Reading, 2017

This was a full year of reading for me, 38 volumes of (more-or-less straight) fiction, another 28 science fiction novels, and 28 volumes of non-fiction. Some could slide from one category to another, I suppose (is Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology science fiction?).

InterpreterofmaladiescoverI read three books by Adam Roberts (The Real-Town Murders, Bethany, Jack Glass); three by C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, The Abolition of Man, The Weight of Glory); three by Neil Gaiman (Norse Mythology, The View from the Cheap Seats, and with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens); three by Peter Heller (The Dog Stars, Hell or High Water, Celine), and four by William Gibson (The Peripheral, Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties).

The best new finds in fiction I read this year included Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (The Last 1956 Cessna 182); Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders, (R!-town) and Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies (a marvelous series of short stories).

Undoing ProjectTwo excellent new non-fiction offerings were Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project and Philip Allen Green, Trauma Room Two.

TraumaRoomTwoI think that Martin Luther King, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, and Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem should be required reading, but I had read neither of them before 2017 (see Jerusalem and Birmingham).

In 2018, I am hoping for some new fiction from Donna Tartt and Neil Gaiman (no novels since 2013); William Gibson, Emily St. John Mandel and Stephen Carter (no novels since 2014); and Mary Doria Russell and David Mitchell (no novels since 2015).* Indeed I have Agency, Gibson’s next, on pre-order from Amazon.

But there are lots of great books out there already.

*David Mitchell wrote From Me Flows What You Call Time, but that won’t be published until 2116, so I need something in the interim, I think.

Artemis

Artemis-Book-Cover-Andy-WeirAs you may have already read, Artemis is not The Martian.

This is not entirely bad, but I think that most who loved Andy Weir’s first novel will be at least a little disappointed in his second.  Remember how you felt when you read The Pelican Brief after you read The Firm?  Or Red Storm Rising after The Hunt for Red October?  Or The Burden of Proof after Presumed Innocent?  Or The Hotel New Hampshire after The World According to Garp?  Or Dune Messiah after Dune?

When an author has done something truly surprising with a first novel, then I suppose we have to expect a little bit of reversion to the mean* on the second.**

Artemis still has some of The Martian‘s engineering geekiness (not as much); and a good bit of Mark Watney’s snark (in a young female voice); but it entirely loses the grand heroic aspect of the earlier book.  The Martian showed the spunk and resilience of the engineer-hero placed in initial conditions beyond his control.   Artemis‘ heroine, Jazz Bashara, creates most of her own trouble and so the effect is very different.  Add to that the difficulty of writing a female lead, far more (and more diverse) characters, a more elaborate plot, and balancing new economic and social themes, and, well . . . okay, a little reversion to the mean is to be expected.

Still a fun book, and I enjoyed it.

It should be easier to follow than The Martian, too.

*”Reversion to the mean, also called regression to the mean, is the statistical phenomenon stating that the greater the deviation of a random variate from its mean, the greater the probability that the next measured variate will deviate less far. In other words, an extreme event is likely to be followed by a less extreme event.” Wolfram MathWorld, “Reversion to the Mean” [link].

**Actually The Firm was Grisham’s second book, coming as it did after A Time to Kill which was wonderful (after the horrifying first chapter), but not genre breaking, and not well known before The Firm. Frank Herbert had publications before Dune, but nothing even close in stature.  Garp was John Irving’s fourth book. It is not always first and second books.

An Old Friend

The ManticoreSometimes it is nice to revisit a novel you have not read in a long time:

“The procedures of the law are much discussed, and people know about lawyers and courts and prisons and punishment and all that sort of thing, but that is just the apparatus through which the law works. And it works in the cause of justice.  Now, justice is the constant and perpetual wish to render to everyone his due.  Every law student has to learn that.”

Robertson Davies, The Manticore (1972) (p. 62 in the Penguin ed.).

Some people find the re-reading of novels to be odd, but it seems to me not unlike listening to a favorite piece of music, or viewing a well-loved painting, or returning to a known hike, or visiting an old friend.  You do not return for an identical experience, for you yourself are different.

Another nice passage, this one about about advocacy from David Staunton’s legal mentor: 

“I think you’ll make an advocate,” said he.  “You have the two necessities, ability and imagination.  A good advocate is his client’s alter ego; his task is to say what his client would say for himself if he had the knowledge and the power.  Ability goes hand in hand with the knowledge: the power is dependent on imagination.  But when I say imagination I mean capacity to see all sides of a subject and weigh all possibilities; I don’t mean fantasy and poetry and moonshine; imagination is a good horse to carry you over the ground, not a flying carpet to set you free from probability.”

p. 227.

Listening, not arguing

current reading 2Recommended to me by my brother-in-law (the polymath), an old* piece from Nick Carr on the values of reading:

In our day-to-day routines, we are always trying to manipulate or otherwise act on our surroundings, whether it’s by turning a car’s steering wheel or frying an egg or tapping a button on a smartphone. But when we open a book, our expectations and attitudes change. Because we understand that “we cannot or will not change the work of art by our actions,” we are relieved of our desire to exert an influence over objects and people and hence can “disengage our [cognitive] systems for initiating actions.” That frees us to become absorbed in the imaginary world of the literary work.

Nicholas Carr, “The Dreams of Readers” Rough Type (Jan. 9, 2014) [link] (Carr is quoting Norman Holland in the internal quotations.)

That seems to me to be exactly right.  If we read properly, we are not immediately arguing with everything. We can listen to an author in a way that we too seldom listen to the people in the room with us.  This is easier with novels than with history and easier with either than with newspaper editorials, but (I think) always easier with the written than the spoken word.

utopia is creepy*Obviously, if I am just now reading blog posts from 2014, I am never going to catch up.  Fortunately, this piece seems to be included in Carr’s new book, Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations (2017) [link]. That can be my next book of essays after The View from the Cheap Seats, which I continue to dip into when I am between books.

R!-town

The-Real-Town-Murders-by-Adam-RobertsAdam Roberts’ new novel The Real-Town Murders (2017) is more like the author’s Jack Glass (2012) than The Thing Itself (2015), in that it is plot-driven and accessible rather than idea-driven and deep. Roberts entertains with insight and ironic disapproval,* producing a very enjoyable blend of SF and whodunit, with most of the social commentary safely hidden under the hood.

Recommended.

*”And the government departments are still there, of course, because that’s how the inertia of history works. They still have legally mandated and budget-supported real power. So they mostly use that power in a series of jockeyings for position.”

RLW 1947-2017

Robert Wears was my friend.

I am sorry, I know most of you called him “Bob,” but I met him through his wife Diane, and to me he was always “Robert.” With my wife Katherine, we four were members of a book club for the last 20-plus years. We have met more or less monthly, and read well over 200 books together.

I did not know him in his professional life, I was not a member of his family, we shared no school ties, we did not go to the same church. I interacted with him medically only once, and in that moment, as he visited me in the hospital before my abdominal surgery, he gave me permission and I threw up on him. Continue reading RLW 1947-2017

On “book lust”

ScreenShot164David Bentley Hart writes a nice piece on “book lust” (that’s what my wife and I have always called it) in First Things: “From a Vanished Library” (April 2017) [link].*  In this piece Hart reminds us that

I learned from the experience [of losing my library], in the end, that all vanity is vanity, all lust is lust, and all excess is excess, no matter what the objects of one’s desire. The aesthetics of bound volumes is unique and exquisite; but there are more important things.

In the end the article was somewhat deflating as I have not read a single one of the books in his “catalogue of suggestions.”  But it is good to remember that books, marvelous as they are, can be distractions from the common purpose of every human.


*Coming across this piece was particularly poignant (and ironic) as my church gave me two first editions as a (sabbatical? retirement?) gift after teaching Genesis, ExodusLeviticusNumbers, DeuteronomyJoshuaJudgesRuthSamuelKingsDanielEzra- Nehemiah, and Matthew (with some help, and a few detours) 2003-2017.

The Last 1956 Cessna 182

dogstars

Just finished Peter Heller,The Dog Stars (2012) which was a very enjoyable apocalyptic novel in the tradition of The Stand, Alas, Babylon, The Road, Station Eleven, or I Am Legend.  The novel is written entirely in internal monologue (not always grammatical, sometimes profane), which is a little confusing at first, but ultimately very satisfying.

Recommended.

The Nightingale

nightingaleKristen Hannah, The Nightingale (2016).

This month’s book club offering is a lively story of two sisters who live in France during the Nazi occupation.  Although it is longer on emotional than historical detail, it is definitely one of those novels that make you wonder how well you would hold up under the pressures of that situation.  The book was similar in tone and gravity to something like The Winds of War, thus not as serious as All the Light We Cannot See, or as literary as Brideshead Revisited, or as witty as Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

I like the cover design very much.

Recommended.