Books I Read 11/12/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This week I read:

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk – Fun! Just fun all around, Indiana Jones types wandering through Central Asia and snatching up the treasures of long lost civilizations. A quick and enjoyable read.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti – As a rule, I really don't like to write negative reviews. There are two reasons for this; the first is as a matter of aesthetic principal. As a youth I can remember thinking that the understanding/appreciation of an art form – what might broadly be described as 'having taste' – consisted largely of sharpening one's sense of contempt for the vast body of work in that particular form, and of being able to convey that distaste in a vicious and entertaining manner (we might call this the Pitchfork model). But in fact, this is the absolute opposite of what a true critical sensibility really entails – what would we say of a good critic who exclusively enjoys Italian food, or who loathes sushi? A competent critic is able to move beyond their inclinations to appreciate a wide variety of genres, to say, yo, Ghostface Killah is a hell of a rapper, and, also, Gillian Welch has a great voice.

The second reason is essentially personal. A sort of invisible line is crossed when you write your first book, and start to see your name on things, and realize, 'shit, these authors I've spoken of are not abstractions but concrete, living human beings, and not just targets of abuse.' It would be one thing if I were a professional reviewer, and responsible, at least in theory, to the people reading my reviews. But I'm not, and have no such obligation. I've had days made worse by a negative review of a stranger – not much worse, not dramatically worse, but still, slightly worse, and I would just as soon not pass that injury onward.

Also, as a professional, there are, shall we say, political concerns – either the target of your opprobrium is more popular than you, in which case your dislike is sure to be seen as a simple case of sour grapes, or the target is less popular, in which case you are acting as a bully, an abhorrent activity regardless of the circumstances. In short, I prefer only to speak ill of another author's work if they are a) dead or b) so popular as to make my dislike irrelevant, and preferably both.

So I can only hope that the release of Ligotti's works in this Penguin omnbius edition signals he has reached a level of success that the following not particularly kind review will have no effect on him or his career. (it helps also that he will almost certainly never read this).

Enough preamble. This is not at all a terrible book. If you were to compare it to every other work of horror released this year I feel confident it would be in the top quarter. But that's really about the best that can be said about it, in my own opinion. It is not groundbreaking, it is not brilliant, it is not even particularly excellent. Ligotti seems to operate entirely or almost entirely within the framework which Lovecraft devised, albeit with an improved level of prose (admittedly, damnation with faint praise). Virtually every tale in this collection might be summed up as 'too-eager seeker of esoteric knowledge falls afoul of alien forces which live just below the surface of the universe'. There are no surprises here – any remotely observant reader can deduce the ending of most of these stories from the opening sentences. At a certain point I started to find the thing kind of terribly repetitive, the endless descriptions of visions that can't be described/colors that can't be named/feelings that can't be expressed/nameless lands where shadows lurk/etc.

It is a constant source of curiosity to me whom the literary establishment chooses to laud as exemplary. There is something arbitrary, even absurd about it, like a vegetarian reviewing a steak house. How else can one explain the veneration of an utter mediocrity like Murakami, a second-rater in terms of prose, narrative and depth of thought? Or that Gene Wolfe has not entered the canon as firmly as Borges? Unfortunately, after reading this compilation I came to feel firmly that Ligotti is undeserving of the laurels currently being planted on him. One man's opinion, but there it is.

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary – a breezy, readable history of the Muslim world – indeed, perhaps too breezy. This is probably too extensive a topic to overview in so brief a fashion, and though Ansary does an admirable and even handed job of providing a broad overview of 1200 odd years of human history, at times, particularly as we get closer to modernity, I felt the subject was getting short shift. Also, I found the prose occasionally more talky than was appropriate, and I caught enough minor errors to worry about what I was missing (for instance – Ansary blames the Sepoy rebellion on the British greasing their rifle cartridges with the pork and beef fat, though in fact these cartridges were never distributed, and it was the Brits ham-handed response to the Sepoy's fear of this indignity which provided the spark for a long simmering powder keg. A small point, but not an irrelevant one.) In short, it's a good starting point for someone who has spent little time on the subject, but a more experienced reader would probably do better to look elsewhere.

Now I am Reading: The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebold