Archangel by Robert Harris

If there is one genre I try to avoid then it’s the thriller novel (and to a lesser degree crime fiction). You know what I mean, the ones you see plague book stores in airports and train stations, where the name of the author appears larger on the cover than the name of the book. Although relatively easy reads with some degree of suspense and action, I never think they offer enough to vary themselves from each other. The stories are often forgettable yet do have potential to be something so much better (that’s the frustrating thing for me) and characters between one thriller novel to the other have some basic similarities to them that I sigh when I notice the similarities. Sometimes it might as well be the same character used by multiple authors. Protagonists tend to be policemen, journalists, lawyers university professors usually with an alcohol problem, with previous broken marriages and kids that won’t talk to them. They are the modern equivalent of what was written in old pulp magazines, lazy, soulless and yet annoyingly popular.

With respect to what I have said above I do however find some notable exceptions from time to time. In this case Archangel by Robert Harris. Archangel is a thriller which is also historical fiction. Published in 1998 Archangel has a look at Russia after the fall of communism and how it has come to grips to handling its recent past. In this case the reign of Joseph Stalin and additionally the secrets he may have held.

The story starts in a hotel in Moscow where a former Soviet guard tells the story of how Stalin had a journal that has yet to be discovered. He tells this story to our main protagonist Kelso (likes a drink, works for a university focusing on Russian history, broken marriages). As Kelso tries to discover more, he does his research, there are people trying to stop him and his associates. One of these is O’Brian who satisfies the generic thriller character by being a journalist, although saying that I was impressed by the character of Zinaida Rapava who in my opinion, the story should have focused on more (she’s not a lawyer as you would expect but is studying it). Once the knowledge of a journal that Stalin had is discovered, it leads our hero to go to Archangel in the north of Russia where we meet what appears to be the reincarnation of Stalin himself. I’ll leave it there with respect to the plot because despite me not liking thrillers, this one was not too bad.

What fascinated me more in Archangel was not so much its look at the Soviet era during the later end of Stalin’s life but how Russia is perceived once the USSR fell and the Federation arrived the change in economy and Western influence along with how Russian people react to it.

I think the story takes time to get itself going, the second half of the book was definitely much better than the second and if anything more focus should have been put on that second half. The book if anything is good to read just to understand if at all possible what made Stalin tick. We know people who were close to him were no safer than his apparent enemies and as Kruschev would tell the world after Stalin’s death, he wasn’t the nicest of guys to put it lightly. We learn about his impact on Russia and how he is still revered. Despite the flaws of Archangel it does have a lot of substance to it, especially from a historical perspective which should you have an interest in it at all, will make you contemplate the legacy of Stalin on the truly remarkable and beautiful country of Russia. I actually would be interested to know what Russians would think of this novel and how a western writer has also perceived them, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector (translated by Idra Novey)

This is one of Clarice’s more famous works and a lot has been written about this book. For those of you who don’t know much about it, this post is for you. I could go on about all sorts of details about this book but I will try and be brief.

The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector.

My friends are aware of my Clarice fascination and to the ones that I have introduced her works to, they find this one to be somewhat puzzling, they find it for want of a better word, odd. What we do see is Clarice at her best when it comes to style, we know that this book ‘best corresponded to her demands as a writer’ (Clarice by Nadia Gotlib).

The Passion is not like many other books you will read and this is is the first Clarice book I’ve read (other than what is seen in her short stories at the least) that is written in the first person narrated by the character GH an artist specialising in sculpture, I was always amused by the fact that our initials are the same. There is another character in this story, an unfortunate cockroach.

I’ve heard people argue (my friends in particular) that GH comes across as a bit self indulgent and full of her self. GH is more complicated than that. When we first meet GH she has a comfortable life as an artist and is clearing out her former maid’s tidy room, she comes to the realisation that this maid did not like her, she finds that the maid (who she has little recollection of) had daubed pictures of a man, a woman and a dog on one of the walls. This realisation upsets GH which starts a shift in her mind, she has an anger attack, she sees the cockroach and attacks it, what remains affects the mind of GH and this is when GH tells us about how she is thinking and feeling. She questions her life, her relationship with God, her own existence in the world. We also read about the unfortunate cockroach and how GH’s existential experience affects it.

Within her meditations for example GH says,

‘Ah, at least I had already entered the Roach’s nature to the point that I no longer wanted to do anything for it. I was freeing myself from my morality and that was a catastrophe without crash and without tragedy.’

GH sees some of her former maid in the cockroach. I was reminded a little bit of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor as the monstrous vermin is the cockroach, Greta is GH who after confronting the creature sees a change in her life. GH’s change comes originally from her fit of rage after associating the room and the cockroach with the maid who didn’t like her. Going on personal experience when you have a depressive fit of rage, how you thought a second before is gone and everything feels different so I could understand GH’s sudden shift in thinking if only to a certain degree.

A more seasoned picture of Clarice from what you see on the back of the English Penguin editions

This is seen as one of Clarice’s better works. It is definitely well contained and felt easier to read than The Chandelier and The Besieged City. I still think Near to the Wild Heart and her short stories is when we see Clarice at her best especially with character interaction. The Passion is a fascinating treatise on the mind of a human being. Although we read about GH’s passion, it is the cockroach that suffers more. From what I have seen in the world it’s those that are repulsed by others that seem to do the most suffering.

Before the story starts Clarice herself says that people with fully formed souls should only read this book. I definitely broke that rule I read it anyway. Read this book if you want something different from everything else you have ever read. Contemplate on what GH thinks. The only down side with a book is that you can’t debate with the characters. I would love to with GH.

The Modern Art of Reading (1)

I have not done as much reading recently as I’ve been accustomed to, after a brief hiatus, I’ve been back where I work the past few weeks. I’m counting my blessings though and I know there are many people out there who have been more unfortunate than me and of course there are those remarkable people who have done more work than they have ever done during the current pandemic. As a result I thought I would do something a little different and instead of writing about a book I’ve read, write about reading in general… I’m not quite sure how this will come across but here goes.

We live in a time where we have multiple ways of consuming literature and other forms of media. Reading via a codex of course has been proven successful for centuries in case you haven’t noticed. There has been oral traditions, stories have been written on scrolls, on stelae among others. The Mesopotamians famously wrote on clay tablets, they were some of the earliest known writers and because of the nature of clay we still have what they wrote from general receipts to their grand epics still preserved for the most part and there is undoubtedly are a lot more to be discovered.

My trusty Kindle.

The invention of the printing press and more recently electronic and digital media has caused revolutions in how we read, think and look at the world. We must remember that how and what we read hasn’t been consistent for everyone. There are cultural, socio-economic and political factors that have an influence on what people read or can’t read as the case may be. Simply translating works such as the holy books and works of ancient periods to a native language of the reader has also had a significant affect on our world today

If you look at some of my posts you will notice that I often use my Amazon Kindle (other good e Readers are available). When space is at a premium it has proven to be an invaluable object to get access to a wide array of books through an internet connection almost instantly. There is a lot that can be downloaded for free and some that are cheaper than their paper alternatives (while some actually cost more).

Though eBooks are one time investments they can vary in price some being more expensive than others

There are lot of advantages and disadvantages of an eReader, depending on the brand you get, you can only buy from that particular brand’s store front. The eReaders can vary in price and quality and although all the books stored on a reader can be retrieved on a different reader through your account, it is like keeping all your eggs in one basket so to speak. They also rely naturally on battery power which is generally good for the most part. My favourite thing with an eReader however, with mine in particular at the least is that many have a backlight in them. You can read them in darkness. This is good for me as this is when I do most of my reading.

Another observation is that navigation is definitely different. When I was ploughing through Infinite Jest for example I would bookmark sections of interest on certain pages and write notes on the book marks. Though it is possible to do it on an eReader it is much easier to skim to specific pages through a regular book.

In my old copy of Infinite Jest I made notes and bookmarked by favourite parts of the book.

Despite all the flaws however, it is truly remarkable that when you hear about a book on the TV or via the internet that you can get access to it straight away and for self published writers it has proven to be a truly brilliant way of getting your works straight to the hands of consumers and not be limited to if the book sellers want to sell your work let alone getting the attention of a publisher in the first place.

A regular book/codex will all be preferred to an eReader in many respects. It can seem more special owning a book. You can drop them and they won’t break being somewhat durable, you can get them really cheaply, get your favourite authors to sign them and you can lend them out. Art books and prints will naturally be preferred than even something on a high def computer for some people. There is of course the fact that not everybody’s favourite work of fiction has been transferred to digital media.

Despite the rising presence of digital media there will always be a special place for me for the regular book.

There are certain species of books shall we say, are not quite suited for the digital format. Many writers with their original styles of writing have created something unique in their styles writing. That have an ergodic style, that take full advantage of what is is to be a book. The meta book. Books that take advantage of it’s format and has been infused by the author with the full awareness of what it is.

In my next post I will elaborate more with examples of such books as well as look at more on how we read our favourite stories.