Monday, 30 April 2012

lecture away from lecture

I had promised, as recently as earlier today, to return from my travel-induced interregnum from book reviews, to flooding this blog with apologetically late accounts of my reading habits. However, after very little thought (as is my wont for these entries), I've decided against that. Instead, I shall be taking a positive view. I was able, or chose, to devote countless column inches in the last month or two to my activities outside the cover of a book, but this is not so much a reflection of what I have been doing instead of reading, as of what I have been doing as well. Indeed, as has been the case in the past when I've travelled, I've probably read as much or more as I would otherwise have. Anyway, the absence of reviews is a good thing - it indicates that I have things happening in my life that take a higher priority than reading and blogging about reading :)

In fact, though, I must begin my now-traditional catchup with some books read before my departure. Back in January, for the first time in a long time, I visited the library, and came away with an armful of books to read. The last of these, as it turned out, was Cormac McCarthy's The Road. My first foray into McCarthy had been All The Pretty Horses, back in 2009, and enjoyed it, but the Road was a very different book. Not different in that I didn't like it - I think on the balance that I did - but the writing is starkly different, stripped back to a bare minimum, to match the world being described. To be honest, its almost not a book you like so much as appreciate - the story is tough and at times uncompromising, and at times so can be the reading experience, but I thought it was worth it.

Ok, so it wasn't the last book from the library. That honour, dubious though it may be, goes to the wonderful Terry Pratchett, and Unseen Academicals. I was recently trying to sell Pratchett's work to someone who, though a fan of satire, was strongly averse to fantasy writing. My argument was essentially that his writing, that is, his mastery of the English language, takes a back seat to no currently working author I could name, and though I failed to make my case successfully, I hold that to be true. This is in strong evidence in Unseen Academicals, in which he weaves his familiar world of the university with that of the origin/codification of soccer, the story of Romeo and Juliet, and of the acceptance of the outsider. None of the threads ever becomes heavy, but they each come through clearly and coherently, and all with beautiful prose and replete with the anecdotes and wordplay that will be his hallmark when his writing career soon, regrettably, comes to a close (or so I have heard).

Before leaving to go overseas, I found myself in between the end of my lease and settlement on my new abode, and having the pleasure of spending a week with my friends Paul and Juli. Juli is quite the collector of books, and being without one, I took it upon myself to scour her shelves for something recognisable that I could be sure to finish in what was a busy week. My eyes fell upon Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, and it ticked all those boxes, as well as the more important one of being good! Its a scifi classic, I suppose, though its really more dystopian, in the style of 1984 or Brave New World, than hard scifi (the distinction could be argued, obviously). The central character is a fireman in a world in which that role has become one not of putting fires out, but of starting them, in order to destroy books, which are banned. As the story progresses, the fireman first rebels against and then flees the regime.

Having left for my trip, I avoided reading for a little while, knowing that I had a lot of work reading/reviewing/proofreading to do, and knowing my tendency to read voraciously while travelling. I succumbed eventually though, once getting to Rennes, and stayed dystopian, reading Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale. This is another famous dystopia, in which the central character is a handmaid, a woman given over to the sole purpose of bearing children in a society in which women have been stripped of all rights to property, work or self-determination generally. I have to say, though, that it didn't stack up to Fahrenheit or the other dystopian works I've read. The character is thinly and difficult to understand at times, and the worldbuilding is also unconvincing - perhaps it resonates more in societies in which fundamentalist religions - be they Muslim, Christian or otherwise - are more present than in Australia. For these and other reasons, I wasn't particularly moved by it.

For my last in this instalment, I went back to my base. I had watched the TV adaptation last year of George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones with great pleasure, and needed little provocation to grab a copy of the book from which its drawn. This is classic fantasy - great fat 1000-page tomes with lots of characters, taking part in dramatic action in a vividly drawn world undergoing great change. It has maps at the front! What I really like, though, is that its meaty - the characters are as stark (pun not intended) and gritty as the world in which they live, and Martin doesn't let the fantastic elements get in the way of the story - it is typically people and steel that decides characters' fates, not magic or dragons (though that will change at some point). It also avoids stereotypes all over the place - there is no Eddings-style Messiah story here - and he isn't afraid to let characters die when circumstances dictate that they will die. I have a copy of the second, and barring a Wheel-Of-Time style burnout (8000 pages of my life I will never get back!), I anticipate continuing to read the series as it evolves, until I don't enjoy it any more.

No comments: