1. Last Book I read - Obviously there are always books I am reading or reviewing for work, and actually one of these gets listed here. 'The Passion of Johaschka Fischer' by Paul Berman is a book with which I passionately disagree, but it is a good book and one which makes a case. Berman is officially a liberal, but one who in spite of his reservations regards Islamism as enough of a threat to support war against it. 'Passion' is a study of the friendship between German foreign minister Fischer, his ex-flatmate Danny Cohn-Bendit and Bernard Kouchner, the guy who started Medecins Sans Frontieres, and who supports the war, which the other two oppose.
It reminds me that I felt conflict, because of a long-standing commitment to Kurdish rights, and that what trumped that in my case was the strong suspicion that Bush would screw things up, and the Kurds would be in as bad a situation as they were already. Berman makes the good point that, though there was no direct Al-Quaida/Saddam conspiracy, there was a working arrangement that Islamists would kill Kurds for him, giving him deniability on genocide. Since this has not stopped, in spite of the war, and now gets support from useful idiots like Seumas Milne who regard it as part of 'the Resistance', no-one can feel very sanguine about it.
Berman argues, here and elsewhere, that Bush is not a fascist and Saddam is. I would argue that Bush is a fascist, but one who has thus far, but perhaps not for very much longer, failed entirely to subvert the US constitution. His alliance with know-nothing bigot fruitcakes, his use of electoral fraud, his introduction of torture, detention without trial and rendition as a regular feature of American policy - you don't have to be a crazy conspiracy person to think this indicates what he would do if he could. He is not yet as bad as Saddam, but he has the potential to be so, particularly when strengthened by war: the Argentinian junta were much worse than Thatcher, but her war against them enabled her to do many terrible things.
So, Berman, someone I am oddly impressed by, and want to kick.
2. The last book I bought - Now, here's the thing, I don't buy books very much, because people send so many to me unsolicited. It was probably Reformation by Diarmuid McCulloch, which I haven't read yet because of books I am busy writing. The McCulloch will get read at some point, when I have a long train or plane journey - given my finances, that will probably be if someone offers to pay my fare to the US for something.
3. Five Crucial Books
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann by Angela Carter
Angela was one of the great heroines of my adolescence and I was privileged enough to know her quite well in my mid-thirties. When I went in for my gender surgery a few years earlier, 'Hoffmann' was the book I read while waiting for the anaesthesia to kick in on the grounds that if anything went wrong, it was the book I wanted to have as my last. It is magnificent, surreal and sexy. All of Carter's works told me that my feelings about gender and sexuality were not solely determined by my original education and biology, that the mind and the sensibility are either non-gendered or mutable - this was stuff I needed to know.
Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann
Adrian Leverkuhn, the central character of this, is Mann's way of writing about modernism and music and about the failure of Germans to resist the Nazis. The narrator, Serenus Zeitblom, is Mann's voice for nice liberal cultured Germans who failed to resist the Nazis. It is one of the great gloomy books and it ends in what would be despair except for a small voice of hope. It was a book which told me that my love of music, and inability to read scores, were not incompatible because my way of thinking about music I had no technical knowledge of was paralleled by the way Mann wrote about it. Also, it taught me about voice, and semi-reliable narrators, and a whole bunch of technique I needed to learn.
Collected Letters, Essays and Journalism by George Orwell
Obviously, Orwell, had he lived to be ninety, might have become a menace and the father one has to kill. As it was, he was a dead saint with failings who fought fascism and died young, and wrote strong simple prose that was a useful corrective to the preciousness and purple that are my natural tendency. It actually helped me that I found areas to disagree with almost at once - the homophobia and the failure to notice just how sinister American policy in, say, Central America was - because I could regard him as someone to argue with as well as to listen to. At his best, he writes with a simple grandeur we aspire to.
I will mention Edmund Wilson here too, because he is the essayist I moved on to from Orwell, and is smarter, but with different faults and blind spots, not least a distaste for genre that somehow misses what genre is for. He taught me that education is something you do for yourself your whole life long.
The novels of Jane Austen
My natural tendency is to Dickens, to looseness and rhetoric, and shouting into the mirror. Austen's novels, which I came to late, when I had to teach them, taught me to be sly and not to raise my voice, and the virtues of moderation. I know how much she would disapprove of me, and she is one of the figures whose cold eye keeps me from treating people badly, as opposed to committing the sins of the leopard - gluttony, lechery, spendthriftness, sloth - which I am probably never going to shake myself free of.
There isn't a fifth - or rather there are too many candidates. So - Pauline Kael's film criticism; MFK Fisher's food writing; Gibbon's Decline and Fall, again smart and funny; Doctor Johnson for the radical anger that bursts through his Tory attitudes, and his common sense; Boswell and Casanova for their absolute honesty about themselves; John Rechy, because 'City of Night' taught me a lot about being queer and kept me safe by talking honestly about danger; James Baldwin, because I didn't know I was supposed to read him and because 'The Fire Next Time' helped radicalize me.
Four: My Guilty Pleasures
Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell
Perhaps the book I quote most. An early campus novel which gloriously puts the boot into e.g. Mary McCarthy, and has Gottfried Rosenbaum, my favourite literary composer after Leverkuhn. 'The Patagonians have two poets, of whom the less bad is called Gomez. In Patagonia, Shakespeare is known as 'The English Gomez''.
Brahms and Simon
In the thirties and forties, the late Caryl Brahms and her friend SJ Simon, who died far too young, wrote a bunch of comedy thrillers and joke historical novels - 'Bullet in the Ballet', 'No Bed for Bacon', 'Don't, Mr Disraeli' - which I simply and straightfowardly love. Read them.
The Thrillers of Michael Innes
In later life, Oxford don J.I.M. Stewart wrote far too many lightweight detective novels about Appleby as well as some good Oxford comedies of manners under his own name. In early life, he wrote some of the best and funniest detective novels ever written, some featuring Appleby and some not. 'The Weight of the Evidence' features murder by meteorite (dropped from a tower} and 'The Daffodil Affair' a sinister conspiracy to steal people, animals and places that might have supernatural power, including Daffodil, a counting horse.
Mid-list sword and sorcery
Those of you who own the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy know that I did the entries on Barbara Hambly, Steve Brust, Glen Cook and Dave Duncan, as well as ones on writers I actively admire like Tim Powers. Hambly, Brust, Cook and Duncan, let us be clear are not merely writers I admire, but writers I jump up and down squeeing about when there is a new book. If Keats hoped to be among the English poets when he was dead, I hope to be a mid-list fantasy writer people squee over. So there.
I am also a sucker for mean streets and men and tough dykes that go down them. I hope someday that people get to read my unpublished memoir/novel 'Tiny Pieces of Skull' which is not a thriller, exactly, but has a much younger Roz wandering around the very mean streets of Chicago in the late 70s being an endangered young tranny. If the memoir happens, it will get included, I promise, with a commentary.
All this, and I haven't mentioned Moomins, or comics, or Yeats, Byron,Pope, Rilke, Plath, Tvetsayeva, Marilyn Hacker, Wittgenstein, Orhan Pamuk, Woolf, Neruda....
And now the bad news. I tag