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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (dolorosa)

15th March 2019

I started writing this piece on Thursday 14th March and I finished it ten days later on Sunday 24th March. For those of you who are interested in such statistics, that’s about the normal length of time it takes me to write one of these book review columns, together with the bits and pieces that generally surround the reviews. And during the ten days or so that I work on it, I spend about two or three hours each day on the writing, mostly in the afternoons. I’m a very slow writer. Words don’t come easily to me.

At lunchtime on Friday 15th March, I took my dog for a walk in the park. We go there almost every day and Jake runs around barking madly, trying to round up all the other dogs, particularly the shaggy ones that looked like sheep. The dogs pay no attention to him and refuse to be rounded up, but that just makes him bark even louder. We got back home about 1.00pm, exhausted and happy. I settled down at my computer to revise the words I’d written the previous day, and hopefully to write some new ones. Jake settled down on the couch that lives beside my desk and fell asleep.

When I’m writing, I don’t like external distractions, so there was no music playing and the radio was not turned on. The only sounds I could hear were the birds arguing with each other in the large tree that grows in my neighbour’s garden. It peers over the fence at me as I sit in my study. I stare at it sometimes, searching for inspiration. I have always found it to be a very generous tree, very keen to share its thoughts with me.

A few hours later, I reached a natural stopping place in the bit I was working on – a first draft of the Jack Vance review, as I recall. I saved the document and decided to go wandering round the internet in search of distraction. The first place I looked was the web site because I wanted to do their daily quiz.

And that was how I found out about what had been happening in Christchurch while I had been staring at the words that filled up my screen as I tried to tease them into making some sort of sense.

The next few days were very difficult ones. I was sickened by what had happened. Writing book reviews seemed such an unimportant and useless activity to involve myself in. My mood was very dark, and the last thing I felt like doing was putting jokes into the reviews I was working on. But I put them there anyway, and rather to my surprise they turned out to be just as good (or just as bad) as the jokes I’ve put into every other review column that I’ve written.

At lunchtime on Friday 22nd March, Jake and I went to the park as usual, though we went slightly later than we normally did because I wanted to be there at 1.30pm. We found a quiet corner of the park and we stood all alone in the shade of a stately tree. We listened to the call to prayer and we took part in the two minute silence that followed it. Then we continued our walk while I listened to the speech given by the Imam. I found the whole thing very moving. I was quite choked with emotion. I don’t know what Jake thought of it, but he was with me, so he was happy.

That afternoon my writing went more smoothly than it had been doing over the previous few days. My mood was much less dark. The nature of the ceremony, and the beauty and the wisdom of the Imam’s words were cathartic, and for the first time since that horrible Friday the week before, I felt at peace.

That afternoon and the following afternoon (Saturday 23rd March, if you are counting) I had a burst of creativity and inspiration. The words flowed easily, and I finished the whole thing. I let it rest over night and on Sunday morning I wrote the words that you are reading now. Shortly I will go through the piece one last time, giving it a final spit and polish, and then I will send it out into the world.

Because this whole article has been written in the shadow of that terrible Friday 15th March 2019, I want to dedicate it:

To the memory of fifty dead people

Jane Harper’s new novel The Lost Man is a stand alone story (hooray!!) set in the outback of Queensland, Australia. It opens with a view of something the locals call the Stockman’s Grave. Legend has it that a stockman died in mysterious circumstances a century or so ago and was buried here. The grave is in the middle of nowhere – it is the only landmark anywhere from one horizon to the other. Its small headstone provides the only shade in this featureless Queensland desert. There is a dead man curled up beside the headstone. The ground around the grave is churned up where the man had crawled into the meagre shadow afforded by the headstone. He had scrabbled round, following the shadow as the sun moved across the sky, curling himself into its pathetic shade in a vain attempt to protect himself from the blazing heat. He has died a terrible, excruciating death from exposure and thirst. His name was Cameron Bright, and his two brothers, who have just been informed of Cameron’s death by the police, have come to the Stockman’s Grave to see where Cameron died, and to help the police with their enquiries.

From this point on, the story goes in two directions. We go forward in time and follow the small, local community as it tries to come to terms with Cameron’s death, and we go back in time, exploring his family life and the events that have culminated in his death. The seemingly straightforward nature of the catastrophe turns out be be not at all as simple as it seems. There are complicated forces at play here. As Tolstoy famously said, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." and the many and varied ways that the Bright family has been unhappy for several generations adds up to a complex, and utterly enthralling narrative with a terrible secret that is revealed at the end, shedding much light on all that has gone before. I promise you, that revelation will take your breath away, I don’t care how cynical or jaded you might think you are. And once you’ve discovered it, you will immediately want to read the book all over again, partly to enjoy the clever clues that Jane Harper plants along the way and which you hadn’t really noticed the first time around, and partly to re-interpret the manner in which the characters react to the situations of the novel based on the knowledge that you now have – watching them the second time around when you know so much more about their motives adds a whole new and completely fascinating dimension to the story.

This is a brilliant novel, full of unforgettable characters and one of those characters, of course, is the deadly Queensland desert itself, a desert that provides the harsh and dangerous conditions under which the characters live their lives and die their deaths. Jane Harper does an astonishingly brilliant job of describing the desert conditions. She really makes you feel the heat and the dust – you want to go and have a shower at the end of every chapter! – and this is all the more remarkable when you realise that Jane Harper is English and that she is quite a recent immigrant to Australia. Anyone reading this novel would swear that she had been born and bred to the desert conditions, absorbing overheated sand with her mother’s milk. I only discovered her actual background when I accidentally stumbled across a radio interview with her one day when I was spinning the dial. If that hadn’t happened, I would have remained happily ignorant.

Dammit, the year is only three months old but I can’t believe I’ll read a better book than this one in the nine months that remain…

As I’ve mentioned many times before, when Jake and I go for our daily walks, I like to listen to an audio book. And this month I’ve been listening to Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure novels. There are four novels in the series: City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir and The Pnume. They are all quite short novels, and Audible have produced an omnibus edition of all four books so that you can listen to the whole saga all the way through from beginning to end.

The plot is nothing much to get excited about (Vance was not a good plotter). Adam Reith is the sole survivor when a torpedo launched from somewhere on the planet Tschai destroys his spaceship and its crew. He manages to make it to the surface of Tschai in a small scout ship and is then faced with the daunting task of trying to find out who launched the torpedo (and why). He also hopes to find some way of leaving Tschai and returning home to Earth. Not a lot of originality there...

Vance’s strong point as a novelist was his ability to invent complex, and utterly bizarre, social and political customs that nevertheless feel very convincing. The strange and mannered societies that Adam Reith encounters in his travels across Tschai are among the oddest that Vance ever devised, and all are described in his typical flowery, ornate and often extremely cynical prose – a prose style that sings on the page when you read the book to yourself but which sounds like grand opera when a skilful narrator reads it out loud to you. Trust me, you don’t read Vance for the story, you read Vance for his playful imagination, his odd view of the nature of the world and for the magical words that turn the most banal scenes into things of beauty, grace, horror and sometimes comedy (on occasion he manages to invoke all four feelings at one and the same time – now there’s a trick!).

The Planet of Adventure novels have long been high on my list of favourite Vance books. And the audiobook versions have simply reinforced that feeling.

Here’s an interesting Vance anecdote for you. At the time he wrote the books, Vance was completely unaware of the colloquial meaning of "wank" in British and Commonwealth English. When Servants of the Wankh first appeared in England a bookseller friend of mine claimed that he could shrink wrap it and sell it to his more dubious clientèle for five times the cover price on the strength of the title alone! Eventually word of this filtered back across the pond to the ears of Vance himself who muttered something about "...damned stupid Brits..." and when the definitive versions of Vance’s work were published after his death (the so-called Vance Integral Edition) I was greatly amused to find that Wankh had been turned into Wannek. That’s the power of language for you, I suppose.

Also, a minor point, the titles of the Vance Integral Edition were slightly changed and the four books became: The Chasch, The Wannek, The Dirdir and The Pnume. I note in passing that the audiobook does not follow the text of the Vance Integral Edition.

One of the biggest hits of 1971 was a book called The Happy Hooker by Xaviera Hollander. It’s surfaced again in 2019 as an audiobook, read by the lady herself. It’s an autobiography that describes Xaviera Hollander’s sexual adventures, both commercial and non-commercial, both straight and (er…) crooked. I would not be at all surprised to find that she embellished things for the printed page, but nevertheless the fact remains that in real life she herself actually was a prostitute, and later on she managed her own brothel, catering to many kinds of sophisticated sexual tastes, so doubtless she really does know whereof she speaks so eloquently. Certainly the early chapters at least do seem to be an accurate portrayal of her life. She was born in 1943 in Indonesia, of Dutch parentage, and she spent her first few years in a Japanese prison camp. Unusually, both she and her parents survived this experience and after the war she grew up in Amsterdam. She speaks several languages fluently but she’s never lost her lilting, musical, extraordinarily attractive Dutch accent.

Even for 1971, The Happy Hooker was amazingly explicit in its detailed descriptions of a wide variety of sexual encounters. I doubt that anything that explicit would be published today – at least not by any mainstream publisher – and listening to Xaviera Hollander’s sexy voice reading the book to me while I walk my dog has been quite an erotic experience in itself! Jake the Dog kept interrupting me to ask for a treat to nibble every time things started to get extra steamy, so I’m sure he must have been eavesdropping...

Xaviera Hollander has written a lot of books, some fact, some fiction and for thirty five years she wrote an advice column for Penthouse magazine. She published an erotic board game in 1975 and she even made a couple of movies. But I don’t think anything else that she has been associated with has ever quite come up to the level of (or the success of) The Happy Hooker. It was a huge best seller in its time and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it has continued to sell steadily over the years ever since.

Be warned – not only was the original book very sexually explicit, it was also astonishingly politically incorrect. And remember, we are talking about 1971 here. Consequently I can assure you that in 2019 it is absolutely guaranteed to make your eyes water. It definitely does not go straight down the middle of the road of political and social orthodoxy; instead it swerves alarmingly from left to right and back again, crashing into things all the time and taking great delight in the wreckage that it leaves behind. I’m sure Xaviera does it deliberately. As a result, the book is very unlikely to be acceptable to many modern sensibilities. Clearly I am not a modern person because I still love it to bits. You must make your own mind up – but don’t ever say I didn’t warn you!

Every decade or so I re-read Stephen King’s novel Christine. Many people regard it as one of his weaker books, but I’ve always had a soft spot for it. It’s a supernatural horror novel (a genre he started to move away from after Christine was published) and I think it’s one of his more effective books.

Christine is a car that is haunted by the malevolent spirit of its first owner. When seventeen year old Arnie Cunningham meets her she is just a rusty heap of junk but something about her appeals to him and he uses all his savings to buy her from Roland LeBay, a twisted, bitter and very angry old man who complains constantly about the way that the world has treated him. He describes his enemies (i.e., just about everybody) as "shitters". Shortly after Arnie buys Christine, Roland LeBay dies. But he can’t bear to leave Christine behind.

Arnie is what these days we’d call a bit of a nerd – he’s a member of the school chess club and very much an introvert. He’s sure he can fix Christine up so that she’ll be as good as new (though perhaps "nurse her back to health" would be a better phrase) and people are astonished at how rapidly her rust vanishes, her dents smooth out and her engine starts to purr like a pussycat.

Arnie, being a nerd, has lots of enemies; school bullies who ridicule and pick on him. After they mistreat both him and Christine, the car takes a terrible revenge on them. Arnie claims to have no knowledge of what happened or how it happened but he’s clearly not at all displeased by what has happened to the "shitters" who picked on him…

Stephen King has always been brilliant at invoking the angst of adolescence and Christine is probably one of his best forays into that field. Arnie’s essential loneliness and his resultant dependence on the protective father (mother?) figure of the car are beautifully portrayed. I defy anyone not to identify with Arnie’s problems, though if you don’t feel more and more ambivalent about the solutions to those problems as the book progresses you might not be my kind of person…

Like a lot of people, I was very disappointed with William Patterson’s two volume biography of Robert A. Heinlein. It was far more of a hagiography than it was a biography and Patterson’s white washing of some of Heinlein’s nastier character traits was embarrassing (and let’s not even mention the so-called facts that he just plain got wrong). Farah Mendlesohn’s The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein is much more of a literary analysis than it is a biography, but in the process of examining the characters and situations that appear in Heinlein’s fiction she cannot help but illuminate aspects of Heinlein’s life (and vice-versa) – no man is an island after all.

The book opens with a brief biography of Heinlein. Mendlesohn acknowledges her debt to Patterson here but she does a lot more than just regurgitate and paraphrase Patterson’s material. She is not afraid to take issue with some of the things Patterson says. For example, for most of his life Heinlein was sexually adventurous. All three of his marriages were open relationships and both partners took their pleasures where they could find them. As a young man, Heinlein picked up a "urinary infection". Patterson goes to great pains to deny that this was a venereal disease. Mendlesohn does not agree. She claims that Heinlein’s life-long battles with ill health, particularly his kidney and rectal problems and his (demonstrable) sterility are all typical symptoms of a venereal infection that could not be properly treated back in those days.

Can we take one more step and say that this infection and his resultant sterility might have had an influence on Heinlein’s writing? Well, yes we can… Even a cursory reading of Heinlein’s work makes it obvious that family life and the raising of children were very important to him (the care and protection of babies is a theme that appears over and over and over again in his books). Yet these things were totally absent from Heinlein’s own life. No matter how much you might want to try and separate the author from the books, you simply can’t help thinking that there might be more than an element of wish-fulfilment in some of the things that he wrote…

Mendlesohn analyses the whole body of Heinlein’s work from many different perspectives, but with the same degree of insight. She examines the political and social issues that he raises, his statements on race, on gender, on slavery and on gun ownership, among other things, and she finds a consistency of viewpoint that my own more casual reading had missed. Time and again, Heinlein nibbles at favourite topics from a lot of different angles and argues (not always successfully) both for and against them. It’s all too easy to dismiss Heinlein as a right wing fascist militarist on the strength of novels such as Starship Troopers and Farnham’s Freehold, or an anti-religious advocate of free love on the basis of Stranger in a Strange Land and many people (myself included) have done just that. But Mendlesohn makes it clear that the truth is rather more nuanced. Heinlein was always a radical thinker, even in his so-called juvenile novels, and he was a very difficult man to attach a label to.

Heinlein was a complex individual, but he was a man of his times and as he and the world both grew older, the world began to leave him behind. From middle age onwards he lived very much as a recluse and it seems clear from what Mendlesohn says that after a while he simply lost touch with the world and no longer understood what was happening outside his hippie-proof fence. He couldn’t change his opinions to fit in with changes in the world,  but he could (and did) to try to change the world to fit in with his opinions.

In his early writings he was a man ahead of his times. In his later works he was a man who had been left behind by the times. But he was still the same man and he remained subtle and clever. His ideology ran far deeper and was much more consistent than sometimes he is given credit for. His books were, and to a certain extent still are, extremely important and influential. However, I remain convinced that Heinlein was a very nasty man who I certainly would have detested had I ever met him in person. Fortunately I never did. I continue to find his novels endlessly fascinating – even some of the later extremely self-indulgent books have their virtues – and I found Mendlesohn’s analysis of his life and his literature both illuminating and sometimes just a little bit sad.

Dan Fesperman’s novel Safe Houses starts life as a cold war thriller set in Berlin in 1979. Helen Abell’s job is to look after the safe houses that the CIA maintain in the city. She keeps them clean, she keeps them stocked with provisions and she makes sure the recording equipment works. She is checking up on one of her houses when two people come in and start to have a conversation. Helen is puzzled by this – nobody had booked the house; it’s supposed to be empty. That’s why she’s there, servicing the equipment while it is not in use. She keeps quiet and listens in on the conversation, reluctant to interrupt in case she ruins a secret operation. She also records what is being said (she was checking the microphones and recording apparatus when the people arrived, and so all the eavesdropping equipment is active). She finds the conversation puzzling. The two agents using the safe house are speaking in an unfamiliar jargon. Fairly obviously whatever they are involved in is not a mainstream CIA operation. Later she shares her puzzlement about this with her lover, a veteran CIA agent. He goes very quiet and warns her never to talk about it with anyone, though he will not tell her why. Clearly the obscure jargon is not a puzzle to him..

Time passes and she returns to the same safe house to do more housekeeping. And again she finds two unauthorised and unexpected visitors. But this time there is absolutely no doubt in her mind as to what is going on. It is an unauthorised meeting between a controller and his female field agent. It starts off as a routine debriefing, but it isn’t long before Helen hears (and records) the controller raping the agent. Helen confronts him and he backs off, but the next day the female agent is killed. Helen doubts that this is a coincidence…

She now has two incriminating tape recordings and she doesn’t know what to do with them. Do they give her a bargaining position with the powers that be or do they put her in danger? The death of the female agent suggests the latter...

I was happily coming to grips with this story and looking forward to exploring its ramifications, when suddenly it jumped forwards thirty five years to 2014. Helen has just been brutally murdered. Clearly she had managed to survive the danger she’d inadvertently put herself in back in 1979, but equally clearly her chickens had now come home to roost. Why the delay?

From this point on, the novel tells two intertwining tales – one continues the Berlin story, and one concerns itself with the modern day murder investigation. Naturally the events of the first are intimately connected to the second. And swirling in and around both tales are shadowy, manipulative intelligence agencies, not all of whom are legitimate (whatever that means in such a secret world) and none of whom can be trusted.

Shorn of its external and rather twisty complications, the final story actually turns out to be quite simple and, of course, rather sordid. But it takes a long time to sort that out because Dan Fesperman has chosen to tell this rather straightforward story in an obfuscated and fragmentary way with lots of cryptic dialogue and mysterious asides. Fesperman prefers implication rather than explication – sometimes things are explained, though always there are i’s that remain undotted and t’s that remain uncrossed. Even when the shouting and the tumult dies away at the end of the book, much remains mysterious. Sometimes the story reads rather like Len Deighton at his most infuriating. Deighton’s saving grace was that his novels usually had plots that were complex enough to bear the weight of significance that his convoluted style forced on them. I’m not sure that Fesperman’s novel does, and by the time I got to the end of it I was weary of his dark hints and his portentous paranoia.

Ursula Le Guin has written two or three novels and a handful of short stories that I admire tremendously. But I must confess that I remain indifferent to a lot of her fiction. However I love all of her non-fiction – I’ve always found her essays to be wise, witty, sometimes enjoyably profound and often laugh out loud funny. No Time To Spare is no exception to that expectation! The essays collected in this book are blog posts that she wrote from 2010 to 2016.

Many of the essays are meditations on what it means to grow old and just how important it is to keep your age in perspective and to recognise the limitations that it enforces (If I’m ninety and believe I’m forty-five, I’m headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub.) Since this is a journey I’m currently making myself, I found these essays to be of great interest. Old age, she says, isn't a state of mind. It's an existential situation. How very true…

She thinks deeply and she has an enviable ability to encapsulate her thinking in cleverly pithy sentences. She despairs at the state of modern politics and sums it up by saying that it morally problematic when personal decision is confused with personal opinion. A decision worth the name is based on observation, factual information, intellectual and ethical judgement. Opinion – that darling of the press, the politician, and the poll – may be based on no information at all. Given the nonsense purveyed by far too many of the movers and shakers of the world, it’s hard to argue with her statement.

She feels a certain hopelessness about the state of the world. It appears that we've given up on the long-range view. That we've decided not to think about consequences – about cause and effect. Maybe that's why I feel that I live in exile. I used to live in a country that had a future. That’s a damning indictment. It’s not clear how much of that feeling represents reality and how much of it is simply a function of her experiential despair. Almost by definition, growing older gives you a broader perspective to work with. The more you have experienced the way the world works, the more you have the ability to look at it and compare it with the way that it used to be. That’s a very hard thing to do if you haven’t lived through the times – reading a history book simply doesn’t give you the same perspective, though it may provide more intellectual grist to your mill. I do find myself inclining towards the same gloomy opinion as Ursula Le Guin about the current state of things, but I don’t find myself sharing the same feelings of despair about what may come of it. I still believe I live in a country (and a world) that has a future because I believe that things can change (or can be changed, assuming the impetus for change is there in the first place). After all, I’ve seem them change before, and move themselves away from some very dark places indeed. She has seen the self same things that I have seen, and more besides, but unlike me, she takes no encouragement from them. I am sure that I’ll see things change again, hopefully for the better (they certainly need to!), she is much less certain.

Despite all this doom, gloom and deep thinking, Ursula Le Guin is never afraid to engage with important trivialities. We all need light relief! She has a whole essay here on the history and practice of swearing which is one of the funniest things I have ever read. And there’s another extraordinarily erudite essay on how to cook and eat a boiled egg. I have never in my life either cooked or eaten an egg, and I never will. Consequently I had no idea at all about the many complexities involved in doing both of those things and I read that essay in wide-eyed and open-mouthed wonder. Perhaps I’d better close my mouth before someone drops an egg into it…

Because Ursula Le Guin is first and foremost an author, she spends a lot of time thinking about literature. She has much to say about the Great American Novel. If it exists (and she’s not sure it does, or even that it ought to) she feels that Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath may well be it. She actually knew Steinbeck and she has interesting anecdotes to share. She says little about her own fiction (why should she? It speaks for itself), but she does say that: My job as a fiction writer is to write fiction, not to review it. Art isn’t explanation. Art is what an artist does, not what an artist explains. Art isn’t explanation. Yet again, I found myself nodding in complete agreement.

Interspersed among these essays are several instalments of The Annals of Pard. Pard is the cat who owns Ursula Le Guin and she writes entertainingly of his interactions with her, of his obsession with mice and with beetles and of his eating habits. She records that Charles Darwin once ate a beetle (and didn’t enjoy the experience) and she wonders whether she and Pard would feel the same way Darwin felt should either of them chance to eat a beetle of their own. If you’ve ever belonged to a cat, you’ll recognise Pard immediately. If you haven’t belonged to a cat you’ll probably wonder what all the fuss is about. Take the advice of Ursula Le Guin – go and find a cat to own you. You won’t regret it and you will enrich your life. Then go and read the essays collected in No Time to Spare. You won’t regret it and you will enrich your life.

Jane Harper The Lost Man Macmillan
Jack Vance Planet of Adventure Audible
Xaviera Hollander The Happy Hooker Audible
Stephen King Christine Signet
Farah Mendlesohn The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein Unbound
Dan Fesperman Safe Houses Knopf
Ursula K. le Guin No Time to Spare Houghton Mifflin
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