the tropes seen in spy and adventure novels and movies throughout the 20th and into the 21st century - a disabled mastermind in a secret island base who monologues his plans to the hero and then rather than simply shooting him, puts him into a complexly perilous situation which with strength and ingenuity the hero can escape.  I guess we have seen this so much and the focus of satire so often that it seems a little ridiculous.  Quashie does well to freshen it up and restore some of the sinister nature to these encounters.

Unlike with a standard book, there is an additional aspect to review and that is the skill of the reader.  Quashie has a wonderfully rich voice that really adds to the extended descriptions and well conveys the urgency when Bond is battling for his life.  In the interview he explains he wanted to do all of the voices, both male and female and he produces a whole spectrum of them as would be done in the Roman 'pantomimes' for which one actor played every role.  He does not read the dialogue out, he acts it.  At times the accent of the Jamaicans and Quarrel are hard to follow especially when listening on a car's speakers.  I felt incredibly unsettled by him doing Honeychile Rider, though he does well at giving her a slight Jamaican twang, but it does sound rather odd, even unsettling.

Overall, then, the book was pretty different from what I expected.  It is a very old fashioned adventure even for 1958.  However, the rich description and the inner dialogue of Bond make it engaging.  The scenes where he is in mortal danger are well done and gripping.  As a result, I have got four more Bond books to listen to now.

'The Industrialisation of Russia 1700-1914' by M.E. Falkus
This is a short classic text beloved of numerous modern History courses in universities.  Having been published in 1972, as with 'Explaining Munich' by Lammers last month, it reminded me of how strong Marxist history once was and meant authors had to address its particular distorted view of historic developments.  Fortunately Falkus approaches the issues highlighted from the statistical data rather than trying to impose any particular political perspective on what he is considering.  While not coming to a firm conclusion about what stage of industrialisation Russia had reached by the outbreak of the First World War, he does show that the issues of distance and terrain had not really been overcome.  There were pockets of industrialisation in a vast agrarian country, that in output could rival, even exceed those of other Powers, but the impact of which was reduced by the context.  There were foundations laid for future industrialisation but there remained to be a long way to go.  Of course, we know that many of the comparators were not as industrialised as is often assumed, notably France and Italy, let alone the Netherlands.  Their industrialisation would not come for two to three decades later either.

What I found most interesting in this book when compared with general surveys of Russia in this period, was how well Falkus showed that Russian industry was in fact not really capitalist, but even after the 1861 Emancipation of the Serfs, was a kind of feudal industry.  Even the large scale of some industries, notably in the Ural Mountains actually betrayed an early level of development rather than a modern form of growth.  He shows well how different types of serf were put into industry before 1861 and that the cost of compensating former owners, shackled many of the post-1861 workers as much as if they had remained serfs.  This largely blocked the rural-urban migration that one would have anticipated and kept down the availability of industrial labour as a whole.  Furthermore, the locking in of poverty prevented the rise of a large internal mass market, another important driver for industrialisation.  In turn, this kept down returns and the accumulation of domestic capital, leading to the need for vast foreign investment, foreign advisors and workers, etc.  Though the role of the state in industrialisation fluctuated, declining through the latter 19th century, it was always there.  Given this context of state involvement and really, at best, a bastardised, capitalist economy, perhaps in fact Russia was fertile ground for the totalitarian industrialisation that Stalin introduced in the 1930s rather than a steady progress towards capitalist industrialisation seen elsewhere in Europe, anyway.