What I’m reading this month – Dec 2019

Reading took a back seat last month to my adventures in guitar buying. Well, I mean, I was still reading, but it didn’t seem the time to write about it.

Cover image of John Lanchester’s The WallAnd it’s not like there weren’t other things to think about besides. Beyond the general Brexit angst that has become our oxygen, we had acute alertness with the election campaign. And bundled in with all of that, I and colleagues not just at Cardiff University but across the land were on strike for eight days.

This is ideal ferment, really, for reading John Lanchester’s new novel, The Wall. It’s not about what we’re in, but it’s certainly about where we’re going. Or where we might be going if we don’t heed the call etc. This is not a new theme for dystopian literature, but the title is drawn from very present-day dystopian concerns. The very word is associated with Donald Trump, though this is set in a not too distant future Britain, with a wall of its own, a rising tide to contend with, and an exceptionally brutal way to deal with immigrants.

All citizens, we learn, serve two years on the wall. Conscription is back, and it is of a most Switzerlandian kind: Britain is not preparing to make war on other territories or come to the aid of those unjustly treated by their neighbours. It is about defending this island with all of its coastline. Two years, twelve hours on and twelve hours off, two weeks on and two weeks resting or training, and then you’re done and never have to look on it or think of it again, citizen. And we mean it – you can trust us. This is also a theme in the book.

Typical of its oeuvre, our narrator will get to experience the full gamut of prescribed scenarios on and off the wall. When you begin to read it, or even when you just read the blurb, you can get a pretty good idea of the narrative that will unfold. Not much in this is surprising. The question we’re meant to think through is “why” – what happened to put these terrible scenarios in place? If you’re paying attention to the headlines, you can make some good guesses here, too. What shocked me most, I think, was the coldness with which the narrator and his generation judge their parents and grandparents, the ones who let this happen. They know their present and future was stolen by selfish inaction not many decades ago. (And if we’re listening to our climate strikers, even this should not surprise.) Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – March 19

We’re halfway into the month already, and the book I’m reading right now is the same book I was reading this time last month, only it’s a different book.

That’s not just me being cute.

Last month, I had a conference in Vienna. And, as I’ve been getting into the habit of doing, I wanted to read some fiction from or set in the place I was going. Worked swell with The Master and Margarita and Love in the Time of Cholera in a possibly uncappable 2017. With Vienna on the table, I did some research on good Austrian fiction (or, failing that, something new and decent set in Vienna. And I don’t consider The Third Man new, as I’ve seen the film.)

After nosing about, I had a shortlist together and headed to the local bookstores to see what they could supply. No luck at the quality second-handers, but Waterstones came through with, in fact, four choices. Or maybe three. I had found Joseph Roth, who writes more from the hinterland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; I had sort of decided that was good enough, especially as Jeremy Paxman had written the very enthusiastic foreword. Yes, he can be a bit of a blowhard, but I still think his fiction recommendations would be worth exploring. But then I found, at the bottom of the alphabet, three, or possibly two books by Stefan Zweig. Continue reading