Saturday, November 28, 2015

Read It, November 2015

I finished out the month of October with the Douglas Adams novel The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. This is the second (out of, sadly, only two) Dirk Gently novels, featuring anti-hero private detective Dirk Gently, that investigator of highly unorthodox methodologies who seems to solve cases despite his best efforts to simply scam his clients instead. This is a re-reading; It is nice to re-read it as an older adult. This is in many ways a more coherent story than the first Dirk Gently book, and it sticks with characters long enough that the reader can start to develop a liking for them. In particular, there is a female character named Kate who is as just as scattered and unconventional as Gently is. She is quite a strong character, in fact, and it saddens me all over again that we will not see what Adams might have done with her in future books. Or, in fact, really, in this one, as the book has a good beginning and middle but a weak ending.

In retrospect, it is frustrating to read Adams. The Hitchhiker's Guide books, at least the first few, remain some of the funniest humor ever published. They are funny in spite of Adams' apparent lack of interest in developing characters and plots. At his best Adams is up there with Pratchett in writing deeply humane and touching satire.

I believe Adams might be sort of the Phil Collins of British humorists. Collins is best known for his collaborations -- he is a brilliant session musician, and his finest work was with Genesis. he did produce a few really amazing songs as a solo artist, but for the most part he was better in collaboration. Adams may be remembered the same way; recall that he worked in collaboration on Doctor Who and the Hitchhiker's Guide saga, which was originally a radio serial, and amazing as a radio serial.

That material was so good that it survived the transformation to book form, for the most part. It was a little less successful as a TV show. The big-studio Hitchhiker's Guide movie, long stuck in development hell, has a few funny bits and pieces, but really is only of interest to viewers who were already Adams fans. The Dirk Gently books show Adams developing a greater ability to write characters and sustain storylines, but he clearly had room to improve. His death at the age of 49 (one year older than I am today) is still a shock to me, and a reminder that I should do what I can, with whatever gifts I have, every day.

I'm continuing to read my kids The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I will try to read them the second half of it this week remotely, via Facetime, from Ann Arbor. I'm working on the original Larry Niven novel Ringworld. I figure that as the last few days of the year approach, I'd rather spend those dark days reading something relatively light, than Knausgaard's My Struggle. In November 2015, I completed:

  • Frans G. Bengtsson, The Long Ships
  • William Sloane, The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror
  • David Mendel, Proper Doctoring: a Book for Patients and Their Doctors
  • Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Ringworld will probably be the first book I complete in December. I am not sure whether I ever read it, back in the day; it is not ringing bells yet, but I may have simply been very young when I read it. I know I read some other Niven novels, such as The Integral Trees, but again, I don't remember them very well.

On to December, and the end of the year!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Read It, November 2015, Progress Report 3

I finished The Long Ships and The Rim of Morning. I've made some comments on The Long Ships already, and so won't say a lot more, except to mention that it concludes in a pretty satisfying manner, tying up some plot lines and giving us pretty much the closest thing to a "happily ever after" ending that we could possibly find convincing.

The Rim of Morning contains two short novels in the "cosmic horror" vein practiced by writers like H. P. Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson. I don't have a good working definition of "cosmic horror," except to say that it does not focus on traditional horror tropes, such as the ghosts of humans, or werewolves, or zombies, or pedestrian human-scale threats such as serial killers. "Cosmic horror" comprises stories which undermine whatever sense of meaning and security we might have about our place in the universe.

To Walk the Night is a story about two friends, and the woman that comes between them. I'm not sure how much of this the author intended, but the close relationship between the two men is what might in modern terms be called a "bromance," and to a modern reader strongly suggests a homoerotic or at least romantic relationship. A college professor has been killed under bizarre, inexplicable circumstances, and the woman is the professor's widow. She is a cipher, lacking back-story. It is in some ways seemingly a very misogynistic story, on a surface level the story of a bromance destroyed by a selfish woman. Beneath the surface it is an unsettling story of posession, and perhaps alien invasion.

The Edge of Running Water is a story that might have come from the era of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, and centers around the spiritualism of the early twentieth century -- the world of seances and mediums. A college professor is building a device to communicate with his dead wife, and has driven himself to near madness with his quest and his unholy alliance with an unsavory woman -- again, there are strong misogynistic elements to the story. However, these don't completely destroy the genuinely unsettling elements of the story. Both of these novels would make good short films, and some of the more dated elements could easily be updated to be less sexist and misogynist while retaining the core storyline.

I want to mention Stephen King today, because he wrote the introduction to this volume. I have come nowhere near reading every one of Stephen King's novels or short stories, although I think I have read most of the well-known ones: The Stand, Firestarter, Pet Sematary, Christine, Cujo, Carrie, The Dead Zone, Insomnia, and the whole Dark Tower series (I have not finished The Wind Through the Keyhole, but it is on my to-read pile). I read these books at various points in my life, most of them when I was a teenager, but some later. Insomnia is the only one that I have read more than once. It is an interesting book that has, as a theme, aging, and so I can imagine that I might want to read it again as I get older.

But in particular I want to mention one of the Dark Tower books, Wolves of the Calla. I found this book to have that genuinely unsettling quality that can come about when the right story lands in the brain of a receptive reader. I was a new parent when I read Wolves, and the plot involves "roont" (ruined) children, who are kidnapped and returned overgrown and monstrous, their minds damaged and the potential their parents imagined, ruined. It was and still is a deeply disturbing image for a parent.

Nothing in the two novels in The Edge of Morning unsettled me quite like that storyline in Wolves of the Calla, or the visions of the aging, sleepless protagonist of Insomnia. But they are unsettling nonetheless. Some very dated characterizations and plot elements can't entirely detract from that, and so I provisionally recommend them, for readers who may be willing to overlook the novels' flaws.

I have some vacation time this week, and some coming up at Christmas time. I pulled a book from my New York Review Books Classics shelf, Proper Doctoring by David Mendel. This is a book of advice for physicians on, basically, professionalism and bedside manner in medicine.

The book seems to contain a lot of good advice, but it is a bit of an odd read. Much of it seems like common sense. Much of the rest seems like it might be of greater interest to physicians in training than a general audience, despite the subtitle, A Book for Patients and Their Doctors.

For a general audience, I would say that I can't strongly recommend it. I think the book would be more engaging and readable if it had been structured around more personal anecdotes and the arc of the author's medical career, rather than the way it is structured, around themes, broken down into rather generalized pieces of advice and guidance for different situations. Clearly the author has a lot to say, but somehow the professional detachment and sensitivity towards patient confidentiality he preaches seem to weaken the book. I have read many essays by medical professionals, and they can be fascinating and compelling. This book is less so. Although I'm sure it has some kind of permanent place in the literature used to train physicians, I'm not sure it is makes a compelling read outside of that context.

I'll finish Proper Doctoring. I'm not quite sure what I'm going to read next. I've been reading my children The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. They love it, and it is a reminder to me of just how funny and thought-provoking Douglas Adams could be at his best (and, as I've mentioned before, how not all his work lives up to the standard set in Hitchhikers). I might continue with a re-reading of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. I will start to look back over this year of blog posts and figure out just what my final tally and list of works read in 2015 will look like, and consider what I might line up for 2016.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Read It, November 2015, Progress Report 2

Well, it took me some time, but I finished The Long Ships. It is a big, sprawling epic work in every sense, and it ends well, with a treasure-hunt story. I recommend it, although it will probably take you some time to finish. Remember that there is no shame in setting a book aside for a while and coming back to it later.

I am now continuing with another book from the New York Review Books Classics series, The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror, which reprints two novels by William Sloane. I am about two-thirds of the way through the first one, called To Walk the Night. It's definitely in the "cosmic horror" genre, dated but fascinating. I'll have a fuller report on it when I've finished this volume. This book is not nearly as long a book as The Long Ships, but my reading (and blogging) time is limited this season, so it may still take me a while to finish it. Fortunately I have some vacation time at Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up, and so may be able to do a bit more of both. Happy fall!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Read It, November 2015, Progress Report 1

I'm continuing to read Frans G. Bengtsson's novel The Long Ships. I've made progress in only this one book so far this month, but it's a doozy. I actually started it in June, as my own previous blog entries tell me, but set it aside at roughly the halfway point. The novel is broken up into four books, bound together in this New York Review Books Classics edition, but originally published as the first two books in one volume and the second two books in another volume. Is that confusing? It's sort of similar to the way that Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is one novel, broken into six books, but published in three volumes. Anyway. In June I mentioned that I didn't think my kids were old enough to enjoy it, but it turns out I was wrong. This past weekend I read them several chapters from the third book, in which (according to Wikipedia),

Orm joins a party led by Thorkell the High in England and when he learns that Harald's daughter Ylva is staying in London, gets baptised and marries Ylva. They move to a neglected farm, his mother's inheritance in Göinge, northern Skåne, near the border with Småland. During the following years (992 to 995), Orm prospers, and Ylva gives birth to twin girls (Oddny and Ludmilla), a son, Harald, and later to another son (though possibly from Rainald), Svarthöfde (Blackhair in the Michael Meyer translation). Meanwhile, Orm also gets busy in converting the heathens in the district, with the help of Father Willibald.

This book, long and dense and suffering slightly from being a work in translation, really comes to life when read out loud. The scenes in Orm's church, hosting a 3-day drinking celebration of his son's christening are, read aloud, very funny and memorable. If you read this book, and I recommend it highly, be prepared to take your time with it, to allow the scenes and characters and speeches to open up and come to life.

Oh, and there's apparently a movie, too. Not a very good movie, it seems. I should be finished with this book in another week or so. The way I convinced myself to read it again was basically to lock the rest of the books in my "to read" pile in the back of my car so that in the mornings, I'd have only this book lying out and available, while getting access to the others would require me to get up and dressed and out first. As I am basically lazy, especially before I've had my morning coffee, this worked very well to convince my future self to go ahead and invest the reading time in a very rewarding book that is not quite as easy to get into as one of the fluffier books in the car. Is that a "mind hack?" Oh, and since I am reading my New York Review Books Classics volumes in order by spine color, after I finish this one, I can move on, progressing along that shelf to a book bound in a slightly different shade of red!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Read It, October 2015

The final tally list of books I completed in October is:

  • David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (print version)
  • David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (audiobook)
  • David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day (audiobook)
  • David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice (audiobook)
  • David Sedaris, Barrel Fever (audiobook)
  • Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
  • Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes

That list is obviously pretty heavy on the David Sedaris. It's because I picked up a discounted boxed set and it seemed perfect to accompany my long commutes. Some of the audiobooks seem to be abridged, but not too drastically. His earlier work is some of his best. Holidays on Ice has the stories that are the most laugh-out-loud funny, while some of his later work is funny but often quite dark, especially when he explores the death of his mother in a completely unsentimental yet moving way. I realized as I listened to these that a little Sedaris goes a long way, in terms of influence -- even having only heard a few of his pieces on NPR over the years, his self-deprecating, dry style has strongly affected my own essay-writing. That's not a bad thing, but it is a reminder that I need to do enough writing to allow my own voice to emerge. When I only write an essay occasionally, it seems like it is easier for it to accidentally sound like the other people I've been reading.

For November, I've got lots of books on deck including both some very light fare (the Doctor Who novelizations of Shada and City of Death and some heavier work (Samuel Beckett) and some work that it somewhere in between (Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Book 2). There's also a heap of non-fiction, including the rest of Neurotribes and The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke.

I don't have a lot of time to write tonight, but I want to mention The Hare with Amber Eyes. This is a remarkable book -- the history of a powerful Jewish family fully immersed in the business and culture of Vienna, whose wealth and property was seized by the rise of the Nazi party. Once the patrons and friends of Impressionist artists and poets, art collectors and contemporaries of Rilke and Proust, the war left the family forcibly dispersed and their assets "Aryanized." The author began studying this part of his family tree when he inherited a cabinet full of tiny Japanese ornamental sculptures called netsuke. It's a tragic story but a fascinating one, so I highly recommend it to anyone interested in art history and especially the history of Anti-Semitism.

There is one more thing I want to mention. In my last update I described seeing the movie The Martian in 3-D. Last weekend I noticed that my oldest daughter, now 11, was reading the book, and asked her to come with me to see the movie. It is technically PG-13, but that is entirely for some colorful cursing; not a single person actually dies in the story, and there is no inter-personal violence whatsoever, which seems pretty remarkable for a big-budget movie in 2015. I had described the trouble with watching it in 3-D, and how the 3-D effect makes the scenes of the rover on the surface of Mars look very fake. I can confirm that these scenes are more convincing in 2-D. From my perspective, the 3-D effect is interesting, and impressive in a few scenes, but ultimately I think it makes the experience more distracting than immersive.

My impressions of the movie, having seen it twice? It's definitely a bit slow. Last time I watched it quite late at night, and chalked up feeling tired to simply being tired. I saw it earlier in the evening this time, and it became clear that it is just a bit slower-paced than is ideal for immersion and entertainment. And I say that as someone who generally really likes what a director can do in a long, meditative movie such as Tarkovsky's Solaris. What did Veronica think of it? She was not thrilled. She seemed mostly annoyed that the movie plot differed slightly from the parts of the book she had completed.

When questioning her about it later, it became clear that she had missed a lot of the detail the director put in there to add structure and texture to the film. For example, there's a sort of countdown going on in the way the protagonist's food supply is slowly running out. As he packs to leave the habitat for the last time, he writes on a packet of freeze-dried food "Farewell to Mars" or something to that effect; he also signs his name to the calendar of Martian days he has marked off on the wall of his habitat.

Later in the film when he is actually preparing for the terrifying experience of lifting off in a rocket stripped of windows and nose cone and just about everything else, we see him eating the reconstituted, freeze-dried food from his very last food packet, the one marked "Farewell to Mars." We also see him shave and clean himself up and he is emaciated, with sores on his body -- these are two signs of just how close he has come to starvation. She didn't seem to put together the significance of any of these details. I guess some of that just comes from being a young person not accustomed to looking for the meaning in the things on the screen. I think, also, that she is used to movies that are often much faster-moving, often animated. I hope that when she finishes the book we'll be able to talk a bit more about the differences between book and film, and why the media of film requires a different approach, and the different kind of excitement one can get from a more thoughtful, slow-paced movie.

Happy November!

Update written at the end of 2015: at about this point in the chronology, I finished Fred Pohl's third Heechee book, Heechee Rendezvous. Unfortunately, I did not make a note of just when I completed it. Apparently I didn't find it all that memorable. We do meet the Heechee, but it seems a little anti-climactic when we do. The book has some interesting ideas about the point at which a computer-modeled personality suddenly gains a "soul" of sorts; that is one of the more interesting elements of the book. There is also some thinking about uploading a dying person into a virtual world, but no one has written about that better than Greg Egan, in his novel Permutation City, so just read that, okay?