This continues, and hopefully brings almost up to date the review of my reading. I read a mere five books last month so it has been relatively easy to catch-up.
1. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, who have a strikingly different view of the Beats than the Beats do.
Well written and fascinating, this book is an extraordinary look into the life of a major international figure, and into the more local problems of racial and religious conflict that dog American culture.
The story follows Malcolm X nee Little from his earliest youth, through his period of criminal exploits, his redemption by the prophet Elijah Muhammad, and his eventual betrayal by the Nation of Islam. What is striking is to see the way Malcolm’s ‘hate’ is so much more complicated than him just being the violent flip side to the Martin Luther King coin.
The book is also fantastically well written, Haley manages to keep Malcolm’s distinctive style of speaking in the text, and contributes a fascinating introduction in his own voice.
I would highly recommend to everyone ever, especially now, when post-colonial Europe is entirely failing to understand the anger of the Middle East in almost exactly the same ways White Americans failed to understand Black Americans.
2. Shakespeare After All by Marjorie Garber, who liked the Winter’s Tale for some unfathomable reason.
Garber’s book is a wonderful introduction to Shakespeare scholarship and goes really well with Emma Smith’s lecture series (which can be listened to here).
Garber’s book is made up of 38 essays – one on each of the plays – and an introduction. Each play is treating to an essay one by one, in a rough chronological order of when they were first written. The focus is on how the plays have been treated by scholarship over time, and on placing them in the progression and network of ideas and themes of Shakespeare’s as they develop through his career.
If you have a deep interest in Shakespeare this will deepen it, and if you just want a general overview this is probably the only book you’ll need on the subject. I would highly recommend to anyone who is not put off by its near 1000 pages of tiny type.
3. A War of Choice by Jack Fairweather, who likes his subjects a little too much.
I finished this, by coincidence, in the same week the Chilcot report came out. And off the back of the book I came away thinking that the media focus on the war as Tony Blair’s pet project is far too narrow.
Fairweather paints an ugly picture of just how many things went wrong in preventable ways: UK advances in the South were reversed because they ran counter to the general strategy of the US, cultural misunderstandings abounded, petty departmental squabbles in government kept experts out of the rebuilding process… the list goes on and on Blair was just the bloodstained tip of the iceberg.
The book is compellingly written as a series of individual’s stories which left me feeling that the war was a tragedy in Whitehead’s sense: the remorseless working of an impersonal thing that simply ground up people, nations and – in the end –the whole Middle East, in its relentless cogs. I would broadly recommend.
4. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, who must have had a grim time in the 50s.
Impressive rather than enjoyable, this intimidatingly long book breaks the life of Anna into a narrative portion and her notebooks. The notebooks themselves are split up, and into each of four different coloured books Anna writes a specific aspect of her life. One contains her political life, another her writing life, another her personal life, and another the unadorned events of her life.
That life is largely made up of one unhappy marriage and numerous unhappy affairs, the struggles of an artist who feels unable to produce art, and an idealist turned cynic. It is not a happy book, and in many places becomes extremely boring. But there are flashes of greatness, and long sections that qualify as page-turner-y.
The main triumph of the work, however is its form. I would highly recommend.
5. The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, whose father definitely did have a grim time in the 40s.
This Pulitzer prize winner is one of the great graphic novels ever written. Part holocaust biography, part family history and part meta-journalistic analysis, Maus casts Spiegelman and his Jewish ancestors as mice, the Germans as cats, and the Polish people who helped and/or turned on his parents as pigs.
This zoological whimsy does nothing to reduce the appalling horror of the narrative which is as much about human nature under duress and how a community under threat responds, as it is about the Holocaust itself.
Based on conversations with his father, Art draws up a beautiful and harrowing story that is one of the major artistic responses to one of the 20th Century’s darkest hours. Cannot recommend this highly enough.