Saturday, July 26, 2008

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My Summer Reading

Summer for me is more a time for writing than reading. Still, so many books, so little time. So far this site has been devoted mostly to formal book reviews but that's meant posts are few and far between. So I'm going to try to add more "notices" of new books I receive, and books that pique my interest based on what other reviewers say about them. And I'm going to experiment with these little reports on what I've been reading, which will include new books and old, and re-readings. This summer's reading so far has been such a mix.

I reviewed (below) the third volume of Kim Stanley Robinson's climate crisis trilogy, Sixty Days and Counting. In June, I went back and re-read all three volumes in order, starting with Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below before re-reading Sixty Days and Counting. When I finished, I had to keep myself from starting them all over again. I loved being in that world. I was especially surprised that I liked the second volume best, at least for the story, since sometimes that's a kind of bridge volume in a trilogy. Then again, wasn't The Empire Strikes Back the best of the Star Wars trilogy of movies?

I'm glad I re-read Sixty Days, too. The first time through I focused on the characters and story. The second time, I found more provocative and useful information and ideas about the climate crisis. If I happen to run into Barack Obama (which is really unlikely, since I live in California) I would recommend reading these books for a good sense of the issues, challenges and possibilities in dealing with the climate crisis.

Science fiction is my preferred genre reading, although selectively: of what I call the science fiction of consciousness. Also last month I read Greg Bear's Moving Mars, an excellent work of sci-fi storytelling. Intelligent about the future, too. His Darwin's Radio is one of the most remarkable s/f novels I've read; a contemporary classic in many ways. And now I'm reading a volume of George Zebrowski's short stories, Swift Thoughts. It doesn't seem to have the story that started me searching out and reading his work, though, which was about Jesus Christ appearing on the Tonight Show. So right there I've named three of my favorite contemporary s/f of consciousness authors: Robinson, Bear and Zebrowski.

I also re-read three classics from the original s/f of consciousness author, H.G. Wells: The Invisible Man, The First Men In the Moon, and In the Days of the Comet. "Invisible" and "Moon" are wittier than I remembered, and "Comet" is mostly a realistic novel about Wells' own youth, kind of transition out of his scientific fantasy phase. It's easy to see why at the time Wells was taken seriously simply as a novelist who happened to write about these unusual subjects, like Joseph Conrad wrote about ships and Africa. He describes the practical difficulties of being invisible--he had to be naked, people who can't see him keep stepping on his feet, etc. (James Whale's movie version follows the story more faithfully than I remembered, though adding the love interest, but his emphasis is more on the adventure of it.) "Moon" offers its social critique, but it's an absorbing story, with enough physical detail to see it. Same goes for "Comet." I enjoyed these.

Before I leave genreland, I should report that several years ago my partner Margaret and I started reading the Harry Potter books aloud to each other. We eventually did it for all 7 volumes, and in between we tried some other books but somehow nothing else took. Then we were alerted to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy (we heard about both series' from different friends in the university drama department.) We finished the third volume in early June. This triology deserves all the praise it's gotten. Some of the writing is so gorgeous I laughed out loud as I read it. We also saw the film made of the first volume, The Golden Compass, and enjoyed that. Why wasn't it more popular? It will be interesting to see if the second two are made into movies as well.

Speaking of drama, I also read plays. Most recently a lesser known one by Noel Coward called Quadrille. Like Wilde and the early Stoppard, Coward is fun to read for the verbal wit. I enjoyed it.

In the department of old books read mostly for pleasure, a library discard of The Living Novel, a series of essays by novelists edited by Granville Hicks and published in 1957. It was in response to the "death of the novel" which preceded the death of the author as a popular topic. The contemporary novelists include some now forgotten, but also Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Wright Morris, Flannery O'Connor and Herbert Gold. It's a fascinating volume. Though the problems faced by novelists and contemporary novels that these essays discuss are still familiar, and arguably are worse, I couldn't help thinking as I read of the novels and novelists that were about to burst on the scene anyway.

The best essays for my interests were by Bellow and Ellison. Bellow's analysis was often astute, and his observations epigrammatic. For instance, "A novel is written by a man who thinks of himself as a novelist. Unless he makes such an assumption about himself he simply can't do it." "By refusing to write about anything with which he is not thoroughly familiar, the American writer confesses the powerlessness of the imagination and accepts its relegation to an inferior place." He suggests the impulse, the questions behind novels and the compulsion to write them: "Why were we born? What are we doing here? Where are we going?"

Ellison's essay is impressively scholarly, especially on the American novel. Since the novel reflects change, "..if the novel had not existed at the time the United States started becoming conscious of itself as a would have been necessary for Americans to invent it." He also suggests questions that the novel addresses: "What is worth having and what worth holding? Where and in what pattern of conduct does true value, at a given moment, lie?"

Summer is also a time to assuage a guilty conscience and catch up with at least a few books that arrived new and sat patiently waiting past their season. For instance, Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal by Rob Reimen (Yale.) I liked the theme, I enjoyed entertaining ideas from Whitman, Thomas Mann and others, and I felt the book's narrative strategy succeeded in terms of keeping you reading, although in the end I'm not sure what the central ideas are. It begins with a personal narrative of a dinner the author had with a daughter of Thomas Mann, Elisabeth Mann Borgese, who was his longtime friend, and Joe Goodman, an old friend of hers who also escaped from Germany in 1938. (Oddly they--and Thomas Mann-- came to the U.S. on the same ship without realizing it in advance, the New Amsterdam, which was also the name of the ship my grandfather came over on from Italy in the early 1920s, but it could not have been the same ship, as his was broken up in 1932.)

In New York, Joe was an eccentric composer and Whitman devotee who worked in bookstores. He arrives at the New York restaurant in November 2001 with his Cantata on the theme of the Nobility of the Spirit. Later we learn of intriguing elements of it, but also that he never finished it, and indeed burned all his notes before he died. When Elisabeth tells Reimen of Joe's death, he says that Joe was a great man. Elisabeth disagrees-- he was not truly great because he did not have the endurance to finish his great work. That's an interesting point of view, but then, Thomas Mann was her father. Nevertheless, Joe is a haunting character.

The rest of the book deals with philosophical and political ideas through dramatic dialogues, some among characters in Mann's novels and other works, some imagined or partly imagined among historical characters. The ideas are provocative and the dialogues are absorbing, and I wanted to remain sympathetic to his central championing of nobility of spirit, but Reimen's arguments against intellectual caricature falter when he ignores political and social history in his dogmatic statements about 9-11, and he oversimplifies the concept of utopia only as the absolutely perfect society envisioned by Hitler and Lenin. None of this is disqualifying, but there remains a feeling of dogmatism and yet vagueness, although there are many interesting passages.

Then it seems like the wheels come off in the final dialogue in the book, which to me came off as just inexplicable. Perhaps the Nazi priest's harsh indictment represents all that threatens nobility of spirit today, and the tortured dissident has that spirit. (A bit ironic, given that torture has most recently been inflicted and championed by the government based on the same black and white view as the author.) This last dialogue is also troubling because it's not clear what it is supposed to be--a fictional account of a possible nightmare, or what. That and other aspects of it aren't sourced, and because of it, the general lack of sufficient sourcing calls into question the accuracy of all previous dialogues, including the events in the restaurant. So if it is a work of fiction--postmodern or not--it is often an absorbing read, but possibly a diabolical book.