‘The Golem and the Jinni’ and ‘The Peripheral’

May 1, 2017

Long time no write … But now, with nothing urgent needing to be done, I am finally able to write a bit about books again.

I thought about what my readers would be interested in most. Presumably not so much in average books which impressed me neither positively nor negatively. Perhaps more in being warned away from books that got hyped but aren’t really that good. But most, I suppose, in learning about very good books. So, here are two which came to my mind back when I thought about what you might like to read (ages ago).

The one is The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. It is a beautiful fantasy novel about a (male) Arabian Jinni and a (female) Eastern European Golem ending up, and meeting, in New York. You could compare it to Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale – sort of magical realism perhaps – but I didn’t like the latter so much. Not sure why, now: maybe it was a bit too literary, too pretentious for my low-brow taste. So, that’s one reason I liked The Golem and the Jinni: it is beautifully written, but it also tells a good story, a good adventure.

The other book I want to recommend is The Peripheral by William Gibson. This is not fantasy but science fiction – proper science fiction, not like his previous three novels (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History). Those were quite good as well, but had merely a slightly science-fictiony feeling: some unusual technology which however was already actual (or so I think). (Sometimes these days the actual world feels science-fictiony: when I see people riding around on self-balancing unicycles I think how weird it is that such devices, which not so long ago would have been considered pure science fiction, are already commonly available. Then again, we do live in yesterday’s future.) If you fondly remember Gibson’s classic Neuromancer, as I do, this novel does not feature cyberspace but instead has cross-temporal telepresence, among other things. So this is again a treat for the fan of true science fiction.

‘The Sense of Style’ by Steven Pinker

February 16, 2015

This is a style manual by one of my favorite popular-science authors (the other is Richard Dawkins [just mentioning the name will presumably boost my readership, hooray!]). Pinker is an excellent stylist himself, if I am any judge, and the book is (as usual) both very enjoyable and written very lucidly. Of course, much depends on whether you want to (or have to) write yourself: if neither, parts of the book will be boring to you. Still, even then you may enjoy large parts of the book, just for learning about how language is processed and understood, and what that implies for how to write (you may understand a bit better just why certain authors annoy you so much). And there are cartoons in the book. And it is fun to read about how many oft-repeated precepts for good writing are really bullshit: idiosyncratic preferences of someone or some age which were later uncritically canonized.

(Regarding good and bad writing, it makes me wonder why David Foster Wallace, who’s presumably such a great writer, doesn’t seem to put any effort into streamlining his thinking in Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. Seems like his readers’ interests aren’t close to his heart at all. Or he didn’t have the time?)

So, if you are looking for a style manual, I recommend this one emphatically (although I must admit I haven’t read any other, unless Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style counts, which is exemplary of its subject matter too). If you are just looking for good popular science, then better read Pinker’s The Language Instinct or one of his many later books (or of course Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene or The Blind Watchmaker or …). Considered as popular science, The Sense of Style is satisfying too, but not at the top of the list, because that is not its main purpose.

‘The Fortress of Solitude’ by Jonathan Lethem

February 16, 2015

The Fortress of Solitude is certainly a very good book, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn. To be sure, there are superheroes in FoS, or at least superpowers (at least, one superpower …), but there wasn’t much adventure. Rather, there were typical topics of highbrow literature: family relations, friendship, race — doubtless many more, which I forgot (it’s been quite a while since I read the book) or didn’t get in the first place. In MB, on the other hand, there’s some kind of crime story, some adventure, and the story reaches some kind of satisfying resolution. (I don’t remember what exactly the story was, never mind the resolution [one never remembers the resolutions of crime stories], because this reading lies even farther back.)

If you enjoy good highbrow literature, albeit tainted by popular culture (superhero comics, graffiti, soul music …), then FoS may well be a book for you. (‘Oooh, yes, I’d really enjoy a week of splendid ennui!’ — Nah, it’s not that bad …) If, like me, you prefer literature with a higher entertainment value, though it be of literary worth [is that correct English?? Or should I write, ‘be it though …’??], then better read MB.

The Kayankaya Novels by Jakob Arjouni

March 3, 2014

A few days ago I finished reading in a row all five Kayankaya novels, crime novels written by German author Jakob Arjouni:

  • Happy Birthday, Türke! (Happy Birthday, Turk!), 1985
  • Mehr Bier (More Beer — although it seems that there’s also a translation under the title And Still Drink More!), 1987
  • Ein Mann, ein Mord (One Man, One Murder — alternative title: One Death to Die), 1991
  • Kismet (Kismet), 2001
  • Bruder Kemal (Brother Kemal), 2012

These are hard-boiled detective stories (not really thrillers, although they are thrilling [thripping] in places) centering on the Turkish-born and German-raised private eye Kemal Kayankaya and set in the large German city Frankfurt (Main) and its surroundings. Although they feature prostitution, extortion and drugs, an important underlying thread pervading these books is the xenophobia or at least unease many Germans manifest towards immigrants. Except for his Turkish features, the protagonist is as German as the next (German) guy — he can’t speak a word of Turkish, rather can adopt Hessian dialect if needed (I wonder how that was translated … but dialects are of course a common problem in translation) — yet still people act weird or downright hostile toward him because they have difficulty categorizing him other than as a Turk and because they are unable to see Turks as ordinary people like them. By the way, the author himself is not Turkish-born or -raised or anything, contrary to what it says somewhere on Amazon.

These books are quite nice, funny and entertaining. The later books are better than the early ones (especially the first, which Arjouni wrote at the age of 21, seems slightly immature, the PI’s cynicism being a bit cheap). I like these books, but I must say I like the crime novels of Austrian writer Wolf Haas even better. They are more literary without being highbrow (yuck), they are funny and written in a distinctive direct-speech style (even more stylistically original is his non-crime novel Das Wetter vor fünfzehn Jahren [The Weather Fifteen Years Ago]; take a look). Start with Auferstehung der Toten (Resurrection, 1996), and then there are six more with his PI Simon Brenner, two or three of which I haven’t even yet read myself. Must do so some time.

‘The Mirage’ by Matt Ruff

January 20, 2014

This novel I definitely recommend (except if you’re George W. Bush or Dick Cheney, which I doubt). I mean, who could resist a back-cover text that starts like this?:

11/9/2001: Christian fundamentalists hijack four jetliners. They fly two into the Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad, and a third into the Arab Defense Ministry in Riyadh. The fourth plane, believed to be bound for Mecca, is brought down by its passengers. The United Arab States declares a War on Terror. Arabian and Persian troops invade the Eastern Seaboard and establish a Green Zone in Washington, D.C. … [And it goes on and gets even more interesting; look it up somewhere where they sell books.]

I couldn’t resist, and this once I wasn’t disappointed, quite the contrary (at least with movies, I am no stranger to disappointment, e.g., The Hobbit 2, The Counselor [‘The Desolation of Scott’?]). The 11/9 attacks are not the topic but rather the background for this alternate reality novel, where an ‘Arab Homeland Security’ agent investigates stories told by captured failed suicide-bombers (Christian ones) that the reality they know is just a ‘mirage’ that has somehow replaced the real reality. So, the book also has elements of a crime novel, and of a political thriller. It is very well written, very entertaining, gripping and thrilling (I’d like to introduce ‘thripping’ as an English equivalent to the German ‘spannend’, but it seems like that word already has another definition: http://de.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Thripping — but really that should be ‘thritting’!). It’s funny also, in places, if I remember correctly (I’ve been moving on already: Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam and now Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge — don’t you agree it’s high time for him to get the Nobel Prize for Literature? I, for one, do agree).

It also seems to me that Matt Ruff cherishes good typography (remember the funny format of Bad Monkeys?) — or maybe that’s the publisher, HarperCollins/Harper Perennial?? (Makes me start reminiscing about the Alfred A. Knopf Borzoi Books I have, but I meander around too much already, so let’s stop getting started.)

I think I enjoyed Ruff’s early books, Fool on the Hill and Sewer, Gas & Electric, but not as much by far as the later ones (including this one): Set This House in Order and the already-mentioned Bad Monkeys. I recommend the latter two, too, to you. (Maybe I should read the former two in the original English; maybe I’d like them more then.)

‘The Once and Future King’ by T. H. White

October 24, 2013

Quite good and interesting. Longish also, but not demanding for people who have read the Song of Ice and Fire books. I had expected something along the lines of The Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser — what one expects from a fantasy classic, merely involving the Arthurian legend: heroism, evil, danger, magic, adventure, love … I guess The Once and Future King has most of that, but it isn’t as naive and serious about it as I expected. For example, the way in which the knights here hunt dragons or joust with each other may well have been an inspiration for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (So, this book is funny very often — but also serious.) Furthermore, while there is magic in the book, the narrator doesn’t hide that he lives in the 20th century and knows 20th-century science, e.g., evolution. Beyond telling another version of the legend of King Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table, the book seems to be about the problems of a leader, about how to civilize people who aren’t quite ready and willing to be civilized.

The parts about Arthur’s youth reminded me of the Simplicissimus, a German novel taking place during the 30 Years’ War and written in 1668, which is in spite of its considerable age quite entertaining.

Another book by T. H. White I have read is Mistress Masham’s Repose, a book for young readers: nice.

‘Interview with the Vampire’ by Anne Rice

September 12, 2013

Not really my cup of tea — or my goblet of blood. I prefer my vampires evil and tough, not aesthetes tormented by moral scruples, as the protagonist of this book is. I’m not saying this is a bad book (although it didn’t strike me as a terribly good one, either), just that it’s not my taste. I suppose this is more for girls than for boys: feelings, relationships, beauty — bah, gimme gore! Well, that is not a perfectly accurate characterization of my tastes, but I do prefer some adventure, a certain amount of thrills and action. Actually, there is a little action in this novel, near the end … But no, this is not my preferred type of entertainment. No more Anne Rice for me, I guess.

Maybe I should watch the movie. It can’t be all bad, since it was directed by Neil Jordan, who gave us The Crying Game.

One favorable observation: There was an interesting thought about immortality in the book. Usually people write that immortality wouldn’t really be desirable because life would become more and more boring after a while, because you would have already seen it all, having lived for so long. That sounds somewhat plausible, but never convinced me. Now, in this novel there was a different, contrary thought, namely that immortality is undesirable because it becomes unendurable after a while. What would be unendurable would not be not dying in itself (nor the boredom) but having to live through constant change, having to get to grips with a world that’s ever farther from the world you grew up in, and having to change with it and to adapt to it, again and again. Seems to me the psychology behind this idea is a little more realistic than that in the case of the boredom idea. Mind you, I’m not convinced; while I find adapting to my changing circumstances rather trying, I still prefer it to dying.

‘Beat the Reaper’ by Josh Bazell

July 24, 2013

Very entertaining: very funny and gripping. A former mafia hitman has retrained as a doctor, but hasn’t lost his martial arts competence, which is a good thing as the mafia is on his tracks for killing an important mob attorney’s son and turning state’s witness. When they catch up with him, his work in a hospital gets even more stressful. (Do I sound like a blurb already? Not quite, I hope.)

So I can definitely recommend this, if you don’t suffer from shark phobia. The same goes for the sequel, Wild Thing (2012), which takes place mostly outdoors, or at least mostly not inside hospitals. You get a vivid impression of how hospitals work (at least U.S.-American hospitals, though German ones may be not much better) where economic considerations are paramount, and nurses as well as doctors low in the hierarchy are exploited as far as possible. Perhaps one can get similar insights from watching House? I haven’t yet done so, however.

Hospitals (and the dire conditions in them) forge a connection to another crime novel I have recently read, Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre, which deals with a Scottish hospital. That one was also good, but not quite as good as Bazell’s novels. I thought the dialogues felt a bit contrived.

You also learn quite a few other things in the process of reading Beat the Reaper. Bazell strives to enlighten his readers while entertaining them, and he succeeds, I think. This intention to enlighten and to foster rational thinking becomes especially clear with the sequel, which has about 40 pages of notes and background information. It amazes me how much Bazell must read. I mean, I read a lot, but I read mostly fiction. He must devour both fiction (otherwise he couldn’t write that well) and fact. Oh well, we must learn to accept our limits …

The protagonist’s name, Pietro Brnwa, is weird. The character is supposed to be of Polish origin, and “Brnwa” a Polish name, but I have difficulty swallowing that. On the other hand, I am anything but an expert on Polish family names, so what do I know. And it is suggested to pronounce it as “Brown”. I am not an expert on Polish pronunciation, either, but that seems implausible to me again. If you know better, don’t hesitate to enlighten me. (The name of the main character of Quite Ugly One Morning is Jack Parlabane. Now he’s not supposed to be Polish, but rather Scottish, but similarly that doesn’t sound like a typical Scottish name to me. Maybe it’s an untypical one.)

‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ by Steven Pinker

June 13, 2013

Very good. Very long, but also very well written and readable (as usual with Pinker), entertaining, and again and again informing us about interesting and often surprising facts, ideas and theories. It took me about a year to read the whole book, a few pages every other evening, but I never considered abandoning the project.

Contrary to the widespread impression that we live in violent times, Pinker argues that on the whole, violence in all forms — whether in war or as parents ill-treating their children — has decreased tremendously over the course of human history. He bolsters this claim by adducing statistics (remarkably unboring) and illustrates it with vivid examples. He debunks the romantic notion that life was better in ‘the good old days’ when we lived closer to nature, with less technology and a simpler culture — and less inhibited by reason. And he describes the most promising hypotheses about what multifarious causes lie behind this trend. For example, one of the reasons people became less cruel to each other was, according to Pinker, the introduction and proliferation of novels, which made you see the world, and experience life, from the vantage point of another person, possibly quite foreign to you. Seems at least very plausible to me. You also get some insight into why the United States still has (I, for my part, would prefer treating ‘the United States’ as the plural it is — ‘the U.S. have‘ — but I acquiesce to my dictionary) no gun control worth mentioning. Also, this book is a defense of rationality, self-control and civilization. Those in need of such a defense will probably not be interested in reading the book, but it might make us others more content with civilization’s discontents.

If you’re interested in human nature, this book is a good choice (although Pinker’s The Blank Slate might be better still); if you’d like to understand some grand trends in history, ditto (another good tip would be Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel).

Francis I and St. Leibowitz

April 8, 2013

The election of the new pope, who calls himself Francis I after St. Francis of Assisi, reminded me of two wonderful science fiction novels by Walter M. Miller Jr.: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) and Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (1997 — actually the latter seems to have been finished by Terry Bisson; I learned this only just now from Wikipedia). This new pope seems to offer a slight hope that the Catholic Church might be reformed (ouch, better not use that word in this context), although on the other hand, while he appears to be agreeably pomp-averse he is also said to be as reactionary as one is accustomed to with the Catholic Church. Now, the connection for me is that in Wild Horse Woman a new pope is elected as well, and he is indeed a radical one. I don’t remember any details, but the character stuck in my memory as kind of a Zen sage who would shock the protagonist with heretical-sounding utterances. That will be the day, when the Catholic Church elects a Zen master for pope! No such hope for this pope, I guess; nope.

Anyway, these two novels take place mostly within the ranks of the Catholic Church in the Dark Ages after a nuclear war. I love them and strongly recommend them. And that makes me wonder again: Is there a deeper reason why I like these catholic-themed novels so much? Am I a closet Catholic??? By the bright light of day, the only ‘religion’ I sympathize with is Zen Buddhism, but what about the dark places of my subconscious? And Walter M. Miller Jr. is not the only devoutly (?) Catholic author whose work I love: Gene Wolfe seems to be another case in point. The religious aspect is not close to the surface in The Book of the New Sun (including The Urth of the New Sun) and The Book of the Long Sun, but it becomes salient enough, though it is nowhere obviously Catholic. The literary merit of all of these books is sufficient to account for my loving them, but still, perhaps that is not all that motivates me. Oh well, if Catholicism takes such beautiful shape, surely I am allowed to indulge in it.