Search This Blog


Thursday, April 23, 2015

ANTHILL: A Novel by E. O. Wilson

ANTHILL is a remarkable novel. Harvard professor E. O. Wilson has spent his life in science, devoting much of his work to the study of ants, but being a good scientist doesn't necessarily make a person a good novelist or storyteller. But in ANTHILL Wilson tells a warm, detailed, compelling story, proving conclusively that a scientist's eye and a poet's voice can coexist in a single body. Wilson's scientific attention to detail informs this story, giving it unexpected depth and wisdom but it is character and conflict that keep the reader eagerly turning pages.

The story is that of a boy, Raff Cody, who grows to be a man. Raff's parents are from two slightly different worlds, his mother comes from an old-money, rich-historied southern family, while Raff's dad is a good old southern boy whose dreams are satisfied with a good truck and beer money for Friday nights. Raff finds a refuge from the tensions in his small town Alabama home in the woods of Nokobee County a place he grows to love.

ANTHILL is broad in scope. Time brings changes to the Nokobee woods. Raff grows from an inquisitive kid, to a student of nature, to a mature defender of nature. Raff's struggles and growth are fascinating to follow and contemplate, particularly how his ultimate approach to conflict is informed by his studies of the ants.

And make no mistake, Wilson packs a wealth of nature knowledge into this novel. The reader can't help but learn and be charmed by small details of small creatures but it's the larger echoes, the way all lives, big and small, intersect that makes Raff Cody's story come to life.

E. O. Wilson's novel uses the lives of ants and men to help us make sense of the rich and fragile world we both inhabit. He reveals a world worth fighting for and creatures, both human and insect, whose lives are in the balance. I learned a lot about ants from this book, but more importantly, I learned about people, conflict and myself. And I got to read a terrific story along the way.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Monkey's Wrench by Primo Levi

The Monkey's Wrench is a slim, wise novel. Primo Levi begins with the simplest of circumstances, two men in a remote location who pass the time by recounting tales of past jobs, and, in a totally appropriate, workman-like manner, constructs a tale made of tales, a meditation on the nature of work and the nature of man. Most of the stories are told by Libertine Faussone, a rigger who has build towers, derricks and bridges all over the world. Faussone's stories are fascinating, sometimes funny, and always worthwhile. They contain a weary wisdom, an appreciation for the many small things that ultimately make big things succeed or fail. The second man in this tale, the writer-chemist narrator who spends much of the novel listening, eventually tells his own tale, of how he rigs molecules and words.

This is a book for anyone who has ever taken pride in a job well done, marvelled at the work of a craftsman, or wondered about the ways of the world. This book contains cautions, tales of monkeys wrenching in imitation of men's expertise with disastrous results, but there are celebrations as well. Our understanding is seldom as great as we think but even when we fail to build the bridge we build something better from the twisted girders. We build the knowledge necessary to do better the next time. We become smarter monkeys with better wrenches. And our best wrenches are words, wise words told in fine tales, packaged expertly in fine books such as this one.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Summer of Love, A Time Travel by Lisa Mason

Summer of Love, A Time Travel is a fine story. Lisa Mason takes three interesting characters, a time traveller from a future 500 years hence, a 14-year-old midwestern runaway flower child, and hip shopkeeper and places them all in the fascinating place and time that was San Francisco's Summer of Love, 1967.

Mason has certainly done her homework. You can almost smell the pot and patchouli, see the painted faces and hear the sounds of Janis and the Grateful Dead as Chi, Starbright and Ruby fight to hold on to what really matters at a time when everything seems possible and even the smallest things can have huge consequences.

The time travel plot is nicely (if a bit predictably) done and the glimpses from Chi's future world are fascinating, frightening and ultimately hopeful. Starbright is 100 percent convincing as a confused, loyal, idealistic, moody teenager who really could hold the key to what is to come. And Ruby Maverick, the shopkeeper who reluctantly gives the two young strangers shelter and strength in a strange and wondrous time is strong and smart and the kind of friend you'd want holding your hand or watching your back when the trip starts going strange.

Summer of Love, A Time Travel is not a rose-colored look backwards. It's is a kaleidoscopic look at a time of both darkness and light, of confusion and clarity. It's scary and beautiful, a strange trip where maybe all you need is a little love and some flowers in your hair.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Golden Road and Beyond: A Grateful Dead Primer

I've been a Deadhead for about four decades now. It was a cassette of American Beauty that turned me on to Jerry and the gang. I know that they're not everybody's cup of tea, and that's alright, but I do want to put my own life as a counter-example to those folks who contend you've got to be chemically altered somehow to enjoy the music of the Dead. I'm about as sober as they come (no moral judging, it's just my nature) and I totally dig their country, bluesy, poetic jams. I think, ironically, it's because the Dead are ultimately just so damn life affirming.

Last week on Amazon I stumbled onto this fine Kindle book called The Grateful Dead and Beyond: A Grateful Dead Primer. I didn't need priming, but the book was free and it turns out it's a good little history of the Dead together with a nice discography. Written by Dennis McNally, the Dead's longtime publicist, there are some good stories about the circumstances behind the band, their songs and the legendary tours. I learned stuff I didn't know, learned more about things I'd heard about and generally enjoyed every page.

If you aren't a Deadhead, don't start with this book. Start with their music and you can start pretty much anywhere. Tons of their stuff is publicly available (the Dead are big on that, another thing I love about them). I'll include a few links to some fun Youtube videos and what I think are their best albums.

Keep on truckin'.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Uncanny Valley: Tales from a Lost Town by Gregory Miller

I believe in ghosts. Perhaps not ghosts in the literal sense, but I believe a person's spirit can live on, in the stories that we've told and the stories that are told about us. I believe the good and the evil that we've done in our lives continues on in the world and I am convinced that we do not, can not, know all the ways and shapes in which those continuations may manifest. I believe that the things that go bump in the night are sometimes just the frightened beating of our own hearts, but at other times there are things in the darkness that our minds can never fully know but our hearts are wise enough to fear.

And I believe, quite fervently, that some among us are gifted, perhaps possessed, with the ability to tell true tales, tales of horror and imagination, tales truer than mere fact, tales called fiction that build worlds of words that outlast the world of dust. Poe's Usher will live forever even as it collapses again and again throughout the ages. Bradbury's hometown will be forever green in summer light and forever haunted by a dark autumn carnival.

I mention Poe and Bradbury and ghosts because their spirits live on. They live in a man named Gregory Miller whose haunted pen has recorded tales of a place that is eerily familiar. In thirty-three small tales thirty-three different voices reveal a small town somewhere in Pennsylvania. Some of these tales are small, with just the hint of something off or odd. In others there is a horror that grabs at your heart more urgently. In sum, these tales will hold and haunt you and if you are like me you will come, oddly, to love this Uncanny Valley.

Few things give me more pleasure than finding an author I never knew who has written tales I come to treasure. Gregory Miller has found treasure in The Uncanny Valley. This treasure, like some others, is guarded by spirits who will haunt you. There is death here, and darkness, and all that is most wonderful in life -- the great unknown.

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.