Un échec de Maigret, by Georges Simenon

Another nice police procedural. This one a bit more psychological as Maigret confronts someone from his childhood. As usual, great insights into 1950s France, at least one perspective. The descriptions of Paris in rainy/foggy weather, with everyone in the Palais de Justice sick from colds and flu, resonates! Also definitely next visit to Paris I am going to Parc Monceau. By today’s standards, the whodunit is pretty “blah” but it is good to see some of the origins of the genre. You could see this particular plot being recycled for any current detective series.

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The Female American: Unca Eliza Winkfield

The Female American: Unca Eliza Winkfield, is a re-edition of an anonymous proto-novel published in 1767, in a new edition edited by Michele Burnham. Super interesting novel about a “mixed” early American, daughter of native American princess and son of governor of Virginia (it is fiction). She ends up abandoned on a deserted island, Robinson Crusoe-style. hijinks and adventure. A bizarre mix by contemporary standards. But if Gulliver’s Travels was your model… Lots of great insights into social relations during those times.

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La colère de Maigret, by Georges Simenon

La colère de Maigret, by Georges Simenon. Great cinematic descriptions of Montmartre strip clubs of the 1950s, and their denizens. Spoiler: The corrupt defense attorney picked easy cases, but told clients he needed a very large bribe to seal the deal. Nice asymmetric information setup.

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Stefan Zweig’s short novella The Burning Secret

Stefan Zweig’s short novella, The Burning Secret. A powerful literary experiment in point of view (from 1913!). Zweig slowly swings from the Baron to Edgar, the 12-year-old who desperately wants to know the secret. Set in an Austrian hotel over three days. Highly recommend.

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The Peripheral, by William Gibson

A friend loaned me The Peripheral, by William Gibson, a couple weeks ago. I started it, and within 50 pages the adjective “propulsive” came to mind, because I had this feeling the author was propelling me along and it was hard, each evening, to stop. I definitely found myself a couple times at 2:30 am saying STOP. That said, at the end I was a bit disappointed. Everyone lives (complicatedly) ever after, happy for at least the interlude of the ending? The klept world had a logic of social interaction that was barely addressed, in terms of the massive technological and social change. If there are so few people, and assemblers can build anything, why don’t Wilf and Aelita just do whatever they want? It is not clear why the barons are bothering to control the others. Just a great game? Some introspection about the post-scarcity world would have been interesting. Why not assemble interstellar travel. Perhaps the idea is that the baron’s world is a stub like any other, and a different timeline is manipulating it? But that is never really developed. Also, why not have Hamed be “the” peripheral… that would have been more interesting if he had been a sentient AI leveling up? There were hints about AI sentience but it was not developed as a theme. These qualms are because this was good sci-fi, in that it provokes many questions about social organization in a reasonably possible future (well, if information transmission between continua is something that could happen in 1000 years…).

BTW, two episodes into the amazon prime series: it is fine, not following the book plot (same characters though) at all it seems, which is fine by me.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

My book club, the 200 club (because we only read books under 200 pages), suggested Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote from 1958. Wow. The casual racializing is somewhat breathtaking. Here on full display is unreflective presumption. Capote wrote this novel well after the publication of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952) and Native Son by Richard Wright (1940) and he surely must of been aware of the novels and (hopefully?) he read them. many passages in Breakfast at Tiffany’s you want to interpret as bracing realism accented by the detached tone of young infatuation, a meta or self-aware ignoring of responsibility…. but in the end, you know there was no such intent, the author is himself revealing, without a care, his ignoring of responsibility, his inability to think outside of a certain milieu, his inability or unwillingness to take another perspective. Or a kind of craven catering to his perceived audience. Maybe a literary scholar will suggest my reading is wrong, that his work is broader and more nuanced. That his intent is indeed more subtle and engaged than comes across. But I did not see that. Interestingly, almost all I see online are references to the movie, dealing with the Mickey Rooney character (who is quite incidental in the book). But there must be something insightful to read?

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Beyond Heaven’s River, by Greg Bear

I liked on the the goodreads reviews: “nearly a complete failure by any literary standard.” Indeed. Science fiction often gets a pass if it has a clever or compelling vision of the future, but this was a mash-up of stereotypes, juvenile Foundation-style sociology/psychology, and incoherent plotting. Avoid unless humans develop cell-regeneration technology and you, dear reader of the future, are looking at an infinite lifespan and you are already really bored.

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Infinite Detail, by Tim Maughan

Dystopian novel set in Bristol. Uses a parallel before/after structure. A computer virus permanently destroys all the connected software of the near future, global supply chains quickly collapse, social order breaks down. Ten years later a community in Bristol turns out to be central to a possible hopeful restart of a socially connected global community, this time decentralized rather than corporatized.

A daydream, really, and several awkward plot devices. Very readable, despite the occasional diatribes and too much redundancy (definitely an editor could have cut 1/5 without harm). I enjoyed it, but don’;t’t think it will stick.

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Vladimir, by Julia May Jonas

My sister passed on to me this novel, Vladimir, by Julia May Jonas. As an extremely literary novel whose central character is a professor of literature at a small rural liberal arts college, it hits a nerve of recognition. The writing is good, though the first person narration didn’t draw me in. The novel takes an abrupt detour about 2/3 in, and the ending is a downbeat. I appreciated the many, many insights about self-esteem, sexuality, and relationships.

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A House Between Earth and the Moon, by Rebecca Scherm

I am beginning to feel that the algorithms are indeed writing fiction and making art. This novel, A House Between Earth and the Moon, by Rebecca Scherm, was enjoyable to read for awhile, until it starting feeling like a paint by numbers… like as if an algorithm itself had written it. It had all the plot elements and good writing of fiction, but it struck me as missing something. I still cannot pinpoint why I ended up being disappointed in it. Maybe it ended up being “too small”? Normally that is a virtue, but in sci-fi the reader is primed for the novel to go big. Why read sci-fi if it is just a domestic drama about adolescence, conformity, compromise, corporate control, etc? I can just watch Terrence Malik for that “feeling” if I need a fix… No slight to put Scherm in the same company as Richard Powers’ The Overstory, to which I had the same reaction. (Plot: Corporate-controlled space station where researchers are trying to develop fast-growing beneficial algae while climate-changed Earth is falling into disorder and disaster.)

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Matrix, by Lauren Groff

Really enjoyed Matrix, by Lauren Groff, but found myself unable to finish, for some reason? I got within 30 pages of the ending and put it down one night last week, and each time I tried to finish I said to myself but why, just 30 more pages of the same. It was super-good, but it did drag, in the sense that there was no real plot arc to resolve. She evolved, but goodness by the time you are 40 or 50 and have been the abbess/prioress for 30 years… is there really much room for “revelation”?

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Fugitive Telemetry, novella in the series The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells

Fugitive Telemetry, novella in the series The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells. breezy but philosophical sci-fi, with a realistic portrayal of bots having a range of consciousness and sentience. Perfect relaxing reading for a couple of nights. This novella is a very standard detective novel… could be Elmore Leonard.

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Persuasion by Jane Austen

Leslie showed me how to borrow books from San Jose Public Library, so I immediately re-read Persuasion, after the disastrous Fleabag-style Netflix re-do. The novel remains excellent.

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Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey

Enjoyed the science fiction novel Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey. Essentially Groundhog Day. Does one ever tire of variations of that theme, if well-written? The denouement happened a bit too quickly for me. Just thinking aloud, I would have liked the last fifth or so to have been more carefully and substantively plotted than the first four-firths evidently were. Really good writing, very mature development of the evolving character transformations. Again, though, just thinking aloud, the hardest conversation to write about remains the challenge: the two characters know where they are… they have a lot of time… it seems to me they would stop “acting” and have a really long conversation perhaps filled with silences. Maybe there is a device though that constrains their ability to engage in meta-conversation?

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Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler

Our book group read Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler. We all admired the crisp essay style, and the tension between irony and wonder that inhabits the subject of Mr. Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. Well worth reading.

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Dark Sonnet by Tom McCarthy and Bill Dohar

I enjoyed Dark Sonnet by Tom McCarthy and Bill Dohar, a historical mystery (if you need a genre). Murder, a hidden chalice, slypes, and bigotry both old and new, figure prominently. There are word puzzles, and Gerard Manley Hopkins is central. For those acquainted with Jesuit institutions, it is especially rewarding. The authors take the virtues and values of the Jesuit order seriously, and that part of the novel is enlightening and inspiring. Very well-written, too!

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Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck

Beautiful translation by Susan Bernofsky. High literary drama. Short novel that traces the lives on people in a lakeside house in Germany, before and after WWII and East Germany. Deeply serious.Yet compelling and readable. Her counterpoint between the lives of the humans, and the gardener and the landscape, is a very powerful device.

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Triton, by Samuel Delany

I think I originally read this when I was about 15 years old. It cast a long shadow. Re-reading it…. boy is it a slog, and a not very good novel. But the bravura of Delaney’s science fiction is pretty undeniable. Much more explicit about gender fluidity than his contemporaries (including, I think, LeGuin, who approached it from an ethnographic rather than individual psychological perspective). Yes it borders on stereotypes of pop psychology (ok, not border, right in the middle). And a lot of good discussion of genetics, which 50 years later seems almost on target in terms of gene expression etc. And the foregrounding of individual – indeed, basically just one person- stories in “the future.” it’s the future, and yet everything is still banal, and like Adam Smith wrote in 1776 you still worry more about the look someone gave you in the office than news that 10 million people dies in a war on another moon or planet. Bron does have to be one of the most annoying characters ever written.

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Frederick Pohl, Gateway

I enjoyed reading Frederick Pohl’s sci-fi novel, Gateway, partly because it is so dated. The women are all referred to as “girls,” etc. Lots of 1970s psychoanalytic talk. And yet, the conceit is quite good: a sci-fi book about that inner journey of dealing with psychic trauma. Very little happens in the book, except a damaged person slowly unwinding his memories for an audience (who happens to be an AI). The novel is tailor-made for a limited series… great potential. Looks like (from browsing the web) that SyFy had it under development at some point, but it appears not to have gone into production. I can see the audience potential being fairly limited: the dominant theme is bleakness, and that doesn’t always sell. but the AI shrink is ready for an update, and shifting the perspective to the AI starting to acquire consciousness by dealing with Broadhead’s trauma could be an interesting way to update the tale.

Another thought that occurred to me while reading was how sci-fi evolved form the 1970s. Gateway deals with psychological trauma (OK basically he’s a Korea or Vietnam vet whose buddies were left behind?) but in space exploration context. But the social institutions of the time are very recognizable. There is little LeGuin-style construction of an alternative social order, an alternative mentality. The characters go to parties, have relationships (a little daring in the casualness of same-sex relationships), and have normal “work” lives (which Pohl underscores with the miscellany that peppers the book. You can see how the anthropologically-inflected sci-fi started to become an important form of the genre? The idea of “world-building,” of crafting a social order that is alien but recognizable, must have been thrilling to the writers of the late 1970s.

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The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

I had forgotten how compelling and clear the prose was for Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was a great writer. I love the occasional science and statistics asides. The explicitness of Holmes’ cocaine usage (7%) is also still shocking. The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle also offers a bit of history of the 1857 Indian mutiny, insights into the casual racism of the late 1890s, a good example of a very bad subplot (Watson falling in love with Marston… ridiculous), and an exciting river craft chase scene where the boatmen are shoveling coal into the boiler! And it had been so long since I had read a Sherlock Holmes story, I honestly could not believe Doyle had the treasure be thrown into the river, according to Jonathan Small. It is so obvious he is lying, and the treasure is just one “clew” away, but the author by that point had given up.

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