Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Ursula Le Guin 1929-2018

I'm greatly saddened to hear this morning that one of my favourite authors have died. Ursula K Le Guin. The world will be poorer without her.

In the 1960s, She was regarded as part of the New Wave of Science Fiction, a loose movement of young writers who sought to raise the literary standards and broaden the horizons of the genre. Le Guin was perhaps the author who were most successful in doing so. Many of her books and stories, such as the Earthsea trilogy, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest and The Dispossessed are regarded as classics and masterpieces. The stories dealt with serious themes with both intelligence and sensitivity, all expressed in beautiful prose.

One of these themes was death itself. And now, in the wake of Ursula Le Guin's own death, I am  reminded of the third Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore, in which it is the central subject.  The novel is about a misguided wizard who tries to gain everlasting life, but almost destroys the world by trying. The message is that it is absolutely vital to accept death, as that is necessary for accepting life. I think that it was with such healthy magnanimity Le Guin faced her own death. As she says in her novel: "To refuse death is to refuse life."

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black is a horror novella by the English Author Susan Hill, first published in 1983.

The novella is set in an unspecified time period, probably the Edwardian era. Trains and cars exist, but horse and carriage are still the dominant mode of transportation. Like Dracula, the story begins with an English solicitor who in performing his duty travels to a strange place haunted by a supernatural evil. The narrator Arthur Kipps travels to a remote village of Crythin Grifford on the North-Eastern coast of England. He is there to deal with the estate of a reclusive widow, Alice Drablow, an old client of his employer. While attending her funeral, he sees a mysterious woman, clad in black, who is no ordinary woman. Soon Arthur must struggle for survival against her.

The Woman in Black is a deliberately old-fashioned English ghost story, as exmeplfied by M.R. James. The ornate prose style, the period setting and the gothic atmosphere convincingly re-create the genre. The story doesn't betray it's origins in the 1980s at all.

While the story does not need interpreting to be enjoyed, I find the backstory of the ghost of the title interesting from a gender perspective. It is revealed that the ghost of the title was in life Jennet Humfrye, the mother of illegitimate child, who was taken from her and then died in a tragic accident. Her grief for the child and her anger at the injustices committed against her has led her to haunt the living as a vengeful spirit ever since. Kipps can't help but pity Jennet Humfrye in life, even as he is horrified by what she became in death. The evil is supernatural, but has it's origin in the evils of Victorian patriarchal society, which can certainly be interpreted as a subtle feminist statement.

The Woman in Black is an excellent gothic horror story. The act of reviving an old genre can turn out like the corpses re-animated by Herbert West, but here the results are truly alive. The tale is genuinely creepy, the horror coming from the carefully created atmosphere and suspense.  It is recommended reading for everyone who is interested in gothic horror and the traditional ghost story.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula is a 1897 Gothic novel by Irish novelist Bram Stoker.

                                                  Cover to comicbook version of the novel 
                                                  by Spanish artist Fernando Fern├índez.  
                                                  The source is the blog Book Graphics 

Most people reading this probably already knows the story, but I will introduce it nevertheless. The novel opens with an excerpt from the diary of an English solicitor, Jonathan Harker, who is traveling to Transylvania in Romania in order to met with Count Dracula. The purpose of the trip is for Harker to help the Count buy a house in England. But he soon discovers that Dracula is not human, but a vampire, whose purpose in moving to England is to feed on the blood of the innocent and spread vampirism. He must be stopped.

Dracula is a novel which can be interpreted in many ways. You can interpret the novel as a peculiar example of the then popular genre of Invasion literature, which was about Great Britain being invaded by foreign forces, typically the Germans. The book is peculiar to the genre in the sense that it is about a supernatural foreign invader, not a military threat, but thematically the book fits perfectly into the genre.

The vampire is often interpreted sexually and Dracula is one of the main reasons why that is. The vampire attacks have a frightening sexual element to them, as they are disturbingly similar to rape.

You can also interpret the novel as a battle of the modernity vs old superstition. The main characters come from highly developed nations in Western Europe and North America and are thoroughly modern and scientific in their outlook, which is even reflected in how they record their experiences using then modern inventions like the typewriter and gramophone. 

Dracula in contrast represents the old and medieval, being a folklore creature and an aristocrat from an undeveloped part of Eastern Europe.

Because of their modern outlook, the main characters are slow to realize that vampires exist. The Dutch physician Abraham Van Helsing in contrast can be said to represent a necessary synthesis of the old and the new. He is a man of science, yet knows the old superstitions well. He is therefore the first to realize that vampires are involved and thus comes to lead the fight against Dracula, using both modern science and old folklore to do so.

There are many more interpretations, Franco Moretti for example interprets Dracula as a metaphor for monopoly capitalism.

Yet the novel can be read simply for simple enjoyment, as it is an excellent and suspenseful horror novel, in which Stoker uses the epistolary form effectively. The book is old-fashioned in some respects, particularly it's treatment of gender and the foreign, but the tale is told so well-told that it deserves it's place as a classic of gothic horror.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Petals of Blood by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Petals of Blood is a novel by Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, author of The Wizard of the Crow. It was released in 1977 and was the last novel he wrote in English. I've earlier reviewed his later novel, Wizard of the Crow.

It begins with the murder of two businessmen and an educator in the fictional Kenyan city of Ilmorog. Four suspects are arrested for the murders. They are the local school principal Munira, the labour union activist Karega, the barmaid Wanja, and the shopkeeper and former Mau Mau rebel Abdulla.

The book tells of the friendship of these four characters and of their relationship to the murdered men. It is also the tale of Ilmorog's development in only a decade from pastoral village to modern city.

The story is a kind of microcosm of Kenya as an nation, especially post-independence. And it is not a pretty one. For Wa Thiong'o, the dream of a free, equal and independent Kenya is betrayed by it's leaders, such as president Jomo Kenyatta and his successors. Instead Kenyans got an unequal society in which the majority work in poverty while a small capitalist minority get rich by exploiting the working class. This elite does this by selling the products of the labour of the working class into the international capitalist system, just as the colonizers did before. Thus the system of exploitation established during English colonialism continues unbroken, just with native Kenyan leadership.

This leadership is thoroughly corrupt. When the citizens of Ilmorog suffer from famine, the main characters lead an exodus of most of the population to Nairobi to ask for help from their parliamentary representative. They walk the whole way, only to met a corrupt politician who gives them empty promises in return.

The government is not only corrupt, but is also authoritarian. People in opposition are either arrested or murdered. Of course, the Kenyan government proved Ngugi Wa Thiong'o right when they arrested him for his criticism of the regime shortly after this novel was published.

The book shows that the regime was right to fear him. This is powerful writing. The storytelling and prose are excellent in themselves, and show a novelist at the peak of his art. Yet they also tell the story of Kenya, as Wa Thiong'o sees it. Fiction, as a mirror to ugly reality. If the wrath of the author against injustice was canalized into satirical fantasy in the Wizard of the Crow, here that anger is served to the reader raw. The evils of life in modern Kenya are portrayed with utter realism, without any compromises.

Yet, as bleak as the novel is, it ends on an inspiring note of hope, not only for a better Kenya, but for a better world. This hope of course remains unfulfilled; Kenya and the world haven't really changed much since this book was written. Yet this only means that Petals of Blood remain as timely as when it was written, a true classic of world literature.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

V. by Thomas Pynchon

V. is the debut novel by Thomas Pynchon, first published in 1963.

As usual with Pynchon, the plot is complex to the point of confusion. The main plot is about Herbert Stencil, who is on a search for V, which is an abbreviation for something or someone, probably a woman. Stencil learned about V from his dead father, Sidney Stencil's notebooks. V appears in various places at various time periods, including Egypt in 1898, Florence in 1899, Paris in 1913, Southwest Africa in 1922, and several times in Valletta, Malta.

The novel also has sections which are heavily influenced by the Beat generation and describe the adventures of a group of bohemians called "The Whole Sick Crew" in 1950s New York. These center around a drifter called Benny Profane.

Despite this being a debut novel, in V. we met Pynchon fully formed, coming seemingly directly from the head of Zeus. Here we all of Pynchon's trademarks such as his absurdist humour, his labyrinthine plots, weird names (such as Rachel Owlglass or Kurt Mondaugen) or his musical prose. He blends together high and low culture, with V. having elements of the detective, science fiction, adventure and spy genres.

The meaning of the novel is, as always with Pynchon, obscure. He never answers the central question of the book: what does V. stand for? With each page, the answer seems to change. V might very well stand for Valletta, Venezuela, Botticelli's Venus or even a fictional place called Vheissu.

In the end, the most probable answer seems to be that V., at least the one mentioned in the notebooks, is a woman, with many names, but which all begin with V, such as Victoria Wren, Vera Meroving and Veronica Manganese. It's possible that she is Stencil's mother.

As said, she appears in various places at various times. The common denominator between these episodes seems to be that they are times of violence and crisis. Does she cause them in some way? Is  she somehow connected to the horrors of modern Western civilization, such as war, imperialism and genocide?

Again, the question is: what does V stand for? Maybe there are several answers, or none at all. It's possible that Stencil's search for V. is meaningless and ultimately is just one of mankind's attempts to give meaning and order to a chaotic universe, the futility of which is a theme also explored by Pynchon in his later books.

The novel also ask the big existential questions, that were so popular in the post-war era when the novel was written. It's made explicit that the search of V. is Stencil's way of giving meaning and purpose to an otherwise aimless life. It's his sisyphean task. The purposeless, drifting lives of Benny Profane and the Whole Sick Crew are of course also related to his existentialist musings.

But even if V. remains a mystery, it is an entertaining one. Even if you are not up to solving it's puzzles, one can always be swept along by Pynchon's humour or his prose. One can't help but be impressed that this is the work of someone who was only 26 years old.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Without Frontiers: the life and music of Peter Gabriel by Daryl Easlea

This book is a biography of Peter Gabriel, written by music journalist Daryl Easlea.

This book caught my interest as soon as I saw it in the library. I'm a big fan of Peter Gabriel's challenging and innovative music, both with and without Genesis.

The book focuses on Gabriel's music career, both Genesis and solo. It tells of the making of albums like Selling England by the Pound, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Gabriel's unnamed third solo album and So. We also learn of his activism for human rights and against injustice like apartheid. In this, he has worked with organizations like Amnesty International and Witness, the latter which he co-founded. Gabriel has also brought attention to non-western forms of music by co-founding the WOMAD festival, which features musicians from all over the planet.

The book focuses on his work and largely ignores Gabriel's personal life. This is probably because Gabriel has always been a private man. And anyway, his home life has apparently been rather uneventful, with the exception of the collapse of his first marriage.

While Easlea hasn't interviewed the subject of the book himself, he has interviewed several of Gabriel's friends and collaborators. Easlea has also done extensive research and uncovered many articles and interviews. He has then synthesized this extensive source material into a coherent narrative.

Easlea is very thorough and has a remarkable eye for detail. He not only describes the creation of each album, but also the reception it got among fans, the public and the critics.  He even analyses each individual track of Gabriel's major albums. The book also comes with a comprehensive discography.

To his great credit, Easlea takes Gabriel's work with Genesis seriously. Far too many critics dismiss Genesis or even progressive rock in general as pretentious nonsense, while acclaiming Gabriel's solo career. Easlea doesn't do any of that and even emphasizes the continuities that exist between Gabriel's work with the band and his solo work.

The result is a good and very readable book about a remarkable man. A man who both in his music and activism is Without Frontiers.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Keith Emerson 1944-2016

Keith Emerson, keyboardist in the bands The Nice and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, has died.

He is usually regarded as one of the most technically accomplished keyboardist in rock music, a true virtuoso. He first came to notice as a member of a band called The Nice, that existed between 1967 and 1970. They were pioneers of progressive rock; one of the first bands to combine rock music with classical and jazz. A staple of their repertoire was rock interpretations of pre-existent classical and jazz pieces.

When their guitarist left the band, they did not replace him and continued on as a trio, with only drums, bass and keyboards. The Nice therefore became one of the rare rock bands to not have a electric guitarist, with the music relying instead on Emerson's considerable keyboard skills.
Important Albums by The Nice include The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, Ars Longa Vita Brevis and Five Bridges

Here is a video of The Nice peforming America from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. It shows Emerson's energetic and distinctive performing style, which includes plunging knives into his organ keyboard to hold notes.

After The Nice broke up, Emerson formed a new progressive rock band: Emerson, Lake and Palmer, ELP continued in the same vein, doing without a lead guitarist and with plenty of classical "covers". They were one of the most successful rock bands of the 70s, selling albums by the truckload and playing to outsold arenas. It was in my opinion well-deserved, they produced a solid body of work in the period 1970 to 1974. Granted, their albums after that period were rather lacklustre. They took a long hiatus during the period 1974-1977 and were never the same afterwards.

Their best albums are probably their self-titled debut, Tarkus and Brain Salad SurgeryHere is The Three Fates, composed by Emerson, from their first album.

With Keith Emerson progressive rock music has lost of it's leading lights. Emerson was an innovator and keyboard virtuoso. May he rest in peace.