fivemack (fivemack) wrote,

The Books Of November

Cambridge library reopened at the end of September, and I made a small vow to stop buying books, and instead get them out of the library. This enforces a to-read pile size of no more than twelve, strongly encourages reading a book within a month of acquisition, and means I can acquire perhaps-mediocre books on a whim the moment I hear about them without worrying that I'm wasting money, and any books without worrying where I'm going to store them forever. I've taken to reading the book-review section of the Economist mouse in hand, ready to stick holds in the library on anything that sounds appealing (though I am 106th in line for their copy of "Wolf Hall").

Jo Walton gave me Francis Spufford's "I May Be Some Time" when I stayed with her in Montreal in the summer. It's an odd book; it's not a history of polar exploration, it pretty much assumes you know the history of polar exploration, but it's a history of the popular perception in England of polar exploration - of how every Victorian child got to know of the white bear and the igloo, of how chronicles of voyages were the permitted escapism of some of Austen's characters, of how Franklin's wife stage-managed the search for him and ruined the career of the man who proved him a cannibal.

I think, though I can't prove it via Google, that Jo also recommended to me and to the world Frederick Pohl's "Jem". This one, go out and read, though be sure you're reasonably cheerful before starting the last hundred pages; it builds worlds on Earth and in the sky, the Food / Fuel / People blocs a way to think of the world that still works and is worth contemplating. Great aliens, good first contact, and the really worrying thought that there were millions of people in our world not long ago who thought for decades of the inhabitants of Russia and China in terms that could turn into Pohl's Russians and Chinese.

Next one was Mat Coward's "So Far, So Near"; the author came up in an aside on Ken Macleod's blog, this was what the library has of his, and it's something like Ken mixed with Roald Dahl, with just a touch of Douglas Adams around the edges. A collection of short stories somewhere between the comically weird and the really quite creepy.

Next one another Jo recommendation: "When the Kissing Had To Stop". A proper political thriller of a kind I'm not sure I've seen recently; again, Russians sculpted out of pure evil, and a bizarre conception of Britain's role in the world. Not too far off from a cold-war Farthing; though only two weeks later my memories of the book are mostly wood-panelled rooms and cold London fog.

Then, a collection of translated Quebecois writing - chunks of novels, novelettes in the settings of novels - from the Bragellone publishing house, prepared for and given away at Worldcon. There's a Dumas-with-dragons, a disconcerting ogre-slave-PoV of a death camp, a rather arch tale of an author defended from his agent by his characters. It's all a few dozen degrees twisted from the English fantasy-writing traditions, a bit more willingness to have characters exposed to and damaged by the unpleasant parts of the world. Interesting, but I'm not drawn to buy any more of the works.

The topic of Tony Faber's "Faberge's Eggs" is clear, though I'm really very shaky on the history of that part of the world; I had no clue that the Tsars were that direly and unrecognisingly autocratic, clinging to the Divine Right of Kings only twenty years before 'the Germans sent Lenin to them like some deadly bacillus in a sealed train'.

And to keep on the theme of bacilli, at about the time that Faberge was really getting into the swing of his eggs, H G Wells three thousand miles away was writing his first short-story collection, "The Stolen Bacillus". This is one I read (in the bath) with flashes of recognition in every other page: it's what Clarke's "Tales from the White Hart" is shaped after, the narrators of "Aepyornis Island" or "The Diamond-Maker" could have showed up in the White Hart with not an eyelid batted.

Perhaps the best book I've read this month was an unexpected one - the Economist had recommended Dan Cruickshank's new history of the Georgian brothel, and said his previous book was called "Adventures in Architecture". This the library had; this, too, I read in the bath, and this time the flashes of recognition were of myself. The man's travelled to sixty or so of the great architectural sites of the world, Istanbul to St Petersburg to Varanasi to Neuschwanstein, and in the places where our paths have crossed he's taken pretty much the same pictures I did. A lovely wry style for the writing around the pictures; a definite recommendation.

Last book of the month, another patch of history where I knew some of the names but not one of the events: Robert Harris's "Imperium", in core a reconstruction of Tiro's lost Life of Cicero. I knew nothing of the Roman republic, my brain would jump from Lars Porsena to Caesar and have Crassus and the Gracchi as contemporaries. It's an utterly bizarre world: the government of six hundred lawyers where 'by tradition' the prosecutor acquires the rank of his most powerful victim, the shapes of popular democracy with an electoral college of tribes superposed and the whole drenched in half a yard of bribery, the power of life and death granted to provincial governors.
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