THE INTUITIONIST by Colson Whitehead

This is an interesting book, published in 2002,  which has sparked ratings all across the spectrum.  I think it is because it is a many layered book, being about elevators in the beginning of the 20th century, about race, a LOT about race, about a mystery, about corporate greed, about unions, social commentary, all wrapped up in a noir story set in an unnamed city which is definitely New York in the early-ish 1900s to 50’s-ish.

First of all, it is humorous in its way, featuring elevator inspectors as an important, respected and prestigious department of the city government.  Graduates of the various elevator inspection institutions are recruited by the big elevator manufacturers, much as today graduates of prestigious colleges are recruited by law firms, tech firms, pharm firms, etc.   They have an association, analogous to the powerful unions, and there are a couple of monthly magazines devoted to elevators, their inspection, maintenance, installation, the most important of these being Lift.  This is all detailed not tongue in cheek, but very seriously.

Lila Mae Watson is the first black woman to be hired as an elevator inspector in the prestigious but fictional Elevator Inspection Department of the city.  She is the first black female graduate of the Institute for Vertical Transport, and has dreams of verticality, of huge soaring buildings in which elevators play a prominent part.

She is given charge of the newest sky scraper building, the Fanny Briggs, building, named in honor of a salve who taught herself how to read.  It is a prestigious assignment, and we don’t need to guess too hard why she, Lila Mae, a black female, was assigned this building.

However.  One of the elevators went into free fall, killing some people.  And guess who is getting the blame?

The book treats the two opposing beliefs on how to inspect elevators as an allegory for religion.  One group, the conservative Empiricists, believe inspections must be made hands on, in person.   The Intuitionists, of which Lila Mae is a subscriber, have learned how to feel, hear, sense, the mechanisms, what might be amiss, what might be sticking, or wearing out.  She is never wrong, in her three years working for the department.

The man running for president of the association is an Empiricist, and well connected with the lesser honorable elements of the city and its government agencies.  His opponent is an Intuitionist.  It is suspected that there was sabotage of the Fanny Briggs elevator, to bring discredit upon a) Intuitionists, b) black people and c) females.

So the book’s main actual plotline is the search for the perpetrator of the act, keeping Lila Mae out of trouble, and the attempt to give the Intuitionists more credence.  The Intuitionists main guru,  deceased, although he has written a number of books on the subject, has also written a number of journals and personal works, which are believed to contain his schematics for a ‘black box’, a mechanism which will allow elevators to soar almost infinitely into the sky, very metaphysical, and in keeping with the religious allegory, remind us of the tower of Babel, and how well that effort went.   The two sides apparently have no scruples as to how they get their hands on these papers, and consequently the black box.

Very clever writing, and I am pleased to offer you a few quotes for your delectation.

Arbo [a major elevator manufacturer] spent millions promoting the Smooth-Glide in the trades and at conventions.  They were the first to understand the dark powers of the bikini.

and

…what every passenger feels acutely about elevators.  That they ride in a box on a rope in a pit.

and as Lila Mae views the architecture of the city with disdain as dumpy, awkward and ugly, she thinks

the will to squat that roosts in the soul of every city architect.  Government buildings are generallysquat rather than tall….

You know, when you think about it, she is right.

I loved this book.  As I said above, it has many layers, and rereading to concentrate on only one its themes can be very profitable.

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THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern

The official blurb says:  “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night. 

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands. 

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Yeah, pretty much.  Of course, the circus is not exactly a circus, it is more a magical collection of sideshow acts, each in it’s own black and white striped tent.  Everything is black and white.  The acts, and tent rooms are created by two young magicians in a competition with each other on behalf of their mentors.  Lots of magicalism, fabulism,  surreality and funny business going on.

I think I liked this book so much because of its poetic, formal flavor, like those of the turn of the century books I like so much.  Had the same feel.  The circus as a venue for the competition is conceived by the two old magicians in the late 1800s, and the story covers its existence into the maybe middle of the 1900s.

I am not madly, crazily, deeply in love with fabulism, or stories about magic, or magick, or wizards, soccerors, etc. but every once in a while I come across a work that does kind of catch my fancy, and this was one of them.

 

THE NEBULY COAT by John Meade Falkner

Another turn of the (20th) century novel.  You know how much I love work from this period.  Written in 1903, this interesting and poignant work, possibly because of its rather formal style, common of writing of that period, was compelling in a way that is seldom found (at least by me) in today’s modern offerings.

It is the story of an old, deteriorating church and its awkwardly built bell tower, the architect in charge of restoration, the aristocratic family who is responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the church, and the churches officials and townspeople.

The seaport of Cullerne was once a bustling place, but silt closed the harbor, the marshes overtook the beaches, and the town found itself stranded rather more inland than was useful, the young people moved to other parts, and the town was left to sleep away its days.  The great church of Saint Sepulchre dominated the village square. The first part of the building was erected in 1135,  and its Norman arches supported an overburdening weight of the bell tower which was added on several centuries later.

When young architect Westray is sent by his firm to inspect the building and oversee what little restoration the church has money for, he notices an ominous crack in the tower, and is reminded of the old architectural saw, “The arch never sleeps”, meaning that when an arch is forced to support too heavy a load, it eventually will shift.

We meet the old, broken down organist, a fine musician, forced to make do with a decrepit organ and barely passable singers for his choir.  Westray takes lodgings in the same poor establishment as the organist, and they become friends.

The old Lord of the area has died, and his son and daughter-in-law drowned in a boating accident, and the remaining family member, the grandson, has been traveling and living abroad for twenty years, and even before the old guy died, he could not be induced to spend a penny on the church, the townspeople are not very prosperous, and so the building has been sinking into decay for decades.

The title of the book refers to the coat of arms of the aristocratic family, the Nebuly, which is a bunch of clouds.  A lot of the plot revolves around this coat of arms and around the chain of inheritance of the family manor and money.

So, anyway, the church’s officials cannot put off the repair of parts of the roof any longer, and have contracted to have the work done at last.

But lo! and behold!   The young grandson returns home, and what is great about this novel is that at every turn where you think you know where it is going, it isn’t.  It does something completely unexpected, so I am not going to tell you any more of the plot, except to say, the arches never sleep.

The enjoyment of this book is not just in the plot.  It is in the various side trips of musings on the life of those in lodgings, of single men, of decaying gentry, of poverty and penury, on the workings and maintenance of the great church organs, and of course, on the various points of architecture.

Side note:  In the lodgings lives the niece of the landlady, who is an avid reader and aspires to someday be an author.  At one point, she is reading when the doorbell sounds.

She had thrust a pencil into the pages of “Northanger Abbey” to keep the place while she answered the bell….

hahaha  She is reading Jane Austin.  I love it.

Meade wrote two other novels, The Lost Stradivarius, and Moonfleet, written in 1898, a tale of adventure, and which was made into a movie.  If you wish to read The Nebuly Coat or the other two books, they are free on Project Gutenberg.

 

CYTEEN by C. J. Cherryh

I almost didn’t read this book.  My Dearly Beloved downloaded it and since we have a linked Amazon account, it ended up also on my Kindle.  I thought it would be about a cyber teen, you know, another YA where the teenager has special powers suddenly overnight?  Right?  No.  Wrong.

It is about genetic engineering, and politics and clones, called replicas, and bossing everybody around even after you are dead. Gee.  That notion holds a certain appeal, doesn’t it.  It won a whole bunch of awards in 1989 – Hugo Award for Best Novel: winner,  SF Chronicle Award, Best Novel: winner,  British Science Fiction Association Award, Best SF Novel: nomination,  Locus Award, Best SF Novel: winner, and in 1998, the Locus Award, All-Time Best SF Novel before 1990: position 38.

Let me see if I can narrow down the plot description from Wiki’s 18 paragraphs to a  more manageable length.  Whew.  OK. Diving in.

Founded in 2201 by a group of dissident scientists and engineers, the Cyteen star system includes the planet Cyteen and Cyteen Inner and Outer Stations. Cyteen declared its independence from Earth in 2300 CE and now serves as the capital of Union.

The planet’s atmosphere is moderately toxic to humans, necessitating enclaves, or semi-encapsulated city-states, which drives Union’s political outlook. Cyteen is seen as the antithesis of Earth; the heart of Union is the research facility Reseune, the center of all research and development of human cloning.

Cloned “azi” provide the additional population Union needs to exist and expand, a policy which Earth and the Alliance, Union’s main rival, deplore and refuse to sanction. Azi are incubated in vitro in “womb-tanks”, but citizen (or “CIT”) babies can also be cloned the same way, for example to replace a dead child. The fundamental difference between azi and regular humans is that they are educated from birth via “tape”, a computer-controlled combination of conditioning and biofeedback training. This technology is not limited to azi; it is used by normal humans as well, though to a lesser extent and after they have a chance to develop (i.e. usually after the age of six). This results in profound psychological differences; for example, CITs are much more capable of handling new and uncertain situations, while azi are able to concentrate better.

The overall educational program of an azi is referred to as his or her “psychset”. Designing tapes is an extremely complex discipline, since a badly designed psychset can cause azi to become emotionally unstable.

OK, that’s the basic background. Onto this scene we encounter Ariane Emory, one of fourteen “Specials”, Union-certified geniuses. In addition to her research on azi, she runs Reseune (founded by her parents) with the assistance of Giraud and Denys Nye. Emory is also a member of the Council of Nine, the elected, top-level executive body of Union. Two political factions vie for power in Union: the Centrists and the Expansionists. The latter, led by Emory, seek to enlarge Union through exploration, building new stations and continued cloning. Her political enemies, headed by Mikhail Corain, prefer to focus on the existing stations and planets. The Expansionists have held power since the foundation of Union, a situation fostered by “rejuv”, which extends lifespans and staves off the effects of old age. Emory herself is 120 years old at the start of the novel – and only just beginning to show signs of aging – and has been the Councillor for Science for five decades.

Emory’s former co-worker and now bitter longtime rival, Jordan Warrick, is also a Special. Jordan has created and raised a clone of himself named Justin. Justin has grown up with and is very close to Grant, an experimental azi created by Emory from the slightly modified geneset of another Special. When Justin goes to work for Emory, she threatens to use Grant, who is Reseune property, for research. Using drugs and tape to overcome Justin’s remaining resistance, she rapes the inexperienced seventeen-year-old. This trauma causes him to experience periodic debilitating “tape-flashes”, similar to the flashbacks that PTSD sufferers experience. Justin does his best to hide the sordid matter from his “father”, but Jordan eventually learns of it. He is furious and confronts Emory.

She is found dead later that day. Though it could have been accidental, there is strong suspicion that she was murdered by Jordan. He protests his innocence, but agrees to a confession in order to protect both Justin and Grant. Because of his Special status, he has legal immunity and is only exiled to an isolated research facility far from Reseune.

Emory’s ultimate goal was to clone herself, with her successor reliving her life as closely as possible, down to her hormone levels and including two longtime bodyguard azi and companions, Florian and Catlin. Emory also created a sophisticated and powerful computer program to help guide her replacement. With her death and the resulting disruption to both Reseune and Union, the second project is begun immediately.

And the rest of the book is all about the replica Ari growing up and the events that happen to her and to the political situation.  Full disclosure — a lot of that plot description was lifted whole from Wiki.  OK, most of it.

You will be as pleased as I am to learn that C. J. Cherryh is a female.  I LOVE sci fi written by women, and so much of her wondrous oeuvre was written during a time when the field was dominated by male writers.  Cherryh (pronounced “Cherry”) appended a silent “h” to her real name because her first editor felt that “Cherry” sounded too much like a romance writer. Her initials, C.J., were used to disguise the fact that she was female.  Cherryh, has written more than 80 books since the mid-1970s, including the Hugo Award-winning novels Downbelow Station (1981) also set in her Alliance-Union universe. She is known for her world building, depicting fictional realms with great realism supported by vast research in history, language, psychology, and archeology. Her series of fantasy novels set in the Alliance-Union universe, the Morgaine Stories, have sold in excess of 3 million copies.

And dig this:  the author has an asteroid, 77185 Cherryh, named after her! Referring to this honor, the asteroid’s discoverers wrote of Cherryh: “She has challenged us to be worthy of the stars by imagining how mankind might grow to live among them.”  

Dang. Any of you have an asteroid named after you?  I didn’t think so.

THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell

OK, I have read Spaceman of Bohemia,  and Nigerians in Space,  and now The Sparrow,  which if you are of a nose-snort sort of mind, could alternatively be titled, Jesuits in Space.

In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a SETI listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. (We’ve always known the Roman Catholic Church is the richest institution on the planet.) What the Jesuits find is the partial basis of the book.  An interesting premise, the Jesuit space mission, based as it is on the long history of the Jesuits having first contact with cultures other than their own. Jesuits have always been scholars, educators, explorers, intellectual idealists.

On Rakhat, there are two main humanoid species. The mission party learns that the one species, vegetarians, back in prehistory, were prey of the other species, the Jana’ata, and there is now a precise balance between the Jana’ata, which are a carnivorous herding society that breed their prey, the Runa, for intelligence and adaptability as well as meat.

The mission party lands in a region of the Runa,  who are vegetarians, learn their language, and notice that these people are very thin, and seldom have children.  The mission party is surviving on the supplies they brought with them and on the vegetation that the Runa eat, and decide to improve their diet by planting a garden with the seeds they have brought with them.  The Runa are amazed at this cultivation idea, plant their own, and grow heavier.  The better diet brings the women into oestrus, and they start producing a lot of babies.  Unbeknownst to the mission party, this is not permitted by the Jana’ata, who strictly control the Runa population so that in either population there is never hunger, homelessness, etc.  A Jana’ata control party arrives at the Runa community and slaughters all the babies.

In the year 2060, only one of the crew, the Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, survives to return to Earth, and he is damaged physically and psychologically. The story is told with parallel plot lines, interspersing the journey of Sandoz and his friends to Rakhat with Sandoz’s experiences upon his return to Earth.

The book has been called a parable about faith, the search for God.   The priest Emilio Sandoz is a deeply religious man, and others see God in him, but his own search lacks completion.  When terrible things happen to his mission cohorts, and then to him, he is faced with the possibility that there isn’t a God, and he is all alone.  If there is a God, God has possibly abandoned him, or has no interest in him, an equally terrifying proposition.

It is the actions of the intruders, the mission crew, which bring danger and violence to a settled and balanced society.  The story subtly raises concerns about the ways in which sophisticated cultures tell themselves cover stories in order to justify actions taken at a terrible cost to others. Does our own cultural values give us permission to judge and act on other cultural norms?   Can we vindicate our being all Judgey McJudgeface about the Jana’ata breeding the sentient Runa for food, while we ourselves have a number of stock species we breed for food?

If my description sounds like the book is all about religion, it isn’t really.  It is about the philosophical mindsets we have, our notions of what is a god, and what are our obligations and responsibilities toward other cultures.  Plenty of action in the book, and while the actual science-y stuff is pretty thin, glossing over a whole lot of issues, such as how the mission party keeps their electronic apparatus functioning on a planet with no electricity, not to mention the idea of the distance travel, with the planet Rahkat being 4 light years away and all, as with all fiction, we have to set some of these nit pickey considerations aside and deal with the larger story arc.

Oh, and the title comes from the biblical reference that God keeps his eye even on the smallest and least consequential.  What Father Sandoz learns that keeping one’s eye on something and actually doing something about it may very well be two different things.

There is a sequel, Children of God, where Father Sandoz is cajoled into returning to Rahkat.  I plan to read that in the near future.

 

WAIST DEEP by Frank Zafiro

“When disgraced former cop Stefan Kopriva is asked by an old high school classmate to find a runaway sixteen year old girl, he reluctantly accepts. Driven by guilt over a terrible mistake that drove him from the force more than ten years earlier, Kopriva battles old injuries, old demons and long ago memories as he unravels the mystery of the missing Kris Sinderling…and seeks his own redemption.”

So, yeah, it’s another drunk ex-cop trope.  You know, where he was just a smidge too late to save some little kid while on the force, and either quits in despair or is forced out in disgrace, and turns to alcoholism as a coping mechanism.

I keep waiting for the book about a well-adjusted ex-cop who quit the force because he either got bored, or had had enough of police politics and corruption, and went into some other satisfying business, has a normal love life, and only drinks a beer or two now and then socially.

Oh, well.

Our drunk alcohol-challenged protagonist gets himself into a fight at a ball game, is ejected, and one of the stadium security guys contacts him later to look for his teenage daughter who has disappeared.   The investigation brings to light a smarmy male high school teacher who preys on his female students, a slub making porn flicks in his basement, and a stupid high schooler who thinks making porn movies will bring her stardom.

Not a bad mystery, but I gotta tell ya, this alcoholic ex-cop trope is getting mighty old.

 

THE WHISTLING SEASON by Ivan Doig

Gee, I really like this writer.  This lovely paean to the one-room rural schoolhouse is set in Marias Coulee, Montana, in 1909.  The Marias River was named by Lewis, of Lewis & Clark fame, after a cousin with whom he thought he might be in love.   Maria’s River.  Later, the apostrophe was dropped.  Just a little trivia to wider your knowledge base.

A widower and his three boys, 2nd grade age, 5th grade age and seventh grade age, are doing their best to batch it after the death of their wife and mother a year ago.  The boys attend a one room school, taught by the doughty Miss Trent.   It is beginning to be apparent that although the fellows can get along peacefully in their slovenly ways, dad’s pitiful cooking attempts leave so much to be desired.  Dad feels they can spring for maybe a housekeeper who will tidy up and cook for them, and puts an ad in the Minneapolis newspaper.  They receive at last a reply headed “Can’t Cook but Don’t Bite”, submitted by a widow,  Rose Llewellyn, whose finances are afrazzle.  Not exactly what they were hoping for, but they figure she was married, so she has to be able to cook something, even if it isn’t gourmet fare.   It turns out her finances are non-existent. and she requests a three month advance on her salary to settle some issues and pay for her passage on the train.

She arrives with her brother accompanying her.  A striking man,

…lightly built, and an extraordinary amount of him was mustache.  It was one of those maximum ones such as I had seen in pictures of Rudyard Kipling, a soup-strainer and a lady_tickler and a fashion show, all in one.

It has been arranged for the housekeeper to board at a neighboring farm and walk over every day.  And she soon makes it clear that she absolutely CANNOT cook, but she sure was a world class house cleaner.

The father is president of the school board, and has often despaired at keeping a teacher, because the profession back in those days attracted mainly single young women, who soon left to get married.  The teacher turnover was always high, and beginning to disturb the district school authorities, who announce they will be sending an inspector one day.  All that is fine, except Miss Trent elopes with a traveling preacher man, leaving them high and dry.  But not to fret!  It turns out that the housekeeper’s brother is just a font of knowledge, having attending university in Chicago, and is cajoled into taking on the job.

It is all about that year that Rose, who constantly whistled as she worked, made the family ship shape, and Morrie, the brother, brought fun and learning to the classroom.  It was the year of Halley’s Comet, and what changes it brought to the family, the school, and the area.

Fun twist near the end, but we knew something was up, so it was delightful when it came.

The other book of Doig’s which I have read is English Creek, here.

The one-room schoolhouse system no longer exists as far as I know.  I could be wrong, but a brief search does not The students from the areas which would have them now all attend consolidated schools,  which although monetarily more efficient, sometimes puts students on an extremely long  school bus commute.  There is a site listing existing one-room schools, but they are all historic sites, or converted schools into other functions.   There is also a movement afoot to bring back the one-roomer, now being called the micro classroom.