Friday 6 August 2010

Bits and bobs

Just some updates, in no great detail, of my current reading - and non-reading. I'm tired.

I just finished Ellis Peters's ninth Brother Cadfael mystery, Dead Man's Ransom. It was as perfect and lovely as both predicted and expected. This one, though, has gone further towards integrating historical setting into plot than the previous novels, and I think it really works.

Dead Man's Ransom is set in the winter of 1141; the war for the throne between Empress Maud and King Stephen and their respective followers continues but in this installment, the consequences for Shrewsbury have become personal. The town's sheriff, Gilbert Prestcote, has returned gravely injured from fighting for the king (and the king has been captured and imprisoned by the empress's devotees!). Prestcote is settled into the infirmary of Shrewsbury Abbey and his healing begun only to be murdered in his bed there...

Brother Cadfael, of course, eventually solves the crime but not before participating in some sensitive political maneuvering to help form an alliance between his adopted English town and some of his Welsh countrymen to the northwest. The outside world persists in intruding into Cadfael and his brethren's sheltered world and the lesson of this novel would be, if there were anything so pedestrian and pedantic as a lesson here, that the official removal from society which constitutes entering the cloister is no removal at all. Indeed, Cadfael and his peers are allowed respites from the outside world almost as short as their secular peers enjoy.

For me these novels constitute a sort of sincere utopia, not in which nothing bad ever happens, but in which the majority of people behave in ways motivated primarily by lovingkindness. I'm sure I say the same thing every time I blog about Peters but I can't help it; I'm continually astonished by her portrayal of the majority of people as both essentially good and generally likable - convincingly. In my cynical world, nothing is more fantastic - and sweet - than the world according to Ellis Peters.

I've abandoned two books in the last month or so. The first to go was Pope Brock's Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam. I began this book during my latest round with the reading block and it seemed like the remedy. It was non-fiction, easy to read, and incredibly interesting. Charlatan tells the story of early twentieth-century fake doctor John Brinkley, who became famous for his apparent cure for male impotence through the implantation of goat testicles into his patients. Yes, that's what I said. *Shudder*

The horror of it all was interesting but what was more compelling was Brock's consideration of the power of marketing to convince otherwise sane and sufficiently intelligent people of the craziest bullshit imaginable. Brinkley's success was all about marketing and what is scary is that all his effective and almost exclusively unethical techniques are the norm now, particularly with regards to pharmaceuticals advertising! Brinkley was the first to really successfully use - on a mass scale - people's anxieties about their health and wellness against them. He set the stage for the world we live in now - the world in which shyness (at any age) and not being able to f*** 5 hours a day when you're 95 are illnesses properly treated with drugs.

I was there for 2/3 of the book but then I completely lost interest. When Brinkley decided to spend the majority of his time politicking - which he also approached with panache and a complete lack of moral consideration - I put the book down for good. But I was already beginning to lose interest. I like Brock's topic but sometimes his choices on what to focus on annoyed me. For example, he spent perhaps one paragraph on the fact that doctors didn't have to be licensed or educated in medicine in many states in the '10s and '20s because it seemed too snooty to exclude people that way. Wha-what? This is part of what allowed Brinkley to get away with so much...but I wanted to know more about that. At least a chapter! But no, one paragraph. Grrr. This sort of thing and the politics lost me, and so back to the library it went.

Another and more recent reading fail was Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase, my second Murakami fail in the past 6 or so months. I'm wondering if my time with Murakami is done; I hope not. I got about 80 pages into this one and it was so gimmicky and empty that I wanted to tear my hair and gnash my teeth. That I was completely unable to enjoy gimmicky and shallow just for fun also made me want to tear my hair and gnash my teeth AND rend my cheeks AND beat my breast.

I would like to tell you about what I'm reading and enjoying now, because it's not free of the gimmick or the fun, but I'm afraid I'll jinx myself. It'll have to be a secret until I actually finish it, which I hope I'll do. Perhaps I've already said too much.

Always look on the bright side of life
Even though I hate to give up on books, especially if I've made it past page 50, I think the fact that I'm able to do so now is a positive thing. I used to feel compelled to finish any- and everything I began, regardless of how atrocious or offensive or boring it might be. I'm glad I'm able to move on to something more enjoyable when the going is too irritating. Life's too short to waste reading time. I'm 35 - I might have only another 35 years left of reading to me!!


@parridhlantern said...

Give Underground Tokyo gas attack & the Japanese psyche a read, if this fails to work, then Murakami doesn't speak to you,this would be a shame as I think his writing is fantastic.

Bookphilia said...

I've read that one and admire it greatly - but Murakami didn't write it per se. I've read many other of his books as well and have found them to be alternately enjoyable and irritating - but never, usually, as his complicated plotting would initially suggest. Norwegian Wood, however, I think is excellent and my favourite of his.

J.G. said...

I heard a radio interview with the author of the Brinkley book. It was horrifying, what he got away with.

And life is totally too short to read bad books! Trust your taste, and good for you!

Heidenkind said...

Pretty soon you'll be dropping books left and right. You'll be like, "You? Waste of my time." *toss!*

@parridhlantern said...

Although Murakami didn't write the majority of this book(as it's basically a series of interviews)I believe it is still instantly recognisable as a work by Murakami.It shows in the way he tries to understand both sides of the situation & to come to terms with how it reflects on his own culture.The reason I chose this over- After Dark or The Elephant vanishes is this book gets overlooked a lot,because it's Non-fiction or its subject matter ? Which is a shame,as its a fascinating, sad, horrifying, & a book that's very relevant to our modern society.

Trapunto said...

Wild Sheep Chase gets better toward the end, I promise! It certainly wasn't his most appealing. (Dance, Dance, Dance is my favorite. I have yet to read Wind-up Bird.) I think maybe Murakami was intentionally playing around with the cheese; there are aspects of Japanese humor that always feel just outside my grasp--you know?

I enjoyed your description of the Ellis Peters. I may be lured into reading a mystery before the summer is over.

Stefanie said...

Too bad about the fails, but it is great that you are becoming better able to abandon a book that isn't working for you. That was a hard thing for me to learn and it has indeed gotten easier as I have gotten older. No time to waste!