Sunday, January 13, 2019

Books Read in 2018, Part 3

And now the exciting conclusion!


Early Riser (Jasper Fforde)

This one hadn’t actually come out in the US when I read it – we found it at the Science Fiction Bookstore in Stockholm when we were there in August and Kim was willing to schlep it across the Atlantic, and a good thing too because it’s a fun book.  Charles Worthing is about to become a Winter Consul – one of the hardy band of misfits, loners, and short-lived caretakers who watch over most of the human race as they hibernate through the long and bitterly cold winters.  This is a world where much of Britain is simply unsurvivable in the winter unless you hibernate, and the occasional asides about global cooling only reinforce that.  The story starts on a train, flashes back to how he got into that situation, and then moves quickly forward into a deeply noirish and not a little surreal mystery of financial crime, murder, identity, and dreams.  Tasked with bringing a nightwalker – someone whose mind has been damaged beyond repair by the miracle drug that allows most people these days to survive hibernation by suppressing their dreams – into Sector 12, in an alternative version of Wales, Charles finds himself embraced by the weirdness of that sector (the Wintervolk, Villains, fellow Consuls, Hibertech employees, and something called the Gronk, which may or may not be mythical) and constantly turned around as he seeks to get to the bottom of whatever is going on around him.  There is a viral dream going around, and when Charles starts to have it – and when bits of it seem to be coming true in his waking life – it draws him deeper and deeper into the madness.  The plot twists and turns, but much of the fun of the book is Fforde’s trademark loopiness and humor – if you enjoyed the Thursday Next books (as I did), you will enjoy this one.  I especially liked the quotes from histories and memoirs from this world at the beginning of each chapter, which give the whole thing a realistic kind of air until you think about it a bit.  The book does seem to be a one-off story, but perhaps Fforde will revisit that world without having to worry about Charles.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World (Tim Marshall)

Geography is making a comeback.  For a long time it was fashionable in political circles to downplay the impact of geography, but recently people have come back around to the simple truth that where you stand depends a lot on where you sit, and this is nowhere more true than in international politics.  Marshall does tend to err on the side of “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks more or less like a nail” with his analysis, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have important things to say.  And his basic point is this: modern nations work within the limits of what their geography allows and paying attention to that will help you figure out why they do things and why that isn’t going to change.  As he says, since the formation of the Russian state it has been bedeviled by the same problems of defensible frontiers, and a thousand years from now whatever entity inherits the mantle of the modern Russian state will still have to deal with that problem.  His ten maps are nothing special – simply geographical maps of various regions – but he goes through them and lists such challenges as ease of internal transportation, resources, climate, ocean access, and yes, defensible frontiers, and how these have impacted the nations within those regions.  Russia is the most obvious example of how his analysis can be useful, followed by the United States and perhaps Latin America.  In other regions he tends to fall back on description and let the analysis slide.  Either way, though, it’s a useful thing to think about if international relations, economics, or strategy are interesting to you.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O (Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland)

The thing about collaborative novels is that so often you can imagine the collaborators gathered around a table piled high with beer bottles and the remains of vast meals, egging each other on to greater and greater heights of absurdity in between gales of helpless laughter.  Sometimes (hello, Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow and The Rapture of the Nerds!) this just gets you a literary mess.  Other times you find yourself drawn into the fun.  This is one of those other times.  At the outset of the novel, Dr. Melisandre Stokes is a put-upon adjunct instructor in the Harvard University Department of Ancient and Classical Linguistics – struggling with her classes and her pompously dismissive Chair, Dr. Roger Blevins, who is a poster child for both academic misogyny and Dunning-Kruger Syndrome.  Quickly she meets Tristan Lyons, who – he later explains to her – works for “a shadowy government agency” that could use her talents.  It turns out that magic once worked and had a long and open history but began to fade during the Enlightenment before fizzling out entirely in 1851.  Since then its very existence has been suppressed.  Tristan wants Mel to work on uncovering that history and then – once it has been uncovered (no great spoiler, really) – to set up the Department of Diachronic Operations (DODO) – a top-secret US military organization dedicated to using magic for its own ends.  They recruit allies – Erszebet Karpathy (a Hungarian witch), Frank and Rebecca Oda, and a few others – and soon they have embarked on the main plot engine of the book: using time travel to alter history in ways advantageous to the US government.  This works for a while and then, inevitably, things get fouled up.  The novel is, more than anything else, a cautionary tale of how immense technologies can be turned against their wielders, how bureaucratization and militarization blind people to inevitable consequences, and how competing loyalties and people working at cross purposes can turn a manageable problem into a crisis faster than anyone involved might think possible.  It’s an enjoyably written book, told in a semi-epistolary style that encompasses diary entries, incident reports, email exchanges, and even at one point a medieval-style lay.  It pulls you along nicely, even if it does end rather abruptly, as if the food and beer had run out and the authors suddenly remembered they needed to return to their normal lives.  They do make it obvious that there will (or at least they plan that there will) be future volumes in the DODO saga, so I will look forward to them.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (Hank Green)

April May – design student, self-proclaimed dairy-equipment heiress, social-media-savvy young person scrambling to survive in New York City with her lousy job and small but cozy social circle – is about to make First Contact.  While walking down the street at 3am she finds a giant robot, whom she names Carl.  And since she is the first one to say anything about it on social media, she becomes the spokesperson for what turns out are a lot of Carls, all of whom appeared simultaneously in many of the major cities on Earth.  April’s story is one of public relations and identity in a world driven by “likes” and internet content, and it takes its toll.  On the one hand, she finds fame and fortune.  On the other, it wreaks havoc on her life, gets her tangled up in national security, and spawns an equally media-savvy hate group dedicated to destroying her.  This engagingly written first novel is a thinly-veiled satire of modern American cultural politics, and it is clear which side Green favors (full disclosure: the same one I find myself on, if I have read this correctly) even if he does have the grace to make April a deeply flawed and occasionally maddening (if sympathetic) heroine.  Who are we, Green asks, and how will we survive each other?  Green ends this book on a note which clearly suggests that there is a sequel coming, which would be interesting to read.  This book was an unlooked-for gift from a past student, and it was a lovely thing to receive.  Thank you!

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (Anthony Bourdain)

With every book of his that I read or reread I miss Anthony Bourdain more.  His was a unique voice, willing to call out the bullshit that permeates modern life – even, or perhaps especially, when he was the source of some of it – and to celebrate that which should be celebrated.  This is a collection of short pieces about various things that set him off enough to write about them, and if you like Bourdain this is the sort of thing you’ll like.  Perhaps my favorite bit is the last story, where he walks through some of the people we met in Kitchen Confidential and lets us know Where They Are Now – as a historian, I find that sort of thing irresistible.  But mostly it’s about food and those who prepare it, and you should read this and all of his books.

No Touch Monkey (And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late) (Ayun Halliday)

For all that she is a good writer, Ayun (pronounced “Ann”) Halliday would probably be a miserable travel companion.  Entitled, obtuse, overprivileged, and full of the Romantic obsession with Authenticity at the expense of enjoyment or even civility toward the string of traveling companions who populate these chapters, she tries to pass off her trials and tribulations as humorous learning experiences but mostly I learned what a chore it can be to get through a short book, even one as well written as this one.  The chapters are arranged by lesson in roughly chronological order and track her adventures in places where one can travel cheaply as an American (mostly in Africa and southern Asia).  She is accompanied by a string of boyfriends, miscellaneous companions, and on one occasion her mother, and she spends most of the time longing for, well, something other than what she has.  She has adventures, gets sick, meets people, schemes to meet other people, and rarely seems glad to be there.  She travels lightly – usually with just a backpack – and on the cheap (she is constantly referring to how little money she has, even thousands of miles from home in exotic locales), and because I spent most of the book wanting to throw wet noodles at her I likely missed most of what the back cover promised me would be an abundance of humor.  Oh well.

Odds Against Tomorrow (Nathaniel Rich)

Mitchell Zukor is an analyst.  Fairly early in this intriguing novel he gets recruited out of his comfortable but frustrating job to be the lead researcher, primary salesman, and second employee for FutureWorld – a company that specializes in presenting worst-case scenarios to other companies as a way to help their clients escape liability for them, which is a growth industry after the destruction of Seattle by earthquake early in the book.  He’s very good at his job, and it suits his personality very well – a personality defined by obsession, fear, and an odd free-floating sort of mania.  He’s also exchanging letters with an old college friend, Elsa Bruner, whose health is defined by a “could die any time without warning” condition that Mitchell finds strangely compelling.  When New York City is overtaken by an actual worst-case scenario, he and FutureWorld’s third employee, Jane, end up on an odyssey of their own, trying to survive in a shattered city and working to find Elsa on her commune in Maine.  Eventually it all ends up back in a recovering New York, where Mitchell, at least, embarks on what might be a new life.  It’s a well written novel full of loose ends (the framing device, the fate of his FutureWorld boss Alec Charnoble or Mitchell’s parents – Hungarian refugees turned midwestern slumlords, Jane’s career and future, for example, all of which dangle enticingly without much resolution) and Elsa remains maddeningly offstage for almost the entire novel, serving as an empty vessel for Mitchell’s hopes and fears rather than a character in her own right.  Ultimately, this is a novel about fear and what it does to people, set against a backdrop of climate change and ruthless capitalist opportunism.  It’s a very good book that I enjoyed a great deal, but it’s not a particularly uplifting story.

Fugitives and Refugees (Chuck Palahniuk)

They sell t-shirts in Portland, Oregon, that urge readers to “Keep Portland Weird.”  Chuck Palahniuk – who has lived in Portland since moving there after graduating high school in 1980 – clearly enjoys the weirdness of his adopted home city and in this brief travelogue he intersperses chapters on interesting things to do and people to see in Portland with what he calls “Postcards,” brief stories from his own life in Portland.  You learn about the offbeat, the odd, and the flat-out weird, much of which has a warmth and humanity that gets left out of the official stories.  I’ve never been to Portland, but this made me want to go.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (Claire North)

Harry August is a kalachakra – an ouroboros.  He is both mortal, for he lives his life from beginning to end, ages, grows infirm, and dies, and immortal, for when he dies he is immediately reborn, exactly in the time and place where he first entered the world, only with all of his memories and knowledge intact.  In his case, he is born in 1919 in England, the son of a serving girl who dies in childbirth.  He is farmed out to a local family, meets others of his kind (as well as a great many “linears,” as the rest of us are labeled by the kalachakra community), and usually lives into his 70s – not every life is exactly the same each time through, but there are certain fixed points in time that must be experienced, it seems.  How does one live that kind of life?  It can be lonely, but that’s what the Chronos Club is for – kalachakras across time have formed this secret society and by navigating the chain of lives can pass messages backward and forward in time.  It can also be dangerous, especially when faced with people who want to know the future, or the personal temptation to change the larger timeline.  At the very beginning of the novel a young girl cryptically warns a dying Harry August that the world is ending, as it always does, but faster.  In this rambling autobiography (autobiographies?), Harry recounts his first fifteen lives and how they ultimately relate to this warning.  It’s a fascinating take on time travel and human nature.

Washington Schlepped Here: Walking the Nation’s Capital (Christopher Buckley)

This, it turns out, is part of the same “let a famous author tell you about a famous city” series of books that Fugitives and Refugees belongs to, a fact I did not know until I was about halfway through it and read the back cover more carefully.  Buckley – a comic novelist whose work I have enjoyed on several occasions (The White House Mess, Thank You For Smoking, and so on) – is an engaging if unapologetically old-school-conservative tour guide.  You will be regaled with tales of The Glory That Was Reagan throughout the book, and, much like his hero’s recollections under oath, it can be difficult to tell which parts of Buckley's descriptions of Washington DC are fiction and which are real.  Buckley goes into the history of the city and many of the monuments, much of which are soaked in blood, and provides an interesting tour of the place.  It’s not as warm or humane as Palahniuk’s Portland, but then neither is Washington itself.

Fire Watch (Connie Willis)

This is my third try at starting Connie Willis’ Time Traveler series, because I can never tell where it starts.  This time I did a bit of research, and I am now reasonably confident that it begins with this “novelette” – really a short story.  It’s a first-person narrative told by a history student who is sent from late 21st-century Oxford University back in time to 1940, to the Blitz in London.  There he arrives at St. Paul’s Cathedral with a cover story, a thoroughly incomplete understanding of the culture and events (he was preparing to be sent back to St. Paul – the disciple and founder of the Christian Church), and no clear idea what his mission is.  He meets a number of people – notably Langby, whom he suspects of wanting to burn down the cathedral, and Enola, a young woman whose romantic interest he cluelessly spurns (are historians that stupid about these things even in the late 21st century?  I’d hoped we’d grow out of that as a group by then).  He spends his time trying to protect the cathedral during the nightly bombings, and when he goes home to his own time he discovers a few things about himself, his mission, and what the purpose of history might be in his world.  As an introduction, it served its purpose well as now I am looking forward to the next part of the series.

Doomsday Book (Connie Willis)

It takes a long time for this book to get rolling, but the payoff is worth it in the end because it is a book that will stay with you.  When the story opens it’s 2055 in Oxford – Christmas break at the University – and Mr. Gilchrist, the acting head of the history department, is about to send one of his best students, Kivrin, back to the 14th century in violation of pretty much every protocol that surrounds this process.  Gilchrist – the embodiment of academic careerism and self-centered arrogance, whose only concern is how this will reflect on his part of the department and his own professional advancement – has done none of the preparatory work required to make this safe.  Mr. Dunworthy, who has vastly more experience with sending students back in time, is both enraged and unable to prevent it.  Once Kivrin goes through, the novel splits into two tracks.  In 21st-century Oxford there is an epidemic and quarantine that shuts everything down and prevents Dunworthy from doing anything to help, especially after Badri, the tech who actually ran the drop, is struck down.  In the 14th century Kivrin arrives already deathly ill.  She is taken in and looked after by the village priest, Father Roche, and the lady of the manor, Eliwys.  As Kivrin recovers she gets to know Eliwys’ family – her waspish mother-in-law Imeyne, her 12-year-old daughter Rosemund (betrothed to the boorish Sir Bloet), and her impish 5-year-old daughter Agnes – as well as others in the small village, and she comes to know them as real people rather than just historical constructs, and to care for them.  And then, in a twist that comes as no surprise if you’ve been paying attention, it becomes clear to Kivrin that she has landed not in 1320, where she was supposed to go, but in 1348, the year the “blue sickness” hit Oxford.  As Dunworthy works through the chaos and casualties of the 21st-century epidemic to find a way to bring Kivrin back, Kivrin tries everything she can to survive the Black Death (as it is known now) and help those around her do so as well.  “I wanted to come,” she says in a bleak moment as the Plague claims more and more lives around her, “and if I hadn’t, they would have been all alone, and nobody would have ever known how frightened and brave and irreplaceable they were.”  Ultimately, in this novel as in the history, humanity and horror mix into a bittersweet story of struggle, failure, and dogged perseverance. 

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis)

The problem with time travel novels is that they are often hard to follow, as characters jump back and forth across years or centuries and timelines split, merge, or just get jumbled together like yarn, the separate strands remaining distinct but tangled together just the same.  In the “present” of the historians, it is a couple of years after the events of Doomsday Book, and in this installment of the series Willis moves from the stark horror and bittersweet clarity of the Black Death to a more farcical sort of rolling 19th-century humor – something that anyone who understands the reference in the title to Jerome K. Jerome’s classic Three Men in a Boat (mentioned explicitly in the story several times) will get right away.  Historian Ned Henry is being run ragged by Lady Schrapnell – a bulldozer of an American whose obsessive quest to restore Coventry Cathedral exactly as it was on the day it was destroyed in World War II has taken over the entire Oxford history department.  In particular, she is trying to locate something called “the bishop’s bird stump” – a uniquely ugly piece of Victorian art that may or may not have stood in the cathedral at the time and which played a large role in the life of one of her ancestors as well.  Exhausted, time-lagged, and only semi-coherent, Ned is sent back to 1888 for some rest and, if he can swing it, some searching for the bishop’s bird stump.  Not surprisingly he makes a hash of it, one that will eventually involve Terence (an adventurous and lovesick college student), Cyril (his companion, though not his love interest), Professor Peddick (a don, forever nattering on about Character being the motivating force of history), the Mering family (imperious Mrs. Mering, gruff Col. Mering, and flighty Tossie Mering, the aforementioned ancestor of Lady Schapnell), their resourceful butler Baine, and fellow time-traveling historian Verity Kindle.  Like all good farces there is a never-ending swirl of entrances and exits, crises and resolutions, and it all more or less works out in the end, though perhaps not as Ned thought it would.

Blackout (Connie Willis)

It's the mid-21st century and things are chaotic in Oxford.  There are too many historians trying to travel back in time and too few techs who can get them there, and on top of that Dunworthy is rearranging everyone's schedules without explanation.  Eileen (Merope) ends up in northern England as a servant minding evacuated children (including hellions Alf and Binnie), Polly finds herself a shopgirl in London during the Blitz, and Mike (Michael) ends up at Dunkirk as a war correspondent.  But events conspire against them, and they find themselves stuck in 1940, unable to return to Oxford.  They share the hardships and bond with the "contemps" – nurses, shopgirls, vicars, captains, and so on.  And they fret – lawsey how they fret – about changing the course of history and not being contacted by retrieval teams.  They miss a lot, fretting, and you begin to suspect that you do too.  When they find each other, as you know very well that they must, they fret some more, and then the book comes to a stop – practically in mid-sentence – to be continued in All Clear (which I didn’t finish until 2019).  They are good people but obtuse, and as with Doomsday Book the characters that stand out are the locals, bravely going about their lives without benefit of foreknowledge or hope of being retrieval to a safer place.  Willis is at her best when she gets out of her own way and lets the story unfold rather than having the characters focus on the mechanics of time travel, though for some reason those mechanics are the center of the story she chose to write here.  More of the locals and how the historians try to understand them and less of retrieval teams and the course of history would have made this a better book.

Total Books: 41
Total Pages: 14,903
Pages/day: 40.8

Happy Reading!


Random Michelle said...

I own Prisoners of Geography, but haven't read it yet. (Of course.)

I never took a geography OR geology class in my wide and varied school career, and I'm the poorer for it, because geography is a HUGE problem for my state, and a large part of why we remain so poverty stricken.

I tell people about 11% grade country roads, and single lane bridges, and food deserts, and lack of farmable land except where it floods, but most people truly don't get it. Until you've driven the roads here, and seen how impossible it is to bring in any kind of industry with the way things are, it's hard to comprehend just how much geography shapes our poverty.

It's maddening and frustrating and a way of life here.

David said...

I've always been fascinated by geography as a constraint on human activity. It's part of a larger fascination with how structures determine so large a percentage (not 100, but not insignificant) of outcomes in so many fields. So much of life is just logistics.

It's not a bad book. It will make you think, and even when he falls into mere description he's a good writer for the most part. You can apply his lessons to the chapters where he doesn't quite.

Richard L. said...

Interesting to see what you thought of the Connie Willis books - I thought that the Doomsday Book (well, the last third at least) was magnificent, but I have rarely hated a book that I've actually finished as much as To Say Nothing of the Dog.

David said...

I really liked Doomsday Book - especially, as you say, the last third, which is when things actually started to come together. And I enjoyed To Say Nothing of the Dog, mostly for its tone (and because I liked the Jerome K. Jerome book that she spent the whole story riffing on). It wasn't as good as Doomsday Book, but it held my interest.

But I'm almost finished the Blackout/All Clear duology and it has been a slog and a half. It has all of the flaws of To Say Nothing of the Dog and - for most of its run - few of its strengths or those of Doomsday Book. It's all about the mechanics of time travel and not about the characters, which is the opposite of Doomsday Book. And the characters - especially Polly - whinge and moan and do pretty much everything they can to make their situation worse, mainly be mistreating those who would be helpful to them. The main plot twist I figured out about a third of the way into the story (hint: Willis must be a huge Agatha Christie fan). I'm close to finishing now and, as with Doomsday Book, it gets better the closer you get to the end, but there have been times when I've been tempted to put it down.

This series peaked with Doomsday Book, alas.