February 2, 2013

Reading on

Halfway through Jared Diamond’s latest, The World Until Yesterday, I am not as enthusiastic about it as I was with Guns, Germs and Steel or Collapse. In the latest book he is comparing earlier kinds of societies—hunter and gatherers, herders, and so on—with WEIRD societies. WEIRD has to be an ironic acronym and stands for Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. He is suggesting that there are things we today could learn from some of  the ways things were done back then. It rather inhibits the telling that there are so many variations even among societies of the same kind, that there are a lot of qualifying of statements. But there is interesting information about things like warfare, and childrearing, and I suspect there will be more of interest in the coming sections on health, religion and language.

W. G. Sebald’s Vertigo was published in 1990. He’s a favourite author of David Foster Wallace and several other writers I like so I decided I’d better read him. This one, chosen randomly from those available from the Wellington Public Library, is four linked stories about men traveling, (mis)remembering, being in a state of greater or lesser anguish. Sebald’s theme, according to the blurb, is “the vertiginous unreliability of memory.” I was not entirely gripped by any of it. Resolved to try another of his books before too long.

A.D.Miller’s Snowdrops is a bleak tale that I enjoyed a lot. It’s set in Moscow in the mid-oughties. The protagonist is an unappealing expat banker who loses his “moral compass” and allows himself to get involved in two scams of very different scale. It’s written as a confession to his fiancĂ©, whom he met after the events of the book, and he says he thinks she may not marry him once she has read the story. I won’t spoil the story and quote it, but the last sentence seemed to me the most likely to provoke that reaction.

I’ve been a James Meek fan since he came  to Wellington Writers’ and Readers some years ago, and I read The People’s Act Of Love, a grim and complicated story about how to live a moral life. Meek’s latest, The Heart Broke In is a ramble of a book with many characters and time shifts. It’s about becoming part of the long-term stream of life, for example, by having children or doing science. It also deals with love and betrayal and guilt and self-justification, especially through the vile, self-serving celebrity, Richie.

Richie tended to divide his memories into two categories: things that happened to him and things that happened to other people while he was there.

The idea that modern life lacks a moral compass features in this book, too. A key idea seemed to me to be the question of how to be moral without religion. Maybe.

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