Friday, August 26, 2005

Summer Reading, Some of the Time

I used to make fun of the whole concept of summer reading. Of course I was being paid to read year round at the time, and I suppose I still am, intermittently (and not at all well.)

It’s also hard to get behind the idea of beach reading in a place where it seldom breaks 70F, and the beach is as apt to be windy or foggy as not. Don’t get me wrong, we love our beaches, they’re never crowded and quite close by, but though I’ve read on the beach , I was fully clothed. With a thermos of hot coffee by my side.

So the fact that I actually did some summer reading this summer has almost nothing to do with summer, just with the impulse.

I started with Star Trek novels, which I have on hand for air travel. They keep me absorbed without much effort, I can read them when I tired or zoned out, so they are perfect for waiting, which is all you do, waiting in airports in order to wait on the runway in order to wait while you’re in the air, and so on, ad exhaustum boredom.

A lot of people like paperbacks of various genres for this---mysteries, thrillers, etc. but it’s not just the science fiction aspect: it’s partly that I hear the actor’s voices, and see the action to an extent. Which is partly why I stay with original series and Next Generation characters. For all I know, the DS9 and Voyager novels are better than the TV versions, but I don’t know the characters as well and I'm not as interested in them.

Anyway, since I have no flight scheduled for the next generation, and I had the impulse, I read several Star Trek novels over a few days. I enjoyed them all but one of them stays with me: a TNG novel called Gulliver’s Fugitives by Keith Sharee (Pocket Books.)

The Trek novels often features worlds and alien creatures that even CGI couldn’t realize under budget. This one has an appealing underground world with unusual creatures, but it’s the premise and the story that are the most interesting. The Enterprise encounters a world settled by humans where anything fictional is criminal, and there’s an underground society preserving the old stories. But it takes the Bradbury “Fahrenheit 451” preservation by memorizing classic texts a step farther. Individuals become the characters, they personify them. The group’s leader is Odysseus. Counselor Troi is among them, and her observations on the complications of this make for interesting reading. It’s also a gloss on the Trekkie phenomenon itself.

From there I moved on to books I had collected but were never a priority enough to have read. One was Broken Music, an autobiography by Sting (Dial Press.) It borders on being unfair that he writes this well. Isn’t being a superior songwriter, singer, musician, sex symbol and human rights advocate enough? I asked to review this book for the SF Chronicle, but was told that it would be done by the pop music department, if at all. That’s too bad. It would be worth reading even if the protagonist never became famous, although in that case it’s unlikely it would have found a publisher these days.

Then I indulged in Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made by David Halberstam (Random House.) Halberstam is a very good reporter, a great talker, but not such a great writer. If he thinks it’s worth saying once, it’s worth saying three times within a few pages or even paragraphs. But if his stories aren’t so well told, they’re worth telling.

Pro sports is a bizarre world, of course, where grown men paid two million dollars a year complain they are under-appreciated. But these sports are also more difficult and more gladiatorial than fans see or want to see. Halberstam deals with all this, and creates a bigger context of changes in the NBA, but the most fascinating stuff is specifically about Jordan. Halberstam writes that in addition to his obvious physical skills, Jordan just had energy. He slept little, hardly ever stopped moving, and confounded opponents when he got stronger as the season or the game wore on.

The unfortunate byproduct of reading this book however was that it inspired me to unpack the tapes I made of Bulls games in the glory years (I lived in Pittsburgh until 1996, where the cable system included WGN in Chicago, which broadcast Bulls games). I intended to watch them only while exercising of course, but that resolution soon faded. I’m now up to game 5 of the second round of the playoffs in 1996.

But when I wasn’t watching or reading about the Bulls, I read some novels. “The Haunted Bookshop” by Christopher Morley was first published in 1919, and would be completely forgotten if it hadn’t been for the Akadine Press and their Common Reader Editions (this one published in 1998.) This book attracted me because of its subject---a bookstore and the book business of that era—and the author, a favorite of my mother’s when she was in high school.

It turns out to be charming, gently amusing, and pretty informative about the period. There’s a bit of satire and an unexpected glimpse of conflicted feelings about the Great War shortly after it ended: a long anti-war argument by one of the characters, but a late developing plot just this side of jingoism that hinges on dastardly German terrorists.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (HarperPerennial) is a surprising little book, a fable that several blurbed reviews liken to The Little Prince, but the main character here, a young shepherd in Spain, is much more of a believable character, and his journey, while mystical and exotic, is grounded in real landscapes and history. The guiding ideas, the Personal Legend and the other capitalized qualities, are as matter-of-fact as the wind and sun. It’s a bit like Hemingway meets Casteneda. I don’t know if its charm or the hope that the author is on to something makes it compelling, or maybe it’s just hypnotic writing. I enjoyed it, and it’s the kind of book it’s easy to read any time, and any number of times.

I finally got around to reading Don DeLillo’s novel, Cosmopolis (Scribner.) I’ve been reading DeLillo since the early 1970s, when I considered his early novels like “Americana,” “End Zone” and even the all-but-forgotten “Ratner’s Star” to be my kind of summer reading. DeLillo has always been good at getting right to the Zeitgeist with the most outrageous and yet only slightly exaggerated premises. One of his characters, after all, was teaching Hitler Studies only a few minutes before such courses became common. But I also had some feeling for his protagonists, which began fading after awhile, and with this novel pretty much disappeared. The Zeitgeist detector is still intact, and there are still passages of the kind of writing that made the giant “Underworld” so mesmerizing, and the precision that was so striking in earlier novels.

Nick Sagan’s second novel, edenborn (Putnam) is just out in paperback, so I’ll append a note about it to this summer’s review. Nick, who wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation and was a story editor for Voyager, has been an email friend for several years. (He’s also the son of Carl Sagan, and that’s his young voice greeting the cosmos on the recording aboard Voyager I.) His first novel, Idlewild, set up the science fiction world in which this and his forthcoming novel (everfree) inhabit.

Idlewild was engrossing, convincing and fun to read. It had a Matrix-like premise in that the young characters were living in a virtual reality world and returned to a real world that turned out to be just another one of the VR neighborhoods. But they aren’t prisoners of nefarious aliens; they are survivors of a plague that wiped out humanity.

In edenborn they’ve returned to that devastated real world, and some have borne (or synthesized) children. We learn more about their world and their histories, as well as our world and our history, but this novel is less concerned with story than the various and compelling voices of its characters. The result is unique. Neither familiarity with the first book nor a special taste for science fiction is necessary to find this book highly enjoyable and illuminating. The ensemble characters are well-wrought, and several of the more prominent characters with the most individual voices will simply be unforgettable.

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