Books I read this Winter (Part 1)

Right – so I was keeping track of these for a while, and then I got lazy, but then at some point I remembered I had a blog, and that I might as well throw some nonsense in there about it, and also that I kind of appreciate having a record of things I read. Below are what I remember of the last 4 months or so worth of books. Why would this be of any interest to you? No idea.

The Confidence Man by Herman Melville – Melville's final novel, the catastrophic failure of which (apocryphal evidence suggests it only sold 300 copies in his lifetime) encouraged Melville to give up writing all together, Confidence Man, His Masquerade is now widely regarded as the first post-modernist text. One does not struggle to understand why it did not fly off the shelves initially – reading it is a difficult and exhausting exercise even today. A century and a half ago, when it was released, audiences must have been confused, infuriated, and alienated. Forgoing anything which could honestly be called a narrative structure, the book is essentially a series of dialogues concerning the nature of confidence and the degree to which humanity as a whole is worthy of that trust, dialogues which take place between a series of characters who may or may not be the eponymous con man, who himself may or may not be the devil, or perhaps god, or some kind of strange amalgam of the too, or something else altogether. His fellow interlocutors are themselves shifting and unclear, some representing historical/literary figures like James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and others possibly also serving double duty as the devil, or perhaps god, or some strange amalgam of the two.

It is a strange book . The dialogues themselves are, in and of themselves, rather terrible, written in a curiously stilted fashion. One senses that this is deliberate, and that the very awkwardness of the language and the logic is meant to draw attention to subtler puzzles within the book. The constant repetition presumably serves the same purpose, it and the 'off-notes' meant to jar the reader out of their normal style of reading and to offer a more nuanced thought on the framework of the book itself, on the characters and on the nature of literature itself.

Did I like this book? No, I didn't. I can appreciate how ahead of its time it was, and some of the oblique construction, but it was interminable and dull, and those mysteries and secrets which I could decipher did not ultimately make up for the rest of the time I had to force myself through it. Did I understand this book? Again, no, not really, or only to a pretty limited extent. To offer a serious critique of this book I would need to spend probably an odd couple of weeks giving it a line by line reading, complete with critical texts, and that's something I have no real interest in doing, as much because I'm pretty busy as because I just didn't find the book valuable/enjoyable enough on its own merits

One of my personal pet peeves, one of the things that annoys me most, is when one sees a review on goodreads to the effect of, 'I didn't get this book, the language was too complex, two stars,' that sort of thing. It takes a certain sort of an idiot to suppose it impossible that anyone could be smarter than them. I am not that sort of an idiot – there are some books that I read, understand completely, and loathe. There are others, of which The Confidence Man, His Masquerade is one, that I simply didn't put the effort and attention into to develop a serious understanding of (as an aside, this is one of the reasons I don't give any sort of numeric rating in these reviews). I don't honestly know if this is a good book or a bad book (putting aside the admittedly subjective nature of this question to begin with). I know that I didn't enjoy it, but that's not at all the same thing.

Persian Fire by Tom Holland – How many works of popular history do we need to dedicate to the Persian War? One more, apparently. Persian Fire is a first-class overview of one of the definitive conflicts in human history, nuanced, unbiased, giving useful background to the major players and the historical circumstances in which they lived. Of course, given that Herodotus is basically the sole source of all the information we have on this subject, you might as well just go read Herodotus and ignore the less plausible parts. But if you don't feel like that slog, this will serve.

High Wind in Jamaica by Ricchard Hughes – Hahahah! I loved this one. A vivid rebuke to the Victorian notion of childhood innocence, as well as a broader condemnation on the species entire. Also, funny, nasty, beautifully written, and surprising. A group of children are captures by a band of second-rate pirates off of the Jamaican shore circa 1880, and chaos and violence ensues, though not of the sort which one would expect. I can't imagine anyone wouldn't get a kick out of this, I certainly did.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – So this is the first Atwood book I ever read, and I gotta say, it did not blow the back of my head open. The writing is strong,the nested narrative is interesting, but taken as a whole it's a bit interminable. Really it seems like the better part of the first portion of the book, the long narration regarding the protagonist's childhood in a decaying mansion in rural Canada, could have been comfortably chopped. And the final reveal was one of those things that seemed kind of obvious to me from the beginning, almost to the point where one is confused as to whether the author was even trying to hide it. Probably a lot of this is having been regaled for so long with tales of Atwood's genius I found myself expecting something a little bit more exceptional.

Mystic Masseur by VS Naipaul – the story of a country Indian of second-rate intellect who, through genial good-humor and a serious of fortunate coincidences becomes renowned as a mystic healer and later as a political representative in post-colonial India, Naipaul's first novel is hysterically funny and vividly cruel. Naipaul is the essential misanthrope, a cultural chameleon who seems to find very little to like anywhere he visits, from Indonesia to India to Alabama. But he clearly reserves a special contempt for Trinadad, his country of birth, and the Indian population thereof, amongst whom he was raised. In this and the more famous House for Mr. Biswas he portrays them as being utterly ignorant and without principles of any kind. Naipaul's ear for dialogue and his sense for the essential hollowness of people's conceits are on full display here, although the relentless negativity does become, well, a bit relentless.

Angel by Elisabeth Taylor – the story of a genre writer in the early 19th century who manages to harness her tremendous self-delusion into a force which makes her one of the most popular novelists in the country, Angel's critique of the publishing industry, writers and humans in general is devastatingly funny. Admittedly being a part of this industry probably heightened the appeal, but any way you slice it this book is a minor masterpiece, and I have no damn idea why the author is not more famous. New York Review of Book Classics doing killer work, as ever.

Ubiq by Phillip K. Dick – So look, I didn't like this at all. Sorry. I know I'm supposed to, but I just didn't. This is the sort of mystery novel where no amount of close attention can explain what is going on at any point in the narrative, where you basically just have to wait until one of the character's comes out and explains outright what's going on, and then the final explanation is basically just, 'oh, hey, God did it.' Dick is imaginative but his ideas are all kind of half-baked, they don't really cohere into anything and he has the horrible and exhausting habit of having the last page of every book go, basically, 'Everything I told you so far in the narrative is a lie!' Which is like, great, thanks, can I have my three hours back? No? Shit.'

Basti by Intizar Husain – Written by, apparently, modern Urdu's most beloved novelist, Basti is a dream of Pakistan, from it's bloody birth in partition to the war which gave birth to Bangladesh. Dreamlike, evocative, tragic, all around excellent. Do check it out.

Laidlaw by William McIlvanney – Right. I read this months ago and now I'm kind of struggling to remember anything specific about it. The hero is very tough but also kind of literary, or philosophical. He is a good investigator but feuds a lot with the other cops on the force. Glasgow seems like a pretty shitty place to live. I must have liked it more than I'm remembering because I went out and picked up the next two in the series pretty quickly. The writing was better than the cliched description I just gave made it sound.

The Papers of Tom Veitch by William McIlvanney – Yes. Uhhhhhh... I think like a year has passed and he's divorced his wife at this point? Honestly for the life of me I can't remember anything about this. Glasgow doesn't improve much in the interim. Laidlaw is more Laidlawish. I dunno.

Strange Loyalties by William McIlvanney – Yeah, I think this was kind of a disappointment Laidlaw just kind of bitches endlessly about people and the system and blah blah blah. Why did I read all three of these in like a week last year? There must have been something I liked about them. Oh, well.

Actually, this just catches us up to Christmas. Shit. I'll get back to this at some point.