Friday, October 7, 2011

...mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita...

a.k.a, recent reading, as follows:


Mary Elizabeth Braddon – Aurora Floyd (1862-3)
Classic Victorian sensation fiction – I actually enjoyed it more than the one for which Braddon is now best-remembered, Lady Audley's Secret. The plot centres around bigamy (it's also a canonical work in the 'Victorian bigamy novel') and so, as you can imagine, is of interest on all kinds of levels, but gender and sexuality especially.

Margaret Oliphant – Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
A delightful tale (part of the Chronicles of Carlingford) which bears resemblance to Trollope's slightly preceding Barsetshire Chronicles, of which I'm also a fan. Lucilla, our heroine, is determined to behave sensibly, and also to resolve the lives of everyone around her. Here there are echoes of Austen's Emma (1815), but unlike Emma Woodhouse, Lucilla's management is not wholly unsuccessful. Subversive to an interesting degree yet still moralistic in the classic Victorian mold. I must read the rest of the Carlingford novels.

George & Weedon Grossmith – Diary of a Nobody (1892)
For someone who's got a Victoriana obsession and also a research interest in the rise of the modern bourgeoisie, Diary of a Nobody is perfect. Of course, it's funny, and also a nice counterpoint to more 'serious' Victorian novels (see above) which are yours truly's usual diet.

Assorted Novels

Elizabeth Bowen – The Death of the Heart (1938)
These days I'm not much into 'writerly' writers but I'll gladly make an exception for Bowen, who I hadn't previously read. Her modernist prose makes you want to use clichés like 'crystalline,' and I'm also always a fan of the English novel of manners. In some ways she reminds me of Janet Malcolm (or vice versa) in that both have an exquisite sense of human frailty, but they also like to slyly slip the knife in.

Cornell Woolrich – Rendezvous In Black (1948)
Compared to Chandler and Hammett, Woolrich these days tends to be forgotten as an important noir figure, but the films based on his works are still remembered – Rear Window, The Bride Wore Black, Night Has A Thousand Eyes (one of my favourite titles) among others. Actually, though, his work is much darker, less procedural-driven and even more psychological than the aforementioned, full of dread. Rendezvous In Black is a revenge narrative following a man whose fiancée has been killed (bizarrely) in an accident with a low-flying plane and an empty liquor bottle. I have two other novels of his waiting, but I'm worried that it'll be too traumatic a reading experience…

Shirley Jackson – The Sundial (1958)
I'm a huge fan of Jackson's fiction, especially the stories other than 'The Lottery' (which is over-proscribed) - and of the great novels The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived In The Castle (1962). I've been slowly making my way through her lesser known work, which I find uneven. In The Sundial, as in We Have Always…, we find ourselves in a crumbling mansion on the outskirts of a village, both filled with eccentric characters. Aunt Fanny has a vision, delivered by her dead father, of an impending apocalypse, and preparations begin. I didn't warm to this novel though it was interesting, and in some ways could be seen as a test run for some of the themes of We Have Always… I wonder, too, if there is an influence on Stephen King's The Shining (King wrote about The Haunting of Hill House at length in Danse Macabre), particularly in scenes set in mazes.

J. G. Ballard – The Drowned World (1962)
It's impossible not to recognise in Ballard one of the twentieth century's great prophets – which is why I'll reiterate. The Drowned World, an early novella, tells the story of a dystopian Earth on which the ice caps have melted, the seas risen, and the entire planet become tropical. The slow impact of this on the psyche of the survivors – the opaque excursions into psycho-evolutionary biology – along with the tropical/aquatic gothic setting make this a fascinating and prescient piece, if not always compelling.

J. G. Ballard – Crash (1973)
Again, although Crash's reputation preceded it, it didn't do anything to dint the pleasure of reading the work. Like a lot of Cultural Studies and pop culture research people, I find that 'body horror' area/era particularly interesting in which the body-machine complex starts to be overtly represented in forms both erotic and monstrous (note to self: Men, Women and Chainsaws is still waiting to be read). Ballard, Burroughs, Cronenberg, Lynch, and so on. I'm ashamed to admit that Crash (and Dead Ringers) are the two Cronenberg films I've yet to see, but I'm glad to have read the book first – and, like a few other of the works I describe here, it is every bit as stunning as one has heard. And amazing to imagine that it was written in 1973. The blank erotics and stark futurity, the sharp vision of the city and technology, the mutual violation and traumatic inseparability of body and machine and body-as-machine… it's all there. See also Mark Seltzer (thanks again for the recommendation Dr Swan) and also, of course, Donna Haraway.

Lew McCreary – The Minus Man (1991)
I have a long-neglected sideline interest in serial killers, and Mark Seltzer's eponymous work brought a number of references to my attention, including this novel. Generally, I tend to find serial killers a tiresome subject for fiction (particularly as they are now so implicated in crime fiction and television, and don't require a motive, hence obviating the plot work that writers would otherwise have to put in), but The Minus Man (Lydia Lunch has also named a song on her most recent studio album after the phrase) is much more of a psychological work (and, unlike my favourite serial killer novel, Joyce Carol Oates' Zombie, or Dexter, that other tale of a killer hero, uninterested in satisfying gruesome voyeuristic fantasies). While the controversy around the novel (which was also filmed) centred around the sympathy that the reader feels for Vann Siegert, the serial killer from whose perspective the story is told, in fact this seems like a ridiculous over-simplification; in straightforward prose, McCreary sets out a cold but very human psychological study of the killer as a human inhabiting a lifeworld which happens to include the compulsion to destroy others. A work which, as Seltzer pointed out, is thought-provoking both in terms of its original approach to its content, and when considered as a symptom of the violence and trauma at – and reflexively considered to be at – the heart of the modern social-technological complex.

Assorted Non-Fiction

Jessica Mitford – The American Way of Death Revisited (1998)
As is evident elsewhere, although death has been an ongoing theme – as it is for all of us – my recent Death Studies sojourn has been the locus around which various reading has centred in recent times. Mitford's revised version of her classic work takes us through the usual hideous juxtaposition of the biological and the consumer banal (as well as the institutionalisation of capitalist profit-making on the backs of the bereaved). Little of the older material will be news to anyone who's read Waugh's classic, The Loved One – but what rankles and intrigues is the extent to which, despite her original revelation, the deeply cynical corporatisation of the funeral industry has continued unabated. As with any good piece of muckraking – and Mitford's up there with the best – the indignation and disgust flow unabated (to take just one of myriad examples, the fashion for expensive 'double coffins' in which the outer layer is intended to be impenetrable by the elements - causing a build-up of gas inside the coffin due to anaerobic bacterial decay and leading to explosions - the solution being 'burping coffins,' which vent the gas so as to avoid the former, and presumably greater, indignity).

Simon Reynolds – Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction To Its Own Past (2011)
There's so much that could be said about this book, but that will have to await a more thorough review. I loved Reynolds' work on post-punk, Rip It Up and Start Again, but this one is a bit more personal, also more theoretical and coming from a position of critique, which is interesting but at times fails to gel or seems a little like a mid-life crisis. What I will note here, which others have before me, is that the irony is that Reynolds' thesis - that we now create music which does not attempt to be new, and that this is a bad thing - actually looks back to the time when music saw itself as new (Reynolds thinks '65 was the turning point) as an original golden age. Definitely worth reading - both enraging and engaging.

Scott Carney – The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers and Child Traffickers (2011)
This book is as gruesome as the title sounds, but it's necessary reading for anyone interested in necro- or thanatocapitalism and the reification of the human body on the unequal playing field of the global 'free market' – while not being as heavy a read as any of that sounds (it's written in an easy journalistic style). Carney's interest in the area began when one of his students, on a group tour to India, committed suicide and he was in the position to supervise the treatment and return of the body. From that point, he explores the various areas mentioned in the subtitle, including the fascinating nexus between holy or ritual head-shaving and the hair industry. For those who enjoyed Mary Roach's Stiff, there are many more interesting explorations to be had into the 'afterlife' of the human – or human biological material. Particularly recommended for the Death Studies cohort (Tim and Pia – also Meredith, you may find this one interesting if you haven't seen it already).

Jon Ronson – The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (2011)
I'd really enjoyed Jon Ronson's Them, and so I had high hopes for The Psychopath Test, particularly since, as you're now aware, it deals with a subject I have a deep interest in. But although, as always, Ronson uncovers various near-unbelievable histories and anecodotes, and employs his typical and typically entertaining strategic deployment of his own awkwardness and his unique style of reported dialogue, I found the book a little all over the place. Ronson isn't quite sure what he's interested in (Psychopathology itself, as a concept and as manifest? The 'madness industry' and its pernicious allies in other state and corporate institutions? Institutions and their impact on mental health?) and there is a particularly problematic chapter in which he interviews a former Tonton Macoute, trying to apply his new knowledge of psychopathy checklists – whereas those of us who know much about the area of organised mass violence know that it's precisely necessary not to employ sadists or psychopaths as violence workers because they're too unreliable and anti-systemic - you would think a book on psychopathy, even if not an academic work as such, might pay attention to this kind of thing. Still, all in all a lot of fun.


Rohinton Mistry – A Fine Balance (1996)
Just as good as I'd always heard it was – a Dickensian (I'm not always a huge fan of Dickens, but that's another conversation), addictive narrative set during the massive upheaval of Indira Gandhi's Emergency. In terms of other great recent English-language novels of India, I didn't love it as much as A Suitable Boy, but although Mistry's writing is less exquisitely fine-tuned than Vikram Seth's, the story itself grows powerful very early on.

Gita Mehta – Karma Cola (1979)
A good corrective to the neo-orientalist New Age view of India as a source of wisdom, particularly prevalent in the '60s and '70s – there are some great anecdotes of gurus and devotees, and the intermesh with capitalism, but I found Mehta's 'flip' style to be a bit casual and offputting.

William Dalrymple – The Age of Kali (1998)
Edward Luce – In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (2007)
I'd already read, and mostly enjoyed, Dalrymple's book on practitioners of different spiritual traditions in India, Nine Lives. But reading Western travel literature on India is difficult in that the writers often haven't caught up with post-colonialism, and that's unfortunately the case both for Dalrymple, who at times appears something of an imperialist nostalgic (I'm also finding that in the work of his I'm presently reading on Delhi, City of Djinns); and for Luce, bureau chief for the Financial Times in South Asia (and now Washington), who is too sympathetic to anti-statist freemarketism for my tastes (not saying that there aren't any problems with the Indian state as such). Nonetheless, Dalrymple's descriptions are gorgeous (and his encounters with Benazir Bhutto particularly stick in the memory), while Luce had access to some very interesting people and the anecdotes, situations and interviews he lays out are both hilarious and chilling, the latter particularly in relation to Partition and inter-communal violence (again, a theme of City of Djinns). I now intend to read some specific Partition histories, which I think may also be helpful for my mass violence research…

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