Books Bought, May 2013:
Man In The High Castle – Phillip K Dick
Raspberry Pi In Easy Steps – Mike McGrath.
The Long Earth – Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
Crashed – Timothy Hallinan
The Black Company – Glen Cook
Harry and the Lady Next Door – Gene Zion (illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham)
Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? – Steven Tyler
Unutterable – Eric Arbitman
Brain of the Galaxy – Jack Vance
Books Read, May 2013:
Wheel of Time (Memory of Light) – Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson
The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins
Good Omens – Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
To Kiss Or Kill – Day Keene
Flowers For Algernon – Daniel Keyes
Hit Man – Lawrence Block
I finished a story I’d been reading since 1992 this month.
The first volume of Robert Jordan’s fantasy epic – The Wheel of Time– was published in 1990, and I started reading the series as an undergraduate at The University of Sussex. Despite Jordan’s death in 2007, the 14th and final volume was published in 2013 with some help from “next gen” fantasy author Brandon Sanderson.
I devoured the early books of the series as they were released, immersing in the ever growing history and geography and politics of The Third Age. Many people complained about the crawling pace, the expanding cast list, the repetitive themes. But I stuck with it, enjoying the escapism the series afforded. Indeed on occasion, when there was a particularly large gap between books, I would start again from the beginning and in doing so was able to appreciate the huge sweeping scope of the story, from one tiny town to the fate of worlds, with prophesy and foreshadowing along every step of the way.
When Jordan died with the series unfinished, I stopped reading The Wheel of Time.
I believe I was midway through book 10 when it happened. I just couldn’t see the point of continuing if the epic was to remain incomplete. There were and still are many other worthy books and series out there, almost all of which terminate at “The End”.
Then they announced that Brandon Sanderson had been tapped to finish the story. As the books were scheduled and then actually released, I finally took a look at Sanderson’s own epic fantasy Mistborn Trilogy. I liked it.
So, once the release date of the final book of The Wheel of Time was announced, I began one final reread, starting again all the way back in little Emmons Field. I would read a WoT book, then the next of my beloved Matt Scudder mysteries by Lawrence Block. The change of pace back and forth seemed to enhance both series.
When I reached book 10, a switch flicked in my head and my already rapid reading pace accelerated. No longer did I alternate, but ploughed straight out of book 10 and into virgin territory. I was reading hundreds of pages a day.
Sanderson acknowledged upfront that he would not try to write in the style of Jordan. Although this could have been jarring, it worked beautifully, in part because of a major change that occurs within the main character – if the voice sounds different, well, there is good reason (and that is as much spoilerism as I am going to indulge in).
Was it worth the time put in? More than once I found myself weeping openly (and always on the damn subway!) as one particular storyline wound down, and I was grateful for the fine line walked by Sanderson, neither following a “disposable characters” strategy the way George R. R. Martin does, but not leaving all the leads untouchable either.
The payoff was powerful and satisfying, and I am glad I am done. As I lay in bed after reading the last lines, I turned to my wife and showed her “The End.” She humored me, but how could she know the two decades of weight behind those two words? I’ve known her less than 10 years, and I barely recall the man / boy I was when I first picked up The Eye of the World.
I lay there feeling nostalgic, remembering people, places and thing – both real and fictional – that are now behind me.
Then I opened up some non-fiction because I needed to engage a very different part of my brain…
Doron has been raving about the writings of Richard Dawkins for quite a while now, but not longer than I’ve known I was an atheist. I wrote a paper on the subject when I was 12.
So I figured reading The God Delusion would be “preaching to the choir” to use an utterly inappropriate term. I was prepared to find myself agreeing with the vast majority of Dawkins’ positions, to sharpen my understanding of the science and semantics of what I have always described as the belief that there is no god.
What I was not prepared for was the anger that Dawkins would inspire in me at today’s status quo.
The science of the first half of the book is engaging and convincing. I’ve long known my way around defusing the ontological argument – a philosophy degree having to be good for *something* – but spelling out how Darwin’s natural selection actually works, and why it is so powerful an argument against so-called “intelligent design” was fascinating.
It was the way in which believers ignore such science that had me furious.
The book has me in a personal quandary. Dawkins speaks passionately and convincingly about the dangers of even moderate, forward thinking, garden variety belief, making a powerful argument that extremism could not flourish if irrational belief was not given protected speech status by light believers and the agnostic. I see it, and I agree, but I am not about to quit a job I love because it has a religious bent.
Not the first nor the last time my upbringing has left me feeling like a hypocrite.
The second half of the book sadly peters out – neither the science nor the threats Dawkins is trying to inoculate against is particularly compelling – but the seed is already planted, and the soil plenty fertile enough. I am more proud of my atheism, more ready to proclaim it and defend it than before reading The God Delusion. Which I am certain was Dawkins’ goal in writing the book in the first place.
An interesting note. Reading the Wheel of Time, I was easily flying through 200-300 pages a day. During The God Delusion, at its peak I was reaching 40-50. Amazing how the brain processes different kinds of reading – falling through the page in riveting fiction allows the words to entirely disappear, whereas a non-fiction book requiring you to parse and assimilate new words and ideas can make them a grind, even when the subject is one that engrosses.
After having my foundations somewhat shaken, I needed a return to neutral, and decided to reread an old familiar favorite, Good Omens by Gaiman and Pratchett.
It is still a great book, one I enjoyed zipping through another time, but both authors have greatly surpassed the ideas and craft on display here with their subsequent works. My own copy is signed by both, at two different signings, events that could not have been more different. Terry Pratchett was cranky and irritable, short with his fans despite the fact that I was only the second in line on the day of that signing. In contrast, Neil Gaiman was one of the most patient and gracious individuals I have ever encountered. In the end, this reread just made me want to catch up with the last 4 or 5 Discworld books I have yet to get to, and reread Anansi Boys after the very enlightening reread of American Gods earlier this year.
Unlike my brother, I need to revisit previous works (at least certain of them) on a regular basis to reset them in the constellations of my literary star map.
I was bothered last year by the realization that, despite my huge appetite for pulp and noir mysteries, I had never actually read any Agatha Christie. I began to remedy this by reading the first Poirot novel – The Mysterious Affair at Styles – last year and was less than impressed. I was repeatedly told, however, that And Then There Were None was the book I should go to in order to see Christie at her best, so that is where I found myself next on my random bibliographical travels.
I was afraid I was about to encounter “more of the same” – it came as no surprise when, after reading up on Poirot, I discovered Christie’s admission that she wrote her novels to the “I’m sure you are wondering why I’ve called you all here” scene, then reread the manuscript, decided who the least likely culprit was, and went back retrofitting clues that led to that person being guilty.
Instead, we have the ultimate locked room mystery, a story now so familiar because it has been aped and imitated so many times over the years since its 1939 publication. It was hard not to recall movie scenes from such classic spoofs as Clue and Murder By Death, let alone more straight copies, or transfers to the horror genre.
Despite the familiarity, some clunky writing (highlighted by page after page of “he said, she said, he said, she said”) and the pervasive casual racism throughout (the book was originally titled Ten Little Niggers) the twists and turns still coalesce into an engaging and entertaining read with a satisfactory payoff.
Any suggestions as to which Christie to read next?
I followed up some old British crime writing with some even older American crime writing. I first discovered Day Keene through the magnificent (though now sadly changed) Hard Case Crime book club where once a month I would receive two long out of print / lost masterpieces / new gems in the pulp hardboiled genre in handy paperback size with a beautiful new painted cover, all for around $7.
Keene’s style is stark and simple, brutally direct, but the tales he weaves are almost hypnotic in their ability to have you fall into the criminal underworld he describes. To Kiss Or To Kill, like the previous books of Keene’s I have read, follows a big, dumb immigrant, with the morals of a saint and a heart of gold, thrust into a sticky situation – involving a beautiful woman, of course.
Unlike the majority of the HCC style of novels, which tend to be morality plays with the crooked lead getting his just desserts by “The End”, Keene’s hero overcomes the odds through self-belief and doing the right thing. But not before he’s put through the ringer, and the reader has been taken on a well-crafted and breathtaking ride.
I was very glad to see that Prologue Books have recently reissued 8 more Day Keene novels. For under $5 each, I strongly recommend you check one out.
There are some classic novels that are required reading at schools on both sides of the Atlantic. Then there are the ones that, for whatever reason, don’t cross the ocean. Daniel Keyes’ Flowers For Algernon is one such title.
It has bothered me for years that I had never read this book. I had never encountered it at school (elementary, grade, high or university) in England, yet kept running across it referenced in US pop culture, from comic books to sit coms to stand-up comedy. So I finally plunged in this month.
Whenever I would mention the book to anyone, they would pull a sad face and say something to the effect of, “Oh, it’s so depressing”. And it certainly doesn’t have a happily ever after for Charlie Gordon. But you know this going in, and I don’t believe that this is the point.
Like all good literature, it is more about the reader than the protagonist – the overwhelming message for me is “Carpe Diem”, with a dollop of “Be aware of your effect on others” for good measure.
But perhaps I just don’t depress as easily as other people. I am regularly greeted with disbelief when I share a number of my favorite theatrical and movie works – Company, Leaving Las Vegas, anything by Pinter…
In any case, I’m glad I finally read this book, and understand its looming presence in American literature. Wish I’d read it sooner. Perhaps 25 years sooner.
I began the month finishing a beloved series. I can’t bring myself to finish another quite so soon after. Thankfully the wonderful and prolific (not to mention wonderfully prolific) Lawrence Block – undoubtedly one of my very favorite authors – has more than one series on offer. I can’t face finishing the final Matthew Scudder mystery just yet, but am more than happy to start a new series, this one following the exploits a stamp-collecting hit man called Keller.
His new blog is an exploration of “1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die.”