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.
I want to write a lot more about this short novel, but for here I’ll just say I loved it, and appreciated all the word play. I mentioned in our book group discussion, that for me, one of the neat things about this book was to take a perspective: What if the author made everything up? Because the reader assumes throughout “Oh it must be kind of autobiographical.” But what if instead a really talented writer sat down to write a novel about “What would it be like to have been a teenager with a friend like Silsby?” Pure brilliance.
Our book club is reading these. The writing is fine. The ideas are less to my liking. Let me just say that reading them during a pandemic when your are socially distant, and where you and by nature quite introverted, it isn’t really… er… appreciated when some gregarious rich guy from the 19th century points out that your life is probably just a complete waste because you don’t have a lot of close intimate friends and that when you die people’s first thoughts might be, “Gee, I was looking forward to tennis guess though I really should go to the funeral. Probably everyone else will be there so at least I’ll chat with so-and-so.” And the other stories pretty darn depressing too.
War Year by Joe Haldeman, published in 1972, is a tremendous short little novel loosely based, apparently, on Haldeman’s year in Vietnam. I got it from the library, and oddly it seems to have been classified in the Juvenile Literature section. It is far from juvenile, except that the main character is about 20, as so many other draftees were. The reality (boredom punctuated by horrific violence) of war is presented in 120 pages of clear, direct prose, with the blinders of a 20 year old from Oklahoma unvarnished. The treatment of minor African’-American and Vietnamese characters is truly a window into what was “acceptable discourse” in 1972 by the white majority. It is a novel that has to be run through to the end, without peeking. The end is really gut-wrenching. One page is all Haldeman needs. Here is a nice interview with Haldeman.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?Can I tell you instead of the best book I ever gave? My mother used to talk about the first grown-up book she read, at the age of 7. She remembered where she was when she finished it (at the end of the dining room table), what day it was (a Tuesday), and where her own mother was as she finally closed the book (outside, in the kitchen). It was called “Hetty Gray,” by Rosa Mulholland, and, some years after the internet made such things possible, I took a notion and sourced a copy in a shop in New Zealand. So one morning, deep into her 80s, my mother received a small parcel from the other side of the world that contained a book she had read at the age of 7, with no note or indication of the source. After she read it again, she told me, she remembered all the first half, but not the second.
Enjoyed the very short “Night Swim” by Anne Enright in The New Yorker. I listened to her reading the story, so I may have missed something, but it seemed a nice illustration of Hemingway’s omission approach…. the story is so true, that she doesn’t need to say much about the story that explained the before, you “know” what happened… Here is the link to Mookse.
Reading some earlier novellas from the mid-1990s. Joe Haldeman’s “For White Hill” was a nice piece of “end of life” melancholy… when you are practically immortal but space is really big, it means there are still chances it will all be over, and how do you come to terms with that. A gathering of artists is the setting, and the story focuses on two of them.