Alan Turing: The Enigma – Andrew Hodges (1983). 664 pages with another fifty pages of notes. Seven hundred bitterly ironic pages describing Turing’s work during WWII in breaking the Enigma code and ending with his shoddy treatment at the hands of a nation he’d been instrumental in saving from the Nazis. Turing has been a source of fascination for me for many years, so i’m astonished that i had not got around to reading this definitive work until now. Perhaps i sensed how difficult it would be not only because it delves deeply into Turing’s mathematics but also because it paints an all-too-vivid picture of furtive life as a gay man in the good old days of my youth.
Mathematics has never been easy for me, so i found the extensive discussions/explications of Turing’s mathematical work very hard reading, but the book’s harsh reminder of how difficult life was for homosexuals just a few years ago was equally hard. Sitting here comfortably in 2015 when 70% of Americans live in states in which gay marriage is legal provides a dramatic cognitive dissonance with the reality that existed just a few years ago.
Last year i spoke briefly with a lay leader in the Episcopal Church, telling her that it was admirable that her church treated gays as full, equal human beings and that i found it wonderful that they’d been doing so “for nearly twenty years!” It was in my brightest tone of praise, but she shot me a little look indicating that she fully understood my subtext, that until the immediate past her church, like all Christian churches, had persecuted gays to the fullest extent possible.
And the churches were only the source of the persecution since the state, driven by religious bigotry, had the power to jail gays and used it, as in Turing’s case, enthusiastically. Schadenfreude swept me as i realized that by driving Turing to suicide, Britain also killed the strong probability that it would have been a contender as the world leader in computers and would have reaped a major chunk of the economic reward that came to this country instead.
Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson. (1993) It took me only twenty years to get around to this SF classic. Thoroughly enjoyable depiction of the colonization of Mars, and i look forward to the sequel. That said, i was continually disturbed by what seem to me to be serious flaws in the physics, most particularly how such an enormous amount of materiel could be transported out of Earth’s gravity well and into that of Mars. And then how they could so rapidly build a complex new habitat in such a hostile environment. They seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of power. Still, the novel was a highly entertaining experience for all the continual suspensions of disbelief it required. Strong characters and vivid description of the Martian landscape.
All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (2014). I’d call this a great novel if i weren’t cautious about flinging that encomium around. Certainly it’s a fine one that interleaves, in fascinating chapters one or two pages long, the lives of a blind French girl and an orphan German boy during the war years 1940-45 until his military unit is sent to her small town in France at the end of the war and they finally meet. Achingly beautiful. And not so, since this is, after all, war. And we are, after all, human.
OK, one tiny quibble. In almost all instances when Doerr writes about the innards of radios he uses “valves” instead of “tubes”. Dude, you’re not a Brit, you’re an American and most American readers do not know that British usage. Not, of course, that Americans under forty know that radios used to have tubes instead of transistors.
Dust – Hugh Howey (2014). I read Wool and Shift, the first two novels in this series last summer and foolishly waited to read this third novel until i’d already forgot so much of the first two that i couldn’t remember most of the characters and much of the plot, which severely impacted my enjoyment of the last volume. These are good science fiction, but unless you’re young you need to read them in quick succession. Late note: Martha at Folio Books assures me that even if i had had better recall of the first two novels in this trilogy, i’d still not have enjoyed Dust as much as the others in that it was not nearly as well written. Whew.
Green Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson (1994). This one takes up where Red Mars left off and traces the developments of the next decades on Mars. Since i was smart enough to read it a couple of weeks after i’d finished Red Mars, i had no trouble picking up in the lives of the characters at the point when Red Mars ended. Green Mars tells us quite a lot more about the situation back on Earth, where the population has overshot the planet’s carrying capacity and transnational corporations have grown more powerful and now vie with the larger countries for control, having taken over most of the smaller countries on Earth and being eager to take complete control of Mars. Thus, the revolution on Mars, carefully timed to take place when the transnationals have their hands full on Earth after global warming causes the West Antarctic ice sheet to catastrophically collapse into the ocean and rapidly raise sea levels several meters. Something tells me these books are banned in Republican-controlled libraries.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? – Roz Chast (2014) Ahhh, I read both volumes of Spiegelman’s Maus several years ago with pleasure and horror, so i figured it was time to read another graphic novel. Who better than Roz Chast, whose cartoons i’ve been enjoying for decades in The New Yorker. An enjoyable read, as is just about anything that helps us understand our parents, and hers were if anything even more deeply into denial than mine.
Blue Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson (1996) The last in Robinson’s Mars trilogy. These are long novels (this one 761 pages) with a lot of characters, and some of the characters are tracked through all three novels. It’s a good thing i’m reading them in quick succession or i wouldn’t be able to remember enough about them to enjoy them. That said, i quite enjoyed all three although i’ll add now a bit more on my earlier complaint about being disturbed by the author’s violations of the laws of physics. Look, i’m just fine with ansibles and force fields and ray guns and warp drives if they’re just presented as part of the story about an imaginary universe. The problem for me in these novels is that Robinson provides scientific explanations for the terraforming of Mars that simply don’t seem at all plausible to me. I’d have been fine with his just saying that we terraformed Mars. My complaint is with his explanation of how we did it.
Bottom line, though, is that i gobbled all three books up, and there’s a great deal of eminently realistic analysis of political systems and sociology here that i found fascinating.
In a lovely coincidence, back here on Earth were are now actually in the process of selecting volunteers for a manned, one-way expedition to Mars. Really.
Mort(e) – Robert Repino (2015). Oh my goodness. Let’s start at the top. The publisher is Soho Press, a small New York publisher specializing in mysteries, and this book is one of the handsomest volumes i’ve seen in a while. The binding is excellent, it is beautifully gathered and sewn, and the cover design is striking with inset gold and silver letters and accentuation in a fanciful but legible typeface. Also, and this is important to me, it feels good in the hand.
Oh, and i should probably mention that reading it provided a great deal of entertainment.
The protagonist is a cat who, owing to a sort of virus concocted and released by hyperintelligent ants, assumed a number of human characteristics, both physical and mental and (no serious spoiler here since there’s so much else going on in this dystopian fantasy) becomes a sort of Messiah.
Suspend your disbelief on the coatrack at the door, then step inside for a great science fiction adventure.
Tumbleweed – Jan Willem van de Wetering (1976). This is the second in van de Wetering’s series of Amsterdam detective novels featuring the delightful de Gier and Grijpstra. I read it as a digital file from Soho Press, having discovered it on the link i gave above to this publisher. Alas, the file was created using optical character recognition, so it’s full of typos. OCR (or at least the version used for this novel) frequently does not recognize the Dutch capital IJ at the beginning of proper nouns, and often presented “the” as “die” although these errors were not sense destructive. Much worse was that in a number of instances it was clear that there were gaps, of indeterminate length, in the text, and this could well be responsible for my sense that the identification of the killer was not as entertainingly handled as in the first and third novels that i’d read in hard copy last year.
Oh well, the bottom line is that it was still a good read, and Grijpstra and de Geir were as fascinating as ever. Since it’s only five bucks, i’ll give the digital form another try for the fourth novel.
The Last Man – Brian Vaughan, writer; Pia Guerra, penciller; José Marzán, inker; Pamela Rambo, colorist; Clem Robins, letterer (2014). Well yes, a graphic novel. So now i’ve read three graphic memoirs (both volumes of Spiegelman’s Maus and Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant and one graphic novel. Maus is a masterpiece, Can’t We Talk was good, but for novels i’ll stick to the traditional form. Certainly i enjoyed The Last Man, but i could never let go of the feeling that i was reading a comic book. Entertaining, yes, but thin gruel.
Redeployment – Phil Klay (2014). A collection of short stories that won the National Book Award, and a good addition to your war-writing library. I’ve read a good many war memoirs and novels, and had expected to enjoy this book more than i did. Somehow the short story format was just not enough development for the better stories. Probably just me, but i like my war tales book length like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Tobias Wolff’s In Pharoah’s Army. And even on a much lower plane, Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead.
The News, A User’s Manual – Alain de Botton (2014) We are buried in an avalanche of news, and de Botton’s goal is to help us make sense of it and to use it for our betterment. This profound book is rich in insights into the role news plays in our lives but inexplicably fails to address what i feel is the gravest flaw in our current system, that it is all too easy for modern Americans to so carefully tailor the sources of the news they get to those who share our own strong biases so that we end up getting a hideously distorted picture of what’s going on in our world. This is particularly true now that many of our leading sources of news present news so slanted that it’s outright dishonest. Even if they might wish otherwise, reporters present material they know to be lies because their bosses demand it. Since i’m a liberal, i see Fox News as the archvillain here, but i’m acutely aware that liberal news sources can be quite biased themselves and sometimes also present stories that are deliberately distorted.
Against the Country – Ben Metcalf (2015) I just love discovering gifted prose stylists, and i would not have imagined that the filth, poverty, ignorance, hatred, and despair of rural America could be so lyrically described. Oh, my, goodness. Took me a while to get through this novel because i had to stop and marvel after many sentences, sometimes in the middle of sentences. Marvel, that is, when i was not laughing too hard to marvel. As a bonus, there’s a whole chapter on the agonies of the country school bus, with which i got all too familiar from riding one thirty miles into Odessa for several years in the fifties.
In America: Travels With John Steinbeck – Geert Mak (2012) “O wad some Power the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as ithers see us!” – Robert Burns. Actually that quote from Burns would stand by itself as a review of the latest of Mak’s books. In 2010, exactly fifty years after John Steinbeck made the road trip across this country that turned into Travels With Charley, Mak made his own trip across the country comparing what he saw with Steinbeck’s America of fifty years ago.
A lot has changed, and little of it for the good. And that said, while Mak is an astute observer and willing to make harsh criticisms, he is way too kind. So kind, in fact, that i cannot understand the delay in putting this book up for sale in this country because i think Americans will snap it up. As it is, i’ve had one on order at my bookstore for many months and finally broke down and got the London publisher to ship me one since i knew i’d want to give it to at least two people.
Read this book. It’s a superb analysis of how this country transformed itself from a benign power that saved the planet during WWII to the corporate pawn we see now, flush with our glorious victories in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Harder They Come – T. C. Boyle (2015). I didn’t discover Boyle until about a decade ago, and everything of his i read makes me want to read more. This, his newest novel, is set mostly in the Ft. Bragg area in Northern California and tracks the relationships among three people, a seventy year old ex-marine who is definitely the least damaged of them, his schizophrenic son, and his son’s older inamorata, a radical paranoid right-wing anarchist farrier.
Just when you think the situation can’t get worse, it does.
And yet, this is an excruciatingly sensitive, and realistic, portrayal of people who are very like many we all have known, some more damaged than others. Not too many of us have known farriers, but other than that…. What a fine novel.
Other Possibilities – Mark Pantoja (2013). This slim volume is a collection of short stories written at Clarion West Writers (sic) Workshop, “an intensive six-week program for writers preparing for professional careers in science fiction and fantasy” that costs $3800 and includes instruction, lodging, and “partial board”. Apparently the instruction does not include use of the apostrophe. Pantoja has a great imagination, spins a good tale, and handles dialogue well.
Alas, his grasp of basic English grammar is tenuous, and it is clear that nowhere in the publication process was there an editor to catch things like “one publishes themselves from the ground up”, “Her accent was country-thick, so much so that her broken English was easier to understand”, “I order a case and paid for it”, “decided to stumbled back”, and “He stepped on the balcony”, all in the first 22 pages, at which point i stopped marking problems and just let myself enjoy the plots.
And yes, since my website is utterly riddled with typos and misspellings, and replete with deliberate violations of traditional grammatical rules and the use of British punctuation standards regarding the use of quotation marks, i can’t criticize Pantoja from some high grammatical ground, but still….
Finally, i’ll praise two other aspects of the book besides the good plotting. First, Pantoja concludes his foreword with the line, “And long live the Oxford comma.” Yes!!!!
More importantly, the book is handsomely designed by Martha Pettit, a good designer and my second-favorite bookseller.
The Third Plate – Dan Barber. (2014). Sybil knows this guy and gave me an autographed copy, which i devoured with pleasure after niggling a bit over the antiquity of eight-row corn.
A great book in which he details a new way of thinking about a sustainable food system that is also delicious, a win-win. He ranges from descriptions of growing heirloom varieties of wheat and corn in New England to the Spanish production of ham and farmed fish. Such a fine book that i gave it to Mark, my favorite ecologist.
Green Shadows, White Whale – Ray Bradbury (2002). In 1953 Bradbury lived in Ireland while writing the screenplay for John Huston’s film, Moby Dick, and in 1963 he published The Anthem Sprinters and other Antics, a collection of short stories set in Ireland. Then, in the nineties he published more vignettes from his stay in Ireland and finally, in 2002 published this “novel” assembled from the Irish material. Such great fun that i just sent it to my friend Scott in Ireland.
Fortune Smiles – Adam Johnson. (2015). OK, you’re reading it here first because this book won’t be published until this fall, the copy i read being a galley given me by Paula. My introduction to Johnson was reading “Teen Sniper” in Harper’s Magazine several years ago and being utterly blown away by one of the best short stories i’d read in years. So of course i bought Emporium, Johnson’s first short story collection, and loved it so much that i bought his first novel, Parasites Like Us when it appeared. I felt he was a much better short story writer than novelist, so i skipped The Orphan Master’s Son. But the six stories in Fortune Smiles are so fine, ranging from very good to breathtaking, that i’m thinking i’ll have to give that second novel a try. Buy Fortune Smiles the instant it’s available. From Paula at Folio.
The Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi (2015). Margaret Atwood now has a competitor in dystopian fiction. Set mostly in a near future Phoenix turned into an urban core clinging to survival surrounded by miles of abandoned suburbs no longer habitable for lack of water, this thriller revolves around a three-way struggle for Colorado River water rights among Arizona, Nevada, and California, the situation being complicated by hordes of impoverished and very thirsty Texas refugees desperate to escape the double whammy of devastating hurricanes in their east and total drought in their west. Order, of a sort, is maintained by criminal gangs and by heavily militarized state police forces augmented by the private security apparatus guarding the handful of arcologies, the Chinese-built sealed air-conditioned high rise complexes with hydroponic gardens that clean the air and purify and re-use the water so well that they are virtually self-sustainable. In them, the fivers (from their five-digit addresses) live in luxury protected from the desperate, dirty, and dehydrated masses.
Throw in some vivid characters – a voracious Las Vegas water mogul, her hired muscle “Water Knife”, an investigative reporter who sticks her nose into affairs she really shouldn’t, a couple of Texas street girls clinging to survival as they plot to get across the desert and through the wall of security defending the California border, some monstrous gangsters, some hideous capitalists who’ll stop at nothing, and a pitifully few kindly souls – and you’ve got a spellbinding thriller, a mashup of No Country for Old Men and The Madaddam Trilogy.
Seveneves – Neal Stephenson (2015) I discovered Stephenson when i fell in love with Snow Crash shortly after its publication in 1992, so i was eagerly waiting when The Diamond Age appeared and quite liked it, too. Cryptonomicon enraptured me. So i was crushed when i found his next offering, the massive historical fiction Baroque Cycle utterly unreadable. I tried, i tried, but couldn’t get more than fifty pages into Quicksilver, the first of the novels. Hell, i even flipped to the last novel and tried that. Nope. Just more of the same. So he fell off my map.
And then i read a review of Seveneves. Actually, i started reading the review, put it down, and ran to Folio on 24th Street, where they had a crisp copy waiting for me. Glad i did, as the Stephenson i love is back.
The book starts Right Now when an errant tiny black hole at very high velocity punches right through the moon, which cracks it into seven large pieces that remain close together owing to their gravity but not so close that they don’t keep bumping into each other and splitting into smaller fragments. Almost immediately it is figured out that as these collisions continue, pieces of various sizes will be given enough impact to escape the moon’s gravity well, enter Earth’s, and fall as meteorites until the point of a Hard Rain is reached and the surface of the earth is heated until no life remains.
So we’ve got about two years to fling enough materiel and people up to the existing space station to turn it into a colony on which human life can be sustained until some point in the distant future when the Hard Rain is over and Earth cools off enough to again be inhabitable. Well, assuming life can be sustained that long.
Ummm, yes, some technological issues to be solved, but Stephenson knows his technology, and his descriptions of how everything is accomplished ring true. And his characters are as rich and finely drawn as ever. As is his sense of humor.
This is science fiction at its best even though it’s only about page 500 that you learn the significance of the title.
Tell Paula i sent you.
JD – Mark Merlis (2015). Oh goodness, Merlis is back with his fourth novel, and it’s right up there with his first three examinations of the contemporary American gay world. This one tracks Martha, a graphic illustrator, her husband Johnathan, an author who peaked early with one novel and produced nothing else, and their son Mickey who died in Vietnam not long after he arrived. Thirty years later, Martha is contacted by a scholar who wants to write a book on her late husband, and this causes her to go to the library to which she had donated all her husband’s manuscripts and to read, for the first time, his journals.
Oh dear. Turns out her husband was not just a man who had a bit of a bisexual streak and snuck around having some gay sex on the side since he needed sex far more frequently than she did, but rather, he was a voracious gay sexual athlete.
And a total asshole.
And then it gets worse as the novel alternates excerpts from his journals with her commentary.
Near the end, as you’ve come to expect utter degradation… But wait, no spoilers here.
The Gold Coast – Kim Stanley Robinson (1988). The first in Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy, set in Orange County in 2027, it’s entertaining reading and realistic depiction of urban sprawl gone mad with layers of elevated freeways built over everything. A mix of casual sex, designer drugs, corporate skulduggery in the military-industrial complex, and industrial terrorism. Part of the entertainment here is noticing what he failed to anticipate, like peak oil and global warming, not to mention the Internet. But hey, still readable.
Gnarled Tree: PTSD and the Ancient Wisdom of Wilderness – William Katzhaus (2015). Disclaimer: Katzhaus is a former colleague and friend, so i’m biased. That said, wow, it’s good. Well, good in a sad way since his PTSD resulted from sexual abuse when he was six years old. And good in a good way since the book describes his using a combination of therapy and solo wilderness adventures to come to grips with his trauma. The book is available online from Scribd and also on Lulu, in a real eBook format.
My Life As a Nomad – Galang Ayu. Composed and translated by Ian Mackenzie. pre-publication. I got to be a First Reader for this amazing book, the first in a multivolume memoir already completed in the Penan language with Mackenzie’s guidance. In his translation, Mackenzie provides voluminous commentary to help outsiders understand life in a nomadic tribe in the Sarawak province of Malaysian Borneo. A fascinating window into a vanishing world, and i eagerly await its publication, as i do subsequent volumes.
The Subprimes – Karl Taro Greenfeld (2015). A delightful dystopian satire set in the near future in Southern California/Western Nevada. “Subprime” is a slur describing people who have lost their jobs, their houses, and their credit rating as economic disaster spreads, eking out an existence in pick-up work and scavenging in an America in which everything has been privatized and the fossil-fuel industries reign supreme. The prisons are privately operated Credit Rehabilitation Centers, public schools have been shut down by the Right To Learn Act, electric cars/hybrids are illegal, and evangelical Christians and the oil industry are in an unholy alliance.
But then the subprimes get a charismatic leader, Sargam, a mysterious motorcyclist with no past but stunningly beautiful in her white leathers. Take it from there to an apocalyptic ending in the desert near Las Vegas, but no spoiler here.
Purity – Jonathan Franzen (2015). Paula gave me a pre-publication copy of this novel, and i started it eagerly since i’d enjoyed The Corrections so much. Alas, the eponymous main character drove me batty, and my dislike for her grew so intense that i finally had to give the book back to Paula when i was only halfway through. Life is too short to force myself to read something i’m not enjoying.
This doesn’t mean that i’ll stop reading Franzen. In fact, i look forward to reading everything he’s written (except Purity). I find his analysis of his friend David Foster Wallace’s suicide breathtaking and strongly recommend it to Wallace fans. Here’s a link.
The Wild Shore – Kim Stanley Robinson (1984). The second in his Three Californias trilogy, this one set on the San Diego coast in 2047 in the aftermath of the nuclear devastation of the United States. I wish Robinson could write as well as Atwood, but still, this is an entertaining dystopia, a good Bildungsroman, and an engaging adventure tale.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusistania – Erik Larson (2015). A good account with a lot of detail gathered from survivor accounts and historical records. I found interesting that nowhere did it mention an aspect the of disaster that i seem to recall from my student days, the question of whether passenger liners could still be considered neutral if their holds were full of munitions in addition to the passengers’ baggage. I swear i recall reading twenty or so years ago a dramatic exposé providing the first proof that the Lusistania had been packed to the gunwales with hundreds of tons of munitions, contrary to the doctored manifest lists used by the British to cover this up. Of course Cunard would cook up false manifests since the public’s knowing that the Lusistania’s hold was full of munitions would have impacted bookings.
An interesting aspect of this book is that it reveals Winston Churchill to be even more callous than we’d known, which is saying a lot. For example, he made sure that the British navy provided no escorts for the Lusistania because he wanted it to be sunk in order to get the Americans into the war on his side, it being clear that without American military support, the Brits were going to lose.
Another shocker was the discovery that SIGINT did not originate with the US Army in WWII, as i had believed, but rather with the Brits in WWI, they avidly and very effectively eavesdropping on German (and American) radio communications.
The Library at Mount Char – Scott Hawkins (2015). Not real easy to categorize this novel as it’s part fantasy, part science fiction, part alternate reality, part just plain weird. It features a main character, Carolyn, who makes Smilla look just plain wimpy. And finally, i sat up way past my bedtime finishing it, something i almost never do anymore. Three thumbs up.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex – Nathaniel Philbrick (2000). A marvelous historical companion to Moby Dick. There had been some problems like nearly getting swamped in a squall and being short on provisions, and life on a whaleship was hard, it taking a full month of fighting the freezing westerlies to get around Cape Horn; but the Essex had finally reached a rich new whaling ground way out west of the Galapagos and was rapidly filling the hold with whale oil when it was stove in and sunk by an enraged sperm whale, leaving the crew afloat in three whaleboats in the middle of the Pacific.
And then things got difficult, but no spoiler here except maybe Stay Out of Boats.
Pacific Edge – Kim Stanley Robinson (1988) The third in Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy, this one is set in 2065. Unlike the previous two, this is utopian. Well, there’s a snake in the garden. Like the others, an enjoyable read even though i had some difficulty finding plausible Robinson’s description of how this utopia came about. Still, this is by far the best of the three.
The Swede – Robert Karjel, tr. Nancy Pick and Robert Karjel (2015). Published in the UK under the title My Name is N. Don’t often read detective novels, but sure am glad i made an exception for this one. Fascinating to see an onion peeled so carefully, each layer full of surprises. I was blindsided over and over until the last word, which was the last jaw dropping revelation. Other than stopping to sleep last night, i didn’t put this one down.
Reviews of this book tend to be full of spoilers great and small, and since the joy in reading it is all those slackjawed moments as the plot unfolds, i won’t say anything here except that it’s about a Swedish security agent who, at the behest of the Americans, is sent here in 2005 on a special assignment that gets stranger and stranger. Well, i’ll give one clue. The FBI and CIA are involved and many folks are not who they seem.
Thank goodness i’d blundered onto no spoilers before i read this book, so wait until you’ve finished the book BEFORE YOU OPEN THIS LINK to a response from the author to some of the controversy it caused.
Ship Breaker – Paolo Bacigalupi (2010) I loved The Water Knife so much that i wanted more, and this one did not disappoint. A rollicking YA adventure in a dystopian setting, a world in which global warming has raised sea levels considerably and petroleum products are so scarce that they’re priceless. Our gap between the haves and the have nots has widened to a chasm. The setting is so bleak that it took a while before i realized that it was the Gulf Coast, quite some distance inland from our current coast, where there is a shipbreaking industry very similar to the one currently active on India’s west coast and just as hideous for the breakers. An entertaining read.
Pump Six and Other Stories – Paolo Bacigalupi (2008) – That last one was so entertaining that i went ahead and checked out this collection of Bacigalupi’s short stories. Good, but i like his novels better.
Love and Longing in Bombay – Vikram Chandra (1997). Chandra’s first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain was magnificent, and i lent it to an Indian programmer at Oracle who told me he was blown away by it. Love and Longing is Chandra’s first short story collection, and the stories are so breathtaking that i look forward to reading the two novels he’s published since then.
The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood (2015). A new novel by Margaret Atwood, so what do i do? Well, i buy it the first day it’s available and put everything on hold while i devour it.
I’d noticed out of the corner of my eye some negative reviews but hadn’t read them for fear of spoilers. And i’ll provide no spoilers here except to say that after The Blind Assassin and The MadAddam Trilogy the only way to go was down and Atwood did.
On Such a Full Sea – Chang-Rae Lee (2014). What excellent writing and entertaining plotting. Yes, another dystopian novel, this one set in the Baltimore area about 75 years in the future when the gulf between the haves and have-nots has widened to the point that there are now a few very secure privileged enclaves called Charters, a number of relatively secure fortified towns with tightly regulated populations that maintain a moderately comfortable standard of living, and the lawless and impoverished rest of the country, where one ventures only at great risk. Considering the direction this country has taken the past forty years, it’s a very believable situation, and Lee’s hyper vivid characters bring it to life beautifully. I gotta read some of Lee’s earlier writing.
Gold Fame Citrus – Claire Vaye Watkins. (2015) I was blown away by the short stories in Watkins’ Battleborn, some of the best writing i’d seen in quite some time, a combination of vivid characterization and fine prose, so of course i snapped up her first novel even though it’s another dystopia and i’d sworn i’d read something else next.
This one’s set in Southern California in the near future after a combination of drought and a hundred fifty years of mismanagement has caused the total collapse of California’s water and the appearance of The Amargaso, a gigantic sand dune desert occupying most of Southern California and the Central Valley, leaving the survivors (known as the pejorative “Mojavs” desperate to emigrate to the Pacific Northwest/Canada and the parts of the US east of the Rockies, where they are less than welcomed.
The focus is on a trio of survivors who are taken in by a colony of people who’ve managed to find a way of living in the Amargoso. Well, but not all is as it seems, and there are problems in paradise.
Watkins writes divinely, and i’ll read anything she writes just for the joy of wallowing in her prose.
Petaluma, A California River Town – Adair Lara (1982). Finally, something other than a dystopian novel. I dropped in at the Historical Society the other day and found it functionally closed but a stray worker was nice and recommended a history of the town, which i snapped up instantly when i noticed that the author was Adair Lara, whose column in the San Francisco Chronicle i read with great pleasure for its eighteen-year run. This history was her first book, and it shows. That said, it provided a great deal of background for a new resident and will reside in my library as a reference source.
The Art of Language Invention – David J. Peterson (2015). Conlangs (constructed languages) have been experimented with for centuries, but the first complete constructed languages, Volapük and Esperanto, were devised in the late nineteenth century out of a desire to create a world language that would be easy to learn (at least for speakers of Indo-European languages). Peterson is one of the luminaries of contemporary conlangs, which focus not on practical languages but rather on languages used by aliens in movies.
I found the chapter on phonology useful as a review since this area of language study is one of my weakest and i’d forgot a good deal. The rest of the book was somewhat entertaining although i do have to admit that i’d have enjoyed it much more if i were a movie fan and had seen some of the movies for which these languages were created. If you fit into that category and love language trivia, you might want to borrow this book from your public library.
Albert of Adelaide – Howard L. Anderson (2012). OK, some pure entertainment, the tale of platypus named Albert who escapes from the Adelaide zoo and embarks on a transcontinental adventure across the Australian desert. An anthropomorphic fantasy and yet, yet i found it highly entertaining as a break from serious subjects. Alcoholic bandicoots, murderous kangaroos, kindly wombats, loyal dingoes, and even a human. Yep.
The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi (2009). Oh wow. A biotech dystopia set in a Bankok of the future in which the world has been ravaged by biotech-induced disasters, most foodstock plants have succumbed to disease, and fossil fuels have been almost totally depleted. Anderson, an operative working for an American biotech company/world power is in Bangkok looking for disease-resistant seed stock under cover as a factory supervisor. A power struggle between Thai political factions is underway, and Anderson needs to get himself properly aligned quickly. Add a windup girl, an engineered being grown in a crèche and almost human, and you’ve got plenty of material for a rich and complex plot. An absolute thriller.
Slade House – David Mitchell (2015). Mitchell’s back with yet another fine novel, this one a contemporary haunted house mystery. Mitchell is near the top of my list of favorite living writers, and this little jewel is up to standard even if you don’t normally read haunted house stories.
The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 2 – Benjamin Griffin, et al. eds. (2013). My friend Sharon is one of the editors of this series, and she recently sent me a copy of Vol. 3. As i pulled it off the shelf to begin reading it, i happened to notice a bookmark sticking out of Vol. 2 and was shocked to discover that i’d somehow got sidetracked and not finished reading it. Sigh. So i took up where i’d left off and marvel that i was already so senile by 2013 that i’d somehow not completed it, a lapse all the more shocking because since every couple of pages there’s a line so fine that i have to stop and marvel.
A fringe benfit of reading the autobiography is being reminded that i never got around to reading several of his books and that i must do so.
Yes, these autobiographical volumes are thick, 733 pages for Vol. 2, but since we’re not scholars we can skip the Explanatory Notes and Appendices and just read the 456 pages of text for a marvelous window into Twain’s life and a reminder of what a keen observer of his country he was, a man who’d sooner go to hell than turn in a runaway slave.
2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson (2012). It’s always a pleasure to get back to my entertainment reading after completing something long and serious, and Robinson does not disappoint. This 561 pp. novel is set in 2312 when the entire solar system has been colonized after extensive terraforming of Mars, Venus, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Earth, alas, continues to reap the bitter harvest of environmental degradation and overpopulation, and it remains a grim place to live except for those with lots of money. The colonies, on the other hand, are all egalitarian utopias that supply earth with more than enough food except that it doesn’t get distributed well.
That’s just the background. The plot of the novel focuses on an attempt to understand the cause of the destruction of the city on Mercury, an engineering marvel that runs on rails to stay, in effect, at dawn to avoid being incinerated during the daytime. As the investigation continues, it becomes clear that the destruction was an act of terrorism perpetrated by a group of malignant qubes, quantum computers that had achieved AI.
Rich and vivid characters, you bet. Fascinating descriptions of the colonies. Sparkling wit, as in Robinson’s coinage of a new word, “goldsworthy”, a noun meaning an exterior sculpture, usually large and made of native materials. Oh, and throw in a non-traditional love story.
It’s a feast, particularly since i’ve resolved my earlier quibbles with the physics involved in all the terraforming in Robinson’s work. Just suspend your disbelief and take as a given that there is an unlimited source of power, and everything else becomes plausible.
The Revenge of Geography – Robert D. Kaplan (2012) Back to something serious, and this one is serious, indeed. The subtitle gives you a clue: “What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate”. Although i’ve not read any of Kaplan’s previous books, i have read some of his articles in The Atlantic Monthly, and my reaction to this book is similar. Kaplan is a neocon, but he writes so well that he’s convincing, even to a flaming liberal like me. Worse yet, the bastard is willing to admit his errors. He was an eloquent proponent of our invasion of Iraq, but yet he now acknowledges that he got that one terribly wrong and profoundly regrets his advocacy. So i’ll keep reading him with one hand firmly on a salt shaker.
He’s so wonderfully articulate that he tips me into his camp while i’m reading him and i have to read his critics to recover my balance. Actually, i have to admit that i love reading him and sure do hope he’s wrong in his projections for the future of this country. And that said, in his concluding chapter on Mexico, in which he points out that Mexico is in the process of retaking the American Southwest, the territory it lost in the Mexican American War, he suggests that we need to strengthen Mexico rather than weakening it and that if we had poured into it the trillion dollars we squandered in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’d be a far stronger country with a brighter future.
The Swimming Pool Library – Alan Hollinghurst (1988). I loved The Folding Star and quite enjoyed The Line of Beauty, and i’d read favorable reviews of this one. Especially as Edmund Wilson withers, Hollinghurst takes on the mantle as the premier gay novelist of the early 21st century. Ummm, well, not sure he’s any better than Mark Merlis or Allan Gurganus.