The Figure in the Shadows

The Figure n the Shadows – John Bellairs; Dell Publishing; 1977

The Figure in the Shadows by John Bellairs is the second in the Lewis Barnavelt series of novels.  It was first published in 1975.  It has thirteen chapters and totals 155 pages.  The artwork in this novel is by Mercer Mayer.  This is the second Barnavelt novel I’ve read, and the fifth novel by John Bellairs.

I just do not like Lewis Barnavelt like I love Johnny Dixon.  Nevertheless, all of John Bellairs’ novels are to be savored and enjoyed.  I do not whip through these, although they are all around 160 pages each.  I like to read them when the house is quiet and I am about to fall asleep and I can remember being a small person.  One of the best things about Bellairs is his ability to write an atmosphere and environment.  His settings in these novels are perfect.  He writes so that a young reader or an older one can be drawn into the setting and can feel the sinister environment.  One feels the chill in the air, the sound of a creaky old house, the dim lighting of an empty town street at night, etc.  Sure, all authors are supposed to be able to do this – but I find that only some are actually able to do this.

Still, Lewis Barnavelt.  He’s this chubby wimp….  He’s relatively smart and conscientious, but he is overweight and unable to defend himself.  He has a friend in this book – Rose Rita.  Rose Rita is a tough little girl who is smart, sassy, and for whatever reason is fond of Lewis.  She’s really the better character.  I almost feel guilty for liking her more than the main character.

So, the atmosphere is great.  Rose Rita is very cool.  However, the key points of the story – particularly the resolution – let me down.  I’m sorry to say that I just don’t think the resolution is the best we could have been given.  It does not really match so well with the story.  A ghost story? A ghost in a well? How does this equate with the figure in the shadows?  And for heaven’s sake, why all the discussion of the history of the amulet? Basically, this was not the neatest tied-up resolution ever.  It bugs me a bit.  But then, in reality, I do not really read John Bellairs for the actual mystery.

Lewis is really self-aware and he actually seems to understand personal interactions/relationships better than one would expect of someone his age.  In chapter three he actually is crying and cussing:  “God-dam dirty rotten no-good god-dam dirty….”   I was surprised at the language? And also really thrilled and rueful at it.   In chapter one, I want to pound Woody Mingo into the sidewalk for Lewis.   Like I said:  Bellairs is good at atmosphere and characters, but not so much the mystery qua mystery.  I like this book. You may love it.  I just think Johnny Dixon is a lot cooler.

3 stars

This Fortress World

This Fortress World - James E. Gunn; 1979

This Fortress World – James E. Gunn; 1979

James Gunn’s first novel, This Fortress World, was published in 1955.  I read the Berkley 1979 edition of the paperback – which, of all the publications, I think is the best cover art.  I have not been able to ascertain who the cover artist was – but I do really like this cover art.  And it is not necessarily just this particular piece.  Any comic book cover that resembles the basic structure of this cover is something that will also draw my attention.  Another example:  Glen Cook’s The Black Company cover.

When trying out a new author, I like to start with their first work.  Generally, this has either become their magnum opus – or they have nowhere to go but up, so to speak.  Also, it soothes all of my pseudo-OCD feelings on the matter.  So, naturally, thinking highly of the cover and knowing this is Gunn’s first novel, it was the obvious choice for my next read.

Surprisingly, this is not the most well-read novel.  I figured that I would find heaps of reviews of this.  I, of course, found some, however not as many as I expected.  Interestingly, the ones I found seemed to be very opposing in their overall rating.  At first this looked odd, but after reading the novel I can completely understand this disparity.

It is a difficult novel.  I enjoyed the first few chapters.  The story and characters were engaging, interesting, and this novel seemed to have a lot of good things going for it. However, I had the feeling that a certain viewpoint/ideology was being espoused – one that I am not too sympathetic toward.  This disappointed me, but I read onward.  Just because I disagree with something does not mean I will not read it. But then, around the middle of the book, everything seemed to get bizarre and I felt that the author really had no clear-cut direction of where he was taking this novel.  Threads of the story seemed to get lost or change.  And there are a few scenes that are a bit strange – unless you have some psychoanalysis in your academic background. I mean, why do authors love to torture characters?  But not, as PKD does, in an offbeat and kosmological way.  Instead it is always:  in a dank cell, naked, with torture devices. I could live without a whole lot of this particular trope. . . .

Anyway, much of the story itself involves escape/evasion/chase.  The novel is written in the first-person.  We meet William Dane immediately, looking much like the cover art here.  William is an acolyte at the monastery/cathedral.  Because he is an acolyte, I assumed he is between 15 and 25 years old.  I cannot recall the novel sharing his age with the reader – if it did, I missed it.  This is one problem that I have with the novel:  sometimes William seems too capable for someone so young. Maybe his innocence and youth are what help him succeed? However, does his name mean anything to you? It was familiar to me in a dusty way. It finally came to me after reading the book: Cp. Silas Marner.

So what is this novel about?  Telepathy.  It is also a really hopeful, futuristic conception of humanity.  It is also a love story.  And it is also a “chase/escape” plot.  It is about fortresses – personal, architectural, moral, etc. But – most important – I believe this is an entire novel about READING!  (Chapter 6 contains some of this!)

The writing is not so good.  The ideas are good – whenever there is also a consistency and continuance.  When events happen at random, or there are obvious “changes” that don’t mesh so well, the ideas seem forced.  Two things must be said:  the viewpoint that I thought was being demonstrated (the viewpoint that I disliked) actually was not being put forth.  Or, it was, but not in the expected way – in a way that is actually positive and redeeming.  Color me surprised.  In some ways, it is the opposite of the viewpoint that I suspected I was going to be dealing with!  Very tricksy, Gunn!  Also, while the middle chunk of the novel is not great, the last several chapters are quite good; matched with the first few – this would be a 4.5 – 5 star read.  The resolution is interesting and impressive – especially after the middle section.  And I enjoyed it quite a bit.

From late in the novel:

And so we have the fortress psychology which pervades everything.  It means isolation, fear of attack, hatred of the alien.  It means strong, centralized governments. It means concentrations of power, wealthy, and authority.  It means oppressed populations, looking ignorantly, hopefully, fearfully to superiors for defense and order.  It means stagnation, decay, and slow rot which will eventually destroy all semblance of human civilization as technical skill and knowledge are destroyed or forgotten and the links between worlds are broken.   (pg. 193)

Honestly, many readers will hate this novel.  The writing is not good.  The subject matter is not contained enough and seems to try to include too much in such a short novel.  Nevertheless, even if it is not perfect, many readers will also like this novel for presenting the positive, hopeful, and revolutionary feelings for humankind in the far future.  Also:  telepathy.

4 stars

Divergent

Divergent – Veronica Roth

My household read Divergent by Veronica Roth.  It is her first published novel and is also the first in the Divergent trilogy.   It was released in 2011.  The movie that is based on the book was released today (March 21st), which is why my household tried to gobble this book down in rapid gulps.

Well, I do not read a whole lot of (what is called) “young adult” fiction.  I do not really like this new and really over-produced “genre” that I find more adults reading than actual “young adults.”  Overall, after having read a handful of novels in this category, I have to say that these are really not good literary works.  I mean, there is no “challenge” to reading them, no deeper meanings, no literary qualities, no substance, etc.  I did not expect any, of course.  Now, none of that is to say that these books are not entertaining and/or interesting.  Many of the ones I have read were fast-paced, clever, and dripping with emotional moments!  However, I also happen to see a lot more adults reading these books than youth…. and that concerns me a bit.  I do not really find youth reading these books.  All of this is just my personal opinion/experience, and I want to say that I do not mind reading puff or pulp.  I just do not think it should be the majority of what one reads.

The thing is:  this is another novel about a young girl who is the main character.  She is the heroine. The book is told in the first-person perspective.  The “takeaway” for the novel is that the girl is strong, independent, and can save the day.  But this seems like most of the books that are in the young adult category.  And while that is fine and dandy, I do not see that it is going to appeal to a male young adult audience. I mean not necessarily this book series – but this plethora of young adult novels with heroines. And if you notice that most of the readership seems to be adults (not youth) who is actually reading these?  Or, is this sudden explosion of young adult media because it may lower the bar for creators? Something to ponder.

Anyway, this is a fast-paced read.  Less words per page, lots of pages, quick chapters.  The sentences are short and clip.  The vocabulary is nothing difficult.  But what we get is an interesting main character who is “conflicted” about where she belongs in her world.  She has to look within herself to find strengths.  And she has to learn to be a good judge of whom she would like to be her role models and leaders.  Maybe she can take aspects of her teachers/parents/friends and learn from them all?

And, of course, the book is riddled with cliches. You must know that the Aloof Teenage Male plays a huge role here, for example.  There are also a lot of typical scenes and moments that emulate the normal development of teenagers.  They get embarrassed.  They feel the pressure of tests and being successful.  They experience challenges from their peers.  After all, the author was only born in 1988, so she is probably able to remember a lot of these poignant moments better than some old folk do.  I am not being obnoxious here:  the connection, I think, a lot of young adult readers will make with this novel is that it does understand them.  It does present these scenes that they should be able to identify with.  Teenage angst is a real thing, I suppose, and I do think some novels patronize it or falsify it.  I suspect Divergent rather gets it right.

I enjoyed this novel.  It does not claim to be anything more than an exciting teenage adventure story.  It was entertaining.  I will probably see the movie this weekend and then promptly forget both.  But I do hope the author keeps writing – beyond this series.

3 stars

Wool

Wool – Hugh Howey; 2012

The Wool omnibus, which is what I read, is a little tricky to refer to because of its publishing history.  I think the majority of readers also read the omnibus edition.  The omnibus is a collection of five novelettes (which is a word I dislike, by the way) and was published in 2012.  Four of the included smaller “books” were first published in 2011.  Anyway, Wool by Hugh Howey is what is being reviewed here, as collected in the omnibus edition.

The reason some of the above publishing history is significant is because the original “book” forms the first 39 pages of the omnibus.  Overall, after reading this whole omnibus (a word I am already sick of typing), it feels like Howey really went somewhere different (and better) than wherever he may have been going in that first “book.”  Maybe not somewhere entirely different, but I feel like what was written in the second “book” is actually the starting point of the entire storyline.  In other words, the first “book” feels so much like background material, that perhaps I would not have entitled it “Wool,” but rather Prelude.

The second “book” is entitled Proper Gauge and for the most part it moves slowly as anything.  Many readers might abandon the book at this point – and I totally understand why.  It was a slight struggle for me, as well.  There’s one sentence where Howey describes one of the character’s walking stick getting stuck in the ridges of the stairs as they go down over 130 “stories” of stairs.  At points, the journey seems interminable and the reader does feel like they are actually on a Stairmaster or something.  The good thing about this – the reader does get a scope of the size of the environment that really drives home distances and effort.  Nevertheless, I think a few pages of this could have been whittled down without harm.

The novel is not written with the intellectual flair and ability of, say, Calvino or Nabokov.  This is not really high literature.  At it’s base, this is a survival-story told using good, solid writing.  The writing is quite good.  It just is not anything spectacular.  One of the things I did appreciate, repeatedly, was that the author does not utilize many cuss words. I think there are probably ten or twelve instances in the entire omnibus of “bad” words – and they are not all that “bad.”  It is refreshing and comforting to read an adult novel that does not feel the need to bludgeon the reader with foul language.  For that reason, sure, this novel can (more or less) be read by anyone of any age group.  Both of these points means that this novel has a wide audience.

I do not read many books in which the main character is a female.  So, for me, this was a somewhat unique read.  I liked the character; she is smart, strong, independent, and honest.  I feel like there were points where the author could have “overwritten” Juliette – and he refrained from doing so, avoided doing so, and therefore made a really decent character.

The ending is a bit abrupt. On one hand, after 500 pages, I did not think I wanted to read anymore. Not that the work is bad, but one cannot read a story infinitely.  On the other hand, the ending just kind of happens within four brief chapters and done.  And there is a lot left open for possibility – future novels/storylines and for imaginings of the reader.  I am a big proponent of not drawing out endings unnecessarily, but this makes this omnibus seem unbalanced – weighted heavily for the first two sections.

Now, many places categorize this novel as science fiction.  Frankly, I do not think this is science fiction. Again, this could start an endless dispute regarding the definition of genres and science fiction in particular.  Let’s just take some widely accepted view of the genre – aliens, robots, futuristic, lots of advanced science, space travel, etc. are all common ingredients in such a pie.  I don’t think Wool contains any of those.  This is just a survival story – a post-apocalyptic (although not perfectly detailed on what sort of apocalypse) story of human survival.  No aliens. No time travel.  No robots.  So, again, the readership on this one should be quite broad.

There is a basic “scenario” hinted at here.  The author does cause the reader to think about morality several times throughout this work.  The author does present to the reader two views of the situation that the humans survivors find themselves in.  There is a question of the “control of information” (which, by the way, is why I suspect many people think this is a dystopian novel).  However, nowhere does Howey bludgeon us, grind on us, or proselytize at us about these matters.  He tells us an entertaining story in which these are some of the elements of the story.

I have ordered the second omnibus in the Silo Series… I’m given to understand that it is not a direct storyline sequel.  That’s fine.  On the cover of my book (paperback) the author Justin Cronin writes a blurb saying “You will live in this world.”  I think that’s rather accurate.  For the majority of the book, I did feel connected to and entrenched in this world.  I did not have to struggle to imagine anything and I did not have to work to relate to the characters or scenery.

4 stars

The Ministry of Fear

The Ministry of Fear – Graham Green; Penguin Classics

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene was published in 1943.  It is the first of Greene’s novels that I have read.  Also, of note, this novel was made into a movie by Fritz Lang in 1944; the same Fritz Lang who made the film Metropolis.  I feel it was the perfect novel to read after Jünger and von Harbou.  All three novels have this wartime presence to them that made reading them back-to-back really “immersive.”  (The cover illustration is by Geoff Grandfield and I like it!)

The feeling I got throughout reading this novel was that the author disliked having to write it.  At times, it feels like a “practice novel,” not because the writing skill is not exemplary, but rather because I felt Greene added more trajectories to the plotline than were necessary.  The book is sectioned into four unequal sections that present the reader with various stages of the main character, Arthur Rowe, and his traumas.

Each chapter begins with a little quote from The Little Duke, which is of significance to the main character (and to Greene).  It really does pay to not skim these quotes, because they are apropos of the coming chapter.  The Little Duke is a novel written by Charlotte Mary Yonge and published in 1859.  It is about Richard the Fearless, a young man who becomes a duke while still in his single digits.  It’s obvious Greene found it a poignant read.

In many descriptions of this novel, you will read that it is a spy novel and perhaps you will conceive images of James Bond and Mission Impossible.  However, this probably will frustrate you because it is not an action thriller; it is far more esoteric and psychological.  And perhaps you will read somewhere that this novel is another “classic dystopia” wherein some form of Big Brother is after the main character.  Well, not so much that either.  There is a measure of suspense and hidden-ness within the novel which is slightly noir.  But it’s true noir element comes from the constant grappling that the main character does with his memory.  Arthur Rowe had murdered his wife.  I do not want to give any more of the few details away.  This fact, though, challenges and colors everything about the main character.

In a lot of ways, like The Glass Bees and Metropolis, there is a redemptive quality to this novel.  The main character seeks some sort of redemption – particularly in regard to their beloved.  None of these are clear-cut love stories, mind you, however, the angst and self-awareness that comes along in relation to the Other qua beloved.  This is not Lord Byron or Barbara Cartland.  This is wartime love in the time which was dubbed The Age of Anxiety.  Therefore, the lessons learned here do not involve Prince Charming and “happily ever after.”

On dining at a restaurant in wartime:

Even in a crumbling world the conventions held; to order again after payment was unorthodox, but to ask for notepaper was continental.  She could give him a leaf from her order pad, that was all.  Conventions were far more rooted than morality; he had himself found that it was easier to allow oneself to be murdered than to break up a social gathering. pg. 59 (chapter 6)

However, throughout this novel the main feeling of helplessness regarding the air raids occupies the characters and the reader.  Some characters treat it as matter-of-fact, others are discombobulated.  Greene writes a really good treatment of shell-shock and the feeling these civilians have which is like mice running from cats.  Again, the Age of Anxiety.  A lot can be said about these parts of the novel, because really, these are the most “intellectual” parts, let’s say.  PTSD and shell-shock and amnesia all roll through the scenes and characters like bombs from enemy planes.

Describing this wartime psyche:

“This isn’t real life any more,” he said. “Tea on the lawn, evensong, croquet, the old ladies calling, the gentle unmalicious gossip, the gardener trundling the wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass.  People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month, but it’s not there any more.” pg. 54 (chapter 5)

Overall, this is truly a four star novel.  That would be the correct and proper rating.  But I cannot help but feel like the author hated this work a little too much – even if he wrote it like a grandmaster.  You can do a thing well and still dislike that thing.  And, really, although there really is a whole lot that can be said about all of the elements of this novel, the main thing I am taking away from it, truly, is a fear of cake.

3 stars

Metropolis

Metropolis – Thea von Harbou; ACE

I read some books. I review some books. But I think this will be among the most difficult of reviews to write.  Metropolis – the novel and the movie – is no simple thing to be just dismissed.  Also, it is difficult to explain any part of the plot without giving away the whole thing.  Metropolis was published (I think) in 1926.  Its author is Thea von Harbou (1888 – 1954), one time wife of Fritz Lang (1890 – 1976), the very famous German filmmaker.  In a lot of ways, Thea’s life is just as fascinating as the author whom I read before this novel (Ernst Jünger) and I feel like reading that novel and then Metropolis was a good one-two punch.

I have decided to write this review as if I have never seen the film.  As I was reading the novel, it did make me want to watch the movie again. Beyond that I kept comparing the two and it got slightly messy. So I think it best to just focus on the novel.  However, if you have seen the movie, you should definitely still read the novel as it explains and fleshes out a lot of the movie.  Let’s face it, the movie is not the most straight-forward and watchable movie ever made.

Anyway, I do not know if this is science fiction, romance (traditionally used), or propaganda.  I also do not know if it fits in the category of “dystopia.”  I have seen it referred to as “expressionist” and “fantastic.”  I mention all of this to share with the reader that this is, from the start, a difficult novel to read and/or describe.

A lot of reviewers/critics have said that this is a futuristic story.  An early science fiction dystopia, as it were. Something along the lines of 1984.  I do not really agree with any of this.  Sure, there are some “fantastic science” elements, but I would not classify this novel along those lines.  I think that to do so really misunderstands the author and the story itself.  I maintain that the author is very much a product of her times and as such is very connected with the political, social, and economic sensations rippling through the continent in these years.  I believe, also, that she was an intuitive and creative person.  Finally, reading this novel I got the feeling that Thea von Harbou was a “strong German woman.”  This woman was ensnared in her country and in her times.  And she made decisive movements within them.

I do not have a command of German, but there are sections in which I wished I could hear it in German – audio.  Not written-English.  Particularly the times in which von Harbou uses the technique of repetition and reiteration.  I’ll be honest – the first time it occurred I just assumed it was because in vintage things, there is often poor editing and type-work.  But after awhile, I was able to recognize how this repetition really drills home the concepts von Harbou is working with.

The novel is thoroughly saturated with a lofty Christianity; sometimes appearing as symbols, sometimes as apocalyptic themes, sometimes as blatant points (e.g. Maria, Paternoster).  Some of this is a little tedious and it gets a little bizarre at times.  And the level of saturation makes me wonder if von Harbou did not impose a “romance” onto the structure of Christianity?  In other words, did she start with a foundation of Christianity and then tack various fiction story bits onto it?  Well, most of this makes the story somewhat cumbersome and not as accessible as it would be otherwise.

Metropolis is very much a story of redemption.  But the author tries to pack a lot of other heavyweight concepts into the novel.  And for this reason, mainly, I give it only four stars.  There’s too much and the author does lose the reins several times.  Is this a romance? A story of redemption? A novel of revolution? A vindication of the authority or a condemnation of the technocrat?  Are we supporting revolution or denouncing it?  Is this a warning? A call-to-arms?  In other words, all these “themes” are expected in such a novel from that time period – but there’s a little too much going on here.  At times, von Harbou steps back or does a 180°.

However, there are chapters and scenes of breathtaking awesome brilliance.  In fact, I want to ask the author if she went back in time and actually witnessed nights of terror and the storming of the Bastille.  She writes a scary, dark night in which Metropolis falls.  She does not wimp out when she gets to this part.  However, my favorite parts of the novel are chapters 12 and 13.  In these chapters, we see the opposite of a militant, strong German revolutionary.  In these chapters, the author writes love and emotion and loss and sorrow.  Very emotive chapters – but without all the drippyness of current-day writers.  Somehow the massive emotion and understanding of the human condition is transmitted without floppy words or annoying prose.  These two chapters are exceedingly well done.  [Chap. 12:  Joh goes to his mother, Chap. 13: Rotwang implores Maria]

Overall, this is a very weird read.  And it is not very accessible.  It is not a perfect, lovely read – it has plenty of issues. Nevertheless, I think really, really well-rounded readers will want to take a look at this.  And, of course, people who want to understand the film.

4 stars

The Glass Bees

The Glass Bees – Ernst Junger

The Glass Bees is the first and only work I have read, so far, by Ernst Jünger (1895 – 1998).  Did you just skip over those dates?  Yes, E.J. lived for 102 years.  And no matter what else is said about this author, it must be admitted his long life was full of all sorts of adventures and interesting things.  In 1916, he was awarded the Iron Cross II and I. Class.  In 1959 he was given:  Grand Merit Cross.  In 1982, he was awarded the Goethe Prize of Frankfurt.  A year before his death Jünger converted to Catholicism. He was the last living bearer of the military version of the order of the Pour le Mérite.  Jünger was a friend of Martin Heidegger.  He met several times with LSD inventor Albert Hofmann and they took LSD together.  Like I said:  Ernst is definitely not boring!

The Glass Bees is a short novel; in this edition it is only 24 chapters in 209 pages.  It was published in 1957. I enjoyed reading it in the evenings and there are plenty of “good stopping points” where you can leave and pick up again the next evening.  Some literary folk have dubbed this work “science fiction,” but that really would be a misnomer.  The narrator is Captain Richard.  He is an ex-soldier and former tank inspector.  As a soldier he was trained and served as a cavalryman.  This is significant throughout the novel and reminded me a lot of some of the Isaac Babel short stories that I have read.

The skeleton for this story is that Richard is an unemployed and rather impoverished ex-soldier who turns to a fellow ex-soldier with whom he trained for assistance.  In many ways, the man he turns to, Twinnings, operates as a sort of fixer.  He has sufficient means of his own and generally maintains a sort of “network” of former associates.  In many ways, Twinnings is like the original one-man Linked In.  Richard seeks Twinnings help mainly because Richard’s wife, Teresa, has become saddened about their current struggles.  She sees Richard through rose-colored glasses, so to speak, and therefore blames herself for Richard’s unemployment and financial miseries.  Twinnings, partly through old friendship and mainly because it is his “job,” sends Richard out to meet one of the most famous entrepreneurs in the country:  Giacomo Zapparoni.

Zapparoni is exceedingly wealthy.  He is also a Tony Stark-like character.  He’s definitely a forward-thinker; deeply involved with innovation, technology, and industry.  Even his hobbies are expensive.  However, Zapparoni is also an enigma, preferring to seem cryptic and elusive.  In many ways, he is seen as a technocrat and a representation of an economy driven by military technology.

However, the reader does not actually learn much about Zapparoni.  In fact, every line in this book is precisely from the blatant viewpoint of the narrator.  There are no impartial statements here.  Each page is from the perspective of Richard and every word is colored by his opinion, viewpoint, worldview, and personality.  So when Zapparoni is mentioned, we are not presented with Zapparoni qua Zapparoni, but Zapparoni filtered through the view of Richard.  This novel is how Richard views things.   Now, in most cases, I would find this sort of style of novel to be arrogant and tedious beyond tolerability.   Jünger somehow pulls off this style, though, without annoying the reader.  He is able to write this narrator so that the reader is really listening to Richard’s thoughts, as opposed to just blowing through them page after page.

Are Richard’s thoughts really fascinating?  Well, not really.  He uses his “job interview” with Zapparoni in order to “mentally process” the events of his life.  From small events, to bigger ones.  He reflects on the people who have most influenced him.  He examines what events he has experienced and what lessons he has learned from them.  But this is not to say that Richard is a passive receptacle for events that happen around him.  He is not a puppet.  Richard is probably an expert in his fields (cavalry, tank inspector).  He also has strong and stubborn views regarding the military, modernism, chivalry, technology, and morality.  Described in a word, Richard is “old school.”  And he is unemployed partially because he cannot figure out how to meld and adapt in the rapidly-changing, technologically-advancing modern world.

The intellectual Elliot Yale Neaman suggests that this novel is not really about anything:  “it has nothing to say.”  I both wholeheartedly agree and disagree with this comment.  This is not a novel with a standard novel-paradigm.  There is no heavy-handed message that the reader is to take away from it.  And, more than anything, this semi-autobiographical work is filled with memories and opinions and insights, but very little plot, suspense, or action.  So is this really a novel? Of course.  It just isn’t one the contemporary reader may be comfortable with.

It’s interesting that Jünger writes this as, basically, Richard’s job interview.  Because this is really what is presented. Rather than a list of a job candidate’s qualities (e.g. multi-tasking, diligent, hard-working, etc.), we learn who Richard is by all of the anecdotes and memories he shares with us.  Thus, we actually get a more complete understanding of the person than we would if he had simply rattled off his resume.  This is an interesting and rather classy style for a novel.  And while some of the memories are interesting but not impressive, every so often Jünger gives us an insightful commentary and it just makes this whole enterprise totally worth a five star rating.

Early on, we get a feel for Richard’s nostalgia and fondness for honor and chivalry, in short “the good old days.”

Today, naturally, there are still people one is afraid of; but his kind of authority no longer exists.  Today one is simply afraid; in those days one had, in addition, a guilty conscience. – pg. 17, chap. 2

However, while Richard seems old-fashioned to a fault, he also seems to have very sensible and deep understandings:

A work of art wastes away and becomes lusterless in surroundings where it has a price but not a value.  It radiates only when surrounded by love.  It is bound to wilt in a world where the rich have no time and the cultivated no money.  But it never harmonizes with borrowed greatness. pg. 50, chap. 3

I really like that quote because it carries this insight of distinction between the cultured and facade.  The difference between the wealthy and the nouveau-riche.  The genuine/authentic and the facsimile/fake.  That Jünger applies this to art is really great and I want to immediately sit down and discuss this with him.  You know he’s been reading Heidegger (all the technology stuff) and he’s been influenced by Adorno (crazy, wild, un-understandable Adorno).  This is good stuff and intelligent readers should appreciate the insights throughout this novel.

Finally, in a masterful analysis:

Considered as organization, this activity could be interpreted in several ways.  One could hardly assume the existence of a central control panel:  such a device would not be in the Zapparoni style because for him the quality of an automaton depended on its independent action.  His international success rested on the fact that he had made possible in a small area – his house, his garden – a closed economic project, he had declared war on wires, circuits, pipes, rails, connections.  It was a far cry from the hideous aspects of nineteenth-century industrial style. pg. 144, chap. 14

Well, I could probably write a long thesis just on this quote and the philosophical/historical ideas contained within.  Needless to say, this is good stuff and the intelligent reader will appreciate it.  Thus, readers of Calvino, Nabokov, and Pushkin should appreciate this novel.  Particularly if they do not mind the first-person, semi-autobiographical narrator-style.  Richard (Jünger) is a thinker.  He ponders history, military, technology, art, networks, etc.  He has staunch opinions sometimes.  At other times, he is extremely self-aware.  Still, at other times, he projects his views and understanding onto other subjects.  Regardless, I really enjoyed this novel and am thrilled to have read it.

5 stars

Marooned On Mars

Marooned on Mars – Lester Del Rey; Paperback Library; 1967

Vintage Science Fiction Month

Marooned on Mars by Lester Del Rey was first published in 1952.   In various encyclopedias and listings, one finds this novel categorized as “juvenile” science fiction.  What that means, I think, is that this is basically a young adult novel (nowadays we call it YA).  However, I do not think that any of this is entirely locked-down, written-in-stone stuff.  Why is it called “juvenile”?  Because the main character is a young lad of 17/18 years old.  I guess, too, because there is not any cussing or wild sex scenes.  Some readers might suggest that the writing level is geared toward a younger audience.

Personally, I liked this novel for what it is.  I feel like when I was much, much younger, I read dozens of books similar to this one. It is somewhat hard to put my finger on what it is, but I can try.  The young main character, Chuck, is an example of the ambitious, curious, and well-raised young man one thinks of when one generalizes about 1950s youth.  He is helpful, good-hearted, and a little awkward.  He also has a lot of skills at his young age that I am not so sure youth of present time have.  He’s practically an expert in electrical work, radar/radio usage, welding, etc.  Simply put, if my spacecraft were hurtling toward Mars and needed serious repairs to the drive-control system, I don’t think I would, honestly, entrust the repairs to some teenager.

There’s not much I can really say about the novel without giving a whole lot of it away in spoilers.  Humans have colonized the moon.  Therefore, humans live on Earth and on the Moon – and a project has been developed in conjunction with both societies to make a trip to the planet Mars.  The Governor at Moon City wins a hard-fought battle to have someone from his colony be present on the trip.  Chuck, who meets many of the requirements, is selected.  The one requirement he does not meet is the lower limit age one.  They want a crew between 18 – 27 years of age.  Chuck is only 17.  So, in spite of all the things Chuck could bring to the team, he is replaced by another young man put forward by the Chinese delegation:  Lew Wong.

The ship is readied and Chuck is brooding and lamenting.  He was exceedingly excited to be headed to Mars, now he has to give his position to Lew.  Now, here is something neat about reading 1950s “juvenile” science fiction.  Even the youth seem bold and brave and not yellow cowards. They seem willing to explore and take on challenges and face risks.  This is an element of these sorts of novels that really keeps them worth reading.  That unabashed curiosity and bravery is always good to, at least, read about.

Anyway, Captain Miles Vance leads the ship to its takeoff from the Moon. But little does he know, there is a stowaway.  And we are led to believe that all the men in the crew rather expected to have a stowaway, but they simply couldn’t endorse this action officially.  Either way, Chuck is part of the crew now.

It isn’t quite a spoiler to say the ship/crew gets marooned on Mars.  So they get there and then they have to set about repairing the ship to leave right away.  This is where the novel lost two full stars in my rating.  What the heck was their plan?  How do you have winches and welders and stuff on this ship and you had no real plans for contingencies or maybe even what you were going to do once you got to Mars – if you had gotten there intact.  I mean, I feel the novel focuses only on the ship’s travel and gives no thought to why they are traveling.

I read this for Vintage Science Fiction month and also because I am spending a lot of time on Mars (my other read….).  Overall, I enjoyed this for what it was.  The middle is a little too slow, the writing is sufficient. A good example of 1950s stuff.  One thing totally worth reading is the little three page essay/introduction by the author.  It’s entitled “Tomorrow’s World” and it does explain the impetus for a lot of the science and psychological milieu in the novel.  It is a fun and interesting little tidbit.  Three stars for vintage-ness, comfort reading, and down-to-earth mellow writing.

3 stars

Whose Body?

Whose Body? – Dorothy L. Sayers; New English Library; 1988

Well, the first book to be read and reviewed in 2014 happens to be a Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) novel.  Whose Body? was first published in 1923; I read the 1988 New English Library edition, which I picked up used for $1.80.  This novel is the first of Sayers’ novels, therefore it is also the first in her series starring the private amateur detective Lord Peter Whimsey.

I have been reading older books rather than freshly published ones.  I am trying to especially bulk out the 1920s and 1930s. Why? Absolutely no reason whatsoever.  Random idea.  And I am not really serious about it, just something I am in the process of doing.  Hence, Sayers falls into this category.  She also falls into the category of early detective mysteries. But beyond that, one of the last things that a very old professor (Emeritus and with a lecture series named after them) was working on before they really retired [this can be taken in several senses] was commenting on the religious and philosophical ideas found in Sayers.  This may seem totally non-academic, but I must gently remind you this was more so busywork and senior-minded hobbying; the years for true academic research long past.  At the time I witnessed this work, the professor was 80 years old.  I was always slightly curious about their interest in the author/works.

Well, so, I started reading this novel with zero expectations. I did not know what to expect and I did not demand anything from the novel.  It starts off a little jarringly, I have to say.  The main character, Lord Peter Whimsey, is en route somewhere – but we join the story as he is requesting the cab driver to turn around and return to his house.  At first I was not sure what to make of the character or the story. I was really not sure that I would get through this novel in one piece. But Whimsey grew on me. And then I realized why I was becoming so fond of him….. he reminds me of me.

Seriously.  I didn’t realize it at first, but then I couldn’t help but notice. He’s not a dandy or a fop.  He’s this eccentric, extremely witty, aristocrat. A bon vivant, which is more or less…..well… me. He is an expert in foods and wines and wardrobe and he LOVES BOOKS and folios and incunabula.   Whimsey is 100mph and is a lot of excitement. Maybe this likeness tainted my enjoyment of the novel just slightly.  But also, his mother reminds me of my mother a bit, too.

“You see, Lady Swaffham, if ever you want to commit a murder, the thing you’ve got to do is to prevent people from associatin’ their ideas.  Most people don’t associate anythin’ – their ideas just roll about like so many dry peas on a tray, makin’  lot of noise and going nowhere, but once you begin lettin’ ‘em string their peas into a necklace, it’s goin’ to be strong enough to hang you, what?” – Lord Whimsey, Chapter 7

Here’s the story sans spoilers:  a body is found in the bathtub of a certain simple-minded little man named Thipps.  Thipps has no idea who this is or how the body got into his bathtub.  Also, a self-made man of some repute has seemingly gone missing, wearing nothing but his birthday suit.  Lord Whimsey investigates with the help of his friend in the police, Detective Charles Parker and his totally awesome butler/valet Mervyn Bunter.  I suspect if I had a butler, he would have to be exactly like Bunter. And, really, Bunter is as much to credit for the resolution of the case as is Parker and Whimsey.

Sayers writes this novel utilizing lots of dialogue.  You have to follow along with discussions more so than descriptive prose.  This is okay because the majority of the characters say witty, interesting things.  One of the difficulties, though, is that Sayers does include dialect and slang and such.  So, unless you are British and/or reading aloud, it can slow your reading down just slightly until you get used to the “sound” of the voices.  I can see how this might drive some readers batty.  I got used to it and pressed onward without incident.

Sayers was criticized for the novel having a slightly anti-semitic tone.  Well, I am not going to really get into that – I do see how the criticism came about – certain characters do make some typically obnoxious statements, but I do feel it is par for the course with the setting and times of the novel.  It does not affect the novel in any major way, though.  Also, there is another detective that is investigating the case (Inspector Sugg) and it is hysterical whenever Whimsey and Parker mock him.  They obviously do not bear him ill-will, but they do get a kick out of mocking him.  So, the reader probably should take most of this novel on that level.

Anyway, I am definitely going to read more of Lord Whimsey’s series.  I am glad I read this one and I did have fun with it. Wrote down three quotes and laughed aloud a couple of times.  Also, I might start shouting for Bunter.

3 stars

The Falling Astronauts

The Falling Astronauts – Barry Malzberg; ACE, 1971

The Falling Astronauts by Barry Malzberg was first published in 1971.  It is the first Malzberg novel that I have read. I read the ACE edition with cover by Davis Meltzer.

It took me quite a long time to get through this novel.  And I am not going to give it a rave review.  Basically, I think this novel might not really even qualify as actual science fiction, but I am rarely thrilled with such pigeon-holing.  All of the characters are unlikeable, which is fine.  I am used to disliking characters. However, in this particular novel, this is really a significant problem.

The novel is about the repercussions of the government agency in Washington and their space program.  Without being stated, it is obvious Malzberg is alluding to NASA.  Also, it takes place during wartime, presumably the Vietnam War.  Some comparisons are made here between the government and public interest in the war versus the interest in the space program.  Very heavy-handedly, the reader is to understand that the space program regardless of its facade of noble goals or scientific advances is utilitarian in nature.  The agency, in its methods and goals, dehumanizes and devalues humans – the astronauts who actually run the missions are treated as little more than machinery.  Their training turns them into machinery, tools, pieces within a greater (and more important) machine.

However, lest readers feel this is a direct attack on a specific organization, there are indeed hints in the novel that this attitude of the agency is actually a reflection of the entire societal structure within which the space agency operates.  Further, if this is so, a parallel assessment can (in theory) be drawn regarding the soldiers sent off to fight in the war effort.  Several times Malzberg includes references to “the war,” which could suggest this being read as a subtle anti-war novel.

The evidence for the dehumanizing of the astronauts is shown in their emotional and mental breakdowns.  Particularly in the character Richard Martin.  The novel begins with a sex scene – one in which the sex is described to us in very mechanical terminology. Literally:  docking procedure.  Gears, transmission, whines of engines, hiss of static, etc.  And this segues into the depiction of Martin having a ruined marriage.  His wife blames him and, more so, the Agency/Administration.  It has ruined his life, her life, and their life.  How so?  Because he is a machine; dehumanized and mechanical.  On the most recent mission, Martin had a mental breakdown which almost resulted in a significant tragedy.  The actual events were hushed up and when he returned from the mission, he was given treatment as a malfunctioning machine might be given.  Finally, he was proclaimed by the agency to be “all better.”  In reality, he carries extreme post-traumatic stress and he struggles with the remembering the “person” he used to be, as opposed to the mere individual he is now.

Malzberg’s writing is very interesting.  I like the actual style of writing qua writing.  It is remarkable and refreshing – his sentence structure and chapter-structure actually take a little bit to get used to.  I was re-reading a few sentences here and there when I started the novel.  Malzberg also uses a lot of subtle allusions and connotations that you have to pause a breath to consider before racing on.  Nevertheless, the reason why I give this novel such a low rating is because scenes just go on and on and on.  I mean, some of them feel interminable.  The whole novel is quite heavy-handed and with these scenes that just never end, the novel suffers.

Also, as I mentioned above, if the novel is built on the problematic of the agency dehumanizing astronauts, making such unlikeable and miserable characters does not really make me feel any great amount of care or concern for this problem.  I am not saying that is actually what Malzberg was aiming for.  I am just saying that it is hard to connect at all with characters and their problems as a whole when as a reader I just do not give a rip what happens to them, anyway.

There are sections where Malzberg’s wit shows through.  But all the words in between these sections really make the novel even more dismal than the situation it presents.  There are sections where Malzberg has Martin describing the room he is in, the interactions and relationships of the persons in the room, and so forth.  It is at these points that the writing really seems insightful and skilled.  Describing the intangible feelings in the room without seeming emotive or dreadful is tough to do, and I can praise Malzberg for that.

Discussing television/news programming, the character Oakes says:

“You see, as far as I can deduce anyway, these things were so devalued a long time ago that they’re just another kind of television.  People don’t believe what they see on television anymore so this becomes part of the general mix.  It’s very hard to get people really involved these days.  They’ve seen so much.  And television, I’m sorry to say, is a very poor medium for what we like to think of as reality.” – Chapter XXI, pg 175

That is my favorite quote in the book. I like that it is valid in 1971 and in present day.  It’s something to think about, surely, particularly on the topic of the simulacra/simulation theory.  Enter:  Badiou, Deleuze, Zizek.

2 stars

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