Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Naked Sun (1957) Isaac Asimov

June 11, 2012

With nearly five hundred books to his name and several hundred articles Isaac Asimov’s output was phenomenal by anyones standards. The second in Asimov’s ‘Robot series’; ‘The Naked Sun’ is a sci-fi murder-mystery novel.

The protagonist is stubborn, Elijah Baley a detective for Earth police force.  Our planet has changed a lot in this version of the future, all humankind has developed a fear of open landscapes and the naked sun, for reasons that are not made explicit in this novel. Furthermore as Earth is technologically inferior to the scientifically advanced outer worlds, the people have hidden themselves in vast underground mega-cities.

This technological advancement manifests itself most obviously in the form of humanoid robots, the foremost being R. Daneel, a former detective partner of Bailey’s who assists him on his mysterious mission in the outer world.

Baley’s mission is to investigate a murder on the planet of Solaria- a planet of merely twenty thousand people yet technically advanced due to the fact that robots outnumber humans or Spacers – (humans who have colonized other planets) by ten thousand to one.

Early on, we learn Baley has a wife and a small child which makes his mission into outer space all the more stressful, yet he complies to keep his C-6 rating, which we can infer is a fairly respected post in his society.

His reward for doing so – promotion to C-7 level, despite Baley’s reluctance he has been requested by name, somewhat enigmatically, and the higher powers on Earth see this as a perfect reconnaissance mission to gather Intel of Solaria’s possible weaknesses.

“Baley knew the situation…The fifty Outer Worlds, with a far smaller population…nevertheless maintained a military potential perhaps a hundred times greater. With their under populated worlds resting on a positronic robot economy, their energy production per human was thousands of times that of the Earth.”

In Elijah Baley the reader is given the classic outsider detective who asks the questions the reader is asking.  The story is centred on the murder of Rikaine Delmarre, “a very good Solarian”. The story is unusual as we are told that only possible person who could have committed the murder is his wife. Yet Baley pursues the case obstinately with several more developments along the way. It is unclear despite what we’re told whether Gladia Delmarre is guilty, because we are witnessing events through the eyes of Baley whose judgement it appears may have been clouded by Gladia’s beauty- A human weakness which Daneel is quick to draw attention to.

In R. Daneel we have the classic sidekick, someone who can take notes during questioning; in fact R. Daneel can record every conversation that Baley conducts entirely. Furthermore Daneel has skills of his own and conducts his own investigations. However Baley and Daneel do not always see eye to eye and Baley quickly uncovers that Daneel (a humanoid robot) is masquerading as a human and in turn may be gathering Intel for his planet, Aurora.

Yet all robots must obey the three laws of robotics:

Ultimately Daneel’s main weakness as a detective, according to Baley is like all robots he is logical but not reasonable.

This novel is regarded as one of Asimov’s best works, along with ‘The Caves of Steel’ and arguably the most famous ‘I, Robot.’  The characters are purposefully two-dimensional and the mystery plot is at times flaccid but ultimately pays off in a satisfying climax. The novel is a classic whodunnit with a vast sci-fi world backdrop and definitely leaves the reader wanting to read more of Asimov’s world.

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Hell’s Angels (1966) Hunter S. Thompson

January 2, 2012

Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson originally began as the article “The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders.” It is an offbeat look into the shady world of the most famous outlaw biker gang of all time. A gang which were defined by Harley Davidsons, long hair, beards, swastikas and a penchant for violence and getting loaded.  Adhering to his own brand of Gonzo journalism, Hunter spent a year with the Angels in full sight gaining vivid insight into their life and what makes them tick. The book starts of at first with Hunter giving a brief outline of the Angel’s lifestyle, meeting various members of the group in a relaxed social atmosphere and offering insights into a few individual lives.

Far from being the weary outsider that The Hell’s Angels rising notoriety acquired and to who they quickly became suspicious of, Thompson was a semi-active member of the group, he would welcome them to his apartment at all hours of the day and night much to his neighbours dismay and eventually leading to him being evicted.

“One of the worst incidents of that era caused no complaints at all: this was a sort of good-natured firepower demonstration, which occured one Sunday morning about three-thirty. For reasons that were never made clear, I blew out my back windows with five blasts of a 12 gauge shotgun, followed moments later by six rounds from a .44 Magnum. It was a prolonged outburst of heavy firing, drunken laughter, and crashing glass. Yet the neighbors reacted with total silence.”

The writing style is somewhat unorthodox such as the use of slang, drug terminology and slightly bourgeois terms which are contrasted starkly. There are two overt references to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the book, the first describing a shop owner who chose not to entertain the Angels’ custom as looking out across the sound mournfully and the death of Mother Miles stating that “This was not going to be any Jay Gatsby funeral”  because The Angels would be attending en masse. According to an interview with Johnny Depp, Thompson once typed out ‘The Great Gatsby’  in its entirety on his typewriter to get a feel for Fitzgerald’s words and this idea is certainly manifested in the usage of obtuse phrases in Thompson’s writing.

At times during the piece Thompson comes down firmly on the side of the Angels, picking through newspaper reports with gross exaggerations which garner his ire. For example the number of arrests on a given weekend is given in eight separate publications ranging from 30 to hundreds yet Thompson states that the actual figure is 32 with none of the members actually being Hell’s Angels contrary to the eye-grabbing headline.

“Newsweek … unaccountably said the report accused the Hell’s Angels of homosexuality, whereas the report said just the opposite. Time leaped into the fray with a flurry of blood, booze and semen-flecked wordage that amounted, in the end, to a classic of supercharged hokum: “Drug-induced stupors… no act is too degrading… swap girls, drugs and motorcycles with equal abandon… stealing forays… then ride off again to seek some new nadir in sordid behavior…”

The book features notable cameos from Ken Kesey (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) and Allen Ginsberg (Howl) and is laudable in its painstaking description of the Angels wild drug taking adventures. The Angels took everything in excess whether it be beer, wine, pills, weed, LSD, or their obsessive dedication to their bikes.

The book is put together in a singular way, it would be described as being epistolary if it were fiction, but it is not. A collection of articles, quotations from poems, police reports, film and literature recall Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel. Thompson would often run what he had written past The Angels as not to offend however there is a volta after the Ginsberg speech in which Thompson speaks of the Angels in less than flattering terms denouncing them as ‘mutants’, ‘prototypes’ and ‘toads’ a far cry from the early romanticising of The Angels that we get from the early part of the book.  This Thompson states is because he has become disillusioned with them, that they have started to believe their own hype. Thompson ends on the opinion that the Angels are not outlaws as they would have us believe but natural born losers who have nothing to gain from society and as a result nothing to lose.

The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955) Sloan Wilson

April 26, 2011

The protagonist is often called simply ‘The Man in The Grey Flannel Suit’ in Sloan Wilson’s partly auto-biographical novel. However Tom Rath is a misunderstood character in his own right. In fact the name is ironic in that he is often very mild-mannered under the most stressful situations. Often lionised as being the archetypal square conservative, the epitome of conformist, of 1950’s America, The Man in The Grey Flannel Suit became a figure of fun, which is far away from what is actually depicted in the book.

Tom Rath is thought of as the typical advertising man of 1950’s America who would characteristically be ruthless, economically motivated and to some extent soulless. Yet this is not the case, though money is a key proponent of Tom’s life, a fact that he has to wrestle with throughout the novel, the reasons for it are justifiable. He does not want money for money’s sake but rather to offer a suitable life for his wife and children, to give them the best start in life. In fact Tom’s background is working for a charitable foundation and setting up a mental health committee which is far removed from the world of advertising and television.

Tom Rath is an army veteran of World War II and he has to wrestle inner turmoil throughout the novel, that he is praised for killing 17 men such as, that he had an affair with an Italian woman and the fact that he does not want to work endlessly as a cog of the consumerist trap.

On the face of it The Raths are the typical 1950’s suburban American couple; Betsy Rath stays at home with the 3 children whilst Tom commutes to his job in Manhattan however they both rail against their lot in life. Tom is unwilling to submit to his life of mediocre bread-winning in a constant rat race, he is disconnected from the world around him due to his experiences as a paratrooper in WW2. Yet he is also aware of the need to offer for his family. From a contemporary point of view we could deduce that perhaps Tom is traumatized by warfare or contrarily that he’s pining for the sense of exhilaration that he got from his experience either way the books is rife with existential quandaries of the meaning of life in a capitalist conservative America.

Tom Rath finds himself in the consumer age conundrum; he dare not plough the beatnik furrow of Kerouac and co. Yet he scorns the idea of conforming to consumerism, desiring the goods that everybody else wants. The idea of working harder, to get a better job so he can afford a newer car “a bigger house and a better brand of gin” is not an appealing one. As a result the first half of the novel is spent squirming between these two equally unacceptable options. This spiritual debate is punctuated quite literally by a question mark shaped crack in the wall of their modest house. The consequence of a heated argument in which an object was thrown and the subsequent botched repair job resulting in a quite obvious moral and spiritual indicator, which is never repaired until they move home and move up in the world.

A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) John Kennedy Toole

April 21, 2011

This is the first novel by John Kennedy Toole, which was published posthumously, the other being ‘Neon Bible.’ The title originates from the epigraph by Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” (Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting). The novel has a streak of auto-biography running through its core. Published 11 years after Toole’s suicide, due to the ongoing efforts of his mother. The novel became a cult classic and is now widely regarded as a canonical piece of Southern American Literature. That is to say the Deep South of USA and not South America. The novel is set in New Orleans and the style of the writing is highly reflective of this, the sentences are often written in the traditional Deep South dialect.

The novel is picaresque in that it depicts the adventures of the roguish anti-hero Ignatius J. Reilly. Picaresque novels usually depict a character of a low social-class who lives by his wits in a morally corrupt society. This style of novel has its genesis in Sixteenth Century Spain and there can certainly be a comparison drawn between Ignatius and Don Quixote.

Ignatius can be described as creative, lazy and eccentric. He has a searing wit and an acid tongue. In his foreword to the book, Walker Percy describes Ignatius as a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.”

The novel is an insight into the times, with McCarthyism at its very height, paranoia and suspicion of socialist sympathisers are prevalent, Ignatius’s mother even suspects him of being a Communist due to his outlandish actions throughout.

Ignatius hates the world he lives in and constantly feels alienated from it. He is a staunch critic of popular culture, in essence we can read Toole’s voice here giving damning indictment of his own times. Ignatius thinks of himself as an unappreciated genius, born into the wrong time and would have been much happier in medieval times and prefers their views on life, the Early Medieval philosopher Boethius in particular. Ignatius dedicated special importance to the workings of his pyloric valve and often laments Fortuna for spinning him on a downward spiral of bad luck which he endures throughout the novel.

Ignatius’s story is tied in an often over-laps into that of the other characters in the book. Set in the increasing debauched New Orleans of the 1960’s many of the characters are bums and trickster who would not look at of place in the works of William Burroughs or Chester Himes work. The main difference is those two authors are primarily associated with New York where this is a steadfast Southern piece of work.

The Secret History (1992) Donna Tartt

February 20, 2011

The Secret History begins with this haunting prologue:

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

By starting at the end of the adventure, Donna Tartt chooses to avoid the usual trajectory of the run-of-the-mill murder mystery and instead aims for something greater; A story about characters and not mere caricatures.

In this way the author can create elaborate & melodramatic events (such as Dionysian rites and suggestions of Satanic power) and they all seem entirely plausible during the context of the novel because of the incremental way in which the reader absorbs the information leading up to the events.

The novel set in an elite New England, Vermont College, tackles themes of elitism, the importance of academia and the value of human life. The students are scholars of Classic Greek and in many ways the novel mirrors a Greek tragedy, with fate seemingly playing a large part in fermenting circumstances.

The novel is told from the perspective of Richard Papen, a relatively middle class Californian who never feels truly comfortable rubbing shoulders with the so-called upper-classes and as a result creates an elaborate back-story of his own oil-rich background.

Julian Morrow the enigmatic teacher of Classic Greek is portrayed as both brilliant and elitist.  Limiting his class to just 5 students annually, as result he rejected Richard’s initial application. Ultimately it may be said that Richard’s fatal flaw is his obsession with the group, this  leads him to force his way into the group by ingratiating himself to the others by solving a Greek grammatical problem .

The characters include Edmund “Bunny” Cochran, the vulgar, chancer who is ultimately doomed, Henry the leader of the group, the possibly incestuous twins and the homosexual Francis. Other students are the garrulous Judy Poovey, who is described as a reader of “those paranoia books by Philip K Dick.”

The novel’s characters are preoccupied with the world of ancient Greeks at the expense of modern-day concerns, no more so than the Henry, and it is ultimately their shared elitist values that lead them to committing a murder.

Ultimately Tartt implicates the reader in the crime from the outset, using occasional forays in Classic Greek legend to make a bold statement about modern society. Tartt challenges the reader’s morals and emotions by depicting at times abhorrent, Bacchanalian characters favourably. But ultimately leaves the reader to decide. The novel has a salutation to Bret Easton Ellis at the start and the characters are reminiscent of Ellis’ work in many respects. Casual scenes of adventurous sexual acts both heterosexual and homosexual and even incestuous are lined with drug taking and upper-class social engagements, as well as Dionysian blood rites in the woods. Yet such is Tartt’s adeptness and assuredness it never seems fanciful and it is clear to understand why the book has become something of a Cult Classic.

The Man in the High Castle (1962) Philip K Dick

February 20, 2011

Philip K Dick is probably best known as author of  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which later became Blade Runner. However The Man in the High Castle is widely regarded as his most accomplished work.

Written in 1962 the story centres on several characters in an alternative universe where The Axis have won World War Two. Like all good Sci-Fi this novel has less to do with the future and is more a critique on post-McCarthy era America – at times in the novel it is suggested that the dismantling of the United States & Nazi world-rule would be preferable to a Communist world that is depicted as the only other alternative.

In this alternative world, America is separated into 3 states; The Nazi ruled east, The Pacific seaboard is ruled by the Japanese and a demilitarised Rocky Mountain buffer zone.  The World is divided up into German ruled Europe and Africa and Japanese controlled Asia.

Furthermore it is alluded to early on that Africa has been largely wiped out by an increasingly mentally deranged Hitler who is now holed up in a mental institute.
Philip K Dick largely explores the plight of the common man. Whilst Hitler has been dethroned and the incumbent Chancellor Martin Bormann’s health is failing, the political struggle for power between Goring, Goebbels and Heydrich is left largely in the shadows and merely alluded to via radio reports. Dick’s decision to concentrate on the effect of totalitarianism on the average American citizen is similar to that of Orwell’s characterization of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Robert Childan,  sells false antiques to Japanese fascinated with Americana. While Post-war has rendered Childan with a bitter hatred for the Japanese, which he later overcomes only for it to be replaced with an odd lust for them, ironically his speech patterns and interior dialogue mirror the broken, abrupt manner of speech of the Japanese in the novel.

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a novel within a novel, a science fiction book about what Hawthorn Abendsen thinks would have happened had the Allies won the war. It is banned in both the Japanese and German ruled states but available to the characters in the autonomously governed Rocky state. The novel itself unites the vaguely interconnected characters of the novel, much like the iChing (an ancient Chinese book of divination), with Dick perhaps alluding to an Eastern view of reality. Further comparison’s can be drawn to Nineteen Eighty-Four in this respect, such as Emmanuel Goldstein’s book.

Late on in the novel Mr Tagomi is in despair as he had to take the lives of two men attacking him. As a man with a Buddhist upbringing he regards all lives as holy.  Mr Baynes the westerner ponders the idea of original sin in relation to the Buddhist standpoint, that we are all doomed to commit acts of cruelty or evil due to ancient factors, this Baynes states is our karma. Baynes goes on further to explain that though Tagomi has taken to lives to save one, hypothetically he has saved many lives.  This argument from the reader’s point of view draws stark pointers towards America’s actions in WW2 by dropping Nuclear Bombs upon Japan.  Ultimately from a different perspective, the actions can in one sense be justified, in that intentions were to save many more lives than were sadly lost.