The Girl who Played with Fire – Stieg Larsson

More gripping again than the first, the second in Stieg Larsson’s series is an enjoyable novel of corruption that hones in on the story of its protagonist Lisbeth Salander.

After three murders – of a couple investigating sex trafficking and Salander’s guardian Burjman – she becomes the subject of a major national murder investigation. Blomkvist is one of the few people who don’t believe her guilty, and makes the connection between them all, and battles with the police and criminal gangs to help her. As always, though, Salander saves herself and is the strongest character throughout.

What’s nice about this book is it is really about Salander – how she became who she is, and we meet her father in particular who is deeply involved in trafficking.

The book is obviously pretty unbelievable. It relies on a high degree of coincidence and the unlikely physical and mental abilities of Salander. But at the same time it tackles big subjects like power and corruption, upbringing and agency – and it’s a fantastic read.

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The Nightmare Factory, vol. 2 – Thomas Ligotti

The Nightmare Factory is a graphic novel version of four of Thomas Ligotti’s chilling stories, an approach that I think both adds and takes away from their telling.

The four stories are ‘The Gas Station Carnivals,’ ‘The Clown Puppet,’ ‘The Chymist’ and ‘The Sect of the Idiot.’ The strongest of these is the ‘Gas Station Carnivals’, a story I’d read before a couple of times – and had stayed with me – about a man’s *possible* memories of visiting gas stations across the US and finding in the back terrifying shows featuring supernatural creatures.

The graphic style adds to Ligotti’s original short stories by helping them feel more contemporary and giving them a visual flair that helps you to picture some of the most obscure and terrifying parts of the story. The creatures the character (Quisser) sees at the gas stations for example are stranger for seeing them illustrated.

The graphic style does take away a little though, mostly in that Ligotti’s stories are complex and rich with detail, but the comic book necessarily pares it down to a minimum, meaning some of the depth of character or setting, and explanations of the twisting plot, are missing. And part of the appeal of reading horror like Ligotti’s is letting your imagination do the work because so much is left to your mind, and to some extent seeing it illustrated gives you a particular image that you can’t shake afterwards.

Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin 

I can’t say I loved this book, though it’s entertaining, gives insights into a different era and most interestingly illustrates the complexities of power and liberation.

It’s set in 1970s San Francisco, when a new generation of people – and some older – are living footloose and hedonistic lives that were unimaginable to most earlier generations.

There is Mary Ann Singleton, who has just moved to San Francisco; Mona, her friend from back home who has been there a while; Michael, Mona’s gay and promiscuous roommate; Brian, a straight philanderer; Beauchamp, who works where Mary Ann does, and his troubled wife De-De; Norman, an apparently dull but actually odd and perhaps sick guy who Mary Ann befriends; and Anna Madrigal, an older bohemian lady who owns the building, 28 Barbary Lane, that many of the characters live in.

Most noticeable to me about the book, first off, was the style: there is almost no description, nearly all of it is dialogue, and very short, snappy dialogue at that. You learn about the characters almost entirely through what they say. It’s like a play as much as a novel in that sense.

The big theme of the book is liberation, both as a positive and negative force. It’s positive insofar as the characters are living free and experimental lives, doing things for themselves that few others would have dreamed of. San Francisco gives them amazing possibilities for living differently, for creating their own way of being.

But despite their liberation from conventional ways of life, they appear trapped by the new one they have embraced. They are troubled by relationships they are and aren’t having, they end up forcing themselves to do things against their better judgement (one woman pretended she was black for years, using hardcore pills that coloured her skin, in order to get on in the modelling industry), and there’s a lot of sadness that their hopes about how life could be are constantly unmet. 

The great thinker on power – Michel Foucault, who incidentally spent time in San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s for precisely the reasons the characters moved there – is quite clear on what’s going on here. He says there are always power relations and discourses in society that define how we live. New generations might liberate themselves from old conventional lifestyles but then new ways of thinking, new conventions, new forms of normality, take their place and despite being different and perhaps better than the old ones, they are still a constraint on people’s lives.

For Foucault we need to develop an ‘art of the self’ where, through reflection and hard work we craft a way of being for ourselves that takes bits of different discourses and become something that as far is possible our own, making us free subjects not just objects of discourse and power relations.

What we see in Tales of the City are a group of people trying – to different degrees – to tread a line and find their own ways of being between the new and old discourses about how to live, sometimes being trammelled by power relations, sometimes finding flashes of freedom.

“I am an offspring of the dead. I am descended from the deceased. I am the progeny of phantoms. My ancestors are the illustrious multitudes of the defunct, grand and innumerable. My lineage is longer than time. My name is written in embalming fluid in the book of death. A noble race is mine.”

Thomas Ligotti, The Lost Art of Twilight

“With reluctance, I found myself becoming convinced of (as they are now often called) libertarian views, due to various considerations and arguments.

Since many of the people who take a similar position are narrow and rigid, and filled, paradoxically, with resentment at other freer ways of being, my now having natural responses which fit the theory puts me in some bad company. I do not welcome the fact that most people I know and respect disagree with me, having outgrown the not wholly admirable pleasure of irritating or dumbfounding people by producing strong reasons to support positions they dislike or even detest.”

Robert Nozick on how his reasoning changed his views when writing his libertarian classic Anarchy, State and Utopia

Walter Mosley – Little Yellow Dog

The eponymous dog belongs to femme fatale Idabell and appears to be the cause of many of the problems in this, the fifth novel in Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series.

It’s set in JFK-era US and deals characteristically with the reality of racism and race relations. Easy is a black private investigator who’s had a hard upbringing, spent time on the street and is now trying to live straight. But his skin colour, and his difficult past, keep getting in the way.

He’s now working as a supervisor in a school overseeing the building’s maintenance, but after the brother of Idabell, one of the teachers, is discovered on the school he quickly gets himself involved in unearthing what is going on. The plot as always thickens inexorably, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing even after you’ve finished the book, and Easy finds himself stuck between the police, gangsters, city officials – and the small dog he ends up looking after – all of whom want him gone.

The plot is good, like his other Easy novels, but the reason I keep reading Mosley is in part the hard boiled style and, more than anything, Mosley’s understanding of racism and poverty, of how the two are intertwined, how they define the way so much in the US works, and of how circumstances can make people do things that they would not otherwise do.

“I used to live on the edge. I used to move in darkness.

I was excited about Hannah coming out and taking me to her late-night haunt. She liked my jokes and my promise of wealth. I wondered why I had ever left such a simple and honest life.

I wondered if there was a place for me that could be like this and still allow me to hear children’s laughter in the morning.”

Walter Mosley, Little Yellow Dog

J M Coetzee – Elizabeth Costello 

Elizabeth Costello is an ageing, well regarded author. Now rarely writing, she tours the world giving lectures and talks. In Amsterdam, on a cruise liner, in the States and elsewhere she finds herself talking on the big themes of philosophy, religion, human rights.

Through it she is in a state of angst – about whether what she is talking about is meaningful and ultimately about what it is to be a human, a writer, to have a presence in the world.

In some ways the novel is a construction to explore some important but slippery distinctions: between humans and animals, between philosophy and creative fiction, between morality and belief, between bearing witness to horrors and getting sucked into them.

There is an abstract and Kafka-like scene toward the end of the book which nicely articulates the protagonist’s worries and, more widely, is a nice way to capture why it is to hard answer the question ‘who am I.’ She is waiting to pass through from one place – an Italian piazza as it turns out – to another which may or may not be heaven.

The judges who determine whether she can pass base their decision on what she believes – whether she has a belief – but when she is asked the question ‘what do you believe in’ she struggles to identify the ‘thing’: her beliefs, the values that define her are multiple and changeable and hard to articulate.

“I am a writer, and what I write is what I hear. I am a secretary of the invisible, one of many secretaries over the ages.”

JM Coetzee, in Elizabeth Costello, citing Czeslaw Milosz’s concept. 

Two hours – Ed Caesar 

Wow! What a book. I don’t know anything about marathon running or runners but I loved this.

It’s the author’s ability to tell a gripping story that does it. He traces the aspirations of a small group of elite modern day marathon runners intent on running a marathon course around a city in less than two hours. As he points out, it’s insanely fast, and the amount of training and dedication required to get anywhere near it is all-consuming.

To bring the story alive he follows in particular Geoffrey Mutai, an incredible Kenyan runner who is among the top athletes in the sport. We get to see up close his frustrations as individual runs don’t come off and he’s left knowing he could have done better.

He shows, too, that Mutai is more than a runner, he’s the source of a local economy in Kenya: because the rewards from sponsors and race organisers are so high, he – like the many other Kenyans who excel at the sport – supports his family, friends and neighbours as well as himself in the village where he lives.

Ceaser explores the success of Kenyans in particular in the sport, and what comes through is the complexity of reasons for their dominance: ancestry, upbringings involving a lot of distance on foot, high altitude villages, traditions of running, scouts, hard training, diet… so many things.

This book, well, it’s just great writing, great reporting, on a group of people who are doing amazing things.

“But if you could not close a door behind you to take a shit in the city – even if it was just the door to a shared toilet – if this one, most essential freedom was taken from you, the freedom, that is, to withdraw from other people when necessity called, then all other freedoms were worthless. Then life had no more meaning. Then it would be better to be dead.”

Patrick Suskind, The Pigeon

The Pigeon – Patrick Suskind

This is a fine novella in the European existentialist tradition.

In just 77 pages we experience the identity crisis of Jonathan Noel – a French security guard who for three decades has lived in the same small apartment with the same job, and minimal interaction with or exploration of the outside world. Until, in his fifties, he encounters a pigeon in his apartment building – its eyes penetrating him, it’s excrement soiling the floor and its presence fundamentally unsettling his ordered world.

He had successfully managed to shut out the messiness and ambiguity of things outside of his experience but the pigeon appears and reveals the precariousness of his life – how he can’t control events, and how he could as easily have been a bum and, indeed, given the sameness of his life, it might have been more meaningful. 

There’s a great bit when he sees a bum eating sardines and bread, and drinking wine with abandon. And then, a little later, Jonathan goes and buys the same stuff and enjoys it with an intensity of pleasure he perhaps has never experienced before.

What the novella expresses brilliantly is the the unstable nature of our identities, of what we build our lives around, and how things could be so easily different.

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

Trumpet is a beautifully written novel that makes you think differently – you surely couldn’t ask for more from a book.

It begins with the death of the jazz trumpeter Joss Moody. On his death a secret only he and his wife Millie have known is revealed – that Joss was in fact born a woman (Josephine) and has lived his life as a man, bandaging up his breasts every day and telling nobody, not even their own adopted son Colman.

The book is a look at the fall-out from this revelation. We get a variety of first person perspectives: Colman in particular, who is very angry and is working with a tabloid journalist to write a biography and expose of his Dad; Millie who is mostly struggling with her son’s reaction, as well as reflecting on her past with Joss; and a variety of others, like the journalist, the drummer in Joss’s old band, the funeral worker, Joss’s Mum.

A big part of the book is from Colman’s perspective as he tries to deal with the realisation. His character is unlikeable – he is already a bit of a loser, like the children of high achieving famous people might be, and discovering his Mum and Dad had hidden something so big from him for years tears him apart. Over the book, though, he gradually realises that despite everything Joss was his father, he loved him, and he can’t go ahead with the expose.

Millie appears naïve, as if she hadn’t considered what would happen when the news was out. It’s interesting, and I wonder if partly this is because she and Joss had lived with the secret for such a long time that I had become normal. And the fact that they kept this secret, even from their own child, makes you realise that they did so because this is something that was and remains very hard to talk about, so it drives you to do things that aren’t necessarily perfect.

What’s clear, too, is the way that Joss and Millie had a very tight relationship, one guarded from the outside world – and one that probably excluded Colman quite considerably, though they might not have known it, and it was only when the secret was revealed to Colman that this became clear.

Trumpet is brilliantly written – simple language but very beautiful and affecting. And the story works on so many levels – as a love story, in part, as a complex take on the impact of social norms on the way relationships work, as a delve into the psyche of someone learning his life was not quite as he thought it was, and as a morally ambiguous story about families and secrets.

When we examine the state of democratic politics in all of the countries where right-wing populism has made serious inroads, we find a striking similarity. Their growth has always taken place in circumstances where the differences between the traditional democratic parties have become much less significant than before… and in each case consensus at the centre has been established.

Chantal Mouffe, On the Political 

The Bricks that Built the Houses – Kate Tempest

The Bricks that Built the Houses is a lyrical novel, rich with accurate metaphors, and a gripping story with a social conscience.

It tells the story of the interweaving lives of twenty-somethings Harry, Becky and Pete. Harry, with her best friend Leon, is a high end dealer; Becky is an inspiring dancer who funds her aspirations through massage; Pete is Harry’s brother, struggling with finding direction in his life.

Pete and Becky are together, though their relationship is falling apart because of Becky’s job and Pete’s jealousy, but Harry and Becky fall for one another separately. Harry and Leon end up being set up in a drug deal and doing a runner with bags of cash an drugs. Becky’s Uncle, it turns out, is the dealer’s muscle, and everything comes to a head in the excellent chapter ‘Everybody Down’ (also the name of an album by Kate Tempest), where all the issues collide at Pete’s surprise birthday party.

The characterisations are excellent and because they are given such attention have a high level of complexity. Though there is a romanticisation of youth culture and an unbelievably high level of coincidence, the plot is gripping.

The absolute strength of the book, other than the evocative writing, is its ability to show how these three characters’ personalities and lives are shaped by a mix of social situation and pure luck. If goes back into third parents’ lives and how they affect their kids, with all experiencing tough upbringings – Becky especially – that make them sympathetic, believable and real.

Mediated reality: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

maxresdefaultA gripping read that not only keeps you on the edge of your seat, but also highlights how our self-understanding is often mediated by and defined by how we are viewed.

The plot of Hunger Games doesn’t really need restating, so famous it is. It’s a dystopian future where, each year, two young people from each of the 12 Districts are forced to compete in the Hunger Games, a battle in which they fight until only one of the 24 is left alive. It’s organised by the Capitol as a reminder to the Districts of the Capitol’s power, and as spectacular entertainment that is broadcast across the Capitol and is mandatory watching for the Districts.

Katniss’s sister Pim is picked to fight for the poor mining District 12, along with the baker’s son Peeta, but Katniss stands in for Pim, so Katniss and Peeta go into the Hunger Games. The book covers the build-up and preparation for the first third, and the Games themselves for the latter two thirds.

It’s told entirely from the first person perspective of Katniss, which is interesting, not only because we never fully understand what Peeta and others are thinking because we always see people through Katniss’s eyes, but also because she appears quite a poor judge of both what she feels and others feel throughout. It’s a powerful contrast with the film. Whereas in the film Katniss appears cold because we only see her from the outside, in the book she appears to be sensitive and struggling to convey feelings without giving too much away, making her a far richer character than she is on-screen.

There are two strong themes that comes through in the Hunger Games, the book anyway. The first is quite a sophisticated take on ideas around ‘performativity’ and what Baudrillard called the ‘simulcra’ – the way in which our ‘self’ is defined by performing certain roles and the perception of that among others, and the way in which our reality is so mediated by representations that we understand reality through representations of reality rather through direct unmediated experience.

This is a real struggle for Katniss in the games itself. She and Peeta are encouraged to win the support of viewers and sponsors by feigning a romance. Throughout Peeta is able to do this apparently honestly and convincingly whereas Katniss is never able to distinguish what she herself feels from what she thinks others are seeing when her performance is broadcast. Repeatedly she does things in order to appear the way she wants to be perceived but as she does it she realises it might actually be what she wants to do – whether helping one of the other competitors, Rue, appearing ruthless or kissing Peeta, she does what she wants only by performing it for the audience.

This, I think, is one of the strongest elements of the book: this complex interplay between ‘real’ feelings and performance, reality and its mediation which in fact shows that self-understanding is determined in part by how we are perceived and represented, not some a priori self that exists outside of that gaze.

The second strong theme is perhaps less sophisticated: it’s a hard distinction that is drawn between the honesty and vitality of the life Katniss leads in District 12 and the duplicitous and decadent life lived by the people in the Capitol. Katniss spends her time hunting, harnessing her skills, at one with the land and the people she lives with, despite the poverty and struggle and hardship. Capitol residents spend their time eating exquisite food in pampered luxury alienated from nature and the hard realities of life. This leads to a contrast between the ‘poor but happy’ district dweller and the ‘disconnected, cosseted elite’ which is probably too much of a caricature – though it does make for god reading!

A damning indictment: Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss

This is the kind of book I love, a mix of continental philosophy and biography that covers radical ideas and action around the 1960s. But, though it was well researched and written, the overall judgement of the Frankfurt School by Jeffries just didn’t feel right.

The book primarily covers the four original Frankfurt School figures: Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. Jeffries covers their radical critiques of capitalism well, traces their origins in Hegel, Marx and Freud, and looks in detail at their lives, and how they were shaped by their upbringing and events, especially the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, from which they and their families fled.

Despite ending the book with the view that we need the analytical approach of critical theory to understand what is going on in our one dimensional, capital-driven society, in fact much of the tone of Grand Hotel Abyss contradicts that.

He regularly offers a quasi-Freudian criticism of the Frankfurt School as rich kids rebelling against their self-made industrialist father’s whilst, at the same time, relying on them for money. This feels like a bit of a cheap attack on some of the most far thinking theorists of the twentieth century.

More significantly, Jeffries presents the Frankfurt School as ivory tower intellectuals who – apart from Marcuse – refused to enter the fray of the political even during the upheavals of 1968.

Adorno in particular comes out badly in the book, not only for his ‘negative dialectics’ but as a fusty reactionary who doesn’t see the radical potential of the student movement to such an extent he opposes it. This may be true to some extent, but nothing is ever that simple and the lives and works of Adorno and the rest of the School are testament to them being engaged intellectuals who developed independent research and a school of thought that challenges capitalism in a way that still resonates.

Walter Benjamin comes out of the book most positively, primarily I think because he died young and therefore did not mellow in the way that the others did, or face a choice in the 1960s.

It’s a shame. I liked the subject matter, the style and many parts of the book, but ultimately it leaves you thinking that the Frankfurt School was a well-meaning but elitist project rather than forward thinking intellectuals offering a critique of capitalist society that gets more relevant by the day.

“Things were not going well. It was August, and my tree from the previous year’s Christmas still lay in a heap of brown, dead pine needles in my dark, unused dining room. I was ashamed to take it out to the trash, not wanting my neighbors to see how far I’d fallen, how utterly paralyzed I’d become by my years of excess. Eventually, my wife and I would make a heroic effort to dispose of the incriminating object – chopping it up like a dead body and stuffing it in plastic bags before lugging it in the dead of night a few floors down and leaving it near a known coke dealer’s doorway. Let him take the rap, we figured.”

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the culinary underbelly

“Becky’s in the front, her legs are crossed tightly, her elbows are tucked into her hips, she’s biting her thumbnail. Her body is taut as a trip wire.”

Kate Tempest, The bricks that built the houses