Friday, August 18, 2017

A PERFECT SPY by JOHN LE CARRE' (1986)

Despite its title, this outstanding novel is not primarily a typical action-packed spy thriller. Rather it is a psychological examination of how the childhood and later life experiences shaped the protagonist, Msgnus Pym, into a man perfectly suited to be a highly successful spy -- one who is capable of compartmentalizing his life according to the role he is playing, one who is able to charm and please all people, one who can rationalize and self-justify his betrayal of those who trust him. The title might as well have been "A Perfect Psychopath," because the character traits are much the same.

As the story begins, Magnus Pym has disappeared and M16 (the British equivalent of the CIA) is frantic to find him. If he has been compromised, his whole network of spies and informants must be warned to go into hiding. The American intelligence people are also alarmed, because they have begun to suspect him as a double agent and he knows some of their secrets. His wife is worried because she loves him. As it turns out, Magnus has holed up in his own private safe house and is writing his life story in a letter to his son Tom and his M16 mentor, Jack Brotherhood. The bulk of the novel is his account of growing up motherless as the son of a charming con man who alternately lavished attention on him or abandoned him.

This is an extraordinary novel, on many levels. I have never read a more effective portrayal of how the survival traits developed because of childhood trauma can adversely affect a person. I have seldom read a more well written book. It is subtle, always showing rather than telling. And it is highly suspenseful, despite its lack of James Bond-type derring-do.

Interestingly, in the introduction to the novel the author says that he based the father of the protagonist on his own father. Since the character attempts to exorcise his inner demons by writing, and since Le Carre' was himself once a member of M16 who turned to writing, one can only assume that his character's psyche is a reflection of his own.

I highly recommend this book, even to those who do not ordinarily read in the spy genre.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

THE MARTIAN by ANDY WEIR (2011, 2014)

This book took me back to my teenage years, back to Robinson Crusoe (without the moralizing) and The Swiss Family Robinson and back to the early science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein. It features the same scenario as the first two -- being marooned far from civilization and inventively making do with the materials available to ensure survival. It takes its tone and its wise-cracking hero from Heinlein. The Martian is not original in concept or presentation and, indeed, not too well written, but it is clever and suspenseful and great fun to read. As a plus, it is also scientifically feasible with present technology, according to those who know such things.

The science nerd who is its hero is stranded alone on Mars when the rest of his spaceship crew has to evacuate quickly and has indications to believe that he is dead. Fortunately, they left behind their habitat and equipment, but the communication link to earth was on their escape vehicle. With no way to let anybody know he is still alive and not enough food to last until the next manned mission is scheduled to arrive on the planet, astronaut Mark Watney must figure out a way to survive. Of course, many unforeseen accidents and problems present themselves.

The book is written mostly in first person in the guise of the astronaut's log book. Weir says that the narrative voice he uses is his own voice, written as he would have written if in the astronaut's situation. That would account for the total consistency of characterization. I felt as if I were reading the words of an actual person.

Weir is not so successful in his third-person sections from Mission Control and the departed space ship. Much of this is awkward, with many of the characters sounding suspiciously similar to the hero.

A considerable amount of scientific information is included in the novel, which will undoubtedly be of interest to those so inclined. For those not enthralled by the science, it is written about so engagingly that a reader not among the initiates becomes interested only in seeing whether it will work or not.

The history of the publication of this science fiction novel should be or encouragement to all would-be authors. Weir first self-published it on his website in chapter installments in 2011. It gained a following and many fans asked for an e-book version. He self-published an e-book and sold it on Amazon for 99 cents. It rose to bestseller status in science fiction on Amazon and attracted the attention of print publishers. He sold the book and the movie rights in the same week, in 2014. Since then, it gained a place on the New York Times bestseller list. The movie, starring Matt Damon, was released in 2015. What a success story.

My 11-year-old and 13-year-old grandchildren and I all enjoyed this book very much. It is short and for me was literally a one-day read. Recommended for mind refreshment and pure entertainment.

Friday, August 11, 2017

REAL PRESENCES by GEORGE STEINER (1989)

I am sorry to admit to myself that I do not have the required educational background and possibly don't have the required intellect to properly discuss this philosophical examination of the methods of critiquing literature, art, music, and other aesthetic endeavors. The first part of the book is concerned with deconstructionist theory, which I had previously heard of but had not bothered to explore. After reading several internet sources, I now have a vague idea of what deconstructionism means. As I understand it, its practitioners analyze the meanings of texts to expose the contradictions and believe that any text has more than one interpretation. However, I still have no clear idea as to how this would work in practice, in examining a work of literature, for example.

As I understand it, Steiner is here refuting the view of the deconstructionists, declaring instead that great aesthetic works have a definite presence, in his view the presence of a transcendent origin, namely of "the other" -- God or god. I guess you could say that all meaningful aesthetic creations are divinely inspired. He says, of music in particular, that it "puts our being as men and women in touch with that which transcends the sayable, which outstrips the analysable." In contrast, he characterizes the deconstructionist as "masters of emptiness" who leave out "personal response" and instead "play it cool."

My entirely instinctive response is that Steiner is correct that lasting literature, art, and music speak to us in ways that cannot be analyzed, and that any meaningful creation should "change your life." It seems to me that tearing a work to bits, for whatever reason and by whatever method, defeats the aim of its creator. I am a bit dubious, however, as to whether all great artistic works are transcendently inspired. This is a supposition which cannot be proved or disproved. Steiner says, "This essay offers a wager on transcendence."

I confess to intellectual laziness. I read to entertain myself. I have read enough that I think I can distinguish between a work of genius and trash. I do like to learn something about an author and the time and place of a book's action to help me understand the story, but for me to closely analyze a book would be to defeat my purpose.


Monday, August 7, 2017

THE RISEN by RON RASH (2016)

I am coming to be disappointed with Ron Rash. I first read his novel Serena and found it to be outstanding--dramatic, powerful, and poetically written. I next read The Cove, which was also very good, though not on par with Serena. Since then, the others I have read have become more and more disappointing. He is a very good writer, but I don't believe he is trying as hard any more.

This is a story of family estrangement. The middle-aged narrator, a failed writer and alcoholic, tells of his alienation from his successful surgeon brother, flashing back to their teenage years in the 1960s when a mysterious girl, wise in the ways of the emerging counter-culture, comes between them. During a summer of alcohol, drugs, and free love festering resentments emerge. Back in the present, the narrator learns that the girl's bones have been discovered on the banks of the stream where they had once met, although his brother had told him that she left town on a bus.

The remainder of the book is the narrator's quest to find out what really happened.

Family resentments have come to be somewhat overdone as a concept for a novel, and this book adds nothing new. The mystery of what happened to the girl adds a new element, except that I figured it out about half way through.

This is not bad light reading, but I expected much more. It is very short (153 pages), and actually reads more like a short story. It would make a good beach book.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

BLACK ELK SPEAKS by BLACK ELK in collaberation with JOHN G. NEIHARDT (1932)

Black Elk was an Oglala Lakota visionary and healer who lived from 1863 to 1950. In 1931 he was extensively interviewed through an interpreter by the poet and historian John Neihardt, who transcribed this account. Black Elk tells of his youth, when he received the first of his many visions, of various battles with the US Calvary, including Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee Massacre, and of his efforts to restore his people when they were starving on the reservations, cheated of their promised food from the government. He witnessed the destruction of a way of life and a culture in his lifetime.

A considerable portion of the book is given to very specific details about the various visions Black Elk experienced and of ceremonial practices and dances. The reader may believe or disbelieve in the authenticity and origin of the visions, dependent upon his or her spiritual views. Black Elk says that he was chosen to receive them and they gave him the power to heal.

The more factual portions of the book tell a sad story, as one would expect. The shameful perfidy of the United States government in their treatment of the Native Americans is now well known. Treaty after treaty was broken. The white man's greed destroyed their food supply and pushed them onto land that was considered undesirable, only to take that land, too, when gold was discovered. Herded onto reservations, they were promised food supply, only to receive half of what was promised, if even that. This was certainly an instance when America was not Great.

Following Black Elk's memoir are several appendices which augment the information.

This is a book which should be a part of every American high school curriculum.


____________________________________

Greed and the U.S. government are still sticking it to the Native American people today. The Dakota Pipeline across their land has the very real possibility of leaking oil into their water supply. It has already sprung some leaks, in fact. Ain't Murica Great!





Thursday, August 3, 2017

SHAMELA (1740) and JOSEPH ANDREWS (1741) by HENRY FIELDING


Shamela

Henry Fielding wrote Shamela in response to Samuel Richardson's Pamela, the highly popular novel about a young servant girl's virtuous conduct which led to her marriage into the gentry (I reviewed Pamela last month). I had not read this response when I wrote my review of Richardson's book, and I am delighted to find that my viewpoint was shared by some readers of the time -- the lady did protest too much. Fielding's Shamela is a satire, revealing the heroine to be a conniver who pretends to virtue in order to gain the prize of a rich husband. It is very humorous, poking fun at the moral hypocrisy of its target.

To enjoy this short novella, one must have first read Pamela.


Joseph Andrews

Although this novel begins with the attempted seduction of the hero, who is the brother of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, it soon reveals itself not to be patterned after Richardson's novel, but instead after Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. As it turns out, Joseph Andrews does not reject the advances of his Mistress, Lady Booby, because he is being coy or even particularly virtuous, but because he is pining for his one true love, Fanny, a servant girl from his home village. His picaresque journey home, accompanied by a churchman, Parson Adams, imitates the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Despite expectations raised by the title, the parson is the innocent who resembles Cervantes' hero. He is naively well-intentioned, forgetful, and always expects the best from those he meets. However, when he is roused by the wrongs which he (finally) perceives, he is a fearless fighter. He and Joseph, and later Fanny, get into one scrape after another, with often hilarious results.

Fielding's cast of characters span all social levels, with the gentry receiving the majority of his satirical thrusts. A substantial amount of the humor is directed at actual persons of his time, which would have been of interest back then, but which is of little or no import to the modern reader. But there is still plenty to poke fun at in the foibles of humans in general, which are much the same now as in the 18th century.

With this novel, Fielding was gearing up for his comic masterpiece, Tom Jones, which was written in 1749. Everybody should read that one, for sure.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

PAMELA by SAMUEL RICHARDSON (1740)

I can assure you, Dear Reader, that if you tackle this very early British novel, you will have three reactions:

*You will want to throw up because of its sanctimoniousness.

*You will want to throw it into the trash because of its tediousness and repetitiveness.

*You will believe that either Samuel Richardson wrote the whole thing with tongue in cheek or that it is the most unbelievable drivel ever published.

This is the absurd plot:
Pamela is a 15-year-old maid in the household of gentry. Her Master lusts after her mightily, and proceeds to kiss her and put her on his knee. She protest that her Honesty (virginity) is the most important thing in the world to her. She says she will leave to go home to her parents, but decides to stay to finish embroidering flowers on a waistcoat. Then he further accosts her and even, as she says, "put his hand in my bosom." He promises not to do it again, so she stays. He kidnaps her and takes her to another of his houses, where he holds her prisoner. When she escapes from the walled garden, she decides not to flee because she sees two cows (which she says she thought to be bulls) and is afraid to cross the pasture. He attempts to rape her, with the help of his housekeeper, but she falls into a fit and he stops. He offers her all kinds of money to be his mistress, but she still refuses to sacrifice her Honesty. All throughout he has called her vile names and abused her, but then he decides that he really loves her mind (yeah, right) and, despite her low station, he proposes.

Reader, she marries him. Believe it or not.

Yes, after he has stalked her, kidnapped her, and attempted to rape her, not to mention cursing her and "calling her out of her name," she decides that she loves him and goes on and on about how much he has honored her by condescending to marry her. And we readers are supposed to believe that she was not coldly calculating to snare him the whole time, hoping that his lust would overcome his class consciousness.

Now for the sanctimoniousness--While Pamela tells us over and over how humble and non-prideful she is, she repeats ad nauseam conversation of others who praise her godliness and beauty. In addition, she flops to her knees at the slightest provocation, first in thankfulness for delivering her from her persecutor and later in thankfulness for his goodness and excellence in all things. God is mentioned on almost every page. Dear Pamela, thou doth protest too much, methinks.

This novel was a run-away best seller in its day. It had spin-off sequels, copy cats, and lampoons by other authors, and even spin-off products, such as Pamela fans and playing cards. I believe the reading audience must have been titillated by Pamela's close escapes from a "fate worse than death." It must have been the Fifty Shades of Grey of its time.

Not recommended as enjoyable reading. Kind of interesting in a historical way, because it was a big deal once upon a time.

Monday, July 24, 2017

THE SAGA OF THE PLIOCENE EXILE (IN FOUR VOLUMES) by JULIAN MAY (1983)

Third or fourth reading: First read in the mid 1980s.



This science fiction/fantasy is one of my favorite escapist reads. It has a unique and creative premise, features an unusual depth of characterization (for this genre), and includes one suspenseful and surprising event after another. Though it is lengthy (nearing 2,000 pages in four volumes), May's writing style is such that a reader can zip right through in record time. I fail to understand why it has not become a cult classic; it is that good.



Volume 1-The Many-Colored Land
In the mid 2,000s, when Earth has joined many other planets and races in a Galactic Milieu, a scientist invents a time machine, but it only goes one way--back to Earth's Pliocene Epoch. With no return trip being possible, the device seems of no use, not until those who do not fit into the new society begin choosing it as a means to escape to a time of more freedom for individuality. The action of the novel centers on eight such travelers:

*a nun, who is suffering from compassion fatigue following years of counseling dying patients and their families;
*an elderly man whose wife of many years has just died;
*a star ship captain who has lost his license to fly;
*a teenage lesbian girl with anti-social behavior;
*a former metaphysical Grand Master, who has lost her mind-meld and psychic abilities due to an accident;
*a gigantic man whose violent and quick temper has unsuited him for the peaceful new society;
*a sociologist who is following his "one true love," who had traveled back earlier;
*a mischievous trickster whose antics have made him persona non grata in the Milieu.

Here comes the surprise. Instead of the 100,000 humans who had traveled to the Pliocene earlier, the eight new arrivals are greeted by very tall, very beautiful humanoid ALIENS!!! from another galaxy, who had been stranded on earth when their sentient space vehicle expired. Their latent metaphysical abilities are enhanced to operancy by the golden torcs they wear. They have essentially enslaved most of those from Earth by the use of torcs of various metals, which give them psychic control. A few very valuable humans have been given golden torcs, raising them to the level of the overlords. The aliens have instigated a quasi-feudal society, with humans, of course, as the vassals.

One of the problems faced by the aliens, called the Tanu, is that the background radiation of Earth interferes with their fertility, so that they produce few offspring, despite their voracious sexual appetites. They have found that a solution to the population problem is to use humans as breeding stock. The nun and the lesbian girl, in particular, find this to be problematic.

Another problem faced by the Tanu is the Firvulag, their so-called "shadow brethren" who traveled to the planet with them, even though they are traditional enemies. Both races were expelled from their home planet because they insisted on adhering to their ancient battle religion. Each race seeks the extinction of the other.

Sorry for the long set-up, but this is a premise entirely original in my reading experience.

Another unique attribute of this saga is that most of this first volume is given over to character development of the eight time-travelers.



Volume 2-The Golden Torc
The group of eight is divided by the Tanu: four deemed of especial value by the Tanu are taken to the capital city and four of lesser value are sent to another location where they are to be assigned tasks suitable to their talents. The latter four escape to join free humans who are hiding out in the wild. The story follows both groups as they cope with their new situation. Important new characters are introduced.

*The nun regains her compassion.
*The elderly man finds new love.
*The star-ship captain finds a new purpose in life.
*The teenage girl's latent metaphysical powers are transformed by the time passage into psychic operancy. She later is driven insane.
*The former Grand Master metaphysical regains her psychic abilities.
*The violent man finds gentleness through love.
*The sociologist embarks on a study of the impact of humans on Pliocene society at the behest of the Tanu.
*The trickster also gains metaphysical operancy and plots to take control of the Many-Colored Land.

This volume is maybe my favorite because the story encompasses so many twists and turns and suspenseful adventures, plus some developing love stories. It culminates in a surprising catastrophic event which changes the whole nature of the Tahu-human-Firvulag conflict.



Volume 3-The Non-Born King
Despite all odds, the human trickster assumes the kingship of the land. The Firvulag, risen in power after the cataclysm, plot against the Tanu and the new king. Meanwhile, in North America the adult children of the instigators of a Metapsychic Rebellion which had occurred 27 years previous in the Milieu plan to travel to Europe, against the objections of their parents, to build a new time machine which would provide the way back to the future. The Tanu Battlemaster, long thought to be dead, returns to challenge the trickster for the kingship. The free humans discover and repair the flying machines which had brought the Tanu and Firvulag from their dying space ship to the Many-Colored Land. Plus many other exciting incidents.



Volume 4-The Adversary
The former leader of the Metapsychic Rebellion in the Milieu enters center stage. As the most powerful psychic in the Pliocene world, will he stop at preventing his children from escaping via the new time machine or will he also decide to unseat the upstart trickster to take over the Many-Colored Land? Meanwhile, the Firvulag are preparing for what they are convinced will be the Nightfall War, the alien equivalent to Armageddon.



This series has some shortcomings, to be sure. A few story strands are left hanging. A few events are illogical. (How does it happen that all the aliens speak colloquial English, even those who have been isolated from humans?)

One interesting added element that May inserts is that many of the happenings and customs of the aliens are currently remembered in present-day legends and folk tales. One of the humans concludes: "Both Tanu and Firvulag will contribute to the Homo sapiens stem. I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that remnants of both groups persisted on Earth almost into historic times, mating with human stock just as they have mated with time travelers here in the Pliocene. Our myths and legends and other heritage of the collective unconscious confirm it."

I highly recommend this series to any fan of fantasy/science fiction. It is far superior to most others I have read, including Game of Thrones.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

SMONK by TOM FRANKLIN (2006)

I am amazed that Quintin Tarantino has not adapted this novel to make a movie. It would seem to be his kind of story. It features ultra-violence about every third page, with people dying right and left in picturesque and gory manner. Everything is exaggerated for effect, including the physical appearance of the characters. Consider this description of the title character:

". . . his immense dwarf shape, shoulders of a grizzly ear, that bushel basket of a head low and cocked, as if he was trying to determine the sex of something. His hands were wide as shovels and his fingers so long he could palm a man's skull but his lower half was smaller, thin horseshoe legs and little feet. . . . There were several bullet scars in his right shoulder and one in each forearm and another in his left foot. There were a dozen buckshot pocks peppered over the hairy knoll of his back and the trail of a knife scored across his belly. His left eye was gone a few years now, replaced by a white glass ball two sizes small. He had a goiter under his beard. He had gout, he had the clap, blood-sugar, neuralgia and ague. Malaria. The silk handkerchief balled in his pants pocket was blooded from the advanced consumption the doctor had just informed him he had."

As the book begins, Smonk rides into town, ostensibly to face trial for the last of a long stream of crimes. In reality, he has arranged a bloody surprise for all the men of the tiny town who have gathered there: a machine gun and two henchmen. The townsmen also have a surprise: they have agreed to hang him before the trial, so that he cannot once again escape punishment. Smonk, of course, wins and escapes. He is pursued by a wounded lawman, who, by the way, has Smonk's glass eye in his mouth where it had landed when it popped from Smonk's eye during a consumptive coughing spell. He later swallows it for safekeeping.

In the meantime, a teenage whore named Evavangeline is on the run from an unlikely group of Christian vigilantes who have mistaken her for a boy who they believe has been engaged in pederasty.

The action eventually returns to the small town where it began, where things get even weirder. It seems the town has its own guilty secret. Why no children or dogs? What do the women do when they gather in their "church"?

The ending, as is to be expected, is grotesque and distasteful.

This is a book made blackly humorous by its excesses, exaggerations, and straight-faced presentation of the fantastical and perverse, but it will certainly not be to everyone's tastes. The laughs, if they come, will be guilty laughs. Anyone who takes the book literally will be disgusted.



Sunday, July 16, 2017

THUNDERSTRUCK by ERIK LARSON

Erik Larson is the only writer of non-fiction that I regularly read. All of his books that I have read have been fascinating, not so much for the subject matter as for the author's writing skill and narrative style. He approaches non-fiction with a fiction writer's sensibilities, and his books are just as engrossing as suspenseful made-up stories. That they are true and extremely well-researched and documented comes almost as a surprise.

Thunderstruck covers two stories, which are marginally related. One is the history of Guglielmo Marconi who perfected and marketed wireless telegraph. That doesn't sound very exciting perhaps, but Larson manages to make it interesting. The other is the tale of the mild-mannered and genial Dr. Hawley Crippen, who became the most talked-about fugitive of the time after he was accused of the grisly murder of his wife. The two stories intersect when Crippen is caught because of the ability of the wireless to communicate instantly across distances of ocean. (Not a spoiler. This information is contained in the first chapter.)

Along with the two story strands, Larson provides readers with a slice of life of Victorian and Edwardian England and a look at the London of the time.

This is actually the least impressive of Larson's books that I have read, and it is still excellent. His Devil in the White City is the best non-fiction book I have ever read.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

THE INHERITORS by WILLIAM GOLDING (1955)

For his second novel, following Lord of the Flies, William Golding chose an unusual scenario: this is an account of a meeting between two pre-history humanoid tribal clans--Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Most of the book is from the viewpoint of the more primitive Neanderthals as they arrive at their summer home on the banks of a river. The group of eight communicate in very basic language and sometimes by shared visions to work together to find food and fire wood. Their harmonious existence is shattered by the arrival of the more advanced species, whose weapons and abilities make them clearly superior at survival.

The subtext of the novel reveals Golding's bleak view of humanity, as the Neanderthals with their closeness to nature and peaceful existence are inevitably overcome by the organized violence of a foe they do not understand. With "civilization" comes the propensity to overcome adversity and fear through force.

Notable here is Golding's ability to portray a primitive people realistically using sophisticated language and literary techniques. His account was accurate, according to anthropologists at the time of his writing, including the survival of one of the Neanderthals to later interbreed with the humans.

This is a notable addition to Golding's extraordinary body of work, which earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

THE SWORD OF SHANNARA by TERRY BROOKS (1977)

If you have read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, you needn't bother to read this rip-off. I mean it. Don't waste your time reading it.

For most of the book, Brooks literally lifts incidents from Tolkien's masterpiece, just changing the names and a few details. He does come up with a couple of original characters toward the end, but that's too little, too late.

The story begins when a Druid named Allanon (instead of the Wizard Gandalf) comes to a small and unassuming young Vale man (instead of the Hobbit Frodo) to tell him that he is the one to defeat the once dead Warlock Lord (instead of the once dead Wizard Sauron) with the help of an artifact, the Sword of Shannara (instead of the One Ring).
Accompanying the two on their journey are another Vale man, two men, two Elves, and a Dwarf (sound familiar?).

During the course of their adventures they
* fight with Goblins (Orcs)
* hide from airborne Skull Bearers (the Black Riders)
* defeat a man-consuming tree (Old Man Willow)
* fight a many-tentacled pool monster (the Watcher in the Water)
* battle a giant spider thing (Shelob)
* journey through the tunnels underneath a mountain (the Mines of Moria)
* watch their Druid leader seemingly fall to his death into an abyss (Gandalf in his fight with the Balrog)
* help to defend a tiered stone city against a Goblin army (Gondor).

And that's not even a complete list of the events and people copied from Tolkien.

In the latter part of the book, the author does introduce a charming highway robber and his mute Troll sidekick to accompany the Vale man across the wasteland as they follow a half-mad Goblin (Gollum) to the lair of the Warlock Lord. I don't know what author Brooks stole from for those two. Maybe William Goldman in The Princess Bride.

Why have I wasted so much space to write about a book I did not like? Because it makes me angry that an author can so blatantly copy another's plot and characters and still find a publisher and become a favorite of those who read fantasy. The writing here is not even praiseworthy, in contrast to Tolkien's elegant and sophisticated prose.

Go figure.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

THE WORST HARD TIME by TIMOTHY EGAN (2006)

"On those days when the wind stops blowing across the face of the southern plains, the land falls into a silence that scares people in the way that a big house can haunt after the lights go out and no one else is there. It scares them because the land is too much, too empty, claustrophobic in its immensity. It scares them because they feel lost, with nothing to cling to, disoriented. Not a tree anywhere. Not a slice of shade."

With this, Timothy Egan begins his factual account of the Dust Bowl days, set mainly in Oklahoma and the high plains of Texas. Tragically, during that time there were few days when the wind stopped blowing, and it carried with it much of the soil, which had been striped of the native grasses in to order to plant dry land wheat. Instead of merely citing facts and figures about how bad it was, Egan interviewed many who remembered the hard time and tells their stories. These were the ones who toughed it out instead of heading out for California and elsewhere.

Intertwined with the first-hand accounts are the facts and figures and an explanation of what caused the unprecedented disaster. The stripping of grasses to plant wheat in an area with an average rainfall not really sufficient for the growing of crops, together with a depression and falling prices that encouraged farmers to plow up more and more land in an effort to make money combined as the main culprits. Poor farming methods prevailed. Then the drought came, and with it the wind.

I grew up on the southern plains in the 1940s and '50s, and by that time deep well irrigating out of the Ogallala Aquifer had tamed the dust somewhat, but it was bad enough, just the same. I remember how I felt during a duster. I can't imagine how those coped who experienced it when it was this bad. One thing that Egan fails to mention is that blowing dust makes you mean. Short tempered. Irritable.

A subtext of the book is an ecological message applicable to the here and now about how human actions can destroy the environment. Continued Global warming would result in even worse conditions than those here. I wonder what will happen on the southern plains when the Ogallala Aquifer runs dry.

-------------------------------------------------

This was a winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Friday, July 7, 2017

EVERYBODY'S FOOL by RICHARD RUSSO (2016)

This is exactly the book you need to read after you have just previously read two very depressing novels. The characters here often make poor choices and are a danger to themselves, but their inherent decency allows them to overcome their mistakes and end up on the right side of happiness. As an added plus, Everybody's Fool is also very funny.

Russo's characters are a group of middle/lower class residents of a small town. The sheriff is suffering from a loss of confidence and becomes obsessed with tracking down the unknown lover of his recently deceased wife. His smart-mouthed receptionist is giving him grief. The town's boisterous jack-of-all-trades has just found out that his heart may give out in a few years as a result of past hard living. His once-upon-a-time married lover is facing the threat of her violent ex-son-in-law. His rather dim sidekick is worrying that the two aren't best friends anymore. The town's seemingly most successful citizen is watching his world fall apart. They are bunglers all, prone to behaving the fool, but they are good hearted fools, and as such are lovable.

This novel is not earth shaking in importance or even very realistic, but it is a picture of the way life should be. We have all done foolish and stupid things, but hopefully our good intentions will carry us through to a relatively satisfactory end, if not exactly happily ever after.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

JUDE THE OBSCURE by THOMAS HARDY (1896)

Damn. What was I thinking? Right after reading the very depressing The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, I chose to read next the very depressing Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. At least the characters in this one don't act insane, although they don't always behave rationally.

For instance, the title character nurtures unrealistic expectations of rising from his lower class background to become a scholar at university, although he has had no formal scholastic training and has not enough money to afford the tuition. Then he follows his lust instead of his brain to enter into an unsuitable marriage. When his wife leaves him to go to Australia with her family, he conceives a hopeless love for his cousin Sue, although they are close kin and he is married. I could go on and on with the unfortunate choices Jude makes in his tumble-down life. His cousin also makes some poor choices, beginning when she impulsively marries a much older man who is physically repulsive to her. She soon deserts her husband to live with Jude, although they can't marry. I won't detail the subsequent progression of events, but rest assured, nobody lives happily ever after.

Jude's story bears many resemblances to Tess's story in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but Tess proves to be a much more sympathetic character and her story has a pathos that this one lacks.

This novel created a furor when it was published because of its unfavorable view of the institution of marriage. Hardy was also critical of a society which doomed the unhappily married to stay together based on religious belief. It is an extremely well done novel but, fair warning, it is depressing.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

THE IDIOT by FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY (1868=69)

I don't enjoy reading Dostoyevsky. I feel depressed and slightly unhinged afterwards. I have the almost irresistible urge to fly into rages and blurt out all my negative feelings to friends and family. Why, then, you may wonder, did I choose to read this book? Intellectual pretension, I guess. I like to think I could discuss the merits and ideas of all the most respected books, should the subject ever come up in conversation (which is not likely to happen).

The Idiot revolves around Prince Myshkin, an epileptic who has been reared away from society and is considered by some to be feeble minded because of his infirmity. In reality, he is merely an innocent--naively childlike, truthful, and self sacrificing. All of the many secondary characters gravitate toward him and react to his goodness, which they fail to understand. When he impulsively offers marriage to rescue a "fallen" woman, he sets in motion a dramatic spiral of events encompassing them all. Tragically, Myshkin's generous actions only result in confusion and tragedy.

What disturbs me most about Dostoyevsky's writing is the extravagant actions and dialogue of his characters, who all react disproportionally to any situation. Many seem quite mad. They are most certainly overly dramatic. For example, Myshkin's love rival vows eternal friendship with him and shortly thereafter tries unsuccessfully to murder him. None of the characters can seem to decide whether they love him or hate him. Surely no people ever behaved like this, even Russians of the 19th century.

As in all of Dostoyevsky's books that I have read, someone commits murder, with dubious reason.

I understand that Dostoyevsky is concerned with weighty matters such as sin and redemption, and that he is also commenting on aspects of Russia at the time. I understand why this novel is respected. I still didn't enjoy reading it. But that's one of the wonderful things about books. One is out there for every taste and disposition. We all don't have to like the same thing.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

THE BLACK DAHLIA by JAMES ELROY (1987)

James Elroy frames this neo-noir novel around an actual murder case: the never-solved 1947 Los Angeles murder of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed by the press the Black Dahlia. Using that as a starting point, Elroy follows the fictitious police investigations, focusing on one detective who comes to be obsessed with the victim. However, this is not a police procedural novel in the usual sense. In true noir fashion, many of these cops are as corrupt as the criminals, and often equally as depraved and violent.

Raymond Chandler was most surely an influence on Elroy, because this novel features the same kinds of twists and surprises and the same kinds of sexual intrigue and the same kinds of amoral people, both with a hero who has his own share of faults. Both authors rise above their contemporaries in the genre. Elroy's writing style is a bit more spare and his dialogue is not as vibrant as Chandler's.

Recommended for those who appreciate a stylish look at the dark underbelly of life.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

CLAUDIUS THE GOD by ROBERT GRAVES (1935)

It is always a disappointment when a reader expects great things from a book, only to find those expectations unfulfilled. Graves's mock memoir I, Claudius is extraordinary and has been one of my favorite historical novels. It is the always-interesting and totally believable account of the life of the man who became Emperor of Rome by pretending to be a fool, thus escaping death at the hands of his power-hungry relatives. It ends when he is proclaimed Emperor following the assassination of the infamous Caligula. This sequel is also a fictional memoir, which follows Claudius from his ascendancy to the title until his assassination. But while the first book is fascinating in its characters and political maneuvering, this one is often very heavy going indeed, particularly in the lengthy descriptions of the campaign to subjugate Britain. In my estimation, it reads more like a history than a novel and as such would probably be very interesting to a student of that subject, as it is reportedly very accurate as to events. However, reading detailed information about engineering projects undertaken, festivals celebrated, subjects rewarded and/or punished, and similar activities becomes repetitious, with the people and events all tending to blur together. The only plot suspense provided is the question of when Claudius will finally discover the infidelity of his wife Messalina and how he will finally be assassinated and which one of his relatives will do it.

Claudius the God is well done and seems a believable account, but its effectiveness as a novel to be read for entertainment is limited.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

THE LONG GOODBYE by RAYMOND CHANDLER (1953)

It is impossible to read The Long Goodbye without visualizing Humphrey Bogart and hearing his voice in your head, even though he never starred in a movie version of the book. His depiction of the detective Philip Marlow in the movie made from Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep was so spot-on perfect as to be unforgettable. Though cynical and flawed, Marlowe is a romantic at heart with his own code of right and wrong. He frequently pursues a case without pay when he senses an injustice. He distrusts most of the police force, with good reason. He has a quick mind and a witty comeback in every situation. Though not handsome, he is sexually attractive to women. Bogart as Philip Marlow was perfect. What a pity a film of this book was not made until the 1970s; it starred Eliot Gould (what?).

This case begins when Marlowe comes to the rescue of Terry Lennox, a drunken stranger who has been abandoned by his lady friend in front of a nightclub. After the two become off-and-on friends, Lennox shows up at Marlowe's house one night in need of a ride to catch a plane to Mexico because he is in some kind of trouble. Marlowe obliges, asking no questions. That's when his troubles start, because it turns out that Lennox's wife has been murdered. The cops are on his tail, a mobster shows up with threats, rich people offer him bribes, and the body count rises.

Chandler puts most other writers of detective fiction to shame. His books are so stylish and well done that they cross the genre into literary fiction. In particular, his dialogue shines. He paints a dark picture of the world, but then that's what noir fiction is all about.

Highly recommended for anyone who likes a suspenseful story with twist and turns.




Tuesday, June 20, 2017

THE SPORT OF KINGS by C.E. MORGAN (2016)

The Sport of Kings has at its core an inventive novel about family dynamics and race relations in the South, using the breeding of Thoroughbred race horses as an unusual metaphor. It tells the story of the Forge family, centering on Henry Forge and his only child, Henrietta, with flashbacks to previous generations. The are wealthy Kentucky aristocrats who have come to be obsessed with breeding a superhorse to rival the legendary Secretariat. When Henrietta impulsively hires a young black man with a criminal past as a groom and the two begin a sexual relationship, the family's pride of heritage and dark secrets are threatened.

All of that would ordinarily be enough for a bang-up of a story, but Morgan has chosen to add more. This is a novel of excesses. We are given excerpts from Jockey Club information about horse breeds and from Henrietta's notebook of random facts. We are given flights of overblown prose wherein the author channels her inner Faulkner, or perhaps it's Melville, to inform us in three pages that the sun set. We are given extensive background stories of many secondary characters. We are given a black jockey serving as the devil's advocate who proclaims in Shakespearean language. We are given rape, incest, random indiscriminate sex, arson, murder, and suicide. The greatest excess of all is the overwrought melodrama, wherein the most unlikely dramatic events occur with regularity.

This feels like a first novel to me, although it is Morgan's second. It would seem to include too much to be as effective as it could have been. It's as if she had to strain to make her point, and so tried everything. It was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, so my opinion is of little consequence.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

THE WAY WEST by A.B. GUTHRIE, JR. (1949)

If I had lived in Missouri back in the 1800s, I would have been stuck there all my life, despite the unhealthy climate. I would never have been as adventurous and brave as the folks in this novel who traveled in covered wagons across half a continent to reach a promised land in Oregon, facing dangers from Indians, treacherous terrain, and uncertain weather all along the way.

Guthrie focuses here on one such family, but also includes others accompanying them in the wagon train, to provide a complete picture of the westward migration. The account seems so completely true to life and representative of the kinds of people who would undertake such a journey that one could even believe that he had experienced the journey himself. Some among the travelers are generous and principled, some are power hungry, some are vengeful, and some are simply totally unprepared for the hardships that had to be endured.

Guthrie's writing is extraordinary, by turns realistic and poetic. The Way West won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1950. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

LOVE IN THE RUINS by WALKER PERCY (1971)

This satirical, dystopian novel was written in 1971, but it sounds surprisingly current, with a few divergences. The two US political parties here are called the Left and the Knotheads, the term "knotheads" being assumed by the right-leaning in response to an insult from the Left, much as some Republicans proudly call themselves the Deplorables in response to Hillary Clinton's comment. The focus of the Knothead's fear is that the black population will rise up against them. Of course, in today's world the right-leaning focus of fear has been expanded to include Muslims, Hispanics, and homosexuals.

The plot's antagonist in this divided world is a non-political, lapsed Catholic, unrepentant Lothario scientist, who has invented a kind of stethoscope of the human soul with the potential to cure mankind's spiritual malaise. When his device is wrested from him and used to exacerbate violent tendencies, all hell breaks loose, literally. It seems to be the end of the world.

This is black comedy, and as such is very, very funny. Percy strikes just the right balance between ridiculous farce and a bleak reality to make tragic human actions and events humorous. That's not easy to do, and so many miss the mark and end up with a depressing account which is actually intended to be satirically comic.

I highly recommend this book, particularly in light of today's political environment.

Monday, June 12, 2017

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE by SOLOMON NORTHUP (1853)

In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York State, was drugged and kidnapped and taken to the South, where he was sold as a slave. He wrote this account of his twelve years of captivity following his rescue and return to his wife and three children. It joins other first-hand accounts by former slaves to give voice as to the degradation, suffering, and powerlessness endured by those of Negro blood who were considered to be less than human, subject to being bought and sold.

For those readers who might discount the truthfulness of this memoir, twentieth-century historians have verified the traceable details. Also noteworthy is the fact that Northup does not condemn all of his slave "masters," even providing some explanation as to how men who otherwise exhibited kindness and conscience could countenance one man owning another. He writes of one of his owners, who was kind to him: "The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery....Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different."

The main of this harrowing account concerns the "master" whom Northup served for ten years, whose cruel actions included capricious beatings for the most minor of perceived transgressions and the repeated rape of one of the women. The food of the slaves consisted of bacon, which was often wormy, and corn meal, which they had to prepare themselves after a full day's work, which often extended to midnight. Even their brief hours of sleep were not restful, because they knew that they would be whipped if they were not in the fields before sunrise, and they were fearful they would oversleep. They had even more to fear when their master came home in a drunken state. The slaves' only respite from backbreaking work and fear of punishment came for a few days at Christmas.

One aspect of the account that especially stood out for me was the almost universal belief among white Southerners that a black man was a beast, a valuable animal on par with other farm animals, more valuable only because he could understand directions.

Near the end of the book, Northup makes this prophetic statement: "They are deceived who flatter themselves that the ignorant and debased slave has no conception of the magnitude of his wrongs. They are deceived who imagine that he arises from his knees, with back lacerated and bleeding, cherishing only a spirit of meekness and forgiveness. A day may come--it will come, if his prayer is heard--a terrible day of vengeance when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy."

This book should be required reading, especially in the South, where some still wish to fly the Confederate flag and celebrate their "heritage."






















Saturday, June 10, 2017

ANNA KARENINA by LEO TOLSTOY (1875=1877)

I am going to be so presumptuous as to be critical of Tolstoy's other lauded novel, which some consider to be even better than War and Peace: Anna Karenina is often very boring. The parts about Anna, the married woman who leaves her husband and child for her lover, are engrossing and accomplish the difficult task of making her a pitiable character instead of a heartless villain. The problem is that the character Levin in the secondary plot is more prominent than Anna, and his story is very reminiscent of Pierre's story in War and Peace, so much so that the climax is entirely anticipated. In addition, much space is given to his constant search for the answers to questions about the relationship between agricultural production and the peasantry and to his questions "What am I?" and "What am I here for?" Even a cursory knowledge of Tolstoy's life and beliefs provides the awareness that Levin's search was also Tolstoy's search and that the conclusions Levin reaches were also Tolstoy's conclusions. In that respect, the information about the progression of Levin's ideas is intellectually interesting, but in the middle of a novel they become tedious interruptions.

Though shorter than War and Peace, this is a very long novel (968 pages in paperback). I would not recommend it for a general reader, though the chapters dedicated to Anna's story near perfection. For scholars interested in Tolstoy's life and philosophy, I believe it would be invaluable.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

WAR AND PEACE by LEO TOLSTOY ((1865-1869)

Second reading; first read in 1962 or '63.



It would be presumptuous of me to write a conventional review of War and Peace, a book considered by a majority of academics to be the greatest novel of all times. I first read it one summer while I was in college, and by that I mean it took me all summer. Of course I had a lot more social life then, and I was also taking a couple of classes. This time I read it much faster, but it still took almost two weeks. Although I don't recall exactly, I believe I must have skimmed parts of the book back then, because while I remembered the stories of the main characters--Pierre, Natasha, Prince Andrey, Nicholay, Sonya, Princess Marya--I don't have a recollection of reading the sections about the military actions or Tolstoy's musings about history. That was my loss.

I believe most people are hesitant to read this novel, because they think it will be too difficult. Here's the good news--it is not difficult at all, just long, very long. The core plot is highly interesting and could be (and probably has been) adapted in a modern setting for a daytime or prime time soap opera. It's primarily a love story, with multiple twists and turns. Tolstoy adds depth, however, which causes the story to transcend events and to include character growth, extending to the influence of religious faith and world events on the lives of the participants.

The "war" portion of the novel is not a depiction of the actual battles, but a portrayal of the political maneuverings and examples of how a quest for personnel glory can determine the course of a battle or the course of the war. His emphasis is always on the great waste of lives demanded to feed the egos of those in command.

The only tedious part of the book comes in the last 30 pages, when Tolstoy has finished his plot and devotes a last section to a discussion of the wrong interpretations made by modern historians.

This might not seem like a book to read over a summer vacation, but it is. Really.

Friday, May 26, 2017

MISS JANE by BRAD WATSON (2016)

This is such a quietly affecting and non-dramatic book that it would be easy to dismiss it. It begins when Jane is born in 1915 with a genital birth defect which prevents normal sexual function and renders her incontinent and ends when she is 67 years old. Rather than living a life of quiet desperation or one filled with bitterness and anger at her condition, she has faced her limitations with strength, dignity, and a generous spirit.

Jane's story is inspirational in its explorations of how a life seemingly destined for unhappiness can be fulfilling. Watson also shows us both the brutality and beauty of nature, as the solitary Jane takes an almost erotic solace in her Mississippi surroundings. The writing is restrained but beautiful, with a definite Southern feel.

I enjoyed reading this novel very much. I would also recommend Watson's The Heaven of Mercury.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

BEHOLD THE DREAMERS by IMBOLO MBUE (2016)

This most timely novel chronicles the struggles of an undocumented immigrant family in America. This story takes place in 1907-08, before and after the crash of the economy and the election of President Obama, years before our new president cracked down on illegal immigrants, so these are not even as fearful of deportation as they would be today.

Jende Jonga has brought his family from Cameroon, where they had little or no chance of escaping extreme poverty. With his temporary work papers, he is lucky enough to find a job as chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive at the undreamed-of salary of $35,000 a year. Finally he and his wife and their six-year-old son see their way to the achievement of the American Dream. But then Lehman Brothers declares bankruptcy and Jende loses his job. Soon after, his petition for asylum in the U.S. is turned down. Facing the prospect of deportation, the couple must decide whether to return to their home country voluntarily or to file appeal upon appeal to try to stay in their adopted land.

Woven around Jende's story is the plight of his executive employer and his family, as their part of the American Dream also seems to be disappearing. Both the marriages of the employer and the employee suffer from the fear and tensions brought on by events beyond their control.

I found the amount of space given to the upper-class family to be distracting from what I perceived as the core subject, but Mbue is a fine storyteller, and I can only presume she was trying to say that the American Dream can fail anybody, no matter the social and financial status.

The greater impact of this novel by an author who is herself an immigrant from Cameroon is that America is perhaps oversold as a haven of opportunity. A great many people here today would surely agree.

Behold the Dreamers won the 2017 Pen Faulkner Award.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

HILLBILLY ELEGY by J.D. VANCE (2016)

J.D. Vance, who wrote this memoir of his growing up, has a law degree from Yale and is a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm. His heritage, however, is not as a son of wealth but as the son of a dysfunctional family in Ohio, with roots in Appalachia. He calls them "hillbillies." Following the vernacular of my region, I might instead classify them as "rednecks" or "white trash."

Late in the book, he writes about the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that psychologists say can impact into adulthood and often be perpetuated on future generations. His experiences included these:
*his mother had a revolving door of boyfriends, some of whom became his stepfathers and some who did not;
*his mother was a drug addict and several in his family were alcoholics;
*his mother was often physically abused by boyfriends and once attempted suicide;
*his grandfather was an active alcoholic for years and both grandparents had a history of violence;
*for years he was shifted from one family member to another and didn't feel that he had a real place;
*as a child he was insulted, yelled at, cursed, and humiliated by his mother.

He survived and beat the odds by departing from the family pattern. He credits his maternal grandmother, with whom he spent his teen years. She provided a stable home, unconditional love, and an encouragement to succeed scholastically. Then the Marine Corp provided discipline and pride, preparing him for college and graduate school.

On a less personal level, Vance attempts to explain the current political trend which resulted in the election of Donald Trump, by examining the anger of hillbillies and their like at their failure to achieve the American Dream. According to his viewpoint, they have failed personally but choose to blame it on the government. I find that a rather biased and simplified viewpoint and believe that he is guilty of the attitude of so many who have succeeded against the odds--a feeling of superiority, with accompanying disdain for those of similar background who fail to lift themselves.

One aspect I found interesting is his assertion that organized religion can help stabilize the family structure, not through a belief in God so much as through the support network a church can provide.

I recommend this book as being both interesting and timely.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by AMOR TOWLES (2016)

I don't believe I have ever read a book as delightfully charming as this one. It tells the story of the Russian Count Alexander Rostov, who returns to his home country in 1922, following the Bolshevic Revolution, and is arrested as an unrepentant aristocrat. His sentence is to be placed under house arrest in his home, the luxurious Metropol Hotel, under a sentence of death if he sets foot outside its doors. He is cultured, witty, and accustomed to the finest surroundings, but he accepts his exile to a tiny attic room with equanimity. As the years pass, he forms friendships with several unlikely hotel employees and guests, including the cranky chef at the luxury restaurant, the hotel seamstress, a famous actress, a Kremlin bureaucrat, and an American official. While his physical boundaries are limited, his emotional boundaries are transcended, particularly when he is left in charge of a young girl, whose welfare becomes the chief concern of his life.

Although Rostov never leaves the hotel, we are provided telling glimpses of the tumultuous years of Russian history from 1922 to 1954 through his interactions with hotel guests. But Rostov is always central to the action as he ingeniously maneuvers to provide his foster daughter with the life she deserves.

What makes this book charming is not so much its tale but the manner of its telling. Towles' prose is always as sophisticated and elegant as is his protagonist. The story itself is so highly unlikely as to be unbelievable, but that matters little because style is as important as substance in the world of Alexander Rostov.

I highly recommend this novel as a blessed relief from most current fiction offerings that portray social problems, personal problems, lives in turmoil, and so on and so on.

Monday, May 15, 2017

IMAGINE ME GONE by ADAM HASLETT (2016)

I long resisted reading this book because I had read that it is about a family dealing with the clinical depression of some of its members, and that hit a bit too close to home for me. When it was long listed for the National Book Award, I resisted. When it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, I resisted. When it won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, I resisted. When it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, I finally gave in.

I find that it is, indeed, an extraordinarily well done book, with an engrossing plot and well-drawn characters. I also find that it is, indeed, quite depressing.

As for the plot, when Margaret marries her fiance' John, she knows that he has just been hospitalized for a major depressive episode, but she marries him anyway. As the story develops, it becomes apparent that the eldest son, Michael, has inherited his father's mental illness. Through the decades, Margaret and the two younger children learn to deal with the fallout of their loved ones' actions.

Haslett is particularly adept at portraying the changing reactions of the healthy members of the family: deep caring, motivated by deep love; pity for the tragedy of the illness; anger at the seeming self-centeredness of the sufferers; and the conviction that they might hold the key to a "cure." Some even reach the desperation of distancing themselves for self-preservation. All find their lives altered and forever influenced by the illness of their loved ones. The author tells his story by writing each short chapter from the first-person viewpoint of one of the characters, allowing the reader to follow the stages of their journey.

The depressing aspect of the books comes from the helplessnss of the loving family to effectively alter the course of the disease. Even mental health professionals seem to be floundering, as they recommend one combination of drugs after another.

I can appreciate the talent involved in the writing of this novel, but I would certainly not read it again.







Saturday, May 13, 2017

THREE VICTORIAN NOVELS

While awaiting my new shipment of books, I reread three Victorian novels: Barneby Rudge by Charles Dickens (reviewed Dec., 2014), Martin Chuzzlewitt by Charles Dickens (reviewed Oct., 2014), and Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. I am blogging this just so I can keep a count of how many books I read in a year (a competition with myself).

Long, complicated Victorian novels are perfect for rereading when you run out of new books, because they are so convoluted that the details are easily forgotten, so they are relatively fresh.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

YEAR SEVEN OF READING

I usually post my favorites of a year of reading on my birthday, but I am a bit late this year. This accounting covers April 22 of last year through April 22 of this year. I read 121 books, most being older books bought used. I do order current books after I receive Christmas gift certificates. 2016 was an exceptionally good year for books, so almost half my favorites are new publications. I have indicated the year of publication and the month in which they were reviewed. I recommend all these books without reservation.


BLACK RIVER by S.M. HULSE
The emotionally involving story of a retired correctional officer and his attempt to find peace after tragedy and to give and accept forgiveness. In a story that could easily have been overly sentimental or violently melodramatic, Hulse hits just the right note in a story of ordinary people trying to do the right thing. (2015; reviewed June, 2016)

VICTORY by JOSEPH CONRAD
A suspenseful thriller, a love story, a psychological character study, and an examination of the nature of good and evil. Conrad combines all of those in this tale of an emotionally distant bachelor who rescues a young woman from peril and must then confront forces of evil to protect her. (1913; reviewed July, 2016)

VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE by KAREN RUSSELL
Highly inventive short stories that combine the mundane with the fantastic. Russell's characters include aging vampires, young girls transformed into human silkworms, and dead presidents reincarnated as horses. Some stories are sad, some are scary, and some are very, very funny. (2013; reviewed August, 2016)

DARKNESS VISIBLE by WILLIAM GOLDING
Two intertwined stories about the light and the dark, good and evil. This novel is dense with symbolism and religious imagery and has the tone of an allegory. Impressive stuff! (1979; reviewed August, 2016)

THE EGYPTIAN by MIKA WALTARI
The fictional autobiography of a physician in service to Pharaoh Akhnaton in ancient Egypt. This is the most immersive historical novel I have ever read, plus it tells a fascinating story. (1949; reviewed November, 2016)

THE BIG SKY by A.B. GUTHRIE, JR.
A story of mountain men in the Northwest before the migration of settlers. Guthrie is an amazing writer, and this book is filled with action, adventure, and flawless landscape description. (1947; reviewed December, 2016)

DAYS WITHOUT END by SABASTIAN BARRY
A young man from Ireland travels to 19th century America and encounters adventure and danger and finds love. Barry's prose is lyrical and addictive and reads like poetry. My favorite book of the year. Winner of England's Costa Book Award in 2016. (2016, reviewed January, 2017)

MOONGLOW by MICHAEL CHABON
The fictionalized memoir of the author's grandfather, including his job as a recruiter of Nazi scientists, his life with a mentally unstable wife, and his life-long fascination with travel in space. Chabon writes charmingly, with exuberance and dry wit. (2016; reviewed January, 2017)

TO THE BRIGHT EDGE OF THE WORLD by EOWYN IVEY
While a 19th century explorer experiences adventure and near-death in the uncharted Alaskan wild, his wife waiting back home goes on her own journey of self discovery. Ivey includes touches of magical realism, because magic can still exist at "the bright edge of the world." (2016, reviewed January, 2017)

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by COLSON WHITEHEAD
The partly metaphorical account of a slave's escape to freedom, via a literal underground railroad. This was not my favorite book of the year, but I judge it to be the most important book of 2016. Winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. (2016; reviewed January 2017)

HOMEGOING by YAA GYASI
The twin plots, which come together in the end, follow two half-sisters and several generations of their descendants from Ghana in the days of the slave trade to America in the present day. Named best first novel of 2016 by the National Book Critics Circle. (2016; reviewed January, 2017)

WARLOCK by OAKLEY HALL
A revisionist Western loosely based on Tombstone, Arizona, during the time of Wyatt Earp. Hall combines a highly suspenseful surface story with an existential sub--text. (1958; reviewed February, 2017)


The only two books I read this year that I really, really disliked were Sneaky People by Thomas Berger and Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser, both of which are dark comedies that I thought to be mean spirited and depressing.

I have a new book shipment coming from my birthday gift certificates, so it's on to another year. Happy reading!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

RAYE'S LIST OF THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVELS

I have been an avid fan of science fiction since I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when I was in the 7th grade. I went on to read all the books I could find by Jules Verne and then H.G. Wells. Later I discovered Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. My sources for books back then were the school and public library of a small town, and they did not carry much science fiction, but in the mid-'60s I moved to a big city with actual bookstores, and my science fiction obsession increased, hitting a peak in the '70s. Since then my reading in the genre has declined somewhat, so I am no longer familiar with who the "big names" are. When I decided to do a science fiction binge-read, I chose recent winners of the most prestigious science fiction awards, the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus. The results were a bit disappointing. I find that my favorite science fiction books come from back-when.

To be classified as true science fiction, a novel should include some aspect of actual science or pseudo-science, such as time travel, space travel, aliens from other planets, cloning, futuristic technology, and so on. There is often only a thin line separating science fiction from fantasy, alternate history, dystopian literature, and magical realism. Those on this list all come from the science fiction side of the line.


THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU by H.G. WELLS (1896)
A doctor creates animal-human hybrids, with unfortunate results. Back when I first read it, I responded only to the suspenseful story. Rereading it years later I see that it has several very serious themes which would still be applicable today.

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES by RAY BRADBURY (1950)
A collection of short stories concerning human settlers on Mars when Earth is destroyed by atomic war. Bradbury's memorable stories are always deeper in meaning than is first apparent.

STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by ROBERT HEINLEIN (1961)
A man raised on Mars by Martians is returned to Earth, where he shares what he has learned. Heinlein was a hippy before being a hippy was cool: this novel embraces communal living, free love, and concern for the ecology, for example. A very fun read.

DUNE by FRANK HERBERT (1965)
On the desert planet of Dune, two Houses vie for dominance. Herbert's greatest accomplish here is not the story, as exciting as it is, but the creation of a "thick" alternate world, including all aspects--the ecology, the customs, the mystical religions, and so on. And to top it off, giant sand worms.

LORD OF LIGHT by ROGER ZELAZNY (1966)
On a primitive planet colonized by the survivors of destroyed Earth, humans try to find a way to exist among alien species, using advanced technology to pose as gods. Zelazny combines elements of Hinduism and Buddhism is a mind-bending story.

UBIK by PHILIP K. DICK (1969)
A group capable of blocking the psychic ability of corporate spies is targeted with a bomb explosion, and one of their number dies. Or does he? The rest begin experiencing surreal happenings. Maybe they died and he didn't. Or maybe not. As always, Dick explores the nature of reality.

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by URSULA LeGUIN (1969)
An Earthling is sent to a distant planet as an emissary for a federation of planets, where he finds he must try to understand an androgynous culture. LeGuin is a most thoughtful writer who bridges the gap between mainstream and genre fiction.

THE FOREVER WAR by JOE HALDEMAN (1974)
Human soldiers battle aliens in an eons-long space war. This is essentially an anti-war novel, with particular emphasis on the problems of soldiers returning home. Military science fiction with a twist.

DAHLGREN by SAMUEL R. DELANY (1975)
A young man with amnesia enters an American city where gangs masked by holograms of grotesque monsters and insects roam the streets. Inexplicable events occur. Two red suns appear in the sky. In truth, this book probably makes little sense, but it fascinates me. I keep thinking that the meaning can be found in just one more reading.

THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by RICHARD ADAMS (1979)
A grand romp through all the tropes of space opera science fiction. Adams comes up with one farcical and hilarious situation after another.

THE SAGA OF THE PLIOCENE EXILE by JULIAN MAY (1980)
Time travelers from the 22nd century go back to the Pliocene era with no possibility of return and find that ancient aliens with metaphysical powers have peopled the Earth and have subjugated all arrivals from the modern era. This is a four-book series, with the first book, The Golden Torc, being the best.

ENDER'S WAR by ORSON SCOTT CARD (1985)
Earth prepares for an anticipated battle with alien invaders by training young men and women for combat with increasingly difficult games. This reads somewhat like a Young Adult novel, and indeed some of its elements have since been copied for that age group, but it is also absorbing for grown-ups.

PERDIDO STREET STATION by CHINA MIEVILLE (2000)
Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that combines elements of traditional science fiction with 19th century steam technology. This novel includes a love affair between a human male and a female of an alien species who has a body like that of a human and a head like that of an beetle. And moth-sex. And steam-powered weapons. Mieville seemingly throws out every weird idea he ever had, and the result is memorable and fascinating.

NEVER LET ME GO by KAZOU ISHIGURA (2005)
Human clones raised to become organ donors for the wealthy try to give their lives meaning in the time they have left before they are fully harvested. Ishigura is not normally a science fiction writer, and this is literary fiction with a science fiction scenario.

THE WIND-UP GIRL by PAOLO BACIGALUPI (2009)
A look at the problems created by cloning and biotechnology and corporate greed in the 23rd century. This is what could happen if Monsanto gains total control of seeds.


I have not included any from the increasingly popular cyberpunk sub-genre, because my old-school, non-computer-literate brain refuses to understand them sufficiently for full appreciation. Those more up-to-date might consider reading Neuromancer by William Gibson, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

I'm not sure what bent of mind is needed to make one a science fiction fan. Back when I frequented Austin's first book store devoted exclusively to science fiction and fantasy, I was often the only female there. The rest were young men in their late teens and early twenties. At any rate, if your mind happens to be bent in this way, I hope this list will be useful.













Monday, April 24, 2017

CONSIDER PHLEBAS by IAIN M. BANKS (1987)

In the galaxy-spanning war between the Culture and the Idirans, the hero of this space-opera, Horza the Changer, has sided with the Idirans, even though he is humanoid and they are not. Because of his ability to assume the appearance of anyone, he is able to spy on the enemy on behalf of his allies. But then he gets caught by the Culture. And then rescued by the Idirans. And then their ship is blown up. And then he alone escapes death and goes in search of an escaped Mind (a sentient super computer), along with the rag-tag crew of a pirate vessel. And so on and so forth, from one peril to another.

Iian M. Banks saves all this from becoming ridiculous by his near-flawless ability to narrate set-piece space and personal battles so that they become easily visualized and ultra-exciting. He is much less successful at portraying believable characters and elucidating cloudy motivations. In particular, Horza's reasons for hating the Culture are never convincingly explained.

I chose to read this because Banks has been one of the "big names" in science fiction for the past 20 or so years. Judging from this sample book, I would say that he represents the school of action adventure novels very well. It's just not my preferred type of science fiction.

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Interesting note: This author also wrote mainstream novels under the name Iain Banks. His novel The Wasp Factory is ultra-creepy and highly memorable.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

BLACKOUT by CONNIE WILLIS (2010)

A considerable number of science fiction novels are parts of series. For example, Dune has several sequels, but each book has its own story-arc, complete in itself. The same is true of Ender's War and its sequels. So when I picked science fiction books to order for my binge-read, I expected that the books would carry completed plots, even when I knew that the author had written sequels. I am thus completely annoyed that four of the eleven science fiction books I chose turned out to have plots that ended mid-story, and I realized I had to read at least one additional book to see how the story ended. Only in one instance, Hyperion, did I become so invested in the characters and their fates that I decided to read the next book. For the other three--including this one--I decided to just say no. I feel I should have been at least forewarned that I was reading part one of a two- or three-part story, not book one of a series.

So be aware that Blackout does not have an ending. It just stops. The conclusion to the story is apparently in the novel All Clear, which I shall not read.

The science fiction part of Blackout is time travel, which in this case only goes backwards. In the year 2060, universities utilize it to send history students back in time to observe periods of interest. Three students are sent to different locations in England in 1940, as World War II is beginning. One girl masquerades as a maid in a country manor house, caring for children evacuated from London, and another is sent as a department store shop girl in London during the Blitz. A male student pretends to be an American reporter in Dover, observing the evacuation at Dunkirk. Most of the book chronicles their adventures and misadventures in their assumed roles, which are interesting and often highly amusing. Then they realize that they have not been picked up to return to their own time as had been scheduled and that they may be trapped in a highly dangerous place and time. And they begin to fear that their continued presence may even affect history.

Willis's tone is breezy and whimsical and sometimes veers into farce. She does provide a superficial dosage of history, but in essence this is a comic novel I don't know if all her novels hinge on travel back in time, but the three of hers I have read do. She is one of the most popular British science fiction authors. This won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards. It's fun, but not two-books fun, as far as I am concerned.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

RED MARS by KIM STANLEY ROBINSON (1993)

Red Mars is hard science fiction, containing much detailed actual scientific information. At least I assume that the scientific commentary is accurate or even a foreseeable extension of present science. As far as I know, it may just as well be gobbledygook, and there is a lot of it. The novel also contains pages and pages of detailed descriptions of the topographic features of Mars, some of which is necessarily fictitious, since the author could not have had this much actual knowledge of the Martian landscape. All of this detracted from the plot elements and often made for scan-reading, at least for me.

The story concerns the first 100 colonizers on Mars and is structured with limited third-person omniscient narration from several members of the group. From the beginning, the stage is set for conflict, with the settlers having radically different ideas about the approach to be used in relation to the Mars landscape. Some want to leave it as undisturbed as possible to preserve its character and beauty, and some want to completely terraform it to duplicate Earth. Personal animosities also flourish, including a love triangle between the three principal characters. When an increasingly war-torn and overpopulated Earth sends s massive numbers of new settlers, a great many to mine Mars' mineral deposits, the ecological conflict already present erupts into armed revolution against the corporate interests seeking to rape the planet.

This novel has obvious parallels in today's culture, particularly as sharp differences appear between those who believe in climate change and preserving the environment and those who reject climate change as nonsense. Other parallels would be the ascendancy of corporate control over world events and the inherent human tendency toward conflict even under "starting over" circumstances. Maybe it is just not possible for us to "just get along."

I found the core story of this novel interesting, except for the love affair sub-plot, which had mature scientists behaving like love-struck 15-year-olds. The scientific accomplishments might or might not be possible, even in the future, but I found it unbelievable that it could happen so quickly. The lengthy descriptions of the Martian planet became boring past belief.

Red Mars won the British Science Fiction Award and the Nebula Award. It is the first of a highly popular trilogy of novels about Mars. But this is just not the kind of science fiction I like. I am sure many would enjoy it, though. It is well done for what it is.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

RED RISING by PIERCE BROWN (2013)

Red Rising is a mixed hodge podge of plot elements from other best selling books: Ender's Game, The Hunger Games, and Divergent, most notably, with some contribution from The Game of Thrones thrown in. I suppose every author takes inspiration from books which have come before, but Brown carries his emulation to an extreme, contributing no new ideas at all that I could perceive. Like Divergent, this novel features a stratified society; like Ender's Game it features a brutal training school to determine future leaders; like The Hunger Games it features teenagers in combat in primitive circumstances, with an audience which is able to observe their every move and reward winners; and like The Game of Thrones it features political infighting between factions and the author's willingness to kill off principal characters from time to time.

After I read the first ten pages, I checked the internet to see if Red Rising was marketed as a Young Adult book. It was not, to my surprise. It certainly reads like a YA book. and not one of the better ones, at that. It is the first of a trilogy, with all being best sellers. I would not recommend it to an adult reader, but I think my 11-year-old grandson would enjoy it. Parts of it are fast moving and would likely be exciting for young readers.

I have not summarized the specific plot at all, because if you have read the books mentioned above, you can probably pretty much figure it out for yourself.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

REDSHIRTS BY JOHN SCALZI (2012)

This science fiction novel certainly caught me off guard. It starts out with a group of wise-cracking newbies about to board a starship for a tour of duty. It reminded me somewhat of Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and I thought it would proceed according to that formula. But no. After serving on board for a time, the new crew members start noticing that every Away Mission from the ship involves a confrontation with lethal aliens, that the senior officers on the Mission always survive, and that at least one low-ranking crew member is always killed. That's when I caught on to the meaning of the title and realized that I was reading a satire of the Star Trek formula.

Then come many very funny bits, as the crew resort to hiding and subterfuge to avoid being selected for Away Missions, and the officers spout scientific nonsense. Just when the book might have devolved into a one-joke spoof which lasted too long, Scalzi takes the story in an unexpected direction with the possible solution to the crew members' problem. And then, just when the problem seems to be solved and the reader assumes that the story is ending, it's not. There's more, in three Codas, which give the book an entirely new implication.

This is a laugh-out-loud and extremely inventive book. It constantly surprises. It won the Hugo and the Locus Awards. I enjoyed it immensely.

Monday, April 3, 2017

LaRose by Louise Erdrich (2016)

I have always considered Louise Erdrich to be greatly overrated as a writer, even though in the past she has won both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. This novel also won the NBCC, is a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award, to be announced April 4, and is considered to be a top contender for the Pulitzer Prize, to be announced April 10. So even though I had not planned to read LaRose, I decided to give Erdrich another chance to impress me.

The book begins dramatically with a death. While stalking a deer, Landreaux Iron accidentally shoots and kills the 5-year-old son of his best friend and neighbor, Pete Ravich. While the Ravich family is consumed by unimaginable grief, Landreaux suffers from unrelenting guilt and turns to his Ojibwe heritage to seek guidance in a sweat lodge. In a reversion to old traditions, he and his wife give their own 5-year-old son LaRose to the Ravich family, saying, "Our son will be your son." So begins a story of the hard process of healing and forgiveness.

In addition to the core plot, Erdrich includes stories of LaRose's like-named ancestors, the troubles of a conflicted priest, and the revengeful plans of a drug-addled man with a longstanding grudge.

I am still not impressed with Erdrich. It's not that she is incompetent as a writer or that her basic story is not intriguing. I just find her books, including this one, to be lacking in that special quality that would make them exceptional. They are not memorable. They lack focus. They include extraneous side plots with only tenuous connections to the core stories. They most always include a touch of Native American mysticism, which seems to me to be thrown unnecessarily into the mix for the purpose of enhancing her credibility as a chronicler of modern Native American life rather than for plot advancement.

I am sure most readers will enjoy reading LaRose, as I did, but I would classify her books as popular fiction rather than as literary fiction. I am continually surprised when she wins awards.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

AMONG OTHERS by JO WALTON (2010)

Jo Walton creatively combines a fantasy about magic and fairies with the narrator's obsessive commentary about the science fiction of the 1970s to produce a novel that is bound to delight the fans of both genres. I know that I was enchanted.

The narrator, Morweena, is a 15-year-old Welsh girl who has been left with a crippled leg by the car accident which killed her twin sister. The two had been fleeing their mad mother, who happens to be a witch. As the story begins, Morweena has been placed in a boarding school in England, bereft at the loss of her sister and severed from the fairies who had aided her in surviving her mother's wrath. Her only solace is reading the kind of literature she loves--fantasy and science fiction.

The book is structured in the form of Morweena's diary, in which she records not only her loneliness and despair, but also her insightful commentary about the books she reads. Her life takes a more cheerful turn when she is invited to join a science fiction book club, and the diary then includes the club's discussions. But danger is never far away, because her mother may still be intent on destroying her.

Walton never falters in presenting the fictional diary in the entirely believable voice of a precocious teenager. This is a story about loss and acceptance, about growing up, about feeling different and out of place, about the healing power of literature...and about magic.

This is a perfect book for those who read and loved the fantasy and science fiction of the '70s. It combines a matter-of-fact story about fairies, reminiscent of the tone of John Crowley's Little, Big (one of my favorite books ever), with a multitude of references to and discussions about science fiction novels of that era, most of which I read back then. I don't suppose it would be nearly so interesting to those not familiar with the literature of the fantastic, but long-time geeks and nerds like me are bound to love it.

Among Others won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the British Fantasy Award.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

PALADIN OF SOULS by LOIS McMASTER BUJOLD (2003)

When I decided to binge-read science fiction, I consulted the websites of the Hugo and the Nebula, the two premier awards given for that genre, and ordered books which had won one or both of the awards. What I didn't consider is that both designate the best of each year's science fiction or fantasy novels. Paladin of Souls won both the Hugo and the Nebula, but it is definitely not science fiction; it is instead a fantasy of the swords and sorcery variety, with some G-rated courtly romance thrown in.

I have not read too much in this sub-category of fantasy, but I think it likely that this is better than most. For one thing, the central character is a 40-year-old widow, which is unexpected and refreshing. Also, the book is more than competently written in an engaging style. Still, it mostly adheres to the conventions of the genre and contains few surprises.

When the heroine, Ista, is at long last freed from the restraints of her castle at the death of her mother, she departs on what is purportedly a religious pilgrimage. In reality, she has rejected the gods -- all five of them -- and only wants to experience freedom and the world once again. She meets with more than she bargained for, however, including an invading army; demons lurking inside men, women, and animals; an animated corpse; and one of the gods, who bestows upon her the power to cast out demons. And, oh yes, she encounters a well-built and handsome fighting man with a winning smile and long black hair streaked with gray, who has been placed under an enchantment.

Bujold is an extremely popular author who has won more Hugo Awards for Best Novel than any other writer with the exception of Robert Heinlein. I perhaps judge her too harshly. I do tend to compare all fantasy novels to The Lord of the Rings, so they all come up short. I judge this a cotton candy kind of book; I enjoyed myself while reading it, but it left no lingering nourishment and I felt a bit guilty afterwards.

Monday, March 27, 2017

FOREVER PEACE by JOE HALDEMAN (1997)

I was looking forward to reading this science fiction novel because I really liked Haldeman's 1977 novel The Forever War. I am sorely disappointed. In my opinion, this book lacks focus and logic and a consistent message.

Haldeman actually tells three stories here, and they don't mesh very well. The book begins with a war scene, as remotely-controlled robots battle against conventionally armed insurgents in Central America. The robots are controlled from many miles away by so-called "mechanics" who are "jacked" together through shunts into their brains in order to coordinate the actions. The jacking technology allows those connected not only to read each other's thoughts but also to feel what the others feel. This is an intriguing set-up, allowing the author to portray the mechanics as they actually experience the death of one of their number from brain-overload or actually feel the guilt one of their number feels from the killing of adversaries. Haldeman also lets us know how beneficial to the sexual experience jacking together can be, as a participant feels not only hia/her own physical sensations but also the sensations of the partner.

From this beginning, Haldeman jumps to the discovery by one of the mechanics (who happens to be a physicist) and his lover (also a scientist) that a project nearing completion around the planet Jupiter will bring about a second Big-Bang, which will destroy the galaxy. How can they convince their country to stop the project?

The third story hinges on the discovery that being continuously jacked with a group for about two weeks results in such overwhelming empathy that the participants can no longer bear to injure or kill others, except in self defense. Thus, to bring about worldwide peace, everyone would need to have a jack installed. Simple, right? This is the point where many lapses in logic enter in. To detail them would reveal the entire plot of the latter part of the novel. Just take my word for it--this is not something that could even be possible and if it could it wouldn't even work.

Haldeman's message seems to be that peace could be achieved if people had more empathy, which is undoubtedly true. Yet the novel's most riveting passages are scenes of violence and mayhem, which would seem to weaken the plea for peace.

Forever Peace won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1998, so this is a minority opinion. I would not recommend this novel.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

THE FALL OF HYPERION by DAN SIMMONS (1990)

The Fall of Hyperion is a continuation of the story which Simmons began in Hyperion (reviewed here just previously). Neither book would be complete as a stand-alone novel. As this part of the story begins, a group of pilgrims has just arrived at the valley of the Time Tombs on the planet Hyperion, each hoping to confront the Shrike, a fearsome creature covered in spikes, thorns, and blades, who has emerged from the Tombs. In the meantime, humanity has begun an all-out war between the planets of the Hegemony (who are essentially super-capitalistic and environment-destroying) and the Ouster planets (who are essentially empathetic and environmentally protective). I thought of them as Republicans and Democrats. Ostensibly aiding the Hegemony is the TechnoCore, the artificial intelligence community which had given the Hegemony the Farcaster Web, which allows instantaneous transport from one planet to another.

Thus begins an extremely convoluted plot which contains so many twists and turns that it is impossible to summarize. Suffice it to say that it includes many betrayals; much political maneuvering; space battles; some dubious metaphysics; time travel; the continuing stories of the pilgrims; musings about God/god and religious belief; deaths and resurrections; many references to 18th, 19th, and 20th Century poets, music composers, and artists; and more than a few plot threads left dangling.

All of this is narrated by a cybrid the TechnoCore has created by combining the DNA and memories of the poet John Keats with an artificial intelligence. He is able to describe events at which he is not present because he dreams them. I kid you not.

This is a mess of a book, with too much happening and too many story lines and too many characters and too much left unexplained. It jumps around from character to character and situation to situation. It is confusing. It doesn't always make sense. And yet....

This part of the story was diverting and kept me reading despite its excesses and lack of coherent logic. The first volume was much better. As space operas go, this one is better than many, but not nearly on a par with Frank Herbert's Dune, to which it is often compared.

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The Fall of Hyperion won the British Science Fiction and Locus awards for best novel in 1990.

Friday, March 17, 2017

HYPERION by DAN SIMMONS (1989)

Far in the future, when humanity has spread across the galaxy, on Hyperion, a planet far far away, a mysterious creature called the Shrike begins appearing in the area of pre-history artifacts known as the Time Tombs, which seem to be moving backwards in time. He is a murderous creature with four arms and a body covered in thorns, spikes, and blades who kills with discrimination. Some view him as a devil meant to punish mankind, and some view him as a god meant to save mankind from itself. On this planet and on other far-flung worlds a religious cult arises that worships him. On the eve of a galactic battle which will determine the future of humanity, seven men and women set out for a final pilgrimage to meet the Shrike, each with a different reason, each knowing that only one, if that, will be granted a wish and left alive to return.

Simmons structures his excellent novel in the manner of The Canterbury Tales: During the course of the long journey, the seven pilgrims agree to pass the time by telling their personal stories, revealing their reasons for wishing to confront the Shrike. These are the seven:

THE PRIEST--one of the scattering of remaining Catholics whose previous visit to Hyperion left him with an almost unbearable burden which threatens to destroy his faith;

THE SOLDIER--a man of violence and war whose life and dreams have long been haunted by a mysterious lover, who might or might not be an incarnation of the Shrike;

THE POET--a cynical alcoholic who believes the Shrike to be his Muse that will allow him to finish his great poem;

THE DETECTIVE--a young woman of dedication and loyalty who travels to Hyperion in place of a murdered former client who had also been her lover;

THE SCHOLAR--a father who is desperate to save his infant daughter, who is traveling backwards in time toward non-existence as a result of her previous visit to Hyperion;

THE CONSUL--a former bureaucrat on Hyperion whose goal is revenge against humanity for the ecological destruction of many worlds;

THE STARSHIP CAPTAIN--a man of mystery who suddenly disappears without a trace before his story can be told.

Framing the stories of the seven is the preparation for the battle for Hyperion between the Hegemony, many worlds under a central government who have reshaped the ecology of planets to fit their perceived needs, and the Ousters, renegade worlds who have adapted themselves to fit the ecology of their planets. Purportedly advising the Hegemony is the TechnoCore, the artificial intelligence community once created by humans but now operating independently under its own mysterious agenda.

Science fiction is often faulted for its reliance on plot at the expense of character development, but this science fiction novel surprises by putting the emphasis on the characters. I became so totally invested in their dilemmas and motivations that when the book ended abruptly with their arrival in the valley of the Time Tombs, I rushed to my computer to order the sequel, The Fall of Hyperion, rather than just give up on the story, as I did with The Three-Body Problem, the book I just previously reviewed. I can strongly recommend this to anyone wishing to escape reality and be taken to someplace else for a couple of days.

Hyperion won the Hugo and Locus awards for best science fiction novel, and is near the top on many Best Of... lists.