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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin: Empathy and Big Ideas


I recently read a couple of wonderful books by Ursula K. Le Guin that reminded me once again what a gifted and skillful writer she is. Le Guin is a master of the art of letting the reader see through the eyes of another. Through her words, we don't just see, we feel and, perhaps, we begin to understand.

Buffalo Gals and other Animal Presences is a collection of short fiction and poetry. In the title novella a child survives a plane crash and lives in the Dream Time world of animal myths, befriended by the Coyote and other creatures. It's a tale that is both dreamlike and sharp, a look at our world through eyes that aren't really alien, but rather native eyes that see (and make us see) our alienation from the natural world.

Le Guin is a master of the alternate perspective. In various stories and poems in Buffalo Gals we see the world through the eyes of a wolf, a lab rat, and even rocks and trees. Le Guin's sense of empathy is strong and she transmits that empathy to the reader. Reading Le Guin expands not just the mind, but the heart and soul.



In The Dispossessed, Le Guin builds not just one, but two worlds. Set on the twin worlds of Anarres and Urras, Le Guin gradually reveals two societies. Anarres is a harsh, barren moon settled by anarchic, collectivist utopians. Urras is the mother world, lush and green, with both great wealth and poverty, capitalism writ large.

We see these worlds through the eyes of Shevek, a physicist of great intellect and compassion. Shevek dreams not just of understanding the universe but uniting the worlds. The timeline and narrative switch back and forth between the two worlds. The Dispossessed is not a book to be rushed through, it is dense in ideas, long and deep in thought. It is what-if Science Fiction of the grandest sort, using alien worlds to help us better understand and live in our own.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Discovering Avram Davidson


When I first encountered Avram Davidson he was in disguise. I was a bookish teenager with an appetite for mystery novels. I devoured tales penned by Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and others. I particularly enjoyed the Ellery Queen mysteries, not perhaps because they were great literature, but because they were fun puzzles. I learned to look for the twist, the false lead, the logical, yet wrong conclusion and still often Ellery would manage to surprise me in the end.

From those days I remember most clearly one book, a novel called And on the Eighth Day


This book was different. It was better. It was a mystery, but it was more. Ellery was still Ellery, the puzzle was still puzzling but the world was richer, there were more ideas there. In some ways the book stripped the mystery and characters down to the bone and placed them in a dreamscape, but this was a fable that knew that true reality includes dreams.

As a teen, I knew this book was better than most of the other Ellery Queen novels, but I didn't know why. I do know that the book stuck in my head for years, while others in the series faded away. Decades later, I'd solve the mystery.

My reading world expanded to include various mainstream novels and science fiction. I went into space with Arthur Clarke and Robert Heinlein. I rode dragons with Anne McCaffery. And Ray Bradbury showed me Mars and a green town in Illinois that he never forgot and I'll never forget either.

And so this bookish boy became a bookish man who never completely put away a child's sense of wonder. Like Asimov and Bradbury I decided that driving a car is foolishness I need not fool with and so I've made my way in the world by foot and bicycle, preferring a pace more convivial to conversation, contemplation and companionship. One day on a bike ride with my pal Mark Vande Kamp conversation wandered, as it is so oft to do, to stories of stories and we were discussing Ray Bradbury. "Remember the Bradbury story about how paper clips and coat hangers are really the larval form of bicycles?" Mark comments. "What?!?" I reply, not because the concept is fantastic, but because if such a tale existed I doubt I would have forgotten it. And I thought I'd been quite diligent (perhaps compulsive) in my consumption of the works of Ray Bradbury. Mark assured me that such a tale existed and that he would ferret it out and bring me a copy of the tale.

It turned out that Mark was both right and wrong. The story was as he recalled and it is an odd gem called Or All The Sea With Oysters. But the author of the tale is not Ray Bradbury but a fellow named Avram Davidson.


Mark's slightly faulty memory brought Davidson to my attention and Davidson's stories held that attention. Davidson is wonderful. I began scouring bookstores for his work and Wikipedia solved an old mystery for me. For my "new" discovery of Davidson's writing was in fact a rediscovery. Davidson had ghost written the book I'd loved years before, he was the true author of And on the Eighth Day.

In a more just world Davidson wouldn't have died poor and mostly forgotten. He wouldn't have had to sell so many fine tales for pennies or write great stories under someone else's name. Davidson is gone now, but we still have the tales and they are treasures. Seek them out.

Davidson wrote mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, alternate histories, tales that we'd now call steampunk, and so much more. His tales are fantastic in every sense of the word.


If you want a place to start with Davidson, The Avram Davidson Treasury is a terrific collection of his work, punctuated with fine introductions by the many, many writers who've loved his tales.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler


Sarah Canary is a wonderfully deceptive book. The title suggests biography or a single life rendered in fiction, but Sarah Canary is something of a Maltese Falcon, a mystery and a catalyst for action in others. Sarah Canary is the woman in black, sometimes glimpsed but seldom seen, an inkblot that looks very much like something we recognize.

The book follows Chin, a Chinese railway worker, who follows Sarah through the fog shrouded Pacific Northwest of the 1870s. This is not a straightforward journey but Karen Joy Fowler has a fine sense of pace, creating a story that moves and a set of characters and circumstances that fascinate. Fowler rejoices in odd details but rather than being digressions that slow the action, these facts are like bits of a broken mirror unexpectedly reflecting light just when and where it's needed.

In a prison Chin befriends a killer and in an asylum in Steilacoom he and Sarah are aided in their escape by a lunatic named B.J. Lunatic, of course, is a relative term and B.J.'s counsel and considerations are often the wisest words in any given situation.

This is a book of action, filled with chase scenes, grifters, men with schemes, women with dreams. This is a fine book, rewarding the reader not with a simple solution but a reminder that the world is complicated, barely glimpsed and best journeyed through with perseverance and a few good friends. I count certain books as friends and Sarah Canary is one of the very best.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon


So there's an Inherent Vice movie coming out in December and I'm not too proud to admit that it's the movie that got me motivated to finally read Thomas Pynchon's novel of the same name. You know Pynchon, that genius author of giant books? While epics like Gravity's Rainbow or Against The Day might require a few months of heavy reading and a book bag strong enough for heavy lifting, Inherent Vice has been dismissed by some as "Pynchon-lite." I'm here to tell you that that is not a bad thing. 369 pages of Pynchon is a damn fine way to spend your time.

Pynchon's hero, Doc Sportello, wobbles his way through a woozy, sex and drugs and rock and roll exploration of the psychedelic landscapes of 1971 Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Don't let the pot haze fool you, Doc is a keen observer with his own code of conduct that is every bit as consistent and admirable as that laid down by his spiritual fore-bearers, Phillip Marlow and Sam Spade. There's mystery upon mystery here, brilliant wordplay, astounding dialog and some terrific humor.

Inherent Vice sneaks up on you. It's light, mysterious and fun but there's something deeper here. Like all Pynchon, there's a layer of paranoia that should not be ignored. There's more going on every day than most folks see and Pynchon is a master of providing glimpses through the fog. If the movie and this book get more people looking where Pynchon is pointing, I have to see that as a good thing.




Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Way Inn by Will Wiles


In his first novel, CARE OF WOODEN FLOORS, Will Wiles did something I'd previously thought impossible; he made me care deeply about the removal of a wine stain from the floor of a meticulously modern apartment. From this simple accident Wiles spun a masterful, complex contemplation of order and chaos, of favors gone awry and friendship strained by human frailty. It was a tale told with equal parts humor and horror and, remarkably, it kept me turning pages well into the night.

Thus it was with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation that I approached Wiles' sophomore effort, THE WAY INN. Would this novel measure up to the oddly high bar set by its quirky predecessor? The answer became obvious in the first few pages. I was checked into THE WAY INN every bit as securely as Wiles' less-than-noble protagonist, Neil Double. I didn't have to like Mr. Double, I only had to believe I was seeing the world through his eyes and this I did with ease. Through Double I found myself contemplating the mundane, the relentlessly packaged, processed, economically engineered, corporate approximation of refuge, the modern chain hotel.

One of Wiles talents as a storyteller is his ability to amplify the contrast levels in his tale to extreme levels while still retaining the reader's belief. We smile at the absurdity, but we buy into it. Neil Double is not just a bland business traveler, he's a PROFESSIONALLY bland business traveler. He's a conference surrogate, he goes to business conferences so other businessmen don't have to. And the conference he's attending in this tale? It's the conference of conference organizers. The conference, of course, is being held at the MetaCentre.

In lesser hands this tale of the bland and boring could certainly be bland and boring, but Wiles has an eye for the odd and a strong sense of the absurd. Neil Double is soon a victim of misadventure and chance encounter. A mysterious red-haired woman has pointed out something odd about the abstract paintings that populate the rooms and hallways of THE WAY INN and by the time the mysterious and sinister hotel executive Mr. Hilbert appears, Mr. Double is deep into a thriller that could give Alfred Hitchcock a severe case of vertigo. And if Rod Serling turned out to be the night manager of THE WAY INN, I would not be the slightest bit surprised.

But THE WAY INN is surprising, odder than you can imagine unless your name is Ray Bradbury, Neal Gaiman or Will Wiles. THE WAY INN is a masterful metaphor for an age where corporations are people and people are cogs in machines we too often ignore. But THE WAY INN is more than metaphor, it's a fun story. Neil Double has a problem, it's easy to check into THE WAY INN. Checking out is something of a nightmare.

But don't let that deter you. I checked out 343 pages of THE WAY INN and I'm not quite sure I've left it yet. But it is time very well spent. I'm weary, wiser, and more than willing to buy whatever the next tale is that Mr. Wiles will choose to tell.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon



The Word Exchange is set in a world of words. It's a world eerily similar to ours, the geography is recognizable, the people seem real, but where we have iPhones and Kindles the characturers in Alena Graedon's thoughtful and thrilling novel have a device called the Meme. The Meme is insidiously useful. It not only holds your books, your movies, your life, it calls you a cab when you need one. It orders you a sandwich before you know you're hungry. It looks up words you don't know, it remembers what you don't need to recall. The Meme has changed the world. And now it's changing the words that make up the world. Words and their meanings are now bought and sold on The Word Exchange.

Douglas Johnson is the editor working on the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). On the eve of the publication of what will be the last print version of his life's work, Doug disappears. His daughter Anana, who had been working on the NADEL with her father, together with her bookish colleague Bart work to unravel the mystery of Doug's disappearance while all around them the world descends into a madness known as the Word Flu. People, including Anana and Bart are rapidly losing the ability to communicate.

The Word Exchange is the best kind of cautionary fable. It is not a hard science projection of future doom, it is instead a poetic recasting of our own age in a poetically warped looking glass. This is a book that values books on paper, people who think and people who preserve that which is old, not out of nostalgia, but because they know what is truly valuable.

For all it's fine ideas, The Word Exchange is first and foremost a good story. Anana's a plucky heroine and Bart is the kind of guy you hope she'll fall for. The mystery is mysterious and the setting is wonderful, populated with menacing folks of uncertain motives, escapes through hidden tunnels. strange messages sent through an ancient, secret pneumatic tube systems and late night meetings in old libraries. The Word Exchange is a thriller for folks thrilled by and informed by words.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Rereading Ray Bradbury



How do these things start? I cannot say, for cannot recall important things such as the day I was born or the day I first read a story by Ray Bradbury. Ray claimed he could, recall the day of his birth that is, and who am I to doubt the man, the man whose taught me much about remembering and imagining. Did he remember Mars or Greentown or invent them? Does it matter now?

Somewhere back in time and Minnesota a younger me met Martians and a man named Montag who burned books and sparked in me something that still smolders and now and then burns bright, fanned to flame by what exactly? Memory, imagination, a book on the shelf glanced then grabbed. Here’s a comfy chair, no... a rocket ship and the dust of the years falls away, water flows in the old canals and I am once again young with wonder.

How do these things start? It doesn’t matter, they keep going. They scuttle like robot mice in robot towns, they echo from the past, in warning and wonder, and the man who wanted to live forever does, he really does, in these books and these electrons in these infernal machines he loved and warned us about.

Do I have favorites? Of course I have favorites, but favor is fickle. The streets of Greentown, glowing in sunlight seen through a strawberry window, a good place to come from, to spend a boyhood or a summer but not forever. No, not forever.

Perhaps to the past, via some fantastic machine, bending time to hunt the dinosaurs, to make them live again, to hear their terrible roars, to fear their terrible claws, to watch in wide-eyed wonder.

Or maybe build machines, robots to make us toast, to sweep our rugs, to tell us stories, to be our grandmothers, to remember and imagine...

Mars. Mars is heaven and hell and Usher and the new frontier. It’s where we’ll wait out the war, make new mistakes and old ones. We’ll not see the Martians until it’s too late or perhaps they’ll do the same. Dark they were, and golden-eyed. Give us time under a sky with two moons, time to learn to read the old singing books, to learn to live in crystal cities beside canals that are not dead but flowing...

I read the old books and my eyes begin to fleck with bits of gold.

The old pages smell of mummies, dandelions, rocket ships and dinosaurs.

It’s the first day of summer or maybe it’s October and a dark carnival has just rolled into town. Or maybe it’s Hollywood in the fifties and a mystery is afoot. This is Mars and Greentown and a million other places, real and imagined.

Live forever, Ray advised. There’s a crater on Mars called Bradbury now. There are millions of Bradburys on millions of shelves now, dinosaurs, Martians and mechanical hounds let loose to roam wild. They’ll not be stopped.

Book paper burns at Fahrenheit 451. But the stories and ideas don’t die. They’ll live forever.

Just like Ray Bradbury.