AS SHE CLIMBED ACROSS THE TABLE by Jonathan Lethem

You know, sometimes a book just tickles your funnybone. Is that two words?  Funny bone?  Well, whatever.  What. Ever.

Not sure just what the genre is, but it is about a particle physics scientist, a young woman, working with a university physics team, and and her boyfriend, an anthropologist at the same university.  The physics team has just created a void … a hole in the universe, which they have named Lack.  Well, this void has preferences.  It will accept certain items into its nothingness, but not others.  Alice fall out of love with the boyfriend, and into love with Lack, whose preference is not for her.

All kinds of folks, scientists and non-scientists alike try feeding items into Lack.  But the one thing it definitely doesn’t want is Alice.

The distinguished Italian scientists predicts that Lack will eventually close, he can see the signs already.  He also claims to have solved the riddle of Lack.  He says that

Cnsciousness creates reality.  Only when there is a mind to consider the world is there a world.  There’s no world where there isn’t a mentality to consider a world.  An example: there are subatomic particles as far as we are willing to look.  We create them.  Consciousness writes reality, in any direction it looks — past, future, big, small.  Wherever we look, we find reality forming in response.

Reality is unwilling to fully exist without an observer. If consciousness is required to confirm the new reality, you have to provide the consciousness too.  You can’t make just a whole new universe full of reality, without making the commitment to look at it.

So, the upshot is that Lack is a void with consciousness that wants to make a reality and so it uses the stuff that the folks are tossing into the void to create another world, or dimension, if you will.

Our boy tries to enter the void …. and OMG … is successful and ends up in a strange world comprised of all the junk and items that people had tossed into Lack.  He returns to the entry point, and pops back to the lab, to find it is still not his original world, but that of some blind guys who entered Lack, and he is now in their blind world.  He tries again and ends up in the void, as the void.

It is a pretty interesting concept, and reads way better than this pitiful plot description does.

It is a bit about science and physics, a bit about love and romance and how fragile that can be, a bit about tweaking academia,  and a bit about ‘how far can I go with this concept?’.   Really a fun read.

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SUNDIVER by David Brin

The official blurb:  No species has ever reached for the stars without the guidance of a patron–except perhaps mankind. Did some mysterious race begin the uplift of humanity aeons ago? Circling the sun, under the caverns of Mercury, Expedition Sundiver prepares for the most momentous voyage in history–a journey into the boiling inferno of the sun.

Written in 1980, this hard science sci-fi piece is missing some tech we would today consider essential, especially since the folks in the universe have developed space travel to a hey-nonny.   Kind of like us today maybe having TV without having radio.   But anyway.

Humans (read the USA) are superior to everybody else. Humans are technologically outclassed by every other space-faring species in the galaxy but are superior because their intelligence evolved naturally instead of being the result of genetic manipulation by an older species. Or maybe not – it’s the hottest debate in the galaxy. Various species think humans are upstarts. Others – usually also younger species – rather like humans. Devious, nefarious politics ensues. The Rugged Individualist trope thrives even in space opera.

The protagonist is that most common of all fictional heroes:  the flawed human hero male.  He saved some big deal something in South America, to the cost of his wife who fell 20 miles.  Dang.  Bet that made a hell of a splat.  We are not sure if it was due to his negligence or his hubris, but there you have it  — the guy who is taking years to recover from this tragedy.  What he does, is separate his personality into two different personalities, one good, one not so good, and he can call on the not so good one to get big jobs done.  So it is essentially glorifying dissociative identity disorder as A Good Thing.  Good grief.

A group stationed on Mercury is conducting dives (or trips) into the outer atmosphere of the sun, where they see ghosts.  So OK, you got me at ghosts.  I am all in, because what’s not to like about interstellar ghosts, right?  The scientists persuade David to join them in trying with his special abilities to solve what these apparitions might actually be.

Enter The Murder Mystery.  Really.  This book has something for everyone.  There is even Romance.  Somebody gets killed, kind of a locked room mystery since they are all cooped up on this space station, and David, our schizoid friend, determines to uncover the culprit.

Lots of great aliens in this story.  Probably the best thing about the book.  Well drawn, well imagined.  Not just a funky human in alien garb, but truly alien in appearance, and thought processes.

I found this a fun read, lots of interesting concepts and a decent musing on the “Well, aren’t WE special” attitude of us humans.  Yeah.

 

There are a couple more volumes in the series, but I was not entranced enough to be bothered acquiring them.

 

 

JOURNEY BY MOONLIGHT by Antal Szerb

This is considered a classic of the thirties, written in 1937 by one of the major Hungarian writers of the twentieth century.  He was a formidable scholar, and wrote a number of non fiction works which are still considered important in the field today.  He was from a Jewish family, who had converted to catholicism.  During the Second World War, he was given numerous chances to escape antisemitic persecution (as late as 1944), but he chose to remain in Hungary, where his last novel, a Pirandellian fantasy about a king staging a coup against himself, then having to impersonate himself, (Oliver VII,) was published in 1942. It was passed off as a translation from the English, as no ‘Jewish’ work could have been printed at the time.  Szerb was deported to a concentration camp late in 1944, and was beaten to death there in January 1945, at the age of 43.

Journey by Moonlight was translated from the Hungarian by the renowned and award-winning Len Rix.

Well, I loved this book. If you have read any Iris Murdoch, then you know the sense of the romantic/ironic/searching undertone which pervades her books, and you will find it is part and parcel of Szerb’s work as well.  Here’s the basic story line:

 Mihály has dreamed of Italy all his life. When he finally travels there, on his honeymoon with Erszi, he soon abandons his new wife in order to find himself, haunted by old friends from his turbulent teenage days: beautiful, kind Tamas, brash and wicked Janos, and the sexless yet unforgettable Eva. Journeying from Venice to Ravenna, Florence and Rome, Mihály loses himself in Venetian back alleys and in the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside, driven by an irresistible desire to resurrect his lost youth among Hungary’s Bright Young Things, and knowing that he must soon decide whether to return to the ambiguous promise of a placid adult life, or allow himself to be seduced into a life of scandalous adventure.

Szerb has a stunning talent for description, and I found myself fully immersed in 30’s Italy, in the Italy of my imagination.  The characters are strange and dreamlike,  none that we feel we might actually meet in Real Life.  They are not exactly larger than life, but rather different from life, from another dimension, perhaps.   The journey is one every young person takes, if only in their head, one of exploration, searching for redemption for unknown sins and a clear path for the way to Life.

Great book.

FALL ON YOUR KNEES by Ann-Marie MacDonald

“They are the Pipers of Cape Breton Island — a family steeped in lies and unspoken truths that reach out from the past, forever mindful of the tragic secret that could shatter the family to its foundations. Chronicling five generations of this eccentric clan, Fall on Your Knees follows four remarkable sisters whose lives are filled with driving ambition, inescapable family bonds, and forbidden love. Their experiences will take them from their stormswept homeland, across the battlefields of World War I, to the freedom and independence of Jazz-era New York City.”

The above is official.  Not much of a description, is it.

It is about a family, about race and  racism, about The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name, about loyalty, and about lots and lots of drama. What a great book.  Tome.  A great tome.  It is huge, 508 pages.

Here’s the outline:  it starts with the dad, a young piano tuner, who meets 13 year old Materia, pianist extraordinaire, one of a number of children of a prosperous Lebonese family living in Cape Breton, when he is called in to tune their piano.  Materia falls in love with him, and runs away with him the following year to marry.  She is pregnant with their first child, Kathleen, who turns out to be a vocal prodigy.

Materia becomes a little crazy, ok maybe a lot crazy, and is befriended by the wife of the Jewish butcher.  Eventually she has several other children, all girls, when Kathleen is a preteen.  The story follows their lives, and honey, let me tell you, it is drama city!  Whoo ee.  And let me tell you, you will not believe who does what to whom.

It is a saga, sure enough, and what a read.  The proverbial page-turner.  I loved this book.  LOVED this book.

It is MacDonald’s first novel.  She is  a Canadian playwright, novelist, actor and broadcast journalist.  What talent.  I have MacDonald’s The Way The Crow Flies,  which is even more of a door stop at 848 pages.  Think I will read a few other genres before I start in on that one.

 

 

 

OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

Olive is a plain speaking, almost-not-nice woman,  but she sure is interesting.  In this novel-in-stories form,  Olive is not always the principal focus of the particular story, but she always appears, however briefly.

Each portion of the book deals with a different character, giving us their back story and current life.   All the stories point out the sadnesses that all lives contain, even the live seemingly the happiest on the surface.

The official plot description is this:

Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town of Crosby, Maine, and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life – sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty.

Olive is profoundly flawed, and profoundly noble, and she is each of us.  She exists to mirror ourselves, whether we want to see ourself as we really are or not.

Loved this book!

A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT by Becky Chambers

Remember A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet?  You can read about it here.  This is the second in the Wayfarer series, and just as Small Angry Planet was a stand alone, so this one is as well.  It features a minor character from Planet, and more A.I.s.   I just love sentient  A.I.s.

Well, since Lovelace, the A.I. in the wayfarer ship was seemingly destroyed, the indomitable Pepper was called in to the ship to see what she could do to save it (her).  She ended up by installing it in the body kit that the Wayfarer tech has secretly bought.  She took the now ‘She’ in a body back to Port Corelis where Lovelace choose her own name, Sidra, which means ‘of the stars’.  Of course.

Fresh in her new synthetic body, which she continually refers to as her ‘kit,’ Sidra struggles with adapting to a view that is cone-shaped and narrow, and the overwhelming incoming stimuli.  She lives with Pepper and Blue, Pepper’s friend and partner.  The narrative then jumps into the story of Jane 23, a young female who works first cleaning then repairing parts with her clone-sisters on a distant planet.  Yeah, Jane 23 is Pepper as a young girl.  Chapters go back and forth between the two, but are occasionally interrupted by a type of underground message boards where less-than-law-abiding citizens talk shop.  Thematic parallels give us the title to the book.   I found myself both eager and reluctant at the end of each chapter to resume the other story. In a way, both are stories of survival and of identity, and they dovetail beautifully.

Jane 23 escapes her factory, and comes upon a damaged starship in the midst of the junkyard surrounding her factory.  She enters and the AI which is still functioning, tells Jane of the two crew who died and left her alone in the ship for ten years.  Jane with the help of the AI, who calls herself Owl, find food, and after a number of years, Jane begins to build a viable spaceship out of junk in order to get them off that planet.  She meets another clone, a boy, and takes him with her back to the ship.  Eventually she is successful with her build, and off they go, to be finally rescued by a roving spaceship, and delivered to Port Corelis, where she and the boy (yep, you guessed it — now Blue) now live and work.

Pepper has one overriding desire — to find her spaceship and retrieve Owl, who hopefully is still in existence.  The rest of the book is about their venture to recover Owl when someone on that message board locates the ship in a museum.

I liked Small Angry Planet very much, but loved this one.  Maybe because the sapient A.I. was featured.  I am all about robots.

A Closed and Common Orbit was a Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (2017), Arthur C. Clarke Award Nominee (2017), and  Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Science Fiction (2016).

You might call it Cozy Sci Fi.  Yeah, I would definitely call it Cozy Sci Fi.

THE SOJOURN by Andrew Krivak

The Sojourn is the story of Jozef Vinich, who was uprooted from a 19th-century mining town in Colorado by a family tragedy and returns with his father to his father’s village of Pastvina  in rural Austria-Hungary, (which is now part of the Czech Republic) to take up an impoverished shepherd’s life.

Josef’s father then marries a woman with two young sons.  she turns out to be cruel, treats her own sons well, but starves the young baby of her husband.  The husband comes home from the high pastures and berates the woman, and takes his boy with him into the mountains for the months he is sheepherding.  They live the hardscrabble existence of shepherds, barely able to put food on the table, in the cold and brutal climate of the region. Josef and his father live for part of the year in a cabin in the Carpathian Mountains and ply their trade of husbandry.

At the age of ten, Josef is introduced to his father’s Krag rifle, and is instructed in the art of hiding and hunting their prey. A distant cousin, Marian Pes–nicknamed Zlee–who was one year older than Josef, is sent to live with them. Zlee has an instinct for shepherding, and together they form a brotherly bond of love and respect. Josef’s sleep is haunted by dreams of loss and he gradually becomes distant from his father.

World War One comes. In 1916, when Zlee turns eighteen, both boys go to the conscription office to join up. Josef alters the age on his identity card so that he can go, too. During artillery training, they are recognized for their skill of aiming and shooting, and are sent to train as snipers, or “sharpshooters,” which in German is called Scharfschützen. , surviving a perilous trek across the frozen Italian Alps and capture by a victorious enemy.The novel is set in a time  when Czechs, Slovaks, Austrians, and Germans fought on the same side while divided by language, ethnicity, and social class in the most brutal war to date. It is also a poignant tale of fathers and sons, addressing the great immigration to America and the desire to live the American dream amidst the unfolding tragedy in Europe.

After being in a prisoner of war camp in Sardinia, Italy,  until the end of the war, his cousin/brother having been killed, he sets off on foot for his home in Austria-Hungary.  When he finally arrives, he finds that his beloved father has died, and his step mother, both of her sons having also been killed in the war, was delighted to give him a letter from his father in English, which she did not speak, which expressed concern to his son that he had nothing at all to leave him.  But hidden deep in the 8 page letter was information that he had hidden up in the mountains 5 ounces of gold, with directions on how to find it, and once in possession of it, to take it to Prague along with his birth certificate from the US, and get a passport and go to America, which he did.

A beautifully written story of a young man’s life, written from his perspective as an old man.