Reading and Raging (part 1) by Dennis Hamley

January and February are at present providing their annual mix of kaleidoscopic experiences in New Zealand and in this blog, spread over two months because it seemed to be getting out of hand, I'll be bringing some new observations on the topic of a piece I wrote last year: the great Christchurch Earthquake fiasco. But I'm also giving an account of the books I'm reading while we are away. Some of them have chimed in with so many concerns I have at the moment. Perhaps this may make the blog bitty and haphazard.  I hope not: it's meant to hang together.

Sorting out a reading programme is important when you go away. You enter a temporary world offering finite, specific, self-contained experience and it seems to me that the reading experience can have boundaries to match it.  Sometimes this works perfectly. We remember some books because of where we read them almost as much as for what's in them. However, sometimes an elephant enters the room and turns it into something completely different. This week's episode will end with just such tumultuous entry.

Product DetailsOne of my aims this time was to read a good number of AE books, not only for future review but for sheer pleasure spiced with admiration. So, in between the guilty pleasures which make long haul flights bearable of revisiting PD James, Ruth Rendell and Donna Leon's wonderfully stroppy Venetian detective Brunetti, I've read Jan's latest Nelson, The Dreadful Havoc,and also Other People's Blood, a searing, disturbing work getting right into the desperate ironies at the heart of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Product DetailsI've (at last) read Catherine's absorbing and fascinating Curiosity Cabinet and am also, again at last, well into The Amber Heart, marvelling at its scope, its humanity and its celebration of a coherent society long gone.

Product DetailsBill's Death Ship and The Figurehead gave me huge pleasure. The Figurehead is a consummately plotted mystery, an evocation of a place and a society also long gone and a gallery of characters presented with extraordinary resonance.

Product Details And here's one I finished earlier, actually on the plane coming here. Reb's Red Champagne is a wonderful 'journey as image' novel: I've already said on Amazon why I think it's 5-star.

And there will be several more AEs sampled before we're home.

Another resolve I made was at last to re-read AS Byatt's Possession. I wrote about this novel last month, saying how important it was to Spirit of the Place and how in 1995 the TES reviewer said Spirit read like 'a starter pack for Possession.' I didn't know if that was praise or put-down. I opted for put-down. By the time Spirit was published in 1995 I'd read Possession about four times, marvelling each time. She had created two Victorian poets, Christabel la Motte (with  resemblances to Christine Rossetti, Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning) and Roland Ash (a bit of Tennyson, a bit of Arthur Hugh Clough and a lot of Browning). And she'd given them felt lives, a whole anthology of verse, a beautifully rendered forbidden relationship with unknown consequences - a superb recreation of Victorian art and society and a deserved dig at modern Academia. Oh, how I wanted to create my own poet whose verisimilitude could come somewhere near those. And how I wanted to provide a present day which could look coolly at far-off times and make them reach over into our worlds. (But if I'd known that round about this time Tom Stoppard was doing the same thing in Arcadia I might have thought twice about it!) In the fulness of time I'll put a detailed review of Possession on Eclectic Electric

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However, even though I was thinking about the book again, I hadn't read it for nearly twenty years. Had my understandings changed in that time? Was it really as good as I thought? Here was an ideal holiday task. Completing it was a revelation. Possession was even subtler, even more complex, even more moving than I remembered. A virtuoso novel if ever there was one. The TES comment wasn't a put-down after all. It was a level of praise I couldn't have hoped for as well as being a very shrewd remark which got to the heart of what I was attempting. If by some amazing chance the reviewer reads this, then I hope she will accept my grateful thanks.

At that moment, the elephant entered the room. A book already in the house, borrowed from the local library. It was thick, meaty and demanded to be read. This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.

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I think it's very hard to live through this particular juncture in time without feeling that 'we are here as on a darkling plain/ swept by confused alarms of struggle and flight' in a world where 'the best lack all conviction while the worst/ are full of passionate intensity.' I suppose we're all under a cloud of possible impending disaster, feeling impotent rage because there doesn't seem anything we can do about it.

There have been straws in the wind which might just alter this impotence. From Harrys' Last Stand through Owen Jones's The Establishment and how they got away with it and Thomas Piketty's book on economics (I haven't read it but it doesn't stop me from agreeing with it) and several more, there seems a stirring in the undergrowth as if worms are turning and, as far as worms can, biting back. Nancy Klein's book goes several steps further than any of them, even giving the worms some teeth..

And that's where Christchurch comes in, with its unique demonstration in miniature of the world we are heading for if not already in. Things have moved sinisterly on since last year. And, in an indirect but very real way, all the books I've mentioned above comment on it, unwittingly and obliquely, but tellingly none the less.

To be continued in my next.


Jan Needle said…
ee dennis, you are nice! come back soon lad you we can ave a pint. you shame me in many ways, not least the number of books you read and review, and the number i don't. i'll do better soon, everyone, i promise.
Jan Needle said…
so we can ave a pint, even!
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks first, Dan, for the kind comments about my book but also for putting me alongside a group of authors I admire (from below). Your cliffhanger (about the sinister aspects of what's been happening in Christchurch) makes a month a long time to wait for the next instalment. Regrettably, it also reminds me how ignorant I am of so many things in events outside my immediate context.
Kathleen Jones said…
Looking forward to your next post Dennis - I, too, found things in Christchurch had taken a sad and sinister turn. One family living in a broken house that neither the government or any other earthquake agency felt they wanted to fix. They had no money and no utlities and rents had soared so high there was no way they could afford to move. Still paying a mortgage on a ruined home. Most people I met were still waiting for repairs or rebuilding to be finished (or even started). And scams at every turn!
Wendy H. Jones said…
Great reviews and I've found some books I'm going to download and read. Thanks Dennis
Lydia Bennet said…
A real cliffhanger ending from a master of suspense! Very concerned to hear about NZ and Christchurch. the affluent nations seem to be doing less and less for their people while the rich get richer and get away with all sorts of things. The USA has been very bad in this area for some years (healthcare in particular, also post-hurricanes etc). Nice to get a look at your travel reading too. Great that ebooks allow so many books to travel with us these days. Roll on the sequel.
Thanks, Dennis - and glad you enjoyed TCC. Let me know how you get on with The Amber Heart. I don't know Christchurch at all, and have only read a bit about recent events. But some days it seems as though half the world is trying to con the other half in big and small ways. Or do we just know a lot more about it now? One of my most illuminating reads of last year was a book called The Invisible Spirit by Kenneth Roy, an incisive look at post-war Scottish history and politics. It was an eye opener and in no good way. Although it also made me laugh as no other history book has - the kind of laughter that is half shock at the audacity and ignorance of so much public life.
Looking forward very much to part 2 of this post, Dennis. Thank you.
Mari Biella said…
I'm looking forward to Part 2, Dennis, and 'This Changes Everything' has now been added to my 'to-read' list!
glitter noir said…
Thanks for including me on your list, Dennis. And thanks too for sharing your reading list. Have found a few titles to add to reading list for the long bus ride to and from San Francisco in two weeks.
Dennis Hamley said…
Thank you one and all. Kathleen, your example was typical. We know of several more such abominations. Scams are indeed rife - and some people are blatant and triumphant about them. Val, as I hope to show next time, the rich getting richer and the poor poorer is an inevitable consequence of the way this operation is going. About the US: the words 'New','Katrina' and 'Orleans' come to mind. Isn't that true, Reb? It's just that within Christchurch's small, well-defined boundaries the process is clearer. Catherine, The Invisible Spirit is now on our reading list. The Amber Heart is riveting. Jan, yes, a pint is due. Do you still want a copy of Spirit? Why not come to the launch and collect it in person? After all, I came to yours, nudge nudge, wink wink. To the rest of you - more aithors will be on the list as the days go one.
Jan Needle said…
i am intending to come dennis. i buy a book, you buy me a pint. what better geschaeft can mankind imagine. just tell me when it is again, here, and i bet you'll get dozens more takers! they'll be able to tell the grandchildren 'i went to Oxford.'
Dennis Hamley said…
OK. Thursday March 12th, Taurus Gallery, North Parade, Oxford, 6.30-8. Where would you stay? Tell the dozens more takers that they're very welcome. I can always get in more booze and grub as long as hey let me know.

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