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I have been reading, Q2 2013

New Zealandish propaganda about New Zealandish propaganda (1917)

Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling - for as soon as the mind responds, connects with the thing, the feeling shows in the words; this is how poetry enters deeply into us. If the poet presents directly feelings which overwhelm ... they cannot strengthen morality and refine culture, set heaven and earth in motion and call up the spirits!
– Wei Tai (C11th)

Was in a sciencey mood. (This makes my ravishing encounter with Rorty - the greatest of the irrealist literary crusaders - more notable still.) Science is most easily taken in via sweet funny geeks - so I returned to scifi for the first time in years. Poetry overtook me mid-May. Been active, but the increase in reading is really just redistribution, taken from my crash news diet and cutting down on my beloved web aggregators (3QuarksDaily, Wood S Lot, and Arts & Letters Daily). Some long gushes here; forgive.

1/5: No.
2/5: For enthusiasts, I guess.
3/5: Skim it.
4/5: Read it receptively.
4*/5: Amazing, but probably only the first time through.
5/5: Read it now, slowly, and probably repeatedly.
TBC/5: I don't have the evaluative tools for this (yet).

  • Read aloud: Trial of the Clone (2012) by Zach Weinersmith. Super-fun choose-your-own-adventure book. It's a satire of Star Wars and classic scifi, your character's greed and passive aggression matched only by his/her incompetence. Bellylaughed a lot, which is unusual for me. Sometimes the gags fall back on scat when it gets tired of mocking religion, but I mean that in the best possible way.

    4/5. [Read twice, one and a half hours each]

  • Mogworld (2010) by Ben "Yahtzee" Crowshaw. Similar to Trial, this is a pop-postmodern treatment of its genre's conventions, for fantasy: it's self-aware videogame NPCs living and suffering in an uninspired swords-n-sorcery MMO. The parts where the characters begin to realise that the gods are incompetent nerds are my favourite. It doesn't have the vitriol of his famed game reviews, but the ending is suitably brutal, and there is a sad tension throughout (the protagonist repeatedly and sincerely asks to be killed) which elevates things a bit.

    3/5. [4 hours, lightly]

  • Thinking About Texts (2001) by Richard Hopkins. Just an A-level English textbook, with good, long extracts and scrupulous presentation of alt perspectives. English students at my university were taught very little Theory indeed - and while this made discussions much less pompous, they were also kinda toothless. Without theory, the subject "English" has little to distinguish it, being as it is just an odd dilution of philosophy tied to narrow history of ideas with sprinklings of sexy concepts from newer humanities (e.g. Media studies, Race studies, Queer theory, Area studies). Anyway: tutorials would have been less unbearable if this book had been ubiquitous.
    3/5 (4/5 for culture people.) [6 hours]

  • Venus in Exile: the Rejection of Beauty in C20th Art (2002) by Wendy Steiner. Warm, masterful. Main thesis is that beauty and women were so intertwined a hundred years ago that Modernism was essentially misogynistic - in form, as well as just in its practitioners. Furthermore, that this misogyny, as part of a wider smashing of old things, was key to feminism finally breaking out and establishing new options for women. Convincing.

    4/5. [5 hours]

  • Key Concepts: Gender (2006) by Tina Chanter. Annoying: conventionally unconventional, dogmatically anti-dogmatic. I've been looking for a good introduction to give to Questioning friends. This is not that. (Is it a coincidence that the best popularisers - Paglia, Greer, Moran - are all highly problematic feminists?) It manages to make the most exciting parts of current feminism - standpoint theory, Calhoun's post-deconstruction ideas - sound dull, dense and theoretically empty, as if it were the same kind of navel-gazing theorism as the hyperinflated Althusserian-Foucauldian stuff. (To be fair, any overview has to cover French theory, because that's what our counter-gender people have actually been up to for decades. But not necessarily with this much blind acceptance.) You get the impression that the only progress in feminist thought is in calling your predecessors timid or bigoted - JS Mill calls out the Victorians, Okin calls out JS Mill, Butler calls out Okin, Wittig calls out Butler, and then Calhoun calls Wittig heteronormative(!). The book does give a breakdown of French feminism in slightly less abstruse language, and goes through all the Waves, including the intentionally confused interference-wave that is pomo-poco gender studies. And it's brief.

    2/5. [3 hours]

  • Turn Off Your Mind (2003) by Gary Lachmann. I'm a sucker for this book's thesis: that Charles Manson, Scientology, and Altamont were not horrible subversions of the 60s' ideology - but its logical conclusion. The book's a series of pop history lessons, and is in fact a bit too full of sections like: "...and then Ram Dass went to India and met Guru McFamous who also knew Bastard McProfound who was notorious for writing a best-selling book of consciousness revolution and being racist for kicks". A fairly clear-eyed account of a bunch of fucking creeps who still have cultural capital.

    3/5. [3 hours, very lightly]

  • Audiobook: The History of Philosophy without Any Gaps (2011-3) by Peter Adamson. Ongoing series of free podcasts. It's mostly introductory, the standard readings plus the odd surprising debunking (e.g. "Heraclitus is not a philosopher of chaos"). Not a massive amount of women here, even given that he's going through the Medievals and Islamic Golden Age atm. (Hypatia? Arete? Heloise? Hildegard of Bingen?)

    3/5. [30 hours with my ears]

  • Conundrum (1974) by Jan Morris. "I was three or perhaps four years old when I realised I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. It is my earliest memory." Memoir by our first trans national treasure. (Even the Daily Mail said:
    A compelling and moving read, a world away from the tabloid titillation that normally surrounds the subject.
    !!) Her:
    I see now that, like the silent prisoners I was really deprived of an identity... I realize that the chief cause of my disquiet was the fact that I had none. I was not to others what I was to myself. I did not conform to the dictionary's definition - 'itself, and not something else'.
    While it's technically detailed - dealing with the nittygritty of eight years of medical tourism, voice training, colleague adjustment, and a compulsory divorce from her wife - it leaves lots about the subjective experience of crossing unanalysed. Which is both fine and disappointing.

    4/5. [3 hours]

  • Map and Territory (2010) by Eliezer Yudkowsky. Manifesto for LessWrong's radical empiricism, and a genuinely good intro to epistemology (and formal epistemology) to boot. Being a tricksy wishywashy philosophy student, I unfortunately can't follow them in stamping Bayesian-Quinean realism as The straightforward answer to everything (as he says, "the simple truth"), but I admire Yudkowsky's hard-headedness, technical creativity, and style a whole lot.

    4*/5. (LessWrong is reliably between 3*/5 and 5/5.) [2 hours.]

  • Capitalist Realism (2012) by Mark Fisher. Short book by one of Britain's premier net intellectuals, trying to demystify the Hegel/Baudrillard approach to society, existence, and pop culture. He is humane, focussing on why we might think we need these Theorists, and he does well to handle critical theory without the field's usual airless, salacious presumptiveness. But it's still logic chopping without the logic. YMMV.

    3/5. [3 hours. (Short; not simple)]

  • The "Transcendental Analytic" (1787) by Immanuel Kant. Difficult, flashy apodixis. His arguments are gappy; prose awful; goals anyway radically different from mine (he wanted certainty, exhaustiveness, the establishment of free will at any metaphysical cost: a.k.a. submission). NB: The Analytic is only about 1/8th of his Critique of Pure Reason. I don't doubt that there's enough subtlety and complexity to spend a career reading him. I just doubt there's world enough and time for me to return for the rest.

    2/5. [14 hours, including modern help.]

  • Anglo-English Attitudes(2013) by Geoff Dyer. Stunning bunch of 3- or 4-page essays. Often on French or Italian figures or places (Althusser, Cartier-Bresson) or unusual objects of aesthetics (Action Man). What we call "research" is just incidental to Dyer - glittering coincidences and correlations fall into his lap as he sets about reading, apparently, everything. 

    4/5. [2 hours, skipping some of the French ones]

  • Read aloud: Until Before After(2011) by Ciaran Carson. Solemnly blatant. Plainly good. 157 unpunctuated sentence-poems, each poem holding maybe three jarring, run-on thoughts. It's melancholy, about loss, time and rhythm, but present itself as neither pitiful nor gnostic. It's really difficult to parse, but you don't resent that. There's a shout-out to China Miéville in the back, which is mad! because these poems are stylistically nothing like Miéville's clotted, neologistic prose. There are maybe 2 words less than a hundred years old in the whole book ("credit card"). Closer inspection. 

    4/5. [Twice = 2 hours]

  • Hijack Reality: Deptford X (2008) by Bob and Roberta Smith. Aggrandised history of a cute London art festival he helped found. I'm not much into zany free play atm. Art, as an institution, seems much more hollow and ritualistic than it recently did. Which leads me to wonder: am I on the CP-Snow-seesaw? Does my current enthusiasm for science mean I must gain some contempt for arts? (Art might be the proper home of structuralist waffle - being, as it sometimes is, a floating system of signs with no correspondence or weight.) Anyway, this gets an extra point for being starry-eyed and democratic - too rare in art.

    3/5. [< hour.]

  • Read aloud: Aphorisms (1838) by Napoleon Bonaparte, compiled by Honore de Balzac. Not very good, mostly. He's obviously truly independent - e.g. there's lots of praise for Muhammad here, lots of fearless anticlerical scepticism, lots of examination of despots. He's not coherent at all - he's both an anti-intellectual "man of action" and a shiny-eyed Enlightenment rationalist; Machiavellian bastard and Aristotelian virtue-seeker; imperial elitist and populist revolutionary. Consider: Napoleon caused the deaths of between 3 and 7 million people (i.e. 0.5% of every person alive at the time), imposing significant effects on almost the entire world - and he's a very average writer. Read him next to Nietzsche, who plausibly never harmed anyone in his entire life, but whose writing stills scorches and stuns us. (This gets better when we remember that Nietzsche considered Napoleon one of a handful of people who have been truly 'great'.) Charitable reading: We happen to have caught up with Napoleon's thoughts, but not with Nietzsche's.
    Some good lines that don't depend on their speaker being extraordinary for impact:
You never climb that high unless you do not know where you are going.
Politics - which cannot be moral - is that which must make morality triumph.
Superstition is the legacy left by one century's clever people to the fools of the next...

2/5. [1 hour]


  • Read aloud(!): Perdido Street Station (2000) by China Miéville. Enormous steampunk social commentary dressed in gorgeous nasty prose (think Nabokov on America). This is ethical science fiction. His dank, evil city, 'New Crobuzon', is a dark mirror of Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork (itself a funhouse mirror of Elizabethan London) without its animating sense of fun and justice. Instead, it has fearsome class consciousness; satires on academic, tabloid and political speech, misogyny, and the deeply tainted political economy of science/capital/government.
    Its substance was known to me. The crawling infinity of colours, the chaos of textures…each one resonated under the step of the dancing mad god, vibrating and sending little echoes of bravery, or hunger, or architecture, or argument, or cabbage or murder or concrete across the aether. The weft of starlings’ motivations connected to the thick, sticky strand of a young thief’s laugh. The fibres stretched taut and glued themselves solidly to a third line, its silk made from the angles of seven flying buttresses to a cathedral roof.
    What I take to be the central metaphor: one of the oppressed races are found to have a native power - the 'potential energy of crisis' - which, with a scientific harness, could revolutionise the world: i.e. Classical Marxism. Our heroes are not especially heroic. In the face of The City, no one has all that much power.

    4*/5. [22 hours, because spoken]

  • The Marxists (1962) by C Wright Mills. I take this to be a fair appraisal of the development of the great opposer. Book is mainly extracts from brilliant, now-obscure theorists and commentators (e.g. Kardelj, Luxembourg, GDH Cole). Mills is anti-Stalinist and anti-McCarthyist - i.e. he took what we now take to be the only virtuous path through the marsh of the day - which required considerable bravery and fairness (as the respective failures of Orwell and Sartre on the matter show). The chapter on "How Not to Criticise Marxism" is amazing, distinguishing types of Marxist that people still confuse these days. He died just before publishing this, thus missing the great wave of neo-idealism from Frankfurt, a wave that more determines the character of today's radical Left than the classical economics detailed herein. He prepared the ground, but would not be one of them.

    4/5. [5 hours, some skipping.]

  • The Rorty Reader (2009) by Richard Rorty. Epochal, encompassing, uplifting. I've been in love with the idea of Rorty for years. (He is: the renegade Analytic, the outrageous unifier, the literary soul, the pessimistic utopian, the great puncturer, and the bravest postmodernist by far - because he just comes out and says it, bites the bizarre bullets.) He is illuminating about philosophy of mind, poetry, foundationalism, the public/private divide, feminism, America, MacKinnon, Derrida, Davidson, and Dewey (obv), among lots of other things. One can usually taste meanness in postmodern writing - stemming, I suppose, from our sense of being hopelessly undermined by it - but never in Rorty. I found this really hard going - I've been reading it since January - despite his being utterly clear, original and sometimes funny.

    5?/5. [Long. 40 hours?]

  • Surface Detail (2010) by Iain 'M' Banks. Meditation on consequentialism and moral progress, only more fun than that sounds. ("Consequences are everything.") I'm a big fan of his Culture novels, but this is only good. Spends 300 pages setting up its thirteen protagonists into like seven plot threads. As a result, he has to repeat a lot of exposition to keep us - including, in one instance, a full page of quoted dialogue which we'd heard 50 pages back. Oddly simplistic despite its fifth-order intentionality, then. Surface Detail fills out some of the mechanisms and organisation of the Culture; throws his usual bucket of ideas at the plot (graphic descriptions of Hell, a first-person account of an aquatic, hair-thick species, an extended section in a Medieval convent) and keeps a good amount of tension and mental strain going. Good, full of simple dramatised philosophy.

    4/5. [6 hours]

  • Matter (2008) by I M Banks. This entry's mostly set on a C17th world, the rest given over to barely interesting galactic politics. The Culture novels feel free to wave away technological plot devices with talk of "energy grid!" or "nanotech!", but Banks shows off hard-scifi cred here, giving a few lovely, moving images based on meteorology and astrophysics. A scathing note on the current-affairs blogosphere:
    A rapidly expanding but almost entirely vapid cloud of comment, analysis, speculation and exploitation...Welcome to the future, she thought, surveying the wordage and tat. All our tragedies and triumphs, our lives and deaths,our shames and joys are just stuffing for your emptiness.
    Ending is good and brutal, made me stop and infer for ten mins afterward. So, yeah, Banks has been playing the same "ooh, neo-colonialism", "ooh, consequences", "ooh, angst in utopia" note for a while. But it's a good note.

    3/5 for a 4/5 series. [5 hours.]

  • Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner (1987) by Alistair Reid. So beautiful: set of long essays punctuated with poems. He's a poet, Hispanicist, translator and long-time New Yorkerer. He was right there when the Latin American lit boom began, giving Neruda a home in London - mates with Marquez, insofar as anyone is. I like his prose even better than his excellent poems.
    Foreigners are, if you like, curable romantics. The illusion they retain, perhaps left over from their mysterious childhood epiphanies, is that there might somewhere be a place – and a self – instantly recognizable, into which they will be able to sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh. In the curious region between that illusion and the faint terror of being utterly nowhere and anonymous, foreigners live.
    I love him for his scepticism about identity - the piece on returning "home" to Scotland is great because of his distance from it. "Scotland":
    It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
    when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
    and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
    Greenness entered the body. The grasses
    shivered with presences, and sunlight
    stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
    Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
    the woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!
    cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
    And what did she have to say for it?
    Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
    as she spoke with their ancient misery:
    'We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!

    5?/5. [3 hours]

  • Desperate Characters (1970) by Paula Fox. Amazing, portentious realism. Wife: "Oh, never mind what I say." Husband: "I don't and I can't." Fox draws intense, evil significance out of ordinary irritations (a cat bite, a smashed window, a feud at work) - as we do when at our lowest. It's dark without being Gothic; apocalyptic without melodrama; heartbroken without self-pity. On a hospital waiting room:
    It was a dead hole, smelling of synthetic leather and disinfectant, both of which odors seemed to emanate from the torn scratched material of the seats that lined the three walls. It smelled of the tobacco ashes which had flooded the two standing metal ashtrays. On the chromium lip of one, a cigar butt gleamed wetly like a chewed piece of beef. There was the smell of peanut shells and of the waxy candy wrappers that littered the floor, the smell of old newspapers, dry, inky, smothering and faintly like a urinal, the smell of sweat from armpits and groins and backs and faces, pouring out and drying up in the lifeless air, the smell of clothes... a bouquet of animal being, flowing out, drying up, but leaving a peculiar and ineradicable odor of despair in the room as though chemistry was transformed into spirit, an ascension of a kind...
    The quiet, careful way that every character is sketched in their paranoia is convincing, and unnerving. Sure, it's about upper-middle class people's pain, but that's still pain. The least tractable kind, in fact.

    4/5. [4 hours]

  • Stuff White People Like eBook (2010) by Christian Lander. Didn't really get the point of this. It mocks a certain small, ridiculous group - C21st upper-middle-class lefty American hipsters -and sets them up as the whitest people in the world. I'm in the same boat as the author - white guy liking "white" things (The Wire, green tea, public transport, Europe) and worrying that this marks my participation in class trends that exclude people. I also share his contempt of people with contempt for practicality. So this is, I suppose, a handy guide to the fads of a certain group of middlebrows in our particular cultural moment. Insofar as it encourages actual class consciousness among alt.consumerist hipsters: hooray. Insofar as it sneers at trends that actually could change the world if adopted en masse (e.g. vegism, bikes, talking about diversity, engaging with foreign art), boo. 

    2/5. [1 hour.]

  • An Embarrassing Book Title (2010) by Tim Ferriss. Hodgepodge of extreme, supposedly scientific Pareto "lifehacks" for: rapid weight-loss, lazy bodybuilding, polyphasic sleep blah, regeneration from chronic injury, DIY female orgasm therapy. (One of the worst tropes in reading culture is the stupid presumption that to read something is to approve of its contents. So, I feel bound to mention that I'm not interested in the stats-obsessed quasi-pro-ana muscle busywork this book centres around; I don't like his Silicon Valley technicism either; his conspicuous consumption of medical attention is risible ("Just $3800 four times a year for this battery of vanity tests!"); as is his desperate name-dropping self-promotion.) Came across it in the course of my new favourite hobby: grazing on other peoples' Kindles. Ferriss has a ... creative grasp of biochemistry, and his brute lack of self-doubt lets him be productively provocative (e.g. "I do not accept the Lipid Hypothesis of cardiac disease"; "DO NOT EAT FRUIT"). He quotes heavily from more expert people, and he does do everything he advocates. The main advantage of him is that he is fearless about ridicule, actually following what he sees as the evidence. Thus there's a long section on the bodybuilding potential of vegetarian diets - which got him lots of scorn from the meathead-o-sphere - as well as an idiosyncratic list of the substrates that vegists are often missing. (Boron, anyone?) Alongside the unreflective drive to thinness, his most telling concern is his fixation on testosterone and morbid fear of infertility. So I scoffed at his fear of phones irradiating his testicles - but there actually is reason to think so. Less annoying than your average loud guru pseud.

    3/5. (1 hour, lots of skipping - which he actually explicitly recommends.)

  • Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy. Say it is 1985 A.P. (After Peckinpah). How can anyone write anything new about poor white psychopaths in the hot rural places of Victorian America? The answer turns out simple: just have prose so tight and freshening - a jet hose comprising one-third Bible, one-third Emerson, one-third Ballard - that you again uncover the  elemental bones of the Western. Also savagely de-emphasise your characters. Place them in enormous, indifferent vistas; give us no inner monologue - nor even indirect report of subjective life; have no speech marks to set their words apart from the landscapes (do not draw the eye to their presumed humanity); have no apostrophes, no hyphens even, lest we remember; have as few names as possible, leave them as types - "kid" or "captain" or "mexican" or "brave"; set their incredible violence among such vast places it looks like little; have few capital letters but for God's. Lock your readers out; make everyone and everything opaque. (As he says himself:
    In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence.
    These cowboys and injuns punctuate the beautiful land of Central America with hanged babies; rings of decapitate heads; a four-eyed dog; a man calmly eating his own shit; endless thirsty hallucinogenic despair. This is exhausting, quite hard to read:
    All night the wind blew and the fine dust set their teeth on edge. Sand in everything, grit in all they ate. In the morning a urinecolored sun rose blearily through panes of dust on a dim world and without feature. The animals were failing... That night they rode through a region electric and wild where strange shapes of soft blue fire ran over the metal of the horses' trappings and the wagonwheels rolled in hoops of fire and little shapes of pale blue light came to perch in the ears of the horses and in the beards of the men... the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.
    (As well as this Nabokovian trudge through the middle section, McCarthy sometimes steers close to the comical with sentences like "Itinerant degenerates bleeding west like a heliotropic plague.") A typical human interaction in this book is "The kid looked at the man"; no more. There's plenty of grandeur - just not in humans. At the centre of the book stands the Judge - Satan, Ahab and Moby Dick all in one. ("His skin is so pale as to have almost no pigment.") Racism, fear and poverty form the baseline. The Comanches, for instance, are here worse than demons 
    ...grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns... riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning...
    - "at least demons are Christian"!
    Lots of descriptions of the stars, inbetween brutalities
    The night sky lies so sprent with stars that there is scarcely a space of black at all and they fall all night in bitter arcs and it is so that their numbers are no less...
    The stars burned with a lidless fixity and they drew nearer in the night until toward dawn he was stumbling among the whinstones of the uttermost ridge to heaven.
    For the first time I understand why Aristotle's physics divides the world into different celestial and terranean operations: from down here back then, the stars look so clean and permanent, they're just not of our world, dirty, unhinged, and endangered as it has been, for almost everyone.

    4*/5, but I understand if it's 2/5 for you. (11 long hours)


  • Open City (2010) by Teju Cole. Careful, slow-burning diary-novel. We follow Julius, an upper-middle New Yorker doctor who lives, largely, in the absence of overt reference to his race (half-Nigerian, half-German). For existential reasons, he walks and observes. ("The creak-creak of the swings was a signal, I thought, there to remind the children that they were having fun; if there were no creak, they would be confused.") Cole mixes in plenty of banality, setting up the tension to come, in which the brooded past breaks in, and freedom (in its American, European and larger, shadowy senses) is weighed up and found to be a very mixed bag. The most interesting & flawed character is the Moroccan critical theorist Farouq - a hypereducated livewire working in an internet cafe. (Who probably got to me because I flatter myself to be like him... if I had racism and massive chips on both shoulders to deal with.)

    4/5. (4 hours.)

  • Read aloud: Stranger Music (1993) by Leonard Cohen. I don't think he's depressing! Does that make me in some way broken? Anyway: Cohen the Jewish Buddhist leverages literary power from a faith he does not own: his poems are thus as erotic and grotesque as the best Christian writing. Much funnier and more concrete than his songs, too. Sure, everything is ominous in his work, but it's also banal, and these often admit they're ridiculous. To my surprise he is never obscure; to my relief he is never fatally wounded by the vicious retribution his many flaws invite. His is a gnarled urban spirituality. A strong, unlikely comparison: Bukowski. They both fixate on: plain poems about poems, bitter desire, nakedness, grandiose self-loathing, losers in love, and the significance of everyday things. (Look at this: "The art of longing's over and it's never coming back.") Speaking of Bukowski: is Cohen sexist? Arguable. For every slap in the face like 'Diamonds in the Mine', there are several tendernesses ('Portrait of a Lady') and self-aware apologies for lust. I would say: shocking and honest about patriarchal shapes, generally not unfeminist. ("You took my fingerprints away / So I would love you for your mind.") Moments of chastity inamongst the randy fury - for instance he never says 'God', always 'G-d'. Lots about the Holocaust too, mostly its banal consequences.
    Kiss me with your teeth
    All things can be done.
    whisper museum ovens of
    a war that Freedom won
    The newer stuff is generally weak, because less wry, profane and specific.

    (4/5 with lots of 5/5 moments: 'French and English', 'Israel', 'A Working Man', 'Queen Victoria and Me', 'Montreal' 'Hydra 1960', 'A Cross Didn't Fall on Me', 'Disguises', 'It's Probably Spring'.)

  • Altered Carbon (2002) by Richard Morgan. Class act: cyberpunk without cheap gothic neon and lolspeak; noir without cartoonish conventions. A meditation on identity and consent via sex and violence. Genuinely. The Scene: Consciousness can be up- and downloaded. In this world, if you are rich enough, you do not die. If you're richer than that, you can be uploaded into a young clone of yourself - otherwise you take whatever marginalised corpse is going and adjust your sense of self to fit. He picks out implications from this tech brilliantly (e.g. what happens to celebrity culture?). The inevitable neologisms are excellent, intensely suggestive of the new culture's inner life: death is just "storage"; bodies are just "sleeves" and to be reincarnated is to be "sleeved"; a plasma gun is a "sunjet". Murder is just "organic damage". Catholics are (once again) the world's underclass - unable to travel interstellar because it involves casual storage (suicide) and resleeving (heresy), and killed with near-impunity because they alone cannot testify at their own murder trials. Cartoonish moments: our anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs is attacked or apprehended 7 times in the first 150 pages.) People transition gender with regularity. Morgan makes a bold essentialist statement, which is somewhat backed-up: "To be a woman was a sensory experience beyond the male... To a man, skin was a barrier. To a woman it was an organ of contact. That had its disadvantages." (Kovacs is tortured, horrifically, as a woman.) Advertising can be beamed obtrusively into your mind. The UN has become a Shady Galactic Empire. It is strongly suggested - not least by our trained-psychopath protagonist - that this transhuman society is more psychopathic, owing to the lower stakes of violence, injury, and taboo-breaking. Gritty but not just gratuitous. Better than Gibson.

    4/5, at least. (9 hours.)

  • Read aloud: Poems of the Late T'ang (8th & 9th Century), translated by Angus Charles Thomas (1965). I've been playing at knowing China for years, but of course I do not. (For instance, I picked this calm, modest book up unwittingly, and learn it is the gold standard translation by the greatest Western sinologist of the day.) It's a great hook: supposedly, Chinese poetry (world poetry?) peaked in the Ninth Century. For almost their whole history, passion and violence were considered inappropriate topics for poetry! They resented melodrama and fantasy in their poets! I must be jaded to think this is great. The poets seem all to be old men trying not to care about death - "snail shell men", in Ancient Chinese. They are mainly ultra-concrete - lots of masterpieces about mountains and rice and fish. Graham is a droll, masterful guide, making the requisite comparisons to Baudelaire and Pound for me, the clunking reader. (I can only assume the strange meters he uses are good approximations to the original.) The war between Confucianism and Buddhism is prominent here, and is hard for me to imagine -probably because I have a Hollywood understanding of these two "serene" "coping" philosophies. Li Shangyin's (李商隐的) "Written on a Monastery Wall":
    They rejected life to seek the way. Their footprints are before us.
    They offered up their brains, ripped up their bodies: so firm was their resolution.
    See it as large, and a millet grain cheats us of the universe:
    See it as small, and the world can hide in a pinpoint.
    The oyster before its womb fills thinks of the new cassia:
    The amber, when it first sets, remembers a former pine.
    If we trust the true and sure words written on Indian leaves
    We hear all past and future in one stroke of the temple bell

    Like a typical Westerner, I like the weirdoes: Li He (李賀), who's their wild fantasist (Blake?) and Meng Jiao (孟郊), barren kin of Poe. I enjoyed this, but don't really have the tools to judge:

    TBC/5. (3 hours)

  • Read aloud: De Rerum Natura / The Nature of Things (-0060) by Lucretius, translated by Alice Stallings. An epic, declarative philosophy of peace and pre-scientific science. Lucretius poses a serious problem for a neat theory of poetry I like (from IA Richards): the claim that poetry's meaning and significance is almost independent of its truth-value; that poetic language is thus the opposite of scientific language, in which truth-value is the first and critical quantity. De Rerum messes with this because it explicitly sets out to lecture us on the ultimate reality of all things in verse. (Maybe I can say that "from the European Renaissance onwards" poetry becomes the land of the irrelevant fact.) Anyway: long, full of skippable stuff about a random rich guy (Memmius), but also a catchy guide to Epicurus, the most modern and loveable Attic Greek. (He was secular, undramatic, naturalist, tolerant, good-humoured...)
    And yet it is hard to believe that anything
    in nature could stand revealed as solid matter.
    The lightning of heaven goes through the walls of houses,
    like shouts and speech; iron glows white in fire;
    red-hot rocks are shattered by savage steam;
    hard gold is softened and melted down by heat;
    chilly brass, defeated by heat, turns liquid;
    heat seeps through silver, so does piercing cold;
    by custom raising the cup, we feel them both
    as water is poured in, drop by drop, above

    Also worth reading for the ironies that Epicurus' lucky guesses and near-misses generate - e.g. ghosts aren't real, being just images of mental atoms, and so on.

    4/5. (3 hours.)

  • Wild Harbour (1936) by Ian Macpherson. Post-apocalyptic Morayshire folk do Cold War survivalism before the Cold War? I was of course primed to love this, but it's a lead ball of a book, drab and flattened. This probably makes it a brilliant picture of the era's background of vast fear, but that doesn't make for a good read. The three characters are just scared, and though their hardships are harsh indeed, they're oddly unaffecting. The political economy that drove them out there is completely absent, only represented by sketched armed thugs. Nor is the world-justifying love of the central couple convincing, either. So it's tragic, but in no meaningful or honourable way. The prose does sometimes have a lovely Doric lilt - "We were but young in stealth. As we drove along the Spey, the silent night was full of ears that harkened to our passing. It was midnight when our second journey ended, and dark, dark." - and local loons will get a kick out of it.

    2/5. (2 hours)

  • Read aloud: Of Mutability (2010) by Jo Shapcott. Wasn't this massive, as contemporary poetry goes? ('What dyou mean it's on display in the front of the shop?') Of water, London, transformation, plainness. It's a moderate book. Moderately sad, moderately whimsical, moderately vulgar ("Piss Flower"), moderately modern, moderately transcendental. Good. Am I supposed to say this makes it immoderately British?

    3/5. (1 hour)

  • Read aloud: Women's Poetry of the 1930s (1996), edited by Jane Dowson. Raising up unjustly obscure things is one of the main points of having academics around. However, half the poets in this actually refused to be segregated in their lifetime (that is, refused to be anthologised as women, or at all). Dowson is candid about this, and half the book is just suggestive little biographies as a result. Though she is shackled to the humanities' chaste, hyper-qualified prose ("I have tried to illustrate that through their interrogations of national and international affairs, their preoccupations with cultural politics and their experiments with language and form... rejects the language of centrality and dominance...") and their fear of judgment / love of equivocation ("If consensus over a 'good poem' is neither desirable nor possible, then value is largely determined by context..."), it's not exactly hateful. Whether through Dowson's bias or the necessities of the time, these poets are even more independent than their male counterparts. Of those selected, Stevie Smith and Edith Sitwell are already fully reclaimed as the canonical boss ladies they are. Two big oversights of mine: Naomi Mitchison and Sylvia Townshend Warner. Mitchison is amazing - wise when wounded, droll and passionate, politicised but never journalistic: check out "To Some Young Communists", "Woman Alone", "Old Love and New Love". Warner is both blunt and metaphysical. (Others are just passable. Vita Sackville-West's are surprisingly poor, in fact. Highlights: "Beauty the Lover's Gift?" (bitter objectification); "Pastoral" (Manly Hopkins after empire). "A Woman Knitting" (the infinite in the finite); "Song of the Virtuous Female Spider" (satirising pious motherhood clichés); "The Sick Assailant" (rare for the time: male violence focus); "On August the Thirteenth" (on abruptness, gentle impotence of human pretensions).

    4/5. (5 hours)

  • Read aloud: Red Ice (1987) by Colin Mackay. Bitter, accusatory collection from a self-described "European pessimist" (i.e. Diogenes, Hobbes, Arnold, Spengler, Schopenhauer). Politically betrayed, he goes in for nihilism. "We were hungry for belief / hope fed us human flesh." Aside: Mr Mackay had a bloody tragic life, suffered without even any thrilling hubris or heroic end. Of course, many, many Canon artists had unusually hard lives and/or mood disorders. But it's not necessarily that sad people write better in general. Instead, readers - we cheap egoists - are just not receptive to others: we need to be woken up to a book, whether that's by recommendation, or biographical detail, or some other gimmick. A tragic biography is the most reliable primer. (Witness the death bump.) I would love Mackay's poems to be incredible; I've never been as primed as I was by reading Mackay's published suicide diary. But they're just ok. Of moons, angels, deserts, atomisation, Hendrix. Red Ice was written well before Bosnia (the crowning, horror of his life), but it's already overflowing with dense ruined empathy and snarly emptiness and survivor's guilt.
    Are there great paintings in only black and grey? Well, yes, sort of. Calvary features four times in twenty poems. ("the mountains are mere hills / the calvarys are daily and inconspicuous / and we are retreating into closed worlds") Mackay was playing at genocide logic, forty years after Adorno and twenty-five after Geoffrey Hill. (Does it matter, being late to the worst thing ever? No, but do it right, do it new.) The brute fact of the C20th drives him to nostalgia and lairy isolation ("[I said] I will be me for the hell of it / [he said] "you working-class tory / you aren't worth a shit".) So the poems are chaste and flat, romanticism with the innocent wonder ripped out; unleavened except for his spurious racial memory of everything being ok, once. (Wordsworth at Katyn.) (I do not think highly of Wordsworth.) The long title poem has automatic force, being as it is about the gulags and the shame of Stalin apologism (and Lenin, tbf). But it's also uncompressed, clumsy with rage ("stop these follies of the human race!"). It contains a direct condemnation of MacDiarmid, which is rare and titillating. On the like of his and Sartre's hypocritical silence on Stalinism:
  • [They said to]
    "Find something in your own hemisphere!"
    to salve my Commie conscience with,
    to express solidarity with.
    (If only there was someone I could
    express solidarity with...)
    There is one poem that gets somewhere: "Phantoms", a fast, vocal, twisted/triumphant repudiation of war and hippies alike. And "Holy, Wholly My Own" is admirable Golden Age crap. Faint praise: 'Nightwatchman of the lonely ex-socialist Scot's soul'. Anyway: for loads of reasons it's not nice to attack the hegemony of the sad in art. 1) They are still good, when they're good; 2) they are often Witnesses, speakers-against-power, and anyone can be crushed and saddened by having to do that; 3) leave them some bloody consolation!

    2/5. (2 hours)


Books I once thought were 5/5s
  • What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire (Bukowski is odd: you can blast through any of his books in like a half an hour without losing any of its message or effect - but I still don't think of him as a 3/5 writer. Also, I don't see how anyone can resent his free verse, because it doesn't suggest it's any better for being "free".) A really good 3/5.
  • Infinite Jest (1998) by David Foster Wallace. The most 4.5/5 book ever.
  • White Noise (2000) by Don DeLillo (actually 4/5)
  • Our Band Could Be Your Life (actually 4/5)
  • Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (3/5)
  • The Crow Road (2000) by Iain Banks (3/5)