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Six Degrees from artificial intelligence to destiny fulfilled

Murmur

This month’s  Six Degrees of Separation  (hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best) begins with Murmur by Will Eaves; a book I haven’t read. Some quick research revealed that this novel delves into the consciousness of the mathematician and and cryptologist Alan Turing during the period when he was undergoing chemical castration as punishment for gross indecency.

Turing’s pioneering work on artificial intelligence enabled the German naval code (Enigma) to be broken during World War 2,  shortening the war by as much as two years and saving countless lives.

A_Space_Odyssey

Artificial intelligence, its promises and dangers, were explored in 2001: A SpaceOdyssey by the British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. On a mission to Saturn the on-board computer HAL 9000 is meant to maintain the space craft and protect the astronauts but it begins to develop a will of its own. Clarke’s novel highlights problems that can crop up when man builds machines, the inner workings of which he does not fully comprehend and therefore cannot fully control.

Dark Star Safari

The word odyssey has come to mean any epic journey. In Swahili such a journey is known as a safari. And that links me nicely to Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux. It’s an account of a journey taken when he was pushing 60, from Egypt to South Africa, taking in Uganda and Malawi, countries where he had lived and worked in his youth.  What he finds are countries that are falling apart through war, famine, Aids, political chaos. He seems most incensed by the convoys  of aid workers he encounters. In his eyes they’re ineffective because they’re foreigners who don’t engage with local people who actually know the country and the cultures they are seeking to help.

Bend in the River

Paul Theroux had a famous falling out with his friend, the Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul, who also drew upon his experience of Africa in his own writing. A Bend in the River published in 1979 tells the story of Salim, a small shopkeeper who buys a business in a town at “a bend in the river” in an unnamed African country. Though highly praised and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it was also criticised for a perceived defence of European colonialism in Africa.

Once Upon a River

It’s to a river in one of those colony-ruling countries that our journey now heads.

Diane Setterfield’s  Once Upon a River is set at an ancient inn on the Thames. On a dark midwinter’s night the regulars are engaged in their favourite entertainment, telling stories. The door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child. Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Or are there magical forces at work?

This is a novel that straddles the line between realism and the supernatural. Magical realism isn’t a genre I enjoy much which is why I struggled through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

midnights children

In essence the novel is the life story of Saleem Sinai, a child born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India comes into being. He and the 500 plus other children born at the same time, enter the world with unusual powers — in his case psychic and olfactory powers — that create a mystical bond between them.

The mention of children with remarkable powers takes me to the final novel in my chain.

northern lights

In Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights,  Lyra Belacqua is a young girl who inhabits a universe parallel to our own. Raised in the cloistered world of Jordan College, Oxford, she has an uncanny ability to see past, present, and future and the truth  by using a golden compass or an alethiometer. The skill enables her to fulfil an ancient prophecy that she is “destined to bring about the end of destiny” and ensure the stability of the universes.

Maybe my imagination is working overtime but maybe there is a parallel between Turing and Lyra; two people destined to be saviours of mankind.

And there I think it’s time to bring this chain to an end otherwise the connections might become even more ridiculous.

 

 

What to read in 2015

You’ve read everything on your ‘to read’ shelf (ok, I’m joking) And got through everything you were given as a Christmas gift. So now you’re in the mood to look ahead and start planning what to read over coming months. Naturally the authors and publishers know that no matter how many books lying unopened on your shelves avid readers always want more.

This year will see new issues from some of the foremost writers of our times (work from at least three Nobel Laureates) and a few second books from people whose debuts got them noticed.

The selection below is just a fraction of course of what will be published (they don’t include science fiction, YA or fantasy since none of those genres have appeal for me).  If you think I’ve missed something new and notable, do let me know.

And of course tell me what you’re most looking forward to reading.

February

This month sees the posthumous publication of the final book written by Iain Banks. It’s a collection of poetry written in collaboration with his childhood friend and fellow science fiction writer Ken MacLeod. Publisher Little, Brown will issue this to mark what would have been Banks’ 61st birthday

Neil Gaiman brings out his third collection of short fiction Trigger Warning which includes some previously published pieces of short fiction and a special Doctor Who story written for the fiftieth anniversary of the series in 2013. One story in the collection, “Black Dog,” is a new work of fiction that revisits the world of American Gods,

From  John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, comes  A History of Loneliness, a story of an Irish priest who has endured recent, founded outcries against the church. He’s forced to examine his role in this scandal.

TylerAnd if you love the work of Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Tyler, watch out for her 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, which she says will be her last. Like many of her previous books, it is a family saga set in Baltimore, as told by the aging Abby Whitshank and her husband Red, who will soon need to be cared for by her children and grandchildren. Tyler talks about this novel in a BBC interview 

SJ Watson aims to repeat the soaring success of Before I Go to Sleep  with a new novel. Second Life. It’s another psychological thriller featuring a woman leading a double life.

March

IshiguroArguably the literary event of the year happens on March 5 when Kazuo Ishiguro publishes his first nobel in 10 years.  The Buried Giant is set in Britain during the Dark Ages, opening as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years. Details are scarce but according to Ishiguro, this is a novel about  “lost memories, love, revenge and war”.

That’s enough to hook me, and anyway this is by Ishiguro so sure to be good. Hence why I’ve already put my name on the wait list at the library…

Two years ago, Huffington Post named Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees,  one of their Best Books of 2013.  I added it to my wish list though have yet to get to it. Now she returns with an epic tale of four talented but frustrated college friends trying to find their way in New York and how their friendships shift as the years pass.

One book The Guardian has suggested we keep an eye out for is an unusual work in translation due out in March by Máirtín Ó Cadhain.  They describe The Dirty Dust as an exuberant novel set in a graveyard and told entirely in the voices of the dead. Apparently it’s been labelled the most important prose work in modern Irish though by whom it’s not clear. Could be a good one though for people who like something different.

April

Two Nobel laureates hit the bookshops this month.  God Help the Child by Toni Morrison is about race, family dysfunction and how past traumas reverberate to the present. Her publishers are keeping quiet so further details are hard to come by but just Morrison’s name will make it certain this book will be hard to miss the closer we get to the publication date.

it’s taken two years to translate into English but Mario Vargas Llosa‘s The Discreet Hero, finally gets some exposure outside his native country of Peru where it has been a best seller.  The narrative follows two businessmen – one the victim of extortion, and one whose children want to kill him.

JaneSmileyEarly Warning by Jane Smiley is the second instalment in her Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants from 1920 to 2020. The first book,Some Luck covered the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the midst of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era.

May

So successful was Kate Atkinson with her 2013 novel Life after Life (I disliked it so much I couldn’t finish it) that she’s chosen to go back to the same family for her next book A God in Ruins. It’s about the fortunes of Teddy, the younger brother of Ursula Todd (the girl who kept dying in Life after Life). He’s a RAF pilot and aspiring poet.

Amitav Ghosh, whose Glass Palace I reviewed recently will publish the final novel in a trilogy this month. Flood of Fire starts in 1839 when China bans the lucrative opium trade from British plantations in India.  An expeditionary force is despatched to try and reverse the decision but when they arrive in Hong Kong they get caught up in what became known as the first Opium War. Knowing Ghosh this will be as meticulously researched as his other historical novels.

This month sees the publication of the last novel written by Kent Haruf who died last year. In Our Souls at Night he returns to the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt with a story of a widower and a widow who come together and begin  sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. This could be one to cherish.

June

Judy Blume is an author who needs no introduction, having brought pleasure to millions of children and young adults during her 16 year career. With In the Unlikely Event she branches into a new field with her first novel for adults in which she tells the story of a community reeling in the wake of a series of freak plane accidents.

Love + Hate by Hanif Kureishi was meant to have come out in December to mark Kureishi’s birthday but for some reason publication was delayed. This is a collection of  short fiction and essays. One story features a Pakistani woman who has begun a new life in Paris, there’s an essay about the writing of Kureishi’s acclaimed film Le Week-End, and an account of Kafka’s relationship with his father. The book ends with a long piece of reportage from which the collection takes its title, about the conman who stole Kureishi’s life savings, a man who provoked the author’s admiration but also revulsion

Another offering from the Faber stable is The Festival of Insignificance by the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the French-Czech novelist Milan Kundera. It’s been fifteen years  since publication of his last novel, so his fans will likely be disappointed that his first book after so long is a very slim one indeed It’s a story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal).

July

 Benjamin Markovits, one of  Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists publishes You Don’t Have to Live Like This, a tale of two college friends who hit on a plan to revitalise poor neighbourhoods in Detroit. One friend is an ex Yale graduate now down on his luck and the other is a wealthy player in the dot com phenomena.  It seems like a foolproof idea but they soon find themselves in the midst of everyone else’s battles.

If you loved Captain Corelli’s Mandolin then you’ll be keen to get The Dust that Falls from Dreams by Louis de Bernières which is another epic romance set around the first world war.

August 

August brings us a short novel by one of the biggest names in literary fiction. Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie is inspired by ancient traditions of storytelling. There’s a playful clue in the title but you have to do a bit of arithmetic to find it (hint: add up the numbers).

Attention on world conflicts of the twentieth century continues unabated and who better to help us reflect on the impact of  World War 1 than Pat Barker. She took a break from the 1914-18 period for a few years but returned in 2007 with Life Class, the first part of a trilogy about a group of characters in the London Blitz. Book 2 in the sequel, Toby’s Room, came out in 2012 and this year sees the completion with publication of Noonday in which she moves her characters forward to the early years of the second world war. One of the characters in the book was named by a reader who won an auction staged to raise money for Freedom from Torture, a charity that provides therapies and support to torture survivors.

September

Jonathan Franzen’s Purity is the story of a young woman named Purity (or Pip) who is on a quest to uncover her father’s identity, with a “mythical undertone”. There have been hints that he’s adopted a different style for this novel, moving away from his usual realism to a more ‘fabulist’ style.

Novelists have been experimenting for the last few years with new media as a story telling device. The latest to tread the path of interactivity is Iain Pears whose novel Arcadia will be published both in traditional book format and as an interactive app. The idea apparently is to showcase the time-slipping narrative of a spy turned academic.  According to his publisher, Faber,  the novel’s characters’ lives will intersect in vivid ‘time-slip’ stories. As it mixes genres, periods and styles it can be read as a traditional linear story or episodically – reading and omitting sections as they choose.

PaulTherouxI couldn’t resist slipping one non-fiction book into the list though I very rarely read them. It’s a surprise to find Paul Theroux coming out with a new travel book – his last trip covered in The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola had to be abandoned because it was too dangerous to cross through the Congo. He’s in his seventies so he can be forgiven for wanting to be closer to home for his next travel. Deep South sees Theroux set out for the southern states of the US that he has never before explored.

October

A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk (Faber). The ninth novel from the Nobel laureate conjures the changes in Turkish society over the last few decades from the point of view of an Istanbul street vendor.

October marks the start of a major international project in which Shakespeare’s plays will be retold by acclaimed novelists. Jeanette Winterson‘s re-imagining of The Winter’s Tale launches the series this month.

Sebastian Faulks used to be one of my favourite authors though I found his latest novels rather disappointing. Maybe he will have found his winning formula with Where My Heart Used to Beat.  The title is taken from Tennyson’s In Memoriam and is an exploration of memory, desire and the madness of the 20th century.

November/December

These are both rather fallow months, presumably because publishers it’s too late for the Christmas market.  All I’ve found of interest so far is a new title by Kenzaburō Ōe , the Nobel winner, Death by Water is about an internationally acclaimed author’s investigation into the mysterious death of his father.

 Other notable issues

If you’re still hungry for more then keep an eye out for these second novels from authors whose debuts made a splash.

  • Belinda McKeon whose first novel Solace won the 2011 Faber Prize and was voted Irish Book of the Year, comes out with her second book in April.  Tender is described by publishers Picador as “a dazzling exploration of the complexities of human relationships.”
  • AD Miller follows up his Man Booker shortlisted debut, Snowdrops (reviewed by Booker Talk here  with The Faithful Couple, a story of male friendship. Publishers Little,Brown say it’s a  ” story of a friendship built on a shared guilt and a secret betrayal… They clearly have ambitions for this novel since they consider it “a literary novel with mass appeal as well as the potential to win prizes”. We’ll see if that comes true when the book gets published later this spring.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie #bookerprize

Bedazzled; bemused; baffled: reading Salman Rushdie’s 1991 Man Booker Prize wining novel Midnight’s midnights childrenChildren is a roller coaster experience. It’s a novel on a grand scale both physically (weighing in at more than 600 pages) and thematically; covering more than 60 years in the turbulent history of India and Pakistan.  It demands a great deal from the reader with its abrupt and extreme changes in narrative flow, its multiple digressions and contradictions,  its 100 or so characters and a style that blends comedy with history;  Christian with Islamic and Hindu references and almost an encylopaedia’s worth of facts.

In essence the novel is the life story of Saleem Sinai, a child born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India comes into being. He and the 500 plus other children born at the same time, enter the world with unusual powers — in his case psychic and  olfactory powers — that create a mystical bond between them. Under Saleem’s instigation the children unite in a Midnight Conference during which they telepathically discuss options for their country’s future governance. Saleem believes his destiny is inextricably linked with that of India or, as he puts it:

I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.

Every twist and turn in India’s history he therefore reads in terms of his the vagaries of his own life and the fortunes and misfortunes of his family.  A bomb raid by Pakistan on Bombay he sees as a deliberate attempt to wipe out his entire family while Indira Gandhi’s repression and round up of undesirables, he re-interpretes as a systematic campaign to  eradicate all the Midnight’s Children who are viewed as de-stablising forces in society.

But there is a huge gulf between the expectations he believes are placed on his shoulders as the first child of a new nation, and the reality of his life. He is acutely aware of this gulf even at a young age.

Already at the age of nearly nine, I knew this much: everybody was waiting for me … had created around me a glowing and inescapable mist of expectancy…… I became afraid that everyone was wrong – that my much-trumpeted existence might turn out to be acutely useless, void and without the shred of a purpose.

As unreliable as Saleem proves to be as a historian,  we still warm to this man labouring with the burden of history on his shoulders as well as multiple nicknames that draw attention to his enormous nose (Snotnose and Sniffer are just two of his sobriquets). Impossible too not to be bemused at the bizarre nature of some sections (an arch enemy who kills people by squeezing them with his knees; a married couple who live secretly in a cellar of a house, entering and exiting through a trapdoor). And equally impossible not to admire Rushdie’s creative imagination or the vividness of his writing.

Despite all of those factors, I still did not enjoy reading Midnight’s Children. The moments of pleasure were sadly too few to outweigh the times when I felt I was ploughing my way through the reading equivalent of treacle. Too much detail (particularly towards the end when Saleem is fighting a war in Pakistan), too many different allusions to keep track of and too many twists and turns. So I admire the ingenuity and appreciate how Rushdie pushed the boundaries of literature but ultimately I was bored.

Why I read this: One of the titles in my Booker Prize project

Classics 1 down, 49 to go

A momentous week – I just finished reading the first book on my Classics Club list. It was North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell which I picked because she is an author I have limited experience of – I read Cranford earlier in the year and was underwhelmed. But a few other bloggers said I should give her another go. And I am really glad I listened to their advice. You can read my review here. (astonishingly for me, I managed to get the review done within a month of finishing the book).

Anyway, so one done, but there are still 49 more to be completed to meet the challenge. I keep changing my mind about what should be on the list – I took out most of the children’s books this week to give space for Trollope, Gaskell and George Eliot. I also added in a very old text indeed – the play Medea by Euripedes that was written 400 years BC. It was on the syllabus for a humanities course I did several years ago but I never got around to reading it. Feels like I should have a go. Maybe I will learn that Greek tragedy isn’t my thing.

I have less than 5 years to read the remaining 49 texts so it will be a stretch, particularly as I’m also trying to read all the Booker prize winners. I did a quick count today and was surprised to find I’ve read 12 of them so far this year which feels like very good progress.

I’m just starting the 13th book – Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I enjoy books set in India or by Indian authors and have read a few this year (Staying OnSarawasti Park, for example) so the subject interests me .But – and it’s a big but – I also know this is not going to be an easy read.  I chose it really because the film version was released recently so it felt the time was right to give it a go. It’s a pretty long book so I might need to read something else in parallel to give the brain a rest. At the moment it’s a toss up between I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas which multiple colleagues in work tell me is great.

Any thoughts on The Slap anyone?

 

Postcript: had to make a quick edit to this post when an astute blogger pointed out I had written Margaret Gaskell, not Elizabeth!. Oops

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