Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Books I Listened To/Read In May

'The Ultimate Threshold. A Collection of the Finest in Soviet Science Fiction' translated and edited by Mirra Ginsburg
I was interested when I ran across this book, published in 1970 by Penguin to think that it was a collection of science fiction from a country that no longer existed.  The stories were published, 1963-68 through the more liberal Nikita Khrushchev years and into the harder time of Leonid Brezhnev.  Having seen imagery online of Soviet intentions for developments in space, I wondered what they thought would be the future in fiction.    As Ginsburg outlines at the start, it is a surprise.  It is clear, as she says, that authors in this genre had far greater freedom in others and they use this to express views that ran counter to the proclaimed Soviet attitude.  There is as much individualism in these stories as you would have found from a US science fiction collection of the time. Indeed 'One Less' by Igor Rosokhovatsky about the impact of the death of one man chimes with some anti-abortion arguments used in the USA presently.

The best story is probably 'The Useless Planet' by Olga Larionova which features aliens exploring Ancient Greece and determining how useless the planet is.  One explorer, like them all, able to take on a variety of forms and remains behind in the form of a statue which can come to life, so inspiring various legends.  There are overtones in this of how a large bureaucracy may define things that are essentially human as 'useless'.  A little in this line is the eponymous story by Herman Maximov about a device which allows people to commit suicide and 'When You Return' by Igor Rosokhovatsky about a dead husband/father being replaced by an android version of him with his memories but far stronger; able to fly which reminded me a little of 'Robocop' (1987/2014) but far gentler. 'We Played Under Your Window' by the same author shows alien technology bringing a man back to life, effectively the kind of clone seen in the 'Dune' series and work by Walter Jon Williams, though bittersweetly they do it too late for him to be reunited with those he loved.

Some of the stories have a kind of tone of a fable or morality tale, such as 'Icarus and Daedalus' by Henrik Altov about two pilots racing through a star.  'Erem' by Cleb Anfilov can almost be seen as a critique of how the Soviet system used its people through showing a sentient robot willing to work to save its base but with no reward bar 'death'.  Another is 'The Horn of Plenty' by Vladimir Grigoriev about a device to convert rubbish into useful products, turned by the Soviet system to producing rubbish from useful items.  Another like this is 'Preliminary Research' by Ilya Varshavsky in which scientists are brought to work for a sinister organisation and their ideas are distorted to benefit criminal and terroristic activities; those who resist are disappeared.  'He Who Leaves No Trace' by Mikhail Yemtsev and Yeremy Parnov is a kind of 'magician's apprentice' story of a man whose clones get out of control.

One interesting thing is that many of the authors were actual scientists, so you seen some interesting predictions.  One I was struck by in 'Icarus and Daedalus' by Anatoly Dneprov is that when light does not function to indicate their way, they use monitors of gravitational waves to find their path, a force only recently confirmed as existing.  'Formula of Immortality' from 1963 reminded me of 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' (1968) in its focus on people constructed using DNA but with a very fixed life duration built in.

'When Questions Are Asked' by Anatoly Dneprov is really a cautionary tale about being cautious with contamination of testing as is light hearted.  It stands out from the others for that fact.  Overall, if I had not known the authors were Soviet I would have felt this was a typical science fiction book of that golden age of the late 1960s/early 1970s.  It is clear that the genre bucked so many trends in Soviet society and like the best science fiction in any society held a mirror to the context from which it arose as much as speculating on the future.  The stories are generally crisp and cover ideas equal to anything coming out of the USA at the time.  I do wonder what happened to these authors and whether they are still read in Russia today, let alone being more widely available in the West than this obscure sampler of them.

'The Siege of Krishnapur' by J.G. Farrell
As regular readers of this blog will know, I rarely do well with books that have been recommended to me and this is a case in point.  I had read how this book, which won the Booker Prize in 1973, which is about a fictional village under siege during the Indian Rebellion of 1857-58, was based on diaries, memoirs and letters to make it very accurate.  That seemed like a good basis for a novel.  However, it is very disappointing.  The characters that are featured do give a good impression of the people involved in running India when it was under the control of the East India Company rather than the British Government.  While some have an efficiency or even self-assumed altruistic approach, the profit motive is at the heart of it all; the senior officer during the siege is the Collector.  We read some details of the opium trade.  The E.I.C. grew opium in India to sell to the Chinese population, contrary to the wishes of their government, in order to earn Chinese silver and to buy tea, porcelain, silk and rhubarb, in high demand in Britain.

Too many of the characters are quirky and Farrell's writing means that we never sympathise with any of them even when they are facing starvation and disease.  It is quite incredible that we care so little for these people in such circumstances.  By the end of the book you are just glad it is all over.  I think that the petty obsessions of each of the major characters makes it all seem rather frivolous and undermines any genuine concern we have for them.  There is also a surprising lack of tension in the book, even during the battles.  I guess that arises from us caring so little for the people being written about.  I do not know whether it was Farrell's intention to make the British colonisers to appear so useless; so wrapped up with all their hobbyhorses, to be dim when it came to their circumstances and waste time on the unimportant.  Either it is an incredibly subtle but acute critique of British society or it is just the failing of him being able to conjure up any character we engage with.  As a result of these flaws, I simply found this book tedious and was simply glad when it was over.  I regret reading the recommendation for this book which I saw on 'The Guardian' website.  I should have gone with my caution over recommendations.  A little hypocritically, I hope that my review is of use, but in warning you away from this tiresome novel, which despite the supposed background research, comes across very much as an artifice.

'Run Man Run' by Chester Himes
This book was published in 1967.  Though there are references to culture, especially outlets in New York, that date it, you could easily produce a hard-hitting drama based on the novel set in 2018 and still be highly relevant.  This book is far better than the two previous novels by Himes that I have read: 'The Crazy Kill' (1959) and 'The Big Gold Dream' (1960).  You can really see the author's development in his writing.  This novel does not feature the two black detectives, 'Grave' Digger Jones and 'Coffin' Ed Johnson, but is still set in Harlem and surrounding districts and features New York police, though in this case primarily two white detectives.  What makes 'Run Man Run'  current is the focus the killing of two black luncheonette workers and the wounding of a third, all shot by a white police detective, a challenge that remains 51 years later in many parts of the USA.  Without lecturing the reader, Himes works through the assumptions about black men and how they are so easily portrayed as being associated with crime even when in this case all three victims are working men and one is also a student at Columbia University.  The strength of the word of a black and a white man, especially a police officer, is shown here just as we see on the news regularly nowadays.

I have criticised Himes in the previous two novels I read for leading his characters running around Harlem not achieving a great deal and in the end becoming tiresome.  In this novel, however, he really jacks up the tension much more effectively especially when the third man is being pursued by the detective wanting to silence him.  Himes jumps between different perspectives abruptly, which may be criticised but it helps ensure that we have no idea of the outcome and how will survive. We also do not know who will be believed or dismissed.  Even the hero's girlfriend is uncertain of him and many of his complaints are thrown out as being insane.  As before there is excellent detail about the time and the place; the appearance of Malcolm X and a rising black consciousness towards the end of the 1960s is integrated.  It adds to the assumptions made against black men, that they are not just criminals but terrorists too and so there are parallels to views of the Irish in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s and Muslims in the USA in the present day.  This is a brisk (191 pages in my edition) book which is both an effective thriller and also engages with many American issues which are as alive today as in 1967.

'The Russian Revolution' by Sheila Fitzpatrick
I read the 1994 edition of this book which, originally published in 1982, had been updated and expanded following the fall of the USSR three years earlier.  This book is excellent and I can easily understand why it remains in print, with a newly revised edition out in 2017.  My edition was only 199 pages long including references, but Fitzpatrick's analysis is far sharper than many lumbering books I have read on the incidents.  She begins by defining what she sees as the revolution and while focused on Russia rather than other states that broke from its empire, she sees the revolution as running from 1917 to 1937.  The book is particularly strong on the period between the February/March Revolution and the October/November Revolution, a period which tends to get overlooked.  Fitzpatrick certainly does well in countering any assumption of inevitability about the Bolshevik victory, even Lenin's leadership of it.  Other highlights are her analysis of the social impact of Stalin's industrialisation, revealing how the working class had so declined as a result of the Bolshevik seizure of power and the civil war that followed.  She is also good on the Cultural Revolution that Stalin's consolidation brought about and how it established the future leaders of the USSR while killing so many others.  This is a crisp, highly perceptive book that I recommend.

Fiction - Audio Books
'The Algebraist' by Iain M. Banks; read by Anton Lesser
In terms of science fiction books, I am rather averse to those covering epic chunks of space and the big questions.  I am more interested in 'local' developments and aliens beyond early encounters.  As such this book worked well for me as it features on gas giant at the end of human-occupied space and its moon inhabited by humans.  Artificial intelligence has been forbidden, but as the book progresses we find it lives on. The atmosphere of the gas giant is inhabited by large disc like creatures, the Dwellers, that are very advanced.  Our hero, Fassin Taak is a 'seer' a kind of researcher who investigates them and is sent to find out a code which may give access to concealed portals when the system is cut off from much of human space by the destruction of one constructed portal by rebels/pirates, the Beyonders.

This is a very rich book.  Banks does very well in conjuring up the nature of human society in this system and that of the Dwellers too.  What I like is that it is done not with awe, but with a workerlike approach.  This means we do not spend time gawping at what is being revealed, as is too often the expectation in science fiction stories, but instead we are drawn into the conspiracies that are going on both within Dweller and human society.  There are great descriptions such as an attack by the Beyonders during a 'yacht' race in the gas giant's atmosphere.  There are a range of engaging characters and it is a challenge to know who is really who and even the hero turns out to have different loyalties to what might be expected.  I would say that you do not feel real jeopardy, but the book is a real rollercoaster with a lot going on.  However, things are made clear, without info dumps as to what is happening.

Anton Lesser is excellent in voicing the wide range of characters whether human or alien.  He even pulls off a scene in which two characters are communicating by touch so they cannot be overheard.  Overall, this was an enjoyable book brought to life very well but an experienced reader.
'Munich' by Robert Harris; read by David Rintoul

It is interesting that the events of September 1938 at the Munich Conference, despite being seen as the summit of the policy of appeasement are now so poorly known that I saw one commentator to the 'The Guardian' review of this book assume it was an alternate history.  Harris published one very successful alternate history book 'Fatherland' in 1992.  Since then his output has largely been historical novels, yes, fictional but embedded in what really happened.  This book is no different.  Harris, it is revealed in the acknowledgements was fascinated by the Munich Conference following being the presenter of a documentary broadcast in 1988, 'God Bless You, Mr Chamberlain'.  Thus this book is filled with immense detail about what happened in the days around the conference.  He does involve some adventure with his two 'heroes', a German and a British diplomat trying to make Chamberlain aware of the Hossbach Memorandum produced in 1937 that showed Hitler's objective was clearly war despite his rhetoric about peace.  One the German side we see a little of the Oster plot against Hitler, again genuine.

If you do not enjoy details of background discussions then this will not be the book for you.  However, I feel Harris brings to life the men involved, well representing their different characters and opinions around what was happening.  It is far better at 'explaining' Munich from the British side than the Lammers book I read in February.  I do feel that Harris is far too much of an apologist for Chamberlain.  It shows how stubbornly he clung to foolish opinions even when his colleagues in the Cabinet put forward different views that would have been more beneficial to Britain's position and above all to the Czechs.  Harris does show how much contempt Chamberlain had for the Czechs, at best patronising them but generally working from the basis that Czechoslovakia was illegitimate anyway and so it was nothing to give territory from it to Germany.  Running through this is a sense of national superiority on the part of Chamberlain, which far from being as harsh as Hitler's certainly bent that way.  I wish Harris had shown Chamberlain to have been more of the misguided fool that he actually was.  However, he does signal his ill-health which was to kill him a little over two years later.

The success of this book is in how it provides genuine tension even when we know the outcome.  It also succeeds in bringing alive very dull people from the past and giving us some insight into their context, especially how it shaped their behaviour, though falling at the last through being far too sympathetic to Chamberlain.  It is only at the end of the book that you are made truly aware of the futility of everything that was done at Munich and around the conference.  David Rintoul is perfect for reading this book, being able to produce a great range of voices to represent the different politicians and officials on both sides.  If you are more sympathetic to Neville Chamberlain than I am you might enjoy this book thoroughly.  For me it was decent, rather than outstanding; frustrating and ultimately depressing.

'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen; read by Joanna David
I realised from the woman who lived in my house watching the DVDs of the BBC 1995 dramatisation of the story that I knew pretty much all of this story.  It is very light, but at least given some humour to make it seem less insubstantial.  There are some rather over-emphasised characters especially in Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but they add some depth to the book.  I feel sorry for the people Austen portrays.  Yes, they are spared the poverty of many of the era, but have an insecurity of situation which especially for the women compels them to obsess over the game of finding a suitable partner to marry.  Aside from that their lives are very tedious, with some singing and piano playing; playing card games, visiting friends and relatives and the occasional ball, the only distractions.  The advantage of the book is that the omniscient narrator is able to show the inner thoughts of Mr Darcy which makes his shifting attitude towards Elizabeth Bennett seem to start earlier and be more logical than having to show this through facial expressions on the screen.  I would hardly say that I enjoyed the book, but it passed the time and it was good to have heard the original material and know how close the dramatisation that I know best, was to it.

Joanna David who appeared in that dramatisation as Mrs Gardiner is perfect for voicing this story.  She does the voices of the men as well as the range of the women and is especially good with Mrs. Bennett and Lady de Bourgh.

'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley; read by Richard Pasco
It is interesting how you gain an impression of a book from how it is represented in popular media rather than its actual pattern.  Of course, I knew this book was not the same as the horror movies of the 20th century.  However, I had not realised how much of a philosophical book it was and how many of the themes it explores have relevance now, perhaps more so even than in the intervening 200 years since it was published.  The approach is effectively nested monologues from an explorer of the Arctic relaying the monologue of Victor Frankenstein and in turn Frankenstein relaying what the creature says about his experiences and motives.  To some degree this approach excuses Victor in a way that I feel modern readers will not let him get away with. 

There is an early 19th century assumption that the deformed are inherently evil and should be dismissed anyway, in a way that would be intolerable nowadays.  Though, saying that, the last few years have again raised particular hostility towards the 'other' in terms of assumptions, for example, immigrants.  There also seems a return to the belief that certain behaviours are inherent in particular sorts of people, whereas Shelley shows effectively how mistreatment breeds mistreatment and can turn even the kindest spirit, malicious with repeated inflictions.

Victor Frankenstein does come across as a victim himself and I was not certain if Shelley intended this or expected the reader to see that he had brought about his own downfall and misery through his own reckless behaviour at the start and his unwillingness to recognise his responsibilities.  In that, even 200 years later, this book appears as a critique of the self-centred behaviour of young men, especially in terms of any children they may help conceive.

Richard Pasco's reading reminded me of William Roberts's reading of the Lovecraft stories that I listened to last month, though perhaps a little less bombastic, all for the better.  There are numerous dramatic scenes that he articulates well, without going over the top.  He communicates the earnestness of Shelley's writing and her articulation of assumed horror of the creature even before this is evidenced by his actions.  He draws out suitable voices for the different narrators and gives the book the appropriate period feel.  I would not say I enjoyed this book, but I was engaged with it and found it thought provoking and relevant to concerns today, despite its age.

'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens; read by Hugh Laurie
This was another book that I had misapprehensions about based primarily on images from the 1946 movie.  I had anticipated that it would be very gloomy in portrayal and depressing; something akin to 'Wuthering Heights' (1847), a book I was compelled to read at school some thirty years ago and have no wish to return to ever again.  Though there are what might be termed 'Gothic' elements, especially in the jilted bride, Miss Haversham and the decaying house she maintains; the bleak marshland in which she and the 'hero', Pip, live, it is a lighter book than I had anticipated.  There are some quirky characters, notably Joe Gargery the blacksmith, Mr. Wopsle a clerk who takes to the stage and especially John Wemmick, a solicitor's clerk with a wonderful fortress-like home.  I had anticipated that Pip would be utterly wrecked by his involvement with Miss Haversham and her plans to wreak revenge on men through her adopted daughter, Estella.  However, while not everything turns out jolly, it actually unfolds to not be such a tragedy and is more really a story of the various ups and downs of Pip's life from childhood into approaching middle age.  The interest stems from the particular nature of the different characters and the interlocking between them in ways which may have been less expected than these days when such coincidences have become over-used.

Hugh Laurie with his light tone, is appropriate for voicing a character who speaks in the first person throughout and is a boy for much of the book.  He pulls off a range of suitably Victorian voices, at times sounding like the late Jon Pertwee in some of his roles.  His tone also keeps the story from descending into that bleak Victorian gloom which so much of Dickens's work is at risk of sinking into and which puts off so many modern readers from even approaching it.  I would hardly say I thought this was a brilliant book, but I found listening to it far more pleasant than I had feared.

'Northanger Abbey' by Jane Austen; read by Jill Balcon
This is another novel that I had formed a misapprehension of.  I knew that it made fun of the taste in Gothic novels that was common at the start of the 19th century.  However, I thought that they made an impact on the book to a greater extent than is actually the case.  The Gothic tropes impinge just in two ways, first through the narrator talking about heroines and what they 'must' do and then when said heroine, Catherine Moreland goes to the eponymous abbey she assumes that the history of the Tilney family complies with the expectations of the novels, i.e. that the father mistreated the mother and kept her confined leading to her death.  However, at the heart the story is pretty much like 'Pride and Prejudice' (1813), i.e. a young middle-ranking woman trying to find a husband and various misunderstandings and upsets delaying the consummation with her target; in this book not helped by a father who is easily misled and another man, John Thorpe, who wants Catherine for himself.

The portrayal of the society around Bath and the various activities is interesting as is the reference to Gothic novels which were popular at the time.  In many ways the discussion of these between Catherine and Isabella Thorpe, makes the book sound contemporary, the girls (Catherine is 17 for most of the book) chatting about them seems very like social media behaviour of nowadays.  There is some light humour but I had hoped for a more dramatic novel even if it debunked the Gothic tropes.  Jill Balcon handles the voices, especially those of the girls, very well, though at times is a little quiet which can be a challenge for car-borne listeners.  If I had come to this book straight without having listened to 'Pride and Prejudice' so recently might have found it fresher.  However, ultimately it felt like more of the same.

'Oliver Twist' by Charles Dickens; read by Alex Jennings
Like a lot of people I probably know this story best from the musical movie, 'Oliver!' (1968) and as a consequence was unaware of how long the actual story is or how many characters outside the London gang of Fagin, Bill Sykes, Nancy and the Artful Dodger feature.  It begins as a gloomy book in the way that I had feared 'Great Expectations' (1861) would be.  However, it develops to be more like that book as it progresses with more hope for Oliver Twist; rich benefactors; a complex family rivalry and come-uppance for all the wicked people.  At least it does not revel in its misery as that horrendous book clearly inspired by this one, 'The Quincunx' (1989) does at such painful length and offers up at least some shreds of hope.  Dickens was clearly aiming to alert readers to the fate of workhouse orphans and the activities of criminal gangs in London.  There is detail of pick-pocketing and house-breaking; plus journeys through London.  There are a range of mean-spirited characters and at times Dickens shows the civic notables of Oliver's home town, in all their self-righteousness, to be more evil than the criminals in London.  The sense that the poor to blame for their own fate, gave dialogue that you could hear today applied to people on benefits.  Thus, it retains a relevance to today.  I had not expected it to be wrapped up as neatly as it was, but I guess that reflects the demands of the time when it was written.

Alex Jennings tends to fall to stereotypes when voicing Fagin and Bill Sykes, in the latter case unfortunately reminding me of the The Peppermint Nightmare from the television series of 'The Mighty Boosh' (2003-07).  However, he is otherwise very good at conjuring up a range of Victorian characters, especially the busybodies that direct Oliver's life with no compassion.

'Middlemarch' by George Eliot; read by Harriet Walter
As most people know, George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Anne Evans (1819–80).  You can sense a feminist perspective in this book.  In contrast to Jane Austen's (1775-1817) few of the marriages are a success and it is the wife who suffers from the husband's obsessions.  The only really happy one is when the widowed Dorothea goes off with the artist Will Ladislaw at the end of the book with heavily reduced wealth due to her husband disinheriting her of everything if she married him.  These were radical ideas when the book was published in 1871-72 especially when wrapped up in a book which seems on the service just to be a prolonged version of what Austen would have written.

This book is very highly rated.  However, to me, it was utterly tedious.  It is really a 19th century version of the television soap opera 'Emmerdale' (broadcast under two names since 1972).  We simply hear about various women deciding to marry unsuitable men; people borrowing or going short of money; old family scandals; fuss about the reputation of a doctor and various other people plus various philanthropic ventures such as a new hospital and improved housing for the peasants.  It dances around these characters all being very irritated with each other or ashamed of themselves and their behaviour.  Austen gets away with it for keeping everything quite short.  This book just goes on and on and feels far longer than the 6 hours 50 minutes it is read for in the edition I have.  The book is massively over-rated and quickly becomes tiresome, to such an extent it has driven me away from listening to any more of the 'classic' novels in audio book form from Penguin that I had lined up.

Harriet Walter is fine reading this, doing the female and male characters and trying to put some life and a little drama into what is an incredibly limp story.