Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman

Gaiman certainly has a knack for taking fantasy in titillating new directions. Mixing legend with pop culture, bridging generations and phases of life, his is an impressive improvisational-seeming voice; loose and loud and reasonably sound in its coherence and payoff.

Richard Mayhew, protagonist this time around, is a decent mensch, a modern everyman who seems just as lost in his own world as he will become lost in the underworld he discovers as a result of one decent – and so, uncharacteristic – act. Such a mensch, in fact, that his survival and eventual semi-triumph are a bit implausible, though satisfying nonetheless. The characters who surround him are pleasingly off –beat and appealing and their adventures offer enough cliff-hanging to keep one deeply involved.

Underneath it all, there glimmer a few bits of insight into human frailty, relationships and the failings of society. Just enough to ground this fantasy in reality and assuage the guilt of reading such fluff.

Yes, a pleasure all the way. Well done, Mr. Gaiman, well done.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson

‘For people in a hurry,’ in the sense that it this is a tiny volume, pocket sized with barely 200 pages and not small type; and also in the sense that a universe of complex ideas are treated briefly and with concision. Perfect for those who want a general sense of what terms like multi-verse, dark energy and Boolean Algebra mean, without the years of schooling and boggled-brains it would take to really ‘know’ this stuff.

For those folks (of which I count myself one), Tyson does a great job, leading us in somewhat random-feeling steps from the relatively-intuitive astronomic understandings that give us a map of the nearby (solar system, asteroids) to the tougher concepts that make up our current best understanding what the entire universe consists of, how it was formed and how it behaves, at levels from the molecular to the quantum. Along the way he delivers plenty of staggering numbers such as:

the portion of all matter/energy which is visible vs that which is totally invisible except through its effects – that being ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ accounting, for if memory serves, some two thirds of all there is!

The number of molecules in a single cup of water – which is greater than the total number of cups of water in all the oceans of earth!

The number of bacteria in one inch of a human colon – which is greater than the number of all the humans who have lived through all time!

And many, many, more

Of particular appeal are passages recounting a few great miss-understandings which even great minds have labored under, and how those very mistakes eventually led them and others to new discoveries, an essential part of the scientific method which is sometimes lost in the shouting matches of reactionary culture wars.

 

Once all that knowledge has been disseminated, a final summation touts the intellectual and moral benefits of these concepts being understood widely, partly to cultivate the skills of thought that will lead to success in other pursuits, but more importantly  to instill the awe, wonder and humility that enable us to better appreciate and manage our environment and culture. Some of that falls flat, as when he suggests the absence of atmosphere in space means we should not engage in ‘flag-waving’ about space exploration – a very tenuous stretch of analogy. For the most part though, Tyson is an inspiring democratizer.

All in all, a worthy volume to read, and perhaps a good tool to raise the level of conversation at cocktail parties and Covid-lock-down video calls. Thanks NdGT!

(which now that I’ve typed it out, looks like an algebraic designation of some great import…if I assign the value of G as 27 to tenth power, and T as the length of time since the big bang, and d as the cosmic constant, can I solve for the value of N?  Hope your not holding your breath!)

Owsley and Me, Rhoney Gissen Stanley with Tom Davis

Propelled by the excitement of the times and place – mid to late 1960’s San Francisco, this memoir of life in the Grateful dead family is a quick and fascinating read. Like more than a few other members of that scene, Rhoney Gissen came from wealth and dysfunction, and found in the hippie movement a refuge from the former, but not necessarily the latter. Her relationship with August Owsley Stanley III, better known as ‘The Bear,’ and later just Owsley Stanley, was very different from that with her parents, but no more healthy. It is a credit to Rhoney’s character that she not only survived, but overcame that treatment, to raise an apparently healthy and productive son (with the charmingly period-appropriate name of Starfinder Stanley.

Besides affording an entertaining travelogue, and a devastating portrait of the rampant misogyny of the movement (including the Dead, contrary to their counter-cultural reputation), this is Owsley’s story; the self-driven and self-centered genius who simultaneously revolutionized the recreational drug industry and the state of sound-system art while rubbing elbows and other body parts with a who’s who of psychedelic rock celebrities. Hendrix, Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez, Elvin Bishop, the Stones and the Beatles all make appearances, as do Bill Graham, Melvin Belli and many more. Seeing them from inside the movement puts lots of new spin on peace, love and freedom (which seems a better way to complete the trio than ‘happiness,’ given the bad trips, legal troubles, poverty and heartbreak we see).  The detailed accounts of Stanley’s LSD manufacturing are perhaps the most eye-opening part of the book; to paraphrase our current mad-scientist genius, “who would have guessed it was that complicated?”

Fluidly written by Davis, a comedian best known for being half of Franken and Davis (along with fellow SNL writer – later turned politician – Al Franken), the adventure is mostly cheerful and melodic, even when not harmonious. Owsley’s drug business appears to have thrown off enough cash to keep him and his followers in crash pads and the rest of their practicalities were handled with the frugality of artists, trusting to fortune. Brushes with the law are treated as inconveniences, until Stanley serves several years and abruptly shows how much aging he has accumulated. His last years feel bittersweet, as they must have been after such a brightly blazing youth.

A useful antidote to blissful images of the Summer of Love et al, but not one that justifies totally discounting them, just adds another unique perspective.

A Dead Man in Deptford, Anthony Burgess

The author best known for the dystopian future of A Clockwork Orange here delves into the life and death of sixteenth century British playwright Kit (or Christopher) Marlowe (or Morely, or Marley as the fluidity of the English language in those times would have it) and exposes a tale of spying, lying, more lying – this time in one another’s beds – and poetry. It’s a very impressive evocation of time and place as well as language, but even more striking is the mindset of his main characters, where religion and poetry are intricately bound to politics and money, life is cheap and brutality common, yet the bedrock of human nature is not at all different from what we know and struggle with today.

A challenging read, but one which rewards and also yields a new respect for the men (women figure very little in Burgess’ vision) of Shakespeare’s (or Shakespur’s, or Cheeckpurse’s) time.

Yields great respect also for Burgess the writer, as opposed to the pop culture figure he has become thanks to the notorious film version of his most widely-known novel.

P.S. – A Wikipedia query reveals that Burgess was quite the intellectual, a prolific writer of both fiction and non-, and an even more prolific composer. His earlier novel about Shakespeare, Nothing Like the Sun, focuses on the man’s love life and is now high on my want-to-read list.

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters

If Charles Dickens had been alive in 2002 – and if Charles Dickens were a woman who loves women, or at least an author who wished to appeal to such – this is the book that Charles Dickens might have written. Sarah Waters gives us the dark alleys and stinking gutters, the unrepentant thieves struggling to make a living off of others’ innocence, the crumbling leaky mansion inhabited by an anti-social misanthrope (this one happens to be a scholar of the era’s pornography, soft-core though it would be to us today) and a cast that would warm the heart of any theatrical agent nursing a deep roster of character actors.

The plot too, is Dickensian in its intricacy, incorporating old family lore, false identities, willful deception and several rapid transitions between the world of wealth and that of poverty – not to mention servitude, orphaning, incarceration and consignment to a madhouse. For the most part it all flows and compels, though there are places that would have benefitted from less conversation and more activity. Given that Waters has had significant success, I’d guess her fans will be more comfortable with the blend than I.   They may also forgive several infuriating passages where characters prolong the drama by refusing to speak the obvious, leading this reader to feel manipulated and the tale prolonged beyond its natural scale.

At the heart of the story is the relationship of Susan and Maud, intricately-tied despite being separated until their teens and unaware until the novel’s very end of what those ties really are. Their interaction is told in alternating first person sections and it is to Waters’ credit that there is never any question which of the two we are inhabiting. As to which of these women is laudable and which detestable, that is always in question, again to the author’s credit. Neither is a saint, yet both have been placed by others into situations that make their conduct, if not excusable, at least defensible in a novelistic context. Their love story is handled very carefully it seems, as if aiming for just enough clarity to satisfy readers who seek that aspect, but obliquely enough not to deter those who are indifferent to it. For anyone who brings along an attitude antagonistic to the image of two women in love with one another, the lack of a single admirable male character in this tale will perhaps suggest a reason to consider it more generously.

Getting back to the women, Mrs. Sucksby, the mother and mother-figure who is in one sense the instigator of all the angst, is in another sense as much a victim. Her final act of love and protectiveness seems modelled on that of Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities, perhaps another nod to the man who wrote that novel, as he might have this.

Thoughtful, empathetic; a rewarding and pleasurable read, though it would have been more so with a few tucks and darts in the right places.

(Fingersmith was adapted into a two part BBC movie, 2005)

Fran Kiss Stein – a Love Story, Jeanette Winterson

Winterson, whom I’ve encountered previously as a writer of contemporary fiction and memoir, here delves into history, of both the usual sort – events of the past – and the less usual – events yet to come. Her anchor is the artistic journey and personal tragedy of Mary Shelley, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, a social-activist author clearly ahead of her time. And of her daughter’s time as well, since the mother died in childbirth. That early loss shapes the younger woman’s mind and thoughts as she wanders in exile with the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (her husband) and his friend Lord Byron, and their entourage. The portions of the book narrated in Mary’s dreamlike musings are compelling and exciting, in some ways the most so of the novel.

That worthy story is interwoven with those of a transman doctor named Ry and Victor Stein, a scientist living in Manchester (where Winterson actually teaches…) as he attempts an advance in electronic intelligence which is every bit as audacious as the one in Shelley’s landmark novel, Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus.   This portion of the novel reads more like a sci-fi thriller, Blade Runner for the TED Talk crowd. Oh, and just for good measure, those ample threads are braided with that of a mysterious refugee who claims to be the doctor of Shelley’s novel – on the run to escape his own creation before being imprisoned as a madman – but seems in the end to be actually a figment of someone’s – or perhaps even everyone’s – imagination. Yes, this plot seems to require a lot of hyphenation, and I haven’t even mentioned the story line involving intelligent sex-bots and a lovely Mormon!

That somewhat confounding recipe, though, cooks up a hearty stock, which Winterson then seasons with flavors of gender and culture, of mysticism, humanism and dogmatism, of art, science, culture and anthropology, urbanism and – well, the list seems endless, as the fictional ingredients are embellished by the wider reputation and known-history of the actual characters she has re-imagined. Even as one reads, there comes the thought that this book will demand a second reading, just as any decent painting merits more than a single viewing. There is more here than first meets the eye, which has always been part of the fun with Winterson.

One of the most affecting passages comes near the end, as Mary considers the plight of Byron’s daughter, the mathematical prodigy, Ada Lovelace:

“And I recalled our locked-in days on Lake Geneva, impounded by rain, and Byron and Polidori explaining to me why the male principle is more active than the female principle.

Neither man seemed to consider that being refused an education, being legally the property of a male relative, whether father, husband or brother, having no rights to vote, and no money of her own once married, and being barred from every profession except governess or nurse, and refused every employment except mother wife or skivvy, and wearing a costume that makes walking or riding impossible, might limit the active principle of a female.”

For this reader, that passage embodies Winterson’s signature; a blend of anger, insight and empathy that shines light where light is needed.

(And yes, one assumes Winterson must appreciate the irony that Byron’s somewhat notorious daughter should share a surname with Linda Lovelace, a twentieth-century porn star of broad notoriety. One wonders in fact, if a young Linda Boreman was aware of Ada’s history of escapades and it was that which led her to adopt the surname for her artistic persona. Oh yes, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if Tracy Chevalier or Emma Donaghue were to write an account of the life of Ada Lovelace, who certainly deserves one? “Doctor Livingstone, I’m thinking this river extends farther to the interior than first it seemed…”).

Always worthwhile, Winterson has once again rewarded her readers quite amply.

The Relic Master, Christopher Buckely

Intended as a comic romp through the Europe of 1517, much of this novel feels rickety and theatrical, the characters and dialogue anachronistic enough to break the spell of the detailed settings and historical context Buckley has marshalled on their account. As much as those sorts of clashes have worked in films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or on paper in Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, here they fall flat. One liner note specifically references The Princess Bride, and it may well be that high bar for which the author has aimed and missed; not by a mile, but not by a hair, either.

What has been hit though, is the religious and monarchical context; corrupt institutions manipulating all beneath them to fill their coffers through taxes, conquest and the sale of indulgences, while nobles and clerics fill their palaces with costly religious relics whose absurdity appears to drive the author’s passion as much as anything else we read.   Protagonist Dismas – the Relic master of the title – is an intriguing construct, and a worthy reminder that the single-minded mercantile instincts which guide some of today’s less-enlightened entrepreneurs have existed far longer than our current business models and market segments. That Martin Luther would rebel against such tyranny and hypocrisy is entirely understandable and justified, though his unlikely protection by one of the oppressors comes across as a lucky accident of personalities – or the hand of Providence, perhaps?

For a novel clearly intended to entertain, there are moments of fun, from the bumbling of oafish mercenaries to the triumph of its rag-tag protagonists. Neither Dismas, though, nor Albrecht Durer (the historically-real artist who ends up helping in his scheme), nor even the lovely Magda, an escaped prostitute with a heart of gold (of course) are filled-out any more than we’d expect in an Ocean’s Eleven prequel. Which, come to think of it, is actually not a bad way to describe this piece, but with Medieval technology in place of the modern.

Erudite and critical enough to give the Roman Catholic Church some heartburn when Buckley makes the case for Luther’s protests and the power of the written word, this may perhaps find purpose as a vehicle to educate teen–aged boys about the roots of the Reformation.

Love to see how that goes over with the Harper Valley PTA!