Yet more books to round up...
Ragnarok: The End of the Gods - A. S. Byatt
I first became interested in Norse mythology, and the Ragnarok myth, whilst writing a profile on Byatt's Possession for Bookdrum. The Norse tales are fascinating, and extraordinarily beautiful. Even in a basic telling they read like poetry. So I was rather excited to hear that Byatt had written a book on the subject as part of Canongate's The Myths series. Drawing on her own wartime childhood for inspiration, Byatt interweaves the deeds of the gods with the thoughts and fears of a small child. The two stories intrude on one another, making a strange parallel.
This is a rich retelling, well written and enjoyable. What it lacked was any kind of emotional connection for me as a reader. However, this seems to be deliberate on Byatt's part. She says that the gods of myth don't have personalities and psychologies, they can only have attributes and actions. Therefore she does not attempt to humanise them. Fair enough, especially since this doesn't read like a regular novel. It's more akin to the stories of old told by an elderly relative, who frames and reframes them, occasionally taking us on a diversion but always bringing us back again. Far from quenching my thirst for the subject, it has made me want to delve even deeper.
Earth is Room Enough by Isaac Asimov
A collection of short stories, first published in 1957, my edition from 1969.
I'm a sucker for short stories, especially when they're sci-fi. But I have a terrible memory for them, and can end up reading the same ones over and over (a distinct probability with the various anthologies, best ofs, and themed collections that I own). I love the ideas of science-fiction, and the unique ways that the genre is able to present them. And I love classic sci-fi, with its clever ideas so often set in the future, and the way that the future always looks just like the period that the author is writing from.
1950s American sci-fi (almost) always presents us with the fluttering, aproned housewife, the severe, patronising and patriotic husband, and the gee-whiz big-eyed freckled kid. And so we have here. I was about to sum up a few of the stories and then I noticed that the back cover does it for me: "A machine that views the past... Presidential election by computer... Adultery with a robot as the co-respondent... Shakespeare goes back to college and studies". But of course this doesn't adequately convey what the stories are really about. What they are really about are the consequences of these events and inventions, not just the things themselves. So Asimov: clever ideas, wry humour, never really leaves the 1950s. And all the better for it.
The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya
I had, at some point somewhere, read a review of this book and wanted to read it. And then I was given it as a gift and discovered that it was far from what I had remembered or expected. The blurb on the back says that "A twenty-six-year-old Indian journalist decides to give up his job and travel to a country where he can 'escape the deadness of his life'. So he arrives in Guyana, a forgotten colonial society of raw, mesmerising beauty... But he is not just seduced by the country: he is also captivated by the feisty yet fragile Jan, and together they embark on an adventure which will take them into a new country and change both their lives." Now, whilst this is true, it is also a little misleading; Jan doesn't appear until more than two-thirds of the way through. But since this is a book that doesn't really have a plot - it reads like a travelog, and meanders like a stream of consciousness monologue - I guess the publishers needed a hook for the reader and this was what they grasped at. More truthful is the description that it is 'part picaresque, in part a meditation'.
There is no doubt that it is beautifully written. Take, for example, page 37:
"Here was a bare beauty. It had appeared to have rained recently. On a drenched wood post perched a wet eagle, shrugging shards of water off its feathers." This is pure poetry: the cadence, the alliteration. Elsewhere Bhattacharya writes more colloquially. Speech is mostly regional dialect, patois, sometimes difficult to interpret (easier once you start reading with the appropriate accent!).
I'm not sure what I took away from this book. The loneliness of freedom; the beauty and barriers of a strange country; how our ways of seeing can change. None of the details have really stuck with me, it feels fragmented, ethereal, in spite of its sometimes earthy content. But perhaps this is what I am supposed to take away: that on returning home, the great adventure of travel can seem like a mere dream.
Awkward Situations for Men by Danny Wallace.
I like Danny Wallace. I like his confused but lovable persona, I like his sense of humour, and I like his quirky way of looking at life. I enjoyed Join Me and Yes Man, and actually found them rather inspiring. Awkward Situations for Men documents a year in his life, broken down into amusing situations, each just a few pages long, and some based on his magazine column. This is a quick read - I got through it in a couple of hours - and something that you can dip in and out of quite easily. With no one narrative thread it's lighter than his other books, and not quite as funny. But nonetheless, still a good read and one that will raise at least a few laughs.