Ian R Macleod

What I'm Reading

Property by Valerie Martin

Here’s a novel which deals with the issues of slavery in America in a concise and interesting way. The viewpoint is entirely that of the slave-owners, and, more specifically, that of a shallow and self-obsessed and woman named Manon, who has found herself married to the even less likable owner of a failing plantation. I was talking with Terry Brooks at a recent Worldcon panel about portraying evil and/or unsympathetic characters, and I think we both agreed that the way to do so was to ensure that the piece you were writing had a moral context; otherwise, the reader becomes either disinvolved or disgusted. Property is a near-perfect example of how chillingly this can be done.

Dinosaur in a Haystack by Stephen Jay Gould

Reading Gould's collections of scientific essays has been a pleasure I've returned to over the years. The ones I enjoy best are the most off-the-wall. There's a lovely piece here, for example, about a textbook on molluscs which Edgar Allan Poe wrote. Most biographers of Poe skirt around this as an oddity, but Gould gives it the typically witty and full treatment it deserves. Being a leading American palaeontologist, Gould spent rather too much time debunking the stupid Creationist arguments which seem to have such a hold over there. But I suppose that was inevitable, living in the climate in which he lived. Sadly, he's no longer with us - although Gould's one of those writers who's so vibrant in his approach to life that it's hard to imagine him not being here.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Let’s start with a book I’m not reading, although it’s not for want of trying. This is the second time I’ve tried Beloved. First time, I managed a few pages. This time, I got to halfway. There’s a lot to admire in Morrison’s writing. She blends the gothic, magical realism and realistic aspects of her work about a poor black family living in America the 1880s with almost offhand brilliance. But there’s too much else about the book which seems offhand as well. Despite the understated way she deals with the considerable suffering (which I’m sure is historically documented) she inflicts on her characters, I was never convinced by it. The fractured way in which she deals with plot, and, indeed with scene and character, also seems clever rather than the sort of writing which comes from the heart. I can see why the book’s received so much praise and won so many awards, but for me it was over-academic, over-calculated and manipulative.

Cold New World by William Finnegan

This is a much better book about the plight of the (modern) poor in America. It came into my hands by my usual means of scrambling through the local charity shops. In some ways a similar work to Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s brilliant Random Family, Cold New World deals with big social issues by the tried-and-tested way of looking at the lives of individuals. In compassionate, vivid prose, Finnegan deals without judgement about a wide range of the underclass. Endlessly amazing, and filled with endless stories…


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