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Ian R Macleod

What I'm Reading

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Undiscovered Country by Christina Koning

What would rather read — a book that’s slick, quick, easy to read and forgettable, or one that’s over-ambitious and confused, but evocative and memorable? I know what the answer is for me, and Undiscovered Country falls firmly into the second category. Set in 50s Venezuela, the book has the same colonial sheen as some other books I’ve read recently. There are the same gin-swilling yummy-mummies, the poolside parties, the bewildered and bewildering natives. But then the book lurches from character to character, place to place, and style to style without ever really setting upon a single convincing narrative. Nevertheless, the overall feel and pattern of the book do finally lend it a convincing emotional coherence. Not a complete success, but well worth looking out for if you care about good modern novels.

 
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Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard

On re-acquainting myself with this book, I’m more struck than ever by Ballard’s brilliance — and in particular, his intensely visual approach. The vivid juxtaposition of strange events, which war seems to bring about more than any other human endeavour including all the arts, is superbly achieved. I’ve always been aware of his liking for the surreal, but I hadn’t seen before just how much Ballard is the written equivalent of Dali and Ernst.
Funnily enough, it also made me realise how key an influence Ballard is as to the book I’m currently finishing. It’s common to think — Aha! That’s just what I need — when you’re reading someone else’s novel as you write your own. The effect can often be negative, which is why many writers avoid fiction, but I’ve always been prepared to trust and hope that some subconscious or spiritual guiding hand is there, and in this case it does seem to be true. Ballard was already there in my book: I just hadn’t realised. Whether anyone else will see him there is another matter — if it matters at all…

 
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Gweilo by Martin Booth

Another slice of far-eastern colonial childhood, this time in 50s Hong Kong. In many ways, this autobiography, written in a sharply clear-eyed style which is perhaps partly due to the author being aware that he didn’t have long to live, is what Empire of the Sun might have been if World War Two hadn’t intervened. There are the same distracted parents, the same boozy adults, the same sense of teeming life and a culture which a western child can understand far better than their elders. But the overall effect is deliciously carefree and sunny. A memorable book

 
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Empire by Niall Ferguson

I never intend to read according to themes, but I guess that at some level I’m looking for certain kinds of books at a particular time. Anyway, Empire is a book which attempts to reassess the British Empire in this post-colonial world. Although Ferguson doesn’t shirk the horrors, exploitations and injustices, he uses the example of other empires, and in particular the brief empires of Nazi Germany and Hirohito’s Japanese, to argue that, overall, things weren’t so very bad. All very interesting, and there are some nice details thrown in (I’ll never listen to Amazing Grace, which was apparently written by a slave-trader, in the same way again), but overall the book tries to cover too much ground, and ends up losing much sense of continuity of theme or argument. I gather from a note at the end that it was based on a TV series. That explains it

 

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