Braiding the parallel rays into a dappled pattern

Snow Crash
by Neal Stephenson

Since its publication in 1992, this book has come to be considered a modern classic. I remember Tim reading it around 12 years ago and loving it – indeed, he still remembers it in remarkable detail. So in my ongoing science-fiction education, this seemed like a natural step.

This book has a fascinating setting that, though complex enough to be slowly revealed over 470 pages, is at heart simple enough to not require masses of exposition at the start. Instead, Stephenson opens with an action-packed sequence that introduces our main character – the aptly named Hiro Protagonist – and his foil, YT.

Hiro is a freelance hacker. His home is a storage unit that he shares with an up-and-coming rock star, a cramped situation that suits him fine because he spends most of his time in the Metaverse anyway – an alternative space that anyone with virtual-reality goggles and what is effectively an Internet connection by another name can plug into. In the Metaverse, your avatar can own property, socialise and explore in the vast space created many years ago by Da5id – superstar hacker and old friend of Hiro’s. In the Metaverse, Hiro is a sword-fighting expert, but in Reality (always written with a capital R) he delivers pizza to pay the bills.

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Languages are different for a reason

alif the unseenAlif the Unseen
by G Willow Wilson

I was eager to read more G Willow Wilson after discovering her writing in the Ms Marvel comics. This is a lovely easy read that deals with some pretty deep complex issues but manages to never feel like an “issues” novel. Which is a clever balancing act. It’s probably the fantasy elements that help keep it light and fun. Mostly.

The story follows Alif, a young man in an unnamed Arab Emirate who works as a “grey hat” – a skilled hacker who helps paying customers to remain hidden online. He keeps a vigilant watch for the state’s top internet security expert “the Hand” but is widely acknowledged to be the best and therefore safest from arrest. He is also conducting a secret affair with Intisar – secret because although they are both Muslim, their social classes are very different and neither set of parents would approve. But Alif is a romantic and assumes they will somehow find a way.

When the book opens, Alif (which is his screen name, not his given name) has not heard from Intisar (ditto) for two weeks and is trying not to worry about the possible reasons. Then the Hand manages to break most of the way through his computer’s encryption and he is suddenly at real risk of arrest. Friends help him out but there comes a point when he needs more than friendship – he needs another kind of aid entirely.

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Love should bestow sublimity

dark side of loveThe Dark Side of Love
by Rafik Schami
translated from German by Anthea Bell

I can’t remember where I first heard about this book but I do know it was on my birthday wishlist a few years back and I was surprised when I opened the parcel to find not a stack of three or four books, but one big fat book. It is epic in every sense of the word and I loved spending two weeks absorbed in it.

Rafik Schami writes in his afterword that ever since he was a 16-year-old boy in Syria, back in the 1960s, he had wanted to write a realistic Arab love story, but it took him 40-odd years to get it right. The result is a novel that looks at dozens of permutations of doomed romance against a backdrop of decades of Syrian history, though the bulk of the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Nagib looked askance at his daughter and smiled. ‘Why does love always have to imply possession?’ he asked, shaking his head…’You should love with composure…Love should bestow sublimity. It lets you give everything without losing anything. That’s its magic. But here people want a contract of marriage concluded in the presence of witnesses. Imagine, witnesses, as if it were some kind of crime…State and Church supervise the contract. That’s not love, it’s orders from a higher authority to increase and multiply.’ “

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The existence of the jinn posed problems

two-years-eight-months-28-nightsTwo Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights
by Salman Rushdie

This has everything you might expect in a Rushdie novel: gods, religion, satire, myth, history, sarcasm and wordplay. But it is much more readable than the other novels of his that I have tackled (The Satanic Verses, Midnight’s Children, Shalimar the Clown, The Ground Beneath Her Feet). The tone is lighter, more comic, even though the topics are just as weighty.

The story begins in 12th century Spain, with exiled philosopher Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes (who existed in real life and is the source of Rushdie’s family name). He falls in love with Dunia, who is secretly a jinnia (female jinn). She bears him dozens of children but he refuses to marry her and leaves her when his exile is lifted.

Skip 800 years and one of the Duniazát, as Rushd and Dunia’s descendents are called, has begun to float. Mr Geronimo is a gardener in New York City, just one of many victims of the “time of strangenesses” – the result of a war between the Jinn leaking into the human world. The normal rules of physics no longer apply.

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Who am I to judge someone else’s holy site?

how to understand israelHow to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less
by Sarah Glidden

Despite the grandiose title, this is the account of a small, albeit important, step in one person’s attempt to understand the complex situation surrounding Israel and Palestine. Told in comic-book style, it combines journalism and memoir to great effect.

Sarah Glidden is a “cultural Jew”. Raised in America by largely non-religious parents, her own politics being liberal and left-leaning, she has always tended to side against Israel, feeling it to be the political “bad guy”. A combination of a wish to understand, a hope to be proven right and the promise of a free holiday encourage her to sign up for a Birthright Tour. These trips, funded by the Israeli government and private sponsors, are open to Jews from around the world to show them the country that they can choose to move to if they so wish.

Sarah travels with her friend Melissa, another cultural Jew who is more earnest than Sarah in her attempts to learn about Israel without pre-judgement. Melissa’s upbringing was even more secular than Sarah’s, so Judaism itself is strange to her, but she is eager to learn and often frustrated by Sarah’s one-track mind: to every experience, every talk, Sarah asks “but what about the Arabs?”.

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The Crucible at Bristol Old Vic

BOV_Crucible

“We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!”

This classic play marks 100 years since the birth of its playwright Arthur Miller by returning to the stage of its 1954 British première (its true première was a year earlier, on Broadway). Directed by Tom Morris, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, the production is largely traditional, with a few unusual twists. The cast gathers faces familiar to the Bristol stage with those from farther afield, but there are no star names, which is to its credit. This play works well as an ensemble, allowing each character’s importance to the story be highlighted in turn.

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The superhero 12 miles from Manhattan

ms marvel vol 1Ms Marvel vol 1: No Normal
by G Willow Wilson (writer) and Adrian Alphona (artist)

When Marvel launched a new Ms Marvel series in February 2014, it got a fair bit of press attention for starring their first Muslim superhero. Add to that the fact that the series is edited and written by women, and cue a lot of clamour about how comic books are changing. What interested me more, though, was that it had a teenage female lead, making it effectively a coming of age story, and I’m a sucker for those.

Kamala Khan is 16 and lives in Jersey City in the US with her parents and older brother. She idolises the Avengers and resents the strict rules imposed by her parents and religion, but as rule-breaking goes she keeps it small, because she does want to honour her parents and her god. So it’s a big deal when she sneaks out of the house one night to attend a party. Of course that just has to be the one night that a mysterious green mist descends on Jersey City that does something decidedly weird to her.

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You’re just a totalitarian angel

AmorousDiscourseSuburbsHellAn Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell
by Deborah Levy

This is a long poem (ish – it’s no Faerie Queen) in the form of a dialogue between a couple, “He” and “she”, alternating having their say in this argument/conversation. It’s different from anything else I’ve read, wonderfully surreal and packed with references to everything from Shakespeare to pop songs. I read it in one sitting and immediately wanted to read it again.

The poem works so well because it could be read in many ways. Is this an ordinary human couple living in suburbia? Or are they angels fallen to hell? Is one of them fallen and the other trying to save them? Is one human and one God? The many religious references (to the Bible, to Dante, to the language of faith) are woven in such a way that they could just possibly be the twee fondnesses of a couple in love, or they could be wholly serious.

Best of all, it’s funny. Genuinely, laugh-out-loud but also cleverly, funny. It’s profound and profane, full of meaning and simple, pure entertainment.

“i try to introduce you
to the way i see things
and all you want is a wife
a wife and a second-class stamp and a bath
a bath and a donut and a product to kill moths

“You’re just a totalitarian angel
Full of self-rapture
I thought you were a divine messenger
In fact you’re a glutton
With wings”

First published 1990 by Jonathan Cape.
This edition, with revisions, published 2014 by And Other Stories.

Source: I subscribe to the publisher.

My first step from the old white man was trees

The Color Purple
by Alice Walker

When I read the first page of this book I wasn’t sure I could carry on. Walker plunges right into the heart of the awful beginnings of her story. But I made myself continue and within a few pages I was hooked.

The story is told in the form of letters, initially all addressed to God, from Celie. She tells how from the age of 14 she was repeatedly raped by her pa and bore him two children, both taken away from her. This has destroyed her ability to have further children so she is offloaded as a wife to Albert, a man looking for a trouble-free mother to his children. He beats her and makes no secret of his hate for her. Her beloved sister Nettie lives with them briefly before being forced to run away when she rejects Albert’s advances.

It’s all pretty bleak. And then along comes Shug Avery. The love of Albert’s life, she is a nightclub singer and quickly becomes Celie’s first real friend. Finally joy, happiness and the ability to talk openly come to Celie and she gradually finds the strength to make her life what she wants it to be.

Obviously, I knew this from reputation, but I realised it was a few chapters before it is clear that all the characters are black (at least, initially they all are). They are simply poor, ill-educated farm folk. But as Celie gets older and meets more people she learns what it means to be black. She learns about black people in other cities, other countries and even other continents. And she learns about being a woman, how she doesn’t have to be subservient.

Although the book goes very firmly from dark to light, it never gets over-sentimental or mawkish. Celie’s matter-of-fact tone gradually gains humour and worldliness. Always observant, she reports the moments and the conversations that have made her who she is at the end of the story:

“I believe God is everything, say Shug…My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds…it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything…And I laughed and I cried…It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.
Shug! I say.
“Oh, she say, God love them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did…
“God don’t think it dirty? I ast.
“Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love &ndash and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.
“You saying God vain? I ast.
“Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

Now, I’m not religious, but there was something very moving about Shug’s idea of God and I love how it freed her and later Celie to follow their own rules. Not to give too much away, but this book includes some frank talk about sex and some homosexuality, not to mention all of the affairs characters keep having. Which I hadn’t expected and found refreshing. Yes, these are poor black people in the segregated southern USA in I think the 1930s and 1940s (there’s some vague talk about war breaking out in Europe) but take away the poverty and politics and they’re still human beings with hearts to give and break and libidos to follow.

The style of writing took some getting used to. Beside the dialect, Celie doesn’t always name characters or explain a situation clearly until much later. And time was passing far more quickly than I realised. There are sometimes years between letters. Also, the absence of speech marks was sometimes confusing. But looking beyond all that, it is a wonderful book well worth the pain of the early chapters.

First published in the USA in 1983 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Life might have been totally different

1Q84
by Haruki Murakami

It’s my own fault. I was really excited about this book. I built it up in my head. I believed the “magnum opus” hype. I was bound to be let down.

1Q84

I really like Murakami. He’s not my favourite writer but I have loved some of his books and really liked several more, so the prospect of a three-volume masterpiece by him sounded wonderful. Unfortunately it turned out to be my least favourite of his works so far. In fact, at times it had me angry enough to want to throw the book across the room and I nearly gave up on it multiple times. But I soldiered on because this is after all Murakami and there is an intriguing storyline that is not wrapped up until the last page. And I had to know.

So that’s it’s great strength: the story. It’s a very Murakami story, an idea that starts gradually, slowly forming, giving you room to guess what’s going on. It’s weird in a surreal sort of way but it has an internal logic that allows you to see the directions it might go in.

Because it takes most of book 1 (300+ pages) for the basic concept to become clear, I don’t want to say too much about what happens. The chapters alternate between the stories of Tengo and Aomame. Tengo is part-time teacher, part-time writer, who allows himself to be persuaded by an editor friend to rewrite someone else’s entry in a creative writing competition, a story called Air Chrysalis. The situation goes from a bit unethical to downright dangerous when it turns out that there is a lot more to Air Chrysalis than meets the eye.

Aomame is a fitness instructor and also an assassin. But not the ruthless kind who will kill anyone for the right price. She has just one client and kills one particular breed of very bad men. So what links her to Tengo? Well, that would be saying too much, but from the start it is clear that they have a lot in common. They are both about 30 years old, living in Tokyo, with no strong emotional ties to anyone. They have almost clinical attitudes to their sex lives. They are particular about cleanliness and eating well. And because they would clearly get on well, it was wonderful slowly learning about how they were linked, seeing their stories draw together. But.

For one thing, I think 1Q84 is far longer than it needs to be. Murakami has a reputation as a sparse writer but here there is lots of repetition, lots of restating facts – a lot of bulk could have been shed. After the initial teasing out of a detail or plot point it then gets overstated and too obvious. This was to the detriment of the more surreal, magical elements because it made them seem at times clumsy and over-thought.

But I also had issues with some of the major themes in the book. First up: sex. I have no problem with sex scenes, but here I frequently got the feeling that typical male fantasies were being depicted for no good reason. Aomame is straight and at one point turns down an offer of sex with a woman, yet Murakami has her linger on the memory of a teenage lesbian dalliance with a close friend more than once. For no reason that I could fathom, when she remembers two good female friends from her past she thinks about their breasts. And not in a jealous way but in a sexual way. It’s very strange.

Then there’s the parents thing. There are no good parent–child relationships in this book. Tengo is horribly self-centred in his attitude to his father. Both Tengo and Aomame chose to move out from their parents at the earliest possible opportunity, but neither describes anything particularly terrible to explain why. Aomame’s parents were religious, Tengo’s father a distant workaholic, and perhaps with some further details those would have indeed been in some way abusive situations, but for all the very many words, I was never able to see what had been so wrong with either childhood.

Which brings us to the last problem: religion. Oh my word does Murakami have an axe to grind here. I should point out that I am an atheist, I am no fan of organised religion and recognise that it has been the source of a lot of bad stuff. But it has its positive side too and in most cases is probably best described as benign. 1Q84 gives no stock to such nuances. ALL RELIGION BAD could sum its attitude up. Basically, you have a cult that somehow grew out of a non-religious hippy commune and became a child-raping place of evil. And all other religious sects, churches or organisations mentioned are spoken of as if they are just as bad. As if they all brainwash, make children miserable, expect unreasonable things of their followers. Some of the statements I read made me slam the book shut and shout out angrily. At one point there was so much of this nonsense I didn’t know how I could possibly read on, but thankfully the narrative moved past it. (Although this is also a problem because I felt it was very ambiguous whether the nasty child-rape situation had been resolved or not.)

It started well and it ended well. The anger I felt in book 2 never resurfaced, although the boredom with some of the “waiting” sections did. I kept on reading because I wanted to know more, but I could not honestly say I enjoyed the read. This was translated by Murakami regulars Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel so the style should have been familiar but it genuinely felt poorly edited in places and there were no moments when the writing stood out as beautiful or moving. Tengo and Aomame were typical Murakami characters in that they felt real but at a distance, slightly cold fish, so I could never be in their shoes truly living the story.

It saddens me that I cannot recommend this book and am even a little bit put off reading Murakami at all for a while. But I know other people have loved it so remember this is just my opinion. Others are available.

First published in Japanese in 2009 and 2010 by Shinchosa Publishing.
This translation published 2011 by Harvill Secker.

See also: discussions on Tony’s Reading List and In Spring it is the Dawn