Cultural Highlights of 2016

In a year of relentless tragedy and despair, here are a scant few things I enjoyed.

BOOKS

Malcolm LowryUnder The Volcano

This was my third attempt at tackling Lowry’s famously impenetrable novel. The first chapter is particularly gruelling, but after breaking through it for the first time, the dark humour and self-flagellating wisdom which follow make it all worthwhile. For anyone tempted to have a go themselves, I found these notes very helpful in decrypting the dense symbology.

Keith RobertsPavane

The best thing I read all year though, by far, was Pavane. It’s an alternate history novel, in which Elizabeth I was assassinated, the Reformation was quashed, and a triumphant Catholic Church retarded scientific progress. In the 20th century setting of the novel, England has steam-powered road locomotives, a network of giant semaphore towers for cross-country communication, and new stirrings of political and religious revolution.

But the appeal of the ahistorical premise isn’t what makes Pavane such a great book. This year, I also read S. M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers, in which a late 19th century meteor shower destroys civilisation in the northern hemisphere, the British elite relocate to India, and by the early 21st century, a steampunk Anglo-Indian empire is in conflict with a devil-worshipping Central Asian Tsardom. This premise is equally interesting. However, Stirling’s novel turned out to be a huge disappointment: a poorly-written mediocrity, no more than a third-rate Raj adventure story with added airships.

Roberts’s, on the other hand, is so beautifully written it’s almost poetry. By the time you’ve read his description of a steam wagon making its way across the Dorset heath on a foggy night, oiled pistons hammering and scalding water dripping from the tank, or of a semaphore tower, its clacking wooden levers, and the blistered hands of its Guild apprentice operator, it’s impossible to believe that such things never even existed.

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Cultural Highlights of 2015

I know it’s a bit late, but here’s the best stuff I read/saw/etc in 2015.

BOOKS

Railsea by China Miéville

By the same author as the superb The City And The City, Railsea is a post-apocalyptic riff on Moby-Dick. A young cabin boy joins a train crew rattling about on a vast dried sea-bed covered in criss-crossing railway tracks and inhabited by ferocious burrowing monsters, while the captain obsessively hunts her great yellow mole. Ripping stuff.

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

Since the era of Thatcher and Reagan, mainstream economics has been dominated by the ideology of the free market, championed by the right wing as the driver of economic success. Meanwhile the left wing has either opposed it on moral grounds of fairness and compassion, or accepted it while trying to mitigate its worst effects. The basic economic argument has never been challenged in public debate: the free market creates a prosperous economy. However, in academic economics, this truism is widely known to be false, and the contradictions and failings of the free market are well understood. Ha-Joon Chang is one of the leading voices attempting to bust the free market myths of public consciousness, and this book is a perfect primer.

One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One of the hallmarks of a great book for me is how much is lingers in your consciousness after you’ve read it, and for weeks after finishing One Day In The LIfe Of Ivan Denisovich, I often found myself thinking, ridiculously, “this is just like in the Gulag.”

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New Year’s resolutions 2014: end of year review

Let’s review how I did on my 2014 New Year’s resolutions.

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New Year’s resolutions 2014: mid-period review

I announced four New Year’s resolutions for 2014 on this blog at the start of the year. Now we’ve reached the halfway point of the year, I thought I’d review how they’re going.

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The Glass Bead Game

In case anyone was wondering why I list the books, films and music (or recently, podcasts) that I’m interested in at the moment down the right hand side of this blog, it’s not to show off my excellent taste or anything like that. It’s to encourage anyone who’s also interested in any of those things to discuss them with me. So far, this has happened precisely zero times. But I live in hope.

You may have noticed that The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse was my current read for quite a long time, recently. I’ve finally finished it, so now I’m going to post some thoughts on it.

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New Year’s resolutions 2014

I didn’t really have any resolutions for 2013, because I was going to be making enough big changes in my life as it was – leaving the Army, travelling to India. I’m making several for 2014 though, and this is what they are:

1. Read and see six Shakespeare plays.

I’m OK with all the big names, like Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, but beyond that my knowledge of Shakespeare is woeful. I need an intensive familiarisation programme, so I’ve decided to challenge myself to learn six more plays in a year, by both reading them, then seeing them performed.

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Iain Banks: the other secret Culture novel

*** WARNING: SPOILERS ***

It’s an open secret that Inversions, the SF novel by the late Iain M Banks, is set in the universe of the Culture. The book itself disguises this: the cover omits the “A Culture Novel” strapline of the other books such as Consider Phlebas, the narrative is solely about events on a late medieval world, and there is no explicit mention of Culture society or technology. However, there are enough subtle hints in the narrative for anyone familiar with Banks’s other works to deduce that the two main characters are agents from the Culture, who have infiltrated the pre-industrial society in order to influence it. At one point, one of them tells a child a fairytale about a land where people can fly betweens suns using “ships with invisible sails”; in the Epilogue, the other excuses herself from a dinner citing “special circumstances” (the name of the Culture’s black ops department).

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The Raj Quartet covers

The first post in my promised series on Paul Scott is about the Raj Quartet. Not the novels themselves, but their covers. I make no apology for the niche topic. It may be of interest to you if you’re a Scott obsessive, an amateur bibliographer or a book design geek. If you’re none of those things, I won’t be offended if you decide to skip it.

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