Emptiness-depression-33252803-494-296

Just the other night, I was lying in bed, gazing at the stars, and I asked myself:  “What the heck happened to the roof?”   I am sure you do the same from time to time, because I know you have spent many a sleepless night wondering why I haven’t been spewing book reviews all over the place.   It is because I have gotten myself into one of those mobius strips of a reading trail.

As I was telling a friend the other day, I started reading a book which I saw recommended somewhere, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.   Well, it turns out that it is a kabillion pages long.  So to break up the German zeitgeist,  I thought I would take a break with something shorter and lighter.   So I started in on the acclaimed fantasy work, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.   Turns out that thing is even longer than The Magic Mountain.   Sigh.  So THEN I decided to fill in with something written back in the late 1800’s by George Gissing, New Grub Street.    (Ole George was wildly popular in his day, even if his day was 125 years ago.)  Well, that book at least is shorter than the other two, but not by a whole awful much.

So I finally found Brain Twist,(at last, something I could actually FINISH), but although I am reading my little heart out, I am still only halfway through the other three.   Buddha only knows when I will come to The End with them, what with the annoying interventions of Real Life and everything.

Gnats.  Notice that they have no books.

Gnats. Notice that they have no books.

I have no idea just how many pages these books are.  I read on a Kindle, which measures books not by page numbers, but by locations and percent read.  A little odd initially, but one soon gets used to that, so I know that a book which is about 4,500 locations is about 350 pages more or less. Maybe.  So the books I am involved in are 14,496 and 13,524 locations.  Trivia for the thoughtful reader.

Just thought I would let you know that I am aware that you need those ideas for What Book To Read Next or What Book To Add To My TBR List, or What Book to Absolutely Avoid At All Costs, and that I haven’t abandoned reading.  Or posting.  Or breathing.

I’m still reading.  And still looking for something in a reasonable length to leaven the loaf.  I have the attention span of a gnat.

 

 

BRAIN TWISTER by Mark Phillips, (aka Gordon Randall Garrett & Laurence Mark Janifer)

Brain twister2“Mark Phillips” is the pseudonym of two well-known science fiction writers: Randall Garrett and Laurence M. Janifer. Their joint pen-name, derived from their middle names (Philip and Mark), was coined soon after their original meeting, at a science-fiction convention. Both men were drunk at the time, which explains a good deal, and only one ever sobered up. A matter for constant contention between the collaborators was which one. They collaborated for some years, and devised an interesting method of work: Mr. Garrett handled the verbs, the adverbs and the interjections, Mr. Janifer the nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. Conjunctions are a matter of joint decision, and in the case of a tie, the entire game was replayed at Fenway Park, Boston, the following year.

I stole that entire paragraph from the book blurb.  I have no shame.  But do let me say that while this was a charming and fun novella, I am hard pressed to come up with a reason it needed two people to write it.  But then, what do I know?  I’m just a reader, looking for a thrill.

This is about an FBI guy whose assignment is to find the telepath who is reading the minds of the people working on some secret stuff for the government.  It is set in the time of the Cold War, when we were all over twitchery about what the Soviets were doing and what they were learning from spying on us. So now, the FBI guy has to find a telepath who can noodle around and find the telepath who is doing the dirty.   But as the FBI guy asks himself,

If it takes a telepath to catch a telepath, how do you catch the telepath you’re going to use to catch the first telepath?

It turns out that all the telepaths in the world are crazy.   Mad as the proverbial hatters.  Nuttier than the proverbial fruitcakes.  Battier than the proverbial belfry.  Rowing with only one oar in the water.  Porch light’s on but nobody’s home.  So the FBI team are combing the mental institutions hoping to find a telepath or two who isn’t too terribly whacked out and who could help them tune into the spying telepath.

That’s when they come upon Queen Elizabeth — the First.  She insists that she IS that Queen of Yore,  but she can read minds.  And does so with everyone around her.  She’s the Real Deal.  Well except for the queen thing. She agrees to help them, but insists that they all refer to her as Your Majesty and dress in the appropriate period costume.

Not a laugh-out-loud funny kind of book, more of a chuckle-to-yourself story, but as I said delightful and fun.  And yeah, they do nail the spying telepath.

Mmmmmmmm   I am peering into your mind.  You are thinking:  “WTF?”   Now you are thinking:  “How the heck does she do that!”

 

 

 

 

ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie

ancillary justiceDefinitely one of the better sci fi stories I have read.  Partially because it addresses the very interesting issue of just what makes up a person, what is this *I* when we use that term,  and just exactly what is ‘sentient’.  It messes around with gender, and the entire story, told in first person, uses only the pronoun ‘she’ for everyone, leaving us readers with no idea which gender the referent might be.  The main character talks about the difficulties of language, and how the gender referents are different from language to language, and the fraught situations which can happen if the wrong referent is used.   I love this stuff.

But don’t get me wrong, you hard core sci fi buffs, it is also space opera.  And it stars……… an intergalatic space troop transport ship!  Yes, you understood  me correctly, the protagonist is a ship.   Let me explain a bit more.

The civilizations, particularly the dominant Imperial Radch, take humans and convert them into living weapons, with intelligence and superior mental and physical skills via implants, etc, and then attach them mentally to various ship captains and other high ranking people, the idea of ‘tools’ is wildly extended.  And these huge ships, which have an extraordinary  AI system and become extremely emotionally attached to their captains, also have hundreds of these Ancillaries.   Some ships whose captains were killed went mad.

This is the story of Justice of Toren,  the ship, and one of its AI ancillary segments, Breq.  Because of the treachery of the head Radch person, the ship and all aboard except Breq are killed.  Breq manages to escape, and is now the only embodiment of that ship, and determined to kill the head Radch.

But, get this!!!  That head person has thousands of emanations and ancillaries, and ever since a horrendous tragedy in the take over of a small outlying planet,  has suppressed one side of its personality, and is now fighting against itself.

This makes us think of the duality or multiplicity of all of us.  We have expressions like, “Being of two minds”, “being sides oneself’;  we have a mental condition known as schizophrenia.  We have the condition known as multiple personality.   This story examines in depth what the ramifications of all of this are.   It forces us to find a way to wrap our minds around the concept, to question what we have automatically assumed was the core person.   But as the book makes increasingly clear, a person is much like an onion.  You can peel away the layers in order to reach the core, but find in the end there is no core, only the layers.  And then you don’t even have your onion as an entity, only the layers.

But do not despair.  There is a story in all of this, and the philosophical issues are painlessly presented within the story.  I told you it was space opera.  There are still villains and heroes,  fantastic weaponry,  amazing flying vessels, and the potential of the triumph of greed over the higher moral values, self-interest covered over with self-righteousness.

I leave you with a quote to ponder:

Thoughts are ephemeral, they evaporate in the moment they occur, unless they are given action and material form.  Wishes and intentions, the same.  Meaningless, unless they impel you to one choice or another, some deed or course of action, however insignificant.  Thoughts that lead to action can be dangerous.  Thoughts that do not, mean less than nothing.

MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson

Major pettigrewMajor Pettigrew, a 68 year old retired military man, a widower of 6 years, lives in a small village in not too far from London.  His only child, a successful young man in his young thirties, lives in London.  They rarely see each other.

Major Pettigrew receives word that his only sibling, a brother, has died.  He goes to the local shop to pick up a few things, a shop run by the Pakistani widow, Mrs. Ali.  He has a dizzy spell, she rushes to support him, and thus ensues a careful, polite, and sweet friendship.

But this friendship carries a lot of problems.  Major Pettigrew is a member of the local country club where he plays golf with his friends.  And he begins to realize just how much bias there is in his community and in his set of friends and the people in the country club.

In addition, he has a rare and valuable shooting gun, one of a pair,left to him and his brother by his father, with the intention that when one brother died, the gun in his possession would go to the surviving brother.  But the deceased brother’s wife, whom Major Pettigrew never really cared for, has other plans, and wants to sell the pair because at this point in time they will fetch a rather large sum.   Major Pettigrew’s son is all in favor of this because he wants the money against his inheritance, too.

This is the gentle, lovely story of struggling against greed, against prejudice, and struggling for the things that bring joy to your heart.  It is about class differences, and race differences.   It is about possessions, nostalgia and Doing the Right Thing.   Doing the right thing always sounds easy, but in reality, it is often pretty darn difficult.

Great book.  Does make you aware of the biases we call carry around with us, much as we wish to ignore them.

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson

we have always lived in the castleFor me, Shirley Jackson is the Absolute Master of the understated horror story.  I guess she is best known for the short story, The Lottery, and the novel, The Haunting of Hill House.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is about two sisters living alone in the family mansion with only senile and unwell Uncle Julian and the narrator, Merricat’s cat Jonas.  Mary Katherine Blackwell, 18,  and her older sister, Constance, 28, along with Uncle Julian live in an isolated decrepit house outside of a New England village, where the villagers hate them and hold them in great disdain.  the reason for this turns out to be the poisoning deaths six years ago of the rest of the family:  mother, father, brother and the wife of Uncle Julian.  There was arsenic in the sugar at dinner.  Merricat escaped because she was sent to her room for bad behavior, Constance did not like sugar and Uncle Julian only used a very small amount on his berries, and was quite ill, but did not die.

Constance was arrested for the murders, and sent to trial where she was acquitted, and now hides out in the house, never leaving the grounds.

It is a goosebumpy recounting, with Uncle Julian now confined to a wheel chair, writing a book about that day, and constantly fuzing over all the insignificant details and talking about it constantly.

Life, however is now peaceful, and nobody bothers them, until the day that cousin Charles arrives, looking for money, and finding this extremely odd assortment of individual living there.  His presence leads to unforeseen consequences and a not-altogether surprising semi climax, but to a very surprising ending.  Surprising but altogether fitting.

There is no underlying evil, only underlying sadness, and the notion of mental illness is touched upon, crept up on, gently and softly looked at.  What seems like cruelty and meanness on the part of the villagers is exposed as fear.   It was meant to be a shocker, as was The Lottery, contrasting the peaceful picturesqueness of a small, quaint New England town with the uglier realities.

Great book.

 

ERIC (Faust) by Terry Pratchett

Thfaust erice next in the series about the inept Wizard Rincewind.  Oh, fudge, I am so tired of trying to condense plot descriptions.  Here is Wiki’s synopsis.

This book follows the events of Sourcery in which the Wizard Rincewind was trapped in the Dungeon Dimensions.

Rincewind wakes in a strange place, having been summoned by the 13-year-old demonologist, Eric Thursley, who wants the mastery of all kingdoms, to meet the most beautiful woman who ever existed, and to live forever. He is disappointed when Rincewind tells him he is unable to deliver any of these things, and embarrassed when Rincewind sees through his disguise. Rincewind is disheartened to learn that the spells to confine the demon summoned are working on him; Eric’s parrot tells him that because he was summoned as a demon, he is subject to the same terms.

The arrival of Rincewind’s Luggage causes Eric to suspect deceit on Rincewind’s part. Eric’s demands are renewed; he makes three wishes of Rincewind. Rincewind insists he cannot grant wishes with the snap of a finger, and discovers to his horror that snapping his fingers really does work.

To be Ruler of the World. Eric and Rincewind find themselves in the rain forests of Klatch, in the Tezumen empire, a parody of the Aztec empire. The local people come forward to pay tribute to Eric and declare him Ruler of the World. During this tribute, Rincewind and the parrot explore the temple of Quezovercoatl (a parody of Quetzalcoatl), where they find a prisoner, Ponce da Quirm (a parody of Juan Ponce de León), who is to be sacrificed. Da Quirm tells Rincewind about the terrible fate the Tezumen have planned for the Ruler of the World, on whom they blame all life’s misfortunes. Shortly, Rincewind, Eric and da Quirm find themselves tied up at the top of a pyramid, waiting to be sacrificed, when Quezovercoatl makes his appearance. Unfortunately for him, the Luggage also makes an appearance, trampling the six-inch-tall Quezovercoatl in the process. The Tezumen are pleased to see Quezovercoatl destroyed, release the prisoners, and enshrine the luggage in the place of their god. At the end of the book, the Tezumen are revealed to have abandoned worshipping the Luggage as well (since it never returned) and had turned atheist, “which still allowed them to kill anyone they wanted, but they didn’t have to get up so early to do it”.
To Meet the Most Beautiful Woman in All History. Rincewind snaps his fingers again, and they find themselves in a large wooden horse (a parody of the Trojan Horse). Exiting, they are surrounded by soldiers, who take them for an Ephebian invasion force. Rincewind manages to talk their way out of the Ephebian guards and out of the city, only to fall into the hands of the invading army. Rincewind and Eric are taken to Lavaeolus, the man who built the horse—having sent the horse in as a decoy so that he and his men could sneak in around the back while their enemies waited around the horse for them to come out—who tells them off in ironic fashion, for ‘spoiling the war’. They reenter Tsort through a secret passage, and find Elenor (a parody of Helen of Troy). Both Eric and Lavaeolus are disappointed to find that it has been a long siege, and Elenor is now a plump mother of several children, with the beginnings of a moustache, and that serious artistic licence had been taken in her description. The Ephebians escape the city while Tsort burns, and Lavaeolus and his army set out for home, with Lavaeolus complaining about voyages by sea (further reference to the Iliad and subsequent Odyssey). Eric notes that “Lavaeolus” in Ephebian translates to “Rinser of Winds”, hinting that perhaps Lavaeolus is a relative of Rincewind.
To Live Forever. Rincewind snaps his fingers, bringing Eric and him outside time, just before the beginning of existence. Rincewind meets the Creator, who is just forming the Discworld and is having trouble finishing some of the animals. Rincewind and Eric are left on the newly formed world, with the realization that “to live forever” means to live for all time, from start to finish. To escape, Rincewind has Eric reverse his summoning, taking them both to hell.
They discover hell steeped in bureaucracy, where the Demon King Astfgl had decided boredom might be the ultimate form of torture. Rincewind uses his university experience to confuse the demons at their own game, so he and Eric can try to escape. While crossing through the recently reformed levels of hell (satirical forms of Dante’s Inferno) they encounter da Quirm and the parrot, as well as Lavaeolus, who tells them where the exit is.

The source of Rincewind’s demonic powers is revealed to be Lord Vassenego, a Demon Lord leading a secret revolt against Astfgl. Using Rincewind to keep Astfgl occupied while gathering support amongst the demons, Vassenego confronts his king just as Astfgl finally catches up to Rincewind and Eric. Vassenego announces the council of demons has made Astfgl “Supreme Life President of Hell”, and that he is to plan out the course of action for demons. With Astfgl lost to the bureaucratic prison of his own making, Vassenego takes over as king and releases Rincewind and Eric, so that stories about hell can be told.

I love the sense of humor, the parody, and the constant cultural and literary references in Pratchett’s books.  Being as I live in Mexico and am familiar with the Mayan god, the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl, I found the Tezumen’s Quezovercoatl particularly clever.

On to the next.  Maybe for the next book I will again be willing to give you a plot summary in my own words without resorting to stealing … er, borrowing…. from other sources.  I forget who said it, but I subscribe to the belief that copying from one source is plagiarizing; copying from several is research.

BOUVARD ET PECUCET by Gustave Flaubert

bouvardThank goodness this was a translated copy because in spite of my five years of French study in high school and beyond, what remains in my head is pretty much only shards of the language  mostly along the lines of La plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle, and un bon vin blanc, and coc au vin.  You will note the preponderance of food vocabulary.   Oh, yes, and Miss Piggy’s Qui, moi?

These two guys meet, at about age 47, in Paris, and become instant inseparable friends.  They are hapless, gormless, pitiful, and likeable.  They are both copy clerks, and when Bouvard comes into an inheritance, he buys a place in the country where they go to after quitting their jobs, to be gentlemen farmers.  But they can’t raise a thing except local eyebrows.

The tag line on the book is “A tragi-comic Novel of Bourgeois Life”, and it does have it’s comic overtones as the two stumble from one failure to another, not to mention their deteriorating relationship with the local villagers, who consider them to be idiots of the first water.   At last, they admit defeat and decide to go back into the copyist business together.

This is an unfinished work by Flaubert, and he intended to explore the notions of science, and what is knowable and learnable for practical application from books.  Although their country house is filling up with instructions, and manuals, and printed information, they are unable to make use of it to be successful in any of their endeavors.

It was written in 1880, and published a year after his death.  It was received by the critics at the time with the same reaction as mine:   meh.