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Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily

Month

February 2017

Before We Visit the Goddess

Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

There tends to be a thread through the lives of many immigrants. There are those left behind, struggling with the issues that first-generations fled. That first generation is torn between absorbing the life of the new country while preserving the most valued traditions. Then there’s the second-generation, native-born children who simply want to be part of the adopted culture.

This novel by a Bengali-born author captures this in the lives of three generations of women. There is Sabitri, the daughter of a Bengal baker, who dreams of a university education and is placed in the care of a wealthy Calcutta family. Then there is daughter Bela, who flees to the United States with her lover, a political refugee. The first child born in the US, granddaughter Tara, struggles to shake off her Indian roots but finds herself drawn back to the culture she’s trying to leave behind.

Divakaruni has a lovely prose style and manages to balance the lives of all three women and introduce side characters that help give depth to the novel.

Sabitri loses the protection of the wealthy family when an important class barrier is crossed. She marries and uses the skills learned from her father to build a prosperous bakery. She’s a wonderfully strong character and the scenes in which she’s trying to find perfect flavors for new bakery confections are interesting and fun. Her story, and a letter she writes to infant Tara, when she realizes she can’t get to the US for her birth, is a key factor in Tara’s development.

Bela finds life in the US a trial and eventually divorces and establishes a life for herself in Texas. Tara finds herself resisting an education that both other women, particularly Saitri, sacrificed much to try to obtain for themselves and the next generation.

Some reviews have said that the jumps among the lives of the three women are labored, but there’s something of a mystery the author needed to develop and the choices seemed well-formed to me. Prose alone make Divakaruni a great read. The characters seem very alive and the subject matter would have made a narrative with a straight chronology a bore.

 

 

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

This is a phenomenal book, the first in the Maddadam Trilogy and I have no idea why I didn’t read it before now. I plan on getting through the next two volumes next month.

If you want a complementary book to Harani’s Homo Deus, this may give you some inkling of what’s down the line for genetic engineering. Not a pretty picture.

The book crosses back and forth between the current time in the book (30-50 years from now?) and the past in first-person from the narrator, who calls himself Snowman. He seems to be the sole survivor of something, we’ll discover what, with companions known only as the Children of Crake. These narrative jumps between his interactions with the strange, seemingly child-like tribe with Snowman’s searches for food and clothing and his past, starting with his teens and his life through school, university, and early career. The book gradually exposes a world in which genetic engineering has become both common and extremely competitive. One of the products created, for example, is a chicken that is basically a mouth, breasts, and excretory systems, engineered to create chicken meat quickly and efficiently, bred without a brain so that animal rights activists can’t complain that it’s experiencing discomfort.

As the book continues we learn that these genetic manipulations are also being tested on everything from weaponized microorganisms to human beings, and Snowman’s high school friend Crake has been the sociopathic genius behind some of the most radical changes.

A tipping point is reached that causes a global plague. Survivors are Snowman, the Children of Crake, wolf hybrids that act like domesticated dogs until close enough to attack, and feral swine now intelligent enough to work in groups to attack.

The book is suspenseful and thought-provoking with Atwood’s amazing ability to make horrible worlds compelling. All signs point to Snowman being the last non-engineered human on earth until he learns from the Children of Crake that beings like him have shown themselves. The book closes with Snowman about to step forward to meet or confront his own kind.

There are poignant moments in the book and hard-to-take passages on child trafficking. If you made it unscathed through The Handmaid’s Tale you’ll do fine. I’m shopping for volumes two and three as soon as this uploads.

 

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus is a follow up to Harari’s Sapiens which, full disclosure, I haven’t read yet. So whether that first book puts this one in a different context or perspective I’m not in a position to say. Having read this book, however, I’m motivated to dig up that first book so if something changes after getting through it (probably in March) I’ll edit a little here.

For a book that starts with some optimism this turns into a scary damned look at the future of humans. Harari begins by pointing out how things have improved over the past hundred years or so. Lower food insecurity than the 19th century, lower infant mortality, greater survival from improved medical technology. This has the greatest impact in first world countries but ripples globally. Good job, humans.

He then examines what it is about homo sapiens (he generally shortcuts this to simply “sapiens”) that gave it the unique ability to drastically alter Earth, not necessarily for the better. This generally reduces down to an ability to store and exchange information, verbally or in written and electronic form, a knack for giving meaning to actions, and a talent for adaptability. Hold the first concept close, because we’ll be needing it for Harari’s predictions at the end of the book.

Harari then begins to work forward in two directions. In one path he gathers up a great deal of what we can scientifically say about the human mind. In the other he looks at how our expanding knowledge has impacted our general philosophy of humanity and its place in the world.

He segments the stages of this philosophy starting with basic animism, morphing into theism and this transforming into modern humanism. His contention is that our structures of governing have evolved with these changes. Animism tended to pre-date written culture and was the period when sapiens began to spread through the world, changing and adapting into various races and cultures along the way. With the growth of theism and agriculture these divided cultures came back into contact with each other, and the theistic developments added greater layers of meaning to human actions. Ultimately, as science began to question a human/deity relationship we developed a humanistic religion (he says we worship humanity) and began to develop modern classical liberal means of governing societies that gave great prominence to the importance of the individual. Free will was honored, freedoms of thought and action were idealized.

But Harari sees this ready to crumble with several advances in science. First there is growing doubt whether sapiens actually has free will or is simply an evolutionary chemistry set. Second, the development of computer algorithms, particularly data collected on human preferences, indicates that computers can actually to a better job of predicting behaviors and preferences for us than we can do for ourselves. How can we justify governing around something that doesn’t exist for ends that can be predicted by a computer?

Most of the scientific discoveries he uses are recent but broadly discussed in the popular press. Some are still questioned and debated. We can now peek into the human brain and, at least electronically, watch what happens when people go through various experiences or choices. With electronic impulses outside the brain we can also manipulate thoughts and feelings using those same synaptic signals.

We are also sneaking up on the ability to adapt our bodies and brains in various ways. We have the potential to become super-human. We nearly have an obligation, he says, to use technology to extend our lives and make adaptive improvements.

This all may be especially important given the continuing advances in artificial intelligence. He can see a future in which AI kills off humanity and then spends eternity calculating Pi to longer strings of digits because that is, after all, the task given to it by its creator.

Many, maybe most, of the predictions are not original to Harari. Dozens have been considered in one way or another by science fiction writers for decades. He does a compelling job of gathering them into one place. I spent a lot of my reading arguing back with the author, which good books should do. I’m still a theist, putting me back at least two evolutionary steps. I’m not entirely sold on the idea that because electrical brain activity begins before we’re conscious of making a decision that this erases the concept of free will. When he compares the Renaissance with modern times and asks what scientific advances were made by religious figures in the past century my mind immediately went to the Big Bang theory (Catholic priest Georges LeMaitres) and genetics (Augustinian Gregor Mendel).

I think the difference, and perhaps it’s a necessary function of fiction, is that science fiction tends to be more optimistic. After all, it’s humans reaching out and experiencing a future universe. Not always happily but at least we’re part of the game. Harari cautions that our futures are tied to algorithms and information, and if we watch those we may get glimpses of our demise or the evolution of sapiens into a more advanced being.

 

The Years of Rice and Salt

The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson

This book found its way to me through the recommendation of a friend. I mentioned I was reading Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and, well, you know how book talk goes. Sometimes the talk follows the author, sometimes the theme.

I had read and enjoyed the Mars trilogy by Robinson. My friend mentioned that some people he had talked to about the book found it repetitive. I guess, in a distant way, it is. But if you accept the premise of lives repeating and interacting in similar challenges then it’s no more repetitive than life itself.

Reincarnation is the central device of the book, a way to carry the reader through an alternative history in which most of Christian Europe is killed by the Black Death in the 1400s. So rather than a colonial Europe the world is populated by Islam, which establishes itself in Europe, and a China that spreads influence throughout east Asia. Somewhere in there is also the Hindu world of India, trapped between the two major forces of the east and west. Someone actually took the time do draw world maps for the book which can be found under the book’s title on Wikipedia. In this universe it’s the Japanese who land at San Francisco and bring their own deadly plagues, the Chinese who conquer the Incas and take their gold. Threading through the highlights in history are souls who are brought together in multiple reincarnations with brief pauses in the bardo before coming back to continue their lessons.

Through these lives several themes emerge. One of these revolves around Islam and its evolution. Rather than wars with the west the Caliphates have wars with the Chinese. Sunni and Shiites have their continuing conflicts, and there are extensive examinations of how many of the problems, such as subjugation of women, arise not out of the Q’uran but through generations of Sharia interpretations.

The political evolutions of China are also examined through lives lived there in the past and future.

Throughout the book, scientific discoveries that had come from the west are now rediscovered gradually by Chinese and Muslim science. Robinson, married to an environmental scientist and a Muir Environmental Fellow himself, also incorporates the impact of these alternate historical paths on the environment and climate.

The work is divided into 10 “books”, each one telling a unique chronological story with characters not quite aware or understanding their relationships to each other. I would say I came out of the book more aware of the structure and issues within Islam, but there’s a great deal to be learned throughout the book on a wide variety of social and scientific topics.

Tales of the City

Tales of the City, by Amistead Maupin

Let’s see. In the mid-80s I was busy compulsively reading books on psychology, digging through classic sci-fi, chasing down semiotics because of Umberto Eco, and trying to understand Wittgenstein because of Samuel R. Delany. So this book passed me by, as did a lot of popular fiction of the time. Some I’m catching up on. Some I wish I’d left in my “missed it” pile. But this book was lovely and kind of a strange trip into the past.

HIV is just around the corner in this book on San Francisco and the gay community. And the almost banal hyper-sexuality of the city at the time moves through the book. Men and women at a steam bath, an orgy developing upstairs, while men and women in towels hang out watching Phyllis on TV downstairs. The hippie movement (thriving when I lived in the area just before moving to Idaho in 1968) is nearly dead, or has moved north to the other side of the Golden Gate. Young straight men and women find themselves overwhelmed by the gay migration. Gay men and women dive or dip their toes into a new-found freedom.

The book would be more snapshot than literature without the really wonderful characters woven through the book. Some seem more iconic than real, others are unique and realistic. Before HIV the life/death struggle in the book focuses on an ad executive diagnosed with cancer.

Through the book I kept having the feeling of “I remember that” … time capsule moments that pop up in the book in every chapter. The decorating, the music, descriptions from Idaho friends who made their own escape from Idaho to San Francisco. Maupin himself came to the city from North Carolina and put this novel together from a series of observant newspaper columns. The sense of shock, wonder, and freedom … from steam baths to “Beach Blanket Babylon” … are clearly written by someone who both can’t believe his luck in this new world and also wonders if it really is that lucky. There’s a lot of joy and a lot of pain already. It wouldn’t end soon or end well.

The Buried Book

The Buried Book, by D. M. Pulley

I wish I had a better sense of who was the target audience of this book. It’s a story about a nine-year-old boy (Jasper Leary) whose mother disappears. In some ways it feels like a YA book. Then there’s a scene … well, everything in its place.

So the year is 1952. The main character is a child living with his parents in Detroit. His mother disappears and his father drives him to a farm some sixty miles away owned by the child’s uncle, the mother’s brother. Jasper finds a diary kept by his mother when she was about 14 that offers some clues (but is really more of a distraction) to her disappearance. The first fourth to a third of the book drags pretty miserably with a focus on farm life. If you make it through this it turns into a fairly nice adventure but then ends in a way where the reader is left thinking that Jasper was better off as a loved nephew on his uncle’s farm.

Let me set some credentials. I was not raised on a farm. But I was married to the daughter of a farmer (a depression-era farmer at that) for 28 years, and was married to the daughter of a Montana cattle rancher before that. Luck of the draw. I have heard enough stories about farm life to fill a few books. Not this book, which really doesn’t feel fully realistic. There are other anachronisms in the book that were distracting or irritating and showed some poor research by the author. Just as an example: after a destructive tornado (yes, they have them in Michigan) the local sheriff says “the state is saying it was a category 5”. They might have said that in 1973, after the Fujita (where we get F5) system was developed and adopted but not in 1952. A fair part of the book takes place on a nearby reservation where Native Americans talk like Tonto. Were 1952 Native Americans really calling distilled liquor “fire water”?

Because of … let’s call it “functional” … prose the book feels a lot like a book for young adults. That’s not a problem for me. I frolicked through Harry Potter and Hunger Games like the rest of the reading world. But then there’s a scene where this nine-year-old is back in Detroit and, after being chased by what we fear is a bad guy, manages to fall under the protection of a hooker/booth-performer. To let him earn some money needed for a bus ride she has him mop up some of the observing booths used by customers where the walls are liberally sprinkled with “spoiled milk”. Well, that definitely raises the age level of any reader in my family … maybe past my age.

Another distraction for me were the chapter headings. A few, taken at random: “Did he drink much? Ever lost his temper?” “What happened when you went home?” “Didn’t they suspect something was wrong with you?” Sometimes these headings follow the narrative, sometimes not, but it’s hard to tell if these are from police investigating the events or a psychologist following up with the protagonist.

It’s fairly well-reviewed on Amazon, and the Kindle version is in the top 2000 for its category which is no mean feat. I like a good deal of the middle. The beginning and ending not so much, and I’m not going to be hunting down new stuff by the author soon.

 

 

The Neon Rain

The Neon Rain: A Dave Robicheaux Novel, by James Lee Burke

I’m always on the search for a mystery/thriller writer I can enjoy. I save Harlan Coben books for times when I’ve pushed my way through marginal to awful books just to clear my brain with a writer who can draw me in. My late wife was a mystery fan. She introduced me to writers like Patricia Cornwell (excellent), Janet Evanovich (like Scarlatti, writing the same concerto 400 times), and Sandra Brown (please just shoot me). And on my own I’ve worked my way through Sherlock Holmes, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and will go back to reread ones I love.

I hadn’t hit Burke before but really found a kindred spirit in several ways. I love the setting of New Orleans and the bayou. He writes beautiful prose. (I’ve checked a few reviews and don’t think that’s emphasized nearly enough. He’s just an excellent writer.) And as a Catholic there’s some resonance with a character educated by Jesuits and a book that, more than once, mentions St. John of the Cross and recommends reading The Dark Night of the Soul.

This book was found on an internet sale for first-in-series books. It’s now in the category of “older book” having been published in 1985. Robicheaux is a Vietnam vet working as a homicide detective for the New Orleans PD. The book is set around 1983 because he mentions the My Lai Massacre having happened 15 years before. As that happened on my 13th birthday (1968) the arithmetic comes easy. He’s a recovering alcoholic, newly divorced, and carries a lot of demons not necessarily job related.

I doubt I’m the first person who really doesn’t care what happens in a mystery as long as the characters, especially main characters, are interesting. We’re lucky with Sherlock Holmes to have a fascinating hero with many excellent puzzles, along with quite a few mediocre ones where the key element is a disguise. Same here. The “McGuffin” is a dead woman found by Robicheaux when out fishing. It happens outside of New Orleans so it isn’t really his case but he wants to know what happened and seems to be the only person in Louisiana who does. People are met, punches are thrown, shots are fired, and he meets a soul mate along the way. The Robicheaux charm is that he cares about things that happen and is damaged or driven enough to not worry about who he angers along the way.

I’ll be reading more in the series when my reading hits its own dark nights, and I may dig our my books by the original Carmelites again for a refresher.

 

 

Two Books of Essays

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett

Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter, by Peter Singer

I wanted to like this book by Peter Singer. I really did. I’d read about Singer regularly in books on politics and philosophy. He’s one of the foremost “public intellectuals” working in the English language these days, and offers truly challenging thought experiments that have created arguments rippling through a half dozen fields. He specializes is a kind of contrarian approach that can make one very uncomfortable. Why do we spend thousands of dollars to send a dying child to Disneyland when we could use the same amount of money to buy mosquito netting for hundreds of children in tropical areas? Why do we perceive a difference in three scenarios of a runaway train? (A child is on one track, five adults are on another. If the course of a train isn’t altered it will kill the adults. Why do we perceive a difference in letting the train continue, diverting it to kill the child, or pushing someone in the way to stop the train?) Why do we spend money on museums that could be spent to find a cure for cancer? Do we have a right to eat meat when it’s one of the chief causes of global warming? (He’s become a vegetarian for this specific reason.)

I wanted to be challenged and enlightened. I ended up bored and irritated. His question of allocation of resources always assumes that a. there are limited resources and b. that the physical result is always the preferable. In his worldview there’s no room for lightened spirits when there’s work to be done, and a billionaire donating to a museum must not have resources for other beneficial donations.

Most of these essays were written for a small journal with marginal editing. They rehash ideas in several different ways, rarely to any greater insight. I may look for something with a greater narrative arc to give him more of a chance but this collection was pretty dismal.

Compare this to Ann Patchett’s collection of her best magazine non-fiction. These are long, well-considered pieces on writing, running a book store, discovering opera in the land of the Grand Ol’ Opry, being a reluctant wife, traveling the west in an Airstream trailer. Each essay in the book has a level of openness and honesty that are rare. Every topic is approached from every imaginable angle. The articles are funny and heartbreaking, completely human, and the language is incredible.

I confess to coming to Ann Patchett way too late. I picked up a copy of Bel Canto and thought it was one of the best books I read last year. I think I confused her with Sandra Brown-type authors without ever having read a review of her work. She’s now a favorite author and I appreciate her that much more with this collection. This is a book I’ll read again just to get as much out of it as possible.

An Unattractive Vampire

An Unattractive Vampire by Jim McDaniel.

Good British humor is well-formed, witty, eccentric, and so cherished that those who can do it well are honored for generations. It’s also easy to miss the mark. It doesn’t have to be by much. Just enough to give you the sense that the writer/comedian/director is trying too hard.

I can’t say this is a terrible book. It’s not as fun as you’d hope. It deals with main character Yulric Bile (see?) an ancient vampire who comes back to life in a world with sexy vampires who, as a group, are managed by a corporation as fashion/entertainment entities because mortals have weaponized to the point that monsters don’t have a chance for survival. So if you can’t beat them, seduce them.

There are funny moments. But unlike a Douglas Adams, where I’d have giggles for days over some ideas, I found myself huffing a silent laugh now and then and moving on to the next thing.

I have to say that my version was a bargain book from Audible, read by Drew Campbell who, like so many British narrators, gets a sing-song quality to his reading that gets irritating quickly. He did fairly well with character voices but the general action sequences sound more like a very repetitive song.

Maybe I expect too much. As actor Edmund Kean reportedly said: Dying is easy, comedy is hard. But as a book that comes at you hard with a wink and a nudge it gets tiring fast.

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