The Falling Torch

The Falling TorchThe last novel I will review for the famous Vintage Science Fiction month of 2021 is The Falling Torch by Algis Budrys (1931 – 2008).  It is a fix-up novel published as a whole in 1959.  Originally, segments were published in science fiction magazines in 1957-1959.  This is the second Budrys novel I have read.  As with the previous review, I have owned this novel a long time, but the motivation of Vintage Science Fiction month got me to read it. I read the 1978 Jove edition with cover art by Eric Ladd. 

Budrys and I would probably have understood each other very well and yet really disliked each other.  This becomes particularly clear to me after having read this novel.  The Falling Torch, while having a wide-vision “space empires” sort of setting, is actually very personal.  Did Budrys purposely write so self-revealingly? Well, only Budrys would know the true answer to that. I feel that even if a lot of this is autobiographical, the novel likely draws from Budrys’ knowing others who ran in his circles and felt as he did about political matters. I am going to be absolutely blunt here – take it or leave it as you will:  many readers focus on the obviously political-tone of this work; parallels are drawn and history can be traced.  However, many readers in America in 2021 are going to be less able to understand the layered ruminations here that underlie a lot of this novel. Not because they are idiotic, but because the sentiments and experience that Budrys is probably writing about are also unavailable to many readers.  Indeed, maybe due to that fact, Budrys’ novel(s) can be very frustrating.

Specifically, Budrys felt genuinely countryless.  For most of my adult life I feel similarly – and I know I am not alone because when I look at my cousins and so forth, I see signs and symptoms of that same feeling. Recognizing is not the same as empathy or sympathy, though, and most of the time, via Budrys’ writing, I find him to be agonizingly stubborn and dismal. So, yes, with him and his characters I also say, as I look around, “these aren’t my people, this isn’t my home.”  And it may be the generation gap between he and I that changes his dismality into my generation’s restlessness.

vintage-sf-badgeAnyway, the first part of the book is from Thomas Harmon’s point of view, really. Who is this character? We only get bits and pieces and frankly, maybe a little more about him would have been okay in order to smooth the transitions between the segments of this novel. Harmon is the major character in the beginning and then only reappears in the last pages. It would have been nice for him to get another chunk of paragraphs so the reader could discover what he has been about.  Harmon is part of the Government in Exile – humans from Earth, living on Cheiron.  Opportunity arrives for a new action in pursing liberation to occur. The president’s son is to be sent back to Earth to make efforts to restore the homeland.

The tone of the novel is very introspective. Characters get a lot of screen time to examine their thoughts and feelings. Some of it seems honest, some of it seems utterly obnoxious.  It is challenging to be patient while characters start musing on their intentions, purpose, destiny, and morals  – especially when these moments are pasted against an action movie scenery.

He had thought better of himself than that. All his life, he had known better than to expect or desire continual selflessness from others.  He had conceived of himself as one of the few in each generation who must rise above the flesh inorder that the great majority would not be called upon to do so. He had made the choice early, knowing that by doing so he was giving up his heritage as a man enjoying humanity. – pg. 32

The largest part of the novel deals with the president’s son, Michael Wireman, who is HALO dropped onto Earth – in the middle of the mountains to meet the supposed leader of the resistance forces. This is tough reading. It is really accurate and reasonable and also completely stilted and idiotic and annoying. Its just not smooth and engaging reading. Its jarring and, at points, cartoonish. But I am not saying, though, that it is bad. Its really difficult to explain. In any case, once Michael begins to evaluate the situation and the players of the liberation/resistance, he also starts re-evaluating his personhood and his rôle in the universe. At these points, I found the character to be really distasteful and wretched. He seemed self-absorbed, two-faced, and naïve.  Its harsh because reasonably, Michael is undergoing this re-evaluation because the things he knew and was taught are contrary to what his current experiences are.  

Who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys? What effect does the passage of time have on these positions? Is everyone locked into their worldview?  These are mighty questions to ask in a short little novel with an unlikeable main character. But at the same time, such questions do not seem completely out of place.

Again, there are brief scenes in this part of the novel that literally I have seen written in my own family’s letters. Phrases that run like: “…we were in the shadows of the woods, along the treeline……” etc.  I really dislike being so personal in this review, but I am happy to blame Budrys for it. My point in bringing this up is that, while for many readers this segment of the novel was something like an action plot that Budrys wrote, I can attest to it being realistic and not so “fictional” as readers might think.  Yes, loyalties are shifting and manipulated when you are the oppressed. But I do not think Budrys experienced such in person – he obviously knew people who did, though. 

Wireman is allowed the luxury to change sides. Surrender is often a luxury.  Once he does so, the novel changes again into an escape-evasion storyline.  Wireman has again become disillusioned and disenchanted with society.  More annoying, yet necessary rumminations occur. At times Wireman is insufferably whiney and vexing. He knows it, too, because several times during his self-reflection he questions his “right” to judge or complain or feel a certain way.  Altogether, though, its way too navel-gazing to make it fitting for a science fiction novel. 

But what of it, one way or the other?  If he was right, had he made her what she was?  And if he was wrong, was it worse to act in accordance with his judgment than to decide he might be wrong and not act at all? He had been making mistakes all his life, and now if he was going to live much longer he had to do something. Could it hurt to make a few more mistakes? And – and – for the first time in his life, this thought came to him – perhaps he was right. – pg. 132

The circling introspection gets very heavy-handed at points. A lot of reviews about this novel suggest to the reader that the novel is, at heart, an investigation into the idea of a Great Man.  I guess that is vaguely part of what is going on, but to be honest, the novel is about two characters who are homeland-less and exiled and trying to find out exactly what their position should be. The thing is most of these meditations come across as obnoxiously arrogant. At the same time, no way can I suggest that they are unrealistic. 

So, I wanted to give this novel one star at the start.  I hate how Budrys is so dismal.  I hate it because its so heavy to read his work that it makes the novels seem four times their size and weight. The edition I read must weigh fifty pounds. During the middle of the book, I gave it another star because it was so ridiculous. But realistically ridiculous. Finally, I am giving the book three stars because though the characters are all repellant, there are some thoughts in here – mixed up in the endless speculation on destiny and one’s part in the whole – that are so very honest that there should be readers who read them. Just please do not ask me which ones.

3 stars

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Beyond This Horizon

115409I finished another book for Vintage Science Fiction Month. Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein (1948). I read the Signet/New American 1979 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover.  I have read some science fiction since I started this blog, but never have I read any Heinlein.  I run into conversations, lists, topics related to Heinlein a lot on the internet; he seems nearly as talked about as Asimov.  However, I have never really felt drawn to read his novels.  So, it has taken quite awhile to work up to reading one – and I have “Vintage Science Fiction Month” to thank as a motivation.

As expected from various snippets read here and there, this one was good and bad. The good was okay and workable. The bad was really quite awful. It was rather a slog to read, but I’ve read worse. I will not be recommending this to anyone, really, except maybe the true hardcore science fiction addict. I rate it two of five stars, but I am glad I read it. I mean, there are few books that I actually (honestly) regret reading.  All of that being said, a much better review from 2013 can be found here:  Beyond This Horizon review.  For the most part, I agree with it and bless the man for having spent that much time typing out his thoughts on this clunker.

I’m no expert on Heinlein’s writing/thoughts and sure do not want to be. The author is frustrating and at points ridiculous.  However, he does earn (based solely on this novel, mind you) a begrudging respect because he did not write a fluffy turd of a novel.  Sadly, at times it is somewhat unclear if this actually qualifies as a novel.  Facts: this was first published in magazine-serial format and this was early in his career.  If you asked me what this novel is about, you know – in that general bookstore conversation sort of way – I would probably not be able to give you an answer. It really does not have a decent plot. So, either the thing is plotless, overly forced in its plot, or unfortunately and ill-advisedly mashed together. 

This is an author who obviously values science in his science fiction.  He does work hard at making his ideas “scientific.”  Unfortunately, at this point in his career, he was not an engaging writer. So those hefty segments of science are really tedious and dull.  No, as a reader, we should be open and care a bit about what the author is saying, even if it is a bit of an “info-dump.”  Except by the tenth page when you are starting to skip past paragraphs “accidentally…..”

I say segments of science and let me be clear, Heinlein was drilling us in some theories in statistics, physics, genetics, and economics. It gets really dry in parts. I followed as best I could (I admit my heart was not fully into it) and, sure, some of it is interesting to a point – particularly when you consider this is from 1942.
vintage-sf-badge

The best parts of the novel involve the underground society that actually seeks to indoctrinate and train up members in a secret society in order to actively pursue armed revolution. The actual revolution is so outrageously ridiculous it is tough to read through. Heinlein, for some bizarre reason, wrote the actual scenes in the most deadpan non-thrilling way possible. I mean, it was the dullest and most robotic revolution I have come across. Ridiculous.

Worst part of the novel? Any time the characters interact with or discuss women. It is cringe-worthy and awkward. And I am certain that criticisms focusing on these points are available all over the internet, so I do not care to examine them any further here. 

The rest of the book is peppered with ideas and elements that go nowhere, are there for no reason, do not have a real explanation, or just seem like whims that Heinlein felt like mentioning. The society of this far future novel is mainly genetically engineered. The people do not experience illnesses. They all seem to have conquered economics in some mysterious way, yet remain consumers and still work and actually have finanacial management. 

Society is armed and dangerous – and they act with an outdated pseudo-chivalrous manner. Duels are normal but Heinlein did not develop the duelling/mores protocols properly. (My favorite scene is, as it is everyone’s, the famous scene in the restaurant early on in the novel where a main character manages to flip his seafood over a railing to a table on the first floor and a bizarre interaction of exaggerated politeness occurs.)  There is a fascinating segment in chapter twelve regarding football. Considering reading it in 1948 and then considering the milieu of football now, this segment is probably most worth reading. Its cynical and amusing.

My biggest complaint with this messy novel is the characters’ names. It is so difficult for me to read books in which major characters all have names that start with the same letters. I literally lose track instantly. In this one there is a Mordan and a Monroe and they are different people and I could never keep the names straight. 

Well, the thing probably should have been forcibly stopped after chapter thirteen, if it had to be published at all. I am glad I read it. I am glad I will not re-read it! Recommended for no one.  Historians and science fiction maniacs may find some value in reading it. 

2 stars

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Now Wait For Last Year

Now Wait for Last YearI challenge you to tell me a better novel to read in order to start the year after the infamous 2020 besides a PKD novel…  I just finished reading Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait For Last Year (1966). I read the Mariner Books edition (sometimes I vaguely wish all my PKD novels were by the same publisher). Anyway, I will share upfront that I unashamedly give this novel four stars and I am glad to have read it – I have missed PKD pandemonium in my reading life.

The thing with PKD novels is that they tend to linger in your mind after you finish them. I do not know if it is an unsettled, unresolved feeling or a chewing on certain ideas or scenes or something. I have noticed it several times reading his works; you do not simply just close the book and move on. Or, if you do, you probably are not an honest reader. (Honest with yourself, that is, and certainly not with the books you are reading.) Some readers really do not like PKD books and carry on a frowning distaste for the book they just finished. Others just keep seeing little symbols and signifiers from the book in the world around them. Its really interesting to look at how readers process PKD novels.

vintage-sf-badgeThis is another PKD novel containing all of his usual writing style elements that we know and love. This one was quite a bit more difficult for me to get into. I resisted enjoying this one for the first quarter of the book, I think. The central theme and focus was distasteful and uninteresting and so very miserable that I really did not want to continue reading. But, it is a mark of PKD’s skill that I kept on reading and am giving this thing four stars. Literally, I think this plot runs around in circles for 260 pages. Within that, reality collapses and the drug-induced mania is intense. I mean, any time hallucinatory drugs are a major storyline, I am sure there will be some chaos – but PKD takes this stuff to a whole different level. It is difficult to know if his writing is brilliant or one hundred percent insanity. Readers will probably have their heads swimming – are they sure PKD didn’t slip them a capsule?

About two thirds of the way through, I decided this is the “real-ist” novel of PKDs. Its so very realistic and sobering and grounded. And this thought made me chuckle because I promise, most readers are not going to agree with that. But I do not mean it is most real in a superficial sense. I feel it is most real in a human sense – wherein personal drama and turmoil often overwhelms people – even destroying other aspects of their lives (professional, political, etc.) And the agony PKD was writing about had to have been real – TO HIM, at least. (Whether or not the agonies that he suffered were ones he caused or not is another, separate question.)

I really like Eric (the main character) because he is such an interesting miserable thing. His complete confidence in his career, his questioning of his morals, his agony regarding his marriage – these are all very human characteristics, if not “idealistic” traits. And PKD shows them off with a constant barrage of throwing messy scenarios at Eric. Loyalty, war, professionalism, temptation to do evil, etc. Eric is a character that I think will stick in my head for a long time. He originally read like a bland salaryman and then I started to see him as a sort of PKD-Everyman. His status as hero rose and fell and rose and fell throughout the storyline and PKD is such a cruel Creator for doing these things to this man. See how much sympathy Eric ended up finding in me?

As with all PKD novels, there is a lot going on. His works can be approached from so many points, but this one, perhaps, has the strongest grappling with morality. All of PKD’s books have this morality-wrestling and I do see readers get incensed at his perspectives or feelings and then miss out on this horrific existentialist turmoil that he describes.  The science fiction aspects are here, but not in some goofy space opera manner. They are just woven seamlessly into this whirlwind. I love how this novel is utterly science fiction, but I really felt all the science fiction was natural and reasonable. Yeah, there are bunch of sections that aren’t “pretty” reading. It seems some reviewers only want to read sanitized things as if because they don’t “like” a thing, it should not exist……. PKD’s whole oeuvre is to shatter reality, destroy reader’s comfort zones, and make characters and readers transcend themselves. Also, just like EVERY OTHER PKD novel I have read – the ending chapter sucks. He cannot end a novel for nothin’ …. and that, in itself, speaks a lot about what goes on with PKD’s psychology.

4 stars

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Very Important Corpses

I have read one of Simon R. Green’s Ishamael Jones series novels the last two Decembers. I continued with that this year – even though it has not been a “reading” year. For many, they utilized the lockdowns and quarantines for reading; unfortunately, I just did not get a chance to read. I am fortunate in that my household has stayed healthy. Anyway, I finished Very Important Corpses (2017) before Christmas Day, but I have not been able to write a review. I did want to get this one in, such as it is, before the New Year.

I like this series, although this novel was admittedly not as good as the previous. Maybe the novelty is wearing off? Difficult to say, but I think this one just was not very good. I found Penny to be a little less likeable. But I like the settings, the locked-rooms, the supernatural/spy mash-up. I enjoy the whop ’em, chop ’em storyline. So, while I will never say that these are highbrow literature, they work for Decembers.

The interesting character in this one is the Major Domo. She is a well-developed character (this can be taken in several senses). Readers will enjoy meeting her, being frustrated by her, and being amused by her antics and responses. The other characters are rather what-you-see-is-what-you-get folk. Nothing altogether interesting or original.

In this novel it seems that we learn quite a bit more about the Organisation – and Ishamael’s past work. I say “it seems,” because at the end of the novel, it does seem sketchy and like we were told a lot of nothing that was wrapped in a bow. Again, that’s the nature of this goofy-series. Its not something any reader is going to really puzzle over and needs to come to terms with. Besides, telling us nothing lets the author have a lot of freedom to keep all these books coming right along! I think there are nine total in the series as of my writing this.

I am not going to lie. I did not write many reviews because WordPress changes to the editor have really turned me off. I agree WordPress is the top internet blog site. However, I just really don’t have the time or inclination to re-learn how to do every little thing every time some kanban-infected I.T. junkie kiddo decides THIS is the WAY. I know I sound grumpy; I write in beautiful cursive and my elementary school was a fallout shelter. However, the desire to find the way to, say, align text next to the book cover image is absent. It used to be ‘click’ right there. Now? Who knows. Who cares? In other news, my 2020 Ford truck has an APP for MY PHONE…. the dealership called and nagged me to activate it. I realized it was pointless to explain to the young chap: I really have no interest in such things.

So, amidst this sort of world, a little Ishamel Jones can be a nice diversion. I am glad I read this one even if it is not as good as the rest. Definitely, next December, I will be reading the next.

2 stars

An Ace and a Pair

"An Ace and a Pair" by Blake Banner book cover, 2017

I found myself at a lake house for a week and I was not inclined to haul much reading material out here. I grabbed a paperback that was acquired in May, a couple non-fiction books, and my camera. Had I brought my fishing gear, this review would not be being written. Blake Banner’s An Ace and a Pair was written in 2017. I got my copy via Amazon – I believe it is print to order, which means that the last page of the book has the date it was actually printed. [Mine says: 10 May 2020 at local city.] This is the first novel in Banner’s “Dead Cold” series. It is a slender 200 page crime novel; the first I have read by Banner.

I do not know if it was because I was at a lake house in late October or what, but this novel just fit the reading zone nicely. It was the perfect read for these circumstances. So, sure, that colors my review a bit. Overall, the novel has some issues – the plot is a little difficult to follow because there are so many threads of criminals. I am sure the author was attempting to make the “mystery” complex and wanted to mislead the reader a bit. I did not bother to untangle the web of confusion of this part of the plot. There are bad guys, its hard to figure out which bad guys are scheming against which other bad guys. Does it matter? Honestly, no, not really. Still, too many characters that play no significant role.

What I really liked about this novel was that the writing was pared down and even and did not have any unnecessary wordage. Lake house reading is not supposed to be for overly-wordy, thesaurus-imitator tomes. I took a shine to the two main characters, Detectives Stone and Dehan right away. They are quite stereotypical, in places, but truthfully they know it, too. But that is okay, because the police procedural novel always works when certain established tropes are there to comfort the reader who is trying a new author/series.

The storyline has a few leaps in it – gaps that make Detective Stone seem magically intelligent. He does not always clue his partner in on his thoughts, which means the reader is left out, as well. I can see some readers being vexed by this behavior. Especially when it happens more than once. And I used the word “magical” because it seems Stone has some deductive leaps that just are amazingly lucky. For those readers who like to piece the mystery together, there will be frustration and exasperation with this. However, I do not always want to draw every thread to and from every single clue. Sometimes it is okay to just paint broad strokes, give me entertaining colors and shapes, and wrap the case up with a flourish.

Overall, a basic police procedural with engaging detectives. The ending is predictable after awhile, though. And the criminals are often just a list of names. However, for a beach read or a lake house, this novel should be able to fit into all the spaces between lounging on a deck gazing at the water and puffing on a Honduran stick of your choice. I do intend to read the next in this series.

3 stars

The Black Ice

The Black IceUtterly selected, from the uncomfortably vast to-be-read-pile, at random, imagine my amusement when this book has bullfighting scenes in it. Heh. Two books in a row with bullfighting. The Black Ice by Michael Connelly is the second novel in the famous Harry Bosch series. It was first published in 1993, I read the first book in the series in 2009. (I gave The Black Echo 3 stars).  I have been trying, for the last year or more, to get through hangers-on and “book twos” that have piled up on the everywhere in the house. I do try to read more science fiction than crime or literary fiction or whatever else, but I have also been making an effort to read more thrillers and crime lately. I do not want to become a one-trick pony. Well, and 2020 just seems to be science fiction enough…………….

So, the other reason I mentioned that I do not read much crime is because I do not feel I am an expert reader-judge of crime novels. There are readers who exclusively read crime and police procedurals and so their judgment is probably more fine-tuned than mine. Nevertheless, I feel I can add to the commentary on this novel.

The pacing was very slow. I know that it takes time to unravel a multi-layered storyline with a lot of players. I know that this is a crime/police-procedural novel and not an action thriller. However, I was well past halfway into the novel before the pace was even moving. I do not always think the pace of a novel needs to be fast in order to be good. In fact, many times, I enjoy lush worldbuilding and intricate plots. However, in this particular novel, I felt Harry drank a lot of coffee, but yet was still in slow-motion.

The plot is multi-layered and the reader gets more clues, slowly, right alongside Harry. The storyline is just not very interesting. I mean, its not a gripping read whatsoever. So, within the first three chapters, the reader should realize that the introductory crime is not a suicide.  One would expect that a suspicious death of a policeman would ignite a real jet rocket in the LAPD and with our star detective.  Okay, so, there may be a departmental desire to wrap up the investigation neatly and quietly – but who expects it to be so dull? I get what Connelly was doing with the plot, I think there are some interesting facets to this story (I’m not going to mention them here and spoil the read for others), but overall, it reads very dull.  So, because of the not-all-that exciting plot and the slow pacing, I gave the book two stars.

The resolution is interesting. I mean, I think some savvy readers probably guessed what was going on. I am utterly horrible at that sort of thing, so it was a fairly interesting reveal for my reading experience. Other expert crime readers were probably all over it! Still, it kind of really just falls flat. No big crescendo whatsoever. The denouement was tedious and caused suffering. Basically at the final event, Bosch has to explain everything to his superior about the case (obviously, for the sake of the reader).

Now this next comment is me really nitpicking, but there are several points in this novel that I found myself wondering about the time of the story, is it day or night? Because it does seem like Bosch has not slept in several nights. Now, I know very well how it feels to subsist on 4-hour night sleeps for nights on end – or even going without sleep for nights. The fact that Harry (no matter how much coffee he guzzles) is as functional as he is, is rather implausible. And his “insomnia” throws off the pacing of the novel because its unclear how many days have passed.

I plan to read more Bosch novels. I am sure this is one of the lesser Bosch reads and I have great confidence that many in the series are excellent novels. Besides, the main character is interesting to a point. I like his jazz business. In this novel, we get backstory regarding his parents and youth – which is valuable to serious readers/fans of this series – so it probably is a necessary read for Bosch enthusiasts (are there such people?) I recommend this for LAPD crime fans and fans of Mexico-California border storyline readers.

2 stars

Men Without Women

Men Without WomenMen Without Women is a short story collection by Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961). It contains fourteen stories, first published in 1927, and is Hemingway’s second such collection. It is, I think, the first of Hemingway that I have ever read. I know, I know, I know Hemingway is some sort of big deal; important author or major writer or whatever. To me, there was never any appeal to his writing and, frankly, anytime I learned a tidbit about his life and lifestyle, I was less than enthused.

Truthfully, I wanted to read the short story Fifty Grand. And then, I told myself, I could feel better about reading Haruki Murakami’s work of this same title (Men Without Women, 2017). I’m endlessly about proper method. Finally, though I have no strong desire to read Hemingway, if I was going to ever read Hemingway, starting with a small well-received story collection is likely the best entrance.

  • The Undefeated – 3 stars
  • In Another Country – 3 stars
  • Hills Like White Elephants – 1 star
  • The Killers – 4 stars
  • Che Ti Dice La Patria? – 2 stars
  • Fifty Grand – 4 stars
  • A Simple Enquiry – 1 star
  • Ten Indians – 3 stars
  • Canary for One – 2 stars
  • An Alpine Idyll – 3 stars
  • A Pursuit Race – 1 star
  • Today is Friday – 2 stars
  • Banal Story – 0 stars
  • Now I Lay Me – 2 stars

Well, the final rating for this collection is 2 stars. This kind of fell exactly in the place I thought it would. I do not care for (most) American literature, I have a distaste for Hemingway, and I do not have a strong tolerance for certain topics. I did come to the collection with an even temperment; I went into this thing open-minded. 

So three of the stories are, to my mind, utter trash. “A Pursuit Race,” “Banal Story,” “A Simple Enquiry.”  Rubbish. Now, I am sure there are plenty of other people out there who disagree with my assessment. I encourage them to start their own blogs and pontificate at length about the stupid philosopher who called some of Hemingway’s stories “trash.” However, I am not one to budge easily from my opinions, so its probably not worth arguing with me about these stories. I disliked them for different reasons, but mainly because at the end of them I have no idea what the point of reading – or having written them in the first place – could be. Why? Stream of consciousness junk for “Banal Story.”  “A Pursuit Race” is sad in topic, but what was the point of the story? “A Simple Enquiry” is also something that I finished and wondered briefly what the point of writing that would be. Why bother. Kind of felt that way about “Hills Like White Elephants” – but in that story the writing is a bit better. I mean, the actual wordsmithing. 

Instead of wasting time talking about things I do not like, let me expand on those stories that I felt were very good reads. I was impressed with “The Killers.”  I could recommend this to a lot of folks for a good, quick read. Also, I think if I am going to continue reading noir/crime fiction, this was a good one to include right in the start of my journey. I liked locating the story in Henry’s cafe/diner. I wanted to belly up to the lunch bar for a club sandwich. Or eggs and bacon. I liked the cook who wants nothing to do with any of it, but has curiosity anyway. I like the realism in the snippets of choppy conversation. I like the way the storyline went with Ole Anderson. This is a good solid short story. And I think, though I could be way off here, its fairly representative of Hemingway’s alleged patent style.

“Fifty Grand” more or less met my expectations. I wanted a gritty story about boxing that was realistic. Not shiny current-day boxing with social media and glitter. But old-time boxing with all the underlying crime and troubles. You know, the kind that our grandparents and great-grandparents knew about. I know this is a good story because I am going to remember it for awhile. Its not going to fade away and be lost in all the many things I have read. Frankly, I think Hemingway should have written exclusively about boxing and bullfighting. His war stuff annoys me and makes me feel sour. 

“An Alpine Idyll” has an unexpectedness to it. Maybe this is something of what all the Hemingway fans are on about. The story starts off with two skiers, returning to their hotel after being tired out from skiing. They are exasperated and cranky from “doing the thing too long.” Sun all day and poor snow conditions made them weary. Hemingway does a really good job of wordsmithing here – letting us see the scenery and the exasperated over-skied fellows heading back to the hotel. If you try, its quite easy to conjure the scene in your imagination. 

“We better have some more beer,” John said.

Though Hemingway does not actually describe the beer, I could almost taste it. The bottles of cold beer after a long day that became draining and tedious. I love the way John deadpans “we better have some more beer.” Yes, we better. Because. Beer. John. The story takes an odd turn to talking about “peasants” who live in these snowy mountains. Olz just buried his wife and he is the subject of the conversation.  It is an odd “slice of life” sort of story, but just the sort of story one would hear in a hotel at the bottom of a skiing mountain with bored men and a couple of beers. We are left with not being really certain if there is a tall tale being told, or if there is a sinister side to the story, or if its just something being made out of nothing. This is why my buddy John says: “Say, how about eating?”  The story of the peasant and his wife was fine, but after a tiring day and a couple of beers, no one really cares about it anyway.  If the food is as good as those beers, I am sure John and Nick had a great hearty meal.

“Ten Indians” is not a nice story. It is a bit raw and ugly. Its rural and Americana and not things that appeal to me a whole lot. However, the last two paragraphs make up for the ugly of the rest of the story. My rating, really, is based on those last two paragraphs. Anyway, here we have Hemingway’s star character, Nick, riding home with some neighbor friends from a holiday event. In a horse cart. I am going to admit, as soon as I put any of that together it was difficult to keep reading. I have a strong dislike for rural horsecart Fourth of July things. Now, the randomness of the indians all over place is absurd. I do not know if this is racist or bizarre or some hidden symbolism by a weird writer. The rating I gave to this story comes from Nick’s broken heart and the last few paragraphs. 

I do not read a lot of bullfighting stories. Nowadays, I feel, bullfighting is looked down upon, so even if there are stories about bullfighting, well, they are surely different. Sometimes I do think I was born in the wrong time period. Anyway, my experience with bullfighting is through my father’s stories of him having to go to Mexico to retrieve G.I.s who would get rowdy and arrested at Mexican bullfighting arenas. When I was in my very low single digits, the only book I would read or have read to me was The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. (1936) I have not watched the recent (2017) film they made. Just to be clear about this childhood obsession, the library had TWO COPIES of this book. When mother would return the book at the counter (remember they stamped the cards?), I would go to the shelves and get “the other copy.”  So, mother had literally a revolving borrowing of the two copies. This. Was. All. That. I Read. Ever. For. Years.  I have also read Yasushi Inoue’s “Bullfight” and I thought quite highly of that – however that story is not quite the same as Spanish bullfighting, I believe. 

Needless to say, I have a tendency to enjoy bullfighting stories. Hemingway’s “The Undefeated” is excellent.  The characters are rustic and rough.  The reader attends the fight right there on the shoulder of the matador, eye level, dust blowing up at us. The writing is spare, but honest. This is a good story. 

So, at the completion of this collection, I have to say it is about what I expected.  I dislike Hemingway, but I still found some things to enjoy and praise. The stories I did not enjoy, I was actually surprised by how much I did not enjoy them. Still, I am glad I read this collection – it is never a bad thing to read new things. I do not know how soon (if ever) I will return to Hemingway, but I will not forget too quickly some of the stories here. I can recommend this collection to readers who like spare writing and who are tired of shiny characters and blazing success stories. 

After reading all of this, the good and the bad, I’m with John: “Say, what about eating?”

2 stars

Ring Around The Sun

Ring Around the Sun

ACE 1959

Ring Around the Sun is the seventh novel by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) that I have read. I read the ACE 1959 edition, but the novel was originally a serial publication in 1952-1953. The cover art to the ACE edition was done by Robert E. Schultz, but ACE utilized this artwork on other books, to include the 1955 ACE Double The Big Jump by L. Brackett.

Ultimately, of the seven novels I have read by Simak, this is the most complete and well-formed novel, in my opinion. Unlike most of the others, this novel has a solid start, middle, and ending, which is a bit of a pedestrian manner of speaking. The truth is, I have previously written that I feel Simak’s novels have dissatisfying endings and that this detracts from a measure of completeness of his novels. In Ring Around the Sun, the ending is sufficient – the resolution to the novel is downright cool!

So, seven novels of Simak and I feel like I am reading the same story at this point. Well, not in the details, of course, but the themes are still the same. Simak has big ideas that get demonstrated in the relationships between three “character types.”  There is usually the Everyman that is well-represented, the alien or non-human, and then there is a human of an evolved nature or who possesses some paranormal quality.  In this novel, the big idea is that there are multiple, but not entirely “parallel,” earths in which advanced humans are trying to “save” humanity from humanity.

Just like in other Simak novels, the first quarter of the novel has that creepy intensity wherein the reader could be convinced this is not quite science fiction, but maybe also some crime/thriller read. Just like in other Simak novels the pastoral, rural setting comes into play. Old country homes, farms, sole proprietor hardware stores, wooden fences, crabapple trees – all the stuff of rural middle America serve to anchor the novel’s character.  Just like in other Simak novels, the main character is a middle-aged chap who is likeable, but aloof. Jay Vickers lives alone, but sufficiently, in Cliffwood. (Get it? CLIFFwood? Har, har har…) The opening of the novel introduces us to Jay in a gentle way, but yet giving us huge clues and valuable plot pieces for the rest of the novel. Unlike so many novels where we find plot elements descending on us like ACME Anvils, these are subtly written and gently placed so that the development of the novel is not heavy-handed.

There is a major goings-on that is the deciding factor for humanity as a whole – and not in a long-distant future. The tipping point is now, with Jay Vickers! Another trademark of Simak is how he focuses on individuals, but yet writes events that affect the whole planet. Jay Vickers is not simply human and as he discovers more about this fact, the novel progresses to show that while Vickers might be abnormal, that specialness is in the process of becoming the norm.

Present in this novel, are also the long moments of philosophical thought wherein the main character questions and wrestles with a variety of existential questions. In this novel, these segments did seem longer than in the other novels, but they also were written with more acuity, I think. Chapter 36 is a big philosophical think for Vickers. In this novel, Simak really ties in a lot of the novel’s subplots, mechanical elements, and incidentals better than in the other novels. I think his work with a child’s top (remember those spinning devices?) is exceptionally well-done. Simak also understands that for the depth that his big idea needs, he has to look at things from a variety of spheres – so he does consider man-as-laborer, man-as-social, economics, culture, and oddly, love. His consideration is also not limited to the here and now; Simak’s big idea always takes a big timeframe. He does a strong examination of humanity in this novel, but I will say, his results are somewhat negative. As in other novels, I feel that Simak is a bit dismal, but that its not as direct or overwhelming as some very miserable dystopia authors.

Although almost all of the elements that make up this novel are found in Simak’s other novels that I have read, I feel they are just done better in this one. From the plot, to the pieces of the storyline, including the characters and their motivations, the props and incidentals, this big idea is both satisfying and complete. It contains all of the key Simak trademarks and has a consistency I don’t find in some of his works. Therefore, if I was to select one Simak work that (out of those I have read) best exemplifies what Simak is about, I would choose this novel.  Further, this novel also serves as an excellent example contra those readers who are under the mistaken belief that science fiction is goofy and inane. This is a serious novel written by an author that is deeply concerned with the state of the world and humanity.

The odd thing, to me, is why, after writing this one, did Simak then attempt the same basic plot so many other times? If it was to sell novels and make money, okay, I accept that. However, an author of this much obvious skill could have written more diverse stories with equal gravity and insight. Instead, this novel seems to be something of a template that Simak then returned to, at least a few more times, in other novels. It is because Simak is a skilled writer that the other novels remain valuable and are well-liked. But, I admit, after reading this one, I think the other novels seem less original and more like template-fill-ins. I guess Simak just really wanted to hammer these concepts down and they were what was vital to his thinking and writing.

Inception posterRecommended for good readers, vintage science fiction readers, readers who like philosophical speculation, and Simak maniacs! (Also, I don’t know that I will ever look at/think about/use a toy top in the same way!)

Lastly, the “originality” of the film Inception (2010) fades after reading this. But fans of Inception should surely love this novel as well.

4 stars

 

Japanese Gothic Tales

"Japanese Gothic Tales" - Izumi Kyoka; University of Hawai'i Press, 1996

“Japanese Gothic Tales” – Izumi Kyoka; University of Hawai’i Press, 1996

I read this collection of four stories by Izumi Kyoka (1873 – 1939) in April 2020. I decided to read this because, honestly, I was avoiding the next (chronological) novel by Yukio Mishima. This book caught my eye and I decided to read it. The author is considered a major writer of modern Japan; there is even a prize for literature that is in his name given by his home city:  Izumi Kyoka Prize for Literature (Izumi Kyouka Bungaku Shou).  He was a contemporary of Junichiro Tanizaki, Nagai Kafu, and Natsume Soseki.

This particular collection, with its title “Japanese Gothic Tales” is edited by Charles Shiro Inouye.  Inouye wrote his dissertation on Kyoka at Harvard and his deep knowledge of Kyoka shows in his extensive introduction as-well-as the end notes that serve as a brief textual analysis at the end of the book.  This book was first published in 1996 by the University of Hawai’i Press and Inouye also provides the dates for each of the four stories contained in the book.  However, I do not recall Inouye sharing why these four stories were specifically selected for this collection. Inouye also does not provide a bibliography of the author’s works. Inouye might have included one in his 1998 work The Similitude of Blossoms: A Critical Biography of Izumi Kyoka (1873–1939), Japanese Novelist and Playwright, which I do not own.

Inouye starts his introduction to this book by bringing up a comparison of Kyoka and Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849). Inouye builds his discussion upon the notion of “Gothic.” Personally, I think Inouye must be very brave to make this his point of departure because, I think, in literary studies “gothic” has so many interpretations, some narrow and some wide-open, that anyone bringing the term up must also be ready to defend their usage. Its overused and often ill-used as a term/genre, in my not-so-humble opinion. However, Inouye was brave enough to use the term even in the title of the collection, so he must feel it brings some value to the collection.  As this is really my first foray into Kyoka’s writings, and because I am a novice in Japanese literary theory (if even that!), I know better than to make any further assertions on whether Inouye is making strong arguments or not. This is my way of saying, in this review I use all the terminology very loosely and tentatively.

Kyoka’s stories here collected are:

  • The Surgery Room (Gekashitsu, 1895)
  • The Holy Man of Mount Koya (Koya hijiri, 1900)
  • One Day in Spring (Shunshu / Shunshu gokoku, 1906)
  • Osen and Sokichi (Baishoku kamonanban, 1920)

All four of these stories feature elements that a reader might classify as Gothic.  For example, the usage and reiteration of specific colors (especially red), beings that are not what they seem, scenes in hospitals, clergy/religious individuals, forlorn romance, and fantastic components. If, as suggested by Inouye, there is any valid comparison between Poe and Kyoka on their place in Gothic literature, it seems to me that Inouye is more pastoral and poetic than Poe. That really does not have a whole lot of meaning, other than my stating my reader reaction to this collection. It is basically my saying that in these four stories I did not find the outright horror that is sometimes associated with Poe’s work.

The damp and sweaty plum blossoms nearby, a flame ready to flutter away into the crimson sunset, swayed brilliantly with the chatter of small birds. – pg 73 (One Day in Spring)

I see why Inouye put the first and last stories as bookends, so to speak, in this collection. They actually balance each other and work well in this collection even though they were written twenty-five years apart. It is interesting because the core of each of these stories, a sort of failed and forlorn romance, culminates in a hospital room with surgeons. And I know it seems that I am leaving something out, or as if I did not finish my thought, but that is precisely how Kyoka wrote these stories. The endings are unfinished, that is to say, they are as far as they need to go and Kyoka has the strength and bravery to let the reader come to whatever conclusion they very well like. It is not quite the same as saying that the stories are incomplete, although one might accuse me of playing semantic games here. I just mean, the stories are as complete as they need to be, whether there is a traditional “…and this is what happened. The End.” stamped on them or not.

Obviously I do not know how these stories sound and feel in their original language. However, in English, they have an extremely fragmentary feel, but not as jarring as they might be because the near-poetic wordsmithing seems to smooth out fragmented pieces. All of the stories are written as if it was a sleeper awoken who might be retelling their dreams and the linear cause and effect of reality, utterly absent in dreams, causes them to just move from scene to scene without worrying about all the pesky academic details. The reader who only enjoys very clear-cut and straightforward writing will not like these stories; I daresay they would be frustrated and find the stories to be incoherent.

The four stories involve mysterious, inscrutable women, clergymen or surgeons, and odd moments of nature in the scenes. In the first story there is a segment where Kyoka must tell us the azaleas are in bloom. The second story is magnificent for its descriptions of nature; in particular a frightful, deep forest in the mountains.  The third story has a kigo (seasonal word) right in its title (Spring) and devotes long sections to describing rapeseed fields/blossoms. The fourth story has intense imagery describing rains, mud, and the moon.

“…the woman wore thick, lacquered clogs, fastened with wisteria-colored thongs and splashed with mud.” – pg. 141 (Osen and Sokichi)

At the end of the day, I really won’t care much about the stories for the plots. I do not actually feel like the characters were all that important either. I give the shortest of the four stories the highest marks, because it is so abrupt and disturbing and poignant. The second story is remarkable not for any character or plot, but I want to sit down with J. R. R. Tolkien and also Terry Brooks (author of The Sword of Shannara, 1977) and I want to talk about, really talk about, those forest scenes and those descriptions. I will remember this story for its images of nature. The third story is the weakest of the bunch. I really feel that Kyoka wanted the reader to get something from this, maybe a sense of third-party witnessing unrequited love? or something? but the story gets really meandering – just like its main character. The descriptions of water, though, are well done. Finally, the last story, with its weird focus on eyebrows is the strangest of the four. However, I feel it probably best explains a lot of Kyoka as a person and as a writer and the topics that were significant to him and his work.

Do I know what these stories were all about? Honestly, no, not really. But that does not mean that they are crap or I am stupid. “One Day in Spring” is a story retold in ‘onion layers’ – a previous traveler told segments to a temple priest, who is telling segments currently to a traveler, who somehow can be discussed by a narrator, as well. Its not easy to follow.  Still, I really feel like the value in this collection is in the unique manner of storytelling and sudden vivid descriptions. This is not, however, some pretty collection of nature poems; there is plenty of “Gothic” material here:  death, fear, misery, and deformity.  Therefore, this collection is for very strong readers.

3 stars

The Last

THe LastThe Last by Hanna Jameson was first published in April of 2019. I read the hardback edition at the end of 2019 into 2020. I have not read anything by the author previously.  Overall, there are two things that drew me to the novel; the first is the appealing cover and the second is the concept of a post-apocalyptic survival story in a Swiss hotel.

Overall, I am not disappointed in this novel.  It was a quick read, honestly, and I felt that the plot was sufficiently written. I think the author attempted to have three layers of storyline in this plot – the overarching nuclear-war/survival situation, the murder-mystery of a found body, and then the personal drama of the main character (who is also the narrator). For the most part, the entire novel takes place at (or nearby) the L’Hotel Sixieme in Switzerland.

I really wanted more out of the setting.  The setting is such a hook for readers and the entire storyline is running around it. I certainly could have enjoyed a little more of the setting being described. The majority of the novel takes place in a hotel – and I have literally no picture of it; I do not think this is such a good thing.  No doubt the narrator, who is keeping a sort of diary might not be inclined to sit around describing rooms and hallways – but, at the same time, soaking the reader in the physicality of the setting might have balanced out some of the melodrama.

I disliked all of the characters. Not a one of them did I care about, which is fine, I do not need to befriend characters.  The characters all seemed, to me, to be exceedingly dramatic.  By this I mean, they all had personal turmoil that defined and overwhelmed their existence. I got weary, quickly, of all their hangups and issues and psychologies. I think this novel was touted as a bit of a “psychological thriller,” but to my mind, that means that the author has the heavy lift of building atmospheric suspense and intensity. It is not the same as just making the reader feel like the characters need to spend a lot of time with a therapist.

Some of these problems that I have with the novel suggest my sensing that the author is young. There is nothing wrong with being a young author, of course. However, and I know this is a statement that can only come from the old – it shows when the author is just a young cub. There is nothing wrong with this – let me reiterate. However, it has a different tone and style and understanding than if the author was much older. That being said, I do not think that I am the intended target audience. So, when the main character, Jon, engages in ethical ruminations or gets ensnared in discussions about theism,  politics, and/or history – it seems very mundane to me.  Certainly such discussions might occur in such situations, but the novel does not get points for leaving a lot of the discussions as just Cratylus-style “and there is this thought and also that one.”

At one brief point I was “creeped out” by the story. That was the most fun had with the thing. Overall the story did not quite reach the “suspenseful” and “intensity” level that I feel was potentially there.  The book ended up being a decent read about Jon’s wonderings. Some minor adventures take place, but in none of them did the threat seem real enough or intense enough. Somehow though the reader knew the stakes were high, the way it played out was like a conservative NFL running-game oriented offense.

The ending contains some weird, it ties some plot points together. Jameson clearly wanted to keep a drop of the “unknown/esoteric/supernatural/other-worldly” in the story. It works fairly well here, in the sense that I understand what the author did, but it was not a ‘wow.’

All of this being said, I do think the author has some good skill and I would be inclined to read a future work of theirs. This one just felt a little flatline for what it offered, which is a shame, because I am a total sucker for survival stories that include singular locations.

3 stars