Friday, August 17, 2012

Beach Book Blitz

I am currently vacationing on the beach, reading books and working on my tan (the latter being, of course, my predominant obsession).

I've been reading books so fast this past week that it's stupid; never in my life have I read so much so quickly. Granted, most of these books are short, but nonetheless I have read them and enjoyed them, and, on account of so doing, figured I would give assault-speed blurbs for all them. Proceed!

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber is a non-fiction, anthropological work that is, I suppose, adequately described by its title. But at the same time, it's considerably more than its title suggests. Graeber's book is making a go at describing the socio-political human condition more or less in its entirety, and he is doing so from the angle of debt, and he does so brilliantly. He begins, more or less, simply by making a case against the Adam Smith parable that one proceeds from a barter economy to a market economy, and that from there, we eventually arrive at promissory notes, letters of credit, and all that, and suggesting that in fact credit and debt are more or less the most primordial form of money. He discusses the moral dimension of what debt means, and points out how so much debt is tied to violence and power - for example how Napoleon tried to put down the rebellion of Haitian slaves, failed, and then claimed that those once-slaves were in debt to France not only for the land and plantations they took over, but for the cost of the army raised to destroy them. And obviously he brings up the IMF and third world debt and all that, and it just makes the I-don't-know-what-ideologue in me rise up and resist. I can't do justice to this book here; I don't have the skills. But it's worth reading, even if it peters out and starts to feel long towards the end (as so many survey-type non-fiction books of this sort do), not necessarily because it will teach you anything (even though it will), but because it will teach you - you who are not jerkwad conservatives, anyway - that what you've always known is correct.

M. John Harrison, it seems, can get away with things other genre writers cannot. I mean, is this book science fiction? I'm going to say no, no, it is not; and yet it is clothed in science fictional trappings. I mean, what is "stochastic resonance?" And there's an Alcubierre drive or two in here. But this isn't science fiction, and I think it's not science fiction more or less mostly because it has so little plot. I mean, the plot is, "there is a weird rift in space, and part of that rift has fallen onto a planet, and people go into this rift and observe this rift and weird stuff happens." And although the characters in this story are all arrayed about and around and against this weird phenomenon, really the book is about those characters: all their neuroses and failings and anxieties, all their faults. There is a rift in space, and there is a rift in all of us.

As I read this, I kept thinking about an interview I read of Harrison in the Guardian, where he claims Iain M. Banks told him he wasn't having enough fun, and so he went and began this trilogy. And I was reading this story and thinking, "This guy is having FUN," and that is awesome. Because I, too, was having fun. And I have already read Light and I will definitely read the last book in this trilogy, whatever that crazy old dude called it.

It was weird to read this book having already read Ed Park's Personal Days, which was published later than Ferris's Then We Came To The End, which makes me have to assume that Park's novel was based on this one. Or, there is just an entire sub-genre of "work novels" that I don't know about, and am slowly coming to know and enjoy.

In general, this is a fantastic book. It was really funny and enjoyable for me because I work in an office, I guess, and this is a book of office humour and office intrigue and just plain office life. In retrospect, though, it's got this really big problem, which is that it tries to deal with too many emotions. There are some really serious parts in here, and some ones of real levity; and the whole story is narrated from the first-person plural (i.e., "we"), which is really cool, except that is has to slip out of this voice to actually tell any real stories of interest, meaning that first-person plural is annoying and stupid and unnecessary. So, great in the flesh, but in theory this is kind of an annoying book I guess.

But I mean I still read it with a lot of zeal. I mean it made me feel.

I read Tobias Wolff's Old School because Rahul Kanakia had good things to say about it, and it sounded interesting. Honestly, though, when I started it, it was written in this voice, with this tone, that made me think, "Oh, great, a book by a writer about writers for writers! What pompous, annoying crap." But then it wasn't that at all! It was witty and it took surprising turns. I was really pleased. No, actually, I was riveted. The narrator, who is the protagonist, did something that made me be all like: "No you did not! You did not!" But he did. That is something that makes a good book, by Jove. (Jove? What is Jove?) And Wolff has this tight close look at writers - namely Frost, Ayn Rand, and Hemingway - who actually appear in the book, and that was really pleasing, but then Wolff seemed to me to say at the end, "All these writers, they ain't shit," and I kind of really liked that. And maybe I'm reading him wrong, but this turned out to be a book by a writer about writers for writers that really made me happy because Wolff seemed simply to be giving me - aye, me - a wink. And I mean that's all I wanted, was the wink.

Well, this was just fantastic: I read it in a single day. I cannot recall, in my life, that occurring. Basically? A couple gets caught in an avalanche and ends up in "the silent land," a mirror image of the Pyreneean resort town in which they are residing, but with no people, where time runs slowly, where they are constantly being brought back no matter how they try to escape, and they decide that they are dead and this is the afterlife, or at least some sort of purgatory. It's more than that, of course. And it's quite genius, and very well executed.

In one sense this book has exactly the same failings I noted when I read Joyce's Some Kind of Fairy Tale, namely that his work is based on stereotypes and pre-existing expectations of certain fantastical and/or mythic/religious scenarios; but I liked this just about ten billion times better because the execution was just about ten billion times better. Granted, I figured out what was happening, and what would happen, halfway through the book, but Joyce drew it out perfectly. It was scary! And suspenseful. The suspense was brilliant. And I started to cry at three separate moments at the end of the book.

Don't worry, though, I stopped myself. To really cry would be unmanly. AMIRITE.


Tomorrow I will begin A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. Since I'm Canadian, I didn't have the luxury of reading all sorts of American classics in high school (*snort*). Then I guess I'll have to go buy some books or something, because I'll be out and I'm still on the beach for another week.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you liked Old School. You see, though! There's definitely something about the book that puts people off at first.