Phases of Gravity
One of the very few “realistic” novels by Dan Simmons. Usually his novels are science fiction, horror, fantasy, or some combination of those. Sometimes his books are noir or suspense, and even though those books take place in the real world, it’s just not quite the same thing as realism. Don’t tell Raymond Chandler I said this.
This book was written in the late 1980s and our lead character Dan Baedecker is a retired astronaut who has also in recent years becomes divorced and estranged from his family. Two things have soured him on this life: having been to and knowing he won’t ever get to go back to space and the tragedy of the Challenger explosion. The Challenger explosion is a much more present fixation, and the anger and rage he feels about this is palpable in this book, and this is no less than the third thing that I’ve read from Dan Simmons where his own anger seeps into the text. It’s weird because I was alive for all of it, but I don’t recall much beyond the actual explosion and the spectacle of it being on every tv in the country when it happened. For Simmons, and for our character it’s the negligence and incompetence that allowed it to happen.
The other part, the never going back to space reminds me a lot of the WWII poem:
BY JOHN GILLESPIE MAGEE JR.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air ….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Having touched the face of God, what good are people? And specifically the kinds of people who either killed the astronauts, or the ones who don’t seem angry enough at those people.
The Making of the President 1960
There’s a decent chance that what you know about the 1960 presidential election of 1960 comes from this book, one way or another. It’s absolutely consequential in creating or at least archiving so much of the the conventional wisdom of that race. This all includes the perceptions of the first presidential televised debate in which Nixon came in looking haggard and weary from a long illness (I think the idea people have is that he had the flu, but it seems that he was still battling a staph infection that kept him from campaigning for two weeks and came in under weight), and how he used light makeup instead of a full coat and this lead him to further look pale and wan. There’s also the impression that Nixon won the debate, but lost the television appearance of it all. This is more or less what White suggests, but he further suggests that Nixon was debating Kennedy, which he did well against, but that Kennedy knew he was facing the nation, which he did well with. Kennedy was also seen as a political lightweight, and Nixon legitimized him in this debate, which is just as bad as losing.
But the book is a lot more than that. In part it’s a play by play of both nominating races (which are both more interesting than the main event in a lot of ways) in which Kennedy finishes off Humphrey early, and holds off Johnson until the convention. He also outmaneuvers a “draft Stevenson” attempt and secures the nomination on the first ballot, by no means guaranteed, and which had he not done so, might have ended up losing the nomination later on. Nixon also out maneuvers a “draft Rockefeller” attempt, which mostly ended before it got started, which left him with no opponent to spar against for most of the campaign, meaning no real reason to make the news.
The book also ends up being a close journalistic account of voting, ethnic blocks, and other kinds of facts and figures that have mostly been lost to the grand narrative. And having been written before Kennedy’s assassination, this book keeps the minutiae that was otherwise often swallowed up later on.
Sometime in the last couple of years I read the newer William Gibson novel Agency, and needless to say I was pretty confused. It turns out it’s the second of two books (presumably there’s a third on the way since it’s being referred to as a trilogy), and well, here’s the first book. Clearly this will explain everything. After all, they made a tv show about it.
Alas, I still think I am somewhat confused. I get this way sometimes with William Gibson books in particular, as he sometimes likes to have the trappings of arc and plot escape his book. I don’t mean they’re plotless, because they’re not, but that getting to the end of one of his books doesn’t always have the recognizable beats.
The novel begins with Flynne taking a job with a gaming/arg company and finds the gaming experience (fully immersive) to be a lot like London of a future that is otherwise unrecognizable. She witnesses a murder, and that seems to be the plot of the game. You can guess that things are a lot more complex than that. The novel is often a chance to play around with a new sense of what the future will hold which is fine and fun, but the going was a little rough for me.
Somewhere in the reviews of these two new books by Cormac Mccarthy, long dormant, was the question of why did we need a second book at all. In part that question stems from the make up of the book and the two book together, and in part because this book is so much different. In The Passenger, we mostly split our time with Bobby, a man in his thirties ostensibly investigating a mysterious plane crash, and we eventually come to understand we’re exploring his mind more than anything (I don’t mean the plane crash isn’t real, but it’s ancillary). We learn he once had a sister and she died, and he was in love with her or whatever that means, and it’s been haunting him forever. She died in a mental facility of an apparent suicide and we spend some time in the novel exploring the shape of her mental illness.
Now in this novel, we get several conversations between the sister and her therapist in the facility. Alicia and her brother Bobby’s father was a scientist who worked in Los Alamos developing the bomb, and this moral weight, as well as the general psychic weight of the 20th century on her first-class intelligence just became too much to bear. The novel dives into her brain and her thinking, but also her sense of philosophy, mathematics, and life. It’s a brilliant book length conversation that is deeply resonant, and a more cohesive experience than the first novel.
People seem to really dislike this novel, and I have to say, it’s pretty unpleasant. If you have watched the trailer for the tv show, it seems like it’s going to be fun and funny. I even kind of expected a “Big Little Lies” kind of reading experience from it.
The premise is that during a cookout at a suburban house in Melbourne, a child is acting out (he’s four) and while swinging a cricket bat at other kids, one of the kids’ dads walks up and slaps the kid across the face, causing an immediate uproar. You can see how a novel that shifts perspectives a lot could explore such an incident and the novel would seem “fun” right?
Anyway, the novel is somewhat those things, but it’s all in third person, and it’s really exploration of multiple fault lines in contemporary Australian culture. The situation is much more densely packed with class and racial lines, especially the culture of immigration (and white reaction to immigration). While the man who slapped the child is the child of Greek immigrants, the novel suggests (the author is the child of Greek immigrants) that Greek immigrants are not a wholly integrated part of the Melbourne landscape, which among other things is shown through the repeated use of racial slurs toward them (a word that has a long history in British empire to mean someone with dark skin), as well as the xenophobic ways the event is characterized.
But it’s also a book that looks into the fault lines along class too as the immigrant family is more financially sound and stable than the family of the slapped child. And of course, there’s a gender and sexuality angle to everything.
The novel ends up being a LOT more novel than the premise seems to suggest it will be because it’s not so much about the event (which gets legally resolved relatively early), but the breakages. But because of the racial elements in the novel, the language of violence, and sexual violence, the novel is certainly not fun.
Why Orwell Matters
There’s an Orwell shaped hole in so many ideologies in the world that the man and his writing is forcibly shoved into. I read a book awhile ago called Snowball’s Chance by a writer named John Reed, who seems to take his umbrage about Orwell from his namesake, John Reed, the American journalist who was a sympathetic eyewitness to the Russian Revolution. This dislike of Orwell and his work comes from an earnest place, so it’s almost refreshing that he has such a clear-eyed hatred of him.
Others are more muddled in their fixation. If you read enough Orwell, both beyond Animal Farm and 1984 to include some of his earlier novels, and his nonfiction, you realize a few things. Orwell has an incomplete ideology about the world, in part, because he isn’t all that ideological. Instead, he seems to be bound to a rather simple philosophy: decency vs beastliness. This is one of the places that Hitchens looks into in this reading of Orwell. The other important element of Orwell is his subjects, which often fall into: empire, Facsism, and Stalinism, all of which he finds terribly beastly.
And of course what Hitchens understands is that these don’t fall squarely into a Left v Right dichotomy.
I almost assume at this point that George Saunders (whose books I like, but decreasingly so) has been turned into an AI or Saunders industry that can write his stories on a kind of algorithm. This was already headed in a kind of direction with his short fiction when Tenth of December came out, and this latest collection is some of his worst offenses.
His novel was great, but a significant departure, and his book on Russian short fiction was also great, but nothing like anything else he’d done. So we’re left with George Saunders dancing with the one that brung him, and they’re both getting tired it feels.
My Family and Other Animals
The first book in the beloved series by Gerald Durrell. I had read one of his later books A Zoo in My Luggage, in which the adult Gerald and his wife begin planning a zoo, and liked it a lot. I have also read Lawrence Durrell’s (Gerald’s older brother) Alexandria Quartet, and that makes this book all the funnier. The Durrell’s are feeling wan and weak in England, so they move the Greek island of Corfu, which turns out to be very different from England, you can imagine. Along with the language barrier, the move to boat and island country, and the new climate, Gerald becomes fixated with the different animals on the islands, marking a lifelong love for zoology among other things.
One of the places the humor comes in of course is how Gerald describes his family. His brother Larry is especially funny being a beastly sort throughout, which includes incidents like inviting 7-8 friends to come stay on the island as guests, with the full expectation that his mother find room and food for them. It becomes especially dicey when he tells her not worry as they’ll be “coming in batches”. The book is positioned just right to avoid the worst excesses of British Empire books (although the moving itself is probably a little fraught) and the whole story takes on a kind of Swiss Family Robinson air (as opposed to Robinson Crusoe), along with plenty of farcical elements as well.