Blogroll Updated

For the reasons given by Fred Clark here I’ve updated my blogroll. I’ve removed anything that hadn’t had a post in six months or more, and added a lot of new ones or ones that I’d somehow missed.

I’ve tried to improve the gender balance, but it’s still too skewed towards cis men (about 60/40 cis men/other, which is better than it was, but still not good). I’m aware this is a problem. and I’m going to continue to try to improve it. I’m sure there are women and non-binary people who should be on the list and aren’t.

But anyway. Updated blogroll. Over there ——>

Proper post tonight

New Batpost Finally Up!

After a few weeks of serious illness I’m… well, still seriously ill, actually, but fighting through it, and so here’s my first proper blog post in weeks. I’ve posted a new Batpost to Patreon, on Bookworm and the postmodernism of the hack writer, and on Mindless Ones on the Riddler and 60s US foreign policy.
The podcast version of the latter — and of the last handful of posts here — will go up tomorrow.
Hopefully this is the start of me getting back to being able to post. Thanks for your patience.

Latest Goodreads Reviews

Hoping for a proper post tonight, but in the meantime here’s the latest set of Goodreads reviews:
Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll LifeWild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life by Graham Nash
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Nash comes across mostly as I’d always imagined him — by far the most decent of CSNY as a person, though not overburdened with a sense of modesty — I lost count of the times he praised the insight and beauty to be found in his own songs.
The story he has to tell about his own life is so exactly the same as his contemporaries that one could almost write it without actually knowing anything about him. The impoverished childhood (with every “grim up North” cliche imaginable, right down to his dad going to prison and saying “you’re the man of the house now”), copying the Everly Brothers with his best mate at school, pop stardom with fun pop songs, taking dope and wanting to grow as an artist, leaving the schoolmates and first wife behind, hanging out in California with other “serious artists”, everyone taking too much cocaine and being a complete arsehole to each other, then second marriage and stability.
But where, for example, Ray Davies’ autobiography manages to capture much the same sequence of events with wit and insight, Nash’s book reads like it was written by a bright fifteen-year-old, and is all simple declarative sentences. The only real colour or character in the writing comes when one cringes at the repeated hippyisms (money is always “bread”, dope smoking is always “smokin’ it”, and so on).
The book is no doubt useful for discovering more about Nash’s life, but there’s little deep insight into the work, or into the events that he lived through. Disappointing.

FiccionesFicciones by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s almost impossible to say anything sensible about Borges in the short confines of a GoodReads review (I plan to write a longer piece, to be called “Andrew Hickey, Author of Borges”, on my blog at some point…)
Suffice to say that without Borges, literature — and thought itself — would have been unimaginably different after 1940 or so. Long before I grew aware who Borges was in my late teens, I was already living in an imaginative world Borges created.
Borges is that rare thing — a “literary” writer who is an unalloyed pleasure to read. In fact, the pleasures of reading Borges are often on the lowest level imaginable — Borges sometimes triggers the same part of my brain that responds to roleplaying sourcebooks — though more often the pleasure one gets is more akin to that of a good late-Victorian or Edwardian Gothic story by M.R. James, Dunsany, or Machen.
But Borges’ concerns are more philosophical than theirs, and consequently his work has much more bite. I don’t think it an exaggeration to say he is to literature what Russell was to philosophy, Godel was to maths, or Welles to film.
Certainly the concerns in the first half of this short book are very similar to theirs. In that half (which contains at least four of the finest stories ever written — Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius; Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote; The Library of Babel; and The Garden of Forking Paths) Borges mostly uses the form of the literary essay, but writing about nonexistent books and authors, to deal with questions of authorship, the distinction between imagination and reality, and the distinction between signifier and signified:

“The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a résumé, a commentary. Thus proceeded Carlyle in Sartor Resartus. Thus Butler in The Fair Haven. These are works which suffer the imperfection of being themselves books, and of being no less tautological than the others. More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.”

The second half is, to my mind, weaker (though this is a relative, not an absolute, weakness). In this, Borges mostly writes more conventional stories, all based around themes of sacrifice and betrayal, but also with the idea that all people are really one. If we are all really one, then was Judas also Jesus? This, and variants (was Brutus also Caesar?) is the theme of the second half, explicitly in Three Versions of Judas and implicitly in the other stories. To me, this is a less interesting question than those dealt with in the first half, and the more straightforward style less interesting than that of the essays, but objectively there’s still much of value in there.

View all my reviews

Back Tomorrow

I’m still ill (and probably will be for the forseeable future, sadly), but today for the first time in weeks I’m relatively clear-headed. I’m going to try to write enough tomorrow, and possibly tonight, that I’ll be able to get a few posts up this week even if I have more really bad days. Even if I don’t, though, I’ll have at least one new post up tomorrow. I’m hoping to manage my energy levels well enough that I’ll be able to post regularly again from now on, but I think the break from blogging has helped.

This Week’s Goodreads Reviews

As I’ve not been doing very well at reviewing books on here — and as I’ve not had the energy to write full blog posts recently because of my health — I decided this week to write a short review, only a few paragraphs, of each book I finish on Goodreads as I finish it. Every week or so I’ll pull those reviews into a single blog post and put them here…

The Name of the RoseThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the many books you would expect me to have read already, given that the basic elevator pitch would be “Sherlock Holmes argues theology with Borges, in what purports to be a murder mystery but is actually a discussion of the extent to which, when we’re thinking, we’re doing so with reference to the outside world or just to our own symbols for it”

It’s pretty much exactly as good as that description makes it sound. Truly remarkable book.

(And since writing this, I’ve looked through the Goodreads reviews, and seen a lot of people reviewing it, even those who like it, complain that it wasn’t the page-turning murder mystery they thought it would be. It isn’t — in fact it’s not really a novel, rather it’s what Northrop Frye referred to as an anatomy, or Bakhitin called a Menippean satire (rather different from the classical form of the same name). The point isn’t, as with a novel, the plot and characters, rather it’s the way these things can be used to discuss ideas. The “story” is incidental to the book.)

The Anatomy of FascismThe Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

All the reviews of this book pointing out its good points are quite correct, but I think that the structure, while deliberate and part of the author’s intention, lets it down somewhat.

Paxton attempts to delineate the way fascist regimes act — or acted, he thinks that the Italian fascists and the Nazis are the only two examples of such regimes –and from looking at the way they grew, the compromises they made, the internal structures of the parties, the structures of the governments they formed, and so on, to come to a working understanding of fascism.

However, while he leads the reader to conclusions rather than starting from them, his conclusions feed back into the earlier chapters, before the justification for them. Thus he makes several controversial assertions (for example that neither Franco nor Peron was really fascist) and doesn’t give the reasoning for them for several chapters. Thus for me at least, while everything is eventually explained, I spent much of the book with mental “[citation needed]” clauses after every expressed opinion (though statements of fact are scrupulously cited in endnotes). Knocking one star off purely for that.

Postscript to the Name of the RosePostscript to the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book, which I read under the title “Reflections on the Name of the Rose”, is a very short (the book comes in at 88 pages, but many of those are illustrations) essay on the composition of Eco’s novel (though not the interpretation, which as one would expect from him, he leaves to the reader).

Having myself recently written a novel with multiple nested unreliable narrators (though not, I fear, one of which Eco would approve) I was fascinated to read his description of the process that led him to do the same thing with Name of the Rose, as it’s more or less the same reason I always write fiction in someone else’s voice (and why my recent attempt at serialising a third-person novel on Patreon failed so badly).

Eco talks about how it feels impossible to start a book with “It was a beautiful morning at the end of November” without feeling like Snoopy, but if you have Snoopy — or at least someone who is unaware that starting a book that way is a cliché — be the narrator then suddenly it becomes acceptable. In fact he later goes on to talk about postmodernism as a whole as somehow all about avoiding the embarrassment of cliché while reclaiming it — about how a lover who knows that “I love you madly” sounds like a line from a Barbara Cartland novel might say “As Barbara Cartland might put it, I love you madly” and thus take the sting from the cliché. This certainly seems to sum up some of the appeal to me as a writer of postmodernism, though not its appeal as a reader. (On the other hand, when I read that passage to my wife, she said “why not just say what you mean?” — unlike me, she is capable of expressing her emotions openly in public without multiple insulating layers of irony).

I can’t recommend this unreservedly — Eco is a literary snob, which I’m fine with, but he’s judgmental about the people who read lowbrow stuff, rather than about the work, which I’m not — but for anyone who is interested in the writing process it’s utterly fascinating.

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Still Unwell

Sorry for the continued lack of posts. I’ve been very unwell for several weeks, and have often been sleeping ten or eleven hours a day (normally I get about five…)
The cause of the illness is being narrowed down, and it looks like it will be treatable, but I’m not going to commit myself to a regular posting schedule for a little while. I *will* have the CalDream book out by the end of the month though — I’ve got a week off at the end of August to go through the MS, index it, and all the other things that need to be done to turn text into a book.