Thursday, December 29, 2011

VALIS by Philip K. Dick

Here are some things that Philip K. Dick believed (or said that he believed) had happened to him:
*In 1974 a pink light flashed down into his eyes, imparting information from a supreme intelligence.
*The pink light told him that his son had a life-threatening medical condition. When he convinced the son's doctor to investigate, the information proved to be true, and his son's life was saved.
*He later spoke in what proved to be koine Greek, a language he had never learned.
*He could see 1st century A.D. Rome superimposed on modern California, and became convinced that time had stopped and that the modern world was not reality.
*He felt that he was also a man named Thomas, living in 1st century Rome.
*He thought that Richard Nixon was, in reality, a Roman emperor, and his downfall was brought about by the ruling intelligence with the pink light.
*For the last eight years of his life, he wrote an 8,000-page exegesis (explanation) of what he thought his visions meant, drawing on information from philosophers, ancient religious beliefs, and the Bible.

VALIS is a fictionalized autobiographical account of his quest to find the answers. In the opening pages, speaking as Phlip K. Dick, he says of the main character, Horselover Fat, "I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing this in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity." He then inserts himself into the story, as Horselover Fat's best friend. For the remainder of the novel, then, Dick essentially argues with himself about whether or not the occult experiences actually occurred or whether they were only products of a confused and sick mind. Many strange events occur which could support either viewpoint. The two parts of Dick come together briefly toward the end, when both parts believe in the visions, but then he splits apart again.

Either Dick went to great lengths to perpetuate a myth about himself and his experiences (doubtful), or he was mentally ill, desperately trying to distinguish reality from delusion. Some may even believe that he had a true vision of reality, denied to most of us.

Whatever the case, Dick certainly had done much reading to explain his illuminations. After about 30 pages I realized I did not have the background knowledge to understand his references, so I spent a couple of hours on the internet looking things up. (If "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," I am a very dangerous person, because I have a little knowledge about a lot.) Here are some of the things I had to look up: gnosticism, Zoroaster, Rosicrucians, the Dogan people, St. Sophia, and Ikhnaton. I could have looked up more, but there is just so much effort I am willing to spend on a 226-page "science fiction" book.

This book's schizophrenic narration is mind-unsettling. It is certainly interesting and led me to know a little about a lot of subjects I didn't know about before. Ultimately, it just seemed to me to be a very sad look into an intelligent, seriously damaged mind.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Little, Big by John Crowley

After reading a string of somewhat depressing books in a row, I decided to pull out an old favorite that I knew would not depress me. This is not a feel-good book exactly; it is more a magical book that completely transports me to another reality, and I can feel its lingering presence for days afterward.

The story is simple, in a way. A somewhat anonymous young man, Smokey Barnable, marries into the large and complicated Drinkwater family and goes to live in their many-roomed maze of a house. The narration meanders backward and forward in time to eventually include six generations of the Bramble, Drinkwater, Cloud, Mouse, Hawksquill, and Barnable families. (Notice anything unusual about the names?)

Then, again, the story is rather complicated, because "the further in you go, the bigger it gets." All these family members are part of a Tale being orchestrated by the fairy kingdom. Some believe this more than others (and some don't believe at all), but none know how the Tale will end.

It is impossible for me to convey the essence of this story, because it has always seemed to me that the book itself must be magic. It is subtly filled with vague hints, half-understood clues, half-seen glimpses, too-convenient coincidences. If fairies were real, this would be the way they operate.

The writing is magical as well. The text reads as if it were written in the 19th century rather than in the 1980s. It is formal, rather dense, beautiful. The ending is perfect.

I have never discussed this novel with anyone, but I have the feeling that it is one of those that readers would really love or really hate, and maybe not even finish. I think it would depend on the ability of the reader to completely suspend disbelief. I am a champion at that. While I read this book and for some time after, it is true for me. I dream about it, even.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Blessed McGill by Edwin Shrake

I've been searching for good books about Texas lately for a series of book reviews I am doing for TexasLive magazine. This one was mentioned on some web sites as a "masterpiece of Texas literature," and one site even compared Shrake to McMurtry and McCarthy. (I don't believe that McMurtry is in the same league as McCarthy, but anyway.) Unfortunately, I do not share those favorable opinions, and I don't think I can even recommend this book. Here's why.

Blessed McGill recounts the episodic adventures of the title character during the Reconstruction era in Texas, mostly concerning his dealings with various Indian bands. It is structured as a reminiscence, as McGill awaits a presumed death at the hands of his worst enemy, who was once his best friend.

The set-up is intriguing , the many historical details about Austin and the Texas Hill Country are interesting, the conclusion (when a twist of circumstance leads to McGill being the first North American to be declared a saint by the Catholic Church) is clever. But Shrake's failure to write effectively in the tone he has elected to use destroys everything.

This is supposed to be a "dark comedy," which means that terrible events happen, but they are recounted in such a way as to be ironic and humorous. Joseph Heller did it in Catch 22, and it worked. Kurt Vonnegut did it in Slaughterhouse 5, and it worked. Shrake has tried to do this, and it doesn't work. He is ironic, but not humorous, so that his vivid descriptions of brutalities come across as distasteful and horribly discordant with the tone.

In addition, I believe that Shrake owed more than a nod to Thomas Berger, who published Little Big Man four years before this novel was published. In Berger's account of Indian life, he accomplishes what Shrake tried for, also using the same general structure and the black comedy tone. And his book is very, very funny.

I recommend that readers pass this by. If someone out there has a differing opinion, I would be glad to hear it.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry

Before Lonesome Dove and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, before about 30 other novels, before Brokeback Mountain and more than 40 other screenplays, Larry McMurtry wrote Horseman, Pass By , his first novel. And it is one of his best.

The time is 1954; the place is a ranch outside the fictional town of Thalia, near Wichita Falls (a stand-in for Archer City, McMurtry's home town); the narrator is Lonnie, a 17-year-old trying to find the man he will turn out to be. Three people loom large in his life: Homer Brannon, his 80-year-old grandfather, an old-time, hard-working rancher dedicated to his land and his cattle; Halmea, the black cook, both a mother-figure for him and an object of his teenage lust; and Hud, the grandfather's stepson, a first-class SOB (no other way to say it) dedicated to money and chasing women.

Many very bad things happen in this novel, beginning with the dreaded threat of hoof-and-mouth disease, which could mean that all the carefully-bred cattle will have to be slaughtered, essentially bringing an end to the grandfather's way of life. And that's not the worst.

What saves this book from being just an incredibly sad tale of the demise of the Old West is the lack of romanticism in character portrayal, the authenticity of the dialogue for the time and place, and the lyrical poetry of the language in describing the landscape. It all feels so real that one can only assume that, while the story details are probably fictitious, the yearnings of the young Lonnie must have been those of the young McMurtry.

Just a note about the movie Hud, which was made from this book--it starred Paul Newman as Hud Bannon, and he was so magnetic, so sexy (for those older readers who remember him), that the focus of the movie necessarily shifted to his story, his motivations. Don't expect that from this book. Also, in the movie the character Halmea was switched to a white character, Alma. They didn't want to tackle the race-relation angle in the 1960s, I suppose.

Highly recommended, particularly for Texans.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

For 40 years I have avoided reading anything by Philip Roth, because Portnoy's Complaint annoyed me so. That book was so whiny, so non-funny in its humor, so obviously designed to shock, and, finally, just so Jewish. It was like Woody Allen on paper.

But this one is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and I try to read all of those, so I read it, although with some misgivings. As it turns out, it is not whiny; it does not even try to be funny; its shock lies in the tragedy of events rather than in graphic sexual descriptions; it is still pretty Jewish, but not in a stereotypical, only-Jews-can-understand-this way. It is superbly written, switching backward and forward through time with ease and clarity to place climactic events at just the right places. Roth is a wizard with words. The book lends itself to a variety of interpretations, and I have been thinking about it all morning. That, in itself, is the mark of a good book--you think about it afterward.

On one level, this is just the incredibly sad story of "Swede" Levov, a third-generation Jewish boy who seems to be living the American dream. He is a three-sport athletic wonder in high school and a Marine in World War II, marries an Irish-Catholic beauty who was Miss New Jersey, becomes rich from the glove factory his father started, moves to the New Jersey countryside, and has an intelligent and loving daughter. And then things fall apart. The adored daughter becomes a fanatical teenager who protests the war in Viet Nam with a savage act of terrorism. The daughter "transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral--into the indigenous American berserk."

On another level, as I interpret it, this is an allegory for the death of the American promise. For a good while, the dream held together. Hard work, dedication to "doing the right thing," and a general desire for assimilation seemed to work. And then, it just didn't work anymore--race riots, outsourcing of manufacturing, war protests, a general discontent. The center could not hold.

One reason I keep thinking about this book is that once again, it seems to me, America is falling apart, this time along religious and economic fault lines.

American Pastoral is not an easy book to read, does not tie up all the loose plot ends, and is certainly not "happily ever after." Still, it is an essential book, worthy of its Pulitzer Prize and its inclusion on the Times Top 100.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

When I reviewed the first of this series, A Game of Thrones, I said that I might read the second, but if it was the same-old I would not read the rest. So this is the second. I will not read the rest. This was not even as good as the first one.

In the first of the series, the king is killed and the kingdom is thrown into chaos. In this one, six different claimants for the throne scheme and make war with each other, culminating in a grand battle which leaves only three claimants. In the meantime, dragons have hatched, which allows magic to creep back into the land.

This book has the problems of the first, multiplied. It is even longer-winded (969 pages). It is padded with detailed descriptions of appearance and wearing apparel, even in climactic scenes. (Every time Queen Cersei shows up, her "yellow" hair is described as "tumbling to her bare shoulders in thick curls." I'm picturing Farrah Fawcett here.) It includes the menu of almost every meal. (While the final battle is going on, the women dine on broth; a salad of apples, nuts, and raisins; crabclaw pies; mutton roasted with leeks and carrots, served in trenchers of hollowed bread; and goatcheese served with baked apples flavored with cinnamon. Yumm!) It throws in a graphic gratuitous sex scene from time to time, plus multiple mentions of rape. (We are, however, spared detailed descriptions of the rapes.) One improvement--most of the grammatical problems present in the first have been cleaned up.

Again, Martin uses the soap-opera style of narration: short scenes, one after another, from the viewpoints of eleven different characters. Thus the book starts with a 7-page scene in the life of 10-year-old Arya, followed by a 15-page scene about 13-year-old Sansa, a 17-page scene about the dwarf Tyrion, and an 11-page scene about 8-year-old Bran, before returning to continue Arya's story. OK, I get it that this lets the reader know that all the action is happening simultaneously, but it totally destroys any semblance of dramatic pacing.

And what's up with all these children who act like adults? Three of the claimants to the throne are under 16, and one of them is leading an army. The 10-year-old slits a guard's throat. Really?

Of course, Martin leaves all manner of enticing loose ends to encourage readers to buy the next book. I plan to save my money and read a plot synopsis on the internet.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne

Sometimes a story of real life can be stranger, more dramatic, more glorious, and more tragic than fiction. That is the case with this fully researched history of Quanah Parker and the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history.

Gwynne recounts the history of the Comanches, who became the most proficient, ever,in fighting from horseback. Their tactics and capabilities allowed them to repulse the Spanish, the French, the Mexicans, the Texans, and the U.S. cavalry, until superior weapons and the almost total obliteration of their chief source of food, the buffalo, finally conquered them.

Many historians would have been content to document the grand sweep of events, but Gwynne does more. This is also the dramatic saga of Cynthia Ann Parker, the white child who was kidnapped by Comanches, and of her half-blood son Quanah Parker, the last and greatest Comanche chief. It is also a narrative of the extraordinary life of Ranald S. Mackenzie, the cavalry leader who destroyed the Comanches but later befriended Quanah on the reservation. Although he was America's greatest Indian fighter, he never attracted the fame of Custer, and his life ended in madness.

Empire of the Summer Moon is, most of all, a history with emotion. And that emotion is sadness. Sadness for the life of Cynthia Ann, who was forcibly ripped from her known world twice, once by the Comanches and once by her "rescuers," who returned her to be an unwilling prisoner of her white relatives. Gwynne says, "But it was painfully apparent from the earliest days that the real tragedy in her life was not her first captivity but her second." Sadness for the inevitable tragedies that occur when a primitive, free-roaming people clash with hardy, determined families attempting to make new lives for themselves. (I cried while reading a history, for goodness sake!)

What makes this book riveting is that Gwynne is not a historian who writes books, but rather a writer who is also a first-class historian. The history is thorough, impartial, and extensively documented through primary sources. The writing is both lyrical and brutal and reads like a Hollywood-worthy epic. Highly recommended for both history buffs and fiction readers.

Friday, December 2, 2011

11/22/63 by Stephen King

I'm a sucker for Stephen King. When he is good, he is very, very good. He can tap into universal fears and convince readers that they are right to fear clowns, houses that appear "wrong" somehow, malevolent cats and dogs, and even inanimate machines (like cars) that seem to bear grudges. He can develop characters who come alive better than any living author I have read. He believes in an absolute evil that all must confront, both in themselves and outside themselves. (This last attribute--a belief in good and evil--is not an acceptable concept to some, I know.) When he is bad, he is not horrid, just hokey and formulaic. This novel leans toward the good side, but it is not among his very best.

The subject here is not things that go bump in the night, but time travel. Jake Epping is a 35-year-old, recently-divorced English teacher. When his friend Al shows him a portal to a past time, 1958, he decides to give it a try, mainly to see if he can save a particular family, that of a GED student who has written an essay about the slaying of his mother and siblings.

The hitch with this time travel is that when the traveler returns to his present and then goes through the portal again, back to 1958, time starts over, so that anything previously changed has reverted. When Al persuades Jake to go back in time to try to save President Kennedy from being killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, Jake first has to go back to re-save the student's family, before traveling to Texas to wait for 1963.

The remainder of the book concerns Jake's time in a small town in Texas, where he falls in love; and his shadowing of Oswald, to be sure that he alone was responsible for Kennedy's death. And, then of course, the race to stop the assassination.

This, then, is not so much an alternate history as it is an account of how Jake changes history. The conclusion is a bit surprising, and somewhat anticlimactic.

Good Things: The story is absorbing and mostly well paced. The portrayal of Oswald and his wife Marina is convincing. The plot is logical, once the basic suspension of disbelief about time travel has been overcome.

Bad Things: The level of character development is limited to only a few of the participants, thus failing to create total involvement. The novel is too long (831 pages)and should have been trimmed somewhat of details, particularly of the mechanics of the shadowing of Oswald.

The Main Bad Thing for me, though, would not be noted by a non-Texan. King got the geography and culture of Texas wrong! With his (obviously extensive) research about Oswald and Dallas, he should have included a look at the map of Texas. Three times he mentions the odor of oil and natural gas in Dallas, which supposedly comes from the Permian Basin and Midland/Odessa. That's 300+ miles. Really? His fictional small Texas town is near Killeen, which is characterized as being in South Central Texas. Really? A band of amateur teenage musicians from San Antonio comes to play at a party in this town. That's 100+ miles. Really? At the same party, with students in attendance, the high school faculty members are getting loaded on beer. Did King not know about the Bible Belt? Really? Businessmen in Dallas are portrayed as wearing holsters and handguns to work. (Open-carry has been prohibited in Texas since Reconstruction.) Really? I know this is picky, but if you have the money and resources of Stephen King, you should hire the people to do the research, even if you don't want to bother yourself.

I would give this novel a B+ in comparison with the rest of King's works. It is still a late-into-the-night, absorbing read.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lords of the Plain by Max Crawford

In the Foreward to the new edition of this book, novelist Larry McMurtry tells the story of attending a White House dinner and hearing from Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan's Deputy Chief of Staff, that the President had stayed up all night reading Lords of the Plain. Not surprising--if this book had been written in 1955 instead of 1985, it could very well have been turned into a movie, with Reagan as the young cavalry captain charged with keeping the peace and persuading the Comanches to move to the reservation. The final, decisive battle in Palo Duro Canyon would have made great cinema. Of course, the Hollywood of that time would have removed all hints of the moral and ethical ambiguity which permeates this telling of the "winning of the West."

Max Crawford has written a fact-based fictional story of cavalry versus Indian (the defeat of the last great Comanche tribe, which was led by the half-white Quanah Parker), but he has refused to follow either the old-Western formula of "good" civilization versus "evil" barbarity or the new-Western formula of sympathizing with and apologizing for the "noble Redskin." Instead, he has created characters who are all capable of both good and evil. As one soldier says, "Men will consider anything. We are all savages in thought...."

The novel is written as a first-person narration by Captain Philip Chapman, as if he were keeping a journal of his adventures and hardships. The language is just stilted and formal enough to be believable as the written thoughts of an educated young man in the 1870s. The pace of the plot development seems to be slowed somewhat by many of the day-to-day routines of army life, but they do serve to illustrate the incredible difficulties imposed by the isolation, terrain, and weather.

Looming over all the story elements is the eerie presence of the llano estacado, the flat, featureless staked plains of Texas. The narrator says, "No formation of any sort, no work of man or nature, was to be seen anywhere...there was nothing," and "The plain's monotony and desolation and unboundedness are those of eternity...." Author Max Crawford was born at Mt. Blanco, a community just at the edge of the caprock and went to school in Floydada, a small farming community on the plains. His descriptions are accurate, poetic, and haunting.

Recommended for those who enjoy thought-provoking Western adventures and for anyone who has lived on the llano, as I have.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

I really wish I had read this book before I saw the movie, so that I could have been a better judge of the writing. As it was, I "saw" every scene in my head as I was reading, and the scenes came from the movie, which was powerful and (evidently) memorable. In particular, the actor who played the psychotic killer Chigurh was constantly in my mind's eye, because he so totally captured the essence conveyed in the novel of an amoral force of retribution.

The surface story is simple: Llewelyn, an amiable young welder, goes hunting and happens upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong in the middle of the West-Texas badlands. With dead bodies everywhere, he discovers the money, over $2 million. He decides to keep it. Bad decision.

Now everyone is after Llewelyn--the drug suppliers, the drug buyers, and the conscientious Sheriff Bell, who realizes Llewelyn's danger and feels duty-bound to try to help him. The mysterious Chigurh becomes the hand of fate, dispensing "justice" as he sees it. Sheriff Bell is his opposite, as he attempts to dispense "mercy."

No Country for Old Men operates on so many levels. It is a first-rate crime thriller, in the Raymond Chandler style. It is an examination of the life-consequences of decisions. It is a meditation on aging and on changing culture. Even the title can be viewed from different perspectives. It is the first line of a poem by Yeats, in which he uses a voyage to Byzantium to symbolize a late-life quest to examine his own soul. The title can also be understood to reflect the inability of Sheriff Bell to comprehend and defeat modern evils.

After I read a Cormac McCarthy novel, I always vow to myself never to read another one. He is depressing; he is ultra-violent. But he is so good, so powerful. His novels can be read on so many levels. They stay in your mind.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett

Did you ever know an old lady (maybe your grandmother) or see an old lady (maybe a bag-lady on the street) and suddenly wonder about their lives and how they got to that place or how they were as young people? As revealed in his "Author's Preface" to this book, author Arnold Bennett was inspired to write this novel by observing an old woman in a restaurant. He observed, "...there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos."

This novel tells the story of two such women, Constance and Sophia Baines. It follows them from their teenage years in the 1860s in Burslem, England, to their deaths more than 60 years later. The book is divided into four sections: their teenage years with their parents, the subsequent life of Constance, the subsequent life of Sophia, and their old-age, when they are reunited after 30 years.

The two, as young girls, appear to be almost opposites--Constance is dependable, conventional, cautious, and obedient to her rather domineering mother; Sophia is undependable, non-conforming, adventuresome, and rebellious, defying her mother by eloping with a traveling salesman.

The second section finds Constance marrying the sensible and industrious assistant in the family store. After the death of her parents, Constance and her husband operate the store, have a son, become financially well-off, and lead mostly quiet, small-town lives. As the idol of Constance's life, the son becomes excessively spoiled and neglects his mother while taking for granted her continued financial support.When the husband dies and the son moves to London, Constance is left alone.

The third section follows Sophia to Paris with her new husband, where in four years he spends all of his inheritance and subsequently leaves her. Because her pride will not let her return home to her family, Sophia must make her own way in the world, eventually becoming a successful hotel owner. When her health begins to fail, she sells the hotel and finally returns to her home town to visit her sister.

In the fourth section, what starts as a visit for the sisters becomes a life spent together, until their deaths within a short time of each other.

I'm not spoiling the book for anyone by detailing the plot, because plot is not the important element here at all. Instead, Bennett is giving a picture of societal changes, observations about human nature in general, and psychological insights about human motivations. What I find particularly interesting is that the core behavior of the characters remains the same despite all that happens to them. They may be behind-the-times and unattractive and sickly as they age, but inside they are much as they were as young girls.

Written in 1908, the novel is naturalistic and straight-forward. I found it quite interesting while I was actually reading, but when I put it down for a bit I had no urge to pick it up again. Maybe it was just too English, too understated for a mind trained by television and less realistic novels to crave action and high drama.

This is #87 on the Modern Library Top 100.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I sometimes read "young adult" novels when they've garnered a lot of buzz, just to see for myself if they are worthwhile as well as popular. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised--the Harry Potter series turned out to be well written, imaginative, and compulsively readable. Sometimes I am left dumbfounded--the Twilight series (I read only the first one) turned out to be poorly written, hackneyed, and totally silly. I know that many adult women are fans, which I can't understand at all. Whatever.

This is the first novel of a series that is also wildly popular. And it is A-OK: not as well done as Harry Potter by a long shot but 10 times better than Twilight.

One plus--the premise is interesting. The ruling class of a future America each year demands a tribute of one young man and one young woman from the twelve subject districts to take part in televised games in which participants kill each other until only one remains. This is not particularly original: Think of mythology and Theseus and the labyrinth with the Minotaur. Think of the gladiators in the coliseum in Rome. Think of Death Race 2000. Think of Beyond Thunderdome. Most chilling of all, think of the television series Survivor. When a culture becomes degraded, one signpost must be the public's interest in watching scenes of violence and death. True, nobody is killed on Survivor, but would ratings soar if someone were killed? I'm just saying....

Another plus--this book has a point to make. Is it enough just to do what it takes to survive? Or is it important to stay true to yourself and your values?

A third plus--Collins does a credible job of creating an alternative world, gradually and unobtrusively introducing the reader to the realities of existence in this America of the future. Her writing is direct and simple, showing skill in delineating character. The pace is exceptional, creating a building suspense.

One interesting aspect of the novel is the "created" love interest between the main two characters, generated to attract more sponsors. Have you ever seen a television reality show which seemed to have a "created" love interest to attract more viewers? Enough said....

One reason I read this book was to see if it would be a good book for my 10-year-old granddaughter. Although the reading level would be acceptable, I do feel that the violence, particularly toward the end, might be disturbing to her. I would recommend this book for ages 12 and above. Adults could enjoy it, too, even if it is a bit simplistic.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Forget "Just Say No." That campaign doesn't do much good anyway, evidently. If you want to keep your teenagers off drugs, just give them this book to read.

This novel totally caught me off guard--I was expecting science fiction, because that is Dick's genre, although his books are weirder and more interesting than most. This is not science fiction! In fact, much here is not even fiction. Instead it is a fictional framework for heavily autobiographical material about the author's experience as part of the drug world in the 1960s, as he makes clear in the "Author's Note" at the end of the book. His comments give you an idea of the theme of the book:

"This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed--run over, maimed, destroyed--but they continued to play anyway. We really all were very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just bullshittine and playing, but it was for such a terrible brief time, and then the punishment was beyond belief...."

As for the fiction part, the book tells the story of the undercover police agent Fred, who has been assigned to infiltrate the drug culture. Secrecy is so tight that his police bosses don't even know what he looks like. One of his chief assignments is Bob Arctor, a dealer and addict of Substance D, a drug with the side effect of gradually splitting the user's brain into two distinct, combative parts. What the bosses don't know and what Fred eventually forgets is that Fred is Bob Arctor, so that he is narcing on himself. By the end he is barely functional.

Both sides of the drug experience are portrayed: the sitting around being stoned and funny, followed by the paranoia, the suicides, the psychosis, the permanent brain damage. This is powerful stuff, made more-so by the fact that much of it was experienced by the author. At the end of the "Author's Note" Dick dedicates a memoriam to 15 of his friends who died or suffered irreparable damage from drug use.

Seriously, this book should be required reading for anybody who thinks it is "fun" to get high.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Dance to the Music of Time 2nd Movement by Anthony Powell

This volume contains novels 4, 5, and 6 of Powell's 12-novel series. I can see now that this is actually one giant book. Since each separate novel is about 250 pages, at completion this is a 3,000-page story of the upper class in Great Britain from the 1920s to the 1970s. And a very good story it is. It's Upstairs, Downstairs without the "downstairs" part.

At Lady Molly's
(novel #4) finds the narrator Jenkins in his mid-20s, employed as a screenwriter. Author Powell is then able to bring in a new character, Chips Lovell, a fellow employee, who introduces Jenkins to his relative, Lady Molly. At her house, Jenkins meets the large Tolland family, which includes Jenkin's future wife. All three of Jenkins's school acquaintances turn up again, including the always awkward but surprisingly successful Widmerpool, whose brief engagement provides the most overtly comedic episode in the novel.

Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (novel #5) opens with an extended back-flash to the initial meeting of Jenkins and his new friend Moreland, a composer of serious music. This seemed to me a rather awkward way to introduce a new major character. Anyway, Moreland's artistic and marital difficulties become a major part of this novel. Jenkins's school friends Templer and Stringfellow reappear. Much sport is made at the expense of the novelist St. John Clarke, who Powell supposedly modeled after the English novelist John Galsworthy.

Novel #6, The Kindly Ones
, begins with an extended back-flash to Jenkins's childhood as the son of a career army officer. This provides author Powell with the opportunity to introduce new characters and to provide motivation for subsequent actions. Even while social and sexual intrigues continue, stirrings of war with Germany escalate. The end of this "set" of novels finds Jenkins ready to enter the army to go to war.

It is extremely difficult to attempt to summarize these novels, because so much happens and so many characters are introduced. But all is fascinating (in the fashion that soap operas are fascinating), all is subtle and understated, and all is elegantly and beautifully written. This series deserves to be included in the Modern Library Top 100 and the Times Top 100. I will quickly order the last two volumes in the series.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Dance to the Music of Time 1st Movement by Anthony Powell

Imagine watching one of those television dramas on Masterpiece Theater about the doings of the British upper class in the period between the two world wars. The action plays out slowly against the backdrop of changing times--small human dramas reflecting the larger changes in society. Reading this book is exactly like that.

Actually, this volume includes three novels, part of a twelve-novel series that carries the narrator from the early 1920s through the late 1960s.

A Question of Upbringing introduces the series narrator, Jenkins, as a teenager at a prestigious boarding school, as he interacts with his friends Templer, already a womanizer, and Stringham, a moody aristocrat. A fourth character, Widmerpool, is notable as a awkwardly ambitious object of ridicule. A Buyers Market follows the four characters and introduces many others as the young men continue at university or start careers. The Acceptance World finds Jenkins in his 20s as a published novelist involved in his first love affair, Templer as divorced and financially successful, Stringham as divorced and seemingly on a down-hill alcoholic slide, and Widmerpool as a surprisingly adept businessman and budding politician.

No hugely dramatic events take place here--no mysterious deaths, no great intrigues, no strong conflicts. Rather, this is a picture of the day-to-day doings of a certain class of people in a certain place and time. It is slow, it is understated, it is very British. It is also very, very funny, in an entirely ironic, subtle, British way.

Particularly subtle is the way the author reveals how mistaken Jenkins was in his initial assessment of his friends and other school acquaintances. Also subtle is the way Powell reveals the changing times through the actions and activities of the characters.

All of this sounds very boring, but I loved these books. The writing is thoroughly readable, although formal. And it is surpassingly elegant. I think this is the kind of writing Henry James aimed at but often just missed. Would it be too grammar-geeky to say that I loved the punctuation in these books? The sentences were complicated, but punctuated absolutely correctly, so that the language flowed. I admit to being excessively annoyed by the arrogance of writers who decide for one reason or another to dispense with the rules of punctuation and expect the reader to do the extra work of deciphering their texts.

This novel series is #43 on the Modern Library Top 100 list and also included on the Time Magazine Top 100. Highly recommended for those who like to watch Masterpiece Theater.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen is widely credited with bringing realistic fiction back into vogue--straight forward story telling with no fanciful post-modern flourishes. He writes about families, with all their misunderstandings, hurts, secrets, and unresolved psychological problems. Evidently this resonates with many readers. I feel like saying to his characters, "Just GET OVER IT!"

This is the story of the Berglunds: Walter and Patty, an environmental lawyer and his seemingly perfect stay-at-home wife; and their children Jessica, a serious over-achiever, and Joey, a charming manipulator. Other major players include Walter's best friend Richard, a feckless musician who incites in Patty a long-lived fascination and lust, and Connie, Joey's girl friend who immolates her entire self in order to bind him. Everything goes downhill fast, as the father finds himself involved in a seemingly environmentally friendly cause, only to find out that it is greed-based exploitation, and the mother yields to her long-repressed sexual impulses. This is all played out in the George W. Bush years, with much of the action centered around the "moral corruption" of the people and the time.

So this is a family drama about people who screw up royally (literally and figuratively) mainly because they had really bad parenting. (Actually, all the parents had been fairly well-intentioned and nobody was tortured or deprived, but anyway.) All the characters are smart and analyze their feelings obsessively, but they still behave badly. What is missing here are real family love, some sort of moral code, less self-involvement. This may be a picture of a typical modern upper-middle-class American family in the 21st century, but it is not a family that I have ever known.

Franzen tells a good story and keeps the reader's interest, even if the reader (me) is terribly frustrated with the selfishness of the characters. He inserts much reference to War and Peace, seemingly hoping to copy its template of family drama against the larger backdrop of historical events. He also rather obviously highlights many of his own pet opinions about environmental concerns and liberalism versus conservatism in America. Not that I am not in agreement with him much of the time, but his preaching did somewhat obtrude.

This novel is an interesting read, but I don't agree with many critics that it was at all a great novel. It is too long, includes too much preaching, includes story lines left unfinished and others too needlessly explored, has implausible plot elements, and, finally, has no really sympathetic characters. I'm glad I read it, but I won't read it again.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

What could these nine characters have in common? How could their lives possibly intersect?
1. a cult member who becomes a terrorist and then hides out on a tiny Japanese island.
2. a record-shop geek in Tokyo who falls in love.
3. a British attorney in Hong Kong who becomes involved in a money-laundering scheme.
4. an old Chinese woman who has spent her long life running a tea shack on the mountain trail leading to a Buddhist shrine.
5. a "noncorpum" intelligence who is seeking in Mongolia for a body to inhabit.
6. a prostitute/gallery attendant/art thief in Petersburg who longs to retire to Switzerland.
7. a slacker drummer in London who decides to reform his womanizing ways.
8. a physicist who is hiding out in Ireland because the CIA wants her to create the ultimate weapon.
9. a late-night radio DJ in New York who may soon be a witness to the end of the world.

Trust me, David Mitchell connects all these lives together in multiple and ingenious ways. Indeed, part of the fun of the book comes from spotting the connections.

Each of the nine characters gets his or her own chapter, and all are excellent stand-alone short stories. But taken together, with the inter-connectivity and an overriding theme, they form a cohesive novel. Quite a feat of virtuosity.

What stands out here is the author's ability to write with a different voice for each character. All the stories are first-person, and the narrator in each sounds spot-on perfect, with the possible exception of the Russian woman, who sounded more American to me. It seems almost as if each story was actually dictated to Mitchell, who then became the "ghostwriter."

This was Mitchell's first novel, and he repeated the structure of connected short stories in his later, more famous novel Cloud Atlas. In some ways this book was even more enjoyable to read than his later effort.

The last page of the novel asks the question, "What is real and what is not?" I wonder if Mitchell as a youth read the novels of Philip K. Dick, who in many of his novels posed the same question.

This novel is addictively readable, has characters who are totally believable, provides the reader with some things to think about, and is overwhelmingly clever (perhaps just a tad too much so). Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz

Midaq Allay is a slice-of-life picture of several months in a small alley in Cairo during World War II. The residents of the alley all have their small dramas, and Mahfouz manages to weave all their stories together to tell an interesting tale of love, lust, greed, selfishness, religious devotion, depravity, and drug addiction. It's an Egyptian soap opera!

Mahfouz is an excellent story-teller, and the various characters and their actions come alive and make continued reading a compulsion. Of course, I have no idea if this is a true picture of life in that place and time, or if everything is slightly exaggerated (which seems likely to me).

Mahfouz has received the Nobel Prize for Literature, and this is not one of his most acclaimed novels. I plan to read others of his soon. It is always interesting to perceive how those of another culture think, believe, behave. Plus, Mahfouz tells a darn-good story.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton

Every now and then you happen upon a book that you never heard of before, and it is so good you are amazed that you hadn't heard about it. This is that kind of book.

Elmer Kelton is well known by those who read "westerns," books about cowboys,Texas Rangers, and so forth. This is his most prize-winning book (Spur Award from Western Writers of America and Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum), but I would not call it a "western" in the usual sense. Instead, it is a novel set in the West, with problems that will sound familiar to farmers and ranchers today.

Charlie Flagg is a stubborn, hard-working, courageous, somewhat-cantankerous rancher making a pretty good living on a ranch near San Angelo, Texas, until the historic drought of the early 1950s comes along. He is unrelenting in his efforts to adapt to a period of no rain, but also unrelenting in his refusal to accept federal assistance, taking pride in his self-sufficiency even though his banker tells him, "There's no way a man can still make it all by himself."

In the hands of a less-capable writer this novel could have been a formulaic tale of the last of a (perhaps) dying breed, the independent man of the West. But Kelton is a better writer than that. His Charlie is a fully realized character, faults and all.

The dialogue and even the narration is absolutely authentic for the place and time. Perhaps Kelton's very authenticity prohibited his acceptance as a novelist outside the West: one of his characters "tells a windy." Do people in other states even know what that means? I do, because I heard the expression all through my growing-up.

Another unusual aspect of the novel is its frank depiction of the relations between Anglos and those of Mexican descent in their shared land. Even though he is not guilty of some of the overt bigotry of his neighbors, Charlie is still guilty of "paternalism," thinking he has to take care of his resident ranch hand's family. By the end, though, even his thinking changes somewhat as times change.

The ending is not "happily-ever-after," but it is true to real life and to the spirit of the narrative. It provides hope, because we all know true Texans never give up.

Highly recommended for Texans and for anyone who wants to read a real picture of what Texans are like (or should be, anyway).

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Wind by Dorothy Scarborough

Imagine yourself to be a sheltered and pampered 18-year-old girl living in Virginia in a snug house surrounded by orchards, flowers, and streams. And then a family death and overwhelming debts force you to move to live with a relative in an unpainted wood-frame shack on a ranch, where the area is suffering its worst-ever drought--no trees, no greenery, no water. And the wind blows all the time. How would you fare?

The year is 1887 and the ranch location is outside Sweetwater, Texas. Letty Mason is not at all prepared for her new environment, particularly not for the weather. Circumstances go from bad to worse as her relative's wife begins to resent Letty's intrusion, and she finds herself almost forced into making a loveless marriage. She begins to think of the constant wind as a demon, and "began to dimly comprehend how women tried beyond endurance might sometimes go mad."

Later in the novel she thinks that the demon winds are trying to destroy her. She thinks, "Hell was a place where the winds blew all the time, winds that tormented you, but would not let you die....Demon winds!...."

This novel is somewhat melodramatic, although historical accounts do tell of pioneering women who did, indeed, go mad. A reader who has not ever lived "where the wind comes sweeping down the plain" may dismiss the heroine's obsession with the wind as illogical. But for anyone who has ever lived in West Texas, it will seem entirely plausible.

The Wind was written in 1925 by a woman who had lived in Sweetwater. It caused great furor at the time from Chambers of Commerce in that area, but today it is acknowledged as a classic of Texas literature.

Recommended for Texans who have ever lived in West Texas, the South Plains, or the Panhandle. Let me ask you, is the wind blowing right now? When was the last time you experienced a bad dust storm? Did you feel as if you might go crazy if it didn't stop?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

In noodling around on the computer at book-geek websites, I came across accounts of a big controversy in England just lately when one of the judges for the Booker Prize (England's most prestigious award for literature) said that they looked for "readability" and "the ability to zip along." Literary critics were immediately incensed, claiming that the Booker judges were ignoring "artistic achievement" in favor of popular readership.

Room was on the Short List for the Booker Prize last year, but it didn't win. If the judges were looking only for readability, this book should have won hands-down. It "zipped along" better than anything I have read this year. I couldn't put it down--it was literally a one-day read.

This is the story of a young woman imprisoned by a sexual predator in an 11' x 11' room, rearing her 5-year-old son. Sounds like it was "ripped from the headlines," doesn't it. (It was written before JaCee Dugard was found, however similar it may sound.) This could have been just a creepy, sensationalistic thriller in less capable hands, but Donoghue turns it into a moving testimony to the bonds of love between a mother and child. The second half of the book focuses on another equally touching aspect of mother-child love--the necessity of a mother's letting go to allow the child to flourish as a separate human being.

Taking a big risk, Donoghue tells her story in first-person through the voice of the child. This could have turned out badly if the voice had sounded at all wrong. But it sounds right for an intelligent child who has had constant adult companionship. This allows the author to put the emphasis of the story where she wants it to be--on the emotions of the two captives rather than on the circumstances of their captivity.

I cannot claim to have objectivity about this book, because for me (as a mother) it had such a strong emotional appeal. I don't know if men would like it nearly as much. I doubt that it can be counted as a great "artistic achievement," in the sense of being groundbreaking, innovative, or cerebral. But boy, is it a good read!

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Kraken by China Mieville

A preserved specimen of a giant sea squid, also known as the kraken, suddenly disappears, tank and all, from a London Natural History Museum. There is no way the tank could have been removed unnoticed. Yes, this is the story of a squidnapping!

That should give you a big clue about the nature of this novel: it is a seemingly tongue-in-cheek blend of a Dashiell Hammett-style detective novel (with red herrings and much random bloodshed), a Harry Potter-style alternate magical sub-culture (with a struggle to save the world from a dire consequence), and Alice in Wonderland (with ordinary people suddenly thrown into a somewhat whimsical, illogical world).

Museum curator Billy Harrow (some echoes of Billy Pilgrim here) is hijacked into the search, accompanied by Dane, a member of a cult which worships the kraken, and Wati, a disembodied soul who can only speak when he enters a statue or human figurine. (There is much referencing to Star Trek here, including the fact that Wati speaks much of the time through an action-figure of Captain Kirk.) Also searching are a trio of London detectives, including the foul-mouthed Colleywood, who seems to be modeled upon Amy Winehouse. Competing with them to find the kraken is Tattoo, a crime boss of the magical underworld, whose essence is imprisoned in a tattoo on the back of a hapless captive.

Other participants include such Alice-like characters as the knuckleheads, who have giant fists in place of heads; witch and wizard familiars, such as cats and birds, who are on strike; and gunfarmers, who "grow" guns. And that's not all.

This is grand romp through a hodge-podge of genres and cultural references, and it was much fun to read for the first 250 pages. Then it got a little old and too much piled up, but the need to know the solution to the mystery kept me reading for the next 250.It was just a little too much and went on way too long.

I would recommend this book to people who like to read really weird stuff!

I forgot to mention, but this novel owes more than a little for inspiration to Neil Gaiman's American Gods. But all these inspirations were so transparent that I believe Mieville intended for the reader to notice and to feel "in the know." So that's OK. I guess.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago

It is disconcerting when I finish a book and realize I don't have a clue as to the author's message or purpose. If the book is poorly written otherwise, I attribute the fault to the author's lack of skill and/or talent. If the book is well written, I must then attribute the fault to my own lack of understanding and/or sufficient intellect.

This leads me to an admission--I did not understand this book at all. It is extremely well-written and Saramago is a Nobel Prize winner. The three books by him I have previously read (Blindness, The Cave, All the Names) are among my favorites. So I know the fault here was my own.

Saramago is not featuring the plot here, because nothing much happens. Ricardo Ruis, a physician and poet, returns to Lisbon, Portugal, after 16 years in Brazil. He comes partly to visit the grave of a recently deceased friend, Fernando Pessoa, another poet. During his year in Lisbon he takes long walks, reads the newspapers obsessively, engages in an emotionless affair with a chambermaid, finds himself fascinated by a much younger woman with a crippled hand, and entertains visits from his dead friend from time to time. The ending is somewhat startling, allowing the plot to be interpreted in an entirely different light.

Perhaps part of the goal of the novel is to highlight the turmoil of the world in the years just prior to World War II, as many of the newspaper articles Reis reads concern the rise of nationalism in Germany, Spain, and Portugal. Perhaps Saramago is commenting about the failure-to-connect in romantic love, as neither of the character's entanglements turn out well. Certainly Saramago is commenting extensively about the actual literature of Portugal, as Fernando Pessoa was an actual poet who also sometimes used the pseudonym of Ricardo Reis. (Yes, I read Wikipedia).

Whatever. This was not a good reading experience for me, even though the writing is very good. I would not recommend it except to people smarter than I am.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Historical fiction can take several approaches. For example--it can provide a picture of the people and society of a past era, while inserting a totally fictitious story; it can examine the life of a famous person from the past, providing psychological insight as to motivations; it can take specific historical events and people, extending the reader's understanding of what happened and why.

Author Hilary Mantel takes the last approach. This novel examines England in the 1520s and 1530s, as Henry VIII seeks to annul his marriage to Katherine (who has produced no male heirs) and marry Anne Boleyn. The story is told from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell, the commoner son of a brutal blacksmith who rises to the position of the King's closest adviser.

Political maneuvering takes center stage here, with few of the details included which can immerse the reader in a past time and place. Cromwell is the only character into which the reader gains psychological insight, and that is rather limited. This is mainly the story of the wheelings-and-dealings involved in statecraft, which have perhaps not changed that much, except in the details, through the many years.

This novel was strangely fascinating, despite its length (650 pages), mainly because of its very clever dialogue (although I can't believe all those people were really that funny and satirical), and because of its alternative interpretation of events and characters (differing markedly from the ideas I had always held, which were taken primarily from other historical novels and movies).

One strange and disturbing aspect of the novel was Mantel's method of presenting it. It is told in present tense, first person, through the eyes of Cromwell. Except, the author does not use "I" when telling the story. Instead she uses "he" (where any other writer would use "I"), and this results in great confusion as to pronoun reference, especially in conversations. This style took me away from total immersion in the book and reminded me, again and again, that I was reading a made-up story.

Wolf Hall won England's 2009 Man Booker Prize, and I have almost always been impressed by the quality of the books which have won. I was not quite so impressed by this one.

Recommended for those who really, really like historical fiction.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

"This writing is so powerful that it steals your breath...."

The above is a quote from the Milwaukee Journal, about this novel. They took the words right out of my mouth.

I always read the back-cover and inside-cover blurbs about a book, but I take them with a grain of salt, as they say. In a first-edition, the blurbs are written by published writers, and I cynically assume that they were paid or that they just like to see their names in print or that they are trading tit for tat. (I'll praise you if you praise me later.) If the edition is a subsequent printing, the blurbs from newspapers are very often (rather obviously) edited and sometimes come from second or third tier newspapers or magazines. So I've found that it's best not to take the blurbs too seriously.

The edition I read of this novel had eight pages of blurbs at the beginning, AND I THINK THEY WERE ALL ACCURATE; for example: "A stunning performance." (New York Times Book Review); "Evocative and haunting...." (Wall Street Journal); "This book is persuasive in the desperate hope that stories can save us." (Publisher's Weekly); "It is the ultimate, indelible image of war in our time, and in time to come." (Los Angeles Times); "The Things They Carried is as good as any piece of literature can get...." (Chicago Sun-Times); "Go out and get this book and read it." (The Veteran). And much more--all to the point that this is an astonishingly good book.

It's specifically about the war in Vietnam, but it's actually about any war, particularly the new kind of war where the enemy does not wear a uniform and can lurk anywhere, where civilians and enemy soldiers look the same, where no "front" exists, where the young men (and now women) live in constant tension, waiting for an unseen enemy to attack.

O'Brien served in Vietnam and the stories told here ring of absolute truth, but through several digressions he tells us that the events are invented, but true, nevertheless. He says, "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth....What stories can do, I guess, is make things present." I have read very few books that seemed as present as this one.

I wish I were still teaching, so that I could assign this book to my students. For one thing, it provides textbook-worthy examples of the skillful use of language and detail to create impact. But more importantly, it conveys ideas that are important today. O'Brien says, "But this too is true; stories can save us."

I wish I could make this book required reading for everyone.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Cover Her Face by P.D. James

Sometimes when a person has read many, many books, he or she becomes a book snob. This is particularly true if the person has attended graduate school and has learned all the literary criticism lingo and so forth. This kind of reader has perhaps ceased using reading as a recreation and responds to books on an intellectual level only, paying little attention to whether or not the book is actually enjoyable to read. This would explain why literary critics consider James Joyce's later books as masterpieces. They are (probably) important on an intellectual level, but I sincerely doubt if anyone has found them fun to read.

Let it be known that I am not a book snob. I judge books almost solely on whether I enjoy them or not. True, I may be more critical than many others who read purely for recreation, but I have been reading so consistently for so long that I have many more books in my head than most people and, thus, more examples for comparison. When the writing is trite or awkward, when the plot is unoriginal or contrived or not even logical, when the author fails in his/her purpose--I am disturbed in my enjoyment. When I come to inhabit the author's made-up world and forget that I am reading, then I consider that I have read a good book. Sometimes I don't like the world or world view that I have inhabited. Then I don't like the book, even though I know intellectually that I have read a well-written book because it has transported me; I just do not like the book because I do not like the destination.

All this is an urging to recreational readers to read all kinds of books. No reading time is wasted, even when you read a really bad book. That just gives you a measure for comparison. Whenever possible consult your reading friends for recommendations--you will soon find those who like the same kind of books as you do. Read book reviews on book-selling web-sites. Enter the name of a book you really like and see what others who bought this book also purchased. Look up the lists for prize-winning books--Nobel, Pulitzer, Booker, Pen-Faulkner, Book Critics Circle, Hugo, Nebula, Mystery Writers of America, and so forth. Expand your reading horizons to include many genres--"literature," popular fiction, mystery, suspense, science fiction, and so forth.

Now to the review of this book--It was very good. I have not read many mysteries lately, although when my mother lived with me I read a great many, because she loved them and I read books with her. So I do have a knowledge of pretty current mystery writing for comparison and I believe that P.D. James is much better than most. Her writing is clever, literate, and smooth; her characters are believable and complicated; the solution to the mystery is a surprise, but logical.

Writing a good mystery is more tough than one would think, I suspect. The writer has to strew about "red herrings" and yet keep the solution believable and surprising. P.D. James does it here very well. This was the first mystery she wrote, so I shall make it a point to read more of hers. She tops Mary Higgins Clark and Sue Grafton, I can guarantee.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

I did something unusual before I started reading this book--unusual for me, anyway. Reading from the back cover that it tells the story of John Brown, who led the raid on Harper's Ferry before the start of the Civil War, I realized I actually knew next-to-nothing about him or what his raid accomplished. So I did some internet research. Here is some of what I found out:

John Brown, along with his sons, had been involved in abolitionist activities long before Harper's Ferry, working with the Underground Railroad and later being heavily involved in the bloody skirmishes in Kansas when pro-slavery and free-state adherents clashed. In contrast to most prominent abolitionists, who were often Quakers and pacifists, Brown believed that bloodshed was unavoidable, and indeed even necessary, to achieve the goal of freedom for slaves. Brown was seemingly motivated primarily by religious fervor, believing that he was being instructed by God and the Old Testament to use terrorist methods. Historians are divided as to how to understand him: some believe him to have been a visionary leader and martyr for the cause, and others believe him to have been a madman who saw no contradiction in shedding blood for a holy cause.

So on to the novel. It is narrated by Owen Brown, the third son, who has escaped from Harper's Ferry and who writes down his story as an old man, nearing death. His narration tells the story of historical events, but more importantly, sheds light on motivations. But he is an unreliable narrator, as any son would be in writing about a father of an overpowering personality, and his story tells as much about father-son dynamics as it does about historical happenings. Owen worships his father as he would God (whom he has ceased to believe in), but he hates him at the same time, in the end refusing to be Isaac to John Brown's Abraham.

Russell Banks here uses language to great effect, with Owen's narration sounding appropriately 19th century and biblical at the same time. Owen, seemingly subconsciously, reveals more about himself and about his father than he intends. This aspect is subtle and very skillfully done.

I'm sorry that the novel was so long (750+ pages), because I feel fewer people read it because of this, and everyone should read it. It is not a fast read, and few people these days have the time and leisure to give to extended reading, as I do as a retired person with no outside responsibilities.

This novel made me think about many things:

*How does a person come to believe that God is telling him to shed blood in a holy cause? What comes to mind here is people who kill abortion doctors and even incidental bystanders to stop what they consider to be the killing of innocents; Muslim extremists who justify the killing of innocents in the cause of their religious beliefs; a supposedly Christian nation which seems to be engaging in a "holy war," counting many innocent victims as collateral damage.

*John Brown was passionate about the freeing of the Negro slaves, but he had two wives who bore a total of 20 children, and he frequently left them alone to care for the children and to eke out a sustenance living while he carried on his holy war. The wives were not bound by law, but were they not bound by the circumstance of the time? Were they not, too, slaves?

*Is not pure blood-lust a part of any "holy crusade"? Owen Brown, in this narrative, admits this motivation.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with the time and leisure to read it. It has given me additional historical knowledge and, more importantly, much to think about. This is a mark of a good book--thinking is good.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

The protagonist of this book could be compared to Henry Chinaski in Bukowski's novel Post Office or Sebastian Dangerfield in Donleavy's novel The Ginger Man: all three go from woman to woman, drink too much, and live rather aimless lives. The difference is that this hero, Jake Donahue, is actually a decent human being, albeit somewhat misguided. The novels could be considered similar, also, in that they are all comic (or aim to be) and feature fantastic escapades. The difference is that this novel is actually funny. Very funny, in fact.

Jake claims to be a writer, but he actually spends all his writing time translating French novels into English. Ousted from his free lodgings by a lady friend, he goes in search of new digs, and returns to a former love, discovering that maybe he still loves her. But it seems that she has become involved with another old friend of his, Hugh, with whom he had once had grand discussions about philosophy. Jake becomes obsessive about finding Hugh again. The plot from here is complicated, but logical, and comes to a very satisfactory conclusion. It includes laugh-out-loud accounts of the kidnapping of a movie star who happens to be a dog and a fist-fight in a film-set of ancient Rome. All this mayhem seems logical and inevitable, surprisingly.

Jake's fault, which he finally realizes, is of "having conceived things as I pleased and not as they were."

I really enjoyed this book. It is #95 on the Modern Library Top 100 (only 9 more to go!) and is also included in Time's Top 100. Recommended.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Brooklyn is a very quiet novel. There is no great conflict, no drama, no angst, no soul searching. And yet, against the odds, it is fascinating in its own unique way. The language accounts for much of the book's charm--it is straightforward and unadorned, yet has an honesty and a rhythm all its own.

Eilis Lacey is a very ordinary Irish girl: religious, obedient, kind, conscientious about her duties and obligations. It is the early 1950's, and job opportunities are very limited for a young Irish girl with no specific training. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers her the opportunity to go to America, she feels it is her duty to her family to go, even though she really does not want to.

In her new country Eilis suffers greatly from homesickness, but does her best as a shopgirl and even takes a course in bookkeeping to better her job chances. Just as she begins to feel at home in her new country, she meets a young man at a parish dance and cautiously finds herself falling in love, only to be called back to Ireland by a death in her family. Once there she again suffers a sense of displacement, no longer knowing where her true home lies.

The story is so simple; the characters are so ordinary; Eilis is so passive, letting others determine her future time after time. But it sounds so true, especially for a girl like Eilis in her time and place.

Recommended as good reading to calm your mind. If you crave excitement and/or challenge, pass this on by.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

This Philip K. Dick novel would be shelved in the science fiction section of a bookstore, but it has no science and it is not set in the future. Instead, this is an alternate-reality account of America in 1962, with the country ruled on the west coast by Japan and on the east coast by Germany, after the Allied forces have lost World War II. In the west, life is very formalized and the Americans have largely adopted the values and culture of their former enemy, including the practice of using the ancient fortune-telling book I Ching to make important decisions. In the east, slavery has been revived and all Jews are eliminated as they are found by the ruling Nazi Party. And the Nazis are still obsessed with territorial expansion. They want the west coast, too.

With most of the action taking place in the west, the large cast of characters includes a high-ranking Japanese official, who collects early-American artifacts; an American antique dealer, who supplies the artifacts (which may or may not be authentic); Frank Frink (changed from Fink), who is a secret Jew; Frank's ex-wife Juliana, who goes on a journey with a disguised Nazi assassin; and Hawthorne Abendsen, an author who has written an alternate-reality book in which the Allies have won the war.

In this novel nothing is what it seems to be; many times what appears to be real turns out to be fake, and what appears fake turns out to be real. Eventually, Dick even introduces questions about the nature of reality itself: Is there one reality, with all the rest fake? Is it possible for more than one reality to exist, perhaps in different dimensions? Is there such a thing as reality at all, or is everything an illusion?

Philip K. Dick wrote many, many novels, and some are straight-forward science fiction and others are really, really strange and speculative. Three explanations might exist for his unusual writings.

#1 Dick was widely known to be mentally unstable for much of his life. Perhaps some of his books are the result of mental glitches he was undergoing at the time of the writing.
#2 Dick was widely known to be a user of many drugs, including amphetamines and LSD. Perhaps some of his books are the result of a drug-altered mind.
#3 Dick really believed that he had witnessed more than one alternate reality. Maybe he is right and is just more perceptive than the rest of us.

I would recommend that you read this book with an open mind.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee

Coetzee attempts the rather tricky business here of using a real-life person as his protagonist--the Russian author Dostoevsky--and the even trickier business of writing in the real-life style of his character. And I would say he succeeds, because I am left depressed and disturbed, as I was left after reading Dostoevsky's The Possessed. Quite an accomplishment for Coetzee; quite a downer for me.

The Master of Petersburg takes place in 1869 when Dostoevsky returns from exile in Germany because his stepson Pavel has committed suicide (or perhaps been murdered). As he peers into the life that Pavel has led in St. Petersburg, Dostoevsky is drawn into the lives of his stepson's landlady and her young daughter and into the intrigues of a group of political terrorists, led by the immoral Nechaev. Finding the answer to the mystery of his stepson's death, however, becomes secondary to a confrontation with his own "demons" and ambivalent feelings about the nature of love, political rebellion, and the purpose of writing.

I am glad this was not the first Coetzee book I ever read; if it had been I would have stopped here and never read Disgrace or Waiting for the Barbarians. The language is wonderful, the execution is clever, the ideas are thought provoking, the tone is suitably dark and drear--what's not to like? Well, it left me feeling that human relationships and political systems are so basically flawed that there is just no fixing them. And I don't like to feel that way.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On Canaan's Side by Sabastian Barry

This book is beautiful, wonderful, magical--I must restrain myself here before I start gushing like a teenager. (Not to denigrate teenagers--I envy their instant and overwhelming enthusiasms and wish I could experience like feelings more often.)

Sabastian Barry is my FAVORITE LIVING WRITER, and this newly published book more than fulfilled my expectations. Reading Barry (who is Irish) is exactly like reading Irish poet W. B. Yeats; his language is so beautiful it can make you cry. Never mind the story, which is also wonderful. The very words themselves have a rhythm and an imagery that evoke sadness and joy, often at the same time. And it all sounds so natural, not forced or self-consciously clever. As witness to this, please read this somewhat lengthy passage, which tells of the thoughts of a witness at the bedside of a man soon to die.

"His face looked like it was ticking, like a clock. The clock had lost its hands long since, but somewhere in the old face there was a ticking, or a whirring, like the works gathering for its chime. Perhaps I was so sensitized now, so alert, I could actually hear the blood pulsing through his neck. The old heart wearying itself with a last weariness, a final effort. Truth is everything. We do not know it, we do not know how to get it, we do not have it in our possession, God will slap it on us like a police warrant as we arrive breathless at the gates, it is entirely beyond us, truth, bloody truth, but it is everything." I rest my case. And this is just a small sample, and probably not the best one, of Barry's use of language, rhythm, and imagery.

On Canaan's Side reports the history of 89-year-old Lilly Bere, as she writes the story of her life prior to ending it voluntarily. She tells of her brother's death in World War I, of her escape to America upon learning that she and her husband-to-be have been put under a death sentence by Irish nationalists during the struggle for independence from Great Britain, and of her life in America, always haunted by the threats of violence and war. She endures great sadness and tragedy, but also experiences great joy.

In an entirely understated and implied way, this novel is a powerful indictment against war. Five times Lilly finds herself separated from those she loves by war and its repercussions.

I cannot say enough good things about this book: it is beautifully written; it is not stylistically innovative but it rings of great truth; it tells a satisfying story, even though it is not a happily-ever-after, as some seem to crave. It is the best book I have read this year.

Enough already. End of gushing.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

This was a book I couldn't stop putting down. I started it Sunday-before-last and read about 50 pages. I was flying to Phoenix on Monday, and I am an extremely fearful flier, so I wanted a book to read that would absorb my mind completely. I put this one down (though I did pack it to go with me) and read Special Topics in Calamity Physics instead. After I finished that one, I went back to Fortress for 200 or so more pages. Then my son took me to a book store, and I bought Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, my Second Favorite Living
Writer. I couldn't wait to read it; Fortress was put aside again. After I finished Black Swan Green I went back to Fortress and read until I had about 50 pages left. But then it was time to fly home, and again I wanted an eyes-glued-to-the-pages book. My son had taken me to another bookstore, and I had purchased On Canaan's Side by Sabastian Barry, my Favorite Living Writer. I read some of that on the plane. Back at home, even though I very much wanted to continue with the Barry book, I made myself finish The Fortress of Solitude. Finally.

Obviously, this book did not hold my attention.

The Fortress of Solitude tells the story of Dylan Edbus, growing up motherless in the 1970s as the lone white boy in a black and Puerto Rican section of Brooklyn. His friendship with Mingus Rude, a mulatto boy who is also motherless, protects him somewhat from the muggings and random violence of the neighborhood, as they find a common ground in their love of super-hero comic books. Then Dylan is given a ring by a mysterious, dying alcoholic that gives him and Mingus the power to fly!

Fast-forward to the grown-up Dylan, a free-lance music writer specializing in '70s rhythm and blues (the street music of his youth). He is not happy. He has tried to leave his past behind but cannot. He finds the magic ring again. He decides to go see Mingus (in jail). And so it goes.

This is not a poorly written book; Lethem is a more than competent writer. If book jacket acclaims can be taken seriously, many reviewers consider it "a masterpiece," "brilliant," "wickedly good." And so forth. I found it "somewhat boring," "pretentious," "smug." And so forth.

I would have liked this book more if:
#I had ever been to Brooklyn, so that I could have been amazed by the descriptive powers of the author;
#I had been knowledgeable about '70s rhythm and blues and '80s hip-hop and rap, so that I could have been terribly impressed by the author's comprehensive knowledge of these musical genres;
#I had even remotely understood why Lethem added the magic realism element, so that I could have been awed by the symbolism;
#I had identified with or sympathized with the main character at all, so that I could have understood why he turned out to be so despicable.

I chose it (because of the reviews), I read it (finally), and I didn't like it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Author David Mitchell is one of the best of the best! This is the fourth of his books I have read, and all have been excellent, and all have been totally different, not only in plot and characters but also in style. That is quite an accomplishment, as so many writers tend to write the same book over and over, just changing the plot. The one constant in a Mitchell book is his ability to write in a distinct voice for each separate character--his ear is extraordinary.

Black Swan Green is a first-person narrative by a 13-year-old boy and tells the story of one year in his life. The voice here is so natural, with thoughts and words so typical of a young person of this age, that it reads like a true journal; it is totally believable.

Jason Taylor lives in a small village in England; the year is 1982; his main concern in life is not falling to the outcast-level at his school because of his stammer. He writes poetry but hides it from everyone because it would be considered "gay," and to be considered "gay" also means an instant drop to the bottom of the social ladder. During this coming-of-age year, Justin experiences first kisses, first cigarettes, the first instance of the death of someone he knows, a first realization that other people have lives which are different from the one he knows.

Nothing very shocking or ultra-dramatic happens here. Rather, it is the very ordinary catalog of events which makes the novel seem so true. Jason's year unfolds typically; even the slow dissolve of the marriage of his parents is an all-too-common occurrence. But during the course of the year Jason matures and learns how to confront many of his fears.

Mitchell has said that this novel is semi-autobiographical (he is himself a stammerer), and perhap that is one reason for the "trueness" of this narrative; only a very few writers have done as well in the coming-of-age genre.

I give it 6 stars out of 5--most highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

No, I have not suddenly developed a scientific bent, as the title of this book might lead you to believe. Rather than a science textbook, this is a creatively done coming-of-age/mystery novel. Despite some irritating problems, it is an eyes-glued-to-the-page book, a very good read.

The mystery to be solved is revealed in the first few pages: did the teacher Hannah Schneider commit suicide and if so why, or was she murdered? The remainder of the novel is a flashback to the narrator's senior year in high school and to the events leading to the death.

Blue van Meer is a 17-year-old, precociously intelligent girl who is moving yet again to a new school, accompanying her professor father who changes jobs as many as three times a year. Contrary to her usual new-school experiences, however, she is almost immediately befriended by a socially elite group, called the Bluebloods by other students, who are disciples of the charismatic teacher. Socially awkward, Blue has in the past related almost exclusively only with her handsome, arrogant, information-spewing father and is understandably puzzled by her sudden social inclusion, particularly by the actions of the teacher, who has apparently forced the Bluebloods to include her.

As Blue gradually gets to know the group members, she learns that the beautiful Hannah Schneider is also something of a mystery to the other students. Then, while on a camping trip with Hannah and her new friends, Blue finds her teacher dead from an apparent suicide.

Refusing to believe the death a suicide, Blue becomes an amateur detective in the last half of the book, and the answers she finds are surprising and change her life forever.

Problems with this book: Author Pessl has her narrator include an end note (as in a research paper) after every little item which could be considered scholarly information. Yes, this reflects the narrator's upbringing by a father who recites facts in the most casual conversations, but it becomes annoying and interrupts the pace. These notes could have been reduced by at least half while still getting the point across.

Another annoyance: the over-the-top use of similes and metaphors. While some of these are perfectly evocative, some are pretty silly, and THEY ARE EVERYWHERE! Maybe this is supposed to reflect the writing style of the high-school-age narrator, but she is portrayed as being genius-level and amazingly well-read. So what is the excuse for the annoying excess?

I could give a few more reasons why this novel isn't perfect. But that would just be me being overly critical and maybe jealous. This novel is brilliant even if it is not perfect. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

White Teeth tells the story of Archie Jones, a white lower-middle-class Englishman, and his best friend Samad Iqbal, a devout Muslim immigrant to England from Bangladesh, and of their ancestors and their children. It covers a lot of ground and features a great hodge-podge of nationalities and religions. For example--Archie's wife is a Jamaican-English mix who was reared as a Jehovah's Witness but who has rejected her religious upbringing; Samad's wife is from Bangladesh, but for her the Muslim religion is inconsequential; Archie's daughter Irie is just a mixed-up, mixed-race girl trying to find a direction; Samad has twin sons--Magid, who grows up to be an atheist, and Mallat, who grows up to be an almost-accidental Muslim extremist. The lives of the two families become entangled with the lives of Marcus and Joyce Chalfen, who are upper-middle-class English and lapsed Catholic-Jewish atheists, and their son Joshua, who turns into an animal-rights activist. Suffice it to say, many viewpoints are represented here.

This book had a strange effect on me. When I was reading it, I liked it very much and read far into the night to complete it. When I had finished and thought about it, I didn't like it nearly as much.

The tone is satirical and humorous, but on reflection it seems to me to be almost mocking and superior. Smith comes up with some very, very funny observations about people and culture, but when events turn more serious her tone trivializes the gravity of consequences. She seems to be ridiculing her characters; Irie is the only character not lampooned, and she is, obviously, the intelligent observer--in other words, Smith herself.

Smith introduces several themes--nature versus nurture, fate (what goes around comes around), and the perils and advantages of cultural assimilation. It is unclear, however, what her point is intended to be. She never really follows an idea through to completion.

(SPOILER ALERT) The ending, which brings together all the various ethnic and religious factions, is predictable, on reflection. I had anticipated, long before, that Archie was hiding a secret and what that secret might be. However, it did take considerable ingenuity in plot construction to get all these people involved in one event in order to have the grand finale.

This is a feel-good novel, in that you come to believe, "We can all get along." But I don't believe (regardless of opinions in the opposite direction)that it is a GREAT novel--in spite of the fact that it is listed in the Times Top 100.

So I would say, "Read it!" It will hold your attention; it is often very funny; it has just enough suspense that it will carry you through to the end. Then think about it--was it as good as you originally thought? I will welcome different opinions.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce

I liked it; I really liked it! Who knew? I've neglected reading this book for years and years because Joyce's Ulysses took me all one summer to read and I didn't care to devote that much of my life to another book. Then I read Dubliners just lately, and I enjoyed it. So I decided to take it a step further and read this one, and I am so glad I did.

Portrait of an Artist seems to bridge the gap between the relatively realistic narration of Dubliners and the language experimentation and symbolism of Ulysses. It tells the story of Stephen Dedalus from his youth through his adolescence and young adulthood. His is a typical progression: thoughtless adherence to his parents' beliefs, to rebellion against those beliefs with the accompanying guilt, to attempts to find his own beliefs and philosophy of life through intellectual examinations of the beliefs of others, to self-realization and the formation of his own life philosophy. It is a journey we all must make, and it is one often seen in literature. But Joyce conveys the evolution better than anyone.

For one thing, the complexity of language increases as Dedalus progresses through life. The first section perfectly reflects the primacy of physical sensations and the disjointed and selective thoughts of a child. The language of the section portraying Dedalus as a teenager communicates his sexual awakening and his deep sense of guilt and defilement.The very words used arouse feelings of disgust. The language in the section of his university days is pretentious, and the characters often speak in Latin and cite quotes from various distinguished models as they search for their own identities. The language in the last section is the first instance of direct discourse from Dedalus, as he arrives at an adult determination. And it returns to the much less complex language of his childhood. All that is to say that the language of this book conveys the story more even than the narration of events. What an accomplishment!

A section in the middle of the book, after Dedalus has "sinned" and before his university days, features the sermons of a priest on hell and its various torments. This section is so powerfully written that one does not wonder that Dedalus, as he hears it, turns from his "sinful" ways. Preachers everywhere should memorize and declaim this section--it would bring people to repentance in droves.

It's the masterful use of language, and not the story, which makes this novel great. I might even try Finnegans Wake some day.

This is #3 on the Modern Library Top 100. Only 10 more to go for me!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

What an extraordinary book.

I feel so much smarter since I've read it, because now I know all about the Roman Empire from 10 B.C. to 41 A.D. Seriously. I read a great many historical fiction novels when I was a teenager, but I have not read very many as an adult. As I got older, I discovered that much of the history I learned from fiction was not very accurate. Even now, though, I probably have some skewed facts floating around in my head that I still consider history, but which are totally wrong.

I believe this book got everything right, and it is written in a style that is totally convincing as an account by a witness to the intrigues of Rome during the times of the Caesars.

This is supposedly the autobiography of Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, which carries the action from before his birth to the time of his becoming Emperor of Rome in 41 A.D. Claudius survives against the odds, as he is despised as a weakling and dismissed as an idiot because of his lameness, nervous tics, and stammer. He is thus not considered a serious contender for Emperor and escapes the poisonings and executions that befall so many of his relatives. As a youth, he is told by a wise counselor, "Then exaggerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head and twitch with your hands on all public or semi-public occasions. If you could see as much as I see, you would know that this was your only hope of safety and eventual glory." He follows that advice and is thus witness to the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and the mad Caligula before becoming Emperor himself.

Graves does a remarkable job of bringing all this to life in an understandable fashion. He has to deal with a very complicated genealogy, as most of the central characters are married at least twice, with children from all marriages, and also often adopt the children of deceased relatives (which happens with some regularity). Graves also has to differentiate between people who have the same, or almost the same, name. For example, you have Julia the Elder, Julia the Younger, Livia Julia, Julia Livilla, and Julia Drusilla. And so it goes with all the names. And Graves manages to make this clear, so that I was never lost.

The most fascinating character here, for me, is Livia, the grandmother of Claudius and the wife of the Emperor Augustus. As the "power behind the throne," she is a very astute ruler but also absolutely ruthless in getting rid of children and grandchildren who stand in the way of her grand design for Rome.

This novel is totally fascinating and so convincingly done that Graves could have tried to pass it off as a "found" autobiography of Claudius. It is #14 in the Modern Library Top 100.

Highly recommended.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Marion and Shiva Stone are the twin sons of a secret union between an Indian nun and a British surgeon who are serving at a mission hospital in Ethiopia. Orphaned by their mother's death and their father's abandonment, they are adopted by an Indian doctor and grow to manhood in a troubled country, until Marion has to flee Ethiopia for political reasons and completes his medical training in America at an inner-city hospital, only to return in the end to Ethiopia, his adopted country.

But between the birth of the twins and Marion's return to Ethiopia comes some wonderful storytelling about love, betrayal, and sacrifice; political turmoil and its consequences on ordinary people; and medicine as it ought always to be practiced. For 600+ pages, the narrator, Marion Stone, take the reader on a journey that is attention-riveting.

This book has some problems.

Author Abraham Verghese is himself a doctor, and the story contains many very detailed descriptions of surgical procedures. For a non-medical reader, these were somewhat disruptive of the narrative flow, but they did give a verisimilitude to the narration of a physician who instinctively cares personally for his patients. Marion (and earlier his father) are asked the medical question, "What treatment is offered by ear in an emergency?" Marion and his father both answer, "Words of comfort." I wish I had seen a doctor like that the last time I was in the hospital. (My cousin, Phil McCurdy, M.D., who recommended this book to me, says that it is very medically accurate.)

The first-person narration works well in the first part of the book, as the character Marion tells only what he has learned from others about the early lives of his parents. The first-person point of view also give immediacy to other parts of the book, as Marion recounts what he does and what others do to him. But then in some parts of the book, Marion tells of thoughts and actions of others which could not have been known to him, and this seems contrived and unreal.

The ending also seems to me to be a bit too contrived, designed to be a real tear-jerker. Don't get me wrong--it worked and I cried through the last 30 pages. Afterward, though, I felt a bit manipulated.

This book has one huge plus.

The story-telling and the story are extraordinary. I stayed awake until 2:30 in the morning to finish.

This won't become a classic that will be studied in schools, but it is a very enjoyable read. I won't read it again, but I'm glad I read it once.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick

Rick Deckard lives on a future earth following World War Terminus, which left a cloud of radioactive dust leading a large portion of humanity to emigrate to other planets, mainly Mars. Those who leave earth are given an "andy" (android) to use as they wish, usually as a slave laborer. Androids, which have become so advanced that they cannot be distinguished from humans except with special tests, are outlawed on earth, however, and those androids who escape from the colonies to earth are hunted down and eliminated. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter who eliminates androids.

The ultimate test as to whether an entity is human or android is a bone marrow test after death, but bounty hunters are required to be sure they are eliminating androids, not humans, by using a test before elimination that measures the subject's empathy. It seems that the android makers have not been able to include empathy in the DNA structure of their androids.

Through a unique set of circumstances (including somewhat falling in love with an android), Rick perceives that he has developed empathy for his prey. He has a moral dilemma, for sure.

This novel is interesting as it develops a theme of what separates the human from the machine. Machines (androids) can be more intelligent, more physically apt, but are they superior? In Dick's book, empathy seems to be the difference that makes humans superior. They care about other humans and about animals (which are rapidly becoming extinct because of the radioactive dust in Dick's created world).

Among Dick's interesting ideas for his fantasy world-of-the-future, the most intriguing is the mood organ, which stimulates various parts of the brain so that a person can dial his desired mood for the day. If this were real, I would dial a 481, "awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future, new hope." Sometimes, when I am bored, I might as well have dialed a 888, "the desire to watch TV, no matter what's on it." I think many people are stuck on 888.

Dick wrote this novel in 1968, and it seems almost prescient in its depiction of "machines" that are smarter than humans. The book is interesting and thought provoking; however, it did not seem as good as I had once thought it. (First read maybe 40 years ago.) Its plot was a little bit illogical at times, and it seemed to be somewhat according to the sci-fi formula. By the way, the film Blade Runner used the basic premise as a jumping-off-point, but conveyed an entirely different message.

Interesting; read when you have left-over time from reading better books. (This book has, however, one of the best titles ever, doesn't it?)