The Autobiography of Malcolm X

3 X slideshowNo matter what your political leanings, it’s definitely worth taking a look at this novel. Many people discount Malcolm X’s autobiography, due to preconceived ideas about Malcolm X as a person and political figure, but it’s definitely worth reading it. There is a lot that Malcolm X said that has relevance and importance in today’s world, and there is plenty of interesting material to be found in this book’s pages.

Malcolm X created this book with assistance from Alex Haley, but it doesn’t read like a ghostwritten autobiography. It flows like a monologue from Malcolm X himself, and is very easy reading – we are taken right from his upbringing, to his prison stay, to his career as an advocate for the Nation of Islam and finally his untimely end. It’s vital to read the ending notes from Alex Haley, as they neatly encapsulate the process of writing the book with Malcolm X and describe his death in a way that fits with the narrative and provides closure that its exclusion would sadly lack.

Many have said that this book should be required reading for everybody, and I’m inclined to agree – not because of any personal opinion I have on Malcolm’s positions and writings, but because there is so much ‘common knowledge’ about Malcolm X that is untrue or inaccurate. There are a lot of opinions people have about him, the Nation of Islam, and general Afro-centric thought and opinion that has been formed by media representations, by people making jokes, simply by depictions in all forms of media. Even if someone is seeking to learn some things about Islam, then this book does an excellent job of teaching – it’s very interesting to see Malcolm X’s approach to Islam and his personal beliefs change throughout his life.

In this sense, there is plenty to be gleaned from this book that still has relevance today. It’s an invaluable piece of American history that still holds plenty of relevance today, and is definitely worth checking out. You’re sure to learn a lot, and it might give you some true insight into the history of the black struggle in America, which I think is still a tremendous issue that affects the entire world in many ways – even for those living outside of America, it’s worthwhile picking up this piece of history from a very influential country and man.

 

Spook Country by William Gibson

Spook_CountryThe work of William Gibson begun as what most readers would call pure science fiction: worlds far into the future that were worlds removed from what they were describing at the time. There were plenty of readers who thought what Gibson was describing could never happen, but look at the world we’re in now – effortless, instantaneous communication available almost anywhere at a very low price. Wireless transfer of what is essentially the sum of human knowledge to tiny devices that can be carried with you anywhere is something that most people take for granted – and, in fact, if people don’t have access to Wi-Fi wherever they’re going, they can get pretty tetchy. Even this is something William Gibson couldn’t predict.

In his latter works, Gibson began to describe the present day, as the world quickly caught up with those he was describing in almost every respect. Spook Country is a look at the present day with some very minor details changed, but nothing at all removed from the world that we live in – a world after the events of 9/11, a world where technology has reached a saturation point that we can’t imagine progressing any further but that continues unabated.

Spook Country concerns itself with Hollis Henry, who is investigating locative art in Los Angeles, Tito, a freelance thief and smuggler, and Milgrim, a translator. He manages to thread together all of these characters’ narratives easily throughout the book in a way that never becomes clumsy and that reveals the interactions between the characters and their worlds beautifully. Gibson reveals his knowledge of various aspects of our modern world quite adeptly – and shows that he really knows how to conduct research for a novel. It’s incredible how much of the world Gibson knows about, especially if you were originally in the mindset that a science fiction writer wouldn’t tend to have much general knowledge or write convincingly about the world that we live in.

The work is filled with detail that unveils the plotline beautifully, advances the story and gives a truly believable feel to how the novel plays out: it manages to touch upon some sci-fi plot points without feeling far removed from reality and the present, and truly creates a tense and thrilling atmosphere at points. As with many of Gibson’s pieces, the plot can be difficult to follow, but ends up giving some resolution.


 

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

remainder-coverThe subject of memory is something that many books touch upon. None have examined them in the same way that Tom McCarthy has with Remainder, which is an excellent addition to anyone’s bookshelf. The book concerns itself with the quest for authenticity, both in memory and action – the main character has absolutely no memory, and doesn’t know whether the actions he is taking are authentic, real or genuine or not. This becomes all-consuming, and the vast majority of the book is spent trying to recreate the one genuine memory the main character thinks he has. It’s much more than an unreliable narrator – we’re examining someone’s whole life through their lens after an accident that they can’t even describe and that we assumed must have happened in order to put the narrator on the current course of action they’re on.

Describing this book makes it much more complicated than it actually is. With this kind of subject matter, it could be very difficult to read – but the writing style isn’t anywhere near as dry or analytical as one would expect. There are a few wry moments and there is a surprising amount of humour in the book, despite the overall tone and subject matter. As the book progresses, the general atmosphere becomes more violent and intense – but in an interesting way, that is both detached and involved. It never becomes an exercise in transgression or ‘testing’ the reader to see how much they can take, unlike many other writers – there is an element of intensity in the book but it remains a constant undercurrent, which is much more unsettling than outright shock-writing.

The slow burn of this book is something to behold. It’s truly interesting to see the narrative develop, and the main character’s voice is distant without being aseptic and difficult to read: there are plenty of writers who would take the route of making the main character’s voice nearly unbearably matter-of-fact, but McCarthy doesn’t do this here. This choice elevates this book far further than what it could have been, I believe.

If you have any interest in ideas about memory, storytelling, repetition or any similar subjects, I highly recommend Remainder. McCarthy has created a very intriguing and re-readable work here that really lends itself to analysis and interpretation, and is sure to be something you’re mulling over for plenty of time to come.

 

Neuromancer by William Gibson

neuromancermain-739470If you’re at all interested in cyberpunk, futurism or science fiction in general, you should really read this book. Neuromancer has influenced a huge number of films, books, video games and many other works – as you read this book, you’ll find a wide range of tropes and influences jumping out at you. It’s truly easy to read this book and be amazed at how influential and seminal it is, but nothing you’ll find here feels rehashed or overly familiar, which is a testament to how original and well-written it is. Despite being William Gibson’s first book, the level of urgency and proficiency at which he writes in this novel is something to behold.

There’s so much here you’re not told, so many dots to connect on your own – but nothing that feels overly obtuse or difficult to understand. It’s all very much beautifully written and gives you just enough information to feel compelled to keep going, and there’s plenty to get hooked into here – the narrative pushes you forward while providing you with enough compelling plot to keep going.

Essentially, this novel takes place in the world of Case – a hacker who lives a few years in the future, in a world that’s just barely fleshed out but provides so much feeling and depth that there is really no need to have a great deal of exposition. William Gibson is a true master of delivering backstory and plot development as a natural and coherent part of the narrative with barely any exposition – and when a character does explain part of the story, it always feels very natural and not like the writer is simply delivering important plot points directly to you.

As the characters move throughout the world Gibson creates, you get a truly different sense of what each location consists of. There are a wide cast of characters, and you’re sure to get attached to some of them – Molly and Case are the two protagonists, and they have a great deal of depth. Everyone supporting them is great too, and it’s really remarkable how similar to real-world locations Gibson has made his futuristic locales. The places that are based upon real locations (Istanbul, Orly etc.) really seem as though Gibson has visited these places and is willing to incorporate his knowledge into his descriptions.

Ivy Style

9780300170559Ivy Style is a work published by the Yale University Press describing a very particular style of clothes and dressing that was all the rage in the mid-20th century. Ivy style itself is something that most people would recognise on sight, but would be hard-pressed to describe beyond being ‘preppy’. It came out of American college campuses, generally in the Ivy League, and was extensively catalogued in the seminal Japanese work Take Ivy. Think lots of chinos, blazers, loafers, button-down collars and sweaters and you’re getting close. There have been many attempts to catalogue and extensively describe the Ivy look, and it’s hard to find a book that doesn’t at least do a halfway decent job, but Ivy Style has some of the best writing and photographic work that I’ve seen in a work on the subject.

There has been much written about the printing of this book – the typesetting, in particular. There are many complaints that the font is too small and printed in a light grey colour that makes it difficult to differentiate from the background, but I haven’t found this to be the case: you simply need to read it in the correct light. Even with this caveat, I’ve read this book by some pretty dim bedside lighting and not found myself straining my eyes. Of course, black type would be the ideal choice, but ultimately this is a pretty minor quibble.

When it comes to the quality of writing, there is some true insight to be gleaned from the various essays and pieces compiled in this book: a variety of writers have brought their ideas on Ivy fashion to the table, whether describing it in its native location on the 40s, 50s and 60s American college campus or detailing how this style of dressing has been disseminated throughout modern fashion trends and Western society as a whole.

It’s interesting to read some pieces in this book that revolve around non-American countries’ adopting of Ivy style and fashion, and consider how it could be seen as a reflection of the Westernisation of the rest of the world. Ivy Style truly makes one consider how such an Anglo-centric style that was particular to a fairly specific subset of American society became such an influence on other societies with very little in common with your average mid-20th century US fraternity member. Worth a read, definitely.

 

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang

bkcover-hpIf you are at all interested in hip hop or rap, then this book is an absolute must-read. Even if you have a fleeting interest in American culture in the last half of the twentieth century, then Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is a great way to examine it. It’s hard to discount how much of an impact rap music and culture has had on American modern culture – and that of the world, and this book works wonders to describe how it all started and how this form of music, art and expression has coloured a great deal of the world’s culture, industry and societal norms for years.

Jeff Chang melds the world of music journalism with general cultural criticism and historical discussion beautifully. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop describes the New York of the 70s and 80s in a way that gives an excellent and vivid backdrop to how rap music came about, and also gives readers who are not particularly well-versed in the intricacies of American politics and society a quick lesson in the societal factors that formed rap. As much as some would like to forget it, politics were vital in how a lot of rap music was created and how the form progressed, so the attention paid to political and societal factors in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is justified, in my opinion.

As a narrative, the book works well – there is a little unevenness in how some periods and events are described, but if there was to be a truly exhaustive account of the creation of rap music, it would be essentially unreadable, particularly since rap as an art form became so widely disseminated and spread. Chang gives a generally impartial, but at times fiery and impassioned, look at America in general to push this work forward. There are plenty of interviews and quotes from primary sources that lend much flavour and anecdotal interest to how the book plays out, and it truly does feel part of a cohesive whole.

It’s clear from the work how much research Chang has put into the book: one needs simply to look at the list of sources and references. This is a vital and important book for anyone interested in modern music, generally – it’s impossible to deny how much music nowadays owes to rap music in all of its forms.

 

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

AWizardOfEarthseaFantasy is one genre of fiction that many people shy away from, but almost every problem people have with fantasy is addressed in the Earthsea series. Ursula Le Guin provides a much-needed female perspective on traditional fantasy tropes and works against the generally male-oriented and male-constructed world of fantasy writing. There isn’t much sword-clanging and the like to be found here: simply the construction of a vivid, interesting world, filled with characters you care about and can actually tell apart.

A Wizard of Earthsea describes the early life of the main character, Ged, who becomes a talented wizard. There is much, much more to it than this, but this is really all you need to know: the simplicity and ease at which Le Guin eases into her narrative is something to behold. There is a really open feel to this entire work, which makes one feel as though they really are travelling with the characters throughout a world with plenty of open space – moreso than other works like The Lord of the Rings, which I found to be overly consumed with attention to detail and less concerned with telling a story.

The plot moves along at an excellent pace and never seems to flag or get caught up in its own details, and the focus on a single character is an excellent decision. The character of Ged is expressive and interesting enough to carry an entire book without needing the common fantasy device of a wisecracking band of travellers – not to say that the tone of the book is entirely serious and dour, which, again, is an all-too-common experience in fantasy literature. There are plenty of opportunities for the book to become mired down in drama, but this does not happen: there is simply apt and well-written description of events, relationships and happenings that entice the reader to read further.

There are plenty of plot devices in this book to be found in many other works: in fact, the idea of an academy for wizards and mages is something that Harry Potter owes a lot to. This work can be read by old and young alike, and has that magical quality of really transporting the reader to another world. It’s definitely a worthwhile read and should be sought out by everybody, even those without a real taste for fantasy.