Artforum

Artforum coverI finished Artforum by César Aira (b. 1949) today and I am giving it five stars.  I also want to let the reader know that my rating is merely for form’s sake. (There’s a bit of wordplay here, if you read Artforum.) In other words, this is not a novel qua novel and it is not the sort of thing that one really ought to rate by “stars.”  I enjoyed reading this; it was good and good for me. It might even be good for you to read, but it is not good for everyone. The general reader might not care for whatever this is.  The most significant thing that I can tell you about this work is that I really cannot tell you what it is.

There are difficulties in writing a review about this book.  Professional reviews from the journals/magazines feel like they are “writing around it.”  That is to say, their reviews feel to me like they are writing from a distance and using a lot of vocabulary to seem like they are saying something about something. This is not a criticism from me – I totally understand why this sort of vague-speak happens.  I already said that I cannot really tell you what this book is – and neither can the professional reviewers.  There is nothing mysterious or esoteric about this.  This is a spare 80 or so pages that may contain a memoir or a novel or a meditation.  Probably all three. However, if either myself or the professionals start to tell readers what this book is, the book is then ruined for readers.

Artforum, if you are not aware, is an actual magazine founded in the 1960s and currently (as recently as December 2022) owned by the Penske Media Corporation (yes, Penske family of automobile racing and logistics groups).  In the most loose sense I say that Artforum is an art magazine.  That is not untrue – but I feel it says nothing. Anytime one brings up “Art” there seems to be an immediate definitional and categorical warzone that opens up and swallows unsuspecting innocents. One could call it a fine art, design art, culture-focused, trade magazine, if one likes. I have no desire to attempt to describe, prescribe, proscribe, or any other scribe how to refer to this magazine and its decades of publishing. The individual in the book by Aira, however, collects the magazine whenever/however he can.  Most of Aira’s book is at least peripherally about this process. Hey, but listen, the process is not entirely external.

Aira’s book opens with a very relatable anecdote that is vibrant and real and the scene is immersive.  A copy of Artforum has soaked up rain – the one with the Robert Mangold art on the cover.  I have seen Mangold’s work a couple of times – his artwork was often displayed at several of the local museums and galleries where I lived because he was born there.  I suspect there is some significance between Aira’s thoughts and Mangold’s work – I can at least point to the sort of gentle Dadaist and minimalist experimentalism that I feel resonating in Aira’s work. All that means is that I tend to believe that even those who work on the fringe and frontier of the boundaries of art are still standing on the shoulders and ideas of those before them, those around them, and those they never knew. The segment in Artforum (book) titled Conjectures more or less hints at a similar thought from Aira:

There are no restrictions, there are no forbidden subjects, the entire universe in its innumerable manifestations is at our disposal. – pg. 59

I am sure at this point readers of this review are likely utterly perplexed and have decided that I have read some esoteric artsy-fartsy book that is incomprehensible to normal people and that it has loosened some dam of pontificating babble from my disturbed mind. Rest assured, readers, I am not unaware of your complaints.

Artforum is several snapshots of writing in which the narrator shares some of his introspection while he uses a somewhat unreliable, but attempting to be truthful, eye toward his own actions (including the collecting of Artforum magazine). However, if you think that is what this book is about, and you read about peso-value, bread, and clothespins, you will think I am loony.  Be that as it may, the book works best as you, the other reader, come up with the answer to what this book is about.

And when it rained, it became the present:  everything was tied together in a great web of interconnectedness. – pg. 15

If I had to put my finger on some central topic or theme for this book, I guess “interconnectedness” is as good as any.  Aira may even be asking “what is the form of interconnectedness?” and is it from within or from without? Gee whiz, doesn’t that sound all abstruse!  Well, and maybe that is why Aira approaches his meditations in little vignettes and anecdotes as opposed to asking uncomfortable sounding inquiries?  I still think this is what he is thinking about – I submit the segment on his feelings toward the Postal Service as evidence.

So, then there is a bit about idea and formulation. This is very self-referential of Aira – because it is almost as if the thing has come full circle to the actual question involving how are these little writings about an individual thinking about Artforum (magazine) part of the writer’s art? Oh, that sounds convoluted. Let me try again:  the narrator wonders about the gap between his ideas and the formulation of his idea in the real, instantiated by his writings.  The narrator could create his own art-forum through the act of writing. Writing became a vicarious artwork – a way of marking time. I think that Aira has done a number of interviews and the interviewers often ask Aira to comment on his writing “style.” I feel like he should always be using the word:  vicarious when he responds.

Like I said, it is not an easy thing to say what this book is about and further, if someone attempts to explain it – it harms the experience and encounter of the reader. It, in a sense, modifies that vicarious undercurrent.  Now, to talk about a different matter:  what is it that made me enjoy this experience so much that I gave the book five ersatz stars?  I felt happy reading it because I enjoyed the lack of violence in these vicarious meditations.  I enjoyed the way Aira is able to discuss these matters without using a cudgel. I liked the way I could sometimes empathize with the narrator. It does not put any regrets on display; it feels more hopeful. More and more I am liking Aira’s concept of a writer/writing. I like how he explores it and how he demonstrates it. Its nice to find things one likes.

5 stars

The Bormann Testament

The Bormann TestamentI read this novel during these days because of silly reasons:  I wanted to challenge myself to get one more book read in January. So I purposely selected a shorter, speedy novel. Suffice it to say, I did not have any high expectations of the novel and perhaps that is the best way to read all novels. The Bormann Testament by Jack Higgins (1929 – 2022) was originally published in 1962 as The Testament of Caspar Schultz.  The Bormann Testament is the retitled version republished in 2006.  Higgins has a brief note at the start of the book that explains this. Allegedly, in the early 60s, it was not a legally/politically smart thing to allude to Martin Bormann (1900 – 1945), but this 2006 version reasserted the desired title and “a bit more” content.  This is also one of Higgins’ earlier novels, maybe his sixth overall, I think.

As I confessed, I grabbed this book from my to-be-read abyss solely because I wanted a fast reading shorter novel to make myself feel impressed with myself for reading six fiction novels this January. The plot has a hint of literary/publishing to it that I enjoyed. Overall, it is a simple plot, not something from the hands of Brandon Sanderson or George R. R. Martin.  Information of a document has surfaced, it has incriminating information in it, and the seller is trying to find a buyer – obviously without attracting the attentions of those it incriminates. Insert our main character, Paul Chevasse, and the book leaps into action.

Happily turning the pages at the pace I was hoping for, I was relieved that I was reading a very spare, maybe too much so, story. After having finished Reliquary, I have been considering how many novels there are that just are too bulky for their own good.  Not every story needs the grueling amount of detail or backstory that some authors insist on having. As I say that, though, I think from readers nowadays there is a large amount noise about “immersive” stories.  Many readers seem to really enjoy the detail and piece-by-piece builds of every element in the story. Do not get me wrong, sometimes this sort of book is wonderful to read, as well. However, I do strongly believe that there is plenty of room for a very spare writing without very much description. It works particularly well in the spy/thriller drama, I think.

I know there are readers who will complain that the characters and plotting in this novel are incomplete, paper-thin, or silly. They will complain about tropes and ridiculous scenes. Overall, I think most readers will say this novel has a somewhat superficial style to it. It does, they are correct, but that is not a bad thing. In fact it is because some of the scenes are so “expected” that the novel is delightful. For example, there is an amusing scene in chapter eight with Gisele that is light-hearted and contrived, but maybe do not take it so seriously and enjoy the fun of it!

There is gunplay and trains and cigars and Dobermanns and manuscripts and none of it has to have a 200-page backstory. It is what it is – stop getting so morose over not knowing the main character’s shoe size, his childhood pet, or all his motives and feelings about everything. I did not take an immediate shine to Paul Chevasse.  I did not dislike him, but I wanted to see how it was all going to go. After all, this novel was just going to be a tally mark for me. Lo and behold, by the end of the novel, I actually like the chap well enough and without having to have all the unnecessary backstory.  Now, that being said, there is one point that I want to complain about.  So, allegedly, Chevasse was originally a professor of languages – was approached by the Agency and became Special Agent. My only nitpick with this is that professors do not often turn easily into physically-capable weapon-masters. The story makes it seem like this progression from teacher to spy-agent is just such a natural and simple thing. Maybe we will get more info about this in the other books in the series (I think there are six total).

Lest readers think that Higgins is a daft pulp author, let me share that there is a neat little element that he includes in this story that provides a rather quite melancholic sort of feeling to it that lingered with me after I finished the book.  There is a character that quotes Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 1593).  The line comes from The Jew of Malta – and boy, Higgins plays this line nicely in that last third of the book. There are other small nuances in the book that somehow keep this novel just slightly more than some shoot ’em up pulp. Do not get me wrong, this is not great literature, but I am really glad I read it – and not just because of the speediness of reading it. I’m halfway to swearing off of all books except fast-paced, pulpy, action-adventure novels for the rest of the year because I am having more fun reading them than I expect.

It surprises me that I enjoyed this so much and was so affected by it. I really enjoyed the Anna storyline. I actually came to like the characters more than I would have thought possible in such a spare and “tropey” novel. It was a nice spot of interesting fun for a speedy read.  This is good for readers who need a fast novel without a lot of word count.

3 stars

Reliquary

ReliquaryThe fifth book I have finished this January is Reliquary by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child. It was published in 1997 and is the direct sequel to Relic, which I wrote the review for in 2021.  I wanted to get this book over and done with because I truly did not love the first and so the fact that this is a direct sequel to Relic made me not want to read it at all.  However, I admit that I like reading adventure thriller novels and I cannot justify reading any further in the series if I skipped this one.

This is the “Pendergast series” named for the enigmatic character Agent A. X. L. Pendergast of the FBI.  However, as in the first novel, Pendergast is really not the main character. He is also a heavily relied on “tool” for the writers to always have a help at hand.  That does not mean that the character is not interesting and fun. Perhaps it is because he is “overpowered” that he is so exciting to read. After two novels with this character, the reader still does not know a whole lot about the gentleman except that he is intelligent and skilled. In the first novel, Pendergast makes a remarkable and striking entrance.  The same is true in this novel – his entrance is exciting and remarkable; so I guess that is how the authors enjoy bringing him into stories. Its fun, I guess. Keeps the reader a little surprised. However, I have to share that Pendergast does not make this interesting entrance until page 107. So, readers who enjoyed the character in the first novel may have been wondering if he is even going to show up to the second.

The first book, Relic, is necessary to read prior to this book. The reader cannot skip that one and fully understand this story. Ultimately, they are one large novel, but who on earth would read that?!  My problem with each novel is that they seem to go on too long. Now, some readers suggested that these novels are about 100 pages “too long.” Having read it, I want to agree. However, I am not quite sure where to trim the fat.  I mean, I cannot truly figure out exactly where all the length comes from.  Frankly, truthfully, I think the whole Bill Smithback sidestory is uninteresting and tedious. I dislike the character and his interactions and meetings with the character Mrs Wisher do not truly bring anything I want to read about to the story.  Those segments do succeed in building a very well-rounded backstory with more facets to the setting and events.  The value is also in giving perspectives that are not from a police standpoint or a museum scientist view.  That being true, though, does not mean that I want to read it or that I should care about it.  It makes the plot fatter, not better, I think.

I do not understand how this book does not have any map or chart for the reader. Literally, all of the other characters seem to have maps and drawings and schematics, but the reader has nothing. We are also treated to “named places” – waypoints, types of places, but we are not given any point of reference to orient ourselves. This is very frustrating and after awhile it really grinds on the reader – at least it did me.  I got very sick of hearing the characters talk about this particular point, this specific tunnel, that connection to pipes, trains, tracks, ports…. Context does not help much at all, all the tunnels are same, the setting is all murky, soggy, smelly, sludgy. So, while the characters seem to know about the various tunnels and ingress/egress, the reader just feels left in the dark in a puddle of sewage.

All of those complaints being mentioned, the book is a solid, averagely plotted thriller with a heavy dose of evolutionary science fiction.  Its an crime-science fiction-thriller and for the most part, that hits a large audience of readers. Its diversion from long days, its interesting to a point, it has some tropes and stereotypes, it also has some flaws. It basically chugs along on its over-long path without huge ups or huge downs. Most readers will be satisfied by this novel because while there is nothing to cheer for or be exhilarated about, it has no ruinous flaws that tank the novel. At the end, the reader will have had a decent read, but will likely be worn out from caring about the characters and tired of the endless plot.

My favorite moment comes in chapter 27 during an exchange between the homicide Lieutenant D’Agosta and a rather counter-culture artist named Kirtsema:

D’Agosta looked at the strings in disbelief. “So this is art? Who looks at it?”
“It’s conceptual art,” Kirtsema explained impatiently.  “Nobody looks at it. It’s not meant to be seen.  It is sufficient that it exists. . . . . As Derrida said, ‘Art is that which is not art,’ which means–“

“Did you know if his first name was Gregory?”

“Jacques. Jacques Derrida. Not Gregory.”

“I mean the man who lived next door.” — pg. 188, chapter 27

I laughed. I laughed again as I typed this segment.

Anyway, one other very nitpicky sort of detail:  we meet a police chief named Waxie – he is not a charming, helpful character. He really has a lot of the worst characteristics. A yes-man to the higher-ups, a mind that is rather dull, and a pervasive laziness are some of his main attributes. He is a rotund fellow who complains and whines a great deal. So, in my mind I was kind of surprised on page 341 when he is described as having a basso profundo voice. I just did not associate this with that character. This was such a surprising (and admittedly irrelevant) detail, I did wonder if the authors did this on purpose, just as a sort of “got-cha!”

Overall, a reasonable read that is a bit overlong. I was entertained, for the most part. I did not love the first novel, so I was never going to love its sequel. However, now I can read onward in the series, which I intend to do at some point – hopefully we can step the heck away from the underground world of the museum for awhile.

3 stars

Strong Poison

Strong Poison CoverStrong Poison is the fifth novel by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957).  It was first published in 1930 and I have read the previous in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. After the rather unhappy undercurrent that ran through The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, this novel is something of its opposite. There is a great deal of humor, fun, capers, and silliness. Frankly, it is the most fun of the Lord Peter mysteries so far.

Dorothy L. Sayers is a bit of an odd author for me to come to terms with. By that I mean it always seems that I am unsure where to place her works and/or situate her sphere as an author-audience circle.  I have never met her and I have never met anyone who has. Based on nothing more than her various writings, I feel she would not have struck me as a nice person (yes, that is rather a vague phrase, too). I do not know that I would have liked her. However, I think she was a very intelligent person.  You definitely want her at your supper party. I think she is an excellent writer – but her novels are never as good as they should be. Or as good as we want them to be.  Most of the time, I feel like complaining that she should have written more (and by ‘more’ I mean much more) in the fiction realm than the detective novels. Sayers tended toward a version of agenda fiction, which does not always thrill me, but I can understand its usage.  Further, and more than any other aspect of her writing, I get the overwhelming feeling with all of her novels that she is just doing a writing exercise.  She is experimenting with the novel.  In some atypical way, I want to call her an experimental writer.  It is not overt and obvious like most “experimental fiction.”  It is just a feeling that Sayers is trying something out or testing something.

Hey – she’s good; I think she could outwrite a heckuva lot of authors, vintage and contemporary.

It is because I get the sense of her being a great author that I want great books from her. Now, Strong Poison is an immense amount of fun and is quite interesting.  Strong Poison is not a magnificent classic of literature, though. Without a doubt this is a four-star rating detective novel. The genre allows for it to have moments wherein its unrealistic, silly, and campy.  Sometimes detective fiction authors (and this happens in science fiction as well) do it to themselves. They purposely, knowingly, make their works amusing and for a general readership. Unfortunately, that also immediately seems to make the literary critic feel these genres are somehow “lesser.”  Its a sticky and ugly perspective that has tiny elements of truth on both sides. Is Sayers a hack? Is she just a large measure smarter than most hack writers and therefore able to convince us she’s not a hack?  Personally, I think she is a great writer, but sadly she never wrote us that great book that would prove it indubitably to the galaxy.

Well, Strong Poison really has its genesis in Sayer’s own life, a writer named John Cournos (1881 – 1966) had some form of relationship with Sayers and she utilized this relationship in Strong Poison in the form of the character Philip Boyes. It is not a flattering character that she wrote, but it is, probably, realistic.  This character dies and the main suspect is Harriet Vane.  Lord Peter falls in love with Vane and the book is about Peter’s efforts to prove Vane’s innocence of Boyes’ demise. It is notable that the novel’s hero, Lord Peter, several times has some strong language about Boyes. I think there is more in this novel that is autobiographical than a reader would immediately think. Definitely scenes are pulled from Sayer’s own experiences.

The reader spends time attending the Vane trial and in following Peter around as he struggles to get evidence to clear Vane. A fact that happens, eventually, in all detective novels – the detective cannot do the job alone.  Even with Lord Peter’s vast monetary resources and education he cannot solve this on his own. He has to pay and rely on the legwork and wits of people in his employ. And he does – and these people do come through for him – and it is quite an amusing tale as it plays out. But there is that nagging disappointment in the reader’s mind that realizes that Lord Peter cannot solve the crime.

Here in 2023 it is difficult to read these novels because our forensics technology has advanced so much. Plus, all of the “evidence” gotten in this story is gotten through nefarious and illegitimate means, anyway. None of this would be permissible in a court case. Lord Peter’s irregulars get the job done and these capers are really quite priceless and entertaining, but the realism is utterly lost. A reader in 2023 cannot help but notice this and be disappointed.

In this novel Lord Peter is very Lord Peter. It is like Sayers felt the heaviness and sorrow in the previous novel and gave Wimsey a shot of caffeine in this novel. Boy, his quips and banter are on extra high throughout.

“If anybody ever marries you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle,” said Harriet, severely. – pg. 123, chapter 11.

But we do get to visit the Denver home or whatever it would be referred to as. We meet up with Gerald, Duke of Denver and some friends and family because it is Christmastime and they are gathered together.  Peter navigates the uncomfortable, but oddly familiar scene of “conversation” with the elders in which they feel they can opine on any topic. He escapes to the stables at one point, running into his brother and brother’s friend.

“I wish nobody had ever invented tea. Ruins your nerves and spoils your appetite for dinner.”

“Same here,” said Wimsey, promptly.  “I’m feelin’ rather exhausted with conversation. Let’s wander through the billiard-room and build our constitutions up before we face the barrage.” – pg. 130, chapter 12

Even if one finds Lord Peter annoying, the various scenarios that Sayers writes are always so relatable. Spoiled, annoying Lord Peter still resonates with the reader because he seems to always fit in and interact delightfully with people no matter the time or place or society.

Anyway, the case is broken by efforts of a loveable Miss Murchison who cracks the safe in her employer’s office. Of course, her gaining these locksmithing skills is due to Lord Peter introducing her to his acquaintance, Bill Rumm. Bill is a caricature of those reformed criminals who turn to any form of religion with zest and zeal, but still keep that crooked side available for use as needed. Rumm gives Murchison an instructional in how to open locks. Its a quite funny scene in the novel – one I think most readers would get a kick out of and would be perfectly amusing as a TV/film episode. Proud of his skills, reformed or not, Bill says:

“If?” grunted Bill, with sovereign contempt.  ” ‘ Course I can! Deed-box, that’s nuffin’. That ain’t no field for a man’s skill. Robbin’ the kids’ money-box, that’s what it is with they trumpery little locks.  There ain’t a deed-box in this ‘ere city wot I couldn’t open blindfold in boxing-gloves with a sick of boiled macaroni.” – pg. 145, chapter 13

There is another character that helps the case, Miss Climpson, but I would never dare to spoil those scenes. Absolutely riotous and hysterical scenes that come with a dose of criticism for the “new age spiritualist” shenanigans that Sayers must have come across here and there.

Strong Poison sleeveAnyway, I also want to share that the copy I read is a hardback Harper & Row edition. My copy is ex libris the US Naval Base Library in Charleston, SC. The last date stamped on the card in the back of the book (um, if you’re too young to know about this……. Wikipedia might help?) is 15 FEB 1994.  From other markings, the book was acquired by the Naval Station for $4.95 in October of 1969.

I am very glad that I read this novel, it has some wonderfully amusing scenes in it and it has some unique problems for the detective to overcome about the crime itself. In many ways, it is also somewhat of a character study, a passing study of various subcultures in society, and a bit of trickery and fun. Overall, vintage mystery fans need to read it. Other readers may enjoy it, but it has its flaws and does not really age well in terms of actual crime-solving. Still, those folks who can stand Lord Peter’s piffle will appreciate the time spent with him and his irregulars.

4 stars

Star Science Fiction 2

Star 2In the 1950s, Frederik Pohl (1919 – 2013) edited collections of new science fiction stories.  Pohl, an established author and familiar to the writing circles, managed to get the VIPs and MVPs of the science fiction world to include in these anthologies. I read the first anthology and enjoyed it immensely. That edition has a story by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) that still hammers at my soul from time to time. My favorite story in this second anthology is probably the one by Algis Budrys.  I really ought to have read this anthology much sooner after reading the first because these are such high quality collections. Both the first and this second anthology were published in 1953. I read the Ballantine Books editions for both.

Something needs to be said about the overall quality of these anthologies. Usually, it seems, anthologies can be hit or miss. More likely, the reader will find one, maybe two, excellent stories and the rest are just filler. The difficulty with short stories is that the writer himself does not have a whole lot of freedom. The story has to work with so many fewer pages than any full-length novel. By “work” I mean that the story has to feel relatively completed and polished after having engaged the reader nearly immediately.

In this particular anthology every story feels polished. The reader feels intellectually stirred and/or stimulated even if only momentarily. The stories are engaging, unique, and have that ever-necessary spark of wonder or awe that is frequently talked about in science fiction, and less often demonstrated. In a word, these are good polished stories by strong, polished authors.  These Star Science Fiction anthologies that Pohl edited really are somewhat of a standard and I am afraid a lot of anthologies cannot compete on this level.

All of this being said, that does not mean that a reader’s personal preferences do not matter. So, my rating for each story is probably more about my personal enjoyment of the story than about any critical rating. To a point, anyway. Its murky to be objective and subjective about fiction all the time; feels messy as heck.  In this collection, I will say that, for me, the high watermark is easily the Budrys story and the low watermark is the del Rey. Maybe the others are aligned and assembled on my rating scale in accordance with those two stories.

Disappearing Act • Alfred Bester – (4 stars)
The Clinic • Theodore Sturgeon – (2 stars)
The Congruent People • Algis Budrys – (4 stars)
Critical Factor • Hal Clement – (3 stars)
It’s a Good Life • Jerome Bixby – (4 stars)
A Pound of Cure • Lester del Rey – (2 stars)
The Purple Fields • Robert Crane – (2 stars)
F Y I • James Blish – (2 stars)
Conquest • Anthony Boucher – (3 stars)
Hormones • Fletcher Pratt – (2 stars)
The Odor of Thought • Robert Sheckley – (3 stars)
The Happiest Creature • Jack Williamson – (3 stars)
The Remorseful • C. M. Kornbluth – (2 stars)
Friend of the Family • Richard Wilson – (2 stars)

Well, fourteen stories is a good number and if I ramble on about each, this will be a never-ending review. So, let me just speak briefly about the ones I found a bit lesser. The Robert Crane entry was given two stars because I felt it was not very original, although the emotion and impact it carried was very good. The Blish entry was probably just a bit too far out there for me to enjoy. Hormones by Pratt was kind of a throw-away in that it was not super unique, but still well-written. Like the Crane story, the presentation was top-notch writing. The Clinic is a story that if anyone cared, they would fight with me about. I can see other readers giving it four stars. It just is not for me and I took it out on the story. Finally, A Pound of Cure just annoyed me a lot, but I might see other readers rating it higher. Like I mentioned, a lot of these ratings are very personal preference.

In my opinion, the best story of the lot is The Congruent People by Algis Budrys.  I find, generally, Budrys to be a difficult author. Please do not ask me to expand on that, but when I think Budrys, I also think “difficult.” I say this so you know that I am somewhat inclined to not love his work. This story, however, had everything I want in a science fiction story:  tension, surprise, the unexplained, rational considerations, etc. It is one of those stories that shifts reality and is so interesting and fun for the reader. At least, for me as a reader. Others can and will roll their eyes at it, I guess. The story does not give you answers and plod along through a full explanation. Like reality, the reader is left to puzzle and wonder and engage with the story intellectually instead of being handed a platter-full of obviousness.  So, yes, after I read it and still to this moment, I am enjoying thinking about the story. Other readers, I think, might be frustrated by the lack of answers/closure or something. Its quite open-ended and yet, maybe that is the greatness of it – it was not overwritten nor underwritten. Dexter Bergenholm is the main character in a great short story. He tells us:

All days begin like other days.  Colored by half-remembered dreams and half-visualized anticipations though it may be, a day is a day are days like the rest of them, until the first thing happens to mark this off as (a) the Day the Shoelace Finally Broke, or, (b) the Day the Rent is Due, or, (c) etcetera. – (pg. 38)

As a reader, you’re probably asking, subconsciously even, “OK, so what is the thing about today that is going to make it a Day?!”  So, Budrys nabbed you by the third paragraph. And the story has a bunch of surprises and fun moments that are going to, hopefully, be an engaging existence-shifting story of perception and reality. No answers, though, OK?

Bester’s story opens this anthology and he is sarcastic and sardonic and witty. Disappearing Act is four stars because it has, unlike a lot of science fiction, a snarky sharp jab at society and its values – while maintaining just enough lightness to not seem sour and caustic. Though Bester is not the first (nor the last) to sarcastically criticize society, I think his presentation is absolutely top-notch. There is a war going on, of course there is. A particular American General is point for the zeitgeist of the culture. Propaganda and “brainwashing.” To some extent.. you know, whatever needs to be said to get whatever you want to keep the overarching Machine rolling. The General gets whatever he needs “for the war effort.” He gets, and needs, Dr. Bradley Scrim, who is released from prison at the request of the General. Scrim is either a philosopher or a historian – though I would bet on the former. Obviously, without a doubt, this philosopher sees through the nonsense and can see the solution to the General’s/society’s problem, but he also sees that society has lost the ability to get the solution. This is a really good commentary on society. I also think its quite accurate that the philosopher will not solve your problem, but he will tell you what it is. There is so much I could unpack from this little story. I do not love satire or sarcasm, but this story plays well and its presentation is excellent.

FatocrThe Hal Clement story, Critical Factor, is quite good, however some readers might struggle through it. Its hard science and Clement makes the reader think. There is something esoteric and intangible about how Clement anthropomorphizes and develops characters that you always would know if its his story or not. His characters are always so thoughtful and almost always seem to have tendencies to be better and move toward the good. Anyway, it is not an easy read because Clement’s science meets up with his imagination and honestly, it is so beyond the human experience that its tough to figure out what the heck the characters are or are trying to do. I dropped a star in my rating because Clement did not fully immerse the reader because he had to make the characters use nouns/language that would be a referent for the reader, but at the same time, the characters would have zero referent for those words and therefore would not really use them. I certainly do not have a way around this, but it feels awkward. After you finish this story, a reader might not fully understand it, but I think they know they read a helluva story. Clement’s imagination was extreme, this is mighty.

It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby (1923 – 1998) is the “famous” story in this anthology.  I had never read Bixby before, so I was glad to read such a famous story.  Its worth, I think, all of the hype and discussion.  The reason for the story being famous is that it vintage-sf-badgeis the story for the eighth episode of the third season of The Twilight Zone (1961). I do not know if I have seen that or not. The story did not feel familiar when I read it, so I want to say I probably have not seen the episode. Anyway, this is probably a must-read story for science fiction, horror, fiction fans. Its not super long, there is really no reason why readers cannot pick this up and get through it. The things that make it so good are that the frustration, fear, and immensity of the situation are palpable. These sensations are presented with an economy of words, an undercurrent of sympathy, and a subtle huge concept lurking throughout. Peaksville… population 46. A young boy with some major impact named Anthony is a massive creation by Bixby and even though the story might seem vaguely unsurprising, it is still disconcerting and disturbing. In other words, this story, like so many in this book, is good for the reader’s brain. Readers enjoy, as much as that makes sense, this harrowing tale.

Overall, my rating for the book is three stars. I think this is probably because there are some stories in here that are not to my personal preference and taken separately, the stories, while excellent, do not seem to equal to the whole book – oddly able to be greater than its parts. Unlike so many anthologies and collections – the stories in this are not really forgettable. I find that that most anthologies contain stories that occupy one’s attention only briefly and then are forgotten almost immediately. These stories are impactful, mighty, sometimes shocking, and definitely engaging. Saying the book is three stars makes it seem oh-so-average. But this is misleading and readers are really doing themselves a disservice to not read this book. Excellent reading for science fiction fans.

3 stars

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The Secret People

The Secret PeopleThe Secret People by John Wyndham (1903 – 1969) is the author’s first novel, although he published it under a pseudonym. It was first published in 1935; I read the Coronet 1977 edition with cover art by Colin Hay. I really like the cover art, but I don’t really think it representative of the novel.  I had not read any Wyndham before, but I like to start, generally, early in an author’s career and work my way forward.

Knowing that it was the author’s first novel and that it was published in 1935 had me a bit trepidatious because one never knows what such things could include or what their tone might be.  Overall, I was really impressed with this novel. Ultimately, its a well-thought out storyline with a very nice science fiction grounding. I think the characters are believable and interesting. Usually, when readers talk about characters from this time (1930s) some comments are made regarding the styling of the female characters – but, frankly, the female character may be the strongest character in the book. Maybe that is not our first impression of her – when, yes, the other main character spends some lines objectifying her at a resort. However, Margaret ends up as the superhero of the novel.

Frankly, the main character, Mark, starts off like he might be larger than life, but he really rapidly just becomes an everyman. He takes a secondary role to all of the other characters, becoming more or less the narrator of the story.  The other characters that we meet are diverse and interesting. As we meet them, we notice their natural inclinations and frictions as we would with any group of people forced to interact and exist together in confinement. The novel has a lot of anthropology in it. Now, I do not think that Wyndham himself was an anthropologist – and I think we all remember what the milieu of anthropology was in the 1920s/1930s. So, I mean, some of it is that old 1800s WASP-centric stuff – but there is actually a surprising amount of decent argument and thought included for a debut science fiction novel. The main “thinker” is Gordon, but awesomely, Wyndham also gives a lot of room for the “opposite” side to speak in the form of one of the pygmy leaders named Garm. Gordon can be so very tedious when he goes on for pages about his theories. I think the thing that Wyndham does do very well is the presentation – all of these “conversations” that the characters have about anthropology are presented as theories and the interlocutors are not just sponges who agree with “the smart guy in the room.” Largely, they hear each other out, accept what they think is reasonable, but yet maintain their own perspectives and ideas. I do not mean to point out the negative – but this situation is immensely better than I see currently when people discuss literally anything. Usually, I just see screaming mania.

There is an African guy in the novel, Zickle.  He is referred to as the Negro and the black. Truthfully, the characters who are around Zickle are not nice gentlemen. I mean, Americans who were in the Foreign Legion are not our brightest, most graceful of men. Overall, as a reader I felt Zickle was treated positively, but condescendingly. I was rooting for him, I wanted to have more side story about him. He had a good ending.

And then there is Bast………. at first I wanted to say it was too obvious and droll when Margaret named Bast. But then, I felt it was a correct touch for the novel.  Now, I was really happy for the most part to have Bast in the novel – and then at the end, there is something that happens that is horrifyingly sad – but then there is a good thing. And finally, at the end of the novel the reader gets zero confirmation about the disposition of Bast. For me, this was a lot to handle. I do not want to give spoilers, but I do want to knock a half star off of the novel for Wyndham not giving the reader that direct confirmation.

vintage-sf-badgeSo, this novel has a really good juxtaposition of anthropology and sociological elements with fugitive/action novel storyline. I was really impressed with this structure. I still cannot believe this is Wyndham’s first novel. Again, comparing this novel – its structure and plotting – to a lot of the novels of the last twenty years I have to say that this one is really superior. In terms of novel qua novel, this one is really good. As I consider a list of things about this novel, I do not have many complaints. Characters? solid. Plot? solid. Science fiction stuff? solid. Novel structure? solid. Action and suspense? solid. There are not a lot of weak points here whatsoever. Any complaints would be nitpicking, I think, and overall it was a very imaginative, immersive story that entertained me quite nicely. It was also a bit different than anything I have read (underground people, caves, the New Sea) and I really enjoyed that it was imaginative and unique.

One thing, I was unable to keep track of where the story takes place geographically. It may have been mentioned/explained and I stupidly just missed it. I wanted to say we started in Algeria and moved to, maybe, Egypt? Definitely North Africa, but I am not sure it was ever actually defined. I think. Its a small thing, but I have been wondering since I finished the novel. Lastly, though I think the descriptions and setting are executed very well, I did feel that a lack of claustrophobia was an odd thing. I would have expected to feel a bit more entombed than I did while marching around with Smith, Mark, Gordon, and Margaret. Anyway, four stars for a polished, completed novel.

4 stars

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Meeting At Infinity

Meeting At InfinityI am pleased to have started 2023 with reading a vintage science fiction novel. I read Meeting at Infinity by John Brunner (1934 – 1995).  This novel was first published in 1961. I read the ACE edition with cover art by John Schoenherr.  The book begins with a short prologue and has twenty-one chapters.

After reading the prologue I was rather discouraged because I really do not care for that sort of writing. To describe it – it just feels like its trying really hard to be lofty and profound and it just annoys me. Anyway, it is not an easy novel to read even beyond the prologue. Frankly, the first six chapters are a lot of work in which the reader really is not given much to work with.  Characters are mentioned and they seem to be acting with purpose, but its all very closed to the reader at this point.  Threads of a plot are everywhere, but they are not very accessible.  In other words, it feels a bit frustrating because not only is the setting an unfamiliar future world, but the characters roles and relationships are difficult to consider.

This is one of those novels where as a reader, you have to continue on because you have faith and trust in the author.

Obviously, the author has an overall plot – he has a story he is going to tell us. For whatever reason, he felt that starting in media res and not really bothering with any exposition at all was the way to start this novel. In my opinion, the book takes too much work to start. It is not engaging and at my age, maybe I do not fancy authors trying to tell stories in such a sink-or-swim fashion. The sentences on their own make sense, it is just tedious to keep reading them. Now, this clears up somewhat around halfway into the novel. I am not sure if it clears up per se, but the reader becomes much more familiar with the setting and the characters. The motives seem a little sketchy, nevertheless. The novel is, more or less, an action novel, believe it or not.  It is difficult to accept that in the beginning, but ultimately that is the baseline for this work.

The author has said that he has high regard for Anthony Burgess (1917 – 1993) and I feel like Brunner had an advance reader copy of A Clockwork Orange.  Not that this novel is similar, but there are aspects that feel a little too coincidental. If I must give an example, I will suggest the counter-culture youth in Burgess’ novel being similar to the yonder boys with their alpha dog leader, Jockey. Meeting at Infinity predates Burgess’ book by a year. Brunner’s lower caste of society has their own lingo and their own gang-like structure of toughs and petty crimes. Syndicates running in their own circles – so far beneath the top of the society that they are almost two separate universes already. The lingo Brunner creates is actually kind of fun – I like it. For familiarization, it would remind contemporary readers of something like the lingo used in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) among Immortan Joe’s army.

As I mentioned, the novel is, more or less, an action novel. However, the overarching structure is a sort of economic/sociological future that we are not really told enough about.  No, novels about economics are rarely the most fascinating. So it is a bit of a blessing, perhaps, that readers are not given too much detail about this society. However, it is a frustrating thing to not have the thing fleshed out a bit more. I mean, basic supply & demand and consumption is utterly absent. Its clear that there is a top-echelon of “owners of the means of acquiring.”  But what, for whom, why, seems a bit sketchy. You have to have a market – and there is a Market – which is not entirely explained, either. Just a sort of corporate boardroom which seems to maintain some balance among the vying controlling interests.

There is some explanation, I guess. This future society is the result, one assumes, of a fellow named Tacket turning everything upside down on account of a discovery and usage of portals? Matter transmission portals, I guess? Or Stargates, perhaps? Again, this is one of those concepts that is constant in the novel, but not easily accessible. Or maybe I am just a horrific reader? I kind of do not think this is the case, though.

vintage-sf-badgeThere are also these rho-function elements. Apparently, they are part of imported technology from one of the portals? The main sidestory involving a woman named Allyn Vage is utterly about these rho-function things. Now, toward the end of the novel, there is some attempt to explain what all of this is about, but honestly, its very much left up to the reader. Its very difficult for an author to successfully utilize hard science and yet not fully work them out. Brunner takes the somewhat slack avenue of frequently saying that the characters themselves do not really understand how the technology works. Its okay to say so, but then do not make the technology such a pivotal element of the novel.

Further, there is an element of “luck” introduced. This was reminiscent, to me, of something out of Asimov’s Foundation. In fact, I would say that this novel feels a lot like Foundation + A Clockwork Orange. I enjoyed the element of luck and the characters involved in it – but it seems like a stolen concept. Or too obvious:  of course the alpha leader in the subculture is the one that has this ability.

The many separate interests cause battles to be fought on multiple fronts throughout the novel. There is even a police force in this society – but there does not seem to be a governmental structure? So, the novel feels like there are multiple sides at odds sitting on very shifting and unknown sands. It is difficult for the individual characters to sort it all out, so it certainly is not easy for the reader.

If the reader gets through the whole novel, a lot of the threads come together and make sense. There are resolutions and answers, to a point. However, the answers and connections seem irrelevant or paper-thin. As if a lot of work was put in to make an action novel that has all the correct elements, but none of the depth.  It is a skeleton in some senses and one that takes a lot of work on the reader’s part. I think, generally, the ideas and breadth of the novel could make it a four-star novel, easily.  However, it falls short in a lot of ways that hamper the great ideas and threads in the story. I think the way most reviewers put this is to say that the ideas are there, but the execution is not on point.  A little exposition and history to flesh out the society would have been helpful.  The character Kingsley Athlone is an absolute mess and needed to be rewritten or something. But there were characters I enjoyed and I wish they had their own continuing adventure novels for me to read.

This was a strange novel to read – difficult as heck to start, stubborn in the middle, and somewhat rewarding at the end. I feel like though I did not love it, there is something about it that lingers in my imagination after I finished it.

3 stars

Into the Thinnest of Air

Into The Thinnest of AirInto the Thinnest of Air by Simon R. Green is the fifth Ismael Jones story. It was published in 2017. Of the books in the series, I definitely think this is the weakest of the bunch. Honestly, this one is a a pretty lazy effort by an author that does not usually need to do a whole lot of work to create a mostly amusing wintertime story.

There is a lot that fails with this novel and it feels like it fails because of no effort. The entire book is 167 pages. The characters all convene at a remote inn/tavern that has a history peppered with murders, crimes, and smugglers. The characters arrive for a dinner they are invited to by the current owners of the place. There are only eight characters total, the inn is owned by a husband and wife. Way too much of the novel is spent saying the same things over and over and over and over again. Literally, it is painfully repetitive and pointless. The novel goes nowhere.  The characters just sit around the dining table being surly and miserable and saying unhelpful things about why the inn is such a rotten miserable storied location.

People start disappearing. For no reason, it seems, and in a locked-room sort of theme. The characters stupidly keep returning to sit around their table and saying stupid things at each other. At one point, one character, Valerie, decides she needs to lead a seance. It is pointless and stupid as all of the other events that transpire in this novel. Valerie was particularly annoying to me because her character did not seem to have any reason to be forceful with her opinions. My favorite character was Eileen. Honestly, when Eileen disappeared, I was ready to quit reading. She was the star of the show.

This is the first Ishmael Jones novel that did not directly involve the supernatural/unnatural. It also painted Ishmael poorly – he is smarter than he is in this novel. And one of the main draws for me to this series is the endlessly amusing banter with Penny; that was absent here, too. So, maybe this is just a turd of a book. Lazy effort.

1 star

The White Mountains

The White MountainsThe White Mountains by John Christopher (1922 – 2012) was first published in 1967 and is the first in the Tripods series written by Christopher. There are four small books in the series, which was written as juvenile fiction or young adult fiction.  My copy has 195 pages and they are fast-turning pages.

The story takes place in a sort of pseudo-post-apocalyptic timeline.  The reader is kept in the dark regarding the past history, just like the main character, Will Parker. Humanity is under the guardianship/control of the Tripods. In one sense they are distant masters because they do not seem to play an active role in the daily life of humans, but in another sense, via the “caps” that humans are forced to wear, they are in absolute direct contact with humanity. Based on Will Parker’s narrative, the reader learns that various artefacts remain from a previous time that show humanity has backslid from technological advances. Will’s father possesses a wristwatch that particularly fascinates Will.

Chance brings a falsely-capped man through Will’s town of Wherton. Wherton is basically a rural community that keeps itself fairly isolated. This falsely-capped man shares a number of insights with Will that leads Will to understand “capping” as no more than enslavement. Luckily, the man also tells Will about the White Mountains – a land far away in which men live free and independent without the control of the Tripods.  Will realizes that knowing what he knows (though, at this point, its just the belief in what the man has told him) he can no longer remain in Wherton.  Will’s adventure begins as he departs the only life he has ever known in search of the White Mountains.

Overall, this is quite an interesting novel. A variety of challenges and adventures for the characters to overcome. I enjoyed it and I think that if I had read it as a youth, I would have enjoyed it a great deal more. I particularly liked how the young characters in the novel were intrepid and resourceful.  They were not perfect and they made choices that might seem reckless or foolish under the light of a mature wisdom, but for teenagers, the choices seem legit. It is important to remember that these characters are teenagers – I think the main character can become infuriatingly annoying and toxic at times, but especially so when the reader forgets that Will is but a teenager from a rural community. So, sometimes he can seem impulsive, stubborn, and petty.

The most unsatisfying part of this novel is that Christopher shies away from giving the reader much information. There is a sparsity of information in the novel that is somewhat off-putting. It is perfectly fine to limit the perspective of the world to the perceptions of three young boys on an adventure, but at the same time, the novel lacks any answers or definitiveness that embeds the reader into the storyline or setting.  The ending is particularly weak; it is a bit of hand-waving vagueness and the reader just sort of accepts that things were manageable for the boys from that point on. Somehow. No details, of course. Just the understanding that their adventure had rather ended.

I will read the rest of the series eventually, they are very short books so this should not be an issue. I am glad I read this one, the writing is smooth and suits the story. I think a lot of readers today will be impatient with this sort of writing/novel.

4 stars

Things Fall Apart

China Achebe Things Fall Apart coverContinuing the shelf-clearing efforts, I came upon Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013).  It was first published in 1958.  I think a lot of people in this generation now read this in their school years.  I had never even heard of this novel until, maybe the 2010s. This particular novel can be read in many ways – with different purposes in mind.  The most important and obvious way would be as novel qua novel. Before it is anything else, this is a fiction novel of 209 pages that has a main character and a setting.  I am sure there are other ways of reading this book wherein the focus might be anti-colonialism, pro-tribalism, anthropological, human geographical, comparative religion, historical, or modernization.

I think most readers read this novel and probably feel upsettedness at either colonialization or westernization. As if this novel is a protest novel clamoring about injustice. I can see readers wanting this to be the case, but I do not draw that from this novel. In other words, I do not think this is a “blame” novel.  Readers should not, I think, be finishing it and then pointing at things and asserting its this or that’s fault. I do not think this is an apology for any specific culture.

Anyway, I really like the main character. Okonkwo is a fantastic character to write a story about.  Achebe manages to bring this character vibrantly to life through tight, spare vignettes that give us good highlight reels of Okonkwo’s personhood. There is a lot of commentary in the world about Okonkwo’s rôle in his clan, his relationship with his ancestors (particularly his father and his mother), and also his relationships with his wives and offspring.  Repeatedly, the term/concept “masculine” or “patriarchal” came up in reference to Okonkwo when I looked around the internet. I know its awfully subversive and non-conformist of me, but I think the application of those terms to the character tells us far more about those who apply it than the character himself. It is a projection of their psychological categorization that seems to be foisted upon a fictional character in a short novel. I mention this because I would caution the best readers to be wary of all of these assignations that seem to have been heaped upon Okonkwo. The super ironic thing about it is that is that if he were a real person he would not find this burden surprising, but he would definitely be angry about it happening.

As far as the novel plotline goes, Achebe does seem to write closer to what would be folk tales – or just community storytelling. This means that there is not some hugely convoluted and yet intricately strung-together plot akin to something George R. R. Martin would write.  The little moments we are shown about Okonkwo’s comings and goings, his meetings with friends, his interactions with his family, are not enough to round out an entire picture of the character. I say this because it seems like, well, I, too, can tell you stories of a person that only highlight one or two of their attributes and not tell you any stories that would paint them in a different light. So, and this is as novel qua novel reading, it can feel suspect – like the author is purposefully only presenting one dimension of a character. 

The end of the book, of the character, really surprised me. To this very moment I am still thinking about it – trying to decide if this is a legitimate scenario. I keep trying to reconcile events with the character and his personality. I keep flipping through scenes of context and so forth trying out different lighting, backgrounds, and soundscapes, if you will pardon this way of speaking. So, I do not know if I think the ending is in line with Okonkwo’s personality and history. Is this legit? or did the author just throw something sensational at his readers? And, there is a major feeling that it was all a sham. I mean, I have to share that as I read the event that ends the novel, I strongly felt that things happening off-screen, as it were, made it very much feel like something is being hidden. Some cover-up has occurred, maybe “for the sake of” the clan. Or “for the sake of” peace. Or any other “for the sake of” that people use…  So, maybe Achebe wrote this enigmatic ending and stayed silent about all the possible readings. Maybe it is as straightforward as the rest of the novel and there is no hidden nuance – it is exactly as it is presented. Yet, as a reader, I am still uncomfortable meeting Okonkwo, empathizing with him, admiring him, worrying about him, and then having to come upon this ending.

One of the things in the book that perplexed me were the guns. Okonkwo has one early on in the novel – he brandishes it at one of his wives. Yet, it feels like guns are somewhat common in the clan – Okonkwo is not the only one with one. And, of course, it leads to a major life upheaval for him for not being totally safe with it, let us say. However, where did the guns come from? 

I know a lot of the world believes that it is ideologies that cause the clashes of cultures and violence in humanity. Ideologies definitely participate in the cause. However, to my mind, the “thing” that is the ultimate cause and force is technology. Industry, science, technology… whatever you want to call it that provides the tools and weapons and machinery to the ideologies. The advancements in science and tools that allow all of the techne to be ever-stronger, ever-faster, ever-more-dominant. No, I do not support any anti-technological views or some sort of pseudo-Luddite counter-culture. Technology, and its effect on humans driven by their instinctual curiosity, is something like a gigantic voracious monster, gobbling ever-onward. The Leviathan, the Charybdis, the swallower and gobbler: unstoppable.

4 stars