Short novel by Ma Jian, China Dream is a poignant allegory. I am sure it is far richer in original Chinese, but I enjoyed and appreciated the deft characterizations and set pieces. Every person, to varying degrees, has to confront the difference between personal memories and the constructed social memories of relevant social groups. And we honor and remember individuals we knew, who were close to us, but occasionally wonder what makes them different from those other people who occupy our memories, whom we didn’t know, or whom we barely knew; they are the “manufactured” memories. I loved how this novel explored that aspect of our human nature.
I read the sprawling science-fiction novel The Algebraist by Iain Banks some years ago. I got it as a gift for Christmas, had forgotten I had read it, started reading it, started to think it was familiar, couldn’t recall much. I set it aside. Last week, bored, I randomly started reading in the middle. After a few pages I went back to page 1. I read it straight through over five nights. Wow. Sure, there were parts I skimmed. But this time around I really appreciated the nuance that is in the novel.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills was a tremendous read. The cover says “elliptical” and that was exactly right. It is very quiet, and not that much happens, but the juxtaposition of intense inner life with empty meaninglessness was… meaningful and thought-provoking. The kind of book where at the end you sit and look at the cover for awhile. One thing that was interesting for me was that about half way through I just read the last few pages, which I do not normally do, just to get a better idea of where it was heading. I remember thinking, “Oh a quiet book not going anywhere.” Little did I realize that it was a growing suspicion in my brain that was “where the book was going.” Here’s my spoiler alert- not about plot but about understanding the novel. Ishiguro structures it so nicely, with subtle ambiguity introduced in numerous place. Towards the end you start realizing: Wait, is Keiko’s mother Sachiko and not Etsuko? How do I know who is narrating the different parts? If indeed it is Sachiko who has moved to England (after America) and Keiko/Mariko who has committed suicide.. and maybe Etsuko was really the woman holding the child under the water in a sense? Time and identities are all mixed up. Anyway, that realization is brilliant.
Yay, my analysis is validated. here is a reader on goodreads: “Then, only ten pages from the end, the pronouns change. Where you expect ‘she’ there is ‘the child’ and where you expect ‘you’ there is ‘we’. And all of a sudden you’re unsure who is talking to whom, and when, and you start to realize that you have been taking what your narrator says at face value when perhaps you shouldn’t have.”
Random thought: Hills like white elephants kept coming to mind: elliptical dialogue.
I enjoyed 1776 by David McCullough and would encourage any reader to pick it up. It is a narrative of the fateful year when the rebellion against the authority of the British Crown was gathering steam and blew out into full blown war. I was not aware of just how precarious the short term military situation was: At several moments in the fall of 1776 a few different decisions and Washington could have been decisively defeated and Philadelphia captured. McCullough mentions, in the right ways, the contradictions of Virginia planters fighting for liberty while owning slaves. His focus is no on the ideology, but rather the particular military maneuvers and strategies adopted.
We read Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell for my neighborhood book club. I loved it, though admit it did get a tiny bit tedious. Plotless, kind of a “road” report (presumably mostly non-fiction). Very interested in learning about the workhouses in London, the “spikes.” We had a good discussion. most fellow readers did not like it… found it boring. So… reader beware!
The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey, is a very literary novel: most readers, I think, will be annoyed by the sudden shifts in narrative structure as Carey jumps back and forth between two first-person narrators, one the grieving horologist putting together an automaton from the 19th century, the other a diary of sorts by the (also grieving, of sorts) English gentleman who travels to Germany to commission the automaton. Both narrators are slightly off, Carey makes clear, as they misread social situations. But… the people they interact with are also “off” so in context maybe they aren’t misreading? And one of the minor characters is collecting folktales: could the novel be a sly post-modern folktale? The novel is very often abrupt, and reminded me how folktales commonly suddenly shift gears (“The ogre chased her into a dark woods where she lay sleeping for 50 years until a wandering peddler found her in a tree hollow.”) Certainly the novel has a Brothers Grimm feel to it.
But there is a humanistic side to the novel, inviting reflection on when an AI might gradually realize that she was an automaton, too? How could she tell, if the others could not either? That is a direction the novel does not pursue at all, but I liked that it invited that reflection. Very literary novels sometimes do that, I think: they enable the reader to imagine a completely different novel while enjoying the novel at hand.
In searching for an image of the book cover I discovered that the automaton is real! Wow. Made in 1772 by John Joseph Merlin.
Kate Morton’s The Lake House is a reasonably enjoyable gothic-style mystery set in Cornwall with a death, mysterious semi-aristocrats, beautiful garden, tortured police officer, some other unhappy people… engrossing for the setup, it runs out of steam halfway through, and you almost laugh out loud at the improbable coincidence of the ending. But books like these are what summer was made for, so I’m not complaining.
“Children of Ruin” by Adrian Tchaikovsky was a long sequel to Children of Time. The first was enjoyable due to the accelerated social evolution of the spiders. This one has similar features: a genuine concern for social evolution (octopi, and a single cell slime mold that has an atomic level neural net and so can encode and replicate everything). It started off well, but by the middle Tchaikovsky was pulling the old “hey let’s check in where we left the spiders, and advance the plot a couple steps but not much” and then “let’s get back to the spiders who are having the same conversation they had before.” Desperately needed editing.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s, The Years of Rice and Salt is an enjoyable big picture alt-history: what if Europeans had been wiped out by a virulent plague around 1200 AD or so (I was never clear about the exact timing). Of course there would still be wars, and science, and religion. It is a fun (but a bit of a slog) to get through the 600 pages and 1000 years. Robinson uses a narrative device that works for awhile, but at some point I found a increasingly tedious (won’t spoil it). An editor could have cut 100 pages of sporadic and tedious discussions among characters about the meaning and interpretation of “big history” which often sounded like Robinson regurgitating undergraduate “big history” reading list. Overall, enjoyable if use your “skimming” algorithm judiciously.
The three novellas that comprise Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter were the perfect read after the two longer pandemic novels (Severance and Station Eleven). They go back to Willa Cather subject matter: the hardscrabble ordinary lives of the mid-west and west in-between Americans of the 1870-1920 period. Incomes are rising rapidly and children increasingly are becoming well-educated and leaving the small farm towns. You can see plainly how the next generation is full of possibilities, but the probability of falling back are ever-present. Illness, “old mortality,” is everywhere. Nowhere more dramatic than Pale Horse, Pale Rider where death arrives unheralded in the middle of a banal paragraph about opening letters. When that sentence hits you, I bet every reader looks up and sighs, “Whew.” The prose is a bit as if you took Willa Cather and James Joyce together: everything is perfect and there are little shifts of point of view from sentence to sentence that are truly remarkable. Lots of history: Porter was a keen observer obviously and the novels are filled with little details and asides that pop up in dialogue that have you running to Wikipedia.
If you are looking for a pandemic novel that explores precocious post-college five years in New York City (think how many novels there are that do that!) that culminate in pandemic, this is the one for you. Excellent writing, lots of flashback. For my taste rather a straightforward plot. And a few of the post-pandemic social “customs” and realities rang a bit implausible for me for some reason.
Comparing with Station Eleven is a bit unfair, but they are similar in many ways, so here’s the difference: Station Eleven is unabashed pandemic-candy. Arthur Leander is gloriously-handsome movie star but really a nice guy; Miranda’s life is any person’s dream life; the characters notice beauty, not ugliness; Clark radiates wonder and hope; the Prophet is interestingly “explainable” not just a downer; who wouldn’t want to have grown up on that island?; etc.
A challenging, brilliant novel to read during COVID19 pandemic. The opening chapter so uncanny in May 2020. Lots of technique and a good solid story. Maybe a few quibbles about consistency in some of the characters (Clark, for me, was just a bit too much of a foil.) I saw lots of nice echoes to Watchmen (obs the comic story in the story) and Blind Assassin. And you get the feeling a closer reading would deliver even more nice literary allusions, all wrapped in a close reading of Lear. Really, I have to say, unqualified recommendation.
I enjoy Ursula LeGuin-Doris Lessing-style “anthropologist science fiction” and Ammonite by Nicola Griffith fit the bill very nicely. Sharp anthropology about slowly understanding important relationships and concepts. A nice female-only world, and good discussion of reproduction. The soldier Danner character gets tedious at the end. If she uttered “damn” one more time I was gong to stop reading. But overall a really pleasurable read.
I would definitely recommend Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Towards the end of the book, as the pandemic is recalled by Snowman, in two pages she summarize the current global experience. Atwood’s a little heavy-handed, and you don’t go there for the writing, but this is a really good novel chock full of ideas and keen insights (into men’s psychologies, here, since Oryx and other women are pretty much ciphers).
Reading a few dozen pages every day of Los Cuatro Viajes Del Almirante Y Su Testamento: Cristóbal Colón. Lots of Leste, noreste, sudoeste, but in between the thrilling story of a about 90 sailors spending months at sea, then trying to interpret what they found, learning rudiments of Taino language while kidnapping people… and the reader knowing that millions will die because of what Colón unleashes… The one thing that so far really sticks with me: Colón over and over again writes, “these people don’t seem to have any weapons at all…”
George Saunders “Love Letter” in The New Yorker. At three pages, one of the best pieces of topical writing I have seen. Great craft, perfect tone. A letter from a grandparent to a grandson. Harking back to a long tradition. The past like a nightmare weighs…
Desperate times call for desperate fiction reads. The blurb on the back cover says she is a “beloved” writer. A smirch on Toni Morrison. This was just awful. After 50 pages I started skimming, after 100 I just stopped.
Enjoyed this graphic novel of a child of Vietnamese refugees eventually settling in California. As an adult, she finally begins to “connect” with her parents and their lives, as so many of us do. Lovely illustrations, important history, nice lessons for children and adults.