“It was as if the universe, the whole of it, had become a sort of Library.” The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter.

The Time ShipsIn this very worthy sequel to the The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, the time traveller meets his younger self, both of whom share my distrust of complexity …

I met Moses’s eyes, and I recognized there a certain righteous anger, an infuriation at the foolishness of mankind, which had informed my own, younger soul. I had always had a distrust of the advancement, willy-nilly, of civilization, for it seemed to me an unstable edifice which must one day collapse about the foolish heads of its makers; and this Modern State business seemed about the most extreme folly, short of actual War, I had heard in a while!

Baxter does a brilliant job persuading us, by the time the novel is done, of the potential triumph of the mind …

I could see — suffused in every wisp of gas, in every stray atom — meaning and structure. There was a purpose to the orientation of each atom, the direction of its spin, and the linkages between it and its neighbors. It was as if the universe, the whole of it, had become a sort of Library, to store the collective wisdom of this ancient variant of Humanity; every scrap of matter, down to the last stray wisp, was evidently catalogued and exploited … Just as Nebogipfel had predicted as the final goal of Intelligence!

Catch Me When I Fall by Patricia Westerhof. The Dutch were better than their theology, good people looking after one another.

It is the Family Day long weekend in Ontario, a fitting time to chat about Catch Me When I Fall by Patricia Westerhof. Westerhof, now there’s a Dutch name, like all the others in this book. There’s the “Van” crew of course, like Van Dyk. There’s an abundance of Frisians, the Northerners, all ending with the letter “a”: Boersma, Dykstra, Veenstra, Zylstra. I am a Miedema and grew up with people just like them. There are many immigrant stories in Canadian literature, but few Dutch ones. Dutch immigrants were a quiet, practical lot, quick to assimilate. Westerhof’s collection of eleven loosely related short stories is a rare treat.

The immigrant story is not a new one but the Dutch perspective is unique. The church was the core of this community. Religion was heavy-handed and the book’s title was well chosen. The “fall of man” is central to Dutch theology. Of course there was doubt. In “Unfailing Mercies”, Sarah stands in front of the church for the ritual Profession of Faith. She ponders, “How casually she had drifted into the faith, agreeing to believe.” When Reverend Post asks her to commit her life to Christ, she feels an urge to laugh then panics. Personally, I declined to undertake the ritual. It was my point of departure from the church. Still, in general, the Dutch were better than their theology, good people looking after one another. I still love to sing the old hymns.

The stories touch on all the memorable points, the difficult ones and the beautiful. There was the Dutch school with all those young blond heads and blue eyes. These immigrants were not so much victims as bearers of prejudice — against the Catholics, blacks, gays, you name it. Still, in the war many Dutch people risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis who occupied their country. There was the food! Meat and potatoes, soup with maggi, boterkoek with butter, apple pie and ice cream. My diet has changed considerably too since those days, but fond memories.

Westerhof’s stories are often sentimental and this works because the Dutch are sentimental. That, and stubborn. Wooden-shoed and wooden-headed. In “Probability”, Ellie is never as confident as her aptly named friend, Will. “Maybe the certain answers of his faith made him feel there should be certain answers for everything.” Westerhof nails it there. Belief in a grand design has a way of programming you to see the world in a structured way. Now Will is dead. What will she write for a eulogy? Well, Westerhof’s book is a eulogy of sorts, a testament to a past time that still echoes with love in me. Thank you Patricia.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman. In the end, she “won ugly” but she won.

The magician kingIn The Magicians young Quentin discovers that magic and the Narnia-like realm of Fillory are both real. In the sequel, The Magician King, Quentin is a king, but it is the story of Julia that turns the pages. In the first book, Quentin was handed an education in magic, while Julia was denied admittance and had to figure it out on the street. This book tells her painful journey, a testament to alternative education. “That was the thing about the world: it wasn’t that things were harder than you thought they were going to be, it was that they were hard in ways you didn’t expect.” She gave up at times, “when your sacred intentional community collapses, it’s time to suck it and sell silverware instead.” In the end, she “won ugly” but she won. That part I liked and merits this short review. I suppose I should share Lev Grossman’s Gen-X wit and get his video game metaphors but I generally do not care for them. Overall, a nice light January read.

Husk by Corey Redekop. Live as if you were going to die … yesterday.

HuskI was surprised from page xi to find a a zombie novel written in the first person. Aren’t zombies … dead? Do they even have a perspective? Step aside Rudy Wiebe, Sheldon Funk is a Canadian Mennonite with one hell of a frontier story. Funk is a gay vegan turned zombie. Still equipped with his memories and burdened with an elderly mother in need of care, Funk must square what’s left of his humanity against his new-found taste for human flesh. Even mom seems appetizing. Funk proves himself a zombie for all seasons.

Husk is Corey Redekop’s second novel. Like his first one, Shelf Monkey, you could call this one funny, in an angsty 21st century, reality tv sort of way. “Call me Shel” — it’s as good a quote as any. Funk’s death in the bus toilet is funny, I guess, but not in a way I feel good about. I note many similarities with Shelf Monkey. A good-hearted but failed middle-aged man finds himself in an impossible work situation and commits ethically questionable acts. Events escalate out of control, compelling him forward, surprising everyone including himself that he winds up a hero of sorts. Well of course there are similarities — the books have the same author. David Adams Richards has told essentially the same story in several novels, gradually perfecting his craft. Get working on number three, Corey.

Events do escalate out of control. Just when you think Husk is only some humanitarian (or whatever) plea that zombies are (were) people too, this zombie gets the chance of a lifetime (so to speak) to solve all his life’s (er, oh screw it) problems. The failed actor gets an audition for a good acting job in a thriller. His challenge is to act like he’s still among the living. By the time you have finished the book you will have a whole new perspective on life. Live as if you were going to die … yesterday.

“You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it” — Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. So you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you. (179)

The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. Enlightenment is post-literate.

The razor's edgeThe Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham is the story of Laurence “Larry” Darrell, a young man who returned from war existentially troubled by the death of a close friend. Larry leaves his fiancée, Claire, for a year in Paris where he believes he can think through his troubled thoughts to their end. On his small veteran’s pension he rents a quiet room and studies, learning Greek to read classics in their original tongue, living a life of the spirit. Originally published in 1944, I had a 1946 hard cover (with double-spaced sentences) on my shelf for years and just recently read it. I reveled in every yellowed page of this monastic fantasy.

When Claire comes to Paris to fetch Larry after his year away, he declares his intention to continue. “‘But Larry’, she smiled. ‘People have been asking those questions for thousands of years. If they could be answered, surely they’d have been answered by now'”. Larry thinks she has said something shrewd. “But on the other hand you might say that if men has been asking them for thousands of years it proves that they can’t help asking them and have to go on asking them.” Larry goes on travelling, ultimately finding his way to a monastery in India.

The defining moment for me in The Razor’s Edge is not the moment of Larry’s enlightenment, not the shuddering of his head as he awakens, and not the mountain vista as he fathoms the interconnectedness of all things. It was his action just after his enlightenment that stuck with me, the moment when Larry burns his books. The burning scene is not in the text of Maughm’s book, but it was added in the 1984 movie adaptation by John Byrum, starring Bill Murray in a rare serious role. I had seen the movie some years ago. It was the burning scene that brought me to the book this many years later.

I think often about books and their role in enlightenment. I think traditional literacy is essential in learning and “scientific” enlightenment. I also feel that “transcendental” enlightenment is post-literate. I wanted to read more on this matter, but it was not in the book. Byrum might have added the burning scene for its visual effect on the screen, but I think there is more to it. The road to enlightenment has traditionally been a literary one. In The Pilgrim’s Progress,  Christian begins his journey after being troubled by “the book in his hand”. Chris McCandless’ pilgrimage to Alaska had its start and finish in literature. The print version of The Razor’s Edge is narrated by the author, Maugham, serving as a messenger between the different worlds of Larry and Claire, and providing a more mature frame of reference. In the 1984 movie, Maugham’s character is absent. The powerful functions of Maugham, including the final dreadful confrontation with Claire, are assumed by Larry himself. This shift in focus away from the literary figure underscores my view that transcendental enlightenment is post-literate.

(There is also a 1946 movie adaptation by Edmund Goulding that I could barely finish watching. Both movies did a disservice to the feminine sexuality of Claire, and to the implied homosexuality of the character Elliott. The 1946 movie did a worse job of it. It also cleansed Sophie, and in so doing killed her character more tragically than the story.)

See also: Lost scenes: “I want you to learn more about books.”

White Noise by Don DeLillo. Can we claim the powers of our age?

White noiseI read Don DeLillo’s White Noise in 2005. The thing I remember most from the book is a key plot event (spoiler). A main character becomes addicted to a pill that removes her fear of death, the side effect being a loss of ability to distinguish fact from fantasy. Imagine that. I wonder at the moment if a potent enough fantasy could remove one’s fear of death? In 2005 I was in the height of my back-to-the-land phase, thinking about family, tools and nostalgia. I suppose I was trying to sort fact from fantasy. I wrote down quotations from the book on those subjects and others.

The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error. Over-closeness, the noise and heat of being. Perhaps something even deeper, like the need to survive. Murray says we are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts. Facts threaten our happiness and security. The deeper we delve into the nature of things, the looser our structure may seem to become. The family process works towards sealing off the world. Small errors grow heads. Fictions proliferate. (81-82)

There are no amateurs in the world of children. (103)

On tools, can we claim the powers of our particular age or are we freeloaders on our culture? Have we taken the time to learn how things work, as shown by our ability to independently recreate its tools and inventions, and articulate its insights?

“It’s like we’ve been flung back in time,” he said. “Here we are in the Stone Age, knowing all these great things after centuries of progress, but what can we do to make life easier for the Stone Agers? Can we make a refrigerator? Can we even explain how it works? What is electricity? What is light? We experience these things every day of our lives but what good does it do if we find ourselves hurled back in time and we can’t even tell people the basic principles much less actually make something that would improve conditions. Name one thing you could make. Could make a simple wooden match that you could strike on a rock to make a flame? We think we’re so great and modern. Moon landings, artificial hearts. But what if you were hurled into a time warp and came face to face with the ancient Greeks. The Greeks invented trigonometry. They did autopsies and dissections. What could you tell an ancient Greek that he couldn’t say, ‘Big deal.’ Could you tell him about the atom? Atom is a Greek word. The Greeks knew that the major events in the universe can’t be seen by the eye of man. It’s waves, it’s rays, it’s particles.” (147-148)

Wilder sat on a tall stool in front of the stove, watching water boil in a small enamel pot. He seemed fascinated by the process. I wondered if he’d uncovered some splendid connection between things he’d always thought of as separate. The kitchen is routinely rich is such moments, perhaps for me as much as for him. (212)

There were times when he seemed to attack me with terms like ratchet drill and whipsaw. He saw my shakiness in such matters as a sign of some deeper incompetence or stupidity. These were the things that built the world. Not to know or care about them was a betrayal of fundamental principles, a betrayal of gender, of species. What could be more useless than a man who couldn’t fix a dripping faucet – fundamentally useless, dead to history, to the messages in his genes? I wasn’t sure I disagreed. (245)

It is easy to mistake back-to-the-land thinking as just nostalgia. The modifier ‘just’ is the mistake. Nostalgia may speak to a misstep, a feeling that something good was lost by accident but the memory is fading. Many good solutions for the present can be found in the past, but they are ignored because they are not new. Those who sense it struggle to revive consciousness.

Murray says it is possible to be homesick for a place even when you are there. (257)

I don’t trust anybody’s nostalgia but my own. Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It’s a settling of grievances between the present and the past. The more powerful the nostalgia, the closer you come to violence. War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country. (258)

Was I immersing myself, little by little, in a secret life? Did I think it was my last defense against the ruin worked out for me so casually by the force or nonforce, the principle or power or chaos that determines such things? … I sat at my desk thinking of secrets. Are secrets a tunnel to a dreamworld where you control events?

The north wind blew right through my old farm house. There came a time to leave. Still sometimes I think about these things.

PlayerOne by Douglas Coupland. An anti-story for mid-life.

PlayerOneDouglas Coupland speaks difficult truths. Generation X rang true for those of us in our twenties: I get it, they’re not living, they’re shopping. Microserfs messed with the digital hopes of our thirties. Now, PlayerOne tells a tale for our fourties, an unexpected and worthy selection for the 2010 Massey Lectures.

Five men and women of various ages and motives occupy an airport cocktail lounge when oil hits $250/barrel and rises. Chaos and violence follow. Those sheltered inside the lounge contend with a new world without oil. What does it mean to be human? Love and sex, jobs and money, family and faith; all come under scrutiny. Life as they know it is unraveling. The end of oil is a realistic prospect. Last Tuesday, the International Energy Agency warned that oil prices could average $113 a barrel by 2035. Are there too many humans casting too heavy a footprint on the planet? Were we meant to live past fourty?

With so many people on the planet, what is our unique story? Information overload has washed out our individuality. Death is closer than expected. PlayerOne is an anti-story, telling small fractured narratives in the absence of a grand coherent one. Every decade we observed the waning influence of a layer of infrastructure: our parents and schools in our twenties, our jobs in our thirties, religion in our fourties. What institution will give us meaning now? Frightening, but exciting too, like a rocket that has just left the atmosphere. Do we have enough fuel onboard to venture forward?

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. Things are just a little better in the afterlife.

The brief history of the deadAn unusual novel. If there is a spoiler in this brief review I am not sure it matters because it is not the plot but the setting and delivery that make this novel work. One, in Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, the crossover to the afterlife is fantastical and deeply personal, but the afterlife itself is pretty much like this world. People still have their bodies, eat and work and love and sleep, but things are just a little better, enough to make it preferable to this world. A curious premise. Two, people only last in this afterlife as long as someone remembers them in this world, then they vanish, who knows where. Potent material for a story. Three, a deadly virus wipes out a near-future earth, except for one woman, Laura, stuck on a research station in Antartica. Wow. Just imagine how that reshapes the world of the afterlife. That is just the setup. There is no doubt where Laura’s battle to survive is going, but Brockmeier’s telling has you loving her and a handful of other characters. This novel is unlike any I have read, and that merits its recommendation.

The Book on Fire by Keith Miller. As a reader, bone and sinew, I cannot review this pure, uncut fix of bibliophilia

The Book on FireAs a reader, bone and sinew, I cannot review The Book on Fire by Keith Miller, this pure, uncut fix of bibliophilia. To review a book is to claim some distance from it, but having entered this story I have yet to find my way out. I am not looking. Call these words a tribute instead, borrowing liberally from its phrases, written while the spell still lingers.

“Do you love to read?” asks Balthazar, the story’s narrator. Each sentence, almost each word is an indulgence of description, a tale of all things good and bookish. It combines “in perfect quantity design and story and song”. Read it after dinner, after dessert, curled up in a blanket with a candle and tea. It has been a long time since a book has so completely taken me under its spell, childhood perhaps.

Balthazar is a book thief in a fantastical Alexandria, the legendary city with a library as its soul. In this Alexandria, children are admonished if they do not bring a book to the breakfast table. (This is not a children’s story, unless they are the sort drawn to dark fables, the sort who grow into bibliophiles.) Beggars spit on your spare change, gesturing for the paperback in your hand. There is a book store for every taste. The library itself is not easily found. Ask the merchants or shoeblacks where it might be found and they will smile or murmur an enigmatic couplet. Once found, you will not be permitted entry. It is protected by a guardian caste of librarians, trained to kill an intruder with a single blow, irresistible to a book thief.

Mysterious Zeinab hides beneath her niqab. How incorrect that niqab today, but it protects secrets. She trades her body for the price of a book. Not just any book, but one from the very special collection in Balthazar’s wardrobe. With her help, he learns the way into the library. It is more than he hoped for. “We all have titles, questions swept like sodden leaves into the corners of our minds, that we have little hope will ever be answered or solved, but that we cannot get rid of. Suddenly, I found myself in the orchard of answers.” Once inside, Balthazar is reluctant to disturb the order. Instead, he becomes entranced with the youngest librarian, Shireen (a siren indeed). Her calling demands she kill him, but she too is drawn to Balthazar’s collection. Its books spare his life one Arabian night after another.

Miller slips all too easily inside, wooing the reader through weak spots for books. Be careful. The opposite of reading is burning, and Zeinab torches Balthazar’s precious book. Why?! Balthazar seeks what all readers seek, “the beautiful, annihilating book.” The Book on Fire takes the reader to the edge. Like all addictions, paradise can suddenly turn into an inferno. Reading is a dangerous art.

See also my short tribute to Miller’s first book, The Book of Flying