What I’ve been reading lately, part 23

The Enemy — Desmond Bagley

Bagley wrote about a dozen novels, all thrillers, and most of them excellent. They were written in the 70s and 80s, so they have dated in some respects — not least where then-cutting-edge technology is involved, but if you can overlook that they remain gripping and enjoyable.

The Enemy, alongside Running Blind and The Freedom Trap, is among the best of his books. (On the other hand, his last two novels, published posthumously, are the worst, and best avoided except for completion’s sake.)

One Hundred and Forty Characters in Search of an Argument — Andrew Rilstone (for the second time)

I picked this up again because the bookcase it’s in happens to be in the kitchen and I had to kill three minutes while I was waiting for a cup of tea to brew. True to form, three minutes of reading Rilstone was absorbing enough to draw me in to a complete re-read. I enjoyed this much more the second time around, especially the wry footnotes in which Rilstone critiques his own writing in the character of a separate persona reading them some time after their publication.

Five Little Pigs — Agatha Christie

I can’t remember anything about this one.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid — Douglas Hofstadter

This book is justly legendary, although I don’t hear it mentioned as much these days as I used to in the eighties. It’s a careful, lucid and above all playful exposition of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, supported by analogies drawn primarily from the music of J. S. Bach and the art of M. C. Escher, but also from numerous other sources including genetics and Zen Buddhism. It doesn’t sound as though it could all tie together, but somehow it does.

The structure of the book is distinctive: regular chapters alternate with dialogues, in which Achilles and the Tortoise discuss matters that usually serve to introduce or illuminate the subject of the next chapter — either directly or by analogy. As the book progresses, these dialogues become increasingly complex, and the cast expands to include the Crab, the Sloth and other characters.

This is the second or third time I’ve read GEB, and on the whole it’s aged very well. The one part that doesn’t really hold up is the author’s optimism regarding AI — an area of research that, nearly 40 years on from the book’s publication, seems still stubbornly out of reach. The book remains a tour de force, though, and while it is difficult in places it more than repays the effort it takes to read.

Pure Drivel — Steve Martin

A collection of prose pieces, mostly previously published as newspaper columns. More than anything else, it reminds me of Woody Allen’s prose-piece collections, but it’s not as good. I love some of Martin’s films (All of Me, Roxanne, Parenthood), but I don’t think his talent really transfers into this medium.

The Midwich Cuckoos — John Wyndham

I’ve read a bunch of Wyndham’s novels recently (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken WakesThe Chrysalids) and they all do a fine job of depicting believable worlds in the wake of some disaster or another. The Midwich Cuckoos is a bit different — a more personal story, showing us only the very beginning of what might eventually become an end-of-the-world scenario.

In an English village, a group of children are born more or less simultaneously, as a result of an apparently supernatural mas impregnation. As they grow up, it becomes apparent that have a shared consciousness and persuasive mental powers.

I admire how different the four Wyndham books I have mentioned are, while all attaining very much the same level of quality. Apart from in The Chrysalids, there is a reassuringly sturdy middle-class 1950s-England quality about his characters — he’s obviously writing what he knows — and the sheer ordinariness of the characters throws the exotic events into sharp relief.

Out of Sight — Elmore Leonard

I read this because I often hear Leonard mentioned in the same bracket as Carl Hiaasen, whose books I enjoy (Star Island, Basket Case, Skinny Dip, Lucky You, Trap Line). I certainly see the resemblance, but I find Hiaasen funnier, and that counts for a lot. In a story of this kind, featuring a lot of very unpleasant people — drug dealers, robbers, murderers — you do need that leavening of humour to avoid it all becoming a bit of a grind. I understand that this is one of Leonard’s better regarded books. On that basis, while it was worth reading, I don’t expect I’ll be back for more. (I might watch the film adaptation, though.)

The Complete Harlem Heroes — Pat Mills, Tom Tully, Dave Gibbons and Massimo Belardinelli

Like a lot of comic-book reprints, for some reason, this one has a misleading title — but in a good way. It collects not only all of the Harlem Heroes strips from early issues of 2000 AD, but also the later and rather longer sequel Inferno. Both of these are future-sports strips: the former tells the story of the eponymous aeroball team, playing a brutal game rather like full-contact basketball in the air, flying with jet-packs; the latter tells of their transition to the even more more brutal game of Inferno, which mixes aeroball with dirt-bike racing.

I loved these strips when they first came out in the 1970s, and actually I think they stand up well today. They lack sophistication — they’re no Watchmen, and probably won’t hold the attention of adults who don’t have nostalgic affection for them — but I think they would hold modern kids. (Dave Gibbons, who illustrated Harlem Heroes, would go on to draw Watchmen.)

The art in both series is very powerful. They are full of panels that, forty years on from my first reading, still reach right back into my hindbrain and yank on my neurons. Gibbons’ clean lines and powerful anatomy make aeroball very dynamic; the very different work of Massimo Belardinelli on Inferno shows us lovingly detailed chaos and destruction, and an endless variety of creepily organic machines and buildings.

The Stainless Steel Rat — Kelvin Gosnell and Carlos Ezquerra, based on novels by Harry Harrison.

Having got my 2000 AD on, I went straight from Harlem Heroes to this collected volume of the comic’s adaptations of three of Harry Harrison’s numerous Stainless Steel Rat novels. I enjoy the books, and these versions do them justice, maintaining both the excitement of the originals and their humour — though the first of the three adaptations is much the best, as is the case with the original books. Carlos Ezquerra’s art is very distinctive, and has forever sealed my image of Jim and Angelina.

Crime and Punishment — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

At the same time as these comic-strip compilations I was also reading my first Dostoyevsky, having chosen the book that’s widely considered his most accessible. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. On one level it’s a difficult read, simply because it’s translated from Russian and all translations have a slightly lumpen feel. On another level, it was strangely compelling, and I read it eagerly rather than as a chore. But on a third level, the whole thing was simply depressing.

It’s the story of a man who, despite having no very pressing reason to do so, murders a defenceless old woman and her mentally impaired sister, then tries to come to terms with what he has done while evading the suspicions of the police. It’s written very much from the viewpoint of the murderer, Raskolnikov, and we are invited to sympathise with him. Dostoyevsky is a skillful enough writer that I did; but it left me feeling grimy and haunted, as though I had committed a senseless murder.

So I admire Crime and Punishment, but I don’t like it. Would I read it again? Probably not; but I’d read something else by Dostoyevsky.

 

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9 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 23

  1. I think that I was in a minority in reading Metamagical Themas (Hofstadter’s collected SciAm columns) years before I finally got around to GEB. I still admire many of his essays (especially the fabulous “Person Paper on Purity in Language” – http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/cs655/readings/purity.html)
    However, my personal favourite of his works is Le Ton beau de Marot, which is an exploration of the wonders and complications of translation.

  2. Well Mike, no one can accuse you of being hooked on a particular genre. I believe I introduced you to Desmond Bagley, love a good thriller/mystery.

  3. Scurra, I did very much enjoy Themas as well — the essays on the Rubik Cube and the Chopin Études are the ones that stand out for me — but it’s what it is, a collection of essentially unrelated columns. I love the way GEB is always building, in its twisty-turny way, a central thesis. I find translation fascinating and may well seek out The Ton Beau.

  4. Mum, you certainly introduced me to a ton of books; but I think it was Myles Kelvin who brought Bagley to my attention. We borrowed High Citadel from the school library.

  5. If you want shorter Dostoyevsky, there’s The Double; but if you’re up for it, ‘The Karamazov Brothers is much less of a slog than it seems form the foothills. Get an edition with a character crib sheet and a timeline, though.

  6. Your comment about Harlem Heroes and your hindgrain prompted me to write a blog post I’ve been thinking about a while. http://little-bits.paulmorriss.com/2017/09/reading-comics-part-1.html

  7. Thanks, H, I had been wondering whether Karamazov was the way to go.

  8. Only if you’re up for long theological discursions on the nature of sin, though. But you might be.

  9. As it happens — being a big fan of C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton, I am very much up for long theological discursions on the nature of sin. The question will be whether Dostoyevsky can do it as entertainingly as Lewis and (especially) Chesterton.

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