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Category: Books

Comics and Ballet

[What do the two have in common? Muscular men in tights.]

After a rather productive period of reading earlier this month, I have again become incredibly lazy, barely making it past a few chapters of Feyerabend everyday. I have mainly kept myself alive with comic books, which now takes up a fair bit of my monthly budget.

Below are some brief thoughts on some things I have read/heard/seen:

1. The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks
Banks is one of those authors I like, but can’t really finish. His writing is exciting, humorous and he is really good at thrilling sex scenes, but sometimes, like in Complicity, his plot becomes too obvious and hence a little draggy. All in all, a better writer than storyteller.
The State of the Art is also like that. It has a few good pieces, the eponymous novella being the best of them all, and some rather bewildering experimental ones, especially Scratch. My favourite short story is definitely Cleaning Up, possibly because I love stories with misanthropic undertones.

2. Hickman’s Fantastic Four and FF run

Hickman’s Fantastic Four run has stretched across three years and brought us many great ideas: the Council of Reeds, the return of Nathaniel Richards, the Future Foundation, Johnny Storm’s death, the rebirth of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, the Universal Inhumans, the Mad Celestials… Well, his work has simply been outstanding and any fan of Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben (also Franklin and Valeria and Nathaniel) should pick up his stuff. But start at the beginning because it’s all very confusing.

One of the really cool Doom covers.

Franklin Richards battles a Celestial

Right before "I have been a prideful and foolish man."

3. Wolverine and the X-Men and other X-Men titles

I’m picking up four X-Men titles-Wolverine and the X-Men, X-Men, Uncanny X-Men and Generation Hope (and the limited series Wolverine and the X-Men: Alpha and Omega)- because I really like the X-men. Something, probably, about being born with power, which makes it all more deliciously existentialist than the Captain America bit.

Wolverine and the X-men has great artwork and good characters, but it hasn’t hit its stride with a really good arc. X-men and Uncanny X-men are good old-fashioned action titles, and I really love the vampiric Jubilee. Generation Hope started out pretty strong, but it plods along and can’t seem to get off the ground, but maybe the confrontation with Zero will speed things up.

5. The Manhattan Projects

My latest purchase has been the Manhattan Projects, also by Hickman and it features a badass robot-killing Einstein (Japanese death robots designed by Soichiro Honda and attacks through a portal powered by Buddhist monks). Extremely promising.

7. Swan Lake

I watched the SDT’s Swan Lake yesterday, mostly because I felt that I really needed to get back to wasting my money on plays and such. I remember being rather sleepy for bits, but once I got home, I couldn’t stop youtubing the dances again and again. I still think the most striking dance is the Cygnets’ Dance, but I enjoyed the Black Swan Pas de Deux.

Post-post War

Not to make excuses but the fragmented nature of my posts is a pretty good reflection of my thinking style at the moment: no longer obliged to be coherent, my mind seems to revel in half-thoughts and incomplete expositions. So it was when I finally finished Tony Judt’s mammoth book on European history since the world wars.

The book is as the author admits, a fox instead of a tortoise, and indeed I think it is its chief strength. First, it does justice to what the author knows. For example, when discussing Scandinavian social democracy, he goes to differentiate the models of governance we are so accustomed to thinking of as a bloc. In fact, he does this sort of thing all the time, betraying an extensive familiarity with all of Europe, rather than the England-France-Germany tripartite most people engage with.

So as a general introduction to history, this is a pretty good tome to pick up. But most of all, I like it because it deals with themes of memory, remembrance, guilt and history. It manages to fit the things I know about Europe now (the various countries today and things like the Eurozone crisis) into context. In fact, in his bit about the Maastricht treaty, his observations about the monetary union are remarkably similar to what is being said now. Judt may not be a pathbreaking economic thinker, but he often shows us that what we find novel is a rehashed version of something else in history. Or as Ecclesiastes puts it: “there is nothing new under the sun”.

I had the misfortune of being stuck in camp yesterday defending the nation by standing around for 8 hours while Crystal left to return to New York. And as we both noticed, it’s a strange inversion, is it not? I was the one crazy about the US last year and she about Cambridge and now she’s in Columbia and I’m probably going to Oxford. I guess it all works out in the end.

P.S. After putting it back on the shelf, I suddenly felt a sense of loneliness, the sort of emptiness Carol Ann Duffy was talking about, now that something that has been with me for so long (15 days) and featured so prominently in my life in that period of time will now be gone. What does that say about my prospects for a real relationship with a real person?

Postwar

I chose Tony Judt’s Postwar as my new year big book and after a few chapters, I must say it’s really good. Not just because it is really well-written but also because Judt’s conception is tinged with themes of memory, history and continuity. Strangely enough, for an author so good at mustering up a sense of the zeitgeist of the immediate post-war years (the part I’m at now), his writing steers clear of a master narrative, as he himself notes, and this does credit to the complex and haphazard Europe in those days (and style-wise avoids incessant repetition, given the tendency for dominant narrative theorists to see everything as fuel for their fire).

In other news, happy new year everybody! I was initially rather apathetic to the start of what is surely my annus horribilis, but am now in a suitably festive mood. Here’s to a year of reading too much, writing too little and doing little much else!

Reading

Reading takes up most of my free time now, although I have limply resolved to write more, since reading can be so passive. I have began keeping lists of books I have read: I have catalogued the books I have in my house (over 200 of them!) and am on goodreads (username alvinenator) and I am keeping this notebook which I update every time I finish something.

Just a note here about a book I have really enjoyed about a theme close to my heart: W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants which is so another brilliant entry in the line of books with unbearably precise and incisive prose and unflinching realism. The parted nature of this book reminded me of the equally brilliant Dubliners by James Joyce (although the fragments are longer). In it, Sebald writes as an unnamed emigre narrator who at points in his life is caught up with the story of four emigrants from Germany or Germanic lands. Every single one of them is brilliant. Particularly, I love the sense of being alien that I think is fundamental to all emigrant experiences. This works both ways: towards the home country where you no longer belong and towards the host country where you can never truly belong.

This I think is the central conflict of being an emigrant: the lingering concept of your nationality that remains to be resolved. There is no pretending that there can ever be a clean cleavage. If so, why do you maintain such an interest in the homeland? Why are you affected by the feeling that the country has changed and no longer fits you? The emigrant experience naturally is one tinged with a little sadness, and I think this is what makes it quite poignant.

Another theme that has been haunting me since the death of Christopher Hitchens is the relationship between essay and essayist. I think Hitchens is a pretty good essayist, not a brilliant one, but one who is consistently good and incisive and astute. But what is the point of so impermanent a form. What is the essayist trying to accomplish? Is it possible to write so many of these short pieces without Ozymandias repeatedly coming to mind?

Hyde and Seek

(It’s not my joke. It’s Stevenson’s joke. It’s in the book.)

I am in a pious mood today. I have just finished Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (not as catchy as just Jekyll and Hyde, but I think the Dr. and Mr. are quite deliciously placed here) and it’s quite interesting throughout. The basic premise is a little like The Picture of Dorian Gray, in that the evil in their souls manifests externally. Who knew Hyde started out as a small, deformed thing, resembling a troglodyte rather than a Hulk-menace?

The interesting thing about Jekyll and Hyde, besides the duality of man (divisible into good and bad) thing is how Edward Hyde was seen as a morally unconcerned creature, an escape into immoral lawlessness. I wonder why Stevenson framed it as escape. Perhaps he meant it to be read as a morality tale about the danger of succumbing to moral licentiousness. But just as possibly, it is a comment that being good is not satisfying. Jekyll, who is good, law-abiding and loves the adulation of his friends, often wants to be Hyde. He finds Hyde’s ability to do anything without personal penalty amusing. I don’t know whether this is a particularly modern opinion.

Anyway, a thought about the gold standard next time.

Phyrexians and Mirrans

I have been reading Eugene Rogan’s The Arabs to understand the dynamics of the Arab world. Two things stand out: first, how the imperial powers (Britain and France) made wartime promises of independence and later went back on their word after they survived the war. Or how the colonial powers generally claimed to be liberating the Arabs from the Ottoman empire, like Napoleon did. In short, the West has always lied to the Arabs, and when they caught on, beat them down with aerial bombardment and artillery shelling. Why are we so confused about why some of the Arabs are crying foul when Nato sends in their planes?

The second is this fascinating notion that the West saw their imperial expeditions as “civilising missions”. The arrogance of civilisations is perhaps not new, but still, I find it quite surprising:

“(Maurice Viollette) opened a debate on granting citizenship rights to a select group of Algerians on the basis of their assimilation of French culture and values – referred to in French as évolués. The expression, meaning ‘more highly evolved’, was pure Social Darwinism that conceived of Algerians as advancing from a lower to a higher state of civilisation as they shed Arab culture in favour of ‘superior’ French values. This ‘civilising mission’ was one of the principles by which the French justified their imperial project.”

Sounds like the Phyrexians and the Mirrans to me.

Econombies

I’m still reading Ill Fares the Land after a particularly ill-advised outing on Saturday evening, and there are two things that seem to stand out. (By the way, I think the book is a remarkably clear and eloquent exposition of the economic divisions between the right and the left, and as expected from a historian, brings valuable historical context to the debate.)

1) How the post-war consensus was a solidly “left” one, and that efforts were made to pare down the excesses of the unregulated market economy. Which stands to reason that if the modern right succeeds in reversing those reforms (child labour laws?), the old tensions that plagued society will re-emerge.

2) An extremely interesting chapter on how the 60s college protesters were borne of the prosperity of the social democratic state, but rebelled against bureaucracy and statism. The shift was from collectivism (from the belief that important social problems cannot be tackled by the individual)  to individualism, and interestingly, the new left also led to the resurgence of the new right, which similarly espouses individuality. All in all, those hippies did not stand for much of American youth (as not many people did attend college), alienated both right and left, and were inconsistent in their advocacy for foreign governments to intervene in their countries and for their own governments to back off.

Get the book.

A note about graphs

I was just reading Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, and in the first chapter, he makes the point that inequality eats society out from within. To support his point, he presents a series of graphs from Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

I’m quite convinced that there are substantial societal disbenefits from income inequality, but these graphs are just frustrating. Small samples (8 countries), opaque axes (unclear labelling of variables) and high-low units. The problem of causality is not addressed. They’re just not very convincing.

Making Money

I haven’t actually read fiction for such a long time, so thanks to Crystal for putting me up to a fantastic book. And I think it’s better to read the book with an understanding of monetary economics; only then can you understand the ingenuity of Moist’s soliloquy regarding money and potatoes, the deposits of Harry King, the caricature of the economist and the Glooper, and the golem standard. Also of interest is the fascinating madness of Cosmo Lavish, the subtle political theory of Lord Vetinari’s regime, and of course the authentic fantasy experience, replete with guilds and golems. I’m sure a lot of those idiots asking for a move away from fiat money back to the gold standard can, perhaps unironically, share the sentiments of Bent when he asks circularly what “guarantees” the gold. To be fair, Pratchett doesn’t cover inflation and I’d love to see him take on a financial crisis (he has tamed a bank run though).

Just some other thoughts about fiction. I realised just how much work reading the thing was. It is vaguely disturbing how I’ve instinctly come to prefer the instant wit of a Mitchell and Webb sketch over the more slow-building excitement of a good novel. The characters, all of them insufferably interesting! The Igors, Moist, the Lavishes and Mavolio Bent are just examples of characters which bring a narrative to life. There is just this depth in a novel that quicker forms of entertainment cannot match.

This is obviously not a book review, but if you’re wondering: “So Shi Hang, should I pick this up at the library and spend 4 days on a story about golems, dwarves and the 20th century history of money simplified”, the answer is yes.