The Sheltering Sky
Paul Bowles

fiction

I’m hesitant to tick the ‘recommended’ box since this book is unusually, vividly bleak. it’s also considered a landmark piece of twentieth century literature. First published in 1949, it is set in a decimated postwar North Africa, through which Americans Port Moresby, his wife Kit and their friend Tunner move restlessly. Wealthy and aimless, they consider themselves travellers rather than tourists, with Port seeking some kind of defining philosophical experience in the remote Sahara. The precursor to the Beats, Bowles was apparently beset with hippies visiting his home in Tangiers in the hope of meeting a wise sage. He wrote the book in bed (a habit he adopted when freezing desert nights made it impossible to sit at a desk) dissolving writer’s block with liberal quantities of hashish.

I couldn’t find a single character with kindness or other redeeming qualities; the book is a relentlessly hostile description of the meaningless cruelties humans perpetrate on one another and our innate aloneness. Port and Kit are each punished for their wilfull ignorance and apathy. Some passages are a vertiginous deep dive into the horror of death. The writing shows its age by the startling racism and misogyny, branching off the deeper misanthropy.  Perhaps it is not the portrayal of people in the novel which is so upsetting but the creeping suspicion that Bowles might have seen through the artifice of polite society, and be right about us all.

Ecco Press / Harper Collins 2014 

Record of a Spaceborn Few
Becky Chambers

science fiction

The third installment in the Wayfarers series, Chamber’s new book is a treat. Establishing her popularity with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and the following A Closed and Common Orbit, the books were initially crowdfunded and self-published before being picked up by publishers soon after release. They have been nominated and shortlisted for a number of prizes and awarded the Prix Julia Verlanger twice. They’re also a crowd-pleasing combo of speculative fiction with a heavy helping of optimistic diversity, where human beings have left earth far behind and interact with a bewildering host of other sapient cultures far more advanced than they.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is set on one of the so-called Homesteader ships, vast machine cities which long ago ferried humanity to new solar systems and now orbit foreign suns while they slowly fall apart. What does it mean to have a cultural identity without a home planet? In the Wayfarers universe, the archivist’s role is essential, and everyone cooperates so their make-do-and-mend environment continues to support life and nourish souls.  Some characters are related to ones you’ll recognize from previous books, but the books can be read alone. You’ll wish each character you meet the best. Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is still my favourite of the series, but Record of a Spaceborn Few is more of the enjoyable, personality driven fiction I’ve come to expect of Becky Chambers.

Hodder Stoughton 2018 

 

No two persons ever read the same book.
Edmund Wilson

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