What to read, or what not to read

Although I am annoyed with The Times today*, there is one comment and one article that I thought worthy of note. The comment is in a column by "sensible lady" Libby Purves. The title of the column is "Our trigger-happy reaction: blame the cops". The piece opens:

"The Raoul Moat affair reminds us how hard it is to deal with people unafraid to use their powerful weapons, impervious to the feelings of others, violently touchy about their own reputation and who harbour an irrational grudge against the police. I refer, of course, to large sections of the media and blogosphere".

Spot on, say I. Substitute the word "police" above for "scientific establishment" (publishers, research institutions, etc) or "scientists", and the sentiment epitomises many scientific bloggers and many people who blog about scientific issues. Not all, thankfully, but a great number. It is most saddening. It's also fair to apply this same condemnation to much of the way science is reported in the media by professional journalists. Again, there are some rays of light (not least in The Times itself, which has a very good science editor), but in the main, it is depressing.

The article that took my interest has the derivative title "The girl with the knuckleduster rings", with the introduction: "She doesn't have a dragon tattoo but Finland's hottest crime writer will soon be as well-known as Steig Larsson" 

and "Sofi Oksanen's works have made her a runaway success in Finland and a heroine in Estonia, but she has been accused of "Russophobia" ". All not very original.  I have read a review of Purge (Atlantic) previously and decided it probably was not for me, but as I was on the train reading the paper anyway, I thought I'd read on in case there was any new information in the piece. It does not start well, opining that Larsson has a "Nordic rival in the publishing world; a younger, more "literary" author from Finland who is fascinated by themes of sexual violence, the repercussions of misogyny and the satisfaction of in-your-face revenge."  Oksanen has won many Finnish prizes for Purge, her third novel, as well as this year's Nordic Council Literary Prize, said to be the Scandinavian equivalent of the Booker. The novel has been compared to Atonement and The Reader, capturing the conflicts of the Second World War and the universal horrors that war inflicts on women. It is about a pensioner, and what she did to survive the arrival of the Soviets in Estonia in 1940, and a young Russian woman who is "trafficked" to Germany, escapes, and makes her way to the pensioner's home, where violent revelations occur. The Times feature-writer, Viv Groskop,  says that the tone reminded her precisely of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the way that sexual violence against women is graphically and horrifically depicted – a step too far, the writer seems to think. I will give this book a miss, based on this article. Although I don't mind such themes in the books I read, there was not much indication in this article that there were redeeming features or a real point to going through the experience of reading harrowing material. Stieg Larsson's trilogy, of course, did describe some violence towards women in a graphic fashion, but only a very small part of it, and the vast majority of the novels concerned campaigning and positive forces. Purge sounds unremittingly gloomy.

Grove Atlantic also publishes another book that has just won a prize (the Found in Translation award) but does not look as if I'll be reading: Pornographfia by Witold Gombrowicz, translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt (winner of the prize). " Witold Gombrowicz wrote Pornografia after leaving his native Poland for Argentina in 1939 and then watching from afar as the German invasion destroyed his country. Translated for the first time into English from the original Polish by award-winning translator Danuta Borchardt, Pornografia is one of Gombrowicz’s highest regarded works—a richly imagined tale of violence and carnality set in wartime Poland." More here, but it is strong medicine – too strong for me. Maybe crime fiction is not as horrific as "literary" fiction, these days!

*I was somewhat shocked to see in today's Times, the entire front page and several (pp 7 -11, inclusive) inside pages devoted to a syndication of Peter Mandelson's memoirs – publisher, unsurprisingly, Harper Collins (same owner). Apart from anything else, the man is a midget whose opinions and accounts are of little interest. My main objection is that it is usurping the newspaper role to do this quite so blatantly. It isn't "news", just some minor spin-doctor's opinion of events. Events that were so recent that they have not got any mature thought or consideration behind them. The time to publish your memoirs is after you have retired, when your contribution can be judged in proper perspective of recent history, not 5 minutes after you have left the building.

12 thoughts on “What to read, or what not to read

  1. Thanks for that Maxine–as chance would have it –I’m off
    this week to my beloved Stockholm–with a copy of ‘Purge’
    to read on the plane. I will let you know what is selling
    well in Sweden–and therefore-delights we may have in store-
    translations allowing.

  2. Oh, thanks, Simon – well I do look forward to reading what you make of Purge (via an Amazon review?)- I would certainly happily be swayed by your saying it is a good book. The Times piece made it sound very grim and relentless, but in an explicit way rather than a, say, Karin Alvtegen way. Enjoy your weekend!

  3. Maxine – Thanks for your comments about what’s written in the media about many different groups, including the police and the media. The problem is (at least to me) that people read those things, don’t think for themselves, and believe what they read. This engenders a wave of not-very-critical thinking that can be very disturbing. Perhaps it’s my background as an educator, but I worry about anything (including the blogosphere) that doesn’t encourage critical thinking, or actively discourages it.
    As to your comments on books you’re probably not going to read, I understand exactly what you mean. A novel should first and foremost have a strong plot and interesting characters. If graphic violence is necessary to sustain either (or both), it has its place. But in and of itself, it’s not enough to get me to read a book.

  4. So is Purge a crime novel? Would be in the 2011 eligibles list if so. I will await Simon’s report.

  5. That’s the strange thing, Karen. Both the novels in the post here (both starting with P, Purge and “the one with the rude name” sound as if they are about crimes, very brutal crimes. But both are also considered “literary” it seems – I don’t understand these things but it looks as if they are not considered “crime” but “literary” – however, the Stieg Larsson effect was too much for someone so they are squishing Purge into a crime-y category? I don’t know how a book is “counted” as crime.
    Margot – absolutely. The lack of critical thinking, and the herd/echo chamber effect of the internet in some areas is quite ignorant and reminds me of the French Revolution – started out like a good idea and ended up with everyone murdering everyone. I am just waiting now for Napoleon to come along and restore order to chaos 😉 (Then he will overdo it and they’ll have to ask the monarchy back.)

  6. As far as I can se, Purge is marketed as literary, not crime, in Denmark (which explains why I haven´t noticed her books).

  7. I’m convinced by this review not to read either of these books. Don’t like gratuitous violence, think it’s often a lazy substitute for good writing, exciting plot lines and character development. Thanks for writing this.

  8. I adore your description of the French Revolution – I have a good mate who is a history professor specialising in that period and I can’t wait to share it with him.
    As I finished up the last of the shortlisted books for the International Dagger I was reflecting on all the books yesterday and couldn’t help but be reminded of one of the things I loved most about the Larsson books, especially the last two, which was the role they depicted (even celebrated) of proper old-fashioned investigative journalism. I am fairly non-plussed by most of the doomsday predictions for the death of the novel/society/movies etc but I do genuinely despair that proper reporting and journalism is going the way of the dodo. I suspect reporting on health issues (the sector I work in) is probably similar to science, i.e. you have to look much harder for the accurate, intelligent material these days and on some issues it is simply not to be found, even in the proper peer-reviewed journals (let alone the mainstream media or the bobble-headed internet)

  9. Oh and I meant to also say that I am in total agreement with the comment-leaver who said that a memoir is supposed to be something written at the end of one’s life. It is one of my favourite subjects upon which to rant actually so it is nice to know I am not alone.

  10. Who is Peter Mandelson and why does the Times have so much coverage of his writings?

  11. That “comment leaver” is me, actually! 😉
    Peter Mandelson is a person who used to be a “media advisor to the Labour party” and has self-created role as “king maker” – he credits himself with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown winning elections (in the former case) and staying PM (in the latter). He’s had a chequered career, being beset by financial scandals among other things, hence he had to resign as an MP and was made a Lord (you figure it out!) so he could serve in Gordon Brown’s govt. A midget, typical of what the modern age admires – celebrity and superficiality, rather than good solid achievements and lack of self-admiration.

  12. Oh, and we think politics is multi-layered, complicated, egotistical and crazed over here on the other side of the Atlantic!

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