Well, she wrote grumpily, I suppose it’s time I added another post to my blog. Let people know I’m still around. Give my brain a bit of a workout …. especially with this new block editor on WP (WHY WHY WHY???????)!
But seriously, after months and months of ignoring this semi-obligation, I’m actually ready to reappear.
So (I’m certain you’re wondering), what have I been doing with myself? Mostly, I’ve been reading. Like a fiend. And, I’m happy to say, mostly books I haven’t read before, some even published within the past 5 years. Here are some highlights:
Barbara Pym, Crampton Hodnet and Some Tame Gazelle. These are two of Pym’s early novels, although CH was published after her death. Funny tales set in small-town mid-20th century England, featuring spinsters and lady’s companions, vicars, dashing young men and women, a few titled folk, citizens of Oxford, and various others. Quite funny, easy, escapist reading. Some have called Pym a “modern Jane Austen”, but her stories remind me more of Miss Read’s novels of village life in post-war England. Because Miss Read’s narrator is a teacher, school children (and the school’s charwoman) play important roles — in Pym, they barely appear as even side-mentions. As well, Miss Read features fewer aristocrats, and many more characters of uncertain means, than do Pym’s novels. Yet what Pym, Read, and Austen have in common is the fine brush work on a “little bit of ivory”.
Susanna Clarke, Piranesi. Others have reviewed this (see Calmgrove’s fine review here), so I’ll keep my comments short. Tough to get into, but absolutely worth the effort. With only a hint of Faerie, this is not at all like her previous work.
Imagine Piranesi, the MC, as a fussy middle-aged man, scrambling through rooms, across vast spaces, up and down innumerable staircases, all to maintain a dwelling he can never leave, where someone keeps leaving messes that he’s getting tired of picking up!
Clarke sets a puzzle, with Piranesi at the center of it. Yet he’s quite the opposite of the minotaur at the center of the labyrinth of Greek myth. (Clarke’s novel inspired me to reread Lawrence Durrell’s The Dark Labyrinth, all of whose characters get pretty much what they deserve).
Parable? Allegory? Object lesson? Mad romp? Probably all of these and more (although the last may be just my bit of fun).
And finally, this year’s stand-out read so far:
Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. One of the funniest sci-fi books I’ve ever read, right up there with Doug Adams and Earl Mac Rauch (look him up).
Yu’s narrator/hero (also named Charles Yu, hereinafter referred to as CY) repairs time-travel machines that break down when the drivers try to change the past. According to CY, you can’t change the past because
The universe just doesn’t put up with that. We aren’t important enough. No one is. Even in our own lives. We’re not strong enough, willful enough, skilled enough in chronodiegetic manipulation to be able to just accidentally change the entire course of anything, even ourselves.
What is chronodiegetics? Simple: It’s “a theory of the past tense, a theory of regret… it is fundamentally a theory of limitations.” CY adds, “Life is, to some extent, an extended dialogue with your future self about how exactly you are going to let yourself down over the coming years.” And then,
The Foundational Theory of Chronodiegetics [posits that] within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine.
Note the critical phrase, “within a science fictional universe”. Yet much of what Yu gives us sheds light on the human condition. As CY tells us, “Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward.” It’s that backward look, aka “regret”, that powers our personal time machines. We are all walking chronodiegetic wanna-bes, time-traveling “even when we’re sitting still.”
Looming large in this novel are philosophical and psychological issues: what constitutes our sense of self? how do we cope with loneliness? what role does memory play in how we make choices? CY has to deal with abandonment issues — his father abandoned their family when he was young, and he has recently abandoned his own mother. His closest friend is his time machine’s computer, TAMMY, whose personality has been programmed as “depressed”. (Paging Marvin the paranoid android!) He’s lonely, yet won’t even commit to recognizing TAMMY as someone he needs.
Even if you don’t think of yourself as a “sci-fi reader”, you might be surprised by the layers in this book.
Oh, and now that I’m back to blogging (if one post in nearly 7 months counts as “back to blogging”), perhaps I’ll get back to work on that WIP.