Mortality – 4/5 Stars
This is a partial memoir and final notes first published by Vanity Fair and then in book form from the final days of Christopher Hitchens. There’s a part in the middle of every thing where someone tells Hitchens something like “God works in mysterious ways” and Hitchens wonders what is so mysterious about a heavy smoker getting advanced lung cancer. That’s the basic idea here. First things first, it’s not secret that Hitchens is a bit of a bugbear, and for good reasons, as he turned vehemently pro-war in his final years. This is partly a reactionary/contrarian pro-empire stance that he more or less always had, and of course, it was an off-shoot of his anti-Islamic stance, which was strongly held, and not particularly defensible along anti-religious lines, as it was the front and foremost of his anti-religious stances and because it conveniently the historical effect of British imperialism and later American imperialism on 20th century Middle East instability.
That said, if you still have any affection for Hitchens (I d0) and appreciated his acerbic broadly Left moralism in writing, his erudition, and his charm, than it’s hard not to be moved by his writing here which is a clear-eyed look at his final two years or so as his cancer advanced, as treatment didn’t work, and how petulant and annoyed he was with all of it.
The People of Paper – 3/5 Stars
This is a debut novel from 2004 or so, and I think the only novel that Salvador Plascencia has written. The novel feels very much like it’s playing in the realms of magical realism (I mean all magical realism is playing, at least in the Heideggerian sense), a playing that becomes more clear and purposeful after something occurs around the midpoint. The novel begins with Federico de le Fe and his wife falling in love and having a child, but she leaves, he takes his young daughter across the US border where they set up in a community of flower pickers. While there, it becomes clear that several things are happening, including the presence of an oppressive force exerting pressure on Federico. This force is named Saturn, and this inspires the people of the community to pledge war against Saturn. And it goes from there.
It’s impossible to divorce this novel from its structure, which is similar to out metafictional works, where there are multiple narrators, sometimes talking over one another. The novel puts these voices into side-by-side vertical columns and at some points there’s extra-text that interferes with the reading. It’s an interesting idea that greatly overshadows the novel as a whole.
This is probably the fourth time I’ve attempted this novel, determined this time to power through and finish it. Part of my early reading here is to also try to diagnose what happened in those previous attempts. Anyway, the problem has to do with the novel’s structure, which is purposely designed to talk around something for the longest time until you get to a big reveal about 40% the way through. This reveal opens up the novel in some meaningful ways, but mostly just in taking out a block that is occurring.
So Long, See you Tomorrow – 4/5 Stars
This short novel was published in 1980, about 45 years or so from William Maxwell’s earliest writing. The novel is narrated by an older man looking back on his childhood. When he was a child, and this was in the early parts of the century, he and his father were friends with a family, but a series of destructive events culminating in a brutal murder drove the families apart and led to the dissolution of the friendship of the two boys. We learn this early in this novel, so the book is mostly about an older man trying to reckon with and make sense of the nonsensical things that life brings us. There’s a deeply sad and powerful moment when the narrator, seeing his friend for the first time since his father’s murder, cannot come up with anything meaningful to say (not that there is anything meaningful to say in the face of such a trauma) and says nothing, effectively ending what chance they might have had.
The novel is slim and powerful, and has the sense of an entire set of lives lived with only this moment of reflective ever occurring.
“Mountain” – 3/5 Stars
In this novella, we begin with a research facility in the ocean. An engineer tells his colleagues a story about a time he climbed a mountain, a story that as he’s telling it they realize it’s very familiar to them. Basically, he was climbing a dangerous peak, weather upon them suddenly, and they were hanging off a cliff and he cut the line, knowing that if he didn’t, they would all die. He was called a coward and a murderer, and so to punish himself he placed himself in the least mountain he could think of, a coastal ocean engineering facility. The next thing that happens is that something erupts our of the ocean and form a giant pillar of water into the sky. It’s determined that this pillar is in danger of piercing the atmosphere, which would of course kill all earth inhabitants (I guess, just go with it?). So what does our protagonist do? Decide to “climb the mountain of water”. So he takes a boat out and when he gets close, he learns that the water in the mountain is working like a current pulling the water up, so the swimming is not that difficult. When he reaches the top he is swept up by an alien construct and brought to talk with the alien beings. There he learns of their origin, their strange view of life, having been formed in a dense, embedded planet deep under the surface. He is rewarded for his curiosity and so on.
I tend not to be a great fan of science fiction that is purely…I guess metaphysical is the right word, and ultimately this story was weak for me, especially given how unconnected or rather, forced, the opening section was.
CBR14Bingo – Adaptation — There’s a netflix movie based on this novella. I really like the first two books of the Three Body Problem (still waiting to read the third) so I was hopeful.
“The Wandering Earth” – 3/5
In this story we begin with a discussion of why it has been decided to stop the rotation of the earth. Essentially, the sun is predicted to explode within a few hundred years, and interstellar space travel is not apparently going to cut it. So after many wars and instability it is decided to turn the earth itself into a starship and move it into orbit around a far star system similar to the sun’s. This process will take a few thousand years, and so in the meantime a few phases of humanity must happen first. First, the earth needs to stop rotating. This will be conducted by firing huge thrusters, powered from the earth’s mantle, and then fired in opposition to the rotation. From there, once the earth has stopped, the thrusters will move the earth from its orbit, where it will need to be powerful enough to break orbit. This will lead to the further steps of moving out of the solar system, and then toward the new solar system in time, where a slowing down will then need to take place. Obviously no one can live on the surface in the meantime, and so humanity will need to move underground and live will need to be reorganized from there, in isolated groups.
The story is about 60 pages, which should not sound like enough time to accomplish all this. It’s not. This is not a Kim Stanley Robinson novel series. And even using Cixin Liu’s own previous work, we wouldn’t get out of the decision making process by the end of the first book, so everything has to be greatly accelerated. The overall story is weakened by this scope and pacing.
After Dark – 2/5
I am generally pretty hot and cold when it comes to Haruki Murakami books. I generally don’t like his short stories all that much, but occasionally I do a lot. And his novels, I do tend to like, unless I don’t. I don’t like this novel, which is a demimonde novel, something I think he is particularly weak at. His liminal space in his writing tends to be on the edge of civil society and then dipping a toe into off-civility. That works because that’s where so many of us find ourselves anyway, and it’s clearly the world he knows best. Maybe there’s some infidelity, maybe too much drinking, etc, but never much beyond that. And so the effect here is a novel that suggests itself as a look into the underworld of his novels, but never really feeling like he knows what he’s talking about.
“In this world, there are things you can only do alone, and things you can only do with somebody else. It’s important to combine the two in just the right amount.”
First Person Singular – 3/5
This is the latest story collection and it’s the one with the money on the cover. There’s a story in this one in which someone talks with a monkey at length. Oh well.
A few of the stories are good. All of them are written, as the title suggests, in first person singular perspective. This would seem more gimmicky (not that first person is a gimmick) if not for the fact that the final story is also the title story. Some of the things that keeps happening in Murakami stories is a) talking about baseball, b) talking about jazz, and c) talking about the Beatles. Maybe it’s me, but this feels 1970s and 1980s to me and jazz even older, and it’s grown stale.
“I believe that love is the indispensable fuel that allows us to go on living. Someday that love may end. Or it may never amount to anything. But even if love fades away, even if it’s unrequited, you can still hold on to the memory of having loved someone, of having fallen in love with someone. And that’s a valuable source of warmth.”