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Sunday, May 7, 2017

What I'm reading (#27)

It's not often that I read a book which afterwards, if someone asked me "Did you like it?", my honest answer would be, "I have no idea."

That, however, would be my reaction should anyone ask me about William Least Heat-Moon's Celestial Mechanics.  It's an odd story -- about a writer named Silas Fortunato, his intensely unlikeable wife Dominique, her sister Celeste, and a peculiar neighbor named Kyzmyt whom I was never really convinced was real.

As far as what happened in the story... well, I'm not entirely sure about that, either.  Silas and his wife spend a lot of time sniping at each other (mostly her at him).  It's clear from about page 10 that she doesn't like him much, and Silas lost a good measure of my sympathy for him when for chapter after chapter he simply let her ridicule and insult and neglect him.  (And continued to try to persuade her to stay in the marriage, or at least in their house.)

Then Dominique takes off on a business trip, and sort of... vanishes.  In case you want to read it, and I actually hope some of you will, if for no other reason to see what your reaction is, I won't tell you the circumstances of her disappearance.  But I will say if you want things tied up at the end -- if you want anything tied up at the end -- don't get your hopes up too high.

I don't mind a book that's mysterious and leaves you to fill in the missing pieces; I often write that way myself.  But in addition to Celestial Mechanics feeling like an incomplete (albeit long) story, there were two other things about it that really bugged me.

One is that there are no dialogue tags.  At all.  I know this is the current fad in novel writing, but c'mon.  Especially in the first half of the book, I lost track of the number of times I had to count backwards until I found a line of dialogue that gave me a clue as to who was talking.  I know that action phrases are better than "he said" and "she said" over and over again, but giving the reader nothing but the person's mere words to go on was pretty damned frustrating, especially given the second problem...

... which was that the characters, especially the four main characters, all sort of sounded alike.  They were erudite and glib, throwing around metaphors and literary allusions and puns and symbolism in virtually every line, only occasionally coming down out of the clouds to say something practical like "What would you like for dinner?"  (When Celeste, in response to some abstruse pronouncement by Silas, said, "I have no idea what you're talking about," I nearly cheered.)

It's a problem I have with the dialogue in a lot of television shows; after about five minutes, I'm scowling and saying, "No one really talks like that."  Nobody is that continuously clever, sardonic, and intellectual, 24/7/365.  In the case of Celestial Mechanics, it kept reminding me that I was reading fiction -- the absolute last thing you want your reader to experience.

So it was a mixed bag.  It had its intriguing moments; Dominique's repeated visions of what she thinks is the ghost of a child, Kyzmyt's peculiar witches' brews/teas, Celeste's kindness when Silas is recovering from an injury (and Celeste is far and away the most sympathetic character).  It's certainly smartly, and tightly, written.

But overall?  I can't say I liked it much.  It's a strange story about strange characters, and gives the reader little to hang on to.  All in all, Celestial Mechanics didn't really work for me.  Even as a writer of speculative fiction -- often involving the paranormal -- my main reaction is that it just didn't seem rooted enough in the real world for me to figure out what it was trying to say.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What I'm reading (#26)

Being a biology teacher, I'm understandably attracted to books from my chosen field.  I've read everything I can by Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, Lewis Thomas, Carl Zimmer, Jerry A. Coyne, Jared Diamond, and many others, and learned a tremendous amount both about biological science and also how to explain difficult concepts in an engaging manner.

It was in that spirit that I read last week Elizabeth Kolbert's wonderful book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.  I say "wonderful" because it is brilliantly written, nearly impossible to put down, and full of fascinating information (even with my background in evolutionary biology, I learned a great deal from reading it).  But if you decide to read it -- and I in no way want to discourage you from doing so -- be prepared for the fact that it's a seriously depressing book.

The premise of The Sixth Extinction is that we are now in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event the Earth has experienced -- the first five coming at the end of the Ordovician Period, the end of the Devonian Period, the junction between the Permian and Triassic Periods (this one the largest of all; by some estimates, 90% of life on Earth was extinguished), the late Triassic Period, and the end of the Cretaceous Period (this is the one that took out all of the dinosaurs except for the lineage that led to modern birds).  But, Kolbert shows, all of those events -- so sensationalized in kids' books on ancient life -- can obscure the fact that right here, right now, we are in the middle of another one, one in which the rate of species loss is something like 10,000 times the background rate of extinction.

The reason, of course, is us.  Some of the things we've done fall into the "how could you not have known better?" department -- overhunting, clear-cutting the rain forest, ignoring (or actively denying) the reality of climate change.  Others, such as the mere fact of our mobility causing the accidental spread of noxious exotic species, are less blameworthy.  (In fact, it's our around-the-globe-in-less-than-24-hours capabilities that seem to be what has caused the spread of chytrid fungi, currently wiping out amphibian species at a horrifying rate all over Central and South America.)

Kolbert, of course, ends with the question, "But what can we do?" and comes to the dismal conclusion of "honestly, probably not much."  Our sheer numbers preclude any serious notion of halting what we're doing to the natural world.  But knowledge is power; we owe it to ourselves at least to be cognizant of the effects our actions have.  Reading The Sixth Extinction might be painful at times, but refusing to turn our eyes that way is to ignore the reality of the world we live in.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

What I'm reading (#25)

I've been known at times to get suckered by a book that has an interesting title or cover even if I know nothing else about it.

Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn't.  I was grabbed by both in the case of Wu Ming-Yi's The Man With the Compound Eyes, and it turned out to be a weird stream-of-consciousness story that went absolutely nowhere.  On the other hand, I absolutely loved Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which reads like an updated Catch-22 set in Pakistan under General Zia Ul-Haq.

My most recent purchase based on a title was Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop, which I found in a used bookstore.  I looked at the first pages, and it seemed well written, and (of course) the title intrigued me.  So I bought it.

I was disappointed when I found out that the bookshop of the title isn't haunted in the conventional sense; it's "haunted by the spirits of long-dead authors" because its owner is such a devoted bibliophile.  I had a moment's hope that it would turn out to be a real haunting (so to speak) when a copy of Thomas Carlyle's The Speeches of Oliver Cromwell keeps vanishing and reappearing, but the explanation turns out to be have nothing to do with ghosts (literal or figurative).

On the other hand, the story is a nice, sentimental walk through 1920s nostalgia -- a genteel New York City replete with neighborhood pubs and pharmacies and tobacconists (and man, Morley's male characters do love their tobacco).  The plot line is a little on the far-fetched side -- and I won't spoil it by telling you why the Carlyle book keeps disappearing -- but actually, it's no more contrived than many a tale by my beloved Agatha Christie.  It's engagingly written and has wonderfully-drawn characters, including a female character whose forthrightness and spirit was highly unusual in books of that vintage.

In sum, it's a fun, easy-reading period piece.  Morley tells a clever tale of New York between the World Wars, not as overwrought as The Great Gatsby nor as repressed and unhappy as Ragtime.  It's a nice diversion into a simpler time, and I did enjoy it, even if I was disappointed in my quest for a good ghost story.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

What I'm reading (#24)

I have always had, for some reason, a particular fondness for non-fiction books about natural disasters.  Earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions -- the sheer power of what the world can do is both frightening and compelling.  It also explains why if I hadn't become a high school biology teacher, my second choice would have been "tornado chaser."

So it's unsurprising that I picked up a copy of Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World a few weeks ago.  It's a mesmerizing account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, one of the largest quakes ever to hit North America (intensity is an estimate, given the primitive technology of the time, but it's thought to have been beaten by only one earthquake in modern times -- the mind-bogglingly huge Anchorage, Alaska earthquake of 1964, which registered 9.2 on the Richter scale and lifted some parts of the coastline by twenty feet).

Winchester's book isn't just about the event itself.  It goes into the geology of the San Andreas Fault, how it is related to the movement of tectonic plates, and how we know what we know about seismic activity.  It also delves into the history of California, giving us a vivid picture of what it was like to live in those times, and includes eyewitness accounts of people who lived through the quake itself (one of them was famous opera singer Enrico Caruso, who seemed to consider the whole thing somewhere between an inconvenience and a personal slight).

He takes us from the years before the quake, showing how San Francisco grew from a small agricultural settlement into a thriving city, and how the landscape changed on the day of the event (both literally and figuratively).  In some ways, San Francisco never completely recovered, and the hub of activity in California moved south to Los Angeles.  (Which is ironic, given LA's equal risk of catastrophic earthquakes.)

Whether or not you're a catastrophe-buff, however, I'd strongly recommend A Crack in the Edge of the World.  Whether you like geology, history, personal accounts, or drama, it will keep you reading.  Winchester has a smooth narrative style and has obviously done his research.  The result is a book that will make you feel like you're there witnessing the events he's writing about -- as awful as that would have been.