Just a couple of revolutions before it’s officially the end of March, and I’m holding on before I announce my March Bookhaul (a very small effort this month, tbh, but I’m hoping that by some miracle a couple more ordered books get here on Saturday). This month I think I’ll call it my ‘Haul of Literary Shame’ as I focussed on getting books that I really should have read by now.
Being between books is a nightmare. There’s the book hangover from the last great thing and the anxiety of whether the next one will be worth it. Then there’s the impatient electricity in wanting to get on with it – oh my god I am not reading something! What’s wrong with me? This is the Readers Perpetual Dilemma. There’s probably a whole department of government scientists or Cambridge Analytica-Facebook dudebros somewhere applying game theory to the scenario of a bookworm agonizing over book choices. Or not. They already know which one I am going to choose anyway, yelp.
But the dilemma is an acute one for bibliophiles, as we are perpetually aware of the vast amount of words out there, and the comparatively tiny drop in the ocean that we will ever get to read in one lifetime. Your time is precious, and so Elizabeth Bear’s advice is doubly important, “don’t waste your time on boring books.” In my case, this procrastination reaches confused-mongoose levels as I am also aware of the Years I Spent Not Reading. Not only the ones when I was in a womb or asleep or what-have-you, but the period of stormy waters slapbang in the middle of my twenties when I read snippets and shorts, and not a single novel at all – thanks to an epic mood disorder that scuppered my enthusiasm for anything but duvets and unconsciousness.
I have a lot of catching up to do.
In that spirit of continuing to spread the book-love, I wanted to talk a little about the last few bookbabies I have been incubating. Doug Coupland’s All Families Are Psychotic, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica. Both are books that I’ve read before (I told you that being between books was a nightmare, right?) but I’ve taken to re-reads now in the hopes of finding any buried treasure I had missed the first time around (in short; yes).
One of the things I had forgotten about Mr. Coupland’s writing is that no matter how gonzo, off-beat, whacky, or even Irvine Welsh-y it might seem at times, he has a clarity and lightness of touch that I really admire, married with flights of Beat-poetic fancy. Like here in a conversation in AFaP between mother Janet and blacksheep-son, Wade:
‘What about you, Wade? What’s your happiest moment?’
Janet hadn’t expected Wade to have a happiest moment; he was too young to even have moments, let alone good or bad ones, but he caught Janet off guard. ‘It was with Jenny. About two months ago.’
‘Yeah. We were in the hammock behind her house. We both knew she was pregnant, and we thought we could pull the whole thing off. I’d get a job and we’d find an apartment, and we’d raise the kid and be a family. She let me touch her stomach and suddenly I wasn’t me, Wade Drummond any more–I was something larger and better and more important than just myself. We felt as if we’d made a planet.(…)’
Little things; her house, we could pull the whole thing off keys you into Wade’s character without any internal monologue or ‘he was this, he felt that’. There’s an economy that Coupland has that I can only aspire to. This little book (280 odd pages in the HarperCollins Flamingo edition) has some of the same themes running through Coupland’s other books (Gen X, Girlfriend in a Coma et al): nostalgia and it’s sins; personal history and the importance of stories; transcendence/grace, in a familiar stew of medicated middle-America and pop-culture references.
Antarctica is about as different from AFaP as you could get – or so you might think. It’s a bit of a curious book as it’s the result of one of those Artist Engagement expeditions which ship artists to Antarctica on a grant, with the promise they make something of their time there. Kim wrote this book in response. As such, it has loads of historical reference to Scott, Shackleton, and The Worst Journey In The World – which is actually a great thing if you’re into your wilderness writing or mountaineering at all. (Birdie Bowers!)
It’s not a history book however, but a near-now book about a feral Antarctic colony fighting off the extraction companies. It’s great. Any of you who know me will know it ticks all the boxes. Perhaps it may feel a little awkward now, as it sits adjacent to his Science in the Capital series but not entirely a part of it, with the then-Senator (latterly president, if you’ve read the series) Phil Chase using fax machines to tele-commute to California. But hey ~ who could predict the rise of digital media (apart from William Gibson, the wizard).
There’s also some similar threads through Robinson and Coupland; they both have that slightly Beatnik moments of poetry breaking up the text. Not quite stream of consciousness, but vital and present:
…the moonlight glittering on the snow, gleaming on the ice, and all of it tinted the same vivid indigo as the sky; everything still and motionless; the clarity of the light unlike anything you’ve ever seen, like nothing on Earth, and you all alone in it, the only witness, the sole inhabitant of the planet it seems; and the uncanny beauty of the scene rises in you and clamps your chest tight, and your heart breaks then simply because it is squeezed so hard, because the world is so spacious and pure and beautiful, and because moments like this one are so transient–impossible to imagine beforehand, impossible to remember afterward, and never to be returned to, never ever.