Monday, October 27, 2008

1,000; and notes on a few books

My Dashboard tells me that this is the 1000th post on this blog. Positively criminal. Someone should set limits for these things. Anyway, since there isn't much time for non-work-related blogging these days, I thought I'd make a few quick notes on some of the books I've read and enjoyed in the past few days. Longer posts on a couple of these may follow later.

- Roberto Bolaño's Last Evenings on Earth, a very involving collection of short stories by the Chilean author whose work has enjoyed quite a resurgence in recent months. A recurring theme in these stories is exile – the characters are constantly on the move or unsure of their bearings – but this is handled much more abstractly than in the straightforward “diaspora fiction” narratives we are accustomed to. (These days, the very word "exile" on a book jacket can set off alarm bells for a jaded reviewer.) Bolaño's work seems set to approach magic realism at times, but it's much more subtle: best of all is the masterful title story about a father and son who go on a very strange, meandering “vacation” together. Some of the pieces also have to do with writers and the writing process, notably "A Literary Adventure", where a low-profile writer named B becomes obsessive about the work of another, much more famous author (A). The style here is very spare and poetic.

- Long overdue: Isaac Asimov’s classic “science-fiction mysteries” The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, featuring the Earthman Elijah Baley and his robot-partner R Daneel Olivaw investigating murders together. Part of my ongoing project to devour as much sci-fi writing from the 1940s and 1950s as possible. Unfashionable as he may be these days, I love Asimov's clarity of thought and the way he combines simple prose with far-reaching ideas. His autobiography I. Asimov, written as a series of random essays on various topics, is one of the great “open and start reading from anywhere” books.

- Rahila Gupta’s Enslaved, a powerful examination of modern-day slavery, told in the form of first-person accounts by five people who were trafficked or smuggled into the UK: they include a pregnant child from Sierra Leone, a young Punjabi lady forced into marriage and a Chinese man living in fear of the criminal corporations known as triads. Gupta tells their stories very lucidly and intersperses the narratives with italicized passages that explain background, provide context and examine legal complexities in the immigration process (many of which worsen the predicament of the victimised "slaves"). A real eye-opener to the subtle forms that human exploitation can take in a highly developed country. I wasn't a fan (to say the least) of the Aishwarya Rai-starrer Provoked, which was co-written by Gupta, but this book is excellent.

- John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos: Wyndham’s sci-fi novels (which he himself preferred to call “logical fantasy”) have recently been reissued by Penguin with attractive new covers. The Midwich Cuckoos, about a group of sinister, frighteningly precocious children slowly assuming control over a quiet English village, was the inspiration for the 1960 film Village of the Damned. A little verbose at times but overall this is very good paranoia fiction, the full implications of which only gradually sneak up on the viewer. I hope to move on to Wyndham's other work soon, especially The Day of the Triffids (also filmed in the 1960s) and The Kraken Wakes. (More on the reissued novels here.)

- The Brian Aldiss-edited anthology A Science Fiction Omnibus, a collection of outstanding short stories by such authors as Clifford Simak, Kim Stanley Robinson, James Tiptree Jr, J G Ballard and many others. I want to write about this book at greater length sometime, so I’ll keep it quick for now: my favourite stories here include Walter M Miller’s “I Made You” (a frightening modern take on the Frankenstein story), Aldiss’ own “Poor Little Warrior!”, Bertram Chandler’s “The Cage” (with a closing line that gives us a succinct, cynical definition of what a "rational being" is) and especially Ted Chiang’s very beautiful “Story of Your Life”, in which a woman’s attempts to understand the language used by visiting aliens leads to her perceiving all the events of her life in simultaneous rather than sequential terms.

The anthology also includes John Steinbeck’s wicked “The Short-Short Story of Mankind”, a condensed history of our species. I'll close this post with these memorable lines that end the story:
Right from the cave times we’ve had to choose and so far we’ve never chosen extinction. It’d be kind of silly if we killed ourselves off after all this time. If we do, we’re stupider than the cave people and I don’t think we are. I think we’re just exactly as stupid and that’s pretty bright in the long run.


  1. I would love to read a more detailed review of Bolano's book.

    Though I'm not sure if I agree that it's the theme of exile that ties the book together. Uprootedness, yes, (and definitely not in the sense of diaspora fiction) but not exile. There is a certain sense of restlessness that marks his work.

    There are so many threads there, in his stories, but I feel he is at his best when he delves into the world of writers and writing. Sensini - the first story in the book about short story competitions and so much more- is my personal favorite.

  2. Yes, I think "exile" has become a lazy book-jacket/critspeak shorthand to describe uprootedness and other such themes. Incidentally the jacket of Last Evenings... says that Bolano himself used the phrase "melancholy folklore of exile".

    I enjoyed "Sensini" too.

  3. Magic realism? Bolano? In Last Evenings on Earth?? Where? How? If you were talking about Amulet I might agree, but Last Evenings on Earth?!

    Oh, and agree with arfi - I don't see where "exile" comes into it.

  4. Am a big time Asimov fan. Had read the two u mentioned a year back and just completed "Robots and Empire". The first two are good detective novels on their own and Asimov's insight on humanity make them classsics.

  5. Falsie: in a lengthier review I might have elaborated on "...seems to approach magic realism at times" (which I'm now changing to "seems set to approach...", because that's closer to what I intended to say) - but no, I'm not suggesting it actually reads like MR, just that I was expecting it to, in places.

    Arby: it's useful to be an Asimov fan, since there's so much to get through - over 400 books, including all the mini-encyclopaedias/primers he did. One of the essays in I.Asimov is about his prolificity.

  6. 400. That's really a lot to read. Completed 11 so far (4 Robots and 7 Foundation) and headed for Empire next.

  7. J'wock: I'm curious to read this longer review.

    You do know, of course, that Bolano is well known as a critic of MR. As the New Yorker piece on him last year said:

    "Bolaño is notorious in Spanish-speaking countries for having proclaimed that magic realism “stinks.” He derided Gabriel García Márquez as “a man terribly pleased to have hobnobbed with so many Presidents and Archbishops”; he called Isabel Allende a “scribbler” whose “attempts at literature range from kitsch to the pathetic.” (Allende, interviewed in 2003, dismissed Bolaño as an “extremely unpleasant” man, adding, “Death does not make you a nicer person.”) Bolaño’s obstreperousness was sometimes a pose—much like his preference for being photographed in a black leather jacket, sternly sucking on a cigarette—but his self-described “gratuitous attacks” had salutary effects. He helped liberate Latin-American writing from the debased imitations of magic realism that followed the global conquest of García Márquez’s 1967 novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”—all those clairvoyant señoritas and intercourse-inspiring moles—and reëstablished the primacy of such cosmopolitan experimentalists as Borges and Julio Cortázar."

  8. Asimov, huh? I went through this crazy Asimov phase around 4-5 years ago.......must have read about a hundred...same with Wodehouse and strangely enough, Burgess....

    For me the Foundation series is the most accomplished science fiction ever, with due respect to Dune and anything ever written by Heinlein and Clarke....

    Congratulations for the 1,000! I must have started from somewhere around the 800th one(and then read archives... :) )

  9. Falsie: no, I didn't know that - interesting, though of course his views (or stated views) should have no bearing on this.

    Loved Allende's "Death does not make you a nicer person". It's a beautiful and moving sentiment - we should all tattoo it on our foreheads.

    Aditya: the Foundation series is still on the to-read list. Thing is, I find sci-fi short stories so fascinating that I rarely get around to the lengthier works.

  10. Since u haven't read the Foundation series yet, I'll recommend u complete the Robots series and Empire series before it, in that order, since they r in sequence. The Foundation prequels and sequels were written later and reference some of the works in the Robots series

  11. Good that you mentioned Ted Chiang. He is a brilliant writer. Though he has little very little, his works, almost each of them, shine with his impressive talent.

  12. Congratulations on the thousand.
    Just wondering - you mentioned the first two Bailey books but not the third - "Robots of Dawn". I think it might be the best one - the best mystery, the deepest questions, lots of in-jokes and references, but never at the expense of a meaningful story. Still, it contains the single-best "twist" one's own stories that the same author has wrought. Saying more might ruin it, in case you're looking to get to it.

    Oh, and if you've read 3001: Final Odyssey, did you catch the Susan Calvin reference? Hard to think of how the laws of Robotics would have worked in HAL's universe...

  13. Aakash: will read Robots of Dawn soon. Asimov published it a couple of decades after the first two novels, right? Somehow that made me think it wouldn't be of comparable quality.

    Haven't read 3001 but Clarke referencing Susan Calvin sounds very interesting. In I.Asimov, Asimov mentions how he and Clarke used to frequently send faux-snarky correspondence to each other.

  14. I've just picked up a lovely copy (the older Penguin edition) of Kraken myself. I've only read some of Wyndham's shorter work before, so looking forward to it.

  15. I just read Wyndham's Chocky. It's tiny - the size of one of those Penguin 60 or 70 editions, and it's very good. Just started the Day of The Triffids again, and it's amazing how many zombie movie tropes I can see here.

  16. Congrats on your 1000... Big nos. indeed. I liked the quote with which you ended the article. I am afraid it is true!

    Destination Infinity